The Rush Of Rogue

Bennie is usually a Commander kind of guy, and occasionally he touches Standard when there’s an event coming up – but Modern? What’s he got to do for that? Play a couple of popular Commanders and pull of some sweet, unexpected shenanigans – that’s what!

The past Sunday at the Starcitygames Open in Richmond I got to spend some time with Scott Booth. It was a real blast from the past — in my mind, Scott’s name is “Kid,” the nickname he earned by being the youngest good Magic player at the game shop we all used to hang out in when Magic first exploded onto the gaming scene. He was a smart kid and chock full of natural gaming talent. Now of course he’s no longer a kid, he’s a grown man somewhere around thirty years old I’d guess and with a child of his own. He hadn’t played Magic in years and years, but recently he got the bug to play and so a mutual friend of ours hooked him up with an Affinity deck to play in Modern.

Running into Kid and a handful of other old-school friends this past weekend got me all nostalgic and pondering just how long I’ve been playing this game. 1994 was when I slung my first cardboard, and while a lot of people have drifted in and out of the game over the years, I’ve played consistently year after year. Why has Magic maintained such a grip on my interest all this time? A big part of it is just the joy of discovery each time a new Magic set is released — that thrill of seeing all the new puzzle pieces available for building our decks. The beauty of Magic is that each new card has the potential to recast a whole host of cards released before it in a whole new light. No matter whether you’re a competitive or casual player, a Magic card’s value is determined by the context of the cards played around it, so each time a new set comes out it reverberates throughout all of Magic’s history (depending on the formats you play).

For me, building decks with new cards is a fantastic creative outlet – I love thinking outside the box and running across good solutions that haven’t yet hit the mainstream. Most of them don’t stand the test of time, but sometimes they do. It’s when I strike that gold and go on to perform well with it that really brings me the highest high of playing Magic. The most recent example was my run in a Standard Open last fall with Villainous Wealth, where I had a very realistic shot of making Top Eight right up until the end. I was pretty sure no one else in the room was casting Villainous Wealth and it felt amazing seeing the surprise and interest from my opponents and people nearby who watched my deck in action.

I got to experience that rush of succeeding with a rogue deck again this past Sunday for the Modern Super IQ where I was the only person out of 136 players who brought a Doran/Zur deck to the table. I was 4-1-1 going into the penultimate round of Swiss and I needed to win the final two matches to make the Top Eight. We split the first two games and then I’m pretty sure I punted away the third game due to a really dumb mistake. A good opponent playing Infect won’t give you much wiggle room for play mistakes, so he got to be the one who had a shot in the final round while I had to settle in for trying to win some consolation cash. However, even though it would have been amazing to Top Eight with Doran/Zur, I really had already won big on the day — my deck was the buzz of the tournament, and as I won game after game casting Doran, the Siege Tower and Zur the Enchanter at the top tables, people were laughing and smiling all around me — even my opponents. I could hear the chatter from observers: “Did he just cast Zur the Enchanter?” “How much damage did he deal with Nyx-Fleece Ram?” “What does that enchantment even do?” My opponent would cast Thoughtseize and I would just relish the shocked and confused look on his face as he read the weird cards in my hand and tried to figure out what he should make me discard. The rush of rogue is what keeps me excited about Magic year after year.

Ha Ha, Lightning Bolt

Ever since Doran, the Siege Tower was printed I’ve loved the card. It sets a new rule for the game where power matters not at all and toughness is king. In the Modern tournament Sunday it neutralized all the copies of Rancor my Bogles opponent cast and made flipped Delvers hit for two rather than three. Back during the old Extended format I played Doran, the Siege Tower alongside Tireless Tribe and once in a while I got combo-kill someone out of nowhere by discarding my hand for an extra four points of damage each card. When Coldsnap came out, I was introduced to the amazing Zur the Enchanter with his pretty sweet attack trigger, but what drew my eyes first was that high toughness. Doran came over to make Zur’s acquaintance and the two became fast friends, at least in my decks. I did okay with my early Doran/Zur decks in Modern, but the mix of cards I’d build around them didn’t seem to gel into a real contender. It was cute, and it could take some wins by surprise, but it wasn’t consistent. Still, as the format became heavily defined by the brutally-efficient Lightning Bolt – often flashed back with Snapcaster Mage – and also by the disruptive Spellskite, I couldn’t help but think that Doran and his good buddy Zur might be able to do some good work if the right cards came along considering how many of the creatures I edwant to play just laughed off a Lightning Bolt.

Zur The Birthing Pod

Patience is often rewarded, and when Theros Block came around we got a fresh and funky new card type, the enchantment creatures. When Zur and Doran saw Nyx-Fleece Ram it was like someone had created their lovechild and put it in a booster pack. I wasn’t entirely sure Nyx-Fleece Ram belonged in the main, but it was undoubtedly a home-run sideboard card… and once Theros Block was done there were a whole host of interesting enchantment creatures that cost three mana or less for us to fetch up with Zur the Enchanter filling the role of some kind of neo-Birthing PodAegis of the Gods, Brain Maggot, Spirit of the Labyrinth (though its power/toughness split is a nonbo with Doran), Underworld Coinsmith, Archetype of Courage, Athreos, God of Passage, Courser of Kruphix (look at that booty!), Eidolon of Rhetoric, Nighthowler, Nyx Weaver, Pharika, God of Affliction, and Thassa, God of the Sea!

A Tale Of Two Enchantments

There were two enchantments that came along during Tarkir Block that really pulled things together for the deck and got me incredibly excited. First was the weird card Mardu Ascendancy. While my manabase was already strained by adding blue to Doran mana in order to accommodate Zur, did I really want to stretch into all five colors for this enchantment? The answer was, most definitely! That weird throw-away ability to sacrifice the Ascendency to give all your creatures +0/+4 until the end of the turn becomes a combo-killer with Doran and just a couple creatures on the board. While you can’t get the goblin token when you fetch the Ascendancy up with an attacking Zur, that doesn’t usually matter — you fetch up the enchantment when you’ve got more attackers than your opponent has blockers and can just win the game on the spot. Just think — attacking with Spellskite, Doran, and Zur unblocked, fetch up Ascendancy and sacrifice it… 25 points of damage! And if you actually cast Mardu Ascendancy before you attack and get a couple extra Goblins in there, it will really translate into a huge hit out of nowhere. Zur’s ability to fetch out utility enchantments is great for grinding out games and give you pretty good inevitability, but now we have a way of just finishing a game right there.

The second enchantment to pull it all together was Assault Formation. Even though Doran, the Siege Tower is resilient in a Lightning Bolt format, Bolt isn’t the only game in town. A savvy opponent can buy a lot of time by keeping Doran off the table and minimizing the power of your offense. That’s where Assault Formation comes in, which allows Zur to fetch up a Doran backup. Sometimes Assault Formation is even better than Doran when your opponent has their own Spellskite or high-toughness creatures, and in a pinch you can even sink mana into it to pump your team!

Blood Moon

I did some initial testing online and that first outing showed some promise. I decided that since I had a little bit of red mana in my manabase in case I drew Mardu Ascendency, I could probably put a Blood Moon in the sideboard as a pretty sweet silver bullet for a lot of decks. I was talking about my deck to local mad genius deck brewer and friend Jay Delazier and he asked why in the world wasn’t I running Blood Moon in the maindeck. I looked at my janky, majority-non-basic land manabase and said I was already worried about my opponents running Blood Moon, why would I help them and screw up my ability to cast spells? He just laughed and pointed out that, if I were attacking with Zur the Enchanter and Blood Moon was the correct target for his attacking trigger, I probably didn’t need to cast any more spells anyway. Sure, there would be times when I’d draw the one Blood Moon and wouldn’t want to cast it, but those times would be far fewer than the times I’d attack with Zur and realize that fetching up a Blood Moon would totally wreck my opponent and win the game on the spot.

That made total sense. Total, mad-genius sense, but sense nonetheless.

The Zen Of Good Mana

I had a big problem though. With a second red card now in the deck, I had to face the fact that I was running a true five-color deck with my two critical cards (Doran and Zur) stretching across four colors. Our access to mana-fixing in Modern is incredible, but I couldn’t figure out a way to cover all my bases without killing myself with too many fetches and shocklands. Lucky for me I have a good friend, Kevin Davis, who has studied up on crafting good manabases, and I turned to him for help figuring out how to craft a workable mana engine for this crazy deck I insisted on running. The manabase he came back with looked weird, janky, and a little bit crazy — but I trusted his instincts and his math and ran the deck just like he suggested with just one little tweak — I cut one basic Swamp for a Murmuring Bosk.

Murmuring Bosk Razorverge Thicket Arcane Sanctum Hinterland Harbor

I have to say, the mana worked great so long as I was careful with sequencing my plays and fetching the correct shocklands.

Here’s the deck I registered for the Modern event:

When I got to the tournament and was registering my deck my sideboard had fourteen cards and an empty sleeve. I can’t recall what that fifteenth card was supposed to be, so I pulled out a box of cards I’d picked up from the Starcitygames singles table and sifted through and finally settled on a single Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. I figured, hey – he could attack for two with a Doran in play, looting away silver bullets I didn’t need to draw into fresh cards could be good, and flipping Jace would let me flashback my interactive spells (my plan was to bring in Jace alongside Thoughtseize).

After I registered the deck, Kevin came around and noticed I had Jace in my sideboard. He did not look happy. “Your mana base doesn’t really support Jace,” he said, but I blew off his warning. I mean, Zur needs blue to cast, surely adding one more blue spell doesn’t throw off the mana feng shui?

The one game I actually drew Jace it was in my opening hand on the play along with a Noble Hierarch, a Windswept Heath, a Plains, a Doran and two other cards. Trying to figure out what to search up with Windswept Heath was tough — I needed green, white, black and blue in the first couple of turns. If my Noble Hierarch lived I’d be golden, of course, but I couldn’t count on that. Do I play it safe and search up Breeding Pool so if the Hierarch is killed I can play Jace? Or do I gamble and fetch up an Overgrown Tomb so I can play the turn-two Doran that would be so devastating?

I end up taking the gamble and fetched Overgrown Tomb into a Noble Hierarch that was promptly killed by a Lightning Bolt. Jace just sat useless in my hand, and by the time I drew a blue mana source I had a Zur I needed to cast and I have to chuckle to myself — Kevin was right, Jace screws up his manabase!

So here’s a recap of how my tournament went:

Round 1: WIN 2-0 vs Eric Hodges playing Bogles.

Round 2: WIN 2-1 vs Josh Duncan playing Naya Burn

Round 3: WIN 2-0 vs Kevin Ambler playing U/W Delver

Round 4: LOSE 0-2 vs Kevin Jones playing Grixis Control (he ended up in third place)

Round 5: WIN 2-1 vs Hunter Harding playing Grixis Delver

Round 6: DRAW 1-1-1 vs Brandon Shiflett playing Jeskai Delver

Round 7: LOSE 1-2 vs David Reed playing Infect

Round 8: WIN 2-1 vs Patrick Seaman with “Little Kid Abzan”

In the second game of Round Four I come out swinging hard, and if I was able to draw any of the five pieces of hand disruption I boarded in, or my Jace to dig for them, I could have ripped away Kevin’s ability to stabilize and easily won that second game. It was really frustrating to draw pure blanks that many times in a row and watch such a strong start slip away into another game loss. Of course, then I’d still have to win the third game to turn that L into a W, but I’d at least have had a shot and been in a much stronger position going into the Swiss home stretch.

The draw in Round Six was also a bit frustrating, I managed to run him out of cards by casting so many must-answer threats and win the first game, only to again draw no hand disruption in the second game and get caught watching as he manages to stabilize and pull that one out. Both games were so long and epic that we are unable to finish the third game in time.

The loss in Round Seven was particularly frustrating not only because I failed to draw any of the boarded-in hand disruption (again!) for the second and third games after winning game one, but I also because I made several big mistakes. The first was fetching up a Breeding Pool with a Verdant Catacombs when I didn’t need another blue source – I was thinking about being able to activate Spellskite twice without taking damage, forgetting that my actual life total would never be under pressure against an Infect deck. I then draw Mardu Ascendency and realized I had no red source of mana to cast it and possibly win in the next turn or two with it. Another mistake was tapping my Hinterland Harbor for blue mana to activate Spellskite when I had a Qasali Pridemage in play that could activate to kill Inkmoth Nexus, and that ended up killing me when he took out my Spellskite with Twisted Image. The last big mistake was, after fetching up Blood Moon with Zur to turn off his Inkmoth Nexus, I played my Godless Shrine tapped since it was a Mountain under the Blood Moon – why take the random damage? Why indeed — my opponent casts Nature’s Claim on Blood Moon, activated his Nexus and attacked me for lethal poison damage to win the match while I’m left staring at the Path to Exile in my hand that I could have cast if only I’d paid the two life and put Godless Shrine into play untapped. I know that would have required some next-level thinking there, but honestly — my life total really doesn’t matter at all against Infect, and having even a single mana available to react is crucial. My inexperience in Modern really showed in this match.

Anyway, going 5-2-1 with a deck I thoroughly enjoyed and which actually seemed quite powerful has me thinking I ought to invest more time into testing for Modern. Here’s how the deck looks going forward:

One general sense I got from playing the deck was that I had too much interaction and not enough pressure. There were times when I kept drawing copies of Path to Exile and Abrupt Decay but very few creatures, and those games often ended badly – but when I drew a fair number of creatures, I’d often end up winning even if I had no interaction. So I cut back on the Paths and Decays and shuffled a few other things in and out of the mix.

Bitterblossom — one of the things I was hugely disappointed in was boarding Thoughtseize since the control decks you want to board them in against generally loved you dealing two points of damage to yourself (and often two or three more to fetch a shockland). Grixis and Jeskai Delver can unleash a lot of damage at your dome, and they’re fine with you stocking their graveyard to fuel Delve. Yes, Bitterblossom costs you life too, but here we’re getting a valuable resource in exchange – a 1/1 flier each turn. This gives you a way to break past their two-for-one cardboard exchange plan and apply pressure, and if you need to shift gears to chump-block mode one life a turn is much better than taking a full hit from Tasigur or Angler, a suited-up Bogle or an Infect creature. Even against burn, having a 1/1 chump blocker so they can’t attack and burn your more-valuable Spellskite or Doran is good too. This may be the wrong move, but I think I want to give it a try. I know getting rid of Thoughtseize makes me softer to combo decks, but I was profoundly disappointed in the hand disruption plan and want to try out some different angles.

Eidolon of Rhetoric — this card overperformed, and in fact in the matches I boarded it out (Burn, Infect) I realized afterwards that limiting them to one spell a turn would actually be very helpful towards slowing them down. In fact, I want two more in the sideboard to bring in against any deck looking to play more than one spell a turn – basically anything besides other mid-rangey decks. Suck it, cantrips! I know Eidolon of Rhetoric makes my opponent’s Remands really good, but I’m not generally able to immediately recast my spells when they get Remanded anyway.

Choke — seems to me that this would be better than Blood Moon against some of the Snapcaster/Cryptic Command decks, right?

Athreos, God of Passage — Doran and Zur provide two points of Devotion each so it’s entirely possible Athreos could immediately wake up and rumble, but mainly I see this as a way to fight those decks that want to kill everything in sight before they go about winning the game. Maybe they can afford the spells it takes to do that, but can they also spend the life?

Bow of Nylea — against the Delver deck this could be good for killing flipped Delvers, it can make sure your guys can tangle with an Angler or Tasigur, and it can negate a Lightning Bolt to your dome each turn. Also, in grindy games you can tuck silver-bullet enchantments back into your deck for Zur… or key creatures that get countered too, though we don’t have a way to tutor those right back up. I thought that Unflinching Courage would be a good enchantment to fetch up for lifegain, but Auras are a liability in a format with Cryptic Command and Path to Exile. The Bow can provide three points of life each turn for just two mana, no attacking or blocking necessary.

So what do you think? I’m extremely curious to hear thoughts from anyone who has much more experience in Modern than I do, which frankly could be pretty much anyone. Do you think Bitterblossom is a good way to attack some decks? Is Choke still a blue-killer? Also, if you have any other questions about the cards in the deck – or not in the deck – let me know!

I did want to give a special shout-out to all the guys who came up to me and told me they enjoyed reading my column, your kind words really helped my day shine a little brighter. Positive feedback is like manna from heaven for writers, and I really appreciate you taking the time to hunt me down and say hi.

New to Commander?

If you’re just curious about the format, building your first deck, or trying to take your Commander deck up a notch, here are some handy links:

Commander write-ups I’ve done
(and links to decklists):

Zurgo Bellstriker (Bellstriking Like a Boss)

Dragonlord Ojutai (Troll Shroud)

Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund (Dragons, Megamorphs, and Dragons)

Dromoka, the Eternal (One Flying Bolster Basket)

Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest (Tempests and Teapots)

Tasigur, the Golden Fang (Hatching Evil Sultai Plots)

Scion of the Ur-Dragon (Dragon Triggers for Everyone)

• Nahiri, The Lithomancer (Lithomancing for Fun and Profit)

Titania, Protector of Argoth (Titania’s Land and Elemental Exchange)

Reaper King (All About VILLAINOUS WEALTH)

Feldon of the Third Path (She Will Come Back to Me)

Sidisi, Brood Tyrant (Calling Up Ghouls with Sidisi)

Zurgo Helmsmasher (Two Times the Smashing)

Anafenza, the Foremost (Anafenza and Your Restless Dead)

Narset, Enlightened Master (The New Voltron Overlord)

Surrak Dragonclaw (The Art of Punching Bears)

Avacyn, Guardian Angel; Ob Nixilis, Unshackled; Sliver Hivelord (Commander Catchup, Part 3)

Keranos, God of Storms; Marchesa, the Black Rose; Muzzio, Visonary Architect (Commander Catchup, Part 2)

Athreos, God of Passage; Kruphix, God of Horizons; Iroas, God of Victory (Commander Catchup, Journey into Nyx Edition)

Kurkesh, Onakke Ancient (Ghost in the Machines)

Jalira, Master Polymorphist (JaliraPOW!)

Mishra, Artificer Prodigy (Possibility Storm Shenanigans)

Yisan, the Wanderer Bard (All-in Yisan)

Selvala, Explorer Returned (Everyone Draws Lots!)

Grenzo, Dungeon Warden (Cleaning Out the Cellar)

Karona, False God (God Pack)

Child of Alara (Land Ho!)

Doran, the Siege Tower (All My Faves in One Deck!)

Karador, Ghost Chieftain (my Magic Online deck)

Karador, Ghost Chieftain (Shadowborn Apostles & Demons)

King Macar, the Gold-Cursed (GREED!)

Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind ( Chuck’s somewhat vicious deck)

Roon of the Hidden Realm (Mean Roon)

Skeleton Ship (Fun with -1/-1 counters)

Vorel of the Hull Clade (Never Trust the Simic)

Anax and Cymede (Heroic Co-Commanders)

Aurelia, the Warleader ( plus Hellkite Tyrant shenanigans)

Borborygmos Enraged (69 land deck)

Bruna, Light of Alabaster (Aura-centric Voltron)

Damia, Sage of Stone ( Ice Cauldron shenanigans)

Emmara Tandris (No Damage Tokens)

Gahiji, Honored One (Enchantment Ga-hijinks)

Geist of Saint Traft (Voltron-ish)

Ghave, Guru of Spores ( Melira Combo)

Glissa Sunseeker (death to artifacts!)

Glissa, the Traitor ( undying artifacts!)

Grimgrin, Corpse-Born (Necrotic Ooze Combo)

Jeleva, Nephalia’s Scourge ( Suspension of Disbelief)

Johan (Cat Breath of the Infinite)

Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer (replacing Brion Stoutarm in Mo’ Myrs)

Karona, False God (Vows of the False God)

Lord of Tresserhorn (ZOMBIES!)

Marath, Will of the Wild ( Wild About +1/+1 Counters)

Melira, Sylvok Outcast ( combo killa)

Mirko Vosk, Mind Drinker ( Outside My Comfort Zone with Milling

Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis (evil and Spike-ish)

Nicol Bolas (Kicking it Old School)

Nylea, God of the Hunt ( Devoted to Green)

Oloro, Ageless Ascetic (Life Gain)

Oona, Queen of the Fae (by reader request)

Phage the Untouchable ( actually casting Phage from Command Zone!)

Phelddagrif (Mean Hippo)

Polukranos, World Eater (Monstrous!)

Reaper King (Taking Advantage of the new Legend Rules)

Riku of Two Reflections (

steal all permanents with
Deadeye Navigator + Zealous Conscripts


Roon of the Hidden Realm ( Strolling Through Value Town)

Ruhan of the Fomori (lots of equipment and infinite attack steps)

Savra, Queen of the Golgari ( Demons)

Shattergang Brothers (Breaking Boards)

Sigarda, Host of Herons ( Equipment-centric Voltron)

Skullbriar, the Walking Grave ( how big can it get?)

Sliver Overlord (Featuring the new M14 Slivers!)

Thelon of Havenwood ( Campfire Spores)

Varolz, the Scar-Striped (scavenging goodness)

Vorosh, the Hunter ( proliferaTION)

Xenagos, God of Revels (Huge Beatings)

Yeva, Nature’s Herald (living at instant speed)