My goal for each new set is to build three decks with new commanders from said set. The pace of new set releases these days is a constant hindrance to that goal—with a minimal amount of time between sets, there’s less and less time to design and assemble those decks. What I’ve had to settle for recently is designing the decks and hoping that there’s time in there for the act of building and playing. With three months between now and Dominaria United in September, there’s some chance I might get all the way there.
While just grabbing three commanders that strike my fancy and running with them has the most appeal, there are other ways to approach the process. One is to consider if the other members of the Commander Rules Committee (RC) and I are going to do some kind of smaller-scope build, like we did recently with Innistrad Plane Constructed or ten-card upgrades to the Adventures in the Forgotten Realms preconstructed decks. Another is if there’s a new Commander-specific mechanic that’s worth exploring, like Backgrounds in Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur’s Gate. That’s the direction we’ll head today.
The first choice to make is how we’ll approach the process of choosing which commander and Background pair to select. When I’m just grabbing from the new commanders, choosing at least one that’s outside my comfort zone makes a level of sense. My suite of decks is now 61 and growing. It’d be pretty boring if they were all similar (plus being a waste of space). When exploring something as new as Backgrounds, finding a comfortable niche is the way to go. That way, the whole result isn’t alien to me.
The first thing I want to do is narrow down the choices from the 30 Backgrounds (29, since we’re not really considering Faceless One). Instead of one that’ll be generically good, I really want to find something that’s going to be compelling to build as well as play. The thing is that the lanes with most of the Backgrounds are pretty wide, which makes sense in the Draft environment. There’s going to be some generic goodness to all of them; I just want to avoid over-capitalizing on that feature (I don’t want the Background version of Chulane, Teller of Tales, for instance) and building something too obvious.
Backgrounds That Intrigued Me
Here are the ones that tickled my fancy right away and why:
Obviously, Candlekeep Sage is all about the card draw, both value from casting our commander and replacement should it die. This leans us in the direction of a less expensive commander and cards like Crystal Shard and Erratic Portal. Candlekeep Sage generally inhibits an aggressive, combat-damage-based deck with the commander, but there are workarounds.
Cultist of the Absolute is all about making a commander way scarier in combat. It comes with the Lord of the Pit rider, so we’d want to make tokens for the sacrifice or pick one of the commanders that likes a graveyard strategy. Smothering Abomination is one of the first cards on the list.
I love me some blink shenanigans, which is why I zeroed in on Far Traveler. Its condition for the creature to be tapped is a little awkward, but we can work around it.
Another Background that leads us into combat, Hardy Outlander gets our commander and at least one other creature slamming into combat. I worry less about the second creature, as it gets larger, but we’ll have to be careful in choosing a commander that is also combat-worthy.
Haunted One giving creatures undying is huge. If we get them back as a result of good trades in combat, that’s great. They keep undying until end of turn, so we could also do some spell casting that involves creature sacrifice, as well as activating abilities. The one that leapt into my mind here is Greater Good. There’s also another vote for Smothering Abomination.
“Choose a Background” Commanders
Setting those five aside momentarily, let’s look at the 31 commanders which instruct us to choose a Background based on their own merits alone. We won’t yet consider any synergies, just once again things that strike a note we’d like to hear.
The combination of unblockable and bouncing really got my attention here. It doesn’t have to be Alora, but if we can buff her, there’s a commander damage kill not that far down the line.
Big, blanket goads are Baeloth’s hit song. He’s a nice offense and defense rolled into one. The Treasure token thing is just a decent encore, but I’d play the card without that ability.
Effective card draw is the attraction to Durnan, with the ability to cast that creature more cheaply an appealing addition.
Tacking an extract combat step on a reasonably large body is what Karlach is all about. I’d want to consider pairing Karlach with one of the blue Backgrounds so that we could play Opposition. The attacking creatures, which get untapped, are then ready to tap down potential blockers (without removing themselves from combat). There’s savagery to be had here and I’m all for it.
Sarevok is the one that doesn’t need combat to do its thing. In fact, we’re encouraged to not have combats so that creatures don’t die. Sarevok would have to be at the helm of a kind of control deck that doesn’t kill creatures, generally the way black would like to operate.
Putting Them Together
For the most part, both the commanders and the Backgrounds encourage us to get into combat. This is excellent design from our friends in Studio X because it encourages more active games. This is right up my alley.
Looking at the interactions between them, there’s something very attractive about Baeloth Barrityl, Entertainer and Cultist of the Absolute. Larger things get goaded, there’s the very real chance of commander damage kills, and Baeloth is hard to kill with targeted removal. The downside is that I’ve played quite a bit in the goad space recently, so I’d prefer to do something else.
Karlach’s additional combat step draws my eye as well. Its power and toughness are good enough for it to be threatening on its own. Cultist of the Absolute would pair well for most of the same reasons it goes with Baeloth. The power and toughness boost Karlach would get from Hardy Outlander makes it also a commander damage threat.
Durnan and Haunted One is worth consideration. The buff from Haunted One means going wide with either Human or Warrior tribal. Human has been done to death recently, meaning Warrior would probably get my nod. There are 336 choices in Golgari colors, so we’d have plenty of choices. Going in, this pairing was very high on my list.
The things that kept me from leaping right to Durnan/Haunted One are the fact that one of my most recent decks (Oldest Stickfingers) is Golgari and not being able to keep Alora, Merry Thief out of my mind. The separation point is that the deck I’d build with Durnan/Haunted One would be radically different than the one with Old Stickfingers, so it’ll stay on the table for now.
The Allure of Alora
I want to play active decks and Alora steps out of blue’s comfort region. It does, however, run right back into what blue does with bouncing things. I thought about simply adding one of the red Backgrounds so that I could jam Sneak Attack, but that would be overcommitting to a single card. Mono-blue along with Candlekeep Sage is compelling as well.
Any deck we build with Alora is going to be active in multiple ways, since she has a combat trigger and encourages us to play other creatures that have good enters-the-battlefield triggers. Pairing with Hardy Outlander makes it a little more savage, albeit in a pretty narrow fashion. Being not excited about that pairing, I looked at Alora going with Haunted One. Then I noticed that Alora is a Rogue. That fired my ignition. I was ready to go with Haunted Rogues.
I wondered if there were enough Ally cards to do a subtheme (without use of Arcane Adaptation et al.) and there weren’t. There are two pretty good ones, Bala Ged Thief and Zulaport Cutthroat, but that’s about it. The latter will end up in the deck anyway. After a quick look at the Allies, I dropped that idea to focus on the 271 Rogues in Dimir color identity. There are some quite saucy ones.
The search involved creatures that are good in combat (whether that’s from a good power to some kind of ability) or have good enters-the-battlefield triggers, since they’ll be getting cast multiple times. What I ended up with didn’t have very many enters-the-battlefield triggers, but that’s because there aren’t many Rogues that have them. Gonti, Lord of Luxury, however, is a very nice one to use repeatedly.
The Merry Thief
I built the deck to be intentionally very mid-tier, with no infinite combos, easy wins, or cards that lock opponents out. Opposition Agent is the best of the Rogues, but it’s on the sidelines in this deck. I also intentionally avoided two-mana mana rocks (with the exception of allowing myself a Sol Ring) in order to slow things down a bit. I also tried to keep things somewhat inexpensive, meaning cards like Fierce Guardianship and Deadly Rollick are off the table. Here’s what I came up with.
- 1 Nezumi Graverobber
- 1 Moriok Rigger
- 1 Sakashima the Impostor
- 1 Oona's Blackguard
- 1 Deepchannel Mentor
- 1 Sygg, River Cutthroat
- 1 Thada Adel, Acquisitor
- 1 Master Thief
- 1 Invisible Stalker
- 1 Nephalia Smuggler
- 1 Notion Thief
- 1 Zulaport Cutthroat
- 1 Gonti, Lord of Luxury
- 1 Contraband Kingpin
- 1 Agent of Treachery
- 1 Blood Burglar
- 1 Rankle, Master of Pranks
- 1 Ghostly Pilferer
- 1 Zareth San, the Trickster
- 1 Nighthawk Scavenger
- 1 Thieving Skydiver
- 1 Blackbloom Rogue
- 1 Glasspool Mimic
- 1 Anowon, the Ruin Thief
- 1 Enigma Thief
- 1 Sakashima of a Thousand Faces
- 1 Varragoth, Bloodsky Sire
- 1 Draugr Thought-Thief
- 1 Grim Hireling
- 1 Eloise, Nephalia Sleuth
- 1 Prowling Geistcatcher
- 1 Kamber, the Plunderer
- 1 Body Launderer
- 1 Sanguine Spy
- 1 Undercover Operative
- 1 Cephalid Facetaker
- 1 Dragonborn Looter
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Konda's Banner
- 1 Sword of Light and Shadow
- 1 Black Market
- 1 Worn Powerstone
- 1 Bitterblossom
- 1 Knowledge Exploitation
- 1 Notorious Throng
- 1 Exsanguinate
- 1 Cyclonic Rift
- 1 Aetherize
- 1 In Garruk's Wake
- 1 Aetherspouts
- 1 Blade of Selves
- 1 Bontu's Monument
- 1 Vanquisher's Banner
- 1 Midnight Clock
- 1 Heraldic Banner
- 1 Szat's Will
- 1 Strixhaven Stadium
- 1 Sword of Hearth and Home
- 1 Rogue Class
- 1 Currency Converter
- 1 Cultist of the Absolute
The deck wins by going wide with Rogues, using Haunted One’s power buff. There are additional buffs like Anowon, the Ruin Sage and Vanquisher’s Banner. There’s a small amount of life drain, and then there’s the non-combat win condition of firing off a big Exsanguinate, perhaps fueled by Cabal Coffers, Black Market (a card that doesn’t see as much play as I think it should), and/or Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx.
Card Choice Notes
One of the first cards I put on this list was Agent of Treachery. It has a nice enters-the-battlefield trigger, although the seven-mana cost is a concern. It’s led me to play Blade of Selves. If Agent of Treachery isn’t around, there are plenty of Rogues that do cool things via combat (especially drawing cards) to equip it to.
Adding to the subtheme of playing with other players’ cards are Thada Adel, Acquisitor and Knowledge Exploitation. There’s also some argument that Sakashima the Impostor and Sakashima’s Student do the same. I also just realized might strain the budget a bit, although the List version is less than half the price of the original, so it can be had at a comparatively reasonable price.
Eschewing the two-mana rocks, I went with some compelling threes, to include Midnight Clock and Strixhaven Stadium. There’s some concern that the latter could get me killed, but I’ll risk it for another win condition.
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