Commander 2020: Arcane Maelstrom Upgrade Path

Upgrading a preconstructed Commander deck gives you a strong base and lots of freedom! Sheldon Menery demonstrates with Arcane Maelstrom.

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Commander preconstructed decks are playable right out of the box and can stand with all but the highest-powered decks.  They’re also built in a fashion that gives players, both new and well-experienced, the opportunity to upgrade them.  For the newer player, it’s part of a learning curve that demonstrates how to tighten up a build.  For the experienced one, it’s a compelling challenge to improve on someone else’s design. 

We’ve run Leagues where we update them one card at a time after each game.  We’ve even done it with a singleton pool, meaning once one player picks a card, no one else can.  You also can’t choose a card that was in someone else’s deck from the start.  For today’s purposes, I’ll be exploring a bigger-scale upgrade path without any such restrictions, suggesting replacements for a relatively large number of cards.

The first choice is selecting which one of the decks to work with.  I immediately discarded Symbiotic Swarm because I want to get away from having too much Abzan in my life (but can you ever really have too much?).  Enhanced Evolution was out because I just build a Brokkos, Apex of Forever deck.  Neither Ruthless Regiment nor Timeless Wisdom appealed much to me, so I was left with Arcane Maelstrom.  Loving Temur, I hardly considered myself stuck.

The next choice was which of the potential commanders to build with.  The face commander is Kalamax, the Stormsire.  Copying spells for free is pretty cool, and I’m okay doing that with Kalamax as one of the 99.  It’s a reasonable place to lead the deck, but I wanted to take the thing in a different direction.  The second choice is the partner pair of Pako, Arcane Retriever and Haldan, Avid Arcanist.  It’s a fun duo, but I think we’d need to change too much of the deck to build around it.  I want to maintain a good portion of the deck’s underlying structure.  That’s what led me to go with Xyris, the Writhing Storm

Xyris, the Writhing Storm

Commander players like to draw cards.  When they draw any additional cards, whether or not you make them do so, you get a 1/1 Snake.  Every Phyrexian Arena trigger or Azami, Lady of Scrolls activation nets you a Snake.  Then there’s more card draw (and Snakes) from dealing combat damage to a player.  This seems like a path I’d enjoy going down.  There’s a group hug element to exploit and, of course, having all those Snakes.  Many players will happily trade three life for three cards, so you’re just being friendly, right?

The other thing is that we want to upgrade the deck, not completely rebuild it.  We’ll also shift the focus some to a more creature-based deck than one that simply copies instants and sorceries, while not completely gutting that theme.  I’ve set a limit of about fifteen nonland cards to swap out, although I think that twelve is the number that resonates with me because (as you’ll see), we’re exchanging eight lands, making a 20% change.  It seems like a comfortable number for an upgrade; much more and you’re getting into rebuild territory.

Here’s the original list for reference:

Arcane Maelstrom
Wizards of the Coast
Commander 2020 on 04-06-2020
Magic Card Back

First Stop: The Manabase

Some folks like to complain about the lands included in the preconstructed decks, but they’re intentionally built that way for a few reasons.  One is to give players the opportunity to do exactly what we’re doing—find their own path to upgrading the deck without disrupting the underlying structure.  Another reason is that if the decks included too many expensive lands, thereby increasing the secondary market value well above the retail price, speculators would be buying them instead of people who intend to play with the decks.  Commander precons are a gateway product—either introducing Magic to new players or the format to existing ones.  No one wants to chum the water just for the benefit of the sharks.

One can obviously drop serious cash improving a deck’s manabase—but there’s a point of diminishing returns.  Yes, Tropical Island is objectively better than Breeding Pool, but how much is the question.  No one can successfully argue that it’s fifteen times better.  No one needs OG dual lands in order to build a good deck, and anyone who tells you so is misguided.  In fact, in most environments, you can probably get away with a modest manabase like the one included in the precon.  If you’re on a serious budget constraint, it’s where you can cut costs. 

I’ll remove eight lands: 

Oran-Rief, the Vastwood Yavimaya Coast Gruul Turf Izzet Boilerworks

Simic Growth Chamber Rugged Highlands Swiftwater Cliffs Thornwood Falls

Too many enters-the-battlefield tapped lands will wreck your day, even in a relatively slow environment.  The painlands are useful when you either need the colorless mana (for Kozilek, the Great Distortion or Eldrazi Displacer) or the pain is good for you (with Darien, King of Kjeldor), but don’t do much for us here.  The bouncelands are best when you have other lands that will benefit from being replayed, like Bojuka Bog or Sejiri Steppe.  Otherwise, I’m not a huge fan, unless you’re also running stuff that untaps lands, like Garruk Wildspeaker

We won’t break the bank adding lands: 

Breeding Pool Stomping Ground Steam Vents Hinterland Harbor

Sulfur Falls Rootbound Crag Evolving Wilds Terramorphic Expanse

The latter two are key to making sure you’re doing the right mana fixing.  Again, some folks will tell you that fetchlands are required, and they’re simply not. 

Next Stop: What We Do With Snakes

While we don’t want to turn into Snake tribal, we definitely want things to do with those Snakes we’ll be making.  We have the choice of battling with them or using them as other resources. 

Swarm Intelligence Goblin Bombardment

There are several directions to go with our Snake resources, and the first is the damage route.  Battlefield sweepers will happen, so in the worst-case scenario, you can just dome someone.  You’ll be making enough Snakes that you can deal out some pretty serious damage.  Goblin Bombardment functions as both creature control and a finishing move.  If you want to move in a mana creation direction, there’s Phyrexian Altar.  For mill, you have Altar of Dementia

Psychic Impetus Opposition

You don’t have to just deal damage with those Snakes.  You can also tap down stuff—artifacts, creatures, and even lands.  Opposition will get you out of a tight spot when you’re staring down a huge creature or simply get that last blocker out of the way.  It’s also a great way of getting Kalamax, the Stormsire tapped in unfavorable combat situations.  Opposition was the first card I thought of when choosing this upgrade path, and it will turn out to be one of the key cards in the deck. 

Djinn Illuminatus Seshiro the Anointed

Seshiro is going to make those Snakes quite a bit more dangerous and draw a few cards as well.  Don’t forget that Xyris is also a Snake, so you’ll quickly get more commander damage in as well. 

Lavabrink Floodgates Skullclamp

Lavabrink Floodgates is a cool card, but it would serve to hurt our own plan in this deck.  Skullclamp will make our Snakes turn into cards at a bargain-basement price. 

Shiny Impetus Sword of War and Peace

This is more of a secondary effect of the Snakes, but throwing out a little extra damage for the cards they draw is nice, plus it keeps Xyris protected from some of the most commonly played removal spells—as well as direct damage.  Xyris isn’t often on the commander damage kill path; a Sword makes the option slightly less remote.

Ravenous Gigantotherium Thromok the Insatiable

Brush up on your math skills when you replace one devour creature with another.  You can really pants someone with a single giant creature, and Thromok can get giant.  It’ll do some serious work with the next card. 

Predatory Impetus Warstorm Surge

Most people think of Warstorm Surge in concert with huge creatures.  When you’re continually creating a bunch of creatures, even if they’re 1/1s, you’re going to deal out some damage. 

Niblis of Frost Eldrazi Monument

The only thing better than Snakes is flying, indestructible Snakes, right?  Eldrazi Monument protects more than your Snakes, though.  It keeps Xyris and your other creatures alive, making sure you’ll always have something to sacrifice.  It also makes Xyris more difficult to block, leading to more Snakes. 

Making More Snakes

Crackling Drake Edric, Spymaster of Trest

Edric is a good single-card strategy anyway, giving players incentives to attack each other instead of you—basically what Psychic Impetus, Shiny Impetus, and Predatory Impetus want to do in the original deck.  While I’m not normally a fan of giving cards to other players, the additional bump of getting the Snakes is worthwhile.  Plus, we’ll try to do a thing or two with the fact that players have those cards. 

Primal Empathy Forced Fruition

This is playing with a little bit of fire, since it’s giving opponents cards, but there are situations in which you’ll really punish them for drawing.  If players aren’t careful, it’ll draw them out of the game.  If you have Warstorm Surge and/or Goblin Bombardment on the battlefield, they could be in lots of trouble.  Primal Empathy is a fine card; it simply belongs elsewhere.  If Forced Fruition is living a little too close to the edge for you, one of the Wheels would be just fine—Windfall, Wheel of Fortune, Memory Jar, Magus of the Jar, and any number of other cards which fit the bill. 

Making More of More

Hunting Pack Consecrated Sphinx

If you’re going to make opponents draw cards, you might as well reap some of the benefits as well, right?  Consecrated Sphinx is simply a good card even in a vacuum.  When opponents are drawing extras, you kick into overdrive.  Just make sure you don’t deck yourself. 

Evolution Charm Cerebral Vortex

Occasionally, this card will be such a blowout that you’ll remember every time it won you a game.  Especially with Forced Fruition, you can really wreck someone for very little mana.  You have to be careful that they’re not the blue player and can counter it, but otherwise, you should be good.  Bonus points for casting it with a tapped Kalamax on the battlefield.  Extra plus bonus points for casting it off the top while you have Melek, Izzet Paragon

This is what the final list looks like:

Xyris, the Writhing Storm
Sheldon Menery
Test deck on 05-29-2020
Magic Card Back

Further Ideas

You might consider upgrading the ramp suite.

Kodama's Reach Skyshroud Claim Oracle of Mul Daya

Harrow and Crop Rotation are easily replaced with Cultivate and Kodama’s Reach.  There’s probably room for Rampant Growth and Migration Path or Skyshroud Claim as well.  If you’re going the Opposition route, you’ll want to consider using creatures for your ramp:  Coiling Oracle, Risen Reef, Wood Elves, Farhaven Elf, Ondu Giant, and Oracle of Mul Daya, just to name a few. 

Chasm Skulker Psychosis Crawler Niv-Mizzet, Parun

If you’ve gone down the Consecrated Sphinx road, Chasm Skulker is a fine card to add.  It gets huge and then gives you creatures if it dies.  They’re Squids, not Snakes, but that’s hardly a problem.  Continuing this line offers you cards like Toothy, Imaginary Friend and partner Pir, Imaginative Rascal; Psychosis Crawler; The Locust God; and big hitters Niv-Mizzet, Parun and Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind

Kaseto, Orochi Archmage Prowling Serpopard Coat of Arms

You certainly could get into Snake tribal.  Kaseto, Orochi Archmage goes right in alongside Seshiro.  You could then avail yourself of creatures like Broodbirth Viper, Coiling Oracle, Hooded Hydra, Prowling Serpopard, Stonecoil Serpent, Mystic Snake, and more.  Don’t forget Chameleon Colossus.  Then you get all the good tribal spells like Coat of Arms and Vanquisher’s Banner

Garruk Wildspeaker Beastmaster Ascension Triumph of the Hordes

With all those Snakes, you can certainly go wide.  The aforementioned Garruk Wildspeaker has an Overrun mode.  You might not have anything large enough to leverage Overwhelming Stampede, but Beastmaster Ascension can make you pretty dangerous.  You could get sneaky with Triumph of the Hordes, a clear solution to lifegain that’s gotten out of hand. 

Daring Thief Felhide Spiritbinder Sphinx's Disciple

Leaning further into the Opposition line can also offer you inspired cards, such as Daring Thief, which will let you exchange one of those Snakes for something larger.  I’m also a fan of Felhide Spiritbinder and Sphinx’s Disciple.

Gaea's Cradle Electrodominance Bonfire of the Damned

Because you’re still playing Kalamax as one of the 99, adapting the instants to suit your personal taste is a grand idea.  You’ll like copying your favorite spells even more than you would those suggested by someone else.  I think I’d end up surrendering a little to mana ramp and big X-spells.  If budget isn’t a problem, leverage all of those Snakes with Gaea’s Cradle and then give yourself a few more X-damage spells.  Comet Storm is already in there, so Electrodominance and Bonfire of the Damned will serve your purposes quite nicely—the latter excellent with the top-of-the-library stuff. 

Future Sight Scroll Rack Garruk's Horde

You could even push a little more into the top-of-the-library territory suggested by Melek, Izzet Paragon by playing Future Sight, Sensei’s Divining Top, and Scroll Rack.  If you’re headed that way, Garruk’s Horde and Vizier of the Menagerie make sense as well. 

Arcane Maelstrom is a preconstructed deck that yields a number of compelling possibilities for upgrades.  The deck starts from a position that doesn’t point you in a single direction, giving you the opportunity to explore your particular tastes and style.  You could take the baseline and eventually develop three or four solid, coherent builds from a single foundation.  Whatever you do with it, I’m sure that you’ll have loads of fun. 

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