When someone really cool asks to visit you, you say yes. When Gavin Verhey, Senior Magic Designer and Commander Architect, asked if he drop by the house for a short visit on the way back to Seattle from JoCo Cruise, I couldn’t say yes quickly enough. In addition to being great at his job and as good an ambassador for the game as there is, Gavin is a first-rate human being, sophisticate, and foodie. He’s also a friend with whom I’ve spent a good deal of time just hanging out, and talking about Magic, life, the universe, and everything.
We had about 26 hours between the time I picked him up from the train station to the time I dropped him at the Tampa airport (yes, in America there are a few trains; this one was the Amtrak between Fort Lauderdale and Lakeland). There are a few things that I knew we wanted to do: cook a nice dinner for him; raid the cellar (2016 Radio-Coteau Syrah Las Colinas, 2005 Almaviva, and 2017 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc, in case you’re keeping score at home); take him to our favorite restaurant here in Lakeland, Nineteen61; and build a deck together. We squeezed in the time between getting up in the morning and heading out to the restaurant for brunch. Turns out that Gavin doesn’t drink coffee, which makes me wonder where all that energy comes from. I needed the caffeine jolt before my brain engaged.
We had talked the day before in very general terms what we wanted to do in building something. It had to feature a commander from Theros Beyond Death. We wanted it to express not just something of ourselves, but what we jointly consider a Commander sweet spot for style of play. Our strong desire was that it would be fun and interesting not just for whomever played it, but the other people at the table as well. We put the philosophical ideas in the back of our heads, enjoyed ourselves for the evening, then got to work the next morning.
After combing the Theros Beyond Death list of potential commanders, we settled pretty quickly on Haktos the Unscarred. It turns out that overnight we had both developed similar ideas on the commander we wanted to work on and the style of deck.
We had a few overarching goals and thoughts:
- Keep Haktos alive, which could be challenging because he must attack every turn.
- Remember that the strength of Haktos—having protection from nearly every converted mana cost—is also a weakness, since we won’t be able to target him either. Most significantly, we can’t equip it.
- Avoid things that might hurt Haktos in case the random choice goes against us.
- Be aggressive about getting into battle, which includes additional combat steps.
As we talked about cards, it was very clear we were in lockstep. To quote one of my favorite lines from Best in Show¸ it was almost like we had one brain between us. Here’s the list we came up with:
- 1 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Glory
- 1 Weathered Wayfarer
- 1 Balefire Liege
- 1 Knight of the White Orchid
- 1 Inferno Titan
- 1 Sun Titan
- 1 Aurelia, the Warleader
- 1 Angelic Skirmisher
- 1 Heliod, God of the Sun
- 1 Iroas, God of Victory
- 1 Scourge of the Throne
- 1 Bastion Protector
- 1 Oreskos Explorer
- 1 Archangel Avacyn
- 1 Selfless Spirit
- 1 Filigree Familiar
- 1 Bloodsworn Steward
- 1 Treasure Nabber
- 1 Boreas Charger
- 1 Tajic, Legion's Edge
- 1 Dockside Extortionist
- 1 Tectonic Giant
- 12 Plains
- 1 Land Tax
- 1 Sol Ring
- 13 Mountain
- 1 Wayfarer's Bauble
- 1 Savage Beating
- 1 Insurrection
- 1 Mirror Strike
- 1 Boros Signet
- 1 War's Toll
- 1 Return to Dust
- 1 Austere Command
- 1 Waves of Aggression
- 1 World at War
- 1 True Conviction
- 1 Blasphemous Act
- 1 Staff of Nin
- 1 Rootborn Defenses
- 1 Boros Cluestone
- 1 Legion's Initiative
- 1 Dictate of the Twin Gods
- 1 Deflecting Palm
- 1 Brave the Sands
- 1 Commander's Sphere
- 1 Comeuppance
- 1 Volcanic Offering
- 1 Outpost Siege
- 1 Always Watching
- 1 Oracle's Vault
- 1 Hour of Devastation
- 1 Settle the Wreckage
- 1 Star of Extinction
- 1 Teferi's Protection
- 1 The Immortal Sun
- 1 Stolen Strategy
- 1 Smothering Tithe
- 1 Arcane Signet
- 1 Heliod's Intervention
The deck is mostly about turning Haktos sideways, although I suppose you can’t really call it that if he has vigilance. The percentage of commander damage kills the deck gets will be relatively high. Most of the rest is about clearing last bits of the path. Let’s break down some of the relevant cards (about which there’s something more to say—I don’t think you need me to tell you what’s what with Solemn Simulacrum or Smothering Tithe).
Our stated goal is to get Haktos swinging into combat as often as possible. We’ve included a number of cards that give our creatures vigilance since Haktos becomes doubly effective as an attacker and blocker. No matter what combat tricks they have (save giving something trample), you can’t really change the converted mana cost of cards, so we’re pretty safe. Of course, lifelink on a six- (or more) power creature isn’t all that shabby, either.
Balefire Liege turns Haktos from a four-hit to a three-hit commander all by itself. Add on its triggers for doing what we’re going to do anyway, namely cast spells, and it’s all upside.
Another method of buffing up Haktos, Bastion Protector also saves our commander from the thing most likely to kill it, a battlefield sweeper.
A card that we don’t see all that often but I think we should – it’s a 4/4 flyer for four in red! The commander buff and, even more dangerously, haste make this card one you should really look at.
We’re in Boros. People will have more lands than we do.
We have to find our ramp where we can, and fewer cards are more fun to do it with than Dockside Extortionist. In the early-game, it’s good if it only gives you one or two, because that’s the acceleration you need. Late-game, you could easily end up casting big spells for free.
This is kind of a pet card, and as you’ll see, we’re playing Sun Titan to bring it back.
Because we’re not likely to be able to target Haktos, we need to do things that cover all of our creatures. Glory will protect the entirety of the team even while Haktos protects himself.
There will occasionally be a creature in the way from which Haktos is not protected. Inferno Titan is quite likely to be able to kill that creature.
Best ramp in white.
Hitting land drops is important, and an Oreskos Explorer ensures we get them all in those critical early- and mid-game turns.
We wanted to generate a few extra combat steps. Scourge of the Throne does that without expending additional mana. Additionally, it can provide for an alpha strike of a player whose life total has gotten extreme. Haktos is going to kill in three or four hits; if the player we’re attacking has 100 life or something, they’re still going to be the player with most life each time until they’ve gotten 21+ commander damage.
Another method of protecting Haktos from sweepers.
Card draw being weak in Boros, we like the second ability here most (called “bottling” by our friends in Magic R&D, after Elkin Bottle, which almost made it into the deck), as it’s effective card draw.
One of the more fun cards I’ve ever played with, Treasure Nabber once led to an absurd game when two people Cloned it. We definitely had to make sure that we double-checked sleeves at the end of the game.
Even without playing any particularly busted lands, Weathered Wayfarer is just going to keep us on our land drops and in the right color
We looked for cards that did damage and didn’t cost two, three, or four, so that Haktos would always have protection from them. That it’s another method of keeping Haktos alive meant that it was one of the first cards that we put into the deck.
As mentioned, extra combat steps with Haktos can be lethal.
Heliod wasn’t on my radar until Gavin suggested it as part of the vigilance suite. That it also can mana sink into some creatures is a fine bonus.
We thought a bit about Powerstone Minefield and Lightmine Field, but the lack of a guarantee on Haktos make them untenable. Iroas was a bit of a leftover from that, as well as making blocking Haktos even more difficult. With the damage prevention Iroas provides, we can just plow our creatures into combat, an idea we were both fond of.
This version of Tajic is just great value. It’s inexpensive to cast and will definitely do some very heavy lifting in the creature protection department, especially since our sweepers involve dealing damage to things.
More bottling with huge eventual upside. Sure, there are times you’re going to pay two to just play a land, but it’s worth the risk.
Both card draw and potential blocker removal, Staff of Nin is flexible and, unless you’re really locking down someone with it, people aren’t going to blow it up, because there are better (meaning more dangerous) targets for their limited artifact removal.
This one would likely be more of a target because it does so much more. I have no problem putting The Immortal Sun into a deck that also plays planeswalkers. You just have to pick your spots for casting them.
Simple yet effective, Always Watching does what we want with our commander and makes it lethal a turn sooner.
More vigilance and the extra blocking thing with a virtually unkillable in combat creature is the kind of rattlesnake that points attacks elsewhere.
We explored a whole damage doubling line. In the end, Dictate of the Twin Gods was the one card that remained due to its ability to surprise people in combat, mostly the kind you’re not involved in.
If you’re in Boros colors (even if you add another for a shard or wedge), Legion’s Initiative is a card that will save your team. We don’t have too many enters-the-battlefield triggers, so this one is really all about the buffs and protection.
We’re definitely choosing Khans here since it’s the reason we put the card into the deck in the first place. It might lead to an awkward choice or two so that a card doesn’t get exiled, but it’s mostly all upside.
Gavin’s first choice, it’s the red answer to Mind’s Dilation. The worst case is that you can just leave exiled cards that might otherwise hurt you.
Double strike is a killer when you’re going for commander damage strategies. The addition of lifelink, especially in a deck with fewer defenses, means you’ll be around longer to do more killing.
Part of this card is getting potential blockers out of the way and part of it is requiring opponents to make some difficult choices regarding what they’re going to cast and when.
We added a few You Did This to Yourself elements because of the nature of the commander. We’re not playing much defense, so having retributive strike capabilities will make people think twice about attacking. Comeuppance being able to kill off someone’s team is a bonus track on an already rocking album.
The conversation went something like “What’s the new one that Disenchants X things?” “Um…and also gains twice X life?” followed by both of us typing furiously to see who could figure out the name first. Card is a beast in this format.
Unlike Deflecting Palm, it’s targeted and conditional, but that doesn’t make it any less lethal.
I can’t remember the time when I drew this card and I was sad. There are always great targets and I almost always cast it during my main phase.
This slot was either going to be Rootborn Defenses or Faith’s Reward. What led me away from the latter is that it’s mostly there to protect Haktos anyway (sure, we can let him go to the graveyard if we want) and don’t have too many worthwhile triggers to take advantage of for the extra mana.
More combat steps, more damage? Sign me up.
One of the last cards into the deck, it came in because of War’s Toll. Once someone attacks with their whole team, it’s such a blowout.
You’re doing busted stuff? I’m outta here.
This is a card that I keep wanting to go into decks and it keeps coming out. I’m giving it one last shot here. My experience previously is that it’s frequently the wrong card at the wrong time. I hope that we’re creating an environment in which it’s more valuable.
Everyone loves the choices that Austere Command offers. In this deck, there’s some likelihood that at least one creature with converted mana cost three or less is standing in our way, where higher-CMC ones aren’t as problematic (at least for us attacking).
No matter how little you pay for it, the CMC of Blasphemous Act is nine. Damage to Haktos from it is prevented.
Same here, and you might get some planeswalkers as well.
When he suggested this card, Gavin asked how I felt about game-enders. Game has to end sometime, and there’s no way that Insurrection can win on an empty battlefield, so I’m okay with it.
I like the art on this card because it’s reminiscent of a scene involving dinosaurs in Fantasia. And this particular Dino (a brachiosaur of some kind?) is checking out the asteroid thinking, “Huh. Wonder what that is?”
This card actually prompted a whole discussion between us about how the whole Lorwyn/Shadowmoor era is a big blank zone for many Commander players. It was before many got in, and was before the big explosion of not just Commander but Magic itself, so there are lots of cards that folks don’t know about. We’re on a mission to educate.
The extra combat step for free on the following turn is great, unless someone has Settled your Wreckage, I suppose.
I can’t see myself using the –X mode too much, but either and/or both of the first two are just what the doctor ordered. I focused a little too much on the non-Elemental part of the second ability and wanted to turn that direction, but cooler heads prevailed.
Ramp and bottling in one sleek package. It’s easy to see what this isn’t a cheap card.
The Wanderer (and I certainly can’t get the damn song out of my head every time I play the card) is here mostly because the damage prevention, but the activated ability is both strong and relevant in the format.
Even though we didn’t have a great deal of time to do the build, we rolled up our sleeves and got to it. It was an enlivening few hours. For the collaborative process I wholeheartedly suggest finding a friend whose style matches yours and brewing together.
I look forward to doing it again soon.
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