Living comfortably in your own skin can be a difficult proposition sometimes. I'm well-aware of the fact that I apply a specific set of protocols in my card selection – seeking objective power when picking a card, set-matching to find as many similar or equivalent cards in order to build as consistent a deck as possible – and that these protocols could also be called biases if you wanted to look at them through a different lens. A lot of people have told me, over the history of this column, that they're tired of seeing yet another deck with Sensei's Divining Top and Sol Ring – sure, they're the best, and since they're colorless and cheap anyone can justify playing them and get a lot of power for that card slot... but they're boring. It's not interesting to be The Best There Is At What You Do.
I'm an ornery beast, stubborn at times for sheer stubbornness's sake, and I'm stubborn enough to take a sort of pride in that. But if you want to pique my curiosity as to why one would not play Sol Ring and Sensei's Divining Top, make them a design challenge where they do not fit rather than simply cut them and tell me to move on. The former I can respect and work with, the latter is not a position I am prone to embracing – “because I don't wanna” is frankly not good enough for me.
This article has been brewing in me for some time now, I suppose you could say it's been somewhere in there since I started taking reader submissions (all the way back in #5 – this is #120!). A lot more people than I would have expected are frankly tired of the absolute-power metric and do not find it interesting, and 'being interesting' has a draw all of its own. Cassidy took a look at a self-imposed restriction last week - going old-school to embrace the nostalgic current that runs deep through the very first sets, marrying the awesome feel of Commander to the third rail of “remember back in the day, when...” to come up with a deck he could honestly suggest a $200 Juzam Djinn for.
(Just an aside: it's comforting knowing that now I never, ever have to worry about mine being “the most expensive submission in Dear Azami history.” Prior to Cass clearing $800 last week, I think our highest total was just over $300. Any sense of self-consciousness or propriety now has to clear $1,000 for me to feel bashful by comparison, and that is a liberating feeling.)
I came up with two reasons why you would build and play a deck without Sol Ring and Sensei's Divining Top, the two most-sacred cows of the entire Commander format. One of the answers was better than the other, for someone as rational as me: the rational answer was necessary to meet a design constraint, which is to say you trade their power for some other, more desirable power that is in keeping with your deck design, and the self-fulfilling prophecy, which was a more-fun answer than I would have expected.
The Answer Is The Answer Because It Is The Answer
If we were going to cut Sensei's Divining Top and Sol Ring not just to be stubborn but because it was in keeping with the deck's theme, we'd need some sort of a good answer as to just why we were doing that. Cassidy's theme last week placed a self-imposed restriction based on age, allowing only cards through The Dark to make the cut into the core of the deck. That's sort of a shame to me mostly because I didn't even start until Ice Age, and my first new expansion was the mighty, mighty Homelands. (Yes, I know, it's amazing I'm still here to this day. Really.) His deck would have been better if he had allowed himself to make it through to Homelands, adding the incredible nostalgia of playing with The Skull while gaining access to a few more dual lands and otherwise rounding the deck out more comfortably while still being incredibly, impossibly old from our futuristic vantage point from here in the time of Marty McFly's flying skateboard. I wanted to come up with a restriction that made sense as to why Sol Ring would not make the cut, and shifted the context to make something click in my head: what if the reason Sol Ring was not good was because having two colorless mana every turn for just one mana was a lousy deal?
Basic math shows that spending one to get +2 is pretty good. But if those two were literally useless to you, you'd be spending one to watch something just sit there frustratingly, and that brought me to the deck-theme restriction of: no colorless mana anywhere. Sol Ring isn't good enough to play if you can't spend the mana on anything, but of course to make that true you have to intentionally select only cards it can't cast or help with. Thus, Sensei's Divining Top is right out, too – it doesn't match the necessary conditions and thus is excluded out of hand, as is literally any other card with a colorless mana symbol on it anywhere. Sol Ring would help with those, and we can't have that.
By reasonable implication this means we can't have any artifacts, though further analysis puts the lie to that – we just can't have any artifacts that cost mana, a-ha! It also crosses of X-spells, unless somehow those X-values are restricted to colored mana; unfortunately Drain Life has one colorless in the mana cost before asking you to pay in a serious devotion to black. Only colored mana, no colorless anywhere, that's our design constraint.
Coming up with the fun things we could do within this design constraint, my brain latched onto having Ghastlord of Fugue as my Commander because that is an impressively high number of colored mana symbols with no colorless anywhere. Unfortunately, it was half a day before I remembered this was a part of the Demigod of Revenge cycle, i.e. Not Actually A Legendary Creature. Oops. I did want to stick with the black and blue mana requirements in picking my Commander, because frankly it intrigued me after that initial bit of stickiness as it latched inside of my skull, and frankly a five-color Commander felt like cheating. I could've picked a three-color Commander using only colored mana symbols, no colorless, but Cassidy picked Adun Oakenshield last week and it would be gauche to use him again so soon.
This meant I had only the following options:
This was admittedly a very narrow restriction, and was chosen in an entirely arbitrary fashion. If I wanted a third color, I would have had a delightful time taking advantage of Gwedolyn di Corci's bizarre and color-rich mana cost; if I wanted to hit the casting-cost target while swinging it out of the park on the “you chose WHO as your Commander?” axis, I'd have tapped two blue and two white for Ayesha Tanaka and tap to stop artifacts from doing something or other (and have banding – which only us players from back in 1996 even know what it does anymore). The boring choice would have been Progenitus, because you get a ten-mana Commander with all colored mana symbols, and that's just showing off what you can do with an absurd self-made requirement if you try. But it would be too easy to cheat by picking all five colors' worth of cheap and efficient spells, and I wanted to include Ghastlord of Fugue as a victory condition for no reason I could point to as logical and thus self-evident... and this lack of a reason was entirely good enough for me, so we're running with it.
Lazav seems fine, but brought with it a milling theme or some element of commitment that people might actually take seriously. Sygg, River Cutthroat was not as obviously something you had to take seriously – and more compellingly, as long as we were keeping our restriction against colorless mana, the hybrid mana cost made Sygg effectively colorless as far as our mana restrictions were concerned. There was a certain delicious irony to picking a commander that cost two colorless mana (if you look at it sideways) in a deck specifically built to negate the utility and relevance of Sol Ring. Irony is a harsh mistress, and Sygg was picked because of the sheer quality of that laugh. (And because I want to beat someone with a Ghastlord of Fugue. I'm still sad I can't pick it as the Commander for this deck.)
With that restriction in place as a star to guide us, we begin at the beginning: the lands.
We're going to be playing a very color-intense deck, so colorless mana does nothing for us – and all the special lands like Winding Canyons that I so love are breaking the rules by letting you spend colorless mana (and thus have Sol Ring “be good again”). And because we're going to be building such a deep color intensity, we're going to need pretty much any dual-colored land we can get our hands on, because we're going to need to access UUU and BBB off the same lands at different times. This is just going to show how deep the pool of dual lands is in the Commander format, by taking a guided tour through the entire history of Magic's mana-fixing.
|Watery Grave||Ravnica: City of Guilds|
|Dimir Aqueduct||Ravnica: City of Guilds|
|River of Tears||Future Sight|
|Drowned Catacomb||Magic 2010|
|Jwar Isle Refuge||Zendikar|
|Darkslick Shores||Scars of Mirrodin|
|Temple of Deceit||Theros|
That gives us a whopping twenty-two true dual lands, without having to cheat and add Darkwater Catacombs (which requires colorless mana to get two colored mana out of it, unlike Sunken Ruins' comparable but hybrid-colored mana cost). We may end up having to bend our rules a little, but not in the manabase – 22 dual lands is a lot to have access to, and while a fair number of these come into play tapped or rely on other duals existing for them to even count in the first place (see: all eight fetchlands) it's going to help make sure we can hit all of our most intense mana costs next to each other with no problems.
Moving on to the mono-colored lands, we get some utility function out of them nonetheless, and we even get to cheat and add a colorless land in good conscience since it neither makes colorless nor taps to use colorless:
Maze of Ith
Shizo, Death's Storehouse
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Minamo, School at Water's Edge
Following The Rules, Then Breaking Them
There is probably a government shutdown joke in here somewhere, but Cedric would rather I not delve into the political here. No snarky card-assignments for John Boehner and the Tea Party here, though if you want to proffer your suggestions in the comments section that's entirely on you, fellow-mages. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge.
Building the deck, I plowed through Gatherer in search of intense mana costs and reached a very simple conclusion: costs of up to triple colored mana were somewhat commonplace, but four colored mana was highly unusual and there was just one entry at five colored mana, the aforementioned Ghastlord of Fugue. Commander decks thrive at the top of their curve, and if we are unloading only two-drops when other decks are dropping sevens and eights, we are going to lose badly by our creatures being overpowered and outgunned. We need to modify our own rules in order to survive, but we still want Sol Ring to be actively bad – so in breaking our own rules, we still need some discipline. To get to 99 cards we wouldn't be completely embarrassed to play in a deck together – Zombie Trailblazer was sitting next to Patron Wizard in my potential card-pool file for a while – I came up with two exceptions to the rule in order to allow me enough wiggle room to get to an interesting deck:
- Rule One: One colorless mana is acceptable in a cost with at least two colored mana.
- Rule Two: Any card is acceptable so long as it has at least three colored mana in its cost.
With those exceptions allowing stuff like Maga, Traitor to Mortals (and thus conceivable ways to win a game besides trying to beat down with two-drops), the card-pool was broad enough to not be embarrassing and actually has strong suggestions for what themes the deck wants to develop. For example, I wouldn't have expected it, but once I started digging into it I found a very strong theme for borrowing your opponents' spells and casting them as if they were your own. This is an odd theme to brush up against accordingly, but it's the intersection of Word of Command, Memory Plunder, and creatures like Mindleech Mass and Wrexial, the Risen Deep. Fill it out further with the occasional Spelljack and attacking your opponent with Nightveil Specter and you can this theme runs pretty deep; getting to access the best of your opponents' stuff will hopefully help make up for the fact that our own is a tad underpowered due to our flavor restrictions biasing us to colored mana symbols only. Muse Vessel would be good in this deck, but sadly not on the exceptions list of things we're allowed to do.
The cards that followed the color restraints were as follows:
5cc: Ghastlord of Fugue
We start to see common themes and things we want to build up further from here, such as the accidental “Assassin tribal” theme offered to us by Scarblade Elite that is ripe for building on. There are enough other Assassins we can consider to make this potentially useful, and we're eager enough to have the extra removal that this being potentially just a dead card is worth the risk. I think that we will end up with enough Assassins lying around to make it likely that Scarblade Elite will always be able to kill at least one guy, and the potential for repeating free removal is worthy of the pursuit. I didn't want to include Necropotence – I rarely ever do – because we're basically crap at regaining life once we've lost it, making it less potent than it would be in a deck more focused on being able to pay life as a cost. I did, however, find two other triple-black enchantments, and they even work neatly together as a sort of Skullclamp-replacement, leading to Bloodghast to add an element of recursion with our creature-sacrifice for profit. But we only have thirty spells before needing to break our own primary rule, with thirty slots left unfilled and some of our choices so far already a tad sketchy. (Withered Wretch has a colorless mana activated ability, and Duskmantle Guildmage uses colorless mana too, but I'm not looking too closely at whether that breaks the rules or not because we're about to relax them significantly anyway.)
I was pleased to see a few odd favorites appear – I've included Keeper of the Dead before in decks that can stock their graveyard and need the supplemental removal help, but this is the first time suggesting Cuombajj Witches in Commander despite the fact that it has a very powerful tap ability in a game dynamic that allows for collusion. After all, the opponent you pick to get the additional ping does not have to be the one whose stuff you are targeting with the pinging ability. A creature that can tap to cast Shock for no mana with just a little bit of table talk (or better yet, the Fire half of Fire/Ice!) is a good deal for two mana, and you can likewise get a good deal on Hunted Horror so long as you're choosing to give the tokens to a person you've made an alliance with, giving “team us” thirteen power for two mana to attack “team not-us” with. And I've wanted to put Invoke Prejudice in some deck sooner or later, as it is a very nice asymmetrical card that can throw a lot of wrenches in an opponent's efforts to play their game without necessarily being “mean” about it.
Now let's apply Rule One and see what cards we add in at this layer:
Hero's Downfall – “Murderbore” helps make up for the fact that so far the deck has a rather low level of removal . We just want a no-nonsense creature-kill spell at a reasonable price, and this covers that with an upside... sometimes you really just need to kill an Elspeth before she goes ultimate.
Big Game Hunter – Another Assassin, and another removal spell as well. We aren't really going to have ways to discard this for its madness cost, but that's OK.
Bone Dancer – A forgotten gem, Bone Dancer has a high-powered saboteur ability for the zero-mana cost on that ability. It's also a Zombie for our bit of Zombie-tribal aspect, and we like borrowing our opponent's stuff to work with.
Dross Harvester – Losing four life a turn is clearly a downside, but the upside of what happens when more than two creatures dies over the course of four players' turns gives you back a fair bit of life once you're over the break-even point. A lot of creatures can die over the course of a few turns in Commander, so this can give back quite a lot of life over the course of the game even after accounting for the steep tax up-front. We need access to the life badly enough to make it worth paying up-front on our investment.
Lich Lord of Unx – One of our Zombie-tribal cards, this one also has a nice color-intense activated ability that makes us smile for how on-theme it is to ask for UUBB in a deck with no Sol Ring. This makes free dudes but also can put extra mana to work dealing damage directly to an opponent, which should help make up for the fact that our creatures are going to be on-average smaller than our opponents' and thus have a hard time closing.
Lord of the Undead – Recursion with the buyback ability and a Zombie lord besides, this makes it worthwhile to aim for a lots-of-Zombies creature base such as we have.
Stronghold Assassin – Another Assassin for our minor chord of Assassin-tribal, but also another sacrifice outlet for our various engine cards that like to be sacrificed or give you a profitable effect whenever something dies.
So far we're having fun, but our creatures are still quite small and we need more potent helpers. Rule Two adds these gems:
Grave Pact – We're going to be light on removal but also have a bit of a self-sacrifice theme to the deck, so this staple will pull a lot of weight here. I know it's boring, but the rest of the deck isn't and we need this to do a lot of work to make this a credible deck.
Forced March – We're light on access to sweepers thanks to our strict color requirements so far. This gives us at least one card that can dig us out of a deep problem, because we don't have access to the usual colorless sweepers (Nev's Disk, O-Stone, All is Dust) and Damnation remains off-limits. We'll live, I expect.
Hellfire – I've been tinkering around with this one lately because I really like one-sided Wrath effects, and while the life loss can be intense sometimes (especially if anyone's playing token-based decks) the fact that it costs 'only' five instead of the nine you normally ask for Plague Winds makes it a much more accessible card before turn infinity.
Promise of Power – Paying life is apparently just something we're going to do, I guess. We want some more card drawing, and our choices are either cantrips so cheap that they cost only a single mana or something like this that has triple-colored mana in its cost. I'm a fan of this especially with Entwine as I like big threats and I cannot lie, but since it's hard for us to recoup lost life I am a little wary about paying too much of it too often.
Ancestral Memories – Talk about the oldest of schools, I haven't seen Ancestral Memories cast since Dream Halls combo decks were tinkering around in Standard. It's a good mix of digging and card draw, and we don't mind that it fills the graveyard as we are using that at least a little bit as a spare resource zone. Restriction breeds creativity, Mark Rosewater likes to say, and our colored mana restriction brings some weird choices to the forefront in order to meet our needs while coloring within the lines.
Spinal Embrace – Quite a combat trick, there is a lot you can do with a card that is a mix of a pure removal spell and a Threaten effect. Your typical Ray of Command effect needs help to make sure you don't give the borrowed permanent back, but with the sacrifice effect built right into this there's less to worry about. It also gives life back, and potentially quite a lot of it, which should help as that is a particularly blind spot for us.
Phthisis – Our creatures are a bit anemic but so far we're good at getting chip-shots of damage in but not so good at breaking through huge monsters. Phthisis is both a solid (if OMG expensive) removal spell that can help with our still-light ability to control the board and a card that is capable of KO'ing a player by itself, if you point it at the owner of a Lord of Extinction or something else ridiculously huge. Commander is full of juicy targets for this, and we need the something like the damage portion of the effect to credibly finish games. Let's be honest: this is player removal, not creature removal.
Army of the Damned – We can do a lot of things with Zombies, and we can do far more of them with a lot of Zombies. Army of the Damned with Lich Lord of Unx available as well is an obscene amount of damage, but just making a ton of dudes with the one card gives us a lot of breakthrough power we're otherwise light on. (I am however still sad they didn't go there and call it Army of Darkness.)
Eternal Dominion – We have a take-your-stuff subtheme, borrowing spells and raiding other zones to take the best of what our opponents have got going and put that to work for us. Later in the game, our deck goes kind of dead anyway – who wants to draw a Geralf's Messenger on turn seventeen? – but the best of our opponents' decks can be our card drawn for the turn if we want to commit to being locked out via this epic spell. It's kind of awesome and something I want to see happen from time to time in this format anyway, so we're giving it a trial run here to see what happens.
The remaining eleven slots all go to creatures, six-drops and higher because we need a good supporting cast of bigger creatures if we're to play a respectable game and not just get automatically outclassed.
These heavy hitters round out the “Your Spells Are Mine” subtheme of the deck, as each of them can put an opponents' card to work for you directly from a variety of zones. It doesn't hurt that they also tend to add some evasion to the deck, or other weird tricks – Ninjutsu is an especially fun ability to put onto a creature like this, as your opponent won't even get to see it coming till it takes their best spell and makes it yours.
Cabal Patriarch – Another sacrifice-for-profit card to go with our mini recursion engine, and just a solid on-board trick when you have a stocked graveyard.
Massacre Wurm – Who doesn't love a Massacre Wurm in this format? The sorts of board states we're bad against – token-heavy tables we just can't break through with our little Zombies – Massacre Wurm tends to cut down on sight and will potentially just kill an opponent at the same time.
Reaper from the Abyss – Repeating pinpoint removal so long as a creature has died in any given turn is a powerful ability, especially since we're pretty good at making sure something has died – just not necessarily the right something. Reaper from the Abyss follows up that random death with hot laser-pinpointed death and can do so up to four times between each of your untap steps, making it far more powerful than the Visara the Dreadful that would also have matched our triple-colored-mana (somewhat arbitrary) requirements.
Roil Elemental – We already want a lot of fetchlands thanks to needing to hit our dual land count hard, and having Landfall: Control Magic is a pretty neat ability to have. This is another often almost-ran in my decks, and thanks to its extremely intense casting cost I'm able to put it to work in this one. Usually we think of those as drawbacks, but in this deck, that's just our card pool!
Reiver Demon – Another asymmetrical Wrath effect, and one we're going to lean on as it is the one that doesn't deal us a boatload of damage.
Putting it all together, we get the following:
- 1 Baleful Strix
- 1 Big Game Hunter
- 1 Bloodghast
- 1 Bone Dancer
- 1 Chancellor of the Spires
- 1 Cuombajj Witches
- 1 Dross Harvester
- 1 Duskmantle Guildmage
- 1 Garza's Assassin
- 1 Gatekeeper of Malakir
- 1 Geralf's Messenger
- 1 Ghastlord of Fugue
- 1 Hunted Horror
- 1 Keeper of the Dead
- 1 Lich Lord of Unx
- 1 Lord of the Undead
- 1 Lord of the Void
- 1 Massacre Wurm
- 1 Mindleech Mass
- 1 Nantuko Shade
- 1 Necrosavant
- 1 Nightveil Specter
- 1 Phyrexian Obliterator
- 1 Reaper from the Abyss
- 1 Reiver Demon
- 1 Roil Elemental
- 1 Scarblade Elite
- 1 Silent-Blade Oni
- 1 Stronghold Assassin
- 1 Withered Wretch
- 1 Cabal Patriarch
- 1 Lazav, Dimir Mastermind
- 1 Wrexial, the Risen Deep
- 4 Island
- 3 Swamp
- 1 Bad River
- 1 Barren Moor
- 1 Bloodstained Mire
- 1 Bojuka Bog
- 1 Cephalid Coliseum
- 1 Darkslick Shores
- 1 Dimir Aqueduct
- 1 Drowned Catacomb
- 1 Flooded Strand
- 1 Halimar Depths
- 1 Jwar Isle Refuge
- 1 Leechridden Swamp
- 1 Lonely Sandbar
- 1 Marsh Flats
- 1 Maze of Ith
- 1 Misty Rainforest
- 1 Polluted Delta
- 1 River of Tears
- 1 Salt Marsh
- 1 Scalding Tarn
- 1 Secluded Glen
- 1 Sunken Ruins
- 1 Temple of Deceit
- 1 Underground Sea
- 1 Verdant Catacombs
- 1 Vivid Creek
- 1 Vivid Marsh
- 1 Watery Grave
- 1 Minamo, School at Water's Edge
- 1 Shizo, Death's Storehouse
- 1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
- 1 Frost Marsh
- 1 Dark Prophecy
- 1 Grave Pact
- 1 Infernal Tribute
- 1 Invoke Prejudice
- 1 Counterspell
- 1 Hero's Downfall
- 1 Memory Plunder
- 1 Shadow of Doubt
- 1 Spelljack
- 1 Spinal Embrace
- 1 Undermine
- 1 Urborg Justice
- 1 Vampiric Tutor
- 1 Vendetta
- 1 Victim of Night
- 1 Word of Command
- 1 Advice from the Fae
- 1 Ancestral Memories
- 1 Army of the Damned
- 1 Beseech the Queen
- 1 Eternal Dominion
- 1 Forced March
- 1 Hellfire
- 1 Phthisis
- 1 Pox
- 1 Promise of Power
- 1 Smallpox
The next experiment seems to have been a coagulation of multiple thoughts at the same time. Brains can be sticky that way, after all. We started with the idea of “what would it take to make me not play Sol Ring?” and it led us to an intense colored-mana deck, but that felt a little too gimmicky even if I liked where it turned out. We had to loosen our restrictions enough to get 99 cards we weren't ashamed of, and that means that Sol Ring could have theoretically been one of them if we wanted the help casting our heavy hitters at the top of our curve even if it doesn't help with the low drops. But mostly, the restriction was arbitrary – we didn't even have any Devotion or Chroma cards there, because the only one with an intense-enough mana cost to meet our other rules was Sanity Grinding, not the brightest of reasons to do that trick when we're already not playing Glimpse the Unthinkable (or, you know, actually trying to mill our opponents out). One of the gummy factors at work in my brain was a new card that doesn't even exist yet:
Somewhere this led to me thinking of all the juicy things that could happen if you made people discard a lot of cards very early in the game. Waste Not makes me have to re-evaluate my opinion of Wheel of Fortune all by itself, because now the Wheel I usually end up cutting can potentially make a bunch of dudes or several Dark Rituals worth of mana... and it also stops being symmetrical, because each spell my opponents have discarded means another card drawn for me. Sure, you could also use Waste Not with Myojin of Night's Reach to close out a game and get a bunch of stuff, but do you really need another card to help with the Myojin? No, not really.
I was still unsatisfied with why I wasn't playing Sol Ring, and wanted a mechanical reason I couldn't. Not some points-tabulation rule for deckbuilding where I had to judge the opportunity cost (choose between it and Demonic Tutor? Tough call!), not a gentleman's agreement or a negative point value assigned during a game for playing an early Sol Ring, an actual reason.
Those are hard to find, but I did come up with one...
Here, finally, we have a good reason to skip a pair of one-mana cards that are otherwise “too good to not play” as they'd actually interfere with the deck running as-intended. The idea of doing something interesting and neat appealed to me, so I built a deck with all five of the Time Spiral suspend-only spells for exciting cascades... and found that for the most part I was unsatisfied with them all, and having random and erratic outcomes was not the reward I wanted for making this deckbuilding sacrifice. Hypergenesis is sort of crazy suicidal in this format just based on the sheer size of everything that gets played, and you can do better than Wheel of Fate or Ancestral Vision if that is what you want to do. This pulled us back to Restore Balance and Living End, and Living End is just Living Death... we can get that without having to try too hard either, it's not special.
Restore Balance is getting played a bit in Modern because it is a powerful card, and I first cut my teeth back in the good old bad old days when you could cast Balance in Standard if you wanted to. Right around the time of my first-ever PTQ Top Eight (Mirage Block Constructed, whoo!) you could play Balance as a one-of in your deck and Mystical Tutor as a four-of, so you really could Balance still if that is what you wanted to do. Zuran Orb was a legal card, so you could have no lands when it resolved if you wanted to do that, and you could Balance multiple times a game if you had a way to put the one Balance back into your deck to hunt up with Mystical Tutors. Soldevi Digger, there you go. Artifact mana was left in place when you Balance and Mirage conveniently also brought us a cycle of Diamonds, and the rules-set was even favorable at the time too – you're probably thinking there is risk when you cast a Balance and sacrifice your lands, because if the Balance is then countered you're out the lands for no good reason. The original rules-set (or pre-Sixth Edition rules, if that's how you want to think of them) included an interrupt window, a specific set time that was the only time you could play counterspells; after that window was closed, you could rest assured that Balance was going to resolve and sacrifice your lands with impunity.
In Modern, they play Greater Gargadon to achieve the same effect; after Cassidy's article a few weeks ago playing with an Obliterate-happy deck I think we've had quite enough of decks built to put all of the players on zero lands. Commander is magical in a bit of a different way: because everyone is playing a resource-acquisition game to get to the higher reaches of mana and deploy massive threats, being stuck on four or five lands can be considered “mana screwed,” while others may still be able to quite credibly play their game out from there because they showed more restraint in the costs on their cards. With enough things mixing around like this in my brain, I wanted to touch the third rail... but among the topmost reasons was a response I got from last week's submissionist after-the-fact, where he noted that he felt I publicly shamed him for playing that deck's game that way. He said he felt he might have gotten a different response if only he'd provided more information about how rough the tables he played that deck at were, but that's just blaming the victim: I did take him out behind the woodshed past the point of polite decorum, and for that I apologized. (This, then, is my acknowledging the mistake publicly and rendering that apology publicly – it's a good thing to do when you're in the wrong.)
I made the mistake of conflating playing rough with playing too rough, when consenting adults can choose to play however they want to and by whatever rules they wanted to in order to enjoy the game they want to play. And it's my job to potentially be the Fun Police and take a deck down a few pegs – but I should never be taking a player down a peg or two while I'm at it. We're really just playing cops and robbers with 99-card decks in our hands, and our enjoyment of the game is the critical aspect, not my twitch-aversion to an Eldrazi's much-beloathed Annihilator ability.
Apologies are one thing, but learning from your mistakes is important too – everything Jether had said he wished he might have mentioned because it might have better-informed me about his playgroup is information I could have requested and sought out myself, and the article would have been better for it – I shouldn't have pushed it to the point where our first-ever second-time participant here on Dear Azami might potentially be the first person to never, ever want to participate here on Dear Azami again. I screwed up – mea culpa. But the screw-up was preventable, not just “Sean was feeling cranky that day and didn't do a good job!” (though I was feeling cranky that... um... week, or perhaps to be more accurate I would say month) and I most certainly didn't do a good job – because I didn't open my mouth when I could have, and I wrote a crappy and abusive article instead of a good and insightful one. I used to write back and ask for more context a lot more back in the early days of the column, and frankly I can't remember the last time I did that. And that's a bad thing – it was a good idea, and I used to do it for a reason.
So when touching the third rail and playing (Restore) Balance as my deck's key theme, I don't want to make the mistake of trying to nuke everyone back into the Stone Age so no one can play Magic or do anything. I will, however, be willing to put everyone back to three lands or four lands and keep playing my game, then when they start to develop a board presence and get back into the game on their terms, take them back behind the woodshed again by casting my signature spell for a second, third, or fourth time.
I don't know how this deck will feel, but I want to trust that it can be within an acceptable spirit because I willfully refuse to play it against the spirit of the format (unlike my perhaps most-famous deck, ”The Worst Thing You Can Still Do To People”).
Begin At The Beginning
Mana makes the world go round, and we have to pick a Commander too. I want to use every 3cc Cascade spell instead of try and build 'the cascade deck' and then only be able to play two Cascade cards because they're all different colors. A five-color Commander is in the mix, then, and I wanted to pick one that could potentially access me more resources and play a decent game by itself if that was where we were at, so I selected Horde of Notions as a good threatening hasty Commander with an ability I might put to good work for some free recursion, though I won't be following the Elemental theme very far.
Picking a five-color commander lets me start my manabase off right, with some tools that may keep my land count low while still working just fine:
Fieldmist Borderpost, Mistvein Borderpost, Veinfire Borderpost, Firewild Borderpost, Wildfield Borderpost: Replacing a land drop with an artifact is a little bit naughty when you're planning to cast Balance repeatedly, and while we don't love these as mana producers – artifacts tend to disappear the first time a mass sweeper hits, so they're unreliable – I'm willing to give them a try here because they feel like they fit our theme and plan perfectly.
I cannot even begin to explain how much this excites me. I like three-color decks because you get to play three bouncelands and thus are pretty likely to see one over the course of a game. I really like getting a free bonus resource as part of a deal, and a five-color commander deck is able to play all ten bouncelands and thus the maximum number of free deals possible. Most people wouldn't do that because that sounds a wee bit crazy – but since we want to operate off just a very few lands in play, these help keep us high-functioning off a technically low resource count. I'm very, very excited to see how a deck with all ten bouncelands feels, confident that the extra built-in card advantage that comes with free mana will make this deck feel special to me. (It also means we're starting off with a heavy commitment of lands that come into play tapped, so we're going to need to be attentive to that fact – especially alongside the Borderposts as five more pseudo-lands.)
The rest fills itself out pretty neatly from there, as I want a fetch-dual manabase in order to hit all of our disparate color needs and be able to selectively tune which ones we want over the course of a game. One key flourish is that we need to be returning Restore Balance into our deck at a low cost, and thus white fetchlands that can get Mistveil Plains will be of higher-than-average value. After going hog-wild and adding all ten Zendikar / Onslaught fetchlands, we will thus pull out the Mirage fetchlands too for Grasslands and Flood Plain as well. We won't have room for all ten dual lands and still be able to play enough basics to have one with regularity for the Borderposts, and I approximated the correct tally at seven, neglecting to play a U/B, R/W, or G/B dual land – we're light on the red and the black, so we can skimp a little on each, and with all the fetches and those options in front of us we'll still be able to find the right colors to make our hand work and plan for later in the game without tripping over ourselves. Sequencing plays and fetching for the right land will be critical, but that would be true even with all ten dual lands available, so I'm not especially worried.
If I had the audacity to suggest real Revised dual lands instead of their Ravnica Block counterparts, I'd be disingenuous; while I've made a point of getting a real dual land or two for a specific Commander deck I'm favoring at the moment, such as including Underground Sea above, they're all sorts of expensive and the two life you have to pay sometimes is better than the extra $80-120 you have to pay all of the time. The budget need not be crazy, and it's important to keep some perspective after adding some $500 in fetchlands first.
We fill out the remaining slots with two utility lands and one of each basic:
Mistveil Plains – Recursion at an affordable cost is critical to this deck working right, and Mistveil Plains gives us a lot of ways to access what's most important to us without having to draw the right spell to do it – any fetchland that gets a plains will do it, so we have seven virtual copies of this land, giving us a lot of redundancy. If we're recycling Restore Balance, it's highly likely to be via this card first and foremost just by the sheer numbers of it, and it amuses me that I am never, ever up to any good when I play this card. (My prior history with it involved recycling pinpoint answer cards to tutor up with Sunforger, which never did anything but relentlessly bore my opponents to death as they were hard-locked but I took forever to kill them.)
Alchemist's Refuge – I love this card, even more than I love Winding Canyons – and I have a now decade-long love affair with the idea of casting Balance at instant speed, playing a threat and then responding while my creature was on the stack by casting Balance so it was the sole survivor of a rough situation. Sure, we could do this with Suspend nowadays, but that's so passe – and I'm not going to decline the opportunity to seek out a decade-long infatuation here.
We have two more artifacts we can add now in the mana department – Darksteel Ingot because it doesn't go away like the Borderposts will, and Vessel of Eternal Rest because we actively want the card-recycling effect and are happy to get it as a free bonus on a mana rock when we're forbidden from spending less than three on one anyway. The ability to put a card not back in your hand but back in your library is a weird one, and I'm willing to give almost any one of them I can get a try.
The Stars Themselves
Restore Balance – Our main schtick (and serial reoffender) is to make up for the fact that real-Balance is banned in Commander by playing fake-Balance as if it were the same card, using the Cascade mechanism to bypass the “can't-actually-cast-it” rule designed to trip it up. It wipes the board (sacrifice, not destroy – it really doesn't negotiate!) and gets your opponent's hand and manabase at the same time as it kills their creatures, sending mana-hungry Commander decks back into the early stages of the game without the resources they might have hoped they'd have. And it's asymmetrical – it ignores entire permanent classes, so your investment in artifacts or enchantments will go untouched just like they did back in the day. Unlike back in the day, however, you can also go crazy with Planewalkers – this is not a thing you used to be able to do in the 1996 Turbo-Balance era, there was no way to keep a Jace Beleren on layaway because that card was a solid decade in the future still.
Violent Outburst, Ardent Plea, Demonic Dread, Shardless Agent – No, there really aren't that many cheap cascade cards, so we're going to need to supplement these four with additional ways to go and get them. We can get quite clever that way if we try, though.
Recycling – Mind Your Balance
We have consistent access to Mistveil Plains to go with this section and a Vessel of Eternal Rest to help, but every way we can credibly do so is important.
Bow of Nylea – This hyper-random mishmash of abilities happens to include a mode that casts Gaea's Blessing targeting yourself, which is even more crucial because most of the usual Gaea's Blessing effects cost two and thus would interfere with cascading in the first place. This also happens to be a weird mix of card types that may prove to be convenient, as we'll see later.
Battlefield Scrounger – This may remind people of another wacky crazy combo deck – we've talked about Dream Halls and Turbo-Balance so far, and Battlefield Scrounger hearkens back to the Turbo-Lands era – Zvi's build included Oath of Druids with Battlefield Scrounger as the only target. He used it to let the deck quickly mill itself out and then recycle resources as if it were tutoring, getting to the end point where you play all your lands out and take all of the turns thanks to this odd-ball Odyssey creature and an empty library. Here we're going to use it to protect Restore Balance, and it does that just as well as it did the other naughty tricks he gets to whenever he's not absolutely, totally and completely unplayable garbage. This one is even the best of the effects, because it puts Restore Balance on the bottom of your library as a cost, not as the effect itself, so no one will be able to deny you the effect with a well-aimed Withered Wretch.
Gurzigost – Gurzigost can control your graveyard by recycling key contents as an upkeep trigger, and happens to be a reasonably awesome body besides once you're in the market for that particular upkeep trigger as an acceptable cost. We're using that cost as the attractive factor that piques our interest in the first place, but the cheap but potent 5cc creature is pretty appealing too.
Anurid Scavenger - ... especially when considered alongside its little brother, which is a 3/3 for three in a format where that is not in the least bit impressive. We want easy and low-maintenance access to a recursion ability, though, and it is a pretty darn rare recursion ability to access.
Grazing Kelpie – Speaking of the bottom of the barrel. I'd at least like any of these if they had the good sense to be Elementals and thus something we could recur with Horde of Notions, but we have no such luck – just embarrassing bodies we're willing to play in order to achieve a highly specific task.
Primal Command – In addition to being a tutor for Shardless Agent, and thus able to be a cascade card if we want it to be, it also has a mode for shuffling your graveyard into your library, giving us a second chance at Restore Balance at the same time if we want it to. One-stop shopping, and just a flexible and powerful card while we're at it.
... And that's it. We really don't have that many ways to recur Restore Balance, so we're going to have to work the ones we do have pretty hard and mind the resource carefully as it is scarce and hard to replenish.
Maelstrom Nexus – This potentially grants everything else the Cascade ability, and thus turns any three-drop card into a Restore Balance. We're already all five colors and we love free value, as we're a resource-attrition deck. Just messing around enough times with our bigger spells will turn up one of the key cards sooner or later, so if we just keep ourselves busy something good will happen. That this lets a Borderpost cascade into Restore Balance for the low, low alternate cost of returning a basic land to your hand is an amusingly dirty deal.
Diabolic Tutor – Obviously can just get whatever we want, no negotiation, no muss, no fuss.
Knight of the Reliquary – Gets Mistveil Plains while counting as a white card for its devotion requirement. Also gets hella-large in games where a lot of land cards go to the graveyard, turning this into a significant threat that can serve well as the last critter left standing – especially if the Knight starts shrinking the number of lands used in our mana supply by cranking out bouncelands.
Godo, Bandit Warlord – Gets Sunforger and thus semi-tutors for Restore Balance access. Stoneforge Mystic is still a two-drop and thus verboten, but Godo does excellent work in general and shall serve us nicely here as well.
Walk This Way
Planeswalkers are awesome. We're going to play fifteen of them. They don't all need an introduction, it should be pretty easy to figure out why they're particularly awesome in each iteration and just getting to keep even one of them unchecked on an empty board will be a considerable advantage. We're playing Superfriends, though, and one Walker and a stunted board growth leads to more Walkers to hang out and say hey.
Jace Beleren, Jace, Architect of Thought, Ajani Vengeant, Chandra, Pyromaster, Elspeth, Knight-Errant, Garruk Relentless, Garruk Wildspeaker, Sorin, Lord of Innistrad, Xenagos, the Reveler, Garruk, Primal Hunter, Liliana Vess, Tamiyo, the Moon Sage, Elspeth, Sun's Champion, Karn Liberated, Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker:
Balance makes you sacrifice real creatures, so these are the 'creatures' we're actually going to be using. Our board advancement will be measured in plus abilities and possible ultimates as we try to win the game. It's worth noting that the flip side of Garruk Relentless can be part of a tutor, and Liliana Vess always tutors too. I never want to see Chandra, Pyromaster flip Restore Balance for her zero-loyalty effect, but that risk is in general quite low, and if you're that nervous you can just use the free-card effect when you know where Restore Balance is already (i.e., in the graveyard / set to the bottom of your deck). That's going to be most times save prior to the first time you cascade, though, so much of the time you can just use this with impunity. The ones that augment your mana supply (original Garruk, newcomer Xenagos) are particularly fancy, as they let us live beyond our modest means and thus not have to play too many lands to the table while deploying the top-end threats.
The rest of the creature base ends up here, as they're beneficial but not essential from a tactical or deck function standpoint, and a few cards get chosen simply to complement other choices already made.
Batterskull – We've already worked up Godo access for the Sunforger, thus having a second piece of equipment might give Godo better staying power over the course of longer games. Batterskull is also just a resilient threat, and that's the kind of card we're interested in – we don't want to invest in reducing everyone else to our low-resource parity level and then just have our one creature Swordsed, Batterskull can at least bounce and spawn a new Germ token to fight another day.
Oblation – Transmuting on three is already giving us this casting cost as our most plentiful intersect for tutoring purposes, and once you make the key card in question either white or red as well, the Sunforger lines of play intersect beneficially as well. We can't play cheap removal as anything less than three is forbidden for the same reason as Top and Sol Ring, so this is the right spot for our utility removal card. Oblation doesn't negotiate – you can't regenerate from a tuck effect, nor does indestructible matter – and we're good at recycling specific unique cards anyway so we can rely on being able to use this best-possible-answer multiple times over the course of the game.
Austere Command – We want sweeper access, and this hits all of the modalities we might ask of it while being able to preferentially leave the parts of the board we care about alone. It's flexible and a safe choice when all the deck needs is a few sweepers to fill a specific need.
Terminus, Hallowed Burial – Some of our wraths need to be able to answer unconventional board states, as those are basically the norm if the game sprawls on long enough. Balance handles many but not all of them – let's just say we're not aiming to square off against a Sigarda, Host of Herons deck anytime soon, and if we do, we're going to need something like this to help.
Ghostly Prison, Sphere of Safety, Windborn Muse – Opponents who are light on mana are not going to like being taxed to attack you. I pretty much always shy away from these cards, but since we're dinging our opponent's mana down to low levels just as a matter of course, these are more relevant to our interests than usual. They also count as white permanents for Mistveil Plains, and we need to include a decent number of them if we're to expect it to work.
Eternal Witness – This catch-all good creature gives our Primal Command more play, but also gives a strong second mode to our admittedly-junky Transmute cards besides tutoring for a narrow class of cards. It's not specifically in-theme or anything, but it has a lot of high praise going for it by intersecting with other cards profitably here.
Karador, Ghost Chieftain – Karador offers us a fair bit of recursion, and has the benefit of always being incredibly affordable under normal circumstances. Yes, Horde of Notions gives us recursion too, but only for a limited creature type – we're only ending up with nine total Elementals, so something that helps out our other creature cards would be desirable. These games are supposed to be grindy, and those are the sorts of games Karador excels at.
Reaper of the Wilds – We can't quite go crazy with Waste Not yet, but we can expect a fairly high level of creature death to occur each time we play Restore Balance and Reaper of the Wilds goes pretty crazy with multiple Scry triggers effectively saying 'pick your next draw.' Things die, a lot, in this format – but selective Hexproof on your major filter card helps keep it on the table to do good work.
Deathbringer Thoctar – A lot of things can die when you balance the board. If that happens and there's at least one creature per player left standing, well, Deathbringer Thoctar will probably be the biggest creature on the board – or at the very least able to machine-gun a player out of the game.
The Elementals Of Style
Lord of Extinction – Speaking of the largest creature left standing after the dust settles, Lord of Extinction has the benefits of massively huge size on his side, especially when your signature spell is going to put so very many permanents in the graveyard in one fell swoop. Yes, this is part of the reason I am obsessed with the idea of an instant-speed Balance, right after hearing the magic words “no blocks.”
Forgotten Ancient – Another creature that can be considerably large despite having a low cost, Mr. Babycakes is here more because his tribe is significant than because we can do anything interesting with the counters. Sure, we can feed them to Deathbringer Thoctar, but I'm more intrigued by the idea of putting them on Gurzigost and using his Thorn Elemental ability like a small child would than anything else. It's not a great fit, but then we're not really an Elemental tribal deck so we miss out on a lot of the good synergies that are otherwise available.
Shriekmaw, Mulldrifter, Ingot Chewer, Wispmare – We do get the benefit of potentially re-using these with Horde of Notions, though, which makes each of them better than they would be by themselves. Evoke lets us cheat on the mana gap we accepted when we settled in to Cascade in the first place, but more importantly it puts the card directly where we want it – the graveyard – so we can access it again and again.
Wilderness Elemental – Another inclusion that makes the cut solely based on its tribe, the possibility of having a really huge trampling Elemental swinging for the rafters each turn gives us an entirely different direction at a relatively low opportunity cost. It's also a three, which is the magic number for us, so in the games it would turn out to be good we can find it easily.
Ashling, the Extinguisher – I love the 'rebooted' Ashling far more than the original, because of her “death by my command” flavor that just drips from the card. If we're creating a resource-poor environment, the threat of Ashling connecting to take down your best threat forces our opponents to play defensively while our planeswalkers pressure them for their inactivity.
Putting it all together, we get a mean deck that has one amazing trick – but not too mean, because we're leaving something in the manabase to work with still – there was no Greater Gargadon or Overgrown Estate to chew up our lands and leave everyone with nothing here. You can play in that space so long as everyone else can still play Magic too, after all – that was the lesson I didn't take closely enough to heart before trying to fix Kozilek, Butcher of Truth with our last submission, and thus I chose to play in that space intentionally and get my feelers out while traipsing through taboos.
- 1 Shardless Agent
- 1 Anurid Scavenger
- 1 Battlefield Scrounger
- 1 Deathbringer Thoctar
- 1 Drift of Phantasms
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 1 Forgotten Ancient
- 1 Grazing Kelpie
- 1 Gurzigost
- 1 Ingot Chewer
- 1 Knight of the Reliquary
- 1 Lord of Extinction
- 1 Mulldrifter
- 1 Reaper of the Wilds
- 1 Shriekmaw
- 1 Wilderness Elemental
- 1 Windborn Muse
- 1 Wispmare
- 1 Ashling, the Extinguisher
- 1 Godo, Bandit Warlord
- 1 Karador, Ghost Chieftain
- 1 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
- 1 Ajani Vengeant
- 1 Chandra, Pyromaster
- 1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
- 1 Elspeth, Sun's Champion
- 1 Garruk Relentless
- 1 Garruk Wildspeaker
- 1 Garruk, Primal Hunter
- 1 Jace Beleren
- 1 Jace, Architect of Thought
- 1 Karn Liberated
- 1 Liliana Vess
- 1 Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker
- 1 Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
- 1 Tamiyo, the Moon Sage
- 1 Xenagos, the Reveler
- 1 Forest
- 1 Island
- 1 Mountain
- 1 Plains
- 1 Swamp
- 1 Alchemist's Refuge
- 1 Arid Mesa
- 1 Azorius Chancery
- 1 Blood Crypt
- 1 Bloodstained Mire
- 1 Boros Garrison
- 1 Breeding Pool
- 1 Dimir Aqueduct
- 1 Flood Plain
- 1 Flooded Strand
- 1 Godless Shrine
- 1 Golgari Rot Farm
- 1 Grasslands
- 1 Gruul Turf
- 1 Hallowed Fountain
- 1 Izzet Boilerworks
- 1 Marsh Flats
- 1 Mistveil Plains
- 1 Misty Rainforest
- 1 Orzhov Basilica
- 1 Polluted Delta
- 1 Rakdos Carnarium
- 1 Scalding Tarn
- 1 Selesnya Sanctuary
- 1 Simic Growth Chamber
- 1 Steam Vents
- 1 Stomping Ground
- 1 Temple Garden
- 1 Verdant Catacombs
- 1 Windswept Heath
- 1 Wooded Foothills
- 1 Batterskull
- 1 Darksteel Ingot
- 1 Fieldmist Borderpost
- 1 Firewild Borderpost
- 1 Mistvein Borderpost
- 1 Sunforger
- 1 Veinfire Borderpost
- 1 Vessel of Endless Rest
- 1 Wildfield Borderpost
- 1 Ardent Plea
- 1 Ghostly Prison
- 1 Maelstrom Nexus
- 1 Sphere of Safety
- 1 Oblation
- 1 Perplex
- 1 Violent Outburst
- 1 Bow of Nylea
- 1 Austere Command
- 1 Demonic Dread
- 1 Diabolic Tutor
- 1 Dimir Machinations
- 1 Hallowed Burial
- 1 Idyllic Tutor
- 1 Primal Command
- 1 Restore Balance
- 1 Terminus
Playing with the transgressive can be surprisingly liberating, to make up for all the constraints we've put upon ourselves to get there. And this deck, finally, has good reason to eschew the format-staple Sensei's Divining Top and Sol Ring that have otherwise been entirely ubiquitous in this column.
Mission Accomplished. See you again in two weeks, where we'll look at other people's decks again – I'll be keeping a particular eye out for the weird ones next time, having just spawned an odd-looking pair of brews myself.
-- Sean McKeown
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