"In my professional opinion, you're stuck in casual Commander mode." –Kevin Davis
One of the highlights of this past weekend at Grand Prix Richmond was catching up with long time Magic buddy and friend Kevin Davis. Kevin was one of the regulars at the now defunct Total Access Games, a great little game shop in Mechanicsville, Virginia just north of Richmond.
My friends opened TAG to buy and sell used video games as well as board games and role-playing games, but it quickly became one of the hottest places in the area to play Magic when the game was going through its first big growth spurt somewhere around 1996-1997. My friends who owned the shop and I were initially interested in Magic as a casual game and were highly focused on multiplayer from the start, but as the tournament Magic scene became more organized and more frequent, I found myself drawn to competitive Magic and playing with more of the competitive guys who came to the shop for tournaments and dueling.
Kevin was one of those guys, and playing against them regularly sharpened my skills to the point that I won Virginia State Champs in 1999 and regularly made Top 8 at that tournament for many years after. Kevin wasn't interested in multiplayer Magic, but he loved tournament Magic so he was a regular road trip companion. Many of my best memories of Magic tournaments include him being there.
Kevin is an interesting dude. He's got a very laidback demeanor, coming across as someone who's just a go with the flow guy, and he never knows a stranger even when he's playing in a tournament. But underneath that easygoing surface is a keen gaming mind, and he'll beat the crap out of you while holding a casual conversation about life, work, sports, politics, family, or the weather. In the past he qualified for Nationals and the Pro Tour, so when he offered his "professional" opinion on my playskill after watching me play this weekend, I listened to him.
It was pretty apparent to him that my competitive Magic muscles have atrophied dramatically. You'll see why in a moment.
It took a while for me to settle on a deck. The banning of Deathrite Shaman gave me some hope for Necrotic Ooze, but I couldn't find a build that didn't feel clunky and slow. I kicked around a midrangey Glissa, the Traitor Affinity deck, but ultimately it just felt like a bad version of regular Affinity. I had the cards to build Melira or Kiki Pod, but I feared that my opponents would be very well prepared to face either deck and most definitely didn't feel like slogging through mirror matches.
One idea I had was taking my old States-winning deck from 1999 and bringing it forward to Modern. The game plan of the deck was to build up a huge mana advantage with a combination of mana acceleration and mana denial and then smash face with large creatures. I could see a lot of parallels with what I played then and what's available now:
Gaea's Cradle --> Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
Rishadan Port --> Tectonic Edge
Birds of Paradise --> Birds of Paradise
Creeping Mold --> Bramblecrush
Plow Under --> Plow Under
Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary --> Wall of Roots
Masticore --> Polukranos, World Eater
Child of Gaea / Deranged Hermit --> Primeval Titan
Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx does a mighty fine Gaea's Cradle impression as long as you make sure to load your deck up with durable threats that feature a lot of green mana symbols. As I was looking for that sort of card, I stumbled across Deus of Calamity, which seemed like the perfect complement to my strategy: a huge undercosted monster with some potential for mana denial.
I ended up making a detour into red, adding Domri Rade to the mix and eventually giving Obliterate a try in place of Plow Under. At that point I'd added Strangleroot Geist, Kitchen Finks, and even a couple copies of Predator Ooze, so along with planeswalkers I had a lot that would survive Obliterate. Looking at the metagame, not too many things other people played would survive Obliterate, though I was a little worried about Bitterblossom and Liliana of the Veil.
After playtesting I wasn't happy with this direction. First of all, Deus of Calamity just wasn't the scary monster I wanted him to be, all too easily getting killed by all the removal in Modern. Also, as fast as I could ramp up to Obliterate, it just wasn't fast enough against too many opponents to disrupt their plans before they could kill me.
On a long drive home I pondered the dilemma and realized something—I could go back to mono-green and add ways to disrupt my opponent much faster than Obliterate. Thanks to New Phyrexia we have one of the sweetest and most flexible pieces of removal ever printed in Beast Within as well as Dismember if we were able to take the life hit. The last piece of the puzzle was when I realized that Primal Command can do a pretty mean Plow Under impression by fetching up Eternal Witnesses with the other mode and chaining the same Command a few times in a row while also offering lots of other useful choices—in the Modern metagame gaining seven life or emptying an opposing graveyard could be just the thing to save your bacon.
My friend Jay urged me to play Leatherback Baloth for its devotion count and just being a huge-ass monster, and despite my dislike of vanilla beaters, I thought it was probably a good idea. It's like a Tarmogoyf that juices up Shrine for just one extra mana.
The more I thought about it, the more I really liked my deck. Unfortunately, I came to this realization the week before the Grand Prix and didn't have any time to playtest before the tournament, so I played the deck relatively cold. I did take off from work the Friday before the tournament with the idea that I could spend the entire day up there playtesting, maybe even jumping in a Modern Win-A-Box to get acclimated to the deck. But I had some errands I needed to run Friday that ended up taking infinitely longer than I'd planned, and I didn't arrive at the Richmond Convention Center until nearly 8 PM exhausted and irritated. I did go ahead and check in and snag my VIP goodie bag, including this sweet badge and lanyard:
As you can see, I spiced it up with a moustache sticker my kids had given me, and what you can't see is the Golgari guild pin I attached to the lanyard right above it. Not long afterward I headed home to get rest, and before I knew it I was back at the tournament at the players meeting sitting across from Cedric Smith, a guy who's sat across from or next to me in countless players meetings for well over a decade. I decided to snap his picture this time.
After the meeting the pairings went up for Round 1. As I stood around waiting for the pairings to pop up on Twitter, I heard the pairings for the feature match area, and for the last match I heard my name called! I often joke that if I'm ever going to get to play in a feature match, they better call my name early since the wheels typically come off after a few rounds, so with a chuckle I headed over to the feature match area.
Everyone had an opponent but me, so I sat down and waited. Soon enough a fellow came up and told me that his friends told him he had a feature match and since I was the only one without an opponent it must be me. So we began to play. It turned out he was playing RUG Twin, and when the coast looked clear when I had nothing but a Wall of Roots in play and two untapped Forests, he flashed out a Pestermite, untapped, and cast Splinter Twin on it.
Even though my deck was pretty well set up to not be overly worried about Lightning Bolt, he managed to scrape out card advantage with Snapcaster Mage to buy a lot of time, but eventually Leatherback Baloth and Polukranos, World Eater pulled out game 1. In the second game, my opponent went for the combo, and I had a Dismember handy. He went for the combo again a few turns later and got it together, but when he tapped to make a copy, I had a Nature's Claim to destroy the enchantment.
Then he went for the combo again, and I'd run dry of answers. On to game 3. We didn't have much time left, and I had to mulligan. I got an okay hand with a Dismember and a Wall of Roots, so I had some combo protection. Unfortunately I didn't draw any significant action, and he flashed out a Pestermite and started beating me down in the air. Eventually I had to stop the beats and Dismember it, and then he dropped Tarmogoyf. Then another one. Then another one. Meanwhile I'd drawn my other two copies of Dismember with no Bird of Paradise in sight, and I started to worry that the damage I was taking plus my opponent's beatdown and burn might finish me off without the combo.
I had an Eternal Witness in hand, but I didn't have enough life to throw four copies of Dismember around. Then I drew Primal Command! I decided to use two modes to gain seven life and to shuffle my opponent's graveyard into his deck, shrinking the Tarmogoyfs to more manageable levels. Next turn I cast the Witness to get back Primal Command and cast it, this time choosing to put a land on top of my opponent's library while I fetched a creature from my deck and put it on top of my library so I could do it again next turn.
My opponent untapped, drew and played the land, and passed back to me. I drew my Witness, cast it again, and got back Primal Command. At this point a judge came up and asked to look at Primal Command. He then asked how I resolved the card, and I told him. He told me that I was supposed to put the creature I fetched into my hand, not on top of my library. I read the card again and mentally slapped myself for being such an idiot, especially here in the feature match area with people all around birding the game. The judge told us to hold the game while he consulted what to do about it and said he'd give us more time.
I looked at Primal Command again—man, that card is so much better than I thought! Needless to say it'd been a long time since I last played Primal Command, and back in the days of Faeries I didn't play it much. After a while the judge returned with another judge in tow, and they gave us both warnings and had me draw the card I was supposed to draw this turn and resume play. Unfortunately, even with the time extension, I was unable to close the game as I clawed my way back into it while my opponent used all his tempo cards to keep me from getting through, and we drew. The judge came around and mentioned that he had not been able to find our match slip, but he got both of our names and said he'd go report the results.
Being one of the last matches finished, I didn't have much time to chat with Kevin (who watched a lot of the game) before they called round 2 pairings. I waited for the pairings to show up on Twitter, and when they did, I didn't see my name on the list. I made my way to the actual sheets of paper with the pairings and confirmed that I was indeed no longer showing up on the green flight pairings. What the heck? I went to the main stage and asked the scorekeepers what was up. The looked me up and showed that I was dropped from the tournament last round. They hunted up a match slip, and it had written on there that I was a no-show.
I pointed out that I was over in the feature match area and most certainly played my match in front quite a few witnesses. After a little bit of time it became clear what happened—my opponent, who was supposed to play me in the feature match area, instead reported to the actual table assignment. Instead someone who thought he was supposed to be in the feature match area (but apparently wasn't supposed to be there) came and played me, and my actual opponent called a judge over when I didn't show up at his table, gave me a match loss, and dropped me from the tournament.
They put me back in the tournament and tried to hunt down a guy who was given a bye to play me, but that guy never showed (he had a bye after all) so eventually they just went ahead and gave me a bye and corrected my record to having one win (the bye) and one draw.
Round 3 I got paired up against U/W/R Control, and we had a huge slugfest—I threw haymakers, he stopped my haymakers, and the few times he tried to slap down one of his few win conditions, I had the answer in hand. He won the first game, I clawed back and won the second game, and then we went to time and couldn't finish the match.
Round 4 I got paired against a W/G Aggro deck with a hint of hate bears and a fair amount of removal. We slugged it out in some long drawn-out games and ran out of time in game 3 for another draw.
Round 5 I got paired against a fairly typical Jund deck, and we slugged it out in some long drawn-out games. With the clock ticking down in game 3, he finally pulled it out with man lands to finish me off right as time was called.
I was 1-1-3, with my one victory being the glitch bye I was awarded. I was kinda stunned considering that I was not playing a control deck and I could lay some beats. I was playing Leatherback Baloth for god's sake! No mas. I dropped.
I won't subject you to the 1-1-3 deck, but if you're interested, I took a snapshot of the list:
After dropping I decided to retool the deck a little bit in case I could jump in a smaller Modern side event. I still liked a lot of what my deck had going on, but I cut some of what wasn't working and pushed it in a different direction. I think this list is better:
- 1 Spellskite
- 4 Birds of Paradise
- 2 Eternal Witness
- 3 Leatherback Baloth
- 2 Noble Hierarch
- 3 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Wall of Roots
- 1 Courser of Kruphix
- 4 Polukranos, World Eater
- 2 Thrun, the Last Troll
I ended up jumping in my first Born of the Gods-Theros-Theros draft instead, and I don't much like the format. I drafted a pretty decent Bant Heroic deck, but apparently I did not have enough scry to pull it together and ended up with either a bunch of dudes and not enough heroic triggers or a bunch of spells and not enough dudes with heroic. In the first round, we went to three games, but my opponent playing R/G drew his bombs and curb stomped me.
At this point I decided to call it a day. Considering my only match victory the entire day was from a bye, I thought I'd be pushing my luck if I tried to play in another tournament, so I ended up watching some of my friends who were doing better than me. Kevin was playing Modern Fish and stomping people left and right and ended up qualifying for day 2. After losing in round 3, my roommate Chuck went on a winning tear and was in the running for day 2 until he lost his last two matches of the day to finish 6-3. A couple months back I'd given him a stack of red and white cards I thought could make a decent Burn deck, and he put this together:
I tried to get him to put two copies of Keldon Megalith in this list, but he didn't like it. If I were to sleeve this up, I'd find room for them—it's pretty easy to go hellbent with that deck, and one or two extra points of damage might be all you need. I snapped a picture of the old man before the tournament here:
Before we went home for the night, Kevin tried to convince me to play in the Super Sunday Series Qualifier Standard tournament with his G/U Flash deck, but I wasn't sure I was up for any more Constructed. My intention was to sleep in a bit and then come up and play Commander all day, but I woke up itching to compete. I got there right as they were closing registration, nabbed the deck from Kevin, signed up, and desperately registered the deck. It had Cloudfin Raptor, Experiment One, Boon Satyr, and even some Briarpack Alpha! I figure laying the beats would do me some good.
My round 1 opponent played a turn 1 Golgari Guildgate and passed the turn. Hmm, B/G, eh? I dropped a turn 1 Cloudfin Raptor. Then my opponent played a Maze's End, and my heart dropped. Ah geez, a Fog deck?! Sure enough, he had every Standard-legal Fog effect in the deck, gaining life and stalling things to try to get ten Guildgates in play. In the first game I finally managed to run him out of Fog effects and kill him, and we moved on to game 2.
I had to mulligan and had a mildly aggressive hand, but he managed to stall the board with Courser of Kruphix. I heard someone say there was ten minutes left in the round. Should I scoop and move on to game 3? It was possible to eventually push through, but it seemed like a coin-flip as to whether he'd actually be able to win with his Guildgates in time. If we went to time, I'd win the match since I won the first game.
Unfortunately for me, he did win with a few minutes to spare. Well, my deck was certainly capable of winning fast, so we shuffled up for game 3. I came out the gates fast, and he cast Fog. And Fog again. And put down a chump blocker. And time was called. And I alpha struck, and he Fogged again.
Yep. Another. Friggin. Draw. I was now 1-2-4 on the weekend, and as I signed the match slip, I went ahead and dropped. No way did I want to play another deck that drew in round 1. No mas. I was done.
I wandered around and eventually found some guys with which to play a few games of Commander. They played high-powered broken Commander decks with crazy combo finishes. Not exactly my cup of tea, but they were super nice guys and laughed when one of them combo killed the table, ready to shuffle up for another game. We had a pretty good time.
Even though I had a pretty miserable time at the competitive tables, the rest of the weekend was fun. I really enjoyed catching up with friends and watching some of their success at the Grand Prix. Local buddy and talented Magician Zach Jesse finished day 1 undefeated with his spicy take on Storm, and between rounds near the end he roped a few guys to play Commander with him, including Mr. Spike Shaheen Soorani, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself. Seeing these two Spikes catch Commander fever warmed my heart.
I guess it's time to wrap this up. Before I go, I want to say thanks to all of you who took the time to come and say hello and let me know what you think about my writing here at StarCityGames.com and especially those of you who bought my book. I gave out a lot of Copy tokens and even signed some cards, but the best part was just talking with Commander fans from all over. I talked with folks from Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Michigan, and Wisconsin and had a ball sharing Commander stories and ideas. One guy even turned me around on a card I've never brought myself to play in Commander before—Gamble, a way for red to recover their commander from being tucked since even if you have to discard it, you can then put it into the command zone.
Do any of you have cool stories to share from Grand Prix Richmond? Let me know in the comments below!
Facebook = Bennie Smith, Writer
Twitter = @blairwitchgreen
Email = firstname.lastname@example.org
Twitch = http://www.twitch.tv/blairwitchgreen
Blog = my fantasy and horror fiction writing
Complete Commander website = completecommander.com
Game of Thrones Ascent = friend request
New to Commander?
If you're just curious about the format, building your first deck, or trying to take your Commander deck up a notch, here are some handy links:
- Commander Primer Part 1 (Why play Commander? Rules Overview, Picking your Commander)
- Commander Primer Part 2 (Mana Requirements, Randomness, Card Advantage)
- Commander Primer Part 3 (Power vs. Synergy, Griefing, Staples, Building a Doran Deck)
- Commander Starter Kits 1 (kick start your allied two-color decks for $25)
- Commander Starter Kits 2 (kick start your enemy two-color decks for $25)
- Commander Starter Kits 3 (kick start your shard three-color decks for $25)
My current Commander decks (and links to decklists):
- Roon of the Hidden Realm (Mean Roon)
- Xenagos, God of Revels (Huge Beatings)
- Marath, Will of the Wild (Wild About +1/+1 Counters)
- Jeleva, Nephalia's Scourge (Suspension of Disbelief)
- Gahiji, Honored One (Enchantment Ga-hijinks)
- Roon of the Hidden Realm (Strolling Through Value Town)
- Oloro, Ageless Ascetic (Life Gain)
- Shattergang Brothers (Breaking Boards)
- Derevi, Empyrial Tactician (Tribal Birds)
- Polukranos, World Eater (Monstrous!)
- Karador, Ghost Chieftain (Shadowborn Apostles & Demons)
- Reaper King (Taking Advantage of the new Legend Rules)
- Vorel of the Hull Clade (Never Trust the Simic)
- Doran, the Siege Tower (All My Faves in One Deck!)
- Borborygmos Enraged (69 land deck)
- Karador, Ghost Chieftain (my Magic Online deck)
- Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind (Chuck's somewhat vicious deck)
Previous Commander decks currently on hiatus:
- Sliver Overlord (Featuring the new M14 Slivers!)
- Marath, Will of the Wild (Juicing up the Naya Precon)
- Anax and Cymede (Heroic Co-Commanders)
- Nylea, God of the Hunt (Devoted to Green)
- Nicol Bolas (Kicking it Old School)
- Mirko Vosk, Mind Drinker (Outside My Comfort Zone with Milling)
- Emmara Tandris (No Damage Tokens)
- Varolz, the Scar-Striped (scavenging goodness)
- Aurelia, the Warleader (plus Hellkite Tyrant shenanigans)
- Oona, Queen of the Fae (by reader request)
- Johan (Cat Breath of the Infinite)
- Lord of Tresserhorn (ZOMBIES!)
- Karona, False God (Vows of the False God)
- Skullbriar, the Walking Grave (how big can it get?)
- Phage the Untouchable (actually casting Phage from Command Zone!)
- Yeva, Nature's Herald (living at instant speed)
- Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis (evil and Spike-ish)
- Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius (new player-friendly)
- Trostani, Selesnya's Voice (new player-friendly)
- Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord (drain you big time)
- Riku of Two Reflections (steal all permanents with Deadeye Navigator + Zealous Conscripts)
- Phelddagrif (Mean Hippo)
- Sigarda, Host of Herons (Equipment-centric Voltron)
- Bruna, Light of Alabaster (Aura-centric Voltron)
- Ruhan of the Fomori (lots of equipment and infinite attack steps)
- Ghave, Guru of Spores (Melira Combo)
- Glissa, the Traitor (undying artifacts!)
- Grimgrin, Corpse-Born (Necrotic Ooze Combo)
- Damia, Sage of Stone (Ice Cauldron shenanigans)
- Geist of Saint Traft (Voltron-ish)
- Glissa Sunseeker (death to artifacts!)
- Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer (replacing Brion Stoutarm in Mo' Myrs)
- Thelon of Havenwood (Campfire Spores)
- Melira, Sylvok Outcast (combo killa)
- Konda, Lord of Eiganjo (The Indestructibles)
- Vorosh, the Hunter (proliferaTION)
- Progenitus (Fist of Suns and Bringers)
- Savra, Queen of the Golgari (Demons)
- Uril, the Miststalker (my "more competitive" deck)