I am sometimes surprised at how rarely people I know cash out of Magic. I've known plenty of people who have liquidated parts of their collection, but the full cash out is rare. And one of the reasons it's rare is that it's easy to regret.
Let's face it, Magic cards aren't the most convenient item to own. They require some care in their handling and storage, and they make for relatively dense boxes of wood byproduct. When I last moved, I made the mistake of putting together a packing crate full of boxes of Magic cards, and when I went to lift the darn thing it was heavier than the (also bulky) box of books. Right now I have my cards stored in the media cabinet, and of the eleven possible storage cubicles, all but two are overstuffed with Magic cards… and they can't even fit the three flats of Magic cards that contain the overflow.
So when I heard one of my Commander friends, let's call him Jay, had gone all minimalist and gave away his collection, I got it. Living in the city, space is at a premium. But a month after, while Jay was jamming some games with us using one of my spare decks, he confessed his regret over that move. He didn't think it was a mistake to give his cards away, but now that a bunch of his other friends were beginning to take up Magic, he wished he had kept at least a deck for himself.
I like giving gifts. Giving a good present requires a neat mix of observation, empathy, and an understanding of the relationship you have with the person you're giving a gift to. Bigger is not always better, and I've borne witness to many a missed gift attempt that's failed for being overly generous.
As such, I was hesitant when I came to the idea of making Jay a Commander deck for the holidays. I didn't want him to feel obligated to reciprocate. Commander decks are not typically cheap affairs, and I wanted to make sure he ended up with a deck that could compete with the rest of us on the basis of power level without engaging in some gauche display of wealth, real or in terms of my Magic card collection.
The solution came to me while I was trying to justify buying a third copy of Nahiri, the Lithomancer's Commander 2014 Precon. I wanted it because I was having a difficult time finding a third Containment Priest for my Legacy deck, but I really didn't need more copies of about 90 of the cards in that deck. I'm fairly good at justifying Magic card purchases though, so that's when I came to the brilliant idea of turning the rest of the precon into a present for Jay.
I tore the thing apart, looted any cards I might potentially regret giving away, and then looked at what was left. Nahiri's deck was split between equipment and tokens, and I found that many of the cards I looted had been enablers for the equipment half of the deck. What was left lacked that spark; even if the deck ended up being powerful, a mono-colored deck wouldn't leave Jay with many options for organically growing his collection. I contemplated pulling one of the Planar Chaos elder dragons, but the tri-color manabase seemed a little tricky on a budget, even with the very welcome additions from Khans of Tarkir.
This is when I had another good idea. Since the power level of the deck I was going to be giving to Jay was inevitably going to be less than the rest of the decks at the table, a political commander seemed like a potential way to make up for the power difference. And the perfect political commander was not only in white, but she had been printed recently and was still dirt cheap.
That's right, Selvala, Explorer Returned! I had been meaning to make a Selvala deck anyway since she's got such a fun ability, and it seemed like she had some interesting synergies with some of the cards in the white precon. For example, Selvala and Assault Suit seem like a match made in heaven for a political player, and her mana boost made it easy for her to power out spells like White Sun's Zenith and Decree of Justice. Plus, as an elf she would go well with some of the tribal themes from the mono-green precon, allowing yet another cheap pool of cards for me to use liberally.
Let's look at what I came up with:
Lands (37): 7 Plains; 8 Forest; Grove of the Guardian; Evolving Wilds; Terramorphic Expanse; Bant Panorama; Naya Panorama; Ghost Quarter; Tranquil Thicket; Slippery Karst; Secluded Steppe; Drifting Meadow; Temple of the False God; Reliquary Tower; Jungle Basin; Karoo; Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree; Emeria, the Sky Ruin; Oran-Rief, the Vastwood; Wildfield Borderpost; Selesnya Sanctuary; Selesnya Guildgate; Graypelt Refuge; Blossoming Sands
As many of you will likely notice, the deck technically only has 36 lands in it, but I am counting the Wildfield Borderpost as a land. It basically is a land, and Selvala wants to be running fewer lands in general. Even if she wasn't a three drop that offers a big boost to your mana generation as well as a card draw engine (Selvala is so good!), parley is an ability that politely requests you run fewer lands than one normally would. Since land reveals are blanks on a parley, being able to shave a few lands is beneficial.
Grove of the Guardian, Evolving Wilds, Terramorphic Expanse, Bant Panorama, Naya Panorama, Ghost Quarter, and the cycling lands all point to an inclusion you'll see in a bit: Life from the Loam. Between the inclusion of the card in Jace vs Vraska and its reprint in Modern Masters, I have about seven copies of Loam. I didn't need that many copies! It seemed like adding in a budget Loam-base would be a way to up the power level of the manabase without a significant increase in the overall cost, especially since so many of these cards were printed in the precons.
While many of the inclusions don't particularly merit discussion, my weirdest inclusion by far was Emeria, the Sky Ruin. The deck only runs seven Plains, so it seemed unlikely that Jay would trigger that land all that often. I still included it though, because I wanted Jay to have the option to evolve the deck, or even split it in half. Sure, it's a bad card in this manabase, but it's a good card in general, and now he has a copy of it for down the line. It also felt good to throw Grove of the Guardian into the mix, as it plays well with token strategies and Life from the Loam. That card doesn't exactly see a ton of play. Plus, thanks to its placement as a promo card for the Selesnya guild in the Return to Ravnica, the card is dirt cheap. I think the token might actually be more expensive than the land is!
A few more of these precons and Sol Ring is going to be a completely worthless card. I, for one, think this is a good thing. Sol Ring generally accelerates decks by a turn or two, and when the card had a hefty price tag the only decks that take advantage of the one ring were the ones with the least need. Now though, the card is easily affordable, which means that budget decks can get the same power boost. It levels the playing field. I still don't think every Commander deck needs to run the silly card, but it was an obvious inclusion in this deck. Turn 1 Sol Ring and Swiftfoot Boots, turn 2 Selvala, Explorer Returned and equip Swiftfoot Boots seems like a fun start. The best part is that such a play won't even draw too much aggro, since it's only slightly more threatening than dropping a Howling Mine or Temple Bell on turn 2… even though Selvala gets you significantly farther ahead.
Elvish Aberration, Noble Templar, and Pale Recluse were all included to make up for the land-shaving. It's rare to keep a hand with only one land, so these cards are almost always live, whether it's for their earlygame landcycling or their lategame bodies. Each one of those cards is, if not super powerful, still a respectable enough body to have on the board, particularly when you start to add in equipment and anthems.
Life from the Loam has been discussed above; Peregrination, on the other hand, seemed like an interesting choice for inclusion over Cultivate and Kodama's Reach. It just seemed, when I was making the deck, that Selvala's mana advantage made the difference between casting a three-mana version of the spell and a four-mana version largely negligible, particularly when you further take into account that you were always going to have access to the best three mana ramp spell in your deck: Selvala, Explorer Returned. The minor benefit of the scry, then, seemed like it was worth inclusion. Plus, the card felt cheaper, a feeling I have no intention of testing with evidence.
Elvish Mystic was from the Freyalise, Llanowar's Fury precon, but it also allowed Jay to consider going elf tribal down the line. Plus, it gave you more ways to cast Selvala on turn 2, which seemed pretty awesome to do. Sakura-Tribe Elder is an old standby, and its inclusion in two of the past Commander precons, Archenemy, and Conspiracy means it's dirt cheap for its power level. Finally, Selesnya Cluestone is weak as mana rocks go, but like Commander's Sphere, the ability to cycle it for a card down the line seemed to make up for the casting cost.
While Selvala, Explorer Returned is a good way to draw cards, she doesn't quite grant card advantage. As such, it seemed important to supplement her with a bunch of other draw cards. These broke down into a couple of different directions Jay can take the deck down the line.
If Jay wanted to lean into the elf theme, or go deeper into the flickering theme I'll discuss next, we have several elves with draw triggers tied to them coming into play. Shaman of Spring and Elvish Visionary are fairly weak versions of this effect, but with the anthems, equipment, and minor tribal synergies, they make up for it. Selvala's Enforcer is also interesting, because its draw trigger is a parley trigger, and it can end up with a reasonable body all on its own. In general, I feel like the parley cards overperform in Commander. Finally, there's Masked Admirers, a draw engine in its own right. What I like about the Admirers is that you can recur them for GG, which is a reasonable amount of mana to expect to get off a Selvala activation. Not every turn is going to be an addition of five mana to your mana pool, but you can probably expect at least two mana unless you've got particularly bad luck.
Next, there're the cards that reward you for developing your board. In general, Commander is a constant tension between developing your board, which risks over-extending yourself or drawing too much attention versus holding too much back, which leaves you vulnerable to any sudden change in the boardstate (like, say, Craterhoof Behemoth, a card I had no intention of including in this deck). Cards that reward you with draw triggers whenever you develop your board hedge against this issue. It's one of the reason Enchantress decks are so powerful in Commander: they advance their boardstate with a type of permanent that is difficult to remove while simultaneously drawing cards to replace themselves just in case someone has a Bane of Progress or other threat.
Garruk's Packleader and Mentor of the Meek are interesting because they're both potentially neutered by whether or not there's an anthem effect on the board. If there is, you're probably going to get fewer Mentor triggers because even your small creatures will come into play bigger than the threshold. And if you don't have that anthem, Garruk's Packleader won't trigger on any of those small creatures. But if you can line them up correctly, they both offer a tremendous draw potential, since they trigger for token and non-token creatures alike.
Primordial Sage and Soul of the Harvest, on the other hand, require you to have an actual creature card to take advantage. Other than that though, there are few restrictions; you actually have to cast the creatures to trigger the Sage, which is stronger against blue decks, while the Soul doesn't care how the creature gets onto the battlefield, which synergizes well with flickering shenanigans.
The last of these cards is a bit different. Pelakka Wurm offers a delayed pay-off. When it comes into play you get a body and some life, but it's only after it gets dealt with that it gives you the card. It was one of my favorite cards in Rise of the Eldrazi Limited, even though I tended to lose games to the fast decks and the ones that went bigger.
Finally there's Seer's Sundial. This card is generally not loved at most Commander tables, but the thing I like about it (particularly in any deck with mana advantage and land drops) is that it draws next to no aggro. No one wants to be the person using a Disenchant on a bad Draft rare from Zendikar block. You can take that hesitation to the bank. The card bank!
In general, I prefer mass removal to spot removal. I think that holds particularly true when you're drawing a lot of cards, since that better positions you to rebuild your board post-wrath. Plus, there's often a calming element to a non-combo deck ramping away their own board. People may still remember that you were threatening before the wrath effect, but it's hard to argue that the person's the big threat at the table when they're usually the last one to begin rebuilding.
This only applies to symmetrical wraths, of course, as it's a lot easier to make a person the target of the table when they're not only responsible for everyone else's setbacks, but they have a board presence to boot.
That's one of the reasons I try to play fun decks over powerful ones. It's easy to ignore these considerations when you're the most powerful deck at the table. People can afford to ignore the politics of the game when they've got a consistently higher card quality than all of their opponents. But this side of the game is fun! Sure, you may win fewer games this way, but the games you win will be more satisfying.
Anyway, that's why I included symmetrical wrath effects. Wrath of God is old school, while Day of Judgment is the modern adaptation. Martial Coup is asymmetrical, but it's a token generator in a pinch. Sunblast Angel is also asymmetrical, but it's not threatening in the same way. The card is useless in a stalemate, and its most relevant power is to punish people who aggressively over-extend.
Silklash Spider is somewhat symmetrical, as these things go. While it's certainly mass removal, that it only pressures evasive creatures tends to earn loyalty from anyone trying to win on the ground. I've been in many games where an opponent's Silklash Spider is the only thing keeping the gnats off me.
Finally, there's Selesnya Charm. While I often cut the charms when I'm trying to focus in on a particular synergy, here I wanted to leave the deck more open. If you're looking for versatile answers, definitely check out the charms. While you're generally going to be let down by the mono-colored ones, all the gold ones deliver to one degree or another. And if you're in a three-colored shard, remember that you have two sets of charms to choose from: the Shards of Alara charms and the Planeshift dragon charms. Crosis's Charm, the Grixis one, is particularly strong, letting you Unsummon, Dark Banishing, and Shatter, all for three mana. Useful!
In Commander, Beast Within is a better card than Vindicate. Vindicate is basically the trope-namer for these types of universal removal cards. It's powerful because of the simplicity of its text box: destroy target permanent. It wasn't the first of these effects, and it's not even instant speed, but it has no drawbacks and costs three mana. In a lot of formats, that's enough. In Commander though, the drawbacks are part of the appeal. Someone who's losing their only creature is going to be slightly mollified by the 3/3 beast token, something that keeps them from being completely shields down. And if you Oblation away someone's Mirari's Wake, they're going to at least be happy to draw two cards for their suffering.
Really, the only dangerous one of these modern vindicates-with-drawbacks is Chaos Warp, and that's just because its unpredictability leaves a lot of room for variance. If they flip the card that kills you, or they flip nothing at all, someone's going to have hard feelings. If they flip some middle of the road permanent, then maybe people don't need to go to war quite yet.
Reclamation Sage is an elf that I thought existed before recently, but apparently the other one is limited in its permanent type. Reclamation Sage is also limited, but artifact and enchantment covers most of the relevant ground.
Return to Dust has generally performed reliably, although I personally find it to be a somewhat boring card. Still, exiling is very relevant, and it can be the only way to handle a card like the one-shot-robot, Blightsteel Colossus. Some people play it!
Finally, there's Terastodon. This is another card I've throttled back on in the last few years, as it sees play in the majority of green decks. It's strong, it's definitely strong, and I even like the conversations it spawns, but I've just grown bored with it. But this deck isn't for me, and even if it were, Selvala, Explorer Returned allows me to basically cast this card whenever she's on the table. Not that you'd want a Terastodon on turn 4, but you could do it.
Clearly I am being a little generous in my definition of "flicker." While Flickerwisp and Glimmerpoint Stag both do this, and are thus particularly useful in harrying a Voltron threat, Whitemane Lion is more like a creature-concerned counterspell, Moldgraf Monstrosity is a weird double reanimator, and Adarkar Valkyrie just loops things as they die. But each one of these cards lets us reuse effects like Terastodon or the aforementioned synergies with Soul of the Harvest and friends. That's powerful, and while I didn't want for that to be the main focus of the deck, it does mean that down the line Jay could have the option to move some stuff around and turn it into a Saffi Eriksdotter deck instead.
And options are good!
A lot of people, myself included, often overlook lifegain when building a deck. This is a mistake, as relevant lifegain cards often allow for you to claw your way back into games you have no business surviving. It's particularly important in more generalized decks that can't rely on synergy to turn an awkward board position into something that gets people to back off. But Loxodon Warhammer and Behemoth Sledge both let you do this. They survive Wrath of God, allowing you to reequip even the smallest of bodies, turning it back into a threat that can staunch your wounds. And that seems pretty good.
Assault Suit, as I mentioned, has strong synergies with Selvala. One of the better aspects of the card is that it grants haste, so it serves as a secondary Swiftfoot Boots in several different ways. I've heard of it augmenting Zurgo Helmsmasher, and I think a group parley is a fun way to head around the board; I imagine there are more combinations out there waiting for us to find them. Assault Suit is fun and flavorful design, and I'm glad they printed it.
Finally, Sword of Vengeance is another way to give Selvala haste, albeit attached to several other combat abilities of less specific relevance. Still, it's a good card to throw on a token, and it's often instrumental in punching through the last bit of damage. And unlike the Sword of X and Y cycle, this one doesn't draw much aggro.
Tokens (15): Captain of the Watch; Decree of Justice; Imperious Perfect; Kessig Cagebreakers; Mayor of Avabruck; Mobilization; Rampaging Baloths; Requiem Angel; Rousing of Souls; Selesnya Evangel; Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage; Wayfaring Temple; White Sun's Zenith; Wolfbriar Elemental; Wolfcaller's Howl
I did not stock Jay with a token set for this deck. I probably should have, but I rarely bother to do that for my own decks. As much as I prefer to play with tokens, a past attempt to organize my tokens failed miserably; so it goes. By my count, and in no particular order, here's what this deck needs: Soldiers, Angels, Elf Warriors, Wolves, 3/3 Beasts, 4/4 Beasts, Elephants, Spirits, Saprolings, Centaurs, Knights, Cats, and 8/8 Elemental tokens. That's a lot of tokens. The good news is that this variety allows the deck to go in several different directions down the line; the bad news is that it's going to be hard to keep track of this token set, even if Jay does put one together.
Let's zoom in on a few of these cards. Captain of the Watch, Wolfbriar Elemental, Kessig Cagebreakers, Mayor of Avabruck, Rampaging Baloths, and Requiem Angel are all creatures with triggered abilities that make tokens. What I find interesting about the selection is that they all have different conditions upon which they trigger. Wolfbriar Elemental requires you cast the spell with kicker, while Captain of the Watch can be freely flickered to take advantage of its simpler enters the battlefield trigger. Rampaging Baloths triggers on landfall, Kessig Cagebreakers triggers on attack, and Requiem Angel triggers on non-spirit creature deaths… including tokens. Of them, Mayor of Avabruck gives you the least control, but the unreliable nature of his flip card is ameliorated by the lord abilities he has no matter which way he's flipped.
Selesnya Evangel, Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage, and Imperious Perfect are all also token generators, but they have activated abilities that can be used whenever there's trouble. Mobilization falls into this category as well, but unlike the rest of them, it's not tied to a body. This is occasionally a drawback, since the resulting cost per token is higher to make up for the less fragile body.
Finally, I want to talk about Wolfcaller's Howl. It's a weird card! What it's good for is when the game goes long but everyone still has gas; the problem is, by the lategame most people have run low on gas. Hands drop to two or three cards, neither of which trigger Wolfcaller's Howl. But! Two commanders, in particular, work quite well with this card: Selvala, Explorer Returned and Edric, Spymaster of Trest. Both offer political draw engines to your opponents, and as such, this enchantment is a good fit for Jay's deck.
Finally, we have the thing that will probably win Jay most his games: his force multipliers. It's not enough to just have tokens, as tokens quickly get outclassed. You need ways to turn those tokens into the equivalent of a card of value each, and every one of these cards helps with that. Cathars' Crusade is super busted, and I'm growing bored with it, but it's the type of card I wanted to make sure Jay had. Collective Blessing never got its due love in Commander, at least not in my circles, and that seems like a shame. It was a Limited bomb for a reason! Elder of Laurels makes combat nigh-impossible, not just for you, but for everyone else at the table as well. On a developed board, you can even play kingmaker, pumping any creatures that break through your enemy's defenses, whether or not they're yours. Marshal's Anthem doubles as a resurrection spell, True Conviction can lead to truly ridiculous life swings, and Woodvine Elemental basically gives you a parley Overrun every time you attack.
All in all, it's a good mix of cards! Here's what it looked like when I finished it:
- 1 Captain of the Watch
- 1 Elder of Laurels
- 1 Elvish Aberration
- 1 Elvish Mystic
- 1 Elvish Visionary
- 1 Flickerwisp
- 1 Garruk's Packleader
- 1 Glimmerpoint Stag
- 1 Imperious Perfect
- 1 Kessig Cagebreakers
- 1 Masked Admirers
- 1 Mayor of Avabruck
- 1 Mentor of the Meek
- 1 Moldgraf Monstrosity
- 1 Noble Templar
- 1 Pale Recluse
- 1 Pelakka Wurm
- 1 Primordial Sage
- 1 Rampaging Baloths
- 1 Reclamation Sage
- 1 Requiem Angel
- 1 Sakura-Tribe Elder
- 1 Selesnya Evangel
- 1 Selvala's Enforcer
- 1 Shaman of Spring
- 1 Silklash Spider
- 1 Soul of the Harvest
- 1 Sunblast Angel
- 1 Terastodon
- 1 Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage
- 1 Wayfaring Temple
- 1 Whitemane Lion
- 1 Wolfbriar Elemental
- 1 Woodvine Elemental
- 1 Selvala, Explorer Returned
- 1 Adarkar Valkyrie
- 8 Forest
- 7 Plains
- 1 Bant Panorama
- 1 Blossoming Sands
- 1 Drifting Meadow
- 1 Emeria, the Sky Ruin
- 1 Evolving Wilds
- 1 Ghost Quarter
- 1 Graypelt Refuge
- 1 Grove of the Guardian
- 1 Jungle Basin
- 1 Karoo
- 1 Naya Panorama
- 1 Oran-Rief, the Vastwood
- 1 Reliquary Tower
- 1 Secluded Steppe
- 1 Selesnya Guildgate
- 1 Selesnya Sanctuary
- 1 Slippery Karst
- 1 Temple of the False God
- 1 Terramorphic Expanse
- 1 Tranquil Thicket
- 1 Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree
- 1 Assault Suit
- 1 Behemoth Sledge
- 1 Commander's Sphere
- 1 Loxodon Warhammer
- 1 Seer's Sundial
- 1 Selesnya Cluestone
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Swiftfoot Boots
- 1 Sword of Vengeance
- 1 Wildfield Borderpost
- 1 Cathars' Crusade
- 1 Collective Blessing
- 1 Marshal's Anthem
- 1 Mobilization
- 1 True Conviction
- 1 Wolfcaller's Howl
- 1 Beast Within
- 1 Oblation
- 1 Return to Dust
- 1 Selesnya Charm
- 1 White Sun's Zenith
- 1 Day of Judgment
- 1 Decree of Justice
- 1 Life from the Loam
- 1 Martial Coup
- 1 Peregrination
- 1 Rousing of Souls
- 1 Wrath of God
Total price? $47.93. And I had basically no out-of-pocket expenses on this, since I drew from surplus cards in my personal collection. What I found most interesting about the price breakdown (which is too much data to be worth presenting in its entirety), is that there were only ten cards priced at over a dollar, and that together those ten cards made up 40% of the price. Which is an ideal level of income inequality for the top 10%, if you ask me, but that's beside the point. Here's what those ten cards look like:
It's an interesting list! With one exception, these are all cards that are holding on to some historical value despite a major shift in their supply and demand ratio… the last card being Beast Within, a card that's seen a level of omnipresence that befits the power of the card, especially as it's only being reprinted in two limited run precons. But then again, Beast Within will hopefully see a drop in price next summer, since it seems like an obvious reprint in Modern Masters II. It's a casual card that sees play in a fringe Modern deck (no offense to the Living End players out there, but your deck, while hilarious, is on the fringe). Add in how balanced it can be in Limited, where it's more regularly pointed at your own permanents for the 3/3 body, and it seems like the type of card that should be reprinted soon.
Hopefully it is!
I gave Jay the deck and he loved it. We proceeded to play a five-person free-for-all, and by the time I had to leave it was down to Jay and one other player. Jay had taken at least 100 points of damage by that point, but kept gaining it back with a combination of Warhammer, Sledge, and Selvala triggers. He was having a blast; not bad for a deck that cost under $50.
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