Doran, the Siege Tower was my first real commander. After taking a Teneb, the Harvester deck apart and rebuilding with high toughness creatures, Doran and his lopsided companions led through the proving grounds of Commander for well over a year, and the concept of Doran fit my playstyle: weird, underused cards combined with high-synergy spells and unique interactions. I learned more about what cards where good in the format, and after Doran got tucked, exiled, and blown away enough times, I shifted my focus to other generals as time went on; however, the eye for good Doran cards never went away. Even in recent years, I'll see a high-toughness creature get spoiled and think of my former general. Tree of Redemption? Ooh, good in Doran. Tower Defense? Get in there! Grim Contest? Bad, but interesting in Doran?
Needless to say, when this column's first focus card of Dragons of Tarkir came around, I was instantly enthralled.
There are some key differences between Doran, the Siege Tower and Assault Formation, not the least of which being that Doran is a creature, giving him a strong board presence. He's got Anafenza beaten in raw size, so you can't ignore him when he comes out to play. Doran also affects all creatures, so high-power creatures on your opponent's side often become much weaker. No matter the situation, Doran made a splash the moment he rooted himself to the battlefield.
Assault Formation has some things going for it too. Namely, it's an enchantment, making it harder to interact with and nearly impossible for two heavy-removal colors, black and red, to deal with directly. It's also much easier to cast. Doran, while a great commander for his color identity, is kind of a bear to land on turn 3. The mana cost on Assault Formation reflects a slimming down of the effect but with a nice return in terms of speed, and thus, versatility. Finally, Assault Formation has two key abilities: a Rolling Stones-style activated ability, and an honest anthem activation. Anthem effects are always nice for creature-based decks, especially scalable ones, because it means you have a nice mana sink for the lategame when you're trying to crush your opponent's topdeck.
As was the case with Doran though, if you're going to build a deck around such a defining spell, you have to have that spell in order to effectively interact with your opponent and defeat with any kind of speed or reliability. Thus, any decks you make with it have to reliably find and stick the Assault Formation. Your gameplan depends on it.
As a side note, Assault Formation is a funny, if unintentional, play on words; the colloquial way to say a creature has high toughness usually involves having "a big butt," or some derivation of that. Thus, Assault Formation means you're literally attacking with your tuchus. "Ass"-ault Formation? Come on now, that's pretty solid!
With all these factors to consider, which colors stand out as good targets for this enchantment?
White's probably good.
With lots of naturally high-toughness creatures floating around, white seemed like a nice pairing to start off with. Moreover, green has powerful tutor-like effects to dig through your deck to find the enchantments you need. Let's whip up a Selesnya list first and take it from there.
- 2 Hooting Mandrills
- 4 Lagonna-Band Trailblazer
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 4 Yoked Ox
- 4 Boon Satyr
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
The creature base has tons going for it. All of them can, without help, dodge Bile Blight, Lightning Strike, Anger of the Gods, and Drown in Sorrow; and with any single spell or Assault Formation pump, they can dodge Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker's damage ability, Stoke the Flames, and can successfully block and kill Tasigur, the Golden Fang or Siege Rhino. All from your set of one- and two-drops!
Between Yoked Ox and Lagonna-Band Trailblazer, we've got plenty of turn 1 plays. Of course, the dream is to stick one of those on turn 1, play an Assault Formation on turn 2 and smash for four. That starts putting your opponent on a fast clock, and remember, they don't have the freedom of using conditional cheap removal here. Yoked Ox is strictly worse than the Trailblazer, but when you're getting this good a rate, you won't mind paying W for a 4/4. There are some instants and targeted effects for Lagonna-Band Trailblazer, but mostly she's just a high-density bruiser too.
Sylvan Caryatid has been a card people have been talking about with this list. We don't live in the world of Geist of Saint Traft, Invisible Stalker, or even Witchstalker anymore. Our hexproof creatures these days are more along the lines of Conifer Strider (still a good card, which I hope to get to later), so getting a 3/3 hexproof that can attack, thanks to the Formation, is something to consider in many scenarios. Most people would kill for a Nessian Courser with hexproof, so there's room for some play here. Moreover, it helps you smooth out the awkward two-white-card, zero-Plains draws a lot.
The two three-drops, Boon Satyr and Courser of Kruphix, often play in completely opposite decks, the former in aggressive strategies, and the latter in everything else. Here though, as they are both enchantments and have a certain level of utility on top of their bodies, is a nice place to be. Course of Kruphix is already sick, but as a 4/4, he'll actually be getting aggressive too. Boon Satyr seems weirdly out of place in a toughness-matters deck. However, I'm not blind to the fact I won't always have Assault Formation, so Boon Satyr still has lots of potential as a speedy four-toughness killer for a color combination that doesn't normally interact that well with creatures. Even as a five mana Feral Invocation, you can close up some games. It was important to me to have a way to effectively kill you without requiring the enchantment, even if it was a bit of a stretch.
Speaking of stretch, I slotted two Hooting Mandrills. The color's version of Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Hooting Mandrills has often been bested by better cards in its slot. However, with as much digging we have and how little we care about graveyard composition, Hooting Mandrills can be competitively priced when compared to the cheap, high-value creatures listed above. Moreover, the trample is not something you'd find on a 0/4. When you start to go nuts with pumps, you'll be grateful you have a tool to run their blockers down.
Four Assault Formation; surprise! Beyond that, we have eight copies of enchantment-seeking sorceries. Commune with the Gods, the potentially more valuable one, has 26 maindeck targets, meaning you're nearly (but not completely) guaranteed a card off it. At a low cost, you can easily cast this on four and follow up with your newly-found Assault Formation. Kruphix's Insight is Commune with the Gods on steroids, letting you grab, say, a Boon Satyr, Courser of Kruphix, and an Assault Formation for just three mana. Admittedly, in my personal experience, four Kruphix's Insight is a whole lot of non-impacting three-drop spells. However, because we rely so heavily on our Assault Formation and it provides potential to dig really deep for threats too, I think four is okay. I could be totally wrong.
There are two copies each of two different pump spells in the list: Shape the Sands and Become Immense. With Assault Formation, Shape the Sands is insane. You can Jump any defensive creature and consume even the mightiest of Dragons, say, Dragonlord Atarka, especially a Sylvan Caryatid, so they can't even respond. Lagonna-Band Trailblazer suddenly becomes an effective 10/10. Become Immense hits on the delve theme a bit and provides some more ways to kill without Assault Formation.
The sideboard could include some removal options, more interactive creatures, and enchantment removal or protection; I'd considered cards like Last Breath, Erase, Dromoka's Command, and Valorous Stance.
That's one path, and thanks to the powerful enchantment dig already present in green, a lot of the work is done for us.
What about blue?
Aha, so Meletis Astronomer offers another potentially repeatable dig effect for Assault Formation, plus a sizeable keister to support the plan. Blue is known for high-toughness creatures, and Standard features several spells that complement that.
Sidisi's Faithful, as a strict upgrade to something like Kraken Hatchling, represents one of the few low-end drops for a blue version of the list. Bouncing a creature in lieu of a pointless 0/4 body might be helpful in some instances, such as a way to undo a W/U Heroic Voltron target. Ornithopter comes in as a way to answer the low-drop problem. This is, with Assault Formation, a manaless 2/2 flyer. Imagine having one or two of these, a Sidisi's Faithful and a turn 2 Assault Formation? Blammo! Sylvan Caryatid appears again for the same reasons as last time, and Meletis Astronomer acts as one of the main ways we dig for our enchantment. Finally, I really want to try Profaner of the Dead. This card's gotten nearly zero press, and I think it's pretty good in an aggressive package. It will likely sacrifice itself most of the time, but being able to sacrifice an idle Ornithopter to bounce a red deck's board and/or a mess of tokens seems good, and sacking a Sidisi's Faithful to bounce things like Courser of Kruphis or Brimaz seem nice too. Sidisi's Faithful can use its own exploit trigger to bounce a cast Profaner so you can get a rebuy of the effect!
We need our Assault and Commune again as the better of the two dig spells. Pin to the Earth is a handy removal spell that's also a great target for Meletis Astronomer; what do you care if he has a negative power if he deals damage based on toughness? Triton Tactics is this deck's Shape the Sands, netting one additional toughness/power and coming with a neat untap ability. Use with Sylvan Caryatid as a target to cast it for free! Aqueous Form seems to answer some potential problems with good blockers like Hornet Queen and most any deathtouch creature, for that matter. Finally, Dig Through Time is how I want to leverage the extra cards from Commune with the Gods. Remember, you'll always bin five cards at minimum if you include the Commune itself, so it won't be long before Dig is live. Because this deck is slightly more combo-ish, Dig makes more sense than something like Treasure Cruise to me.
These are great, but is there room for some weird hybrid? Maybe a Bant list incorporates the best of both worlds?
Modern might even open up some fun possibilities. Doran exists there, so some kind of Abzan Zoo that supports this plan might be pretty exciting for a casual build, maybe including spells like Tower Defense as mentioned earlier? Triple Ornithopter plus Assault on 2 plus Tower Defense on 3 is an unblockable instant kill for 21 damage. Eh, it's probably nothing, but it's worth asking the question!
How do you butt into the format with this enchantment? What synergies are you using? If you've ever used Doran, the Siege Tower as a commander, who was your preferred posterior?