Block Commander I: It Cold Out Here!
Have you ever gotten a little tired of Commander as the primary default casual format for a lot of playgroups and metagames? Is your Commander metgame getting a bit too stale and predictable? Then why not try out a variant of Commander that forces people to build decks from new angles?
There are a variety of standard Commander variants out there that you can consider. Run a Pauper Commander deck with only commons. Run a budget Commander deck that clocks in at less than $40. Play Tiny Leaders with fewer cards and smaller casting costs. You could run 150 cards in your deck instead of 100. Or you could try out a variant I created called Commander '95 that uses only cards that were initially printed up to and including Homelands.
But there's another way to shake things up. Why not run a Block Party?
The goal of this variant of Commander is simple. If you are familiar with Magic formats, there is a format called Block Party. You choose one block of three Magic sets. Then you build a Block-only deck using cards that were not banned for Block play in those formats (for example, Urza Block banned some of the combo cards from that Block.)
Block Commander simply takes that rule, and then applies it to the Commander format. Grab a Block, and then build a Commander deck around just that Block. As long as the cards are legal in Commander, then they are legal for your deck. Simple enough, right? Well, let's see!
My first question that I want to explore is what to do with your commander. If you can't use a legendary leader from outside of your block, then you are going to have some serious restrictions on play styles. Take the Simic guild as an example. In the two Ravnica blocks, you can easily grab one of the four Simic leaders and rock a blue/green deck. But other than Kruphix, God of Horizons from Theros Block, there aren't any other options out there for a blue/green build. Plus you can't use leaders from Commander sets at all.
I am going to rule that you can use a commander from any set, and then the rest of your cards have to all be from one Block of Magic.
So my challenge is simple. Choose a Block, and then build a Commander deck around it. Who? Which? What makes the cut?
I think one way to approach this sort of challenge is to find a block with a great insular theme and then build a Commander deck around that theme too, and include cards that are perfectly acceptable options when supported by that theme. A great example would be from Kamigawa Block, where you could run a green and black deck around arcane cards like Kodama's Reach, Swallowing Plague, Rend Flesh, and then layer them along with spirit/arcane play triggers from cards like Haru-Onna, Elder Pine of Jukai, and Kyoki, Sanity's Eclipse. That sort of synergy would be a powerful Block Commander deck.
But I've already built that deck as part of an Impossible Commander challenge with Iname as One as my leader…
So I need to unearth another Block with another set of insular mechanics that work really well together. The obvious choices might be Theros and enchantments, or Mirrordin and artifacts. But I've never been one for obvious…
Ice Age Block!
Nothing says “insular” mechanics to me like snow. Plus I can do the first Block for my first Block Challenge. The only questions to work out are which colors to use. Red gets you Skred, Rimescale Dragon, and Stalking Yeti. Blue can get you counters and Rimefeather Owl. Black gets you creature removal, white can use Adarkar Valkyrie, and more. Plus there are lots of mana smoothing options in allied colors. Green does not have a bunch of land sifting, so other than something like Into the North, we're pretty bare. For me, green isn't really in the conversation.
As I look at the colors, black is pretty top heavy, but weak underneath. After you pull off Chill to the Bone, Dark Banishing, Feast or Famine as removal, it's not very good. Abyssal Specter? Dance of the Dead? Krovikan Horror? Ritual of the Machine? Void Maw? That's pretty much it outside of solid gold cards. I could go Jeskai and then use a wedge leader like Numot, the Devastator or Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest. Blue is really solid despite a lot of unplayable crap. Let's do a Grixis deck, led by a leader from Coldsnap!
- 1 Snow Fortress
- 1 Abyssal Specter
- 1 Deepfire Elemental
- 1 Drelnoch
- 1 Drift of the Dead
- 1 Garza's Assassin
- 1 Greater Stone Spirit
- 1 Karplusan Yeti
- 1 Krovikan Sorcerer
- 1 Minion of Tevesh Szat
- 1 Orcish Squatters
- 1 Rimewind Cryomancer
- 1 Rimewind Taskmage
- 1 Sibilant Spirit
- 1 Survivor of the Unseen
- 1 Void Maw
- 1 Garza Zol, Plague Queen
- 1 Heidar, Rimewind Master
- 1 Skeleton Ship
- 1 Adarkar Windform
- 1 Blizzard Specter
- 1 Chilling Shade
- 1 Rimefeather Owl
- 1 Rimescale Dragon
- 1 Stalking Yeti
- 1 Astrolabe
- 1 Icy Manipulator
- 1 Pentagram of the Ages
- 1 Sol Grail
- 1 Sunstone
- 1 Binding Grasp
- 1 Conquer
- 1 Dance of the Dead
- 1 Elemental Augury
- 1 Arcane Denial
- 1 Chill to the Bone
- 1 Commandeer
- 1 Contagion
- 1 Controvert
- 1 Counterspell
- 1 Dark Banishing
- 1 Deflection
- 1 Feast or Famine
- 1 Fire Covenant
- 1 Force of Will
- 1 Grim Harvest
- 1 Incinerate
- 1 Lim-Dul's Vault
- 1 Power Sink
- 1 Pyrokinesis
- 1 Ray of Command
- 1 Skred
- 1 Winter's Chill
- 1 Coldsteel Heart
- 1 Diabolic Vision
- 1 Icefall
- 1 Lava Burst
- 1 Library of Lat-Nam
- 1 Meteor Shower
- 1 Pillage
- 1 Portent
- 1 Ritual of the Machine
- 1 Soul Burn
And there's our little Garza Zol control deck!
Now, by excluding white from the conversation, I am not getting fun cards like Disenchant, Swords to Plowshares, Exile, Adarkar Valkyrie, and Seraph. But that's okay, because I open up a lot of great options here with cards like Elemental Augury. Plus, although it's not required by the format, I can run Garza Zol, which is in my Block, as my leader.
I chose to go with a control shell. In the Ice Age Block, blue is just downright sick. Let's start with the obvious counters as an example. I can run Counterspell and Force of Will, two of the best counters of all time. I can also run a good multiplayer card like Arcane Denial, which gives away cards as a way to make amends (and it replaces itself as well). “Sorry I countered your spell, here are two cards!” feels really nice to say at the kitchen table and earns you points. I have directed Arcane Denial at people before as a way to make friends by countering some lame card of theirs to draw cards. We also have the Commander-friendly Controvert (recover that as much as possible for more counters) or Commandeer (grab something big). Shoot, I even tossed in Power Sink. Countermagic is deep in this Block, and that's rare.
Another area blue is just oozing with is traditional control stuff. Want to steal a creature? You can do it as a fun trick with Ray of Command, or permanently with Binding Gasp. Both of those play very nicely with what I'm looking to do. We can also run some havoc with cards like Deflection.
Now, to play into that snow theme a bit we do have a trifecta of blue Rimewind cards to consider. They require four snow permanents to begin, but that should be relatively easy in a deck with this many snow lands. The first is Rimewind Cryomancer, and she can tap to counter activated abilities, which adds to your countering density. She also adds to the density of creatures while giving that an adequate 2/3 body. Next is the Rimewind Taskmage, and he'll tap or untap something for you all day long. Tap a blocker to get in a hit, or tap a potential attacker. Or untap something to use it again – whatever you need. You can use him to abuse lands like Thawing Glaciers and Scrying Sheets. Finally check out the nasty Heidar, Rimewind Master. It's a cheap bouncer to add a powerful tempo element to the deck as
Also, don't forget that you draw a card each time your leader hits for some damage. So you can Heidar and bounce a blocker to get in a hit, or tap one with the Taskmage. I also added in Adarkar Windform to drop any blockers from the sky so Garza Zol can hit for five damage and a card. The Windform also works with Snow Fortress. You can drop flying, and then shoot attackers for damage.
A few intriguing blue cards remain. Check out the Library of Lat-Nam. Normally this card sucks. But in a Block like Ice Age, there really isn't a lot of card-drawing. That's why I'm emphasizing the hitting of Garza Zol when I can. Your opponent isn't likely to choose to let you Demonic Tutor, so they'll probably let you slow-draw three cards. That's an adequate three-for-one trade. Sure, it may suck elsewhere, but here, any card drawing in a storm will do.
That's also why the temporary Survivor of the Unseen is here. Sure, it may suck normally to put a card on your library that you don't want, but you are drawing two cards to do so, so you are hitting a bunch of goods. If you don't mind risking your library or exiling cards, then you could push card drawing or library manipulation with cards like Browse, Phyrexian Portal, Orcish Librarian, or Diminishing Returns. But I think we're in a bad place with those various effects. So Survivor of the Unseen it is. (As well as stuff like Drelnoch).
In this deck, it's a great irony that blue tends to have our best beaters – Rimefeather Owl and Sibilant Spirit. I really wanted to put something that wasn't the Spirit in the decklist, but it's hard to find a quality lategame beater that doesn't suck. But the Owl is the best finisher we have.
Now take a look at a trick that really comes out of left field:
That's just way too much text to read. I get it. Here's the sum of what it does: You may choose X target attacking creatures. The attacker spends one mana a piece to keep them alive, but to prevent damage to and from them, or two mana a piece to have normal combat with that creature. Any targeted creatures that have no payments are destroyed at the end of combat.
So the attacker chooses what payments are made. And of course, you need to spend the mana, choose the initial targets, and then have enough snow lands to count. But you can seriously blow out someone from nowhere. And they don't even have to be attacking you. You can Winter's Chill Bob when he attacks Betty. It's just a great, old-school-crazy sort of card that you can unleash.
I think you can see just how deep blue can be here. But what about red? I like red's flexibility, so let's take a look.
First of all, we have a variety of burn spells in the deck. Skred, Incinerate, Lava Burst, Pyrokinesis, and Meteor Shower have all been included. I choose the 'Kinesis and Shower due to their potential for card advantage by hitting multiple creatures. Of course the Incinerate and Lava Burst have obvious value as well. There are tons of burn spells I didn't include too, like Death Spark, Guerilla Tactics, Pyroclasm, or Surging Flame. So the burn adds a useful layer of removal to our control deck.
But the best parts of red are removal from other places. Stalking Yeti is one of the best cards in the deck as long as you don't kill itself with it. The ability to play it, fight something from its enters-the-battlefield trigger, and then can be self-bounced with some snow mana is pretty saucy. It gives you a lot of heat. It's not the only useful fighting Yeti in the deck either. Karplusan Yeti can be tapped to fight something as well. We have a Yeti-tastic structure in place to push smaller creatures around.
Of course one of the best cold creatures of all time is Rimescale Dragon. Spend three mana, including one snow, to place an ice counter on a creature and tap it. It won't untap as long as the Dragon is out, keeping frozen creatures from untapping. It can easily swing in the air, slapping and tapping with ice counters on any who would dare protest its presence. It clears a path for your commander, and works extremely well with Rimefeather Owl (who places ice counters as well).
Red can handle some things that our other two colors sort of skip over – artifacts and lands. So I tossed in both Pillage and Icefall in order to deal with those problems. Don't be afraid to aim them at problematic lands if you need too (although skip hitting mana lands, barring something abusive). But they can also be a brake on any powerful artifacts that you run into, particularly the recover of Icefall.
We can steal lands with Conquer, but we can also hit with Orcish Squatters. Did you attack someone? Did they forget to block? Then prevent the damage and steal one of their lands. With the various cards we have for getting in a hit with Garza Zol already in the deck, the Squatters will have an easier pathway to use.
In addition to getting us some powerful creatures, red also gives some more creature handling, as well as shoring up any weakness against lands and artifacts. Red is strong here. Not as good as blue, but it works.
And now black? Well as mentioned before, black does give some good one-on-one removal (Dark Banishing and friends). Plus you can try out Contagion to see if it can net you two kills on occasion, I suppose.
It does give you another flying creature with a hit-trigger, Abyssal Specter. Again, with the same stuff as elsewhere just turn it onto folks and force them to discard a card. Black also enables Blizzard Specter with a similar set-up.
Other than those, there aren't a lot of other black cards to recommend. Void Maw can hose graveyard strategies a bit if they are looking for reanimation, and it's an adequate beater. Drift of the Dead is an obvious but useful enough Wall. Plus no one will attack in the air if you have out a big Drift and an Adarkar Windform. I am trying out Chilling Shade as an admittedly mana-heavy way to break out of a stalemate.
As I mentioned before though, the best reason to add in black was all of the other cards I get to unlock that are gold (or essentially so like Krovikan Sorcerer). In addition to Blizzard Specter, Deepfire Elemental comes from Coldsnap and has two modes; you can destroy artifacts or creatures with the right mana. And it won't embarrass you in the red zone either.
We get some deck manipulation with stuff like Diabolic Vision, Lim-Dul's Vault, and especially Elemental Augury. Don't forget that you can turn that Augury on a foe as well to stack the top of their deck against them.
Fire Covenant is one of the best instant combat tricks you'll find, and you can blow someone out with it. Since you begin the game with 40 life, you should have enough life to put into the Covenant to make a powerful instant that can kill multiple creatures in a great one-sided slaughter.
And with those additions, it's time to start rounding out the deck. Icy Manipulator is perfect at tapping down a potential blocker. Don't be afraid to use it defensively if you need to though. Although perhaps you just want to sit behind your Sunstone and Pentagram of the Ages and cackle. Don't forget to use the Pentagram to prevent damage like an X spell aimed your way as well.
You could certainly toss in some other cards like Soul Spike, Herald of Leshrac, Brine Shaman, Zuran Orb, Zuran Spellcaster, Withering Wisps, Walking Wall, Skull Catapult, Fury of the Horde, and a lot more. Want to push drawing cards? Necropotence is here. Again, I'm not comfortable with that sort of danger, but you certainly could head in that direction. There are some cheaper mana-heavy black creatures I skipped like Stromgald Crusader and Knight of Stromgald.
So what did you think of the deck? Ice Age Block is better than you think. What Block would you run? What sort of Block Commander would you be interested in?