Commander is certainly a fun format! And there are a lot of opportunities to shake things up with various commanders. Each leader of a deck that I choose begins to move us down a path towards that hits increasingly fun and secret locations. Each commander has a different card or three that work really well but are pretty low for others. Whether it's Horde of Notions and its Ashes of the Fallen or Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim with Angelic Accord, there is always some interesting secret to unearth.
That's the beauty of Commander!
But I see a lot of players coming to Magic night with the next Commander build they put together, and it's another ho-hum by-the-numbers build with some commander who serves more as a color placeholder than the glue that binds the deck together.
In order to push folks around and to get another round of novelty into the format, I've been pushing a series of Block Commander decks, which are very simple one-block-only builds that give you the basic idea for one simple deck. I have knocked out all of the pre-Modern Blocks save for the last one, and now Onslaught awaits!
Are you ready, folks?
Onslaught is the first major block with a heavy tribal theme. That's not to say we didn't see tribal concepts elsewhere and before, including Fallen Empires. But it was the first with a dedicated tribal theme that was spread out across a block. So it would make absolutely no sense whatsoever to do a non-tribal deck as my leader, right? Right!
The supported tribes include Clerics, Soldiers, Birds, Beasts, Elves, Zombies and Wizards. And Slivers. So which way am I going?
I don't want to do the obvious choices like Goblins, Soldiers or Zombies. Or even Elves. Wizards might be good, and yet really pretty one-note. Here, let me drop my Patron Wizard and stop you from doing anything yet again. Ho hum.
That leaves Slivers, Beasts, and Birds. I don't think Birds have the depth to work. Do Slivers? There are just sixteen Slivers in the block, so not really. Let me check Birds. Perhaps they are deeper than I think?
Beasts are good, because even if I have to include a few sub-par cards, they are still beaters that will do stuff.
- 1 Barkhide Mauler
- 1 Bloodline Shaman
- 1 Bloodstoke Howler
- 1 Branchsnap Lorian
- 1 Caller of the Claw
- 1 Canopy Crawler
- 1 Chartooth Cougar
- 1 Elvish Aberration
- 1 Elvish Soultiller
- 1 Feral Throwback
- 1 Fierce Empath
- 1 Forgotten Ancient
- 1 Hundroog
- 1 Hystrodon
- 1 Krosan Cloudscraper
- 1 Krosan Colossus
- 1 Krosan Drover
- 1 Krosan Groundshaker
- 1 Krosan Tusker
- 1 Krosan Vorine
- 1 Krosan Warchief
- 1 Nantuko Vigilante
- 1 Ravenous Baloth
- 1 Root Elemental
- 1 Seedborn Muse
- 1 Shaleskin Plower
- 1 Snapping Thragg
- 1 Snarling Undorak
- 1 Tephraderm
- 1 Tribal Forcemage
- 1 Venomspout Brackus
- 1 Wirewood Savage
- 1 Kamahl, Fist of Krosa
- 1 Cryptic Gateway
- 1 Doom Cannon
- 1 Aether Charge
- 1 Aggravated Assault
- 1 Centaur Glade
- 1 Gratuitous Violence
- 1 Mana Echoes
- 1 Mythic Proportions
- 1 One with Nature
- 1 Overwhelming Instinct
- 1 Primitive Etchings
- 1 Steely Resolve
- 1 Decree of Savagery
- 1 Hunting Pack
- 1 Naturalize
- 1 Primal Boost
- 1 Shock
- 1 Sprouting Vines
- 1 Starstorm
- 1 Tribal Unity
- 1 Vitality Charm
- 1 Break Asunder
- 1 Explosive Vegetation
- 1 Insurrection
- 1 Threaten
- 1 Torrent of Fire
And there's a slate of face-smashing Beasts!
None of the legendary Beasts in Magic work for a Gruul Smash concept. All three add another color, and frankly, they all have odd and wonky ways of requiring their deck to work. Marath, Will of the Wild; Gahiji, Honored One; and Uril, the Miststalker all require a different slate of cards as well as more mana.
Instead I'm going with Radha, Heir to Keld to lead my deck, because she's an early drop that can help out mana. There's nothing wrong with a little utility between friends!
Did you know that Ravenous Baloth changed Magic?
Many folks may not remember it, but creatures used to really suck. This Block Commander project has demonstrated that. Once you had to pay a cost to get a 4/4 creature for four mana in green. Nettletooth Djinn shoots you for a damage, Erithizon pumps an opposing creature permanently when it swings, Bull Elephant bounces two of your own Forests when it arrives. You get the idea.
And then Ravenous Baloth was printed, and it was the banner card of a new era of Magic. Not only was it devoid of any penalties, it also came with an ability. Its arrival heralded the next era of Magic. It was used as a banner card to show what would be coming later on. It made the cut in a lot of decklists and it wears an impressive tournament pedigree. From Standard Beasts builds to decks like The Rock, it made its presence known. It was a feature in the Elvish Succession build which built around Verdant Succession. Ravenous Baloth changed Magic.
So we have Ravenous Baloth and friends here. And as I mentioned before, we have a handful of Beasts that might be a bit weaker than normal for a Commander deck, but they are still Beasts that beat. It's a bit like Krosan Tusker.
I have adored Krosan Tusker ever since it debuted in Onslaught. It's one of my favorite mana fixing cards of all time. Because you cycle it instantly, you can wait and then cycle it during an opponent's end step to get your land and draw a card. It's a three-mana instant “draw two” card for green.
It's also a way to put a creature into your graveyard, and later on you can just play it as a 6/5 beater. Now, it's just a vanilla 6/5 creature when it's on the battlefield. For seven mana. That's not the sort of investment Commander players are usually looking for. But I have killed countless players with my Krosan Tusker beats.
Krosan Tusker is a Beast! (Literally and figuratively.)
What sort of support are we bringing to the Beast table?
Well, let's see. We can start with a card like Contested Cliffs. Sending your Beasts out to fight other creatures is a great way to clean up the battlefield and to gain some control of life in general. And if you want more Beast based control, how about Doom Cannon? Just call out “Beast” when you play it. Sacrifice a Beast to it and throw some doom in someone's face. You can Lightning Bolt a creature or player, so you can use it to control the battlefield or sacrifice a Beast that's about to head to the great boneyard in the sky.
But the key Beast enablers are all here, the things that made Beasts a deck in Standard at the time – Krosan Warchief, Canopy Crawler, and the aforementioned Ravenous Baloth and Contested Cliffs. This quartet of hot Beast love was enough to unfurl some serious action on the battlefield. You reduced their costs. You could fight with them, regenerate them, pump them, and sacrifice them for serious life gained. It was a great time to be a Beast, baby!
Meanwhile we layered in cards like Wirewood Savage(which was always one of my top-priority cards to target in Onslaught Block Draft) as well as lesser-known stuff like Aether Charge or limited heavyweight Snarling Undorak.
Much of the remaining cards that help Beasts will help other tribes as well. Steely Resolve gives all Beasts shroud. Yeah, it'll help your foes, but they aren't likely to shuffle up an entire Beast deck at the table.
There's not a lot of card drawing in these colors. Wirewood Savage is one way to draw you some cards, but I wanted to add in anything I could find. As a Beast, Hystrodon is a clever way to get some card drawing.
In my entire history of playing Magic, I don't think that I flipped over any creature more than Hystrodon. Our table ran a lot of morphs back in the day, and some players were known for flipping over certain ones, like Bane of the Living or Exalted Angel. My morph was Hystrodon. That was my
This lack of a lot of quality card drawing makes Overwhelming Instinct a key card drawing engine for your deck. Look, you are playing Beasts. You want to attack. That's the definition of who you are. That's why Radha making you mana when she swings is totally in line for your leader. And it's why you can lean on a card like Overwhelming Instinct to help alleviate card drawing issues. (You also have Primitive Etchings, which can net you a few cards here and there).
So with the decided lack of card drawing, I looked for options like Bloodline Shaman. Tap it and call out Beast, and there's a decent chance you'll be drawing a Beast. Sure, there's a bigger chance that you'll be putting a non-Beast into your graveyard, but it's not like you invested any mana to use the Shaman or anything.
You can cast Tribal Unity as a pseudo-instant variant of Overrun. Wait until the worst possible time for your foes and then unload the Unity. You can also flip over Tribal Forcemage for a similar but less potent Beast-pump.
We want to ensure that we have enough stuff to support the main beatdown Beast theme. I layered I some removal to ensure that we could keep on going. We have morph creatures like Shaleskin Plower to off lands or Nantuko Vigilante for artifact and enchantment removal. And that's not all. Naturalize and Break Asunder aren't winning any battles for “Best Disenchant Variant” anytime soon, but both suffice.
Another concern I had was with lands. We need the mana for our stuff. We need to accelerate into the big beats that everyone knows and loves. Radha should help out, sure, but cards like Krosan Tusker, Explosive Vegetation, Sprouting Vines, and landcyclers like Chartooth Cougar and Elvish Aberration are all here. And since you are swinging anyway, One with Nature seems suitably solid.
And don't forget that cycling can help get you to a needed land or spell early on. Don't be afraid to cycle something like Hundroog, Barkhide Maulers, Forgotten Cave, Break Asunder, Primal Boost, or even Starstorm. You can also play a creature face down on turn 3 if your development is slowed. And don't forget that the deck is layered with hidden synergies.
Take Fierce Empath as a great example. If you are ridden with mana problems early on, drop it, fetch out a landcycler of some sort, cycle, grab the right land, and push yourself. Or you can just grab the best Beast beater that suits the table.
I was able to fit in a few fun tricks from green and red in this block.
You can easily see cards like Insurrection and Aggravated Assault above. Everyone can beat with them. These sorts of cards have proven their multiplayer chops. You can also double your creature damage with Gratuitous Violence, which is always a fun card to drop before combat.
Check out fun cards like Root Elemental. Flip it over and drop any big creature from your hand right onto the battlefield. The biggest option in your deck is Krosan Cloudscraper, a 13/13 death-dealing monstrosity. There are loads of great free creatures that the Elemental can drop. And if that's not all, you can tap two Beasts with Cryptic Gateway and call me in the morning with a free Beast. And you can repeat the tapping and the free creatures as long as you have untapped Beasts and more options in your hand.
Decree of Savagery? Hunting Pack? Shoot, don't sleep on Kamahl, Fist of Krosa. You can animate lands and Overrun your stuff for face-smashing fun. We have lots of ways to grow your already admittedly large Beasts into downright monstrous levels of rawr!
Now, there are certainly other places you could turn to for eithers Beasts or beats in Onslaught. We could go with the admittedly expensive but fun Shaleskin Bruiser. You could add in stuff like Brontotherium, Enormous Baloth, Towering Baloth, Berserk Murlodont, or Macetail Hystrodon. So there are a few fun places to dig into.
I also chose to skip some obvious strong suits in my colors. I felt we had enough beats already, so I skipped Silvos, Rogue Elemental and Rorix Bladewing. Cards like Silklash Spider, Siege-Gang Commander, and Carbonize didn't fit my themes, but they are here if you need them for your metagame. I also loved Dragon Breath or Dragon Fangs, but I ran out of spots for them. Dragon Breath would make the cut first to my mind, due to the awesomeness of a repeatable haste effect.
What about Riptide Replicator? Totem Speaker? You could easily add in some more Beast adjuncts like these. Need more cards? You could try out Slate of Ancestry. Want to add to your damage-based battlefield-wiping potential? How about Slice and Dice? Need more removal? Chain of Acid is always fun to slip out there.
With the amount of Beast-tastic fun layered into this deck, you have a lot of options moving forward. Just because a Commander deck is limited to just one block's cards is no indicator of how strong it can be. With just Onslaught and friends in here, this deck can still win.
Don't be distracted by the context. It's doesn't matter how good Akroma, Angel of Vengeance is. She still comes out on the losing side if she blocks Enormous Baloth. (And that Baloth didn't even make the cut in our deck!)
Beast beats, baby!
And they beat quite nicely indeed.
Well, it's time.
It's time for me to say goodbye to StarCityGames for a while. I really do have a deep fondness for the folks, the institution, and mostly for you. I've cherished every comment you've ever made in the old SCG forums or online about my articles. I've read them all. Shoot, if you take the time out of your day to leave a comment, the least I can do is read it. I have responded to a majority of them. You are awesome. I want to thank SCG for publishing so much of my stuff. As of today, I published 545 weekly articles, and 49 daily ones. That's almost 600 times my name has been on a byline. That's incredible.
It's even more incredible because I've never been that good of a writer, and to be honest, we all know it. [Editor's Note: Bad writers don't have your tenure, your professionalism, or your ability. You're a Beast yourself, Abe.]
I'm a Magical Hack. I've hacked out enough articles that I few have wound up being really good by chance. That's my major contribution to Magic.
My major Magic wish, if I had a time machine or one do-over, is that, after introducing the Magic Role-Playing Game concept in my columns, I would've pushed it at least once a month thereafter with follow-up articles. I think the follow-up articles I did for later casual formats I introduced, like Commander '95, helped to reveal the depth of the format and to allow mutual exploration of it online with others that are interested.
Anyway, I'm published now twice a week over on GM. And it's time for me to end this because I'm beginning to tear up. So long for now. Thanks for the fish.