Grixis Commander decks tend to get a pretty bad reputation for being "good stuff" decks. I set out to build something different something with some pizzazz... Something where my opponents have to regularly ask "Wait...what does that card do?" I came up with what I've dubbed "Pseudo-Tribal Specters."
Almost every creature in the deck creates card advantage when it attacks usually by allowing me to draw cards or forcing my opponents to discard. The goal of the deck is to establish early board presence then to power up my aggressively costed creatures with equipment to make my opponents discard tons of cards and keep scary threats off the board. The deck is incredibly fun to pilot and play against as it creates tons of hilarious board situations where politics matter. (Have you ever seen someone beg you not to attack them with a 2/2 creature in Commander? It is quite the spectacle.)
The deck does have a few problems though and try as I might I just can't seem to iron them out. The biggest problem is that the deck is wildly inconsistent. I often don't draw the right balance of creatures and equipment making my start far too slow to matter against decks that have a strong end game. I tend to be fine when I have a constant source of card draw but oftentimes after a board wipe or two I just run out of steam. The other issue I have is dealing with giant threats like Avenger of Zendikar; I've kept my removal package very light in order to stick tightly to my theme and avoid killing my own army but I often find myself the second to last player and then almost immediately losing to a single powerful card.
My last deckbuilding limitation is that I don't want to drastically increase the power level of the deck by just adding a set of Swords; I usually play this deck against players who might have a bit of trouble keeping up with a more competitive deck and I would much rather have people remember me laying the beatdown on them with a Riptide Pilferer than a Sword of Fire and Ice.
Commander: Garza Zol Plague Queen
I know I took "Dear Azami" to Grixis territory not all that long ago with Nicol Bolas but I kept coming back to your Garza Zol Plague Queen list while going through the submissions Phil. Maybe it was the fresh memory of drowning in a sea of cutthroat Commander combo decks at Gen Con or maybe it was simply Garza Zol's pretty face:
Okay so it wasn't that last one. Good lord my eyes are stinging…
What drew me in was the direction this build aimed at. I won't lie; "pseudo-tribal specters" is a theme that I haven't come across in this format before but it was the last paragraph you wrote that really sealed the deal for me. I like that you've chosen to take aim at a more casual cross-section of the Commander population here and I think it serves to teach two really good lessons.
First it's great to remember that Commander is a casual format at its core. I've mentioned my close friend Patrick before who is my co-conspirator in creating the Wednesday Night Commander league at our local shop. He's seriously addicted to building decks—I think at last count he had fully constructed something like 56 Commander decks and could rattle off a few more that were in the works—and one of the things that he created not long ago was a Tolsimir Wolfblood deck aimed at a format introduction power level. (He lovingly refers to it as "My First Commander.") The concepts and overall power level of the deck are tuned way down to ease new players into the format and he loans it out to new players that show up Wednesdays to try out Commander for the first time.
The thing is that it's a huge hit—not only with the newer players but plenty of experienced ones as well. It serves as a great showcase of what Commander is like and I can safely say that it is responsible for more than one player deciding to make the jump to building their own deck and joining the regular players.
(A quick aside: Patrick loves to make crazy theme decks. One recent one is the "Bad Art" deck. All due respect but if Garza Zol isn't in that list you've got a substitution to make…)
The second reason I like looking at decks like this is that they're deceptively challenging to work on. You said it yourself Phil—Grixis decks have a hard time shedding the "big pile of good stuff" image. Less specifically it's no secret that Commander is an incredibly easy format to break in half. It's not hard to tune a deck to the bleeding edge throwing in your Insurrection Bribery and Tooth and Nail but trying to hit a sweet spot somewhat lower isn't all that easy. There's an incredibly fine line between "better" and "too good" when you aim for a build of this caliber.
Looking under the hood I like the game plan. I'm still not ever going to be a proponent of running Myojin of Night's Reach but subtle targeted discard is a reasonable strategy to follow. This deck is all about card advantage so going the aggressive 'saboteur' route is the way to keep you in the game.
I agree with your critique as well. You need a little more top end to keep up with the typical Commander late game and there's some degree of inconsistency that should be ironed out to make sure that you don't get stuck with no gas after a board sweeper. I think there are some subtle ways to achieve these goals without resorting to carpet-bombing your deck with staples and I'm sure we can work on ways to deal with big threats without making this into removal.dec in the process.
Removing Weaker Saboteurs
I want to look first at the "saboteurs"—the creatures that provide you with effects when they connect for combat damage. There are a few things to clean up.
I'm pulling out identical pairs of creatures that either draw you cards or force discard on your opponents. These are ones that don't have native evasion making it hard to take advantage of them unless they hit early on. They tend to be weak topdecks late game for the same reason.
Rootwater Thief has evasion right out of the box and the ability to pickpocket your opponents for the cards that will hurt you the most is a strong tool to add to the box.
The same can be said for Deceiver. When I came across this card I was actually kind of shocked that I'd missed it up until now. Really who's playing creatures with shadow? This card essentially reads "Unless it's got shroud don't get too attached to your guys."
Wonder and Embrace slot in for similar reasons. This deck needs to see its creatures get in for damage to really generate card advantage so pick your poison (flying or shadow) and get in there.
Taking the Top End to Task
There is a trio of bigger creatures that look to be included as finishers. I'm going to suggest a slightly different angle for all three.
Nicol Bolas is the ultimate haymaker. He's expensive ungainly and really tough to manage but can just shut down an opponent once he gets rolling. I suppose if you let him come down and he sticks around long enough to swing at you (and you can't block him with say Flying Men…) then you might deserve to dump your hand. Still nothing feels worse than being forced to not play the game so out he goes.
Frost Titan seems like just a path-clearer for the little guys with damage abilities and Grave Titan seems like nothing more than a cool eventual finisher. Not a ton of synergy in the latter and I think there's a better fit for the former.
Ambassador is my "fair" replacement for Nicol Bolas. You're playing against a more casual crowd and this ability not only lets you grab the second-best creature your opponent has in their deck but the guessing game is one of the cooler social effects out there. This card generates excitement and enjoyment to everyone watching it play out and even the player on the receiving end won't feel like they were just shut out of the game after discarding their entire hand.
Sun Quan brings your team horsemanship which wins the "evasion type I guarantee no one else at the table has" award. If Frosty could push through a few of your guys Sunny will push them all through.
In a vacuum Grave Titan is a stronger threat than Sturmgeist. In this deck though Sturmgeist gives you out-of-the-box evasive card draw and it scales in the late game to provide a game-winner for the deck. It may lack the punch of the Titan but it fits the bill.
Dealing with a Few Head-Scratchers
The following two cards seem like random includes to me and I want to use the slots for my favorite pair of Dimir-colored spell thieves to give you a little more versatility
Sangromancer plays pretty nicely with your discard but I'm not sure the life gain is really the effect you want for your investment in this deck. Maybe it helps you stay upright in the late game but it seems more likely to draw you extra attention for something you're doing that other players already dislike you for to begin with.
The 'Rider just doesn't seem to deliver either. I'd be completely on board if you were playing a deck that makes a billion tokens or if this card read "…Hellrider deals one damage to target creature or player." As it is you're getting through with a creature or two and adding a few small points of damage to the mix.
That's not adding injury to insult; that's adding a minor scratch to a light criticism.
These wonder twins are the real deal. Silent-Blade plays really well with all of the smaller evasive guys and Mindleech just goes straight Hulk and tramples in for the trigger. In the long run you're gaining on three fronts; each is a solid finisher each is gaining you cards and they're denying resources for your opponents.
Enters the Battlefield Triggers
This will mark the last of the creature cuts and it will also mark the moment where most of you reading this decide that I must have forgotten to take my meds this morning.
Unless I'm focusing on recurring my creatures I typically don't like to use ones just for their ETB effects knowing full well they'll basically just sit there getting older until they chump block a Primeval Titan. That's why the Vandal goes; unless you live the dream and stick this on your Mimic Vat there's a better replacement on the way that covers more bases.
As for Trinks… Well this cut is a bit harder to quantify. There are a lot of great targets for him in this deck but some are getting trimmed later on so it becomes an issue of diminishing returns. By the time I finish it should make more sense due to the increased utility that gets added.
I mean really in a casual-slanted deck what's more important: finding that Sol Ring or taking out the most threatening creature on the board?
Okay okay…taking out the most threatening non-black creature on the board. This deck is really turning out to be evasion central though and ninjutsu plays too nicely to pass up. A little extra removal never hurts either.
Filth rounds out the last of our team evasion enablers. With this much evasion you're bound to find something that fits the bill. When you do make it count.
Moving On To Equipment
Feel free to take a moment.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm really not a fan of equipment in Commander. (I know I'll take a beating over this statement. I'm putting on my flak jacket as we speak.) I appreciate that most equipment acts like an improved aura that sticks around to be used by the next creature that shows up but it's still one class of card relying on another to be effective.
I prefer to just cut out the middleman and run better creatures and spells.
That said if the card fits I'll leave it in (or even suggest it to begin with.) In this case I honestly don't think this equipment is worth the time. Let me break it down piece by piece:
- Hopefully by now most of your creatures have plenty of ways to get evasion but that gets us to the problem with Infiltration Lens; if your evasive creatures aren't getting blocked Lens is dead weight. If your creatures are getting blocked… Well they're probably smaller than what's blocking them so they're dead anyway. Dead creatures don't swing next turn.
- I appreciate the problems Grixis colors have generating land ramp but this card isn't really doing enough of that to offset the downside. That downside is that you need a creature to attack and a land to be on top of your library every time you want acceleration. That's not worth the slot when you could just run acceleration instead.
- Finally the 'Clamp. I kind of touched on the issue here with Infiltration Lens and certainly touched on it with Hellrider. You're not playing a tokens deck and your creatures are central to your game plan so you really don't want them to have to die to fuel your draw engine. It's not really insurance against a block; eventually someone will figure it out stop your creature from getting through and you'll be left with a paperweight most of the time.
I pulled out Sangromancer above because I didn't believe that the lifegain angle was what you wanted for a static triggered effect. The Grimoire is on the other hand a fantastic way to take advantage of the discard you run. Your opponents will be discarding once you get active and this inclusion will keep your hand flush.
Plunder and Charm offer your deck a little extra artillery. Again the discard comes through ideally filling graveyards with solid effects that you don't otherwise have access to that can be Plundered for maximum value. I've cast this card on my fourth turn targeting Explosive Vegetation with no regrets.
Of course I've more frequently cast it later on in the game targeting Decree of Pain or Austere Command and been incredibly happy with the results.
The Charm is the multifaceted tool I hinted at above that would take the place of Manic Vandal. You get an answer to pretty much any situation that could come up: permanent bounce creature removal and artifact hate all rolled into one three-mana instant speed package.
Two come to the forefront as either cute at best but likely to draw a bulls-eye on your head or nice but better when not a permanent that eats removal and costs a boatload to get off the ground.
I get the interaction with the creatures that have triggered effects when they deal combat damage to your opponents. The trouble is that everyone else does too. Rage Reflection isn't quite as scary as its green cousin Mana Reflection but most people don't want to let this stick around because of what might happen if you figure out how to get your general into the red zone. They probably will get sick of discarding two cards each attack phase to your specters as well.
Brink on the other hand is not too bad as far as effects go. This deck would love some recursion. The problem is that you don't get a discount on the activated ability so you're just paying retail for the same things you already paid full price for to begin with. It also makes it very hard to leverage the turn it hits play and people just love to take advantage of times like that by tossing removal at your new and unusable toy.
I understand this will draw hate exponentially faster than Rage reflection will but you're getting an unbelievable amount of strength for the same cost. This might be the answer you need to break open your late game doldrums and it makes all of your little saboteurs much much better.
Corpse Dance offers the same effect that Brink does but it doesn't cost you any extra than the three mana in the top corner of the card. That's good value. For five mana you get the reusability of Brink with no added weakness to enchantment removal. And one of these two cards is great after a board sweeper while the other is pretty terrible.
The Removal Upgrade
OUT – Blasphemous Act
IN – Plague Wind
Both cost nine out of the box. One gets cheaper (but not much cheaper in this deck) while taking your team with it and the other lets your guys live to fight another day while clearing out the rest of the board.
Finally Some Quick Landscaping
Most of these are pretty straightforward upgrades to your mana fixing department. One adds a little extra bite to your offense.
Manlands don't do much for you here and these two are pretty subpar in Commander. Lavaclaw would have the potential to be a surprise finisher if you were playing more of a ramp deck but you're not so it probably isn't more times than it is. Besides both hit the battlefield tapped and you don't want to delay your early value creature plays.
Also both enter the battlefield tapped.
You're playing quite a few cards that have serious mana specific casting requirements. The replacements are three solid mana fixing lands that will get you to Cruel Ultimatum in time to put it to good use. Better yet they don't enter the battlefield tapped.
The last replacement for the list is another rarely used but incredibly strong land that will help you with the discard suite. It is symmetrical but you have ways to make up for (and benefit from) it and if you can get to a solid lead in the late game this card can be absolutely backbreaking.
And here we are:
- 1 Steel Hellkite
- 1 Abyssal Specter
- 1 Anger
- 1 Blazing Specter
- 1 Dimir Cutpurse
- 1 Filth
- 1 Guiltfeeder
- 1 Guul Draz Specter
- 1 Hypnotic Specter
- 1 Lightning Reaver
- 1 Mindleech Mass
- 1 Needle Specter
- 1 Ninja of the Deep Hours
- 1 Odylic Wraith
- 1 Okiba-Gang Shinobi
- 1 Order of Yawgmoth
- 1 Rootwater Thief
- 1 Scroll Thief
- 1 Scythe Specter
- 1 Sedraxis Specter
- 1 Shadowmage Infiltrator
- 1 Silent-Blade Oni
- 1 Sphinx Ambassador
- 1 Sturmgeist
- 1 Tandem Lookout
- 1 Thalakos Deceiver
- 1 Thieving Magpie
- 1 Throat Slitter
- 1 Wonder
- 1 Garza Zol, Plague Queen
- 1 Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
- 1 Sun Quan, Lord of Wu
- 1 Thada Adel, Acquisitor
- 1 Thraximundar
- 1 Wrexial, the Risen Deep
- 1 Blizzard Specter
- 8 Island
- 6 Mountain
- 7 Swamp
- 1 Bojuka Bog
- 1 Cascade Bluffs
- 1 Command Tower
- 1 Creeping Tar Pit
- 1 Crumbling Necropolis
- 1 Dimir Aqueduct
- 1 Drowned Catacomb
- 1 Graven Cairns
- 1 Izzet Boilerworks
- 1 Rakdos Carnarium
- 1 Reliquary Tower
- 1 Rix Maadi, Dungeon Palace
- 1 Sulfur Falls
- 1 Sulfurous Springs
- 1 Sunken Ruins
- 1 Tectonic Edge
- 1 Terrain Generator
- 1 Darksteel Ingot
- 1 Dimir Signet
- 1 Fireshrieker
- 1 Geth's Grimoire
- 1 Izzet Signet
- 1 Lightning Greaves
- 1 Mask of Memory
- 1 Mask of Riddles
- 1 Mimic Vat
- 1 Rakdos Signet
- 1 Relic of Progenitus
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Specter's Shroud
- 1 Swiftfoot Boots
- 1 Whispersilk Cloak
- 1 Dauthi Embrace
- 1 Dire Undercurrents
- 1 Phyrexian Arena
- 1 Phyrexian Reclamation
- 1 Rhystic Study
- 1 Corpse Dance
- 1 Crosis's Charm
- 1 Memory Plunder
- 1 Akroma's Memorial
- 1 Cruel Ultimatum
- 1 Plague Wind
The Fine Print!
For your participation in this week's "Dear Azami" you'll receive a $20 coupon to StarCityGames.com to begin working on the changes I suggested. Your shopping list comes in at a shade over $50 so this will take care of a good chunk for you. The biggest expense is Cascade Bluffs and things fall off pretty quickly after that. Well that is unless you're dead set on the Portal Three Kingdoms version of Sun Quan; fortunately that card saw printing last summer in From The Vault: Legends and is fairly inexpensive and easy to acquire as a result.
Here's your card-by-card price breakdown:
|Rix Maadi Dungeon Palace||$0.49|
|Sun Quan Lord of Wu||$1.99|
Phil thanks again for the submission. Again it's not the easiest thing in the world to work on a deck with an eye for a lower more casual power level and I hope you appreciate the changes. I know it takes the deck slightly outside of where you originally intended to go with it and also does manage to cut a few elements you identified as central to the operation of the deck. Overall I think it does a good job of working to fix some of the shortcomings you identified and I think you'll find that some of the new inclusions go a long way towards leveling the playing field in the late game with the decks you face regularly.
Have fun and enjoy!
Want to submit a deck for consideration to Dear Azami? We're always accepting deck submissions to consider for use in a future article like Dave's Radha Heir to Keld deck or Tyler's Vaevictis Asmadi deck. Only one deck submission will be chosen per article but being selected for the next edition of Dear Azamiincludes not just deck advice but also a $20 coupon to StarCityGames.com!
Email us a deck submission using this link here!
Like what you've seen? Feel free to explore more of "Dear Azami" here in the Article Archives!Feel free to follow Sean on Facebook... Sometimes there are extra surprises and bonus content to be found over on his Facebook Fan Page as well as previews of the next week's column at the end of the week! Follow Cassidy on his Facebook page here or check out his Commander blog – GeneralDamageControl.com!