Lite-Brite Might

Posted in Command Tower on October 9, 2014

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

Commander decks are big. With one commander and 99 cards that suit, it's a real challenge to keep track of what's in each of your decks, why it's there, and what it's doing for you.

Frantic Search | Art by Jeff Miracola

Thanks to Khans of Tarkir's new cycle of two-color lands at common and three-color lands at uncommon, and the return of the original "fetch lands" at rare, I recently swapped five nonbasic lands into just one Commander deck. While I'm a big fan of using basic lands if at all possible, more colorful decks really want to play more nonbasic options. Together with plenty of choices for accelerating or fixing mana through artifacts, instants, and sorceries, it isn't unusual for a Commander deck to top out at 80 to 90 unique cards in it.

And if you picked Karn, Silver Golem as your Commander, you don't have a choice but to go the full monty.

But among all those unique cards there's always a few that shine so bright we don't forget about them. Sometimes called "pet cards," I prefer a different term: standouts. While it's true that if you're aiming to build the best competitive decks possible, hanging on to cards "just because" is asking for disappointment, the story gets flipped in Commander. Those cards we love to play, creating moments and memories we smile about, are precisely what makes Commander so much fun.

It's the format where everyone's favorite friends and cards come to play, and it's part of why the "one only once copy of a card" rule came to be in the first place: variety really is the spice of life.

I'd be remiss if I didn't share one of my favorite cards to include in decks: Spawning Pit. With so many ways for all of your creatures to be removed—destroyed, exiled, or put into your library somehow—and so many players playing them, I find ways that let me sacrifice creatures for effect useful. Spawning Pit is an entertaining step beyond. Turning every two creatures into another one down the road is an interesting math problem, but Spawning Pit goes a step further by giving me the chance to make a random blocker when needed or ensure I have another body to equip sweet Equipment to.

If I'm already losing all my creatures, paying one colorless to get a 2/2 is an excellent deal. Packed in token decks, Spawning Pit is an obvious all-star that can draw out artifact removal all on its own. Hanging out in other decks is a sneaky surprise for anyone thinking you've run out of creatures.

I love it. Fortunately, you loved different cards. Justin got the party started with an actual party:

After a little bit of thought, I decided that the card in my Rakdos, Lord of Riots deck that I will never cut is Havoc Festival. It's not an all-star if you measure by the metric of "wins me the most games," but it's definitely an all-star by the metric of "creates the most memories." I've only been playing my "Active Mitigation" deck for a few weeks now, but I can already tell you that Havoc Festival has created exciting and fun Commander moments for everyone at the table!

Justin's Active Mitigation

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Rakdos, Lord of Riots
Enchantment (2)
1 Havoc Festival 1 Necropotence
99 Cards

Havoc Festival is a card that doesn't make any friends but gets the job done on keeping the game moving. Unlike the potential life-halving ways of Heartless Hidetsugu, Havoc Festival doesn't cause damage and requires an opponent's upkeep step to happen. It's slower, but harder to resist. And the longer it stays on the battlefield the more life everyone loses.

I love how it advances the game along for everyone, even if it doesn't work out for you, who cast it.

But a favorite card doesn't need to hit the battlefield hard to be a favorite. John had to dig deep into the past to find the perfect complement to one of Magic's newest commanders:

Choosing just one all-star card proved to be one of your more difficult questions to answer, Adam. While I do have my favorites, I play all the colors and enjoy all the archetypical play styles across my big box of Commander decks. I looked for a blue card first, as it is without a doubt my preferred color, but nothing stood out. The same proved true for the other colors.

A colorless card seemed most sensible as they can be run in any deck no matter the colors. The first things that popped into my mind were Sensei's Divining Top and Sol Ring, but those answers just don't ring true. I do run them in a number of decks, but so do a lot of other players; especially Sol Ring.

It finally occurred to me that I shouldn't try to pick something that's critical to a lot of my decks, but rather a card that's an all-star in a particular build. I finally settled on Teferi's Puzzle Box.

I put together this Grenzo, Dungeon Warden deck the week after Conspiracy hit shelves, and while fun, it felt pretty hit-or-miss at first. I finally found a copy of Teferi's Puzzle Box for it just a few weeks ago and immediately felt like it supercharged the deck! I'm never unhappy to draw it, and I'll rarely pitch it in a mulligan. It'll have a spot in this deck as long as I continue to shuffle it up.

John's The Dungeon Door

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Grenzo, Dungeon Warden

Teferi's Puzzle Box is a card I've played with numerous times, generally for the disruptive effect is had on the desire for players to sit back and plan on what's in their hands. By ensuring there's a narrow window to use the cards they currently have, it taps into players' natural risk aversion and pushes more to just play whatever they can.

That alone is exciting enough, but John's synergy goes a step further: since Teferi's Puzzle Box puts the cards from your hand on the bottom of your library in any order, activating Grenzo, Dungeon Warden changes from a "Let's see if I got lucky!" to "The game's rigged: The house always wins." moment of Commander noir. Motivating opponents to play their cards and keep the game moving while providing synergy for your commander is a sweet spot that's hard for almost any card to fill.

And then there is the card that so perfectly encapsulates what you want to do you wish it could be the commander instead, as Dema shared:

This Mesmeric Orb Mirko Vosk deck was an attempt to do something unconventional—a multiplayer mill deck. The challenge was in making it effective. Milling out one person is simple enough, but milling 300–400 cards isn't easy. It required finding ways to stretch things without running out of "millpower."

My main deck-building rule was that milling cards had to mill everyone (e.g. Mind Grind), be repeatable and efficient (e.g. Keening Stone), or both (e.g. Mesmeric Orb). Not coincidentally, the Mesmeric Orb is my one, never-cut all-star card. It captures the essence of this deck—heck, I'd make it the commander if I could.

The Orb starts subtly and spreads its "damage" around, preventing any single player from panicking and attacking you ("Mill five? Whatever."). The Orb lays low, diminishing libraries until that fateful moment when your opponents realize that untapping for a couple more rounds will end them ("Mill twelve? Uhhh..."). It's not dangerous until it's dangerous, and then it's VERY dangerous.

The Orb is very complementary with the rest of the deck's mill effects. It's effect works surprisingly fast, especially if you can drop it early. While it mills you too, a marginal advantage is often enough to win you the game. A solid Mind Grind, or a few hits with Mirko Vosk can easily put you in a strong position. Copy the Orb with a Phyrexian Metamorph ("Mill 24...? Seriously?"), or tap that Keening Stone, and you have a good shot at victory.

As a bonus, Mesmeric Orb punishes ramp and serves to limit combos that involve untapping.

What I enjoy about mill in Commander is the constriction of opportunity. With a singleton format, milling cards progressively limits your opponents' options. Soon, they're left without an effective response. That's my M.O., so to speak...

Dema's Mesmeric Orb

Download Arena Decklist
99 Cards

To Dema's credit, I believe most players don't have respect for Mesmeric Orb. In my history of deck building I fell into a "mill everyone all the times" rut and discovered the power of Mesmeric Orb for myself.

When I see it in a Commander game, I make no bones about looking for a way to take it out.

If you're Dema, then just the act of grinding cards from everyone's libraries into everyone's graveyards is good enough. It's certainly efficient with respect to the more someone does. But with so many ways to take advantage of the things that end up in everyone's graveyard—Sepulchral Primordial, Extract from Darkness, and Rise from the Grave for just a few examples—it's often what happens after cards are milled that's troublesome.

Consider that testament to my agreement in Dema's assessment of Mesmeric Orb. But favored cards can be quite humble too, as Mike explained:

This might end up sounding weird, especially in the context of the decklist full of crazy stuff, but one card I know I would never cut from my Dakkon Blackblade deck is Ray of Distortion.

There are tons of powerful and/or oppressive artifacts and enchantments that show up in Commander games, and I'd be hard pressed to count how many times this card has saved me from them. Umezawa's Jitte, Wurmcoil Engine, Humility, Eldrazi Conscription, and all their friends turn into smoking heaps when I fire off the Ray, and I'm never disappointed to draw it. It might look pricey at first glance, but the single W in the regular mana cost isn't asking much, and the option for another flashback cast is worth the trouble. I can even "store" the card in my graveyard if someone forces me to discard it or if I draw too many other cards and need to go back down to seven. Ray of Distortion is just a good card.

Mike's Dakkon

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Dakkon Blackblade
99 Cards

Ray of Distortion isn't something I expected as a standout card, but Mike did a great job explaining how such a simple card that sits under opponents' radars can do so much more than you'd think.

One of the first changes I often bring to my decks is swapping out splashy, powerful cards for a few more best described as utility: Reclamation Sage, Phyrexian Gargantua, Kirtar's Wrath, and others are prominent choices I've made recently. The ability to have a way of dealing with things that comes with a small bonus attached is standard fare for Commander decks, but Mike's Ray of Distortion likely never bats an opponent's eye when it's played. That subtlety and recursion value works like a charm because, really, who wants to spend a Counterspell on a four- or six-mana Disenchant?

I can see Mike's grin from here.

Value Proposition

The message of today's article should be clear: Whatever your favorite card is for a Commander deck, rest assured you can keep it there with a smile on your face. I know I have no plans to abandon my favorites anytime soon.

This week's question is pretty tricky, but I know you're up to the challenge: What are your favorite cards to use that help opponents, but end up helping you more?

  • Feedback via email
  • 300-word limit to explain which card and why
  • Sample decklist or list of cards is requested (does not count against word limit)
  • Decklists should be formatted with one card per line with just a leading number, such as "3 Mountain"—just a space (no "x" or "-") between the number and the card name, without subtotals by card type (Submissions that don't follow this rule will be ignored.)
  • Name and email required (non-personal information to be used in column)

While classic approaches to this problem are often in Group Hug decks led by Phelddagrif, there are many more tricky ways to "give" things to opponents while reaping the biggest benefits yourself. I want to know your sneakiest, trickiest, slickest ways to pulling the wool over the political eyes of other players.

Join us next week when we take a trip into the not-too-distant past for a not too distant future. See you then!

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