Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

Posted in Command Tower on October 23, 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.

You sit down and shuffle up your favorite Commander deck. While Ghave, Guru of Spores isn't the most explosive or powerful of choices, the synergy and value engines surrounding it make Ghave a force in long games. Given time and a few spells, any board state can be reopened.

The dice roll and the opponent to your right goes first: Snow-Covered Island into Sol Ring into Mind Stone, with Arcum Dagsson looking on from the command zone. Your heart starts racing as you recall exactly how many ways to destroy artifacts you have in your deck.

In seconds, you already figured out the game is going to a long, boring chore of counterspells and artifact combos.

Snow-Covered Island | Art by Fronz Vohwinkel

As the game continues, many turns later the battlefield is a mess of cogs, engines, and synergies. While you have a small army of Saprolings at hand, Caltrops keeps you from swinging right. The circling Dragons to the left are held at bay by your Silklash Spider, and you deserve to get smacked about since you have by far the most life left.

You'd worry about getting attacked on the ground from the other side but Ensnaring Bridge is keeping Dagsson's own Darksteel Colossus from doing any work. An hour into the game and everything is still up for grabs because the only spells that failed to resolve were two that would have ended the game: Insurrection and Primal Surge.

"This is awesome," crosses your mind as you untap and draw for your turn.

Cultural Exchange

It's Things Are Not What They Seem Week, which has meant everyone's gotten to play around with expectations and perceptions. Commander is, fortunately, where ideas about what will happen next are often vague or completely wrong, at best. In a format where nearly every card in the game is available—and encouraged through the one-copy-per-deck rule—I've played plenty of games where I anticipated one experience but ended with another.

The Ghave, Guru of Spores story is vaguely true, based on one of these games. The idea that every deck packing Arcum Dagsson and flashy Islands is a control deck bent on comboing out is based on plenty of experiences, but finding it instead a maze of puzzle-like pieces that do less to end games than keep them shifting and interesting was fascinating. It helped plant the seed of active mitigation in my mind.

While seeing decks do something different than what you expected is a memorable moment of when things weren't always what they seem, it's always important to remember that it can still be exactly what you expect. Aric shared a deck that plans on it:

Back in the day, I built a Karn Commander deck. It was a fun challenge, and the artifact contraptions it assembled were very amusing to play with. The biggest lesson, though, was how powerful your lands can be when they only produce colorless mana. Karn is no more, but only because Journey into Nyx provided a very appealing new piece of tech: Kruphix, God of Horizons. Now the contraptions have a battery!

The even-more-exciting revelation was, though, that now I can make use of very interesting green ramp spells that don't have the usual "basic" qualifier in their text box, such as Crop Rotation or Recross the Paths. The biggest and baddest, though, is Tempt with Discovery.

"Would you guys like to go get your Command Towers, Reliquary Towers, and Temple of the False Gods? Cool. I'm going to grab my land that taps for four (Scorched Ruins), the land that untaps that land (Deserted Temple), the land that searches for Kozilek with my newly found seven mana (Eye of Ugin), and the missing Urzatron piece so I give myself enough mana to cast him and draw four cards."

Even if I don't need to get massive sums of mana with the spell, nearly every land in my deck is a piece of tech that solves specific scenarios. Since the land all come into play untapped, I can search out the Homeward Path to deal with my creatures getting stolen, Darksteel Citadel to cope with land destruction, Tower of the Magistrate to cope with obnoxious Equipment, and so on. Tempt with Discovery is a toolbox and a ramp spell, and it all comes together into a huge blowout.

Aric's Kruphix

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Kruphix, God of Horizons
Instant (1)
1 Crop Rotation
99 Cards

Aric plays off the idea of the tempting offer cycle: Cards that promise opponents one thing but give you more of another. Trade Secrets made its way onto the banned list thanks to the power of collusion and iterative card draw, but tempting offer cards play similarly. While I've used Tempt with Vengeance to amass an instant army (much to my detriment from a follow up Massacre Wurm) and Tempt with Immortality to give everyone an option after something like End Hostilities hit the battlefield, Aric's "Let's break the game in half" is often the unexpected turn Tempt with Discovery provides.

Everyone likes to fix mana, and casting that early in the game is a surefire way to piece together all the lands you need to hit above your weight. Late in the game, even if everyone turns you down, Tempt with Discovery finishes the engine you want to use most.

Maybe that's why I rarely put it into one of my decks?

You might expect me to dip into morph now, to point out how it isn't always Willbender (since it's always Kheru Spellsnatcher now). Instead, I want to recall one of my favorite pieces of graphics every to grace a DailyMTG.com Article:

Morph may have been the first "if you think it's this you might be wrong" but the ninjutsu mechanic took it over the top. Edward explains:

My favorite way to make one card become another? Well, that honor has to be taken by ninjutsu. As a long-standing fan of Ninjas, Vela the Night-Clad gave me the perfect opportunity to build around this creature type and their awesome ability.

Of course, her Planechase (2012 Edition) deck did some of the work for me, but some of the best interactions come from the creatures you bounce, rather than the abilities of the Ninjas themselves. In addition to creatures such as Augury Owl in the pre-con, adding others like Snapcaster Mage and Cadaver Imp give the deck a lot of versatility. Thalakos Seer, Vortex Elemental, and Kathari Remnant prove to be very useful on the offensive.

Vela's life-loss ability is not to be sniffed at over the course of a game, and enchantments like Sunken Hope and Dire Undercurrents help you capitalize on all those creatures bouncing around. The deck also has a subtheme of cloning effects, and a splash of spells such as Peel from Reality can save the vital creatures in a pinch, ready to ninjutsu into combat all over again.

Many players don't realize, but you can activate ninjutsu at any point in the combat phase after blockers have been declared. I think the only thing I'm really missing from my deck is a source for granting first strike. Give this to one Ninja, and after it deals combat damage it can be replaced by another to deal damage in the regular damage step for an extra triggered ability! Perhaps I should get hold of a Runechanter's Pike....

Edward's Vela

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Vela, the Night-Clad
99 Cards

Instead of Runechanter's Pike, Edward, may I suggest Moonsilver Spear? It makes an evasive creature for you to use if you need it while giving out the first strike you want. (Maybe I should have left well enough alone when we covered pet cards.)

Ninjutsu is on few enough cards that it gets easier to predict, but that only works when opponents see it coming after the big reveal. Edward's plan to bounce creatures in and out of play has obvious advantages with Vela, and there're plenty of tricky choices that can amplify the value of recycling enters-the-battlefield triggers. (Vedalken Plotter I'm looking at you, especially if I'm playing Aric...)

Ninjutsu isn't a deep mechanic with tons of cards to choose from, unlike morph, where you have blocks of options to pull from. Building "the morph Commander deck" probably used Animar, Soul of Elements and a playful arrangement of powerful morph options and colorless creatures to make mana smooth and Animar the engine pulling the whole train.

What Edward did with a narrow mechanic is a great example of how the perception that an idea is shallow can turn out wrong. That's our moment of Zen for this week.

Back to Basics

Perception can be reality. It's our jobs as deck builders and card pickers to break reality. Build the green deck that isn't ramp, token, or fatties. Build the blue deck that isn't artifacts, copying, and counterspells. Build the red deck that isn't melting faces, making Goblins, or hatching Dragons.

Just because we think we know what something's about doesn't mean we're right. I hope you know what you plan to shatter next.

This week's question calls less for decklists and more for pithy one-liners: What is the most valuable tip about Commander you've ever received?

  • Feedback via email
  • 300-word limit to explain the tip 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)

It's time to go back to the beginning and revisit some of the many things we've learned about the format. With a format as complex as Commander, it's natural for us to internalize things about choosing commanders, building decks, and making plays. Remembering what we've learned will pass our best knowledge on to a new wave of players coming soon.

Join us next week when we get a two-for-one. See you next week!

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