A Laser Lock on Opponents

Posted in Feature on September 7, 2016

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.

Everyone loves weird ways to win games of Magic. While most of them aren't particularly powerful for competitive play, stories about Helix Pinnacle, Barren Glory, Azor's Elocutors, Felidar Sovereign, and others make the rounds at stores and tables. Perhaps the most famous in recent years has been Door to Nothingness, which narrowly missed making the Top 8 at Grand Prix Charleston in 2012.

While all of these work in Commander, there are a few ways to scoop up victory that become easier in a big multiplayer format. I've dabbled with adding Epic Struggle to my Rhys the Redeemed deck—sometimes I can't attack for the win with my massive army—and I've lost games to the duo of Darksteel Forge and Hellkite Tyrant. Kaladesh is filled with fantastic inventions, and whoever built today's preview card clearly envisioned players starting with 40 or more life in mind.

Meet Aetherflux Reservoir, coming soon to a life-gain and Commander deck near you:

Begin Charging the Weapon

Aetherflux Reservoir is a card asking a simple pair of questions: Do you have more than 50 life? If so, do you want to take a player out of this game?

All of the best alternate win conditions have been built on straightforward questions. Door to Nothingness asks for a double rainbow of mana. Mortal Combat asks for a well-stocked graveyard. Most appropriately, Test of Endurance asks if you have 50 or more life.

(Pro tip: If you're excited by Aetherflux Reservoir, then Test of Endurance is right for you. See your local game store for details.)

Charging up to fire off Aetherflux Reservoir takes some dedication: hitting 50 life isn't enough to do it (you pay the cost then lose the game since you're at 0 life, taking your ability with you off the stack when you leave the game), and leaving yourself at a precariously low life total isn't ideal.

So how do we make it work? It's simple: We kill the Batman. We plan a deck around gaining some life. With credit to online Commander deck–building users Wulle123 and mags387 for a base and inspiration, this is the kind of deck I'd plug Aetherflux Reservoir into:

Stybs's Karlov of the Ghost Council Commander

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Karlov of the Ghost Council
99 Cards

Let's hit the high notes on what it means to build with Aetherflux Reservoir.

1. Gaining a lot of life is a double-edged sword in Commander

Gaining life is easy. Big chunks of life, perhaps from Celestial Mantle or Beacon of Immortality (which I like more), draw attention. It's pretty suspicious to try and gain tons of life over, say, advancing the battlefield with creatures.

Gaining life incidentally, with things like Vampire Nighthawk, Pristine Talisman, and Deathgreeter, slides under the radar. It's harder to hit the critical amount of life for Aetherflux Reservoir, but you're not going to draw a ton of attention either. Picking up bits from extort triggers or planeswalkers like Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath is a good way to deflect some attention as well. Ob Nixilis probably won't stick around long enough to make piles of Demons or fire off his ultimate, but gaining some life won't leave hurt feelings from opponents either.

The real issue with gaining life is the opportunity for attacks against you. Whether it's fair or not—it all depends on your perspective, after all—putting in attacks of opportunity against the highest life total is common. Getting ahead on life without defenses is hard regardless of how you plan to do it.

2. Setting up plays takes patience

To defend myself, I included things like Grave Titan, Sun Titan, and, perhaps most importantly, Thalia's Lancers, one of my favorite cards from Eldritch Moon. Thalia's Lancers is a tutor (something that searches up the card you want) attached to a solid body with first strike—something that can hold down a defensive line.

Depending on what you need, Thalia's Lancers can grab several different legendary creatures:

  • Erebos, God of the Dead is great when you have plenty of life and can pay to keep your hand full of cards. It's also an indestructible source of card draw, which means even when everything keeps blowing up, you can count on Erebos to hang around and feed you options.
  • Patron of the Kitsune takes advantage when you're behind the creature count. If someone is generating Saprolings, Soldiers, or Goblins, gaining 1 life every time they attack is a solid way to stay in the game. Conversely, it also means you're a good target for those extra token attacks, as we discussed above.
  • Kokusho, the Evening Star forces opponents to have exile and similar removal (see Hallowed Burial, Swords to Plowshares), as they will avoid against sending it to the graveyard if they can. It's also excellent if you have a sacrifice outlet handy to immediately cash Kokusho in.
  • Rune-Tail, Kitsune Ascendant can immediately flip if you have enough life, ensuring your creatures are then immune to combat damage and most burn spells. It turns blocking into an easy option for you, and takes advantage of opponents that skimp on enchantment removal (which, to be fair, our deck here does as well).

Thalia's Lancers is an excellent example of a creature I'm happy to play at any point in the game. Like the classic Rune-Scarred Demon, having a few ways to find what you need is helpful, especially when you're not overloading your deck with other ways to tutor things up. It also turns things like Conjurer's Closet and Kaya, Ghost Assassin into value engines without any extra effort—good creatures get even better.

3. Go big only when it counts

Commander wouldn't be Commander without Aetherflux Reservoir and big, over-the-top spells. Both Exsanguinate and Debt to the Deathless are among the best plays to sequence into Atherflux Reservoir. By gaining life slowly over the game, staying ahead even if you're not really rocketing above the 40 you start with, you can afford to delay firing a deadly drain spell until the last moment. Even better, if opponents haven't seen the deck before, nobody will care about Aetherflux Reservoir hanging out if you're at 30 life—but you're in a position to fire it off after Debt to the Deathless not only fills your life up but leaves others well below the 50-point threshold to survive a direct shot.

Aetherflux Reservoir
Aetherflux Reservoir | Art by Cliff Childs

Ultimately, that's the biggest twist to an effect like Aetherflux Reservoir: While you can play it early and skate by with others ignoring it, it's far better to hide that you're getting ready to set it up until the absolute last moment. The longer opponents see it coming, the longer they'll be planning for it to hit.

And it'll probably be your life total that takes the brunt of their counter-efforts.

If you've played Conspiracy: Take the Crown and other multiplayer formats enough, you begin to get a feel for staying somewhat invisible. A trickle of life behind some strategic defenses and attacks of opportunity won't be as flashy as trying to launch an outstanding Dragonstorm, but it also means you'll be underestimated until the moment you do make a move.

4. Cancel the repeat performance

Setting up a sweet turn where you drain one opponent to death then turn the Aetherflux Reservoir onto the next unwary enemy is a fantastic tale and something that Commander is precisely meant to encourage, but it's not all there is to the story. Those opponents may not find things so entertaining being on the receiving end of an unanticipated end.

A word or warning: surprises are great in Commander, but losing out of nowhere to an effect that's completely off the radar from normal games doesn't feel great. It's less of a challenge to set up alternate win conditions in Commander than it appears at first glance—consider there are many more tutor and control effects we could be running here—and it's less of a story to retell the second, third, and more times you pull it off.

Being mindful of your opponents' experiences is important to building up a fun play group, and building decks meant to win on the spot work against that. It's one of the reasons it's a good idea to have multiple Commander decks. Once you make the "Aetherflux Reservoir Life Gain Deck" dream happen, it's time for something completely different. (Insert your own Monty Python reference here.)

Unveiling More Machines of Whimsy

Aetherflux Reservoir is just one of the many inventions of wonder and mystery coming in Kaladesh. While anyone who pulls off an Aetherflux Reservoir victory in Kaladesh Sealed earns my undying admiration (I'm really not sure how it'd even be possible!), it's just the tip of the iceberg for new ways to spice up your Commander decks.

Keep your eye out for more amazing devices. Who knows what else will be revealed as Kaladesh previews continue!

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