Assembling a Legion

Posted in Serious Fun on February 5, 2013

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.

Boros Week is something I've been waiting for since Return to Ravnica was announced. My favorite guild was coming back, and my favorite color pair was getting new toys to play with.

The devil, of course, is in the details.

When the split nature of Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash was shared, I understood how awesome it was. I was there the first time we visited Ravnica. I remember the guild distribution. It was awesome to know that I'd have two sets with Boros to look forward to. But I had to wait a few more months to have my zeal satisfied.

Boros Reckoner | Art by Howard Lyon

It was worth it.

When I sat down at the one (and only) Gatecrash Prerelease I could attend, the satisfaction of opening my box of Boros was overwhelming. Getting a second copy of Foundry Champion was already a good thing, as was the fearless face of Aurelia, the Warleader that greeted me. I had acquired my new guild leader in the first chance and proceeded to battle to a winning record despite never getting to cast her.

The only complaint I have is what I would have done differently with building my Sealed deck, but that's a story best suited to Marshall Sutcliffe. What I want to share today is similarly technical, but for a different format.

elektrotal @TrickMTG can you commission an article about building a commander deck from scratch, like staples, ratios of lands to stuff, etc?

My other fearless leader, taskmaster Trick Jarrett, pulled me into an innocuous Twitter question about building a Commander deck. Building a Commander deck is second nature to some of you, and it's a topic I've covered before. Today is a different step from where we've tread already: the Boros are an excellent analogy for how I, personally, build a Commander deck.

Dual Perspectives

What makes the Boros intriguing is how they combine two opposite forces: the order and rules of white with the passion and unrestraint of red. It makes sense that the two together feel militaristic, as the structure of white frames the raw, heady emotions of life-or-death combat.

Commander combines its own oil and water concepts: the order and rules of deck construction, and the passion and unrestraint of incredibly powerful cards. Simply restricting colors and copies of cards isn't enough to overwhelm the potential to break the game between friends. The duality doesn't stop there. Commander also asks players...

  • to create consistency amid disparate groups of cards.
  • to create action throughout the game despite a highly random deck to draw from.
  • to create a powerful deck from a sea of awesome things you love despite inherent power.

The opposing forces that shape Commander make it confusing from the outside. That confusion creates questions like those asked above.

  • How many lands do I run?
  • What cards should I use?
  • Which cards are the best to include?
  • How many of certain types of cards make the deck stronger?

All of these sound quantitative, but for Commander they're arbitrary and qualitative. Your commander, your themes, your spells, and your goals all change the answers to these questions. Finding the responses that work best for you will require some work, experimentation, and play.

For our purposes, let's pretend we're building a deck precisely how I prefer. My intuition and knowledge will be applied clearly, and my judgment to answer these questions will be made clear. It isn't that this deck will be "the correct" way to build it, but that it's satisfied me as in my view.

What are we building? Which new, awesome legendary creature did I just open?

Aurelia, the Warleader | Art by Slawomir Maniak

I want to build a Commander deck that represents the Boros, or at least how I perceive them.

  • Angels and other big, powerful creatures leading an army of small fries.
  • Equipment, patience, and building troops will be required.
  • Attacking should come easily and often.
  • Victory should come from creature combat, not a fancy Fireball.

Direct, earnest, and brutal when battling; these are the concepts that come to mind when I think of the Boros. I also find them relatable. It goes a long way to explaining my affinity for red-white.

Planning for War

My style of building Commander decks matches how the Boros behave. I create a plan from themes and consistent cards I already know, then layer in explosiveness and power to overwhelm opponents. I don't dominate the entire game, but I do deal damage by attacking you. It's structure and passion woven together.

The core of any successful military campaign is the supply chain. Without resources to execute a strategy, you simply lose. The supply I want most in Commander is mana, and I achieve that in two ways:

  • Include around forty lands in the deck
  • Use artifacts to hit more lands and generate more mana

There's room for both structure and passion in fulfilling my own demand.

Mana Artifacts
Structure Passion
Armillary Sphere Sol Ring
Chromatic Lantern Gilded Lotus
Darksteel Ingot Thran Dynamo
Expedition Map Boros Signet
Solemn Simulacrum Boros Keyrune

Smoothing out ways to play a land every turn is good strategy. Having ways to quickly generate mana and ambush opponents is also smart. Together with the high land count, this is more than enough ways to make mana easily. I will have to trim a card or two there from here.

I also like to include a few tools that I enjoy in any deck.

Useful Tools
Structure Passion
Duplicant Steel Hellkite
Mind's Eye Relic of Progenitus
Wurmcoil Engine Myr Battlesphere

Drawing cards, colorless removal, a graveyard reset, and creating a few tokens are all useful in a general sense. These, along with mana artifacts, are the most common types of cards to see in Commander. Whether you call them great cards, staples, or things every deck "needs" varies. The point is that they slot into almost any deck easily and feel great when you get to use them. They aren't unique to what you're trying to accomplish.

With Boros, our uniqueness comes from building our forces and attacking.

Building Forces
Structure Passion
Captain of the Watch Stalking Vengeance
Cloudgoat Ranger Preyseizer Dragon
Crescendo of War World at War
Elspeth, Knight-Errant Homura, Human Ascendant
Elspeth Tirel Aggravated Assault
Entreat the Angels Pandemonium
Geist-Honored Monk Warstorm Surge
Increasing Devotion Waves of Aggression
White Sun's Zenith Assemble the Legion

The structure of making an army and taking it to battle never changes. Cards like Captain of the Watch and Geist-Honored Monk are small units to deploy. White Sun's Zenith, Increasing Devotion, and Entreat the Angels quickly fill the battlefield with troops.

Knowing we'll have troops to marshal makes cards like Pandemonium and Warstorm Surge powerful, helping to clear away defenses while rallying our forces. Waves of Aggression and World at War provide extra combat steps when Aurelia isn't around. Cards like Homura, Human Ascendant and Crescendo of War make an army of small guys into a lethal offensive force in a hurry. (And we have plenty of cards to trim back from here too.)

Waves of Aggression
Homura, Human Ascendant

The next question is for the leaders who will command from the battlefield.

Budding Leaders
Structure Passion
Aegis Angel Basandra, Battle Seraph
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite Razia, Boros Archangel
Firemane Angel Inferno Titan
Gisela, Blade of Goldnight Thundermaw Hellkite
Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer Kuldotha Phoenix
Mirran Crusader Hellkite Charger
Restoration Angel Sunblast Angel
Sun Titan  

Aurelia, the Warleader is already an awesome commander. Beneath her are a slew of champions to guide the way. Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite and Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer both support their troops though increased strength. Mirran Crusader and Aegis Angel make combat compelling even on the defensive. Firemane Angel and Sun Titan both let us reuse our resources later in the game.

Rushing into battle is also effective. Thundermaw Hellkite and Kuldotha Phoenix scream through the air from our hand directly into the enemy. Basandra, Battle Seraph and Razia, Boros Archangel can turn opponents' combatants into nightmarish no-win scenarios. Hellkite Charger both makes it into combat quickly but also doubles it up when needed.

Kuldotha Phoenix
Razia, Boros Archangel

Small armies can flank a handful of opposing creatures, but it takes champions like these to punch through a more organized defense. Supporting that punch is possible too.

Superior Tactics
Structure Passion
Blind Obedience Urabrask the Hidden
Kismet Word of Seizing
Linvala, Keeper of Silence Mass Mutiny
Loxodon Gatekeeper Conquering Manticore
Martyr's Bond Zealous Conscripts
Sudden Disappearance Stranglehold

Preparing a favorable battlefield is a basic element of strategy. Reshaping it to suit our needs is the next natural step. Kismet, and its modern descendants in Loxodon Gatekeeper, Urabrask the Hidden, and Blind Obedience, keep the way clear for attacks. Sudden Disappearance and Martyr's Bond can make an unfavorable position an enviable one.

Creatures like Zealous Conscripts and Molten Primordial create a new dynamic, putting holes in otherwise solid fortifications. Stranglehold and Linvala, Keeper of Silence attack the supply lines of the enemy, slowing their reinforcements as the battle progresses.

Zealous Conscripts
Linvala, Keeper of Silence

We also need to deploy support across all our forces.

Structure Passion
Darksteel Plate Sword of Vengeance
Moonsilver Spear Ring of Valkas
Shield of Kaldra Lightning Greaves
Sword of Fire and Ice Swiftfoot Boots
Sword of Light and Shadow  

Granting creatures protection from damage and destruction empowers them to leap into action, while Equipment that grants haste lets an ambush happen from an otherwise narrow position. Moonsilver Spear is particularly awesome, growing our army even as we strike out.

Empowered to Mobilize
Structure Passion
Archon of Justice Aurelia's Fury
Day of Judgment Boros Charm
Luminate Primordial Foundry Champion
Oblivion Ring Hellkite Tyrant
Path to Exile Glaring Spotlight
Swords to Plowshares  

Keeping the path clear can be done with other spells, too. Using the right support at the right time makes a huge difference in success. Glaring Spotlight can let us swarm without worry, and Boros Charm protects against the all-too-common sight of Supreme Verdict or Day of Judgment. The irony of having our own nuke in reserve, Day of Judgment, is not lost on me.

Glaring Spotlight
Boros Charm

And in our most desperate of hours, Aurelia's Fury can do compelling things no other spell we have can: unlock a path to victory, destroy a hapless foe, and even strike down an opponent after we've done our job attacking.

The Final Orders

There are far too many options here, but it's clear we're leaning in a few ways:

  • We'll have more white than red in our final deck, so our lands can skew accordingly.
  • Aurelia can join the fray and attack immediately, twice. Having great Equipment on hand for her will be rewarded.
  • Ways to create a lot of creatures at once will serve our purposes better than creating small groups of creatures over time.

When I look at including themes or groups of cards, I look for at least seven cards that fit together cohesively, ideally more. This is where each theme settled.

Some themes overlap with others, and some cards fit into multiple themes, but I've kept it as close to the core as possible. The themes are defined, the key cards understood. The flavor of an inflexible, one-way-to-victory military force is present. This is an Aurelia, the Warleader Commander deck:

Aurelia, the Warleader Commander

Download Arena Decklist
99 Cards

This deck, like the Boros itself, straddles the line in Commander. While it carries many powerful, top-end cards for the format, it's also not emptying the battlefield or sneaking damage in through hard-to-kill artifacts and enchantments. Creatures will be deployed, equipped, and supported until they strike through opposing defenses.

The tension, and temptation, to overload on other ways to hinder and harm opponents is there. I can't deny the allure of more creatures that would survive Wrath of God and more copies of twists on Wrath of God itself. I can imagine the wrecking power of Heartless Hidetsugu or Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. I have seen the might of Karmic Guide and Reya Dawnbringer.

Wrath of God
Heartless Hidetsugu

This isn't a deck meant to utterly derail a game into a subgame where everyone else feels they need to kill us first. While we will offer potent attacks, we also offer time to set up and some visibility into what we're doing. We don't have a way to draw as many cards as we need, or to search out the exact spell we want. We're bound to the randomness of the format, even as we put structure and order into our deck.

I will enjoy playing this deck and it suits my desire to engage with almost any other Commander player while doing something I want to do. I follow both the letter and spirit of the rules of the format, but I fulfill my desire to achieve victory in my own way.

Execute Your Vision for Victory

Identifying the preferences you want to use in every deck can help you do it, too. These are mine:

  • Get close to forty lands, and include plenty of artifact mana to get the ball rolling early.
  • Find seven or more cards to fulfill each theme or goal I set for the deck.
  • Include different ways to approach the game. (I like a mix of solid Equipment and creatures with a few ways to overwhelm all at once.)
  • Include easy-to-cast, powerful artifacts to ensure there's always something I can do. It's best if these are already things I want.
  • I like to be unsure of how a deck will work. If I'm confident my deck can handle lots of resistance, I will dial the power back to ensure I don't stifle the players I join.

How you want your deck to work can be entirely different, even opposed, to what I like to do. That's the beauty of Commander. You can always cobble together powerful, destructive combinations of card, but there's no entry requirement to do so.

Your requirements will fulfill what you want. Be fearless in seeking them out.

Join us next week when we pull a few more pages from the history books. See you then!

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