General Mayhem

Posted in Serious Fun on November 18, 2008

By Kelly Digges

When I headed to Berlin a few weeks ago to work on coverage for the Pro Tour, I made sure to bring all the essentials: clothes, phone charger, packs for drafting, computer with every card name in Magic in the spell-checker ... and, last but not least, a deck for Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH to its friends; Commander Singleton FFA on MTGO).

In the evenings at a Pro Tour, you can always bet on finding a dozen judges or more playing EDH in the staff hotel lobby. I finally built an EDH deck, so I wasn't about to miss an opportunity to send it into action.

Elder Dragon Highlander

In Brief: EDH is a casual multiplayer format that lets you build a deck around a legendary creature, who serves as your "general." It's almost always played with multiplayer free-for-all rules, and it's very popular among the Magic judge community, where it originated.

Rules Rundown: Choose a legendary creature as the general for your deck. At the beginning of the game, your general is removed from the game, and you can play it from there for its mana cost. Whenever it would go to the graveyard, you can remove it from the game instead; each time you play it from outside the game, it costs more.

None of the cards in your deck can have mana symbols anywhere on them of a color that doesn't appear in your general's mana cost. You also can't generate any mana that isn't of those colors for any reason—you get colorless instead.

EDH decks must be exactly 100 cards, using the Vintage card pool and a short banned list, and no two cards except for basic lands can have the same name.

Players start at 40 life. In addition to the normal victory conditions, a player loses the game if he or she takes 21 or more points of combat damage from a single general.

For complete rules and the banned list, click here.

Pros: The combination of 100-card singleton and the general rules makes for an interesting blend of randomness and consistency. I really enjoy building a deck around a general's colors and abilities, because it gives each deck a unique feel. And in a pinch, you can shuffle your general in and use an EDH deck as a normal Vintage-legal casual deck, which makes them handy to have around.

Cons: EDH shares the power-level problems of all deep-pool casual formats, with the wrinkle that the added consistency of the general rules can easily be exploited if someone in your group is so inclined. It may not be a good choice if the players in your group vary widely in skill level, knowledge of older cards, and/or collection size, although this can be mitigated by sharing decks and playing a little more slowly than usual.

Sunday night in Berlin, I roamed the staff hotel lobby looking for an EDH game. In my card box was my newly completed Sharuum the Hegemon deck, ready for battle. I had pulled cards from my whole collection and tracked down a few key cards (like Darksteel Colossus and Tolarian Academy) that I didn't have, and I was pretty confident that the deck could hold its own.

Sharuum the Hegemon

Download Arena Decklist
Planeswalker (1)
1 Tezzeret the Seeker
99 Cards

I don't know about you, but I find long deck lists containing cards from across time and space pretty much impossible to comprehend, so let me say a few things about what's going on here.

I like to build decks with themes, and EDH is no exception. I build around my general's abilities and ethos, not just its colors. Sharuum the Hegemon is an artifact—the lord of a whole shard-plane of artifacts, in fact—and can put an artifact in my graveyard directly into play. To that end, I stocked the deck with expensive artifacts and ways to get them into the graveyard. That led me toward cards like Tinker and Beacon of Unrest, and the artifact focus meant that cards such as Tolarian Academy, Metalworker, Thirst for Knowledge, and Sculpting Steel were a good fit. And to make those hum, I packed the deck with artifact lands, Signets, and other artifact mana. Basically good multiplayer cards like Adarkar Valkyrie and Rhystic Study round out the deck, along with a few pet cards I've wanted to try, such as Brilliant Ultimatum and Trade Secrets.

There are also two, count 'em, two hard-to-pull-off combos in the deck, which is something I like to hide in my EDH decks if they're not too consistent. One is an instant win (and/or "infinite" life gain), and the other lets me draw my whole deck. Can you spot them?

To my left was my friend and fellow coverage reporter Dave Guskin. Dave was playing a Rafiq of the Many deck that he'd cobbled together the day before at the event. To his left was Ute (pronounced "OO-tuh"), a judge, running our third Shards of Alara general, Mayael the Anima. To her left was Seamus, a judge who you may recognize from my first Star article, running Oona, Queen of the Fae. To his left in this seemingly endless panning shot sat Hall of Famer and Wizards Ramp;D member Mike Turian, with the gutsy choice of Rakdos the Defiler. Mike wasn't actually sitting with us at the start of the game, but he wandered up with his Rakdos deck when we were halfway through our second turn or so, and we welcomed him to sit down. To Mike's left, all the way back around to my right, was Jan (pronounced "yahn"), another judge, who brought the old-school charm of Xira Arien. (Go ahead and click it, I'll wait.) Xira Arien is an Insect these days, and Jan's deck had an Insect theme going.

Phew, that's a big table!

Our plays over the first few turns hinted at our plans. Mike Turian played a rather mysterious Buried Alive for Lord of the Pit, Dwarven Blastminer, and Havoc Demon.

Mike assured us that this was his entire plan, and he certainly wasn't going to do anything with all those cards in his graveyard. Uh-huh.

Jan played Barbed Shocker a few turns later, and Dave and Mike argued for the privilege of being hit by it and "cycling" their hand. It ended up headed toward Mike, who was perfectly happy to toss his hand—that is, after sending an Incinerate toward Dave's Budoka Gardener. But Dave had just played a morph with two mana up...

Willbender! Dave sent that Incinerate toward the best target on the board: Jan's Barbed Shocker.

It wasn't too long before my plan was in full swing and Sharuum the Hegemon was in play, even if I had only returned a Dispeller's Capsule with it.

And with Sword of Light and Shadow on Sharuum, I didn't have to worry about Swords to Plowshares, or Unmake, or—

—Blast you, Jan, and your Nantuko Vigilante!

Seamus played Bribery to nab a Darksteel Colossus out of Ute's deck, but it didn't even get back around to his turn before I stole it with Enslave, which was pretty awesome...

...even if I couldn't equip it with Sword of Light and Shadow without the Enslave falling off. Amusingly, because the Colossus had come out of Ute's deck, that meant that she was the one taking damage, not Seamus.

But Ute didn't dwell on that for long, activating Mayael the Anima and seeing Oblivion Ring, land, land, land...

...Sundering Titan! Yeah, that's pretty good. And with zero basic land types in play, I didn't mind at all. Little did we know that the parade of board sweepers was only beginning.

On his turn, Mike sacrificed three of his lands to hit me with Rakdos the Defiler, beaning me for 7 and forcing me to sacrifice six permanents. Ouch!

With a hand containing, among other things, Angel of Despair, I was less worried about having creatures than about protecting them, so I put both Enslave and Darksteel Colossus, among other things, on the chopping block to save my Sword of Light and Shadow.

A Wildfire from Ute left her with a few lands, Spearbreaker Behemoth, Sundering Titan, and Troll Ascetic. Seamus had just a Crystal Shard and a land to activate it. I was in okay shape, with Gilded Lotus, Orzhov Signet, Sensei's Divining Top, and Angel of Despair (later bounced by Seamus's Crystal Shard). Jan was down to one land and one creature, a Phantom Nantuko. And poor Dave and Mike were left with no permanents at all.

Yeah, that'll happen.

I nabbed the Havoc Demon out of Mike's graveyard with Beacon of Unrest to ward off Ute's still-hefty army, but she crashed in anyway, with Sundering Titan, Troll Ascetic, and Spearbreaker Behemoth. I blocked the Titan, taking 8—but then Havoc Demon died, and shortly thereafter so did Spearbreaker Behemoth, Troll Ascetic, the Sundering Titan (which already had 5 damage on it and thus didn't much care for being a 2/5), and Jan's Phantom Nantuko for good measure. Oh, and the Titan dying sent another round of lands to the graveyard too!

We sped through the turns where nobody was really doing anything, and pretty soon we were all back on our feet in one way or another. When I tried to play Angel of Despair again, Seamus Hindered it, but Ute decided to protect it with Vexing Shusher to earn my good will. She was sitting very pretty on the Shusher, Flameblast Dragon, and Ajani Vengeant, though, so I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to ignore her.

Around this time, we had to pack everything up, because the hotel restaurant where we'd settled was closing. We relocated to a new table nearby, which had the slight drawback of being comically tall.

(My camera also started to run out of batteries at this point, so Dave helpfully snapped some photos with his iPhone. It's a great piece of technology, but not fantastic in low light. Apologies!)

Things started to speed up. I played a Platinum Angel, Seamus stole it with Take Possession, and somebody Oblivion Ringed it, all in the space of a few turns. An Adarkar Valkyrie picked up Sword of Fire and Ice to fulfill my Angel needs, and that one stuck.

Meanwhile, fellow columnist Brian David-Marshall came by looking for an eighth drafter—specifically, Dave, who had said earlier that he might draft. Brian even said he'd offer a bounty on Dave's head, and he wasn't hesitant to make good on the threat.

Back in the game, Mike Turian showed us why he's a Hall of Famer by playing Spiteful Visions, followed immediately by ... Wheel of Fortune! Draw seven, take 9? Ouch!

With everyone refueled and way down on life, we settled into the endgame struggle. Seamus had tons of mana, a Door of Destinies set to—what else?—"Faerie," and Oona, Queen of the Fae set to churn out 2/2 flying Faerie Rogue tokens. But the really awesome combo with Oona?

Dire Undercurrents! Now his 2/2 flying blue-black Faerie rogues would each grant a draw and a discard. Of course, with Spiteful Visions in play, it wasn't at all certain that he'd be targeting himself with the draw...

Meanwhile, I still had Adarkar Valkyrie in play equipped with Sword of Light and Shadow, along with Gilded Lotus, Sensei's Divining Top, and tons of lands. Sharuum the Hegemon was removed from the game, ready to come back for , a cost I could easily manage. Better: my hand contained Damnation and Gifts Ungiven, with a Disciple of the Vault in my graveyard. I realized that I could get Disciple of the Vault back with Sword of Light and Shadow (with an Unearth as back-up. Then, I could use Gifts Ungiven to get the final leg of my instant-win combo: Sculpting Steel.

It wouldn't even matter where my opponent put Sculpting Steel. I had enough mana to play both it and Sharuum if it went to my hand, and I could fetch it back from the graveyard with Sharuum if it didn't. Once I had Disciple of the Vault, Sharuum, and Sculpting Steel in play, I'd win the game, provided that nobody interfered. (Confused? A recent Rules Corner explained the combo in excruciating detail.)

I could play Damnation to clear the board, steal the best creature with Adarkar Valkyrie, play Gifts Ungiven this turn cycle, and be ready to win next turn.

So what happened? I got greedy. I figured I'd start by attacking Mike, who was low on life with no creatures. The Valkyrie has vigilance, and the life gain and "Raise Dead" from Sword of Light and Shadow are always nice. Right?

Mike played Rack and Ruin on my Sword of Light and Shadow and my Gilded Lotus, messing up my mana count and shattering my plans (pun, sadly, intended).

Foolishly, I decided to go for the Damnation plan anyway rather than adjust my plan, getting really greedy and tapping my Adarkar Valkyrie in response to "steal" Ute's Akroma, Angel of Fury. Seamus, understandably, didn't want Oona and all her little minions to die, a desire that he expressed with Venser, Shaper Savant. Back to my hand went the Damnation, and thanks to Rack and Ruin, I didn't have the mana to play it again. Worse, my 6/7 Angel was tapped, leaving me totally defenseless.

This fact was far from lost on Ute, who bashed my brains in with the aforementioned furious Akroma and a Chameleon Colossus. So close!

The table cleared off quickly after that. Jan fell to Ute's assault on her next turn, although she had to do it without Chameleon Colossus, which Dave stole with Govern the Guildless. Ute had had a bad time during the game keeping her Colossi in line. The 4/4 was tapped when Dave stole it, and she kept it tapped with Ajani Vengeant, but Dave revealed his unlikely trump: Freed from the Real!

Rafiq of the Many made an appearance for the first time this game, and Dave attacked Mike with his now untapped Chameleon Colossus, for ... let's see, 4, plus 1 for exalted is 5, activating its "doubling" ability gives it +5/+5, which makes it 10, so with double strike that's ... 20!

Not bad, not bad at all.

I went to bed, but I'm told that it came down to Dave and Seamus, with Seamus eventually collecting the bounty on killing Dave. You've got to watch those judges, my friends—they're crafty.

    Like Elder Times

It was a great time, and I was really happy with my deck. It's powerful, resilient, and fun. I think I might take a cue from Seamus's deck and put in a few good counterspells, because saying no to a particular spell at a key moment gave him a huge advantage this game. At any rate, I look forward, as always, to tinkering with the deck (oh, no pun intended that time).

This game showed off a lot of the reasons I enjoy Elder Dragon Highlander. There were twists and turns all over the place. Everybody's deck got to do its thing (except maybe for Jan's), but the game was totally unpredictable. Everything got wiped out multiple times, people were stealing each other's creatures back and forth across the table, and you could never be sure from one turn to the next what the board would look like.

Have you ever played Elder Dragon Highlander? What do you think of it? If you have played EDH, what sort of decks did you build? If you haven't, why not? I'll be building a few more EDH decks in the next month or two. Would you be interested in hearing about the deck-building process, or would you rather I stick with 60-card decks? Let me know in the forums!

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