Add to that the fact that I don’t really get on with the person who’s running the Edinburgh Commander league, due to him thinking I’m a prick, me disagreeing and reciprocating in kind, and a general dislike for theban-list direction over recent months (Sylvan Primordial and Primeval Titan? Really? Yet Worldgorger Dragon, Deadeye Navigator and Genesis Wave are fine), and my window of opportunity to play Commander grows ever smaller.
That said, an Edinburgh local was leaving for a few months, and there were plans to get together and play EDH on a Saturday, and miraculously, I had nothing to do, so I thought I’d go along. Just when I thought I’d got out, they pull me back in…
Obviously, I wasn’t happy just borrowing a deck off somebody, as I feel like Commander decks are quite self-expressive, and I don’t think the vast majority of people build decks properly or well. Personally, I hate seeing the generic ‘good stuff’ decks, with 20 cards that you’re playing because you’re Blue, 20 cards that you’re playing because you’re Black etc, so I set out to build my own, again.
I find building Commander decks really cathartic, and is genuinely one of my favourite parts of Magic. For that, I’m grateful that Wizards has picked up on the popularity of the format, and started designing and printing cards with it in mind. There really are some gems in the Commander pre-cons, of both generations.
I built the deck I’m going to be talking about purely with cards I had already. It’s in an early iteration, obviously, and is open to change. I’m welcoming suggestions in the comments about how to improve the deck for the casually competitive environment that I’m interested in playing in.
What I’m not welcoming is discussion on the nature of the Commander format. If you’re only interested in battlecruiser Magic where you smash 8-drops into each other, this article will hopefully galvanise you into exploring what happens when you build a curve into a deck, and think about card choices a bit more than just slamming a bunch of ramp spells and six-plus costing creatures into a deck. I’m not hopeful though. Commander players frequently have a propensity towards obstinacy.
Karador, Ghost Chieftain is probably my favourite Commander from the initial wave of pre-constructed decks, and he’s in probably my favourite colour combination. Junk allows you to have access to kill any type of permanent, and while it has a weakness against powerful Sorcery based strategies, we can’t have it all. He encourages exactly the type of game I enjoy playing- grindy, graveyard battles with plenty of recursion.
Clearly, Karador’s abilities lead to greater reward when we’re (ab)using enters the battlefield triggers, filling our graveyard as fast as possible and rewards wilful sacrificing of our creatures to re-use them again.
With that in mind, it seems expedient to explore the options that we have available for getting things into our graveyard. As it turns out, there are many that allow you to discard cards from your hand, but not really all that many that get them from the top of the deck, directly into the graveyard. Thankfully, Return to Ravnica and Theros gave us some options to go with our traditional old guard.
Of this list, the ones that I’m least happy with are Deadbridge Chant and Drown in Filth. Neither of them is particularly exciting, with Drown in Filth being the most egregious offender. It’s probably just a necessary evil. We need to have ways to get cards into our graveyard, and we need them to cost not very much. Ideally, you want to be able to cast Karador on turn four or so, and these cards mostly help you do that. This is why Deadbridge Chant is weak.
While it is a heck of a chunk of the library into the graveyard in one shot, it’s coming down at a point in the game where you really shouldn’t be too concerned with putting stuff into the graveyard, but with how you’re going to get it out again.
This line of thinking has me putting Deadbridge Chant on the chopping block for the next round of updates. See, sometimes just thinking about a deck, and taking the time to rationalise the choices made therein leads to revelations like that that hopefully lead to a better, leaner deck. Would that we could all be so introspective and open to change in our Commander decks…
One of the best lines is a turn one Entomb, dumping a Life from the Loam into the graveyard, getting the deck going from the off, and sometimes allowing a turn three Karador, which is nice. I’ve mentioned previously my distaste for using generic Commanders if your deck isn’t relying on them to win the game.
Junk, as a colour combination isn’t exactly spoiled for choice in any case, but this deck does want and need to make use of Karador’s abilities, and he’s likely to be cheap enough that he’s easy to sneak onto the battlefield at some gap in the curve of the draw.
Grisly Salvage and Commune with the Gods are essentially the same card, with Grisly Salvage being slightly better due to getting lands. Commune is still excellent, and you’ll feel remarkably clever when you snag a Survival of the Fittest with it.
Survival of the Fittest and Hermit Druid are our engine cards – the ones that make the deck run at maximum efficiency. Survival is slightly better, as you get to search for the cards that you want, rather than relying on the top of the deck being kind to you.
Hermit Druid can be scaled, depending on how mean you want the deck to get. In my list, I have six basic lands, which, assuming uniform distribution, leads to around 16.5 cards revealed per activation. This can be pushed in either direction by adding or subtracting basic lands.
I considered going all in with Hermit Druid, and running no basics, but that’s a bit too brave for me, as you’d need five mana, a sac outlet and Karador in play, with none of the essential combo pieces in hand if you were to activate him. As is, I like the spot he’s in, where he digs quite a bit, and helps hit land drops.
Since he’s so integral to the deck, and there are sufficient enablers to get him into play early, I’ve been able to trim back on lands. Were the deck not set up to use and abuse Hermit Druid, I’d want at least another two lands. As is, and with the throughput he allows, we’ve been able to replace those lands with more business spells, which is always welcome.
When considering mulliganning with this deck, one should have at least one of these enablers, with basically any two land + Survival or Hermit Druid hand being keepable. Entomb is the third best card, and Life from the Loam the fourth. The rest are pretty far behind. On your head be it if you’re willing to keep a hand without one of these, or a way to find one.
Speaking of which…
I could have included Fauna Shaman in the section above, but it’s a little too slow for me to do so. I’d rather, for the sake of clarity, include it here, in the pure tutors section, as its primary use is going to be finding Hermit Druid, at which point, the superior engine will likely start taking over most of the heavy lifting, and you can use the Shaman to discard any combo pieces that you’ve stupidly decided to draw rather than putting into the graveyard.
Demonic Tutor and Diabolic Intent are effectively the same card. Diabolic Intent’s drawback is mitigated by the fact that our graveyard and hand are frequently one and the same, and in a deck built around enters the battlefield triggers, getting a rebuy on one of them can even be thought of as a bonus.
Green Sun’s Zenith finds Hermit Druid for three mana. That’s kind of cool, I guess. It can also fetch our primary sacrifice outlet in Varolz, the Scar Striped, which is also relevant. It’s fine, but its primary use is Hermit Druid, and everything else is significantly worse.
Jarad’s Orders fills a similar role at an extra mana, though it does have the ability to get something else into the graveyard as well, like a Grand Abolisher or something equally cheap and important to our big turn.
As is, the deck needs to activate Survival of the Fittest enough to get four cards in the graveyard, one into hand and have six mana in order to win the game on the spot.
Those cards are:
For the uninitiated in Reveillark combo, the way it works is this:
1. With Reveillark in hand, and the rest in the graveyard, pay six mana and Evoke the Reveillark.
2. Reveillark leaves play, returning Varolz, the Scar-Striped and Karmic Guide.
3. Karmic Guide targets Reveillark, Reveillark comes into play.
4. Sacrifice Karmic Guide to Varolz.
5. Sacrifice Reveillark to Varolz, target Karmic Guide and Saffi Eriksdotter with Reveillark’s leaves play ability.
6. Sacrifice Saffi Eriksdotter to Reveillark.
7. Sacrifice Karmic Guide to Varolz, then Reveillark. Target Saffi Eriksdotter and Karmic Guide with Reveillark’s leaves play ability. Saffi’s ability resolves, returning Reveillark to play.
8. Reveillark’s ability resolves, returning Karmic Guide and Saffi Eriksdotter to play.
9. Karmic Guide targets Corpse Connoisseur.
10. Corpse Connoisseur gets another creature from your library.
11. Sacrifice Corpse Connoisseur to Varolz.
Repeat steps 6-11 until all creatures are in the graveyard.
11. Replace Corpse Connoisseur in the above steps with each creature as many times as necessary.
In order to win on the spot, we will need to get:
Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter is a backup sacrifice outlet, and while it’s superior to Varolz, it’s not possible, as far as I can tell, to start the chain with him in the graveyard. If he’s in play, it’s fine. I want the deck to be as close to a one card combo as it can be, and Varolz allows that to happen.
Carrion Feeder, Cartel Aristocrat, Phyrexian Ghoul and friends are all equally valid options. I like Varolz as his ability to be Green Sun’s Zenithed is slightly better than Cartel Aristocrat’s protection, though it’s actually probably quite close there.
I’ve opted for creature sacrifice outlets. There is an argument to be made for Blasting Station and/or Altar of Dementia, as those act as win conditions. I prefer creatures, due to only really having Eternal Witness to return non-creatures that accidentally end up in the graveyard, and no real desire to increase that. You might feel differently.
Grand Abolisher should be the first thing that you get out after the backup sacrifice outlet. This means that your opponents can’t do anything, and should mean the game is now over.
Ashen Rider looping through the cycle exiles all our opponent’s non-hexproof permanents. Yosei taps our opponents out forever, as they skip all their untap steps, and taps all their permanents. Thragusk gains us infinite life and makes infinite 3/3 Beast tokens. Craterhoof Behemoth makes all our creatures as big as the infinite number of Beasts we have, and grants trample, to get over those pesky infinite hexproof blockers that our opponent is sure to have on the other side of the table. Ahem.
Lastly, and most importantly, Mogis’s Marauder gives all our infinite creatures haste and intimidate, to go with their infinite size and trample, and the fact that our opponents are tapped out, never to untap again, with no permanents in front of them, and unable to cast spells or activate abilities means that we’re about to swing in for a lot.
You might be asking ‘Well, that’s nice and all, but why don’t you just kill them with a Blood Artist and the basic three cards – Karmic Guide, Reveillark and a sacrifice outlet?’ You’d be right to ask that. There is no real reason. Sometimes though, it’s about sending a message. ‘Yup, that’s right champ, you just got Mogis’s Marauders’d out of the game’ just feels better.
My usual forum for Commander was our league, which awarded points for doing ‘cool things’. This deck would tick almost every box while winning, by creating massive swarms of gigantic creatures, killing swathes of guys, having a huge life total. Basically everything that my esteemed associates have deemed fun and cool, but would complain about, because it’s happened as part of a five card combo that requires creatures to live and the graveyard to remain unmolested.
‘Jeez Grant, I can’t believe you killed us all while I was using Deadeye Navigator to loop through my deck and do any number of heinous things. You’re the worst’. Sometimes, you’ve just got to dead them, and cut it out with the cool things. I’d infinitely rather be deaded than Winter Orb or Contamination locked.
If, for whatever reason, the combo doesn’t work. Maybe you’d rather play it out, and have the threat of ending the game available if someone goes crazy. Maybe you don’t like the idea of the combo at all. In that case, just cut the sacrifice outlets, or Varolz, and use Vish Kal as your only one, as he’s really good. But if that’s what’s happening, the rest of the deck is just designed to churn through the deck and kill things.
Angel of Serenity
Big Game Hunter
In the aforementioned infinity hexproof infinite/infinite creature blockers, who also happen to be GBW or artifacts, you could run Fleshbag Marauder through the loop and kill them all. Probably unlikely that it’ll be necessary though…
The only thing I can think of is Mirror Universe with Sigarda, Host of Herons tokens that have been made Black somehow. Or Hanna’s Custody’d infinite Pentavites or something that are infinitely sized somehow. Lucky we’ve got Massacre Wurm to break through that. Phew. That totally common, likely board state could have been annoying.
The rest of these cards are fairly standard issue. Cheap to mid costed creatures that do something when they come into play to kill something, or that are self sacrificing to do the same.
In order to speed the deck up, a few ramp spells are needed.
Yavimaya Granger is here as a self killing way to get lands out the deck, and one of my more popular cards to Karador back into play. Sakura Tribe Elder is here for the same reason. Wood Elves lets me get my Ravnica and original Dual lands, and put them into play untapped. This is a good one to run through the loop, as it’ll hopefully let you cast anything you’ve stranded in your hand.
Solemn is the worst of the bunch, but it’s still perfectly serviceable. I could very much see the argument to turning this into a Farhaven Elf, as it just fits what we want it to do at a better point at the curve.
Some cards occupy the ‘wiggle room’ slot in the deck. These aren’t overly necessary, and if you’re dying to shoehorn something else in, these are the slots I’d cut from. Not the two and three mana ‘draw a card’ creatures though. They’re really good, if unassumingly so.
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
Sheoldred, Whispering One
Wall of Blossoms
Wall of Omens
Deathrite Shaman and Scavenging Ooze help us fight opposing graveyards at very little cost. I like that neither of these is pure graveyard hate, and the cost is reasonable. A case could be made for Loaming Shaman, but I’m happy with where I am for now.
Praetors are Praetors. Anyone who’s played any amount of Commander should be used to seeing them. Sheoldred is better than Elesh Norn in this deck, and I think in Commander generally. I’d cut Elesh Norn long before Sheoldred, and Sheoldred is probably as close to a locked in slot as I’m prepared to commit to in Commander.
Coffin Queen is a pet card of mine. I love everything about her. Reanimation and effectively graveyard hate as well. Just fantastic. I remember playing this one week at our Commander league, everyone reading it, going ‘that’s really good’, and next time I went, everyone playing Black was running a Coffin Queen. Hugely underrated, and I’d consider it a staple of Black in Commander, although I really hate such labels.
Restoration Angel is just pure value. Blinking a Reveillark to kick off the chain if you can’t get your sacrifice outlet out of the graveyard is acceptable. Flickering anything in this deck should be good. There’s just so much redundancy here that it’s almost always going to do something pleasant.
From a reset point of view, it’s important to have ways to get your stuff back out of the graveyard when you don’t want it there. With that in mind…
I love a Living Death. This deck is not, despite what it may look like, a Living Death deck. The point isn’t about dumping huge monsters and getting them out quickly, like my Gwendolyn Di Corci deck from ages back, it’s about getting the right ones.
That said, a turn two survival can lead to a fifth turn kill with a Living Death, which is nice, if a little unlikely, and not really what we’re going for. Six through eight seems to be about the speed I’ve been running at, which is fast enough to get under most of the control decks I’ve seen, and slow enough that everybody gets to play a bit, and you get to react, rather than just going full on combo as fast as possible.
Eternal Witness has different roles depending on the stage of the game. You can use her to rebuy lands and other utility in the early game, or to protect your key cards if it’s not safe for them to be in the graveyard, but in the lategame, being able to rebuy Living Death means that we’ve got a pretty solid late game against sweepers and counterspells. Sure, they might have the instant speed Wrath or Counterspell now, but every turn?
The rest of the deck is reasonably unexciting, and just makes mana. We have:
Caves of Koilos
Temple of Silence
Temple of the False God
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
The only lands really worthy of any mention is High Market and Phyrexian Tower. Both of which can be used as a one time sacrifice outlet to start the chain off, or to get some value. We don’t really have that many options lands wise that play into our colours and theme.
As I said though, I just made this deck with cards I had already, and a cursory gatherer search. If you can think of any additions, please let me know. I’ve considered and dismissed Miren, the Moaning Well and Grim Backwoods already though, due to their high activation cost.
It’s worth commenting though, this is the first deck I’ve built that I don’t think needs either Sol Ring or Mana Crypt. For the most part, the deck requires coloured mana, which neither the Ring or the Crypt provides. I don’t see a hand with a Sol Ring being much better than one without, so for that reason, I’m prepared to bench it, for now. This might change in the future.
Hopefully, this deck has given you some ideas about how to go about building a Commander deck, and how to stick to a theme and push it as hard as you can. As I said, it would be quite simple to make this a pure value, grindy deck by cutting the sacrifice outlets. I wouldn’t recommend cutting Reveillark and friends though, as they’re all cards that stand on their own, play into the overarching theme of the deck, and really, are just a lot of fun to play with.
I’m very interested to outsource the fine tuning of this deck to the community though, as while I think it’s pretty close to optimal, it could do with some tweaking here and there.
It’s lucky I’ve managed to talk myself out of playing Deadbridge Chant, so I’ve got a slot already open for it. That’s what I love about Commander, the amount of messing about with decks, and twiddling them to suit your own play style.
Stay classy mtgUK,