Deck Tech: Olivia Voldaren

Olivia Voldaren was my first Commander, from back when I was a brand new player with no knowledge of how to play the game. My then-husband threw together the deck for me from cards he had on hand. It’s undergone some major changes since then, but retained its core of vampires and hatred.

The deck speaks to me on a personal level. If I were a Magic card, I would be red-black. Maybe there would be another color—possibly white, possibly blue (my friends and I at one point agreed that Kaalia of the Vast best represented me, although now that Queen Marchesa has been printed I feel Marchesa in either incarnation might be a better fit)—but the red and black are definitely there. I’m both passionate and ambitious. Any amount of sacrifice is worth achieving my goals—I sacrificed a good three hours of sleep in order to be on JudgeCast, despite being a self-proclaimed member of the Cult of Hypnos, with a religious obligation to get eight hours of sleep a night. Vampires are also my favorite mythical species. Part of the reason I got into Magic in the first place was because vampire tribal was a thing. It’s definitely not a coincidence that my first deck was vampire tribal in theme.

Being my first and favorite deck, Olivia gets all the love. Any new cards I get my hands on are slotted to Olivia first. Akroma’s Memorial cycled through Olivia, then to Sisters of Stone Death (because the theme was deathtouch and first strike, and also, Sisters with trample is just brutal); I’m not sure where it wound up after I took that deck apart. My judge foil Damnation is currently in Olivia, even though my Teysa removal-themed deck would probably be a better fit. I’ve somewhat gotten away from giving Olivia the “best” cards from my collection now that I keep my idealized decklists on Cockatrice and order cards from StarCity Games as I acquire the funds to do so.

I don’t play Olivia much anymore, since as time progressed, she began to focus more on winning than having fun. Not to say that winning isn’t fun; but losing certainly isn’t fun, and if all my deck does is make my opponents lose, they’re not having fun. And unless I’m in a particular mood, if they’re not having fun, neither am I. Usually because they’re scowling at me and exuding an aura of salt that can shrivel even my level of cheer.

One of the great things about Olivia is that the better my opponent’s deck, the better she becomes. One of the not-so-great things is that she folds to Akroma’s Memorial, which is a staple in a lot of Commander decks. Perhaps I should run more artifact hate. The original decklist ran Smelt, which I took out because it wasn’t doing enough; then again, at the time, I was playing against decks that didn’t run a lot of powerful artifacts, and killing someone’s mana rock never seemed to be the correct play.

Olivia mostly runs vampires and removal. Red-black is great for kill-spells. It also does well hating on life-gain. As I’ve written about previously, my very first night playing Magic I practically made the life-gain player cry by playing Havoc Festival in five out of six games. Tainted Remedy is even better for that sort of thing. That on Turn 3, or better yet, Rain of Gore on Turn 2, is beautiful against the Oloro player. (I feel like Oloro is an unfair card because there’s almost no way to interact with that effect. Turning it against them seems like the perfect karma.) The thing to remember about Rain of Gore is that it doesn’t stop lifelink, since in that case it’s the damage itself causing the life-gain.

So. Let’s take a look at what Olivia has to offer.

Vampires:

Anowon, the Ruin Sage

Baron Sengir

Blood Artist

Blood Seeker

Bloodline Keeper

Bloodlord of Vaasgoth

Butcher of Malakir

Captivating Vampire

Chancellor of the Dross

Dark Impostor

Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief

Drana, Liberator of Malakir

Falkenrath Exterminator

Falkenrath Marauders

Fiend of Shadows

Guul Draz Assassin

Guul Draz Overseer

Havengul Vampire

Heirs of Stromkirk

Indulgent Aristocrat

Malakir Bloodwitch

Malakir Cullblade

Markov Blademaster

Necropolis Regent

Olivia’s Bloodsworn

Rakish Heir

Shadow Alley Denizen

Stromkirk Captain

Vampiric Dragon

Vein Drinker

Viscera Seer

Some of these cards are just utility cards that happen to be vampires, such as Butcher of Malakir. Other are vampire tribal, like Stromkirk Captain. Vampiric Dragon remains on the decklist because it’s both a vampire and a dragon—two things that I adore. Viscera Seer might be taken off the list as more and better vampires get printed; it’s only on there because my ex was a firm believer in having free sac outlets in case of boardwipe, something that was probably more relevant in his original playgroup than the one I’m currently a part of. And of course there’s Olivia herself.

For a while I ran some non-vampire creatures under the philosophy that I could just make them vampires using Olivia. Something like Heartless Hidetsugu is gold in this deck. It’s very aggro and loves cutting everyone’s life total in half. But I decided the tribal theme was more important than streamlining the deck. Deathbringer Thoctar might combo well with some of the other cards, but I’d rather have another true vampire; if I need to win that badly, perhaps I should be playing Teysa or Kaalia instead.

Artifacts:

Basilisk Collar

Blade of the Bloodchief

Coat of Arms

Door of Destinies

Heartstone

Illusionist’s Bracers

Lightning Greaves

Mask of Avacyn

Sol Ring

Swiftfoot Boots

Normally I’d have stuff like Coat of Arms and Door of Destines in a category titled “Vampire Tribal” along with Stromkirk Captain and Captivating Vampire, and Greaves, Mask, and Boots together in a category labeled “Protection.” But Olivia’s artifacts are just so all over the place I decided to lump them all together.

Basilisk Collar turns Olivia into a machine gun. Equipped to her, it becomes, 1R: Destroy target creature. With Heartstone, that price is lowered to a single red.

Sol Ring allows me to cast Olivia on Turn 2, assuming in that time I get at least one source of red and at least one source of black. This is actually one of the few decks I run the card. It’s good for acceleration but in most cases I’d rather have another card, since my philosophy isn’t about trying to win every match.

Illusionist’s Bracers is just nonsense in this deck. I had one game with Turn 1 Sol Ring, Turn 2 Olivia, Turn 3 Illusionist’s Bracers cast and equipped. After that I had enough mana to convert and steal two creatures on each of my turns. My opponents just stopped playing creatures because they were tired of me attacking them with their own threats. (Incidentally, if they’d just communicated amongst themselves, and each of them played at least one creature per turn, I couldn’t have stolen all of them, and they might have been able to team up to eliminate me.)

Removal:

Doom Blade

Hero’s Downfall

Malicious Affliction

Murder

Terminate

Tragic Slip

Ultimate Price

Urge to Feed

Victim of Night

Blasphemous Act

Burn from Within

Damnation

Dreadbore

Ruinous Path

Sever the Bloodline

Vandalblast

Urge to Feed doubles as vampire tribal. Burn from Within is good when going up against things like Avacyn; I can Burn from Within for one and then Doom Blade her for the kill. And of course removal in general is just good. Especially if I don’t have the mana to steal the creatures with Olivia. Or if she’s been killed too many times for me to re-cast her.

Enchantments:

Braid of Fire

Havoc Festival

Mana Flare

Rain of Gore

Spiteful Visions

Stensia Masquerade

Tainted Remedy

Like with the artifacts, usually I’d have divided up the enchantments into categories. Havoc Festival, Rain of Gore, and Tainted Remedy definitely belong in a category together, perhaps with Spiteful Visions as well. That last is primarily in the deck for the damage it deals, although drawing extra cards is certainly helpful. Stensia Masquerade of course is vampire tribal, and Braid of Fire and Mana Flare help me afford Olivia’s ping ability, which buffs her and lets me swing in for the kill.

Lands:

Akoum Refuge

Blood Crypt

Bloodfell Caves

Bloodstained Mire

Dragonskull Summit

Molten Slagheap

Mountain x13

Rakdos Carnarium

Rakdos Guildgate

Smoldering Marsh

Swamp x13

There’s not much to say about the lands. Thirteen mountains and thirteen swamps is deliberate due to that being my favorite number. Normally I wouldn’t include a fetch land in a Commander deck, but I pulled so many from Khans packs that I declared the next one I pulled would go in Olivia, and since I did indeed pull another, it made its way into the decklist (and the deck is probably better for it).

I recently had a chance to play Olivia against some of my fellow judges. After deciding that because it was a friendly game we could mulligan whatever way we wanted until we had a keepable hand, I wound up with a hand that had two Mountains and a Sol Ring. What I didn’t have was a Swamp, but I drew one first turn, so my Turn 1 was Swamp, Sol Ring, Mask of Avacyn, which is the best Turn 1 I’ve ever had playing Olivia. The only better Turn 1 would have been Lightning Greaves in place of the Mask.

My friend Isaac had played Serra Ascendant on his own Turn 1, and swung at me Turn 2, swiftly earning my enmity. It was well-deserved, since he pointed out to the table, quite correctly, that a Turn 2 Olivia was much scarier than his Turn 1 Serra Ascendant (especially considering that I would soon have enough mana to steal the Serra Ascendant and then I would have both).

Turn 2, naturally, I played a land, and Olivia. Turn 3 I was able to equip with the Mask; I’d taken the gamble that no one would have removal this early in the game, and it paid off. With my remaining mana I pinged something, giving Olivia +1/+1, and swung at Isaac in retaliation for the six damage he’d dealt to me.

Turn 4 I drew Lightning Greaves, cast and equipped, pinged two more creatures, and swung at Isaac for seven more, for a total of 12 commander damage. (It might not have been the wisest choice for him to piss off the Rakdos player Turn 2.)

On Turn 5, I pinged Victor’s Mother of Runes—Victor was another judge who was playing with us. In response he tapped the MoR to give Battlegrace Angel protection from red until end of turn. With that on the stack, I pinged Battlegrace Angel, turning it into a vampire and giving Olivia her +1/+1 counter. After that I had enough mana left over for another ping, and I swung at Isaac for 10 commander, which added to the 12 he’d already taken was more than lethal.

Unfortunately round abouts that time, one of the other players got down an Akroma’s Memorial. Up until that point, he was easily handleable with what I had on board. But now his creatures had both flying and protection from Olivia, so there was no way for me to handle his board. I didn’t actually have Vandalblast in the physical version of the deck, and I wasn’t fortunate enough to draw Damnation—although even that would have only delayed the inevitable.

On Turn 6 I finally drew the second swamp I needed to start stealing things. My first take was Battlegrace Angel—I needed that life-gain, plus it was keeping me from attacking Victor. At that point I was in a good position to eliminate every player at the table except the one with Akroma’s Memorial, and I did so, then was run over by a bunch of flying elves.

Lessons learned: Unfortunately Akroma’s Memorial is a thing. I could try to run enough artifact hate to get rid of it whenever it shows up, similar to what I do with Trostani and enchantment hate (directed at things like Havoc Festival and Tainted Remedy). However currently artifact hate doesn’t seem terribly worth it, when it’s really just the one artifact that hoses my deck, and between the monetary and mana cost, it doesn’t come up in a whole lot of games. If I play Olivia more against a wider range of decks I might decide the artifact hate is worth it, even just to prevent my current boyfriend from getting too much of an advantage with his Birthing Pod.

Also, Olivia is scary. When my deck is more of a threat than a Turn 1 6/6 flying lifelink creature…I’m doing something right. When I kill three of the four other players in the game, and only lose to the one who has a card that shuts off my entire deck, I’m doing pretty well for myself. Olivia would definitely rather kill other players than win overall, and she does that quite well.

Randomization

Last weekend at DragonCon, I overheard a player giving advice to his opponent on how to shuffle. The player suggested laying out the cards one at a time into five piles in order to increase randomization. When I explained to him that this method of so-called “pile shuffling” does nothing to add to randomness in the deck, he insisted I was wrong. I was tempted to break out an old card trick my sister showed me over a decade ago, wherein I sort the deck into a number of piles, ask which pile your card is in, pick up all the piles and repeat. That’s all it takes for me to be able to identify which card was chosen.

So let’s start with what it means for a deck to be random. First off, randomization and shuffling are synonyms. One of my opponents at the last pre-release, upon being told that pile shuffling didn’t actually randomize his deck, informed me that he wasn’t randomizing, he was shuffling. I had a very Inigo Montoya moment—I do not think that word means what you think it means.

A truly random deck is one where each card has an equal probability of being in any position, and those probabilities do not change as more information becomes known. For instance, if I draw my Havoc Festival, I should not be able to use that information to conclude that my Wound Reflection is somewhere in the next ten cards. True randomness will reduce but not eliminate the chance of mana flood or mana screw; in a deck with an even distribution of spells and lands, spell-spell-spell-spell, spell-land-spell-land, and land-land-land-land have approximately equal probabilities of occurring. Each individual distribution of cards is exactly as likely to happen as any other; the fact that there are more ways for lands and spells to be distributed in an approximately even manner than for all to be clumped together means that as a whole those types of distributions are more likely to occur.

If I know the location, or approximate location, of any card in the deck, the deck is not random. For instance, if I shuffle my cards face-up, then flip the deck over and do a single face-down shuffle, I know that whatever card was on the bottom is still very close to that position. I’ll also know that said card is still very close to whatever cards it was close to when I turned the deck over, so if I draw one of them I’ll know the others are coming up soon, even if my opponent has cut my deck.

Most people think a random distribution means everything is approximately evenly spaced, like a group of people standing in an elevator. In fact, clumping is an aspect of randomness, because the presence of, say, one land card, has no bearing on the positioning of others. This is a very difficult thing for the human brain to grasp. It seems impossible that if you have twenty-three people in a room, two of them will share a birthday, but in fact there’s a better than fifty percent chance of that being the case. (The math on this is simple. Given two people, there’s a 364/365 chance that they don’t share a birthday. Multiply this by a third person’s 363/365 chance of not sharing a birthday with either of them, since now there are two days already taken. The fourth person is 362/265, and so on. As you multiply all of these numbers together, the probability of no one sharing a birthday shrinks, until it’s less than fifty percent, meaning there’s a greater than fifty percent chance that at least two people do share a birthday.)

Back on the topic of pile counting, there’s actually an infamous cheat known as the double nickel, wherein the player counts out his cards into five piles, stacks the piles, and repeats. This creates a near-perfect distribution of lands versus spells. Since most opponents only cut the deck, rather than shuffle, the distribution is preserved. (If I have land-spell-spell throughout my deck, it doesn’t matter what the top card is, the top seven will have either two or three lands, with another land either the first or second draw.)

In a less blatantly cheaty-face example, say I know the card that’s thirteenth from the top. I count my cards into five piles. The card I know is now in the third pile, third from the bottom. In a ninety-nine card deck, it’s going to wind up twenty-second from the bottom. Any card whose position I knew before the pile count, I can uniquely identify its position afterwards. No knowledge has actually been lost, therefore the deck is no more random than it was before the supposed shuffle.

Does that mean that an opponent who uses this technique is automatically cheating? Not necessarily. Judges refer to it as pile counting for a reason. It’s a great way to make sure you’re presenting a legal deck by ensuring you have all forty, sixty, or ninety-nine cards. It can also be helpful in determining if any cards are stuck together and unsticking them, so those cards don’t remain next to each other throughout the shuffling process.

So how should you shuffle? Riffle shuffling is best—that’s your typical playing card shuffle—but it’s rather difficult with a pile of ninety-nine sleeved Magic cards. One thing I like to do, after a few initial shuffles, is to cut the deck in half and shuffle each half separately. With sleeved cards, it can also be easier to mash shuffle (where you just mash the two piles of cards together, rather than bend them and let them riffle through your fingers), although mash shuffling isn’t as effective a randomization technique.

For a fifty-two card deck of playing cards, or a sixty card Magic deck, seven riffle shuffles will make the deck essentially random. In a Commander deck, you need at least one more, and that’s if you’re shuffling the entire deck at once. If not, first you have to randomize which cards are in the top versus bottom half (and not simply by cutting, since that preserves cards being in the same half, since they’ll move together from the top to bottom or vice versa), then cut it in half and shuffle each half seven times, before then shuffling the two halves back together.

For perfect randomization, it takes eleven or twelve shuffles to make a fifty-two card deck indistinguishable from true random. That number is going to increase as the number of cards in the deck increases. Of course it’s not terribly feasible to shuffle a Commander deck a baker’s dozen times before every game and after every search of the library; games take more than long enough as it is. Especially since it’s a casual format, I’m not really worried about players knowing the relative positions of cards. If you’re cheating in Commander, you’re doing it wrong. The main point of shuffling here is to create a random distribution of lands, which will hopefully provide semi-regular land drops and allow you to play your deck, while also undoing any knowledge you’ve gained of card positions either from looking through your library, or putting the cards on top after a previous game. Seven or eight shuffles—or seven shuffles of each half of the deck—should be sufficient for the purposes of the game. After searching the library, four or five riffle or mash shuffles will undo any knowledge gained, since it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to memorize the relative positions of ninety cards in the few seconds it takes to find the card you want.

Now go forth and spread the news! And don’t let people tell new players that pile counting randomizes their deck.

 

Deck Tech: Kaalia

When I first sat down to make a Mardu deck, my chosen theme was angels, demons, and vampires. At the time, vampires were mainly red in my mind, since it was shortly after the first Innistrad block. Incidentally, this was before the Mardu clan existed, so the color combination was still known as Dega, and there were only a few choices for Dega commanders.

My original commander was Tariel, because I wasn’t ready to shell out the money necessary to purchase a Kaalia, and for some reason I was determined to stick to vampires rather than dragons despite already having a vampire deck. Eventually that deck morphed into Mardu good stuff with Zurgo at the helm after Khans of Tarkir came out. I’ve been a lot happier with it since I stopped trying to force it to be something it didn’t want to be, but the idea of angels and demon still drew me.

Of course, I already had a red/white angel deck in Gisela, and with the printing of Shadowborn Apostle I decided to put together a mono-black demons deck as well. Honestly if I’d really wanted I probably could have combined the two into a Kaalia deck, but I dislike taking apart my decks, and Gisela and Shirei had their own personalities that would be lost if they got combined. (Gisela strives for one-shot commander damage, and Shirei can do such fun things as a Turn 2 Demon of Death’s Gate.)

For a while, I held off on building a Kaalia deck. There were three reasons for this. First, my husband was working on one. Why build my own deck when I could just borrow his? Second, the expense. Not only is Kaalia herself expensive, the deck requires several powerful cards that don’t come cheap. I could have cannibalized Gisela and Shirei for some of those cards, but nostalgia won out. (If there’s a Guinness record for greatest number of Commander decks owned, I’m working on achieving it. Current count is seventy-five.) Third, Kaalia decks are just plain mean. Due to Kaalia negating the need for mana, they tend to run a lot of mass land destruction, which makes the deck no fun to play against.

The first reason became irrelevant when my husband decided to move in with his girlfriend. He’s now my ex-husband, and we no longer communicate. I’ve since put together several decks that he was (and probably still is) working on.

The second hurdle was solved when I got more active with judging. StarCity Games offers store credit as one of the options for judges who work their evens. Working three of their events in a month earned me more than enough to put together the deck.

The third objection was perhaps the hardest to overcome. I dislike playing unfun decks. In putting together my own playgroup from friends who hadn’t played Magic for years, I had to focus on decks that are fun for the whole table, so my friends would want to continue to come over and play. But that group fell apart after the divorce, and recently I’ve been playing in assigned pods at the local gaming store. This means occasionally I get paired against players who have degenerate combo decks, and I care about their fun to the precise degree that they care about mine, which is to say, not at all. Besides, sometimes I’m just in the mood to wreck face. With the number of decks I have to choose from, I can afford to have a few decks that are just plain mean.

I approached the decklist with the assumption that I’d be making myself a target the minute I sat down. Some commanders draw hate by the nature of the decks they typically command. Sharuum decks have degenerate combos; Zur decks are difficult to interact with; and Kaalia decks run land destruction. Regardless of whether the individual deck in question does those things, the other players at the table are going to assume. Thus I needed ways to protect my commander and recur her if she got countered or killed. I also wanted to be able to cast at least some of my creatures without my commander to cheat them out.

Naturally the core of the deck is angels, demons, and dragons. Big, stompy creatures that I can cheat in using Kaalia’s ability. The rest of the deck is about reanimation, protection, land destruction, and removal. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the decklist.

***

Angels:

Adarkar Valkyrie

Admonition Angel

Aegis Angel

Akroma, Angel of Fury

Akroma, Angel of Wrath

Angel of Deliverance

Angel of Despair

Angel of Serenity

Angelic Arbiter

Angelic Field Marshal

Angelic Skirmisher

Archangel of Strife

Archangel of Thune

Archangel of Tithes

Aurelia, the Warleader

Avacyn, Angel of Hope

Deathless Angel

Emeria Shepherd

Gisela, Blade of Goldnight

Iona, Shield of Emeria

Linvala, Keeper of Silence

Platinum Angel

Resolute Archangel

Reya Dawnbringer

Subjugator Angel

Tariel, Reckoner of Souls

Linvala is good because at only four mana, if I can cast Kaalia, I can probably cast her. Angelic Field Marshal is also four CMC, but she’s really only good when Kaalia is in play. Archangel of Thune is pretty easy to cast at five, and her ability will help buff my other creatures, Kaalia included, assuming she’s on the battlefield.

The best use for Aurelia is to play her before combat. She has haste, so she can attack that turn, giving you that sweet attack trigger. Then you can drop in two other creatures that same turn. If you cheat her in with Kaalia, you lose out on the trigger until you attack with her the next turn. That’s because her ability only triggers when she’s declared as an attacker, and Kaalia’s ability puts her onto the battlefield already attacking. Then again, if it’s Turn 5 and you have Kaalia out and Aurelia in hand, dropping her in could well be the best play.

Archangel of Tithes, though only four CMC, can be difficult to play without Kaalia’s ability because of the three white in the mana cost. However, unlike Aurelia, her ability is not a trigger, therefore you still get the benefit even if you cheat her in with Kaalia’s ability. Also, while she’s untapped, it’s that much harder for opponents to attack you, especially if you’ve recently destroyed all of their lands.

Subjugator Angel is great, because if you drop her in with Kaalia, it all but guarantees that your opponents won’t be able to block this turn. This can be good if you don’t yet have a way to protect Kaalia and the opponent you want to attack has flying blockers. It can also lead to some shenanigans second combat phase if you also attack with Aurelia.

Aegis Angel, Avacyn, and Deathless Angel can be protection for Kaalia to keep her from being destroyed; Adarkar Valkyrie, Emeria Shepherd, and Reya Dawnbringer can bring her back after she gets killed.

The rest are mostly just good, powerful creatures that would be good in any deck. The mana curve is steeper than I’d typically play in a deck, but with Kaalia it’s okay, because I should be able to cheat them out early. If I can’t, well, I’m probably going to lose. In this particular case, that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

***

Demons:

Bloodgift Demon

Harvester of Souls

Master of Cruelties

Rakdos the Defiler

Rune-Scarred Demon

Master of Cruelties is great if one of your opponents has no blockers. Swing with Kaalia, drop him in to her ability. His attack restriction is only checked when he’s declared as an attacker; because he enters the battlefield already attacking, the restriction doesn’t matter. With no blockers to be declared, MoC’s ability triggers, preventing all damage he would deal and setting the defending player’s life total to 1. That happens in the declare blockers step. Then we go to the combat damage step. MoC deals no damage because it’s been prevented, but his ability has no effect on Kaalia, who deals her 2 like normal. Now the defending player is at -1 and loses the game.

Of course this only works the once. The next time MoC attacks, he has to do it alone. Even then, he’s a good card. Unblocked, he sets defending player to 1, leaving them easy pickings next turn. Blocked, the combination of first strike and deathtouch means the blocking creature is going to die before it has a chance to deal its own damage. Or I can just keep him in reserve as a blocker, to kill any creatures foolish enough to come my way.

Rakdos is kind of a one-off effect, and I may take him out of the deck depending on how he performs. Still, I can’t pass up the opportunity to drop him in with Kaalia and thus bypass his downside while forcing one of my opponents to sacrifice half their permanents.

***

Dragons:

Balefire Dragon

Moonveil Dragon

Utvara Hellkite

All three dragons that made the final cut are rather difficult to cast. I almost have to have Kaalia on the field in order to get them down. Balefire Dragon and Moonveil Dragon are just plain good in any deck, so including them is no hardship. Utvara Hellkite is a little iffy in a deck with only three dragons, but even with only himself, I can double my number of dragons every turn. Plus, this way he’s already there if WotC prints more dragons I want to put in the deck.

***

Land Destruction:

Armageddon

Boom//Bust

Cataclysm

Catastrophe

Decree of Annihilation

Ravages of War

As previously stated, I dislike land destruction, because it means out of four players at the table, only one is actually getting to play her deck. I feel justified in running it in Kaalia, however, because, first off, I’m going to be targeted the minute I sit down, and second, if I manage to landwipe with Kaalia in play, the game isn’t going to last much longer. Without lands, no one will be able to kill my threats, most importantly Kaalia, so my boardstate will continue to increase over the next few turns until I’ve eliminated all the other players. Then I can pull out a deck that’s perhaps a wee bit more fair.

***

Removal:

Anguished Unmaking

Disenchant

Go for the Throat

Hero’s Downfall

Mortify

Murder

Terminate

Tragic Slip

Vindicate

As I’ve written about in a previous post, removal is key. There are several things that can shut my deck off, like Guul Draz Assassin, or Sheoldred, or Dictate of Erebos. I need to be able to get rid of those things if they come up. My chosen removal involves a lot of things that can hit a variety of permanents, so I’m ready for anything.

***

Recurrance:

Animate Dead

Debtor’s Knell

Phyrexian Reclamation

Breath of Life

Defy Death

Profane Command

Resurrection

Unburial Rites

Sheoldred, Whispering One

Kaalia is going to be a target. The easiest way to stop the Kaalia player is to kill Kaalia herself until she’s uncastable. Being able to bring her back from the graveyard, rather than having to send her to the command zone and pay the command tax, gives me more time to build up my mana base while my opponents futilely throw kill spells in the hopes that one will eventually stick.

***

Protection:

Darksteel Plate

Lightning Greaves

Swiftfoot Boots

Whispersilk Cloak

Not much needs to be said about being able to keep Kaalia from being targeted or destroyed once I get her out. I would like to note however that Whispersilk Cloak has the additional benefit of keeping her from being blocked, which means my opponent can’t just get down a two-power flier and be safe from my wrath.

***

Other:

Dictate of the Twin Gods

Havoc Festival

Honestly these cards could fall under the category of “acceleration,” but with only two of them it didn’t feel worth it to create said category. Both are in the deck because Kaalia depends on reducing life totals in order to win games. A turn 5 Dictate while swinging with Kaalia and dropping in Gisela means twenty-eight damage to somebody’s face. Turn 6 Havoc Festival means everyone now has a turn to get rid of something or they’re all going to die.

***

Land:

Arid Mesa

Badlands

Blood Crypt

Bloodfell Caves

Bloodstained Mire

Boros Garrison

Boros Guildgate

Command Tower

Godless Shrine

Marsh Flats

Mountain x4

Nomad Outpost

Opal Palace

Orzhov Basilica

Orzhov Guildgate

Plains x4

Plateau

Rakdos Carnarium

Rakdos Guildgate

Rogue’s Passage

Sacred Foundry

Scoured Barrens

Scrubland

Smoldering Marsh

Swamp x4

Wind-Scarred Crag

For this deck, I decided it was worth it to shell out the money for duals. Kaalia really needs to be able to hit the field by Turn 4, since she’s racing the clock to kill everyone before any of them have a chance to build up enough of a board presence to stop her. Most of the lands are just mana-fixing, although I did throw in a Rogue’s Passage to make Kaalia unblockable in order to protect her, or help Master of Cruelties get through.

***

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to play Kaalia. At the time I hadn’t yet gotten my hands on any of the duals I wanted, although it turned out they were for sale at the store where I was playing, and I was able to acquire them for store credit before the end of the night. Here then is a run-down of how the night progressed.

Game one. Opening hand had only one land, had to mulligan. Second hand had a Swamp and three Plains, no sources of red. Every card was foil. Kept, hoping for a red source that never appeared, although I did hard-cast Archangel of Tithes. From the moment I sat down the Daxos player targeted me, since there had been a Kaalia deck in his last playgroup and he had not-so-fond memories of playing against it. I felt this was perfectly fair; after all, I was playing Kaalia, and when I sit down across from a Kaalia deck, my first thought is to contain the threat. Gitrog combo’d off around Turn 6 and we shuffled up for Game two.

Game two. Opening hand had Boros Garrison, the Badlands I’d just purchased from the shop, Godless Shrine, and Nomad Outpost. Karador got down a Birthing Pod and a creature that was going to allow him to search for creatures, so I teamed up with Gitrog, casting Murder on the creature while Gitrog destroyed the artifact. Got down Kaalia Turn 4. Turn 5 I swung at Gitrog and dropped in a Gisela, dealing 14 damage, then dropped in a Phyrexian Reclamation and played Boros Garrison, returning my tapped swamp. Turn 6 I swung again, dropping in Deathless Angel for 24 more damage to Gitrog, killing him for exactsies, since he was already down 2 from some other effect. At the end of my turn, Karador exiled my Gisela, which was a fair play.

Daxos had down a Gravepact, and sacrificed a creature, forcing myself and Karador to sac creatures as well. I chose Kaalia, then returned her to hand with Phyrexian Reclamation. The recurrence I run in my deck was earning its pay. Daxos then destroyed my Phyrexian Reclamation so I couldn’t do that anymore.

On my next turn, I swung Deathless Angel at Daxos, flashing in Dictate of the Twin Gods for 10 damage.

Daxos proceeded to enchant his commander with Fallen Ideal, which was a problem for myself and Karador, since we now couldn’t keep creatures on the field. I then proceeded to team up with Karador; he tutored for Reclamation Sage to destroy the Gravepact after I returned Kaalia to the battlefield once again using Unburial Rites. Next turn I swung at Daxos, dropping in a Rakdos the Defiler. He took 18 and had to sacrifice six permanents, which effectively kept him from doing anything else, and proved that Rakdos was a good inclusion in the deck. The very next turn Karador combo’d off and won.

All in all, I was pretty happy with how the deck worked. Although that Gravepact/Fallen Ideal combo stymied me for a while, given enough time I could have drawn into Mortify, Vindicate, or Anguished Unmaking. What really made me happy, though, was the fact that everyone had a good time. At various points in the game each of us had the advantage. It was also pretty interesting actually allying with other people while playing Kaalia. Usually it’s Kaalia versus the rest of the table. Most likely it was my own mindset, rather than the decklist, that allowed that, but it’s nice to know that even with a truly degenerate deck I can still play a game wherein everyone enjoys themselves.

Versatility

A lot of Commander players like to hone their decks in order to increase their win percentage. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Winning is fun, and more winning means more fun. However, the way people tend to go about it often ignores the aspects that make the Commander format unique.

For instance, many players will try to make their decks as consistent as possible. While consistency is good, part of the fun of Commander is that every game is different. The singleton, multiplayer format means new interactions come up every game, even when playing with or against the same deck. It can get boring when one of the decks plays the exact same sequence of cards every single game. If you want to play the same game every time, there are formats like Legacy that are far more suited to making that happen.

In addition, decks that depend on a certain combination of cards have an inherent weakness. If you play the same game every time, and I play against you once, the next game, I can predict your every move. I know what spell to counter or permanent to destroy to disrupt your combo. I once locked a Kaalia player out of the game entirely by simply playing and leveling a Guul Draz Assassin. If I know you require certain combo pieces which you fetch using tutors, for instance Curiosity to put on Niv-Mizzet in order to combo off for the win, I can hold a counterspell in hand until such time as you attempt to tutor, or wait for you to activate your combo and Naturalize the enchantment. If that’s the only thing your deck is designed to do, you’ll be left twiddling your thumbs while the rest of us continue to play, acknowledging you only as long as it takes to eliminate you from the game. While you may have succeeded in increasing your win percentage—even playing Talrand, my counterspell deck, I’m not necessarily going to have answers every single game—you’ve decreased the amount of fun you can have in games you don’t win. If winning is all that matters, play some format where it actually matters, like Modern, where you can improve your skill enough to win significant prizes. Commander is about maximizing fun.

So how do you do that?

The answer lies in versatility. If you build a deck that can adapt and respond to challenges, you’re going to have more fun. Have several wincons, not just one—or have ways to retrieve key combo pieces if they get removed.

For example, I have four decks that run heavy on tutor effects. Although I depend upon tutors to dig for my combo pieces, I have several different combos to choose from. In my Judgebreaker deck, which I wrote about in a previous post, the idea is to create a situation that is confounding even to certified judges; to that end I have several different interesting interactions requiring vastly different cards. If I played the same cards every game, the judges would soon learn how they interacted and it would be impossible to provide a challenge. Instead I have a baker’s dozen distinct combos that each require knowledge of different rules. If an opponent gets rid of my Hive Mind before I can cast Warp World, I can still copy my Doubling Season using Progenitor Mimic. If last game the judge nailed the interaction between Eye of the Storm and Possibility Storm, this game I can tutor for Hamletback Goliath and Rite of Replication.

Garza Zol and Damia, on the other hand, are all about synergy, things like making Master of Cruelties unblockable using Aqueous Form or perhaps Rogue’s Passage, and then tapping Niv Mizzet to make the opponent lose that last point of life; or creating a loop with Inexorable Tide, Seedborn Muse, and Ring of Three Wishes that allows me to tutor and cast a new spell each turn. Both decks are chock full of fun little combos like that, so if one gets disrupted, I can search up another to replace it.

Then there’s Phage. Unlike the other decks mentioned, Phage is designed with the commander as its wincon. The idea is to find some way to cheat Phage into play without losing the game, be it Command Beacon, Torpor Orb, Sundial of the Infinite, or some other method. Once Phage is in play, I have a number of ways to keep her from being blocked, either through fear, shadow, or just plan unblockable. Of course, none of that does me any good if Phage gets countered or killed until she’s uncastable, which is why the deck doesn’t depend solely upon its commander. It can also do things like use a Vampire Hexmage to remove all the counters from my Dark Depths in order to get that sweet Marit Lage token.

Giving the decks versatility accomplishes two things. First, it allows me to recover from an opponent foiling my original strategy. Second, it keeps games from becoming dull and repetitive.

Perhaps you don’t rely on tutors. Why pay extra mana to tutor up the card you need when you can just run a bunch of cards that do essentially the same thing? An example of this might be my Talrand deck, which is home to every halfway decent counterspell I could find. Doesn’t matter if Talrand gets countered or killed; I can always re-cast him. Until the command tax is 8 mana plus Talrand’s original 4 and I’m stuck on 11 Islands.

With Talrand, I’m unlikely to run into that problem, since I can probably counter any kill-spell thrown at him, netting myself a fancy Drake token in the process. And on the rare occasion where my commander does become inaccessible, such as when all my lands got destroyed via a Cycling effect I couldn’t counter, I can get petty revenge by countering everything else that player does. I may no longer be in contention for victory, but I can still affect the game.

Krenko, on the other hand, doesn’t have that advantage. There aren’t a whole lot of counterspells in mono-red, and without my commander to create exponentially increasing numbers of tokens, the deck is seriously hobbled. But even then I can get out a great number of goblins with abilities ranging from first strike to menace to mountainwalk to haste. I might not be able to win, but that Kresh player is going to be really sad when my ten 3/3’s come at him for that final 30 points of damage and he can’t block because he controls a Mountain.

What these decks have in common is the ability to do something even when the commander isn’t in play. The Kaalia deck I mentioned couldn’t even play creatures without Kaalia to cheat them in—the mana cost was too high.

So what could the Kaalia player have done differently?

Well, first off, he could have run removal. He’s in the three best colors for creature removal, after all. With Guul Draz Assassin out of the way, he could have re-played his commander with impunity. Alternatively—or additionally—he could have run some way to protect Kaalia. Slip on a pair of Lightning Greaves and the Assassin is left without a target. If he did this when the Assassin was already tapped, I wouldn’t have had a chance to respond.

For dealing with everyday, non-repeatable removal, including counter-magic, recursion can be a good idea. If you sit down with a Kaalia deck, you’re making a statement. It’s extremely likely that the rest of the players will try to gang up on you to prevent you from taking advantage of your commander’s ability. They’ll try to counter or kill her until you don’t have the mana to cast her. If, rather than sending her to the command zone, you instead allow her to go to the graveyard and then return her with something like Animate Dead, you can get around having to pay the command tax.

In addition, being able to hard-cast some sort of threat can make people think twice about targeting you. If you have a nuclear bomb and no way to defend yourself, your opponents want to kill you before you get the chance to use said bomb. If you have a nuclear bomb and also a couple of tanks and guns, and can retaliate if attacked, they might hesitate to attack until they can kill you in one swing, which gives you a chance to marshal your forces and cast your commander. For Kaalia, those cards might include Archangel of Thune; Master of Cruelties; and Linvala, Keeper of Silence. (Linvala, incidentally, would have been a beautiful answer to Guul Draz Assassin, and at only four mana, she’s quite easy to cast.) Note that these cards are still good if you have Kaalia out; you’re not sacrificing a slot you could fill with a bigger threat in order to include them. Master of Cruelties in particular is an auto-include in pretty much every Kaalia build, since her ability gets around his attack restriction and allows for a one-turn kill if the opponent has no blockers. While this might mean you want to hold off on playing him in case you get Kaalia out, it’s nice to have the option if you know there’s no hope of getting your commander any time soon.

Point being, honing your deck should be about more than just maximizing your chance of winning. While those decks are great for commander pods at GP’s where you’re playing against strangers and the winner actually gets a prize, a more versatile deck is a lot more fun to play sitting around the kitchen table, drinking beer with your friends. To make your deck more versatile, include alternative wincons and/or ways to recycle your primary wincon, either through multiple cards with similar effects or methods to retrieve them from the graveyard. While this won’t always ensure that you win—or even have a shot at winning—it will increase your potential to have fun. And at its core, that’s what Commander is really about.

Deck Tech: Nekusar

Nekusar, the Mindrazer is a cool commander, because his effect, while not entirely balanced, is generally beneficial to everyone at the table. Card advantage is a good thing, even when it hurts you. That’s why Dark Confidant is such a good card in Modern. Sure, you might lose a bit of life here and there, but you’ll have answers and threats, and that more than makes up for the drawback. This makes Nekusar kind of a double-edged sword. Sure, you’re hurting your opponents, but you’re also helping them dig through their decks for their own wincons.

That being said, Nekusar lends himself to a certain type of deck construction. Wheel effects are especially useful in a Nekusar deck. Who cares that you just lost some good cards from your hand; your opponents just took seven damage apiece. Things that cause players to draw extra cards, and things that punish card draw, are also quite good. Since you’re already running a lot of wheel effects—and all that card draw means your opponents will probably be discarding at end of turn—you can also run things that punish discard.

A lot of people run Nekusar as a control deck. Lots of counterspells to keep their opponents from being able to do anything while they whittle away at life totals. I don’t like to do that. I’d prefer my opponents to be having fun, even if it means I’m less likely to win.

One thing I do in my Nekusar deck that I haven’t seen in other decklists (although I can’t be the only person to have thought of it), is I run ways to give Nekusar infect. Nekusar with infect plus some other draw effect plus wheel means ten poison counters per opponent. (I managed to do this Turn 6 in one particular deck test.) True, most people dislike playing against infect and might be a bit miffed to lose so early in the game, but at least they got to witness a pretty cool interaction, and it’s unlikely to be repeated the next game.

So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the deck. Since there are so many cards in this article, I won’t be hyperlinking all of them; if you want to see what they do, just copy the name into the search feature on this website.

Wheels:

Teferi’s Puzzle Box

Barbed Shocker

Dragon Mage

Jace’s Archivist

Magus of the Jar

Shocker

Whirlpool Warrior

Wheel and Deal

Dark Deal

Incendiary Command

Molten Psyche

Reforge the Soul

Time Reversal

Time Spiral

Wheel of Fate

Wheel of Fortune

Whispering Madness

Windfall

Winds of Change

Notice there are quite a lot of these. They make up the core of the deck. Sometimes they say draw seven, sometimes equal to the number of cards originally in hand (or that minus one), sometimes equal to the largest number of cards any player had in hand. Some of them say discard, some say shuffle into the library, some say put on the bottom. It doesn’t really matter; the point is they’re forcing a lot of card draw, all at once, and with Nekusar out, that means a lot of damage. The ones that say discard also synergize with other cards in the deck as we will discuss later on.

*

Card Draw:

Font of Mythos

Otherworld Atlas

Temple Bell

Diviner Spirit

Kami of the Crescent Moon

Master of the Feast

Nin, the Pain Artist

Seizan, Perverter of Truth

Dictate of Kruphix

Fevered Visions

Forced Fruition

Spiteful Visions

Jace Beleren

Prosperity

Some of these cards make the card draw hurt; others are free gifts when Nekusar isn’t in play. But when Nekusar is in play, they speed up the process of whittling away at life totals until everyone is dead.

*

Punishing Card Draw:

Fate Unraveler

Kederekt Parasite

Phyrexian Tyranny

Price of Knowledge

Underworld Dreams

We don’t want to count on Nekusar himself to deal all the damage. If we did that, our opponents could just make sure our commander never saw the light of day. With these back-ups, we can still win even if we don’t have access to our commander for one reason or another. And if we do have Nekusar out, they’ll just speed up the process.

*

Discard:

Jin-Gitaxias, Core Auger

Liliana’s Caress

Megrim

Painful Quandary

Waste Not

I’ve grouped together all the cards that deal with discard (excluding the wheels already mentioned), since there aren’t very many of them. Some of them cause discard; others punish it. And since so much discard is going to be happening, Waste Not is an auto-include.

*

Control:

Lightning Greaves

Swiftfoot Boots

Silent Arbiter

Cancel

Counterspell

Dissipate

Dissolve

Murder

Tragic Slip

Scatter to the Winds

Void Shatter

While the deck isn’t control-oriented, it’s still a good idea to have some methods of control. Countermagic is great for that. I also like having ways to protect my commander and myself. Having ways to get rid of annoying creatures is also nice.

*

Infect:

Grafted Exoskeleton

Corrupted Conscience

Glistening Oil

Phyresis

As mentioned before, giving Nekusar infect is just mean. Grafted Exoskeleton is great because it’s re-usable, and can be equipped to one of my other damage-causing creatures if Nekusar gets killed. Corrupted Conscience can steal an opponent’s creature if I feel the need. Glistening Oil is also repeatable, since it returns to hand when the creature it’s enchanting dies.

*

Miscellaneous:

Library of Leng

Phyrexian Metamorph

Psychosis Crawler

Dictate of the Twin Gods

Furnace of Rath

Havoc Festival

Wound Reflection

Library of Leng means that when I wheel, I can keep the hand I already have. Phyrexian Metamorph can copy one of my utility creatures like Dragon Mage or Jace’s Archivist, or one of my artifacts like Teferi’s Puzzle Box. Psychosis Crawler punishes my opponents each time I draw a card, and because state-based actions aren’t checked in the middle of resolving spells or abilities, he can survive when I wheel. Dictate and Furnace speed up the game by doubling the damage Nekusar deals; Wound Reflection does the same thing by doubling the amount of life lost. Havoc Festival is my favorite card, and keeps life-gain decks from becoming a problem while bringing all decks within easy kill range.

*

Lands:

Bojuka Bog

Command Tower

Crumbling Necropolis

Dimir Aqueduct

Dimir Guildgate

Dragonskull Summit

Drowned Catacomb

Geier Reach Sanitarium

Grixis Panorama

Island x7

Izzet Boilerworks

Izzet Guildgate

Mountain x7

Rakdos Carnarium

Rakdos Guildgate

Reliquary Tower

Swamp x6

Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

Most of the lands here are pretty self-explanatory. I need the right distribution of mana to be able to cast my spells. Geier Reach Sanitarium is there for the card draw. The Urborg is because Underworld Dreams can be awfully hard to cast, and the Reliquary Tower means I don’t have to discard if I wind up with more than seven cards in hand, which in this deck is a distinct possibility. Bojuka Bog is a more recent addition, just in cast I encounter graveyard-heavy decks.

*

So that’s the deck. Now let’s see what it looks like in action.

Two weeks ago, I brought it to the card store to play in the Commander pods. I was intending to play Kaalia of the Vast, but when I saw one of the players in my pod was a friend of mine, and another player pulled out Gisa and Geralf, whom I intend to use to replace Grimgrin as my commander for my zombie deck, I decided to pull out Nekusar instead. While still mean, Nekusar doesn’t have land destruction, and the amount of card draw he engenders is a great recipe for shenanigans.

My choice paid off. By Turn 2 I had a Waste Not in play, and it started netting me zombies immediately, since unfortunately my friend (who was playing Grimgrin) was mana-screwed and had to discard. Even mana-screwed, he still managed to be the hero of the game, which we’ll get to in a bit. In the end I had seven zombies tokens, which is the best use of Waste Not I’ve had to date.

Turn 3 I got a Master of the Feast, so my opponents were already drawing extra cards even before Nekusar hit the field. That also provided me with a 5/5 flyer with which I proceeded to beat face.

Turn 5 I played Nekusar, because I could. There are very few better Turn 5 plays for that deck. Magus of the Jar might be a better option, because then I’d be able to play Nekusar the next turn and sacrifice the Magus immediately, but I didn’t have that particular card in hand. As for what I did have in hand, Nekusar was definitely the correct play.

The Karador player seated to my right had played Pernicious Deed, and I assured him that he was going to want to sacrifice it for 5 on my next turn. He shrugged and said maybe he would, maybe he wouldn’t. Well, the next turn rolled around, and I swung with Master of the Feast and my seven Zombie tokens, all of which got +1/+1 because Gisa and Geralf had played a Bad Moon. I arranged it so the damage would be distributed fairly evenly, including blockers (G&G had some, the other players did not). Karador didn’t want to take the 6 from MotF, so he decided to sacrifice the Pernicious Deed for 3, despite the fact that I’d repeatedly told him he’d want to get rid of Nekusar; he was trying to be nice. (Protip: Don’t be nice to Nekusar. He’s pure evil and does not understand.)

Second main phase, my only nonland permanent was Nekusar. So I enchanted him with Glistening Oil. The Grimgrin player wasn’t paying close enough attention, and allowed it to resolve. I then attempted to cast Molten Psyche, which Grimgrin countered, thus saving the entire table from a terrible fate.

Of course, Nekusar still had infect, so when I passed the turn that two draw step damage became two poison counters for each of my opponents.

Then it was Turn 7. I had Havoc Festival in hand, along with the mana to cast it (I hadn’t yet missed a land drop that game), but instead chose to cast Barbed Shocker. The reason for this was that the Karador player, whom I deemed the most immediate threat, had no blocking creatures and six cards in hand. I swung Nekusar and the Shocker at him, forcing him to discard his hand and draw six. With the two poison he’d already taken during his draw step, that should have been game.

Instead, Karador chose to dredge a card from his graveyard to replace one of the draws, and managed to stabilize at 9 poison counters. Grimgrin returned Nekusar to my hand using Cyclonic Rift, and Glistening Oil went to the graveyard, triggering its ability to return it to my hand, as well. I had enough mana to re-cast both cards the next turn, thus renewing the cycle; but Karador used Birthing Pod to dig for Mindslicer during my draw step, which he then sacrificed to another effect, forcing me to discard my entire hand, including the card I’d drawn for turn. He’d also gotten a Dark Depths during his turn; when I asked if he played Vampire Hexmage, he said no, but that he did have a Thespian’s Stage somewhere in the deck. During my main phase I re-cast Nekusar, then passed the turn. That was, incidentally, the only time I missed a land drop that game.

Meanwhile G&G had been building up quite a boardstate of zombies and swinging at us, getting everyone down around 30 life. But Karador’s Turn 9 play of Peacekeeper put a stop to that. I was quite happy with it myself, since Nekusar doesn’t need to attack to do damage (although being able to get in there with my Barbed Shocker might have been nice).

Turn 10, I drew a Time Reversal, but couldn’t play it, because Karador had just (re)played Gaddock Teeg. Grimgrin got an Agent of Erebos, and exiled Karador’s graveyard. In response, Karador cycled a card so he could dredge his Life from the Loam. The three cards he dredged into oblivion were Sigarda, Host of Herons; Phyrexian Altar; and Thespian Stage. In all, he lost 32 cards.

The next turn, I got a Phyrexian Metamorph, choosing to copy Karador so I could cast Seizan, Perverter of Truth from my graveyard. There were one or two more turns after that, with nothing really exciting happening. The game ended in a draw due to time constraints, with everyone around 20 life, except Grimgrin who was at 8. Given enough time, either Karador would have combo’d off, or Nekusar would have beat everyone down to zero, but it doesn’t really matter, because everyone had a great time.

*

I played the deck again last Friday. I almost played Kaalia, since one of my opponents was one of those unfun players who plays cards like Jokulhaups, and it would have been a perfect test for her; but I wanted to get in one more test of Nekusar before I posted this article.

Again, I didn’t miss a land drop almost the entire game. Opening hand I got Reforge the Soul, which I sat on for turn after turn, just waiting for the right time to cast it. Turn 2 I got Swiftfoot Boots. Turn 3, Megrim. Turn 5 I got down Nekusar, having luckily drawn an Island on Turn 4; before that I was stuck on one Swamp and a bunch of Mountains. The Tasigur player across from me copied my Nekusar using Clever Impersonator, which was pretty awesome. Turn 5 I got down Dictate of the Twin Gods and should have equipped the Boots but forgot. That allowed the Marath player to kill both Nekusar and the Clever Impersonator clone before his draw step, meaning no one took the twelve damage from drawing three cards with two Nekusars and a Dictate in play.

Turn 7 I had a Havoc Festival in hand but chose to play Font of Mythos and Fevered Visions. Card draw was no longer directly detrimental, but I was keeping my opponents above maximum hand size and thus forcing them to take damage upon discard. Unfortunately the Marath player O-Ringed my Dictate, which was a good play but left me very sad. I’d been planning to cast Reforge the Soul on my next turn and kill all my opponents.

Instead, on Turn 8 I replayed Nekusar, this time using my extra mana to equip the Boots. I try not to make the same mistake twice. At this point the highest life total other than mine was twenty; with everyone at seven cards, Reforge the Soul was going to win me the game.

Alas, it was not to be. The unfun player, whose commander was Norin the Wary, cast Jokulhaups, wiping the entire board save for enchantments. Megrim was still happily dealing two damage to those opponents who weren’t drawing lands and thus were forced to discard. Luckily I still had a land in hand, and Turn 10 I drew another, allowing me to cast Shocker. By this point Norin had a Purphoros down, which meant two damage to each of us whenever anyone played a spell, since Norin would get exiled and return, thus triggering Purphoros’s ability. The next turn I planned to attack Norin with my Shocker. Norin would get exiled, and he didn’t have the devotion to make Purphoros a creature, so the damage would go through, and the fourteen damage from discarding his hand would be enough to kill him. Unfortunately—well, fortunately for him—he had Confusion in the Ranks, which he played, exiling Norin and stealing my Megrim. When Norin returned, he traded it for my Shocker, thus saving himself from a grisly end.

A turn or two later, after being hit with my own Shocker, I was able to play an Island and cast Phyrexian Tyranny, getting back my Megrim. Tasigur died during his clean-up step due to being stuck at only one mana and thus being unable to pay for Phyrexian Tyranny’s cost, and then being forced to discard and taking another 2 from Megrim. Norin won at 6 life.

Considering the majority of the damage was dealt by my deck, I can’t be too unhappy about the results. In two different instances, if Norin hadn’t had exactly the right card, I would have won. The fact that I didn’t win is incidental. If that’s all I cared about, I would have played Kaalia. I wanted to see how Nekusar behaved when he didn’t have infect, and this game was a perfect example. Also, if not for the exiling of my Dictate, I would have been able to win the game without re-casting my commander—proof that the deck is versatile enough to function without Nekusar in play.

All in all, I’m quite happy with the way the deck turned out. I don’t normally have any fun playing against the Norin player, and this game I actually enjoyed myself, despite the fact that he won. The previous week the entire table seemed to have a good time, even though infect usually elicits groans from everyone involved. Overall it seems to be a pretty good deck. The card draw and lack of overt control means that other players get to play their decks and interact with each other and also with me, so that if I do win it doesn’t feel like an inevitable train wreck they’ve been watching approach for half a dozen turns.

And with that settled, I can move on to my Kaalia deck, in all its violently destructive glory.

Commander Rules

A while back I posted about the basic rules of Magic. If you’ve read that, you should have a pretty good idea about how a turn goes, what creatures do, et cetera. Now you want to play an actual game. You’ve heard that Commander is a casual format, and you kind of like the idea of just sitting around the kitchen table with your friends, playing whatever cool cards you can get your hands on. Maybe your brother-in-law used to play and donated his collection to you when he heard you were interested in the game. Now you want to put together a deck.

If you don’t have an extensive collection of cards, you might want to refer to my post about budget deck-building. Or you could just buy one of the pre-constructed decks. If you want to build your own deck, there are some rules specific to the Commander format that you need to be aware of.

First, color identity. Your commander’s color identity includes all mana symbols found anywhere on the card, excluding reminder text. For instance, while Bosh is a colorless creature, because there is no colored mana in his mana cost, he has a red activated ability, which makes his color identity, for the purpose of Commander, mono-red. Rhys the Exiled is a mono-green creature, but his black activated ability means that his color identity is green-black. Note: You are allowed to run Bosh (Bosh, Iron Golem) or Rhys as your commander. Because Bosh has red in his color identity, you would be running a mono-red deck; with Rhys, it would be a green-black deck. Hybrid mana counts as both colors that it could be; Daghatar the Adamant, for example, is a white-green-black commander.

You are only allowed to run cards that are in your commander’s color identity. This includes basic lands. According to the rules of Commander, you can’t run basic lands that would produce mana outside your commander’s color identity. Likewise, you can’t run any guildgates in your Bosh deck, because they all have mana symbols that are outside your commander’s color identity. You can, however, run lands that say they tap for any color of mana, as long as the actual mana symbols don’t appear anywhere on the card. There used to be a rule that if you tried to tap a land for a color not in your commander’s color identity, it would produce colorless instead; with the advent of cards that require colorless mana in casting or activation costs, this rule has gone away. Hybrid mana, again, counts as both colors of mana. You can’t run a Dominus of Fealty in your mono-red Heartless Hidetsugu deck, because Dominus is both red and blue, at the same time.

Now that you understand how color identity works, you can choose your commander. Your commander has to be a legendary creature. Any legendary creature will do, as long as it’s not banned in the format. (You can find the updated Commander banned list here.) You start the game with your commander in the Command Zone, and can cast it from the Command Zone on your main phase (or at any point if it has flash, like Yeva) as soon as you have the mana to cast it. Since you are guaranteed to have access to your commander, and its color identity dictates what you can and cannot put in your deck, choosing your commander can be the most important decision you make when constructing your deck.

Commander is often referred to as a hundred-card singleton format. What this actually means is that, including your commander, you have a total of one hundred cards, and you are only allowed to run a single copy of each of those cards, the exceptions being basic lands, and cards that specifically say you can run multiple copies, like Relentless Rats (because card text trumps game rules).

Once you have your deck, you’re ready to start playing. Each player starts at 40 life (as opposed to the usual 20 for most formats). Commander is generally a multiplayer format; I recommend four players minimum. You can play with only two, although there is a different banned list for two-player; but part of the beauty of Commander is that if all parties agree to ignore the banned list, that’s fine, because you’re just playing to have fun. Three players is technically multiplayer, but what often happens is that the two players with weaker decks will gang up on the player with the stronger deck, which doesn’t tend to be very fun.

You can roll a die to determine who goes first. After the first player, proceed around the table in a clockwise fashion. Since it’s multiplayer, the first player does draw a card on his or her first turn (for two-player Commander, as with most formats, the first player does not draw a card on his or her first turn). Also because it’s multiplayer, the first time you mulligan it’s “free,” that is, you go back to seven rather than immediately down to six. (Subsequent mulligans do decrease the number of cards.)

For the most part, Commander is the same as other formats, with a few exceptions. As already noted, you start at 40 life, rather than the usual 20. Priority is passed around the table in turn order, which usually isn’t relevant to know, unless you want to know who gains possession of a sacrificed creature when there are three copies of It That Betrays on the battlefield. (What is the proper plural of It That Betrays? Its That Betray? They That Betray?)

The main thing that distinguishes Commander from other formats is your commander itself. As previously mentioned, your Commander hangs out in the Command Zone until you’re ready to cast it. If your Commander would change zones, you can choose to send it back to the Command Zone rather than whatever zone it would go to (hand, library, graveyard, exile), so it will be available for you to cast again later. The only catch is that, for each time you’ve already cast it from the Command Zone this game, you have to pay a “commander tax” of two mana. So, if you’re running Olivia Voldaren as your commander, the first time you cast her, she costs two, a red, and a black, for a total of four. If she gets killed, you can send her to the command zone rather than the graveyard (which incidentally will not trigger any effects that happen when a creature dies, or if a creature died this turn, since she never actually hits the graveyard); later you can cast her again for four, a red, and a black, or a total of six. If she then gets exiled (Olivia is a scary commander, and clearly your opponents have been following my advice and running removal), you can again send her to the command zone. At that point, the next time you want to cast her, you’ll have to pay six, a red, and a black, for a total of eight. If, however, someone casts Cyclonic Rift overloaded, and she gets bounced to your hand, you can choose either to send her to your hand or to the Command Zone; if she goes to your hand, you can cast her from your hand for her original mana cost. If she dies again, or if someone counters her when you try to cast her, and you send her back to the Command Zone, she’ll cost eight, a red, and a black, since commander tax keeps track of how many times she’s been cast from the Command Zone this game. Keep in mind that this is a choice; if you have a way to reanimate your commander from your graveyard, by all means, let your commander stay in your graveyard. If your commander then gets exiled from your graveyard, you can at that point choose to send it to the Command Zone instead. If you’re running Obzedat, Ghost Council as your commander, and want to use his ability to exile him at your end step and return him on your next turn, you’re welcome to do so.

In addition to whatever cool effects you can get from whatever abilities your commander has, you can also kill your opponents with commander damage. If a player takes a total of twenty-one (or more) combat damage from a single commander over the course of the game, that player loses the game. This applies to combat damage only; Ruric Thar, the Unbowed‘s ability that deals 6 damage when a player casts a non-creature spell will not add to the total. Also, it’s not the total combat damage taken from all commanders; if you’ve taken eleven combat damage from Olivia Voldaren and twelve from Ruric Thar, you’re still in the game. And keep in mind that you can die to damage from your own commander; I once almost died to my own Sliver Legion because the Lorthos, the Tidemaker player had tapped down all my creatures, and the next player stole Sliver Legion for the turn and swung it at me. Luckily I was able to flash in Quick Sliver and save myself.

And that’s about it. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Judgebreaker

A couple weeks ago I went to Grand Prix Atlanta, in order to play in the side events (also so I could meet Sean Catanese, Riki Hayashi, and Jess Dunks, because I’m a total JudgeCast fangirl). The Commander pods had a cool thing where each player was given 10 Prize Wall tickets, and instructed to give them to the player who caused them to have the most fun. I’d just sleeved up my brand-new Judgebreaker deck, and decided to play that and see what kind of shenanigans I could cause, which went over really well with the players, and frustrated the judges to no end. I had judge calls almost every game, and the final game had three judge calls, during the last of which, the judge had to go find back-up, and then upon consulting with a third judge after having made the call, came back and told us he’d been wrong in his ruling; then CJ Shrader, one of the hosts of JudgeCast (whom I met at the SCG Open last month), got involved, wanting to know why I’d done such a thing, to which my response was, “Because I could.”

(And then the intro teaser to the latest JudgeCast episode was Bryan Prillaman saying, “Let’s not talk about what Caged Sun does when you make it a land.”)

We’ll start with that call and work backwards. I’d played a Caged Sun, naming green. Then I played a Xenograft, naming Saproling. Several turns later, I had both Life and Limb and March of the Machines in hand, and played them both.

So. Let’s run through the layers. In Layer 4, the type-changing layer (see Rule 613.1d), March of the Machines says Caged Sun is now an artifact creature. Because it’s a creature, Xenograft applies, saying it’s a Saproling in addition to its other creature types (of which it has none). Because it’s a Saproling, Life and Limb applies, saying it’s also a Forest. So we have an Artifact Land Creature—Forest Saproling. In Layer 5, which deals with color (see 613.1e), Life and Limb sets its color to green. Then we skip to Layer 7, which deals with power and toughness. In Layer 7b (613.3b), Life and Limb wants it to be a 1/1, while March of the Machines wants it to be a 6/6. In this case, we apply timestamps (613.6). If Life and Limb was played last, the bast power and toughness is 1/1; if March of the Machines was played last, base power and toughness is 6/6. Then, because its color is green, Caged Sun’s own ability applies in Layer 7c, giving it +1/+1.

Got it? Good. That was the easy part.

Caged Sun reads, “Whenever a land’s ability adds one or more mana of the chosen color to your mana pool, add one additional mana of that color to your mana pool.” Seems easy enough. But it’s important to note that because Caged Sun is itself a land, that ability is a land’s ability. Therefore when it triggers, possibly from tapping the Caged Sun for a green, and adds the extra mana to my pool, the act of adding the extra green to my pool triggers it again, and again, ad infinitum. Because it’s not a “may” ability, there’s no way to exit the loop, and the game is a draw.

But wait! What if someone has a response? Maybe the Daretti player has a Lightning Bolt. If the Caged Sun is a 2/2, Lightning Bolt will deal lethal damage, and state-based actions will put it in the graveyard. Except it’s an ability that’s adding mana to my pool, and Rule 605.4a says that triggered mana abilities don’t use the stack. So no one gets a chance to respond. Right?

Not quite. An activated mana ability (605.1a) is an ability that does not target, could add mana to your pool, and is not a loyalty ability. A triggered mana ability (605.1b) is an ability that does not target, triggers from the resolution of an activated mana ability, and could add mana to your pool. So the first Caged Sun trigger is a triggered mana ability. Subsequent triggers do not meet these requirements, because they are triggering off triggered, not activated, abilities. I get the first two mana immediately; the rest use the stack. Instant-speed removal can interrupt the process at any point.

In this particular case, no one had any responses, and the game should have been a draw. The judge who took the call ruled differently, saying I got an arbitrarily large amount of green mana which I could then use; I didn’t press the issue, because I’d only done it in the first place for the lulz, and I still had a two and a half hour drive ahead of me and wanted to get out of there within a reasonable amount of time. Plus I’d been such a troll to the judge, and he’d been such a good sport about it, I didn’t want to go, “No, you’re wrong, I want a second opinion.”

Moving backward, earlier in that same game we’d had another judge call. The judge who answered had already taken one of my calls in a previous game, and was like, “Oh, it’s you again. What did you do this time?” He also told me I should become a judge, and was quite happy to hear that I already was one. The board state at this point was, in addition to the Caged Sun and Xenograft that were just kind of hanging out doing nothing, I had a Parallel Lives, and had cast an Opalescence, so that Parallel Lives was now a creature. I then cast Progenitor Mimic, copying my Parallel Lives.

Now, assuming no one did anything to stop it, the next turn Progenitor Mimic would trigger, putting a Parallel Lives token onto the battlefield, but because of Parallel Lives’ ability, and the fact that Progenitor Mimic is also a Parallel Lives, instead of one token, I’d get four. The next turn, I’d have six copies of Parallel Lives when Progenitor Mimic triggered (the original, the Mimic, and four tokens), so I’d get 26, or 64 tokens. Add that to the six already there, and the turn after I’d get 270 tokens.

If I’d actually been angling to win, I probably would have here, because I had a Grip of Chaos down, but it was a creature due to Opalescence, and I decided the game would be more fun if it was gone and swung it into lethal blockers, because it had been a long day and I wasn’t thinking straight.

My opponents were having none of this, and decided to Do Something. So the guy across from me cast Golgari Charm, choosing the mode that destroys target artifact or enchantment. And that’s when we called over a judge.

First question: Is the Progenitor Mimic an enchantment? Answer: Because it’s copying Parallel Lives, and Opalescence says “in addition to its other types,” yes, it is an enchantment, and thus is a legal target for Golgari Charm.

Second question: If the Golgari Charm gets rid of the Opalescence, will the Progenitor Mimic become a 0/0 creature and die as a state-based action? Answer: No, it will cease to be a creature and just be an enchantment, so it will stay on the battlefield, creating exponentially increasing numbers of tokens. Those tokens will not be creatures.

In the end, he targeted the Opalescence, but later on was able to get rid of the Progenitor Mimic as well, before I got to get any tokens.

Now let’s dive down a rabbit hole of hypotheticals. What if I hadn’t attacked with my Grip of Chaos? Well then Golgari Charm would have destroyed something at random, probably not the Opalescence. It would have been much more difficult to get rid of the Mimic as well. Let’s say the Parallel Lives was a Doubling Season instead—I didn’t actually have a Doubling Season in the deck, because that card is expensive and I didn’t want to shell out the money. (I have since remedied this grave oversight.)

At this point, I had Assemble the Legion and Cathars’ Crusade in hand. Let’s pretend I cast them this turn—I didn’t actually have the mana to do so, but we’ll pretend I did, because the math is simpler that way. When my next turn rolls around, I’ll have two triggers: Assemble the Legion and Progenitor Mimic. Since I control both of them, I can put them on the stack in whatever order I want. I choose to put Assemble the Legion on the stack first, so it will resolve last.

So. Progenitor Mimic’s trigger resolves, putting four Doubling Season creature tokens into play. I now have four triggers for Cathar’s Crusade, which go on the stack above the Assemble the Legion trigger. Since I now have six Doubling Seasons, each Cathar’s Crusade trigger gives me 26 +1/+1 counters on each of my creatures, for a total of 64 times 4, which is 256. Since the Doubling Season tokens all entered the battlefield at the same time, each of them gets 256 counters.

Now Assemble the Legion’s trigger goes to resolve. First I put a muster counter on Assemble the Legion—but Doubling Season doubles all counters, so instead of one, I get 64. Then for each muster counter I get 64 hasty 1/1 soldier tokens, for a total of 4096.

Then, because I had more creatures enter the battlefield, Cathar’s Crusade triggers again. This time, I had 4096 creatures enter the battlefield, so I get 64 counters on each creature for each of those triggers, for a total of 262,144 on each soldier and 262,400 on everything else.

This is manageable. And since my soldiers have haste, I can go ahead and attack for the win.

Unless one of my opponents has Ensnaring Bridge, in which case I probably shouldn’t have cast that Cathar’s Crusade (or maybe he played it last turn). Or maybe one of my opponents thinks he can kill me with deathtouch-trample-infect damage if only he can live until his turn, and casts a Fog.

We’ll assume the Ensnaring Bridge scenario, so I don’t have to calculate how many of my enchantments would die to keep me from dying from poison counters. Either way, I get another turn.

So what happens now? Well, first, I get 64 Doubling Season tokens, which triggers Cathar’s Crusade, putting 64 x 270 +1/+1 counters on each creature I control. So I simplify that to 276, enter it into my calculator (in order to add it to the 262,144 or 262,400 counters already on my other creatures), and…

My calculator has a panic attack and starts crying for its mommy.

Well, I can still represent it mathematically, so I’ll just do that. Except it’s a little awkward representing 276 + 262,400 counters. And then Assemble the Legion triggers, which adds 270 muster counters, and puts ( 270 + 64) times 270 soldiers onto the battlefield, and then all my creatures get that many times 270 +1/+1 counters. My calculator is currently cowering in a corner, dialing 9-1-1 to report me for domestic abuse.

Now it’s my draw step. I draw Warp World. During my main phase, I cast it. Well, now I need to count up all the permanents I own. Uh…more than a hundred, so I’m going to be putting all of my permanents into play.

Well. So glad that’s over…wait a minute. I forgot what deck I was playing. There’s now a Knowledge Pool, Hive Mind, Possibility Storm, and Eye of the Storm on the battlefield. Also Timesifter, which I’ve copied using Copy Artifact. (I actually did copy a Timesifter with both a Phyrexian Metamortph and a Sculpting Steel during one game at the GP; this did not require a judge call to resolve, since I simply started recording the players who had extra turns waiting to resolve, and if the game hadn’t ended we simply would have resolved them in reverse order.)

Archangel of Thune triggers ten times from the ETB effects of the Khans-block life-gain lands. Knowledge Pool triggers, putting its exile-the-top-three-cards ability on the stack. Between March of the Machines and Opalescence, all of my permanents (with the exception of non-Forest lands) are creatures. Congratulations, I have just created a board state in which the Humility-Opalescence combo actually simplifies the situation. (You might be wondering why Archangel and Knowledge Pool could trigger when they have no abilities; but due to the wording of Warp World, the Archangel of Thune, Knowledge Pool, and life-gain lands all enter the battlefield before Humility, so their trigger events happen and those triggers do go on the stack.)

So let’s take this opportunity to go over what happens when Humility and Opalescence are both on the battlefield. Opalescence turns Humility into a creature, so doesn’t Humility take away its own ability to take away abilities? Not exactly. According to rule 613.5, if an effect starts to apply in one layer, it continues to apply in all subsequent layers, even if the ability itself is removed. So even though Humility removes its own ability, it continues to apply, and tries to make everything a 1/1. Meanwhile Opalescence is trying to set power and toughness equal to CMC. So which one wins?

Once again, we apply timestamps. But both enchantments entered the battlefield at the same time. So what do we do now? According to rule 613.6j, I, as active player, get to decide what their timestamp order is. So I say Humility entered first, making Opalescence have the most recent timestamp. All my other enchantments are creatures with no abilities and power and toughness equal to their CMC.

But I’m a troll, and I don’t want an easy board state. So I cast Chaos Warp on my Humility; in response, before targets become random again, my opponent casts Golgari Charm on my Grip of Chaos.

With the Grip of Chaos gone, my opponent decides he wants to get rid of Assemble the Legion, because that thing has to go. So he casts Golgari Charm.

At this point, Hive Mind, Knowledge Pool, Eye of the Storm, and Possibility Storm all trigger. Because I control all of them, I get to put the triggers on the stack in whatever order I choose. I choose to exile the card with Eye of the Storm, so that my opponent won’t get to cast one of the cards already exiled with Knowledge Pool. (According to one of the Gatherer rulings on Knowledge Pool, if the card doesn’t get exiled with Knowledge Pool, the player doesn’t get to cast one of the spells already exiled this way.) I want Hive Mind’s trigger on top of the stack, with Possibility Storm directly underneath it; so my other two opponents get to destroy an artifact or enchantment, then I get to destroy an artifact or enchantment, then the opponent who originally cast the Golgari Charm exiles cards from the top of his library until he hits an instant, which he can then cast for free if he so chooses, then he gets to destroy an artifact or enchantment (presumably the Assemble the Legion, if it’s still around). And then the judge who’s been sitting on this match for the past two and a half days demands to know why my opponents haven’t killed me already. (I actually did Warp World into Possibility Storm and Eye of the Storm; the ruling of the judge who answered the call was, “She’s at three life, kill her before I have to answer this question.”)

So there it is. I broke the judges. And all without assembling my Ink-Treader NephilimArchangel of ThuneBrightflame combo.

Basic Rules

This post is about the basic rules of Magic. For Commander-specific rules, you’ll need to wait for my next post. Also, these rules are meant to be a basic overview, kind of a guide for brand-new players. A lot of things are simplified, exceptions aren’t discussed, and if you try to rules-lawyer someone for not following these rules exactly, you’re probably the one who’s wrong. Basically the goal here is to have an easy-to-understand set of instructions that will allow new players to get into the game. The hope is that a bunch of people who had never played before could read this post and play a game that is recognizable as Magic.

First rule: Read your cards. If Mikaeus the Lunarch says, “Tap, Remove a +1/+1 counter from Mikaeus: Put a +1/+1 counter on each other creature you control,” you can only remove those counters one at a time; you can’t use his first ability to load him with counters, then remove them all at once to make all your other creatures huge. If you have a card that says “Destroy target creature,” you can’t even cast it with no creatures on the battlefield to target.

That being said, if you misread your cards, don’t worry. I’ve been playing for two and a half years, I’m a qualified Level 1 judge, and I still sometimes misread my cards. I usually just laugh it off and undo whatever illegal play I was about to make or just made. Just the other day I thought a card said to move all counters from target permanent to another target permanent, but it actually specified creatures, so sadly I wasn’t able to kill Domri Rade by moving his counters onto Venser, the Sojourner. (Insert requisite joke about how those who can’t play, judge, here.)

So, you know to read your cards. That’s seriously the most important thing in Magic. Hopefully you have internet access and can look up whatever keywords are on the cards that aren’t actually explained on the card itself, like flying or trample. Remember that text on the cards overrides the rules of the game. What do you need to know about the game?

There are several zones you need to be aware of. Your library is basically your deck, minus whatever cards you’ve drawn and/or played. Your graveyard is the pile of sorceries and instants you’ve cast, together with creatures, artifacts, and enchantments that have been destroyed or have died, and any cards you’ve had to discard. There’s another zone, exile, which will be fairly clear once you come across a card that mentions it. The main playspace is known as the battlefield. For Commander, there’s a final zone, the Command Zone, where your commander chills until you’re ready to cast it. The Command Zone is also used for planeswalker emblems, but that’s only relevant in that there’s nothing in the game that can interact with said emblems once you’ve acquired them. (Again, this is something that will be much clearer if it becomes relevant. Until that happens, don’t worry about it.)

To begin the game, you draw seven cards. Unless explicitly stated otherwise, you’re allowed to take any number of mulligans, where you shuffle your hand back into your library and draw one fewer card than you just shuffled in. You and the other player or players randomly determine who goes first (or who chooses the starting player, if the winner of the die roll doesn’t actually want to go first). In a two-player game, the player to start the game does not draw for his or her first turn; in a multiplayer game, the first player does draw at the start of the game. Your maximum hand size is seven; at the end of your turn, if you have more than seven cards in your hand, you have to discard down to seven.

Next thing to remember: Untap, upkeep, draw. That will (hopefully) keep you from missing your upkeep triggers. In Commander, since it’s casual play, you’re usually fine doing things slightly out of order. Depends on your playgroup, though. A more competitive meta might say that because you drew before paying the 2UU for your upkeep trigger for the Pact of Negation you cast last turn, you missed your trigger and thus lost the game.

So, you’ve got seven cards in hand, you know to untap your stuff, then resolve your upkeep triggers, then draw for turn. What next? Well, next you go to your main phase, where you can play lands and spells. You can play one land on each of your turns. Lands produce mana, which is necessary to pay for spells. The mana cost of a spell is located in the upper right-hand corner. The total cost, usually referred to as the converted mana cost, is equal to the colorless number (if there is one) plus the number of colored symbols. For instance, Lorthos, the Tidemaker costs a total of 8 mana, three of which must come from a blue source such as an Island. In order to cast him, you would need to tap eight lands. (Yes, there are other ways to add mana to your pool; we’re keeping this simple for the new players, remember?)

During your main phase, you can cast any number of spells, as long as you have the mana to pay for them. After your main phase, you move to your combat phase. This is where you can send your creatures to attack your opponents (or planeswalkers your opponents control). We’re going to speed ahead a few turns here, and assume that you’ve got some creatures on the battlefield. With multiple opponents, you need to declare which player or planeswalker each creature is attacking; you can attack multiple players with different creatures in the same turn. You cannot send your creatures to attack your opponent’s creatures. That’s a big one; in some other games, you can attack the creatures directly, but not in Magic. You also cannot attack with creatures that have entered the battlefield this turn. Those are affected by summoning sickness. It’s kind of like they just came out of the Stargate and are disoriented. That disorientation will continue until your next turn. Creatures affected by summoning sickness cannot attack, nor can they activate abilities that have the tap symbol in the cost.

Once you’ve decided which creatures are attacking, tap those creatures. (Tap means to turn a creature ninety degrees clockwise.) Your opponent then decides how to block. Only untapped creatures can be declared as blockers; however, summoning sickness doesn’t matter when deciding how to block. When a creature is blocked, it deals damage to the creature blocking it rather than the player under attack (known as the defending player); that creature also deals damage to it. Each creature can only block a single attacking creature, but any number of creatures can block the same attacker. Unlike attacking creatures, blocking creatures do not tap.

Finally, damage is calculated. A creature deals damage based on its power. That’s the number in the bottom right-hand corner before the forward-slash. The number after the slash is the toughness, which indicates the amount of damage the creature can take before it dies. For example, if a 1/1 is blocked by a 1/1, each deals 1 damage to the other, and they both die. At that point each creature goes to its owner’s graveyard (remember me mentioning that zone earlier?). If a 1/2 is blocked by a 1/2, each deals 1 damage to the other, but because each has 2 toughness, 1 damage isn’t enough to kill it, so both survive; however, if at any other point in that turn either creature is dealt 1 more damage, bringing the total damage to 2, it will die.

Any creatures that are not blocked deal their damage to the player. So, if you’re attacking with a 2/3 and a 3/4, and they’re not blocked, they’ll deal a total of 5 damage to the defending player. That damage translates to loss of life; if the player is at 20 life, he’ll go down to 15. If he’s at 5 (or less), he’ll go down to 0, and lose the game.

Now it’s your second main phase. Maybe now’s the time to play that Mardu Hordechief and get that raid trigger. Or maybe you were so eager to attack you forgot to play your land for turn; well, you can do that now. But wait! Your opponent doesn’t want you to get that warrior token from the Mardu Hordechief, and plays a Cancel. That’s an instant, which can be played at (almost) any time. It has a target—target spell—which in this case is your Hordechief. Your Hordechief is countered, and rather than enter the battlefield and get you that warrior token, it goes directly to your graveyard. The Cancel also goes to its owner’s graveyard. (I heard a story about someone who thought instants and sorceries kind of hung out on the battlefield, reactivating every turn. That’s not how it works. You cast it once and it’s gone.) Then you pass turn, count the number of cards in hand (four is less than seven, so you’re fine), and let the next player take his turn. At that point all damage dealt to creatures re-sets, so that 1/2 that blocked last turn and took a damage can attack this turn and be blocked by a 1/1 and not die.

And that’s pretty much all you need to know to start playing Magic. Go forth my children, and have fun. And don’t forget to read your cards!

New Tuck Rule

There’s been a lot of talk about this new Commander tuck rule, with people arguing back and forth over whether it’s good or bad for the format overall. Newer, less competitive players seem to like that they’re guaranteed access to their commanders. More cutthroat players complain that their commanders are now on the chopping block. Personally, I don’t like it, but then, I don’t like any official changes to my format, which I play in part because it’s more casual and fun-oriented.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, the new rule is basically that, if your commander would move to any zone other than the battlefield, you can choose to send it to the Command Zone instead. This is a change from the old rule, which only covered commanders going to the graveyard or exile. The main consequence is that now, if you try to shuffle a commander into its owner’s library, that player can choose to send it to the command zone instead, in order to maintain access to it.

That being said, let’s look at the actual impact of this ruling, and the reasons it came down. First, the reasons. According to what I’ve heard, the reasoning is twofold: they wanted to make the way commanders behaved when changing zones more consistent, and they wanted to discourage the use of tutors, because players were just tutoring for their commander when it got tucked. The first reason explains why this rule applies to the hand as well as the library, and is completely understandable. We want the rules to be as elegant as possible, to make them easier to learn, remember, and comprehend. Whether or not you think that warrants making a rules change, it’s difficult to argue against that reasoning behind it.

The second reason is on a far less solid footing. While it’s true that players will tutor for their commanders when the commander gets tucked, that’s an example of correlation not demonstrating causation. I run tutors in my Olivia Voldaren deck, and while I did once tutor for my commander when she got tucked, that’s not why they’re in the deck. I run them to tutor out Havoc Festival, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is my favorite card in the entire game, and possibly Urza-tron to accelerate my mana. Other decks I run tutors in are Garza Zol and Damia, which are combo decks and thus require me to tutor for the remaining pieces of my combos once I get the first one out. (On a side note, I actually played Damia last week. I got down Inexorable Tide, Ring of Three Wishes, and Seedborn Muse, and had a nice little combo going where I could tutor for a new card on each player’s turn. If someone had tucked my commander, I probably wouldn’t have bothered tutoring for her, since I had better things to dig out of my deck.)

When I’ve played against people who ran tutors, probably 95% of the time they used them to tutor for their win condition, rather than their commander, because their commander was already in play, or still in the Command Zone. The truth is, tuck just doesn’t happen often enough for it to be a major factor when constructing a deck, at least not in the metas in which I’ve played. So, as noble a goal as reducing the number of tutors to preserve the purity of the singleton format may be, imagining that changing the tuck rule will accomplish that is nothing but wishful thinking.

Now for the impact on the game. This boils down to the opposing arguments of “I want to be able to play my commander in a particular game” vs. “I want to be able to play my commander at all.” Immediately after the ruling, several commanders were discussed as being potential candidates for the banned list. Prossh and Narset were already on the chopping block, so if they make the cut it may be due to forces in place even before the new rule. Skullbriar, of course, is a prime candidate, because the two main ways of dealing with him, bounce and tuck, effectively no longer exist. (My favorite way of dealing with Skullbriar remains a combo with Dominus of Fealty and Zedruu the Great-Hearted: Steal Skullbriar on your upkeep and give him to another player. The Skullbriar player then used his one kill-spell to kill his own commander so it couldn’t be used against him, and failed to draw any more removal for the rest of the game. Since he knew re-casting Skullbriar would only lead to a repeat of what happened last time, he never re-cast his commander. Incidentally, this is also why running multiple removal spells is a good idea—see my previous post—although in this case a board-wipe would have worked just as well.) Other names have been bandied about—Zur the Enchanter comes to mind—although I think the only people who will be upset if he gets banned are those who actually run him as their commander, and anyone who would run Zur is a terrible person who deserves to suffer. (As I recall, Uril, the Miststalker and Derevi were also potential bans.)

A lot of people are drawn to Commander because it’s a casual format, which makes it less susceptible to the deck-destroying ban-hammering that plagues formats like Modern. Even when a ban does affect Commander, it’s usually one card in ninety-nine, easily replaced without significantly affecting the play of the deck. In any given game, you probably weren’t going to see that card anyway. (Unless you’re running a bunch of tutors specifically to tutor out that specific card, which is your win condition, in which case that probably explains why it got banned.) Where we see problems is when the commander itself gets banned. Since most people build their decks around a particular commander, suddenly their entire deck is useless, and they sank all that money into it for nothing. That’s not to say commanders should never be banned. Cards are designed with formats other than Commander in mind, and sometimes you get another Rofellos who’s just broken in the format. Narset is shaping up to be an example of that. (Although that fails to explain Prossh and Derevi, who were specifically designed to be played as commanders.) The point is, sometimes commanders need to be banned. It’s when the reason for the ban is a rules update that things get sticky. At that point you need to consider whether the change is causing more problems than it solved.

One post I read put it rather well. The writer said he’d rather run the risk of his commander being tucked, which happens maybe one in six games (from which I’d wager he plays a powerful commander in a competitive meta, since it’s probably been twenty games or more since my commander got tucked), than not be able to play his commander at all. I would say the desire to continue playing a deck in which you’ve invested a significant amount of time and money trumps the desire to avoid the risk of losing access to your commander. That risk will always be there. Several months ago, I was playing against a Kaalia deck, and simply killed Kaalia every time she came down. Eventually I leveled up a Guul Draz Assassin, and the Kaalia player stopped playing his commander, since I’d just kill her again on my turn. Even if he’d been running removal and had managed to kill my Guul Draz Assassin, I’d have just kept saving my own removal for his commander until she became too expensive to cast. He became very upset, because his deck did not function without the commander. But that was his choice, to build a deck that needed its commander in order to do anything. If I choose to make a deck with fewer lands so I have more room for powerful spells, I don’t get to complain when I get mana-screwed. Yes, you should have a reasonable expectation of being able to cast your commander, and building a deck with your commander in mind is a viable strategy. But if your deck needs your commander to function, it’s not the rules committee’s responsibility to protect you from the consequences of your own decision.

Therefore, I come down firmly on the side of those who are upset by this decision. It makes it more difficult to interact with certain decks, and doesn’t actually do what the new players want, which is guarantee them access to their commander. In the end, nobody’s really happy.

However—and this is important—it does tighten up some inelegance in the rules. While the immediate impact—the potential ban of certain commanders—is undesirable, the long-term impact is most likely to be positive. It makes the game make more sense, making it more accessible to new players. Tuck spells still tuck everything but the commander, just like kill spells kill anything but the commander, and exile spells exile everything but the commander. A tuck spell will still get Avacyn off the battlefield, leaving an opening for a boardwipe. The existence of tutors means the only commander really affected by this is Skullbriar. (No matter what color your commander, you can run, at the very least, Ring of Three Wishes.) And, specifically because this is a casual format, players have the option of deciding how or if to implement the rule. If some commanders do get banned because of this ruling, players wanting to continue playing those decks could offer to promise to choose to send the commander to their library or their hand, rather than the command zone, if such a situation arises, in exchange for being able to play a technically banned card. Alternatively, they can try to find a replacement commander for their deck—I was going to use Narset as a commander for my Jeskai deck, but upon reflection Shu Yun would probably be a better fit for what the deck wants to do; and Angus Mackenzie would hands-down be a better commander than Derevi for my pillow-fort deck. We’ve whethered rule changes before, and we will again. This one isn’t nearly as bad as the naysayers are making it out to be.

And hopefully they don’t actually ban any commanders. Except Skullbriar. That card is just unfair.

Building on a Budget

This one was requested by a very good friend of mine who is new to the game. She needs to allocate her money toward bills and normal adult expenditures rather than buying Alpha duals, so she’d like to know how to build a Commander deck that doesn’t cost multiple hundreds of dollars.

I just mentioned duals, so let’s start with the lands. There’s nothing wrong with running basic lands. You’re probably not going to be getting a particular non-basic anyway, since it’s just one card in 99, so there’s really no need to pay an exorbitant price for a card that’s only going to show up one in five games or so. With multicolor decks, it’s worth running guildgates and refuges; Commander is a slow format due to the starting life of 40 and the presence of multiple players, most of whom are going to present more of a threat than you, so running lands that enter tapped isn’t really going to be noticeably detrimental to your game play.

My advice is, you should run between 35 and 40 lands. So what about the other cards?

Some people are going to tell you, “If you’re building a Commander deck, you have to include x, y and z.” Usually they’ll mention cards such as Sensei’s Divining Top and Sol Ring. Ignore them. While it’s true that those cards are good in almost any deck, they’re far from necessary. I don’t run Top in any of my decks, and I keep taking Sol Ring out of decks to put in cards that are actually on theme. What you need to keep in mind whenever someone tells you that you have to run a specific card is that you’re running a deck with 100 cards, and you can only run a single copy of each card. Most cards aren’t going to come up in any given game (refer to the Aura Shards in my previous post, which never did manage to destroy my Havoc Festival, no matter how much that player wished he’d drawn it).

If you already know who you want to use as your commander—maybe a legendary creature you have on hand—great. At that point, go on the internet and look up “EDH {your commander’s name here}.” See what other players have done. A lot of the lists will pull up an image of the card, along with its price, when you hover over the name. Pull up several different lists and pick and choose the cards that you think will be fun to play and are in your price range.

But maybe you don’t have a commander in mind. Maybe you have a theme, or a color combination. Themes are good; if, say, you’re building an Abzan outlast deck, the cards you’re going to need should run a lot less than a green-white-black “good stuff” deck, where you’re just running the most powerful cards in those colors, which naturally everyone else who runs those colors wants to run. Or you could be building a Myr tribal deck, which won’t require a lot of super-powerful, in-demand cards. As far as I know, Myr Master Race is not a deck archetype in any format that has actual monetary pay-outs.

Once you know what you want your deck to be like, you can look for a commander. Gatherer has an advanced search option where you can search for a legendary creature that meets your requirements—maybe you put in the colors you want (and be sure to exclude unselected terms). You can scroll through the results, and when you see one that looks interesting, first check its legality (no, you cannot have Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary as your commander), and if it’s legal in the format, go on TCG Player and check the price. If you want to run a tribal deck, and your tribe has good, affordable cards in four or five colors, consider running Karona, False God as your commander. I run her as my commander for my spirit tribal deck, and she’s going to be the commander for the Eldrazi deck I’m building; I know she looks a little iffy, but when I tested that deck on Cockatrice, if I’d remembered that she was my commander, I could have cast her and won the game that same turn.

Once you have your commander, you can do a Google search as described above, possibly adding a stipulation about your theme (“EDH Daghatar outlast”). In addition, you can do a relevant Gatherer search; for instance, putting “+1/+1 counter” under rules text and specifying the appropriate colors, or putting “spirit” under subtype for a spirit tribal deck.

So you’ve got your decklist. Maybe there are some cards you want but can’t quite afford—you’d really like that Eladamri, Lord of Leaves for your elf tribal deck, but until you get your next paycheck you’re really not keen to spend $10 on a single piece of cardboard, so for now you’re just running and extra forest. Except you don’t even have that forest, since you’re a brand-new player and have yet to accumulate a collection of cards. So where do you start? Well, you’re playing Commander, and it’s likely that the reason you’re playing it is you’ve got friends who play, probably friends who are avid players and have accumulated quite a collection of cards. Most likely one of them at least has a box of basic lands sitting around gathering dust. And if you’re willing to do the searching, they might let you take any commons or even uncommons you need, either at no charge or for a severely reduced price. I personally am happy to give friends basic lands and duplicate commons (or even uncommons if I have a lot of them), especially if they’re willing to help me sort my collection. For the remainder, you can either take a list to your local card store (who might also be willing to give you commons and uncommons at a reduced price; the local card store here on base lets people take commons and uncommons at no charge as long as they’re not being used in specific tournament-legal decks), or order them off TCG Player.

So, let’s put this into practice.

Let’s say I want to build a deck around the Abzan outlast mechanic. I already know my colors (Abzan is black-white-green), so I look at the potential commanders and determine Ghave, Guru of Spores would probably be best, but he costs six or seven bucks, so I’ll go with Daghatar the Adamant instead, since he’s almost as good, and he can steal +1/+1 counters from my opponents’ creatures. Next I do a Gatherer search and add in all the cards with outlast. Bolster will be a pretty good support mechanic for my deck, so I’ll toss in those cards as well. I know that the Simic mechanics interacted with +1/+1 counters, so next I’ll look up mono-green cards from the Ravnica and RTR blocks. Graft and evolve are pretty cool; I’ll put those cards in, along with Crowned Ceratok, who gives all my creatures with +1/+1 counters trample. Tuskguard Captain, who’s already on the list, does the same thing, but since it’s a 100-card, singleton format, it’s nice to have multiple cards with the same effect. Abzan is a great color combination for removal, so I’ll fill out the list with some cheap removal spells.

At this point I could just toss in an even spread of basic lands, and hope I get at least one of each within a reasonable time; but I’d rather have a better chance of hitting my colors, so I’m going to put in a Sandsteppe Citadel, the three Khans block refuges, and the three guildgates in my colors. I’ll also put in an Evolving Wilds and a Terramorphic Expanse, and then fill it out with basic lands.

Because I have an extensive collections, I already have most of these cards on hand, especially the lands. If I didn’t, I could order them off TCG Player. Below is the final deck list with the (current) TCG mid price for each card (if you’re on a really tight budget and don’t care so much about the condition of the cards, you can order them cheaper if you find ones that are heavily played, although with newer cards you might not be able to find them in less-than-stellar condition).

Daghatar the Adamant ($0.31)

Abzan Advantage ($0.12)

Abzan Ascendancy ($0.26)

Abzan Bannre ($0.13)

Abzan Battle Priest ($0.17)

Abzan Charm ($0.36)

Abzan Falconer ($0.17)

Abzan Skycaptain ($0.14)

Ainok Bond-Kin ($0.13)

Disowned Ancestor ($0.12)

Herald of Anafenza ($0.27)

Longshot Squad ($0.14)

Mer-Ek Nightblade ($0.17)

Salt Road Patrol ($0.13)

Tuskguard Captain ($0.16)

Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit ($1.33)

Anafenza, the Foremost ($3.98)

Aven Tactician ($0.14)

Cached Defenses ($0.23)

Dragonscale Boon ($0.14)

Dragonscale General ($0.30)

Dromoka Captain ($0.23)

Dromoka Monument ($0.18)

Dromoka, the Eternal ($0.46)

Dromoka’s Command ($3.00)

Dromoka’s Gift ($0.20)

Echoes of the Kin Tree ($0.23)

Elite Scaleguard ($0.17)

Enduring Victory ($0.14)

Gleam of Authority ($0.34)

Honor’s Reward ($0.19)

Map the Wastes ($0.13)

Pinion Feast ($0.14)

Sandcrafter Mage ($0.14)

Sandsteppe Mastadon ($0.30)

Sandsteppe Citadel ($0.75)

Sandsteppe Outcast ($0.12)

Sandsteppe Scavenger ($0.14)

Scale Blessing ($0.23)

Sunbringer’s Touch ($0.31)

Adaptive Snapjaw ($0.14)

Aquastrand Spider ($0.15)

Battering Krasis ($0.13)

Crocanura ($0.12)

Crowned Ceratok ($0.17)

Cytoplast Root-Kin ($1.19)

Cytospawn Shambler ($0.15)

Death’s Presence ($0.25)

Experiment One ($1.08)

Forced Adaptation ($0.15)

Gyre Sage ($0.85)

Ivy Lane Denizen ($0.14)

Rengade Krasis ($0.47)

Simic Basilisk ($0.20)

Simic Initiate ($0.15)

Sporeback Troll ($0.15)

Thrive ($0.15)

Harsh Sustenance ($0.14)

Naturalize ($0.11)

Murder ($0.70)

Tragic Slip ($0.20)

Duneblast ($0.29)

End Hostilities ($1.00)

In Garruk’s Wake ($0.55)

Rout ($1.12)

Merciless Eviction ($0.54)

Golgari Guildgate ($0.15)

Orzhov Guildgate ($0.18)

Selesnya Guildgate ($0.16)

Jungle Hollow ($0.13)

Blossoming Sands ($0.14)

Scoured Barrens ($0.13)

Evolving Wilds ($0.11)

Terramorphic Expanse ($0.15)

Forest x9 ($0.45)

Swamp x8 ($0.56)

Plains x9 ($0.45)

In all, the deck costs about $30, including basic lands. As an experienced Magic player, I’m pretty happy with this deck. There are maybe some other cards I would want for an optimized version of this deck, but those can wait until I have a bit of spare cash. If I really wanted, I could probably get most of the cards at reduced or no price, and the deck would cost me maybe $15 and an afternoon sorting cards for my buddy.

So there you have it. A decent, fun deck for $15-$30. Or you could buy one of the mono-color planeswalker commander pre-con decks currently for sale. I’ve seen those beat well-made Commander decks straight out of the box. If you have something more specific in mind, feel free to leave a comment with your deck idea and budget and I’ll be happy to come up with a prospective deck list for you.