Hello and welcome back! Before we delve too deeply, I would like to mention that The 99 is switching from a bi-weekly article to a monthly one. Feel free to commiserate in the comments below. To try and make it up to all of you, I thought it would be fun to look at a deck being built from the ground up rather than something that is already complete. I will be justifying my card choices as we go and hopefully this will help newer players get the hang of constructing their own Commander deck.
First, color choices. For me this is an easy one. Upon further inspection of my collection I was reminded that I currently have no Esper (Blue/Black/White) deck sleeved up and ready to go. The most important part of deck construction is having a clear idea in mind. How is the deck going to win? What cards in these colors will allow me to get there? Is there some theme I want to explore along the way? For this Esper deck, I want to focus on a Control archetype and grind out a victory by denying everything my opponents do. I also have a copy of Oloro, Ageless Ascetic just sitting in my trade binder and life gain is a theme I have never really tried in EDH.
A mana base is something that can constantly be improved upon. You can comprise your mana base solely from basic lands or get really deep and sleeve up something as awesome as Underground Sea. It all depends on how efficient you want your mana base to be and how much your budget can allow. In a 3 color deck, I recommend at least running the Guildgates from Return to Ravnica such as Dimir Guildgate. When running more than a single color you have to strike a balance between efficiency and color-fixing. Being stuck on 2 out of 3 colors is one of the most frustrating moments in Magic and I try to avoid it at all costs.While I can’t afford something as good as the Alpha lands for this deck, I will still try to spend a few bucks on my mana base so I can easily and reliably cast my spells. I prioritize lands in the following way:
Shock Lands such as Watery Grave. While obviously not as good as Alpha/Beta lands, they come close (and at a fraction of the price!). Entering the battlefield untapped if you need them to can be a huge advantage and if you are playing Green, cards like Farseek can tutor for them since they actually have land types other than “basic”. Fixing your colors for 2 life is nothing to sneeze at and I recommend you pick up the applicable Shock lands for your deck over anything else you might want to play in it.
Theros Temples like Temple of Deceit. While they will always come in tapped, the Scry feature is not to be underestimated. Worse than Shocks but better than Guildgates, I also recommend you scoop up some copies while Theros is in Standard and they are readily available.
Check Lands. Drowned Catacomb is, at worst, a Guildgate but if you already have a Shock land or Basic in play it can be quite good. If you’re willing to play around the slight drawback, I suggest including them.
Guildgates. Kind of the baseline for dual lands in my opinion. They fix your colors, they are a nice budget inclusion but that “always comes in tapped” business can be a hard pill to swallow. Include them anyway. They are cheap and plentiful.
While there are certainly other cycles of lands we could discuss (Pain Lands, Fetch Lands, etc.) I won’t get that deep into the other choices we could make. Without even going into the possibilities of utility lands (things like Nephalia Drownyard), I think it suffices to say that if you can assemble the applicable Shocks, Temples, Checks and Gates your deck should function fairly consistently. Everything above and beyond that is icing on the cake in my opinion. Remember to not overdo it on the non-basic lands or you will significantly slow down your turns as well as make you a sitting duck for Path to Exile if you include no basic lands whatsoever.
When making up your mana base, you should aim for 40 lands to start with. You can cut a few once you’ve made your card choices or add some in if you think the deck is lacking but 30 is probably the bare minimum you should ever attempt to run in a Commander deck. If you are devoting some space to “mana rocks” like Sol Ring, running fewer lands is an easier proposition. A general rule of thumb is that for every 2 nonland mana sources, you may cut 1 land. Just remember that running fewer than 30 lands will increase your chances of drawing poor opening hands, leaving you stranded and unable to play anything while your opponents build up their board presence. Lastly, I want to further impress upon newer players how important your mana base is. Yes, creatures and spells are more fun to cast and ultimately win you the game but if you cannot cast them in the first place it doesn’t matter how awesome they are. If you have a serious budget set for your deck, make sure that your mana base is the top priority.
Since we’re building a Control archetype, the creatures in this deck are going to be more in the order of large finishers rather than smaller utility creatures. Since there is the life-gain theme to consider as well, I’m going to give high priority to creatures with Lifelink or creatures with relevant abilities which revolve around gaining life. Archangel of Thune is probably top on my list since it is aggressively costed and can take the game if left unchecked. Blood Baron of Vizkopa is one of my favorite cards and a definite auto-include in this deck. Another thematic card which warrants inclusion, Magister Sphinx has a disturbingly powerful ability tacked on to it and I definitely want to see it sleeved up in the final product even if it is one of the premier cards in the format for drawing as much hate as possible in a single turn. I want to play creatures that dramatically impact the board when they hit and I would like the cheaper creatures to be magnets for removal; baiting out our opponent’s counter magic or spot removal spells early so that there is a higher chance of our game-winning threats surviving to finish the game. Let’s take a look at the first draft of the list of creatures.Serra Ascendant
Daxos of Meletis
Geist of Saint Traft
Thassa, God of the Sea
Heliod, God of the Sun
Wydwen, the Biting Gale
Archangel of Thune
Blood Baron of Vizkopa
Gray Merchant of Asphodel
Divinity of Pride
Obzedat, Ghost Council
Oona, Queen of the Fae
Pontiff of Blight
Medomai the Ageless
Teysa, Envoy of Ghosts
Sheoldred, Whispering One
Sphinx of the Steel Wind
Serra Ascendant and Divinity of Pride are high picks in this deck because we will usually be able to meet the requirements to make their abilities trigger. I’m also playing around with a tokens theme, partially because tokens are a great way to fling expendable bodies at our opponent and partly because Pontiff of Blight seems like such a fun card. Heliod, Oona and Teysa all fit the bill for making tokens which provide expendable offense and defense. There is also a suite of 3-drop creatures which generate card advantage. Nightveil Specter, Daxos and Augury Adept are all trying to give us something to cast early in the game and will give us some life and/or card advantage in the process. They are also the “removal magnets” I spoke of prior to the creature list. A card like Daxos, while only doing a few points of damage a turn, can steal games if left unchecked. Forcing your opponent to trade their Swords to Plowshares for a 3 drop is much more favorable for us than having them remove our Serra Avatar or Sphinx of the Steel Wind. Wydwen is a rather strange inclusion but she fits in alongside Geist as a cheap beat-stick that can apply early pressure. I don’t want the deck to wait around until we can cast our 8 drops to start beating on the opponent.
Kind of the name of the game in terms of Control strategies, I want to focus on either removal or life-gain with my spells.Path to Exile
Far // Away
Lapse of Certainty
Day of Judgment
Rise from the Grave
Rescue from the Underworld
Curse of the Swine
Counter magic, spot removal, mass removal and drain life effects dominate the choices here. If I’m playing Black, I almost always include some kind of reanimator spells so that I can bring back my threats later in the game. Recursion is very important in a format with a high life total and generally longer games and being able to bring back a threat rather than hopefully top-decking one is a much more enticing proposition in my book.
What’s missing? Well for starters, I’d like to include Swords to Plowshares if I can find a copy and I would be pretty happy to decrease the overall casting cost of my spells. Pongify and Rapid Hybridization are also worth considering but I chose to go with Curse of the Swine in their place to save a little space. Overrule isn’t a high pick for counter magic and while I would like to live the dream of countering a spell, gaining life and drawing a card if Oloro is in play I believe that scenario belongs in “Magical Christmas Land” (a place where all long-winded combos come true). Dissipate or Remand would be much better inclusions and as soon as I snap up copies of either they will be swapped in place of Overrule. I would also like to find room for Cyclonic Rift in here and although Death Grasp is very thematic, I would rather play something that hits multiple opponents rather than singling someone out. Debt to the Deathless is the obvious replacement but I already feel like the deck is pretty top-heavy without adding a spell I wouldn’t want to cast for less than 8 mana. In terms of counter spells, I always feel like I could use a few more. It is very hard to always have a counterspell in hand in a game of EDH and there is no other format which asks you to be judicious about what you choose to counter. Lapse of Certainty is going to become Memory Lapse in short order (once I dig a copy up from wherever they like to hide around my house). For now, I will appreciate the obviously superior art of the white counter spell. Additionally, I think Azorius Charm and Condemn should be in here somewhere. For an initial draft though, these choices will do just fine.
This list is usually the shortest part of any deck I build unless the deck revolves around these types of permanents.Blind Obedience
Whip of Erebos
Ward of Bones
Spine of Ish Sah
Blind Obedience is a definite inclusion. While Extort is an awesome mechanic and perfectly suited for our theme, the creatures with Extort (besides Pontiff of Blight) are very lackluster and I wouldn’t waste space on something like Thrull Parasite in EDH. Vile Consumption is one of those odd cards which I expect most people to have to read when I play it. I think it fits perfectly with the theme of the deck. Soul Link is an obvious thematic upgrade from Pacifism. Moonsilver Spear carries our small theme of tokens and I have seen it carry enough games to respect it. Whip of Erebos gives us all the Lifelink we could ever want, makes all of our oddball tokens into more relevant creatures and combos with Obzedat quite nicely. Nevinyrral’s Disk could easily be Planar Cleansing but I want to be able to trot out the Disk on turn 4 and let it just sit there. This forces my opponents to play around it and hopefully they will withhold some permanents long enough for me to assemble a substantial mana base. Spine of Ish Sah gives me a way of removing problem permanents and is a fine catch-all. Ward of Bones is the card I am most interested in cutting if it comes down to it. While I like the idea of casting Supreme Verdict with Ward on the field and then sandbagging for a while, making my opponents unable to re-deploy their army. What are we missing? The obvious choice of Exquisite Blood and Sanguine Bond is a glaring omission for an Oloro deck and I may try to cut some things to free up space for them. I don’t know if I really want to play the infinite combo here though, if only because it costs a total of 16 mana (both enchantments and Oloro in play) to work. I could also play more removal like Oblivion Ring if I had the space.
Planeswalkers : 6
The cherry on top of our Esper-flavored cake. Planeswalkers aren’t necessary in all decks but I have a few I want to include.Jace, Architect of Thought
Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Jace and Liliana gives us some decent card advantage or tutoring ability. The Elspeths and the White/Black Sorin give us some more token generation. Mono Black Sorin is another Magister Sphinx in Planeswalker form. While none of these cards are crucial to our gameplan, each one is powerful and will probably divert some combat damage away from my life total to get rid of them.
So we have a total of 66 nonland cards which leaves us with 33 slots for lands. This is pretty low in any EDH deck and certainly low for a Control deck that wants to end the game with something like Exsanguinate. My biggest fear is drawing 1 or 2 land opening hands with this deck since I most of the deck is made up of expensive spells and I am not in colors which ramp or tutor for lands very easily. I’ll begin initial testing though and see how it goes.
The most important part of testing your creation, especially in EDH, is not to make quick decisions about your card choices after only a few games. Just because something worked out in a spectacular fashion or failed miserably for you a few times does not mean it will pan out the same way again. The large deck size and singleton nature of Commander means that you may not see the same configuration of cards from one game to the next and I find that it takes several games to really see how the deck performs. While there are no hard and fast rules when testing your new ideas, I do like to evaluate most of my card choices based on how good they are later in the game. How good is (card name) when I’m in top deck mode and really need an answer? I tend to put things on the chopping block when I find that, game after game, drawing a particular card doesn’t help me get out of a jam.
I sat down across the table from an Aurelia, the Warleader deck as well as a Numot, the Devastator deck, the latter of which I built myself (but that’s another story all together). I was immediately struck by how powerful Oloro is even when he isn’t in play. No matter what I did, I was going to gain 2 life a turn. This might seem paltry but remember that most EDH decks aren’t built to inflict a ton of damage from the first turn. I comfortably sat back while everyone was setting up their board presence for the first few turns and steadily built up close to 50 life. Even though the deck has absolutely no mana ramp (something I noticed rather glaringly after playing so many Green decks lately), I didn’t really care. As long as I wasn’t being hit for commander damage, I could just gain the life back so even if I just played lands for the first several turns I could easily shrug off the damage I was being dealt. After deploying some threats and sweeping the board a few times, my hand was getting low on gas so I cast Oloro. Immediately, I regretted it. Even as a 4/5 he feels rather fragile and after sending him into the red zone and almost losing him to Condemn (to which I had to respond by wasting my Mortify), I resolved to never attack with Oloro again.
After a few more well placed counterspells, I had gained the upper hand with a Divinity of Pride and Serra Ascendant in play. I dropped Magister Sphinx into play and targeted the Aurelia player with Magister’s ability. This turned out to be my undoing. I shipped the turn to the Aurelia player who responded by casting Insurrection with Aurelia in play. Despite having a comfortable 50 life, I got smashed for lethal in that single turn. Ouch. The second game got cut short but between the Numot deck and Oloro, there was enough board wipes and counter spells to grind the game to a slow crawl. At the point when I had to pack up and leave I wasn’t quite in top deck mode but I might as well have been. 3 or 4 Wrath effects had made the board a ghost town and all I really held was a Supreme Verdict. I was waiting to draw into a creature and upon inspecting the top few cards of my library once I conceded the game, I saw that I was going to be waiting for quite a long time.While I certainly don’t want to play less removal or counter spells, top-decking them at this point in the game was pretty disappointing every time it happened.
The deck can certainly drag the pace of the game to a near stand-still with all the counters and board wipes but without more creatures or other proactive permanents, I feel like it was hard to move the game towards victory. I also definitely need some other kind of card draw in the deck besides a lone Sphinx’s Revelation and Oloro. Even though drawing 2 cards a turn is quite powerful, it didn’t go deep enough to restock my hand with threats or really dig me out of the slow-roll I had put on the game. Erebos, God of the Dead feels like a definite inclusion, both as a way to draw more cards and because I feel like I can probably trigger devotion fairly easily for him. I could also easily go for the big guns and include Necropotence to keep my hand constantly full. I believe it would also help me dig for a win condition later in the game. In a deck that wants to burn up its resources on denying my opponent’s plays, Oloro’s potential extra card per turn doesn’t feel like enough gas to keep my hand stocked with answers.
While I still hesitate to put in the Exquisite Blood/Sanguine Bond combo, I think the deck could really benefit from the Exquisite Blood end of that interaction. At least it would give the game some inevitability. And what about more proactive threats? I’m definitely in the market for something that can dish out some more punishment but I don’t think it should cost more than 6. Aetherling might be a solid choice although one could argue that he is actually a 7 drop (one land kept up to bounce him in case of impending removal) and the ‘Ling is quite mana intensive otherwise.
Next time on the 99 we’re going to take a look at the deck after more testing and see which cards earn their keep and which ones are on their way out the door. If you have any ideas for the deck, please leave me a comment and I’ll address it in the next article. Thanks again and be sure to join us every Thursday night at Nu Games for EDH. What have you been brewing lately?