THE MANA DORK—ALL GOOD DECKS
Going to go a little bit deeper on this one.
With all the new legendary creatures in Dominaria, I’ve got the urge to brew… something. I don’t know what, yet. But what I do know is that most of my Commander staples are tied up in my current decks. So brewing something new is going to mean taking something apart.
We’ve all been here—these moments when you have to look at all your decks, these vehicles of fun, and take one apart to make something that maybe has a chance of being just as fun. It’s a tough moment. It’s not easy de-sleeving 100 cards and remembering the times you had with each one.
But, all good decks must come to an end. So I figured I’d talk about how I pick which of my decks to dismantle—the criteria I use, and how I use it. Maybe it’ll help all of you who are looking at your collection and trying to wonder what to sculpt it into.
Off we go!
MY CURRENT DECKS
I’ll be referring to my decks as I discuss the criteria later, so here’s a quick blurb on each of them. And rather than using my tryhard T.S. Eliot quote names (although I do so enjoy my tryhard T.S. Eliot quote names), I’ll refer to my decks by archetype, to make it easier to find more information about them.
In rough order of power level (more on this later), we have:
Chain Veil Teferi—This is a deck designed for “Competitive EDH”, a subformat of Commander that plays like multiplayer Legacy. This deck uses cards like Winter Orb and Back To Basics to shut down everyone’s mana production, then plays Teferi, Temporal Archmage from the command zone to combo off with the Chain Veil and make infinite planeswalker activations. It is extremely powerful and not at all fun to play against unless you’re prepared for it—at which point it becomes an incredibly rewarding challenge.
Food Chain Zegana—The first of two decks that are one step down from Teferi and more suitable for regular Commander. This deck wins by making infinite mana with Food Chain and either Misthollow Griffin or Eternal Scourge, then getting card draw by exiling and re-casting Prime Speaker Zegana until I find Laboratory Maniac and win or die trying. I like this a great deal because the combo is not deterministic, and because surviving until I can cast it with so few counterspells is always a fun challenge.
Athreos Apostles—The second of two decks just underneath Teferi. I’ve built Apostles several times, and this version is an attempt to go full-on glass-cannon combo. The main idea is to sacrifice six Apostles to get either Rune-Scarred Demon or Razaketh, then from there get out Thrumming Stone and Aetherflux Reservoir, then cast a seventh Apostle to get the remaining 25+ out of my deck. Ripple triggers are cast triggers, so this will give me more than enough life to nuke the table with Reservoir. I like this deck because playing Magic with 34 of something makes me giddy, and because surprising people with White counterspells like Mana Tithe and Rebuff the Wicked gives me life.
Volrath Voltron—The trouble with voltron decks is that all your eggs are in one basket. If your commander is successfully dealt with, you’re a sitting duck. Volrath solves this by giving you a great back-up plan—all those big creatures you’ve discarded are wonderful reanimation targets, just ripe for a good Living Death, Chainer activation, or Victimize. This deck lets me play the villain at the table in more ways than one, which is just a joy.
Marath Primal Surge—I wanted something a little lower-powered with an interesting gameplan, and hit upon Primal Surge. If my entire deck is permanents, and I build it carefully, I can pretty much win right when I cast it. This creates an interesting deckbuilding restriction—how do I win without sorceries to ramp or kill creatures, or any kind of instant-speed counterspells or kill spells? The answer is Marath herself, who slowly grows bigger and gives me lots of instant-speed blockers and burn, as long as I use her +1/+1 counters carefully. Despite the extreme restrictions, this deck is a blast to play and a constant surprise.
Gwafa Hazid Group Hug—My first deck and greatest joy. Gwafa gives you many gifts with the help of Howling Mine, Sailmonger, Duelist’s Heritage, and more—only to cruelly take it away with some blackmailed Azor’s Elocutors or the classic Helm of Obedience + Rest in Peace combo. Gwafa makes games very fun by helping everyone draw into all their best cards, and sometimes truly ridiculous things happen (Dream Halls + Forced Fruition, anyone?)
I use four criteria when evaluating which decks to keep: joy, power distribution, open-endedness, and fun for my opponents. JPOF for short (see, it’s catchy because it sounds like “J-pop”) (look there’s a lot of great J-pop and K-pop out there) (I’m not sorry) (I’m going to go listen to Psy now).
Let’s break each of these down—although I’ll be discussing joy last, for reasons that will become clear.
- Power Distribution
There’s nothing worse in Commander than playing a game where one or two people have vastly more powerful decks. It’s just a boring, wasteful grind. So to make sure I’m a fun opponent for everyone in any given pod, I try to spread out my decks across various power levels.
I feel like I’ve done a good job here—Teferi’s at the top end, we’ve got Zegana and Athreos just beneath him, there’s Marath and Volrath in the middle of the packrath, and Gwafa, who doesn’t really care about “power level” at all. So I’ve got a couple of options about which one to lose where, in terms of power level.
I like a lot of options in my deck’s gameplan. Even if I’m winning with the same cards at the end, I like having some variety in the journey. As always, the real victory is the friends we made along the way. (And by “friends”, I mean cards. And by “made”, I mean “whose synergies we were able to brutally exploit hahahahaha bow before me!!!!!!!!”.)
I like combo finishes, so this is a bit of a challenge. All of my decks have combo wins built in, but after that, Gwafa enables a lot of different boardstates, followed by Marath and Zegana. Volrath is somewhat linear—either I beat down with Volrath or I beat down with other things—and Athreos and Teferi, as strict combo decks, are both extremely linear.
- Fun For My Opponents
I take a lot of pride in being fun to play against, so I always go over my decks with a fine-toothed comb to make sure I’m not boring people, taking too long, preventing them from playing, or creating “garbage time” where their game actions don’t matter.
Gwafa’s entire purpose is to be a fun, enjoyable opponent. Zegana, Marath, and Volrath also do wellrath here, for different reasons. Athreos just ignores everyone else at the pod and races for the win. Teferi explicitly prevents you from having fun, but as we’ve established, people playing Competitive EDH expect that, and the challenge is itself fun for them.
How much fun do I have playing the deck?
It’s so hard to figure this out sometimes. I get a lot of joy out of seeing all the cards I picked come together. I’m literally always happy to see some jank rare from 15 years ago in my hand. So I have to sort of filter that out and take an unbiased look at how I feel when I’m playing the deck.
Am I laughing? Am I staring at dead hands? Am I giddy with possibilities? Am I killing time while someone else plays out their victory? Am I racking up “jank wins”, where my six-part combo goes off even if I don’t win the game? Am I winning at all?
This criteria is the most important, so it’s the first in the acronym, but I’m discussing it last because I often use it as a tiebreaker more than anything else. When I’m picking a deck to get rid of, I’ve often already worked my way down to two decks that fill the same spot in power distribution, are equally open-ended, and are equally fun for my opponents to play against. So I end up at the last, but most important criterion of all—what’s the most fun to play?
APPLYING THE CRITERIA
The tough part.
Gwafa is my signature deck, and he does so well I sometimes get requests to pull him out. I have millions of Gwafa stories. I keep making new Gwafa stories. He stays.
I have a lot of fun playing Teferi, who is himself a lot of fun for his opponents in the particular environment of Competitive EDH. He usually goes straight for the combo win, but he’s got a lot of ways to get there. So he stays.
Marath, it’s just pure fun to see what weird stuff happens while I dig for Primal Surge or Epic Struggle. She stays. Volrath, too—villainy is great, and there’s an endless varietyrath of weird overcosted Black demons and vampires I can do fun things with.
Which leaves me with Zegana and Athreos. Both of these drive towards particular combo wins, both of these have questionable amounts of interactivity with my opponents. Both of these can sometimes pull out wins that feel cheap, given how quickly I can assemble a Food Chain combo, or how inevitable a tide of Athreos triggers can sometimes feel. (And, critically, neither of them have names that end in “-rath”.)
Of the two, my games with Athreos have felt… stunted, of late.
I’ve run Shadowborn Apostles under Karador, and under Sidar Kondo + Tymna the Weaver in the past. Those games always felt like they had tons of lines of play and tons of options. But glass-cannon combo under Athreos doesn’t feel like that. Either I pull off the win, which I was always going to do because it’s what the deck does, or I don’t quite draw the right cards and get hated out, in which case I’ve created garbage time for myself by limiting my own strategy. And the latter has been happening much more than the former, lately.
I love, love, LOVE playing Shadowborn Apostles decks… but I think it’s time to retire this one, and try something new.
As I said above, I don’t know if it’s going to be with a Dominaria legend, although Garna, Whisper, and Muldrotha all make strong arguments. (And “-roth-” is kind of like “-rath”, right?) However, they’re competing with options like Sek’Kuar, Razaketh himself in the command zone, and the original Marchesa, so it will be a tough choice.
But that choice is for another column. I hope what I wrote here helps you through your own.
I CHOOSE THE STORE
If Magic is your thing… just show up sometime, we’ve got something Magic-related happening most nights. (Now including Dominaria Brawl League!)
If you prefer other gaming delights, we have options! Open Board Game Day is happening this Saturday, May 12th—and if you want to get your competition on, there’s the Netrunner Regional Championships and Catan National Qualifier, both in June!
See you at the store!
Jesse Mackenzie is a regular contributor to A Muse N Games. His favourite moment with his Gwafa deck was when a mono-Black player cast two tutor spells with Hive Mind out. Tune in every two weeks for the Mana Dork, his column about all things Magic!