Examining Commander Archetypes #7: Tokens

Take our two-week token generation course, and you too can become a Master Breeder!

The token archetype has representative decks in every format in Magic, and Commander is no exception. As should be obvious, the aim of the deck is to make token creatures, and then utilize them in some way to win the game. Built properly, a token deck is capable of high power levels, excellent consistency, and multiple win conditions.

Unlike other formats, token decks in Commander tend to go all-in on the token theme. While spells like Lingering Souls are excellent for 2-player formats, the higher starting life totals and much higher power level of creatures in the Commander format makes individual token creatures much less valuable. In Commander, the value of tokens is in their consistency and synergy.

.

ADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE

1. The Tokens archetype is extremely versatile. It is capable of more than a dozen win conditions, and token decks can easily support multiple win conditions in the same deck. I will discuss what all one can do with tokens in a later section.

There are also numerous tribal options for a token deck. Just a couple token-friendly tribes are Saprolings, Zombies, Goblins, Rats, Soldiers, Slivers, Cats, Birds, Elves, Insects, Snakes, Spirits, and creatures with the Devour mechanic. I will include a tribal token deck at the end of this article.

2. Token decks have options in all five colors. Green is usually considered the be best color for token decks simply because it has Doubling Season and Parallel Lives, which are extremely powerful cards in the format. However, all five colors have token generators and token support. This article details such generators and support cards better than I could ever hope to. Suffice it to say, they are numerous.

Got ten cents? If so, you have a token general.

3. Tokens can be a budget-friendly archetype. Don’t count on it, however. I will go over the most expensive pieces of token decks, but none of those are absolutely critical to the deck’s function. One can still build a very powerful token deck on a more limited budget. For example, with $35 and Krenko, Mob Boss, you could easily build yourself a goblin swarm deck that your opponents at the table will quickly learn to fear.

4. Tokens is a self-contained theme. People are going to remember all those tokens you generated, and they’re going to remember doing math and watching numerous copies of a token creature hit the table. You’re not fighting your opponents with cards in your hand – you’re fighting them with permanents that come from nowhere.

5. This archetype is less susceptible to sweepers than other archetypes. If all your creatures die, you will be able to rebuild your army much easier through token generators than your opponents who will have to get cards out of their deck to recast.

 .

DISADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE

Guess what JUST got reprinted in Magic 2014?

1. Tokens have a converted mana cost of zero. This may not seem like a big deal, and most of the time it isn’t… but when it becomes an issue it really sucks. A single Ratchet BombPowder Keg or Engineered Explosives in a Sharuum the Hegemon deck can shut your entire engine down. Hosers and Sweepers like Consume the MeekCrime // PunishmentCulling SunDeepfire ElementalDroning BureaucratsForced MarchGaze of GraniteLavinia of the TenthPernicious DeedPlaguebearerSever the Bloodline,Steel Hellkite, and Void all become one-sided against you. It is true that most of these spells are not played by default in Commander decks. However, if you show up to your playgroup with a Tokens deck consistently, expect to start seeing a couple of them.

.

2. Most tokens have low power and toughness. In fact, most tokens are 1/1 creatures. Now this generally isn’t a huge problem, since Token decks don’t need their tokens to be anything else. However, this means that you are singularly vulnerable to spells like Night of Soul’s BetrayalCurse of Death’s HoldSlagstorm, and Whipflare. It also means that you will either lose a bunch of life, or a bunch of tokens when faced with a particularly large creature with Trample.

This now costs more than most Revised dual lands.

3. The budget of a Tokens deck can get out of hand. Though this can be a budget-friendly archetype, the most bleeding-edge tokens technology can get very expensive. Some of the most powerful token decks run Gaea’s Cradle, which currently sits around $120. Earthcraft will set you back about $18. If you’re running green, you pretty much have to run Doubling Season, which is currently running around $14, a price which was thankfully cut from $25-35 thanks to its reprinting in Modern Masters. These are just three examples, but there are others.

4. Token decks come with a target painted upon their backs. Because tokens are capable of supporting so many different win conditions, your opponents have to assume that you are employing the nastiest amongst them and prepare accordingly. If you drop anything that looks like a combo piece, expect it to get destroyed. If you cast Doubling Season, it will be countered if an opponent can counter it. If you can generate tokens consistently, expect the table to ally against you, to “take you out before you get out of control.”

.

WHAT CAN YOU DO WITH TOKENS?

This is the part of the article where I explain the numerous win conditions the archetype can support. Well, there’s a great many things one can do with tokens, so here’s a non-exhaustive list of them:

You can swarm with them! If you can generate a hundred 1/1 Saproling tokens, you can pretty much just run over any opponent you want with them. The chances of them having enough blockers to stop enough of them is rather small.

You can sacrifice them for mana! Using cards like Ashnod’s Altar can generate absurd amounts of mana if you have enough creatures to sacrifice. What you do with that mana is up to you.

If your opponents DON’T ask you what this card does when you cast it, you’re in trouble.

You can use them for control! Your opponents will not be happy to sacrifice their Shivan Dragon because you sacrificed one of your 1/1 Rat tokens with Grave Pact in play. But you know what? A dead dragon is one that can’t eat your face. If sacrifice control isn’t your thing, you can employ effects like Glare of Subdual to tap down an entire board.

You can devour them! Creatures with Devour love having tokens in play as they enter the battlefield. All it takes is five Goblin tokens to make Thromok the Insatiable into a 25/25 creature.

You can enhance them! Even just six 1/1 Snake tokens are a scary sight when Overrun gets cast. A Coat of Arms turns those six 1/1 Snakes into six 6/6 snakes.Beastmaster Ascension turns your weenie army into a shocktrooper horde.

Not shown: the portal to Squirrel Dimension, where the buggers keep popping out of.

You can combo with them! All you need to make Infinite Squirrels is Earthcraft and Squirrel NestGhave, Guru of Spores gets ridiculous with Doubling Season, and goes infinite when you add Ashnod’s Altar. There are countless other combos you can utilize.

You can populate them! Using the Populate mechanic (like that found on Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage) allows you to make a copy of a token you control. This is more useful if your deck can create large creature tokens, like that from Slime MoldingGrove of the Guardian, or even the tokens created by Riku of Two Reflections.

You can gain life from them! Token decks have the capacity to gain a great deal of life, either by effects that gain you life when creatures enter the battlefield, like Soul Warden or Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice, or those that count the number of creatures like Congregate.

You can seek alternate win conditions! It’s not difficult to meet the conditions of cards like Epic Struggle if you can make a bunch of creatures at will. Likewise, you can easily gain the life required for Felidar SovereignTest of Endurance or Celestial Convergence. Or, you could generate the mana to charge up a Helix Pinnacle. Just a couple examples.

As I said, this is not an exhaustive list, and there’s many more things you can do (like use 1/1 tokens to draw a bunch of cards off Skullclamp).

 . 

CHOOSING A TOKENS GENERAL

You usually want your general to either be a token producer itself, or facilitate the use of them through one of the means listed in the previous section. Once again, this article lists all the possible token generals better than I ever could, but I’ll give a quick rundown of some generals I think are amongst the cream of the crop.

Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice: There’s a great deal to like about her. She’s only four mana, in two very desirable colors. She populates at will, and gains you life when creatures come into play, making her both generator and facilitator. She’s perfect for a Selesnya-themed deck, or one centered around the Populate mechanic. She has very little downside.

.

.

Rhys the Redeemed: In the same desirable colors as Trostani, Rhys is capable of some ridiculously-high token generation. His low casting cost means you can probably afford him any time you need him, and his second ability literally doubles your token army. His first ability generates elf tokens, so you can make use of awesome tribal elf cards like Priest of TitaniaElvish Archdruid, and Heritage Druid, amongst many others.

 .

Krenko, Mob Boss: She is the general I see underestimated the most. Despite being mono-red, she is capable of generating an insane number of goblin tokens. She goes infinite with Ashnod’s Altar and Thornbite Staff. And when she’s not creating tokens, she’s still nestled in the shell of a Goblin tribal deck.

.

.

.

Ghave, Guru of Spores: Ghave is known primarily as a combo general, despite that fact that he is one of the best token generators in the game. His three colors and ability to generate both tokens and +1/+1 counters turns the number of combos he facilitates into the triple-digits. It’s hard to get that kind of combo consistency. However, Ghave is a great token commander, able to spawn out swarms endlessly with the help of Doubling SeasonParallel Lives, and Corpsejack Menace. He’s also great for Saproling tribal, and can employ almost every win condition you can imagine with his token generation and color selection.

Odric, Master Tactician: This may seem a surprising selection for a token deck, given that Odric is not a token generator himself. However, his ability changes the rules of the game such that you become pretty much unblockable. His low casting cost facilitates token aggro, accompanied with white’s crusade effects, most notably Intangible Virtue. If you can get Odric out at the same time as Darien, King of Kjeldor then you can create some absolutely scary board states.

 .

Tesya, Orzhov Scion: She is a very strong choice for a token deck with a heavy sacrifice control element. She is capable of generating spirit tokens and has an ability that serves as a sacrifice engine.

Thromok the Insatiable: As previously noted, all he has to do is devour five tokens when he comes into play, and he is strong enough to one-shot an opponent with general damage. He likes to ride with devouring creatures like Dragon BroodmotherMycolothPreyseizer Dragon, and Skullmuncher.

.

A SAMPLE TOKEN DECK

(Bonus geek points if you get the reference in the title.)

A Thing About Rats  
General
Marrow-Gnawer

Lands: 38
24 Swamp
Cabal Coffers
Crypt of Agadeem
Swarmyard
Cavern of Souls
Hall of the Bandit Lord
Bojuka Bog
Leechridden Swamp
Ebon Stronghold
Urborg
Barren Moor
Strip Mine
Tectonic Edge
Temple of the False God
Reliquary Tower

Creatures: 30
Pack Rat
Crypt Rats
Gnat Miser
Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
Kuro’s Taken
Locust Miser
Moonglove Changeling
Nezumi Graverobber
Nezumi Shortfang
Okiba-Gang Shinobi
Patron of the Nezumi
Pestilence Rats
Skullsnatcher
Swarm of Rats
Throat Slitter
Typhoid Rats
Nezumi Bone-Reader
10 Relentless Rats
Ogre Slumlord
Ratcatcher
Adaptive Automaton

Planeswalkers: 1
Liliana of the Dark Realms

Artifacts: 11
Phyrexian Altar
Ashnod’s Altar
Caged Sun
Thousand-Year Elixir
Thornbite Staff
Rings of Brighthearth
Coat of Arms
Lightning Greaves
Skullclamp
Lashwrithe
Strata Scythe

Enchantments: 4
Black Market
Oversold Cemetery
Grave Pact
Attrition

Sorceries: 13
Lab Rats
Plague of Vermin
Patriarch’s Bidding
Exsanguinate
Drain Life
Consume Spirit
Profane Command
Black Sun’s Zenith
Damnation
Plague Wind
Mutilate
Demonic Tutor
Diabolic Tutor
Diabolic Revelation

Instants: 1
Vampiric Tutor

This deck is a Rat tribal deck that uses tokens as an engine to empower several different win conditions.

A few cards in the deck generate Rat tokens: Lab RatsPlague of VerminPack RatOgre Slumlord, and most importantly the general, Marrow-Gnawer. This deck wants to make maximum use of its general, and as such employs five different tutor effects to get it out of the library once tucked.

This deck is, in many ways, the mono-black version of Krenko, Mob Boss swarm decks. We want to use our general’s ability as many times as we can to get an army of rats on our side of the table. We maximize its ability to make rats with Thousand-Year ElixirThornbite Staff, and Rings of Brighthearth.

Once we have a bunch of rats at our disposal, we have many options. We can just start swarming our opponents with them. We can feed them to a Phyrexian Altar or (the less-good) Ashnod’s Altar for mana to fuel a kill spell like Profane Command or Exsanguinate.

Or, we can turn around and play a bit of control, drawing cards off the power of Skullclamp, and cleaning up the board through judicious use of Grave Pact and Attrition. Rats are very good at hitting your opponents’ hands. I’ve included Gnat MiserLocust MiserNezumi ShortfangOkiba-Gang Shinobi, and Nezumi Bone-Reader to help move that process along.

If you want to go infinite, all you need is the general and Thornbite Staff. (And an initial rat to sacrifice.) Just don’t be a jerk about it.

If our token engine gets shut down, this is still a tribal rat deck. We’ve got rats, we’ve got Coat of Arms, and two pieces of equipment that reward us for being mono-black. It’s not hard to figure out.  

Advertisements

Examining Commander Archetypes #6 – Group Hug

While not exclusive to Commander, the Group Hug archetype is exclusive to multiplayer games. This archetype is political in nature – it gives gifts to the other players at the table in hopes of being the last player attacked, and then wins the game.

With a Group Hug deck at the table, players can expect the pace of the game to accelerate greatly – mana flows freely, card draw is plentiful, and many permanents will find their way onto the battlefield without ever touching the stack.

.….

OBJECTIVES OF THE GROUP HUG DECK

In soviet Ravnica, scroll unravels you.

Card Draw: You want everyone at the table drawing plenty of cards. Artifacts like Howling Mine make this possible for all colors, but blue and black excel at this. More cards drawn means more cards get played. Players like playing cards, so they’ll want you to stick around in the game so they can draw more of them.

Mana Acceleration: Green is the undisputed king of this, so most Group Hug decks will want some green in them. You can let players retrieve lands through effects like Collective Voyage and Oath of Lieges, double the production of existing lands through enchantments like Mana Flare and Heartbeat of Spring, or give them mana directly with spells like Eladimri’s Vineyard. Of course, all these effects help you just as much as everyone else, so that when your opponents have finished each other off, you’ll be in position to counterstrike.

You would think the game would be over after this hits the field. You’d be wrong. Expect at least 5 minutes before the next player takes his turn.

Permanent Generation: This encompasses a large category of effects that can be summarized by “cheating things into play.” One way of achieving this is through spells like Dream Halls that allow players to cast spells without needing mana. Another method is through token creation, which can be achieved via Forbidden Orchard or any of the “hunted” creatures like Hunted Horror. Spells like Gate to the AetherOath of Druids, and Wild Evocation allow players to bring permanents in from their library. Finally, there’s the category of “hand dump” spells, like Tempting Wurm and Hypergenesis. Permanent generation is important for a group hug deck, because it keeps your allies in the game (or if you have no allies, makes the players who are a bit behind in the game happy that you’re there.)

Lifegain: Though not strictly necessary in a Group Hug deck, life gain keeps players in the game that would otherwise be knocked out -which creates some very appreciative allies. White is the champion of this category, with heavy hitters like Arbiter of Knollridge and Beacon of Immortality.

Recursion: Also optional, getting creatures and spells out of players’ graveyards and back into their hands (or battlefields) is another great way to make friends.Exhume is almost always welcome at the table, particularly after a Windfall or Wheel of Fortune. There are a cycle of creatures, the Advocate cycle, that give you powerful effects at the “cost” of returning cards from your opponents’ graveyards to their hands. One such example is Spurnmage Advocate that lets you destroy a target attacking creature at the cost of returning two cards from an opponents’ library to their hand. In a group hug deck, that is 100% upside.

Secret tech for not milling yourself out of the game.

Protection: At some point it the game, players may start to decide that they have achieved all the benefits they want from your presence, and would like to take you out of the game before you can give the rest of the table your blessings. This is why you can’t just rely on politics to keep you in the game until the final two – you must be prepared to defend yourself. The ways to accomplish this are too numerous to list, but spells like Swans of Bryn Argoll that allow you to defend yourself while still hugging the players at the table are great. You can also make other players more enticing to attack through tax spells like Ghostly Prison and Propaganda, or through incentives like Edric, Spymaster of Trest.

.

This one might be a tad slow.

Win Condition: If all goes well, eventually you will have only one opponent, and will need to bring him/her down to win the game. There are numerous ways of accomplishing this. General damage is always an option. In group hug decks with heavy card draw, mill is possible. Combos are fairly reliable in this archetype. You can steal your final opponent’s creatures and kill him in one fell swoop with the likes of Insurrection. This is also an excellent chance to try your hand at alternate win conditions such as Celestial Convergence.

Of course, there are some psychopaths out there playing group hug decks with NO win conditions, just to watch the world burn. Admittedly, my own Phelddagrif deck didn’t have any stated win conditions for about five months (though I did manage to win three games with it anyway – twice through mill and once through general damage). I have added Laboratory Maniac in there now, but playing just to play, with no expectations to win? It’s actually kinda liberating.

 . 

ADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE

1.  Group Hug decks are fun for the whole table.  They enable players to play their decks in a different way than normal, because they are provided more resources to do so.  The player of a group hug deck usually has the luxury of sitting back and watching a game unfold, without worrying so much about how he/she is gonna win it.  In a format that is all about epic plays, group hug decks are like epic accelerators.

2.  This archetype can greatly accelerate games.  By giving all players at the table more mana, cards, and resources, the big plays that the Commander format is known for can happen faster.  Players who get mana-screwed or forced into top deck mode aren’t put on the sidelines of the game when a group hug deck is around, because they will get lands down in front of them and cards in their hand.  Stalemates are broken faster when players are drawing more cards (and getting more answers in their hands).

 . 

3.  Group Hug decks can support almost any win condition.  Because the primary engine of your deck is dedicated to being one of the last two players standing, you are not beholden to any particular general or win condition.  You will benefit almost equally from all the mana acceleration and card draw you are providing the table, and should have your win condition situated in your hand when it’s time to win the game.  (If you even seek to win the game at all.)  Have a combo you want to play?  Win through general damage?  Cast some big, nasty creatures?  You should have plenty of resources to make that happen.

4.  This archetype is fairly budget-friendly.  Because the cards that make up the core of group hug decks have little value in two-player games, they tend to carry low price tags.  Those with some degree of use in other formats, like Howling Mine, have generally been printed multiple times, so the supply is high (and as such, the price is low.)

5.  Group Hug decks have options in all five colors.  Each color has options for each, if not all, of the objectives for the archetype listed previously.  This gives you a wide range of options for deckbuilding and general selection.

 . 

DISADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE

No one likes “Forced” anything.

1.  Despite what you might think, Group Hug decks are NOT universally loved.  Be forewarned that this archetype is somewhat controversial; many players just don’t find having one at their table fun. The accelerated pace of the game can render control decks useless, and make combo decks nigh unbeatable. They also tend to create a fair amount of chaos at the table, so it’s not a good idea to play it at a table with inexperienced players. If you have concerns that your deck will create a negative play experience at the table due to the previously-mentioned issues, always ask the table first – or at least let them know that you’re playing a Group Hug deck.

2.  More so than any other archetype, Group Hug decks are at the mercy of the rest of the table.  Unlike every other deck at the table, the Group Hug deck is not full of threats and answers.  If even one player at the table concentrates his full effort against you, you will have a difficult time remaining in the game.  As this is a political archetype, you must be comfortable playing the “above the table” game, or you will not enjoy this archetype at all.

3.  This archetype cannot be your primary Commander deck.  The group hug archetype will “get old” much faster than other deck types, both for its pilot and other players at the table.  Its ability to create fun at the table increases as its frequency of play decreases.  Attempts to keep a group hug deck at the table past its welcome will resolt in player revolt, meaning the table allies to take you out before you can warp the game too much.  (Or, even worse, the players start a new game without your presence.)  It is the chocolate fondant of the Commander buffet – play it only on occasion, or you will quickly grow sick of it.     


CHOOSING A GROUP HUG GENERAL

All five colors have something to offer a Group Hug deck. Green is probably the strongest, offering the best mana acceleration, strong permanent generation and lifegain, and a bit of card draw. If you have green in your general’s color identity, you have pretty much all the tools you’ll need, and any other colors you pick simply strengthen your deck.

White gives you the best lifegain cards, and strong recursion in the Advocate cycle. Blue gives you incredible card draw and powerful enchantments that allow players to cast spells via alternate mana costs. Red has the closest thing to sweepers that you can safely play without making other players terribly angry – spells like Warp World and Thieves’ Auction. Red also has a tiny bit of mana acceleration and card draw, plus a fun little infusion of random effects. Black gives a degree of reanimation, recursion, and card draw (albeit Black’s group hug cards tend to come at the price of the player’s life total.)

Floats like a butterfly, covered in honey like a bee.

Phelddagrif is the heavyweight champion of group huggery. In addition to being in very favorable colors (green, white, and blue excel at everything you want to do with a group hug deck), his abilities are actually tailored to giving other players gifts. Finally, as a 4/4 flyer (after you give another player a card to let him grow his wings) he’s not the worst creature in the world to deal 21 general damage.

Angus Mackenzie is in the same awesome colors as Phelddagrif, but instead of packing Group Hug skills, he’s Fog-on-a-stick.

Karona, False God is a good choice if you want to use all five colors. It means that, once you cast him, every turn each player can count upon having a 5/5 hasty general that buffs their own creatures while attacking. Just be careful not to cast him when the table is in a position to gang up on one player and do a quick 21 general damage with Karona – or you’re going to find yourself on the defensive sooner than you probably wanted.

Says he’s a minotaur…. looks like a goat to me.

Zedruu the Greathearted is another great political general. Though he is used primarily in decks which “donate” cards like TranscendenceSteel GolemThought Lash, and Illusions of Grandeur – he can also be used to donate permanents that players actually want. This creates strong incentives to keep you around – if you lose the game, then all the gifts you’ve given them cease to exist.

Ruhan of the Fomori is in the same colors as Zedruu, but he plays a bit different. He is a serious threat to see 21 general damage, but since you can’t control who he attacks, you can’t really be held responsible. Ruhan is a great general for Group Hug decks that go red-heavy, and utilize random effects like Grip of Chaos and Chaos Warp.

Edric, Spymaster of Trest is in green and blue. His ability gives your opponents incentive to attack someone other than you, and is a great general if you want to play a more defensive style of group hug deck.

Hurts so good.

Braids, Conjurer Adept is mono-blue, but has built-in permanent generation. Add in blue’s card draw capabilities, and you have a viable group hug general. She trades mana acceleration for more control options – letting her bounce or counter the things she doesn’t necessarily want on the battlefield.

Nin, the Pain Artist is an unusual choice, but a viable group hug general. Like Braids, she will be primarily focused upon card draw, but has some mana acceleration capability from red. Her ability allows you to eliminate creatures you don’t want on the battlefield, while giving that creature’s controller some card draw for their trouble.

Next, let’s analyze a group hug deck I constructed for this article…

 . 

SAMPLE GROUP HUG DECKLIST

Elder Dragon Hug  
General
Palladia-Mors
Lands: 39

Forest
Plains
Mountain
Jungle Shrine
Command Tower
Forbidden Orchard
Rainbow Vale
Reflecting Pool
Rupture Spire
Transguild Promenade
Vivid Crag
Vivid Meadow
Vivid Grove
Sacred Foundry
Rugged Prairie
Boros Garrison
Stomping Ground
Grove of the Burnwillows
Fire-Lit Thicket
Gruul Turf
Kazandu Refuge
Rootbound Crag
Temple Garden
Wooded Bastion
Selesnya Sanctuary
Graypelt Refuge
Sunpetal Grove
Naya Panorama
Evolving Wilds
Terramorphic Expanse
Homeward Path
Reliquary Tower
Yavimaya Hollow
Creatures: 19

Forcemage Advocate
Nullmage Advocate
Pulsemage Advocate
Shieldmage Advocate
Spurnmage Advocate
Hunted Dragon
Hunted Lammasu
Hunted Troll
Hunted Wumpus
Charmed Griffin
Boldwyr Heavyweights
Heartwood Storyteller
Arbiter of Knollridge
Wall of Shards
Wall of Reverence
Magus of the Vineyard
Shizuko, Caller of Autumn
Diaochan, Artful Beauty
Felidar Sovereign
Artifacts: 7
Venser’s Journal
Gate to the Aether
Anvil of Bogardan
Howling Mine
Font of Mythos
Temple Bell
Otherworld Atlas
Enchantments: 16

Words of Worship
Spirit Link
Oath of Druids
Oath of Lieges
Rites of Flourishing
Fecundity
Wild Evocation
Eladamri’s Vineyard
Heartbeat of Spring
Mana Flare
Upwelling
Awakening
Test of Endurance
Helix Pinnacle
Concordant Crossroads
Mass Hysteria
Sorceries: 13

Congregate
Dawnglow Infusion
Invincible Hymn
Open the Vaults
Weird Harvest
Death by Dragons
Wheel of Fortune
Reforge the Soul
Collective Voyage
New Frontiers
Thieves’ Auction
Warp World
Insurrection
Instants: 5
Beacon of Immortality
Wild Ricochet
Crib Swap
Path to Exile
Swords to Plowshares

General Choice: Palladia-Mors doesn’t seem to offer much as a group hug general. He’s just a very expensive 7/7 flying trampler with no other abilities. This analysis is correct. I chose him simply because he is in Naya colors – Green, White and Red. None of the Naya generals have abilities that make sense for a group hug deck, but this is an excellent color combination for it. Palladia-Mors gives us two things – first, a 7/7 flying, trampling general that will help me win the game once I have only one opponent. Second, dude is just oozing style. Seriously, he looks like he either belongs on a metal album cover or a 1st edition D&D sourcebook. He’s an elder dragon – that’s old school.

For many of us, this is a car payment.

Mana Base: The vast majority of decks I build on this blog will not include ABR Dual Lands and Onslaught/Zendikar fetchlands, since they will be out of reach for most players. This deck is no exception. Even though the deck packs heavy mana acceleration, the deck itself isn’t particularly fast, so there’s no reason to fear lands that come into play tapped. To that end, priority one was ensuring a consistent manabase. With 10 lands capable of producing all three colors, and 14 capable of producing two of them, I think I have that covered. The deck skews a bit green-heavy, so the mana base skews slightly that direction as well.  Homeward Path is a utility land that should have a slot in most Group Hug decks (and is all but required in Karona decks), and Reliquary Tower helps me keep all those cards I’m going to draw. I kept nine basic lands in there, because I run several cards that search for them, and I wouldn’t want to deny myself the benefits of my own huggery.

Mana Acceleration: I decided this should be the focal point of the huggery, because I would be including several high-CMC cards in the deck that I would eventually like to cast. There are twelve different cards in the deck that accelerate the table’s mana.

I’ll see your giant, and raise you an Ulamog.

Permanent Generation: I’m running all the Hunted creatures in my colors. I decided to leave Tempting Wurm out of this one, because this deck is seeking not to put itself at a disadvantage for political gain. One of the reasons I wanted Naya colors was to run Death By Dragons, a personal favorite that I rarely get to play. This deck is packed with cards to give my opponents (and myself) permanents on the field.

Card Draw & Recursion: Not having access to blue or black, this deck isn’t pushing the boundaries with card draw, but there’s still plenty in there. I’m running Wheel of Fortune and Reforge the Soul to complement my full cycle of Advocates.

Protection: This deck has both reactive and proactive protection, utilizing a couple walls, and Warp World and Theives’ Auction when the board becomes disadvantageous to me. The Advocate cycle, Crib SwapPath to Exile, and Swords to Plowshares deal re-actively with direct threats.

Win Condition: I decided to take a “wait and see” approach with this deck, so that I had multiple options depending on what the board state was when the game was down to two players. If my final opponent has a pretty clear board, the Palladia-Mors starts plugging away for 21 general damage. If my opponent has a full board, Insurrection gets cast and I hit him in the face with it. If I’m drowning in mana, Helix Pinnacle hits the table. If I have a very high life total, then it’s Felidar Sovereign or Test of Endurance for the win.

So, that’s the deck! Tune in next week when I analyze a new Commander archetype!

Examining Commander Archetypes #5 – Control

Shown Above: Old Testament Control.

The Control archetype is simultaneously easy and difficult to define. What makes a Control deck different from every other Commander deck is its reactive nature. Other archetypes have a plan to win: ramp up to big creatures, load up the general for 21 damage, drop a game-ending combo, send creatures to the graveyard and reanimate them, swarm your opponent with tokens, et cetera. A control deck lacks this proactive strategy – it seeks simply to not lose long enough to win the game.

So, control decks are reactive. The definition seems simple enough, but there are many ways of achieving this “not losing the game” goal. Many decks are what I call “soft control” decks – they employ control elements as part of their win strategy, but don’t actively seek to dictate what is allowed to enter and/or stay on the battlefield. Pillow Fort is a perfect example (and one I will cover in detail at a later date.) Pillow Fort decks seek to put up as many defensive and deterrent measures as they can to stay alive. While they certainly employ control elements, they don’t seek to control the battlefield – just keep themselves quarantined from it long enough to employ their win condition.

What I will cover in this Archetype Analysis is what I call “hard control” decks. These decks seek to control the pace of the game through the use of various measures and mold the game state to their greatest advantage (or least detriment).

.

ADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE

Go ahead, counter it. I promise the rest of the table will thank you.

1. This archetype controls the pace of the game, and keeps it honest. Without a control deck at the table, combo decks are free to ignore the other players while they dig for their combo pieces, knowing that the disruption they face will be minimal. Ramp decks can throw out ten pieces of land by turn five and put un-answerable creatures into play, thus running over the table. Aggro decks can dump their entire hand onto the table and run over decks that aren’t prepared for it, because they’re not afraid of losing those creatures and stalling out.

If, however, there is a control deck at the table, then the situation becomes far more complicated, and each player is forced to take into consideration your hand size and untapped lands. That ramp deck waits to cast Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre until you’re tapped out and unable to counter it. The combo deck waits to go off until its player has a reasonable ability to protect the combo. Players with even a modicum of skill realize not to cast any creatures they can’t afford to lose, or spells they can’t afford to be countered.

2. Control is very hard to disrupt. Because you don’t have a proactive plan for winning, you can focus on what the rest of the table is doing, knowing that their ability to disrupt your game plan is very limited until you decide it’s time to start winning. Even with multiple control decks at the table, those players probably aren’t going to get in each other’s way much, until the win conditions start coming out.

3. Control is strong in the late game. If you can stay alive and control the board in the early game, you are in a very strong position in the late game. Other decks are racing each other to see who can accomplish their victory condition first. Control decks, on the other hand, sit back and play a war of attrition – and these decks are built to ensure that they will win the card advantage fight. If you’ve played your deck well, then in the late game your opponents will be in topdeck mode while you have a full hand – giving you massive advantage.

 

One of my favorite win conditions is “just sit back and wait.”

4. Control is fun for players who enjoy the political aspect of multiplayer games. Because your deck has the ability to interact with your opponents’ decks at a maximum level, this gives you leverage. You get to decide what spells get countered and which ones don’t. Which creatures live and which die. On what turn the sweeper you’ve had in your hand since turn one actually gets played. This gives you the power to make threats, seek deals and alliances, and send your opponents at each other’s necks so they do your dirty work for you.

5. Control is a versatile archetype. Because it has so many means of controlling the zones of the game, and its lack of an inherent win strategy, you get to pick whatever win conditions suit your fancy (within your colors). Unlike other archetypes, control is not beholden to its general for anything other than color identity, so you can choose a general for any reason you want. Most control players choose a general that helps them out as a win condition, some choose those that give them even more control options, and some use the opportunity to play a “useless” general they like the art/flavor of.

 .

DISADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE

Presented without comment.

1. Control requires a high level of skill to pilot effectively. Control is not an easy archetype to play in a one-on-one matchup, and becomes even more difficult in a multiplayer matchup. Simply put, you can’t counter, destroy, bounce, or discard every threat that enters the stack or battlefield. You have to constantly assess your own ability to react to threats, and gauge the threat level of the spells your opponents are attempting to utilize. Doing so effectively requires a strong knowledge base in order to evaluate whether a particular card is part of a combo, or presents a serious threat to you. Likewise, because your own resources are limited, you have to judge whether to use a counterspell on one particular player’s turn, thus leaving you tapped out for other players to put their plans into motion unmolested. Every time the board changes, you must reassess it. This is NOT an archetype for newer players, or less-confident ones.

 

No. Just, no.

2. Many (especially newer) players do not see Control as a fun archetype to play against. As I discussed in item #1 of the Advantages section, the presence of at least one control deck at the table serves to keep at bay the worst excesses of the format. However, it becomes difficult to remember that when you’ve been sitting at a table for twenty minutes and have never had the opportunity to attack, because the control player has singled you out to counter your spells and destroy your creatures. This is another reason for this archetype not to be piloted by inexperienced players – if the players at your table aren’t having fun because you’re there, then you probably won’t find yourself playing very many games with them. This does NOT mean that you have to let the player packing The Mimeoplasm have zero resistance when he creates a copy of Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon with 8 +1/+1 counters on turn five. Far from it – that kind of situation is where a control player proves his value to the table. However, if you’re keeping players at the table from playing their decks in any meaningful way, then you are creating a negative play experience. It’s a difficult balance to maintain – and it isn’t for everyone.

3. The power level of your deck decreases as the number of players at the table increases. You only have so many cards to cast and lands to tap. Against one opponent, it’s difficult to keep up the war of attrition by answering every one of his/her threats – but far from impossible. Add a third player, and now your limited reaction power is stretched thinner. Once the fourth and fifth players show up, you’re starting to look at a lost cause, and have to save your best reactionary spells for the most dangerous threats. Meanwhile, the battlefield is being developed outside of your control. One can still win five-player games with a control deck, but doing so is much more difficult.

4. Your color options are somewhat limited. Blue, White, and Black are your best friends when you’re playing control. Green has very limited control options – practically no sweepers, its primary means of dealing with creatures is the Fight mechanic, and its draw mechanics are slim, so you will struggle for card advantage. Red is slightly better than green, though its primary means of control is land destruction (particularly recurring and mass land destruction), which is heavily frowned-upon in most Commander play groups.

 .

BUILDING AND PLAYING CONTROL

Another fine example of the “just sit back and wait” alternate win condition.

There are four elements to consider when building a control deck: limiting your opponents’ options, destroying opponents’ permanents, card advantage, and win condition. Of these, win condition is the easiest – it’s whatever your colors can support. You will be seeking to put your win condition down in the late game, when your opponents have been weakened (if you’ve been doing your job right). By this point, you should have either drawn into your wincon pieces, or can tutor for them. Many control decks implement an infinite combo, of which their general is a piece. Others employ a general with evasion or high power to do 21 combat damage. I recall one control deck that waited until it could produce a large amount of mana to fuel a kill spell like Comet Storm. There isn’t really a wrong answer here, so go with whatever tickles your fancy, and don’t spend more than 10 card slots in the deck pursuing it.

Card advantage comes primarily from card-draw effects like Mind’s Eye, but can also come from high-efficiency cards. Hex, for example, destroys six creatures for the cost of one card. Most sweepers fall into this category when used properly.

The following are various means of controlling the game:

Sweepers: Because of their high efficiency value, it is accepted that most Commander decks keep a couple sweepers in their 99 cards, like Day of Judgment. Expect control decks to have far more than a few. Sweepers are how Control decks come back from behind in the early-mid game, and how they keep the board clean in the mid-late game. You should probably have no less than five of these in your control deck, unless you’re some kind of genius pioneering mono-green control. Sweepers are also important for eliminating creatures with Hexproof and Shroud.

CounterspellsCounterspells interact with your opponent’s spells on the stack, and are the near-exclusive domain of blue magic. Nothing makes an opponent think twice before casting like having a couple islands untapped. If you have blue in your color identity, you should definitely have at least a couple.

Spot Removal: You don’t want to cast Akroma’s Vengeance just to get rid of one or two problematic creatures or artifacts. For situations like these, targeted destruction effects are called for. Given their popularity in the format, it never hurts to have artifact destruction (bonus points if you can use it more than once, like Ancient Grudge). The best spot removal spells, however, are the ones that can destroy more than one type of permanent.

DreadboreVindicatePutrefyDisenchant, and Mortify are all good examples.

Discard: If you’re unable to interact with your opponent’s spells on the stack, then you can make sure they’re never able to cast them in the first place by knocking them out of their hands. Though it is a “weaker” form of control than counterspells, it can become its own win condition through support cards like Quest for the Nihil StoneMegrimLiliana’s CaressThe RackGeth’s GrimoirePainful Quandary, and Iron Maiden. If you can get into play a card that sends discarded cards into the exile zone, like Rest in Peace or Leyline of the Void, hand destruction becomes very powerful.

Sacrifice Effects: Many token decks and sacrifice/recur decks lock down the board though the use of cards like Grave PactAttrition, and World Queller. Sacrifice effects are necessary to deal with Indestructible permanents. All is Dust is a powerful sweeper because its effect is a sacrifice effect. Barter in Blood is worth considering in this format because of all the Hexproof and Indestructible creatures that can hit the board. Killing Wave is another strong sacrifice effect.

Land Destruction: The primary domain of red magic, every control deck should consider packing some degree of targeted land destruction to deal with powerful lands like Vault of the Archangel and Kessig Wolf Run. Just be very careful before sleeving up mass land destruction like Armageddon and Devastation. There is a (very small) place for mass land destruction in the Commander format, but it is never to be used lightly.

Prison Effects: Prison effects are about changing the rules of the game so that your opponents can’t do what they want to do. Stranglehold, for example, prevents your opponents from searching their libraries (no tutors or fetch lands!) and taking extra turns. Linvala, Keeper of Silence keeps your opponents from activating the abilities of their creatures. This category also includes “taxation” effects that make it more expensive for opponents to do things. Aura of Silence makes artifacts and enchantments more expensive to play. Grand Arbiter Augstin IV makes all your opponents spells cost more to play. There is an archetype which aims to lock the board down with resource denial spells like our prison and tax effects, but for the purposes of this article, our aim is to control the board, not prevent anything from happening to it. For “hard control” decks, definitely consider including these type of cards to curb the worst excesses of the format – but don’t seek to completely prevent your opponents from playing their decks outright.

Tuck Effects: Your opponents’ generals will become a menace if allowed to keep returning to the command zone, and you can’t counter them forever. The solution to this problem is to shuffle them back into the library, though effects like TerminusSpell CrumpleCondemnSpin into MythChaos Warp, and Bant Charm. If you are in colors that can run them, you should definitely consider including a couple in your deck.

Devaluation: Sometimes, the best course of action is to allow your opponents to let their permanents hit the battlefield, and then turn them into non-threats. Humility is the king of creature devaluation, and Blood Moon rules over land devaluation. Stony Silence shuts up artifacts. Torpor Orb removes the value from value creatures. Glaring Spotlight lets you ignore Hexproof. There are many example of devaluation cards, and all are strong inclusions in a control deck.

 . 

CHOOSING A CONTROL GENERAL

As with most archetypes, the most important aspect of your general is its color identity. You should have solid options with any general who isn’t mono-green, but the “best” color combination for control is Esper (White-Blue-Black.) As long as you have at least one of these colors in your identity, though, you should have plenty of control options.

Though certainly not required, having your general incorporated into at least one win condition will make piloting a control deck easier. Here are a few popular Control generals:

Sen Triplets: The triplets are a very strong choice for general, being in the Esper colors. What puts them over the top is their ability to give you a degree of protection against other control decks. During your turn, your general locks down a player, making them unable to cast spells during your turn (like counterspells and destruction). A skilled Sen Triplets player can weaken his control-playing adversaries by using their own removal against them (and other players). Then, once their competition is weakened, they can rip the win conditions right out of the hand of players who share a color and use them.

Child of Alara: This general gives you access to the control spells of all five colors (and simultaneously presents the challenge of the five color mana base). Her ability means that you have a sweeper available from the Command zone whenever you need it (and have the mana to pay for it).

Thraximundar: He gives you access to the Grixis colors (Blue, Black and Red), and wants to utilize sacrifice effects to great effect though the abuse of spells like Grave Pact and Anowan, the Ruin Sage. If you’re controlling the board well, then you’ll get up to 21 general damage in no time.

Sharuum the Hegemon: This general is capable of being played in so many different archetypes it’s crazy. She’s best known for Combo and/or Artifacts, but she’s also strong in Reanimator, Ramp, Voltron, and yes, Control. Of the “generals who are part of a combo” that you can select for your Control general, she’s at the top of the list.  She’s in Esper colors, and can fetch important control pieces like Oblivion Stone and Smokestack out of your graveyard.  To say nothing of the combo debauchery she is capable of, if you’re into that sort of thing for your win condition.

Wrexial, the Risen Deep: Wrexial gives you access to blue and black, and a very powerful general ability. If you’re looking to attack your opponents’ libraries (looking towards either Mill or Reanimation as your win condition) then this is a general you should strongly consider. Adding more Memory Plunder-type effects allows you to turn your opponents’ decks against them. What makes him so good is that, every time your opponents want to cast an Instant or Sorcery, not only do they have to worry that it will be countered, but that at a later time it will be used against them. He’s just a solid control general with many wincon options.

Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter: Vish Kal does a little bit of everything as Control general. He gives you access to black and white, wants you to run sacrifice and recursion effects, comes with a form of removal, can get up to 21 damage quickly… and he is downright unfair when paired with Horobi, Death’s Wail.

Grand Arbiter Augustin IV: Augustin is the patron saint of Taxation decks, which slow your opponents down by making their spells cost more to cast. The benefit of Augustin to a control deck is the increase in casting cost efficiency he gives you, in addition to the access he gives you to blue and white.

Gaddock Teeg: Teeg is traditionally a Prison-style Commander, but is also a strong choice for Control because of his immediate impact in the early game, making your job as controller easier.

Once again, though… Control decks are less beholden to their generals than other archetypes. If you don’t need your general to help you out as part of a win condition, go ahead and show off your style by running Sivitri Scarzam just because you like her art (which is awesome, no doubt.)

 . 

SAMPLE DECK: MONO BLUE CONTROL

Old-School Mono Blue Control 
General
Talrand, Sky Summoner

Lands: 39
32 Island
Reliquary Tower
Mystifying Maze
Temple of the False God
Strip Mine
Tectonic Edge
Ghost Quarter
Blasted Landscape

Instants: 30
Counterspell
Rewind
Cryptic Command
Dissipate
Desertion
Arcane Denial
Essence Scatter
False Summoning
Hinder
Spell Crumple
Forbid
Muddle the Mixture
Negate
Psychic Barrier
Overwhelming Intellect
Remove Soul
Snap
Capsize
Cyclonic Rift
Vapor Snag
Repeal
Pongify
Rapid Hybridization
Spin into Myth
Mystical Tutor
Peer Through Depths
Stroke of Genius
Blue Sun’s Zenith
Trickbind
Stifle

Sorceries: 9
All is Dust
Evacuation
Devastation Tide
Wash Out
Time Warp
Time Spiral
Merchant Scroll
Braingeyser
Recurring Insight

Creatures: 9
Ertai, Wizard Adept
Glen Elendra Archmage
Palinchron
Great Whale
Peregrine Drake
Archaeomancer
Mnemonic Wall
Kederekt Leviathan
Snapcaster Mage

Artifacts: 6
Vedalken Shackles
Oblivion Stone
Nevinyrral’s Disk
Isochron Scepter
Sol Ring
Caged Sun

Enchantments: 5
Rhystic Study
Omniscience
Treachery
Followed Footsteps
Spellweaver Volute

Planeswalkers: 1
Tamiyo, the Moon Sage

This deck is an old-school “draw-go” style mono blue control deck. Older players will recognize the Urza’s Cycle “free spells” in the deck that untap lands when they come into play, so you can have some board presence while still having lands untapped for dirty work during your opponents’ turns.

He is why seagulls attack you at the beach.

I chose Talrand, Sky Summoner for the general to give the deck a somewhat more proactive game plan. Classic draw-go gets very boring after a while, because you’re not advancing your own goals, just trying to stay alive. Having Talrand in play during the mid-game allows you to advance your own board state with 2/2 flying Drake tokens, just by doing what you already should be to control the game – casting instants and sorceries. If you control the game very well, then you will have a sizable swarm of flyers with which to attack. If you’re not doing so well, then you have chump-blockers to defend with until you CAN stabilize and regain control.

In addition to the drake tokens, there are a couple combos available to you as win conditions. Palinchron and Caged Sun together are capable of generating infinite mana, with which you can turn an X-Draw spell like Stroke of Genius or Blue Sun’s Zenith into a kill-spell, old-school style. The deck is also capable of taking infinite turns by recurring Time Warp, using either Mnemonic Wall or Archaeomancer, enchanted with Followed Footsteps.

If you can fire off Tamiyo, the Moon Sage‘s ultimate ability, especially if you have Omniscience available, then you pretty much win the game with overwhelming card advantage.

There are also spells in the deck capable of stealing your opponents’ nastiest creature and using it against them. And sometimes? Well, sometimes you just need to hit people in the face with Kederekt Leviathan. Whatever works.

Shown above: Leverage.

The biggest control measure this deck possesses is Counterspells, as is normal for a draw-go style deck. While you might think this is weak in multiplayer, it slows down the game and gives you political leverage because EVERYONE is eyeing your untapped islands. The player to your left is the first one who has to decide whether or not to play the “is this spell getting countered” game. Inevitably, this player will begin to question why he should draw out your countermagic when his/her other opponents don’t have to. This line of thought will continue until you reach the player on your right, who has the responsibility of ridding you of your countermagic thrust upon them. They don’t want that responsibility either! So, everyone at the table plays a tighter game, which slows the pace and suits you just fine.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the entire table gangs up on you. This is always a possibility for ANY multiplayer game, and many times it’s just not fun to have this happen. However, when you’re packing nearly 20 counterspells in your decks and several other control options, you get to make it clear to the table there is a price to be paid for allying against you. Sure, you can’t stop the entire table – but you sure as heck can stop one of them! That player, facing the full brunt of your control spells, will be in no position to fight back against his/her current allies once you’re taken out of the game. So, either the alliance against you breaks, or you get to decide who’s going down with you. It’s a better position to be in than most players are when faced with a table allied against them.

Windfall is always a hilarious followup to this spell.

The deck employs a few colorless sweepers (All is DustOblivion Stone, and Nevinyrral’s Disk) as well as a few of blue’s bounce-type sweepers – including the one-sided Cyclonic Rift.

Spot removal is somewhat light, being in mono-blue, and is restricted to Pongify and Rapid Hybridization. There are a few targeted bounce effects (like the awesome Capsize) to deal with creatures that are immediately threatening you, but this isn’t where the deck derives its power. It wants to beat your opponents on the stack with counterspells, or sweep the board if your opponents get aggressive.

Examining Commander Archetypes #4 – Reanimator

Though officially named after Reanimate, printed in Tempest, the reanimator deck has been around since the beginning of the game, fueled by old-timer cards Animate Dead and Lord of the Pit. The aim of the deck is simple: get nasty creatures into your graveyard (or an opponent’s graveyard), and then put them into play under your control.  This archetype has historically been very popular – it was even the focus of a Commander preconstructed deck (Devour for Power) and an all-foil Premium Deck (Graveborn).  This popularity is a result of its level of power in all stages of the game (early, mid, and late) and the fact it’s just fun to play.  You get to feel like a necromancer bringing the dead back to life!  So, naturally, the archetype is perfect for the Commander format.
                    
                                                                                                                                     .

ADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE

She used to be completely banned, as opposed to mostly banned. That means she’s powerful.

1) Reanimator decks are incredibly flexible. There is no limit to the number of cards one can have in their graveyard, so you can fill it up with whatever you need. Truth be told, it’s not an archetype in itself, but an engine. With this engine, you can choose from many “sub-archetypes” to play with. Want to go aggro? Run The Mimeoplasm and get some high-power creatures in your graveyard, like Krosan Cloudscraper. Want a side of recursion to go with your reanimation? Karador, Ghost Chieftain is your guy, and he likes to party with the likes of Sakura-Tribe Elder and Dauntless Escort. Is control more of your thing? Kokusho, the Evening Star loves coming back from the graveyard (as long as she doesn’t start from the Command Zone – she’s banned there!) Combo? Totally doable. Toolbox? Yup, reanimator can do that too. Voltron, Theft, Enchantments, Pillow Fort – all (and more) are possible.

Shown above: 75 cents.

2) It’s very budget-friendly. With the exception of Entomb, all of the “engine cards” are pretty cheap. “Engine Cards” refer to spells that reanimate creatures, like Vigor Mortis, and spells that get them there in the first place, like Increasing ConfusionPutrid Imp and Golgari Grave-Troll. Most of the expense in reanimator decks comes from the mana base (for decks that want to be really fast), and/or the nasty creatures you want to reanimate. There’s lots of awesome critters that you can buy for around a buck, like Verdant ForcePelakka Wurm and Balefire Dragon that will keep the empty slots of your deck warm while you save up for misfits the likes of Iona, Shield of EmeriaLord of Extinction, or Dragon Broodmother.

3) It’s a powerful archetype. The whole point of the deck is cheating creatures into play long before they’re supposed to be there. It gives you a strong early/mid game, and even if your reanimation plan goes down the toilet, in the late game you can even cast your creatures honestly, saving your reanimation spells to grab your opponents’ creatures out of their graveyard.

4) The deck’s plan is proactive and simple. 1. Get nasty creatures in your graveyard. 2. Move nasty creatures from graveyard to the battlefield. 3. Destroy your opponents with nasty creatures. If you accomplish these goals, you will win.

5) There are plenty of tribal options that fit within this archetype. Zombies and Angels are probably the strongest tribe for reanimator decks, but Skeletons, Spirits, Clerics, Minions, Vampires, and (believe it or not) Dragons all have strong reanimation capabilities.

 

DISADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE

Shown above: Hate.

1) Graveyard hate exists, and you can bet everyone at the table NOT running a reanimator deck has some. This is a HUGE problem, because it shuts down your entire engine (thus killing your card and tempo advantage). Thanks to artifacts like Grafdigger’s CageRelic of Progenitus, and Tormod’s Crypt, decks of every color can (and will) run hate against your specific deck. It doesn’t come in just artifacts, either – it comes in every flavor! Enchantment (Rest in Peace), Instant (Ravenous Trap), Creature (Scavenging Ooze), Sorcery (Primal Command), and even Land (thanks a lot, Bojuka Bog!)  Graveyard hate damages this archetype even worse than tuck effects damage the Voltron archetype.  I will discuss how to combat  graveyard hate in the next section.

2) Two reanimator decks at the same table will get in each other’s way. You might think that having another player at the table who is hellbent on getting cards in his graveyard will make your Mortivore even scarier than usual. However, that door swings both ways. He probably has his own Mortivore. Your graveyard isn’t safe from his Dance of the Dead. It’s gonna be real hard to cast that Living Death you’ve got in your hand when there’s another player at the table that has just as many nasty creatures in his/her graveyard. Plus, any opponents who might hesitate to play their graveyard hate cards with just one reanimator deck at the table will have exactly ZERO hesitation to play them with two.

She sometimes does a decent job as a reanimator general, though.

3) The reanimation archetype is beholden to black. If you want to play reanimator, your general MUST have black in his color identity. There just isn’t enough reanimation spells in non-black colors to build an entire deck around. In addition to limiting your deckbuilding options, black is the most common color in the format – so you will see creatures with Protection From Black, and occasionally color hosers like Lifeforce.

4) The reanimation engine requires two pieces to run. While two pieces isn’t really a big deal, it’s very frustrating to have a hand full of reanimation spells, and no creatures in your graveyard. Equally frustrating is watching all your best reanimation spells get milled from your deck.


COPING WITH GRAVEYARD HATE

“But Commander Blog Guy, how can you say that reanimator is a powerful archetype when one card shuts down the entire deck – and everyone’s running it?”

Well, Commander Blog Reader Person, don’t fret! I’m going to tell you how to ensure that graveyard hate never affects your plans for world domination through necromancy!

Wait, no I’m not. Because there is no sure-fire way to beat all graveyard hate. I’m sorry if you hate hearing that, but the fact of the matter is this – people run graveyard hate specifically BECAUSE the reanimator archetype is so powerful. Sorry to tell you that you’re not going to win every game by playing a reanimator deck. If that’s what you’re seeking, then reanimator (and the Commander format on the whole) isn’t for you. You can’t beat graveyard hate every time – but I will tell you how to fight back against it. Here’s some weapons to counterattack those who seek to thwart your plans:

Don’t point it at your feet.

Play Conservatively: Don’t Traumatize yourself and dump half your library into your graveyard if you can’t afford to lose all those cards. Do your best to keep your graveyard stocked with only a couple choice creatures, so if they get exiled you’re not out of the game. Even playing smart, though, instant speed graveyard removal like Purify the Grave or the second ability of Relic of Progenitus will effectively counter any single reanimation spell you try to cast. At least, however, you can minimize the damage and continue on with your plan, minus one piece of graveyard hate from the game.

Shroud Yourself: Many graveyard hate spells and abilities require the controller to target a player. If you can’t be targeted, then your graveyard is safe from these effects. If you have white in your color identity, then the options are numerous: Leyline of SanctityImperial MaskIvory MaskSpirit of the Hearth, and True Believer all protect you from hate spells that target a player. If you’re not sporting any white in your identity, however, your only choice is Witchbane Orb.

The library isn’t a great place for your reanimation targets to be, but it certainly beats the exile zone.

Shuffle Your Graveyard: In the event of a catastrophic spell like Leyline of the Void, you can have options to minimize the damage by returning your graveyard back into your library. Feldon’s Cane is a good spell to cast before aggressively reanimating creatures, because you can activate it at the optimal time for you. Cards like Feldon’s Cane, Elixir of Immortality, and Thran Foundry are great, because having them down makes your opponents think twice about playing their hate cards – because you will minimize the effects of them playing it. They may delay you for a couple turns, but they haven’t taken you out of the game. Not even close.

Countermagic: If you’re running blue, countermagic is not a bad idea. In addition to getting nasty creatures off the stack and into your opponents’ graveyards (for you to reanimate), it makes sure that Ground Seal never hits the battlefield.

Likewise, Stifle and Voidmage Husher can counter the activations of many types of graveyard hate, rendering them useless. Even if you’re not playing blue, you have options. Null Rod is a classic that shuts down all the artifact-based graveyard hate. Green has the Ouphe creatures, like Ouphe Vandals.

Make the Exile Zone a Second Graveyard: Okay, this is easier said than done. The number of cards that will retrieve a card from exile are miniscule. In fact, at present, there’s only three – RiftsweeperPull From Eternity, and Mirror of Fate (and you have to be VERY desperate to use that mirror). If you can run Riftsweeper or Pull From Eternity, however, it probably isn’t a bad idea to save a slot for one of them.


CHOOSING A REANIMATOR GENERAL

As mentioned previously, your general must have black in its color identity – this is non-negotiable. All the graveyard tutors – Jarad’s OrdersEntombBuried Alive… all require black. Most of the reanimation spells in the game require black mana. Black is the mana that fuels the reanimation engine.

I just do not know what to make of this art.

White is a very, very strong color to play in reanimation decks. It sports some of the most game-breaking creatures that you could ever want for reanimation targets: Iona, Shield of EmeriaAvacyn, Angel of HopeBlazing Archon, and Angel of Despair, to name a few. It also gives you access to some great reanimation spells: Unburial RitesDebtor’s KnellReya DawnbringerMarshal’s AnthemKarmic GuideLoyal RetainersResurrectionBreath of LifeFalse DefeatDefy Death,Tariel, Reckoner of Souls and Miraculous Recovery.  In addition, it gives you the best tools to counter graveyard hate – artifact/enchantment destruction, self-shroud spells, and Pull From Eternity.  If you were crazy enough to build a reanimator deck without black , then white would be its replacement. Naturally, Black-White makes for a frightening reanimation combination.

Blue is also a good color to consider, because it gives you means of filling up graveyards quickly. In addition to mill effects like Increasing Confusion, Mind Grind, and Psychic Drain, you also have access to Windfall effects – from Jace’s Archivist and Whispering Madness. There are a great many blue-black cards that increase the power level of reanimator decks they’re in. Havengul LichLazav, Dimir Mastermind, and Oona, Queen of the Fae are such cards.

Blue-Green hosts some great self-milling options.

Green gives you access to some very powerful reanimation targets, notable creatures the likes of TerastodonVerdant ForceSylvan PrimordialLord of ExtinctionSigarda, Host of HeronsWoodfall PrimusVorinclex, Voice of Hunger and many, many more. It also gives you access to Brawn, who gives all your creatures trample as long as he’s in the graveyard. This color offers many spells to send target cards from your graveyard back to your hand, dodging graveyard hate.  Green also gives you ways of milling yourself to fill the graveyard, while looking for cards of use – cards like Mulch.

Red is not a popular color for reanimator decks, unless you’re reanimating dragons, in which case you can’t go without it. The color is also heavily desired in angel tribal reanimator, because it gives access to Tariel, Reckoner of SoulsKaalia of the Vast, and the boros angels (like Gisela, Blade of Goldnight). Even outside of the tribal reanimation decksred still has benefits to offer, however.  The draw-and-discard mechanic that red utilizes (ex. Faithless Looting) is useful for putting creatures of your choice into the graveyard.  Red has its own series of Windfall effects, like Wheel of Fortune and Wheel of Fate. Also, if you’re running red, save a spot for Anger.  Anger gives all your creatures haste if it’s in the graveyard, which means any reanimation spell is an immediate threat.

The “best” color combinations for reanimator decks are probably Esper (Black-White-Blue), Junk (Black-White-Green), BUG (Black-Blue-Green), Pentacolor (all five), Dega (Red-White-Black), or Grixis (Black-Blue-Red). Nonetheless, if you have black in your color identity, it’s hard to go wrong.

The Mimeoplasm is the go-to “aggro reanimator” general. People who hate fun can reliably win games on turn four with the ‘Plasm, usually by dumping creature combinations like Death’s Shadow and Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon into the graveyard before casting Mimeoplasm from the Command Zone. Nonetheless, you can still play him “fairly” and have a very strong deck.  Like all BUG reanimator generals, he utilizes powerful blue and green mill effects to fill up graveyards quickly, taking advantages of large graveyard size to fuel  creatures like Ghoultree and Sewer Nemesis.

Karador, Ghost Chieftain and Teneb, the Harvester are both strong choices for a general in the Junk colors. As an added bonus, either one can easily fit into the same deck, so you have a rare 3-color deck with interchangeable generals. Karador is a very strong recursion general, able to cast creatures like Necrotic Sliver over and over (once a turn) to powerful effect. Also, the way totaling costs work when casting a spell, the “commander tax” is applied first, before Karador’s reduction ability is applied. So, if you’ve cast him twice before, but have nine creatures in your graveyard, he only costs a total of 3 mana (one each of white, black, and green) to cast.

The Esper (White-Black-Blue) combination has two very interesting choices as general, each bringing a different focus to the deck. Sharuum the Hegemon wants a deck full of powerful artifact creatures to reanimate.  Zur, the Enchanter wants a deck full of enchantment-based reanimation spells, like NecromancyAnimate Dead, and Dance of the Dead.  Just be forewarned that both of these generals are well-known as being abusive in other archetypes (Sharuum is a combo demon, and Zur is a well-known Voltron and Enchantment general).  So, they both have targets painted on their backs.  Still, it’s probably worth running one of them (or even a general that doesn’t necessarily have any reanimation synergy, like Sen Triplets) just to get access to these colors.

Sedris, the Traitor King is a Grixis (Black-Blue-Red) general who wants a bunch of creatures with enters-the-battlefield effects.

Blue-Black generals tend to focus on milling your opponents, so that you can reanimate creatures that hit their graveyards. Lazav, Dimir Mastermind is a very strong choice here. Other possibilities include Szadek, Lord of Secrets and Mirko Vosk, Mind Drinker.

If you’re willing to go mono-black, you have a bunch of great options. Sheoldred, Whispering OneGeth, Lord of the VaultBalthor the Defiled, and Chainer, Dimensia Master are all very strong reanimator generals. And guess what? You can play every single one of them in your deck.

Scion of the Ur-Dragon and Bladewing the Risen are the go-to generals for Dragon Reanimator. Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund is also commonly used for Dragon Reanimator, even though he himself does not have a reanimation ability.

Reya Dawnbringer and Tariel, Reckoner of Souls are popular generals for Angel Reanimator. However, Kaalia of the Vast is also a popular Angel Reanimator general, even though (like Karrthus) she does not have an innate reanimation ability.


SAMPLE DECK

Here’s an Angel Reanimator deck I built while writing this article. Reanimating unfair angels is its primary goal, but the strong tribal support within the deck gives it a great late game if the reanimation plan is shut down.

Angelic Revivification
Commander
Tariel, Reckoner of Souls

Lands: 39

Swamp
Plains
Mountain
Cavern of Souls
Command Tower
Blood Crypt
Godless Shrine
Sacred Foundry
Tainted Field
Tainted Peak
Evolving Wilds
Terramorphic Expanse
Fetid Heath
Graven Cairns
Rugged Prairie
Boros Garrison
Rakdos Carnarium
Orzhov Basilica
Dragonskull Summit
Isolated Chapel
Clifftop Retreat
Vault of the Archangel
Rupture Spire
Transguild Promenade
Vivid Crag
Vivid Meadow
Vivid Marsh

Angels: 20
Avacyn, Angel of Hope
Iona, Shield of Emeria
Reya Dawnbringer
Gisela, Blade of Goldnight
Linvala, Keeper of Silence
Angelic Arbiter
Herald of War
Deathless Angel
Radiant, Archangel
Sunblast Angel
Angel of Despair
Deathpact Angel
Aurelia, the Warleader
Aegis Angel
Angel of Serenity
Shattered Angel
Silver Seraph
Wayward Angel
Karmic Guide
Baneslayer Angel

Reanimation Engine: 20
Buried Alive
Entomb
Shared Trauma
Mesmeric Orb
Sands of Delirium
Whetstone
Horrifying Revelation
Putrid Imp
Codex Shredder
Reanimate
Resurrection
Unburial Rites
Debtor’s Knell
Animate Dead
Exhume
Defy Death
Dread Return
Necromancy
Living Death
Patriarch’s Bidding

Other: 20

Elixir of Immortality
Presence of the Master
Leyline of Sanctity
Pull From Eternity
Kaalia of the Vast
Luminarch Ascension
Quicksilver Amulet
Coat of Arms
Expedition Map
Sol Ring
Orzhov Signet
Return to Dust
Mortify
Stranglehold
Demonic Tutor
Vampiric Tutor
Liliana Vess
Entreat the Angels
Debt to the Deathless
Mind’s Eye

Examining Commander Archetypes #3 – Tribal

Tribal decks have been around since the dawn of Magic, built around creatures like Lord of Atlantis and Zombie Master before creature types even existed. Today, these decks are full of creatures that share the same creature type, and seek to win games through tribal synergy.

At the time of this article, there are 224 different creature types in Magic: the Gathering. With the exception of those types that have only one representative (sorry to crush your dreams of a Dreadnought tribal deck), most of them can be played as a tribal theme.

Alas, he’s the only one. Wombat tribal would have been off the chain.

The following creature types have 25 or more cards with that creature type, and as such can be easily built around: Advisor, Ally, Angel, Ape, Archer, Artificer, Assassin, Avatar, Barbarian, Beast, Berserker, Bird, Boar, Cat, Centaur, Cleric, Construct, Demon, Djinn, Dragon, Drake, Druid, Dryad, Dwarf, Elemental, Elephant, Elf, Faerie, Fish, Fungus, Giant, Golem, Horror, Hound, Human, Illusion, Imp, Insect, Kavu, Kithkin, Knight, Kor, Lizard, Mercenary, Merfolk, Minion, Minotaur, Monk, Mutant, Myr, Nomad, Ogre, Plant, Rat, Rebel, Rogue, Samurai, Scarecrow, Scout, Shade, Shaman, Shapeshifter, Skeleton, Sliver, Snake, Soldier, Spellshaper, Sphinx, Spider, Spirit, Treefolk, Troll, Vampire, Vedalken, Viashino, Wall, Warrior, Werewolf, Wizard, Wolf, Wurm, and Zombie.

Three things should be noted. First – Nightmare, Rhino, Serpent, and Thrull are close to 25, and should all be considered viable with a little help. Second, there are several tribes that are well-supported, but don’t have many creatures of that type. Of note are Atogs, Eldrazi, and to a lesser extent, Ninjas. Third, Saprolings have precisely zero creatures of that type, but there are so many different ways of making and supporting Saproling tokens that one would be crazy to not consider them a viable tribe.

The good news is, even if a tribe you think would be fun to play doesn’t have many creature cards (for example, Phoenix has 10 cards – 11 if you count Worldheart Phoenix which requires a 5-color general), there are still options. We’ll discuss this more later.


ADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE

I bet this deck wants some Elementals.  And graveyard stuff.

1. It is friendly to new players. The great thing about the tribal archetype is, the cards themselves pretty much tell you what you’re supposed to do with them. Goblin Chieftain gives all Goblins haste and +1/+1 – it seems pretty obvious that you’re supposed to get a bunch of goblins into play and swing with them the turn they come out. Because the game play is intuitive, most tribal decks can be piloted with lower play skill and still compete at the table.

2. There is a great deal of support for tribal decks. In fact, there was an entire block focused on tribes. Lords (creatures that give +1/+1 and possibly other bonuses to a creature type) exist for a great many creature types. Many tribes have their own mechanics found nowhere else (Prowl, Ninjutsu, Bushido, Kinship, Soulshift, etc.). And, of course, cards like Coat of Arms exist.

3. This is a very versatile archetype. Tribal is more a theme than an engine, so it has a vast array of win conditions. (For example, recall just how many ways Slivers can win the game.) The larger the number of creatures of a specific type, the more options they have. Consider one of Magic’s largest tribes: Elves. Elves can generate tons of mana, allowing you to ramp into huge creatures and X-spells (like Genesis Wave or Comet Storm). They can also generate a bunch of tokens, allowing you to swarm your opponents. There are multiple game-ending combos elves can engage in. Under Ezuri, Renegade Leader, just a couple of them can get huge and wreck your opponents’ faces. A particularly crafty deckbuilder can do every single one of them in the same deck.

Birds and Banding, got it. Wait, Banding?!?

4. Tribal decks are fun. It’s a rare magic player that won’t have fun with a deck full of their favorite creature type. In fact, there is an entire Commander variant where nothing BUT tribal decks are played. It’s very easy to make a personal connection with your deck when you’ve picked out your favorite tribe, and then all your favorite members of that tribe.

5. Some tribes are budget-friendly. You’d be surprised just how cheaply you can build a dragon deck once you already have Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund. If you’re looking at an off-beat tribe, like Warriors, then the creatures of your deck are probably not going to be expensive, and you can afford the tribal support cards (more on these later) to make them awesome.


DISADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE

Normal people call an exterminator to deal with their rat problem. Tsabo was not a normal person.

1. Though rare, tribal-hosers exist. A couple of them can completely wreck you. If your meta is particularly tribal-heavy, expect anyone not playing tribal to pack Extinction, or worse, Tsabo’s Decree. In addition to these two, Circle of Solace shows up on occasion in Enchantment and Pillow Fort decks. Human tribal decks often run Riders of Gavony, and blue tribal decks can include Faces of the Past – which they run for their benefit, but can easily be tailored for your detriment. Less-popular tribal hosers include An-Zerrin RuinsEndemic PlagueEngineered PlagueOutbreak, and Walking Desecration. Oh, and watch out for specific-tribe hosers too! On a rare occasion, you just might see a Plague Sliver or a Tivadar’s Crusade.

2. Synergies can be broken. Because you’re relying on multiple cards to threaten the board as opposed to single cards or small combos, your board is more vulnerable than non-tribal decks. You are more susceptible to sweepers, because it’s much harder to rebuild a synergistic collection of permanents than it is to play one or two permanents that are powerful on their own.

Lhurgoyf tribal would be cheap, were it not for this guy.

3. Some tribes are very expensive to build. Angel decks want Iona, Shield of EmeriaAvacyn, Angel of Hope, and Linvala, Keeper of Silence. That’s $68 for three creatures. Elf decks can be similarly expensive because of their popularity in Legacy. Same deal with Goblins (see Goblin Piledriver if you don’t believe me.) Slivers not only have a couple expensive members (like Sliver Queen, who is on the reserved list), but they have to support a five-color mana base. Oh, and you just can’t have a Djinn deck without good old $150 Juzam Djinn. Well, you could, but it wouldn’t be a real Djinn deck…


TRIBAL SUPPORT CARDS

In addition to support cards geared toward one particular tribe, the following cards can be utilized to support any tribal deck.

Colorless: Coat of Arms is the most famous and popular one. It rewards you by having multiple creatures of the same type in play. If there are five wolverines in play, each one gets +4/+4. Door of Destinies gives a flat bonus to all your creatures, which increases as you cast them. Urza’s Incubator makes all your tribal creatures cost 2 less to cast. Adaptive Automaton is a lord for any creature type. Brass Herald is a lord that lets you draw some of your tribal creatures into your hand when he comes into play. Konda’s Banner is an equipment that turns a legendary creature into a tribal (and color) lord. Cryptic Gateway lets you cheat tribal creatures into play, as does Belbe’s Portal.  Volrath’s Laboratory and Riptide Replicator let you make tokens of your chosen creature type.

Land: Though there exist many tribe-specific lands like Riptide Laboratory, there are two lands that are universally good for tribal decks: Cavern of Souls produces any color of mana and makes your tribal creatures uncounterable, and Mutavault is a man land that turns into every creature type.

White: Only two tribal support cards exist in this color, and neither are exciting. Shared Triumph gives your chosen creature type +1/+1, and Crown of Awe gives your creatures a one-shot protection from black and red effect.

BlueCall to the Kindred and Riptide Shapeshifter allow you to cheat tribal creatures into play from your library. Peer Pressure lets you steal creatures of your chosen tribe that your opponents control. Crown of Ascension gives your creatures a one-shot flying effect. Distant Melody lets you draw a number of cards equal to the number of tribal creatures you have in play. Faces of the Past allow you to untap (or tap) all your tribal creatures when one goes to the graveyard. Mistform Warchief can tap to make your creatures cost 1 less to cast (though he doesn’t have to tap if you’re playing Illusion tribal.)

BlackPatriarch’s Bidding is a powerhouse. It lets every player choose a creature type, and return all creatures of that type to the battlefield. If your deck is full of the same creature type, then that’s a massive board advantage for you. Aphetto Dredging lets you return 3 tribal creatures from your graveyard back to your hand. Cover of Darkness gives all your tribal creatures Fear. Pack’s Disdain is a removal spell that gets more powerful by having more of your tribe’s creatures in play. Crown of Suspicion gives your creatures +2/-1 until end of turn.

RedMana Echoes is a tribal combo machine, capable of generating infinite mana easily. Roar of the Crowd is a burn spell powered by the number of tribal creatures you have in play. Crown of Fury gives your creatures +1/+0 and first strike until end of turn.

Green: Green has some amazing tribal support cards. Descendants’ Path gives you the chance to cast a tribal creature for free every upkeep. Alpha Status is two Coat of Arms enchanted onto a single creature. Steely Resolve gives your tribal creatures shroud. Luminescent Rain gives you 2 life for each tribal creature you control. Tribal Unity makes your creatures huge for a turn if you have sufficient mana. Reins of the Vinesteed is a +2/+2 aura that, when it hits the graveyard, comes back to the battlefield and enchants one of your tribal creatures. Tribal Forcemage gives your creatures +2/+2 and trample until end of turn. Bloodline Shaman lets you put the top card of your library into your hand if it’s a tribal creature. Crown of Vigor gives your creatures +1/+1 until end of turn.

 

 

COPING WITH LOW-MEMBERSHIP TRIBES

So what do you do if you’re in love with Basilisks, but there’s only ten of them in the game? Well, you have a couple options.

Zuko here doesn’t have a creature type, so he will be forever tribeless.

1. Add a second tribe. Let me be clear – ONLY one more tribe. There is a rare selection of generals capable of supporting three different tribes (Kaalia of the VastLovisa Coldeyes, etc.), but if you have more than two, then the synergy of your deck is going to be shot. If Tribal synergy is going to be the strongest focus of your deck, then two tribes is an absolute maximum. The best two-tribe combinations are the “race and class” combinations. Faeries and Rogues, for example. Since there are several Faerie Rogues in the game, those creatures that have both types will synergize with both Faeries and Rogues. To help make this work, you can…

2. Force some creature types. Enchantments like Xenograft and Conspiracy will turn all your creatures into whatever type you want. Unnatural Selection will make your creatures a specific type for as long as you have the mana to keep them that way. Standardize and Mirror Entity will do it for a turn. Runed Stalactite turns whatever creature is equipping it into all creature types. Artificial Evolution will permanently change one creature’s type.

Believe it or not, he’s a Mutant Ninja Turtle.

3. Employ some changelings. Certain creatures in the game have the Changeling ability, which makes them all creature types. Some more notable changelings are Taurean MaulerAmoeboid ChangelingChameleon Colossus, and Shapesharer. Because changelings are all creature types, they can fit into any tribal deck of the appropriate colors. Yeah, so maybe it seems weird having a deck half full of Basilisks, and half full of changelings, but you know what? Maybe being a basilisk is so awesome that all these creatures, who can be anything they want, choose to be basilisks. That’s what I’m going to tell anybody who questions their presence in my basilisk deck, anyway.

If you’re running blue, the Mistform creatures (like Mistform Ultimus and Mistform Skyreaver) function like lesser changelings and can change their creature types to whatever you want, provided you have the mana.

4. Go non-tribal. If none of these options work for you, then you may wish to consider abandoning the tribal focus, and instead putting as many creatures of your favorite type into a different archetype. All those basilisks fit right into a deck heavily focused on Deathtouch. Even if the deck isn’t relying on tribal synergy, it’s still a Basilisk deck if you want it to be.


CHOOSING A TRIBAL GENERAL

The absolute most important thing is your general’s color identity. Unlike other archetypes, you can’t pick your general first and then build around him/her. You already know what 1/3 of your deck is going to be, and your general has to squeeze into those colors.

There are a great many generals that synergize with a specific creature type, and I will give a few examples shortly. However, it should be noted that this is not a requirement – Xira Arien would make a fine Tribal Insect general, though all she does is draw cards and fly.

Dragons: If you want to go five colors and nab all the awesome tri-colored dragons (like Numot, the Devastator), then your choice of general should be Scion of the Ur-Dragon. If you can reanimate, recur, or return cards from the graveyard to your hand, then the Scion is a never-ending dragon tutor. If you don’t want to go five-color, then Karthus, Tyrant of Jund is a very popular general. Dragons are popular enough in Commander that his enter-the-battlefield ability is completely relevant, and hasty dragons are a scary force. Bladewing the Risen is also very popular, able to recur and pump dragons. Of course, any of the elder dragons (like Nicol Bolas) are excellent flavor choices.

SliversYou have three choices. They’re all good, and they enable different types of decks.

GoblinsWort, Boggart Auntie gives you access to black, and brings your goblins out of the graveyard back to your hand, making her great for a recursion deck. Wort, the Raidmother gives you access to green, and is a solid choice for a token or swarm deck (finishing with something like Overrun.) Krenko, Mob Boss is a combo machine, and even if you don’t like combos, she can put an insane number of goblins into play without going infinite.  Krekno with a pair of Illusionist’s Bracers is downright frightening. Squee, Goblin Nabob is a great flavor choice for old-school players.

 

Elves: There are a total of 21 legendary elves, so you have plenty of options here. Ezuri, Renegade Leader has become the default tribal elf general, and with good reason. She’s inexpensive, casts Overrun whenever she feels like it, and her ability to cheaply regenerate elves makes her deck very resilient to sweepers and targeted destruction. Eladamri, Lord of Leaves is a somewhat less-popular elf general. He’s a classic lord, giving forestwalk and shroud to other elves. Though not as versatile as Ezuri, making your other elves impossible to target (and block, if your opponent controls a forest) makes it much harder to interact with. Rhys, the Redeemed is a very strong elf token general.

 

Angels: Even though she’s not an Angel herself, it’s hard to find a better Angel general than Kaalia of the Vast. Her ability to cheat very expensive angels into play early in the game is practically unfair. For mono-white, Avacyn, Angel of Hope turns your heavenly army into an indestructible army. Sigarda, Host of Herons gives you access to green’s powerful tribal support spells, and gives your angels protection from forced sacrifice effects. Aurelia, the Warleader gives you access to the boros angels, and gives you a powerful win condition by having multiple combat phases.

 

VampiresOlivia Voldaren gives you access to red and black, which enables you to make use of the vampires from the Innistrad block that get larger the more damage they do. Her ability lets her sire more vampires (and then steal them), making her a solid choice for vampire general. Anowon, the Ruin Sage is another great general if you’re willing to go mono-black (and there are more than enough black vampires to support this choice.) Whenever he’s out, each player has to sacrifice a non-vampire creature during your upkeep, making him a solid control or reanimator-oriented general. Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief is another popular vampire general – her draining ability makes her well-suited to control the board and do 21 general damage reliably.

WizardsAzami, Lady of Scrolls is a powerhouse wizard general. She’s able to turn all your wizards into a massive card-draw engine. With this mass of cards, you can dig for combos with the help of Descendant of Soramaro, control the board with bounce and counterspells, or hit hard with creatures such as Sturmgeist.  Ertai, Wizard Adept is a very strong choice for a more control-oriented wizard tribal deck, given his ability to counter a spell with four mana whenever he’s untapped.  Teferi, Mage of ZhalfirNiv-Mizzet, the Firemind, and Ertai, the Corrupted are other possibilities that are worth considering.

Zombies: There are several good choices here. Grimgrin, Corpse-Born loves the zombies that regularly come back from the grave. His ability to destroy your own creatures and your opponents’ can generate a massive amount of +1/+1 counters, quickly, making him a serious threat for 21 general damage. He’s also at the center of several infinite combos (and the Night of the Living Dead ultra-combo.) Mikaeus, the Unhallowed is a wonderful thematic choice, being the highest ranking member of the church of Avacyn who was tragically assassinated and raised as a member of the undead. His abilities give all your undead +1/+1 and undying – ensuring that your horde of the damned keeps fighting on. (Also, enabling quite a few infinite combos.) Other good tribal generals to consider are Thraximundar and Balthor the Defiled.

Merfolk: Sygg, River Guide is the most popular Merfolk general, able to protect your Merfolk army by giving them protection from the color of your choice. Empress Galina is another good choice for Merfolk general, and her ability to take control of your opponents’ legendary creatures is a good start to a thievery deck. Thada Adel, Acquisitor is another strong thievery Merfolk general, though she also would be strong in an Islandwalk theme – blue magic has several ways of turning your opponents’ lands into Islands.

 

 

SAMPLE DECKLIST

Here’s a tribal Golem deck I built while writing the article. While Karn, Silver Golem seems to be the obvious choice for general, I decided I wanted all six Splicers from New Phyrexia. That put me in Bant colors (white, blue, green). Alas, there weren’t any generals in those colors that made much sense, but I chose Ragnar, because regeneration is always useful, and he looks like he belongs in a heavy metal band. I could see him rocking out with some golems. So, here it is…

Heavy Metal Tribe  
General
Ragnar

Lands: 39

Island
Plains
Forest
Command Tower
Seaside Citadel
Bant Panorama
Evolving Wilds
Terramorphic Expanse
Mirrodin’s Core
Shimmering Grotto
Tendo Ice Bridge
Tarnished Citadel
Grand Coliseum
Aysen Abbey
Unstable Frontier
Temple of the False God
Cavern of Souls
Academy Ruins
Buried Ruin
Alchemist’s Refuge
Winding Canyons
Gavony Township
Ghost Town
Strip Mine
Tectonic Edge
Dread Statuary
Mutavault
Darksteel Citadel
Reliquary Tower
Homeward Path

Creatures: 31
Blade Splicer
Master Splicer
Sensor Splicer
Maul Splicer
Vital Splicer
Wing Splicer
Adaptive Automaton
Altar Golem
Arcbound Bruiser
Arcbound Overseer
Arcbound Reclaimer
Blightsteel Colossus
Brass Herald
Colossus of Sardia
Darksteel Colossus
Darksteel Sentinel
Enatu Golem
Glassdusk Hulk
Golem Artisan
Guardian of the Ages
Junktroller
Karn, Silver Golem
Lodestone Golem
Mycosynth Golem
Phyrexian Colossus
Platinum Emperion
Precursor Golem
Solemn Simulacrum
Voltaic Construct
Arcum Dagsson
Master Transmuter

Artifacts: 17
Conversion Chamber
Darksteel Forge
Golem Foundry
Golem’s Heart
Guardian Idol
Rusted Relic
Titan Forge
Unwinding Clock
Voltaic Key
Coat of Arms
Urza’s Incubator
Mind’s Eye
Mana Vault
Basalt Monolith
Sol Ring
Mirrorworks
Nevinyrral’s Disk 

Enchantments: 4
Call to the Kindred
Alpha Status
Steely Resolve
Doubling Season 

Sorcery: 6
Fabricate
Tribal Unity
All is Dust
Cyclonic Rift
Harsh Mercy
Stroke of Genius 

Instant: 1
Enlightened Tutor 

Planeswalkers: 1
Tezzeret the Seeker

This deck really, really wants a Mishra’s Workshop, but I could never justify the $380 cost, and assume most of my readers can’t either. (Same deal with Wasteland, but that’s a fraction of the Workshop at $50).

You may notice there’s several creatures that have some issues untapping, like Colossus of Sardia. This is one of the things you’re saving your artifact tutors for – to grab a Voltaic Key or Unwinding Clock to make sure you don’t have to pay a bunch of life to untap them.

Some things are just unfair when made indestructible.

Another thing you may notice is that the mana curve of the deck is a tad high. This is why Basalt Monolith and Mana Vault (which ALSO benefit from the Key and Clock) are in the deck. You can also cheat high-cost artifacts into play by judicious use of Call to the KindredMaster Transmuter and Arcum Dagsson.

Getting Darksteel Forge down as quickly as possible makes the deck nasty – just the forge and Platinum Emperion makes you very, very hard to kill. Since there are a great many cards in the deck that produce golem tokens, and several cards that come into play with counters, Doubling Season has been included.

Examining Commander Archetypes #2 – Voltron

The second archetype I want to talk about is unique to Commander, the Voltron archetype. Named after the famous anime series that spawned numerous spinoffs and made the world aware of giant robots, this deck archetype seeks to deal 21 General damage as quickly as possible to as many opponents as possible. This means casting the general, and then strapping as many pieces of equipment and auras as you can get onto that commander before turning it sideways to attack.


ADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE

LET’S GO ANGEL VOLTRON FORCE!!!!

1) It’s fun. As noted last week, this is the single most important aspect for any Commander deck.  Voltron brings the fun to the table in an in-your-face way. There’s nothing quite like swinging with Bruna, Light of Alabaster, attaching six different auras to her, and proclaiming, “THIS ISN’T EVEN MY FINAL FORM!!!”

2) It has a straightforward, proactive strategy. It’s not just a pile of good cards that, if used properly, will win the game. You have three goals – Cast General, Make General Ridiculous, Swing with Ridiculous General. If you accomplish these three goals enough times, you will win. 

3) It’s a self-contained theme. You don’t need to worry so much about the flavor of your deck when designing it.  People are going to remember your Jenara, Asura of War with 18 counters on it.  However your general manages to get powerful enough to do 21 damage to an opponent – that’s the theme of your deck, be it counters, equipment, enchantments, or even having a ridiculous number of cards in hand.  

4) It’s a uniquely Commander-format deck. Sure, the Bogles deck of Modern and Bant Hexproof of the current Standard also seek to attach unfair auras to untargetable and unblockable creatures as their victory condition, but those decks lack the finesse of a Voltron deck. Your deck makes maximum use of your general (which separates Commander from other multiplayer formats) and is tuned specifically to the one card you will always have available on the turn you feel is best to cast it.  You can’t get the experience of playing a Voltron deck in any other format.


DISADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE

Makes your equipment costs free – doesn’t work for free.

1) Voltron is not a budget archetype. That is not to say that budget Voltron decks cannot be built, but the difference between a $50 Voltron deck and a $300 Voltron deck is going to be much greater than it would be with a Reanimator deck. Or a ramp deck. Or almost any other archetype. You want the best equipment, and the best equipment costs money. You want Swords of X and Y (like Sword of War and Peace) because they do so much for so little mana: they provide protection, evasion, power and toughness, and additional benefits. Auras are (mostly) cheaper than equipment, but they’re still expensive. Then there’s the support cards – you need cards to tutor up those awesome auras and equipment, like Academy Rector and Stoneforge Mystic. Those girls don’t work for free.

2) The Voltron strategy is heavily reliant upon its general.  You are putting all your eggs in one basket, and that basket is easy to shred to pieces thanks to cards like Hinder and Terminus. So, you either need a backup strategy in case your general gets “tucked” (put into your library,) or you have to commit to going all-in with the general, and have multiple reliable means of getting it back into your hand or command zone.

3) You are a high-priority target.  Just showing up to the table with Uril, the Miststalker in your Command Zone is like planting a flag at the table and standing tall.  The other players are going to know what you’re up to, and they’re going to do their best to make sure that a) that general never hits the battlefield, b) it never gets suited up with enough power to hit 21 damage, or c) you get taken out before you become unstoppable.  Even if the relative skill level at the table is low, or you bring in a lesser-known Voltron general like Godo, Bandit Warlord – rest assured that once you one-shot a player with general damage, a target just got painted upon your back for subsequent games with that deck.


CHOOSING A GENERAL 

As with the vast majority of Commander decks, the first choice one must make is the general. In addition to setting the color identity of the deck, a Voltron commander dictates what kind of equipment and auras you want to include. Since equipment is (mostly) colorless, the general’s color identity means less than what is going on in his/her textbox. You want your general to have one of the following things going for them:

“I was hiding under your Batterskull, Master… because I love you!”

Speed: Consider Isamaru, Hound of Konda. He’s only a 2/2 creature with no abilities, but he costs only one mana. You can get him in play before your opponents can do anything about it – that’s something you can’t create with equipment or auras. Creatures with haste, like Skullbriar, the Walking Grave can attack the turn they come out, which is valuable in the later game when the field is clear after a board wipe.

Undercosted Power/Toughness: Ruhan of the Fomori is a 7/7 for four mana. Just on his card alone, you’re 1/3 of the way to that 21 damage. Sure, he has a drawback in that he attacks randomly, but you can build around that. Rafiq of the Many is a 4/4 double striker when he attacks alone – for four mana. 

Evasion: Sun Quan, Lord of Wu has Horsemanship. There aren’t many mechanisms for blocking a creature with Horsemanship, so chances are Sun Quan is going to connect to your opponent’s face. Commander Eesha has Protection from Creatures, which means she just plain can’t be blocked.

Defenses: Thrun, the Last Troll is freaking hard to kill. In addition to being uncounterable and Hexproof, he can regenerate when the inevitable board wipe happens. Tajic, Blade of the Legion is indestructible. 

Synergy: Commanders that have bonuses to auras or equipment make fine Voltron Commanders. Kemba, Kha Regent is amazing, being cheap to cast and having a backup plan (cat tokens) in case he gets tucked. Uril, the Miststalker gets bigger for each enchantment you put on him, and reaches 21 power quickly.

There are many excellent choices for a Voltron general, so what makes a bad Voltron general? Well, first of all, your general simply cannot have Shroud. Kodama of the North Tree makes a poor Voltron general – because you can’t ever cast Auras upon him, or equip him with equipment. Secondly, having a high mana cost (anything above 6) means that your general will not be on the field in the early game, and in the late game you will have difficulty affording both his casting cost, and the cost of equipping him/her so that your general will actually make an impact.

Sygg, I choose you!!!

For the purposes of brewing up a deck today, I am going to name Sygg, River Guide as general. I like Sygg for several reasons. One, he has access to white, which has a great deal of good equipment synergy cards. Two, he has built-in evasion with Islandwalk, and can give himself protection from any color he wants for two mana. Third, he’s cheap, at a mere 2 mana. Finally, he’s not an overly-played general, so you’re bringing something relatively new to the table. He’s not in the “top tier” of Voltron generals for certain, but you can find those decklists online pretty easily if you just want a cookie-cutter Voltron build.

LET’S BUILD A VOLTRON DECK!

I like the 39/20/20/20 plan. This means 39 lands, 20 equipment, 20 support cards, and 20 staples. These numbers, of course, can be adjusted as needed, but give us a pretty good starting point. We will need a backup plan, because white and blue do not have many tools to tutor creatures out of the library. There’s several options here – we could play a control game, go merfolk tribal, throw some combos in there, or fill our deck with creatures that like being equipped so we can still deal solid regular damage. There is no wrong answer, but I’m going to go with the equipment users plan.


LANDS

Use them if you have them, but don’t take out a loan for a Commander deck.

We need 39 of them. If you’ve got a Tundra, by all means play it. But I don’t, so I won’t. Same deal goes with fetchlands.  Moving past that, this deck needs to be fairly fast, so we have to avoid taplands as much as we possibly can.

Hallowed FountainMystic GateGlacial FortressAdarkar Wastes and Nimbus Maze are auto-includes.

Seachrome Coast is probably the only tapland we should consider. 

Skycloud Expanse probably couldn’t hurt. 

Calciform Pools gives us something to do with extra mana.

Academy Ruins is vital for returning important equipment that gets destroyed.

Eiganjo Castle and Flagstones of Trokair are the “SuperPlains” cards that I described last week.

Minamo, School at Water’s Edge and Oboro, Palace in the Clouds are “SuperIslands” worth running.

Rogue’s Passage is a means of making our general unblockable when all else fails.

So, our lands thus far look like this:

Lands  

Plains
(25-X) 
Island
Hallowed Fountain
Mystic Gate
Glacial Fortress
Seachrome Coast
Adarkar Wastes
Nimbus Maze
Skycloud Expanse
Calciform Pools
Academy Ruins
Eiganjo Castle
Flagstones of Trokair
Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
Oboro, Palace in the Clouds
Rogue’s Passage


EQUIPMENT

We only need to figure out 15 of them, because 5 are easy: Sword of Light and ShadowSword of Fire and IceSword of Feast and FamineSword of Body and Mind, and Sword of War and Peace. Each of these swords are cheap and give +2/+2, protection from two colors, and grant an additional benefit. Exercise caution with these swords – each one that gives protection from either blue or white (which is all except Feast and Famine) means that Sygg cannot target himself with his own ability. So make sure you’re covered before slapping on that sword.

This is almost always a good choice for mono-colored decks.

Next, we need five that give him protection. Darksteel Plate is obvious, because it makes him indestructible. Shield of Kaldra makes him indestructible. Swiftfoot Boots give hexproof and haste. Champion’s Helm gives hexproof and +2/+2. Finally, Lightning Greaves gives haste and shroud. Just remember that if a creature has shroud, he cannot equip other equipment. So use Graves tactically. 

Five equipment pieces need large power boosts. Argentum Armor gives +6/+6. Batterskull gives +4/+4, vigilance and lifelink. Sword of Kaldra gives +5/+5. Umezawa’s Jitte, once it hits once, gives +4/+4 for each subsequent hit.  The last slot is a little trickier.  I love Strata Scythe in mono-colored decks – you can expect it to give an average of +5/+5, but it can get much, much higher.  This is not a mono-colored deck, however.  So, I’m going with the recently-reprinted Fireshrieker to give Sygg Double Strike.  That’s as good as doubling his power when equipped.

With the final five pieces of equipment, we need to give important abilities. Loxodon Warhammer is good for another 3 power, trample and lifelink. Sword of Vengeance gives 2 power, first strike, vigilance, trample, and haste. Basilisk Collar is a cheap way to get deathtouch and lifelink. Quietus Spike gives deathtouch and potentially deals a lot of damage. Finally, since we have the other two pieces of Kaldra’s equipment, we might as well include the Helm of Kaldra, which gives first strike, trample, and haste. 


SUPPORT

She’ll help you find your center… and your Sword of Vengeance.

We need at least five ways of tutoring up equipment. Stoneforge Mystic and Stonehewer Giant both have means of searching for an Equipment and putting it onto the battlefield, so they are auto-includes. Enlightened Tutor is a no-brainer, as is Steelshaper’s Gift. For the fifth spot, there’s three good cards to choose from:FabricateTaj-Nar Swordsmith, and Steelshaper Apprentice. I’m going to choose Fabricate for the final slot, because the other two are creatures that can be considered for the next steps.

Next, we need support cards that let us maximize the use of our equipment. Puresteel Paladin is at the top of his game, because he lets us equip for free and gives us card draw. Taj-Nar Swordsmith lets us put low-cost equipment into play as an ETB ability – letting us find the Sword we need that has the protection colors at the time we need it. Sun Titan gets those swords (and other equipment) back out of the graveyard. Vedalkan Engineer helps us pay for equipment and equipping costs. Darksteel Forge makes our equipment indestructible (albeit at a high price, so this is mostly for late-game.)

That leaves us ten slots to find creatures for our backup strategy (in addition to the support creatures we already have). We’re looking for creatures that gain advantages from being equipped, or gain advantages from artifacts. The list is too large to go over, but the ones I have selected are Kemba, Kha Regent, Kemba’s LegionRaksha Golden CubLeonin ShikariKor DuelistLoxodon PunisherSunspear ShikariAuriok SteelshaperMaster Transmuter, and Master of Etherium.


STAPLES

There is an extremely large pool of cards to draw from, and you want to save space in your deck to include the best cards your general’s color identity gives access to. This is the part of the build with the most room for flexibility – not every Commander deck needs sweepers, or mana ramp, or card draw. When deciding the final 20 cards for a deck like this, consider the needs of your deck, and your local meta.

I would like to include five sweepers in the deck, and the more one-sided the better. Cyclonic Rift is a difficult card not to include in any blue Commander deck. Phyrexian Rebirth gives you a (hopefully large) creature to attach equipment to after the sweeping. Sunblast Angel hits a bunch of creatures that aren’t yours (assuming you cast it while your creatures are untapped) and gives you a flying body for equipment. Round out the five with the inexpensive Wrath of God and Day of Judgment

Aquitect is not an easy job to explain on a resumé.

Next thing to consider are cards that enhance our commander. Quicksilver Fountain makes a bunch of Islands for Sygg to walk through unblocked. Aquitect’s Will makes any single land an island for 1 blue mana, and lets you draw a card. Tidal Warrior might as well read “tap to make your general unblockable.”

The deck doesn’t need a great deal of mana, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a Sol Ring and an Azorius Signet.

That leaves ten slots remaining for “good stuff.” Once again, there are no wrong answers here and way too many cards to consider, so I’ll just list my selections: Mimic VatTezzeret the SeekerAcquireCapsizeHinderSpell CrumpleBlue Sun’s ZenithLand TaxReturn to Dust, and Mind’s Eye.


FINISHING UP

First, let’s figure out our basic lands. We have a total of 25 basic lands in the deck. Looking over the deck, it’s slightly white-heavy, but we need both white and blue on turn 2 in order to aggressively cast our general. I think 14 Plains and 11 Islands are a good start. We can always adjust later if we’re not getting enough blue, but I don’t think that will be the case.

Next, the deck needs a name. All good Commander decks need a name. So we’ve got a Voltron deck, white and blue, with a Merfolk general. I think I like “Sushi Force GO!!!” for the name of this deck. Please feel free to name your Commander deck whatever strikes your fancy.

Lastly, let’s put together the decklist based on what we have assembled thus far:

SUSHI FORCE GO!!!  

General
Sygg, River Guide
Lands: 39

14 
Plains
11 
Island
Hallowed Fountain
Mystic Gate
Glacial Fortress
Seachrome Coast
Adarkar Wastes
Nimbus Maze
Skycloud Expanse
Calciform Pools
Academy Ruins
Eiganjo Castle
Flagstones of Trokair
Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
Oboro, Palace in the Clouds
Rogue’s Passage
Equipment: 20

Sword of War and Peace
Sword of Feast and Famine
Sword of Body and Mind
Sword of Fire and Ice
Sword of Light and Shadow
Argentum Armor
Batterskull
Sword of Kaldra
Umezawa’s Jitte
Fireshrieker

Darksteel Plate
Shield of Kaldra
Swiftfoot Boots
Champion’s Helm
Lightning Greaves
Loxodon Warhammer
Sword of Vengeance
Basilisk Collar
Quietus Spike
Helm of Kaldra
Support: 20
Stoneforge Mystic
Stonehewer Giant
Enlightened Tutor
Steelshaper’s Gift
Fabricate
Puresteel Paladin
Taj-Nar Swordsmith
Sun Titan
Vedalkan Engineer
Darksteel Forge
Kemba, Kha Regent
Kemba’s Legion
Raksha Golden Cub
Leonin Shikari
Kor Duelist
Loxodon Punisher
Sunspear Shikari
Auriok Steelshaper
Master Transmuter
Master of Etherium
Staples: 20
Cyclonic Rift
Phyrexian Rebirth
Sunblast Angel
Wrath of God
Day of Judgment
Quicksilver Fountain
Aquitect’s Will
Tidal Warrior
Sol Ring
Azorius Signet
Mimic Vat
Tezzeret the Seeker
Acquire
Capsize
Hinder
Spell Crumple
Blue Sun’s Zenith
Land Tax
Return to Dust
Mind’s Eye


WHERE DOES THE DECK GO FROM HERE?

To the Commander tables, of course! When evaluating this deck, the primary question that needs to be asked is, “do I have the tools required to meet my goals?” You’re not going to win every game of Commander you play, with any deck (and if you do manage this feat you won’t find yourself frequently invited back). But you should at least be a threat at the table, and you should have means of slapping 21 general damage across a player’s face at some point in the game. 

The one thing that worries me most about the deck as built is that, despite it being a blue-white deck, it doesn’t have much action in the air. Because you’re such a huge threat on the ground, it shouldn’t be a problem, but if your meta is full of angels, demons, and dragons then it probably will be. 

Nonetheless, this decklist is an excellent starting point and looks to be a fun Voltron deck!

Examining Commander Archetypes #1 – Combo

Combo decks seek to win games by putting together combinations of two or more cards which, in conjunction, creates a game-ending effect. The combo archetype in Commander is very tricky to discuss, because every player has a different opinion of its place in the format. There are some who believe that infinite combos have no place whatsoever at the Commander table. Others believe that anything goes.

“Niv-Machinegun!!!!”

I am personally of the opinion that combos are fine, as long as they’re awesome. It’s just too easy to slap a Curiosity onto Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind and machine-gun a player down. It’s another thing entirely to have a zombie deck with Haakon, Stromgald Scourge sitting in your graveyard during a Rooftop Storm, while Ashes of the Fallen turns all those zombies in your graveyard into Knights so you can cast them for free. Of course, one of those zombie-knights in your graveyard is Corpse Connoisseur , who lets you tutor more zombies into your graveyard – and because your general is Grimgrin, Corpse-Born you keep sacrificing that Connoisseur over and over dig out every single zombie out of your deck and put it into your graveyard – and quickly thereafter onto the battlefield.

You just recreated Night of the Living Dead at the Commander table. That other guy just slapped a Curiosity on Niv-Mizzet.

ADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE

But she looked so innocent…

It’s fun to play. As I frequently say, having fun is the single most important thing in Commander, and combos (particularly those that come in three or more pieces) are just fun to play. Just imagine the narrative that takes place when Melira, Sylvok Outcast stands over a Spawning Pit, sacrificing a Puppeteer Clique over and over to it. The lifeless wooden bodies of the puppets dance in the pit as they spirit away the dead souls of all your opponents’ creatures from their graveyards. The dead have risen to slay their former masters, and making all this happen is a red-haired elven puppetmaster.  This is what brings Johnnies to the table – if you’ve got the disposition for it, combos are just plain awesome.

 

Combos snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat. As long as the possibility of landing a game-ending combo exists, then it doesn’t matter how far behind you are – you are ALWAYS still in the game. You could be at 1 life, 9 poison counters, 20 general damage, and have only 3 cards left in your library, but if you’ve got an AlurenMortus Strider, and Blasting Station in hand with the means to cast them? You just won the game.

There are LOTS of combos to choose from. There’s a pretty good site devoted to cataloging the various combos of Magic: the Gathering, located here. With over 12,000 available cards in the format, there are a seemingly uncountable number of crazy interactions that do awesome and powerful things. That being said…

Using combos does not require devoting your entire deck to it. Combos need three things: the combo pieces themselves, methods to dig those pieces out of the deck, and protection from disruption. This gives you flexibility to include multiple combo interactions, and explore other themes and archetypes. Many Commander decks will keep at least one powerful combo in their 100 cards to break stalemates. Decks devoted to combos have plenty of space for a secondary focus or win condition, which is like playing two decks in one!

Combos are equally playable in all colors, so you can pretty much just choose whichever general you want to play. Of course, generals which are combo pieces themselves (or tutors) have an advantage over generals that aren’t – but they also signal to your opponents that you’re looking to launch some combo action.

This archetype is highly proactive. You have a two step plan: Assemble your combo, and play your combo. If you accomplish this goal, you win the game.


DISADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE

It’s all fun and games until the table loses its nuts.

Combo wins are not always fun for everyone at the table. No one likes having a fun game ended because some jerk slapped a Squirrel Nest on their land with an Earthcraft in play, and now suddenly the table is infested with 8.4 billion rodents. You have to be careful, diplomatically speaking, when you play this archetype at the table. As a general rule, any two-card combination that ends the game instantly is going to get you uninvited from the table if you play it. If your combo takes at least a full turn to win, or is three or more pieces, then you are probably okay – as long as you’re not ending the game before anyone actually gets a chance to play it. The golden criteria of Commander deckbuilding is, “would I still have fun playing against this deck?” The answer to that question needs to be yes, otherwise it probably doesn’t belong at the table.

Combo is weak against aggro. If there is a concerted effort at the table to bring you down before you can combo off for the win, then chances are you’re not going to win that game (or have any fun playing it.) You had better believe as well that once you win by taking infinite turns, the rest of the table is going to be watching you very closely, and won’t hesitate to join forces in order to take you out if they think you’re about to go off. So, if you get your feelings hurt easily, this is not the archetype for you.

This archetype requires a higher level of skill to play than others. You have to constantly be thinking. “I have a tutor in my hand; what should I fetch with it?” “I just drew Murderous Redcap; which other cards combo with it?” So on, and so forth. You also have to be constantly thinking about the lands your opponents have untapped, and what might be in their hands, because…

Your combos can and will be disrupted. Once players are wise to the fact that you’re seeking to combo off, you better believe they are saving up their counterspells, instant-speed destruction, discard, Time Stops, and Silences to make sure you don’t.

“Hmm… you’re either playing Combo, or jank.”

Combo is not terribly budget-friendly. Since combo is a popular archetype in Modern and Legacy, combo pieces and tutors tend to come with high prices. This isn’t to say that you can’t create a combo deck without breaking the bank – far from it. I used to play Presence of Gond and Midnight Guard in Pauper. However, I would not suggest making combo your only (or even highest) focus if you’re on a budget. You still need tutors, and the best (Demonic TutorVampiric TutorTooth and NailSurvival of the Fittest, etc.) are not cheap.

The power level of your deck decreases as the player skill at the table increases. Players who have been around a while, or who study hard, know what’s up. They know something’s up the moment you cast that Pentavus. Why? Because no one plays Pentavus unless they intend to do something combo-ish with it. So, these players are going to hold on to their disruption. They’re going to draw more cards off of Necropotence because they know you’re not going to attack their life total.


HOW TO PLAY COMBO

Well, the first thing you have to do is stay alive. As previously mentioned, once your opponents figure out your game plan, they’re going to do everything they can to wreck you. If they think there’s a chance that they can reduce your life total to 0 (or hit you with 21 general damage) before you assemble your combo and win, they are going to try. You have to make sure they fail. There are multiple tools to accomplish this – lifegain, Fog effects, damage prevention, control options, taxing spells like Propaganda, and more. Just make sure they are usable in the early game, because that is where you are most vulnerable.

Next, you have to assemble your combo pieces. This is accomplished through a combination of card draw and tutoring. The best kinds of tutors are those like Diabolic Tutor which do not require you to reveal which cards you have retrieved. It’s best to keep your opponents guessing. If you use a Worldly Tutor to pick up a Sun Titan, then you make your graveyard a huge target for disruption. That brings us to the next step…

Some countermagic disrupts your combos permanently.

Have a plan to beat disruption. You are probably not going to have the luxury of having fully tapped-out opponents when you’re ready to combo off. (But if you do, by all means teach them the error of their ways.) You will inevitably be forced to discard your combo pieces – so you either need a backup plan, or a means of retrieving them from the graveyard (like Creeping Renaissance and Raise Dead.) You will face counterspells – be prepared for them. Silence is golden.

Finally, set your combo in motion. If you have stayed alive long enough to fetch your combo pieces, and have a plan to beat the disruption, then it’s time to win the game. If you have the option to do so, start with the piece you can most afford to lose, just in case you gauged the table incorrectly. You never know when a Force of Will or Pact of Negation will come out of nowhere.


SOME SAMPLE COMBOS

There are WAY too many combos in the game to list off, so I’m just going to list a three-card combo in every color to get the brain juices flowing.

COLORLESSDross ScorpionTriskelion, and Cauldron of Souls – Tap the cauldron to give Triskelion persist. Remove two counters from Triskelion to do two damage to an opponent, and one damage to itself, killing it. Triskelion persists, but one of the +1/+1 counters eliminates the -1/-1 counter. When it comes back into play, Dross Scorpion untaps the Cauldron. Tap the cauldron to give Triskelion persist again, remove one counter for one damage to an opponent, and one damage to itself. It dies and persists again – rinse and repeat until all opponents are dead.

BLACKPhyrexian AltarVengeful Dead, and Gravecrawler – Sacrifice the Gravecrawler with Phyrexian Altar for one black mana. Vengeful dead causes all opponents to lose 1 life. Cast Gravecrawler with that black mana, and sacrifice it again, generating one black mana and causing 1 loss of life. Keep killing that Gravecrawler and bringing it back until your opponents have lost all the life they have.

BLUEMnemonic WallFollowed Footsteps, and Time Warp – Enchant Mnemonic Wall with Followed Footsteps. Cast Time Warp to take an extra turn. During the upkeep of your extra turn, make a copy of Mnemonic Wall, which brings Time Warp back to your hand. Cast it again. Boom. Infinite Turns.

GREENMyr TurbineParallel Lives, and Clock of Omens – tap Myr Turbine to make a 1/1 Myr token. Parallel Lives gives you a second Myr token. Using Clock of Omens’s ability, tap those two Myrs to untap Myr Turbine. Tap it again for two more Myrs. Keep tapping and untapping until you have an arbitrarily large number of Myrs.

REDZealous Conscripts, enchanted with Splinter Twin and equipped with Illusionist’s Bracers – Tap Zealous Conscripts. Doing so creates a copy of the conscripts, and Illusionist’s Bracers creates a second copy. Have the first copy untap the enchanted Zealous Conscripts, and the other copy steal an opponent’s permanent. Keep tapping that Zealous Conscripts until you have stolen every single one of your opponents’ targetable permanents, and have an arbitrarily large number of Conscripts with which to win the game.

WHITEAltar of DementiaAngelic Renewal, and Sun Titan. Sacrifice Sun Titan with Altar of Dimensia to mill six cards from an opponent’s library. When Sun Titan dies, Angelic Renewal triggers and brings Sun Titan back onto the battlefield. Sun Titan’s ability triggers, bringing Angelic Renewal back onto the battlefield. Keep sacrificing the Sun Titan and bringing it back until you have milled every single card from all opponents’ libraries.



POPULAR COMBO GENERALS

Sharrum the Hegemon: She is a general who is so synonymous with abusive combos that players will frequently ask whether or not you’re running “combo Sharuum.” If you answer in the affirmative, be certain that everyone else at the table will seek to destroy you before you can combo off. Her most infamous abuse is the two-card infinite turn engine of Time Sieve and Thopter Assembly.

She herself is part of an three-card infinite combo with interchangeable pieces to either mill all opponents’ cards, or do infinite damage. The first piece of the combo is an artifact clone – either Phyrexian Metamorph, or Sculpting Steel. With Sharuum in play, cast the artifact clone, copying Sharuum. The clone-Sharuum’s enter-the-battlefield ability triggers. When state-based actions are checked, you get to choose one of the Sharuums to go to the graveyard – choose the cloned Sharuum. Then, the trigger goes on the stack, and you choose the target. Choose the artifact clone as the target, and the artifact clone returns to the battlefield. The loop continues. So, that’s two pieces – Sharuum and an Artifact Clone. The final piece makes use of the loop we’ve established. A card like Disciple of the Vault or Blood Artist allows you to turn that loop into infinite damage.

Arcum Dagsson: He’s capable of blue’s infinite turn combos, and can tutor up any piece of an artifact combo. His most famous combo is Darksteel ForgeMycosynth Lattice, and Nevinyrral’s Disk to destroy all permanents his opponents control. He’s also fully capable of the Mindslaver lock, using Academy Ruins to recur it.

Azami, Lady of Scrolls: She’s the default “mono-blue combo” general. By herself, she’s part of a two-card combo with Mind over Matter to draw-and-discard through as much of your library as you want, until you have the perfect hand and graveyard to combo off with. She’s perfectly suited for infinite turn combos and Palinchron-based infinite mana combos. She can even win by Storm (ex. Brain Freeze) by casting Sensei’s Divining Top a ridiculous number of times, in combination with Future Sight and Cloud Key.

Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker: Kiki-Jiki really, really wants to be equipped with a Thornbite Staff. Copy Mogg FanaticFire BowmenFrostlingGoblin Firestarter and you’ve got infinite damage. Emrakul’s Hatcher and Skirk Prospector give you infinite mana. Hearthcage Giant gives you infinite creatures.

Even without the Thornbite Staff, however, Kiki-Jiki is the center of several combos. Just Zealous Conscripts and he alone are enough to make infinite creatures. Kiki, Lightning Crafter and a sacrifice outlet is good for infinite damage.

Ghave, Guru of Spores loves Ashnod’s Altar and Phyrexian Altar.. With Ghave and an Altar, Geralf’s Messenger means infinite damage. Juniper Order Ranger means infinite tokens (or infinite mana). In addition to Juniper Order Ranger, there is a great many ways for Ghave to create infinite tokens (or turn those tokens into infinite mana).

As previously mentioned, combo decks are not beholden to their general, so the choices are endless. These are only some of the more popular ones and what they can do – but be warned that if you show up to the table with one of these generals, it will be assumed you intend to perpetrate some combos on the table. Your opponents will react accordingly.



A COMBO DECKLIST

Here’s a deck I’ve put together starring under-loved general Melek, Izzet Paragon. It is a straight-combo archetype deck, featuring one stable win condition, one awesome win condition, and one ludicrously awesome win condition.

Izzet Firestorm  
General
Melek, Izzet Paragon
Lands: 39

13 Island
12 Mountain
Command Tower
Steam Vents
Cascade Bluffs
Izzet Guildgate
Izzet Boilerworks
Sulfur Falls
Shivan Reef
Vivid Crag
Vivid Creek
Evolving Wilds
Terramorphic Expanse
Halimar Depths
Buried Ruin
Academy Ruins

Combo Pieces: 7
Power Artifact
Rings of Brighthearth
Basalt Monolith
Grim Monolith
Mana Geyser
Turnabout
Reiterate
Kill Spells: 3

Comet Storm
Rolling Thunder
Fireball
Storm: 10

Seething Song
Desperate Ritual
Rite of Flame
Pyretic Ritual
Empty the Warrens
Brightstone Ritual
Past in Flames
Brain Freeze
Ignite Memories
Proteus Staff

Tutors/Setup: 7
Mystical Tutor
Fabricate
Long-Term Plans
Personal Tutor
Tezzeret the Seeker
Scroll Rack
Sensei’s Divining Top

Mana: 4
Wayfarer’s Bauble
Sol Ring
Gilded Lotus
Izzet Signet
Protection: 9

Cyclonic Rift
Devastation Tide
Evacuation
Meekstone
Crawlspace
Dissipation Field
Smoke
Capsize
Elixir of Immortality

Countermagic: 9
Hinder
Spell Crumple
Counterspell
Desertion
Dismiss
Arcane Denial
Discombobulate
Muddle the Mixture
Time Stop
Draw: 5

Blue Sun’s Zenith
Braingeyser
Rhystic Study
Recurring Insight
Windfall
Other: 6

Bribery
Reverberate
Vandalblast
Leyline of Punishment
Spin Into Myth
Trickbind

So much mana… So much burn…

Stable Win Condition: We want to generate infinite mana with which to fuel one of our three kill spells. There’s two different engines in the deck to make this work.

The first is Basalt Monolith, plus either Rings of Brighthearth or Power ArtifactGrim Monolith can substitute for the Basalt Monolith when paired with Power Artifact.

The second is to use Reiterate to copy a spell that generates more than six mana, and buy it back to copy that spell again. The two spells in the deck capable of generating that kind of mana are Mana Geyser and Turnabout.



“I’m just gonna cast every instant and sorcery in my deck now, m’kay?”

AWESOME Win Condition: You will need to get Proteus Staff and Melek, Izzet Paragon on the board with at least 1 blue, 1 red, and 2 colorless mana. Activate Proteus Staff, targeting Melek. Melek goes to the bottom of our library, and since he is the only creature in the deck, we get to reveal our entire library – then put it back in the order we want. We will then use Melek to cast each spell in order.

Stack the top of the deck as close as you can to the following configuration: Rite of FlameDesperate RitualPyretic RitualSeething SongMana GeyserEmpty the WarrensBrightstone RitualPast in Flames, and Comet Storm.

With your red mana, you cast Rite of Flame. Melek copies it. You have 4 red mana. Cast Desperate Ritual. 8 mana. Cast Pyretic Ritual. 12 mana. Cast Seething Song. 19 mana. Cast Mana Geyser. We’ll call the mana you generate with this spell X, so at this point you have (14+2X) red mana. Cast Empty the Warrens. This brings us down to (10+2X) mana, but puts 14 goblins into play. Cast Brightstone Ritual. (38+2X) mana. Now, cast Past in Flames. (34+2X) mana. Now we’re gonna do it again!  (Alas, Melek does not copy these flashed-back spells.)

Rite of Flame, (35+2x). Desperate Ritual, (36+2x). Pyretic Ritual, 37+2x). Seething Song, (39+2x). Mana Geyser, (34+3x). Empty the Warrens produces 28 more goblins (30+3x). Brightstone Ritual, (71+3x).

Feed this absurd amount of mana into a kill spell, preferably Comet Storm. Laugh maniacally as Melek copies that spell too.



Storm and Mill – two of the hardest win conditions in Commander.

LUDICROUSLY AWESOME Win Condition: Follow the steps listed above, but stack your deck in such a manner as to cast the maximum number of spells with all that mana you’re generating, instead of funneling it into a kill spell. Cast as many spells as you possibly can, and then flash back Past in Flames to cast whatever instant and sorcery spells are still left in your graveyard over again.

Build up a ludicrously-high Storm count, and then cast Ignite Memories to burn down opponents with cards remaining in their hands, and Brain Freeze to mill out those who don’t. Stand tall as one of the few players who ever pulled off a Storm victory in the Commander format.