Thin Budget, Phat Deck

Selenia, Dark Angel
When circumstances warrant, I’m willing to buy cards for my old playgroup across the country in Alabama. I wouldn’t be a Magic writer without it, so if one of its members needs something, I’ll do my best to pitch in. When my friend Eron mentioned that he was having less fun going to Magic recently because his budget didn’t allow him to keep up with the group, I volunteered my time and spare funds to get him a functioning Orzhov Commander deck. He’s a quintessential Orzhov player and a Vorthos years before the term; of the six available commanders in W/B, he went with Selenia, Dark Angel with a desire to build a mash-up of the Divine vs. Demonic Duel Decks. It was a straightforward task for a longtime friend. Why not give it a go?

Jules Robins wrote about Selenia in an extort deck not too long ago. Because his theme was so focused, all my/Eron’s deck shares with Jules’s is some mana artifacts and lands. There, Selenia’s reusability as a spell gave her the nod over other Orzhov choices. Here, it’s more a flavor choice, although a commander who rarely needs the command zone is useful. Selenia’s not a build-around here, but she’s an effective leader on the cheap. Eron had a few of the cards from Gatecrash, so the cash outlay on this thirty-four-rare deck was $33. And it isn’t going to look like a budget deck on the field; I’m sorta jealous I don’t have this deck for myself. Before getting to the decklist and explanation:

A Word on Saving Money in Commander (a.k.a. Yeah, Like I Ever Stop at One Word)

Saving money in Commander is relatively easy if you understand replacement level theory. In baseball, replacement level is assigned to a level of performance you could get from freely available talent. You know that guy in AAA whom you could get for peanuts while making him happy by bringing him to the majors? That’s replacement level, broadly speaking. Magic has the same thing going on. If Swamp is the basic unit of black mana—replacement level, in a sense—how much extra value is an Orzhov Guildgate or a Scrubland? Is paying for a Scrubland worth the extra value over an Orzhov Guildgate? What about Rout versus Austere Command versus Akroma's Vengeance? Does Demonic Tutor give $10 more value than Diabolic Tutor, or is it better to upgrade other cards by that $10? Sports teams and budget Magic players weigh these decisions constantly, and building a major-league deck requires an understanding of replacement level.

The gaps between price and value above replacement level are starkest in four categories:

Sisay's Ring
  • Lands – Terramorphic Expanse is no Marsh Flats, but the turn after you play either, you’ve generated roughly the same effect.
  • Mana Fixing – Sisay's Ring does the same thing as Sol Ring once it comes out. If you need the $8 to buy more win conditions, this is where you find that $8.
  • Has-Beens – Sometimes, a card pushes another card closer to the junk-rare bin. When it hits that bin, budget players rejoice. Consume the Meek in most instances is a better Culling Sun. This makes Culling Sun cheaper but no better or worse than it ever was.
  • Won’t-Bes – The current Limited format provides the freshest supply of cards for the current Standard format. If something’s not being played there, and it fits your deck, now’s the time to buy it. Several cards in this deck are from the last three blocks; people tend to have their fill of these cards, so they’re easy to pick up if you’re building from scratch.

Measuring Sisay's Ring by what it isn’t (Sol Ring) ignores what it is (a source of ramp). Measuring a card in Standard by what it isn’t (a tournament staple) ignores what it is (a card potentially capable of winning plenty of games). Understanding this lets you find good cards for cheaper than if you took high-priced Commander staples and put them in every deck.

Firing up my Orzhov playlist1, here’s the deck:

Given the shifting nature of interests in the middle of a multiplayer Commander game, I favor building decks that are definitely good at a few things rather than try to pack every answer in. If you have all the board sweepers or graveyard exile in your deck, someone might want to be your friend long enough to keep you alive.

And it’s not as though Orzhov minds this; white and black are very good at the few things they do together. It’s tough to build a well-rounded Orzhov deck; I think it’s better to accentuate strengths than make a deck unpredictable for versatility’s sake. So, what did I build this deck to do?

Curve Out with Angels and Demons

If you’ve ever played with or against the Divine vs. Demonic decks, you know they have difficulty with the lower curve. Yeah, there’s Akroma, Angel of Wrath and Reiver Demon at the top, but Icatian Priest and Dusk Imp are miserable to play until then. If there’s one thing in this Commander deck that needs the money, it’s 4- and 5-mana Angels and Demons. Big, high-cost flyers are plentiful in those tribes; midrange is trickier.

Withengar Unbound
Playability was more important than synergy at the 4- and 5-mana slots, but there’s some interaction available with them. Guardian Seraph and Guardian of the Gateless give opponents reason to attack elsewhere, and Shattered Angel gains 6 to 9 life in most games I’ve seen it played. That life cushion comes in handy when Grinning Demon, Bloodgift Demon, and Seizan, Perverter of Truth come out. Seizan in multiplayer is a tough subgame for some opponents, as everybody likes the cards but not the attached clock. Orzhov usually has enough life to throw some at Seizan, and when it doesn’t, it can attack with Seizan until somebody is kind enough to kill it.

Sunblast Angel is starting to stay out of the junk-rare bin; it’s easily among the best combinations of board wipe and flyer ever printed. Kagemaro, First to Suffer, Havoc Demon, Pestilence Demon, and Bane of the Living (a second morph so it’s not always Grinning Demon) complement the Angel in ridding the board of what ails you. All of them except Havoc Demon have some control over how much you kill (call it Xability—“this board wipe is so Xable.” I wouldn’t blame you for never calling it that.) Harvester of Souls and Angelic Skirmisher scale nicely in multiplayer; pick them up while they’re cheap, as you’ll use them in Commander eventually. With so many flyers, Elbrus, the Binding Blade should have no trouble transforming into Withengar Unbound, though I hope that at least once a board wipe allows an Orzhov Keyrune to animate, wear Elbrus, and create a monster.

The other high-cost flyers are normal multiplayer finishers. Lord of the Void is new to casual, but nobody denies its scariness. Blood Speaker doesn’t require many Demons to be a worthwhile inclusion; here, it’s a toolbox for half your finishers. Netherborn Phalanx can transmute for creatures and board wipe, and its enters-the-battlefield life-loss is occasionally lethal.

Clear the Board, Bring Stuff Back, and Exile Graveyards

Sunblast Angel
Usually, cards that exile graveyards cost fewer dollars than cards that abuse graveyards. White and black have plenty of options in both categories. Since this deck has so many similarly-powered flyers, it doesn’t need to resurrect the same one a whole lot, but options in colors abound, from Morbid Plunder to Marshal's Anthem to the highly underrated Sigil of the New Dawn (who doesn’t want to pay {1}{W} to recur Guardian of the Gateless?). Remember the Fallen is particularly sweet, as there are a few artifacts worth bringing back, such as Nihil Spellbomb and Elbrus.

In addition to the listed cards for graveyard exile, Bojuka Bog, Shred Memory, and Return to Dust can banish unwanted items. Shred Memory is especially important for its transmute, as it can grab Exsanguinate or Profane Command.

Sunblast Angel, Kagemaro, Havoc Demon, Pestilence Demon, and Bane of the Living are already a solid suite of creature removal, and there are plenty of other options. Culling Sun and Consume the Meek hit none of your creatures except a Demon token from Promise of Power and Orzhov Keyrune; neither sweeper does everything in Commander, but when you know they’ll virtually never affect your own stuff, they become better. Akroma's Vengeance, Purify, Martyr's Bond, and Merciless Eviction are best in this deck for answering noncreature permanents, but they have other utility as well.

Keeping the Deck Going

Black’s tendency to lose life for card-draw pairs naturally with white’s life-gain and inability to draw cards. For Bloodgift Demon, Underworld Connections, and Promise of Power, there’s Shattered Angel, Exsanguinate, Debt to the Deathless, Crypt Incursion, Suffer the Past, and Necromancer's Covenant to regain some of it. (Some of that life-gain will also be spent on casting Selenia from the hand; rare will be the times you cast Selenia from the command zone after the first time.) Prophetic Prism, Orzhov Cluestone, Nihil Spellbomb, and Akroma's Vengeance can pitch in on the card-draw. I would have liked more draw, but the biggest options cost the most money, and it’s not as though this deck will be hard-pressed to find threats.

Bonehoard might look out of place in a deck with heavy graveyard exile, but people still manage to put creatures in graveyards, it’s ridiculous on a flyer for almost any pump past +2/+2, and it was fifty cents. Sometimes, there are cards that synergize completely with your deck, and sometimes, there are good cards for cheap. Those don’t always overlap, and on a budget, you take the latter.


Orzhov Keyrune
Nothing in this deck is a big surprise other than its low price. Since that and flavor were the primary goals, I think this deck worked out. As a sort of mascot for W/B style, Selenia, Dark Angel hits all the right notes, and building an effective Orzhov deck around her doesn’t cost a fortune. Once you know where to save money in building a Commander deck, it’s much easier to assemble one. The mana base isn’t ridiculous, there are few trendy Commander cards, and fifteen cards are from Standard and are easy to acquire. But when it beats face, it won’t feel so cheap.

1 I have hour-long playlists for every color combination from zero to three colors based on color pie philosophy and how those ideas are expressed in music. My Orzhov playlist is:

  • “Break My Soul” by Hybrid
  • “Biomantric Life” by The Black Dog
  • “Anywhere Out of the World” by Dead Can Dance
  • “Icct Hedral” by Aphex Twin
  • “Ghost” by VNV Nation
  • “Phenomenon” by Monolake
  • “Blackout” by Hybrid
  • “Light Mass Prayers” by Porcupine Tree
  • “Aligning the Daemon” by Monolake
  • “Finished Symphony” by Hybrid
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