Ssssnakes at Sssseventy-Five Percent
This is a mantra that I find my friends chanting at the table about fifteen minutes into a Commander game with me. That's how long it takes them to remember the weird (and interesting) way that I killed them last time. Because of this, I've tried to find non-threatening cards and techniques to play that shifts the focus to others at the table. I still actually want to win the game, but I don’t want to be too obvious about it. This mindset actually goes hand in hand with Jason Alt's EDH-good-guy philosophy of building decks that operate at 75% optimal power level.
There's a lot to be said about the philosophy, you can plumb the depths by reading any of Jason's five hundred articles on the topic. His first article about it should give you the overall gist. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to steal a quote from that article to summarize:
This philosophy is pretty easy to follow when you’re building a snake deck. I don’t think any snake Commander deck could be considered 100% optimal. I’m not trying to hate on our slithering little buddies, but if my life depended on the outcome of one epic Commander battle (this is the kind of thing that I daydream about), then I’d much rather be rocking my Momir Vig, Simic Visionary deck, and I’d probably still die. That being said, there are some cards that I chose not to include to keep the 75% spirit alive and well.
Too Good for 75%
For example, I left out some high powered counterspells that you’d expect to see in any Blue based Commander decks. Cards like Mana Drain, Force of Will, and Cryptic Command are too good for our snake build. I also left out a host of devastating combos like Deadeye Navigator plus Palinchron, and Melira, Sylvok Outcast, plus Woodfall Primus, plus Greater Good, and the card that gets them all; Tooth and Nail. The deck is not combo-less, but the combos are less efficient, we’ll talk about those later in the article. I just wanted to point out that there were other things I could do that would make the deck more competitive, but I chose not to. All right enough of this 75% stuff. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
How Does the Deck Work?
If there is one word that could describe all the Commander decks that I build, it’s this word: Momentum.
Every card in my deck-builds the momentum to the end game of the deck. Let me explain in less abstract words. When you think about a tribal deck in Commander, you typically associate that with an aggressive (aggro) strategy. Aggro decks build momentum by accumulating creatures on the board and winning through combat damage. The issue with this strategy is the prevalence of board-wipe spells in the Commander format. After building momentum on the board, your momentum can be sapped by one spell. Most traditional aggro deck hedge against this with ways to counter or refuel after. I tip my hat to board-wipes with the inclusion of a copy of Heroic Intervention, but the aggro kind of momentum is not the focus of this deck.
Thinking Outside the Aggro
Instead of fighting board wipes in the traditional ways, what I’ve done is I’ve hidden a combo deck inside this innocuous “tribal” deck. I know! Sneaky, sneaky right? As I said above, I like each creature to add to the momentum of the deck. When my creatures get killed, instead of sapping the momentum, my opponents are really adding to the momentum of the deck. “How is that possible?!” I’m glad you asked. This is where one of my favorite, and severely under-rated Commander cards comes into play; Creeping Renaissance. Snakes in my graveyard are not just there to soil the flowers, they are awaiting a big turn, where I bring them all back to my hand, and snowball them for a kill. And I’m not talking about knocking out a single player, I’m talking about crushing the entire table in glorious victory. To accomplish that, we have to rely heavily on our Commander, which in a twist of the plot is not Kaseto.
The Real Commander of the Deck
Now don’t get me wrong, Kaseto, Orochi Archmage is a good man or umm . . . Snake Wizard. There will be those synergistic plays when you get to get in there with Shisato, Whispering Hunter causing an opponent to skip their untap step. Or the times where you manage to clock someone enough times with an unblockable Blight Mamba to infect them out of the game. I’ll admit that Kaseto is an all-around good midrange snake Commander, but his presence is just a ruse to hide the real Commander, which is not a creature at all. It’s an artifact called Paradox Engine.
The pure power of Paradox Engine is unleashed when you combine it with non-land permanents that produce mana, and a way to draw cards. The loop goes like this; tap your permanents for mana, play a spell, untap them, tap them again for mana, play another spell, untap them again, do you see where this is going? If you have a draw engine going, then you can repeat the process until you draw your win condition. This is an overview of the engine, but let's dig a little bit deeper and look at the specific cards in this deck that make the engine go.
As you can see, the mana sources available are sparse. This kind of engine would be much more effective in an Elves build with Heritage Druid, but we're here to build snakes, so we've gotta work with what we have. Our lack of a great mana engine means two things. The first is that we have to set up the mana engine a turn before playing the Paradox Engine. Two it means we have to protect the mana engine from an unfortunate end.
We can set this up in a couple of different ways, one is by playing them onto the board with Heroic Intervention backup, the other is by flashing your mana into play at the end of turn with Alchemist’s Refuge. Keep in mind, that you should be careful not to expose your Sachi until it's time to go off. Instead you can set up a handful of non-threatening shaman the turn before, then turn them on with Sachi in the next turn. In the dream scenario, you have access to Concordant Crossroads, which allows you to play your mana creatures out and combo on the same turn.
Once you get the mana engine in place you're going to want to draw cards to keep it going. The optimal setup is to have Glimpse of Nature ready for this moment, but you can also play out one of your draw engines like Zendikar Resurgent or Soul of the Harvest. These are put in place before “going off” and they feed you a steady stream of cards during the process. I also included some big draw cards that are meant to be played after you've played your hand out. These are Regal Force, and Distant Melody. These two cards give you a large windfall of cards, which should fuel you to your win condition, or get you to one of the other draw engines to get your card flow going.
If you have a Cloudstone Curio, then you may not need one of the draw engines above. You can get away with bouncing a Coiling Oracle over, and over again. This will also put each land from your deck into play. If the conditions are right, then you can even use the Curio’s bounce ability to generate infinite mana, then casually Genesis Wave your deck into play. This is one of the many ways that our deck can win. We’ll talk about each endgame strategy in the next section.
As I alluded to above, this deck has two different approaches to winning, (Combat, or Combo) and many paths to victory inside each approach.
Combat wins revolve around three different cards:
Craterhoof Behemoth — If you find yourself with a board full of snake tokens, then it's possible to end the game by simply slamming Craterhoof Behemoth. A Cavern of Souls on "Beast" will ensure that the Behemoth hits the table, and we all know what happens after that.
Coat of Arms — This is a lot like Craterhoof, but it has a stricter requirement — since it only counts snakes. The value in this card, is that you can fetch it at the end of turn (or in the middle of combat) with Whir of Invention.
Blight Mamba / Triumph of the Hordes (Infect Kill) — Blight Mamba which is probably the least reliable of the combat related win conditions. I don’t run enough infect or poison counter cards to support this method of winning, but it does only take two hits after a double pump from Kaseto to 187 an opponent. There will also be times when your snakes hit 10/10 stats because of Craterhoof, or Coat of Arms, and this guy allows you to kill a player with one snake. We also have a copy of Triumph of the Hordes, which can finish off a poisoned player and most of the time can effectively take another person out.
If a "fair" kill is not your style, or you're playing against more degenerate decks, then you can go for a combo kill:
Genesis Wave (Snake Storm) — This is the scenario that I described above. It's a bit of a hybrid win condition. Meaning it can facilitate a combat win or a combo win, since Genesis Wave should put Craterhoof Behemoth, Coat of Arms, and Concordant Crossroads into play. You can win the game by combat, by swinging an army of hasty snakes into the red zone. On the other hand, the Genesis Wave will also put your Shaman of Forgotten Ways into play, and most importantly your Skullwinder.
The way that Genesis Wave works, is it puts the permanents into play, but it puts the non-permanents like Instants and Sorceries into the graveyard. If you Genesis Wave the remainder of your deck then Skullwinder becomes a tutor for any Instant or Sorcery. Picking up a Cyclonic Rift or Capsize could set you up for one of the combo wins that we talk about below. This is a good hedge against something like a Fog, which could be a total blow-out, if you didn’t have a non-combat win condition.
Shaman of Forgotten Ways — With a board full of snakes, it's not hard to reach the 8-power requirement for the Formidable ability, which reads:
I think I’ve seen this text before . . . Oh yeah, on this banned card!
Capsize — If you've generated infinite mana with a Cloudstone Curio loop, then Capsize is an easy way to end the game. You can also get the same effect if you can generate six mana from your permanents with Paradox Engine out. This allows you to cast the Capsize with buyback, which will trigger an untap. Then you can rinse and repeat. Making the blue mana for this can be tricky but Orochi Leafcaller is a champ for this since he can convert Green mana into Blue mana.
Finding What You Need
In the spirit of the 75% philosophy I was more modest in my tutor selection. There are less than there could be, and the ones I picked are not as efficient as some others. For example, there is no Fabricate, or Worldly Tutor. I do however run some pretty good tutors to accommodate the different win conditions of the deck. I still want a chance at beating 100% optimal decks.
The first wave of tutors are the obvious ones; Chord of Calling, Green Sun’s Zenith, and Whir of Invention. These help us to establish our aggressive strategy, or to put together critical combo pieces. The second wave of tutors are a batch of tutors that I feel are still underrepresented in Commander, that's the transmute cards.
These are great because they all have some bit of functionality other than tutoring. Dizzy Spell can mess with someone's combat math, as well as fetch key cards like Concordant Crossroads, Glimpse of Nature, and Green Sun’s Zenith. Muddle the Mixture can be used as disruption, or to grab Cyclonic Rift. Drift of Phantasms is probably the least useful if not transmuted, but most useful transmute card, giving us access to; Capsize, Cloudstone Curio, Whir of Invention, Chord of Calling, and even Shaman of the Forgotten Ways.
100 Cards for your Slithering Satisfaction
This is the decklist in its current form, but I'm sure this is not the final iteration. I'll be tuning it for the meta of my play group.
Kaseto, Orochi Archmage — Commander | Jonathan Medina
Other Considerations and Conclusion
There are a lot of different directions that you can go with this deck. I considered using Opposition with the pickles combo (Brine Elemental, and Vesuvan Shapeshifter) to tap down everyone’s permanents, then force them to skip their untap steps. This would be a slow and painful death, but I decided again it for now. I also considered using a Black splash, and replacing cards like Creeping Renaissance, and Praetor’s Counsel with Patriarch’s Bidding, and Living Death. This also gives you some other options in the Snake department, but we lose Kaseto as our "Commander" and I'm sure my friends would find it suspicious that I'm filling my graveyard with snakes intentionally. My hope is that this list will give you a starting point for building your own sneaky snake list. No matter how you build it, theresss sssome ssseriousss sssatisfaction in winning a Commander game with sssnakes.
Thank you for reading! <3