Learning Lessons

Ruins of Brederode by Jacob Van Ruisdael (1655). Jungle Creeper by Matt Stewart.

As I begin to write this week’s article, I’m torn between a number of possible topics. I could give you decklists for some of the new M25 legendary creatures but, as I write, the spoilers have only just started trickling out and I’m not seeing much yet that inspires me. I’ve got a really spicy Green deck that I’m just dying to tell you about, but I’m still refining the list and want to get it right before I devote an article to it.

Fortunately, that means for yet another week I’m going to wax philosophical. I’m going to share some of the lessons I’ve learned about deck-building from a project that I’ve been working on for a few months.

The Dream

Some decks have a theme, like “Ladies Facing Left”. Some are tribal and try to run enough of your favorite type of creature to make you happy every time you shuffle up to play. Still others have a single purpose - a dream that they have been built to try to fulfill. Usually that dream is a win condition, but not always. I’m quite fond of these last types of decks, as they are generally built to do really broken things.

I’ve built decks to do dumb stuff plenty of times, but they often take lots of games before they “go off”. Last summer I rebuilt my Zedruu the Greathearted combo deck to be able to win with Enchanted Evening and Aura Thief, but it took what felt like forever to finally land that combo. It was worth it, and today I’m going to explore another dream that I’ve been working on for a while.

Rashmi, Eternities Crafter
Stormtide Leviathan
Synthetic Destiny

It all started with sea monsters. In 2017, I built a Rashmi deck which only had giant sea monsters and leviathans for creature cards. The goal was to generate cheap token creatures and then use cards like Synthetic Destiny and Mass Polymorph to exile the tokens and cheat in giant monsters. I even wrote about the build last year for one of my Commanderruminations blog posts. You can read that article here.

I played it a bunch of times with moderate success. In its best game I managed to assemble a board of maybe 8 or 9 big creatures. It was fun but it didn’t take me long to realize that there was a “next level” that I wanted to bring the deck to.

That next level involved Eldrazi.

I didn’t want islandwalk to be my biggest threat, I wanted a ridiculous number of annihilator triggers and a board that would win the game in a turn or two if it wasn’t dealt with.

Pathrazer of Ulamog
Void Winnower
Spawnsire of Ulamog

I started to pick up Eldrazi, like Pathrazer of Ulamog and Void Winnower, to work towards this deck rebuild and then I stumbled upon Spawnsire of Ulamog. That’s when I realized that the real dream was to cheat out a giant board and then pay 20 mana to use his last ability to cast ten Eldrazi out of my sideboard.

Kozilek, Butcher of Truth
Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre
Emrakul, the Promised End

The basic plan involves running Eldrazi without cast triggers in the main deck. They will be cheated into play, so those creatures will rarely be cast. The sideboard is another matter. Those big boys will include all the Titans that are legal in the format and, if things go as planned, they will all get cast.

If I can cheat in a mess of Eldrazi and then pay 20 mana to cast my entire sideboard, I should be able to win the game. If I can’t, it’ll make for a great story for whoever does win, and I’m OK with that too.

So that’s the dream. The question is, can I achieve it?

Rashmi’s Box of Spaghetti

The first version of this deck was built around the shell of my Rashmi Sea Monsters deck. I originally built around Rashmi because she should provide help with card draw and also because I had a few copies of her lying around.

The deck already had a lot of Green token generators and now it had no sea monsters but plenty of Eldrazi. As I was building in two colors, it made sense to throw in some other creatures as well.

Archetype of Imagination
Archetype of Endurance
Kruphix, God of Horizons

Having Archetype of Imagination and Archetype of Endurance made sense, and Kruphix, God of Horizons could help float mana between turns to try and reach enough for Spawnsire’s final ability. I also ran Consecrated Sphinx for card draw, Elvish Piper to help cheat big creatures into play and both Brood Monitor and Kozilek’s Predator.

The deck was fun and had the potential to blow up, but I never “lived the dream”. It won a game or two, but was slow and inconsistent. You can see the decklist here.

It’s got some spicy cards that you might not have seen before, but this past weekend I finally took it apart and built a new version.

You can’t say “no” to Spaghetti

I have a lot of decks, and while I play often, I also rotate between my decks so much that I’m unlikely to play any one deck more than a few times in a month. I eventually decided that Rashmi wasn’t doing enough to help make the deck function and I started looking at other options.

Taigam, Ojutai Master
Avacyn, Angel of Hope
Penance

I settled on Taigam, Ojutai Master for this deck’s second iteration. The switch from Simic ({U}{G}) to Azorius ({W}{U})would give the deck an entirely new feel and would open up some new possibilities. I could add in some heavy hitters like Avacyn, Angel of Hope and Iona, Shield of Emeria. White would also give me access to a pet card, Penance, which will let me drop creatures onto the top of my deck just before I cast a polymorph spell.

White would also let me run Reconnaissance, Path to Exile, Swords to Plowshares, a few boardwipes and a slew of cheap creature-token-generating instants and sorceries that I might be able to give rebound with Taigam. I’ll also run Approach of the Second Sun and Teferi’s Protection because an extra way to win and an extra way to not lose are each worth a slot.

Rashmi was giving me some card draw so now I’ll have to run more draw spells. Taigam can give those spells rebound if he attacked, but we’ll also get help from Rhystic Study and Consecrated Sphinx. For now, I’m going to lean on Reconnaissance, Maze of Ith and Thaumatic Compass to allow me to pull Taigam out of combat once he has attacked so I can do so safely.

Goldfishing a deck can give you a false sense of how successful your build is going to be in actual play. So far, my optimism is guarded. I love the idea of cheating into play a bunch of Eldrazi along with Iona, Avacyn and maybe a Grand Abolisher, but I’m skeptical that I’m going to be able to get 20 mana together to be able to pay for Spawnsire’s sideboard cast ability. I run Energy Tap, but that doesn’t feel like much of a plan.

You can look at this build here.

In the few games I’ve played with this deck, it hasn’t done much. I have to put a lot of work into making tokens and trying to draw into a polymorph spell, and so far each game has been at a table where there was a faster, more powerful deck that I couldn’t keep up with.

A Third Helping of Spaghetti

While I’m not usually one to give up on a deck after only a few games, I am one to look ahead. I could easily see giving up on the Taigam build as well after a few more weeks. It has some really good things going for it, but my gut feeling is that it’s also going to remain way too slow and inconsistent.

There are three commanders that I’m considering as future commanders if this deck winds up getting reworked yet again. The thing to remember is that they have to be in Blue so I can cast Synthetic Destiny, Mass Polymorph, Polymorph and also pay for the activated ability on Proteus Staff.

Jhoira of the Ghitu
Talrand, Sky Summoner
Oona, Queen of the Fae

Jhoira of the Ghitu is probably the commander I should have been using all along. Her ability to pay 2 mana to suspend a big spell for four turns is amazing, but I have two issues. The first is that it feels a little too much like cheating, and the second is that I don’t own a copy of her yet. I know that can easily be rectified, but part of the attraction for me is not only doing something broken but doing something that is unexpected and maybe a little convoluted.

Talrand, Sky Summoner would be a great choice. I could load up on card draw and counterspells, make lots of drakes and turn them into Eldrazi. My problems with Talrand are that I’ve built him before and that he’s only in one color. I want a little variety in my deck, so I’m definitely going to want go with at least two colors. I also want to build around a legendary creature that’s new to me.

Oona, Queen of the Fae is probably the most tempting choice for a next evolution of this deck. My Commander League has seen a bunch of Oona decks recently after not seeing any for a few years. I dislike building commanders that already have a strong presence in the groups I’m playing in, so that’s one reason I haven’t yet gone with Oona. The other is that it seems like the logical way to build her is to build infinite mana combos. Once you have done that, you’ve got one of those decks that everyone hates because you wind up constantly ending games before everyone else is ready for the game to be over. I want the deck to be strong but not reviled.

I enjoy long, interesting games and many of the players I most enjoy playing with have similar tastes. I know I could always build a “suboptimal” Oona deck with the main goal of winning by combat with Eldrazi after using polymorph effects. The only possible issue would be other players assuming I’m running a fast combo Oona rather than a slower, “fairer” Oona. I think I’m OK with that, but I want to give Taigam a few more tries before I pull the trigger on yet another rebuild.

Lessons Learned

The title of today’s article was “Learning Lessons” so it’s worth asking what lessons I’m learning through the building and re-building of this deck.

What could I have been doing differently when going through versions of this deck to get to its “final form” more quickly?

I’m learning that when I build a deck with a convoluted game plan, I absolutely, positively should be making sure that my Commander plays a more specific and concrete role towards advancing that game plan.

My plan involved making tokens and exiling them to cheat bigger creatures into play. I have a very limited number of spells that can do the latter.

I should have been looking for a commander in Blue that gave me quick, easy token creature generation, tutor effects, draw or ramp. Just giving me access to colors isn’t really enough, though it does help. My choices so far simply haven’t been helping enough with advancing my deck’s goal.

If I were to try to sum up the lesson I’m still trying to learn it would be this.

When building a deck with a convoluted game plan, look for a commander that has built-in abilities that go a long way towards advancing at least one key part of that plan.

Maybe that seems obvious, but I’ve managed to build lots of midrange decks that don’t do a good enough job at trying to achieve their dream win conditions. I’m betting I’m not the only one to have done this. I always tend to get distracted by things that seem important or alluring at the time but don’t really do enough to advance the ultimate goal.

In my case that goal would be to take an army of a dozen dumb little creatures and turn them into a board that is just horrifyingly overpowered and very difficult to deal with.

Your dream win condition might be something even more convoluted and I hope after reading this article I may have helped you focus your thoughts so you can build your next deck to be just a little bit better at achieving its goal.

Final Thoughts

One thing to note is that I really loved my Rashmi deck.

Maybe I just like the way she looks and like the colors she’s in, but that version of the deck always felt fun, fair and full of potential. I enjoyed playing it, but I don’t have a lot of patience for a deck that feels like it almost never does what it’s supposed to do. I don’t need 100% consistency but I need to feel like when I play it there’s a good chance it will actually do its thing.

I suspect the next version will probably be led by Oona and will leverage the Black in her color identity for tutors. It will run Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth and Cabal Coffers as an extra way to try to get to 20 mana for Spawnsire. I’ll probably play cards that play into what It that Betrays brings to the game, forcing my opponents to sacrifice creatures on their upkeep. I think it’ll be fun, but I still want to give Taigam a fair chance at eventually winning a game.

Also - I own a foil Oona, so yeah… there’s a good chance she’ll get her turn.

That’s all I’ve got for you today. If you’d like to keep up with how I’m doing in my casual and Commander League games, feel free to visit http://dantesdad.wixsite.com/commanderruminations. This month I’m playing Red goodstuff, led by Ashling the Pilgrim. I share my league and casual games on that site. Last month I finished in third place in our rankings and this month I’m hoping to remain competitive and maybe even win a game or two.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next Monday!


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