The Big Idea is Purphoros

Renaissance Interior by Bartholomeus van Bassen (1618-1620). Earl of Squirrel by Milivoj Ćeran.

This week, I was torn between the temptation to write about an Unstable legendary and a desire to not write a piece that will have an expiration date of January 15th, 2018. While some playgroups will gladly keep using silver-bordered cards in their Commander games long after Unstable winter has come and gone, the cold hard truth is that many will follow the Rules Committee's dictates and will embrace a return to "normal" Commander games.

Today, I'm going to explore the "big idea" of building a deck with a "hidden" Commander. What that means is your deck might be able to function using the Legendary creature you have chosen as its official Commander but the real goal of the deck is to tutor out and take advantage of a completely different Legendary creature.

There are lots of reasons why you might want to build a deck with a "hidden" Commander. You might want access to more colors than your hidden Commander would normally let you build with. In my case, I wanted to build around an Unstable Legendary creature but the real mission will be to get another card onto the battlefield. If you have any experience with the format of Commander, its identity should come as no surprise.

The Big Idea is Purphoros

Well, that's not completely accurate. The Big Idea is actually just The Big Idea. It's a new Legendary creature from Unstable, but the mission of this deck will be to tutor out Purphoros, God of the Forge.

Our Commander is The Big Idea, but our "hidden" Commander is Purphoros. This deck will take the best parts of an old Purphoros deck I used to run and add a new Commander to head it up. The Big Idea is a Rakdos ({B}{R}) creature because of the hybrid {B}{R} symbols in its activated ability, so we'll throw in every Black card we always wished we had for Purphoros, along with a few Unstable cards just for fun. The combination of a such a potent token generator like "TBI" and a potent enter-the-battlefield (ETB) damage engine like Purphoros is just too dangerous to resist building. If we do it right, it might just fly under some players' radars and steal ourselves a few games.

The Big Idea
Purphoros, God of the Forge

The concepts around building this deck should be applicable to any "hidden" Commander deck.

You want tutors so you can search out your target card. You want recursion so that if it gets countered or destroyed you have some hope of getting it back. You want to use any additional colors you have access to so that you're really making the most of what your Commander brings to the deck. You also need backup plans that provide the same kind of effect or ability that your hidden Commander provides so that if you run into a Nevermore or Meddling Mage you can still have a chance at competing for the win.

If you do find yourself unable to keep your real threat on the table, you'll want to have a Commander that can present a threat to the table on its own, even if it isn't as powerful as your hidden Commander. Let's explore how I tried to tackle each of these concepts in this build, but keep in mind that the concepts aren't limited to this build. You can approach any "hidden" Commander deck this way.


When you're playing a "hidden" Commander deck, you need to play a significant number of tutors. While some deck-builders feel that running too many tutors make a deck too linear and one-dimensional, hidden Commander decks are an exception. You simply can't rely on the luck of the draw if your game plan is to try to win with a card that's in the 99. If your deck is extraordinarily effective, you may still get opponents who complain about all the tutors you're running; but, there aren't many other options if you want a deck like this to work.

This deck already ran Gamble, and there's no reason to change that. Now that we have access to Black, a whole world of options opens up for us. Our main plan involves Purphoros and we need to throw in as many ways as possible to search him out of the deck. If we wind up with the God of the Forge in our opening hand, we will certainly have other spicy cards to tutor up. Here are some of the options I went with.

Demonic Tutor
Diabolic Tutor
Beseech the Queen
Tamiyo's Journal
Ring of Three Wishes

Demonic Tutor and Diabolic Tutor are essential Black tutors that are pervasive in the format. Beseech the Queen can do the job even if I only have Red mana available, and will probably wind up costing 4 mana or less when I cast it. Colorless options are worth considering and with both Tamiyo’s Journal and Ring of Three Wishes we could easily wind up searching for more than just Purphoros before the game is over.

Six tutor spells aren't enough to guarantee that we will see Purphoros in a given game, but it's enough to give us a good chance. Tutors are going to give this deck the consistency it needs to be able to compete against decks that don't need to go searching for their big threats. In strong decks they can give you so much consistency that the deck feels like it plays out the same way every time. In "hidden" Commander decks they are essential to making your plan work.


The colors you're in will have a big impact on how easily you can recover from counterspells and removal. You definitely want to plan for the eventuality that your real Commander may wind up in the graveyard either from removal, boardwipes or just being countered. If you don't run ways to get it back to your hand, or even directly to the battlefield, your deck is going to lack resiliency.

I'll be honest. The current build of this deck really needs more recursion. I'm currently only running Gravepurge, but if I were to step back and properly address this need I'd be running cards like these.

Dread Return
Phyrexian Reclamation
Doomed Necromancer
Ever After
Cauldron Dance

Dread Return is a very straightforward return-to-battlefield sorcery spell. We will prefer that to returning a card to our hand. Purphoros isn't that expensive; but, if we can avoid paying another 4 mana, it makes sense to do so. Phyrexian Reclamation is an enchantment that will let us pay 2 life and 2 mana ({1}{B}) to return a card to our hand. While that's not where we want him, we can do it more than once so we can have some hope of fighting through a situation where we're seeing lots of counterspells. Doomed Necromancer will bring a creature back to the field, but he's got to tap to do it and he'll be sacrificed as part of the cost.

Ever After and Cauldron Dance will both put two creatures onto the field, though in very different ways. The former will bring two creatures back to the battlefield, as Black Zombies in addition to their other colors and types. The latter can only be cast during combat and will put a creature from your hand and from your graveyard into play with haste. At the next end step the one from your hand goes to your graveyard and the one from the yard goes to your hand. While that might seem inconvenient, if you have a decent board of goblins, I could see playing this with Krenko in your hand so you can bring Purphoros back from the grave and do a little damage while both of them are on the field together.


When you're running a "hidden" Commander, one of the big benefits you get can be access to colors you didn't previously have available to you. This is one of the main reasons certain five-color Legendary creatures see as much play as they do. For many years, Horde of Notions saw play not as much for its ability to provide recursion for Elementals as for its ability to give you access to every color.

For this deck we're basically taking a Purphoros build and adding Black into the mix. That gives us some really interesting options over and above all the tutors I discussed earlier.

Army of the Damned
Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder
Snickering Squirrel
Squirrel-Powered Scheme

What Purphoros deck wouldn't want to play with a card like Army of the Damned? For a measly 8 mana you're probably late enough in the game that, if it resolves while he's on the field, someone's going to die. If you've got enough mana to cast it AND flash it back, you'll be doing 52 damage to each opponent. While that might seem like an excessive amount of mana, one Mana Geyser can easily get you there in the later stages of a four or five player game.

While this isn't going to be the most creature-heavy build, Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder should occasionally be able to do some real work creating 1/1 Black Thrull creature tokens. The Big Idea will make six Thrull on his own, and Mr. Sahr is obscure enough that he might be overlooked by opponents until it's too late to avoid taking a big chunk of Purphoros damage.

The Big Idea is an Unstable Commander so we might as well throw in some of those cards. Inhumaniac will help count toward our Brainiac total and for every three Brainiacs we will get an extra die roll, increasing the number of Brainiacs we can create. Since we'll be rolling dice, Snickering Squirrel and Squirrel-Powered Scheme will fit right in, both helping to increase the results of our rolls.

There are definitely other Black cards that could fit into this build. Dark Ritual and Cabal Ritual are favorites in many decks that run Black, and Liliana of the Dark Realms can turn a meager number of swamps into huge amounts of mana. You also have a wide range of removal spells that now become available with the addition of Black.

Backup Plans

If you are planning your deck around one specific card, you are going to want other options in case things go wrong. That means you need to have a decent number of cards that do the same thing. Sometimes that won't even be possible if your key card is really unique. Whether or not you can find functional equivalents, you definitely will want other possible ways to win the game.

Impact Tremors
Mob Justice
Kindred Charge
Chancellor of the Forge
Krenko, Mob Boss

Impact Tremors delivers half the damage that Purphoros will deal out; but, if the God of the Forge is unavailable, it will do in a pinch. We should be able to create lots of ETB triggers. If we can get Panharmonicon out to double those triggers, we'll be right where we want to be, dealing 2 damage for each one. There are a few other cards like Impact Tremors but many of our creatures will be small so it's really our best backup plan for our primary strategy.

If we're going to be making a wide board, a card like Mob Justice can turn that into a dead opponent if their life total is low enough or our board is wide enough. If we aren't going to try to win with ETB damage, Kindred Charge, Chancellor of the Forge, and Krenko, Mob Boss will all help us present an army big enough to inspire fear in anyone not standing behind a decent pillow fort.

Having a few different potential wincons will mean that we aren't dead in the water if our opponents have something we aren't expecting. If a Hushwing Gryff or Torpor Orb shows up, we can angle for a combat victory. If someone plays a dreaded Lightmine Field or even something as minor as a Propaganda and it's impossible to attack with a legion of Brainiacs, we can tutor up Purphoros and try to win by blowing up the table with ETB damage. Flexibility is important, though we're definitely going to have games where we just don't have the answers to the challenges we're presented with.

The Worst Case Scenario

So what do you do if you don't find any tutors, don't draw anything good and are just stuck trying to play the deck with what you've got in the Command Zone? Here's where you want to consider, making sure that your Commander can actually bring something to the game. If you're running Horde of Notions and your real game plan falls apart, you're stuck with a 5/5 with vigilance, trample, haste and the ability to pay 1 mana of each color to return an Elemental to the battlefield. That's not terrible but it's not amazing either.

This deck is led by a Commander who can generate anywhere from one to six 1/1 Red Brainiac creature tokens for the cost of 4 mana. Once you've got some Brainiacs on the field, you can tap three of them at a time to add an extra die roll to your result the next time you roll a die. My understanding is that those activations will stack, though rules clarifications on Unstable cards are a little harder to find than black-bordered Magic cards.

For this deck, your worst case scenario isn't that bad. The Big Idea should be able to produce an incredible number of tokens if left to its own devices. A true worst case scenario would probably involve playing at a table against lots and lots of flyers.

One Last Reason

There's one last reason to run a "hidden" Commander in your deck.

Some Legendary creatures are so dangerous that if you run them as your commander you wind up putting a huge target on yourself as soon as you start the game. Many experienced players who see a Purphoros deck understand that their first priority needs to be to keep Purphoros off the board at any cost. If the God of the Forge is on the field, all it takes is one Mana Geyser and, if nobody has removal or a counterspell, the entire table can lose out of nowhere. Purphoros isn't the only powerful commander players tend to be wary of, but my experience has been that nobody wants to run the risk that you actually know what you're doing as a deck-builder.

I once had a Memnarch player counter my Purphoros four times in a game. That was a long night. Sometimes it's easier to just run your Purphoros as just one of the ninety-nine and see if you can catch a table with their guard down. When he's in your command zone, they've got a constant reminder to keep some mana up and keep a counterspell ready. When he's in the 99, you can sometimes sneak him out when they just didn't see him coming or knew he was in there but had no way of knowing if he was in your hand or stuck somewhere deep in your library.

The Proof is in the Pudding

This build may not be optimized. I built it at the same time that I built a Mary O’Kill deck and I really didn't properly address removal and sweepers in this build, instead putting the options I had available into Mary's deck. This may not have all the cards I know should probably be in the list, but it is built with real cards and I got to play its first game in our EDH league at the beginning of December. Not only did it do well, it won against four capable opponents who were all playing Commanders with Blue in their color identities.

The early game went smoothly. I wasn't the threat at the table until I played a Mana Geyser and turned 16 Red mana into a Purphoros, a Goblin Offensive (for 7 goblins), and a Dualcaster Mage copying the Goblin Offensive. Purphoros decks like to blow up out of nowhere, and this deck was no exception; but an opponent chose to Disallow the Dualcaster Mage's trigger. Instead of doing 30 damage to each opponent, I only did 14, but I had the table's attention.

My opponents proceeded to focus on me for a while until a friend playing Atraxa Planeswalkers started to really blow up. The table was able to keep the Planeswalkers from winning long enough for me to draw and play a Gamble. I tutored for Army of the Damned and the random card I had to discard was a Fork. With four opponents playing Blue, it should come as no surprise that when I went to cast Army it got countered. I didn't have the mana, or the Fork available to counter the counter, so it went straight to the graveyard. Nobody wanted to take that kind of damage and they hadn't found a way to get rid of Purphoros yet.

I proceeded to act as if the wind was out of my sails. All my serious threats had been dealt with and I was just hoping we could make it to the league's 2 hour round limit and have a draw rather than losing to Atraxawalkers. I did have one opponent at 2 life and was happy to play a Grinning Ignus to kill them off with Purphoros damage. Grinning Ignus is a wonderful little fellow who for {R} can be returned to your hand to produce {2}{R}.

The table, minus the one opponent I had killed off, was able to reach our 2 hour cutoff and each of us would get one additional 5 minute turn before the game would be called a draw. Two players took their turns, including the Atraxa player who was still unable to seal the win. They were achingly close to having the game closed out, but couldn't quite get there.

Thanks to Grinning Ignus, on my turn I was able to generate the mana to cast Army of the Damned from my graveyard to do 26 damage to each opponent, killing both of them. While I didn't get to do more than one Brainiac-generating die roll (I rolled a one), it was a long, interesting game with lots of twists and turns and a win that was only possible in this Rakdos "hidden" Commander build.

Final Thoughts

The concepts I've applied to my Purporos/The Big Idea deck are ones you can apply to any "hidden" Commander, but there will often be reasons you just want to run your big threat as your commander. Prossh, Skyraider of Kher is an example where he's a huge threat that might be nice to "hide" but the top builds of the deck want to cast him and re-cast him so you'd always want him in the Command Zone.

The ideal candidates for this kind of build are Legendary creatures who are mono-colored, who pose a significant threat, and who for some reason are hard to remove. Purpohros qualifies on all counts but I could imagine there are probably other decks that could be built this way. I have a Wasitora, Nekoru Queen deck that might benefit from the addition of enough tutors to reliably go get Sheoldred, Whispering One, just as one example.

I hope you found today's article to be both informative and something that will be of value beyond the end of "Unstable Winter". As yet I haven't seen any silver-bordered cards "break" the format, but if you have you can take comfort in the fact that they will return to their status of being illegal in the format after January 15th. I do have the decklist available on so if you're interested in looking closer, the link is below. You'll see that it lacks removal but with a few tweaks and upgrades I think you could turn this list into something really fun and powerful.

Other News

Yesterday I had the huge honor of being able to join the folks at CommanderCast to talk about a whole bunch of things on their podcast. We chatted about my blog, about the artwork I've been making every week for you guys, and about setting up and running an EDH league. While my genuine fear is that I came across as an inarticulate, stammering, out of touch old guy who says "um" a lot, I'm hoping that I did OK and may even help to inspire some of you guys to start up EDH Leagues of your own. It was a really neat experience and I'm deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to be their guest. CommanderCast is a great podcast and you should check it out.

They're on iTunes or you can just go to their website.

I am going to take a quick moment to dip into my personal life.

Call your mom. Tell her you love her. Earlier this month my mother passed away after a months-long battle with cancer at the age of 77. She was an inspiration and a huge reason I grew up into the man I am today. I'll just leave it at that. If you can do so — call your mom.

As always, thanks for reading and I'll see you next week.

Unstable is Now Available!