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Posts tagged “combo

Glossing Over: Engines

Tap Birthing Pod, sacrificing Elvish Visionary to get Deceiver Exarch. Deceiver Exarch triggers, untapping Birthing Pod. Activate Birthing Pod again, sacrificing Birds of Paradise to get Phantasmal Image copying Deceiver Exarch. Trigger untaps Birthing Pod. Sacrifice the copy of Deceiver Exarch to get Restoration Angel. Angel triggers and blinks the Deceiver Exarch, which triggers to untap the Birthing Pod. Sacrifice Restoration Angel to get Zealous Conscripts, which triggers to untap Birthing Pod. Sacrifice Zealous Conscripts to get Sun Titan, which returns Phantasmal Image to the battlefield as a copy of Deceiver Exarch, which untaps Birthing Pod. Sacrifice Sun Titan to get Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. Pass turn.

Did you catch all that?

The slang term “engine” is derived from a car engine; in Magic, an engine is something that makes a particular deck go. It is usually the focal point of the deck, from which all card choices made during deck construction are derived. Often, but not always, a deck’s main strategy will be to find its engine card and protect it, or at least utilize it as much as possible before the opponent has a chance to destroy it.

It is important to understand the distinction between an engine and a combo. While the two terms can overlap, a combo is defined as a combination of cards that, when used in conjunction, create an instantaneous win or a board state that is impossible to answer without a very specific set of answers. By contrast, an engine is any card or combination of cards that have synergy with other cards in such a way as to provide increasing card advantage or board presence over the course of a game. One must also make a distinction between something that is an engine and something that is simply “synergistic.” Restoration Angel is great with enters-the-battlefield creatures, but it’s hard to consider it an engine in the same sense as Birthing Pod or Jace, the Mind Sculptor. It provides extra value out of other cards, but doesn’t promote a specific style of deck building as a 3/4 flash flier for four mana is a reasonable creature in its own right.

So, now that we’ve properly defined what an engine is, let’s discuss some of the more potent examples of engine cards in Magic’s history, and talk about the pros and cons of each type of engine.

Home Improvement

The most obvious example of an engine card (and the one with which I began this article) is Birthing Pod. Birthing Pod is the latest in a long line of cards known as “toolbox” cards, a name derived from the fact that the cards in question allow their user to search up specific answers to any situation. Other toolboxes from Magic’s past include Survival of the Fittest, Knight of the Reliquary, and Kuldotha Forgemaster. What these cards do is allow their controller to have access to his or her entire deck every turn, as well as providing opportunities for synergy with other cards. When you’re facing down a Fauna Shaman, you know there’s likely some number of enters-the-battlefield-from-the-graveyard creatures in your opponent’s deck, and you know a Birthing Pod deck will have plenty of creatures with enters-the-battlefield abilities.

However, these benefits are also a cost of utilizing these cards. Because your strategy is obvious, the hate for your strategy is equally obvious. Grafdigger’s Cage and Torpor Orb do an excellent job of shutting down Birthing Pod decks, and hate cards like Aven Mindcensor or Mindlock Orb can completely hose a deck whose main source of card advantage involves searching the library.

By the same token, a lot of these strategies are substantially weaker when their namesake card isn’t in play. Birthing Pod decks, by nature, need a specific number of creatures at each casting cost in order to function with the namesake artifact on the field, leading to situations where you have a hand of do-nothing one- and two-drops while your opponent is dropping haymakers or comboing off. At the same time, your deck plays at sorcery speed and plays very few noncreature spells, leaving you incapable of meaningful interaction with the stack. As such, when building a toolbox deck, having individual cards that work favorably with your plan A, like Restoration Angel in Birthing Pod or Lotus Cobra in Naya Vengevine, are essential to finding success when plan A fails.

The Fast Mana and the Furious

The favorite of competitive and casual players alike is the fast mana engine, best exemplified by Cloudpost, Primeval Titan, and the Urzatron. The idea behind these cards is that each successive copy of these cards (or, in Primeval Titan’s case, each trigger) puts you further along in the game than your opponent by widening the gap in available mana. These engines can be some of the most back-breaking and powerful in the entirety of the game, often locking opponents out of the game before they’ve even made their third land drop. Moreover, these engines are much harder to disrupt specifically because the engine is the mana base, which lies just behind enchantments in “permanent type most hard to interact with” (outside of Legacy).

However, utilizing fast mana comes with a huge risk. Because decks built around this strategy need a critical mass of land fixing and searching, they can be prone to top decking irrelevant cards as the game progresses. Without an early trump to go over the top of whatever answers your opponent might have, you become a slave to the top of your deck and lose to Jace, the Mind Sculptor or simple counter magic.

One-Shot the Sheriff

The next type of engine is what I like to call the one-shot engine. These are similar to toolbox engines in that they are usually tutors, but differ in that their use is normally a once-and-done affair. Classic examples of this category include Stoneforge Mystic and Squadron Hawk. Each of these cards provides card advantage when cast, but do not necessarily have to be dealt with once they’ve resolved (with Stoneforge Mystic sometimes being the exception). The advantage to this sort of engine is its flexibility; because most of these cards are self-contained packages, decks don’t need to be built around them, but rather built with them in mind. While there is such a thing as a “Stoneforge deck,” the actual Stoneforge package is mostly comprised of four of the namesake card and two to three equipment for it to search up.

The disadvantage of these types of engines is not as apparent, but it is a very real disadvantage. One-shot engines have a tendency to provide diminishing returns as they thin out the well of resources with every cast or activation. The fourth Squadron Hawk is never as powerful as the first, and eventually Stoneforge Mystic becomes nothing more than a glorified Squire. While these cards are flexible in use, they do require deckbuilders to find some way to make use of their components once their main usefulness has been extinguished.

DRAW ALL THE CARDS!

This brings us to the last type of engine; the card-drawing engine. This is the most easily understood and wide-ranging of all classes of engines, spanning the entirety of Magic’s history to include Necropotence, Yawgmoth’s Bargain, Life from the Loam, and the infamous Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Some of these cards, like Necropotence and Yawgmoth’s Bargain, provide raw card advantage without asking for any sort of synergy with the rest of the deck. Wizards no longer prints cards this inherently powerful, which is good for the sustained health of the game.

As for Life from the Loam or Jace, the Mind Sculptor, the card advantage is both real and virtual. For those of you unclear on these terms: “real” card advantage refers to any effect that leaves you with one more card either in your hand or on the battlefield from when you cast the spell or activated the effect, while “virtual” card advantage is any effect that gives you access to more cards than those to which you initially had access.

When you first cast a Jace, the Mind Sculptor and use his second ability, you are adding a card into your hand to make up for the Jace you just cast. This is card parity. However, Jace also drew you three cards deeper into your deck; thus, you drew a “virtual” two extra cards. The next time you activate Jace, you’re going up a card from your initial investment of the Jace, and digging deeper into your deck as well. Factor this into a format with fetch lands, where you can reset the top of your library after every Brainstorm, and now you’re essentially drawing three cards every time you activate Jace.

With cards like Life from the Loam, Land Tax, and Crucible of Worlds, the card drawing is more powerful but requires help. Simply drawing three lands a turn off Loam or Land Tax is not enough; you need to take advantage of the fact that you have excess lands in your hand. Classic examples of “things to do with extra land cards” include Seismic Assault, Raven’s Crime, Liliana of the Veil, and Scroll Rack. Each of these cards turns the excess lands in your hand into other cards (Seismic Assault turns lands into Shock, Raven’s Crime turns lands into Raven’s Crime, and Scroll Rack turns lands into Oona’s Grace).

What is the greatest shared weakness of engine-based strategies? Aggressively linear strategies! This includes both aggro and combo; because they put a clock on their opponent, aggro and combo decks can race a slower player to the finish before they are able to set up their Loam engine or their Birthing Pod chain. As with any deck, building an engine deck requires a knowledge of the turns in which your game plan is likely to take over and figuring out if you have to race or disrupt the strategies that are faster than you. In the case of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, things like counter magic and board sweepers are common. With Birthing Pod, having an aggressive midrange strategy backed up by life gain through Kitchen Finks or Huntmaster of the Fells is a great way to stabilize against aggro while presenting a threatening clock against combo.

Closing Anecdote

Before we go, I’d like to provide one of my favorite examples of an engine in action (this is not something that actually happened, but it is not out of the realm of possibility!):

In a game of Commander, I’m playing my Sedris, the Traitor King reanimator deck. Anyone who knows me knows that my favorite card in the deck is Cauldron Dance, bar none. It’s like Sneak Attack and Shallow Grave rolled into one awesome package! Anyway, with seven cards in hand at the beginning of my combat step, I cast Cauldron Dance, putting Thraximundar into play from my hand and returning Wrexial, the Risen Deep from my graveyard to the battlefield. I swing at an opponent with both creatures, forcing him to sacrifice his only blocker, a Kokusho, the Evening Star. After blockers are declared, I ninjitsu Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni onto the battlefield tapped and attacking and return Thraximundar to my hand. Combat damage is dealt, and I put both abilities on the stack, one targeting Kokusho, the Evening Star and the other targeting the Spelltwine in that player’s graveyard. I cast the Spelltwine targeting the Cruel Ultimatum in my graveyard and the Radiate in another player’s graveyard. I cast the Cruel Ultimatum and target it with the Radiate, making each of my opponents discard three cards and lose five life while I draw nine cards, gain fifteen life and return three creatures from my graveyard to my hand, while also reanimating my opponent’s Kokusho, the Evening Star. At the end of my turn, I return Wrexial the Risen Deep to my hand.

Did you catch all that?


Show Me Your Generals: Animar, Soul of Wit

Last week I wrote about the multitude of Animar Commander decks I have seen played at the Encounter since I started playing the format, specifically mentioning that I would someday like to take a look at the Animar, Soul of Elements deck piloted by Ian Evans. For those of you who don’t know Ian, he is one of the few Encounter regulars packing about as many Commander decks as myself (my recent Glissa deck put me back in the lead). His Commanders include staples like Animar, Gisela, and Hanna, as well as less-used Commanders like Empress Galina (in merfolk tribal, no less!) However, even when his Commanders is one of the more popular legendary creatures in the format, his decks regularly surprise me with odd card choices and neat interactions. As such, I would like to spend today’s column talking about the aforementioned Animar deck or, as I like to call it:

Before I delve into Ian’s deck, I would like to correct one mistake made in last week’s article. It was brought to my attention that there have actually been six Animar decks at the Encounter since I started playing Commander. I failed to mention the Animar deck piloted by Mark Benning; unlike all the other decks, his is a hyper-competitive Animar combo deck that seeks to win as early as turn three and can do so with great regularity through the use of mana dorks and bounce creatures like Shrieking Drake. I apologize for missing Mark’s deck and thank him for reminding me that I do have people reading my articles.

All right, enough durdling, let’s dig in!

He That is Giddy Thinks the Animar Deck is Fair

Here is Ian’s list:

Gatecrashers

Creatures (36)
1x Æ ther Adept
1x Aphetto Alchemist
1x Archivist
1x Cinder Pyromancer
1x Cunning Sparkmage
1x Deadeye Navigator
1x Dwarven Patrol
1x Goblin Medics
1x Goblin Sharpshooter
1x Horned Kavu
1x Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
1x Laboratory Maniac
1x Malignus
1x Man-o’-War
1x Marsh Viper
1x Mist Raven
1x Mystic Snake
1x Nephalia Smuggler
1x Nettle Sentinel
1x Nightshade Peddler
1x Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind
1x Pestermite
1x Primeval Titan
1x Prodigal Pyromancer
1x Prodigal Sorcerer
1x Razorfin Hunter
1x Rootwater Hunter
1x Seeker of Skybreak
1x Shocker
1x Shrieking Drake
1x Suq’Ata Firewalker
1x Tandem Lookout
1x Thornwind Faeries
1x Veteran Explorer
1x Vulshok Sorcerer
1x Zealous Conscripts
Lands (36)
1x Dryad Arbor
1x Evolving Wilds
1x Faerie Conclave
3x Forest
1x Ghitu Encampment
1x Gruul Turf
1x Hinterland Harbor
6x Island
1x Izzet Boilerworks
1x Kazandu Refuge
1x Misty Rainforest
5x Mountain
1x Mountain Valley
1x Reliquary Tower
1x Rootbound Crag
1x Rupture Spire
1x Scalding Tarn
1x Shivan Oasis
1x Simic Growth Chamber
1x Treetop Village
1x Tropical Island
1x Vivid Crag
1x Vivid Creek
1x Vivid Grove
1x Volcanic Island
Enchantments (15)
1x Aluren
1x Arcane Teachings
1x Earthcraft
1x Equilibrium
1x Fertile Ground
1x Fire Whip
1x Fires of Yavimaya
1x Furious Assault
1x Hermetic Study
1x Intruder Alarm
1x Kyren Negotiations
1x Presence of Gond
1x Quicksilver Dagger
1x Splinter Twin
1x Squirrel Nest
Instant (1)
1x Artifact Mutation
Artifacts (8)
1x Basilisk Collar
1x Gorgon Flail
1x Gruul Signet
1x Izzet Signet
1x Lightning Greaves
1x Quietus Spike
1x Simic Signet
1x Sol Ring
Sorceries (3)
1x Hull Breach
1x Regrowth
1x Restock

There’s a lot to take in with a deck like this. First and foremost; Ian tends to build ridiculously silly combo decks, and this list is no exception. A number of competitive-caliber combos exist in this list; Aluren, Niv-mizzet-Curiosity, Kiki-mite, Nest-craft, and Intruder Alarm-Presence of Gond are all represented. What makes this deck particularly spicy is how Ian chose to supplement these combos; instead of adding a mass amount of tutors and card draw, he filled the remaining slots with pingers (creatures that tap to deal 1 damage to target creature or player), an ability that synergizes very well with things like Tandem Lookout and Basilisk Collar.

I spoke last week of the importance of redundancy in Commander. Unfortunately for Ian, there exists such a thing as too much redundancy, which is where I think his list suffers most. Too many of his cards do nothing because other cards in his deck do the same thing, only better. Hermetic Study seems like a pretty terrible card when your board is Cunning Sparkmage, Suq’Ata Firewalker, and Cinder Pyromancer! As such, let us cut the wheat from the chaff and see if we can’t improve on Ian’s framework.

The Play’s the Ping

First up, the lands:

Dryad Arbor – For the thousandth time, no! There is no potential upside to this card that would lead me to include it over a basic Forest, as Wrath effects are some of the most commonly-played spells in Commander.

Replacement: Forest

Faerie Conclave, Ghitu Encampment, Treetop Village – Man lands are great when the name of the game is equipment. Unfortunately for Ian, the name of the game in his deck is enchantments, which do not work well when the creature disappears at the end of turn. There is not enough inherent power in any of these lands to warrant their inclusion.

With that said, Raging Ravine is actually good on its own, as it can grow to ridiculous proportions with little to no effort. As for the other two slots, a basic Forest and a Sulfur Falls should fit the bill.

Replacements: Forest, Raging Ravine, Sulfur Falls

An Overflow of Good Converts to Bad

Well, that was easy; now it’s time to discuss some spells!

Arcane Teachings, Fire Whip, Hermetic Study, Kyren Negotiations – All of these cards grant the ability “Tap: This creature deals 1 damage to target creature or player.” The problem with this is that most of Ian’s creatures already have this ability, making all of these cards unnecessarily redundant. The only reason Quicksilver Dagger doesn’t make the list is that it draws Ian a card upon activation.

Speaking of drawing cards, enchantments like Ophidian’s Eye work very well in a deck full of creatures that tap to deal damage. As of right now, there are five cards that grant the “Ophidian effect” to other creatures: Curiosity, Keen Sense, Ophidian’s Eye, Snake Umbra, Tandem Lookout. Seeing as Ian is already running one of these, we can easily include the other four as replacements for the four cards we’re taking out!

Replacements: Curiosity, Keen Sense, Ophidian’s Eye, Snake Umbra

Fertile Ground – I understand that having the appropriate mana can sometimes be an issue when one does not have access to a ton of fetch- and dual lands, but putting yourself down a card just to fix your mana feels wrong in an Animar deck. This slot could easily be something that wins the game rather than a do-nothing enchantment!

What better way to win the game than Triumph of the Hordes? With Marsh Viper getting the axe due to the exclusion of the pinger-granting enchantments, Ian still needs a way to win with a lulz-y poison kill, and casting Triumph of the Hordes onto a board full of pingers is a great way to instantly kill one’s enemies!

Replacement: Triumph of the Hordes

Furious Assault – The low cost of this spell almost makes me want to keep it in, but the fact that it can’t target creatures ruins the card for me. Barring shenanigans with Aluren and Shrieking Drake, I just don’t see Furious Assault being very good on its own.

Warstorm Surge, on the other hand, is an excellent card! It still allows for the combo kill with Aluren and Shrieking Drake while having the added benefit of being able to hit creatures on the way down, making Deadeye Navigator that much more deadly. The fact that it doesn’t trigger for your opponents is why it gets the nod over Pandemonium.

Replacement: Warstorm Surge

Restock – Restock is a fine card that has passed its prime. Back when it was first printed, a double Regrowth was the bee’s knees. Since its printing, cards like Eternal Witness, All Suns’ Dawn, Praetor’s Counsel, and Creeping Renaissance have outclassed Restock in terms of inherent power. This is not to say that I think Restock is unplayable in Commander; I just think there are other cards that should be considered before it.

That being said, Ian is playing cards like Horned Kavu and Man-o’-War, and that screams synergy with Eternal Witnes. There is rarely a green deck I build that doesn’t want Eternal Witness; it is the most powerful Gravedigger variant ever printed and a Commander staple for good reason!

Replacement: Eternal Witness

Combo is a Fearful Thing

Now that we’ve discussed the spells, it’s time to get to the meat of Ian’s deck: the creatures!

Aphetto Alchemist, Seeker of Skybreak – I appreciate the potential of these cards in tandem with cards like Archivist and Niv-Mizzet, but I don’t think the upside of drawing an additional card outweighs the cost of having a do-nothing creature that takes a turn to really impact the board. If Ian is in the market for an effect like this, he should look to non-creature cards to provide the benefit.

Enter Mind Over Matter, everyone’s (least) favorite combo-enabler. With Niv-Mizzet and Mind Over Matter in play, the world is your oyster, and everyone else gets to eat shit waffles. The fact that we’re adding redundant combo pieces like Snake Umbra and Curiosity make Mind Over Matter that much more potent in this list, turning every pinger into a possible three-card combo kill.

Thousand-Year Elixir is suspiciously absent from Ian’s list. Granting haste to activated abilities in a deck that relies on activated abilities to win seems like a no-brainer to me, and having the ability to untap any of Ian’s creatures is just icing on the deliciously evil cake.

Replacements: Mind Over Matter, Thousand-Year Elixir

Dwarven Patrol, Goblin Medics, Marsh Viper, Nettle Sentinel – All of these creatures are grouped together due to the fact that they all lose their ability to do anything by virtue of removing the pinger-granting enchantments from the deck. Even with said enchantments in the deck, most of these cards have little potential upside to warrant their inclusion. Commander is a 99-card singleton format, so each card has to impact that board state in some way or at least progress your game plan toward its logical conclusion. When these cards are good, they’re only marginal, but when they’re bad, they’re the worst cards one could possibly hope to draw.

As such, let us replace them with the pingers that Ian seems to have missed when building this deck! I noticed in perusing Ian’s list that he tried to keep all of his pinging creatures at converted mana cost of three or less, probably to synergize properly with Aluren. However, he failed to include Vithian Stinger, Zuran Spellcaster, and everyone’s favorite Weird, Gelectrode!

In addition, I think Ian would do well to include Frostwielder in his list. Though it costs four mana, the ability to exile a creature is very powerful in Commander, and putting a Basilisk Collar on Frostwielder is almost like having Swords to Plowshares on a stick (and we all know how good Swords to Plowshares is!)

Replacements: Frostwielder, Gelectrode, Vithian Stinger, Zuran Spellcaster

Malignus – Let’s be perfectly clear: I love Malignus. There is nothing funnier to me than having a Flayer of the Hatebound in play when I cast Cauldron Dance to bring this monster back from my graveyard and smack someone in the face for death. However, outside of combo shenanigans, I just don’t like this card for what it is; a giant vanilla beater. Even though I’ve suggested Ian add Warstorm Surge to his list, his opponents’ life totals are irrelevant to his overall game plan, so Malignus seems unnecessary to his strategy.

What is necessary, however, is Soul of the Harvest. Having already suggested Mind Over Matter and taking note of the fact that Aluren and Laboratory Maniac are both in Ian’s list, Soul of the Harvest can easily give Ian a win out of nowhere when Shrieking Drake is involved, combo killing the table by having Ian draw out his deck and drop Laboratory Maniac for the win. The fact that it is a 6/6 trampler just makes it all the more appealing.

Replacement: Soul of the Harvest

Mist Raven – Bounce creatures are great with Animar, as they provide a way to grow your Commander with relative ease. The problem with Mist Raven, however, is the fact that Ian already has a number of three-or-less costed bounce creatures to auto-win with Aluren, and Mist Raven simply doesn’t do enough for its cost.

Enter Venser, Shaper Savant. He’s a Mist Raven with all upside, bouncing creatures, lands, spells; whatever Ian wishes! Moreover, Venser can combo with Deadeye Navigator to Capsize-lock opponents in the late game.

Replacement: Venser, Shaper Savant

Nephalia Smuggler – In a dedicated blink deck, Nephalia Smuggler is the conductor of the train to Value Town. In Ian’s deck, he’s a do-nothing card that can combo with Intruder Alarm at a very inefficient price. He does what Deadeye Navigator does for a higher cost and with less upside.

Since we’ve already added Venser to the list of “unfair things to do with Deadeye Navigator,” we may as well suggest Draining Whelk to complete the trifecta. With a few counters on him, Animar will insure that the whelk is able to be cast with reasonable efficiency.

Replacement: Draining Whelk

Shocker – In a world where every Magic player doesn’t think like a five-year-old, I hope that Shocker gets the respect he deserves. As for us; we live in a world where everyone giggles when you “give someone the Shocker.” Ian was running the Shocker to combo with the enchantments that grant the pinging ability as a combo with Niv-Mizzet but, since we’ve removed said enchantments, his role has become null and void.

Deceiver Exarch is suspiciously absent from Ian’s list. He already has Zealous Conscripts and Pestermite to combo with Kiki-Jiki and Splinter Twin, so adding the last of the “ha-ha-I-just-killed-you-with-a-broken-combo” creatures should be a no-brainer!

Replacement: Deceiver Exarch

Veteran Explorer – I love me some Veteran Explorer. In Legacy, he lets you cast Grave Titan! In Commander, he makes everyone love you when secretly you’re just ramping up to that Primeval Titan with a Rite of Replication to kick the next turn. The problem, then, is that Ian doesn’t want to ramp in his deck. His is a combo deck; as such, he should leave the exploring to the dedicated ramp deck.

In the message sending me his list, Ian mentioned that he wanted to find room for Guilded Lotus in his 99 for the combo potential. For those of you who don’t know, if you have a Deceiver Exarch bonded to a Deadeye Navigator with a Gilded Lotus in play, you have infinite mana of any combination of colors. Here’s how it works:

1.)    Tap your Gilded Lotus for UUU.
2.)    Pay 1U to flicker Deceiver Exarch/Pestermite/Zealous Conscripts. (You have U floating.)
3.)    The creature re-enters the battlefield, untapping Gilded Lotus. (You have U floating.)
4.)    Tap Gilded Lotus for any color of mana. (You have XXXU floating.)
5.)    Pay 1U to flicker Deceiver Exarch/Pestermite/Zealous Conscripts. (You have XX floating.)
6.)    Repeat steps 1 – 5 ad infinitum.

For every two activations of Gilded Lotus, you net two mana of any one color. What’s even better about this combo is that it instantly wins Ian the game with Soul of the Harvest in play, as he draws out his entire deck, then casts Laboratory Maniac before drawing into an empty library. You know; for the lulz.

Replacement: Gilded Lotus

Fairwell, Fair Foresthead

Here is the updated list:

Gatecrashers v2.0

Creatures (34)
1x Æ ther Adept
1x Archivist
1x Cinder Pyromancer
1x Cunning Sparkmage
1x Deadeye Navigator
1x Deceiver Exarch
1x Draining Whelk
1x Eternal Witness
1x Frostwielder
1x Gelectrode
1x Goblin Sharpshooter
1x Horned Kavu
1x Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
1x Laboratory Maniac
1x Man-o’-War
1x Mystic Snake
1x Nightshade Peddler
1x Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind
1x Pestermite
1x Primeval Titan
1x Prodigal Pyromancer
1x Prodigal Sorcerer
1x Razorfin Hunter
1x Rootwater Hunter
1x Shrieking Drake
1x Soul of the Harvest
1x Suq’Ata Firewalker
1x Tandem Lookout
1x Thornwind Faeries
1x Venser, Shaper Savant
1x Vithian Stinger
1x Vulshok Sorcerer
1x Zealous Conscripts
1x Zuran Spellcaster
Lands (36)
1x Evolving Wilds
5x Forest
1x Gruul Turf
1x Hinterland Harbor
6x Island
1x Izzet Boilerworks
1x Kazandu Refuge
1x Misty Rainforest
5x Mountain
1x Mountain Valley
1x Raging Ravine
1x Reliquary Tower
1x Rootbound Crag
1x Rupture Spire
1x Scalding Tarn
1x Shivan Oasis
1x Simic Growth Chamber
1x Sulfur Falls
1x Tropical Island
1x Vivid Crag
1x Vivid Creek
1x Vivid Grove
1x Volcanic Island
Enchantments (15)
1x Aluren
1x Curiosity
1x Earthcraft
1x Equilibrium
1x Fires of Yavimaya
1x Intruder Alarm
1x Keen Sense
1x Mind Over Matter
1x Ophidian’s Eye
1x Presence of Gond
1x Quicksilver Dagger
1x Snake Umbra
1x Splinter Twin
1x Squirrel Nest
1x Warstorm Surge
Instant (1)
1x Artifact Mutation
Artifacts (10)
1x Basilisk Collar
1x Gilded Lotus
1x Gorgon Flail
1x Gruul Signet
1x Izzet Signet
1x Lightning Greaves
1x Quietus Spike
1x Simic Signet
1x Sol Ring
1x Thousand-Year Elixir
Sorceries (3)
1x Hull Breach
1x Regrowth
1x Triumph of the Hordes

Basically, I’ve cut all of the redundant enchantments for an effect of which I think Ian’s deck was sorely in need (card draw) and added some more protection in the form of countermagic as well as adding the game’s most ridiculous combo piece (Mind Over Matter) which should have been in his deck in the first place.

Until next time, I leave you with this message: go out there and kill everyone with poison!

Editor’s Note: Shortly after this article was uploaded, David Malafarina was picked up by the US government and sent to Guantanamo Bay for conspiracy to poison everyone in the world.


Show Me Your Generals: Reaper King

Let me tell you a little something about myself.

I love autumn. Where I’m from, autumn isn’t just about a return to classes or the end of the joy of summer. While people living in cities have just Halloween and Thankgiving to look forward to, when you live in the suburbs of a small city and the surrounding area is mostly farmland, autumn brings a whole slew of fun activities that the metropolitan citizens have to drive a few hours out of the city to take part in. When I was younger, I used to look forward to the various corn mazes that would appear in the farms to the north, and every so often my family would take a trip out to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to enjoy scenic train rides, haunted hayrides, and even pumpkin catapult-tossing (it’s exactly as redneck-y as it sounds).

More than anything, though; I loved the scarecrows.

I was (and still am) a bit of an odd-ball. I was the kind of kid who had a million books on insects, yet was deathly terrified to touch a real one. I was into the natural sciences, yet I didn’t really like to be outside. I just thought scarecrows were cool; they were like the autumn equivalent of snowmen!

Who was my favorite Wizard of Oz character? The Scarecrow! Who was my favorite Batman villain? The Scarecrow! What is my favorite creature type in Magic?

Zombies, of course! I hate scarecrows in Magic, and there’s one upon which I can rest all the blame.

Don’t Fear the Reaper (Obvious Joke is Obvious)

Okay, maybe you can fear him a little.

Reaper King is a beast of a commander. While other five-color decks use namby-pamby commanders like Progenitus or Child of Alara, the Reaper King player drops his commander on the table and says, “Alright, who’s ready to have some real fun.” While one can set out to make a Reaper King deck based solely on good cards and only use the Reaper for his colors, the best Reaper King decks actively seek to cast and get value out of the King. Let’s break down what makes him the king of five-color generals.

1.) His casting cost, both for its cheapness and how expensive it is. He is a 6/6 for five mana with a converted mana cost of ten, meaning he can do stupid things with cards that care about the converted mana cost of your spells, like Maelstrom Nexus, while also being a cheap beater on par with cards like Spiritmonger.

2.) He’s an artifact, which means there are plenty of cards that care about his supertype, like Mirrorworks, Sculpting Steel, and Phyrexian Metamorph. Why am I only referring to copy effects? Well, that brings me to my final point…

3.) He has the ability to be a repeatable Vindicate. Decks that can fully utilize the Reaper King’s ability to nuke any and all permanents are going to be the most threatening five-color decks around, making clone and blinking effects a top priority for any Reaper King deck.

With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at the following Reaper King Commander deck, submitted by my friend, Matt Jackson:

Reaper King

Creatures (29)
1x Antler Skulkin
1x Blazethorn Scarecrow
1x Chainbreaker
1x Changeling Berserker
1x Changeling Hero
1x Eternal Witness
1x Galepowder Mage
1x Grand Architect
1x Grim Poppet
1x Inferno Titan
1x Lockjaw Snapper
1x Lurebound Scarecrow
1x Magister Sphinx
1x Mirror Entity
1x Mothdust Changeling
1x Pili-Pala
1x Primeval Titan
1x Rattleblaze Scarecrow
1x Reveillark
1x Scarecrone
1x Scrapbasket
1x Scuttlemutt
1x Shapesharer
1x Sharuum the Hegemon
1x Shell Skulkin
1x Tatterkite
1x Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
1x Watchwing Scarecrow
1x Wicker Warcrawler
Lands (38)
1x Ancient Ampitheater
1x Arcane Sanctum
1x Auntie’s Hovel
1x Boseiju, Who Shelters All
1x Command Tower
1x Crumbling Necropolis
1x Crosis’s Catacombs
1x Crystal Quarry
1x Darigaaz’s Caldera
1x Dromar’s Cavern
1x Exotic Orchard
2x Forest
1x Gilt-Leaf Palace
3x Island
1x Jungle Shrine
1x Mosswort Bridge
3x Mountain
3x Plains
1x Rith’s Grove
1x Savage Lands
1x Seaside Citadel
1x Secluded Glen
3x Swamp
1x Treva’s Ruins
1x Vivid Crag
1x Vivid Creek
1x Vivid Grove
1x Vivid Marsh
1x Vivid Meadow
Instants (8)
1x Brainstorm
1x Counterspell
1x Cryptic Command
1x Hinder
1x Oblation
1x Path to Exile
1x Spell Crumple
1x Swords to Plowshares
Enchantments (8)
1x Conspiracy
1x Cover of Darkness
1x Descendant’s Path
1x Maelstrom Nexus
1x Oblivion Ring
1x Phyrexian Arena
1x Prismatic Omen
1x Wheel of Sun and Moon
Planeswalkers (3)
1x Chandra, the Firebrand
1x Tezzeret the Seeker
1x Venser, the Sojourner
Sorceries (6)
1x Day of Judgment
1x Decimate
1x Diabolic Tutor
1x Idyllic Tutor
1x Patriarch’s Bidding
1x Praetor’s Counsel
Artifact (7)
1x Birthing Pod
1x Cloudstone Curio
1x Conjurer’s Closet
1x Darksteel Ingot
1x Lightning Greaves
1x Sol Ring
1x Swiftfoot Boots

Matt sent me this list with the caveat that I make this competitive but not broken. He specified that it should not seek to win as quickly as possible, but that as the game progresses the deck should have a lot of inevitability and be able to close out the game. As such, the deck seeks to utilize Reaper King as a value engine, which is why Matt chose to include so many actual scarecrows in the list, as well as a few changelings.

I will be approaching this list from three axes; it needs to be fun, it needs to be powerful, and it needs to be consistent. According to Matt, his playgroup is about as cutthroat as my own, but is prone to not wanting to play if someone’s deck is deemed to powerful. As such, I need to make Matt’s deck “deceptively” powerful.

He’s already given me a clear direction in which he wants to take this list, so I will be continuing along that path with most of my suggestions. As with previous installments of “Show Me Your Generals,” I will only be discussing the cards that I think need to be replaced, to save both myself and my readers the task of having to read how good Primeval Titan is in Commander for the umpteenth time.

King of the Hill (Another Home Run Heading!)

Thirty-eight lands seems like a good number for this deck, as Matt is looking to cast quite a few high-end, high-impact spells with some semblance of regularity. Because the deck is five-color, there isn’t as much room for utility lands as I would like, but Matt is running a high number of colorless creatures so it is not unreasonable to make a few replacements for some “spell” lands.

Boseiju, Who Shelters All – With 14 instants and sorceries, none of which are all that important to resolve, this land just seems like a wasted slot. While I will be suggesting must-counter spells like Rite of Replication, I think this land’s usefulness does not outweigh the tax it puts on a five-color manabase.

Enter Cavern of Souls, Avacyn Restored’s entry into the contest for “Lands Control Players Absolutely Hate.” It is important for Matt that his commander resolve, which means naming “scarecrow” for the Cavern is a huge deal when facing down a mono-blue player, as most blue players can’t actually deal with a resolved Reaper King. On top of that, it makes his commander easier to cast by producing whatever color he’s missing.

Replacement: Cavern of Souls

The Lair Lands – This includes Dromar’s Cavern, Darigaaz’s Caldera, and the ilk. Nevermind that these cards are, in most cases, worse than the Ravnica bounce lands. Every experienced Commander player knows one of the best ways to fight a five-color deck is attacking its manabase, so offering up a juicy target like the Lair lands that actively slow you down is just asking for trouble.

Rather than simply suggest the Ravnica bounce lands, I’d like to fill these slots with a combination of fixing and utility lands. First and foremost, Matt is high on the artifact and creature count and low on recursion, so three of these slots can go to all-stars Buried Ruin, Academy Ruins, and Volrath’s Stronghold, all of which carry a reasonable price tag (money-wise). Since we’re adding three colorless lands to a five-color deck, it’s only appropriate that the other two slots go to City of Brass and Reflecting Pool; both are excellent at fixing mana, and the damage from the City is more or less negligible in a 40-life format.

Replacements: Academy Ruins, Buried Ruin, City of Brass, Reflecting Pool, Volrath’s Stronghold

Outside of these six cards, the rest of Matt’s lands look pretty standard-issue. I especially like his use of the “tribal” lands, as he has a number of changelings to ensure that these lands can come into play untapped, if necessary.

Bow to the King (These Headings are so Easy!)

Now it’s time to discuss the meat of the deck. I am going to leave all of the scarecrows alone; each one is more or less a cheaper Angel of Despair when Reaper King is alive, and I will rarely cut Angel of Despair from any deck that can play it. Most of the changelings will pass through unscathed; though I think one of them could be replaced by clones or other changelings, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Let’s get started, shall we?

Inferno Titan – How did this get in here? Even outside of a Reaper King deck, Inferno Titan rarely makes the cut in any except the most aggressive red decks. Three damage is good but not great and having access to five colors makes me want to replace this with something more powerful.

Sun Titan could find a home in this list, reanimating some of the cheaper scarecrows and opening up the possibility of adding a few other utility permanents in addition to the Oblivion Ring he’s already included in the list. I particularly like it with Scarecrone and Reaper King active, creating a repeatable Vindicate that also cantrips.

Replacement: Sun Titan

Magister Sphinx – Oh, this card. Let me sum up how I feel about this card:

…yeah, suffice to say I don’t really care for Magister Sphinx. Sorin Markov I like, because it can ping off smaller creatures and it is more or less impossible for an opponent to reanimate. I don’t even run this in my Sharuum the Hegemon deck, and that deck runs the Disciple of the Vault/Sculpting Steel combo.

With Sharuum already in Matt’s deck and his general being such a big part of his overall strategy, I’d like to suggest Sphinx Summoner for this slot. It allows him to tutor up Sharuum the Hegemon to reanimate something from his graveyard, or find Reaper King if it’s been tucked into his library. There’s not much more that can be said about this card; it’s just a really solid tutor.

Replacement: Sphinx Summoner

Mothdust Changeling – Yeah, I’m not quite sure what Matt is trying to accomplish with this card. It gives flying, but who gives a flying…you know what. Its body is unimpressive and its effect is more or less irrelevant in the long game, especially since Matt isn’t trying to force through damage on a regular basis.

I see Changeling Berserker and Changeling Hero in Matt’s deck and I’m left wondering what happened to good ol’ Changeling Titan. It provides the same effect as the other two and has a gigantic body to boot. Moreover, tucking Sharuum the Hegemon underneath this card will make any opponent think twice about casting that Wrath of God.

Replacement: Changeling Titan

Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir – While I like this card (and I really like this card), the three blue in its mana cost really kills me. I don’t think I can justify leaving this in Matt’s list, as it doesn’t actually do that much for him outside of keeping his opponents from countering his spells. I make the following suggestion with the caveat that if his playgroup is full of countermagic decks, by all means, keep Teferi in the list.

That being said, where is Chameleon Colossus? The big dumb green beater is the perfect fit for this deck, offering another “scarecrow” while also being a reasonable beatstick. An easy inclusion if I’ve ever seen one.

Replacement: Chameleon Colossus

Chandra, the Firebrand – Once again, I don’t think there are enough instants and sorceries to justify playing this card. While getting double tutors is always fun, Chandra is best when doubling cards like Time Stretch with reasonable frequency, and most of Matt’s targets amount to counterspells, wraths, or Praetor’s Counsel, none of which benefit from doubling.

Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas, on the other hand, does plenty of useful things with Matt’s deck. In fact, this might be one of the best Tezzeret decks outside of Sharuum the Hegemon. He can draw Matt into more scarecrows, or upgrade his scarecrows into monstrous 5/5s that can do battle with even the mightiest of titans. On top of that, his ultimate isn’t completely unreasonable to achieve, and Matt has the requisite number of artifacts to actually make it good.

Replacement: Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas

Decimate – I’ve gone back and forth over my feelings about this card with my final decision coming down to whether or not people in my playgroup are playing a lot of enchantments, as that is the rarest card type to see on the battlefield. With a commander like Reaper King, I don’t think there’s much justification for this card, as Matt already has a high number of permanent-destroying effects.

However, in order for this suggestion to hold water, it is important that Matt be able to protect his commander from dying. As such, I’d like to propose Darksteel Plate as a suitable replacement for the Decimate slot. It’s tutorable with Tezzeret the Seeker and can protect his commander from wrath effects. Not the most exciting of equipment, but it fills a much-needed role in a deck like this.

Replacement: Darksteel Plate

Diabolic Tutor – Come on, man! Is Demonic Tutor really too expensive for you? The only justification for this pick over something else is cascade, and I don’t think Maelstrom Nexus is enough to warrant this tutor over the strictly better Demonic variety.

Replacement: Demonic Tutor

Brainstorm – Brainstorm has to be one of the most misunderstood cards in the history of Magic. I see it in a lot of Commander decks; when I do, I immediately check to see how often the player shuffles his or her deck. A lot of players think that because Brainstorm is such a defining card in Legacy that it must be a powerful card by its own merits, when its actual value comes from the ability to reset the top of your library with some degree of regularity. It’s the same reason that I don’t immediately jam Jace, the Mind Sculptor into every blue Commander deck, and I bring all this up because Matt does not have a deck that wants Brainstorm.

What Matt does have is a deck that wants to win with Pili-Pala and Grand Architect. For those of you who don’t know, the combo works like this: Grand Architect turns an untapped Pili-Pala blue, then taps the Pili-Pala to produce two colorless mana. The Pili-Pala then uses this two mana to untap itself, producing a mana of any color. Then the process is repeated ad infinitum, producing infinite mana.

What’s the best thing Matt can do with infinite mana? Deadeye Navigator!

I’ve found that players tend to look the other way when it comes to infinite combos that require more than two cards to “go off,” so requiring a grand total of four cards to go off seems like a reasonable hoop through which Matt has to jump. For reference, these four cards are Reaper King, Deadeye Navigator, Pili-Pala (paired with Deadeye Navigator), and Grand Architect. Once the combo has been assembled, Matt can simply destroy all of his opponents’ permanents! BOOM!

Replacement: Deadeye Navigator

Cryptic Command – Much like Teferi, I really like this card, but the three mana in its cost seals its fate as “too hard to cast” for this deck. On top of that, it’s a reactive card with a prohibitive cost, meaning that there will be plenty of times where Matt will have this in his hand and be unable to cast it at the necessary moment.

As with the Brainstorm slot, I’d like to replace this card with something that instantly puts Matt ahead of his opponents when not outright killing them. This suggestion is courtesy of my friend Joe Milia, who showed me just how busted Rite of Replication is with Reaper King. Rite is on the cusp of being ban-worthy in Commander, spared the banhammer only for the fact that it does exactly what Sheldon Menery and the rest of the Rules Committee feels Commander is about. With Reaper King, a kicked Rite of Replication equals twenty-five Vindicates; though it is susceptible to spot removal, I think the possibility of destroying twenty-five permanents makes this more than reasonable to include in Matt’s list.

Replacement: Rite of Replication

Cover of Darkness – So many cards that I love are showing up today! Cover of Darkness has made the cut in a number of my Zombie decks, but those were lord-driven beatdown decks where the creatures actually dealt a reasonable amount of damage with each swing. This Reaper King deck does no such thing.

Patriarch’s Bidding intrigues me. It makes me want to include some sort of sacrifice outlet to set up a big turn where Matt sacrifices all of his scarecrows, then uses Patriarch’s Bidding to bring them all back into play to destroy a ton of permanents. With that in mind, Greater Good seems like the prime target, as it is both a sacrifice outlet and a way to draw into more scarecrows that Matt can discard in preparation for the giant Patriarch’s Bidding. It also protects his Primeval Titan from copy effects and his commander from getting tucked by Condemn or Spin into Myth.

Replacement: Greater Good

Prismatic Omen – Another card I will rarely cut from five-color decks. However, Reaper King is not your normal five-color deck, as most of its creatures are colorless, and even Reaper King himself doesn’t require that Matt have every color of mana at his disposal.

Having already suggested cutting both triple-blue cards in Matt’s list, this slot becomes more about helping Matt cast his scarecrows rather than casting his other spells. As such, Urza’s Incubator will help this deck to go off the rails, making some of his scarecrows free and the rest ridiculously cheap. While the scarecrows don’t combo with Cloudstone Curio (due to them being artifacts), this does make bouncing the champion Changelings back and forth that much easier, which can get absolutely disgusting with Reaper King on the battlefield.

Replacement: Urza’s Incubator

Wheel of Sun and Moon – I have to admit; I’m at a loss as to why Matt is including this in his list. It’s semi-reasonable graveyard hate against people playing dredge or reanimator, but I have this sneaking suspicion that Matt is targeting himself with this to rebuy his creatures, which is a non-bo with Praetor’s Counsel and Scarecrone.

If this is the case, then Karmic Guide should solve all of Matt’s problems. It serves the same function as Sharuum with the added benefits of being able to return Grand Architect or Primeval Titan, and being absolutely disgusting with Reveillark.

Replacement: Karmic Guide

I Just Can’t Wait to be King (I Swear I’m Done Now)

Here is the updated list:

Reaper King v2.0
Creatures (31)
1x Antler Skulkin
1x Blazethorn Scarecrow
1x Chainbreaker
1x Chameleon Colossus
1x Changeling Berserker
1x Changeling Hero
1x Changeling Titan
1x Deadeye Navigator
1x Eternal Witness
1x Galepowder Mage
1x Grand Architect
1x Grim Poppet
1x Karmic Guide
1x Lockjaw Snapper
1x Lurebound Scarecrow
1x Mirror Entity
1x Pili-Pala
1x Primeval Titan
1x Rattleblaze Scarecrow
1x Reveillark
1x Scarecrone
1x Scrapbasket
1x Scuttlemutt
1x Shapesharer
1x Sharuum the Hegemon
1x Shell Skulkin
1x Sphinx Summoner
1x Sun Titan
1x Tatterkite
1x Watchwing Scarecrow
1x Wicker Warcrawler
Lands (38)
1x Academy Ruins
1x Ancient Ampitheater
1x Arcane Sanctum
1x Auntie’s Hovel
1x Buried Ruin
1x Cavern of Souls
1x City of Brass
1x Command Tower
1x Crumbling Necropolis
1x Crystal Quarry
1x Exotic Orchard
2x Forest
1x Gilt-Leaf Palace
3x Island
1x Jungle Shrine
1x Mosswort Bridge
3x Mountain
3x Plains
1x Reflecting Pool
1x Savage Lands
1x Seaside Citadel
1x Secluded Glen
3x Swamp
1x Vivid Crag
1x Vivid Creek
1x Vivid Grove
1x Vivid Marsh
1x Vivid Meadow
1x Volrath’s Stronghold
Instants (6)
1x Counterspell
1x Hinder
1x Oblation
1x Path to Exile
1x Spell Crumple
1x Swords to Plowshares
Enchantments (6)
1x Conspiracy
1x Descendant’s Path
1x Greater Good
1x Maelstrom Nexus
1x Oblivion Ring
1x Phyrexian Arena
Planeswalkers (3)
1x Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas
1x Tezzeret the Seeker
1x Venser, the Sojourner
Sorceries (6)
1x Day of Judgment
1x Demonic Tutor
1x Idyllic Tutor
1x Patriarch’s Bidding
1x Praetor’s Counsel
1x Rite of Replication
Artifact (9)
1x Birthing Pod
1x Cloudstone Curio
1x Conjurer’s Closet
1x Darksteel Ingot
1x Darksteel Plate
1x Lightning Greaves
1x Sol Ring
1x Swiftfoot Boots
1x Urza’s Incubator

There’s not much to say about this deck that I haven’t already discussed. The new cards add a bit more resilience to the deck while also providing the possibility of combo kills in the late game, without forcing the deck to have to combo off as quickly as possible in order to win. Cards like Tezzeret and Birthing Pod are all-stars, both tutoring up all the scarecrows and triggering Reaper King’s ability for free, while cards like Venser and Conjurer’s Closet give the deck the potential for free triggers. I’m very interested in playing a few games against Matt with my decks to see how they stack up against this list; even his original list seems pretty solid.

In more general terms, when it comes to optimizing your Commander deck it’s important to make sure that your key cards are easily accessible and can be protected. In my Ghave, Guru of Spores deck, cards like Academy Rector and Eternal Witness are necessary in order to make sure that stuff like Cathars’ Crusade or Glare of Subdual can be easily accessed and brought back when destroyed. The most common thing I see in struggling Commander lists are cards like Matt’s Brainstorm; while it’s a powerful card in the abstract, it doesn’t actually do anything to further Matt’s game plan and he’s not using the card to its maximum potential. Compare that to a card like Conspiracy; the card is considerably less powerful than Brainstorm, yet it’s utilized fully in a deck such as this that cares about creature types.

Overall, it’s important to make sure that your cards actually do something when you’re looking for things to cut from your decks. Sure, Grave Pact and Butcher of Malakir may be awesome with an active Ghave, but if you’re already running Wrath of God and Damnation, do you really need to include both of them? When you run into these situations, your best option is to look at which card your deck can utilize more fully. In this case, I saw that Butcher being a creature made it better in my deck with cards like Survival of the Fittest and Genesis, so I ended up cutting Grave Pact to make room for other cards I needed to add to the deck.

However, what’s most important is to make sure you’re playing cards you actually like. I briefly threw Sundering Titan into my Sharuum the Hegemon deck before realizing that I utterly despise the card and immediately pulled it out in favor of a fun card like Sharding Sphinx. If you’re not able to play with the cards you like, then why not just play 100-card Vintage and play only the best cards? Commander is about playing the cards you love to play with, having fun with your friends, and doing lots of stupid stuff that just doesn’t fly in competitive Magic.

And don’t be scared to be a little mean every now and then. Your friends won’t fault you for killing them with Pili-Pala. I promise.