February 19, 2015

Buzzword Killer


Giving something a name is a powerful way to create discussion. Words like "love" and "schadenfreude" give emotions and feelings a singular point of reference. Abstract notions can be distilled into words like "liberty" and "tyranny." Having a name for something allows it to be conveyed easier and, therefore, talked about in more meaningful ways.

Brainstorm | Art by Willian Murai

The last time I named something it was to better convey a multitude of ideas as a single concept: active mitigation. In essence, it's all about simultaneously being prepared to disrupt opponents who slow down the game (with powerful cards and strategies) while advancing the game by dealing damage and otherwise attacking proactively. There's some finesse and details involved, and it's worth a follow-up look later this year, but that's the gist.

Today, I want to give another abstract set of interactions a name.

Say My Name, Say My Name

I want to start with where I ended last week's article on two-card awesome:

My favorite two-card combo is Deadeye Navigator and Mangara of Corondor.

While peanut butter goes with many things, like Deadeye Navigator, my favorite jelly to pair it with is raspberry. You know what I love about raspberry jelly? It's sweeter than raspberries, which is something I see as a bit of a drawback on that tart berry. Mangara is the raspberry jelly to Deadeye Navigator's peanut butter. Put Mangara's ability on the stack, activate Deadeye Navigator's ability on Mangara, and watch your opponent's eyes narrow in contempt as Mangara fails to join his or her target permanent in permanent exile. Now there's no sour taste at all!

Deadeye Navigator, Mangara, and Thousand-Year Elixir is like adding bananas to the mix. ETB shenanigans are Deadeye Navigator's specialty and so much fun the deck practically formed itself…much like PB&J must have as I'm certain not even da Vinci and Tesla could have created something so incredible. Temur Sabertooth salivates.

Roon of the Hidden Realm and Mistmeadow Witch's abilities can also be used similarly but also offensively with Containment Priest. Since their targets return at the beginning of the end step, Sundial of the Infinite can make those abilities permanent as well. Angel of the Dire Hour, Luminate Primordial, and Phyrexian Ingester, and even Flickerwisp, enjoy exiling too. Coiling Oracle, Eternal Witness, Fertilid, Fierce Empath, Cryptic Annelid, Fathom Mage, Karmic Guide, Solemn Simulacrum, Soul of the Harvest, [autocard]Prime Speaker Zegana, and Sphinx of Uthuun offer repeated card advantage. In this deck, even the Djinn of Wishes is willing to bargain for more wishes. And since Twilight Shepherd made the list, I couldn't leave out Magus of the Disk. I'd go on but limits. So enjoy the PB&J trifle, layered with cake, chocolate, and bananas. Dig in!

Looverse's Tactical Exile

COMMANDER: Derevi, Empyrial Tactician

99 Cards

Larry loves his Deadeye Navigator and flicker effects. While Mangara of Corondor is the centerpiece of his duo, it's really the Navigator that's putting in the work. With plenty of other creatures packing "enters the battlefield" abilities, there is rarely a moment when Deadeye Navigator isn't unleashing something awesome.

I should know: I built a deck with it before it was even released.

Shortly after I had my hands on the card I began to discover its potential far exceeded my expectations. In nearly any Commander deck using blue, it became a powerhouse engine unto itself, and I found myself using it so often it became the card I wanted to get to the most when I knew it was in a deck.

In just a few months it was clearly taking over games, even when it was answered shortly after it arrived. By the time it was wiped away, the damage—the advantage it created for me—had been done. After creating and later dismantling what I'd argue is the most powerful Commander deck I've ever built, I decided it was time to set aside Deadeye Navigator. I couldn't envision any creature with an "enters the battlefield" trigger that I would play in Commander that also wouldn't be too advantageous alongside the Navigator for my tastes, so I eschewed it altogether.

Deadeye Navigator isn't alone in this regard of being a card that can become a combo with almost anything else. It's part of why Gifts Ungiven and Recurring Nightmare are on the banned list of cards for Commander: both of those cards have plenty of unhealthy uses, even if players intentionally avoid the worst-case scenarios.

The name I came across for when a card overperforms in a variety of decks, despite intentions otherwise, is "harmonic synergy."

Some of you really like these types of cards, and some of you have never run into the types of crazy situations I've found Deadeye Navigator in. I can understand if you feel a perspective of one isn't enough, so let me call in some bigger cannons.

Trick Jarrett, one of the longtime web and social overlords behind the scenes at Wizards of the Coast, has railed against Deadeye Navigator, too. His experiences mirror many of my own, with constant bumps into its terrifying potential. (And, in full disclosure, DailyMTG.com editor Blake Rasmussen feels the opposite.)

More importantly, harmonic synergy isn't just about Deadeye Navigator and the theoretical potential of cards on the Commander banned list: it's a concept that applies to all sorts of cards. Trick may have given me the name as a suggestion, but it was born of a Pro Tour Fate Reforged discussion with Randy Buehler.

Randy, if you aren't aware, is Pro Tour champion and Hall of Famer, former R&D developer, and longtime event commentator who's currently firing in the Vintage Super League and has an uncanny knack to get a draft going just about anywhere.

He also plays Commander, as you can surmise by his inclusion here.

After playing several games with his Norin the Wary deck after hours at Pro Tour Fate Reforged, I heard him exclaim something to the effect of, "All right, I'm taking Purphoros, God of the Forge out."

I perked up between my draft games and that's where Randy explained in brief. I got additional details from him after the event:

I basically have everything I could find that triggers when creatures come into play (which in mono-red isn't all that much) and then lots of ways to make extra creatures come into play. Lots of those are Goblins that make Goblin tokens, so I have ways to enhance an army of tokens, too, and then what little utility and card drawing I can scrape together in mono-red.

The combo with Purphoros and Norin is very good, plus Purphoros is really good with the rest of my deck too and really hard for anyone to interact with. After winning with it three of three times I played it, I realized no one but me was having any fun, and I was having less fun each time, so I pulled it from the deck. Now I look forward to seeing what the rest of my deck can do. (Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker/Zealous Conscripts is also "too good" but they're individually interesting so I have vowed never to play them in combination unless the game has gone at least ten turns and bogged down to the point where someone needs to end it.)

I replaced it with Outpost Siege, not because there's a direct connection (there aren't any more "when a creature enters the battlefield" triggers—I already play them all) but because it's red card drawing and I had just won one in a coverage draft.

Randy's Norin

COMMANDER: Norin the Wary

Instant (2)

1 Word of Seizing 1 Chaos Warp

99 Cards

Powerful combos aren't necessarily a bad thing in Commander, and I like Randy's inclusion (and awareness) of the Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker/Zealous Conscripts combo to break up a stalemate or end an overdue game. Kiki-Jiki is also interesting and powerful with the various Goblin generators Randy uses, and the ability of Zealous Conscripts to borrow everything up to and including enchantments and Planeswalkers is a helpful tool for a monocolored deck.

Watching Conscripts take something like Ghostly Prison before unleashing a token army into someone shows what a little creative utility, rather than brute power, can do for a deck.

With plenty of games against Purphoros, God of the Forge under my belt, as well as several token-heavy decks that included it, I would put Purphoros, God of the Forge in the same category as Deadeye Navigator: even unintentional use results in a harmonic synergy with other cards.

Baseline and Peaks

Not every overperforming card has harmonic synergy. Plenty of cards stand out without breaking down the game, and here are a few of the highlights that you sent in.

If I had to pick a card in one of my Commander decks that put in more work than I thought it would, that would have to be Boros Battleshaper in my Gisela, Blade of Goldnight deck. Being able to lock out a beefy blocker, or forcing Serene Master to attack, is unbelievably satisfying.

Michael's Legion of Goldnight

COMMANDER: Gisela, Blade of Goldnight

99 Cards

Surprisingly, Primal Command stunned me the most of any card I used in a deck. At first I thought only of tutoring for game finishers like Craterhoof Behemoth. However, I quickly found that its best use was for marathon games to refill my library after using up all my threats. I also discovered that the bouncing a card to the top of a player's library was huge. Indestructible cards like Darksteel Forge are hard to handle, but top decking them at least bought me a turn to overrun them. After a while it became an auto include in any green deck.

Alex's Mean Green Commander

COMMANDER: Omnath, Locus of Mana

99 Cards

The cards that turned out far better than expected were a few prowess creatures in my Anax and Cymede Commander deck. Since when you cast a spell targeting Anax and Cymede you get to give your other creatures +1/+1 and trample until end of turn, when you have a prowess creature, the prowess activates, so they get +2/+2 and trample each time I target Anax and Cymede.

I thought they would be helpful so I put in Bloodfire Expert, Jeskai Student, and Seeker of the Way shortly after the Khans of Tarkir Prerelease. I didn't draw any for a while and never really knew if my thinking worked out, until I got in a one-on-one Commander game with a friend and played Bloodfire Expert. He went from okay card in my Prerelease games to a win condition for me. To have a 5/3 trampler coming at an opponent (occasionally 7/5) that had to block my commander, ripped through their life total, despite playing around preventing damage. The Shiv's Embrace turned the Expert toward the end of the game sealed things. After that I added the Dragon-Style Twins, Monastery Swiftspear, and later Dragon Bell Monk. If I get lucky enough to get Monastery Mentor he'll move in, as well Lotus-Eye Mystics.

From the Prerelease I knew prowess was a decent trick, here it became an insane damage boost beyond what I expected and gave this deck a kick toward a stronger game plan and some decent backup creatures if Anax and Cymede goes down and is no longer feasible to play. It surprised me, though; I was expecting them to be about as good as the bestow creatures, instead they turned out far better than I expected.

Thomas's Anax and Cymede

COMMANDER: Anax and Cymede

The End is No End

Whether you want to overpower opponents with power apparent, or try unexpected cards in unexpected ways, finding those that fit together to create something bigger is part of the Commander experience. I find I avoid and remove harmonic synergy in my decks, but I also enjoy taking a little extra time to create incremental value over a game.

I do enjoy my green and black decks, after all.

This week's question follows this idea through: What color pair is your favorite for building Commander decks, and why?

  • Feedback via email, in English

  • 300-word limit to explain the reasons

  • Sample decklist or list of cards is requested (does not count against word limit)

  • Decklists should be formatted with one card per line with just a leading number, such as "3 Mountain"—just a space (no "x" or "-") between the number and the card name, without subtotals by card type (Submissions that don't follow this rule will be ignored.)

  • Name and email required (non-personal information to be used in column)

This isn't about Ravnica guild mechanics or kicking Tarkir's clans to the curb, but the intrinsic preferences we seem drawn to. I like the mana and creature beef of green as well as the card drawing and destruction black provides. Maelstrom Pulse, Wood Elves, and Greed have been part of so many of my decks I couldn't begin to remember them all. I'm looking forward to hearing about your favorite pairing that ends up everywhere.

Join us next week when we find the total impact of others. See you then!

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