June 25, 2015

#Value

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In Magic, more is better. While there are exceptions, such as the combat damage you're about to take or the number of creatures you have to sacrifice, it's safe to say that getting a bigger bang for every buck spent is a good thing.

Armament of Nyx | Art by Slawomir Maniak

Some cards just don't do it on their own for me. When I'm drafting, I love any old 2/2 for two mana, but in Commander I usually want something more. Getting something "bigger" or "better" for the same amount of spend is relative, of course. Sometimes paying five mana to counter a spell is just as fine as spending two. The point is you can do it and gain value over the far more expensive spell someone else played.

Card versus card isn't the only way to get more for your mana dollar. Doubling Season is among the most powerful value cards you can play if you're making token creatures or casting Planeswalkers. Difference is that while nobody will argue Contradict is a little less value than Dismiss, it's harder to say how great Doubling Season is in a vacuum.

Play with it once and you get the picture. That's "Try it! You'll like it!" attitude is exactly what I'm taking with Alhammarret's Archive.

Alhammarret was pretty smart.

Portal to Greed

Alhammarret's Archive doesn't do much on its own. Like Doubling Season and all of the twists it inspired since, playing the Archive on its own is almost like nothing. But once you start layering in awesome options the results become clear: You're doubling up on two great things.

Life is sometimes underrated in Commander. While the commander damage rule means a sufficiently large and unblocked monster hitting enough times will end games, most damage in Commander comes from the troops underneath. Doubling the amount of life you can gain, even for a short period of time, is a handy trick to have even if it isn't the most exciting.

The other ability, however, is a true gem.

Drawing cards is among the most powerful tools a Commander deck can have. Everything from Sign in Blood and Tormenting Voice to Whispers of the Muse and Howling Mine gives you more options to work with. Keeping a full hand, and mana to make use of it, is an appealing way to handle games. I'd argue it's among the best, particularly when blue and black get involved in the mix: Counterspell and Murder are the kind of cards that do the most in one's hand, waiting for the right moment.

Extra life and extra cards led me to one commander I had been planning to follow up on for a long time: Oloro, Ageless Ascetic.

Oloro, Ageless Ascetic | Art by Eric Deschamps

Oloro's abilities dovetail perfectly with Alhammarret's Archive:

  • Oloro constantly feeds you life regardless of whether he's on the battlefield or not.
  • When Oloro is on the battlefield, every time you gain life you can pay to draw a card.
  • The latter ability leads to looking for ways to gain life more often than the former, and there are often ways to pay life to draw more cards.

Oloro, Ageless Ascetic asked me to make something I rarely make: A control deck in Commander. Slow the game down. Have ways to gain life, draw cards, and pad out advantages. Go over the top, ensuring opponents' powerful plans can't come to fruition.

I became the monster that usually wins the games I play.

Stybs's Oloro, Alhammarret Aesthetic

COMMANDER: Oloro, Ageless Ascetic
Other (5)
1 Alhammarret's Archive 1 Hixus, Prison Warden 1 Sphinx's Tutelage 1 Kothophed, Soul Hoarder 1 Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
99 Cards

This isn't a good deck. I won't be able to finish assembling and getting to play it for a few weeks! But, as a first pass at a controlling Commander deck, this is where I ended up.

Since I have to wait to put this together I also started considered what I liked about Magic Origins. Fortunately, a few friends are already lined up:

  • Hixus, Prison Warden is a nice surprise for opponents that think the shield is down.
  • Sphinx's Tutelage draws cards while forcing opponents' cards into the graveyard. This feels hit or miss (There are plenty of graveyard decks that love to see this played against them!) but something I want to try anyway.
  • Kothophed, Soul Hoarder is a nice fit for a deck with extra life that wants to draw cards. I'm excited to see how this Demon works out—ideally, better than how it did with Liliana.

Finally, the real gems of the deck are two cards I've been waiting to try in Commander again:

  • Spoils of Evil is a great late-game burst of life that, if you have Oloro on the battlefield, effectively becomes a free burst of cards for you and damage for your opponents. Just evil!
  • Breathstealer's Crypt makes everyone show what they're drawing, and punishes any creatures drawn. While it's symmetrical, so you have to reveal too, it also makes it clear who has what going on and diminishes creature-heavy decks. I plan to seal games away with it.

Victory will be no sure thing, but I plan to have a lot of fun seeing how this deck works out.

Greater Rifts

I imagine my games will vary between being the immediate target and being left alone for far too long. Controlling decks are in a weird spot where doing nothing means they don't look threatening, but leaves them an easy target for random attacks and value.

Anyone that's played with Edric, Spymaster of Trest knows what I mean.

Victory is a strange thing in Commander, so in lieu of my stories of victory with a deck that can't exist yet, I have some of the tales of awe you sent in earlier. The first is from Kevin:

The most fun I've ever had winning a game of Commander was at Gen Con. I was waiting for the match to start and watched another four-person Commander pod finish up their match, in which an Azami, Lady of Scrolls deck won with some ridiculously easy combo. I was a little intimidated and decided to pilot my Kemba, Kha Regent deck. My opponents sat down at the table and revealed their commanders: Scion of the Ur-Dragon, Horde of Notions, and the very same Azami that I had just watched win. The game started poorly with the Scion deck dropping Sol Ring into a turn-two Buried Alive that dumped Anger, Nicol Bolas, and the freshly unbanned Worldgorger Dragon into the grave. His next turn was spent casting Necromancy on Worldgorger to get infinite mana, then bringing Nicol Bolas out with haste. "This is the end for us," I thought as he decided to decimate the hands of the other two players before losing his Nicol Bolas. In the aftermath of the Bolas Blitz, the blue deck was completely useless with no cards in hand, the Horde of Notions deck had managed to get an Elspeth, Knight-Errant emblem, and I stood unbloodied and unassuming with Kemba, Stonehewer Giant, some solid Equipment, and a fresh Eldrazi Monument. During my turn, I drew Stoneforge Mystic and grabbed Argentum Armor, gave her haste with Swiftfoot Boots, and played the armor. Next turn, I drew Grappling Hook and suited Kemba up with: Basilisk Collar, Darksteel Plate, Golem-Skin Gauntlets, Grappling Hook, Argentum Armor, and Swiftfoot Boots to systematically take each opponent out with an enormous flying, double-striking Kemba. It was not a game I expected to win, but they assumed I was not a threat and it was lot of fun proving them wrong.

- Kevin

Kevin's Kemba, Khan Regent

COMMANDER: Kemba, Kha Regent

There's always a more powerful deck, and Kevin knows it. Potent combos are a classic way to win games, or Commander format events challenge players to have them. When you're competing even in small ways, the reasons to hit as hard as possible come easier.

But anything can happen in Commander, as Kevin's story showed. I like these random stories of victory. Luck and skill mixed with a plan that can kill: I can get behind these Commander stories.


A little duplicity can go a long way too, as Sam shared:

My favorite wins are always when I come back from being terribly behind. Though I am normally a control player at heart, the Commander deck that I've seen the most success with is Gahiji, Honored One. Instead of encouraging players to beat on each other, I use Gahiji as a mass pump spell for my token build. It was the first dedicated token deck my group had seen, and quickly became an early target for removal and disruption. This particular game had four players, and the other three commanders were: Jeremy's Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath; Noah's Teferi, Temporal Archmage; and David's Sigarda, Host of Herons.

Early aggression from Gahiji had been removed, Jeremy was firmly in the lead, and my primary defense was my Mimic Vat, which had David's Angel of Serenity underneath it. I activated Mimic Vat to block a lethal attack, paused to select targets, and chose the Abyssal Persecutor that was lying in Jeremy's graveyard. The Angel dies, he shrugs, casts Abyssal, and passes the turn. Within the next round my life total is reduced to -5, but no one bothers to touch me after that, knowing I'll eventually die once Abyssal is removed. This was not to be the case!

Noah and David jump on the idea that if they drop to negative numbers as well, and we kill Jeremy, then we have a three-way tie. I encourage this, and they both drop to single digits and then pass the turn to me. At end of turn I cycle Decree of Justice for a bunch of tokens, laugh maniacally (important), then untap and slam Elspeth Tirel. With my life total back in the positive, and Dictate of Heliod + Gahiji on the board, my tokens swing for lethal.

Sam's Gahiji, Honored One

COMMANDER: Gahiji, Honored One
99 Cards

Sneaky moves, Sam, but I have to ask: Did that affect the next game you played with them? In any game, you can pick apart decisions which maximize benefit for an individual and play the entire game solely to push for the win at every turn. But games aren't played in a vacuum, and players aren't computers that forget how the last battle turned out.

Getting tricky with "politicking," like in Sam's story, is effective. Asking, and otherwise convincing, opponents to make decisions beneficial feels good. But if they always feel duped, you'll quickly find your local Commander group has a harder time believing you in other games. Ulterior motives are always there in multiplayer, but there's a balancing act between constant manipulation and shenanigans as though you were in the streets of Ravnica and the duty before all valor of Bant on Alara.

Plan carefully.


Set Items

Magic Origins is shaping up to be a set that's going to add so many things to Commander. Visiting an array of planes, all connected by story but separate by theme, promises many more tricks and turns we can use. Perhaps what I'm most excited for yet is Conclave Naturalists. I'm already a fan of beefy creatures that destroy artifacts and enchantments. Getting another, unique version for my decks is just fuel for the fatty-meets-answers preferences.

We each have our vices, after all.

This week's question is less about vices and more about preferences for devices: Which set has made the biggest different for you in Commander?

  • Feedback via email, in English
  • 300 word limit to explain the set and cards that made it special
  • Sample decklist (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)
  • Your Twitter handle if you use it

Theros introduced Gods. Scars of Mirrodin brought artifacts to the forefront of our decks. Alara Reborn poured multicolor in to all of our hands. Khans of Tarkir gave us lands to fix and play any deck. Magic 2011 gave us Sun Titan, Grave Titan, and other luminaries in the format.

Where did the tide of Commander turn for you? That's all I'd like to know.

Join us next week, when we end up making everyone else feel pretty blue. See you then!



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