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Convertible Commander: Rafiq of the Many


Today’s entry almost certainly appears on those lists of the “most hated commanders.” Some commanders make many of us groan with frustration the moment we see them, though the pilot may be giddy with excitement at the beatdown it will bring. My personal group straight-up revolts if I suggest playing my Meren of Clan Nel Toth deck. Seriously, they won’t play until I change. But today’s commander has a long history of causing trouble, in part because he was relatively new when Commander was first breaking through, so a lot of people showed how broken he could be.

Rafiq of the Many

Your commander giving himself Double-Strike and +1/+1 is pretty ridiculous. He’s an 8-damage commander attacking on turn five with no acceleration or help. Green and artifacts can speed that up, both with mana and haste: a turn one Sol Ring into Swiftfoot Boots with a turn two signet means a turn three Hasty Hexproof with 8 commander damage is coming at someone. With pump spells and Trample, the world becomes frightening very fast. So Rafiq is rough for a table looking to have a good time.

But 75% Commander principles teach us restrictions can make an unfair commander reasonable, and MaRo reminds us that restrictions breed creativity. Since we’re exploring strict restrictions in this column, it might be fun to see if we can take this absurd commander and build a deck which actually plays reasonably fair. What better way than to use cards only from the block which included Rafiq? Shards of Alara was one of my favorite draft formats, and Exalted — Rafiq’s big keyword — started there, so we’ve got lots of options. Let’s see what happens when we build a Shards-only Rafiq deck.

Finest Hour
Let’s go hard on Exalted. We still get our underpriced 8 Commander damage, but we’re going to try to bump it up a bit. Of course, an early Noble Hierarch both buffs Rafiq and gets him out a bit early, but even without it, just imagine the following set of turns: Turn one, land, pass. Turn two, land, Qasali Pridemage. Turn three, land, Court Archers. Turn four, land, Rafiq. Turn five, land, Finest Hour, swing for 7/7 Double-Strike, untap Rafiq and swing again for 11/11 Double-Strike. So the deck is capable of some fairly explosive play, but that will be fairly rare.

One reason for that is the mana. It’s rough with only one block to work with. We get Seaside Citadel, of course, and Exotic Orchard, but after that, pickings get thin. Bant Panorama is okay, Rupture Spire isn’t unplayable, and Unstable Frontier just seems terrible, but we use what we’ve got. Reliquary Tower is here in case we luck into a massive card draw at some point, but it’s unlikely to be particularly useful. Otherwise, we’re basic all the way. We’ve also got an Obelisk of Bant and a pair of Borderposts to help smooth and accelerate just a bit, but let’s be honest. We’ll have times we just can’t play Rafiq as early as we want to because we’re not going to have access to all three colors. That frustration will pay off, though, when our friends don’t ban us from playing our new Rafiq deck immediately.

Battlegrace Angel
The hope with our draw is we get just enough to keep pressure up on our opponents and move the game along. Cantripping creatures are great here, because we can then use them to block or even attack; Elvish Visionary may not seem like much, but with a couple of Exalted creatures sitting out there, she can deal some damage. Messenger Falcons has natural evasion, so they’re even better. Frontline Sage lets us loot away excess lands or hunt for a much-needed answer. Courier's Capsule is slow and the shard lacks artifact shenanigans to improve it, but at least it draws us a couple and does it when we can, rather than forcing us to use the mana right away. Drumhunter does us a huge favor by waiting until the end of the turn to check if we’ve got a creature with power 5 or greater. Because Exalted triggers last until end of turn, it doesn’t take much for us to have a big dude at the end. Soul's Majesty is a regular in big Green decks, and there’s no reason to bypass it here; it won’t be unusual for us to have a 6/6 or 8/8 in our second main phase, and 5 mana for that many cards is a bargain.

Our normal way of winning is going to be some combination of Exalted triggers on Rafiq. A couple of +1/+1s will do some pretty big damage, but we’ve got all kinds of things to play with, including that Finest Hour, or even Angelic Benediction or Battlegrace Angel. We’ve also got some other ways to play with the things we’re doing: Bant Battlemage, for example, can give any attacking creature trample or flying. Knight of New Alara makes Rafiq an obnoxious base 6/6. Then we’ve got some other creatures which are just great when made champions by Exalted. Bant Sureblade is a wonderfully undercosted 3/2 for 2. Rhox War Monk was a staple in Standard back then for a good reason. Even Rhox Charger, with its native trample, is pretty great once it’s got a few extra points of power and toughness. Jhessian Infiltrator is wonderful here, and sometimes the better choice to send in even with Rafiq on the ‘field, just because the damage can add up so much. Think about it this way: with Rafiq and Finest Hour on the field, the Infiltrator hits for 20 unblockable damage. With two more Exalted triggers, it’s 32. No joke.

Path to Exile
We have Naturalize. We have Path to Exile. We have Oblivion Ring. That’s fortunate, because that’s about as good as it gets in terms of removal we might actually see in a non-block Commander deck, but the quantity is better than the quality. Resounding Silence is expensive but gets rid of something completely; if we can cycle the card, it might be a blowout, though. Flurry of Wings is hilarious, because at the very least it’ll keep us alive through a massive token swing, and at best it’ll give us so many birds we can kill everyone else on the crack back. We don’t have to use it for an attack on us. Crystallization is a bit weird but pretty darn final. Wall of Denial will stop just about everything, Qasali Ambusher will surprise everyone at the table, and Winged Coatl is kind of Murder . . .  in ug. Hindering Light can be quite the surprise; Angelsong is a life-saver occasionally; and Bant Charm makes up for its cost in flexibility. Scourglass and Martial Coup are both reasonable Wrath effects. Hopefully, though, we go fast enough to keep our opponents on their heels, rather than have to deal with too many threats of theirs.

Asha's Favor can be a good thing to drop just before attacking with something. Stormcaller's Boon, too, is kind of fun, and can actually make for a rather strange experience where an alpha strike with the team is a better choice than using Exalted. Stoic Angel is an absolute all-star; that can be really backbreaking for a creature-based deck. Behemoth Sledge, Quietus Spike, and Sigil of Distinction all give nice pumps to our dudes, and Sigil Blessing can be quite effective both offensively and defensively; it really messes with combat math.

There’s one card I’d like to highlight, mostly because I selfishly love it: Skyward Eye Prophets. This card does a ton of stuff. It can attack and use its ability on the same turn. It ramps us and draws us cards. I love this card so much I would happily take a version which was identical except Legendary so I could use it as my commander. Same price, same stats, everything. In fact, I like it so much I considered using it as an alternate commander for our convertible version; my editor and playgroup rightly talked me out of it, because it wouldn’t be, y’know, legal.

But because we can’t use SEP as our alternate commander, let’s step outside our normal limitation just a little bit for our optionboard:

Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa
Thrasios, Triton Hero

That’s it. We’re going to change our commander(s). The nice thing is, Thrasios is kind of a SEP; we get a cheaper creature and add a cost to the ability, but we also get to Scry which will help make our draws even better. This is a great option for the early game when our draws are not behaving. Meanwhile, Sidar Kondo is kind of a funny Exalted target. He’s not as strong as Rafiq, but he kind of has Exalted himself, at least when he’s blocked, and Flanking makes it harder to chump him with a 1/1 Elf or whatever. His big butt means we can send him in with Exalted a bit more often without fear of death. And the biggest trick of all: 19 of our 30 creatures have power 2 or less. That means we, once again, might want to just alpha strike with the team. Rafiq would be proud, but the deck won’t have the stigma attached to it. I’d take out Mirror-Sigil Sergeant and Sigil of Distinction, leaving Rafiq in the 99, but that’s just me.

Lich's Mirror got cut really late in the process. It’s a fun, splashy card, but some things just have to go. Sigil of the Nayan Gods did too, and it can be quite powerful. Celestial Purge is a great answer card when people are running a lot of b or r. If you don’t want to shell out the $$ for a Noble Hierarch, any of those three would probably be a reasonable option.

Another optionboard thought would be to just bring in some things to make Rafiq more degenerate . . .  but that sort of ruins the purpose of trying to make him fair, doesn’t it? I think there’s something neat about just changing out the commander for a new experience; besides, you could start with the alternate commanders and ease your playgroup into the deck, then when they see it’s not too terrible, switch out for Rafiq and not immediately have the table flipped on you.

Did we do it? Does this make Rafiq fair? Is it too far away from what makes him good? How have you built using only one block? Did I miss some worthwhile interaction in Shards? Should we open up the Optionboard a little more? Let everyone know in the comments!

Thanks for reading.

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