Commander is a format about synergy. Brawl is a format about raw power. I will elaborate.
Commander is a fun format because you can surround your commander with all sorts of synergistic cards. Your deck is your kitchen, stocked and loaded with awesome ingredients and the cook is the commander, interacting with all of them and making them delicious. For the most part, this doesn't work in Brawl, and honestly I think that is why Brawl hasn't become a more popular format. Having a 10k Gold paywall on MTG Arena hurts, but for me the real issue is that Brawl relies on either the Standard or Historic card pool, and there aren't enough strong cards that also synergize with a commander to make a Brawl deck that flows with its leader the way a traditional Commander deck does. For this article I will use an example.
From out of nowhere, Bladewing the Risen was included as a craftable Rare on MTG Arena with the March update last Thursday. As an MTG Arena content creator, I set out to do my duty to the fans out there and make a Bladewing the Risen Brawl deck. It wasn't easy. The final list is at the bottom if you want to skip ahead, but today I want to take you through a journey of how I make Brawl decks.
In the Rakdos color identity in Standard Brawl, these are all the Dragon cards I found that I consider playable. This won't make much of a deck in a singleton format. I expanded my scope to Historic Brawl, and things didn't improve too much. Can you make a Dragon themed Brawl deck with Bladewing the Risen? Yes, but you have to be happy playing Dragon Egg to do it, and that is one of your better cards. While Bladewing the Risen is an extreme example, this is a common issue I run into. Not enough playable cards exist in Standard or Historic to make a synergistic deck in a way that Commander players are accustomed to. If you persist and make a deck filled with bad cards, you will find that there are plenty of players ready to smash you for having sub-par creatures and spells in your list.
Let's be real for a second. In your game store and at the kitchen table, Brawl can be fun even if you don't win. On MTG Arena, you only get those cosmetics in the Festival Events if you win. You might lose a few games and be able to laugh it off, but eventually you have to win three games to get a cosmetic Erebos (or whatever it is). I believe you can make a Brawl deck with any commander out there and win a few games, but you have to be willing to change your approach to Brawl deck-building and sacrifice synergy for more power.
It's All About Mana
My first rule of Brawl is to never miss a land drop. Absolutely never is preferable, but in general you want to hit your first seven lands. I start my Brawl decks with a minimum of 26 lands, plus ramp artifacts like Mind Stone, Treasure Map, and Arcane Signet.
On the draw I usually take advantage of the Free Mulligan rule and look for a hand with a mana rock. Falling behind on mana has a strong correlation to losing a game of Brawl, so be mindful of how many land drops your opening hand can realistically make.
My aggro Brawl decks sometimes go down to 24 lands, and I find aggro to be a unique subject in Brawl, something that may deserve an article of its own someday.
Removal in Brawl
The standard Murder won't get the job done. Not only do commanders get recast over and over, but most powerful threats are more than a body; they are an enters the battlefield effect too. This means every piece of spot removal leaves you further behind. Your removal needs to be "extra" to make the cut. You either need extremely cheap spells that hit a wide variety of threats, or you need your removal spell to be more than a removal spell.
Price of Fame is an example of a cheap removal spell that is also extra. Legendary creatures show up more in Brawl because they are often commanders. The cheap cost and the ability to smooth out future draws (aka hit land drops) and fill the graveyard makes Price of Fame much more playable in Brawl than it is in Standard. Murderous Rider is another solid removal spell, while Eat to Extinction and Vraska's Contempt are good because of their ability to hit both types of commanders (creatures and planeswalkers). Angrath's Rampage and Bedevil have this versatility as well, but you are still falling behind with these removal spells because none of them draw more cards. That brings me to the next point.
Play all of the best card draw effects
Pretty simple really. Find the cards that draw cards or put cards in hand and play them. Don't rely on piles of removal spells and creatures to get the job done. Games will go wrong and the player with the most cards at the end will probably win.
If your commander is a creature, you should be playing this card most of the time. It didn't make the cut in my Bladewing the Risen deck because my commander is seven freakin' mana. I resigned myself to only casting Bladewing the Risen once a game, and that makes Tome of Legends and slow way to draw one card. Most of the time, this card is great, especially with cheap commanders like Emry, Lurker of the Loch and Lazav, the Multifarious.
Phyrexian Arena was introduced to MTG Arena in Historic Anthology 1, and it should be in all of your Historic Brawl decks. Almost any card that can add extra cards to your hand every turn is worth a look. My final list for Bladewing features Theater of Horrors and Treacherous Blessing without any way to get the later off the table!
Counterspells and Ramp effects are OP
Countermagic is the only reliable way to keep a commander with an amazing EtB ability from triggering. Ramp effects ensure that you can cast your commander again and again. If you aren't playing Green or Blue you are at a huge disadvantage. A non-aggro deck without access to many of these effects, such as a Rakdos Dragons deck, needs to figure out how to compete.
Hand hate is a good way to fight countermagic if you can catch them without much mana. You have to win the mana war, or at least keep up, so that you can play a discard spell and a threat or two as well. Resolving a Phyrexian Arena, or other card advantage permanent, can be a big deal.
Dealing with ramp effects can be hard. If the ramp is a creature, a cheap removal spell can kill it, but that cheap removal spell needs to be useful later in the game as well because with only one copy in the deck and games going for 10+ turns regularly you will draw the card later in the game more than you will draw it early. You can't afford too many bad draws, or any really. Angrath's Rampage is great because it can destroy a ramp Artifact or Creature early, and it can usually nail a planeswalker or Artifact later.
Sweepers and land destruction effects are often pitched as good ways to deal with ramp creatures, but I find narrow sweeper effects like Flame Sweep and Cry of the Cranium too narrow for Brawl. If you are going to sweep the board, go big. The best way to fight ramp effects is to play effects of your own, mulligan for them when appropriate, and play epic cards like Star of Extinction that wipe out all the mana creatures and planeswalkers. It even destroys a land as a bonus.
Here is the final list I ran for Bladewing the Risen. In what could be seen as a pathetic indictment of the Historic card pool, I am only playing three Dragons to get back with Bladewing. I got my three wins, and it wasn't easy. I still think my overall record was a losing one, but it reinforced the lessons I have learned about Brawl since playing it more on MTG Arena. I hope the format gains more momentum, because even though it lacks the creative kitchen vibe of Commander, it is a great break from Standard.
Bladewing The Risen | Historic Brawl | CGB 03-15-2020
- Commander (1)
- 1 Bladewing the Risen
- Creatures (5)
- 1 Dragonmaster Outcast
- 1 Drakuseth, Maw of Flames
- 1 Murderous Rider
- 1 Opportunistic Dragon
- 1 Skarrgan Hellkite
- Instants (6)
- 1 Bedevil
- 1 Eat to Extinction
- 1 Erebos's Intervention
- 1 Price of Fame
- 1 Scorching Dragonfire
- 1 Vraska's Contempt
- Sorceries (9)
- 1 Agonizing Remorse
- 1 Angrath's Rampage
- 1 Banefire
- 1 Duress
- 1 Epic Downfall
- 1 Finale of Eternity
- 1 Sarkhan's Dragonfire
- 1 Star of Extinction
- 1 The Elderspell
- Enchantments (5)
- 1 Arguel's Blood Fast
- 1 Phyrexian Arena
- 1 The Eldest Reborn
- 1 Theater of Horrors
- 1 Treacherous Blessing