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75% – Know Your (Self-Imposed) Limitations


Welcome back, readers!

Prossh, Skyraider of Kher
I wasn’t being cute when I said I never anticipated being a Commander enthusiast. Having witnessed the entire transition, Gathering Magic’s own Ryan Bushard shakes his head when he sees how deep I’ve gone into the format and how much it has sucked me in even deeper. Whereas the weekends of Grands Prix past have seen me outing cards to dealers to pay for the trip and pay all of my bills for the month with money left over to buy collections, resulting in my coming back from the event with a lot of cash and a significantly lighter backpack, this latest Grand Prix was in Montreal, Canada—a place that insists on having a big border with actual guards posted and different money than the United States. Having learned my lesson about bringing so much money back from Canada, Ryan and I devised a plan for this trip: Buy a ton of cards, and bring them back to sell.

It didn’t work out very well for me. Whereas what I should have been doing was buying cards to stock my case, I indulged my every whim and bought cards to go in Commander decks: foils of my favorite staples such as Prophet of Kruphix and Chromatic Lantern (I think these cards are currently a little bit undervalued), cards such as Food Chain, Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, and Recurring Insight to help a 75% Maelstrom Wanderer deck become a little closer to 90%, and a good number of cards to help me with a few ideas I have had for decks built around Prossh, Skyraider of Kher, Olivia Voldaren, and Bruna, Light of Alabaster. I’m getting high from my own supply, and I’m loving it.

This trip to Montreal also saw me put a few of my 75% decks to the test against a few players I’ve never played against before, including Gathering Magic’s behind-the-scenes social-networking genius Andrew Magrini and podcasting legend Scott MacCallum. Ryan got the worst of it, though, as I jammed a ton of games against him trying to hone Prossh into something unfair (they can’t all be 75%!). My 75% Riku of Two Reflections and Omnath, Locus of Mana decks held their own against Andrew and Scotty, and I was happy to enact some testing against some decks (and players) above the 75% mark. But it’s none of these decks I want to discuss today, but another contribution from /u/jambarama.

How long have you played this deck?

I first built the deck about two years ago. It was the first Commander deck that I had a plan for before building it out. It has changed a lot over that time.

Is there an existing principle of 75% deck-building this embodies or is there one you think we should create?

Momir Vig, Simic Visionary
Tutor commanders are always difficult to balance, especially those with blue. Originally, I had planned to pile in mana rocks and counterspells to tutor up combo pieces. But instead of using Momir's tutor ability to find combos, I decided to make a creature toolbox deck and force the deck to consist of virtually all permanents. It has enough redundancy that it doesn't flop to a tuck effect, but not enough to make it play the same each game.

Self-imposing limitations—such as an all-but-one-permanents deck—definitely takes the deck away from being a brutally-efficient combo deck. You end up playing things like Yeva and Teferi to threaten tricks. Your board wipe options are limited to things like Ixidron and Kederekt Leviathan. Spot removal is harder to find, so you play Man-o'-Wars, Tradewind Riders, and Thalakos Deceivers. Preventing board wipes and recovering from them is more difficult, so you play a lot of card advantage and Mystic Snake.

The deck can beat down early or win late with evasive creatures. The deck often plays more control role, tutoring answers and bouncing commanders or other problematic permanents. The deck includes two combos. The first combo is the only nonpermanent: Primal Surge. The rest of the deck is permanents, so resolving Primal Surge with Laboratory Maniac in the deck wins. Alternately, Leveler with Laboratory Maniac and some enters-the-battlefield draw trigger does the job.

How is this deck received by your group when you play it? Are you winning roughly 1 out of every X games, where X is the number of players?

Once seeing it play as a tool-boxy zoo deck and noticing the all-permanents novelty, my group has been positive. The deck does win with some reliability, but it doesn’t become ganged-up on by default. The only thing the group groans about is the amount of shuffling due to fetch and tutor effects from Momir and the many ramp creatures.

Would you say this deck can beat 100% decks through power or consistency?

Multani, Maro-Sorcerer
It is possible, but not reliably so. It does just combo out on turn four or turn five on occasion—or play a turn-four Multani, Maro-Sorcerer in a multiplayer game and just beat down.

/u/jambarama brings us an interesting take on what could be an overwhelmingly powerful and unfun combo deck but with a twist that makes it fun and exciting to play. If you will notice, the deck contains no mana rocks and only one nonpermanent spell. All sorts of tutors may make this deck more consistent, instants and sorceries may help you disrupt your opponents and make sure someone who’s ahead gets behind and break board parity, and mana rocks may accelerate you into some fast starts that no one can catch, but this deck does none of those things and wins despite it. With a ton of utility creatures, this deck manages to embody the spirit of what I consider the most fun part of Commander: decks that do a thing.

It doesn’t matter whether the thing is setting up an instant win with Tooth and Nail, attempting to win with Helix Pinnacle, or trying to make all of your opponents’ spells uncastable with spells like Contagion or Mana Vortex (please don’t do this), having a thing you’re trying to do is great fun. Winning that way is more satisfying than winning any other way, and if the combo is tough to pull off more than once in a while, it’s even better.

In this case, the thing is a creature-based combo that sees you winning with creatures such as Leveler and Laboratory Maniac or Maniacing opponents out with the deck’s only nonpermanent: Primal Surge. You’re not going to enact this reliably, but if you can do it in 1 ÷ X games, it shouldn’t matter whether your opponent is Spike or Timmy, and that’s very 75%.

I think the imposition of the limitation that nearly all of the cards in the deck be creatures has forced a lot of creativity on the part of the deck-builder. Without mana rocks for ramping and smoothing or a lot of utility instants to help tutor and disrupt, the deck relies on the commander and the inherent utility of the creatures. Bouncing a trouble permanent with Man-o'-War to keep opponents off balance is techy—bouncing any and everything with an overloaded Cyclonic Rift is probably not. Having to find answers in somewhat obscure cards such as Time Elemental, Dominating Licid, and Mystic Snake rather than more powerful spells with the same effects makes the deck-builder have to become very creative, and creating a deck like this that wins despite imposed limitations is half the fun.

The Principles

Primal Surge

  • Scalable spells help tailor your cards to the power level of your opponents' decks.
  • Always start weak and improve the deck—never weaken a better deck.
  • You can skew toward power provided you skew away from consistency.
  • It is better to punish everyone equally for doing something rather than prevent them from doing it.
  • Building around a theme will keep the power level from skewing too high.

Let’s add one more:

  • Imposing limitations encourages creativity and promotes balance.

This seems to me to be a clever way to make the deck balanced, powerful—yet not too consistent—and, most importantly, not into a stronger deck that was weakened. Sure, a deck with mana rocks and tutors and utility spells would be more consistent, but starting from scratch with the idea that the deck should be 99% permanents, with the 1% being one card that benefits from such a scenario means the deck has to be built from the ground up, not weakened. You can play the very best permanents you can think of and still have the deck be well-balanced. In this way, we have discovered one deck-builder’s independent agreement with last week’s conclusion that building around a theme can help keep a deck balanced.

That does it for this week. There are still a few more points we are going to need to address before we are ready to begin building from scratch, but do me a favor, and let’s get a conversation going on reddit and in the comments section of this article. My question for you this week: What is an example of a commander you think would be impossible to build a 75% deck around using the principles we’ve established? I look forward to your responses.

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