As much as I was sorely tempted, I’ve opted not to build a Prime Speaker Zegana deck for this column. It’s no secret that I was thick as thieves with the Simic guild until the #4Merfolk debacle left me unaffiliated and lost. It took Kruphix and his merry band of troublemakers to bring me back into the G/U fold. Ravnica’s Simic guild and I aren’t talking, but I don’t have to feel that I can’t take part in green and blue’s card-draw, mana-ramp, and spell-countering shenanigans. This isn’t a political article, so I won’t bring up some of my more inflammatory views about the combine. Let’s say making so many 6-drop Merfolk, making Shambleshark a Fish Crab Mutant or whatever instead of a Merfolk, and failing to help the hundred copies of Master of the Pearl Trident I bought go up in price all rubbed me the wrong way. They did give us Plasm Capture, though, so they’re not complete failures.
Maelstrom Wanderer, Riku of Two Reflections, Roon of the Hidden Realm, and Kruphix, God of Horizons; I like the color combination a ton. However, there is something I think is inherently not 75% about Zegana, and while it was just a gut feeling, I decided to sit down and try to figure out why it felt wrong to me. The answer I came up with deals with the experience you should have when playing Commander, and it occurred to me that we should first revisit why I don’t like face-down tutors.
When Bennie Smith wrote his article about letting go of tutors in Commander, I thought the argument against having players search through their decks in secret and pull something out while laughing maniacally was a compelling one. You make the entire table wait for you, and they don’t get to know what you’re doing. It makes them a bit nervous, and they may have a tendency to want to attack you because of your secret shenanigans. I thought at the time that my objection to face-down tutors may have stemmed from not wanting to inflict that kind of game experience on the group I was playing with. I think now—although my gut instinct to shy away from face-down tutors was correct—that I may not have interpreted my aversion to them properly in a 75% context. I think trying to come up with a Zegana deck may have given me the proper context to evaluate what I really don’t like about face-down tutors and what other things I’d like to avoid in 75% decks.
As much as I’m averse to face-down tutors, I find myself partial to face-up tutors. My Mayael the Anima decks runs a Worldly Tutor, which, coupled with a Mayael activation, can put any creature you need into play. Not only that, but the deck runs a copy of Pattern of Rebirth. Is Pattern of Rebirth “not 75%” in a deck with Platinum Angel, Platinum Emperion, Blazing Archon, and It That Betrays? I didn’t think so at the time, and I still don’t think so. A timely Worldly Tutor has a tendency to either bail you out and give you a fighting chance in those 100% matches or wrap things up in the case of a ground stall in 50% matches. In other words, used judiciously, face-up tutors can be a real benefit.
Swamp. You can find a Steamflogger Boss. It could be anything; it could even be a boat. A face-up tutor needs to be face-up so you don’t Wizardcycle a Vedalken Aethermage and grab a Force of Will. Face-up tutors need oversight because everyone needs to verify you found something legal. Narrow tutors not only give away information, which puts you at a competitive disadvantage compared to face-down tutors, but they force you to derive your answers from a smaller pool of cards. And I think that there is an inherent danger in this and requires a little vigilance on your part. I’m suggesting there are situations in which you might want to voluntarily remove tutors from your deck.
Are tutors good 75% inclusions or not?
My Maelstrom Wanderer deck is not all that similar to the deck featured in an early article, but it sort of evolved that way. I always knew I wouldn’t want all of my decks to be 75% decks, and Maelstrom Wanderer was fun as a 75% deck, but I started to notice something. Whenever I hit a Tooth and Nail, I won. Not only that, I hit Tooth and Nail rather a lot. I wasn’t doing anything necessarily unfair with Tooth and Nail, but Deadeye Navigator with anything was usually going to win the game. Rather than try to scale the deck back, I decided to go for the gusto. I added a Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and a Zealous Conscripts to the deck as well as cards I said I didn’t think fit into a 75% deck, such as Time Warp. I like the resultant deck, but it’s not 75% anymore (and that’s okay). Now when I hit Tooth and Nail, which happens quite a bit with Cream of the Crop in the deck, I find Kiki-Jiki and Conscripts and end the game. This happens early and often. I don’t play this often against my casual friends because I always win the same way. I use Food Chain to generate as many cascades as I can, searching for those combo pieces, and I go off and win.
Tooth and Nail and other tutoring allows me to win in the exact same manner every time I play. This can grow boring, and as a result, I reserve the deck for well-tuned opponents and for when I lose two or three in a row with Vorel of the Hull Clade (I am so close to cracking the code on this stupid deck; I can feel it) and want to redeem myself by smashing everyone. Denying your opponents a dynamic experience by achieving victory in a reliable and linear manner is the opposite of what we want to achieve with 75% builds, so I want to avoid homogeneity in game experience, and I don’t play Maelstrom Wanderer often despite it quickly becoming my favorite deck.
This is an inherent liability in tutors. While narrow tutors are good because they have limitations and are therefore more 75%-friendly—because they cause you to be a bit more creative in deck-building—they can lead to homogeneity in game experience. If your one tutor target with Worldly Tutor is going to be It That Betrays all the time, you might as well just play Demonic Tutor (not that you can in Mayael—I just mean it broadly). You might as well not tutor face-up if you’re fetching the same thing every time. If your tutors allow you to create a path of least resistance and homogenize the game experience, they need to be reevaluated.
However, practice tells me I see my Worldly Tutor in around 1 ÷ X matches, and it doesn’t always win the game, nor does it always fetch the same creature. I use it to bail myself out more often than I use it to win the game, and having a lot of dynamic answers to fetch (or hit with Maeyel, not that that ever happens, even with Illusionist's Bracers equipped) means that you can pull off fun, creative plays. Your opponent isn’t going to complain if you stymy a huge attack with a wind-milled Blazing Archon, but he or she may complain if you tutor up Platinum Angel three games in a row.
Maelstrom Wanderer, while it didn’t have card-draw per se, had quite a bit of card selection, which is the same thing for all intents and purposes. While I have no reliable way to get Worldly Tutor in a deck with cards like Boros Battleshaper, I was drawing Tooth and Nail all the time in a deck with Recurring Insight.
I think we’re probably ready for a few new axioms now.
- Try to vary the game experience, and build with multiple paths to victory in mind.
- Play tutors or card-draw, but not both.
Now, while I say card-draw is okay, only card-draw is not really 75%. The problem with a Prime Speaker Zegana deck is that you’re going to draw cards reliably, and you’re going to draw a lot of them. If you build a Prime Speaker Zegana deck with Deadeye Navigator, Acidic Slime, and ninety-seven lands, you’re going to win a few games. Not only that, but you’re going to win the exact same way. Zegana just draws you too many cards, and she does so reliably because you can always just rebuy her. That deck is not very good and won’t win that often, but the point is that it has everything it needs to achieve victory in those three cards and has a way to dig to find them without you having to draw anything special except for lands.
I have gone full blabbermouth this week, so there isn’t much room for a decklist, but I gave you two last week, and I’ll give you two next week. In the meantime, there is a lot to chew on here. Is there a way to make a 75% deck that has both card-draw and (narrow) tutors? Do narrow tutors encourage a homogenous game experience? Are there other ways to ensure you aren’t tempted to follow the same line to victory every game? How do you build your 75% decks with this in mind? Let’s get a real conversation going, both here and on reddit, and next week, we’ll have a lot to talk about.
The real question I want answered is, “Can you make a 75% Zegana deck?” Take a stab at it, and ship me a list. I’m eager to see if someone can crack it. As always, I’m Jason Alt, your guide through this treacherous, uncharted territory, and I’m also afraid to try 75% Sharuum the Hegemon. Maybe next week.