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5 Lessons from 5 Games

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Readers,

I spent the weekend in Detroit for the Magic Fest because it was too convenient not to go and everyone I know would be there. At previous Magic Fests, my bag has been really heavy with decks and cards to sell to vendors and after a long day of lugging it around, I've suffered sore shoulders and an aching back and this year I wanted to keep it simple. Paring down my deckbag to 5 decks, I planned to try and play as much Commander as possible without getting bored of any one deck. 5 decks seemed like a good number to me, and I decided to take a mix of colors (meaning only one Simic deck - now I know how Sophie felt) and play a few I haven't played in a while. The decks that made the final cut were -

These 5 decks span my entire EDH career. Maelstrom Wanderer is the second deck I ever made, Prossh, Skyraider of Kher was one I made entirely on the floor of GP Montreal with only cards I found in the room, Estrid, the Masked was a lucky coincidence in that it was built as a Rubinia Soulsinger Treachery deck and was finished a few short weeks before Estrid was spoiled, Tatyova, Benthic Druid is pure Simic, and Teysa Karlov is pure Orzhov. Look, I don't know if I picked the perfect 5 decks to sum me up or express myself or whatever - I am much more proud of the innovations I made with my Brudiclad deck that uses Helm of the Host with Marton Stromgald to make all of your tokens in dollar store Craterhoofs or my Xantcha deck which donates cards like Zuran Orb to an opponent the turn you Mindslaver them. Those are the decks I decided to bring and I'm glad I brought those five. Each deck was part of a game that taught me a valuable lesson about the nature of 75% and I think it will be instructive to share those lessons with you.

The Game: My Prossh versus Noyan Dar, Roil Shaper, Teysa Karlov (my deck, leant out) and Norin The Wary.

Prossh, Skyraider of Kher

My Prossh deck isn't quite the one from the article I linked but since Archidekt only recently came along and I didn't write it up at the time, the list from my Prossh deck isn't online anywhere. It's a fairly loose version with Purphoros, God of the Forge and Food Chain but also Fell Shepherd and Terrain Generator. The basic lands are the ones that came in the precon. Also from the precon are some fairly terrible cards that would be better off in a Shattergang Brothers build. The mana is atrocious with instances of only one part of a cycle like Copperline Gorge but no Blackcleave Cliffs (I sold it when it went up because I'm a finance guy at heart) and 2 Vivid Lands. My Acidic Slime is a Japanese foil and my Temple of the False God is in the deck and not in the trash can where Temple of the False God belongs.

I stumbled early because of course I did. I played a tapped Guildgate and drew the Sol Ring on my second turn but managed to stick a Signet and a Darksteel Ingot. The Noyan Dar deck was a fun deck that wasn't overly cutthroat but made some hilarious plays that involved cloning Flagstones of Trokair as a creature and making a copy of it every turn. The Teysa deck was easily the most competitive one at the table - or so we thought. I durdled for a long time, failing to stick anything of significance until I resolved a Purphoros that no one dealt with in the turn cycle they had to do so and which domed everyone for a ton when I simply cast Prossh and then sacced him and the tokens to Ashnod's Altar to get the mana to play him again. It was a sloppy win that involved digging 20 cards deep with Viscera Seer.

The Lesson: The deck is a Food Chain Prossh deck. It has Purphoros, Impact Tremors, Doubling Season, Pattern of Rebirth and Skullclamp. The deck is probably not per se 75% given how one or two cards in concert with Prossh end the game. I could cut Purphoros and Food Chain and that's probably enough to make the deck worse, but you don't get a 75% deck by making a good one bad. It's time to come to terms with the fact that a janky mana base and bad pre-con cards don't change the fact that Food Chain Prossh isn't really 75%. I stumbled early, fell behind and then dunked on my friends out of nowhere because the deck does that. Time to fix the mana, add some better rocks, cut cards like Burn at the Stake (Warp World stays) and have a deck that isn't 75%. I can run some tutors, run a lot more interactive cards like Vexing Shusher and Carpet of Flowers and then never play the deck because I don't play cEDH instead of never playing it because I thought it was bad because it runs three Guildgates. Be honest with yourself - sometimes a deck isn't 75% and that's OK. Don't make it worse, make it better and have one fewer 75% deck.

The Game: My Tatyova versus Etali, Primal Storm, Radiant, Archangel, and Roalesk, Apex Hybrid.

Tatyova, Benthic Druid

The deck isn't bad but a loose-ish three-lander punished me after I went Lotus Cobra into Gaea's Touch which I decided to pop for two Green to play Skyshroud Claim giving me the mana for Tatyova. I didn't have any more lands in hand and Tatyova and Cobra died to a wrath before I found a source of Blue mana, leaving me with Kiora and Zegana stranded in hand. My deck laughed at me, feeding me lands slowly and flipping up cards I needed to Etali and feeding me bricks. I drew a turn eight Boundless Realms and everyone laughed at my six mana (and my Helix Pinnacle with 20 counters on it since I couldn't do anything with only Green mana) but I ripped a land next turn to Boundless Realms myself into the driver's seat in the game. The board kept getting wiped over and over to keep Etali at bay, my Helix Pinnacle was copied and destroyed and my Psychosis Crawler ended up binned. I basically had no win conditions at this point. The game ended when I resolved two Eldrazi and Avanger of Zendikar, which all got Cyclonic Rifted and replayed. The Radiant player Emrakuled me. Told everyone what was in my hand and we all scooped because we were bored.

The Lesson: It's really easy to build a deck like Tatyova because there is no shortage of cards that synergize well with your Commander. On a good turn I played Azusa, Lost but Seeking into a land dump into Summer Bloom into Animists' Awakening into Rhystic Study and Zegana and passed what ended up being a 2 minute turn undone by a Catastrophe (the card, not the concept) which killed all of my creatures. It's hard to cut enough cards that synergize with the Commander to have a contingency for your win conditions getting destroyed other than "hope they don't get exiled and shuffle them back in with Eldrazi." Decks need a lot of redundancy in the win condition department and if your commander is a set-up card rather than a finisher card, you need to add more ways to win than normal. Boring everyone isn't a good win condition, and the game took so long (everyone durdled, it wasn't all my fault) that we packed up and went to dinner after. Games have to end.

As an aside here, I have a lot of people ask me why I love Insurrection so much. After all, isn't Insurrection basically a Coalition Victory in Mono-Red? What's 75% about a 1-card combo that says "you win the game?" The answer to that is a simple one - Insurrection is a 40-card combo. You need a board full of creatures - so many creatures that you can't play all of them yourself. You are relying on your opponents to give you something to beat them with. Sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn't. Insurrection doesn't win in a cheesy way when you hit Sol Ring, Mana Vault, Mana Crypt and turn two cast Seething Song and Insurrection for the win. Insurrection ends games that are boring because everyone has a million creatures and no one can attack. Insurrection is the perfect 75% card - it steals their stuff, which we like, it ends boring games, it WINS boring games and it doesn't really pubstomp casual players because ramping to it early does nothing. It's not incongruous with 75% theory, on the contrary - once you understand why Insurrection is so perfect, you'll come closer to understanding 75% theory for yourself.

The Game: My Teysa Karlov versus Maelstrom Wanderer (my deck, leant out), Edgar Markov, and Lord Windgrace.

Teysa Karlov

I felt really good about my opening hand. I had a decent amount of ramp, two sac outlets in the form of Phyrexian Altar and Viscera Seer and two great payoff cards in the form of Martyr's Bond and Vindictive Lich. Hands like this are what the deck lives for.

The person borrowing my Maelstrom Wanderer deck vomited their hand, got hit with some targeted removal and fell behind, the Lord Windgrace deck played a lot of extra lands and got going immediately and Edgar Markov swarmed the board with tokens. I never really drew a creature and turn three Teysa (which died) into turn four Lich into "I died before I ever cast Martyr's Bond" didn't get there. I drew Dictate of Erebos, Butcher of Malakir, and Nirkana Revenant, which is unlucky, but also taught me a little about deck construction.

The Lesson: It's important not to build around your commander to such an extent that you don't have any interaction. As much as my Tatyova deck had a few games over the weekend where it was tough to pivot to a new win condition when hit with some disruption, my Teysa deck had a few games where I couldn't live long enough to play expensive win conditions. Most Teysa decks' mana curves are too high. Butcher of Malakir, Grave Pact, Dictate of Erebos, Martyr's Bond all synergize great with Teysa, but if you die with Wurmcoil Engine, Cavalier of Night, and Krav, the Unredeemed in your hand, synergy doesn't much matter. Pack some Mortify, Swords to Plowshares, Return to Dust, and maybe a Teferi's Protection to make sure the game lasts long enough for your payoff cards to matter. I didn't build the deck like an idiot, per se, but drawing all of my expensive cards with my removal stuck in the deck (as statistically improbable as that may be) taught me a lesson about how poor deck construction can lead to a lot more games like that. I got unlucky, but plenty of Teysa builders have way too many cards that cost 5+ mana and they'll have a lot of games like the one I had. I think my mana curve is quite a bit lower than most players' and I have quite a few removal spells, but swapping Nirkana Revenant for Unmake for the rest of the weekend shored things up a bit and I didn't have any more miserable games with the deck. If you want to win the game, you'll at some point need to make sure no one else wins before you can and interactive cards are key.

The Game: Estrid, the Masked versus Feather, the Redeemed, Kykar, Wind's Fury, and Oloro, Ageless Ascetic.

Estrid, the Masked

My Estrid deck is a lot of fun to play. I lay down a few Enchantress effects, load my lands up with Wild Growth effects, use Estrid to generate a ton of mana and then steal all of their creatures with Control Magic effects, which draw cards for me when I play them, keeping my hand stocked. I can win with Starfield of Nyx shenanigans and even use Serra's Sanctum to make a ton of Clerics, which themselves are enchantments which makes Sanctum better next turn or when I untap it with Estrid.

I got things going with an early Satyr Enchanter and an Overgrowth on a land. With Estrid out, I started putting Totem Armors on my permanents. Estrid got attacked and killed a lot, but I was doing well on mana so I kept replaying her until it was costing me 12 or 14 mana to replay her. I got a Ghostly Prison, a Meishin, the Mind Cage and a Privileged Position/Greater Auramancy combo going to make everything absolutely untargetable and I died to the Kykar player who had nothing but bird tokens and artifacts in play going off and burning the whole table out. I had Treachery and Control Magic in hand and nothing to play them on but the Kykar player's bird tokens (she had no creatures in her entire deck) or the Oloro player's Solemn Simulacrum. I watched as people attacked me with birds, fought counterspell wars, and tried to kill Feather before it got too many pump spells played on it.

The Lesson: It's a mistake to rely too heavily on the other players to give you something to beat them with. My favorite thing to do in 75% settings is steal their creatures and beat them down with them and it's caused me to steer heavy into Simic - Green for Ramp and Blue for the wonderful ways to steal their creatures. Bribery, Desertion, Treachery - however you have to betray someone, you make it work. However, Blue may not be the best color for these sorts of Shenanigans. As much value as I got out of using Mind's Dilation, until the Oloro player nuked it, the Etali deck I played against and the Gonti deck I borrowed played far more of my opponents' spells than I did in that game despite having a deck dedicated to Treachery effects. I got unlucky that game (I got unlucky a lot that weekend, which taught me a lot about my decks) and didn't find any of my own win conditions, but when a deck is designed around how much fun it is to play Control Magic and I lost not because I didn't draw enough Control Magic effects but rather because I drew too many, something has to give. I think the Estrid deck is quite good and I get a lot of games with it, but when you're playing against three decks that are very creature-light, you should pick another deck. If just one of my opponents had been more dense with creatures, I would have been in good shape, but pods like that one happen. I think there are a few swaps I could have made to make the Estrid deck more resilient to opponents with low threat densities, but this game, as with the other games I learned from, variance to the extreme exposed potential weaknesses in the deck. I don't want to abandon Estrid because the deck wins, but maybe the Control Magic suite is too cute to commit as fully to it. Swapping a few of those effects for some more Bribery effects would have worked much better and though Bribery doesn't draw cards with Enchantresses out, it IS proactive and could have gotten the Oloro player's Consecrated Sphinx or the Kykar player's Monastery Mentor which would have been much more useful than dying with a Control Magic ready for a creature they didn't play.

The Game: My Maelstrom Wanderer versus Breya, Etherium Shaper, Golos, Tireless Pilgrim, and Yarok, the Desecrated.

I played a game earlier in the weekend where I held back a Coiling Oracle so I could play a turn three Panharmonicon first and I almost did something similar here but I elected to just ramp as quickly as I could this game and I got to live the dream of casting Maelstrom Wanderer with two mana up which was rewarded when I hit my Tooth and Nail and got to pay the Entwine. I got Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Zealous Conscripts and conceded.

I sat and watched the rest of the game and the Yarok deck was actually a lot more fun and less linear than I had assumed. It had a Constellation subtheme and used Muldrotha, the Gravetide to bring enchantments back from the graveyard for more Constellation triggers. Watching them sac Hatching Plans to Claws of Gix made me realize I had really misjudged the pod based on the commanders they put out. I was glad I scooped and glad they played the match out. The Rafiq Problem is a real thing and despite coining the phrase, I'm not immune to its effects. I misjudged the pod and played a deck that wins quickly under the right circumstances when I could have played a more meandering game and had some more fun. A conversation before the match may or may not have led me to make a better deck choice. Or maybe not. They were fine with me winning and would have gladly shuffled for another game, which is my usual attitude and another reason why I like Insurrection so much. More games is better than fewer games, in my opinion.

I am still learning about 75% deck-building and jamming so many games this past weekend was a great learning experience. If you want to be part of the action, find me at Magic Fest Indianapolis. I hope this was as instructive for you as it was for me. Until next time!