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Commander Crush: Prime Speaker Vannifar

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Every now and then a legendary creature grabs a hold of me and doesn't let me go until I sleeve it up with 99 other cards. If you read my articles, you'll know that this happened with Kaseto, Orochi Archmage,The Locust God, and with Mairsil, the Pretender. There are more commander crushes that I want to tell you about (psst Najeela), but right now let's talk about an amazing card that was revealed by my friends at The Command Zone podcast, in a toughly enjoyable episode about "How NOT to evaluate cards." In the episode they catalog their comical misevaluations of cards over the last couple of sets. Ironically, it's really hard to overstate the power-level of their preview card for Ravnica Allegiance. Let me introduce you to Prime Speaker Vannifar.

Vannifar is a 4 mana (2ug), 2/4, Elf Ooze Wizard with a whopper of an ability:

Tap, Sacrifice another Creature: Search your library for a creature card with converted mana cost equal to 1 plus the sacrificed creature's converted mana cost, put that card onto the battlefield, then shuffle your library. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery.

Remind you of anything?

Birthing Pod

That's right! A Birthing Pod that you can put in the freaking command zone! Oh, and it doesn't cost mana to activate. Vannifar is one of the most exciting creatures in Ravnica Allegiance for commander, now all that's left do is find ninety-nine other cards to sleeve up with her!

Starting at the End(game)

The strength of Vannifar is her ability to tutor-up creatures from your deck. This strength is tempered by our color restriction. In traditional Birthing Pod decks, we have access to a slew of options for both assembling our combo and winning the game - cards like Karmic Guide or Sun Titan out of White, and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker (AKA Kiki-Jiki Game Breaker) in Red. Lacking these things we have to set our sights on winning with a narrow swath of options and my sensibilities as a player, narrow our focus even more. I didn't choose to include Commander powerhouses like Craterhoof Behemoth, or Triumph of the Hordes to end the game. It's not because I'm above those cards, I've infected many-a-table in my day. It's because I try to avoid ending the game with combat if I can help it, since combat is easily disrupted. Also, who wants to attack when infinite mana is on the table?

Deadeye Navigator
Palinchron
Peregrine Drake

Generating infinite mana does not itself end the game, but it gives us a way to get there. Once you have infinite mana, you can use Deadeye Navigator's ability on any of your creatures. Think about all the possibilities! Do you want to destroy all the non-creature permanents? Just blink (exile and return) Woodfall Primus over and over again. Do you want to draw you deck? Elvish Visionary can help with that. Do you want to end the game? Just pump a million mana into Walking Ballista, literally!

Woodfall Primus
Elvish Visionary
Walking Ballista

Out of all the options above, Walking Ballista is the only one that truly ends the game. Woodfall Primus may force a concession, but technically the game can still go on - and it might if someone has an army of creatures. You could work a Man-o'-War style creature into your decklist to finish up the job, but instead I opted to for something that wins on a different axis completely: Laboratory Maniac. When combined with drawing your deck with Elvish Visionary, the Lab Manic gives us a way to with without combat, or damage. Humm, is that a groan I hear?

Soapbox Break

Before we get into the nitty gritty of what this deck does, I want to take a detour. I got a little bit of flack on Twitter when talking about this deck's endgame. Some people roll their eyes at winning with Laboratory Maniac. Others might warm up a sarcasm tortilla and wrap it around a sentence like this, "Wow, infinite mana, so original!"I get it. Commander is one of the most open formats for deck-building, and it feels a bit bland to go to the same cards for a win. But everyone enjoys the game differently.

While I can appreciate a new creative way to win, or force a draw, or even purposely lose the game (this is a real thing) - at the end of the day I'm a systems guy. I enjoy building systems. To me, all decks are systems. Their output (or win condition) is not as important as how smoothly and cohesively the deck functions as a whole. Meticulously picking out each part of the machine and painstakingly assembling those parts is what I enjoy most about deck-building. So, whether I end the game with Laboratory Maniac, or Biovisionary (I have ended games with this guy) it's more about the journey.

Charting a Course

Our journey starts with a creature, and let's be honest, in a game of Commander, that's a fragile place to start. One of the biggest weaknesses of our Commander is that it Dies to Removal. The good news is, if you untap with Prime Speaker Vannifar, you'll likely win the game! But don't be so hasty, before we roll the beautiful mind clip of us navigating complicated creature chains to find victory, we still have to untap with Prime Speaker Vannifar. I have some cards in the deck to help you do that but first let's talk about a concept that can help you get the most out of these cards. I call this concept, "the window".

The Window

I learned about this concept while playing combo decks in both Vintage and Legacy. When you play a lot of combo decks, you find that there's a cadence to the game that often looks the same. The first stage of the game is typically setting up your combo. During this stage, your non-combo opponent is probably developing their mana, deploying their threats, or trying to establish some kind of card advantage. At some point in the game, your opponent will sync up with their strategy and start to pressure you. Right before this happens, there's a window of opportunity for you to combo-off before they catch their balance. It's typically, when their options of interactivity are limited, either by mana, cards in hand, or timing. This is why combo decks that "go-off" in turns one through three are extremely effective, and why Force of Will is so critical in those formats.

In Commander, because there's multiple players, there can be many windows of opportunity besides the one that happens early in the game. For example, if someone goes for the win but is thwarted, this can open a window for you to try, since others at the table may have exhausted their interactivity. That being said, I still like to try to combo early in the game because it means that my opponents have less mana to respond, and they've seen less of their deck. The more time that passes, the more mana each player can accumulate and the more cards they see. This means it's more likely that they'll have answer. If you pay special attention to when you're trying to combo, you'll find that your protection cards can carry much more weight.

Protect the Prime Speaker

Swiftfoot Boots
Heroic Intervention
Swan Song

From the moment you reveal that you're playing Vannifar you're going to have a target on your head. Your opponent's will be holding on to their Path to Exiles, and other removal spells for the moment that you try to steal the game. That's why finding the right moment is so important, and once you do find the right moment, you can still expect some resistance. That's where these cards come in handy. Swiftfoot Boots is a great way to bait our removal. When you go to equip the card, whoever's packing is going to make it known. This is when a well-timed Heroic Intervention or a Swan Song can secure you safe passage. The really great thing about Swiftfoot Boots is that it also gives Vannifar haste, which means you can get your chain started right away.

Because these kinds of cards are important, we have some redundancy in cards like Muddle the Mixture which can counter a spell or go and get your Boots / Heroic Intervention (and combo pieces if needed). We also have Spellseeker who can fetch some of these in preparation for your combo turn. Even seemingly innocuous cards in the decklist can play a protection role. Alchemist's Refuge for example, can allow you to flash-in your Commander at the end of your opponent's turn. This can be particularly surprising if you play Crop Rotation to fetch the Refuge. Now, out of nowhere, you're untapping with Vannifar and its code red for your opponents!

The Elf Ooze Has Landed

Vannifar is on the battlefield and ready to combo, now what? If you have more than one creature in play, then it's likely that you'll be able to chain your way to a win. The chain of creatures that you use will look different every time because it will depend on what's on the battlefield, in your hand, or in the graveyard. The goal is to untap Vannifar with a creature at each casting cost on the way up the chain. The creatures below will help you do that.

Quirion Ranger
Scryb Ranger

Deceiver Exarch
Breaching Hippocamp
Chakram Retriever

When you look at the decklist, you'll notice that we only have one true untapper at each mana cost (besides CMC 3). This leads to some important sequencing decisions. For example, when you're double-chaining you'll want to get your Hippocamp and then on the second chain get a Phyrexian Metamorph to copy your Hippocamp before using Vannifar's ability to sacrifice the Hippocamp. It can also lead to using your mana untappers like Peregrine Drake or Cloud of Faeries to untap your Wirewood Lodge (or Minamo, School at Water's Edge). These intricates can make playing the deck really difficult. Thankfully, we do have some easy-mode options.

Intruder Alarm
Thornbite Staff
Illusionist's Bracers

The cards above take a lot of thinking out of the equations. With Intruder Alarm in play (or Thornbite Staff equipped) every time you activate Vannifar's ability you get to untap her. This means you can get any creature on the chain at each cost without worrying about how to untap Vannifar! It also means that you can win with only one creature on board (besides Vannifar). To do this, you simply chain up to Woodland Bellower this will get you a 3-drop. Then use Vannifar's ability to swap the Bellower for Palinchron and chain the 3-drop into Deadeye Navigator to accomplish infinite mana! With infinite mana and a Deadeye Navigator at your disposal, you should be able to win the game. Illusionist's Bracers allows you to fetch two creatures with each activation. This incidentally gives you access to an untapper, and a utility creature with each activation and should make for easier chaining.

One Hundred Good Ones

Ok, enough talk! Let's looks at the list. I haven't gotten any reps in with this decklist, but I drew on all my brain power to assemble what I think is the best starting place. Let me know in the comments if you think there are some cards / strategies that I left out.

Prime Speaker Vannifar | Commander | Jonathan Medina


What's Missing?

There may be some cards that you're surprised that I did not include. There are two cards that I considered but they didn't make the cut; Freed from the Real (and cards like it), and Concordant Crossroads. Auras that untap our Commander can make it easier to combo, but as I said before, our commander is fragile. I don't want my opponent's removal spell to take care of both my Commander and my enabler. Intruder Alarm is much better for our purposes since we can put it in play separately from our Commander, and it forces our opponents to have two removal spells or a mass destruction spell.

Concordant Crossroads is one of my pet cards that seems like it would make sense in this deck because it gives Vannifar haste! It also helps you get up the chain with cards that tap to untap, like Fatestitcher and Tidewater Minion (not in the deck). The primary issue is, if you build your chain to rely on Crossroads, then when you don't have Crossroads (or it gets destroyed) then you end up with a useless card like Tidewater Minion. If my goal was to win through combat damage, then Concordant Crossroads would, no doubt, be in the deck, but with my current win conditions. I decided to pass on it.

Shout-Outs

I hope that you've enjoyed hanging out with me and my commander crush! Before I get out of here, I'd like to give some shout-outs!

DJ from Jumbo Commander, for creating an excellent YouTube video about Prime Speaker Vannifar like 10 minutes after she was spoiled and helping me realize my inadequacy as a content producer.

Jason Alt, who pointed out that Illusionist's Bracers allows you to do broken things, or umm brokener things, with Prime Speaker Vannifar.

YoMTGTaps, for making a triumphant return to Magic podcasting. If you haven't had the pleasure of listening to these two guys, I highly recommend it!

Have a great week. Thank you for reading.

-Jonathan

@Medina_MTG