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26 Decks in a Year, Episode 16: Esper


So last week, the Commander rules committee changed how tuck works in Commander. Put simply—if you’ve missed it—if your commander is returned to your hand or any part of your library, you may now send it to the command zone instead if you want.

I’m sort of “meh” on the rule either way—sure, Condemn is a little less good in my white decks, but it’s still basically Swords to Plowshares. The occasional time some jerk is comboing off with Zur the Enchanter and tucking seems to be the only way to manage it cannot possibly outweigh the bunches of times somebody’s deck has just been hosed by an errant Terminus. That said, good Commander decks can hang without the commander, and I think it’s a sign of good deck-building when one has alternate plans.

However, I am interested in some of the reasons why they did it. The second (of four) reasons they listed for this rule change is this:

2) The presence of tuck encourages players to play more tutors so that in case their commander gets sent to the library, they can get it back—exactly the opposite of what we want (namely, discouraging the over-representation of tutors).

By and large, I agree with this. Basic lands are different—there’s nothing wrong with Cultivate or Burnished Hart—but Commander is a ninety-nine-card singleton format; if a player wants a homogenized play experience, this is probably not the correct pile of cards to be building. Also, as a 75% deck-builder (most of the time) in my own life, I generally shy away from tutors in my own building. I think the game is normally more fun when one can’t just find whatever one needs.

I also trust the very hard-working (and unpaid) rules committee. I’ve found their decisions to be thoughtful and deliberate, and while I miss Primeval Titan pretty much every time I play green, I know they were right to ban it. So I choose to trust them on this, too—and if they happen to read this article: Thanks, y’all! Keep up the good work!

But sometimes, it’s fun just to throw the rules—even the self-imposed ones—into the wind and do something absolutely insane. Let’s ignore the committee, run every tutor we can afford, and build a dedicated combo deck.

I highly recommend acquiring a foreign-language version of the commander for this one—the more difficult to understand, the better.

Laboratory Maniac
Normally we start with lands, but in this case, let’s take a look at the combo first and then go through My Deck Tickled A Sliver to see how it all comes together.

We win with Laboratory Maniac. I know it’s not original, but it sure works. We’re going to play the Maniac and then follow it up with Demonic Consultation (for b, no less) for—oh, whatever  . . .  Jace, the Mind Sculptor  . . .  Mox Emerald  . . .  Pyromancer Ascension. Pick something stupid. That dumps our whole deck into our library. Then, we Brainstorm or Ponder or something else that cantrips, and we win on the spot.

We run a lot of mana because we have some really expensive spells. Also, when all we do is play a land and pass, no one thinks we’re up to anything, and we might steal a game or two that way. So we play a bunch of duals and a whole mess of artifacts, including all the Signets, Cluestones, and Keyrunes we can get our hands on and Obelisk of Esper. Sol Ring makes a rare appearance (for this series) next to Worn Powerstone and Sisay's Ring—we want to hit a lot of mana so we can do everything all at once.

There’s not a ton of draw present—mostly just our cantrips—because we’re running tutors instead. Why dig when we can just search out what we need? That said, don’t be afraid to use cantrips to dig when necessary. There are more, so Brainstorming early doesn’t mean we won’t be able to combo later.

We also have no threats. None. In fact, that’s by design. We want to look like we’re being flooded for as long as humanly possible because we want the table to think we’re not a threat and leave us alone. Besides, we don’t want to clutter up our deck with a bunch of non-combo pieces.

Kirtar's Wrath
We do run a bunch of answers, mostly in the form of Wrath effects. Day of Judgment and Kirtar's Wrath join In Garruk's Wake and Decree of Pain to repeatedly wipe the board (oh, and hey, look at that: Decree of Pain is card-draw!). These can easily be upgraded—Austere Command, for example, is always great because it hits enchantments and artifacts, but it’s a touch too pricey—but these should do the trick. Fated Retribution and In Garruk's Wake are both there to handle Planeswalkers, though with any luck, we’ll have gotten there before a Planeswalker becomes a real problem. We also run a duo of specific counters: Dispel and its less-good cousin Flash Counter. Both counter instant spells only. We’re not interested in creating an enemy because we counter someone’s Luminate Primordial, but we do want to save our Maniac from Path to Exile.

Our synergy comes in our searching. We have a bunch of it—basically everything we can afford within the budget. Clutch of the Undercity, Dizzy Spell, Muddle the Mixture, Perplex, Shred Memory, Brainspoil, Dimir Machinations, Dimir Infiltrator, and Drift of Phantasms all have transmute. The 1-drop fetches Demonic Consultation, the 2-drops fetch a Counterspell effect, the 3-drops fetch the Maniac, the 4-drops fetch Insidious Dreams, and the 5-drops fetch a hard tutor like Demonic Collusion or Diabolic Revelation. Beseech the Queen is one of our best, especially with how many lands we’re running, and Sidisi, Undead Vizier isn’t just a current Limited all-star.

To draw a card once the Maniac is on the board and we’ve emptied our library, we’re able to use Mind Stone, a Cluestone, Brainstorm, Peek, Scout's Warning (which is dual-purposed—with this, we can do our entire combo at the end of an opponent’s turn and use our own draw step to win!), Gitaxian Probe, Polluted Mire, Ponder, Preordain, or Sorcererous Sight. And we have a redundancy with Divining Witch, who is a less-good Demonic Consultation.

The only way we have to bring Laboratory Maniac back is with Unburial Rites, which works because even if both of them wind up in the ’yard, we can still bring our crazy guy back. We can also protect him with Ajani's Presence and Gods Willing, which is good when someone tries to remove him in response to Peek.

Ertai, the Corrupted ? Commander | Mark Wischkaemper

There are a lot of different ways one could change this deck. When I first built it, for example, the idea was to win with Ad Nauseam and Angel's Grace into Laboratory Maniac, and that package could be added in without too much trouble. More card-draw and more reactive answers could make for a less Wrathful deck. And of course, if there’s more money to spend or a great big card pool to draw on, better tutors can slot in for a number of the Wrath effects—Demonic Tutor and Vampiric Tutor are awesome, and Mystical Tutor is great here, too. Liliana Vess almost made the cut, but she was just a touch too expensive. Ghostly Prison and Propaganda are both reasonable choices here. I also think there’s a deck that gets rid of Demonic Consultation altogether and just wins with Ad Nauseam, even without Angel's Grace, but it’s tough to keep the total converted mana cost of the deck under 40.

Ad Nauseam
I also recommend running the cheapest alternate-language Esper commander you can find—bonus points if it’s altered beyond recognition, is in Cyrillic or Kanji, or you honestly don’t know what it does. There are several to choose from, but Sharuum the Hegemon and Zur the Enchanter will both immediately draw fire. Does Dakkon Blackblade come in any other languages? Or Lady Evangela? And when someone asks what your commander does, just shrug and say, “I honestly have no idea.”

One note on card selection: In general, when running a Wrath-heavy deck in white or black, Necromantic Selection and Phyrexian Rebirth are great choices. Each leaves behind a big guy, which puts the caster in the superior position. However, because we’re just trying to keep our head down and not be noticed, when we Wrath, we want to make it look like we’re helping the table and just trying to survive until we dig out of this crazy mana flood. If we make a huge token or grab someone’s Ulamog's Crusher, we’re going to suddenly look like a giant target, and we won’t be able to pull off the combo.

Also, save your protection spells and counterspells to protect your combo—literally nothing else. Better to die and not give away any of the trick of the deck since you’ll really only have one shot at it with any given playgroup. If possible, ramp mana until everything can be done in one turn—if everything goes really well, even the tutoring can be done on the same turn. If not, when you face-down tutor, mutter something about needing another black mana or blue mana, and next turn, play a Keyrune.

I know this deck isn’t for everybody, but I hope it’s for someone. Anyone? Bueller? Two questions this week: First, do you like this deck? (You won’t hurt my feelings if you didn’t—it’s certainly not for everyone.) And second, how will the new tucking rule affect your playgroup? Note that I’m asking how it will functionally change your play experience, not how you personally feel—plenty of people have said enough about that.

There’s something kind of cool about a format in which we can go land, land, mana rock, Wrath, tutor, win—even if we have to completely ignore what the rules committee wants us to do . . . or maybe particularly because the rules committee doesn’t want it! Oh, and after killing the table with this one, play a game in which you let them beat the snot out of you. They deserve it.

Total cost: $73.75

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