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Around the Wheel: Sai, Master Thopterist

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Blue has an interesting reputation in Magic: the Gathering. Most competitive players acknowledge it's the "best" or "strongest" color generally - heck, we say an Island is the strongest opening in Magic. Many Commander players think it's one of the best, but not necessarily the tops. I've had people tell me they only run decks if they have Blue in them and I've had people tell me if they were in charge of Wizards the first thing they'd do is get rid of it.

My suspicion is most of it has to do with the "feel-bad-ness" of the color. Blue can't really destroy anything, so it manages threats by simply not letting them appear. If I counter your big thing, you never even get to play with your big thing. Even though it's *functionally* the same as your big thing eating a Tragic Slip (and in some ways better than a Path to Exile), human nature says it doesn't feel as good if you never get to play with your toy at all. (There is an argument Wizards has overpowered Blue throughout the years. There are few cards that define formats more than Force of Will. Sure, Slaughter Pact is free, but it's not free like Force, and it's not all-encompassing like Force. I'm always amazed when they print another free Counterspell effect, but hey, I'm just a Commander player.)

It's worth reminding ourselves that a Counterspell is worth less in Commander than in heads-up formats. One card for one card is not a great deal when you've got multiple opponents. And you have to commit the resource really, really early in the process. A kill spell is also one-for-one, but you can sit on your kill spell until the thing is attacking you - who knows? That Steel Hellkite might swing at an opponent and make it easier to kill them later!

It's the best at drawing cards reliably, that's for sure. Manipulating the library, too, which makes sense, because in the lore the library is like your subconscious mind (your hand being your active mind), and Blue is the color of the mind, so it would allow the planeswalker more access to their own mind. Rhystic Study does a good job of drawing cards over and over, which is pretty key in a game of Commander. Jace, the Mind Sculptor may not be the Commander powerhouse he is in Legacy, but still, a Brainstorm every turn is a thing that matters. Then again, Phyrexian Arena does a pretty good Rhystic impression, and Sensei's Divining Top is probably better than JtMS. Heck, the biggest hands I've seen drawn are always off Green spells! But still, Blue can draw cards lots of different ways. That's helpful, and probably important to use when we're in the color.

And it has that affinity for artifacts - oh, sorry: Affinity for Artifacts. It's both a thing Blue has and an ability it has. Yes, occasionally Blue plays into that space, where each artifact we control makes our spell cheaper (sidenote: um, Blinkmoth Infusion?! Can we please figure out a way to break that card in the comments? Not even in Mono- Blue, just... someone tell me how I can win the game using that card. Please?). But it also has cards that just care about artifacts, going back way farther than the first colored artifacts in Shards of Alara. If we assume we'll probably just get card-drawing as a side effect (you can only say that when building in Blue) let's ignore the less fun thing of trying to counter spells and instead build around those artifacts. Enter our commander.

Sai, Master Thopterist

Only bad thing about this guy is... well, no, there's nothing bad about this guy. We get a Lightning Bolt-dodging toughness (which matters, like, zero in Commander but still! 4 toughness for 3 mana? In Blue? I'll take it) for two-and-a- Blue, we get a relevant first ability that makes a squadron of attackers for us, and a relevant second ability that cares a good bit about the first one, while simultaneously giving us cards to draw more artifacts and make more Thopters. He gives us a pathway to victory and paves it for us: play artifacts. Make dudes. Attack with dudes. I think we can do that.

It does turn out, however, it's easy to get distracted with this line of thinking. See, there's so much support for artifacts in Blue, we can wind up wanting to run all the things that are awesome with artifacts. Things that turn artifacts into creatures like Tezzeret the Seeker or March of the Machines. Things that randomly care about Thopters like Thopter Assembly. If you want to go those directions, by all means, get at it. But if we want to try to win with this guy, we need to build an army of fliers, give them a boost, and send them in to harm's way, and we need to do it fairly quickly. This involves being fairly merciless with our curve, keeping our average converted mana cost low, and not going too far down the road of the flashy tricks.

Our average CMC is 2.97. And we're running ways to ramp like Sol Ring, Thran Dynamo, and Ashnod's Altar, and ways to make things cheaper, like Jhoira's Familiar, Etherium Sculptor, and Foundry Inspector. With a bit of ramp and a low CMC, we're safe dipping below our normal 40 lands. So we have 39. A bevy of Islands, of course, plus some extra utility. We've got stuff that returns artifacts or searches for them. Homeward Path should be in most decks when they can afford a colorless land slot. Arcane Lighthouse may seem strange, since we're running practically nothing that interacts with our opponents' stuff, but there is the random corner case with Spine of Ish Sah, and more importantly, we can use it to bargain. They've got the kill spell but can't see the target. Well, if we paint the target, maybe they won't attack us for a turn or two? Some extra Thopter support, and we're even running Urzatron, because mostly each one is just a land in our deck, but if we hit it that's pretty great.

Sai, of course, gives us a way to draw some cards should we need them. But we've got better stuff. Vedalken Archmage is up there for us; we play a fair amount of artifacts, and an extra card each time we do is great. Thopter Spy Network, too, does amazing work for us; it's not unusual for us to attack with six or seven Thopters, and they often get through. We'll draw a lot of cards that way. Trading Post is kind of Sai number two but cheaper, Padeem will often draw us some cards, Idol of Oblivion should hit every turn, and Riddlesmith lets us loot for half the cost of the Archmage. We'll churn through our cards, that's for sure. By the way, unless we have victory on board, with no action in our hand, it's almost always worth it to sacrifice a Thopter for a card.

We pretty much win with our Thoptors. That's the plan, anyway. We're going to make them with Sai, we're going to make them with the Spy Network, we're going to make them with Efficient Construction. We're even going to pop a few extra out with other cards. Then we're going to play something like Steel Overseer or Favorable Winds or, my personal favorite, Gravitational Shift, and we're going to beat the snot out of our opponents with them. Commander players leave the game pretty quickly when they're attacked with 12 4/2 fliers on turn seven or so.

Our answers are both expensive and awesome. Spine of Ish Sah belongs in every deck that can abuse it, and with Trading Post or Krark-Clan Ironworks we can. (Add Master Transmuter for extra spice; we're not, because we don't have much worth transmuting, but a higher-CMC version of this deck could really use it.) Meanwhile, Steel Hellkite is surprisingly underused in Commander, and is an excellent card for dealing with lots of different problems, including opposing token decks. Those are our bail-out cards; otherwise, we're not going to worry about what they're doing. We're going to be faster.

It is worth pointing out we have two additional ways to win, but both are really goofy and require a lot of luck to make work. First up is Mirrodin Besieged, set to Phyrexian. We're running 21 artifacts, so getting to 15 is unlikely, but if the game has gone long and we've been hit with a Shattering Spree or three, we might be able to get lucky with it and kill someone or even a table. We could also just go all in with it early and loot away our artifacts trying to hit it, but that'd be risky. The second is Mechanized Production. We can enchant a Thopter. At our upkeep we'll make another one, then if we have eight we just win. Okay, but I suspect someone will want to kill the Thopter we've enchanted. Probably, so that's where Vedalken Orrery comes in. With the Orrery on the 'field, we can Flash in Mechanized Production at the end of our last opponent's turn. We untap, trigger, and win. Oops! We can also just play Mechanized Production fairly and hope it survives, which is its own fun, but unless things are dire, it's probably worth waiting to see if the combo is drawn.

(Also, none of the Mages - Trinket, Tribute, Trophy, or Treasure - can search for the Orrery, but Inventors' Fair can. Don't do that. Don't be that player. Don't go for the combo. Draw it naturally or don't do it at all.)

Sai, Master Thopterist | Commander | Mark Wischkaemper


A couple of cards worth considering are Urza's Miter, which is just too slow a method of drawing for a Blue deck, and Mystic Forge. The ability to extend our hand and manipulate the top of our library is valuable, but in my estimation we're quick enough to not need it. Your mileage may vary.

Would you use Instants and Sorceries in your version of Sai? What else would you do? How do I break Blinkmoth Infusion?! Sound off in the comments!

I almost did Fblthp, the Lost this week. Something with Library Manipulation and being able to cast from the top of the library, along with blinking and ETB shenanigans. Seems like one could draw a lot of cards with Sensei's Divining Top and Future Sight.

Black is next. Thanks for reading.

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