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Lore and Consequences: Szadek vs. Agrus Kos


History tends to repeat itself. But can it also revise itself?

Thespian's Stage by John Avon

Few formats so deftly blend flavor and function as Commander, where you literally recruit a historical figure to lead your army. But what's the connection between these legendary cards and their actual legends? It is possible to build decks in such a way that we can see these stories play out in the course of a game? Or, if we prefer to take a more active hand, meddle with the fate of our heroes and villains?

Today, we'll delve into the ancient lore of Magic: The Gathering and fuse it with our deck-building. The resulting Frankenstein's monster will be a pair of fully playable Commander decks, complete with themes and synergies, that also recount a story from Magic's fabled past. All card and deck-building choices will serve to tell the tale, allowing you to regale your playgroup (while you simultaneously crush them).

So, join me, brave brewer, on this quest to recreate the past. And win while doing so.

Today's central players could not be more diametrically opposed:

Szadek, Lord of Secrets by Donato Giancola

A diabolical mastermind pulling strings from the shadows...

Agrus Kos, Wojek Veteran by Donato Giancola

...versus a burnt-out cop who never heard the word 'retirement'.

Before we partake of this urban journey, a few ground rules...

1. Function comes first

Our mission is to design playable Commander decks that not only detail story arcs, but also seek to win the game. Circu, Dimir Lobotomist is classic-Dimir in flavor and function, but his ability is unlikely to make a big impact in singleton formats. Feather, the Redeemed is a close friend and colleague to Agrus Kos, Wojek Veteran in the story, but the cards call for different strategies and to utilize their full potential. One seeks combat tricks while the other wants to go-wide.

Feather, the Redeemed

No worries, we'll find a suitably-angelic substitute

2. Flavor still dictates card selection

A card's connection to Magic lore may disqualify it from this experiment. The notorious Cyclonic Rift is powerful, but also intrinsically linked to the Izzet Guild, with their logo literally stamped right onto it. Don't expect Halvar, God of Battle to wield Sunforger. Cards can only reference planes/characters they're organically linked to. Depending on how much "narrative vs. competitive" matters to you personally, I leave it up to you to tinker with the builds as you see fit. Commander is all about creativity, after all.

Tenza, Godo's Maul
These are all directly linked to the worlds they hail from.

3. That said, if a card could exist on another plane, it's totally up for grabs

Today's tale may not involve Amonkhet, but I see no reason something like Scavenger Grounds is out of bounds. Such an environment could feasibly appear in many worlds, and the graveyard hate it provides is an important tool for a Commander deck to have in its pocket. We're allowing wiggle-room when picking cards that could feasibly slide into any narrative. Rise of the Hobgoblins could portray a goblin uprising anywhere. And there are plenty of feisty goblins running around Ravnica.

Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin

To say nothing of their boss.

Okay, that covered, time to venture out into the big city!

"Ravnica, City of Guilds" novel

The world of Ravnica, much like Coruscant, is entirely covered in cityscape. And don't expect the 'Star Wars' references to end there. Those familiar with Ravnica's introduction know that these are where two-color pairings first got their namesake. Each color-combo, be it allied or enemy, is represented as one of ten guilds. Collectively, these act as the plane's entire economic infrastructure, each with their own societal contributions. But the world wasn't always like this. Ages ago, the feuding guilds came together and agreed Ravnica could only function under unity. Thus was born the Guildpact, signed by each of the original ten Paruns, or guild leaders. This magical contract establishes many of the enchanted rules that both protect and govern what is and isn't allowed on Ravnica.

Seal of the Guildpact
Tablet of the Guilds
Tome of the Guildpact
They really like to personalize their stuff

Despite this, most of the Guilds still hate each other's guts. Especially those opposed via color-pie philosophies. This spells frequent trouble for the citizens of Ravnica, the vast majority of whom don't belong to any Guild. And are thusly treated as second-class citizens. Guild membership brings ample perks, as you've not only the backup of an entire guild, but far more legal protection than a humble commoner. Even the Ravnican police force, a Boros subdivision known as the Wojek, are obligated to serve guildmembers over the everyday commoner.

Nightguard Patrol
Guildless Commons
As such, most folks stay the heck out of the guilds' way.

And that's a bummer, because our main protagonist, an aging (over 100 yrs old!) Agrus Kos, Wojek Veteran is the classic 'one good cop in a corrupt system'. Despite being worn down by years of physical trauma, addiction to magical pain killers, and the death of his first partner/ mentor decades ago, Agrus believes in doing what's right. Even if a few skulls need to get busted along the way. The Wojek are essentially the 'blue collar' wing of the Boros, less focused on martial glory and more on law enforcement. Agrus does his best, despite a tired frame and jaded disposition. Just like Murtaugh from 'Lethal Weapon', he's getting way too old for this sh!t.

Bell Borca, Spectral Sergeant
Feather, the Redeemed

Which I suppose makes Bell Borca, Spectral Sergeant a ghostly version of Mel Gibson. Prior to receiving his copy of "Handbook for the Recently Deceased", Bell was the young partner to Agrus and set to take his position once the bureaucracy forces Agrus to take on a desk-job. Ah, classic cop-movie stuff here, folks. Also on the squad is fan-favorite Feather, the Redeemed, though at this point 'Feather the Unredeemed', as she's currently in exile. Angels nearly always hold high rank in the Boros, so to see one among the Wojek is quite odd. Her interactions with Agrus are some of the best in the story, as her angelic-demeanor means she doesn't quite understand social interaction. Think Spock with wings (though hers are bound as punishment, at the moment).

Kill-Suit Cultist
Goblin Grenade
This actually happens next!

Though tired, Agrus never gets too comfy with the idea of a desk job, as it's not long before his partner is killed by an explosive assassination while out on patrol. Fortunately for Bell, he signed an Orzhov afterlife-insurance contract prior to his death, meaning his ghost can stick around until his murder is avenged. And guess which tired old cop gets that responsibility? Bell wasn't the target of the bombing - rather a Selesnya noble - but the resulting murder-mystery lays the foundation for the rest of the story.

Mindleech Mass
Savra, Queen of the Golgari
Dimir Machinations
Exit light, enter night

So, what does all this have to do with Szadek, Lord of Secrets? Well, this leads us back to the 'Star Wars' link from earlier. Szadek and his secretive Dimir Guild have become more urban myth than reality by this point. The Parun has been pulling strings in the background this entire time. Say hello to our Emperor Palpatine. The bombing is one element in a years-long masterplan of Guild manipulation, takeover, and the eventual destruction of the Guildpact. Of which Szadek was actually one of the original signers! His 'Darth Vader' is Savra, Queen of the Golgari, actively enforcing a brutal takeover (and with familial connections to another of our heroes: a pre-undead Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord), but in truth completely deceived. A pawn serving the machinations of their shadowy puppet master. Despite being hidden for centuries, Szadek has eyes everywhere, as his worm-like parasite minions - Mindleech Mass - entirely assimilate their victims, replace them, and act as spies under Szadek's control. John Carpenter's "The Thing" meets James Gunn's "Slither".

Wow, I would watch the hell out of that cross-over.

So how in the world does an aging cop stand a chance against an all-powerful vampire overlord?


Okay, it's a little more complicated than that.

Get ready for battle - Choose your character!

Szadek, Lord of Secrets
Agrus Kos, Wojek Veteran

Watery Grave by Raymond Swanland

Szadek, Lord of Secrets | Commander | Matt Lotti

The O.G. Mill-Commander, Szadek, Lord of Secrets comes in at a steep casting cost, but brings both evasion and exponential mill potential to the table. His stats grow quickly, and as they do, more and more cards get eaten. Milling is a tough strategy to pull off, so having a general who can routinely mill 20-40 cards per swing is certainly helpful. But he'll need support, especially since the Azorius-flavored Bruvac, the Grandiloquent is off-limits. We'll pair Szadek up with a suite of strong Milling-effects and backup control elements. Because we're seeking to mill our opponent's out, we'll also include a variety of tools that take advantage of full-graveyards.

Mindleech Mass
Consuming Aberration
Nemesis of Reason

Shadow-Agents: Our primary mission is to mill opposing decks to shreds, but many of our creatures are either already quite large or get larger in their milling conquest. Consuming Aberration, Sewer Nemesis, Nemesis of Reason, Fleet Swallower, Diluvian Primordial, Ghastlord of Fugue, and Mindleech Mass all have the ability to hit hard while simultaneously milling an opponent or stealing/discarding their spells for value. Backed up by the similarly-scary Doom Whisperer and Opposition Agent, as well as Notion Thief and Drift of Phantasms for card advantage/tutoring, and your controlling force may well be able to beat-down for lethal damage as 'Plan B' if milling doesn't work out.

Memory Erosion
Mind Grind
Memory Plunder

Inducing Insanity: Turn their decks to dust. That's what Szadek is looking to do, and while handing him a Fireshrieker sounds fun, we'll need more ways to up the mill game. Fraying Sanity, Psychic Corrosion, Mind Grind, Maddening Cacophony, Traumatize, Folio of Fancies, Induce Paranoia, Court of Cunning, Memory Erosion, and Trepanation Blade all grind through opposing decks with added effects. With all these graveyards filling up, it'd be a shame to let good cards go to waste, so we bring in graveyard-stealing effects like Hedonist's Trove, Memory Plunder, Mnemonic Betrayal, Extract from Darkness, and Spelltwine (which conveniently re-buys you a mill spell mentioned above). And while Cruel Entertainment may not traditionally fit the Milling-strategy, it just too perfectly captures the scheming nature of Szadek to not include.

Rags // Riches
Toxic Deluge
Dimir Charm

Supporting Spycraft: Milling takes time, so we'll need to stay alive while drawing ample fuel along the way. We protect ourselves with mass removal in the form of Shadows' Verdict, Toxic Deluge, Decree of Pain, Mephitic Vapors, Rags // Riches, and Life's Finale. Our targeted removal suite includes Drown in the Loch, Dimir Charm, and Stupefying Touch, which can work wonders against certain commanders. For additional defense, we bring in Propaganda, Ever-Watching Threshold, and Ensaring Bridge to discourage attacks. And as Szadek is a vampire, himself, how could be not bring in the ever-flexible Vampiric Tutor to fetch up whatever answer might be needed in a given circumstance? Finally, Leyline of the Void might seem counter to the graveyard-stealing effects detailed above, but against opposing decks that actually want their graveyards to be fully stocked, it's an essential backup plan.

Jet Medallion
Duskmantle, House of Shadow
Thespian's Stage

Secret Headquarters: Lacking traditional ramp, we rely on Surveyor's Scope and rocks such as Sapphire Medallion, Jet Medallion, Mindstone, and Talisman of Dominance to advance our mana. Nothing fancy, but it'll get the job done. Among our lands, Duskmantle, House of Shadow certainly won't be milling anyone out by itself, but it's nice utility effect to have on a land and is fairly cheap to activate. And with all our graveyard-theft, every little bit helps. Rogue's Passage provides a sneaky route for Szadek to get in for damage if opposing defenses are up, and Thespian's Stage is about as meta an inclusion as it gets, depicting a historical reenactment of the confrontation between Agrus and Szadek at the end of "Guilds of Ravnica''. Too perfect to not include.

While the Dimir wield a hidden knife, the ever-subtle Boros enter the fray guns-ablazin'.

Wojek Siren by Zoltan Boros and Gabor Szikszai

Agrus Kos, Wojek Veteran | Commander | Matt Lotti

Like the above Milling strategy, Aggro-decks are also 'hard-mode' level challenges to pull off in Commander. It's realm where both life totals and deck sizes are increased, to say nothing of tripling the number of opponents. It seems fitting to pair the 'underdogs' against each other, especially considering how entirely opposite their strategies are. Agrus Kos, Wojek Veteran doesn't have a complex plan. He wants to assemble an army as quickly as possible, boost their stats, then attack again and again. To meet these demands, we'll include a ton of token-generation, anthem effects, and sources of multiple combat phases. If we're going to win via attacking, we'd better buy ourselves some extra attack steps.

Legion Warboss
Captain of the Watch
Mentor of the Meek

Leading the Charge: Step one is generating the army, so our creatures start off with Legion Warboss, Precinct Captain, Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin (who the Boros are always chasing after), Young Pyromancer, Sunhome Guildmage, and Captain of the Watch. The latter two creatures mentioned pull double-duty as anthem-effects alongside Balefire Liege and Nobilis of War. Boros hurts for card advantage, so the power of Mentor of the Meek and flavorfully-fitting Bell Borca, Spectral Sergeant cannot be understated. And though our main gameplan is to go-wide with tokens, Seraph of the Masses can provide a massive evasive threat for a reduced cost that handily serves to represent Feather.

Assemble the Legion
Glory of Warfare
Breath of Fury

Assembling an Army: Oddly, most of our troops hail from non-creature sources. Assemble the Legion, Outlaws' Merriment, Goblinslide, Martial Coup, Rise of the Hobgoblins, Goblin Trenches, Mobilization, Hordeling Outburst, and Finale of Glory all generate multiple creature tokens for Agrus and other anthem-effects to boost. Aside from our Commander, such boosts include Sword of the Paruns, Glory of Warfare, True Conviction, Rally the Righteous, Boros Charm, Divine Visitation, and Gleam of Battle. Once an army is built and properly pumped up, it's time to start buying ourselves as many attack phases as possible. Enter Breath of Fury, Aggravated Assault, Response // Resurgence, Waves of Aggression, and even Five-Alarm Fire, which can provide a lot of reach off an army of tokens.

Martial Coup
Bathe in Light
Mask of Memory

Call for Backup: It takes time to build an army, so a suite of support spells are in order. Sweepers like Martial Coup and Citywide Bust are not only flavorful, but are also likely to leave us with creatures left over after the dust settles. Targeted removal includes the on-theme Crush Contraband, Wear // Tear, Arrest (which can be a surprisingly useful way to shut-down some commanders without having them immediately recast from the command zone), and Generous Gift. Open the Armory and Enlightened Tutor allow for the fetching of multiple supporting equipment, like the key card-advantage engines Skullclamp and Mask of Memory, though Helm of the Host pairs quite nicely with Agrus Kos. Other card advantage includes the slow-but-repeatable Inheritance and the classic Mind's Eye. Protection comes in the form of Bathe in Light and Master Warcraft, both of which can be used offensively in a pinch.

Heraldic Banner
War Room
Gift of Estates

Hold your Grounds: Finally, we fall back onto mana rocks for the bulk of our ramp, utilizing staples like Sol Ring, Boros Signet, Commander's Sphere, and Arcane Signet. Heraldic Banner does great work as ramp and an anthem, albeit toward only one color. Being short on card draw, having utility lands such as War Room, Sunhome, Fortress of Legion, and Slayers' Stronghold to turn mana into effects is important, even if the cost is steep. Our reliance on rocks makes Gift of Estates a nearly-guaranteed triple-Plains tutor, despite it not technically being ramp.

Plains by Richard Wright

Now that the battlegrounds are set, I leave the resulting war up to you. Will the schemes of a vampiric Guildmaster come to light, or will they remain foiled in the tapestry of time? Does truth, justice, and the Boros-way (attacking, I guess) prevail, or do they fall under a torrent of trickery and card advantage?

Ink-Treader Nephilim
Witch-Maw Nephilim

Glint-Eye Nephilim
Yore-Tiller Nephilim
Dune-Brood Nephilim
They'd better hash things out quick, cause' guess who's right around the corner to complicate things in "Guildpact"

And so wraps up another ink-etched adventure. We'll continue to explore new realms and legends in future installments, and if you've any recommendations or requests, feel free to let me know in the comments. What characters and stories would you like to see next?

Thanks for reading, and may your hand never empty (unless you want to be Hellbent).

-Matt Lotti-


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