The Pyramids at Giseh by Edward Lear (19th c.). Keiga the Tide Star by Ittoku.
Sometimes I brew up a new deck and my expectations are pretty high, but in its first few games it just falls flat. I might run into a power imbalance where it just winds up being crystal clear that my exciting new build that can do fun stuff isn't going to overcome the amount of removal coming my way, or isn't going to be relevant before a faster deck is able to just outright win the game. One of the hallmarks of EDH is the variance you end up seeing from game to game, and sometimes that means a genuinely good and well-built deck might start out on a bit of a losing streak as you figure out how to best pilot it and what cards you want to swap out first.
Today's build was not one of those decks. It was very much the opposite. It won its first game, but my gut told me that luck wasn't going to last. Before sitting down to write today's column, I headed over to my local game store and got in a couple more games with it. They were both four player games and in both I had a feeling I was playing the weakest build at the table. Decks come in all kinds of flavors and can be built at lots of different power levels, so I'm never embarrassed at finding myself in that situation. It happens, but I sure didn't win either of those games.
I threw together my first draft of Gnostro, Voice of the Crags, with cards I had lying around. That's my usual way. I like to share real decks I've been playing and I don't proxy across my decks so there are times when the subject of one of my columns ends up being a fun and janky, but not very well tuned deck.
I think today's list brings up some really interesting questions about deck-building and is an interesting enough commander to wrap a column around, so let's dive in!
Meet Gnostro, Voice of the Crags
The legendary creature that will head up today's deck seems to be Magic the Gathering's first ever legendary Chimera. If you had any ideas about building a tribal deck, you'll be sad to hear that while there are 20 other Chimeras in Magic's history, five of the most exciting in that list are in Green. Apex Devastator, Horizon Chimera, Loathsome Chimera, Majestic Myriarch and Treeshaker Chimera can't be run in a Gnostro deck, so any thoughts of making a tribal Chimera deck will have to wait for another day.
While he's not a member of a particularly relevant tribe, he has a very reasonable casting cost and has a really interesting activated ability based upon the number of spells you've cast this turn. It goes without saying that Gnostro is a puzzle of a commander and I do love puzzles. How do you make the most of what Gnostro brings to the party?
Scry gives you card selection. Looking at cards on the top of your deck and putting them on the bottom allows you to smooth out your game a little. If you're good on your mana production, you can scry lands to the bottom. If you're seeing threats on the battlefield that must be addressed, you can scry away anything that doesn't look like an answer to that threat. Scry doesn't really win games, but it really can help a deck run more smoothly.
Direct damage is removal, but the damage you're dishing out is limited to the number of spells you've cast that turn. Removal is incredibly important, but unless you've got a way to give Gnostro deathtouch, you're probably going to be limited to picking off small creatures. That can be important, but there will be times you're staring down something like a Ghalta, Primal Hunger and there's just no way you'll be able to pump out enough spells to do anything about it with Gnostro's tap ability.
Gaining life is helpful, but I can't see Gnostro seeing much use as a life gain engine. Actually, that isn't quite true, but let's just say that on an average turn where you're playing a bunch of spells and then tapping Gnostro, I think it's unlikely your first choice will be to use Gnostro to gain life.
Now that I've gone over Gnostro's interesting party trick, we have to ask a pretty important question...
To Combo or Not To Combo?
If you're an experienced Commander deck-builder or player, or you are used to playing high level or even cEDH decks, you already know the answer to this question. Before I tell you which direction I took, it's worth looking at how each choice would dictate how we build this deck.
If I decided NOT to build a deck that can combo off, I'd still be faced with the challenge of trying to play enough spells to have Gnostro's tap ability be impactful. I don't want to find myself having had four or five turn cycles in a row where the biggest "storm count" I was able to muster was a 2 or a 3. That means I'd have to run a lot of 0, 1 and 2-CMC spells, plenty of cantrips and draw, and as many mana-positive rocks as possible.
That opens up some interesting options. I'm no longer quite as restricted in my average CMC because I'll be looking for the combo to make the most of Gnostro's ability. I can go for a number of turns without getting a ton of value out of Gnostro and that won't be a huge problem for the deck. I'm not exactly going to be playing Eldrazi or anything like that, but I won't feel quite as compelled to drop good cards that are in the 4-6 CMC range just to load up on 0 and 1 CMC spells.
My habit of building with cards I have lying around definitely affected my decision. A non-combo Gnostro deck really needs certain cards that I wasn't willing to swap out of other decks. Mana Crypt and Mana Vault aren't making an appearance in today's list. Rhystic Study and Mystic Remora should be in here as well, but I didn't want to weaken other decks by swapping either one out, and I simply didn't have any free copies to use.
The ability to tap Gnostro for 7 or 8 after an amazing turn might seem tempting, but I ended up going with a combo build. There are several ways that I can create an arbitrarily large "storm count". If I have to pick a number, which technically I think you do, I could pick 9999 and then basically scry any card in my deck to the top, I could destroy pretty much any targetable creature that isn't already indestructible with direct damage, or I can gain 9999 life.
Remember when I said lifegain isn't going to matter with Gnostro?
There may be tables where gaining 9999 life will probably be enough to let you eventually win the game. If nobody is playing a combo deck, trying to win with infect, or has a legitimate commander damage threat, it might well be an insurmountable advantage.
I've got a limited range of combos I can pull from. My combo has to involve casting, not copying, spells and I'm pulling cards from my collection for this build. Fortunately, I was able to line up a sweet little artifact that should do the trick.
The "Dramatic Scepter" combo needs no introduction. You play Isochron Scepter, imprint Dramatic Reversal on it, and so long as you have enough mana rocks to pay to use it again, you can cast Dramatic Reversal (which will untap your Scepter when it resolves) as many times as you like. If you're making more than 2 mana, you can gain as much mana as you like.
This combo will untap Gnostro, as he is a nonland permanent, so that means you can use Gnostro to wipe the board of creatures, gain a ton of life and scry to whatever card you want. You're not just making a huge storm count and tapping Gnostro once: you really do get to make the most out of what Gnostro can do if you land the Dramatic Scepter Combo.
Turning that scry into card draw is really important and Eligeth will help with that. I just need to be careful not to accidentally create a huge storm count and then tap and draw myself out. This list isn't yet running Laboratory Maniac, Jace, Wielder of Mysteries or Thassa's Oracle. One might argue that it should, but the current build would see you draw out and lose if you drew the last card in your deck and then had to draw from an empty library.
I'm also running a handful of cards like Think Twice, Anticipate, Brainstorm, Opt and Thought Scour so that I can draw if I'm able to do multiple Gnostro scry activations. I'm also running a few creatures like Kwain, Itinerant Meddler and Arcanis the Omnipotent so I have other ways to draw more cards. Those last two untap with Dramatic Reversal activations so I could activate them as many times as I like if I combo off.
I'm also running Staff of Domination and all three of the Cluestones in Gnostro's colors. Commander's Sphere is falling out of favor a bit in some of my higher-powered decks, but the ability to scry and then sacrifice it or one of the Cluestones to draw the card I left on top of my library will probably come in handy. This deck actually has a lot of mana rocks because not only are we not in green, but we're also running a combo that requires mana rocks to work.
I'm not always going to be able to combo off. Lots of combo decks have trouble winning if they can't find their combo pieces, so I decided to build in a few ways to try to squeeze extra activations out of my Gnostro.
Staff of Domination will let me do a lot of things, but it is in today's list both to let me draw my deck if I combo off and to let me squeeze in an extra untap if I'm not riding the Dramatic Scepter wave.
Pemmin's Aura and Sword of the Paruns will also let me pay mana to untap the enchanted or equipped creature. These are staples I learned about when I first got into building combo decks with Marwyn, the Nurturer and they can definitely help us here. Umbral Mantle deserves a little extra mention because if I tap Gnostro and can kill a creature it will untap the equipped creature automatically. I'm running a deathtouch enabler in Gorton's Head so with that also equipped I can tap to kill any size creature. If I ever get those two cards on the field together I'll be able to wipe my opponents' boards of any creature they can't give hexproof.
Since I already embraced combo I decided to throw in the Deadeye Navigator package as well. If you flicker Peregrine Drake, Palinchron or Great Whale, you can usually go infinite. Only Palinchron will let you create that wonderful infinite storm count, but any way to make infinite mana can give us infinite untaps with those untap enablers.
The Game Plan
One thing I decided to do with my first draft of this deck was load up on defensive measures. I'm running lots of low CMC removal like Chain of Vapor, Swords to Plowshares, Path to Exile, Pongify and Rapid Hybridization. I'm also running Aetherspouts and the obligatory Cyclonic Rift so that I can repel an attacking army and I've got Teferi's Protection in the list as another way to escape death.
My plan is largely to try to survive until I'm one of the last two players and then do something pretty silly.
If I've got one opponent left and can play Stuffy Doll and tap Gnostro to target it with a lethal amount of damage, that should win me the game.
Did I tell you it was a good game plan?
I don't think I did and I won't now.
I might have done better to throw in a Capsize, Brain Freeze or Empty the Warrens to give me some better ways to close out games. I might well have gone for that Lab Man wincon, as it's clearly an effective way to nail down a win in a deck that's not really built for combat.
Well, it won that first game through exactly this game plan.
I hung out, interacted and stayed alive, in part through a well-timed Teferi's Protection. Eventually when there were only two of us left I was able to play Stuffy Doll, make a ridiculous storm count with Dramatic Scepter, and finish off that last player.
My silly and ill-advised game plan worked perfectly... in one game.
When I played the deck again to confirm my suspicions I found that at higher powered tables it struggled. Decks sometimes struggle, but I'm pretty sure this is basically a mid-powered combo deck that should be fun to play and isn't likely to wreck a fairly casual meta.
I think a non-combo deck with Thousand-Year Storm, less mana rocks and big spells and more low CMC instants might be a really fun spin on Gnostro. I also think a higher-powered build with mana-positive mana rocks and a Thassa's Oracle / Lab Man wincon would also have a chance at being a real fringe cEDH deck.
Dramatic Gnostro | Commander | Stephen Johnson
- Commander (1)
- 1 Gnostro, Voice of the Crags
- Creatures (16)
- 1 Arcanis the Omnipotent
- 1 Burnished Hart
- 1 Consecrated Sphinx
- 1 Deadeye Navigator
- 1 Dreamscape Artist
- 1 Eligeth, Crossroads Augur
- 1 Great Whale
- 1 Kwain, Itinerant Meddler
- 1 Mulldrifter
- 1 Palinchron
- 1 Peregrine Drake
- 1 Stuffy Doll
- 1 Thieving Skydiver
- 1 Tribute Mage
- 1 Trinket Mage
- 1 Vizier of Tumbling Sands
- Instants (18)
- 1 Aetherspouts
- 1 Anticipate
- 1 Brainstorm
- 1 Chain of Vapor
- 1 Cyclonic Rift
- 1 Dramatic Reversal
- 1 Enlightened Tutor
- 1 High Tide
- 1 Opt
- 1 Path to Exile
- 1 Pongify
- 1 Rapid Hybridization
- 1 Remand
- 1 Swan Song
- 1 Swords to Plowshares
- 1 Teferi's Protection
- 1 Think Twice
- 1 Thought Scour
- Sorceries (1)
- 1 Preordain
- Artifacts (24)
- 1 Arcane Signet
- 1 Azorius Cluestone
- 1 Azorius Signet
- 1 Boros Signet
- 1 Commander's Sphere
- 1 Fellwar Stone
- 1 Gorgon's Head
- 1 Illusionist's Bracers
- 1 Isochron Scepter
- 1 Izzet Cluestone
- 1 Izzet Signet
- 1 Mana Geode
- 1 Mind Stone
- 1 Rings of Brighthearth
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Spectral Searchlight
- 1 Staff of Domination
- 1 Sword of the Paruns
- 1 Thought Vessel
- 1 Umbral Mantle
- 1 Vedalken Orrery
- 1 Victory Chimes
- 1 Worn Powerstone
- 1 Thornbite Staff
You'll have to forgive me for throwing in those Planeswalkers. They were something of a whim, and while I'm not one to run many planeswalkers these two have some pretty sweet final abilities. One Narset will lock your opponents out of playing noncreature spells and the other can turn your Dramatic Scepter combo into a win without having to do anything else by converting each Dramatic Reversal casting into 2 direct damage.
You'll notice that today's list leans really heavily toward Azorius. I had considered running the Mana Geyser / Reiterate combo, which would give me infinite Red mana and an arbitrarily large storm count. If I had gone that route, I would have opened up the deck to more of an investment in Red and I might even have run Empty the Warrens to give me that path to victory on the battlefield.
Building decks that lean away from their color identity isn't a new thing for me. I built Najeela, the Blade-Blossom as a high-powered deck that leans heavily toward Red and runs way more Goblin Warriors than any responsible Najeela deck should run. I even had Goblin Piker in the list for a hot minute or two.
I think it's tempting to always try to fill out the colors in your deck evenly, but for Gnostro I just didn't see enough in Red to warrant adding Mana Geyser / Reiterate along with all the low-CMC Red cantrips I might have included.
While this isn't a budget list, it's far from a highly tuned, high budget powerhouse either. If you've ever built Gnostro, I'd love to hear about how your deck performed. Was it a janky low CMC storm build, a combo build, or something entirely different?
Did I miss anything obvious that I should have included?
Next week I'm expecting to write about Archelos, Lagoon Mystic. I'm still struggling to find a plan I can get excited about for that project, but I'm pretty sure I'll find something that will be fun and possibly even a little powerful. Once that deck is done, I'll be setting my sights on Kaldheim.
That's all I've got for you today. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!