River Landscape by Thomas Gainsborough (1768). Animar, Soul of Elements by Peter Mohrbacher.
Every now and then I find myself conducting an experiment.
I've had a few columns devoted to the experiment of what I'd end up with if I build a deck exclusively with cards opened out of a box of booster packs from one set. I tried this first with Modern Horizons and Throne of Eldraine and both times it was entertaining but forgettable at best.
I have long been a fan of Amulet of Vigor, and when I saw Archelos, Lagoon Mystic I knew I had to build a deck around this less-than-vigorous turtle.
My problem was a familiar one. I had no idea what direction to take Archelos.
I hate playing decks that are so annoying they make everyone else at the table want to kill me, so I knew I was unlikely to enjoy playing a stax deck. I also knew I didn't want to try to turn Archelos into some strange sort of hug deck. I'm just not a hug player.
After putting Archelos on the back burner for a few weeks I finally had my "aha" moment.
One of the classic moves Wizards of the Coast makes when they're trying to bring down the power of a card is that they include a drawback of some sort to balance out the benefit you'll get from it. In many cases that drawback is that your shiny new land, artifact or creature has to enter the battlefield tapped. You've seen it so often on ramp cards that it's stunning for a newer player to come a card like Harrow that doesn't force your new lands to enter tapped.
The experiment I decided to create ended up being a simple one and it sought to answer the following question.
How much value could I squeeze out of a deck built around going completely overboard with cards that would normally put permanents onto my battlefield tapped?
Building Around Archelos in Commander
When trying to gear up for this build, I have to admit that I was having trouble getting too excited about cobbling together cards that fit the criteria. The ramp part was relatively easy. Rampant Growth, Kodama's Reach and Cultivate all put lands into play tapped, as do nearly every other modern ramp spell from Farseek to Nissa's Renewal and all the way up to Splendid Reclamation and Reshape the Earth. Those were the easy ones because a lot of them are already staples in Commander. What got me vaguely excited was the idea that I'd be running cards I normally stay away from.
There was a time when I liked to run the Diamonds, but it's been years since I've been able to look past the fact that they enter tapped. With Archelos I'm not only running Charcoal Diamond, Moss Diamond and Sky Diamond, I'm also running Coldsteel Heart, Star Compass and Renegade Map. Wayfarer's Bauble even makes an appearance, as it naturally puts a land into play tapped.
One big upside of building this experiment is that if I've got Archelos on the field, playing this decks' lands is going to feel fantastic.
Know what's better than a dual land? A land that taps for all three of the colors in my commander's color identity. Even a lowly life tapland like Jungle Hollow, Jwar Isle Refuge or Thornwood Falls will enter untapped and add one to my life total. Take that, Tropical Island! The bounce lands will let us tap a land for mana, play the bounce land, have it untap as it enters and then it taps for two mana. Try doing THAT with your overpriced Bayou.
Before you give up on me as being hopelessly out of touch, please know I'm kidding. I mean, I'd love to run a full set of dual lands in this deck, but it's actually kind of fun to take lands that are really only run in the most casual of builds and find an excuse to play them again.
I'm even running a slew of cycling lands, but the lands that got me the most excited were the modal double-faced cards. They are cards that have a regular face with a back side that is a land that enters tapped. I was able to scrape together 14 of them.
Running 14 double-faced lands made me think about the patterns I often build. Nine slots of 7 cards each makes for 63 cards, but how I should count those new lands? I eventually decided to run a little light on my land count at 33 lands, which means that I'm running 47 cards that could be played as lands. That ought to both smooth out my early game and allow me to reliably hit my land drops.
I was seriously tempted to build Archelos as a Zombie deck and I think that's a pretty decent plan, but it turns out a lot of zombies don't actually enter the battlefield tapped. I was able to find a handful that do.
Am I really running bad cards like Carrion Crow because they enter tapped? Why yes, yes I am. Fortunately there are lots of other interesting creatures that either enter tapped or will allow me to recur them out of the graveyard tapped.
Reassembling Skeleton might not be part of a combo in today's deck but it should feel like that bad penny that just keeps turning up. Tenacious Dead will reward me for keeping some mana open so I can pay to recur it in response to it dying. The rather odd Phytotitan has them both beat, as it will come back automatically at the beginning of my next upkeep.
I'm also running a sizable number of creatures who will put lands into play tapped. These guys are a dime a dozen but most of them only let me get basic lands. Arboreal Grazer will let me drop any land onto the battlefield, but I'll need to have the land in my hand already. Embodiment of Spring, Dawntreader Elk, Diligent Farmhand and old standby Sakura-Tribe Elder can be sacrificed to let you go get a basic land. Ondu Giant, Farhaven Elf and Wild Wanderer will get you a land when they enter the battlefield.
I did look for cards in Green, Blue and Black that would put creatures onto the battlefield tapped and attacking, as that felt like a pretty nice use for Archelos' unique party trick. What I found was mostly Red cards, cards with the Myriad keyword and Ninjas. In retrospect I clearly should have built a Turtle Ninjas deck, but I was able to stumble across two cards that fit the bill. Inexorable Blob will give me another 3/3 Ooze when it attacks if I've got four or more card types in my graveyard. Kessig Cagebreakers will give me a 2/2 Wolf for each creature in my graveyard.
I chose not to run Meandering Towershell, in part because I didn't have a copy but also because it just wasn't good enough. It's shown above because it's worth noting that it would be on theme but... I like attackers that don't exile themselves for a full turn cycle when you send them into battle.
The most important thing to remember about Archelos is that you want to use his ability to your benefit. You want your stuff to enter untapped, and there may be times where you want you'll want to be helping your opponents but there will also be times where you want to have your lagoon mystic tapped.
One option is to try to convince an opponent to let you hit them with Archelos to allow you to tap him. It's not much of a risk for them and if someone is playing the kind of deck that is a real aggro threat, they might be happy to take that damage if it means another player loses an advantage or becomes less of a threat.
I always like to make sure I've got options beyond relying upon my opponents, so I'm also running a few cards that will let me control whether Archelos is or isn't tapped.
I'm running Aqueous Form, Aether Tunnel, Cloak of Mists and Traveler's Cloak so that I'll occasionally have the option of just swinging Archelos at an opponent and not worrying about him getting blocked. I'm also running an odd little piece of equipment called Manriki-Gusari which will let me tap the equipped creature to destroy target equipment. There's nearly always something I can blow up with that and in a pinch I could even use it to blow itself up. While removal is nice, I might have done better to run Paradise Mantle or some vehicles, but the basic concept is that running more ways to tap Archelos gives me more options.
Holdout Settlement and Survivors' Encampment are likely going to be very good in this deck. Tapping Archelos and either of these lands lets me add a mana of any color to my mana pool. You'll notice that I didn't include Pemmin's Aura or Freed From the Real in today's list but they would both be great choices as ways to give you even greater control over whether Archelos is or isn't tapped. The more you want to play politics with your new pet turtle, the more that will matter.
The Problem of Winning
If you're not trying to win, then winning isn't really a problem. That said, there's a reason I don't play hug decks. I always want to feel like I've got a shot at winning and this deck definitely feels like it's lacking in concrete win conditions.
I'd be lying if I told you that a huge reason for me to build this deck wasn't just to have an excuse to play Borrowing 100,000 Arrows. I love that card and this is the perfect deck for it.
Army of the Damned is how we win, and if I'm able to make 13 Zombies and have them enter untapped, I should have a chance at earning a win on the battlefield. This deck looks to be pretty good at putting lands onto the battlefield, so the prospect of flashing back Army of the Damned or even following that up with In Garruk's Wake doesn't seem impossible.
The trick of course is to play this deck at a table where the other decks are at a comparable power level. The only reason I'm not playing Cyclonic Rift is because I didn't have a copy available.
This was an experiment, to be sure. In the kind of meta where players are brewing up decks that are focused on ladies facing left, men in chairs or screaming bald guys and aren't as concerned with winning the game as quickly as possible, this deck would have the time and the space to actually be fun to play. It's got plenty of room to be tuned up, and you could always move it in a stax or combo direction if that's your thing.
Archelos EDH | Commander | Stephen Johnson
- Commander (1)
- 1 Archelos, Lagoon Mystic
- Creatures (25)
- 1 Arboreal Grazer
- 1 Carrion Crow
- 1 Centaur Rootcaster
- 1 Dawntreader Elk
- 1 Diligent Farmhand
- 1 Elvish Rejuvenator
- 1 Embodiment of Spring
- 1 Eternal Taskmaster
- 1 Farhaven Elf
- 1 Haunted Dead
- 1 Inexorable Blob
- 1 Kessig Cagebreakers
- 1 Kodama of the East Tree
- 1 Mulldrifter
- 1 Null Caller
- 1 Ondu Giant
- 1 Phytotitan
- 1 Reassembling Skeleton
- 1 Royal Assassin
- 1 Sakura-Tribe Elder
- 1 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Springbloom Druid
- 1 Tenacious Dead
- 1 Wild Wanderer
- 1 World Shaper
- Instants (2)
- 1 Keep Safe
- 1 Turn Aside
- Sorceries (10)
- 1 Army of the Damned
- 1 Assassinate
- 1 Cultivate
- 1 In Garruk's Wake
- 1 Kodama's Reach
- 1 Murderous Compulsion
- 1 Nissa's Renewal
- 1 Rampant Growth
- 1 Reshape the Earth
- 1 Splendid Reclamation
- Enchantments (3)
- 1 Aether Tunnel
- 1 Aqueous Form
- 1 Cloak of Mists
- Artifacts (11)
- 1 Traveler's Cloak
- 1 Amulet of Vigor
- 1 Charcoal Diamond
- 1 Lightning Greaves
- 1 Manriki-Gusari
- 1 Moss Diamond
- 1 Renegade Map
- 1 Sky Diamond
- 1 Star Compass
- 1 Wayfarer's Bauble
- 1 Coldsteel Heart
- Lands (47)
- 3 Forest
- 3 Island
- 3 Swamp
- 1 Agadeem's Awakening
- 1 Bala Ged Recovery
- 1 Beyeen Veil
- 1 Barren Moor
- 1 Bojuka Bog
- 1 Blackbloom Rogue
- 1 Desert of the Glorified
- 1 Desert of the Indomitable
- 1 Desert of the Mindful
- 1 Dimir Aqueduct
- 1 Glasspool Mimic
- 1 Golgari Rot Farm
- 1 Hagra Mauling
- 1 Holdout Settlement
- 1 Jungle Hollow
- 1 Jwar Isle Refuge
- 1 Jwari Disruption
- 1 Kazandu Mammoth
- 1 Khalni Ambush
- 1 Lonely Sandbar
- 1 Memorial to Folly
- 1 Memorial to Genius
- 1 Memorial to Unity
- 1 Myriad Landscape
- 1 Opulent Palace
- 1 Polluted Mire
- 1 Pelakka Predation
- 1 Remote Isle
- 1 Rogue's Passage
- 1 Simic Growth Chamber
- 1 Slippery Karst
- 1 Silundi Vision
- 1 Survivors' Encampment
- 1 Thornwood Falls
- 1 Tranquil Thicket
- 1 Umara Wizard
- 1 Vastwood Fortification
- 1 Zof Consumption
I should note that friend and judge Bryan Li put together a high-powered combo list that I still don't quite understand. It involved sacrificing a bunch of lands and the creature World Shaper and recurring those lands and that creature again and again in a loop. I hadn't intended to build this version as a combo deck, but if any of you have an interest in that list please comment below and I'll point you to it.
It's also worth noting that I think Archelos can lead a very real stax deck. Forcing your opponents' permanents to enter the battlefield tapped puts a real throttle on how quickly they can get their gameplan up and running. Archelos is in Black, so you can run a lot of effects that force your opponents to sacrifice permanents and you're also in blue so you can play a control game. I think it could be a legitimately strong and interesting deck but it's not the kind of deck I personally enjoy playing.
I had no idea how this would hold up at my store, in part that was because I never know what kinds of games I'm going to find. We have players who never, ever play combo and we have players who consider anything short of cEDH to be "casual." On the Saturday that I decided to take Archelos out for a spin, I wound up at a three-player table. One player had already proven quite capable of blowing the doors off a table with a well-built Sram deck and the other had also shown that they knew their way around a game of Commander.
I was initially hopeful when one of the guys pulled out Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker. I had seen the deck before and it hadn't made for a bad game. Little did I know, he had tuned it up an awful lot and he wound up crushing us in game after game until he switched to something else... and I think he again beat us. Three player tables are my least favorite anyways because it's much more likely someone will run away with the game for the simple lack of someone having an answer at the right time.
The games weren't fun, but I was at least able to confirm that my build wasn't up to that kind of challenge. A tuned Shrei deck might not be able to compete with today's top cEDH builds, but it sure didn't have any trouble with my "stuff that enters tapped" Archelos deck.
Later that afternoon, the Shirei player was kind enough to borrow a deck so we could try to have a fun, balanced game. He borrowed Archelos and was able to build up a decent land base and do some fun stuff. The deck showed quite clearly that it could play at casual tables but lacks enough good cards, answers and wincons to ever really play at stronger tables.
The deck has answers, and it even has a few good cards. It's got a distinct plan but it's lacking any combos or quick, well-defined wincons. I came away from that afternoon of mostly terrible games with one thought about my Archelos experiment.
I think I just built myself a precon.
Most of the decks I share with you aspire to something greater than being at a precon power level, but I started out today's column telling you this was an experiment. I like to joke that "I did this so that you don't have to" and in this case I think that's true. I built this Archelos list to see how a deck focused heavily on permanents that enter the battlefield tapped would actually play. It was sorta fun, but mostly disappointing and I wouldn't recommend it without some major upgrades.
I've been in a bit of a funk lately, and almost pivoted away at the last minute from writing about this deck. I've been playing more of my casual decks in recent weeks and I've been running up against tables where they often don't feel like they have a chance.
Any deck-building experiment is by its very nature not guaranteed to result in a great deck. I am a fan of building and playing winning decks, but I'm also a firm believer that our format has a very wide range of players, power levels and styles of play. There is a place for decks like today's deck and it can be fun to joke around about your Thornwood Falls being better than a dual land.
I feel like I'm a little late to the party, but I think I am ready to move on to writing about Kaldheim. There are some exciting new cards about to come out and more than ever I think we're going to need to lean on our rule zero conversations to try to make sure we find a way to have fun games.
Whatever you do, don't trust someone who tries to convince you that they've built a fun, casual Tergrid, God of Fright deck, because odds are pretty good that they're lying.
I'm going to try to crank up the power level next week, in no small part because I'm a little tired of writing up builds that are on the lower end of the power scale. I think I might spend a few weeks playing my better decks at the LGS as well, because I'm getting a little tired of feeling like a punching bag, especially when I know I've got better decks just waiting to be played.
If you've built Archelos and have any thoughts to share, I'd love to hear them. You probably didn't build anything as whimsical or ill-advised as today's experiment, but if you have your own take on Archelos, Lagoon Mystic please comment below.
That's all I've got for you today. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!