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Winning Ways: Keeping Up


Seascape in the Morning by Simon de Vileger (1640-1645). Stormtide Leviathan by Karl Kopinski.

I'm not talking about keeping up with current events and I'm not making some weird play on words about your upkeep step. I'm talking about "keeping up with the Joneses."

I'm talking about not letting your own decks fade too far behind your friends' decks. I was going to write a Winning Ways column and focus on some of the deck tune-ups I've done recently. My Golgari Elves deck has been firing on all cylinders lately and I've also been working on my Kodama and Toggo list.

The reason I didn't jump to just writing about Kaldheim for this week is that I've got some very mixed feelings about the set. Wizards of the Coast is faced with a problem. The most popular way to play is a format in which most of us know full-well that we should be buying individual cards for our singleton decks. Most of us rarely put more than a few commons or uncommons from new sets into our decks because we have decades worth of playable cards we can order without sending a single penny to the good folks at WotC.

We still buy packs and boxes and sometimes even cases because we love Magic, we love opening new cards, and we want to support the company that has brought us such a great game. Wizards of the Coast is still in a position where they have every reason to want to continue to provide Commander players with uniquely powerful cards that are such auto-includes or which are so hard to resist that we will keep buying new product.

Not to mince words, but... I'm increasingly bothered by the power creep.

Kodama of the East Tree
Opposition Agent

I dislike when Wizards prints a card that feels like it should go into every deck that can possibly run it. Kodama of the East Tree comes to mind. Hullbreacher and Opposition Agent are such strong pieces that the only reason you might not run either one in a deck would be that you're in such a low-powered meta that you don't have to deal with opponents drawing tons of cards or searching their libraries.

This feeling of annoyance when seeing the same cards taking over games gets stronger when I find myself seeing one of these new cards in the Command Zone. I already play in a meta in which there isn't that much room for playing really casual decks, so every now and then I go on a losing streak in which my jankier piles get routinely outclassed.

I don't expect my fellow players at the LGS to tone down their game or play bad cards just to bring their power level down.

Players like to win games. Heck, I like to win games. When Wizards puts out a commander with no drawbacks and lots of powerful abilities, I can't expect anyone not to buy and build these decks. Still, for some reason I've been holding myself back from building these powerhouses.

Keeping up with the Joneses

The card that really got me thinking about my odd dislike for silly, overpowered cards was Aesi, Tyrant of Gyre Strait. The tension got much, much bigger when I saw the new legendary creatures Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider and Tergrid, God of Fright.

Aesi, Tyrant of Gyre Strait
Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider
Tergrid, God of Fright

Aesi is just bad card design.

By bad, I mean it's lazy and thoughtless. It's a big 5/5 body that lets you play extra lands and has card draw tacked onto the single thing every Simic deck should be able to do incredibly well: play lands. Playing Aesi is easy mode and its single saving grace is that it costs 6 mana to play.

Aesi might be lazy card design, but it is also undeniably powerful.

Maybe Wizards didn't want someone playing a precon to automatically be at a huge disadvantage when playing against your average LGS meta. Maybe Wizards just wanted to make sure their shiny new Simic precon deck would sell like hotcakes. Whatever the reason is that Wizards printed such a simultaneously bland yet powerful card, I recently decided to stop resisting and I picked up a copy of the Reap the Tides precon.

Apparently, resistance is indeed futile.

When I saw Vorinclex and Tergrid, I had to remind myself that every set Wizards puts out seems to have new cards that qualify as being the kinds of threats you just have to kill on sight. If you see it on the field, you kill it. If you see it in the Command Zone, you kill that player. You just do, because letting them loose to do whatever they want is going to work out poorly for you.

I generally dislike kill-on-sight commanders because I wish Wizards just wouldn't make them. I don't want to have to choose between likely getting steamrolled in a game and shutting down the card someone built their deck around. I have a feeling Vorinclex and Tergrid will both prove themselves to be kill-on-sight commanders.

Vorinclex looks like it is going to make mono-Green Superfriends decks a thing. It's possible that infect and hydras will also be viable builds for Vorinclex but there are a lot of Planeswalkers you're going to be able to play and then immediately use their final ability if this nasty Praetor is on the field. If you don't think "ulting" planeswalkers the turn they come down is an issue, you haven't played against enough well built Superfriends decks.

Tergrid is an even bigger problem than Vorinclex. This God costs one less and will encourage discard and heavy removal strategies. A Tergrid deck that isn't quickly answered when she hits the field seems like a big threat to just run away with games. Tergrid decks won't just beat you. They'll make you discard your hand, sacrifice your stuff and then put your permanents onto the field under their control. That's some real salt in the wound of what looked to be an already obnoxious gameplan. I generally lean away from strategies that make your tablemates miserable, and I've seen few commanders that seem quite as misery-inducing as Tergrid, God of Fright.

Vorinclex, Tergrid, and Aesi are powerful commanders, but I don't think they're positioned to have an real impact on cEDH. Many cEDH games are over before these cards have a chance to hit the field and cause much trouble. They won't be as big a problem in high-powered metas, but I suspect these cards are going to make a lot of casual players miserable.

Here I must pause to remind myself of something. I am not obligated to make sure every game of EDH I play is fun for everyone at the table. I do want my tablemates to have fun over the course of an afternoon or evening, so we play more than one game and I switch decks if I won or if my deck made for a miserable experience for everyone but me. So long as I keep up with that approach to EDH, there's no reason for me not to build Aesi, Vorinclex, or even Tergrid.

I went and picked up an Aesi precon because I wanted a chance to play with some of these cool new powerful cards Wizards was printing. I've got a pile of mono-Green planeswalkers and the early beginnings of a Massacre Girl deck just waiting for Vorinclex and Tergrid.

Play Good Decks

I think today's lesson for my Winning Ways is a simple one, and one which I was reminded of recently when I pulled myself out of a bit of a losing streak.

I had been playing what can only qualify as overly casual decks at the LGS. My Archelos, Lagoon Mystic deck was overmatched in every game it saw. I've been tuning up my Toggo, Goblin Weaponsmith and Kodama of the East Tree deck, but it had been struggling in recent games. I felt like I was in the middle of a run of bad luck and bad games. A few Saturdays ago, I decided to break out of my rut by only bringing good decks to the LGS.

Chulane, Teller of Tales
Najeela, the Blade-Blossom
Multani, Maro-Sorcerer

I brought Chulane, Teller of Tales and Najeela, the Blade-Blossom, along with a few others. Neither of those builds is fully tuned. Chulane is a Druid tribal built and Najeela is a Goblin Warrior build of all things, but both have the essential combo pieces that allow them both to be quite explosive. My fallback casual deck was my old Multani, Maro-Sorcerer build that is more than capable of having a good game.

I went looking to have a day of high-powered games, but I hadn't brought anything I think of as being a 'true" cEDH deck. Neither my Chulane nor my Najeela list is tuned up for cEDH play. I wound up having to play a handful of games against a bunch of our local cEDH players. Dual lands, Timetwister, Force of Will, Ad Nauseam and the like were the kinds of cards I was going to have to contend with.

I wasn't optimistic, but I wound up winning a game with Chulane and even stole one with Najeela before moving to a more casual table after other players showed up. I'll be the first to admit that luck was on my side. The tuned cEDH decks kept each other off the win, and the local meta's best player, Bryan Li, had an incredibly bad Ad Nauseam that pretty much took him out of one of the games I won. I lost a few games as well, but it was a real surprise to me that I was able to notch even a single win at that table, much less two.

I might not have been playing decks that were on the level of the cEDH level, but my decision to bring more powerful decks made it possible to even have a shot at competing with those guys. Luck played its part, but if I had brought an assortment of my more casual builds it would have been a long day. I always could have borrowed a deck, but I really like to play my own.

If building decks like Chulane and Najeela seem lazy on my part, I won't argue the point. Building a Commander deck around a card that does so much to help you win might be lazy, but playing it can also be a ton of fun.

My initial reluctance to build Aesi, Vorinclex or Tergrid was out of a desire not to pubstomp casual players or make my tablemates miserable. The reality is that I'm soon going to be facing off against lots of exciting, powerful decks built around exciting, powerful new cards and there's no reason in the world for me not to build one or two of these new powerhouses for myself.

Enter Lazy Mode

While my intention had been to jump into Kaldheim deck-building, I've got some unfinished business with Commander Legends. I could build decks around that set's legendary creatures for a year and still have new decks to write about, but I'm going to stop with this one last build.

Aesi, Tyrant of Gyre Strait

This deck wants to play lands and draw cards. I'm only running 40 lands, because I can't bear to lose all those slots of good, fun and even goofy cards and 40 is still way more than I run in any other deck.

Tatyova, Benthic Druid and Horn of Greed will help me draw and I'm running Beast Whisperer, Guardian Project and even the old relic Seer's Sundial to try to pump up my draw power. My ultimate goal, since I'm embracing "easy mode," is to pull into Tooth and Nail and win with the old and reliable Avenger of Zendikar and Craterhoof Behemoth.

While I'm running a lot of staples, I'm not going to build and play a truly boring deck, so at least in my first draft I decided to do something interesting.

Part the Waterveil
Rude Awakening
Liege of the Tangle

I'm running a bunch of cards with the awaken ability, which will allow me to put +1/+1 counters on a land and turn it into an Elemental. I figure I'll be playing a lot of lands, so I might as well use them for something fun. Rude Awakening and Natural Affinity should give me a little late game post-boardwipe flexibility. If I'm right, there will be games where I can probably kill someone if they wiped the board and didn't play out enough blockers before my next turn. The most exciting of these land creature cards is probably Liege of the Tangle, which will let me turn all of my lands into 8/8 Elementals if I'm able to do combat damage with it.

Splendid Reclamation
World Shaper
Titania, Protector of Argoth

If my lands get destroyed because of all these shenanigans, I'll be happy to play Splendid Reclamation or maybe even use World Shaper to bring them back. Titania, Protector of Argoth will play nicely into that strategy and for the first time I've decided to play a full set of on-color fetch lands. I've been advised that squeezing value out of playing fetch lands out of the graveyard is very powerful and very fun and I've never really messed around with that particular strategy. It's not exactly breaking new ground, but it'll be new for me and I'm looking forward to it.

I'm running a few counterspells, a few pieces of interaction, some card draw staples, lots of landfall creatures and ways to squeeze extra land drops into each turn. All in all, it's feeling like a fun, powerful deck that will probably be a headache for my opponents to deal with. It's nothing groundbreaking but I'm excited about all the awaken cards and the prospect that I'm going to have a new deck that will probably have a better chance at winning games right out of the gate.

Aesi, Tyrant of Gyre Strait in EDH

This isn't one of my actual decks I've built in paper, but I've got every intention of ordering everything I'm missing from CoolStuffInc.com. It's going to be a few cards, as I built this from the ground up rather than trying to rework the precon. I'm sure the precon plays very well. That decklist looks outstanding on paper, but I like brewing up my own lists and getting into my own messes.

I've played against a few Aesi decks, but I have no idea how close or far my list is from what folks are doing with Aesi. While the deck does build itself to some extent, I've got no idea if anyone else is making the leap to playing cards with awaken and then actually planning on using that ability. I'm not fooling myself into thinking this is the optimal way to build Aesi. It's not. I care more about building something interesting and hopefully playable than about building another fully tuned and optimized deck that's just like everyone else's optimized Aesi deck.

Early Returns

I don't always have the chance to play-test these lists, but I was so interested in seeing if Aesi was as broken as I thought it was that I got in two games. The first was on Tabletop Simulator using a list almost identical. I lost my Aesi a turn after casting it, but with the help of other extra land drop helpers, I was able to assemble a ridiculous number of lands on my battlefield. I put out a few creatures but never really blew up. I navigated the politics of that particular match well enough to turn all my lands into 2/2 creatures, cast Triumph of the Hordes, and swing for the win.

The second game was with a deck that was dramatically different from the one in this column. It had no fetch lands, no Scute Swarm, no Lotus Cobra, no Triumph of the Hordes and no Tatoyva, but the deck still make quick work out of a somewhat casual table. I killed one opponent with land creatures and was able to play a Avenger of Zendikar and enough lands to be able to kill the rest of the table. Both games were somewhat narrow victories despite my crazy boardstates, and the second victory was only won because I was able to counter a key spell on an opponent's turn before I could swing for the win.

It should go without saying that turning all your lands into creatures to be able to kill someone is very, very risky. I wouldn't recommend it in a meta where boardwipes are really, really common. It's worth noting that you don't have to swing 15 lands at your opponent to make it worth turning them into creatures.

Harvest Season

There's a delightful little spell called Harvest Season, which isn't in today's column but which I did put into the version I played at the LGS. If you can turn a dozen or more lands into creatures, tap them for mana, and then put a number of basic lands onto the battlefield equal to the number of tapped creatures you control, you'll at least be doubling your mana. In my second game I only got four extra lands when I used Harvest Season because I hadn't turned my lands into creatures, but that's twice as much ramp as I would have gotten out of an Explosive Vegetation for one less mana.

Final Thoughts

If you've had moments where you were just sick of watching Wizards keep pushing power levels higher and higher with little apparent concern for the health of the Commander format, you're not alone.

Rather than sticking to my guns and playing weaker, older cards, I've decided that there's no good reason not to try to keep up with the Joneses, or at least with the local Spikes. I can have fun with weak decks and old cards, and I can build powerful decks without buying every new powerhouse commander, but the guys at the LGS are going to buy exciting, busted new cards and it's silly for me to resist the temptation to do the same.

That doesn't mean I won't still share weaker, goofier and underpowered decks. I'll always have a weakness for decks at the lower end of the power scale. You get to play so many more interesting cards if you're playing longer games with weaker decks and there's nothing I love more than playing with and playing against weird cards that aren't good enough to show up at high powered tables.

If you've built Aesi, I'd love to hear what you think of my awaken subtheme. Am I guessing correctly that this deck will play out lands so fast that I'll be able to pay those extra costs? Did you do anything different with your Aesi deck that you'd like to share in the comments?

That's all I've got for today. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!

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