Dance of the Almeh by Jean-Leon Gerome (1863). Vraska the Unseen by Igor Kieryluk.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been looking at cards and keywords from Rivals of Ixalan; but, today, I’m going to take a step back and share something I’m doing in the Commander League I run at NexGen Comics in Pelham, NH.
In our first two years, we ran the league with very few departures from the strictures of the Commander rules committee. The only major change was that we ran with 15 infect, and recently brought it down to 13. Other than that, you can pretty much do what you like. No cards are banned. No strategies are off the table, providing you can get your turn (or turns) in within a 10 minute window.
We play Commander, not a bastardized or watered down version of the format.
We’ve had players suggest that we mix it up and have themes or variations, like Planechase or 2-Headed Giant, but I’ve been hesitant to do that outside of casual play. I don’t want the League to move away from playing Commander, but I have always wanted to find a way to provide incentives for players to build decks over and above just being competitive. For the 2018 Commander League season, we’ve found a way to do that.
Our system awards a point for each time you cast your commander, up to a maximum of three points. At the end of 2017 we selected eleven of our players to pick monthly themes for 2018. We skipped January, but for the rest of the year, if a player’s commander is “on theme” for the month their tub-thumping points will be doubled. We chose not to do anything that would require a deck check, so our themes apply to the commander card(s) only.
Hybrid Mana Symbols
For February 2018 our theme is going to be commanders with Hybrid mana symbols somewhere on them. That means the legendary creatures from Shadowmoor with hybrid symbols in their casting cost AND the legendary creatures from Fate Reforged with hybrid mana symbols in their text box will qualify, along with a single legend from Eventide. That doesn’t make for a long list of options, but we’ll have plenty of months with broader themes.
In Shadowmoor, every single legendary creature qualified. We’re looking at Oona, Queen of the Fae, Reaper King, Rhys the Redeemed, Rosheen Meanderer, Sygg, River Cutthroat, and Wort, the Raidmother. Eventide brought us Saproling of Colfenor, but no other hybrid mana legendaries. Fate Reforged had Alesha, Who Smiles at Death, Daghatar the Adamant, Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, and Yasova Dragonclaw. All the Dragons from Fate Reforged lack hybrid mana symbols, so that leaves us with just a dozen options.
For my pick, I considered the fact that we also have a league point category for “first blood” so there’s a benefit to casting a creature on your first turn and being the first to get damage in. A cheap commander will probably get cast more times over the course of a game, so I chose to go with Rhys the Redeemed. I pulled him out of my Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa / Tana, the Bloodsower deck and went to work.
I could play any commander for the month, but I enjoy challenges so I’m probably going to build a deck for each month’s theme in 2018.
Reading up on Rhys the Redeemed, it seems clear that Rhys doesn’t have true cEDH potential. I’m OK with that, but I do want to build a deck that is capable of winning a game or two over the course of the month. Let’s start by taking a good look at our commander.
We’ll always be able to cast Rhys on turn one and we should usually have a good shot at attacking on turn two and picking up that “first blood” point. He is just a 1/1, so this deck will be hard pressed to win via commander damage, but a look at his other abilities tells us he should be able to let us go wide — really, really wide.
There’s a category on our point sheet for biggest army, and having a zillion creatures is a pretty good way to win games, so going wide is a fine plan. Rhys is going to require mana and is going to have to tap in order to use his abilities. For three mana, he can tap and put a Green and White Elf Warrior creature token into play. For six mana, he can double the number of creature tokens we’ve got on the battlefield. That means we’re going to want ways to make lots of mana, ways to untap Rhys and ways to turn a wide board into a win.
I’m not going to be doing anything too out of the ordinary for ramp. I’m going to run a mix of mana dorks, mana rocks, and ramp spells to get us going. That means Arbor Elf, Avacyn's Pilgrim, Druid of the Cowl, Leaf Gilder, and even Voyaging Satyr made the cut for the first draft of this deck.
For artifact ramp, while I own a Mana Crypt and a Mana Vault, our league is no-proxy and I don’t feel like pulling those bad boys out of the deck they’ve been living in for the past few years. That means I’ll be running with Sol Ring, Mind Stone, Commander's Sphere, Selesnya Signet, Selesnya Keyrune, Thought Vessel, and Thran Dynamo. I’ll also be running Rampant Growth, Cultivate, and Tempt with Discovery, along with Zendikar Resurgent to round out my ramp package.
This deck is largely being built with cards I have lying around, so while Kodama's Reach might be an obvious card to include, I simply didn’t have a spare one available. With this many non-land mana producers, you might wonder if I’m thinking about throwing in a Paradox Engine / Isochron Scepter wincon. You’d be right that I was thinking about it, but I didn’t have enough instants in the deck to warrant trying to build that package. I don’t like building wincons into a deck and going a month without ever assembling them. I also like variety, so I may well switch gears after the first week or two and rework Rhys into a Paradox Scepter deck. It’s certainly an amazing and powerful combo to put in a deck, so it’s not off the table. I’m just not going there on my first draft.
One of the interesting things about Rhys the Redeemed is that our commander has an ability so intrinsic to our strategy that on many turns we’ll prefer to pay mana and tap him than pay mana and cast a spell. While that doesn’t draw us an extra card, it does contribute to card advantage. We’ve essentially got a three-mana “create an elf warrior” spell and a six-mana “double our creature tokens” spell tacked onto our diminutive 1/1 Elf Warrior commander and we’re often going to want to use those abilities.
That doesn’t mean we won’t want to add some draw spells.
There are certainly going to be times when we desperately want to dig for an answer or a wincon. None of these spells will help us if we don’t have a board, but this deck should usually have at least a few creatures out, if not a good number. Skullclamp will cost us a creature, but for Rhys, creatures shouldn’t exactly be in short supply. Regal Force and Shamanic Revelation should net us anywhere from 8-12 creatures and could draw us half of our deck if things are going well.
Rivals of Ixalan brought us lots of interesting new cards, and Huatli, Radiant Champion is the one I’m most excited to use in this deck. If we are wise enough to wait until we have a decent boardstate, we should be able to cast Huatli and +1 her to put a ton of loyalty counters on her. We need her to be at eight on our next turn. If we have opponents with the ability to get damage in, we’ll want more than that, but if we can pull off her -8 ability we’ll be drawing cards every time a creature enters the battlefield under our control. That’s mad value in a deck like Rhys and should draw us a ton of cards for just doing what this deck wants to do anyways.
Every Rhys deck I’ve seen that calls itself “competitive” has lots of ways to untap Rhys. The goal is to find a way to be able to untap and pay for Rhys’ second ability as many times as you like within a single turn, creating an arbitrarily large boardstate. From there you either drop a Concordant Crossroads and hope they don’t Fog, or you pray you make it to your next turn.
Lots of the options I came across involved equipment with an untap ability that cost more than one mana. Sword of the Paruns is a great example of this. The biggest benefit of Sword of the Paruns is that if you can make infinite mana you can get infinite untaps and turn it into an infinitely wide board. In this first draft of the deck I’m not going after infinite mana wincons.
Instead, I’m going to be running cheaper untap effects like Instill Energy, Magewright's Stone, and Seeker of Skybreak. It feels “fairer” and I may well rework the deck after a week or two if I want to take a crack at adding in those infinite combos.
Wirewood Lodge is yet another one-mana untap option, though it essentially costs two mana because it’s a land so we lose the ability to tap it for mana. Thousand-Year Elixir will both let us use Rhys on the turn he comes in and will help us to untap him, so it’s an auto-include in a deck like this.
Seedborn Muse is about as busted as you can get in this deck short of running infinite combos. If I can get her and Rhys out with any protection in my hand or on my board, I’m really going to be off to the races.
I’ve seen lots of Rhys decks that are chock-full of token generators. While it’s tempting to follow the lead of deck-builders who are probably more cutthroat than I’ll ever be, I’m choosing to lean more toward building around just elf generators. I should always have Rhys available, though I suppose I’ll be setting myself up to be shut down by a Nevermore, Meddling Mage, or Pithing Needle.
Imperious Perfect is an elf Lord, meaning he gives my other elves +1/+1, but more importantly he can tap and turn one Green mana into a 1/1 Green Elf Warrior creature token. Presence of Gond is an aura that can turn one of our creatures into a token generator, giving it the ability to just tap and make the same token that Imperious Perfect can make. Generating a creature token for three mana is OK, but doing it for one mana or zero mana is fantastic.
Every midrange deck is going to have weaknesses and this is no exception. It will probably have a hard time dealing with flyers. For that reason, I chose to throw in Sandwurm Convergence. For as long as it sticks around, flying attackers won’t be able hit me and on each of my end steps I’ll get a 5/5 Green wurm creature token. Those big wurms will be very happy to get copied by Rhys’ second ability, so this deck could really get out of hand if left alone for long enough.
We’re probably going to have to weather a few board wipes along the way, so if we can drop a token doubler early in the game the process of rebuilding is going to go much faster.
Anointed Procession and Parallel Lives are both staples in any tokens deck running White and Green and Doubling Seasons is going to go in as well. I’m not including Primal Surge as I don’t want to help out my opponents and I’m expecting I might run into another Rhys deck over the course of my League games this February. Illusionist's Bracers will also copy Rhys’ activated abilities so if we can get even two of these out in the late game we should be able to churn out a pretty decent number of elves each turn.
While having lots and lots of elves is great, I’m going to need more than just a wide board to win the game. Throwing in a few extra utility creatures may help get us to the finish line.
Any deck that’s going to see lots of creatures will be happy to have Champion of Lambholt on the field. She’s going to get huge and she’ll make most or all of our creatures unblockable. Jagged-Scar Archers is going to get as big as our board, sporting a power and toughness equal to the number of elves I control. They will also help with flyers, which look to be one of this deck’s biggest challenges. Wellwisher will tap to gain us 1 life for each elf in play — including our opponents’ elves. Our league has a “size matters” point category for highest life total over 40, so we’ll definitely be happy to get Wellwisher on the field.
A huge board of 1/1s is nice but our army has to be pretty huge to be able to clear a table of three or four opponents. I’ll be running Bramblewood Paragon to put a +1/+1 counter on every warrior that enters the battlefield under my control but on its own that’s hardly enough to get us there.
We need some more effective ways to pump our board. Jazal Goldmane may not be an elf, but with a wide enough board he will make a huge difference, and his ability can be paid for multiple times. If we can attack with 10 creatures and give each one +20/+20, we should be able to knock out a few of our opponents, though sadly he won’t give them trample.
Mirror Entity doesn’t give my creatures trample either, but he is a Changeling so he will count as an elf. He can let us pay X mana to turn my creatures into X/X creatures. That’s could represent a significant pump later in the game. Beastmaster Ascension should be relatively easy to trigger and will give our team a modest +5/+5. All of these options are going to do more to help us swing around existing blockers and should turn a board of 20-30 elves into a win. On their own, that number of 1/1 creatures isn’t bad but usually isn’t enough to close out a game of commander.
At the beginning, I said that I was hesitant to try to build this deck to go after infinite mana and infinite Rhys activations. I’ve thrown combos into too many decks and never seen them in actual play to want to invest too much in that sort of plan.
That doesn’t mean I’m not playing to win.
Any deck in Green that goes wide and wants to play competitively would do well to consider playing Triumph of the Hordes. In our league, we play with an infect count of 13 and it’s still a very effective way to close out a game.
Knowing we’re going to be facing lots of boardwipes means we’ll be wise to play ways to make our elves indestructible. Avacyn, Angel of Hope and Eldrazi Monument will both do that for us, and we’re going to run our own sweepers just in case we need to clear the way to be able to swing in for a win. I’m sorely tempted to run Catastrophe so that if I get Avacyn out I can clear out my opponents’ lands. I just love that card’s artwork but I also don’t want to be “that guy”. I’ll play mean but I don’t want to play “nuke-all-your-lands” mean.
I’m also not above running one of the classic Mono-Green wincons in Tooth and Nail. I could easily go grab Seedborn Muse and Avacyn, but with enough elves already on the field, Avenger of Zendikar and Craterhoof Behemoth should do the job quite nicely. The plant tokens won’t be able to attack but the elves will and more importantly — they’ll gain trample.
Rounding out the Build
It’s all well and good to make tons of tokens, pump them up, and make them indestructible, but a good deck has to have protection and answers to help ensure you’ll be able to make it to the late game.
For removal, I’m going to be running Lignify and Darksteel Mutation, in addition to the tried-and-true Swords to Plowshares. For sweepers, I’m running Wrath of God, Fumigate, Rout, and the new Rivals of Ixalan card, Slaughter the Strong, to deal with those pesky indestructible hexproof voltron commanders. To lock my opponents out of my winning turn I’m going to run Grand Abolisher and Dragonlord Dromoka. As a way to be able to present a threat to win with Commander damage, I’m going to be running Stoneforge Masterwork.
I’ve been struggling with finding ways to make this build “my own”. What I mean is that I’d like to include at least a few spells that are a little out of the ordinary that other players might not run. Seedtime is an instant that will let me take an extra turn if an opponent plays a Blue spell during my turn. I’m pretty sure that’s going to happen at least a few times, and if I can cast it even once over the course of the month it’ll make me pretty happy.
I’m optimistic that I’ll be able to rack up a pretty good point total this coming month with this deck. I don’t know if I’m going to add in Karametra's Acolyte and Sword of the Paruns before the month is over. I think the chances are pretty good, though not running many tutors means my chances of landing the combo aren’t that great.
Every month our league is going to run a new theme so I may well share more of these decklists here. I’ll make sure to share the full decklist in case any of you find them interesting or inspiring enough to want to pick up the deck, either to run or to use as a starting point to make it your own.
If you’re interested in keeping up with how I’m doing in my casual and league games, I’m using my old blog site at http://dantesdad.wixsite.com/commanderruminations as a place to share those stories and my progress each month as I compete for my league’s top point total.
Rhys the Redeemed ? Commander | Stephen Johnson
- Creatures (21)
- 1 Arbor Elf
- 1 Avacyn, Angel of Hope
- 1 Avacyn's Pilgrim
- 1 Avenger of Zendikar
- 1 Bramblewood Paragon
- 1 Champion of Lambholt
- 1 Craterhoof Behemoth
- 1 Dragonlord Dromoka
- 1 Druid of the Cowl
- 1 Grand Abolisher
- 1 Imperious Perfect
- 1 Jagged-Scar Archers
- 1 Jazal Goldmane
- 1 Leaf Gilder
- 1 Mirror Entity
- 1 Regal Force
- 1 Seedborn Muse
- 1 Seeker of Skybreak
- 1 Spawnwrithe
- 1 Voyaging Satyr
- 1 Wellwisher
- Planeswalkers (1)
- 1 Huatli, Radiant Champion
- Sorceries (11)
- 1 Cultivate
- 1 Fumigate
- 1 Harmonize
- 1 Rampant Growth
- 1 Rout
- 1 Shamanic Revelation
- 1 Slaughter the Strong
- 1 Tempt with Discovery
- 1 Tooth and Nail
- 1 Triumph of the Hordes
- 1 Wrath of God
- Enchantments (13)
- 1 Anointed Procession
- 1 Beastmaster Ascension
- 1 Concordant Crossroads
- 1 Darksteel Mutation
- 1 Doubling Season
- 1 Ghostly Prison
- 1 Instill Energy
- 1 Lignify
- 1 Parallel Lives
- 1 Presence of Gond
- 1 Privileged Position
- 1 Sandwurm Convergence
- 1 Zendikar Resurgent
- Artifacts (16)
- 1 Commander's Sphere
- 1 Eldrazi Monument
- 1 Illusionist's Bracers
- 1 Magewright's Stone
- 1 Mind Stone
- 1 Paradox Engine
- 1 Rings of Brighthearth
- 1 Selesnya Keyrune
- 1 Selesnya Signet
- 1 Skullclamp
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Stoneforge Masterwork
- 1 Swiftfoot Boots
- 1 Thought Vessel
- 1 Thousand-Year Elixir
- 1 Thran Dynamo