The Billowing Sea by Ivan Aivazovsky (1889). Thassa, Deep-Dwelling by Zack Stella.
Commander is a strange format.
We have a clear divide between casual and competitive play, but it isn't a black and white matter. There are decks all along the range from the most powerful to the jankiest build you could imagine. We also have a stark contrast between players who play and are OK playing against "combo" decks and players who feel like combo is tiresome and somehow against the spirit of the format. A portion of our format's player base just wants to smash creatures against each other on the battlefield without having to constantly guard against an opponent getting just the right set of combo pieces on the table at just the right time.
I've written a lot about combo and I think it's a part of our format that you really need to learn how to live with and play against if you're going to play Commander. It's generally an easier and more efficient way to win a game. It can also be a lot of fun to try to assemble an obscure, overly complicated Rube Goldberg device that can win you the game.
I just got through a very successful month of play in the weekly Commander league I run. I've never gone undefeated, but I came really close - only losing in my last game and winning the month's top point total by a wide margin. I spent much of January playing my Grumgully, the Generous Persist combo deck. While I never won a game (or locked down a table) early and I was never seated at our cEDH tables, Grumgully had a level of redundancy in its combo plan that made it difficult to beat. Playing combo all month was a lot of fun, but for February I wanted to take my foot off the gas pedal and play more casual decks. That meant I'd lose a lot of games, but I was OK with that. A lot of the participants in our league play less powerful decks and I'm capable of enjoying all levels and styles of Commander games.
In the very first pod I played in for February, I had the kind of game that I just love. It was full of drama, politics, suspense and surprises, and I enjoyed every twist and turn from start to finish. It was the kind of game that probably wouldn't have happened if I had been playing my Grumgully deck. I would likely have just won and everyone at the table would have enjoyed the game much, much less.
Today's column is going to be the story - as well as I can remember it - of that game. While I enjoy combo, I love a long, hard slog where everyone is "playing fair" and you know you're going to have to find a way to win or lose on the battlefield. This was that kind of game.
The Game of the Month
It might be too early to decide that my first League game of February was my "Game of the Month" but I find it hard to imagine having a better one in the coming weeks.
Our League's point system has a Bounty Hunter point, and on the first week of each month the previous month's winner is worth a whopping 10 points. That winner was me, and I took a moment at the start of the game to remind my tablemates of the target on my back. I also assured them that I would do my best to be hard to kill. At most tables, even when your opponents know they have every reason in the world to kill you first, I find that players have a hard time keeping the pressure on. They get distracted. They feel bad for you. They realize you're no longer the biggest threat at the table.
When playing my Grumfully deck, there were a few times where my opponents started out on the right path - hammering away at me early - but lost focus and were kicking themselves later on after I had landed my combo. Now that I was playing a "fair" deck I had to hope that chasing points wasn't a high priority for any of these guys because I had specifically pointed out that they should kill me first.
As luck would have it, I was playing a deck that might not combo off, but could probably withstand some pressure. I was playing Questing Beast.
The table was made up of myself, a young player on Nazahn, Revered Bladesmith, a player on an aggressive Grand Warlord Radha deck and a fourth player on Emmara, Soul of the Accord. The Nazahn player might have been about a quarter my age, but he plays at a level beyond his years and has proven to be a dangerous opponent if Nazahn gets enough equipment out and isn't dealt with. The Radha player does well for what some might look at as a "suboptimal" general, and is capable of squeezing a lot of value out of his commander's ability and dealing a ton of damage if things go well. The Emmara player was a bit of a wildcard - I hadn't played with him before and was wary of him getting out of hand.
My basic plan was to take advantage of the Questing Beast's ability for my creatures' damage to not be prevented if he's on the field. The deck runs a lot of fogs, which prevent combat damage. I also run a lot of deathtouch creatures, both to encourage opponents to swing at someone else and to use spells that allow my creatures to do damage to target creature.
The game started out fairly well. I got an early 1 mana deathtouch creature (Sedge Scorpion) out and was able to land the coveted "First Blood" point for first combat damage at the table. It seemed clear that nobody was likely to be playing board wipes because of the colors we were all in.
The Nazahn player was off to a really slow start, but I wasn't playing an aggressive game. The Radha player was also a little slow in the early game, but the Emmara player was quietly developing a really impressive board. They had a bunch of tokens creatures and were putting +1/+1 counters on them. Players were dealing damage to each other in small amounts in the early turns but soon it became clear that the Emmara player was probably going to overwhelm us all. We couldn't get through and their army was simply bigger and scarier than anyone else's.
I had played an early Taunting Elf when I had a few creatures out and had actually swung for some damage on the Emmara player. All of their blockers had to block Taunting Elf and I was able to chip in a little damage, but we were still looking at a real uphill battle.
I'm pretty sure I had joked about "keeping my Fog mana open" in the early game. It's a thing I like to do to put the idea of not attacking me into my opponents' heads. I'll even do this with a Black mana sometimes. While I do occasionally run Fog spells or even Darkness, I'm often bluffing. It's just a bit of table banter that I'll occasionally throw out there.
The real fun really started to happen when the Emmara player decided to start pushing for the win. I had tapped out for an attack except for Questing Beast, which has Vigilance, and the Nazahn player only had Nazahn out. The Emmara player swung at both of us with what would have been a lot of damage. The Nazahn player would have died but I had Moment's Peace in hand and fogged the attack. My commander was able to kill one of my attackers and it was just enough to buy us some time.
Over the next few turns the Emmara player built up their army a little more and none of the rest of us were able to establish what felt like a comparable board state. Actually, that's not quite true. The Grand Warlord Radha player had been playing out a lot of creatures including a 9/9 Hooded Hydra and a bunch of 4/4 Beast creature tokens from a Rampaging Baloth. I think he was sitting back at the time, hoping we'd pick each other off and he could clean up the survivor and win, but it's possible he threw a few attacks into the mix to help us out.
The Nazahn player had done some commander damage to the Emmara player and had a bunch of equipment out, but didn't have a way to get damage through against anyone yet. The Emmara player was again looking like an unstoppable force and the Radha player had a good board but didn't have lethal on anyone. I still had a bunch of deathtouch blockers and nothing that felt like a big threat. I realized I was going to have to use the Nazahn player to kill the Emmara player if I was going to have a chance of surviving to the end of the 2 hours we have allotted for a round of play.
The Emmara player again decided that they were going to make another push. They declared their attackers and went through the painstaking process of calculating the damage they were about to do to myself and the Nazahn player.
I had one of those wonderful moments where I reminded the Nazahn player not to scoop yet and locked eyes with him and then looked at the Moment's Peace in my graveyard and then back at him, just to remind them that I still had a way to save us both. The Emmara player was busy counting and didn't notice.
Once the damage was all totaled, I got to break the bad news to the Emmara player that I was going to flash back Moment's Peace so we'd survive at least one more turn.
We still didn't have a good answer for the Emmara player's board state, but I had a Noble Quarry in hand. This little Unicorn can be cast as an aura and will force all of an opponent's creatures to block it. I had tried to tell the Nazahn player that all we needed was for him to get a second creature out, but I didn't want to make a big deal about it and give away my plan. Fortunately for both of us, the Emmara player decided that one of the Nazahn player's pieces of equipment had to be removed. Nazahn had a Bloodforged Battle-Axe and a bunch of copies of it, along with some other stuff, but what mattered was just that the Emmara player used Beast Within to blow something up, giving them a 3/3 Beast token.
On my turn I was able to cast Noble Quarry on the Nazahn player's Beast token.
Unfortunately for the Nazahn player, there were other issues.
At this point the Radha player had a Throne of the God-Pharaoh on the field and the Nazahn player was at a low enough life total that he would die if the Radha player simply got to the end of his turn with enough tapped creatures. The Radha player had a Goblin Rabblemaster on the field and had a few Goblins, so unless we worked together the Nazahn player would die to the Radha player's Goblins because Rabblemaster would force them to attack. I had two deathtouch blockers so I could block two, take damage from two, and the Nazahn player would live past the end of the Radha player's turn.
I passed the turn.
The Nazahn player cast Odric, Lunarch Marshal. Nazahn was indestructible thanks to his hammer, so that meant that all of his creatures would be indestructible when he went to combat.
The problem of the Noble Quarry enchanted Beast token dying was no longer an issue!
This was good for him but very bad for everyone else.
The Nazahn player was at 4 life and either had to kill the Radha player, or work a deal with the Radha player.
The Radha player didn't have lethal on the Emmara player, but the Nazahn player did thanks to my Noble Quarry. Radha eventually agreed to send their goblins at me so I could block two of them and the Nazahn player wouldn't die. The other part of the deal was that the Radha player would give the Nazahn player a turn without attacking with any other creatures.
Since the Radha player had no way to beat the Emmara player and didn't want to die, he agreed.
The Nazahn player swung for lethal on the Emmara player, who accepted defeat with grace, clearly impressed that we had found a way out of the pickle he had put us in. Without both cooperation and shenanigans on our part, he would have easily won the game. Rather than be upset, he seemed happy for us - though I'm sure he would have been happier to have won.
The Nazahn player and I were thrilled. We high-fived and the Grand Warlord Radha player realized that he was probably next. To his credit, on his turn the Radha player held to the deal and only swung with his four Goblins. To my credit, I dutifully blocked two of them and the Nazahn player found themselves at 2 life.
I passed turn and on the Nazahn player's turn our 2 hours ran out. That meant he would finish his turn and everyone would get one last turn, capped at 5 minutes in length. He had to decide between killing me, guaranteeing that he'd get my 10 point bounty, and killing the Radha player. After a bit of thought he swung at and killed the Radha player, who wasn't thrilled, but who took it well. Sometimes the dominoes just don't fall right and you wind up dead.
On my turn I didn't have a way to get past the Nazahn player's blockers. My army had never gotten particularly big over the course of the game and I had lost creatures here and there both by blocking and by throwing them at my opponents. I would have been happy to top deck a Rogue's Passage and swing for the win, but my luck wasn't that good.
One of my favorite things to do in Magic is bluff. Getting an idea into an opponent's head is a real challenge. When watching an opponent try to decide where to send a single big creature, I'll often look at a card in my hand and put a finger on a Plains (if I'm in White and have one untapped) as if I'm readying to cast Swords to Plowshares or Path to Exile. It's often enough to get them to swing elsewhere and sometimes I even have that bit of removal in hand and ready to go. I had spent over a half hour of our two hour game threatening to "fog" attacks by my opponents when I didn't actually have a Fog in hand. When I really needed to save myself, there were a few times when I had a Constant Mists available, so my threat wasn't completely empty.
On the final turn of the game, the Nazahn player - after killing (with my help) our two other opponents - chose to send his indestructible 3/3 Noble Quarry enchanted Beast token and his now-gigantic Nazahn at me.
I allowed for a dramatic pause and then almost (but not quite) windmill-slammed the card I had just drawn on my turn onto the field.
It was a Haze Frog. His combat damage was prevented. The game was a draw.
It was an appropriate ending to a game that my best effort at storytelling really doesn't do credit to. I also probably got some minor details wrong. I wasn't taking notes at the time.
We had drama, tension, back-and-forth struggles and desperate deal-making. I was able to play kingmaker and spoiler and I don't think anyone walked away from the table feeling like it wasn't an entertaining two hours. We'd all have liked to win, but in the end nobody wound up victorious.
On some level my goal had been to not let anyone claim my the 10 point "bounty" that was on my head, so I felt like I had achieved my goal.
The only game my Questing Beast has ever won was a game where I was able to cast Arachnogenesis against a player who created an arbitrary number of 1/1 creatures and swung them all at his opponents, not keeping any back as blockers. His chosen number was 300, with 150 going at each opponent, so I wound up able to kill the table with 150 Spider tokens. That game was fun, but this one was better. In the end, it's not really about winning - it's about having great and memorable games.
This deck is a lot of fun to play, but I really don't expect it to win games. Possibly for that reason I'm able to relax and enjoy the games a lot more, though I expect if I faced a lot of combo deck it would be decidedly less fun. If your goal is to mess with folks by fogging their combat damage, it helps to have opponents who actually want to go to combat.
Turbofog Questing Beast | Commander | Stephen Johnson
- Commander (1)
- 1 Questing Beast
- Creatures (45)
- 1 Acidic Slime
- 1 Advocate of the Beast
- 1 Archetype of Endurance
- 1 Bellowing Tanglewurm
- 1 Boon Satyr
- 1 Champion of Lambholt
- 1 Conclave Naturalists
- 1 Courser of Kruphix
- 1 Daggerback Basilisk
- 1 Deadly Recluse
- 1 Destructor Dragon
- 1 Elvish Rejuvenator
- 1 Fierce Empath
- 1 Garruk's Packleader
- 1 Gnarlwood Dryad
- 1 Grothama, All-Devouring
- 1 Haze Frog
- 1 Hornet Nest
- 1 Hydra Omnivore
- 1 Keeper of Fables
- 1 Kessig Recluse
- 1 Krosan Warchief
- 1 Leafcrown Dryad
- 1 Manglehorn
- 1 Nath's Elite
- 1 Nessian Game Warden
- 1 Noble Quarry
- 1 Nyxborn Wolf
- 1 Obsessive Skinner
- 1 Pathbreaker Ibex
- 1 Prized Unicorn
- 1 Reclamation Sage
- 1 Ridgescale Tusker
- 1 Sakura-Tribe Elder
- 1 Sedge Scorpion
- 1 Shinen of Life's Roar
- 1 Somberwald Stag
- 1 Spore Frog
- 1 Stingerfling Spider
- 1 Sylvan Ranger
- 1 Taunting Elf
- 1 Thornweald Archer
- 1 Thunderfoot Baloth
- 1 Turntimber Basilisk
- 1 Watcher in the Web
- Instants (11)
- 1 Arachnogenesis
- 1 Aspect of Hydra
- 1 Band Together
- 1 Constant Mists
- 1 Fog
- 1 Moment's Peace
- 1 Pause for Reflection
- 1 Respite
- 1 Root Snare
- 1 Terrifying Presence
- 1 Unravel the Aether
- Sorceries (8)
- 1 Aggressive Instinct
- 1 Cultivate
- 1 Fade into Antiquity
- 1 Harmonize
- 1 Rabid Bite
- 1 Rampant Growth
- 1 Search for Tomorrow
- 1 Skyshroud Claim
I should confess that this was one of those rare decks where I didn't even bother putting it into an online app until just now as I'm wrapping up today's column. I'm first struck by the complete lack of enchantments in the list. I usually have some sprinkled in, but this list was meant to be a "beater deck" that I'd bring to casual Commander nights and play to have fun but not focus too much on trying to win.
I have to wonder what I'd change if I were to invest more into this particular build. I've got some cute draw options, like playing some creatures with Grothama, All-Devouring on the field and then finishing it off with a deathtouch creature like Sedge Scorpion so I can draw a bunch of cards. I really like having decks that are far from the top of the power scale. It allows me to sit down at a table with weaker decks and not worry about overwhelming everyone. Also, I tend to enjoy games more when I don't focus on winning - and I have a bad habit of focusing on winning more than I probably should.
I usually go over the deck in much more detail than I have today, and this is definitely a weaker build than my usual fare. If you wanted to amp this deck's power level up a few notches what would you do? Would you lean on old reliable cards like Avenger of Zendikar and Craterhoof Behemoth? Would you run more removal and try to play Kingmaker? Would you run more of a Beast theme?
I definitely think I'm going to tweak this list in the coming months. I have wanted to get another copy of Ezuri's Predation for a while and this might be just the right list for it. I also suspect I'll look at moving toward Beast tribal because tribal can be fun and cards that care about Beasts should work with Questing Beast fairly well.
My biggest question as I wrap up today's column is a simple one.
Did you enjoy reading an article that was more of a story than a "deck tech"?
If you'd enjoy having a "Game of the Month" installment of Commanderruminations every now and then to mix things up - please let me know in the comments. I enjoy writing them, but I understand that there is a lot of value in a deck tech that gets lost when I'm spending my time trying to recount what happened in a game.
That's all I've got for today. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!