Night on the Coast by Ivan Aivazovsky (1875).
Rage-Scarred Berserker by Antonio Jose Manzanedo.
As I sit down to write today's column, my home state of Massachusetts has ordered non-essential businesses to close and my "home store" LGS just over the border in southern New Hampshire has canceled all scheduled events until further notice. I haven't yet taken the leap into online Commander play, but I'm still building decks, writing columns, and hoping to keep you entertained each and every week.
Today I've got a look at how my newest deck has been coming together. It's a commander I've never built before, but it's a legendary creature that I've been knocked out of a game for the sin of merely having on my battlefield.
Say hello to my little friend.
Progenitus is a 10/10 Hydra Avatar with protection from everything. That means he can't be targeted, equipped, enchanted, blocked or dealt damage by anything. He is not indestructible and I can be forced to sacrifice him, but Progenitus is definitely hard to deal with.
This list grew out of thinking about decks that win through Commander damage. If I can do 21 damage to an opponent with my commander, they lose the game. As a 10/10, Progenitus is almost halfway there without any help.
I love building decks around hard-to-handle commanders and enjoy the challenge of finding a way to make a deck like this work.
My initial idea was to run "slots" of cards with similar effects and to build up the deck so that I could play my Progenitus into a board where he'd have haste, at least one anthem effect that would make him bigger than 10/10, and then at least one damage doubler. I'd still have to kill off the table one by one, but with Protection from Everything, the plan seemed like a pretty sound one.
For haste, I could choose from Hammer of Purphoros, Anger, Maze Rusher, Cyclops of Eternal Fury, Maelstrom Wanderer, Urabrask the Hidden, Fervor, Madrush Cyclops, Fires of Yavimaya and Temur Ascendancy.
For doubling my damage output, Berserkers' Onslaught, True Conviction, Cleaver Riot, Rage Reflection, Avatar of Slaughter, Rafiq of the Many, Gisela, Blade of Goldnight and Finest Hour would all do the trick.
Anthems are easy to come by. Ravos, Soultender, Glorious Anthem, Marshal's Anthem, Gaea's Anthem, Dictate of Heliod, True Conviction and any creatures from the Liege cycle would help to make our commander bigger. All we need is +1/+1 but a little more won't hurt. A card like Mirari's Wake is just about the perfect fit for Progenitus, as we're also looking for ramp more than any deck I've built in a long, long time.
Thinking about anthems led me to consider other effects that would help this deck. Having vigilance would leave me with a fantastic blocker. Making Progenitus indestructible would solve my board-wipe problem, which you know is going to be one of the first things our opponents tutor for. The other thing they'll be tutoring for is a counterspell, so making our creatures uncounterable will also be pretty important.
With a long list of things I want to put into this deck and a pretty hefty need to ramp, it didn't take long to realize that I was going to have problems fitting everything into this list. Building "slots" of haste-enablers, damage doublers, anthem effects, vigilance, lifelink, indestructible, uncounterable and enough ramp to be able to cast my commander before turn one0 left me with an obvious problem: I'd never, ever have any answers to my opponents trying to combo off before I could even cast my commander. There simply wouldn't be room for more than a token Swords to Plowshares or Swan Song.
I don't play in a meta where folks are averse to playing powerful cards or comboing off early. On a recent casual night, I found myself on the losing end of a turn-six Revel in Riches win and then on a mid-game Enter the Infinite / Omniscience. I didn't have answers in hand either time and didn't enjoy either game, as I was playing a deck that truly, genuinely wanted to play "fair." I wasn't thrilled, but I should have known better than to play a casual deck in that meta without having had a real "Rule Zero" conversation.
I don't like not having an answer, but I also resent not being able to play janky, bad decks that are way too light on answers. The problem with that kind of approach is simple. I can't reasonably ask my opponents to play bad decks (nor would I) and I can't expect every game to have all the decks at roughly balanced power levels.
That means I've got to make a choice.
Do I build my Progenitus deck with all the goofy stuff I want to include and expect to sometimes lose early to combo decks that aren't going to give me enough time to play out my game, or do I change course and adapt to my meta?
Sometimes these decisions answer themselves.
Last Train to Combotown
All my planning around building this deck with ways to play Progenitus into a field with haste, vigilance, life-link, double strike and at least one anthem hadn't done much to deal with the basic problem of how we'd ever get the mana to play him in the first place.
What if I built this deck around a few infinite mana combos that would serve the modest goal of just trying to play my commander?
I know that might seem silly, but I'm nothing if not a fan of weird and different approaches to building Commander decks. I was convinced - the plan would be to cut as many corners and do everything I could to combo off, not to win the game but just to get my commander onto the field. At 10 mana, and with no generic mana in the casting cost, Progenitus is exquisitely difficult to cast if you're "playing fair."
The Dockside Extortionist / Temur Sabertooth combo won't always work. You've got to have opponents with enough artifacts and enchantments, but in Commander that's usually not a problem. You simply need enough treasures to be able to bounce and re-cast Dockside Extortionist and so long as you're gaining at least 1 mana each turn, you can make infinite mana. You might even be able to make enough Treasure tokens without Temur Sabertooth in the picture to be able to cast Progenitus on your next turn. Food Chain is a well known combo piece that allows you to produce infinite mana that will only be usable for creatures. That's all I want to do anyways, so that's fine by me.
We definitely can't just rely upon two combos to be able to cast Progenitus, so we'll be pulling out all the stops.
Composite Golem might be unfamiliar to some of you, but this six-mana artifact creature will let us sacrifice him to pay for half of our Commander's casting cost. Morophon, the Boundless is a fantastic cost-saving tribal Commander, but in this list he'll simply cut the cost of casting our commander by half. Geode Golem is another option in our bag of tricks. If we can get it out and do combat damage to a player with it, we'll get to cast our Commander from the command zone. We'll still have to pay any tax we might have built up, but this is probably one of the best uses I've ever seen for Geode Golem's unique ability.
Mirari's Wake and Zendikar Resurgent will both double up our lands' mana output. We'll still need to be able to produce WUBRG, but that's not an impossible task. Faeburrow Elder will go a long way towards producing extra mana, even if it's unlikely we'll ever see him tap to make WUBRG prior to casting Progenitus. Ramos, Dragon Engine is a long-term investment in a deck not built around him, but his ability to produce "Progenitus mana" can't be ignored. In a slower game with enough spells flying back and forth Ramos could certainly get the job done.
I'll also be running a decent little list of mana rocks, mana dorks and land tutors, along with ways to let our creatures tap for any color of mana. I'm almost treating the challenge of casting Progenitus as its own wincon. If we can get him out, we've succeeded at something that can be quite a hassle. Anything past that point is gravy.
Dealing with Combo
If we're going to not only play some infinite combos but also run tutors to more easily hit a combo, that means we can't very well complain about our opponents' attempts to combo off. Sure, they'll probably be trying to just outright win the game while our combo plan is just a way to cast Progenitus, but we still shouldn't complain.
What we can and should do is try to stop them.
That means playing a ton of instant-speed interaction. This list has that in spades. We want to stop them at every turn, exiling and blowing up their combo pieces until we've dragged the game out so long that we've landed our own combo, found a way to cut Progenitus' casting cost, or just built up enough of a board that we can cast him outright.
Winning a game against genuine, bonafide cEDH or even semi-competitive decks isn't going to come easily, but if it ever happens it will feel like quite the achievement.
Building my focus around low-cost, instant-speed interaction is the right approach if I'm going to try to deal with combo, but it's going to leave me vulnerable to fast aggro decks that are basically playing a "fair" brand of Magic, but aren't trying to combo off. If I were running a ton of creatures that could all help each other and eventually help Progenitus when he hits the field, I'd be in a better position to deal with more combat-oriented decks.
I suspect I'd enjoy the latter more, but most of my decks don't stay in one form for too long. I'll play this list, see how it does, and adjust it over time. This is Commander, so I'm bound to lose a lot of games. I don't know if I'll be able to convince myself that casting my commander is enough of an achievement to be happy if the rest of a game goes poorly, but I think it's worth the effort.
This is a list I'd be comfortable playing in most metas. It wouldn't stand up to a really fast meta, but it's got enough interaction that I would probably be able to interact even if the game went long before I could cast my big boy from the command zone. The funny thing about cEDH is that with enough interaction, even from semi-competitive decks, the games can really drag out a lot longer than you might expect. The stories of constant turn five (or sooner) wins are really more from cEDH decks pubstomping unprepared and uninteractive casual decks than from healthy metas with experienced players.
Progenitus | Commander | Stephen Johnson
- Commander (1)
- 1 Progenitus
- Creatures (27)
- 1 Bastion Protector
- 1 Beastcaller Savant
- 1 Burnished Hart
- 1 Composite Golem
- 1 Crashing Drawbridge
- 1 Dockside Extortionist
- 1 Dragonlord Dromoka
- 1 Eternal Scourge
- 1 Faeburrow Elder
- 1 Geode Golem
- 1 Gisela, Blade of Goldnight
- 1 Grand Abolisher
- 1 Joiner Adept
- 1 Leyline Prowler
- 1 Magister Sphinx
- 1 Misthollow Griffin
- 1 Morophon, the Boundless
- 1 Ogre Battledriver
- 1 Pilgrim's Eye
- 1 Prowling Serpopard
- 1 Ramos, Dragon Engine
- 1 Shaman of Forgotten Ways
- 1 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Squee, the Immortal
- 1 Sylvan Caryatid
- 1 Sylvok Explorer
- 1 Temur Sabertooth
- Instants (19)
- 1 Anguished Unmaking
- 1 Assassin's Trophy
- 1 Beast Within
- 1 Cyclonic Rift
- 1 Disenchant
- 1 Krosan Grip
- 1 Mortify
- 1 Naturalize
- 1 Nature's Claim
- 1 Path to Exile
- 1 Pongify
- 1 Putrefy
- 1 Rapid Hybridization
- 1 Return to Dust
- 1 Return to Nature
- 1 Swan Song
- 1 Swords to Plowshares
- 1 Utter End
- 1 Vampiric Tutor
- Sorceries (6)
- 1 Cultivate
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Diabolic Tutor
- 1 Kodama's Reach
- 1 Rampant Growth
- 1 Tempt with Discovery
- Enchantments (8)
- 1 Cryptolith Rite
- 1 Finest Hour
- 1 Food Chain
- 1 Mirari's Wake
- 1 Rage Reflection
- 1 Smothering Tithe
- 1 Temur Ascendancy
- 1 Zendikar Resurgent
The funny thing about this list is that it's probably a bit low on lands. My goldfishing has seen me able to get Progenitus out at a decent rate, but I'm pretty sure that when I actually get around to playing this deck, I might decide to adjust that land count up a bit.
If you're looking for any logic behind my choice of basic lands, don't waste your time trying to figure it out. I relied upon a tried-and-true method. I went through all of my Theros Beyond Death lands and decided I'd just use every one I had. I threw in a bunch of multicolored lands and called it a day. As it turns out, I think it's a passable mana base for a janky deck list this one. If I played the deck and really fell in love with it, I could see playing fetches and shocks and picking up a Crystal Quarry to go along with my Cascading Cataracts.
It may be awhile before I'm able to play this deck in a real, in-person Commander game. It's looking like we may all be engaging in "social distancing" for another month or so. I'm feeling stir crazy already and our Commander League hasn't even missed a week. We have discussed setting up ways for players to play via Discord, but I don't yet know how many of our regular members would be able to participate in that. If it winds up working out, I'll definitely share details with you here.
Next week will be the week that I share my monthly installment of "Winning Ways," and I'll do my best to whip something interesting up for you.
That's all I've got for you today. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!