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Preparing for War: Atraxa Spotlight

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Moonlight - Chepstow Castle by John Martin (1815). Gateway Sneak by Marr Stewart.

Last week I gave you my second installment in what's looking to be a four-part series. I started off with an exploration of ways to fight against Planeswalkers, though I neglected to include Dragonlord Silumgar. Last week I wrote about how I'd approach building a Superfriends deck. I felt somewhat out of my element, and that was particularly evident when I suggested that Aminatou, the Fateshifter could be extra good when used to bounce a planeswalker if you had Doubling Season - which isn't even in Aminatou's colors - on the field.

I'm nothing if not grateful to my readers. You guys are fantastic at catching when I miss something, and I am both humbled by your comments and reminded that no matter how many times I re-read and edit my work, errors are bound to occasionally slip through. I'm happy to say this week that shouldn't be a problem.

I've occasionally been able to share decks with you that are from the Commander League I've been running for the past few years. Deck-builders tend to fall into patterns and by putting a spotlight on decks that aren't my own, I can give you a broader look at deck-building than if I only showed you my own lists. While I have my own ideas on how to build a Superfriends deck, I'm happy to be able to share a well tuned Atraxa list with you today.

Meet Stephen Hinkle

I've known Stephen Hinkle since he was a kid and showed up with his brother Mike to play in a LARP (live-action roleplaying) community that I was heavily involved in. Nearly twenty years later I'm no longer LARPing and I find myself running an EDH league in a store managed by a now much older Stephen and Mike Hinkle. They went from good kids who were sometimes a bit of a handful to being great members of the New England Magic community. They learned from their dad, Bob, who founded Nex-Gen Comics, and from the Realms LARP community, about how important it is to invest in your players and balance running a business and making people happy.

Stephen agreed to let me spotlight his Atraxa, Praetors' Voice "Superfriends" deck in today's column. I'm not as well versed in running planeswalkers and was grateful when he said he'd let me share his list and interview him about it.

Stephen's first deck was actually Slivers. After that, he tried out Riku of Two Reflections before he found his way to Atraxa. Slivers will always have a special place in his heart, but currently Atraxa is his favorite deck to play.

Why Atraxa?

Atraxa is the best Planeswalkers general in the format, so I didn't bother to ask Stephen why he chose Atraxa. What I asked him was what he likes the most about playing Atraxa.

Atraxa, Praetors' Voice

According to Stephen, the most enjoyable thing about his Atraxa deck has less to do with his commander and is more about the fact that that it always seems to have an answer to whatever's happening in a given game.

There is always a Planeswalker with an ability that he can use to put him into a good position in the game, no matter what is going on. The fact that Planeswalker abilities are reusable is what brings so much value to the game. Instants and sorcery spells are cast and go to the graveyard, but you can keep squeezing value out of a Planeswalker on subsequent turns without spending any mana. All you have to do is be able to protect them.

Having Atraxa on the field is a fantastic deterrent to getting attacked but using his many Planeswalkers to turn the deck into something of a toolbox deck is what Stephen enjoys the most about this build.

Playing For Fun

As a store manager, Stephen doesn't often find himself playing competitively, especially when playing Commander. He doesn't often join us for Commander League and prefers to play a more relaxed type of game.

Because he's not aiming to win as quickly as possible, Stephen's list doesn't have a lot of combos. Stephen doesn't enjoy losing to combo and as a result he doesn't usually dig for them. Because Planeswalkers generally don't interact on other players' turns, it also isn't great at stopping combos.

This doesn't mean his deck doesn't have answers.

Elspeth, Sun's Champion
Vraska the Unseen
Jace, Unraveler of Secrets

If an opponent has a lot of creatures, he can try to get a Planeswalker like Elspeth, Sun's Champion that comes with an ability that wipes the board. If someone has a particularly troublesome creature out, he's got planeswalkers like Vraska the Unseen that come with loyalty abilities that can deal with them. He's got Jace, Unraveler of Secrets to bounce a creature to its owner's hand.

Cyclonic Rift
Settle the Wreckage
Krosan Grip

Because planeswalkers generally do their work at sorcery speed, Stephen has to lean on other players to help stop combo decks, but he does run Cyclonic Rift, Settle the Wreckage, Krosan Grip. The first two are essential in fending off aggro decks and the latter is in there to deal with The Immortal Sun, as that can be run in any deck and will completely shut down planeswalkers.

Stephen said that he's much more interested in having fun and doing crazy stuff than winning, but everyone does like to win. In his words, "you don't play the game to lose." He often plays Atraxa even though it's slow because he feels it makes for more enjoyable games. It is a very mana intensive deck, and if you don't get to five or six mana, you won't be able to do a whole heck of a lot in the game.

Atraxa gets its share of wins, but when he wants to play more competitively I think Stephen probably pulls out his Slivers deck.

How does this deck win?

According to Stephen, the deck's biggest win condition is probably Tamiyo, Field Researcher. When her final ability is used, you draw three cards and for the rest of the game you can cast nonland cards from your hand without paying their mana costs. When you can give yourself Omniscience, if your deck is capable of drawing a lot of cards you should be able to make a strong push to win the game.

The deck runs a lot of ways to draw cards, and when you're playing those spells for free you can dig deeper and find a way to win. That might be involve using Sorin Markov to put someone at 10 life. You might play Oath of Teferi to allow you to use loyalty abilities more than once per turn or The Chain Veil so you can use them on opponents' turns. Often when the deck is "going off", if the table doesn't feel like they have any way to stop him, opponents will often just concede the game rather than force him to play it out.

When you start getting emblems like Dovin Baan's, which prevents opponents from untapping more than 2 permanents per turn, or Ugin, the Spirit Dragon's, where you draw 7 cards and can put 7 permanents onto the field, it can create a boardstate that is very difficult for opponents to overcome.

The night before my interview with Stephen, I had been in a game in which an opponent had gotten Ajani Steadfast's emblem. It prevents all but 1 point of damage done to you or a planeswalker you control, so you're in a great position to win unless someone can combo in a way that gets past that limitation. That's also one that Stephen said he sometimes digs for if he is up against a deck that runs the kind of threats that it would work well against.

When asked how often he gets an emblem out, Stephen said that he usually gets an emblem out every game, if not multiple emblems.

Because you cannot currently get rid of emblems, and given the choices he has made for which planeswalkers have been included in his deck, those emblems are a key part of his gameplan. He basically tries to get as many emblems as he possibly can get, and the more he gets, the better his chances will be to win the game.

Venser, the Sojourner
Narset Transcendent
Sorin, Grim Nemesis

Stephen went out of his way to mention that the wu planeswalker emblems are quite good. Venser, the Sojourner allows you to exile a permanent every time you cast a spell. Narset Transcendent's emblem prevents opponents from casting non creature spells. Once you get that type of stuff out, you lock your opponents down in a way that makes victory start to feel inevitable.

You don't have to get emblems to win with this deck, though. Sorin, Grim Nemesis doesn't have an emblem, but he can make a number of 1/1 black Vampire Knight creature tokens with lifelink equal to the highest life total among all players. That often can be a game winner, especially when combined with other planeswalker abilities that can affect all of your creatures.

What is the deck weak to?

Every deck has weaknesses, so I made sure to ask Stephen what he feels the deck is weak against.

Because the deck takes a while to get going, it is weaker to fast creature-based decks. He leans on Sphere of Safety and board wipes like Supreme Verdict and Settle the Wreckage to help get to a point in the game where he can start playing planeswalkers and positioning himself to push for a win. That isn't always easy, and against fast aggro decks like a Najeela, the Blade-Blossom or a fast Ezuri, Renegade Leader or Krenko, Mob Boss deck it might have trouble making it to a point in the game where he can start making major plays.

It's worth noting that Stephen doesn't run Propaganda. I asked about Propaganda specifically because I think of it as a universal anti-aggro enchantment, but it doesn't actually tax someone for swinging at a planeswalker. Stephen ran it for while early on, until he realized that was going to help protect his most valuable assets.

Stephen runs other ways to fend off attackers as well. Maze of Ith and Thaumatic Compass are both in the list and serve to remove single attackers. He also runs Teferi's Protection as a way to occasionally cheat death or help get to a turn where he can ult his planeswalkers. Last but not least, Stephen runs Blind Obedience as a way to slow down aggro decks, giving him a turn to use sorcery-speed loyalty ability removal on any creatures that hit the battlefield tapped.

Making Changes

I constantly change up my decks, but I also have a lot of decks so each one is generally fairly stable. A list might change a few times a year, but outside of my constant meddling with Ramos, Dragon Engine, most of them don't see that many revisions.

As a Commander player who has focused on only two decks, I had to ask how often he finds himself tinkering with his list. When new sets come out, there are usually one or two planeswalkers or other cards that he'll try out in the deck.

Smothering Tithe
Arena Rector
Oath of Teferi

Smothering Tithe was a recent addition that has really been pulling its weight. Combining Smothering Tithe with Rhystic Study works to tax opponents for everything they do, slowing them down and giving Stephen more time to get his board to where he can start to make big plays. Arena Rector was added just last year when Battlebond was released. Oath of Teferi is just amazing in this deck, as you get to activate loyalty abilities twice per turn.

All-Stars

When asked if there were three "all-star" cards that he could single out, i realized that in a Superfriends deck it made more sense to separate out planeswalkers from non-planeswalkers.

Deepglow Skate
Reki, the History of Kamigawa

Deepglow Skate needs no introduction, though I have to wonder if Stephen included it over Doubling Season because it comes out of nowhere and pretty much has to be countered. Doubling Season is well known and well feared, but it is weaker in a way because it can either be countered or removed in advance to keep you from reaping its benefits. Teferi's Protection will give you a turn of not having to worry about your opponents knocking you out of being able to "ult" your planeswalkers.

Reki, the History of Kamigawa will allow you to draw a card when you play a legendary spell, and now that planeswalkers are legendary this can result in a ton of card draw. With Tamiyo's Omniscience emblem you can play a walker, draw into a walker, play it and just keep going until you run out of spells or win the game.

Tamiyo, Field Researcher
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
Teferi, Temporal Archmage

For planeswalkers, Tamiyo, Field Researcher, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and Teferi, Temporal Archmage were all easy picks for his top three. The first two have already been mentioned and if you can get Teferi out and get his emblem, any planeswalker you play can become an immediate and serious threat.

Looking Forward

With War of the Spark rapidly approaching, I had to ask Stephen about what sorts of cards he would be looking forward to in the new set.

He said he would expect to see more cards that interact with planeswalkers, especially removal spells. Since he doesn't currently have a lot of ways to deal with another player's planeswalkers, it would be great to get a few more options for that. He runs a pretty low number of creatures, so while he has some options he doesn't have as many as he'd like. Stephen said that he'd also love to see additional planeswalkers with "ult" abilities that can serve as wincons or as ways to lock down his opponents.

His average CMC on planeswalkers is around five so Stephen said he'd also like to have some viable options for planeswalkers that are cheaper to cast. A bunch of 3-drop and good 4-drop planeswalkers would be a great way to lower his curve. When a deck doesn't do much until turn seven or eight, it can lead to the occasional bad game where you don't get to do much before the game is over.

Stephen thinks we might finally see something that will get rid of a planeswalker emblem in War of the Spark. Obviously, he doesn't really want it, but he thinks some of the major formats might be healthier if we had a way to affect emblems.

What Stephen said he'd really love to see is a Cavern of Souls for planeswalkers. If Wizards is going to do a land like that, this would be the set in which to do it. Stephen does run Dragonlord Dromoka and Grand Abolisher, but having a way to make a Planeswalker spell uncounterable would be amazing.

Stephen guessed that we might see spells with abilities tacked onto them that add loyalty counters. A land that when tapped will let you use a loyalty ability would make sense in a planeswalker set. Having some legendary creatures that support planeswalkers in War of the Spark seems pretty likely.

Raff Capashen, Ship's Mage can give planeswalkers Flash and if there was a way to activate an ability on an opponent's turn you could combine Raff and that affect to allow you to interact on opponents' turns in ways you can't very easily right now.

All this is really just a guessing game, but it's fun to try to anticipate what we'll see in each new set before it is released.

Advice to New Deck-builders

When asked what he might tell a new deck-builder, we both had to agree that Atraxa is still the best option for a general. Stephen was quick to point out that there are a lot of great Red planeswalkers, so having a new five color commander that somehow played well with walkers would be pretty amazing.

If he had to build a 5/c commander deck right now for a planeswalker deck, Stephen said he'd probably go with Child of Alara. He'd only use that commander as a way to keep from dying, as Child of Alara will blow up all nonland permanents, planeswalkers included. He also mentioned Progenitus, as that big Hydra Avatar would serve as a fantastic blocker and a viable threat to attack with.

I made sure to suggest my lord and savior, Ramos, Dragon Engine, and he agreed that he'd probably consider Ramos. He concurred that the ability to make wwuubbrrgg mana could allow you to play out your planeswalkers faster, but it's entirely possible he was just humoring me.

The hardest part about building and piloting a Planeswalker deck is probably making enough mana. Getting the mana you need and the colors you need when you need them can be a real challenge. Stephen runs a healthy amount of ramp, along with fetch lands and shock lands. You pretty much have to run both to balance out your mana. He does run a few duals and would like to get more. The mana is probably the most key thing - you live and die by your ability to produce the mana you need.

Don't Forget Atraxa

Before we wrapped up, we discussed how Atraxa is absolutely fantastic as a death touch blocker. According to Stephen, sometimes an opponent will bluff you and try to trick you into blocking with Atraxa so they can use combat tricks to try to get her off the board.

Killing someone with Atraxa using commander damage is also a viable plan if nothing else is working. If you can get a +1/+1 counter on her and start to proliferate those counters, you can get Atraxa big enough that with the right planeswalker loyalty abilities she can one-shot an opponent.

Often Stephen looks more to his planeswalkers for help even when he's trying to kill someone with Atraxa. Using Sorin to put someone to 10 and attacking with his commander is a more common play than going for 21 commander damage and can work just as well.

Secret Tech

One last topic we covered was the question of "Secret Tech". Superfriends is a well known deck archetype, so while there wasn't any special card that he thought nobody else knew about, there was a card he felt was really strong and probably somewhat underplayed in planeswalker decks.

Primevals' Glorious Rebirth

This sorcery may cost seven mana, but in the mid to late game it's not uncommon to have enough planeswalkers in your graveyard for this to really turn the tide of a game. It puts all legendary permanents from your graveyard onto the battlefield.

Stephen recently had a match where he was having a slow mid-game and had to discard a bunch of cards. With Primevals' Glorious Rebirth in hand, he discarded five planeswalkwers and cast it a turn or two later and suddenly had a board state so overwhelming that he was able to close out the game and win.

The Decklist

Stephen's list is a shiny, foiled out beauty of a deck. Even if you were to buy this list without going in for all foils, you would have to spend a decent chunk of change, but when you run a Comic Shop it's not difficult to assemble a blinged out deck. Both Stephen and Mike actually consider their decks as an extension of the store's inventory and they have both sold cards out of their personal decks when a customer really needed something that they didn't have elsewhere in stock.

Atraxa, Praetors' Voice | Commander | Stephen Hinkle


If you were to try to drop the price of this deck down, you might easily save money on a cheaper mana base. Saving money on lands will affect the deck's performance, but if your meta is casual enough that might not be a major issue.

Final Thoughts

I've been writing an awful lot about Planeswalkers lately, and next week I'm hoping to have one last column to finish up this series. For years the Commander meta at NexGen Comics has had some regular players who have become known for playing certain decks or certain styles. We've got a resident Bruna player and a few habitual "durdlers" who always seem to win their games if they're left alone long enough.

We've also got a guy who is probably one of the best control players I've ever played against, and that player just happens to be Stephen Hinkle's brother, Mike. My hope is to sit down with him, talk about control, look at his Marath list and discuss the nuances of how to best battle against all sorts of deck types, including Superfriends.

I always strive to both write well and provide good and accurate information about this format we all know and love. In recent weeks, you guys have stepped up and found some of the oversights I've missed in my writing and I appreciate that immensely. If there's anything in today's column that I've gotten wrong, or anything you can add to the discussion, please comment below. Lots of you have experience with Atraxa and with Superfriends decks and today's interview is far from the final word on the subject.

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