Wheat Fields by Jacob Van Ruisdael (1670). Giant Warrior by Svetlin Velinov.
Have you ever been challenged to build an EDH deck around a specific theme?
I run an EDH League and we play two rounds of Commander games every Saturday afternoon. Points are earned using a system designed to keep the focus on playing commander, but also reward various things you might do in a game. One of the ways you can buff up your point total is by playing "on theme." Our themes change every month and are picked by some of our top players from the previous season.
Every month I'm faced with the challenge of finding a deck or decks to play that are on theme. Nobody has to play on theme, but it's a fun excuse to build new decks and it makes it a little easier to compete for the month's top point total.
Some themes are clever or funny. Some encourage players to play higher powered decks and some can even feel like a bit of a trap. Winning a month in our league is never easy, as we've got some great deckbuilders and fantastic players in our ranks. Going into the first Saturday of April, I was faced with the question of what to build for this month's theme.
Our League's April theme is an interesting one - partner commanders with a combined mana value of 8 or more. We also have an extra point category called "Fresh Faces" that rewards you for playing a commander first printed in the current or previous calendar year. Sadly, nearly every partner commander ever printed was first printed before 2021.
I took a while for me to come up with the deck I'll be playing. I'm going to walk you through some of the options I explored before I dive into the deck I ended up going with.
Exploring My Options
The first thing to note is that the number of partner combinations with a combined mana value of 8 or more isn't incredibly large.
If the number had been 7 instead of 8, I could have played my Thrasios, Triton Hero and Alena, Kessig Trapper deck. Alas, that is not an option. With Thrasios being 2 mana, I would have to play a six mana partner for a Thrasios deck to be on theme.
I do have a Partners deck in Ishai & Ich-Tekik that would be on theme for April. It's won a few games, but is far from a world-beater. The deck's goal is to make lots of Golem creature tokens, maybe play a few nontoken Golems and win by combat. Ishai is a flying blocker and a backup plan that grows as the game goes on. All in all, it is a very fair deck. I fully expect it would have a rough time winning games in the competitive environment of our Commander league.
I love building new decks and having new experiences in Commander, so I don't want to trot out an old deck that is fun but a bit on the casual side. Fortunately, there are a few new partner pairings that really piqued my interest.
Building around Jeska, Thrice Reborn is very tempting. Being able to give a creature the ability to do triple damage is more than a little scary. Ikra Shidiqi, the Usurper puts me in Black so I can tutor easily and Green so I can ramp. I could tutor up and play Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon, give it haste and one-shot anyone without a flying/reach blocker. A Hydra Omnivore could be a huge threat and the incidental lifegain I'd be getting from Ikra Shidiqi could be relevant. I think the deck could be fun.
I am not kidding. I seriously thought about building this partner pairing with the goal of killing people with The Prismatic Piper commander damage. It's a silly idea, and I have no idea what color I'd choose for The Prismatic Piper. Green would let me ramp easily, but White would make a voltron build much easier, with access to cards like Stoneforge Mystic and Ardenn, Intrepid Archaeologist to pump up, enchant and equip my Piper. I haven't completely ruled this out, but I've learned not to underestimate the other players in our league. There have been plenty of times where I thought I had a month's top point total locked up only to lose that top spot in the last Saturday or even the last game of the month.
This partner pairing would be a rebuild. I had a Tana & Sidar Kondo deck years ago and it was a lot of fun. I've been thinking about how the deck would play with the addition of cards that have been printed in the past few years. Chatterfang, Squirrel General, Keeper of Fables, Esper Sentinel and The Great Henge would all make sense in this build, and I do love a deck built around combat tricks. I expect I'd be able to win a game or two over the five Saturdays we'll have in April, but I am less keen on revisiting an old deck, even if it was one I really enjoyed.
In truth, there are a lot more options than I first imagined, but I'm leaning towards playing with cards I already have. I could pick up a Sakashima of a Thousand Faces if I really wanted to use him. I thought about picking up the recent precon deck that includes Rhoda, Geist Avenger and Timin, Youthful Geist, as that pairing adds up to 9 mana, seems interesting and is unlikely to get picked by anyone else. There is nothing stopping two players from playing the same deck, but I like to do my own thing.
There are other partner commanders I'm fond of. Pairing Reyhan, Last of the Abzan with a five mana commander so that I can play her with Blade of Selves is tempting. Eligeth, Crossroads Augur and Thrasios, Triton Hero could make for a pretty sweet Simic goodstuff deck, though I'm not sure the world needs another Simic goodstuff deck. The more I looked at all of the 8+ mana partner combinations, the more I found myself a little lost. There were just too many directions I could go in.
A Fresh Face
Of all the Partner commanders that have been printed, there is one that I couldn't get out of my head. That's because it is one of the few that would also help me qualify for the Fresh Faces bonus. If I want to vie for the top point total of April, I need to win games, but I also need to keep our point system in mind. Playing in a league is like that - you need to consider both the competitiveness of your deck and how your deck interfaces with whatever point system the league happens to be using.
That "Fresh Face" is Yoshimaru, Ever Faithful.
If I'm going to play a 1 mana Partner commander, that means I need to pair my new best boy with a legendary partner that has a mana value of 7 or more. That means I'm looking at five possible decks.
I could build mono-White partners using Yoshimaru and either Akroma, Vision of Ixidor or Radiant, Serra Archangel. I could build an Azorius deck by using Brinelin, the Moon Kraken or a Selesnya deck by pairing my doggo with Kamahl, Heart of Krosa.
I'll admit that I was tempted by that last option, but I don't seem to have a Kamahl, Heart of Krosa in my rare binder OR in any of my other decks. As I write this, CoolStuffInc has eleven of them for sale, three of which are foils, so I could have easily gone with Kamahl. I'm sure not going to play mono-White all month long, and I don't think Brinelin is viable in a semi-competitive environment.
That leaves me with one final option, a big Red Giant Pirate named Dargo, the Shipwrecker.
I've been killed by Dargo decks before, but I've never seen anyone play this combination of partners. My "Doggie Dargo" idea checks a number of boxes. It's got a low-cost commander that can come out on turn 1 and sometimes score me an extra point on my league scoresheet for "First Blood". It's on theme, with the commanders totaling 8 mana. Dargo has a way to reduce his casting cost, so I won't always be paying the full seven mana. More than anything else, I was pretty sure Dargo had combo potential, which is the sort of thing that helps to win games when playing against decks that can be high power or even fringe cEDH.
Building Doggie Dargo
Slowing down my opponents while building up my board and setting up a possible game-winning loop of some sort made sense in my head. I even started piling up a bunch of cards that would be problematic for my tablemates. I was ready to shut off graveyards with Rest In Peace, ETB triggers with Hushwing Gryff, aggro strategies with Blind Obedience and I was going to load up with a ton of boardwipes that would probably set me up to win more games. I own a copy of Smokestack and Tangle Wire and could easily put together a fairly oppressive deck, but I ended up going in another direction.
The reason I didn't is simple: I always try to rally the table to kill the Stax player so the rest of the table can try to have a "normal" game where everyone gets to actually do stuff. I didn't want to put myself in the position of being "that guy" who everyone wanted to kill because it's easier to kill the stax player than remove his permanents. I prefer to try to fly under the radar. Even if a Stax strategy might be effective and powerful enough to warrant consideration, it's just not my style.
I do enjoy a good combo deck. I like having a deck that can explode out of nowhere to kill the table, in part because nobody must sit out longer than anyone else. It's also just an effective way to win games in EDH. Not every league game ends in a combo finish, but it's not at all uncommon and if you don't load your deck up with interaction you really only have yourself (or bad luck with your card draw) to blame when someone else lands a combo and wins.
The key to launching a Dargo combo win isn't too different from one of my favorite decks - Grumgully persist combo. You need a permanent that can kill the table when you loop a creature into the battlefield. You need a sacrifice outlet. You need a way to net enough mana to let you re-cast or recur the creature that you are looping with. Persist combo has the added benefit of being able to loop in response to interaction so long as the interaction doesn't have Split Second.
The addition of White to Dargo lets me run several creatures that can sacrifice themselves, along with a raft of great staples. Swords to Plowshares, Path to Exile, Teferi's Protection, Smothering Tithe and Esper Sentinel will all make this deck better. Bounty Agent, Cathar Commando and Kami of False Hope can all give me self-sacrificing creatures to use to start a combo turn, though I'll want a sacrifice outlet anyways so the ability for a creature to sacrifice itself might be superfluous.
So what does this combo actually look like?
You start with a few creatures on the field. Yosimaru will probably be out, and with any luck I'll have pulled into another body or two. Each creature I sacrifice can drop two colorless mana off the cost of casting Dargo. I'll probably want to hold off from casting that big boy until I'm ready to win, unless I really get desperate for a big creature on my battlefield.
The next key ingredient is the payoff.
Damage sources are an easy option. Impact Tremors, Purphoros, God of the Forge, Outpost Siege, Warstorm Surge and Where Ancients Tread can all push out damage when I'm looping Dargo. Desecrated Tomb can give me a 1/1 Black Bat creature token with flying every time one or more creature cards leaves my graveyard. With the relatively new way Commander deaths are handled, Dargo will hit the graveyard when he dies and then can be put in the Command Zone. That enter-the-graveyard trigger we now get means that we can also get a leave-the-graveyard too. You can't have one without the other if you're putting your Commander back in the zone after sacrificing it.
The last payoff worth mentioning is possibly the coolest. Jeska, Thrice Reborn enters the battlefield with a loyalty counter for each time you've cast a commander from the command zone. If you loop your Dargo, re-casting him from the command zone 5000 times, Jeska will enter with 5000 loyalty counters. Jeska just happens to have a pretty nifty second loyalty ability. You can remove X loyalty counters and do X damage to up to three targets. If you're at a four-player table that should win you the game, assuming no opponent has hexproof.
The key with Jeska is that she needs to stay in my hand. I'm not going to have a way to bounce her, so she only comes out after I've hit my combo and need to close out the game.
So I've got my payoff cards. How exactly does this loop work?
Every time Dargo gets sacrificed, he costs 2 less mana. That means the loop will pay for my commander taxes. If I can make one Red mana to pay for the red in his casting cost, I can re-cast him as many times as I like.
Phyrexian Altar and Thermopod can both sacrifice a creature to make a red mana. Runaway Steam-Kin might not be a sacrifice outlet on its own, but if I can use a non-mana-producing sacrifice outlet and pay for the first three castings, I can make 3 mana with this odd little elemental and keep the loop going forever.
Ashnod's Altar can make two colorless mana, which I can then funnel into a creature like Stonework Packbeast or Signpost Scarecrow to make my single Red mana. There are other ways, but those are the two I've got in this deck. I've also got Skirk Prospector. That might seem like a really odd inclusion, but if I've got Maskwood Nexus on the field, all of my creatures will have all creature types. Aetherflux Reservoir rounds out my wincon options. I should be able to gain a ton of life with all those Dargo castings and then shoot the table deck with Magic's very own Death Star.
Filling out the 98
This deck could still be taken in a lot of different directions. Loading up on Stax pieces is still worth considering, but I really want to dig to my combo pieces. For that reason, I decided to load up on wheels. There's a chance I'll find myself discarding 2 cards to draw 3, but red and white don't have the same access to card draw as Green, Blue and Black so I need to take what I can get. For the first time I'm seriously considering picking up the O.G. of wheels Wheel of Fortune, but I haven't yet pulled the trigger on that old staple.
My first draft was running some mana-intensive tutors in Ring of Three Wishes and Tamiyo's Journal, but I ended up taking them out in favor of lower mana cards. I was on the fence about Gamble because I hate discarding, but even a 50% chance to get a card that could just win me the game is a pretty good deal for one mana. When I hadn't yet discovered Thermopod, I was more hesitant to run Gamble just to get Phyrexian Altar, but now that I have a backup and some other angles to shoot for, I'm more comfortable with it.
This deck listed here runs 36 lands, which is about what I usually put in a high-powered combo deck, especially one that is running Mana Crypt and Mana Vault along with Sol Ring and a bunch of mana rocks that cost 2 mana. Commander's Sphere is even in the list for its ability to sacrifice itself for free and draw me a card.
I've got a little recursion in Trading Post, Buried Ruin and Osgir, the Reconstructor, but that's not enough to call this a recursion deck. My goal is to make enough mana to combo off as quickly as possible. If that sounds like a cEDH strategy, it is, but I don't think this deck is ever going to reliably win as early as turn 5 or 6. I could be wrong, but just never assume I'll be able to get a combo together as quickly as I want.
The last cards worth mentioning are Conqueror's Flail, Silence, and Grand Abolisher. They'll all help me to protect the turn where I try to win. If I've got them out and they stick around, I don't have to worry about interaction on my turn.
Doggie Dargo's Decklist
This deck is absolutely missing cards that would be in a fully tuned list. There are a few lands that could help out and I have yet to order that Wheel of Fortune. I'm not running Jeska's Will because I've just got it in another deck. I actually did borrow a handful of cards from Grumgully, the Generous, putting that deck will be out of commission until May. I'll have to play it a bunch once it's been reassembled - I doubt I am going to want to keep Doggie Dargo together after playing it a dozen times or so in a single month.
Doggie Dargo | Commander | Stephen Johnson
- Creatures (19)
- 1 Bounty Agent
- 1 Cathar Commando
- 1 Djeru, With Eyes Open
- 1 Dockside Extortionist
- 1 Dragon Mage
- 1 Esper Sentinel
- 1 Goblin Matron
- 1 Grand Abolisher
- 1 Humble Defector
- 1 Kami of False Hope
- 1 Osgir, the Reconstructor
- 1 Purphoros, God of the Forge
- 1 Rummaging Goblin
- 1 Runaway Steam-Kin
- 1 Signpost Scarecrow
- 1 Skirk Prospector
- 1 Stonework Packbeast
- 1 Thalia's Lancers
- 1 Thermopod
- Instants (9)
- 1 Chaos Warp
- 1 Disenchant
- 1 Enlightened Tutor
- 1 Path to Exile
- 1 Silence
- 1 Swords to Plowshares
- 1 Teferi's Protection
- 1 Tibalt's Trickery
- 1 Valakut Awakening
- Sorceries (9)
- 1 Blasphemous Act
- 1 By Invitation Only
- 1 Change of Fortune
- 1 Fell the Mighty
- 1 Gamble
- 1 Illuminate History
- 1 Khorvath's Fury
- 1 Reforge the Soul
- 1 Wrath of God
- Enchantments (6)
- 1 Impact Tremors
- 1 Outpost Siege
- 1 Smothering Tithe
- 1 Underworld Breach
- 1 Warstorm Surge
- 1 Where Ancients Tread
- Artifacts (18)
- 1 Aetherflux Reservoir
- 1 Altar of the Brood
- 1 Arcane Signet
- 1 Ashnod's Altar
- 1 Boros Signet
- 1 Commander's Sphere
- 1 Conqueror's Flail
- 1 Desecrated Tomb
- 1 Mana Crypt
- 1 Mana Vault
- 1 Maskwood Nexus
- 1 Mind Stone
- 1 Mirage Mirror
- 1 Phyrexian Altar
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Talisman of Conviction
- 1 Trading Post
- 1 Wayfarer's Bauble
- Planeswalker (1)
- 1 Jeska, Thrice Reborn
I'm not sure why anyone would build "Doggie Dargo" but one of the things I love about this format is that there is SO MUCH room for exploration as a deckbuilder. I've already played this deck once in casual play and it popped off pretty nicely. I used Jeska, Thrice Reborn to kill three players and the last player didn't pull into an answer before my next turn. Putting a zillion counters on Jeska and removing 40 counters to kill three players leaves you with nearly a zillion left for you to try again.
I don't know if I have a feel for how good the deck really is, but its first day out went quite nicely. I am further convinced that in high powered EDH, combo may not be unbeatable, but it's a good way to try to win games. Whether I can push to win a month of our EDH League with a Boros deck is another question entirely, but I'm going to give it a shot.
Winning games in EDH can be easy. You just play a deck that is markedly higher in power than the other decks in the game and your chances go way up. Pubstomping isn't considered very sportsmanlike, but we've all misjudged a deck and had a game where we or someone else won with little meaningful resistance.
My goal isn't to pubstomp my way through our EDH League's games this April, and I don't suggest anyone get in the habit of intentionally playing vastly higher powered against weaker opponents on a regular basis. My goal is to set myself up with a deck that is on theme and good enough to give me a shot at that elusive top point total. Every year I have managed to win at least 3 months and I'm currently at 2, narrowly losing March in the very last game. For me, every Saturday that a dozen or more Commander players gather together to play in the league leaves me with a feeling that on some level I've won at what I was trying to do - bring people together. I also have a fairly competitive mindset so the challenge of winning a month's top point total is something I really enjoy trying to do.
Before I sign off, I have to ask - what would YOU build if you were going to try to play a month of EDH League with a Partners commander deck with a combined mana value of 8 or more?
I expect I may tweak the list as the weeks go by, and I might even switch gears and try out another combination of Partners if I'm well out of contention or I just get bored. Tana and Sidar Kondo are still tempting me to rebuild them. Ikra Shidiqi and Jeska also have me intrigued by the idea that I could probably cobble together a deck designed to play some really powerful threats. There's no reason I couldn't just build a new deck every week, but for now my plan is to play a month of Boros Doggie Dargo. If nothing else, the Donnie Darko reference amuses me more than a little.
That's all I've got for today. I'll make sure to keep you updated on how my month goes. There are a few other EDH League players who, when they set their mind to winning a month, can be nearly unstoppable. I like my chances, but you just never know how a new deck will perform under pressure and you never know what you'll be up against in an open meta where players could be bringing nearly anything (short of turn 5 cEDH decks) to the game.
Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!