Bay of Naples by Ivan Aivazovsky (1845). Underworld Breach by Lie Setiawan.
I've kicked off every month this year with a column dedicated to players who desperately wish their decks would win a few more games than they currently do. Winning in a multiplayer format like Commander isn't always easy. There are so many decks and such a range in power levels that there's simply no silver bullet you can add to your deck to turn it from being a perpetual loser to an occasional winner.
In past installments of "Winning Ways," I've looked at single-card wincons like Laboratory Maniac, Mortal Combat and Approach of the Second Sun, and I've also built a combo deck that would try to launch into a win off the Minotaur tutor Deathbellow War Cry. Today's installment is going to be a look at a different way to try to push up your win rate, and one that arguably might backfire as often as it succeeds. So what do I mean by "share the love"?
These three legendary creatures all have one very important thing in common, and it's one that makes them all surprisingly powerful. Yes, even Hallar, the Firefletcher can win games if built well and played in the right meta. These all let you push life loss to all your opponents at once. Purphoros, God of the Forge uses enter-the-battlefield triggers, Nekusar, the Mindrazer usually forces your opponents to draw and Hallar, the Firefletcher is the king of kicker spells.
Today's deck is going to be one built around another legendary creature that can push life loss to everyone. Meet Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow.
You'll rarely pay Yuriko's mana cost, thanks to Commander ninjutsu. You can pay his ninjutsu cost and replace an unblocked attacker you control, returning that attacker to your hand. That's cute and will definitely help, but his real payoff is his second ability.
Pinging everyone can seem underwhelming if you attack and reveal a land or a card like Swan Song. It can also seem terrifying if your opponents think you're running cards like Blightsteel Colossus or Eldrazi Titans. It might even inspire a clever opponent - we'll call him Jerkface... Jerkface McGillicuddy - to try to get the table to gang up against us.
The Archenemy Problem
If you think damaging all your opponents at once is a terrible plan because you'll constantly wind up playing Archenemy, you're half right. It can backfire and inspire an opponent to play politics and convince the entire table to take you out first. If Jerkface McGillicuddy is going to rally the table, he's just as likely to do that if you're playing some other legendary at the head of your deck. He'll find some other excuse, and someone else might be his target, but that kind of politics is the sort of thing you just have to deal with in a multiplayer game like Commander.
I know this to be true because, more often than not, I am Jerkface McGillicuddy.
You shouldn't lean away from an efficient and effective strategy because it might draw a little hate or make you a target. I'd suggest that you look at that extra attention as an indication that you're probably on the right path.
You want to win more games, right?
You probably won't do that by playing Jasmine Boreal and an army of vanilla beasties. You need to find ways to develop more effective and powerful strategies that might even scare your opponents enough to gang up against you.
If they do force you to play Archenemy, try to take it as a compliment. You probably won't win, but those losses will teach your friends that you haven't built some unstoppable juggernaut, and the next time Jerkface tries to convince everyone to gang up on you, there's a chance they won't listen or that they'll only do it for a while and then shift their attention to whoever is out front (probably Jerkface McGillicuddy - that's why he does that).
We aren't trying to build a deck that will never lose; we're exploring ways to get you to push up your win rate.
Playing cards and building around commanders that hit all opponents is an effective way to do that. You gain from not targeting a specific player, and if you play it right you can fly under the radar just enough to not inspire the table to gang up on you until it's too late (for them).
Ninjas and Shapeshifters
This deck is going to want to do combat damage to our opponents and that means we'll want to play unblockable creatures and ways to make regular creatures unblockable. There have only been 18 other Ninjas printed, not including Un-set Ninjas, and I don't own that many of them.
I was able to scrape together nine true Ninjas, not all of which have the ninjutsu ability. Some, like Phantom Ninja, are unblockable. Some give other Ninjas useful abilities. Ingenious Infiltrator gives card draw and Throatseeker will give our unblocked attacking Minjas lifelink.
Ninja of the Deep Hours gives card draw and Moonblade Shinobi blue Illusion creature tokens. The best of the bunch is probably Silent-Blade Oni, who will let us cast a nonland card from our victim's hand. These Ninja abilities all require us to do combat damage to a player. Apparently that's a Ninja thing. You've got to get through.
I'm building this deck with cards I have on hand, so I'm not going to be running every Ninja ever printed. If I had them, I'd throw them in, but for this build I'll be leaning on the Swiss Army Knife of creature types: the Changeling.
A Changeling has all creature types - it is a Ninja, but it is also a Dragon, an Elf, an Ooze and a Faerie. Changelings may not have the ninjutsu ability, but they will trigger Yuriko's combat damage trigger and that's central to what we're trying to do with today's deck.
While they don't have ninjutsu, Changelings often have something interesting they can bring to our game. Amoeboid Changeling can tap to essentially change a creature into a Changeling, giving it all creature types, or tap to remove all creature types. If we've got a Baleful Strix on the field, we can swing it at an opponent with no flying or reach blockers and then target it with Amoeboid Changeling's ability to get another Ninja combat damage trigger. If that seems overly complicated, Changeling Outcast keeps things simple - it can't block and it can't be blocked. Moonglove Changeling has deathtouch, which means our opponents probably won't want to block it - especially if they don't have many creatures to spare and don't have anything with first strike on board.
Getting Through Blockers
Some of our Ninjas are unblockable and some can use their ninjutsu ability to jump into combat and replace an unblocked attacker, but we're going to want to run some ways to get our creatures through.
These are not all equal, but they should all pull their weight. Mu Yanling might not stick around long, but this planeswalker's +2 ability will let one of our Ninjas hit an opponent. Rogue's Passage will do this as well, at the cost of tapping it and paying 4 mana. Our best card if we wind up with a lot of creatures will probably be Archetype of Imagination. This creature will give our creatures flying and will keep anyone else from having flyers. That makes our army unblockable except by creatures with reach. We don't care who we hit, so we should be able to find someone to swing at to get our Yuriko triggers.
Making More Ninjas
If we've played out a bunch of creatures, but we're hitting our Solemn Simulacrum, Baleful Strix, Mulldrifter and maybe even our Archetype of Imagination or an unblockable Dimir Infiltrator, you might think we'd be wondering where all of our Ninjas went. That's a real problem with semi-tribal builds. Some games leave you wondering where your tribe went and why they didn't say goodbye before they left.
Fortunately, there have been some enchantments printed over the years that let you name a creature type and have all your creatures gain that type for as long as the card is on the battlefield.
That board I described above has five creatures, one of which is unblockable and all of which have flying. If you play your Yuriko, play Conspiracy naming Ninja as the creature type and swing away, you could wind up with six Yuriko triggers. Late in a game you could kill someone if you hit the right cards, especially if you engaged in a little topdeck manipulation before you went to combat.
One of the things I love about Magic is playing a deck where you don't know what's going to happen next. I built a Primal Surge deck around Nikya of the Old Ways and instead of running zero additional non-permanent cards, I ran three or four other instant and sorcery spells because it was more fun for me to be surprised by how big my Surge would be. The deck once Primal Surged into three permanents before it hit a non-permanent, and while that sounds incredibly pathetic - I had the attention of the entire room when I started flipping cards off the top of my deck and it wound up being absolutely hilarious. It's become one of my favorite stories.
I'd rather swing Narset, Enlightened Master and have no idea what four cards I'll flop into than use shenanigans to order my whole deck, swing once and win the game for sure. That doesn't mean I don't want to pay some attention to manipulating the top of my deck and trying to make sure I get some value. With Yuriko, I absolutely want to avoid hitting a land. Even a one or two-CMC card will represent positive value and life loss for my opponents.
Aqueous Form is an old standby for Narset, but will put in work for Yuriko as well. It will make a creature unblockable and will let us scry 1 when the enchanted creature attacks. The only problem is that we don't want to put it on a creature that we're going to pull off the battlefield with our ninjutsu ability. We will have a variety of creatures in this build, and topdeck manipulation is important enough that I think it's worth trying out. We can put it on the aforementioned Baleful Strix, on a Mulldrifter, or on one of our many changelings to be sure a Ninja gets through.
We'll run other ways to draw cards and scry, like Serum Visions. Whether or not you've got a Secret Lair printing, this card alongside spells like Brainstorm and Preordain will help us look at that top card. Lim-Dul's Vault will take topdeck manipulations a step further, letting us pay our life to go through our deck until we've found a set of five cards that we are happy to leave on top of our deck. Swinging with one Ninja might not help us that much but if we're ever swinging with five (or more), this could come in handy.
Low-cost cards like Aqueous Form, Serum Visions, Brainstorm, Preordain and Vault are fantastic for creating an efficient and effective deck but are also uniquely bad for our plan to push life loss out to our opponents. We might swing with a Ninja enchanted with Aqueous Form, scry a land to the bottom of our deck, and then flop into Serum Visions to deal a meager one to each opponent.
The solution to this quandary isn't to load up on high-CMC spells. We're in Dimir colors, so our ability to ramp into giant spells isn't great. We'll be running Crypt Ghast, Nirkana Revenant and other ways to try to increase our mana production, but we can't just play 8-CMC tribal and expect to win games. If our opponents know we're running every Colossus and Eldrazi Titan under the sun, they'll be far more likely to gang up on us rather than get blown out by a couple of lucky Yuriko triggers. We also don't want to find ourselves constantly stuck with 8+ mana spells in our hand, unable to cast them.
Fortunately, there is another way to make the most of how Magic calculates the CMC of a card. Don't get me wrong; I love big creatures, but I just don't think that's the right way to go with this deck.
Any card with a split face will have a CMC equal to the combined total of both halves of its split face when revealed from a Yuriko trigger.
These cards all represent the kind of flexible value that will help give you answers, but will also make Yuriko a real threat. You can put on your best "innocent" face, tell your tablemates you're not running any Colossus or Eldrazi because you want to have a low curve and then stack your deck to flop into a pretty serious chunk of life loss when you get a few Ninjas in. If you connect with four or five Ninjas and hit a few decently large costs, and you could find yourself dealing half of a player's starting life total.
I explored looking at cycling cards to squeeze value out of high-CMC cards. There are a lot of cards that will let you pay one, two or more mana to discard them for their cycling cost and draw a card. Loading up on cycling cards would make for a different and interesting Yuriko deck and one I might build someday, but I decided against mixing it into this build. Sometimes having too many directions you want go in leaves you unable to get anywhere.
The Obligatory Combo
I don't actually believe that every deck must have a combo in it just to end the game in case it goes really long. Lots of folks do feel that way though, and I understand the argument. If we were going to include at least one "obligatory combo," it would be this.
The real reason I'm including these cards is for the life loss Yuriko brings. With Exquisite Blood on the field, if we reveal a Burnished Hart off Yuriko, we'll not only do damage but also gain 9 life at a four-player table. This enchantment alone should position us to weather the pushback of a table ganging up on us. If we hit a few split cards, we could well shoot our life total up to the point where an average deck won't be able to catch us before we kill the table.
The combo is simple enough. With Exquisite Blood on the field, you gain life when your opponents lose life. With Sanguine Bond on the field, your opponents lose life when you gain life. With both out, you just need to gain life or cause an opponent to lose life and those two effects feed off of each other to kill all your opponents. Sanguine Bond does target, so if an opponent has hexproof, they'll be spared.
However you feel about combos in Commander, it's hard to argue against the effectiveness here. A single Yuriko trigger that doesn't reveal a land should kick it off. Just be aware that winning this way might get a little tiresome if you do it too often, and the game is meant to be fun for everyone.
If your friends start to dread playing against your Yuriko deck, or if playing it always devolves into searching for this combo, you might want to drop Sanguine Bond out for a while and add in something else. If your friends truly HATE this combo, drop out Sanguine Bond and add in Hatred. You've got unblockable creatures, and if you can get down to a single opponent there's no sweeter way to close out a game than to pour a little life into that final kill. If that's not your style, you could always drop in a Vampiric Tutor for a sweet, sweet topdeck Yuriko trigger or the more budget-friendly Long-Term Plans. The former tutors a card to the top of your library, while the latter puts it third from the top. They aren't in my first draft, but are about as close to Yuriko auto-includes as you can get.
Yuriko Commander | Commander | Stephen Johnson
- Commander (1)
- 1 Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow
- Creatures (29)
- 1 Amoeboid Changeling
- 1 Archetype of Imagination
- 1 Azra Smokeshaper
- 1 Baleful Strix
- 1 Changeling Outcast
- 1 Crypt Ghast
- 1 Dimir Infiltrator
- 1 Dreamscape Artist
- 1 Ghostly Changeling
- 1 Glen Elendra Archmage
- 1 Graveshifter
- 1 Ingenious Infiltrator
- 1 Mist-Syndicate Naga
- 1 Moonblade Shinobi
- 1 Moonglove Changeling
- 1 Mothdust Changeling
- 1 Mulldrifter
- 1 Ninja of the Deep Hours
- 1 Ninja of the New Moon
- 1 Nirkana Revenant
- 1 Phantom Ninja
- 1 Silent-Blade Oni
- 1 Skeletal Changeling
- 1 Throatseeker
- 1 Vampire Nighthawk
- 1 Venomous Changeling
- 1 Burnished Hart
- 1 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Tidehollow Strix
- Planeswalkers (1)
- 1 Mu Yanling
- Instants (7)
- 1 Brainstorm
- 1 Commit // Memory
- 1 Dimir Charm
- 1 Far // Away
- 1 Lim-Dul's Vault
- 1 Mystical Tutor
- 1 Swan Song
- Sorceries (8)
- 1 Connive // Concoct
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Diabolic Vision
- 1 Discovery // Dispersal
- 1 Merchant Scroll
- 1 Ponder
- 1 Rags // Riches
- 1 Rite of Replication
- Enchantments (7)
- 1 Aqueous Form
- 1 Arcane Adaptation
- 1 Conspiracy
- 1 Exquisite Blood
- 1 Mystic Remora
- 1 Sanguine Bond
- 1 Xenograft
- Artifacts (10)
- 1 Arcane Signet
- 1 Blade of Selves
- 1 Dimir Signet
- 1 Herald's Horn
- 1 Lightning Greaves
- 1 Mask of Avacyn
- 1 Runed Stalactite
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Swiftfoot Boots
- 1 Vanquisher's Banner
This list was built out of the scraps of a Changeling-heavy Silumgar, the Drifting Death deck that I built and played a few times this past winter. It was interesting, and could give a low-to-the-ground go-wide deck like Krenko real problems, but wasn't interesting enough to keep together. I think I proved to myself that there are enough changelings in the format now to make a Dimir dragons build around Silumgar's dragon attack trigger viable, but only barely. I'm glad I tried it out, but I'm also happy to move on from that experiment.
I'll readily acknowledge there is room for improvement here; I would love to throw in more real Ninjas and more split cards. In a best-case scenario I think this deck should be able to win games in a casual meta. It isn't a cEDH deck and might barely be semi-competitive, but in the right weight class, Yuriko should have more than just a puncher's chance at winning.
In a best-case scenario, you might have a handful of creatures, drop Archetype of Imagination, swing with five creatures, ninjutsu Yuriko onto the field, use Lim-Dul's Vault to line up a couple of split cards (assuming we're being lucky) at the cost of a little life, and then ding our opponents for something close to half of their starting life total. If the game is going well, maybe that's enough to kill a player or two.
Commander decks are incredibly complex little machines. Nearly every time I complete a column, I look back at my list and think of all the changes I would (and will) make if I had gotten a dozen games in and had decided to focus on pushing it to be more competitive. I generally resist that impulse, as competitive play really reduces card variety. When you start adding in your obligatory fast mana package, all the best tutors available in your colors, and only the best lands, the range you can run gets much smaller. Many of us aren't building decks to win leagues or tournaments and just want to have fun, so I trust you to figure out how casual or how brutal your meta is and adjust this list accordingly.
I'm already looking forward to playing this deck when our LGS someday starts having games again. I expect I'll have my usual range of disappointments and occasional surprises and I'll have to fight the urge to reach conclusions on the viability of a deck based on what will initially be a small sample size. After a loss or two, I need to not give up on a build that might have just had a little bad luck and maybe a power mismatch or two. Decks rarely come out of the gate and win a string of games, and my "Winning Ways" decks are no exception. You've got to stick with it, adjust to your meta, trust in what's working and try to play at a high level. The wins will come, but casual Commander is nothing if not a game of variance.
If you've been having trouble getting wins, I hope this series has helped you look at different ways to try to get yourself into that elusive winners' circle a little more often. Dealing damage (or life loss) to all your opponents at once is a powerful way to take down a table of opponents. You might have to learn how to fly under the radar in the early game, and you might have to weather a few games of Archenemy, but in the right meta and against the right opponents, you should definitely be able to win some games with a deck like today's Yuriko build.
That's all I've got for you today. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!