A while back I wrote a column about a casual Maelstrom Wanderer deck that I put together as an experiment in tuning down a powerful commander for lower powered tables. The basic idea was that cards that strike fear and loathing in the hearts of Commander tables everywhere can probably be made into fun, casual decks with the right approach and a willingness to build for fun more than for winning games. If you think Maelstrom Wanderer is a lightweight card that isn't to be taken seriously, you're right - if you're talking about today's high powered and cEDH game. Not too many years ago it was considered very strong when built right and it was fun to find a way to tune it down and make a more casual build around that hefty Elemental.
Today's column will be the first in a series I'll be calling "Pulling Teeth". The idea is that we take a nasty beast of a commander, and look at how we can pull enough of its teeth to make it a tamer deck that's more fun to play against other casual decks. Apologies to anyone who recoils at that particular metaphor. No, I am not actually supporting pulling any teeth outside of the confines of an oral surgeon's office.
Not long ago I opened a bunch of collector boosters and came across a Multiverse Legends Baral, Chief of Compliance. It was shiny, foiled and beautiful. It was also a little curved, but I've learned to look past the "pringles problem" that Wizards of the Coast still seems to keep running into.
Baral is the king of counterspells, and rewards you by letting you draw and discard every time you counter a spell. He also reduces the cost of your instant and sorcery spells by one colorless mana. I like saving mana, but I really do not like to stop other players from being able to play their decks. Not my style. I'll never embrace stax and heavy control as a way to win more games, even though both of those are tried and true ways to increase your win rate.
I happened to have a stack of old Unstable Islands waiting for a deck and I decided now was the time to try to build Baral. I'd never built Baral and I very much enjoy exploring all that this format has to offer. The question was simple - could I build a casual Baral build that wasn't oppressive or unfun to play against, but which could still win games?
Picking a Direction
The first thing I wanted to do is build a deck around Baral, not just build a generic Mono-Blue deck with Baral in the command zone. That meant building around something that the commander would bring to my game. If I wasn't going to embrace tribal counterspells, that only left one other option - cost reduction.
I grabbed every cost reducer I had available. Sapphire Medallion reduces the cost of Blue spells by mana, which in a Mono-Blue deck should help with casting anything outside of artifacts. Primal Amulet, Haughty Djinn, Jace's Sanctum, and Arcane Melee will all reduce the cost of my instant and sorcery spells. They all have their own little quirks. Arcane Melee might be the most likely to get dropped out of the list, as it will help everyone else as much as it helps me.
Wizards of Thay might be the most interesting. This 3/3 Human Wizard has myriad, so when it attacks it will create another copy tapped and attacking each opponent not being attacked by the original. It also lets me cast sorcery spells as if they had flash, giving me a narrow window between attacking and combat damage to take advantage of saving an extra few mana on a spell. At a five-player table with Baral already on the field, I'd be able to cast an instant or sorcery and save a whopping 5 mana.
Saving mana on casting spells is all well and good, but my next question is what kind of spells I would be casting. The answer to that came from the bones of my old Narset, Enlightened Master deck. It was loaded up with extra combat steps and turns, and all of those extra turn spells just happened to be in Blue.
If you're wondering how this could possibly be a "casual" way to build Baral, I'll remind you that extra turns are really only as powerful as the deck they are in. This deck has some goofy wincons which I'll get to in a bit, but it's nowhere near as potent as the voltron Narset build they came out of. I'm as likely to draw an extra card, drop an extra land and pass the turn as I am to do something incredibly impactful with my extra turn.
Beacon of Tomorrows, Karn's Temporal Sundering, Temporal Mastery, and Part the Waterveil will all give me an extra turn and Time Stretch will give me two. There may be games where I can turn that into a win, but unless I'm paying well below retail price, I may not have the mana to do much more than cast that extra turn spell. Expropriate is a much bigger deal, as it can represent a bunch of extra turns or a mix of turns and permanents from my opponents. If an opponent had stolen something from me, I could even choose "money" and steal my permanent back.
Cantrips and Cast Triggers
My first draft of this deck did have a lot of counterspells in the mix. I had it all sleeved up and then took a step back and realized I had put together a deck I wouldn't enjoy playing. Not only was I setting myself up to make my tablemates miserable, I also wasn't seeing enough card draw to allow the deck to keep any momentum going into the mid and late game. Instead of playing tribal counterspells, I decided to try playing tribal cantrips.
A "cantrip" is a spell that has card draw tacked onto it. When card draw is added to a spell, the mana cost is usually pushed up a little to make up for that extra benefit. Baral already gives me cost reduction and there's a decent chance I might draw into cards that will drop my casting costs even further, so this felt like a natural fit.
I decided to forego cantrips that didn't really impact the board. If I'm going to survive, I need to be looking at removal and interaction, not just card selection. That meant scry and surveil were a lower priority than cards that could bounce or tap down potential threats.
Chill of the Grave, Grip of the Roil, and Crippling Chill will both draw me a card and tap a creature down so it doesn't untap on its next untap step. Galestrike is a cantrip that will return tapped creature to its owner's hand. It's joined by Repulse, which is a cantrip that will bounce a creature whether or not it is tapped, and Snap, which won't draw me a card, but which will untap up to two lands. Snap costs two mana but if I'm casting it for one mana, I'll effectively be gaining access to an additional mana for that turn cycle by untapping one more land than I used to cast it.
This isn't meant to be an oppressive counter-heavy deck, but there are a few counterspells that made the cut. Overwhelming Intellect is a counter that only targets creatures and costs a whopping six mana. Baral would bring that down to five, but five mana for a counter is still a lot. While it's not technically a cantrip, this instant will see me draw cards equal to the spell's mana value. This deck is going to be doing a lot of "draw-land-go", so it shouldn't be a problem to hold up mana for Overwhelming Intellect, especially if there is an expensive commander in someone's command zone just waiting to be cast.
Any deck that has a third or more of its cards as instants and counterspells will want ways to turn those casts into some sort of advantage.
Archmage Emeritus will turn cast and copy triggers into card draw, which will in turn help me to hit my land drops, have interaction in hand, and maybe even dig to something spicy. Talrand, Sky Summoner and Murmuring Mystic only care about casting spells, and will give me flying blockers for my trouble. The former will give me 2/2 Blue Drake creature tokens with flying and the latter will give me 1/1 Blue Bird Illusion creature tokens with flying. Flying blockers are incredibly helpful and blockers in general are really good for a deck like this to make it into the late game. You're unlikely to be trying to win through combat, or at least not through wiping out your opponents with a huge alpha strike.
Deekah, Fractal Theorist, like Archmage Emeritus, has a magecraft ability, which means that it triggers on both cast and copy triggers. My reward is 0/0 Green and Blue Fractal creature tokens that get X +1/+1 counters where X is the mana value of the spell that was cast or copied.
How We Win
This deck is meant for more casual play but that doesn't mean it doesn't have a wincon or two. That might mean this is a more mid-powered build rather than the usual high-powered control deck you might see led by Baral. You might not dig your way to these cards very often, but they're in there and they can put in work.
If you cast Ghostly Flicker, hold priority and cast Naru Meha, Master Wizard, you can do the following. Naru Meha will resolve before Ghostly Flicker, as it was put on the stack last, and when it resolves you can use it to copy a spell on the stack. You copy Ghostly Flicker and let that copy resolve. When it resolves, you flicker Naru Meha and another permanent and that puts another enter-the-battlefield trigger on the stack. You use that Naru Meha trigger to copy Ghostly Flicker again, and when that resolve you again flicker two permanents.
What you get out of all this nonsense is infinite magecraft triggers, which work nicely with Archmage Emeritus and Deekah, Fractal Theorist. It does nothing much with Talrand or with Murmuring Mystic as they will only see the initial casting of Ghostly Flicker and won't care about all of the copies. You'll also get to flicker something else. You could flicker a land and tap it in response to each subsequent Ghostly Flicker copy to make infinite mana. You could also flicker a card like Mnemonic Wall that will put an instant or sorcery from your graveyard back into your hand, letting you cast it as many times as you like with all that mana.
I don't like to have only one plan in a deck, and my backup plan is nothing if not convoluted and somewhat silly.
Once upon a time I built a deck designed to try to win off of the mulligan. If you are using the London Mulligan, you draw 7 cards and after your "free" mulligan, you'll put cards onto the bottom of your library. With that knowledge you can cast Tunnel Vision, naming the card and you'll end up milling your entire deck. Throw a Laboratory Maniac into the mix and you've got a way to try to win the game!
Spell Crumple and Hinder are also in the list because they will let me counter a spell and put a card on the bottom of the caster's library. I could counter my own spell, but this trick is for when I've somehow managed to survive to the end and only have one opponent left. If I can counter one of their spells and hit them with a Tunnel Vision, they'll either draw out and lose or laugh at me as they use a "shuffle titan" like Kozilek, Butcher of Truth, to shuffle their graveyard back into their library.
I could also just win the old-fashioned way, with combat damage. This deck isn't built for that, but that doesn't mean it's impossible - just a bit unlikely.
You'll notice that this list has some very, very good cards, but also might be missing some obvious includes. There's no Consecrated Sphinx, but I'm running Mana Drain. I've got Peregrine Drake but no Deadeye Navigator. I've got a Sapphire Medallion but no High Tide. You can mark the quirks of this list up to the fact that I was building the deck with cards I had lying around. I still think I've got a High Tide somewhere, and after I wrap up this column I may go looking for it again.
Casual Baral | Commander | Stephen Johnson
- Commander (1)
- 1 Baral, Chief of Compliance
- Creatures (19)
- 1 Archmage Emeritus
- 1 Burnished Hart
- 1 Curious Homunculus
- 1 Deekah, Fractal Theorist
- 1 Faerie Mastermind
- 1 Haughty Djinn
- 1 Laboratory Maniac
- 1 Mnemonic Wall
- 1 Murmuring Mystic
- 1 Naru Meha, Master Wizard
- 1 Peregrine Drake
- 1 Salvager of Secrets
- 1 Shipwreck Dowser
- 1 Spellseeker
- 1 Talrand, Sky Summoner
- 1 Thieving Skydiver
- 1 Vodalian Arcanist
- 1 Volshe Tideturner
- 1 Wizards of Thay
- Instants (24)
- 1 Access Denied
- 1 Aetherspouts
- 1 Arcane Denial
- 1 Blue Sun's Zenith
- 1 Blur
- 1 Chill of the Grave
- 1 Counterspell
- 1 Crippling Chill
- 1 Cyclonic Rift
- 1 Galestrike
- 1 Ghostly Flicker
- 1 Glacial Grasp
- 1 Grip of the Roil
- 1 Hinder
- 1 Long-Term Plans
- 1 Mana Drain
- 1 Overwhelming Intellect
- 1 Pact of Negation
- 1 Repulse
- 1 Silundi Vision // Silundi Isle
- 1 Snap
- 1 Spell Crumple
- 1 Stroke of Genius
- 1 Swan Song
- Sorceries (10)
- 1 Beacon of Tomorrows
- 1 Expropriate
- 1 Karn's Temporal Sundering
- 1 Merchant Scroll
- 1 Part the Waterveil
- 1 Step Through
- 1 Temporal Mastery
- 1 Time Stretch
- 1 Tunnel Vision
- 1 Windfall
- Artifacts (6)
- 1 Arcane Signet
- 1 Gauntlet of Power
- 1 Primal Amulet
- 1 Sapphire Medallion
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Thought Vessel
My land count might seem low, but I generally prefer to be mana-screwed than mana-flooded. A look at EDHRec.com shows that the average Baral deck has 32 lands, but my compatriots here at CoolStuffInc.com like to insist that every deck should start with 40 lands. You could drop Expropriate and Time Stretch and throw in a couple of lands and you'll be much closer to the number of lands most casual players are comfortable with running.
I never want readers to view my lists as final, finished, perfect lists that should be reproduced as accurately as possible in order for the deck to do its thing. Far from it. This is a starting point to use for inspiration. If you like the concept you should build your own Baral list from your own collection that also steers away from tribal counterspells and an oppressive gameplay experience. Add more lands. Replace the extra turns with Sphinxes. Do whatever you like that you think will be fun both for you and your tablemates.
I was able to play this list in paper before writing this column. It's something I try to do so I can speak to how the deck played, what worked, what didn't work, and whether my one (or two) game sample size gave me any information to share with you.
This match was a casual game against the new Kiora, Sovereign of the Deep, Faldorn, Dread Wolf Herald, and Edgar Markov. All three looked to be pretty aggressive creature and combat-based decks and from the start I felt like a fish out of water.
I was able to play an early Vodalian Arcanist, a mana dork whose mana can only be used for instants and sorceries, and my commander. Everyone else seemed to build their boards quickly and I was soon taking pretty regular chip damage, not wanting to block unless I really needed to avoid a big hit.
A funny thing about being the only non-aggro deck at an aggro table is that if everyone has a big board, nobody will want to swing out and leave themselves vulnerable to one of their tablemates. I kept getting hit, but damage was going everywhere and pretty soon most of us were under 30 life. The Edgar Markov player avoided it better than everyone else, as they had a flying deathtouch blocker to fend off threats.
I was mostly hitting land drops and playing cantrips but didn't see many more creatures. I drew into Laboratory Maniac, but knew better than to play it out early. Against three aggro decks, dropping a Lab Man would invite them all to dogpile on me rather than risk losing out of nowhere to some nonsense.
The first big turning point was when I almost gave the game to the Faldorn player, only to see the Kiora player save us all.
I played a Beacon of Tomorrows, tapping out for the chance to draw another card, maybe hit another land drop and demonstrate to the table that they need not be freaked out by me playing extra turn spells. I wasn't at the point where I was likely to do much but I wanted to get that extra turn and see what might come of it. The Faldorn player had a Deflecting Swat in hand and had exactly the same thought. They stole my turn, made a bunch of creatures, got a bunch more wolf tokens, and only had to wait through the Kiora player's turn before they could untap and probably kill the table with an army of wolves and other stuff.
Kiora's pilot dug deep. I don't remember if it was a Whelming Wave or something else, but he was able to bounce everyone's board, swing at the Faldorn player for a small chunk of damage, and keep the game going. On the Faldorn player's turn they rebuilt and pretty soon we were all back to where we were.
I was never really the threat at the table, and as such I was able to fly under the radar. I was never worth ganging up on, and was actively trying to deal with the biggest threats on the board. I was also a pretty good sport about that stolen turn, or at least I tried to be. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't deflating but I've learned the game isn't over until it's over. Sometimes you've got to take some damage and some bad turns along the way.
I ended up outlasting the Faldorn player, who had been whittled down by everyone else and was killed for not having a flying blocker by the Edgar Markov player. The Kiora player and I were both facing down a lethal or near-lethal threat from the vampire army on our tablemate's battlefield. They both knew I had a Cyclonic Rift in hand. I had Rifted earlier in self-defense and used a Shipwreck Dowser to put it back into my hand. The Kiora player had the sorcery Whelming Wave in hand and decided not to use it.
The Edgar player swung all out at the Kiora player and since nothing was going at me, I let it happen. I knew I couldn't duke it out against both of them, and my chances were simply better with one remaining foe.
My end game wound up being all about that Cyclonic Rift. I showed that I had Riptide Laboratory on the field and was going to be able to overload it every other turn. I didn't want to draw out an unpleasant end game if my tablemate had no answers, but he was not without answers. He hit my land with a Generous Gift, turning my Riptide Laboratory into a 3/3 Elephant.
I ended up being able to flicker my Shipwreck Dowser with a Blur to draw a card and put Cyclonic Rift back into my hand. After each of these rifts I was swinging out for 7 damage - 1 from Baral, 3 from Shipwreck Dowser and 3 from that Elephant token. My tablemate got rid of my Shipwreck Dowser but I had drawn into Salvager of Secrets - another creature that could get an instant or sorcery back from my graveyard.
In the end that alone wasn't enough to get the job done. I also had to cast a Pact of Negation and a Mana Drain to keep him from rebuilding after one of the early rifts. I was able to win by combat without ever making any creature tokens, taking any extra turns, or even casting Tunnel Vision. I've seen the power of looping a Cyclonic Rift before and was reminded of how powerful it can be to keep bouncing your last tablemate's board back to their hand every other turn. This deck might benefit from an Archaeomancer and possibly a Deadeye Navigator to enable more ETB nonsense.
Keeping my counterspells back unless I absolutely, positively needed them to save myself was probably what let me win the game. That and a lot of luck. I was lucky my tablemates only chipped away at me rather than piling on when I didn't have many blockers. I was lucky the Kiora player found a way to stop the Faldorn player when nobody else including me had any way to deal with their boardstate.
I don't know how long I'll keep this deck together but I am really glad I built it. I still hope to "win off the mulligan" eventually, as that's a line of play I find really amusing. I should probably load in Jace, Wielder of Mysteries and Thassa's Oracle if I want to seriously pursue that wincon.
I'm actually starting to put together the cards to build Heliod, the Radiant Dawn // Heliod, the Warped Eclipse. I love how storm decks play and enjoyed playing Heliod on Tabletop Simulator so much that I decided to pull the trigger and build it for real. Our EDH League has an "Enchantment" theme for June that will work well with Heliod, and it's fun to get excited about building a deck in paper. Our monthly themes were always good for that feeling of getting excited about new builds. I expect I'll pull some cards out of Baral, move them over to Heliod, and tweak Baral rather than just pull it apart so soon.
If you like the idea of these "Pulling Teeth" columns, even if you might not love the metaphor, and you came to this column through our Facebook posts, leave a comment. I could definitely see doing more of these and I enjoy the challenge of turning a headache of a commander into a more enjoyable, fun EDH deck.
That's all I've got for today. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!