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Winning Ways: Buying a Box of Ikoria

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The Two Majesties by Jean-Leon Gerome (1883). Arahbo, Roar of the World by Jesper Ejsing.

On the first Monday of every month I've been using my weekly column to focus on ways for players to try to up their win rate. I'm not attempting to turn you into a genuine, bonafide cEDH player. I don't want you to necessarily view winning as the ultimate goal of Commander. For me the game is about having fun and spending time with friends, but most games are ultimately about competing and Commander is no exception.

Many players set themselves up to either win or lose games long before they even build their decks. How you choose your commander can have a huge impact on your eventual winrate. If winning matters to you, your choice of commander is pretty important.

This past week I bought a box of : Lair of Behemoths, in no small part to help support my local game store.

I don't advocate buying boxes of product for players who only play Commander unless you're financially stable enough to do so. You wind up with a ton of cards you won't use in your decks. If you enjoy drafting, that is a fun way to crack your packs. If your assortment of decks is well tuned and you've already got a good collection of cards, it's hard to know if you'll open cards that can be used to improve all of them. It sure is fun to open those packs, though. Opening boosters is part of the experience of being a Magic player and I always enjoy the excitement of finding out I cracked a card I'd been looking for, a spiffy new foil, or even a Legendary creature I suddenly realize I need to build around in a Commander deck.

In past years I've done a "deck in a box" column where I saw how good an EDH deck I could build just using the cards from a single box (with basic lands added in). The results were mixed and I never kept any of those decks together. It's just not a sensible or effective way to build a deck for anything more than the most casual of play. Expansion sets simply aren't planned with that in mind and you wind up with way too many duplicate cards.

Even if I'm not planning to build a deck with only the cards from a box, I still wind up building a few decks around commanders from those boosters. It's fun and I like trying new things. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

I'm not going to walk you through every booster I cracked, but I'd like to take a step back from that process and look at the legendary creatures I opened and how I think about picking new commanders.

I'm every bit as prone to setting myself up for failure as anyone else. Sometimes those "bad" decks are still a lot of fun. Sometimes "winning" decks are boring or miserable to pilot. Focusing on your winrate isn't always the best way to go, but for today's Commanderruminations that is how we will look at opening my box.

Showcase Cards

The first thing I noticed is that the order of my cards was all wrong. I'm used to finding the rare at the back, and enjoy the suspense of going through each little stack of cards until I get to the end. It's a small quibble, but it was my first reaction.

My next reaction came when I saw my first "showcase art" mutate creature. I opened fourteen of these beauties in all, including a foil showcase art Cavern Whisperer.

Cavern Whisperer
Migratory Greathorn
Trumpeting Gnarr

I've pretty much decided to pick up the Otrimi mutate Commander deck and I now know that I'm going to have to run these versions of the cards because they are just gorgeous. Even before it clicked that they were all mutate cards, I was quietly considering building a deck just to play them all together.

Most sets have some quirky themes and mechanics that jump out at you. Recent sets have included alternate "showcase" art versions of these cards. Throne of Eldraine had showcase art versions of cards with the Adventure mechanic. I loved those and I love these but is it a good plan to build a deck around them?

There's no right answer, but if you're concerned about winning and losing, I'd advise against it.

You can build around a theme and still manage to build a strong deck, but you have to be careful. My urge to just get a bunch of pretty cards and throw them into a deck together might give me something nice to look at on the battlefield as my opponents are beating my brains in. That's pretty small comfort if you are the kind of player who is affected by long losing streaks. I like to feel like I had a chance to win when I play. I try to focus on synergy and wincons as much as I focus on cards that make me happy when I look at them because they're so darn pretty.

Today's goal is to focus on the decision points I make when opening a box and picking a new commander, so we should move on to look at the legendary creatures I opened.

Box Topper and Buy-A-Box Promo

Before I dive into the not-so-vast array of Legendary creatures I opened, I should probably include the box topper and buy-a-box promo. I'm not a huge Godzilla fan, but they're options I could pick from for the decks I'll be building.

Zilortha, Strength Incarnate

While Gozilla might be a really neat box topper, I've got no great plan for how to build a winning Commander deck based upon Zilortha, Strength Incarnate's ability. I can see how someone might be excited about building a Godzilla deck full of high-power creatures, but that someone isn't me. Snapdax, Apex of the Hunt is a cute way to give a creature double-strike in Mardu, but his mutate triggered ability isn't that exciting. I think you could build a decent casual deck around either of these cards, but neither one jumps out at me.

Abilities that change the way creatures deal or take damage can be very powerful, but I don't think that's the case for Godzilla. He's somewhat flavorful for folks who love Kaiju, but he doesn't even have firebreathing and his ability doesn't exactly inspire awe. Mutate abilities make me wonder how often you'll actually mutate a creature in a given game. Without a pretty robust plan to get a lot of mutate triggers, I think the chance is too good that they'll wind up underperforming in actual play.

Mutate is also something of a trap, in that you're setting yourself up for a 2-for-1 or worse exchange when someone uses a Path to Exile, Swords to Plowshares, Rapid Hybridization, or any of a number of low-cost removal spells. It might work just fine in your meta, but my friends pack a ton of removal and aren't shy about using it.

With a hard pass on my first two options, I moved on to start opening booster packs.

Choices, Choices

Not all sets are created equally and some are much better suited for Commander players than others. Dominaria had an incredible array of flavorful and fun Legendary creatures. As luck would have it, I opened only nine Legendary creatures from my Ikoria box.

Gyruda, Doom of Depths
Kaheera, the Orphanguard
Keruga, the Macrosage

Gyruda, Doom of Depths puts you at the mercy of variance. You'll never know what your opponents have on top of their libraries. At first blush, Gyruda will look like a great, janky commander that might even have combo potential. At six CMC, you won't be casting and re-casting Gyruda from the command zone, so this deck would be based around flicker and clone spells. Even if a copy of Gyruda has to go to the graveyard, you'll still get that enter-the-battlefield trigger. Rite of Replication, kicked, targeting Gyruda? My heart says yes, but that's still not going to guarantee a win or even a handful of even-CMC creatures. The thing I want to do is find a way to put Gyruda on top of my library in response to the ETB trigger so I can set up a loop, but as yet I haven't figured out how to do that. Gyruda could be fun, but I suspect I'd lose a few games and give up on it before it got tuned up enough to be good.

I've run Cat, Dinosaur, Elemental and Beast decks before but I've generally been a bit disappointed by them. Kaheera, the Orphanguard will force me into Selesnya, which isn't great but isn't terrible. I'll have vigilance for my creatures and since I'd be running Kaheera in the command zone I could play a rogue's gallery of the very best of each of the five tribes Kaheera cares about. That list will still have to be restricted to two colors, but it might be fun to mix up our creature types. I'm leaning toward building Kaheera as I've got an assortment of Cats from Arahbo, Roar of the World and Dinosaurs from a Marath, Will of the Wild enrage deck that might be happy to find a new home. It would be a goodstuff mix of tribes with a "hope for the best" combat-oriented game plan, but I'm OK with that. Is it a winning strategy? Not unless you're in a fairly casual meta. I do like to have a few decks that aren't just going to combo off and this would certainly fall into that category.

Keruga, the Macrosage is the kind of card that might seem boring to a less experienced player. It's just a big Dinosaur Hippo with nothing particularly interesting in the text box. For anyone who has played a lot of Commander, it's not hard to see past that to the three most important words in Magic: "draw a card". That kicked Rite of Replication on Gyruda was going to be a high variance proposition, but with Keruga it's all gravy. With five Kerugas entering the battlefield you'd draw at least 20 cards, assuming you had no other high-CMC permanents on the field at the time. Those token copies would die, but they'd have done their job. You need to do more than draw cards to win games of Magic, but it's the single most important thing to build into a Commander deck if you want to win games.

Three cards into our experiment (not including the Kaiju) I've shown you one card that I think is something of a trap, one card that could make for a fun casual deck and one card that has "draw a card" written in the text box. Without looking at another card I think it's easy to see how I could set myself up to build a winning deck or a losing deck based solely on that first step of choosing a commander.

Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy
Kogla, the Titan Ape
Lutri, the Spellchaser

Regular readers of my column will note that two of the three Legendary creatures above have been featured recently, so any decklist I put together today won't include them. It's still worth applying today's litmus test to each one.

Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy does not have "draw a card" on it, but mana generation is a very close second to card draw in terms of importance in building a Commander deck. He costs two mana and is in a very strong color pair, so he's already got a lot going for him. Kinnan's activated ability doesn't require him to tap, so he's a competitive infinite mana outlet. All this combines to tell me that Kinnan is a slam dunk if I want to build a winning deck. I could even go into cEDH if I had the right cards and really knew what I was doing. That doesn't mean I'm not capable of screwing it up and losing my share of games, but starting out with a high ceiling on my Commander's power level is a step toward winning games.

Kogla, the Titan Ape initially looks like a fun and deceptively powerful commander. The lack of Humans with both low casting costs and significant enter-the-battlefield abilities provides a significant brake on his potential. You can find my Kogla decklist in last week's column. Lutri, the Spellchaser isn't too powerful to be played as a Commander, but issues around his Companion ability caused the Rules Committee to ban him from the format. You, I, and anyone with any sense can (and should) "rule zero" Lutri back into the format as a fun and semi-competitive Izzet Commander that might win its share of games but certainly won't break the format. You can find my Lutri decklist here.

My luck, at least for the purposes of this column, has taken a downturn. I'm not going to re-hash Kogla or Lutri, but Kinnan is a very tempting target for today's decklist.

Nethroi, Apex of Death
Yorion, Sky Nomad
Yorion, Sky Nomad

No, you haven't come down with a very isolated case of double vision. My options for today's build also include Nethroi, Apex of Death, and both a foil and a non-foil Yorion, Sky Nomad.

There are a lot of very powerful lines of play that Nethroi opens up. Lots of creatures that enter the battlefield and then gain counters have a zero power when they are in the graveyard, so this seems like the kind of deck that could be powerful in casual and semi-competitive play. A combo build also seems possible, though I haven't figured out what those lines of play would look like. I guarantee someone on the internet has, and a tuned Nethroi combo list would probably be strong in semi-competitive play and might even be fringe cEDH viable.

Our last two Legendary Creature cards are both Yorion, Sky Nomad.

To quote Sheldon Menery, "While Yorion, Sky Nomad doesn't need to be banned in Commander, it renders itself illegal as a companion because of the format's deck construction rules. It's still legal as a commander or in the 99."

I see Yorion as a commander with a fair amount of potential if I'm able to choose a good assortment of nonland permanents that I'll be able to exile until end of turn so I can wipe the board. A Yorion deck will probably be a control deck with a combo finish, but a more casual list with a plan to win by combat could also be a lot of fun. I've been toying with a Drake tribal project for a while and Yorion might be the key to making that deck finally happen. A Drake tribal theme isn't exactly a "Winning Way," but in the right meta such a list could work. I like decks where I never feel like I have to apologize for crushing a table because it's not like playing a bunch of Drakes and boardwipes is really unfair.

My general disdain for the Companion mechanic has me looking at these cards solely as potential commanders, but it is worth mentioning that many of them (outside of Lutri and Yorion) can be run as Companions. I play 100-card singleton.

I am very much hoping the RC comes to its senses, unbans Lutri and bans the Companion ability from our format. I think it's a square peg trying to fit into a round hole and we should just run these guys out of the command zone.

Takeaways

There's an awful lot that goes into winning games in Commander. If you truly don't care about winning and losing, you should follow your heart and build whatever you feel like. If you find long losing streaks frustrating, it's worth thinking about what goes into making a powerful commander. That first step of picking a new Commander can set you up for success in ways you might not realize.

My initial reaction to seeing the Showcase creatures was a reminder that I'll do well to resist the urge to build around a theme with no thought to that theme's effectiveness. Running all the Adventure cards from Throne of Eldraine or all the Mutate cards from Ikoria isn't something I'd like. Running 30 Drakes because I've always wanted to build a Drake tribal deck is all well and good, but it's likely to be frustrating if it runs up against any semi-competitive or cEDH decks. When you focus on things other than core functions like card draw, ramp, and removal and you don't have a clear wincon at the heart of your deck-building, you're likely going to have plenty of fun but not win quite as many games.

When I first looked at Kogla, the Titan Ape and Gyruda, Doom of Depths, I did what I often do when looking at a new card. I imagined things that didn't exist.

For Kogla, I imagined having low-CMC Humans that had effects like Elvish Visionary and I imagined setting up loops where I'd be able to juggle my Humans as many times as I wanted. It is possible to make infinite mana and do some real juggling, but it's not easy and the combo doesn't have a lot of redundancy. I might build this deck but my expectations for it would be low.

For Gyruda, I imagined a plan where I could sacrifice Gyruda and then recur it to the battlefield and set up a loop that way. Since Gyruda only recurs creatures it had milled, I want a way to put it on top of my library, but until I figure that out, I'm just not that excited about the deck. Playing ways to put opponents' creatures on top of their libraries in preparation for a Gyruda trigger is intriguing, but I still feel like this Commander has a low ceiling.

After some research and brainstorming I've concluded that my hopes for both of those Legendary creatures weren't realistic. They could still lead fun decks but the cap on the power level of each one is clearly lower than I thought it would be.

Opening not one but two copies of Yorion, Sky Nomad brought up another possible trap for me to fall into. One of my Yorions was a foil. In the past I've built decks around foil Legendary creatures because they were foil. My Grumgully, the Generous deck has turned into one of my favorite decks and it was started in no small part because I opened a foil Grumgully.

Yorion is no Grumgully.

I'll need to make sure I don't delude myself about Yorion's abilities. It will be a challenge to make the deck work and win games, and if I build around control and boardwipes (which I probably will) it will be just as hard to make the deck one my friends enjoy playing against. That doesn't matter to everyone, but it matters to me.

If I want to make sure I have at least one deck out of this set that has a high ceiling and should be able to win games at a decent rate, I'll want to look at Keruga for his card draw or possibly an Infinite Mana Kinnan Combo list. The puzzle of how to build Nethroi is a huge temptation. I love Commanders that really make me think when planning out a deck and I'm sure his ability can be abused and turned into a path to victory.

By avoiding the temptation of building around cute themes and not just picking a foil Legendary because it's a foil, I can definitely set myself up to have more success with the deck or decks I build out of my Ikoria cards.

Success doesn't necessarily equate to fun. I'm strangely happy that I didn't open a Brokkos, Apex of Forever, because I would have built the Infect list I wrote about in last month's Winning Ways. It would have won games, but it would have knocked players out early and put a target on me that I wouldn't have enjoyed. Sometimes winning and fun don't go hand in hand and my ultimate goal is to both explore a wide variety of decks and to have a lot of memorable and enjoyable games. Brokkos would have seen play in our EDH League but those games might not happen for a while.

The Decklist

So what did I eventually build a deck around?

I chose Kaheera, the Orphanguard. This deck won't stand up to competitive or possibly even semi-competitive play, but I expect it will be able to thrive in the right meta. The reason is that I built it with a focus around abusing Kaheera's abilities. Dinosaurs with the Enrage keyword can swing and still be available to block and give me those precious damage triggers. Beaters like Force of Savagery can do real damage against anyone who doesn't leave up blockers and won't die when it hits the battlefield. Phantom Tiger and Phantom Nishoba can block for days, as they won't die when they reach zero +1/+1 counters. There may be no combos in today's list, but for a deck I threw together with cards I had lying around, I think it came out pretty well.


There are definitely cards missing and things I would likely change once this first draft saw a few games. I've got creature removal, but for casual play I know I'm lacking artifact/enchantment removal. There are surely a few auto-include Dinosaurs, Beasts, Cats and Elementals that I would have put in if I had come across them in my collection. I know full well that any deck with vigilance should be running Sunblast Angel, but I don't own a copy.

I found with my Lathliss, Dragon Queen deck that going all-in on a keyword can really help position your deck to win more games. An all-in flying deck - especially one with big bodies like Dragons, Angels or Sphinxes - can win games in casual play. I've seen all-in vigilance decks do well, so I'm optimistic that Kaheera giving most or all my board vigilance will translate to an ability to perform well in casual play.

Final Thoughts

Choosing the right commander from the box you open is a huge step toward seeing more wins when you actually play games, but you'll notice that I kept referring to being "in the right meta." I think it does really boil down to knowing what power level your group is at and choosing commanders that can survive and thrive at that level of play.

If I was in a high-powered meta, I'd have built a Kinnan or Keruga deck. My choice of Kaheera was as much about my enjoyment of more casual games as anything else. I play against some very strong decks and very good players, but our LGS also has its share of casuals and I enjoy those games as much as the high-powered games.

How do you evaluate the potential commanders you open up when you crack a new box of cards? Did I miss anything or completely misjudge any of the legendary creatures I opened today? Are there cards, combos or strategies you'd suggest for my Kaheera deck?

I'm probably going to build and write about Nethroi or Yorion for next week's column. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that or anything else related to today's column.

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

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