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Building Chatterfang in Commander


Morning on the Estuary, Ville D'Avray by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1870). Flash by Naomi Baker.

When I was looking for one of the remaining Modern Horizons 2 legendary creatures to write about, I hadn't expected to find Chatterfang, Squirrel General still available. Squirrels are adorable, and I imagined that this intrepid Squirrel Warrior would have been snapped up early by a fellow CSI writer.

In last week's column I wrote about a Garth One-Eye deck I threw together using only cards from Modern Horizons 2 and I specifically left out nearly a dozen Squirrel and Squirrel-themed cards. I was thinking a Squirrel theme wouldn't be enough to make my Garth experiment into a playable deck. I may never know if I was right, but I'm very happy that I made that call because I'm now in a position to go all-in on building and writing about Chatterfang, Squirrel General.

Chatterfang, Squirrel General

Chatterfang is amazing. I don't mean cEDH-amazing, but I really, really like this card for casual and maybe edging into high powered play. This 3/3 has Forestwalk, so you'll have free shots on anyone with a Forest, which will probably be lots of your tablemates. Chatterfang has a weird Parallel Lives effect where if you make tokens, you make twice as many tokens only the second set of tokens will be 1/1 Green Squirrels. You can build with a heavy focus on making Squirrel tokens or you can go after other token generators and still end up with a modest little Squirrel army.

All of that is neat and fun and probably quite underwhelming to more competitive-minded players, but the thing I like most about Chatterfang is the fact that he can let you sacrifice Squirrels to give target creature +X/-X until end of turn. That means you can turn your Squirrels into pump or into removal so long as you're careful about it. I never like having to flush my token creatures, especially if they're as adorable as squirrels, but this ability is a great and quite flexible tool to have at your disposal.

One last thing I love about Chatterfang is that his activated ability gives you access to Black. Chatterfang could have been a Mono-Green legendary creature. Having that Black pip in his text box lets me build around a whole range of Black and Golgari cards that work really nicely with this guy. Black provides the flexibility to push the deck up in power by building toward combo wincons and loading up on tutors.

A Question of Forests & Swamps

The first thing I want to talk about today is that Chatterfang helped me figure out the answer to a question and helped me realize I had been doing something silly with another deck.

I do plenty of dumb things, and while I occasionally have great ideas when I'm building decks, I'm just as prone to the occasional misstep as anyone else. One of the new Modern Horizons 2 lands had been bothering me for a while. I knew there was an answer for what to do with it, but I hadn't figured that out yet. That land was Yavimaya, Cradle of Growth.

Yavimaya, Cradle of Growth
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

Everyone knows Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth because it combines so nicely with Cabal Coffers. Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth makes all of your lands into Swamps, and Coffers turns that into a ton of mana. Yavimaya, Cradle of Growth turns all your lands into forests, but there's no Green equivalent to Cabal Coffers and I was really stuck on what exactly to do with "Green Urborg."

I wanted to put it into my mono-Green decks, but under close scrutiny that made little sense. I already had lots of forests in those decks, so why make everything a forest? I was tempted to put Yavimaya into a five-color deck, as those decks usually want to play green ramp spells and it would help increase the chances that I'd have the right colors in the early game to ramp.

The realization that I didn't necessarily want Yavimaya in a Mono-Green deck got me thinking. I had recently put both Cabal Coffers and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth into my Syr Konrad, the Grim deck, figuring that it would be nice to use them to make lots of black mana. Cabal Coffers makes sense, but Urborg doesn't. Urborg might make all my lands into swamps, but Konrad is a Mono-Black commander. Most of my lands would be swamps anyways. It may have felt like an obvious thing to do at the time, but it didn't really make sense.

If Urborg doesn't make a ton of sense in Mono-Black and Yavimaya doesn't make sense in Mono-Green, it struck me that the place both of those lands really belong is in a Green and Black deck like Chatterfang. The deck will be full of cards that want Green, want Black and in some cases will want both. Making all my lands able to make one or even both of those colors could really solve some problems.

Color fixing in a two-color deck is far from the hardest thing to do in Commander. I was happy to have realized that I was being silly running Urborg in Syr Konrad. In Chatterfang, I've got a very sensible place to run both Urborg and Yavimaya. Those two lands won't make a huge difference, but I had been frustrated by not immediately seeing a landing spot for Yavimaya, Cradle of Growth.

I can't be the only Commander deck-builder who has put Urborg in a mono-Black deck or who initially thought about putting Yavimaya in a Mono-Green deck. That isn't an insane thing to do, but I think there are much better places for both of them.

Squirrels, Squirrels, Squirrels

Chatterfang, Squirrel General does not have to be built into a Squirrel deck.

It's likely that playing every Squirrel card I can get my hands on isn't the optimal way to build this deck, but I have a fondness for tribal decks and I clearly have a fondness for Squirrels. I also had a feeling that there was more to a Squirrel deck than just making adorable 1/1 tokens. Last but not least, I still haven't managed to pull off the infamous Squirrel Nest / Earthcraft combo and it's definitely on my Commander bucket list.

Squirrel Nest

To do this combo, you enchant a land with Squirrel Nest and with Earthcraft on the field you use each new Squirrel to untap the land so you can tap it again. As I understand it, because Earthcraft is the card that is giving the creature the ability to tap, the creature doesn't have to have haste. The result is that you get to make an arbitrarily large army of Squirrels. No, this isn't new and for many EDH players it isn't even that interesting, but I've yet to pull it off. Chatterfang is a great excuse to put these two cards into a deck together.

I can appreciate a good combo, especially if I'm not hitting it that often, but the real joy of building this deck isn't about making a googolplex of Squirrels - it's about playing weird cards that have been sitting in my binder for far too long. Sadly, I'm not talking about Deranged Hermit or Chatter of the Squirrel. Those should both be in this list, but I don't own a copy of either yet.

Squirrel Wrangler
Snake Pit
Epic Struggle

Squirrel Wrangler is no Deranged Hermit, and might not even be a great card, but for 2 mana if you're ahead on lands and have Chatterfang on the field you can sacrifice a land, get two Squirrel tokens and then two more from Chatterfang. You can also sacrifice lands to pump your Squirrels, but I wouldn't recommend that. Only a crazy person would flush all their lands just to pump a few squirrels.

Snake Pit will let me make 1/1 Snake tokens when my opponents play Blue or Black spells. There's no guarantee that I'll get much out of this, but the right table will build me a pretty nice little Snake & Squirrel army. I'm pretty sure this is also not a good card but I'm going to run it until I see it do some work in a game. If I'm able to play out enough tokens there's a reasonable chance that I'll be able to get my army up to 20 creatures or more. If I can pull that off, the enchantment Epic Struggle can let me win on my upkeep. I'm not above flashing it out on the end step of the player before me, but I'm also willing to throw it out on my turn and let the table see if they can remove it.

Toski, Bearer of Secrets
In Search of Greatness

I am running Toski, Bearer of Secrets and In Search of Greatness, which features Toski in the artwork. In my lands I had to run Swarmyard, which can let me regenerate an insect, rat, spider or squirrel. I feel like I've got a bit of work to do to track down more old Squirrel cards, but fortunately Modern Horizons 2 had lots of cards to help me build up this theme.

Ravenous Squirrel
Squirrel Sovereign

Ravenous Squirrel might not make Squirrel tokens, but for now it's got a place in this list. It's well-positioned to help me gain life and more importantly, draw cards. Squirrel Sovereign is a lord, which might not seem like much but when you're playing with 1/1 tokens you'll be doubling the power of a lot of your creatures when this hits the field. This might not be a storm deck, but enough of my spells have a low enough mana value that I should be able to churn out a handful of squirrels or catch my opponents on a busy turn to really grow my furry little army.

Drey Keeper
Nested Shambler

Running every card that even mentions Squirrels might not be the best plan, but a lot of them can bring this deck real value. Chitterspitter will let me pump up my Squirrels and can help me produce them. The Elf Druid, Drey Keeper, can help make Squirrels and can pump them up and give them menace. Nested Shambler might only make one Green Squirrel creature token when it dies, but if I were to play Yavimaya, Cradle of Growth to make all my lands Forests and enchant that Zombie with Blanchwood Armor to give it +1/+1 for each Forest I control, I could be looking at an awful lot of Squirrels.

In Commander making a bunch of 1/1 creature tokens isn't enough to reliably win games. You don't get much smaller and even if you go wide, unless you've hit a combo you probably won't be able to kill three opponents who each started the game with 40 life.

Winning With Squirrels

There are ways to take what a deck like this wants to give us and turn that into something that might legitimately be able to threaten to win a game. I'm building this in paper and I'm not trying to optimize this deck, so I'm not throwing in cards like Beastmaster Ascension, Triumph of the Hordes and Craterhoof Behemoth. I've got those cards in other decks and I don't proxy, so this is going to end up as a strong casual deck with the ability to combo off. I'd hesitate to call it a high-powered deck, as it's really not fully tuned with all the staples a deck like this would probably want.

That doesn't mean this deck doesn't have some nasty surprises up its proverbial sleeves.

Ashnod's Altar
Moldervine Reclamation
Black Market

This list has a few sacrifice outlets, including the amazing Ashnod's Altar, which lets me sacrifice a creature to make 2 colorless mana. With Moldervine Reclamation on the field whenever one of my creatures dies I gain a life and draw a card. This deck is built around turning creature token deaths into value so I could easily draw a lot of cards if this sticks around for very long. If I've got Black Market out, those deaths will turn into mana on later turns. I could easily see a lot of charge counters building up, and this deck does run both Torment of Hailfire and Exsanguinate as possible outlets for all that mana.

Pitiless Plunderer
Poison-Tip Archer
Elder of Laurels

Pitiless Plunderer can combo nicely with Chatterfang and a sacrifice outlet, so it's too good not to include. I can sacrifice a Squirrel, have Pitiless Plunderer make a Treasure token, and then have Chatterfang make a Squirrel token. This can make infinite mana and with Moldervine Reclamation on the field I can draw my deck and gain a bunch of life. I also threw in Ruthless Knave, which can let me sacrifice a creature to create two Treasure tokens. That will give me a pair of Squirrels, so there is combo potential with both of these pirates. I should probably pick up a Revel in Riches for this build as well, as Treasures are a great way to make Squirrels.

Poison-Tip Archer and Zulaport Cutthroat both can help me turn creature deaths into life loss for my opponents. With a Pitiless Plunderer loop or a googolplex of Squirrels from Nest, I can kill a table pretty easily. If I want to win the old-fashioned way, I can do that with Elder of Laurels. If I get a big enough army I can send them at an opponent and after they declare blockers just pump up one of the ones that isn't blocked. It costs a bit of mana, but it works really nicely in decks that want to go wide.

The Chatter of Squirrels

I started building this deck with the expectation that it would be a relatively casual affair. I also thought I had more squirrel cards in my bins and binders than I actually had. Apparently when I looked at Deranged Hermit and Chatter of the Squirrel in Google searches so many times over many years, I somehow got the idea that both of those cards must have been salted away in my collection somewhere. They weren't, but I still think I was able to put together a pretty strong and potentially very fun Squirrel deck.

I should note that the proper term for a group of squirrels is a "dray" or a "scurry." I like to name my decks in fun ways, but dray and scurry didn't inspire me to latch onto a clever name, so I ended up going with something that plays off of our Squirrel General's name.

The Chatter of Squirrels | Commander | Stephen Johnson

As this deck has come together, I've been pulling cards from other decks to tweak it. Pitiless Plunderer was a late discovery, and I'm sure there are more great cards to throw into it that I haven't come across yet. I'm running lots of token generators, but you might notice that Parallel Lives, Doubling Season and Primal Vigor are conspicuously absent. Those are all great cards that would pull their weight in Chatterfang, and there's a very good chance that if I order a few more Squirrel cards for this deck I'll throw in Parallel Lives for good measure.

Positive Signs

I was able to play this deck once before writing this column up, and while it didn't yet have Pitiless Plunderer it was largely the same as the list I'm sharing with you today. It had lots of the weird cards that I'll probably take out as I tune it up over time, and to be honest - I wasn't expecting to win any games with it.

I didn't win any games with it, but Chatterfang surprised me anyways.

I was at a table with other casual mid-to-high powered decks played by friends who were experienced and capable Commander players. One of the guys was able to get his commander up to seven power with Spirit Mantle attached and was kindly hitting each of us in turn. None of us were able to pull into a way to deal with his threat and before long I was sitting at 14 commander damage and expecting to be killed at any point going forward.

I had Chatterfang on the field along with Moldervine Reclamation, Squirrel Wrangler and a pretty healthy number of lands. The guy who was dishing out all the damage had me dead to rights for at least one or two turns where he had gone after someone else, so I knew the end was near if I didn't find a way to kill him. I had a bunch of tokens and I wound up drawing into Ashnod's Altar and finding a way to do it.

I wound up sacrificing something crazy like 10 lands to pump Chatterfang by +10/+10 using Squirrel Wrangler and then sacrificed 8 Squirrels to Chatterfang to give him +8/-8 so that I could swing lethal at him. He had a forest and didn't happen to have any removal in hand, nor did he have any reason to think I'd be able to find a way to present a threat on my turn.

It took some work for me to find that path to eliminate a player that was poised to probably kill me on his turn, but I was elated to have found a way to get it done. I was also down 10 lands and knew my tablemates well enough to not even ask for a few turns to try to crawl back into the game. I was killed a turn or two later by another player and I was really just happy to have found a way to cheat death once and kill someone before the game was over.

I hadn't expected to find an interaction like that in my Chatterfang deck; and, while I didn't win, I took it as a positive sign that this deck is going to give me some fun and interesting games. I'm sure there will be some great ones with crazy endings and some bad ones with a few too many boardwipes or Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobites on my opponents' battlefields for me to have much of a game at all.

I'll keep tweaking it as I play it, and as of this writing I think there's a pretty good chance I'm going to have a Squirrel deck in my Commander arsenal for quite some time. I assembled it from the bones of my old Beledros Witherbloom deck, and even used that deck's brown sleeves. Beledros Witherbloom is in the list, as flying blockers are great and that card ought to pull its weight.

Final Thoughts

Sheldon Menery, founding member of the Commander Rules Committee and Godfather of our format, recently wrote a column about what he sees as his top 5 concerns for the health of our format. One of his concerns is the homogenization of the format, with more and more players choosing cards based upon efficiency and power over flavor and fun. Winning is fun, but his point was that Commander used to be a bastion of creativity, where a deck like Chatterfang might be happy to run the 8-drop removal spell Death Mutation even though Death Mutation is sorcery speed, can't target Black creatures, and is outlandishly expensive for what the card actually does.

In building this deck, I initially felt "seen" by his critique of our format. I run lots of staples and generally prefer more efficient and powerful cards.

I'm also running Snake Pit and I almost ran Monkey Cage and Snake Basket in this list. I could probably write an entire column about his critique of the homogenization of Commander and of the rabid backlash to it that was seen in many corners of social media; but, ultimately, I think homogenization boils down to being a meta call.

I play in a meta with a lot of very good and competitive-minded players. If I bring a deck full of Death Mutations and Monkey Cages, I might go weeks or even months without winning a game. To keep up with my tablemates I find a balance between fun, weird cards that I enjoy and powerful, efficient cards that let me compete. I also bring casual, low powered decks and higher powered, more competitive decks when I go to my LGS because I enjoy both ends of the power spectrum.

I think Sheldon is spot-on. It is a shame that there is less room for "bad" cards, but it's also a natural step in the evolution of the format. As it has gained popularity, Commander has attracted players from other, more competitive formats. Coming from formats that are all about winning, those players have pushed the power levels of metas around the world up a notch or two and the format's more casual players have adjusted. That doesn't mean that in a few years we'll all be playing cEDH, but it does mean that there is less room in most EDH games for cards that aren't as efficient or as powerful.

I hope that as my own approach to Commander evolves, I can still keep one foot in a relatively casual space. I love weird, old cards and I love when the focus of a meta or just a single game is more about fun than about winning. Still, we are usually all trying to win and a competitive meta can make it a challenge to balance winning with having fun.

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

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