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Double Feature: Saruman of Many Colors


I've been working through my Lord of the Rings precon decks and have been trying to build interesting decks out of them. My goal was to mostly stay to Lord of the Rings cards, only pulling in nonlegendary cards from outside of that set. Naturally, I broke that rule in my very first deck, adding Verdeloth the Ancient to my Ents deck, but Verdeloth isn't exactly on the same level as characters like Urza or Jhoira, who played major roles in Magic's long and convoluted story.

Today I decided to take apart The Hosts of Mordor, a precon deck designed to showcase all of the villains and major threats to Middle-earth and its heroes. My plan had been to build a Sauron deck and a Saruman deck. After opening today's commander in a booster pack, I decided to not go with Saruman, the White Hand - the version of Saruman that came out of the precon. He likes to build armies of Orcs and I knew that would likely be a focus of my Sauron deck, so I turned my attention to Saruman of Many Colors.

Saruman of Many Colors

Saruman of Many Colors with an interesting take on the ward keyword. Instead of paying extra mana, your opponents will have to discard an enchantment, instant or sorcery card to target him.

Saruman's real party trick is something of a puzzle for us to solve. Whenever I cast my second spell each turn, each opponent mills two cards. When one or more cards are milled this way, I'll exile target enchantment, Instant or sorcery card with equal or lesser value from an opponent's graveyard. Saruman will have me copy that exiled card and I may cast the copy without paying its mana cost.

That means Saruman can remove a dangerous enchantment, instant or sorcery from a graveyard even if I can't cast it. If I build my deck around casting spells from my opponents' graveyards, I'll be at the mercy of what my tablemates have brought to the game. If they're playing decks that don't help my strategy I'll have a harder time getting value out of my commander. That's not a huge problem, but it's something to remember when playing the deck.

Our Path to Isengard

If I'm going to build this deck and be even vaguely excited about playing it, I need to find ways to try to make the most out of his ability. I probably want to mill my opponents and I definitely want to cast two spells in a turn as often as possible. That means I'll want to find ways to pay less mana or even no mana for my spells and I'll want to be able to do this on my opponents' turns.

My initial plan was to lean into the mill theme. Playing ways to mill my opponents isn't a powerful strategy, but it can work and it can even be done in a way that kills the table. I also thought about what Saruman is like as a villain and decided that mind control effects would fit in thematically.

A look through Magic's many keywords yielded some interesting ways to try to get those second cast triggers in a single turn. A spell with cascade will have me exile cards from the top of my library and cast another spell with a lower mana value. A quick look through spells in Esper that have cascade reminded me that Enigma Sphinx and Ethersworn Sphinx both have that keyword.

Sphinxes have flying, which would work nicely with spells that have cipher. The cipher keyword will have me exile the card and imprint it on a creature. When the imprinted creature does combat damage to a player I get to cast a copy of the imprinted spell without paying its mana costs. Cipher could definitely help me get to my second spell in a turn.

One last option that came to mind was the rebound keyword. A spell with rebound gets exiled as it resolves and at the beginning of my next upkeep I may cast it without paying its mana cost.

A deck with mill, mind control, Sphinxes, cipher, rebound, ramp, removal and at least a few counterspells was where I was headed. When you try to do too many things in a deck, you often end up doing none of them very well. You spread yourself too thin. You try to go in too many directions and end up getting nowhere. The classic precon problem of the early days of EDH was that the decks were really two or three viable ideas jammed into a single stack of 100 cards.

I didn't want to make that mistake, so rather than give you one deck today, it's time for a double feature!

I've brewed up two different lists with Saruman of Many Colors as the commander. One is a Sphinx themed deck, and the other focuses a little more on mill. Saruman had few friends apart from a toady or two and I don't recall a single Sphinx in all of the Lord of the Rings books, so both of these decks might be a bit weak on flavor.

Sphinxes or Sphinges?

I'll admit that I've never heard anyone use "sphinges" to refer to more than one Sphinx, but I also don't find myself casually discussing mythical creatures on a regular basis. Sphinges sounds like some weird combination of hinges and... sponges? I don't know, but it sounds wrong and it's just a little off-putitng. I'll use Sphinxes to refer to more than one Sphinx for the rest of this column.

Loading up on Sphinxes in this case doesn't mean playing dozens of them. I need to keep room for other stuff, but I'm still playing more Sphinxes than any deck this side of Unesh, Cryptic Sovereign.

Enigma Sphinx
Ethersworn Sphinx
Dazzling Sphinx

Enigma Sphinx and Ethersworn Sphinx both have cascade, and are both very mana-intensive, but that just increases the chance that my second cast of the turn will be a big enough spell to matter. I'll still be limited to whatever enchantments, instants and sorceries are in my opponents' graveyards, but I enjoy cascade and I think that theme will make this a more fun deck to play.

Dazzling Sphinx may not have cascade, but it has a combat damage trigger that will give me a free instant or sorcery spell. If it damages a player they will reveal cards off the top of their library until they reveal an instant or sorcery spell and I'll cast that spell without paying its mana cost.

Master of Predicaments
Chancellor of the Spires
Scholar of the Lost Trove

Master of Predicaments has a chance at giving me a free cast when it deals combat damage. I'll choose a card in my hand and an opponent will guess whether it has a mana value greater than 4. If they're wrong, I get to cast it for free. It's a fun little game within the game that may not pay off, but should be entertaining.

Chancellor of the Spires, which gives me the chance to mill my tablemates before the game even really gets going, can give me a free cast from an opponent's graveyard when it enters the battlefield. Scholar of the Lost Trove has an enter-the-battlefield trigger that will let me cast target instant, sorcery or artifact card from my graveyard without paying its mana cost.

I'm also running Consecrated Sphinx, which can draw me a boatload of cards, and Magister Sphinx, which can set target opponent's life total to 10. It's a nasty trick, best saved for when someone has a ridiculously high life total or when you have a single tablemate left to deal with.

Sphinxes' high mana costs will make this deck a little slower, but flyers are great to have and in more casual games it shouldn't be too hard to get going if you can make it to the mid game. The potential to use your opponents' ramp spells is really intriguing, though I don't think Saruman's party trick is a substitute for running a decent number of mana rocks.

Rebound and Cipher

The other main push of this deck is to try to use cards with rebound and cipher to get to my second cast on my turns. The good thing about this is that those cards aren't exactly staples in EDH. Playing obscure cards is fun, but this game plan also has a downside. Both rebound and cipher are going to help me with casting spells on my turn, not on other players' turns.

Rebound is particularly strong because those cards are cheaper and when they rebound I'll cast them on my upkeep. That means my next spell will be my second and I can hopefully get something really sweet out of an opponent's graveyard.

Center Soul
Blessed Reincarnation

Center Soul, Emerge Unscathed, Distortion Strike, and Taigam's Strike can all help me get an attacker through to do combat damage to a player. That's important for my cipher spells, as those only trigger on combat damage to a player. Center Soul and Emerge Unscathed give target creature I control protection from the color of my choice until end of turn. Distortion Strike and Taigam's Strike both give a little pump and make target creature unblockable until end of turn.

Ephemerate will flicker a creature I control, which works nicely with certain Sphinxes that have enter-the-battlefield triggers. Blessed Reincarnation is like a slightly more expensive Chaos Warp in Blue. It exiles target creature an opponent controls and that player reveals cards until they reveal a creature. I guess it's not that much like Chaos Warp, but that is what Reincarnation reminded me of at first glance.

I'm also running Survival Cache, which will gain me 2 life and if I've got more life than an opponent I get to draw a card. Card draw is always nice, even if it's not guaranteed. Consuming Vapors lets me force target player to sacrifice a creature and I'll gain life equal to that creature's toughness.

If I were willing to run legendary creatures outside of Lord of the Rings I'd probably slot in Taigam, Ojutai Master. Taigam can give my instants and sorceries rebound but I have to have attacked with him that turn.

Spells with cipher another way to cast spells for free in this list, but you'll be forgiven for not being able to think of any of them. They were introduced in Gatecrash and Dragon's Maze, which is when I got into Magic, and haven't been seen much since.

Whispering Madness
Stolen Identity

Whispering Madness might be the most commonly played card with cipher. It will have each player discard their hand and draw cards equal to the greatest number of cards a player discarded this way. Paranoid Delusions will also help me with milling an opponent. That sorcery will have target player put the top three cards of their library into their graveyard, and of course it has cipher.

Voidwalk will let me exile target creature and return it to the battlefield at the beginning of the next end step. I've got enough Sphinxes with ETB triggers that this could really put in work in this deck. Stolen Identity will let me create a token of target artifact or creature. That could be pretty strong depending upon what targets I have available to me. Once I've made a token copy of something amazing, if it isn't legendary I can just keep making tokens of my token even if the original target has been removed.

Writ of Return
Hidden Strings
Call of the Nightwing

Writ of Return gives me some creature recursion. Hidden Strings let me tap or untap two target permanents. I've also got Hands of Binding in the list, which will tap an opponent's creature down and it won't untap during its controller's next untap step. Call of the Nightwing rounds out my cipher spells, giving me a 1/1 Blue and Black Horror creature token with flying.

If you think some of these cipher spells are overcosted to the point of being nearly unplayable, I won't argue the point. Sometimes when I dive into a theme I will play cards that might make the deck slower and less powerful. Commander isn't all about winning and playing the most efficient, powerful deck possible - or at least it doesn't have to be.

Casual decks with weird themes and unexpected game plans can be every bit as fun as tuned juggernauts that rack up the wins and elicit groans from your friends when you reveal what you're going to be playing. You just have to know how to pick the right deck for the right table so you end up with a fun and balanced game.

Saruman of Many Sphinxes

I think this deck could be a lot of fun and is a nice way to build an Esper deck that has some chance of being relevant in combat. I've found that Esper often loads up on control elements and you wind up falling back on combo wincons because you just don't have the quite the battlefield presence that decks in green and red seem to be able to generate.

Saruman of Many Sphinxes | Commander | Stephen Johnson

To tune this deck up, you could load in fast mana and some ways to make your Sphinxes hit harder. Coat of Arms would do the job. I don't see a deck leaning into rebound and cipher being all that powerful so you would want to drop out weaker cards like Call of the Nightwing and add more staples. I'm not sure there's much point in trying to drop this list down in power, but you could remove Cyclonic Rift, Magister Sphinx and any other card that feels like it would be out of place in a truly casual game. Dropping some of your counterspells in favor of low mana card selection would also help. Cards like Opt, Anticipate, Ponder and Consider would help you get to that second spell in a turn without abandoning that part of your strategy. You still want to get to spell number two as often as possible even if you aren't trying to play the control game.

Shifting Gears

I didn't end up building Saruman of Many Sphinxes in paper, but I did build a deck in paper for this commander. I held true to my plan to not run legendary creatures out of Magic because this is a Lord of the Rings deck. I didn't go all in on mill, nor did I go all in on stealing creatures. I ended up with a balanced deck that has a few surprises and some powerful cards, but isn't trying to be a fringe cEDH deck. There's no Tainted Pact or Demonic Consultation into Thassa's Oracle in this list, even though I could easily slot those into an Esper deck with the right mana base.

Leaning into mill a bit more should keep my plan of playing cards out of my tablemates' graveyards in focus. Not playing Sphinxes will drop my mana curve a bit, but not so much that I'm going to be tempted to play Ad Nauseam or Bolas's Citadel. I had a little stack of fairly powerful cards left over from taking apart my Najeela cEDH deck recently so I had some good stuff to move into this list. I passed over adding Drannith Magistrate, fast mana and that Th'Oracle combo, but did grab an Esper Sentinel, Ledger Shredder and Faerie Mastermind for the deck. I also took apart my brief experiment with no-counterspell Baral, Chief of Compliance and had a bunch of good blue spells to pick from.

Free and Practically Free

The first thing to know about this build is that I'm again trying to set myself up to have spells I can cast for free. If I can get a free spell during a turn, that makes it easy to get that second spell and trigger Saruman of Many Colors to let me cast something out of a tablemate's graveyard.

As Foretold
Peregrine Drake

As Foretold is a deceptively powerful enchantment. It does nothing when it comes down, but if it sticks around it can really put in work. At the beginning of my upkeep I put a time counter on it and once each turn I can pay 0 rather than pay the mana cost of a spell I cast with a mana value equal to or less than the number of age counters on it.

Spells that untap land are particularly good in Saruman of Many Colors. The biggest challenge in Esper to casting multiple spells is the mana cost. If your spells have low mana values, you'll be more limited in what you can grab out of your opponents' graveyards. Getting a free spell helps a lot, but spells that untap your lands when they resolve are essentially free. You need the initial mana to cast them, but once those lands untap you're all set to cast something big for that second cast trigger.

Peregrine Drake is a five mana Drake that untaps five lands when it enters the battlefield. It is often seen with Deadeye Navigator as a way to make infinite mana, but this deck doesn't run that combo. Saruman of Many Colors doesn't do much with infinite mana, but that free flyer will set me up nicely. Treachery will let me steal a creature and will untap five lands when it enters the battlefield. Creature theft is perfect for Saruman, though it's worth noting that Treachery is an expensive card.

Both Rewind and Unwind are in my slot of counterspells. Rewind costs four mana, counters target spell, and will untap up to four lands. Unwind will counter target noncreature spell, costs just three mana, and will untap up to three lands. I'm also running Snap, which will bounce a creature for two mana and untap two lands. I was tempted to run Frantic Search, Cloud of Faeries and a few other of these land-untappers, but they didn't make the final cut.

Mill For The Win

Trying to kill your opponents by having them put their library into their graveyard is a real challenge. Doing it incrementally is unlikely to work, as your tablemates each have a 100-card deck and some of them might be running cards that shuffle back into their library, making it very difficult to kill them through mill. That doesn't mean it isn't a fun thing to try to pull off, and Saruman of Many Colors does really want you to mill your opponents.

Duskmantle Guildmage
Bloodchief Ascension

Both Duskmantle Guildmage and Bloodchief Ascension can turn mill into life loss for your opponents. Duskmantle Guildmage needs its 3 mana ability to be activated and Bloodchief Ascension needs three or more quest counters on it. When you combine either of those with Mindcrank, a 2-mana artifact, that life loss turns into mill, which will again turn into life loss, and so on until each opponent is dead. Players "in the know" will be wary of these combo pieces, so if you are trying to use this combo to kill the table you might hold back Mindcrank until you're ready to go for it.

Consuming Aberration
Tunnel Vision
Spell Crumple

Consuming Aberration is a great support card for a mill deck like Phenax, God of Deception, and could also put in real work in a storm deck. This might not be a card that will singlehandedly mill your opponents out, but Consuming Aberration will definitely make your tablemates sweat a little.

One last trick I've got for this list is Tunnel Vision. This sorcery lets you name a card and have target player reveal cards until you reach the named card. If you have one player left and can use Spell Crumple or Hinder to counter a spell and put it on the bottom of their library, you'll set them up to have a 1-card library and eventually draw out to lose the game. If you just name Sol Ring and it's in their library, they'll end up with some number of cards in the bin and a Sol Ring as their next draw.

If I had them available and wanted to go heavier on a mill theme, I'd add a few cards into this list. If you don't care about using legends from outside of Lord of the Rings, Bruvac the Grandiloquent is a Human Advisor who will double the amount of cards you mill. Mind Grind, Traumatize, Keening Stone and Mesmeric Orb would all fit in well. Mesmeric Orb is particularly good for incremental mill, as it will have players mill a card each time they untap a permanent.

Saruman of Much Milling

This is the list I ended up building in paper and I decided that I would run a bunch of cards from the Lord of the Rings set. I had to include Grima, Saruman's Footman, Lotho, Corrupt Shirriff, Saruman's Trickery, Isolation at Orthanc, Subjugate the Hobbits, Treason of Isengard, and Palantir of Orthanc. I could have dropped some of the more thematic cards to focus more on creature theft or mill, but I like decks that mix things up a bit. They might suffer a bit from being less focused, but I think I enjoy them more.

Saruman of Many Colors | Commander | Stephen Johnson

To tune this up further you'd probably load in fast mana and tutors, and then focus more on paths to victory that involve mill and mill combos. This isn't the kind of commander you'd try to build as a cEDH deck. If nothing else, your "party trick" is limited to once per turn and limits you to what is in your tablemates' graveyards. That means you'll never have any guarantee that his main ability will give you anything much to work with. You could be tutoring every turn and casting powerful spells or you could find yourself without many good options.

If you wanted to tune this list down a bit, there are easy choices to make. Drop out Gilded Drake, Treachery, Cyclonic Rift, Ledger Shredder, Rhystic Study and Mana Drain and load in some budget Mind Control spells. I feel like stealing creatures really fits in with Saruman even if it doesn't help him hit two spells per turn.

Final Thoughts

If you're thinking about building Saruman of Many Colors I hope this list gave you something to think about. Sphinx tribal could be a lot of fun even if there is very little indication that Saruman had ever even heard of a Sphinx in Lord of the Rings lore.

I built the second list in this column and have every intention of picking up a Mesmeric Orb for it. I won't add Bruvac, but I might pick up another Traumatize as that card would be fantastic in any deck that wants to play cards out of your opponents' graveyards.

My expectations aren't incredibly high for Saruman of Many Colors. It's fun to think about how to get the most out of his ability, but the reality is that he costs six mana and there's really no guarantee that you'll get much of anything out of him. I like challenges, and I like puzzles, so I am looking forward to seeing if this deck is able to do much of anything in a game.

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

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