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Becoming the Lord of the Rings


When I was working through the various precon decks trying to figure out what I was going to build out of them, I hadn't really prepared myself for the challenge of building Sauron.

I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the late 1970's and have come back to them again and again over the years. The movies are fine, but my attachment to Tolkien goes deeper than Peter Jacksons' fine adaptation of the LoTR trilogy.

Sauron for me is not just another villain. In the Lord of the Rings he represents a threat to civilization that always felt more like a Thanos level threat. If Sauron wins, you lose everything you ever held dear and his evil will reach into every corner of Middle Earth. He's like a Hitler to Saruman's Mussolini, if a real-world analogy would help.

When building a deck for Sauron, I wanted a deck that would not be a pushover. I also don't want to pubstomp, though playing archenemy would be fitting for a Sauron Commander deck. I opened two copies of The One Ring and just had to run one of them in this list. The other one will eventually go in whatever Halfling deck I put together out of the Food and Fellowship precon.

My first step is to take a good look at what I'll be building around.

Sauron, Lord of the Rings

I didn't open any other copies of Sauron, so I was going to be building around Sauron, Lord of the Rings. I could have just left the precon together, but I enjoy building my own decks too much to pass up the chance to make my own deck for him.

This nine-mana Avatar Horror costs five mana in Grixis (ubr) and has 9 power and toughness. When you cast him, you amass Orcs 5, which means that you make an Orc Army token and put five +1/+1 counters on it. If you already have an Orc Army, you add another five +1/+1 counters to that token. This works the same as the Zombie Army tokens that were introduced in War of the Spark. Sauron has trample and whenever an opponent's commander dies, the Ring tempts you.

Call The Orc'in Man

My first thought was that I wanted to build around other cards that have amass Orcs. The precon had a bunch of them and I opened a few more out of boosters. I don't love the fact that your entire Army can be vaporized with a single Swords to Plowshares, Path to Exile, Pongify or Rapid Hybridization. One mana and all the effort you put into building your pile of Orcs up is all gone. I also don't love that with a single pair of Jordans, or Swiftfoot Boots if you can't afford the good stuff, your whole Army has haste. It's a weird token and a weird mechanic and there are too many odd interactions, but it's what I'm working with so I'll have to get over it.

Fortunately, there are some decent amass cards to work with.

The Mouth of Sauron, Saruman, the White Hand, and Grishnakh, Brash Instigator were already in the precon, but I was surprised at how many cards with amass Orcs weren't in The Hosts of Mordor.

Orcish Bowmasters
Dunland Crebain
Warbeast of Gorgoroth

Orcish Bowmasters needs no introduction if you've been following the hype around this set. This 1/1 Orc Archer has Flash and will let you ping any target for 1 damage when it enters the battlefield and when an opponent draws a card other than the first card they draw in their draw step. Not only do you get to ping something for 1 damage, you also get to amass Orcs 1.

Dunland Crebain is a 1/1 Flyer with amass Orcs 2 when it enters the battlefield. It's joined by Gothmog, Morgul Lieutenant, a Human Soldier with an amass Orcs 1 ETB trigger and Warbeast of Gorgoroth, a 5/4 Beast with an amass Orcs 2 ETB trigger. Warbeast of Gorgoroth will also trigger when a creature I control with power 4 or greater dies. With Warbeast on the field if someone kills my Orc Army, if the Army was big enough I'll immediately get a smaller one to replace it.

Treason of Isengard
Book of Mazarbul
Fall of Cair Andros

Treason of Isengard is a Sorcery that will let me put one target instant or sorcery from my graveyard on top of my library. Recursion is always helpful and this card also comes with amass Orcs 2. Book of Mazarbul is a saga whose first two chapters are amass Orcs 1 and amass Orcs 2. While that kind of redundancy might not fly in literary circles, it all makes sense in chapter three, where your creatures get +1/+0 and menace until end of turn.

Fall of Cair Andros is one of the most exciting amass cards I added to this deck. When this enchantment is on the field, whenever a creature an opponent controls is dealt excess noncombat damage, I will amass X where X is that excess damage. It has an activated ability that lets me deal 7 damage to target creature for 8 mana, one of which must be Red, but I'm unlikely to use that.

I'm far more likely to tutor up Star of Extinction or Blasphemous Act to wipe the board. The former destroys target land and does 20 damage to each creature, and the latter costs 1 less for each creature on the battlefield and does 13 damage to each creature. My own field will likely get wiped out, but I should be able to swing and kill someone on my next combat phase if nobody has an answer for my shenanigans.

Easterling Vanguard
Mauhur, Uruk-hai Captain

Easterling Vanguard has a death trigger that will let me amass Orcs 1. I really scraped the bottom of the barrel to get as many amass Orcs cards as possible. I included that 2/1 Human Warrior along with Mordor Muster, Orcish Medicine, and Barad-dur. Mordor Muster is a sorcery that will have me draw a card, lose 1 life and amass Orcs 1. Orcish Medicine is an instant that will give target creature either lifelink or indestructible until end of turn and also has amass Orcs 1. It'll be a nice on-theme way to protect my Army if it looks like it's going to be destroyed, but Orcish Medicine won't help much against exile effects.

Barad-dur is a legendary land that has an activated ability that lets me amass orcs. I pay xxb and tap Barad-dur to amass X. I can only do this at sorcery speed, but it fits in nicely with Cabal Coffers and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth as a mana sink. It will work with infinite mana pretty well too, but we'll get to that in a moment.

My Orc theme extends past just running creatures with the amass keyword. I'm running Gorbag of Minas Morgul, an Orc Soldier that can have me draw a card or make a treasure token. All I need is to have a Goblin or Orc I control deal combat damage to a player and then I have to sacrifice it. For an Army, that means the WHOLE Army, so this isn't something I'm more likely to do with a nontoken creature.

Mauhur, Uruk-hai Captain is a much better fit. This 3/3 Orc Soldier with menace will have me put an additional +1/+1 counter on an Army, Goblin or orc I control when I would put one or more +1/+1 counters on them.

The precon came with Merciless Executioner and Orcish Siegemaster and I feel pretty good about the Orc focus I've been able to get out of combining The Hosts of Mordor with the Orc support and amass cards I was able to open in my booster packs.

Getting To 9 mana

Casting a nine-mana commander in today's EDH is far from a sure thing. In lots of metas I've played in, the game doesn't even last long enough to get to nine mana. That means I'm going to have to cut a few corners and load in some powerful cards if I want this deck to be able to get its commander out reliably.

I may not be trying to build a cEDH deck, but this is a case where fast mana makes sense. Sauron, Lord of the Rings isn't in Green or White, so I can't lean on my usual ramp staples and I can't even look to cards like Smothering Tithe to help out, but there are ways to get it done. I recently pulled apart my Najeela, the Blade Blossom cEDH deck and this list seemed like a decent place to put my Mana Crypt, Chrome Mox, Mox Opal, and Jeweled Lotus. I'm also running four Signets, Relic of Sauron, and Sol Ring.

Mana rocks set me up to be able to run the Dramatic Reversal / Isochron Scepter combo nicely, but I'm not just looking at artifacts to get this deck going. I've got a few tricks up my sleeve.

Dockside Extortionist
Geode Golem
Mana Drain

I also grabbed everyone's favorite Goblin, Dockside Extortionist, out of my old Najeela list. It might give me next to nothing, but it might also let me cast my commander on the turn it enters just from the number of treasures it creates. Geode Golem is also in the list. This 5/3 Golem with trample will let me cast my commander from the command zone when it deals combat damage to a player. If I've got commander tax to pay or any additional costs I will have to pay them.

Mana Drain is the last of my clever tricks. I'm running a few counterspells in this list, but Mana Drain will give me colorless mana at the beginning of my next main phase equal to the mana value of the spell I countered. A well-timed Mana Drain could give me a very early Sauron. I've just got to hope nobody was eyeing my nine-mana commander and thinking the exact same thought when I go to cast him.

If I had them available, I might also run Revel in Riches and Black Market, as they are great ways to turn carnage into profit. A Damnation and some other damage based boardwipes would fit into the list nicely if I had gone that way, but I didn't have any of those cards available as I was assembling this list. Those cards were in other decks and I don't generally proxy cards, even if I already own a copy.

How We Win

Being able to win the game is the sort of thing that is more important for some decks and some players than others. I have a competitive side and I tend to notice if I'm on a bit of a losing streak, so I often try to make sure that my decks have a way to win beyond just going to combat and hoping for the best. For Sauron, Lord of the Rings, it made sense to me that this deck should absolutely have ways it can win the game beyond just making an army and swinging it at people.

I briefly considered building this as a double-strike voltron deck with ways to give Sauron at least +2/+2. Having Sauron be a one-turn kill might be fun, but there's not much lore around Sauron using a sword. He's more likely to overwhelm his foes with a ridiculously huge army. I think a combo or two would fit in nicely in this deck, so my first real step was to think about what made the most sense.

In Grixis colors I could load in Tainted Pact, Demonic Consultation, and Thassa's Oracle and adjust my mana base so that combo would work. The only problem is that a cEDH wincon feels weird in a nine-mana Sauron deck that is really anything but cEDH. The idea that Sauron is evil so he'd just use the best wincon at any power level sounds cute, but it would feel like an excuse to pubstomp. I don't want this deck to be an excuse to pubstomp even if it does hit a combo to win the game.

Tainted Strike
Chandra's Ignition

My first wincon outside just winning through combat is Tainted Strike, which gives +1/+0 and infect, and Chandra's Ignition, which will have the targeted creature deal damage to every other creature and each opponent equal to its power. I had originally planned on using this with a 9+ power Army until I realized what was right in front of me - a 9/9 commander who would just love to kill the table with a giant, nasty, lethal explosion! Tainted Strike can just work as a combat damage trick if I've got a 9-power combat threat about to deal damage.

Elemental Mastery
Intruder Alarm

I've trotted these two cards out a few times in the past year and I decided to slot them into today's list. Intruder Alarm feels right for Mordor. Frodo and Sam go to a lot of trouble to avoid detection on their way to Mount Doom, though this enchantment does not synergize well in a deck that will more often be adding counters to an army than having new creatures enter the battlefield. Elemental Mastery is an aura that will allow target creature to tap and create 1/1 Elemental creature tokens with haste equal to its power. You tap the enchanted creature, create a bunch of tokens, Intruder Alarm untaps the creature, and you do it until you have enough creatures to kill the table.

If this deck seems to have trouble winning games, which it might with such an overcosted commander, I could see running more boardwipes and big mana outlets. Playing with a plan of tutoring up Cabal Coffers and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth isn't very on-theme, but it does help cast my commander and pouring big mana into an Exsanguinate or Torment of Hailfire seems like something Sauron might do.

I could also see myself adding some ways to make Sauron more of a combat threat than he already is. Sauron is big and scary, but has no natural evasion or protection. I could cast him and a turn later have him Imprisoned in the Moon, or turned into a Forest, an Elk, an Ape or a Frog Lizard. Smart players will pay attention to how close I am to casting my commander and will save removal for him.

Sauron's Army of Orcs

Will fast mana stick around long enough to help me get my commander out on turn six or seven? Right now that feels like a gamble, but I think it will be interesting to find out. My current meta isn't awash in overloaded Vandalblasts so I'm hopeful that this plan will work. My other main concern is being able to play enough creatures to protect myself in the early to mid-game. I'm always more comfortable with a creature count in the 20's and a land count in the mid 30's. This first draft has 17 creatures and 39 lands, which for me is a lot.

Sauron's Army of Orcs | Commander | Stephen Johnson

To tune this list up you would likely want to drop the silly Orc Army theme and load up on more potent threats. I like the idea of staying somewhat on theme, but if you're more interested in competitiveness, you might drop out dozens of cards, or possibly just switch to another commander. Sauron, the Dark Lord is better costed at six mana and spends much less effort building up his armies. I didn't open one in my booster packs, but if I had I may well have built this deck around him instead of Sauron, Lord of the Rings.

If you wanted to drop the budget and power level of this list, you'd likely want to leave out the combos and pare away the cards that will hurt your wallet the most. That's going to leave you in a position to play more old school mana rocks like Hedron Archive, Thran Dynamo, and Gilded Lotus. These will all get you to nine mana and you'll be paying a lot less (in money) for a lot more (in mana generation).

You might also choose to mix legendary creatures from Magic lore with legends from The Lord of the Rings. Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain would fit in beautifully in today's list, but I've been trying to keep my lore separate for the most part. The reference to Chandra in Chandra's Ignition does feel clumsy to me, but my love for that card outweighed my desire to stay away from those references. It is just a game, though, so I don't blame anyone for mixing all manner of nonsense together in this crazy format we love so much.

Final Thoughts

My journey through Middle Earth continued with this column and I still have more The Lord of the Rings brews waiting in the wings. For all my talk of sticking to The Lord of the Rings cards, I'm increasingly adding in cards from outside of that set. My "hard line" of not including legends from Magic was broken in my very first deck, a Green Treefolk deck that just happened to include Verdeloth the Ancient. Verdloth means much less to me than other legends but my point is just that it's great to set guardrails for a build and it's also fine to break them.

These decks have been fun exercises in figuring out how to take a stock precon list and turn it into something I'll enjoy, suited more to my playstyle, and with cards I had available to me. I try to explain my choices, but they aren't "right" or "wrong". They're just the choices I made in this first draft, and I fully expect to tweak the list as I play it so that it's fun and so that it has some chance at winning the occasional game.

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

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