The Stages of Life by Caspar David Friedrich (1835).
Urza, Lord High Artificer by Grzegorz Rutkowski.
Commander precon season is upon us once again as Wizards of the Coast is preparing to release four new decks out into the world. This week I'm joined by fellow Commander writers Bruce Richard, Jason Alt, Mark Wischkaemper and Abe Sargent in sharing our thoughts about them all.
Today I will be looking over the Sultai () "Faceless Menace" deck. Bruce will be writing about the Naya () "Primal Genesis" deck, Mark will tackle the Rakdos "Merciless Rage" deck and Jason will write at least 75% of a column looking at some of the spiciest individual cards from all four decks. Abe Sargent will round out a full week of Commander 2019 craziness with his Top 10 cards from the set and his take on the Jeskai () "Mystic Intellect" deck!
I somehow wound up with my favorite of the lot. The "Faceless Menace" precon deck is in Sultai colors, which places it in a good position in terms of versatility and upgrade potential. I also find playing with face down creatures to be a lot of fun, as you're the only one who knows what you've really got lurking on your battlefield. It adds an extra level to making combat decisions that is hard to duplicate with anything short of a deck loaded up with instant speed combat tricks.
Mighty Morphs and Manifests
This year's set of preconstructed Commander decks were all built around keywords and Faceless Menace is no exception. The keyword we've got to work with is Morph, along with Megamorph, which also creates 2/2 morph tokens, and Manifest.
Morph, Megamorph and Manifest let us to play face-down cards as 2/2 creatures. We can pay mana to flip them up at any time and until that point we'll probably be the only one who knows what they really are. Many of the creature spells in this deck have additional abilities that are triggered by being turned face-up. Morphs have to have the morph keyword. Megamorphs are just morph creatures that get +1/+1 counters when they are unmorphed. Manifested cards can be turned face up only if they are creatures and only if you pay the casting cost of the manifested creature.
I think I was interested in this deck in part because I used to have an Ezuri, Claw of Progress deck that included a ton of Morph creatures. Ezuri is particularly good with Morphs because he puts +1/+1 counters on creatures and when they are turned face up they don't leave the battlefield, so they don't lose their counters.
The real fun of playing with Morph creatures is the subterfuge involved in having creatures that could be anything. Players rely on a lot of things when deciding how to attack and block. Not knowing what you really have on your battlefield can really mess with their heads. They might attack you just to find out what your face-down card is, or they might attack elsewhere because you could turn their profitable attack into a big mistake just by paying a creature's morph cost.
The other thing worth mentioning about Morph is that the act of paying a cost and turning your face down creature face up is a "special action" that doesn't use the stack and can't be responded to. It just happens. That means that if a Morph creature is turned face up and does something really inconvenient for your opponents, there isn't much they can do about it.
Wizards of the Coast does a great job in creating pre con Commander decks that aren't just single-mindedly devoted to one strategy. They always include multiple legendary creatures that can be used as the deck's Commander and they build them with a number of viable strategies. While this might make them weaker, it also makes them more interesting to play and more flexible when you're ready to upgrade them. You can go in a number of directions rather than being stuck with one basic upgrade path.
The 10,000 Foot View
Before we jump into upgrade paths and strategies, we should take a high-level view of the Faceless Menace deck. What do we have to work with and how do I think it's going to play?
A good starting point is the decklist. We've got 40 lands, which is a good amount since we don't have a ton of ramp. Over half of our non-lands are creatures with a reasonable split among sorceries, instants, enchantments and artifacts. We've even got a planeswalker - Vraska the Unseen - thrown in for good measure.
Faceless Menace Commander 2019 Precon | Commander | Wizards of the Coast
- Creatures (29)
- 1 Ainok Survivalist
- 1 Apex Altisaur
- 1 Bane of the Living
- 1 Chromeshell Crab
- 1 Deathmist Raptor
- 1 Den Protector
- 1 Great Oak Guardian
- 1 Grim Haruspex
- 1 Grismold, the Dreadsower
- 1 Hooded Hydra
- 1 Icefeather Aven
- 1 Ixidron
- 1 Kadena's Silencer
- 1 Kheru Spellsnatcher
- 1 Nantuko Vigilante
- 1 Sagu Mauler
- 1 Sakura-Tribe Elder
- 1 Scaretiller
- 1 Seedborn Muse
- 1 Silumgar Assassin
- 1 Skinthinner
- 1 Stratus Dancer
- 1 Thelonite Hermit
- 1 Thieving Amalgam
- 1 Thought Sponge
- 1 Thousand Winds
- 1 Vesuvan Shapeshifter
- 1 Voice of Many
- 1 Willbender
- Planeswalkers (1)
- 1 Vraska the Unseen
- Instants (7)
- 1 Biomass Mutation
- 1 Echoing Truth
- 1 Leadership Vacuum
- 1 Putrefy
- 1 Reality Shift
- 1 Sudden Substitution
- 1 Sultai Charm
- Sorceries (11)
- 1 Cultivate
- 1 Explore
- 1 Farseek
- 1 Ghastly Conscription
- 1 Hex
- 1 Mire in Misery
- 1 Overwhelming Stampede
- 1 Road of Return
- 1 Tempt with Discovery
- 1 Tezzeret's Gambit
- 1 Urban Evolution
- Lands (40)
- 3 Swamp
- 5 Island
- 7 Forest
- 1 Ash Barrens
- 1 Bojuka Bog
- 1 Command Tower
- 1 Darkwater Catacombs
- 1 Dimir Aqueduct
- 1 Evolving Wilds
- 1 Exotic Orchard
- 1 Foul Orchard
- 1 Golgari Guildgate
- 1 Golgari Rot Farm
- 1 Jungle Hollow
- 1 Llanowar Wastes
- 1 Myriad Landscape
- 1 Opulent Palace
- 1 Reliquary Tower
- 1 Shrine of the Forsaken Gods
- 1 Simic Growth Chamber
- 1 Simic Guildgate
- 1 Sunken Hollow
- 1 Temple of the False God
- 1 Terramorphic Expanse
- 1 Thespian's Stage
- 1 Thornwood Falls
- 1 Woodland Stream
- 1 Yavimaya Coast
The deck leans a little toward Green, has a third of its mana symbols in Blue and has Black as its lightest color, but none of the three colors feel like they are being short-changed.
The average CMC of this list is just over 3.6, making it about what I'd expect from a precon deck. More competitive lists will usually find that magic number much closer to 3.0, if not lower than that. Decks with a CMC at or over 4 are either very casual or are decks that will be cheating mana costs as part of their core strategy. The hidden costs in these cards are all the morph and megamorph costs that you'll wind up paying. This may be a fun deck, but I don't think it's going to be a particularly fast deck.
Meet Our Commanders
Preconstructed decks each come with three new legendary creatures designed to uniquely enable the strategies that have been built into each list. At least, that's the goal. Some of these cards will probably turn out to be a little underpowered, some will surprise us and be fairly strong and every once in a while we wind up with a card or two that really punches above its weight.
The headliner for this deck is Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer. This legendary Naga Wizard is a 3/3 who will reduce the cost of the first face-down creature we cast each turn by mana. Morphs are traditionally 2/2 face down creatures who cost mana, so Kadena will make the first one we cast each turn free.
Kadena also has the three most powerful words in Magic - "draw a card" in her text box. Whenever a face-down creature enters the battlefield under our control, we get to draw a card. Those words attached to a commander are incredibly powerful as we can just re-cast her if she gets removed.
With enough face-down ETB triggers we should be able to hit our land drops and rebuild quickly after board wipes. That card draw isn't going to help us draw into answers at instant speed, but it's still a very powerful ability that will give us a possible upgrade path for this deck.
Rayami, First of the Fallen is a 5/4 Vampire who represents a pretty interesting voltron threat if he were run as our Commander. If a non-token creature would die when Rayami is on the field, it gets exiled instead with a blood counter on it. As long as an exiled creature with a blood counter on it has flying, Rayami has flying. The same is true for first strike, double strike, death touch, haste, hex proof, indestructible, lifelink, menace, protection, reach, trample and vigilance.
Commanders have to go to the graveyard in order to die, so they will probably never get exiled with a blood counter, but Rayami does seem like a great fit for a heavy control deck with lots of ways to kill creatures. If you can manage to sacrifice something with indestructible with Rayami on the field, he'll be ready for any boardwipe that might hit the battlefield.
Rayami is an interesting fit for a Morph deck because your opponents could be handing you a really good creature to exile if the creature they killed was face down and your opponent didn't know what they were killing. If they were to target a face-down Sagu Mauler with an instant speed kill spell like Terminate they'd wind up giving Rayami both Trample and Hexproof.
Volrath, the Shapestealer is a legendary Shapeshifter who costs a hefty five mana () but gives you a 7/5 body with some neat abilities. At the beginning of combat on your turn, you get to put a -1/-1 counter on up to one target creature. He also has an ability that fits his name pretty well. For just mana you can turn Volrath into a copy of target creature with a counter on it. Volrath will retain his 7 power and 5 toughness and will also keep his shape-stealing ability.
The ability to change into different creatures at such a low cost positions Volrath as the best option for pursuing a combo strategy - probably in the same vein as Lazav, the Multifarious or Experiment Kraj. The requirement that your targets have counters on them isn't insignificant but Morphs play really well with +1/+1 counters so there is the potential for some good synergy here.
Using Volrath's -1/-1 counters as removal will always be my first choice but it's worth noting that a 2/2 Morph won't die from getting a -1/-1 counter so targeting your own Morphs is a viable plan if you've got a way to turn that to your advantage. I'm not a judge, but I don't think a face-down Sagu Mauler would give Volrath hexproof and trample as he's copying the creature not the card, and the face-down Sagu Mauler is a 2/2 vanilla creature with the ability to unmorph.
I don't think this deck is going to play fast, but if you can manage to make it into the mid-game you'll have a decent shot at having a good time. You are going to need to exercise some restraint and keep mana up if you've got a Morph card you want to flip. I see a lot of great synergy in this list but no "I win" combos.
If you catch your opponents with the right morph card ready to flip, you should be able to win your share of games. Turn Thousand Winds face up when the player with the widest board goes for their alpha strike and you'll see why some of us just love to play with morph creatures. If you're able to steal a hefty spell with Willbender or Kheru Spellsnatcher or just counter a spell that would have ended the game with Stratus Dancer and you might see why some of these morphs are played outside of Animar, Soul of Elements, Ezuri, Claw of Progress and a few other decks. When you eventually get to play Ixidron and find that you are the only player who can recover their face-down creatures, you might be a morph fan for good.
The fun of being the only one to know what you've really got on your field is a huge part of why morph decks can be a real blast to play, but you've got to be able to make enough mana to be able to flip them up, so this deck may find itself lagging behind some of the other precon decks in this year's release. That doesn't mean it's a weaker deck, it just looks to be weaker in the early game. If you can get enough creatures out, flip that Thousand Winds in response to an attack and then crack back with an army of morphs that are pumped up with Biomass Mutation, you should be able to send someone to the showers.
This deck should be able to hang with the other precons, but it's unlikely that it will do as well against more tuned Commander decks. For most of us a huge part of the fun of buying a precon in the first place is putting our own mark onto them and making each into our own list with our weird pet cards and favorite staples.
This is where we talk about taking our wonderful, diverse, exciting list of interesting new cards and obscure reprints and "improve" the deck by dropping out anything that might seem even the slightest bit suboptimal, right?
Will we replace those neat, odd, weird cards with neater, odder, weirder cards.
Perish the thought.
We're going to run Cyclonic Rift and Rampant Growth because if rule 1 of Commander that you must run Sol Ring, rule 2 is that you must run Rift if you're in Blue and rule 3 is that you must run Rampant Growth if you happen to be in Green. We're in both, so I guess our hands are tied.
Don't blame me. It's not my fault. This is how 99% of us upgrade our precon Commander decks because playing "good cards" increases your chances of winning, or at the very least of not getting roundly mocked and made fun of by our friends and tablemates.
Am I being facetious? Well, maybe a little. I don't like getting run over by faster, better decks in competitive or even in casual games, so I am as guilty as anyone else of swapping out suboptimal cards and running staples.
That doesn't mean that you should run staples if you don't want to run staples.
If your meta is sufficiently casual or you are sufficiently chill enough to play a wider range of cards, that's awesome! Whether you upgrade your deck with staples or with less well known cards, there are definitely some basic upgrades you can and should make to this deck.
Ramp. Morph cards are mana hungry cards. You pay to play them face-down and then you pay again to turn them face up. This deck runs Cultivate, but you might do well to fill out the "holy trinity of ramp spells" and also include Rampant Growth and Kodama's Reach. If your playgroup always refuses to be tempted, that doesn't mean you should ditch Tempt with Discovery, but adding more ramp is probably an upgrade worth making.
Card Draw. This deck has some interesting card draw options like Thought Sponge and Pendant of Prosperity, but the sad truth is that the cards in your hand may be the result of not having enough mana to aggressively play everything you're drawing. Playing the morph game means saving up your mana to be able to pay to turn cards face up. While that can mean cards stuck in your hand, it might still be worth adding a few more sources of card draw. Sorcery spells like Shamanic Revelation and Rishkar's Expertise will load your hand up pretty nicely if you're going wide and cards like Beast Whisperer and Lifecrafter's Bestiary can give you card draw when you cast creature spells. You have a lot of other options as well, from Pir, Imaginative Rascal and Toothy, Imaginary Friend to other staples like Phyrexian Arena, Sylvan Library, Rhystic Study, Mulldrifter, and Consecrated Sphinx. If you're digging for combo pieces or answers, it's hard to have too much card draw, but if you find that you're constantly having to discard down to hand size at the end of turn it might be worth lowering your mana curve or shifting your focus back over to how well your deck is ramping.
Lands. Specifically, lands that don't enter tapped. Every Wizards pre con deck comes with a wide assortment of lands that you can't even use on the turn you play them. In a slow meta with equally casual decks, that's not a big deal, it's also one of the things you'll probably want to upgrade. Whether you have access to "ABUR Duals" or just want to swap in some shock and fetch lands, being able to tap a land for mana on the turn you play it is a pretty key upgrade to make. The deck comes with three bounce lands - Dimir Aqueduct, Golgari Rot Farm, and Simic Growth Chamber - so you might be tempted to look at abusing landfall triggers. Landfall might also take you further in the direction of trying to do too many things at once and that's something the pre con decks already suffer from. I would advise that you try to focus the deck rather than add yet another tactic into the mix.
Mana Rocks. This deck comes with only two traditional mana rocks - Sol Ring and Thran Dynamo. Morph creatures cost three colorless mana to cast, so there's no reason not to throw in Mind Stone and Thought Vessel. Adding a Dimir Signet, Golgari Signet, and Simic Signet will also help to increase your chances of hitting an early game mana rock, but not everyone likes to lean that heavily on artifacts for their mana.
Creatures. Every precon deck has a mix of interesting, strong and decidedly less strong creatures. You're not going to want to swap out Seedborn Muse or Sakura-Tribe Elder, but you might consider dropping something like Tezzeret's Gambit in favor of Qarsi Deceiver, Master of the Veil, Ixidor, Reality Sculptor or any of a number of other interesting morph creatures.
If you decide to lean away from morph, it's not hard to find great creatures with interesting abilities to spice up this deck. Rather than dive into any more general upgrade strategies, we should probably look at the three major upgrade paths I'm seeing in this precon deck - Morphs, Voltron and Combo.
Upgrade Path: Morphs
If you're going to run with Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer as the deck's Commander, you might want to shift the deck's focus more narrowly toward morph, megamorph and manifest creatures so that you can maximize your card draw.
You can only play your first morph creature each turn for free, so we'll want to be able to play face-down creatures on our opponents' turns. That means we'll be running Leyline of Anticipation and Vedalken Orrery so that we can play a morph and draw a card on every turn or until we run out of morph creatures to cast.
The fact that Kadena cares about face-down creatures means that for the first time I'm going to take a really serious look at ways to manifest cards. I don't normally consider manifest a good option, but anything that draws you a card is worth looking at.
Temur War Shaman will manifest a card, but will also give you the opportunity to "fight" any creature you are able to turn face up. That means it does damage to another target creature you don't control and that creature does damage to your creature. It's a great way to remove an opponent's mana dorks or combo pieces that are small enough to kill but will never be used as a blocker. When you can get more than just one manifest from a single card, you're going to get a lot of card draw so Quarsi High Priest and Whisperwood Elemental should do real work in an all-in Kadena list.
Any creature-centric strategy is going to want to have ways to protect your board, so Heroic Intervention has to be in our list. Vigor will also be an auto-include, as any counters our creatures get will stay on them when they turn face up. If you can manage to keep Ezuri out for very long, you should be able to rack up enough experience counters to pump up some key creatures, though I would understand anyone being reluctant to running an experience counter commander in the 99 of a deck.
If we're going wide with a bunch of Morphs or even a whole bunch of un-morphed or megamorphed creatures, running a one-sided pseudo board wipe like Ezuri's Predation might easily set us up to kill someone after the dust from all the fighting has settled. It'll be even better if we've got that Vigor on the field. We'll also want to add cards like Beastmaster Ascension and Craterhoof Behemoth into the mix so that when we swing for our alpha strike we've got as good a chance as possible to close out the game.
Kadena will probably be the first deck I put together out of the pieces of the Faceless Menace deck. I expect it to be fairly casual but with the ability to really explode with the amount of card draw it will generate from all of the face-down creatures I'll be creating.
Upgrade Path: Voltron
The Voltron upgrade path for this deck is probably best led by Rayami, First of the Fallen. Rayami will get abilities from the creatures that die when he is on the field. Not only will this help to make Rayami more dangerous, those creatures get exiled so Rayami is going to shut down graveyard decks much like Anafenza, the Foremost does.
We can't rely solely upon our opponents running great creatures and letting us destroy them, so it will make sense for us to run creatures with important keywords like indestructible and hexproof. We'll also want to run sacrifice outlets like Ashnod's Altar so that we can "flush" a Darksteel Myr to set Rayami up to be indestructible or a Vampire Nighthawk to give him Flying, Deathtouch and Lifelink.
When you're playing the Voltron game you're not going to win many games swinging with a five power creature even if it has a bunch of nifty keywords. If you load your commander up with auras and Rayami dies, they'll wind up in the graveyard, so I'd suggest running equipment to boost Rayami. Blackblade Reforged, Strata Scythe, and Fireshrieker are each a big deal when attached to a 5/4 commander who might already have a half dozen over keywords.
If you feel a little janky, you might consider running creatures with protection along with another keyword. If you exile one of those your commander will be untargetable and unblockable by the specified color. Protection from White might be a good option if you find you're constantly getting hit with Path to Exile and Swords to Plowshares but protection from other colors might also be worth looking at. You can get even jankier, though.
If you were to kill and then exile Harbinger of Spring, you'd find that Rayami now has protection from non-Spirit creatures. If there are lots of players with Maze of Ith in your meta, Horizon Drake will give Rayami protection from lands. If you just want to shut out all instant-speed removal and you don't yet have hexproof, Petrified Wood-Kin will give Rayami protection from instants. If you can somehow find a way to send someone's Progenitus to the graveyard, you'll exile it with a blood counter, you'll have my deepest respect and your commander will gain protection from EVERYTHING.
Since you need to have a creature die in order for it to be exiled with a blood counter for Rayami, you might consider running Isochron Scepter and Flash. All you need is for the creature to die while Rayami is on the field in order for Rayami to get the creature's keyword(s). In response to instant-speed removal you could use Flash to play and sacrifice a Sagu Mauler to give Rayami both trample and hexproof before the removal spell is able to resolve. If you're thinking this might be worse than just using auras and equipment, keep in mind that Rayami will probably have those keywords for the rest of the game.
Upgrade Path: Combo
It's worth mentioning that some of the other precon decks have some pretty serious combo potential right out of the box with just a card or two added. Do you like eggs? I hope so, because you may wind up seeing an awful lot of eggs in the coming months. Our general of choice for a combo upgrade path may not create eggs, but Volrath, the Shapestealer can steal the form of other creatures that have counters on them.
If you can get Viridian Joiner and Gilder Bairn on the field, you'll be ready to have some fun. You pay one mana to make Volrath into a copy of Viridian Joiner except that it is a 7/5 and retains the ability to transform again. You tap Volrath to make seven Green mana. You pay one mana to turn Volrath into a copy of Gilder Bairn, leaving you with six mana. You pay three mana to untap Volrath to double the number of counters on another permanent, leaving you with three mana. You then pay one mana to transform Volrath into Viridian Joiner again, leaving you with a net positive of two Green mana. Do that enough times and you will generate infinite Green mana. The mana-generating part of the combo also works with Pili-Pala, though that should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with that shiny little combo piece.
Double the counters on enough permanents with +1/+1 counters on them and you should be able to find a way to win the game. Infinitely large Hydras with trample will do the job nicely if you're able to swing with them. You could also just pump up a Darksteel Reactor and as soon as it's got 20 or more counters, you'll win the game. Helix Pinnacle will make you wait until your upkeep and it's got shroud so you'll have to pay 100 mana into it for your win. This deck isn't just a Green deck, it's Sultai so you could always lean on a reliable big-mana card like Torment of Hailfire for your win.
If having to turn Volrath into multiple creatures seems like too much work, there are lots of artifacts you can lean on to close out a game. If you had Marwyn, the Nurturer on the field and made Volrath a copy of her, you'd have to sacrifice one of the two Marwyns because she's legendary and Volrath doesn't keep his name. He does keep his power and toughness, though, so as a copy of Marwyn he would be able to tap for seven mana and combo off to create infinite mana with Sword of the Paruns, Umbral Mantle, or Staff of Domination. Be wary of assembling any combo wincons that rely on another legendary creature, as you'll fall victim to the legend rule and have to sacrifice one of them before your combo can get rolling.
While I enjoy a combo win every now and then, I'm not a combo player at heart. If you want to explore this kind of combo build you'll do well to research Experiment Kraj and Lazav, the Multifarious decks, as they both rely upon the same kind of approach to winning the game. The combos in those decks probably won't directly translate to Volrath, but I suspect there's a lot to learn from looking at the more competitive builds for those commanders.
I consider myself lucky to have been able to write about this deck because I really think it's going to be a lot of fun to play and even more fun to upgrade. I might not build all three of my proposed upgrade paths, but I expect I'll toy around with at least two of them and will probably still have a Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer Morph / Manifest deck a year from now.
I suspect there may be a cEDH deck lurking in the weeds of this set of precon decks, but I don't think it's going to be found in "Faceless Menace". I do think there's a lot of fun to be had in this year's release and I expect to pick up at least two of them. I've long loved playing Naya decks, so the "Primal Genesis" deck may wind up being my second pick.
Please come back tomorrow for a look at another one of the 2019 precon decks. We're each going to put our own spin on the deck we've been assigned and I for one am eager to see what Bruce, Mark, Jason and Abe have to say.
Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!