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Secret Lair Tribal

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The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum by John Martin (1822). Angel of Grace by Ryan Yee.

Every so often I like to shine a spotlight on one of the decks I get to play against in one of my playgroups. I play regularly at an LGS but I also have a group of friends who play together on Tabletop Simulator a few times a month. We started when the COVID pandemic forced everyone to scramble for online ways to play Commander and we've managed to keep playing ever since.

Today's deck is a really unique build that attempts to answer a very simple question.

What kind of Commander deck could you build if you restricted yourself to only cards that have been printed in Secret Lair sets?

To answer that question I get to turn to a friend and regular tablemate in my online Tabletop Simulator group, Mike Gallagher.

Meet Mike Gallagher

Mike was introduced to Magic at Boy Scout Camp back in 2014 and started playing the summer after graduating from High School. He played a lot of casual kitchen table Magic and then got into Standard around the Khans of Tarkir block. Someone at an LGS explained rotation to him and he ended up taking a casual Simic 60-card deck built around Chasm Skulker and Zameck Guildmage and turning into a Momir Vig, Simic Visionary Commander deck. That old deck has since evolved into one of his favorite decks with Kruphix, God of Horizons in the command zone.

That Kruphix build is probably his favorite deck. It's full of weird combos, but no mana combos, and has a lot of focus on card draw. Today's Secret Lair list has become his second favorite deck. It's not as tuned and has tons of weird card choices born out of the theme of picking only from cards released in Secret Lair drops.

When you play with someone in a small, closed group, you get a chance to see them at their best and at their not-so-best. I've grown to think of Mike as a consistently strong deckbuilder with an affection for card draw and an intense dislike for "kingmaking". He plays a lot of interaction, is nearly always relevant in a given game, and is fond of asking tablemates "are we friends?" as a lead-in to diplomatic negotiations. He and I share a few things about our approach to the game and neither of us is immune to the occasional salty moment.

While Mike often finds himself with oodles of cards in his hand in the mid and late game, and he definitely does win his fair share of games, I don't think of him as a pubstomper. He and I both are interested in playing a lot of different decks rather than just jamming the same 100 cards again and again and again. We both like to play a variety of decks and go against a variety of decks. That kind of churn in your meta makes it difficult for anyone to dominate play too much, as you're always pivoting to something new - often without any real idea as to how a new deck will perform.

Of the four regular players in our TTS group, I think of Mike as being one of the most interested in brewing up new lists, and he told me that he does build a lot of decks in paper. Some of us just love the surprises and new experiences that come with constantly building new brews.

Choosing Secret Lair Commanders

Not having explored the idea of building a Secret Lair deck, I have no idea who I'd put in the command zone if I were to try to build such an experiment. I'd probably pick a 5/c commander if one were available, load up on staples that have been printed in Secret Lair sets, and then see how it played.

Mike ended up being torn between two possible partner pairings out of the Stranger Things Secret Lair drop.

Chief Jim Hopper
Eleven, the Mage
Max, the Daredevil

Mike decided not to build a 5/c Secret Lair EDH deck because he felt that having fewer colors is more fun. He originally was going to build Chief Jim Hopper and Eleven, the Mage, but as the list was coming together he felt that there was a real lack of synergy with Hopper. Shifting the deck to leaders Eleven and Max, the Daredevil ruled out a lot of good White cards but gave the deck a focus that it didn't have before. It became a ramp deck that has a lot of interaction, some good high mana cards, and a refreshing lack of synergy.

Synergy was very much on Mike's mind when we talked about this deck.

From his experience, building commander decks back in 2015 was all about throwing together cards you had on hand, but there was a lot less focus on making a 100-card pile as efficient and as synergistic as possible. Deckbuilding today is often all about picking optimal cards and making sure every slot is helping you towards your overall plan. In Mike's eyes, and I don't disagree with him, this increased emphasis on synergy and a focus on winning over the past half dozen years hasn't been all positive. We have definitely lost something as a community by shifting our focus towards better, more efficient, highly optimized and synergistic decks.

The lack of synergy might drive some of you crazy if you were to try to build and play this list, but I think many of you might find it refreshing to turn the clock back a few years and put together a list that is more about fun cards and play patterns you enjoy than about playing only the best cards in only the best ways.

How this Deck Plays

Probably the most exciting thing about this deck is the fact that there's no drive towards a specific combo, board lock or value engine, but rather a goal of making enough mana to play whatever big creatures find their way into his hand.

So many tuned decks these days know exactly where they're going and how they want to get there, and they are full of ways to help make that happen. Mike definitely gave me the feeling that some of the fun of playing Secret Lair tribal lies in not knowing what's going to happen. He wants to ramp, but beyond that he mostly just plays what the deck and the game ends up giving him.

That nearly always means ramp, and Gilded Lotus has become a reliable high-impact card that opens up the ability to cast nearly anything he draws into in the mid and late game. Sower of Temptation has proven to be a very strong creature that lets him grab the most powerful targetable creature on the battlefield. A game might pivot around a Sire of Insanity or Thraximundar or it might end up being a long struggle with a Rise of the Dark Realms at the end to let him put every creature on the battlefield under his control.

Having a clear finisher in Rise of the Dark Realms does not mean that every game plays out with that as its expected end point. The biggest joy in playing this deck has been that it has reminded Mike of the way he used to play seven or eight years ago. It's less focused, less optimized and as a result, in a way it is actually more fun.

I should note that Mike is no stranger to high powered and even cEDH play. Rhystic Study is admittedly one of the strongest cards in today's list but neither of us felt that blue staple needed a spotlight shined upon it.

Secret Lair Tribal

This list isn't cheap, but that shouldn't come as a surprise. Buying Secret Lair cards is a collector's game and Mike was able to get in early enough to avoid the mark up that many of these cards will see as the years go by.

The inspiration for this project was actually a theme week that Mason, another player in our TTS group, thought up. We played a week with decks built around "illegal" commanders. Mike thought about building around Keeper of the Secret Lair - a Heroes of the Realms card printed by Wizards of the Coast for the team who created Secret Lairs. That card is just in Blue and at the time there weren't enough cards for this idea to be viable, but the thought stuck in Mike's head. He eventually identified viable commanders, started working on the project and finished it this past April.

Eleven and Max Secret Lair Tribal | Commander | Mike Gallagher

The deck has won its fair share of games. Mike hasn't kept stats but feels like it wins roughly 25% of its games and more often either wins or takes second place. He's played the deck dozens of times at his LGS on their EDH night and it generally performs well.

While it might not be crushing tables, it absolutely does turn heads. He's often had tablemates get really excited about the idea of a Secret Lair tribal deck. Excited tablemates with positive attitudes has led to a definite lack of salt in the games where he's played this list. Folks are genuinely excited to see what the next card he plays will look like and he's even had folks go out of their way to try to use effects to steal his permanents or cast his spells so that they can be playing Secret Lair cards too. Having a deck that people genuinely enjoy seeing and look forward to playing against is a real joy, so it's no surprise that this build quickly became one of Mike's favorites.

Paths Not Traveled

It's worth asking what this list would look like if white were in the mix. Mike actually spent a fair bit of time looking at his options. The three cards he probably missed out on the most should be familiar to most of you.

If you were thinking of trying this experiment out, you should absolutely consider finding the color pairing you'd be most excited about. As more Secret Lairs get released, your ability to build a genuinely synergistic and focused Secret Lair deck is just going to increase.

While high powered play can be fun, I definitely got the sense from Mike that he wanted readers to not be afraid to build and play less focused Commander decks. Playing EDH like it's 2014 can be a lot of fun. If you can figure out the play patterns you enjoy, there's no reason you can't learn to build decks at any power level that appeal to what you enjoy most about the game.

Secret (Lair) Thoughts

When discussing this deck, I got to hear Mike's thoughts about Secret Lairs. I've followed them off and on, but I can't pretend to have spent as much time as Mike has spent digging through all of these amazing cards.

He couldn't easily pick a favorite Secret Lair release.

He liked the Fortnite drop and was really happy to see Bloom Tender get a reprint. When pressed for his favorite art, he had to pick Box of Rocks, which included Commander's Sphere, Gilded Lotus, Arcane Signet, Chromatic Lantern and Darksteel Ingot.

His other favorite might be the basic lands from the "Shades Not Included" set. They have a weird sci-fi look that makes me think of the movie Tron or the age-old Battlezone tank games from the early 1980's. Having lived through that era of video gaming, I don't find them very inspiring, but that's the great thing about art - there's something for everyone and it just boils down to personal taste.

His other other favorite, and his favorite if looked at solely from an art perspective, would be the Johannes Voss secret lair. It only has one card that could go into this deck: Carpet of Flowers. The other three, Sphere of Safety, Karmic Guide and Sanctum Prelate are all White.

Mike's least favorite Secret Lair drop was "Here Be Dragons." That set was available for preorder purchase for a limited print run which sold out within four hours. The problem wasn't as much about the cards themselves. They were seven foil dragon-themed cards done with those boring beige "rulebook" frames. The problem was that they were bundled with a bunch of junk that not everyone wanted and the set was limited to 10,000 sets.

I can't say I disagree with his assessment, though I also hold no love for the Walking Dead set, but digging into that would be beating a dead horse that has been pretty well beaten already. I didn't even ask Mike's opinion on the Walking Dead release, though it is notable that he didn't include any of those cards in this list.

When asked what he would make if he could will a new Secret Lair into existence, he confessed that it would be Simic goodstuff. He'd love to see Asceticism along with four other staples all done by Ryan Yee. I doubt my columns have the kind of reach to make an Artist Series: Ryan Yee get willed into existence, if such a thing comes to pass and it happens to be Simic goodstuff, you can say you heard it here first.

Final Thoughts

If you ever want to try to play against this deck in person, Mike's "home store" is Genesis Games & Comics in Ronkonkoma, NY. That's about halfway down Long Island. They play EDH on Friday Nights. It's a small store with a 24-player cap, so if you're coming from far away definitely google them and call ahead to secure a spot.

I've grown to like the Secret Lair releases more over time, but find that it takes more to get me to order one than it did when they first started making them. The fact that I've started altering cards in recent years also makes me less likely to pay mad cash for a fancy card when I can just break out my paintbrushes and do my own rendition.

Now that other commitments are behind me, I'm looking forward to turning my attention to the new sets and new legendary creatures that are heading our way. I may be able to squeeze a column or two about commanders released earlier this year before all the new ones hit. I've got an Elminster list that I haven't even had a chance to play yet and I would love to explore more of those "Choose a Background" commanders.

If there's anything you'd like me to cover, please feel free to leave a comment. I should note that if you have questions about the Secret Lair deck I shared with you today, Mike told me that he'd be happy to field any questions anyone has.

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

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