Rainy Season in the Tropics by Frederic Edwin Church (1866). Oros, the Avenger by Daren Bader.
Gandalf... er... I mean... Elminster might be the first time I've been excited about playing a planeswalker as my commander since Lord Windgrace, and for some reason Cat Daddy didn't really get me all that excited.
A google search I did for "mtg wiki Elminster" revealed that Elminster is also known as the "Sage of Shadowdale" and the "Old Mage". He is a famous, powerful wizard and a fair fighter and thief. Apparently he also does not have a planeswalker's spark. I have a deep appreciation for the decades of lore that Wizards of the Coast has woven into the stories behind their collectible card game. I think a lot of the things WotC is doing with their "Universes Beyond" product are disappointing, but I'm also not one to worry much about lore when building EDH decks and playing games of Commander.
No spark? No problem.
What I do care about is whether a planeswalker commander can protect itself and whether it gives me entertaining things to do.
Elminster passes both tests with flying colors.
Another undeniably cool thing about Elminster might just be that he's doing that schtick where he dropped his last name, like Cher, Sting, Madonna, Bono, Prince, and Beyonce. I can't translate Beyonce's attitude into a game-winning play, but there's a lot more on this Magic card to work with.
This deck is going to be chock full of scry effects, because whenever I scry, the next instant or sorcery I cast that turn will cost X less to cast, where X is the number of cards I looked at while scrying. It might have been more interesting to have X relate to the number of cards I bottomed or topped while scrying, but I don't know how they would have written that on the card without having more worldly Magic players giggle every time they read it.
Elminster's +2 ability lets me draw a card and then scry 2. His second ability is a -3 and will let me exile the top card of my library and create a number of 1/1 Blue Faerie Dragon creature tokens with flying equal to that card's mana value. Elminster enters with 5 loyalty counters so he can do either of these things on the turn he enters the battlefield.
This deck could go in a few different ways. I want big mana spells so I can make a ton of those adorable 1/1 Faerie Dragon tokens. I want ways to turn a big, evasive army into a way to win games. How we get there is the fun part - I want variety, I want excitement and I want surprises. I think this deck should be able to give me all of that and more.
Before I dive into my build, I should note that Mark Wishkaemper wrote about Elminster just a few months ago. You can check out his take on Elminster here. We've got some overlap between our lists to be sure, but I think I went in some new directions with this deck.
Scry Me a River
Setting up the top of my deck so that I can use Elminster's second loyalty ability is incredibly important. Making flying blockers will help me protect him. I can always recast Elminster if he gets killed, but that's mana I'd rather use for other things.
To try to control the top of my deck I'm running over a dozen cards with Scry on them. Fortunately, there is a wide range of cards that both fulfill key needs of an EDH deck and have a little scry tacked onto them for good measure.
I've got a few other removal options in this category. Voyage's End and Anchor to the Aether both scry 1. The former will bounce a creature to its owner's hand. The latter will put it on top of its owner's library. I'm also running some less exciting scry cards like Deliberate, Interpret the Signs, Preordain, Scour All Possibilities and Serum Visions, but my favorite options will always be the repeatable ones - Sigiled Starfish (better known as "Scryfish") taps to scry 1. Cryptic Annelid enters the battlefield and has me scry 1, then scry 2, then scry 3. Retreat to Coralhelm just turns landfall triggers into taps, untaps, or scry triggers.
I've got a few other ways to manipulate that top card that don't involve scrying. Penance is just a fantastic way to drop a card from your hand on top of your library at instant speed any time you like. I should probably be running Sensei's Divining Top and Scroll Rack but this is another of those decks I mostly cobbled together with cards I had lying around. My Top and my Rack were already spoken for, but would make for great additions to any Elminster deck.
Big Mana Matters
My goal is very much to try to line up a huge spell so that I can make as many Faerie Dragon tokens as possible. I need to make sure my deck isn't going to be hamstrung if a key card gets exiled because Elminster is going to do just that when he makes those tokens. I can't be setting myself up to exile a key card and suddenly lose a key card or wincon.
Any of those adorable Faerie Dragon tokens are great, but if I can get a half dozen or more in one shot, I'll be positioning myself to make a push to start being a problem for my tablemates. Of course, I want each big mana spell to also be valuable in its own right
Diluvian Primordial can squeeze real value out of my opponent's graveyards, giving me a free Instant or Sorcery out of each one. Sphinx of Uthuun will give me an ETB Fact or Fiction. Windreader Sphinx could draw me a boatload of cards when I attack with a bunch of creatures with flying.
Temporal Mastery can give me an extra turn or just turn into seven 1/1 Faerie Dragon creature tokens with flying. Ancient Gold Dragon is yet another flyer who can give me a random number of those little guys if he does combat damage. Moving up to the 8-mana slot, Aminatou's Augury will probably give me a land and a bunch of free spells. Storm Herd is a 10-mana delight, giving me X 1/1 white Pegasus creature tokens with flying where X is my life total. Kozilek, Butcher of Truth and Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre are at the top of this deck's mana curve. I'll never mind exiling any of these spells, but they're also not cards I'll mind casting if I can get that much mana together.
Paths to Victory
If this deck wants to do one basic thing - make the cutest creature tokens in all of Magic - it's going to need some work to actually become an interesting deck. I don't want this list to always be trying to do the same thing in every game. Fortunately, there are a few ways to turn my fairly linear game plan into an adventure.
Approach of the Second Sun is a fun way to try to win games if it isn't what your deck is always trying to do. This deck should have enough different types of games that if I ever draw into Approach, I'll enjoy seeing if I can get it to happen. I've got lots of scry so that I can dig for it and I'm in Blue, so I've got ways to protect the win.
If that doesn't sound exciting, how about taking all my 1/1 creature tokens and turning them into whatever nontoken creatures I can pull out of my deck. I've only got 14 creatures in this build, but I'll enjoy every time I use Synthetic Destiny or Mass Polymorph to put a bunch of them onto the battlefield. I could see adding more Sphinxes or Dragons if I reliably hit most of my creatures but still can't close out the game.
The biggest reason why polymorph is a great strategy for Elminster is that you can exile all of your creatures and your commander will stay on the battlefield because he's not a creature - he's a planeswalker. I could very much see adding in Proteus Staff and some single target polymorph spells because it's really a lot of fun to pop a creature token and see what creature or creatures you can plop onto the battlefield.
If I've got a mess of 1/1 creature tokens but no way to polymorph them, I can at least make them big enough to matter.
Divine Visitation will have them enter as 4/4 white Angel creature tokens. Mirror Entity will let me push mana into making them bigger. Coat of Arms will give them each +1/+1 for each creature on the battlefield that they share a creature type with, a pump theme I'm leaning into with Intangible Virtue and Eldrazi Monument. The former will give them +1/+1 and vigilance. The latter will give them +1/+1, flying and indestructible - though I'll have to sacrifice a creature on each of my upkeeps.
Most of this deck's paths to victory will be from going to combat, but it's nice to have that Approach of the Second Sun in the mix as a backup. I'm not loaded up with tutors but if you wanted to aim this deck towards a specific strategy you might add in a few ways to search your library for the instant or sorcery you want. That's not hard to do in Azorius.
Take the El, Mister
Sadly, I don't live in Chicago and I have zero excuse to litter this column with weird puns and wordplay based on Elminster's name.
The fun I'm having with writing today's column has a lot to do with how fun Elminster is as a deck. I've long enjoyed decks where you surprise yourself with what card or cards happen to be on top of your library. In this deck, you might be setting up your Elminster activation, but it's still fun. Strangely, it can be more fun when you don't know what you're going to reveal.
Elminster | Commander | Stephen Johnson
- Commander (1)
- 1 Elminster
- Creatures (14)
- 1 Ancient Gold Dragon
- 1 Archaeomancer
- 1 Cryptic Annelid
- 1 Diluvian Primordial
- 1 Kozilek, Butcher of Truth
- 1 Lunarch Veteran
- 1 Mirror Entity
- 1 Oreskos Explorer
- 1 Sigiled Starfish
- 1 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Soul Warden
- 1 Sphinx of Uthuun
- 1 Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre
- 1 Windreader Sphinx
- Instants (21)
- 1 Aetherize
- 1 Aetherspouts
- 1 Brainstorm
- 1 Case the Joint
- 1 Chain of Vapor
- 1 Counterspell
- 1 Cyclonic Rift
- 1 Deliberate
- 1 Expose to Daylight
- 1 Fierce Guardianship
- 1 Force of Will
- 1 Guiding Bolt
- 1 Judge Unworthy
- 1 Overwhelming Intellect
- 1 Path to Exile
- 1 Pongify
- 1 Rapid Hybridization
- 1 Swan Song
- 1 Swords to Plowshares
- 1 Synthetic Destiny
- 1 Voyage's End
- Sorceries (13)
- 1 Aminatou's Augury
- 1 Anchor to the Aether
- 1 Approach of the Second Sun
- 1 Bond of Insight
- 1 Foresee
- 1 Interpret the Signs
- 1 Mass Polymorph
- 1 Preordain
- 1 Refurbish
- 1 Scour All Possibilities
- 1 Serum Visions
- 1 Storm Herd
- 1 Temporal Mastery
- Enchantments (6)
- 1 Divine Visitation
- 1 Intangible Virtue
- 1 Mystic Redaction
- 1 Penance
- 1 Retreat to Coralhelm
- 1 Smothering Tithe
- Artifacts (6)
- 1 Arcane Signet
- 1 Azorius Signet
- 1 Coat of Arms
- 1 Eldrazi Monument
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Thought Vessel
If you wanted to tune this deck up, you could load up on fast mana, throw in some higher-powered staples like Mystic Remora and Rhystic Study and shoehorn some cEDH wincons into this list but I'm not sure it's ever going to get that close to being a real cEDH deck. You might load in more control elements and tutors, though I'm already running a decent amount of interaction. The deck would be stronger, and for higher powered play you'd want it to be more linear and consistent. I just don't know that it would be more fun to play.
If you wanted to tone down this list you could drop out the Eldrazi Titans but I think you'd still want some of the key aggro pieces like Coat of Arms and Divine Visitation. It's not hard to find high Mana Value spells that are janky and not often played in EDH. Overcosted spells don't see a lot of play because... well, they're overcosted - but if you wanted to be a real hipster you could load up on bad (overcosted) cards and go for it. Just be wary about making your deck unplayable. After all, the vast majority of your spells are going to need to be cast, not exiled with Elminster's second loyalty ability.
The key is to understand your meta and to have an idea of what power level will fit into your playgroup comfortably. This deck can win games in casual play, and might be able to win its fair share in higher powered games. I think it's a lot of fun, but I don't think of it as an incredibly high-powered deck.
I was able to play this list in a game before writing this column. I have to say that it's genuinely impressive how powerful it can be to push out so many evasive creature tokens. I was able to polymorph them into a bunch of creatures but didn't manage to hit either Eldrazi Titan.
It was fun and I was able to do one of my favorite things: play Penance and drop a card on top of my library right before I used Elminster's second loyalty ability.
Hitting not one but two Elminster activations that put out a mess of 1/1 creature tokens was enough to let me run away with the game, but one game is not much of a sample size. I'm sure this deck will see its share of good and bad outings.
I could have started writing about new legendary creatures this week, but I really enjoyed building and playing Elminster and just had to share today's list with you. I took apart my Oji, the Exquisite Blade list to put this together in paper and I have no regrets. Oji was kind of fun, but I love decks that give you those moments of tension where the game might easily pivot on what card happens to be on top of your deck.
Pretending that Elminster activations will always be a big surprise is a little disingenuous. With as many scry effects as I'm running, there's a good chance I'll know what card I'm going to reveal. It will still be a surprise to my tablemates, and sometimes it will even be a surprise to me. I expect I might add in a few Dragons and pivot this deck to focus more on polymorph spells, but I'll need to play it a bunch to know if I really want to shift towards that strategy.
Next week I'm expecting to write about Jhoira, Ageless Innovator. I had a Jhoira "cheerios" deck for a hot minute back in the day and I'm excited to dig into the new Jhoira to see if I can brew up anything interesting.
That's all I've got for today. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!.