Two Men Contemplating the Moon by Caspar David Friedrich (1825-1830). Arlinn's Wolf by Kimonas Theodossiou.
As I sat down to start working through a mishmash of old Wolf and Werewolf cards to start building the deck for this week, I felt compelled to go find an appropriate background accompaniment. I've seen An American Werewolf in London within the past few years so that was out. I enjoy trying out new films every bit as much as I like settling into the warm embrace of an old favorite, so I headed to Netflix and soon found myself diving into the 2018 Netflix original, Hold the Dark. It was rated 5.6 out of 10, which is probably fitting enough for the deck I was about to build.
This week's deck is going to be built around Tovolar, Dire Overlord.
Tovolar has card draw right there in his text box, so I'm not sure why I'm being so preessimistic. Wolves and Werewolves have long been one of those tribes in Magic that everyone wants to be better than they really are. In Commander we've had a long history of underwhelming commanders for our Werewolf decks. A few years ago I piled up a few dozen Werewolves to play under Ruric Thar, but I don't think I ever built the deck - it was just an idea that never came together. This week I'm going to try to rectify that and take my first real leap into playing with Wolves.
How Tribal Is Too Tribal?
My first thought about Tovolar is that I really want to play as many Wolves as possible. If my extra card draw is going to come from combat damage from my Wolves and Werewolves, there's no good reason not to just go crazy and run every one I can get my hands on, right?
The problem with that line of thinking is that it ignores the key requirement that my Wolves and Werewolves actually have to do combat damage to an opponent to get those precious cards into my hand. Lots of low-powered commander games end up with board stalls where it's hard to get your creatures through your opponents' blockers. I don't expect my Wolves to fly or become unblockable, so I don't think it makes sense to ignore other sources of card draw. I will want to run lots of Wolves, but I definitely need to balance the deck out if I want to have some success with Tovolar.
This deck will want to play a fairly aggressive game, and I will want to play lots of Wolves and swing at opponents who don't have enough blockers. Card draw is huge in Commander, and I'd be a fool not to lean on every source of draw I can get my hands on.
The good thing about Wolves and Werewolves is that they have some advantages that other powerful tribes don't have. While elves and goblins can be built in one color, removing any need to worry about color fixing, this deck is only in two colors. A five-color slivers deck built on a budget can sometimes run into issues getting the right mana for the cards in your hand in the early game, but we're only in two colors. Leaning heavily into green will make this nearly as easy as it can get to make the colors we need.
When you compare Wolves and Werewolves to Dragons, you find that you might not have the evasion you get with flying or all the powerful abilities many of them bring, but you're going to have lots more early game plays. The average mana value of Wolves and Werewolves is simply much lower, making for a deck that should get out of the gate faster than some tribes.
Comparing Wolves and Werewolves to other tribes might be beside the point. It's not like I'm considering building Tovolar as a dragon tribal deck, but it's good to remember that there are things to like about these furry friends and there's no reason to assume this will be one of those decks that just won't work.
The Pick of the Litter
I don't always build these decks in paper, limited to what I've got on hand or what I can get my grubby paws on. Restricting myself to actual paper cards for a list will always see me leaving out good choices, but it also gives me the chance to shuffle up the deck and talk about how it played. Because I decided to go that route for Tovolar, I'm working from the cards I got out of two prerelease kits and a healthy pile of Wolf and Werewolf cards I had from that old Ruric Thar project.
My prerelease kits gave me Tovolar, Dire Overlord, which was the impetus for writing this column, but also put a few other good boys into my card pool.
I was able to find a handful of Werewolves in my booster packs, but not so many that I wanted to try to build solely around them. Burly Breaker has a big body and the ward keyword, but no evasion. Harvesttide Infiltrator is smaller, but has trample. My favorite of these is probably Kessig Naturalist, which lets me essentially run a kind of mana dork without stepping outside of my chosen tribes. I even threw in Tavern Ruffian, though it's not my habit to include creatures that have no useful abilities just to fill out another creature slot in a tribal deck.
One of the keys to making this deck work is having enough low mana creatures, and Wolves will go a long way towards making that happen. Lambholt Harrier is a 2/2 for 2 mana that can remove blockers. That makes it a huge asset if I've got an opponent with a limited number of blockers, even if four mana seems like a lot of mana to have to pour into that ability. Pestilent Wolf can be given deathtouch, which can work as a form of evasion, as folks might not want to block if it's only hitting for 2 and they don't want to lose their blocker. Snarling Wolf can be a 3/3 with the investment of two mana, making it a decent turn one play that can still have some impact later in the game.
I've got a good assortment of Wolves along with a few Werewolves thrown into this list from older sets. Some, like Young Wolf and Wolfir Avenger, are barely worth a mention and are really there to try to get card draw with Tovolar. Others actually bring a little something to the table.
Duskwatch Recruiter gives me a place to put my mana. I can grab a creature from the top 3 cards in my library and if he flips to Krallenhorde Howler my creature spells will cost 1 less mana. Immerwolf will give my Wolves and Werewolves +1/+1 and any Werewolves I am able to transform will remain nightbound even if it becomes day. Nightpack Ambusher is another lord, giving my Wolves and Werewolves +1/+1. If I hit my end step and haven't cast a spell, I'll get a 2/2 green Wolf token. With a few ways to use my mana, I may well be able to activate Harvesttide Infiltrator, Darkthicket Wolf, Shrill Howler or other creatures and have an impactful turn without casting any spells.
Rounding Out the Pack
I'm running a lot of Wolves and Werewolves, but I've got a few creatures outside of those tribes. I'm not one of those deckbuilders who requires 100% of my creatures to be in a tribe in order for the deck to be considered "tribal". Some of these extras will pull their weight and might end up being very helpful even though they're not Wolves or Werewolves.
It goes without saying that I'm running Beast Whisperer, as I'm very creature-heavy and that Elf Druid alongside Guardian Project, The Great Henge and Shamanic Revelation will help make sure I've got cards in my hand even if my Tovolar card draw isn't happening. Beyond that, there are a few cards worth calling out.
I'm running Gruul War Chant to give my Wolves menace, but giving them deathtouch with Ohran Frostfang is another great way to discourage my opponents from blocking them. If you're in a meta with lots of flyers, Bower Passage or Dense Canopy are also worth including, but I didn't put them into today's list. Kessig Cagebreakers is one of a number of Wolf token generators I put into the list, and should give me a chance to bounce back from boardwipes.
My need to get blockers through in order to draw cards sees me running Lure, Revenge of the Hunted and Shinen of Life's Roar. If I've got a half dozen creatures out and I force an opponent to block one of them with all of their creatures, I'll be dealing a chunk of damage and drawing five cards. This isn't the sort of deck that's likely to turn a Lure effect into a kill, but that card draw is important so I want lots of ways to try to get it.
I can't build a Tovolar deck without Arlinn Kord. I only had the first two planeswalkers shown above, but if I had opened Arlinn, the Pack's Hope in one of my prerelease kits I would have included her as well. I want lots of ways to make Wolf tokens, and these are just perfectly on theme for Tovolar.
I brought this deck to my LGS this past Tuesday and ended up at a table where I was pretty outmatched. A high powered Yisan, the Wanderer Bard deck, a superfriends Esika, God of the Tree deck and a brutal build of Kelsien, the Plague were the decks my opponents were playing.
I ended up doing much of the work at the table trying to beat back the endless planeswalkers coming from the Esika player. The biggest problem was really the Kelsien deck, which seemed to think that an endless stream of force-sacrifice, removal and board wipe cards would be fun for him to send at us. In the late game I ended up blowing a Heroic Intervention on a single-target removal spell just because I was sick of losing creatures to the Kelsien player.
It was a long and genuinely miserable game, but I was able to keep rebuilding my board and in the end my biggest impact was from using Kessig Wolf Run to hit the Kelsien player for 17 damage with one of my bigger creatures. If my late game Blood Moon hadn't been stopped by a Dovin's Veto, we might have been able to handle the Esika deck. They had zero basic lands, so they would have been at a standstill until they drew into removal. Being unable to maintain a board for any significant length of time made it very hard to stop a well-built planeswalker deck and they eventually won the game with some Ugin and Tamiyo shenanigans if I remember correctly.
Tovolar Beats | Commander | Stephen Johnson
- Commander (1)
- 1 Tovolar, Dire Overlord
- Creatures (35)
- 1 Arlinn's Wolf
- 1 Beast Whisperer
- 1 Briarpack Alpha
- 1 Burly Breaker
- 1 Darkthicket Wolf
- 1 Duskwatch Recruiter
- 1 Fierce Witchstalker
- 1 Harvesttide Infiltrator
- 1 Hermit of the Natterknolls
- 1 Hinterland Logger
- 1 Immerwolf
- 1 Kessig Cagebreakers
- 1 Kessig Naturalist
- 1 Lambholt Elder
- 1 Lambholt Harrier
- 1 Nightpack Ambusher
- 1 Ohran Frostfang
- 1 Pestilent Wolf
- 1 Quilled Wolf
- 1 Ruric Thar, the Unbowed
- 1 Sacred Wolf
- 1 Shinen of Life's Roar
- 1 Shrill Howler
- 1 Snarling Wolf
- 1 Somberwald Alpha
- 1 Spirit of the Hunt
- 1 Tavern Ruffian
- 1 Ulvenwald Captive
- 1 Wandering Wolf
- 1 Werewolf Pack Leader
- 1 Wicked Wolf
- 1 Wolfbitten Captive
- 1 Wolfir Avenger
- 1 Wolfir Silverheart
- 1 Young Wolf
- Sorceries (9)
- 1 Broken Bond
- 1 Cultivate
- 1 Hull Breach
- 1 Kodama's Reach
- 1 Overrun
- 1 Rampant Growth
- 1 Revenge of the Hunted
- 1 Shamanic Revelation
- 1 Triumph of the Hordes
- Enchantments (7)
- 1 Blood Moon
- 1 Descendants' Path
- 1 Gruul War Chant
- 1 Guardian Project
- 1 Lure
- 1 Raised by Wolves
- 1 Wolfwillow Haven
I went out of my way to pick up a few extra cards for this list, including Kessig Cagebreakers and Sword of Body and Mind, which makes 2/2 Wolf creature tokens. I hadn't expected to come out of the deck's first game thinking I might keep it together but it was actually a fun deck that was able to give me an engaging and interactive game.
I don't think it's strong enough to keep up with the meta I play in, but I can definitely see a more tuned version being able to win games. I also didn't find myself annoyed or overwhelmed by having to keep track of day and night, and I initially thought that would be a distraction for me.
This list was definitely lacking some key new Wolf and Werewolf cards that I just didn't happen to open in my prerelease kits. Primal Adversary seems like a great way to lose lands by making them into creatures, but it's undeniably interesting and I would have run it in this list if I had opened one. Tovolar's Huntmaster is another great card I would have liked to have, as making two 2/2 Green Wolf creature tokens is exactly what this deck wants to do. Reckless Stormseeker, with its slightly odd art, and Hound Tamer, with its incredibly adorable art, both would have made the cut. Outland Liberator can work as artifact/enchantment removal and would go in, but Spellrune Painter cares about instants and sorceries and might not have been a great fit.
I think the biggest takeaway I would share with you is a simple one. If you love Wolves and Werewolves, you'll want to buy a box of Midnight Hunt. You might want to buy two if you really love cracking packs.
I'm not a fan of having to track triggers and count how many spells my opponents have cast so I've already got plans to build Drizz't Do'urden and I'll be using Tovolar's sleeves for that project. I move from deck to deck far more often than your average Commander player, in part because I write about the format and in part because it's fun to build new decks. I may even have a plan to pivot my Drizz't deck to Sigarda, Host of Herons after that to help deal with some force-sac decks that have been popping up at the LGS I play at.
None of that means Tovolar isn't worth building and staying with - I just didn't plan to keep the deck together long term and I didn't fall in love with my version of the deck when I played it. If you're into Wolves or Werewolves, and you play in a casual enough meta, I think Tovolar is a fantastic choice to build around. If we've never had a viable Werewolf commander, we have one now. If you're playing in a more robust meta you'll want to run cards like Beastmaster Ascension, Triumph of the Hordes, Master of the Wild Hunt, and maybe Parallel Lives and Doubling Season if you're really focused on Wolf tokens. This might not be a historically strong tribe, but this can be a real deck and you can definitely tune Tovolar up and have fun even in stronger metas.
So.. about that Netflix movie. As it turned out, even Alex Skarsgard of True Blood (Eric Northman) fame couldn't save this film. It wasn't bad, but it was slow, cold and brooding with little humor and way fewer Wolves or Werewolves than I had hoped for. I think I may have seen it before, but clearly it didn't leave an impression. I probably should have searched out American Werewolf in London for my background movie.
If you've got a better werewolf movie I should have watched while building this deck, let me know in the comments! We're barreling towards Halloween and it's a great time to start watching scary movies.
Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!