Twilight in the Wilderness by Frederic David Church (1860).
Ayula, Queen Among Bears by Jesper Ejsing.
I took a Monday off from looking at Brawl deck Legendary creatures last week with my Throne of Eldraine "deck-in-a-box" challenge, but today I'm back at it. Abe Sargent has a Syr Gwyn, Hero of Ashvale list already underway, so today I'll be looking at Alela, Artful Provocateur.
This Faerie Warlock is in Esper colors and is a 2 power, 3 toughness creature with flying, deathtouch and lifelink. She gives your other flyers +1/+1 and whenever you cast an artifact or enchantment spell, you create a 1/1 blue Faerie creature token with flying.
There are a number of directions we could take Alela. I'm going to resist the temptation to try to make Warlock Tribal a thing (it isn't). I'm also going to pass up looking at a possible Stax build with Alela. The fact that she makes 1/1 creatures fairly easily makes me think that Stax (resource denial / forced sac) might be a viable direction to take her in. Instead I'm going to look at how I would approach building her as a combo Commander.
Alela makes a 1/1 flying blue Faerie creature token when you cast either an artifact or enchantment spell. A handful of one-power flyers isn't going to win many Commander games so this deck is going to try to go wide - really wide. We're going to infinity (and beyond) if things go right, and if they don't we'll also pack some ways to make our flyers big enough to matter.
Choosing a Direction
We are going to combo off by casting an artifact or enchantment an infinite number of times.
Because these two types of spells are fairly different, I think it makes sense to build this deck with a goal of being able to combo using one or the other. Building for both would require more "card slots" and would leave less room in the deck for important things like removal, sweepers and counterspells. Keeping our opponents from winning first may not be something this deck will be incredible at, but we can't neglect that part of the game entirely.
So how do we choose which direction we want to go in?
If we build around artifacts, we'll have an excuse to run lots of mana rocks. We'd want to run mana rocks anyways, because Esper doesn't have the kinds of ramp spells that decks in Green have easy access to. There are also a lot of zero and one mana artifacts and there are mana cost reducers that can make even more of our artifact spells free to cast. We'd just need a way to return them to our hand so we can re-cast them.
If we build this deck around enchantments, we'd be able to pull from some of the cards that Enchantress decks run. We'd also have a good excuse to run pillowfort enchantments, but again we would need to run ways to bounce these permanents back to hand so we can re-cast them.
The good news is that both of these plans have viable build paths. I think you can get there with artifacts and you can get there with enchantments.
I recently built and played an Esper combo deck that was able to combo off with a combo that would do the trick perfectly for Alela, so I'm going to go with artifacts. I like having an excuse to go heavy on mana rocks and I think it's probably a more efficient and viable build, but I can see both as being interesting and fun projects.
The enchantment option would involve making infinite mana and playing enchantments that have an activated ability that allows you to bounce them to your hand so you can re-cast them. I'll go into that build path in more detail later on, but for now let's check out the combo we're going to try to pull off.
Banishing Helix Combo
This combo involves playing a zero cost artifact, bouncing it to your hand and playing it again and again as many times as you like. There are a number of pieces to this puzzle. You need a zero drop artifact, a repeatable way to bounce it to your hand and a payoff. With Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain the payoff was card draw. You would draw your deck and presumably hit a wincon along the way. With Alela, the payoff is an army of 1/1 Faerie Rogue creature tokens.
We're not in Red. We can't just win with Impact Tremors or Purphoros Damage, but there are lots of ways to turn tokens into victory outside of Red. If nothing else, swinging with an infinitely large army is a pretty good way to kill a table.
We'll run a mix of zero drop artifacts and 1-drop artifacts that will become free if we can get a cost-reducer on the field.
From the rather expensive Mana Crypt to the lowly Ornithopter and Memnite, we'll have a variety of options. Tormod's Crypt will give us a little graveyard hate. Mana Crypt will actually allow us to generate infinite colorless mana if we tap it for mana before we bounce it back to our hand. Lightning Greaves will give us some protection and Spellbook will let us skip our discard step. Everflowing Chalice can be cast and used as a mana rock and later on can be used as a 0-drop artifact.
With either Etherium Sculptor or Foundry Inspector on the field, our 1-drop artifacts will also be free. Nihil Spellbomb will give us another way to combat graveyard decks. Skullclamp will be an invaluable tool to use with our creature tokens to try to dig for other combo pieces. We can also cast a 2-drop mana rock like Mind Stone or Thought Vessel with a cost reducer out so it only costs us one mana. Arcane, Azorious, Dimir and Orzhov Signets will work this way as well. We can tap any of those for one mana, bounce it to hand and use the mana it produced to re-cast it. We wouldn't net any positive mana but we'd be able to infinitely bounce and cast it.
So I keep talking about bouncing these artifacts back to hand so we can re-cast them. How do we do that?
We use one of two Blue instant spells that will let a creature tap to bounce a permanent to its owner's hand. All we need is a creature without summoning sickness that we can target and we're good to go, right?
Not so quick - we don't want to do this once. We want to do it again and again and again (and again). What that means is that we need our targeted creature to untap. There are a few creatures that we can use to make this happen.
These creatures will untap when we re-cast our artifact, allowing us to tap them again to bounce it and continue the combo. I'm a bigger fan of Battered Golem because I just love that artwork, but both of them will do the trick. Mirran Spy will let us untap any creature we can target (itself included).
Intruder Alarm and Zephyr Scribe are cards I could have run, but they both care whether the trigger is a creature (in the former case) or a non-creature (in the latter case). We're in black so we should be able to tutor for what we need and get something that will trigger on any artifact whether or not it's a creature.
So we're going to play a creature like Battered Golem, play a 0-drop artifact, target our big boy with an instant that will let it tap to bounce a permanent to its owner's hand until end of turn, and then execute that tap-bounce-cast-untap sequence as many times as we like.
The payoff with Alela on the field is that we'll create an arbitrarily large army of 1/1 flyers.
If we can't manage to pull off our combo and go infinite, we'll want to have a way to win.
Coat of Arms will turn a dozen 1/1 Faerie Rogues into enough power to kill most tables, though it can backfire if you're playing against another tribal deck. Magister Sphinx will let you put target player's life total to ten, setting you up to be able to kill them off with even a relatively modest army. Aetherflux Reservoir will set you up to gain infinite life if you can execute your combo without having Alela available to create your army.
This deck is running enough boardwipes and removal that you should have a decent chance to survive until you hit your combo or draw into a way to win without an infinitely large army. This is at its heart a control deck with a combo finish, and you'll want to tailor your list to fit your meta and your budget.
Likewise if you think there's a reasonable chance you're going to have your Commander turned into a forest with Lignify, Imprisoned in the Moon, or sidelined in some other inconvenient way, you might think about running Sai, Master Thopterist. He'll create 1/1 Thopter creature tokens in the same way that Alela creates Faerie Rogues.
This list has been set up with a relatively good card pool, but you could drop out some of the more expensive cards for more budget-friendly options.
Alela Combo | Commander | Stephen Johnson
- Commander (1)
- 1 Alela, Artful Provocateur
- Creatures (20)
- 1 Baleful Strix
- 1 Battered Golem
- 1 Burnished Hart
- 1 Consecrated Sphinx
- 1 Etherium Sculptor
- 1 Foundry Inspector
- 1 Grand Abolisher
- 1 Kuldotha Forgemaster
- 1 Magister Sphinx
- 1 Memnite
- 1 Mirran Spy
- 1 Ornithopter
- 1 Pilgrim's Eye
- 1 Sephara, Sky's Blade
- 1 Sidisi, Undead Vizier
- 1 Skittering Surveyor
- 1 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Tidehollow Strix
- 1 Traxos, Scourge of Kroog
- 1 Vedalken Archmage
- Instants (14)
- 1 Banishing Knack
- 1 Counterspell
- 1 Cyclonic Rift
- 1 Flusterstorm
- 1 Force of Will
- 1 Mana Drain
- 1 Mystical Tutor
- 1 Path to Exile
- 1 Pongify
- 1 Retraction Helix
- 1 Swan Song
- 1 Swords to Plowshares
- 1 Teferi's Protection
- 1 Vampiric Tutor
- Sorceries (8)
- 1 Damnation
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Fell the Mighty
- 1 Merchant Scroll
- 1 Wrath of God
- 1 Frogify
- 1 Imprisoned in the Moon
- 1 Rhystic Study
- Artifacts (23)
- 1 Aetherflux Reservoir
- 1 Arcane Signet
- 1 Azorius Signet
- 1 Coat of Arms
- 1 Dimir Signet
- 1 Everflowing Chalice
- 1 Fellwar Stone
- 1 Lightning Greaves
- 1 Mana Crypt
- 1 Mana Vault
- 1 Mind Stone
- 1 Nihil Spellbomb
- 1 Orzhov Signet
- 1 Sensei's Divining Top
- 1 Skullclamp
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Spellbook
- 1 Swiftfoot Boots
- 1 Sword of the Animist
- 1 Thought Vessel
- 1 Tormod's Crypt
- 1 Wayfarer's Bauble
- 1 Wishclaw Talisman
- Lands (34)
- 3 Plains
- 3 Swamp
- 5 Island
- 1 Academy Ruins
- 1 Arcane Sanctum
- 1 Bojuka Bog
- 1 Buried Ruin
- 1 Command Tower
- 1 Drowned Catacomb
- 1 Exotic Orchard
- 1 Fetid Heath
- 1 Flooded Strand
- 1 Glacial Fortress
- 1 Godless Shrine
- 1 Hallowed Fountain
- 1 Isolated Chapel
- 1 Marsh Flats
- 1 Morphic Pool
- 1 Mystic Gate
- 1 Polluted Delta
- 1 Sea of Clouds
- 1 Sunken Ruins
- 1 Temple of Deceit
- 1 Temple of Enlightenment
- 1 Temple of Silence
- 1 Watery Grave
If you wanted to aim for a less combo-oriented strategy, you could drop out the main combo pieces and add cards that synergize with your creature tokens.
If you wanted to add in a few enchantments, there are plenty of options. In White, Intangible Virtue would pump them and give them vigilance, and Anointed Procession would double the number you get each time you cast an artifact or enchantment. Divine Visitation would give you 4/4 Angels instead of Faerie Rogues, essentially quadrupling your power. There are lots of cards that will provide an anthem effect, pumping your creatures based on their colors, their tribe or even whether or not they have flying.
The Road Not Taken
Anthems like Intangible Virtue, Bitterblossom, Anointed Procession and Divine Visitation, not to mention Propaganda, Ghostly Prison, and Sphere of Safety have me thinking about what that enchantment build might have looked like.
The combo would require infinite mana, which we would probably get from the "Dramatic Scepter" combo or from using Deadeye Navigator and Palinchron or Peregrine Drake to untap our lands. With infinite mana we would cast, bounce to our hand and re-cast any of a number of enchantments.
Some of these auras will help our own creature. Conviction and Viscerid Armor will pump one of our creatures. Flickering Ward will protect the enchanted creature. We could even throw in Shimmering Wings, which grants flying, but it wouldn't help us much as most of our creatures already fly.
Some of these auras simply tamp down a creature's power or in the case of Shackles, keep it from untapping. The more useful ones will keep the enchanted creature from attacking, blocking or even activating its activated abilities. Having combo pieces that you can deploy onto opponents' creatures and then later use to combo off are particularly good picks.
The basic plan is the same. Establish your combo, which in this case makes infinite mana. Make sure Alela is on the field. Cast and re-cast one of these auras to create an infinitely wide army of 1/1 Faerie Rogues.
Are there better ways to win a game with infinite mana?
Are they as much fun as swinging with endless ranks of 1/1 flying Faerie Rogues?
That's an answer you'll have to answer for yourself.
I always enjoy wins that are a little less dependable than just casting and pinging everyone with an infinitely large Walking Ballista. Forcing yourself to go to combat is riskier, and sometimes you'll wind up losing as a result, but in the risk there is suspense, and in the suspense there is fun.
You're giving your opponents a chance to find an answer. If you're just playing for fun, why not do that? The worst case scenario is that you'll lose, but hopefully it will have been a slightly more enjoyable game for everyone involved.
Why Not Both?
It's a valid question to ask why we don't mix the best of both of these plans. If Alela doesn't care whether we're casting an artifact or enchantment, why should we?
These two combo plans have decidedly different cores. If we got Dramatic Reversal imprinted on Isochron Scepter and made infinite mana, that wouldn't help us cast a zero-drop artifact an infinite number of times. Likewise, if we were able to bounce a permanent to our hand it wouldn't do us much good if that permanent was one of the auras that makes us want infinite mana. There simply isn't enough overlap between these two combos for me to want to run them both.
Should we run both so that we have a better chance of drawing into part of a combo in the first place?
We are running a lot of tutors, so there's some sense to this argument. My counter to that would be that we'd find ourselves removing some pretty valuable things to make room in our deck. I'll admit that including Baleful Strix and Tidehollow Strix in today's list were because I have a soft spot for those two creatures. At some point I think you'd find yourself removing too many valuable cards to make room for both combo options and you'd wind up with a weaker deck as a result.
I've found over the years that when I try to build a deck that wants to be able to do too many things, it winds up being weaker as a result. The most effective decks are ones that are streamlined and know what they're trying to do.
My cEDH Multrotha list runs Flash Hulk, Hermit Druid and Food Chain combo and while it's got a certain inevitability about it when the games go long enough, I'm aware that it's not an optimal build because it's trying to be able to do too many things. I love the deck but I don't pretend that it's the best cEDH Muldrotha list out there.
In short - if you want a weaker deck with more paths to victory I think running both combo paths would probably be a lot of fun. Go for it if you want that kind of flexibility, but be aware that it might come at a cost. You'll need to drop cards out to make room and you won't have the full benefit if going all-in on just enchantments or all-in on just artifacts.
I started this week's column trying to give you a solid understanding of how I'd build a "Banishing Helix" Alela combo list and I wound up convincing myself that an Enchantment build or a mix might wind up being every bit as much fun. The fact that I've already played the former and haven't played the other two options surely plays into how I'm feeling about this list. I really love trying new things and I'm sometimes willing to leave out removal and probably lose more games just to have a more varied play experience.
I should note that while I tried to give you a pretty robust list, I probably left out some key removal. Adding in Mortify and Anguished Unmaking and dropping out a few cards like my pet Strixes would probably make sense.
If you have staples that you love to run in your Esper decks that I've missed in today's list, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Would you throw in Enigma Sphinx, run both combo paths and bounce that bad boy to your hand and re-cast it again and again to Cascade through your whole deck?
Are all of the combos I've touched upon today just a tad too unwieldy? Do you prefer the hyper-efficient Mikaeus, the Unhallowed / Triskelion types of wincons where just resolving a measly two cards usually just wins you the game?
Next week I'm not planning on writing about Syr Gwyn, Hero of Ashvale. Abe Sargent is more than capable of covering her in all her Knightly glory. If you're interested in my take on a Knight tribal build I've been thinking a lot about Kenrith 5/c Knights, so if you want me to explore that in a column please let me know in the comments.
That's all I've got for you today. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!