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Embracing Unstable


This is the first article on Gathering Magic from Stephen Johnson, author of the weekly blog “Commanderruminations”. Commanderruminations is a weekly look at decks, cards, keywords, strategies and all manner of other things relating to the Commander format of Magic: the Gathering. Every article starts with a custom piece of artwork he creates that marries a classic painting with artwork from a Magic card. Sometimes the art relates to the topic at hand, but often it does not. With the surprise announcement that Unstable cards would be legal in Commander, Stephen offered to provide a review of Unstable legendary creatures in advance of his original plan to join the staff of Gathering Magic at the beginning of 2018.

The Two Majesties by Jean-Leon Gerome (1883). Arahbo, Roar of the World by Jesper Ejsing.

On December 1st, 2017, everything in our format changed. We were told that silver-bordered cards were going to be legal in Commander until January 15th, 2018 and the community's reactions ranged from glee to pronouncements that this would be the death of the format.

I hadn't planned to buy a box of Unstable, not even for the amazing full art lands, but now I have a great excuse. I also was lucky enough to open up a spicy little card from a Modern Masters pack recently. You can see why I look so pleased.

It was the first Tarmogoyf I'd ever come into possession of and it was quite a thrill. It wasn't the "holy grail" of booster pulls — a foil "Goyf" — but between it and a spare The Scarab God I had in a binder, I figured I had enough trade value to partially offset the cost of a box of Unstable. I only play Commander, so it's not like I was going to be using a Tarmogoyf in any of my decks anyways.

The afternoon the Unstable announcement was made, I sold those two cards, preordered my Unstable box and realized I was going to have to break my longstanding habit of running the same commander all month long in our Commander league.

I ran a Ruric Thar, the Unbowed deck last week with a couple of silver-bordered cards thrown into the mix for fun; but, if I'm buying a box of Unstable ,it makes sense to build some new decks and see what kind of crazy fun I can get up to in our League games.

To help me figure out what to build, I'm going to devote this week's article to reviewing the legendary creatures available in Unstable. I'll touch upon strategies and ideas that might help us net a win or two over the final three weeks of league play. I'm going to focus on ways to make them competitive. I'm not an expert in competitive play by a long shot, but I'll do my best to find something obnoxious you can do with these new cards.

Something for the Spikes

Spike, Tournament Grinder
I love Spike, Tournament Grinder, and not just because the art reminds me of Felicia Day. It also represents a subtle little middle finger to the tiny fraction of Commander players who don't think women can compete at the highest levels of play.

Spike requires you to have access to cards outside the game. In the Commander rules my understanding is that playgroups may optionally allow players to have a 10 card sideboard.

The problem with this is that it is not actually part of the rules. It is optional, so you are subject to the whims of your playgroup as to whether or not Spike is a viable commander or just a vanilla 1/1 for 2 and two phyrexian Black mana.

For the purposes of the Commander league I run and play in, Spike will be the latter unless the Rules Committee sees fit to add sideboards to the format. I sincerely doubt they will do so. We don't currently have sideboard/wishboard rules and our monthly vote happened before the December 1st announcement.

Spike gives us access to any Black card that has been banned in a Constructed format, so that opens up a lot of possibilities. We could have a 10 card sideboard that included Mox Jet, Yawgmoth's Bargain, Time Vault, Griselbrand, Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, Braids, Cabal Minion, and Black Lotus if we just look at cards banned in Commander. If we looked beyond our own format, we could have ready access to Vampiric Tutor, Sol Ring, Mana Crypt, Mana Vault, Mishra's Workshop, Necropotence, and Yawgmoth's Will and that's just by looking at cards banned in Legacy. We haven't even touched Vintage, Modern, or Standard.

The question of whether or not we proxy cards is going to be a big one when looking at Spike, Tournament Grinder because a lot of our most powerful options are going to be both inaccessible and out of most players' price range. I'm pretty sure that with Spike you could assemble a sideboard that would mean that if you could get to 2 mana and resolve Spike you would be able to win the game. It would involve some pretty broken plays and some pretty expensive cards, but I'm sure it can be done. There may well be some budget options available as well, but just having such easy access to Necropotence and Griselbrand should open the door to getting a wincon pretty easily.

Phoebe, Head of S.N.E.A.K.

Phoebe, Head of S.N.E.A.K.
Our next option is one of two Dimir legendary creatures in Unstable — Phoebe, Head of S.N.E.A.K.

She can't be blocked by creatures with flavor text, so you're probably looking at a fairly reliable unblockable commander. That's powerful but her ability is where things get a little crazy.

For two generic mana, a Blue and a Black she permanently steals target creature's text box. She doesn't have to tap to do this, so she can do it multiple times per turn and in response to other spells being cast and abilities being activated. I'm not going to go over all the amazing creatures your opponents might play that you could target with her ability — that list would be endless.

If we just stay within Dimir's color restrictions, Phoebe can still get up to no good pretty easily.

Play Palladium Myr, a 3 CMC Myr mana dork that taps to generate two colorless mana. Play Pili-Pala, a 2 CMC scarecrow artifact creature that for 2 colorless can untap and make 1 mana of any color. Steal both of their text boxes and Phoebe can now create infinite mana. Tap her for 2. Pay 2 to untap her, generating 1 mana of any color. Do it as many times as you like and you should be able to get up to all kinds of mischief.

If that's not enough and you simply must have a wincon, I've got you covered.

Play the Palladium Myr/Pili-Pala combo and add in Servant of Tymaret. Servant is a zombie with the Inspired keyword. Whenever Servant of Tymaret becomes untapped, each opponent loses one life and you gain life equal to the life lost this way. If you can add Servant of Tymaret's text box to Phoebe's, you've got the win.

If you don't want to get that cute, just run the PM/PP combo and play Oona, Queen of the Fae. Exile your opponents libraries and you should be able to turn that into a win.


Dimir has not one but two legendary creatures. Meet "X", a legendary human spy who costs one Blue and one Black mana, and who has some very interesting abilities.

When I first started to read X, I did a double-take. "As long as X is in X's owner's opponent's hand, X's owner may cast X and activate X's abilities. That opponent can't cast X and plays with his or her hand revealed." What? No . . .  really . . .  What's going on here???

X's additional abilities make this all come together. For a Blue and a Black you can tap X and put X into target opponent's hand. For 5 mana, including a Blue and a Black, you may play a card in the same hand as X without paying its mana cost.

You don't want to guess who has good stuff in their hand so this might be a deck that wants to play cards that force your opponents to play with their hands revealed. Two enchantments, Telepathy and Zur's Weirding, and an older creature from Nemesis called Wandering Eye, will all do this for you. When you can see everyone's hand, you'll be in a much better position to choose who to target with X's unique and rather weird ability.

If you're going to know what cards are in your opponents' hands, it makes sense to play some cards that will let us pluck those cards out and toss them into the graveyard. For one Black mana, Thoughtseize will force target opponent to reveal their hand and you get to force them to discard a nonland card. You lose two life in the process; but, if it's a key part of their combo or something they just tutored for, it'll be worth it. Despise also costs one Black and will let you force the discard of a creature of Planeswalker with no loss of life involved. Mire's Toll, Duress and Pick the Brain are other variations on this theme.

If you want to expand your options, this might be the perfect deck to run cards that will put nonland permanents back into an opponent's hand. That's a nice Eldrazi Titan your opponent has got there. Unsummon it, put X in their hand, and for the cheap cost of 3, a Black and a Blue it's yours! While the forced discard spells are in Black, these will all be found in Blue and there are a lot of them. Hoodwink, Boomerang, Peel from Reality and, if you want the Split Second keyword, you can run Wipe Away. These spells generally cost more than 1 but are cheap enough for this to be a viable strategy — just don't try to do it to a Commander because it should wind up in the command zone, not your opponent's hand. If you can catch someone thinking they'll be able to avoid Commander tax by casting it from their hand on their next turn, you might be able to get away with casting it yourself out of their hand.

An X deck is probably not going to win using its own cards as often as it's going to win like a clones deck. You're going to use your opponent's cards against them. You'll steal their combo, cast their bombs and try to survive by constantly bouncing threats back to your opponents' hands.

Ol' Buzzbark

Ol' Buzzbark
It should go without saying that you should absolutely not go buy a bunch of metal dice, sharpen every angle to a razor sharp edge and throw them at your opponent's Gaea's Cradle. You're not allowed to damage your opponents' property — not even if a card lets you drop dice onto them from a great height. Now that's out of the way, let's take a look at this guy.

Ol' Buzzbark costs xrg. When he enters the battlefield you get to roll X 6-sided dice from a height of at least X inches. For each die, if it lands touching one of your creatures, you put that many +1/+1 counters on it. If it lands touching an opponent's creature, it does that much damage to it.

This a powerful card that functions as both pump and removal. You'll clearly want to practice and figure out how reliably you can hit target creatures from different heights with different numbers of dice. You'll also want to make sure you roll your dice, not drop them, as there is clearly a difference and opponents may get cranky if it looks like you're trying to cheat.

Any card with enter-the-battlefield effects will benefit from running Panharmonicon, and, in this deck, it will let us double our die rolling. If we can find the old Unglued common Goblin Bookie, we'll be able to re-roll a die for the cost of one Red and tapping him. Krark's Other Thumb, an Unstable artifact that lets roll two dice and ignore one of the two results, might also come in handy for Ol' Buzzbark.

We'll be in Gruul (rg) colors so we should run some of the cards in Green that involve die rolling. As Luck Would Have It is a hexproof enchantment that costs g and can win you the game if you get 100 or more luck counters on it. Every time you roll a die you add luck counters to it equal to the result of the roll, so this could easily win a game in a deck heavily focused on die rolling.

Making enormous amounts of mana in a deck like this might seem like a good idea, but there are logistical and common-sense limits to Ol' Buzzbark's ability. If you can make arbitrarily large amounts of mana, you probably won't be allowed to drop 12,000 dice from 1,000 feet in the air. If nothing else, your ceiling is probably lower than that. You'll also run into other issues even if you do try to go for a realistic but really high number. The higher you go, the more likely it is that the dice will bounce off the table and do no good at all. If you're actually trying to damage cards, I'll again ask you to just stop. Play another commander. Play another game. Just stay home. Don't be that guy.

If you are able to generate infinite mana and can cast and resolve Ol' Buzzbark, I would have no problem with a store or playgroup having that automatically create a draw game. We shortcut for infinite combos and don't require players to manually do an interaction beyond just demonstrating the combo to show that it works. When enough dice are supposed to be dropped from a great enough height you'll find yourself in some interesting discussions.

Do you get zero dice hitting the table because they would burn up when entering the atmosphere?

Would they hit with an impact so great that the table, the room, the building and possibly a large part of the town you're in would be destroyed?

If everyone in the store would die, is it reasonable to just call the game a draw and not force the players to actually demonstrate the ETB effect?

As long as the answer to these questions is amusing, is applied consistently, is clearly communicated, and is known beforehand to all players in the game — I personally have no problem with a playgroup or store doing whatever they like in response to a ridiculously high value for X. You might want to be proactive though and bring a sac outlet, some infinite mana combos, a tape measure . . .  and maybe a stepladder if you're going to play Ol' Buzzbark.

Dr. Julius Jumblemorph

Dr. Julius Jumblemorph
This Selesnya (wg) creature is a 4/4 legendary creature who costs2wg. Dr. Julius Jumblemorph is every creature type at all times, and "Dr. J" is a specialist in creating those crazy new combination creatures found in Unstable. Unfortunately for the good Doctor, the host and augment cards are found in every color, not just White and Green. That definitely limits his usefulness as a commander.

Even if you're stuck in just Selesnya colors you can still do some fun stuff.

If the host entering the battlefield is an Ordinary Pony, its triggered ability is to exile target non-horse creature and return it to the battlefield under your control. If your augment card is Half-Squirrel, Half- it will add the condition that the trigger for the combination is whenever a non-token creature enters the battlefield. You'd think that would create an infinite ETB situation, but this oversight led to an emergency errata by Mark Rosewater so that Pony host card now has this oracle text:

"When this creature enters the battlefield, you may exile target non-Horse creature you control that wasn't put onto the battlefield with this ability this turn, then return it to the battlefield under its owner's control."

That doesn't mean Dr. J isn't worth running as your commander. I'd think he'd be hugely popular in Philadelphia and I'm very fond of the host/augment mechanic so I might build around him just to try that out if I can scrounge together enough White and Green cards to make it worth trying.

One interesting angle on Jumblemorph could be to try to abuse the fact that he is every creature type.

I don't think that building lords into this deck makes much sense, but throwing in a Coat of Arms might let you swing for lethal out of nowhere if there are enough creatures on the field and someone didn't leave up any blockers. He'll get +1/+1 for every other creature that he shares a creature type with, so that would be all of them. Coat of Arms is a very dangerous card though, and you could easily be handing someone else the game by plopping it down. If nothing else, Dr. J will give everyone else +1/+1 because he'll be sharing a creature type with all of them.

Baron Von Count

Baron Von Count
This Rakdos (br) legendary Human Villain is a 3/3 for 3 mana, one of which must be Black and one must be Red. Baron Von Count doesn't seem like much, but he has a really interesting ability.

If you look at his artwork you'll see in the background the numbers 1 through 5. When he enters the battlefield you are supposed to put a counter on the 5. Whenever you cast a spell with the indicated numeral in its mana cost, text box, power or toughness you get to move the doom counter one numeral to the left. When the doom counter moves off of the 1, you get to destroy target player and put the counter back on 5. I have to assume "destroy target player" means eliminating them from the game.

We're interested in two things: cards with lots of numbers on them, and ways to move the doom counter faster.

The un-set cards Blast from the Past, Goblin Tutor, Jack-in-the-Mox, Strategy, Schmategy, and Urza's Science Fair Project are probably the closest we'll get for cards with lots of numbers on them, but it might be hard to find them.

To try to maximize the number of extra numerals on a card we're going to want to look at playing lots of cards with abilities. Awaken, Bestow, Cycling, Dash, Devour, Escalate, Madness, Miracle, Level Up, Overload, Prowl, Surge, Suspend and probably other keywords I haven't thought of are worth looking at. Not all of these will have good candidates in Rakdos colors. Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Nirkana Cutthroat, Staff of Domination, and Zulaport Enforcer are all worth looking at, but the big question is whether it's worth including cards with numbers in favor of building a coherent and effective strategy for the deck. If you do your research and grab everything you can to try to move that doom counter you may wind up building a bad deck. You'll be relying too much on your opponents not having removal and being too single-minded. You might do better to build a lean, fast deck with lots of looting effects and a plan to win even if the Baron isn't on the field.

You definitely want to find a way to get extra triggers when you cast the right spells or move a doom counter off of the 1. Fortunately for both you and the Baron, a little artifact named Strionic Resonator will do the trick quite nicely. It's so good that you'll probably want to run Mirage Mirror, Sculpting Steel and a bunch of tutors so you have a better chance of getting it out.

Copying the trigger to move the counter will make it move an extra step. If you can copy the "destroy target player" trigger and your opponents don't have hexproof you'll be pretty happy and two of your opponents will be pretty dead. If you can get two extra copies of that trigger, that's Magical Christmasland and if you're in a four player game, you just won!

The Big Idea

The Big Idea
Our second Rakdos Unstable legendary is The Big Idea, a 4/4 Braniac Villain who costs four and two Red mana. His Black color identity comes from his text box. He lets you pay 2 and 2 Rakdos Hybrid mana (Red or Black) to let you tap him so that you can roll a six-sided die and create that many Red Brainiac creature tokens. If you tap three of these Brainiacs, the next time you would roll a six-sided die instead you roll two and use the total of the two dice as the result.

One thing to note is that this does not specify until end of turn, so you could tap three on the end step of the player before you, tap them again on your turn and have two instances of this ability for your next die roll.

My initial feeling was that there just aren't enough die-rolling cards in Red that can give you enough advantage to make this card worth running as a general. My best suggestion is to run this as a stealth Purphoros, God of the Forge deck. You can run Black tutors to go get him and that will turn The Big Idea's first ability into a huge problem for your opponents.

If you were going to run this as a hidden commander deck with Purphoros as your wincon and backup ETB cards like Impact Tremors, I think it would pack quite a punch.

There are cards in Black that might help out with a hidden Purphoros deck that we normally don't have available to us in mono-Red. Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder comes to mind. Army of the Damned will drop thirteen zombies onto the battlefield and has flashback so we can do it twice. In Red we can use Reverberate, Fork, or Reiterate on it to get double the zombies and twice the Purphoros damage.

There are certainly other Unstable cards with die rolling that can benefit from The Big Idea's ability. Hammer Helper lets us steal a creature and give it +X/+0 where X is the result of a six-sided die roll. Painiac is a 0/3 Brainiac that costs 2r and gets +X/+0 each turn where X is the result of another d6 die roll made during your upkeep. I don't know that any of the other cards are as good as building this deck as a stealth Purphoros build but you could certainly load up on every die rolling card you can find and see how it goes.

Mary O'Kill

Mary O'Kill
It seems strange that there are so many legendary Rakdos creatures in Unstable. Mary O'Kill is our third and won't be our last, but I guess building an un-set may not have quite the same design concerns as a normal Magic expansion.

Mary is a 5/5 Human Villain who costs 5 and either a Black or a Red mana to cast. She has the ability to switch the places of herself or a Killbot with another Killbot between your hand and the battlefield. This ability costs 1 mana of any color and one Black or Red mana. It's worth noting that this does not specify that the one on the battlefield has to be under your control.

What I think this means is that she may be the ultimate combat trick commander damage general. If you attack and have a single unblocked killbot you can swap it back to your hand and her onto the battlefield replacing the unblocked creature. You can't pay for her ability while she's in your hand so you'd have to pay for it twice and put both swaps on the stack to get it to work.

It gets better, though. I'm pretty sure you can also swap and have Mary replace an opponent's attacking and unblocked Killbot. Stealing kills can be a lot of fun in Commander and if you've got enough mana available and killbots in your hand and on the field you should be do all kinds of switches.

When Unstable was first spoiled it looked like there was a problem, and it was a serious one. There was ONLY ONE Killbot card in the set and we play in a singleton format. Mary O'Kill doesn't have any way to create Killbots. To make Mary O'Kill work in Commander I thought you'd need to run changelings but you're only in two colors so you'd be stuck with Cairn Wanderer, Changeling Berserker, Fire-Belly Changeling, Ghostly Changeling, Moonglove Changeling, Skeletal Changeling, Taurean Mauler, and War-Spike Changeling.

Days before the set was released it became clear that Wizards of the Coast had some surprises in store for us. There are multiple killbots. The first was Enraged Killbot, but now we know there is a Curious Killbot and it’s likely there will be more. That means with the Changelings and the Killbots this could wind up being a pretty interesting combat trick deck that tries to win by sneaking commander damage in when you have an unblocked Enraged, Curious, Frisky, Whimsical, Voluminous, Eclectic or Mysterious Killbot. OK — I made those last five up, but I’m dying to see what they’re all named.

I should remind you of a card we looked at earlier. Dr. Julius Jumblemorph is all creature types. That means he is also a killbot. You should be able to steal Dr. J and put him onto the battlefield pretty easily.

Grusilda, Monster Masher

Grusilda, Monster Masher
Our last legendary creature in Unstable is Grusilda, Monster Masher. She's a 4/4 Zombie Villain who costs 3 mana of any color plus one Black and one Red mana. She gives combined, enchanted and equipped creatures you control menace.

Her party trick is that for 3br she can tap and allow you to put two target creature cards from graveyards onto the battlefield combined into one creature under your control. The combined creature will have the combined power, toughness, names, mana costs, types, boxes, etc. You basically treat the new creature as if it were both creatures combined in every meaningful way.

You're not limited to your own graveyard, so while your own shenanigans will be limited to Red and Black creatures you can get into your graveyard, you may have some spicy targets in other colors as well.

This means you can make a Heartless Hidetsugu / Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon combo, pay one Black to give him haste and then tap him to kill everyone including yourself. If you're playing goblins to fill out your deck you could play a Purphoros, God of the Forge / Krenko, Mob Boss combination. The options are really pretty amazing but you're likely going to want to play self-mill and build Rakdos goodstuff with an eye to creatures that will combine well.

Just based on the colors I think you'll wind up looking at infect as a way to get kills. As just one example, Blackcleave Goblin would combine nicely with either Malignus or the new Unstable card Infinity Elemental. You'll definitely want to run Chandra's Ignition, as you're likely to have some pretty big creatures you can target with it to wipe the board and either kill or severely damage your opponents. Chandra's Ignition just targeting Infinity Elemental on the table wins you the game, so you'll probably want to throw both of them in this build.

This deck will be like most graveyard decks, in that it will require some setup and will be vulnerable to stuff like Bojuka Bog, Rest In Peace, Anafenza, the Foremost, Grafdigger's Cage and anything else that interferes with your ability to put creatures into or take them back out of the graveyard.

Embracing Unstable

Lots of Commander players have been pretty upset by the idea that they are going to have to suffer through stupid, annoying unCommander games until January 15th rolls around. I hope I've been able to give you some ideas for how you can take these legendary creatures and build around them in ways that can actually win games.

If you're still not sold on Unstable, I completely understand.

Taking a format seriously will sometimes bring players to resist change and to resent change that feels silly, whimsical, needless and stupid. If you're considering boycotting the format until mid-January, I'd like to point out that a strong Competitive EDH deck will probably win games long before the more idiotic Unstable cards are played. Instead of not playing, you could always brew up a really fast combo deck and win before you have to deal with the dumb stuff. Another option might be to build a hard control deck and simply say "no" to any Unstable card you can't bear to see on the stack.

I firmly believe that "Unstable Winter" won't be anywhere near as bad as the alarmists are saying it will be.

Many players won't even build unCommander decks. Many others will throw a card or two into existing decks but then might not even see those cards over the course of multiple games. The few players who really load up on Unstable cards are going to be building decks that are slower, less resilient and are running fewer answers than your best decks if you really know what you're doing.

I would definitely urge you to give it a try before just checking out for weeks on end. There is fun to be had, whether or not you play a single silver-bordered card this Unstable winter.

Thanks for reading, thanks to Gathering Magic for allowing me to start sharing my work with you here, and I look forward to sharing my thoughts and ideas with you here in 2018 and beyond.


—Stephen Johnson

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