The Road to the Pyramids by Edward Lear (1873). Ratchet Bomb by Dan Scott.
Like most other Commander content creators, I've been hoping to eventually find the most "busted" partner pairings in all the thousands of partner pairings now available to us. I had seen a build of Rebbec, Architect of Ascension and Glacian, Powerstone Engineer and I've built and written about Ardenn, Intrepid Archaeologist and Kediss, Emberclaw Familiar. I devoted an entire column to some early brainstorming on pairing new and old partners. I even wrote about the first partners that happened to fall into my lap when I opened my first booster. I was looking for that "perfect pair" that just made your jaw drop at how good they were together.
I'd pick a legendary creature with partner that felt like it could be busted wide open and then pick a partner for it that had some pretty good synergy. I didn't expect to find a two-card combo to put into the command zone, but when I decided to build around Kodama of the East Tree and stumbled across a little goblin that loves rocks, I thought I had really found something.
Play a one-CMC Arbor Elf and you can drop another permanent of CMC one or less. Play a zero-CMC Memnite and you can play a zero-CMC permanent. Lands have a zero CMC, so you can drop untapped lands if you don't have anything better to put onto the field. Often, you have to pay close attention to the words that aren't there, and in this case, the missing word is "nontoken." You can make a 1/1 Thopter creature token and drop a land onto the field! Kodama is very powerful.
Toggo, Goblin Weaponsmith (or as I like to call him Dwayne "The Rock" Goblin) will make a rock token when you drop a land onto the battlefield. When that rock hits the table you get to drop another land onto the field. That land will make another rock, allowing you to drop another land, and so on. This will go on if you've got lands to drop, but it's unlikely you'll be finding yourself with dozens of cards in hand early in the game. This is a combo to be sure, but it has a clear limit in the number of lands or other zero-CMC permanents you're able to put in your hand.
My optimism that I had discovered the next great partner pairing was somewhat muted.
This deck is only in two colors and we don't have Blue or Black in the mix. I also found it hard to believe that I was the only pointy-headed nerd who had found this sweet, sweet interaction. I don't watch or read a ton of other content creators, in part because I like to think my ideas are my own.
I do listen to the Commandercast podcast and I watch the occasional Command Zone or Game Knights video because those guys are just great. I recently got through watching Video Game High School and am a huge fan of Jimmy Wong. I also love rooting against Josh Lee Kwai, mostly because he comes across as that frustrating opponent who always has an answer to whatever you're trying to do. I remembered that he was making rocks in his most recent Game Knights matchup and when I went back and checked I was able to confirm that Josh Lee Kwai did actually pilot Kodama of the East Tree and Toggo, Goblin Weaponsmith. Of course he did. You can watch that episode here.
I'd joke that great minds think alike, but I don't recall Josh totally blowing away the table in that game. I also don't think either of us is a deck-building genius, but it did make me feel good that my bright idea was bright enough to have also been found by one of the biggest names in Commander. I don't really think that I subconsciously "stole" the concept from him because to be honest I was only half paying attention to the episode and couldn't even remember what he was playing until I went back and checked.
Today's column is an exploration of how I'd build Kodama and Toggo, with an emphasis on why I made the decisions I made in my deck construction process. At the end I'll compare my build to JLK's, and I'll see if there are things I might change or upgrade after looking over his choices. My list is an actual paper deck I've built and played, so I'm using cards I have available to me. I don't generally take apart decks to build these new lists, so my higher end cards usually don't make an appearance unless I'm really trying to push the envelope on a new deck.
Building around the Synergy
This deck revolves around a key interaction. With Toggo and Kodama both on the field, if I play a land, Kodama lets me put a zero CMC permanent onto the battlefield and Toggo will make a rock. When the rock enters the battlefield, Kodama will let me put a zero CMC permanent onto the battlefield. I'm unlikely to be playing zero CMC artifacts in this build so I'm looking at playing out as many lands as possible as quickly as possible once I've got both of my commanders on the field.
Including cards that replace themselves helps make sure I don't miss land drops and it's also a way to try to set myself up to be able to have a big turn once my commanders are both on the field. Even if a creature does nothing but draw me a card, I'm viewing it as worth running. That means familiar faces like Elvish Visionary and Sylvan Caryatid are joined by less optimal cards like Joraga Visionary, Masked Admirers and the five-CMC Kavu Climber and Rhox Oracle. I enjoy building decks that are essentially experiments on a theme and this is very much in that vein. Those higher CMC cards ended up being early cuts when I started making upgrades later on, but they were in this first draft.
This is a deck that should be good at spamming out lots of relatively inconsequential creatures. It should hit its land drops and ramp fairly well, so playing creatures shouldn't be a problem. Voice of Many is likely to draw me a card or two and there should be times where I've got more creatures than anyone else at the table. Regal Force will draw me a card for each Green creature I control, and while this is a two-color deck, it leans so heavily toward Green that I'm unlikely to have any regrets playing it.
I've already played this deck and my biggest surprise was playing a Regal Force onto a board with six other Green creatures, drawing seven cards and not seeing a single land. These things happen. I couldn't bring myself to build this list with a ridiculous number of lands. The only thing worse than being mana-screwed is being mana flooded and my initial ideas about going with 40 or even 50 lands were quickly abandoned.
I'm also running a pretty robust slot of cards like Sylvan Ranger. These guys won't draw me a card, but they'll put a land into my hand, setting me up for my land/rock/land/rock interaction. Borderland Ranger, District Guide, Satyr Wayfinder and Civic Wayfinder all do this. Jungle Wayfinder even joins the party in the first draft, though he puts a land into everyone's hand, not just mine.
I'm also running ways to draw cards based upon playing creatures. Garruk's Packleader gives me a card when a creature of three CMC or more enters the battlefield. Lifecrafter's Bestiary lets me pay one Green mana when I cast a creature spell to draw a card. Zendikar Resurgent will double my mana output and will give me card draw when I cast creature spells. Mind's Eye is a high enough CMC that I often leave it out of decks, but this list should be able to make it work, giving me card draw for two mana when an opponent casts a spell. I'm so all-in on card draw, I'm running Bonders' Enclave, Seer's Sundial, Staff of Nin and The Immortal Sun in my first version of this deck, all of which will help the cause.
How We Win
In many ways, this is setting up to be a fairly traditional landfall deck. I'm nearly but not quite a pure Mono-Green deck and I'm leaning on a lot of that color's landfall staples.
Scute Swarm gets so silly so fast, I might seriously consider running Purphoros, God of the Forge in a future draft. I've got 40 creatures in the main deck, but not enough traditional token generators for "Big Red" to feel like an auto-include. Rampaging Baloths is an auto-include, and will likely churn out an alarming number of 4/4 Green Beast creature tokens if it's on the field for very long. Avenger of Zendikar needs no introduction, and if I were trying to tune this list up a bit I might load up on tutors and run Craterhoof Behemoth or Purphoros, or both. For this first draft I'm resisting that urge and I also have no idea where my sole copy of Craterhoof is. I've got one in a list somewhere, but I haven't been able to dig it up so for now it's missing in action. It would be a great addition to this deck if you're into playing good cards and actually winning games.
If I'm hoping to get a lot of landfall triggers, Spitfire Lagac will put in some work. It is unlikely to kill the table, but I might well catch an opponent at a low life total and be able to knock them out with a big landfall turn. Omnath, Locus of Rage will also put in work, giving me a 5/5 Elemental for each landfall trigger. They also serve as boardwipe prevention, doing 3 damage to any target when an Elemental dies.
Molimo, Maro-Sorcerer is a card I usually don't even think about, but in today's list it represents a real threat. His power and toughness equal the number of lands I control, and in theory I should be able to get up in the double digits in any game that doesn't end early. Beanstalk Giant is also in the list and has the same ability, though Molimo has trample. Beanstalk Giant does not have any form of evasion, but it does come with Fertile Footsteps, a sorcery spell that is tacked onto the creature as an "Adventure" option.
Pulse of the Tangle might seem like an odd include for this list. I was thinking about ways to use large amounts of mana and remembered the Pulse cycle from Darksteel. If someone wipes the board or overloads a Cyclonic Rift, if I'm not just dead on their turn should be able to rebuild if I've been able to ramp aggressively. Pulse of the Tangle will let me create a 3/3 Beast creature token and then if an opponent has more creatures than I have, Pulse of the Tangle returns to my hand so I can use it again. At three mana per Beast it's not going to make a crazy boardstate, but it should give me a reliable way to catch up to an opponent who is going wide and it's the kind of gift that will keep on giving. If I'm ahead I can keep it in my hand but if I'm behind it will help me catch up and should still be available to use later.
You might wonder why I'm including a Fog spell in my list of how we're going to try to win the game. Canceling out combat damage is the kind of combat trick I love. If I can catch an opponent thinking that they can swing all out to end the game, they'd better have vigilance because I might just be able to fog and then swing back at them. Constant Mists is another gift that will keep on giving and if I'm playing out as many lands as I'm hoping to play out, I should have no problem paying the buyback cost of sacrificing a land. If I've got Ancient Greenwarden on the field I might even be able to play that land back out of the graveyard and keep myself safe from combat damage for a long, long time.
A while back I told you about how Lurking Predators won me a game with Averna, the Chaos Bloom. I kept putting creatures with the cascade keyword onto the battlefield with Lurking Predators triggers, and while it felt great, I've moved that card over to this deck. I'm running 40 creatures and a ton of them will draw me cards when they hit the battlefield. This feels like as close to a perfect fit as I'm going to find for that powerful enchantment.
This deck started out as a "hope for the best" deck, with a plan to squeeze value out of the synergy between my commanders and build up a strong enough board that I can eventually overcome my opponents. My original plan had not been to build a combo deck. The list below represents a much more modest list than my "perfect pair" goal might suggest.
Rocky Road | Commander | Stephen Johnson
- Creatures (40)
- 1 Avenger of Zendikar
- 1 Ancient Greenwarden
- 1 Baloth Woodcrasher
- 1 Borborygmos Enraged
- 1 Beanstalk Giant
- 1 Beast Whisperer
- 1 Borderland Ranger
- 1 Civic Wayfinder
- 1 District Guide
- 1 Drumhunter
- 1 Elder of Laurels
- 1 Elvish Visionary
- 1 Garruk's Horde
- 1 Garruk's Packleader
- 1 Generous Stray
- 1 Jungle Wayfinder
- 1 Joraga Visionary
- 1 Kazandu Nectarpot
- 1 Kavu Climber
- 1 Keeper of Fables
- 1 Krosan Drover
- 1 Llanowar Visionary
- 1 Masked Admirers
- 1 Molimo, Maro-Sorcerer
- 1 Nessian Game Warden
- 1 Omnath, Locus of Rage
- 1 Ohran Frostfang
- 1 Primordial Sage
- 1 Rampaging Baloths
- 1 Regal Force
- 1 Rhox Oracle
- 1 Satyr Wayfinder
- 1 Seedborn Muse
- 1 Sylvan Ranger
- 1 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Scute Swarm
- 1 Spitfire Lagac
- 1 Temur Sabertooth
- 1 Voice of Many
- 1 Yavimaya Elder
- Instants (7)
- 1 Beast Within
- 1 Constant Mists
- 1 Fog
- 1 Heroic Intervention
- 1 Krosan Grip
- 1 Moment's Peace
- 1 Naturalize
- Sorceries (10)
- 1 Cultivate
- 1 Farseek
- 1 Harmonize
- 1 Kamahl's Druidic Vow
- 1 Kodama's Reach
- 1 Pulse of the Tangle
- 1 Rampant Growth
- 1 Shamanic Revelation
- 1 Skyshroud Claim
- 1 Three Visits
- Artifacts (6)
- 1 Lifecrafter's Bestiary
- 1 Mind's Eye
- 1 Seer's Sundial
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Staff of Nin
- 1 The Immortal Sun
There are more than a handful of cards I was tempted to throw into this list to give it additional angles to try to gain advantage. Any deck that wants to build a big board might look to cards like Colfenor's Urn as boardwipe prevention. A Green deck that can reliably make big mana should probably be running Ezuri's Predation. A shift to focus on token generation and some damage outlets like Impact Tremors and Purphoros, God of the Forge are always tempting to me, but really wanted to keep this list focused on card draw for now until I had a chance to feel it out and see where I wanted to take it.
The Grass is Always Greener
I'm often quick to assume that someone else's deck is built better, is stronger, or has a cleverer plan than my version. Sometimes that's true. While I feel an obligation to compare my first draft with the Kodama and Toggo list that Josh Lee Kwai played on Game Knights, I must admit that I was a bit nervous about doing so. I'm pretty good at what I do, but JLK is one of the biggest names in Commander so it was interesting to see how our lists differed.
You can view Josh's list here. I'll cover some of my quick takes before digging into the many card choices that make each list unique.
The first thing that jumps out at me is that my first draft is listed as having a cost in the range of $200-$250. Josh Lee Kwai's list comes in at around $1300. If you're not sure why anyone would build a $1,000 Kodama and Toggo list, you have to remember that I'm not playing my deck on a video channel with thousands of people watching and dissecting every choice I made when putting it together. Maybe if I was under that kind of a microscope, I might be tempted to break the bank too.
The next set of numbers are even more interesting. My average CMC is 4.06, but Josh's list is a full half CMC lower, at 3.56. That isn't surprising, as I wound up running suboptimal cards in my experiment in going all-in on card draw, which in turn should set me up for my land/rock synergy. My land count is 33, while Josh's is 38. I had considered running as many as a dozen more lands than I ended up running so my count is probably the biggest surprise. I'm hoping my card draw emphasis will pull me into enough lands to make up for my lower number, but I may well adjust it after playing the deck a few times. My creature count is 40 and Josh's creature count is 23, so again, the numbers are suggesting that I'm probably leaning toward more of a battlecruiser game plan and Josh is likely hoping to combo off in some clever way. I can't fault him for that; combo is fun and I lean on it plenty.
Diving into the card choices, it's clear Josh has a tuned deck with dual lands, off-color fetches, and the kind of mana base anyone would be proud to play on a popular video channel. Me? Well, I'm happy to have very little to fear from a Back to Basics or a Blood Moon, but I also don't have the kind of collection where throwing together a deck from cards I've got lying around will result in the kind of ridiculousness that Josh was playing. It's not that I begrudge him his dual lands. I just don't find $1,000 mana bases accessible for anything other than my very favorite decks and I can't see starting off with Kodama and Toggo built that way. For me, a deck must earn its duals, and I just don't have that many to throw around.
Beyond lands, Josh and I do have some overlap. For example, we're both running Ancient Greenwarden, Scute Swarm, Seedborn Muse, Omnath, Locus of Rage, Rampaging Baloths and Zendikar Resurgent. Staples are staples, and it's not a big surprise that we'd have some cards in common.
There are a bunch of great cards that I would have run if I had extra copies available.
Josh has Lotus Cobra, Phylath, World Sculptor, Dockside Extortionist, Scapeshift, Crucible of Worlds and Splendid Reclamation in his version. He's also running Vedalken Orrery, because of course he is. I thought about building my list with more focus on recursion, but decided not to go in that direction. I think it's a fine plan, but I'm not running the off-color fetch lands that make a recursion strategy really work well.
One odd thing I noticed was that Josh runs Reckless Fireweaver, which pushes damage out based upon artifacts entering the battlefield, but he doesn't run Spitfire Lagac, which I run, and which does the same but for lands. It seems like a strange omission, but I also feel silly for not seeing how good Reckless Fireweaver would be with Toggo. I was leaning very heavily on Green, but that's not a great excuse. I'm sure I have a spare Reckless Fireweaver lying around somewhere. I just didn't think to focus on squeezing value out of all those pesky rocks.
Josh has more very clever options in his list that I either didn't see or didn't have in my collection. Krark-Clan Ironworks lets you turn those rocks into mana, and Inspiring Statuary lets you use them to help cast spells before you sacrifice them to KCI. I don't own either card, but they are brilliant additions and I must tip my hat to Mr. Kwai for running them. I do have a spare Comet Storm and in a deck that might be able to produce a lot of mana, it's an excellent addition that I didn't even consider as I was leaning so heavily toward Green
Bouncing to Victory
If you've been wondering how I haven't touched upon the Kodama/Toggo bounce land combo yet, it's because in my first draft I didn't even see it.
The two cards in question here are Gruul Turf and Guildless Commons, and these cards are so potent in Kodama/Toggo that it's worth running Expedition Map and other land tutors to go get them. The format has been speeding up in recent years to the point where bouncelands aren't usually run except in landfall decks and more casual builds, but they are great here.
I originally missed it, and then when I saw the potential in bounce lands I didn't fully appreciate how good they are. My first thought was that you had to have both bounce lands and you would play one of them, bounce the other to your hand, make a rock, play the one you had just bounced and just go back and forth between Gruul Turf and Guildless Commons making as many rocks as you wanted to make.
What I didn't see is that you play your bounce land, and you bounce it back to your hand. You only need one of them and you can make an infinite number of landfall triggers and mana rocks. As a side bonus, you can usually tell which of your opponents has a Dockside Extortionist in hand by their smile and how big their eyes will get as you do this.
With Reckless Fireweaver or Spitfire Lagac out, you kill the table. With Scute Swarm or Avenger of Zendikar on the field, you set yourself up for a lethal alpha strike. Josh might have seen this combo or he might have just chosen not to play it. I think he's commented in the past that combo wins out of nowhere don't make for great video content. He's running Dockside Extortionist / Temur Sabertooth in his list, so it is clear he's not too shy about playing combo.
I haven't had the chance to play my list enough times to really know for sure where it lies in terms of its power level, and while I'm optimistic that it will have some powerful and fun games I don't assume this list would be able to keep up with a deck like Josh's. On the other hand, it's entirely possible that Josh has the same sorts of challenges I face as a content creator. While JLK's build might be pricier it might be just as rough around the edges, in its own way. I have no idea how much time Josh has to spend on turning and testing a list before each episode.
I don't love to compare myself and my budget brainstorming around a new partner pair with the efforts of one of the biggest names in our format, but I think it was an interesting exercise. I love the way my version is set up to just keep drawing and drawing and drawing some more. I didn't even mention Keeper of Fables, Ohran Frostfang and how I've got a viable plan to attack the opponent with the fewest creatures to draw a ton of cards. It's not exactly rocket science, but I'm optimistic that in the right meta my version will be able to do some fun stuff and win the occasional game. It's a bit more one-note, and it isn't likely to combo off out of nowhere.
I think there's a good chance that Josh was focused on Dwayne "The Rock" Goblin when he was planning his version and I was much more focused on Kodama. He's got a lot more artifact synergy and I'm much more focused on landfall.
I do have every intention of adding in a few cards based upon the list Josh Lee Kwai ran on that recent Game Knights episode. I'm not going to blow up the budget or buy a bunch of fetch lands for a deck I've yet to fall in love with, but I am planning to play this over the coming months to see if it's a keeper. I fell in love with a Gruul deck last winter in Grumgully, the Generous (persist combo), so there's no reason to think it couldn't happen again.
Have you ever stepped back to compare your best efforts with the decklists of well-known players or content creators? I hadn't expected to see quite as much of a difference in our approaches. Now that I've seen the combo potential of bounce lands with this pairing I'm going to have to decide if I want another combo deck in my arsenal. Going all in on non-basic land tutors is tempting, but I'm not sure I really need another non-cEDH combo deck.
That's all I've got for today. Thanks for reading, thanks to both Jimmy Wong and Josh Lee Kwai for creating such great content, and I'll see you next week!