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The Commander Box: They Came from the Blackness


The Commander Box project is a labor of love for me. I wanted to build more Commander decks, using more colors but fewer format staples, and then share a rough guide on how I approach Commander decks. While I played Rhys the Redeemed and Kresh the Bloodbraided for extended periods of time, I also had a Kamahl, Fist of Krosa deck. What the three decks had in common were a multitude of staples (Wasteland and Sword of Feast and Famine, to name a couple) and a backbone of Green mana.

What I mean to say is that I’m now treading into less familiar territory. I enjoy colors other than Green, but by diminishing margins and features. This is where it becomes more important than ever for you to jump into the comments and share the cards you’ve seen used, enjoyed, or have found interesting.

The Commander Box is not the end-all, be-all compendium of Commander. That would be almost impossible, since every single card has a place and use in the format. Consider this more a list of suggestions, and open to wide angles of interpretation. Find what you enjoy.

Here are some of the things I enjoy in Black.

Underneath and on Top of the World

Black isn’t alone in its ability to bring out your dead, but by far, it has the most effective, efficient, and reusable ways to prop up an undead army.

Temporary Recursion

Gruesome Encore, Puppeteer Clique

These aren’t permanent, but they do a fine job of grabbing back something you want. You often don’t need more than one shot with the right creature: Primeval Titan, Sundering Titan (gross), and It That Betrays (Warrgbl!) will all do the trick. It’s also important to note that when the turn is over, the creature is exiled, meaning that someone else doesn’t get to copy your cute trick.

Your-Graveyard-Only Recursion

Body Snatcher, Entomber Exarch, Corpse Dance, Victimize, Zombify

The fires of reanimating begin to heat up here. You know the drill: Grab body, get effect. If you have a few lynchpin creatures, or a specific effect you’re looking to leverage, start here.

Any-Graveyard Recursion

Reanimate, Ashen Powder, Necromancy, Rise from the Grave, Dance of the Dead, Animate Dead

Now we’re cooking! Not only do you get someone else’s Primeval Titan, you get it over and over! Attack to your heart’s content, and fearlessly destroy opponents’ creatures to fuel your own graveyard binge of glory.

Repeatable Recursion

Oversold Cemetery, Beacon of Unrest, Phyrexian Reclamation

While there are other engines of reanimation, these are the weapons of my choosing. Oversold Cemetery is limited by both the amount of random graveyard hosing other players will have and the requirement to wait a full turn circuit until the upkeep rolls around again. Phyrexian Reclamation is more immediate, but it is restricted by a life total. Beacon of Unrest can rebuy other players’ artifacts, in addition to their creatures, but shuffles away to be randomly drawn again. These are consistency in a sea of randomness.

Today’s Instructors

Rune-Scarred Demon, Diabolic Tutor, Diabolic Intent, Vampiric Tutor, Demonic Tutor, Praetor's Grasp, Liliana Vess, Beseech the Queen

If you’re unfamiliar with tutors, you haven’t been living Commander. Demonic Tutor is the namesake progenitor of the entire filthy line, and like the propagation of vampirism in The World of Darkness, each successive generation is weaker than the last.

They are all still inhumanly powerful, too.

Tutors are often hailed as the answer to the chaotic nature of Commander. But let’s recap. Commander is a ninety-nine-card singleton format predicated on a structure of restricted colors defined by a champion creature to be the literal face of the deck.

Tutors destroy what Commander means. This isn’t to say tutors don’t fit, but that tutors are overused and underappreciated. I should know; I used to use tutors. (I still use tutors, but I used to, too.) Regardless of the colors (since other colors and artifacts provide ways to grab whatever I want) I honed and added duplicative tutor effects to decks until a smooth consistency was created.

It was thrilling to always know exactly what to do to battle a given effect. Grinding land-destruction, repeated Wrath of God effects, and even creature-swarming presented little more than annoyances, since my array of tutors and answers swatted aside the opposition. Then, in the span of a single game, it finally dawned on me how utterly ridiculous the whole system was. Commander is meant to have randomness. Standard and other competitive formats desired the level of randomness-reduction I had achieved. Commander was designed to avoid it.

And so I now pursue a more passive path. Yes, I still have tutors, but they aren’t the focal point of an entire deck or the pivot for power and gameplay dominance. You can use tutors, and I certainly don’t see their use diminishing, but if you pause and reconsider just how many you’re cramming into decks, perhaps you’ll just add something cool instead.

This is Commander; if you aren’t relishing some of the randomness, you may want to find another format.

Life-for-Cards Bargains

Phyrexian Arena, Graveborn Muse, Bloodgift Demon, Caress of Phyrexia, Moonlight Bargain, Necropotence, Greed, Ambition's Cost

Life is an abundant resource in Commander, and trading cards for life is usually a very good deal. Phyrexian Arena is a ubiquitous sight on tables, and landing it on the third turn is usually good for more than a few glares and grumbles. Creature-based card-drawing, like Graveborn Muse and Bloodgift Demon, is even nicer, thanks to Black’s recursion.

Death and Taxes

Death Abroad

Reiver Demon, Dread Cacodemon, Massacre Wurm, Bane of the Living, Black Sun's Zenith, Mutilate, Damnation, Decree of Pain, Dregs of Sorrow, Engineered Plague, Living Death

While White is well known for the classic Wrath of God, and its obligatory variant every set, Black is quickly catching up in ways to crush onboard creatures. While most of these are fairly straightforward (dropping Massacre Wurm on the token deck is indeed living the high life), you may be confused by Living Death. It can certainly be abused in the normal way by filling your graveyard up first, but it also serves as a surefire way to remove anything from the battlefield. Don’t wait too long to dish up vengeance if it’s needed.

Sacrificial Lambs

Diabolic Edict, Chainer's Edict, Anowon, the Ruin Sage, Butcher of Malakir, Phyrexian Obliterator, Grave Pact, Curse of the Cabal, Liliana of the Veil, Xathrid Demon, Attrition, Altar's Reap, Fallen Ideal

Other than the smattering of -X/-X effects, the most powerful way Black has to deal with creatures is through sacrifice effects. Grave Pact is the old-school classic that forged the legacy, but modern twists with Phyrexian Obliterator (Arena and Prey Upon would like to have a word here) and Liliana of the Veil offer difficult and obtuse angles to achieve the same effect.

Pointy Fingers of Doom

Vengeful Pharaoh, Guul Draz Assassin, Shriekmaw, Bone Shredder, Nekrataal, Go for the Throat, Dismember, Sudden Death, Slaughter Pact

For the most part, Damnation and friends combined with sacrifice effects will make up the bulk of effective removal. However, sometimes the only way to interject in a situation is with a direct application of death. Vengeful Pharaoh fits fine in the graveyard or the battlefield, and a variety of -X/-X will drop all but the most titanic of critters.

Of particular note are Shriekmaw, Bone Shredder, and Nekrataal, since they also combo well with creature recursion. When you get to Living Death and then immediately kill more stuff, it’s sweet.

The Darkest Nights

Lashwrithe, Sorin Markov, Exsanguinate, Korlash, Heir to Blackblade, Magus of the Coffers

This category is a little loose, since it’s one I’m not as familiar with using. Essentially, when you go mono-Black, or use Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, and you have Cabal Coffers or the Magus stand in, you can really crank out insane things. Lashwrithe can bounce around at will, Exsanguinate will extinguish your enemies (simultaneously), and casting Sorin Markov is the equivalent of passing a death sentence upon someone (having just 10 life is no joke).

Pitching Hands

Syphon Mind, Mind Twist

While I generally avoid ripping hands apart, since that flies in the face of actually playing Magic, these two spells have their uses. Syphon Mind is a pretty nasty, but usually nonfatal, draw spell. Early enough in the game, it probably won’t matter. Mind Twist is reserved for that special layer of hell that certain individuals deserve. When it’s time, unleash it with all your fury.

The Goof Troop

Ob Nixilis, the Fallen, Grave Titan, Necrotic Ooze, Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder

These guys don’t really fit anywhere else, so I lumped them together here. Each comes with an array of interesting abilities that can be abused with a little imagination, but that feels pretty fair when left to its own kooky devices. These can encourage a little differentiation in your deck without leaving you completely helpless.

That’s All, Folks!

While sectioned coverage of the pieces of my Commander Box have been two thousand words or more in length, this week has brought us to its end! The difference between being fanatically passionate and moderately interested in a color is clear, and I know that many of you will have so much more to share about Black.

Which brings me to a good point: Your efforts in sharing ideas, cards, and concepts for different sections will not go unrewarded. Once the basic run through the Commander Box has completed, there will be one final recap article to cover all of the missing bits and pieces left off along the way. These bits and pieces are being directly derived from you!

The goal is not to be comprehensive, but to show the diversity and depth within each color. Even with more time, effort, and massaging of Gatherer queries, I would still “miss” cards. I rely on your feedback much more than you might imagine; I hope you can share even more than before.

Next week, we’ll be revisiting The Community Cube to give it the old Innistrad update before going live at Worlds! Don’t miss your chance to continue shaping a little piece of Magic history!

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