Yesterday, I wrote about the Commander Challenge over the weekend, and talked a bit about a troubled Brago deck that wanted to tell a story. It reminded me of a deck that I’ve had for a long time that struggled out of the gate, and even needed to undergo a major change to survive.
When the deck started, it was actually an attempt at building a Canadian Highlander deck. The format was born and raised nearby, and looked like it might break out. I wanted to put a cheap, fun deck together that I could break out if needed. I also figured I might as well make it Commander compatible too, and keep the boss in the same sleeve as the rest, and shuffle it in for CH games. That meant no Command Tower, but otherwise I had what I thought was a pretty cool deck idea: Unlikely Allies.
I drafted Battle for Zendikar a fair bit, and had a bunch of Allies kicking around. They never really made waves in standard, other than maybe Zulaport Cutthroat, which was a shame. I liked the story and flavour of apocalyptic Zendikar. I like Eldrazi, but also the motley collection of mites in their way. I also liked the synergy. Allies are cheap individually, both to cast and to buy, so a synergy deck seemed ideal. I just needed a Commander so it could start taking shape.
When you build Allies, a lot of people begin and end with Tazri, which is absolutely fine. You get all the colours, plus a tutor effect. I don’t like to tutor, so Tazri to me isn’t worth much more than all the colours. I took a good look at the colours themselves in the Ally palette.
Blue offered flying, copy, and card draw in a handful of decent cards. Green had some mana fixing, some temporary go wide, and an infinite combo I’d rather avoid. High points, but in both colours it was a steep drop off after that. And playing all of those abilities started to seem like Slivers, more than Allies. I wanted the deck to feel like the combat on Zendikar. Dirty, gritty, hard fought.
I settled on Mardu. That’s red, white and black. It seemed cohesive in a way the others didn’t. I love this combo. It does a few things really well, and it has big time answers, like Crackling Doom. Naturally it struggles to draw cards and make mana without blue and green. My Ally synergy was going to be my ‘card advantage,’ and my curve was going to be super low, but I knew I needed a plan in case of fizzle.
Enter Zurgo Helmsmasher. I think I traded for one of these. It looked like wacky fun.
My plan with Zurgo was that he was a plan on his own: a three turn Commander damage clock. The Allies didn’t really need him, and he didn’t really need them, but they can cover each other’s weaknesses – ‘Unlikely Allies.’ I thought it was pretty clever. I even tucked an Eldrazi Displacer in there to play up the theme.
What I didn’t know is that Zurgo has a rep. He was/is a huge voltron threat, and people had Zurgo trauma. I took Zurgo out for the first time to a Commander Challenge, looking to play fair and win votes with my clever, synergistic Allies and my deck’s story. It didn’t help that it was the release weekend for that year’s Commander product, the prize pool was really lush, and the place was full of prize-seekers and tension. But that really doesn’t matter. I got stomped.
Zurgo got hated out early every game. In one game I was blasted by a turn 5 Kolizek, Butcher of Truth, powered out by Xenagos, God of the Revel. That’s the only time in Challenge where I’ve scooped to a non-winning play. I wasn’t killed, but I was so squished that it was unfair to give someone else an easy kill for cleaning up my leftovers. Kozilek ate the Allies. I had something like 2 life and 2 lands left. What could I do? It’s also fun to note that Xenagos and Kozilek were my first two Commanders. And I still maintain and occasionally play those decks.
I did very badly, with a deck I thought would do really well. It stung. Especially because I really liked playing the deck. It was strong, fair, and interactive. It had synergy. It leveraged a bunch a commons. It could do combat, but it had reach with all the lifedrain. It felt like Allies. I thought for sure I had nailed it. But every time I tried it, it was a major uphill battle as opponents eyed my Command zone with unease.
I was sure my deck had a fair amount of ‘Replay Value,’ which is the title of this post. It’s important to know why you want to play what you play. Some people really want to do something once, and don’t need to do it over again, but don’t realize this and spend a pile on a deck that sits in a box after one play. I’ve retired several decks after a single round of games, because they did their thing, and that was that.
In Brago and Zurgo’s cases, our Replay Value was stunted before we could assess it. We got undue hate. Our best intentions weren’t enough to offset the longstanding trauma caused by our Commanders. For a long time, Zurgo’s Unlikely Allies sat in a box. Replay Value or no.
It was too bad , because I was really into the concept. I mentioned the synergy. Finding cards that make each other better is great, and when that comes with a bit of a toolbox attached, like with Allies, is even better. Both synergy and toolbox are good contributors to a deck’s Replay Value.
Interactivity is another big reason to play a deck over again. Cards like Swords to Plowshares and Day of Judgment can look kind of blah in your decklist, but during a game they rise to their targets. There’s no end of good reasons to play cheap, interactive spells in general.
Another way to have great Replay Value is different ways to win. With this deck, I can do combat, but I have a wide variety of ways to get life points down outside of combat. Some little, some big. I think of this as ‘Reach,’ like the way a Lightning Bolt has Reach in a modern Jund deck, because it can deal the final few points of damage to kill an opponent through a stalled board if it isn’t needed to zap some dork. This deck is never stonewalled.
Finally, in the vein of not playing tutors, and playing synergy, and playing scrappy Allies, the deck is designed to put up a good fight with whatever opening hand is dealt. I find decks that have a single card, or handful of cards, that have to be there early or the deck is pointless, do not have Replay Value.
Things like being too powerful, or too linear, or assembling overly-complicated boardstates can kill a deck’s replayability. For example, I loved the idea of an Etali, Primal Storm deck, but in practice it was just complete insanity. I had to take these weird half-turns, where I passed on dozens of optional triggers, and probably could have won multiple games, but I had too much in play, and on the stack, and I couldn’t handle it. I retired that deck. I was hoping to not have to do that with my Mardu.
I was doing a big update of decks, trying to weed out some that had no Replay Value, and I came to Zurgo. I still liked the Allies. I wasn’t sure what had happened to Canadian Highlander, but there had been a Command Tower in the deck for a very long time. I wanted it to be a deck. There was an option, something I’d picked up cheaply to put in a cube. I just had to get over the ‘Zurgo’s Unlikely Allies’ thing.
Queen Marchesa took over. Right away, she was a better fit for the deck. I haven’t experienced much hate at all. The popular and excellent Monarch mechanic helps a lot when making friends and fun. It also helps the deck a great deal, addressing the need for card draw in a major way. Marchesa doesn’t suggest much in the way of linear play, either. It’s a great fit.
Marchesa has helped the deck push farther into ETB synergies, to great success. It plays cards I love, like Panharmonicon, in a way where I don’t have to hold back in order to keep from overwhelming the table, or myself.
I enjoy extra derpy synergy, so the potential for playing the Mardu Marchesa deck in March, and casting March from the Tomb into Mirror March… Well that would be March Madness.
I enjoy sneaky stuff, like having a fair amount of ‘any mana’ lands to be able to cast Unified Front for 4. Those extra ETB triggers have won me games.
Some of the cards I have in the deck will be new to me to the first time I play them. I have yet to cast Theater of Horrors and Rescue from the Underworld. I’m already looking forward to playing this again.
I wrote about the Thopulator deck I played at Challenge over the weekend, and while it is also an ETB deck that makes tokens, I try to maximize their differences, and not overlap cards like Conjurer’s Closet, or Flameshadow Conjuring. Having a couple of decks that do very similar things is not good for Replay Value.
I find I want to play this deck a lot, and when a new set comes out, I look for things that add to it. ETB enablers, new Allies, even Changelings. That means I’m usually short on mana, as I tend to cut mana rocks to shoehorn the newest hotness in. I have to tinker with the deck a lot, which is yet another aspect of Replay Value. You might only take it out for a spin once or twice, but you might spent all year with it in the garage. My Marchesa Mardu Allies deck is right where I want it now, a highly enjoyable state of flux.
Can any of this apply to Brago? Yes. I would recommend evaluating the deck for Replay Value. If you will be happy telling the story once, and then moving on, push for that. Throne of Eldraine probably has some good tools for you. Once you’ve done it, you can kiss the hate good-bye and build something else. But if you find there’s a lot about it that leans into replayability, or you want to tell that story again and again, it’s good to take a step back and honestly address what’s keeping you from playing the deck effectively. Maybe you just have to move Brago into the 99, and make the story about finding him. Or maybe a whole new approach will set you free.
Finding a deck with Replay Value is one of the best things you can do in Commander. Not only will it give you good games, but it will save you on spending on new decks, and help you define what your playstyle is. Sometimes taking out a single card, and making a minor compromise on theme, can be the difference between repeatable fun and frustrating fails. Thanks for reading!