The December Commander Challenges – Part 1

Happy New Year Commander enthusiasts! It’s been a while since I posted anything, in large part because of a busy holiday season. I’m sure many of you experienced it in some form or another, either via family obligations, work overload, or being any part of the extremely overburdened package transport industry. Thanks to the delivery people who brought product to my place of business. You rocked.

If you celebrated any Holiday over the same period, I wish you a happy That, and a productive New Year. This one, and the ones in our immediate future, are going to take more effort than we’re used to. There are a lot of troublesome things happening in the world, and resolving them might be our greatest challenge as humans.

But there is still room for levity, by which I mean fun, and if that fun is smart and community-oriented, as Commander is, then it’s a worthy release of some of this existential pressure. Do take time to keep up with your world, and how you can help it. As always, it never hurts to send Wizards or Maro a gentle message about reducing plastic in their product, and packaging overall.

I have a pair of Commander Challenges from December that I haven’t covered yet. The play-by-play style I’ve used previously is a bit exhausting, and really suffers from my not being able to link cards in text (at present). So I’m going to try and do something a little different. I’m going to try and break down the whole match in a more digestible chunk, and talk more about the decks and what they’re doing.

Some of my coverage has amounted to a bunch of random early game things from 3 of the 4 decks, and then a turn 5 combo from the other one. That’s fine, because it’s a part of Commander I’ve learned to accept. In the case of the Challenge, that player rarely gets votes, and the table can then play another game. Sometimes decks just go off, too. It’s not that they’re built that way, it’s just that things lined up. So I don’t begrudge those games. In terms of coverage, it means a bit of a blah, however, and not enough attention to the decks that didn’t shine. Long story short, I’m going to try and rectify that. Let me know how I do!

One other quick note: I’ve been subtly playing a mono-coloured cycle of decks. I’m two in and have my third ready to go for the Challenge. I have some thoughts about mono-coloured decks in general that I’m going to share when the cycle is complete. In December I chose two of the new Legendary ladies from Eldraine: Syr Carah the Bold, and Linden, the Steadfast Queen. One was the trap I sort-of expected, and would not be something I would ever play again. The other was the delightful experience I hoped for, and is one of my all-time favourite decks already. Mono-red and mono-white. Can you guess which ended up being which?

Commander Challenge – Dec 7, 2019

I chose Syr Carah for this one. Here’s the deck. I have this core of red cards that I really like, and they’ve hopped from deck to deck now, trying to find an ideal home. The core is stuff like Past in Flames, Mizzix’s Mastery, Mana Geyser, and Bonus Round. There’s plenty more, and the ‘core’ is probably close to 20 cards. The casual observer would see the truth immediately: it’s a Storm pile.

I don’t want to Storm off. I appreciate the puzzle-like aspect to a crazy stack… in formats like Modern and Legacy… as an outside observer. But when it comes to Commander, I’m all about the sort of midrange interaction soup that is more like a boardgame where we all play, rather than a puzzle that 3 other people watch me figure out. So what the heck am I doing with Syr Carah and this red Storm pile? Didn’t I learn my lesson with Etali, Primal Storm and the Chandra and Spellcows decks that fizzled? Didn’t I?

Game 1 – Ishai, Ojutai Dragonspeaker and Akiri, Line Slinger vs. Me vs. Nicol Bolas, the Ravager vs. Yeva, Nature’s Herald.

If you’ve read my previous entries, you’ve probably read about the Partners’ deck. I don’t see much of an ongoing meta, so this deck stands out as one of the few evolving concepts I get to see on a regular basis. It’s very strong and very fast, and leverages everything it does for a slight advantage. Looking at the Commanders will give you an indication of how it functions. Ishai is a massive singular threat that punishes busy opponents who don’t close the deal. He’s evasive and wears equipment well. Similarly, Akiri is a cheap threat that gets big and strong quickly by playing things like equipment and mana rocks that would naturally get you to Ishai. The colours do a few things extremely well. In red, haste. In blue, spot counter magic and a few powerful sweepers like Cyclonic Rift. In white, spot Exile and boardwipes. The Boros combo additionally does combat well, and provides several ‘armies-in-a-can’ effects, like Assemble the Legion, that this deck has used to great effect in the past.

The Nicol Bolas, the Ravager deck was a combination thematic/goodstuff Nicol Bolas deck. The kind of thing the creators of EDH had in mind (pretty much exactly) when they designed the format in the first place. I like this concept, but it’s quite strong, and even if you’re playing more on theme than on power, expect to be a target. But that comes with playing the villain, and the colours are suited to embrace it. From what I saw, the deck used a lot of on-theme ramp like Pyramid of the Pantheon and God-Pharaoh’s Statue to get to the big bad Bolas spells. Very cool. I have a personal bias against Torment of Hailfire, however. I think this card is too strong when scaled into a 4+ player game. Each mana spent simply does too much, and as a topdeck, turns too easily into a one-sided mini Decree of Annihilation. If Torment is in your meta, try running cards that copy spells or take control of them.

Finally, the Yeva, Nature’s Herald deck played strong green threats, and gave a good look at why green is enjoying the status of most-banned-in-all-formats-recently. Green is strong on its own, and can do all the things. The foundation is the same across all formats: mana ramp. Some do it with Elves, some with Noble Hierarch. Some fetch lands, some Rotate their Crops to grow Marit Lages, which isn’t really mana ramp, but falls under the same umbrella of land manipulation that finds the lands that best fit the situation. That’s so green. This deck played what can safely be called ‘good stuff.’ Things like Tireless Tracker and Sylvan Library. This is the kind of deck I would recommend new players taking a look at building. Cheap intro pieces, consistent mana, lots of room for personalization, and plenty of powerful stuff to add if you really like the concept. Something green decks do in Commander in addition to all the other things is draw cards well. This deck certainly did that.

In our game, the Partners got off to a hot start, playing Altar of the Brood turn one and milling us liberally. I’m not sure what the exact purpose of it in the deck was, but I imagine there’s a combo there somewhere.

I was able to ramp effectively by way of Wayfarer’s Bauble and Terrain Generator, both choices that fit well into my plan of leveraging basic mountains as much as possible. Red has limited mana options, and stuff that gets those mountains on board is big game. I also landed a Gilded Lotus later on, so mana was not a problem for me.

Bolas played a lot of Bolas stuff, like Augur of Bolas, and the excellent Unstable Obelisk. Yeva got off a fantastic green card draw creature in Ohran Viper, and started drawing. We were all humming. The Partners had the edge, though, and produced an early Ishai. Since it was so early, and we were all playing stuff, Ishai grew quickly. The Partners backed it up with a recent army-in-a-can variant, Saheeli, the Gifted.

Making servos triggered the Altar of the Brood, too, and we were all milling a lot. Bolas and Yeva built up their boards with cards like Mindclaw Shaman and Spark Reaper for the dragon, and Hornet’s Nest and Tireless Tracker for the Herald.

On turn 6, the Partners dropped Panharmonicon, which was too much for me, and got blasted with my Chaos Warp, turning into a Broodstar.

I drew the wrath of Ishai for that, and was attacked for 9 Commander Damage. On my turn, I played my Commander and decided I didn’t want to take another Ishai hit, and added Glacial Chasm.

Commander Bolas made an appearance, which allowed me to sneakily discard Volcanic Spray. Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma, which is one of the best Commander options for a new-player mono green deck, appeared on Yeva’s side. The Partners changed gears quickly on a victory plan, and put Mechanized Production on Altar of the Brood.

But it was not to be for my opponents. I was able to flashback Volcanic Spray to start a chain that ended the game. I’d milled a ton of cards by now, and the overloaded Mizzix’s Mastery I played started with a Mana Geyser, and ended with my opponents clinging to life.

All in all I played 13 cards, and put myself so far ahead, it was kind of embarrassing to pass. Two turns later, I played an Earthquake that finished the table, although Bolas used the Unstable Obelisk to destroy my Glacial Chasm and have it take me out too. I had mana open, and some stuff in my hand and flashback stuff, and I probably could have Stormed around a bit briefly, like a fish in a boat, before probably fizzling, but sometimes it feels appropriate to have a game end in a certain way, and this was one of those times.

So a quick game one, and I was already clued into how I didn’t like the deck. I was hoping for some kind of mini-flurry every turn, but I don’t know if that’s really practical. This deck wants to Storm hard. Syr Carah is a crazy Commander Storm machine. Were I to do the deck with CEDH in mind, I’d go the fast mana route with a few Storm finishers like Grapeshot. With every ritual available, plus any free artifact mana like Mana Crypt, and lands like Ancient Tomb, this could Storm to victory in the first couple of turns. Syr Carah and any spell that damages all players, like Volcanic Spray, gives you a pseudo ‘draw 4.’ Spells like this at 2 mana or so, combined with rituals, can start to net mana in a hurry, and give you a crazy fast Storm count. Untapping with Syr Carah in play felt like I was going to win the game every time, and it wasn’t close to an optimum build.

Game 2 – Hallar, the Firefletcher vs. Atla Palani vs. Nest Tender vs. Me vs.Yarok, the Desecrated.

The Hallar deck is surprisingly strong for a deck that stands to gain substantially later this year. There are a few great cards with Kicker, and a few mediocre ones, and a few bad ones, and that’s all. But Kicker, and Multikicker, seem to be a Zendikar thing, and we’re headed back there. As the quality of the Kicker spells goes up, so too does Hallar’s stock as a Commander. Don’t sleep on how easy it is to get +1/+1 counters on Hallar as well, using things like Forgotten Ancient and Hardened Scales. It’s an interesting sort of Voltron, where spellslinging, not attacking, is the mechanism of victory. Pretty cool. There’s some recent spicy tech I’m glad to see in this build. More on that below.

This is the second Atla Palani deck I’ve seen, and neither were the kind of decks I eggspected. The first was a self-described Impact Tremors deck. This current one was basically Legacy Oath in a thin-shelled disguise. Not familiar with Legacy Oath? It’s from the Legacy Format, which allows you to play everything but the Power 9 and some other nonsense in your regular 60 card, 4 of each format. These decks are very powerful, and leverage cards like Oath of Druids to put big nasty creatures in play wayyyyy ahead of schedule.

Giving your opponent a creature using Forbidden Orchard has long been the method of triggering Oath, but recently, Oko, Thief of Crowns has joined up to turn their stuff into Elks that also conveniently trigger Oath. Oko can’t be found with Oath, which is why he’s good, because he doesn’t disrupt the game-ending creature plan, but honestly, Oko is probably better than any other permanent anyway, so I don’t know if Oath decks are just Oko decks with some backup plan of a tried and true Legacy game winner stapled to it. I digress. When you trigger Oath, out comes Emrakul or something that’s nastier based on the meta, because it’s one of a tiny handful of creatures in your deck. And you win. And I said this Atla Palani deck was (not so) secretly Legacy Oath. It showed why below.

The third member of our group was Yarok the Desecrated. I can’t say much about this deck, because, as you’ll soon see, the game didn’t allow for Yarok or myself to do much.

The early turns were unremarkable, although Atla Palani played a fetchland (Arid Mesa) and Mana Crypt. An Ashnod’s Altar followed. I have this pretty high on my ‘kill on sight’ list. Ashnod’s and Phyrexian Altar win games. They’re easy to leverage, and hard to interact with, and even stop a lot of powerful exile effects by sacrificing creatures for value in response. Don’t let these cards fool you. Get rid of them ASAP.

Atla Palani got the Commander out early, too, and on turn 4 turned Hallar’s play into a major swing, with a touch of controversy at the end. Hallar played Pir’s Whim, and while the smart play is usually just to make everybody a foe, Hallar agreed to a deal with Atla Palani, where Hallar would receive ‘Protection from’ all things Atla Palani for 5 turns in exchange for friend status.

This is a pretty good deal for Hallar, as 5 turns is a long time. But deals in Commander are a fickle thing, and not everybody is willing to make or honour them. I’ll happily discuss a lethal board state with the table if we’re all about to be killed and discussion might be the only way to figure out if we can live, but generally speaking, I’m not making deals. They can backfire terribly, and I’m not sure I was ever offered a deal from anyone who wasn’t going to profit from it greatly. That’s the nature of deals. You make them to better your position. I’m reluctant to help you do that, even if I don’t reap some temporary benefit of my own. Too often it becomes a game of you trying to talk me into letting you win.

Atla Palani was able to get friend status, and played an extra land. It was enough when it came to their turn to activate the Commander and make an Egg. And then turn into Legacy Oath by playing a Mirror Entity and activating it for 0. This made itself, the Egg token and Atla Palani into 0/0 creatures with all creature types, including Egg, triggering Atla Palani to summon 2 creatures from the deck directly into play. Atla Palani was sent to the Command Zone to keep a third trigger from happening, but the 2 triggers brought Village Bell-Ringer and It that Betrays.

Concordant Crossroads followed, giving the huge Eldrazi haste. Everything got haste.

It that Betrays took out my boardstate pretty effectively, including my lands. I was completely out of the game. Yarok seemed similarly helpless against the massive Eldrazi. Hallar played the spicy tech I mentioned above in Fires of Invention. Why is this spicy? Because Hallar loves Kicker, and Fires plays your spell for free, keeping your mana up for Kicker. Being Red and Green means you’re not holding up mana for Instants too often. I think this is a good card in a good shell that will, like Hallar, only get better.

Atla Palani was able to put Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre into play on the next turn, and both Yarok and I scooped. We were going to make Atla Palani earn the points by beating an opponent who had Protection from them for several more turns. That’s kind of unfair, but our mana bases were decimated, and we were toast anyway. The way scooping works in Challenge is that the points given for killing us become free floating, and go to the person alive at the end. The winner would take all. This led to an interesting dilemma, as Hallar played Wolfbriar Elemental into Forgotten Ancient, and along with the Commander and a Loyal Guardian, attacked Atla Palani for 21.

If Atla Palani honoured the deal, they would most assuredly lose the game. If they broke the deal, votes would probably not go their way. Without a good solution to choose from, Atla Palani tried sacrificing an Egg token to get a finisher, breaking the deal. The creature ended up being Sigarda, Host of Herons, in the deck for defensive purposes, but not a huge offensive force.

Hallar was still sitting at 40, and despite Atla’s best efforts, any attack was only for 39, even with Annihilator. Atla attacked for 39. Annihilator 6. Then Atla noticed a strange Desert on board, and activated their Ramunap Ruins for 2 more damage and the win. Or did they…? Atla Palani handed the Ruins back to me, as it was my card, stolen with It that Betrays, raising the question of whether or not it should still be in play. We decided that we might be in for some time-travel, and called the judge. The ruling was in favour of the do-over, and the land retroactively disappeared when I did, leaving Hallar very much alive at 1 life and the game still on.

Atla Palani was unable to find that last point of damage, and died on the following turn. Commander is a complicated game. The sneaky factor leading to Atla’s demise was the Concordant Crossroads. Giving Hallar’s stuff haste made a huge difference. And sometimes that last one damage is just out of reach.

After the game, the Atla Palani pilot lamented a bit that people weren’t crazy about some of the cards they play. I can say that in our case, it’s Annihilator creatures. Annihilator sucks, and here’s why: almost nobody plays Eldrazi on curve because they cost upwards of 9 mana, so they’re cheated out early, and that means Annihilator usually hits early enough to crush your mana base. Once that happens you get to topdeck stuff you can’t cast until they kill you at their leisure. Do you enjoy mana screw? Does anyone? It’s kind of too late for Eldrazi not to just be a part of Magic, among many broken options. Having a high CMC and RL $ cost are mitigating factors, but Eldrazi are mostly ‘unfun’ cards. That’s a shame for Eldrazi, as they’re really flavourful and cool. Or should be. The newer Titans are a bit less oppressive, and with a minor tweak or two, I think Annihilator could be adjusted to make it less bad. If you can pay that much life as an option, for example 2 life instead of 2 permanents against Annihilator 2, it would be wayyyy more palatable. Or if the defending player could choose either to take the Annihilator trigger or the attack but not both…. Try those as house rules if you want to have a more social Eldrazi experience. As a player of an aggressive, all-in, Legacy Oath style deck, it’s tough for the Atla Palani player to not just play the nastiest creatures going. I’m not sure what you’d play otherwise. If it were me, I’d look at the Myriad creatures, and ways to attack all opponents at once. That or grab a theme, like Beasts or Dragons. Hopefully, the upcoming Ikoria expansion offers some fun juggernauts to play in decks like this.

Game 3 – Sliver Overlord vs. Shalai, Voice of Plenty vs. Prime Speaker Zegana vs. Me.

Sliver Overlord is one of the 5 colour Sliver lords that you typically see at the helm of a Sliver deck. Go figure. I think it’s one of the less expensive, but they’re all pretty expensive. Sliver decks tend to do the same thing over and over, mostly because certain aspects of the Sliververse are more effective than others. In the case of the Overlord here, you can even sequence your Sliver progression to quickly win, combo or react, depending on where you are in the game and what tools you have. Nasty. Like every 5 colour deck, however, the mana base can’t help but be rickety, and possibly a little slow. This game illustrated that perfectly.

Shalai? Shall I? It’s been a few weeks, but I pretty sure the Shalai pilot was talking about this deck being a ‘Secret-Commander’ deck. That means the real Commander is in the 99, not the Command zone, but the deck revolves around it just the same. I haven’t had much experience playing that sort of deck because it often requires tutoring to get that hidden Commander out of hiding. Not my thing. Any guesses at the identity? It took me a second to remember that Shalai has green mana symbols in the text. What the deck is should be pretty obvious from the game breakdown, so you can have a moment to guess if you haven’t already

To round out the group, we have the original OP Simic Commander, the card draw machine that is Prime Speaker Zegana. It’s so easy to draw cards with Zegana, to the degree that Laboratory Maniac is a common go-to wincon. Simic keeps getting great tools, in all of blue, green and the combination, so Prime Speaker is going to draw into powerful stuff. I’m hoping that 2020 brings something new to Simic. Not new powerful cards, but a new angle. I think Merfolk was a good attempt from Ixalan, but didn’t quite get there. Again, I digress. This Zegana deck gave me the impression of being a classic +1/+1 counter deck. This is one of the few archetypes that can be played in almost any combination of colours, and Simic does it well.

Did you guess Captain Sisay was the Secret Commander (Hidden Commander?) If you did, you were right. Over the course of the game, Sliver Overlord played Temur Ascendancy, Manaweft Sliver, Icon of Ancestry and Smothering Tithe, all of which are really strong in the Sliver piles, but none of which amounted to enough against Shalai, by which I mean Sisay. Prime Speaker Zegana played Simic Ascendancy, Kalonian Hydra and a big Zegana, but that was all. I had mana screw and discarded cards at end of turn. Yucky. I had to use a Vesuva on Zegana’s Temple of Mystery, but the Mystery was where my lands were. I had started with a pair of 3 CMC rocks and 2 lands. Oops. I did manage to Smash to Smithereens Sisay’s Thousand-Year Elixir, but not until after Sisay had used it to grab Gaea’s Cradle to play on turn 4.

Elspeth, Sun’s Champion was the next target, then Nissa, Genesis Mage, then the eye-popping flurry of Privileged Position, Pseudo-Commander Shalai, and Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite.

Things didn’t last much longer than that. Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, The Chain Veil, and Akroma’s Memorial all made an appearance, and then Kamahl, Fist of Krosa closed the deal. 12 activations for +36/+36 on turn 6. The early turns of Avacynian Missionary into the Elixir into Sisay set it all up. Mana dorks are surprisingly strong. So is ‘haste’. So is tutoring. None of the rest of us interacted enough. Sometimes you get run over by a deck that you can tell is designed to do that on turn five every time. This one, as the pilot also attested, simply went off. It’s really important to know the difference, because decks that kill early can make people salty, and some of that salt is unfounded. Sometimes decks go off, but it doesn’t mean the deck or the pilot is trying to oppress. See my game 1. In my deck’s case, however, the best approach to not oppressing is probably playing something else.

Game 4 – Oloro, Ageless Ascetic vs. Yeva, Nature’s Herald vs. Me vs. Kenrith, the Returned King.

Oloro decks are strong, as they have a steady source of both lifegain, making them naturally resilient, and lifegain triggers, making them highly synergizable. That’s probably not a real word, but I’m going with it. You get the idea. Having these sources of resilience and synergy be present in the Command Zone from the getgo is powerful and hard to disrupt. From what I saw, this was more of a gaindrain goodstuff deck, than anything more nasty. It was very strong, but played fair.

Yeva, Nature’s Herald was the same deck from Round 1. Looking for revenge on me!

Kenrith was one of the builds I initially hoped to see somebody try with the Eldraine Sovereign: Knights of the Round Table. The Kenrith pilot packed their deck with Eldraine cards in general, but the new spate of Knights were out in force. This is a fun concept for newer players to run with, and really benefits from the recent attention given to Knights. There are enough recent and decent to do this sort of deck, and the wide variety of Knights from Magic’s long history to make the deck something to return to over and over. I love Kenrith as a Commander, and will eventually build around him.

Of all my games from this Challenge, I remember this one the least. From my notes, it was a classic game, where everybody played stuff, and was back and forth until the end. Kenrith got active early, playing Syr Faren on turn 2, and doing something almost every turn. Oloro did Oloro things early, getting Kambal, Consul of Allocation down, followed by Smothering Tithe. Yeva started with a mana bird, and played the Commander at the end of turn before their own fourth turn. Nissa, Worldwaker followed on their turn. I didn’t help my reputation with Yeva by playing the Immortal Sun on my turn 4 off of a turn 3 Sol Ring. Turning off Planeswalkers is really not something I care too much about from the Sun. It’s a side bonus, but Yeva was really looking to use that Nissa.

Kenrith managed both The Great Henge and Faeburrow Elder on turn 4, having played Spinning Wheel the turn previous. Spinning Wheel, like Unstable Obelisk, is a mana rock with tremendous low opportunity potential.

By turn 5, Oloro was pushing 60 life and pushing out threats like Divinity of Pride. Yeva played a Terastodon to eat the Henge, the Tithe and my Immortal Sun. On my turn, I played All is Dust to wipe away a lot of the pressing concerns.

I was gambling on my ability to get something going before any of them could bounce back, but I was an easy target. I managed to get a Maze of Ith and Solemn Simulacrum out, but Oloro landed a Cliffhaven Vampire, and Yeva played a stream of powerful threats like Kalonian Twingrove and Verdurous Gearhulk, and took me out. Both Oloro and Kenrith helped take me down, and one of them Disallowed my Commander, which might have got me back in the game had it resolved. It was probably fitting that Yeva landed the killing blow, as payback for earlier.

After I bowed out for the day, Yeva played Frontier Siege, which I want to highlight as a card that always seems to catch people by surprise with how great it is at producing mana. Each of your main phases! This card is underplayed!!

Oloro played Lone Rider and flipped it into It that Rides as One, hanging on while Kenrith attacked them repeatedly with a lot of Knights. The Cliffhaven Vampire did tons of work, getting everyone’s life low.

Yeva shot through the middle when Kenrith had got as low as 8, and attacked the King for lethal. Oloro was ticking up again, close to 20, and looked to have turned the corner. Yeva fired off a huge The Great Aurora to try and stop the bleeding from the Vampire.

Oloro was left with a lot of land, but had the perfect answer: Debt to the Deathless, finishing off Yeva to end the day.

We went to the always exciting prize draft. It’s cool to point out that the top two positions were taken by women. The Magic community is pretty male-dominated, but the game of Magic is for everyone. I hope as Magic goes forward, the playerbase is a better and better representation of everyone. The deck that won the whole thing was a Yarok, the Desecrated deck with a signature play of Splendid Reclamation with Avenger of Zendikar in play for an overwhelming force of plant power.

Despite my dissatisfaction with the Syr Carah deck, I placed fourth overall! It was to my legit surprise, and I hadn’t considered finishing that high when selecting my top prize choices. The mystery box was still available, and so I went for it. Lucky me! I did some sort of spin thing, holding it over my head, even. Some prizes are the kind of thing you have to hold up. I won the Ponies. The My Little Pony promo silver bordered magic card Ponies. All three, in a lovely display box. Here they are.

At present, the Ponies are displayed in my living room, but if we get a stretch of silver-bordered legality in Commander this coming year (hooves crossed) I will try and build a deck around one of these Ponies. How could I not?

I still intend to find a home for my red Storm package. Some day. Maybe another stab at spell-based mill is in my future. Moving forward though, my sights were set on mono-white. My experience playing Linden as a serious Commander, which you now know was terrific, will be the stuff of part 2. I’m hoping to have that breakdown out by tomorrow. As always, thanks for reading, and may your Commander games be some nourishing midrange soup!


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