January Commander Challenge – Salty Soup

Hi Commander fans! I’ve been struggling to get this particular Challenge report out, and it’s been a month now. My notes are a bit of mess, and I’m hazy on details of games. Plus one game ended in unsatisfactory fashion, and there was salt.

So I’m going to try and piece together the salient points of the day, and pass on the thoughts I’ve accumulated on getting salty in Commander.

First of all, I played another in my series of mono-coloured decks. This time it was blue, commanded by Nezahal, Primal Tide. While there’s a bit of Loch Ness Monster in Nezzie here, I’m focusing more on the dinosaur aspect, and specifically the historical times before anything of note was on land. I called the deck ‘Primordial Soup’ as a nod to those early days of wild evolution, change and some sea monsters. The deck is here.

I didn’t play Hot Soup. Too punny. There are lots of shapeshifters, to reflect the evolving sea creatures. There are a few giants of the early ocean, like Stormtide Leviathan.

I chose a small handful of sea monsters based on utility, but also uniqueness of type. Riptide Shapeshifter is about as tutory as I get, and while I gave myself a small toolbox of targets (god, eldrazi, leviathan, worm, cleric, kraken and wall) I named shapeshifter every time out.

I chose removal based on how stuff turned into other stuff, especially into rudimentary ‘land’ creatures, like frog lizards.

I included a number of ‘time’ references, and one to archaeology in Soldevi Excavations.

Finally, my mana base (beyond the above card) was all land you’d find in that early sea. Very simple. I chose cards with art that included finite coastlines. Ocean rules.

Finally, I went with a very shaky ramp-less mana base. No Sol Ring. Sol Rings evolved later. I have a Copy Artifact if I want a Sol Ring. While this is great for the theme, in actual gameplay, it’s stormy seas. My Commander alone is a whopping 7 mana, and while it has some native survivability, I feel like casting it a second time is maybe a touch out of reach. Why play a deck like this then?

Personally, I find a lot of what blue does is kinda… unfun. Permission especially. Playing counterspells in a multiplayer format is often more about protecting your plan in a critical spot, or saving a game from an abrupt end, than keeping the whole table in line. I’ve seen it happen, however, where a blue deck shut down everything a whole table did, and then comboed off with High Tide and some wincon I don’t remember. Not a style I want to play at all. Similarly, there’s ‘Turns’ decks, which use cards that give them extra turns until they can beat you with any 1/1.

I like blue as a support colour. Clever Impersonator is one of my favourite blue cards, and I have many others. Outside of tribal and deck-specific stuff, the blue cards I play regularly are like the Impersonator: copy cards. Finding a theme that put copy cards together with sea monsters, helmed by the one dinosaur I can’t play in my 4-colour dinosaur deck, seemed right. Once committed to that theme, the suite of artifacts that ramp mana for blue all seemed a little too… human-made. I can play Caged Sun any old time. This deck would definitely play differently from anything I’ve played recently, and maybe ever.

Game 1? (I think) Akiri, Line-Slinger partnered with Ishai, Ojutai Dragonspeaker vs. Marwyn, the Nurturer vs. Grand Arbiter Augustin IV vs. Me

I’ve written a lot about this partners deck. I see it often. Once it gets going, it can present multiple game-winning threats at once, each on an entirely different axis of play. Oh, and they synergize.

Marwyn decks have popped up a lot in my games recently. Marwyn is a nasty combo engine, often tapping for dozens of mana over the course of some crazy turns. This Marwyn deck wasn’t as all-in combo as some others, but played a similar endgame: Natural Order on a board full of elvish dorks to summon an overrun-style creature like End-Raze Forerunners. Knowing that, however, still means you have to stop it. Yikes.

I wish I’d seen more of the Grand Arbiter Augustin IV deck. There was a little mill, with Sphinx’s Tutelage, and some indication of control, but blue/white doesn’t really want to tip their hand too much. Maybe the pilot was happy to keep the plans under wraps for next time.

From my notes, the game was a quick horse race between Marwyn and the Partners. Marwyn dropped dorks on turns 2-6, and on 7 used Natural Order to grab a big pig and take out Grand Arbiter Augustin IV.

The Partners had helped get GAA down to an alpha-able 29 with an imposing board. I said the deck attacks from multiple synergistic angles at once. This time it was Commander Akiri coming down early, followed by Mirror Entity and Commander Ishai.

Ishai and the Entity make a great pair, as the bird person keeps the +1/+1 counters on top of the new X/X. The Partners deck plays all sorts of army-in-a-can cards, which also wreak havoc with Mirror Entity. The Partners then played a Mechanized Production on their Great Furnace land, ramping, producing more artifacts, and pushing toward a tough-to-interact-with wincon.

Turn 8, the Partners were able to kill Marwyn in a single stroke from Ishai and the Entity. That left me. I was able to produce the Stormtide Leviathan, and use Curse of the Swine to get rid of some offending creatures, but I had to hang on while the Partners added Impact Tremors and Reckless Fireweaver to passively ping my life away.

True Conviction and Gratuitous Violence were the writing on the wall for me, and not even buying back my Capsize was enough. I was carved up from more angles than I could defend against, and the Partners took the game. I did manage to drag it out until turn 17, but a fish flailing around in the bottom of a boat isn’t really keeping track of time, is it? On to game 2!

Game 2? (I think. I really have to make a point of recording the order) – Mathas, Fiend Seeker vs. Queen Marchesa vs. Nissa, Vastwood Seer vs. Kruphix, God of Horizons, vs. Me.

The Mathas deck looked to be all about the bounty counters, which is really cool. I’ve played with the card in a 99, and it was fun. I wish cards like Mathas weren’t so slow, however, and I’m not sure what to do about it. Haste, trigger-doublers and such will help out, but in the sometimes very fast pace of Commander, a card like Mathas requires too many things to go right over the course of a round of turns to be impactful.

Queen Marchesa can be a pretty good deck to put Mathas in. The Queen lends herself to great many builds, including my own, which is Allies. This one was hyper-aggressive, and used the Queen as a voltron-type, to get in quick Commander Damage kills. Sword of Feast and Famine and Empyrial Armor made the Queen into a scary threat quickly. One thing mardu does surprisingly well is tutor cheaply. Not my cup of tea, but not hard to get your pieces together quick.

The Nissa deck played powerful green goodstuff, but no synergy emerged to put the deck in a position to do anything other than keep pace. Great cards, though. Lifecrafter’s Bestiary is something I’m looking forward to playing with when I do mono-green. As with a lot of decks that can cast it, Avenger of Zendikar is a finisher on demand.

The Kruphix deck was a goodstuff deck, too. More like greatstuff. There’s a fairly prevalent theory in Commander deckbuilding, called the 75% mentality. The idea goes that you play cards that are not among the top 25% of overall Magic card power level. There are a few reasons for this. First, if you want serious competition, a 100-card singleton format pales before pretty much all the other MTG formats. Second, the format was designed as an alternative to tournaments and competition, in large part because those formats strangled the playable card pool down to a handful of OP bombs and situational enablers. Fun 5-7 drops were left out in the cold. So yeah, fun. And that leads into the best reason not to play more powerful cards: you get hate, and people get salty. Getting hate can mean you get to be a big target, or maybe you’re not included in game 2. In Commander Challenge, where votes are more important than kills, not getting hate can be the difference in where you place in the prize draft. If you care about winning, you have to care about how your play is perceived.

Having said all that, I’ll tell this was a bit of a non-game. Kruphix got the Commander down turn 3, and Jin-Gitaxias turn 5.

We tried to get rid of J-G, but it was backed by Pact of Negation. Mana Drain helped out too.

From there it was a sequence of Seedborn Muse, Sensei’s Divining Top, Time Stretch, and Mana Reflection.

From there it was tutoring for Eldrazi titans and looping Time Stretch. The rest of the table was not happy, and any attempts to resist were met with incredulity. I’m not happy to say that I scooped. I don’t like conceding a game, but most of my meager permanents had just been stolen with It That Betrays, and I wasn’t interested in seeing them used to play with the table like a cat playing with a limbless mouse. I think what I find especially irksome about this whole thing was the reluctance to just win the game.

I wanted a coffee, and didn’t want to get any saltier, so I stepped away from the table. I’m not proud of doing that, and really should have stayed and let my vote speak for me. The Kruphix pilot insisted that they were just playing powerful cards, but they were not new to the Commander Challenge concept. I’ve been turning this over and over in my mind, and while I agree that powerful cards are powerful cards, and playing with that kind of stuff is what Commander is for, it’s not for me. I’m probably going to go on and lose to plenty of decks like this, or ever nastier ones, where instead of greatstuff, they do a focused combo kill in the early turns. But I’m going to try and find the positive. Magic’s beauty is diversity, and there’s always a game 2, and in Challenge, a vote to help keep the nastier decks from coming back too often. What do you think? Here’s a poll to help find out.

Game 3 (Pretty sure) Me vs. Oloro, Ageless Ascetic vs. Questing Beast vs. Zirilan of the Claw

I enjoy playing against Oloro decks. I’ve played against this one a few times, and against a couple of others. It’s always kind of comical to ask the Oloro player what their life total is, and to react with ‘What??!!!’ The passive lifegain from the Command Zone is really strong, and makes sure the archetype always has fuel for something. Just what this Oloro deck was planning to kill us with was a bit of a mystery. There were plenty of control elements, and I’m wondering if the idea wasn’t to run ways to use the opposing stuff against them, paired with damage-over-time effects. Play a long game.

The Questing Beast deck was also one I’ve seen before. This one comes with quest cards, handed out by the pilot, to give the opponents stuff to accomplish, and to win the QB pilot’s vote at the end. It totally warps the game, but in a great way. This deck plays powerful cards, but never seems to be overdoing it. The signature card I’ve come to associate with this deck is Hornet Queen. Strong, but expensive. Hardly OP, but can stop a lot of decks cold.

Zirilan of the Claw is a old card from the early days when Legend was a creature type. Zirilan does dragons. Tricks with dragons. Through the eye of a needle, produced from the ear of a small child, stuff like that. Y’know, Magic.

Like I say, the ‘quest card’ aspect of things warps the game. I found myself doing lots of things I would never do, like attacking for 0 into a swarm of blockers just to record the attack, and the defending player letting my creature through unblocked.

Hornet Queen made an appearance, naturally. Questing Beast threw haymakers all game, and looking at the list of cards they played, it’s a wonder any of the rest of us survived. Oloro played Ghostly Prison early, which I copied with Estrid’s Invocation, and Zirilan played haymakers too. Questing Beast was able to push out Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger pretty early, and it stuck around long enough to be copied several times by Oloro and myself.

I was able to make good on two of my quests, involving attacking every turn if possible with every creature I had, and something I didn’t write down. D’oh! One of Zirilan’s quests involved killing the player opposite them, which they did with a consistent application of dragon pressure. Drakuseth did most of the heavy lifting, and tricks were done with Mirror of the Forebears and Endless Sands.

The killing blow involved Bogardan Hellkite and Tyrant’s Familiar, taking out the hapless player across from Zirilan: Questing Beast. The QB could hardly argue with dying to their own quest. We had gone to extra turns at this point, and I managed to kill Zirilan one turn after they killed QB with my copy of Ulamog. Oloro finished the game at 74 life.

We revealed our quests, and I had the most quest points! Huzzah! On to game 4!

Game 4 (almost 100% sure) – The Partners Akiri and Ishai vs. Queen Marchesa vs. Korvold, Fae-Cursed King vs. Oloro, Ageless Ascetic vs. Me

Sometimes you play against the same decks. The Partners, Marchesa and Oloro were all the decks I played in the previous games. Tough to say much more than that. Korvold is new kid on the block, appearing in Eldraine Brawl decks. I’ve never seen it in action before. While Brawl is still in that induced coma in the Wizards’ long term care shelf, the decks are a pretty good way to start off a Commander deck. At the very least you’ll be forced to fill it out yourself rather than play it from the box, like the various Commander precons with their cumbersome builds and bad mana. It looked like this build was a modified Brawl deck, as all the cards played were Standard legal. I hope the pilot enjoyed their Challenge experience and will be back. In large part so I can see what the deck does.

Why didn’t I? Well Marchesa got a bit of a nut draw, loading up the Queen with a Sword of Feast and Famine and an Empyrial Plate really early. Really early. Oloro was dead from Commander damage on turn 4 early. I managed to bounce the board with Devastation Tide off of my suspended Ancestral Vision, and counter her once with Overwhelming Denial, but Queen Marchesa would not be denied.

Marchesa killed Korvold on turn 8 and looked at me. I could see the partners massing on the other side. This time it was planeswalkers like Tezzeret, Artifice Master and Saheeli the Gifted to make artifact token creatures.

I was able to slow Queen Marchesa with a Wall of Stolen Identity, also getting the Monarch for my troubles.

The Partners’ boardstate grew and grew, but Queen Marchesa kept them off balance with Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite and Olivia Voldaren. The game went long, and in extra turns, Queen Marchesa was able to squeak enough damage through to kill me. The Partners’ ended up with 47 life, never threatened once during the game. Time for prizes! Hopefully not too many white elephants….

I’m pretty sure the overall winner was Zirilan of the Claw! If I’m not mistaken, they took home a Secret Lair, the one with the snow lands. Very nice. I finished in the lower half of the pack, and still managed to get a Signature Spellbook: Gideon, which is going to stay unopened.

My foray into the deep, primordial oceans of mono-blue is finished, and as of writing this, the deck has already been broken down for parts. The sea-monsters were fun, and the copying stuff was fun, but overall the deck wasn’t for me. I also shouldn’t have been surprised to find salt in the ocean, and hopefully it will season my experiences going forward. Thanks for reading, and may your games be sweet!


Leave a Reply