Commander Challenge 15/02/20 – That Valentine’s Day Deck

Sometimes things just line up. Late last year I started playing a cycle of mono-coloured Commander decks in Challenges. This was in part because I had just written about the various lands in each colour, and in part because I’d seen mono-coloured decks do well in Challenges time and again. I wanted to see if there was something to that. I’ll do a full report on those thoughts soon.

In December, I started with Red and White, the traditional colours of beverage advertising during the holiday season. In January, the first month of a new decade, I did a Blue deck about the beginnings of it all, recognizing the past, and the persistence of uncertainty. Or maybe it was about salty soup. So now we are at February, with two Challenges and two colours left to go. I had hoped that there’d be a Challenge near to Valentine’s Day, and luckily, there was! The 15th was close enough!

Some people might think Red and White together might be best for Valentine’s, but I wanted all along to go the colour of broken, bitter, and lonely hearts! Black!

Here we see my Commander of choice for this concept. Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis. Lots to unpack, initially, but I’ll skip right to the point: I want to nullify this guy’s Exalted. (Wait, what?) Nullify the Exalted. I want to get another creature in play, so the two of them can attack together! Like I dunno, say, a date. Sounds easy, right, but this is Valentine’s Day, and finding that special somecreature isn’t easy, and the deck I built doesn’t have any creatures in it at all. It’s here. So poor Nefarox, that poor lonely demon used to attacking alone, will have to take some from my opponents.

Enslave is the perfect card for this deck, though I could totally do without the name. I hope that functional reprints for cards with problematic names is something Wizards is onto. I also played stuff like Mark of the Oni (narrow!), and a new card I’ve been excited about in Minion’s Return.

There’s a growing number of cards like this, where when an enchanted creature dies, it comes back under the enchanter’s control. This works pretty well with Nefarox’s sacrifice trigger, too.

Mirror Shield is fun for the theme, because you can imagine Nefarox examining his horns in the mirror for gobbets of gore (too many? not enough?) before that big date! Plus it helps protect the demon so he can do his thang. If you look at my list, you’ll see plenty of haste and protection. While I did also include some innuendo cards, all of which are functional, haste and protection are not meant to be innuendo. If your deck revolves around getting a 6 drop into play and attacking with it, you need to make sure it can last, or have it get down to business right away. Regardless of what silliness you’re actually trying to accomplish, opponents are not going to let a large flying Commander Damage clock live if they can help it.

The worst case scenario for a deck like this is durdling until turn 6, playing the Commander, watching it die before turn 7, and then repeating every other turn with a growing tax each time. It’s not likely you’re still alive after much of this, but even worse, the theme has completely gone out the window. So Darksteel Plate and friends get in despite not really being on theme. I guess you could go to the Darksteel Restaurant, and that’s what your Darksteel Steak comes on, but it’s a stretch.

While I did include Giant’s Skewer to allow me to make Food tokens like this one…

…It didn’t quite work out. Like most relationships, the deck had plenty of highs and lows, unexpected finishes, and awkward fizzles. Speaking of awkward fizzles, once again I forgot to order my notes, so I’m not sure if the games I played in the Challenge were in the order I’m presenting them now. I don’t honestly think it matters, or that anyone cares, but for the sake of accuracy, I’m updating my note template to make sure it doesn’t happen again. To the games!

Game 1 – Ghired, Conclave Exile vs. Atris, Oracle of Half Truths vs. Agrus Kos, Wojek Veteran vs. Me.

I want this to be my first game of the day, because then it would be my first game with ALL FOUR of these Commanders (as Commanders). The only one of the four I’ve seen in play at all so far is Agrus Kos. Very cool. Ghired is a Commander I might build myself someday. Rhinos are cool, and the populate mechanic can lead to all sorts of fun. I find Ghired is held back a bit by needing the combat step. But often a drawback is what makes the deck spicy. Unfortunately I didn’t see much of what the deck intended. Mimic Vat was the highlight, but never figured much. A Chromatic Lantern showed that there had been upgrades well beyond the precon, so I’m hoping this one comes around again.

Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths was explained to me as a deck built around forcing the opponents to make awkward choices. Spoiler alert, Atris struggled with mana and never got going. The concept is very cool, and the pilot also wanted to mention the surprising efficacy of menace, something I saw firsthand when we played a second game afterwards. There was also a lot of ways to make Atris ETB again and again. Very strong deck in strong colours. I think Atris could easily be a big player in Commander. Do it right, and every ETB is almost draw 3.

Agrus Kos is awesomely old-school. Boros has a type, and it’s aggressive soldiers and angels who buff each other. While that’s probably innuendo, it can be pretty effective. Commander is a tough format to go aggro in. You have 3 times the opponents, who have double the life points of your typical game: 120 damage to do vs. your Standard 20. That’s a lot to ask of aggro, not even taking into account the mounting opposition you’ll face with each successive turn. And the severe deficiency in mana and card draw you have. But I still see Boros decks all the time. All sorts of different Commanders, too. This one played like a ‘best-of’ with all those powerful legendary threats. The ‘Who’s Who’ of Boros. As you’ll see, there’s definitely a method to the Boros madness!

Agrus Kos wasted no time getting going, and started dropping Boros names like it was some snooty Boros afterparty.

The Boros angels are really strong, and by turn 6, Agrus Kos was threatening lethal at the whole table. The only thing that saved me was looking up the rules for my Maze of Ith. The Maze actually prevents a creature from dealing or receiving combat damage for the whole turn, so I was able to stop two attacks from Agrus for the price of one. The damage would have been Commander-lethal. Kalemne was delighted by the experience.

Ghired played setup cards, but took a pounding from Agrus, and never got going. Atris stalled at 3 lands, and never found a fourth. On turn 8, Agrus brought Ghired down low enough to finish the rhino master off with Aurelia’s Fury.

In the meantime, I’d managed to get my Commander online, and put him in his ‘courting attire’ the good old Assault Suit.

I love Assault Suit. When I first discovered it, I thought it was party jank. The kind of silliness that’s great in theory, but never works in practice. But forced sacrifice is also a thing, and there are very few ways to stop something like Dictate of Erebos or All is Dust from eating your creatures. And I can always sing the praises of haste. By passing my demon around, I was able to use his forced sacrifice trigger to slowly whittle away Agrus’ board of legends. It also built up quite a lot of Commander Damage on Agrus Kos very quickly. The turn after Agrus finished Ghired, I was able to kill Agrus.

That left mana-starved Atris, who promptly conceded. Atris, Agrus and I played a second game while Ghired grabbed lunch. Our first game illustrated a flaw in the deck that will probably ultimately make it unplayable in the way I want it. The flaw, if it is one, is that Nefarox is a strong, evasive threat that can be a surprisingly quick Commander Damage kill. I wanted a drawn-out romance, but if I’m going to attack, games might be short. If Nefarox were a 2/2, or didn’t require an attack trigger, things might be different. But like in romance, expectations do not always line up with reality. On to game 2!

Game 2 – The Partners Akiri, Lineslinger and Ishai, Ojutai Dragonspeaker vs. Roon of the Hidden Realm vs. Kethis, the Hidden Hand vs. Me vs. Arcades, the Strategist.

Akiri and Ishai

The Partners deck has been my opponent at least once in most of the recent Challenges. I don’t really know what new things I can say about it. If you haven’t read those posts, the deck is a fast, aggressive concept built on extreme synergy producing multiple angles of attack at once. It’s quite something. I have seen it simultaneously go wide with a dozen or more tokens, build up a 15/15 flying Commander, get Mechanized Production to 5 copies of an indestructible land, and threaten to mill everyone out with Altar of the Brood. Yes, all at once. Without slowing down, and playing pretty much on curve. So yeah. I’ll also say how much I love the Partner mechanic, which is still offering new builds and combinations. I have no doubt we’ll see more Partner this year.

Roon loves ETB effects (ETBFx?), to no one’s surprise. Since Visions or so, ETBFx stapled to permanents has become something that defines Magic. That style of card has become the de facto standard for competitive play, ie. impact the board now, or die to removal and be forgotten. So many efficient, nasty threats have barely impacted Standard because they don’t do anything for a full turn. In Commander, we have decades of ETBFx to choose from, and lots more time to develop a board, so decks that want to blink stuff repeatedly for value can really get off the ground. Like this one. There are plenty of obvious choices, like Solemn Simulacrum and Coiling Oracle, but lots of interesting new ideas, too.

Kethis terrorized Standard for a couple of weeks, a million years ago in the Summer of 2019. Before the rise, fall, and complete Eternal dominance of Oko. Kethis Combo involved looping Mox Amber to mill oneself with Diligent Excavator until you can mill out your opponent or loop Oath of Kaya to kill them. Here’s an ‘old’ guide. The deck is possibly branching into Pioneer and Modern, but not making waves currently. As with the Standard version, this Commander Kethis deck was all about legendaries. The ones I saw weren’t the most synergistic, however, and were more individually powerful. This is a common approach, aka goodstuff, but I wonder if this Kethis deck suffered from lack of a cohesive synergy.

It’s tough to do an Arcades, the Strategist deck and not do walls. What else are you doing, and why? It’s not like any other Commander really does walls any better, either. So Arcades is stuck with walls, and walls are stuck with Arcades. Not a bad thing, really. What’s bad is mana screw. I think this Arcades deck was a wallful classic, but the pilot kept a one-lander to their own detriment. Wizards hasn’t done much with walls in recent times. There are a few green ones scattered about recent sets, and the token provided by The Birth of Meletis, but overall, walls don’t get much love. The one major exception is the Wall of Stolen Identity, which is singularly cool enough to give me hope for more cool walls in future.

Naturally, the Partners got a hot start, and Kethis was humming too. Even I had Arcades’ animated dead Angelic Wall. Arcades, like I said, was stuck on one land. All game. Lots of discarding at end of turn. Yuck.

Roon’s first non-land play was a Solemn Simulacrum on turn 4. One of my prime targets to pair up with my demon in this Challenge is definitely the Solemn Simulacrum. Solemn has the nickname ‘Sad Robot.’ I always picture Marvin the Paranoid Android from my own imagined visuals of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. Why so sad, Robot? Could it be loneliness? I responded with a Shade’s Form on it.

Roon decided the board was swole enough and destroyed all artifacts and enchantments with Cleansing Nova. That meant that Shade’s Form still kicked in, and I got the Solemn. I prettied it up with a Mask of Avacyn.

Kethis had played Vivien, Champion of the Wilds, a planeswalker I’ve written about a few times now. Planeswalkers are a tough go in Commander, and this is one that I think has some staying power. Watch out for it!

Kethis also played Gonti, Lord of Luxury and Privileged Position, but kinda peaked there. The Partners had some planeswalkers going, and kept on the fringes. I put Assault Suit on the Solemn and sent it around the table. Most of this was pretty moot. Turn 6, Roon played Aminatou’s Augury, and things worked out well.

Turn 7, Roon played Omniscience, which worked out even better.

The list of spells played after that is long and scary. Highlights include current a-lister Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, Camaraderie for 10, Camaraderie for 16 and some sneaky stuff that didn’t even get used.

Something I hadn’t considered is using manifest with blink. I guess the theory goes that when you blink a manifest or morph, it returns front side up. Roon was playing both of Primordial Mist and Scroll of Fate. That’s an interaction I’d like to investigate in further.

Roon attacked generously, but didn’t finish anyone off, and the Partners used Stolen Identity and Myr Battlesphere on their turn to kill Kethis.

Despite a Tomb of the Spirit Dragon activation that gained the Partners a whopping 12 life, nothing could stand before Roon, who cast Panharmonicon into Deadeye Navigator, and blinked Belfry Spirit (!) for enough Bat tokens to get in all our hair, and then finished it all off with Finale of Devastation for End-Raze Forerunners.

I personally think Finale of Devastation is too strong for Commander. It has ended the game on the spot every time I’ve seen it resolve. I feel like it takes too much of the work out of assembling a game-winning situation. But there are worse offenders, so this one just has to be tolerated as a common finisher of choice. I’m glad it was bats, at least. On to game 3!

Game 3 – Klothys, God of Destiny vs. Me vs. General Tazri vs. Aminatou, the Fateshifter

Klothys was an extremely pleasant surprise. I was hoping the new Gruul god was good, and it is! With a fantastic CMC that’s often turn 2 with a turn 1 mana dork, Klothys gets going early. The card is also pretty tough to remove. The incremental damage adds up, but seldom seems dangerous enough to be worth targeting. Plus coming back for 5 CMC the second time, and being indestructible make it hard to bother. So Klothys is probably going to stick around. This build expanded on the theme of incremental damage, and did it well.

General Tazri used to only mean allies, but now there’s a case for changelings as well. This one was Allies. Either way, the deck can grab pieces on demand, and find synergy or combos easily. While this makes the deck strong and consistent, it’s usually offset by two things: the struggle of 5 colour mana and the inability of allies to stand strong on their own. This is a really cool deck I’ve seen often over the years, and it’s getting pretty foiled out. Bling! I run a Queen Marchesa allies build and the green and blue cards I can’t run were the ones really featured by General Tazri this time. Nice to see how the other half lives.

The Aminatou deck was also one I’ve seen before, and it’s a doozy. While it does want to use Aminatou to blink things like Hostage Taker, it is perfectly content to play haymakers like Sheoldred, Whispering One backed up with countermagic and removal like Vindicate. This player has inspired some of my best plays, mostly trying to stop them. Always a great adversary and a strong player!

As far as the game went, I’d say we all played cool tech and then it ended suddenly. Klothys played Gravity Well, which was one for me to file away.

Klothys also played Impatience, Omen of the Forge and Guttersnipe, getting damage over time plus devotion. A late game Terastodon did some work, and more when I reanimated it, but Klothys only got so far.

So too, Aminatou. The Commander came down on 3, and Sheoldred appeared later. There was high-end removal, and a Clever Impersonator to copy Tazri’s Smothering Tithe, but again, Aminatou didn’t finish.

I didn’t contribute much to the game overall, other than reanimating the big elephant and casting Crawlspace (a cobwebby little hideaway for two!). I even took damage from Impatience a couple of times. It was Tazri driving the bus from start to combo finish.

Halimar Excavator was the means of our demise. Well, really it was Arcane Adaptation plus Turntimber Ranger, which produces any amount of wolves you like.

While they’re often hampered by having to wait a turn to attack, they do just fine as mill triggers with the excavator. On turn 8, Tazri got the combo online, and we all flipped our decks into our graveyards. While we each had an upkeep to try and figure something out, nobody was able to do anything with it. Aminatou did get some props for casting Stunning Reversal on the death trigger from drawing for turn on an empty library, but then died to the draw 7 from the card.

The game was quick enough that we were able to get a good ways into a second before the final round was called. Game 4!

Game 4 – Me vs. Erebos, God of the Dead vs. Freyalise, Llanowar’s Fury vs. General Tazri

As strong card draw engines that’re also sometimes a huge indestructible creature, the Erebos’s are pretty generally great. That’s a blessing and a curse. Sure, they can go in just about any black deck and do great things, but they’re a little unspecific, and can be outperformed by niche cards in niche roles. But if you want to play a lot of big fun black cards, as this deck did, Erebos, either one, is an awesome choice.

Freyalise, Llanowar’s Fury is not a Commander I’ve seen in a long time. Years, maybe. And very seldom then. Commander as a format kinda popped after Freyalise was printed, and she was only reprinted as part of the Commander Anthology, which wasn’t in huge quantity, and was very expensive to buy. The pilot mentioned that they got the deck by splitting an anthology with friends. That’s a great way to do it. The deck was basically the precon, which is here. There are some sweet cards in there. Silklash Spider! Lifeblood Hydra! Wave of Vitriol! Song of the Dryads! Whirlwind!

Whirlwind is one that I think is underplayed. I’ve considered playing Hurricane before in green decks, just because the glaring weakness of the deck was big bad flyers.

And Tazri! Same one as before. Maybe this time I’ll be able to hold up some removal for infinite Wolf/Allies.

Or maybe I’ll find Christmasland on Valentine’s Day. Sometimes things just line up. The Erebos player recovered easily from mulliganing to 4, and played the perfect thing on turn 3 for me to take…

That’s right, after slapping an Unhallowed Pact on it, and their need for mana required a sacrifice… I stole another player’s Hart! Hard to top that, and while I played the rest of the game competently, I was already reclining after a big win. I was able to put Unholy Indenture on the Hart as well, and later, I cracked the Hart twice. Nice.

I should dial back a bit here. Erebos had taken an extra turn with Temporal Extortion and had Magus of the Coffers in play.

Freyalise had the Commander and Standard bomb Nissa Who Shakes the World in play, enabling various elves and Thunderfoot Baloth.

Tazri had the Halimar Excavator, and copied it twice with Jwari Shapeshifter and Phyrexian Metamorph.

Freyalise took the brunt of the milling, and on turns 6 and 7, retaliated hard enough that Tazri wiped the board with a Supreme Verdict. Tazri was down to 15, though, and we were all rich in mana to rebuild. I played a Caged Sun and the card that results when your lonely demon spends too much time alone.

Erebos followed with a ‘small’ Torment of Hailfire for 6. It mostly ate life points, leaving me at 15, Freyalise at 22 and Tazri at 3. Erebos wasn’t able to do the last 3 to Tazri, but Freyalise was, and Tazri’s day was done. Several turns passed while the rest of us built up resources. Freyalise was clearly a step ahead, but between me reanimating a Terastodon and Erebos wiping the board with a Reiver Demon, we kept Freyalise off balance just enough to end the game with all three of us still alive.

Overall, this was a very good game, and a terrific group. It was time for prizes!

The winner this time around was a very popular player with one of their signature decks, a Rakdos chaos creation. Well deserved! Their prize was the mystery box, after the prize pool was too balanced to choose a clear #1. Good move. Inside was the Goblin Secret Lair. Ka-Boom!

I finished in the top third somewhere. Not sure exactly. I got an amazing prize in a Theros Beyond Death collector booster, which contained some foil full-art lands (gorgeous), a bunch of utility foil stuff, and this good boi.

I’m excited to see the threedog here, because it’s a card I might build a deck around some day. Dogs are great.

Thanks as always for reading! There’s another Challenge in February, and I’ll be playing my final mono-coloured deck in green. Who’s the Commander? Someone pretty obscure, but I love the deck so far! Tune in next time to see what it is and how it went! I’m also going to leave you with a poll, which I hope to start doing regularly. Happy Valentine’s Day, you black-hearted demons! Don’t forget that you can’t spell Necromantic without Romantic! <3

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