Commander Challenge – 07/03/20

My best elbow bump to you, Commander players! Welcome to another report on the ongoing Commander Challenge tournament series played at The Connection Games in Vancouver, BC. If you want to know what the Challenge is, check out my ‘What is Commander Challenge?’ post. The most recent Commander Challenge was on March 7th. I have maintained a number of decks that have some seasonal play for March, and this one was no exception. While I have a spring-themed Karametra, God of Harvests deck, and used to have an Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons deck I liked to play on the Ides of March (some of you might appreciate the reference, but for those that don’t, it’s usually through the lens of Shakespeare, so you can look it up/ignore it accordingly), this deck was all about the month itself, and a reference to a certain basketball tournament that will have to wait for next year. I don’t really follow March Madness, and I definitely don’t do brackets, but I’m really into the NBA, and it’s a cultural phenomenon. I even have a janky Christmasland-style play that could even be a win-con. Who’s at the helm of this madness? Turns out I like Queens.

My Queen Marchesa deck (version 2.0) is a long-standing concept I’ve had since the early days of playing Commander. I got my hands on a cool, foil Zurgo Helmsmasher, and somehow stumbled upon using all my extra Allies from drafting Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch as the body of the deck. It was ‘Zurgo’s Unlikely Allies.’ Other than a few standouts, everything I wanted to play was in Mardu. The combat-oriented Allies felt like the stories of the BFZ block I’d read on the MTG mothership. Lots of desperate stands, and forays and gambits and other battle jargon I can just throw around like I know what I’m talking about. I filled them out with other Allies from the original Zendikar block and liked what I saw.

Zurgo as a Commander was meant to function independently of the deck, and vice versa. Mardu’s main problem is fizzle, either because of a lack of card-draw, or because of weak mana. Zurgo answers that by being a 3-turn Commander-damage clock that asks nothing in synergy from the deck. It was fun, but got all sorts of hate. Plus it didn’t draw cards well and the mana kinda sucked. Go Mardu! Tired of the hate at Zurgo, and seeing a boatload of synergy coupled with card-draw in the Monarch, I swapped out the Helmsmasher for Queen Marchesa and never looked back.

Regardless of what you’re doing with Queen Marchesa, many people love the Monarch mechanic. So right away, the reception to the Commander was better than Zurgo. The deck loves to draw an extra card at the end of turn 4 or so, which is when I can usually secure the Monarch for the first time. Marchesa is also a great ETB-trigger creature, which is the crux of my strategy with the Allies.

The Conjurer’s Closet above is an awesome source of repeatable ETB triggers. The deck also runs cards that copy ETBing creatures for a second ETB trigger, like Flameshadow Conjuring and Minion Reflector. Stuff like Eerie Interlude and Blade of Selves offer sneaky ETB trigger potential too. But the big payoff is all about March.

If I was able to get Queen Marchesa (playing MARdu) on the table (in March) alongside Mirror March, and then cast March from the Tomb with 8CMC of Allies to return to play and go crazy with the coin flips… well, I was prepared to call the judge and get them to declare March Madness. Didn’t get there, but there’s still time in March, and the opportunity isn’t completely Gonzaga….

The deck can swing a combat-based kill or two, and does a lot with gaindrain, too. Mardu offers a lot of really strong removal options, and I try to keep the deck full of interaction that way. The versatility and multi-dimensional strategy keeps me coming back. And they keep making Allies and Changelings, so the deck often has some new cards to look forward to in spoiler season. A spicy thing I like to do is have lands that produce ‘any colour’ of mana, so I can fire off a Unified Front for 4. Pair that with just a Hagra Diabolist and someone’s losing 20 life.

This is the third or fourth time I’ve played this deck at the Commander Challenge, and while it’s great fun to play, it never seems to do well. Is the third/fourth time the charm? On to the games!

Round 1 – Me vs. Brion Stoutarm vs. Golos, Tireless Pilgrim vs. Haktos the Unscarred

Brion Stoutarm is the answer to the question, what is there to do in Boros that isn’t attacking with soldiers or nuking with spellcows? Clearly it’s to throw stuff at your opponents for profit. That’s what I, and I imagine a lot of people, love about Brion Stoutarm: the flavour is super fun, and very evocative. Can’t you imagine your creatures hurtling through the air, about to splash on your opponent’s face and get you some life? Fun! I’d play all the egg-type creatures available in red and white, and any rotten tomato or soft watermelon creatures, too. But seriously, and this Brion got serious, there’s a lot of power and synergy available in the Boros sector to make Brion a big threat. I’m especially impressed with some of tricky things this deck did with Sun Titan. I applaud a deck that knows how to leverage its CMCs.

I think I’ve mentioned it in passing, but this is the mythical Mono-Black Golos deck you may have heard about. Oh yes, Mono-Black. This is the same pilot who crafted the Questing Beast deck with quests for opponents. It’s no surprise they are a multiple-time Commander Challenge winner. This deck contains a whopping 45 lands, and as the pilot described, ‘allows me to play with Cabal Coffers as my Commander.’ Follow that up with Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, Deserted Temple and Cascading Cataracts, and life is good. That was the plan for this deck, and it did it well!

I had my eye on Haktos the second the pilot revealed him. It’s a deck I’m planning to build myself. I have a number of spicy pieces of tech I want to try, and I’m wondering if anybody else has thought of them. I’m not sure there’s going to be many subtle builds of Haktos, where the Commander does something other than attack. Believe me, I’m looking into it. But for now, it makes sense to turn this guy sideways, pointed at your opponents, 3-4 times each, hopefully with a +1/+1 or two. It looked like a lot of fun, and that’s kind of what I’d like to build.

You know those Commander games with no blue and green cards? Right, like that’s common. Well here we are, the Mardu Matchup. One Mono-Black, two Red/White, and me, in all of the above. Were any of us packing some sort of jaw-dropping off-colour counterspell? Read on to find out!

The game began innocently enough. Lands and some artifact-based ramp, as you’d expect from these decks and colours. I raised eyebrows by naming Allies when I played Herald’s Horn on turn 3, then doubled it up turn 4 with Urza’s Incubator.

Brion played Bastion Protector turn 3, which is a really interesting card that’s hardly ever been on my radar except to recoil a little at the price. This would be a nice reprint.

Haktos got the Commander out turn 3, which was my first look at how the card would function in the real world. He got protection from everything but CMC 4, which seemed somewhat manageable. Still scary, though. I had a 4 CMC Talus Paladin to add on turn 4, which gave me a blocker, so Haktos took a chunk out of Golos on their turn 4.

On my turn 5, I tried Mirror Entity and Blade of Selves, but didn’t have leftover mana to equip it to anything. Brion did some attacking, sending the Bastion Protector to its doom intentionally so it could be brought right back with a Sun Titan. And then Golos played Cabal Coffers. And the game changed dramatically. 11B was added to Golos’ pool, and Burnished Hart, Gonti, Lord of Luxury and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet hit the table. I don’t think the Gonti activation mattered, but Haktos blasted Kalitas with a Path to Exile before the turn ended.

Haktos dropped Smothering Tithe, which is the current ‘listen to the table groan in harmony’ card these days, taking over for all-time points leader Rhystic Study. Haktos smashed me for 6 Commander, and added Rest in Peace for good measure. On my turn 6, I added Relief Captain, but was still awkwardly a mana short of equipping the Blade of Selves. I still attacked Haktos with a lifelinking Talus Paladin, bringing me back to my original 40. On Brion’s turn, Return to Dust took out the Smothering Tithe and my Blade of Selves, still in the sheath. Ah well.

So Golos was mono-black, and beyond the text box of the Commander, I’m pretty sure the colour identity rules were followed, but since it was a lands deck, it can play a fun little card called Cascading Cataracts that allows for Golos activations, even in true mono-black.

Golos’ first such activation came turn 6, and resulted in Nihil Spellbomb, Charcoal Diamond and Demonic Tutor. The tutor resulted in Liliana, Dreadhorde General, which promptly ate our creatures.

Haktos passed with mana up. I countered with a Planeswalker of my own, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Brion, still with a Sun Titan, used it to take out Liliana. Then they replayed the Commander. Golos started their turn with a Commander activation, but got three lands. One was Eye of Ugin, and Golos used it right away to grab Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and cast it, eating the Rest in Peace and Sun Titan.

Then Golos added Emrakul, the Promised End, and gave me an extra turn. Just like Emrakul to give the Allies an extra turn. Eldrazi mindgames. At least Ulamog just wants to eat. I had an Anguished Unmaking, and used it on Ulamog at the end of Haktos’ turn. Score one for the Allies!

My extra turn, and my normal turn 8 didn’t produce much of note. Then we all got to stare in shock as Brion played Serra Avatar and killed Golos in one shot by flinging it with their Commander. Wow.

Haktos recovered quickly, replaying the Commander (all but 3). We all jockeyed for position over the next few turns, building up boardstates for the possible kills we could see. Brion had 95 life, so a Haktos Commander kill was realistic, but little else was. Brion could overwhelm either of us, but I had a Maze of Ith messing with his math. Brion mounted a massive offensive, but I cast Swords to Plowshares on the Commander, and Eerie Interlude in response to his Zealous Conscripts, making it impossible to steal my Mirror Entity.

Brion still got in a massive attack on Haktos, but Haktos revealed Deflecting Palm and repelled enough damage with it to stay alive with 4 life. Haktos finished Brion with Commander damage the following turn, and then quashed my hopes of taking him down by playing Cataclysmic Gearhulk, taking out just enough of my Allies. I was able to play a Kalastria Healer and drain Haktos for 3, but that was one short. Haktos took me out too, casting Resurgence for an extra attack, and Chaos so I couldn’t block. Close one!

Round 2 – Yawgmoth, Thran Physician vs. Bruna, the Fading Light vs. Me vs. Riku of Two Reflections

I really like Yawgmoth, Thran Physician. I did a webcomic called Phyrexian Dad starring Yawgmoth for a good chunk of last fall. I might pick it up again someday, but for now, I’m leaving Yawgmoth content to other humans, like the pilot of this deck. I’m sure many people have wished at some point in their lives that they could have protection from humans. That’s rash, because unless you’re a sentient lamp or something, that includes you. No putting lotion on that rash, fellow human. You can’t target yourself with your weird activated ability. You just have to let it fester. I’m using some disease references because this deck was a dark tribute to current events. Magic, like artwork, is a mode of self-expression, and helps us find ways to cope and understand the forces that move us.

Bruna, the Fading Light is a really interesting choice as a Commander. Here’s a bunch of spoilers: she’s kind of a weird twin, she’s got a whole other side to her, and none of that impacted this game, so I’m going to talk about it here.

This is Gisela, who is Bruna’s sister. I didn’t see this deck play her, but I figured she’s probably in there somewhere. Overall it seemed like angel goodstuff, which is a popular choice, and gives mono-white some oomph. Gisela would fit right in. And of course, there’s the meld thing, which is made a lot more palatable if one half is in a clear sleeve in your Command Zone. So you can make this lovely lady sometimes.

Brisela is a biiiiiiiiig payoff. And so cool. She doesn’t have much natural protection, but a considerable amount of removal is 3 CMC or less and may as well be blank while she’s in play. Bruna as your Commander gives you half of a second Commander, which is both a wincon and a goal to shoot for in itself. It shouldn’t be underestimated that if Gisela is in the graveyard, casting Bruna will likely assemble Brisela at end of turn. Super cool!

Riku of Two Reflections has been around a long time, and has always been known as a powerhouse. There are a whole lot of mechanics out there that would shine with Riku, things like ETB triggers. He’s also a common enabler for goodstuff, and considering you get to play both green and blue, you have a massive amount of goodstuff to choose from, including the best ramp and card-draw. Hard to go wrong. This build seemed all about the reflection aspect of Riku, and was prepared to copy our stuff as well as its own. A clone creature in a Riku deck is like two copies of the best creature on the table. Providing that’s not Riku. Even two copies of a lowly Farhaven Elf make for a big play. You always have to keep one eye on Riku. As well as one other eye.

The game action in round 2 revolved around a single card. In this case, that card and a copy of it.

Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite is very powerful, and can shut off a lot of strategies. In that respect, I get playing with it. But it really sucks to play against, and can get you a lot of hate. A double edged sword. That in this game was doubled up. That’s because Riku copied it with Altered Ego. This was turn 5. Bruna was already threatening the table with powerful angels when she added Elesh Norn. Yawgmoth and I put most of our small boards in the yard. Then, shortly after, Riku finished them all off with the copy and Yawgmoth and I weren’t able to do much. -4/-4 to our stuff was pretty bad.

Much is relative, and this game allowed me to test out a card I liked but hadn’t had in action yet. That card is Theater of Horrors. I like the Outpost-Siege style cards as a source of advantage in colours that need it, and Horrors fits that bill nicely. It also has a bit more reach, as the cards are all still accessible past the initial turn they’re revealed.

This mattered a lot, because while Yawgmoth was mostly paralysed by the double cenobite, he was still able to get off a 6 point Death Cloud, which reset the table.

A fair amount of draw-go followed. I had a huge advantage with the Horrors allowing me to see extra cards, and a Fellwar Stone for a teeny bit of mana. I loved Theater of Horrors, and look forward to playing it again. I recovered first, and was soon doing damage with Allies and playing a land from exile just about every turn. Riku recovered quickly, too, and built up a large board. Riku attempted an alpha strike on Bruna, but Bruna cast Angel of the Dire Hour and wiped away the attackers.

Bruna had growing presence, as did Riku, and I felt I had to make a move. Especially as we were running out of time. So I made a huge mistake of a play. Remember the Elesh Norns? Well, I knew there were a few things in my opponents’ graveyards that were nasty, but I forgot about the cenobite and the Altered Ego. What was on my mind was a triple alpha strike out of nowhere, which I had in hand with two cards and full graveyard, including Chasm Guide to add Haste to the team. My plan was to cast Living Death, which combined with Chasm Guide, Kazuul Warlord and the half dozen or so great Allies in my yard would set me up nicely.

Then I would follow with Unified Front with 4 colours of mana for 4 additional Ally ETB triggers, and that haste to boot. I was pretty sure that there weren’t enough blockers numerically to prevent me from killing at least two opponents, but when Living Death Resolved, there were 2 Elesh Norns again, and my triple alpha strike died before it could pile up dozens of +1/+1 counters. Oof. Time was called, and the only resolution was that Bruna killed Riku with a ton of nasty indestructible angels, thanks to Sephara, Sky’s Blade. Yawgmoth and I survived, though Bruna could probably finish us both, given another turn. We’ll never know for sure. Sometimes you just have to hold the gates until the horn goes, and take a point for being alive. It’s good to be alive!

Round 3 – Avacyn, Angel of Hope vs. Depala, Pilot Exemplar vs. Sliver Overlord vs. Me

Avacyn, Angel of Hope is a juggernaut. How many other creatures have an expansion set named after them? Emrakul? Sisay? King Kenrith? Volrath? Bolas? Squee? Nope all around. Just the recently printed Urza, whose eponymous expansions predate his card by a couple of decades. If you ever needed a justification to run cards that exile creatures, wait until you see Avacyn staring at you from the Command Zone. This deck was definitely looking to accelerate on mana as best as white can, getting Avacyn out early. Once that happens, lots of boardwipes are waiting. I noticed a few cards that looked like they were answers to the few ways to get Avacyn off the table. Nice. Well, not for me.

You can tell when a set really resonates with a player. The pilot of the Depala, Pilot Exemplar (aka the pilot pilot. Netflix, get in on this and make a pilot!) clearly loved Kaladesh block. Or maybe just had a massive concentration of cards from that block. Either way, it was rush hour from vehicles, backed up by a few of the other fun cards from the set. It makes sense, because the set will offer some natural synergy. Based on what we’ve seen printed lately, this is a deck on the rise. Not to mention the third different Boros deck within two games! Throne of Eldraine added to the dwarves pretty significantly, as did Modern Horizon’s Changelings. Vehicles have trickled in slowly, but like equipment, when they’re good, they’re soooo good. I’ve used Depala’s ‘card-draw’ ability in my Changeling deck, and it’s awesome. A great choice for the budget-conscious, too.

Sliver Overlord was just reprinted in a Secret Lair with cool, cartoony new art. I like the colours a lot. Slivers as a tribe are all about growing outward in all directions, and the choice of Commander more shapes that growth than dictates what the tribe will ultimately do. I believe the sliver endgame is just about always ‘Critical Mass.’ That means they just run you over like a wave, which is how they’re supposed to be from a flavour standpoint. Can’t argue with that. This build was probably what’s called a ‘toolbox’ build, which means it uses the search ability of the Commander to find specific slivers for specific situations. Or just a lethal sequence if nobody is doing anything worth answering. It’s a good recipe for success. Personally I’m curious if matching up against another sliver deck would be a cause for celebration, or cause for alarm. I don’t think my changelings would count, and they’re definitely alarmed by these slivers.

This round seemed promising for both Depala and I, based on the hands we kept. Depala played a Sol Ring turn 1 and a Door of Destinies on Dwarves turn 2… but then sputtered on two lands and no red mana.

I had 3 lands in my opening hand, plus some cheap Allies. Once I’d played those, however, that was all. No more land, and several cards in hand of CMC 4+. I got my Theater of Horrors into play late, but it was too late. The reason? Well, Depala and I got caught in the crossfire between two decks leveraging indestructibility as their lategame. Avacyn started with Mother of Runes, and dropped an Empowered Autogenerator on turn 4.

The Sliver Overlord played rocks and ramp for the first few turns, then the Commander on turn 5. Depala and I were in full fizzle by this point and could only watch as the two decks built up boards we had no chance against. Avacyn played the Commander on turn 6, and started piling up nasty angels, like Bruna had in the previous game. Linvala was part of both games in a big way, shutting down plenty of activated abilities.

On turn 6, the Slivers dropped Synapse Sliver for card draw, then over the next few turns added menace (Belligerent Sliver), shroud (Crystalline), flying (Galerider), ‘slivercycle’ (Homing) and then the big daddy for the unstoppable overrun, Sliver Legion.

Slivercycle allowed the Slivers to find the Legion despite Linvala’s presence, and play it in response to Avacyn’s Fumigate. Avacyn’s board was strong and Avacyn had 58 life to work with, but the Slivers did a thorough count, and realized a 58-point alpha strike was possible, and ended Avacyn on turn 10. Depala and I both conceded immediately after. I had Winds of Abandon in hand, but only 3 mana. Depala had played some dwarves and Metalwork Colossus, but the Slivers were barely bothered by a 10/10, let alone the plucky pilots. Victory, Slivers! There was enough time to get in another game, too, where I pulled off a 56 point one-shot kill of the Sliver player with a Yavimaya Dryad using my Xenagos deck. Good times!

Round 4 – Angus Mackenzie vs. Massacre Girl vs. Me vs. Omnath, Locus of Mana

I’ve seen this Angus Mackenzie build in the previous Challenge, and it’s a riot. A deck that gives opponents resources is commonly referred to as a ‘Group Hug’ deck. Well this does that, but faster. Way faster. Like, turbo-hug. Is that a thing? Hmmmm…. Think about getting several of your dodgy acquaintances together for a long, sweaty game of Racquetball. It doesn’t matter how inept you or they are, just that you sweat. Repeat for five days, no showering. (Please note this is a silly metaphor. Hygiene is critical in modern times.) After that, spray them with a skunk and douse them in several different sticky substances, like honey, tar, or dollar-store slime. All set? Sound gross? You bet it does! Now hug ’em! All at once! See how fast you got in and out of there? That’s turbo group hug. Angus still did it better.

Massacre Girl is a menace. It says so right in the text. First line. Although I’d like to see the boardstate after she arrives where there’s two blockers for her. Menace is on this card in the way that brightly coloured sprinkles are on your ice cream sundae. A nice touch, maybe hitting the spot sometime, but superfluous to the serious business of ice cream. Several of the other words on Massacre Girl function in the same way, like ‘creature’ for example. Let’s face it, Massacre Girl is a boardwipe. She’s there to kill everybody, not threaten a five-turn Commander-damage clock with menace. That’s a sprinkle. The pilot, who has won a couple of recent Challanges, revealed they built it within the previous day. Built doesn’t mean thought-out. This was clearly imagined long before the cards were sleeved up. A very dangerous deck, especially when enabled by Angus Mackenzie.

Speaking of dangerous when enabled, Omnath, Locus of Mana doesn’t need much help, just tons of Forests. In all honesty, this Omnath could probably run 99 Forests as a deck, and still win a few games. Maybe more than a few. I’ve seen green Omnath decks before, and while they generally try to maximize the green mana in the pool, I’ve rarely seen them spend that mana on big bad stuff. This deck did just that, dropping Eldrazi stuff at the first opportunity. It helped that Angus Mackenzie was around, and new mana-tripler Nyxbloom Ancient seems like a great fit. Did we survive the green machine? To the game!

I have this game going a whopping 6 turns! Which is funny considering that’s about how long my previous game with the Angus Mack deck went. On turn 2, Angus started ramping us all, just as before. Collective Voyage hit for 3, and we each had 5 mana to work with on my turn 2.

On turn 2, Massacre Girl played a card I totally underestimated in her concept: Blade of the Bloodchief. It’s great at both protecting one of her creatures from her Commander’s wipe, and then resulting in a lethal threat afterwards. It was a surprise all-star, and anyone playing Massacre Girl who isn’t playing this card should take a good look!

I played Phyrexian Reclamation and Captain’s Claws. Omnath ramped. Turn 3 then passed without event, though Omnath played the Commander. On turn 4, Angus Mackenzie shoveled fuel on the fire with Font of Mythos.

Big mana and big card draw suited Omnath, who put Eldrazi Conscription on the stack, targeting Omnath. He made it clear that the target was Massacre Girl. Hoping for a vote, and knowing the Eldrazi Locus would be looking at me sooner or later, I cast Path to Exile on Omnath in response.

Angus Mack kept up the ramp with Old Growth Dryads and New Frontiers, adding more basic lands to the others’ boards. Not mine. I topped out at 4 basics in my deck. Lots of non-basics. Not the game for that. But it sure was for the two mono-coloured decks. Omnath got out the Nyxbloom Ancient, followed by Emrakul, the Promised End. He gave Angus the extra turn, and equipped Emrakul with Blackblade Reforged, ready to end someone’s day next turn.

Angus added two turns of ramping us and giving us card draw like crazy, and Massacre Girl didn’t waste the opportunity. She played cards like Syr Konrad the Grim, Blood Artist, Falkenrath Noble, and Gary. Within a few plays, she was at 75, and we were all around 25. She followed that all up with Last Laugh, and cast her Commander.

I had Anguished Unmaking for Last Laugh, but there were literally dozens of triggers to work through, and after just a few of them, all of us were dead. In addition to death triggers, the deck ran lots of cards like Clackbridge Troll and Genesis Chamber to make sure the opponents have lots of little dorks that can easily turn into death triggers. Very cool deck, and so very lethal. Definitely a menace, and we were the massacre. Thanks again to the Omnath player for helping me remember the name of the card Nightmare Unmaking in time for me to snag a copy from the store. I’ll be looking to jam that in a deck ASAP.

On to prizes! The overall winner was naturally the very first deck I mentioned, Brion Stoutarm! Well flung, Brion! Their prize was an extremely coveted boxed set of Unsanctioned. I’m sure we’ll see those lands at a future Challenge in Brion’s deck.

I ended up finishing pretty low this time, somewhere in the bottom third. It’s tough to keep track past the top 8 or so. Once again, Mardu Allies was fun to play, but didn’t put up a great tournament result. All the more reason to bring it back again another time! My prize was still pretty great. I got a Core 2019 prerelease kit, with a bunch of okay rares and a shiny, date-stamped Cleansing Nova! That card is going to get a lot of play.

So given the state of the world right now, it’s unlikely that there’ll be another Commander Challenge for a while. I hope I’m wrong. In the meantime, I’m going to try and keep the content flowing, and keep enthusiasm high. Paper Magic is a brilliant way to pass the time when social isolating with a small group like your family or roommates, and Magic Online and Arena are great for anyone, especially the extremely isolated. I hope you all ride this out successfully, and we can return to our fun, diversionary card-game in proper groups very soon. Stay healthy, and thanks for reading!!

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