The first time I played Elder Dragon Highlander, EDH (and now called Commander), I was traveling again.
This time I was in Melbourne for work - I travel for work a lot - and had found a fledgling new store run by Isaac Egan and Chris Evans called Metagames. Being away from family and friends I spent far too many nights at the store being taken by the locals drafting.
Metagames has recently elevated the best of Melbourne Magic, but at the time was just getting started and was an amazing place at the time for me, especially being invited in the way I was. They didn't know me from a bar of soap, but once I'd established myself as both a terrible drafter ("If Neale thinks it's good, don't pick it") and terrible constructed player, I finally found my spot in the pecking order (last) and quickly started to improve my game.
I'm pretty sure a lot of people fall into the same rut I was in. Playing against similarly skilled players continually simply does not improve your game. Improving mentally requires the same effort as improving physically, you need something hard to push against. Take weight resistance training, for example. If you keep lifting the same weight over and over again you plateau and never improve. You need to keep lifting heavier weights to become physically stronger. The same is true mentally. What Metagames provided were a bunch of much, much better players I could slam by brain up against each night.
It worked. I got better.
One night Isaac said he was going to hold a casual EDH game and asked if I'd like to play. It sounded interesting although I didn't have a deck, just a bunch of random cards I'd dragged to Melbourne with me and collected while playing Limited matches.
This was just towards the end of Llorwyn block. What cards I had on me were all Standard cards (Timespiral/Llorwn blocks). I took what I thought I might play with to the store that night and build a deck on the spot.
My first ever General (Commander) was Merieke Ri Berit. I think, just maybe, who you choose as your first General says a lot about you as a Magic player. Merieke outs you as a control player, but not one who is all about winning the game on turn 2. Of course Esper gives you access to the best tutors, the best removal, and the best Control Magic in the game. Yet at the time I knew none of the theory or brokenness that can be achieved in Commander and a tiny card pool. Making broken plays would come much, much later.
I had decided on a sub-theme of Merfolk basically because I had so many due to Llorwyn drafts. I started building a deck right there on the store's countertop, picking at the bargain bin with relish. I picked up cheap Mirrodin cards - a Mind's Eye, a Gilded Lotus - and slowly pulled together a deck.
As the skeleton grew I suddenly found myself surrounded by people adding their two cents about what would be good the deck. Flesh and muscle were added and the thing started to take shape. Noticing a Wizard theme, Isaac himself found a foil Riptide Laboratory that no one wanted and sold it to me for a buck.
The deck came out looking something like this:
Ok, so it isn't what you would call an "competitive" deck by any means. It had some nice spot removal and some cute tricks, plus it ran the "Pickles Lock" (Brine Elemental + Vesuvan Shapeshifter) which had recently run around Standard. But it had no ramp, no real way to combo out, and one bad way to lock down the board.
It was a beautiful mess.
And the saving grace of the deck was that everyone else's deck was a mess as well.
We sat down to a six-player game which ended up running a few hours. I don't remember much other than Momentary Blink completely hosing another player's Phage, The Untouchable (Lesson learned!). As just about everyone else played blue as well, Lord of Atlantis was a beast, especially with Inkfathom Witch in play.
It was a very gentle and fun introduction to the format and I was lucky to have it. I've built the Merieke Ri Berit deck many times since, each time growing further and further busted, until I finally retired her as the deck was no-longer fun to play.
But this first deck? It was great fun. There are so many little interactions that make it a blast to play.
Vedalken Aethermage is one of the few creature-tutors Blue has access to and cares about. It's able to fetch most creatures in the deck at instant speed, in an uncounterable manner. It was cute but great.
Merrow Harbinger was equally good, but also able to grab Mirror Entity or Crib Swap in an emergency. Lots of people expect a land or some lifegain out of their creature getting "[card Path to Exile]Path[/card]'d". Few expect a 1/1 creature out of it. The same goes for Pongify, a sweet little card in a blue deck.
Mistmeadow Witch is hilarious and can be activated the minute it hits the battlefield. It blinked Silvergill Adepts and Mulldrifters and Shriekmaws, not to mention opponent's creatures as well. The more mana I had, the more stupid it got until it finally bit the bullet. Nowaday these effects are known as "value engines" but back then it was just a bit of fun.
The blink effects became better and better with Dire Undercurrents on the board. Undercurrents has two things that people forget; (1) it requires them to enter the battlefield, not be "player", and (2) you can have any player draw the card, making it a great political animal. Cards like Brine Elemental become particularly nuttly with Undercurrents under your control.
Likewise, Spectral Searchlight is a highly political card, the only card in the game able to throw another player a mana. You used to be able to ping someone at the end of their turn for one this way, but alas with the removal of mana burn, no more.
Bouncing your own permanents with Venser, Shaper Savant is a move underrated by many because it's so much fun "countering" peoples spells with him instead. But the utility you can get out of bouncing Oblivion Ring with the exile trigger on the stack, or recovering Enslave to hit the new Big Bad on the field, should not be forgotten.
One important lesson was that, in Commander, no plan survives the first contact with the enemy. When your deck is so lacking in tutors, ramp, or permission, the chance of getting the Pickles Lock into play. Those thing die faster than you can say Terror. There's a reason why everyone tries to run Lightning Greaves.
Another lesson was in the relativity of power within a playgroup. Nowadays I'm quite prepared to see the most broken openings possible while playing Commander on Magic Online. But a relatively underpowered deck like the one above was completely playable within the context of that group of people. Understanding and adapting to where your particular playgroup (or groups) sit within the power framework is key to getting the most enjoyment of out the Commander format.
That night no-one was running nearly enough sweepers, tutors, or card advantage to keep up and eventually my little blue men ran over my enemies, granting me a surprising win. I think. I hope. I'll say it's true, anyway. It was a long time ago.
Speaking of the past, a little while ago I mentioned a Glissa, the Traitor build that centered around the Necrotic Ooze/Hermit Druid/Dread Return combo. In that article I noted that the Plan B of the deck centered around Smokestack and general resouce denial.
Since the spoiling of New Phyrexia I've noticed there are a number of cards that would work very well in a Glissa deck that dropped the Necrotic Ooze package and focused on resource denial instead. I took a little time to rebuild the deck from the ground up. Here's a new list primarily focused on multiplayer play.
Essentially this is mashup of the Stax, 36 Lands and The Rock archtypes from Legacy play. The deck wants to remain consistently ahead of the competition by putting more resources into play than the opposition while constraining the opposition's options.
With Hex Parasite you can stack the Smokestack trigger as follows:
- Put the add soot counter trigger on the stack
- Put the sacrifice trigger on the track
- Remove any soot counters with Hex Parasite (if you didn't remove them at the end of the last opponent's turn)
- Sacrifice nothing
- Add a soot counter to Smokestack
- Proliferate the soot counter using Contagion Clasp
In this way you can force your opponents to sacrifice two permanents every turn while you suffer nothing.
Should your opponents manage to kill Smokestack, well, that's part of the reason why you're playing Glissa. The beauty of the Glissa/Smokestack interaction is that as opponents sacrifice creatures to Smokestack, you can return artifacts from the 'yard to continue to pay the Smokestack costs (until you find that Hex Parasite). The same is true for Possessed Portal, allowing you to take full advantage of that machine of destruction. Remember, if you find Smokestack or Possess Portal get destroyed, it's not hard to find a way to recur them back with Glissa, beginning the awful cycle all over again. I'd love to get a Tanglewire/Contagion Clasp/Hex Parasite combo going, but unfortunately Tanglewire is not yet available on MtGO.
There are also a three other fine additions from New Phyrexia, beyond Hex Parasite.
- Sheoldred, Whispering One is a slam dunk in this deck. She allows you to increase the resource denial pressure of Smokestack while recurring your own creatures, especially the ones with enters-the-battlefield effects such as Duplicant, to play. Accelerating into Sheoldred using Cabal Coffers and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth is one of the crazier things the deck can do.
- Birthing Pod allows for a recursive tutor engine alongside Survival of the Fittest. Leaping up the chain from Sylvok Replica, to Oracle of Mul Daya, to Genesis, to Wurmcoil, to Sheoldred, to Sundering Titan (if needed) seems fine, especially as Genesis and Sheoldred allows you to start the chain again, and again, and again.
- Karn Liberated is one card I can't wait to try out. He can strip out opponents hand with his huge +4 ability, vindicate any permanent with his -3 ability, or win the game with his ultimate. With Contagion Clasp active you can get three -3 activations out of him without ever having to use his +4 ability, which is kinda nuts.
The deck helps fuel Smokestack via a number of cards that help to stay in front.
- Crucible of Worlds + Life from the Loam + Burgeoning / Exploration are the traditional Smokestack advantage engine, and with Strip Mine and Wasteland you can make sure your opponents never have any land-based mana to operate with. Oracle of Mul Daya is an absolute blessing, so much so it's worth considering running Azusa, Lost but Seeking as well.
- Mimic Vat, Awakening Zone, Genesis, Garruk Wildspeaker, Myr Battlesphere and Creakwood Liege all help stay ahead of Smokestack by providing a constant stream of sacrifice fodder. One option I looked at was Ant Queen and I'm sure it could happily find a home in the deck.
- Glissa herself is somewhat of a machine gun. Using Executioner's Capsule, Contagion Clasp, Ratchet Bomb, Sundering Titan, and Sylvok Replica you can generate a large amount of continual pressure and permanent destruction. Glissa also returns the Spine of Ish Sah, should it ever somehow manage to end up in your yard.
- Sheoldred, Whispering One, The Abyss, the The Tabernacle of Pendral Vale, and Woebringer Demon all act as mini-Smokestacks, and as long as you have one of your token producers up and running you'll barely feel the effects. All of these interact very nicely with both Glissa, who will trigger every time an opponent sacs a creature, and Mimic Vat, as you'll have an endless variety of creatures to imprint and abuse.
- Karn Liberated, Pox, and Sundering Titan help round out the resource denial package, each from a different direction. Karn and Pox both attack hands and resources in play. Both are going to paint a giant target on your forehead when you cast them.
If nothing else, these two decks have shown me just how corrupting to a casual format a competitive focus has been. The Merfolk deck was light and airy, fun to play, basic, unbroken, and performed as well as the politicking of it's pilot could managed. The Glissa deck, however, is balls-to-the-wall bastard, multiplayer competitive. A lot of EDH decks love their 'big spells' and this deck is very aggressive at denying those archetypes the possibility of casting them. Yes, it's light on a number of things - spot removal, card draw, mass removal are the main offenders - but when your opponents can't do anything anyway, being behind on cards in hand is not such a terrible thing (at least until your recursion engine is established, and then you go nuts).
The other factor is I don't even thing about building decks the Merfolk way anymore. Back then it was about what looked fun, interesting, and fit the theme. For competitive play I focus on consistency, power-level, tutoring, and achieving a plan, generally building around the "Rule of 7". Inevitably the two have mashed together in my head, and try as a might, keeping the competitive tendencies from the casual table is becoming increasingly difficult.
When I played the Merfolk deck everyone had fun, even if expressed as a groan of despair when Phage was blinked. But I can guarantee that very, very few people will have any fun sitting at a table across from the Glissa Stax deck. Just as I wouldn't play the Merfolk deck in a competitive setting, I wouldn't touch Glissa Stax in a casual format unless the power-level of my playgroup demanded it.
Or I wanted to win. You know, that old story.