Can I Read That?

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Everyone with a little bit of Johnny in them wants to build a deck that nobody's ever seen before. Everyone with a little bit of Timmy in them wants to experience something fresh. Everyone with a little bit of Spike in them wants to prove they can win when nobody expected them to. Surely there can be no greater joy than building a deck that everyone thinks is terrible then doing something incredible with it.

There are 444 Legendary creatures that you can use as your Commander. Of course, your playgroup may have relaxed the banned list to allow [card Braids, Cabal Minion]Braids[/card], [card Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary]Rofellos[/card], [card Kokusho, the Evening Star]Kokusho[/card], or [card Emrakul, the Aeons Torn]Emrakul[/card]. You might allow the Unprecedented strength of Frankie Peanuts, Richard Garfield, Ph.D., Johnny, Combo Player, Timmy, Power Gamer and Jalum Grifter. Heck, you might be the 1996 World Champion. (Didn't think I would notice you reading this, did you Tom Chanpheng?) Regardless of your exact limitations, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of Commander options never really get put to use.

But with good reason. The only benefit that you can possibly incur from Haakon, Stromgald Scourge is the ability to tap Command Tower for black mana, and [card Sima Yi, Wei Field Marshal]Sima Yi[/card] isn't much better. That said, a bit of patience in looking at 'bad' Commanders is warranted. Norin the Wary can be powerful with a little help from Genesis Chamber, or a Pandemonium variant. Phage the Untouchable can circumvent the Haakon problem by way of Torpor Orb or Sundial of the Infinite, becoming a regular Blightsteel Colossus.

These are cool and interesting, but when you get down to it they're rather gimmicky. We want prolonged, variable fun, and to that end it's time to venture into the world of reasonable but overlooked Legends.

Keeping House

To anyone who knows me, it should come as no surprise that I'll start the discussion with Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker. When I pull out my Shirei deck, everyone has to pause and read the card, at which point most of them conclude that it's 'really slow' or 'not worth playing 1/1s for.' Over and over again, people fail to recognize the impact that recurring an arbitrarily large number of creatures with powerful abilities on each player's turn is.

How would you like to gain twelve life every turn round for no mana with a Bottle Gnomes, turn off every other player's recursion with Heap Doll, or draw four extra cards a round with Mindless Automaton? How about all three? Better yet, if you can secure Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker's survival with Lightning Greaves, Darksteel Plate, or the like, your opponents can't even get rid of your other engine pieces. You have an unlimited supply of chump blockers.

What more can you ask for? Sure, Shirei isn't the most powerful Commander there is, but he can certainly rumble with the likes of Uril, the Miststalker or Teneb, the Harvester without drawing anywhere near as much hate. What's more, Shizo's Caretaker's power scales with the number of players. Provided that you're ignored at first, you can usually take on the rest of the table before they catch on.

In addition to his own hidden power, Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker takes advantage of one of human psychology's numerous quirks: people associate a Commander deck very closely with its Commander, but in doing so they alter their perception of how powerful the rest of the deck is. While Shirei might not lead your forces as potently Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon, he has equal access to a bevy of [card Demonic Tutor]tutors[/card], [card Phyrexian Arena]card draw[/card], and [card Damnation]sweepers[/card] as well as the Cabal Coffers engine. You can add power to your deck by playing a marginally worse Commander if nobody respects its power.

A Different Aspect

Continuing on our black Kamigawa tirade, we come to Iname, Death Aspect. As with Shirei, the key here is not only to have a Commander that most of the table has never come across, but also one that doesn't read too threateningly to them. As soon as they reach the word Spirit, many will discount your deck as a 'terrible piece of spiritcraft.' But if there's one thing I've learned from Scion of the Ur-Dragon, it's that one should never underestimate a Patriarch's Bidding, and between the redundancy that black has in this effect and the color's abundance of tutors, you shouldn't have a hard time recruiting Spirit of the Night, Kuro, Pitlord, and twenty of their closest friends to your side of the battlefield.

The one downside is grave hate, but playing a 'bad' commander gives you the benefit of the doubt. You can play [card Iname, Death Aspect]Iname[/card] to find He Who Hungers, Kyoki, Sanity's Eclipse, and Infernal Kirin, alongside six or so of your weaker Spirits, to confirm your opponents initial suspicions. Once those have been exiled or the hate sent elsewhere, you can recast Death for your real beaters.

What's more, there's nothing wrong with spiritcraft, so if your playgroup isn't too cutthroat you can have fun with a strategy that would often be too weak without some help. Balthor the Defiled is great with [card Iname, Death Aspect]this part of Iname[/card], but Death Denied or Phyrexian Reclamation can certainly let you [card Thief of Hope]steal hope[/card].

That's the Spirit!

As it turns out, there are a lot of Legends in Kamigawa block. It may or may not have something to do with every single rare creature in Champions of Kamigawa being Legendary. Despite their surroundings, many of these Legends aren't Spirits, but might still work well with one of these:

People usually play Rhys the Redeemed as their token Commander (Elves are an ethnic minority), but often run Crovax, Ascendant Hero or [card Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite]Elesh Norn[/card] for a mono-white token deck. I've seen Kaysa and Kamahl, Fist of Krosa leading the other half of the color scheme, but I've never seen Sakiko, Mother of Summer get her dues.

Yes, Edric, Spymaster of Trest is probably more powerful in this role, and he even discourages attacking you! Nonetheless, Edric is going to attract a lot of unwanted attention outside of the red zone while [card Sakiko, Mother of Summer]Sakiko[/card] should elicit less fear.

Despite their apparent differences, Sakiko plays an awful lot like [card Rhys the Redeemed]Rhys[/card]. 'Doubling' your tokens may be a bit slower via Sprout Swarm or Nemata, Grove Guardian, but nonetheless the numbers get out of hand quickly. Luckily, you get some benefits as well. Every Overrun that doesn't win the game gives you a lot of mana, and by being forced into mono-green you gain access to Vernal Bloom and friends. All of this can give you some more interesting lines of play than Rhys has available.

A lot of deck building is making assumptions, and if you can see a level below what is immediately 'obvious,' you can find Commanders that do exactly what you want better than the established Commanders for that general realm of strategy.

Pitch Black

The only things that players consider weaker than Kamigawa block are Auras, so at first Ramses Overdark may seem to be overshadowed by his sister [card Visara the Dreadful]Visara[/card]. I think he might actually be better! Blue is a rather strong color and, as mentioned with Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker, playing an under-appreciated Commander lets others to overlook the rest of your deck. In this vein, blue's superior card draw should help you overcome the fact that you need a card to make [card Ramses Overdark]Ramses[/card] into an Avatar of Woe.

Then again, Dragon Wings doesn't even need that, and False Demise, Fool's Demise, and Shade's Form would make great inclusions anyway. Beyond that, you could get mean with [card Genju of the Falls]the[/card] [card Genju of the Fens]Genjus[/card], but this classic will do just fine leading a fairly standard control deck.

Finding More

This list doesn't even scratch the surface of the realm of under-appreciated commanders, so how does one find their own? The easiest way is to first come up with a theme for a deck, then look through a list of the legendary creatures. Most of the commanders that nobody plays have had that fate befall them because they don't look good on paper, but if you know what you're looking for you'll have a better chance at objectively evaluating the card for what it can do.

Failing this sort of inspiration, you can look through a list of every legendary creature in Magic. Every time you come across one that you haven't seen played, ask yourself what would need to happen to make that card good, then use Gatherer to see if you can find enough to support it. If you find a Legend that can do something interesting but doesn't seem good enough, make sure to write it down so that you can reevaluate it when a new mechanic synergizes with it!

Did you enjoy this article? Would you have liked it more if I'd focused on a single Commander? Or made a longer list and let you look for synergies yourself? Let me know!

Until next week, may your deck be full of surprises.

Jules Robins
@JulesRobins on Twitter

7 thoughts on “Can I Read That?

  1. I would love to hear more about your Shirei deck; that sounds a lot of fun! Perhaps part of an article (or a whole one?) could be dedicated to a play-by-play of a game with it?

  2. The thing that kept me from making a shirei deck is that if your legend is not on the table, you are stuck with a pile of thrulls, gnomes and other idiots :). When you start go mad with recursion your graveyard or your general is the first thing to go. How do you deal with that?

    1. The yard isn't too much of a problem, it's akin to getting wrathed while playing a token deck. Shirei being offed is problematic; I run Shield of Kaldra, Darksteel Plate, Lightning Greaves, and now Swiftfoot Boots to mitigate the number of occurrences, but recovery isn't impossible. If your graveyard isn't exiled, Balthor the Defiled, Apprentice Necromancer, or Coffin Queen can get you back in the game fairly quickly. Otherwise the plan is to draw enough cards to start from scratch. I usually try not to put too many guys out because 2 or 3 recurring should usually dominate the table, and so if I lose them to Shirei dying I have another try. Recasting Shirei usually isn't a problem between running a large number of mana sources and Cabal Coffers, I've had many a game that involved a 13 or 15 mana Shirei. But t its core, yes, the deck is junk without Shirei.

  3. Ramses Overdark, blast from the past.
    I feel absolutely retarded for not seeing the combos with Slow Motion and stuff like that. Maybe I figured everyone would kill him at that point.

    I have to do it. I have to make a Ramses Overdark deck. I just need to figure out how to win now.

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