Of Hawks and Swords

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Unless you've been living under a rock for the last two weeks, you're aware that Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mindsculpter have been banned in standard. Part of the draw of Commander is that it is a format where you can play all of your favorite cards, new or old, and it just so happens that these are the favorite cards of a good friend of mine at the local store. Since the bannings, there's been nothing he's wanted to do more than to bring the dynamic duo to Commander, but he's been struggling to get the deck to "feel" the same.

I thought this would be a great way to talk about using competitive decks as a gateway to a format as broad as Commander. The first thing I ask anyone who's new to the format is what their favorite deck is. It doesn't matter if that answer is as simple as CawBlade or as vague as a "some cards," that's the best starting point for someone looking to get started in Commander. The goal is to identify and recreate the elements that made that player like that deck so much. Oddly enough, when you take a deck that someone liked playing, recreate it, and tell them that they can play it forever, they tend to enjoy playing.

So what were the key elements of CawBlade, besides crushing everything? The first thing that comes to mind is the way it plays out, being able to play as an aggressive deck or a control deck as a situation requires. Second, the ability to Brainstorm, Preordain, and tutor up answers to specific situations or board states. Finally, the deck is defined by its ability to swing games with [card Sword of Feast and Famine]Sword[/card] hits.

Using this as a basis, I like to start by choosing a commander since so much of the deck can be built around the utility and consistency that is provided by it. For this style of deck, I only really see two options: Grand Arbiter Augustin IV or Isperia the Inscrutable, and to decide between them, one has to consider what role each would play for the deck. [card Grand Arbiter Augustin IV]Grand Arbiter[/card] allows you to efficiently play out threats and answers, while making it harder for your opponent to interact with you. My problem with the [card Grand Arbiter Augustin IV]Grand Arbiter[/card] is that he doesn't actually do anything, and that his ability becomes less relevant as the game goes on. While this is fine if you're trying to force through additional prison pieces or a game-ending combo, it seems less helpful when it doesn't provide a quick clock.

Isperia the Inscrutable, on the other hand, is a strong blocker and a reasonably quick clock, backed by Swords. Additionally, [card Isperia the Inscrutable]Isperia[/card] provides additional information about the game state, which will help you make the correct choices when tutoring for Swords and fliers. Finally, whenever you connect with [card Isperia the Inscrutable]Isperia[/card] and name a card correctly, it feels like you've connected with a Sword. Not only does it put you up a card, but it lets you tutor for a flier that either helps you stabilize or apply additional pressure. Honestly, I think that [card Grand Arbiter Augustin IV]Grand Arbiter[/card] is a better general on the whole, but that [card Isperia the Inscrutable]Isperia[/card] will be better for a deck that wants to feel like CawBlade. Besides, she'll put the "Caw!" back into a deck that can't profitably run Squadron Hawk.

With a commander decided, let's get started on the deck itself. I think it's easiest to start with the [card Sword of War and Peace]Swords[/card] and Stoneforge Mystics, since that's the part that will be closest to the 60-4 builds. Unfortunately, there aren't terribly many ways to tutor up equipment but I'm sure we can make do.


As I've played with it more, I've been incredibly impressed with Batterskull. It's certainly not the biggest creature, but there's almost always going to be someone without a blocker, and the ability to just always have a creature is pretty valuable. The biggest strike against Baneslayer Angel in this format is that she just dies to removal. Batterskull doesn't have that problem.

Bonehoard is taking the place of Sword of War and Peace in this deck. Sure, there will be times that the blue player has sixty cards in hand and a Reqliquary Tower, but the rest of the time, Bonehoard is going to be scarier, especially equipped to your general. When the game invariably goes long the ability to just kill people in one or two hits is really powerful, and seems more relevant than some lifegain and the ability to kill Planeswalkers.

Next let's look at the toolbox of fliers!

Ka Caw!

I didn't know quite how awesome of a toolbox you could make out of just creatures with flying. I mean, there's hand disruption, different kinds of spot removal, a one-sided wrath, countermagic, card drawing and recursion to start with, all on reasonably efficient bodies. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a way to chain a creature with flying into a piece of equipment. Still, if you connect with [card Isperia the Inscrutable]Isperia[/card], there's always going to be something relevant to tutor up.

The two targets I'm least certain of are Commander Eesha and Keeper of the Nine Gales. Commander is an awesome blocker, and is great at carrying [card Sword of Light and Shadow]Swords[/card] since he's unblockable, but he is pretty expensive for what he does. Keeper of the Nine Gales seems really good if you can get him active, but I don't know how difficult it will be to keep three birds on the board outside of an active Emeria Angel.

Next, we have to think about the card advantage and selection engines that are going to help make the deck as consistent as possible. One of the biggest strengths of the CawBlade deck was the consistency, and it's definitely not something I want to miss with a Commander build:

Card Selection

The cards that are most interesting here are Gitaxian Probe and Peek. While typically not powerful enough for a tuned Commander list, here they allow you to hit with [card Isperia the Inscrutable]Isperia[/card]. They are effectively each a Demonic Tutor that cantrips! I don't know how you can argue with that!

The other interesting card here is Ranger of Eos. Ranger is one of my favorite cards in white, and it's especially appropriate here since it mimics Squadron Hawk so well. Part of me was really, really tempted to put in a Suntail Hawk just to make it more authentic, but that seemed unnecessary. Mother of Runes, however, is a great way to protect Sworded guys from removal, or to force through a Sword hit. Weathered Wayfarer is, in my opinion, one of the best white cards in the format, but we all know how much I love utility lands.

Now we checkthe removal and countermagic suite to keep the board at parity while you grind out advantages with [card Isperia the Inscrutable]Isperia[/card] and [card Sword of Fire and Ice]Swords[/card]. You want to be able to leave as little mana as possible up on other turns, so these need to be as efficient as possible while being difficult to play around.


Your spot removal is there to force through sworded guys, and anything that can't either be ignored or dealt with by other means can be countered. You have a minimal suite of mass removal, most of which ought to be saved for when you are in a dominating board position, and used to try to put one or more players into positions where they cannot win.

Cataclysm and Catastrophe are especially good at just winning games once you are ahead on the board, and you shouldn't hesitate to use either one to kill one another player.

Finally, we're down to the last few free slots before making space for lands. Here I want to add a little bit of mana acceleration so that [card Isperia the Inscrutable]Isperia[/card] can hit the table in a reasonable amount of time. If [card Isperia the Inscrutable]Isperia[/card] is going to be playing the role of Stoneforge Mystic, I'd like it to hit the table consistently by turn 4 or 5. I would also like the deck to have some powerful late game cards that aren't completely reliant on equipment to be threatening.


[card Elsepth, Knight-Errant]Elspeth[/card] and Battle Screech are there to play a role similar to Squadron Hawk in that they give you multiple creatures for a single card, bodies to put swords on, and some resiliency to wrath effects. Similarly, Sun Titan and Consecrated Sphinx are trumps for stalled or empty boards that will force people to either remove them on sight or threaten to win you the game.

Beyond this we'll add a pretty standard manabase with manlands and fixing, and end up with a list that looks like this:

[deckbox did="a100" size="small" width="560"]

Now, rather than wrap up with some general comments about the deck, I'd like to take this as an opportunity to talk about a personal quest for Commander enlightenment that I'm starting on. What I'd really like to do is, over time, to build a unique deck for each color combination, spanning a range of archetypes and approaches. To stay true to my inner-Johnny, I'd prefer to stick mostly to commanders that see less play than most, or at least approach building the general differently.

I'll be the first to admit that I have a huge personal bias towards certain cards and archetypes, and so I'm hoping to get some reader-participation going for this project to help keep me honest, otherwise I'm always going to end up playing some clunky attrition deck.

I've got a few decks that I've already built and written about that I'm going to keep together regardless (Child of Alara, Wortikut, and Ib Halfheart), but beyond those I've got a good 20-ish decks to build!

It's probably easiest to start with monocolor decks, and we might as well start with my favorite color for Commander: white! So, along with the usual comments, emails, and tweets about this week's article and suggestions for future articles, I want to hear what you think about monowhite generals and decks. Which are overplayed? Which are undervalued? Should I build a Kataki, War's Wage deck, or is that too hopeless? Only you can decide!

As always, I appreciate any feedback, and I'm especially excited to hear any of your ideas and suggestions for my Johnny-tastic journey for Commander awesomeness! Next week we'll be taking a look at a reader-submitted, non-Voltron build of Sygg, River Guide. This guy was one of the first legends I ever owned, so hopefully I'll be able to do him justice!

Carlos Gutierrez
@cag5383 on Twitter

4 thoughts on “Of Hawks and Swords

  1. Another couple of important toolbox creatures that you forgot: Sower of Temptation, Gilded Drake and Glen Endra Archmage. Also, while you can't get Serra Ascendant with Isperia, you can get it with Ranger of Eos, who only has two targets right now. Just a couple of suggestions.

  2. Glen Elendra Archmage was definitely an oversight, and should have made the cut, but I'm not sure over what, at first glance.

    Fact or Fiction Sphinx should also make the cut, but I'm choosing to exclude M12 cards since they aren't readily available to most people yet. Having played with it some myself, it's insane, and I'm really excited about it.

  3. White White, I either think soldiers, cats, and Rebels. Soldiers are always popular, so I'd say no to them. Kemba was really popular when she was new, but maybe not anymore. I don't know how popular Rebels are in Commander, I've at least never read an article on them, so it'd be nice to read one. Go with Rebels.

    Otherwise great article! I probably would have put in Suntail Hawk or Squadron Hawk in for the flavor as well, but Suntail can also be searched up with Ranger of Eos. I'm with Benjammn, if you're going to run the Ranger it seems you need more to tutor up with. 4-5 cards seems just right to me.

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