Building the Gifts Deck

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[Editor's Note: Carlos meant to pass this along to me last week. Pretend this is before the GP and everything will be fine. I promise.]

So I had one weekend off of traveling for magic and playing infinite Commander, and now I'm packing for Grand Prix Montreal. This promises to be an absolutely awesome trip, with the likes of @lansdellicious, @derfington, and @manadeprived all being present! It'll be a really busy weekend with it being a Grand Prix and all, but I'm really looking forward to meeting the people that are there (and getting in some Commander whenever I can)! I'm especially excited because I'm going to be able to get my Child of Alara signed, or perhaps even altered! All in all, I'm really excited about the trip and crushing a GP. Or scrubbing out Day 1 and running Commander games all of Day 2. There's not too much difference between those, right?

Regardless, this is an article about what is, bar none, my favorite card ever printed, which I play with at every opportunity: Gifts Ungiven. Unfortunately, it was (rightly) banned in Commander to protect casual tables from all of the one-card "I win" combos the card sets up. Even more unfortunately, besides Vintage, there isn't another format that the card is terribly playable in right now. Normally, that leaves Commander, right? What I'm hoping to do this week is to build a deck that "feels like" a gifts ungiven deck, even if you can't run the namesake. This means finding functionally similar cards, or new ways to accomplish a similar thing. For example, one of the marquee features of Gifts Ungiven decks is recursion. You cast Gifts, and then get what you want no matter how they split the Gifts pile, and then you do something over and over until you win the game. To that end, here's where I'm choosing to start the deck:


These elementals, along with your general, give you a game plan even if you can't get another, more powerrful engine online. These give you utility, longevity, and protect your other plans to an extent. None of these cards on their own is nearly good enough to warrant graveyard hate or exiling removal, but if they go unchecked, they will give you a significant advantage over the course of a game, and allow you to answer any number of problematic permanents. Crib Swap in particular is an incredibly powerful card to be able to recast again and again, and will be a game-breaking card every time! The next element of the deck will be cards that can function similarly to Gifts Ungiven. Here's what I could find to that end:

Gifts Analogues

The Gifts Ungiven analogues are broken into two sections: cards that function similarly to Gifts, and generic tutors and hand-fixers. All of these cards are very flexible, and help set up either recursion engines or tutor chains that end with an Intuition or a Fact or Fiction, the two cards that do the best Gifts Ungiven impression. But now we need ways to break these cards. Ways to take advantage of the ones that end up in your graveyard, or to reuse the best ones over and over again. This is, essentially, a pile of the best recursion in the format:


Now, you'll notice that there are some pretty notable cards missing here, namely Yawgmoth's Will. The problem is that you want to be able to cast cards over and over again, not just once and done. Yawgmoth's Will is very powerful, but not quite as good when you're doing a ton of mana intensive things, most of which involve interacting with your graveyard, not exiling it. Cards like All Suns' Dawn and Nostalgic Dreams are both very powerful because they can recur large quantities of cards at once, which is the reason they're worth running despite exiling themselves. Beyond that, though, you have to start considering the interactions between your recursion engines, so that you have some built in redundancy and resiliency. For example, Sun Titan can rebuy almost any card in your deck given enough time, since it can regrow Eternal Witness, Necromancy, and Crucible of Worlds.

The biggest thing about this style of deck is that it's very slow. You're relying on slow engines that you're assembling with slow tutors, since the good ones are banned. Because of that, you'll need some number of generic answers that buy you time and generate card advantage over the course of the early and midgame, so that you can find an opening to resolve an Intuition or some such and start taking over the game. Because we're already in five colors, we can run some of the best "generic" answers in the format!


There's a ton of room for customization here, and you could certainly make room for more cards like these. Pernicious Deed and Oblivion Stone get the nod over things like Nevinyrral's Disk and Akroma's Vengeance because of Sun Titan. Mana Drain is absolutely insane in this style of deck, since you're looking for opportunities to cast cards like Mystical Teachings and Fact or Fiction without being too vulnerable, and this gives you the chance to do that. Acknowledging that this is out of most people's budget (including mine!), consider things like Hinder and Dissipate. Or, you can do something a little off the wall and try Scattering Stroke. Certainly, this is way worse than Mana Drain, but this is a format where that's easily forgiven. The upside is still incredibly high, and the downside is still perfectly reasonable. If there's a format for cards with marginal downsides and really high variance upsides, this is the format for it! I'm a little surprised that the card sees essentially zero play in a format like Commander. Now let's start taking a look at the engines that give you routes to victory:

Artifact Engines

Something that has defined Gifts Ungiven decks in bigger formats like Extended and Legacy is that gifts piles are built to set up two-card combos that tend to put you at a huge advantage. In that vein, I'm running the Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek interaction, mostly because it's one of my favorite combos in the game, it doesn't seem "too unfair" for the format, and is reasonably resilient and easy to set up. Beyond that, there are just a few artifact cards that are just generically very good cards. Expedition Map in particular is great in this deck, as there are a number of lands that provide a great deal of flexibility to the deck. Tezzeret the Seeker is also an interesting choice here, since Tezzeret on his one doesn't really do much for the deck. The fact of the matter is that he's actually just a second copy of all of the important artifacts in the deck, and is capable of tutoring up multiple pieces given enough time. While Tezzeret the Seeker is a very slow tutor, he absolutely has to be answered, which makes it easier to resolve your other threats.

Creature Engines

This is probably the most interesting combination of cards in the deck. A huge problem that decks like this tend to have is that they lack the ability to actually close out games. These creatures, in certain combinations, can certainly just end games, but are also capable of just beating down and putting a quick clock on players. [card Jin-Gitaxias, Core-Augur]Jin-Gitaxias[/card] and Iona, Shield of Emeria are there to just end games if they make it into play. Yosei, the Morning Star give you a way to lock out players with either Emeria, the Sky Ruin or Sheoldred, Whispering One. Worm Harvest is mostly here to be another resilient win condition, and a part of Intuition piles with Dread Return. Etched Oracle and the Bringers are mostly there just as efficiently-costed, must-answer threats that have will generate huge advantages over the course of a game if left unchecked. But again, if people waste removal on those creatures, it clears the way for the better ones at the top of your curve.

Other Engines

And these last engines are the ones which are most difficult to answer. One of the most questionable inclusions in the deck is Prismatic Omen and Emeria Angel, since the mana-base is not built in such a way that Emeria can be activated naturally, but I like that Emeria, the Sky Ruin is fairly innocuous and difficult to answer, as a land, and that Prismatic Omen is efficiently costed. Prismatic Omen also has the upside of an incredible interaction with Last Stand; it's like an even better Cruel Ultimatum! You actually have to be incredibly careful not to deck yourself with that combination, and it might be worth including Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth[card], just to lessen the card's reliance on [card]Prismatic Omen. Lastly, let's talk about what is probably the weakest card in the deck: Raven's Crime. Raven's Crime is there to fight blue decks, in conjunction with Life from the Loam. You'll frequently have better things to do, though, and it can be hard to find enough black sources to make the card relevant. It's certainly possible that this would be better off as Mindslaver or Myojin of Night's Reach, just as more ways to close out a game. If you are inclined to include Mindslaver, consider Bringer of the White Dawn, so you can 'Slaver lock someone while still interacting with the rest of the table


Lastly, here are the relevant non-basic lands. These give you a combination of uncounterable removal, card selection, and recursion, which give the deck a lot of resiliency it wouldn't have otherwise. Which non-basic lands make the cut is something that changes depending on how you build and play the deck. I wanted to avoid turning this into another 60-land deck, so I wanted to avoid running too many lands that I couldn't see myself tutoring for on a regular basis. The two weakest cards here are the two manlands, but only testing can show if those are really necessary, or if they would be better served as additional color fixing or utility lands. Adding in the rest of the non-basics, the deck ends up looking like this:

[deckbox did="a127" size="small" width="560"]

Before I run too far over my word limit, I'd like to quickly go over some of the interactions to look for and to set up with your Intuitions and Fact or Fictions. Here's a couple of pretty straightforward piles to get things started. These purpose of the piles is to get you the card you want without using your generic Regrowth, so you can use those on more important cards.

1. Creature Pile
Worm Harvest/Necromancy
Dread Return

2. Artifact Pile
Petrified Field/Life from the Loam/Crucible of Worlds
Academy Ruins

3. Recursion Pile
Sun Titan
Eternal Witness

4. Another Recursion Pile
All Suns' Dawn
Nostalgic Dreams/Regrowth

5. Sword of the Meek Pile
Sword of the Meek
Worm Harvest
Card of your Choice

It's also important to remember that you can replace some cards with tutors, or just get all tutors to make sure you get whatever you wanted. A lot of the piles you can make depends largely on what you think you can get people to give to you. As people get more familiar or less familiar with your deck, it's easier to mind-game people into giving you cards that are very good based on their prior experience with the card, or lack thereof. I know I've certainly won a number of games with some weird looking Intuition and Realms Uncharted piles because I'm taking advantage of the perceived value of the cards I'm tutoring for relative to their actual value based on how I see the game playing out.

So what's the advantage to playing a deck that's endlessly complicated and utilizes pretty much every slot for some amount of additional value? Decks like this are incredibly challenging, and give you opportunities to grow as a player every time you sit down with them. Decks like this certainly aren't for everyone, and certainly aren't for every play group. If other players aren't prepared to deal with Five-Color-Blue-Answer-Everything, the deck, then something like this is just going to brutalize a table, and that's not going to be fun for anyone. But if you've got a group of reasonably competitive players, something like this gives you an opportunity to test your metagaming, deckbuilding, and play skills every week (since you need to adapt your suite of answers and lines of play to fit the decks you anticipate playing against) while giving you endless opportunities for customization to make it suit your style of play, this is your deck.

So there you have it. A deck built around my favorite banned card, with a number of the interactions found in my favorite Gifts Ungiven decks over the years since it's been printed. I'm curious to hear what other people's favorite cards to build around are, in this format or in others. On Twitter, some popular answers were: Warp World, Birthing Pod, and Gaea's Cradle, all of which tend to do pretty hilarious shenanigans when they hit the table. As always, if you've got comments, questions, or decklists you want to talk about, feel free to get in touch. I've had a surge in mail recently, so it may take a little longer to get back, but I do read everything!

Carlos Gutierrez
@cag5383 on Twitter

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