Ertai’s Trickery

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This week I continue my recent exploration of three-color combinations. I've mentioned before my interest in expanding into areas that my personal play style usually leads me to avoid. For one thing, that means the colors Blue and Black; for another, it means counterspells.

Many people hate playing against countermagic, and for that reason I've intentionally avoided it in the past. However, it's still a valid and popular tool for building decks in Commander, and I wanted to utilize it as a centerpiece of this week's Commander deck.

The task, therefore, is to come up with a three-color deck, centered in blue and black, that uses counterspells as a major theme.

My first thoughts for this exercise were of Dralnu, Lich Lord and a Flashback control deck with Secrets of the Dead and similar engines. [card Dralnu, Lich Lord]Dralnu[/card], however, is of course only two colors.

In the end, I narrowed the options down to Gwendlyn Di Corci and Ertai, the Corrupted.

These commanders interact differently with the counterspell theme and pull you in different directions. They both encourage you to include cards like Thousand-Year Elixir to double up on activations, but from there the decks tend to diverge.

Gwendlyn Di Corci plays well with counterspells by forcing people to play into them due to the pressure she puts on cards in hand. However, she really encourages you to build more towards the discard effect with things like Geth's Grimoire, and seems to want countermagic only incidentally.

On the other hand, Ertai, the Corrupted seems to fit the counterspell theme perfectly. If we build around him correctly, we can set him up to counter multiple spells in any given turn. He also encourages the inclusion of cards like Hatching Plans that get value when sacrificed.

Sounds like an opportunity to build a clunky deck out of some strange interactions. Sign me up!

Ertai's Meddling

The goal with [card Ertai, the Corrupted]Ertai[/card] is to make the sacrifice cost in his ability negligible or to turn it to your advantage. Ideally, you'll be able to set things up so that he reads: "U: Counter target spell." Here's how:

The End Game

With enough blue mana, this little combo can counter every spell your opponents cast for the rest of the game.

While [card Ertai, the Corrupted]Ertai[/card] is equipped with Thornbite Staff, you get to untap him every time you sacrifice a creature to activate his ability. With Lullmage Mentor out, every time his ability resolves you get a brand new Merfolk token to sacrifice for the next time! The only other thing you need is a disposable creature to begin the chain.

Unfortunately, players can respond to the untap trigger from Thornbite Staff to ruin your fun, but that's why we're going to need some backup counterspell engines!

Did Somebody Call for Backup?

These cards give you additional ways to protect [card Ertai, the Corrupted]Ertai[/card] and to start locking the game down with an oppressive amount of counterspells.

First of all, you have the pretty straightforward interaction between Sage of Fables and Glen Elendra Archmage for infinite [card Negate]Negates[/card]. Add in Voidmage Prodigy to the mix for infinite [card Counterspell]Counterspells[/card]. Alternatively, you can make a ton of Merfolk Wizards to feed to Voidmage Prodigy and counter things off of Lullmage Mentor.

Of course, when things go awry the practical but less interesting option of just casting a Counterspell from your hand should be available.

Ertai's Tributes

While the ultimate goal is to lock people out of the game entirely, sometimes you'll have to play fair with [card Ertai, the Corrupted]Ertai[/card]. In those cases, you want a steady stream of creatures and enchantments that can be sacrificed without causing too much pain.

As it turns out, there are a lot of sweet things ready-made for sacrifice. Let's start with the easy part: creature tokens.

Send in the Tokens

Tokens are the most versatile kind of card to sacrifice, but also provide the weakest return. They cost very little to sacrifice as they're easy to come by, but there isn't nearly as much upside as with some of the other cards we'll talk about shortly.

The other cards here fall into the category of Clone effects, which actually do a lot of work and enable some cute tricks.

Copying Persist creatures gives you two creatures to sacrifice to [card Ertai, the Corrupted]Ertai[/card], whereas doubling up on [card Lullmage Mentor]Lullmage Mentors[/card] lets you amass seven Merfolk tokens pretty quickly. You can also copy all kinds of creatures with "Enters the Battlefield" abilities, either your own or someone else's. Which brings us to:

Value Guys

Here we have some creatures that do awesome things when they enter the battlefield or die. Most of these are pretty generic, but there are a few sweet interactions I want to point out.

First, Puppeteer Clique interacts very well with Sage of Fables when combined with some kind of sacrifice outlet.

Second, Monk Idealist and Sun Titan are excellent with our suite of enchantments, which we'll get to below. Rebuying Hatching Plans in particular is not even remotely fair, and makes it easy to pull far ahead. Even as the Archenemy of an entire table, pulling off this interaction should be enough to guarantee victory!

Lastly, Academy Rector is absurdly powerful in this deck. If you manage to get Academy Rector and [card Ertai, the Corrupted]Ertai[/card] in play at the same time, you will make a lot of people think twice before casting any spells at all, for fear of letting you cheat in a bomb like Debtors' Knell.

Enchanting the Opposition

These cards provide some of the power plays available to the deck.

With an active [card Ertai, the Corrupted]Ertai[/card], Chime of Night and Reality Acid become removal plus countermagic two-for-ones. Hatching Plans and Debtors' Knell are just absurdly powerful, and two of the most fun cards in the deck.

The coolest cards here are definitely the Parallax enchantments though. With one of these out, you can respond to an opponent's spell by removing fade counters while holding priority. Then with all those activations still on the stack, you sacrifice the Parallax enchantment to counter your opponent's spell.

The result of all this is that the "leaves play" trigger resolves first, before the targeted cards have been exiled. Then all of your exile abilities resolve, removing the targeted cards permanently.

If you're feeling particularly fancy, you can exile some of your own creatures first, let those abilities resolve, then exile a bunch of other permanents and preform the trick above. Then the other permanents will be exiled, but yours will return to play!

These kinds of stack manipulation tricks are some of my favorite things to do, and lead to the next set of cards which let you pull off some flashy tricks.

Getting Tricksy

The interactions with these cards work on the same principle as the Parallax enchantments, except that they require you to jump through more hoops.

Leyline of Anticipation and Vedalken Orrery allow you to respond to a spell you want to counter by flashing in Oblivion Ring or Fiend Hunter, and responding to their exile trigger by countering the spell.

The last card I want to talk about is the seemingly odd Squadron Hawk.

Don't get me wrong, its certainly the worst card in the deck. However, you get to do something with Hawk that amuses me way too much for me to cut it.

With Leyline of Anticipation in play, you can flash in your Squadron Hawk in response to a spell you want to counter, counter the spell with [card Squadron Hawk]Squadron Hawk's[/card] trigger on the stack, then shuffle it back into your deck with something like Mistveil Plains. When the hawk trigger resolves, you get to search up the original hawk itself!

Is this necessary? Of course not, but it's awesome! Besides, how many opportunities do you get to play Squadron Hawk in a singleton format?

Filling in the Gaps

Consistency and Card Advantage

Every deck needs some ways to ensure that it can execute a consistent game plan, particularly a deck like this that is so reliant on specific interactions. This means that a reasonable portion of your deck will be dedicated to finding your combo pieces. You want the tutors to be as flexible as possible, but you also need to identify which pieces are the most important and be absolutely certain that you can find those consistently.

The first few non-Demonic Tutor spells are there to find the three equipment in your deck -- Thornbite Staff, Nim Deathmantle and Sword of the Meek. Next you have Idyllic Tutor and Dimir House Guard into Academy Rector as your Enchantment tutors. These will most often be used to find Reality Acid or Leyline of Anticipation.

After that, you have Tolaria West and Expedition Map to find important lands like Winding Canyons and Mistveil Plains, or even Hall of the Bandit Lord to give Ertai haste.

Finally, there are a few cards that set up graveyard shenanigans or simply dig through your deck. Fact or Fiction and Forbidden Alchemy help you fill your graveyard for a giant Open the Vaults in the late game. Intuition is a little weaker in this regard (usually fetching some combination of Enchantments and Replenish), but can also grab a pile of three tutors in a pinch to get you whatever you need.

Utility Spells

Last but not least we come to our generic utility spells. The merits of most of these should be obvious, but I do want to talk briefly about Capsize.

Generally, a deck like this can easily get to a point where it can answer everything that gets cast, but has trouble with what's already on the board. Capsize is a concession to that weakness, letting you take over a game once you've set up your "lock" with [card Ertai, the Corrupted]Ertai[/card] or one of the other engines.

As for Unburial Rites, I've loved playing this card in Standard and Modern, and I look forward to building with it more in Commander. The card is just awesome, and well suited to a format populated by giant creatures with a habit of ending up in your graveyard. It's definitely one of the better cards that I missed out of Innistrad.

The Mana Base

The important thing to remember for this deck is that it's going to be very hungry for Blue mana to fuel [card Ertai, the Corrupted]Ertai[/card] activations. This means that things like [card Azorius Signet]Signets[/card] are worse than in normal three-color decks, and that lands like Godless Shrine are actively bad. Since the deck is so mana-intensive and slow, some amount of artifact mana is necessary for playing a reasonably paced game.

Mana Ramp

Nothing too exciting going on here, just most of the cheap artifacts that produce blue mana or help you ramp into your mid- and late game. Artifacts like Sky Diamond are certainly better than things like Mana Crypt or Thran Dynamo. There may be a high demand for colorless mana in the early game, but there's nothing worse than drawing it in the late game when you're struggling to produce Blue mana.


Lastly, we've got some lands. You'll note that there are a total of four lands in the deck that don't produce blue mana, so you should have no difficulty paying for your counterspell engines once you get them up and running.

Besides that, there are a few interesting choices.

Minamo, School at Water's Edge untaps [card Ertai, the Corrupted]Ertai[/card] when you don't have Thornbite Staff. Winding Canyons is another pseudo-Leyline of Anticipation, and it in conjunction with Hall of the Bandit Lord means you can flash in
[card Ertai, the Corrupted]Ertai[/card] for counterspell action even if he gets removed on someone else's turn!

[deckbox did="a152" size="small" width="560"]

I don't think I have the optimal build yet, but overall I like where it's going. I probably went a little overboard on things that enable [card Ertai, the Corrupted]Ertai[/card] to the exclusion of answers to on-board permanents. It's likely correct to cut some of the counter magic and engines for things like Austere Command. That said, I'm excited to get to play with Lullmage Mentor, and will be playing this deck much more frequently to get all the kinks worked out!

Next week we'll be looking at a Damia, Sage of Stone deck that I'm very excited about. To give you an idea, it's the only deck I've ever played casually that required a judge to help us out with resolving everything correctly. The deck is a ton of fun, and very different than the other decks I tend to build. Check in next week to learn more!

Carlos Gutierrez

@cag5383 on Twitter

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