Retracing Commander: Keeper and Control

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Back when Magic was released in 1993, information about the game was scarce. Aside from speaking with other players in your local area, you were limited to magazines and clunky Usenet groups. It was the wild west. Concepts like mana curves, tempo, and card advantage were alien to the players of the time.

The community has come a long way since those days, but there’s plenty more we have left to learn. It’s time to step back to 1993 and revisit "The Deck" that changed everything.

Welcome Back to Retracing Commander!

Last week I set off this series with an overview of how I approach brewing decks for Commander. This week we’ll dissect Keeper by Brian Weissman, a quintessential Control deck. We’ll use our analysis to discuss how to adapt the strategy to Commander games, and how I approach the matter of Card Advantage.

I was first introduced to Keeper through a very old article by Darren Di Battista that I discovered back in 2013. After a few successful attempts at brewing a list for Standard, I set it aside to focus on the next idea to catch my attention.

Since then that article has been at the back of my mind, lurking in my subconscious waiting to be reopened. As we start off this series with an analysis of a proper Control deck, it’s time to crack the lid on Pandora’s Box and unleash "The Deck."

A Masterpiece of Design

Keeper, also known as “The Deck,” was revolutionary. It was the strongest Control strategy in Magic in the early years. It was a list that could compete against anything and come out on top, an engine designed to punish opponents for even the slightest mistakes. It was loaded with silver bullets against the most-popular strategies and drizzled with permission spells. It's win condition? Strip every resource from their opponents and win the game by swinging with Serra Angel.

Card quality has grown a lot since those days. No longer the powerhouse it used to be, Serra Angel has fallen from the skies it used to occupy. Yet to this day the strategy at the core of Keeper is solid and there is a lot we can learn from it if we want to play control in Commander.

An Overview

Here's a build of Keeper you could expect during the first two years of Magic:

When you first look at this deck, it may seem like a misfit pile of cards. But it wasn't the inclusion of the Power Nine that made this deck so strong. It was how all these disparate cards came together into a cohesive game plan that preyed on the metagame.

The Cards

Keeper was a control deck that used the best of all five colors with a large part dedicated to White and Blue. Those two colors offered a splendid combination of answers and card draw, forming the core of a strategy dedicated to delaying the game.

The White section in this deck focused on disabling threats that hit the board. Blue focused on gaining card advantage and countering spells that threatened Keeper’s core game plan.

Black was often limited to tutoring and hand disruption, but it did a masterful job. Red offered creature removal. Green was usually splashed for a single Regrowth.

The artifact section offered incredible mana acceleration and incidental card advantage. Notable cards include Jayemdae Tome and Disrupting Scepter.

The Strategy

Keeper played as a Control deck centered on disabling opponents in every way. From their creatures on the board to their lands in play to the cards in their hand. The goal of a Keeper player was to avoid losing at all costs. Their game plan focused on preventing the opponent from progressing while building up their advantages. Some cards are particularly notable:

Magus of the Moat locked out entire strategies that were popular at the time. When decks were able to fly over it, Swords to Plowshares was always ready to save the day.

Whoever resolved Mind Twist would often win a control mirror, and it would go unchecked against decks without ways to respond to it.

Mana Drain offered Keeper a way to be proactive in its defense. It not only countered their threats but also accelerated Keeper’s own game plan in the process. Countering an Erhnam Djinn only to tear their hand apart with a Mind Twist after untapping was an incredibly feared line of play.

At the time, Serra Angel was among the best finishers in the format. A single copy put the game on a five-turn clock as soon as it hit the board, and Keeper excelled at protecting it.

And, of course, the card advantage of spells such as Ancestral Recall and Timetwister is rarely underestimated these days.

Commanding Keeper

If we want to adapt Keeper's control strategy for Commander, we’re going to need to build a decklist that recreates that strategy. Whenever we brew a new deck, our goal is to answer these questions to inform our card choices:

  • What do I need during the Early Game?
  • How do I get there through the Mid Game?
  • How do I achieve that in the Late Game?
  • How do I plan to win?

The Early Game starts the moment your first turn begins. Your goal can be completely different depending on the deck you play. In essence, the Early Game ends when you have achieved the trigger that puts your deck into action. Many decks end their Early Game when they have reached a certain amount of mana. Others exit it when they cast their Commander. You want your Early Game to be as short as possible. The longer it takes to reach the Mid Game, the less time you will have to assemble the pieces you need to win. After all, your opponents will be trying to do the same!

The Mid Game is often a chaotic brawl as you and every other player fight to secure an advantage. It's where you will be spending most of your time, starting from when you have the minimum resources your deck needs to function. You want to create the ideal circumstances for you to win, whether it be a certain combination of cards, or a specific board state, or perhaps reducing your remaining opponents.

The Late Game is different depending on the deck. A highly-tuned combo deck might hit it by turn three whereas a control deck like this might not reach there until turn twelve. The Late Game starts when you have most of the tools you need to pull off your Win Condition and it's just a matter of securing your victory as soon as possible. It ends when you win or lose the game.

Personally, I find it more intuitive to answer the questions in backward order...

"How do I plan to Win?"

With a deck like Keeper, our focus is less on winning the game and more on preventing ourselves from losing. Because of this, our deck should be built around our own survival. But the game needs to end at some point, and we want to come out on top.

Keeper focused on winning through dealing damage with Serra Angel over five or more turns. Even though multiple opponents make creature strategies difficult, we can try similar approaches.

For low-power games, my suggestion is to use cards with Myriad. Herald of the Host is this format’s Serra Angel, and Caller of the Pack can end games twice as quickly. They offer opportunities for opponents to interact, preventing games from feeling entirely hopeless. And Azor's Elocutors is a janky win condition that offers opponents a fair window to interact.

Stronger options include Phage, the Untouchable, and similar ways to instantly make players lose the game. Master of Cruelties with Blade of Selves seems particularly effective after a board wipe! Helix Pinnacle is another delightful alternative, similar to Azor’s Elocutors as suggested above.

In higher power games, I might suggest focusing on card advantage with the goal of a combo finish. Either a Doomsday spread or to win by decking yourself with Laboratory Maniac in play.

“How Do I Achieve That in the Late Game?”

One way to figure out what you need during the Late Game is to envision what the board could look like on the last turn of the game. What do you need to have in play, in hand, and in your other zones? What cards can your opponents disrupt this strategy with?

Your game plan flows from the scene you have pictured in your mind.

Here’s an example. I’m imagining a Commander game where I am playing a low-power control deck based on Keeper. I have just won by swinging for the last lethal damage with Herald of the Host, having cleared the way for many turns of attacks.

My opponents are doing their best to stop me by clearing my threats or building defenses of their own. For this reason, having a bunch of counterspells in my hand is important. A card like Lightning Greaves equipped to Herald would help. A board empty of blockers or a way to make my creature unblockable would further ensure my victory.

So: I want to drop Herald of the Host with counterspells ready to protect it and some form of equipment or enchantment that can protect it from most of my opponents' removal spells. That sounds like a lot to ask for, so I will need lots of card draw. I will probably want it at instant speed so I can hold up mana for interaction.

From here, we keep working backward. What do I need to reach that point? Or, in other words...

“How Do I Get There Through the Mid Game?”

For Keeper, I need enough board wipes to prevent my opponents from building a threatening board state, and spot removal for specific permanents that will disrupt my plans. This includes removal for artifacts, enchantments, and planeswalkers. I want card draw to keep my hand full of options, and enough mana so I can stay ahead of my opponents. A few tutors to help me find my win conditions are important, and of course, counterspells to thwart my opponents! But how many of each of these should I include?

Well, the easiest way is to take these categories and count the number of cards the Keeper deck has in each one. Then multiply that number by 1.66. For example, by counting the number of removal spells in the decklist you will find eight for dealing with creatures if you include Magus of the Moat. Multiplying that by 1.66 gets you thirteen, which is the proper amount of creature removal in a 100-card version of this deck. You can adjust that number to fit your meta, but it offers a fantastic starting point as you build your decklist.

"What do I need during the Early Game?"

A Keeper strategy in Commander doesn't need to stress during the early turns. As you have forty life and most opponents will be developing their own board states, you have a cushion you can take advantage of.

With that in mind, I would place my focus during the first few turns on ramping my mana. Twelve sources of mana ramp, as well as thirty-six lands, seems like a great point to start from. Cheap sources of card draw would help us dig for more resources and refill our hands with options.

Once we have enough mana for a board wipe and a few counterspells in hand I would feel comfortable moving to the Mid Game and focusing on preparing the board for our victory.

End Step

Thanks for reading! Deckbuilding is a passion of mine and I am excited to dig into the history of competitive play with this series. If you want to read more about Keeper, you may be interested in a few of the resources that helped my own research:

Next week we'll explore Midrange for Commander. We'll develop an understanding of the archetype by analyzing the strengths of Abzan Midrange during Khans of Tarkir Standard. Siege Rhino is back!

Until then, happy brewing!

2 thoughts on “Retracing Commander: Keeper and Control

  1. On my phone, but in neither mobile nor desktop mode the decklist seems to have any Serra’s. In fact it seems rather hard to win? Also it seems a rather early list, Brian regularly wrote about his changes and new insights, a later version would probably make a better start. A couple years ago he made an old school keeper build, if you want to know what he’d do now.

    If you like Keeper you should really read The Control Player’s Bible, an even older series of articles by Oscar Tan, also on SCG.

    I think your math should really account not just for the deck size increase, but also for the increase in number of opponents. Unless you manage to find universally applicable versions of all cards, which I don’t think exist for counterspells (though it works for (mass) removal). The problem of playing proactive control cards in multiplayer is that you want to stop too many cards from hitting the board. Reactive control is much better as you can wait to see if your opponent solves something for you. As such you’re going to find the increased number of opponents very hard to keep up with. Unless you move away from that strategy, but then you’re no longer playing keeper.

    Honestly, while there is much to learn from Keeper, I don’t think all of its strategies translate well to multiplayer. 1 for 1 trading primarily is a big problem.

  2. The Vigilance is what made Serra Angel virtually invincible at the time. There weren’t so many biggies around that could deal with that type of blocker with that type of evasion.

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