I’ve been struggling to put words on the page. For years now, I’ve been wanting, nay, dreaming of being a Magic writer. Until now, I’d not found a topic I’ve really wanted to write about. Due to ever-tightening life constraints, I’ve been forced from grinding 4 local tournaments and a PPTQ or an SCG Open a week, down to just a weekly Commander game and the occasional FNM (if I’m lucky).
And you know what? I’m really happy about it. Commander has been a very liberating experience for me as a Magic player. I’m no longer invested in winning. I don’t have to spend upwards of $50 a weekend, driving upwards of two hours on most trips (Northern Florida isn’t exactly buzzing with events), and just losing in yet another PPTQ top 8. I can be free to do anything I want, in any style I want, and can feel great knowing that as long as the games were interesting, I succeeded.
My name is Bryan Scholl. I’ve been playing casually for over 10 years, playing competitively for over six and judging somewhat actively for two, and in that time I’ve top 8’d seven PPTQs, an old-style PTQ and a Star City Games Open. I would like to think I’m pretty alright at Magic, but nothing too far from an average grinder. What I believe I do more than the average grinder, however, is consume Magic content. I read, listen to, evaluate, and digest more Magic content than I can handle, most likely. On every drive to school or work, I’m devouring a podcast. On every break, catching up on the latest articles and news. My life has been dedicated to our wonderful game since the first time I opened a booster pack.
For the past six months, I’ve been running a weekly Commander game with a small group of friends. We’re a fairly diverse crew: a pair of kitchen-table exclusive casual players, a pair local tournament grinders, and myself. Each of us has a relatively unique play style and approach to the format, and I plan to examine each one thoroughly over the coming weeks. This first deck is my own. It’s the first Commander deck I built after coming back to the format, and its proven itself to be one of the more successful decks in our metagame
This deck’s commander is Ephara, God of the Polis. It’s a hybrid deck, based around tokens, blink effects, and value creatures. The idea behind it was “How can I best use my commander in order to leverage her powerful set of abilities?”. Typically, it tries to control the early game by using its counterspells and spot removal before deploying Ephara and beginning to draw cards. Most commonly, I’ll find myself trying to reuse my early value creatures as much as possible (via Crystal Shard, Whitemane Lion or other similar effects) to ensure I hit my land drops during the early and mid games. The list is slightly tailored to my own metagame, so don’t take it as an example of a completely optimized list, but more a groundwork with which one can create their own take on the commander.
Deck Evaluation and Critique
Ephara, God of the Polis
Well, that’s a lot to take in at once, so let’s break down exactly what went into crafting this deck.
Ephara is a commander that asks a decent amount of the deck to make her good. Her triggered ability wants a way to repeatedly generate creatures entering the battlefield, such as with token makers. However, her devotion ability asks for a way to have permanents with mana costs on the battlefield. Most token creatures don’t provide devotion, so I went with a mix of token producers, value creatures and flicker effects to generate the necessary enter-the-battlefield triggers that let this deck snowball enough to take over a game.
Luminarch Ascension; Sacred Mesa; Mobilization; Thraben Doomsayer; Heliod, God of the Sun; Mastery of the Unseen; Meloku the Clouded Mirror; Elspeth, Sun’s Champion; and Kjeldoran Outpost do the heavy lifting here providing fuel for the engine, as well as a win condition when combined with Opposition, Mirror Entity or Cathars’ Crusade. The deck is looking to generate at least one token during each players’ turn, so having cheap, repeatable ways to generate tokens is key.
Æthersnipe, Angel of Finality, Archaeomancer, Flickerwisp, Karmic Guide, Mizzium Meddler, Mulldrifter, Riftwing Cloudskate, Solemn Simulacrum, Stonecloaker, Sun Titan, and especially Trinket Mage are my value suite. Each one is exceptional in their own right, and when combined with Venser, the Sojourner or Mistmeadow Witch, they represent a ton of value over the course of the game.Archaeomancer being blinked repeatedly to recur overloaded Cyclonic Rift is a fairly common way to end the game quickly.
Controlling the game
Blue and White excel at controlling the pace of games, and this Ephara deck is no exception. With five counterspells, four wrath effects, and a generous amount of targeted removal, Ephara is set up to dictate exactly how and when spells are played. In a typical four-player Commander game, counterspells are at a premium, and they mesh very well with the game plan of leaving up mana to produce tokens or flash in a creature.
The deck has many avenues to victory. Mirror Entity, Opposition and Capsize can often win games all on their own. The main win condition, however, is raw card advantage. By continuing to generate resources at a very quick pace over the course of the game, Ephara has the ability to grind out her opponents with ease. Her ability to essentially have 5 draw steps instead of 1 can put the pilot way ahead of their opponents and allow them to take control of the game, ending it however they please.
There are infinitely many different commander archetypes, however, a few key archetypes stand out to me as being common across multiple play groups:
- Graveyard decks (Ghave, Karador, Meren, Jarad)
- Voltron Decks (Geist of Saint Traft, Uril, Zur)
- Big Mana Decks (Mono-Black, Mono-Green)
- Mana Cheat decks (Mayael, Kaalia, Reanimator)
- Good Stuff decks
These are typically fair, grindy decks that rely on the graveyard as an additional resource. These are typically black and green, using commanders such as Ghave, Guru of Spores or Karador, Ghost Chieftain. Ephara has a good amount of game against these decks by having her primary removal spells exile, and has Angel of Finality along with Stonecloaker for additional ways to keep the graveyard under control.
These decks use their difficult-to-interact-with commanders in order to take advantage of the commander damage rule. Some of the more common Voltron commanders incluse Geist of Saint Traft, Uril the Miststalker, and Rafiq of the Many. Ephara has a few ways to combat this powerful strategy. Her suite of counterspells will help contain the most powerful buffs to the commander, and the wraths available should help to have interaction with even the hexproof commanders. Most valuable, however, is the token generation and instant speed flicker effects, which allow for a large amount of chump blockers. If the commander keeps running into 1/1 soldier tokens, then it won’t deal any commander damage to the face, which is really all that matters against those strategies.
Big Mana Decks
Most decks in Commander have the ability to generate a large supply of mana, however, some decks are dedicated to the task, then leveraging their vast amount of resources into a win. The most common commanders in this archetype would be Azusa, Lost but Seeking; Omnath, Locus of Mana; and many mono-black commanders. I know I’ve mentioned the counterspells a lot, but they really are the key to slowing down the unfair decks in the format. If one of the opponents spends their whole turn on a huge Exsanguinate or an Eldrazi, one counterspell might as well be a Time Walk. Beyond the counterspells, several of the targeted removal spells are useful against any non-land permanent, slowing their mana development. Lastly, there is Strip Mine (and any other land-death land one might care to include) to help stop that pesky Cabal Coffers or Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx.
Mana Cheat Decks
An archetype near and dear to my heart, Mana Cheat decks look to subvert traditional ways to cast spells and instead simply put them into play. Commanders such as Kaalia of the Vast; Sedris, the Traitor King; and my first Commander, Mayael the Anima all look to circumvent the idea of a mana cost. These decks have a tendency to run out of steam a bit quickly, so Ephara’s controlling nature already makes her a bit of a favorite against this strategy. The wraths and spot removal do a good job of delaying the big mana spells until you no longer care about them
Good Stuff Decks
A very common archetype amongst grinders who want to just jam games in between rounds at larger events, these decks tend to be made up of all-stars from Standards past and a smattering of Modern and Legacy staples. What they lack in synergy, they tend to make up in raw card power. There are no particularly common commanders for this strategy, but I’ve noticed they tend to be either 5-color or some combination with blue in it. Luckily for us, Ephara is a synergy deck, and has a significantly larger ability to snowball than most of the decks using this strategy. The normal gameplan of drawing a ton of cards, then taking control should be more than enough to take down decks like this.
Potential Upgrades from Oath of the Gatewatch and other changes
A few cards from the upcoming set stand out as exceptional in a strategy that plays heavily to the board, and seem like they’ll fit very well into the blink-value-token strategy that this deck plays.
Reflector Mage is an insane value creature that will easily upgrade Riftwing Cloudskate. The ability that prevents casting is part of the enter-the-battlefield trigger, so even when the Mage is flickered, the restriction is still in place!
Eldrazi Displacer looks amazing not only for Standard and Limited, but also for Commander. The blink-on-command ability has a ton of uses and with the deck’s eight dedicated colorless sources, it isn’t too hard to find the mana to use the ability.
Meandering River is nothing too exciting, but it is +1 dual land, and those are always welcome in any Commander Deck
Out of older sets, a few cards that deserve looking at include: Duplicant; Ghost Quarter/Tectonic Edge/Dust Bowl; Sphinx’s Revelation; Elspeth, Knight-Errant; Monastery Mentor; and any of the new Myriad creatures from Commander 2015.
In the coming weeks, I plan on breaking down not only my decks, but also those of the group. There are some very interesting ideas and decklists floating around, especially with the new release of Oath of the Gatewatch. This column is still in its infancy, and has many directions it could take. Leave a comment if there was anything you especially enjoyed, or if there’s a question I can answer.
All the best,
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