Monday, April 21, 2014

Library Manipulation in Commander: Part Blue

In a previous article, I covered what Library Manipulation is (and isn't), how to use it, and what to look for. Now that you are up to speed, let's take a look at some cards.

I love evaluating cards. Blue has some of the best library manipulation in the game, so it's a good place to start. The idea here is that we can apply a framework to evaluate all of the different library manipulation cards, identify strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately choose the right one(s) to slot into our decks.

Here's an example.


Brainstorm is arguably the best library manipulation spell in the game. For one blue mana (U), Brainstorm packs quite a wallop.

Brainstorm works at instant speed. From the last article, we know that spells that happen at instant speed give us the most options because we can wait until the last possible moment to cast the spell. This gives our opponent(s) the least amount of options because we can leave counter magic open (or the threat of counter magic). All things being equal, instant speed spells are best.

Brainstorm also looks at three cards and includes the magic word "draw." In other words, the cards you look at from Brainstorm actually end up in your hand. This differs from Ponder, for example, where you simply look at the three cards rather than drawing them. It is an important distinction that puts Brainstorm way out in front of other manipulation spells.

Okay, so we end up with an evaluation framework like this:

Name: Brainstorm
Casting Cost: U
Speed: Instant
Number of Cards Manipulated: 3
Drawn or Viewed?: Drawn
Other: Woah, momma.

See that "Other" category? That's where this evaluation process gets interesting. Here's a hint: If a card is restricted in the Vintage format, it's probably really (really, really) good. Brainstorm is one of those cards.

Because you actually draw the cards with Brainstorm, you can "replace" two of the cards in your hand with cards that you draw. In other words, as long as you have two cards in your hand after you cast Brainstorm, you end up with (potentially) three new cards. This is a key component of evaluating library manipulation spells. Very few of these cards actually give you more than one "new" card for your trouble. Here's another example.


Name: Ponder
Casting Cost: U
Speed: Sorcery
Number of Cards Manipulated: 3
Drawn or Viewed?: Viewed
Other: Do the shuffle!

Side-by-side, Ponder is no Brainstorm. Yet, like Brainstorm, Ponder is also restricted in Vintage. Yes, it's that good. Even though it is "slower" than Brainstorm as a sorcery vs. instant speed, Ponder still looks at three cards for one U mana. But - this is an important distinction - it doesn't draw the cards.

Ponder does have an important "feature" that Brainstorm lacks. It has the power to shuffle away the cards you look at. In effect, you can draw any one of the next three cards or alternately the fourth (unseen) card after your shuffle. What Ponder does not do is actually draw the three cards. It only draws one. In other words, like most library manipulation spells, Ponder gives you the best card out of some number of cards on top of your library.

So, if Ponder is crazy (which it is), Brainstorm is totally bonkers. Incidentally, the next card is also restricted in Vintage for a similar reason. Take a look.

Thirst for Knowledge

Name: Thirst for Knowledge
Casting Cost: 2U
Speed: Instant
Number of Cards Manipulated: 3
Drawn or Viewed?: Drawn
Other: Woah, momma.

Even though Thirst for Knowledge (TfK) costs three total mana, it passes the instant speed test and actually draws the three cards. Even if you end up discarding two cards, as long as you had at least two cards in your hand when you cast TfK, you end up with three entirely new cards in the end. This is an immensely powerful effect at instant speed, even for three mana.

Look at it this way, as long as you have slots in your deck to spare for library manipulation spells and enough time to cast them, your deck will be considerably more consistent than without them. You know those turns where you must make your next land drop to win? These spells fix that problem. How about turns where you need to draw anything other than a land to seal the deal? Yep, they fix those problems too.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that anything more than three mana is too much mana for library manipulation in Commander. I'm sure that there are exceptions to this, but keep it in mind. I'm also going to say that at three mana, I'm not sure that anything other than TfK makes the cut. There might be something out there (Forbidden Knowledge, perhaps), but I'm not convinced. So, let's look at some more library manipulation spells for one or two mana.

PreordainSerum Visions

Name: Preordain
Casting Cost: U
Speed: Sorcery
Number of Cards Manipulated: 2
Drawn or Viewed?: Viewed
Other: Scry before draw

Name: Serum Visions
Casting Cost: U
Speed: Sorcery
Number of Cards Manipulated: 2
Drawn or Viewed?: Scry
Other: Scry after draw

As it turns out, viable instant speed manipulation spells are rare. These are the twin one-mana library manipulation spells at sorcery speed. Neither one is anywhere near as good as Ponder. Preordain comes out ahead since you scry before you draw.

Moving on to instant speed, we have these two spells to consider:

ImpulseTelling Time

Name: Impulse
Casting Cost: 1U
Speed: Instant
Number of Cards Manipulated: 4
Drawn or Viewed?: Viewed
Other: Does not set up your draw

Name: Telling Time
Casting Cost: 1U
Speed: Instant
Number of Cards Manipulated: 3
Drawn or Viewed?: Viewed
Other: Sets up your next draw

Impulse digs deep for only two mana, allowing you to see four cards. In addition, it moves the cards that you did not select down to the bottom of your library. This can be a good or bad thing depending on how your deck is set up. Telling Time looks at one less card than Impulse, but let's you put one card back on top. Again, this can be good or bad depending on the situation. In Commander, I'm usually looking for a particular card in a given situation, so digging one card deeper with Impulse is preferable.

Bouncing back to sorcery speed, we have these two gems:

See Beyond

Name: See Beyond
Casting Cost: 1U
Speed: Sorcery
Number of Cards Manipulated: 2
Drawn or Viewed?: Drawn
Other: Holy smokes!

Whenever one of these library manipulation spells actually draws the cards in question, they are usually something special. See Beyond is one of those spells. Since you actually draw the cards, as long as you have a card in your hand when you cast See Beyond you can end up with two entirely new cards. Compare this to Brainstorm. Yes, it's only two cards instead of three, but the card you get rid of is shuffled back into your deck. This is often a good thing as it means your next draw will also be an entirely new card, unlike with Brainstorm.

Strategic Planning

Name: Strategic Planning
Casting Cost: 1U
Speed: Instant
Number of Cards Manipulated: 3
Drawn or Viewed?: Viewed
Other: Fill your graveyard

Strategic Planning works a bit differently. You look at three cards, which is one less card than you see with Impulse. Plus, unlike Impulse, Strategic Planning is at sorcery speed. What makes it interesting is that the cards you don't choose end up in your graveyard. Depending on your deck construction, cards that end up in your graveyard can be as good (or better!) than cards that end up in your hand.

In a format where you run only one copy of a card other than basic lands, like in the Commander format, cards that are functionally similar or equivalent have special importance. So, if you are a fan of Ponder, don't forget that Omen is functionally equivalent for one more mana.


Name: Omen
Casting Cost: 1U
Speed: Sorcery
Number of Cards Manipulated: 3
Drawn or Viewed?: Viewed
Other: They can't all be Ponder. :(

Arguments can be made about the exact order of the following list. There are probably at least a few "good" library manipulation spells I am forgetting. Plus, what your deck is trying to do will also make certain spells "better" in certain cases. All that said, here's the order I would put these in when considering what to run in my deck:

See Beyond
Telling Time
Strategic Planning
Thirst for Knowledge
Serum Visions
Forbidden Knowledge

If you are running a blue commander, work your way down the list. Start slotting library manipulation spells in for higher casting cost card drawing spells. In a lot of situations, this will push your deck down the curve, give your more consistency, and still give you the cards you need when you need them.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Full Circle: Deck Equivalency

Sheoldred, Whispering One

Mono-Black Control (MBC) is my "safety" deck. It's the deck I have the most practice with in Commander, where I'm most comfortable, and where some of the coolest cards in the game kick it with some of the best artwork in the game. That's a fact, Jack.

I keep most of my deck lists online so that I can review them easily. After looking through my lists, there's a definite pattern to what I like to play. It's to be expected. We all have a "comfort zone." But, there's also a limit to what the game itself will allow a deck to be and to still be viable in the format.

For example, if you want to play a deck with only lands in it, you can. Although this is technically legal, most of the time the deck will lose. This is a function of the game and the deck building rules. Even if running all lands is your "thing," there are limits to what the game will accommodate. The only exception I can think of is Ashling the Pilgrim and 99 Mountains. Isn't it cool that there are always exceptions to the rule?

Ashling the Pilgrim

MBC is great. Black has lots of relevant creatures with cool abilities, card drawing, mass creature destruction, spot creature destruction, and good ramp. With the right artifacts and planeswalkers, you can almost cover for Black's weaknesses of limited artifact removal and almost no enchantment removal. But even with all that, here's what happens.

You've got the game in hand, a big threat on the table, two players on the ropes, a grip of cards, and you're on the back of a sweeper that just put you way out in front. You attack, ice a guy, and pass turn. The guy playing combo untaps, draws his card, and wins.

Jester's CapSadistic Sacrament

In other words, short of a proactive Jester's Cap or Sadistic Sacrament activation, there isn't much you can do in MBC to interact with the combo player. I can't tell you how many games I've lost to a guy who casts an entwined Tooth and Nail into Mikaeus and Triskelion. Yes, it's a 9 mana "combo," but it typically wins on the spot.  Plus, it's in Green, so ramping to 9 mana is not difficult. All of the attacks and decisions you've made all game are made irrelevant with one decisive spell.

Tooth and NailMikaeus, the Unhallowed

This is where "playing the same deck" comes into the discussion. What got me thinking about this was when I played against a Mono-Green Yeva deck the other day and he cast Soul's Majesty. After the game, I was looking at his deck and automatically starting grouping the cards by function: card drawing, tutoring, ramp, beaters, etc. In other words, the mix and function of cards in his Green deck wasn't all that different from my Black deck. Although the colors in Magic are each better and worse at doing certain things, a "good" Commander deck will do what it can to fit cards into the right mix and functions.

Soul's Majesty

For example, let's look closer at Soul's Majesty. The game designers asked themselves, "Green needs to a way to draw cards. That's a given. But, how does Green want to draw cards? Green cares about creatures, so let's tie the card drawing to that." Boom. Soul's Majesty. This card allows the Green player to draw cards, but in a way that is in flavor for the color. The function (card drawing) is the same.

Back to MBC. Let's suppose that I am losing every week to combo. And let's further suppose that I don't want to play combo myself. What can I do? I can splash Blue for counterspells. This gives me a way to interact with the combo player by shutting down his combo as it is being cast.

As an exercise, we can take my current MBC Commander deck and start swapping in Blue cards where they are functionally equivalent. The result is "the same deck" in mix and function with different strengths and weaknesses.

Ancient CravingConcentrate

Sorcery (11)

  • Ambition's Cost  --> Fact or Fiction (Instant)
  • Ancient Craving --> Concentrate
  • Black Sun's Zenith
  • Consuming Vapors
  • Damnation
  • Decree of Pain
  • Demonic Tutor
  • Diabolic Tutor
  • Exsanguinate
  • Mutilate --> Cyclonic Rift (Instant)
  • Profane Command
There are just a few changes in this group of cards. Two cards move to Instant speed. We won't have as many Swamps once we're done, so Mutilate will be less effective. Cyclonic Rift with overload is a game changing play.


Instant (5)

  • Dismember --> Counterspell
  • Grasp of Darkness --> Spell Crumple
  • Murder 
  • Rend Flesh  --> Hinder
  • Vampiric Tutor
We are giving up Black's spot creature removal for Blue's counter magic. This isn't about countering everything in the world. It's about having a counterspell in hand when the combo player is about to go off. It won't work every time, but it gives us a play when we would otherwise simply lose.

Wrexial, the Risen DeepConsecrated Sphinx

Creature (23)

  • Abhorrent Overlord --> Sphinx of Uthuun
  • Bloodgift Demon
  • Bone Shredder
  • Crypt Ghast
  • Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief
  • Erebos, God of the Dead
  • Grave Titan
  • Gray Merchant of Asphodel 
  • Harvester of Souls
  • Massacre Wurm
  • Necropolis Regent --> Consecrated Sphinx
  • Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis
  • Nirkana Revenant --> Wrexial, the Risen Deep
  • Pestilence Demon
  • Pilgrim's Eye
  • Reaper from the Abyss
  • Reiver Demon
  • Rune-Scarred Demon
  • Sangromancer
  • Sheoldred, Whispering One
  • Solemn Simulacrum
  • Steel Hellkite
  • Wurmcoil Engine
Now that we have access to Blue, you can really go nuts here and switch out creatures. But, that's not the point. Wrexial takes the place of Sheoldred as the Commander since we need a Legendary creature with Blue and Black to make this work. Otherwise, we swap in a few powerhouse Blue creatures like the Sphinxes. Many of the best Black creatures require a heavy commitment to Black in the mana cost, so we are only looking to "splash" Blue.

Karn Liberated

Planeswalker (2)

  • Karn Liberated 
  • Liliana of the Dark Realms --> Dissipate
Karn stays. Liliana becomes another counter. You could cram one of the Jace's in this spot if you wanted to keep the mix the same.

Drowned CatacombDimir Guildgate

Land (38)

  • Ancient Tomb
  • Cabal Coffers
  • Maze of Ith
  • Rogue's Passage
  • Strip Mine
  • 30x Swamp
  • Temple of the False God
  • Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
  • Volrath's Stronghold
The lands stay the same with the addition of some Blue sources. If you want to get fancy, you can put in your Underground Sea, Watery Grave, and Blue and/or Black fetch lands. If not, Drowned Catacomb, Underground River, and Dimir Guildgate, along with a host of other less expensive alternatives are options. You can argue that Coffers shouldn't be here, that it should be Chromatic Lantern in this slot. The tradeoff for splashing Blue is that the deck loses consistency, speed, and explosiveness in the mana department. Is accepting that drawback worth having counter magic to combat combo? That depends on the decks you are trying to beat.

Dark ProphecyRhystic Study

Enchantment (7)

  • Dark Prophecy --> Rhystic Study
  • Exquisite Blood
  • Grave Betrayal
  • Necropotence
  • No Mercy
  • Phyrexian Arena
  • Sanguine Bond
Not many card changes here, either. Again, by adding Blue, you can go nuts and swap a bunch of stuff, but having access to Rhystic Study is probably enough.

LashwritheNegateThran DynamoChromatic Lantern

Artifact (14)

  • Armillary Sphere
  • Basilisk Collar
  • Batterskull
  • Expedition Map
  • Forcefield
  • Lashwrithe --> Arcane Denial / Negate / Swan Song
  • Lightning Greaves
  • Loxodon Warhammer
  • Mimic Vat
  • Sensei's Divining Top
  • Sol Ring
  • Swiftfoot Boots
  • Thran Dynamo (Chromatic Lantern / Gilded Lotus)
  • Wayfarer's Bauble
If you didn't put in Chromatic Lantern before, swap it in for Thran Dynamo or Lashwrithe. Otherwise, jamming another counter spell into the deck brings the total up to 5 and gives us a good chance of having one when we need it. Armillary Sphere and Wayfarer's Bauble take on additional dimension as they help with color fixing now in addition to ramp and consistent land drops.

What we end up with is, in many ways, the same deck. We get access to Blue's counter magic, which is something that Black doesn't have by itself, but we lose some of the consistency of running a deck with only one color. For fun, try matching your Commander deck list up against my list. How many cards are functionally equivalent? How close is the "mix" of cards by function in each list. You might be surprised how similar all of these decks are to one another.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Oloro, Downshifted

Oloro, Ageless Ascetic

I have a love / hate relationship with Oloro.

Between the powerful life gain from the Command zone, beyond the reach of the other players, to "durdle" aspect of the Esper color combination, there are things to consider when building a deck around him. Do I really want the game to last forever?

It's time to make some revisions to the deck and give this another go.

Black, White, and Blue together make up the color combination called Esper. Now that's a color combination I can get behind! And Oloro does exactly what I'd like my Commander to do. He sits back, watchful, intimidating, slowing gaining the advantage. Victory comes in time. I have all the time in the world.

The AbyssNo Mercy

The original version of the deck is over-the-top powerful. It's not fun. The first thing that has to go is (almost) all of the powerful vintage cards. Moat, The Abyss, it's back to the box for you. Yawgmoth's Will, you can stay for a while (but Argivian Find is a reasonable alternative here).

Polluted DeltaEsper Panorama
Flooded StrandArcane Sanctum

The next thing that has to go is all of the fetch lands. This isn't Legacy. Stop with all the shuffling! There's way too much durdle when I'm shuffling every turn, sometimes twice. Replacements include the check lands, pain lands, relevant tri-land, and more basics. Without the fetch lands, there's no need to keep Crucible of Worlds around. Bonus!

Force of WillPact of Negation
Mana DrainSwan Song

Finally, (almost) all of the expensive cards need to go. Forcefield, Force of Will, Mana Drain, I'm looking at you.

The result is that the deck is about $2,300 less expensive in this configuration. It's not nearly as consistent, but it also couldn't be traded straight up for a used car. The reason that matters (to me anyway) is there is nothing worse than people assuming that you won because your deck was full of money. There are thousands of different cards in Magic. Putting a less expensive, but still very effective, deck together is a completely reasonable proposition.

Of course, "expensive" is relative.

Where I play, one guy has a couple duals in his deck, but he plays penny sleeves and I think he's been at this game as long as I have. Another guy has a Jace the Mind Sculptor. I saw a Mana Crypt in a deck. That's about the limit. There are lots of planeswalkers and newer cards in most decks. Foils abound. I'd put the price tag of most decks in the $300 - $500 range where I play. So, that's what I'm shooting for with this deck revision.

Luminarch AscensionTest of Endurance

The heart of the deck is still the same: it's a defensive deck (sometimes called "pillow fort") that wins with incremental advantage (Sword / Thopter, Luminarch Ascension) or a well-timed Test of Endurance. For most of the game, you are trying to gain advantage where you can, stay alive, and motivate your opponents to attack each other instead of you. When the right time comes, you take the advantage and win. It's too late for anyone to stop your clever plans. It's all over.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

An Uneasy Feeling: Oloro, Ageless Ascetic

Every once in a while, an uneasy feeling starts creeping over me.

The last time I felt this way, Sylvan Primordial was banned in Commander.

Sylvan Primordial

It happens like this.

Where I play, Commander is competitive. Lots of people show up (25+). Turn 4 or 5 combos are common. Boards get wrecked. My Commander was tucked (bottom of library) in 4 out of 4 games I played a couple of days ago. With $5 of store credit on the line, they "go hard." <rolls eyes>

This makes for an ultra-competitive meta game. There are no "deals" at the table. No politics. People that stop by to watch a game in progress get shushed, then get asked to leave if they can't keep quiet. Every phase, every trigger is announced and priority is checked around the table. The judge is called, regularly. If a card is good, people run it. If a strategy works, people use it.

I started to see Sylvan Primordial show up in decks. Ok, great. It looked neat in the spoiler. It's big, rampy, and blows stuff up. What's not to love, right? So, it's no surprise that I start seeing it in the decks I see every week. Then, something happened.

Pretty soon, I started seeing green (or more accurately, multi-color with green) in every game. No joke. Everyone had green, just for Sylvan Primordial. Then, I started seeing decks designed to get to Sylvan Primordial as soon as possible. Then, it was decks that were casting and copying or otherwise recurring Sylvan Primordial. Every deck. Every game.

Progenitor Mimic

This doesn't sound too bad when you read it, but playing in that environment doesn't work. It's format-warping. The real kicker is when I start thinking something like this: "Gee, if I don't play Sylvan Primordial or a way to punish the guys who do play Sylvan Primordial, I might as well not play." That's not a good sign. That's how I know that something is wrong.

A short while later, Sylvan Primordial was banned. Decks returned to normal (crazy, but normal-crazy). They really did return to normal, overnight. It was like night and day after the banning.

That uneasy feeling is back. Oloro, Ageless Ascetic is a problem.

Oloro, Ageless Ascetic

Esper is already a combo-heavy, controlling color combination. Sharuum decks have always had the ability to assemble the machine and to win suddenly, quickly, and with counter magic to back it up. That's not the problem. That's a typical game where I play. The problem is that Oloro gaining life from the Command zone warps the format.

Sharuum the HegemonZur the Enchanter

Here's how I know. When I see Esper, it's Oloro. Not Sharuum. Not Sen Triplets. Not even Zur. I don't see any BW, UW, or UB decks with the exception of a Turn 4 infinite kill Oona deck once in a while. Otherwise, no one runs those combinations because they go for the third color and run Oloro instead.

Out of 25+ players there to play, Oloro shows up in almost every pod of 4, sometimes in multiples. Games with Oloro turn into Archenemy matches where it's 3 on 1, with everyone ganging up on Oloro. When Oloro loses, it requires a coordinated attack almost from the beginning to overcome the card advantage avalanche.

When I start thinking, "I'm going to run Oloro as the Commander of my mono-black deck," something is wrong. The life gain from the Command zone where Oloro can't even be interacted with is very, very strong. Ten turns into the game, I have 20 more life at my disposal than everyone else. That much life in the hands of a good player buys a lot of time, a lot of cards, and a very successful, defensive deck.

You know what else? That much life in the hands of a terrible player buys a lot of time, too. It makes bad players good, good players great, and great players outstanding. It's quite a handicap.

A guaranteed 2 life every turn doesn't sound like a lot when you read this. But, in a deck designed to slow down the game, to buy more turns, to stop damage from coming through, it's a tremendous advantage to gain life like that every turn. Life readily turns into cards, which turn into wins.


What I'm saying is that the meta game, at least where I play, is clearly warped around Oloro. Maybe it's not the same where you play. If it's not, I suggest you try Oloro as your Commander. :)