Building a Commander Deck, Part 2: Building an Optimized Deck

Our Optimized Deck

This is where I’d usually provide a summary of the deck we’re going to look at. However, as the goal of this deck is to have the fewest dead draws possible and combo off early if needed, the summary will get windy. Take this as fair warning.

  1. Isochron Scepter/Dramatic Reversal. Dramatic Scepter is a classic Commander combo that allows you to pay 2 mana to untap all of your nonland permanents. With 3 mana in mana rocks down — and when Urza is out, all of your artifacts are mana rocks — you have infinite mana: Isochron Scepter with Dramatic Reversal imprinted on it will untap itself, too. While you can dump this mana into Urza, there are also two sub-combos here:
  2. Isochron Scepter/Dramatic Reversal/Codex Shredder. It’s infinite mill, which you can use to knock out any player who isn’t running a way of shuffling their graveyard into their library as a triggered ability (Ulamog, Kozilek, or Gaea’s Blessing).
  3. Isochron Scepter/Dramatic Reversal/Sensei’s Divining Top or Trail of Evidence. Combined, these cards present infinite mana and infinite draw.
  4. Grim Monolith/Power Artifact. This is yet another infinite mana combo: when you put Power Artifact on Grim Monolith, you can tap Grim Monolith to get 3 mana and then spend 2 of those mana to untap Grim Monolith. This gets dumped into Urza to exile and cast your deck.
  5. Sensei’s Divining Top/Future Sight/Etherium Sculptor. Tap Top to draw the top card of your library, then cast Top from the top of your library for free thanks to Future Sight (allows you to cast the top card of your library) and Etherium Sculptor (reduces Top’s cost to 0 mana). Repeat until your deck is in your hand. If you have infinite mana, Etherium Sculptor matters less.
  6. Urza, Lord High Artificer/Winter Orb or Static Orb/The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale. Urza turns Winter Orb and Static Orb into mana rocks, allowing you to tap them at the end of the turn, allowing you to untap all of your lands/permanents while nobody else does. And if they want to keep their creatures, they’re going to have to keep paying mana, denying them the resources to further their game plan.
  7. Urza, Lord High Artificer/Sensei’s Divining Top/Future Sight/Sai, Master Thopterist. It’s another infinite draw combo: Tap Top to draw and send Top to the top of your library. Cast Top, getting a thopter that you can use to generate the mana to repeat the process until you’ve drawn your deck.
  8. Cyclonic Rift/Timetwister, Time Spiral, or Windfall. Blue doesn’t get boardwipes. But this combo can deal with indestructible things and graveyards and recursive threats.
  9. Narset, Parter of Veils/Timetwister, Time Spiral, or Windfall. This establishes crushing card advantage. If you combine this one with Cyclonic Rift, you’ve done an oppressive amount of damage to your opponents’ hands, graveyards, and board states. They are not likely to recover.
  10. Timetwister or Time Spiral/Narset’s Reversal. Cast Timetwister or Time Spiral. Hold priority and cast Narset’s Reversal targeting your Timetwister/Time Spiral. Narset’s Reversal resolves, sending Timetwister/Time Spiral to hand and putting a copy of Timetwister/Time Spiral on the stack — and Narset’s Reversal goes to the graveyard. Then the copy resolves, shuffling both Narset’s Reversal and Timetwister/Time Spiral into your library, setting you up to be able to do it again (with infinite mana and infinite draw, this produces infinite spell casts).
  11. Timetwister and Codex Shredder. Cast Codex Shredder. Cast Timetwister. Use Codex Shredder’s second ability to sacrifice Codex Shredder and return Timetwister to your hand. You can then Timetwister again, and if you have infinite mana and infinite draw, you can get the Codex Shredder back in play to repeat the process for infinite spell casts.

What can we learn from this deck?

What does our commander bring to the table?

Urza is a bit of a kitchen sink. He:

  1. Provides ramp. A lot of great commanders provide ramp as their primary ability. Most elfball decks use their commanders as ramp. Chulane has done great work in Brawl because he provides ramp.
  2. Puts more bodies on the floor. He comes in with a token that is likely going to be a 3/3 to start, and only gets bigger as the game progresses. Also, it can tap for mana immediately thanks to the ramp ability and the fact that it’s an artifact.
  3. Provides a sink for all that mana that provides card advantage.

Interaction: the most important part of any deck

Most people think that the defining characteristic of an optimized deck is the mana base. After all, it’s the most expensive part, right? That isn’t so: the most important part of your Commander deck is your interaction package: the cards you put in to slow your opponents down or even stop them outright.

Ramp: Fundamental to all Commander Decks

Since we want to interact heavily, we care about colored mana pips. So what can we learn from Urza?

Drawing cards: the lifeblood of any good Commander deck

The deck runs 14 dedicated draw spells plus two Wheel effects (Timetwister and Time Spiral). Our curve here is a bit wackier, but there are also things that aren’t dedicated draw that can lead to more card advantage:

  1. Narset’s Reversal, which allows us to pay UU to return a draw spell to our hand as we cast it, thus allowing us to use it again.
  2. Sai, which we can use in a pinch to sacrifice artifacts for card draw
  3. Urza, who doesn’t so much draw cards as he allows us a free spell or two per turn — or at least gets rid of unnecessary lands.
  4. Narset, Parter of Veils, which allows us to look at the top 4 of our library on two different turns in order to dig for whatever we need.
  5. Codex Shredder, which can be used to return a draw spell to hand.
  6. Future Sight, which extends our hand to include the top card of our library
  7. Sensei’s Divining Top, which allows us some card selection.

Utility and Recursion

Beyond interaction, ramp, and card draw, we have a handful of other things to talk about that provide utility:

  1. Isochron Scepter: While obviously a combo piece, this card can *also* copy Counterspell, Mana Drain, Brainstorm, Impulse, or any number of other situational spells, so long as they have a converted mana cost of 2 or less.
  2. Copy Artifact: Can copy any artifact on the table if it’s useful — even someone else’s artifact.
  3. Academy Ruins: Can get back any artifact we’ve sacrificed or had destroyed — whether that’s a mana rock or a combo piece.
  4. Power Artifact: Perhaps the narrowest card in the deck, as most of our artifacts don’t have activated abilities that cost mana.

So what’s left?

The rest of our deck consists of 5 fetchlands (everything that can get an Island untapped) for the purposes of shuffling after scrys, Top, Brainstorm, Impulse, using Narset, or Dig Through Time and 20 Snow-Covered Islands because we don’t want to find ourselves hoisted by our own Back to Basics.

Choosing an Optimized Commander Deck

So how and why did I choose this deck? Well, it goes back to our first article: choosing how to win. I wanted to win by having no dead draws after being in a situation where so many cards were dead too many times. I wanted to be in a monocolor deck because I like how monocolor decks can highlight each color’s part in the color pie. And I wanted it to be an established deck in the optimized metagame.

Finding Optimized Decks

The best place to find optimized decks is to look at the cEDH Decklist Database. They’ve got a sizable listing of the best possible decks built according to the rules laid down buy the Commander Rules Committee. You’ll notice that all of these decks are combo decks — even the control decks are proactively working to combo off. You’ll also notice that the commanders generate card advantage, mana advantage, or they are combo pieces themselves.

  • Chain Veil Teferi: a deck looking to use its commander, Teferi, Tempral Archmage and The Chain Veil to produce infinite mana with Teferi’s -1 ability and Chain Veil’s tap ability — and also getting you to a point where you can get Teferi’s emblem out and then use it to generate infinite draw.
  • Our Urza deck. I’ve talked enough about it.
  • Sidisi Ad Nauseam: An Aetherflux Reservoir deck that uses its commander as a tutor to enable casting a lot of spells on one turn then shooting people to death.
  • K’rrik Doomsday: a deck that looks to cast a bunch of spells out of its graveyard and kill people with Aetherflux Reservoir.
  • Godo Helm: a deck that uses Helm of the Host in combination with Godo, Bandit Warlord to create infinite combat steps.
  • Wanderer’s Song: A Yisan, the Wandering Bard deck that uses its commander as a repeatable tutor for disruptive, silver-bullet creatures.

Analyzing what I had

Like every other Commander player, the second step was figuring out what cards I already had. I’d played a semi-competitive Baral draw-go control list previously, and it had been rekt by the move from Paradox Engine (because it ate a ban) to Powered Monolith. It meant that I had a large chunk of the expensive cards, except Transmute Artifact and Intuition — I could fake it with respect to Tabernacle and Timetwister until I had the money for those cards: my meta is a bit more forgiving, as we usually see off-meta decks.

Buying what I could

The vast majority of the cards I did not already have were in the <$10 range. There were a few exceptions:

  1. Transmute Artifact and Intuition: I managed to pick those up at an SCG tournament in Fort Worth. I seriously considered buying a Tabernacle there as well, but I’m actually kind of glad I didn’t.
  2. Time Spiral: I added this to a package with a bunch of other assorted things from Card Kingdom, a Kingdom of Cards.

Budget substitutions for what I couldn’t

So obviously, there are two cards that are not going to be in your average person’s card collection: Tabernacle and Timetwister. However, a couple of bonuses at work have put even those cards in my collection. Of course, that doesn’t happen overnight.

  1. For Tabernacle, the budget choice was easy: add another basic land. I didn’t really like the other options, and I felt they might impact how I play out the deck.
  2. Timetwister had two major options: Stream of Consciousness and Echo of Eons. The truth is that the difference here was more about what I knew to expect in a meta. I have a shop near me where Echo of Eons is a common budget substitute for Timetwister. However, this really pisses off the competitive community — they’ve been spoiled by the general acceptability of proxy and playtest cards at the top of the metagame. As such, Stream of Consciousness would be my go-to outside that shop near me, that is, when I went to major events.

So what did we learn?

Our key takeaways are:

  1. Pick a commander that is a value engine and that enables itself. This means that either it generates mana, generates card advantage, puts bodies on the floor, or is a combo piece — ideally it’s several of those things at once.
  2. Keep an eye on your interaction. A quarter of your deck should be interaction, and you should keep the mana curve of your interaction suite low.
  3. Color ramp matters more than colorless ramp. It’s going to enable you to cast multiple spells per turn cycle earlier.
  4. Work with the cards you have, and leverage them to get the cards you need. But you knew to do this already.

Next Time

I’m going to be taking a few weeks off for the holidays. When I come back, we’ll talk about Mike and Trike — a less spikey, less competitive build, but still packing an infinite combo finish.

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