Building a Commander Deck, part 3: Building a Tuned Commander Deck

What is a tuned deck?

A tuned deck is the deck you take in to your local game store when you’re playing for a couple of packs over the course of the night. You want to win, but at the same time, you want to have some more control over the deck you’re playing. Let’s be honest: optimized EDH is not a land of deckbuilding choices or self-expression. You have the 100 best possible cards for one of the very few best possible strategies, and that’s about it. You might even get bored with how consistently those decks operate, as they are designed to be consistent.

A Quick Recap

So what have we learned so far?

  1. We should be packing about 25–30 pieces of interaction
  2. We should be packing about 10 pieces of ramp.
  3. We should have 8–15 cards devoted to establishing card advantage
  4. We should have a compact (≤4 cards) wincon that kills the table all at once.

Answering the first question: What does it mean to win?

In this case, we are looking to win the game through an infinite damage combination: Mikaeus the Unhallowed and Triskelion. The combo works like this:

  1. Play Mikaeus.
  2. Play Triskelion.
  3. Remove one counter from Triskelion to ping someone.
  4. Remove the second and third counters from Triskelion to ping Triskelion.
  5. Triskelion dies. Triskelion has Undying, which triggers and returns to the battlefield with a +1/+1 counter on it — and three other +1/+1 counters due to its own Enters the Battlefield trigger, for a total of four +1/+1 counters.
  6. Repeat steps 3, 4, and 5 until everybody at the table is dead.
  1. Creatures with enters-the-battlefield triggers
  2. Cards that allow us to sacrifice creatures for a beneficial effect
  3. Cards that allow us to reanimate the creatures we’ve sacrificed
  4. Cards that accelerate us towards a win when creatures either enter the battlefield or die

Risks of the deck

This deck dies to Leyline of the Void and similar artifact and enchantment effects that cause our creatures to be exiled instead of dying. If we build it right, we will have fewer problems with Leyline of Sanctity, as we can include cards that drain our opponents without targeting them when creatures enter the battlefield or die.

The Mana

Again, learning from optimized decks, we’re going to start with a manabase of 25 basics and 5 fetches because we’re a monocolor deck. Yes, we should have more lands than that. And we do. Urborg makes sure all of our lands can produce Black mana, no matter what. Cabal Coffers and Cabal Stronghold ramp us. Phyrexian Tower doesn’t just ramp us, but it provides a sac outlet.

The Interaction

Black has two forms of interaction: removal and hand disruption. It has a lot of great 2 and 3 mana kill spells, and we probably want to run about a dozen of them. This is more than we usually do, but when kill spells are your primary means of interaction, you’re gonna want to be a little more reliant on kill spells. The other thing is that there are plenty of creatures that kill others as ETB triggers like Ravenous Chupacabra, activated abilities like Shriekmaw, or in one case, a creature with a kill spell attached (Murderous Rider). Since we definitely want creatures with ETB triggers, that’s going straight into the deck. We also need some solid sacrifice effects like Fleshbag Marauder, Merciless Executioner, Dictate of Erebos, and Plaguecrafter.

Tutors and Card Advantage

Again, we want this to be about 10–20 cards. Fortunately, Black gives us the legendary Necropotence, the best tutor suite in the game, and a number of cards that allow us to draw cards in exchange for life, creatures, or other effects. We still want to keep our mana curve down — if we’re drawing cards, we probably want to be casting them on the same turn cycle as well. Thus, we’re throwing in Read the Bones and Night’s Whisper.

Sac Outlets

I’ve actually held out on you for a number of things. One of the key things about an Aristocrats deck is that you’re not only supposed to get valuable ETB triggers, but you’re also supposed to sacrifice your creatures for ETB triggers. And guess what? We’ve got sacrifice outlets that do everything.

Draining Creatures

We’re also going to have a lot of creatures that drain our opponents while gaining us life. This will be useful for when we’re paying life for so many other things. The following all matter in this regard, giving us these triggers any time we recur a creature:

Reanimation Spells

Another common feature of Aristocrats decks are reanimation spells: we may want/need to sacrifice something before we have a real recursion outlet going. Therefore, we do want to be able to fish some things out of the yard. For these purposes, we have classics like Animate Dead, Reanimate, and Cadaver Imp.

Pet Cards

Because we’re not trying to push this archetype to its limits, we’ve got some room for things like pet cards. In this case, I’ve got a couple of cards I’ve wanted to have a home for that do fit in this archetype: Bitterblossom and Panharmonicon.

Combo Pieces

You’d think that the combo piece is simply Triskelion. But no. He’s not the only combo in the deck:

  • Mikaeus + Putrid Goblin + Sac outlet: Infinite whatever you get out of your sac outlet.
  • Mikaeus + Hex Parasite + two of our cards that gain us life when they die + sac outlet: Again, infinite whatever our sacrifice outlet gives us
  • Mikaeus + Putrid Goblin + Ashnod’s Altar + Dark Prophecy: Infinite mana + Infinite Draw + infinite death triggers.
  • Lastly, in a shoutout to the Professor, I’ve also jammed the Exquisite Blood/Sanguine Bond combo in here. Gain one life? No. Gain ALL THE LIFE! Once you gain a bit of life, you ping your opponents with Sanguine Bond. Then, because your opponents lost life, you gain life with Exquisite Blood. And then the two cards enter an endless loop of triggers that are not may abilities — it just keeps going until your opponents are dead. It’s a bit clunky given that it doesn’t really deal with my commander, but it does provide us a way to win through graveyard hate.

So what have we learned?

At this point, we’re solidifying what an EDH deck should look like:

  1. 30 slots dedicated to the core of your manabase — making sure you can hit your colors on time. This is any and all lands that tap for colored mana as well as fetchlands. Ideally, these don’t come into play tapped.
  2. 17–26 creatures that advance your strategy without falling into the categories of “interaction”, “ramp”, “combo piece”, or “pet card”. If your strategy requires that you be creature light, these become other permanent effects that are beneficial.
  3. 25 cards devoted to interaction. That’s things like any kind of permanent removal, sweepers, hand attack spells, and Stax pieces. Keep your mana curve here to 3 or less, except for boardwipes (which usually start at 4 mana).
  4. 10 cards devoted to card advantage and tutors. These are largely cards that help you put more cards in your hand.
  5. 8–10 cards devoted to ramp, whether that’s in the form of rocks, dorks, lands that tap for more than one mana, cards that put more lands onto the battlefield, fast mana, or effects that make your lands tap for more mana.
  6. 0–5 cards for a combo. If you’re not playing at least a combo finish, you don’t like combo, you really need to be playing hard control in this tier. Your combo need not be infinite: it can be a simple lockout combo. It does, however, need to make the table either die or scoop all at once. (As an example of a non-infinite combo, Hive Mind + Summoner’s Pact should kill the table nicely provided nobody’s in Green or you can shut off their access to green mana.)
  7. 0–2 pet cards. These are cards that you’re running simply because you like them, you have them, and by God, you’re going to play with them because they’re fun. They may not be the best choice for your deck, but they will at least fit in it.

Next Time: Focused Decks

When we next talk, I’m going to move away from deck techs and back to more deckbuilding analysis. I’m quite excited about it because we get to enter the land of the platonic ideal of commander decks.

Addendum

As a part of the final spoiler for Theros: Beyond Death, we got Pharika’s Libation. This represents the first time I know of that mono-Black gets a real answer to enchantments. I was also made aware of the existence of Gate to Phyrexia, an incredibly old card from Antiquities that allows us to sacrifice creatures to destroy artifacts — representing the only artifact destruction in mono-Black. I’ve updated the deck as of 2020–01–10 to reflect these cards, as they are both useful and on-plan here. I have removed Duress and Murder — the latter because Pharika’s Libation also works as a kill spell of sorts.

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