Building a Commander Deck, part 3: Building a Tuned Commander Deck
Once again, we’re going to start with a decklist. This is a bit more of a classical deck tech than previous articles, because this time that’s warranted. We’re starting to apply lessons already. This article is going to be a bit more like a traditional deck tech, as we’re now ready to get into the weeds on card choices.
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.
In the land of tuned decks however, there are more commander choices, more win conditions, and more options — including budget builds. You’ll get more gameplay variance, too, simply because you’re not under as much pressure to win as soon as possible, and usually by turn 4. As such, this is usually the highest power level deck you want to build. You’ll have no problem finding tables at your power level without being a jerk.
Infinite combos — even infinite combos in the command zone are welcome. Tutorable combos are welcome. However, these decks tend to have an Achilles Heel or two: their combos are easy to disrupt. In the case of this deck, the two things you can do to stop the combo are to give a player hexproof or eliminate this player’s graveyard. While that doesn’t shut the deck down completely, it does make the out very narrow indeed.
In fact, the hallmark of a tuned deck is that it is running a compact (≤4 cards) combo that kills the table when the last piece resolves. The top end will even put a command piece or an advantage engine in the command zone. The difference between this level and an optimized deck is that these combos will fold to hate rather than play through it. These combos may take more mana than the combos from the optimized decks. And sometimes, you can even turn an optimized deck into a tuned one by turning the tutors into card draw and making judicious budget substitutions.
In fact, the best way to understand a tuned deck is that you take your favorite commander and build it the best way you possibly can: tutors, the good mana rocks, no tapped lands (except possibly Bojuka Bog, which is less of a land and more of a sorcery for one black mana that reads “Exile target player’s graveyard”, a useful effect) a low mana curve, and a compact (≤4 cards) combo win condition. Sticking to the 25 interaction spells, 10 ramp cards, 15 card advantage spells, 30–35 lands, 2–4 combo pieces, and the rest cards that have high synergy with your combo formula is going to be essential. As such, very few commanders can’t be built at this level — and usually, they’re legendary creatures with no abilities or only drawback abilities.
The other group of decks that wind up being here are budget builds of cEDH decks — cut the original dual lands, cut things like Timetwister and Imperial Seal, and cut Tabernacle, and suddenly you’re in the high end of this tier. The only commanders I have open questions about their ability to be in this tier are Thrasios partner builds and Urza — both of them are ridiculously good and attempts at budget building them will wind up more as “fringe competitive” than “tuned”.
A Quick Recap
So what have we learned so far?
- We should be packing about 25–30 pieces of interaction
- We should be packing about 10 pieces of ramp.
- We should have 8–15 cards devoted to establishing card advantage
- We should have a compact (≤4 cards) wincon that kills the table all at once.
Now, with those lessons in mind, let’s build a deck! In this case, we’re looking to build a deck that can win a game when prizes are on the line, but the prizes are not coercive. We’re talking that you’re playing for a couple of packs, tops. As such, maybe Urza or a similar maximum power deck would be inappropriate and unfun.
Answering the first question: What does it mean to win?
- Play Mikaeus.
- Play Triskelion.
- Remove one counter from Triskelion to ping someone.
- Remove the second and third counters from Triskelion to ping Triskelion.
- 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.
- Repeat steps 3, 4, and 5 until everybody at the table is dead.
This does mean that we probably want to be playing things that have ETB triggers as well as ways to sacrifice them to get the second ability. This leads to us building an Aristocrats deck — a deck based on sacrificing creatures for an effect, then bringing them back for yet another effect. This means we want to run four kinds of cards:
- Creatures with enters-the-battlefield triggers
- Cards that allow us to sacrifice creatures for a beneficial effect
- Cards that allow us to reanimate the creatures we’ve sacrificed
- 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.
Additionally, you aren’t going to bluff not running the combo. When Commander players see Mikaeus the Unhallowed in the command zone, they know damned well that Triskelion is in there, that you’re going to be looking to put it out, and that you aren’t going to be able to deal with artifacts or enchantments that kill your graveyard. Did they just jam Grafdigger’s Cage? You’re SOL. Relic of Progenitus or Tormod’s Crypt? Getting saved for when Triskelion’s undying trigger hits the stack. Stony Silence? Null Rod? Pithing Needle? Your combo ain’t happening — and they’re totally naming Triskelion with Pithing Needle right then and there. Can they tutor Rest in Peace? You’d better believe it’s happening fast. And if there’s a blue player at the pod, they know not to let Triskelion resolve.
For these reasons, it is not an optimized deck, despite having a two piece infinite combo with a piece in the command zone. Either the combo resolves or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t, you’re hosed. Additionally, there are too many cards that hose the deck that we simply cannot deal with by virtue of being mono-Black.
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.
Additionally, we can use fast mana to get to our combo quickly, possibly even before we have to deal with pesky graveyard hate. Therefore, we’re throwing in things like Dark Ritual, Cabal Ritual, and other similar cards that give us a lot of mana instantaneously. The good news is that there aren’t many of these cards, so we can run most of them without a problem. (Additionally, this isn’t in Black’s part of the color pie anymore.)
One of our planeswalkers, Liliana of the Dark Realms, is a ramp tool. She’s incredibly unusual: normally mono-Black planeswalkers don’t ramp, and usually Liliana is about forcing opponents to sacrifice, making zombies, and forcing discard. But Dark Realms is a bit different. We can also use Burnished Hart to get a couple of lands if we need them.
Last, we have a few rocks wrapping up the rest — the usual mana rock crowd: Sol Ring, Mana Vault, Jet Medallion (to reduce the cost of our more expensive cards), Basalt Monolith as a mana sink, Arcane Signet to take the Signet role, and so on. We’re not going to be as focused on the colored mana ramp (because that’s more the turf of an optimized deck) as we are on simply getting as much mana as we can on a few critical turns.
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.
Second, we’re going to have a bit of hand disruption — things that force our opponents to discard. We’re probably going to want to go to 5 of these cards that are dedicated to this effect, with others that are ETB triggers on creatures. In this case, we’re talking about Pilfering Imp, Thoughtseize, Duress, and Cabal Therapist, and Thought-Knot Seer.
The other thing is that we’re going to want some Lilianas. She has three things that her cards typical do: make Zombie tokens, make players sacrifice creatures (gets around indestructible and hexproof) and make players discard. In this case, we’re adding two Lilianas because they do some hand attack and make tokens we can sacrifice to our outlets if we’re in a bind: Liliana Vess and Liliana, Dreadhorde General.
I want to give a particular shoutout to Collective Brutality. It’s removal, direct damage to a player, lifegain, and a hand attack spell all in one. It can be backbreaking in the right matchups.
To stop graveyard shenanigans from our opponents, we have a single Bojuka Bog. This deck is relying on good faith on the part of its opponents to not do broken things with its graveyard.
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.
We also want to be drawing cards off of things that we’re doing anyway: playing out creatures or when our creatures die. Thus, we’re also including things like Dark Prophecy and Phyrexian Arena. Are we concerned with life loss? Maybe a little.
Lastly, let’s talk about Kothophed. He’s going to draw us cards when our opponents’ stuff dies. Be careful with him when your opponents bring out Smothering Tithe, though. That can cause you to die. Midnight Reaper is a bit less risky, as it only cares about our permanents.
In the realm of tutors, black has the best tutors in the game. We’re leaving out Imperial Seal because it’s an overpriced yet strictly worse Vampiric Tutor. It isn’t worth $500 to this deck. But we are bringing in Demonic Tutor, Vampiric Tutor, Diabolic Tutor, Mastermind’s Acquisition (one of its modes works!), Dark Petition, Cruel Tutor, and Phyrexian Reclamation.
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.
Need to get a bit more mana? Ashnod’s Altar is one of the best sacrifice outlets in the game. Culling the Weak also gives us a single boost of mana.
Need more card advantage? Disciple of Bolas both gains us life and draws us cards.
Need another tutor? Sidisi, Undead Vizier allows you to sacrifice a creature as she enters the battlefield to tutor up a card. Any card. To your hand.
Need discard? The aforementioned Cabal Therapist is actually a good place to be here, as by the point it’s online, you know exactly what you want to take. No, it’s not actual Cabal Therapy, but because it’s a permanent sacrifice outlet, it’s actually a bit nicer — even if we can only use it once a turn.
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:
- Blood Artist
- Falkenrath Noble
- Gray Merchant of Asphodel — it’s a one-shot effect, but when we throw him down, it’s going to be a very potent one-shot effect.
- Vindictive Vampire
- Zulaport Cutthroat
These things matter for some combos, but we may just get to ping our opponents to death before one of them happens.
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.
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.
Bitterblossom brings a few more bodies that we can sacrifice for value to the table if we need to go long. It’s an efficient token generator that simply sits there and puts bodies on the floor that can be sacrificed for value or used to chump block.
Panharmonicon doubles our ETB triggers. I can’t really say much about this card that Seth, Probably Better Known as SaffronOlive has. Seriously, Google “SaffronOlive Panharmonicon” and prepare for pages on pages of him gushing about this card. It’s simply a bonkers card, especially in this kind of deck, as we definitely want to double our ETB triggers whenever they happen.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 10 cards devoted to card advantage and tutors. These are largely cards that help you put more cards in your hand.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
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.