Building a Commander Deck, part 6: Building an Orthogonal Deck
We’ve talked about useful decks. But now, it’s time to discuss when to throw the rules away entirely because it gets in the way of something that you deem more important.
What makes an Orthogonal Deck?
An orthogonal deck is not trying to win the game. Period. It may be able to, if things go just wrong. In the case of today’s decks, the deck has the tools to create a winning board state — but just because it can generate some arbitrary board states doesn’t even mean the game will end at any time. Wait, what?
For example, maybe you’re trying to tell Urza’s story (because it’s always going to come back to Urza with me: he’s the OG protagonist, even if you can’t and shouldn’t call him a hero). You’re going to have to bend rules hard for that: you need Urza, Academy Headmaster to be your commander, you need to rule Tolarian Academy legal (which is a really dangerous thing to do), you need to run the entire Weatherlight Crew, and you’re going to be running a lot of mind control and mass land destruction effects. The tl;dr is that Urza is at best an antihero with incredibly good publicity. You’ve got to have the Urzatron lands, you’ve got to have all the Karns, and you’re going to wind up having a lot of anti-synergistic effects (Urza often stepped on his own toes).
The result is going to be a deck with a LOT of powerful cards, a handful of bad ones (Blind Seer, anyone?), and no good way of winning the game.
For our study, though, we’re going to look at this list. It’s based on the work done by Alex Churchill, Stella Biderman, and Austin Herrick on making a Legacy-legal Universal Turning Machine. The problem is that this deck can’t be readily ported to commander due to its reliance on Coalition Victory, which is inexplicably banned in Commander. So I emailed the authors about my predicament and got some pointers. They went into this list. I’ve put the modifications into the decklist at TappedOut.
How is this deck intending to win?
This deck wins by demonstrating that the Commander format is Turing Complete, that is, you can build a universal computer using only the cards in Commander plus the commander rules. It does so through a constructive proof: it actually sets up Rogozhin’s UTM(2,18) through the board state, and provides a halting mechanism that is not Coalition Victory. A hat tip to Herrick in particular, as he proposed this particular option as a wincon in email correspondence. As a requirement, there may not be “may” abilities in the construction of the deck. Churchill had a variant that already did that, but obviously, you can screw up the triggers because many of them were “may” abilities.
I would not recommend taking this deck to a commander night, and you’ll hear me repeat that multiple times. I do not have a simple program for this Turing machine at this time. I’m sure someone out there might, but I’ve been unsuccessful in finding someone with experience with this Turing machine or the related problem of 2-tag systems.
I have previously mentioned that orthogonal decks are more art installations or creative writing exercises. This one is explicitly a science fair experiment.
I’m not going to do a deck tech. I’ll let Because Science explain how the setup works. The differences are:
- We’re going to give a third player a copy of Mesmeric Orb. This keeps players from ordering triggers for however little that matters.
- We’re including an Agent of Erebos to exile out opponents’ graveyards.
- We’re using Vital Surge to be our do-nothing spell, taking the place of Coalition Victory (that do-nothing spell is important in making state transitions happen — we need an odd number of iterations in the processing loop to happen if we’re going to change states)
- We’re using Liliana’s Contract with three hacked Assassin tokens (they have names, and they do not have relevant abilities) to win the game during the upkeep of the second step of the processing loop rather than winning with Coalition Victory. We are going to have means of giving them shroud.
- We’re going to exile whatever land we play during the cleanup part of machine construction.
- We can use our commander as a bit of an aid in setup: we only have to create 2/2 creature tokens for the tape and give them +1/+1 counters with Kenrith, the Returned King, our commander.
- We will be choosing to exile Kenrith to ensure we have no options. Ideally, you convince your opponents to also exile their commanders if they are in play, but that’s not strictly necessary.
I’ve also added a few redundancies into the deck as well as a number of tutors simply to try to give it more consistency — not that it matters much. Either we have the nut hand or we’re out of luck. The point is that you’re demonstrating how a Turing Machine works by using Magic — and denying any players (you included) any choices once you set the machine running (by passing turn on a proper board state).
That said, there’s a lot that Because Science omits, saying that “more research is needed”. No, the issue is that a lot of minimalist Turing machines like the one implemented in the game are incredibly esoteric. I’ve been looking for a simple program to create with it, but I can’t seem to find one, and I am NOT going to try to program it myself.
Honestly, interaction gets in the way of this deck doing what it wants to do — which is be redundant about its setup steps. Yeah, I could probably make it leaner, but that’s not really the point. Also, I explicitly want to discourage anyone from taking this to their commander night. It’s decidedly not that deck.
Unlike interaction, this deck utterly needs its ramp for its setup. It needs to be able to generate infinite mana in all colors to perform its setup steps. As such, I’m running all the signets, all the talismans, all the premium rocks except for Mox Diamond (not enough lands) and Chrome Mox (we really can’t afford to be exiling much of anything), and as many Sol Lands as we can find. I’ve even jammed Mishra’s Workshop because making sure we can put down our artifact-based infinite mana/infinite draw combos is that central to the deck. And generally, Mishra’s Workshop is not a card you’d typically want in a commander deck.
Here, the card advantage is in the form of our infinite draw combos:
- Infinite Mana + Staff of Domination: This is the version that the original paper used in its Legacy Universal Turing Machine.
- Infinite Mana/Etherium Sculptor + Future Sight + Sensei’s Divining Top: I’ve jammed this one in here
- Sensei’s Dramatic Scepter: I mean, sure, why not?
- Infinite Mana + Kenrith: Yeah, he has a non-tapping targeted draw ability on him.
Next, there’s the tutor package: I put in artifact tutors that go to the battlefield as well as the best Black tutors in the format — yes, this time I threw in Imperial Seal despite it being a strictly worse Vampiric Tutor that costs 10x more. It’s not like I’m building this deck, and neither should you. After all, the engine for the combo is artifact based.
Everything is about the combo. We need a bunch of copies of creatures under specific players’ turns. Basically, the combo works like the paper. You set up the tape as the paper specifies, and your deck should be, in order:
- Infest. This will, as a part of its cast, kill any 2/2 creatures. That includes whatever is under the head of the UTM (and *only* the thing under the head), causing triggers replace it and put it under your control with Illusory Gains.
- Cleansing Beam. This will give all of your opponent’s creatures two +1/+1 counters because of Vigor. Yes, this has to have one and only one valid target, so my deck adds a copy of Copy Enchantment to copy Steely Resolve, this one naming Assassin so that your assassins cannot be targeted. This starts moving the tape. (Both you and the player who controls the tape control a copy of Vigor.)
- Vital Surge. This card does as little as possible. If we get control of a tapped token, it gets milled on the previous step, causing a state change, as the tape will read with the other set of phased permanents. This was Coalition Victory’s job in the original deck.
- Soul Snuffers. Because of two copies of Dread of Night (Memnarch can turn it into an artifact, and then you can copy it using Stolen Identity — you’ll also use this on Steely Resolve to get the two copies you need) are on the table, and you’ve hacked them to hit black creatures means that it dies to its ETB trigger. This finishes moving the tape.
This keeps processing the tokens until it reads the halt symbol. Then, the game will produce the fourth Assassin token when you cast infest, and it comes under your control thanks to Illusory Gains. The next turn comes and you win on your upkeep from Liliana’s Contract, hacked to trigger on Assassins.
I have taken out Choke. It was there to keep your land from untapping by giving it all basic land types — and you gave an Ancient Tomb all basic land types to win by Coalition Victory. You don’t care about that anymore, as we aren’t winning by Coalition Victory. Thus, you will exile out your own lands using Capsize and Karn as well.
So wait, this has a lot of infinite combos and literally locks down the table. Why is this an orthogonal deck?
First, look at the mana base. That’s right: it’s crap. It’s running way too few lands to make the combo work reliably at all.
Second, behold the lack of interaction. This is about as interactive as Legacy Belcher (a deck infamous for either killing you on turn 1 or getting Goblin Charbelcher countered and straight up losing on the spot), and dies to the same things.
Third, it does not have a game plan. It’s just thrown in all of Commander’s favorite combos, a bunch of ridiculously overpriced cards, and used them to construct a Rube Goldberg machine that nobody can interact with. What’s more, if you mess up setting up the Rube Goldberg machine, you’re going to wind up having the game go off in an unstoppable infinite loop: there are no may abilities in here, and players explicitly have no choices and do not lose to normal effects.
So what else might qualify here?
Perhaps the funniest deck tech I’ve ever seen comes from The Commander’s Quarters. They designed the most expensive possible deck in the format. It’s a hot mess without any clear strategy. But it has a theme: I have enough money that spending about half of the price of a house on 100 pieces of cardboard is not a problem.
You also might consider the much-bandied-about deck idea of “people in chairs”, though I don’t have a list for that. And artist decks would also fall in here, though I’m not entirely sure if any artists can qualify: you’d need too have a 5 color commander and the artist would have to have done basic lands. You could probably pull off Alexi Briclot Sliver Hivelord, Donato Giancola Cromat, and that’s about it.