From the Ground Up – Growing Pains

Giant redwoods, skyscrapers, kids, Commander decks: they all grow up. It’s been about eight months since we last checked in with our Commander project, building a sweet deck around Alesha, Who Smiles at Death. In that time, I’ve gotten to jam a lot of games with the latest version of the deck, enough to recognize that a) there is something sweet there and b) we can take it to the next level.

The From the Ground Up project’s been focused on building on a budget, but now we’re going to step it up just a notch. Because the next step, after you’ve built a budget deck that you really care for, is recognizing that the deck is worth sinking a little tender love and care (read: money) into. But how do you figure out where to focus your upgrades? Read on for a tale from the battlefield, and the upgrades that tale has inspired.

Alesha, Who Smiles at Death - Commander - Matt Plays Magic

Let Me Tell You a Story:

It’s turn 13 or so, and you’re just stuck. You’re in a six-player Two-Headed Giant game, which has been both insanely fun and insanely frustrating. One of the teams has the board locked down but no actual way to win. They’ve got a whole bunch of planeswalkers. They’re drawing three to five cards each turn. Meanwhile, you can’t stick your Commander for more than a turn, and you’re top-decking. Your partner is in much the same boat.

You do manage to pull off some shenanigans, though. It starts with a rather innocuous Behind the Scenes. You have no creatures on the board, so the enchantment doesn’t really do much. You manage to top-deck good ‘ol Ponyback Brigade shortly after that, and now you’ve got something going. Because, sitting in your hand, you also have a Mirror Entity that hasn’t been worth playing all game.

The Ponyback and his tokens manage to make it through a turn-cycle, as no one considers them worth dealing with. You slam down the Mirror Entity. The opponents have blockers, but none small enough to block a bunch of 1/1 Skulkers. After your attackers make it through, you pump them up to 13/13s, dealing 42 damage to the big control bullies. Not enough to end it, but enough to make a dent. The other team will mop them (and then you) up in short order. But you still got to attack for 42 damage in one turn, and that ain’t nothing. (Wait, that double-negative doesn’t do what I want, does it? Oh well, bear with me.)

How This Influences Our Upgrades:

This situation, or something like it, has happened a few too many times with this Alesha deck. If the deck gets rolling early, or draws exactly the right cards late, it can be very powerful. But if someone wipes the board, and then opponents continue to answer Alesha each time she appears from the Command Zone, the deck descends into full-on “Heart of the Cards, guide me!” mode very quickly. Sometimes that works out (see storytime, above). Uuuusually, it doesn’t.

I have a few thoughts about how to solve this top-decking problem, which seems simple but can actually be broken down into several components:

  • Alesha is too slow in the lategame, and so we can’t depend on her ability. This is bad because…
  • If we can’t depend on Alesha’s ability, we have to depend on drawing the correct cards out of our deck. We currently don’t have great ways to filter and find the exact cards we want, which also affects…
  • Our crazy, absolute nonsense back-up plan of assembling an infinite combo and killing the whole table out of nowhere. Without the ability to find the combo pieces, this’ll never be a possibility. We don’t want to do this every game, but we want to up the odds that it could at least realistically happen.

To fix the first part of the problem, we need to give Alesha the ability to attack more quickly in the lategame. I often have the mana to both play Alesha and reanimate something, but can’t do so because reanimating requires attacking.

There’s a pretty simple solution to this problem, and it’s to get Angry.

“That’s my secret, Gideon. I’m always angry.” – Anger, likely.

Anger is tailor-made for this Mardu, graveyard-centric deck that’s built around attacking. We can use one of our early discard cards or a sacrifice outlet to get Anger in the graveyard, and then Alesha and all of our other creatures will have Haste for the rest of the game. That should help our lategame turns immensely.

I’m making a few related changes that will help us get Anger, or any other card, into the graveyard a little bit faster, as well as fix the second part of our problem. This fix ultimately amounts to JUST SEEING MORE CARDS (which is Magic’s not-so-secret alternate win condition), and so we’ll be moving in:

  • Key to the City. Every ability on Key is an upside for this deck. It lets us discard dudes to reanimate, make Alesha unblockable, and draw cards.
  • Cathartic Reunion. Reunion is replacing the verrrry slow Curse of Chaos. Curse seems like fun in theory, because it might encourage an opponent to attack someone else, but the upside just doesn’t seem to be worth it for most people. Reunion will make our deck more consistent.
  • Entomb, which is the big money card here. Entomb doesn’t technically draw us cards, but it does increase the deck’s consistency. It is very good at putting Anger, or Master of Cruelties, or a combo piece into the graveyard.

I’m also considering Disciple of Bolas, for an extra little push of card draw, but I don’t know that the card would be very good in this deck full of low power creatures. I may still try it out at some point. What’s more likely to happen is that I’ll count the back half of Dusk to Dawn, the new split card from Amonkhet, as a card draw spell. That card’s going to replace Aligned Hedron Network.

dusk to dawn
Tangent Time: I don’t like split cards. Yes, it is awesome to get two effects on one card. However, splits are so annoying to read. Also, more room for art, please.

So we’ve addressed both the “Alesha never gets to attack” component of the problem and the “Find the correct cards” component of the problem. But what about that third, Hail Mary component?

Currently, the deck’s last-ditch back-up plan is assemble an “Oops, I win!” Murderous Redcap combo (setting up a board where we can sacrifice the Murderous Redcap, have it come back to the field with a +1/+1 counter, and then sac it again, forever, dealing infinite damage). In practice, assembling that combo has been…difficult. Next to impossible, really. And while I do not want my “Oops, I win!” combo to be easy to assemble, I do want it to be possible.

To make “Oops, I win!” into a more realistic possibility, I’m adding in the following cards:


Yeah, we’re going for it. Kiki-Jiki is just a better Flameshadow Conjuring anyhow, and the combo with Felidar Guardian lets us make infinite hasty cats and then attack for victory. Reveillark can pull both pieces of this combo directly out of the graveyard, or help us set up the Redcap combo in a pinch as well. ‘Lark’s also just great value.

I’m making some other, less noteworthy, upgrades on this round as well. This mostly involves moving from “comes into play tapped” lands to lands that, well, don’t come into play tapped. Because some of those lands are fetchlands and shocklands, our mana actually gets quite a bit better, as each fetchland can grab any shockland.

Because our mana gets better, we can add in one more colorless land, I think. Slayers’ Stronghold can potentially help with our “Alesha doesn’t get to attack late” problem, and is a good reminder that you shouldn’t just think about creatures and spells when you’re looking to fix up your deck’s weaknesses.

This, then, will be the deck as it stands after all of these cards make it my way. I hope this post helps you examine your own decks with a critical eye as you upgrade them. When upgrading, its best to break your deck’s problems, even ones that seem simple and obvious, down into component parts if possible. Then look for cards to address each of those components in turn. The result is a much more flexible and robust Commander deck, that is usually even more fun to play!

And if it doesn’t work out, well, Magic‘s mostly about tinkering anyways. Be back here in a couple weeks when I talk about something else I’ve been tinkering with, this time on Magic Duels.

2 thoughts on “From the Ground Up – Growing Pains

  1. Pingback: Ditching Dragons – Dismantling a Commander Deck – Matt Plays Magic

  2. Pingback: Matching Basic Lands: Yes or No? – Matt Plays Magic

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