Esteemed Master McAuliffe
You roped me in with your thoughtful passionate and fun-minded thoughts on the Commander scene at Gen Con. I've been a follower since and look forward to your articles reading you much earlier than I should considering the lack of Commander out here in CT and the fact that I love Standard and compete frequently with the current cards.
I have a love for blue and red that is deep-seeded and can seem at times unhealthy. I love to draw cards (for the sake of options not just 'cause) and beat people at their own game or with their own stuff.
The deck 'Mind on Fire' (as my options can get overwhelming at times) uses Niv-Mizzet the Firemind (aka Niv 1.0) as the general. I don't love to combo out but I hate to lose versus inferior play and politics. I want to promote Commander much more so I have a bullpen to modify the deck for three distinct approaches to the game: fun competitive degenerate.
Here's the fun build:
Artifact Creatures: 2
Blue Sun's Zenith
Legendary Artifact Creatures: 1
Legendary Creatures: 3
Argivian Restoration (f)
Basic Lands: 12
Nonbasic Lands: 26
(These come in for the cards I marked (f) depending on the mode of play and my mood.)
Cards I'm Pondering for Inclusion
So my challenge to you is three-fold (you know you love a challenge or three):
1) How would you optimize the deck for mutual fun? (most important)
2) How would you use my card pool (deck and bullpen) for competitive play?
3) How would you break the format with these colors?
I'll keep silent about my sacred cows expecting that their entrails will litter the print of your response. I want your unbiased opinion on these counts.
Additionally I have been tinkering with alternative prize scenarios for competitive play. I'll explain one scenario we used:
Everyone antes two packs and writes a secret prize condition on a slip of paper (e.g. player who died second player who attacked with the most creatures player who took the least amount of time etc.). Each player discreetly keeps track of the 'score' relative to their prize condition and awards the second pack at the end of the game to the player who most closely met their prize condition. This worked okay but we were still concerned about collusion.
We also pondered a roll on a random chart to determine alternative prize scenarios.
I invite the thoughts of yourself and your following.
Thank you for your time and consideration
In the interest of full disclosure Ian responded directly to me via the GeneralDamageControl.com Facebook page with this submission. That's why it's addressed specifically to me rather than the two-headed tour de force that Sean and I represent here at Dear Azami. Now while I will say that I'm not immune to flattery (or stacks of unmarked Underground Seas in nondescript white envelopes slipped under the stall in the StarCityGames.com restroom for that matter) I do want to go on record here and say that the pick this week was an easy one for me for purely contextual reasons.
There's so muchhappening here that I don't know where to begin. Format discussion competitive balance dealing with prize-supported Commander games… I could literally write a book in response. (Don't worry—I'll keep it short…ish.)
Let's start with the three-part challenge specifically number three on the list. Ian you're familiar with what went down at Gen Con this past year from my writing both here and on my blog. It will probably come as no surprise to you that my answer here is going to be something along the lines of "I wouldn't bother to try."
Commander isn't hard to break. The card pool is so vast that you can do it literally without meaning to these days. For example I slotted Vandalblast into my Slobad Goblin Tinkerer deck as soon as I got my hands on one at the Return to Ravnica Prerelease only to sadly discover that it created a one-sided Obliterate with the Mycosynth Lattice that was already in the deck. If that's what you're looking to do it's not a bad way to do it…but it's not what I'm looking to do.
It won't come as a surprise to any regular readers that that's just not how I access Commander. To me taking the path of the quick infinite combo or complete resource destruction just ends games as soon as they start to happen and I'd rather not go out like that. When I sit down and shuffle up I want to play. I can goldfish wins in the comfort of my own home without having to go to the trouble of things like buying gas and food or having to wear pants. (Apologies for the mental image there folks. Won't happen again.)
You've got a 'bullpen' that contains plenty of counterspells and the prerequisite Curiosity and Ophidian Eye and in my mind that probably breaks things just fine in these colors and with this commander. There are better competitive minds than mine that maintain threads on the MTGSalvation.com and MTGCommander.net forums and they could probably point you to a host of subtle nuances that could push a Niv-Mizzet combo list way over the top. I'm not knocking anyone if that's what they want to go for but it's simply not my thing.
Moving on to the next topic I'm not sure it should be yours either Ian. My reasoning is pretty simple: you're very excited about building a Commander scene in your hometown based on your correspondence and that's fantastic. One of the greatest things I've experienced to date in relation to this format is having a hand in developing the Commander environment at my adopted local shop (Worlds Apart in Amherst Massachusetts.) It feels great to know that you can look around on a given night at a shop full of Commander players having a blast and know that you directly helped to make it happen.
This is exactly why I'll be aiming to tune your Niv-Mizzet the Firemind list for what I believe is the Commander sweet spot: competitive-casual. I'm not just being lazy and trying to get out of answering parts one and two of your challenge separately when I say that either. (Honest!) For me the real joy and challenge of deckbuilding for this format is to get to a place where you can come up with a strong list using great cards without pushing things over the top into degenerate places.
Trust me when I say with strong personal experience that a pool of broken decks can kill a metagame trying to grow new roots in a hurry. My regular coconspirator Patrick and I took it upon ourselves to create the current environment at Worlds Apart after watching Commander all-but die off there due to a veritable Wild West of degeneracy.
Case in point my first game ever there involved getting killed off by Rafiq of the Many on about turn four my second involved losing to the tried-and-true Jhoira of the Ghitu - Obliterate play and the third involved Zur the Enchanter doing his Zur the Enchanter thing.
And somehow I'm still playing the format…
Anyway Commander nights got to the point where there were rarely more than a few players willing to half-heartedly run through the paces and there were zero new players willing to try out what looked like nothing more than a Vintage variant. For people who want that experience that's fine but I think you'll find (if you haven't already) that developing a scene that showcases the real spirit of Commander will be what really pulls people in and makes them want to come back. You're aiming for 'interesting' and 'interactive' here and instead of tuning a shell that you can swap cards in and out of I'm going to try to give you something that can stand up to just about any game you'll sit down at and be a blast to play at the same time.
I want to take this deck in an interesting direction. Niv-Mizzet decks frequently run the risk of falling easily into cookie-cutter territory by just running a ton of card draw so I'm taking a cue from the Vedalken Orrery you've already got in the list. One of my favorite Return to Ravnica cards to date for this format is Hypersonic Dragon so I'm going to build a deck that wants to engage opponents at all times through the use of effects that let you play everything at instant speed. It will focus on making instants and sorcerers matter as a primary strategy. This is a game plan that I've had a ton of success and fun with personally and I think it'll give you a great flagship deck for your growing scene.
To give credit where credit is due this is actually already a pretty tight list. It is quite a bit heavier on good stuff inclusions than I typically like to go but in this case we're going for a deck that can hang with the big guns so my tweaks will focus on taking what is already here and tuning it to work a bit better within the design direction rather than needing to patch the usual holes. There are a few subtle tweaks here and there to improve on efficiency but for the most part this is a true tune rather than a repair.
Basalt Monolith seems to only exist here due to the potential to go infinite with Rings of Brighthearth which I suppose fuels a game-ending Blue Sun's Zenith. Without that it's just not worth the include so I'm swapping it out for a straight source of extra mana with no strings attached in Thran Dynamo.
We're upgrading the Signet to a gold standard that has a bit more staying power in Darksteel Ingot and Mana Vault goes to sacrifice an early (and not completely necessary here) mana explosion in favor of a longer and safer form of mana fixing with the Kite.
The most interesting change in this category is the utility swap of Voltaic Key for Mirari. With Vault (and Monolith to a lesser extent) gone the list of targets that interact favorably with Key drop dramatically. I've chosen to go with the oft forgotten (and Commander Criminally Underplayed Card of the Week) Mirari. With the focus shifting to getting value out of the nonpermanent spells in this deck Mirari is slotting in to make sure you gain double value from each Fact or Fiction and Bribery you cast.
Don't get me wrong I like Sower of Temptation quite a bit. In this deck however the power of Sower is pretty diminished by the time we come to a complete list. It seems like this might be here as a way to deal with a problem creature long enough to win out or it might just because it's a good card. I think the effect is covered elsewhere so in comes Hypersonic Dragon to push the ability to make use of all spells at instant speed.
Tandem Lookout is coming out for the same reason Curiosity and Ophidian Eye aren't going in. I know I've said it before but the problem with having an infinite combo in a deck is that the deck becomes an infinite combo deck whether you like it or not. You know it's there and you'll use it when you're pushed to. This deck is going to be cooler than that.
In goes Jushi Apprentice. I like him because he serves multiple purposes adding a warm body and some extra card draw at the same time. It goes without saying that if your opponents let you flip Tomoya in while your commander is in play you've won the prize: your utility man just became a game-ending threat.
I love this section. Let's look at the substitutions one-by-one:
- Future Sight becomes far less important when the focus shifts away from abusing Niv. Besides I'm never crazy about revealing every draw I take to begin with and I am leaving you with Magus of the Future if you're really dying for the effect. In goes the Leyline which gives Hypersonic Dragon and Vedalken Orrery some added redundancy.
- Legacy's Allure is just not very good in this format. I get that it's a fun include with political implications but what really happens with this card is that you start craftily adding counters and grinning maniacally while some guy at the other end of the table is sand-bagging Krosan Grip and rolling his eyes at you. You won't get it to where you need it. (Ask me how I know.) Instead Archaeomancer gives you some added value from the spells we're refocusing the deck on.
- Mind Over Matter is another regular Niv-Mizzet include that doesn't really end up doing much other that causing people to complain. 99% of the time it's either comboing off with something or prison locking someone. Neither feel particularly good. Instead Djinn Illuminatus offers up an extra Mirari effect strapped to a flying body. Again good value and vastly underplayed. Also won't cause opponents to fall asleep at the table.
- Finally Steal Artifact goes. If I wanted the effect I'd rather replace the word "artifact" with "permanent" anyway a la Confiscate and I'd rather the effect be permanent (Commandeer Blatant Thievery) so that Krosan Grip boy down there can't ruin the fun.
In fact stay tuned on those last two possibilities.
Anyway Nivix Guildmage is a close second to Hypersonic Dragon from the new Ravnica crop for me and here he absolutely shines providing card filtering that interacts favorably with your commander as well as providing yet another copy effect for your key spells. Before I'm done you won't play anything in this deck without being able to copy it at least once.
Quite a bit of what's happening in this section can be chalked up to simple upgrades:
- The reusability of buying back Capsize is traded up for the raw power of the new Cyclonic Rift.
- An overloaded Vandalblast is going to take out every artifact on the board that isn't under your control for the same price as Shattering Pulse with buyback.
- This deck is unlikely to have an artifact in hand that you'll want to pitch to Thirst for Knowledge. Thoughtflare is going to net you an extra card (unless you do have an artifact to pitch) for the extra mana investment and with Niv-Mizzet in play you're also getting in an extra point of damage as well.
The other two slots may bear explaining a bit further:
- Misdirection has an effect that is overrepresented in this deck already. Unless you're pitching a card to play it for free Redirect (already on your list) is just better due to the ability to hit spells with multiple targets. Spelljack is going to cost you full retail but the flexibility means you're getting the same value you would from Misdirection plus a whole bunch more. Counter a targeted spell and sit back waiting for the right moment to pick a new target. Counter a counterspell and you end up preventing the unwanted outcome of the counter war you were just involved in plus you have a freebie to use the next time you need it. If it was a permanent you countered with Spelljack Misdirection wasn't helping you there anyway. In a pinch it's a six-mana permanent exile. In my eyes it's worth the trade-off of making X-spells worse.
- Finally we have Impulse. Since it doesn't actually draw you cards it's just a one-shot card filter that doesn't interact with your commander. Maybe it's nice early but that's about it in this format. In exchange you pick up the ultimate flexibility of Knowledge Exploitation. Let's face it—red and blue are really terrible at dealing with certain things such as enchantments in general or creatures that can withstand damage-based removal. Having the ability to go out and find a Fracturing Gust or Damnation when you need it is pretty solid utility.
Sitting down to a game and declaring Niv-Mizzet as your commander is very likely going to draw you a bunch of hate even if you're not actually playing "that deck." Our goal here is to give you something different so that you can work out from under that stigma eventually.
Playing Memnarch on the other hand is not helping that cause at all. This is a creature that no one wants to see hit play. Similar to the way that it's hard to have a combo in your deck and not use it it's nearly impossible to play Memnarch and only steal a few things. This is a card that hasn't shown up in my local metagame for a very long time because it simply has never been fun for anyone. The few examples I can remember of Memnarch actually seeing play all involve the player apologizing for it and if that's not a signal I don't know what is.
Urabrask is on your list of desired inclusions and he slots well here. This deck aims to offer instant use of anything it draws and Urabrask is a welcome haste enabler and is a subtle tempo hit for your opponents as well.
And sometimes it flat-out saves you the game. Just before the Primeval Titan ban I had the opportunity to draw and play Urabrask a turn before one of my opponents Tooth and Nailed Prime Time and Avenger of Zendikar into play with an In the Web of War on the battlefield already. Instead of thirteen 4/3 hasty beaters Urabrask bought me an extra turn to untap and draw thirteen extra cards off of a Decree of Pain.
This might not be a popular section because I think both of these planeswalkers are pretty bad in Commander. This time I'll explain both cuts and then the replacements.
I understand that Jace's zero-cost ability is a free Lightning Bolt with Niv-Mizzet in play. However he tails off rather quickly in Commander from there. The fate seal ability is marginal at best and while the creature bounce is decent the ultimate ability will likely draw death threats from the average Commander crowd. Add to this the fact that people in this format seem to overreact and snap-kill planeswalkers regardless of what they actually do and Jace is probably a waste of a slot.
On the same token there are better things to do with seven mana than to play Karn Liberated. The exile from hand ability is a sheer waste of time in most cases as a multiplayer game affords several people the opportunity to take Karn out before you get a second activation. Translation: the ultimate ability is never going to happen unless you're way out in front or you have Doubling Season in play before you play him.
So he's essentially a seven-mana way to exile a permanent. Maybe that's worth it? I personally don't think so.
Going in the Jace slot is Quicken. Easily one of the best cantrips in the game if you're in blue it fits perfectly in theme here. You haven't lived until you've played Bribery in response to an attack or responded to a lethal army of tokens attack with Wrath of God.
The Karn slot gets O-Stone plain and simple. This one doesn't need much explanation; as I said before red and blue have some glaring holes in certain areas needing specific answers and it's pretty critical to have at least one parachute on board in case things go south. Oblivion Stone is the best catchall available here.
Again some of these options are simple power-ups so I'll start with those:
- Pyroclasm is the first cut. In 60-card formats it has had its time in the spotlight but in Commander it will be really rare to need the mass-damage effect on turn 2. Instead Mizzium Mortars gives you a one-sided board wipe that takes down reasonably sized creatures instead of just ruining the Elves tribal player's life.
- Argivian Restoration Fabricate and Transmute Artifact are gone as well. With the game plan shifted away from the artifacts and toward playing spells it's no longer critical to set up and protect your big mana engines and there's no more Memnarch either. Instead of Regrowing an artifact we're Regrowing multiple instants and sorceries with Mystic Retrival and instead of Tutoring up artifacts we gain the multi-tool ability of Izzet Charm and the ability to reset your library as many times as you can with Elixir of Immortality.
- Since we already added some extra backup for problem permanents with Oblivion Stone and Cyclonic Rift Devastation Tide is going to get the cut next. As it was with Pyroclasm it's going to rare that the miracle cost is going to be anything more than a nice added bonus later on in the game. After Rift it's also hard to stomach watching all of your stuff get bounced as well. In that slot I'm adding Blatant Thievery. It's a fantastic tempo swing in a multiplayer game and chances are better than not you were playing Tide for one or two problem permanents anyway; why not just take them instead?
- Lastly Faithless Looting gets cut for Rite of Replication. The filter effect just doesn't seem to matter here even with your commander active and we've already proven that we can draw four cards more profitably than this. Besides it's a terrible topdeck. The addition for that slot is Rite of Replication. Sure it fits the "Commander staples" bill but this is the place it really fits. This deck is about flexible answers that can be real powerhouses when played whenever the most opportune moment is and the Rite effect is the…er…right effect here. Everything needs a good finisher and while there are others present (Insurrection for example) there's just no substitution for the joy of Replicating a team of Woodfall Primus during an opponent's end step. And we all know that's a tame example. Replication just plain fits the bill here.
Pretty simple math here.
I'm pulling a few off-color fetchlands in favor of a pair of on-color multilands in Cascade Bluffs and Izzet Guildgate. I'm pulling Seat of the Synod out (since we're moving away from the artifact theme and got rid of Transmute Artifact as well) for another basic Mountain to up the color-specific count. And since this deck wants to play everything at instant speed Winding Canyons is in for the creatures we have on the list.
Here's the finalized list:
- 1 Phyrexian Metamorph
- 1 Psychosis Crawler
- 1 Archaeomancer
- 1 Consecrated Sphinx
- 1 Djinn Illuminatus
- 1 Hypersonic Dragon
- 1 Jushi Apprentice
- 1 Magus of the Future
- 1 Mindclaw Shaman
- 1 Nivix Guildmage
- 1 Snapcaster Mage
- 1 Trinket Mage
- 1 Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind
- 1 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
- 1 Urabrask the Hidden
- 1 Venser, Shaper Savant
- 10 Island
- 3 Mountain
- 1 Cascade Bluffs
- 1 Command Tower
- 1 Desolate Lighthouse
- 1 Grixis Panorama
- 1 Halimar Depths
- 1 High Market
- 1 Homeward Path
- 1 Izzet Boilerworks
- 1 Izzet Guildgate
- 1 Reliquary Tower
- 1 Riptide Laboratory
- 1 Rupture Spire
- 1 Scalding Tarn
- 1 Shivan Reef
- 1 Steam Vents
- 1 Strip Mine
- 1 Sulfur Falls
- 1 Tectonic Edge
- 1 Temple of the False God
- 1 Tolaria West
- 1 Vesuva
- 1 Volcanic Island
- 1 Winding Canyons
- 1 Boseiju, Who Shelters All
- 1 Minamo, School at Water's Edge
- 1 Darksteel Ingot
- 1 Elixir of Immortality
- 1 Expedition Map
- 1 Journeyer's Kite
- 1 Oblivion Stone
- 1 Rings of Brighthearth
- 1 Scroll Rack
- 1 Sensei's Divining Top
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Swiftfoot Boots
- 1 Thran Dynamo
- 1 Vedalken Orrery
- 1 Leyline of Anticipation
- 1 Blue Sun's Zenith
- 1 Brainstorm
- 1 Cerebral Vortex
- 1 Cyclonic Rift
- 1 Evacuation
- 1 Fact or Fiction
- 1 Izzet Charm
- 1 Magmaquake
- 1 Mystical Tutor
- 1 Quicken
- 1 Redirect
- 1 Spell Crumple
- 1 Spelljack
- 1 Thoughtflare
- 1 Trickbind
- 1 Twincast
- 1 Wild Ricochet
- 1 Word of Seizing
- 1 Mirari
- 1 Blatant Thievery
- 1 Bribery
- 1 Insurrection
- 1 Merchant Scroll
- 1 Mizzium Mortars
- 1 Mystic Retrieval
- 1 Ponder
- 1 Preordain
- 1 Reforge the Soul
- 1 Rite of Replication
- 1 Spelltwine
- 1 Time Warp
- 1 Vandalblast
- 1 Knowledge Exploitation
I'm pretty happy with this list Ian. It retains an edge but it does so without the threat of an infinite combo. It has the ability to throw down some serious haymakers but it has the tools to handle whatever gets thrown at it at the same time. Best of all it is designed to try to be able to play anything it needs to at instant speed which makes it resilient and adaptable and allows you to be interacting and playing the game from start to finish.
I'm sorry I couldn't come through on your third challenge but this deck should balance perfectly between your first and second challenge which is where the heart of the format is in my opinion. You should have a ton of fun with it and you've got a great tool to help build on your blossoming Commander scene. (For the record if you're ever up in the Amherst Massachusetts area on a Wednesday night drop in for a game! And Connecticut is basically in my backyard… Maybe I'll swing down to your neck of the woods at some point as well!)
As always you'll receive a $20 coupon to StarCitygames.com for your participation in Dear Azami this week. Judging by your existing list you've probably already got this stuff on hand but a little help never hurts. Here's what you're looking at just in case:
|Elixir of Immortality||$0.49|
|Leyline of Anticipation||$0.99|
|Urabrask the Hidden||$1.99|
|Rite of Replication||$1.99|
Before I head out for the week I want to speak a little bit about the last part of your submission that details your work with alternate prize scenarios for competitive play. Now I know there are a ton of readers who'll disagree with the concept of Commander for prizes to begin with but it can work. Obviously the most famous example of this is the "Armada Points System" that Sheldon Menery has documented in his articles. (It lives here for reference.) This is exactly what Patrick and I started with when we began working on our own environment and we find it works really well.
For a small weekly buy-in of five dollars everyone receives a current pack and a promo card. For every two players that enter one extra prize pack is added to the pool. At the end of the evening the points earned from our custom list of achievements (and deductions) are tallied and the person with the most can either choose to take an extra prize pack (and thus get last pick of available promos) or can choose first from the promos and forego the extra prize pack. This keeps it interesting to everyone since there's something to play for but it's not enough to cause players to toss out ethics and grab Hermit Druid combo decks.
I like some of the ideas you've brought up Ian especially the parts about empowering the players to decide on what achievements get prizes. I know that Armada Games takes great pride in using feedback to alter their points structure and we've always tried to keep our players involved too in order to give everyone a sense of pride and ownership in their scene. There's always a danger of collusion I suppose but we've found that once people understand the situation things tend to police themselves. We rarely see any issues at all.
I would encourage anyone trying to help build a Commander scene to dig a bit deeper here. Check the Armada site and don't hesitate to contact me for more details either. I'm always glad to help.
Until next time
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