In my playgroup, after a few intense games of cutthroat EDH, sometimes we pull out our goofy decks so we can turn our brains off and cast 7-mana bad spells. If you know me, you know that I have a real soft spot for bad decks with janky win conditions. I’ve put out a lot of content that’s on the higher end of the power spectrum lately, so I think it’s a good time to change gears and talk about the lower end of the power spectrum for a bit.
At the beginning of June, Hour of Devastation spoilers started to make their way online. Looking at the Nicol Bolas-themed art and cards (along with the new dragons coming in Commander 2017), I started to think about one of my favourite cards in the game of Magic:
A wave of inspiration hit me and I decided I wanted to build a deck that wins by becoming a dragon. Don’t get me wrong – I know this card is horrendously bad. My mantra throughout all of my articles is – and will continue to be – that we have so many tools available to us in this format – something will probably be available to us that will make this work.
In this article I’ll be focusing on my approach to picking a cool card or effect and building around it. In some ways this is similar to picking a win condition in a competitive deck, but we’re not talking about that today. Once we’re done brewing jank there will be plenty of time for competitive deck building, which I’ll be discussing in a 3-part series later on this summer.
The Win Condition
We already know that this is Form of the Dragon. I want to do a little bit of a breakdown of what the card does, as well as its strengths and weaknesses so we’ll have a good starting place to build around it.
At the beginning of your upkeep, Form of the Dragon deals 5 damage to target creature or player.
This is essentially how we’re going to close out games. Having a creature/player direct damage trigger means we’re able to break board stalls pretty easily.
At the beginning of each end step, your life total becomes 5.
A 7-mana enchantment with RRR in its casting cost probably doesn’t need this big of a downside (although it’s admittedly more of a downside in a 40 life formats), but wow is this flavourful. This simulates damage being cleared from a 5/5 creature during end step.
Creatures without flying can’t attack you.
Come to daddy. This is what’s going to save our bacon when we’re stuck at 5 life.
Supporting the Win Condition
Now that we’ve established what the card does, and the fact that it’s not great, we need to start looking at how we can possibly win the game with it. When I’m building a new deck, I like to have a little brainstorming session to help identify the types of strategies that are going to synergize well with my win conditions. For Form of the Dragon, my brainstorming notes look something like this:
- Damage Doublers – Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do 10 damage per upkeep instead of 5? How about 20?
- Paradox Haze – Along the same lines as the damage doublers, this is just a way to extract a little more value out of our win condition
- Damage Mitigation and Prevention – Sitting at 5 life is not a very desirable place to be. There are for sure some neat things that we can do to prevent and mitigate incoming damage, though, and they’ll help to stretch that life a little further. We’ll also get to play with Solemnity a little here, which I’ve been meaning to do since it was spoiled.
- Enchantment Tutors and CMC Reduction / Avoidance – Our main win condition is stapled to a 7-mana enchantment. This means that if we’re going to have any chance of pulling it off, we probably need to have a way to find it reliably. Once we’ve got it, we want to be able to protect it. This means that we probably don’t want to tap out to cast it. Holding up mana for protection is going to be really important, because we don’t want to end up at 5 life without being able to take advantage of the upsides we’re building around.
- Let’s Screw with Combat – Form of the Dragon helps us out a bit by preventing attacks on the ground. There are some ways that we can prevent attacks in the air, as well as prevent attacks entirely.
- Reducing All Life Totals Before Going for the Win – For as common a strategy as it is, damage is one of the toughest ways to win in EDH. In my Vial Smasher deck, Havoc Festival quite frequently helps me end the game because it almost totally negates life gain and puts people in a position where I can kill them with 10-15 damage. This is a much easier target to hit than having to do 40 damage per player with our win condition, so we’re going to look at this as a strategy as well. How can we put people at a nice low life total so 5 damage per upkeep actually has a chance of killing them?
- Chump Blockers – Casting Form of the Dragon means we’re going to be fairly vulnerable to plain old attacks from fliers. Being able to block those attacks is a good idea, so flying chump blockers seems like a good idea.
At the end of my brainstorming session, what I’m left with is a few thoughts on how we can even make this work. Notice that I just listed a few cards off the top of my head that I think embody each strategy, and I didn’t restrict my suggestions to any particular colour or card type, and I didn’t even really pay attention to whether the individual strategies or cards synergized well with each other. I toss all the cards into my TappedOut list to see if I can put them into groups or packages.
What I discovered by doing this is that quite a few of my desired effects come on enchantments. Beyond that, quite a few of these enchantments are in Red (which is good – we absolutely have to run red) and white, and blue and black popped up in lesser roles.
Once I’ve got a general idea of what the deck wants to be doing, I look up the entire list of commanders in the colour identities I might want to be in (the ones that include Red and White):
Out of these, the only one that really jumps out at me is Scion of the Ur-Dragon and the 3 new 5-colour dragon commanders. They don’t synergize particularly well with what we’re trying to do unless we go really deep on a dragon creature theme, so I’m going to rule out 5-colour entirely.
Saskia the Unyielding could put in a bit of work but I don’t think the bulk of our damage is going to be coming from creature combat. Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis is a good blocker in the early game but I don’t really like the mechanics of its end step effect. I wish it did a bit more to provide a bit more benefit to its controller, but oh well. 4-colour is off the table for this project.
3-colour is where we start to see a little more variation in terms of effects. Right off the hop I don’t think it’s unreasonable to rule out Mardu. There are some super interesting options in Jeskai and Naya, though, so let’s take a look at them:
Narset was actually the first commander that popped into my mind while I was brainstorming. Her ability allows us to cast Form of the Dragon for free, as well as a lot of our other enchantments that are going to keep us alive into the late game. Narset is pretty notorious for drawing hate from the table, which is the only reservation I have about picking her. This deck is deliberately a little lower on the power spectrum, and if I sit down at a table with strangers I don’t want to be that guy who has to explain that his Narset deck is different than everyone else’s Narset deck.
Ruhan does a pretty good job of reducing everyone’s life totals, but I don’t think he’s going to make the cut. Similar to Narset, this guy is scary and unpredictable enough to draw a bit of hate from the table.
Zedruu actually opens up some interesting options – not the least of which is actually being able to donate Form of the Dragon to turn somebody else into a dragon and kill them when our favourite enchantment sets them to 5 life. Zedruu synergizes really well with enchantment strategies when they’re effects that affect the entire table, because those types of enchantments impact everyone no matter who controls them. Zedruu is a really, really strong contender here.
Gahiji is a lot like Edric in that it tends to do a great job of encouraging your opponents to attack each other. This type of effect is exactly the type of thing that can put people in range of our finisher.
If you’re in a playgroup like mine that values creativity, you might even look to something likeTamanoa. Tamanoa (like the Nephilim) is not legendary, but it’s exactly the type of effect that people lament not having access to in the command zone. I really, really like the idea of running enchantments with damaging effects on them like Lightmine Field and Pyrohemia to give us enough reach to make it to the late game before trading a massive life total for the chance to become a dragon. There’s a very cool deck here, and I might build it for use in my own playgroup.
Out of all of these, I think the only one that really fits what we’re trying to do is Gisela (and it actually does a pretty good job). There are some well-documented issues with Boros commanders (namely lack of card advantage engines), and I think we’re going to need at least 1 more colour to make it work. I’d say Gisela has a spot in the 99, though.
Colour Identity is one of the most important choices you can make when you’re building a Commander deck. At this point, we know that our choices are down to either Jeskai or Naya, so – before making a decision – we can take a look at the things that Blue and Green bring to the table as support colours.
Blue is a great support colour for flying strategies. Unlike green, there are a ton of blue fliers that can serve as blockers in the late game. Blue also gives us access to Archetype of Imagination, which – in combination with Form of the Dragon – means that none of our opponents’ creatures can attack us! Blue also gives access to premier card draw and selection, which is really going to help in setting up a pretty specific sequence of cards that we’re going to need to assemble.
Green, in combination with white, offers us the ability to take full advantage of an enchantment theme. Things like Sterling Grove double as protection and tutors, and oldschool green technology offers us the ability to hate out fliers like nobody’s business. Green has some strong card draw action with the enchantresses, as well as things like Kruphix’s Insight which can allow us to dig pretty deep for our win conditions. Green also gives us a suite of regrowth effects that can help with recurring key pieces if for whatever reason they hit the graveyard.
Time to Choose
Gahiji and Narset are basically neck-and-neck in my mind. Narset is a better commander for the deck, but I think green brings more to the table as a supporting colour. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to go with Narset, but know that I’m super excited about this deck and will absolutely be be building a Naya version as well as a Jeskai version. Narset is, for sure, going to draw a lot of hate, but I think having a stronger commander will help us to actually become a dragon every once in awhile.
Off to Gatherer we go…
The next step in assembling our list is going to be to head to a card database. We’ve decided on a colour identity and what we want the deck to do, but the real question is – how do we find cards that fit such a specific strategy? I generally use Gatherer’s Advanced Search Function but I know a lot of people that are partial to Scryfall and Magiccards.info. If you’re a programmer you’ll probably prefer these options because they offer a ton of flexibility in performing very specific searches as the expense of a little bit of user-friendliness.
Remembering back to our brainstorming session, we talked about the following concepts. The links below will take you to on-colour advanced searches that I put together for keywords and phrases that I think will be on cards that will support my strategy:
Note: all of these searches will be filtered by the following colour criteria:
does NOT contain Black
does NOT contain Green
OR contains colourless
OR contains Red
OR contains Blue
OR contains White
- Damage Doublers
- Damage Mitigation and Prevention
- Enchantment Tutors and CMC Reduction / Avoidance
- Let’s Screw with Combat
- “Can’t attack” (note: I excluded the word “defender” in this search because the reminder text for defender includes the term “can’t attack”)
- “Can attack you” (note: I included this variation because I noted a difference in the wording from Ensnaring Bridge and Crawlspace, which were two cards I figured would probably come up in the first search)
- “Loses Flying”
- Reducing All Life Totals Before Going for the Win
- This one – I think – is going to be one of the toughest things to do in Jeskai. The damage doublers are going to serve this role, but in the Naya lists we would put Gahiji here. I ran a bunch of searches but most of them would require the parameters to include black to return anything worthwhile.
- Chump Blockers
All of these keywords and phrases were lifted directly from the “off the top of my head” cards I listed in my brainstorming session. The idea here is to get a list of cards that perform similar roles to increase consistency and reliability of key effects. I like to keep my searches broad at first because sometimes they’ll open my eyes to something I wasn’t even looking for initially.
Honestly, with every deck I create, I like to spend a couple hours sifting through pages and pages of search results. I don’t pretend to know every card in the game, but there are some weirdly specific cards out there, and you never know when something like Glyph of Destruction or Mark of Fury might randomly become one of the best cards in your deck. Constructing good searches is a skill, and you’ll get better at it the more you practice.
We’re making some good progress! We’ve come up with a specific win condition, identified the types of strategies that are going to help us pull it off, and settled on a colour identity and a commander to lead the deck. In the next instalment, we’re going to look at putting together an actual list based on the searches we’ve done, and how to balance flavour and functionality.