It’s been quite awhile since I did a segment on brewing in Commander. I recently released an article about brewing in Brawl, and I spent a lot of time explaining my thought processes and rationale behind including certain themes and cards. I really enjoy doing that, but to be honest with you I haven’t really been excited about the last 5 or 6 standard sets. I loved Kaladesh and Aether Revolt, but Amonkhet, Hour of Devastation, Ixalan, and Rivals of Ixalan all fell a little flat for me.
One of the side-effects of playing a lot of cEDH, I think, is that I fall into the habit of assessing cards in new sets in the context of whether or not they’re likely to appear in fully optimized lists. In that sense, I look at a card like Fatal Push, and — rather than thinking about how it’s one of the best removal spells that’s been printed in the last several years — I brush it off because it’s not likely to make the cut in anything I play regularly. It goes beyond that, too — because I’m also unlikely to play against cards like Fatal Push, I find myself totally unfamiliar with most of the cards in the last 4 or 5 sets.
This isn’t an article about Fatal Push or any other cards that are currently in Standard, though. This is an article about what I do when I get a little bored with the format.
Simply put, I brew. I think of weird things that might be possible, and explore the idea fully. I do my best to optimize suboptimal strategies, and dive really deep into things that have possibly never been done before.
What Have I Been Brewing?
I’ve actually been keeping these decks kind of under wraps lately, but after playtesting them I was starting to get really excited to share. Over the next few weeks I’ll be debuting some decks that I’ve designed to play against each other in a low-power meta.
Given the fact that there isn’t a ton out of the most recent 3-4 sets that gets my creative juices flowing, I figured I’d brew with…
Objectively Powerful Cards
I know, I know. This isn’t exactly going to get me out of my cEDH card assessment habits, but the thought hit me one day and I just couldn’t get it out of my head.
Are objectively powerful format all-stars powerful outside of their native habitats?
Can we play Ad Nauseam outside of something like Zur or Jeleva Storm? Can we play Protean Hulk without Cephalid Breakfast? Can we do these things in an impactful way that retains the feel of their archetypes? Can we do these things in a way that isn’t too oppressive for a casual table? Who even knows? Let’s take a crack at it.
Naturally, this was one of the first things that came to my mind when I started thinking about objectively powerful cards in EDH. Let’s start by talking about what Ad Nauseam actually does, what makes it powerful, and some possibilities for brewing.
Ad Nauseam is one of the most powerful cards that’s legal in EDH for two main reasons:
- Commander life totals start at 40
This is a card that’s balanced for a 20 life total format. The idea behind it is that you will naturally lose a few life before you get to the point where you can cast a 5-mana spell, and you might need to save a few life so you don’t get bolted. When you double the starting life total, you drastically increase the number of cards that can be drawn. Even accounting for the singleton nature of the format, there are enough cards that cost 0 or 1 that drawing 20 cards isn’t uncommon.
- Ad Nauseam is an instant
This is something that I rarely hear people talking about when assessing the card. What puts Ad Nauseam in a different league from something like Necropotence or Necrologia is that you can cast it while control players are tapped out, and just before you untap for your turn. This essentially eliminates the downside of the card costing 5 mana, because you’ll have a ton of mana available before you even have to think about discarding.
This means that some deliberate deckbuilding decisions like inclusion of fast mana and rituals, combined with keeping your ACMC low, have the potential to make Ad Nauseam the most efficient source of card draw that you’ll ever have access to.
If you’ve never seen it before, I definitely recommend taking a look at Nakhla/Sugandaraja’s Sidisi primer. The deck has an ACMC of 1.4 because it runs 16 0-drop artifacts. This drastically increases the number of cards you can draw by casting Ad Nauseam. Many of the cards aren’t particularly good by themselves, but they increase storm count or trigger Aetherflux Reservoir or pitch to Skirge Familiar or sacrifice to Krark-Clan Ironworks or whatever you need them to do.
Is an extremely low ACMC the only way to get a ton of cards out of Ad Nauseam, though? Maybe in a competitive setting, but I’d like to remind you that we’re not brewing a competitive deck today.
Lowering ACMC means you get more cards-per-life-point, but we can also increase the overall card yield by having more life to spend! I know life gain has a bit of a reputation of being a poor overall strategy, but as I concluded in my article Life as we Know It:
life can be an incredibly powerful resource, and having access to 40 of it to start the game is kind of absurd when you start to think about how you can spend it.
Spending life to draw cards with something like Ad Nauseam certainly qualifies, in my opinion, so we might have a significant lifegain theme in the deck we’re brewing.
ACMC Inclusive of Lands
One of the more thought-provoking posts about Ad Nauseam I’ve ever seen is this one from the competitiveEDH subreddit about 9 months ago. I realized something about the card that I’d never considered before – ACMC calculations like the one on TappedOut’s deckbuilder don’t count lands as 0-CMC cards the same way it does for non-lands. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because I think 99%+ of the time you’re looking to answer the question “What’s the average CMC of my nonland cardbase”. With Ad Nauseam, though, if our goal is to increase the card yield, it’s worth mentioning that we can draw a higher volume of cards if more of them are lands.
What Do We Want to Do?
If you read my two-part series on casual deckbuilding using Form of the Dragon, one of my favourite brewing techniques is to write a short statement about what we hope to accomplish with the deck we’re building. Here’s what we’ll be building today:
This is a casual deck built around an objectively powerful card draw engine. We’re looking to retain the feeling of winning the game by drawing a big chunk of our deck. We’ll be leveraging life gain and an abnormally high land count to increase the card draw yield from casting Ad Nauseam.
What Colours Do We Need?
Our summary of the deck is admittedly pretty vague, so I jotted down a quick list of ways that we could win the game with a mitt full of cards. I deliberately excluded Aetherflux Reservoir and actual factual storm cards like Tendrils of Agony, Grapeshot, and Brain Freeze because I’m not really looking for a shot-for-shot remake of the Ad Nauseam Tendrils (ANT) archetype. What, then, do we do with all of these cards? They’re mostly going to be lands, so I started thinking about Seismic Swans in Modern. This deck runs an abnormally high land count as well, and uses Seismic Assault and Swans of Bryn Argoll to draw a ton of cards (which are mostly lands), eventually drawing enough lands to kill our opponent.
We already know we need access to black to cast Ad Nauseam, which serves as an analog for the Swans in this deck. Seismic Assault is a pretty attractive win condition, meaning we also want access to red. Running this as a BR or BRX deck means we’ll also have access to some top-end tutors, as well as the other Seismic Assault clones that have been printed over the years.
We could go 5-colour and include Swans of Bryn Argoll as redundancy for Ad Nauseam, but given the high land count I’m really looking for some value out of the command zone, and none of the 5-colour commanders directly synergize with what we’re trying to do.
Realistically, I’m thinking this deck needs a healthy dose of green to really go off. Green opens up all sorts of land-based strategies that are walled off from other colours, so I think it’s a natural fit. If we were to go 4-colour, I think the natural fourth colour would be blue to provide access to Patron of the Moon, which would allow us to bounce previously-played lands to pitch to our Seismic Assault package. Ultimately, I think adding a fourth colour means we have to devote more of the nonland cards to fixing, and if we’re playing with an abnormally high land count, we might only be looking at 30-40 nonland cards to execute our strategy.
My gut tells me that Jund is the right identity for this deck, which leaves us access to the following commanders:
This search sucked a lot, because I scrolled past a ton of great Gruul “lands matter” commanders like Borborygmos Enraged, Mina and Denn, Wildborn, and even some Golgari ones like The Gitrog Monster. We need all three colours, though, so I took a list at the combinations of partners that are available, and one combination stood out to me as being particularly appropriate:
I’ve played against Tana a lot in my cEDH circles, but to be honest with you, Ikra Shidiqui is one of the cards I dismissed out of hand as not having an impact to the competitive meta. This pair of commanders seem perfectly suited to our strategy of gaining life and protecting our life total, so the search is over!
Building a Strategy in 28 Cards (!)
This is one of the more challenging things I’ve ever done while building a deck. This deck wants to run an abnormally high land count, so I picked an arbitrary number of lands to start with – 65 – which is about 2/3 of the deck. Adding our two commanders, Ad Nauseam, Land’s Edge, Molten Vortex, Seismic Assault, and Lightning Storm brings our total to 72 cards out of 100, meaning we only have 28 cards to help support and execute our strategy. This means we’re going to have to be extremely picky with which cards we choose to include, and a lot of good cards are going to end up on the cutting room floor.
Tutors and Card Draw (7)
This deck – by our very definition – is going to be very reliant on Ad Nauseam. This means we either have to have a ton of card draw or tutors that can search for it. With that in mind, we’re dedicating slots to:
Bob is nice here because it’ll flip a land 2/3 of the time, meaning it won’t significantly reduce our life total and work against our game-winning Ad Nauseam. I probably could have also included Sidisi, but that is a card that really hurts to flip off Ad Nauseam, so ultimately I decided that it wasn’t worth it. Gitrog Monster, on the other hand, draws us a card every time we pitch a land to the Seismic Assault package, allowing us to go off with a smaller Ad Nauseam draw.
Weirdly enough, Abundance doesn’t actually draw or tutor cards, but it greatly increases the quality of cards you can draw. If you have enough lands in play already, Abundance allows us to skip past the half a dozen lands that are on top of the library at any given point and draw something that’s more likely to impact the game immediately.
Ramp and Rituals (21)
I may have gone a little overboard here, but having access to a ton of mana early in the game allows us to get both commanders out. From there, we can throw up chump blockers and gain a ton of life, and if we’ve got 10-15 lands in play by the time we cast Ad Nauseam, it means we can main phase it and still have enough mana available to win without passing the turn.
I think the land synergy for this deck is enough to explain the conspicuous lack of mana rocks, but Thought Vessel – in my opinion – warrants inclusion because this is one of the few decks you’ll see that genuinely needs the “No maximum hand size” effect. I included Impending Disaster in here because – although it doesn’t actually ramp – the density of ramp in this deck means we’re much better positioned to recover from an Armageddon effect than our opponents. Impending Disaster doesn’t break the bank if we happen to flip it off Ad Nauseam, so it’s a spicy little addition.
The Scapeshift Problem
After hitting my 28 card maximum, I started to think about Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. Valakut is most commonly run alongside Scapeshift in the Modern deck of the same name. Scapeshift isn’t really our jam because it isn’t likely to give us enough triggers to kill the table, but Valakut is exactly where we want to be with access to things like Manabond.
While I was searching for cards like Skirge Familiar that allow me to pitch excess cards in hand for value, I came across Noose Constrictor. I toyed with the idea of paring the land count back to make room for a couple creatures like that, but ultimately decided against it. I was pretty sure that I wanted to run the full 65 lands more than a modest creature like that until I came across Pack Rat. I instantly fell in love and was more than comfortable cutting a land to make room for everyone’s favourite RTR-era-standard-haymaker. Pack Rat provides way more value per card discarded and ultimately synergizes better with Ikra Shidiqui.
At the end of my hours-long brewing session, I was left with the following monstrosity:
This brewing session actually happened around November, and I’ve played the deck about a dozen times since then. It’s certainly a lot stronger than I expected it to be, but I’d say I accomplished exactly what I set out to in my deckbuilding mission statement.
What do you think of the finished list? Would a combo deck like this fly in your local meta? Do you have any recommendations for other cEDH all-stars that could form the core of bizarre casual deck? As usual, hit me up in the comments!