On the Sunday of CommandFest Online 2, four players – The Asian Avenger, Toby Elliott, Ellie of the Veil, and Jeremy Noell – opened up the mystery decklists they received earlier in the week and played a game on camera. But where did those decks come from, and how did they come to be? And more importantly, what was in those decks?
I can answer all of those questions. I was the architect behind this particular slice of madness – I built all four decks, not just in isolation, but as decks intended to be played against each other. I also built them as budget decks – when I built them, each deck could be purchased in its entirety for $50 or less right here on ChannelFireball.com. Obviously prices and stock levels change, so these decks may not be available at that price point right now, but the larger point remains:
You can buy a cool Commander deck that can hold its own in a lower-power bracket for less than the price of a triple-A video game, and you can have a ton of fun playing it.
The Design Process
I approached this match as if I were designing four preconstructed decks to play each other. I obviously got to ignore some factors Wizards of the Coast has to think about, like color balance as well as anything related to printing new cards or reprinting old ones, but that means I would have no mitigating factors to point to if I got the balance wrong. These four decks needed to be fun to play against each other – they needed to be of relatively equal power level, interact in interesting ways, and have ways to win the game while having cards that mitigate the other decks’ win conditions. I also needed the decks to be able to end a game in the allotted time – as you know if you watched the broadcast, we had a schedule and needed to keep things moving, so I needed to make sure we didn’t get into a ground stall or control-driven slog. Finally, I had one more concern: the decks needed to be fun to watch. They couldn’t be boring or things we’d all seen before – they had to be weird.
So, with all that in mind, I settled on a theme for these four decks: they would all be tribal decks. We saw this in the Commander 2017 preconstructed decks, with Cats, Dragons, Vampires, and Wizards taking center stage. I wanted to go off the beaten path and avoid tribes that are popular – I wanted these decks to feature tribes you won’t see frequently at tables. I feel like the Cats deck from 2017 did a great job of that, so I suppose that was an inspiration, but I didn’t have the luxury of an expert design team or the ability to create new cards, so I just had to lean on existing weirdness.
Why tribal decks? Well, this ensures some solid creature combat, gives the decks an obvious theme for viewers to latch onto, and means we’re not relying on building a complex engine that won’t be boring to watch if it works too well or frustrating to play if it never comes together. These decks should be greater than the sum of their parts, but their parts should work decently well by themselves.
At this point, I started making outlines for a dozen or so different tribal decks. Here are some designs that got left by the wayside:
Griffins featuring Zuberi, Golden Feather – Griffins were actually too terrible for this. The creatures are largely vanilla or french vanilla, which meant it would be a really boring play experience.
Oozes featuring The Mimeoplasm – The Mimeoplasm is cool, but not particularly webcam-friendly, and at the end of the day there just weren’t enough interesting Oozes for me.
Avatars featuring Karona, False God – this one was shelved for budget reasons. Five colors is hard enough on a budget, and the creatures themselves weren’t affordable under my restrictions.
Skeletons – I couldn’t find a satisfying commander for Rakdos Skeletons, and I wasn’t about to put Skithiryx at this table. Plus, a bunch of low-stat regenerators do not make for a fun game to watch.
There were more – many more, I guarantee you – but eventually I hit upon four successful formulae. One was based on a deck I actually have in paper, but that was actually the last one to make the jump to the silver screen – the first deck I really got a handle on was an Insect tribal deck featuring Izoni, Thousand-Eyed as the Commander.
Commander Izoni Deck List - Eric Levine - Mystery Deck Commandfest 2
What do insects do? They swarm, and that’s the plan here. Play an initial wave of insects, and when they hit the bin, slam Izoni and go wide. I did my best to make sure this deck could get started on the board early, with four creatures in each of the 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-drop slots, while making sure the late game was covered as well by cards like Hornet Queen and Symbiotic Wurm.
This deck has a graveyard theme that allows Nantuko Husk, Swarm of Bloodflies, and Mortician Beetle to get huge, and Izoni’s desire for a stocked yard can be sated by effects like Grisly Salvage, Mulch, and Relentless Pursuit. There’s some recursion and reanimation going on as well – Grave-Shell Scarab keeps coming back, and Victimize allows you to turn an insect token into two strong creatures, but at the end of the day, the goal is to go wide and use cards like Obelisk of Urd, Beastmaster Ascension, and Overwhelming Stampede to close out the game.
The average converted mana cost of the nonlands in this deck is 3.68. This is one of those situations where the average is much less descriptive than looking at the distribution – sure, we have three 7-cost creatures and three 8-cost creatures, but as I mentioned before, we should consistently be able to curve out in the early game with creatures in the 1-4 drop slots, and there are tons of ramp spells and other pieces of useful action costing 2 and 3, meaning it’s unlikely we’ll have a dry spell early on. The numbers don’t lie, and they spell disaster for everyone else against our sacrifice engines.
Next, I stepped away from the Golgari Swarm and moved toward something simpler – mono-Red. I knew I wanted to build a Phoenix tribal deck, but I spent a while being unable to find the right Commander. That is, until I found Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh. Chandra has her own Phoenix, and therefore, who could be better to lead an army of firebirds?
Commander Chandra Deck List - Eric Levine - Mystery Deck Commandfest 2
This deck’s plan is very similar to the Izoni deck while also being its polar opposite – it’s about recursive threats and being able to continue through the game with a board presence regardless of what happens by leveraging the graveyard, but this Phoenix tribal deck wants to burn down everything on the ground and attack in the air for lethal – the goal is not to have to worry about blocking at any point at all. Shard Phoenix is emblematic of that desire, which is why Toby chose to Spell Swindle it at that critical moment in the game on Sunday, but Magma Phoenix can cover the same ground. Of course, if you want to clear away a grounded army, there’s nothing more classic than Earthquake, and I put in Molten Disaster to back it up.
There’s not exactly a wide array of incredible Phoenixes, with many being somewhat middling in combat (Warcry Phoenix is an excellent example of a not-so-excellent Phoenix) so I made sure to include some powerful enchantments. Warstorm Surge, Flameshadow Conjuring, and Molten Echoes work together to create a powerful endgame force of enchantments, while cards like Sunbird’s Invocation and Heirloom Blade keep the threats coming. A surprising number of Phoenixes lack haste, so Hammer of Purphoros and Ogre Battledriver can put in some serious work to increase our level of aggression.
The average converted mana cost of the nonland cards in this deck is 3.5. That’s lower than the Izoni deck, but I can say for sure that this deck is less aggressive. While there is only one 7-drop of any kind, there’s not much being put on the board in the early game, with just one 2-drop creature and no 1-drop creatures at all. The five 3-drop creatures aren’t exactly brawlers, either, as most of the power is concentrated in the 4-6 drops and our late game enchantments. This deck has serious staying power, but it needs some time to get rolling, and hopefully cards like Earthquake and Sweltering Suns can make that happen.
This is one of two decks in this set that has a small morph subtheme. Even if you know the list, you might not be sure if a morph is Bane of the Living, Broodhatch Nantuko, or Nantuko Vigilante. If you designed the deck, though, you might have had the soul read on The Asian Avenger and known that the morph he played was Nantuko Vigilante – at least, that’s how my viewing experience went from the couch. Ask my wife, my neighbors, or anyone in a 2-block radius what I shouted when that card came down face down – it was probably unintelligible due to fatigue and anxiety, but the point remains.
These were two solidly offbeat tribal decks for sure, but I knew I could get weirder. My next selection was a riskier one, but one that I thought would create interesting situations at the table for these two decks to solve – an Artificer tribal deck with Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain at the helm.
Commander Jhoira Deck List - Eric Levine - Mystery Deck Commandfest 2
This originally started as a Dalakos deck, but it didn’t seem strong enough with him at the helm, so Jhoira got the nod. This was a risky move, since Jhoira is extremely powerful, but I made sure the deck wasn’t full of zero-cost artifacts so that we weren’t going to see some sort of crazy Cheerios combo. When I finished the first draft of this deck, I wasn’t totally sure that I knew what it did, but I knew it did something, and I knew it would be fun to watch.
But really, what does it do? Well, it makes Thopters sometimes, with cards like Pia and Kiran Nalaar, Efficient Construction, and Whirler Rogue, and other token types like Treasures, Golems, and Clues show up as well. Those tokens feed into a few engine cards like Sage of Lat-Nam, Daretti, Scrap Savant, and Ghirapur Aether Grid, and of course, the biggest artificer of them all, Brudiclad, Telchor Engineer, which is one of this deck’s primary win conditions. The Antiquities War performs a similar service, but it’s not a permanent change, and I’m pretty sure I want my Treasures to stay creatures if they can.
This engine is widely present in this deck to the point where it shouldn’t fail to do anything at all, but it might not always be the strongest in the world. Some powerful spells like Echo Storm, Saheeli’s Artistry, and Spine of Ish Sah help shore things up, and while there aren’t a ton of them, there are a few cheap artifacts like Tormod’s Crypt, Implement of Combustion, and Ichor Wellspring to keep Jhoira triggers flowing. I chose to include only two counterspells in this deck, and they’re actually the only two instants – this deck has a lot of mana sinks, and I also didn’t want to bog down the game or have this deck be too good at protecting its pieces.
This deck’s average converted mana cost among nonland cards is 3.35, with the lion’s share of the cards concentrated in the 2-4 drop spots. For an artifact-focused deck, this group of artificers is remarkably low to the ground, and while that’s not a synonym for “aggressive”, the card draw aspect means that this deck should be able to keep doing something, even just treading water, as long as the whole table doesn’t turn against it. Of course, that means eventually the whole table will turn against it, but by then this deck hopes to create an insurmountable advantage.
Finally, I brought in a budget version of a deck I have built in real life, and after watching Jeremy Noell play it, I actually might like this version a little bit better. Our final deck is a Monk tribal list featuring Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest.
Commander Shu Yun Deck List - Eric Levine - Mystery Deck Commandfest 2
Shu Yun himself is a big part of the plan here. We want to play some Monks, ideally ones with prowess like Jeskai Elder, Mistfire Adept, or Dragon-Style Twins, make them evasive with effects such as Distortion Strike and Teleportal, and then give them double strike with Shu Yun. Because this plan is so fragile, this deck got the highest share of protective cards across all the decks. Center Soul is both on brand and on plan for this deck, and cards like Emerge Unscathed and even Unbreakable Formation support that plan further. It’s also possible that this deck is one big excuse to cast Flying Crane Technique. I cannot confirm or deny this.
Once this deck gets an advantage, it needs to snowball that advantage a bit ,and that’s why Bident of Thassa made the cut. Runechanter’s Pike is a different kind of incremental advantage, but the outcome is the same. Protecting that advantage is important, as I mentioned earlier, so this deck also packs a few counterspells, specifically Izzet Charm, Negate, and Ojutai’s Command. I said further up that there are two decks in this pod with morph subthemes – this is the other one. Master of Pearls, Mystic of the Hidden Way, and Stratus Dancer are the trio that keeps opponents guessing. This deck also features the world’s fairest Narset, Enlightened Master, which I think is a fun note.
This deck’s average converted mana cost of nonland cards is 2.89, and the distribution is also telling – there are seven 2-drop creatures to help get things moving early on. There are only three 3-drops, because this deck’s turn three should basically always involve Shu Yun, and the creatures are spread out further up the curve after that. Despite being the deck out of these four with the highest land count (38), this is the aggro deck – it resembles a Feather deck in that it’s full of efficient creatures (and some notable exceptions to that) and low-cost spells. The extra land is a nod to three colors, though it’s arguable that all of these decks could play more lands. Every Commander deck could play more lands, with a nod to the 99-Mountain Ashling the Pilgrim decks that literally cannot because I know you folks are out there on Twitter somewhere.
I made sure to include some cards in each deck that would directly work against the other decks’ plans. Here are a few of the emblematic ones:
Chandra: By Force for Jhoira, Burn Away for Izoni, Magmaquake for Shu Yun
Izoni: Golgari Charm for Chandra (it blows up a late-game enchantment or stops a board wipe – it’s counter-counterplay!), Caustic Caterpillar for Jhoira, Bane of the Living for Shu Yun
Jhoira: Spell Swindle for Chandra, Tormod’s Crypt for Izoni, Negate for Shu Yun
Shu Yun: Deflecting Palm for Chandra, Sentinel Totem for Izoni, Crush Contraband for Jhoira
I had a lot of limitations when designing these – time, budget, broadcast – and I think I managed to create something interesting. With that in mind, I would definitely do it a little bit differently a second time around. I’d give Izoni a little more graveyard synergy, Shu Yun more opportunities to get haste (though I was thwarted a little bit by stock levels on that), Chandra a little more card selection, and Jhoira a few more artifacts with activated abilities for cards like Soldevi Machinist and Tawnos.
I put a lot of energy into this process, as I imagined it as my only chance to design decks for something like this – I’m not exactly a product designer, so this isn’t what I get to do most of the time. I haven’t been as worried about a creative endeavor in a long time as I was about this, and I’m incredibly proud of how it worked out. I really appreciate the players who participated in the game as well as everyone involved in Commandfest Online who supported this crazy plan, and I hope I get the chance to do this again. I’m super proud of the show we got to put on.
If you have any more questions about the design process or these decks, go ahead and tweet those questions at @RagingLevine, and if you’re interested in seeing another mad science budget brew game in the future like the one we had at Commandfest, make sure to tag @ChannelFireball too! I’ll see you next time as I return to one of my other article series in process.