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Elder Dragon Throwback: 2010 Commander with 2020 Lessons

The recent release of Commander Legends got me wondering – if I knew what I know now about Commander deckbuilding back in 2010, how would I build decks? What would they look like, and how would they fare against decks from the modern era? There’s only one way to answer this question, and it’s to take a popular Commander from that era and get to building in a made up format I like to call Commander 2010.

I’ve set my time machine for January 1, 2010, which means I’ll only be using cards printed before that date. That means the most recently printed standard-legal set is Zendikar, and with the re-introduction of core sets, Magic 2010 is around. Yes, that’s back when the “Magic 20XX” nomenclature started, using the same “put next year on it” logic that the auto industry employs – hence the name of this imaginary format. To prepare for this article, I looked at dozens of deck lists from back in the day, which are miraculously still buried in the depths of surviving forums and content sites, and between that research and my memory, I think I have a decent handle on how we built Commander decks ten years ago.

It’s hard to know what was actually the most popular back in the day, but after embarking on my aforementioned online archaeology, I saw that the shard-based three-color Commanders were quite popular. Locally, I remember seeing a lot of Kresh the Bloodbraided specifically, and that was borne out by my research – though my sample size was admittedly small. Jund had been quite popular in Standard, so it stood to reason that its popularity would extend to Commander.

Kresh the BloodbraidedSek'Kuar, Deathkeeper

Kresh’s goal is to make sure plenty of creatures die so he can get huge, allowing him to deal massive amounts of Commander damage to opponents’ faces. Kresh was taking the place of Sek’Kuar, Deathkeeper as Commander in many cases, so I waded through quite a few lists where it was clear that not much had changed besides a few individual card choices, but some people did some serious work retooling their decks around Kresh. What’s the difference? Well, Sek’Kuar wants to go wide while Kresh tries to go tall. Let’s take a look at some concepts, consider how we treated them back in the day (at least through my limited lens) and build a deck to match our modern sensibilities with the available card pool!

Thematic Depth

One of the things I noticed while going through deck lists was that people took mechanical themes and went as deep as they could justify. This is, I think, a function of how early we were in the format at that point – when you’re trying to fill out a 100-card deck list and you identify something that’s good, it’s natural to throw in a bunch of similar cards that fulfill a similar function. The problem is that those cards will get progressively less and less powerful as you reach further and further into the card pool. If your goal is to build a deck around that mechanical theme exclusively, then do your thing. Commander isn’t all about maximizing your power level, and no one should be shamed for playing the cards they want to play, but if you are looking to make your deck stronger (within whatever constraint) then these examples might be illustrative.

ShriekmawSpitebellowsWalker of the Grove

Shriekmaw is an obvious winner in this deck. If you want to spend the full five mana and get an evasive threat to go with your Terror, that’s great, but with Kresh or a profitable sacrifice outlet on the battlefield, you’ll most often want to evoke it to get the most value for your mana. I’m sure it wouldn’t surprise you to hear that Shriekmaw was in most of the Kresh lists I looked at.

Spitebellows was also popular and for good reason – though as an individual card it’s not quite as powerful as Shriekmaw, the six power stat line is attractive when considered alongside Kresh, and even on its own, it’s still a decent rate for a removal spell that will deal with most creatures.

From that line of thinking, you’re not a long way from including Walker of the Grove in your deck. After all, putting seven +1/+1 counters on your Kresh for five mana and getting a 4/4 in the bargain seems pretty good. The problem is that Walker of the Grove is pretty terrible on its own, even with a sacrifice outlet available. A three-mana removal spell is acceptable if not amazing in Commander, but a 4/4 with no text for five really isn’t – and this card isn’t even close to what you want to be doing for eight mana in this format. 

Carrion FeederScarland Thrinax

This is a shorter train of thought, but I think it’s interesting. Carrion Feeder is one of the most efficient sacrifice outlets available in the pre-Viscera Seer days of Magic. Accepting that it can’t block is pretty easy, since blocking in the early game isn’t that important in a pre-monarch, pre-infect world, and what you want to be doing with your big threats is attacking anyway. With that in mind, Scarland Thrinax is a pretty similar card and it echoes Nantuko Husk/Phyrexian Ghoul in a satisfying way. A three mana 2/2 that gets bigger permanently when you sacrifice things to it – what’s not to like?

Well, a lot, actually. There are plenty of more efficient sacrifice outlets, and though one that grows itself interacts well with Kresh, cards like Spawning Pit and Greater Gargadon do as good of a job or better over a realistic time frame while being easier to cast, or in Gargadon’s case, to suspend. Are you really that excited to pay an extra RG for Carrion Feeder with +1/+1 and the ability to block? I’m not, and if I’m going to dig deep into sacrifice outlets, I’d rather play cards like Perilous Forays. That said, Scarland Thrinax showed up an awful lot in my research – perhaps it was because it was a newish card, or maybe people liked the Jund flavor synergy.

Top-End Troubles

Ten years ago, my perception of Commander was very “battlecruiser Magic” – I was trying to land my top-end threats, just like everyone else, so why bother with early or mid-game interaction? Just get out ahead of your opponents and slam your threats first to win. I still have my Thraximundar deck from that era, minimally updated and thematically largely the same – every threat is a haymaker, backed up with mana rocks, removal, counters and wraths. It was commonplace to simply throw as many big threats in your deck as you could justify. I wonder if trying to build better engines in the early and midgame could have been a better way to attack that than the choice we all seemed to have made of trying to go big better than everyone else.

Charnelhoard WurmGrim PoppetMossbridge Troll

Keep in mind that this is a world where Avenger of Zendikar, the Titan cycle, the Eldrazi and other huge threats we’re used to don’t exist. No Craterhoof Behemoth? No problem for me. That card has long outstayed its welcome in my life, but on some level, we were just playing some of the cards you see above for the sake of having more seven-plus drops in our decks than our opponents did.

Grim Poppet doesn’t really play well with Kresh, and while the others do a better job of powering up our Commander when they die, they lack the punch we expect these days for this amount of mana. It’s not like powerful top-end creatures didn’t exist – after all, Hellkite Overlord and Woodfall Primus existed and fit the mold of cards that were huge and also managed to do something meaningful on the turn they entered the battlefield. They’re even sticky threats, with the Overlord regenerating while the Primus persists, making them more suited to modern threat sensibilities.

With that in mind, the threats that are here to win the game in this deck are a bit different: they’re lower to the ground and support our overall game plan rather than just being beatsticks. 

Lord of Extinction

Like Kresh, the Lord wants things to die but lacks evasion or trample to push damage through. I’m playing cards like Loxodon Warhammer and Rancor to help Kresh go over the top, so Lord of Extinction is a great way to create a similar, redundant threat that also interacts well with cards like Mage Slayer, Soul’s Fire and even Fling

Stalking Vengeance

This one rarely heads for the red zone itself, preferring instead to fire potshots at opponents from the back line while our sacrifice effects do the work. Vicious Shadows works well alongside this despite not being a creature itself.

Dragon BroodmotherMycoloth

These are effective token makers that can swarm the board for an alternative go-wide strategy while also growing Kresh to new heights, and when cards can play multiple roles at once, they make much more effective threats in my experience.

Rocks and Reaches

For all of you Magic Judges in the audience, no, I’m not talking about picking your team leads for a large event. This section is all about mana rocks and ramp spells (like Kodama’s Reach, naturally). Farseek and Kodama’s Reach were as popular in their day as they are now, but the rocks we paired with them were often less exciting. I saw a lot of Obelisks in my journey through deck lists of the past and I think we’ve learned over the years that the two-mana rocks fill out early turns very well and push us to successful late games much faster. These deck lists also included quite a few Thran Dynamos and I think we’ve discovered that, as we approach turn four, we’re more interested in casting our Commanders or finding other ways to generate value. 

I also saw a lot of lists with much lower rock and ramp counts than I’m used to. An example section of mana ramp cards might look like this.

Sol Ring (Extended Art)Obelisk of JundThran DynamoFarseekKodama's ReachSakura-Tribe Elder

I think we were more scared of drawing our ramp in the late game than we are now, to the point that we allowed the ramp aspects of our decks to be come inconsistent despite the widespread availability of artifact mana even in those days. In this Kresh list, my ramp section looks like this:

Sol Ring (Extended Art)FarseekGolgari SignetGruul SignetRakdos SignetTalisman of ImpulseTalisman of IndulgenceSakura-Tribe ElderKodama's ReachSolemn SimulacrumMwonvuli Acid-Moss

I don’t think I would have played 11 ramp cards in a deck in 2010 unless I was on the Rofellos plan (which I think was still legal then although I’m not quite sure) but now it seems much less farfetched. Our curve is on the high side (3.52 average CMC among nonlands) and we’ll need to recast Kresh a lot, which is something I’m not sure we budgeted for in the early days. Cards like Greater Good, Phyrexian Arena and Genesis should keep us well supplied with cards, while Silklash Spider, Corpse Dance and Ant Queen should serve as suitable mana sinks.

Fun?

This one is so debatable, but I’ll inject my own point of view here because that’s the whole point here. Tons of lists I looked at played cards that I’ve grown tired of over the years and that I think may have never been terribly fun in the first place.

Ashnod's AltarPhyrexian Altar

It’s too easy to take a 20 minute turn with these cards where you just absolutely demolish your opponents all in one go in ways that aren’t terribly easy to interact with, and with that in mind, I’m excluding them from this list.

Grave Pact

While Butcher of Malakir won’t see print until Worldwake, Grave Pact has been around since Stronghold, and maybe it’s that one-of-a-kind nature that made it more interesting than it seems to be now. That said, as Bennie Smith and many others have pointed out previously, it’s just too easy for games to become all about Grave Pact in a repetitive and predictable way, and to take it a step further, it’s too easy for players who don’t have a lot of ways to interact with enchantments to be pushed out of having any fun. 

I won’t be playing any of these cards in my list but they showed up in many of the decks I looked at. I wonder if novelty made these cards seem more social-gaming friendly than they seem to me now, if my sensibilities have changed as I’ve aged or if it’s some combination of these and other factors – probably that, since human behaviors, emotions, and perceptions are so complex.

Tutors

When approaching a 100 card singleton format for the first time, it seems obvious that tutors should be part of the package. After all, how else will you find your best cards? I saw tons of lists running Demonic Tutor, Diabolic Intent, Vampiric Tutor and more, and I remember playing as many tutors as I could reasonably shoehorn in to increase consistency. The more I play Commander though, the more I prefer to include a “worse” card in those slots, as I find games more fun when they’re different and unpredictable. If that’s not how you feel, obviously I recommend playing the game your way and finding ways to have a good time with your playgroup but for me, the fewer tutors I have, the happier I am.

Land Count

While I think we sometimes talk about how we got land counts wrong in Commander back in the day, I have some interesting evidence to the contrary. In August of 2009, the first ever Commander theme decks were released – on Magic Online. Yes, that’s nearly two full years before the release of the first paper Commander theme decks in June 2011. The decks were “Enchantress Rubinia”, featuring Rubinia Soulsinger and “Deathdancer Xira”, featuring Xira Arien. There are a few interesting lessons to be learned from these decks.

Rubinia SoulsingerXira Arien

Rubinia’s curve is incredibly low – of the 99 cards in the main deck, 19 have a converted mana cost of two and 20 have a converted mana cost of three, and the average converted mana cost of the nonland cards in the deck is 3.00. The only creatures in the main deck that cost six or more mana have cycling – we’re talking about Krosan Tusker, Noble Templar, Shoreline Ranger and Wirewood Guardian. How does the deck win games, you might ask? Well, I’m not actually sure. Decree of Justice seems like the most obvious win condition in the deck, with second place being a tie between Confiscate and Rubinia Soulsinger stealing opposing creatures. In a distant third, we have Armadillo Cloak and Empyrial Armor on Phantom Centaur. This deck’s creatures are really not good. For reasons I do not understand, it has Jungle Lion in it. I guess that makes things all the more confusing when you use your Illusionary Mask. Now there’s a card you’d never want to reprint in paper even if you could.

Knowing all that, it might surprise you to hear that this deck has 39 lands in it! Sure, some of them are just terrible (Treva’s Ruins? Really?) but it’s wild to me that a deck from over ten years ago has such a 2020 land count with such a low curve. 28 of the lands are basics, so at least you’re acting on curve most of the time.

Xira is a little more ambitious, with the average nonland converted mana cost in the deck at 3.35 and a scant 37 lands. To me, it seems weird that the deck with a 3-mana activated ability on its Commander is the one with a lower land count. Keep in mind, both of these decks have access to green and both are playing Krosan Tusker and Sakura-Tribe Elder, so it’s not like the Rubinia deck is without ways to access lands. 

So at least someone at Wizards of the Coast understood land counts back in the day. I spent some time going through multiplayer-focused Commander lists from the year 2009 and pulled land counts from a sample of deck lists. I excluded cards like Maze of Ith, Dark Depths, Safe Haven and in one case, Ice Floe from land counts because they’re not mana producers. Additionally, I discarded all Ashling the Pilgrim deck lists entirely because they had between 50 and 99 Mountains. Among the 84 remaining deck lists, the average land count was 36.86, so it doesn’t seem we were totally awful at land counts in the past, at least among engaged community members willing to put their deck lists into forums. People putting up lists with 30 or 33 land, for example, were chastised (gently) by other users into playing a few more, though this admonition rarely extended to the 34/35 crowd. 

With that in mind, I’m choosing to play a total of 38 land – along with the many ramp spells and mana rocks mentioned earlier, I think that’s a reasonable choice given our curve, which features an average converted mana cost among nonlands of 3.52 and a bit of a glut at the five-cost spot. 

The Deck List

I know you’re in suspense after all this talk of our mysterious deck list, so here’s the whole thing. Enjoy the nostalgia, and if you’re inspired to build your own Commander 2010 deck, maybe we can get some games going on SpellTable, which would have been totally unimaginable back then!

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