Here’s my very scary Unpopular Opinion: Skeleton Ship can be a fun Commander.
To say Dimir was a slog in terms of Commander selection and deckbuilding would be an understatement. I was excited about Ramses Overdark but then remembered that would blow up our budget. I tried building Wydwen as a flash deck, then moved over to Dralnu in exploration of a Cycling subtheme, but neither deck looked like it would be much fun to play. Wydwen Voltron/auras was a brief consideration, as were various Kels decks predicated around stealing creatures, or creatures that sacrifice themselves, or other grindy decklists that didn’t lend themselves to winning games. Taigam Reanimator almost happened until I remembered the last installment was a reanimator deck, and Silumgar, the Drifting Death with opening act Pile of Changelings didn’t really excite me. Luckily, I remembered it was the scary month, and it became time for Skeleton Ship, which helms 106 decks on EDHRec and clocks in at #563 in the Commander rankings. Time to set sail.
As always, I’d like to remind you of a couple of things regarding my budget articles:
- $50 has a different impact on different people, but given that it’s less than the price of a triple-A console game release, I think it’s a price many will be willing to pay for hours of entertainment, which a Commander deck should provide.
- I’ll be using prices from right here on ChannelFireball.com to track our costs. All prices were accurate when I wrote this – apologies if prices have changed or cards have gone out of stock since, but that’s just part and parcel of a budget article.
Let’s take a look at Skeleton Ship and see if we can figure out what the theme should be.
I know it might seem shocking that a card like this commands a full $2.40, but that’s the way it goes when you dip into old cards with only one printing. Nevertheless, the objective is clear: let’s get Skeleton Ship in play and tap it a lot to put -1/-1 counters on opponents’ creatures. To tap it a lot, we’ll need to have ways to manually untap it, and if we’re doing that, we’ll want other creatures that are worth tapping and untapping over and over again when we don’t have our Commander out. Obviously we’ll have a heavy focus on the -1/-1 counters from Skeleton Ship as well, including some proliferate elements.
Now, I don’t know if you know this, but I’m a sailing expert. I took one sailing class at the Wayland Town Pond somewhere around the year 1995, so if you need a mizzenmast identified or a jib hoisted, I’m your deckhand. Okay, maybe I don’t know much about sailing, but I did have a friend named Brad who was very into something called the “America’s Cup” when I was in middle school, and while I didn’t understand anything about sailing, I did understand the positivity of his enthusiasm. Let’s combine that positivity and enthusiasm with my unearned confidence and run this ship aground!
Is… is that right? Anyway, let’s talk about our creatures, or I guess our ship’s crew. A ship has to have a crew, just like a pirate’s got to have a code, or whatever Geoffrey Rush said in that one movie.
Let’s start with the captain’s entourage. Captains have those. I guess that makes Skeleton Ship our captain, which is a little confusing for the metaphor, but let’s sail on undeterred.
These four all untap our Commander, or any other creature we deem necessary, cost-free. All you have to do is tap them and they’ll get the job done – no additional mana investment is required beyond your up-front payment. That’s the kind of salary an unscrupulous pirate captain and/or ship can get behind! Norritt is particularly outstanding because it also has a Nettling Imp ability, which despite taking up most of Norritt’s text box, is not the ability you will be using most of the time. Also, Norritt requires a high-grade electron microscope to read, so good luck with that. I couldn’t fit Aphetto Alchemist in the budget, so these will have to do for cost-free untapping.
I stopped short of including Stonybrook Angler, but these three made the cut in terms of what I’m willing to pay for a tap or untap (that’s one mana, for savvy readers.) Tideforce Elemental is the standout because of its landfall ability that untaps it for extra uses.
These two can untap creatures more than once per turn. Chakram Retriever is seen here with no one to bring the chakram back to, which I assume is all the more motivating. Perhaps it will bring the chakram back to Disciple of the Ring. Is the Ring a chakram? It’s hard to know, but we’re not doing a lot of graveyard stuff in this deck, so it’s safe to sacrifice your already-used instants and sorceries to the Disciple’s ability.
With all this untapping, we’ll need some other creatures to untap besides Skeleton Ship. Otherwise, we’ll just have Vizier of Tumbling Sands and Fatestitcher untapping each other for no reason, and nobody likes that, especially the people who showed up to play Commander with us and not watch us re-enact scenes from Hook with our untappers as the cast. Let’s see what we can rustle up!
Some may call these, “Tim.” In this deck, though, they’re our arcane cannoneers, ready to broadside opposing vessels with repeated volleys powered by the innervations of the untap squad listed above. They can also finish off creatures shrunk by -1/-1 creatures, making them even more valuable in a deck like this.
I’m under no illusion that this deck will function without a constant infusion of new cards, and with untap effects on our side, Archivist starts to look a lot more like Arcanis if you squint a little bit.
Scrying isn’t drawing, but it’s pretty close, and it’s easy to believe a starfish stuck itself to the ship or something. Everyone loves these little friends. And no, this isn’t Patrick.
Some of our untappers can also tap creatures, and frankly, opposing creatures just get tapped anyway, so having a reusable Royal Assassin around seems like a great idea.
The scourge of playground Magic, shrinker of Juggernauts and Island Fish Jasconiuses, Sorceress Queen! Along with her color-shifted friend Serendib Sorcerer, she can blank incoming attackers, kill creatures with two or more -1/-1 counters on them, or make something vulnerable to just a couple of pings from the Tim army.
Technically, this is another untapper, but you don’t want to use this on your own creatures most of the time. Its real use is to drop -1/-1 counters on opposing creatures to back up our Commander (and tap them to keep them out of combat, too.)
Finally, I promised some proliferation, and who am I to go back on my word? That’s against the skeleton pirate code! Probably!
Okay, Skyship Plunderer doesn’t really proliferate, but it’s close enough. The rest of these are the genuine article, with most needing to connect in combat. Flux Channeler is the odd one out, but with 36 noncreature spells in the deck, it’s got plenty of fuel for our cause.
At this point, we’ve spent a total of $12.75, so we have plenty of room to outfit our crew. Next up, noncreature spells, which I guess is our cargo? What do ships have? I’ve been on a few, including one cruise ship that was the largest in the world at the time it sailed. Obviously, this was a family vacation to celebrate my grandmother’s birthday – in the strangest compromise ever, we ended up on this behemoth of a ship specifically because my grandmother was afraid of boats/the ocean. The idea, I guess, was that she could spend all her time on the ship not looking at the water and not feeling the movement of the sea? That vacation was almost as good of an idea as this deck. Hey, deck is another word that I can use in both Magic and ship contexts! Let’s head to the Lido deck for a magical cruise into our spell section, starting with a familiar theme.
Untapping just one creature isn’t worth a card, but these cantrip, so it’s all good.
Untapping the whole team, however, is plenty of plunder to extract from a single card. I know we’re all used to Dramatic Reversal pairing with Isochron Scepter, but I don’t do that, as a rule, so you’ll just have to deal with actually casting it. Intellectual Offering is a weird one, but given that we can use the untaps better than most other decks, it’s a worthwhile inclusion. Breaking Wave may be even weirder, but it’s on theme both mechanically and oceanically.
These auras help us live the dream of untapping Skeleton Ship a ridiculous number of times. Freed from the Real is the real star here, which is why I’ve chosen to spend $3.55 on it, whereas Crab Umbra is a little too costly in the untap department to be amazing. Second Wind, for its part, is a weird card, but it doesn’t untap a creature more than once per turn cycle unless you untap it, which is frankly a pointless thing to do if you can just untap the creature itself. (Unless you’re copying the activation, in which case, I assume you have better things to do.)
Let’s stay in familiar territory and move on to some proliferate enablers.
These three are mostly about the proliferate, with a little extra value thrown in – maybe a card, maybe another counter to get more proliferation going. Either way, they’re both quite valuable to the overall engine.
These feel more like proper spells with proliferate tacked on, though Fuel for the Cause straddles that line in a way that reveals it’s not a particularly good card. It is, however, good enough for us.
We couldn’t afford the whole Engine, which hovers around $15, but I got us a clasp for under a dollar. I remember when Contagion Engine was a limited bomb that lost its value as soon as the draft ended – how times have changed.
There are some other ways to augment our counters, so let’s dig into those. What is this in the ship metaphor? Some kind of boat wax? I really do not know how boats work.
It turns out that 1/1 is the exact right size for Skeleton Ship and our Tim squad to pick off unsuspecting creatures, and with all our untapping shenanigans, it shouldn’t be too hard to wipe someone’s board. Mass Diminish has Flashback, so don’t feed it to Disciple of the Ring!
Our budget doesn’t really leave room for Blowfly Infestation or Crumbling Ashes, but we can still play Nest of Scarabs, everyone’s third favorite black enchantment having to do with -1/-1 counters. A 1/1 token might not seem like a big deal, but that’s not the point – it’s when you get into double digits that things really start to tick.
This augments not just Skeleton Ship, but all of our targeted effects – opposing creatures become incredibly vulnerable to our many activations once this is on the battlefield. Even “untap another target permanent” becomes deadly with Dismiss into Dream on the battlefield.
Less augmentation, more backup – Fevered Convulsions helps get the proliferate train rolling using any extra mana we might have lying around.
Sometimes a few pings isn’t enough and you need to clear a path. Combined with our many untappers, these two can destroy tokens, clog up an opponent’s hand and force them to discard useful assets, or blank an incoming attack. Our creatures aren’t about brawling, so that’s necessary sometimes.
Now that we’ve covered the cargo, let’s go over the rigging – everything in the deck that helps ensure smooth sailing.
Card draw is a must, and while we have an okay amount already, more ways to smooth things out can’t hurt. Underworld Connections is particularly sweet with our three “untap target permanent” effects, allowing us to dig deeper into our deck, while the two sorceries provide additional selection via scry and surveil.
While this whole deck is predicated around destroying creatures, that doesn’t mean we can forego removal altogether. Tragic Slip is particularly sweet as we’re likely to be able to kill something on most turns, while Never // Return is largely here to take out pesky planeswalkers and Reality Shift serves to eliminate something big and indestructible that would take too long to proliferate to death.
I’ve mentioned before that this deck isn’t here to brawl, so a couple of ways to deal with large attacking forces are necessary. One or two creatures should be manageable most of the time, but when things get out of hand, this is what we need.
While it’s a lot more costly than Damnation in the mana department, forty cents isn’t too much to pay for a wrath budget-wise, and having access to a real board wipe is important.
We don’t use the graveyard much, so wide-angle graveyard hate is totally fine.
I prefer 2-cost mana rocks where possible these days, but cards like Arcane Signet, Thought Vessel, and even Dimir Signet don’t really fit our budget. Mind Stone sneaks in under a dollar, so it makes the cut alongside the two 3-cost Dimir rocks.
That’s it for the noncreatures – we’ve spent $36.25 so far, leaving a solid amount of room for the manabase. I guess the lands represent our treasure map, as we sail the planeswalking seas of the multiverse looking for plunder. Anyway, here’s the manabase:
Dual lands that enter untapped, or at least ones with a chance to do so, are a rarity in the budget world, so let’s celebrate these two wonderful lands as they keep us playing spells on curve.
Of course, we still need some duals, so we accept the ones that come in untapped even if they’re totally devoid of helpful text. I appreciate gaining a life or getting a Scry 1 where I can, but sometimes that’s not how it works out.
This is similar to a dual land, but you get to proliferate it, which means all the fun of storing up unused mana gets even more fun as you accrue interest.
This is about as much as our budget can handle in the fetchland department, but note that, since Skeleton Ship requires us to have a proper Island on the battlefield, these have a little extra utility.
I love cycling lands, and even in budget decks, it’s important to find room for these.
Before we get into basics, let’s round things out with utility lands. Ghost Quarter and Bojuka Bog are here to provide some hate for nonbasics and graveyards respectively, while Karn’s Bastion adds some extra proliferation. Detection Tower beat out Glaring Spotlight by virtue of being easy to sneak into the manabase – we can’t beat shroud, but hexproof is more common anyway.
Add in 14 Islands and 7 Swamps and you’ve got yourself a deck! Next time, we’ll tackle some fearsome and terrible Rakdos commander as we continue this series. If you have suggestions, or if you want to share your own Skeleton Ship list, sound off in the comments! Speaking of decklists, here’s mine, but not before a quick plug: Commander Legends comes out on November 20th, and we’ve got it available for preorder right here at ChannelFireball.com. With 71 new legends, it’s sure to have a huge impact on Commander games, and the draft format looks sweet even from the very little information we have. I preordered a few boxes myself, and if you’re interested, you should do the same while you can!