Commander: Lands Do Matter

In many ways, Commander can be quite an unforgiving format. Whilst there are arguably more playable cards here than in any other format in Magic, the ones that are truly excellent- the Cyclonic Rifts, Tooth and Nails and Blood Moons- are both well-known and widespread, and finding cards that can compete with them is, just like any other format in Magic, a tricky business. Often the only way to find out if a card is going to be good in your Commander deck is to play it and see how it performs, and I think the same goes for the methods we use to put our decks together as a whole. Thus far in my work for this site, I’ve talked a lot of theory about how an EDH deck ought to be constructed, but theory alone is not enough. The only way to know if our deckbuilding principles are worth anything is to build decks according to them and see how satisfied we are with the results.

So today, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to walk you through my deckbuilding process from start to finish, including our choice of Commander and my reasoning for each inclusion (and some notable exclusions). If you’re a newer player to the format, I hope this will give you a kind of template to use when you’re trying to build your own deck for the first time or are struggling to cut it down to a functioning 100. If you’re an old hand at this by now I hope this walkthrough will still be useful to you in some way, if only because you learned about a couple of cards you didn’t know about before or considered a strategy from a different angle than you normally would.

Before we begin, there is one important caveat. You will notice that certain “obvious” inclusions are missing from my lists, which will usually be on the grounds of availability or price. I am not always able to track down a copy of everything that would go beautifully with a given Commander. The decks I will create in these articles with you will reflect that reality because, wherever possible, I will assemble and play with them in the real world. I’m not prepared to put my name to any deck that I wouldn’t sleeve up and rumble with at a real-life table, and that means building with the cards I’m able to acquire for myself. I believe that doing this will make me a much better deckbuilder in the long run- as Mark Rosewater likes to say, “restrictions breed creativity”- but I invite you to be the judge of that.

The first place I always begin when constructing a new Commander deck is with the commander itself, and my selection for this exercise couldn’t have been more simple. As I discussed in my previous article, the so-called “lands matter” deck of Commander 2018 turned out to be nothing of the sort: a generic ramp/midrange list missing almost all of the staples of the archetype, supported by two secondary commanders that care not a whit for lands and a plan for victory that appears to consist solely of hoping to draw and cast Worm Harvest or Avenger of Zendikar as frequently as possible. The deck did, however, give us one truly great legendary to lead us to the promised land(s-matter): Lord Windgrace!

With the king of Urborg by our side, our path is set: to take the parts of the lands theme that actually worked from the preconstructed deck, and give them the proper support and depth that Wizards chose not to do. For this version of the deck, I want to shoot for a roughly “average” power level. Whilst Lord Windgrace can absolutely be built in a way that competes with the more horrifying boogiemen of the format. When I’m starting out with a new general or building for an unknown enemy I prefer to avoid immediately becoming the Archenemy. Even when that’s not the case, I generally favour skewing a bit lower on power level than most people would and improving a deck over time. If you prefer to crush your enemies and see them driven before you, I heartily encourage you to strip out my more optimistic or questionable picks!

If we are to construct a lands-matter deck, the most logical place for us to begin is with the lands themselves. Ordinarily, I would aim for somewhere in the region of 37-39 lands in total, but things must be different here. A great amount of Windgrace’s value as a commander comes from bouncing between his +2 and -3 abilities, discarding spare lands to draw additional cards and then putting those lands back into play to fuel your win conditions. For this to work profitably, we should always try to keep a land in our hand in order to fuel that +2 whilst still playing our normal land each turn in the process. Whilst we could discard nonlands, there is significantly less value in doing so unless you’re pursuing a reanimator strategy. For this reason, we’ll devote 43 slots to our manabase, and I’m not entirely sure that’s high enough. Nineteen of them will be basic lands and fifteen more will go on dual lands of various types, with fetchlands having particular synergy with Windgrace’s minus ability.

This leaves nine spaces, all of which will be utility lands: Dust Bowl">Dust Bowl and Tectonic Edge will keep the most dangerous nonbasics off the battlefield, whilst Bojuka Bog will ensure opposing graveyards are no threat. Dakmor Salvage will slowly fill our graveyard with lands, but its real purpose is to be a land that can recur itself for Windgrace to discard every turn. We’ll need something to do with all the lands we’ll be putting into play, so Kessig Wolf Run and Westvale Abbey will let us turn that mana into powerful, repeatable threats. Memorial to Folly is an oft-overlooked card from Dominaria that’s perfect for us, bringing back our key creatures like Avenger of Zendikar, Omnath, Locus of Rage, or the Monster">The Gitrog Monster whilst putting itself in the bin for Windgrace. Forge of Heroes may seem like a very weak inclusion, but there’s a specific reason for it that we’ll discuss when we get to the other half of the “combo.” Lastly, Maze of Ith will provide some essential protection for our commander, keeping him in play once we use that -3 to put more lands into play.

 

We now have 56 cards left to choose, and I’ll break them down by their broad functions rather than card type. The first kind of effects I’m interested in are those which provide redundancy for our commander, which means getting as many lands as possible in our hand and graveyard and ways to put the lands in our graveyard back into play. The latter group is the easy part: Ramunap Excavator, Splendid Reclamation, World Shaper, The Mending of Dominaria and the obligatory Crucible of Worlds will serve our needs very nicely. For the former, I’m looking to Stitcher’s Supplier and hidden gem Dawnstrider for a cheap way of putting lands directly into our graveyard, with Worm Harvest, Borborygmos Enraged and the almighty Hypno-Toad (The Gitrog Monster) pulling double duty as both win conditions and set up for our Splendid Reclamation.

The MVP of finding lands for Windgrace, however, is the Explore mechanic from Ixalan block. Every explore (not to be confused with Explore, which we’re also playing!) will either find us a land, find us some gas, or filter our draws in the event that we need a land and there’s none on top of our library. I’m taking Deadeye Tracker, Seekers’ Squire, Jadelight Ranger, one of my favourite pet cards in Tomb Robber, and the delicious free value of Path of Discovery. I’d like to include Merfolk Branchwalker and honourary explorer Tilling Treefolk as well, but we’re chewing up space alarmingly fast. Forty slots now remain, and we can spare a bit more room for more general Landfall synergies before we have to sort out the nuts and bolts of card draw, removal and so on. For those who picked up the Nature’s Vengeance deck and were wondering if we were going to keep anything from the precon whatsoever, here is where I say some nice things about it!

Rampaging Baloths, Avenger of Zendikar, Nesting Dragon, Turntimber Sower, and Centaur Vinecrasher are all excellent at what they do, from making chump blockers to offering protection from wrath effects, recurring specific lands (Westvale Abbey!) and putting a sheer wall of power and toughness onto the battlefield. I’ve also been very impressed with Retreat to Hagra in combination with Lord Windgrace and our other land revival effects. To these, we will add Tireless Tracker and Nissa, Vital Force for card draw, Lotus Cobra for a burst of ramp, and ">Mina and Denn, Wildborn to pick up scrylands and other fun things to replay or discard to Windgrace. We’ll round out this section with two more threats that put out significant damage: Multani, Yavimaya’s Elder and Omnath, Locus of Rage.

 

 

Twenty-eight spaces remain, and the core of the deck is taking shape nicely. Now we need to make sure we survive long enough to get to our desired endgame. With all the discarding of lands I plan on doing, Archfiend of Ifnir seems reasonable to shrink opposing creatures and shore up our relative lack of flyers. The other way to solve that specific problem is to play the Whiptongue Hydra, which I dream of someday casting right after someone else’s Storm Herd. Poison-Top Archer will perform a similar function of warding off flying threats whilst also punishing anyone who would drop a wrath effect on our steadily growing token horde. Speaking of wrath effects, we need a few ways of cleaning up the board ourselves. Damnation, Phyrexian Scriptures and Dictate of Erebos will do the job nicely, and no self-respecting lands deck should ever go to battle without The Great Aurora.

Where a less…indiscriminate solution is required, we’ll rely on some of the best spot removal in the colours: Terminate, Beast Within, Putrefy, and Windgrace’s Judgment. I’d also like to test out some more unproven options that haven’t had much of the limelight yet: Broken Bond is an Explore variant that naturalizes instead of draw a card, and By Force will blow up a great many artefacts without torching half the Boros player’s mana in the process.

Now that we’re down to the last fifteen to twenty cards or so, I like to take a step back and see which areas of the deck need a little extra help. We’re short on “ordinary” ramp outside of Windgrace himself and similar land retrieval effects, so I’ve included Song of Freyalise to pair with all the tokens we’ll be putting out, Pir’s Whim to find whatever silver bullet we require, and Sol Ring. I want a little more recursion for our most valuable creatures, where Regrowth and Meren of Clan Nel Toth will do great service. I’m a big fan of using Abundance to fuel Lord Windgrace’s +2 ability or guarantee you’ll draw spells at the moment you really don’t want to see any more lands. I’m also a little concerned we don’t have enough defensive tools available- the locals here in Sheffield like to Craterhoof Behemoth early and often- so I’ll reserve a few spaces for Runic Armasaur, Verdant Sun’s Avatar and Tangle.

Wait a second. Tangle? Why not Constant Mists, I hear you asking?

Here’s the thing. Objectively, Constant Mists is the pick here. It is outstanding with Windgrace in play, protecting him whilst he builds to his ultimate and making sure you will never run out of lands to sacrifice. Even if you have to cast Mists multiple times in a turn cycle, you should have nothing to fear with your commander in play. So why aren’t we running it? The short answer is that it’s also completely miserable to play against. If you aren’t playing countermagic, it is likely that the average EDH deck simply will not be able to answer Mists effectively once you pair it with Windgrace. In more competitive metagames such tactics are par for the course (and that’s fine!) but my local groups would tar and feather me if I tried to permanently shut down their combat phase. This matters because, as I have said before, Commander is one of the few formats where your opponents’ fun is just as important as your own, and I’d prefer not to win at the expense of my friends enjoying themselves.

 

That being said, we do need to win the game somehow. Relying on an assortment of midrange value creatures, however powerful, will only take us so far. For our final picks, let’s take the gloves off a little: Purphoros, God of the Forge, Army of the Damned, Avacyn’s Judgment and Comet Storm will shred the life totals of our foes once Windgrace’s ramp engine has been running for a while, and Doubling Season takes everything we’re doing and kicks it into overdrive. It’s also part of a fun interaction with that Forge of Heroes we kept in: ordinarily, Lord Windgrace can’t immediately use his final ability even when you cast him into a Doubling Season, but so do with Forge in play and you can start blowing up permanents and making cats by the dozen, and Windgrace will even go back to the command zone to do it again next turn!

At this point, I’m sure some of you will be wondering why a few of the usual staples are suspiciously absent. So before I post the final decklist, I want to offer a bit more insight into the cards I didn’t choose. In certain cases, it was just a matter of space. I’d have loved to fit in Dark Salvation or Lavalanche, but I couldn’t justify them over any of the similar effects that we’re already including. Obviously, I have also excluded most of the best tutors. I have mixed feelings about tutor-heavy decks in Commander, and I’ll talk about that properly another time. In this case, though, the real reason is that I’m simply playing those cards in other decks at the moment. The same applies to the more generically good staples like Genesis Wave, Eternal Witness, Vandalblast, or Torment of Hailfire. These are all excellent cards and would undoubtedly make this a more optimised build, but I just wanted to do something a little different this time. As the inclusion of Purphoros and Doubling Season shows I’m certainly not above picking the low-hanging fruit, and if I owned a Dark Depths I’d absolutely be dropping as many Marit Lages on people as I possibly could.

Here’s the final decklist:

Commander (1)
Lord Windgrace

Planeswalkers (1)
Nissa, Vital Force

Creatures (27)
Deadeye Tracker
Stitcher’s Supplier
Dawnstrider
Lotus Cobra
Seekers’ Squire
Jadelight Ranger
Ramunap Excavator
Runic Armasaur
Tireless Tracker
Tomb Robber
Turntimber Sower
Centaur Vinecrasher
Meren of Clan Nel Toth
Mina and Denn, Wildborn
Poison-Tip Archer
Purphoros, God of the Forge
World Shaper
Archfiend of Ifnir
Nesting Dragon
The Gitrog Monster
Multani, Yavimaya’s Avatar
Rampaging Baloths
Whiptongue Hydra
Avenger of Zendikar
Omnath, Locus of Rage
Verdant Sun’s Avatar
Borborygmos Enraged

Sorceries (11)
By Force
Avacyn’s Judgment
Broken Bond
Explore
Regrowth
Damnation
Pir’s Whim
Splendid Reclamation
Worm Harvest
Army of the Damned
The Great Aurora

Instants (7)
Comet Storm
Tangle
Terminate
Beast Within
Putrefy
Realms Uncharted
Windgrace’s Judgment

Enchantments (8)
Song of Freyalise
Retreat to Hagra
Abundance
Path of Discovery
Phyrexian Scriptures
Doubling Season
Dictate of Erebos
The Mending of Dominaria

Artefacts (2)
Sol Ring
Crucible of Worlds
Lands (43)
Command Tower
Reflecting Pool
Savage Lands
Blood Crypt
Overgrown Tomb
Stomping Ground
Cinder Glade
Smoldering Marsh
Woodland Cemetery
Temple of Malady
Temple of Abandon
Bloodstained Mire
Wooded Foothills
Evolving Wilds
Terramorphic Expanse
Maze of Ith
Dakmor Salvage
Bojuka Bog
Memorial to Folly
Kessig Wolf Run
Forge of Heroes
Westvale Abbey
Tectonic Edge
Dust Bowl
11 Forest
Mountain
Swamp

Whatever issues we may have had with this year’s Commander decks as a whole, there is real power to be found in the new planeswalker commanders. I think Lord Windgrace has real staying power in the format, and players will soon learn to beware this particular black cat crossing their path. When next we meet the Guilds of Ravnica will be almost upon us, and I’ll be back soon to talk about the ups and downs of running a two-colour deck in Commander.

Until then, may you always be the one in command!

 

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