This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Community Contribution

By DAVID aka kraus911
I’m coming up on a year of playing Magic, mostly pauper format on MTGO and Commander with real cards. I do alright in pauper. It’s one versus one and the computer keeps track of a lot of the details. But Commander is dizzying to a fairly new player, and as much as I love the format, I’m slow and not very skilled. As you know, there are hundreds of well-designed decklists and cleverly written articles about Commander all over the internet. I can’t offer anything like that. What I can offer is the story of my growth as a Magic player and the results of applying the wisdom of others to my own foolish enterprises. I think there is knowledge to be gained from witnessing someone struggle through the learning process, which is the main reason I’m recording my misadventures here.

I shuffled my cards somewhat clumsily, excitement making my fingers tingle. It had been almost a month since I’d last played Commander, and I was sitting down to a duel using the Karador, Ghost Chieftain deck I’d been working on. I had a secret plan to alter it and give it a ‘Batman’ theme: Karador would be my Bat-Signal, my graveyard would be the Batcave, and I’d cast various Batman characters from the Batcave. More on the theme later, but for now let’s just say I was psyched to see my baby in action.

My opening hand had a Demonic Tutor and an Eladamri’s Call in it. I couldn’t help but smile at all the things I could do. Oh the power, the potential! I got a Swamp down on turn one, and a Kor Haven down on turn two. I slapped that Demonic Tutor down on the table and prepared to fetch something evil from my deck. I decided to get… and suddenly my smile was gone. I tried to think of the win conditions I had in my deck (there were many – alarm bell number one) and of the best route to getting there, and I was drawing a blank. I tried to smile at the other player as if I was just taking my time ironing out the details of my plan, but the truth was Batman was bound for defeat. It was like the ending scene of one of the old TV episodes: Batman is moving down the conveyor belt toward a rampaging buzzsaw, and you’re wondering how he’s going to get out of this one. Well in my case there was no need to wonder. I ate that saw full in the face.

It would have been a tough game regardless, my opponent had a powerful deck that exploded onto the battlefield, but I crippled myself with too many options and too little consistency. As I often do after playing someone more experienced than myself, I asked her to take a look at my deck and see if she had any suggestions. She flipped through the cards, mentioned that I needed more ramp, then set the stack on the table and asked me a pointed question: “What does your deck do? “

“Well,” I sputtered, “it plays Haakon, Stromgald Scourge from the graveyard and then I can cast these knight-themed cards and changeling cards from the graveyard… and then it has some token producers and I can use Mirror Entity to take advantage of Knight Exemplar and make all my tokens big and indestructible… and I have these persist creatures that combo with Melira, Sylvok Outcast… and Juniper Order Ranger, who happens to be a knight… and I can use Blasting Station to kill the table with the persist creatures… or I can use Blasting Station with Reveillark and Karmic Guide… or I can cycle Reveillark and Karmic Guide with Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter to make him infinitely huge… or I can use Sun Titan and Saffi Eriksdotter to accomplish the same infinite sacrifice cycle… and I have Falkenrath Noble who can take advantage of a recursion cycle to kill the table and give me infinite life…” My voice trailed off as I saw she wasn’t impressed.

She then pointed out that I had elements of a combo deck, elements of a token deck and elements of a grindy deck all squished together. In our two games I had managed to get pieces of each out, but by the time I was close to assembling a complete win condition she just bulldozed me.

Now a duel isn’t always a fair test of a Commander deck, especially if it’s built to grind out during a long 4-player game. I’d played one other game with the deck that was a multiplayer game, and I actually won that one. But between my opponent’s observations, and my own indecision over what to do with two tutors in my opening hand, it was clear the deck needed work. I thought that multiple win conditions made my deck stronger, but it filled it with cards that didn’t synergize or move the path of my win forward. This is what is good about putting any Commander deck to the duel test. All the focus is on what your deck can do in response to someone else, there are no other players to handle problem permanents or spells. There’s no convincing your opponent to attack the other guy. Whether or not your deck is good in duels, playing a duel with it quickly shows you how well its engine works.

Back to Batman. He was supposed to be the driving theme of my deck. Who is one of the most intense and focused superheroes you can think of? Can you imagine Batman pausing in the midst of a battle to decide whether to throw a batarang that would hit the guy from behind, drop him with a flying kick, or use a gas capsule to confuse him? Yeah. I wasn’t exactly paying homage to the Dark Knight with my deckbuilding skills. And the truth of the matter was that I hadn’t so much built a deck as much as I had amalgamated cool themes of other WBG decks into a Frankenstein’s monster, and I wasn’t supposed to be building a zombie deck. A zombie Batman deck might be interesting, but that’s a project for another time.

As part of my journey with Karador, I want to explain how I got my decklist. Deckbuilding is somewhat of a mystery to me. I imagine veteran Magic players with binders full of cards that they comb for inspiration when building their Commander works of art. I decided on Karador after choosing my colors. I needed black and white for Batman’s dark version of good, and green would provide me with ramp and creature tutor. Karador’s ability just happened to have a ‘call Batman from the Batcave’ flavor to it and the decision to have him helm the deck made itself. I picked a few other cards that I knew I wanted, like Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter who just happens to be a vampire vigilante. Then I hit the internet for ideas.

There was a discussion of net-decking at a recent gaming night, and one of the players mused that net-decking makes no sense in Commander since it’s the best format for personal expression, for making the deck that you want to make. That’s all well and good, but when your work of art consistently gets trounced at the game tables, the idea of being handed something competent from the beginning is pretty attractive. (I bought the Kaalia pre-constructed deck thinking it would be exactly that – a deck for a beginner player made by an experienced brewer, but it was more like a sampler box of chocolates when what I needed was all caramel-pecan. The pre-cons showed what you could do in Commander: a little of this, and a little of that, and isn’t this a cute mechanic? But despite each deck having an overall theme, they aren’t focused and a lot of the cards are just subpar. As many have said before, they’re good to play against each other, but need tuning to perform at a typical Commander table.)

I didn’t want my Karador deck to be a carbon-copy of someone else’s, but I also wanted it to be something viable. So I cut and pasted elements that spoke to me from various decklists, which is how I ended up with three decks in one. I imagine that some of the gurus of Magic out there could handle building a workable token/combo/grind deck. It would probably be a complicated thing made smooth by a player’s experience. But I’m a novice. You might point out that Batman indeed has a mixture of many different fighting techniques, but he honed each one on its own before incorporating it into his signature style. So on to the honing!

To begin with I need to choose a clear strategy for my deck. One of the first elements I took from other Karador lists I found was a set of infinite combos. I love combo during the building stage of a deck. Looking at the cards and seeing how they work with each other to often unintended effect is incredibly satisfying to me. At one point I couldn’t understand how someone could put both Reveillark and Karmic Guide in a deck, and then not add Goblin Bombardment (assuming they have red). Then I won a game with those three cards. I have to admit it was pretty exciting getting the combo set up… I even had a Grand Abolisher on the table to protect myself as I dropped the bomb. But after that win I didn’t really have a desire to try to do it again in the next game. Especially since it would probably mean me getting hit in the face pretty hard early game by three other players who didn’t want me to do it again either. Yup, I did it, but it didn’t feel like a WIN! And I learned if you’re a known combo-player you have to negotiate aggression from other players, in and out of the game. (“Oh you’re not playing that deck again are you?!?”) Maybe as I gain more confidence and experience I’ll be up for that, but as someone who only plays a few times a month, I want my games friendly. Karador’s ability is pretty decent for a creature-based combo, but we’ll move on for now. Step away from the infinite combos.

I like the knights and tokens strategy I found for this deck: With Haakon,Stromgald Scourge on the battlefield, you can cast cards like Knight Exemplar and Mirror Entity from your graveyard, pumping up your tokens and making them indestructible. Changeling instants like Crib Swap and Nameless Inversion can also be cast from the graveyard for some sweet removal value. Additionally, Mirror Entity helps you take advantage of token-making options that rely on tribe, like Marrow-Gnawer. I got this idea from a Teysa build that uses a Knights package and thought adding green would improve the idea with its famous ramping and token-making abilities. And who better than Karador to lead this WBG token powerhouse? Um… wait, who is that knocking on the door? Ghave? Karador’s ability is still relevant as using Buried Alive to get all your knights in the graveyard makes him cheap, and then he can be used to cast knights and token makers from the yard if Haakon gets exiled. But a token strategy wants a token-themed general, which Ghave certainly is. But I’m not getting a Batman vibe from him. Green spore-making creature that hates people? Might be a better choice for one of the Batman villains. Haakon is perfect for Batman though – a dark knight who can be cast from the graveyard/Batcave. But the token synergy that goes with him doesn’t make sense with Karador. If I try this I may have to just build a Ghave deck, or drop the green and use Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter, who certainly has some Batman flavor (whatever that is, hard stale licorice comes to mind). Tokens could be powerful, but for now it goes on the back burner.

What follows is what most people do with Karador: use his abilities to continuously recur creatures with powerful abilities. An example might be using Buried Alive to dump Eternal Witness and two other inexpensive utility creatures into the graveyard (Spike Weaver and Yavimaya Elder maybe), allowing you to cast Karador for the first time. Eternal Witness gets you Buried Alive back which you can use to go get some higher level critters like Puppeteer Clique, Woodfall Primus, and Geralf’s Messenger who will come back from the graveyard all by themselves once before needing Karador’s help. Ghave and Mikaeus, the Lunarch might have a place here to give the persist/undying gang even more resiliency without becoming a true infinite combo. Vish Kal could make his appearance as Batman, getting stronger by kicking targets for Karador into the graveyard. Some fun ideas. Time to set the foundation.

An article by Neal Talbot on Quiet Speculation makes two salient points about building a Commander deck: build to your general, and use the seven by nine rule. Building to your general doesn’t need much explanation, but the seven by nine rule is pretty interesting. In order to see a particular effect in your deck in the early game (41% chance on turn 1, 57% by turn 4), you need to have seven versions of that effect If you follow this strictly, you have nine possible effects assuming 37 lands. It’s convenient to assume your Commander has something in common with one of your functions, since you are building to his strengths. For some functions I’m going to take it even farther, using an article on Commander math from MTGSalvation by Blackjack68. He breaks down the probability of seeing a particular effect based on the number of iterations you have of it in your deck. If you have nine versions you have a 50% chance of seeing that effect in your opening hand. So for important functions, like tutoring and ramping, I’m actually switching Talbots formula around and including 9 versions of the effect. The nice thing about having 9 tutors is that I can cut back on some other functions since I have such a good chance of getting a tutor early game. More ramp spells also empties my deck of land, making it more likely that I draw what I need as the game continues.

I’m a visual person. Looking at lists of cards is fun, but it doesn’t help me get a picture of how a deck works. Previously I’ve spread my cards out on the kitchen table to visualize their interactions and organize them by function. But then I noticed that card-binder pages have 9 card slots in them. It’s like they were made for my deck-building strategy. I want to start with 37 lands, allowing that I may need to increase this depending on how consistently my ramp options establish my mana base. This gives me 4 pages of land (with one lonely land left over on an extra page). This leaves me 7 pages left to fill, with one slot already dedicated to Karador. I’ll need a page of ramp spells, a page of tutors, and a page of removal. These are the functions I want to have at least 9 of to ensure they show up early. The last 4 pages may be more mixed depending on what I else I need the deck to consistently do.

I’ve got a binder with shiny plastic sleeves ready to be filled. I’ve got a stack of potential cards to fill them. I’ve got a litmus test for each card – does it want to be cast from the graveyard or interact with the graveyard somehow? I’m ready to hole up in a dimly lit room and organize hundreds of pieces of cardboard. For my next article on building Karador I’ll have the first 7 pages filled with a defense for each card, forming the foundation and engines of my deck. I’ll also have some thoughts on what will go in the other 4 pages. Like Batman, I have a mission – to become a better deck-builder. It may not be as lofty as saving the world from evil psychotics, but a worthwhile venture.

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