This entry is part 8 of 37 in the series Generally Speaking

By Imshan AKA Sinis

While playing Commander, many players find their decks focusing strongly around a single card that isn’t their general.  Cabal Coffers is perhaps the most notorious example.  Players first begin with Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth so that they can continue playing with a high number of non-basic lands, and eventually travel that dark road all Commander players inevitably walk down: we then start to play with Expedition Map to find Cabal Coffers, Deserted Temple to untap it, Vesuva to have another one, Petrified Field to retrieve it once someone has strip mined it, and we finally arrive at Grim Discovery, thinking that it’s worthwhile to have a Raise Dead that digs up our beloved Coffers also.

Often, it’s only once we’ve included Grim Discovery that we really realize what we’ve been doing, partly because it’s the first non-land card explicitly included to protect Cabal Coffers.  Once we realize that, it’s a quick look back up the road to see that we’ve begun to play cards that aren’t really all that great, but for the wealth of mana Cabal Coffers creates.  Exsanguinate is not a terribly exciting card until you power it with Cabal Coffers.  It probably wouldn’t have taken Profane Command’s spot, if it were not for the fact that a larger amount of mana makes Exsanguinate a game closer instead of a makeshift Kokusho, the Evening Star.  A retrospective on games we’ve played also reveals that game play has also been usurped by that land; we think back, and count the number of times we’ve used a versatile search card like Demonic Tutor to find Coffers, an enabler like Urborg, or a duplicator, like Deserted Temple.

The influence on deckbuilding that Cabal Coffers creates is well documented, yet, Cabal Coffers is not the only card that warps deck construction.  What Coffers does for mana, Consecrated Sphinx does for card draw.  Just as Cabal Coffers, Consecrated Sphinx’s influence on deckbuilding also comes in stages, which I present to you here.  Also like Cabal Coffers, once a player has enjoyed the power of the Sphinx for a few games it’s often hard to step back and re-examine how their play has changed to better accommodate the singular powerful card that the deck becomes so warped around.

Stage 1: Optimism
This stage is defined by the mere inclusion of Consecrated Sphinx in a frequently played deck.  The Sphinx player believes that there’s some sweet card advantage, and that it lets them find those answers and threats they need to win the game.  They play it, and then almost inscrutably, they win a disproportionate number of those games.  When the Sphinx player resolves it and it sticks for a few turns, their confidence shows and they become more animated as the cards begin to fill their hand.  This is perhaps the most innocent experience with the Consecrated Sphinx a player will ever have; it’s part of the 99 card main deck, but it’s not central to the deck.  It’s powerful like other extreme value-generating creatures like Primeval Titan, but if it isn’t drawn, it’s no biggie, the rest of the deck runs on its own, with yet another really powerful card lurking within.  To the Sphinx player in this stage, it’s just a roll of the dice and every game is new.

Stage 2: Paranoia
Frustrated by removal spells destroying their Consecrated Sphinx in even a casual metagame, the Sphinx player resorts to pitch counterspells and other defenses like Foil, Force of Will, Misdirection, and eventually Commandeer.  Unlike Cabal Coffers, Consecrated Sphinx does not provide an immediate undeniable benefit, and the destruction of a Sphinx is an enormous tempo loss.  The reasoning behind pitch counterspells is simple; the longer the Sphinx can remain on the table, the greater the chances that any card disadvantage from pitch spells will be entirely mitigated by the Sphinx itself.  Cards like Foil become more powerful as islands and other cards accumulate in the Sphinx player’s hand with nothing to do.  With enough free counterspells — pitch or otherwise — the Sphinx remains indefinitely, and pays for itself in full.  The Sphinx player may even go so far as to attempt to deceive themselves, thinking that these cards are very useful outside of the context of protecting the Sphinx, but in practice even though these cards are situationally useful or even very powerful in their own right, they often reserved for protecting their Sphinx over any other permanent they have, including their general.

Stage 3: Dependence
In this stage, Consecrated Sphinx becomes something of a crutch.  No longer content to dig for threats, answers and combo pieces, the Sphinx player begins to play with Reliquary Tower if they haven’t already.  The reasoning is once again simple; what might happen if you drew an answer, discarded it, and then needed it later?  Notably in this stage, Sphinx players also begin to play tutors for their card draw pet.  The onset of this stage may see Ethereal Usher as the only tutor for mono-blue decks, but things quickly progress further as they change their general to one with green in the colour identity, and begin playing with Worldly Tutor, Primal Command, Fierce Empath and Brutalizer Exarch.  Some go so far as to play Momir Vig, Simic Visionary as their general, and cannot see the forest for the trees while they tutor for Consecrated Sphinx instead of assembling combo pieces and winning the game.

With the inclusion of green in their deck, the Sphinx player also includes Seedborn Muse.  Not content to be afforded only protection from free counterspells described in the previous stage, the Sphinx player uses Seedborn Muse to create a game-state where they have mana open to counter every spell that threatens their precious flying boat of cards.  This part of the dependence stage is vicious; with Seedborn Muse, the Sphinx player can even hard-cast their pitch counterspells, as they untap all their lands each turn.  Bear Umbra is another card that the Sphinx player might turn to.  It’s almost as good as Seedborn Muse, but it doubles as protection for the Sphinx.

This stage is also the first in which behavioural changes appear in the opponents of a Sphinx player.  Opponents of a Sphinx player deep in this stage begin including Jester’s Cap effects like Extract, Bitter Ordeal, and Sadistic Sacrament, and always target the Sphinx player when they’re playing a general with blue in the colour identity.  Opponents with generals in the black and blue identity may be running Praetor’s Grasp and Bribery, as well.

Stage 4: Addiction
This stage is marked by a near complete transformation of the deck that once merely included Consecrated Sphinx into a “Consecrated Sphinx deck”.  The Sphinx player now uses Leyline of Anticipation, Vedalken Orrery and Burgeoning.  The cumulative result of Seedborn Muse, Leyline of Anticipation/Vedalken Orrery and Burgeoning is that the Sphinx player now plays a turn on everyone else’s end step, less an attack phase.  As with the previous stage, the Sphinx player might convince themselves that the new inclusions are very good in their own right, and they would be correct when discussing Leyline of Anticipation and Vedalken Orrery.  Yet, Burgeoning seems like a poor fit in their deck; they aren’t playing land-to-hand spells like Journey of Discovery or Armillary Sphere and Burgeoning seems to do very little work for them in that rare occasion that they are without their Sphinx.

This stage also sees a final shift in the colours of the deck.  The Sphinx player turns to black, for more tutors, using The Mimeoplasm or Vorosh as their general.  Alternatively, they may add white to take advantage of a blink and Oblivion Ring-like tricks.  In response to a wrath effect, the Sphinx player might lob Oblivion Ring or Journey to Nowhere, and then bounce either of those enchantments to be the sole owner of a creature, and maintain their mountains of cards.  Bant generals tend to be finishers like Treva, the Renewer or Jenara, Asura of War, though a control piece like Angus Mackenzie is not unheard of, especially in consideration of Seedborn Muse.  In some cases, players move to a five colour general, but this is infrequent; the Sphinx player is aware of the blue card and island count for cards like Force of Will, Foil and Commandeer.

Stage 5: Grief
This stage is marked not by any changes in the deck, but with a strange behavioural void coupled with a kind of amnesia associated with the Consecrated Sphinx deck.  As with all addictions, the addict frequently does not enjoy themselves.  They feel a need, and respond to it almost mechanically.  The cheer and animated persona from the first stage is absent as the Sphinx player tutors for the Consecrated Sphinx, casts it and peels cards off the top of their deck, one after another, a furrow on their brow as though they were deep in thought.  Almost inexplicably, the Sphinx player does not enjoy playing their Consecrated Sphinx deck anymore, despite the fact they intentionally walked down a specific road to this point.

Additionally, the Sphinx player can no longer recall what their deck was supposed to do originally, or even how they got to this point.  Like the Ship of Theseus, the changes have come subtly and over time, gradually going through generals, changing other card choices, and making room for more pitch counterspells and other forms of manipulation.  The Sphinx player might quietly ask themselves “Was this really a different deck at some point?” or “Where did this general come from?”

The end of this stage is that the Sphinx deck eventually goes away, sometimes in its entirety.  The Sphinx player moves on to other commander decks. They frequently avoid the colour blue in their generals.

Unlike the regular five stages of grief, this is one gauntlet you probably don’t want the full survey of. If you find stage four appealing and suitable to your play environment, just mine this article for tech and you’ll probably enjoy yourself.  If you just play at your buddy’s dining-room table or floor and people you play with shy away from infinite combos or play a lot of theme decks, it might be a good idea to just stay at stage one where it’s great if you draw it but it’s not the nuclear reactor that your deck runs on.  More than anything, it is important to note that the fifth stage is reserved only for those who exposed themselves to that transient potential for funwrecking known as the ‘arms race’, only to have found out that they won.

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