Called Again, The Second Leg of the Journey
Welcome to my second series of Commander articles for A Hero’s Journey. If you’ve been around for a while, you might have read my first article series about Rhys the Redeemed. For those of you who are new, let me give you a bit of an overview of what you’ll be seeing in the next few weeks. When I started writing articles several weeks ago, I was completely new to the Commander format. At this point, though I’ve played for about a month, I’m still fairly inexperienced with the format. My goal with these articles is to choose a particular Commander and playtest with that Commander exclusively for at least a month. These articles will catalogue my experiences with the deck, how my evaluation of certain cards shift and change, and how the deck itself evolves over time.
That’s enough of an overview for now. Let’s get to my second Commander selection: Thraximundar. For those who have been following my previous articles, this may seem like a strange choice. In terms of deck function, these two Commanders seem to be polar opposites. Honestly, that is part of the appeal: taking a completely different tact and essentially being on the other side of the table. That said, there are some interesting parallels between these two decks. For one, both of them can be very Commander-dependent. Rhys decks are built to take advantage of his second ability, and are not operating at their fullest capacity unless Rhys is out on the field. Thraximundar decks often try to win through Commander damage, and thus this deck is also highly dependent on the Commander as a win condition. Thraximundar also represents the remaining portion of the color pie: Grixis. I mentioned at the start of my Rhys series that my favorite colors were Green and White. Here’s another personal tidbit for you: my favorite shard is Grixis. That may seem strange, but you have to admit there’s something deliciously twisted about those three colors together.
Back on the topic of the article series itself, I would like to do a few things differently as I proceed from this point. My previous articles were presented with a few features in mind: card evaluations, game walk-throughs, and various asides about the Commander format in general (no pun intended). While those aspects will still be present, there are a few other features I’d like to add. First, I want to spend more time addressing different builds of the deck. Key to the success of Commander as a format is that even for the same Commander deck builds can vary widely. Secondly, rather than simply cutting and replacing cards, I plan to present a list of potential test-worthy cards that make it into one or two games with the deck to see whether they are viable, and to present you with a wider spectrum of potential adds to the deck. I’ve also been recording my wins/losses, and I’ll be keeping track of those along with (for those games that I win) what “path to victory” I used to get the win.
A Team Effort, Attacking from Multiple Angles
I may be relatively new to Commander, but by no means does this characterize the players around me. For many of them, Commander is the ONE. In other words, the primary reason that they play Magic. For that reason, it would be foolish of me to disregard any advice they would be so kind as to give. One of them has done a bit of preliminary work with a Thraximundar deck which I would like to analyze and incorporate into my own experiences. You, the reader, benefit from receiving multiple perspectives, and the deck itself should benefit overall from more frequent and varied testing.
Here’s the decklist that I am starting with:
As you can perhaps see, the list is simple and straightforward. It contains a few Commander staples, but overall the deck is fairly budget. As mentioned before, this will change gradually as the deck evolves, but I prefer to start simple and work my way up.
My friend, who has been playing Commander for much longer, has a deeper Commander pool and is playing a slightly different build. Even so, I found that their approach to the deck was quite similar to my own (perhaps because we both started with the same list). For the sake of the article, I’m going to call this friend Anomander. Not because that is their name, but because I’m a Malazan Book of the Fallen fan.
“The first build was centered on Thaximundar and was very dependent on good draws and ramp to drop him out fast, protect him, and end the game. It ran a lot of equipment/artifacts and no enchantment removal.”
This is a fairly straightforward presentation of Thraximundar, and as good a place as any to start. The object here is to play Thraximundar early, throw a Whispersilk Cloak or Lightning Greaves on him, and start beating. Cards like Aggravated Assault or Fireshrieker are intended to let you blow out your opponents in one or two attacks. In this build, Thraximundar is acting as your finisher, which makes sense, considering his mana cost. Unlike a cheaper Commander (such as, say, Rhys) you are not playing him very early and each successive death makes it more and more likely that you will not be winning the game.
Let’s say that Thraximundar decks come in four different flavors (because lists are fun!):
Voltron: Commander-centric, uses Equipment, Boost, and extra combat steps to force damage through. It is built to be aggressive and win fast games. It gets progressively weaker the longer the game lasts.
Midrange Synergy: This build can work late game, and is dependent on combos and card advantage. It will function like a “toolbox” that has answers to a variety of situations.
Sacrifice: All about sacrifice for profit, this build will attempt to take advantage of as many sacrifice effects as possible to generate card advantage. It will have multiple sacrifice-engines, creatures that won’t stay in the graveyard, and blue tricks that steal cards from your opponents. All this sacrificing also serves to boost Thraximundar.
Zombie Tribal: This is a more casual build, and it attempts to take advantage of the fact that Thraximundar is a zombie. There are some interesting cards for this build, like Call to the Grave from M12. It may be more viable with the release of Innistrad.
Now that you see those, it should be fairly clear which archetype this current build falls in, right? Well, perhaps not. To my mind, the current deck looks like a cross between the Voltron-aggressive build, and the Sacrifice build. This presents a bit of a problem, since it dilutes the synergy of the deck as it is trying to be more than one thing at once. The deck has a lot of equipment and ways to pump up Thraximundar. It also has a variety of sacrifice effects. Nearly every card in the deck that is not equipment or pump has some kind of sacrifice text or benefit. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, one thing I have noticed is that since the deck is missing certain ramp strategies, most of the sacrifice effects do not generate enough card advantage to justify them. Since Thraximundar often sits in the Command Zone for most of the game, he is certainly not profiting from them. The fact that Thraximundar is played late also decreases the value of the Equipment cards, which are just dead weight without a Commander to attach them to.
Here are the weaknesses, as I see them, of the current build:
- Insufficient Mana Ramp
- Lack of tutor effects
- Inconsistent Mana Base
- Dependent on artifacts/enchantments for card advantage and ramp
In regards to the first point, one of the most glaring absences you may have noted in the deck is Cabal Coffers, which is conspicuously missing. The more I play with this deck, the more that I realize that the Coffers is absolutely essential. Trying to alleviate this absence with Magus of the Coffers is simply not enough (though the two together seems like it would be a very beautiful thing). Other forms of ramp in the deck include Sol Ring, Basalt Monolith, and Worn Powerstone. Part of the lack of more efficient forms of ramp derives from my own currently limited card pool. Anomander (my Commander friend, remember) warned me that removing staples such as Mana Crypt (among others) would slow the deck down considerably. He has been proven right.
There are also very few ways to retrieve specific cards from the deck, a feat at which black should excel. At the moment, the deck is limited to one Liliana Vess for traditional tutor action, and several transmute cards (the most notable being Dimir House Guard). One card that has been performing quite well is Godo, Bandit Warlord. A fantastic Commander in his own right, he also makes a great enabler for Thraximundar. Not only does he grab equipment which can be used to give Thraximundar the boost you need to win, but he also provides additional combat steps. This can be especially useful if you have a Minamo, School at Water’s Edge out to untap your Commander for a second (and hopefully lethal) attack.
The mana base is more difficult to solve, since playing with multiple colors often boils down to how many dual lands you can afford. The principal issue with the deck is the following: it is too dependent on artifacts/enchantments for card advantage and ramp. What this means is that the deck is especially vulnerable to artifact/enchantment removal. An Aura Shards or a Oblivion Stone can completely wreck us.
Let’s get to a few games so you can see for yourself how the deck performed. Afterwards, we can see if we can address a few of these issues.
Practical Experience, Test Driving Thraximundar
When I first start testing a deck, I like to do it with a group of people that I know. The reason being that you can artificially lengthen the game longer than it might normally last if everyone was playing as cutthroat as possible. While this strategy does not necessarily give you the greatest idea of the competitiveness of your deck, it does give you a chance to look at things like tempo, synergy, and card evaluation. Unfortunately, when I signed on to Magic Online only two others were available to play, so we had to include the dreaded “fourth”. If you’ve ever brought a stranger into your play group, maybe you have been on the receiving end of the following scenario. My bosom companions were playing Jhoira of the Ghitu, and Phelddagrif. The extra person who joined the game was playing Azami, Lady of Scrolls. I’ve played against this Commander multiple times, and it can definitely be a beating. Even so, of the Commanders that were being played, I was most concerned with Jhoira.
My Thraximundar deck starts out rather slow. Most of the early turns is dedicated to setting up the mana base, maybe tossing a few equipments to the battlefield, and generally trying to make my board as favorable as possible for a potential Thraximundar drop. Turn 4 and things pick up. The Jhoira player casts a Show and Tell, and everyone gets a chance to play a creature from their hand. I cast a Sengir Nosferatu, which while not particularly exciting is nevertheless a very flavorful card (if that’s a consideration for anyone besides myself). Azami plays a Magus of the Future, Hippo (easier to type, and more amusing) whiffs with an Eternal Witness and an empty graveyard. And the Jhoira opponent plays a Blightsteel Colossus. That’s not exactly my idea of taking it easy. Around this time the Azami opponent begins to feel like the odd man out. Up to this point, there was never any indication that the rest of us were acquainted, and generally speaking, I prefer to keep it that way; the fact that this is often possible is one of the dubious benefits of Magic Online. However, one of them mentions that we know each other, and jokingly tells the fourth player that they are doomed as a result. Clearly, they took this prediction to heart.
My vampire is currently tapped, but I have two mana open. My thought is that if the Jhoira opponent decides to attack, I can turn my Nosferatu into a bat and block. I’ll lose my creature permanently and take some poison damage, but at least I’ll be alive. To my mind, there was really no compelling reason to hold back with the Vampire, since if the Jhoira opponent has any means of getting past the bat, they would have been able to get past the Vampire as well and I’d like to draw a card off my Mask of Riddles. When the turn comes back to the Jhoira player, they attack the Azami player instead. I will freely admit that this looks suspicious, since I am the only player currently with an open board. When the Azami player indignantly points this out, I mention that I was not as vulnerable as I appeared, since I could make a bat. Their follow-up is that they were planning to remove my bat if that were the case in order to ensure my demise. It seems to me like I’m more of a victim of opponent-collaboration here, but that’s beside the point I suppose. Regardless, Azami blocks and goes to nine poison counters (on Magic Online, that’s one poison counter away from death). The Jhoira opponent then casts their Commander and passes. On my turn immediately after, I cast Slave of Bolas on Blightsteel Colossus. My honest intention was to attack the Jhoira player with their own Blightsteel, in order to force them to block with Jhoira of the Ghitu or die to poison damage. However, Azami decides that I’m obviously out to get him, and counters my spell. Immediately after preventing (what he thought) was his death, he concedes the game anyway and spends the next ten minutes berating us like children for “ganging” up on him.
At this point, you might be wondering about the Hippo opponent. They are playing what they styled a “Group Hug” deck, which means that they are playing spells that “help” their opponents. For instance, the Hippo opponent had earlier played a Howling Mine and a Heartwood Storyteller. Now, you might notice that all of these cards are beneficial to every opponent. There’s not even the vaguest hint of favoritism here. However, before the Azami player leaves, he complains that it’s a deck that is designed to support it’s allies (meaning myself and Jhoira). The reason I share this story is manifold. For one, to interject a bit of dramatic tension into this article. For another, because I find this scenario amusing (in hindsight). But also to demonstrate that the human element does in fact exist on Magic Online. Regardless, after the Azami player leaves, we continue on with the game and actually have a much more entertaining time. At this point, however, I have nearly accepted the inevitability of Jhoira’s victory, since he can now untap and start suspending bombs. He proceeds to do this, but I manage to remove the Jhoira as well as his suspended creatures when they eventually appear. At some point I play Myojin of Night’s Reach and cause both of my opponents to discard. It’s not as effective as it might be, since everyone is drawing extra cards thanks to Howling Mine, but it buys me some time. Blatant Thievery then proceeds to steal it, along with a Karn Liberated played by Hippo. The game does not last very long at this point. In the interests of full disclosure, between the Hippo player and myself, we have a reasonable chance of coming back. In fact, my board position begins to look rather impressive. However, Jhoira has been exiling cards from his (and my) hand using Karn, and through a mistake Hippo makes (read: forgets to attack Karn), the Jhoira opponent restarts the game with a Kozilek, Butcher of Truth and a Arcanis the Omnipotent on the board. Naturally, we concede graciously.
Back in the Shop, What We Learned
I’ve played several other games besides this one, however from this singular experience we can still draw several conclusions. One of the events you might have noticed that I did not mention was the presence of Thraximundar. That’s because I never played him this game. In my opinion, if you are playing Commander and you do not get an opportunity to cast your Commander, the deck (or the pilot) is doing something incorrectly. As of this one game, you could chalk up this failure to either. That said, it has been my experience in the other games that I have played that I rarely, if ever, have an opportunity to play Thraximundar. That is not to say that I lack the ability; I often have the mana. One thing that I have noticed about Thraximundar in particular is that he naturally draws a lot of hate. This is true of Commanders as a group, however I have noticed that my opponents often have an especial fear of Thraximundar coming down. This was not the case with Rhys, which might often be left unprotected on my side of the board for long periods of time. Likely the reason boils down to the function of each of these Commanders. When Thraximundar comes down, your opponents assume that you have a means of winning with him either that turn, or very shortly afterwards. The result of this is that I find that it’s not useful to play Thraximundar unless you have A) a way to protect him, and also B) a way to boost him up for an attack. Setting those two things up is not easy, so more than often Thraximundar just sits inconsolably in the Command Zone, waiting for a call that never comes.
In order to solve this issue, we’re going to have to decide on an archetype and run with it. Just playing good cards in the Grixis colors is not going to cut it. Between the Voltron and the Sacrifice builds, I think the latter has the most staying power. In that spirit, we’ll proceed in that direction from this point forward. Expect to see big changes to the deck for the next article. As always, your comments and suggestions are encouraged and much appreciated. Until next week.