Magic Gatherings #9: Themes Wrap-Up

By Harry Huberty on

About Harry Huberty

Harry blogs about games for GeeklyInc. He loves Magic: The Gathering, but he's always looking for new things to try, too. Find him on Twitter (@cutefuzzy_).


 Welcome back to Magic Gatherings!  This week we’re wrapping up our extended look at themes in Commander decks. In case you missed the previous installments, here are some links:

Part 1: Series intro, Blink, Equipment, Tokens

Part 2: Sacrifice, Artifacts, Tribal

Part 3: Ramp, Fatties, Pillowfort, Lifegain

Unburial Rites art by Ryan Pancoast

Unburial Rites art by Ryan Pancoast

Graveyard and Recursion

One of the most robust strategies in the game, graveyard themes care about everything that’s in your discard pile.  Like Ramp, Fatties, and Blink/ETB, many Commander decks use their graveyards in some fashion; it’s an important source of staying power in long multiplayer games.

There are lots of ways that can play out, though.  There cards that care about what’s in your graveyard, especially how many creatures there are.  Cards like [mtg_card]Splinterfright[/mtg_card] or [mtg_card]Ghoultree[/mtg_card] get more powerful as more things die.  (Be sure you don’t miss effects like [mtg_card]Nighthowler[/mtg_card], which counts all graveyards, or [mtg_card]Lord of Extinction[/mtg_card], which counts all card types.)  Other cards have abilities that function from the graveyard or in the graveyard: cards with Unearth (like [mtg_card]Deadbridge Goliath[/mtg_card]), for example, or cards like [mtg_card]Wonder[/mtg_card].

If you want to maximize these effects, you’ll want as many cards in your graveyard as possible.  Anything with the Dredge ability, like [mtg_card]Stinkweed Imp[/mtg_card], will let you pull it back from the graveyard at the “cost” of putting cards from your deck straight into the bin.  Other cards like [mtg_card]Mulch[/mtg_card] or [mtg_card]Grisly Salvage[/mtg_card] send cards to the graveyard as part of their effect.  A few spells like this and your graveyard will be chock full before you know it.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve already touched on graveyard themes in this column, way back when we built a Commander deck around [mtg_card]Tasigur, the Golden Fang[/mtg_card].  In that article, I talked about how the graveyard could be almost like a second hand: if you can return things from your graveyard efficiently, you can use those cards’ effects again and again.  This points to the close cousin of graveyard strategies: Recursion, or getting things back from your graveyard to use again.

There are plenty of one-shot recursion effects, of course—cards like [mtg_card]Restock[/mtg_card] or its big brother [mtg_card]Praetor’s Counsel[/mtg_card].  You can also get those effects on creatures like [mtg_card]Gravedigger[/mtg_card] or [mtg_card]Deadwood Treefolk[/mtg_card]; with just a few of those, their effects snowball, to the point where you can get almost any creature back, given time.  Putting cards straight back into play saves you the effort of casting them; these effects tend to be on spells, but powerful creatures like [mtg_card]Karmic Guide[/mtg_card] can do the work for you.  Finally, powerful commanders like [mtg_card]Alesha, Who Smiles at Death[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Karador, Ghost Chieftain[/mtg_card] represent one-card recursion engines in and of themselves.  Recursion strategies tend to work best when your creatures have enters-the-battlefield effects or death triggers: something to give you a cookie for pulling them back and casting them again and again.  Otherwise, you’ll be spending mana, but mostly spinning your wheels.

One word of caution: being too dependent on your graveyard can be a big risk.  There are lots of cards out there like [mtg_card]Relic of Progenitus[/mtg_card] or [mtg_card]Bojuka Bog[/mtg_card]—easy for your opponents to include in a deck, but powerful in shutting down graveyard fun by permanently exiling cards.

Useful Cards: [mtg_card]Boneyard Wurm[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Drakestown Forgotten[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Deadbridge Chant[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Sun Titan[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Feldon of the Third Path[/mtg_card]—like your creatures’ lives/unlives, your options here are practically endless.

Crossover Themes: Blink/ETB, Sacrifice; but almost every card type can be recurred, so graveyard themes find their ways into lots of decks incidentally.

Kalonian Hydra art by Chris Rahn

Kalonian Hydra art by Chris Rahn

+1/+1 Counters

One of the most durable tools in the Magic design toolbox is the +1/+1 counter.  These humble markers can show growth, mark change, or represent special powers—and they’re just fun to pop onto your creatures, to boot.  There are lots and lots of cards that use +1/+1 counters, so you have any number of options for incorporating them into your deck.

First, you’ll need to get some +1/+1 counters on your creatures.  Many creatures come with +1/+1 counters naturally, or add them incidentally over the course of play—creatures with the Evolve or Graft abilities, for example.  Other cards will add them for you: check out [mtg_card]Cathars’ Crusade[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Juniper Order Ranger[/mtg_card], or [mtg_card]Vigor[/mtg_card].  “Mr. Babycakes” (Forgotten Ancient) deserves special mention: he adds counters very quickly and also lets you move them around.

Then, you’ll need to get paid.  Cards that look for and care about +1/+1 counters are especially nice; oftentimes cards will grant abilities to creatures that have counters on them, like [mtg_card]Sapphire Drake[/mtg_card], or they’ll have abilities that only target creatures with +1/+1 counters, like Plaxcaster Frogling.  Sometimes cards care when they have a +1/+1 counter placed on them, like [mtg_card]Fathom Mage[/mtg_card].  Other times, you use the +1/+1 counters like an extra resource—see [mtg_card]Retribution of the Ancients[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Sage of Fables[/mtg_card], or [mtg_card]Realm Seekers[/mtg_card].

Useful Cards: [mtg_card]Oona’s Blackguard[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Rage Forger[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Master Biomancer[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Hardened Scales[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Experiment Kraj[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Death’s Presence[/mtg_card]

Crossover Themes: Tokens, Recursion (especially with Persist creatures)

Arcane Melee art by Jaime Jones

Arcane Melee art by Jaime Jones

Instants and Sorceries

Commander is often a format of permanents and board presence: cards that stay in play help increase your power, and eventually establish the advantages that can win a game against multiple opponents.  But there’s a lot of fun to be had in casting instants and sorceries—especially the huge haymaker spells that don’t often get cast in other kinds of games.  Seven-, eight-, and even nine-mana spells are in play, and they can be truly epic: try kicked [mtg_card]Rite of Replication[/mtg_card], for example, or [mtg_card]Cruel Ultimatum[/mtg_card]—and that’s not even mentioning format staples like [mtg_card]Blatant Thievery[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Insurrection[/mtg_card].

Powerful instants and sorceries are easy enough to find, but as with other themes, what you’ll really want to look for are cards that reward you for playing lots of instants and sorceries.  Those cards might make it easier to cast instants or sorceries, like [mtg_card]Goblin Electromancer[/mtg_card].  They might trigger when you cast those spells, like [mtg_card]Surrakar Spellblade[/mtg_card] or [mtg_card]Sphinx-Bone Wand[/mtg_card].  (Don’t miss more humble effects like [mtg_card]Zephyr Scribe[/mtg_card], either!)  They might increase the power of your instants and sorceries—doubling effects like [mtg_card]Mirari[/mtg_card] or [mtg_card]Djinn Illuminatus[/mtg_card] are great, and even one-shot effects like [mtg_card]Twincast[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Reverberate[/mtg_card] can be excellent.  Or they might retrieve spent spells for another go-round, like [mtg_card]Izzet Chronarch[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Mnemonic Wall[/mtg_card], or [mtg_card]Charmbreaker Devils[/mtg_card].

Oftentimes, building around a particular commander will be your invitation to add an instant and sorcery theme to your deck.  [mtg_card]Jeleva, Nephalia’s Scourge[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Melek, Izzet Paragon[/mtg_card] are both Commanders that will have you looking for the biggest spells you can cast.

Useful Cards: [mtg_card]Lunar Mystic[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Nivix Guildmage[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Cast Through Time[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Guttersnipe[/mtg_card]

Crossover Themes: Graveyard Recursion, Tokens (since many token-making spells are instants and sorceries)

Phelddagrif art by Amy Weber

Phelddagrif art by Amy Weber

Group Hug

“Group Hug” decks take advantage of the social nature of Commander’s multiplayer games.  With four or five players in the game, you don’t have to win as efficiently as possible.  Instead, group hug decks pass out free things to the table: extra cards, extra mana, or free spells, among other things.  They add cards to the table that increase players’ power symmetrically (meaning that the effects extend to all players equally).  They might even give their cards away.  This increases the fun factor for other players, and also gets the group hug player into everyone’s good graces—you’re not going to attack the player whose [mtg_card]Howling Mine[/mtg_card] is giving you extra cards every turn.

Of course, even group hug decks have to win.  There are a few cards that give you big bonuses for helping out the table, like [mtg_card]Zedruu the Greathearted[/mtg_card].  (Note that you can also combine Zedruu with things you want to give away, like [mtg_card]Steel Golem[/mtg_card].)  Most often, though, group hug decks bide their time until they draw into a combination of a few cards that let them win the game.  Or, they can sit tight while other players pick each other off, and win heads-up against the last opponent standing.

A variant of group hug is the “group slug” deck, which gives things to other players—and then punishes them for what they get.  [mtg_card]Nekusar, the Mindrazer[/mtg_card] is a marquee card for these archetypes.  With Nekusar in play, everyone can have cards—all the cards they want!—but they will suffer for it.

Useful Cards: [mtg_card]Heartbeat of Spring[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Dictate of Kruphix[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Braids, Conjurer Adept[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Meletis Charlatan[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Phelddagrif[/mtg_card]

Crossover Themes: Lifegain, Pillowfort

Around the Planes: I’ve decided to make the “hey-look-at-this-cool-Magic-thing” section of the column into a regular feature.  Look here each week to see interesting things that are going on in the world of Magic that you might have missed.

This week, we have an awesome interview with Wizards employee Allison Medwin, who contributed to “The Truth of Names,” the DailyMtG story about Alesha, the transgender Khan of Tarkir’s Mardu clan:

It’s pretty awesome that Wizards had someone on staff with a background in cultural anthropology and gender studies, and even more awesome that they made sure to get her input on an important story.  Way to go.

If you want to read more about Alesha, Christina Ladd and I reacted to “The Truth of Names” in this Spells and Whistles column.

That’s all for this week!  Next week we’ll be putting these theme ideas into practice with a deckbuilding article: I’ll be talking about one of my worst decks ([mtg_card]Selvala, Explorer Returned[/mtg_card]), and we’ll take a look at how building with themes can make it better.


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