Commander Showdown - Arcades vs Doran
Defense is the Best Offense
I'll be honest, the first time I glanced through Core Set 2019, I wasn't super impressed. With Bone Dragons and Pelakka Wurms, I was dubious that the set would contain interesting goodies for our beloved format. Even some of the Elder Dragons, such as Palladia-Mors, the Ruiner, left me skeptical.
Then Arcades, the Strategist was revealed. Now this is an Elder Dragon! Arcades turns your Walls into powerhouses by allowing them to attack, and by using their toughness instead of their power in combat. Not only that, but he draws you cards whenever you add a new defender to the field.
Of course, this isn't the first time we've seen the toughness-as-power shtick.
Doran, the Siege Tower laid the groundwork for this ability back in Lorwyn. A three-mana 5/5 disguised as a 0/5, Doran tilted the scales in bizarre and exciting ways, and brought a true inventiveness to the Abzan color combination.
Both Arcades and Doran turn your defense into offense, but in different ways. One focuses specifically on your defenders, while the other affects the entire board. One modifies himself with his own toughness-is-power ability, while the other does not. Plus, though they share white and green in common, the alternative colors of blue and black bring very different tools to the table. All these differences can lead to very important distinctions in terms of strategy and deck construction, which means it's time to analyze them in this week's Commander Showdown!
I normally like to begin with the older commander, but Arcades, the Strategist is a literal Elder Dragon, one of the foundation stones of this very format, so we'll let him go first. The name of the game is simple: defenders. This is not a theme that leaves much wiggle room. Still, defenders have never had a dedicated commander deck before, which means we still need to figure out which cards belong and which cards will be left on the cutting room floor. Let's see what's currently making its way into the 99 for Arcades by pulling up a sample decklist, using the data we have so far on EDHREC.
Average Arcades Deck
I don't know about you, but the first thing that caught my attention was how low the mana costs are for all these creatures. Wall of Tanglecord, Steel Wall, and heck, Shield Sphere? The most expensive creature in the deck is Mnemonic Wall. Defenders normally get to entertain high toughness levels because they're never expected to participate in offensive combat, but for Arcades, this is an army of EDH Tarmogoyfs.
Truly, the deck builds itself, full to the brim with creatures that have toughness far disproportionate to their mana cost. Apart from Arcades himself, there aren't a great many defender synergies. Overgrown Battlement and Axebane Guardian can produce an impressive amount of mana, but aside from them, the creatures are fairly standalone.
There is one card in this Average Decklist that I must utterly criticize, though, and that's Rolling Stones. Like Arcades, this enchantment allows your defenders to attack. I like redundancy in my decks, in case my commander dies, and Rolling Stones is clearly supposed to help in case Arcades can't stick around. Here's the problem: it only affects Wall creatures, and there are a fair number of non-Wall creatures in this list. More importantly, this card does not do what you want it to do. Rolling Stones does not modify creatures to deal damage with their toughness rather than their power. Unless you'd like to attack with a bunch of 0/5 creatures, this enchantment is literally only useful if Arcades is already on the battlefield. That's not redundancy, that's ludicrous. 36% of decks are running this card, and 32% are running Wakestone Gargoyle, which has the same problem. These cards don't help, and should be axed immediately. If you want a truly redundant card to assist Arcades, stick with Assault Formation, which already has both of the effects you need.
What's most impressive are the support cards for this deck. Tetsuko Umezawa, Fugitive makes your army unblockable. Alternatively, Sight of the Scalelords can give your army some extra 'oopmh,' not to mention vigilance, which is fast becoming one of my favorite multiplayer mechanics, and perfectly on-theme for a deck full of defensive creatures. I'm even pleased to see Angelic Chorus find a home here, a surprisingly effective source of lifegain that is sure to irritate your opponents as you drop multiple low-cost walls every turn.
Overall, Arcades presents a straightforward and engaging deck, one that's frighteningly aggressive, considering Bant's usual standards. However, a word of caution: this deck hinges quite explicitly on the survival of its commander. Without Arcades in play, these creatures are nothing more than blockers. Efficient blockers, to be certain, but exclusively so.
The awkward piece of Arcades' design is that he wants to see all of these creatures come into play. You certainly could play him like a Beastmaster Ascension, a card you can throw onto the table after you've got lots of creatures in play and want to attack. However, if you play Arcades this way, you miss out on all those delicious draw triggers. Arcades wants to stay alive to witness the deployment of all your defenders, which means he's much more gradual than the 'surprise Beastmaster Ascension' plan. It's a workable strategy, to be clear, but it does mean that your opponents will know exactly what you're up to. In addition, it means you'll have to devote more energy and resources toward keeping Arcades as safe as possible for as long as possible.
In short, Arcades is a bit of a micro-manager, wanting to oversee everything your deck creates. He's a linchpin commander, so keeping him alive is paramount. At the end of the day, if he sticks around, he rewards you with an endless supply of creatures that are sure to topple your opponents in short fashion. I'd have to agree with Arcades' strategy and say that the reward is well worth the risk.
Let us now move from blue to black with Doran, the ancient Abzan Treefolk. Doran has the unique distinction of belonging to the only three-color tribe in Lorwyn, surrounded by blue-black Faeries, black-green Elves, and other assorted two-color tribes. Doran is the original purveyor of toughness-matters effects, and unlike Arcades, he applies his ability not only to himself, but to all creatures on the field, regardless of their defender status. He delivered to us a measure of self-reflection, forcing us to change the way we viewed the relationship between a creature's power and toughness. Even now, some of us have been so hard-wired to look at a creature's power during combat that we'll still forget the way Doran modifies their combative capabilities.
So what treats does a Doran deck bring to the table? As it turns out, a great many.
The most famous of these is probably Indomitable Ancients, which becomes a four-mana 10/10 with Doran's guidance. Not only that, but some of the recent Partner cards from Commander 2016 lend an amazing hand to Doran's strategy, such as Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa and Ikra Shidiqi, the Usurper. This crazy pair can make your creatures impossible to block, and gain you tons of life as a reward.
Aside from those key cards, how does Doran fill out his 99? Let's take a peek at a sample Average Decklist, as constructed from the data here on EDHREC.
Average Doran Deck
As we can see, the Average Decklist is quite scattered. There's a smattering of Treefolk Tribal here, with cards such as Bosk Banneret and Treefolk Harbinger. However, the list is also crammed with non-arborescent creatures, like Nyx-Fleece Ram, Silklash Spider, and Zetalpa, Primal Dawn. This is the danger of the Average Deck feature; though it can give us a great snapshot of the commander, it does make it hard to parse out popular cards for different styles.
Luckily, EDHREC has a Theme Filter to help us tune recommendations more closely to our preferences. As we can see, 79% of Doran decks do not run Treefolk Tribal, while about 18% do.
Doran presents a peculiar case. I happen to think he's perfectly powerful without a dedicated Treefolk theme. With that said, some of the Treefolk options available to his deck are simply good enough to justify running regardless of theme. Timber Protector, for example, is a Bastion Protector in this deck.
So what are the things I'd cut? Frankly, quite a lot of these creatures strike me as severely lackluster. Dauntless Dourbark will rarely become large enough to justify. If Ulvenwald Observer draws you cards, you're actually in pretty bad shape. Orchard Warden and Leaf-Crowned Elder will only trigger 14% of the time. Even the other non-Treefolk toughness-matters cards like Belligerent Brontodon are too much mana to justify.
Doran strikes me as a wee bit fragile. Though he flourishes early, if he's cut down, the rest of the deck will struggle to close out the game on its own. 22 of the 30 creatures in Average Deck cost four or more mana; even if you're ramping your heart out, it'll be tough to play more than one creature per turn. In short, Doran's grove does not grow wide. It grows tall.
To my mind, Doran is served best as a pseudo-Voltron. Backup cards like Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa and Behind the Scenes make him a unblockable beatstick (literally). Effects such as Slaughter the Strong and Fell the Mighty raze your opponents' defenses. Along the way, Slagwurm Armors and Shield of the Oversoul keep Doran well-fortified.
If you ask me, Doran's garden needs pruning. The noncreature cards are already stellar. Brave the Sands is much more powerful than it looks. Meekstone is an absolute treat, especially if combined with Blind Obedience effects. Doran needs more of these synergies, and less than half of the creatures he's currently running. In their place, he can run more equipment, more auras, cards that make opponents truly feel the pain. Less Unstoppable Ash - who is indeed quite stoppable - and more Hero's Resolve and Darksteel Plate. Don't run too many of the classic equipment like Sword of Feast and Famine, though, or you'll lose out on the benefits of your support cards like Slaughter the Strong!
Honed in like this, with a much lower mana curve, the deck can focus more on Doran, cranking up his speed and turning Aegis of the Heavens and Shape the Sands into true powerhouses. Neither of those spells currently show up on Doran's page at all, but with a lower curve and a greater focus on the commander as a source of damage output, they become more legitimate sources of lethal commander damage.
In closing, Doran is an awesome commander, but his current garden needs some pruning. While Arcades builds his defenses as wide as he can possibly go, Doran is perhaps better served stacking his defenses as high as they can go instead. Some of his fellow trees are blocking his sunlight, which he needs more of to grow on his own. While Treefolk are a flavorful way to win with Doran, his ability is unique enough that he really deserves to be the prize plant that stands out from the whole orchard. While Arcades embraces blue by representing a slow and methodical approach, Doran's best strategy embodies black's color pie by recognizing the importance of the self... and of course, by chopping down anyone in his path.
Cards to Consider
Lastly, I've got a few cards here that aren't yet seeing enough love in each commander's deck.
- Bant Charm: This is one of the best charms. These modes are always relevant, especially the ability to remove any creature. It's like a Bant Putrefy, only better.
- Eerie Interlude: Arcades doesn't say "When you cast a creature spell with defender." He triggers whenever a defender enters the battlefield. Eerie Interlude and Ghostway are excellent insurance against board wipes, but also just darn good ways to draw some extra cards by blinking all of your defenders!
- Peregrine Mask: Arcades' ability doesn't affect himself... until it does.
- Congregation at Dawn: This is already an amazingly underplayed tutor effect, though it can be a tad slow. However, when your commander turns all of your creatures into cantrips, you'll breeze right through those three cards, which makes this an excellent add.
- Always Watching: The enchantment Brave the Sands is showing up in 46% of Arcades lists. Always Watching is less than half as popular, but it's not half as good. It's excellent, and in a deck with this many creatures, especially ones that block this efficiently, this card's a total shoo-in.
- Runic Armasaur: This is a 5/5 that draws cards. Sign me up!
- Painful Truths: I will never stop recommending this card. Doran's Average Deck has like 2.5 ways to draw cards with Phyrexian Arena, Abzan Beastmaster, and maybe Lifecrafter's Bestiary. (I don't count Ulvenwald Observer because it's terrible.) You've lost access to Rishkar's Expertise effects in this particular build, so you need to find lots of card advantage spells in other places, and one-shot effects in black, like Painful Truths, get the job done admirably.
- Beast Within: I'm not sure why, but this is currently only seeing play in 16% of Doran decks. This is a staple for good reason. Just because you can also run Anguished Unmaking and Utter End does not mean you should forget about one of the best green spells in the format.
- Authority of the Consuls: This and Blind Obedience synergize beautifully with Meekstone, but more importantly, they drastically reduce the ability to throw out emergency blockers. Doran is, in some ways, a Tempo deck, and creatures that enter tapped leave you an extra path toward commander damage.
- Skeleton Key: Alternatively, just Skulk your way to a commander damage victory. No power, no problems.
Defense is Also the Best Defense
Both of these toughness-matters commanders come at the theme from a really fun angle. Whether you'd like to focus on an army of defenders, a grove of angry Treefolk, or one large angry Voltron tree, there's a lot to love about these tough guys.
So, which of these commanders do you prefer? Do you like Arcades' wide walls, or Doran's super-tall sycamores? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Oh, and don't forget to vote for the next Commander Showdown!
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- Kruphix, God of Horizons vs Omnath, Locus of Mana: Two commanders that hold onto mana for much longer than normal.
- Grenzo, Dungeon Warden vs Alesha, Who Smiles at Death: Pulling tiny creatures from the weirdest places.
Cast your votes!
Til next time!