Making the Cut - Taking on the Dump, Part 1
Making the Initial Cut
Hello, and welcome to Making the Cut, where we try to get you to your best 99.
So, you've got an idea for a new Commander deck. The only question is... what now? Well, if you're anything like me, what's now is spending a couple hours on EDHREC and various sites looking up cards that fit your idea. This week, that idea is to find cheap ways to abuse Lazav, the Multifarious.
You see, I've become minorly annoyed that most decks featuring the newest version of this secretive Dimir Guildmaster are half-composed of creatures that cost four mana or more. Lazav doesn't want expensive disguises. He wants to be able to abuse his X ability as many times as possible per turn. Since he can use this ability at instant speed and while other abilities are on the stack, he's capable of all sorts of degenerate interactions, or even just the ability to give himself immediate protection whenever necessary. So, with that tactic in mind, let's Brainstorm a bit.
Started From the Bottom
Before we just dive in to all of the 7,494 cards that would be legal in the deck, let's try to narrow that number down for our card dump. We know that we're most interested in creatures, and that we want those creatures to be cheap. So let's start by just finding any creatures that cost two mana or less that look interesting.
Dump Number One
Cheap as Free
Alright, we've got a list here, and it's already over our 100 card limit, so let's start focusing our efforts by looking at which themes we see in this list, before moving on to adding some spells and more expensive cards.
In the zero-mana slot, we immediately see that we can make Lazav a bit more durable with Shield Sphere. For zero mana! Meanwhile, Hangarback Walker and Walking Ballista lead us down an interesting path. Not only can you play them for zero mana to get them into the graveyard immediately, but if you do manage to get some +1/+1 counters on Lazav, they will stick around through all his various transformations. So with that in mind, let's keep an eye out for more +1/+1 counter effects we can abuse as we sift through the dump.
+1/+1 Counters Galore
Bingo. There are a lot of various strategies and just plain good cards to abuse +1/+1 counters in the one- to two-mana range.
Cosi's Trickster will be a great counter gatherer for Lazav, while Carrion Feeder fills that same role while providing a sacrifice outlet to get creatures into our graveyard for further transformations. These are backed up by a lesser cast of Arcbound Worker, Cloudfin Raptor, Chronomaton, Cruel Sadist, Disowned Ancestor, Entrails Feaster, and Mortician Beetle.
So if we can manage to get Lazav pumped up with all sorts of +1/+1 counters, what then? Well, outside of the already mentioned synergy with Hangarback Walker and Walking Ballista, we could certainly make him unblockable with any of the multiple Triton Shorestalker variants, or give him lifelink with Vampire Cutthroat. The really spicy move here would be to go straight for the throat with Blighted Agent, however.
It should be noted that we don't necessarily need +1/+1 counters if we're going the Voltron route. There are lots of reasonably-sized creatures just in the one-mana slot, most notably Phyrexian Dreadnought. Alternatively, in the later game, Jace's Phantasm will fly over defenses with a big power boost as well. Most importantly, if we do go the Voltron route, we can protect our commander on the cheap with some regenerators like Kjeldoran Dead.
For now, though, let's decide that we like the Voltron strategy, with a heavy helping of +1/+1 counters, and go ahead and finish the rest of our dump:
Dump Number Two
Picking by Archetype
We've obviously gotten a lot more raw power by looking at more than just the two mana we're spending on most creatures. The only problem? We're now looking at over 200 cards. My first step when looking at a stack of cards this massive is to decide which cards we're pretty darn sure we want in the final version of the deck on first look. Thus, as the first step in cutting down this massive pile, let's look at the different archetypes we're going to need in the deck and pick out the highlights.
Cares About Artifacts
A lot of the stuff we have that cares about +1/+1 counters also happen to be artifacts, and as such, we really want to lean into that synergy where we can. It may start with the likes of Arcbound Ravager and Arcbound Slith, but we can actually get all of the Modular creatures into play a bit cheaper with the help of Etherium Sculptor and Chief Engineer. Artificer's Assistant will help you dig for some quality while also being a cheap outlet for a flying Lazav.
We'll also want to untap our commander as often as possible to abuse activated abilities, which is doable with Voltaic Servant. Probably most importantly, Steel Overseer will feed our commander and all of our artifact creatures at the same time, while Syndicate Trafficker will do the same, simultaneously providing indestructible and feeding Disciple of the Vault.
In addition to getting all of these creatures in the graveyard, we'll want to actually play them sometimes. To do so, we have a lot of options outside of the artifact acceleration we've already seen. We'll definitely want a few of the cheap mana rocks like Sol Ring and Dimir Signet, although once we lean into a few Proliferate effects, the all-star here will be Everflowing Chalice. Black Market is a problem that your opponent simply must solve, or else.
Probably the best of the creature options is Deranged Assistant, which will simultaneously get us mana while also filling our graveyard with more creatures for Lazav to utilize. Plague Myr does much the same, while also giving us another avenue for a quick Infect win. Meanwhile, Walking Atlas will get lands out of our hand if we do happen to have an excess after drawing a few cards. Speaking of which...
While it's tempting to call Baleful Strix an example of card advantage, it in fact only replaces itself, and only does that if it enters play rather than being milled or discarded straight to the graveyard. Indeed, it is hard to find true card advantage on one- to two-mana spells. Still, Kami of the Crescent Moon does a reasonable job, and when Lazav becomes him, we can make sure that we're the only ones who get to draw cards, before switching identities again. Enclave Cryptologist may be the true hero here if you spend the time to get some Level Up counters on Lazav, although with the amount of creatures that should be dying, Midnight Reaper will certainly be doing some work as well. On the more expensive end of things, there's also the +1/+1 counter heavyweight, Toothy, Imaginary Friend.
Aside from the straight card advantage, however, there is also card quality to consider. These are especially potent in this deck, given the fact that a good number of the cards that end up in our graveyard will still be utilized. With that in mind, looting effects like Merfolk Looter himself, Looter il-Kor, and Riddlesmith are going to pull a lot of weight in the deck, although not as much as the infamous Fact or Fiction or the banned-in-most-formats Windfall.
Protection & Evasion
In a neat package, there are actually quite a few creatures that fill multiple roles here, from the killing power of Blighted Agent to the flexibility of Cavern Harpy and Escape Artist. The only creature on the list that fulfills both of these roles while still allowing you to keep your counters is Invisible Stalker. Strangely, one of the best cards on this list may actually put Lazav at more risk: Spellskite. It will be able to protect many of your other assets by changing the target to Lazav, whereupon you can hopefully protect him by transforming him once more into another card on this list. Lastly, while it won't prevent him from getting exiled, the indestructibility provided by Yahenni, Undying Partisan comes with another sacrifice outlet and a means of giving Lazav haste.
Since we'll have mana untapped a good portion of the time for Lazav shenanigans, Counterspell and Swan Song are also an excellent means of protecting him, or just stopping someone else from winning the game. Given that we may have a few lifegain effects in the deck, it's probably also worth considering Reckless Spite to solve two problems at once. To really solve just one problem, however, you can't do a whole lot better than Reality Shift. For keeping a commander or global effect down in the long term, Jace, the Living Guildpact does a pretty good job, and his +1 also helps us fill the graveyard.
On the creature side of things, most removal options are too expensive, though Guul Draz Assassin will make a nice companion to Enclave Cryptologist and provide repeatable removal of smaller creatures. Lastly, since we're going to be sacrificing so many creatures or letting many of our cheap creatures die on their own, Dictate of Erebos really ought to do a whole lot of work for us. Unfortunately, as is often the case, Dimir doesn't have a good answer to artifacts and enchantments besides becoming Counterspell.dec.
The last archetype is probably one of the most important. While there are exceptions, it is rare for a deck to be any sort of success without the ability to wipe the board to get out of a bad situation. That said, we are a creature dependent deck, so we don't want to wipe out our own progress, either. With that in mind, All is Dust is an excellent opportunity to wipe everyone else's board while leaving a good portion of ours intact, and deals with the problem enchantments we can't really get rid of any other way. Hex neatly fits the one-sided bill as well. While not a full boardwipe, taking out the six most problematic creatures on the board can certainly feel like one.
On the faster side, both Kagemaro, First to Suffer and Crypt Rats offer a means to scale a board wipe in your favor at instant speed, and may be repeatable with Lazav. Mutilate and Toxic Deluge are similar, although they are one-time use at sorcery speed. While there are a lot more options in this category to consider, you don't want to overdo it on board wipes, so we're going to stop at just the ones that could end up being one-sided for us.
Just the Highlights
So, we've looked at every archetype and the main theme of the deck, and pulled out some cards for each of them. While that certainly does not a deck make, it does get you a lot closer to one. With that in mind, let's take a look at what the pile looks like now that we've focused it a bit by just listing out the cards I mentioned in each section above.
The Dump, Initial Cut
While this cut gets us very close to the prescribed amount of cards we need before adding lands, it is important to note that this is just an initial seat-of-the-pants cut, and we aren't done yet. There are cards that, on second thought, leap out at me as not good enough, such as Escape Artist and Chief Engineer. Speaking of Chief Engineer, we also don't have enough artifacts to take advantage of our 'cares-about-artifacts' cards, and will either need to get rid of some of those or add more artifacts. As for our main +1/+1 counter theme, we're missing some monster cards like Unspeakable Symbol, while including some others like Arcbound Worker, which may not make the final cut.
But that is the point of an initial cut. You want to get the huge hulking mass of cards down to a manageable level, and from there you can pick and choose to change things bit by bit without being overwhelmed. A good way of doing this is going through the archetypes you know that you'll need in the deck anyway, and just picking out what you think are the best or most fitting cards for the deck, exactly as we've done today.
So, what do you think? What cards from the dump leap out at you that weren't included in the initial cut? What strategies do you use to focus a deck when you're just staring at all of the options in magic?
Let me know in the comments so we can get into it next time, to get our Lazav deck to its best and final 99.