Making the Cut - Taking on the Dump, Part 2
Optimizing a Pile
Last time on Making the Cut, we looked at an initial dump of cards for a Lazav, the Multifarious +1/+1 counter deck featuring as many cheap creatures as possible, and then did an initial cut based on the archetypes we knew the deck was going to need in the final version.
To start this week, let's revisit that initial cut and see what our first instinct is now that we've had some time to think things over. For me personally, funds are always a thought in the back of my mind; Magic, at the end of the day, is just a hobby. So with that in mind, let's actually take a fresh look at the list so far, organized by price. I personally am in the US, so I'll be organizing by prices in US Dollars.
The Dump, Initial Cut
Now, to be clear, talking about budget is a very personal conversation. For myself, spending $200.00 on a Commander deck can be a bit taxing, but at the same time, a new deck could require a lot of cards I already own. For you, that may be different, whether it be in the funds available, funds unavailable, or size of collection direction.
With that in mind, we'll move forward talking about my budget and deckbuilding decisions personally, with the large caveat that things may be different for you specifically when it comes to your budget cuts.
Is it Worth it?
Looking through the most expensive cards in our initial cut, there are a few that jump out as expensive and necessary, and a couple that seem more expensive and less necessary.
For that second category, it's hard to dispute the usefulness of Arcbound Ravager when it comes to a +1/+1 counter strategy, despite the $40.00 price tag. Ravager will not only produce a lot of counters while putting creatures into our graveyard at instant speed for use by Lazav, but will also gift those counters to Lazav when it inevitably gets targeted by our opponents (you can even sacrifice it to itself to make sure that it doesn't get exiled or tucked). For me, this means I would place it in the "Acquire" pile. While I may not have the liquid funds to purchase it immediately, I will definitely look for it in other people's trade binders to make the deck better.
Phyrexian Dreadnought, on the other hand, has some great upside when it comes to straight damage or Infect strategies, but doesn't necessarily contribute anything to our overall goal of abusing +1/+1 counters on Lazav. With that said, it is a lot of raw power, and I happen to already own a copy. So for our purposes, I will definitely be including it, but I also wouldn't call it crucial, either.
Lastly, we come to the cards that are still a bit pricey, but under the $25.00 mark. Steel Overseer is quite helpful when it comes to our +1/+1 strategy, and is a huge part of our "Artifacts Matter" theme alongside Arcbound Ravager. Similarly, Walking Ballista was part of the entire thesis of the deck, so it would seem a little silly not to procure it.
That leaves Toxic Deluge, a black staple that has suffered from its own success, price-wise. While I do understand I may be in the minority on this, when it comes to a card like Toxic Deluge or Cyclonic Rift, staples on such a level that they inevitably see play in any deck that contains their color, I tend to sway away from them. Toxic Deluge made our original list because it could potentially be a one-sided board wipe, but seeing the current price and the lack of synergy with our deck, I personally am leaning away to save a little cash. (As an aside, I'm very public about how big a fan I am of cutting staples. Commander at the casual level is a lot about expressing yourself, so why would you spend a bunch of money to have your deck feel and play the same as everyone else's? I find it boring on multiple levels.)
Other Initial Impressions
Now that we've had a week or two to stew them over, there are a lot of cards that we went through as part of our initial seat-of-the-pants cut, but which now seem not to fit or just aren't good enough. With that in mind, let's also look through those and make a few more second stage cuts.
Evasion and protection is nice, but Cavern Harpy and Escape Artist seem like too much mana for not enough protection. While returning Lazav to our hand does protect him, and he's cheap to recast, at the end of the day we want him to keep his counters if possible. Since they're also two-mana instead of one-mana cards for Lazav to try and copy, I'm more than comfortable leaving them out of the final 99.
Speaking of things being too expensive, Chief Engineer's Convoke for artifacts doesn't wow me as much as Etherium Sculptor, which is both an artifact and makes them cheaper. On the more financial side of things, Dictate of Erebos is undoubtedly good, but is a bit on the expensive side in both mana and dollars while not necessarily doing all that much if we don't have a sacrifice outlet in play. In that same price range, Spellskite could possibly protect creatures in play in combination with Lazav, but does so at a high cost of having to pay two mana, then two life or another blue mana, then another two or three mana to attempt to protect Lazav once he is targeted. That is just too much for it to be a feasible option the majority of the time.
Having made a little room, we can now take a second look at our initial dump and pull out anything we find interesting on a second look. This gives us a great chance to do two things: look at our main archetype of +1/+1 counters more directly, and find the things we missed early on while our deck was less focused.
While we've now listed out a lot of stuff in our second dump, we also want to be careful with it. We've already done the crazy brainstorming session of 200+ cards, and we don't want to repeat it. That means that this new list isn't being automatically included in our pool, but rather being carefully considered before any card on it gets included. So let's go through the list and point out cards that really catch our eye. At the end of the day, we're all human, so don't be too disappointed if you go in with exactly that mentality and still end up picking out half of the list to add! I always do exactly that, and then just go through the list a second time to then weed half of that out.
Cut Two: Electric Boogaloo
So, now that we've taken a second look at our second dump, let's add those to our initial cut and get a status update of where we are, and get a good count of exactly how many cards we need to cut for our final version of the deck. Given that we've already cut a bit by price, let's try organizing our selections by archetype this time around.
The Dump, Part Deuce
The first thing to notice now that we've added some cards back in is that we definitely still have too many cards included in our list. Commander decks should always be playing somewhere between 35 and 40 lands, which leaves us in the neighborhood of 63 slots left for cards. Right now we're at 71 total before lands, so we're looking to cut seven or eight cards.
Making the (Final) Cut
So now we're in the most difficult part of the process. We like every card in the deck, they're all great cards that do things that we want to do... but we still have to cut some. So, the first step: do we still have any easy cuts?
Procrastination is Your Friend
I mentioned earlier that we absolutely wanted a copy of Arcbound Ravager, but at the price, we might not be able to get it immediately. While we are keeping an eye out on trade binders, it's not like we're not going to play the deck just because we're missing one card. So in the mean time, Arcbound Ravager is an easy cut for us, although it will be a future difficult decision to figure out what to cut when we do manage to snag a copy. Luckily, by that time, we'll have playtested the deck enough to get a good sense of which card it can replace!
No Room for the Aristocracy
Okay, so now we've gotten rid of the easy stuff. The next step is to look back through your deck and see if there are any strategies we were pursuing that no longer seem like as much of a priority.
Disciple of the Vault is a good card. So good, in fact, that it has been banned in some formats on more than one occasion. That said, his initial inclusion was from a time we were much more likely to be looking at playing a lot more sacrifice effects and perhaps even a few copies of Blood Artist to really dig into direct life drain. The problem with this strategy in our Lazav deck is that to get your full impact from these death-trigger-life-drain powerhouses, you really have to be playing a lot of recursion. That would be fine, except we've leaned really hard into making our creatures as cheap as possible, and graveyard-to-the-battlefield recursion is by its very nature very expensive. So rather than wreck our mana curve, it's probably an easier and better decision to just let go of the Aristocrats strategy as a whole.
Revisiting the Budget
So now that the easy cuts are done, let's also go ahead and revisit another easy decision point: our wallets. Looking through the cards we've added and prices we've already seen, there are a couple new heavy hitters.
These were included in our new card dump because they are very powerful and synergize excellently with our Commander. Maze of Ith is almost a staple on the level of Sol Ring, but for Lazav specifically, it also allows us to untap our Commander an additional time per turn in similar fashion to Reconnaissance and protect him from a combat step that has gone poorly. Combine that with some of the tap abilities he'll be acquiring, like Merfolk Looter and Walking Atlas, and you can really start to abuse things. Training Grounds, on the other hand, will make Lazav's transformations much cheaper, really playing into our plan to abuse his shapeshifting ability multiple times a turn.
All that said, our deck as a whole is sitting at about $250.00 at this point, and while I may have many of these cards in my collection already, that's still a little pricey. With that in mind, we'll take both of these as easy cuts for now and keep an eye out for them in trade binders.
Trim the Archetypes - Protection & Evasion
At the beginning of this process, we tried to do a seat-of-your-pants cut to get our original 200 card dump down to size, and we did so by looking at what we thought were the "best" cards for each archetype for the final version of the deck. Looking through our decklist, we're probably playing a bit too many protection and evasion cards as a whole. Let's look through that list and compare and contrast cards that look similar.
Now that we have that a bit more organized, we can sort through things a lot easier. First off, I know I don't want to cut anything that gives us both protection and evasion in one package, so Invisible Stalker is good to go. We can also now easily see that we have more evasion than protection, and as a result, we definitely want to go ahead and keep our evasion cards as well. So let's look at the evasion cards specifically and compare a few of them.
All three of these cards provide evasion at the cost of one mana. Gudul Lurker provides the end-all-be-all for getting damage to a player or planeswalker, without really providing any additional benefit for Lazav. On the other hand, Artificer's Assistant and Jace's Phantasm only provide flying, but with a benefit of card selection or extra power and toughness. In this situation, this is actually a fairly easy choice for me, as we have other means of making Lazav completely unblockable, and I don't want it to take up a whole card slot just for the one mana cost. We'll go ahead and pull Gudul Lurker.
In a similar vein, in the two mana slot, Dimir Infiltrator allows for the full unblockable after Transmuting for other two-cost spells, whereas Baleful Strix can also replace itself when cast on its own, then provide both deathtouch and flying to Lazav from the graveyard. It's also important to recognize that it is an artifact, as we do want to keep our artifact count high to facilitate the deck's other themes. While I'm tempted to cite the "Play Less Tutors" mantra here, we do still have 20 other artifacts in the deck and we could easily tutor for one. Add the fact that you don't have to do any work to put Dimir Infiltrator into the graveyard - and that he'll be the only tutor in the deck - and he gets the nod.
Trim the Archetypes - Card Draw
The other archetype that is looking a little bloated is our Card Draw section. Let's look through what we have as far as straight card advantage, and loot effects that will help us get creatures in the graveyard.
Strangely, we actually value our Merfolk Looter effects a bit more here, as they allow us to put creatures we need at that exact second into our graveyard at instant speed for use by Lazav. Given that there are less of them and they have an inflated value in our strategy, let us instead look at our pure card draw for a place to cut.
Here we have three conditional card draw effects stapled onto creatures, which makes them usable by Lazav. Kami of the Crescent Moon, aside from being one of the best pun/picture combinations in all of Magic, also hugs the whole table every draw step. In essence, he is a Howling Mine on a stick. While this is all well and fine for the Hugs decks, it's not necessarily what we're looking for in our strategy. Instead, the intent with our 'mooning the moon' friend here is to pay two mana at the end of our opponent's turn so we draw a card on our upkeep, then change Lazav into something else during our turn so no one else gets the benefit. While that's not bad, it is also a lot of setup for a minimal effect, with no easy way to get him in the graveyard so he doesn't benefit the whole table. Alternatively, Midnight Reaper is less consistent, but more explosive. Having a Reaper on the board when a Wrath is cast will often draw you a whole new full grip... or you could sit with him on the battlefield for five turns and not get a card out of him. Lastly, Toothy, Imaginary Friend can combo with either of the other two, the rest of our card draw, or just our draw step in general to get quite large and then hopefully shuffle off to the graveyard to draw us even more cards. The main disadvantage there is that he is a little more mana than we'd like, so we may not get to use him to pump and dump Lazav as much as we'd like.
Looking through these three, it's easy to see which are the most powerful. As should be the case, the power level scales quite nicely with their mana cost. With that in mind, we really want to keep in mind which of these is the least bang for our buck when it comes to Lazav specifically. Even taking the cheaper mana cost into account, we can easily cut Kami of the Crescent Moon. His downsides are glaring, while his upside just isn't anywhere near the other two. The only benefit is that he's cheap to cast and to transform into, but you have to be careful when you do it, and it practically requires that you leave mana up to undo it. Alternatively, both Midnight Reaper and Toothy are excellent panic buttons if Lazav is about to die and you want some benefit, and Toothy himself could make our commander bigger than almost any other card in the deck.
The "Final" Decklist
So, we've cut the list down to 65 cards, and we're ready to shuffle up. Only... we haven't really talked about what lands to use, have we? You may have noticed that I included some in the last card dump, but haven't talked about any of them besides the not-really-a-land land Maze of Ith. This is because, for me personally, if I'm not playing a deck that cares about lands, my strategy is simply to just use what I have laying around. There have been a lot of dual lands over the years in Magic: The Gathering, and with minor changes, most of them are fairly interchangeable if you're not at a competitive level. With that in mind, why go out and spend $75.00 on a mana base when chances are good that if you just pull some lands out of your trade binder, you'll be fine?
With that in mind, let's go ahead and pop the lands in there that have an affinity with +1/+1 counters and artifacts, and then just fill the rest in with basic lands for now. You could certainly play it in that exact state anyway, although we'd probably try to hunt down some duals of one sort or another just to make sure we aren't having color problems all the time.
Lazav Outlast with No Outlast
So, what do you think of the deck? What did I cut that you would have included? What other ways do you have of cutting those last few cards to finish a new deck?
Let us know in the comments so we can all help each other get to our best 99!