Mind Bend - The Ghost of Commander Past
(Syphon Mind | Art by Jeff Easley)
Past and Presents
To look into its light is to meet the gaze of history.
– Beacon of Tomorrows flavor text
Mind Bend, the article series that breaks down the conventional notions of the color pie to forge new ground outside the confines of the already established, is over a year old!
I'd like to thank everyone that has stuck with me so far while also welcoming all the new readers to this series. Hi! You're all awesome!
This month, I'd like to dig into the strategy known as . . . wait, what's that sound? What could be making such a clamor at this hour? And why does it sound like chains?
Well, for some reason, if you're still able to read this, some ghost guy in chains sent me back in time with an ominous-looking... thing. Let me look at a calendar. We're in, WHAT? 2011??? How can this be? I've gone all the way back to the time before Commander even had that name. I'm back in the EDH days! Oh, Primeval Titan, how I missed you.
Since I'm somehow back in the pre-Commander days, I'm going to have to change this article up a little bit. So welcome to Time Bend, the article series that breaks down the conventional notions of temporality to forge new ground outside the confines of the regular timeline. This time, I'm going to use the knowledge of the modern Commander scene to craft a deck made entirely with cards printed before Wizards of the Coast officially recognized the format.
Here in 2011, the EDH (as it was called at the time) landscape is a little different. We have to make do with cards that were obviously NOT printed for the format. No Command Towers popping up here yet. No Partners nor cards that say "command zone". Heck, there isn't even a command zone yet. Just plain old exile.
Well, not all is lost. Conveniently, my phone still has access to EDHREC and a few other awesome websites, most of which haven't even been invented yet. (Note to self: buy some domains after writing this article.)
Throwbacks to the Future
Since I'm stuck in the past, I wonder which legendary creature from pre-Commander 2011 will be the most popular on EDHREC? Luckily, Scryfall is still working for me as well, and I see that it's Sheoldred, Whispering One. You can check it out yourself.
Now, this is by order of popularity in the 99. However, Sheoldred can be a great window into your past (and my current present). A splashy seven-mana creature that doesn't do much immediately when she comes down? That sure sounds more 2011 than it does 2019. Before we move forward, I took a look at the top 10 most popular legendary creatures from this era to see how many decks they helm on EDHREC in 2019:
1. Sheoldred, Whispering One - 151 Decks
2. Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite - 166 Decks
3. Kozilek, Butcher of Truth - 137 Decks
4. Kokusho, the Evening Star - 44 Decks
5. Azusa, Lost but Seeking - 335 Decks
6. Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre - 26 Decks
7. Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker - 140 Decks
8. Venser, Shaper Savant - 19 Decks
9. Arcanis the Omnipotent - 126 Decks
10. Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger - 86 Decks
Outside of Azusa, Lost but Seeking, it's clear that the legendaries from pre-Commander are much more roleplayers in the 99, while not really being the lead. Azusa might be the only one in this list with a significant number of decks, but I think the main reason is that these cards are all less than two colors, which allows them to be played in many places.
In case you're wondering, the highest-played legendary creature as the commander from sets prior to Commander 2011 is Zur the Enchanter at over 1,500 decks. I don't think I need to go into why Zur is so popular, do I?
This Sheold Deck
So what is the 2019 version of Sheoldred, Whispering One all about? I've taken the black Praetor's average deck from EDHREC and broken it down into some handy categories.
The thing that pops out to me the most is the sheer number of cards that can draw you additional cards, or tutor for a specific card to a specific zone, usually your hand or graveyard.
There is a solid mix of incremental draw spells, like that of Phyrexian Arena, which already had its place amongst EDH staples here in 2011, to super-efficient tutors, like Demonic Tutor and Entomb, which are also viable here in the pre-Commander days!
On the higher mana cost side of things, cards like Harvester of Souls and Vilis, Broker of Blood give the deck even more potency as the game goes long. Unfortunately, this level of power at higher CMCs is not as accessible for me. Thanks a lot, mysterious specter!
The 2019 Sheoldred build also has a whole suite dedicated to forcing creature sacrifice aside from just the ability of our general - I mean, our commander. Fleshbag Marauder and Grave Pact are known quantities here in 2011, but Archfiend of Depravity and Liliana, Dreadhorde General will eventually boost the strategy into the stratosphere.
On the ramp side of things, this deck does what black does best: double its mana. Black has a penchant for making Swamps tap for a whole lot more than one mana, and this deck is no exception. Over here in pre-Commander days, we don't have Crypt Ghast, but Caged Sun just appeared this year, which helps.
All that extra mana can be sunk into Torment of Hailfire or Exsanguinate for a finishing blow. We in 2011 won't see Torment for another few years, though. Our opponents will be more elated.
Anyhow, a 2019 Sheoldred build entails the following strategy.
1. Get that mana! Employ the black-aligned strategies of working with tons of Swamps to double, or triple your mana.
2. Sink that into some card draws and sacrifices. Replenish your hand via some life loss and mana while keeping major threats at bay.
3. Stick a game winner. Giant X spells or punishing high-CMC creatures rule the day. And if not, use your arsenal of board wipes to grind out the game until you do.
Luckily, I still have all the knowledge of deckbuilding shifts from 2011 to 2019, so I can make do with the more limited resources I have in these pre-Commander days.
Up the Down Ramp
Here in 2011, the breakout podcast the Command Zone hasn't even started its run yet, but I can still apply the general 10 ramp spells and 10 draw spells philosophy. In my current era, that isn't a commonly discussed rule, as people will still figuring out how top-heavy you could make a deck. And with the way a 2019 Shelodred deck plays, I will probably bump that draw number up a bit. Not to mention that Partial Paris mulligans were the norm, allowing certain decks to cheat a bit more on mana while keeping the splashy spells intact.
As Low as We Go
What I also can apply here is the notion of aiming for more efficient and lower-CMC spells that make the deck leaner and perhaps faster. And though there are no EDH-specific cards available where I am, I still have access to Charcoal Diamond and Coldsteel Heart, ramp spells that were more overlooked than the "staples" of the times: Darksteel Ingot and Coalition Relic.
Relic still has its uses for you all in 2019, allowing you to save a mana from one turn to the next, but Ingot's fixing and indestructibility will be outclassed soon by Chromatic Lantern, plus a string of two mana rocks even further down the line.
Also, Sign in Blood and Night's Whisper are available for me in the past, so that I can churn through the deck efficiently. Necropotence, a card that was somehow never banned in this format, might see more play in 2019 than it did in 2011, considering the speed of the format over the years. But I'm definitely slotting it in here. Once you play black, you can't go back, probably because you're dead from paying so much life to draw cards.
Splash or Dash
If there's one thing I can say here in 2011, it's that the focus of EDH is more on splashiness than efficiency and synergy. As the format has grown, better cards have been printed and niches have been filled. Still, a tighter deck in these days can be built nonetheless.
The New Old Tech
Before this mean-looking specter makes me learn a lesson or something, I'd like to take a look at some cards for this 2011 Sheoldred-by-way-of 2019 deck that might be worth another consideration in your future.
Syphon Mind was a draw spell in the early days of EDH that made all kinds of sense. In 1v1 games, the card is pretty bad, at most causing you to go up one card on the opponent. However, it was thought that since you have three or more opponents, drawing three and making each player discard one card must be a home run. It's since fallen off... but why? The nightmare scenario is topdecking this with everyone else at zero cards in hand. But how often does that occur? More than likely, you're probably going to at least cantrip, if not hit two players.
Promise of Power was also prominent. If you can draw two and lose two life with Night's Whisper, then why not lose five to draw five? Oh, and you can make a token if you so desire. Five mana is a lot, but five cards is also a lot. Let's give this card its due.
Star Compass is another Charcoal Diamond in a mono-black deck. Considering the amount of black pips you need for things like Necropotence, mana rocks that tap for colored mana really help.
On the three-mana side of things, Phyrexian Totem can lay low until you need to strike for some extra damage; you never have to turn it on in tricky situations. Skull of Ramos gives you a one-shot extra mana that might mean the difference. These are the slight hedges that are more accepted in 2019.
Rend Flesh might not be as powerful as Hero's Downfall will become, but it's almost as unconditional of a creature kill spell as you can get. Go for the Throat hits a whole spectrum of creatures, too.
Shred Memory and Netherborn Phalanx were a hot commodity here in the early EDH days, and always worth another look. Stapling Transmute (the ability to tutor for a card with the same CMC for only three mana) on to role players instantly makes them a contender for a slot.
Shred Memory offers controlled graveyard hate, but can easily find a mana rock, or Demonic Tutor (tutor for the tutor!), or a game-ending Exsanguinate. Netherborn Phalanx punishes go-wide decks a la Massacre Wurm but can find high-end mana doublers like Caged Sun, or a board wipe like Life's Finale.
Profane Command acts as a second, more targeted Exsanguinate, but can be useful in any state of the game. You can resurrect a creature, kill something, or set up an alpha strike on one player while draining out another. Being able to make loads of black mana really lets this card shine.
Everything Sheold is New Again
The Ghost of Commander Past
Buy this decklist from TCGplayer
This deck's strategy is the same here in 2011 as it would be in 2019: control, control, control! Keep your opponents from getting too much of a board state, and if you can't interact, straight up kill them with massive life drains and a few massive creatures. Turn the late game into your comfort zone by piling up big draws and letting your general (I mean, commander) keep the board clear.
Nothing Ever Ends
I've been stuck in 2011 for a few hours writing this article, and the specter that brought me here is looking a little disappointed. I'm still wondering what lesson I was supposed to learn about. I really should have paid attention to that blabbering guy in chains, huh? Well, I hope this article gives you a look back at the format in its adolescence, and maybe inspires you to take a look back in time yourself to find the right cards for your deck.
Oh, what's that? THAT was the point? Ohh! Welp, looks like I'm headed off to someplace, or sometime, else. Perhaps the present, or the future? Who knows?
Either way, see you next month for more mind-bending builds!