The Knowledge Pool - Prime Speaker Vannifar
(Prime Speaker Vannifar | Art by Kieran Yanner)
It Finally Happened
Hi everyone! Welcome back to The Knowledge Pool!
This week is very special, because we will be looking at a commander I've begged to see for years. I've mentioned on many occasions that the bulk of my playing career was devoted to the Modern format, while Commander remained a secondary consideration until more recent years. For me, Modern boiled down to three decks: Jund, Pod, and Twin. I played Jund prior to the Bloodbraid Elf banning, and I maintained it as my go-to deck whenever I was unsure of my meta.
However, like many players, I always had a secondary deck that captured my fancy, and I discovered quickly that I preferred combo decks as a counterbalance to the mid-range strategy of Jund. Of these excursions outside the realm of the BRG colors, decks focused around Birthing Pod became my favorites.
For those unfamiliar with Modern circa 2014, Pod came in two flavors: Melira Pod and Kiki Pod. Melira Pod was in Abzan colors and aimed to play a grindy game with a combo finish, while Kiki Pod was in Temur colors and was pure combo. Essentially, they relied on sequencing Birthing Pod activations to assemble a board of creatures that could create either infinite damage, infinite life, or infinite dudes. I have fond memories of both versions of Pod; each rewarded you for knowing your decklist inside and out. I still believe that Kiki Pod was the most fun deck I played during my time in Modern, with each game representing a set of puzzles you had to figure out to win.
Naturally, the banning of Pod was disappointing to me. I saw it coming - months of player grumblings and frustration was a clear indicator - but my frustration stemmed from not being able to get my Pod fix again. Sure, Legacy Pod and Aluren decks were an option, and Yisan, the Wanderer Bard did an imitation of the ability as a commander. But it just wasn't the same. None of these could capture the feeling of playing Modern Pod.
Are you still alive, Scot?
This spoiler season, Mason Brantley of the Underdog's Corner sent me an image of the newly-revealed Prime Speaker Vannifar, along with the message, "Are you okay?" Yes, yes I was. I had not died of an excitement-induced heart attack, but it was close. At long last, my Birthing Pod commander! In Simic, the best color combination!
The potential was limitless, and I still haven't come down from the excitement high. I immediately began to brew the commander I'd been mentally preparing for since 2015.
Everyone and their dog, cat, and uncle have been brewing Vannifar, and I don't blame them. There is so much room for neat deck design, and for combo potential. After putting my initial list together, I discovered that DJ at Jumbo Commander had posted a Deck Tech for Vannifar, and the list was eerily similar to my own! Great minds think alike, and you should definitely check out his deck tech, because it's chock full of awesome synergies. For now, in the interest of providing something a little new to the discussion, we're going to mix things up a little bit.
Silencing the Groans
Not everyone is thrilled about Vannifar's arrival; many have concerns that her deck will inevitably encourage linear gameplay, and that her tutoring will slow down games.
Thus, I've decided to build an alternative "toolbox-y" variant of Vannifar. I think we can make a package of 8-15 cards to swap in and out of a combo version of Vannifar, tempering the power level to the needs of the table. If DJ's version of Vannifar is Kiki Pod, the package I'm proposing will let us play a Melira variant.
Addressing the second point, speed of play is the responsibility of the Vannifar player. One way to limit our tutoring time is to know our decklist inside and out. Declaring our tutor target ahead of time lets us pass the turn while we search. This won't always be an option if we need to tutor several cards, or if opponents have responses, but if we cut corners here and there, we can make Vannifar a better experience for the table. For a more combo-oriented Vannifar list, the timing shouldn't be a big concern; there should only be one or two turns with Vannifar in play before you end the game.
So what have I got for you today? First we're going to look at my take on Vannifar as a combo-focused commander, then move to cards that we can swap in and out to make our deck more grindy, less of a combo mess, and more palatable for different players.
Let's take a look!
Ooze your Mama?
Prime Speaker Vannifar
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It should come as no surprise that we're sitting at a hearty 44 creatures. We're a creature deck through and through, and we want the bulk of answers to come from this section. One of the greatest beauties of a deck like this is that we're just a few Vannifar activations away from solving whatever problem is keeping the game out of our reach. That said, I've noticed my version of the deck plays more instant speed answers than others I've seen so far. Given that Vannifar tends to move at sorcery speed, having a few options to cheaply eliminate an opposing combo piece could be the difference between winning and losing.
This deck is surprisingly well-balanced. We have almost equal parts tutors, ramp, removal, and untappers (roughly eight of each). For each of these categories I've largely stuck to creature-based options, at a diversity of mana costs. For instance, we have six options that untap Vannifar whose mana costs range from 1-4. We don't have a five-drop slot, but Fatestitcher can be sacrificed for another five-drop and then Unearthed to continue the chain.
Our average converted mana cost is 3.37, which is high for a combo deck. However, keep in mind that this average is propped up by a significant number of expensive creatures we never plan to actually cast. Our 1-, 2-, and 3-drops are exceptionally important. We want to always have a target for Vannifar as soon as she enters the battlefield, before she immediately eats a removal spell.
We also focus abilities that provide value immediately. We abilities that trigger as soon as creatures enter play, or which have activated abilities that don't require tapping. Any creature without this utility likely isn't efficient enough for our combo variant. Take special notice of creatures that create tokens or have Persist triggers. These are particularly excellent, as they represent the starts of new creature chains necessary for assembling multi-piece combos.
This deck's combos are a bit more complicated than others. As a result, I want to highlight a few of our endgame situations, and I'll let you discover your favorite way of assembling the pieces to do so. Sometimes your ability to put a combo together will depend on your hand, but Vannifar's wealth of options will often make combo-building trivially easy.
All the Mana in the Multiverse
Our cleanest kills revolve around generating infinite mana and funneling that mana into a mana sink. For example, Mindshrieker is one of the few ways we can kill an entire board through Vannifar chains alone. I'd normally steer away from niche combo effects like Mindshrieker, but I'm willing to make an exception here for a clean kill. Thrasios, Triton Hero and Staff of Domination are also good options, both offering utility beyond simply being mana sinks, though neither can actually end the game on their own.
So how are we going to make infinite mana? Using the oldest trick in the book:
Deadeye Navigator + Palinchron/Peregrine Drake. (We can also use Bramble Sovereign instead of the Navigator!)
Once we establish infinite mana, Vannifar can chain into Thrasios, Mindshrieker, or Trophy Mage, which will find the Staff of Domination.
How might one of these chains look? Brace yourselves, this is about to get complicated.
Starting board: Vannifar + 2-drop creature + 4 mana
- Activate Vannifar and sacrifice the 2-drop creature, finding Trophy Mage (4 mana floating).
- Trophy Mage finds Thousand-Year Elixir and we cast it (1 mana floating).
- Untap Vannifar with Thousand-Year Elixir.
- Activate Vannifar, sacrificing Trophy Mage to find Fatestitcher.
- Untap Vannifar with Fatestitcher (which has pseudo-haste from the Elixir).
- Activate Vannifar, sacrificing Fatestitcher to find Peregrine Drake (untap 5 lands = 5 mana floating).
- Unearth Fatestitcher and use it to untap Vannifar (4 mana floating)
- Activate Vannifar, sacrificing Peregrine Drake to find Deadeye Navigator. Soulbond it to Fatestitcher.
- Blink the Fatestitcher (2 mana floating).
- Untap Vannifar with Fatestitcher.
- Activate Vannifar, sacrificing Fatestitcher to find Body Double. Have Body Double copy Peregrine Drake and Soulbond it with Deadeye Navigator (untap 5 lands = 7 mana floating).
- Create infinite mana by blinking Body Double with Deadeye Navigator (each time copying Peregrine Drake and untapping 5 lands).
- Activate Deadeye Navigator to blink itself, and Soulbond with Vannifar. Blink Vannifar.
- Activate Vannifar to sacrifice Body Double (Peregrine Drake) to find Woodland Bellower.
- Find any 1-drop green creature with Bellower and put it into play.
- Activate Deadeye Navigator to blink Vannifar.
- Activate Vannifar to sacrifice the 1 cmc creature, finding Thrasios, Triton Hero or Mindshrieker.
- Sink our mana into their abilities to draw our whole deck or mill out all opponents.
Savvy readers out there are probably thinking: "Scot... There have got to be better ways to combo out. In fact here are ways X, Y, and Z that do it better." And you're probably right! This is almost certainly not the most efficient combo. I simply wanted to illustrate the nature of possible combos, and why it's so important to know our deck inside and out. With how complicated these chains can be, it's easy to waste a bunch of time tutoring and wind up reaching a dead end. We want to avoid that if at all possible.
Luckily, this deck has two "easy mode" buttons: Intruder Alarm and Thornbite Staff. If we can get Alarm on board or Staff equipped to Vannifar, suddenly we no longer need to worry about finding abilities that untap Vannifar, and we can chain through our deck with a fresh Vannifar activation every time we find a new dude. These cards don't force us to get creative, and should usually win us the game if we're not disrupted.
Finally, if our infinite combos are disrupted, we can always work towards blowing up all enemy non-creature permanents with Deadeye Navigator and Woodfall Primus. If we have enough creatures on board, we can even go for the trusty Avenger of Zendikar + Craterhoof Behemoth aggro kill.
These are the ways we might end the game, but I also want to highlight a few potent interactions that might get overlooked.
The Special Sauce
One of the key interactions of the Modern Birthing Pod deck was the ability to find Phyrexian Metamorph, copy Birthing Pod, and double up on Pod interactions. However, when our Birthing Pod is a legendary creature, creating a copy isn't as simple. Luckily, Sakashima the Impostor lets us copy our commander without breaking the legend rule.
As a whole, Clone abilities are quite good in our deck, especially the cheaper options like Phantasmal Image and Renegade Doppelganger, but I like Sakashima here as our one "expensive" copy ability. Clones also let us skip links in Vannifar chains by copying creatures with different CMCs.
Spellseeker seems out of place in the deck, but she allows us to more seamlessly incorporate instant and sorcery spells into the brew. She can find all of them except Beast Within, so we can find basically any removal we need, any counterspell for protection, or a Green Sun's Zenith to begin our next creature chain.
It goes without saying that Glen Elendra Archmage is an incredible card in Commander, and in this deck, it works on several axes. It protects Vannifar with countermagic, it can be tutored out with our commander, and it can be sacrificed to our commander without sacrificing its protection. Persist is a mighty keyword with Birthing Pod abilities; if we no longer need a counterspell, Persist lets us start a second creature chain to advance our board.
Lastly, we have a few thieving abilities to steal opponents' creatures. The cheapest of these is Gilded Drake, which permanently takes any creature for just two mana. Equally potent is Sower of Temptation, which steals a creature. The impermanence of Sower's ability is usually a disqualifying factor in Commander, but for this deck, we'll sacrifice the stolen creature before our opponents have a chance to take it back. It's very powerful to start multiple Vannifair CMC chains, and Sower lets us do so at our enemy's expense.
This deck looks... mean. Sure, Vannifar is somewhat fragile, but any deck capable of including Simic's best creatures will never be completely out of the game. Most games involving combo Vannifar will be quick, brutish, and nasty. In my Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain article I mentioned that I only planned to play the deck when my opponents bringing their biggest weapons to the table. I plan to treat this version of Vannifar the same way.
Ooze gonna stop us?
What if we don't want to feel guilty playing Vannifar? What if we want to foster an interactive environment? Luckily, Vannifar is so versatile we can move a few things around and end up with a deck that's fun to play with and against.
Out with all the combo pieces! In with sweet, sweet value engines!
Building a Value Package
Here are 11 swaps I would make to bring our deck down a peg, making it more value-centric and less oppressively combo-oriented.
A quick disclaimer: "fun" is a subjective thing, and while I think these changes will make my deck more palatable for my playgroup, they might not be enough for yours. One could easily gut this deck, taking out all of the tutors, the Craterhoof Behemoth, etc. and still end up with a very fun brew. The changes I'm suggesting are intended to strip away the combo elements while adding in some value pieces.
Magnificent Beasts and Where to Find Them
Let's start with a neat interaction we didn't use in our combo build: playing from the top of the deck. Because Vannifar lets us shuffle on demand, Courser of Kruphix, Oracle of Mul Daya, and Vizier of the Menagerie become more powerful, since we get to see more cards. This is also why Brainstorm is so good in this list, guaranteeing that we will see three fresh cards. The reason cards like these didn't make it into our more competitive list is because we don't want to sacrifice them to Vannifar, to accrue value over time. We'll still need the bulk of our dudes to have ETB abilities, but we can stomach a couple of these value engines.
Gilded Drake seems a bit mean for a casual playgroup, but I didn't want to lose a theft spell. I've swapped in Perplexing Chimera which fits in our low-density five-drop slot. The upside? Now we have the potential to steal any spell. Obviously, once Chimera is on board, our opponents can play around it, but its presence alone should discourage our opponents from doing anything too powerful. If nobody wants to trade us a good spell for our Chimera, we can always sacrifice it to Vannifar and continue on our way up the chain.
Our combo deck was soft on graveyard hate. Scavenging Ooze is excellent, but it requires a hefty mana investment. Loaming Shaman is one of the best ways to punish a player who's overextended with their dredging.
The combo variant also didn't have much ability to deal with creature assaults, with only five pieces of creature removal and few Wrath effects. Oblivion Stone is perfect, since Trophy Mage can easily tutor it for us, and Vannifar can easily tutor Trophy Mage. I've also added a great way to deal with aggression: Spike Feeder. I'm not typically fond of Fog effects in Commander, but I do like that we can find Spike Feeder on demand, then sacrifice it when it's outlived its usefulness.
Lastly, the cuts above lost some of the top end, so I've added Greenwarden of Murasa and Nezahal, Primal Tide. Greenwarden was left out of the combo list in favor of Woodland Bellower, which finds Eternal Witness. It may not have been good enough for the combo variant, but it's excellent for a value package. When grinding card advantage in a drawn-out game, Greenwarden is exactly what we want. Nezahal was also too clunky for our combo deck, but she fits well here as one of our top end "draw spells."
This week, instead of a "potential cuts" list, we have a "potential adds" list. Because Vannifar is open to such a variety of different designs, I don't believe there is a right or wrong way to build her, so these are a few cards I heavily considered when deciding on swaps between combo and value packages.
I mentioned that most of our removal is in the form of instants and sorciers, but this doesn't have to be the case. Man-o'-War and Duplicant could give us some nice answers in our Vannifar chains. Man-o'-War in particular has the added benefit of letting us bounce our own dudes, opening up the potential to reuse ETB abilities. Additionally, Ulvenwald Tracker could serve as a form of tutor-able and reusable removal once we get a big creature on board.
Speaking of instant speed removal, I like the new Incubation // Incongruity to exile problematic creatures. Incubation is also useful as a draw spell in a pinch.
Along similar lines as Incubation, Growing Rites of Itlimoc seems easy to trigger here, and we wouldn't complain about having the extra mana.
This deck has tons of options for untapping Vannifar, but if you need more, Bounding Krasis and Breaching Hippocamp are good options.
The final card to highlight is for the combo variant of the deck. Torpor Orb completely hoses our combo build. If you're worried about the Orb, swap Reclamation Sage for Thrashing Brontodon so Vannifar can tutor up an answer. If there are enough Torpor Orbs in your meta, you might even consider mainboarding cards like Krosan Grip.
Thank you all for taking the time to read my article! I hope I was able to provide some new insights into this wonderful commander, and I hope I've inspired you to try a different direction with your Vannifar list that isn't simply the same combo deck that's popped up many times online already. Even a couple tweaks can completely change the flavor of your deck.
I couldn't be more excited for this deck, and I'm thrilled to try out Vannifar!
Until next time, I wish you all the best and happy brewing!