These Cards Do WORK! - Phenax, God of Deception
Making Memories… Disappear
Hi there! I’m Jeremy Rowe, AKA J Ro, the Unsummoned Skull, a former Judge, Tournament Organizer, and Pro Tour competitor. I’m also a current teacher, college professor, streamer, community leader, and content creator. In this series, we examine the big EDH questions: What makes a card good? What’s the difference between popularity and synergy? What even is that synergy thing anyways? My intention is to differentiate between high- and low-synergy cards, describe in what ways the cards work with the commander, and explain why high synergy is such a good thing. For a deck to be powerful and consistent, each card needs to do a job, and these cards do WORK!
In Commander, there are several ways to win the game. Some win by attacking each player for 40+ damage. Others try to deal 21 commander damage. There are myriad alternate win conditions, but the OG is mill. Milling between 294 and 297 cards is a difficult task, but not an impossible one. Some players also dislike mill, since they don't like to watch their cards get thrown into the bin unceremoniously. Sometimes, instead of milling each opponent out, it may even be preferable to just make better use of an opponent's graveyard than they can, essentially playing their cards for them, and who better to use this kind of manipulative power than the God of Misdirection, !
One of the Theros Gods, is cast as a creature, counts as an enchantment, and can only behave as a creature if its Devotion of blue or black color pips is greater than or equal to seven. With defensive stats and abilities, Phenax would be nasty enough for us as a roadblock for attackers, but Phenax has an offensive ability for us: our creatures can tap to mill a player - which can include ourselves - equal to the toughness of the creature tapped.
Phenax is representative of why I love the color blue, because this milling ability can be used in many different ways. We can mill ourselves to set up a reanimator strategy. We can mill opponents for the win condition. We can mill opponents for the value, in terms of being able to use, cast, or copy spells from the graveyard. We can mill cards for tempo advantage, such as by controlling the top of the library. The flexibility for one commander to be a Dimir topdeck control deck, graveyard tempo deck, combo deck, or straight-up mill deck shows how flexible the colors are, which is beautiful.
It is my belief that all commander decks are midrange decks, needing the same jobs done in order to switch cleanly between offense and defense, as well as to combat a variety of threats from around the table. is a special commander, so let’s find the right tools for these jobs!
Most decks need ramp to play high-impact spells at a time when they are still relevant. Phenax has a mana value of 5, which is relatively high for a commander that may or may not be able to generate immediate value. With the advent of power creep, other decks have the ability to get up and running by the time Phenax is cast, and the setup for our God requires several spells be cast in the first few turns. As a result, we need to ramp fast and build a board using explosive bursts.
For each job, I'd like to highlight a low-synergy-score card, a high-synergy-score card, and an underrated card for this commander to add more context to the qualitative data and see how each one magnifies the abilities, accentuates the strengths, and mitigates the weaknesses of our commander.
is one of my favorite mana rocks, especially in slower combo decks. It comes out early enough to not feel like it’s setting us behind while the other players develop their boards and their early beats. When the stone starts to become more than a paperweight, it can be sacrificed to draw a card, helping to find action and kickstart plans, as 32% of Phenax decks have found. On 's EDHREC page, you'll see that has a low synergy score (-2%), but that doesn't mean it's a bad card here. Synergy scores on EDHREC are a form of uniqueness calculation (32% of decks play , and 34% of all other Dimir decks also play , so the difference = -2%).
, on the other hand, is incredibly unique to Phenax's deck, and incredibly cool to use with his ability. Every time we tap him to mill, we'll be rewarded with mana on our next turn!
might not seem like a very efficient mana rock, as it only provides one mana, but it increases the Devotion by one, so Phenax becomes a creature faster and can use his own tap ability. It even gains one life a turn as long as Phenax is out. Not bad value for one little mana rock!
In addition to being able to cast spells on time (or early enough in the game to still be relevant), decks need removal to be able to deal with the threats opposing decks present, as well as to be able to protect their own threats from opposing removal.
is an efficient spot removal spell, one of the more important 1-for-1 removal spells printed in recent history. For 2 mana, we can destroy any creature at instant speed with the additional cost of 2 life, which is almost inconsequential in a 40-life format, especially with the Altar gaining life. It's got a -19% synergy score on Phenax’s EDHREC page, just because other Dimir decks play it at a much higher rate (36% of all Dimir decks).
, meanwhile, has a synergy score of 41% for our deceptive deity; it's used much more with him than with other Dimir commanders. It, like and , answers a threat 1-for-1 and mills the opponent. While this facilitates a mill win condition, it's even more effective in a deck looking to cast spells from opponents’ graveyards, as we can counter a spell and then cast it ourselves (assuming we don’t mill something juicier)!
is an underrated option, played in only 5% of Phenax decks. In a deck where Devotion matters, it’s likely that there will be 10+ permanents on our board. Turns out the reward for being blessed by the city is more than worth it. With that blessing, the nonland permanent is placed on the top of its owner’s library, instead of returned to hand. Why is this better? Aren’t we trying to mill the opponent’s deck? Well, some cards are difficult to destroy, like , which is also powerful enough that it would be worth it to recast on a later turn. Instead, we can put it on top of the library, where we can then mill it away and even reanimate it ourselves!
Most decks need plans for what to do if things get out of hand, and is no different. Phenax does require Devotion, so it would be best to avoid destroying too many of our own permanents, but, as an indestructible permanent, Phenax will survive most board wipes. The question is, can we take advantage of it?
has been an iconic black Commander staple, oddly enough holding up better than its original white counterpart, . Quite a lot of black decks have been looking to other board wipes, such as , but we want Damnation instead because Deluge could kill Phenax from a state-based effect, but Damnation will keep our God around for another day.
, meanwhile, has a synergy score of 31%, as it is an excellent way to protect our life total by restricting the number of creatures that can attack. Why is this mass removal? Because this invalidates several of our opponents’ cards at once. While we're looking to have some number of creatures with large toughness to block, it’s better for us to not have to face wide armies. Mill tends not to be a popular strategy at some tables, and this slows down all of our opponents at once. It also provides a large body to mill with. The only thing it doesn’t do for us is provide blue or black pips, but that can be forgiven.
is a somewhat antithetical card for a mill commander, especially since it doesn’t add Devotion, doesn’t add toughness, and doesn’t deal with threats on the board. Instead, it’s a failsafe. While it’s tempting to assume that we're going to make better use of opponents’ graveyards than they are, it is possible that we might face someone that can use that zone. If that happens, we need to be prepared to fight over it, with Crypt and . Thankfully, these artifacts only target the graveyard we're fighting over, allowing us to keep harvesting from our other opponents.
Every deck needs card draw, selection, tutoring, or advantage, to help find the pieces it needs to transition between the phases of the game. There are always going to be spells that are better early than late, or better from ahead, or better from behind. is a somewhat expensive commander, and it and the creatures that have high toughness to mill more cards are defensive, so it sometimes needs a bit of help to kick the plan into action and recover if the centerpiece is answered.
is an iconic blue draw spell. It’s been around almost as long as the game itself, and is one of the more skill-testing cards of all time (next to my beloved , of course). It seems simple enough: one mana, draw three, put two back. Then, factor in the timing. When do we cast it? On an opponent’s turn, to see more cards? On our own turn, to mitigate the downside? What do we put back on top? We could keep the best cards, but get stuck drawing blanks. What makes Phenax special, though, is that we can manipulate the top of our deck. If we don’t like what’s there, we can mill it away. If we have a big creature stuck in hand, we can set it up on top of the deck to get milled and then reanimated!
shows up with a 32% synergy score on Phenax’s EDHREC page. It's only played in 5% of non-Phenax Dimir decks, making it fairly unique to the deity, and with good reason. Visions was tailor-made for a mill commander, as it cares about whether a graveyard has 20+ cards in it. It doesn’t matter which graveyard, and over the course of a game, a lot of cards go to graves incidentally anyway. We're helping that process along, of course, so this might as well just be for us.
is over-costed on its front face, but still semi-reasonable. The cost reduction sells it. One Phenax activation sets this up to draw four for four! This bulk uncommon is a heck of a find for Phenax.
The last major job that most decks need is a way to actually close out the game. Ramping allows you to play spells out, but can be dead draws late game. Removing threats works for a while, but with three opponents, someone’s going to stick something, and games can either stall out or develop into arms races. Card draw helps, but what are you looking to actually draw? The answer is... win conditions! Phenax can be considered a win condition, but it has to be a creature to mill, and it can only go at one player at a time. Milling is a slow and steady win condition, one that is likely to get increasingly frustrated the more turns go by and potential plays are milled away. We need cards to either mill faster, take advantage of the mill, or reanimate creatures that have been milled.
is a hugely powerful swing, especially from a mill deck. It was used in a recent Game Knights episode to devastating effect, and has recovered a bit from the spike that came from its exposure. While not every Dimir deck wants this, it is an incredibly powerful spell for putting all of the creatures in all graveyards onto our battlefield. If we’re wondering how to win faster than milling, mass reanimation is a pretty great way to speed things up!
was once an unassuming, underachieving, $1 rare. Then, multiplayer formats started to take off. It would have been enough if its power and toughness were equal to the combined total of cards in opponents’ graveyards. It would been enough if each spell we cast milled an opponent until they revealed a land. But no, it does that last bit for each opponent! Factor in that it gets bigger with each card milled, and it can easily tap to one-shot a player's library!
is a card I will frequently just throw into black decks that need a win condition, as it will almost always add massive power and toughness, unless someone is explicitly looking to invalidate graveyards. While it can just be cast as an efficient beater or tap-to-mill card, it is so much more effective as an Aura, where it beefs up a creature until it falls off, and helps our recovery after a board wipe, too.
Just a Little off the Top
Let's round it out with a sample Phenax decklist! We're focusing on doing the jobs a deck needs to function, in a way that capitalizes on the commander’s unique characteristics. I’ve always had a fascination with Lhurgoyfs as a tribe, as their strength is unbounded, so they are limitless!
Arbitrarily Large and Incredibly Deadly!
Hopefully, this guide helps you to evaluate cards and use the data at hand! Results may vary, as playgroups, deck choices, and the luck of the draw can impact how games go.
Which cards overperformed for you? Which cards were overrated? Join me next time as we explore which cards are dead weight, and which cards do WORK!