Underdog's Corner - Revisiting Arjun

(Arjun, the Shifting Flame | Art by William Murai)

Where It All Began

Back in 2016, I began writing small posts here and there about commanders that weren't as popular as the usual suspects. We'd all known Oloro, Ageless Ascetic and Karador, Ghost Chieftain, but we didn't know as much about Sek'Kuar, Deathkeeper and Basandra, Battle Seraph. This eventually became the series you're now reading, Underdog's Corner and my very first article examined Arjun, the Shifting Flame. I still am very proud of that article, but today, I want to revisit this old Sphinx and see how things have changed.

Arjun, the Shifting Flame

Whenever you cast a spell, put the cards in your hand on the bottom of your library in any order, then draw that many cards.

If you have never seen this legend before, let me introduce you. Arjun is a creature version of the enchantment Mindmoil. Whenever we cast a spell, we effectively get a new hand. This lets us cycle through our deck at a breakneck pace. Unlike most decks that only get to see a handful of cards each game, Arjun uniquely allows us to see the majority of our deck while we're playing.

This is the charm that has always pulled me to this legend. Do we need a bomb to help close out the game? Arjun can find it. Do we need removal to deal with the board? Arjun can help with that. Do we just want to draw cards for the sake of drawing them? Arjun, definitely, can do that.

To me, approaching Arjun requires a slightly different mindset than other commanders, which is on-brand for a Sphinx. While elements of other blue-red draw-focused commanders exist in his frame, his strategy adds just enough of a wrinkle to set him apart.

Adapting to the Times

If we look at the stats for Izzet-colored commanders, Arjun's pedestal has been bumped down a few pegs since we last let his fire loose. His contemporary, Mizzix of the Izmagnus, has an iron grip as the most played Izzet commander on EDHREC. Since Arjun's release, we've also seen the advent of multiple blue-red Artificers, we've seen the return of Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain, Niv-Mizzet, Parun has made a splash, and we've also witnessed The Locust God swarm to a Top 3 position in the Izzet colors. Arjun has more competition now than ever.

Let's talk about a couple of these legends now, since they'll be new inclusions in the deck.

The first question many people will ask is, "Why not play The Locust God, Niv-Mizzet, Parun, or Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind instead?" Don't get me wrong, this is a completely valid question. Each of them offers a variety of strengths, and by the numbers, two of them already are more popular, and the Parun of the Izzet is only a few months shy of surpassing our Sphinx as well.

So why should we play Arjun over these other commanders? I think there are two primary reasons to pick the Sphinx.

1. Modality of Playstyle

When we look at these four commanders, we tend to focus on what makes them similar. We see that all of them have abilities that relate to drawing cards. The Locust God creates tokens when we draw. Both versions of Niv-Mizzet deal damage when we draw. Arjun draws cards when we cast spells. At face value, these commander appear to all greatly benefit from being a "wheel" commander (check out the Wheel Theme page for more info). While this is true, I think this undermines what makes commander great, and it also a primary reason why I write this series.

Yes, there is overlap, but all of these commanders still do things in a unique way. If we look at each of these commander's EDHREC pages, we can see divergence. The Locust God's page shows that there is a lot of focus on creating and benefiting from tokens, like Impact Tremors. There are also three "wheel" effects within the Signature Cards.

The two Niv-Mizzets are the most similar, as they share the same line of text: Whenever you draw a card, Niv-Mizzet deals 1 damage to any target. After that, the differences are more minute. Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind opens up doors to add untapping effects to our arsenal. A card like Mind Over Matter becomes a blue Gatling gun with the Firemind. For Niv-Mizzet, Parun, the deck focuses a bit more on instants and sorceries, caring slightly more about card types than his previous iteration.

What type of deckbuilding decisions makes Arjun unique? Unlike his contemporaries, he doesn't benefit from us drawing cards. The most defining aspect of Arjun is that he's the one who draws cards for us, rather than benefiting whenever we draw cards. Whenever we cast a spell, we draw, which means Arjun's gameplan gets to be much more open-ended. We don't need to focus on instants and sorceries or tap-untap combos or creature tokens. We can certainly choose to, but we're not boxed in, and can remain flexible.

Also, as long as we're discussing situations that make Arjun more unique, take a quick look at Possibility Storm. This card gives us a ton of traction; since Possibility Storm casts the spell, it ts Arjun dig twice every time we cast a spell. By using a Vedalken Orrery or Leyline of Anticipation, we can even potentially cast more spells in between those rapidly-Mindmoiling hands before they cycle away, giving us a massive amount of draw triggers for very little cost.

2. Leadership Roles

Whenever we pick a commander to build, we have a reason. It could introduce a play style or archetype that hadn't existed before, such as Aminatou, the Fateshifter, or maybe we wanted to build around it because it's just a darn powerful Magic card, such as The Gitrog Monster. Maybe we built a specific commander because we enjoy the art or lore of the legend in question, or perhaps it's because you don't have an Izzet deck yet and want to try out the color combo. No matter the "why," we always have a reason to build a deck.

Our considerations shouldn't stop there, though. Commanders don't just fill a role because they allow us access to a new strategy. They also fulfill a distinct role in the command zone.

Let me explain: commanders fall into a few categories by how they interact with their deck, and people are drawn to specific types of commanders within these categories. I would say there are four major types of commander categories: Linchpin, Centerpiece, Enablers, and Value.

  • Linchpin commanders are those whose strategy heavily relies upon them being in play. Most often these commanders present a strategy that is nearly unique to them, with many pieces in the 99 that are exclusive to their specific deck. Killing them is usually a massive blow to their controller. Uril, the Miststalker, Arcades, the Strategist, Purphoros, God of the Forge, and Mizzix of the Izmagnus are good examples.
  • Centerpiece legends are similar to Linchpin commanders, but the main difference is that the deck can function well enough without them. These commanders most often lead established archetypes. Letting these commanders sit around lets the pilot accelerate their gameplan immensely, so you will likely have to kill them multiple times a game. For example, Teysa Karlov, Meren of Clan Nel Toth, or Omnath, Locus of Rage.
  • Enablers, while in play, will certainly vault their decks into high gear, but there will also be games where you never see them cast because the deck functions well enough even without them. For this category, think of Roon of the Hidden Realm, Mogis, God of Slaughter, or Nekusar the Mindrazer.
  • Value commanders are exactly what they sound like. They provide good benefits to the deck, and give it a strategic direction, but you don't need the commander. Examples include Oloro, Ageless Ascetic, Anafenza the Foremost, or commanders chosen purely for access to their colors, as is often the case with cards like Cromat.

I think these distinctions (combined with a few personal preferences) provide us with solid reasons to pick Arjun, the Shifting Flame. The other options, like Niv and Locust God, fall into the Linchpin or Centerpiece categories, powerful presences that strongly influence the board, and on whom the 99 strongly relies.

Conversely, I would consider Arjun to be an Enabler commander. The deck can function well enough without him, it just really picks up speed with him. You can have a multitude of excellent payoffs whenever you draw cards, which are strongly supported by your commander, but not dependent upon him. I know I'm personally drawn to Enabler commanders, so my strategy isn't blown apart if my deck leader is removed. Simply put, Arjun consistently turns the wheels of my game plan, which provides great flexibility.

No Time Like the Present

Enough talk of comparisons, let's see how things have changed. We've already talked about them a lot in this article, but let's not understate how strong The Locust God and Niv-Mizzet, Parun are. They're not the main focus of our deck, and we have many different payoffs for continually wheeling our hand, but these are certainly two of the best. The Locust God can create an entire army in the blink of an eye, and Niv-Mizzet, Parun can launch a barrage of lighting at our opponents. If you have the cards lying around, Arjun would be a great home for them.

Let's talk some other cards though. What else has released to pair with this legend?

If you read my original article on Arjun, you'll know that there was a heavy Mill subtheme in the original list. If we want to go this route, we have quite the new addition with Psychic Corrosion. Milling each opponent by two for each card we draw? That adds a significant clock. Even if we only wheel about five cards per turn, that's ten cards milled per opponent. We've come a long way form Jace's Erasure.

If we just want to draw more cards, then we have Toothy, Imaginary Friend. Not only will Toothy grow to gargantuan sizes, but when it leaves the battlefield we'll be able to draw just as many cards. Extra cards in hand are fantastic for Arjun, as it allows us to churn through our deck at an even faster clock.

Since Commander 2015 we've seen the emergence of two new mechanics that assist in Arjun's strategy. Arjun always wants to stay as card-neutral as possible. Whenever we cast a spell, we go down one card in hand, which means we draw fewer cards from Arjun's ability. One card doesn't sound like much, but it's a very big deal; losing a single card in hand early in the game could mean that we draw seven fewer cards across the whole game as we continually recycle our hand multiple times. That's seven fewer Psychic Corrosion triggers. Keeping our hand size intact is vital. We therefore want effects that either draw cards or don't impact our hand size, to keep our engine alive.

The first mechanic to assist with this is Aftermath. Once we cast a spell, we can recast a different half from the graveyard. Since this still counts as casting a spell, we can trigger Arjun without depleting our hand size.

The second mechanic is Jump-Start. Unlike Aftermath, it still puts us down a card in hand. While not ideal, what Jump-Start does offer is the ability to cast two spells off one card, which can be situationally useful.

Lastly, here are a few cards that I think are a mix of fun and usefulness, but not necessarily auto-includes. Kozilek, the Great Distortion is a massive mana investment, but if we cleverly layer its cast trigger on the stack, we can draw up to seven cards in hand, then cycle away that hand away for a new seven (or vice versa).

Runehorn Hellkite is another option to draw cards without using a card from our hand. While allowing everyone to wheel is never ideal, our deck should be built to leverage this much more than our opponents. Azor's Gateway is definitely a for-fun inclusion, but Arjun cycling through our deck should allow us to find five cards with varying converted mana costs to flip it.

Shifting Sensibilities

I will always have a soft spot for Arjun, and I hope I've encouraged you to give him a chance after reading. If you're willing to lean into his quirks, I think you'll find a delightfully unique take on the archetype.

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Thank you for indulging me as I revisit some old legends, and as always, thanks for joining me in the Underdog's Corner!

Mason is an EDH player from Georgia, who is a self-proclaimed Johnny and Vorthos. His MTG career started with a casual lifegain deck with only a single win-condition. When not consuming MTG, he spends his time being a full-time student, an avid sports fan, and a dabbling musician. Mason can be found on twitter @K_Mason64