Commander Strategies: A Garza Zol Deck

Hey yo. Since most of you reading this will never have heard of me, I’m Chris Lansdell, CLSmooth on MTGO, and I’m addicted to Magic. I started playing with Mirage and with a couple of breaks thrown in I’m still here, slinging spells and turning beasties sideways. I’ve never been a top-tier competitive player but have always tried to be, my best showing being a top 32 at UK Nationals one year. Everything I did in Magic, from trying to get playsets of the original dual lands to reading Inquest and Scrye religiously (you all remember them, right?) was aimed at becoming a high-level player. Casual formats and games just weren’t for me.

But now? I’ve been converted. For all my Magic-playing life I’ve eschewed the multiplayer formats for the ego war of one-on-one duels. I like playing with good cards, but I also like building my own decks. Netdecking is just not for me. I had read about Elder Dragon Highlander/EDH/Commander several times, but never really thought about playing it. For one thing I do all my playing on MTGO and for another it just seemed crazy. Then I tried it…and got hooked.

If you’re already a seasoned Commander vet, you probably want to jump on down to the next paragraph, because this is where I explain what Commander actually is. For the rest of you, EDH (or Commander, as it has been officially renamed) is a format that requires you to play with a deck of exactly 100 cards and a starting life total of 40. One of those cards is your general (referred to on MTGO as your commander), and the other 99 have to be in the same colours as your general, who has to be a legendary creature. So if your general is Geth, Lord of the Vault, you can only have black and colourless cards in your deck. One further wrinkle is that you may only run one copy of any card, except basic lands. Highlander…there can only be one…yes, it’s terribly creative. The game is generally played as a multiplayer game, and is a very casual and fun format that can take a while to develop and very often includes crazy, off-the-wall plays. Because of the singleton format and the high life total, you often get to play spells that are way too expensive for competitive formats, and those spells very often have splashy and fun effects that you’d never usually have a chance to use.

There is no format in Magic that has so many viable cards. There is no format that puts such an emphasis on political play while still encouraging strategic deckbuilding. As an example, I remember one game where I was drawing nothing but land and huge threats like Stormtide Leviathan and Inkwell Leviathan. In a normal two-player game, it’s clearly the right play to drop your two bombs and then stomp all over your opponent’s face, but in Commander it’s better to survey what everyone else is doing. Generally people will leave the guy with no threats alone, preferring to focus on the person who seems more dangerous. In this case there was one guy with a Luminarch Ascension out. To avoid having it get lots of counters, people kept attacking him. Of course he felt the need to attack back out of revenge. Eventually, as is often the case, someone set off a board sweeper (Nevinyrral’s Disk in this case), after which I played my Inkwell Leviathan and started smashing face. When Stormtide came down a little later, the game was basically over and I won with 38 life. Blow-up-the-world effects, mana ramp and fixing, card drawing and win conditions are not only common but almost a requirement in Commander, because otherwise you will find yourself on the wrong end of someone ELSE’S degenerate 4-card 18-mana combo very quickly. Also nothing sucks worse than having a board full of swamps and a grip full of red burn. There is also no other format that allows for so many swingy, splashy and hilarious plays and combos. When was the last time YOU Cloned an Avenger of Zendikar in a WUG Plant deck, then dropped a land and activated Novijen, Heart of Progress…all with Concordant Crossroads in play? Yeah, I never have either, but it killed me the other night. It’s the kind of combo you come up with when leafing through your trade binder, but you know it will never be good enough for competitive play so you don’t think about it again…unless you play Commander.

Card Image: Garza Zol, Plague QueenOf course most of you reading this already know all that. The format has hooked me because of these crazy, kooky combos and plays. I play way more Commander now than any other format, and I’ve seen and come up with a whole ton of fun card strategies and combos that I am just aching to share with someone. Thanks to KYT and the ManaDeprived team, that someone is all of you. What I figured we’d do for the first few installments is look at a couple of cards I’m playing in my Garza Zol deck.

The Garza Zol Deck

As I mentioned above, one of the big attractions for me was the swingy, splashy plays that Commander allows. For the first real deck I built I looked through my collection for the fun, expensive cards I always wanted to use but never could because they were “unplayable.” You’re gonna want a deck list, aren’t you? OK, here it comes:

[cardlist]
[Lands]
1 Blackcleave Cliffs
1 Crumbling Necropolis
1 Darkslick Shores
1 Dimir Aqueduct
1 Dreadship Reef
1 Gemstone Mine
1 Piranha Marsh
1 Rakdos Carnarium
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
11 Island
8 Mountain
10 Swamp
[/Lands]
[Creatures]
1 Aether Adept
1 Aether Membrane
1 Augury Owl
1 Avatar of Woe
1 Bogardan Hellkite
1 Deep-Sea Kraken
1 Dominating Licid
1 Echo Mage
1 Inkwell Leviathan
1 Scroll Thief
1 Skinrender
1 Sphinx of Jwar Isle
1 Stormtide Leviathan
1 Torchling
[/Creatures]
[Spells]
1 Act of Treason
1 Ancestral Vision
1 Armillary Sphere
1 Assassinate
1 Brink of Disaster
1 Call to Mind
1 Cerebral Eruption
1 Clutch of the Undercity
1 Consuming Vapors
1 Corrupt
1 Counsel of the Soratami
1 Dark Temper
1 Diabolic Tutor
1 Diminish
1 Doom Blade
1 Dread Return
1 Dreamstone Hedron
1 Echoing Truth
1 Elder Mastery
1 Elixir of Immortality
1 Enslave
1 Exsanguinate
1 Foresee
1 Gather Specimens
1 Gauntlet of Power
1 Khalni Gem
1 Last Gasp
1 Lightning Bolt
1 Living End
1 Mimic Vat
1 Mind Control
1 Mystical Teachings
1 Obelisk of Grixis
1 Ovinize
1 Ponder
1 Pongify
1 Preordain
1 Radiate
1 Rakdos Signet
1 Reiterate
1 Rise from the Grave
1 Rite of Replication
1 Terror
1 Traitorous Instinct
1 Treacherous Urge
1 Volition Reins
1 Zuran Orb
[/Spells]
[/cardlist]

Why Garza Zol? Well I always wanted to play her, she comes out and hits for a nice big surprise and she was way cheaper than Nicol Bolas. I am a cheap bastard and spending a lot of money on a fun format seems kind of like buying a Wii to play with the kids and then buying a 72” 3D TV on which to play it. Anyway, let’s start with one of my all-time favourite cards that has made many, many opponents congratulate me and concede.

Radiate
Just in case you don’t know this card, it’s a 3RR instant from Torment that reads:

Card Image: RadiateRadiate
3RR Instant (Torment)
Choose target instant or sorcery spell that targets only a single permanent or player. Copy that spell for each other permanent or player the spell could target. Each copy targets a different one of those permanents and players.

If your brain immediately went fifteen different places on reading that card, then congratulations! You, like me, are a Timmy/Johnny hybrid. Let’s look at some fun things we can do with this nifty little trick machine.

Rite of Replication
Radiate first seemed good to me in combination with something like Raze (Sorcery, R, As an additional cost to play Raze, sacrifice a land. Destroy target land.) when you’re playing artifact mana. Yeah, it never did work out, simply because if I wanted to destroy all lands, Armageddon only cost 4. I filed it under “cards to come back to” until I started playing Commander and was introduced to the awesomeness that is a kicked Rite of Replication. If one copy of a creature is a good thing, then 5 more seems good, right? How about five copies of every creature on the board? Let’s look at the card first:

Card Image: Rite of ReplicationRite of Replication
2UU Instant (Zendikar)
Kicker 5
Put a token onto the battlefield that’s a copy of target creature. If Rite of Replication was kicked, put five of those tokens onto the battlefield instead.

Yes, that’s 14 mana for the combo and in any other format that would be enough to discount it as a pipe dream. In Commander it’s not only possible, but I’ve done it twice so far. I did lose one of those games to a ridiculously large Omnath (I hate Omnath decks) but the other game was just a beatdown. Extractor Demon, Deep-Sea Kraken, Stormtide Leviathan, Shriekmaw and I believe an Avenger of Zendikar were all in play, plus random chaff. When was a last time you saw a stack with THAT many triggers on it?

A couple of tips for this combo. Obviously you want some acceleration and/or ramp in the deck. I’d recommend casting the initial copy of Rite on one of your own creatures, just to avoid some of the shenanigans that can occur, like instant-speed sacrifice effects. Also if you’re playing it on MTGO, make sure you hold down CTRL while clicking the Rite, that way the Radiate will hit the stack and will be able to make copies even if the initial target gets removed after the fact. I think. JUDGE!

Card Image: Clutch of the Undercity

Clutch of the Undercity

Clutch of the Undercity
1UUB Instant (Ravnica)
Return target permanent to its owner’s hand. Its controller loses 3 life.
Transmute 1UB

So essentially what we have here, if played correctly, is a combo that might as well read: 4UURRB: Win target game. Not seeing it? Then allow me to enlighten you. By the time you get the 9 mana required to cast this, the chances are beyond good that other players will have around a dozen permanents each in play. Target one of your own lands with Clutch (very hard to destroy a land at instant speed, so you don’t run the risk of it getting countered for no target), then in response to your own Clutch you Radiate. That’s a LOT of copies, and a LOT of losses of 3 life. Not many cards will allow you to win a game of EDH with all 4 players still active – Earthquake, Hurricane and Exsanguinate spring to mind – but the one occasion on which I pulled this off got me there with 4 life left. I had to be careful because I had 11 land in play, three mana artifacts, Zuran Orb, Avatar of Woe and Stormtide Leviathan. I was on 2 life so I had to be VERY creative. I cast the combo targeting an Island, sacrificed the other 10 lands (+20 life) then watched everyone scramble to sac permanents. 6 permanents went back to my hand, nobody else had less than 10. All three dead in one shot. I run a deck that’s light on permanents anyway, but once I realised there was a combo there I found room for a Zuran Orb. Any opponent with 14 permanents in play is dead, and that number obviously goes down if they’ve been hit at all. Is it a long-shot? Absolutely! That’s the fun of Commander! Magic provides the opportunity for these crazy plays but Commander amplifies it. Are you starting to see why I love this format yet?

Rise from the Grave
Reanimation is powerful in Commander, because almost everyone plays big nasty creatures and almost everyone plays creature kill. It stands to reason that a Living Death that puts everything on your side of the board would be pretty obscene.

Card Image: Rise from the GraveRise from the Grave
4B Sorcery (M10, M11)
Put target creature card in a graveyard onto the battlefield under your control. That creature is a black Zombie in addition to its other colors and types.

10 mana is not that bad, especially since there will normally have been a couple of board sweeps by then. The best part of this combo is that everyone else is helping you hit it, and you don’t have to do anything. Since you’re probably running Gauntlet of Power, the fact that the creatures are all black is another bonus: you’re choosing black for Gauntlet anyway since you’re running Urborg (meaning you can tap every land for BB if you want) and black creatures are just harder to kill. I have yet to hit this combo in an actual game, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize degenerate when I see it.

Of course, these are just a few of the nastier combos in my own deck for Radiate. There’s nothing stopping you casting it in response to an opposing Rite, for example. If some wants to Revoke Existence your Mimic Vat, you can clear the board of enchantments and artifacts. If you’re low on creatures in play (which I often am, I only run 14), then any creature kill your opponents use can become a Wrath. Things get REALLY silly if you have an Echo Mage in play or a Reiterate in hand, along with the extra mana of course. Any cantrip with a target can be a strong candidate for copying, though there will be times when you really don’t want to Radiate. Still, I am starting to consider it a must-play in any red Commander deck.

Putting Me On Tilt

Any fan of Commander will tell you that the game is at least 40% political. It is hardly ever the player who gets the fast start that ends up winning the game. This political aspect doesn’t stop some people from trying to turn a social, fun format into a haven for Spike of course. This little section will be dedicated to those plays that make you want to reach through the screen or across the table and choke the perpetrator with their own iPod headphones.

As you should all know, you start a Commander game with 40 life. That fact alone makes the following card banworthy:

Card Image: Test of EnduranceTest of Endurance
2WW Enchantment (Judgement)
At the beginning of your upkeep, if you have 50 or more life, you win the game.

Personally I hate any single card in this format with the text “you win the game” on it anywhere. Test of Endurance is particularly insidious because there’s just so much lifegain available in the format. First-turn Serra Ascendant will virtually assure you of winning the turn after you drop this, especially if you have some way to protect it. I’m not against insta-win combos, especially if they are clever. “Gain 10 life before turn 5” doesn’t seem to be particularly clever to me. It’s not even a combo. Seriously, if this is your idea of a fun deck that plays well with others, you probably need to explore the meanings of the words “fun” and “plays well with others.”

That’s about all I have for you in this installment. Next time out we’ll examine the decklist in more detail and talk about the other horrible combos in the deck. And by horrible, I mean freaking hilarious. I’m always open to ideas, so if you have any thoughts for cards to add or take out then please hit me up at lansdellicious@gmail.com. You can find me on MTGO as CLSmooth or on Twitter @lansdellicious. Until next time, stay cool.