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A Creatureless Challenge

After a drought of little-to-no time for anyone to sling spells the past 10 days, Saturday Night EDH was finally nigh for my local playgroup. I had probably built and destroyed roughly 4 decks this past week, and their successors finally had a platform to test and get good constructive criticism. There were only three games to the night for me, and only one for each of the commanders I chose to run. But today I’m going to talk about my favorite commander to date who I had another swing with this weekend — Damia, Sage of Stone.

Versatility Incarnate

I wanted to take this opportunity to speak a bit more about how Damia is generally built, what her strengths/weaknesses are, how I’ve personally used her, and why she is arguably the best general in Sultai colors right now (take that, Tasigur, the Golden Fang!)

Damia is strong because she rewards bold plays from a player’s hand by refilling it. It’s a fairly simple mechanic stuck on a 4/4 deathtouch creature that occasionally is used as a rattlesnake for lower-end offensives (a toughness of 4 and deathtouch will deter not only weaker creatures but also dodges the vast number of cards that deal exactly 3 damage). She is weak in only the fact that she can draw a significant amount of attention (and thus, removal) depending on the table, and is generally difficult to protect. Let alone her absence of no attached protections like hexproof, shroud, or indestructible (to be fair, there are not many generals that do have this built-in safety net), she is also an expensive creature by herself that is difficult to move around a player’s zones (blinking, bouncing, and sacrificing to dodge opponent’s removal). Just imagine this for a second: a 1/4 Deathtouch Damia for … a wonder that’d be too good to believe for most of us Sultai planeswalkers. Any way, I digress.

Though now finished talking about weaknesses, as you might have read, she has none (or at least very few) that seasoned EDH players haven’t seen on a commander before. Her ability is the focal of decks headed by her, no doubt (although I actually did see several more-casual EDH decks being created post-RTR/mid-Theros season for her extremely niche but flavorful creature race type, Gorgon), simply because of how powerful it is. Yes, you’ve heard it from everyone once before but now you’re going to hear it from cailtis too: cards make the game go ’round in Magic, and having the ability to draw lots of them has been a strong ability since Magic’s inception. Typically speaking, it seems that most planeswalkers will build Damia, Sage of Stone in a typical battlecruiser fashion… large, big, and splashy spells accompanied by similarly-sized creatures make up a majority of the nonland slots of the deck (pure Sultai “goodstuff” fits in with this battlecruiser theme, too, I suppose). However, I’ve also seen Damia built many other ways, like zombie tribal, purely reanimator (“But cailtis, what about Mimeopla–” card draw.), dredge, control, stax, artifacts/affinity, flash-tempo/control, and combo-heavy. I’ve at least experimented with most of these archetypes with her, and I can confirm that she is definitely one of the most (if not the most) versatile general. Why? Because card draw, you dingus.

“Creatures Die to Most Removal”

We EDH players are a fairly unique and varied bunch of Magic players. Some of us got into the format because the vintage/legacy cards we had lying around finally had a purpose in decks again. Some of us didn’t want to deal with the costs involved in rotating and widely-competitive formats. Some of us just wanted to play big things that couldn’t be realistically played in any other format. A wide variety of cards are home in the format, whether it be the omnipresent Sol Ring that can find a slot in near every single deck or someone more niche like Mystic Snake, a creature that will always find a place in UGx decks that care about control elements without sacrificing slots for non-creature spells. In typical constructed formats, there is always a pressure to gain beneficial effects and abilities that are attached to a creature, a “[spell] on a stick” typically termed. This is because a creature in a fast and constructed format can always block and attack — fundamentals in maintaining the relatively 20 life points you have in a constructed match, and decimating the 20 your opponent has. In EDH, we have a bit more health to work with, and the fact that Phyrexian Revoker is a creature that can swing for two means a lot less when a player could just as easily play Pithing Needle for less and for almost all of the same circumstances the Revoker would be needed.

The kicker on this distinction between the two formats is that in EDH, players only have one copy of each card to use, and removal is a popular inclusion in every single EDH deck, no matter the archetype or color combination.

Of course, the “creature circumstance” also works both ways. Creatures are the single most popular target for recursion/reanimation in Magic, popularizing the reanimator deck archetype in almost every EDH color combination. They are the most popular avenue to victory just by virtue of the combat phase, a component of the fundamentals of Magic: the Gathering (popularizing, well, components of most every EDH deck that houses creatures).

Since the release of the Commander 2013 sealed product, I have gaining more and more impatience for decks that win simply because of insanely efficient value that is stuck onto creatures and then slammed or cheated into play. My primary frustration was with the fervent surge of UGx decks that just started playing 25-40 ETB-value creatures accompanied by typical noncreature supports for the “strategy” (Tooth and Nail, Survival of the Fittest). Prophet of Kruphix had just released as well, and it’s auto-inclusion in many mana-hungry decks made for even more oppressive creature decks that could search up any answer and cheat it into play — and it came with a body, too. On top of that, my decks were becoming increasingly anti-creature, relying less and less on my board presence and more on external resources, like life, hand size, graveyard, and an accessible and streamlined library (enter most of the core beliefs behind my Damia decks and Oloro, Ageless Ascetic deck). I was scared of using creatures too, because not only would it be non-synergistic with the rest of my anti-creature tech and fall victim to others’ broad suite of removal, but I wanted to prove a point. I wanted to go creatureless, that didn’t rely solely on a combo or interaction with the general, and was within colors I felt most comfortable and well-versed in. The only three creatureless generals that people typically talk about are Narset, Enlightened Master, Melek, Izzet Paragon, or Talrand, Sky Summoner, all three of which fell under the crutches I did not want to rely on in my quest for creatureless glory. I instead picked someone I knew front to back: Damia, Sage of Stone.

A… Deck?

I won’t lie to you. The deck I created was pretty bad, and the only hopes of it being a more-well-oiled machine were crushed when I remembered the cost of certain cards, like Crucible of Worlds. Nevertheless, I had put down a list on paper before actual construction so I had a direction to go when I did not have a card in my collection that the list called for. Without further excuses, below is the list I crafted, sans landbase for the sake of brevity:

This deck enjoys drawing cards just about as much as it enjoys discarding them. The trick is using the graveyard as a secondary hand, so to speak. Many choices within the list itself lend themselves to dumping chaff into the bin for later use, customizing both the graveyard and library as resources, and resilience to prevent running out of steam or decking itself.

As a goal, the deck hopes to ramp early and often to not only slam Damia quicker but to slim the deck down. From there, the game is often a test of endurance until the endgame, testing how flexible the player can answer problems on the board while simultaneously optimizing resources for a late game win (having to juggle protecting Damia while also answering bombs on board, snapping up the graveyard if it’s going to be exiled, and playing a politically strategic game both during and not during the player’s turn).

Winning can be difficult. It is easily the most challenging part of building and running the deck. The fact of the matter is that creatures are actually really, really good in Magic, and even though I find protecting and babysitting them more and more annoying, they simply are the most powerful card type in EDH from what I’ve experienced. We aren’t left with many alternatives. A conscious priority needs to be made throughout the early and mid-game to work with other players politically, whittle down the life totals of every opponent at the table, even if they are a underdog like yourself. In my experience, it’s actually more beneficial to identify the “deck to beat” or “Archenemy” early on, and ensure that the “deck to beat” can be beaten, but not without a hefty cost from the other opponents. In this way, after the battlefield has thinned some, there are not glaringly obvious tempo discrepancies between yourself and opponents. The deck usually wins with blowout drain spells like Exsanguinate and Profane Command, both of which can be tutored up by the two tutors of the deck in addition to the Transmute cards (usually only good for one or rarely two instant-kills depending on what disruption you are facing and if the opponents can gain life). Simply draining life can also come in a more reserved and staggered nature, like Brush With Death and Syphon Life, and sometimes Tendrils of Agony. Bribery can sometimes give you a bomb while simultaneously neutering an opponent’s victory potential, and further combat shenanigans can be tried with Worm Harvest.

Single Card Discussion

Paradox Haze is sick tech, though sometimes seems win-more. Before your second upkeep, you can cast any number of cards you just picked up for for their mana costs but get your hand refilled on the second upkeep. Even more gross with Dream Halls.

– We like cards that let us discard on our terms. Rites of Refusal, Dream Halls, and Forbid are great examples of this. They provide utility at a cost that is usually a benefit for us.

Quest for Ancient Secrets has been my “pet” EDH card for a very long time now. It’s cheap, inconspicuous, versatile (activate its ability to hate another player’s graveyard or clutch tuck yours back into your deck), and is difficult to stop even when opponents need to (what I’d pay to have a Stifle always in my hand…). The other instant-speed shufflers in the deck serve similar purposes, some more wide than others (Mnemonic Nexus can reset everyone’s yards in an emergency whereas Memory’s Journey can save your Exsanguinate from exile or save the table from the reanimator player from cheating his It That Betrays in).

– Few things feel better than a turn 1 Manabond or Burgeoning. One time I kept on a 6-land hand just so I could enjoy the fear on my friends’ faces as I ended turn 1 with 7 lands on the field and being on the play. To be fair, however, Burgeoning will still usually be a safer turn 1 choice simply due to Manabond‘s tendency to leave earlier-game players top-decking for far too long… and your “swag turn-1 play” already has everyone looking to hose you in any way possible from the get-go.

– Instant-speed answers to problems is a favorite of Damia’s. With so much mana and potentially infinite control/removal elements, there are few situations before the endgame that warrant holding onto a Putrefy or Counterspell in hand, provided that Damia is still alive and well on your side of the battlefield.

Holding Its Own

This is certainly not a finished product. Granted I had won this amazing game on Saturday, it was for many other reasons than the deck I chose to play. While a well-timed Gaddock Teeg (headed by Karador, Ghost Chieftain) hosed most of the control decks at the table until the late game, it also painted a huge target on the player which allowed careless harm between one opponent and the others — some plays so huge that a player conceded to prevent the Karador player from swinging lethal at us all at his next turn to keep the game going (When a deck without blue is to use a Prophet of Kruphix, there are few warning signs). Even after Gaddock Teeg was removed and the Karador player done in, it didn’t look hopeful for Damia and I. Since the game’s inception I had cast only one spell, and it was simply another ramp spell. I was able to pit the two remaining players against one another (Seshiro the Anointed tribal and 5-color Superfriends) to potentially weaken their still-bulky life totals. After having to buy precious time with an early Moment’s Peace (Superfriends was supposed to hit Seshiro with his Progenitus!), Profane Command was in hand, but it was no Debt to the Deathless — and Seshiro was still at 40 life. I transmuted for Exsanguinate and held my bluff for as long as possible. Fog was still in the yard, ready to be flashed back. Superfriends actually followed through with a double boardwipe to deal with Seshiro’s nasty Hooded Hydra, ending his game soon after with unblockable lethal. The new problem was dealing with the Superfriends now-incredibly hefty life total… after seeing me tutor up Exsanguinate, he tutored up Sorin, Solemn Visitor and flash-ultimated Jace, Architect of Thought before damage in order to tack on a sick lifelink onto his lethal-damage attack. I was left with my two mass-drain spells, sure, but I needed to get through ~60 life now (I also only had 10 life at this point, so an un-fogged Progenitus attack would be it for me). From my deck (with Jace’s ultimate) he was left with few options, since the deck is primarily cheap utility spells and X-based finishers, so he grabbed Sorin Markov. I told him to kill one for planeswalker rule. He killed the Solemn Visitor so it’d sit in his yard. He thought he had had me now, but he had actually just tutored and gave me my win. At end of his turn that all of this occurred, I buyback-Capsized my Sorin, returning him to my hand. At my turn, I hardcasted him, brought Superfriends down to 10, and cast Exsanguinate for 10. Two and a half hours of BS and I had pulled the win out from everyone.

Conclusions

Like I said, this list is far from optimal. But I do like it for the reasons explained above, and just how resilient it can be even when the odds are stacked against it (like the aforementioned retelling of the weekend’s big game). Sultai seems to be a color combination that has strong instants and sorceries, but an amalgamation between creatures and non-creatures makes for a much more well-oiled deck (despite my distaste for it) in the colors. This conclusion could actually be applied to most every color combination for EDH decks, save a few (mono blue probably).

I continued some research on creatureless strategies after Saturday and was pretty shocked with my results. I had searched for infinite combos within my colors (specifically infinite mana, as to “go infinite” with buyback spells and also instant-kill opponents with drain spells), and I was heartbroken. All infinite mana combinations required at least one creature in order to work.

I extend my findings and present list to the community to see how my list could improve, if at all, while maintaining creatureless status. I would love to hear what suggestions you readers have, if any. On the other side of the coin, I may just have to surrender to playing a couple creatures in Damia from now on, despite still being “creature-light”. For now, I think I will take a break from my Damia brewing to focus on other color combinations for added diversity. My experiences building and running this deck have certainly given me much to think about, inspiring three new brews that I’ve been working on — two of which I may feature here if they withstand the tests of what I regard a fun yet capable EDH deck to keep in around in sleeves for games!

That’s all for now, good people! I apologize for the seemingly-longer article this time around. If you have any questions about my opinions or advice over the Sultai wedge or specifically Damia, Sage of Stone in EDH, please do not hesitate to ask! Until next time!

-cailtis

3 comments

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  1. This looks liek a fun deck to play, and I like the detail level of your article. Great work I say, keep it up 😀

    • Noah on June 25, 2015 at 7:39 am
    • Reply

    Very nice detail level! I was wondering if the success of this deck inspired you to make the Sidisi deck I saw you use last week? Either way, I like the decks that have a win con like this 🙂

  2. Thanks for the comments, gentlemen! Noah, that Sidisi build was actually inspired by my old Grimgrin, Corpse-Born deck, which happened to be my first EDH deck. It was high time I return to my multicolored zombie roots. I think the deck will actually stick around for a while until a better Sultai general comes around for it.

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