Well, the moment we’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived…kind of. Like most of you probably were I was unspeakably excited when I read this, and have been waiting less than patiently for the release events since December 2010. And let me tell you, this week has been a bear, so I was really looking forward to picking up as many different Commander decks as I could get my hands on, starting with Teneb, Vorosh and Oros. Imagine now that I’m a Dickensian orphan pressing my nose up against the window of the cruel shopkeeper on Christmas Eve, and you’ll get a sense of the tragedy that ensued when I got to my local game store.
“What do you mean you’re only selling sets of five?” was only the start of my disbelief. It turns out that the best card store in Shinjuku, part of the best chain I’ve seen anywhere in Japan, had jacked up the price to around $210 for a set of five and refused to sell them individually. Way to boost the community, jackasses! Torn between an urgent need to start playing ALL of those decks and the realization that there would be more available at more reasonable prices later, I eventually decided to try my luck elsewhere. The other store – the crap one – was selling individual precons, but at an even higher price: $47.25 each! I crashed so badly from my pre-Commander high it felt like the worst day of my life (although I may be a bit of a drama queen). Fortunately for me, and for you if you’re hoping for actual strategic content and the low-down on the new decks, my buddy Shindo texted me on Friday night to let me know that his release event on Sunday was going to be on after all, so I made plans to get down there and kick ass.
The Colors of the Guinness with the Color of the Shamrock
I’ve been EDHing for quite a while now, and I’ve long had decks for four of the wedge dragons—Oros is the odd lizard out, as I never liked his activated ability—but my first Commander was Teneb, and he’s still my favorite and perhaps most powerful deck. With my affection for the colors, and the fact that I’ve never built a pure token deck for Commander before, I had to choose Black/White/Green. Now, I don’t know if any of y’all got as excited over Ghave as some of the other new legends, but he’s brimming with (perhaps subtle) potential. However, as with Urabrask last week, he turns out to be even stronger than he first looks.
You can find the full decklist here, but I went in with only a cursory knowledge of what cards were in the deck and a reasonable memory of what the new cards did (which was important, because the only packs available were Japanese, a language I don’t actually read or speak). No time for this fancy “reading the cards” malarkey, I was the last one to arrive, so the four-person pod started as soon as I showed up. Lucky for me, years of playing untuned 90-card piles has prepared me for situations when I don’t actually know what the hell is in my deck. I sat down with three guys I didn’t know, none of whom spoke English, but they were all nice enough to help me sleeve up the deck before we got underway.
To my left was a quiet young guy playing Skullbriar as his general (for the first 10 minutes I was convinced he was playing a three-color precon with that general—don’t worry, I am that dumb, but I’m a multiplayer strategy savant). To Skullbriar’s left was that rarest of all creatures, a Japanese casual player who’s noisier than me. A big guy, dressed all in black, sporting what turns out to be a fully tricked out Horde of Notions deck (turn one Temple Garden, turn two Scrubland and Khalni Heart Expedition, turn three Misty Rainforest for Volcanic Island, Fabricate for Oblivion Stone, then changed his mind and got Engineered Explosives. Oh yeah, he’s building on a budget!), followed by an older guy who obviously hasn’t played much but is also valiantly bringing a precon to a pimp-fight, rocking Animar. Yes, he does have protection from most of my deck, thanks for pointing that out.
I got off to a decent start, curving out into a turn five Ghave and bringing the pain to Mr. Horde of Collectibles. With only the minimum of communication available to me, it was all strategy, and it became very clear that I should be focusing on the guy with the expensive manabase and the limitless options. The single-minded onslaught from my little bears had him looking for sweepers early on, as I said, but by the time he stabilized against me (Stoneforge Mystic into SoFF on a vigilant general. Yes, he does have protection from most of my deck, thanks for pointing that out), Animar was getting into it with a Krosan Tusker and a 5/5 flier that both eventually drifted towards the Horde.
Then Ghave gave, and I mean gave me the goodness big-time. I got tons of mana, topdecked Chorus of the Conclave just as I hit eight mana, followed that up with a Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter with two extra counters, Mortify off the top to remove Eternal Dragon and finish off Horde before he could draw another sweeper (feeling bad about ousting such an awesome dude so quickly, but them’s the breaks). Then, just as Skullbriar reveals that it’s actually a hardcore dredge deck, I snatch Scavenging Ooze off the top, pump it to 7/7 with the Chorus, then exile his Golgari Troll and Nether Traitor, making the Ooze a 9/9. No further lucksackery was required and I marched to victory in short order with my army of gold monsters. Ghave’s mastery of counters and ability to produce (and sac) blockers on demand were key to that one.
Game two was similar – eight of us chose the casual option and we split into two pods of four. I was paired with the Animar player again (although he’d switched to Riku as his commander), as well as Elesh Norn, Grand Arbiter and Miyael, Anima. Two veteran decks against two rookie decks, with the added complication that I’d just trampled over my fellow rookie with a 12/12 legendary vampire, so I wasn’t sure how much payback he’d be looking for. Still not much hope for political finagling, but I did try to point out to Miyael that Elesh Norn was likely to screw up any of those “if power is greater than five” effects that make Naya so much fun. I think he got the message, and focused more of his attention away from me as a result.
It quickly became obvious that Elesh Norn was the strongest deck, at least in terms of speed and focus. Turn one Student of Warfare quickly leveled up and by turn four had graduated to ‘beating with a Sword of Wreck and Face.’ By turn six, a Mirran Crusader and Accorder Paladin were swinging at me, the Crusader again having Protection from Daryl and doing 10 points of damage in a single shot, knocking me down to 27. I thought I was getting the beatdown because I didn’t have a beefy blocker, so I cast Ghave, but he came at me again with a double-striking, sword-wielding crusader, putting me at 19.
“Why?!” I demanded, wondering if I needed to remind him that I was playing a precon.
“Because you have Ghave in play,” he indicated. Sigh…if you don’t have a reason, just shut up please!
Anyway, it was very clear that nobody else was worried about me when this guy was going nuts, and because he hit me rather than forcing the other precon player to block with the Riku he’d just cast, the next two turns were pretty nasty for Elesh Norn. A Magmatic Force came down, copied with Riku, and suddenly there was six points of pain being dished out every upkeep, wiping Elesh Norn’s board and bringing him down to single digits in very short order. Even Ghave earned some magmatic beats during my upkeep, but I had the mana to trade him in for five saproling tokens, and the white player was too busy finding a pro-red blocker to cast Elesh Norn and wipe my board. Miyael cast Day of Judgment soon, but I was ready to make my move. Ghave cranked out a ton of tokens, Karador, Ghost Chieftain came out for only five mana and promptly brought back a Shriekmaw. Then Selesnya Guildmage came down, looked at all the mana on my board, and laughed a laugh far too serial-killery for a non-black creature. Pretty soon my four remaining saprolings were doing 12 points of damage, and the fearsome Shriekmaw was getting in for six. Again, Ghave gets it done, with no small help from Karador.
Game three was a real let-down, but not because of my deck. Animar dropped out and I was stuck with Rafiq of the Many (played by the same guy who nearly killed me with Elesh Norn), Uril, the Mist-Stalker, and Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund. Against my little precon they were all looking pretty damn scary, especially as the strongest card in my opener was Teneb, Karrthus’s Lackey, but I was able to get stuck in with some aggressive play and some good reads on what my opponents were playing (although I was foolish enough to try to put a Vow on Uril…obviously he’s Hexproof, but it was so funny that I never stopped to ask my brain if it was possible). I was really feeling that my deck actually had the tools to compete with these guys. Then around turn eight, Rafiq (who came out early and never attacked, a sure sign of something weird) dropped Mirror Entity and Reveillark. I was talking to someone else, and when I looked back everyone else was shuffling up. Apparently the clever little scrote playing Rafiq had comboed out and killed us all.
Nice precon, buddy!
How He Handles
Ghave, Guru of Spores impressed the hell out of me today as a commander that offers a lot of tricks, and finishes up his tricks with a heaping helping of raw power, which is what it’s all about. Ghave is an engine that turns counters into critters and critters into counters—and for two mana, he turns counters into counters and critters into critters, which can be useful in its own right. Never mind shenanigans with other cards; on his own he’s the kind of critter that can help you when you’re up against it and when you’re out in front. He’ll help you to stop the bleeding by creating desperate chump-blockers and by adding just enough counters to a combatant to make sure something nasty dies. Then, when you start to control the pace of the game he’ll keep you in front. It’s a wonderful feeling to be swinging with Ghave in play, a bunch of counters spread around your team, and a ton of untapped mana; that means your opponents are in a position where there are no safe blocks (because of counter-switching), anything that gets through can become extra beefy (because of counter-switching), and they don’t have any safe counterattacks unless they can trample over a buttload of saprolings (because of saproling tricksiness), then they’re going to be scooping them up right quick. On top of that, Ghave rewards smart play; a card that does funky stuff on other people’s turns is more likely to offer you a chance to turn the tables if you pay careful attention to the game.
Appraising the Precons
There’s no other way to put it—the new MTG: Commander preconstructed decks are a home run, a three-pointer from mid-court and an end-to-end interception return all rolled into one. They play smooth, have a surprising amount of raw power (I finished the second game with a Syphon Flesh and a Soul Snare in hand, which suggests a pretty good removal suite, although non-creature permanents were tougher to deal with), and the synergies, new cards and originality all combine for a fantastic play experience. Of course, as a precon they’re intended to be modified and improved, and there’s plenty of options there. Let’s look at a few options for changing up the look of Ghave.
- What they Ghave me
Oh, so many fun toys! There are a lot of cards in this deck that make me happy, starting with the legendary creatures and sexy reprints that headlined the set. Of course, some of the strongest cards in here might just go better in other decks, whether or not you want to play Ghave as a Commander (and after today, I emphatically do want to build around him). These are cards that will look very tasty to some of my other decks, and seeing I usually determine which deck gets the newest cards based on a mix of need and seniority, Ghave probably won’t be keeping a lot of these:
Vish Kal (may be the new general in my monoblack vampires deck, and no that isn’t a typo)
Temple of the False God
Scavenging Ooze (an almost strictly better Night Soil – get as many as you can!!)
Tribute to the Wild
Some of these are staples that you can never have enough of, some are strong cards that are always welcome in your collection and others are just fantastic new cards that you can’t wait to ‘share’ with your friends, but they are all awesome tools in your arsenal.
- It is Better to Ghive…
Fair’s fair; if I’m going to ask Ghave to support my other decks, then I have to be willing to buff him up with other cards in return. Two obvious examples are Doubling Season (Pay 2: put a 1/1 saproling into play and put two +1/+1 counters on target creature) and Grave Pact (Pay 2: each opponent sacrifices a creature), and as it happens I have one copy of each available. Other nifty tricks with Ghave’s counter manipulation include Rings of Brighthearth, Sadistic Glee, Khabal Ghoul, Vulturous Zombie, Hell’s Caretaker, critters with the Graft or Modular mechanics or the Spike, Thallid or Fungus creature types (or some of the critters from Brandon’s Karador deck). Basically, Ghave can move around existing counters, but you really want to be able to generate new counters as well, either automatically or as a result of your shenanigans. On the token side, Infernal Genesis, Endrek Sahr, Martial Coup and Parallel Evolution are pretty damn mean here.
Decree of Savagery belongs in this deck without question, and of course the mighty, mighty Seedborn Muse will keep your engine spinning even after you’ve spent all your mana on your own turn. Also, I’ve never wanted to add blue to an EDH deck so much in my life: Fate Transfer, Murkfiend Liege and The Mimeoplasm would all be fantastic in this deck. Also, this may be predictable, but I love the 187 effects of green and black—Acidic Slime and Indrik Stomphowler are two of my favorite critters and they definitely have a part to play in any upgrade.
If you’re going to have more critters than anyone else, there are a couple of ways to gain advantage there, either in the form of Anthem effects (Glorious, Gaea’s, Muroganda, Eldrazi or Elesh Norn), Overrun effects, or just ‘I’ve got more guys than you’ effects such as Junkyo Bell (no, really!), Veteran’s Armaments or Pennon Blade. Finally, Akroma’s Memorial is the only way I know of to guarantee haste for your fungal legions in non-red colors, although Concerted Effort would work if combined with a card like Gaea’s Revenge or Vengevine.
Let’s face it: nobody is perfect, and even if the good folks at WOTC were perfect, they’d still be forced to make subpar choices due to budget, cycles and the Head Developer’s pet cards. The first cards that obviously need to go are the Signets, because generally speaking you don’t want any artifact mana acceleration in a base-green deck. The vulnerability to artifact destruction is too great and without them you can get a lot of card advantage through your own artifact destruction (hello Creeping Corrosion!). Rampant Growth effects at the two, three and four mana slots should be the first change you made.
Secondly, the white Vow just doesn’t get it done. I like the fact that the vows make an opponent’s creature a bigger threat to everyone else and less of a threat to you, but it seems harder to take advantage of the vow when they can attack with their biggest critter but still block with it. I would have greatly preferred the white Vow to give first strike and the red one to give haste and “attacks each turn if able.”
Some cards are just silly. Aquastrand Spider is flat-out weak; the graft is nice, but almost any other graft creature, or any other spider, would have been better. Acorn Catapult is…well, it’s an catapult that fires acorns, I think I’ve made my point.
Finally, I’m on the fence about Celestial Force, Afterlife and the Join Forces token producer, Alliance of Arms. Lifegain every turn isn’t bad, but I would much prefer either the Magmatic or Verdant forces, or failing that a nice flying creature. Archangel of Strife would be perfect in this deck; when you have the tokens on the board she’s a finisher, and when your board presence is weak you can look at that drop-dead gorgeous art and feel better about your impending demise. Afterlife is on theme in terms of generating counters, but would it have killed them to add Path to Exile? And of course, the Alliance doesn’t have to be symmetrical, but it still seems a little bit too situational. I could be wrong, and I’m definitely going to try it out, but if space is tight it seems likely to get cut.
Gotta gHave It!
Bottom line: awesome product, well worth the MSRP and probably even worth whatever the grasping bastards at your LGS are charging. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on all five decks, and fully intend to build around at least a half dozen of the new generals, as well as outfitting my existing decks with all the sweet swag they’ve reprinted.
Perhaps more importantly, this product is an entry point into the casualest of casual formats, and you need to make sure that anyone who’s interested in Commander can get hold of the decks and find a nice friendly game. Take advantage of this opportunity, and go ye forth unto all the nations, preaching the gospel of casual Commander.
PS (Post Sermon): The Jor Kadeen deck-building challenge I announced last month has been delayed by the ridiculous number of new cards and decks I’ve been playing recently, but I’ll be putting it together soon. If you have any more card ideas, post in the comments to the original article, or this article, or just shoot me an email. I really want to play a deck designed by Muse Vessel readers, and I’d like to get the first version online before M12 is released next month.
 But let’s be honest with ourselves: DUMBEST. NAME. EVER! I was hoping that Evan Erwin pronounced it wrong when he spoiled the card, and it was really pronounced “GA-vay.” Turns out the Japanese name was ゲイヴ, which is pronounced “Gave” (rhymes with “gave”). I asked Shindo if there was any chance of a mistake, because not only is he a TO and level three judge, but he’s also the guy who translates the cards to Japanese. No luck—WOTC gave him a pronunciation guide, and “Gave” it is. Shindo then pointed out that Ghave would be a much more appropriate name for the RWU goat-looking dude who is designed to actually give your cards away. Another opportunity lost. Never mind: Ghave rhymes with Grave, and that’s all my opponents need to know.
 The infinite combo involved Inquisitor Exarch with Reveillark, Mirror Entity and Body Double, and if you play that crap against me I’ll be wearing the twinklier of your two eyeballs on the end of my thumb.
 I am famous for not paying attention to the game, but I still appreciate this facet of the card.
 Kidding, I’m sure they’re lovely people. Unless they actually are bastards, in which case why should we care what I say about them?