I Need a Hero
Voltron decks, in my broader EDH experience, tend to be pretty divisive. No one really likes having to stare down a creature that they can’t positively interact with. If they’re going to lose, most folks want it to be after a test of skill or some battle of wits. When that loss comes at the hands of a single creature that they just can’t block or otherwise stop, the “feelbads,” as they are known, start to emerge. So, together, let’s all breathe a collective sigh of relief that in a pauper EDH environment this paradigm remains largely unchanged. That’s right: Hexproof creatures, auras, and equipment still exist, and pack a punch, even at common rarity.
When we look at the most common offenders as far as Commanders looking to win through commander damage, some usual suspects come to the forefront.
It’s easy to get caught up in the fact that they have Hexproof and evasion while ignoring the larger issue -- simply by the nature of their color identities, they come with support packages that allow them to not only present a good clock, but back it up with a card suite that allows the pilot to play out powerful enabling cards for their commander and also take advantage of card draw spells (and tutors, via the Transmute mechanic) to refuel their hand and keep that pressure up, whether through disruptive interactive spells or more offensive tools to rebuild should their commander be returned to the Command Zone. This is, to me, the crux of the issue when people say that they find these cards oppressive. There are plenty of creative answers to hexproof creatures, but it’s the support system surrounding them that elevates the strategy. This is particularly in the case of Ascended Lawmage, giving access to some of the format’s more powerful auras and reactive spells coupled with the ability to maintain some level of card advantage.
This isn’t to say, by any stretch, that we can’t build a deck in this vein outside of the more attractive colors. In fact, an important question is raised, concerning what an aggressive voltron strategy would look like without those sorts of tools, or, relying on cards that would at first seem suboptimal -- what can we learn? In mono-Red, for example, how do we construct a proactive plan around a commander that lacks the tools that make traditional voltron decks in the format so potent?
Let’s take Akroan Line Breaker as an example of a commander that can generate its own special kind of card advantage to steal wins out of nowhere.
Heroic is a great ability for milking card advantage out of cards that would otherwise fall short. Akroan Line Breaker is a particularly good case study here, because it fundamentally transforms the cards that are used to support it. A card like Expedite, for example, not only gives haste and cantrips, but also now functions as an honorary pump spell. It has the effects of two separate cards stapled onto one, creating virtual card advantage. When we allow our spells to double up on function, we effectively turn any targeted spell into a two-for-one -- for every card we use to target Akroan Line Breaker, we essentially get, for free, an effect that ends up being worth about one or two red mana’s worth of value per spell cast (using the card Bull Rush as a baseline). By following this model, it only takes any two targeted spells and one double strike enabler to deal sixteen commander damage via Akroan Line Breaker in one attack step, and that requirement gets easier to meet if any of those spells are devoted pump spells. It is this virtual card advantage that allows a commander like this to be such a big threat with so few resources, giving us the opportunity to do it multiple times without any dedicated draw spells or effects to get us ahead on actual physical cards.
We can utilize this line of reasoning to leverage many other Heroic creatures from the Command Zone. They all provide different forms of this virtual card advantage, and allow us to devote spell slots to cards that merely cantrip with little other effect while not sacrificing anything from our primary game plan. Whether we are looking to do so through going wide with Vanguard of Brimaz or tall with Centaur Battlemaster, the additional value we can get from even the most innocuous spells drastically changes how we need to evaluate certain cards in these contexts.
With Vanguard, cards like Defiant Strike and Cartouche of Solidarity can turn it into a strong, standalone threat while generating a ton of value on the side, letting us set up for a token subtheme as a contingency plan. While Akroan Line Breaker is more explosive and can play more like a combo deck, Vanguard of Brimaz gives us the option for an aggressive early game while allowing us to transition seamlessly into a stable mid-game by letting us develop a board at almost no real cost. It also gives us access to explosive combat steps with cards like Guardian’s Pledge, Ramosian Rally, or Glorious Charge as finishers.
This gets to the heart of just how fundamentally different cards like these are when compared to Ascended Lawmage or Invisible Stalker. Those decks place a premium on the permanents that they play to the battlefield. Lawmage, for example, values something like Ethereal Armor very highly. It will often be one of the largest contributors to the damage that it can do, and is an essential racing tool in most situations. The downside, obviously, is that it presents a target to interact with, as is the case with any aura or equipment. If we, or anyone else, are able to interact with those cards, Lawmage suddenly becomes a much more raceable threat, especially when we consider that it isn’t generating any additional value on its own. Heroic creatures that can produce virtual card advantage through their triggers aren’t as vulnerable to these trades. Not only that, but, in many cases, that card advantage can be maintained using low mana-cost spells that cantrip, which allow us to not only get the trigger from our commander, but also maintain a necessary card velocity, because we also benefit a great deal from the raw number of spells that we are able to cast, regardless of the effect outside of it replacing itself.
Up until now, our focus has been on how to maximize virtual card advantage through triggers that allow us to get substantial additional value from our targeted spells. Let’s take a look at what happens to that paradigm when we put it in the lens of actual physical card advantage
Triton Fortune Hunter takes everything that we’ve been discussing so far and kicks it into overdrive -- rather than leveraging targeted spells into additional value, this creature will just draw us actual cards. This engine allows us to turn the Fortune Hunter into a solid clock turn after turn while always allowing us to keep our hand full, either with cards like Shimmering Wings, Artful Dodge, and Slip Through Space to maintain pressure, or with pieces of interaction for our opponents, like counterspells or bounce spells if we want to push into a tempo game plan. Each spell we use to target our commander will replace itself, and if it so happens to be one that already cantrips (of which there are many), we are actually going up on cards. Because of this, we can devote the lion’s share of our final decklist to these augmenting cantrips and completely ignore devoted card draw spells. We simply have no need for cards like Ponder, Brainstorm or Preordain. Any card draw spell will simply be worse than casting something like Leap. Triton Fortune Hunter has a unique way to take otherwise unplayable cards and turn them into raw card advantage, while also furthering a commander damage focused strategy.
When every card we use to target Triton Fortune Hunter replaces itself, other synergies start to open up. Prowess creatures start to gain value. High Tide becomes an option alongside Temporal Fissure as a way to gain a huge tempo advantage. Most importantly, the steady stream of cheap, targeted spells allows us to branch off into the other blue Heroic creatures at common, like Wavecrash Triton, or War-Wing Siren as a Plan B. We are never going to be particularly flashy chipping in for commander damage with Triton Fortune Hunter, but the amount of card advantage he provides and the interactive spells he gives us access to can be enough to make him a very real threat.
Of course, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, as the saying goes.
So now, let’s take all of the card advantage we gained from Triton Fortune Hunter, invert it, and inflict it on our opponents. Card advantage isn’t necessarily found only in the acquisition of resources, but also in denying those resources to our opponents. From there, in many ways, Ashiok’s Adept can provide one of the best sources of steady card advantage that the format can offer. We still obviously follow the tried and true voltron game plan. We suit up our Adept with things like Unholy Strength and Predator’s Gambit, protect it with cards like Dark Dabbling or Rush of Vitality, and get in there for some good ol’ commander damage while simultaneously forcing our opponents into a top-decking situation. Even some of the more flaccid mono-black auras in the format become prime real estate in a deck like this: Scavenged Weaponry, Krovikan Fetish, and Grisly Transformation, for example. Let’s frame it like this -- for every spell we cast targeting Ashiok’s Adept, we are getting a three for one trade. For every targeted spell we cast that cantrips, we are getting a four for one.
Since this commander revolves around resource denial, the question turns to how our deck functions when we don’t have any more of those resources to deny our opponents. In other words, do any of our cards become inert? In that regard, Ashiok’s Adept is particularly elegant, because all of the spells that we would use to force our opponents to discard their cards have the additional function of just being simple proactive spells and auras, which lets us dodge the common discard spell pitfall of being dead middle to late game top-decks.
By this point it’s fair to say that any commander that gives additional function or value to a significant subset of cards via combat as a primary access of interaction is something worth considering to head up a voltron strategy. Hexproof creatures are great, but we will always find ourselves at the mercy of having an on-board threat that we are heavily invested in. Everything we are doing is telegraphed and the entire table knows our game plan. Either we have to be killing players in as few combat steps as possible (to limit opponents’ interaction as much as possible), or have the ability to fall back onto a secondary plan. Let’s say that we have cast three auras onto our very own Ascended Lawmage. If we have to sacrifice it to an edict or see it otherwise removed, where does that leave us? We would be three cards down and needing to rebuild. Contrast that with Akroan Line Breaker, where we would only need two or three out of dozens of redundant pieces to set up another lethal attack. Contrast that with Vanguard of Brimaz, where we would be left with additional bodies to leverage. Contrast that with Ashiok’s Adept, where we would have already stripped nine cards collectively from the hands of our opponents.
These are just a small sampling of creatures that I personally think are worth exploring further in this particular archetype, but by no means are we limited to them. When looking to make a foray into voltron archetypes, never feel limited to a commander that just attacks effectively. There are a multitude of ways to leverage the card pool to mine significant value and advantage while sacrificing very little in combat and maintaining commander damage as your primary win condition. What other sorts of voltron commanders or strategies have you all experienced out there in the wild? What other tools have you found to really push unorthodox approaches to voltron commanders? I’m always looking for new ways to push through commander damage, so let me know in the comments!