Meta Morphin – Thornscape Battlemage
Welcome to the second installment of the 'Meta Morphin' series. In these articles I will take a commander and look at how it can be built for differing metas. I will divide the metas very broadly into two categories: Competitive and grindy.
Competitive – this is where the playgroup plays to win first and foremost. Sure you can bring your jank but in general people want to play powerful stuff and face challenging decks.
Grindy – this is the place you go if you want to have a fun night playing magic, slugging it out and bashing in with your dudes. Value and casual atmosphere are the name of the game.
Of course this is very simplified and most playgroups will probably be a mix of these with other stuff thrown in too, but there might be a tendency and you can tweak your deck to go with the flow. Now that we're on the same page, let's take a look at who I'll build today.
After the first article I was pondering which commander to do next. Then I had the idea, since I started with a Bant commander, I might as well do one for each shard first. So what’s next after Bant? Esper of course! What? Naya, what is that supposed to be? Oh you mean the place Gruul, Selesnya and Boros go to cry about not having card draw? I can’t do a competitive portion on one of those. What do you mean it’s in my contract? I don’t even have a contract!!!
Sorry about that little interruption. I’m thrilled to tell you that today we will be looking at Thornscape Battlemage. Now Naya really does have some problems but they are not as prominent as they are in the corresponding color pairs. What makes the Battlemage good as a commander in both competitive and grindy environments? She is both flexible and a value creature. Played at the right time she can be a three for one but she also offers useful interactions that the more competitive builds always crave.
The Competitive Build
For a competitive build I always ask myself three questions. How do I win? How do I keep up with my opponents on resources? How do I stop others from winning?
Let’s start with the first one. We’re in three colors and our commander isn’t Loyal Guardian, so we will never reach the damage output of the best aggressive strategies in the format. Being in Naya also rules out going a classic control route. On the other hand Naya has a lot more combos than most people realize. Between various Presence of Gond combos, persist combos, storm-style strategies, and Tethmos High Priest, we have a good variety to choose from. Presence of Gond has gotten better with the release of Crashing Drawbridge in Throne of Eldrane (since having to wait a full turn cycle is always risky), however that’s not the route I’ll be going today. Storm is something I don’t like outside of URx decks because you lack redundancy in some of your key pieces, so I won’t be going into that direction either. Persist combos require a good bit of setup but have pieces that conveniently overlap with some of the Tethmos pieces. If you are unfamiliar with these combos don’t worry I will explain them in detail.
The persist combo has been around for quite some time. The combo needs a sac outlet, a persist creature, a way to remove the -1/-1 counter from that creature (e.g. by giving it a +1/+1 counter), and a way to abuse the infinite dies and enters the battlefield triggers this loop creates. I sometimes call it “altar combo” because Ashnod’s Altar is one of the best sac outlets for the combo. It casually creates infinite mana as we loop our persister so we have more flexibility on how we actually kill with the loop. There are other sac outlets that generate mana like Thermopod and Skirk Prospector. The prospector is very narrow (he can only sacrifice goblins) but he is also part of the Tethmos combo.
For our persisters we have Safehold Elite, Scuzzback Marauders and Aerie Ouphes, the last of which can shoot down two flyers in a pinch or even a Crackling Drake if you get lucky. Getting the -1/-1 counter off the persister is a bit tricky. Ivy Lane Denizen will do the trick but I really wish we could have some redundancy here. Impact Tremors is our best way to actually close the game but with infinite mana Rolling Thunder or Fireball can get the job done too.
The Tethmos combo needs the namesake Tethmos High Priest, a sac outlet that can generate two red mana, and Crown of Flames. Ghitu Firebreathing can be a replacement for the crown--the higher mana cost makes it more difficult to go infinite, but it’s still very repeatable. Fortunately, we only need to cast it 10-15 times to win. Finally you need a Mogg War Marshal or Goblin Instigator as the creature to sacrifice and then reanimate over and over by casting the aura on the High Priest. Depending on the moving parts we may end up with infinite mana or infinite tokens in addition to the infinite ETBs. We also cast infinite spells, so Grapeshot is a valid way to win that is also a viable interaction otherwise. Don’t expect to draw into the Tethmos combo very consistently though as we can not tutor up most of its parts and have no redundancy for the High Priest. Lucky for us, some of the pieces overlap with our other combo (e.g. Themopod, Impact Tremors), can be value engines on their own (e.g. Priest + aura), or help with our backup win con of just pinging and attacking.
You could easily throw all the combos into one big combo.deck and maybe that is the way to go: just hope that you will draw into some combination of cards that combo to end the game. Personally I am not a fan of such an all-in style so for this build I wanted to leave a bit more room for interaction and card draw.
On the topic of card draw, red actually has a decent amount of card draw that would be pretty amazing if you had a way to counteract the discarding. Lucky for us we have just that in a cycle of creatures that look very unimpressive at first: the Eidolons from Dissension. As creatures they are quite bad. If you view them as build around engine cards, using them similar to the way you would utilize Squee, Goblin Nabob in EDH, they turn on all of the rummaging red has to offer.
Faithless Looting, Cathartic Reunion, Tormenting Voice, Honor the God-Pharaoh and Thrill of Possibility suddenly become real card draw spells.
Mad Prophet, Rummaging Goblin and Merchant of the Vale can give you repeatable card draw. I would stay away from enchantments like Epiphany Storm or Prophetic Ravings as they invite your opponents to two for one you, most likely in a situation where you are in need of that card draw. Of course we can’t just rely on the three Eidolons, especially since they need some work to get going.
Cards that have flashback, retrace, madness or other such mechanics will help make our rummaging run more smoothly. Depending on your meta, Flame Jab is good against dorks and utility creatures, Prismatic Strands/Moment’s Peace can save you from Voltron decks, and cards like Ancient Grudge and Ray of Revelation can deal with problematic artifacts or enchantments respectively.
The other thing we need are multicolored spells. Now we don’t want to go out of our way to include them because we don’t want to have too many cards that are dead on their own. There are plenty of options though that we don’t mind playing anyways. Some of our combo pieces mentioned above fill this role, as will some of our interaction which I will go over later. There are also cards like Manamorphose. It cantrips, it fixes our mana and is essentially free to play. No reason not to run it. The rummaging plan has the added upside that none of our cards are ever truly dead. We can even aggressively discard combo pieces if grave hate is scarce because we can run cards like Reclaim and Pulse of Murasa to get them back once we’re ready to go off. To complement the rummaging we can run a few more cantrips, the best of which is Elvish Visionary. Not only is he cheap to cast but turns Tethmos into a real beast even when we can’t combo yet.
It’s debatable if it is worth including conditional tutors like Goblin Matron, Wirewood Herald and Heliod’s Pilgrim. Each of our combos has pieces we can not tutor for so we will need to draw into part of the combo either way. The Matron can find the Marauder, Prospector, War Marshal, Instigator, a Rummaging Goblin or one of the few interactions strapped onto a gobbo like Tarfire, Stingscourger, Goblin Legionnaire or Tin Street Hooligan. The Herald finds us the Ivy Lane Denizen, Safehold Elite, the Visionary, any mana dork or something like an Elvish Hexhunter or Elvish Skysweeper. The Pilgrim finds the Crown of Flames but also ramp/fixing in the form of Utopia Sprawl/Fertile Ground/Abundant Growth. It can also find aura based removal, however most of it is not what we’re looking for since we can’t use it to interact on an opponents turn. That pretty much covers our options of how we try to keep up with the other decks.
The last question we have to answer is how do we stop our opponent from winning? I already mentioned a few interactive creatures in the tutor section but there are many more. These ‘hate bears’ (or at least the closest we get to real hate bears) are each pretty situational. Here is where our rummaging plan helps out once more. Benevolent Unicorn, Qasali Pridemage, Caustic Caterpillar, Standard Bearer, Coalition Honor Guard, Suture Priest, Gorilla Shaman, Spore Frog and Kami of False Hope are some examples. You will need to figure out the exact configuration for yourself though as they are highly meta dependent.
For direct removal we have access to the red burn suite, prioritising instant speed and low mana cost such as the evergreen Lightning Bolt. Don’t forget about Fiery Temper. With the rummaging plan we can make this a Lightning Bolt that draws a card! We can also run board wipes like Swirling Sandstorm, though depending on your specific meta it might not have that much value. Instead you may be more interested in cards like Electrickery to wipe some opposing utility creatures and mana dorks. White gives us Last Breath which I am quite fond of for its ability to exile Peregrine Drake, and green gives us Return to Nature that can exile Ghostly Flicker or Displace whilst still being versatile enough to deal with other threats. Vines of Vastwood and Otherworldly Journey can target opponent’s creatures as well making them a flexible interaction that can be used defensively.
We already talked about some of the flashback cards earlier but a fog or two might not be enough to stop a voltron deck. Righteous Aura is an amazing enchantment and if your meta is ridden with Drakes, Lawmages, and Predators, a Rune of Protection or two in the appropriate colors can always help out. They can also be cycled or rummaged when not needed. We have a few color hosers that should not be overlooked. Red Elemental Blast, Pyroblast and Active Volcano will probably always make the cut for me.
Lastly any multicolored interaction goes up in value because of the synergy with the Eidolons. Cards like Hull Breach, Sundering Growth or Branching Bolt.
The deck plays a lot like a control deck. You are loaded with interaction and once your rummaging engine starts rolling you should have enough gas to stop your opponents from winning until you assemble your own win. The deck does suffer from lack of redundancy in both combos and of course the lack of blue. Don’t expect this deck to be free wins. You need to know your own deck and your opponents very well and set up your interaction accordingly.
You can take a look at my build of a competitive Thornscape Battlemage list here.
The Grindy Build
You actually made it through that wall of text! Or maybe you were smart enough to skip over all that competitive talk and instead took the direct route to value town.
As mentioned in the beginning of the article our commander can easily be a three for one. That’s the kind of grindy value we all signed up for. It only gets better when we cast her multiple times. Doing so from the command zone will become pretty pricey quickly though. Instead why don’t we have a number of ways to bounce her to our hand so we can dodge that gastly commander tax? We can do this with Kor Skyfisher, Aegis Automaton, Invasive Species, Whitemane Lion, Horned Kavu... the list goes on. Developing our board at the same time as recycling our value sounds good.
With this general gameplan in mind we can look at our ramp and color fixing to be the first place to grind out some value. Abundant Growth, Nylea's Presence and Prophetic Prism as well as Wood Elves and Farhaven Elf all work towards that goal.
The great thing about replaying our value cards over flickering them is that we can use some very powerful cards that don’t work with flicker. Mechanics like kicker as well as the new adventure mechanic don’t really do much with flicker effects. We will still run a few (like Ephemerate, Otherworldly Journey, Acrobatic Maneuver and Settle Beyond Reality) because we won’t be skipping over the creatures with great ETBs. A quick note on Settle Beyond Reality: This card can get absolutely insane with Anarchist. We will have other great targets for the Anarchist but exiling opponents’ creatures over and over is reason enough to run the red trouble maker.
For creatures with kicker we can field value powerhouses such as Citanul Woodreaders, Ghitu Chronicler, Keldon Overseer, Kor Sanctifiers, Mold Shambler, Oran-Rief Recluse and Torch Slinger. While not a value creature, Goblin Bushwhacker is a great way to close out games so I would add him for sure.
Most of the common adventure cards are neat but not as high in value. Merchant of the Vale is probably the only one making the cut but not as a bounce target. The rest offer negligible benefits or okay combat tricks. The problem with self bouncing combat tricks is that the cat’s out of the bag so they lose their blow out potential.
There is a wide variety of creatures with good ETBs. Here we can do the most tailoring to make the deck into our individual version. Recursion from Custodi Squire, token producers like Beetleback Chief or Maul Splicer, removal like Ghitu Slinger or Deadshot Minotaur, survivability through Haze Frog, Stonehorn Dignitary or Lone Missionary, help to close out games in the form of Goretusk Firebeast or Leonin Armorguard. There are many more. Notice that the ones listed here are mostly expensive higher impact representatives. That is not by chance. For the most part we are spending a whole card to reuse them and we don’t just want to get a single 1/1 soldier out of the deal.
Creatures with kicker are expensive, casting an adventure and the creature half too is expensive, high impact ETBs are on high CMC creatures. To get the most out of our strategy we will need a lot of mana. The few ramp cards I have already mentioned will not be enough to get us there. We can up our ramp in whatever way we please. We might not get to draw all the cards but we do get to have all the ramp. Dorks, land enchants, landramp you can go with whatever you like best. Springbloom Druid, Ondu Giant, Kor Cartographer and Silverglade Elemental complement our decks game plan really well by being reusable sources of ramp.
With recasting our value cards over and over we should always have something to spend all of that mana on. If we do run low on gas we can throw in some cantriping creatures, enchantments and artifacts, use some of red’s looting effects or even reach for virtual card advantage with buyback cards such as Sprout Swarm and Recruit the Worthy. If we really just want to draw extra cards we could consider Arcane Spyglass together with Tilling Treefolk. If we do, cycling lands go up in value as well. This opens us up to a lands matter subtheme with Flame Jab and Cenn’s Enlistment.
Since we already want to play a big mana strategy we might as well run some of the real heavy hitters like Greater Sandwurm and the fearsome Ulamog’s Crusher. Rolling Thunder and Fireball can finish off opponents or destroy multiple creatures. Also they work great in conjunction with our Anarchist.
The exact 99 are highly variable and can be tailored to your personal preferences. You can add more removal, even a board wipe like Swirling Sandstorm. You can change up your value creatures and win cons. As long as you stay true to the mantra “value above all” you will have a splendid Naya grind fest.
You can take a look at my build of Thornscape Battlemage Value Town here.
So there you have it, same commander but fundamentally different decks for different metas. Which style of play do you prefer? Do you want fine tuned killing machines or are you more of a value lover? I hope you look forward to the next installment when we venture into Jund territory.