Scrapping the Savant

I haven't written much about it yet, but our household has largely adopted MTG Commander (folks might remember it as Elder Dragon Highlander) as our Magic format of choice (replacing the long-standing "just buy the theme decks and play them preconstructed when we feel like it" format). And to that end, we supplemented our collections with a few of the Commander precons (both the 2013 and 2014 versions) to get us an idea of how the format works, access to some of the staples of the format, and obviously to give us premade decks to play when we're lazy. (The reason I haven't written much about it was that I was waiting to have something more to say than "hey, I'm playing Commander" and then rehashing rules that you either already know or don't care about).

And for the most part it's been working nicely - our collection of theme decks stretches many years back, which gives us a nice wide selection of cards to choose from - perfect for a format where you only need one of any given card. The only real downside is that we've been reluctant to tear down any of the precons for parts, because they work well enough.

The first casualty has been the red 2014 Commander deck, Built From Scratch. And the reason is that the main commander, Daretti, Scrap Savant, is actively bad to use. And that seemed like an interesting topic, so let's cover it.

Calling the deck "red" is a bit misleading - it's actually an artifact deck. And the basic win condition for the deck is to use and abuse artifacts as much as possible. You have artifacts that get you mana, draw you cards, big artifact creatures. There is some actual red, but it's there for the support role (and to allow you to play Mountains as a mana base).

For reference, here's Daretti:

While his first ability is generally useful to a red deck (and discard to draw is a very handy ability to have in a Commander deck generally), the other two abilities are clearly designed to run in an artifact deck. His second ability lets you turn small artifacts (say, Iron Myr) into your heavy hitters like Wormcoil Engine. Wormcoil Engine is a particularly wonderful abuse of this ability, since when it dies it spawns artifact tokens, which are legitimate targets for Daretti to sacrifice to bring the original back.

This third "ultimate" ability is where the fun arrives. Once you fire that, for the rest of the game, all your artifacts that die come back at the end of the turn. Now all your sacrifice effects are just temporary flickers. And in a deck full of "Sac this: get that" artifacts, getting free recursion is insane. Or take our Wormcoil Engine above. Now, that 6/6 creature dies, turns into two 3/3s, and the original pops back in. Unless your opponent has a *lot* of graveyard removal, you're golden.

So, the game-plan for Daretti is:

  1. Get Daretti on table.
  2. Build loyalty by cycling your hand (and don't worry overmuch about ditching expensive artifacts that you can't afford right now)
  3. As necessary, spend a bit of loyalty to swap cheap artifacts for those expensive ones you've been ditching.
  4. At 10 loyalty, fire the ultimate and then laugh behind your near-unkillable piles of artifacts. (Feel free to replay Daretti and use his second ability to bring back extra artifacts from graveyard if you need/want to). Unless your opponent has a lot (and I mean a lot) of graveyard removal, you're effectively unkillable.
  5. Win however you want, since you have artifacts for any and all occasions.

The problem is that the reality is closer to this:

  1. Get Daretti on table.
  2. Watch the table's attention laser-focus on you and Daretti, as everyone counts the number of turns until you can use his ultimate (it's five, if you're curious).
  3. Suffer as the table drops all feuds to make sure Daretti does *not* make it that long. You can try and use blockers and defenses, but unless you were already completely dominant at the table, Daretti will fall regardless.
  4. If you're very very lucky, try to rebuild your board while the table goes back to it's normal fighting. But most likely, people are used to attacking you, and since Daretti is a commander they are wary of you replaying them - so likely at least one player will just finish you off to stop the problem at the source.
  5. Go play Smash Bros while the rest of the table finishes the game.

(This has happened to me three times with two different groups.)

Now, the bitch of it is - I can't blame the table's logic here. If I ultimate Daretti, I am in very very good shape. Daretti is a one-card combo, and everyone knows it.

The problem is that he's a very very slow combo. You put him on the table, and you will be unstoppable... in five turns. But until then he doesn't help you win, attacking him slows down the "fuse", and all the while he's waving a big red flag at the table and screaming "kill me now or die".

Which comes around to the other problem. As the commander, you expect to get him on the table. (It's kind of the point of a commander, I think.) If you can't get and keep him on the table for any length of time, the deck would be improved by substituting another red commander. Sure, he's great for an artifact deck, but only if he gets to use his abilities.

Ah well.