This article is round 1 of the Underdog’s Corner, a series spotlighting various lesser-used commanders and their place in the format. Each article I will make the argument for a single commander that I believe deserves to see more play as well as highlighting key cards and synergies.
My name is Mason, and I started playing magic around the release of Born of the Gods. I’m currently a student, and I consider myself a bit of a rules junkie and an avid brewer. Commander is my favorite format, or rather, it’s the only format I play. Same thing right? One of my favorite parts of the format and for that matter, Magic in general, is the deck-building aspect. I’m that guy that tries to assemble the five-part combo to create an infinite loop that actually does everything – except win the game. I do it just because I can. I like interesting mechanics and unusual game-plans, and typically I’ll do something cool and fun for me before I make the game-ending play, if I have one at all. Now, this isn’t to say I don’t go into games trying to win, but if along the way I can put some arbitrary numbers of Blaze Counters from Obsidian Fireheart on my opponent’s lands and then proliferate them, you can bet I’m going to try to do that.
I must confess something … I love the lovable underdogs, and the stories that go with them. I don’t know what is it, but seeing someone rise above their billed status and overcome adversity does it for me. Rudy, Team USA against the Russians in the 1980 Olympics, and the most iconic underdog of them all: the Toon Squad overcoming the Monstars. All of these teams defied the odds. Yes, I promise this is a Magic article. No, you did not get redirected to a different site.
This is what I want to focus on during this series: I want to start a discussion on the various “underdog” commanders, and discuss strategies and synergies that can exist within their decks. The metrics and numbers behind how I determine which commanders are “underdogs” is not set in stone yet, but at least for the first installment the criteria is that the commander isn’t in the Top 50% of commanders played for it’s color combination.
Now what does an underdog look like in commander? The main way to distinguish an underdog commander is that you see it once in a blue moon and your first thought is, “Wait, what commander is that? What does it do?” Maybe it’s a commander that gets the “Why don’t you just play X instead?” treatment. Maybe the commander has a convoluted or just downright inefficient win condition. One way or another, these are the generals that don’t see the table as much over other options. Underdogs such as Oloro, Ageless Ascetic, Meren of Clan Nel Toth, Nekusar, the Mindrazer, Prossh, Skyraider of Kher, Narset, Enlightened Master, and more.
All right, all kidding aside, if you look through EDHREC’s top commanders all time you will see all of those commanders, and many others you have probably seen before. None of these are underdogs. I’ve built a few of these before; yes I’m”guilty” of that, and I will be again. I’ve enjoyed the decks a ton, but there’s something special about the underdogs I feel like.
This is why I want to talk about a commander that makes me giddy every time I think of the shenanigans: Arjun, the Shifting Flame.
Look at him! He’s a sphinx with a mane of fire! With a magical tail! During the Commander 2015 spoilers, I remember seeing his art and immediately telling myself “I don’t care what he does, I’m building him.” Well he got spoiled and…
He’s Mindmoil on a stick… Hmm. Ok. That’s disappointing at first glance… But I was set on building him from the get-go, so my mind started whirling around how to take advantage of his ability. As it turns out, there are actually quite a few ways to do that. I’ve seen discussions saying he is an odd-ball artifact commander, that he’s a storm commander, a chaos commander, a mill commander, a combo commander, etc. When you hear those archetypes, you’re first thought of who is leading those decks probably isn’t Arjun. You hear Storm and you probably think of Mizzix of the Izmagnus or Melek, Izzet Paragon. Combo and Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind, Chaos and Jhoira of the Ghitu, and then for mill you probably think of a blue-black commander. Not our friendly Sphinx Wizard. So why would we consider him in the first place?
Let’s take a look at what Arjun brings to the table:
He’s a 6-CMC commander first off. Normally for me, that’s a red-flag. I really enjoy my commanders hitting the table early, especially if they’re key to my gameplan. While Arjun’s a key component, his cost is mitigated by the fact we can run Mindmoil in the 99 for redundancy. For tribal aspects, he’s a Sphinx and a Wizard. While Sphinx’s don’t have much support themselves, wizards are one of the most wide-spread tribes in the game with such powerful inclusions as Azami, Lady of Scrolls, Patron Wizard, and Arcanis the Omnipotent. However, I think Arjun will skip out on most wizard-support. For stats, he’s a 5/5 with Flying. That’s nothing to scoff at and is a reasonable rate for his cost as well. Unfortunately, it falls right into the awkward spot of just being out of range to kill in four swings, so unless we have a consistent way to buff him, Arjun won’t be dealing lethal commander damage to anyone.
Now for the main reason why we’re considering him in the first place:
“Whenever you cast a spell, put the cards in your hand on the bottom of your library in any order, then draw that many cards.”
This is what enables all of the strategies that I have mentioned. But the question now is… How do we take advantage of this ability to enable these strategies? I’m going to focus on two of these in particular: Mill and Combo. Let’s break down Arjun’s ability to understand how we can take advantage of it:
“Whenever you cast a spell…”
So whenever we cast a spell, the ability triggers. This lets us use cards that can be cast from other zones to our advantage, such as Rebound, Flashback, Cascade, Suspend, and Retrace.
Each of these allows us to cast spells without reducing the size of our hand, and in the process allows us to dig an extra card for answers. Another card that is very useful for this plan is a personal favorite of mine: Possibility Storm.
The card is a bit of a mess, but for us it means every spell we cast now results in two triggers from our commander, while also throwing off the game-plan of our opponent’s. Now how do we take advantage of this? Let’s look at the second half of the text:
“…put the cards in your hand on the bottom of your library in any order, then draw that many cards.”
So for every spell we cast we’re drawing cards. We may not be drawing extra cards (yet), but the important part that we’re going to focus on is that we are “drawing” them.
This is going to be the focus of our game-plan.
Brainstorm is a great card; it’s the fourth most played card in blue-red decks, appearing only behind Sol Ring, Izzet Signet, and Cyclonic Rift. So why would I want to call it out? I think it brings a little bit extra to the table for Arjun than in other decks. Looking at the text, we see two actions occur: we draw three cards, then we put two cards from our hand back on top of our library. I want to highlight the second part in particular. Since each spell we cast results in a new hand, we can actually use Brainstorm to store cards we want to cast in our library, while keeping cards we don’t want in our hand, which is counter to what usually happens.
Speaking of storing cards in our library, I’m going to introduce two tutors that I think deserve a hard look at inclusion: Long-Term Plans and Mystical Tutor. Mystical Tutor sees play in about a fourth of Arjun deck lists, while Long-Term Plans only sees play in 16% of decks. I think both of those numbers are low, especially for Long-Term Plans. While it may put the card “third from the top,” with how many cards Arjun can draw, it should not be an issue to access the tutored card immediately.
Next up is Chasm Skulker, and it loves this ability. Every card we draw nets an additional +1/+1 counter, and when he dies, an additional squid token. With Arjun out, we can easily be drawing 4-10 extra cards each turn and pumping up our pet Kaiju. While this is a good creature, we’re probably not going to be winning many games quickly with him. So how are we planning to win with Arjun?
Remember when I said we’re probably going to skip of most Wizard support? Let’s look at the one piece I’m going to argue for inclusion: Diviner’s Wand.
When a wizard enters the battlefield, Diviner’s Wand can attach to that creature for free. And as we noted earlier, “You’re a wizard, [Arjun].” The first line of the text also happens to synergize with him as well. Every time we cast a spell with Arjun equipped, he gets plus +X/+X with X being our hand size. This makes Arjun into a very effective beater, and can even threaten a quick commander damage victory.
So that’s one win condition, but what else can we add? I had mentioned that we were going to be looking at a combo and mill win condition, so let’s look at how we’ll accomplish this:
For combo, we have Psychosis Crawler and Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind. Psychosis Crawler is the faster option, but they’re both effective. Additionally, if you’re not looking to burn out a player, Niv-Mizzet can also act as removal. For mill, we have options of Sphinx’s Tutelage and Jace’s Erasure. Similar concept, but slower than Niv-Mizzet and the crawler. So… How are we actually going to win with it? We draw cards and cast spells with Arjun, and we slowly whittle the table down… So how do we speed things up?
These cards turn the engine up to eleven. Every time a spell is cast, you go from X cards in hand to 2*(X-1) cards. Although let’s look at a table to understand how quickly this gets out of hand.
Very quickly. For example, if we start with five cards in hand, and we cast three spells, we end up with 26 cards in hand, and we’ve drawn a total of 48 cards. So… That translates to 48 +1/+1 counters on a chasm skulker, or 48 life loss with a Psychosis Crawler, or 96 cards (minimum!) milled with Sphinx’s Tutelage. It gets out of hand very quickly.
Let’s ask ourselves another question: Can we weaponize the cards in our hand?
We’ll start with a humble sorcery from Khans of Tarkir: Master the Way.
Let’s say this is our third spell we’ve cast in my example. When it resolves we get to deal 27 damage to an opponent. Hmm… That might be enough. Just maybe
Our next weapon in our arsenal comes from another Asia-inspired plane.
If you’ve never heard of this Jushi Apprentice // Tomoya the Revealer, I wouldn’t be too shocked. It’s obscure enough that EDHREC doesn’t even have it in the top 26 creatures for submitted Arjun decklists. Maybe that means it’s too inefficient, maybe the set up cost is too high. However, I think it’s still worth exploring. With Tomoya the Revealer’s ability including “target player” in the text, we can drastically cut into a player’s library with this ability. Combined with our mill strategy, this highly accelerates our game-plan, or can even act as a finisher.
With drawing all of these cards, what happens if we draw too many? Well… What if that’s a good thing? Drum Roll
Laboratory Maniac is a very all-or-nothing card. However, it becomes a powerful tool in Arjun. As I pointed out in the graph, we’re drawing a lot of cards. At times we’re drawing 20-50 at a time. If we’re drawing that many cards though, we’re bound to find the Lab-Man. He effectively serves as another combo kill condition if everything else goes south. Hey, and push comes to shove, he’s a wizard and can get in the mix with Diviner’s Wand.
Parallel Thoughts is another amazing card. Drawing your deck is great, but somehow you’ve worked your way into a terrible position by having your combo disrupted, and you’re slowly (or very rapidly) decking yourself. It offers a replacement effect for your draws that makes it impossible to deck yourself, even if there are no more cards in exile! You can stay death with it on the field!
Unlike Parallel Thoughts, Obstinate Familiar doesn’t offer much outside of when we need to prevent our libraries from killing us. However, by costing only a single red mana, it offers us a very cheap alternative.
While I’ve already covered many of the signature cards I would expect to see in Arjun builds, I want to leave you with a few cards I am going to try out in my own deck list, which I think are worth consideration:
And one last great dream combo before this ends:
I’ll leave you to figure this one out, although the combo only needs the two enchantments.
There’s so many overlooked and underappreciated commanders out there, but I hope I’ve left you with a bit of an appreciation for this Sphinx Wizard. He’s certainly a favorite of mine.
Thanks for joining me in the Underdog’s Corner!