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Budget Commander: $20 Arcane Wizardry Upgrade


Welcome back to Budget Commander, where we're halfway through analyzing and upgrading all of the Commander 2017 preconstructed decks. Here, we'll go over how each precon plays, why you should buy it, and the various directions in which to start upgrading the deck and making it your own. We started off with the Kittens Wielding Sledgehammers deck of Feline Ferocity and then the DRAGONS DRAGONS DRAGONSSSS pile in Draconic Dominationand now we're back to analyze the Tricksy Wizards featured in Arcane Wizardry!

Unlike Feline Ferocity and Draconic Domination, two aggressive decks looking to play BIG creatures and SMASH their puny opponents into submission through physical combat, the Wizards in Arcane Wizardry take a more intellectual approach to dismantling their foes. You see, the Wizards are a rather frail bunch in terms of physical power / toughness, making them ill-suited to brawling with huge Dragons, but they more than make up for their physical deficiencies with their abundant arcane tricks up their sleeves. No, they won't win a wrestling competition with an attacking Dragon, but they have various ways to bounce it (Harbinger of the Tides), shrink it to a manageable size (Serendib Sorcerer), send it elsewhere (Portal Mage), kill it (Terminate), and finally reanimate that pesky Dragon and make it punch its owner in the face (Puppeteer Clique). Those Wizards are a tricksy bunch!

You might like the deck if ...

  • You want a deck that has many ways to win outside of the combat step
  • You love to durdle
  • You like flexible cards that can be used in many different ways, and it's up to you how you want to use them
  • You want to play a control deck that has tons of answers
  • You want a tricksy deck that keeps your opponents off-balance and uses their own cards against them
  • You like having a strong graveyard subtheme
  • You want a deck that can be upgraded into a powerful combo or spellslinger list

You might NOT like the deck if ...

  • You want to play a deck that focuses on creature combat
  • You want a simple deck with straightforward lines of play
  • You hate durdling and / or the people at your table would hate you for durdling the entire game
  • You want access to white and / or green

If you like where this deck is going, then great! Let's check out the preconstructed list:

What does Arcane Wizardry do? Well, first and foremost, this precon is a control deck: it has the most answers to your opponent's threats out of all four precons. You can bounce (Into the Roil) or destroy (Reality Shift) problems, and if you don't have the right card for the job, you can use your opponent's cards instead (Memory Plunder). The precon also has strong subthemes: you've got a sacrifice theme with creatures that benefit from dying (Vindictive Lich), a graveyard subtheme that complements the sacrifice theme to pillage graveyards for value (Cauldron Dance), and a Blink subtheme with creatures that have powerful ETB triggers that would love to be bounced/reanimated repeatedly (Bloodline Necromancer). Those are a lot of different themes, but they all work together seamlessly in the deck, like pieces of a puzzle that you need to figure out how to best put together.

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The Wizard's Champion

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Inalla, Archmage Ritualist is by far my favorite commander in all of Commander 2017 from a design standpoint. The designers had to create a Wizard leader that meaningfully supports all the different types of Wizards in Grixis colors, from the classics like Venser, Shaper Savant and Snapcaster Mage to the weirder stuff like Magus of the Will. It seems like a tough order to find a way to support all these very different types of Wizards, yet Wizards of the Coast put on its sorting hat and knocked it out of the park with Inalla! She supports all of them extremely well!

Alright, so what does Inalla, Archmage Ritualist do? She makes a temporary token out of any nontoken Wizard that enters the battlefield under your control for a single mana of any color. And she can do it without even being on the battlefield. She's basically a Flameshadow Conjuring that you have constant access to. Man, eminence is stupid good. Finally, as the cherry on top, Inalla can straight-up turn your durdly Wizards into finishers with her tap ability. Let's break down how to build around Inalla's ability.

First up is Wizards with powerful ETB triggers: these are your Puppeteer Cliques and Trinket Mages—creatures that you're playing primarily for their powerful ETB trigger. Inalla lets you double up on those triggers by making a token copy of them for a single mana. Amazing!

Next, we have Wizards with powerful activated abilities that require tapping and / or sacrificing themselves. Inalla's tokens have haste, so you can immediately tap them, and sacrificing them is no big deal because the tokens would only last until end of turn anyway. The Magus cycle comes to mind as excellent additions (Magus of the Will), among other sweet Wizards like Apprentice Necromancer.

Inalla, Archmage Ritualist cares about our Wizards entering the battlefield, so we should have ways to bounce our creatures (Crystal Shard) and sacrifice + reanimate them (Ashnod's Altar / Animate Dead). The end result is that our deck reaps the benefit of our Wizards' abilities over and over, burying our opponents in card advantage and tempo.

Last but certainly not least are Inalla's combos! Of all the commanders in Commander 2017, Inalla certainly has the most combo potential. Here are a couple options:

That's just a snippet of what Inalla, Archmage Ritualist can do. She's a dumb, dumb card made dumber for being able to do this all while not being interactable in the command zone! Even when you're not flat-out winning the game, basic stuff like Venser, Shaper Savant can turn into a superior Capsize and wreck your opponent's day.

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Spellslinger

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Grixis is great at doing wizardry shenanigans, but the colors are also perfect for another strategy: the spellslinger archetype. Blue and red have long dominated the spellslinger scene, with powerful generals like Talrand, Sky Summoner and Mizzix of the Izmagnus being go-to commanders to build decks around instant / sorcery cards. Black historically hasn't offered a ton of direct support for spellslingers like blue (e.g., Jace's Sanctum) and red (e.g., Past in Flames) have, but it has given us a couple neat spellslinger commanders in Jeleva, Nephalia's Scourge, Toshiro Umezawa, and Dralnu, Lich Lord. Black does have a lot of powerful instants / sorceries to offer the archetype, though, most notably tutors (e.g., Demonic Tutor) and creature removal (e.g., Snuff Out). 

Kess, Dissident Mage is the latest spellslinger commander for us to build around. She turns your graveyard into an extension of your hand, letting you cast an instant / sorcery from it during each of your turns and granting you an amazing source of card advantage and card selection. In terms of similar commanders, she's probably closest to Dralnu, Lich Lord. The lich's main advantage is that he can cast spells at instant speed, letting you take advantage of Counterspells and other instants, but Kess lets you pay alternative casting costs to spells, grants you access to Red cards, and doesn't have that pesky "cry when you get hit by Blasphemous Act" risk Dralnu has.

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It's important to emphasize that Kess, Dissident Mage's ability is not flashback (e.g., Snapcaster Mage), which is an alternative casting cost that stops you from using other alternative casting costs on a spell. For example, Kess's ability lets you pay the overload cost of Cyclonic Rift or pay the buyback cost of Capsize to return it to your hand, which you couldn't do if you cast those spells with flashback.

Another fair comparison to Kess is Jeleva, Nephalia's Scourge, the other Grixis spellslinger commander option. Jeleva also offers great card advantage, not just from your own deck but also your opponents' decks, but what you exile with her is random—to an extent (you can control which cards you exile from your own deck with top-deck manipulation cards like Vampiric Tutor). So they're both Grixis colors and both Spellslingers, and they both offer card advantage and additional card selection; which is the better option? The answer is that it depends on what you want. Kess, Dissident Mage's ability is more consistent, since you have greater control of what you put in your graveyard than what you exile off the top of everyone's libraries. Jeleva, Nephalia's Scourge ability is less consistent, which varies from useless (you exiled nothing useful) to amazing (you exiled reeeeally useful cards), including cards from opponents that your deck doesn't have access to, like Disenchant to deal with a pesky enchantment. You also need to attack with Jeleva to cast anything with her, but you don't need to pay the mana cost of the spell.

In the end, I think Kess is a little better for top, competitive decks, but my personal preference is Jeleva to spice up games with some randomness. 

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So, how does Kess, Dissident Mage play out? Well, pretty much like any Spellslinger deck: you jam a ton of instants and sorceries while controlling the board until you can combo off. Winning can be as simple as casting Mana Geyser, re-casting it with Kess, and then spending all that mana on a lethal Comet Storm, or you can go deeper and play a Doomsday Storm deck looking to chain a bunch of spells in a single turn and then win with a lethal storm card / Aetherflux Reservoir or Doomsday pile.

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Janky Combos Galore

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Of the new commanders printed in Commander 2017, Mairsil, the Pretender is my favorite from the Arcane Wizardry preconstructed deck and definitely in my top three favorites from the set. Mairsil is just so weird and different from anything that came before him, encouraging you to run cards that rarely, if ever, saw play until now, like Quicksilver Elemental. It encourages deck brewers like me to pore over old, obscure cards with activated abilities and seeing what can be broken with Mairsil.

Mairsil is a combo deck, plain and simple: you're looking to find which cards end up being the most busted when caged by Mairsil. Here is just a taste of what Mairsil can do:

Mairsil, the Pretender can be played super janky or fairly competitive—up to you. Since he is so wildly different from the Arcane Wizardry precon, however, I'm not going to try and turn the deck into a Mairsil deck with $20; if you readers want to see my take on him, then I'll devote a future article to it.

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What Is The Deck Lacking?

As I often explain in my Budget Commander articles, every time I build a rough draft of a deck, I make sure I have a certain ratio of mana, interaction, card advantage, etc. This gives me a reference point to compare to the deck and see which areas may need improvement. My general ratio is:

  • 50 mana; lands and ramp, usually a 38–12 split
  • 10 sources of "card advantage;" I use this term loosely but am mostly looking for card draw or any spell that nets me 2+ non-land cards in hand / directly into play
  • 6 targeted removal, split between creature / artifact / enchantment removal
  • 3 board wipes
  • 2 recursion
  • 2 flexible tutors
  • 1 graveyard hate
  • 1 surprise "I Win" card

That's always my starting point, which is then tweaked to suit the individual deck's strategy and further tweaked with playtesting. I always find it immensely useful to figure out some quick ways to improve the deck in question. Let's see what the rough ratios are for Arcane Wizardry and how it compares:

Arcane Wizardry has an absurd amount of interaction and ways to close out games. It's fantastic in how many different ways you can play out each turn and rewards smart pilots who choose the right lines.

The preconstructed deck's glaring weakness, however, is its lack of ramp, which is by far the biggest factor holding the deck back from true greatness. The deck has a higher than average CMC of 3.97, but it's even more mana-hungry because a huge chunk of the deck's cards require you to pay additional mana for their activated and triggered abilities: Inalla, Archmage Ritualist herself requires an additional one mana every time you want to use her ability, but there are plenty of other cards like Nin, the Pain Artist, Havengul Lich, and so on that are useless if you're not dumping mana into them. With so many mana-hungry cards and so little ramp to fuel them, the deck is stuck performing only a fraction of the things it wants to do each turn.

When upgrading the deck, then, the most important thing we can do is both increase the amount of mana the deck generates and also cut down on the number of mana-hungry cards.

 

$20 Budget Inalla Upgrade

Arcane Wizardry was built with Inalla, Archmage Ritualist in mind, so upgrading the deck to work better with her is the easiest route. As mentioned earlier, the four main archetypes that Inalla supports are blink (Panharmonicon), sacrifice (Disciple of Bolas), reanimate (Animate Dead), and combo (Wanderwine Prophets). You can focus on one of these archetypes or mix and match as you wish. Regardless of which direction you take the deck, the best way to improve it is to remove some of the mana-hungry cards (Izzet Chemister) and add more ramp (Dimir Signet).

Here is a sampling of good cards under $5 (at the time of writing this article) to add:

 

Let's make room for our upgrades. The goals here are to make the deck less mana-hungry, lower the curve, and take out the plain weak cards to make room for better stuff.

Now that there are empty slots in the deck, let's fill it with $20 worth of upgrades.

I added some combos mentioned earlier in the article: we've got the Wanderwine Prophets combo, Ashnod's Altar enables the Bloodline Necromancer combo, and finally we've got the Dualcaster Mage + Ghostly Flicker combo. For the rest of the upgrades, we bumped up the number of ramp cards to 10 and added tutors to find answers to board states or find a combo piece.

Finally, here's the deck with the $20 upgrade added:

 

$20 Budget Kess Upgrade

Kess, Dissident Mage is all about instants / sorceries, so we're going to prioritize adding more of those. We're also going to cut down on mana-hungry cards while adding more ramp. Here are some good options under $5:

Spellslinger is pretty flexible on how you can win. The most casual approach is just creating an army of tokens with cards like Talrand, Sky Summoner and beating face. If you want to go into combo territory, then you can storm off with cards like Aetherflux Reservoir or run a Doomsday pile.

Alright, let's make room for the new goodness, shall we? Since Kess doesn't care about Wizards, we're going to remove a bunch of the ones that don't care about the Spellslinger plan, among other lackluster cards:

Now with some space cleared, let's throw in our sample $20 upgrade made from the suggested cards:

Since this is not a fast deck, I decided to focus the upgrades on the tokens strategy. We've removed a lot of creatures from the list in favor of more instants / sorceries, so we'll need ways to protect ourselves from getting randomly steamrolled by creatures. Talrand, Sky Summoner and other token producers build up a strong defense for us that can eventually reach critical mass and win the game. We're also on a Storm plan, specifically Aetherflux Reservoir, where we can take a giant turn casting a bunch of spells thanks to mana generators like Mana Geyser and other storm cards like Mind's Desire and Magus of the Mind, and then killing our foes with our doom cannon or just dumping all that mana into a lethal Comet Storm.

Here's how Arcane Wizardry looks with Kess at the helm and the $20 upgrade added:

 

Further Upgrades

Inalla, Archmage Ritualist's combos get a bit nastier with a better budget. You can pick up two of the combos that I posted when talking about her earlier:

With those in mind, here are the expensive combo pieces to make that happen, plus better tutors, ramp, and everything else:

Now for Kess, Dissident Mage, the most competitive thing you can do with her is throw in a solid Doomsday game plan. The best Doomsday piles require two expensive cards: Yawgmoth's Will and the very expensive Lion's Eye Diamond. You definitely do not need those cards to win with Doomsday, and even an extreme-budget Doomsday deck is on par with my Tokens sample, but those two cards are usually required for the most competitive versions.

If you're looking to play Kess Doomsday, I would highly recommend reading The EDH Doomsday Primer made by the Competitive EDH community, as they have done a far better job explaining how to build / play that deck than I ever could. Here are some of the cards you might end up picking up for that style:

 

Three Down, One to Go!

All that's left now is Vampiric Bloodlust and we're done with the precons! Apologies for the delay, and I promise the next article will not take as long as this one!

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