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Budget Commander: $20 Faceless Menace Upgrade

Commander 2019 preconstructed decks have arrived, and that means it's time for another round of my most popular articles: the $20 precon upgrades! And unlike last year, this year I promise to finish the cycle, and I'll do it quick because I'm away on vacation next week so the deadline is real! I'll first go over how each preconstructed deck plays, why you should buy it, and the various directions that you can upgrade the deck and make it your own. We start off with my personal favorite deck of the bunch, Faceless Menace, a Morph Tribal deck that uses the element of surprise with mysterious face-down creatures that can flip up at a moments notice and tons of other tricks to keep your opponents guessing.

Faceless Menace is a creature-focused midrange/control deck looking to pull the rug from under your opponents' feet with a huge variety of tricks. Instead of spending most of your mana on your own turn like most decks, this precon wants to play at instant speed and holds up most of its mana for your opponents' turns, flipping up morph creatures like Thelonite Hermit, flashing in creatures like Great Oak Guardian, and removing threats with cards like Leadership VacuumFaceless Menace is all about keeping your opponents guessing about what you can do with your untapped mana. Fear of the unknown will make opponents think twice about attacking you, not knowing if your 2/2 face-down card is an Icefeather Aven or a Sagu Mauler, or if you simply have a Putrefy in hand ready to deal with any threat. Denying your opponents information about your capabilities leads them to make suboptimal plays which you then capitalize on.

You might like the deck if ...

  • You want to play a deck themed around trickery
  • You like catching your opponents with tons of "gotcha!" moments
  • You want to play a controlling deck loaded with instant-speed answers
  • You're dying to say "you've activated my trap card!" in a game of Commander

You might NOT like the deck if ...

  • You want to play an aggressive deck
  • You want to play a straightforward, linear deck
  • You prefer raw power decks; no trickery!
  • You want to tap out on your own turn and chill out while it's your opponents' turns

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

As you can see, Faceless Menace is absolutely loaded with instant-speed spells and abilities. I count a whopping 35 nonland cards that can either be cast at instant speed or can be activated at instant speed, not counting 5 cards that have yet to be revealed at the time of writing this. The precon also leans heavily on a Morph Tribal theme right out of the box: I count 27 cards that deal with face-down creatures. When the deck is working properly, you'll be sitting with untapped mana on your opponents' turns and a handful of diverse answers to spend that mana on, choosing the instant-speed answer that best suits the situation. Your opponents will quickly learn to fear your untapped mana, your unknown cards in hand, and your face-down creatures!

Like all the precons, Faceless Menace comes with multiple potential commanders, each focusing on a different archetype to build around. For this article I will only be talking about Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer. I'll show you how to tune Faceless Menace into a more focused Morph Tribal deck, removing cards that don't fit Morph Tribal and adding more cards that do. If you're interested in seeing me build around the other commanders in the precon -- Volrath, the Shapestealer, Grismold, the Dreadsower, and Rayami, First of the Fallen -- please let me know in the comments section and I may cover them in the future.


Kadena's Morph Tribal

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Kadena vs. Animar

Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer is the second legendary creature ever printed that directly supports face-down cards. Ixidor, Reality Sculptor was the only "official" morph commander for over a decade, and while he's okay, being restricted to just Mono Blue meant it was difficult to fill out your deck with enough morph cards. Not only is Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer better, trading the small anthem effect for sweet card draw, but most importantly she gives you access to three colors to easily fill your deck with face-down cards. Kadena's only real competition as a Morph Tribal commander comes from what many considered the "unofficial" commander: Animar, Soul of Elements.

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Animar, Soul of Elements Morph Tribal, aka Animorphs, holds a special place in my heart. I've owned a copy of the deck for years now, which I've even written a Budget Commander article about over here. To my knowledge it's the first Morph Tribal primer on the internet, which I'm quite proud of. Animar is a great morph commander because, once it gets three +1/+1 counters, it allows you to cast your morph spells face-down for free (though it doesn't help you flip them up). This cost reduction ends up being overall stronger than Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer because, while Animar requires three creatures to be cast before your morphs are free to cast, Animar's discount isn't restricted to just the first face-down creature spell you cast each turn like Kadena is. This means that you can cast an infinite number of morph creatures for free on a single turn with Animar, which also grows Animar to absurd sizes -- all while boasting protection from white and black, which makes Animar difficult to kill and block. Kadena does also offer card draw which Animar does not, but if we're comparing the two in terms of power, I think Animar is far more degenerate.

That said, I plan on taking apart my Animorphs deck and rebuilding it under Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer. The reason is simple: I want to play a dedicated Morph Tribal deck that wins with face-down creatures. My problem with Animar, Soul of Elements is that I've often ran into situations where I cast a dozen or more morph creatures in a single turn, growing Animar large enough to kill people with commander damage, and its protection from white and black makes it trivial to do so. While that's a powerful and effective win condition and there's nothing wrong with it, it doesn't feel like I'm winning with Morph Tribal and more that I'm winning off Animar itself. Animar also has a reputation of being a cutthroat commander comboing off with Cloudstone Curio and cast Kozilek, Butcher of Truth for free, which can sometimes lead to you being hated out despite not running any of those cards.

So when it comes down to deciding between Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer or Animar, Soul of Elements, I definitely prefer Kadena, since she's focused on Morph Tribal and probably won't be as hated out as Animar. Plus, she draws cards and Animar does not, which honestly is the most important factor.


Building Around Kadena

Kadena is very straightforward to build around: she rewards you for playing face-down creatures. You want to run lots of morph cards (Den Protector) and manifest cards (Scroll of Fate). Pretty simple, right?

There's a few extra things we can do to really take advantage of Kadena and Morph Tribal in general. First is giving our spells flash. Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer gives a mana discount to the first face-down creature spell we cast each turn, not just our own turn. By casting our morph cards on our opponents' turns with the help of cards like Leyline of Anticipation we can get more value out of Kadena's ramp ability.

As for Morph Tribal itself, one of the biggest flaws of the archetype is how mana-hungry it is. Pretty much all the morph spells are overcosted to cast plus flip them, which is why you almost never see morph cards played outside of Morph Tribal. Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer helps out with this, but she does nothing to help you pay for the flip cost, which is often quite mana-intensive (Thousand Winds). Because of this, the deck will wants lots of ramp, or else we'll be way too slow compared to the rest of the table. Cards that untap our lands in mana-efficient way are also huge for us since we do everything at instant speed. Because of this, people playing Faceless Menace will quickly discover that Seedborn Muse is an MVP of the deck, allowing for far more flip activations than we normally could without.

The best morph cards often have a powerful triggered ability when turned face up, like Kheru Spellsnatcher. We can add ways to re-use these powerful triggers. One of the best cards to do this is already in the precon: Strionic Resonator, which doubles our triggers if we have two extra mana. But we can also bounce our creatures back to hand so we can recast them face-down again. Cards like Cloudstone Curio and Temur Sabertooth are great bounce engines for this.

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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 37–13 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; creature-light decks might want one more, creature-heavy decks might want one less
  • 2 recursion
  • 2 flexible tutors
  • 1 graveyard hate; since you need to keep Graveyard decks honest 
  • 1 surprise "I Win" card; something that can win games the turn you cast it without too much setup

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 Faceless Menace and how it compares:

Faceless Menace has solid mana base and a crazy amount of answers to any board state, though many of them are situational. There's a good amount of recursion and there's even some reasonable ways to close the game.

The biggest warning sign for the deck, in my opinion, is its inconsistent card draw. We have very few sources of consistent draw in our deck: Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer, Trail of Mystery, and Secret Plans all work well with our morph creatures, and we have some raw card draw with Tezzeret's Gambit and Urban Evolution, but the rest is less appealing. Thought Sponge and Grim Haruspex seem out of place here, requiring our creatures to die to draw cards, but we have no way to sacrifice them ourselves nor are we incentivized to. I like Pendant of Prosperity, but Bounty of the Luxa is pretty bad. I can foresee games with Faceless Menace where Kadena is swiftly dealt with and you're left severely behind the table in topdeck mode while your opponents speed ahead.

The deck could also use some more focused ramp. There's a lot of good cards here, but in my opinion, there should be an emphasis on 1-2 cmc ramp in particular so we can consistently drop down a turn 3 Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer. That way we immediately start deploying our morphs and drawing cards. Rampant Growth is a no-brainer here.

Other than some tweaks and one or two tutors, this deck is one of the best constructed precons I've ever seen. The only card that really annoys me is Temple of the False God, a garbage trap card which WOTC keeps sliding into their precons for some insane reason -- maybe to be the "obvious bad draft card" of the precons? I don't know. OTHER THAN THAT, this precon is fantastic. Good job, WOTC!

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Kadena Morph Tribal Upgrade Options

Here are some of my favorite options under $10 to shift Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer into a more powerful and focused Morph Tribal deck:

Brine Elemental is probably the single biggest upgrade for the deck. Paired with Vesuvan Shapeshifter, you achieve the Pickles Combo, where you flip Brine Elemental up, then flip up Vesuvan Shapeshifter each turn copying the Elemental and its triggered ability, denying your opponents the opportunity to ever untap.

"Three ramp cards deserve special mention here: Dream Chisel, Obscuring Aether, and Ugin, the Ineffable. All three lower the mana cost of casting your face-down creatures. While at first this seems like a no-brainer inclusion in Morph Tribal, it's actually a more complicated decision. These cards only help you cast your face-down creatures; they don't help you flip them up, nor do they help you pay for any other of your spells or activated abilities. On top of this, Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer already lets you cast your first face-down card for free each turn, so when she is on the battlefield these three cards do nothing until you're casting your second morph creature.

So are Dream Chisel, Obscuring Aether, and Ugin, the Ineffable bad in this deck? Well, sometimes. They are too situational for me to count them in my ramp slots like you would Rampant Growth. They work best when you are drawing a ton of cards and the discount allows you to cast multiple face-down cards per turn -- indeed, combining Ugin, the Ineffable with both Obscuring Aether and Guardian Project on the battlefield can lead to pretty disgusting turns. However, this best-case scenario isn't going to be very consistent. Of the three, Ugin, the Ineffable is the best for this deck, offering a substantial mana discount that also works on all colorless spells, like your Simic Signet, and coming with repeatable card advantage and removal. Obscuring Aether is the next best; not something I'd usually want to run, but it's okay. Ironically, Dream Chisel, by far the most expensive due to speculators, is by far the worst option and not something I'd recommend running.

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$20 Kadena Morph Tribal Upgrade

Before we can add our upgrades, we need to cut cards to make room for the new stuff. Here are the first cards I'd look to cut. Some cards are great by themselves but we have better on-theme synergy cards to replace them with (Sultai Charm), some cards don't mesh well with the rest of our cards (Thran Dynamo), and other cards are just bad (Temple of the False God).


Next are our upgrades. I retooled our ramp package to focus on 1-2cmc ramp so we can consistently get Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer out on turn 3 and start our gameplan as quickly as possible. I've upped our morph count since so many of our best cards trigger off them, the best new inclusions being Temur War Shaman for extra removal, Whisperwood Elemental for card advantage, and Brine Elemental for the pickles lock. We've also added faster, more consistent card draw, more thematic interaction, better lands, and the most important upgrade with Leyline of Anticipation, letting us cast all our spells at instant speed which maximizes the value we get from Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer.


Here's how the precon looks like now with the changes made:


One Down, Three To Go!

I hope you enjoyed my take on Kadena Morph Tribal! Morph Tribal has always been a pet favorite archetype of mine so this article was pretty easy for me to knock out. But now I've got three more to do, so I'll see you again soon! Thanks for reading!

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