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Budget Commander: $20 Subjective Reality Upgrade


We continue our Commander 2018 $20 Upgrades with Subjective Reality, by far the weirdest preconstructed deck of them all in terms of upgrading. For all the flak Nature's Vengeance gets for being advertised as a Lands Matter deck that doesn't run a lot of Lands Matter cards, at least the deck has a straightforward upgrade path to turn it into the Lands Matter deck you want: just toss in no-brainer Lands staples like The Gitrog Monster, Titania, Protector of Argoth, Oracle of Mul Daya, Omnath, Locus of Rage, and voila, you've made a great Lands deck! Good job, you!

But when it comes to Subjective Reality, advertised as Top-of-Library Matters, the initial response I saw from the community was ... confusion. Top-of-Library is a thing you generally associate with the Miracles deck in Legacy or Lantern Control in Modern, not something you ever really come across in Commander. Even I was stumped when the deck was first announced: there's a lot of (expensive) cards we can add to better manipulate the top of our library, like Sensei's Divining Top, Scroll Rack, and the Tutor cycle from Mirage block (Enlightened Tutor), but what other payoff cards can we add? There's Temporal Mastery and umm ... yeah that was the only card I could think of initially (don't worry, I've come up with many more!).

Even the planeswalker face card of the product seems uncertain about sticking entirely to a Top-of-Library theme:

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If you look at all the other planeswalker face cards from C18 -- Saheeli, the Gifted, Lord Windgrace, and Estrid, the Masked -- you'll notice that they're focused on a single advertised archetype and that their main two abilities synergize with each other. For example, Saheeli's first ability creates an artifact, which adds to the ramp potential of her second ability. But Aminatou, the Fateshifter doesn't follow that trend: her -1 ability is about Blinking, which has nothing to do with Top-of-Library Matters and has zero built-in synergy with her +1 ability. She's half a Top-of-Library planeswalker and half a Blink planeswalker! It's so strange!

If you may excuse my tinfoil hat, I have a theory that the C18 designers wanted to do Top-of-Library Matters as the deck's main theme with Blink as a subtheme (all precons have subthemes), but they ended up running out of cards that they were allowed to add to the deck that supported Top-of-Library. Unfortunately the archetype has too shallow of a card pool to make a full C18 precon deck out of, so instead of making Top-of-Library a main theme and Blink as a subtheme, they put equal emphasis on both themes and tried their best to synergize the two into a cohesive deck, hence Aminatou, the Fateshifter supporting both themes equally. It's kind of how like C17's Feline Ferocity ended up being half a Go Tall deck and half a Go Wide deck because there's simply not enough Cat cards to make one theme the primary focus. That's my design theory at least, and I'm sticking to it until I hear otherwise!

Whatever the deck's design origins may be, Subjective Reality is a Top-of-Library Matters / Blink preconstructed deck and the Control deck of the C18 set. The precon aims to grind out the opposition through persistent card advantage plays, controlling the board with multiple wipes (Terminus), drawing or playing cards off the top of our library (Conundrum Sphinx), and finishing opponents late in the game with giant spells (Entreat the Dead). If you want a unique take on Esper Control, Subjective Reality may be the deck for you!

You might like the deck if ...

  • You like playing Control, policing the board and grinding out value
  • You want a deck with a unique archetype
  • You want to play the hardest deck to pilot of the four C18 precons
  • You are intrigued by Top-of-Library Matters or Blink strategies

You might NOT like the deck if ...

  • You want a deck that ends games quickly.
  • You want an aggressive deck.
  • You'd prefer a precon that is focused on a single theme right out of the box.
  • You want to play a simple and straightforward deck.

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

Despite my uncertainty on how best to upgrade this precon, Subjective Reality is a well-designed deck right out of the box that nails its theme. I count 29 Top-of-Library Matters cards split between manipulating the top of your library (Brainstorm) and payoff cards (Entreat the Angels). I count 16 cards that support a Blink theme split between cards with powerful ETB triggers (Mulldrifter) and ways to re-use those triggers with bounce/blink (Ninja of the Deep Hours). There are also a few cards that support both themes (Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow). The rest of the deck is mostly generic Control elements to keep you alive while you grind out value. Overall it looks like Subjective Reality should be able to stand up against the other precons, dragging the game out until a giant unanswered spell (Army of the Damned) eventually secures victory.

 

Top-of-Library, Blink, or Both

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While Aminatou, the Fateshifter is a planeswalker split between two distinct themes, do not mistaken her lack of focus for being weak. The 3 cmc planeswalker's main two abilities, the +1 and -1, are strong enough on their own to be the backbone of either a Top-of-Library Matters or Blink deck. Since she supports both themes so well and there is at least some degree of overlap between the two strategies, most Aminatou decks are going to focus on either Top-of-Library or Blink as the main theme and have the other as a subtheme.

Top-of-Library. There's no shortage of great ways to manipulate the top of our library in Esper colors; we even have an evergreen keyword, Scry, that does just that! With the scry cards and the cheap blue cantrips (Ponder), we're good on stacking the top of our library however we like. But the best topdeck setup in the deck has to be Aminatou herself, being able to pseudo-Brainstorm each turn while ticking up in loyalty the entire time.

Even more important than the setup cards are the payoff cards: all the miracles in Esper colors are great inclusions, with the new C18 miracle card, Entreat the Dead, being the best of the bunch. We've also got sphinxes that reward us for knowing the top card of our library (Yennett, Cryptic Sovereign) but my favorite pet card has to be Duskmantle Seer, which can draw us that Island we put on top with Aminatou while our opponent cries as they reveal Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre and lose 11 life.

The main drawback of upgrading the Top-of-Library strategy is that there aren't a lot of great payoff cards left to add. It's perfectly doable with Aminatou, but would be even stronger if you used a commander that itself was a payoff card for this strategy, not a setup card like Aminatou.

Blink. Aminatou, the Fateshifter's -1 ability blinks a permanent you own. With 3 starting loyalty, that means you can blink something once each turn for three turns in a row -- that's solid value for 3cmc! Unlike the relatively unknown/unexplored Top-of-Library archetype, the Blink archetype is a beloved staple in Commander that has received a ton of support throughout the years, being led by a variety of commanders such as Brago, King Eternal, Roon of the Hidden Realm, and most recently Inalla, Ritualist Archmage. Choosing to build a Blink deck means you have a huge card pool to work with.

While most Blink strategies focus on re-using ETB triggers on creatures (Mulldrifter), Aminatou is fairly unique in that she can blink any type of permanent, not just creatures. Subjective Reality shows off some of that flexibility with Cloudform and Lightform; blinking those auras allows you to manifest a new card! For this reason, Aminatou's -1 ability can be most closely compared to another Blink commander, Brago, King Eternal. Brago has the powerful advantage of being able to blink multiple permanents each turn while Aminatou can only blink one, but Aminatou has a few specific advantages over Brago too. The most obvious advantages are lower cmc and having access to Black, but my favorite thing has to be Donate shenanigans!

Note that Aminatou, the Fateshifter can blink any permanent you own, not just ones you control. That means if an opponent controls something you own, you can use Aminatou to blink it and it will re-enter the battlefield back under your control. As a lifelong Zedruu the Greathearted player, this is by far the most exciting for me about Aminatou! Basically we can trade our permanents for our opponents best stuff with things like Daring Thief and Puca's Mischief, then get the permanent we traded away back with Aminatou! Or perhaps we just let our opponent keep something we gift them; how about a nice Demonic Pact after we've used up three of its abilities? This version of Aminatou is what excites me the most!

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Looting Zombie Tribal

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The second Esper commander from Subjective Reality is ... a Zombie Tribal commander? A surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one. Varina, Lich Queen does nothing to support the primary archetypes in the precon, Top-of-Library Matters or Blink, so I won't bother trying to make a $20 upgrade list with her at the helm. There are only two other Zombie cards in the deck, Phyrexian Delver and Army of the Damned, the latter being excellent with Varina, but that's it. 

Despite not meshing with the precon, Varina, Lich Queen is yet another unique and power Zombie Tribal commander, one of the most spoiled tribes in terms of support. If I had to rank the best of the best, I'd nominate Grimgrin, Corpse-Born as the best Combo commander, Thraximundar as the best Aggro/Voltron, The Scarab God as the best grindy Control, and now Varina, Lich Queen joins the ranks as my favorite for Looting/Reanimation. My personal favorite style of Zombie Tribal is loading up my graveyard with all the Zombies and then mass reanimating them with Living Death, Patriarch's Bidding, or my absolute favorite, the ultimate flavor win known as Zombie Apocalypse! Varina is simply the best commander at this strategy, able to draw you a ton of cards and selectively discard the zombie creatures to reanimate them later. The key word is selective discard, aka looting; Wheels like Windfall are highly mana-efficient at drawing + discarding but can be awkward to cast if you have cards like Rooftop Storm and Patriarch's Bidding in hand that you don't want to discard. So while Varina takes a bit more to get going, looting is ultimately much more desirable than wheeling. Also she can turn your non-zombie creature cards in your grave into zombie tokens so you can loot even more! You'll always have a random fetchland or instants/sorceries to exile without worry.

Varina is the first Zombie Tribal Commander to give you access to Esper colors. There aren't a whole lot of great Zombie pickups in White, but there are two notable cards that I love: Wayward Servant is a great pinger joining its bretheren Diregraf Captain / Plague Belcher / Vengeful Dead, and Necromancer's Covenant is excellent graveyard hate while also providing an army of lifelink zombies! Outside of direct Zombie support, there's a ton of amazing pickups in White: Anointed Procession is great if your deck leans heavily on tokens, you finally get access to artifact/enchantment hate of all varieties including the super flexible removals Anguished Unmaking and Utter End, and you get other random superb cards like Teferi's Protection!

Varina also has potential to support Discard/Cycling and Lifelink subthemes for your Zombie list. Cards like Archfiend of Ifnir and Drake Haven can do serious work with Varina especially when supported with more looting/cycling cards. If you want Lifelink you can pick up cards like Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim and the finisher Aetherflux Reservoir. There's a lot of possibilies with her! Did I mention Alhammarret's Archive? Doubling your card draw without doubling your discard is pretty sweet!

While I won't do a $20 upgrade of Subjective Reality with Varina, Lich Queen leading it, I will share with you my personal Varina list that I'm still brainstorming. I've been running a Thraximundar Tribal Zombie list for 5 years now and I've decided to change it into a Varina list at least for a while.

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Yennett, Top-of-Library Queen

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Yennett, Cryptic Sovereign is a powerhouse of a card when properly built around. Unlike Varina, Lich Queen, Yennett actually fits well in Subjective Reality since she's a payoff for Top-of-Library Matters, letting you cast the top card of your library for free if it has an odd cmc. She works great in the 99 or leading her own deck, where you have a couple paths: you could continue going Top-of-Library Matters and just tweak the top card to make sure it's odd when Yennett attacks; you could go Sphinx Tribal to get all the great Sphinxes available to us; or you could go full Odd CMC Tribal where all your nonland cards must have odd cmcs, which is my personal favorite as a brew restriction.

Of all the Top-of-Library commander candidates, I think Yennet, Cryptic Sovereign is the best; yes, better than Aminatou, the Fateshifter for this archetype. Top-of-Library decks have tons of setup cards that manipulate the top of the library; what we really need is powerful payoff cards for setting things up. There's a lack of good ones. With Yennet as our commander, we have easy access to one of the best payoff cards available.

While Yennett has a ton of cool strategies you can take her, the strongest and easiest way to build Yennett is using a Top-of-Library strategy to cheat game-ending cards. All you gotta do is put an Expropriate on top of your library and you've pretty much won. Fun fact, most of the Time Warps printed are odd cmc, so go nuts stringing those back to back for an easy win. Yep, Yennett, Cryptic Sovereign is the Esper Narset, Enlightened Master.

The competitive method of building Yennett doesn't interest me whatsoever. And while it's true you don't need to build Yennett that way, and she has a couple cool and casual ways to build her, the problem is that any Yennett deck now comes with that cutthroat reputation. You'll eat a lot of hate regardless of what cards are actually in your deck. The same happens with Narset, Enlightened Master: I've heard from many folks how she makes for an amazing Tokens or Superfriends leader, fun and casual strategies, but eventually she's replaced because people hate her out due to her reputation.

Yennett, Cryptic Sovereign is an excellent choice for a budget commander and my vote for the most appropriate Subjective Reality commander if you want to focus on Top-of-Library Matters: remove the Blink subtheme, toss in protection and haste (Lightning Greaves and Swiftfoot Boots are musts), add more topdeck manipulation, and make your payoff cards be flashy stuff like Expropriate and Rise of the Dark Realms. Just remember that she will come with a cutthroat reputation.

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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 1 more, creature-heavy decks might want 1 less
  • 2 recursion
  • 2 flexible tutors
  • 1 graveyard hate; because you never forget to add some graveyard hate in your deck, right? Right? Right?!
  • 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 Subjective Reality and how it compares:

Subjective Reality is a slow, grindy deck. It's got a lot of mana sources, which is great because its win conditions are super mana-hungry, but the majority of them are lands. The deck really wants to make its land drop every single turn, so 40 lands isn't the worst, but it could definitely benefit from cutting just a few (~2) lands for ramp to speed up the early game where it's most vulnerable.

The deck has a ton of incremental card advantage, usually drawing an extra land each turn. I'm actually surprised I don't see Loyal Drake in this precon; it would've been the perfect fit, even coming with evasion to ninjutsu in Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow. It would be nice if we could draw more than one card in a turn sometimes though, if for example we're falling behind and need to dig for a card. Similarly, a tutor or two would be a huge boon to find a specific removal/board wipe, or whatever else would be the perfect play for our turn.

All the removal and board wipes are generally great. Not much needed to change there. Our "I Win" cards are fantastic too! In terms of immediate updates, we want to speed the deck up a bit with more ramp, more explosive card advantage, and one or two tutors. And graveyard hate! Just a little!

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Top-of-Library Matters Options

For this article I'll be focusing on two main $20 upgrade paths for Subjective Reality: Top-of-Library Matters and Blink, both with Aminatou, the Fateshifter as the commander. Both builds will have one of the themes as your primary and the other as your secondary. For Top-of-Library Matters, we're looking for cards that manipulate the top of our library (setups) and cards that rewards us for having the right card on top (payoffs).

Aminatou, the Fateshifter is our best setup card due to her cheap cmc and powerful +1 ability: she can put whatever we need on top of our library, from an Island so we lose no life off Duskmantle Seer or place a Sphinx of Uthuun so our opponents lose a ton of life off Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow. She also lets us get rid of cards we don't want when combined with scry cards like Sigiled Starfish or anything else that lets us toss card into our graveyard or bottom of our library like Impulse.

I used Scryfall to look at all Esper cards that said "top of library" and "scry" and picked my favorites. Then I went to Manabase Crafter for lands.

While researching the best Top-of-Library cards I noticed there were some sweet subthemes we can explore, with Artifacts and Superfriends being standouts; lots of sweet cards there that care about the top of our libraries! Also we have a decent start to a Spellslinger deck and for Sphinx Tribal lovers there's some nice Sphinx pickups, perhaps for a janky Yennett, Cryptic Sovereign.

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Budget Blink Options

For our Blink theme, we're going to focus on permanents that do something useful when they enter the battlefield (Mulldrifter) or leave the battlefield (Boreas Charger). Basically a less explosive Brago, King Eternal deck with a cheaper commander, access to Black, and no need to actually attack with our commander to use its ability. It's a tried and true strategy and appears to be what 99% of the Aminatou, the Fateshifter decks/primers are on about.

But the spicier subtheme to Blink is going to be our Donate strategy, trading our permanents for our opponents' stuffs (Switcheroo) and then getting our traded stuff back by blinking it with Aminatou. I found most of these cards through Scryfall filtering Esper cards with "enters the battlefield" and "leaves the battlefield," plus referencing my Budget Brago article since there's a lot of overlap.

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Combos!

As soon as Aminatou, the Fateshifter was spoiled, people were already talking about an easy combo with her: Aminatou, the Fateshifter + Felidar Guardian allows you blink both permanents an infinite number of times. Aminatou uses her -1 ability to blink the Guardian, which then blink Aminatou, which can then use her -1 ability again and continue the loop.

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Once you've established this infinite blink loop, add Altar of the Brood to mill everyone out or Vela the Night-Clad to ping for lethal. Or you can use either Oath of Teferi or Panharmonicon to double either Aminatou's or Felidar's ability, letting you blink another permanent (Piranha Marsh for example) to win the game that way as well.

 

$20 Aminatou Blink Maintheme, Top-of-Library Matters Subtheme Upgrade

Looking over budget upgrade paths, I feel like $20 worth of upgrades is best spent on a Blink maintheme for Aminatou, the Fateshifter, with Top-of-Library Matters as a subtheme. First step is making room in the deck. Here are the first cards I'd look to cut. Some cards are on-theme but simply too weak (Sigiled Starfish), others are great cards on their own but we have better synergy options to replace them with (Esper Charm), and a couple are neither on-theme or generally good cards (Loyal Subordinate).

And here's what I'd add:

The primary focus here is further supporting the Blink theme. Most of the best targets to blink are creatures, which happen to synergize best with the deck since we have three ninjas (Ninja of the Deep Hours) and one of our strongest finishers wants lots of creatures (Entreat the Dead). I took out some generic great cards like Mortify to make room for more synergy options (Palace Jailer).

I've also added the Aminatou, the Fateshifter + Felidar Guardian combo, which lets us win with Vela the Night-Clad out or Oath of Teferi / Panharmonicon + Piranha Marsh. The great thing about this combo is all the pieces aside from the Marsh work wonderfully in the deck, and then just win the game if you assemble them all together.

Here's the precon deck with the changes made:

Further upgrading really depends on what direction you want to go. If you love the emphasis on Blink, add Brago, King Eternal and Lightning Greaves + Swiftfoot Boots to give him haste. If you want an even better dedicated Blink deck, consider just swapping the deck over to Brago, King Eternal, since he's the undisputed king at it. If you love the Donate shenanigans you can splurge to pick up that card and maybe add Nefarious Lich as another way to mess with your opponents.

$100 Sample Upgrade

As a special bonus, here's an Aminatou deck built from scratch with a $100 budget. Its main theme is Blink Shenanigans, further developing the sweet synergies and donate shenanigans we were building with the $20 upgrade. The deck still retains Top-of-Library Matters as a subtheme, allowing to take full advantage of the greatest payoffs like the miracle cards.

Two Down, Two to Go!

I hope you enjoyed my take on Subjective Reality using Aminatou, the Fateshifter at the helm. Blink decks are always fun for me, and getting to add a Donate subtheme was a great nostalgia trip considering Zedruu the Greathearted was my first CMD deck. If you're interested in different takes and higher budgets then that's something I might revisit in a future article. For now, however, I still got two more preconstructed decks to write about!


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