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The Big Budget Commander Update: Part 1 (Kaalia, Talrand, Darien)

Time For Renovations

I've been writing Budget Commander for a while now: my first article for this site was Budget Kaalia published on January 1st, 2015, over four years ago! While I think my older articles hold up well and the deck goals / concepts remain relevant, the deck lists themselves have remained unchanged since they were published, gradually making them more and more outdated as new card options keep getting printed. I've neglected my older articles for so long now that feedback from you all makes it clear that you'd prefer I go back and freshen up my old lists before going forward and brewing new ones. So that's my plan: a big ol' update for all my older Budget Commander decks! I'll start with the original lists and then provide new card options that have been printed after the articles were published.


The Cost Keeps Rising

Updating old lists with new cards isn't the only reason why I want to update my older articles: I'm also trying to keep the prices down! Previously, I would try to keep my Budget Commander decks around ~$50 USD, with some as low as $24 and as high as $102, depending on how much cash I think I need to achieve the concept at a power level I deem satisfactory. After all, I don't want the deck to just be cheap, I also want them to be good! These days, however, I'm trying to provide three price points for my decks: cheapest (below $50), $100, and high budget (usually $200).

To my dismay, nearly all my decks have increased in price significantly. This price snapshot was done on February 12, 2019:

Deck Original Price Current Price % Change
Kaalia of the Vast $99 $150 +51%
Talrand, Sky Summoner $45 $105 +133%
Darien, King of Kjeldor $102 $248 +143%
Gahiji, Honored One $53 $113 +113%
Melek, Izzet Paragon $45 $120 +166%
Brago, King Eternal $37 $91 +145%
Nicol Bolas $37 $85 +129%
Edric, Spymaster of Trest $40 $102 +155%
Zedruu the Greathearted $60 $142 +136%
Sydri, Galvanic Genius $60 $128 +113%
Rakdos, Lord of Riots $40 $120 +200%
Selvala, Explorer Returned $57 $127 +122%
Purphoros, God of the Forge $53 $113 +113%
Omnath, Locus of Rage $63 $134 +113%
Phenax, God of Deception $50 $112 +124%
Reaper King $50 $100 +100%
Archangel Avacyn $80 $106 +33%
The Gitrog Monster $50 $79 +58%
Alesha, Who Smiles at Death $56 $82 +46%
Tribal Elephants $81 $220 +171%
Coin Flips $70 $120 +71%
Xenagos, God of Revels $50 $80 +60%
Animorphs $72 $93 +30%
Baral, Chief of Compliance $32 $66 +106%
Selenia, Dark Angel $38 $77 +103%
Olivia, Mobilized for War $30 $47 +57%
Cycling Zur $53 $53 0%
Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest $24 $30 +25%
Licia, Sanguine Tribune $50 $72 +44%
Gishath, Sun's Avatar $328 $376 +15%
Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca Not Recorded $296  
Firesong and Sunspeaker $100 $120 +20%
Jodah, Archmage Eternal $44 $76 +73%
Tiana, Ship's Caretaker $50 $64 +28%
Najeela, the Blade-Blossom $58 $68 +17%
Arcades, the Strategist $54 $103 +91%
Niv-Mizzet, Parun $50 $55 +10%
Teysa Karlov $40 $56 +40%
Nikya of the Old Ways $35 $37 +6%

Our goal with this update series isn't just to update the lists with new card options, but also to bring the price of decks back down closer to their original budget. So let's get started!


Kaalia of the Vast

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A Brief History. When Elder Dragon Highlander became an official format supported by Wizards of the Coast, the format was renamed to Commander and we got the first of a yearly Commander set, simply called Commander (2011). Of all the new legendary creatures printed in the five preconstructed decks, Kaalia of the Vast was by far the most popular, and she quickly became one of the first boogeymen of the format: most playgroups had at least one player running her and after one game you'd know to focus down the Kaalia player or you'd quickly be steamrolled by any number of game-ending Angels, Demons, or Dragons. Kaalia's popularity faded in time as people got bored of her and moved to play newer cards.

Playstyle. Kaalia of the Vast is almost always built as a brutal Aggro deck, looking to cheat massive creatures into play as quickly as possible and close the game before your opponents have a chance to stabilize. It's this very effective playstyle that earned her ruthless reputation and why she's often the archenemy at the table the moment you reveal your commander. Being the default archenemy means Aggro Kaalia needs to be even faster and more ruthless, which often means ramping out a big threat and then stopping your opponents from responding with MLD (Armageddon).

An alternative way of building Kaalia of the Vast is more of a midrange deck: instead of going for a turn 2 or 3 Kaalia and rushing out your vast array of big threats, these decks play a slower game with much more protection and answers, biding your time until your opponents have exhausted their resources fighting each other, and then you close out the game with Kaalia and some of the best Demons / Dragons / Angels. Both playstyles are good and it mostly depends on your personal preference along with what works better in your playgroup.

Is she still good? Oh my goodness YES! Every new set inevitably brings us new Angels / Demons / Dragons, growing Kaalia's power as the years go by. She's still one of the best commanders at what she does and is certainly the best option for Angel Tribal or Demon Tribal decks, as long as you're okay with the reputation she comes with.


The Old List

The original list was definitely your typical Aggro Kaalia: the plan is to cast Kaalia on Turn 3, cheat some big creatures into play, and then stop our opponents from stabilizing with MLD like Armageddon. Nearly all our lands enter the battlefield untapped and at least 8 of our ramp cards (mana rocks) can be played on turn 2, which enable a turn 3 Kaalia of the Vast. If our opponents have answers to Kaalia then we have enough ramp to just hardcast our threats and try again. It's a brutal and efficient Archenemy deck.

New Inclusions. 

Updated Budget Kaalia ($70)

This time around, I decided to go with the cheapest version of Kaalia of the Vast I could make while still keeping her powerful. The original list was $100 when I wrote it and I've lowered the cost this time down to $70, which I think is pretty darn good considering Kaalia herself is $20! 

The biggest new upgrade to the deck has to be Dragon Tempest. Since all our creatures fly it's basically a cheaper Fervor in this deck. Painful Truths is the best new card draw inclusion, and Emeria Shepherd is a solid source of recursion. Some cards also got cheaper due to reprints, so Rune-Scarred Demon and a few others are now cheap enough to include.

Unfortunately with the tigher budget, the deck does get slower: we lose Sol Ring and some of the untapped mana-fixing lands like Dragonskull Summit so the Turn 3 Kaalia becomes less likely. We also lost some of our more devastating Angels / Demons / Dragons like Master of Cruelties.

Overall I think the deck got a little weaker but going from an initial $100 list to just $70 is well worth it, plus you can use that $30 to put back some of the best cards for a superior deck than the original at the same price.

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Talrand, Sky Summoner

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A Brief History. Talrand, Sky Summoner was one of the first dedicated Spellslinger commanders in the format, rewarding you with an army of drakes when you cast instants / sorceries. The fact that he's just mono color and most of the best Blue instants / sorceries are dirt cheap Commons / Uncommons (e.g. Counterspell) made it super cheap to build effective decks with Talrand.

Talrand was actually the first real budget Commander deck I built for myself. I created it in response to increasingly more competitive -- and expensive -- decks cropping up in my playgroup. I took it upon myself to humble these $4,000+ dollar decks with a dirt cheap brew comprised of bulk Commons / Uncommons found in my shoeboxes of random Magic cards. It worked. So when I started writing Budget Commander articles here on this site, doing a Talrand article was a no-brainer.

Playstyle. Talrand decks are usually Draw Go: your turns usually consist of untapping, playing a land, and then passing ("go"), because most of your spells are instants that you'll be casting on other peoples' turns. Blue's best instants / sorceries tend to encourage a Control style of play, especially a Counterspell-heavy deck (a big reason why Talrand is unpopular), but Talrand doesn't need to be Counterspell.dec nor do I think running a deck jam-packed with countermagic is a good strategy; a more diverse arsenal of bounce, theft, removal, copies, and counters should prove superior. The drakes provide much-needed defense and eventually can be a win condition once you reach a critical mass. You can also use the tokens to fuel shenanigans like Polymorph, while some go for buffing the army with things like Coat of Arms.

Is he still good? Spellslinger is a popular archetype and we've seen -- and will continue seeing -- many more Spellslinger commanders be printed since Talrand, each bringing their own unique twist to the archetype. Talrand's unique schtick is that he is the only one that produces tokens, and he's still damn good at his job. The deck is incredibly modular and new Blue instants / sorceries are guaranteed to be printed in every set so Talrand decks can only get better.


The Old List

The original list is a slow grindy deck looking to police the board while making land drops, play and protect Talrand, Sky Summoner, and then take over the game with drakes. We've got lots of counters, bounce, removal, and card draw, along with a small Polymorph package. No Go Wide support here. I don't think cards like Favorable Winds are good in the deck since they're useless early and by the time they do anything you should have the game fully locked down anyway.

New Inclusions. 

Updated Budget Talrand

With the new update, I managed to brew a kickass version that beats the original price by $10:

Same game plan as the original list: make your land drops, control the board, and only cast Talrand, Sky Summoner when you can protect him from removal. You eventually win by stealing the best things (Blatant Thievery), copying the best things (Stolen Identity), or either Polymorphing or hardcasting your big creatures.

Overall I think this version is an improvement over the original. We've picked up token generators like Docent of Perfection and Metallurgic Summonings for early protection and finishers, along with more versatile counters like Supreme Will. These more than make up for the things we've lost, even though Cyclonic Rift is super sweet.

Upgrading. Baral, Chief of Compliance is a no-brainer inclusion in any Spellslinger list, especially one running so many counters. Kindred Discovery is absurdly good in this deck due to how many drakes Talrand pumps out. Search for Azcanta and re-adding Cyclonic Rift would be my next two suggestions. Coat of Arms is another easy way to close out games. Check the article for more upgrades.

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Darien, King of Kjeldor

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A Brief History. Long ago, Darien, King of Kjeldor was sort of the de facto Soldier Tribal commander back in the day, 'cause most Soldier support is in White and Darien is a Soldier that poops out Soldiers. These Soldier Tribal decks would run some ways to hurt themselves to trigger Darien, so things like City of Brass and Mana Vault were staples, but otherwise it was all about them Soldiers. Unfortunately, these decks kinda sucked: Soldiers are a bad Aggro tribe that do not scale well for multiplayer, and Mono White is the worst mono color for card draw and general speed. So these decks would play out their hand of crappy aggressive Soldiers, eat a board wipe, and then do nothing for the rest of the game while being in topdeck mode.

Enter me, the Golden God of Commander: I want to make a Mono White deck that doesn't suck and isn't an Equipment deck. I look over my kingdom of jank in the Gatherer search engine, pondering how to deal damage to myself in White, when I come across Karma and Royal Decree. Then I realize that you can run Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth in Mono White. Ding ding ding! So I built a Mono White Control deck with a Group Pain / Lifegain subtheme. I scoured the internet and could not find a single person discussing this combo in Commander so I'm 99% sure I'm the first one to at least write an article about it online, something I was immensely proud of at the time but nobody else cared.

Playstyle. Since the deck wasn't the fastest, nor did it have the best card draw, this Mono White Control deck would try to out-value the opposition with a lot of X-for-1 board wipes. It also relied on the big mana-doublers Extraplanar Lens, Gauntlet of Power, and Caged Sun to cast our 6 cmc commander and giant inefficient card draw like Mind's Eye. Royal Decree and Karma were the MVPs of the deck, dealing an absurd amount of damage to everyone when Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth was on the table, and damage dealt to us was converted into value with Darien, King of Kjeldor to poop out an army and close the game with.

Is he still good? I really liked him at the time and was personally very proud of discovering the Urborg combo. The deck worked very well in more casual tables but its tricks are pretty tame and it can't keep up with more absurd commanders. Unfortunately, we have no new notable White/Colorless spells that deal damage to ourselves, so Darien's strategy hasn't gotten much better over time.

The biggest problem with Darien, King of Kjeldor is that the deck is built around a 6cmc commander with no inherent protection against removal. That means you need a ton of ramp and the expensive mana doublers like Caged Sun to cast (and recast) Darien, plus you need to waste extra card slots to make sure he sticks around. It's a lot of set up for not an insane payoff. I love Darien but I should warn you that he's not on the same power level as, say, Prime Speaker Vannifar.

The Old List

New Inclusions. 

Updated Budget Darien

I stuck to the original deck budget of $100. I'm surprised at how good the revamp turned out:

A lot of cards got shuffled around here. We lost great ramp staples like Caged Sun and Extraplanar Lens but in their place I added amazing new options Smothering Tithe and Boreas Charger. The deck's main strategy is still the Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth + Royal Decree / Karma combo, and we have tons of tutors to get those pieces, including a newer inclusion with Thalia's Lancers to get Urborg. I've also played up the Lifegain theme in this deck with powerful payoff cards like Felidar Sovereign, Crested Sunmare, Angelic Accord, Aetherflux Reservoir, and Dawn of Hope.

But best of all is the new inclusion of an easy win combo! Blasting Station is the best card to pair with Darien, King of Kjeldor: with both cards out, we can ping ourselves with Station, creating a token with Darien and untapping Station, repeating until we kill ourselves ... or gain infinite life with multiple Soul's Attendant cards on the battlefield. With infinite life we can then kill everyone with Aetherflux Reservoir or make our creatures infinitely big with Cathars' Crusade.

This deck is actually ... really sweet. I kinda want to play it now.

Upgrading. Anointed Procession doubles our token generators. Enlightened Tutor gets all our best cards. Weathered Wayfarer gets our best lands and is even better if you pick up more utility lands like Strip Mine. Divine Visitation turns our small tokens into beefy Angels. Resplendent Angel fits our Lifegain strategy. Ancient Tomb, Mana Crypt, Mana Vault, and Sol Ring are some of the best early ramp for the deck, while Extraplanar Lens and Caged Sun shoots us way ahead in ramp.

Also once Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth is on the field, Kormus Bell turns them all into creatures and then Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite kills them all. Just sayin'.

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Coming Soon: Part 2!

And so the grand update has begun! We've got a lot of decks to go through but I'll try to do at least four per week. See you for the next batch!

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