Welcome back! Battle for Zendikar continues to be the topic on my mind as the set releases online and I get to start testing brews a little more. Last week I explored Temur, largely because of Dragonmaster Outcast being appealing to me. The card has always been powerful, but the conditions for its success seem much better suited this time around than the last.
My brewing around the card did not end with Temur though. Instead, my mind went to other cards that synergize well with the one-drop win condition. The first card that really stood out to me was Ojutai's Command. Command has not been the most impressive card in Standard as of yet, despite having a pretty versatile set of modes. Jace has certainly helped the card in theory, as a crazy powerful two-drop that also can flashback the card later on, but Battle for Zendikar has even more to offer the blue/white Command.
Obviously the big synergy I am looking for is with Dragonmaster Outcast. The reason this synergy is so strong is that it enables some inevitability for your win condition.
As a one-drop, Dragonmaster Outcast is unique in that its early game pressure is very weak, but its late game pressure is crazy good. This makes the Outcast a bad early play which knocks it out of most aggro builds, but let's think about it in decks that look to go long. Compare Dragonmaster Outcast to something like Dragonlord Ojutai. While Ojutai has some self-protection built in, he also costs five mana. This is five times the cost of Outcast and makes it very difficult for you to protect your Dragonlord Ojutai with other cards. For example, if your opponent has a Foul-Tongue Invocation, you need to wait until seven or eight mana to be able to keep Counterspell mana open and, even then, you are going to lose a counter war just because you are so constricted on mana.
Outcast in this same position comes down when you have six mana and keeps a big portion of that mana open. While Outcast has no inherent way of keeping itself alive, you will have a lot more options to protect it or protect yourself on the turn where you cast it. Against aggro, you can freely cast End Hostilities, protecting your life total and then this as a follow up. Now your aggressive opponent needs to figure out a way to get back on offense while dealing with your 5/5 dragon-producing engine. In that same scenario against control, I get to play Dragonmaster Outcast and then can cast up to two Counterspells to protect it that turn. While this will not always keep it alive through the turn, it will get me there most of the time.
Ojutai's Command takes this play pattern and makes it far more consistent. Not only does it give me a play that acts like a Counterspell in most cases, as it can simply return the Outcast to play at the end of your opponent's turn, after they have killed it, but it also Revives Dragonmasters that were lost earlier in the game. This is important for a few reasons.
1) This allows you to do some "fishing" with earlier Outcasts where you can run it out without protection, forcing your opponent to answer it all the same. Later on, an Ojutai's Command on the end step makes sure that your Outcast is back healthy again and only weak to instant speed removal. Because Outcast costs less than just about all removal that will be aimed at it, this exchange of resources tends to be profitable for you.
2) You can also use Outcast as a poor early defensive measure. While a 1/1 won't do much for you, it can block aggressive options out of other decks occasionally and, at worst, can be used to soak up some damage before you fire off a sweeper. While neither of these uses are exciting, they are options opened up to you due to the cheap nature of the card whereas more traditional win conditions do not give you those same lines of play.
Of course, Outcast alone is not really enough to warrant playing something like Ojutai's Command. In order to get there, we need to add some other two-drops to make the card more consistently "turned on." Jace is an easy addition, although I have not been able to figure out if it is a three-of or a four-of in this shell. That makes up a solid seven creatures that get returned via Command, but I wanted to take it even further. In the end, this is where I wound up:
Right away I suppose I should justify those Humble Defectors, as they clearly stand out a bit. First, let me remind you that I have always had a bit of a love affair with the card. It has so many cool ways to be turned into an engine that I really like exploring it in control shells that happen to have a lot of synergy to work with it. In this list, obviously Ojutai's Command is the big score as I can now cast it on my end step to return Defector plus draw a card and it is almost like I just played an instant speed draw-three for just four mana.
We need efficient ways to keep our opponent from using Humble Defector themselves. Perhaps our best answers are the three bounce spells we have access to as we get our Defector right back. Activating Defector on turn three, followed by bouncing the card and then recasting it immediately is a pretty strong play that can shoot you far ahead in card advantage. Radiant Flames and Planar Outburst are also excellent at taking out Defector because you also gain whatever value that sweeper would supply normally. If my opponent runs out two creatures, I can happily activate Humble Defector, draw my cards, and then Radiant Flames all three creatures away for value.
If we ever have to spend a full card to deal with Defector, such as a Fiery Impulse, it isn't the end of the world, although we should try to avoid doing so whenever possible. Command allowing us to rebuy Humble Defector later does change the equation a little, but we still want to preserve value whenever possible.
Outside of the Command-specific interactions, our deck contains most of the typical elements you expect to see out of a control deck. We have one-for-one removal, sweepers, card draw, and countermagic. It is difficult to tell just how strong cards like Scatter to the Winds will be versus cards like Disdainful Stroke or Negate until the metagame settles down a bit, but with Ojutai's Command being a Remove Soul, it makes sense to have our other countermagic able to stop noncreature stuff.
Of course, I brush off the Ojutai's Command package as being the only unique thing here, but it does change the flow and play patterns of the deck quite a bit. What other ways can Ojutai's Command change the way a control deck plays out?
Just as I began focusing on Dragonmaster Outcast and that led me from Temur to Jeskai, I now wanted to follow the brew bug over to Esper land in search of maximizing Ojutai's Command. Specifically, in my search for two-cost creatures, I ran into some things that just seem like they would be strong but might not have an obvious home to realize that strength. Of cards that fit this description, the most appealing to me might be Orator of Ojutai.
Orator was a pretty awesome card to see on the spoiler originally as when it was turned on, it was just a better version of Wall of Omens. Wall of Omens, if you don't remember, was one of the most defining cards of the format while it was around, shaping the way control was built and the threats that aggressive decks turned to. One of the reasons a card like Vengevine saw some play over Bloodbraid Elf (even though they often showed up together) was that the fourth point of power mattered quite a bit with the Wall having four toughness.
So when you tell me that Wall of Omens is back and has even picked up flying, I get pretty excited. Unfortunately, Orator needs to be in a shell with many dragons to live up to its potential and I think the risk of it not being turned on was just too much of a concern. If, however, we were able to derive value from the card elsewhere, it might just have enough going for it to be worth it.
(It is worth mentioning that returning an Orator via Ojutai's Command when you only have a Dragon in hand will not draw you a card because the card only lets you reveal a dragon when cast. However, if you have a dragon in play when returning this, it will draw you a card!)
I am not sure exactly if this shell even needs all of the dragons because, in theory, the inevitability of Fathom Feeder and Jace might just be enough together, but playing with a bunch of high powered dragon spells (Silumgar's Scorn, Foul-Tongue Invocation) seems like enough of a victory to attack from that angle. I have probably talked about enough of the cards in this list by now that you can figure out what it looks like, but here it is anyway:
One thing I like about this list is that the spells in Standard, at least for control decks, have a huge glut at the three-drop slot. Ruinous Path, Stasis Snare, most of our Counterspells, Foul-Tongue Invocation, etc. This makes a deck full of all spells a little clunky as only Silumgar's Scorn and maybe an Ultimate Price really occupy that two-drop slot to protect your early on. Here, we add a ton of two-drop creatures that do a great job of protecting our life total which we can then curve into a three-cost spell and begin taking over the game from there.
This deck is far closer to the Esper Dragons decks of last season although Fathom Feeder does provide a very strange source of power for you. Against aggro, you will gladly trade them away early in this list because Ojutai's Command makes sure you can have one only again when it will actually matter. Meanwhile, against control, we have this two-cost 1/1 that actually just has to be dealt with or else we will out-card advantage them. This puts control in a super tough position with their sideboard as they want to turn into a counter-heavy, Duress-style of deck, but now must leave in some kind of removal to deal with Fathom Feeder in a permanent way or they might just lose.
Both of these decks are more controlling which is pretty natural when building around a Command that counters spells. That said, there is probably a neat Bant direction that uses cards like Knight of the White Orchid, Harbinger of Tides, and Kytheon, Hero of Akros to line up a much more aggressive approach to the strategy. Heck, this deck could even just be blue/white where it could better use something like Blighted Steppe as a way to Break Open aggro mirrors. Alas, that is an article for another day though.
I have been enjoying brewing these more proactive control decks thus far and with Battle for Zendikar hitting online shelves, testing should become more abundant. We have a rapidly approaching Pro Tour to mix things up for us as well. Until next week, thanks for reading!