Word of Command #6 - Preventing a Blast from the Past

This month, bobthefunny tackles graveyard hate in Commander, an important yet under-appreciated aspect of the format.

If Nicol Bolas had kept some graveyard removal around, maybe Ugin wouldn't be bothering him again. Recursion is a large resource in Commander, so the theme for this article is all about shutting down the graveyard. Make sure those things you killed stay dead! After the forum news, this article is going to highlight a few lesser-used options in each color and how they can still add value to your game plan.

Forum News

Color Identity Discussion

In the same vein as official thread for ban list discussions, we felt there was enough discussion on color identity to merit the creation of an Official Color Identity Discussion Thread to help separate those conversations from the Ban List Thread. A lot of good conversation has come up in the last month so if you haven't had a chance to partake yet, share your thoughts with the rest of the community!

Elder Dragons, Flying in from Dragons of Tarkir

With Dragons of Tarkir spoiled, there's plenty of discussion starting up about the new Elder Dragons as well as the other new cards in the final set of the Tarkir block. While the Commander mods will take a more in depth look at new Elder Dragons next month, you can join the discussion today over in the Unreleased and New Card Discussion thread.

Top 50 Changes

Cryogen runs the Top 50 List - a user-driven list of the top cards in each color. This month we reporting on the completion of white spells, and on the blue section:

Preventing a Blast From the Past

Graveyard removal hits that odd spot in deck construction where it's hard to quantify what value to attribute to those card slots. Nobody wants to take too many card slots away from the strategy their deck is trying to develop, but no one wants to simply die to the overwhelming advantage recursion can give someone in a game of Commander either. Commanders like Glissa, the Traitor and Chainer, Dementia Master necessitate at least some inclusions of graveyard hate to keep them in check. How then do you assign slots to cards that are needed to stop these recurring nightmares, yet have no board impact, and not have them be dead cards in other games?

When I look to compare options for graveyard hate it comes down to four key criteria:
  • Cost - Cost is the easiest of the criteria to quantify; it comes down to hard numbers. How much does this cost to put this out? Does it require more mana to activate and how much? What is the total cost per card removed?
  • Speed - Speed comes down to your ability to respond to your opponent. Instant speed trumps sorcery, but various permanents, such as Withered Wretch fall in the middle. They require sorcery speed to be active, but are able to activate at instant speed. Speed also includes being able to act without giving your opponent any warning. The Wretch can respond to your opponent, but they likewise have the ability to figure out and play around its capabilities. A card such as Cremate would not allow that opportunity - having the speed to respond, without needing a preemptive set up.
  • Reusability - Reusability comes down to a question of value. How much value can you get out of this card? Can it continue to give value over multiple turns, or is it all up front? On one side, you have cards like Stonecloaker which are repeatable over a long term, but perhaps less so on the same turn (due to cost.) On the other side of this you have Suffer the Past which can hit many cards in one shot, but has lesser long-term applications.
  • Replaceability - Replaceability is a different aspect of the value question, and comes down to the value if graveyard hate is not needed. At the core of the question is: Can this card replace itself? The simplest form are cantripping cards such as Cremate, which have little impact on your game if you need to bypass them. On the other side of it are the cards that have some other value associated with them, retaining usefulness if the need for graveyard hate is removed.

If I could choose a single card that made me want to discuss graveyard hate, I would lean towards Stonecloaker. Instant-speed pinpoint removal, with what is essentially buyback, is hard to beat. If graveyard removal proves to be unnecessary, it can be used to save a key creature from removal, or even be used to replay other creatures with strong enters the battlefield effects. In all of those cases, the ability to hold mana open for flashing it in can be huge, even if the open mana is simply used to bluff a Wing Shards. This card alone hits every category that I would judge against: low cost, the speed to respond to an opponent without committing to slower setup, reusability, and retaining excellent value as a defensive spell or efficient creature.

If Stonecloaker is the precision tool for White, then Angel of Finality would be its blunt weapon. While it lacks for speed, it excels in value by exiling a lot of cards in one shot. No flash on it means you won't be using it on its own to respond to threats, but it can be used preemptively once a player has stockpiled enough resources in a graveyard to be threatening. The Angel makes it into a fair few blink decks in order to really capitalize on its raw strength and to enable instant-speed reuse, but it should not be ignored even if it would be a single-use effect in your deck. The decent body for the cost coupled with evasion on both Angel of Finality and Stonecloaker make them excellent Sword carriers and efficient creatures in the mana curve.

The newest powerful addition to White's lineup is Containment Priest, again scoring favorably on every criteria. It boasts low cost, instant-speed response time, and a lasting effect. There is added value in combating other avenues of advantage such as blink decks, and several of green's powerful direct-to-play tutoring capabilities. It can also be used to upgrade your own blink opportunities into pure removal. While I haven't gotten to use the priest extensively myself, it has been a great boon so far with an incredibly powerful and versatile ability.

Blue has fewer tools overall to combat graveyards, and will often rely on artifacts to get the job done. To support this, there are a lot of good artifact tutors in Blue, such as Trinket, Treasure Mage, Artificer's Intuition, Fabricate, and a host of transmute cards. Once your artifact of choice is obtained, it's easy to both recur it and protect it within blue.

Outside of the typical approach for Blue, there are a few more unconventional answers to graveyard-based threats. Namely, a number of draw spells in Blue also reshuffle the graveyard into the library. Cards like Time Spiral, Diminishing Returns, and Temporal Cascade all have utility as a reset button while simultaneously giving you fuel. Temporal Cascade is especially noteworthy as it can be used as hand disruption if cast without entwine. These spells sacrifice speed for the efficiency of hitting large volumes of cards at once and for carrying extra value in their effects.

Stream of Consciousness and Mnemonic Nexus typically factor very low on my list due to a lack of added value, but both can make it into specific lists due to their speed. Stream of Consciousness wins on the side of cost, while Mnemonic Nexus gains the edge in overall power. Spell-slinging lists that gain added value such as Talrand, Sky Summoner may at least hold them in consideration.

Black is by far one of the stronger colors for dealing with graveyards. Not only does this stem from a large number of spells and creatures that have the capability to remove cards from graveyards, but it is also able to recur those very cards easily to ensure a constant pressure on opposing resources. Since I'm focusing on bringing lesser-used options forward, I won't be discussing staples like Bojuka Bog and Nihil Spellbomb.

On the very basic side of the list are the cheap creatures like Withered Wretch and Nezumi Graverobber. While they hit that middle speed of needing to develop them on the board before they can respond to the opponent, they are cheap to bring out, and cheap to use afterwards. Withered Wretch wins out on cost, but Nezumi Graverobber has the flip ability added on. While these creatures are fairly well-known, they seem to be making it into fewer deck lists. Both are extremely useful and have a low opportunity cost to include in a deck.

Agent of Erebos is Black's version of the Angel of Finality. It gives up some of that value and cost on the body in order to add the reusable constellation ability. Even as a single shot, it still grants a lot of extra value in the ability to exile a large amount of resources in a single go. Also, much like the angel, Agent of Erebos tends to be included in lists that intend to bypass its limitations. If your deck has a heavy reanimation theme, the Agent could find a home at your side.

For pure speed in Black, Suffer the Past gives a great return on investment. It has a low cost per card, a fast response time, and the added value of acting as an instant-speed finisher. Perhaps it doesn't have the same power as Exsanguinate, but the added utility of the graveyard hate and instant speed make it a strong consideration for me. Faerie Macabre is another great option for speed in Black - instant speed free exiling is powerful, especially since it also cannot be counterspelled. If you don't need the graveyard hate, then it can always be a cheap flyer. In the similar regards for speed, Cremate was given as a quick example earlier: Deal with a threat quickly and move on. Fade From Memory and Rapid Decay are similar, but they may be best in a Toshiro Umezawa deck, which will be able to reuse them for better effect.

Red has the overall weakest set of graveyard removal options, and often relies on artifacts to help fill that gap. If you follow that avenue, Goblin Welder and other recovery options can help red decks heavily in that department. However, there are a few other lesser-used tricks available to red decks overall. Red tends to be more proactive in exile options, with removal like Disintegrate exiling the creatures that it kills. While a number of these don't handle the immediate threat, there are a few options that are useful.

Kumano, Master Yamabushi is an excellent creature that's fallen into some obscurity. While a 4/4 for five mana is not terribly impressive, his ability makes it easy to keep graveyards clear. Aside from being easy removal for utility creatures, the capability to respond to any creature's death by putting a damage on it makes sure that problematic things stay dead. This can also complicate blocking for your opponent, since anything that runs into combat with Kumano will share the same fate.

Burn Away is another surprisingly effective red card for clearing a graveyard. While five mana for a removal spell can be a bit pricey, six damage can take care of a large amount of threats. The stapled-on graveyard nuke at instant speed is where the value really comes through though, as it can really surprise a player. The only major issue is how easily the graveyard removal aspect can be turned off with sacrifice outlets.

Green has a moderate variety of graveyard hate, spread across creatures, enchantments, and a few spells - though pure instant-speed options are rare.

Loaming Shaman is green's version of the sorcery-speed one-shot on a body. It has a cheap cost and provides mass volume removal, while leaving a decent creature behind. While shuffling in isn't as final as the exile that other colors get, it allows for self-use in the cases you would want to open yourself to reusing a tutor target. Decks with Survival of the Fittest can definitely make use of this, as they can quickly tutor them up for either offensive or defensive purposes. The ability to pick and choose is seldom used, but may have applications in certain games. Yeva, Nature's Herald decks can extend his use into being able to respond to opposing problems as well, giving him a lot of added value.

Ground Seal highlights some of Green's options for a card that easily replaces itself. Although it doesn't remove any of the problems outright, it does an excellent job of shutting down major strategies at a low investment for a low-cost with cantrip. Black decks have problems dealing with enchantments, making this a powerful card against pure reanimator decks. Gaea's Blessing is another sorcery-speed option that replaces itself, but has less long term value due to not having an ongoing effect.

For Green's round of pure speed, Krosan Reclamation and Repopulate are your options. Krosan Reclamation's value comes in at picking and choosing specific cards, making it viable in self-mill combo decks, as well as the reusability of having flashback. Repopulate is another rather underused option, as it can always cycle itself away, while being able to remove an entire graveyard at extremely low cost.

I can never sing enough praises for Scrabbling Claws and its older brother Phyrexian Furnace. At low cost and with the ability to cantrip, one can easily shoehorn them into any deck as a quick fix, coming down early and cycling away when unneeded. If you have any amount of incidental recursion in the deck, they even can become a minor resource. You may be surprised at how well an early Claws or Furnace can keep graveyards clean in the early game. If you are less concerned with your own graveyard, then Relic of Progenitus sees more than a few inclusions into decks, and Grafdigger's Cage can shut down a fair number of strategies until dealt with.

Depending on your deck's focus, Death-Mask Duplicant can make a fair inclusion into a few big mana and big creature decks, acting like a bigger Withered Wretch. They lose out in the cost war, and have a more limited ability, but the Duplicant gains from their added cost. A 5/5 body with the capability to have a host of abilities make it a decent consideration for decks that don't plan on paying the full seven mana to get them out. Mayael the Anima, Animar, Soul of Elements, and reanimation decks may want to consider the Duplicant as an option that fits their creature-focused strategies in order to keep a high creature count in the deck.

Since colorless options can go into any deck, they can easily become a go-to for deck construction, so be careful to still consider the options in the colors you're running before using them as a catch-all.
Wildfire393 Discuses Graveyard Removal in a Commander Cube

Graveyard removal is also an important thing to consider when crafting a Commander Cube. Graveyard shenanigans are as prevalent in Commander Cube as they are in regular Commander, as there are many powerful strategies available, many of which are built into commanders themselves, such as Sharuum The Hegemon, Karador, Ghost Chieftain, The Mimeoplasm, Wrexial, the Risen Deep, Hanna, Ship's Navigator, Glissa, the Traitor, Saffi Eriksdotter, and so forth. Black sections are frequently filled with reanimation cards like Necromancy, Chainer, Dementia Master, Coffin Queen, Geth, Lord of the Vault, Whip of Erebos, and similar. Many cubes also dabble in cards that are banned in traditional Commander, like Recurring Nightmare. So it is definitely important to have a safety valve to prevent these effects from dominating every game.

One of the biggest problems with graveyard hate in Commander Cube is getting people to run it. Cards like Relic of Progenitus and Grafdigger's Cage are obviously powerful cards against dedicated graveyard strategies, but players are often hesitant to include them in their limited deck space because of the uncertainty of facing a graveyard-abusing opponent and the fact that these cards do nothing to advance their deck's actual game plan, which can frequently work against it. The best graveyard removal in Commander Cube is thus found on cards that have another incentive to play them. Some good examples include:

Rest in Peace/Leyline of the Void - By including Helm of Obedience, players can be tempted to play one or both of these strong graveyard hate cards in order to execute the classic RIP Helm combo.
Timetwister/Time Spiral - These "draw seven" effects are commonly played to refresh players' hands, but incidentally also wipe away any stockpiled graveyards in the process.
Scavenging Ooze/Nezumi Graverobber - These cards provide strong, individual-card graveyard removal, but also incentivize it by threatening to become game-warping threats if allowed to eat everything in sight.
Stonecloaker - This pest was mentioned above, but its double-duty purpose of protecting creatures and recurring enters the battlefield effects makes it an attractive prospect.
Primal Command - Primal Command offers a ton of versatile modes, including restocking your own library, tutoring creatures, tucking problematic artifacts, enchantments, and planeswalkers, and a sizable life boost. But it can also be used to shuffle away a problematic opposing graveyard. Combine this mode with the mode that puts a noncreature permanent on top of its owner's library, and you can force your opponent to shuffle away a problematic threat while also cleaning their graveyard.
Mimic Vat - The Vat is a powerful threat on its own, but it also serves the dual purpose of being able to keep a threatening creature out of the graveyard.
Bojuka Bog - It doesn't do anything besides produce mana, but being on a land, it's effectively a "free" slot in the deck, and thus an attractive prospect to include.
Commander Options

With so many commanders having abilities to recur cards from the graveyard and gain incremental card advantage, having the reverse in your command zone should not go undervalued. Both Pharika, God of Affliction and Anafenza, the Foremost offer powerful removal options from the start of the game. You should expect a fair amount of retaliation from graveyard-based strategies if you run these decks though - you'll be the major obstacle for them to overcome.

Burying the Past

Graveyard Removal is often overlooked in deck construction, but is an invaluable tool in combating several dangerous strategies and forms of card advantage found in a typical Commander game. From reanimation strategies to Yawgmoth's Will-style game enders, we hope that this list gives you several other options that you may not have previously considered. Join us again next time as we review the new legendary creatures in Dragons of Tarkir, as well as a handful of the more format-impacting cards.


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