An Invitation to Brawl
- Gianluca Aicardi
Tired of Standard? Wishing for something cool to do with all those cards from Eldraine, Theros, Ikoria, and Zendikar? Brawl is the answer! The mostly uneventful period between the release of two premier sets is the perfect moment to give regular Standard a rest and try your hand at the up-and-coming singleton format.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. First of all, the basics.
What Is Brawl?
To put it concisely, Brawl is "Junior Commander." It's a commander-based singleton format that uses the Standard pool instead of the Vintage pool. To account for the reduced number of available cards, a few things are done differently. (As to how Commander is played, the short version is: you pick and choose one legendary creature, whose color identity determines the color of all the cards in your deck and that you can cast from the command zone again and again after it left the battlefield, at the cost of two extra generic mana per each casting beyond the first. It is often played in multiplayer.)
- Brawl decks are composed of 60 cards (59 plus the commander) instead of 100.
- Brawl lets you use any planeswalker or legendary creature as your commander.
- Brawl has a starting life total of 25 in one-on-one games (30 in multiplayer) instead of 40.
- Brawl has no commander damage as a win condition.
- Brawl commanders whose identity is colorless still get access to one basic land type.
- Brawl games always allow one free mulligan.
Now that the rules are established, the first question that comes to mind is: if Brawl plays so similarly to Commander, why not go for the parent format to begin with? Commander makes for such a great, casual Magic experience, doesn't it? Well, it does, as long as you play it on your kitchen table, with your three friends, one of which is a Spike at heart and has to be reined in constantly. But you can shout at that friend to stop building decks that try to win at any cost, and they'll eventually comply, because they're your friend, you know?
Commander is self-regulated that way. It's not casual by choice — it's casual by necessity. Its infrastructure holds itself together on a very shaky basis that could collapse at any moment. Because Commander can be a broken format. Vintage-level of broken. In fact, I'd dare to argue it's even more broken than Vintage, because, if left to its own devices, it's Vintage with one combo piece always in your hand. Sure, it's 100 cards — and singleton, but that's almost irrelevant, since with all the restricted, must-play cards, most Vintage decks are already halfway through to being singleton anyway; and the redundancies (from functional reprints with different names or just through similar effects) offset each card's uniqueness a great deal. Once you get access to the full history of the game, there are ways to make 100 cards behave like 60, if not 40.
Truth is, Commander can be the most broken format in the whole of Magic: The Gathering. It stops being that only when you approach it the way their creators want you to. But nothing in its bare rules really forces you, or even suggests to you, to take such intended casual approach. Commander's true nature rears its ugly head the moment you take it for a spin into a competitive, tournament-based environment, and then all hell breaks loose. It's a mistake I made myself a few years ago, hosting a weekly Commander event on Magic Online. Boy oh boy, the things I saw during the lifespan of that tournament, stuff so relentlessly cutthroat that it could push you off the format for good. Eventually I had to extend the official ban list so much, it almost tripled. And the Spikes would still win on turn four.
Enter Brawl. Now, I won't contend Brawl is better than Commander. Out of the two, the latter is clearly the more complete format that allows for a wider variety of strategies and countless, often wildly amusing interactions. But comparing formats is not exactly a sensible proposition. How to decide whether or not Vintage is "better" than, say, Modern? What would that even mean? Ultimately it boils down to personal tastes, and even more so, to the mood of the moment. So here's a list of elements that make Brawl a format that might be worth a Magic player's time, and specifically one capable of brightening the lazy Sunday afternoon of an enfranchised Commander player.
The casual angle. Assume you're not in the condition to play a game of "unbroken" Commander with trusted kitchen table friends, or at least reliable local game store acquaintances — something the pandemic has turned into a sad reality. Brawl will guarantee an environment where your opponent won't start to take infinite turns before you can cast your second spell. Last year's Standard fed Brawl a few power commanders that were annoyingly frequent, but those either rotated out of the way or got banned, so Brawl is now in the happiest place it has ever been during the two years since it first got introduced.
The cost. If you're playing Brawl with paper cards, you'll be able to build your deck without making any compromise, without worry about the high price of certain older chase rares on the secondary market. Especially if you also play Standard, you'll already have all the tools at your disposal to brawl in full serenity. No need to take out a second mortgage on your house, or else feel like you're a second-class brawler.
Restriction breeds creativity. This maxim is true of many formats, but a little extra restriction never hurt. After all, the Standard pool is not so small, and just like Commander lets you discover cards you would never play otherwise, Brawl also contains hidden gems that were designed expressly with this kind of format in mind. The Brawl decks released alongside Throne of Eldraine are the most blatant example of this aspect.
Faster gameplay. Long, grindy games of multiplayer Commander with a dozen twists and turns can sure be terrific. But if one prefers a speedier route where you don't need to devote hours of your time to a single match, then Brawl is the right place to be. (Of course we're still considering casual fare. As noted, competitive Commander can be a frighteningly quick affair.) The reduced life total and the more agile libraries translate into shorter games, and Brawl is also a better fit for one-on-one play, which is its only mode on Arena at the moment.
An ever-changing environment. Brawl is a rotating format, a feature that obviously cuts both ways. On one hand, the decks have a shelf life. On the other hand, the format never stagnates, it keeps regenerating itself, and every new set has the greatest impact. In fact, it has the most impact, more than on any other format because the subset of new cards that will find a home in Brawl is larger than in regular Standard. And it's possible to mitigate the bad feeling of your favorite cards rotating out in several ways. For one, you can move those cards to Commander decks. (One can say that, by playing Brawl, you get a better sense of which cards will end up useful in Commander.) And on Arena, Historic Brawl is available as a direct challenge format, and occasionally as a temporary queue — with the hope that it will be made permanent one day. Cards from previous Brawl rotations easily relocate to its Historic counterpart.
An Arena highlight. In these times of social distancing, you can play Commander on Magic Online, but of course Arena doesn't carry that option. It does let you play Brawl, though, through a safe, unranked queue with which you can clear daily wins and quests, and whose weighted match-making algorithm ideally only pairs a commander with its power-level equivalent. I would be remiss if I didn't mention how Brawl is arguably the best-designed Constructed format that is offered on Magic's flashier digital platform. Historic is intriguing but gets advanced in a seemingly random fashion that still prevents it from finding its footing; Standard is inescapably plagued by all kinds of balance issues.
All Right, Brawl, but How?
To complete this little presentation, what's better than building a Brawl deck from start to finish? My personal process is just one possible way to go about it. But it should illuminate enough of the format's choices to show the variety and complexity within, even to players who are already familiar with Commander's deckbuilding. Let's start!
STEP 1: THE COMMANDER
When it comes to pick my commander, I have two approaches: either I directly choose one that I feel compelled to build around, or I decide which color or colors I intend to create a deck with, and then select the most interesting commander with that identity — which may just be the best fit for a "good stuff" kind of list. For our example, I went with both options at once, by picking my favorite color pairs, Golgari, and my favorite character, Nissa, whose latest incarnation from Zendikar Rising happens to be exactly in those colors.
The ability to choose a planeswalker as a commander is one of Brawl's most defining attributes, and comes with both advantages and liabilities. On average, a planeswalker is a more flexible card than a creature, but it's also bound to attract more hate, and it's easier to deal with for aggro opponents. In the case of Nissa of Shadowed Boughs, the versatility is a bit lost, since her plus is not as strong as it was on previous Nissas. The animated land doesn't protect her loyalty nor the player's life total, and once its corridor to connect gets shut down by opposing blockers, the ability basically becomes moot. This means Nissa's minus is the key factor here.
Luckily, that's enough of a pull to support several themes. In order to serve Nissa properly, the deck will have to develop the land count and trigger landfall, which implies land-based ramping; and it will require worthy creatures to be dropped from the hand or, more likely, reanimated.
STEP 2: THE STAPLES
The first additions to any new list are those cards that every deck should run, plus those that every deck in that particular color combination should run. In the first category, I'll start by mentioning Command Tower, although I'll leave the complete mana base for last. It's a timeless Commander staple that was reprinted within Throne of Eldraine's Brawl decks, and the only builds that don't want it are those led by a colorless commander, since the Tower can't generate mana that's not colored. The same goes for Arcane Signet, which is Brawl's Sol Ring. Untapped mana rock that drops on turn two and essentially produces any color? Even a green deck can't say no to that.
Black doesn't currently have any card that feels indispensable, with the possible exception of Murderous Rider // Swift End. It has too many applications to ignore, even in a list like ours, which doesn't particularly love creatures that bypass the graveyard.
Before rotation, green used to have a major staple in Guardian Project, a very powerful draw engine purposely designed for singleton formats. Close to that level, although at higher spots in the curve, are currently Elder Gargaroth, Vivien, Monsters' Advocate, and The Great Henge, so those go in without discussion. And I would need a very good reason to renounce Questing Beast, which is just so damn efficient at pressuring planeswalkers and life totals alike.
I also personally consider Thorn Mammoth a must-run in creature decks with a long curve, and one can make an easy argument for Ugin, the Spirit Dragon as a curve topper in any kind of ramp deck — or in any deck, really. In fact, if there's a flaw in the current Brawl pool, it's the quantity of games that get decided by a resolved Ugin. I deliberately choose never to run the big bad walker, as it feels a bit too easy for my taste, but my avoidance feels partially justified in this specific case because exiling permanents is extremely anti-synergistic with what Nissa is trying to accomplish. Though it might still result in an advantageous board state, which just goes to show how massive Ugin's impact is on the format, something that might get officially addressed at some point.
STEP 3: THE RAMP
This is going to be, at its core, a green ramp deck with a focus on land drops. But regardless of the specificity, any deck running green should always consider the quantity of ramp it wants to include. My lists usually don't skimp on the mana development, as I find it's a healthy practice in all Commander formats, if nothing else to account for the commander tax.
Now, last rotation took away a few valuable two-drop dorks, like Paradise Druid and Incubation Druid. But we still have Ilysian Caryatid plus the resident Birds of Paradise surrogate Gilded Goose. I always skip the too specialized Humble Naturalist, while Wolfwillow Haven feels like a safer variant that enables a turn-three four-drop even in the face of an opposing Shock.
And though it doesn't guarantee ramp, Lotus Cobra is very near to a must-include card in the current meta, more so within a build that already tries to leverage landfall elsewhere. Indeed, our game plan also intimates not to overlook any of the land fetchers, and we have a fair amount of them at three and four mana.
After a thorough examination of the best options, I settled for no fewer than twelve ramp cards — and that's including Tangled Florahedron. I sorted all the other modal double-faced cards with the mana base, but the Florahedron has the most chances of being cast as a creature to ramp on turn two, while still retaining the flexibility to be used as a landfall enabler if drawn later. Adding all these cards to the already discussed staples, we end up with a first batch of nineteen cards.
|Deck in Progress|
Several of the chosen ramp cards have additional applications, but overall they describe a deck composed by one fifth out of ramp. The first few games played with the list seem to confirm this notion, albeit further testing might show all this ramping is actually unwarranted, in which case one or two slots could be easily repurposed. As candidates for replacement, I would look first at higher-costing permanents that don't synergize with landfall, like Llanowar Visionary — that one's typically the only expensive mana dork I respect, due to the simple fact that it replaces itself, but it's clearly the least essential of the lot. The safest card to bring in its stead is definitely Once Upon a Time, the sometimes free-of-charge card-selecting instant that got banned in half the existing formats but is still completely legal as a one-of in Brawl.
STEP 4: THE REMOVAL SUITE
I'm envisioning this Golgari Nissa Brawl as a midrange/ramp deck with a combo component, trying to exploit its commander's minus activation multiple times by recasting her from the command zone. After all, a definite advantage of planeswalker commanders is being able to reset their own loyalty total by returning to the battlefield afresh. This is to say that I don't plan to include a great many cards whose only function is to kill opposing permanents, despite Golgari being one color pair that excels at that. Black offers a few pieces of two-mana creature removal in the current pool, but to narrow it down, Eliminate and Epic Downfall are too situational, Grasp of Darkness can be hard to cast, Feed the Swarm feels a bit too slow and self-punishing, while Heartless Act seems closer to the elusive two-mana Murder I was looking for.
Bloodchief's Thirst was another serious consideration and could indeed be the next best thing, but in the end I went with the spell that works at instant speed. Same reason why, within green's fight/bite arsenal, I chose Ram Through over the otherwise excellent Primal Might. The former can also sometimes end the game if cast on a large trampler. Though the deck won't have many ways to engineer this situation, as there probably won't be enough enablers to justify running Garruk's Uprising and not enough room for Garruk himself, who would favor more aggressive builds anyway.
The battle plan involves getting on the board faster than the opponent, but I still like to have at least one reset button in case things on the other side move too swiftly. Extinction Event gets that job and should be able to play around an accidental self-exile of all Nissa's best targets.
The latter will have to perform double duty, being finishers as well as solutions to problematic board states. Massacre Wurm and Kogla fully belong to this category, alongside the already mentioned Thorn Mammoth, while Polukranos, Unchained is a fighter that self-reanimates, one of the most effective curve toppers in Golgari colors; both him and Garruk, Cursed Huntsman are hard to pass.
Among the less synergistic choices, Scavenging Ooze takes care of graveyards, and Gemrazer of artifacts and enchantments. (Kogla can do the same repeatedly, but it's harder to set up.) I went with the mutant Beast over Thrashing Brontodon because Gemrazer supplies additional utility, and I don't see myself ever using Nissa to return a sacrificed Brontodon to the battlefield. Lastly, Demon's Disciple is good against both planeswalkers and unassailable threats à la Dream Trawler, but it's especially meant to combo with our secondary reanimation engine, which we're going to cover in the next grouping.
Before the finishing touches and still missing lands, the deck is now looking like this:
STEP 5: THE CARD ADVANTAGE
When I started building this, I briefly wondered if Nissa's ability could agree with a self-milling theme, but I rapidly concluded it would be a gross miscalculation. It's true that Nissa will be using the graveyard as a resource more often than the hand. She needs a land count that matches the target's converted mana cost, which means by the time her ability can drop a creature onto the battlefield, you're probably also able to just hardcast it. So in order to turn the whole deal into tempo advantage, you'd need two relevant targets to potentially spend your mana on, assigning one of them to Nissa's care, in a sort of Fires of Invention capacity. It seems much more likely, and advantageous, for Nissa to recur a creature from the graveyard, ideally something that already generated value, like Kogla or Massacre Wurm.
These considerations lead me to a couple of specialized cards, on top of the trio of unquestionable card advantage staples comprised of Gargaroth, Vivien, and Henge. The first of these is the above-mentioned additional reanimator, which took the form of Drana, the Last Bloodchief. It's not the easiest nut to crack, as it requires untapping with a 4/4 still alive on the battlefield, plus a suitable graveyard composition as payoff. Worst case scenario, it's an evasive finisher, but its best scenarios (Massacre Wurm, the combo with Demon's Disciple) far outweigh the fail cases, so Drana's in.
The second dedicated slot is actually an enabler for Drana, as well as for Nissa — the rarely seen Gravebreaker Lamia. The deck's strategy might even warrant the inclusion of some hard tutor like Commander classic Grim Tutor; the Lamia can fulfill that role on behalf of the two reanimator ladies, while also putting a relevant lifelinking body onto the battlefield, itself representing a decent target for recursion. One could also consider Fiend Artisan in this sense, but I ultimately deemed it too slow, and its body-growing element not sufficiently supported.
STEP 6: THE MUSCLE
There aren't many slots left in the deck to devote to sheer beaters, so cards like Lovestruck Beast // Heart's Desire and even the potentially hand-refilling Garruk's Harbinger had to be left to the purview of more aggro-oriented builds. Questing Beast is part of this compartment and might well count as anti-planeswalker tech, while Nissa's own BFF Ashaya, Soul of the Wild and fellow Elemental Ancient Greenwarden are landfall enablers that double as significant threats. Nighthawk Scavenger is similar to Questing Beast in its versatility (gains life, launches air strikes against planeswalkers, trades with anything in a pinch), and Shadowspear is my chosen device to provide trample to some of the bigger guys, as well as a way to repair a life total endangered by early aggression.
Finally, one card that's more utility than muscle is Woe Strider. The idea is having at least one chance to sacrifice a creature with a strong enter-the-battlefield trigger for Nissa or Drana to abuse it. Though I didn't go as far as also including Nightmare Shepherd, Strider's usual partner in crime that, however, doesn't play very well within a reanimator shell.
STEP 7: THE LANDS
In addition to Command Tower, the only dual lands available in our colors are Temple of Malady and Jungle Hollow. (For the Golgari-colored Pathway we'll have to wait until Kaldheim, unfortunately.) Both Fabled Passage and Evolving Wilds are there to enable landfall and to provide Ancient Greenwarden some recursion targets. I tried to avoid the tapland MDFCs as much as possible, and even Agadeem's Awakening didn't seem needed, unlike Turntimber Symbiosis, which can find one juicy target from inside the library.
Both Castles are useful, even with the black one not having the same chances at entering untapped as the green one. Bala Ged Recovery is my one concession to the tapped double-faced lands, because Regrowth is definitely a desirable topdeck in the late game.
Final list, and then it's a wrap on this whole thing, a lengthy way to just say: give Brawl a chance; it's the most fun you can have by putting together a bunch of Standard cards.
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