How to Play
As such, traditional Azorius decks in Commander have tended to be prison or control decks with lots of counterspells, sweepers, or lockdown pieces. The colors make it easy to dig out things like Winter Orb, and have a variety of very powerful board control, counterspells, and targeted removal spells.
Ephara, God of the Polis was probably the first Azorius commander printed that powerfully rewarded a creature-focused strategy, and not much like her has been printed since. Brago, King Eternal and Yorion, Sky Nomad both somewhat reward a typical ETB strategy but both have strong synergies with non-creatures and don't encourage playing any creatures without value attached. Ephara's ability uniquely encourages playing the largest variety of creatures in the Azorius colors.
The second piece of her ability is that she rewards playing creatures or tokens at instant speed, which makes for an interactive and fun style of play - you're often doing things in other people's turns but not quite to an annoying level most of the time.
Thirdly, Ephara is an indestructible enchantment most of the time, and thus extremely difficult to remove. Her resiliency makes the deck tick by getting rid of slots normally needed for protecting your commander and letting those slots be used for other things.
All of Ephara's abilities combine to make a general that doesn't need a lot of support in the form of card draw or protection spells, but in order to fully replace those abilities you need to play some cards that are not that great on their own - you have to replace resilient instant/sorcery/enchantment/artifact answers with creature based answers, and often make some sacrifices to be able to have creatures come out more frequently (flash enablers, cheat-into-play effects, ninjas, bounce spells, etc.). I love the commander and the deck because it encourages playing a very different set of cards.
The downside to playing a creature deck in Azorius is that your creatures are usually outclassed by almost every other color from a power and toughness perspective, and the cheap creatures Ephara wants are even more likely to be poor combatants. Furthermore, Ephara desires ramp on bodies and ramp from creatures is fairly limited in her colors. We wind up using a decent amount of anti-synergy in the form of artifact ramp spells to make up for this weakness.
Probably the biggest weakness of the deck is that there are very few ways to tutor for our best creatures, so the deck has to build around Recruiter of the Guard and Intuition to have a decent chance of finding the creatures it wants. Artifact and enchantment creatures fill some of those holes,
Lastly, the deck is fairly dependent on Ephara for card advantage and in games where she catches a lot of heat you can really struggle; having her removed more than once or twice is usually a death sentence.
Lavinia, Azorius Renegade seems similar on its surface, but she provides consistent access to a very strong hate effect which is extremely different from providing value for playing a variety of hate effects. Her ability tends to reward playing a broad array of spells that synergize with her ability and she requires a large commitment to drawing cards off of spells which limits her utility as a broader hatebear commander.
Probably the single strongest analog to Ephara, God of the Polis is Tymna the Weaver. Tymna brings access to all of Ephara's colors through the Partner mechanic as well as easy access to Green creatures like Noble Hierarch that are immensely powerful in hatebear strategies. Tymna wants to play almost the exact same type of creatures as Ephara, though she leans toward cheaper creatures and does not benefit nearly as much from flash as a mechanic, which is probably the strongest differentiator. Her main weakness relative to Ephara is being more vulnerable and requiring engaging in the attack step to keep her card advantage flowing, and of course being one of the most powerful commanders in the game draws a lot of aggro.
Chulane, Teller of Tales does a lot of the same things as Ephara, even rewarding a lot of the same mechanics such as Whitemane Lion, but suffers from a lot of the same problems that Tymna the Weaver does, namely, being a huge target. His more expensive mana cost and vulnerability present a serious change in gameplay. Overall, Chulane is very linear and the deck has way too many strong signposts for my tastes, in addition to being a combo piece.
Karador, Ghost Chieftain and Anafenza, the Foremost present some pretty interesting approaches to building a similar deck, but ultimately require a large commitment to card advantage effects that Ephara does not. Gaddock Teeg suffers from a similar problem but lacks black's access to powerful tutors as well as sacrificing blue's great flash creatures.
Ephara, God of the Polis's unique array of abilities are, in my opinion, irreplaceable. No other commander plays quite like her combination of resilience and card advantage, while presenting a huge amount of flexibility. Her ability is the perfect blend of powerful card advantage without a straight-jacket that forces the deck to be built a certain way.
It's possible that the deck would be stronger with more good stuff and control elements; there're lots of takes on that out there, with more traditional Azorius control shells with smaller commitments to Ephara. If you want to take the deck that direction the best thing to do is probably start removing the worst creatures and replacing them with stronger spells or creatures that are stronger on their own - it ought to be relatively obvious from looking at the list which creatures are the weakest.
Since our game plan is to play Ephara and draw cards with her every game, there are almost no sources of card draw. There are sources of recursion to get back key tools and we can generate some decent card advantage through cards like Sun Titan if Ephara is not on the field we are at a decided disadvantage. The deck runs a lot of mediocre creatures who are just not that great of an investment if they don't replace themselves, but if they do they are quite strong. There are several strong sources of card advantage such as the blink engines Soulherder and Thassa, Deep-Dwelling as well as the recursion pieces, but in general we're falling behind if Ephara is not out.
We don't play a lot of tutors; both because there are very few that do what we want (find creatures) and those that we do have access to such as Drift of Phantasms, Thalia's Lancers and Search for Glory are either too narrow or lacking from a tempo perspective. We don't run a lot of counterspells (instead running things like Venser, Shaper Savant and Glen Elendra Archmage. We run Archon of Emeria but not Arcane Laboratory. We run Agent of Treachery and Gilded Drake instead of Treachery.
While this deck does not run a lot of token generation these days, it was once a pretty major theme, and is a powerful effect combined with Ephara's ability even when not done at instant speed. The general guidelines for selecting strong token generators for Ephara are to look for things that are instant speed or free. Free token generation during your turn on cards such as Hero of Bladehold and Elspeth, Sun's Champion, are often powerful enough to run if they have secondary effects.
The token effect that had the longest run and is probably the most popular in any Ephara deck is Sacred Mesa. This can be considered to be the benchmark; it's recoverable with Sun Titan and creates tokens at one of the cheapest rates in the game at instant speed. It does struggle to build a board state because of the sacrifice clause, but the benefit is usually worth it - drawing up to four cards a turn for 8 mana while adding 3 flying bodies is quite powerful. That said, I have found that my build does not play enough enchantments to keep Mesa from being a target of opportunity and it's difficult to find.
Nadir Kraken is the primary token generator left in the deck and my favorite, coming at half the rate and double the power of Sacred Mesa while being able to be reanimated with our variety of creature reanimation effects. While it's not quite as flexible or as strong a mana sink as Mesa, the steep mana discount enables us to keep more mana up for interaction.
As a rule of thumb, 3 mana is way too much for a token. Cards like Mobilization only have a place in dedicated token shells with a high volume of enchantments to take advantage of resiliency to creature sweepers.
Attack Surface and Target SaturationThe concept of attack surface, or target saturation, is an interesting gaming concept I was first introduced to in competitive Warhammer 40k. It has led me to evolve this deck over time away from the use of vulnerable enabling artifacts and enchantments like Sacred Mesa, Sword of Feast and Famine, and Smothering Tithe. These cards are very powerful and obviously contribute to winning, but they also contribute to being extremely vulnerable to spot removal blowouts.
The idea here is that if you run a mix of targets of varying resiliency (e.g. armor and troops) it allows enemies to focus their most effective weapons on the targets they are best at eliminating. This concept applies in Magic in that if you have a couple high value artifacts and enchantments on the board, and a couple high value creatures, you drastically increase the likelihood that someone can impact your turn by having any type of removal spell (or even a hosing effect like Collector Ouphe).
When attacking with a creature loaded up with Sword of Feast and Famine, either artifact or creature removal is enough to stifle your attack (sometimes removing the creature pre-equip, etc.). This concept applies tangentially with creatures with static pump effects as well, for example Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, where your combat effectiveness can be seriously impacted by a single well placed removal spell.
The way that I have applied that strategy to Ephara is to attempt to create a target saturation of creatures; almost everything of consequence in the deck is creatures, and while creatures are the most removable type, they're also the easiest for me to protect and recur. As a secondary goal, I've tried to reduce the dependency of creatures on each other - less Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, more Agent of Treachery. There is still a lot of synergy between the creatures, there aren't many single points of failure; most creatures work well with a lot of other creatures, so a single loss doesn't knock out the whole game plan.
This game plan sacrifices individually powerful cards like Sacred Mesa to reduce the utility of your opponents' interaction and make our game plan more consistent as we're less reliant on finding single card. As of now, non-exiling enchantment and artifact removal can only hit a single actually important permanent, and Altar of Dementia is a card that is not particularly important outside of a combo turn - so splash damage from artifact/enchantment wipes is unlikely to impact it.
Win conditionsHistorically this deck has won most of its games through combat damage, although as I evolved toward using infinite combos that's kind of been the direction. Over the years I noticed that Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite as a win condition had a few problems - a weakness to targeted removal, being difficult to find, and not really having a great substitute. So when I win with combat damage these days it's usually through either stealing other people's creatures with Agent of Treachery, copying them with Phantasmal Image or simply beating face with a handful of very large creatures like Sun Titan and Reveillark and Thassa, Deep-Dwelling, etc.
One particular line that seems to come up fairly regularly is copying opposing players' bomb creatures; if you counterspell a Craterhoof Behemoth you can Body Double it and win. If you manage to survive one you can Phantasmal Image it. Etc.
We can also generally end games with repeated uses of Gilded Drake or Agent of Treachery which I've found to generally just be more flexible than Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, providing some similar board control effects.
All in all, I think it is worth having a combo in this deck, and I think modest tweaks even to the core deck list could support almost any of them. UW really struggles to close games with combat, however, there are a couple of other endgame options that've come out recently that are really worth considering as an alternative to comboing as a win condition.
God-Eternal Oketra - Great with a lot of our engines, and makes huge bodies fast. I think this is a totally valid approach for winning games, and it has a huge bonus of being really hard to get rid of. The main problem it has is being hard to fine, but we could play Search for Glory or Thalia's Lancers potentially.
Akroma's Will - We almost always have Ephara online, so this can turn a mediocre board into a really lethal one a la Craterhoof Behemoth and it can do it at instant speed after people fail to block as well (although it's quite a bit more triumphant pre-blocks given the lifelink and vigilance). I definitely do think about this card.
The Infinite ComboI've been through a number of infinite combo layouts in this deck over the years; I've generally landed on Altar of Dementia as the single best concession to combo, as it does not force any really bad cards that we wouldn't otherwise want to play, and it has a lot of applications in and of itself. It is pretty easy to set up a state where people can't really interact with Altar. The key sets of cards for Altar are delineated in a sidebar, but we pretty much want to play all of them anyway and they line up very well with Intuition as our best available tutor.
Other combos I've tried or considered:
Palinchron plus Eldrazi Displacer / Phantasmal Image -- These are hard to find, being difficult to tutor, and make very poor Intuition packages, so I don't think they are reliable. Palinchron is also kind of a brick. One of the very awkward things about Displacer + Palinchron is that you can't infinite blink something else unless you have two colorless sources.
Time Warp et. al. infinite turn recursion - The main problem with these cards are that the only available cards that really combo with it are frigging horrible other than Archaeomancer which is only barely playable on its own. The combo is fairly easy to find, with Arch being tutorable and all the spells being easy to find. It's highly probable this is the best set of combos but it requires playing more cards I don't want to play than the Altar of Dementia combo.
Timestream Navigator tutoring combo - There're a number of ways to set up Timestream + Recruiter of the Guard to get infinite turns, but this gets very tedious without a haste enabler, and while Timestream is a pretty solid card on its own I just did not like all the hoops and mana cost required to go off.
Heliod, Sun-Crowned and Walking Ballista - This combo is cool in that both sides are fairly easy to find and very good independently. The problem is there's zero redundancy and they're not nearly as good independently as Reveillark and Karmic Guide. It's also a huge problem that Walking Ballista can't be reanimated with any of the spells we play (Emeria, the Sky Ruin and Karmic Guide), so once it's dead we have no way to retrieve it. I think this would be a shoe in in a life gain deck.
Tidespout Tyrant - Combined with a several mana rock layouts this card makes infinite mana, and it's independently very strong, able to close out games with Whitemane Lion or Venser, Shaper Savant pretty easily. I liked this one a lot, but I found it generally not as powerful as Agent of Treachery and the deck can't really afford that many huge mana guys. Adding Mana Vault and Grim Monolith could really help make this approach hum.
Brought Back + Archaeomancer + Phyrexian Altar - This is a combo I have definitely considered as well as Altar has some good applications on its own for protecting your creatures from theft/exiling. Its main problem is it requires an additional ETB to complete a win with (e.g. Venser, Shaper Savant or Agent of Treachery. An issue with this combo is that it doesn't actually generate infinite mana, just infinite resurrections of one additional creature (or self-sacrificing permanent). Additionally there are no possible redundancies for most of these cards, with Brought Back and Phyrexian Altar having no substitutes and Archaeomancer having no decent substitutes. You can generate infinite mana if Sun Titan, Karmic Guide or Reveillark are available as your other cards, which is nice. This one is probably worth trying if you like Brought Back.
I play a lot less these days, but I've got hundreds of games into this deck so the core is pretty well established. As such I will focus most of my energy on the core of the deck. At the end of each section I'll discuss some of the cards currently in the deck, that could go in, or that I have tried out.
You'll note that many of the cards I do not play are rejected for being non-creatures; I know a number of folks who play a more spell heavy version of Ephara, which is arguably a stronger deck. I prefer the creature heavy version but if I were to make a significant change in direction that's likely the way I'd go -- pull out all of the weaker creatures and play stronger spells in their places. Many cards like Monastery Mentor make eminent sense in that approach.
Good hand evaluation is the first step to victory in most of magic, and this deck is no exception. There are several key things to look out for in the opening hand:
Do I have an engine?Review the card options for more, but engines are methods of generating repeated card advantage usually off of Ephara. Recruiter of the Guard, Whitemane Lion, Spellseeker and Stonecloakear are good examples. You usually want an engine or a way to tutor for one, but a good grip of creatures or ramp can do the trick.
Do I have creatures?If you don't have at least two creatures, take a long look at the hand. Do you have a way to get more, or some alternate engine? Ephara requires you to put bodies on the board as a way to get more cards, so most good hands start with a couple on-curve creatures (either before or after Ephara).
Will I be able to cast Ephara without drawing land?If you can't answer this question "YES YES YES!" mulligan that hand with the quickness. If you stall out on lands you'll rarely recover. Once Ephara is on, she'll draw you through most floods. Typically when I look at hands that are somewhat flooded a sweeper will help fix them. The game plan of casting Ephara on curve and then sweeping on turn 5 is often just as good or better than ramping into Ephara on turn 3 and then playing into someone else's sweeper.
A good hand has a ramp spell, three lands, and a creature or two. A great hand has an engine in addition to these. The best hands typically involve turn 1 or 2 Ephara off of broken mana rocks like Mana Crypt. Chrome Mox, Mox Diamond and Sol Ring, often with hand fixing like Ponder to enable fixing shortages of land or action. I do not mulligan aggressively for these hands, however, as
Early GameThe early game is usually focused on ramping into Ephara. Your #1 goal is to play her asap. It's a common trap with this deck that I've fallen into myself to cast a strong 4 drop on turn 3 instead of Ephara. Resist the urge to do this. Casting that sweet Clever Impersonator as a copy of someone's Oracle of Mul Daya may seem sweet, but it's usually a way to slow yourself down on cards and playing into a wrath.
Hushwing Gryff or Aven Mindcensor occasionally. Getting your draws out of Ephara quickly is often the right play as it'll set you up for a stronger mid game.
It is usually the wrong decision to play more than one creature a turn unless you have extras. I almost always try hold at least one creature back, as playing being forced to replay Ephara with no creatures in hand is one of the worst spots this deck can be in.
Ideally, you will draw yourself into an engine if you don't have one and then run away with the game in the mid-game.
Mid GameThe best case scenario mid-game is that you've assembled one of the locks and an engine. You're drawing lots of cards and other people are casting one spell a turn or dealing with not being able to tutor, or some other annoying effect. If this is the case, I'll usually start eliminating people in threat order. Because this deck rarely combos off, you're probably going to be killing people with combat damage and not ridiculously quickly, so you've got to focus fire and get rid of the people likely to take your board state away.
The thing I usually look for when picking who to kill first is: Who can reasonably impact my board state? A mid-game wrath will usually put you way ahead since your creatures replace themselves, but a mid-game Merciless Eviction or Perilous Vault might stitch you up. Look to shut down or eliminate people who play the cards that will put you behind. Mass exile of any sort and grave hate can be really bad for us in some circumstances - a timely Bojuka Bog can shut off our combo, for example.
Lots of times I will wrath/sweep mid-game even if I'm ahead, if I think it'll slow other people down more than me. We don't have bombs like Craterhoof behemoth to turn a bunch of 1/1's into a win, so we need to watch out for people that do as well - many decks present unassuming board states.
Supreme Verdict you need as insurance.
Mid-game is usually where I used to regret not playing Mystical Tutor the most, as so many of our great answers are sorceries. Now with it and Spellseeker I'm finding the midgame a place where I regularly forget I need to get a wrath - but when I remember to play my tutors defensively, I tend to weather it pretty well.
It's also where I'm annoyed that I have a creature deck without green tutors. Remember just how versatile Enlightened Tutor is in this deck when you feel this way. I have in the past tried out Vedalken Æthermage to try to handle some of these weak points as it'd give me another avenue to many of my creature based answers to problem board states by finding Venser, Shaper Savant or Glen Elendra Archmage.
With the addition of Recruiter of the Guard and Intuition some of the former lack of consistency has faded from the deck as well. It's interesting to look back now and see where the deck used to struggle and how it's evolved past most of those challenges over the years.
At this stage of the game it's a great idea to do what you can to remove people's late game setup cards like mana doublers, big fat mana rocks, and similar if you can. I am always on the lookout for the opportunity to kill cards like Mana Reflection. Similarly, other people's draw engines are key targets. One exception here is that I will never, ever spend counterspells on things like this unless it's a bought back Forbid. I don't run a lot of counters and they're vital to preventing game winning plays later.
Because the deck plays a lot of great stall tactics and powerful topdeckable answers, strongly resist the urge to pack it in before you've seen every card you can. I've won numerous games with a timely topdeck and you can too.
Late GameThis deck tends toward a lot of skin-of-the-teeth victories that require excellent threat assessment. I will often have a very strong board state but one that could easily lose to surprise draws. As in the mid-game, it's very important to watch out for explosive players like Momir Vig, Simic Visionary, Maelstrom Wanderer, Omnath, Locus of Mana and similar. It's important to resist the urge to blow precious removal or counterspells on things that aren't going to make you lose.
The biggest threat late in the game is probably decks that can threaten to go over the top of any of your soft locks. Huge bombs like the aforementioned Craterhoof, Overwhelming Stampede, Genesis Wave and Insurrection are just not what we play and they can be difficult to answer if you counterspelled someone's Gilded Lotus earlier.
Because our few infinite combos are janky and improbable, doing good combat math is also important. We want to kill the most threatening guy first with the most efficient use of damage if at all possible. If you're going to kill someone with Ephara general damage, put all your other combat into someone else. Don't leave damage on the table - every point counts.
I started playing Ephara very soon after she was spoiled. The deck went through several iterations where I played more non-creature goodstuff but I gradually replaced almost all of the non-creature spells with creatures and have not looked back. I regularly watch new sets for ways to cut more non-creatures (see Stratus Dancer for one that was almost good enough).
The deck has been in its current form or very close to it for quite some time now with minor changes occurring regularly. I have not made any major paradigm shifts and don't intend to do so. Changes will be incremental and usually involve swapping one way of filling a role for another.
As I've been pruning and adjusting main content in the primer I've decided to move a lot of old card comments to the card options graveyard here:
Retired Core CardsOver the years (Yes years!) I've been playing this deck I've had occasion to question even some core cards in response to meta shifts and new card options. This is the old core card graveyard (that I'd guess to not be permanent given how long most cards were core).
Ethersworn Canonist - A very strong board stall tactic that usually allows you to play around it; you can sac it to Helm of Possession, cast a bunch of things, bring it back with Sun Titan or Reveillark, you can Venser, the Sojourner it and do your stuff. If all else fails, you have a ton of artifacts you can cast too. You can drop her at the end of a big turn to keep everyone in check too. She's easily recurred and tutored for which is nice.
Phyrexian Metamorph - Arguably the best clone in the format needs no introduction. It's especially amazing here given all the ways in which we can abuse it, recur it, and blink it to change its form. It's a very good card and should probably never be cut.
Land Tax - Eh, it does what it says on the tin! It generates an absurd amount of card advantage for a deck that is rarely actually ramping, and powers many engines including Forbid (one of the most oppressive soft locks in the deck). As a bonus it fixes our land drops and thins our deck. I almost never lose if I hit an early land tax.
Venser, the Sojourner - The first card I thought of when I considered this list. He reuses out creatures, he makes our team unblockable, and his emblem happens insanely fast and ends games. In the early days of this deck I would win by Venser Emblem + Stonecloaker on a regular basis. He does tons of things, in addition to setting up a soft lock with the next card...
Elspeth, Sun's Champion - Wraths, makes guys, and ultimate wins games. Hard to top this lady. She's an army in a box and one of the few topdecks that can turn almost any board state around. She's everything you could ask for in a planeswalker. Her ability to trigger Ephara for free every turn is almost worth the price of admission.
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite - The Norn fills so many roles in this deck it's ridiculous! It's functionally a sweeper, makes your little goofball creatures a huge threat, and has a respectable booty of its own. The only way I would ever cut this card is if I was running in a Bribery heavy meta -- but I probably still wouldn't since the look on someone's face when you cast Aven Mindcensor in response, or blink Elesh with your Flickerwisp or Venser, the Sojourner.
Stoneforge Mystic - This gal is one of the best cards you'll ever draw in the deck. She gets swords, greaves, skullclamp, she cheats stuff into play, she wields a sword. She gives your army of little donothing durdlemachines teeth. Everyone who plays EDH knows how great she is, and she's even better in a deck with 30 weak creatures.
I'm experimenting with cutting the equipment package at the moment, mostly because the format feels like it's trending more toward bombs which makes Stoneforge a little less impactful than typical - and people are really prone to removing the equipment these days. I'm trying including some more individually powerful cards and (e.g. teferi's protection, monastery mentor) in hopes that I can shore up some of the power level changes. After years I have not missed the equipment package much at all.
Sakashima's Student - We have tons of evasive fliers and early creatures who will not be blocked. You can steal games with this card with the predictable "I clone Craterhoof/Blightsteel/etc." or you can just reuse your other ETB triggers and get more Ephara draws. This card is amazing, and is functionally a 2 drop...and of course it's recurrable with Reveillark. It's one of my favorite cards but it's also one of the most powerful. This card is still in the deck but I no longer consider it to be core, despite the power level. It's been on the chopping block a few times.
Sword of Light and Shadow - This card dodges some of the best removal in the format, is easily tutorable, provides some serious evasion, and generates massive card advantage (usually 2-3 cards every time you connect -- one for the creature you get, one for triggering Ephara when you cast it, and one for its ETB effect). Over the years the mana investment to equip has gotten kind of rough, as I have so many more efficient things to do most of the time, so this sword became less relevant as I have more ways to get karmic guide and lark especially (with adds like intuition and recruiter of the guard)
Aven Mindcensor - He stifles fetchlands. He stumps some of the best green cheaty cards in the format. This bird is the word - he also lets you draw a second Ephara card by playing in someone else's turn, which is in fact the best time to play him. The bird makes Zur players cry. On top of all that, it flies and carries swords. Retirement comment: My meta shifted to be less fetchland and tutor heavy, and mostly the bird was a 3 mana 2/1 with flash, which is not good enough. Sometimes I'd get people, but not often enough to be worth the slot with all the new sweet cards we've got available. I really want to work this card back into the deck.
Catastrophe - This versatile sweeper locks games up. It's a slightly more expensive Wrath of God at its worst, but more often than not you can put two Sun Titans out and then blow up everyone's lands and people scoop. It's far better than either Wrath or Armageddon in this deck, which is very short of non-creature spells. I wound up cutting this, only the second core card to get cut that I can recall, because enchantments and artifacts got to be more of a problem in my meta and I needed room for Austere. It may come back but I doubt it as it's a less common way to win these days for some reason.
Aetherling - The old RtR finisher, by which all other control finishers will henceforth be judged. This card dodges wraths, synergizes insanely with Ephara, and with a decent amount of mana and a clone can kill people dead. I've swept tables with a Phantasmal Image and this guy before--16 unblockable is a respectable clock when you've got a soft lock on the board, and they're nearly impossible to remove. As my meta has sped up, this fairly inefficient 6-drop had to go for more powerful cards with more immediate effect. It could come back if my meta got slower as the unstoppable card advantage engine is real.
Retired EnginesCloudstone Curio - Hey, we get to reuse our creatures. Lots of hilarious interactions with this (bouncing Ethersworn Canonist, taking our turn and recasting it). Even without Ephara it's very strong, but with her it's beastly. This card found its way out for Blasting Station because I generally was not a fan of the mana investment. It rarely felt like what I wanted to be doing for some reason, though it was very good at setting up Venser shenanigans. Definitely possible it'll come back.
Ranger of Eos - Ranger searches for 3 great cards - Mother of Runes, Serra Ascendant and Soul Warden or Weathered Wayfarer. Mom protects our creatures, Ascendant is a huge fattie that gains us life and the wayfarer can find various ramp cards or other strong lands. The main focus of the Ranger engine, however, is that he turns will often turn one card into 5, which is great.
When playing Ranger, Mother of Runes is the main one I consider to not be optional. I always get her and one other card first, since she can protect the other one.
The Ranger package is quite flexible, and there're a lot of cards that you can try rotating in and out for other one drops. Nova Cleric and Martyred Rusalka are the top of my list, and Soul Warden has been in before. Another strong thing you can do with ranger is get Shrieking Drake which bounces the Ranger and recast him. Drake is a really strong Ephara engine on its own.
The ranger package worked its way out of the deck as more powerful efficient cards showed up. I found myself with ranger stuck in hand not wanting to spend 4 mana on it pretty regularly so gave it a cut and haven't looked back. It's still a great option, but on the outs for me.
Heliod, God of the Sun - He gives the team vigilance and makes tokens, and is a huge fattie sometimes. He's slow enough that he sometimes is on my cutlist, but he's won a lot of games.
Skullclamp - This is a one-card engine that fills our yard with value while drawing tons of cards. It's been a decent backup to Ephara, it's cheap, and tutorable. I no longer run it due to the fact that it is mana intensive and does not typically build my board state; I found I spent too much time drawing cards and not enough winning the tempo game with clamp. Sometimes 10 pegasi and 10 mana are better than 20 cards in hand.
Dust Elemental - He's good. Real good. Huge fattie with double evasion, and can bounce 3 of your dudes. Chances are good it will durdle its way back into my deck at some point as I kinda miss it and it helps my flash count quite a bit. Good solid critter. Unfortunately the 4CMCs are a very competitive spot in this deck!
Thraben Doomsayer - I played this guy for quite a while and he is very, very strong - deceptively so. He makes tokens at instant speed, often meaning you draw an extra card, and he can create a huge army if people let him go for too long. Always on my mind.
Cloudseeder - I found the card disadvantage to be too much for this guy combined with the mana cost. Deceptively bad.
Mobilization - Mana cost is too high and the dudes don't fly.
Elspeth Tirel - I don't own one, but her sweeping ability is really desirable. She's very good and I will try when I pick one up.
Elspeth, Knight-Errant - I found her to be too low impact for her mana cost.
Brimaz, King of Oreskos - He's another guy I sometimes want to put back in. Really good at carrying swords. Problem is he's too often worthless if I can't get a sword on him due to lack of evasion.
Hero of Bladehold - Same issue Brimaz has, but battle cry makes her very desirable as a pump effect.
Monastery Mentor - Needs a bigger non-creature count. Might be good enough honestly due to the high artifact count, but I haven't gotten around to testing it.
Ojutai Exemplars - Same issue as the mentor but additionally much slower and not likely to create an army.
Retired AnswersLeonin Relic-Warder - Synergizes with sacrifice and recursion effects, and exiles important card types. And it's a bear. Of note this card presents some infinite combos with Phyrexian Metamorph if you're running that, although I always found the setup for that to be a bit awkward. Not having an animation enchantment in white makes it less redundant than in other decks.
Helm of Possession - This card is so close to being a core card! It's been amazing every time I've used it. It's ridiculous with Sun Titan and just flat out great on its own. It is super, super good. Stealing creatures at instant speed, enabling hatebear shenanigans, etc. I started phasing this card out as I have been trying to reduce my attack surface for artifact and enchantment removal; this card was, much like Sacred Mesa and Sword of Feast and Famine often the target for random artifact/enchantment removal from opponents, particularly cards like Aura Shards.
Thalia's Lancers - It was tough finding the right section for these guys. They're both an answer (in they get some specific stuff that I classify as answers) and an engine in some contexts (blinking/cloning them is absurdly powerful). The consistency they add to the deck by finding elesh norn or Linvala or jitte or nykthos is huge. Almost core.
Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite - She's an answer and a question, but I primarily use her as a board reset. She's also a wincon, turning any army of derpy bears into lethal pretty much instantly.
Austere Command - A very versatile wrath that often leaves us with a full board and opponents empty. Almost a win condition. This is back in the main deck after a year or so on the shelf. Enchantments and artifacts are becoming overwhelming in my meta.
Capsize - Very flexible, answers everything return to Dust does while also being a game winning engine if you get enough mana (or As Foretold counters).
Umezawa's Jitte - Like some other cards here, both a question and an answer. Jitte fixes a lot of problem board states primarily in this deck; it's great at winning too but fixing problem creatures is its best mode. Ephara almost always has some evasive creature she's willing to strap a jitte to. Having 3 other cards that get it is nuts -- Muddle, Stoneforge and Lancers all get it.
Return to Dust - It's a two-for-one that exiles some of the most important cards in the format. All important answer to Darksteel Forge and Gods. I wound up cutting this because it's too slow to want to main phase in my current meta, and too inefficient otherwise. Replaced with Capsize.
Reality Shift - This is a cheap instant speed answer that gives us the chance to mess with a common theme in EDH - topdeck manipulation. It could easily get cut but so far I have liked having a second removal spell. Also a Muddle the Mixture target.
Desertion - On the expensive side, but often a huge blowout that will win games and as a bonus often trigger Ephara. I stopped using this cos I picked up a mana drain.
Vendilion Clique - Flash, check, flying, check, steals people's combo pieces, check, decent power, check. Only doesn't get the "core" nod by virtue of being non-recurrable with Reveillark.
Path to Exile - Ramps them. It's still one of the best removal cards in the format but I just hate ramping people.
Arcane Denial - One of the most efficient counters in the format but I just don't like playing the mass of counterspells, and the ones I do play are better for the deck.
Pact of Negation - It's a great card but the deck runs on such low mana it's often virtually timewalking yourself to cast it. If I had to play a free countery effect I'd play the next card, or Misdirection.
Force of Will - A very very close card to being included in the deck. My blue count is a little low to support it, but its mana efficiency makes it highly desirable. Countering spells when you're tapped out is good, just ask a legacy player!
Duplicant - It's too expensive for my tastes but can be recurred and blinked and is very good. Would consider it if I had more mana generation.
Wrath of God - A great cheap wrath that goes with the mana efficiency theme of the deck, but not quite versatile enough. I like my wraths to double as win conditions or bring something really unique to the table.
Evacuation - This virtual sweeper is so good in this deck it's always on the verge of being included. If I included an Archaeomancer package, I would play this since it's so hugely strong with him.
Fiend Hunter - Exiles creatures, synergizes with sac and recursion effects, and has a body. It's slow but wields swords and is recurrable. 3-drop slot is just too crowded right now, and he can't be tutored for with Recruiter which is a shame. Note that in the right deck this card can go infinite with Sun Titan (needs a blasting station or similar) so worth keeping in mind, especially for decks trying to be faster. Now that blasting station is in the deck I'm still considering this card, but not being searchable with Recruiter puts it very low on the list.
Voidmage Husher - Bounces himself, so he's a nice slow engine, but he also shuts down a lot of cheaty attempts to win like Rogue's Passage. I've generally found him too slow and the 4-drop slot too demanding lately. Note: I really, really miss this card sometimes. It's regularly on my mind to put it back.
Retired RampSilver Myr - Creature who taps for mana good with Ephara.
Azorius Signet - Makes colors from colorless, comes out at 2. One of the best ramp cards in the deck.
Pearl Medallion - This mana reducer reduces a huge portion of our deck, including Ephara, and often lets us play a lot more spells - mid to late game it's equivalent to 3 extra lands most of the time.
Sword of Feast and Famine - This card is, like Nykthos, primarily a mid to late game ramp spell that enables larger than typical turns. It's also got very relevant protections and buffs of course.
Boreas Charger - I'm unsure about this card but it seems very powerful and a creature so going to give it a try. It seems like it should be good at closing games (getting Emeria online) or making early games more consistent, and it's a critter. Not a lot of ways to generate a big mana advantage in the mid game with this deck and this is one.
Wayfarer's Bauble - It's slow but it's recurrable and does accelerate into turn 3 Ephara. I'm rarely unhappy to see it in an opener. Bonus of actually getting land, unlike most ramp we have access to. Downside is fairly slow and requires being drawn on turn 1 to make a turn 3 ephara.
Fellwar Stone - Almost always makes one of our colors and as a bonus comes into play untapped. It's a very good tempo card. I mostly cut this because I can't make myself buy a 150 dollar foil. May put it back in when we get a reprint. And Mox Diamond seems slightly better.
As Foretold - This has been in the deck for a while now so I figured I'd do a write up. It's really not part of the core strategy, sadly, but it's just so powerful with the number of things we can do on other people's turns that I wanted to try it out, and I have found it to be very good. Games that go long are usually the ones I win, and this card is very good at getting all the stuff you've drawn out of your hand to help win the game. It's a very compact way to generate tons of mana that doesn't really require anything else -- the Monolith package, for example, requires a lot of setup and a lot of cards (voltaic key, grim monolith, basalt monolith, mana vault, thran dynamo, etc.). This card lets us just play it and accumulate crazy amounts of mana.
Bonus for being recurrable with Sun Titan.
Aether Vial - This card doesn't accelerate into Ephara, but it ramps you and lets you play creatures at instant speed without worrying about counterspells. It's amazing with the deck due to the high density of 3 and 4 CMC creatures. This card has a very high ceiling but a very low floor, replaced by Tithe.
Coldsteel Heart - I used to run this, since it makes colored mana, but it's currently on the shelf for mana myrs.
Gold Myr - I am only recently trying the mana myrs - they work functionally equivalently to the ETB tapped colored rocks, but may also replace themselves if drawn late game. I wound up cutting this one because I didn't like being so exposed on mana creatures, but kept the blue one because I felt slightly short of blue mana.
Marble Diamond - Same as Coldsteel. Color limitation makes it worse.
Sky Diamond - Same as Coldsteel. Color limitation makes it worse.
Chromatic Lantern - 3 drop ramp is bad in this deck, but this is the best of it. Consider it if you don't have access to a great mana base.
Walking Atlas - This is my favorite mana dork-like effect in the deck. Ephara tends to keep your hand pretty full, and Land Tax is a card I see often enough that it tends to sneakily add up to a ton of ramp in the mid to late game. It has some downsides in that it requires extra lands in hand to work, but this is usually not an issue. This does make it somewhat less likely to enable a turn 3 Ephara (as it requires you to have seen 4 lands in the first 10-11 cards). This got removed because it was not as good as Mana Crypt (duh).
Retired HatebearsContainment Priest - Flashes, which is very important, and shuts down a lot of methods of cheating creatures into play which we hate seeing. Slight nonbo with some of our cheat effects, but still usually asymmetrical. I have really liked this card over the years. I've blown out a number of crazy plays with it, and also completely shut off a lot of boards combined with Curio and Flickerwisp. It's slow but it gets the job done.
Hushwing Gryff - It shuts down some of our shenanigans but we have ways to get rid of it and reuse it, and it flashes and flies. Great card.
Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir - While nowhere near a bear, Teferi generates a lot of devotion, flashes, gives all your creatures flash, and stops other people from casting instants or flash effects. He's ridiculous, and on a good body. His mana cost makes him barely not a core creature, but he's borderline.
Grand Abolisher - He's half of Teferi and more, with 2 white pips for Ephara. His body leaves something to be desired, but his effect is undeniable. I rarely lose if he sticks, so he's borderline core, but I could see cutting in a more spell-heavy build. I wound up cutting this because my meta got a little less interactive, and I wanted more power -- I put Timestream navigator in the place.
Eidolon of Rhetoric - All the good things about Ethersworn Canonist with a big fat blocking butt and tutorable for with enchantment tutors should you choose to run more. People will misplay around this card left and right and constantly ask to look at it and shake their heads. It's fantastic, and we can usually play around it in much the same way we can the Canonist. I wound up cutting this as the effect got less in demand and muddle fills the role of my second copy by tutoring for canonist and recruiter the third. Sadly this card is just better than canonist, but not being recruiterable is really annoying.
Spirit of the Labyrinth - Has been in the deck before. It's really, really strong in a meta full of wheels, as we rebuild from hand destruction very quickly--every other topdeck is 2 cards and we have numerous persistent engines.
Leonin Arbiter - I've played it before and found it to be good, but people having a choice is bad - they can play around it, and his body is undesirable. I'd wish for about 3 more functional reprints of Aven Mindcensor please Or a straight up Stranglehold bear, that'd be great.
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben - She's solid bear territory but my main issue was that she regularly slowed me down more than other people who ramp harder. She'd be really good if you played more stax (e.g. Grand Arbiter type stuff) effects on bodies for sure. This deck could certainly handle Smokestack type stuff with a little tweaking too.
Kataki, War's Wage - Nonbo with our artifacts, but could be considered in a more enchanty build. I am awaiting with baited breath the day we get an upgraded version of this that is a white Collector Ouphe - That'll be the day I cut most of my artifact ramp and a fun rebuild.
Retired ManabaseHigh Market - Sac outlets are key to the deck and getting one on a land is important. You'll often want to sac a creature to turn Ephara off, sac Ephara to prevent theft, sac a stolen creature, sac a hatebear to recur it, etc. Very strong card.
Evolving Wilds - ETB tapped fetchlands are bad, ok on a budget.
Moorland Haunt - I don't play this because it's too mana intensive (3 mana functionally), colorless, and hates on my own awesome creatures I'd like to recur. It can be good if you run into people reanimating your stuff a lot.
Subsequent evolution has allowed me to shave Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite in favor of blinking Agent of Treachery as a wincondition since I have access to a huge surplus of sweepers with the addition of Spellseeker, Cyclonic Rift (which can be could with Muddle the Mixture) and Mystical Tutor. The combo finish also means less reliance on anthems.
2020-07-24 Paper update
Reverting to my previous favorite combo; paper needs a bit of a combo since people don't scoop as aggressively as they do online.
deputy of detention
archon of emeria
Want to try some new cards, these cards have not really performed great
So I have noticed I have liked Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir less and less as games get more interactive so I decided to try cutting that. It's really a powerful effect, but it's also frustrating and the mana cost is very high. I also have a much higher ratio of flash cards these days so it's worse for the other ability as well. And the body is meaningless.
Cut Myriad Landscape and Glacial Fortress for Fabled Passage and Field of the Dead
I'm pretty confident that Field of the Dead is going to be way better than I have imagined in this deck, and I think Fabled Passage should be great with the new fetch tech. Glacial Fortress is one of the worst lands in the deck not having a land type and has been very bad for me before. That said, Fabled Passage being basically just as bad in possibly more hands is definitely a concern for me.
Gonna give it a try anyway and see.
So this is was a really hard call, but without swords or a way to find her I've found Linvala, Keeper of Silence to be quite hit or miss. She is super powerful against some commanders in particular (looking at you Golos, Tireless Pilgrim) but I'm going to try without her for a bit while I assess Stunt Double a bit more.
I updated to make halvsies of snow-covered islands and plains, so 3 plains and 2 islands.
2021/05/01 - Add Archaeomancer's Map
So I'm sad to dump Phyrexian Altar without properly trying it (except online) but it's really the only expendable thing that does what Map does kinda right now.
In short, this deck would play the hell out of Cultivate and in hour shell it is very likely this card is cultivate+ often Burgeoning. Even just getting its two lands and cultivating is huge, but being able to potentially ramp up to the land leader in one or two turns is enormous.
I hope it's good. I hope they make a friggin foil I may do some more manabase adjustments later but for now this is the only card in the set that's a sure thing for me. I do also like Guardian Archon and Angel of the Ruins both quite a lot, but no real room for the them at the moment.
2021/07/14 - Hullbreacher banned!
I cut Hullbreacher for Sevinne's Reclamation which is a card I've always wanted to try that has a lot of synergy with Intuition which is one of the key engines of the deck. It ramps, it reanimates Altar of Dementia and allows you to get most of a combo online pretty easily. Lots of flexibility. Maybe too much graveyard exposure though.
2021/07/27 - Solitude!
I cut Archon of Emeria for Solitude - this is likely incorrect, but I have not been loving that effect as much lately. It's really tedious to keep track of making sure people do all the things with it. I imagine I will put it back at some point. I'm thinking hard on some other things I'd like to run.
I did try out Sword of Hearth and Home in another deck and it reconfirmed my opinion that equipping and swinging with a SofX&Y is a risky proposition in this new high-removal meta. We'll see but I am not confident it's better than Eldrazi Displacer which is the only real thing it could replace.
Mostly just a little housekeeping.
chrome mox - this has been *fine* just not that fun to play.
keeper of the accord - this has been actively awful for some reason. I always have too may creatures and the percentage of the time it is worse than Kor Cartographer is disturbing. What's nuts about this is that in my Breena deck where I run the Lotus Vale package, this card is *insane* often ramping me 5+ in a game.
Cathar Commando - I want to lean up my curve a little and this card really helps, cutting a 4 drop and adding a 2 with flash.
Loyal Warhound - not sure this is the perfect ramp spell for this deck but it's a pretty reasonable amount of pressure for people with no blockers, and it ramps on occasion.
2021-10-14 Update - Minor manabase tweaks
I am slowly trying to tune my deck a little toward creatures again and the new Ornithopter of Paradise gives us some fixing assistance without pinging us, that can late game be a flying blocker or a creature to trigger Ephara. I think it's likely *slightly* worse since it takes away a colorless source, but I am getting very close to cutting Eldrazi Displacer anyway, so willing to take that risk.
Talisman of Progress
Ornithopter of Paradise
2021-10-19 Update - Minor mana tweaks and Displacer displaced
I've been wanting to cut Eldrazi displacer for a very long time because it just causes so much awkwardness. Sometimes it's amazing but it strains the manabase a lot. And I really want to try Serra's Emissary. So there it is. Loyal Warhound is just...not good. I also want more basics to support Mystic Sanctuary and Emeria, the Sky Ruin so that's nice too.
So I still have a lot of cards I want to change out, but here's where I am moving for the HBH update.
The only kind of tangential change is cutting my curve down a little with Fleeting Spirit in for Glorious Protector. Protector is solid, but I think I have 1 or 2 too many four drops, so it's on the bubble. Right now I am more in trouble from alpha strikes than sweepers, so Selfless Squire stays for now.
The Hullbreaker Horror package turned into a much bigger todo than I expected, with cards like Trinket Mage becoming really important.
For now I am leaving the end step blinkers because of their strong synergy with some of my ETB guys. I did not find room for Overcharged Amalgam which I will be thinking about for a while. Its utility goes down as I have fewer things that recur stuff but it's possibly still the right move. 4 drops are just so hard to get into the deck these days.
I'm pretty confident of Fleeting Spirit being amazing, likely to be the strongest of the blinkers - it's half the mana of Saltskitter but guarantees a rummage every time and protects itself. The velocity of guaranteed digging +4 every turn for 2 mana just feels like too much, especially since I have Karmic Guide and Body Double to get work done.
As much as I enjoyed not being so heavy on mana rocks, it is just the right thing to be doing with Hullbreaker Horror and I think Horror is probably the strongest of the winconditions for ephara.
Sevinne's Reclamation stays in the game for the ability to tutor for 2 mana rocks and it to guarantee hullbreaker kill.
Pretty excited to try this out
2021-11-28 Unforking update
That hullbreaker horror update...did not work. It was just super clunky and awkward.
Going to try out the temporal manipulation package.
1 Mana vault
1 azorius signet
1 chrome mox
1 tidespout tyrant
1 hullbreaker horror
1 trinket mage
1 Selfless Squire
1 Temporal Manipulation
1 Phyrexian Altar
1 Ornithopter of Paradise
1 Crucible of Worlds
1 Agent of Treachery
1 Mistveil Plains
1 Nexus of Fate
Just nowhere else I could think of to make room tbh
Add Gemstone Caverns
cut Snow-Covered Island
2022-02-25 - Manabase adjustments
Cut Devastating Mastery as I shave rocks and such.
2022-02-25 - Spell focused update
Cut Ornithopter of Paradise
add Sunscape Familiar
add Lion Sash
I think as my blue count has gone up a bit, Sunscape has more utility and smooths out the infinite turn combos as well.
It's been discussed quite a lot in the thread but there are a huge number of alternate ways to build Ephara. The most promising alternative routes identified are discussed below.
Lifegain - Using such cards as Resplendent Angel, Angelic Accord and Crested Sunmare we can create chains of tokens predicated on gaining life, and combine that with ways to achieve lifegain when creatures enter the battlefield like Soul Warden. One of the challenges with this deck is that most token for lifegain effects need something to jumpstart them so you sometimes need a third piece to get stuff rolling for free.
Artifacts - Artifacts have a lot of powerful ways to enable creating tokens or dropping creatures at instant speed. Cards like Shimmer Myr, Myr Turbine, Hangarback Walker and Druidic Satchel combine with a lot of the usual artifact synergies to trigger Ephara. The best part of this build is that white and blue tutors are best at finding artifacts and lots of artifact support exist in those colors.
Tribal - Spirits, Wizards and Faeries have enough tribal support to enable lots of Ephara synergy, though I have not explored the depths of those approaches.
Cycling - I built a short-lived Cycling version for budget MTGO and it was actually pretty darned effective. Astral Slide and Astral Drift are amazing for Ephara, but the balance is difficult to get right. There are a ton of cycling support cards that make instant speed tokens as well.