Greeting and salutations, everyone! Unmistakable here with another full-length deck tech. This time around I wanted to do something REALLY special. In my Previous Three Deck Techs, I showed you some fun, budget builds for the family-friendly EDH meta. This time around, I’m looking to showcase to you guys the inner workings of one of my meanest decks. Ladies and Gentlemen, meet The Grand Arbiter. This deck is a laser-focussed, no-holds-barred deck that comes out of its box when I hear complaints that games aren’t lasting long enough. In which case, they end up lasting FOREVER.
Why Grand Arbiter Augustin IV?
…Is what I hear when people see me reach for his deckbox. When I wanted to build a Prison deck with a cheap(ish) landbase, Azorius colours came to mind. While Brago, King Eternal is also a very solid option, I picked GAAIV primarily because:
- He himself is a taxing effect, and rushing him out (and having repeated access to his effect) is incredibly disruptive to opponents, especially when averaging turn 2-3 Commander casts.
- His presence immediately breaks parity with the table by granting me a discount on coloured spells.
- He doesn’t rely on feeding an activated ability like Gwafa Hazid, or making a combat connection like Brago. This allows his interaction with players to begin straight away, rather than being a looming, must-answer threat that can be stopped.
I’ll begin with the Win Conditions of the deck: Winning is secondary in this deck, with the primary aim being to lock all others out of the game firstly. However, there are multiple easy-to-assemble combos:
Jace, the Mind Sculptor – The flashiest win condition of the deck is also the least used. Often Jace will just represent a card advantage engine, as repeated brainstorms will allow me to see enough cards to set up a lock with ease. However, there have been times where a late JtMS has allowed me to pile pressure onto flailing opponents, allowing me to filter their draws so their desperate search for answers remains desperate until Jace takes their library.
Basalt Monolith, Rings of Brighthearth, Power Artifact, Staff of Domination, Stroke of Genius – Here is the meat-and-potatoes of the win-con package. Basalt Monolith, coupled with either rings or Power artifact, enables infinite colourless mana. From there, we funnel the mana into either the Staff or the Stroke to Draw our entire deck to find more combo pieces. Alternatively, the Stroke can be turned on an opponent to deck them out. The Rings in particular are an MVP here due to their ability to duplicate planeswalker abilities, allowing a double-tutor with Tezzeret, or a Double Unsummon/Brainstorm with Jace.
Helm of Obedience, Rest in Peace – The other combo, the merciful pillow that takes one of your victims from the game. Rest in Peace is also just a solid hate card on its own, combined with Helm of Obedience (and perhaps copied with Rings of Brighthearth), it can force a player to mill until they find a certain number of cards in their graveyard – which will never happen. Because exile. The most common way to take an opponent out of the game, it is also often followed by multiple concessions of people desperate to move onto the next game.
Now that we’ve covered the kinder ways for our prison deck to win, lets talk about the other cogs in this concession machine.
Aura of Silence – A very common (and powerful) stax piece, sticking one of these early on into the game disrupts the building of mana rock suites from your opponents, as well as setting up of combo pieces such as Nim Deathmantle or Altar of Dementia. Once it has successfully disrupted your opponent’s long enough, it doubles as a free naturalize (two with Rings) to mop up some of the artifacts/enchantments that slipped through the cracks. It also works as a deterrent from anybody using infinite loops incorporating artifacts like the afforementioned Mantle/Altars.
Aven Mindcensor – A great little trick, this guy flashed in can blank fetches, tutors for answers, turns off Birthing Pod engines (most of the time), and really puts the screws on reanimator decks looking to use Buried Alive to cheat things in through the yard.
Back to Basics – My undoubted favourite card in this deck, Back to Basics has caused so many turn 3 concessions that I can’t help but wonder why it isn’t used more. In a two colour deck, nonbasics are nowhere near as important for fixing purposes, so slamming this early can leave you completely untouched while it has just blanked the greedier 3 colour (and more recently, 4 colour) decks of all of their mana on field and in hand. Couldn’t recommend this card more.
Cursed Totem – A very recent inclusion to this deck – one that almost didn’t make this article in fact – the totem is a small but mighty addition to Augustin’s Arsenal. This piece is completely asymmetrical in this deck – you have zero creatures that get hosed by it, but the totem is a VERY powerful stax piece that hoses entire strategies. In my local meta there are decks that win off of the back of Kiki-Jiki, Rhys the Redeemed, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Metalworker, Palinchron, and many many more – all of which are completely bricked by this little two-mana artifact. A very useful piece of tech that after trying out for myself I can’t see myself being without in this deck.
Ethersworn Canonist – A quintessential hatebear, this one’s very situational in its uses. GAAIV himself has roughly 1/4 of his nonland permanents be artifacts through his extensive rock suite, so he can fight through an imposed Rule of Law a lot quicker than other decks such as Edric that spew out their ramp through creatures; Dorks are a lot less attractive when its the only thing a green deck can do in a turn.
Humility – A hate card for those stompy decks and creature-based combo decks. Facing a Kozilek, the Great Distortion eldrazi/manarock tribal deck and a Riku twin combo deck on a regular basis, I jammed Humility in here to deal with those despite not having the other secondary lock pieces like Night of Souls’ Betrayal. Great to slow down creature decks until you hit your stride, and will almost always draw an expletive or two out of your opponents.
Propaganda – See above. Being in a creature-based meta is rough on old GAAIV, and often one hate card doesn’t quite scratch the itch. As such, a backup Ghostly Prison effect (The blue one being easier to cast in a 60% blue deck) is a necessity to keep those nasty Deceiver Exarchs and Reality Smashers off my face.
Sphere of Resistance – ‘But Unmistakable!’ You might say, ‘This is Symmetrical! It slows you down just as much as it does your opponents!’ ..Well. You would be right, if it wasn’t for the second ability on GAAIV negating the tax on you. A turn two GAAIV into this on turn 3 backed up with something like Back to Basics beforehand can just completely lock all but the most competitive decks out for the remainder of the game.
A prison deck wouldn’t be much without a bunch of interaction to keep your opponents out of the game, right? Well, GAAIV is in the house bringing it in spades.
Arcane Denial, Counterspell, Dissipate, Dissolve, Force of Will, Mystic Confluence, Negate, Pact of Negation, Swan Song – The main Counterspell suite. There are some that I’m leaving out of this discussion, and I’ll list them after. These represent blockades in your opponent’s attempts to break the locks you’re putting on them. You need to pick your moments as they are finite, but with an explosive enough start spells will be trickling so slowly you can be REALLY generous with the counterspell love.
Council’s Judgment – Perhaps one of my favourite elements of the removal suite, this spell is nuts in its flexibility. You paint a target, and your opponents have an awkward conversation about what the outcome is. 9 times out of 10 if you paint the target right you’ll take out what you’re aiming for, through hexproof and shroud. Often you’ll also get a bonus 2-for 1 out of a spite vote for another permanent as well, which being exiled for 3 mana (just WW with your commander active) seems like a great deal for me.
Cyclonic Rift – [Token quip about being a blue staple for a reason here]. All jokes aside, this card is nuts. For 2 mana you can take a guy off of a combo long enough to seal that avenue back up by the time it is next their turn, or for 5 more mana you can set everybody back to empty board to battle through your taxes and counters all over again. Also causes many concessions.
Hurkyl’s Recall – In a meta with Kozilek manarock tribal, or Daretti Reanimator, or a newly-forged Breya deck, this often comes a lot closer to a 2 mana Cyclonic Rift than it’s narrow-looking application would imply. At worst a turn’s worth of setback, at best a complete uprooting of a board state; and for two mana, that’s ok.
Mental Misstep – Modern bannable, Legacy Bannable, Vintage (barely) legal, Commander fair game. The Misstep has earned its own spot in the interaction discussion through it’s surprisingly wide and varied uses. A lot of power cards in EDH are 1 mana – Deathrite Shaman, Sol Ring, Mana Vault, Enlightened Tutor, Sensei’s Divining Top, Vampiric Tutor, Dark Ritual, Mystical Tutor, Burgeoning… Every deck has a premier 1 drop that it wants as soon as possible. If they have it and nobody has land on turn 1, they’ll go for it. Nobody has interaction, right? Nah, friend. I’ve caused a lot of decks to fold because they banked their shaky hand on snowballing that Sol Ring turn one, only to have it crumble in front of them before I’ve even hit my first upkeep? This card can turn brutal openers into brutal failures for just 2 life.
Path to Exile, Swords to Plowshares – One mana creature removal that punctures through indestructible clauses. Swords is infinitely better to Path, but redundancy declares that both be run to be sure I have the answer when I need it. Path can help break the player’s stall, but if they’re sculpting the top of their library they may not choose to grab the land, or can disrupt their plan by absent-mindedly picking up and searching their library. Great supports to the other spells.
Supreme Verdict, Wrath of God – Sometimes, the floodgates open. Sometimes creatures will stream through your lock pieces, and you sit there scrabbling to put the lock back on. These are the reset buttons. Will probably kill GAAIV too, but if you’re as ahead on resources as you should be, resummoning after will be a lot less costly than letting creatures run rampant in YOUR battlefield.
Coming up next, Card advantage is imperative to make sure you’re keeping ahead on the game. So in GAAIV, we draw a LOT of cards.
Consecrated Sphinx – This is in draw despite being a heady threat because well, it drowns you in card advantage. Quite literally, you draw up to 2x more each turn cycle than your opponents do combined. It takes your game plan into overdrive, and will assemble combos quicker than your opponents can cast spells.
Dig Through Time – Another card that feels unfair in every format, Dig helps you find exactly what you need; be it more answers, hate pieces or the final combo pieces. All for a cool 2 mana. Synergises well with the Consecrated Sphinx, as your ‘yard will stack up VERY fast when you end up drawing 8 cards per turn cycle.
Fact or Fiction, Impulse, Thirst for Knowledge – Instant speed card advantage. When you’re looking for something in particular, the FoF will often help you get there with a slightly deeper delve than Thirst, but with the deck being highly populated by artifacts, you’ll often only discard one to Thirst, making it incredibly potent for only 3 mana (2 with GAAIV). Impulse is the odd one out because even though it digs deeper than Thirst, it only cantrips. This is often a very potent action and with the amount of redundancy in the deck through a tutor suite, this will almost always be what you want it to be.
Mystic Remora, Rhystic Study – Two enchantments that grind out card advantage VERY quickly. Rhystic Study is often another tax for those savvy enough to not let you draw, which is also fine on top of the others. Remora however often just reads like a one-sided Heartwood Storyteller, as the +4 payment on each noncreature spell is often too unwieldy to play around.
Ponder, Preordain – Basic topdeck manipulation cards; these can turn shaky hands into quick starts, and help dig for answers at minimal cost. The shuffle effect on Ponder is relevant with an active Top or Rack too, more on those in a sec. Either way, I’m never unhappy to see these early, as it’s a small price to pay to get closer to action.
Scroll Rack, Sensei’s Divining Top – Standard card advantage artifacts, both of these get greater with shuffle effects. Despite not owning the critical mass of fetches, I’m confident that between the ones I do have, the tutor suite, and my shuffling draws such as the Timetwister effects and Ponder, that it is almost certainly enough. Special mention goes to Scroll Rack here, which really comes into its own when your hand is brimming (through a large Sphinx’s Revelation or Consecrated Sphinx), allowing you to see half or even three quarters of your deck in a single turn.
Sphinx’s Revelation – This one is in the same category as Stroke of Genius but can’t be classified as a win condition due to its inability to target opponents; this card is as busted in EDH as it was in its heyday in standard. Once you’ve vomited out your rocks and lock pieces, you can rev to give yourself a complete refill, and a well timed sphinx’s rev is often the sign that you’ve completed your stabilisation.
Time Reversal, Time Spiral – Two Timetwister-esque (I’d have one if I had the money) effects are important to the overall lock in the following ways: 1) It recycles your spells/destroyed pieces back into the library, 2) it flash refills your hand with answers, and 3) it is one of the few ways the deck can deal with hands. As the game continues, the combo players often manage to sneak through the odd tutor, looking for ways to fight through the lock and take me out of the driver’s seat. With a well-timed Timetwister, however, their carefully sculpted hands go back into the abyss, to be replaced with (ideally) worse options. I was sceptical about trialling these when I first figured out they’d be worth it (and I got some weird looks when I tried them out), but over time I’ve become completely sold on their importance in this form of deck.
In any EDH deck, consistency is important to making sure you get where you need to go.
Enlightened Tutor – This card is a very flexible addition to GAAIV’s toolbox. It could represent a Mana Crypt in the early game to help power out that turn 2 Commander. It could represent that Back to Basics you’ve needed to finally eke ahead of your opponents. It also could represent that final piece of the kill combo you need to grant the hand of mercy to your opponents so you can move onto the next game. In any situation, it’s always fantastic to have access to a spiritual second copy.
Fabricate – A much more expensive, much less flexible tutor; it makes up for it by giving you the artifact straight away as opposed to in a turn, like Enlightened Tutor. Regardless, there are some times where you’ll be happy that this is the tutor in your hand over the others; once you achieve infinite mana, for example, this reads U: Fetch Staff of Domination and commence deck drawing.
Mystical Tutor – This tutor is the only one of its kind in the 99, but nevertheless it is always a happy draw. It gives you access to any answer, or any draw spell – Swan Song while you’re building up, Time Spiral while you’re knocking them down.
Tezzeret the Seeker – Easily the most powerful tutor in the deck. At any time, this guy represents any artifact in your deck and, timed right, a whole load more too. With the quality of the rock suite, it is not abnormal to -0 (with potential to copy with Rings) and grab Mana Crypt, Mox Opal, or Chrome Mox. This solidifies your lead in terms on mana, while keeping the options of searching for a Sphere of Resistance or your Helm of Obedience open. Given the critical mass of noncreature artifacts in the deck, going on the aggressive by plussing Tezzeret’s loyalty is also a plan, and many games have been ended by mana rock beatdown.
Trinket Mage – Our final tutor is a lowkey workhorse. At any time you play this, the littlest tutormage can be an additional copy of any of your powerful mana rocks; Miss your turn 1 Sol Ring? Here, have it! Got your metalcraft going? Have a Mox Opal, Free of charge. If you’ve hit enough of your rocks however, he also comes with the option of picking up your copy of Sensei’s Divining Top on the way to ensure your draws remain live throughout the game.
I put these two guys in here because they don’t really fit anywhere else, but I view them as important enough to include.
Serra Ascendant – That’s right. I play Serra Ascendant when I can, and am (reasonably) unapologetic about it. In commander, this guy reads a 1 mana 6/6 flying lifelink, and that is an offer too good to pass up. Never been unhappy to see this guy early, he provides pressure on opponents by forcing them to defend themselves rather than disrupt me setting up.
Snapcaster Mage – Modern staple come GAAIV’s best friend, Snapcaster mage is as flexible in this deck as he is in modern or legacy. He represents another copy of a counterspell most of the time, but if you draw him in the late game he easily represents a second Fact or Fiction, or a Dig through Time, or a Stroke of Genius while you’re comboing off to finish another guy. Seems like a good deal to me.
Azorius Signet, Chrome Mox, Fellwar Stone, Mana Crypt, Mana Vault, Mind Stone, Mox Opal, Sol Ring, Talisman of Progress – GAAIV’s Mana rock suite; not being green, GAAIV needs all the help he can get to up his mana production quickly; luckily, we’re just about one Grim Monolith from hitting a true critical mass. GAAIV hits by turn 3 95% of the time, often hitting earlier due to the sheer amount of mana rocks (and mana rock tutors) present in the list; As a pro once said, ‘Magic is a game of mana – the player who has the most is winning’ – and while this isn’t strictly true, it hits close enough that I firmly beileve the rock suite might be one of the most integral pieces of any competitive EDH deck.
Land Tax – I will proceed to gush slightly less about this card; however, it is great. It keeps us on parity with any ramp decks that manage to get more lands out early, as well as acting as a shuffle effect early on (we can even elect to not find any land, keeping the shuffle always active), this card thins the deck like no other while enabling us to hit our land drops even till the mid-late game when a lot of decks run out of land steam, keeping us at the forefront of the mana game.
Voltaic Key – A small but hard working piece of the suite, the Voltaic key represents an extra 1 mana when used in combination with Sol Ring or Mana Vault, or an extra 2 mana with Basalt Monolith or Mana Vault (While also handily being able to preserve our life total by untapping the vault before it starts hurting us). It also comes in handy when we have an active Scroll Rack, allowing us to activate it twice per turn (this is only really good if we have some shuffle effects handy though, or we start drowning ourself if cards we’ve already seen).
A lot of the lands are straight up fixing lands; all untapped options within my price range that tap for both of my colours including all of the relevant Khans of Tarkir fetches to ensure that I can fix as necessary (or grab a basic before I drop Back to Basics). However, some utility options:
Maze of Ith – This card represents a lot of defensive power for a deck like this. When I’m allowed to choose what can resolve, and then limit options for combat, further allowing to shape their options with the ability to blank an attacker for no extra cost is powerful, allowing a single blocker of mine (mostly Consecrated Sphinx, as the others aren’t too good at blocking) to effectively block two creatures, through the threat that i’ll blank one and kill the other. It’s a land I never want to see early, but it’s rarely a land I end the game without.
Strip Mine, Wasteland – These powerful lands round out GAAIV’s mana suite and provide a hefty amount of presence. An untapped Strip mine threatens to colour screw the 4 colour deck, and both tell your opponents that they’re going to have to play their game without Gaea’s Cradle, Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx or Cabal Coffers. When you have 2-3 opponents to keep in check, it is not often a bad idea to launch both of them at one person to make double sure help isn’t coming, and if you’ve limited the early game properly taking even one colour away from a 3 colour deck can ensure their silence for a while.
So, thats the deck; what’s the plan?
A typical game plan works as follows: In your opening hand there should be 2-3 lands, a rock or two, alongside any combination of hate pieces, draw or answers. For the first few turns, this deck ramps hard – the earlier it can slam GAAIV down, the earlier your opponents are on the back foot 1-2 mana behind you.
Then, once GAAIV has been achieved, leverage the discount he gives you to accelerate through your deck looking for pieces. Favourites of mine to find first differ from time to time; Back to Basics and Sphere of Resistance are almost always highest priorities though. If this phase is executed without anything from your opponents, the game may already be won as the prison is set.
From turns 5 onwards, you seek out your combos while answering any attempts to gain tempo. By inhibiting mana and threatening counters, you are completely in the driver’s seat, able to dictate what resolves and when, miles ahead on card advantage as you churn through your deck. Sometimes the lock is broken, either by you not drawing the pieces or the right sort of answer being presented; this isn’t always the end of the world, and is why GAAIV always brings a board wipe or two to the table.
As I mentioned before, while the deck IS around 1/10 counterspells, you aren’t the counter police; use intuition and threat assessment to dictate what should be countered and what is ok to resolve; if a fatty manages to sneak its way from under your prison pieces but you have a Maze of Ith down or Humility in hand, don’t sweat it! If you’re struggling to hold a table underneath a single Back to Basics and your next piece nowhere in sight, sometimes countering that Cultivate might be the right play; it’s all about adapting to the game you’re playing.
So now that I’ve laid it out, what would I do to improve GAAIV? I’ve thought about it extensively, as it happens.
Grim Monolith – My current hot item on my to-do list is the second Monolith. it brings another infinite mana combo with Power Artifact (though just that, not rings), makes Voltaic Key a lot more powerful by existing, and enables another avenue to power out pieces in the early game; overall it would be a great increase in consistency for GAAIV, but is currently just out of reach.
Transmute Artifact – Another victim of reserved list price spikes, Transmute is another way to help GAAIV search out the combo once the lock is in place, or turn a mana rock into a lock piece to buy us time.
Flusterstorm, Mana Drain – Two of the most premium Counterspells in the game, adding both of these to the deck (likely in the place of the two 3 mana counterspells, Dissolve and Dissipate) would thoroughly streamline GAAIV’s answer-suite; Flusterstorm has always been a point of contention in my mind as a narrow answer as there have not really been any Storm deck variants in my local meta; this could be a great option if that becomes the case however.
Timetwister – Unsurprisingly, the only piece of power nine legal in the format would make this deck very, very happy. A cheaper Time Reversal that doesn’t exile itself is great, increasing the maximum amount of times GAAIV can twist to three, up from the currently available two. As mentioned in the discussion, these effects are incredibly important to Augustin’s disruption game plan, and he would benefit immensely from one of these.