The Game Begins on One: A Study of 1st-Turn Decisions in Eternal Command

About a month ago, I won a Modern Constructed MODO PTQ. In this event, I played Eternal Command, a synergistic mid-range deck that can reach a soft-lock on the opponent’s spells or creatures through a combination of Eternal Witness and Cryptic Command, and is sometimes fueled by Aether Vial. This deck was introduced to the Magic scene by Shouta Yasooka at the 2012 Player’s Champs, where he barely lost in the finals to Yuuya Watanabe. Shouta’s original list was as follows:

Playing modern with this deck over the course of about 6 months, which included going 7-3 in constructed at Pro-Tour Return to Ravnica, I made several changes. The list I won the PTQ with is as follows:

I changed a full 11 cards maindeck: -3 Mana Leak, -3 Spell Snare, -2 Thirst for Knowledge, -2 Vapor Snag, and -1 Flooded Grove became +3 Electrolyze, +2 Remand, +2 Serum Visions, +1 Eternal Witness, +1 Tarmogoyf, +1 Island, and +1 Misty Rainforest. The reasons for these changes are as follows:

I added the 4th Tarmogoyf because the card is amazing. It is one of the deck’s major win conditions and can provide great defense as you work toward a Cryptic/Witness lock. I added the 4th Eternal Witness because it is part of the soft-lock combo and it is great in multiples because of Eternal Witness loops. Moreover, 13 creatures seemed light with 4 Aether Vial in the deck.

Electrolyze was a necessary addition because of the metagame shift post-Return to Ravnica. Deathrite Shaman was a huge addition to many decks, especially Jund, and that card’s ability to disrupt Eternal Command’s recursion meant more removal was needed. Lingering Souls began seeing more play, and Electrolyze is great at controlling spirit tokens. Electrolyze also provides a powerful way of killing Dark Confidants, Snapcasters, Vendilion Cliques, mana dorks, and even Liliana of the Veil. One could make an argument that this should be a different removal spell, such as Forked Bolt or Burst Lightning, but all in all I have been very pleased with Electrolyze.

I went up to 4 Remand because I found it to be better than Mana Leak. Eternal Command, while not exactly a combo deck, has myriad synergistic interactions that open up as the game progresses. Remand buys time and digs through the deck, getting you to the point where the card advantage generated by this synergy takes over the game. Also, remand is better against Tron because that deck can go over the top of Mana Leak.

Adding the 3rd and 4th Serum Visions was not a decision I came to lightly. The basic question seemed to be whether Serum Visions was better than Thirst for Knowledge. Shouta built the deck with 2 Serum Visions and 2 Thirst for Knowledge. Part of his reasoning, presumably, was that sometimes you draw extra Aether Vials, which provides perfect discard fodder for Thirst. The more I played with the deck, the more I realized how negligible this consideration really is.

Let us do a more careful analysis of Serum Visions as compared to Thirst for Knowledge. Visions draws 1 card. Thirst draws 3 cards. But Thirst also requires that you discard 1 or 2 cards, depending on whether you have an artifact to discard. The only artifact in the maindeck is Aether Vial, and the deck wants to operate with 2 Vials in play (one set on 2 and one set on 3). Thus, Thirst almost never gains you any more card advantage than Visions unless you happen to have your third Vial in hand. And even when Thirst is at its best, it is only +1 card, in a deck that already generates lots of card advantage.

Visions is superior for several reasons. First, it costs one mana, not three. Second, it stacks your graveyard with an easily-castable draw spell for Snapcaster or Witness to recur. Third, it counts as a sorcery for Goyf, which can be huge (e.g. pumping Goyf out of Bolt range so you can safely play Goyf on Turn 2). Fourth, it digs for an early Aether Vial, Remand, Tarmogoyf, Lightning Bolt or sideboard card. Fifth, scrying allows you to control your land draws and avoid extra Aether Vials. Sixth, you can get rid of extra Vials with Vendilion. Seventh, Visions is the exact same card as Preordain, only with the order reversed, and Preordain is banned (they are essentially the same card on Turn 1). Basically, in this deck Visions does everything you would want Thirst to do, except better and for less mana.

The more I played with the deck, the more I realized the mana was a little off. Too often, I found myself with hands of Flooded Groves and no other lands, so I knew that a Flooded grove had to be cut. Also, I felt that 21 lands were too few, particularly given that Aether Vials get boarded out in some common matchups (e.g., Jund and Pod). Thus, I needed to add 2 lands. The 4th Misty Rainforest was an obvious addition because the fetches do everything you want. I added the 5th Island because, with the 8th fetch, I wanted to make sure the deck had enough fetchable lands that it did not run out as the game progressed. Adding the 5th Island brought that number up to 10 (5 Island, 1 Forest, 1 Mountain, and one of each relevant shockland). I did not want another shockland because ½ the lands (8 fetches and 3 Shocks) already caused pain, and life loss can be a problem against aggro decks. Moreover, I felt that the deck needed more Turn 1 blue sources for visions, and Islands certainly don’t hurt when casting Cryptic Command.

I have already discussed why I trimmed Mana Leak and Thirst for Knowledge. All I can say about Spell Snare and Vapor Snag is that they did not seem to do very much for me in testing. I could see a place for Spell Snare in the right metagame, but other cards impressed me more.

I also changed 8 cards in the sideboard: -3 Huntmaster of the Fells, -2 Glen Elendra Archmage, -2 Spell Pierce, and -1 Grafdigger’s Cage became +4 Spellskite, +2 Threads of Disloyalty, and +2 Tormod’s Crypt.

I cut the Archmages and Huntmasters because I did not like what they did to the Aether Vials. Putting Vial up to 4 for a sideboard card or two makes Vial less effective for the rest of your deck. These creatures can be hardcast, but I was unimpressed by that proposition. Also, adding more maindeck creatures meant it was less necessary to have creatures in the sideboard.

Tormod’s Crypt seemed better than Grafdigger’s Cage for four reasons. First, Cage interferes with your Snapcasters. Second, Crypt pumps Goyf. Third, Crypt comes back very easily off of Witness. And Fourth, Crypt has a nice interaction against Second Sunrise. Among all the graveyard hate options, Tormod’s Crypt is best for this deck.

I cut Spell Pierce from the sideboard because it wasn’t powerful enough. Spell Pierce, like Spell Snare, is a card worth considering, but ultimately I found them to be too reactive and conditional for a deck that wants to get its synergistic engine running as quickly as possible.

Instead, I added 4 Spellskite and went up to 4 Threads of Disloyalty. This was a pure metagame call. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Threads was just the best card against Jund. It effectively attacks the Jund core of Deathrite Shaman, Dark Confidant, and Tarmogoyf while producing card advantage and (over the course of the game), pumping your Goyfs. Spellskite is a terrific control card that works wonders against Bogle, Burn, Poison, and Twin. Moreover, Spellskite can be terrific when flashed in off of an Aether Vial. Fortuitiously, these cards also work well together, as Spellskite protects both Threads and Goyfs in the Jund matchup. In the top 8 of the PTQ, I played against 3x Jund, going 6-1 in games with the sideboard plan of -4 Vial, -4 Remand, +4 Skite, +4 Threads.

There were a total of 5 Jund decks in that Top 8, so it was the right plan for that tournament, but the board should always be tuned for the current metagame. Phantasmal Image, for example, is a card worth considering. It kills Geist of Saint Traft, Thrun, and Vendilion Clique, and it plays well with Aether Vial, Snapcaster, and Eternal Witness.

Sam Pardee (Smdster) recently tested this deck in a ChannelFireball video (the third video from the bottom). [Editor’s note: The CF video page may be bugged right now, but unfortunately there’s nothing I can do about that. –PlanetWalls] It was fun watching somebody else struggle with the myriad decisions presented by this deck. The deck is very difficult to play, and I believe no one will ever be able to play it perfectly all the time, myself included. One game, in particular, caught my eye. In this game, Sam made a tiny error on Turn 1 that had huge, snowballing effects for the rest of the game. I say this not out of any disrespect to Sam. In fact, he played the deck quite well overall. I point out this game merely because it is a great reminder that the game begins on one!

Sam is on the play, with a hand of 2 Vendilion Clique, Eternal Witness, Tarmogoyf, Serum Visions, Island, and Steam Vents. This hand is not amazing, but is a keeper. On Turn 1, Sam plays Island and casts Serum Visions. Sam draws a Snapcaster Mage and sees that his top two cards are Remand and Scalding Tarn. Sam puts Scalding Tarn on top, then Remand on top. On Sam’s next turn, he untaps, draws Remand, plays an untapped Steam Vents, and passes the turn with Remand mana up. Sam goes on to play a fairly drawn-out game with a lot of back and forth threats, and in the end is barely killed when his opponent topdecks a Lightning Helix for the win on the last possible turn.

Sam should have won that game. If Sam had made the correct Turn 1 play, Sam indeed would have won that game. But what did Sam do wrong? Sam knew he was going to cast Serum Visions, so he played his Island. This meant he was not locked into paying 2 life for Steam Vents, which he might be able to avoid paying depending on his draws. That was correct. Sam then cast Serum Visions, which is obviously correct, as he has no other 1cc spells in his hand. Sam then misordered his top two cards.

This error, while minor, cost him the game. Sam should have made sure to draw his Scalding Tarn on Turn 2. That way he would be able to fetch a green source and play Tarmogoyf. Moreover, because Serum Visions and Scalding Tarn would be in the graveyard, Tarmogoyf would already be a 2/3 and out of Lightning Bolt range (since Lightning Bolt, should it have been cast, would have put an instant in the graveyard, allowing Tarmogoyf to survive being targeted by it). This Tarmogoyf would have done at least 5 damage on its own. Moreover, the Tarmogoyf’s presence on the battlefield affects gameplay and could have enabled Sam to resolve threats through his opponent’s handfull of counterspells. Essentially, by his choice of ordering, Sam chose to shock himself so that he could leave mana up for Remand (which he did not even cast that turn), rather than playing a bigger-than-bolt Tarmogoyf. Have you ever stared down a 2/3 Tarmogoyf with just one land out? It’s quite scary.

As one watches this game unfold, one can see the ripple effects this decision has on the game. On Turn 4, for example, Sam cast the aforementioned Tarmogoyf instead of Vendilion Clique. Had Tarmogoyf already been in play, Sam would have been free to cast the Clique. The loss in tempo from doing nothing but shocking himself on Turn 2 made the difference for Sam in a close race.

I am sure that, given the clear choice, on Turn 2, of playing a 2/3 Tarmogoyf or leaving up mana for Remand, Sam would have played the Tarmogoyf. However, when faced with a veiled version of that choice on Turn 1, he chose Remand. Why? I haven’t spoken with Sam about this, so I can only speculate, but my guess is that he underestimated the importance of a first-turn Serum Visions. In his commentary, he wrote that he thought the deck should be playing Thirst for Knowledge (presumably over Serum Visions). However, as previously discussed, I believe Serum Visions is better for the deck, and that is because — again – the game begins on one.

I will say it again: The game begins on one. This applies to both playing and deck construction. Whatever your deck does, you need it to get going early. Turn 1 is an opportunity to improve your position, and an early improved position often produces incremental advantages as games progress. One reason I chose this deck is that AEther Vial is the best Turn 1 play in the format. Think of it as a Black Lotus that you can reuse turn after turn. Don’t be afraid to play a 1cc draw spell if it smooths out your draws and your curve. Serum Visions is the oil in Eternal Command’s engine. Think of it as deck lubrication. In playing, think further down the line than the present turn. What is your win strategy? Even on Turn 1, you should be forming a win strategy insofar as your given cards allow it. Part of this comes from knowing your deck and how it plays.

In my experience, Eternal Command is a very difficult deck to play, and the difficulty often begins on deciding which land to play. Deciding whether to play a shockland and whether it should come into play untapped, or whether to play a fetch, when to fetch, and which land to fetch, can be an extremely tricky matter. You want triple blue, double green, and at least one red, but having an AEther Vial can change that. Moreover, you need to watch your life total against aggro decks. In some matchups you can crack your fetches to thin out your deck, while in others you should hold them to avoid paying life. This makes early land decisions a very sensitive matter. And that is even before you cast a spell!

Recognition of these nuances comes with experience. Personally, I have found the time put into this deck very rewarding. Winning this PTQ was even more gratifying than the first time I qualified for the Pro Tour because I had put so much effort into developing and practicing with this deck. I am glad to hear that this deck is becoming more popular because it is a lot of fun to play. If you build this deck and it does not work for you immediately, don’t get discouraged. It takes some getting used to for sure. And remember, the game begins on one!

  1. Sweet article. How is the Pod matchup? I think Shouta played Cage primarily for that matchup, and not to stop graveyard sheanigans

  2. Pod is a fine matchup. Against Kiki-Pod, I boarded -4 Vial -1 Witness, and +3 Grudge +2 Combust. Against Melira Pod, I did the same thing except I brought in the Crypts instead of Combusts. Basically you are a control deck that eventually wins with a Cryptic alpha strike. Oh, and Electrolyze is FANTASTIC in this matchup because it mops up their manadorks.

  3. Is red necessary, you say the deck is complicated, getting rid of red would make it simpler. You could replace electrolyze with ratchet bomb?

  4. Burt, I think cutting red is a big mistake for two reasons: 1.) electrolyze nets you a card is an instant, where as ratchet bomb takes time to click up and then your opponent can play around what they play. 2.) I think the loss of red also hurts his match ups due ti the loss of lightning bolt and we all know that it is a cheap premier removal spell. bit in his sideboard would be greatly injured for the reasons he in the discusses in the article. This is just my opinion but I’m also just getting back into modern so i may be way off but as far as I can see his the deck list looks fine.

  5. How would you say the deck does against fast RG Aggro or Zoo? It must’ve done fairly well with winning a recent PTQ. Would you change your sideboard to address this?

  6. I really liked this article. I have been playing eternal command for almost two months now and have experienced a lot of the things you mentioned. The first hard lesson i had to learn was correctly getting/setting up lands. My big issue with the deck currently in my meta is beating the UWR midrange deck as it is really hard to operate around early geist when they have removal for all of your blockers. How did you go about playing that matchup?

  7. The GR aggro decks got big after I won the ptq and turned my attention away from modern. UWR was getting popular at that time, but I didn’t play against it much so didn’t make a sideboard for it. I think it would be able to handle GR aggro with Threads from the board. UWR seems tougher, but Phantasmal Image would probably be a good board card against them. Tuning for the current meta is your task ;)

  8. Thirst for knowledge lets you put spells into your graveyard for Snapcaster to dig out. And allows you to get the useless cards out of your hand without having to waste a Clique to do it. Instant speed compensates for extra mana. Allows you to cast at the end step. You’re right about Tarmogoyf getting bigger when putting Visions in the yard asap, but on turn 3 Vial should be at 2, you can discard 2 cards and cast Goyf at the end of turn 3 potentially making it even bigger.