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Playing Pretender

Playing Pretender

Options are the key to brewing fun decks in Commander. When you have options, you can build decks with a variety of outcomes, rather than doing the same old thing every single game. It keeps a deck interesting, and in a format as wide-open and robust as Commander, it’s a necessity for enjoying a deck. Having options also makes a deck more flexible. There’s no telling what’s lurking in your opponent’s decks, so having several avenues of attack gives you more opportunity to react to what an opponent is doing and win as a result. It’s why I’ve tried to steer away from linear decks focused on doing the same thing time and again in favour of decks that can adapt their game plans at will. That is why of all the Commanders that have been printed this year, no card exemplifies this in my mind greater than Mairsil, the Pretender.

I often joke that a Mairsil, the Pretender deck is “Activated Ability Tribal”, in that you want to include an assortment of activated abilities to abuse Mairsil’s ability as much as possible. Whenever Mairsil enters the battlefield, we can exile a creature or artifact from our hand or graveyard and put a cage counter on it. Mairsil then has access to all of the activated abilities of caged cards and can use each one once per turn, which can turn an otherwise unassuming 4/4 for four mana into an absolute monster. Where Mairsil gets really crazy is that since the exiled cards are the ones with counters on them, they aren’t actually linked to Mairsil. This means that Mairsil has access to the abilities of all caged cards, not just the one exiled when it enters the battlefield, so we can play Mairsil repeatedly and use the abilities of previously cast Mairsils. This creates stacks of activated abilities that we can use in tandem to win the game.

The activated abilities for your average Mairsil deck come in three categories: Reuse, Untap, and Value. The Reuse category are all cards that allow you to recast or blink Mairsil to get additional caged cards. The most valuable cards in this category are Aetherling and, to a lesser extent, Argent Sphinx as they have the cheapest activated ability to blink Mairsil. Over the course of a four player turn cycle, this means we can potentially blink Mairsil four times before our next turn, so we get to untap with a potentially beastly Commander. Some of the other most popular options for Reuse cards are Cavern Harpy and Thalakos Scout, as they can both bounce Mairsil to our hand at instant-speed for no mana. Mairsil is a deck that wants to be as mana efficient as possible, so since we’re casting it from our hand we don’t have to pay the Commander tax, which gives us a way to protect our Commander in response to a board wipe.

Three of my personal favourite cards for reusing Mairsil are Conjurer’s Closet, Pack Rat, and Deadeye Navigator. Conjurer’s Closet is pricy at first, but over the course of the game the value adds up tremendously. Getting a free blink every turn is perfect for those turns where we’re light on mana, and it also allows us to play defensively since we can attack with Mairsil and it will return untapped when we blink it. Pack Rat gives Mairsil the unique ability to make copies of himself at instant-speed. While these copies are still legendary, they do actually enter the battlefield and trigger despite the Commander Rule taking effect. You simply discard whatever card you want to cage to make the token, cage the card with the token’s ability, and our real Mairsil gets to keep the abilities of the caged card. Furthermore, this ability doesn’t require Mairsil to tap, so we can sink a bunch of mana each turn and get additional effects while still keeping a blocker up. Deadeye Navigator is essential for any deck with creatures with EtB abilities, and here it’s no different. Being able to blink Mairsil over and over gives the deck a lot of utility, and because each time we blink the game will treat the returned Mairsil as a “new” object, we can use any caged abilities again, thus bypassing the “once per turn” limit. With a static haste effect and something to generate three Blue mana, we can easily make infinite mana.

The next category of abilities is Untap, since most activated abilities require you to tap the card to use them. By stacking untap effects with the tap effects, we get to use multiple tap abilities in the same turn. As such, we want to run effects that either let us untap for free or for as little mana as possible. Eater of the Dead and Cinderhaze Wretch do a fantastic job of letting us untap for no mana, and each can be fueled easily through either destroying opposing creatures or putting -1/-1 counters on Mairsil. The drawback on the latter of the two effects can even be negated by blinking Mairsil as it will return without any counters on it. For cheap untap effects, I highly recommend Morphling, Torchling, and Staff of Domination as they allow Mairsil to a variety of effects in addition to untapping for one mana. It’s also worth noting that Mairsil’s ability restricts each ability to once per turn, not each caged card, so we can use each effect on these cards once per turn if need be. Horseshoe Crab, Pili-Pala, Knacksaw Clique, and Magewright’s Stone round out the untap suite in order to provide redundancy to the above cards. Pili-Pala and Knacksaw Clique also have the bonus of doing something when they untap, so we get a little bit of extra value on top of untapping our ridiculous value engine.


Speaking of Value, the third category of activated abilities are what we use to actually win the game. These can be cards like Shauku, Endbringer, Infernal Denizen, or Avatar of Woe to give our deck some removal, or Soul of New Phyrexia for protection, but these are typically where our interaction lies. We can use card draw effects like Arcanis, the Omnipotent to keep our hand stocked, or Jodah’s Avenger for a little bit of an aggro package, but it’s really up to you. Personally, I’m a sucker for including little combos that can provide value as well as devastate an opponent. For example, with Greel, Mind Raker allow you can Mind Twist an opponent, and then reanimate any discarded creatures using Chainer, Dementia Master or The Scarab God. Which abilities you want to use in this category are all up to personal preference, but there are more than enough combinations of abilities to satisfy any taste.

Mairsil decks also benefit from giving him haste so he can use his activated abilities right away. While Lightning Greaves and Swiftfoot Boots are Commander staples, I tend to lean toward static haste effects like Anger, Fervor, or Thousand-Year Elixir so we can use Mairsil after blinking him. This is because most blink effects return Mairsil at the end step when it’s too late to equip Lightning Greaves. We can also cage away cards like Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon, Blighted Bat, or Skyship Stalker to manually give Mairsil haste. While it costs mana to use, it does allow us to blink and activate tap abilities on our opponent’s turns, thus giving us far more flexibility.

One of the most important aspects of an ability-centered Commander deck is abusing those abilities to their full potential. In order to do that, we need to include cards that allow us to either get more use out of Mairsil’s EtB ability, or the various effects we stockpile in the cage. To get the most out of Mairsil, we can use Panharmonicon to double the number of cards we can cage off of each Mairsil EtB trigger. This lets us increase our clock significantly, especially if we don’t have a way to reuse Mairsil right away. There are also several cards that interact with activated abilities, either by decreasing their cost to activate or by doubling them. Training Grounds and Heartstone each decrease the generic cost to use your activated abilities, which in a mana-tight deck like this, enables us to do much more with each of our turns. For example, with Training Grounds in play and Pack Rat in the cage, we can make a Mairsil token and cage a card each turn for just one Black mana. Effects that copy our activated abilities are also at a premium in this deck, so Rings of Brighthearth and Illusionist’s Bracers are a must.

Finally, and most importantly, Quicksilver Elemental is a staple card for any Mairsil deck because of the unique way it interacts with our Commander. Quicksilver Elemental’s ability lets it gain all activated abilities of another target creature. With the Elemental in the cage, we can actually target Mairsil with the ability and get to use all of the caged abilities again. This is because you’re effectively stamping over Mairsil with Quicksilver Elemental’s ability, so the ability will resolve and allow you to use them again. It’s a completely corner case card interaction that takes the deck in a totally broken direction, and that’s why it should be an automatic inclusion in the deck.

While accruing value over time is important, Mairsil can also use combinations of activated abilities to win the game on the spot. While I don’t advocate building the entire deck around it, I believe it’s necessary for Commander decks to have some manner of “I Win” button they can press to actually end a game. Mairsil has access to plenty of combinations that can do this, so it’s really a matter of which ones you find the most amusing. More importantly, because so many of these combo pieces act as regular value cards, they will most likely fly under the radar until it’s too late. My favourite example of this is Tree of Perdition and Spikeshot Elder. Tree of Perdition’s ability swaps an opponent’s life total with its toughness. When Mairsil uses the ability, the opponent’s life total becomes four, and his toughness then becomes their former life total. Conveniently enough, Mairsil also has four power, so activating the Tree and then Spikeshot Elder allows you to bring the opponent down from their starting total to four to zero. Then, to kill another player, we just blink Mairsil so his toughness resets back to four so we can repeat the process until we’re the last ones standing.

Another combo that, despite not winning the game on its own, sets us up for a win is Sage of Hours and Anthroplasm. A caged Sage of Hours lets us remove all the +1/+1 counters on Mairsil, and for each five removed this way we get to take an additional turn. Anthroplasm gives us the ability to tap Mairsil, remove any +1/+1 counters on him, then put X counters on him, where X is the amount of mana spent. This turns every five mana we pour into Mairsil into a Time Warp, and we can do this every turn until we hit 10+ mana and start netting extra turns with each activation. Then it’s a simple matter to attack over and over with a pumped up Commander, take extra turns, and repeat until we win.

While this next combo also doesn’t win, it’s usually enough to cause an entire table to concede on the spot. We can make Mairsil indestructible through cards like Darksteel Plate and Soul of New Phyrexia, so by caging Nevinyrral’s Disk, we can turn Mairsil into a repeatable board wipe so our opponents can never build a board presence. Soul of New Phyrexia is especially good here since its effect makes all of our permanents indestructible so we can protect our support cards like Training Grounds. As many a Glissa, the Traitor player will attest, having all of their nonland, nonplaneswalker permanents destroyed each turn is usually enough to frustrate most players into scooping, and if we really want to go deep on this combo we can include Mycosynth Lattice to turn their lands into artifacts so they’ll be affected by Nevinyrral’s Disk as well. This won’t do much for keeping friends, but if you absolutely have to win, no holds barred, this is the way to do it.


The last, and craziest, combo I want to discuss involves Laboratory Maniac and Mirror-Mad Phantasm. When you activate a caged Mirror-Mad Phantasm, you shuffle Mairsil into your deck, then mill cards until you hit a card named Mirror-Mad Phantasm. Since the only copy you own is in your exile pile, this mills your entire deck. From there, all you need to do is draw a card with Laboratory Maniac in play to win. For this style of deck, I highly recommend running cards like Havengul Lich, Chainer, or The Scarab God to reanimate your milled Lab Maniac. You’ll need instant-speed ways of drawing cards, so Arcanis and Azami, Lady of Scrolls are also necessary. 

There are a wide variety of ways to build Mairsil, the Pretender, and each one is a blast to play. From the hard controlling value build to the wacky combo decks, Mairsil offers brewers a ton of flexibility to work with. This has been one of my favourite pet decks from the Commander 2017 release, and there are dozens of cards that can be slotted in at will to suit any play group. So if you’re like me and your mind explodes with potential uses for your Commanders, Mairsil will provide plenty of opportunity to flex your creativity.