Isamaru in Commander – Hounding the Opposition
In Elder Dragon Higlander, there are few Commanders as consistent as Isamaru, Hound of Konda, and few that, pound for pound, outshine their casting cost. In a format where you’re guaranteed one Legendary Creature from the Command Zone as soon as you have the mana to cast it, Isamaru gets the party started, leaping on the battlefield on round one, ready to lunge for two next turn.
Isamaru supplies you with an impressive round one every game you play him, assuming your land base isn’t flooded with non-basic lands. But Commander, as a format, is designed to harsh on strategies that make Isamaru pant. A quick Google search for Isamaru Commander Decks spits back lots of poor choices and deck building mistakes. Too much theory and not enough practice. It took me a long time to get my Isamaru deck strong enough to compete at local kitchen tables, and, along the way, I’ve learned a few things about what not to do with the dog.
Avoid Going Wide
One of the most prominent decks to feature Isamaru is the classic RGW Zoo deck, exemplified here by Craig Jones’ second place finish at Pro Tour: Honolulu. While his opponents worked on their mana base, casting cards like Kodama’s Reach, Jones would tackle them with a volley of early violent creatures like Isamaru and Watchwolf. Fujita’s opponents would reach the mid-game and stabilize by dropping large creatures in the way, but those animals would fall to barrage of Chars and Lightning Helixes. By the time his opponents had stabilized their board position, they were at such a low life total, that Jones could win the game with direct damage drawn off the top of the deck.
That’s a powerful strategy, and it’s understandable why people would want to emulate it. The rules of Commander, however, make winning by piling a team of early creatures on the table impractical. Forty life is double Twenty. For beatdown decks, that’s like killing an opponent, then starting the game over, but this time your opponent has five rounds to set up. Meanwhile, the control player doesn’t care how much life his opponent has. To control decks, an opponent with twenty life is as dangerous as one with one hundred life: Victory is claimed when control is established. This of course, assumes a one on one match, which is unlikely, since Commander is known for drawing large and long group games notoriously difficult for aggro decks. Maybe you can take out one or two players, but can you tear down four other players before they find a way to stop you?
Even worse, Multiplayer Commander is notorious for global creature sweeps. In order to put enough pressure on your opponents to take them out of the game before they establish control, you need to dump every creature you have on the table. Those creatures are almost guaranteed to be wiped off the table by round five. Perhaps, if you negotiate right, you can hold players from cycling their Decrees of Pain, but if you win too many games through negotiation, players will refuse to negotiate with you, and eliminate your army early.
Avoid Going Tall
One common piece of advice many players pass around the internet is to turn Isamaru into Voltron. Voltron decks expect you play Isamaru on round one, then some equipment on round two, then equip him on round three, then some equipment on round four and equip, and equip and equip until you have a giant super fighting robot with a snapping, growling Isamaru as the head.
It’s a much better plan than going wide, especially since it takes advantage of a Commander rule: If Isamaru dies, he goes to the Command Zone. From there, you can play Isamaru again for two colorless more for each time he has died this game. While other players may use this rule to play Crosis, the Purger one or two extra times in a game, it won’t be uncommon for the Isamaru player to drop his dog back on the battlefield five times per game. Sure, eleven mana is a lot, but Commander games go long, and sometimes you need a creature. If your opponent knocks an early Isamaru out, that’s fine, you can replay him for three and load him up with guns again.
Unfortunately, this strategy has its flaws. You’re putting a lot of stress on a small number of creatures to win the game. That would be fine in a tournament environment where you didn’t expect to see a lot of silver bullet answers floating around, but the Commander format is a silver bullet factory. Decks can’t feature duplicates, so many players pack individual cards that can shut off certain strategies. Corrupted Conscience, Bonds of Faith and Shatterstorm are common sights at the Commander table, and will show up more frequently if players at the table rely on ‘one big creature’. It’s a nice idea, and makes a great sub-theme to your deck, but you shouldn’t plan on Mecha-Isamaru carrying you to victory every game.
Plan for Round Two
One great thing about playing Isamaru as your commander is you know what you’re doing on round one. You don’t need to, and shouldn’t, put any other one casting cost cards in your deck, unless it’s the kind of card you wouldn’t cast on round one anyway.
The best thing about playing Isamaru as your Commander, however, is swinging with him on round two. I’ve sat a number of games behind this pup and, so far, I’ve never had a reason not to attack the turn after playing him. Plan round two out accordingly. You will hit your opponent with Isamaru. Take advantage of that.
For this reason, there’s nothing scarier than to see Isamaru stand up on his hind legs, point one paw at an opponent and brandish a Bonesplitter.
Even in Commander, four damage on round two will make players nervous, flipping through their hand for an answer. While it’s difficult to kill a player with 21 points of Commander damage using Isamaru and things attached to him, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
Unfortunately, you can only pack one Bonesplitter in your deck, and while there are other ways to suit up Isamaru for round two, there’s a dearth of stellar options in mono-white. You should play with a number of them anyway, since even the humble Hero’s Resolve can prove a problem for opponents early in the game.
On my short list of ‘Don’t have to feel bad about playing it’ enchantments and artifacts for round two, I’d point at Honor of the Pure and maybe Crusade. While I don’t recommend over-extending with creatures, I assume your deck will have some creatures to support Isamaru, and there’s nothing wrong with giving your team a boost while making your guaranteed dog a little hardier. Flickering Ward can also be a cute round 2 choice, allowing you to run past blockers, and returning to your hand when your opponent draws a different colored removal spell.
After those four cards, you now have an unimpressive list of things to do with Isamaru on round two. You should give those cards more credit than they normally get, though, since you are primed to use them in the best way possible. Leonin Scimitar isn’t terrible if you know it will be used. Dragon Scales doesn’t look like much, but can recur later in the game, and in some matchups, will cause more damage than Bonesplitter. Brilliant Halo is no Rancor, but sometimes it gets the job done. There’s other normally sub-par choices here that may be better than you give them credit for. Try some out.
Don’t Use Lightning Greaves
Oddly, I’m not sold you need Sol Ring for this deck. You won’t play it on round one, and if you play it on round two, you might have too many white mana requirements to use it most efficiently. I’m not a fan of using powerful cards you can’t exploit optimally in a casual format, but I can’t ignore the power of Sol Ring. Play it if you want to. I’m straight against putting Lightning Greaves in this deck, though.
There’s a number of reasons why I think your dog doesn’t need booties. For one, the haste is wasted on round two, since Isamaru is already on the table. Also, if you’re given a choice between playing and equipping Greaves on Isamaru on round two or a Leonin Scimitar, you should always choose to equip the scimitar, since, what you really want in the early game is deal damage. So if your round two play is to always attach something to Isamaru that deals damage, why would you put a card in your deck that does something else? Lightning Greaves won’t get you past an early Augur of Bolas.
Also annoying is that you will likely want to target Isamaru yourself. While this is a minor point for many mono-white decks, since the Greaves owner can toss the boots back and forth between creatures, you will have less total creatures in your deck because, hey, Isamaru – you’re already guaranteed one creature. Sure, you can always equip Lightning Greaves as your last card. What happens if you draw your Bonesplitter the round after you equip with the Greaves? And if you always grant shroud to Isamaru last, aren’t you opening him up for targeting while you fiddle with your mana base?
But the big reason why you don’t want Lightning Greaves in your deck is because you want your opponent to target Isamaru. You want your opponent to get so frustrated with this dog in his face that he throws his Terminate or Control Magic away just to get rid of the thing. If your opponent is forced to use his removal on a stupid 2/2 creature, then you’re winning. You’ll have bigger and better creatures to throw down on the table, and sure, the Lightning Greaves could have equipped them, and it would have been great. But you’re playing white. By the time you get further into the game, you’ll probably have a Shelter, or whatever you’re using, ready. Your opponent, though, might have wasted his first three removal spells on a recurring Isamaru. That’s much more powerful than whatever Lightning Greaves would have given you.
Play a Fair Number of Three and Four Casting Cost Creatures
Much like how you want to pull your opponent’s early spot removal with this deck, you also want to pull his mass destruction. Since you probably don’t want to get in the way of boosting Isamaru on round two, your deck may not have any two cost creatures. Round three and four, however is an excellent time to drop serious threats on the board, and force your opponent’s hand. Silverblade Paladin does magical things with a souped up Isamaru. Likewise, Hero of Bladehold stops opponents from snickering over your Crusading puppy. Many players will be happy to hit the reset button when they see either of these creatures charge in with Isamaru. You’ll be happy to see that Wrath of God hit the table as well, since you lost no card advantage, and your opponent was forced to waste a tool that could wreck you later in the game.
The important thing to remember here is that, if you plan to go with Isamaru, you have to keep the pressure on. Unlike traditional white weenie, you aren’t expecting to win games before your opponent’s game is online. You’re pushing a constant stream of threats on your opponents so they feel they must do something about the current situation, and they continue to squander potential. Then, after you’ve drained your opponents’ paths to victory, you deal your killing strikes.
Plan for a Long Game
You’re playing Commander. You will eventually have nine lands on the board. Be prepared to use them. Akroma, Angel of Wrath, Evangelize and Storm Herd make great finishers for the type of game you’re playing here. Avoid using big white angels that seek to protect you like Blazing Archon or Angelic Arbiter, since, if you did your job right, you should be more concerned with bringing the game to a close than flipping gears and hitting a control strategy in the late game.
For many players, making Isamaru your Commander sounds like a terrible mistake. That’s because, in those players’ minds, they can’t imagine how a creature like Isamaru could turn sideways and win a game of Commander when the rules have been structured to make aggressive decks worthless. What those players fail to understand is that no Commander wins by its lonesome. Many decks feature cards that force the game into a position where their Commander can triumph. When you play Isamaru in Commander, however, you flip this model on its head. You play Isamaru to force the game into a position where the rest of the cards in your deck can triumph.