Only One Bear Can Be King: Wilson/Noble Heritage in Commander
Is this the ultimate Voltron dream? A compact efficient package with disgusting defensive stats
The hunt for more violence
In my heart, Magic is not a game about assembling complex combos or using stax pieces to squeeze my opponents out of the game. I dream of violence, and only violence: since discovering in 2008 that I could turn Rafiq of the Many sideways for 21 in my first commander deck, my time in Commander-neè-Edh has been spent figuring out how to get to that number as quickly and as effectively as possible.
Voltron strategies have always been playable in Commander, but have some glaring weaknesses: you are only able to pressure only one opponent at a time, and it's rare to see commanders for less than four mana who can do the job well. That means if one of your opponents kills your commander, it will cost six, eight, ten... Applying pressure through removal or wipes is difficult, and surviving can be hard as well.
At first glance, Wilson, Refined Grizzly presents an alluring package for two mana – vigilance (!)One of the most underrated keywords. Attacking without being attacked!, trample, ward 2 (!?), as well as reach and uncounterabilty. So which background solves my problems here best?
The surprising answer is Noble Heritage. This 'seemingly bad' enchantment is an efficient way to pile +1/+1 counters on WilsonWhich I think edges out equipment or other strategies that are not protected by his ward.. It does give them to your opponents too! However, that plays out better than it seems on first read:
- Your opponents have to decide if they are going to hurt you in your upkeep. Then you get to take your turn. If your opponents would like to pressure you in the red zone, you get to express your displeasure at this plan by hitting them with an enormous bear. It also lets you plan ahead by saving interaction – you know that someone is threatening to attack you, so you can plan to disrupt them.
- If an opponent does take the counters, they are your other opponents' problem for a full turn cycle. It's easy to get in a mindset in commander where you feel as though you need to 1v3 the table. But generally you and the other players are struggling for power over the course of a game. Fueling other players' aggression against someone else with a superior board state is great – If one of your opponents is trying to control the board and constantly getting pummeled with 6/6s, they may have to spend removal on something other than Wilson.
- Commander players are greedy as hell and often play no creatures for the first several turns while they ramp. Watching two players shrug their shoulders as you and the other aggro player pile counters on your threats for free is a great way to clock early damage on players choosing card advantage over board presence. You can often chip away at these decks more than you would be able to yourself, as wellA free tip for all commander games: if someone isn't playing creatures, and you can hit them on early turns, hit them! If they wipe the board, they will end up ahead if they are still at 40 life..
...A grizzly bear's front claws measure about 51–102 mm (2–4 in) in length; a black bear's claws measure about 25–51 mm (1–2 in) in length...
Generally, you are (without fast mana) casting Noble Heritage on turn two and Wilson on turn three most games. This makes Wilson a 4/4 on turn three with one mana available, and a 6/6 on turn four with four mana available. Since Wilson is going to be bigger than other creatures on early turns, one mana fight spells function as consistent spot removal for many problematic commanders, and almost all two mana ones will do so with upside. In particular:
- Ancient Animus
- Inscription of Abundance
- Mutant's Prey
- Tail Swipe
- Titanic Brawl
- Dromoka's Command
- Ram Through
- Primal Might
are good in most pods. (And Really Epic Punch if your playgroup is down.Ram through is the best of the "Bite" effects; I don't recommend the rest in most pods. They may be good if you play against enough deathtouch commanders, but you lose out on a lot of value otherwise. )
These spells give you the ability to answer cheap early creatures, and are available through the game to clip the sails of players who are not consistently taking the counters. Ram Through in particular is also player removal if Wilson is big enough.
Another powerful idea is the suite of green cards that draw you cards equal to the power of a creature you control:
- Hunter's Insight
- Return of the Wildspeaker
- Hunter's Prowess
- Rishkar's Expertise
- Soul's Majesty
In other decks, these cards can be disastrous if your opponent has removal. But your commander is huge early, and it has ward 2; These are the problems of lesser bears. If your opponents are holding less than three mana open, snap this off and draw twelve cards for ~5 mana. Even drawing six or eight cards is usually sufficient; if your hand is full, you are applying pressure.
There are a few other cards I would probably put in every build. These are good in almost every situation:
- Duelist's Heritage—A powerful effect in this deck that lets you both give Wilson double strike on attack and give your opponent's buffed creatures double strike where it's helpful for you. Almost all double strike effects in White are worth considering, but this one stands out as the most tightly integrated with the deck's strategy.
- Selfless Samurai—Protects Wilson from board wipes and picks up what is often some much-needed life (especially if you are playing Sylvan Library).
- Invigorate—Giving Wilson +4/+4 for free is obviously far below the going rate. Just having this card in your deck threatens death a full turn earlier a lot of the time.
Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
As mentioned before, the core idea of the deck is simple: Play Noble Heritage on turn two. Then cast Wilson on turn three. He comes in and becomes a 4/4; on turn four he becomes a 6/6 who's Rowdy to Howdy. From here, you should repeatedly attack until all of your opponents are bear chow.
Who do you attack? This could be a separate article its self, but there are a few ideas to keep in mind:
- Which of your opponents took the counters? — If your opponent took Noble Beritage counters during your upkeep, they are limited in their ability to pressure you during their next turn. On the other hand, if they refuse to pay tribute to the King of All Bears it means they mean you Harm and you must maul them. For the good of your kingdomCanny opponents will also notice: if a third party takes the counters, that third party will not be attacking Wilson... Which means they might be attacking you!, they must be mauled... and if they have not taken the counters, they will probably not have good blocks!
- Which of your opponents is playing control? — Some decks are more well-suited to removing the bear, either through spot removal or board wipes like All is Dust. Red decks in general are unlikely to be able to remove the bear in a timely manner; White is generally the anathema of your strategy (along with black to a lesser extent). Generally, if your commander is alive and people are taking counters, it is difficult to get pressured out of the game. Thus, if your opponents are all taking counters or are able to pressure you, you should be pointing at your natural enemy: decks packed full of board wipesObviously, it's pretty bad if your commander kills Noble Heritage and Wilson at the same time. But usually if this happens, your opponents have also lost most of their offensive pressure. You can play Heritage into Wilson again and get back to work; just make sure to keep hitting your land drops!.
- How reliant is the deck on its commander? How good is the commander with counters? — One of Wilson's strengths is that it is very good at removing "must remove" commanders– with seven or more pieces of fight, plus white removal, you can kill these commanders cheaply while continuing to advance your own game plan. On the other hand, certain commanders can use your +1/+1 counters – Animar, Soul of Elements, Karlov of the Ghost Council, and other decks fueled by +1/+1 counters can be very dangerous for you. The correct thing to do with these decks is to pummel the shit out of themIt's also good to discuss this with these players beforehand: "I know this deck is good with the counters, but that might mean I have to pressure you pretty early, do you see why?" I'm not out there to apologize for attacking, but I would like my opponents to understand why we are mortal enemies before the game starts.. That being said, Wilson has few truly bad match-ups: your other two opponents are also getting counters and are probably not excited the Animar player is going apeshit as well.
- How many times have you attacked this player? — If you take turns attacking each player in the earlier turns, and nobody ever does anything about it, the game looks like thisFigure 1 — For the visually-minded reader:
- Turn four — Attack opponent A for 6
- Turn five — Attack opponent B for 8
- Turn six — Attack opponent C for 10
- Turn seven — Attack C for 12, killing them
- Turn eight — Attack B for 14, killing them
- Turn nine — Attack A for 16, killing them
If you commit all your resources to killing them, you don't have them later to chew through your other two opponentsOn the other hand, if your hand is full and you can protect Wilson, you can often just go for it.. Additionally, once one of your opponents is at 14-16 commander damage, one more hit from Wilson is likely to kill them. Sometimes, this pressure is useful – but keep in mind this makes them very likely to try to kill your commander every time they have the chance.
- Are you playing against a busted/non-interactive strategy? — Sometimes your opponents just don't want to play healthy games of magic. They are either playing a deck that is far stronger than the others at the table, or they don't want to "eat their vegetables" and play interaction. You can frequently stay active for a long time in the game, but eventually they will go over the top via massive amounts of card draw and expensive 8+ mana cards.
These decks often don't win in the red zone, meaning your ability to block anything is not super useful. Fortunately, the monomaniacal focus on their own strategy often makes them unable to deal with your plan. If you land Wilson on turn three and attack each turn after, you can weld them by turn six by simply attacking each turn. With any double strike effect or other pizazz, you can often delete someone through interaction on turn five.
It may feel a bit bad, but hopefully ejecting them from the game early a few times will send the message that Magic isn't SolitaireIn all seriousness, having a discussion about these types of mismatches is one of the frustrating parts of playing Magic sometimes. A balance between aggression and engine-building in commander is a healthy part of the format, and someone who feels they have discovered an unbeatable strategy is often not thrilled to be ejected in the midst of drawing all those cards. But if your opponent is simply playing busted cards every game while you and your friends are struggling to win the 3v1, this deck truly shines – if you and your friends are willing to attack.. But again, make sure to balance this against the concerns of the above – is your opponent really doing busted, unbeatable things every game, or did they just have a really powerful start? Remember that even if you waste them, two other haters remain.
- Is someone trying to make weird pledges to never take the counters? Not much to say here. If someone starts trying to convince everyone to not take the counters or talking about Nash Equilibria, fax them a giant bear. There are no clear-cut rules for taking the counters or not taking the counters, but refusing to take them in general is something you should punish.This is also an effective, though somewhat feel-bad way to make people afraid enough of the commander in future games. If you have played several games with the deck and nobody is taking the counters, simply choose a different person with each game and hit them in the head until they start taking them.
This may feel like an overwhelming series of factors. But the only mistake you can really make here is not attacking. Your plan is laser-focused on winning through combat, but given enough time, your opponents will keep Wilson off the board for a few turns and kill you. Don't let your opponents convince you to hold back, so they can winIf you find you're playing the deck, and you spend a lot of turns not able to attack — change cards in your deck to make it possible to attack as soon as possible more protection for Wilson, more combat tricks to make blocking him scary, or just more removal for your opponents' good creatures. This hasn't really happened to me though.
One of the things that attracted me to this deck is that it is 'batteries included': your two commanders together represent a game-winning threat with no other cards required. How you augment that with other ideas is up to you. I have tried several ideas, but ultimately this is a pod-dependent question: different strategies are better or worse depending on if you need speed, protection, or the ability to continue applying pressure a long way into games. I strongly recommend that you try to keep your mana curve low to the ground (like the decklists at the end of the article) as having activity in the first few turns of the game is critical to being able to outrace your opponents.
Your deck is incredibly focused on Wilson; It is very bad if he gets removed or if he can't make it through Sedge Scorpion. If your opponents are relying more on spot removal, white and green have a lot of ways to rely on this specific brand of bullshit. These ideas can also be extremely effective at getting Wilson through on clogged boards. Note that repeatable on-board removal here is not as bad for you as it is in some other cases— your opponents can collude to force their way through your Mother of Runes, but they are still both going to have to pay extra for it, which often means this interaction comes at the expense of advancing their own gameplan. Great Cards: Mother of Runes, Giver of Runes, Benevolent Bodyguard
Instant Speed Protection
It seems like instant speed protection is redundant with Mother of Runes. But many one-shot effects like Blacksmith's Skill are sometimes better. Why?
An on-board Mother stops your opponents from killing Wilson, but it also tells them clearly to not cast their removal into her. On the other hand, instant speed interaction that protects Wilson also forces your opponent to commit additional mana and cards, or simply lose their turn. For example, playing a Beast Within or Terminate that gets stopped by Blacksmith's Skill ends up costing your opponent 5 mana, which is more than twice as much as you paid for your commander! Thus, Reprieve is not just Remand- it's a special, brutal version of Remand that costs them two extra mana. Neither type of protection is clearly better than the other— but using cards in hand will give you a tempo advantage, which can help in faster games. Great Cards: Blacksmith's Skill, Apostle's Blessing, Mana TitheThe deck's combination of early pressure and mana pressure from ward will give you a useful Tithe almost every game.
Ward 2 makes auras on Wilson a lot less risky. You also have an enchantment in the command zone, meaning that you always have a little gas to feed your Argothian Enchantress. The goal here should always be to keep your hand full, and the pressure on- no need to add fragile 6-mana enchantments to an already working murder machine. Great cards: Snake Umbra, Bear Umbra, One with Nature,Unquestioned Authority
Being able to play these types of effects after two or even three opponents have given up their ability to attack you often gives you a guaranteed second trigger from them. Having them bouncing around also encourages your opponents to attack each other, which means the counters you give them are more valuable. And they are great hedges against board wipes- having the monarch on an empty board is a good way to rebuild from square one. Great cards: Palace Jailer, Court of Garenbrig, Seasoned Dungeoneer
If your opponents have a lot of mana they can use that mana to kill Wilson through wardIt probably sounds obvious to read. But it's an important structural consideration: as the game goes on ward 2 starts to have no rules text.. Treasures can be a source of persistent problems here; thankfully, these colors have the ability to brutally punish decks that rely on artifact mana, if you so desire. You also don't really need any artifacts to make the deck work; you aren't sacrificing much here, and some decks can be completely sent to the shadow realm by a 2-mana creature. Great cards: Null Rod, Kataki, War's Wage, Viridian Revel
It's not my thing, but your commander is basically up and running on turn three without the need to invest much more. If your opponents are playing a lot of combo-based threats and not a lot of creatures to attack each other, you can slow them down to a crawl and just hit them in the head. Abject mana denial like Winter Orb can be a deathblow to opponents looking to ramp into ten mana. Some are not a great fit -our spells are all very cheap, so effects like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben are about as bad for you as they are for your opponents. Some less hateful hatebears are great at just slowing them down. Great Cards: Thalia, Heretic Cathar, Static Orb, Aven Mindcensor
You are playing a two-color deck without double pips in the command zone: thus, you have many options for good lands that can fit in. Generally, you have the freedom to run a few taplands here: if you play a tapland turn one and turn three, you can still cast both of your commanders on-curve. That means that the deck still works pretty well on a heavy budget if those taplands help you cast your mana. On the other hand, your deck is aggressive—it falls off in the late game against people who are playing good cards. If you have your colors figured out, many utility lands are good:
- I would never leave home without Homeward Path and at least one way to fetch it: Crop Rotation, Weathered Wayfarer: If your commander is stolen by someone, you are completely powerlessNote that Noble Heritage works even if someone else controls Wilson! It's a disaster!. These can be expensive to buy, but you are almost certainly dead in the water if your commander is gone. Either plan to have these or extra ways to stop these types of steal effects (Sanctum of Eternity, The Fall of Lord KondaYou are trying to kill your opponents with a huge creature as fast as possible, so no complaining if they decide to steal it and kill you!?).
- Card draw is the other natural choice here: The always excellent War Room is good, and even Mikokoro, Center of the Sea is very helpful if when you get behind. If your opponents can't block your auxiliary creatures, Minas Tirith may be good as well.
- Some other choices are specific to your meta: If there are a lot of Glacial Chasms running around, I would pack Wasteland or its less-good siblings pretty aggressively. Trading Wasteland for an Ancient Tomb or something else early game is almost always a trap— in addition to being rude in almost all pods. Save your removal for lands you can't beat otherwise.
- If you have all of your above bases covered here, the remainder of utility lands can just protect Wilson. Plaza of Heroes is often able to make both colors of mana and protect Wilson, which is as much as you can really ask for in a land. Yavimaya Hollow is great, though pricey.
Adding Money to the deck
Having more expensive cards in the deck makes it betterCitation needed.. In particular, the deck makes good use of fast mana— Lotus Petal or Elvish Spirit Guide allow you to untap on turn three with a 6/6. Jeweled Lotus makes casting both of your commanders possible on turn one: not surprisingly, you tend to win these gamesNot only do you get to speed your commanders out, the large draw effects in green will often give you even more fast mana, letting you snowball out of control..
Many of the other format's superstars shine in this deck in particular. Selvala, Heart of the Wilds is no longer a reward for playing huge green beasts: it's another must-answer threat in a deck that is often presenting a must-answer threat already. Sylvan Library is superb because your opponents are unlikely to be able to punish your aggressive card draw, and because Wilson is so effective at gaining life when he gets lifelink. Esper Sentinel is a rude place to drop 1/1 counters; Berserk is a great way to kill people who thought that they were going to live to old age. Choose options with an eye to mana cost — this is not really a deck for six mana bombs if your opponents are also playing good cards.
One thing to keep an eye on here is that if your deck is considerably more expensive than your opponents', they will have very hard time keeping up. The deck already presents a fast, consistent clock that is robust to interaction. Having that and a constantly full hand thanks to Sylvan Library means that there is not much chance for them to get a spell in edgewiseThis might just sound like a flex. But if you're curious, try goldfishing your favorite deck: How many opening hands are stone dead to a Wilson opener with six lands and Blacksmith's Skill?.
How do I beat this deck?
It would be rude to release this terror into the world without talking about how to beat it. One of the strengths of the deck is that there are many glaring pressure points to disrupt it. However, there are still ideas to consider:
- Kill Noble Heritage — If you kill Noble Heritage in response to Wilson being cast, it is a backbreaking tempo swing— they are normally stuck waiting until their next turn to cast Noble Heritage again, and the turn after that to start accumulating counters. (This, by the way, is why I prefer Blacksmith's Skill to the seemingly better Loran's Escape). It is also good on the end step before Wilson's turn.
- Play good blockers — As mentioned before, the humble Sedge Scorpion is a roadblock to the deck on early turns... but not one that will last forever. Every deck should think about its plans for early aggression, and this deck provides an urgent impetus to consider yours. Think about creatures that are good in your deck's strategy and how they can either take the counters to grow or provide a roadblock for this and other threats.
- Think carefully about taking the counters — It may seem like taking the counters plays into the decks' strategy. But if you are not planning to attack the Wilson player, the counters are going to be helpful for you; Not only to block your opponents' creatures, but to pressure the Wilson player if Wilson diesIf you find that you are never able to take the counters early on because you run no small creatures, that is probably something to consider in deck construction— if your plan is to not commit to the board early and create value through non-creature spells, your opponents should be hitting you early anyway, and you should have a plan to deal with it.. On the other hand, if Wilson is pulling ahead, you have difficult decisions to make- if you are the only one taking the counters, you will probably avoid being attacked - but it means your other opponents are more likely to be killed soon. Work with the other players to try and get some damage in when the time is right.
- Have relevant interaction, and play with others who have relevant interaction — When the bear needs to go, you need to be able to get rid of it. If you can wait until Wilson's pilot taps out, you often have the best chance of ramming spot removal through — sometimes, you and another player might have to work together to get through an on-board Mother of Runes. Non-targeted removal is better, obviously; the deck has to respect effects like Grave Pact, Wing Shards, or even the humble Aetherize. The other players with some Wilson damage might be interested in getting him off board while you are still alive. The deck is very at punishing opponents who are skimping on interaction, and effects like Clever Concealment can be an obscene blowout, but Wilson is not invincible if you and the other players are prepared to interact.
- Pick off the support creatures — Science just doesn't know why Mother of Runes can protect itself, but it can, so removing it is always going to be a pain in the ass. But most accessory creatures like Giver of Runes or Ulvenwald Tracker are good choices to catch a stray Lightning Bolt or Fatal Push. Stopping the bear completely while it's pressuring you and both your opponent is not always good, and sometimes it's not possible. But sometimes it's helpful to try and get these creatures off the board before the do-or-die turn arrives for you.
- Attack more! — If you do have a plan for the bear, and your opponents don't, attacking them with the Noble Heritage counters is a good way to close out the game. If your deck is doing well, and you have the opportunity to use a counter-bearing Fencing Ace to pressure one of your more board-wipe heavy opponents, doing so is often a good idea: increasing that pressure against them often forces them to use mass removal (to kill the bear) or to otherwise commit resources. Then you can be ready to rapidly build afterward, before Wilson is big. Trying to save life against Wilson is usually not especially important— the deck almost always kills through commander damage, so having blockers to avoid taking a wayward 4-5 damage here or there is less important than trying to hit someone.
Go Forth and Bear
It might be tempting to read this guide and conclude that Noble Heritage sucks and all my opponents are bad. At first, it looks like a fairOr just plain bad. Many people before playing against the deck just flat out said this card sucks. Give it a try before you knock it :) card. But Magic shouldn't be a 3v1: you and your opponents are out there, smashing each other in a battle to the death. This deck is good practice for honing a skill that I think many players lack: Seeing the flow of the game on board. Knowing who is winning and who is losing, who should be pressured and who can be allowed to cook for another turn or two; Getting a sense for this will let you know who is going to pop off before they do. With practice, patience, and a bit of Noble Heritage-based extortion, this deck will not only net you some exciting wins, but also teach you some skills about the game that you didn't know you were lacking. Get out there, cast some bears, and remember: Only One Can Be King!
Feel free to email me if you have questions: I am reachable at firstname.lastname@example.orgI am sympathetic to wanting to send me messages to argue about how bad the deck is and how bad my opponents must be. After all, arguing about Magic is almost as fun as playing Magic. But the deck has performed well on three continents and many different types of opponent. Thus, I am unlikely to be swayed by your argument.