Zero-to-One: Hazezon, Shaper of Sand
In November 2022, a competitive Elder Dragon Highlander (cEDH) Hazezon deck achieved a 3-2-1 record after six rounds of Swiss (9th overall) in the 144-man Okotoberfest tournament, missing a guaranteed Top 16 due to breakers and a Semi-finals place due to a loss in the Quarter Finals. For a relatively obscure Commander – and an equally unknown member of the cEDH community, Hazezon's performance suggests that exploring new, innovative interactions remains a strong foundation for future tournament success. Certainly, a cursory view of the deck list reveals a different approach to construction, from the abnormally high land count, the lack of key staples (e.g. Dockside Extortionist), and a lack of emphasis on layered combos.
This is my journey of bringing Hazezon from "zero to one" – from concept & idea to live play performance in a tournament setting. The term "zero to one" refers to a book by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel on how to build new, innovative companies. Nowadays, "zero to one" generally refers to developing an idea – an intangible approach, thought, or way of thinking – into a tangible product that creates value (such as a new piece of technology). While building a new cEDH deck is less complex than innovation in other industries, these innovation processes all share common fundamentals surrounding the 'how' – how to focus, how to iterate, and how to test.
My "zero to one" for Hazezon took approximately two weeks, from when I finalized my choice of Hazezon as Commander through my loss in the Quarter Finals of Okotoberfest. I hope that you, in reading my thought process, feel inspired to bring your cEDH project from "zero to one." After all – much like other industries – it is the emergence of new ideas, new thinking, and new challenges that keeps ecosystems thriving, dynamic, and frankly, fun.
Selecting Hazezon: Why?
The common rubric for 'what makes a Commander cEDH' has frequently been if a Commander meets one or both of two conditions- (1) does the Commander generate resources (usually cards), and (2) is the Commander a 'win con' – a win condition under a set of achievable circumstances. For example, Thrasios, Triton Hero – a mainstay Commander in cEDH – fulfills both of these conditions; it can generate either cards or additional mana via its activated ability, and it can serve as a win-con in a situation with unbounded mana (which is easily achieved through various two-card combos).
Generously, Hazezon fulfills 0.5 of these two conditions – in that it turns every Desert entering the battlefield under your control into a Raise the Alarm. So why – knowing this – did I still select Hazezon? I'll let Sheldon Menery explain:
“Another good/bad point of this kind of generic goodness [exhibited by Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines] is that it enhances things that we're already doing without having to make other changes. A card that just rewards you for playing Magic, for just doing the things you were already doing (I'm looking at you, Tatyova, Benthic Druid), is not healthy for Commander.”
Every game of Magic involves a common set of actions – playing lands, drawing cards, attacking, and so forth. Accordingly, some of the most powerful effects in the game reward you for doing things you already plan to do at no additional cost; passive lines of text that magnify the impact of game actions you already are taking with no investment. Even if these 'baseline+ effects' may not be drawing cards, they are efficient & strong enough to automatically deserve a look for cEDH. In some cases, Commanders with 'baseline+ effects' are so efficient that they are worth running over Commanders that may 'do more' but require activation. This logic has already made its way across the cEDH metagame – the ubiquity of Tymna ('baseline+' that makes dealing combat damage better), Winota ('non-Humans attacking becomes better'), Magda ('tapping Dwarves becomes better'), and the aforementioned Tatyova ('playing lands becomes better').
This brings us to Hazezon. First, Hazezon makes all your Desert land drops better by turning them into Raise the Alarms. Second, Hazezon enables more Desert land drops by serving as a Crucible of Worlds. These two abilities make Hazezon unique in that you can leverage your graveyard to generate resources in a non-interactive way (i.e. avoids Grafdigger's Cage, etc.) and turn every Desert drop into board presence. It is one of only a few Crucible of Worlds Commanders (and the other one – Zask – was only recently printed in Jumpstart 2022).
It was worth a look. So I looked.
Goals & Deck Design: What am I trying to do?
Many brewers begin 'ground up' – how do these cards interact, how do these cards fit together, and then cobble together a deck (and then a game plan). While fun, the amount of time required for testing & tuning a cEDH deck due to its high variance & multiplayer format makes this method inefficient. Additionally, building 'ground up' can lead to a lack of focus in the deck itself, as cards are included not because they relate to a central goal, but maybe because there is a unique interaction with one or two other cards (or because they're just cool to play with). Ultimately, this ground-up deck building is a fun, casual way to approach Hazezon but I knew from the onset that I was aiming as high as I could.
I instead focused on a top-down approach to ensure I remained focused. My first step was answering the question - 'with Hazezon as my Commander, what are the scenarios that reasonably are achievable in which I win the game?'
For example, Hazezon makes creatures. This means I'm likely to have many creatures on board – and leveraging those creatures into a win con makes sense. Scenario one – board states in which I win through combat damage.
Hazezon also gives me easier access to Deserts. Maybe some of these Deserts have activated or triggered abilities that can turn into a win condition. Scenario two – a slow kill with non-combat damage based on Ramunapp Ruins +/- Sunscorched Desert.
Now, what if Hazezon's creatures can present a win without attacking? Scenario three – some kind of non-combat damage kill based on the tokens entering the battlefield.
With these three reasonable game plans set, my second step was answering the question 'what needs to happen for me to get there?' One answer was obvious – I needed to maximize the chances of me having access to Deserts, either in hand or in the graveyard. This meant that I would need to make sure I ran every Desert I could to maximize that probability – otherwise, I simply ran the risk of the entire deck not working. With access to Deserts being so fundamental to the deck, it wasn't a place that I believed could be compromised on.
Solving the 'access to Deserts' problem can't only be solved by just running all the Deserts I could. I also needed ways to search for them (i.e. Realms Uncharted), to get them into the graveyard as needed (cycling / Faithless Looting effects), and to return to my hand if I needed to play one (Gruul Turf). In short, much of the core construction of the deck – the cycling subtheme, the use of Thrill of Possibility, the singleton bounceland, a copy of Need of Speed, Weathered Wayfarer, etc. – all of it was designed to maximize the utility of Hazezon's ability.
Other deck choices focused on other key answers to that second question. For instance, I need to ensure that other decks do not outpace me significantly in resource generation – resulting in the inclusion of Rule of Law effects, stax pieces, and Balancing Act / Cataclysm. I also needed to turn my creatures & high land count into more card draw to maintain high optionality (since I can't rely on Mystic Remora, Rhystic Study, or a Commander draw ability) – resulting in reinforcing the cycling theme and the inclusion of Toski. Finally, I needed to ensure that I could reliably cast Hazezon as early as I can – since 'baseline+' passives accrue greater & greater value the earlier you have access to them – which meant the inclusion of Riftstone Portal.
There was a final, third step before finishing the initial list; answering the question 'what does my deck not need to do / should not do'? Automatically, the first answer was that because I don't have an easy outlet for unbounded mana, there was no reason for me to focus on that direction. This led directly to the cutting of cEDH staple Dockside Extortionist, as a Dockside accelerating simply into more stax pieces is somewhat suboptimal vs the card's innate potential. The second answer was that I shouldn't be forcing too much on-stack interaction (i.e. inclusion of Red Elemental Blast / Pyroblast) but focus on interacting with on-the-battlefield permanents, a more key strength of sans-blue card pools. Finally, Hazezon's ability is innately gated by game rules ('one land a turn') so focusing on a turbo or extremely explosive direction (i.e. Scapeshift) was not something I do not need the deck to do. Instead, my focus should be on playing lands, making creatures, converting my excess lands & board presence into more cards, and winning the game once my resources become far higher than my opponents can handle.
The initial list of Hazezon was somewhat between the final build and a more proactive, aggressive version – it ran additional land synergies and leaned a bit more into a finish with Impact Tremors (similar to how aggressive aggro decks may run Lightning Bolt as reach). I tested the list at my local game store with my local cEDH playgroup over less than five games, facing a fast combo deck (Yisan), a difficult-to-interact-with combat-based list (Yuriko), and Thrasios Dawnwaker. While I wanted more live play, time constraints made it difficult for me to do 'mass' testing so I focused on how to extract as much learning as possible from each game I played.
My approach was to identify – now ground-up – what play patterns were naturally coming out of the deck itself based on the card choices. Partially, this is because I knew I would be piloting the deck – so my playstyle & decision-making preferences would need to 'mesh' with the card choices I was including (and I'm not naturally a very turbo-oriented player). Partially, this was also to identify certain card choices that ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor due to never being part of the core play patterns of the deck. Because I had a limited amount of time to play & test, I focused heavily on the synergy between my deck building choices & my own play style to ensure that 'we' were supporting each other.
There is a certain 'magic' to this that I'm sure many more seasoned players have also experienced – and not all of this can be explained with a framework (though people have tried). I can only express it as me looking to ensure I always felt like I had 'the right card at the right time; that the deck – at whatever point – provided me as the pilot with intuitive lines of play & appropriate optionality.
The journey left me with mixed emotions.
I am naturally pleased with the deck's maiden performance; while I was prepared for an 0-4 drop, the core ideas of leveraging a strong 'baseline+ passive' as the deck's foundation & playing with a strategic focus in mind carried it to a respectable finish. However, as I detailed in the tournament notes, there was still much room for improvement regarding the deck construction – particularly, some of the specific enabler cards & resource engines. While in retrospect some were ones I would have been able to identify myself had I had more time or put in more effort (Rumor Gatherer, Life from the Loam), the majority of them could have only come from either more intense live testing, deeper knowledge of the format, or both.
This led me to the somewhat bitter realization that as I am now, I cannot bring the deck from 1 to 2 and evolve it further. I simply do not have the resources, capabilities, or bandwidth to do so in either an efficient or enjoyable-to-me way.
It also led me to realize that so long as certain ideas have more community interest – four color piles, for instance – the barrier to entry for new ideas, even potentially game-changing or meta-shifting ones, may simply continue to grow. Like other industries, the more people working on an innovation, the more that innovation has a chance of success and cEDH decks are no exception. The immense success of RogSi in tournament results for the latter half of 2022, for instance, is living proof of how bringing together multiple brains together in an organized way can result in the development of new, powerful ideas that change the game. On the flip side, fringe ideas, even those with deep potential, may find themselves simply lost. As someone who is drawn to cEDH due to its dynamic, shifting nature, this is also not the most pleasant realization to have.
My frustration is clear – but I didn't write this so that you can feel discouraged.
I hope that in seeing my thought process, you find yourself armed with more tools to break down the barriers stopping your cEDH idea from becoming reality. I also hope that in reading my final thoughts, you find yourself afresh with thoughts on how to make your journey not only more fruitful & efficient but more satisfying than I found mine for Hazezon. As someone once said, stay hungry; stay foolish.
See you next time – with something new.