I don’t know when the fascination started, but for as long as I can remember, I have loved maps. I have fond memories of poring over the map of (Disney’s) Peter Pan’s Neverland while listening to a cassette recording of the story my mother made. A few years later, the fold-out maps from NES games like The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Warrior captured my imagination as I tried to navigate Hyrule and Alefgard as a seven-year-old. At nine, it became maps of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia and an atlas of the real world (ca. 1992); at 11, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. By 12 or 13, it was the continent of Ansalon on Dragonlance’s world of Krynn.  Twenty-five years after I stumbled into the pages of Dragons of Autumn Twilight, in my own dissertation, I’ve spent the better part of a chapter investigating metaphors of space, cartography, and cosmography in mystical texts. Did I mention I really love maps?

In a fantasy gaming community, luckily, I am hardly alone. Thus, it is out of an abundance of love for two things, maps and Magic, that I share my strange new Commander Vorthos brew with you today: Map Tribal.

Cartographer by Donato Giancola

Pictures at an Expedition

This deck isn’t just inspired by my love of maps, but by two pieces of gorgeous map art.  The first was Donato Giancola’s beautiful Cartographer from Odyssey.  One of my favorite cards from my college days, it recently returned to my attention because of Vorthos Mike’s tireless advocacy for just how amazing this art is. You can also read more about Giancola’s work in Donny Caltrider’s deep dive.

The second piece that inspired this build was the new extended art version of Expedition Map. Scott Murphy’s fantastic new painting ignited something in me when I first saw it, and it was the first card I sought out when Double Masters singles hit stores. With these two cards as a base, I began scouring card databases to find and assemble every map-related card from which I would try and build a functional “map tribal” deck.

Expedition Map by Scott Murphy

To complete this “bottom-up” (rather than “commander down”) list, I began simply by thumbing through my binders and pulling cards I knew would fit the bill. Cards with “map” in the name, like Expedition Map, Renegade Map, and Map the Wastes were obvious pulls. Cartographer’s Hawk and Kor Cartographer were added to my pile shortly after. Endless Atlas and the other atlas cards were natural additions, as were the orreries, compasses, sextants, and astrolabes. Soon, however, I turned to Scryfall to chart a course through all kinds of map-related words in the search for every possible iteration of cartography I could find.

Just finding references to maps, cartography, and atlases in card names doesn’t give us enough cards, however. To expand the search while keeping with the theme, I looked for cards with maps in the art, references to maps or cartography in the flavor text, and cards that reference paths, journeys, wayfinding, and exploration. Ixalan’s special box-topper artifacts and enchantments that transform into lands (illustrated as portions of a map!) are perfect for the aesthetic of this deck, so we’ll have to make use of at least some of them. Including map-users like Quirion Ranger, Hanna, Ship’s Navigator, and Time-Stream Navigator offers us a variety of effects to consider amplifying when we start making cuts and building out how we want this deck to function and maybe even win, if we’re lucky.

Background maps and globes, like those in Veteran Explorer, Edric, Spymaster of Trest, Karn, Scion of Urza, and Expropriate present us with further material to work with as we move to start carving this comely column of cardboard into a coherent composition.

Chart a Course by James Ryman

Charting a Course

It is important not to overlook function in a deck built around flavor. The prime reason we’re playing this deck is because we love maps, so we want to see as many of them hit the battlefield as possible and use their abilities to their fullest. Some of the nice things that “map” and “exploration” cards tend to do for us are things we want to be doing a lot of anyway: pulling lands from our libraries and putting them into our hands and onto the battlefield. A number of cards, like Treasure Map and Chart a Course, also give us ways to draw the cards we need to keep our hands full of the extra lands we’ll be able to play with cards like Walking Atlas and Azusa, Lost but Seeking. You can check out the list on Archidekt here.

Commander: Golos, Tireless Pilgrim

Creatures: Ancient Greenwarden, Avenger of Zendikar, Azusa, Lost but Seeking, Cartographer, Courser of Kruphix, Dryad of the Ilysian Grove, Edric, Spymaster of Trest, Hanna, Ship’s Navigator, Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain, Kor Cartographer, Multani, Yavimaya’s Avatar, Nyxbloom Ancient, Omnath, Locus of Creation, Omnath, Locus of Mana, Omnath, Locus of Rage, Omnath, Locus of the Roil, Oracle of Mul Daya, Quirion Ranger, Realm Seekers, Risen Reef, Spire Tracer, Tatyova, Benthic Druid, Timestream Navigator, Ulvenwald Hydra, Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, Veteran Explorer, Walking Atlas,

Planeswalkers: Karn, Scion of Urza, Vraska, Relic Seeker

Instants & Sorceries: Approach of the Second Sun, Chart a Course, Eerie Ultimatum, Emergent Ultimatum, Expropriate, Lay of the Land, Map the Wastes, Path to ExileRealms Uncharted, Ruinous Ultimatum, Settle the Wreckage, Treacherous Terrain, Winds of Abandon

Aftifacts: Arcane Signet, Arcum’s Astrolabe, Chromatic Lantern, Chromatic Orrery, Expedition Map, Ghirapur Orrery, Renegade Map, Scroll Rack, Sensei’s Divining Top, Sisay’s Ring, Sorcerous Spyglass, Sol Ring, Thaumatic Compass, Treasure Map, Vedalken Orrery

Enchantments: Curious Obsession, Growing Rites of Itlimoc, Journey to Nowhere, Journey to Oblivion, Search for Azcanta, Trade Routes

Lands: 5 Island, 7 Snow-Covered Forest, 3 Snow-Covered Plains, Snow-Covered Island, Snow-Covered Mountain, Snow-Covered Swamp, Academy Ruins, Bayou, Bountiful Promenade, Breeding Pool, Buried Ruin, Command Tower, Field of the Dead, Maze of Ith, Misty Rainforest, Overgrown Tomb, Savannah, Sea of Clouds, Stomping Ground, Taiga, Temple Garden, Tropical Island, Verdant Catacombs, Windswept Heath, Wooded Foothills

What we are left with is a very flavorful—if not optimized—backbone of any EDH deck, but one that also points us toward a few synergies: lands matter, big mana, and artifacts are all strong options. Because I want to play as many map cards as possible, irrespective of color, I’ve put Golos, Tireless Pilgrim at the helm. In addition to affording us all five colors, Golos is great for both flavorful and functional reasons. They’re flavorful in that they are always on pilgrimage, moving from place to place. Functionally, both their enter-the-battlefield trigger and their activated ability reinforce our maps strategy: play lands, draw cards, use lots of mana to play huge splashy spells and maybe stumble into a win once in awhile.

If Golos seems too obvious, or if you want to try a more limited build, Izzet artifacts is strong archtype that this deck could fit into. Within that, Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain is a fantastic thematic choice. Because the navigational tools associated with the Weatherlight’s navigation are all artifacts, Jhoira enables us to play even clunky and “strictly worse” on-theme cards to keep drawing cards and propelling us toward basically any standard Izzet win con. Losing access to green means you wouldn’t get to play a beautiful foil Cartographer or any of the other green explorers, but if that’s not a dealbreaker, I’ve put a rough list together for this build over on Archidekt.

Renegade Map by Lake Hurwitz

Navigating to a Win

Like so many commander decks, we want to ramp quickly, preferably by getting a draw engine and something that lets us play additional lands per turn as soon as possible—which, believe it or not, this janky deck can do as soon as turn three. Important note: Remember not to get so caught up in looking at all the gorgeous map art that you forget to play the game. Ideally, the midgame will consist of playing maps, cracking them to get lands, and playing those lands to trigger one of our several Omnaths, Field of the Dead, or Avenger of Zendikar; while staving off our opponents with spot removal from Path to Exile and Journey to Nowhere while we arrive at enough mana to activate Golos.

The win conditions for this theme deck are the friends we made along the way. But just in case we do somehow end up clinching a win, this is how we would do it: landfall triggers can net us an incredible number of zombies, plants, and elementals—all threats for our opponents to deal with. If Vedalken Orrery is up and safe, activating Golos during our opponent’s endstep to grab Ruinous Ultimatum or Eerie Ultimatum that fetches a number of fetchlands and any landfall payoffs can set up a victory on our following turn. If an elemental beatdown isn’t in the cards, a well-timed one-sided board wipe can clear the path for a combat damage victory if necessary. If you want to get really fancy, Settle the Wreckage or Winds of Abandon can put one or more opponents within terminal range of Treacherous Terrain.

Approach of the Second Sun is another possibility. The second time we cast it needs to be from our hand, so use Golos, Scroll Rack, and Sensei’s Divining Top and other draw outlets to make sure it gets there. Expropriate is also a very strong option for setting up a win, depending on how nasty our opponents’ boards are and how they vote.

Curious Obsession by Daniel Ljunggren

Maps: Wait! They don’t love you like I love you!

One of the primary things I love about commander is how each deck expresses something about the person playing it. Even if a friend has used a decklist from a website or podcast, they’ve first of all made a choice that resonates with them, and second of all will pilot that deck and choose lines of play in distinct ways reflecting their personal preferences.

It may be that throwing down suboptimal card after suboptimal card for the sake of seeing particular art or the puzzled then suddenly appreciative looks on your friends’ faces isn’t how you like to play—or maybe it is. Either way, I hope this winding path through my new favorite deck inspires you to chase your own muse, and see what’s possible. If you like maps as much as I do, drop me a line and tell me about your own favorite deck, and why you love it.

Recommended Listening:

Cartographies of Sound: Songs about maps and figuring things out.” by Jacob Torbeck

Jacob Torbeck is a researcher and instructor of theology and ethics. He hails from Chicago, IL, and loves playing Commander and pre-modern cubes.

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