Flavor of the Month: Waiting for Godo(t)

Brandon Amico • February 22, 2024

Beckett's Absurdist Classic is Back, in Magic Form!

Welcome to Flavor of the Month, where we build decks flavor first! 

With new Magic sets being released faster than Now That's What I Call Music albums--I think we're on #89 of that music series now, no joke--hundreds and hundreds of new cards are released into the card pool every year. With every set comes a few cards that inevitably advance our decks' goals a little more efficiently than we were able to before, or start the wheels a'turnin' quicker than ever, so as time goes on, our Commander decks become more optimized, more efficient, and faster. This could be either good or bad depending on who you ask, but it's a phenomenon that is common in pods across the world.

It actually takes effort to make a deck that is clunky and non-synergistic, which is what we're going to do today: we're going to make one of the most inefficient decks you've ever seen while being able to still pull out a win. How inefficient? Well, we won't be able to cast our commander.

Why? The short answer is that, for this deck, we're channeling Samuel Beckett's play, the poster child for absurdist theatre and art in general, the astoundingly bleak Waiting for Godot. Hang tight, y'all.

Ingredients

The longer answer to why we're going to build an inefficient deck that can't cast its commander requires us to go into what Waiting for Godot is and how absurdism operates. You can skip to the decklist below if you'd like, but I promise you'll enjoy it more if you come to it with a better understanding of this stuff. I've spent a lot of time talking about the connection between Magic, art, and creative expression, and I won't rehash it here. Suffice it to say that Magic decks, particularly in the Commander format, are extremely flexible in providing us modes of expression that include creating unique tributes to movies, poems, books, paintings--or plays.

Waiting for Godot is one of the most influential and important pieces of theatre in the last century, if not the most, in my humble opinion. Many famous actors have played the lead roles of Estragon and Vladimir over the years; I wish I could have been there to see Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen play them in 2009, or--my heart!--Robin Williams and Steve Martin back in 1988.

What makes it so special? Would you believe me if I told you it's a play about two wandering old men who stand around on the side of a country road, confused and bickering, for two days, and nothing really happens? And that it's funny? Well, you should, 'cause that's the play.

So what is absurdism, and how will we translate it into our deck? Britannica describes such a play as one in which "there is little dramatic action as conventionally understood; however frantically the characters perform, their busyness serves to underscore the fact that nothing happens to change their existence." In other words, lots of activity, but little meaning or traditional narrative structure. There's also the absurdist philosophy that gained a lot of traction after World War I, wherein many people realized that the institutions they put their faith in--religion, nation/country, etc.--weren't inherently good, and we'd have to make our own meaning in life from now on. Or decide not to make meaning (hence, absurdism).

Lest you think I was being flippant when I gave the overview of the play two paragraphs above, that's really what the plot of Waiting for Godot boils down to. Two old men, Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting on the side of the road for someone named "Godot" to arrive. He never does, though they end both of the days in the play hopeful that he will tomorrow, as he's promised. It's hinted that they may have been there for well longer than those two days, waiting in vain, but it's not clarified. 

The scenery is a country road with a single tree center stage. There is a pair of shoes that appears in Act 2, and two other characters cross Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) in the play: Pozzo, something of a pompous aristocrat, and Lucky, a servant led by Pozzo by a leash. Add a young boy, supposedly Godot's messenger, with a few lines of dialogue at the end of the two acts, and that's close to all that can be found "in" the play. 

And yet, it's one of the greatest works of theatre in our time, both because of the pointed questions absurdism throws at us about our lives and purpose, and also because of the witty, circular, and fascinating dialogue. Fans of everything from Wes Anderson films to The Eric Andre Show owe a lot to Beckett and absurdism, even if indirectly; the form's circular language patterns and non-sequiturs have been fully absorbed into mainstream media, especially on the comedy side.

(Vladimir: "Well? What do we do?" Estragon: "Don't let's do anything. It's safer." -- this may as well be dialogue from The Life Aquatic.) 

Now that we've set the stage, let's get back to Magic!

We're setting out to build a deck that sticks to the core of absurdist philosophy and the rough outline of Godot, and the general conceit is actually fairly simple: we're waiting for our commander, (naturally, Godo, Bandit Warlord) to arrive; we'll be able to cast him any turn now. Then the deck is going to hum and we're going to sail to victory. As the characters in Godot believe, we'll be saved when that happens, but also as in the play, it won't. Because it can't. This deck has no access to red mana.

Preparation

It's one thing to make a commander uncastable, a simple solution in that I've put no Mountains nor red-mana-producers in this deck, but it's another thing entirely to put the elements in place that will make the pilot feel that there must be some way to get him out, if we can just dig deep enough in our library, find the right combination of cards...

The best part is how close the deck is to being able to make red mana. Baldur's Gate makes all our other Gates tap for mana!...if we had any. Ditto for Forgotten Monument and the zero other Caves in the deck. "Surely, there's ONE Mountain in here to fetch with Grixis Panorama, Field of Ruin, or Demolition Field," said the hopeful player who searched the library to find nothing but Wastes in the basic land category.

Maximum futility is the underlying theme here, and it doesn't stop with the commander: we have many inefficient, incompatible, and/or nonsensical cards all over this deck that seem like they should work well together, but are missing a key part or are out of place. We have Coretapper but nothing that cards about charge counters, Hollow One with nary another cycling card in sight, a Diamond Mare that shall gain no life, and two of the three Urza's (aka Tron) lands.

Deserts are thematically on-brand, given the empty environment Didi and Gogo exist in. They're also some of the least efficient lands ever printed when it comes to doing utility stuff; no one is excited about Grasping Dunes or Cradle of the Accursed, but they tap for mana, so you should probably just be grateful you have that much. We have some other thematically interesting lands, ones that are similarly brutal to the psyche: Wasteland, Strip Mine, and my favorite for this deck, Dust Bowl

That's not to say we're playing only bad cards: there are some legitimate ways we'll have to win, mostly around biding our time and plopping down mana rock after mana rock for some big spells. Don't underestimate the power of turning a board of inert artifacts into an army with Karn, Silver Golem. Our time spent collecting (mana) rocks, because what else are we gonna do while we wait for a Mountain, can also pay off in the form of a Desolation Twin, Rise of the Eldrazi, or Eldrazi Conscription. There's something to be said of the quiet, slow-marching but all-encompassing horror of poverty and one's out-of-reach hopes and dreams manifesting in a couple of Eldrazi cards...but really I just liked how Desolation Twin gives us a Gogo and a Didi. Plus, Conscription is a nice way to represent the conscripted Lucky in our deck (he can be brutal and powerful when he gets animated, too).

There are a few objects in the play we've found a way to represent in-game. Gogo's boots are Trailblazer's Boots, though he swaps them mid-play for Swiftfoot Boots. Pozzo's Bullwhip that he drives on Lucky with can be made to incite a creature ("pig!," Pozzo shouts often to Lucky). And the Hithlain Rope...well, let's just say it would be a much shorter play if the characters had that from the beginning. Do any of these synergize with the rest of the deck? Of course not. They're all dead ends, just enough for a spark of hope and little more.

Another interesting thing the play, er, plays with is time. Have Vladimir and Estragon just arrived that first day, or have they been waiting for days, weeks... years? Centuries? It's a crucial question to the plot, and it also absolutely does not matter. Time is a construct, and in Magic, that construct is Aeon Engine.

Sands of Time is an absurdist card if I've ever seen one. What's untapped is tapped, things you assumed about how the game works no longer hold true! Nothing means anything! Granted, we'll get ahead a bit with Clock of Omens on our board at the same time, and Unwinding Clock is a nice way of reflecting on the fact that time seems to mean nothing in Godot...but it's also a pretty effective tool when we have Liberator, Urza's Battlethopter or Shimmer Myr and a bunch of mana rocks to untap. 

And how could we have a deck that plays with time without Karn Liberated? Karn is one of the ways that the deck could conceivably win: both his creature form and this planeswalker will take over if left unchecked, and our spare but meaningful high-mana threats will do work if we draw them, since we should have the resources to cast them. There's also a bit of lands synergy: many of the Deserts rely on sacrificing, and we have Crucible of Worlds to re-buy their effects and trigger Field of the Dead once more.

Of course, there is one other way we could win. If Godo(t) would just show up!

There is, conceivably, one way that we could cast our commander. But that possibility, like life (according to the absurdists), is entirely out of our control: an opponent could give us a Treasure. This could be via Descent into Avernus, Kitesail Larcenist, Gluntch, the Bestower--it could theoretically happen. Especially if your opponents didn't know what your deck was about.

And if we do get that Treasure? (Estragon: "And if he comes?" Vladimir: "We'll be saved.")

Yep, it's the old cEDH standby, Helm of the Host and Godo. For the uninitiated, if we are ever able to cast Godo with an additional five mana available, we will, unless interacted with, win the game. He tutors out Helm, we put it on him, and then the game takes care of the rest. Infinite combat steps, infinite nonlegendary Godos, and as many creatures as we need to send a fatal attack at all of our opponents.

People have been doing that combo since Dominaria, and it wouldn't be worth an article here if that was what we were actually trying to do. But I can promise you no one has tried to win with a Godo deck without red mana. To attempt that would be, well, absurd.

Yield

It's a challenge to win with this deck, but an undoubtedly unique experience! And who doesn't like a challenge? Here's the full decklist:

Waiting for Godo(t)

View on Archidekt

Commander (1)
Artifacts (33)
Sorceries (2)
Lands (35)
Creatures (22)
Instants (3)
Enchantments (1)
Battles (1)
Planeswalkers (2)

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View this decklist on Archidekt

That's it for this month; hope you enjoyed this build. I'm enjoying finding weirder and weirder concepts to put into a deck! Let me know in the comments below what you thought and if there are any other projects you'd like to see tackled on Flavor of the Month. And of course, if I unwittingly DID accidentally include a means in-deck of making red mana, do let me know so I can remove it! I know I caught a couple of weird interactions in earlier drafts of this deck that could conceivably result in red mana in this player's pool, so it's possible I missed one more! Unlike Godot, I'm only human.



Brandon has been playing Magic since Odyssey back in 2001. When he's not slinging cardboard, he works as a freelance copywriter and is an accomplished poet with a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing fellowship. His literary work can be found at brandonamico.com.