What Would They Play: Bartholomew Roberts' EDH Deck

Welcome to What Would They Play?

I'm Charlie, I'm a storyteller, creative writer, and author; I handle the historical sections of the articles.

And I'm Dan, a Commander player who is obsessed with building thematic decks. I connect the stories to Magic cards to create decks that reflect the vibrant tales of the past.

We take famous or not-so-famous figures from history and make Commander decks based on their lives, philosophies, and histories.

Our articles are meant to be part history lesson, part deckbuilding guide. We believe that decks can be expressions of personal philosophies, so a fun way to learn about historical figures -- and flavorful brews -- would be to speculate about what sort of Commander deck a given person would play, given their times, opinions, and philosophies.

It's like a history class, only using the medium of Magic: The Gathering.

Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts's Story (1682-1722)

John Roberts (later he changed his first name to Bartholomew) was born in Wales before taking to sea at age 13. This was not uncommon at the time. Nor was it uncommon for merchant captains and military captains to have power of life and death over their sailors. Less is known about Roberts's life until his last 3 years (from 1719-1722), at which he became a celebrity among the world of pirates.

Piracy was a broad spectrum--politically, linguistically, ethically. There is no getting around the fact that some pirates and privateers were key in setting up brutal colonies, furthering imperialism, slavery, and serving the interests of nation-states such as England, France, Spain, Portugal, etc1.

However, that is one aspect of piracy--serving as effectively mercenaries or extensions of vast corporations and the nation-state--but the majority of pirates adhered to democratic means and values. That is, egalitarian social structures rather than authoritarian ones (as was the rule on merchant and military ships). Furthermore, the threat of a pirate utopia outside the reach of the states of the world was something that made imperial powers very nervous indeed. Indeed, this tension was present in the word that historians Rediker and Linebaugh use in their exhaustive history of the revolutionary Atlantic: hydrarchy. Simply put, "power through water" or "power over water"--power achieved and maintained by naval means. Linebaugh and Rediker make a vital distinction in how hydrarchy was established and maintained--from above, supported and imposed by the state, military and corporations (for an example of this, think the British Empire).

Hydrarchy from below, the second category, covered democratically created communities like maroons, escaped slaves, pirates, and deserters who also used the power of the sea to thwart the power of the state and rule themselves autonomously (think piracy).

So, shortest version: in 1719, Bartholomew Roberts was the second mate of the slave ship Princess.2, so to claim that his whole life was heroic is a stretch. Roberts's ship was captured by pirates and he was made to join the crew despite protesting against it--to join the pirates was widely viewed as hazardous to one's health. This was a common way to become a pirate, and forms the basis of Roberts's Commander deck with Don Andres, the Renegade at the helm.

Don Andres's flavor text suggests that he, like Roberts, abandoned the rigid hierarchy of his world's "legitimate" marine in favor of the freedom of piracy. Roberts's piratical world was made up of people from all races and backgrounds, much like Don Andres builds a board state from all players' decks.

Despite Roberts's words to the contrary, when the captain of the pirate vessel--a certain captain Howell--later died in an ambush on the island of Principe, Roberts was nominated for captaincy, to his own surprise. But he wasn't surprised long and swiftly won the election and captaincy. In less than two months since his capture, he had risen to the position of captain and led a brutal revenge raid against the Portuguese stationed on the island, killing many before taking back to sea.

Bartholomew Roberts and Crew's Pirate's Code

Bartholomew Roberts proved to be an excellent captain, leading multiple daring raids in the Caribbean. In one notable instance, he and his crew managed to take a cargo ship containing a whole load of jewels, intended for the Portuguese king--including a cross with diamonds inset that Roberts wore. Further, it is said that he was not given to imbibing and like to dress in a very sanguine (that is to say, red) fashion. His reputation among his crew grew ever higher, to the point where they believed him to be proof against firearms (perhaps he wore a Mithril Coat, or maybe he was simply Without Weakness).

You can see where a lot of the pirate tropes get started with Bartholomew Roberts. Of particular note is the pirate code--the compact all pirates agreed to abide by on and off ship--that the Roberts crew wrote and abided by, which has come down through history to us. The code has eleven rules, most of which deal with work or conflict aboard ship, or with compensation from captured ships. I've divided them into categories by association, but kept the original numbers from the code out of a sense of perversity.

Let's dive into them!

Robert's Code: Democracy

1. Every man has a vote in affairs of moment; has equal title to the fresh
provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized, and may use them at
pleasure, unless a scarcity makes it necessary, for the good of all, to
vote a retrenchment.

There is a lot going on here. Firstly, the pirate ship was governed by majority rule--each man having one vote regardless of rank, prior occupation, or skill. Rediker and Linebaugh note in The Many Headed Hydra:

"The pirate ship was democratic in an undemocratic age. The pirates allowed their captain unquestioned authority in chase and battle, but otherwise insisted that he be 'governed by a Majority.' As one observer noted, 'They permit him to be Captain, on Condition, that they may be Captain over him.' They gave him none of the extra food, the private mess, or the special accommodations routinely claimed by merchant and naval captains. Moreover, as the majority gave, so did it take away, deposing captains for cowardice, for cruelty, for refusing 'to take and plunder English Vessels,' or even for being 'too Gentleman-like.' Captains who dared to exceed their authority were sometimes executed..."

Second, the article declares an end to rationing so brutally common on military and merchant ships--unless it was a truly dire emergency, Roberts's crew had access to as much food and drink as they could want. Similarly, players in a Commander game with Roberts have access to as many cards as they could want, since the captain runs cards like Howling Mine, Dictate of Kruphix, and Font of Mythos in his deck. Special mention goes to Ian Malcolm, Chaotician, who synergizes with Don Andres by providing all players access to each other's cards.

Roberts also has punishments lined up for opponents who hoard too much life. The Backgrounds Agent of the Shadow Thieves, Sword Coast Sailor, and Guild Artisan all help Don Andres swing at the leading player, and Marchesa, the Black Rose and other creatures with dethrone join in the fun.

Robert's Code: Compensation

2. "Every man to be called fairly in turn, by list, on board of prizes
because, (over and above their proper share) they were on these
occasions allowed a shift of clothes: but if they defrauded the company
to the value of a dollar in plate, jewels, or money, marooning was their
punishment. If the robbery was only betwixt one another, they contented
themselves with slitting the ears and nose of him that was guilty, and set
him on shore, not in an uninhabited place, but somewhere, where he
was sure to encounter hardships."

In essence, this article sets limits on what each man can take above his share--and threatens to maroon anyone who takes more than his fair share, sometimes mutilated. Given how strong the bonds of trust need to be to operate a complicated and specialized machine like a pirate ship--to say nothing of bad weather and combat--fairness in distributing the loot and harsh punishment of greed were indispensable on shipboard life.

This article is symbolized in Roberts's deck with anthem effects--after all, they boost all of his creatures equally. This deck aims for a wide board full of stolen creatures, so power boosts like Goblin Oriflamme and Guul Draz Overseer can add a lot of damage. Sauron, the Lidless Eye has the added bonus of stealing an enemy creature for Don Andres to boost in addition to boosting the whole team himself.

9. No man to talk of breaking up their way of living, till each had shared
one thousand pounds. If in order to this, any man should lose a limb, or
become a cripple in their service, he was to have eight hundred dollars,
out of the public stock, and for lesser hurts, proportionately.
10. The captain and quartermaster to receive two shares of a prize: the
master, boatswain, and gunner, one share and a half, and other officers
one and quarter.

We'll take the last two in this section together: the pirates of Robert's crew have a more comprehensive healthcare plan than most Americans in the 21st century! I say that in a tongue in cheek manner, but seriously, despite the whimsy, pirates compensated crew members for their injuries out of the common treasury--more than a merchantman or military man would get--according to the severity of the wound. The second article deals with what Michael Albert might call "equitable remuneration"--that is paying more for work that is more hazardous or onerous than average, hence the master, boatswain and gunner getting 1.5 shares, the captain and quartermaster 2.0 shares and the other officers 1.25 shares of a prize.

Pitiless Plunderer is here to pay out when a member of Roberts's crew falls in battle. Article 10 allows Roberts to include some bonuses specifically for legendary and commander creatures. Bloodsworn Steward gives Don Andres a power boost, and Rising of the Day rewards all his legendary creatures (representing the ship's officers).

Robert's Code: Basic Stuff to Keep the Peace on a Boat Full of Pirates

3. No person to game at cards or dice for money.

Good way to keep people from arguing or developing grudges onboard is to remove private markets via gambling onboard.

4. The lights and candles to be put out at eight o'clock at night: if any of the crew, after that hour still remained inclined for drinking, they were to do it on the open deck;

The code doesn't prohibit drinking after hours, but makes sure that what drinking does occur does so in public, to help prevent arguments from escalating.

5. To keep their piece, pistols, and cutlass clean and fit for service.

Well, I mean, it would just be plain WEIRD if this wasn't required on a pirate ship, where fighting for your survival is a vital part of the job description.

6. No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death;

There were some famous women pirates in this era and after--Chin Yi Sao in China, Anne Bonny and Mary Read in the Caribbean--but they were not exactly typical of the time period. The role of women in piracy and pirate communities is too much to get in here, but for the purpose of the Roberts crew, this was a measure to prevent jealousies and infighting as much as it was a reflection of patriarchal values at the time commonplace throughout the military and merchant parts of the crew's respective societies.

7. To desert the ship or their quarters in battle, was punished with death or marooning.

Relatively lenient, considering how quick to execute or torture the military or merchantmen were with people who deserted or went pirate.

8. No striking one another on board, but every man's quarrels to be ended on shore, at sword and pistol.

Another key factor in keeping fights and internal divisions down was the "no hitting each other aboard the ship" rule. Rediker notes that for quarrels that were enduring, pirates often used formalized duels--first with pistols, and if both parties were uninjured after that (not uncommon) seeking redress with swords was the next step. However, these duels were not often to the death--but to the first blood.

11. The musicians to have rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights, none without special favour.

Yeah, you have to give your musicians a day off--this was considered so important it was made an explicit part of Robert's crew's pirate code. My personal favorite article.

None of these democratic structures--all agreed to by the crew--could have been found on a merchant or military vessel--such things would have been forced from above, not ratified by the will of the crew via a directly democratic process. These rules also ensure that the pirates' violent energies are directed out toward their enemies; in a Commander game, Roberts keeps violence away from his ship by goading enemy creatures with spells like Disrupt Decorum and Besmirch. Propaganda and Cunning Rhetoric are also likely to encourage opponents to direct their attentions elsewhere.

Pirates Punching the Slave Trade right in the Snoot, all the way down the African Coast (1720-1722)

By this point, Bartholomew Roberts had amassed a formidable following and reputation. His threats were taken seriously from Newfoundland to Virginia to the Caribbean to the East Coast of Africa. The various powers of Europe were putting increased pressure on piracy in the Caribbean, which mean that, like displaced liquid, hundreds of pirates moved to where the pickings were better--that is the west coast of Africa.

There were some excellent reasons to do this--disrupting the slave trade threw a huge wrench into the crowns' coffers, freed slaves were welcome in pirate communities and crews, and each serviceable ship captured strengthened the pirate convoys.

Let's turn again to Linebaugh and Rediker:

"The greatest and most successful assaults on merchants' property had been carried out by a pirate convoy under the leadership of Bartholomew Roberts, which ranged up and down the African coast 'sinking, burning, and destroying such Goods and Vessels as then happen'd in [its] Way.' Roberts's interest lay in capturing not ships full of slaves but rather ships on their way to trade for slaves--'good Sailing Shipps well furnished with Ammunition, Provisions, & Stores of all Kinds, fitt for long Voyages.' He and his fellows also plundered the slave-trading forts, as a group of merchants explained: pirates 'sometimes land at the chief Factories and carry off what they think fit.' Many a slave ship in the early eighteenth century was captured and converted to pirate duties, including the recently recovered Whydah, captained by Black Sam Bellamy."

This section covers the largest part of Roberts's deck, since capturing ships and recruiting freed slaves ties into the commander Don Andres's abilities. Of course, classics like Control Magic and Treachery are here. Although this is not strictly a Pirate typal deck, Don Andres converting stolen creatures into Pirates gives Admiral Beckett Brass enough Pirates to fuel additional impressment. With such an emphasis on theft effects, Agent of Treachery is very likely to draw three extra cards each turn; Brainstealer Dragon and Arvinox, the Mind Flail provided additional rewards for theft.

This pirate convoy led by Roberts dealt truly crippling blows to the English slave trade. This is considered one of the high points of what is usually referred to as the Golden Age of Piracy--an international reaction against burgeoning empires based on hierarchy, using the power of hydrarchy from below.

The Revenge of the Turnip Man and the End of the Golden Age of Piracy

Of course, deliberately targeting a multi-national, billion-dollar (in today's money) industry of the transatlantic slave trade didn't win pirates any points in general and Bartholomew Roberts in particular, any friends in English government, which had more than a few fingers (perhaps even a whole arm) in the slave trade. So they sent a naval squadron under one of the weirdest named people I've ever heard tell of to go and try and put a stop to piracy.

Challoner "The Turnip Man" Ogle was a thoroughly unlikable character in an age chock-full of them.3 He was roundly ridiculed by the people he pursued and like most military commanders in his time, was doubtless a ruthless disciplinarian aboard ship and off it.

Ogle's ship, the Swallow, eventually caught up with Roberts and though accounts of the final battle are slightly confused (some allege that the Roberts crew was drunk and so could not execute the precise maneuver needed to escape the water cops) what is certain is that Bartholomew Roberts died during it. However, in accordance with his wishes, his body, along with his possessions, were consigned to the watery deep before the English completed their capture of his ship.

This was a devastating blow to hydrarchy from below, and to the pirate movements in general. It was in the context of a larger series of raids and repressions against pirates that were ultimately able to revive the transatlantic slave trade and allow for imperialism and slavery to meet no resistance (for a while anyway) on the waters of the Atlantic.

(Quick but relevant side-note: If you're looking for an excellent bit of historical fiction set in the Golden Age of Piracy, I would recommend Tauno Biltsted's The Anatomist's Tale which gets into rather more detail about life aboard both merchant and pirate ships, maroon communes and the nature of the revolutionary Atlantic--it was even blurbed by no lesser a figure than Rediker, who we cited throughout this article!)

Bartholomew Roberts's full Commander  decklist is below!

Bartholomew Roberts's EDH Deck

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Commander (1)
Creatures (25)
Enchantments (15)
Artifacts (5)
Sorceries (8)
Planeswalkers (2)
Instants (6)
Lands (38)

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  1. David Graeber notes in his book Pirate Enlightenment, or: The Real Libertaria that there was a small pocket industry of people claiming to represent breakaway pirate kingdoms, particularly in Madagascar. While the main text examines democratic synthesis culture in Madagascar that was matriarchal and flexible (in fact, many pirates 'retired' there --read marrying into those matriarchal societies a generation prior), Graeber points out a hilarious item. Namely, there was a small cottage industry of con men claiming to the crowned heads of Europe to be the leader of a "pirate kingdom" or to "conquer Madagascar". And of course, for a small price, they'd be happy to harass the enemies of whatever king they were petitioning. Graeber writes of one particularly notorious shyster, Benyowsky: "...who having escaped from prison in Siberia and made his way to France, managed to convince Louis XV to put him in charge of a plan to conquer Madagascar. Count Benyowsky established himself in a village (which he renamed "Louisville")...and began requisitioning supplies from France in support of his conquests, which he documented with regular letters back to court....needless to say, these reports were pure fantasy...what evidence we do have indicates that Benyowsky was not really a Polish count at all, but a Hungarian con man, who used provisions sent from France to pay off the surrounding villagers into playing along with the pretense he was king, and then spent most of his time gallivanting about the world passing himself off as the King of Madagascar. In 1777, he was a frequent chess partner of Benjamin Franklin's in Paris; in 1779, he was in America, offering to put his kingdom at the disposal of the revolution.
  2. Not a great look, and the name Princess for a slave ship seems particularly bad to me.
  3. To be fair to Ogle, it's not like he CHOSE to be called 'Turnip Man'. But someone--presumably his parents--had named their son "Challoner Ogle" and that's a level of dislike for your own child I can only imagine. The sobriquet "Turnip Man" was added to this already cringey name by none other than Black Bart and the other pirates.

What Would They Play? is a collaboration between author Charlie Allison and game designer Dan Sibley. The series is part history lesson, part deck-building journal and aims to bring historical figures back to life through the lens of Magic: The Gathering. You can find Dan on Twitter at @VedalkenSamurai and Charlie on the web at www.charlie-allison.com and https://blog.pmpress.org/authors-artists-comrades/charlie-allison/.