Today on Mind over Commander we’re going to take a different approach to this article series. Instead of giving a list to follow along with, we’re going to step through the process of outlining a structure for our Commander deck, based on the mechanical theme of the deck. This is hopefully going to get our creative deck-building juices flowing and teach us how to build a solid foundation for a Commander deck.
We’re going to look at a popular Commander today: Teysa Karlov. She is very powerful and has a few different routes available for us to travel down. Do we kill our creatures? Our opponent’s creatures? Swarm with tokens? Gain some life? All of these are valid strategies and it’s up to us to pick the one(s) we want to pursue. The more we choose, the less focused we become, so keep that in mind.
The Main Players
First and foremost, we should look at what cards are great to have, regardless of the build we choose. Teysa Karlov gives us an additional trigger when any creature dies, not just our own. With that in mind, the first card that we should include in any deck helmed by the Orzhov scion would be Revel in Riches. This enchantment turns any creature our opponents control into a treasure when it dies. Teysa makes that two, so after just five deaths it turns into a win-condition. Yahenni, Undying Partisan grows himself when an opponent’s creature dies, is also a sacrifice outlet, and only costs three mana. Lastly, Athreos, God of Passage is great with Teysa; when a creature we control dies, either two opponents pay three life or a single opponent pays six life to keep it from returning to our hand.
These cards don’t fight over Teysa’s four-mana slot, and playing them just before or after we play Teysa immediately makes our side of the board more lucrative. Now that we have these “three horsemen” established, what can we do with this Commander?
You Don’t Kill Me, I Kill Me
The first thing that comes to mind is to find creatures that have death triggers that we can abuse. Archon of Justice is a great example of this: it comes down at five mana right after Teysa Karlov, has a powerful death trigger, and is a 4/4 flier to boot. This is a great standard to hold our creatures to. Anodet Lurker, for instance, just wouldn’t cut it; it has a weak death trigger and is a vanilla 3/3 body for five mana.
Ideally we want to start picking out creatures that don’t fight for the four mana slot. The ones that do fight for that slot need to be absolutely worth it, not “setups.” What this means is that Elenda, the Dusk Rose might seem extremely powerful on the surface in this deck, but in practice might under-perform in a fair amount of situations. A four mana 1/1 with lifelink isn’t a good investment. Luckily she can grow herself from things dying, which Teysa would be able to add an additional trigger to. She also creates a number of 1/1 lifelink vampires equal to her power up on her own death, which Teysa would also double up resulting in twice the tokens being spawned. The problem that arises is her inability to kill anything for her own growth.
Let’s say it is turn four and we have two Swamps, two Plains, and control Doomed Dissenter. Do we play Teysa Karlov or Elenda, the Dusk Rose? Even with a lack of any other information, we’re in a situation where we have to pick one over the other. Had we had Archon of Justice in hand instead, the answer is obviously our Commander.
Elenda needs our Doomed Dissenter to die, but she can’t do that herself meaning we rely on our opponents either attacking us or blocking our measly 1/1 if we swing into them. Next turn we would get to drop Teysa Karlov, which was telegraphed by our decision to lead with Elenda, the Dusk Rose. In this situation we’ve put much of our success on our opponents leaving us alone. While this might happen thanks to a threat being elsewhere on the board, it shouldn’t be something we rely on.
What about the other option (other than doing nothing)? Teysa Karlov comes down and our situation is more or less the same: Doomed Dissenter has no way of dying by our own force, but at least if it were to somehow die we would gain two tokens in its place. Elenda comes down next turn and we’ve set the board up to where Elenda now needs attention from our opponents, except now if she dies then we get two 1/1 tokens in her place instead of the one. This means our Commander likely is the proper call. But when its all said and done, the difference is a 2/2 token and a 1/1 token. Nothing to balk at of course, but now imagineArchon of Justice in our hand in addition to all of that.
The point here is that Elenda, the Dusk Rose makes it harder for us to pick the “right” choice. A game of Commander has a large amount of choices. If we can build our deck to have less of these minor choices, the easier it is going to be on ourselves when making the tougher calls. Elenda can be a great card to play in this deck, but ultimately it comes down to needing other pieces on the board like a Viscera Seer so that an additional creature will die. Otherwise, she’s just a 1/1 with lifelink that makes a 1/1 upon death. Top that off with the competition of being a four drop just like our commander and her inclusion in our deck (as far as focus is concerned) becomes questionable.
Dictate of Erebos is a great example of a focused choice for this deck. Doing anything at instant speed should never be understated, and being able to surprise our opponents with an effect that is amplified by our Commander to a damning degree is extremely powerful. Five mana isn’t too steep a price to pay, and once again this doesn’t fight with our Commander on when to play it. This is always a good card to have in play and is only amplified once Teysa Karlov is on the scene. It could even be flashed in when someone blocks our Doomed Dissenter for painful punishment to everyone. It’s overall a great card to have.
I’ve been mentioning Doomed Dissenter so far, but what else is a quality include for the “less than four mana” area of the deck? The answer is “quite a lot, actually.” Ideally this area is setting up for those big payoffs. Blood Artist, Cruel Celebrant, and Pawn of Ulamog are each great cards on their own for the mana-cost-to-ability ratio. Once Teysa Karlov hits the battlefield they become even more dangerous. If we get a turn one Sol Ring into a turn two Teysa, casting those on turn three right after her is done with relative ease thanks to their low mana cost. Other players would still be setting up and would have to sacrifice their own tempo to try and slow us down.
Ultimately this build should focus on setting up early value for creature deaths with the creatures I just mentioned, alongside stuff like Grim Haruspex or Hallowed Spiritkeeper. Follow them up by casting things that have extremely powerful death triggers (and most likely cost more than our Commander) and prosper as all of these things will be doubled thanks to our Commander. It’s also good to have some solid death triggers in the less-than-four-mana slots, like Doomed Traveler, Doomed Dissenter, and Filigree Familiar. But we ideally want to be setting up prosperity from death and Teysa Karlov‘s amplification of it, not telegraphing it.
Your Opponent’s Creature’s Death
Instead of killing our own creatures, we can focus on killing creatures our opponents control. Since Teysa Karlov gives an additional trigger from creatures dying, regardless of who controls them, we can find creatures that care about that. When we start applying the same arguments made in the previous build to this one, we can see that this build is less focused. Sure, it excels at killing our opponents’ creatures, but the payoffs are more expensive and thus even riskier.
First let’s look at Overseer of the Damned. Seven mana gets us a 5/5 flying demon. That’s quite expensive, but once it enters the battlefield we immediately get to kill something an opponent controls. Additionally, the demon creates a 2/2 zombie if we destroyed a nontoken creature this way. All-in-all, this is a good play in this deck. If we have Teysa Karlov, this results in two 2/2 zombies in addition to the 5/5 flying demon. Patron of the Vein is extremely similar: it’s a 4/4 flying vampire who kills a creature an opponent controls when it enters the battlefield, only it puts a +1/+1 counter on each vampire we control including itself. Teysa would make that two +1/+1 counters for every creature that our opponents control that we kill. Lastly, Massacre Wurm costs six, gives us a bit of a board wipe ability, and hits opponents for two life every time one of their creatures dies. Teysa bumps that life loss up to four life per creature.
The three creatures above are extremely powerful if we can fill our deck with removal spells, and are only going to be amplified by Teysa Karlov existing. What’s great about this is that we don’t need to play her on turn four to immediately get those payoffs. Because they cost six or more, casting Teysa on turn four would be less than ideal since she’d be sitting on the battlefield doing nothing. This means we can do things with our four-mana slot that we couldn’t do in a faster deck. Something like Sangromancer or Panharmonicon could go there and not interrupt the flow of our game plan. But we need to be careful not to overload the deck with cards that cost four or more mana; doing so would limit us to playing one card per turn until we have eight mana available. That is not easy in a low-ramp color combination like Orzhov.
As we flesh out this build, a vampire tribal theme is appearing. The previously mentioned Sangromancer and Patron of the Vein are both vampires. Malakir Cullblade and Blood Artist are both vampires that love when opponents’ creatures die and only cost two mana. Cordial Vampire‘s ability is just like Patron of the Vein‘s, but for only two mana. A personal favorite of mine, Blade of the Bloodchief, is a great equipment in a deck that’s all about vampires and death.
With this outline of a deck in mind, this is where the game plan of the deck should start to be defined; when is Teysa coming into play? What do we want to do before and after? Once we answer those questions, the deck can be molded with more focus. This Vampire deck is going to be a bit less focused than our first aristocrats-style build. The smaller vampires that care about killing things will get dangerous, and this could draw attention our way. Our opponents might dismantle our foundation before we can put the roof on for the win. It’s not guaranteed, of course, but it’s something to consider.
This pile of Vampires loves it when our opponents’ creatures die, but it doesn’t do much killing on its own. With a nice suite of removal spells, we should have no trouble feeding our hungry Vampires.
Death, Ah… Finds A Way
The last strategy I want to cover today is one of my favorite strategies overall: All-out tokens. Something I’ve yet to mention about Teysa Karlov is that she gives all of our tokens lifelink and vigilance. This is why something like Doomed Dissenter and Doomed Traveler are great cards in a deck she is leading; when they die, we get two creatures instead of one and she gives them vigilance and lifelink. That’s a sweet deal on its own and that’s not even considering Anointed Procession.
Actually, let’s consider it; this build will be extremely similar to the “my creatures are dying” build that we discussed earlier. Anointed Procession and Elenda, the Dusk Rose both cost four mana, meaning they compete with our Commander. Do we include, one, both, or neither?
Anointed Procession will double any effect we control that makes tokens, which should happen when our creatures die. In a deck that is focused on mass-producing tokens, playing this on turn four instead of our Commander is acceptable. If we have something that will trigger when a creature dies (like Skullclamp), Teysa should be played first so we can get those additional death triggers.
Elenda is a little better in this deck since she makes tokens and that’s our goal, but my previous concerns are still applicable. Her upside is high, and the longer we can keep her alive the better, but she takes a lot of attention to make her work. That’s what we should focus on when we’re deciding whether to include her in a deck.
As mentioned previously, the token build works similarly to the first deck we outlined: we spend the early turns setting up token payoffs and generators, drop Teysa Karlov, and start killing things off to make more tokens. Hallowed Spiritkeeper and Twilight Drover are valuable assets in the deck. Teysa, Orzhov Scion turns any white tokens we make into potential removal. Hangarback Walker is a scale-able thopter-generating machine. We can even include the previously mentioned Overseer of the Damned. The list of deadly token generators is nearly endless; pick your favorites.
Take It From Here
With Teysa Karlov as our Commander, we have a wide array of options, with some similar faces in each distinct build. These concepts make a solid foundation for us to build what we want on top.
My goal was to help you understand the philosophy behind building a focused Commander deck. When building a Commander deck, it’s easy to “slam all the best cards in my Commander’s color identity into the 99.” But that’s much less rewarding than focusing on what we want to do, sculpting our mana curve, and watching the machine we’ve built go to town. Join me next time when I analyze the thirty-one different ways to play Ramos, Dragon Engine.