Dear Azami – Commanding The Darkness (Part One)

Sean takes a good look at the new Generals available for Commanding, starting with Mikaeus, the Unhallowed. This six-drop lets you control your own undying army!

A new set is upon us, and that means we have new Commanders to consider and new cards to put into decks. This is my “set review” of Commander, and I’m splitting it up into two parts that should be very obviously divided—in this first half, we’ll talk about the new Commanders you can build a deck around, while in the second half (on Thursday), I’ll have a more comprehensive look at every other card in the set for its role and benefits in the Commander card pool.

Today, then, we have two cards to talk about: Mikaeus, the Unhallowed, and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. One good, one evil, though which is which depends on your morality I suspect… six-drops that are fair but flavorful are “good,” while commanders that might prevent other people from playing their cards are “evil,” mixing up the traditional mores of white versus black magic. Both capture the imagination with potential and can be as fun or as un-fun as you want based on how hard you jam in the direction of your choosing. Who doesn’t like free recursion on their creatures? Who doesn’t like an efficient bear that throws a gear in the works for the opponent?

Let us delve elbows-deep into the darkness, then, and have a look at Mikaeus, the Unhallowed.

Mikaeus is interesting and special as a tribal lord because he cares not what tribe you are, only what tribe you are not. Vampires? Werewolves? Treefolk? Zombies? Beebles? Welcome back for a second go. Humans? Sorry, friend, there’s no room at the party, and you’re not on the VIP list. (I guess that means you’re on the RIP list?)

Mikaeus also offers a decent-sized body with Intimidate, but at that same price you can have Geth, Lord of the Vaults, a powerful critter indeed, so you need more than just stats to go for him here. There is also a conditional ‘No Mercy’ effect that kills any human that touches you, but Commander is more the land of the Eldrazi, Dragons, and Sphinxes these days than a realm of human tribe attackers. This is stapled on for free, but it’s not much in this format, so it is an extra bonus attached to the thing you’re really trying to do: pump and recur non-Human creatures via the Undying mechanic.

Mikaeus offers a size bonus to everything that fits the classification of “not one of those guys over there,” and thus is just fine as a vampire tribal lord, zombie tribal lord, or “loose collection of creatures of whatever type hanging out with each other” tribal lord. Size bonuses are good but not where the real profit is to be found, for that lies with the ability to add the Undying mechanic to any creature card you play, and this benefit is sheer gold if you can find some meaningful way to sacrifice creatures for a profit.

We’re going to build the sketch of a Mikaeus the Unhallowed deck, then, and see where we can take advantage of what this commander has to offer. I’m going to start with a basic theme—Zombie tribal—even though it isn’t required, it sure is fun, and Mikaeus works excellently as a Zombie tribal lord because there is nothing Zombies like more than a second chance at undeath. They already sacrifice for fun and profit pretty regularly, and it is just making that into something you get to do twice that is where Mikaeus will shine.

Zombie tribal suggests some graveyard interplay, so the rough sketch starts with interaction around sacrifice-for-profit and mass recursion mechanisms. Living Death, Patriarch’s Bidding, and Twilight’s Call are our “money cards,” where the ability to profit will really shine, and setup cards that go with it are going to be how we turn this into an actual profit mechanism instead of just a mish-mash assortment of cards. Working on ways to get double our value, it was immediately clear that Persist is just going to be bonkers here, as the overlap between Persist and Undying effectively makes a creature that never, ever stays dead. Mikaeus + a sacrifice outlet + Puppeteer Clique gets you as much of “whatever” as you can accomplish, be it a stolen comes-into-play effect or a bit of mana from Ashnod’s Altar or even infinite counters on a Spawning Pit (if that’s your thing). Mikaeus also suggests what some of our support cards will be, by letting us step away from spells and towards non-zombie creatures because there will still be a benefit… deciding between Doom Blade, Go for the Throat, and Victim of Night is easy—play Shriekmaw instead! Bone Shredder looks pretty awesome when it kills two things instead of one, also.

But where things got really interesting was when I stumbled on Spike Cannibal. Feed everyone to a sacrifice outlet for some sort of profit… check. Get them all back a little bit bigger… check. Play Spike Cannibal, get a huge monster, and reset everyone to be eaten yet another time? Yes please!

Without trying too hard to break him—after all, more ways to eat counters or apply -1/-1 counters would let you go loop-crazy with Mikaeus and pretty much anything—I worked up the following decklist as a good first effort at enjoying what Mikaeus the Unhallowed has to offer:

Can you push Mikaeus further? Absolutely. A tribe isn’t required, after all, to make Mikaeus effective—Zombie tribal was just a good unifying point to rally behind and make some flavorful decisions pretty early on. The tribe of “things that are good to sacrifice” is an admirable tribe as well, though not one you can name with Patriarch’s Bidding. Suddenly you have Kagemaro, First to Suffer on creature control duties, Martyr of Bones playing support in a vital role to prevent the opponents from recurring useful creatures off your mass-resurrection spells, Augur of Skulls getting jiggy with the opponents’ hand, Fleshwrither doing some interesting tutor-like action, and Phyrexian Plaguelord works overtime killing everybody that needs to die.

Persist isn’t the only way to get interesting with Mikaeus the Unhallowed. Add Carnifex Demon to your side of the board and things get real messy: since he comes into play with -1/-1 counters on him to begin with, he is Undying forever, and can do the same ‘trick’ that Puppeteer Clique has of feeding whatever an unlimited number of times. However, the fact that it starts with two, and can pass one around, potentially confers this benefit a surprisingly large number of times instead of the ‘just once’ that Cauldron of Souls allows for, since it can reset someone’s undead state. Fume Spitter is likewise a little interesting, though certainly not unbounded, as the context of the -1/-1 counter is completely different than what we normally think of with this particular little guy… targeting your creature?

Harbinger of Night slow-plays a similar trick to that which Carnifex Demon excels, though the traditional problem of having to worry about eroding your own creatures as you shrink everyone else’s is actually reversed for once. Pith Driller can pretend to have Persist if that is all you want to accomplish, so the ‘moving pieces’ are plentiful—in fact, I didn’t even realize that was a trick Skinrender could also perform until I stumbled upon Pith Driller and applied brainpower to the problem! Pushing further, Soul Snuffers is pretty awesome too since it keeps your combo infinite and kills every creature that you don’t control, though Mikaeus will eventually die so it is not literally unbounded in and of itself.

Mikaeus pulls us in interesting directions, which I am sure I have only begun to explore, and I look forward to seeing a more developed Mikaeus the Unhallowed deck in my inbox over these next few weeks to take a second look at the shenanigans available if only you try to push the envelope. We will move on, for now at least, to our other compatriot newly added to the format: Thalia, Guardian of Thraben

Mikaeus technically has infinite combos if only you try a little, but it is Thalia that I consider the evil Commander. Commander is a format of big, expensive spells that swing the game massively, and Thalia combines with a mana-denial strategy to simply prevent your opponents from ever playing anything of relevance. Push the envelope far enough and you start to hit literally un-fun territory that causes people to not want to play Magic with you anymore, and even question whether you are the kind of person they can trust to cat-sit for them over a long vacation. Small woodland creatures fear your name, if you push Thalia far enough.

Mana denial is the dark taboo of Commander, and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben loves it all. Winter Orb, Armageddon and its expensive twin Ravages of War, Smokestacks, everything works as part of the puzzle when it starts self-assembling every game with Thalia on turn two. Do you have to pursue that avenue as a matter of course? Thankfully, no, you don’t—much like how Isamaru, Hound of Konda is potentially a quite playable white beatdown commander, Thalia is a potent aggressive tool that can justify playing a basic aggressive rush deck and expect to actually pull the game off fairly often. As a mix of disruption and efficiency, I literally cannot think of her match in a vast card-pool, which is why already Drew Levin is writing her love letters in Legacy. Simple beatdown rarely works in Commander, but Thalia is anything but simple—she attacks, yes, but the disruptive impact that comes immediately upon the flow of the game warps it from what you thought was going to happen to what actually does happen very readily.

Commander is a greedy, mana-hungry format, and we do not like being asked to sit still even longer than usual before we get to play with our toys. Thalia enforces this “time out,” however, whether we want to or not. That makes her a well-designed card indeed—it is very hard to design a Constructed staple that has impact in Vintage, Legacy, Standard, and even Commander.

Just sticking with the beatdown plan will be deadly effective in one-on-one Commander, though I do not usually bother to venture into the realm of this particular variant… it does at least bear mentioning. A good, clean, honest Thalia deck will be quite exceptional there, starting with the usual garden variety assortment of efficient beatdown creatures and not having to get too fancy in order to clock the opponent for the requisite 40 before they stop you dead in your tracks. Low blows won’t be needed, Savannah Lions come in several different names at this point and are highly effective when followed by Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, then Mirran Crusader into Hero of Bladehold. It is a perfectly honorable game-plan, and is in fact is even legal in Standard if you don’t mind playing a Human instead of getting your Cat on, as Savannah Lions has been playable as Elite Vanguard for some time now.

But what do you get if you embrace evil, make no bones about your failure to abide by the gentleman’s contract and aim to torment instead of interact? That, after all, is the danger of Thalia—as a Thorn of Amethyst that attacks for two, but more importantly can be played on turn two from the command zone, you can start locking down the game systematically with shocking regularity. “Stax” has been an excellent deck in Vintage for almost a decade now, which is to say it has probably been a defining part of that format for considerably longer than that and I’ve embarrassed myself by not having an accurate timeline of the format… sorry, I didn’t have the leisure to fact-check this by rifling through ten thousand pages of Stephen Menendian and Oscar Tan to unearth the chronological origins of “let’s play Spheres and Smokestacks together!” and the date of birth of the puppy-tormentor in “Type One.”

Braids, Cabal Minion was banned as a commander for her sins of ‘letting you play Stax in Commander.’ Erayo, Soratami Ascendant was shown the same door for the same reason, though arguably Erayo was much better at this task and could potentially just make for a game in which the opponent literally never successfully cast a spell much more often than anyone was comfortable with. Does it stretch the imagination very hard to think that Thalia, Guardian of Thraben needs to be watched closely, lest she repeat the same trick?

In addition to wanting to be ‘pure evil’ instead of ‘a person who has fun and with whom Sheldon Menery would be willing to play a game of Commander,’ Thalia (by asking you to play ‘Stax’) ultimately follows a lot of the same guidelines Stax does in Vintage—since Tangle Wire and Smokestack are part of your overall game-plan, you want to focus heavily on cards that count as permanents. Armageddon effects will happen early and often, and mana will overall be highly restricted, so keeping your mana costs as low as possible is the required first step of action and thus some very surprising card choices will make it into your commander deck just in order to stay on-curve. Creatures that cost 1-3 mana are in the comfortable ideal, 4 is hard but do-able, while five is the effective limit and to cost more than that you are going to have to be downright awesome since otherwise you’re basically just never going to happen.

Building with my evil hat on hurt my soul, but it is certainly something I am willing to do for the right reasons.

For this one, I’m actually hoping reader submissions will break the other way—prove to me that you can play Thalia responsibly, and I will be pleased and humbled.

See you again on Thursday, when we look at the non-legendary-creature cards in Dark Ascension, and see what other interesting new toys we get to play with for Commander!

Sean McKeown

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