Dear Azami: Countering To 21

Every once in a while, it takes a fresh set of eyes to unlock a Commander list’s potential! This week, Levi Byrne gives a reader’s Skullbriar, the Walking Grave deck +1/+1 and then some!

As I’m writing this, the full decklists and Spoilers for Commander 2016 have just gone up, and I’ll be honest enough to admit that I don’t know what to think. This set of decks has more new commanders than any previous expansion, and that’s not even taking into account the myriad ways to combine the different legendary creatures with partner. The sheer number of possibilities is a little mind-boggling to sort through, but I do have some initial impressions.

Yidris, Maelstrom Wanderer and Atraxa, Praetor’s Voice are ridiculously strong. Sheldon Menery already wrote about Atraxa recently, but it’s worth restating that there’s just so much you can do with proliferate and her stats are amazing for combat even without buffing her. Yidris will probably take a little more work to be reliable, but once he connects, your spells in hand have cascade. All of them. No, seriously, every spell you cast from your hand that turn has cascade. That’s… a little frightening to think about, if I’m honest.

Breya, Etherium Shaper is disappointing. This is the deck I was looking forward to the most. I’m an artificer at heart and there’s nothing I love more than scrapping together a ridiculous value engine out of clocks, robots and assorted gizmos, but Breya herself is just… lackluster. Requiring two artifacts for every activation, combined with a trio of unexciting payoffs, makes her unexciting compared to any of the already existing artifact-based commanders. She’ll still see play, but more because people want to play W/U/B/R artifacts than because someone wants to build around the card itself.

Saskia the Unyielding might make aggro viable. Aggro has long been the black sheep of Commander. The nature of the format discourages just turning creatures sideways outside of a few niche tribal decks. (I’ve been killed by Nafs Asps and Hornet Cobras more than I would care to admit) I might be wildly off the mark here, but I think Saskia might finally be the commander that enables a “generic” aggressive strategy without being forced to rely on token generators or tight tribal restrictions.

In the next month or so I’ll be writing about these new legendary creatures a lot more, but for now it’s time to turn back to something a little… older.

Dear Azami,

I’ve been playing this deck for several years with good success. Started out as mostly combat tricks, then changed over to Zombie tribal, now it’s more about +1/+1 counters with a few combos thrown in, some as wincons, another for how silly it is. Each iteration of the deck has had pretty good results but it feels like it needs some fine-tuning and I’m simply out of ideas.

Commander – Skullbriar, the Walking Grave

Fleshbag Marauder

Erebos, God of the Dead

Vhati il-Dal

Deathrite Shaman

Death’s Shadow

Melira, Sylvok Outcast

Spike Weaver

Varolz, the Scar-Striped

Scavenging Ooze

Mirri the Cursed

Drana, Liberator of Malakir

Creakwood Liege

Corpsejack Menace

Forgotten Ancient

Nylea, God of the Hunt

Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon

Mer-Ek Nightblade

Spike Feeder

Aquastrand Spider

Birds of Paradise

Acidic Slime

Cytoplast Root-Kin

Eternal Witness

Fungal Behemoth

Kalonian Hydra

Mikaeus, the Unhallowed


Tainted Strike

Sudden Spoiling

Phyrexian Arena


Jarad’s Orders

Inspiring Call

Doubling Season

Hunger of the Howlpack

Increasing Savagery

Blessings of Nature

Akroma’s Memorial

Ring of Kalonia


Predatory Hunger

Hardened Scales

Forced Adaptation


Liliana of the Dark Realms

Sol Ring

Mana Reflection

Devoted Druid


Hero’s Downfall

Geth’s Verdict



Krosan Grip

Tragic Slip




Worldly Tutor

Demonic Tutor

Tooth and Nail


Squirrel Nest

Llanowar Reborn

Volrath’s Stronghold

Golgari Rot Farm

Woodland Cemetery

9 Forest

Phyrexian Tower

Cabal Coffers

Shizo, Death’s Storehouse

Oran-Rief, the Vastwood

Overgrown Tomb

8 Swamp

Command Tower


Reliquary Tower

High Market

Bojuka Bog

Llanowar Wastes

Opal Palace

Temple of the False God

Tainted Wood

Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

– Will

I’ll admit, I never considered making a Zombie tribal deck with Skullbriar at the helm. Even though Will’s deck has moved away from that direction, it made me laugh to read that little tidbit, as it was just so different from anything I’d seen done with the Golgari Zombie… Plant… Thing.

As Will points out, this deck’s biggest issue is that it lacks a clear focus. There are a handful of synergies with +1/+1 counters, half a dozen or so infinite combos, a healthy dash of standalone powerful cards, a lot of removal, and some tutors to tie it all together.

Now, if something stood out from the list, there’s a reason for that. Whenever two of the main categories in a deck are “infinite combos” and “tutors,” you’re going to run into a problem. I know Will said the combos are there half-jokingly, and the Earthcraft / Squirrel Nest interaction is silly enough to be just that, as soon as you have half of any of the combos, there’s no reason to do anything but tutor for the other half and win. That reduces a deck’s potential to “how can I find my combo this game” and makes any of the other tricks your deck is capable of largely irrelevant. To fight this problem, I’m going to drastically cut down on both the combos and the tutors the list is running and focus on beefing up the “+1/+1 counters matter” theme…although Earthcraft / Squirrel Nest is funny enough and the cards are individually useful enough that I’m leaving it in.

The Creatures


It’s probably a bit weird that, after saying I was going to be increasing the counter synergies, the first card I’m cutting is Aquastrand Spider. To put it simply, there’s a better option out there and this is a straight one-for-one upgrade.

Devoted Druid; Mikaeus, the Unhallowed; and Quillspike are all falling victim to my purge of the infinite combos, although even if I weren’t doing this, Mikaeus would still be getting cut. His undying ability is where most of his power comes from and your deck is actively working to put counters on every creature, so there’s no reason to keep him in.

Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon is a powerful good-stuff card that tends to be pretty polarizing, but given that it’s your only infect creature and the only real combat trick to pair with it is Berserk (which doesn’t even result in a one-shot kill and then immediately kills your only infecter), it doesn’t really do anything for this list.

Fleshbag Marauder and Vhati il-Dal are both weird pseudo-removal that are most often going to be very inefficient compared to your other options. Fleshbag Marauder will usually clean up a few tokens or weak utility creatures, while Vhati most often results in you losing a blocker to take down an attacker, and while it’s possible to build around him, there isn’t really room in this list.

And finally I’m getting rid of Death’s Shadow. This is the card that surprised me the most when I was reading the list originally. I guess it combos with Varolz, the Scar-Striped, but… really? If you draw it and not the Troll, you’re stuck with a literally useless card until three-fourths of your health is gone. That’s a scary proposition at best and utterly futile at worst.


Longshot Squad and Tuskguard Captain act as lords for all of your creatures with counters, and their abilities are passive, so you don’t have to constantly pay for the abilities like you did with Aquastrand Spider. Sakura-Tribe Elder is a cheap piece of ramp that isn’t vulnerable to removal like Devoted Druid was, so with the combo potential gone, this is just an easy upgrade.

Reyhan, Last of the Abzan is a very powerful effect to have on tap. As long as Reyhan’s out, you’ll get to keep a large portion of the power from any of your creatures that die in play. This is especially potent with Skullbriar, and whenever your commander dies, Reyhan will store those counters on some creature while Skullbriar also returns them in the command zone. Once you replay Skullbriar, it should be a simple matter to sacrifice the creature Reyhan originally put the counters on and transfer them back to your commander, essentially doubling its power.

Realm Seekers is generally a massive creature, as in 20/20 or bigger, and it lets you turn counters into a steady stream of lands late in the game, thinning your deck and gaining massive amounts of mana.

Our last creature being added is Vigor, and this is the creature that you want more than any other at the top of your curve. Turning any incoming damage into counters and keeping all of your creatures alive despite damage makes combat miserable for all of your opponents and gives you a surprising amount of inevitability that persists past the point where Vigor itself dies. It’s surprisingly easy to rack up the counters with this card on the battlefield.

The Planeswalkers


As a land search engine, Liliana of the Dark Realms is okay, but you only have eight Swamps in the list and I’m concerned that her minus ability will very often be irrelevant. Add in the fact that people get justifiably twitchy about you getting anywhere near her ultimate, and it’s going to be very rare that she gives you any benefits other than searching one to three Swamps to your hand. To put it simply, you can do better.

The Spells


Most of the cuts in this section are very simple. Jarad’s orders and Worldly Tutor are getting cut to lower the number of tutors in the deck and make it harder to win out of nowhere. As for the other three, you had a rather large surplus of spot removal, and out of all the options, Dismember, Geth’s Verdict, and Asphyxiate were the least flexible and most conditional. Asphyxiate in particular just doesn’t belong in a tuned deck; there are so many better options to be had out there.


It’s an old truism of Commander to simply “play your Fogs,” and that goes simply beyond the potential to swing combat during a crucial turn in a race. If your opponents know there’s a chance for you to simply negate a huge alpha strike, they’re less likely to commit to an attack that could kill you if you don’t have the Fog.

As for why I chose Hindervines over any of the other options, the ability to have your creatures still deal damage is worth the two extra mana and the fact that some of your opponents’ creatures will still be able to deal damage through this spell.

The Enchantments


I’ve spoken at length about how strong Reyhan is in this deck, and Death’s Presence is an even more powerful version of that effect. Turning every death into more power for your team means that anything short of a full battlefield wipe won’t set your plans back by much, if at all.

There were several Auras I considered for the slot that Sadistic Glee eventually wound up filling, including Ferocity and Primal Cocoon, but in the end I decided to continue on with the theme of gaining strength from death. As long as this is out, every token your opponents chump block with, every creature they sacrifice, every threat someone kills will turn into more power for Skullbriar, power that never goes away.

Unspeakable Symbol lets you pay life to add counters to any creature at instant speed, which is mostly useful to pump up Skullbriar itself but it can also give you an almost unlimited amount of combat tricks that can make math impossible for your opponents. It’s a risky card, sure, but if any deck can take advantage of it, it’s this one.

Finally we come to Primal Vigor, the mutant child of Doubling Season and Hardened Scales. This isn’t the best deck to take full advantage of Primal Vigor’s power, as you lack a significant token engine or theme, but another way to max out counters is very welcome. It is worth noting that it helps anyone playing with +1/+1 counters or tokens, so depending on your metagame, this might be worth leaving out of the deck.

The Artifacts


Part of gravitating towards the +1/+1 counters plan is that killing through commander damage becomes a much more likely outcome of your standard gameplan. With this in mind I wanted to include an Equipment card that would help protect Skullbriar and make sure you could punch through for the final kill. I considered various Swords, but in the end nothing really compares to the unique power of Whispersilk Cloak. That’s a weird sentence to put on paper, but if you really don’t care about the value those triggers give you and just want to make sure you can force a single creature through in combat turn after turn, Whispersilk Cloak is far superior to something like Sword of Feast and Famine.

Bow of Nylea is one of the most versatile effects out there. In addition to the obvious threat of granting any and all attackers you control deathtouch for free, it can also provide a steady stream of +1/+1 counters (especially relevant in this list), gain life every turn, shoot down the occasional flyer, or recycle dead cards from your graveyard into your deck. That is a frighteningly versatile package and one that’s well worth three mana.

Contagion Engine serves a dual purpose, acting as a slow (if player-specific) battlefield wipe and one of your best ways to gain advantage in a long game by skyrocketing the speed at which you can make your team bigger. An extra two counters on every creature every turn cycle adds up quickly, and that’s putting aside any fringe applications that proliferating twice a turn can have in a game.

Putting it all together, we arrive at the finished decklist:

Skullbriar, the Walking Grave
Levi Byrne
Test deck on 11-01-2016

And the additions, sorted by price.



Longshot Squad


Tuskguard Captain




Sadistic Glee


Death’s Presence


Unspeakable Symbol


Whispersilk Cloak


Realm Seekers


Sakura-Tribe Elder


Bow of Nylea


Reyhan, Last of the Abzan


Contagion Engine


Primal Vigor






The changes add up to $49.20, although most of that price tag is tied up in the two most expensive cards. I tried to stay away from G/B “good stuff” in favor of giving this deck an identity of its own, which skewed my additions towards niche cards that aren’t useful in many strategies and therefore cost a lot less. Greater Good and Lord of Extinction are amazing cards, but they wouldn’t have done anything to help this deck find its identity.

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