Dear Azami: Facing The Hydras

Sean continues to try to tighten up the strategic level of Dear Azami this week with James’ tribal Hydra deck led by Rosheen Meanderer.

Dear Azami,

I’ve been playing Magic for about a year now. My play group plays mostly Commander, and I have few decks that I consider to be okay—not terrible but not great either. Recently (for the past few months) I’ve been kicking around the idea for a deck that uses Hydra beatdown and spellslinging to deal most of the damage.

When I play the deck, I generally get wiped out pretty quick due to my play groups’ vastly superior damage and combo-heavy decks that seem to take out everyone at once without so much as batting an eye. 

Recently I found Rosheen Meanderer and have been editing to switch her into the commander role instead of Ulasht, the Hate Seed. I was hoping you could give me some feedback about the changes I should make and how I can gain some survivability or buff my speed up.


Rosheen Meanderer


Ulasht, the Hate Seed
Khalni Hydra
Savageborn Hydra
Apocalypse Hydra
Clockwork Hydra
Stuffy Doll
Core Prowler
Garruk’s Horde
Thromok the Insatiable
Dragon Broodmother
Karametra’s Acolyte
Wort, the Raidmother
Naya Soulbeast
Plaguemaw Beast
Silklash Spider
Crater Hellion
Flameblast Dragon
Feral Hydra
Volcano Hellion
Rubblebelt Raiders
Gyre Sage
Protean Hydra
Vastwood Hydra
Mistcutter Hydra
Phyrexian Hydra
Ivy Lane Denizen
Sylvan Caryatid
Primordial Hydra
Hydra Omnivore
Molten Hydra
Kalonian Hydra


Ashnod’s Altar
Bow of Nylea
Gruul Keyrune
Khalni Gem
Throne of Geth
Contagion Clasp
Door of Destinies
Gruul Signet
Contagion Engine
Doubling Cube


Fires of Yavimaya
Primal Vigor
Leyline of Vitality
Ooze Flux
Parallel Lives
Gruul War Chant
Doubling Season
Feed the Pack
Ordeal of Nylea
Ordeal of Purphoros

Instants & Sorceries

Sprouting Vines
Volt Charge
Decree of Savagery
Street Spasm
Increasing Vengeance
Savage Twister
Clan Defiance
Devil’s Play
Increasing Savagery
Wave of Indifference
Kodama’s Reach
Armed // Dangerous
Lava Burst
Hull Breach


Garruk Wildspeaker


Terramorphic Expanse
Evolving Wilds
Stomping Ground
Kazandu Refuge
Temple of Abandon
Skarrg, the Rage Pits
8 Forest
8 Mountain
Pinecrest Ridge
Gruul Turf
Gruul Guildgate
Llanowar Reborn

– James

As quite a surprise to you and myself, I’m here again—the usual pattern of alternating with Cassidy got disrupted this week by a family emergency that may very well require putting higher priorities in their proper place for the near future. As it is not presently clear how long that will take, our illustrious content coordinator Cedric and I have tapped David McDarby to stand in for Cassidy while he is away. But with everyone except for me playing at the SCG Invitational in Las Vegas this past weekend, it was clear I was the guy with the free time this week to play deck doctor.

Which brings us sooner than expected to the second attempt at tightening up the strategic level of our discourse here to hit on a harder strategic level than we had been operating at lately. This week we’re picking up Rosheen Meanderer, which we have covered once before but will now cover in a considerably less fluffy bunnies capacity than that X spell-laden funfest.

I’ll be honest—you had my attention completely at “Hydra tribal,” and I think we can work something out that adequately meets your needs. Some of it will be balance, and a little of it will be finesse. But yours looks like a deck that enjoys relying on brute force, so we’re going to get to that as our main focus and build to beat down. In order to hit the sweet spot, we’re going to want to look at Rosheen’s strategic impact to the deck here and let the choice of the commander inform all of our other plays.

With our plan of action being to cast Rosheen and then start dropping Hydras out far fatter than they would normally be as quickly as possible, we want to add enough mana-ramp cards to have a reasonable chance of playing your commander on turn 3, which we’ll follow up on turn 4 with an X-spell Hydra that can start beating down. We want to focus on dealing damage quickly, as that is the best defense your colors really allow to a combo deck.

Bludgeoning speed will be more useful to you than a focus on reactive countermeasures; your plan of action is effectively to rely on other opponents uniting alongside you if it’s one combo deck versus three fairer decks, and you can leave "controlling the board" to them as they’ll be far better at it. We’ll focus on providing the clock, which will be more relevant if there is more than one combo deck anyway. If you’re routinely running into combo-thick games, the price of playing a faster game is playing less of a controlling game, so making big monsters and turning them sideways is a solid component of a good Plan A.

To begin, this deck requires massive restructuring—you do not have enough lands to operate consistently. To give you a point of comparison, your 26 lands would be sufficient for a control deck in a 60-card format, and here you have 99, not 60. A comparably mana-heavy count would be 43, and since we’re going to play some mana acceleration effects, we don’t need to hit that high level. But we do need to hit a basic amount that will ensure you get to play your first four lands consistently at the bare minimum. We’ll cut out ten cards later, but first things first we have eleven additions to make and one cut. Pinecrest Ridge is just not a very good dual land; we can get a better one very easily and will swap it out as we’re making upgrades.

IN: 2x Forest, 1x Mountain; Mosswort Bridge, Spinerock Knoll, Oran-Rief, the Vastwood, Mossfire Valley, Rootbound Crag, Thawing Glaciers, Winding Canyons, Kessig Wolf Run

The latter is the most important one of all to me. With Rosheen able to provide a large burst of mana on the cheap, our goal is to turn this into damage as consistently and quickly as possible, and having a land that can act as a Fireball effect every turn through the combat phase is an excellent bonus.

Usually I break decks apart in four sections: lands, artifacts, other spells, and creatures. Today I’m just going to pull everything that should come out and explain why it’s getting cut and then add back into the deck in batches since putting everything together based on permanent type doesn’t really fit today.

Cutting Down To The Essential Essence

Ashnod’s Altar, Doubling Cube, Gruul Keyrune, Khalni Gem – We need to focus our mana generation effects on the desired curve of the deck. Building on a curve so that you consistently play a strong fast game will help you provide a clear challenge to combo decks far better than any specific card added to defend against them ever will, so mana acceleration effects that don’t help you get to four mana are going to need some real justifying if we’re going to play them. None of these really suggest themselves as relevant to that overall plan, so these are being cut to make room for the lands you need at the base of the deck in order to play a consistent game.

Mirari – We are going to have a considerably less spell-focused deck than before; yes, we are still going to have a fair bit of top-end X spells to go crazy with, but just casting them will do a good enough job most of the time. In the games where you’re really under pressure from a combo deck to clock them while you still can, taking a turn to play Mirari does not actually get you there faster.

The need to take that much time off just to get more of an already good thing is going to be why we cut a fair number of cards because when it comes to a game of Magic I’m not really an optimist, just a very friendly-seeming pessimist. The pessimist’s view of Mirari is that instead of spending three less on X to get double an awesome thing you’ll play this thing that doesn’t do anything right away and then quite possibly die before it does anything worthwhile. Eight mana before you even get the first copy is too much mana; heck, I’m going to cut something that effectively gives you a copy for two mana, so eight is certainly too much.

Throne of Geth – I like proliferating in a counter-based deck. I do not think you really have enough artifacts—certainly after I’ve gutted half of them—to use this consistently with anything other than itself. I have no problem paying mana to proliferate; this however sounds like it will end up being Spellbomb of Proliferate to me, which is not good enough to include it.

Primal Vigor, Parallel Lives, Doubling Season – Taking time off for a setup card gets in the way of beating down. I’m not convinced that these do enough to warrant inclusion, and they slow you down in the near term in order to offer longer-term benefits for only some of your cards. I simply do not think the benefits they are offering benefit enough of your cards to make them worthwhile here.

Leyline of Vitality, Ooze Flux, Gruul War Chant, Feed the Pack, Ordeal of Nylea, Ordeal of Purphoros – I think we have too many enchantment-based buffs here that would be trying to build profitably on exchanging resource classes while having a Doubling Season effect in play to magnify the benefits. The Ordeals are slightly more tempting because they’d pretty reliably trigger off of most of your creatures, but by the time you’re attacking with a big fatty you don’t really want the spell side of Ordeal of Nylea. And the spell side of Ordeal of Purphoros is not something that is really solid in Commander—Lightning Bolt is less good against people starting at 40 or with huge monsters instead of little ones.

Volt Charge, Increasing Savagery, Increasing Vengeance – I was pretty glum on the prospect of Mirari being worth including here, and I’m pretty down on Increasing Vengeance working out well for us here either. I’d rather focus on having more things than more enablers, and that means paring away a lot of the second tier of enablers like this one. Increasing Savagery is "just" an efficient creature buff, and I need to see more out of the card before wanting it. Volt Charge suffers the same problem as Ordeal of Purphoros—the removal spell part is basically no good—though it does have the advantage that it proliferates all of your guys, not just one of them. These just aren’t working the way I’d want them to, and I’d rather focus on more threats and playing threats faster instead of buffing them after.

Sprouting Vines – We need more effective mana ramping than this, as we want to use all of our slots such as this one in a way that can actually put Rosheen Meanderer into play on turn 3. While I do appreciate the desire to get more lands into play long term, that job has been given to Thawing Glaciers in this slot instead.

Revive, Hull Breach – A limited Regrowth isn’t doing very much for you here, and in fact I’m not so enamored of Regrowth that I would even suggest it in this slot instead. I just don’t think accessing your graveyard is going to do very much since you don’t go through that many cards over the course of a game. Hull Breach has good versatility and can even be card advantage, but it has the disadvantage of sorcery speed. If you’re trying to break up a combo deck that is trying to kill you, waiting until your turn to do it is the exact wrong time to do it because you should already be dead.

Windstorm, Enrage, Savage Twister, Wave of Indifference, Fireball, Lava Burst – We can find better X spells if we try. I think the balance is about right but the exact named cards are not the most powerful versions we could be playing. I’d rather replace them in order to get a better fit.

Clockwork Hydra – Without the doubling enchantments this is no longer a potentially good investment, and I’d like to add a better Hydra in its place.

Core Prowler, Plaguemaw Beast – Proliferate may be good, but it’s not good enough to play these cards just to get it.

Naya Soulbeast – I think we need to manage our expectations of what this is going to get us. Since it doesn’t have an X in the cost, we need to accept that we aren’t accelerating into it. It’s not a four-drop like a Feral Hydra with X=7 would be, and we have to question whether it is going to have more than the equivalent amount of counters at all consistently. Any player who has a Sensei’s Divining Top will show you a land, and any opponent (or yourself) will show a land with something like 40% consistency.

Let’s posit that one player has a Top, one player whiffs by showing a land, and two players show a spell. How big is that spell? Out of your own deck, a fair number of cards cost one or two thanks to the X factor; they are big spells, yes, but there is a low cost printed on the card. So you’re giving either zero or around two, and the other person flipping a spell has to make it quite a high drop indeed in order to get eight mana’s worth of value out of this card. I’m certain we can do better without trying too hard.

Stuffy Doll – If you had more ways to deal damage to all creatures than just Savage Twister, this would be more interesting to me. As it is, I assume this is just playing defense and threatening to deal damage via blocking, which is not a very aggressive stance at all. I’d rather pick an aggressive stance for this deck than a defensive one.

Phyrexian Hydra – Yes, it is a Hydra, but boooooo infect.

Sylvan Caryatid, Gyre Sage – While I do want to play Rosheen Meanderer on turn 3 and Caryatid helps with that, I would prefer to do it in such a way that didn’t involve the mana disappearing the first time a sweeper effect hit the board, so I want to ramp lands into play, not tap creatures to do it. Gyre Sage doesn’t even ramp for Meanderer on time thanks to needing to evolve first, and while we can get a lot of mana out of it if we try to, I think trying to leads to collateral damages when trying for a win-more effect.

Rosheen will help make individual threats bigger well enough; there is not a lot of difference between a Hydra for seven and one for eleven as far as your beatdown plan is concerned, but overextending and being down too many cards to recover is a real problem for a deck that is not really playing any card-draw effects that help us to catch up again.

Ivy Lane Denizen – While it does give out counters, it kind of stinks when it tries to do so.

Rubblebelt Raiders – I really like this critter and even think we’re going to see its price explode like Nightveil Specter’s did if the Demigods work the way I think they do and the R/G one is any good. When beating down however it’s better with token hordes than it is with honest cardboard played out one by one as attackers, so I don’t think it really fits your aggro plan.

Volcano Hellion – You’re never ever going to pay the echo, and is the spell part of the effect worth it? My answer of "cut it" suggests I don’t think so; perhaps your results have been better than mine, but the price to kill something of meaning is just too damn high here.

Flameblast Dragon – While it is true there is an X in the activation cost and thus you’d get to cast a Fireball effect each turn, I am not convinced this is the right card to try and do it with.

Putting it all together, we have a 70-card deck:

With 29 slots to fill back in, I want to boost the power of your X spells, give you a bit more resistance against combo decks, and strengthen the Hydra-powered beatdown plan. Let’s get to work!

Nowhere To Run, Nowhere To Hydra

Let’s begin with the faster mana package that will help accelerate to strong starts:

Sol Ring, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Rampant Growth, Nature’s Lore, Farseek, Explore, Edge of Autumn, Cultivate – While it’s true that Cultivate will never by itself assist in getting Rosheen Meanderer into play early, it and Kodama’s Reach are the cheapest way to put two lands into play (eventually) that we have available. We could focus on the Explosive Vegetation package of four potent ramp effects, but with the four-drop serving as the ideal time to drop our commander, they don’t really fit the game-plan even if they are powerful cards. These other seven plus your Gruul Signet all help to put Rosheen into play fast, which will help steady your beatdown plan by following through on turn 4 with a large monster.

We could play more of these if we wanted to, but we start to see diminishing returns as we add more—Search for Tomorrows is only good on turn one, Three Visits is a hard-to-acquire Portal Three Kingdoms common that is $25 just to get a duplicate copy of Nature’s Lore, and as much as I love Mana Crypt, I admit it is an incredibly expensive threshold to cross for any Commander player. And the last noncreature option, Into the North, requires Snow lands and is not necessarily worth the investment in upgrading twenty basics. The ones we’ve selected are all of the ones we can get without having to stretch too far to do it, and thus I stop where we are and stop short of investing in the Elf and Bird class of cards since those die far too easily

Genesis Wave, Strength of the Tajuru – You didn’t include either of these X spells despite your clear love for +1/+1 counters and the awesome benefits to be reaped by accelerating into an early Genesis Wave. While people hate huge Genesis Waves and the combo decks they enable and it is true that Genesis Wave kind of stinks when you have a lot of potential 0/0 creatures to flip over, a turn 4 Genesis Wave for five has the potential to ramp you up and put a fair number of actual creatures into play, and every turn thereafter your outcomes just get bigger and better. Strength of the Tajuru is my answer to your proliferation problem—just drop a pile of counters on a pile of dudes—and unlike Increasing Savagery this gets buffed by Rosheen Meanderer. Your deck deserves a better quality of X spells.

Comet Storm, Red Sun’s Zenith – Two more Fireball effects that unlike Lava Burst have clear upsides to play them. Red Sun’s Zenith shuffles back into your deck for potential reuse later on, which makes it a notable upgrade for a minimal cost, while Comet Storm can Fireball out multiple opponents at the same time and take out multiple creatures all for a surprisingly affordable price.

Starstorm, Molten Disaster – We work on your creature removal suite with these two, and Molten Disaster has the additional benefit of being able to kill people with split second and no chance of intervention as long as you’ve softened them up first. When playing a red deck it is about the most powerful card you can draw in a beatdown deck because it kills people dead no-negotiation; yours is not a color combination that has much leverage in the negotiation department. Starstorm takes your Savage Twister and upgrades it to an instant, which is a serious benefit to add to the card given that you’re very light just in general in the "defense" department.

Tribal Unity – Our last X spell is a forgotten doozy that’s able to turn Team Hydra into Team Tramples Your Face In, giving us a reason to go tribal in the first place and a powerful card to use with Rosheen Meanderer. Between this and Enrage, I’ll go with the Overrun effect.

Overwhelming Stampede – Speaking of Overrun effects, this one alongside your suite of large creatures will give huge upsides to the attack phase and let you take down multiple people in one blow. I don’t usually reach for this type of card, but when the thing fits, I add it.

Krosan Grip, Destructive Revelry – I agree we want a bit of Disenchanting power just to stay on top of combos that play off of permanents on the board, and these two let us take out artifacts or enchantments with upside. One doesn’t negotiate, which you stink at anyway, while the other turns your Hull Breach into an instant and adds two free damage to the card on top of that. If we could be certain the problem permanents would all be artifacts instead of enchantments, we could get an even better deal with Artifact Mutation, but that is not going to be a given so we’re stuck with the flexible card over the powerful one.

Ruination – Sometimes bad people overreach themselves, and this hurts the worst offenders while leaving people clear routes to not be screwed over too hard. This is a pretty rough line to walk, but since you’ve got more than half of your lands as basics and aren’t overreaching too far yourself, I call this a fair card to include. You could play the new version instead that is friendlier and gives people basic lands back, but that would defeat the purpose of hurting them in the first place if we turned around and assisted their recovery. The point here is to take the worst offenders out behind the woodshed and get a crucial few extra turns to beat down without hurting the fairer players too hard and obliterating everyone’s position entirely.

Stranglehold – A solid disruption effect that prevents people from tutoring to assemble combos or taking extra turns to get you off their backs. Sometimes the extra turns are the combo, as more than one person in my local play group has been caught going infinite with buying back Time Stretch, so this does good work at keeping people playing fair and preventing your opponents from assembling shenanigans. It even prevents opponents from ramping, which could be key if you know that is likely to be coming and that you should accelerate into this on turn 3 instead of your commander.

When adding creatures into the deck, they sort neatly into two camps: Team Hydra and Team X Spells. We’re going to add your tribal Hydra elements by beefing up the number of creatures of that type; having cut two of them, we are going to turn around and add five back in. Hydra is such a scarce creature type that we have to go Changeling a little to get there, which makes me want to note that a Mutavault would be a worthy addition to the deck (but is by no means a high priority). Let’s start with Team X Spells, and then we’ll come back to those last five slots to finish out the deck.

Gorilla Shaman – Another minor disruption effect, Gorilla Shaman does excellent work at taking mana rocks away from potential combo opponents and takes out Sensei’s Divining Tops very effectively while we’re at it. Since it is an expensive effect but does use X in there, Rosheen can also help with blowing up weightier permanents since she effectively taps for two out of that possible X, so it’s entirely credible that five-drops like Mind’s Eye are within your reach to remove with the Mox Monkey. Gorilla Shaman has a history of doing good work in my Godo, Bandit Warlord deck, and I suspect it will do well for you here also.

Detritivore – Another card that plays in the rough room of Ruination but does so less harshly thanks to the fact that the land destruction side of the effect is slow enough to be downright friendly. Since it takes out only one land per turn, this will mostly be here to break up land-based combos like Urborg/Coffers or stop defensive lands like Maze of Ith that prevent your Hydras from beating up the opponent. It’s also a seriously warping political card—just having it on suspend alters people’s plays since they have to take a more defensive posture that may slow them down inherently and start politicking you so that you leave their stuff alone and harm an enemy. It can be hard to judge who to hurt from which position, but a little bit of pain helps the Hydra team beat down.

Arashi, the Sky Asunder; Jiwari, the Earth Aflame – These two can serve as X spells just like the Windstorm I cut from your deck with the added upside of not even being counterable by opponents who want to protect their stuff, but they also can just sit in play and pick off a problem creature turn after turn if that is what you want to do. That sort of free bonus working alongside Rosheen Meanderer is too good to turn down, and the flexibility to use them as a removal spell at instant speed or play on the table for repeated use means they’re very valuable to your deck as it currently stands.

Verdeloth the Ancient – A kicker cost of X is still a cost of X, and Verdeloth’s kicker makes a 2/2 creature token for each mana funneled into it. With a fair number of Overrun effects and tribal synergies going on, Verdeloth as an army in a can is a powerful way to set up for a serious next attack phase that will do good work for you. There are a lot of things to do with an extra X lying around, but making an army out of it is one of the best things I could imagine for your deck.

Taurean Mauler, Chameleon Colossus – We now begin adding to Team Hydra, and we start with the cheaters. Taurean Mauler gets surprisingly big for a three-drop given how an extra power appears for each spell an opponent plays so it beats down very hard for a cheap drop in this format, while Chameleon Colossus has some very serious double-damage powers that make it a must-block creature for almost anyone. Imagine using your Kessig Wolf Run and then doubling that—that’s an impressive amount of damage even off of just Rosheen Meanderer and seven lands, and the chances are decent over a long game that you’ll have more mana than that. They may not be X-spell Hydras, but they hit hard nonetheless and fit the desired role of solid beatdown creatures.

Rock Hydra – While the original X-spell Hydra may be a bit weak by the standards we’re used to now with modern cards, I think it’s still worth including just to get the tribal synergies rolling more smoothly.

Ancient Hydra; Polukranos, World Eater – The last two Hydras can both serve as removal to some degree and beat down very effectively from early on in the game. Ancient Hydra looks fragile and short lived, but it does a lot of work in the meantime—not every card is meant to live forever. Polukranos is a clear high-quality Hydra, and since it’s from a recent set, it should be pretty easy for you to obtain. I don’t want to tell you to buy a bunch of $10 cards to make your deck work right, but this one is high quality and well worth the price, especially since Rosheen Meanderer taps for +2 to that monstrous ability and makes it far more affordable to get a big Hydra online.

Putting it all together, we get the following:

Rosheen Meanderer
Sean McKeown
Test deck on 12-15-2013

As always, for your participation in Dear Azami this week, you will be receiving a $20 coupon, and I tried to keep these suggestions pretty cheap—in fact, I was worried I was going to hit something like a ceiling, which would be too much, but without even realizing it I kept it under $60 for these upgrades to your deck. It will now play out far more consistently, playing Rosheen Meanderer on turn 3 game after game, dropping big fat Hydras onto the battlefield to beat down, and then batting cleanup with powerful X spells that should drop your opponents after those Hydras have softened them up. There are new interactive elements and more board control that will help get your team across for damage and new ways to go completely over the top of conventional defenses and pound someone mercilessly to death.

I think you’ll find it a lot of fun; it sounds fun just talking about it!

Breaking it down by price, we have the following:

Card Price
2x Forest $0
1x Mountain $0
Rampant Growth $0.12
Edge of Autumn $0.21
Ancient Hydra $0.25
Gorilla Shaman $0.25
Tribal Unity $0.25
Farseek $0.39
Molten Disaster $0.42
Destructive Revelry $0.44
Detritivore $0.49
Jiwari, the Earth Aflame $0.49
Rock Hydra $0.49
Strength of the Tajuru $0.49
Ruination $0.64
Kessig Wolf Run $0.65
Arashi, the Sky Asunder $0.75
Explore $0.75
Nature’s Lore $0.75
Red Sun’s Zenith $0.75
Verdeloth the Ancient $0.75
Krosan Grip $0.84
Starstorm $0.84
Oran-Rief, the Vastwood $0.99
Comet Storm $1.25
Genesis Wave $1.25
Mossfire Valley $1.25
Overwhelming Stampede $1.25
Rootbound Crag $1.25
Sakura-Tribe Elder $1.25
Cultivate $1.27
Spinerock Knoll $1.49
Chameleon Colossus $1.69
Mosswort Bridge $1.69
Taurean Mauler $1.69
Stranglehold $3.39
Winding Canyons $4.99
Sol Ring $5.09
Thawing Glaciers $7.99
Polukranos, World Eater $8.99

Join us next week for guest columnist David McDarby’s take on . . . who knows what! That wild spellslinger and hero of the Commander Versus video series is an unknown quantity in these parts here and downright full of surprises!

— Sean McKeown

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