Stairwell To Yahenni

The time for other commanders is over, darling. Bennie Smith pairs one of Magic’s newest legendary creatures with Mirage classic Tombstone Stairwell for some one-color fun!

When Aether Revolt was fully previewed, like many Commander fans, I looked at the new legendary creatures and started sketching out ideas. Some of those turned into decks and I have shared them here. Some have been percolating on the back burner, like Yahenni, Undying Partisan.

My initial sketch centered on killing all my opponent’s creatures to grow Yahenni and then utilizing some of those black “if you only control one creature” enchantments like Homicidal Seclusion. The problem with that plan is that Yahenni likes to have other creatures around to consume and become indestructible. Sure, you can sacrifice all the other creatures to turn on the enchantments, but then Yahenni becomes vulnerable on the next turn, which just wouldn’t do.

I did not see that they printed enough good Aetherborn to try for Aetherborn tribal, and while I could go mono-black Vampires, there are certainly better choices for Vampire tribal.

So Yahenni sat in the back of my mind, percolating…

Then a card bubbled up that brought me to attention. An old, old favorite…

If you are newer to the game, you may notice an odd thing about this card other than the old wording “bury.” Modern-day cards that create temporary tokens tend to exile them to get rid of them, but Tombstone Stairwell destroys them during each end step. Since Tombstone Stairwell makes tokens for everyone, including all your opponents, during each person’s turn, and then destroys them at the end of the turn, that seems ideal for providing Yahenni with tons and tons of +1/+1 counters.

Now we’re cooking with gas!

Building the Stairs

Okay, in general I eschew free-styling tutors like Sidisi, Undead Vizier and the original gangster Demonic Tutor, but Tombstone Stairwell is going to be so righteous with Yahenni that I think it is worth doing. I mean, you are not going to want to cast it early because you want to have time for everyone’s graveyards to get stocked, but when the time is right, you want to get rocking and rolling. One way to stock the graveyards is going to involve killing all the creatures (we’ll get to that in a minute), but I also thought that Altar of Dementia would provide another great option, turning each time one of your own creatures is going to die into future Stairwell fodder. Also, let us not forget we can sacrifice Tombspawn tokens to the Altar during each end step.

Destroy All the Creatures

Black is the color of murder (literally), so there is no shortage of ways to kill all the creatures. Yahenni’s activated ability means we can get the morbid side of Tragic Slip and Malicious Affliction on demand. Sudden Spoiling does not necessarily kill your opponent’s creatures, but the split second ability is important when it comes to picking off creatures with abilities that make them difficult to destroy.

Massacre Wurm is a sweet one—not only does it kill off any small hordes of creatures your opponents have, but if it’s on the battlefield while Tombstone Stairwell is going on, your opponents will be losing life each upkeep as their Tombspawn tokens die.

Now, I don’t normally advocate playing Grave Pact and Dictate of Erebos because I think the cards quickly lead to battlefield states where your opponents cannot cast any cards or their Commander because they’ll just have to sacrifice their creatures, but I’m making an exception here. Not only do they play so perfectly with both sides of Yahenni, but also they provide enchantment-removal cover for our real endgame. I feel confident that if Grave Pact or Dictate of Erebos sticks around, it is probably safe to cast Tombstone Stairwell.

Retribution of the Ancients was something I just thought of as I was writing this column, a sweet way to turn all those extra +1/+1 counters into a way to pick off indestructible creatures if Tragic Slip, Toxic Deluge or Sudden Spoiling isn’t handling it.

Yahenni Snacks

Okay, so we took care of Yahenni’s triggered ability above. Now we want to take care of Yahenni’s activated ability. Bloodsoaked Champion, Bloodghast, Reassembling Skeleton, and Nether Traitor keep popping back from the graveyard to offer themselves up as tasty snacks. Phyrexian Reclamation gets back other creatures that might otherwise rest in peace, while Grim Haruspex turns Yahenni snacks into fresh new cards. Animation Module makes food for Yahenni in a roundabout way by triggering off Yahenni’s +1/+1 counter trigger.

Of course, sometimes Yahenni isn’t hungry, in which case, what is a snack to do? That is why I have added Skullclamp and Viscera Seer to provide some extracurricular activities.

Vampire Stuff

While I did not go deep into the Vampire theme, I did not steer clear either. I mean, Blade of the Bloodchief gives Yahenni two +1/+1 counters when Yahenni snacks on your own creatures, but when your opponent’s creatures die, you basically get triple the +1/+1 counters! Eternal Thirst isn’t quite as crazy and is a little more vulnerable to creature removal, but Yahenni makes a sturdy target for an Aura, and the lifelink is welcome. Then there is Blood Tribute – since we can reasonably count on having Yahenni around to tap, we can expect this to produce a huge life swing.

I would be playing those cards even if Yahenni were the only Vampire in the deck, but there are a couple more that are worth a slot. Bloodline Keeper can provide Yahenni snacks if need be, and if you get to transform it, then boosting all your Vampires becomes quite sweet. Vampire Nighthawk is just Vampire Nighthawk, but between Blade of the Bloodchief and some of the power-boosting stuff below, I think it more than earns a spot.

Swamp Stuff

Black has some sweet “Swamp matter” cards, so I decided to take advantage of them here and limit the number of nonbasic lands I would normally cram into a single-color Commander deck. Cabal Coffers is one of the oldest ways to take advantage of this, so I included Expedition Map to help go get it. Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth goes along with Cabal Coffers like peas and carrots, so we had to squeeze that in too.

Sidebar on Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth: Did you know you could play Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth in decks that do not have black in their color identity? Seems weird, but it is perfectly legal, since there is not any colored mana indicator on the card and no mana symbol! Like fetchlands and so forth! So if you are playing a white deck with Karma, do not forget your Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth!


Another sidebar on Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth: Did you see John Avon is coming to Grand Prix Richmond? Don’t forget to get your Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth signed!

Speaking of Urborg, we have Filth and Zombie Trailblazer that can take advantage of our opponents having Swamps too!

Okay, so Yahenni can get big from opponents’ creatures dying, but why stop there? We can pile on with Lashwrithe and Nightmare Lash to make winning with Commander damage a very real option. However, why should Yahenni get all the fun? Pretty sure you unlock some sort of Dark Arts achievement if you equip a Nightmare with a Nightmare Lash.

Nirkana Revenant enjoys all the extra black mana you might have lying around and even helps you make more of it. And it is a Vampire too!

Yahenni Protection

While Yahenni does a good job of protecting against most removal, there are some other arrows they could be vulnerable to (hello, exile), so having Equipment that provides hexproof or shroud can come in handy. Sometimes Yahenni won’t have any snacks around to become indestructible, and for those hungry days, we provide the soothing dulcet sounds of Nim Deathmantle and Cauldron of Souls. Cauldron of Souls is particularly nice because it doesn’t need mana to activate, and Yahenni’s +1/+1 counter triggers will knock off the -1/-1 counter so you can give Yahenni persist again if need be.

Other Stuff

Then there is the group of cleverly named Other Stuff. Crypt of Agadeem and Black Market can provide some additional mana as the game wears on. We can reasonably expect an accumulation of black mana symbols on the battlefield in a mono-black deck, so I have included Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx and the insanely silly Gray Merchant of Asphodel. Inspiring Statuary takes advantage of our fair number of non-mana artifacts to provide some virtual colorless mana for our non-artifact spells. Scuttlemutt, Magnifying Glass, and Seer’s Lantern provide mana early on and then other uses later when we don’t need the mana.

So what are we doing with all this mana? Exsanguinate, of course! Okay, I lied; what we are really doing with all that mana (assuming it is not paying cumulative upkeep on Tombstone Stairwell) is casting Gonti, Lord of Luxury to steal a card from an opponent’s deck; sacrificing them to Yahenni; getting them back with Phyrexian Reclamation; and casting Gonti to start the loop again. Then, with all those extra cards from your opponents’ deck, you get to choose your own adventure.

Not a bad Plan B, eh?

Okay, so here’s how it looks all deck-list-ified:

What do you think? Are there any choices you have questions on? How would you build it differently? Did I forget anything that would make the deck even sweeter?

New to Commander?

If you’re just curious about the format, building your first deck, or trying to take your Commander deck up a notch, here are some handy links:

Commander write-ups I’ve done
(and links to decklists):

Zurgo Bellstriker (Bellstriking Like a Boss)

Dragonlord Ojutai (Troll Shroud)

Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund (Dragons, Megamorphs, and Dragons)

Dromoka, the Eternal (One Flying Bolster Basket)

Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest (Tempests and Teapots)

Tasigur, the Golden Fang (Hatching Evil Sultai Plots)

Scion of the Ur-Dragon (Dragon Triggers for Everyone)

• Nahiri, The Lithomancer (Lithomancing for Fun and Profit)

Titania, Protector of Argoth (Titania’s Land and Elemental Exchange)

Reaper King (All About VILLAINOUS WEALTH)

Feldon of the Third Path (She Will Come Back to Me)

Sidisi, Brood Tyrant (Calling Up Ghouls with Sidisi)

Zurgo Helmsmasher (Two Times the Smashing)

Anafenza, the Foremost (Anafenza and Your Restless Dead)

Narset, Enlightened Master (The New Voltron Overlord)

Surrak Dragonclaw (The Art of Punching Bears)

Avacyn, Guardian Angel; Ob Nixilis, Unshackled; Sliver Hivelord (Commander Catchup, Part 3)

Keranos, God of Storms; Marchesa, the Black Rose; Muzzio, Visionary Architect (Commander Catchup, Part 2)

Athreos, God of Passage; Kruphix, God of Horizons; Iroas, God of Victory (Commander Catchup, Journey into Nyx Edition)

Kurkesh, Onakke Ancient (Ghost in the Machines)

Jalira, Master Polymorphist (JaliraPOW!)

Mishra, Artificer Prodigy (Possibility Storm Shenanigans)

Yisan, the Wanderer Bard (All-in Yisan)

Selvala, Explorer Returned (Everyone Draws Lots!)

Grenzo, Dungeon Warden (Cleaning Out the Cellar)

Karona, False God (God Pack)

Child of Alara (Land Ho!)

Doran, the Siege Tower (All My Faves in One Deck!)

Karador, Ghost Chieftain (my Magic Online deck)

Karador, Ghost Chieftain (Shadowborn Apostles & Demons)

King Macar, the Gold-Cursed (GREED!)

Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind ( Chuck’s somewhat vicious deck)

Roon of the Hidden Realm (Mean Roon)

Skeleton Ship (Fun with -1/-1 counters)

Vorel of the Hull Clade (Never Trust the Simic)

Anax and Cymede (Heroic Co-Commanders)

Aurelia, the Warleader ( plus Hellkite Tyrant shenanigans)

Borborygmos Enraged (69 land deck)

Bruna, Light of Alabaster (Aura-centric Voltron)

Damia, Sage of Stone ( Ice Cauldron shenanigans)

Derevi, Empyrial Tactician (Tribal Birds)

Emmara Tandris (No Damage Tokens)

Gahiji, Honored One (Enchantment Ga-hijinks)

Geist of Saint Traft (Voltron-ish)

Ghave, Guru of Spores ( Melira Combo)

Glissa Sunseeker (death to artifacts!)

Glissa, the Traitor ( undying artifacts!)

Grimgrin, Corpse-Born (Necrotic Ooze Combo)

Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord (drain you big time)

Jeleva, Nephalia’s Scourge ( Suspension of Disbelief)

Johan (Cat Breath of the Infinite)

Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer (replacing Brion Stoutarm in Mo’ Myrs)

Karona, False God (Vows of the False God)

Konda, Lord of Eiganjo ( The Indestructibles)

Lord of Tresserhorn (ZOMBIES!)

Marath, Will of the Wild ( Wild About +1/+1 Counters)

Melira, Sylvok Outcast ( combo killa)

Mirko Vosk, Mind Drinker ( Outside My Comfort Zone with Milling

Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis (evil and Spike-ish)

Nicol Bolas (Kicking it Old School)

Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius ( new player-friendly)

Nylea, God of the Hunt ( Devoted to Green)

Oloro, Ageless Ascetic (Life Gain)

Oona, Queen of the Fae (by reader request)

Phage the Untouchable ( actually casting Phage from Command Zone!)

Phelddagrif (Mean Hippo)

Polukranos, World Eater (Monstrous!)

Progenitus (

Fist of Suns and Bringers


Reaper King (Taking Advantage of the new Legend Rules)

Riku of Two Reflections (

steal all permanents with
Deadeye Navigator + Zealous Conscripts


Roon of the Hidden Realm ( Strolling Through Value Town)

Ruhan of the Fomori (lots of equipment and infinite attack steps)

Savra, Queen of the Golgari ( Demons)

Shattergang Brothers (Breaking Boards)

Sigarda, Host of Herons ( Equipment-centric Voltron)

Skullbriar, the Walking Grave ( how big can it get?)

Sliver Overlord (Featuring the new M14 Slivers!)

Thelon of Havenwood ( Campfire Spores)

Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice ( new player-friendly)

Uril, the Miststalker (my “more competitive” deck)

Varolz, the Scar-Striped (scavenging goodness)

Vorosh, the Hunter ( proliferaTION)

Xenagos, God of Revels (Huge Beatings)

Yeva, Nature’s Herald (living at instant speed)