Jumpstart 2022 previews were last week, and if you’re anything like me, you’re pleasantly surprised at the number of cool Commander cards that showed up in the set. One unexpected gem is a new Insect tribal commander, Zask, Skittering Swarmlord!
The reason I say Zask is so unexpected is because just last year Wizards of the Coast (WotC) gave us Grist, the Hunger Tide in Modern Horizons 2, and it was pretty darn close to being an Insect tribal commander.
Grist sets up the idea that we want a self-mill strategy for our Insect deck, so then a year later we get Zask, Skittering Swarmlord, which takes that strategy and does an even better job of it.
Funny You Should Zask
Zask lets you play lands and cast Insect spells from your graveyard, so you still want to be self-milling. What’s super-fun is that Grist, the Hunger Tide is considered an Insect creature so long as it’s not on the battlefield, so if it gets milled into your graveyard, you’ll get to cast it with Zask.
Zask also has a self-milling trigger, and it’s a very cool ability: whenever another Insect you control dies, put it on the bottom of its owner’s library, then mill two cards. You can’t necessarily abuse sacrifice outlets to replay a particular card over and over, but filling up your graveyard with random cards means you might find an even better Insect to cast along the way. Meanwhile, you’re probably hitting your land drop every single turn with lands from your graveyard.
If the text box ended there, this would still be a very cool commander, but it also has a Firebreathing-style ability by spending a generic mana and a hybrid Golgari mana to give +1/+0 until the end of the turn, along with deathtouch, which makes blocking involving your Insect army quite awkward.
I think all of this makes Zask the far superior Insect overlord to Grist, though I’m happily putting Grist in my 99. Let’s dig in!
First off, I’ll want to fill out my list with useful Insects. I’m particularly excited about the new card from The Brothers’ War, Haywire Mite. It’s more efficient than Caustic Caterpillar, though it can only target a noncreature artifact or enchantment, so I’m totally playing both of them.
Warhammer 40,000 brought two nifty new Insect creatures. Canoptek Scarab Swarm offers nice graveyard control, but Canoptek Tomb Sentinel is tricky. You’d think that casting it from the graveyard with Zask’s ability would get the Exile Cannon trigger, but the wording means it needs to enter the battlefield directly from the graveyard, like from the unearth ability or a reanimation spell. Casting it from the graveyard puts the spell on the stack before hitting the battlefield, so you don’t get the trigger. Still, it seems like a worthwhile Insect that you can keep playing from the graveyard for a solid body with vigilance, and once you have the mana available to unearth it and need to exile a nonland permanent, you can go that way with it.
Nantuko Husk, Devouring Swarm, and Dross Hopper allow for a mana-free sacrifice outlet, which can prevent key Insects from getting exiled or stolen and provides a way to mill on demand with Zask on the battlefield.
Shapeshifters with changeling count as Insects, so we could round out our Tribal list with some number of them, such as Masked Vandal. I particularly like Realmwalker here since the self-mill ability can clear off the top of the library to increase odds of casting Insects from the library.
Lower Curve Insects
To round out the lower end of the mana curve, I’ve flagged some good candidates here. The infect ability of Plague Stinger and Necropede opens up potential wins with poison. Hornet Nest, Broodhatch Nantuko, and Saber Ants offer up some nice defense against large attackers that don’t have trample, and I’d be tempted to include some ways to deal damage to my own creatures to generate Insects from them, perhaps some fight spells like Primal Might or Setessan Tactics.
For nostalgia’s sake, I’d be tempted to add Killer Bees and Carrion Ants; back when Legends came out, these two Insects used to be terrifying at the casual Magic tables, though I’d want to ensure I had some ways to generate a large amount of mana to support their pump abilities.
Higher Curve Insects
There are also some great Insects to round out the list higher up the mana curve, with Hornet Queen being a slam dunk inclusion. Mazirek, Kraul Death Priest can combine nicely with the sacrifice Insects like Nantuko Husk to grow our Insect army quite a bit, though hopefully we can also get extra triggers from people who are too greedy with Treasure tokens.
Crash of Rhino Beetles has an excellent chance of getting that extra +10/+10 in this deck where we can bank on making our land drops every turn. Phyrexian Swarmlord adds to the infect party and can potentially pump out an army of 1/1 green Insect tokens with infect.
We definitely want to add Swarmyard into the deck to support our Insect theme, and since it’s a land, if it gets milled, we can still play it from the graveyard with Zask. I might even want to run Beacon of Creation in the deck, even though its effectiveness might be blunted in a two-color deck unless we’ve got Yavimaya, Cradle of Growth on the battlefield.
Blex, Vexing Pest is kind of neat in this deck. If you cast its front side, it will boost your Insects by +1/+1; if you cast the back side, Search for Blex, you can put any Insects and lands you look at into the graveyard, so you won’t lose life on them, and just play them from the graveyard later. Vanquisher’s Banner is another way to boost your Insect army, and with Zask’s ability, you should be able to cast an Insect each turn and draw a card.
Crawling Infestation and Crawling Sensation add a bit more self-mill and should generate a 1/1 Insect token here and there. Out of the Tombs provides some additional self-mill and potential protection from decking.
Grave-Shell Scarab is a fun Insect to include. You can dredge it back to your hand if you want to, but otherwise you can just cast it from the graveyard with Zask and cash it in for a fresh card when you need it.
I love the value of Deadbridge Chant in the deck, filling the graveyard with lands and Insects you can play, and getting back a random card during your upkeep.
Tutor to the Graveyard
With Zask’s ability, tutoring a land or Insect directly into the graveyard is as good as tutoring it into your hand, so I’d want to run some number of these cards. If we are playing Blex, then Jarad’s Orders is a nice way to put an Insect in the graveyard and Blex in your hand.
Lands to the Graveyard
We’ve got some other ways to put lands into the graveyard to replay with Zask, with Realms Uncharted being great here. Cycling lands plus Life from the Loam is a nice card-drawing engine that can be pulled together quite easily, since Life from the Loam can be brought back from the graveyard with dredge if it gets milled.
Lands that sacrifice for a good effect can be replayed from the graveyard with Zask, and Command Beacon is particularly sweet here since it should remove the need for paying commander tax if Zask keeps dying.
Sacrifice for Profit
Sacrificing Insects for profit gets added value when Zask mills when an Insect dies, and the first in line here is Grist, the Hunger Tide. Its -2 ability to destroy a creature or planeswalker is excellent removal, and if an opponent kills Grist, you can just redeploy it from the graveyard with Zask. Birthing Pod is a nice way to trade in smaller Insect creatures for bigger Insects while filling up your graveyard. Victimize supplies a nice bit of reanimation to the list, and it’s one way to bring Canoptek Tomb Sentinel back from the graveyard to get its trigger without using the unearth ability.
Eldrazi Monument is a formidable way to boost your Insect army, and we should easily be able to feed the sacrifice each upkeep.
Discard for Profit
Since we can effectively discard a land or Insect “for free,” we can make use of cards and abilities that require discarding. Demonic Embrace seems sweet in this deck, since if it gets milled into the graveyard, we can discard a land or Insect to play it from the graveyard; huge flying Demon Insects sound terrifying!
Gate to the Afterlife seems like a sweet card drawing engine in this deck; I’m not sure that I’d want to add God-Pharaoh’s Gift to the deck, but it should be pretty easy to activate if we want it. Slate of Ancestry is a bit risky, but I can easily see this deck generating enough Insects where this could turn into a really nice card-drawing engine too.
In my search, I found two other cards I wanted to mention. Cellar Door takes advantage of Zask’s trigger which puts an Insect on the bottom of our library when it dies, putting it back into the graveyard so that you can cast it again while giving us a 2/2 Zombie to hang out with the Insects. Nameless Inversion’s changeling ability means that it’s an Insect spell, so you can cast it from the graveyard with Zask. It can only kill smaller creatures by itself, but if you cast it multiple times in a turn, you can take out something with six or even nine toughness.
What do you think of Zask, Skittering Swarmlord? Are there other cards you think would synergize well that I may have overlooked here?
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