Expect Nahiri, Heir Of The Ancients To Be A Multi-Format Role-Player

Planeswalkers can be playable without being broken. Ari Lax makes the case for Nahiri, Heir of the Ancients as a role-player across several formats.

Nahiri, Heir of the Ancients, illustrated by David Rapoza

The ten-second version: play Nahiri, Heir of the Ancients with broken cards that have the right types for its abilities.

Now, the slightly longer discussion of Nahiri you actually came to read.

Having a plus ability that makes tokens should immediately catch your eye. There are fewer planeswalkers than you think that do that, and they share a trait of “nearly unkillable in combat.” Questing Beast may change the math a bit, but Nahiri basically gains three or more loyalty a turn against typical attackers. The sheer amount of time and energy required to kill it is astounding.

Elspeth, Knight-Errant

This kind of planeswalker often supports a cast of other planeswalkers, using the tokens to spread where loyalty is shielded from attackers and eventually reach the snowballing state where you have multiple planeswalkers gaining ground each turn. Nahiri’s other abilities don’t do a ton in this strategy, but that doesn’t exclude it as a sideboard or backup option in decks that do play Warriors and Equipment. For example, she supports Chandra, Heart of Fire as a plan against aggro beyond Chandra’s applications in burying control.

Fervent Champion

Contrary to the immediate reaction of “just a 1/1?” the token is far from useless with a free Embercleave equip. If it is still feasible for Mono-Red Aggro to win the game, an Embercleave equipping for free to Fervent Champion has always been a must-handle threat.

Winota, Joiner of Forces Embercleave

I have pointed out the obvious cards to find with Nahiri’s -2 ability, but again there’s more here that makes me excited to find specifically Winota, Joiner of Forces and Embercleave. They will be your best cards and reasons to play your deck, so finding then more often is really good. That’s the freebie.

These cards immediately provide game-winning value, so finding them to deploy later is still good. Both have a nice pattern where if you cast Nahiri, make a Kor Warrior token, and then the next turn -2 and find them, the token provides a decent boost to their game-winning abilities, so that’s also nice.

They’re also both legendary. Embercleave has always been in a bind where you need to play cards that are pretty bad without Embercleave to enable it, yet the second Embercleave is not just dead but actively harmful to the first copy since it isn’t a body for cost reduction or equips. You would still be fine with four Winota, since even alone she battles for damage and extra copies in your library represent reasonable hits with her ability, but playing fewer Embercleaves and seeing it as often as if you played three or four is a big deal.

In terms of some hypergeometric math, six or seven total Winotas and Embercleaves will give you around a coin flip to have one of your big hits in a six-card look. You want sixteen to twenty total hits to ensure that you find a card on 85% to 90% of your Nahiri activations, so what follows those?

Mace of the Valiant Shadowspear

The Equipment currently slated to be in Standard beyond Embercleave is horrendous (yes, Shadowspear is bad), and any Equipment you play is liable to add to Embercleave’s issues the same way more Embercleaves would. I’ll circle back to what kind of Equipment might be good later, but you can skip the existing ones.

Alpine Houndmaster Seasoned Hallowblade

But even with an entire set pending a reveal, good Warriors cover the number gap you need. Alpine Houndmaster is a Human that makes non-Humans for Winota and loves an Embercleave, and Seasoned Hallowblade is just a good card. Both also are reasonable battlefield-presence options if you end up layering planeswalkers. Honestly the biggest issue with them is the looming threat of Extinction Event. Winota, tokens, and these Warriors and the Dogs for Houndmaster all having even costs implies you need every other card in your deck to have an odd cost if you don’t want to just ignore that card.

Armed Response

If your brain saw counting Equipment for the -3 and turned off, I can’t say I blame you. If you control two Equipment, this is Chandra, Torch of Defiance’s -3 ability. If you do.

The number of times I have controlled two Equipment in Constructed and cared about the difference between two and four damage to a blocker is very small, probably because a lot of Constructed-level Equipment cards look like Embercleave with a game-winning impact if they are connecting and a high cost to reset if they get stuck not connecting. I’ve attacked with Sword of Fire and Ice and Umezawa’s Jitte on Mirran Crusader, but all I was getting out of it was bonus morale points.

Adventuring Gear Mortarpod

The “multiple Equipment but opponent is questionable to lose” scenarios largely revolve around Adventuring Gear or Mortarpod, cheap Equipment used as raw damage output at a rate, or Equipment that is as much a creature as it is an Equipment. If something from these categories is printed in Zendikar Rising, that should be your alert to recheck your Nahiri decklists.

With that all out of the way, here’s a super-basic version of the Winota-Embercleave shell Nahiri obviously slots into:

Lavabrink Venturer Taranika, Akroan Veteran Subira, Tulzidi Caravanner

I have largely given up on beating Extinction Event for this first draft, but good three-mana Humans do exist that could help there. Lavabrink Venturer has often overperformed when I’ve seen it in various aggressive lists the past few months and I wouldn’t be shocked if it ended up a future Standard staple. Taranika, Akroan Veteran is just a lot of power if you’re in the market for one-mana 1/1s, or even more power if paired with Stonecoil Serpent the same way that card pairs with Gemrazer. I’m the least excited about Subira, Tulzidi Caravenner among these options, but sneaking in an Alpine Houndmaster or Igneous Cur is some good Draft gameplay in your Standard format.

If non-Humans are more your speed, just play Bonecrusher Giant. In a common trend you will see moving into this format, there’s just a list of egregiously powerful cards that already exist in the format that should be your deckbuilding defaults. This isn’t just the normal year-to-year rollover; this is literally pointing to some of the best cards of all time in the slots they fill.

Tamiyo, Collector of Tales Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath

To be clear about the relationship of the cards here, you aren’t playing this deck because of Nahiri. You’re playing this deck because Winota and Embercleave are stupidly powerful, but Nahiri just happens to be a really nice addition to them. Think of it how Tamiyo, Collector of Tales kept showing up this year alongside Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath and Hydroid Krasis. You weren’t playing a Tamiyo deck, but it did a bunch of good work in your deck based around other cards. And every time you tried to cut Tamiyo, it snuck its way back in and kept doing good work.

I would keep this in mind through most of the preview season for Zendikar Rising. Until we start seeing cards that match the power level of the last year or new build-around engines, you should be moving forward with the most broken cards from Throne of Eldraine or whatever and stitch them together with the list of now-legal cards. Normally that’s not at all how you want to approach things in a totally new context, but wow was last year an exception.

Nahiri in Older Formats

Colossus Hammer

Seeing the word “attach” in Nahiri’s text box immediately brings Colossus Hammer to mind.

Puresteel Paladin Magnetic Theft Stoneforge Mystic

Modern’s treasure trove of cards already has more efficient ways to hook up or find a Colossus Hammer. I wouldn’t want to play a four-drop that doesn’t even get you to to a Hammer attack immediately, that doesn’t even get you the Hammer equipped to a double strike or infect creature.

Ahn-Crop Crasher Earthshaker Khenra Bloodrage Brawler

Historic doesn’t have alternate ways to free equip Colossus Hammer outside of the six-cost Syr Gwyn, Hero of Ashvale, at least as far as I can tell looking for the terms “attach” and “equip,” and assuming no secret additions to the format prior to Zendikar Rising. Winota, Joiner of Forces is also big-time banned, no unsuspension pending.

That leaves the big payoff as Embercleave, and unlike Standard I think the aggressive cards in Historic are good enough to just kill them and not really require Embercleave to close out.

That said, Amonkhet Remastered brought quite a few good Warriors that all play well with Embercleave. Nahiri has to compete with Hazoret the Fervent; Glorybringer; Chandra, Pyromaster; and more great four-drop options, but if your curve is bulky already, Hazoret isn’t the greatest and Nahiri can easily be better than the Chandras available. Honestly, the biggest hurdle right now might be that the good red one-drops are spell-centric and not just good old Jackal Pup, and you have to be base red since white one-drops into Embercleave just don’t work out on Historic mana.

I would be starting somewhere around here if I was trying to play Nahiri in Historic, largely aiming for a metagame where you’re trying to outsize smaller creature decks and power through midrange.

Winota, Joiner of Forces Eldritch Evolution Angrath's Marauders

Moving along to Pioneer we get Winota back, but I’m skeptical Nahiri is the card for it here. There are more ways in Pioneer to just directly get Winota and immediately kill your opponent with it; you don’t need halfway hedging measures.

Equipment, though, that’s where we can start to have some fun.

Kazuul's Toll Collector

Kazuul’s Toll Collector isn’t the greatest of cards, but it does make double Colossus Hammer worth something. Being able to construct your deck in a way where not only is drawing your “best card” good, but drawing multiples of it is good, is really just an astonishing upgrade.

You might notice the trim on Sigarda’s Aid for this exact reason: the card literally only has text with Colossus Hammer and is bad in multiples, and there isn’t a good backup heavy Equipment to Hammer the way Nahiri or Toll Collector can pick up a Hammer.

Swiftblade Vindicator

The lack of double strike in this deck is because the Equipment attachment methods past Sigarda’s Aid don’t direct where your Hammer goes. It ends up on a generic body, not the double striker for a one-shot kill. You can always execute the one-two punch with Embercleave and Hammer, but somehow I think that falls into the realm of double Equipment overkill that I mentioned earlier.

Mardu Woe-Reaper Soldier of the Pantheon Aven Mindcensor

Honestly, I’m just excited to realize there exist reasonable creatures that double as hate-bears in Pioneer for the weird metagame we exist in. Mardu Woe-Reaper is a reasonable one-drop that manages Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath and Soldier of the Pantheon dodges the majority of Five-Color Niv-Mizzet. You might even want to add Aven Mindcensor to get coverage against Bring to Light, or you can lean on the sideboard Drannith Magistrates there, though that only cuts it against opponents who don’t just draw Supreme Verdict and cast it.

I’m shocked at how cohesive something like this can be in the format, and Nahiri is a part of that. Even if the card isn’t quite on the lovel of the War of the Spark planeswalkers we have been spoiled by the last year or two, it does a lot of the right things and is a power piece to tie previously marginal strategies together.