I’m with Sam Black. If you aren’t trying as hard as possible to maximize the companions after Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths releases, you aren’t doing it right.
Kaheera, the Orphanguard is one of the more interesting companions to build around. It’s scripted enough that it isn’t just a matter of finding the existing good decks it accidentally fits into, like Jegantha, the Wellspring. But it’s open enough that you can generate a large number of unique decks, and there isn’t just one locked-in tribal deck it belongs in, and you actually need to play other creatures and aren’t just leaning on your free eighth card as a threat.
What can you pull off with a guaranteed lord if you are required to play orphaned creature types?
Nightmares, Cats, and Beasts
Sadly, none of these three creature types is supported enough to carry a deck on its own. There might be enough Cats to make a deck, but there’s no reason all your creatures want to be Cats. Beasts come close if you consider every Magic card ever, but Contested Cliffs is only legal in formats with Wasteland. Their value is going to come in ensemble-style decks that we’ll get to later.
Dinosaurs is fairly well supported in Pioneer, mostly because Marauding Raptor and Rotting Regisaur were both printed in 2019 and are appropriately power crept for the era, but I don’t think it ends up wanting to be a Kaheera deck.
While a guaranteed creature is great, a potential Turn 2 Rotting Regisaur is more of an impact. Or giving Ghalta, Primal Hunger haste. And really, do you need your Regisaur to be an 8/7 instead of a 7/6? Kaheera’s pump ability is a much bigger upside with a smaller tribe.
The only orphan tribe that stands alone is Elementals. This makes sense since Core Set 2020 has an Elemental subtheme that was already close to Standard-quality.
Before you ask, Pioneer brings oddly little to the Elemental tribe. All the powerful cards are clustered at the high mana costs and aren’t clearly better than the Core Set 2020 options like Omnath, Locus of the Roil. The additional low-cost options to support the really aggressive versions really fall short.
The most exciting card with Kaheera is probably Scampering Scorcher. It offers six power of haste for four mana, and that doesn’t even account for other Elemental synergies you have baked in. With Scampering Scorcher comes Thunderkin Awakener, a card that really benefits from the Kaheera +1/+1 allowing it to return Creeping Trailblazer.
Heck, if I get to hit Kaheera on Turn 3 every game, I’m not even embarrassed to play Healer of the Glade. It’s going to attack for two really quickly.
The first question is whether you’re splashing to go full Temur, and I think the answer is that you’re morally obligated to do so. Omnath is really absurd and you get to freeroll blue mana with Ketria Triome.
The next question is what you want your three-drops to look like. If you always have Kaheera to start every game, do you want Risen Reef? Three-drops stack really poorly since they tend not to play in double-spell turns until the point of the game they start losing impact. Both of the good three-drops also really stretch your manabase. If I don’t have to play them, I would prefer not to.
My initial conclusion was that you had to play those three-drops since there just aren’t enough Elementals, but when I started looking at the ensemble-style decks, I realized there’s no reason to limit myself to Elementals even in an Elementals deck.
- 1 Living Twister
- 4 Creeping Trailblazer
- 1 Risen Reef
- 4 Omnath, Locus of the Roil
- 2 Leafkin Druid
- 4 Thunderkin Awakener
- 4 Scampering Scorcher
- 4 Scorch Spitter
- 4 Healer of the Glade
- 4 Fiend Artisan
- 1 Kaheera, the Orphanguard
Fiend Artisan is just the perfect card for Elementals. The double Golgari hybrid cost lines up with double Selesnya for Kaheera, as opposed to the double red Living Twister would demand. Your deck has a number of extremely high-impact Elementals boosting fodder you would love to swap out.
Most importantly, Thunderkin Awakener is insane with Fiend Artisan. You can sacrifice something to find Thunderkin Awakener, immediately have a target to recur, and then on later turns sacrifice whatever you returned to search with Fiend Artisan.
All of the Above
If you aren’t bound by a single creature type, what are the absolute best creatures you can play with Kaheera, the Orphanguard?
Patrick Chapin had this right when the card was previewed: Snapdax, Apex of the Hunt is absolutely absurd. If we’re playing orphan creature types, this is by far the best thing we can do. This is Embercleave but also Ravenous Chupacabra, and the fact that the Warleader’s Helix trigger occurs on every mutate almost makes me want to start building mutate stacks in Constructed. Kaheera will pump whatever you Snapdax or even just a hardcast Snapdax, but Kaheera also ensures you have a body to actually Snapdax onto.
Patrick had mentioned Rotting Regisaur as the absolute best double strike target, a combination we already knew from Throne of Eldraine-era Rakdos Knights. But Hunted Nightmare had not yet been previewed, and between menace and a Snapdax trigger it’s hard to imagine your opponent has a clean block and doesn’t take eight damage from that pairing.
- 4 Ajani's Pridemate
- 1 Lazotep Reaver
- 4 Rotting Regisaur
- 4 Cauldron Familiar
- 4 Snapdax, Apex of the Hunt
- 4 Fiend Artisan
- 2 Cubwarden
- 3 Lurrus of the Dream-Den
- 3 Garrison Cat
- 2 Hunted Nightmare
This mana is…ambitious. There’s really no other way to describe playing shocklands to support your hybrid costs while splashing a completely different color, or to describe supporting multiple colors of one-drops and double-color costs of both those colors up the curve.
Ajani’s Pridemate is one of the most powerful creatures within Kaheera’s purview, and it existing got me to considered Charmed Stray for half a second. Patrick outlined how the counters and lifegain interact well to maximize Snapdax, but what else can we do to make the card good?
Apparently Cats are just the lifelink tribe. Cubwarden does great work with Ajani’s Pridemate, and Lurrus of the Dream-Den is a perfectly castable card even when it isn’t your companion. “Perfectly castable” might actually be an understatement, since immediately recasting an Ajani’s Pridemate or a Fiend Artisan is a huge swing.
Maybe “perfectly absurd” is a better descriptor for Lurrus.
The Cauldron Familiar + Witch’s Oven engine is a great way to churn Pridemate triggers and is just independently good. There’s a bit of other sacrifice synergy going on, but it’s difficult to lean too hard into it without a secondary outlet. Woe Strider is sadly a Horror and not a Nightmare.
I did a dive into Pioneer, and while there are some really strong options up the curve, there’s just a complete lack of reasonable one-drops or disruptive creatures to back them. Kaheera seems like an option to keep in the tank as more sets and random creatures come out to support it.
Technically, if you have no creatures, you meet the restriction for Kaheera, the Orphanguard!
The deck people immediately gravitated to for this is Azorius Control. It makes sense, as a free 3/2 for three falls into the same no-card-cost blocker category as Wall of Omens or The Birth of Meletis as a staple effect.
The problem is that the creatures in Azorius Control these days are really good and incompatible with Kaheera. Snapcaster Mage in older formats has an insane sideboard and removal magnification effect that overpowers the free filler body, and in Standard I’m skeptical the planeswalkers alone are enough to carry a deck against the rest of the format without Dream Trawler.
Honestly, even in Pioneer you might be better off playing Zirda, the Dawnwaker as your filler companion. You can still play Dream Trawler, still play planeswalkers, still play Omen of the Sea. All of the Pioneer Seal Away-style effects are negotiable, and in Standard Elspeth Conquers Death probably is too.
But looking at other archetypes, prison decks also benefit massively from having a bonus card each game that’s an assured threat. Your deck is predisposed to mulligans, and your best hands on five cards are ones with Wasteland-resilient mana, multiple lock pieces, and the hope of topdecking any way to win the game. If you land Chalice of the Void or Trinisphere early, you can win with literally anything that attacks. Why not just have it be a free companion?
The big issue is Chalice of the Void eliminates about half the companions on its own. It has an even cost, it has matching mana symbols, it doesn’t have an activated ability, and it’s almost the entire reason to play these decks. When you start checking off all the boxes, Kaheera, the Orphanguard is really the only companion you can play without severely downgrading your deck.
The biggest creature loss for this deck from the older lists is Elvish Spirit Guide, which let you hit green fast mana off Once Upon a Time. Fortunately you can make up for this with Lotus Petals, which only make Chrome Mox slightly worse.
Remember, you start each game with a free creature. You can afford to cut down on middling threats like Questing Beast for more Thorn of Amethyst-level disruption in your maindeck. I might even move towards starting with Sorcerous Spyglass.
I haven’t even delved into the changeling aspects of Kaheera. For a set of orphan creature types, Kaheera offers a ton of ways to build decks with it as the companion.