The Samurai Commander: Building With Isshin, Two Heavens As One

The latest MTG set has Sheldon Menery eager to make Commander decks. See how he built around Isshin, Two Heavens as One for both low-power and higher-power Commander games.

Isshin, Two Heavens as One, illustrated by Ryan Pancoast

Isshin, Two Heavens as One is the first commander that really grabbed me once we saw the whole Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty list.  It’s a Samurai that doesn’t care about other Samurai unless they have a relevant ability.  The one ability it does have (in a world where commanders are increasingly complex) is in mostly unexplored space.  Since two heavens exist, I thought, why not then build something for both of them?

Isshin, Two Heavens as One

I’ll put together two versions of Isshin which exist in separate worlds.  One is comfortable living in a high-powered space, the other resting nicely in the power range that is sometimes referred to as the format’s target demographic.  Other than some lands, they won’t share too many cards.  I’ll also provide a suggestion for porting over a version of the first that can work in the latter’s general area. 

We’ll start with the more conventionally-powered one.

Isshin, Bell Pepper Tier

This first one is pretty mild.  It might give the occasional person dyspepsia, but will be for the most part well-tolerated.  The idea of this deck is to use the commander’s ability in compelling ways.  If you’re playing Isshin as a commander, leveraging attack triggers is the only way to go unless there’s some other secret Samurai commander.  Still, the category of attack triggers is sufficiently broad that we have lots of different ways that we can make it work.  My goal here is to avoid going down the completely obvious routes and try to find some cards that live off the beaten path—which leads to my primary use of EDHREC, making sure I’m not playing all the cards that everyone else is playing. 

I looked at three main types of attack triggers:  1) whenever a creature you control attacks, 2) whenever a creature attacks, and 3) whenever a creature attacks you or a planeswalker you control.  In our color identity, their numbers exist in that order.  The former is by far the largest, because it includes all “whenever ~this~ attacks” triggers.  To my regret, Isshin clearly says control and not own, or Crown of Doom might have been the first inclusion. 

Tribal and Other Potential Themes

I looked at building Isshin Vampire tribal.  There are 24 cards in the Mardu color identity which have attacks triggers.  While that might be cool to explore, I already have a Vampire tribal with Rakdos, Lord of Riots.  The only reason for expansion would be to go into white.  The only white creature that seemed interesting was Bishop of Rebirth, which isn’t all that Vampire-centric.  I put it on the draft list for the deck, though.  With its trigger and Sun Titan in the same deck, I’d want to look deeper into creatures for sacrificing and bringing back.  You’ll see that a few other Vampires made it into the final draft. 

Vampires aren’t the only tribe or theme I thought about.   There’s probably also a Goblin deck in there somewhere, featuring Goblin Piledriver and Muxus, Goblin Grandee.  A venturing into the dungeon deck, with cards like Planar Ally and Nadaar, Selfless Paladin would be loads of fun.  Eventually, I went with lots of cards that synergize with Isshin and happen to be some cards I enjoy playing. 

The Deck in Context

This deck was built with playing in my normal environment, which is mostly on the Commander RC stream with the other members and weekly guests.  It doesn’t have any infinite combos, nor can it win or take out a player on an early turn.  The mana curve is slightly higher than I’m comfortable with, but our games tend to take enough time that some high-cost stuff isn’t out of the ordinary. 

There’s a small goad subtheme because it’s simply a mechanic I like.  Even without Isshin, it works.  When my commander is on the battlefield, however, a few of the cards shine.  The one that I’m most interested in is of course one of my other decks’ commanders, Karazikar, the Eye Tyrant.  Tapping and goading two creatures per player I attack is just really good.  The only thing I’ll have to watch out for is the life loss that comes along with the card draw.  There’s also the fact that the opponent gets the additional card draw, but we’ll hopefully be able to mitigate that with the beatdowns that they’ll be getting from my other opponents. 

Other Potential Cards

There are lots of other cards that work well with Isshin that I would have liked to get into the deck.  There were simply too many to jam them all in.  Lots of them are pretty expensive to cast as well. 

Nefashu Rakshasa Debaser Puppeteer Clique

Nefashu passing out -2/-2 to five creatures, -1/-1 to ten, or somewhere in between would wipe parts of the battlefield nicely.  Rakshasa Debaser is the card most likely for me to be unable to resist the urge to find room for between now and the time I assemble the deck.  The thing is, the other RC members know of my love of cards like Puppeteer Clique, so they pack defense against it (Toby in particular does it with creatures I really have no interest in recurring).   

Scourge of the Throne Olivia, Crimson Bride Treasury Thrull

Scourge of the Throne would create an additional combat phase and synergize with Thundering Raiju. Seraphic Greatsword would provide a nice buff for a creature and big bonuses for attacking with it.  Once it creates Angels, equipping them with it means less downside than a nontoken creature getting killed.  Olivia, Crimson Bride is really compelling, and the deck has enough sacrifice outlets to probably make it safe.  I really don’t want my creatures exiled, though. Tectonic Giant is an obvious choice that I simply couldn’t find room for.  The same goes for Treasury Thrull, which is a card I’ve really tried to make work for most of a decade and still struggle with. 

The Old School

I wanted to find some old school cards to run with.  Soltari Visionary doesn’t have any synergy with Isshin; it’s just a little unblockable enchantment control.  It can get savage when equipped with Argentum ArmorSoltari Champion, on the other hand, definitely benefits from Isshin’s ability, giving all my other creatures an additional +1/+1 until end of turn.  The best part is that it can’t be normally blocked (like, who plays shadow?), so without targeted removal or a sweeper, it’s getting in there and staying around to buff another day.  

Soltari Champion Kulrath Knight

The other old-school card is Kulrath Knight, which I just wanted to have an excuse to play.  Our environment tends to have lots of stuff with counters on them, so shutting down a popular line is a good idea, especially when it’s asymmetrical.  Kulrath Knight also combos with Nils, Discipline Enforcer, continuing to do good work even if Nils gets whacked. 

Hellrider is one of my favorite red cards of all time.  Getting to double up on its triggers excites me a great deal.  I like it most when an attack can kill a player just with the triggers and not have to worry about losing creatures in combat. 

The Bottom Line

All in all, the deck plays in a space that I very much enjoy:  having cards that do cool things, but the cards aren’t the only thing that matters.  How I play them in adjustment to the cards on the battlefield is a big part of the deck’s game.  My friends know my predilection for cards like Inkshield and Batwing Brume, making them often hesitant to bring the alpha strike with a swarm of creatures.  Especially in the case of Inkshield, I have to use it when it’s good enough and not necessarily wait for the big blowout.  I suspect that the deck will be a great deal of fun to pilot and will help create memorable battlefield states.

Isshin, Habanero Tier

I’ll start off by mentioning that this isn’t a cEDH commander or list, so I’d call it hot, but nothing you can’t handle (which is reserved for Carolina Reaper tier).  For the most part, I don’t think Isshin can play in the fastest, highest-powered space.  For me, there are three hallmarks of what make a cEDH commander/commander pair.  One, it can draw a bunch of cards.  Two, it can do something with an arbitrarily-large or infinite amount of mana.  Three, it’s a combo piece.  Since Isshin isn’t really any of those, it doesn’t qualify.  That makes it at best a fringe cEDH commander, especially in its colors, what with its decided absence of green or blue.

The other element of a cEDH deck is that it plays cards for a relatively tight and well-defined metagame.  You know, for example, that you’re likely to see Thassa’s Oracle and/or lots of artifact mana.  Those facts make Torpor Orb or Null Rod choices not based on what your deck does, but what you can reasonably expect the other decks to do and wanting to prevent it (and sometimes, even if you’re doing it yourself). 

Small Stax

This deck doesn’t get too much into that space, although it has some elements that can let it play there.  The Stax elements are the thing that might be able to get it somewhere against three cEDH decks.  Still, it would likely be the fourth-best deck at the table and would likely have a path to winning when the dust has settled from the other decks stopping each other.  I’d nonetheless want to give it a whirl.

While it’s a step below all that, it’s well above what I’d consider my normal power level.  The fast mana means that it’ll get things going relatively quickly.  The Stax pieces slow down the other players enough in order to get my game going.  One Toxic Deluge might be super-awkward, but I’d have to judge the environment and other players in my assessment of how wide to go. 

Magic Card Back

Creature Feature

Even at a somewhat spicier level, my preference for creature-based decks comes through. In fact, it has one of the highest creature counts of all of my decks, which wasn’t where I expected to be when I first started.  It also doesn’t easily go infinite, another simple personal choice.  I suppose Isshin; Delina, Wild Mage; and Combat Celebrant can make infinite attacks. 

Isshin, Two Heavens as One Delina, Wild Mage Combat Celebrant

It might not have to, as it can create some pretty large battles while making sure other players struggle to do things or not have blockers.  I suspect that one of these days I might build a pure combo deck just to have it on the shelf in case, but Isshin certainly didn’t lead me there. 

My favorite outside-the-box card here is Song of Blood.  With such a high creature count, we could get some pretty aggressive hits.  Then with Isshin giving us another trigger, we’ll double up.  Then there will also be cards in the graveyard for Imperial Recovery Unit to regrow. 

Powering Down

Turning this into a lower-powered deck is relatively simple.  Remove all the fast mana stuff, like Lotus Petal, Chrome Mox, Mana Crypt, and Mana Vault.  Also take out the Stax elements that you think aren’t appropriate for your play group, like Torpor Orb and Void Mirror.  Replace them with basic lands until you’re up from 29 to 37 or 38, and you’re good to go.  Even then, I’d say the deck is spicy enough to get some attention; it’ll just do it thing on later turns.

Torpor Orb Void Mirror

I want to thank my friend Rebell for thoughts on the deck’s direction and stuff along the way.  Everyone could use a little more Rebell in their life. 

Isshin won’t be the only thing I build out of Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty.  I’ll let you know as soon as I have something on the horizon.  As always, come on over to the Commander RC Discord server if you’d like to discuss this or any other of my pieces.  We have a special channel reserved for just that purpose.  I look forward to seeing you there. 

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