Warhammer 40,000 Commander: Hydra Surprise With The Swarmlord

Sheldon Menery’s first Commander MTG deck built around a Warhammer 40,000 legendary creature puts a multi-headed spin on Temur.

The Swarmlord
The Swarmlord, illustrated by Antonio José Manzanedo

Is the inexorable rush of Magic product coming at you just too much? Do you want a cure for set fatigue?  Step right up, don’t be shy, because I have about 40,000 reasons for everyone to be excited about building new decks.  All right, there are just 24 legendary creatures in the Warhammer 40,000 set, but you get the point.  There are choices to suit nearly every taste. 

One Color

My selection process was pretty simple.  Since mono-colored decks generally don’t do much for me, I gave the ten possibles a quick look.  Old One Eye raised an eyebrow because other creatures having trample is a big bonus.  It just seems like it’s a better card in the 99 due to its ability to discard stuff (where I come from, that’s called “seeding graveyard”). 

Old One Eye Kharn the Betrayer

Khârn the Betrayer looked like it could have some fun possibilities, but since most of my games are still over webcam, I didn’t want to go through that hassle.  The Red Terror seemed like it could get quite large rather quickly, but it felt like the deck it wanted to build would be somewhat monolithic.  Of the mono-black ones, Illuminor Szeras and Trazyn the Infinite both had possibilities.  The sacrifice ability of Illuminor Szeras is quite attractive and will likely make it a choice into any black deck I build.  Trazyn the Infinite seemed compelling because of its unusual ability to gain activated abilities of artifacts in the graveyard.  Nonetheless, because I’m more of a two- and three-color person and none of those mono-colored ideas really leapt out at me, I took a harder look at the other fourteen commanders instead. 


When I looked at all the new cards in Warhammer 40,000 Commander, I mentioned that my Top 3, in 3-2-1 order were likely Be’lakor, the Dark Master; The Swarmlord; and Abaddon the Despoiler.  Revisiting the list, most of them sparked at least a bit of interest, with Magus Lucea Kane and Neyam Shai Murad getting the most attention. 

With Be’lakor and Abaddon both being Grixis, I was sure that I didn’t want to build them both.  Be’lakor is obviously Demon tribal all the way.  I currently have two Demon decks in Aminatou’s Demons (which I finally got to play in person while I was in Seattle at Mox Boarding House!) and Kaalia’s Demons, so taking one of them apart would be the likely path.  Abaddon might be a bit of a retread of my Yidris Rotisserie Draft deck, minus the green and lean a little more into the Rakdos side of the house. 

I have some thoughts about adapting my Zegana and a Dice Bag deck to fit The Swarmlord, so I momentarily tossed that off the new construction raft.  I’m also like two years behind the curve on updating my Admiral Beckett Brass deck with all the cool new Pirates.  I wonder why I’m on a kick to modify instead of build from the ground up.  Knowing that’s on my mind will inform how I build whatever I build, so I’ll have to make sure that I don’t unintentionally let that creep in with something that I want to be “new.”

The Swarmlord

In the end, I decided that I could build something new with The Swarmlord.  What pushed me over the edge was just wanting to play The First Tyrannic War.  The card seems like it’ll be bonkers.  As you’ll see, I’m going to lean heavily into a particular side of the +1/+1 counters theme, along with a creature type subtheme that started as a major theme and moved to a minor one.  There were just too many fun and interesting cards in the colors to have such a heavy commitment.  Here’s the list, which I’ve also put up in my Archidekt suite, with its 67 companions. 

Magic Card Back


The Hydra subtheme was just too much of an overcommitment to the bit for my tastes in this particular build.  Nonetheless, the idea infused itself into the deck’s DNA, even after cutting Rosheen Meanderer and Unbound Flourishing.  The idea is still to create a pile of mana and then cast some large-bodied creatures—many of which are still Hydras, but fewer with X in the mana cost than before.

March of the Machines?

There was one other bit I was going for and then abandoned, namely the Treasure hate of March of the Machines.  I still suggest that someone else gives this a whirl, or maybe I will at the next opportunity.  With March of the Machines on the battlefield, Treasures die before they can be tapped for mana.  Artifacts get caught up in every Wrath of God effect.  Mana rocks have to wait a turn to tap, since they have summoning sickness. 

March of the Machines

March of the Machines was one of the last cuts, which is why you’ll notice a small artifact count in the deck.  During most of the build, I operated under the assumption that I was going to avoid the vulnerabilities of artifacts that the card creates.  It’s also why I didn’t include Old Gnawbone in the build (and by the end there wasn’t really anything I wanted to take out in order to fit it in). 

The deck’s mana acceleration comes in the form of ramp spells and creatures like Kodama of the West Tree and Rampant Rejuvenator, with a few mana-producing creatures as well.  There really wasn’t room for Seedguide Ash.  I hadn’t thought to put Birds of Paradise in nearly every new green deck I built, but I pulled a stack of them (maybe eight or nine) from a pile of cards that I had set aside.  The lazy part of me doesn’t want to sort and file them; the clear choice is to sleeve them up in order to bring some order to the deck-building closet. 

No Pir, No Toothy

I’ll note that among cards I avoided in this build are three that seem to find their way into every Simic-adjacent deck I’ve built of late:  Pir, Imaginative Rascal; Toothy, Imaginary Friend; and Chasm Skulker.  All three of them are very strong.  Still I don’t want to just keep playing the same old cards all the time.  The format’s diversity means exploring parts of it that you don’t always see. 

Pir, Imaginative Rascal Toothy, Imaginary Friend Chasm Skulker

Most of the time, the deck wins the old-fashioned way, by going to combat.  There are a number of big-hitting creatures and multiple ways to give them trample.  The Swarmlord itself can get there with commander damage in just a few hits, as its own ability will buff it up.  I’m interested in seeing how well Halana and Alena, Partners fare.  The plan with them is to make them larger, perhaps with counters off The Ozolith, which in turn will put more counters on the other creature. 

The Ozolith Factor

I had hoped with March of the Machines to also do Ozolith tricks, inspired by fellow RC member Jim Lapage’s Rule 0 Ozolith deck.  It’d be a pretty sweet kill.  Looking back at the list a little, maybe I could do it anyway.  Cutting cards is the hardest.  The cheaty way—since the RC uses pretty loose mulligan rules—would be to just drop a land for it, but I’d rather keep the deck playable in more traditional games, where I wouldn’t have the same advantage, as well. 

If Ozolith shenanigans aren’t enough, we could also get some commander damage kills by loading up The Swarmlord with counters from either Forgotten Ancient or one of my Hidden Gems, Bioshift.  Because it’s an instant, we can just wait for blockers to be declared and then swing for the fences.  Having trample will always help, but all the ways to do that are on-battlefield tricks, so it’s unlikely that a trampling Swarmlord will get chump blocked.  If unblocked, we can go full Bioshift ham.  I think the nonbasic land count is already too high to include Rogue’s Passage, but maybe I could toss in Thassa, God of the Sea—but that’s also a card that I’m leaning a little heavily on in blue decks. 

Minamo and Momentous

I put Minamo, School at Water’s Edge in mostly to double up mana production with Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx (and the obvious untapping of legendary creatures for blocking purposes), but now I realize we could be super-techy and use it after we put Colossification on The Swarmlord.  There’s definitely nothing I’m willing to swap out for that, though.  I’ll keep a little maybe-board beside the deck with a few cards like that and 101st friend March of the Machines, and then take notes on battlefield situations in which I really wish I had them.  One of those cards is Toxicrene, which I left out because I want to perform the aforementioned Nykthos/Minamo tricks.  I think it might go down as one of the biggest-impact cards in Warhammer 40,000, so we’ll see. 

Minamo, School at Water's Edge Toxicrene Momentous Fall

The deck enjoys a fine amount of card draw, some of it coming in large packages, like with Momentous Fall.  If someone wants to take out one of the bigger creatures instead of taking it to the face, Momentous Fall is a nice ejector seat that will more than replace what we’ve lost (and gain some life to boot!). 


I wouldn’t call it Secret Commander action or anything, but Animar, Soul of Elements is in the deck in order to make casting giant Hydras even more gigantic.  With no way to tutor it up, we’ll just have to rely on good, old-fashioned card draw to get it, and then cast some creatures and go to town.  Animar makes me think maybe I want at least one of the shuffling Eldrazi in the deck, such as Kozilek, Butcher of Truth or Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre, but I’ll wait until the deck has a few reps under its belt to see if it actually needs them. 

Going Infinite

If the combat win condition isn’t available, then there’s a small infinite combo that can take out the table.  We’ll need one of the things that puts an additional +1/+1 counter creatures when they enter the battlefield (such as Grumgully, the Generous and The Great Henge, among others); one of the two creatures with persist (Glen Elendra Archmage and Woodfall Primus); and one of the sacrifice outlets (Altar of Dementia, Ashnod’s Altar, and Goblin Bombardment). 

The Great Henge Woodfall Primus Ashnod's Altar

When one of the creatures with persist is sacrificed, it will come back onto the battlefield with the +1/+1 counter it gets, eliminating the -1/-1 counter from the persist ability.  This means that the creature can then be sacrificed to the ability again.  We get infinite mana generation from Ashnod’s Altar to fuel a big multi-kicked Comet Storm, mill from Altar of Dementia, or damage from Goblin Bombardment, one at a time.  If the creature is Woodfall Primus, we also get to blow up all the noncreature permanents. 

Inserting this kind of combo isn’t a normal path for me, but as we discussed earlier, we need to try out new paths in order to keep ourselves fresh.  I’ll warn folks when I sit down with this deck that the combo (in its numerous forms) is there.  If that’s not something they’re willing to face, I have 67 other decks to choose from.

Face the Swarm

The Swarmlord provides an excellent foundation on which to build a Commander deck.  I’ve taken it in a direction that seems fun and compelling to play, in some ways different from my normal style.  It also offered some excellent thought paths for cards that didn’t quite make it into the deck but might be seeds for future ideas.  The whole build process was fun.  It won’t be the only Warhammer 40,000 deck I build, but it definitely was the one I was most excited to get to. 

As always, we have a channel on the Commander RC Discord server dedicated to discussing my articles.  I’d love to hear about features that you’d like to see, material you want more coverage on, or even things that you think just aren’t working.  I’m all ears.  Join nearly 8,000 friends for discussion of not just this piece, but on a wide variety of topics—both Commander-related and not.  Hope to see you there!

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