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Commander Top 10: Polukranos, Unchained

Oh, my love…my Hydra? Bennie Smith is singing an Unchained Melody as he builds a Commander deck around Polukranos, Unchained!

Polukranos, Unchained, illustrated by Chris Rahn

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The previews for the next Magic set Theros Beyond Death is in full swing, and wow!  Already we’ve been shown a bunch of cool new legends that we might want to build Commander decks around.  As I was pondering which new legend to write about this week, this preview popped up:

At first glance I was stoked!  Polukranos, World Eater was my favorite card in Standard for most of its run, and I stomped my opponents with it countless times.  After rotation, it didn’t really have what it takes to compete in Modern and while I tried it out some in Commander it really didn’t stack up well with what a good creature needs to do.  So, what about its new incarnation, now in Golgari, which just so happens to be my favorite color combination?  Let’s unpack that very loaded text box:

Polukranos enters the battlefield with six +1/+1 counters on it. It escapes with twelve +1/+1 counters on it instead.

Okay, so when it would normally enter play from the command zone, from the hand, blinked, or returned from the graveyard it’s a 6/6 for four mana, which is a pretty good rate.  It gets a bit nutty when you cast it from the graveyard specifically with escape, but that would mean we’d need to have it die and go to the graveyard instead of the command zone, which isn’t typically what we do in Commander.

If damage would be dealt to Polukranos while it has a +1/+1 counter on it, prevent that damage and remove that many +1/+1 counters from it.

This line is what made my heart sink.  This means Polukranos’s size has a limited duration when facing down creature combat.  It can’t even chump block a token swarm without losing some of its size each time.  It was probably too much to ask for this ability to work exactly like Hungering Hydra or even Protean Hydra, but surely it could have been better than this fast whittling down each time it takes damage.

1BG: Polukranos fights another target creature.

Especially with this activated ability!  This is just another way for Polukranos to lose +1/+1 counters faster.

Escape—4BG, Exile six other cards from your graveyard.

So, for six mana and exiling a not insignificant number of other cards in my graveyard, I get a Polukranos that’s twice the size as it would be if you normally cast it.  Isn’t black and green the color of graveyard recursion?  Do I really want to be burning up all those cards just to play a 12/12 creature that shrinks from damage?

The more I thought about it… the more I realized:  yeah.  Yeah, I kind of do want exactly that!  What if we focus on filling the graveyard with cards specifically for fueling Polukranos’s escape rather than worrying about recurring cards like we’d normally be doing in Golgari?  That’s using Golgari’s graveyard-fueling strength in a different way from how we’re used to, and that’s refreshing and cool. 

And focusing on Polukranos’s escape ability means that having it shrink is not a bad thing.  It means when we first cast it from the command zone it’s not too difficult to have it die.  And assuming we have ways of adding six more cards to the graveyard regularly, we can have our 12/12 commander available to us for six mana the rest of the game.  12/12 is big.  12/12 kills with commander damage with two hits.  12/12 means it can fight with another creature of substantial size and remain formidable.  A 12/12 that keeps coming back is going to command the battlefield.  Let’s do this! 

1. Golgari Grave-Troll

Dredge is one of the most busted mechanics ever made.  You may not know this, but I basically invented the Dredge deck, playing it to Top 8 at States in 2005.  At the time people considered dredge a bad mechanic that’s only mildly good for Limited play, but I stumbled into building a Standard deck around the mechanic and was as shocked as everyone else when it kept winning.  And the winning was slow—usually from either a flying Stinkweed Imp enchanted with a Moldervine Cloak, or a Svogthos, the Restless Tomb that kept coming back from Life from the Loam.  Of course, this was before Future Sight came along and gave Dredge access to Bridge from Below and Narcomoeba and became the busted combo engine we all know and love these days. 

As much as I loved playing dredge cards in those early days of Standard, I’ve never really been interested in putting them in Commander decks.  The random nature of throwing raw cards into the graveyard that might otherwise be difficult to get back—I’m thinking sorceries, instants, and enchantments—made me generally steer clear.

But to fuel escape costs, we’re looking for raw cards tossed into the graveyard, so dredge cards are perfect.  And the best of them is Golgari Grave-Troll, with its dredge 6—and six is exactly the number of cards we need to help Polukranos escape.  Plus, I’ve been dying to play this card with the sweet new artwork from its Ultimate Masters reprint.

I’ve included most of the other dredge cards in the deck too, along with some lands that we can reliably put into the graveyard through sacrifice or cycling to help fuel escape:

2. Vigor

While I am now okay with Polukranos shrinking from six to zero when I originally cast it so it can die and then escape from my graveyard, I wouldn’t mind it getting bigger, and Vigor seems like the perfect card for doing this.  Now, each time it fights something you’ll get to add +1/+1 counters equal to the target creature’s power instead of removing them.  With enough mana you can machine-gun down a few blockers and then crash into someone’s life total with your gigantic Zombie Hydra commander.

I’ve included some other cards that do a nice job of increasing the +1/+1 counter count on Polukranos:

3. Vhati il-Dal

I recently rediscovered how much I like Vhati il-Dal in my Volrath, the Shapestealer Commander deck, so when I was pulling cards together for Polukranos I was happy to find another home for Vhati.  Both sides of Vhati do good work here, letting you minimize the power of a creature that fights or has creature combat with Polukranos, or ensure that tussling with Polukranos will kill even the largest of creatures. 

Speaking of fighting, how about this?

One way people will try to interact with Polukranos is with instant-speed removal, so having Gargos on the battlefield means you’re going to be fighting one way or another.  Of course, the best part of this card is its other ability to shave four generic mana from casting Hydras.  While this only helps shave two mana off Polukranos from the command zone, it will help with all the colorless mana from its alternative casting ability with escape.  Why yes, I’d like my 12/12 for just black and green—thanks!

4. Jarad’s Orders

I usually steer clear of putting too many tutor cards in my deck, but for this one I’m going to make an exception for Jarad’s OrdersGolgari Grave-Troll (or any creature with dredge) is so perfect to fuel Polukranos’s escape, so putting that into the graveyard while you also get a cantrip creature like Elvish Visionary is a great way to start your escape engine.

I’ve included some other ways to draw cards that will help fuel dredge costs:

Sylvan Library is particularly great with the dredge cards: not only can you use dredge to help reset the top of your library, but if you replace all three draw steps with dredge, you don’t have to pay four life for any of the extra cards because you didn’t actually draw them.

5. Whip of Erebos

I see Polukranos dishing out a lot of damage between attacking and fighting, so giving it and all your other creatures lifelink will surely pad your life total from opponents attacking you back.  But I look at this as another way to help Polukranos “escape” from the graveyard if your opponents have been successful in keeping you from putting enough cards in the graveyard to use the escape ability.  Activate Whip, attack with Polukranos, and when the exile trigger happens you can just put Polukranos back into your command zone.

I’ve included some other ways to help get Polukranos out of a graveyard that isn’t very escape-friendly:

Eternal Scourge is something I’ve included purely as something that plays nicely as escape fuel—when it dies, you can exile it to fuel escape, and then cast it again where it will presumably die again.  I see it has a way to virtually shave off a card from Polukranos’s escape cost.

6. Rhonas the Indomitable

Rhonas the Indomitable likes big creatures, and both versions of Polukranos are big enough to make Rhonas happy.  In a pinch, you can even have Polukranos fight Rhonas so you can put it into your graveyard and then escape as a 12/12.  What’s even better here though is that Rhonas can give your huge Zombie Hydra trample, which is exactly what you need when you have a huge terrifying monster on the battlefield.

I’ve included some other cards that play best having a large creature around:

Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord can end games you might otherwise have trouble finishing off since 12 damage to each opponent can add up very quickly.

7. Creeperhulk

I’ve got Creeperhulk in my Prossh, Skyraider of Kher deck with the purpose of turning 0/1 Kobolds into 5/5 tramplers.  In this deck, Creeperhulk gives Polukranos +5/+5 and trample, which is pretty good when Polukranos starts as a 6/6 and is bonkers when it starts as a 12/12.

I’ve got some other cards to enhance Polukranos’s already formidable body:

Yeah, that’s Glistening Oil.  Sometimes you need to deal infect damage to deal with indestructible creatures or players that have 1,000 life.

8. Rhonas’s Monument

Mana ramp is always helpful in Commander, but I feel that Rhonas’s Monument offers a bit extra here by potentially giving Polukranos trample by casting another creature spell. 

I’ve included plenty of other ramp options, and leaned heavily on cards that are put into the graveyard to ramp to help fuel escape:

9. Pernicious Deed

I love playing permanents in Commander so I don’t play Pernicious Deed all that much since it will often wreck some of my own battlefield position in the process, but since I don’t mind adding escape fuel to the fire Deed seems perfect.  It’s also a great way to sweep away a bunch of small creatures that could threaten to chip away at Polukranos, and leave behind the bigger, more formidable creatures you want to fight.

I’ve included some other removal options too:

10. Ground Seal

Ground Seal is a card that’s always on my mind, but I usually have too much of my own graveyard recursion going to ever want to play this.  But it seems like a slam-dunk inclusion here.  It feels that an opposing Scavenging Ooze has got to be a nightmare, so being able to put a stop to that seems perfect.

I’ve included some other interaction for our opponents’ shenanigans too:

Okay, so here’s how the deck ended up:

Polukranos, Unchained
Bennie Smith
0th Place at Test deck on 01-06-2020
Commander


What do you think?  Are there any cards I’ve overlooked?  If you see any new cards from Theros Beyond Death that should find a home here, let me know!

Do me a solid and follow me on Twitter!  I run polls and get conversations started about Commander all the time, so get in on the fun! 

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