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Intersections: Core Set 2021, Commander 2020, And Death Triggers

What happens when Core Set 2021, Commander 2020, and the new death trigger rules collide? The latest deck from Sheldon Menery!

Twinblade Assassins, illustrated by Campbell White

Sometimes, you just want to build a new deck and you have to stretch it out to find ideas.  Sometimes, events conspire to give you compelling opportunities.  Such is the case I find myself in right now, as we have a Commander set that’s just come out, a core set that’s in preview season, and a new ruling regarding the way death triggers work with commanders.

If you missed the memo, you can check out the announcement from the Commander Rules Committee (RC) on the rules change.  The short version is that it works the way a number of folks have thought that it worked all along.  The commander hits the graveyard very briefly, with no chance to interact with it there, before moving to the command zone (if you want it to—the option still exists for it to stay in the graveyard).  It’s no longer a replacement effect when it goes to the graveyard or exile—although it still is for hand and library. 

There are cards which got buffed by the change.  The big three are Elenda, the Dusk Rose; Child of Alara; and Roalesk, Apex HybridChild of Alara will probably be the one that gets the most annoying fastest, but it also seems like the one people will tire of playing. 

A few weeks back, I provided an upgrade path for one of the new Commander 2020 legendary creatures.  I always had it in mind to build something new and different with another one.  Otrimi, the Ever-Playful is certainly the first one that struck my fancy, but I feel like too many of my recent decks have been Sultai—to include the Brokkos, Apex of Forever mutate deck I put together just a few weeks ago.  Same with Ukkima, Stalking Shadow and its partner, Cazur, Ruthless Stalker.  And Zaxara, the Exemplary.  I needed to look a little farther afield. 

Before I settled on which commander, I had to in general terms figure out what it means to take advantage of commander death triggers.  Clearly, that means getting an advantage when my commander goes to the graveyard.  There aren’t any in Commander 2020 that really do that, meaning I’d need to find external sources that do something when creatures go to the graveyard, and then make my commander do that either repeatedly or a few time with big effects.  It seems cheaty to do something that leaves the commander in the graveyard and calling it “taking advantage” of the dies trigger rule change, so we’ll need to look at the movement from graveyard to command zone and then back to the battlefield in order to do it again.

Side note:  It occurs to me that things just got deadlier with Kresh the Bloodbraided plus Stalking Vengeance.

We haven’t seen too many cards yet from Core Set 2021 that engage in the kind of “dies” shenanigans that we want, so we’ll have to get creative—which is kind of the point in the first place.  Jirina Kudro seems to have the elements we want, getting better each time we cast it again from the command zone.  The problem there is that doing so can get really cost-prohibitive, and Mardu isn’t exactly the wedge you want to get expensive in.  I like best the possibilities presented by Nikara, Lair Scavenger and Yannik, Scavenging Sentinel.  They’re in the right wedge to engage in making things die for profit. 

One of the additional goals will be to avoid the lines presented in the deck in which our commanders appear, Symbiotic Swarm.  That’s not to say that we won’t use some of the cards therein; we’ll just find other strategic direction.  It might be hard to avoid the “counters matter” idea, so we’ll find some novel way to go about it.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of leaning back on favorites, good stuff, and staples, so I wanted to find a way to avoid complete capitulation.  I’m sure there’s what some folks would call an optimal build here.  I’m looking for optimal good times with a side order of winning every now and again.

The synergy of the two commanders is significant. 

Nikara, Lair Scavenger

Nikara is relatively simple, simply drawing cards at the cost of a life when your creatures with counters leave the battlefield, Yannik being first among them.  Our goal then will be to have creatures with counters on them and make them leave.  Lifegain will offset the life loss from the card draw, which you’ll note is not optional. 

Yannik, Scavenging Sentinel

Yannik will be the important card in the deck.  It will blink out other creatures, suggesting that we have some nice enters-the-battlefield triggers.  The ability to distribute +1/+1 counters will lead us to the path where those counters are important enough for us to do silly stuff with them.  First thoughts include getting rid of the -1/-1 counters from persist creatures and, of course, Doubling Season.  We’ll also need some sacrifice outlets in order to create our recurring value.   We also live in the days in which Skullclamp on your commander is full of win.

One of the things I’ll do with this deck that I normally don’t do with others is put in a defined (other than combat damage) win condition.  Maybe not an infinite combo, but large enough to take out the table.  My decks get a little durdly sometimes, and Abzan is definitely a wedge that leads in that direction, so I want to make sure I have some kind of finishing move.  It won’t be as well-known or easy as Exquisite Blood/Sanguine Bond, but it’ll get the job done.

Let’s take a look at the list:


We’ve tried to do nearly everything by means of the creature suite.   There’s a bit of interaction, less than I would normally go for, and the permanents provide most of it.  I’ve chosen to use mana creatures, like Llanowar Elves and Birds of Paradise, in a stark departure from my normal habit of letting spells like Rampant Growth and Cultivate do the heavy lifting for ramp.  Generally, lands are more resilient than creatures, so they’re more valuable in the long game.  In this deck, however, there are multiple ways to bring them back if they go away or do things with them when they’re drawn later on. 

Most of the cards that provide additional +1/+1 counters are there, from Corpsejack Menace to Conclave Mentor to Hardened Scales to Good-Fortune Unicorn and beyond.  Because of Yannik’s ability to move counters, there are creatures that actually do things beyond attacking with those counters, such as Spike Feeder and Spike Weaver

Lifegain is the other big part of the deck, providing and alternate win condition with Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose.  It’s slightly limited, in that it can only take out one player at a time, but I just couldn’t bring myself to the Blood/Bond combo. 

There’s the possibility of going infinite with a sacrifice outlet, a persist creature, and one of the cards that adds an additional +1/+1 counter to a creature when it enters the battlefield.  Phyrexian Altar as the sacrifice outlet will provide an arbitrarily large amount of mana and is the only free sacrifice outlet.  Greater Good of course has the possible downside of drawing yourself out of the game.  Playing Reveillark, I wanted to make sure I didn’t provide any infinite combos with it, just value—mostly getting back that Phantom Nishoba and the Spikes.  Without tutors to fuel it all, I’m relatively confident that infinite stuff won’t happen often.

Moving around +1/+1 counters with Yannik, Forgotten Ancient, or The Ozoloith will occasionally provide huge strikes with a single creature.  Every now and again it might lead to a commander damage kill with Nikara, although she’d have to be running on a mostly unopposed battlefield—but the fact that she has menace could come in handy.

Core Set 2021 Featured Cards

Basri Ket

Our latest planeswalker has some cool possibilities.  The +1 ability is decent if you know you’re going to Wrath of God on your own turn, but in this build it’s all about the counter and ticking upward.  The -2 ability to put in some creatures can get out of hand with Doubling Season, with or without one of the Juniper Order Ranger effects.  Together, you don’t need to battle with that many creatures in order to suddenly be dealing piles of damage.  The big one, of course, is the -6 ultimate for an emblem that makes all your creatures get an additional +1/+1 counter at the beginning of combat.  The fact that it creates an additional token creature is lost in the other noise.

Basri’s Lieutenant

Creature decks will sometimes get hit pretty hard when they are the victims of a battlefield sweeper. Basri’s Lieutenant, in a deck like this, will help you rebuild right away, replacing the recently dead right away. Note that it doesn’t say anything about nontoken creatures, so if you manage to get counters on the Knights, they’ll replace themselves. You can create infinite loops with Juniper Order Ranger as well.

Conclave Mentor

One of the operative mechanics for the deck, piling up counters makes small things large and large things lethal.  You don’t need to activate it for it to do its thing, so you can drop it the turn you’re going to move or add counters to other creatures.  The fact that you gain life when it dies is really just gravy on an already-delicious stack of cheese fries. 

Goremand

Although I cringed at the pun in the name, I was in love with this card when I saw it in the design file last October.  It shines in this deck as a way of getting whatever you sacrificed to Yannik back onto the battlefield and the commander itself back into the command zone to do over again.  Having trample means that adding a large number of counters to it significantly ups the lethality quotient.  If Goremand is what you sacrifice to Yannik, you’ll get its triggered ability once it comes back—without having to pay the additional cost of sacrificing something yourself. 

Twinblade Assassins

With a fair number of sacrifice outlets, many of them we’ll use on our own turn, we’ll get the card draw trigger from Twinblade Assassins.  Of course, we’re also killing creatures, too.  Note that Twinblade Assassins doesn’t need to be on the battlefield when a creature dies; it simply looks back at end of turn to see if a creature went to a graveyard.  It’s not in direct service to the main line of play, but sometimes you also just need support creatures. 

Village Rites

I’m happy that we have playable commons for Commander.  This is definitely one of them.  It’s inexpensive enough that you don’t really need to plan around it.  In general, my plan will be to wait until someone uses targeted destruction (or even better, a Capsize) on one of my creatures, then use Village Rites to draw to replace whatever was getting destroyed anyway.  Same goes for a big battlefield wipe.  There’s also the utility of having it to sacrifice one of the persist creatures in a pinch. 

Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose

Certainly a card that has many people talking, our inexpensive Vampire friend is here to end games.  It’s not a guarantee, but that’s just how I like it.  In advance of a large combat—whether you’re attacking or blocking—is going to lead to some life total swings.  Vito doesn’t need to be a game-ender, but its simple presence will be a game-changer.  The dream play is to ultimate Ajani, Mentor of Heroes while Vito is hanging around.

Wildwood Scourge

There’s probably a line somewhere to make Nikara and Yannik a Hydra tribal deck.  It’s not the path we’re going down here, but there’s every reason to add the smallest of the Hydras—because it’s not going to stay tiny.  You only get one counter on it regardless of how many counters you put on something else, but what will fire it into overdrive are the things that add a counter to multiple creatures at once, whether that’s Forgotten Ancient or Basri Ket’s ultimate ability. 

Witch’s Cauldron

Cheap to cast and easy to use. I must have tried to look it up as a reprint three or four times before I realized I was thinking about Witch’s Oven.  I suppose there’s a small argument to be made that Witch’s Oven could go in this slot, but I’d prefer the card draw to the extra lifegain.  And not for nothing, it also adds to devotion to black for Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx

Once the Core Set 2021 cards are in hand, I expect this to be a fun and rewarding deck to play.  It brings in all the elements that I wanted to hit from the original concept stage:  a new deck led by something from Commander 2020, featuring Core Set 2021, and leveraging commander death triggers.  The deck won’t come out of the gates too fast and thereby set itself up as the archenemy, but has the potential for some explosive mid-games.  On a locked-up battlefield state, it can also do a pretty saucy finishing move, which is sometimes just the thing a Commander game needs.

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