Zaxara, The Exemplary Brings X-Spell Tribal To Commander

Bennie Smith is taking flight on a mission to Planet X! See how he’d build a Commander deck around Zaxara, the Exemplary!

Zaxara, the Exemplary, illustrated by Simon Dominic

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Wow!  Can you believe this crazy card from Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths that our own Commander VS crew previewed today? 

Before I could even really digest the rules text on Zaxara, the Exemplary, I just had to take in the artwork by Simon Dominic. Nightmare Hydra indeed, but the picture is just as beautiful as it is terrifying.  It’s like Zaxara is dazzling you with a lovely lightshow before it and its horde of Hydras rip you limb from limb.

If we look up the definition of the word “exemplary,” it gives us two different uses for the adjective:

  1. Serving as a desirable model; representing the best of its kind.
  2. Serving as a warning or deterrent.

Yeah, that pretty much nails this legend – quite exemplary!

Okay, so let’s take a look at the rules text.


This ability is for those nightmare scenarios where an opponent has a gigantic creature that will otherwise take an unhealthy amount of your life total from you if you didn’t have a creature to chump block it.  Deathtouch means that Zaxara will be able to kill just about any huge creature it gets in combat with, and hopefully that fact will keep those attacks from going your way.

Let’s be honest, though.  We’re not here for the deathtouch ability.  That’s just here in case we have an emergency situation on our hands.  It’s the rest of the text box that’s the main attraction.

Tap: Add two mana of any one color.

It’s awesome to have mana ramp built into your commander, and since green is in Zaxara’s color identity, odds are pretty good you’ll be able to cast this on Turn 3, which will give you access to six or seven mana on Turn 4. Six- and seven-mana spells are firmly in haymaker territory and it’s pretty much why players sit down and shuffle up 100-card Commander decks. 

What’s also cool is that Zaxara taps for two mana of any one color, with no stipulation on what you use that mana for. Spells, creatures, activated abilities – whatever color you need for whatever you want.  Two mana is a big deal because there are plenty of counterspell and removal options at two mana, so even if you tap all your lands, if you’ve got Zaxara untapped (and ready to chump block if need be), you won’t have a shields-down moment.

But wait. What’s really powerful about Zaxara’s ability is how easy it is to generate infinite mana with it!

Tap Zaxara for two blue mana, use one blue mana to activate one of the above Auras’ untap ability, and then repeat as often as you want. If you need mana of another color, you can use some of the extra blue mana to untap while Zaxara taps for the other colors. 

There are lots of other cards we could use to squeeze extra mana out of Zaxara too:

I particularly like Thousand-Year Elixir since it means you can tap Zaxara for mana immediately when it enters the battlefield.

Lots of mana is pretty good in Commander if you’ve got ways to use it.  Luckily, Zaxara’s next line of text gives us a great use for it!

Whenever you cast a spell with X in its mana cost, create a 0/0 green Hydra creature token, then put X +1/+1 counters on it.

So just let that sink in.  Whenever you cast an X-spell, you get a free X/X Hydra for your troubles, regardless of whether the spell resolves or not? 

Get your Gatorade out, because it’s time to Hydrate, people! 

X-spells are some of the most flexible cards in Commander since they scale so nicely to whatever stage of the game you’re in.  The biggest drawback to playing them in Commander is that you generally want to sink all of your mana into the one X-spell, and that can leave you vulnerable if the X-spell doesn’t do enough to establish a presence on the battlefield.  So getting a bonus creature sized to the value of X does a great job of shoring up that weakness. 

As luck would have it, there are a lot of actual Hydra creature spells that have X in their mana costs!

When you cast these you’re basically getting two creatures for the price of one, which will feel great.  Speaking of casting Hydras, there’s another card that can help us cast even bigger Hydras!

Between Zaxara and Gargos, we’ll be easily casting gigantic Hydras that will both beautify the battlefield and terrify our opponents. But we’re not playing Hydra tribal here, we’re playing X-spell “tribal,” so let’s look at some other X-spells that can do great work in this deck.


Disembowel and Repeal are cards I wouldn’t even think about adding to a Commander deck, but when you combine the instant speed and an X/X Hydra bonus, we start creeping into blowout territory. 

Curse of the Swine and Erebos’s Intervention are both already quality cards for Commander, and they just get even better when Zaxara is on the battlefield.


Sometimes you need to counter a spell that’s otherwise going to be really bad for your battlefield or your life total, and thankfully there are some that have X in the mana cost.  Logic Knot in particular is nice because you can use the delve mechanic to create a larger X than you would otherwise have the mana for if your graveyard happens to be stocked.

Other Cool X-Spells

First, I just wanted to point out that I’m sure that Jeremy Noell is no doubt champing at the bit to cast a gigantic Villainous Wealth with Zaxara on the battlefield.  I mean, why wouldn’t you want to add a giant Hydra to the battlefield in addition to casting all those spells from your opponent’s deck?

Animist’s Awakening is awesome because it’s a way to ramp your mana while getting a Hydra for your troubles.  Mana Bloom helps provide mana more incrementally, but I love that it’ll bounce back to your hand once you’ve siphoned all the mana from it to cast again. 

How about Serene Sunset as a combat trick, preventing the damage dealt by the creatures while you create an X/X Hydra to help participate in blocking and killing one or more attackers?

Finale of Devastation where X = 10 is even more devastating when you add a 10/10 Hydra to the creature you searched out, and then give all your creatures +10/+10 and haste. 

Card draw like Pull from Tomorrow and Stroke of Genius is nice, but how about Open into Wonder? “Make X target creatures unblockable until the end of the turn, draw X cards, and make an X/X Hydra” sounds like a worthy mana investment!

+1/+1 Counters

Since Zaxara is making Hydras with +1/+1 counters and nearly all of our actual Hydra creatures also use +1/+1 counters, it seems wise to pepper in cards that care about those counters.  Doubling Season continues to just be a busted card in the right deck, and you can’t get more right than getting two Hydra token creatures with double the +1/+1 counters each time you cast an X-spell.  Kalonian Hydra joins its multi-headed brethren and doubles all the +1/+1 counters each time it attacks. Spark Double copying Zaxara is just good clean living, and I love that Reyhan, Last of the Abzan gives us the chance to move a bunch of +1/+1 counters from a dying Hydra and add them to Zaxara if we need to go large and kill with commander damage.

Other Mana Ramp

While Zaxama provides a solid amount of ramp all on its own, we’re playing green, which unlocks all the best mana ramp cards in the format.  We’ll want to find room for nearly all of them here, since we’re squeezing so much value out of our X-spells. 


One of the key mechanics from Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths is mutate, which lets you combine a creature with mutate onto a card you already have on the battlefield.  The Hydra cards in particular seem like really nice targets to mutate with the mutate creature placed on top; that way you get the base power and toughness, yet get to take advantage of the +1/+1 counters.

Brokkos, Apex of Forever seems like a cool choice, since you can cast it from the graveyard with its mutate ability if it gets killed.  Giving an X/X Hydra +6/+6 and trample seems like a perfect pairing!

Though perhaps it would be even cooler if it mutated into… Bio-Quartz Spacegodzilla!

Below is a deck I cooked up making full use of Zaxama’s awesome abilities!  I haven’t included any other new cards from Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths but that is certainly subject to change as the preview season continues.

What do you think?  Are there any cards I’ve overlooked?  If you see any new cards from Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths that should find a home here, especially ones with mutate, let me know!

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