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Prison Rules


I set off an avalanche.

Sidisi, Brood Tyrant
Realizing I had subconsciously placed restrictor plates on many of my Commander decks led me to spend the first day of my recent vacation making some much needed updates to my cadre. After cleaning up the remnants from multiple changes, I was left staring at two decks, and my trepidation rose. The two decks were favorite son Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord and problem child Marrow-Gnawer. I hesitated as I flicked the Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, passing it between fingers like rolling a quarter across knuckles.

For all intents and purposes, Jarad’s is a Sidisi deck. The goal is to load up the graveyard with a ton of monsters and either win the game through Splinterfright and its kin or lock opponents out of creatures with Grave Pact. The limit induced by playing Dark Confidant and Dark Tutelage was easy enough to pass over in the evolution. I had set aside the correct Sultai lands and was ready to make use of the Dark Duo in a different, new deck. I made sure my current list of Jarad was saved for posterity in case I wanted to rebuild it one day. I thumbed through the deck one more time, figuring out what themes to leave by the wayside as I added Islands to my Golgari masterpiece.

And I balked.

I couldn’t go through with the update. Jarad represents not just multiple ways I enjoy attacking a game of Commander, but my personal history with the format. While I am definitely going to put together a Sidisi deck someday, as we say to the god of death, not today—fitting for the Golgari, although maybe not as Syrio Forel intended.

Turning my attention to Marrow-Gnawer, I felt different emotions. Previously, I had left the door open to attacking a rebuild through the lens of the Black Plague and going hard toward a theme. I perused the history of printed cards and implored Twitter followers for help. I started coming up with lists and even began to separate the deck into piles of theme-adjacent and non-. At some point, I stopped and realized my heart just was not in the theme.

A confession: I am not a Vorthos. I enjoy the flavor behind Magic, and I am sure that if it were just math with no pictures or story, I would never have become involved. I love the mythos and cosmology as well. My favorite stories and series are those that presuppose a pantheon of gods or a well-worn history of tales. One only needs to see well worn copies of Gaiman’s American Gods or Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber residing on my bookshelf to have a deeper understanding of my infatuation with the planes of existence surrounding our own. That being said, I find it incredibly challenging to build a deck driven more by the Vorthos end of the spectrum. Sure, I find pleasure in the flavor wins, but building with that aspect at the forefront is alien to me.

Upon coming to realize that any flavor pursuit would ultimately meet the same fate as Marrow-Gnawer and end up riding the pine as other Commanders battled for dominance, I decided to give up on this challenge for the time being. One day, when I find the thematic nugget that makes me perk up, perhaps then I can savor the flavor. In the meanwhile, I had the confluence of devotion and Rats that made up Marrow-Gnawer’s deck. Going through the contents, I came to a section I was all set to pull out: the Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker package. Then the candle flickered on.

You see, at this point in the rebuilding process, the thoughts of pulling apart Jarad were still at the forefront of my mind. Finding new homes for Dark Tutelage and Dark Confidant had made me sort through potential commanders. It was not until I saw Shirei that I had that aha moment of small creatures and these draw engines. And it was finding a copy of Grenzo, Dungeon Warden that brought everything together.

Grenzo, Dungeon Warden
Grenzo was a card that caught my eyes early in Conspiracy spoiler season. The reasons should be obvious. First and foremost, it is a black creature that interacts with the graveyard. This alone means I almost definitely want to build a deck that includes the card in some capacity. Early on, I had a copy in my Lyzolda, the Blood Witch deck. The thought process there was that Grenzo would help fill the graveyard while occasionally acting as a threat. The reality was that I never had a chance to be activating Grenzo because I was busy spending my mana doing other things. Lyzolda’s, as it turns out, is a mana-hungry deck with a commander that craves resources. Having another unbounded card, one for which the cost was simply mana, made for a competing interest that took away from the overall goal of Lyzolda’s army.

It was this attribute that drew me back to Grenzo initially. When thinking about the best way to use the cards I was potentially going to be cutting from Jarad, I realized that my threats, individually, would have to be undersized. In turn, I would have to produce quite a few of them in order to matter at any point in a given game. The ability of Grenzo, at the base cost of a black and a red mana, to flip over (under?) any creature with 2 power or less, without any additional initial investment, seemed to mesh very nicely with the goal of keeping the converted mana cost of the deck down. I started digging through my mental catalog for old standards such as Anathemancer, Avalanche Riders, Big Game Hunter, Bone Shredder, Mindclaw Shaman, and others. By the time I finished this list, I had come to the conclusion that Jarad would stay as is and therefore that Dark Confidant and Dark Tutelage would not be free. Grenzo’s momentum, though, could not be contained.

I found myself at a crossroads. I had half an idea for my Grenzo deck: keeping costs low to maximize the potential flips. Without the additional advantage provided by the Dark Duo, I was going to have to look for other supplemental sources. I started by looking at my dungeon master and trying to figure out the different angles I could take.

Coat of Arms
Ramp – While not in the best colors, Grenzo could take on a distinct ramp build. Using a healthy dose of artifact mana accelerates and some of black’s love of Swamps, I could create a deck that had the goal of powering out, and connecting with, a large Grenzo. The mana could also be used to churn out threats and use pinpoint removal to keep the way clear. Equipment would play an important role as well, serving as the primary way to make Grenzo dangerous.

Tribal – Being a Goblin means that Grenzo could summon up his Goblin brethren from the bottom of the library. Going wide, this deck would be able to have a healthy dose of force multiplies (a term I am borrowing (Read: stealing) from Jess Striba) and make it easier to close out games. Considering I was taking apart onetribal deck, the prospect of putting together another, complete with Coat of Arms, had a certain draw.

Engine – Grenzo can dump cards into a graveyard posthaste. Changing the focus from small creatures to large ones means 2 mana equals one dead thing. Combine this with a helping of reanimation spells, and suddenly, Grenzo becomes a pseudo-tutor. The path of big bads brought me dangerously close to stepping on Lyzolda’s toes, so in the end, I decided against this route.

So what did I end up doing with Grenzo?

Grenzo?s Prison Rules ? Commander | Alex Ullman

  • Commander (0)

I decided to put my copy of Built from Scratch to good use. Being Rakdos in Commander means leaning a little more on artifacts to help handle things like enchantments. In my opinion, straight-up enchantments are among the least appreciated permanents in the format, meaning that anyone who can leverage them effectively often has an edge. Artifacts, creatures, and Planeswalkers seem far more threatening (at least in the circles in which I travel), so when one can optimize a field of magical energy . . . well, that person has the upper hand. One needs to look no further than my love of Deathreap Ritual to garner a better understanding of this phenomenon. Artifacts, however, give black and red access to Unstable Obelisk, Nevinyrral's Disk, and Spine of Ish Sah. These cards, and the desire to reuse them, brought be to Grenzo’s Fioran Goblin friend.

Daretti, Scrap Savant
Daretti, Scrap Savant is a powerful Commander in his own right, but he can also be a potent card selection tool. Here, he helps to fill the graveyard early while finding a Junktroller or Soldevi Digger for later use with Grenzo. Daretti’s middle ability, mimicking the present Goblin Welder, makes it so that no machine is ever truly beyond repair. Daretti and his Welder friend also increase the utility late-game mana acceleration, which is a nice bonus.

Grenzo tends to follow a fairly standard line of play: Put the Dungeon Warden on to the battlefield, and start spinning the wheel. Eventually, the table will be full of tiny prisoners just waiting to do my bidding while also keeping the coast—hopefully—clear. Once there’s a path, the former inmates are going to try to escape no matter the life total standing in their way.

The initial build of Grenzo was cobbled together from cards I have readily available. I already have started a list of things to pick up, which include:

Pawn of Ulamog
And I am sure I’ll eventually find space for Pawn of Ulamog and Phyrexian Plaguelord.

Grenzo takes over part of what I was trying to accomplish with Marrow-Gnawer by making small creatures matter. The difference here is that Grenzo allows for a more robust suite of threats without relying on Relentless Rats. I am excited to watch how this deck evolves as I resist putting Blood Artist into the deck—I do need some variety in my play experience.

One thing I have not included yet but am considering is going for a more prison feel. Part of me wants to be the bad guy and put some rather mean cards to use. I’m talking Winter Orb, Smokestack, and Tangle Wire levels of nasty. I’m not sold on never doing that, but I have a feeling it will create feelings stating, “Please, Alex, don’t play Grenzo.”

There is still a husk of a black devotion deck seeded in Marrow-Gnawer’s bones. I have some plans for those cards, but it isn’t fully realized yet. In the meanwhile, I am looking forward to letting those behind bars out for a little mayhem.

What is your favorite build of Grenzo, Dungeon Warden? What must-haves am I missing, and what cards do I have here that make you go, “Why didn’t I think of that?” I will be paying 2 and hoping to flip something sweet.

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