The Orzhov occupy the gray area between organized crime and organized religion; if you want to exploit the weak and defenseless while robed in righteousness, all it will cost you is your immortal soul . . .
- For Richer, For Poorer – Orzhov is the king of zero-sum games. Both colors can gain life in different ways, but together, they’re greater than the sum of their parts. The new extort mechanic perfectly captures this grinding, life-leeching aspect of the guild, and it doesn’t hurt that lifelink comes standard on Orzhov creatures.
- In Sickness – Orzhov has the best creature removal in the game, bar none, and plenty of tools for dealing with other kinds of threats. Take advantage of this by packing a bunch of instant-speed kill spells in addition to the brutally efficient sweepers of both colors.
- In Health – It’s no surprise the priests of Orzhova are hypocrites—death for your opponents’ creatures and life for yours. Debtors' Knell is the flagship reanimation spell, but there are plenty of other ways for Orzhov to stop your creatures (and you!) from feeling pain and bringing them back once they’ve gone to the grumper. You may be a target for graveyard removal like Bojuka Bog, but as Sheldon Menery recently reminded us, white’s Ivory Mask effects can protect you from that as well!
Kor Cartographer, Liliana's Shade, and Crypt Ghast), it’s just that the typical Orzhov style is slow and grinding . . . much like their undead leaders. Deathpact Angel and the extort mechanic perfectly capture this weakness; turning death into life is a perilously slow business. There will be games in which you smash the table with a Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter/Serra Avatar combo, but many more in which you stall after your beautiful fatties are finally removed.
That means building a conservative mana curve, and it also means being careful how you manage your sweepers. When everything is going well, Orzhov will force your opponents to overcommit to the board and then sweep everything away; when it goes badly, you’ll lose too many of your expensive toys to those same board wipes and struggle to control tempo. With Vish Kal, I tend to lose the games in which he bites the big one before I can untap, and that is fairly typical of my experience in Orzhov colors. Teneb, the Harvester avoids this by ramping, and Sharuum the Hegemon avoids it by countering threats and outdrawing opponents, but Orzhov seems more fragile.
Blind Hunter –
Cauldron Haze – Whether you’re sweeping the board and bringing your boys back or generating double value from your sac outlets (hint: This includes three of Orzhov’s five commanders), Cauldron Haze is among the best recursion/force protection spells in the game. These days, your opponents might expect a Faith's Reward, but this will take them by surprise. As an added advantage, it works well in team formats, too.
Circle of Despair – The cost is a bit steep, but Orzhov is always ready to sacrifice its pawns to protect the king . . . or even a rook if necessary. Note that this can be used to protect anything from damage, including your other creatures or even an opponent! You often won’t need to use this—it sends a clear rattlesnake signal to your opponents—but when a big attack comes your way, you’ll be happy to sacrifice a couple of tokens to prevent all of the damage to or from a heavy-hitting Commander.
Deathbringer Liege – There was a cycle of enemy-colored lieges in Shadowmoor and Eventide, and I haven't mentioned any of them so far for good reason: The others aren't as good as the Orzhov Liege, not by a country mile. Your commander not only receives +2/+2, but when you cast it, you get to ice any creature on the board. Any black spell will usually result in an opponent losing a creature, and being able to tap creatures any time you play a white spell has all kinds of value as well.Divinity of Pride – The second Shadowmoor-block cycle in which Orzhov is the clear winner was the god cycle. In most commander games, Divinity will be an 8/8; a lifelinker this big deters a lot of attacks because you will often gain more life from blocking than the attacker can deal with unblocked creatures.
Purgatory – This is the best way to spend all of that life you gained. Nim Deathmantle is fantastic, but if you don’t have enough mana to recur all of your creatures at once, Purgatory is a great backup plan. With the dearth of enchantment removal in most groups, I’d consider this a must-acquire for any Orzhov deck.
Souls of the Faultless – Bruce wrote about this in his extort article, and for good reason. The offspring of Wall of Souls and Wall of Essence, this is among the best early defensive plays in the game; not only can it gain you more life than a Wall of Reverence, but it can soften your enemies up for your insidious counterstrike.
Vault of the Archangel – I raved about this card when I reviewed it, and it’s nice to be vindicated, so to speak. It helped Lingering Souls to dominate Standard for a time, and it has helped many of us to attack more vigorously—or defend more viciously—without taking up a card slot.
Voracious Hatchling – The Hatchlings are the third cycle from Eventide for which Orzhov dominates. Creating 12-point life swings can buy you all the time you need to put the game away.
Zealous Persecution – This is a devious little combat trick, especially if you’re taking advantage of Orzhov’s token technology. I love the way it gives all of your opponents’ creatures the drawback, allowing you to screw up combat math when the midrange deck attacks you and completely hose the unsuspecting weenie deck at the same time.
Meet the Boss
Fair to Middlin’
Selenia, Dark Angel – Very similar to Wydwen, the Biting Gale, Selenia is a tad pricier, but her bounce effect is free (mana-wise). This makes her extraordinarily resilient, but it doesn’t actually bring you any closer to winning. She could be excellent in a defensive deck or as a way to bide time while a combo comes together, and look for her to receive a boost in popularity from extort.
Ghost Council of Orzhova – In all the hullabaloo over Obzedat (see below), people may have forgotten that Orzhov already has an incredibly efficient and sweeper-proof beater. The original Ghost Council of Orzhova is a 4/4 for 4 with built-in extort and a useful sacrifice outlet. As long as you can maintain a steady stream of sacrifice fodder, you can flicker it until the end of the turn each turn. This means you can still block and potentially drain more than 2 life each turn.
But maintaining that stream of fodder is far from easy, which is why this is a job for Johnny. Tokens will get you partway there, although once a sweeper hits, you probably can't flicker your commander anymore. A free token generator like Spirit Mirror or Teysa could be useful, as could Minion Reflector, Sacred Mesa, and any members of the Nether Shadow family.
Teysa, Orzhov Scion – Wizards of the Coast set us a puzzle with Teysa; how do you kill enough black dudes to generate three or more white dudes, and then, how do you make more black dudes once you kill off your white dudes? There are three obvious answers:
- Make all your dudes multicolored.
- Make all your dudes white, and focus on Teysa’s first ability.
- Make a lot of dudes, and hope your opponents don’t understand how Teysa works.
Teysa is well worth jumping through hoops for because she offers repeatable, instant-speed exiling, which puts you in the driver’s seat. A word of caution: Cards like Darkest Hour make all of your creatures black and no other color, so they won’t work with both of her abilities. Wisps, on the other hand, are very useful.
Obzedat, Ghost Council – Gavin Verhey said everything you need to know about Obzedat for a duel, but the story is a little different in Commander. First, five points of power and a 2-point drain of life is nice, but it isn’t an existential threat in a 40-life format. However, he (they?) presents such a unique challenge to your opponents that he belongs in the Powerhouses category. He doesn’t die to most sweepers, and he allows you to play fast and loose with cards like Rout, Nevinyrral's Disk, Oblivion Stone, and Pestilence Demon, secure in the knowledge that you’ll be able to flash in an attacker on your next upkeep.
He doesn’t block very well, and he is hard to Voltron up with enchantments or even Equipment, but blocking is for wimps, and once you’ve killed everyone else’s creatures, you won’t need to enhance him. Also, white has some of the best blockers in the game, and Obzedat is well-suited to abuse the cheap equip costs of the Swords of Wreck and Face. For extra yucks, try Spreading Plague.
Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter – 7-mana commanders can be dangerously slow, but Vish Kal brings so much to the table that he’s worth taking that chance: lifelink, explosive commander damage, and spot removal that negates regeneration and indestructibility. Plus, the sacrifice ability is useful in too many situations to list here. I’ve already written about how I built my Vish Kal deck, but you’ll find an updated decklist at the end of this article.
The last time I built an Orzhov deck, I had about four hundred cards left over; in other words, there are a lot of options in these colors. Here are some ideas to help you find your focus:
- Extort – This is a mechanic that you can really milk in multiplayer. Slow the game to a crawl, and bleed the table dry!
- WBC – Most Commander decks try to win with creatures. Orzhov kills creatures . . . all of them. Don’t forget to add cards like Bloodchief Ascension to punish opponents when their creatures are annihilated, just so you can put them out of their misery.
- Enchantments – The first time I built Teysa, I was drawn to Auras, but it didn’t quite work out, which is why I turned the deck over to Vish Kal. But my buddy Tony recently hit the nail on the head with his enchantment-based Orzhov build—it’s a thing of beauty!
- Angels and Demons – This guild just oozes flavor, and the eternal battle between good and evil is a great place to start. Use Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis to give exalted to your Exalted Angel! Kill your own Angel of Despair with a Halo Hunter, just so you can recur it! Sacrifice Lord of the Pit to Wayward Angel!! Use too many exclamation points!!!
Finally, here is my updated Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter deck. It sometimes feels a little unfocused, but other times, it can seize the whole table by the throat and not let go, so I must be doing something right!
"Vish Kal Commander"
- Commander (0)
- Creatures (26)
- 1 Angel of Despair
- 1 Archon of Justice
- 1 Bloodghast
- 1 Chancellor of the Dross
- 1 Deathbringer Liege
- 1 Divinity of Pride
- 1 Exalted Angel
- 1 Kor Cartographer
- 1 Liliana's Shade
- 1 Pulsemage Advocate
- 1 Reaper from the Abyss
- 1 Reassembling Skeleton
- 1 Serra Ascendant
- 1 Serra Avatar
- 1 Shattered Angel
- 1 Soltari Visionary
- 1 Sun Titan
- 1 Suture Priest
- 1 Twilight Shepherd
- 1 Voracious Hatchling
- 1 War Priest of Thune
- 1 Weathered Wayfarer
- 1 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder
- 1 Mikaeus, the Unhallowed
- 1 Teysa, Orzhov Scion
- Spells (34)
- 1 Cauldron Haze
- 1 Dawn Charm
- 1 Enlightened Tutor
- 1 Faith's Reward
- 1 Return to Dust
- 1 Safe Passage
- 1 Tribute to Hunger
- 1 White Sun's Zenith
- 1 Not of this World
- 1 Austere Command
- 1 Divine Reckoning
- 1 Dust to Dust
- 1 Exsanguinate
- 1 Increasing Ambition
- 1 Planar Cleansing
- 1 Promise of Power
- 1 Reanimate
- 1 Vindicate
- 1 Wrath of God
- 1 Animate Dead
- 1 Bloodchief Ascension
- 1 Exquisite Blood
- 1 Grave Betrayal
- 1 Martyr's Bond
- 1 Phyrexian Reclamation
- 1 Purgatory
- 1 Sanguine Bond
- 1 Sunblast Angel
- 1 Armillary Sphere
- 1 Coalition Relic
- 1 Nim Deathmantle
- 1 Orzhov Signet
- 1 Skullclamp
- 1 Well of Lost Dreams
- Lands (37)
- 37 Lands
The spells are divided into four functions: dudes (reanimate/generate/protect), removal, life-gain, and acceleration. Notice that I do have the infinite combo of Sanguine Bond and Exquisite Blood together, but I go out of my way never to play them together. Either is worth playing (although Sanguine Bond is strategically superior), so in the absence of a large number of tutors, I’m content to run them both. Exquisite Blood might be replaced by the new Vizkopa Guildmage, but I haven't decided yet.
So that’s Orzhov. Extort is arguably the best multiplayer mechanic in Ravnica, white and black make one of the most comprehensive color combinations, and they have style up the ying-yang. Get yourself fitted for an Orzhov tuxedo today!