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Never Grow Old, Never Die



In deciding which new commander to build around this week, I probably considered and decided against each new Legendary creature at least twice. I didn't want to build something that was too set-specific and narrow to be any fun after a few months and I didn't want to build something that was going to be exactly a deck I've built before. Phylath was going to be exactly a deck I've built before unless I got very, very creative and built something that was so stylistically novel, it wouldn't play. Linvala was going to be a clunky deck with bad creatures in it to make sure I had a full party. Verazol was going to either be a deck full of mediocre kicker cards or it was going to be another Simic +1/+1 counters deck; the worst of both worlds. In my desire to not build a deck that relied on really clunky mechanics from Zendikar Rising (although it's possible the party concept is revisited in later sets), I almost overlooked something very powerful and very fun.

Zagras, Thief of Heartbeats

I wasn't so narrowly focusing on the "party" aspect of Zagaras that I didn't realize that you didn't have to build it as a terrible kind of tribal deck that tried to juggle 5 different tribes or anything like that. I looked at Zagras and saw a six mana commander that was going to be pretty tough to play out if he died, making a lot of your creatures that were mediocre with deathtouch into terrible creatures. I built a "pingers tribal" deck once before and it was fun but it also had Olivia Voldaren at the helm and that made things very interesting and fun. Sure, it was neat to slap a Quietus Spike onto a Deathbringer Thoctar to wipe the board but the deck also hung together because Olivia was enough of a threat on her own to win the game if unchecked. Zagras? Not so much. A 4/4 for six wasn't quite going to get the job done like Olivia could, even with Haste and Flying. I discounted Zagras fairly early and tried to find other options. However, despite the thinking that had me listing all the ways Zagras wasn't like Olivia Voldaren making me dislike Zagras, thinking about the ways Zagras was like Olivia made me realize we could have something a lot of fun on our hands.

Sure, Olivia could win the game on her own, equipped with some Deathtouch equipment, but Olivia couldn't make your pingers good when you couldn't draw anything to give your creatures Deathtouch. Olivia could win the game on her own, but she almost HAD to a lot of the time. If you play Zagras with those same pingers, they can wipe the whole board every time you cough up the mana to play him out but you still play the Deathtouch equipment in the deck because redundancy is good and Zagras is expensive. However, as much as I didn't want to build around the party mechanic to try and reduce his cost, I realized we may benefit from it incidentally. One way to make sure your "tribal" deck isn't a mess of random Clerics, Rouges, Warriors and Wizards is to make sure those party members are all from the same tribe. Zagras being a Vampire doesn't mean they all have to be Vampires.

But they don't have to be NOT Vampires, either.

In fact, I decided to play a bunch of Vampires in the deck before I fully grokked that Zagras himself was a Vampire and we could build a Vampire deck. If it wasn't some sort of tribal synergy with Zagras that made me look at Vampires, what was it? It's simple. The answer is a terrible, borderline unplayable card made me look at Vampires a lot more closely.

Krovikan Vampire

This card is very, very bad. It's smaller than its Sengir counterpart for the same amount of mana and it can't get bigger when it kills other creatures. That did not stop me from trying to make this card work when I first started playing, because I was obsessed with the idea of stealing their creatures even then. While my friends were putting Lure and Regeneration on Cockatrice and Thicket Basilisk, I was trying those shenanigans on this creature. Anything small enough to get killed became mine. You could add Venom to the mix, or Unholy Strength and make a formidable Vampire that hoovered up their whole team. My friends didn't have answers like Swords to Plowshares so I ended up with lots of Craw Wurms that didn't belong to me1.

I think a less clunky version of that deck can work here because taking their creatures is the "cute" option that we only bother with if we can. The main strategy is to keep the board clear of creatures and win via combat with Vampire synergy. Remember, we don't want to rely on the Party mechanic to rebuy our commander, but that doesn't mean some games we won't benefit from trying to cast Zagras with Asylum Visitor and Butcher of Malakir2 out. If we lean hard into Vampires, we'll have a few party members to keep Zagras coming back if we need him, but we can also just handle business with our vamps. Do we need to play Krovikan Vampire to take their creatures, though? Nope, in fact, there's a real possibility he gets cut.

It's been a long time since Ice Age and creatures have improved. They spent more time developing the "Vampires captivating their creatures doesn't break the color pie" argument and have come up with some very good creatures that steal their cards.

Captivating Vampire
New Blood

It's not just the cards aimed specifically at Vampires, either. In fact, one card I don't see played much that is showing up from my Olivia Voldaren days would be even better in this deck.

Scythe of the Wretched

Having to re-equip Scythe to your pinger is a little arduous but you can't beat being able to steal stuff at-will. You play this alongside Helm of Possession and you can sac the creature you stole to activate Helm and take something else if you want. This is especially good if you kill something with ETB triggers - Scythe can be better than Helm in cases like that. Is doing one creature at a time too slow?

Shriveling Rot

What if you managed to get the whole board on one of those insane "My Goblin Sharpshooter found a Gorgon Flail and he's out for blood" turns? It's a pipe dream, but if you build a solid Vampire deck that doesn't rely on "cute" plays, you can have these insane turns as a fun thing that sometimes happens in your solid, dependable deck.

Zagras giving your pingers Deathtouch means you can run Deathbringer Thoctar and Goblin Sharpshooter as part of a 2-card combo where the other half is in your command zone, always accessible. Vampires are fast and aggressive and you can do a lot of damage to your opponents and put them on their back foot until they try to stabilize. When they do, remove their blockers, conscript them to your side and finish them off with an Alpha strike. It sounds easy, but is it that easy in practice?

It is.

So, what would a pile like this look like?

The Worst Part of Living in Santa Carla | Commander | Jason Alt

This seems really close. It's a bit of a hybrid between a stock Vampires list and my old Olivia "steal things" deck but I think there is so much crossover that they bleed (heh) into each other nicely.

A pure "steal things" Olivia deck would run way more threaten and sac effects, and I included some of that here because I like it and we have some good sac effects and don't want to always use our own creatures. Our goal is the keep the board clear so we can get them with combat damage from our vampires, which should be growing as their creatures die.

We have some equipment to turn any creature into a pinger. In the past, I have found that was loose compared with just using creatures that were already pingers. However, if all of our creatures have Deathtouch, it works much better, especially since our vampires will have deathtouch a lot of the time. Being able to slap a Sorcerer's Wand on a deathtouch Vampire and playing Grim Return on their big fatty is a decent enough play in any kind of deck. We are playing pinger equipment because we have Vampires that can get deathtouch from the commander easily enough but which also can steal a creature if they kill it. Scythe and Thornbite Staff on literally any creature grants it the power to just take control of something of theirs, and get ETB triggers to boot. This is not great in terms of how powerful things usually are in a game of commander, but I think it works here.

Decks like my Inniaz deck that steal their creatures usually fold to a second wrath within a few turns. A deck like this can use equipment to start being able to steal their stuff as soon as we play one creature after the wrath, and if our opponents play a creature after the wrath, we take it and then we have 2 and they have 0. Vampire decks can get going quickly and an opponent who is casting a wrath is probably on their back foot and might not be able to stop you from getting going quickly. This makes a Vampires deck more resilient than a deck in Azorius or Simic colors that requires expensive, sorcery-speed plays to take a lot of creatures but can't do anything else quickly enough to be the most aggressive deck. Forcing the table to play lots of blockers to stop you makes them hurt more by a wrath, also, meaning you can further ensure you're the only one who can recover.

What do we think? Should this have stayed an Olivia deck? Are we not utilizing Zagras' abilities enough? How would you have built it differently? Let me know in the comments section. Thanks for reading, everyone. Until next time!

1 I realize many of you have never heard of some of these cards but I started in 4th Edition and that was what we had to work with. Wait until you hear about my Fungusaur deck.

1 a Butcher of Malakir, not the Butcher of Malakir, and hence non-Legendary. Sure, OK. Just like Valakut, right?

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