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26 Decks in a Year, Episode 11: Golgari


Recently, I’ve been taking suggestions for commanders. It led to the last article on Triad of Fates, and it will continue to lead me for the next couple of episodes. Based on some of those suggestions, the next two weeks are going to be a mini-theme: counters!

Skullbriar, the Walking Grave

Skullbriar, the Walking Grave is going to serve as our guide this week. Next time, we’ll take a look at a completely different way to use counters, but this week, we’re going to hit fast, hit hard, and hit large.

Jungle Hollow
Our mana curve is really smooth here, peaking at 2 and 3 mana and tapering down nicely. Playing a commander who only costs bg means we can go just a little land-light and lean a touch on alternate mana sources. If we stall out at six lands and never see another, it’s not a big deal. In addition, most of our budget duals come into play tapped (CIPT), and we want to hit Skullbriar on turn two, so our nonbasic land count is pretty low, and we have only one land that produces colorless. Newcomer Jungle Hollow joins Golgari Guildgate to produce either color, and the bounce land Golgari Rot Farm makes a reluctant appearance. (Be careful with these—if you play them on turn two, you have to discard!) Our budget fetches Terramorphic Expanse and Evolving Wilds are ever-present now. Grim Backwoods gives us a way to turn a random dude into another card and protect Skullbriar. Bojuka Bog is great in every black deck, and Llanowar Reborn just happens to work with our theme.

We also have a suite of rampers. Ondu Giant, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Farhaven Elf, and Burnished Hart give us dudes to play with, and Ordeal of Nylea will almost always put another counter on Skullbriar before giving us two lands. All the Golgari rocks—Golgari Keyrune, Golgari Cluestone, and Golgari Signet—round out our mana. The 3-mana options are great, as Skullbriar on turn two into a Keyrune on turn three is a solid play.

Green and black are second and third in card-draw, so keeping cards flowing is no trouble. There are a couple of ways to draw a large number of cards: Hunter's Prowess and Momentous Fall, for example, and Hunter's Insight when we’ve already gone unblocked. Harvester of Souls and Soul of the Harvest team up to draw every time you add or subtract a creature. Deathreap Ritual is an unusual enchantment that normally won’t draw too much attention but that can draw us a lot of cards over time. Rogue's Gloves will help a lot when our commander is huge and tramply. And Altar's Reap serves as an instant-speed sacrifice effect and card-draw spell.

Our path to victory is fairly simple: Load up Skullbriar with a pile of dice, and beat faces in. We’ll get to all the counters later, but we have eight ways to give him (it? I never can tell with these weird creatures) trample. Six pieces of Equipment will do it, including the odd O-Naginata. This strange blade can only be equipped to something with 3 or more power, which Skullbriar will almost always have. We also have the nearly-unkillable Rancor and Abzan Limited favorite Tuskguard Captain.

The aforementioned Souls (Harvester of and of the Harvest) are both big dudes in their own right, and given trample and a few counters, can do some damage. Necropolis Regent will surprise some people. Predator Ooze was too hilarious not to include, but that thing can get seriously out of hand. Sisters of Stone Death are pretty massive but more often will be creature control. Vastwood Hydra and Fungal Behemoth can both be huge if left alone. And Terastodon is no slouch when it comes to the red zone. Finally, we have a Vraska the Unseen ultimate. Throw some counters on an Assassin, give it trample, and send it off to do its thing—that will surprise some people.

Sisters of Stone Death
My editor was the one who suggested Sisters of Stone Death, and I love them here. What a cool way to manage difficult creatures! For a small investment of mana, we can force an opponent’s, say, Athreos, God of Passage to block. Then, we exile it before damage. Then later, we can bring it back to fight for us. And we can do it over and over! Sounds pretty sweet. Contagion Clasp and Contagion Engine are both slow removal spells that get rid of just about everything; plus, they proliferate, which it turns out is good with Skullbriar. Spread the Sickness does, too. Murder—now a $1 common—kills something good and dead, and Putrefy is among the best removal spells in the format. Beast Within and Terastodon get rid of a lot of things, and a 3/3 shouldn’t matter all that much to us. Vraska can kill some stuff on her own. Dregs of Sorrow remains one of the coolest kill spells ever created. Extinguish All Hope, Decree of Pain, and In Garruk's Wake are all excellent Wrath effects.

One more thing on answers: We need to be able to answer tuck and bounce effects. Condemn is common in the format, and bounce is not unheard of; both will take the counters off Skullbriar, which we really don’t want. So we have a bunch of ways to sacrifice him: Trading Post, Ashnod's Altar, Altar's Reap, Culling Dais, and a few others. Try to have one ready all the time, just in case. Meanwhile, be really wary about attacking into white and blue players without one. Better to send him to the command zone, where he can come out swinging next turn, than lose all our hard-earned work.

And then we get to the really fun part of the deck: all the counters! We have ways to put a counter or two on him: Hardened Scales and Savage Summoning. We have ways to add a lot of counters: Soul's Might and Blessings of Nature (which is really awesome when we miracle it). We have ways to double counters: Primal Vigor and Solidarity of Heroes. Necropolis Regent will put counters on anything that gets in. Vastwood Hydra shares. There are even pieces of Equipment to help us out: Armory of Iroas each time Skullbriar attacks, and Ring of Kalonia and Ring of Xathrid, which both become really annoying for opponents. Bring a lot of dice.

One of the nice things about a deck like this is we’re not too tricky—there are great interactions, but mostly, we’re just swinging with Skullbriar. Feel free to feint a combat trick—swing a 5/5 trampling Skullbriar into an 8/8 and act like you’re doing some math while looking at your cards. Worse comes to worse, we just recast Skullbriar next turn and swing again, and a lot of the time, our opponent will let us in. Additionally, we have a bit of token creation, sort of randomly. That’s great for chump-blocking, and the ones with deathtouch become really obnoxious when hanging around. They also are great fodder for Attrition.

The lands are fine, but more duals that come into play untapped would be good here. I don’t think I’d consider pain lands, but anything else would be nice if possible. More duals could also mean a little more utility; it’d be nice to have something to remove an opposing land, but with this many basics, I don’t like putting in too many colorless-producing lands.

Have some extra cash or want to pump it up? Birthing Pod would be silly here, though you would probably want to tweak the deck to be a bit more creature-heavy, especially around 3 mana. Garruk, Apex Predator would be an excellent 7-drop, probably replacing Garruk Relentless. Oran-Rief, the Vastwood would be great, too. Forgotten Ancient almost made the cut, but I wanted the Planeswalkers instead; shoehorning that in wouldn’t be bad though. Scavenging Ooze is a shoo-in, if possible. And Vigor would be amazing!

Jugan, the Rising Star
Varolz, the Scar-Striped almost made it in, but with so few creatures, I decided it would be dead too often. I also really liked Carrion as a sacrifice effect, but I couldn’t justify it over Altar's Reap. Mad style points if you choose to use it! Jugan, the Rising Star would be neat if there were a graveyard theme; going that route with this color combination is certainly reasonable, and reusing him to put more and more counters on things would be cool. I also liked Xathrid Gorgon as a clever and fun answer to problem creatures, but things need to be cut, and while nifty, it didn’t carry its weight.

Anyone else have a Skullbriar deck? What did you or would you do differently? Did I miss something completely obvious?

Bring a lot of counters, and prepare to turn your commander sideways—those are the rules for playing this deck. And own your attacks! No dice-rolling to determine who gets hit—choose your target, and own it. If there’s retaliation, acknowledge that it’s fair, and attack your next target.

Total cost: $74.75

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