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8-Mana Commanders: Zetalpa, Primal Dawn

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When I picked 8-mana Commanders as a theme, I thought it'd be fun to look at some super high-powered leaders who require some work. It stands to reason a fairly common outcome will be Voltron, but Voltron strategies are reliably risky: one Path to Exile and the whole house of cards comes down.

A good way to work with Voltron is to use Equipment, because barring the random Shatterstorm, it hangs around even if the creature gets killed, just waiting to suit up another creature. Equipment wants White almost always, because there are a bunch of support cards in the color. The disadvantages, however, abound. There is an additional cost (Equip!), and some of the key cards, like Stoneforge Mystic, and pieces of Equipment themselves, like Sword of Fire and Ice, are really, really expensive.

Let's have an honesty moment here. "Expensive" is a relative term. For some people, a $150 Commander deck is expensive, while for others, $1000 is expensive. There are those for whom $150 is expensive but doable, and those for whom $150 is the difference between eating and not. Everyone should be welcome in the Commander format, and no one should be excluded because they can't afford a $70 Sword, both from playing and from winning.

With that in mind, while this deck started as a way to build a $150 8-mana Commander, it ended up being a way to demonstrate Equipment-based Voltron doesn't have to cost a fortune, and you can do it without the fancy Swords of X and Y or Stoneforge. It all starts with a good Voltron target, of course.

Zetalpa, Primal Dawn

Ka-plow. For our eight mana, we get a 4/8 Flying, Double-striking, Vigilant, Trampling, Indestructible Dinosaur. She can swing on offense and sit back on defense every turn. She'll deal every bit of damage she can to something. And she can't be killed. Seems like a good starting place.

This is where the wheels can come off the wagon. It's easy to think "okay, I want to suit her up." Then you obviously want the best Equipment you can find, which are the Swords of X and Y. But even if you don't, it's easy to get distracted, because there are a lot of other dudes who care about Equipment. Kemba, Kha Regent is a great example, so why not throw her in? Now, if Zetalpa gets removed (somehow), we can stick our Equipment on Kemba and make an army of cats! But then we should run things like True Conviction to make our Cats more effective... and on and on. It gets unfocused quickly. Don't get distracted: pick a thing you want to do and go from there. In this particular case, I decided I wanted to kill an opponent in a single hit with Zetalpa. Let's start there and work backwards.

An opponent will die from 21 points of Commander damage. In her original state, she does 8, but she does it with only 4 power because of built-in Double Strike. Cool, so if we get her power up to 11, she'll do 22 in a single hit and win the game. So, we want Equipment which will boost her power. We're not overly worried about toughness because, well, she's Indestructible, so no problems there.

She has most of the keywords we want. I suppose giving her Haste has some value, but it's not a huge deal; no matter what we're going to be a slow deck, so while having Haste would be fine; often we're going to play Zetalpa and have to wait a turn to equip her anyway, because we won't have enough mana to cast her and equip her the same turn. It's worth a few slots, though, for a couple of corner cases where we can equip her for free or whatever. The only other thing she doesn't have we might want would be Hexproof (or its lame older sibling, Shroud), which will prevent Exile-based or Enchantment-based removal (like Swords to Plowshares or Banishing Light). We can always recast Zetalpa, of course, but preventing that might be worth it. A couple of slots to each of those abilities is a good idea.

This is going to take some mana. Eight-mana Commander and all that, sure, but also we must equip multiple things to our massive Dinosaur, and they're not always going to be cheap. So, as with most Commander decks, ramping will be key, as will hitting our land drops. Forty lands and some rocks should do the trick. We can also look at ways of reducing costs.

Drawing cards is a no-brainer; we need to draw our Equipment and our mana to win. Every Commander deck should think about how it's going to keep up with the table, and this one is no exception.

Finally, we are slow. Even with perfect ramping, Zetalpa is coming out on turn five. (This is not true. There are a couple of perfect draws where Zetalpa can come out as early as turn three. Land, Sol Ring, Mind Stone into land, Worn Powerstone, Marble Diamond into land is nine mana. It's also 9 cards, which is one fewer than you've drawn at that point, so you're playing out your hand and have nothing to do with your commander.) A lot can happen by turn five or, more realistically, six or seven, in a game of Commander. We need to stay alive. Fortunately, we're in the color of Wrath of God, and our Commander doesn't care how many of those we play, so we can run Wrath effects like crazy. Some spot removal is always a good idea, but let's lean heavy on destroying the entire board and let our Commander be the only thing out there.


This is a pretty tight list and should play well exactly as it is. We've got plenty of mana, plenty of things to do with it, a solid plan we're always working towards, and not a lot of fluff. The Equipment package is focused: it adds power, maybe adds Haste or Hexproof (most often as a side effect), or, in the case of Rogue's Gloves, draws us cards. The ramp package is similar: lots of mana. We'd prefer a 4-mana rock that gives 2 than a 3-mana rock that doesn't. It's also nice when they trade in for cards, because later in the game we may not need them but the extra cards can make all the difference.

We do have a few random effects. Silent Arbiter, for example, does a good job of tilting the game in our favor. Luminate Primordial is mostly here as a great removal spell (we've definitely got the mana), but it doubles as a big beater in the event we need one. Leonin Abunas is one of those Equipment-support cards that's worth having around, because it forces a removal spell if they want to start blowing up our Equipment. Finally, we are running one Aura in Armored Ascension, which is essentially a really big Giant Growth in our deck. We run so many Plains if we can get it to stick for a single attack it'll almost certainly kill an opponent. Even if it doesn't, it'll coax out the removal spell so we have a clearer shot next time. Gods Willing and Rebuff the Wicked are both inexpensive ways to stop a kill spell. In testing, it was common for me to have a few lands left untapped even after doing everything I wanted that turn, and these cards should surprise a table.

Every Sorcery we've got is a board wipe. Our creatures mostly help with mana (Walking Atlas, Oreskos Explorer) or help with Equipment (Sram, Senior Edificer, Auriok Windwalker). Puresteel Paladin is the only creature aside from Zetalpa I'd actually consider protecting in some way, it's so good. We're a honed, board-wiping, opponent-smashing machine.

One cool thing about not running Stoneforge Mystic (or any of the other Equipment tutors) is, while our gameplan remains the same, our deck will play out differently every time. The combination of Equipment and support we draw will vary from game to game, making for some interesting combinations. It also means we won't always end the game by grabbing Argentum Armor or Worldslayer, even though both are in our deck (and will likely win the game for us if we attack with them). And much of our Equipment isn't overly flashy, just functional. So rather than drawing stares from the rest of the table as we drop $150 worth of Equipment on turn four, they'll ignore Strata Scythe since they've never heard of it and be really surprised when you swing in for 24.

The coolest part is we wind up at $118.38, which is more than $30 under the target I set. For some people that's a lot, and for others it's not much, but in a format where $50 lands are common and $200 lands aren't unheard of, a reasonably strong Equipment Voltron deck for $120 isn't too bad.

Does the deck want Stoneforge? Sure! If you've got one and your playgroup won't hate you, go for it. Some hate bears like Thalia, Heretic Cathar or Aven Mindcensor might be good. Godsend, Hammer of Nazahn, and all of the X/Y Swords would be great, so if you happen to have one of those kicking around, by all means throw it in. But none of it is necessary. This deck will work really, really well as-is, and won't really pick up anything by running a few tutors or some fancy weapons. Maybe that Sword of Body and Mind is clutch against the Simic deck or whatever, but I doubt it. It's funny how an Indestructible Flying Double-Striking Trampler doesn't really care all that much what you've got, and if it's really a problem, swap out a Plains for a Rogue's Passage.

What are your budget secrets? Pet cards which save you a bundle? Ways of managing problems where the obvious solution is an expensive card? Please let us know in the comments - you can help a lot of people get into the game!

Thanks for reading.

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