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Four Levels of Golgari: Skullbriar, the Walking Grave


Before I start today's article, I'd like to tell you guys about a place I played last weekend. I'm on a family trip to Cloudcroft, New Mexico, which is a beautiful mountain town at 9,000 feet. Since we live in Texas, it's nice to get out of the heat for a while during the summer. About 20 minutes away (and about 5,000 feet down the mountain) is Alamogordo, New Mexico, home to Rocket City Gaming Lounge. I found them on the internet and went down to check them out on Friday night.

This place is great. I immediately found a Commander pod just getting started, including a Level One Judge and a mother/son pair who were both learning how to play. We had a great game, and it followed up with three more excellent games with more cool people - everyone was friendly and welcoming. There were little kids running around all night, and they had their own designated space in the back with a TV showing Disney movies and a comfy couch. If you ever find yourself in the area, I recommend checking them out!

On to Golgari. After exploring budget Superfriends with Carth the Lion, we get to double our budget to $200. Let's look at another different way of playing, today, and explore the world of 1v1 Commander with this champ.

Skullbriar, the Walking Grave

Skullbriar was an early example of how Wizards was going to mess with the Commander format once they got involved. While it's worded carefully so it can be played in other formats (I suppose there could be some use in a reanimator shell?), the gist is clear: this guy can go to the Command Zone and he gets to keep his counters.

I've mentioned my dad and the fact he plays Commander a few times in this series, so let's give appropriate credit. My dad built this deck and has played it for years. So, without further ado, here's Skullbriar in all his weird Zombified-Elemental glory.

Skullbriar, the Walking Grave | Commander | Mark Wischkaemper

The first thing you'll notice (if you've ever read anything I've ever written about Commander ever in the history of ever) is there are 35 lands. That is shockingly low, but don't worry - my dad is a convert to the 40 land baseline I keep telling everyone is the correct way to build. Skullbriar is a different case, though. First off, we're running really low converted mana costs. There is a 9-drop which will be cycled for 2. There are two 5-drops (one of which is a Miracle card we're likely to cast for g) and a few 4-drops, but mostly we're running three and less. We need to hit our mana up to about four, then it doesn't really matter, so we can afford 35 lands. We are running just a couple mana rocks: Arcane Signet, Mind Stone, and Sol Ring, just to help with the occasional X spell. We've also got a Sakura-Tribe Elder and a Wood Elves to throw some bodies on the 'field and thin our deck, but mostly we're going to go low and fast.

One advantage to running so few lands is we'll draw more action, which means we can devote fewer spells to card draw. Read the Bones is quality, filtering lands and making sure we draw that key spell to push through the final batch of damage. Hunters' Insight, on the other hand, goes big, drawing us as many cards as Skullbriar can deal in damage. Draw isn't necessary to win with this deck, but having it turn up as the game grinds on to get that last piece of removal or big pump spell works out just right.

The plan is fairly simple. We're going to play Skullbriar on turn two and start turning him sideways. If your opening hand won't get him out by turn two, mulligan. We're going to keep adding counters on him both the old fashioned way and with extra effects, and we're going to keep turning him sideways until our opponent is dead. There's really no other plan.

One key part to that, though, is clearing the way. As such, we're running a bunch of spot removal, all designed to take out creatures which would otherwise get in the way of Skullbriar. Ambuscade and Ancient Animus both buff Skullbriar while allowing a Fight, Hero's Downfall, Heartless Act, and Putrefy kill something dead, and Dismember lets us save our mana for pump spells. Use these spells carefully; probably best to reserve them for threats which kill Skullbriar. Only kill something which chumps if it means you'll win with the attack. Hex Parasite deserves special mention, because it kills 'walkers on the other side so we don't have to waste an attack on one.

The other key part to winning is making sure Skullbriar gets plenty of counters and can push the damage through. Key to the City, Whispersilk Cloak, and Rogue's Passage all make him unblockable. Trailblazer's Boots basically does too, at least in Commander when almost everyone runs non-basic lands. O-Naginata and Sword of Vengeance are both pieces of Equipment which grant Trample, another way to push that damage through, but there are several more, like Vorrac Battlehorns and Ring of Kalonia. Cycling Titanoth Rex puts a permanent trample counter on Skullbriar. Primal Frenzy, Rancor, and Talons of Wildwood all grant Trample as well, and both Rancor and the Talons provide a power boost and can return to our hand.

Journey to Eternity joins a couple of Auras with Totem Armor as ways to keep Skullbriar from needing to be recast from the Command Zone. He's so cheap it's not a big deal if we do need to, but it's nice to save the mana.

Finally, we have a bunch of ways to put counters on Skullbriar. Many of them are incidental: the Ring of Kalonia (and the Ring of Xathrid) puts a +1/+1 counter every turn it sits out there. Invigorating Surge doubles the counters on something, and don't be afraid to use it earlier in the game than you think, because Skullbriar makes things happen fast. Increasing Savagery is five counters for four mana, then 10 more if we can get to 7 mana. Soul's Might puts counters equal to Skullbriar's current power, which seems worth it for our only truly five-mana spell (the other one is Blessings of Nature, the one with Miracle, and gives us four counters for g if we use Miracle).

We also need to talk about The Ozolith. It looks like the counters "move" from whatever's dying (in this case, Skullbriar), but according to the rules, what's actually happening is whatever counters were on the thing dying get put on The Ozolith. They don't move so much as... get copied there. Because most of the time, counters leave a creature when said creature changes zones, it looks like they moved, but in our case, the counters Skullbriar had both stay on Skullbriar and get put on The Ozolith. Then, when we recast Skullbriar, we can move to combat and move the counters from The Ozolith onto Skullbriar, effectively doubling his counters!

By the way, the deck clocks in at $198.75, just under our $200 budget.

With more money or if this kind of deck is something you want where you play, there are two avenues worth exploring. Lotus Petal, Mox Amber, and Elvish Spirit Guide give us three ways to get Skullbriar out on turn one, which is brutal. It might be fun to include something to flicker Skullbriar when The Ozolith is on the 'field, but that might take too much away from the rest of the deck for a fragile artifact. Of course, Overgrown Tomb would be great in this deck. Also, with some testing, the deck may want one more card draw spell or one more kill spell.

This deck will win games against a single opponent. It's especially nasty to just have it in your kit and pull it out when you and one other person want to grab a quick game before others arrive or while you're waiting for the next one to start, because this deck absolutely steamrolls regular, multiplayer Commander decks. But, I don't recommend playing it in a 4 person pod.

What's your favorite 1v1 Commander? What would you do with Skullbriar? Let us know in the comments!

Thanks for reading.

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