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Winning Ways: Building Synergies Around Thalisse, Reverent Medium


Death on a Pale Horse by Benjamin West (1796). Animate Dead by Bastien L. Deharme.

Last year I decided to try to mix things up by running a column on the first Monday of every month devoted to exploring the challenge of how to increase your win rate in Commander. "Winning Ways" gave me an extra excuse to write about one of the hardest things to do in Magic: consistently win multiplayer games while not resorting to simply pubstomping. You can always just make sure you are playing the strongest deck at the table to try to grab that elusive "W" but I don't recommend making that a habit.

The reality is that building stable, strong, resilient decks with lots of draw, lots of removal and a concrete plan for how to win the game is probably your best bet. Even then, there are no guarantees. You can get ganged up on. You can just hit a spot of bad luck. You can get locked down by just the wrong card at the wrong time. You can see key permanents get removed before you have the mana to protect them and then draw nothing but ramp for five turns. These things happen.

Today's column is going to center around a build that didn't win games immediately. I was pretty sure I had built it well enough and had loaded it up with the synergy to get the job done. Not wanting to give up on the deck too quickly, I kept at it. Sure enough, I hit the right cards and unlocked the ridiculous potential of Thalisse, Reverent Medium.

A Matter of Synergy

What is the difference between combo and synergy?

This is a matter of confusion for a lot of players. I generally look at combo as a combination of two or more cards that can produce an interaction that can be repeated an infinite number of times. Synergy is a combination of cards that either work well together or create an interaction that is repeatable but not infinitely repeatable. When you have a built-in limit to an interaction like the size of a player's library or their life total, that's still a combo.

Thalisse, Reverent Medium could be built around combo, but today's deck is built around synergy. My goal is to play out enough pieces that interact well together to be able to threaten to win the game.

While combos can often be very resistant to interaction, synergy is often much more vulnerable. My Grumgully, the Generous deck is a good example of this. If you try to stop the combo and your removal doesn't have the split-second keyword, I'll just keep the interaction going on the stack and I should be able to close out the win. When you're building around synergy, losing a combo piece is a much bigger deal. You can sacrifice a dozen token creatures in response to someone trying to remove your Ashnod's Altar, but unless you've got just the right board state, you're not going to be winning the game before that removal spell resolves.

That doesn't mean synergy is bad and combo is good and you should build towards the latter instead of the former. Every good deck should have internal synergy with pieces that work together towards that deck's goal and every combo deck should also have heavy synergy. One might well argue that synergy is essential and if you want to win in today's Commander, you should also be building with a combo wincon in mind.

Meet Thalisse, Reverent Medium

With all this talk of combo and synergy I think it's time to dig into what we're building around. This week's commander is a Human Cleric with a really interesting party trick.

Thalisse, Reverent Medium

Thalisse cares about tokens we make, and she'll create a number of 1/1 White Spirit creature tokens with flying equal to the number of tokens we created this turn. With any new card it's important to look at what the card says but also what the card doesn't say. You might assume Thalisse cares about how many creature tokens you made, but the card reads "the number of tokens you created this turn."

Smothering Tithe
Revel in Riches
Tamiyo's Journal

That means that she'll give you Spirits if you made Zombie tokens, but also if you make Treasure tokens, Clue tokens, Food tokens, Gold tokens or anything else. That one little discrepancy will have a huge impact on how we build this deck, opening options that wouldn't have been available to us if we were only building around creature tokens.

The other thing worth mentioning is that Thalisse does not have to be on the battlefield when the tokens were created. This impacts the way we play the deck as much as how we build it. We can play out a turn where we create a bunch of tokens and treasures, maybe play our Ashnod's Altar, and then as our final act in the turn sacrifice some treasures or creatures to make enough mana to play Thalisse. She will still give us our 1/1 Spirit creature tokens even though she wasn't on the field when those tokens were created.

This might not seem like a big deal, but Thalisse costs five mana. My usual habits in Commander would have me looking to play Thalisse early so that she'll be around to do her thing, but that mana might be better spent building up my board and generating value in a way that will allow me to cast her at the end of the turn. Casting Thalisse and passing the turn might sometimes be the right move, but I'll do well to think about whether there is a better way to play out the turn. I wouldn't think twice, but because Thalisse can show up at the last minute and still do her thing, there will be times when it's better to hold her back.

Breaking Pitiless Plunderer

Playing a commander that cares about creating creature tokens and planning to use her to maximize the number of tokens we create is a fine plan, but there are ways we can set ourselves up to really make the most of what Thalisse gives us.

Pitiless Plunderer
Anointed Procession
Ashnod's Altar

Pitiless Plunderer is a key part of this deck's game plan, and having it out will work incredibly well for Thalisse. Thalisse will see the tokens get created and reward me for being so pitiless by creating another 1/1 token at that turn's end step. If I've got Anointed Procession out, it gets better. My creature dies, I make two treasure tokens and then at end of turn I'll make four 1/1 Spirit tokens.

The fun starts when you add a sacrifice outlet to the mix. I recently had a game with Thalisse where I had 10 1/1 Spirits. My opponents were somewhat concerned. I was able to sacrifice those 10 Spirits, make 20 treasures and then make 40 1/1 Spirits.

Cathars' Crusade

If an opponent hadn't destroyed my Ashnod's Altar, I would have done the same thing on the next two players' turns, going from 40 to 160 Spirits, and then from 160 to 640 Spirits. I was able to play a Cathars' Crusade, play a few creatures and close out the game, but that game opened my eyes as to how much you can do with Thalisse and the right boardstate.

A Place for Planeswalkers

Somehow, in 2021, I still haven't yet fallen in love with Planeswalkers. They are a big part of Magic and a big part of a lot of Commander decks, yet I'm still generally hesitant to add them to my decks. I think of them as hard to protect and great ways to get your opponents used to swinging their creatures in your direction.

I do run a few decks with planeswalkers and they are invariably decks that are able to produce a lot of flying creatures. Flyers are great for protecting planeswalkers. My Lathliss, Dragon Queen deck runs four: Koth of the Hammer, Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast, Sarkhan, Fireblood and Sarkhan the Masterless. I don't see them that often but when I do, I'm never that worried about keeping them out of harm's way.

Thalisse, Reverent Medium might now be my second most flying-focused Commander deck. Everything you are doing when you play is geared towards creating those Spirits. Those bodies don't pack quite the heft that Lathliss' 5/5 Dragons do, but they should be able to give me a shot at keeping my board safe for a turn or two.

Elspeth Tirel
Elspeth, Sun's Champion

Elspeth Tirel and Elspeth, Sun's Champion both let me create three 1/1 tokens. With Thalisse out, that means I'll also get three 1/1 Spirits on the end step. Elspeth Tirel also lets me gain life and wipe the board with her limit break, so she can help me if I'm still building up or if I'm ahead and want to try to close out the game. Sun's Champion also comes with a wrath and her limit break will give me a pretty sweet emblem. Giving my creatures +2/+2 and flying might not seem like much, but this deck is built to go wide so my Soldiers, Zombies, Thrull or whatever else I'm able to create should put me in a position to try to close out the game.

Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants
Ajani, Caller of the Pride

Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants will let me put counters on a creature or two, and can help me recur something small from my graveyard to the battlefield. Those aren't exactly game-breaking abilities, but if I can get up to his final ability, I can get an emblem that will let me put three Cat tokens onto the battlefield at the beginning of my end step. Since I control my triggers, I'll do that first and then have Thalisse create three as well.

Ajani, Caller of the Pride has a similar profile. He lets me put a +1/+1 counter on up to one target creature. He can also let me give a creature flying and double strike, but those two abilities aren't a big deal. Putting a number of 2/2 Cat creature tokens onto the battlefield equal to my life total is a pretty big deal, and should position me to be able to close out the game or at least murder one of my opponents.

I'm aware that including those Ajani planeswalkers might be a mistake. If this deck needed to try to compete at high-powered tables, I think they'd probably have to go because they don't do enough quickly enough. I'm building this deck for more casual play and for now I'm going to leave them in. They were sitting in my rare binder for way too long and I just want to get them into a game or two, but I could easily see swapping them out for more synergistic cards, of which there are plenty that I could be running.

My Personal Spellbook

I've often wondered what my "personal spellbook" would look like. If I had to set up a list of cards that spoke to me or that represented some of what I love most about Commander, what cards would I pick?

If I went under the assumption that they had to be non-legendary, and that they could any color and be from any time in the history of Magic, I have a good idea what a few of my picks would end up being. I'd have to include Chandra's Ignition because it's my favorite "cherry on top" of a whole bunch of decks' game plans. I'd pick Penance because it's an old and an odd little enchantment that most people don't know about and which is wonderful in some of my favorite decks. There's another card that I think might make the cut, and it's got the potential to be very strong in Thalisse, Reverent Medium.

Tombstone Stairwell

This Mirage enchantment can backfire on you spectacularly if you're not paying attention to what's in your opponents' graveyards, but it's the kind of card I love to build around. On each upkeep you create 2/2 black Tombspawn Zombie creature tokens equal to the number of creatures in your graveyard. At end of turn, or if Tombstone Stairwell leaves play, you destroy all those Zombies.

This card is great in Grismold, the Dreadsower. He cares about token creatures dying, so in a trip around the table he can end up getting a ton of +1/+1 counters. Each turn cycle sees all these creature tokens dying again and again. The enchantment has a cumulative upkeep cost, so you must make sure to keep a reminder on top of your deck and pay it for as long as it's still helping your game plan.

Grismold usually only needs a turn cycle or two to get out of control with Tombstone Stairwell on the field. Thalisse might be every bit as good at abusing this enchantment's unusual effect.

In my initial work on this deck I experimented with loading up much more heavily on creatures to the point where I was running Mortal Combat as a possible wincon. I ended up scrapping that plan as I was playing too many subpar cards just because the effects were tacked onto bodies. I'm still yearning to check that Mortal Combat bucket list checkbox off, but it's not going to be with Thalisse.

Even with a modest graveyard of four or five creatures, each player's turn will give me four or five tokens and those tokens will give more thanks to Thalisse. At a four-player table, three opponents and five creatures in my graveyard will leave me untapping on my next turn with 15 1/1 Spirits. With a Coat of Arms or Cathars' Crusade on the field during that turn cycle, I'll be ready to close out the game.

The Obligatory Combo

Did I say this wasn't a combo deck?

You should know better than to listen to me when I make promises. In truth, I had forgotten that this combo was in the list. It's a cute little trick that is well worth mentioning.

Patrol Signaler
Paradise Mantle
Ashnod's Altar

This little Kithkin Soldier can pay and untap to put a 1/1 Kithkin token onto the battlefield. With Paradise Mantle attached, it can tap for one mana of any color. If I make a White mana with Paradise Mantle each time I tap Patrol Signaler, I'll be able to make as many Soldiers as I have mana I can produce from lands and rocks. The whole point of having our little Kithkin do the twist and make a bunch of soldiers is to let Thalisse then make a bunch of 1/1 Spirit creature tokens.

That sort of interaction isn't a combo, but if you add in an Ashnod's Altar, you can sacrifice your new Soldier for two mana so that your interaction gains you one colorless mana. That means you can create an arbitrarily large amount of mana and then use that to create an arbitrarily large number of Soldier creature tokens. Now you're looking at a combo.

The Decklist

What you're seeing is a mix of staples and good cards like Skullclamp and Teferi's Protection and an assortment of odd little token generators like Herald of Anafenza, Pack Rat and Skeletal Vampire. I tried to lean towards repeatable token generators, but I'm well aware that a tuned version of this list would drop out my little Myr mana dorks and probably a bunch of other cards that I wanted to run in my version.

Thalisse EDH | Commander | Stephen Johnson

My focus on Tombstone Stairwell probably means I should be running more creatures, but I'm hard pressed to find anything beyond those two Ajani planeswalkers that I want to pull out of this list. I think that means it's in pretty good shape and after a few games I'm sure I'll make that swap and add in a couple more creatures.

Final Thoughts

My games so far with this deck haven't been wildly successful. I was optimistic but then ran into tables that were too fast or tables where there was too much interaction, or just games where I didn't draw into enough lands or ramp to make much of an impact on the proceedings.

I don't think that means that this list is a dud and doesn't belong in a Winning Ways column. The reality of playing Commander is that there are games where things don't go right and even the best decks can fall flat every now and then. You have to play a deck a lot to really get a feel for how it works and what you need to improve upon when it isn't working. Even then, playing a good deck in a meta that is too powerful for it can leave you feeling like you're playing a bad deck.

Thalisse can be a lot of fun if you're able to make it through the early game, protect your key pieces and make a push for some crazy token-making shenanigans. If you can drop a Coat of Arms or a Cathars' Crusade, or protect your board while wiping everyone else's creatures, you should be able to make a push for the win.

Next week's column is going to include some cards that I was sure I had included in today's deck. Both Pentavus and Thopter Squadron could have made the cut in Thalisse and might be better than the two Ajanis I'm currently running. I spent 10 minutes searching for those artifacts when writing this column, sure that I had included them. These guys combo with Ashnod's Altar and Anointed Procession, but my copies happen to be in my Ich-Tekik, Salvage Splicer / Ishai, Ojutai Dragonspeaker partner deck. It's an exciting build but I'll save that story for next week.

That's all I've got for you today. I hope you had a happy New Year and I'll see you next week!

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