Boat-Building Near Flatford Mill by John Constable (1815).
Tsabo Tavoc by Mark Zug (not used for the actual card).
A few weeks ago Mark Wischkaemper wrote a column about Nikya of the Old Ways. It was an excellent introduction to how you might approach building a creature-packed Nikya deck. Mark touched briefly upon the idea of running Primal Surge in your list. Much to my surprise, just last week Jason Alt shared his own take on Nikya Primal Surge. Both are well worth a look, and my own list will probably borrow from what they ran in their lists.
Today I’m going to do a deeper dive on Primal Surge. I’ll look at how I would use it with Nikya on the battlefield, how I would try to protect the win and insulate myself against pesky things like Counterspells and Fogs. I’ll wrap up with an exploration of how you can take a wincon like this and make it more fun than just a one-card game ender.
Meet Nikya of the Old Ways
Let's take a moment to look at the Centaur Lady who will be heading up our deck. Given how popular she has been with CoolStuffInc’s Commander columnists, this might not even be necessary at this point.
This 5/5 Legendary Centaur costs and will not let us cast noncreature spells. While that is a huge drawback and we'll probably be having nightmares of Zedruu players giving us Grid Monitor, she also has a pretty sweet party trick. She will let our lands tap for one additional mana.
This deck is going to focus its ramp strategy on creatures that put lands into our hand or onto the battlefield. We will be building with lots of big creatures and lots of creatures that allow us to spend extra mana. Our sweetest wincon will of course be Primal Surge so we'll want to have ways to cast that even if Nikya starts the turn on the field. Additional wincons will focus on combat and everything we do will come from abilities attached to creatures.
Playing one card that you want to use to win the game but having no way to go get that card means that Primal Surge is only going to see play if we draw into it. Gruul doesn’t have any creature-based sorcery tutors that I’m aware of. We’re going to build this deck to be able to win off of Primal Surge, even if it’s not a wincon that we’re likely to hit that often.
This sorcery costs a hefty 10 mana and will let us go through our deck and put every permanent we reveal onto the battlefield until we hit an instant or sorcery. This is a dedicated Primal Surge deck, and that means we'll put our entire deck onto the field if it resolves. We are running no other instants or sorcery spells.
We'll want Nikya on the field to help us generate enough mana to cast Primal Surge. There will be times when an opponent will kill or exile Nikya to try to stop us from getting too far out ahead of the rest of the table. If they do that when we have five lands out, they might just be setting us up to win. If they target Nikya with a kill spell on our turn, we tap five lands, float 10 mana and once Nikya is comfortably back in the command zone we can cast our Primal Surge and win.
If we can’t get help from one of our opponents, we're going to need a way to bounce her to our hand. Nikya won’t let us cast noncreature spells so she’s gotta go.
That is where Temur Sabertooth comes in. This Commander staple will let us pay to bounce another creature to our hand. If we have at least six lands with both Nikya and Temur Sabertooth on the field, we just tap all of our lands, bounce Nikya and cast Primal Surge. We also have Invasive Species in the deck as another option. If we wanted a third we could run Ambush Krotiq, but it costs to cast, so in this draft of the deck I haven’t included it.
When we flop our entire library onto the battlefield it's important to remember that we have to do that in our first main phase. Casting it in our second main phase makes little to no sense even if for some strange reason we have the opportunity to do so.
We'll need our combat step and we’ll need our creatures to have haste if we want to swing for the win. You’ll notice that I run backups of anything important, and a haste enabler is pretty important.
Ogre Battledriver and Urabrask the Hidden are in the mix to give our team haste. Ogre Battledriver will also give our new arrivals +2/+0 until end of turn. Urabrask will force our opponents' creatures to enter the battlefield tapped. Both are good and will let us swing on the turn that we dump our deck onto the battlefield.
If you want to win with Primal Surge you have to protect your key pieces. You can’t have an opponent kill your haste enablers and then be unable to finish the game off.
The hefty Archetype of Endurance will give your creatures hexproof. It only helps out creatures, but in this deck that’s all you need. Sometimes opponents have ways of removing hexproof so we’re also running Sylvan Safekeeper. It will allow you to return a land to your hand give target creature you control shroud. That means you won’t be able to target it either, but that’s probably OK. Vigor is our last backup plan, and will prevent our other creatures from taking damage.
Vigor will shuffle back into our library if it were to be put into our graveyard. That’s not really a workable way to deal with our worst case scenario - an opponent who casts a Fog when we launch our alpha strike.
Our ace in the hole for dealing with a Fog, Darkness, Moment's Peace, or the dreaded Constant Mists, is a card that will let us draw from an empty library without losing the game. With Platinum Angel on the field, we can rest comfortably knowing that we can’t lose the game and with our insane boardstate we should have an easy time finishing off most tables.
If our opponents think they can end our threat with a boardwipe, we’ve got an answer for that too.
This seven mana Avatar is a 5/5 with haste. When Stalking Vengeance is on the field, whenever another creature we control is put into a graveyard from play, it deals damage equal to its power to target player. We easily have 120 power worth of creatures in our deck, so chances are good a boardwipe will hand us a win as well.
The fact that we’re running Craterhoof Behemoth and Avenger of Zendikar and 61 creatures (not including our commander) means that we ought to be able to seal the deal if we can just get Primal Surge to resolve.
It might seem insane to run a deck with 63 creatures and then add in Boseju, Who Shelters All, but we really, really want our Primal Surge to resolve. Having our only sorcery countered isn’t the end of the world, but at this point I’m not running enough recursion. I’ll eventually get around to adding Eternal Witness, but it’s not in there yet. I only have so many copies and this is a deck I’m actually playing in paper.
I should note my biggest oversight. When reviewing Jason Alt’s take on Nikya Primal Surge, I learned about a card I’ve never played and don’t currently own - Dosan the Falling Leaf. If he is included in the Primal Surge dump, your opponents won’t be able to cast a spell to get rid of him. He is also just a 2/2, and there are oodles of creature-based abilities that can be used to remove other creatures so while he’s an oversight in my list, I am still comfortable with the many layers of “Surge protection” I run in my list.
To Surge or Not To Surge
While some of you might think this is an easy question, and that the answer is always yes, I think it’s actually a little more complicated.
This is a casual deck, so on some level you should probably feel comfortable playing Primal Surge any time you are able to position yourself to be able to do so. It’s not going to happen that often. You do have to have either 10 lands on the field or six lands and a way to bounce Nikya to your hand. You’ve only got one way to protect against counterspells, and Primal Surge is about as good a spell to counter as your opponents will ever find.
Some playgroups don’t mind these kinds of shenanigans.
If your playgroup starts to hate playing against your Nikya deck and doesn’t have the sense to run decks with lots of counterspells and a little land destruction (for Boseju), it’s worth thinking about mixing up your approach to playing Primal Surge.
Making Primal Surge Fun
One approach you could take is to add in one or two more instants and sorceries.
You might think that’s crazy, but one of my favorite moments from 2018 was resolving a Primal Surge in a Gyrus, Waker of Corpses deck I had thrown together. I was running three sorceries in the deck because I thought it would be fun to not know what would happen when the spell resolves. Those sorceries were Primal Surge, Chandra's Ignition, and Triumph of the Hordes.
In one game I drew into it with enough mana to play it. I cast it and nobody had any counterspells. I explained what Primal Surge does and told my opponents that I was running additional sorceries so I might not have the game won. Naturally, I was hoping for a pretty decent result for my 10 mana.
With the entire table and even some onlookers watching to see how it would play out, I started flipping cards off the top of my library.
Card 1… was Kalonian Hydra.
Not bad. I could work with that. I couldn’t call it back with Gyrus and get an attack trigger, but it was nothing to sneeze at.
Card 2... was Vivid Grove.
A land that enters tapped and has counters. I think that was what I got on my second exiled card. I know it was a land, and that it entered tapped. Not amazing, but not nothing.
Card 3... was Chandra's Ignition.
I'm smiling as I write this because it was actually hilarious. I mean... it sucked for me, but there was a lot of laughter and even I was able to find amusement in the moment. It was very funny, even if I was laughing at my own expense.
I lost that game but it was a story I’ll cherish for a long time.
When nobody in the room knows how many cards your Primal Surge will dump onto the table, you can create some wonderfully suspenseful (and occasionally hilarious) moments in your commander games. It helps to be able to laugh at your own expense, but you should win some of those games if you’re only running a few non-permanents. Sometimes you’ll dump half or more of your library onto the battlefield and sometimes you’ll have an epic fizzle that will make for a great story.
There’s also the argument that you should just remove Primal Surge entirely.
After I got tired of Gyrus (which didn’t take long) I build a Maelstrom Wanderer deck with Primal Surge in the mix. That Maelstrom Wanderer deck won a few games, but what invariably happened when I resolved Primal Surge was that everyone would scoop up their cards if it became clear the spell was going to resolve.
For me, having opponents scoop is not fun.
I want to actually see the deck go over the finish line, not just have my opponents admit defeat because I’m so far ahead that they are sure they have no shot.
If you enjoy how your Primal Surge wins play out, that’s great. Savor those moments because in a deck like Nikya you won’t have a lot of ways to make sure you’ve got it in your hand when you want it.
If Primal Surge doesn’t wind up being as fun to play out as you had hoped, you should probably mix things up and try to get the deck to where you enjoy playing it as much as possible. That might mean having it be a surprise to you when you play it, and it might even mean dropping it out of the list if it starts getting a little too stale.
My list isn’t dramatically different from Mark’s and Jason’s lists,
The overlaps are unsurprising. We all run Acidic Slime, Archetype of Endurance, Bane of Progress, Beast Whisperer, Ruric Thar, the Unbowed, Gruul Ragebeast, Shaman of Forgotten Ways, and Soul of the Harvest. Staples are staples, good cards are good cards and good Gruul cards are going to show up in these lists.
My focus on cards that will help protect a Primal Surge and my omission of Dosan the Falling Leaf shape my list more than anything else. My ramp focuses entirely on lands, as Nikya doesn’t really care about traditional mana dorks.
One glaring omission from all of our lists is Regal Force. My excuse is that I simply didn’t have an extra copy. This is the kind of deck that will want as much card draw as it can get, so ideally you’ll have every creature-based source of card draw you can find.
Nikya Primal Surge | Commander | Stephen Johnson
- Commander (1)
- 1 Nikya of the Old Ways
- Creatures (63)
- 1 Acidic Slime
- 1 Archetype of Endurance
- 1 Argothian Elder
- 1 Avenger of Zendikar
- 1 Bane of Progress
- 1 Beast Whisperer
- 1 Burnished Hart
- 1 Captivating Crew
- 1 Caustic Caterpillar
- 1 Champion of Lambholt
- 1 Courser of Kruphix
- 1 Craterhoof Behemoth
- 1 Elder of Laurels
- 1 Elvish Piper
- 1 Farhaven Elf
- 1 Fauna Shaman
- 1 Feral Animist
- 1 Fertilid
- 1 Flameblast Dragon
- 1 Foe-Razer Regent
- 1 Gaea's Herald
- 1 Garruk's Horde
- 1 Gatecreeper Vine
- 1 Grothama, All-Devouring
- 1 Gruul Ragebeast
- 1 Gyre Sage
- 1 Harbinger of the Hunt
- 1 Heart Warden
- 1 Hellkite Charger
- 1 Heroes' Bane
- 1 Invasive Species
- 1 Krosan Drover
- 1 Lifeblood Hydra
- 1 Lord of Shatterskull Pass
- 1 Magus of the Candelabra
- 1 Mina and Denn, Wildborn
- 1 Ogre Battledriver
- 1 Platinum Angel
- 1 Regal Behemoth
- 1 Ruric Thar, the Unbowed
- 1 Sakura-Tribe Elder
- 1 Savage Ventmaw
- 1 Screeching Phoenix
- 1 Shaman of Forgotten Ways
- 1 Skyshroud Ranger
- 1 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Somberwald Sage
- 1 Soul of the Harvest
- 1 Soul of Zendikar
- 1 Spellbreaker Behemoth
- 1 Stalking Vengeance
- 1 Sylvan Safekeeper
- 1 Temur Sabertooth
- 1 Terastodon
- 1 Ulvenwald Observer
- 1 Urabrask the Hidden
- 1 Valley Rannet
- 1 Vigor
- 1 Werebear
- 1 Whisperer of the Wilds
- 1 Woodfall Primus
- 1 Yavimaya Granger
- 1 Zhur-Taa Ancient
- Sorceries (1)
- 1 Primal Surge
- Lands (35)
- 13 Forest
- 7 Mountain
- 1 Evolving Wilds
- 1 Gruul Turf
- 1 Guildmages' Forum
- 1 Karplusan Forest
- 1 Khalni Garden
- 1 Mosswort Bridge
- 1 Opal Palace
- 1 Rogue's Passage
- 1 Sheltered Thicket
- 1 Spinerock Knoll
- 1 Spire Garden
- 1 Stomping Ground
- 1 Stomping Ground
- 1 Terramorphic Expanse
- 1 Boseiju, Who Shelters All
My deck has already won a game, though it was in a pretty casual environment. I am a fan of running Dragons in my decks so that you have flying blockers that can take a punch. Flameblast Dragon and Harbinger of the Hunt seem like particularly good additions, as they give you an outlet for the excessive amounts of mana you’ll be able to produce. The latter helped me clear the board a few times and survived an opponent’s Elesh Norn being on the field.
I’m particularly interested in seeing if I can get some use out of Grothama, All-Devouring either with Invasive Species or Temur Sabertooth to try to dig our way to something fun. This seems like the kind of deck that Grothama might be fun in, though a dedicated Grothama deck would probably also be worth building at some point.
While I’ve been thinking of exploring a Lavinia build, I think next week I’m probably going to write a more philosophical piece looking at how I think about casual play. Almost anyone who has played commander has an opinion on what makes a good casual meta and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. It seems like a good time to take a break from decklists and spend some time ruminating about things that matter to me and hopefully to all of us who play this amazing format.
If you’ve had any great or greatly amusing Primal Surge experiences I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.
That’s all I’ve got for you today. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next week!