Dance of the Almeh by Jean-Leon Gerome (1863).
Vraska, the Unseen by Igor Kieryluk.
You know that moment where you were searching for something, and you had this creeping feeling that the thing you were searching for wasn't there?
That's how I felt when I was working on building a deck around today's commander. I was sure there was something more there but the more I dug, the less I found. That doesn't mean today's commander isn't a fun legendary creature to build a deck around. It's got card draw, life gain for you and life loss for your opponents right there on the card. Those are all great things to have available to you in the command zone. I was sure there was more to find, but the more I looked, the less convinced I was that I was going to take a nonstop flight to combotown or discover the next great high powered or even fringe cEDH commander.
If you skipped this column's title and somehow haven't figured it out yet, the card I'm building around today is none other than Baba Lysaga, Night Witch.
I studied my share of myth, legend and folklore in my college days and I have a fondness for the character Baba Yaga, so Baba Lysaga immediately caught my interest. I don't have as much familiarity with the character from the lore of Dungeons and Dragons, but I took a quick look at her and decided she'd be my first pick from the Battle for Baldur's Gate set.
Baba Lysaga is a 3/3 Human Warlock in Golgari () colors with a pretty neat activated ability. You can tap her and sacrifice up to three permanents. If that was it, you'd be right to be underwhelmed, but if there were three or more card types among those permanents then each opponent loses three life, you gain three life and you draw three cards.
My first thought wasn't that surprising to anyone who reads my column regularly. I was sure there had to be a way to combo off with her to kill the table. I'm not shy about enjoying combo. Finding new and exciting, or even old and tired combos to pair up with new commanders, is a challenge I enjoy when building an EDH deck.
The problem was Baba Lysaga would need a way to untap and she would need a steady stream of "sac fodder". That sacrifice fodder would have to have three (or more) card types. There might be colors (I'm looking at you, blue) that could find a way to match this challenge, but at this point I'm convinced that there is no untap / sac combo involving Baba Lysaga to build around with her as your commander.
That's not a problem. It just means that I'm going to have to build a fairer deck than I had hoped that gets its value out of creatures and other permanents that can be easily recurred. I might be able to get extra untaps but I'm not going to get this deck to start humming like a well-oiled machine to burn through my opponents' life totals in a single turn.
Three is the Magic Number
Baba Lysaga costs three mana, has 3 power and 3 toughness, can be used to sacrifice 3 permanents, and if those permanents have at least 3 card types, my opponents will lose 3 life, I'll gain 3 life and I'll draw 3 cards. That's a lot of threes. I'm a little surprised no more instances of that number were shoehorned into this card's design. No offense to Pilgrim's Eye, which was card 333 out of 361 in the set, but that number should have gone to Baba Lysaga, Night Witch.
The first rabbit hole I ran down was a dead end. Baba Lysaga cares about 3 card types. In my eagerness to make the most of her ability, I quickly started assembling a list of Legendary Creatures that were also artifacts or enchantments. I was going to build a legendary tribal deck and hit all three card types by just sacrificing a single permanent!
It was too good to be true - Legendary is not a card type.
How can that be? It's right there on the card, next to Creature, or in some cases, Artifact or Enchantment. Why can't we sacrifice Hope of Ghirapur, a Legendary Artifact Creature and hit all three types?
The answer is simple - in addition to card types, there are also subtypes and supertypes.
Creature subtypes are most commonly race or class designations. A legendary Elf Druid like Marwyn, the Nurturer has two subtypes: Elf and Druid. Rancor is an Enchantment with the subtype of Aura. Bloodforged Battle-Axe is an Artifact with the subtype of Equipment.
For what it's worth, a "token" like those Bloodforged Battle-Axe tokens are permanents but "token" also isn't a card type. I mean... it's a word, but that's about it. Those tokens will have the Artifact card type and the Equipment subtype, and they can be sacrificed to Baba Lysaga, but the fact that it is a token is immaterial.
I knew all that, of course. I didn't actually get distracted by subtypes. My momentary lapse was in forgetting that Legendary is a supertype. I should have remembered, but there aren't that many supertypes. As of this writing, there are five: basic, legendary, ongoing, snow and world.
You see supertypes all the time. A card's type line separates the subtypes from the rest of the type line with a dash, as in "Legendary Artifact Creature - Dragon". The supertype is listed first as something of a prefix, but it's listed alongside the card types.
I'm going on this tangent not just to let you know that I am as capable as anyone of forgetting something as basic as the fact that supertypes aren't types. Heck - if you're a regular reader you might already know I'm as fallible as the next guy.
I really like to remind readers that everyone has the occasional misstep and that you (and I) should always double check things before you get too carried away. Fortunately, in this case I did double-check my idea and was able to quickly rule out using Legendary as one of the three types to look for in permanents I sacrifice with Baba Lysaga.
Now that I had sorted out types from supertypes (and subtypes), I realized I was going to be looking at sacrificing creatures, artifacts, enchantments and lands, probably in that order of preference and with as much overlap as possible. If I'm able to make a token artifact creature that is also a land, I'll be thrilled and will have Baba Lysaga sacrifice it without a second thought. In this deck everything exists to be tossed into my Night Witch's cauldron so I can dig a little deeper and find more things to toss into my witch's brew.
Perhaps the easiest way to hit two types with only one permanent is by running a healthy number of artifact creatures. The only caveat to mention is that I don't want to run creatures that have activated abilities that involve having to sacrifice them. A Commander's Sphere can be sacrificed to draw a card but I want to sacrifice things to Baba Lysaga, not to themselves. Additional options might give me flexibility, but my main focus is to tick off two of my card type boxes so that I can more easily get to that magic number of three.
I'm running some low hanging fruit in this category that might not be very powerful, but which will serve a purpose. Ornithopter of Paradise can tap for mana until I want Baba Lysaga to toss it into her cauldron. Skyscanner will draw me a card when it enters the battlefield and both Pilgrim's Eye and Skittering Surveyor will tutor a land to my hand. With Baba Lysaga on the field, these low impact creatures are still very important to my game plan after that initial enter the battlefield trigger.
Solemn Simulacrum has long been the gold standard for flexible creatures that can be played in any deck and will put a land onto the battlefield when they enter the battlefield. If I'm able to add it to a Baba Lysaga sacrifice cost, I'll draw three cards from her activation and an additional card from my sad, sad robot's death trigger.
Having artifact creatures to sacrifice is central to this deck's game plan, so Myr Battlesphere and Hangarback Walker both play into my plans very nicely. The former will give me four 1/1 colorless Myr artifact creature tokens when it enters the battlefield. The latter will put 1/1 colorless Thopter artifact creature tokens onto the battlefield when it dies equal to the number of +1/+1 counters on it.
There's an argument that I should be running Triplicate Titan and Wurmcoil Engine. I left them out of this initial draft because I shy away from cards with high mana costs if I'm not that sure I'll be able to hardcast them in a given game. A card that costs too much is a dead card until you have the mana to cast it or the means to cheat it into play. Baba Lysaga doesn't care how big and scary an artifact creature is - just that she can find three permanent types among the permanents I sacrifice. As sacrifice fodder, a 1/1 Thopter is as good as a Wurmcoil Engine token.
While I could still find more artifact creatures to run in this list, I love the idea of making my creatures into artifacts even more. Silverskin Armor will equip to give +1/+1 and will make the equipped creature into an artifact creature. Liquimetal Torque takes that a step further, tapping to turn any permanent into an artifact in addition to its other types. Mycosynth Lattice makes all permanents into artifacts, and will let players spend mana as though it were mana of any color. It's worth noting that Mycosynth Lattice is a double-edged sword. One overloaded Vandalblast could turn a fun game into a blowout by letting someone on Red destroy all artifacts they don't control. If Lattice is on the field, be ready to tap Baba Lysaga and sacrifice Mycosynth Lattice if a Vandalblast is put on the stack.
After checking to see how many enchantment creatures were in Black and Green, and whimsically checking to see if there were any creatures that were also both artifacts and enchantments (there aren't), I decided I might want to take another approach to putting enchantments on the battlefield. I figured it would be a little more mana intensive, but I decided to check to see how many recursive auras were in Baba Lysaga's colors.
A "recursive aura" is an aura that returns to your hand when it's put into the battlefield. If that term sounds strange, that's probably because I just made it up. I knew there were some of these auras in black and green, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were enough to really load up on this strategy. I would simply have to run every single one that had ever been printed.
Rancor is the one you are probably most familiar with. It gives +2/+0 and trample, and when it is put into a graveyard from the battlefield, I get to return it to my hand. Beggars can't be choosers, so I'm running a few that might not be as familiar to you.
Spreading Algae can only enchant a swamp, but I should have a swamp on the field since I'm in Black. When the enchanted land gets tapped, it is destroyed. I'll be happier if I can put it on an opponent's swamp, but in a pinch I can tap a swamp, float a Black mana, put this aura onto the tapped swamp and then sacrifice the aura for a Baba Lysaga activation. My swamp will survive because it was tapped prior to casting Spreading Algae.
Aspect of Mongoose will give the enchanted creature shroud. Baba Lysaga's ability does not target, so it won't stop me from using my commander on either the aura or the enchanted creature. Fortitude will let me sacrifice a Forest to regenerate the enchanted creature. As you'll see, I have ways to play lands out of the graveyard, so this ability could actually get used with this deck and not set me back too far.
Glistening Oil not only gives the enchanted creature infect, it will put -1/-1 counters on the enchanted creature on my upkeep. I can use this as a political play, helping someone swing for infect damage. As the only infect card in the deck, I can honestly tell my tablemates that It's really only there as a recurring enchantment to be used as sac fodder for my commander.
It might not amount to much, but the two-mana aura Despondency can give a creature -2/-0. I'm also running Fallen Ideal, which costs an additional mana, grants flying and will let me sacrifice creatures to pump the enchanted creature. Some of these auras aren't very good, but if I see them as a recurring "special ingredient" that will let me draw three cards, gain 3 life and cause my opponents to each lose 3 life, they look a lot better. I might end up dropping out the 3 mana auras but the fact that they will go back to my hand is huge.
I'm running other enchantments, but I'll be hard pressed to sacrifice them. Phyrexian Arena will give me a little more card draw and the life loss it brings should be outweighed by the life gain I'll get from my commander. I swapped out my usual Cultivate and Kodama's Reach for Fertile Ground and Wild Growth in my ramp package to give me some additional enchantments in case I'm not seeing any of those auras. There are more enchantments to get to, but the main thrust of the deck involves those auras that can be recast again and again.
I've got a reasonable plan to be able to sacrifice creatures, artifacts and enchantments, but if I really want to be sure that I can reliably use my commander's ability I need to be willing to go the extra mile. That means I may occasionally need to sacrifice a land.
I really, really don't want to have to sacrifice lands. Heck - I don't want to have to sacrifice anything but Baba Lysaga gets what Baba Lysaga wants, and she wants sacrifices. I'm running four artifact lands so that I can hit two permanent types at once. Tree of Tales, Vault of Whispers, Darkmoss Bridge, and Darksteel Citadel will all check two boxes for me, so if I've got one of my nifty auras out I won't even have to sacrifice a creature.
Another option is for me to turn my lands into creatures. Ashaya, Soul of the Wild will make my nontoken creatures into Forest lands in addition to their other types. I still don't want to have to sacrifice creatures, but hitting two types with a single permanent is what I'm going for. If I can turn a lowly Skittering Surveyor into an Artifact Creature Land I'll have hit the trifecta.
While I wasn't able to dig up any Enchantment Lands, I was able to line up some ways to play lands out of my graveyard.
Ramunap Excavator and Crucible of Worlds will let me play lands I've sacrificed, though I'll still be restricted to my usual one land per turn cycle unless I can get Burgeoning on the field. Yedora, Grave Gardener technically gives me lands out of my graveyard, but only by turning my dying nontoken creatures into Forests. It's weird, but it should give me a steady flow of face-down creatures that are lands and can be sacrificed to Baba Lysaga.
How We Win
This deck is playing a game oriented around sacrificing permanents, so it made sense to double down on that strategy. I've got a handful of creatures that will push out life loss and give me life gain when a creature I control dies.
Zulaport Cutthroat, Vindictive Vampire, Bastion of Remembrance will all turn some of those threes into fours. Having my opponents lose another life point and having me gain another isn't a huge deal, but this should slowly start to add up. With Wound Reflection or Archfiend of Despair on the field, each of my opponents will lose life equal to the life they lost that turn. If I've managed to turn a Dina activation into four points of life loss, Wound Reflection will turn that into another four, and if Archfiend of Despair is also on the field that second trigger will lose them yet another eight. Sixteen points of life loss each turn is a pretty good clock.
I'm also running a few ways to untap Baba Lysaga so I can do it again. Thousand Year Elixir, Scryb Ranger, Quirion Ranger, Seeker of Skybreak and Saryth, the Viper's Fang can all open up the possibility of having a turn with two activations. I'll have to have those three card types among permanents I sacrifice, but I'll be drawing three cards with each activation so I should be able to keep my board-state somewhat stable.
If I'm interested in life gain and life loss, Dina, Soul Steeper is a natural fit. When I gain life, each opponent will lose one life - though gaining three life will be seen as one lifegain event, and my opponents just lose the one life point. Sanguine Bond is an enchantment that does much the same thing as Dina, but each opponent will lose 3 life if I gain 3 life. Both of these pair nicely with Exquisite Blood to combo off and kill the table. I said I hadn't found any combos that work around Baba Lysaga's untap ability to combo off, but that didn't mean I was swearing off combos entirely for this deck.
My original hope for some cool untap combo centered around Baba Lysaga may have fallen short, but I really like the Blood Bond synergy in this list. I've built this first draft for mid powered and maybe even high-powered tables. If you wanted to tune it up, you would absolutely want to run fast mana, more interaction, maybe Deathrite Shaman and a few tutors tutors so that you can draw into one half of the combo and go get the other half to nail down the win.
If you wanted to tune this list down, you'd drop out some of the combo pieces and you might run bigger creatures like Phytotitan, Triplicate Titan and Wurmcoil Engine. Tuning a deck down generally means adjusting it to play in longer games, and longer games mean a greater chance you'll get up to the mana to be able to cast some of those bigger, more mana intensive creatures.
Baba Lysaga | Commander | Stephen Johnson
- Commander (1)
- 1 Baba Lysaga, Night Witch
- Creatures (33)
- 1 Archfiend of Despair
- 1 Ashaya, Soul of the Wild
- 1 Catacomb Sifter
- 1 Dina, Soul Steeper
- 1 Dutiful Attendant
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 1 Gamekeeper
- 1 Groundskeeper
- 1 Hangarback Walker
- 1 Harvester of Souls
- 1 Kokusho, the Evening Star
- 1 Massacre Wurm
- 1 Myr Battlesphere
- 1 Ornithopter of Paradise
- 1 Pharika's Mender
- 1 Pharika, God of Affliction
- 1 Pilgrim's Eye
- 1 Pitiless Plunderer
- 1 Quirion Ranger
- 1 Ramunap Excavator
- 1 Reclamation Sage
- 1 Sakura-Tribe Elder
- 1 Saryth, the Viper's Fang
- 1 Scryb Ranger
- 1 Seedborn Muse
- 1 Seeker of Skybreak
- 1 Skittering Surveyor
- 1 Skyscanner
- 1 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Timeless Witness
- 1 Vindictive Vampire
- 1 Yedora, Grave Gardener
- 1 Zulaport Cutthroat
- Sorceries (1)
- 1 Rampant Growth
- Enchantments (19)
- 1 Aspect of Mongoose
- 1 Bastion of Remembrance
- 1 Blight Mound
- 1 Burgeoning
- 1 Dark Prophecy
- 1 Despondency
- 1 Exquisite Blood
- 1 Fallen Ideal
- 1 Fertile Ground
- 1 Fortitude
- 1 Foster
- 1 Glistening Oil
- 1 Phyrexian Arena
- 1 Rancor
- 1 Sanguine Bond
- 1 Sleeper's Guile
- 1 Spreading Algae
- 1 Wild Growth
- 1 Wound Reflection
- Artifacts (9)
- 1 Arcane Signet
- 1 Crucible of Worlds
- 1 Golgari Signet
- 1 Liquimetal Torque
- 1 Mycosynth Lattice
- 1 Silverskin Armor
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Talisman of Resilience
- 1 Thousand-Year Elixir
This deck is going to be putting lots of cards into my graveyard, so I've loaded up on recursion. Eternal Witness and Timeless Witness are joined by Dutiful Attendant and Pharika's Mender to let me bring cards back from the grave. Pharika, God of Affliction is in the list as well, providing a rare source of enchantment creature tokens with her activated ability.
I opened a copy of Baba Lysaga in a set booster, so I may well build this in paper. I might even throw together an alter of her as Witch Hazel from the old Looney Tunes cartoons I watched on Saturday mornings as a kid growing up in the 70's.
This deck didn't exactly build itself, but the commander did lead me down a path of what felt like obvious choices. Because a deck-building decision feels obvious to me doesn't mean it is obvious to someone else, so I'd love to hear other ways you would have built around this commander. Did I miss anything you thought was obvious? Is there a combo in there that I should have seen? Let me know in the comments.
I don't yet know how well this will perform in actual play, but my first drafts are often like that. I've got a plan, but only with actual play across multiple games can I really get a sense of how well the deck is able to play out all of those permanent types and start digging for the good stuff.
In this deck that good stuff comes in the form of cards like Kokusho, the Evening Star, Massacre Wurm, or just those sweet sweet combo pieces. Without a sweet suite of tutors, most games will come down to how much value I can squeeze out of Baba Lysaga activations. At 3 life loss per turn, it will take a while to get there so I'm going to need more than a little help. Fortunately, most games of EDH have people throwing around incremental damage here and there, so I think this deck has a decent chance at winning the occasional game.
That's all I've got for today. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!