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Building Around Nethroi, Apex of Death in Commander


The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1562). Lord of the Accursed by Grzegorz Rutkowski.

I've been working on getting this column done for a while, even putting it off for a week to dive into the issues of the day last Monday. Today I'm going to take a look at Nethroi, Apex of Death.

Nethroi, Apex of Death

On reading Nethroi's abilities, my mind initially went to Hydras, which are often 0/0 creatures, but when I looked through my binder there were very few that would actually work with Nethroi. Most Hydras and many other 0/0 creatures let you pay X mana to put X +1/+1 counters on them. Putting those directly onto the battlefield will just result in them dying again.

I also somehow got it stuck in my head that Nethroi was in Sultai colors, but in fact it is in Abzan colors. I also kept thinking about flicker effects, even though that wouldn't trigger Nethroi's recursion ability. A flicker would just have Nethroi leave the battlefield and reenter with any creatures it was mutated onto also entering as individual creatures.

My first draft of this list had Titans' Nest in it, which isn't even legal in the deck because its casting cost includes blue.

Clearly I needed to take my time and try to get this right.

Planning the Build

My first thought was that I've made the mistake in the past of suggesting Humans as targets for cards to mutate onto. Leave it to Wizards of the Coast to take an already confusing mechanic and add a caveat to it that will make it even easier to get wrong. If I knew one thing, it was that I was not going to run any Humans in my deck. I don't trust myself to not accidentally cheat and put Nethroi or another mutate creature onto a Human.

I do have to wonder if a "Mad Scientist" Legendary creature might someday get printed with the ability to allow you to mutate onto Humans. It would probably have to be 5/c and it would have the potential to be an incredibly flavorful card, but I digress.

My plan was to set up the deck so that it would have a handful of high-CMC mutate targets, an ample serving of creatures with mutate, a slot of recursion dorks, a few other low-CMC value cards and as many viable 0/0 creatures as I could find. Mutate is expensive, so I'd need to be able to ramp.

Finding a balance between these various effects would be the key, because too much of any one part of the plan would make the deck less effective. It felt like there had to be a combo somewhere in the mix, but I tend to build more casual decks and decided not to aim for a combo build with my first draft. Since we're in green, a Birthing Pod build might set us up nicely with another way to put creatures in the graveyard, but I'm not leaning towards building a competitive deck today.

Filling the Graveyard

In play-testing, one thing I found out pretty quickly is that I didn't want too little in the way of self-mill. I'd be waiting to mutate Nethroi until I had a decent graveyard and filling up the yard takes time.

Satyr Wayfinder
Skull Prophet
Underrealm Lich

I expect I'll want more of these as the deck gets played, but this is a start. As my deck evolves, I expect to look into cards with the surveil mechanic. This first list doesn't have any cards with surveil, and it's probably the first thing I'll wind up adding.

Fleshbag Marauder
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Fiend Artisan

Cards like Fleshbag Marauder and Merciless Executioner will not only force our opponents to sacrifice a creature, they will also represent powerful recursion targets. A mid-game where we get both into the graveyard and have the chance to mutate Nethroi onto a creature and then mutate something else onto him again should go really well for us. Each time Nethroi mutates we can bring those two back and either sacrifice a smaller creature or just sacrifice them to their own ability so they're ready to come out again.

A creature like Sakura-Tribe Elder might not seem like a great way to "fill your graveyard," but anything that brings value, has a low power and lets us sacrifice it, is going to fit into this deck pretty well. Spore Frog, which lets us Fog for a turn by sacrificing it, also has a place in today's list. Fiend Artisan might seem like a bad choice because we'll be taking creatures out of our graveyard making it smaller, but its ability to sacrifice a creature to tutor up another creature can set us up for some pretty strong plays.

Low Power Value

I made sure to include a good assortment of creatures with a low power but good value when brought back from the graveyard.

Acidic Slime
Farhaven Elf

Acidic Slime needs no introduction. Removal is important and I'll never be sad seeing Acidic Slime in my graveyard when I'm playing this deck. Ramp is also important, and Farhaven Elf and Wood Elves will both help us get lands onto the battlefield when they come into play.

Hexdrinker represents two things in this list - a low-power creature we'll be happy to recur and a really good mutate target. This Snake has the level up ability and can be given protection from Instants or even protection from everything. I'll need to mutate Nethroi onto it before I push my Hexdrinker up to level 8 because it can't be targeted at that point. Protection from everything would cause auras to fall off, but it won't remove the mutation card because that mutate ability causes the two cards to become a new creature and that creature is treated as a single entity. There's nothing to "fall off" of a mutated Hexdrinker. Protection from everything may prevent future targeting, but we'll have other mutate targets and mutate spells to play with if that happens.

Embodiment of Agonies
Scourge of Skola Vale

Zero-power creatures are going to be an important part of this list, so Fertilid was an obvious pick for Nethroi. Making the mana to ramp, send Fertilid to the graveyard, get him back and ramp again might seem like a lot, but if we're in the position to do that we should probably try. One of the mantras I occasionally find myself saying in Commander games is "when in doubt, ramp." Big plays often require big mana and ramping is how this deck will get to that big mana.

Embodiment of Agonies is another I'm still unsure on. With a big enough graveyard, we can recur certain cards and leave certain cards and still have this Demon get counters, but in the early game there might be times where recurring all of my creatures will leave nothing behind. On the other hand, playing it from my hand with a decent graveyard could give it a bunch of +1/+1 counters and then mutating Nethroi onto it could bring its base power up from 0/0 to 5/5, so there should be times where this feels like a great include.

I was able to find a few Hydras for Nethroi, and Scourge of Skola Vale is a pretty good fit for today's list. It can tap to sacrifice another creature and put +1/+1 counters onto it equal to the sacrificed creature's toughness. I can set myself up for an extra Merciless Executioner trigger or I can toss one of my land-fetching elves into the yard to try to ramp a little more when Nethroi mutates.

Mutate Targets

I've got zero Humans in today's list so I've got plenty of targets for Nethroi to mutate onto. I will often want to mutate Nethroi on top of a creature, as a lot of my targets will be smaller than 5/5. I also wanted to have some creatures that would make the resulting creature bigger than the mutate creature was.

Primeval Protector
Novablast Wurm

Am I willing to run some weird and arguably bad cards just to have a 10/10 body to mutate onto? Heck yes! I only wish they were bigger, but I'll enjoy the occasional game where I'm able to swing in with Nethroi stuck onto one of these bad boys. Deathtouch makes him dangerous to block, his lifelink would give me a sweet little jump in my life total, and if he dies I'll be very happy to re-cast him and get another mutate trigger.

Novablast Wurm might only be a 7/7, but when he swings he'll destroy all other creatures. If I lose most of my board, I'll be happy to mutate another creature under my Nethoi Novablast monstrosity and get a bunch of creatures back with that sweet recursion trigger. This card is probably the single biggest reason I'm happy that we've got white available to us for this build. If my opponent's aren't able to protect their boards from this wrath-on-a-stick and can't draw into removal I should be able to position myself for a win pretty nicely.

Cultivator of Blades
Managorger Hydra
Whiptongue Hydra

Cultivator of Blades might not seem like a great mutate target, but if I cast it, put two +1/+1 counters on it instead of making two 1/1 Servos, and then mutate Nethroi onto it, we'll be looking at 7 power that pumps my team +7/+7 whenever it attacks. Building around +1/+1 counters is a fine way to build around Nethroi, as it keeps those counters when it mutates. Managorger Hydra is great at picking up +1/+1 counters and Whiptongue Hydra is a nice little answer to flyers, which can sometimes be a challenge to deal with. Both can easily put you in a position to kill an opponent in three or even two shots if things go well.

I've got a few more interesting targets in the list. Marwyn the Nurturer, who can mutate into a fantastic mana source, makes an appearance as does Teneb, the Harvester. Additional recursion in a deck like this might seem like overkill, but Teneb can grab cards from any graveyard and can bring back those 10/10 bodies, freeing up Nethroi to deal with any lower powered creatures you might want to return to the battlefield.

Mutate Cards

My play-testing has been limited, but I've already falling in love with some of the new toys Wizards gave us in Ikoria.

Have I told you lately how much I love to flip cards off the top of my deck? I love it in Narset, Enlightened Master. I love it in Mayael the Anima. I even liked it in Yennet, Cryptic Sovereign. Among my favorite stories are those wonderful Chaos Warp tales where someone tries to remove the key card that's going to win the game and after shuffling it just magically happens to be the top card. I've seen it happen, and yes, the deck was shuffled.

Auspicious Starrix
Boneyard Lurker
Migratory Greathorn

I love Auspicious Starrix. Even if I just hit lands I'm happy, and this is the gift that keeps on giving. If you somehow manage to get to a third mutate, you'll have gotten six permanents overall! Sure, it's expensive at 6 mana, but the entertainment value is worth every pip you spend.

There are lots of other mutate cards in this deck as well. Boneyard Lurker and Necropanther will help you get stuff back out of your graveyard. Migratory Greathorn will ramp you. Dirge Bat lets you destroy a creature or planeswalker, which can be incredibly helpful when faced with a Superfriends deck. Even Vulpikeet, which just puts a +1/+1 counter on your mutant, feels pretty good.

The key thing to remember is that you're going to want to stack your mutate creatures to squeeze the most value out of them. The other key thing to remember is that your opponents will chuckle merrily as they spend one or 2 mana to blow up your creature. They're right to chuckle, but with Nethroi you've got recursion. If your beastie gets exiled, you'll be kind of screwed, but if it just gets destroyed you can pull many of those creature cards right back onto the field the next time you cast your commander for its mutate cost.

The Decklist

You'll notice not one mention of any infect creatures so far in today's column. It's worth mentioning that infect is probably the single best approach to building a mutate deck, so I'm knowingly aiming for a more casual list today. I wrote up a list around Brokkos, Apex of Forever not long ago and would urge you to look at that if you're aiming to build a nastier Nethroi deck than I'm sharing with you today.

It's worth noting that this is an actual list I've built in paper. I may not have included any infect creatures, but I'm loving the idea of mutating onto an activated Inkmoth Nexus after a boardwipe. If that ever happens, I'm betting we'll have to grab a judge to make sure we don't screw it up somehow, but having a two-hit kill available for those few post-wrath turns seems pretty sweet.

Final Thoughts

I stuck to my guns and tried to avoid any other content creators who have written about Nethroi. That means there's every chance I've missed some obvious combo or some fantastic synergy that would make Nethroi, Apex of Death much, much better. I suggested that Birthing Pod seems like a pretty good fit, but what I really want to know is what you would put into a Nethroi deck.

What did I miss, or for that matter, what cards did I include that you might now run in your own list?

I wound up getting Timeless Wisdom (the Jeskai cycling precon) and Enhanced Evolution (the Sultai mutate precon) from my LGS. I've been thinking of revisiting Niv-Mizzet Reborn as a 5/c all-in cycling deck, so if that sounds like something you'd enjoy reading please comment below. I'm also thinking of moving on to look at Jump-Start legendaries, because shiny new cards are shiny and new.

That's all I've got for you today. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!

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