Plowed Field by Caspar David Friedrich (1830). Genesis by Alayna Danner.
Two weeks ago, I was tapped to write about the "Faceless Menace" Commander precon deck. That happy accident seems to have become the gift that keeps on giving, as it led to last week's column about Grismold, the Dreadsower, as well as this week's column.
I've always had a weakness for "voltron" strategies where your path to victory is centered around killing your opponents with 21 Commander damage. It's not an optimal strategy, but I like its directness and it serves as a way to deal with decks that gain ridiculous amounts of life. Today I'm going to be writing about Rayami, First of the Fallen and how to use Birthing Pod effects to set him up with enough keywords to make him an effective if not deadly "voltron" threat.
Rayami is a 5/4 Sultai () Vampire and is Magic's first ever Green vampire. When Rayami is on the battlefield if a non token creature would die, you exile that card with a blood counter on it instead. That alone is a powerful effect. There's a reason the enchantment Rest in Peace is universally hated by players who like playing with their graveyards. Shutting down dozens of wincons that rely upon some level of creature recursion is no joke.
Rayami struck me as being interesting to build because of his second ability. As long as an exiled creature card with a blood counter on it has flying, Rayami has flying. The same holds true for first strike, double strike, deathtouch, haste, hexproof, indestructible, lifelink, menace, protection, reach, trample and vigilance. The ability to earn keywords and keep them so long as those exiled cards remain exiled makes me think of how nice it feels when your commander has just hexproof or indestructible. Jumping through a few hoops to gain both of those and a smattering of other keywords seems like it might be worth the effort. This is a particularly quirky approach to the voltron archetype, so I'm really eager to see how well it will work.
The puzzle is how we can keep Rayami on the battlefield and then sacrifice or destroy enough creatures with the right keywords to make Rayami able to present a real threat. The cleverest idea I was able to come up with was to build around Birthing Pod - an artifact that both allows you to tutor up a creature and gives you an easy way to sacrifice a creature.
I've never seriously built around this card, but I'm aware that there is such a thing as a "Birthing Pod line" and that the card is actually quite powerful. In some decks Birthing Pod can be a kill-on-sight card, not "Paradox Engine good" or even at the level of Food Chain or Aetherflux Reservoir, but still worth removing before things get out of hand.
We have two permanents that can provide this powerful sacrifice / tutor effect - Birthing Pod and Prime Speaker Vannifar. Both will allow you to tap it, sacrifice a creature, tutor for a creature with CMC equal to 1 plus the sacrificed creature's CMC, and put that creature on the battlefield.
Neoform is a sorcery that will do the same thing but would also put a +1/+1 counter on the new creature. I'm not running it because Neoform is not repeatable - you'll be down a creature and down a card so it represents card disadvantage for questionable gain. I'd rather run an extra piece of removal and be able to get rid of an opponent's creature if it's a threat - even if it doesn't have keywords.
What Birthing Pod effects allow you to do for Rayami is sacrifice a creature with desirable keywords to tutor for a creature we want to sacrifice later on to give him even more desirable keywords. The problem is that we'll have to wait until Birthing Pod or Vannifar untaps to be able to use it again. We can only activate the ability at sorcery speed, so we're not able to do it on the end step before our turn starts. These are serious limitations and will keep us from being able to react to boardwipes and targeted removal.
Competitive Vannifar decks will "pod" to get creatures that will untap her. Because she doesn't require any mana to activate, you wind up chaining through a series of creatures until you can get something like Protean Hulk. The win con might involve a combination of cards like Ezuri, Claw of Progress, Sage of Hours, and a bunch of zero-drop creatures so you can get infinite turns. Folks usually scoop when you get infinite turns. If you're interested in that kind of win con, you should research cEDH Vannifar decks, but that's not what we're building today. If this deck wins games, it will be by playing a much fairer brand of Magic with Birthing Pod.
Getting More Activations
Building decks around winning with Commander damage is already a tough sell for some players. Winning a game means outlasting a table full of opponents and killing the last player, if not all of the other players. It's not easy. If we want to try to make the most out of a Birthing Pod strategy, we'll want to try to get as many additional activations as possible.
Voltaic Key will allow us to untap Birthing Pod at the cost of one mana, giving us two activations on our turn. Intruder Alarm to untap all creatures when a new creature enters the battlefield, allowing you to use Vannifar to tutor again and again and again. This combination will allow you to chain through a bunch of creatures to load up your commander in one turn. She'll still just be a 5/4 but she'll be ready to jump into the fray with some useful keywords.
It's natural to think of cards like Seedborn Muse, Unwinding Clock and Murkfiend Liege to allow us to activate and do our tutoring on our opponents' turns, but we need to remember that we can only do this at sorcery speed. Those cards still have value, but they don't work to speed up a Birthing Pod strategy.
Birthing Pod Lines
The concept of a "Birthing Pod Line" is a specific sequence of creatures you can tutor for in a competitive EDH deck that will wind up winning you the game if you can successfully get to the end of the process.
For the purposes of today's deck I'm going to use this term more loosely just to talk about the various lines of creatures you might be able to tutor for. The deck should have a sufficient number of low cost creatures to allow us to have a decent early board state and to let us have a helpful sacrifice target as soon as we're able to get our Birthing Pod online and ready to activate.
We'll also run sacrifice outlets and removal so that if we can't get either Birthing Pod or Vannifar up and running, we'll still have some ability to get good keywords. We don't want to have to rely on our opponents running good Rayami targets. If one of our tablemates does make the mistake of dropping a non-Commander who has double-strike we'll want to be ready to kill it, but I don't expect that to happen often.
It's worth noting that a creature must have the keyword in question without any conditions applied. If a creature has deathtouch as a result of activating an ability, it would not give Rayami deathtouch if it were exiled with a blood counter on it. Multiple keywords are very valuable, as a creature like Vampire Nighthawk can give multiple keywords to your commander. It's also worth noting that an opponent's commander will likely go to their command zone, not their graveyard, so we'll never see one get exiled with a blood counter.
The deck as I've got currently constructed has the following keywords available at the following mana costs.
1 Mana: Deathtouch, Flying, Haste, Hexproof, Lifelink, Protection from Blue
2 Mana: Deathtouch, First Strike, Flying, Haste, Lifelink, Reach, Vigilance
3 Mana: Deathtouch, Flying, Indestructible, Lifelink, Menace
4 Mana: Deathtouch, Flying, Hexproof, Reach, Trample, Vigilance
If we get Birthing Pod out with Vannifar on the field and a Slippery Bogle (hexproof) on the field, we can sacrifice it, exile it with a blood counter and tutor for something like Baleful Strix (deathtouch, flying). On the next turn, we can sacrifice the Baleful Strix, exile it and tutor for Darksteel Myr (indestructible). If we can last long enough to activate Birthing Pod one more time and exile Darksteel Myr we'll have three creatures exiled with blood counters on them. It might seem like a lot of work, but you'll have a commander with Hexproof, Flying, Deathtouch and Indestructible! Play a Mistcutter Hydra for 0 mana for the X value and it will die when it hits the battlefield giving your commander another two abilities - haste and protection from Blue.
Before you get too excited, know that this is a slow plan with a relatively low "ceiling". We're still going to have to beat our opponents to death over many turns. For some of us, that makes for an awesome and fun game of Commander, but if your jam is to combo off as early as possible you're going to want to just run Birthing Pod Vannifar and chase down more competitive Birthing Pod lines.
There will be games where we don't get Pod on the field. That's OK. We're running removal and have a number of alternative ways to try to set up our commander with keywords.
We've got lots of removal that won't work on indestructible and hexproof targets, and in a game of Commander there are usually a few boardwipes. Bonds of Mortality will allow us to make sure our opponents' indestructible creatures get killed. If Rayami is out, they will get exiled, they will have the keyword on the card and Rayami be indestructible for the rest of the game.
If we have Attrition out we can get a two-for-one by paying a Black mana, sacrificing one of our creatures and then destroying target nonblack creature. We have zero double-strike creatures in our list and very few with trample so we should be ready to pick up valuable abilities by destroying our opponents' creatures.
Evolutionary Leap will also let us sacrifice one of our own creatures. We'll then reveal cards from the top of our library until we reveal a creature. We'll put that creature in our hand and the revealed card on the bottom of our library in a random order. That Darksteel Myr isn't really there for any reason except to get flushed so that you can have an indestructible Rayami, and Evolutionary Leap can help with that process.
If we're going to be focusing this deck on keywords, there are definitely cards we'll want to include that also care about keywords. Sadly, we're not in White and can't include Odrich, Lunarch Marshal, but there are still some good cards worth including here.
Mwonvuli Beast Tracker is a Human Scout who will let us search our library for a creature with deathtouch, hexproof, reach or trample, reveal it and put it on top of our library. Vannifar may not have any keywords, but it should let us set up a Birthing Pod line pretty nicely.
Majestic Myriarch is a Chimera with a power and toughness equal to twice the number of creatures we control. While we may be sacrificing creatures to gain keywords we should also be able to play out a decent board state. Majestic Myriarch really shines when we have keywords on the battlefield, as it will gain keywords at the beginning of each combat. If we control a creature with flying, it will gain flying. The same applies to first strike, double strike, deathtouch, haste, hexproof, indestructible, lifelink, menace, reach, trample and vigilance.
This is very much a first draft. I've included a few ways to help Rayami punch above his weight, but I could see dropping a card in favor of something like Eldrazi Conscription. I definitely feel the lack of ways to make him unblockable but he should wind up with flying more often than not, so that's something.
Rayami, First of the Fallen | Commander | Stephen Johnson
- Commander (1)
- 1 Ryami, First of the Fallen
- Creatures (38)
- 1 Acidic Slime
- 1 Aven Fleetwing
- 1 Baleful Strix
- 1 Beast Whisperer
- 1 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Consecrated Sphinx
- 1 Deadly Recluse
- 1 Demon of Catastrophes
- 1 Gifted Aetherborn
- 1 Gladecover Scout
- 1 Gurmag Swiftwing
- 1 Harbinger of Spring
- 1 Kessig Recluse
- 1 Leyline Prowler
- 1 Majestic Myriarch
- 1 Malakir Familiar
- 1 Massacre Wurm
- 1 Mistcutter Hydra
- 1 Mulldrifter
- 1 Mwonvuli Beast Tracker
- 1 Night Incarnate
- 1 Nightveil Predator
- 1 Pheres-Band Warchief
- 1 Poison-Tip Archer
- 1 Ramunap Hydra
- 1 Royal Assassin
- 1 Slippery Bogle
- 1 Sylvan Caryatid
- 1 Thornweald Archer
- 1 Vampire Cutthroat
- 1 Vampire Nighthawk
- 1 Darksteel Myr
- 1 Hovermyr
- 1 Tidehollow Strix
- 1 Arcanis the Omnipotent
- 1 Bontu the Glorified
- 1 Rhonas the Indomitable
- 1 Sidisi, Undead Vizier
- Enchantments (6)
- 1 Attrition
- 1 Bonds of Mortality
- 1 Evolutionary Leap
- 1 Intruder Alarm
- 1 Rhystic Study
- 1 Sylvan Library
- Artifacts (10)
- 1 Blackblade Reforged
- 1 Commander's Sphere
- 1 Fireshrieker
- 1 Hero's Blade
- 1 Lifecrafter's Bestiary
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Strata Scythe
- 1 Trailblazer's Boots
- 1 Voltaic Key
- 1 Whispersilk Cloak
If you think you're seeing a lot of deathtouch creatures, you're right. I am a fan of having early blockers and I'm a huge fan of having early deathtouch blockers. Having your opponents not want to swing at you for fear of losing their creatures is a pretty nice thing, so deathtouch blockers with either flying or reach are more powerful than you might think in a casual game of Commander. If Rayami is on the field and they kill your deathtouch flyer so they can swing at you, it will get exiled with a blood counter and Rayami will be happy to block for you.
I think I must play with too many spikes, because the more I worked on this column, the less optimistic I was that I'd be able to actually close out games with this list. The option of adding some cEDH birthing pod lines into the list isn't that tempting to me. I want this deck to be "playable on casual night". That means winning and losing in the trenches, not comboing out of nowhere.
The great thing about having a "casual night" where many players eschew more competitive strategies is that you can get away with experimenting with your decks and there's less of a chance that you'll just get crushed. It's a more forgiving environment and generally everyone wants everyone else to have fun.
The very first version of the list I've included in today's column had a lot more creatures with keywords in it. I could see an argument for running a pretty sparse list, including all of the 2CMC flyers with protection from a specific color. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, look up Cerulean Drake, Coast Watcher, and Sea Sprite. Black Knight and Phyrexian Crusader might also be worth adding if you were to go after a protection from colors strategy. That might open up more room for tutors, removal spells, a counterspell suite and more pump. Running more removal will make the deck more resilient and competitive.
For comparison, the most competitive Bruna, Light of Alabaster decks aren't the ones that run thirty enchantments. They are the ones that run a short list of just the right enchantments and run a ton of control and protection. I don't know if this first list will slowly evolve in that direction or not, but I think it's a good starting point.
That's all I've got for you today. There's a good chance I'll wind up building this list at some point, but I think I'm going to play the precon for a few weeks before I start tearing it apart.
Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!