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Polukranos Reborn in Commander


When I pick a commander to write about, I always strive to find some interesting angle or odd twist to make the deck my own. I could look up cards on EDHRec.com, and there's nothing wrong with doing that, but I generally avoid getting outside input when I make my first draft and put together a column. Sometimes I end up finding my way to the same solutions that hundreds of other brewers have ended up at. Sometimes I find something new, something goofy, or something pretty unexpected.

Today's deck is built around a commander that lends itself to a pretty specific deck. It's a two-color legendary creature that wants a tribal build but only has one other creature of the same type and in the same colors in the entire history of Magic. That might seem weird until you see what we're brewing around.

Polukranos Reborn // Polukranos, Engine of Ruin

Polukranos Reborn is a Legendary Hydra with 4 power, 5 toughness and reach. That's not that impressive, but for 6 mana and a phyrexian White (1 White mana or you can pay 2 life), you can transform your commander into Polukranos, Engine of Ruin. This flip side is a 6/6 with reach, lifelink, and a cool party trick. Whenever it or another nontoken Hydra I control dies, I create a 3/3 Green and White Phyrexian Hydra token with reach and a 3/3 Green and White Phyrexian Hydra creature token with lifelink.

If that sounds familiar, it feels a lot like Wurmcoil Engine, which is a 6/6 with deathtouch and lifelink that creates a 3/3 Wurm with deathtouch and a 3/3 Wurm with lifelink when it dies. For some reason I feel myself wishing nontoken Hydras would leave behind a Green Hydra and a White Hydra, with reach and lifelink respectively. Maybe White Hydras are too weird, even for Wizards of the Coast. Green and White Hydras are what we have to work with when our nontoken Hydras kick the can.

Finding Our Angle

I want to play Hydras in this deck so that when my Hydras die, they'll make little baby Hydras, half of which will have reach and half of which will have lifegain. That's a weird thing to try to work around, but what if I could find a way to get my Hydras to die and come back? Sun Titan isn't going to get me anywhere, as Hydras have a higher mana value than it can work with. Fortunately we've got a few options.

Gift of Immortality
Cauldron of Souls
Colfenor's Urn

Gift of Immortality is a neat old aura from Theros which will return the enchanted creature to the battlefield immediately and will itself come back at the beginning of the next end step. Pretty sweet, eh? Cauldron of Souls can tap to give any number of target creatures persist until end of turn. That means if they die they'll come back with a -1/-1 counter but that only works once. After they get a -1/-1 counter they can't do that trick again.

Colfenor's Urn will let me exile creatures with toughness of 4 or greater when they get put into my graveyard. At end of turn, if three or more cards have been exiled with Colfenor's Urn I can sacrifice it and return them to play under their owner's control. I'm also running Eternal Witness and Timeless Witness, both of which are great at getting cards back to your hand from the graveyard.

If all this recursion doesn't seem to make sense in a Hydra deck, let me calm your fears. You'd be correct to think that a lot of Hydras have X in their casting cost. Putting X-casting-cost Hydras back onto the battlefield would have them die immediately so I simply won't run any of them. I've got well over a dozen Hydras in this deck and none of them have X in their casting cost.

Gargos, Vicious Watcher
Kalonian Hydra
Whiptongue Hydra

Gargos, Vicious Watcher will drop the cost of my other Hydras by so much, I'll likely only have to pay their colored mana costs. Kalonian Hydra shows up with four +1/+1 counters and will double counters on each of my creatures each time it attacks. Not all of my Hydras get +1/+1 counters, but enough of them do that Kalonian Hydra should put in work in this deck. Whiptongue Hydra is a fantastic way to get rid of flyers and is a great example of a Hydra who can have its counters doubled by that Kalonian Hydra attack trigger.

managorger Hydra
Hydra Omnivore
Khalni Hydra

Managorger Hydra starts small but gets bigger as players, myself included, play spells. It can become a real problem if my tablemates ignore it for too long. Hydra Omnivore can also be a problem, but in a different way. If it does combat damage to an opponent, it deals that much to each other opponent. Khalni Hydra is just an 8/8 with trample who will cost one less Green mana for each Green creature I control.

Some of these Hydras aren't good candidates for getting persist, but if they come back as 1/1 creatures and immediately die, I'll get another two 3/3 baby Hydras so that's not all that bad.

The list goes on, and I won't name them all, but I like the idea of pairing these particular Hydras with this particular strategy. I could see adding in some X-cost Hydras if the deck feels like it needs them. Genesis Hydra might work well as a method of putting another Hydra onto the battlefield but I think this first draft can do without it.

The Bare Necessities

All these Hydras will push this deck's average mana value up, which means I'll need lots of ramp. My commander also has a pretty high mana investment to be able to do what the deck wants to do. That means a lot of ramp, along with a few special cards.

Ashnod's Altar
Mirari's Wake
Zendikar Resurgent

I'm running a couple of sacrifice outlets in Phyrexian Altar and Ashnod's Altar to let me get a little extra mana. Those two also work well with Gift of Immortality. I'd love to sacrifice and recur a nontoken Hydra every single turn, making two 3/3 Hydra tokens each time. Mirari's Wake and Zendikar Resurgent will both double my land mana output, which could go a long way towards being able to keep things rolling along.

The problem of having a higher mana curve and needing a bit longer to be relevant at the table means this deck will likely be a lower powered build, suitable for longer, less competitive games. I can't expect my tablemates to take as long as I will to get set up, so I'll do well to play boardwipes. I am in White after all, so I might as well use that color to advance my game plan. If I'm ready to push out creatures on turn five or six and everyone else has a small army of mana dorks and other little guys, a boardwipe might be called for before I really start building my army.

Wrath of God

Boardwipes also work nicely with Cauldron of Souls and Colfenor's Urn. My ramp is land, artifact and enchantment based with little reliance on creatures, so a well timed boardwipe shouldn't hurt me too much. Wraths might clear away creatures but if I can play out a Doubling Season, Anointed Procession or Parallel Lives, I'll get double the Hydra tokens even if I can't protect my nontoken Hydras. If I can wipe the board, double my tokens and return my nontoken Hydras to the battlefield after the dust has settled, I'll be in really great shape.

To round out my "bare necessities" I've got removal, some token doublers, and even Teferi's Protection so I can "peace out" if need be. I had a few tutors in my first draft but dropped them out in favor of Beast Whisperer, Guardian Project and The Great Henge, all of which can help me with card draw. Tutors make sense in a deck that wants to get very specific creatures out in order to do its thing, but I don't think this deck has that problem.

Paths Not Taken

I like to take a moment to mention ideas that might be viable, but which I didn't add into a deck. One obvious one would be to play X-casting-cost Hydras, drop out some of the recursion and have a slightly different deck. Hooded Hydra leaves behind a 1/1 Green Snake creature token for each +1/+1 counter on it when it dies, playing nicely with the plan to turn Hydra deaths into a way to grow my army. It's not a bad plan, but it feels a bit obvious to me.

It was pointed out to me that you could cast those X-casting-cost Hydras with 0 for X so those Hydras die immediately. You'd getting very low-cost 3/3 creature tokens. I think that's a pretty cool idea, but I'd hate to be losing all those non-token Hydras. It would probably be a faster deck and might be a fun way to build with much more of a token-oriented game plan.

Hooded Hydra
Mirror Entity

What doesn't feel obvious to me is not playing any Hydras at all. This deck could have been all about spamming as many small creatures onto the board as possible, tutoring up Mirror Entity and using it to turn all those dudes into X/X creatures with all creature types. If I choose to activate Mirror Entity's activated ability for 0 mana and have a half dozen mana dorks and other assorted creatures I'll end up with a dozen 3/3 baby Hydras! That's not bad, and it'll be unexpected the first time, but it leads to having a deck with basically the same game plan again and again.

The Mirror Entity plan will be familiar if you've played Atla Palani, Nest Tender. She makes egg creature tokens and when they die you reveal cards until you reveal a creature and you put that card onto the battlefield. Mirror Entity Polukranos could be a fun deck, but I decided to stick with actual Hydras to see if I could make it work.

Selesnya Hydras

I ended up not throwing any combos into today's list. I'm running more mediocre Hydras than I would normally play in a Hydra deck, but my build path moved me away from the more common, and often more versatile, X-costed Hydras. They aren't all necessarily bad, but there are some great ones with X in their casting costs.

The game plan is to spend the early turns ramping, the middle turns playing Hydras and getting my commander out and flipped, and the end game finding a way to get those bodies through blockers. One way will be to boardwipe, and my hope is that this deck will rebound from boardwipes better than my tablemates.

If I wanted to tune this deck up, I might start by leaning into creatures and then add a combo or two. Karametra's Acolyte, Circle of Dreams Druid and Gaea's Cradle can all make big mana and playing more creatures could lead to an all-permanents build with Primal Surge as a wincon. I find Primal Surge boring, but i've done it a few times so I've checked that box. If you haven't, you should know that it is fun to put every permanent in your deck onto the battlefield - just don't forget to include a haste enabler! This might get up to high power but I doubt it would ever find its way into fringe cEDH territory.

Tuning this deck down might mean playing fewer boardwipes and more Hydras. That might seem counterintuitive, but letting everyone else build their army and NOT wiping away all of their work is nothing if not nice. Casual, low powered games are definitely where I'm more willing to play nice. That means less removal and more logjams on the battlefield where everyone has creatures and it's hard to figure out where to attack because blockers are everywhere. Some people like games like that.

Early Results

I was able to play this deck in not one but two games with my Thursday night Tabletop Simulator group. Only the second game really gave me any information, because in the first match one of the guys came in with a Hidetsugu and Kairi deck that he didn't realize was going to end up being incredibly fast and powerful. He strung together a seemingly endless string of recursion spells and killed us all on turn four.

In the second game we were pretty much all on comparable decks. My Polukranos Reborn was up against Tovolar, Dire Overlord (Werewolves), Derevi, Empyrial Tactician (Birds) and a Mistform Ultimus deck.

The Derevi deck came out of the gate really fast, but he was just playing a ton of 1 and 2 power birds. Tovolar was also getting a board set up, but the Mistform Ultimus player didn't have more than a few creatures and I was just focusing on ramp in the early game. I still don't know how I didn't get dinged much in those early turns, but I was able to get a Beast Whisperer out and cast my commander. Once I had a Hydra with reach on the field, I didn't see any attackers from Derevi.

I was able to blow up a Sapphire Medallion with my Reclamation Sage and play out a few more Hydras, a Zendikar Resurgent and a Guardian Project. The Mistform Ultimus player did everyone a huge favor by using Swan Song to counter a Beastmaster Ascension from the Derevi player, who already had at least a half dozen birds. Those flyers would have made quick work of the table if he hadn't countered that powerful enchantment. I eventually got a Beastmaster Ascension out, and drawing 3 cards for playing a single creature was what let me really power into the late game. I wasn't casting a ton of creatures, but that draw really helped.

The Mistform Ultimus player had very little going on, put down a Laboratory Maniac and a Jace, Wielder of Mysteries and joked about having the win. He had an empty hand and was kidding, but that really spooked everyone else. He was the same player who trounced us in Game 1, so we made fairly quick work of removing those threats and then removing him. That was really all done by the Tovolar and Derevi player. I was still building up my board and trying to figure out how to get through or around my tablemates' blockers.

The three remaining players each had a huge board but with my mana doubler I was in a position to play pretty much anything I drew into. I spent a turn pushing out more Hydras and then ended up putting down Colfenor's Urn and playing Fumigate.

The Tovolar player cast Heroic Intervention. The Derevi player lost his board entirely. I ended up making 7 3/3 Hydras with Reach, 7 3/3 Hydras with Lifelink and returning 7 Hydras to my board at the end of the turn by sacrificing my Urn. I was now very much the problem at the table, but none of them had haste, so everyone got at least one more turn.

Before passing the turn, I also played Parallel Evolution, doubling the number of creature tokens under each player's control. The Tovolar player had a 3/3 Beast because I had used Beast Within on his commander. He got a second 3/3 Beast and I got fourteen more baby Hydras!

I had also managed to get a Greater Good under my Mosswort Bridge and played that out prior to the boardwipe. That ended up mattering a lot later on. Greater Good lets you sacrifice a creature, draw cards equal to its power and then discard three cards.

The Tovolar player had a nice little army of wolves and werewolves but I had removed his commander so they were daybound on his turn. He replayed his commander, played a few more key werewolves and passed the turn.

The Derevi player had nothing... nothing but another boardwipe. He cast Dusk, which would destroy all creatures with power 3 or greater.

Not wanting to lose my board, I started digging for answers. I didn't have Heroic Intervention in my deck, but if I dug down to Teferi's Protection I'd have an open field to swing on when my turn came around again. I started sacrificing 3/3 baby Hydras until one of the guys suggested I just bin the Apex Devastator to be more efficient. I did that and found my way to the card I needed. I cast Teferi's Protection and my two tablemates conceded that they were out of answers. I easily had enough power on board to swing on my next turn and kill them.

The game was a good test of my sense that cards like Colfenor's Urn and Cauldron of Souls would pair really well with Polukranos' backside and boardwipes. The deck does need Heroic Intervention, but all in all I was very happy with how it did in its first game. I was probably at a higher power level than Derevi and Mistform Ultimus decks, but on par with Tovolar. It's hard to judge my deck or their decks from what was effectively a one game sample size - discounting the first match that was over before it really began.

I think the biggest issue will be that the deck is slow to get going. There are a lot of cards in the 4-6 mana range and I'm used to playing decks that have a lower mana curve. Still, it was fun, resilient, and should be a good time at low and mid powered tables if you have the time to get set up and into the mid game without losing too much life.

Final Thoughts

I've been very excited about the upcoming Lord of the Rings set, but have also been unsure about how much I want to mix LoTR Magic cards with regular Magic cards in my decks. I have been slow to accept the Universe Beyond sets. I think it's been a real slap in the face for fans of Magic who care about Magic lore, and it's been something of a transparent money grab by a company that has proven time and time again that it is more concerned with its bottom line than anything else.

The solution I've been using so far has been to simply not play UB cards. It was easy enough to ignore Walking Dead, Stranger Things, and Street Fighter cards as a deck-builder. I like that some of them got Magic versions, but I don't like that they did them in the first place.

I'm acutely aware that I'm the guy who has been painting Muppets on my Magic cards for a few years. There's a real hypocrisy at play here, but I won't pretend that my feelings always make sense. Wizards of the Coast selling a Thomas the Tank Engine precon deck is a very different thing to me from painting a Thomas the Tank Engine on an Ardara Express.

Right now I'm leaning towards taking the 4 LoTR precons and the cards I open in boosters and having them form a card pool from which to create decks. These Lord of the Rings decks might get cards from outside that pool, and my other decks might get a card or two from the LoTR pool, but my first instinct is to keep them separate. I guess we'll see how long I stick with that plan.

That means I might spend another week or two on March of the Machine or I might just brainstorm LoTR decks for fun in this weekly column. I can't be the only one out there who has struggled to accept Universes Beyond, but my love of Magic and EDH is enough that I'm sure I'll find a way to make it work and make it fun.

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

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