Thursday, December 17, 2015

Thaumaturge's Guide to Plundering them Graves

As I talked about in my previous post, I am trying a new approach to these Commander deck write-ups. The end result is still going to be much the same, I believe, as the basic goal of these articles is to provide you with some suggestions and inspiration on fixing up the pre-constructed decks into actual, real decks you would want to play “out in the wild” so to speak. But in the past, I wrote these articles almost entirely based on “theorycraft”; often I would have the articles 90% complete before the decks even went on sale. But for reasons I discussed in that prior post, I don’t want to do it that way for the time being. Starting with this article, today, my suggestions and ideas for deck improvement will come largely from my actual gameplay experiences. Of course I still want to provide as many suggestions as I can, so I will still throw out a few cards that I might have wanted to try but didn’t have room for, etc.  And if the situation warrants I will suggest, in broad strokes, other thematic or mechanical direction one might take to differentiate their build from my own.

Sometimes, a commander strongly suggests a clear line of play that leads to some pretty concrete deck building choices. Other commanders, though, lend themselves to a variety of strategies and could feasibly allow for more variance. So, my goal is not necessarily to provide a definitive or authoritative commentary on what you SHOULD be doing with the deck, but simply to provide a helpful voice to suggest what you COULD do. To put it simply, I want to ensure that the bulk of my input on these decks is battle-tested and proven (with the obvious caveat that what works in my metagame may not work in yours, but I am working off the assumption that my meta is similar in power level to the average EDH playgroup/meta).

Anyway, today we’re looking at “Plunder the Graves”, the Golgari deck led by Meren of Clan Nel Toth. Circumstance has forced my hand, in that this is the first deck that I have managed to fine-tune to my own personal standards, but I will admit to a bias in that this deck was probably going to be the first one I dug into regardless of circumstance, because it was the one I was most hyped for, by far, even before I got a chance to play it. Meren has not only lived up to that hype, but surpassed it, even. It has turned out to be quite powerful, but even when it doesn’t win it’s incredibly fun to play. It always feels powerful and rarely do I ever feel helpless or defenseless playing it. But more than that, I love grindy value-engines and synergy-driven strategies, and that’s pretty much what a Meren deck does.

But before we get too deep into the analysis, let’s see the out-of-the-box list we’re starting with:

Meren of Clan Nel Toth
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Satyr Wayfinder
Viridian Emissary
Wall of Blossoms
Viridian Zealot
Korozda Guildmage
Lotleth Troll
Blood Bairn
Phyrexian Rager
Wood Elves
Eternal Witness
Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord
Indrik Stomphowler
Kessig Cagebreakers
Phyrexian Plaguelord
Acidic Slime
Vulturous Zombie
Champion of Stray Souls
Extractor Demon
Butcher of Malakir
Eater of Hope
Verdant Force
Corpse Augur
Centaur Vinecrasher
Bloodspore Thrinax
Banshee of the Dread Choir
Mazirek, Kraul Death Priest
Great Oak Guardian
Thief of Blood
Pathbreaker Ibex
Scourge of Nel Toth
Caller of the Pack

Primal Growth
Ambition's Cost
Sever the Bloodline
Barter in Blood
Rise from the Grave
Spider Spawning
Overwhelming Stampede
Dread Summons

Altar's Reap
Tribute to the Wild
Golgari Charm
Grisly Salvage
Wretched Confluence

Sol Ring
Golgari Signet
Lightning Greaves
Eldrazi Monument
Thought Vessel

Diabolic Servitude

Command Tower
Evolving Wilds
Golgari Guildgate
Golgari Rot Farm
Grim Backwoods
High Market
Jungle Hollow
Polluted Mire
Slippery Karst
Tainted Wood
Terramorphic Expanse
Vivid Grove
Vivid Marsh
13 Swamp
12 Forest

I actually enjoyed playing the unaltered version of this deck more than I usually do with these preconstructed decks. It’s up there with the Teferi deck from last year for being both fun, well-designed and sort of close to the power level I’m accustomed to with my own decks. It still has a lot of questionable card choices and ample room for improvement, of course, but it’s above average for the product. Let’s break it down.

Looking at Meren herself, it’s clear what she wants to happen: she wants creatures we control to die so she can gain experience, and she wants creatures in our graveyard so she can return them. This informs further deck construction goals – clearly we want a high creature count, we want ways to kill or sacrifice our creatures, and we want creatures with ETBF triggers or death triggers so we can turn all this death and resurrection into something resembling a proactive game plan. For me, one of the very first cards that sprang to mind when I read Meren’s text for the first time was Fleshbag Marauder, and that’s still a very good example of what we want to be doing. He can answer, usually, multiple creatures at once, so he’s card advantage, but he also contributes directly to Meren’s experience-gaining ability by making you sac a creature too (usually you just sac Fleshbag himself so you can recur him over and over). Other great low-end creatures that I just LOVE to see in my opening hand include Sakura-Tribe Elder or Viscera Seer. Neither of those does a tremendous amount of work on their own, but in concert with Meren they are potentially explosive value engines.

My approach to Meren was a sort of STAX-lite/reanimator hybrid. I don’t really have a lot of huge bombs to reanimate, instead focusing on smaller, cheaper creatures with ETBF effects that I can just grind value out of over the course of several turns, while hopefully being able to answer most anything that really threatens me. One could certainly play up either angle a bit more strongly, but it could be tricky pushing the reanimator thing too hard – you need plenty of cheap fodder to die before Meren can start resurrecting the really big guns.

But one of the cool things about Meren is that you don’t need all that many big creatures, just a few will do, since she can just bring them back should they die. Exile effects are a bit of a nuisance, but one of the other things a Meren deck strongly encourages is running plenty of sacrifice outlets, so if your opponents do start trying to hit you with exile effects like Swords or Path, you should typically be able to just sac in response.

So, in addition to the three basic things almost all EDH decks require (Ramp, Draw, Removal), we know our recipe is going to call for fodder to level up Meren, creatures that are worth bringing back from the grave again and again, ways to sacrifice that fodder for more value, and things that trigger off all those creatures dying. Fortunately I have some prior experience with this type of deck. A Meren deck is really not all that different from a Savra deck in the types of cards it wants to play, but at the same time Meren is still a bit more dissimilar than I expected in that it prioritizes what it wants very differently. For instance, creatures like Deranged Hermit, Creakwood Liege or Abhorrent Overlord – those “army in a can” creatures – were very highly desired in Savra but in Meren they are good but not so much that you want to just jam as many of those as possible. It’s worth having a few sprinkled throughout the list, but there are other things we want to prioritize higher.

Another decision point to consider is how much we want to rely on artificially stocking the graveyard. I’m talking about things like Buried Alive, Jarad’s Orders or Survival of the Fittest. In my opinion, the answer is “a little bit, but don’t overdo it.” A handful of these effects can be useful to get the ball rolling if you don’t start out with a cheap sac-able guy like STE or Viscera Seer, or let you dig up some sort of finisher if the game has progressed to that point. But it’s better if creatures are going to the graveyard from play – casting Buried Alive doesn’t level up Meren, and returning creatures to play is, generally, much better than returning them to our hand. But, one cool feature of having Meren in play – any creature is a Squee Goblin Nabob for purposes of exploiting the crap out of Survival of the Fittest. If you have something that costs more than what Meren can reanimate, you can just pitch it to Survival then get it back into your hand EOT. For the most part, I found all those “Mulch” effects to be clunky, unreliable and awkward. I was almost never happy drawing them, but the one exception was Satyr Wayfinder, simply for being a cheap, reusable creature. I quickly cut all the spell-based Mulch effects and never looked back.

The deck already comes with a Butch of Malakir; obviously we want an actual Grave Pact and probably a Dictate of Erebos as well. We might as well make this deck as hostile to creatures as possible.

When putting my own list together, I tried to look for overlapping synergies as much as possible. We know we want sacrificial fodder, death triggers and some “army in a can” creatures, right? Take a look at Pawn of Ulamog, then – he has a death trigger, which in turn makes tokens, and those tokens can sac themselves, so Pawn is a card that checks of multiple boxes on our to-do list. I also like to find creatures with Echo or Evoke or some other sacrificial mechanic… exploit is another one.

As for sac outlets, I definitely like those that are both free and repeatable. Being able to just sac your whole team in response to a Final Judgement could easily mean the difference between getting blown out and just shrugging it off. Also, dumping your whole board into the ‘yard right before you cast your own Living Death is pretty good, too. But one of my main go-to sac outlets is Greater Good and I’m not sure that works all that well here. Too many of our creatures are small enough that we’ll often be breaking even AT BEST, and actually netting negative cards far too often. Most of my free sac outlets are on creatures – Dimir House Guard, Viscera Seer. That kind of thing. But I also like to find cute ones like Birthing Pod or, one of my absolute favorites, Helm of Possession. Evolutionary Leap is another great one – repeatable, and while it does cost mana to use, it’s cheap enough you can usually cash in MOST of your creatures even if not every single one. Vampiric Rites is a little more awkward but still fairly cheap to use. I considered Spawning Pit, as it was pretty good in my Savra deck, and while I ultimately decided it wouldn’t be quite as useful here, it is another example of the kind of thing I’m talking about. In short you want your sac outlets to provide value from creatures that were going to die anyway, protect them from exile effects, and just help you ensure Meren can build up those experience counters.

Now that we have an idea of the kind of things we want, a list of ingredients, we have to figure out the right amounts of all those different things. That’s one reason why, as I mentioned above, finding cards that fulfill multiple roles within the deck are key, as they allow us to fit everything we want into the deck while still having room for the bare necessities like lands, ramp and basic utility spells. You can certainly try to rely solely on creature-based answers but I feel like it is too big a risk not to allow ourselves access to some instant-speed removal and some board wipes like Damnation. I have become increasingly more driven by theme over the years, but one of my mantras has long been “do not be a slave to your theme”. Decks that are nothing but a pile of good stuff aren’t that exciting or interesting to me, but decks that utterly forego any generically good spells at all are often much worse decks than they could be if they did not adhere quite so strictly to thematic limitations.

I guess at this point I should just share with you my current Meren list as it stands now, and then I can talk more specifically about my own choices, as well as what I might change or what I think you might be able to do differently. I still feel like my list is missing quite a few things, but so far it has just been running so well I am not too motivated to mess with it. After running down the list, I’ll mention some of those cards that I feel probably should be included somewhere.


Meren of Clan Nel Toth

Viscera Seer
Blood Artist
Grim Haruspex
Fleshbag Marauder
Merciless Executioner
Pawn of Ulmaog
Liliana, Heretical Healer
Dimir House Guard
Disciple of Bolas
Smothering Abomination
Bloodline Keeper
Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder
Puppeteer Clique
Phyrexian Plaguelord
Sidisi, Undead Vizier
Soul of Innistrad
Grave Titan
Massacre Wurm
Butcher of Malakir
Overseer of the Damned
Viridian Emissary
Satyr Wayfinder
Wall of Blossoms
Fauna Shaman
Viridian Zealot
Farhaven Elf
Wood Elves
Yavimaya Elder
Eternal Witness
Acidic Slime
Hornet Queen
Woodfall Primus
Catacomb Sifter
Creakwood Liege
Mazirek, Kraul Death Priest


Vampiric Rites
Diabolic Intent
Shadows of the Past
Buried Alive
Barter in Blood
Dread Return
Grave Pact
Living Death
Dictate of Erebos
Evolutionary Leap
Survival of the Fittest
Beast Within
Awakening Zone
Birthing Pod
Sol Ring
Thought Vessel
Lightning Greaves
Golgari Signet
Mimic Vat
Helm of Possession


Command Tower
Reflecting Pool
Overgrown Tomb
Twilight Mire
Woodland Cemetery
Temple of Malady
Llanowar Wastes
Golgari Rot Farm
Golgari Guildgate
Jungle Hollow
Tainted Wood
Volrath’s Stronghold
Phyrexian Tower
Grim Backwoods
High Market
Temple of the False God
Evolving Wilds
Terramporphic Expanse
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Bojuka Bog
Barren Moor
Tranquil Thicket
8x Swamp
7x Forest

I guess I’ll start off with the easiest section, the lands. Obviously, I threw in pretty much all of the relevant duals. Some EDH players turn their noses up at stuff like Jungle Hollow or the Guildgate. In some decks those ETBF-tapped lands can cost you critical tempo, but that hasn’t been a problem for me with this deck. I also upgraded the cycling lands from the Urza’s Saga versions to the Onslaught versions. Cycling for one colored mana is just plain better, IMO, than two colorless. I added in an Urborg, mostly just because I could, but it’s not necessary by any means. I don’t have Coffers, but I am planning to add Sheoldred at some point so she could be a justification for it later. Bojuka Bog is one of those cards we really don’t want to see our opponents playing, but it’s a pretty good precursor to a Living Death.

The heavy hitters in this department are Volrath’s Stronghold and Phyrexian Tower. Tower is a great sac outlet that happens to provide a small mana bump. Stronghold, of course, is a generically great card that happens to fit our theme and is a sort of back-up plan for Meren should we find ourselves unable to keep her around long enough to rely on her. I also like it as way to fight against opposing graveyard hate. Someone trys to Bog us, we can at least save the most important thing in the ‘yard.

About the only thing missing is the fetch, Verdant Catacombs. Other than that I don’t have any real quibbles with the mana base. I can see an argument for just replacing the Guildgate and Hollow with basics, but like I said, they’ve been fine for me so far.

Moving on to the creature selection, right off the bat we have Viscera Seer. The Seer has actually proven to be far more valuable than I anticipated even as I was slotting him in. I have been very impressed with him overall, but he’s one of my favorite cards to see in my opening hand.

Blood Artist is pretty obvious, I think. I’d like to include more of these effects – right now I have Artist and Massacre Wurm but I could see adding Zulaport Cutthroat and/or Falkenrath Noble. In fact, I’ll go ahead and take this opportunity to talk about this deck’s end-game. What are our win conditions? Well, I’ll be frank – my primary win-con seems to be the good ol’ frustration-scoop. Usually you don’t really need take your opponents all the way to zero. You can just grind them out over time, and once you get to the point where you have a board and they don’t, you have a hand and they don’t, etc., most people tend to just give up at that point.

Sometimes you get that optimist that thinks he can top-deck out of it, though, and honestly sometimes he might do just that! Well, life-loss effects like Blood Artist can get there, especially when you can just keep bringing Blood Artist back no matter how many times they kill it. This is a lot less reliable unless you really do load up on multiple sources of the effect. Kokusho is probably the big one you want, but Grey Merchant of Asphodel is potentially another really strong option.

Just beating down with your mid- and large-sized creatures like Butcher of Malakir or Woodfall Primus is actually perfectly respectable here, too. By the time you have those heavy hitters out, you really should not be having any trouble keeping opposing threats off the table. I’ve seen this deck get there with a flipped Bloodline Keeper and a few vampire tokens, even. There’s also Mazirek who can quickly turn your small fry utility guys into serious threats pretty easily. I actually cut all those cards like Overwhelming Stampede and Pathbreaker Ibex. They’re perfectly fine, but they didn’t really do much besides occasionally win the game (usually in a very “win-more” fashion, as the times those spells are good is when you are already in a strong position).  But Mazirek is pretty legit, so he stays.

There’s always the option of just stealing your opponents’ threats and winning with those. Puppeteer Clique and Helm of Possession fill this role nicely. I actually believe I can technically go infinite with Puppeteer Clique, Mazirek and a free sac outlet like Dimir House Guard, but that is limited by the number of creatures in my opponents’ graveyards. So far I have never really even come close to pulling this off, but if I do at some point, I will potentially need to make a choice here. If you really wanted to go this route, add something like Altar of Dimentia – that way you can simultaneously mill them out while continuing to fill their ‘yards with more things for Clique to target.

But most of my wins that aren’t just frustration scoops come from Living Death. I also want to try and fit Rise of the Dark Realms in at some point, too. But, yeah, LD tends to be game over most of the time.

Right, so, back to the creatures…

I’ve got Fleshbag and Executioner both. It’s an important effect and one I want to try and draw as often as possible, but I left out Slum Reaper because that one costs a little bit more and I didn’t want to be drawing nothing but Fleshbags all the time.

We have card draw in the form of Grim Haruspex, Disciple of Bolas and Smothering Abomination, all of which hit those synergy notes quite nicely. For tutoring, we have Sidisi and Fauna Shaman. Dimir House Guard can be either a sac outlet or a tutor (or both if you Transmute him first, then put him into play with Meren).

Our “army in a can” package includes Hornet Queen, Grave Titan, Bloodline Keeper,  Creakwood Liege and Endrek Sahr. Grave Titan is a bit generic and could be virtually any large, efficiently-costed creature, but I find the tokens useful as fodder. Sahr and Bloodline Keeper are kinda pet cards and hold-overs from the old Savra list. Both have been adequate but could be replaced with similar things. Hornet Queen, however, is definitely something I consider pretty essential. It’s very easy to just build up a wall of hornets that are very hard to attack through. She’s just really good at slowing down aggression and buying you time to get those grindy value engines rolling.

We’ve also got Pawn of Ulamog and Awakening Zone, though they aren’t that great at producing “armies” as the 0/1’s they make don’t typically attack well. But they do provide abundant death triggers and extra mana, both of which are highly useful. I’ve used both cards elsewhere but this is the deck where they have really performed quite well for me. Highly recommend these.

Shriekmaw is a pretty obvious pick. I also like Bone Shredder, but with all the Fleshbags and other removal it didn’t quite make the cut. On the top end, Overseer of the Damned has been pretty steller for me. It’s removal on a stick, and also a way to churn out zombie tokens, so it’s one of those cards that plays multiple roles, like I keep talking about. Green gives us ways to deal with non-creatures via Acidic Slime, Viridian Zealot and the mighty Woodfall Primus. Primus combos with Mazirek the same way Clique does… but as I said I have yet to actually assemble this little combo. I feel like I should really have a Reclamation Sage in here too, but as I said earlier I don’t want to rely solely on creature-based utility so having a few instants like Putrefy or Beast Within, I think, is a necessity.

For ramp, we have the obvious suspects in Wood Elves and Farhaven Elf, but the true stars here are Sakura Tribe Elder and Yavimaya Elder. Their self-sacrifice abilities make them very easy to abuse. STE is probably my second-favorite card to have in my opening 7, next to Viscera Seer. Sometimes he’s even better than the Seer.

For some extra recursion, we have the obvious format staple, Eternal Witness. Yawn, I know, but she’s amazing and particularly strong here. One of the very first games I played, even before I made a single change, I won off the back of an Eternal Witness + Barter in Blood recursion loop. My opponent was basically never going to have creatures again. I also cut the terrible Champion of Stray Souls in favor of another six-mana, black Mythic: Soul of Innistrad. I’ve tried out Soul in a few places but it’s been “meh” for the most part. In this deck, though, it’s been pretty darn good.

One thing I avoided due to social reasons was including any of the admittedly-on-them discard stuff like Sadistic Hypnotist, Mindslicer or Mind Slash. Mind Slash isn’t that mean, but the other two are pretty intense for some groups. The Hypontist can pretty easily strip everyone’s hand but yours, while Mindslicer is far less symmetrical in this deck than it typically is, since all those cards you dump can just further fuel Meren’s shenanigans. If I felt the need to beef up my list’s competitiveness, I’d definitely be looking to add some of these potent discard options, but thankfully the deck has been functioning quite well without resorting to such tactics.

A quick note on Wall of Blossoms – at one point I actually had cut this for something, I don’t remember what, but I eventually found room to put it back in, because it was honestly better than I expected. I have also given very strong consideration to including Wall of Roots. Wall of Roots is not something I’d typically consider to be worthwhile EDH material, but the more I play this deck the more it seems like it could really do some work here.

The last few creatures to talk about are Phyrexian Plaguelord, Catcomb Sifter and Liliana, Heretical Healer. Lili is basically a “good stuff” card, but she fits the theme and is extremely easy to flip in this deck. She’s a good fit, and a solid role-player but not something I’d consider essential. Catacomb Sifter should be pretty obvious too. That one Scion token isn’t a huge draw, but it’s still a pretty nifty bonus to what is already a great creature at 3 mana. Those “whenever a creature dies, Scry 1” effects actually come in very, very handy. So much so that I’ve tried to fit Reaper of the Wilds in here as well, but can’t quite seem to make room for her. And of course Plaguelord is decent removal combined with a free sac outlet (cross-synergy!). He’s actually been, surprisingly, an underachiever in this deck. I feel like he should be quite good, and maybe it’s just bad luck, but I frequently find that I either have plenty of removal already and he’s redundant, or I simply don’t have enough sacrificial fodder to kill things reliably. Cutting back on the “army in a can” cards has weakened his position somewhat.

So those are the creatures that have made the cut, but what wound up on the chopping block? Well, as you can tell, I pretty thoroughly gutted the original list’s creature base, in favor of more power, more synergy and more redundancy of the most important effects. I even cut some pretty good cards like Jarad and Scourge of Nel Toth. Those were fine cards, but didn’t really synergize as well as you’d think. I never had anything huge enough to make Jarad super threatening and the Scourge was always more exciting while it was in my graveyard – once it was in play it was just a generic beater. I believe I replaced it with the almost-as-generic Grave Titan, but I still think the Titan plays better in a higher number of situations.

As for cards I wanted to add, but didn’t find room for, there are quite a number of those. I’ve already mentioned a few, but one of the most glaring omissions, in my opinion is Sheoldred. It was honestly just an oversight on my part that she didn’t make it in sooner, but once I realized I’d forgotten her, the deck was in pretty sweet spot already and figuring out what I might cut for her has been tough. The second thing that jumps to my mind as a huge, HUGE omission is Duplicant. It’s very rare for me to build a deck without Duplicant to begin with, but in a deck that can so easily recur it again and again, I definitely feel like I have made a mistake in leaving it out. But again, the problem is figuring out what does NOT belong in my list. Sepulchral Primordial is big, stupid and obvious… but it would nonetheless clearly be amazing here. I already mentioned Kokusho as a powerful win-con, and he’s definitely one of my top contenders for inclusion down the road. And, lastly, I think Mikaeus the Unhallowed is another one of those obviously-great cards that I just somehow failed to find room for.

Oh, I have also considered trying to fit in some kind of Necrotic Ooze tricks for use alongside Buried Alive/Survival, but everything I think of along these lines is either an infinite combo, which I want to avoid, or just a slower, grindier value engine like the ones the deck is already very capable of. Abhorrent Overlord was an all-star in my Savra deck, but I initially passed on it this time, and so far I think that’s been the correct decision. Obviously stuff like Grave Pact is good for our Devotion count, but MOST games, I rarely see my devotion to black hit those higher numbers, and if it does hit them it probably means I’m winning pretty decisively already. Avenger of Zendikar and Soul of the Harvest are a couple of other cards that made the cut in Savra but not in Meren. Both would be perfectly fine to have, but I have not felt like I’m missing out by skipping either of them.

Our last batch of cards to go over is the non-creature spells. Our Artifact suite is pretty standard stuff – a few mana rocks, Greaves, and of course the ridiculously powerful Skullclamp. Clamp is no secret tech – it’s amazing in a wide variety of decks, and already a staple. But it’s particularly welcome here, where stuff dying is already of benefit, before we even get to the drawing two cards part. One creature I really love to pair with Skullclamp in a deck like this one is Bloodghast to create a great little draw engine. Bloodghast also happens to work pretty well with Evolutionary Leap and Vampiric Rites, but we’ll get to those in just a bit. So, Bloodghast is just another creature I probably should be running but somehow managed to overlook initially.

I mentioned previously that this isn’t really the ideal deck for Greater Good, normally one of my all-time favorite cards. Instead I’ve gone for stuff like Evolutionary Leap. I’m running that one, plus Vampiric Rites, Shadows of the Past, Survival of the Fittest, and Birthing Pod as sac outlets that double as card advantage or card selection engines. Running all of those together is possibly overkill and Vampiric Rites in particular has been running slightly below my expectations, but it is usually pretty critical that I have a sacrifice outlet in play. As I said, I like to have free ones like Dimir House Guard so I don’t have to worry about leaving a bunch of mana open (for something like Evolutionary Leap), but the better effects, like “Draw a card” usually have a mana cost tacked on. The other benefit is that a lot of these enchantments are pretty cheap, usually around two mana to cast. Birthing Pod, like Skullclamp, is a very well-known card anyway, so I probably don’t need to explain its inclusion here.

Other sacrificial cards I chose include Diabolic Intent (strictly worse than Demonic Tutor, yes, but in this deck sacrificing a creature is negligible as a downside, and can often actually be an upside in fact), Victimize (one of the holdovers from the original deck, and a damn good reanimation spell), Dread Return (another fantastic reanimation spell for a deck that actually wants to sacrifice things), and one of my pet cards, Helm of Possession (one of the decks win-cons, or at least a way for me to “borrow” someone else’s win-con).

In the removal package, we have Barter In Blood (this is in the stock list, but I keep seeing people cut this! WHY? This is seriously one of the best cards in the deck), Putrefy (generic, yes, but flexible and instant speed), Beast Within (same as Putrefy: flexible, instant, but as a bonus can also deal with planeswalkers), Damnation (left it out originally, but having this as a Transmute target for Dimir House Guard is pretty essential it turns out), and then of course we have Grave Pact and Dictate of Erebos. Running those here is about as “creative” as putting Doubling Season in a Ghave deck, but sometimes even the mind-numbingly obvious choices are still the correct choices. I appreciate originality and outside-the-box deckbuilding, but hey, when a card works, it works. Simple as that.

For ramp, I rely almost entirely on creature-based ramp like Yavimaya Elder, but I kept the few mana rocks that were already in – Sol Ring, the Signet and Thought Vessel. Outside of the occasional Skullclamp hand, this deck isn’t really prone to having more than 7 cards in hand. It treats the graveyard like a second hand, so it is much less concerned with pure card draw, and doesn’t need to get overly greedy here – but I kept Thought Vessel around simply because two-mana rocks are just really good when you have a 4-cost commander. Playing Meren on T3 instead of T4 actually seems to make a big difference in a lot of my games, so having a ramp spell on T2 as often as possible is a thing worth doing. I’ve actually considered including a Rampant Growth or maybe a couple of 1-drop mana dorks just to improve my odds of hitting Meren earlier than T4, but that might be pushing it. I feel pretty comfortable with where I’m at now. And I’ve already mentioned Awakening Zone but I just want to take a second to reiterate that this card has been very impressive so far; after trying it in a number of other decks including Savra, Ghave and Prossh where it was surprisingly ineffective, I think that in this deck it has finally found its rightful place.

Now of course, that will probably make most of you think immediately of From Beyond, the new riff on Awakening Zone in BFZ. I’m not going to say “don’t play it” because as good as AZ has been, this one might also be worth a shot. But I decided against it for two simple reasons – firstly, I don’t own a copy and haven’t seen any for sale in my LGS’s yet. But more than that, I think that it being a four-drop is pretty relevant. Or to put it another way, being three mana, and thus coming down the turn before Meren (usually) is one of the big reasons A-Zone has been so good to me. Having to choose between casting Meren and From Beyond is a bit awkward. That all said, really loading up on these Spawn/Scion producers could be a legit way to go. Simply put, I have a LOT of different ideas and things I want to try out all competing for a limited amount of space, so I have to be picky about which effects get lots of redundancy and which ones only get one or two slots. This is one way in which I think you can differ your own build from mine – a lot of Meren decks will have the same basic strategies, similar cards and effects, etc., but which of those types of things you really emphasize and which ones you back off on can give your deck a slightly different feel.

And lastly, we’ve got Mimic Vat, another staple that is basically good in almost any deck, but is particularly useful here. It’s just another way to get someone else’s big, swingy threat out of their hands and into ours. But it’s not terrible if you just put, like, someone’s Mulldrifter or Spitebellows on it. Of course our deck has plenty of great creatures to put on it as well. Anything from Wood Elves up to Woodfall Primus can get some work done on the Vat.

On the subject of cards that did not make the cut, there is quite a huge list. Most of the obvious good-stuff staples you can probably figure out on your own – Pernicious Deed, Decree of Pain and Tutors of the Vampiric and Demonic Variety are at the top of my “Should probably be running these” list. I’d also consider something like Whip of Erebos, but I have a bit of a bias against exiling my own creatures. The lifegain would be a nice bonus though. I could also see an argument for more mass-reanimation spells like Living Death. LD is already one of my most reliable and effective ways to end a game, but throwing in Rise of the Dark Realms is already something I plan to do at some point. Wake the Dead could also be a minor hit here, with all the sac outlets you’re likely to have.

Finally, there are a few obscure/niche cards that I’d like to squeeze in, but can’t so far. Grim Harvest is one such card. Grim Harvest was pretty sweet in my Savra deck, but the lifegain was more directly needed there, as Savra was often quite a bit slower to develop a strong defense, and usually took quite a bit of punishment before she could establish control of the board. Meren certainly draws a lot of hate, too, but in my experience is much quicker to stem the bleeding, and I find myself usually stabilizing at a much higher life total than I did with Savra.  Nonetheless, Harvest is a card I enjoy playing, so I’d like to find room, but since it doesn’t feel essential, it’s hard to justify it.

Attrition isn’t exactly obscure – it was in one of the Commander decks already, even – but it still seems largely underplayed in the format. Yet, as good as I feel it could be in a deck like this, killing creatures is already like the #1 thing this deck does extremely well, so I really just haven’t been all that motivated to include it, despite thinking it would be a fine choice – perhaps if you are looking to build a version of Meren that does not run all the Grave Pact effects, Attrition would make a lot more sense there. I think that’s actually my only real problem with Attrition – Paying 1 mana and sacrificing a dude to kill one creature is fine, honestly, but paying zero mana and sac’ing a dude to kill as many as three creatures is just way better. Pact effects, Fleshbags, and Barter in Blood all kill things way more efficiently (though aren’t targeted, of course), making Attrition feel like the worlds clunkiest, least-efficient verison of a Grave Pact. But some people consider Grave Pact, especially with multiple redundancies, to be stiflingly oppressive and may find them to be a bit too anti-social for their desired EDH experience. I can certainly empathize with that sentiment, even if I do not necessarily agree with it. So I would certainly consider Attrition in such cases as a “fair” stand-in for Pact.

Well, I think that’s about all the advice I can give you. For further ideas, I’d just head to Gatherer and look for more sacrifice and death triggers, things like that. You could probably go a little deeper on some of the things I only gave cursory attention toward, such as the Reanimator plan. Switching your commander to Mazirek could potentially allow you to keep much of the core sacrifice theme intact, but push the deck in a much more aggressive direction, if you prefer a more mid-range beatdown plan. Both Mazirek and Meren should be able to play strong supporting roles in a more traditional Savra build. I like it when commanders overlap enough that the play quite well together, but each one is different enough to lead you down different deckbuilding paths when at the helm, and that’s what we have here – a trio of synergistic Legends that compliment each other well, but are not just blindly interchangeable. They each would want a lot of the same core cards, but they advance their goals in slightly different ways.

Meren is probably my favorite Golgari commander, because she does what she does so darn well, but I will likely switch back to Savra at some point. Partly because I have a nice, lovely foil Savra now sitting unused, whereas Meren is not available in foil and might never be. But also for social/political reasons – Savra plays very similarly but is a bit slower, a bit less obnoxious about it, and frankly just a “nicer” way to play Stax-Lite. But for now, I am quite thrilled with how Meren has turned out –resilient, powerful and a real blast to play.



  1. So good to have you writing these again , I thoroughly enjoyed reading and look forward to more content as and when it's ready .

  2. Awesome write up , no pressure but do you have a deck in mind for a follow up ?