Masters 25 is here and Dominaria is around the corner, but we can’t leave Ixalan just yet. We’ve discussed some of Ixalan’s Vampiric offerings, as well as its slippery underwater inhabitants, but we can’t say we’ve properly explored Ixalan until we do a proper Dino Showdown. This block gave us two enormous Naya monstrosities that would make John Hammond proud: Zacama, Primal Calamity and Gishath, Sun’s Avatar.
“Tyrannosaurus Rex” translates to “Tyrant Lizard King,” and that name couldn’t be more apropos. These legends, for lack of a better word, totally rule. However, while studying these Dinosaurs, I’ve come across some bizarre anomalies in the data and analysis of their respective EDHREC pages. Let’s excavate some of our findings and see if we can find the most optimal builds for each of these Paleozoic powerhouses. It’s Commander Showdown: Dino Edition.
Let’s begin with Gishath, Sun’s Avatar. This big baddie boasts a hefty cost of eight mana for a 7/6 with a smattering of respectable abilities: trample, vigilance, and haste. These are decent stats, but Gishath gets better. Whenever he strikes a player, he lets out an enormous bellow to signal other Dinosaurs in the area, letting you play them from the top of your library for free.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t think much of Gishath when I first saw him. I didn’t think there were enough Dinos out there to make his ability worthwhile. Then a buddy of mine slammed their Gishath on the table, gave it double strike, swung in for 14 commander damage, and dropped no less than eight Dinos into play, including a Verdant Sun’s Avatar, which gained him approximately 28 life, and a Raging Swordtooth, which triggered the Enrage abilities of his Bellowing Aegisaur and Ranging Raptors, buffing his new army and giving him more resources. “Oh,” I said meekly. “I get it now.”
Gishath is not what I’d call a ‘clever’ commander, which is perhaps why I initially dismissed him. My preferred strategies often involve commanders such as Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis, which requires an awareness of table politics, or Kruphix, God of Horizons, which must collect resources while simultaneously stymieing aggression from the rest of the table. However, being ‘clever’ is not what Gishath, Sun’s Avatar ever promised to be. He promised to bite people, and he promised to do so powerfully. This isn’t my type of commander, but I’ve certainly learned to respect it because if I don’t, I get hurt. A lot.
One of the most difficult facets of brewing a Gishath deck is, in a word, proportion. To best utilize Gishath’s ability, you want to pack the deck full of Dinosaurs. The higher the number of Dinos, the greater your chances of flipping them for free with your commander. Plus, since you get them for free, you want to make them all very expensive Dinosaurs. As long as you have that discount, you should take full advantage of it!
Unfortunately, this can really skew your deck’s proportions. Too many creatures leaves little room for other spells. Too high a mana curve and you won’t be able to cast the Dinos that wind up in your hand. How do we get around this problem? What methods have others used to solve it? I suggest taking a peek at the Average Gishath Deck for ideas.
I really, really like the creature setup we find in this Average Deck. The Dinosaurs are predictably expensive; Polyraptor, Goring Ceratops, and Thundering Spineback are about as expensive as the commander itself! These mana costs are no joke. Thankfully, there are a handful of smaller creatures to fill out the curve, and they all serve one fantastic purpose: to help you cast those enormous terra-stomping scalelords.
From Otepec Huntmaster to Drover of the Mighty, the non-Dinosaur creatures all provide you with fuel. They can’t be cast off a Gishath trigger, but they help you power out your Gishath long before turn eight. That’s the type of speed you need for a deck like this; if you want to make sure that Kruphix, God of Horizons doesn’t get to 1,000 mana, you have to tear it down before it gets a chance to stabilize and control the board.
The noncreature cards also largely fit into the theme of ramping mana. We have the full set of Signets, not to mention the now-expensive Urza’s Incubator and Herald’s Horn. Classic green spells like Cultivate and Explosive Vegetation put in a well-deserved appearance.
However, there are a few cards in this mana-ramping theme that I desperately need to challenge.
Stop playing these cards at once. Thunderherd Migration is a worse Rampant Growth, which doesn’t show up in the Average Deck at all. Why play a Rampant Growth that might sometimes cost three mana when you could just play the actual Rampant Growth? We also have Pillar of Origins, which is a Bad Card with a capital B and a capital C. This rock will only produce mana for your Dinosaur spells; going by the Average Deck, that means there are only 28 spells in the entire deck that Pillar will help you cast. That’s less than half of your spells! Instead of Pillar, you could play a Mind Stone or a Fellwar Stone, or even a Commander’s Sphere, which would help you cast all the spells in your deck, not just the Dinos.
In fairness, that same criticism applies to the aforementioned Urza’s Incubator and Herald’s Horn. These artifacts also only reduce the cost of the 28 Dinosaur cards in the deck. They could be replaced with other green ramp spells, which would then give you mana for all your spells, not just a discount on your Dinos. However, I still like Incubator and Horn a lot here. Their abilities are simply more significant than the one measly mana Pillar of Origins occasionally provides.
Moving away from ramp cards, Dinosaur Stampede is unfortunately also underwhelming. This card could be Overwhelming Stampede, which has the power to end games outright. Savage Stomp is another Dino-tastic removal spell, and while it can be powerful, it can also be very limited, requiring you to have a large enough creature in play to destroy someone else’s small creature, and all at sorcery speed. This slot could be used instead for Chaos Warp or Beast Within, which are exceptionally flexible removal spells, and arguably staples in every deck that can run them. That should be a priority.
The main takeaway is this: tribal strategies are powerful precisely because of their synergy. On their own, tribal-based cards tend to be weaker than typical ‘goodstuff’ cards, but when combined with other tribal-based cards, they become more than the sum of their parts. The problem is that the cards I’ve mentioned above, when operating at peak efficiency, still don’t exceed or even meet the same standards as some of those ‘typical’ staple cards. Don’t be distracted by cards just because they mention the tribe you’re playing; that doesn’t guarantee they’re good enough. To make a truly stellar tribal deck, you have to strike a balance between synergy and efficacy.
Normally this is where I’d move onto the other commander in today’s Showdown, but before I can, I have to quickly pull out the Venn Diagram. It’s been a while since I’ve used this comparative tool to analyze a pair of commanders, and I’m happy to get the chance to reuse it. What I’ve done is assemble the Top and Signature cards for both Zacama, Primal Calamity and Gishath, Sun’s Avatar, to see which cards overlap and appear prominently in both decks. Check out the results:
|Zendikar Resurgent||Zetalpa, Primal Dawn||Silverclad Ferocidon|
|Rampant Growth||Ghalta, Primal Hunger||Pyrohemia|
|Gishath, Sun’s Avatar||Etali, Primal Storm||Zacama, Primal Calamity|
|Explosive Vegetation||Polyraptor||Urza’s Incubator|
|Regal Behemoth||Wayward Swordtooth||Goring Ceratops|
|Mirari’s Wake||Trapjaw Tyrant||Raging Swordtooth|
|Kodama’s Reach||Cultivate||Atzocan Seer|
|Farseek||Kinjalli’s Sunwing||Thundering Spineback|
|Sakura-Tribe Elder||Ranging Raptor||Burning Sun’s Avatar|
|Rishkar’s Expertise||Regisaur Alpha||Forerunner of the Empire|
|Swords to Plowshares||Ripjaw Raptor||Temple Altisaur|
|Nature’s Lore||Wakening Sun’s Avatar||Bellowing Aegisaur|
|Verdant Sun’s Avatar||Deathgorge Scavenger|
|Otepec Huntmaster||Kinjalli’s Caller|
|Drover of the Mighty|
There are some problems here. Namely, the Both column. What are all those Dinosaurs doing in a Zacama deck?
This has been a bit of a recurring theme in the decks for Ixalan commanders, and it’s truly the biggest takeaway for this Showdown. Because this block has such a tribal theme, several commanders are being built as tribal decks, even though they don’t possess any tribal synergies. Tishana, Voice of Thunder is a blue-green commander that has little to do with Merfolk aside from the fact that she happens to be one, but if you glance at her EDHREC page, it’s littered with Merfolk tribal cards, even though Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca is a much better fit for that strategy. Vona, Butcher of Magan is similarly bogged down with Vampire tribal cards but has nothing to do with Vampires.
The same is now true of Zacama, Primal Calamity. Aside from being a Dinosaur, Zacama doesn’t have much to do with Dinos. Despite this, many of her most popular cards are Dino tribal. To put it bluntly, this is wrong. Zacama is a fantastic commander whose potential lies far outside the confines of tribal synergies. Take a closer look at the cards in the Zacama column. There’s one overwhelming theme there: mana. That’s what we should build around.
Let’s do a quick overview of Zacama, Primal Calamity. She’s a 9/9 for nine mana, which immediately sets off alarm bells. That’s The Ur-Dragon levels of expensive. Most commanders start at three or four mana; Meren of Clan Nel Toth would have to be cast three times before you even approach Zacama’s starting price. Thankfully, Zacama rewards your mana investment right away. When she enters the battlefield, if you cast her honestly (as opposed to Flickering her or cheating her into play with Elvish Piper, for example), she immediately untaps all lands you control. All of them.
Even if you have to recast Zacama from the command zone four times, she’ll give you back all your mana which effectively negates, not only her mana cost, but also Commander Tax. To top it all off, she comes with vigilance, reach, trample, and a set of activated abilities for each of her colors. For three mana, you can either gain life, deal damage to a creature, or destroy an artifact or enchantment. Plus, since your lands are untapped, you can start using these abilities right away!
When I said Zacama shouldn’t be tribal, I meant it. However, there is a specific group of cards whose synergy she should build toward, and just for kicks, I think I’ll call it “Mana Reflection tribal.”
Mana Reflection, Mirari’s Wake, Zendikar Resurgent, all of these cards double your mana output and make Zacama an utterly terrifying force to reckon with. They’re powerful in their own right, but Zacama makes them extra-special. Tap your six lands to put twelve mana into your mana pool, pay nine of that floating mana to cast Zacama, then untap your lands. By casting your commander, you’ve actually gained mana!
There’s an even better trick you can pull off here, one that gives Zacama access to some extraordinary interactions. I’ve brewed up a sample Zacama list below, which ditches the Dino tribal and embraces a mana-doubling strategy. Some of the card choices might look a little bizarre at first, but look closely. When played correctly, they take Zacama from ‘Awesome’ status to ‘Total Beast Mode.’
This deck doesn’t look like Gishath’s at all. This list is about one thing: mana. Our commander is a mana sink, and we want to take advantage of it. How? By going infinite, of course.
There’s really no way around it—this is a combo-tastic deck. Zacama doesn’t have to use combos, but she slips so easily into that territory that it would be a shame not to explore it. Our commander’s new best friend may look familiar to those of you who bought the Feline Ferocity preconstructed deck: Temur Sabertooth.
With this and a mana-doubling enchantment in play, we can tap our lands for a boatload of mana, then cast Zacama. Zacama will untap our lands. Pay two mana with Temur Sabertooth’s ability to return Zacama to our hand, then tap our lands once again for a boatload of mana. Cast Zacama from our hand (getting around Commander Tax) and once again untap our lands. Lather, rinse, and repeat. We now have an engine that produces more mana than it spends, floating more and more mana and easily going infinite. (Anyone familiar with High Tide decks in Eternal formats will easily recognize this strategy!)
What do we do with all that mana? Unfortunately, Zacama’s activated ability doesn’t deal damage to players, so we can’t simply deal infinite damage to the rest of the table. Still, we have a couple options. First, Zacama can grant us infinite life. That won’t win the game on its own, but it will certainly make it much harder to lose. Second, we can enlist the help of some handy artifacts.
Stuffy Doll is bizarre in all the right ways. This little voodoo trickster converts any damage dealt to it to an opponent of your choice. We can channel our infinite pool of mana into the Stuffy Doll, which will take out one of our enemies. Then we can use Temur Sabertooth to bounce the Doll back to our hand, recast it, and name a new opponent. You’ll lay waste to your opposition in a matter of seconds.
Alternatively, we can convert all our extra life into damage via the Aetherflux Reservoir. Simply casting and recasting Zacama several times will cause Aetherflux Reservoir to give us a lot of life, and on top of that, we can gain a ton with Zacama’s ability. Fifty life is usually a high price to pay, but not for this Elder Dinosaur.
Frankly, we don’t even need to go infinite to make such good use of Zacama. Many cards such as Whitemane Lion and Ancestral Statue litter this decklist. These don’t go infinite like the Sabertooth, but they do still return Zacama to our hand, to be cast again to net even more mana. Even if we don’t make infinite mana, we can still guarantee that no one else has any creatures, artifacts, or enchantments.
This probably isn’t what most folks expected when they saw Zacama, but it’s easily the thing that makes her a unique commander. Don’t let all those Dinos in her Top Cards distract you; she’s far closer in strategy to Proshh, Skyraider of Kher than she is to Gishath. Etali, Primal Storm may be the “Primal Storm,” but this is the true Storm deck, casting an obnoxious number of spells in one turn and finishing the game in spectacular fashion.
I’ll finish up by listing a few cards that I think could stand to see more play in each of these decks. I’ve spent some time babbling on about cards that Gishath and Zacama shouldn’t play, but here are some obscure cards they should consider.
These Dinos are excruciatingly powerful but in vastly different ways. This makes it all the more shocking that many players appear to be running a lot of the same cards in both of these decks, despite their entirely dissimilar strategies. If you’re after honest-to-goodness Dinosaur tribal, Gishath is your guy. If you’d like to generate enough mana to make Omnath, Locus of Mana jealous, I’d suggest Zacama. In either case, just remember not to play Pillar of Origins.
That’s it for this week’s Showdown! Which of these commanders would you build? Better yet, which commanders would you like to see in the next Commander Showdown?
Cast your votes!
Til next time!