Commander Showdown is a series that compares and contrast two similar commanders, analyzes differences in strategy and deck construction, and evaluates how those differences are represented by the data here on EDHREC.
Here on Commander Showdown we’ve discussed a wide array of deck archetypes, from token swarms to counterspell control. One we haven’t yet discussed is group hug, a strategy that, counterintuitively, gives cards to your opponents to win the game.
This strategy causes many to raise a skeptical eyebrow. Why give resources to my enemies? Why not just beat them instead? If I give cards to my opponents, won’t that just make it harder for me to win?
Perhaps…but perhaps not. Good group hug players are clever, crafty, and sometimes the most dangerous people at the table. Since their cards look less threatening than a souped-up Rafiq of the Many or an explosive Maelstrom Wanderer, group hug players tend to fly under the radar, avoiding aggression from the rest of the table. After all, why attack the person who lets you draw extra cards when someone else has a Blightsteel Colossus breathing down your neck? Group hug players use this psychology to their advantage, keeping a low profile and waiting for the perfect opportunity to take control of the game.
So for this showdown, we’ll take a look at the two most popular group hug commanders, each with over 900 decks here on EDHREC. Let’s get right to it!
Zedruu the Greathearted is a tricky little minotaur with the curious ability to give your permanents to your opponents. As a reward, she grants you extra life and extra cards for each donated permanent. Since her original preconstructed deck was titled ‘Political Puppets,’ it’s easy to see the strings attached to her strategy: give your opponents your permanents in exchange for favors, and reap the benefits all the while.
Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis take a different approach. Hailing from the blackless ‘Stalwart Unity’ precon from Commander 2016, they embody the spirit of altruism by sharing the wealth with all players. At the end of your turn, your opponents each get to play a land or draw a card. You, however, get to play a land and draw a card, so you still maintain a slight advantage.
Both commanders are excellent for group hug strategies, but the types of hugs they give are incredibly different. Don’t just take my word for it; we love data here at EDHREC, so let’s get some proof.
I’ve arranged a list below of the Top and Signature cards for each commander, to see what cards they have in common. (Kynaios and Tiro’s list is smaller, since they’re one of the only commanders in their color identity and therefore have no Signature Cards section.)
Take note of how few cards there are in the “Both” column:
|Zedruu||Both||Kynaios and Tiro|
|Illusions of Grandeur||Propaganda||Rites of Flourishing|
|Akroan Horse||Ghostly Prison||Tempt with Discovery|
|Humble Defector||Sphere of Safety||Kodama’s Reach|
|Paradox Haze||Swords to Plowshares||Selvala, Explorer Returned|
|Vedalken Plotter||Howling Mine|
|Harmless Offering||Beast Within|
|Puca’s Mischief||Edric, Spymaster of Trest|
|Steel Golem||Venser’s Journal|
|Assemble the Legion|
There are only four shared cards between these commanders: Swords to Plowshares, a staple removal spell for white decks, and a smattering of ‘pillowfort’ enchantments, like Ghostly Prison. These enchantments fit into nearly every group hug strategy, since they make it easier for your opponents to attack each other than to attack you. This gives you the freedom to sit back comfortably and plan your next move.
Aside from that, the lists are entirely dissimilar. Let’s start with Zedruu. Her column is filled with spells that exchange control of permanents, supplementing her own ability. It also contains a bunch of cards Zedruu is eager to give to her opponents. Generally speaking, we can break these donatable cards into three different categories:
Depending on which category of card you give to an opponent, you can create a very different atmosphere in the game. Giving someone a Banishing Light will provoke a much different response than giving them a Pyromancer’s Swath to discard their hand, or an Aggressive Mining to cut off their lands. Balancing these political responses is the real key to a Zedruu deck.
Speaking of politics, this is where we have to contrast Zedruu’s column with Kynaios and Tiro’s. The cards here are significantly different, and not just because many of them are green, and therefore unavailable to Zedruu. There’s a difference in the spirit of the cards in each list. When I say ‘spirit’ I don’t mean some heart-of-the-cards shenanigans. I mean the goal of the cards, or their political implications. Let’s look a little closer:
Rites of Flourishing is one of the top cards in Kynaios and Tiro decks, at 68% popularity. It functions almost like the commander itself, letting all players draw extra cards and play extra lands. Farther down their list we also see Howling Mine and Collective Voyage, which serve similar functions. Others still, such as Tempt with Discovery and Selvala, Explorer Returned maintain the same ‘slight advantage’ effect as Kynaios and Tiro, benefiting all players, but you most of all.
Cards like this demonstrate the most important difference between these two commanders. When politicking with Zedruu, a literal exchange occurs on the board, with control of one permanent changing to another player. Everyone can see this exchange, since it’s right there, face-up on the table. They can immediately understand the nature of the relationship between you and that player, depending on what category of card you gave them. Zedruu’s favors (and punishers) are targeted towards specific, individual players.
Kynaios and Tiro, on the other hand, are a bit more nebulous. The bulk of their cards bestow passive benefits to all players, not specific ones. When you’ve given benefits to everyone, you’ve sort of given benefits to no one. Alliances with other players are therefore harder to detect, since they’re not tangible on the battlefield.
Group hug decks rely upon politics and group psychology to win games, but the politics of these separate interactions is vastly different. Zedruu is eager to start making allies right away, so she can start giving away her permanents and reaping the benefits. However, she also has to start making enemies, because even her mundane donations like Oblivion Ring probably aggravated the player whose permanent was exiled. Kynaios and Tiro, though, can take a bit more time before they start forging alliances, because they don’t have to take any action at all to receive their own benefits. Plus, unlike Zedruu, their ability isn’t dependent upon permanents. Any specific favors they offer to individual opponents are more likely to be in the form of spells, rather than creatures or enchantments, so their alliances don’t have do be as (forgive the pun) permanent as Zedruu’s.
This is good to know when building (or playing against) either of these commanders. Zedruu is more likely to be proactive, messing with player allegiances right from the start. Kynaios and Tiro are more likely to bide their time and stay neutral.
The most difficult part of piloting a group hug deck is the win condition, and this is another area where these two commanders can vary quite a lot. A common criticism of the archetype is the cards are intentionally non-threatening and low-power. Sure, this helps you avoid attacks and removal, but how does it help you win?
Well, it’s important to note that even if Zedruu wants to start donating permanents right away, she is by no means out to end the game quickly. Group hug decks tend to create longer games, not in the painstaking-three-hour-grind sort of way, but certainly to the point where the 9-mana spells are flowing. As a result, Zedruu decks have a number of closers.
Assemble the Legion and Psychosis Crawler both show up in Zedruu’s Signature cards, which makes a lot of sense. The more turns you get, the more tokens you can create to overwhelm your enemies. Zedruu also draws you a lot of cards late in the game, if you’ve played her correctly, so a Psychosis Crawler and a Paradox Haze can cause your opponents to lose over 10 life a turn.
Zedruu is also no stranger to alternate win conditions, such as Felidar Sovereign. She does gain you a bit of life, after all. Aetherflux Reservoir is another such tool. Even Azor’s Elocutors has been known to show up in a Zedruu deck here and there, either to clinch victory after they’ve locked down their opponents, or as an aggressive donation to another player, who then gets a target painted on their back.
Another option is, frankly, trading. Zedruu decks don’t just give cards away with Harmless Offering and Donate, they also exchange them with things like Cultural Exchange. All Zedruu cares about is whether a card you own is on the other side of the table, not how it got there. So cards that exchange permanents can be used not only to set up her ability, but also to steal your opponent’s powerhouses. Cultural Exchange can trade your handful of tokens for an Avacyn, Angel of Hope and her angel army. Alternatively, you can cash in a single wimpy creature for someone else’s hexproof-indestructible-double-striking Uril, the Miststalker. Cultural Exchange doesn’t care about shroud or hexproof, after all.
Kynaios and Tiro can use similar tactics. Progenitor Mimic will take over the board just like Assemble the Legion if it’s given enough turns. Since they run lots of Howling Mine-esque cards, Psychosis Crawler can work just fine for them too. I’m personally a fan of the new Treacherous Terrain, which often catches opponents off-guard by punishing them for all the extra cards you’ve given them during the game.
There’s also the classic Insurrection. This spell can feel cliché or cheap to some, but if there’s any deck archetype that deserves to win the game with Insurrection, it’s group hug. Giving all those bonuses to opponents, only to take them all back for one glorious turn? That’s a victory you’ve crafted, not one you lucked into. Since it’s infrequent for Kynaois and Tiro to have a lot of creatures on the battlefield themselves, Reins of Power is another, much less expensive option, one that’s especially effective when the game has come down to a 1v1.
Most of all, though, group hug decks win with flexibility. The original ‘Stalwart Unity’ precon contained many of the aforementioned cards, but it also contained Keening Stone, Rubblehulk, Hoofprints of the Stag, and Selfless Squire. Some of these win conditions build up over the course of the game, others come out of nowhere, and many are designed to take opponents by surprise. This is why many of the win-condition cards on Kynaios and Tiro’s EDHREC page barely scrape more than 30% popularity. A good group hug player adapts not only to their meta but also to any board state, and will build their deck with an eye toward variety, to keep opponents on their toes and their route to victory unpredictable.
There’s no one right way to build any deck, and that’s especially true for these commanders. EDH politics is incredibly meta-dependant, and really comes down to your own comfort level. Some players enjoy tabletalk, while others don’t like making overt alliances. Others still will prefer to keep people guessing, or to let the cards speak for themselves. If you’d like some tips about navigating multiplayer politics, a great resource is the Command Zone podcast’s Political Tips & Tricks episodes, here and here.
In the meantime, though, I’ve got some suggestions below for cards that aren’t very popular for these commanders, but pack such a powerful punch that they warrant some extra-careful consideration.
Group hug commanders may not look as overtly powerful as many of the heavy-hitters out there, but they are not without their wiles. They can change the landscape of the game, and are frequently difficult to pin down because of their slippery spells. Leovold, Emissary of Trest may be gone, but these decks carry on the spirit of his flavor text: “I’m sure we can come to an arrangement.” Just be aware of the different types of arrangements each of these commanders will try to offer you. Oh, and watch out for knives–when someone wraps you in a great big hug, it might be the perfect opportunity for them to stab you in the back.
Til next time!