Commander 2018 has brought us some of the craziest new commanders we’ve ever seen. We have three new blue-red Artificers, one of whom duplicates your tokens; three new Bantchantresses, masters of card advantage; a Jund lands commander who’s so cool I had already sleeved up my 99 in anticipation of his release date; a Ninja master, a Simic sea monster, a new Zombie leader, some bonkers weird political commanders… and of course, a most peculiar pair of precognitive personas: Aminatou, the Fateshifter and Yennett, Cryptic Sovereign.
Both of these commanders delve into a very new design space I’m excited to explore: manipulating the top of your library. Aminatou took our breath away with her innocently creepy artwork and her ability to mini-Brainstorm. Yennett puzzled our minds and offered fantastic rewards exclusively for her devoted, loyal, and exceptionally odd disciples. By manipulating the top of your library, each commander carefully sculpts the future they desire, but they each do so in very distinct ways. How does this affect their deck construction? How do their differences affect their respective strategies? Let’s find out!
Of the four new planeswalkers-as-commanders, Aminatou, the Fateshifter is definitely the most difficult to parse. Not only is she the youngest planeswalker in the game, she’s also so good at predicting the future that she foresaw the ignition of her spark in the decades to come, and decided to make it happen immediately instead!
I’m actually going to begin by evaluating her second and third abilities first:
These two abilities have very poetic design elements. The -1 is a nice Cloudshift effect, blinking one of your cards, which can be used to get some additional value from enters-the-battlefield effects, a la Roon of the Hidden Realm. The real trick, though, is how this effect interacts with Aminatou’s ultimate; if you ultimate Aminatou and shift any of your permanents to other players, you can easily blink them back to your side of the battlefield. That’s nifty.
Next, her ultimate ability. Now, we shouldn’t get into the habit of evaluating a planeswalker by their ultimate, because it’s rare to ever achieve their ultimate abilities in EDH. Aminatou is a weird exception to this rule; we still shouldn’t evaluate her based on her ultimate, but not because we can’t expect to achieve it – because we need to evaluate it based on the other players in the game.
We can look to cards similar to Aminatou’s ultimate for inspiration here. Order of Succession is a mini-Aminatou, exchanging control of one creature from each player. Order of succession sees very little play – only 1,051 decks – but it reminds us of one of Magic’s basic tenets: symmetrical effects are always fair. (Yes, I’m being sarcastic.) When you Wrath of God or Armageddon, it’s because it hurts you the least. The best casts of Order of Succession happen when you don’t have anything to steal, and only something to gain. More importantly, you don’t want to steal from a player who’s about to leave the game. If you take a creature from someone at 2 life, and they lose, they’ll take their cards away with them. Stealing, as always, needs to be tactical.
Mystic Barrier is another useful signpost. I don’t know if you’ve ever played against this card, but I promise you, it’s the best defensive enchantment you’re not currently playing. Players can only attack in one direction, which you get to choose. In a four player game, that means only one person can hit you, and you’ll make sure it’s the one with the least threatening creatures. What does this have to do with Aminatou? It’s a reminder that some of the best stuff is actually happening far away from you, not just to your immediate left or right, which is what makes Mystic Barrier such a potent defensive maneuver. The stuff you’ll probably want to steal will be out of reach, so you want to make sure you wait until it’s close within your grasp.
What these cards help us deduce is that Aminatou’s ultimate, while cute in a multiplayer game, is most effective to set up victory against a single player. When only you and one enemy remain, and you hold the power to turn their cards into your cards (as well as the power to steal back anything you might have given them), you’ve a powerful weapon in your hand. Aminatou’s ultimate is not a goal you must speed toward, but a backup plan, and thus an inexorable condition of victory that rewards you for playing the long game.
Now we can discuss Aminatou’s +1 ability: “Draw a card, then put a card from your hand on top of your library.” Despite how simple this ability appears, I’d argue it’s actually the most complicated piece of the Aminatou puzzle. This ability draws you a card, but does not net you card advantage. It reads like a Brainstorm, but it’s so tiny that it’s more like a Braindrizzle. It manipulates your future, but at the potential cost of the present. If you want to become a proficient Aminatou player, mastery of this simple ability will be the key difference between your victory and your defeat.
There are some great reasons to put cards back on top of your library. First and foremost, Miracles. Entreat the Angels and Terminus are wisely stowed in this preconstructed deck as payoffs for setting up your future draw step. Rip a Miracle off the top of your library and get a super-cheap mega-awesome spell. Might I suggest Temporal Mastery?
What else? Baneful Omen and Twilight Prophet are tremendously punishing. Aminatou can put the same eight-drop spell on top of your library every turn to repeatedly drain your opponents’ life totals. There are some other handsome additions, such as the new Primordial Mist. In a long game, you can convert your spells into creatures, then turn them back into spells again. It’s a smidge complicated to maneuver, but that just means our opponents will have an even tougher time trying to play around it. I also enjoy Aminatou’s interaction with cards like Conundrum Sphinx, for free card draw, and especially Arbiter of the Ideal, for free permanents! In some cases, Aminatou’s payoffs may not trigger until your next turn, when you untap your permanents and begin your upkeep effects, but all good things come to those who wait.
All of this said, after looking through these various rewards for Aminatou’s topdeck manipulation, I’m left with the impression that we’re forced to reach a bit far to find acceptable payoffs. After the obvious Miracle cards and such, there are only a handful of additional effects with exciting payoffs. We could put something fun on top of our deck and Polymorph or Proteus Staff directly into it. There are several rewards for tribal decks, too, such as Herald’s Horn and Call the Kindred, but these require additional creature-based modifications that Aminatou probably doesn’t want.
Ultimately, Aminatou’s power lies in her subtlety. You won’t have amazing Baneful Omen payoffs with every single card you put back on top of your deck; there just aren’t enough of them. Rather, your value will come from the classic Brainstorm line: draw three cards, put two you don’t want back on top of your library, then shuffle them away with a fetchland. Card selection = card quality. While your opponents are stuck with a mishmash of cards in their hand that may or may not be useful against the current board state, you’ll sculpt a hand full of exclusively useful cards, cutting out anything you don’t need at the present moment. That’s the type of advantage Aminatou gives you, on a small but repeatable scale, and that’s the way she’ll set up your future victory.
So if we only have a handful of other big splashy payoffs for topdeck manipulation, what’s our plan? Well, I took a leaf out of fellow writer Mason Brantley‘s book, and at his suggestion, I think we’ve found a build that leaves Aminatou chock full of value. Take a look!
I mentioned that Aminatou can blink our permanents, much like Roon of the Hidden Realm, and as it turns out, that’s a very potent ability. One of my first articles here on EDHREC was a Showdown between Roon and Brago, and one of the article’s main takeaways was that Roon’s access to green significantly widened his scope. The extra color adds a whole lot of punch, and that’s just as true for Aminatou. Her additional black gives her access to alarmingly good ETB effects, from Grave Titan to Massacre Wurm to Gray Merchant of Asphodel. My personal favorite? Magister Sphinx. That’s just rude.
The other takeaway from the Roon vs Brago article was that, while Brago’s scope was more limited in terms of color access, it was broadened significantly in terms of type of permanent he can flicker in and out of play. Not just creatures, but enchantments, artifacts, and even planeswalkers. Aminatou happily echoes that ability. With additional color access and exceptional versatility, Aminatou has the best of both worlds. Thus:
Oh yeah. We’re Demonic Pacting and it’s gonna be glorious. You can repeatedly blink this enchantment for tons of added value, or use up its modes, then fateshift it away to another player! Aminatou also returns the permanent to the battlefield right away, which means she can pull a favorite trick of old Brago players: if you’re running other planeswalkers, you can activate them once, blink them, then activate it again!
I’m also a huge fan of Phyrexian Scriptures. Is this an artifact deck? No. Will we slowly metallicize our creatures and repeatedly blink our Saga enchantment to Plague Wind our opposition? Yes. Yes we will. And it will be wondrous. While we’re at it, let’s throw in The Eldest Reborn to force our opponents to sacrifice their creatures and discard cards every single turn. If worse comes to worse and we’re unable to blink our Sagas before they reach their final chapters, that’s okay! They’re still great effects at every stage.
Finally, as you can see, the deck is not solely based on blink abilities. There’s still a good amount of topdeck manipulation here, with powerful payoffs like the aforementioned Twilight Prophet and Baneful Omen. I worried initially that this might have divided the deck too much; a mix of two separate strategies rather than one dedicated theme can sometimes render a deck scrambled and sadly too unfocused to play optimally. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. Whether you’re draining life by setting up a Twilight Prophet or by blinking Gray Merchant of Asphodel, both strategies work toward the same goal: gradual, incremental, inexorable value, and thus, inevitable victory.
Let us move now to Yennett, Cryptic Sovereign, a peculiar Sphinx with an oddball ability – literally. Whenever she attacks, she reveals the top card of your library. If the converted mana cost of that card is even (which includes zero) then you get to draw the revealed card. If the revealed card’s cost is odd, however, you get to do my favorite thing in all of Magic: the Gathering. You get to cheat!
Obviously, I don’t mean actual cheating. I mean cheating costs. One of the reasons I’m a devout necromancer is because Animate Dead effects let me play huge Praetors and Demons for very little mana. Yennett does you one better; you can’t beat free! There are tons of amazing spells she can cheat into play for no mana at all.
If you’ve a Narset, Enlightened Master player in your meta, you’ve no doubt encountered free Expropriates before. It’s obnoxious, I know. Don’t worry, this is the only extra turn spell I’ll include for Yennett. Even if her most optimal strategy ends up being Time Warp effects for infinite turns, that’s not what I’d like to do here. I just want to play awesome spells for free.
It’s impossible to ignore the Eldrazi. Two of the five legal Eldrazi titans, Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre and Emrakul, the Promised End, fit wonderfully into Yennett’s wheelhouse; remember, Yennett casts the spell, so we do get big Eldrazi on-cast triggers. Void Winnower could not be more perfect. Our deck is odd, and it punishes the even! If you’re on a stricter budget, I recommend Artisan of Kozilek and Pathrazer of Ulamog. I’m tempted by Deceiver of Form, because it also rewards topdeck manipulation, but it would also turn Yennett into a copy of a different creature, and that won’t do. Yennett needs to keep her own identity for more attack triggers and more free stuff.
We’ve no shortage of awesome stuff to cast for free. How about Darksteel Colossus? Eldrazi aren’t the only colorless baddies out there. Lord of the Void puts in admirable work in Kaalia of the Vast decks, and I see no reason it can’t do the same here. As a Sultai player, I haven’t been able to cheat Iona, Shield of Emeria into play from the graveyard for a long time, since it falls outside my deck’s color identity. Yennett is perfect to get us this free Angel, just as long as we put it on top of our deck instead.
Which brings me to the most important piece of the deck: the enablers. All these payoffs are great, but we need a way to ensure they’ll end up on top of our deck.
I won’t beat around the bush, tutors such as Mystical Tutor and Vampiric Tutor are some of the best ways for Yennett to manipulate the top of her library. Liliana Vess’s -2 ability ain’t too shabby either! We saw a bunch of neat cards like Brainstorm and Riverwise Augur in the Aminatou decklist above, and they’re right at home in Yennett’s deck as well. However, while Aminatou is just fine without the assistance of tutors, Yennett’s benefits skyrocket in value whenever she gets to cast one. The name of the game is simply consistency. Run out Yennett, Vampiric Tutor an Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre to the top of your deck, and bam! Free Eldrazi.
Frankly, it’s useful to think of Yennett almost as a Reanimator deck. A classic Reanimator play is to Entomb a card into your graveyard, then put it onto the battlefield for super cheap with an Animate Dead. In this case, instead of Entombing, we Brainstorm or Vampiric Tutor. Look to other Reanimator decks for inspiration, and for assistance when arranging your deck’s mana curve. If you add in too many high-cost cards, and your Yennett gets picked off, you’ll wind up with a hand of uncastable nine-mana spells!
Given her similarity to Reanimator strategies, I should note that Yennett’s value train, while awesome, could wind up feeling a bit ‘samey.’ If you have tutors, what’s to stop you from jumping straight to a free Iona, Shield of Emeria every game? Yennett has the capacity to be very consistent from game to game, which is excellent value from one perspective, but potentially boring from another. It’s up to each player to decide where to draw that line, but it’s a good thing to be aware of with Yennett in particular.
How about a potential 99 for our oddball, Yennett?
While the Aminatou list alternated between blink and topdeck manipulation, Yennett’s focus is much clearer. Apart from the obligatory ramp and draw spells, our main categories are Setups and Payoffs. In other words, Dream Cache effects in one category, and Void Winnower-esque spells we want to play for free in the other category. Very straightforward.
Notably, cards like Primordial Mist, Baneful Omen, and Predict, which we saw above in Aminatou’s list, do not put in an appearance in Yennett’s deck. The reason is very simple: Yennett is a one-and-done type of gal. She doesn’t need other effects that give us benefit for manipulating the top of our library, because she is the benefit for manipulating the top of our library. After she attacks, the top of our deck will be unknown, so those Predict effects would have us guessing blind.
That, ultimately, is the difference between Aminatou and Yennett. Aminatou is the setup, not the payoff. Yennett is the payoff, but needs setup. Both have a handsome number of enablers and payoff effects at their disposal, but the nature of that payoff is quite variable, and their methods of victory are therefore just as disparate. Aminatou’s deck will nickel-and-dime her opposition with persistent, carefully selected value over the course of many turns. Meanwhile, Yennett’s ability is quite odd, but her strategy is extremely straightforward: play lots of big stuff for free and hit people with them (and possibly leave up some Counterspells to protect it, since you have all that extra mana available). In both cases, manipulating your fate is sure to spell doom for your opposition.
Before we go, I’ll quickly mention a few key cards that I think make great inclusions in the 99 for both of these commanders. I’ve already discussed cards like Baneful Omen, Twilight Prophet, and Void Winnower in depth, but the cards below are ones I think people might overlook that definitely warrant extra consideration.
Aminatou and Yennett both offer a world of exciting new design space, turning the top of our library into our opponent’s worst nightmare. Aminatou uses this zone for incremental advantages, slowly aligning her fate with an inevitable victory, while Yennett uses the top of your deck to, well, cheat. In either case, you’d better have your wits about you, whether piloting these decks or facing them across the table. When it comes to creepy little girls and all-seeing Sphinxes, your own cleverness is the only thing standing between you and victory.
So, which of these commanders would you build? Would you rather shift your fate, or solve odd riddles?
Oh, and don’t forget to vote for the matchup you’d like to see in the next Commander Showdown! The roster has been shaken up quite a bit ever since the release of Commander 2018!
Cast your votes!
Til next time!