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Commander Showdown — Etali vs Grenzo
Stealing Things is Fun
Rivals of Ixalan unleashed a cycle of new dinosaurs into EDH, from the enormous Ghalta, Primal Hunger to the terrifying Tetzimoc, Primal Death. However, one dino can still be heard above the rest: Etali, Primal Storm, the spinosaurus that bellows so loudly it shakes the top card of everyone’s library loose.
There’s another mono-red commander out there that pilfers the top cards of players’ libraries. Free from his days as a dungeon warden, Grenzo, Havoc Raiser boasts an ability very similar to Etali’s. Both turn combat into card advantage, but they each with their own twist.
There are several stark differences between these two commanders. Most obviously, Etali is a huge 6/6 for six mana, while Grenzo is a mere 2/2 for two. Plus, while both commanders do play the top cards of players’ libraries, Etali does so for free; every time she attacks, she Mind’s Dilations the entire table. (Of note, the cards she flips this way have to be cast right then and there, during the combat step. You can’t save them for later during your second main phase.) She also doesn’t have to connect to get this ability. She triggers every time she attacks, not just when she deals damage, so if you flip someone’s Overwhelming Stampede, you can get a huge boost before damage is dealt.
Grenzo, on the other hand, does have to land the damage before he can start taking cards off the top of someone’s deck. He also has to pay full price for those spells. Thankfully, though, his ability applies not just to himself, but to each of your creatures. This allows slightly more flexibility than Etali. Etali must pull a card from each player, but Grenzo can focus his attention entirely on on a single opponent, and pull multiple cards from one person.
Plus, Grenzo has one more trick up his sleeve:
Instead of Act on Impulse-ing someone’s library, Grenzo can Goad one of their creatures, forcing them to attack another player. With enough creatures on the battlefield, Grenzo’s ability can feasibly be a Build-It-Yourself Disrupt Decorum.
The Venn Diagram
So how often does Grenzo take advantage of this Goad ability? How are folks taking advantage of Etali’s free spells? To find out, I assembled the Top and Signature Cards for each commander in a Venn Diagram below. Check out the results:
Wow. These are very disparate lists. There’s almost no overlap at all. Let’s go through each column to see what it reveals about each commander.
Eye of the Primal Storm
Etali’s column can be summed up in two words: extra combat. From Relentless Assault to Combat Celebrant, the list is full of cards that provide additional combat steps. These obviously synergize beautifully with Etali’s ability, since every new attack step gives you an opportunity to cast more free spells.
However, I must point out a flaw in some of these cards, specifically Relentless Assault. If Etali flips one of these spells from the top of your deck, it won’t do anything. This is because of Relentless Assault’s very specific wording: “After this main phase, there is an additional combat phase….” From the Gatherer ruling itself:
10/4/2004 It only creates an additional combat and main phase if it resolves during a main phase.
You should therefore be careful running some of these extra-combat effects in your Etali deck. They’re obviously still fantastic cards for her deck, but they won’t quite work with her attack trigger, so play them carefully. Keep a keen eye out for the spells that do work with her ability. World at War, for example, doesn’t care when it’s cast, and Aggravated Assault is a great repeatable option. Don’t be fooled by old cards without properly updated text, like Seize the Day. The card itself doesn’t say “this main phase,” but the oracle text does.
There are two other important aspects of Etali’s column: mana rocks and haste enablers. Etali’s an expensive commander in a color that struggles with mana ramp, so the rocks are a great way to power out your card advantage engine. It doesn’t matter if Worn Powerstone has been totally outclassed by Sol Ring, Etali wants the mana. The haste enablers are just as crucial, allowing Etali to attack the turn she hits the board and immediately start spewing value. The one-time accelerant Generator Servant gets to see some love here for precisely that reason. Both of these categories are integral to Etali’s success, and cannot be skimped.
Meanwhile, Grenzo’s column is chock full of token-producing spells, from Siege-Gang Commander to Dragon Fodder. The more tokens Grenzo has, the more cards he can steal. Since many of the best red token-makers create Goblin tokens, there’s a bend toward Goblin tribal in this column, especially with the presence of Krenko, Mob Boss.
What interests me more are the evasion spells. Bedlam, Goblin War Drums, Pyreheart Wolf… Grenzo is keenly aware that he needs to deal damage to do anything. Without his combat damage, the deck stalls out completely, so spells that make it tough to block are the deck’s linchpin.
I have to say, I’m astonished to see mana rocks in Etali’s column and not in the Both column. Etali is very expensive, and therefore requires lots of mana rocks to hit the field as early as possible… but Grenzo actually has to pay the mana for the spells he steals. Since he can use mana of any type to pay for these stolen spells, it would make sense to me to see tons of mana rocks in his Top and Signature cards as well. This is a bit of a mystery, so let’s take a look at the Average Decks for both commanders to find out more.
Let’s start with Etali. Using EDHREC’s Average Deck feature, this is what a typical Etali deck looks like.
Average Etali Deck
Etali’s mana rocks aren’t just there to power her out as fast as possible; they’re also for all those enormous spells she’s packing. Blightsteel Colossus, Sandstone Oracle, Molten Primordial… Etali runs a lot of high-cost goodies because she can cheat their costs.
All she has to do is manipulate the top of her deck a little. Enter Scroll Rack. Why pay for Sunbird’s Invocation when you can tease it into play for free? The classic Sensei’s Divining Top puts in quite an appearance here too. In fact, I’m surprised we don’t see more Eldrazi here. Etali is full to the brim with mana ramp that can power those titans out in no time, and on the off chance she flips an Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre, you’re basically in heaven. I think there’s a lot of potential for Etali to be the red Eldrazi-summoning commander.
However, Etali isn’t Jhoira of the Ghitu. It’s not merely her goal to cheat big monsters into play. Etali just wants to attack, attack, attack. If you can manipulate your library, that’s gravy, but if not, the value you’ll get will be substantial anyway. This is, frankly, one of the most straightforward decks I’ve ever seen. Play big stuff, turn your commander sideways, and simultaneously crush people under the weight of combat and card advantage.
Oh, and of course, we can’t forget her Neheb, the Eternal combo. As long as we’re running Aggravated Assault and Hellkite Charger for extra combat steps, our opponents will have to keep careful watch for Neheb, who almost immediately breaks the game in half by giving you near-infinite mana. Combined with Etali, you get to cast a lot of spells from everyone’s decks. If you have a Fervor in play, any new creatures you pull will also get to join in on the fun
Overall, Etali is a respectably powerful mono-red commander that spits out value almost as if by accident. She doesn’t have the same speed as Purphoros, God of the Forge or Krenko, Mob Boss, but frankly, very few commanders operate at that velocity. This is a very fair commander that fits the typical pace of play for most Commander playgroups, and she deftly shores up two of red’s weaknesses in a creative and unexpected way.
Alright, now onto Grenzo. What can we find in his Average Decklist?
Average Grenzo Deck
Okay, good. This average list showcases a lot more mana acceleration for Grenzo. Battle Hymn and Brightstone Ritual dig deeper into the Goblin tokens strategy. My personal favorite is Sword of Feast and Famine, which untaps your lands after you deal damage, perfect for Grenzo to cast some spells. I was surprised it didn’t show up in his Top Cards, but it’s in the Average Deck, so that’s good enough for me.
I’m also a huge, huge fan of Oblivion Sower in this deck. Grenzo is likely to exile a lot of lands while he purloins libraries, and this bizarre Eldrazi can make those unused lands useful. I wouldn’t mind seeing a Blight Herder here, to use any other exiled cards Grenzo hasn’t cast and turn them into more tokens.
Overall, this list strikes me as very flexible, but also very divided. Grenzo can go all-in on Goblin tribal, but there are also several token-makers that don’t synergize with Goblin strategies, such as Hanweir Garrison. Evasion spells like Break Through the Line are somewhat contradicted by Ogre Battledriver and Dolmen Gate. Other cards encourage constant combat, like Goblin Spymaster, but I personally feel that forcing combat outside of Grenzo’s Goad ability is dangerous, since it allows players to strike back at you instead of someone else.
Grenzo is also susceptible to many popular types of removal. A single Wrath of God wrecks his token army and sets him back to square one. Sphere of Safety and other pillowfort enchantments shut down his tokens too. This is a red deck full of low-cost creatures, too, so if the game takes too long, you may be outpaced by your opponents’ bigger spells.
Here’s my take: In contrast to Etali, Grenzo should pile onto a single player immediately. I do mean immediately; by the time your opponents have set up their strategies, you should already be playing their cards, ready to control the pace of combat. Latching onto a single opponent gives you a great degree of control. If they have the best stuff, those are the spells you want to play, so who cares about all the other players? If they’re a very threatening player, you get to point their powerhouse creatures in other directions. A significant portion of Grenzo’s strategy happens before the game even begins, as you calculate which player should be your mark. Choosing the wrong one could cost you the game.
If Grenzo seems to lack a lot of mana rocks, but it’s because stealing spells isn’t necessarily his greatest feature. Goading, at least to my mind, is the more appealing effect, and stealing cards when there’s no one to Goad is the cherry on top, and it helps keep your own hand full in case you need to rebuild after a board wipe. If played correctly, Grenzo can cast Disrupt Decorum every turn, keeping himself ascended above all the chaos.
Cards to Consider
While I love a lot of what I’m seeing in these decklists, I think there are some big improvements we can make. I’ve got some suggestions below for cards that don’t see enough play in both decks.
- Destructive Force: I feel horrible for advocating that you put mass land destruction in your Etali deck, but come on! This is so much value. Wildfire, Burning of Xinye, These are all perfect for neutering your opponents’ resources while leaving your commander and your mana rocks alive. Your commander casts spells for free, so you don’t need mana. After you stick one of these, you’ll end the game in short fashion. You’re playing mono-red. If blue gets to play Cyclonic Rift, you get to play this.
- Keldon Firebombers: Oh, sorry, I’m not done. I’m really trying to impress upon you just how powerful land destruction is in this deck. There are a lot of other off-the-wall land destruction effects you should look at if you’re going to go down this road:Boom//Bust, Impending Disaster, you could even throw Winter Orb in here. Does it suck for your opponents? Yeah. You’re not just using these to stall out the game, though. You’re securing an almost insurmountable advantage over them and clinching victory.
- Crystal Ball: I already think this artifact is underplayed, but it’s extra-cool here. Etali can filter the top of her deck to find the right card for her hand. Even better, she can find the right card to keep on top, to be cast the next time she attacks. Treasure Map is another great option, too.
- Price of Glory: Okay, I know, it’s another card that messes with lands, but frankly, this is perfectly fair even if you don’t want to run any of the above land destruction spells. All it does is ask people to leave you alone during your turn, like City of Solitude or Grand Abolisher. That’s valuable in a deck where your main plan is to attack all the time. Most decks come equipped with instants that will mess with your combat, and this will keep those spells off your back.
- Red Elemental Blast: If you don’t have many blue decks in your meta, you can ignore this, but I’ve personally never seen a meta without blue. Red Elemental Blast and its brother Pyroblast are counterspells for Counterspell. This is a solution to some of Etali’s worst nightmares, from Propaganda to Cyclonic Rift. Plus, it’s the kind of thing people don’t usually see coming, which makes it a perfect fit.
- Vicious Shadows: This is a swarm deck, and that swarm is in near-constant danger of being eradicated. Vicious Shadows is one of my favorite methods of deterring a Wrath of God. (With so many tokens, it might not hurt to check out Eldrazi Monument as well!)
- Breath of Fury: This aura is already severely underplayed, but Grenzo in particular can make great use of it. With a handful of tokens, you can mow down an unprepared opponent from even the loftiest of life totals, and even exile some spells from their deck while you’re at it.
- Arcane Lighthouse: No one shall be immune to your Goad.
- Heat Stroke: What a way to deter blockers. Anything that gets in the way of your tokens is destroyed. Your opponents will be left with the choice to either lose their creatures, or let you Goad them. I tend to be a defensive player, so this card frightens me.
- Fellwar Stone: This and Exotic Orchard guarantee you have mana of an opponent’s colors. You don’t need that mana to cast their spells, but if you get a card with an off-color activation cost, these ensure you can activate it.
- Bonus Recommendation! Lantern of Insight: I know I said Grenzo should latch onto a single player, but this Modern-famous card gives you a substantial amount of political capital. Players may even be willing to let you attack them to get rid of a card they don’t want to draw. Knowing what lies atop a library gives you just the insight you need to know who to attack for the best payoff. Etali isn’t as interested in the Lantern, since she’s just going to try and attack multiple times a turn anyway, but for Grenzo, I think it’s a great fit.
Let the Storm Rage On
Both of these commanders rip cards off the tops of libraries, but for very different reasons. Etali, Primal Storm is a fantastic new inclusion for mono-red players. Her ability is simultaneously fair and unfair, cheating things into play, but doing so in a way that feels right on the money for us EDH folks. Meanwhile, Grenzo, Havoc Raiser is true to his name, thoroughly disrupting everyone’s plans. If you like messing with people, and controlling the game from a new angle, I think Grenzo definitely has what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for more consistent value, Etali’s your gal.
So, which of these commanders would you build? Better yet, which commanders would you like to see in the next Commander Showdown? Cast your votes!
- Sharuum the Hegemon vs Breya, Etherium Shaper: The ultimate artifact showdown.
- Zacama, Primal Calamity vs Gishath, Sun’s Avatar: There have been a lot of votes for this pairing. Are folks still interested in a big Dinosaur-off?
- Mairsil, the Pretender vs Experiment Kraj: Activated abilities for days.
- Marath, Will of the Wild vs Ghave, Guru of Spores: +1/+1 counters, creature tokens, and a whole lot of potential for combos.
Til next time!