Some colors in Magic: the Gathering like to play the “go big or go home” game. In green, for example, we see Elemental Bond, Colossal Majesty, Rishkar’s Expertise, and a myriad of other effects that reward you for playing enormous monsters. Other colors, however, prefer to go wide rather than tall. White, with its Mentor of the Meek and Recruiter of the Guard effects, loves legions of tiny Soldiers. Red, with its Break Through the Line and Imperial Recruiter, also enjoys the company of miniature minions.
There are two commanders in particular who surround themselves with small creatures, and specialize in retrieving those little guys from the darnedest places. Grenzo, Dungeon Warden can pull those little fellas right out from the bottom of your library, while Alesha, Who Smiles at Death, one of the most popular commanders of all time, can resurrect those lurking in your graveyard.
Both commanders love to cheat low-power but high-impact creatures into play, but how do their strategies and deck composition differ as a result? Let’s take a look.
Let’s begin with Grenzo, Dungeon Warden. We’ve discussed his mono-red iteration in a previous Commander Showdown, but the OG (Original Grenzo) is a Rakdos Rogue with one of the game’s weirdest abilities. Unlike Aminatou, the Fateshifter and Yennett, Cryptic Sovereign, who reward you for manipulating the top card of your deck, Grenzo rewards you for manipulating the bottom of your deck, cheating creatures into play if they have less power than him. To complement this ability, he also has an adjustable power level when you cast him, almost like a Genesis Hydra. Though you could theoretically turn Grenzo into an 11/11 and pull free Void Winnowers from out of nowhere, it’s much simpler and more efficient to give him a small amount of power and find free mini-ons.
Speaking of which, let’s take a look at an Average Grenzo Deck, as compiled by the data here on EDHREC. By taking the most frequently played cards from Grenzo’s EDHREC page, we can come up with a cursory list that gives us a darn good idea what Grenzo is up to.
There’s a lot going on here, so I’ll try to go through them one at a time.
First, there a 35 creatures in the Average Grenzo Decklist, which is a good number to ensure that, even if you’re flipping blindly with his ability, you have a decent chance of flipping a creature over. We also see that only one of these creatures has power greater than 3, so we can expect that Grenzo should have about 2 or 3 power the majority of the time.
Second, we actually see a solid Goblin tribal strategy throughout the deck, with effects such as Goblin Chieftain and Goblin King. This is weird at first, but looks pretty fun the longer you think about it. Goblin lords will increase Grenzo’s power, broadening the range of creatures he’s able to cheat into play. Plus, Grenzo only cares about a creature’s power at the time he flips it, not after it’s in play. In other words, Siege-Gang Commander and his posse of 1/1 tokens can become much more powerful after they’ve snuck in under Grenzo’s power limit.
Third, the bottom-deck manipulation is a lot more prevalent than people probably realize. Reito Lantern, Tel-Jilad Stylus, Epitaph Golem, Canal Dredger, Darksteel Pendant… there are a ton of effects to load the bottom of our deck with cool stuff. Scry in particular is a supremely potent ability in a Grenzo deck. Read the Bones can be used not only for card advantage, but to put your Duplicant right within Grenzo’s reach. Even Teferi’s Puzzle Box, a staple in Nekusar, the MIndrazer, puts in admirable work by tossing your hand on the bottom of your library every turn, in any order you choose. Guaranteed Grenzo targets? Count me in.
Fourth and finally, by looking at this list we can tell that Grenzo is a dab hand at combo. Kiki-Jiki, Mirror-Breaker + Zealous Conscripts? You’re not so sneaky, Grenzo, I see what your game is. These combo pieces fall right within Grenzo’s power restrictions, which makes them easy to tutor up and decimate your opposition. Look closely at Priest of Gix and Disciple of Gix, too. If they enter play, then get sacrificed to that Ashnod’s Altar in the Average Decklist, you’ll net five mana. Spend two of that mana on Epitaph Golem, then another two on Grenzo’s ability, and slam the Priest right back into play. All this will net you one mana, and can be done infinite times for infinite mana. After that, it’s a simple matter of flipping your entire deck over with Grenzo.
Long story short, Grenzo is as sneaky and nefarious as his title and artwork imply.
Let’s now quickly turn our attention to the other practitioner of Summoning Tiny Dudes, Alesha, Who Smiles at Death. Rather than pull creatures from the dungeon, she pulls them back from the grave, resurrecting a tiny creature for two mana every time she attacks. Since she’s also a 3/2 with first strike, chances are strong that she can find a profitable avenue of attack without risking her neck in the process.
As with Grenzo, let’s jump right into an Average Decklist and see what it reveals about Alesha’s war room.
There’s some great stuff happening here. I particularly enjoy Angel of Invention and Cathars’ Crusade, which pump up the power of your weenie creatures after Alesha revives them. As a devout necromancer, I also applaud Alesha’s use of Buried Alive effects to load her graveyard with juicy targets. She also makes truly excellent use of Cathartic Reunion and friends, which can offload creatures into her bin to revive more easily, while simultaneous refilling her hand with new and more useful cards. Excellent work.
Oh, and don’t forget that old trick Kaalia of the Vast loves to pull with Master of Cruelties! Because both Kaalia and Alesha return this Demon to the battlefield already attacking, it can actually resolve its triggered ability when it isn’t blocked, bringing the defending player down to 1 life before Alesha deals the finishing blow!
Overall, Alesha’s typical build can best be summarized as an “Aristocrats” deck. This style of deck, named after Cartel Aristocrat, perpetually sacrifice creatures for minimal payoffs. However, those minimal payoffs are so gratuitous in number that they wind up becoming lethal. Blood Artist, Zulaport Cutthroat, and Goblin Bombardment all work beautifully with the numerous bodies provided by Ponyback Brigade, Siege-Gang Commander, and even Reveillark.
I’ll admit, I’d never given much thought to Alesha, but the longer I study her deck, the more I like what I see. EDH is often defined by its enormous haymakers and obnoxiously swingy plays, but Alesha defies the format’s traditions and provides a literal low-to-the-ground strategy with tons of perpetual value. While most creature- and combat-based decks would be wrecked by a Wrath of God, Alesha’s already told you she’ll face it with a smile, turning death to her advantage and recovering her board beautifully.
This is death by a thousand cuts. Ankle Shanker should be very, very proud.
Before I go on, I’d like to quickly see which cards, if any, these two commanders have in common among their Top and Signature Cards.
|Meteor Golem||Ravenous Chupacabra||Militia Bugler|
|Desecrated Tomb||Viscera Seer||Mentor of the Meek|
|Epitaph Golem||Solemn Simulacrum||Buried Alive|
|Heartstone||Burnished Hart||Faithless Looting|
|Reito Lantern||Murderous Redcap||Karmic Guide|
|Junktroller||Siege-Gang Commander||Fiend Seeker|
|Crystal Ball||Cathartic Reunion|
|Tel-Jilad Stylus||Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit|
|Priest of Gix||Reveillark|
|Ashnod’s Altar||Key to the City|
|Zealous Conscripts||Final Parting|
|Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker||Gonti, Lord of Luxury|
|Priest of Urabrask||Dawn // Dusk|
|Beetleback Chief||Yahenni, Undying Partisan|
|Terminate||Swords to Plowshares|
|Metallic Mimic||Sun Titan|
|Krenko, Mob Boss||Master of Cruelties|
|Gray Merchant of Asphodel||Lightning Greaves|
|Read the Bones||Anguished Unmaking|
|Darksteel Pendant||Utter End|
|Flayer of the Hatebound||Reconnaissance|
|Goblin Matron||Goblin Bombardement|
As it turns out, there’s very little overlap between both of these commanders. The popular creatures they have in common are incredibly slim. Solemn Simulacrum and Burnished Hart for mana advantage, Ravenous Chupacabra for a quick Terminate effect… even though both love small creatures, they tend not to choose the same ones.
This should give us the biggest clue to how different these commanders’ styles truly are. Alesha has a much easier time choosing the creature she’ll bring back into play, which affords her the opportunity to build a toolbox. Need cards? Disciple of Bolas. Enchantment in the way? Duergar Hedge-Mage. With such specificity, she can make sure she has answers ready. Her deck is precise and calculated, a battle plan devised from years of experience.
Grenzo, on the other hand, has less certainty with his flips, or at least takes more time to set them up. As such, his deck operates with that Goblin subtheme, to keep things moving before his engine gets rolling. True to his creature type, Grenzo is weird, mischievous, doesn’t always know what’s gonna happen, and is also totally capable of making things explode and clinching victory out of nowhere when his opponents weren’t paying close attention.
Let’s wrap up with a few cards that warrant extra consideration for each of these commanders.
Though both Grenzo and Alesha can summon a small army from the deepest of dungeons and the fullest of graveyards, they’ve each carved out distinct and unique strategies around those tiny creatures that I can’t help but admire. It’s a classic tale of Order vs Chaos, with a Goblin exploding into crazy mayhem his opponents will have difficulty preparing against, and a warleader cleverly planning out her tactics for a good old-fashioned fight.
So, which of these commander would you rather build? Do you prefer to summon lackeys from the bottom of your library, or to pull them back from the brink of death?
Oh, and don’t forget to vote for the next Commander Showdown!
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Til next time!