Commander Showdown – Ilharg vs Purphoros

Ilharg, the Raze-Boar by Filip Burburan | Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded by Eric Deschamps

Sneak Attack

During the events of War of the Spark, Nicol Bolas released waves of lazotep-encrusted undead from the plane of Amonkhet to lay siege to the city of Ravnica. Chief among them were the God-Eternals, from God-Eternal Rhonas to God-Eternal Oketra (who is, incidentally, a commander folks should play immediately to help expand their definitions of ‘card advantage’). Not all five Gods of Amonkhet came to Ravnica, however; Hazoret, the Fervent, in a move perchance inspired by Urabrask, the Hidden, turned against her fellow deities to defend the people against Bolas’s tyranny. This left room for the designers of War of the Spark to create another mono-red legend, one whom the Gruul clans have revered for generations: Ilharg, the Raze-Boar.

Ilharg provided mono-red EDH players an outlet to use a Sneak Attack strategy, slamming huge creatures into play turn after turn for brief bouts of insane power. However, with the arrival of the new year, Ilharg’s Sneak Attack throne is being challenge by yet another God, not from Amonkhet, but from Theros.

Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded takes the Sneak Attack parallel in a more literal direction, right down to being an enchantment himself. Both commanders love to put huge creatures into play for super cheap, and have dozens of fun tricks they can pull off with those creatures, too. If you’re looking for a Sneak Attack type of deck, which of these commanders is right for you? Let’s find out on this week’s Commander Showdown!


You Gotta Put Your Behind in Your Past

To call Ilharg, the Raze-Boar a Sneak Attack is not entirely accurate. The primary effect is similar – you get a huge, free creature for one turn – but the actual mechanisms are different. The most important difference is that Ilharg puts a creature into play already tapped and attacking. This may trigger an enters-the-battlefield ability, such as Bogardan Hellkite, but it will bypass any ‘on attack’ triggers, such as Etali, Primal Storm.

Additionally, Ilharg can sometimes run into a funny nonbo with some of red’s very favorite spells: extra combats. Casting a Relentless Assault to give Ilharg another chance to put a huge monster into play is indeed terrific. However, the first creature Ilharg snuck into play does not have haste, and won’t be able to join in on the fun without some form of Fervor effect to assist. (Luckily for them, Ilharg loves haste enablers, since he wants to attack and bring creatures into play ASAP.)

These differences are largely made up for by the fact that Ilharg avoids Sneak Attack‘s biggest downside. Ilharg bounces the creature back to hand at the end of the turn, rather than sacrificing it. Ilharg may bring the same big creature into play over and over and over, rather than losing it after just one swing.

Of course, mono-red has flirted with negative end step abilities for years, and Feldon of the Third Path taught us ages ago that there are ways to keep those creatures around.

In response to Ilharg’s end-of-turn trigger, Sundial of the Infinite can end the turn, exiling the ability and keeping the creatures in play for good. Alternatively, Conjurer’s Closet can flicker the creature, preventing it from returning to the hand, and keeping it in play. It’s hard not to get giddy at the prospect of playing these creatures for no mana at all!

Buy this decklist from Card Kingdom
Buy this decklist from TCGplayer

Seasoned Ilharg players may notice the lack of Panharmonicon, Mirror March, and Flameshadow Conjuring in the list above. Surely this is madness, yes? Does this writer not know how deliciously powerful it would be to play a free Tyrant of Discord, trigger it twice, and then cascade into a bazillion token copies, especially if there’s a Warstorm Surge in play!?

Well, this writer does know it, but still struggled to reconcile those cards with Ilharg’s actual patterns of play. Ilharg is forced to strike a very tough balance between ETB creatures and powerful attackers, and I found myself drawn more to the Terror of Mount Veluses, Fiendish Duos, Avatar of Slaughters and Balefire Dragons of the world. When I rounded out my creature roster, I found only eight or nine creatures I would actually want to consistently replicate for extra ETB abilities. Not only that, but since Flameshadow Conjuring doesn’t allow the tokens to attack when Ilharg has already swung in during combat, it became a harder sell; it ultimately sounded like a lot of work to imitate a Yarok, the Desecrated, and I decided it’s better to play red like it’s red, and not like it’s Sultai.

Of course, this perspective may ignore the reality that these enchantments may actually be played as a replacement for Ilharg, rather than as a supplement to him; if he becomes too costly, it behooves his hooves to stay in the command zone and let his enchantments make big beasties on his behalf, because we will in fact want to cast these creatures from our hand, not just flip them in and out of play with the big pig. This is a mighty compelling argument, and I’ll trust any and all Ilharg players who swear by these synergies. Ilharg must balance haste enablers with powerful attackers and powerful ETB effects on top of these enchantments, so choose your own balances wisely!


Gold, Silver, and Bronze Blood

Up next is Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded, who mimics the card Sneak Attack more directly. Importantly, Purphoros also grants haste to all his other creatures, a Fervor in the command zone. This does mean that if he puts a creature into play with his ability, but then himself falls to an Utter End, the creature will lose haste, and won’t be able to attack before it is sacrificed. This, however, is a minor drawback to an otherwise excellent commander.

Importantly, Purphoros does not put creatures into play already attacking, like Ilharg. This allows him to access attack triggers right away, such as those found on Etali, Primal Storm, Drakuseth, Maw of Flames, Scourge of the Throne, or Utvara Hellkite. It’s a small distinction, but it opens the doors to some extremely excellent value.

What’s more, Purphoros does not bounce the creature back to hand – he sacrifices it. This opens up other unique avenues to take advantage of death triggers. A Cauldron of Souls can act as a pseudo-Conjurer’s Closet. Feldon of the Third Path may join in on the fun by reviving the dead creatures for another go.

Creatures with powerful death triggers may also shine here. Ryusei, the Falling Star would do little for Ilharg, but keeps Purphoros’s foes clear of nonflying creatures. Hoarding Dragon does not have to wait to find a great artifact and put it into your hand. Wurmcoil Engine may leave behind a few bodies, and then be placed under your Mimic Vat to return to fight again and again.

And for those wondering, I did find the timing of Purphoros’s abilities more suitable to the Mirror March effects, since the copies will be able to join in on combat right away!

Buy this decklist from Card Kingdom
Buy this decklist from TCGplayer

Where Ilharg, the Raze-Boar had to dedicate more card slots on haste and protection to enable his strategy, Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded does not need to spend as much time on these concerns, as he is himself the haste enabler, and is much more difficult to remove from play.

That doesn’t mean he’s without his faults, though; much more than Ilharg, Purphoros runs the risk of running out of steam. Ilharg may only drop one creature into play at a time, but he can keep bringing it back over and over, Balefire Dragoning the countryside multiple times in a row. With just one powerful creature, Ilharg is set up to wreak havoc for many turns, spending mana on other enablers, creatures, and artifacts to build out the board while playing and replaying just one creature for free each turn.

Purphoros, on the other hand, is much more desperate to find either a Sundial of the Infinite, Mimic Vat, or Erratic Portal to keep the creatures around, or to find sources of card advantage like a Sandstone Oracle to replace the creatures he’s spinning through. If he doesn’t, he may have to resort to hard-casting creatures, rather than playing them for super cheap, or else run out of cards entirely. Like most Gods in Theros, this makes him extremely fickle.

Simply put, Ilharg is a creature of habit, while Purphoros is on an endless mission to find the next big thing.


Cards to Consider

Before we depart, let’s linger for a moment on a few cards these commanders may want to take for a spin.


Ilharg

  • Fiendish Duo: This. Card. Is. Amazing. It’s in only 71 decks so far. Not just 71 mono-red decks. Not just 71 Ilharg decks. 71 decks total. It’s pricey and hard to find, but it’s still amazing, so don’t let its low numbers trick you into forgetting it exists!
  • Bolt Bend: No touchy.
  • Gratuitous ViolenceOne-sided damage doubling? Perfect.
  • Chain Reaction: This bizarrely only appears in 11% of Ilharg decks so far. Red needs board wipes too, and they can’t all be Blasphemous Act. This solves a lot of problems if Ilharg needs a clear field to hop back into play.
  • Experimental Frenzy: Already a good card in its own right, but Ilharg doesn’t much care whether you can cast the creatures in your hand or not!

Purphoros

  • Endless Sands: Instead of losing the creature for good… what if we just kept it safe somewhere else for a little while, and brought it back later?
  • Runehorn Hellkite: Hits decently well on its first pass… then it refuels the hand from the grave!
  • Endless Atlas: This isn’t the most extravagant version of card advantage by any stretch of the imagination, but the mana spent on this card helps find creatures that Purphoros won’t spend much mana on at all.
  • Mirage Mirror: This can become a copy of a creature Purphoros plays, attack, then return to normal at the end of the turn, ready to do it all again. Or it can become the best thing in play to defend you from a nasty attack. Either way, gravy.
  • Seize the Day: “I’ll play this Etali, Primal Storm for just three mana, and attack. Okay, then I’ll attack again. Okay, then I’ll attack again.”

Raze the Land

Ilharg, the Raze-Boar and Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded rank among my favorite designs of the past year. They represent a brilliant shift in design that prioritizes exciting plays, and invite us players to search for ways to turn a perceived downside into a strength, allowing us to search for advantages in new and exciting ways, all without deviating from core color pie philosophy and while staying true to the fleeting, passionate, fiery flavor of mono-red.

Oh, and they also just let you hit like a truck. So… that’s also pretty cool, I guess.

So which of these mono-red baddies would you choose to sneak monsters into the red zone? Oh, and which matchup would you like to see on the next Commander Showdown?

Til next time!

Joseph Schultz works in a library by day and shuffles libraries by night. He hosts the EDHRECast with Matt Morgan and Dana Roach over at http://edhrecast.libsyn.com/ and has recently taken over as Editor for the articles here on EDHREC! He was also born exactly one year before Magic: the Gathering, which he thinks is probably some kind of sign. Follow @JosephMSchultz on Twitter!