In honor of the recent release of Duel Decks: Merfolk vs Goblins, we’re going to do something fun for this week’s Commander Showdown. Normally this series compares and contrasts commanders with similar abilities. For example, Tishana vs Zegana focused on two Simic card drawing powerhouses, and Hapatra vs The Scorpion God honed in on commanders that use -1/-1 counters. For this week, let’s instead take a look at two commanders who are similar in name only: Sygg, River Cutthroat and Sygg, River Guide.
I’ve done this name-specific Showdown once before, with Oju-Taigam vs Sul-Taigam, and it was a blast. I hope you’ll indulge me this week as we look at another pair of white-blue/white-black commanders whose color identity shifts across time. There’s a whole lot of Merfolk out there, but these two got the ball rolling. Let’s Dive Down into their decks and see how deep their strategies go!
Let’s go in chronological order and start with Sygg, River Guide. This is the original Sygg, a two mana 2/2 in Azorius colors. He has Islandwalk, which is nice, but not nearly so nice as his activated ability, which can give one of your Merfolk protection from any color until end of turn.
That’s right, step aside, Tishana, Voice of Thunder. This is the real Merfolk tribal commander! Thanks to EDHREC’s Theme Selection feature, we can see that roughly 39% of Tishana decks are Merfolk Tribal, but 89% of Sygg decks are Merfolk Tribal.
This makes sense, since Tishana doesn’t actually mention Merfolk. You can build her however you’d like. (In fact, in my Tishana article, I made her Elf tribal instead, and if you’d like to see another example of Elf tribal Tishana, I recommend this episode of Game Knights).
Meanwhile, Sygg does specify Merfolk, and even though Ixalan has shifted the tribe into green, we mustn’t forget that Merfolk have roots in Lorwyn, where they were blue and white. From the new Kopala, Warden of Waves to the old Stonybrook Schoolmaster, Sygg has a lot of great buddies to help out with his protection ability.
Protection isn’t an easy keyword to learn. Even experienced players mess it up sometimes. Wizards R&D hasn’t retired this keyword, but they have scaled back its inclusion in new sets quite a lot, so some players may be unfamiliar with the ability. When a creature has protection from something, it means four things:
That’s a lot to remember for one keyword, so here’s the mnemonic I use: “D.E.B.T.” Damaged, Enchanted/Equipped, Blocked, and Targeted. It’s not a blanket immunity from all effects of that type or color. It only means those four things.
The most common error I see with this keyword is Wrath of God. If a creature has protection from white, that doesn’t mean it survives a Wrath of God. Wrath doesn’t target, enchant, block, or deal damage to that creature, so it will die. Even the mighty Progenitus will fall to a Wrath, because it’s not targeting or dealing damage to it. Protection from black won’t save you from a Black Sun’s Zenith, and protection from blue won’t save you from an overloaded Cyclonic Rift, because neither of those specify targets. However, a creature with protection from red will survive a Blasphemous Act. It doesn’t target either, but it does deal damage, which protection covers.
Another quick note is the way protection interacts with trample. For example, if you have Mirran Crusader (a 2/2 with protection from green) and use it to block a Stonehoof Chieftan (a green 8/8 with trample) your Crusader will absorb 2 damage and won’t die, but you’ll still take 6 damage. The Crusader can protect himself, but he can’t single-handedly stop the enormous Centaur in its tracks.
So Sygg’s ability won’t save you from everything, but it’s certainly tricksy. By holding up two mana, you can save any of your creatures from a rogue Path to Exile or Curtains’ Call. He also provides fantastic defensive capabilities, since you can give any of your Merfolk protection from the color of an attacking creature and block with impunity. Even better, you can also use his ability to become unblockable. Remember, creatures with protection from a color can’t be blocked by creatures of that color, so you can slip right past enemy lines to chip away at their life totals.
To anyone who bought the Swell the Host precon from Commander 2015, Sygg, River Guide’s ability is probably reminiscent of Kaseto, Orochi Archmage. Kaseto also has a two-mana activated ability, which makes creatures unblockable and gives them a bonus if they’re a snake (though sadly, not if they’re a Naga). EDHREC’s Theme Selection feature shows us that 67% of Kaseto players took advantage of this ability to build a snake tribal deck. Since Kaseto is himself a snake, the remaining 33% have presumably built him up as a pseudo-Voltron commander, pumping himself up for victory via unblockable commander damage.
Since Sygg’s ability is so similar to Kaseto, and he can technically make himself unblockable too, does he have this same Voltron-esque capability?
The answer is yes… but also no. Voltron decks usually rely upon equipment or enchantments to boost their commander up to deal 21 points of combat damage. If Sygg is suited up with auras like Battle Mastery or Shielded by Faith, and he has to save himself from a Swords to Plowshares, giving himself Protection from White will make the auras fall off.
Equipment-based Voltrons also typically use the “Sword of” cards, a cycle of powerhouse equipment that bestow great benefits to the wielder. Sword of Feast and Famine is one of the best, providing protection from green and black and even untapping your lands. The rest, however, all give protection from either white or blue, such as Sword of Light and Shadow or Sword of Fire and Ice. If Sygg is holding one, he has protection from his own color, and therefore can’t use his ability to target himself anymore.
By no means does this mean Sygg can’t be a Voltron, but it does explain why there’s a higher percentage of tribal Sygg decks than tribal Kaseto decks. If you want Sygg to be a Voltron, you have to navigate around those complicated anti-synergies, which is a lot of hoops to jump through. Equipment like Umezawa’s Jitte and the new Hammer of Nazahn are probably better suited to this strategy.
So, for the rest of us that just want to see some good old-fashioned blue-white Merfolk tribal, let’s see what Sygg is up to by checking out his Average Deck here on EDHREC.
Merfolk are probably most famous for their lords, such as Lord of Atlantis and Master of the Pearl Trident, which pump up other Merfolk. These cards make Merfolk a mainstay in Modern, although I’m worried that if I talk too long about that, the Professor from Tolarian Community College and Corbin Hosler from Brainstorm Brewery will magically appear like Shazam and start gushing about their favorite tribe. The point is, Merfolk lords are cool.
With that said, EDH Merfolk doesn’t have the same density of lords as Modern Merfolk. Modern gets to run four copies of each card, so their opening hands are often stacked with two- and three-mana Merfolk that turn each other into 4/4’s and 5/5’s. This makes for a very combat-oriented blue deck. EDH, however, is singleton, so the lords are spread pretty thin. In the average decklist above, there are only about seven Merfolk lords, and that’s including situational ones like Coralhelm Commander and Sage of Fables. As a result, Merfolk decks in EDH are a far cry from their aggressive Modern brethren.
Another barrier to an aggro Merfolk deck are the spells that synergize with them. Goblin and Elf decks like Krenko, Mob Boss and Ezuri, Renegade Leader also only have seven-ish lords, yet they’re famously fast decks that pack a huge punch. What sets them apart from Sygg? In a word, swarm. Krenko himself creates lots of creatures, as do his friends Siege-Gang Commander and Beetleback Chief. Elves have access to Lys Alana Huntmaster, Elvish Promenade, and even the new Kindred Summons.
These cards all swarm the field with huge numbers, and that’s sadly not something Merfolk can mimic. Stonybrook Schoolmaster and the new Deeproot Waters are helpful, but they’re not quite the same caliber. The colors aren’t helpful either; blue isn’t as practiced in the art of aggro as red or green, and lots of non-Goblin, non-Elf powerhouses like Purphoros, God of the Forge and Craterhoof Behemoth help boost those tribes into victory. Merfolk have access to Door of Destinies and Coat of Arms, which can certainly give them a game-winning boost, but for the most part, you shouldn’t expect to always lead a vast army of swole Merfolk.
So, if Sygg doesn’t have the aggro, what does he have? Tricks.
First of all, check out those lands. 20 Islands, 3 Plains. This is practically a mono-blue deck. There are only 15 white mana symbols in the whole deck. There aren’t a ton of white Merfolk, so the bulk of the deck is blue creatures, with helpful white spells (and Sygg’s ability) as backup. White excels at removal, so its major contribution are spells like Supreme Verdict and Return to Dust. This leaves room for bunches of blue cards, which are famous for messing up your opponents’ plans.
Secondly, check out those terraforming cards in the average decklist. Quicksilver Fountain? Spreading Seas? Aquitect’s Will? Merfolk take their Islandwalk seriously. If you can’t beat your opponents in hand-to-hand combat, just slip right by them instead. Stormtide Leviathan shows up to really seal the deal; it’s not a Merfolk, but it sure shuts down everything except your fish friends.
Speaking of non-Merfolk creatures, I’m a huge fan of Azami, Lady of Scrolls. As evidenced by the presence of Sage of Fables, lots of Merfolk are also Wizards, so Azami provides the deck with a huge boost on card advantage. I also love seeing Empress Galina in this list, who can permanently steal your opponent’s commander, and their Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, and their Akroma’s Memorial, and now even their planeswalkers, thanks to the recent Planeswalker rules change.
However, the most potent trick up Sygg’s sleeves (scales? gills?) is his obnoxious propensity for combo.
Intruder Alarm is not usually a card folks run for mere value. If you see it in a deck, it’s probably there to do some gross stuff, and for Sygg, that means Stonybrook Schoolmaster. Every time the Schoolmaster is tapped, it creates a token, which will trip the Alarm and untap the Schoolmaster. All you need is a way to repeatedly tap your Schoolmaster, and you’ve gone infinite.
That Azami, Lady of Scrolls in the average decklist? She can draw you as many cards as you like. Paradise Mantle? Infinite mana. Drowner of Secrets? Your opponents no longer have libraries. Have seven Merfolk? Lullmage Mentor will ensure your opponents never cast spells again. You can even trigger the Schoolmaster + Alarm combo with four Merfolk in play and Summon the School in your graveyard. By holding priority, you can activate Summon the School’s ability over and over again without resolving the ability, so it won’t return to your hand until you want it to. Meren of Clan Nel Toth loves her sac outlets, but Sygg River Guide loves his tap outlets.
You’re in blue and white, which means a wealth of options lay at your feet (fins?). Sigil Tracer gets dangerous around Turnabout, though it requires a little setup. Adding an Opposition for the Schoolmaster combo will lock down the board completely. If you have an opponent who can’t block, you can pull of some pretty nasty stuff with Wanderwine Prophets and Summon the School. Heck, you could even do some Reveillark + Body Double shenanigans if you wanted to (for more on that combo, check out Patrick Sippola’s Combo Corner series).
In short, Sygg is a tribal deck that hovers between combat and combo. If you’re ever up against a Sygg player, you’ll have to keep your wits about you; highly-tuned decks will probably search for the combo as quickly as possible, but if that fails, they’ll have a Coat of Arms waiting in the wings. This may be the “nicer” version of Sygg in the lore, but make no mistake: in the right player’s hands, he’s clever, crafty, and cunning.
Now let’s move onto Sygg, River Cutthroat. After The Great Aurora transformed Lorwyn into Shadowmoor, Sygg became very… cruel. Though still two mana, he now has nothing at all to do with Merfolk. Instead, he draws you a card on each end step if an opponent lost three or more life that turn.
Cool! It’s the selfish (heh, fish) version of Ludevic, Necro-Alchemist. This ability doesn’t demand a tribal element, and it’s nowhere near as complicated as protection, so I’m not even going to waste time on a preamble, let’s check out the Average Deck!
When you have a commander with a nonspecific ability, there’s a risk that their deck will end up as mere “Goodstuff,” a pile of generically strong cards without much connecting theme or synergy. Thankfully, Sygg, River Cutthroat swims around that trap. He’s abandoned Merfolk tribal, but found his home in “unblockable tribal.”
Marang River Prowler, Slither Blade, Deathcult Rogue… these are cards you don’t usually expect to see in EDH. Like Edric, Spymaster of Trest, Sygg capitalizes on low-to-the-ground creatures to help him get ahead. Sygg won’t draw you a card for each creature that hits an opponent the way Edric does, but he also doesn’t require you to overcommit to the battlefield; just one or two creatures will do. It’s probably more comparable to Tymna the Weaver than Edric, considering the number of cards drawn. Regardless of the comparison, the point is that combat leads to card advantage.
These unblockable effects pay off in spades, too. Quietus Spike is a fantastic inclusion for a deck full of evasive creatures, taking huge chunks out of enemy life totals. I personally love seeing the new Bloodforged Battle-Axe from Commander 2017. Each creature that connects produces another equipment and then another. A lone Invisible Stalker doesn’t do much on its own, but when it’s carrying three Battle-Axes, things start looking grim. (Although I’m not sure how it counts as ‘invisible’ if it’s carrying that much metal. Seems like a bit of a giveaway. Then again, I’ve seen a Emrakul, the Promised End wearing Swiftfoot Boots, so I guess it’s not the biggest flavor fail out there.)
Speaking of unblocked creatures, look at all that Ninjutsu! Mistblade Shinobi, Sakashima’s Student, Silent-Blade Oni, and a bunch more put in a surprise appearance. Sygg is second only to Vela the Night-Clad when it comes to Ninjas, and with all these unblockable creatures, it’s no wonder why. I should also note that a respectable 14% of Sygg decks run him as Rogue Tribal, since so many unblockable creatures are also Rogues. This helps take advantage of Prowl cards like Notorious Throng and Knowledge Exploitation, not to mention gives you access to neat creatures like Oona’s Blackguard and Frogtosser Banneret. If you’d like to know more about a Sygg Rogues build, you can check it out here.
Examining the Average Deck, it’s plain that Sygg really makes every combat trigger count. An unblocked creature might turn into a Ninja, or draw extra cards off Coastal Piracy. It might forge new Battle-Axes or even a whole new creature with Stolen Identity. The creatures themselves might cast free spells like Wrexial, the Risen Deep, or steal artifacts from your opponents like Thada Adel, Acquisitor. Then, after it’s all done, you’ll draw another card from Sygg’s ability at the end of the turn.
Remember also that unlike Edric and Tymna, Sygg isn’t restricted to just your combat step. His ability triggers during each end step, including your opponents. Which means…
…you get to use some pretty nasty spells. The card Undermine actually has the secret bonus text, “Draw a card.” So too does Clutch of the Undercity. How about that new sorcery from Hour of Devastation, Torment of Hailfire? Sygg turns all of them into cantrips. Their pain is your profit.
To really take advantage of Sygg’s ability, though, you need at least one opponent to lose life each turn. One-time spells are great, but even better are the enchantments. Painful Quandary is a major standout, forcing your opponents to choose between discarding cards or losing life. No matter what they pick, you’ll end up with more cards in hand than them. There’s also Bloodchief Ascension, which can bleed your enemies dry.
Be warned, however. Punishing cards like these tend to draw many angry eyes in your direction. Opponents may be wary to attack when they know that dealing damage to one another could cause you to draw cards. They might choose to point their swords in your direction instead. These are treacherous waters, so you’ll have to wade carefully to make sure you don’t aggravate the whole table at once.
Weirdly, Sygg, River Cutthroat isn’t actually much of a cutthroat. Not to get too graphic, but a throat injury like that is instantly fatal. Sygg doesn’t dabble in instant-death. His strategy is actually very slow and incremental, like the Orzhov’s Extort ability (as seen on cards like Blind Obedience). A better epithet for Sygg, River Cutthroat would actually be “Death by a Thousand Cuts-Throat.” He doesn’t hit huge and hard like Xenagos, God of Revels. He’s an ankle-biter, sticking to the shallows, slowly pecking at life totals, preferably targeting different people so none of them get too annoyed and retaliate. If you find Sygg lurking across the table from you, keep your eyes peeled; you may not immediately realize how much damage he’s done and how many cards he’s drawn until it’s too late.
As always, I have a few suggestions for each deck. EDHREC shows that these cards don’t see a lot of play for these commanders, but those percentages could probably stand to be a bit higher. Let’s see what we’ve got:
I hope this was as fun for you as it was for me! Sygg, River Guide and Sygg, River Cutthroat have nothing in common but their name, but this was as good an excuse as any to talk about these two slippery commanders. From Ixalan to Merfolk vs Goblins, Merfolk have definitely had a resurgence lately, so it’s nice to go back to some of the classics.
That’s it for this week, but what Showdowns would you like to see next? Vona, Butcher of Magan vs Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim? Marath, Will of the Wild vs Ghave, Guru of Spores? Let me know what you think of these name-specific Showdowns. Iconic Masters is just around the corner, so maybe that reprint of Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir could have a name-Showdown against Teferi, Temporal Archmage? Tell me what you think!
Til next time!