Happy Halloween to all! In honor of this dark and spooky holiday, let’s take a look at Magic’s deadliest shadow-dwelling commanders!
Commander 2018 introduced one of the craziest legends we’ve ever seen: Yuriko, the Tiger’s Shadow. At long last, our wishes for a Ninja Tribal commander were fulfilled! Does the term “Commander ninjutsu” still crack me up? Yes, yes it does. Is it an ultra-powerful ability that ensures your commander never costs more than two mana and sneaks her into play without getting stopped by a lousy Counterspell? Yes, yes indeed!
However, folks were playing Dimir Ninjas long before Yuriko’s arrival, with the help of Vela the Night-Clad. This mysterious legend from the Planechase product was a natural fit for unblockable shenanigans. She’s automatically the winner of any costume contest, because her outfit is literally made out of darkness.
Now that Yuriko has arrived on the scene, how does her deck compare to Vela’s? If Yuriko is now a better leader for Ninja tribal, what’s to become of Vela? Let’s figure it out together in this week’s Commander Showdown!
Let’s begin with Yuriko, the Tiger’s Shadow. She’s made quite the splash already, and according to EDHREC, she’s the most popular of Commander 2018’s alternative commanders, even beating out Tuvasa the Sunlit and Brudiclad, Telchor Engineer.
As we know, Yuriko can be put into play from your hand or command zone for just two mana whenever one of your creatures goes unblocked. It’s the classic Ninjutsu mechanic, just much better! Since this doesn’t count as casting Yuriko, this cost does not accrue command tax, which means your commander will basically never cost you more than two mana. All you have to do is make your stuff unblockable, and since we’re in blue-black, that’ll be laughably easy.
That low cost is beautiful, but so is Yuriko’s second ability. Whenever any of your Ninjas connect with an opponent, Yuriko pulls a “reverse Bob” – that is, a reverse Dark Confidant – and drains your opponents while netting you card advantage. The gameplan is therefore obvious: play lots and lots of Ninjas.
These silent stalkers are already deadly; Silent-Blad Oni pilfers spells, Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni robs graves, and Higure, the Still Wind tutors more Ninjas! Unfortunately though, the plan to “play lots and lots of Ninjas” is impaired by the fact that there just aren’t lots and lots of ninjas. A quick Scryfall search shows us that there are only a dozen other Ninjas for Yuriko, and three of those are from Unstable!
So, what to do? Well, it’s not an original idea, but it sure is effective. I propose a Conspiracy.
Not the set Conspiracy, the actual card. It, Arcane Adaptation, and Xenograft turn all of your creatures into Ninjas, so every hit will proc your Yuriko. In this way, the enchantments become a pseudo-Bident of Thassa or Coastal Piracy.
Armed with this knowledge, let’s take a look at a potential Yuriko deck:
Yuriko, frankly, sets a new precedent in blue-black. Many Dimir commanders are a little languid; Phenax, God of Deception takes a while to mill your enemies unless he finds a combo, for example. The Scarab God will inevitably drain your enemies, but it takes time and mana to set up that dominating position. Blue and black are very powerful, but they aren’t precisely speedy.
Yuriko is a whole new ball game. Since she’s nearly always two mana, and her trigger drains life from each opponent, she can start things off at a blisteringly fast pace. In a multiplayer format, it’s very easy to find a hapless opponent to attack without fear of blockers. At this point, your creatures are practically all Hydra Omnivores! After just a few turns and a handful of cards, your opponents will be forced to find an answer to your army, and fast, because if they don’t, Yuriko will snowball out of control.
As such, I’d like to draw your attention to some specific cards in the list above. I have a particular affinity for Counterspells in tempo decks such as this. When your creatures are imperative to your gameplan, protecting them with countermagic is crucial. I’m personally a fan of Negate, because it counters more types of spells than Swan Song and doesn’t provide an enemy with a blocker that would get in the way of your Ninjas.
You’ll also notice that many of the mana costs have been kept very low to the ground; as wonderful as it would be to flip a Clone Legion off of Yuriko’s trigger, Yuriko’s better suited to a speedier game. Like Edric, Spymaster of Trest, we want little critters to help us keep up card advantage. High-cost spells will end up stranded in our hands. Better to drain the table for 9 by flipping four cards from your tiny Ninjas.
With that said, there are instances where we can get the best of both worlds. Commit // Memory is treated as a ten-mana spell until either half is actually cast! This can make a great Yuriko flip and we can keep up some mana to protect our board. Far // Away is versatile removal for the very same reasons, and EDHREC’s Guilds of Ravnica preview card Discovery // Dispersal can either smooth our draws or bounce a threat from each opponents’ side of the field.
I’ll touch on a few more cool Yuriko cards later, but for now, I’ll leave it at this: Yuriko is more than just “Ninja tribal.” She’s a fast, creature-based deck, which breaks a lot of the traditions of Dimir. This is a fun new territory for the color pair to explore, but if you build Yuriko, make sure you’re prepared for the mental shift required to play her successfully.
Next, we have Vela the Night-Clad. For twice the cost of Yuriko, we get a 4/4 who grants evasion to our entire team! Intimidate was discontinued, but is still an interesting mechanic. Each creature can only be blocked by creatures that share a color with it, or by artifact creatures – you know, things that won’t be intimidated by your monsters. This is a neat ability, but it’s also a very difficult one to play around; looking at the top commanders of all time on EDHREC, we can see just how many decks share a color with Vela. It’s not until the 8th most popular commander, Omnath, Locus of Rage, that we find a commander that 100% can’t block Vela or her blue and black minions.
Of course, Vela has one more trick up her sleeve. Like Yuriko, she also drains the life out of her enemies, but instead of triggering on combat damage, she does this whenever she or another of her creatures disappears.
Evasion and an ability that rewards your creatures leaving the battlefield made Vela an obvious placeholder for Ninja tribal strategies. Her Top and Signature Cards are practically identical to Yuriko’s. I’d normally do a Venn Diagram segment to compare the data, but in this case, that Venn Diagram would basically just be a circle. They share so much in common that it’s just silly.
However, now that Yuriko’s in the picture, I don’t think Vela can be considered our Ninja master of choice. Compared to Yuriko’s direct tribal synergy, Vela is, unfortunately, clumsy.
So, what to do?
Turns out, the solution is simple. Take a look:
That’s right. It’s time for blue-black artifacts to step out of the shadows.
Why artifacts? Because of Vela’s evasion ability! Intimidate means that creatures can’t block you unless they share a color with the attacker. If your creatures don’t have any color, then they’re basically unblockable. When Vela graces the battlefield with a mechanical entourage, she’s effectively an Archetype of Imagination in your command zone.
Not only that, but Vela also rewards us for having lots and lots of creatures, and artifact strategies are excellent at producing tons of tokens. Myr Battlesphere, Thopter Spy Network, and Efficient Construction will keep us well-stocked, and if our enemies blow up our battlefield, Vela will issue a harsh punishment.
I think it’s important to understand Vela’s function in this deck, too. She’s not the type of commander you need to run out onto the field right away. That’s probably how folks wanted to play her when she piloted a Ninja deck, so they could Ninjutsu their creatures into play more easily. That isn’t the case here, though. Leave the immediacy to Yuriko. Vela wants you to stock up a great big board state, and once you’ve got a big presence, then she’ll arrive and Rogue’s Passage your guys. That difference in speed is one of the most important distinctions between her and Yuriko. Vela literally waits in the shadows until the time is right, while Yuriko bolts out the gate with very little of the subtlety you’d expect from a Ninja.
I’ve thrown in a few nonartifact helpers too, such as Sire of Stagnation. Colorless creatures are just as good as artifact creatures in Vela’s eyes. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea to throw out some Morph creatures, either!
Finally, I have to address Vela’s most insane combination: Rite of Replication. I’m sure we all know how this works by now, but just in case you haven’t encountered this interaction before, you should know that Vela is bonkers with a kicked Rite of Replication. The new copies of Vela will immediately get deleted because of the legend rule, but each Vela will also see each other Vela leave the battlefield. Six copies of Vela triggering five times for each creature that just left the battlefield means the rest of the table loses 30 life each.
Luckily, the fun doesn’t stop there. If you have a dense board already, you can slap an Infinite Reflection on Vela too. Each other nontoken creature you control will become a copy of her, and once again, you’ve got a great option to punish your enemies out of nowhere on a stalled-out board. Alternatively, how about a nice Blade of Selves?
All in all, I’m happy that Yuriko has stolen the Ninja mantle from Vela. I’m not convinced she was ever the right choice for Ninjas. She was fine, but I think everyone’s strong desire for a place to put Ninjas ended up overshadowing what Vela’s truly capable of. She may not specifically say “artifacts” in her rules text, but Vela makes an unexpectedly great leader for those artifact armies. If you’re looking for something spicier than Rona, Disciple of Gix and less graveyard-based than Silas Renn, Seeker Adept, I think Vela is a very strong contender.
Let’s wrap up with some great sleeper cards for both of these commanders. Make sure you don’t overlook them!
Yuriko, the Tiger’s Shadow and Vela the Night-Clad offer up a fun lesson for EDHREC’s data. Vela’s page will likely showcase lots of Ninja cards for a very long time, as a holdover from the time before Yuriko existed. As Yuriko’s deck becomes more defined and more popular, I expect we’ll see Vela’s deck drift away from those Ninja-tastic numbers, and she’ll come into her own. You can of course continue to mess with Ninjas in a Vela deck, but don’t let the numbers fool you into thinking that’s Vela’s only option, or even her best option. Vela has a whole suite of colorless creatures she can sneak behind enemy lines. She might even be a good candidate for an Eldrazi deck!
In other words, just because Yuriko has taken Vela’s Ninjas doesn’t mean Vela has nothing left to offer. She’s still got tons of fun room to explore and grow, and I’m eager to see her do precisely that.
So, which commander would you rather play? Which commander’s shadow is the deadliest? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
Oh, and don’t forget to vote for the match-up you’d like to see on the next Commander Showdown!
Til next time!