Commander Showdown - Athreos vs Athreos
(Athreos, Shroud-Veiled by Igor Kieryluk | Athreos, God of Passage by Ryan Barger)
Welcome to the Underworld
While the rest of Theros is busy leaving the Underworld, Athreos is still ferrying souls into it. His original iteration, Athreos, God of Passage has now been followed up with a big new Buy-a-Box Promo, Athreos, Shroud-Veiled.
One Athreos saves your creatures by extorting your opponents. Pay the toll, or the dead creature will return to haunt them yet again. The other Athreos marks creatures before they die, saving them from the brink of death.
If you enjoy ferrying creatures back and forth across the river of death, which of these Athreoses is right for you? Let's find out on this week's Commander Showdown!
You Shall Not Passage
First up is Athreos, God of Passage. Athreos is perhaps most well-known for its use at the head of a Shadowborn Apostles deck, famously played by Josh Lee Kwai on Game Knights. This is borne out by the data on EDHREC, too: 54% of Athreos decks contain Shadowborn Apostle and many of its synergistic friends.
Athreos exists in a strange place among his many Orzhov brethren, which is partly why the Apostles strategy is so appealing for him. A deck looking to abuse death triggers is better suited for Teysa Karlov than Athreos, whose pay-life-or-give-me-back-my-creature trigger is unfortunately a little unreliable. To best make use of his ability, you need a lot of nontoken creatures. Apostles fit the bill, and they even provide their own method of sacrifice.
The other reason Athreos is such a compelling Apostles commander is because he is, in a word, an engine. Good Athreos players know to put one specific opponent at a low life total, forcing that player to give them back their creatures whenever they die. This can allow Athreos to pair a single Apostle with Edgewalker or Phyrexian Altar and a Blood Artist, infinitely sacrificing the creature, draining an enemy, forcing an opponent to return the creature, and then replaying it, beginning the chain all over again. It's an excellent loop.
However, for our purposes, I'd prefer not to use Athreos as a Shadowborn Apostles commander. He's an excellent choice for that strategy, to be clear - in fact, he might be the best choice for Apostles - but it's not the one I'm personally interested in. I like the Apostles just fine, but that strategy has been explored plenty already, by better players than me. Instead, I'd like to try Athreos with a different creature that allows you to play any number of them....
That's right. We're talking about Rat Colony. Just in time for Secret Lair: Year of the Rat!
Rat Colony leans into the many strengths Athreos exhibits with Apostles, but narrowly avoids many of the downsides of the Apostles strategy. Apostles must wait idly until they amass an army of six before they may use their abilities. Rats have no such numbers issue; five is plenty annoying.
Better still, Athreos's life payment is a much more difficult consideration with Rats. Rats are aggressive, and they attack for pretty decent chunks of damage. Apostles don't do much to pressure enemy life totals, but even three simple Rats will attack for nearly a quarter of a player's starting life total. It's a lot harder to pay three life to keep a Rat in the graveyard when those Rats have already gotten a player's life total pretty low.
This ain't just Athreos. This is Rat-threos.
Buy this decklist from TCGplayer
While we lose the Edgewalkers and Xathrid Necromancers that make Apostles decks so interesting, we maintain many of the most important favorites that make these strategies so compelling. Remembrance never leaves you Ratless, Secret Salvage fills you right up on Rats, and Immortal Servitude and Patriarch's Bidding can return any vermin that do perish right back to the field with minimal upside to our enemies. Oh, and who could forget Thrumming Stone, which here churns out a board full of creatures with over 30 power each?
Several of these cards (particularly the Thrumming Stone) are quite pricey, though I'd argue none of them are must-haves for this strategy. Rats are quite powerful all on their own, especially when your commander forces your opponents to take additional damage to keep that army properly quashed.
This fact merely means that we need to place an additional premium on card advantage spells, from Night's Whisper to Damnable Pact. Athreos alone won't maintain the entire army, so we have to find a few extra ways to make sure the stream of Rats is endless.
This is the past Athreos, though. Let's see what happens when Athreos grows up and doubles his mana cost.
Very Very Veiled
Of the 27 new legends from Theros Beyond Death, Athreos, Shroud-Veiled is easily one of the most fascinating. It's not just the coin counter ability that makes him so interesting; we've seen this ability on cards like Unhallowed Pact and Debt of Loyalty before. No, what makes him so interesting is the fact that he will secure these creatures even if they're exiled, not just when they would die. Kaya's Ghostform as a commander? Excellent.
This makes new Athreos stand out from his former iteration in two ways. First, he's a thief. If we can kill enemy creatures we've placed coins upon, we'll get to keep them all to ourselves. Beating enemies down with their own not-properly-dead creatures is pretty amazing. We won't be able to snag their commanders, due to the command zone replacement effect, but it's still pretty phenomenal.
Second, he's more reliable. Slow, to be sure - one coin a turn is a languid rate - but there's no guesswork involved with whether he'll get the creature back. Once a coin is placed, that creature basically has a new insurance policy.
This is the most important thing about new Athreos, and the detail that some opponents may not realize right away. Athreos is an engine of consistency. Say you put a coin on an enemy creature, and then eliminate it with a Path to Exile. The creature is now yours. It's up to your opponents to eliminate the creature you stole, right?
What if you put another coin counter on it before they're able to remove it? Yeah, they're not getting that creature back anytime soon.
Of important note is the way that Athreos's ability interacts with exile. If you revive a dead creature with an ability like Whip of Erebos or Dawn of the Dead, that creature is set to exile itself at the beginning of the end step. Luckily, Athreos also triggers at the beginning of the end step. He can place a coin counter on the revived creature. Then it will be exiled as normal. Then Athreos will trigger as well, returning that creature to the field permanently. That's solid value.
This type of trick has also been performed with Conjurer's Closet, a delicious addition to Athreos's arsenal, to help keep creatures that were returned on an initially temporary basis. Be careful of reaching too far with Athreos's abilities, however. At the present moment, his EDHREC page contains several cards like Ephemerate and Flickerwisp, which feel like mistakes. Blinking a creature removes its coin, after all. Plus, if you steal a valuable creature from an opponent, then blink it with one of these effects (say to repeat an enter-the-battlefield ability) the creature will return to its owner, not to you. Look for abilities that give the creature back to you, such as the aforementioned Conjurer's Closet.
Let's try our hand at a decklist, shall we?
Shroud-Veiled Does Not Have Shroud
Buy this decklist from TCGplayer
Athreos is amazing friends with creatures that eliminate other creatures. From Ravenous Chupacabra to Luminate Primordial, these creatures can either be repeated with Athreos to eliminate enemy competition, or abused by him, to destroy the creatures he's marked for death.
Note also the high mana curve in the deck. Athreos doesn't want to revive small creatures. That's for his previous self. This Athreos wants to bring back the best of the best. This means we need to play many, many more mana rocks to help supplement this strategy, not to mention a lot more lands, as we need to guarantee we'll reliably have enough land drops to play the creatures in the first place.
As a final note, Athreos loves removal. If anything, there might not be quite enough of it in the above list. Season to taste. Every removal spell can also double as a Mind Control, so keep your eyes keen for opportunities to seize enemy creatures all for yourself, and try to balance the desire to steal enemy creatures against your desire to maintain your own.
Big and Small
Though each of their decks will have extremely few cards in common, Athreos, God of Passage and Athreos, Shroud-Veiled are deceptively similar. The main difference in their playstyles is right there on the upper-right-hand side of the card, in the mana cost. Both specialize in maintaining a steady trickle of similar creatures, but what sets them apart is the size of the creatures they'll be doing this to.
Original Athreos specializes in tiny creatures. He wants death, and lots of it. Whether you use him for Apostles or Rats or just your own fun army of Orzhov delights, he'll keep them consistently making it hurt to get rid of them for good.
New Athreos, on the other hand, functions as a black-white Avacyn, Angel of Hope. He maintains the status quo. He doesn't even need to bother with death triggers or blinking, really. The creatures he plays are semi-permanent, and will continually wreak havoc on your opponents. He's gradual, but also just plain inexorable.
No matter the Athreos you choose, he's sure to make it a lot harder for your opponents to remove your stuff. Athreos in any of his forms embodies that most luxuriant quote, "What is dead may never die".
Cards to Consider
Let's wrap up by taking a brief look at a few cards you may want to try out for these commanders.
God of Passage
- Desperate Research: One of the lesser-known cards for 'play any number' creatures. Riskier, perhaps, but drawing an average of two or three Rats for two mana sounds lovely.
- Dusk // Dawn: Front half, board wipe. Back half, get back your Rats!
- Citywide Bust: A board wipe that removes the biggest problems and doesn't touch a single Rat? Yes, please.
- Vanquisher's Banner: A delightful aspect of the 'play any number' creatures are their uniform creature types.
- Swarmyard: And a delightful thing about Rats is this weird card!
- Avacyn, Angel of Hope: Athreos is new, so we haven't had too much data from him just yet, but at just 14% popularity, this is already too low. Avacyn is without a doubt the best creature Athreos can put a coin counter onto. I don't know how opponents will deal with a board that's indestructible when the source of that indestructibility can't even be removed with simple exile.
- Helm of the Host: A card I'm usually reticent about, given its steep cost, but this deck is all 'go big or go home.'
- Winds of Abandon: This card hasn't seen nearly as much love as it should, but it's of particular note here where it doesn't delete your own coin counters, and can help you steal multiple big creatures from your enemies.
- Luminate Primordial: The least-loved of the Primordials, but a delightful one for Athreos, who will enjoy resurrecting it either to clear the board, or to steal enemy creatures, or both!
- Highcliff Felidar: Speaking of which, I almost forgot this card existed. Don't make the mistake I did!
Crossing the River
So, which of these death-ferrying commanders do you prefer? Do you enjoy maintaining a board of tiny, similar creatures and exploiting them to extort your opponents? Or do you prefer to land haymaker after haymaker, making it impossibly difficult to remove them for good? Let me know 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!