Commander Showdown - Kadena vs Animar
Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer Art by Caio Monteiro | Animar, Soul of Elements Art by Peter Mohrbacher
Mighty Morphin' Magic
Commander 2019 has made a splash in the EDH community, with its mechanics-based commanders each opening up some doors that were previously closed. Anje Falkenrath has given Rakdos the Madness deck that Olivia, Mobilized for War never quite lived up to, and Sevinne, the Chronoclasm gives us all a big Flashback to the past. However, no mechanic has been happier to receive a dedicated commander than the keyword Morph, whose Faceless Menace deck brought with it the sly and sinister Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer.
Morph hasn't been completely unsupported, of course; though Kadena is much more deliberate about her face-down creatures, Morph players have had a home for their sneaky tricks for years by using the commander Animar, Soul of Elements. Though he doesn't specify any synergy with Morph cards, his natural ability to reduce generic mana in a creature's casting cost has not only made him a home for the Stonehoof Chieftains and Ulamog, the Infinite Gyres of the world, but also those hidden face-down creatures. With enough counters, Animar can make every single one of them completely free!
Both commanders share a core identity of green and blue, but their third colors radically shift the ways their decks behave around the Morph mechanic. If you're searching for a home for your face-down creatures, which commander is best for you? Let's find out!
We begin, as usual, with the commander we already know. Animar, Soul of Elements is a standout from the very first Commander preconstructed decks in 2011. Animar is a classic case of momentum: the more creatures you cast, the more creatures he allows you to cast.
Now, Animar isn't exclusively a Morph deck; his abilities have phenomenal synergy with the mechanic, but his EDHREC page is filled with all types of creatures, from Artisan of Kozilek to Tishana, Voice of Thunder. A normal Animar deck has to balance itself with enough tiny creatures to get the ball rolling and put a few counters on Animar, while also have high-cost creatures that he can provide a huge discount to later, especially for those creatures with as few colored pips in their mana costs as possible.
In fact, check out the Average Type Distribution on Animar's EDHREC page:
Would you look at that! 44 creatures! Nearly half the deck is devoted to creature slots. Normally, this kind of prospect would be risky for a Commander deck - too many creatures doesn't leave room for other much-needed effects like card advantage or mana ramp - but Animar has already solved this problem. Each creature you cast provides you with mana advantage, so there's less need for Farseek and other spell-based ramp. Additionally, with the inclusion of Beast Whisperer, Soul of the Harvest, and Primordial Sage, your value train gets to keep rolling and rolling.
This is all extremely important for Animar when using him specifically for the Morph strategy. Morph decks rely upon a significant density of creatures to be most effective; the more of them you have in play, the less your opponents will be able to play around your strategy, since they have no idea what you can do, and no idea how many resources it will take for you to do it. If Animar is able to spit out creatures for free, it's imperative to have a wealth of effects that refill the hand after you've cast a bunch of creatures. We don't want to waste our valuable slots on mana acceleration, but rather on card advantage.
Many of the most popular Morph creatures appear in green and blue: Willbender, Vesuvan Shapeshifter, Den Protector, Icefeather Aven. Even the Morph-specific enchantments like Secret Plans and Trail of Mystery are centered much more in the Simic slice of Animar's color identity. What special offerings does Animar provide us in red?
To be honest... not much. There are only about five red Morph creatures on Animar's Morph Theme page, and only about ten red creatures total, face-down or otherwise. Jeering Instigator is a fun surprise, though only on your own turn, and Fortune Thief can save you in a pinch, but it's still not ideal. Probably the most fun is Akroma, Angel of Fury, though even she has a hefty cost to flip face-up. Overall, though, red just isn't the color that specialize in hidden information, so the Echo Tracers and Thousand Winds of the world are going to provide you with more interesting gameplay than red's face-down contributions.
Luckily, Animar has a lot of other tricks available. Let's review them with a quick decklist:
AnimorphsView on Archidekt
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Simply put, I don't think it's wise for us to attempt to foist extra red cards into Animar's deck just to attempt to stick to the Morph theme. Rather, I think it's important to take two of red's most important strategies and apply the spirit of those strategies to this deck.
First up: artifacts. Are they Morphs? No. But are they colorless creatures? Yes, yes they are. If you ask me, it's more important to lean into the colorless creatures than it is to find more red cards for Animar. Red loves artifacts, and frankly, Animar can too. If possible, we don't want to pay any mana for our creatures ever, and the fewer colored pips in the mana costs, the better.
Maybe I'm crazy, but I don't think these cards are that much of a deviation from the overall strategy and theme. Soul of New Phyrexia, for example, allows you to hold up mana to save the entire army from a Wrath, which is very necessary, given how many creatures Animar will have in play. Better yet, holding up mana like this is exactly what all those face-down creatures want, so they can flip over at a moment's notice. If you've spilled your entire hand onto the table for free, what better than a Sandstone Oracle to help you refill at effectively no cost? With enough counters on Animar, Walking Ballista is a Blaze. These creatures operate more like spells than actual creatures, which I think justifies their inclusion; they don't interact with the primary face-down-ness of creatures, but they do interact with a lot of the secondary consequences of having those face-down creatures.
The second important aspect about red? Its explosiveness. More than anything, this is the hallmark of Animar. The question we have to ask here isn't, "Which Morph creatures should I play?" but rather, "What function do Morphs serve in this deck?"
I would argue that the function they serve is to make Animar completely obnoxious. Everyone's probably already familiar with the Ancestral Statue trick, which can repeatedly bounce and recast itself from Animar's super-awesome discount to put infinite counters onto Animar. That'll get you one heck of a powerful commander - one touch and it'll annihilate any opponent you want, helped all the more by Animar's exceptional protection from two of the most removal-heavy colors in the game.
Ancestral Statue is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Morphs can serve to be a tricksy shell game, but they can also serve a purpose as being simply free creatures. What they do isn't nearly as important to Animar as what they enable. For example, Cloudstone Curio can help enable a repeated bounce trick with any two Morphs, as can Equilibrium and Temur Sabertooth. Bouncing your own creatures to make Animar even bigger is awesome, but we can go one step further and throw a nice Purphoros, God of the Forge into the mix to really get the clock ticking.
See? Red loves its explosiveness.
Slink to the Past
Let's move now to Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer, who exchanges Animar's red for the color black. What does switching this one color help enable?
To be frank, black offers a lot more to your face-down collection than red. In red, your opponents only ever had to worry that you might flip a Jeering Instigator and steal a creature for a turn. In black, with Gift of Doom and Skinthinner and Bane of the Living and more, your opponents now have to worry that, at any moment, you stand a legitimate chance of destroying one of their precious creatures. That's a very different dynamic, and it's one Kadena fully intends to capitalize upon.
Kadena, like Animar, cheapens the cost of our face-down creatures, but only once per turn. Luckily, she's carefully worded to say 'each turn' rather than 'each of your turns'. In other words, with a nice ol' Leyline of Anticipation, you could cast a free creature on every turn.
The most important distinction, however, is Kadena's second ability: whenever face-down creatures enter the battlefield under your control, she draws you a card. Where Animar ran the risk of running out of steam, Kadena keeps her engines fully fueled around the clock. Best of all, this opens up the Morph strategy just a hair to include another face-down mechanic: Manifest.
Ghastly Conscription is lackluster in any other deck, but here with Kadena, it not only can fill up her board, but also draw her a frankly obscene number of cards. Thieving Amalgam might look like a lot of mana, but keep in mind that with Kadena in play, it also draws you a card on each opponent's turn. That Primordial Mist from Commander 2018, by the way? Slam-dunk in Kadena's deck.
Let's slink through a decklist to see what other schemes Kadena's up to:
Slink to the PastView on Archidekt
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Shockingly, when we look through EDHREC's Precon Upgrade Guide for Kadena's deck, we can see that a lot of folks appear to be removing spells like Biomass Mutation and Overwhelming Stampede. While yes, Biomass Mutation is perhaps not the spiciest card, these spells are extraordinarily important to a deck that intends to commit this many bodies to the board.
It's my recommendation to increase those effects rather than decrease them; though perhaps not as explosive as Animar, this deck still puts a whole lot of bodies onto the battlefield, and one of the best ways to win from that position is to pump them up and make them trample over your enemies. You're not realistically going to chip away at your opponents' life totals with a bunch of 2/2s that flip over into 2/3s. And as cool as the "pickles lock" is, using Brine Elemental and Vesuvan Shapeshifter to repeatedly skip enemy untap steps isn't a win condition, it's a slow lockout. If Animar leans into red's explosiveness, I say that Kadena should lean into black's tendencies too, and murder something.
Cards to Consider
Let's take a brief moment to highlight some special cards in the lists above that run the risk of being overlooked.
- Guardian Project: Morphs are nontoken creatures without a name... which means they don't share a name with another creature you control.
- Glimpse of Nature: It probably isn't worth the big price tag on this little ditty just to have a one-time Beast Whisperer, but if you happen to have one, a deck that plays a bunch of literally free creatures seems likely trigger this card quite a bit.
- Paradoxical Outcome: This is effectively a Storm-style creature deck, and this spell not only can reset your Morphs for a bunch of extra Animar triggers, but this can also save your board of creatures from an unfriendly board wipe.
- Experimental Frenzy: Free creatures from the top of the deck? Don't mind if I do.
- Purphoros, God of the Forge: The above list is pretty Storm-heavy, which may not be everyone's jam with Animar. I still think Purphoros is a good call here, even without a dedication to casting lots of spells each turn, because a natural part of Morph decks is bouncing them back to hand after they've flipped face-up, so we can reset them and get their Morph abilities again. Purphoros takes good advantage of all that extra bouncing and gets in some much-needed extra damage.
- Mystic Forge: This genuinely doesn't make any sense to me, but Mystic Forge can in fact cast Morph cards. Check out the Gatherer rulings here.
- Ebonblade Reaper: This card is so awesome! Why is it one of Kadena's least popular Morph inclusions? Attack as a face-down creature, and when it goes unblocked, cut someone's life in half! Then return this to your hand later and put it face-down again so you can avoid its downside!
- Crystal Shard: Speaking of returning things to our hand, this is a phenomenal way to do it. It can catch some unwitting enemies off-guard too.
- End-Raze Forerunners: Honestly, any pump effect will do. Beastmaster Ascension, Pathbreaker Ibex, Triumph of the Hordes, anything at all. Make sure your deck isn't just playing face-down creatures and drawing cards, but is also using those creatures and cards to end the game.
- All is Dust: Colorless card for a colorless deck!
Why Doesn't Morphling have Morph?
Morph is a very tricksy mechanic, but both of these commander approach it in very different ways. Animar, Soul of Elements takes more advantage of Morphs as free objects, almost like the zero-drop artifacts seen in decks like Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain or Sram, Senior Edificer. Animar takes advantage of the nature of these free spells to generate enough power for a huge payoff. Flipping the creatures face-up can, in some Animar builds, be an afterthought compared to the other abilities they enable. If you play Animorphs, don't just think about what Animar does for the Morph creatures, but about what they do for Animar.
Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer, on the other hand, plays Morphs much more like they're traditionally known, tricking her enemies by threatening them with hidden abilities. Where Animar spills his guts onto the table, Kadena is more nuanced and methodical, carefully measuring her mana to make sure she's able to react at a moment's notice. She's more than just subtle, though. If built correctly, she can hit like a truck.
So, which Morph-mander do you prefer? Are you all about those exponential explosions, or do you prefer subtler sorcery?
Oh, and which pair would you like to see on the next Commander Showdown? Cast your votes!
Til next time!