Commander Showdown - Karador vs Nethroi
(Karador, Ghost Chieftain by Todd Lockwood | Nethroi, Apex of Death by Slawomir Maniak)
Getting things back from your graveyard is good. Really, really good. This article is coming out shortly after the shake-ups in the Vintage format, where Lurrus of the Dream-Den was just banned from Magic's very oldest format. As it turns out, having access to the same legendary creature every game, which can buy you back your cards from the yard, is real good.
Speaking of which....
Commander seems to have a few of those, too! Though not quite the same level of format-warping terror as Lurrus, Karador, Ghost Chieftain has been bringing back creatures from the yard ever since 2011. Fun fact, this was the first commander I wanted to build, and I'd even bought the Counterpunch preconstructed deck, when a buddy of mine showed up with Devour for Power and showed me The Mimeoplasm. We swapped decks on the spot and have kept the decks we built from them to this very day.
Karador captured the interest of many, but Ikoria has brought more than just Lurrus to the reanimator's table. Nethroi, Apex of Death can Mutate right out of the command zone to revive a bazillion creatures at once.
Another Abzan reanimator? One who brings the creatures back in bulk, rather than one at a time? Looks like Karador's throne has been challenged! They have a lot in common, but if you're thinking of brewing up an Abzan graveyard deck, it's important to know how these commanders differ in strategy and deck construction, so you can find the one that's right for you. Let's get to it!
Ghost Chief of Staff
We'll begin with Karador, Ghost Chieftain, but also with a disclaimer: Karador has been around for almost a decade, and has earned a reputation for combo. Just glancing at his EDHREC page reveals his most popular cards to be Karmic Guide and Reveillark, at a rate of 71% and 64% popularity, respectively.
Some folks have strong feelings about combo decks, and I often find myself striving to avoid deliberate combo in my own brews. These, however, are very clearly an indelible part of Karador's deck identity. Karmic Guide can revive a Reveillark, or vice-versa, and can bring another friend along for the ride, such as a Viscera Seer to be a sacrifice outlet, allowing the loop to go again, and a Blood Artist, to make said loop lethal. Karador could continually reanimate heavy-hitting creatures from the yard for a different method of victory, but this combination is quick and efficient for Karador, especially since he can bring back any piece of the puzzle you need.
It's not the only one, either; Renegade Rallier and Saffi Eriksdotter have similar potency. Karador is chief among ghosts, and among combo finishes.
However, 'combo' as a singular word doesn't capture much about the strategy. When we hear the word 'combo,' we think of the game ending immediately, and we may also think of tutors like Worldly Tutor or Birthing Pod that allow the pilot to immediately zoom straight to the finish, with minimal interactivity. That's a picture that would come into my head, at least.
Thing is, that's not an accurate picture.
Anyone who's played combo knows that it's a process of buildup. Zooming right to the finish line means someone's bound to trip you on the way there. It's key to pick the proper moment to actually strike. Not only that, but the game is rife with Relic of Progenitus and Scavenger Grounds nowadays. Putting key combo components into your graveyard can feel like a safe storage unit, but can also be a risky place to put your cache. Most of all, while you're assembling puzzle pieces to eventually string together into one final flourish, your opponents might be gearing up their Krenko, Mob Boss or Korvold, Fae-Cursed King for an all-out strike that'll take you out before you've found the final piece.
As a result, a lot of Karador lists mimic that of Meren of Clan Nel Toth. Karador can repeatedly blank enemy threats by reviving Spore Frogs, Shriekmaws, and Plaguecrafters. These can certainly be used to attrition the enemy to death, whereupon a Sheoldred, Whispering One and/or Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite will finish the job with some lethal damage, but these repeatable Fogs and Doom Blades are a way to forestall enemies while Karador assembles his ultra-weapon. These are the key turns for Karador. Setup quickly, and in safety, or the whole contraption goes down the drain.
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Complex Apex Vortex
So that's Karador... but what about the newcomer, Nethroi, Apex of Death?
This section also comes with a disclaimer: Nethroi is not a creature. Nethroi is a sorcery. Nethroi is basically the card Eerie Ultimatum in your command zone. All you need is seven mana and a non-Human creature in play, and Nethroi will plop everything you need from the graveyard right into play.
I could linger for a while on the ways you can cheat Nethroi's power restriction. If you Mutate Nethroi and bring back, for example, Golgari Grave-Troll, Ghave, Guru of Spores, Faeburrow Elder, Reyhan, Last of the Abzan, and Kalonian Hydra, you'll still have 10 points of power you can bring back with the ability. That's amazing.
It's just also not what I expect will occur most often with him.
There are currently a lot of other Mutants on Nethroi's EDHREC page, but I don't think Nethroi needs a single one of them. Repeatedly triggering Nethroi's ability isn't truly necessary. One time will often seal the deal.
We're already seeing cards like Buried Alive and Entomb and many other tutors and Dredge cards creep up in popularity on Nethroi's page. Hermit Druid is a particular standout, dumping everything you need into the yard. If your entire graveyard is in the graveyard and you bring the entire thing back in one fell swoop, nearly any deck will just win right on the spot, so that's exactly what Nathroi seems to lean into.
And hey, wouldn't you know it, Karmic Guide, that famous Abzan combo enabler, is showing up at 41% already! Nethroi's 10 power cap is just the perfect amount to slip in any combination of Karmic Guide + Reveillark, Saffi Eriksdotter + Renegade Rallier, Blood Artist/Zulaport Cutthroat, and Viscera Seer/Carrion Feeder.
Again, though, the 'one big turn' is all about buildup. Nethroi can bring things back wholesale, but isn't going to play Plaguecrafter over and over to stay in the game. Instead, I found myself drawn to some of the classic green engines, like Guardian Project and Beast Whisperer. After all, Nethroi needs a non-Human creature in play to begin his mutations in the first place. Not only that, but Nethroi doesn't have the staying power of Karador, who can play one creature form the yard each turn like it's in his hand. Nethroi is very dependent on what's in your hand, which means you have to keep it stocked in some way, or else you'll fall too far behind.
In the end, this is what I came up with:
Nethroi is a SorceryView on Archidekt
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Bring Out Yer Dead
These two lists have a tremendous amount of overlap, probably the most out of any of the Commander Showdowns I've ever done. These commanders have differences, but they're extremely subtle. They both serve the same dish, but with different spicing.
In fact, continuing with the food metaphor, if Karador was the farmer's market, Nethroi's the whole Costco. Karador survives by outlasting his opponents through careful attrition, with much attention to his surroundings, so that he may build up to the ultimate recipe once the coast is properly clear. Nethroi is all about buying in bulk, committing more cards to the field and to the yard because that will help make sure you've nabbed all the free samples from every corner of the warehouse.
Is this metaphor making less and less sense by the sentence? Yes, I think it is. The point is, combo is about buildup and planning. In some instances, you need to mind your surroundings and make sure you don't overcommit, because one wrong move could undo all your hard work. In other instances, throwing every bit of spaghetti at the wall means that enough is going to stick, which'll get the job done regardless.
Sorry, that was another food metaphor. I think I need to wrap this one up, I'm clearly hungry.
Cards to Consider
Let's finish with a few cards that I think pair well with our main course - I mean, our commanders. Sorry, guess I'm hungrier than I thought.
- Twilight's Call: Budget-friendly mass reanimation? Yes please.
- Perpetual Timepiece: FIlls the yard and saves it. A personal pet card that I never tire of recommending.
- Pattern of Rebirth: Alright, this one is famous in Karador because of the combo with Boonweaver Giant, but it's only in 28% of Karador lists so far. This thing's great, give it a shot even if you're not using Boonweaver!
- Austere Command: I was a little surprised to see so few board wipes on Karador's page. Even if you'd prefer them not to cost this much mana, I think mass removal is a must here.
- Fleshbag Marauder: This and Merciless Executioner's numbers budge downward with each year, which I consider a mistake. These haven't been replaced by Plaguecrafter, just supplemented with it.
- Dance of the Dead: Reanimation but the creature comes back tapped? Sounds like an annoying drawback... for other decks that care about blocking. Nethroi will use whatever he gets back for far more nefarious purposes than mere blocking.
- Painful Truths: Another pet card, I know, but my testing with Nethroi had me running out of cards in hand more often than I liked, so make sure you've accounted for extra methods of card advantage.
- Mesmeric Orb: Bonkers pricey, I know. The decklist above are on the high end, in fact, since they're somewhat idealized decklists. The point to focus on here isn't that you need the pricey cards to play these commanders, just that Nethroi will enjoy any and all means you have of filling your graveyard en masse, budget or otherwise.
- Birthing Pod: I'm shocked at how little play this sees for Nethroi so far. Only 20%. This feels like a Pod-tastic deck.
- Cruel Celebrant: This suggestion falls into that 'throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks' mentality. If you have enough of these effects, including lesser-players ones like Corpse Knight or Falkenrath Noble or Vindictive Vampire, you don't need to carefully search them out. A high density of them in your deck means you're more likely to mill one of them and get the pain train moving. I especially recommend a lot of these effects if you're building Nethroi on a budget, because they're very effective, have lower power for Nethroi's ability, and all those cuts add up quickly.
Death is Only the Beginning
So, which of these Abzan reanimators do you prefer? Are you a longtime Karador fan, or is Nethroi tempting you to try something a little new? Do you prefer careful selection or big bulk grocery runs? How badly do I need to go eat something right now!?
Oh, and let me know which commanders you'd like to compare and contrast on the next Commander Showdown!
Til next time!