Commander Showdown — Marath vs Ghave
Counters, Tokens, and Combos
When people think of Commander cards, there are often a few EDH-specific cards that come to mind. Sol Ring, for example, or Cyclonic Rift. One of the biggest is Doubling Season, a card whose price is exorbitantly high and whose demand comes almost exclusively from Commander players.
While it's true that Doubling Season synergizes brilliantly with planeswalkers, it famously doubles the creation of +1/+1 counters and creature tokens. Lots of commanders take advantage of just one of these effects. Omnath, Locus of Rage, for example, uses Doubling Season simply as an additional Parallel Lives, while Vorel of the Hull Clade uses it like a Deepglow Skate.
However, there are two commanders that take advantage of both +1/+/1 counter and token doubling effects. I can think of no two commanders more quintessentially Doubling Season-esque than Marath, Will of the Wild and Ghave, Guru of Spores.
At first, these commanders look fairly straightforward. +1/+1 counters like a Genesis Hydra, and tokens like a Verdant Force. Make creatures, make them big, and attack all-out, right? However, each of these plant-tastic commanders hordes a nasty secret: they're just as likely to assemble a game-winning combo as Breya, Etherium Shaper. How? More importantly, how do their differences change their respective strategies? Let's find out.
Let's start with some quick differences. While both of these commanders take root in Selesnya, they each give green/white a twist of color. Marath, Will of the Wild provides the forest with flashfires. Like several of the Commander 2013 commanders, Marath's power scales equal to the amount of mana spent to cast him. He'll start as a 3/3 for three, but if he dies a few times, he'll thankfully convert that Commander Tax into additional +1/+1 counters.
In fact, Marath is a master of conversion. By paying a little mana and removing his own counters, he can shift his power to another creature, create creature tokens, or deal damage.
I should also quickly mention that Marath has some errata: "X can't be 0." It's a single line of text but it's very important. If you had a Glorious Anthem in play and repeatedly used Marath's ability for 0, you could make a gajillion 1/1 creatures at the drop of a hat. Thankfully, X can't be 0, so your opponents won't have to worry about you making infinite tokens... well, at least not that way.
Let's move onto Ghave, Guru of Spores. He's a 5/5 for five mana who also transplants counters, but his reach extends a little further than Marath's. While Marath can only convert his own counters, Ghave can pluck counters from any creature you control to create a 1/1 Saproling.
What's more, Ghave can actually reverse this process. While Marath is a one-way street, Ghave can turn Saprolings back into counters and vice-versa. This does come a slightly more belabored cost, however; Marath can put counters directly onto other creatures, but for Ghave to put his counters on another creature, he must first make a token, then turn that token into a counter.
Then, of course, there's the substantial difference in color. Ghave's access to black opens him up to +1/+1 counter powerhouses like Corpsejack Menace and Reyhan, Last of the Abzan. Marath, on the other hand, has access to direct damage. To figure out how these differences affect each commander's card choices and deck construction, let's take a look at one of my favorite segments here on Commander Showdown: the Venn Diagram.
Venn Diagram Time
I've assembled a list below of the Top and Signature cards for both Marath and Ghave, to see where their strategies overlap, and particularly, where they differ. Check out the results below:
The Both column looks almost exactly the way I expected: full of powerhouse enchantments. The aforementioned Doubling Season and its brothers and sisters, Anointed Procession, Parallel Lives, and Hardened Scales, all put in a fantastic show. Aura Shards gives both Ghave and Marath the ability to destroy any artifact or enchantment by merely paying one single mana. That's scary powerful, and effectively renders artifacts and enchantments unplayable for your opponents.
There are two particularly important cards in the Both column, but I won't get to them just yet. For now, I'm interested in the cards found in each commander's individual column. Marath in particular has earned a fantastic new set of toys from the Ixalan block:
Due to his ability to turn his +1/+1 counters into damage, Marath has long been a fan of Basilisk Collar, which effectively lets him destroy any creature for a single mana. Now Marath has become a new home for the Enrage Dinosaurs of Ixalan. Marath can enable all kinds of powerful effects with his damage ability, whether creating duplicates of Polyraptor or using Needletooth Raptor to turn one point of damage into five. Easily my favorite of these Dinos is Bellowing Aegisaur, which will increase the power of your entire army, thereby replacing Marath's +1/+1 counter. Every turn, you can spend four mana to ping the Aegisaur four times, giving your other creatures a permanent +4/+4, which is nothing to scoff at.
Dinos are nice, but what about Ghave's column? Tendershoot Dryad and Mycoloth give Ghave lots and lots of tokens to turn into +1/+1 counters. I'm personally a fan of Reyhan, Last of the Abzan, which can retain any +1/+1 counters on the creatures you sacrifice to Ghave's ability.
Dictate of Erebos is also nasty. Like Marath and Basilisk Collar, Ghave can use this enchantment to turn any creature into a Merciless Executioner. There's actually even more excellent remova in this column, like Anguished Unmaking and Putrefy. Black is famous for its ability to get rid of creatures, and it's nice to see that Ghave takes full advantage of it.
At the Altar
If you're hoping to play either Marath or Ghave and keep things fair, this is probably about where you'd have to stop. Several other cards in the Venn Diagram, like Avenger of Zendikar, Winding Constrictor, even Growing Rites of Itlimoc are still, to some extent, fair cards. They push the envelope on power level, but they still stay within traditional expectations: lots of creatures, lots of counters, and a smattering of respectable removal.
The thing is, writing about these commanders is exactly like playing them. It's exceedingly difficult not to accidentally wander into a combo, especially because of cards like this:
Cathars' Crusade does nasty things, and it's just the tip of the iceberg. Every time a creature enters the battlefield, you get a +1/+1 counter on your army. Much like Bellowing Aegisaur replaced Marath's counter when you dealt damage, the Crusade will replace Marath's counter every time you make a green Elemental.
This is also why we see Ivy Lane Denizen among Marath's Signature Cards. By paying one mana to make a 1/1, you can replace Marath's counter, and then repeat this process. All you need is a lot of mana, and you can make any number of creatures.
Ghave takes a slightly different approach, one that's even more abusable. Not only will Cathars' Crusade help him, but several other creatures enable him as well. Juniper Order Ranger and Sigil Captain also dole out +1/+1 counters, and even though those counters don't end up on Ghave, he can still use them to create ever more Saprolings.
Now, I mentioned earlier that there were two highly important cards in the Both column. Cathars' Crusade was one of them, and its lackeys Ivy Lane Denizen and Juniper Order Ranger are quite impressive as well. However, the second card, and the true MVP in the Both column, is this:
We know that Cathars' Crusade and friends make a perpetual engine that pumps out tokens for a single mana without harming either Ghave or Marath. All we need now is a way to keep generating mana. Enter Ashnod's Altar.
Every 1 mana you spend becomes a 1/1 creature. Every creature you sacrifice becomes 2 mana. With that conversion ratio, you'll instantly have infinite mana. With infinite mana, you'll instantly have infinite creatures. In Ghave's case, with infinite creatures, you'll instantly be able to sacrifice a bunch of them for counters, to make them all infinitely powerful.
Let's look first at Marath, Will of the Wild. I'd like to start by checking over the Average Marath Deck to see what other potential synergies he has at his disposal.
Average Marath Deck
This deck looks rather a lot like those from last week's Dino Showdown between Zacama, Primal Calamity and Gishath, Sun's Avatar. Marath's ease at pinging creatures makes him an excellent candidate for a Naya Enrage deck. However, just like Zacama, this Naya commander is hiding a combo or two up his sleeve.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Technically Marath has no sleeves, though I suppose he could have shoes.
I don't know about you, but I'm rather taken with the cards that aren't in this Average Deck. I'll enumerate more of them later, but there is one card that springs to mind that feels truly powerful in a Marath deck. It's a pricey one, especially in the wake of 2017's tribal sets. Fans of The Locust God and Sliver Queen will already be familiar with it: Mana Echoes.
Like Ashnod's Altar, this is a way to abuse the Ivy Lane Denizen combo and create infinite mana. Every Elemental you make will trigger Mana Echoes and give you even more mana, to make even more Elementals. It will all be colorless mana, though.
That's the tricky piece to the combos described thus far. Marath can create infinite mana, but if it's colorless, it can be of limited use. Ideally, we'd want to use Marath's ability to funnal all that mana into a Blaze that wipes out each opponent. Unfortunately, Marath doesn't have enough counters. The only way to get more would be to repeatedly empty Marath of his counters and recast him over and over, but we'd need colored mana to do so.
Additionally, these combos can make you infinite tokens, but assembling bunches of creatures leaves you open to a Wrath of God next turn. Those tokens can't immediately win the game on their own. What to do?
Enter Purphoros, God of the Forge. Rather than wait another round to attack with your army, you can melt life totals right away. Warstorm Surge serves a similar function, even allowing you to get rid of any annoying creatures in your way. Marath has three distinct abilities, but these enchantments help you use two at once, creating creatures and dealing damage.
Additionally, Mentor of the Meek or Skullclamp can use all that extra mana to draw a card every time you make a new Elemental. This is by no means a Laboratory Maniac deck, but drawing your entire library should help you find just the card you need to finish the game.
Finally—and this is truly the most straightforward strategy—you can give your stuff haste. Fires of Yavimaya can make your infinite supply of 1/1 Elementals ready for battle right out of the gate.
Several of the cards I've mentioned thus far are red. Does that mean these strategies are completely unique from Ghave's? As it turns out, no. Not at all.
I Ghave You My Heart
Yes, I pronounce it like the word "gave." Yes, I think "Gah-vey" sounds wrong. The 'H' doesn't hypermodify the vowel sounds in the words 'ghetto,' 'ghost,' or 'gharial,' so I don't let it modify "Ghave" either. "Gah-vey" sounds like 'agave' and while I'm sure Ghave likes plants, I somehow think that one's not to his particular liking. When it comes to Magic: the Gathering pronunciations, Occam's Razor is your friend.
Anyway, let's get to his Average Decklist:
Average Ghave Deck
I mentioned that Marath's combos aren't wholly unique from Ghave's. They use different piece, but the heart of them is still similar. Instead of Purphoros, God of the Forge dealing damage whenever creatures enter the battlefield, Ghave uses Zulaport Cutthroat and Blood Artist to trigger every time he sacrifices a token instead. Same general philosophy, just a little more bloodthirsty.
Ghave, however, does have some access to combos that Marath doesn't. Notice that Mikaeus, the Unhallowed + Triskelion combo in the Average Deck? That's how potent Ghave can be. Even when they're not coupled together for an instant game-winning combo, Triskelion still makes a fantastic host for Ghave's many counters, especially if he's able to create an infinite number of them.
Say you have Doubling Season in play. Every counter Ghave removes becomes two Saprolings. Those Saprolings untap two lands, for two mana. One mana can then be used for Ghave to sacrifice a Saproling, giving himself two counters (for a net gain of one counter) The other mana is spent to remove a counter from Ghave and make two more tokens, repeating this process. Each time you repeat the loop, Ghave will get more counters. Once he has infinite counters, he can make infinite creatures, which can infinitely untap his lands, and Ghave can make them all infinitely large.
This isn't specific to just Doubling Season, either. Earthcraft also pairs with Cathars' Crusade to produce a similar result, making infinite creatures of infinite power, but without the infinite mana. Alternatively, it can pair with Ivy Lane Denizen or Champion of Lambholt---basically any creature that makes a +1/+1 counter whenever a creature enters the battlefield---to produce infinite (tapped) tokens. You can even use Earthcraft with Mikaeus, the Unhallowed, removing all counters from Ghave, tapping them to get mana, then reviving Ghave with Mikaeus's undying ability, ready to start anew.
Oh, and you didn't think I was going to forget about Phyrexian Altar, did you?
Ashnod's Altar has a sister, and she's vicious. This card is fantastic for both Ghave and Marath. It doesn't give us two mana, but it does create colored mana, which is all we need to keep removing counters from Ghave. Sounds like a perfect loop for a Blood Artist. Ghave also has access to Utopia Mycon, which is a great budget alternative to the Altar.
If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, I can't blame you. There are so many combos it's dizzying, and if I'm being truly honest, it's made writing about this pair of commanders a bit of a nightmare. I've barely scratched the surface of their combo potential. No, I truly mean it. This is a decklist I've consulted for reference material on Ghave, and in the Description section, the author has compiled an itemized list of no less than fifty-seven different possible combos for Ghave. Fifty-seven!
If you're like me, spotting these combos can sometimes be difficult, even when they're staring you right in the face. To try and put these combos into a more discernible form, I've grouped several of the cards we've discussed into categories below. Hopefully this will make them easier to recognize.
- Counter-Makers: This includes Cathars' Crusade and Ivy Lane Denizen, which replace the counters your commander uses up. Since Ghave can take counters from anywhere, not just himself, this category also includes creatures like Champion of Lambholt and Sigil Captain.
- Token Doublers: These are your classic Parallel Lives, Anointed Procession, and of course Doubling Season. The important component is that these help make multiple tokens.
- Mana-Makers: This category houses the infamous Ashnod's Altar, Phyrexian Altar, Mana Echoes, and Earthcraft. Any card that turns a token into a mana source. It also includes the infamous Food Chain, which I didn't even discuss. This is probably the most important category.
- Payoffs: These are the immediate game-enders. Purphoros, God of the Forge, Zulaport Cutthroat, or Fervor. These all reward you for the number of tokens you make.
In general, I'd wager that you need only combine your commander with cards from two of these categories, and you're off to the races. For example, Ghave + Juniper Order Ranger (a counter-maker) + Ashnod's Altar (a mana-maker) will give you infinite mana and an infinitely large Ranger. Alternatively, Marath + Anointed Procession (a token doubler) + Phyrexian Arena (mana-maker) will give you infinite tokens... and then of course infinite mana, followed by infinite whatever you want.
Weight this list heavily toward the mana-makers. It's easily the most important category. The "Payoffs" section is just the cherry on top, the final piece that will simply help you win this turn rather than next turn. Combining Parallel Lives with Blood Artist doesn't really do much.
Commander Showdown is here to help discern the unique strategies between commanders with similar abilities, but I'll admit, I've been a little blinded by all these combos. Many of the pieces are quite similar across both decks. Still, I think there's one key difference between both commanders, and I hope you won't be disappointed by my conclusion.
Both Marath and Ghave can assemble combos, but Ghave does so with a near-sickening ease. Since he can pull counters from anywhere, he has a lot more cards in one of the four aforementioned categories. He has more potential combo pieces, so it's therefore easier for him to assemble one. Frankly, Ghave can barely go one draw step without accidentally going infinite. Any card that looks like it has good synergy with Ghave almost inevitably turns out to be a cog in a machine that barely even needs you to start the engine before it starts to run rampant.
Marath, on the other hand, is a little more... fair. This isn't to say that he's weaker than Ghave, simply that it's easier to build a Marath deck that doesn't accidentally go infinite. His combos are still obnoxiously powerful, but you have to assemble them more purposefully.
In both cases, if you'd like to try and avoid going infinite, the lynch pin is the Mana-Makers category. Turning creatures into mana opens the doors to Bonkersville. Without cards that make creatures a resource, you're more likely to stay within the realm of the finite.
Finally, if you're looking for a deeper difference than mere combo potential, I'd simply say this: Ghave is black. That may sound like a shallow answer, but it's easily the most significant one. Black grants Ghave access to Demonic Tutor and Vampiric Tutor, allowing him to more quickly assemble a deadly combination. Black has Mortify and Putrefy, along with a smattering of other excellent removal spells. Black also has card draw spells, such as Painful Truths and Phyrexian Arena, which definitely help you find what you need. Black gives Ghave stronger removal and card selection.
Red, meanwhile, gives Marath more flexibility. He is whatever you need him to be. While Ghave may plow forward into a combo engine, Marath can be a little more versatile. In a weird twist, adding red to the deck doesn't make it necessarily faster. Ghave can tutor out a combo faster than Marath can. What red gives him instead is creativity. You get to do whatever you want with Marath, while Ghave is a little more circumscribed, unable to move two feet in any direction without finding a combo. To some, that might sound like an unfun restriction. To others, that proximity to infinite power is too tantalizing to pass up.
So... which would you rather be?
Cards to Consider
This article is already pretty overlong, so I'll keep this section short. Below are some cards that don't see as much play as they should. I've already discussed most of them, so this is mostly a reminder.
- Mana Echoes: An unrelenting source of mana. Ghave doesn't have access to it, and I like when commanders take advantage of cards they can access that their competitors cannot.
- Impact Tremors: A budget Purphoros, God of the Forge, and one that I'm surprised only appears in 28% of Marath decks.
- Fervor: There's no reason Fires of Yavimaya should get to hog the limelight.
- Phyrexian Altar: Because it's insane. Marath particularly likes colored mana generation, because it can turn him into a Blaze.
- Heroic Intervention: Marath relies heavily on his assortment of creatures and enchantments, so keeping them alive is paramoutn. Heroic Intervention definitely deserves to see more than 17% popularity.
- Earthcraft: Yes, I know. Ghave is currently the #1 commander for this card. It's a pricey card too. I just want to reiterate how potent Ghave is with mana-makers.
- Walking Ballista: Ghave doesn't have access to a Blaze effect like Marath, but with the Ballista, he won't have to worry.
- Woodfall Primus: This is one I'm very surprised not to see more of. When combined with Mikaeus, the Unhallowed or Mazirek, Kraul Death Priest, the Primus decimates your opponents. I suppose Ghave's other combos are just too big already to fit more into the deck, but as long as we're sacrificing creatures and playing with +1/+1 counters, a creature with persist seems appropriate.
- Blasting Station: Another possible "payoff" card, a la Blood Artist.
- Spike Weaver: One of the best Fogs in the game. As long as you can keep him supplied with counters---which is easy---you'll almost never take combat damage.
At first glance, Marath and Ghave look rather like Rhys the Redeemed or Rith, the Awakener. In reality, they're more like Breya, Etherium Shaper, converting their resources into new resources, and converting those new resources into game-winning plays. I hope I've managed to illuminate some of combos they have in common, and the small twists they each employ to make themselves distinct. When you face off against either Marath or Ghave, keep a very close eye on them, especially their enchantments. They're not that innocent.
So, which would you build? Better yet, which commanders should have a showdown next?
- Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain vs Jhoira of the Ghitu: We have a brand-new Jhoira arriving in Dominaria! How does she compare to the Jhoira of the past?
- Elenda, the Dusk Rose vs Edgar Markov: Who can make more Vampires?
- Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir vs Teferi, Temporal Archmage: There's a new Teferi in our future. How do the old Teferis match up?
- Sharuum, the Hegemon vs Breya, Etherium Shaper: An Artifact Showdown! Or perhaps... should this be Sharuum vs Breya vs New Jhoira for a triple-artifact Showdown?
Cast your votes!
Til next time!