Commander Showdown — The Scarab God vs Gisa and Geralf vs Grimgrin
Two months ago, I wrote a Commander Showdown about the reigning zombie tribal commanders, Gisa and Geralf and Grimgrin, Corpse-Born. Then Hour of Devastation happened, unleashing one of the coolest and most frightening commanders we've seen in a long time: The Scarab God.
The zombie apocalypse never stops, nor do its commanders. We've been graced with another blue-black commander that likes the undead, and this time, it can actually zombify any creature in a graveyard. Gisa, Geralf, and Grimgrin (let's call them GGG for short) had better move aside, because a new competitor has arrived.
Our new Scarab God has a nightmare-inducing head and a nightmare-inducing set of abilities. For starters, it saps life from your opponents for each zombie you control. In case that doesn't seem powerful enough, you also get to scry that many cards, digging you closer to your favorite spells.
We're not done yet; The Scarab God doesn't just reward you for each zombie you control, but can actually create zombies for you, enabling its own ability. For four mana, you get to 'eternalize' a creature from any graveyard, bringing it back to the battlefield as a 4/4 black zombie. You get to do this at instant speed, so it's even feasible you could steal someone's Kozilek, Butcher of Truth before it shuffles back into its owner's library. In fact, even if you control no zombies during your upkeep, you can activate the Scarab's ability in response to the trigger, so you'll still scry and drain life.
We've previously seen activated-ability-resurrection on commanders like Geth, Lord of the Vault and Chainer, Dementia Master. The Scarab has a few new tricks up its chitinous sleeves, though. For starters, it has the additional blue, widening its pool of playable cards. Second, it doesn't put the resurrected cards into play tapped, like Geth. Lastly, if the Scarab does get removed, the zombies remain on the battlefield, unlike Chainer, whose Nightmares leave with him.
Even if The Scarab God does get removed from the battlefield, it has the same "return to hand" clause as its friends The Scorpion God and The Locust God. While this won't help against a Path to Exile or a Chaos Warp, it does save you from commander tax after a Decree of Pain or Fumigate. Then you can spend that extra mana eternalizing more creatures from graveyards!
We're not here just to talk about the Scarab's abilities, though. We want to know how this big bug compares to the established kings and queens of zombie tribal. In my previous review of Gisa and Geralf vs Grimgrin, I came away with the following summary:
"Think of it this way: Gisa and Geralf represent the genre of slow, shambling, but inexorable masses of zombies from Night of the Living Dead, while Grimgrin, Corpse-Born is more akin to the zombies from 28 Days Later, able to take you down with remarkable speed if you’re not careful."
This still strikes me as an apt summation; Gisa and Geralf are gradual, but overwhelming, while Grimgrin is capable of instant-win combos and one-shot voltron strategies. So where does The Scarab God fit in? Is it slow and shambling like Gisa and Geralf? Is it faster than Grimgrin? We need some data.
Venn Diagram Time
Normally I do a Venn Diagram comparing the Top and Signature Cards for each commander, to see which cards overlap. Since we have three commanders this time, I've changed it up a little. There's one big column for cards that show up as Top or Signature Cards for all three commanders. After that, each commander will get its own column for the unique standouts for each deck. (Any cards that show up as popular for two decks, but not all three, will stay in those commanders' columns.) Check it out:
Now this is interesting. We have an enormous overlap between all three commanders, as expected. All three decks run a veritable wall of zombie cards, including lords like Diregraf Captain and token-makers like Grave Titan and Ghoulcaller Gisa.
The real meat of this diagram isn't in the commonalities, however, but in each commander's unique columns. As we've seen before, Grimgrin prioritizes cards like Call to the Grave and Grave Pact, which synergize with its creature type and sacrifice abilities. Gisa and Geralf prefer a bit more of the graveyard interaction with Prized Amalgam and Unbreathing Horde. The Scarab God throws us our first real curveball.
Training Grounds is some spicy tech for the Scarab's activated ability. Paying only two mana to eternalize any creature from a graveyard? That's sick. We also see a zombie-maker in the form of Dread Summons, which GGG don't run. The tokens are nice, but they enter tapped, and the other commanders would rather spend six mana on two zombie lords than a handful of tapped tokens. The Scarab loves milling people, though. The bigger the graveyards, the more options you have to eternalize. Plus, those tapped zombie tokens will still make opponents lose life.
Still, there's a lot more going on in the Scarab's column than just a few high-synergy cards. While GGG have near-identical columns, the Scarab's column is more unique, in the strangest of ways: by containing nonunique, often-played, staple EDH cards.
The Unusual Suspects
Cyclonic Rift is the #2 most-played card in EDH, right behind Sol Ring. It clearly belongs in any blue deck, including GGG decks. Yet it doesn't show up as a Top Card for those commanders, just for Scarab God. Along the same line, Phyrexian Arena is the #2 most-played monoblack card on EDHREC. It too shows up as a major player for the Scarab, but not for the other zombie tribal commanders, even though it's good enough to warrant play in all three decks.
Looking closer, Counterspell and Talisman of Dominance also show up in the Scarab's column. These are yet more quintessential Dimir cards, the most usual of usual suspects. The only zombie-related card in the Scarab's column is Liliana, Death's Majesty, which still sees 45% and 42% popularity in Gisa and Geralf and Grimgrin, Corpse-Born decks, respectively.
So what can we make of this? Why do popular, obvious blue and black cards show up more in Scarab lists than in GGG lists? To my mind, the answer is pretty simple: The Scarab God is not necessarily a zombie tribal commander.
Gisa and Geralf players love zombies a lot. They're very dedicated to the undead, because they frankly don't do much without them. Grimgrin, Corpse-Born players enjoy zombie tribal too, but they do recognize his power level as a non-zombie-based deck. His Rooftop Storm + Gravecrawler combo isn't about zombies, it's about going infinite. Others suit up Grimgrin as a Voltron that destroys blockers. He's a bit more flexible, but still largely used as a tribal commander.
The Scarab God presents a new plot twist. It drains life and likes to scry, but that's hardly the most interesting part of this commander. Eternalizing creatures at will? That's the fun part. This ability is completely abusable, regardless of zombie strategies. Sure, it's fun to buff up your tokens with zombie lords like Lord of the Accursed and Undead Warchief. But it's also fun to just steal someone's Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. The Scarab God doesn't need to commit to zombie tribal to be fun and powerful. Of these three commanders, it has the most license to do whatever it wants, because resurrecting a wall of 4/4 creatures is a solid strategy on its own. That's why we find generically awesome non-zombie cards like Cyclonic Rift in its Top Cards. It's less dedicated to zombies, because it doesn't have to be.
Thus, I present to you a potential non-zombie decklist for a zombie-making commander. Take a peek:
Non-Zombie Scarab God
Careful readers will note that this 'non-zombie' list still has several zombie cards. Army of the Damned and Grave Titan are two such standouts. Does this mean I caved and couldn't actually fashion a decklist without zombie tribal after all? Well, no. These cards create a ton of tokens that are incidentally zombies. They're perfectly powerful even without Lord of the Undead powering them all up. Army of the Damned is particularly funny if the tokens last an entire round at the table, because that's 13 life from each opponent!
The direction of this deck is fairly clear, though. Rather than casting lots of zombies, it's aimed more towards graveyard shenanigans. Traumatize, Mesmeric Orb, and Windfall effects fill up graveyards quickly. There's a smattering of cheap reanmation spells like Animate Dead, to resurrect creatures when mana is tight. It costs nine mana total to cast and activate The Scarab God, after all.
There are a few other nice synergies as well. Bribery is particularly fun, fetching out someone's best creature, which they'll surely have to remove, at which point you might be able to steal it again with the Scarab's ability. I'm also a fan of Vedalken Orrery and Leyline of Anticipation for this commander. Since you can activate the Scarab's ability at any time, it's nice to be able to cast your spells at any time too, so you can always respond to each threat in the best way possible.
Frankly, this list looks more similar to a Lazav, Dimir Mastermind deck than to Gisa and Geralf or Grimgrin, Corpse-Born decks. Much like Lazav, this deck runs right through everyone's libraries to find awesome creatures to play with. Don't let it fool you--this isn't a mill deck. Well, it is, but milling isn't the endgame. It's just a way to get powerful creatures within reach, so you can bash face with an army of 4/4s. The most important thing is getting a bunch of cards in graveyards, and a bunch of mana to eternalize them.
Going Your Own Way
Is the above decklist the most optimal build for a Scarab deck? I honestly have no idea. That's the beauty of this commander—it's exceptionally versatile. Zombies are a great direction to take the Scarab. So is mill. So is control. Destroy each creature your opponents throw at you, revive them, and use all those Counterspells to keep your board safe. Another great option is a reanimator strategy. You have Rise from the Grave on a stick in your command zone, after all. Buried Alive can find you a bunch of epic creatures to revive, like Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur. You might not make a lot of friends that way, but it's a perfectly valid option.
There's a lot you can do with the Scarab, not just zombie tribal. Don't feel restricted by statistics. The numbers show a lot of players building with an eye toward the undead, but you should build your deck however you please. The big blue beetle is a powerhouse no matter how you brew it. If this showdown has taught me anything, it's that the Scarab is actually quite similar to Oona, Queen of the Fae; it's potentially a tribal deck, or potentially a mill deck, but either way, it likes making creature tokens.
(Oh, one last thing—if you do brew with The Scarab God, it might be wise to familiarize yourself with how it interacts with Clone effects. I had Clever Impersonator in my list, for example, and you're likely to play games where you can resurrect a clone with the Scarab's ability. Though the Scarab sets power and toughness to 4/4, if you do revive a Clone and wish to copy something, the Clone's ability will take over and rewrite its identity to the copied creature. Just something to be aware of so you don't have to stop a game for ten minutes to discuss a rules interaction.)
Cards to Consider
Alright, before I leave for this week, I want to discuss a few cards that aren't seeing a lot of play in Scarab lists right now, but that probably should. I've already provided a few ideas for GGG in their showdown article, but I've got a few recommendations for The Scarab God below:
- Oracle of Dust is probably a little too cute, but still worth a look. The Scarab exiles creatures from graveyards, and a few choice Eldrazi Processors can put those cards right back, to be eternalized again and again. It might be a bit silly, but if you can make it happen, you're basically unstoppable.
- Grave Betrayal does the Scarab's ability for you for free. It even turns creatures into zombies! If the zombie does eventually die again, that's no big deal. You can just eternalize it again with your commander.
- Heartstone is a budget version of Training Grounds. It does affect all players, which isn't ideal, but when your commander has an activated ability as powerful as The Scarab God, it's definitely worth it.
- Diluvian Primordial and Sepulchral Primordial. These are two of the most powerful creatures I've ever cast in commander. The words "each opponent" always signal something insane. We play crazy creatures in this format, and cast even crazier spells. As long as you're messing with graveyards--which the Scarab God does--you should be running these. The best part? After they die, you can eternalize them and get their abilities all over again.
- Life's Finale. Okay internet, we need to have a talk. At time of writing, there are 130-ish decks for the Scarab God on EDHREC right now, but only 23% of them are running Life's Finale. Consider this an intervention. Life's Finale was practically made for this deck. It wipes the board, filling graveyards with creatures, then reaches out and plucks three more right from someone's deck! The Scarab is salivating at the mouth (er, pincers) for that much value. More decks are currently running Damnation, which is a good card, to be clear, but it's not better in this deck. Spending two extra mana to find three juicy eternalize targets is worth it every time. Don't be blinded by Damnation just because it's famous. Choose cards that synergize with your commander. Life's Finale is absolutely one of those cards.
Looking back at my movie metaphor, I'd like to amend it to include the Scarab God. As I said before, Gisa and Geralf have gradual but unending zombie hordes like Night of the Living Dead. Grimgrin, Corpse-Born is full of instant combos and one-shot kills, a much faster attack, like the sprinting zombies from 28 Days Later. The Scarab God's zombies are a little different: they're the White Walkers from Game of Thrones, magically converting everyone in their path into soldiers for their undead battalion. You're never really sure what they're up to or when they'll strike, but they definitely have a plan, and it's definitely going to cause you problems.
So, which of these commanders would you play? Which commanders should have a Showdown next? Let me know below!
Til next time!