Commander Showdown - Varina vs Sidisi
Endless Ranks of the Undead
If there's one thing I've learned playing Magic: the Gathering, it's that the Zombies just never stop coming. From Alpha to Zendikar, the dead are always with us, hungry for more. I've written not one but two Commander Showdowns about Zombie tribal decks in Commander... but only for the blue-black legends. While I've discussed The Scarab God, Gisa and Geralf, and Grimgrin, Corpse-Born, Zombies happily extend their reach beyond the confines of these two colors.
Khans of Tarkir introduced us to Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, a Naga who usurped the Sultai throne from my personal favorite commander, The Mimeoplasm (which is fitting, given Sidisi's character). Even though nature abhors a Zombie, Sidisi gave the tribe a green twist, growing ever more cruel and commanding a whopping 2,074 decks! Now, though, her claim to fame is about to be challenged by the up-and-coming Varina, Lich Queen, who exchanges green for white in her mission to overrun the world with undead. She provides a platform for Esper Zombie tribal, granting her access to the white-black creatures from Amonkhet.
How does Zombie Tribal change when it shifts from Sultai to Esper? Let's find out!
The Brood Tyrant
We'll start with Sidisi, Brood Tyrant. We all know what she does: when she enters the battlefield or attacks, she'll mill the top three cards of your library, and anytime one or more creature cards are sent from your library to your graveyard, she'll give you a 2/2 Zombie token. Note that even if she mills two creatures, you only get one Zombie; she measures by individual instance, not sheer number. (This is what makes Mesmeric Orb so potent, as it mills cards one at a time.) Even with that restriction, Sidisi can quickly generate an army of undead, which makes her quite the formidable opponent. Let's waste no time and take a quick look at a Sidisi deck.
Since some folks play Sidisi as a classic, non-tribal graveyard deck, we'll modify our results by using EDHREC's Theme Selection Filter, so we only look at Sidisi with a Zombie twist. I love classic graveyard strategies, but if we want to compare Sidisi to Varina, we'll need focused results. Using EDHREC's data, below is an Average Sidisi Deck that specifically focuses on the Zombie tribal theme.
Average Sidisi Zombie Deck
We know all the old favorites by this point. Death Baron, Undead Warchief, Rooftop Storm, all classics of the genre. To differentiate Sidisi from Varina, we need to focus on what she has that Varina doesn't: the green cards.
Green gives Sidisi some nice selection in the form of Jarad's Orders and Grisly Salvage. These, along with Sultai Ascendency, all help fill your graveyard, filter the top of your library, and create more Zombies to boot. However, the real standout is Path of Discovery. Every time you make a Zombie, you get the chance to mill another card from the top of your library, which could create yet another Zombie! This card is good enough to play in token decks even without that extra Sidisi synergy, so it's an extra-special inclusion here.
Sidisi also gleans tons of extra value from Splendid Reclamation and Life from the Loam effects. Since she fills up her own graveyard with such ease, these cards can provide a huge boon for mana advantage.
These cards are impressive, but they're also about the only support Sidisi gets from green. There are only 9 cards in Sidisi's deck that include green in their mana cost, and only one of them is a creature: Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord. Let's remember, though, that this is just the average Sidisi Zombie deck. Some cards get left by the wayside when we deal with averages. Still, the fact that the Average Deck only contains 1 Forest is pretty telling.
Lots of fantastic cards exist in green that Sidisi is able to take advantage of, depending on your flexibility with tribal themes. Eternal Witness, Ramunap Excavator, and World Shaper all give Sidisi a fantastic recursion suite (as does the popular new Muldrotha, the Gravetide. These aren't Zombies, but they're good value. If you prefer great green cards that don't disrupt your flow of undead, Parallel Lives can make you even more tokens, and Beast Within is always good removal. Plus, Villainous Wealth is amazing no matter where you play it. Take note, too, that this average list isn't even running staples like Kodama's Reach and Cultivate!
The precise degree of Zombie tribal you wish to include in your Sidisi Zombie deck is, as always, up to you, but depending on your flexibility, green provides very little in terms of actual Zombie support. This is problematic for many of the excellent green support spells, because Sidisi wants as many creature cards as possible, to make sure she mills a creature card and creates more tokens. The green spells that make the cut therefore have to be fantastic... and let's face it, they are. What green doesn't provide in direct Zombie support, it makes up for with excellent cards that simply grease the wheels of Sidisi's strategy. While black and blue create legions of powerful brain-eaters, green keeps your value train chugging along.
There's actually a pretty significant aspect to green that I think Sidisi decks aren't taking advantage of, though... but we'll get to that later. For now, we should take a quick look at Varina.
When we replace green with white, we get some very different interactions, not to mention a very different commander! Varina, Lich Queen creates Zombies not by milling us, but by paying two mana and exiling two cards from our graveyard. Like Sidisi, she also has an attack trigger, drawing and discarding a card for each attacking Zombie, not to mention gaining that much life!
Exiling two cards from our graveyard is a pretty significant cost. In fact, it's one of the reasons Gyrus, Waker of Corpses has thus far failed to excite players. As necromancers, we want neverending access to our best dead cards, and the word 'exile' gives us Rest in Peace-related nightmares. It's not all bad, though. If Tasigur, the Golden Fang players can stomach the removal of his own graveyard, we can too. Plus, it turns out that Varina's payoffs are super worth it.
Very Voracious Varina
Even though Varina's Zombies have a lot in common with Sidisi's, we can see several big differences when comparing Sidisi's decklist to Varina's.
First, the Zombie payoffs are a bit more direct. Wayward Servant gives us another great Zombie, draining life from our opponents when we expand our encroaching horde. We also get access to Binding Mummy, which is just disgustingly powerful with Varina's ability; attack with a few Zombies, draw and discard a bunch of cards, exile them from our graveyard mid-combat to create Zombie tokens, and tap down any blockers in the way of our oncoming horde! Varina can even use this as a political tool, tapping down attackers at instant speed during other players' turns, or even making deals with opponents, tapping down Player A's blockers so Player B can attack them too!
Oh, and who could forget about Necromancer's Covenant? This card is already criminally underplayed in regular white-black decks, but in Varina, it's a total cert. Ruin a Muldrotha, the Gravetide player's day while generating a whole new wave of awesome attackers, not to mention give your whole team lifelink? What a house. Aggressive decks can sometimes feel hesitant to attack because it could leave them vulnerable, but Varina is on track to gain us so much life that we won't really mind the counterattack.
Second, white grants Varina access to some of the best removal in the format. In fact, let's look at a small list of Varina's white cards in the decklist and compare them to Sidisi's green cards from the Average Deck we saw earlier.
|Varina White||Sidisi Green|
|Binding Mummy||Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord|
|Wayward Servant||Grisly Salvage|
|Merciless Eviction||Sultai Charm|
|Anguished Unmaking||Jarad's Orders|
|Path to Exile||Life from the Loam|
|Swords to Plowshares||Splendid Reclamation|
|Utter End||Journey to Eternity|
|Anointed Procession||Path of Discovery|
|Cathars' Crusade||Sultai Ascendancy|
While Sidisi plays some cool green cards, they largely fit into that same "grease the wheels" category I mentioned above. Varina, on the other hand, is bursting with destructive spells. Path to Exile, Swords to Plowshares, Anguished Unmaking, Austere Command... white is just lousy with efficient removal, and Varina is happy to take those spells from the graveyard and fashion them into walking corpses.
Thus, difference number three: Sidisi is deeply invested in recursion. From Living Death to Gravespawn Sovereign to Splendid Reclamation, Sidisi knows that her graveyard is an extension of her hand. She's part-Ghoulcaller Gisa, part-Muldrotha, the Gravetide, creating Zombies and reclaiming lost treasures.
Conversely, Varina's graveyard is an expendable, finite resource, one she must use intelligently, but without mercy. Varina carefully selects the cards in her hand and disposes of the rest. Every one-for-one she casts is actually a one-for-one-and-a-half, because it will end up in her graveyard for her to create a token later.
As long as we're comparing data, check out the difference between the popularity of Parallel Lives in Sidisi decks vs the popularity of Anointed Procession in Varina decks. They're both excellent token doublers, and these commanders love to make tokens! Yet Parallel lives is only in 21% of Sidisi decks, while Anointed Procession is in 76% of Varina's. Why the 55% difference between their popularity?
It might be recency bias, it might be the price, but my main theory is this: Sidisi needs to devote at least 33% of her deck to creature slots, to better guarantee she'll make a Zombie whenever she attacks. This leaves much less room for noncreature cards, so there's a ton of pressure on those spells to be incredible. Compare this to Varina, whose list above only includes 22 creatures, a full 11 less than Sidisi. With more flexibility to include noncreature spells, she has more breathing room to add the token-doubling Anointed Procession with no problem. Meanwhile Sidisi simply can't include every amazing spell she wants, because she needs the creatures.
In fact, there's even a difference between the types of Zombies we see in each of these lists! Sidisi has the great Zombie Lords like Lord of the Undead and Death Baron, but also Corpse Connoisseur and Havengul Lich, good Zombie cards with good effects. On the other hand, for the Varina deck, I almost exclusively included the Zombie Lords that pump your team, or Vengeful Dead creatures that make your team threatening even when they die!
This all leads me to the fourth and final significant difference between these two commanders. Sidisi makes tokens by using her creatures, but Varina makes tokens using her spells. Such significant creature density completely changes the way these two play. Sidisi plays creatures, makes creatures, revives her creatures, and kills people with creatures. Varina selects the exact control spells she needs and makes Zombies with them after they've served their use, playing only the very best Zombies that will strengthen her team to close things out once she's removed her obstacles.
In short, the difference between them is as simple as the difference between white and green. White gives Varina a degree of control, eliminating threats as her army grows, while green gives Sidisi an intense focus on creatures, and insuring that death is only ever a temporary phenomenon.
Cards to Consider
Finally, let's wrap up with some overlooked cards that both commanders should take a second look at.
- Parallel Lives: I know, we've been over this, Sidisi is hard-pressed to run only the best noncreature spells. Well, I think this is one of them. 21% is much too low. (Although I do understand this card is expensive.)
- Perpetual Timepiece: Again with the noncreature spells, I know. I have to mention the Timepiece, though. This is another Sultai Ascendancy that can actually protect your graveyard from a Bojuka Bog. Golden.
- Stitcher's Supplier: This little guy is better than he looks, filling your graveyard and giving you two separate chances to make Zombies, while still being one himself. There are worse ways to fill your graveyard than this little fella
- Glissa, the Traitor: Yeah, she's a Zombie, and she's awesome. She can get back your Sol Ring or your Mesmeric Orb, but she also just plain kills anything she touches!
- Beastmaster Ascension: Another noncreature, but hear me out. This is the thing I mentioned in Sidisi's section above that I'm astonished more people aren't using in her deck. Sidisi, though graveyard-focused, is still a creature-based strategy. This or Overwhelming Stampede or even Craterhoof Behemoth will turn those creatures into absolutely lethal threats from out of nowhere. If you're playing green, I firmly believe you should take advantage of what green does best.
- Gisa's Bidding: Cards with Madness are just gas. You'll be discarding some stuff, so you might as well get extra value out of it and make some more awesome zombies!
- Risen Executioner: I don't like this guy much in Sidisi, but I like it a lot here. Varina can actually make sure it's cheaper to cast from your graveyard!
- Stubborn Denial: I will literally never stop recommending this card.
- Wayfarer's Bauble: This is already an underrated mana rock, but I particularly like it for Varina, because unlike a Signet, it'll wind up in our yard for her to exile later.
- Radiant Destiny: One of the best white tribal cards. The more I play Commander, the more I value vigilance to keep myself alive, especially in a deck that wants to attack as often as this one.
Aber-Zombie and Fitch
Both Sidis and Varina give blue-black a fantastic twist on a classic genre, white by adding control and precision, green by adding strength and recursion. It truly appears that the ranks of the undead will simply never cease... which is very fitting. Undeath, as these commanders beautifully demonstrate, is the only way to live.
So, which of these Zombie queens would you build? Which commanders do you want to see in the next Commander Showdown?
- Muldrotha, the Gravetide vs Tasigur, the Golden Fang: To the Sultai, death is a source of wealth.
- Vela the Night-Clad vs Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow: A whisper in the night. You're dead before you even see your attacker.
- Kruphix, God of Horizons vs Omnath, Locus of Mana: Two commanders that hold onto mana for much longer than normal.
- Grenzo, Dungeon Warden vs Alesha, Who Smiles at Death: Pulling tiny creatures from the weirdest places.
Cast your votes!
Til next time!