Commander Showdown - Wilhelt vs The Horde
(Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver | Art by Chris Rallis)
Where There's a Wilhelt, There's a Way
Welcome to Commander Showdown, where we compare and contrast commanders with similar abilities to discover the overlaps, differences, and nuances of their strategies!
That's right, the Commander Showdown series has come back from the dead, just like the commander we're discussing in this article. Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver bowled us over with a fascinating new twist on the Zombie tribal genre, eating up our undead buddies and churning out a new batch of Decayed friends in their place.
While Wilhelt is a fresh new take on the genre, the fact remains that he's also treading upon extremely familiar territory. Zombies are the third most popular tribe in the entire format, and they have a multitude of commander options, from Gisa and Geralf to The Scarab God. In fact, I've written three different Commander Showdown articles about Zombie decks - here's one for The Scarab God, Grimgrin, and Gisa & Geralf, who give the tribe its classic touch, and here's another for Varina and Sidisi, who give the blue-back Zombie formula a new and colorful twist.
Those articles are several years old at this point, but many of these commanders remain extremely popular. This makes it a little intense when a new challenger like Wilhelt enters the ring; should we compare and contrast him to Gisa and Geralf, or to The Scarab God, or is he perhaps more akin to Varina, Lich Queen? What subtle nuances exist between these Zombie commanders? How do they differ, and how can we evaluate those small distinctions when the field is so crowded?
Well, like any good Zombie movie, I'd like to take on the whole horde. Let's examine Wilhelt on his own terms, and find the specific details that make him distinct from other Zombie commander options. While we're at it, I'd like to dredge up some thoughts from my previous articles about the other Zombie commanders, to see if those evaluations are still fresh, or if those ideas, like our Zombies, have decayed.
Let's get going! Time for Commander Showdown Zombie Edition, Part 4!
If I Only Had a BRAAAAAINS
First things first, viewers of the EDHREC YouTube channel will know that I've recently discussed Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver in an Upping the Average video, which I'll provide a link to below. Wilhelt has absolutely boomed in popularity, already nearing 1,000 decks on EDHREC, and since Zombies have been such a popular tribe for so long, there's been a lot of data to explore.
However, even after this video was published, I discovered I wasn't quite done with Wilhelt. The goal of the Upping the Average series is to take the average deck from a commander's page, and upgrade that list without increasing its total price, or perhaps even lowering its total price. This has some interesting side effects, especially when it comes to the spicier cards out there in EDH land. There are several cards I'd have loved to include in the video, but which are out of its price range. In addition, the average decklist for Wilhelt contains a decent number of infinite combos, which can have a big impact on the deck's whole strategy.
In other words, the final deck in that video isn't necessarily the Wilhelt deck I'm personally interested in building myself. I've endlessly tinkered with my own Wilhelt precon to try and find the direction I want to take it, and those experiments have yielded some fascinating results. In fact, if you're interested, you can even watch some Wilhelt gameplay on @ManaCurves's EDH stream with me, Chase, SchmandrewArt, and Arin Hanson of Game Grumps and Shuffle Master fame.
This means we have a lot of ground to cover, so let's get to know Wilhelt a little more. We've got to start somewhere, so we might as well go big. Let's talk about those combos.
Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver sports an amazing ability to replace Zombies with Decayed Zombies, giving us a final burst of one-time damage, or another body to sacrifice. It took the internet approximately 0.8 seconds to deduce that this ability goes infinite with the back half of Poppet Stitcher, which removes the Decayed effect from Zombie tokens. With any sacrifice outlet, such as an Altar of Dementia, this produces an infinite (and often lethal) loop.
Not only that, but Zombie players have long been keen on the Rooftop Storm + Gravecrawler combo. Use a sacrifice outlet like Ashnod's Altar to sacrifice the Gravecrawler, then recast it from the graveyard for free with the Rooftop Storm, resulting in another infinite loop. With a Diregraf Captain or Bastion of Remembrance in play, this will win the game. The Gravecrawler combo appears in about 60% to 80% of Wilhelt, Gisa & Geralf, Grimgrin, Varina, and Scarab God decks, though it isn't very popular in Sidisi, Brood Tyrant.
Oh, but the undead aren't done - Rooftop Storm also goes infinite with Acererak the Archlich, who constantly jumps back to hand! For such a shambling tribe, they sure do pack a big punch.
I won't be surprised if Wilhelt's combo potential leads his deck data down that path even more. When your commander is part of a combo, that can have big ramifications in the 99. It may increase the tutor count in the deck, for instance, since you can Entomb a Gravecrawler right away, or Demonic Tutor for that Rooftop Storm. This is a lesson we've seen from Grimgrin, Corpse-Born, who also combos easily with Gravecrawler, and whose average deck contains a high number of tutor effects.
However, this isn't necessarily the direction I'd like to take Wilhelt, either when upping its average list or when tuning beyond that point. I'd like to take lessons learned from our other horde members, and use their guidance to move forward.
So, now that we know a little about the data that's already showing up on Wilhelt's EDHREC page, let's briefly see what Wilhelt can learn from our other Zombie commander cohorts.
Gisa and Geralf
In my previous evaluation of Gisa and Geralf, I described them as "gradual, but overwhelming", likening their strategy to the typical Night of the Living Dead slow-and-shambling Zombie archetype, which nevertheless inexorably consumes everything in its path. I largely still agree with this take, since this commander makes sure the dead never stay dead for long. However, I'd add that the high number of Zombie pump effects these days, from Death Baron to Undead Warchief, does make the 'Human' type on Gisa and Geralf a little funny. This is especially true of the card Zombie Apocalypse, which consumes Gisa and Geralf.
The lesson to learn here is one of resiliency - Gisa and Geralf remind us the value of good ol' fashioned graveyard recursion, and since Wilhelt likes to sacrifice Zombies so often, getting them back might be even more important than usual.
I already hinted earlier at the lesson learned from Grimgrin - he's part of his own Gravecrawler combo, since he functions as his own sacrifice outlet. Using Rooftop Storm and a death trigger like Diregraf Captain or Plague Belcher, Grimgrin is able to serve up a infinite combo, or just become infinitely large himself.
In truth, the lesson I want to take away from Grimgrin is his ode to the classics. Old favorites like Vengeful Dead litter his deck data, and it's important to hold onto those and make sure we're not just distracted by shiny new releases.
The Scarab God
In prior articles, I praised ol' Beetlejuice here for its versatility. This deck doesn't need to be built as Zombie tribal. It often is, and there are some cool payoffs when it's built that way, but you can also just slam awesome creatures into this deck, too. For example, I'd love nothing more than to slam an Eligeth, Crossroads Augur onto the battlefield with mon petit scarabée and just go to town with that scry effect.
This is absolutely a valuable thing to keep in mind when building a tribal deck. I don't build tribal decks very often, which means I can get blinders while brewing them, and I'll often look just within that tribe when researching cards to add. The Scarab God's page in an invaluable resource for discovering cool ways to create a lot of bodies at once - Noosegraf Mob is a particular favorite of mine - but it's not just Zombies that make Zombies! We shouldn't be afraid to look for help outside the tribe. A Ghoulcaller Gisa, for instance, can make an awful lot of shamblers.
Sidisi, Brood Tyrant
My lesson from Sidisi is one I learned years ago, wrote about a lot, and then completely forgot until just now. Sidisi is a master of balance. She must keep her deck a minimum of 33% creatures to make sure her combat trigger reliably creates a body. This limits her spell options, forcing her to be choosey when deciding which noncreature cards can even make the cut. Not only that, but when built as an explicitly Zombie tribal deck, her color balance gets extremely lopsided, potentially overloading with tons of black cards, but very few blue or green cards.
That balance is a tricky thing to manage, and a very good takeaway. It's not just about creature density, but also managing your colors effectively. If our deck ends up as only one-fifth blue cards, instead of half-blue-half-black, that doesn't inherently mean we're off balance. In fact, it might mean we're on the right track.
Varina, Lich Queen
Finally we have Varina, and her lesson practically leapt right off the page and tried to bite me in the face. Varina is a master of expendability, a mistress of removal, and a lover of tokens. Varina can turn any old cards into a Zombie token, which gives her a relentless flexibility, especially when she uses cool instants as fuel for later. Wilhelt also loves a good trick or two, especially when they make extra tokens, so a card like Lazotep Plating seems right up our alley. In fact, this even inspires me to look into other methods of making more tokens with Wilhelt....
Resiliency, classics, versatility, balance, and trickery. With our lessons learned, let's finally get to a Wilhelt decklist!
Wilhelter SkelterView on Archidekt
Buy this decklist from TCGplayer
As a reminder, I chose to opt out of combos for this list, but that doesn't make this Zombie plague any less apocalyptic. Even our resources are deadly. Crowded Crypt is becoming one of my favorite mana rocks ever printed, rivaled only by Heraldic Banner, which is great for a deck that always makes tokens of a single color.
I also have to tell you that I veritably screamed in delight when I first used a Cleaver Skaab to make two copies of Gray Merchant of Asphodel, and I absolutely howled when I was informed that the Skaab can sacrifice token creatures, not just nontoken Zombies.
Let me also take a moment to shout out snow-covered lands. Mixing your basics increases the number of names for a Field of the Dead to track, sometimes resulting in more Zombies more quickly.
Now that I'm a little more emboldened to venture out for non-Zombie helpers, I can in fact confirm that the rumors are true: Death Tyrant is a total house for Wilhelt. Decayed creatures sacrifice themselves at the end of combat, but that event still takes place during the combat phase, where they're still considered an attacking creature. Thus, every decaying death the Tyrant oversees will result in a fresh new token.
If you'd prefer to avoid sacrificing Zombies with Decayed, then you might instead enjoy a nice Teferi's Veil, which can phase the tokens out before combat ends, so they'll safely arrive back the next turn!
Oh, and Species Specialist absolutely rocked me to my core. It was out of budget for the Upping the Average video, but boy howdy, Wilhelt has a lot of Zombies falling apart all around him, and the Specialist picks up all of those pieces.
Speaking of things dying - do you know what happens when you cast a kicked Rite of Replication on Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver? Each copy sees the others die, resulting in a whole lot of new tokens. It's also just a great spell to use on our Zombie lords! Making copies is so fun that I'm even including Blade of Selves to make more!
Leaning into the tribal accoutrements, Pyre of Heroes and Reflections of Littjara have really impressed me. Birthing Pod effects aren't necessary for every tribe, but this happens to be one with a good mix of redundancy and toolbox effects, and our commander makes us tokens every time we burn a Zombie anyway! Meanwhile, Reflections of Littjara spits out so many extra Zombies that it's frankly kind of disgusting, especially since so many of them pump each other up, like Lord of the Accursed and Tomb Tyrant.
Then, of course, there's Tombstone Stairwell, the Aristocrat's dream. This is pretty dang awesome with Wilhelt's own ability, since he'll replace all the Zombie tokens every turn already, but it's particularly nasty when you combine it with a Vengeful Dead, since that creature counts the death of any Zombie, not just yours.
If there's anything I've learned from this, it's that Zombies truly can't be killed. This is the tribe that just keeps on giving, resurrecting itself every so often to deliver an exciting twist, even when we think we have the lay of the land already. Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver's preconstructed deck is one of my favorite Commander products Wizards of the Coast has ever made, and I've absolutely fallen in love with this deck. I just hope that this whole Decayed Zombie plan doesn't fall apart on me.
What do you think? Has the Rotcleaver got your head rolling, or does another Zombie tribal commander still hold your heart? Let me know in the comments below, and don't forget to suggest other matchups you'd like to see in a future Commander Showdown.
Til next time!