Commander Showdown — Zedruu vs Kynaios and Tiro
Commander Showdown is a series that compares and contrast two similar commanders, analyzes differences in strategy and deck construction, and evaluates how those differences are represented by the data here on EDHREC.
Here on Commander Showdown we’ve discussed a wide array of deck archetypes, from token swarms to counterspell control. One we haven’t yet discussed is group hug, a strategy that, counterintuitively, gives cards to your opponents to win the game.
This strategy causes many to raise a skeptical eyebrow. Why give resources to my enemies? Why not just beat them instead? If I give cards to my opponents, won’t that just make it harder for me to win?
Perhaps…but perhaps not. Good group hug players are clever, crafty, and sometimes the most dangerous people at the table. Since their cards look less threatening than a souped-up Rafiq of the Many or an explosive Maelstrom Wanderer, group hug players tend to fly under the radar, avoiding aggression from the rest of the table. After all, why attack the person who lets you draw extra cards when someone else has a Blightsteel Colossus breathing down your neck? Group hug players use this psychology to their advantage, keeping a low profile and waiting for the perfect opportunity to take control of the game.
So for this showdown, we’ll take a look at the two most popular group hug commanders, each with over 900 decks here on EDHREC. Let’s get right to it!
Zedruu the Greathearted is a tricky little minotaur with the curious ability to give your permanents to your opponents. As a reward, she grants you extra life and extra cards for each donated permanent. Since her original preconstructed deck was titled 'Political Puppets,' it’s easy to see the strings attached to her strategy: give your opponents your permanents in exchange for favors, and reap the benefits all the while.
Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis take a different approach. Hailing from the blackless 'Stalwart Unity' precon from Commander 2016, they embody the spirit of altruism by sharing the wealth with all players. At the end of your turn, your opponents each get to play a land or draw a card. You, however, get to play a land and draw a card, so you still maintain a slight advantage.
Both commanders are excellent for group hug strategies, but the types of hugs they give are incredibly different. Don’t just take my word for it; we love data here at EDHREC, so let’s get some proof.
The Venn Diagram
I’ve arranged a list below of the Top and Signature cards for each commander, to see what cards they have in common. (Kynaios and Tiro’s list is smaller, since they’re one of the only commanders in their color identity and therefore have no Signature Cards section.)
Take note of how few cards there are in the “Both” column:
Donation, Donation, Donation
There are only four shared cards between these commanders: Swords to Plowshares, a staple removal spell for white decks, and a smattering of ‘pillowfort’ enchantments, like Ghostly Prison. These enchantments fit into nearly every group hug strategy, since they make it easier for your opponents to attack each other than to attack you. This gives you the freedom to sit back comfortably and plan your next move.
Aside from that, the lists are entirely dissimilar. Let’s start with Zedruu. Her column is filled with spells that exchange control of permanents, supplementing her own ability. It also contains a bunch of cards Zedruu is eager to give to her opponents. Generally speaking, we can break these donatable cards into three different categories:
- Political favors. The first category contains cards opponents are eager to receive. A great example is Humble Defector, a nifty red creature that draws you cards and shifts loyalty to another player. If you set up an alliance with an opponent, the two of you can exchange the Defector back and forth to draw a lot of extra cards. Zedruu will gladly give opponents gifts in exchange for favors, such as immunity from attacks. She scratches your back, you scratch hers.
- Harmful offerings. Look closely at the art of Harmless Offering and notice that the cat has a snake for a tail. This category represents that tail. Here we have the classic Illusions of Grandeur, which grants a life boost when it enters the battlefield, but demands a hefty payment when it leaves. Zedruu can take advantage of cards with nasty consequences by simply giving them away and forcing her opponents to suffer. Steel Golem can cut off an opponent’s trail of creatures, for example. Statecraft can protect you when you need it, but giving it away can stop an aggressive opponent right in their tracks.
- Useless leftovers. The last category is full of cards that don't actually do much after they've been cast. All those Oblivion Ring effects in Zedruu’s column aren’t just there for removal. They serve double duty by also providing her with excellent donation fodder. Once it’s on the battlefield, Oblivion Ring doesn’t care who controls it. Neither does Detention Sphere. They’ve served their purpose, so you might as well draw some extra cards off them.
Depending on which category of card you give to an opponent, you can create a very different atmosphere in the game. Giving someone a Banishing Light will provoke a much different response than giving them a Pyromancer's Swath to discard their hand, or an Aggressive Mining to cut off their lands. Balancing these political responses is the real key to a Zedruu deck.
Speaking of politics, this is where we have to contrast Zedruu’s column with Kynaios and Tiro’s. The cards here are significantly different, and not just because many of them are green, and therefore unavailable to Zedruu. There’s a difference in the spirit of the cards in each list. When I say ‘spirit’ I don’t mean some heart-of-the-cards shenanigans. I mean the goal of the cards, or their political implications. Let’s look a little closer:
Rites of Flourishing is one of the top cards in Kynaios and Tiro decks, at 68% popularity. It functions almost like the commander itself, letting all players draw extra cards and play extra lands. Farther down their list we also see Howling Mine and Collective Voyage, which serve similar functions. Others still, such as Tempt with Discovery and Selvala, Explorer Returned maintain the same ‘slight advantage’ effect as Kynaios and Tiro, benefiting all players, but you most of all.
Cards like this demonstrate the most important difference between these two commanders. When politicking with Zedruu, a literal exchange occurs on the board, with control of one permanent changing to another player. Everyone can see this exchange, since it’s right there, face-up on the table. They can immediately understand the nature of the relationship between you and that player, depending on what category of card you gave them. Zedruu’s favors (and punishers) are targeted towards specific, individual players.
Kynaios and Tiro, on the other hand, are a bit more nebulous. The bulk of their cards bestow passive benefits to all players, not specific ones. When you’ve given benefits to everyone, you’ve sort of given benefits to no one. Alliances with other players are therefore harder to detect, since they’re not tangible on the battlefield.
Group hug decks rely upon politics and group psychology to win games, but the politics of these separate interactions is vastly different. Zedruu is eager to start making allies right away, so she can start giving away her permanents and reaping the benefits. However, she also has to start making enemies, because even her mundane donations like Oblivion Ring probably aggravated the player whose permanent was exiled. Kynaios and Tiro, though, can take a bit more time before they start forging alliances, because they don't have to take any action at all to receive their own benefits. Plus, unlike Zedruu, their ability isn’t dependent upon permanents. Any specific favors they offer to individual opponents are more likely to be in the form of spells, rather than creatures or enchantments, so their alliances don't have do be as (forgive the pun) permanent as Zedruu's.
This is good to know when building (or playing against) either of these commanders. Zedruu is more likely to be proactive, messing with player allegiances right from the start. Kynaios and Tiro are more likely to bide their time and stay neutral.
Paths to Victory
The most difficult part of piloting a group hug deck is the win condition, and this is another area where these two commanders can vary quite a lot. A common criticism of the archetype is the cards are intentionally non-threatening and low-power. Sure, this helps you avoid attacks and removal, but how does it help you win?
Well, it’s important to note that even if Zedruu wants to start donating permanents right away, she is by no means out to end the game quickly. Group hug decks tend to create longer games, not in the painstaking-three-hour-grind sort of way, but certainly to the point where the 9-mana spells are flowing. As a result, Zedruu decks have a number of closers.
Assemble the Legion and Psychosis Crawler both show up in Zedruu’s Signature cards, which makes a lot of sense. The more turns you get, the more tokens you can create to overwhelm your enemies. Zedruu also draws you a lot of cards late in the game, if you’ve played her correctly, so a Psychosis Crawler and a Paradox Haze can cause your opponents to lose over 10 life a turn.
Zedruu is also no stranger to alternate win conditions, such as Felidar Sovereign. She does gain you a bit of life, after all. Aetherflux Reservoir is another such tool. Even Azor's Elocutors has been known to show up in a Zedruu deck here and there, either to clinch victory after they’ve locked down their opponents, or as an aggressive donation to another player, who then gets a target painted on their back.
Another option is, frankly, trading. Zedruu decks don’t just give cards away with Harmless Offering and Donate, they also exchange them with things like Cultural Exchange. All Zedruu cares about is whether a card you own is on the other side of the table, not how it got there. So cards that exchange permanents can be used not only to set up her ability, but also to steal your opponent’s powerhouses. Cultural Exchange can trade your handful of tokens for an Avacyn, Angel of Hope and her angel army. Alternatively, you can cash in a single wimpy creature for someone else’s hexproof-indestructible-double-striking Uril, the Miststalker. Cultural Exchange doesn’t care about shroud or hexproof, after all.
Kynaios and Tiro can use similar tactics. Progenitor Mimic will take over the board just like Assemble the Legion if it’s given enough turns. Since they run lots of Howling Mine-esque cards, Psychosis Crawler can work just fine for them too. I’m personally a fan of the new Treacherous Terrain, which often catches opponents off-guard by punishing them for all the extra cards you’ve given them during the game.
There’s also the classic Insurrection. This spell can feel cliché or cheap to some, but if there’s any deck archetype that deserves to win the game with Insurrection, it’s group hug. Giving all those bonuses to opponents, only to take them all back for one glorious turn? That’s a victory you’ve crafted, not one you lucked into. Since it’s infrequent for Kynaois and Tiro to have a lot of creatures on the battlefield themselves, Reins of Power is another, much less expensive option, one that’s especially effective when the game has come down to a 1v1.
Most of all, though, group hug decks win with flexibility. The original 'Stalwart Unity' precon contained many of the aforementioned cards, but it also contained Keening Stone, Rubblehulk, Hoofprints of the Stag, and Selfless Squire. Some of these win conditions build up over the course of the game, others come out of nowhere, and many are designed to take opponents by surprise. This is why many of the win-condition cards on Kynaios and Tiro's EDHREC page barely scrape more than 30% popularity. A good group hug player adapts not only to their meta but also to any board state, and will build their deck with an eye toward variety, to keep opponents on their toes and their route to victory unpredictable.
Cards to Consider
There’s no one right way to build any deck, and that’s especially true for these commanders. EDH politics is incredibly meta-dependant, and really comes down to your own comfort level. Some players enjoy tabletalk, while others don’t like making overt alliances. Others still will prefer to keep people guessing, or to let the cards speak for themselves. If you’d like some tips about navigating multiplayer politics, a great resource is the Command Zone podcast’s Political Tips & Tricks episodes, here and here.
In the meantime, though, I’ve got some suggestions below for cards that aren’t very popular for these commanders, but pack such a powerful punch that they warrant some extra-careful consideration.
- Delaying Shield. When I saw this card my jaw just about dropped. Illusions of Grandeur is certainly a swingy card, but it’s proactive, not reactive. Delaying Shield is precisely the opposite, threatening retribution to any player who even thinks about attacking you. As long as you leave up enough mana to give the Shield away, your opponents will be scared to attack you, giving you more time to set up your strategy. Plus it stops infect and commander damage by turning it into life loss instead!
- Rainbow Vale. It's easy to forget about the mana base, but there are excellent synergies waiting there for Zedruu. I'm surprised the Vale only has 32% popularity, since it donates itself for free. I'm doubly surprised that mana rocks like Sphere of the Suns and Pentad Prism aren't high on her page either. Both provide you with mana, then can be tossed to an opponent when you’re through with them. They’re also excellent trade fodder for cards like…
- Legerdemain. Harmless Offering and Donate are popular for Zedruu, but for just one more mana, a card like Legerdemain can trade cards instead of merely giving yours away. Puca’s Mischief sees play in over half of Zedruu decks for exactly this reason. Legerdemain is just one more option, and I’m fairly certain it doesn’t appear on Zedruu’s page because players don’t know about it, not because players don’t like it. (See also: Juxtapose.)
- Experienced Zedruu players know that giving away creatures is a risky move. EDH is full of board wipes and creature removal spells, so you might not glean any benefit with Zedruu by giving away a creature. Donating an artifact or enchantment is usually much more beneficial, since they’re harder to remove. Despite all that, I’d like to make a case for Stuffy Doll. This little guy is indestructible, so he survives those pesky board wipes and becomes a constant feature of any opponent’s battlefield, consistently drawing Zedruu extra cards. Creepy Doll also helps with this strategy. Both can be used as political leverage, one by naming a contentious opponent, the other by giving an ally a risky-looking blocker.
- Finally, it’s just as useful to know what your commander doesn't do as it is to know what your commander does do. To that end, cards such as Torpor Orb, Rest in Peace, and Mindlock Orb can hold back other popular strategies while barely affecting Zedruu at all. Like Oblivion Ring, these cards don’t care who controls them, so they’re great giveaways. Another nasty option is Nevermore, naming an opponent’s commander and then giving them the very enchantment that rendered it uncastable. You have to be careful with these effects, though. Mrs. Meren of Clan Nel Toth won’t react kindly to your Rest in Peace, nor will that Karametra, God of Harvests player over there enjoy being Mindlocked. The trick to these cards is making sure the players they don’t affect help you keep them around; Karametra loves Rest in Peace, for example, because it keeps Meren off her back too. These cards aren't auto-includes, but they’re useful for keeping powerful commanders in line, so they’re worth checking out.
Kynaios and Tiro
- I wasn’t kidding when I said flexibility wins games, and over half the cards I’m going to recommend for Kynaios and Tiro offer flexibility in one way or another. The first is Naya Charm, and I cannot express how badly I think you should be playing this card. This is flexibility at its finest. The first mode can pick off a pesky utility creature. The second can retrieve that removal spell you already used and play it again, or let you team up with an opponent to get back their removal spell, and take out a mutual enemy creature. The third mode can tap down an army, either to keep it from attacking or to keep it from blocking. The possibilities this card affords you are practically endless, and it should absolutely see more play than a mere 36 Kynaios and Tiro decks. (Not 36%. Just 36. Seriously, give this card a try, you won’t be sorry.)
- Insidious Will is another modal spell that provides you a great deal of power. No matter what your opponents cast, you can sit back comfortably with this card in hand. If they try for a terrible spell, shut it down. If they try to remove something you don’t want removed, change the target. If they play a spell you like too, go ahead and copy it. No matter what they try, you have an answer in one form or another.
- Order // Chaos. Split cards are another method of flexibility, and this is definitely my favorite. The bargaining chip this card becomes is almost scary. You can either screw over the attacking player or screw over the defending player, making you the real master of the combat step.
- Mob Rule has just been, in my experience, a straight-up cheaper Insurrection like 87% of the time. The card is excellent for finishing games, but somehow not popular at all, and that feels wrong to me.
- Rogue's Passage. This was a very sneaky reprint in Conspiracy: Take the Crown, an excellent set to peruse if you’re looking for political card ideas. Colorless utility lands in a four-color deck are risky, but I think this one’s worth it. Opponents can’t stay on top for long when you can break through their defenses, or when you can let someone else’s attacker break through instead. Kessig Wolf Run is another solid choice for the same reason. Surprise trample-buff can totally knock out another player if they aren’t careful. Utility lands that affect combat are nice ways to control combat scenarios without using up too many spell slots in your 99.
Who Wants a Hug?
Group hug commanders may not look as overtly powerful as many of the heavy-hitters out there, but they are not without their wiles. They can change the landscape of the game, and are frequently difficult to pin down because of their slippery spells. Leovold, Emissary of Trest may be gone, but these decks carry on the spirit of his flavor text: “I'm sure we can come to an arrangement.” Just be aware of the different types of arrangements each of these commanders will try to offer you. Oh, and watch out for knives--when someone wraps you in a great big hug, it might be the perfect opportunity for them to stab you in the back.
Til next time!