Conditions Allow - Rakdos the Defiler

(Rakdos the Defiler | Art by Zoltan Boros and Gabor Szikszai)

Demonic Consultation

The Ravnican guild leaders are famously powerful individuals. From Dragons to mad Wizards and Shapeshifters, they need to be powerful, sneaky, or both to vie for control of the city streets. Today’s featured commander doesn’t seem to care much about ruling, though, focusing instead on spreading his own demonic chaos.

Rakdos the Defiler has two triggered abilities. When he deals combat damage to a player, that player sacrifices half of the non-Demon permanents they control, rounded up. Combined with Rakdos’s natural flying and trample, this is a dangerous trigger. Notice the text doesn’t specify nonland permanents either; when Rakdos strikes an opponent, most of the time that player will have to lose at least one or two lands, especially if they're running a strategy that puts a lot of lands onto the field.

Before we get too excited, though, let’s read the first line of text. Whenever Rakdos the Defiler attacks, we are forced to sacrifice half our non-Demon permanents, rounded up. Again, this doesn’t specify nonland permanents. If Rakdos attacks enough, eventually we will be left with no lands, and no ability to interact with anything our opponents do. Demons may be powerful, but they cannot stand up to a Wrath of God on their own.

High upside, but high downside, too. How do we make Rakdos viable despite this significant drawback?


Finding Fodder

Rakdos's drawback is especially difficult because, even though Rakdos will usually trample over blockers, he can only deal damage to one opponent at a time. In a game with three opponents, his effects will hit us three times as often as our opponents, in the best case.

There are cards in Magic that could help us get around this. If, for example, we created tons of tokens, that would mitigate our losses. However, red and black are not as flush with tokens as I'd like. Ophiomancer and Siege-Gang Commander could help, but I still feel we'd be outpaced. White and green opponents in particular will have lots of ways to spit out tons of tokens and stay ahead of Rakdos’s sacrifices, especially with Anointed Procession, Doubling Season, and Parallel Lives, all of which would be invaluable tools in this Demon’s arsenal. I don't think we'd be able to keep up with other colors on this front.

On the other end of the spectrum, Faith’s Reward effects would reset our board. This again is a white card, but black has access to abilities like this too, with cards like Thrilling Encore and Garna, the Bloodflame

However, there's again an important distinction here. Faith's Reward effects entirely reset the board, bringing back sacrificed lands, artifacts, enchantments, and even planeswalkers, while Garna and Encore only work on creatures. Since Garna in particular only brings them back to our hand, but does not help our lands, it would be almost impossible to successfully utilize the creatures we retrieve. 

Even a reanimator Rakdos route seems dicey, as many of the best reanimation cards are permanents. Animate Dead and Necromancy would certainly help us get back any creatures we lose, but the next time we swing with Rakdos, we might need to sacrifice those creatures or even those enchantments as a tribute to his Demonic rage. Plus, they still don't help us with our other resources.

So we won't use Rakdos with tokens, and we won't try reanimating or recouping our losses to his ability. What will we do?


Non-Permanent Solutions

One solution is to be very careful when and whom we attack with Rakdos, while structuring the deck to work with minimal resources. Instead of trying to make up for Rakdos's sacrifices, we could lean into them, and use his ability as a safeguard rather than an outright game plan. 

In many Commander games, one player will pull ahead and threaten to run away with the game entirely. Rakdos represents an insurance policy against that. Then, unlike most other board wipes or even land destruction effects, Rakdos could garner significant good will from the other two players, since we have to make a significant sacrifice as well. Sometimes, the player who knocks the top dog off their pedestal immediately becomes the next threat, but since we just lost half our stuff too, we're less likely to be seen as the new Public Enemy #1. Rather than a monstrous force others must fear, we can be an equalizer, a check and balance against the problematic player.

Plus, with the right prep, we can have surprisingly explosive turns even with just two or three lands in play. This is thanks in part to lands like Dwarven Ruins and Lake of the Dead, which act as temporary sources of mana, giving us the ability to carefully control how many permanents we have on the field while producing more mana than we should have access to. In the same vein, red and black both have access to a number of rituals to help push out mana faster.

I want to focus as much as possible on low mana, non-permanent mana sources like Dark Ritual and Seething Song. With even just four lands, and the right cards in hand, we can produce seven to eight mana without too much trouble. Not only will it prevent us from having to sacrifice valuable permanents, but opponents will also just never see it coming!

In conjunction with these rituals, most of the creatures in the deck produce mana as well. Some, like Wily Goblin, Captain Lannery Storm, and Dire Fleet Hoarder generate Treasure tokens when they enter, attack, or die, respectively. In the early game, these help to push out bigger threats, and later on, they allow us to fine tune the number of permanents we control to save important cards like Revel in Riches and It That Betrays.

The other pseudo-mana-dorks in the deck sacrifice themselves for mana. My favorite is probably Generator Servant, which produces two colorless mana that will grant a creature haste. Otherwise, Blood Pet and Basal Thrull store black mana for us to use later. If we draw them late, they can become fodder for Rakdos if we need to protect a certain permanent on the field. In truth, sometimes we’ll want to cast Rakdos early. Usually this is pretty risky, but it can be a necessary evil against fast token decks, especially if you draw (or tutor for) one of the few cards that synergize nicely with Rakdos the Defiler.

Some of these, like Kothophed, Soul Hoarder and Harvester of Souls are Demons that live quite happily alongside Rakdos. Others are a little more fragile. The most fun of these, and perhaps most useful, is Revel in Riches. Riches is one of the ways Black has to quickly spit out tokens as fodder for our commander. If we don’t need that fodder, Treasure tokens make for a valuable source of ramp after sacrificing most of our lands.

We can also use Strionic Resonator to double Rakdos’s on-damage trigger. A rather more vicious card to pair with Strionic Resonator is It That Betrays. This massive Eldrazi also doesn’t discriminate against lands, and its own innate Annihilator 2 combines with Rakdos’s own sacrifice trigger to give us a huge number of permanents after combat.


Animated Sacrifice

Of course, in most cases we won’t have the 12 mana it takes to cast It That Betrays. We can even struggle to find the mana for Kothophed after attacking with Rakdos. To help get around this, I’m including a couple of graveyard tutors, like Entomb and Buried Alive, to put our game ending creatures into the graveyard. Reanimate is the most efficient way to get those creatures back, but cards like Zombify and Rescue from the Underworld can be useful tools as well; remember, we want non-permanent cards for reanimation, because additional permanents on the board will be sacrificed to Rakdos eventually, and when they go, the creature will go down with them, making them less useful than they would normally be. Of course, I’ve also included Living Death, which can immediately flip the tables and put all our mana-providing creatures and big threats back on the field.

The final card that synergizes with Rakdos is a strange sorcery from Future Sight with a new twist on Storm. Bitter Ordeal has Gravestorm. When it is cast, it will be copied for each permanent put into a graveyard this turn. This counts the permanents we sacrifice, and the permanents from our opponents, plus any Treasure tokens we may have sacrificed for mana that turn. With a Strionic Resonator in play, we can get close to exiling a whole library. Even without it, this can be useful for exiling key combo pieces from several decks at once.

Which brings us to the full decklist. Rakdos colors don’t lack for good removal options, and have some really good card draw, especially for reanimator strategies. Like permanent-based reanimation, I have also avoided permanent-based draw, such as Phyrexian Arena. These engines are usually invaluable sources of repeatable card advantage, but I’ve tried to stay away from permanents wherever possible for this list, opting instead for Read the Bones and Sign in Blood. In the same vein, I’ve chosen many mana rocks that can be sacrificed for value. These tiny adjustments should add up to a deck whose diabolical schemes are largely unseen to our opposition, and whose haymaking attacks will hurt us far less than the opponent we choose to equalize.

That's enough from me, though. Let's meet the true star of the show, Rakdos the Defiler.

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This deck is a great representation of the Rakdos color philosophy. It creates really fun, crazy situations and prompts lots of discussion as you move to combat. Our isn't just victory, but also to put on a good show, keeping people in check as needed, appearing less threatening with our exceptionally small board, until we're able to ritual out a lot of unforeseen problems like Revel in Riches or It That Betrays for an unbeatable lead. Just remember that you don't have to keep attacking with Rakdos to win.

That brings us to the end of this week’s article. Did I miss any amazing cards that should always go with Rakdos the Defiler? Is there another commander you’d like to see me cover in this series? Let me know in the comments!

 

Ben was introduced to Magic during Seventh Edition and has played on and off ever since. A Simic mage at heart, he loves being given a problem to solve. When not shuffling cards, Ben can be found lost in a book or skiing in the mountains of Vermont.