Conditions Allow – Varchild, Betrayer of Kjeldor

(Varchild, Betrayer of Kjeldor | Art by Lucas Graciano)

Names from Legend

Hello, welcome back, it’s good to see you again. This is Conditions Allow, where we take legendary creatures with downsides and build Commander decks to make them strengths. If you’ve been following the preview season for Modern Horizons, you know that the set contains cards that feature a few highly-anticipated characters from Magic’s past for the first time. Both Urza, the hero of questionable moral character, and Yawgmoth, the well-loved villain, will soon grace gaming tables everywhere. In recognition of the occasion, I wanted to go over another character of similar significance, and could think of no one better than Varchild, Betrayer of Kjeldor.

Printed for the first time in Commander 2018, Varchild, Betrayer of Kjeldor was first mentioned back in Alliances on the cards Varchild’s War-Riders and Varchild’s Crusader. Varchild’s War-Riders is particularly significant because it introduced Survivor tokens, which return as the primary focus for Varchild’s effects. Whenever she deals combat damage to a player, that player creates that many 1/1 red Survivor creature tokens, and when Varchild leaves the battlefield you gain control of all Survivors. Additionally, Varchild makes it so that Survivors your opponents control cannot block, and they cannot attack you or planeswalkers you control.

Looking on the Down Side

Because Varchild prevents the Survivor tokens from attacking you, this may not seem like much of a downside. In fact, when I first read her card, I thought it was all upside. You can suit your commander up with a bunch of Equipment to make a ton of tokens on your opponents’ battlefields. Your opponents can use those tokens to attack each other, but not to get in your way. Then, if Varchild is ever removed, you will get all of the tokens and continue to play an aggressive game without stumbling.

Unfortunately, this didn’t ever happen for me. Either Varchild was removed with a board wipe, thus killing all the tokens at the same time, or my opponents were able to sacrifice the Survivors for value of their own. I was essentially giving away free resources.

That experience may be indicative of my playgroup rather than the Commander community at large, but Meren of Clan Nel Toth and Muldrotha, the Gravetide are both among the most popular commanders of the last two years, while Teysa Karlov is among the most popular commanders of the last month. In addition, Skullclamp is played with over 41,000 decks, almost 20% of all the decks in the database. It is extremely likely that at least one opponent at a random table will be happy to grab some free sacrifice fodder.

With that in mind, I’m going to veer away from most of the cards recommended on Varchild’s EDHREC page and instead look at Group Hug strategies, Phelddagrif in particular. Phelddagrif is notorious for being a deceptively nice deck. Like Varchild, the happy purple Hippo gives away free resources in the form of cards and creatures before overwhelming the table with a massive combo. Let’s lean into that strategy to make Varchild even crazier than before.

Free Hugs

Many of the cards found on Phelddagrif’s page reflect a Group Hug strategy. Rites of Flourishing, for example, lets everyone draw extra cards and play extra lands, perfectly distilling exactly what a Group Hug deck wants to do. Those options won’t be available to us in mono-red, but lucky for us, there are plenty of artifacts to support this strategy too.

Howling Mine, Font of Mythos, and Temple Bell give everyone access to reliable card draw, while Ghirapur Orrery lets each player play extra lands. Mikokoro, Center of the Sea is a Temple Bell on a land, while Strionic Resonator can double Varchild, Betrayer of Kjeldor’s damage trigger.

There are also Group Hug cards unique to red, like Humble Defector. Mana Flare acts as a stand-in for Dictate of Karametra, and Varchild’s War-Riders is a cost-free way to give out more and more creature tokens. The most unique effect we can include, however, is Mana Cache. This enchantment gains counters based on how many lands a player leaves untapped at the end of the turn. Then, any player may remove those counters during their turn to add colorless mana to their mana pool. This adds a fun and powerful political tool to the game. You can make a deal to leave a certain number of lands untapped if the next player in order won’t attack you, or bully the rest of the table into playing slower than they’d like, to help someone behind on lands. Mana Cache can also make counter spells a little harder to use, since leaving mana open to cast them could give another player enough mana to deal with your interaction.

The final piece of our Group Hug puzzle is to ensure that everyone is properly using the toys we give them. It just won’t do to have everyone accumulating Survivor tokens and then not attack with them. In order to ensure combat happens, I’m including Fumiko the Lowblood, Goblin Diplomats, and Goblin Spymaster. Curse of Opulence can also encourage early game aggression, and has the added benefit of fitting nicely into our theme of giving away resources. Disrupt Decorum (and Goad in general) is another great way to make sure everyone is doing their part in combat. Not only does it force creatures to attack, it also prevents them from attacking us, a handy feature for ensuring we survive long enough to win.

Equal and Opposite Reactions

Speaking of winning, how will this deck try to do that? Most often, Group Hug decks seek to punish their opponents for taking the gifts we give. Cards like Psychosis Crawler and Treacherous Terrain will deal more and more damage as more cards are drawn and more lands put into play. While we could put Psychosis Crawler into this deck, we won’t ever really obtain the velocity needed to make it a true win condition.

Our tokens, on the other hand, just might do the job. While this version of the deck doesn’t have room for a ton of Equipment to pump Varchild, Betrayer of Kjeldor‘s power, we can still try to gain some advantage by taking back the tokens she gives away. In order to trigger her leaves the battlefield ability, we can include Conjurer’s Closet to flicker her during each of our end steps. For some redundancy, Erratic Portal and Barbarian Guides can bounce her back to our hand. As a small upside, Barbarian Guides can even make Varchild unblockable if any of your opponents are using snow-covered lands for their basics.

When repeatedly bouncing Varchild, Betrayer of Kjeldor, remember that she only stops Survivors your opponents control from blocking. You are free to use them defensively when under your control, even with Varchild on the field.

That said, it might be easier to win if our opponents keep the tokens. That’s right, this deck is going to try and win with Repercussion. With this enchantment in play, whenever a creature is dealt damage, it’s controller also takes that much damage. Not only does this make combat crazy damaging, even to the attacking player, but it also turns damage-based board wipes into highly efficient burn spells.

If each opponent has ten creatures on the field, Mizzium Mortars wins the game. Hour of Devastation only needs to hit eight creatures, while Blasphemous Act wins with four. Star of Extinction only needs two. Most decks will usually have a couple spare creatures hanging around; even spell-heavy strategies often rely on their commander. This is also where Varchild, Betrayer of Kjeldor really comes into her own. Alongside Varchild’s War-Riders, we can make sure each opponent has a couple of creatures out pretty much all the time. Most often, the smaller of these effects will win you the game, however. Following Mizzium Mortars with Jaya Ballard, Task Mage a few turns later is usually enough to win the game, and will make sure you don’t accidentally kill yourself too.

Add in some ramp, draw effects, and a little bit of spot removal, and this is starting to look like a deck. No one will expect this kind of playstyle when you sit down with mono-red, but it is a lot of fun. I also enjoy playing this against a grindy table, as it forces creatures to attack and increases the pace of the game. This is also a lot of fun to try if you’ve ever wanted to end a game of Commander in a tie. Bonus points if you do it with Star of Extinction.

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That brings us to the end of this week’s Conditions Allow. Have you survived your experiences with Varchild? Did you build her as Group Hug, or Voltron, or a completely different path? What ways have you found to punish your opponents for all the tokens you give away? 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.