Epic Experiment - Varina Control

(Varina, Lich Queen| Art by Igor Kieryluk)

Epic Preparations

Good morning, EDHREC! I’m Bernardo Melibeu and this is Epic Experiment, a series where we throw all common sense aside and experiment with some unusual cards, effectively changing how we normally build our deck. Is it going to work? Who knows?! We’re making science here. When you’re an Izzet mage, blowing things up in front of your own face is half the fun.

In this article we're going to take a look at one of the new commanders from C18, Varina, Lich Queen

Let's quickly look at her kit.

Whenever you attack with one or more Zombies, draw that many cards, then discard that many cards. You gain that much life

2, Exile two cards from your graveyard: Create a tapped 2/2 black Zombie creature token

Observation 1:

She's obviously the Esper Zombie commander that people wanted since the release of Amonkhet, and she's very good at it.

Observation 2:

The value gained with her first ability is absurd! A repeatable form of card selection is very strong, especially in tribal decks. The lifegain is better in slower decks

Observation 3:

Her second ability is very strong; making creatures at instant speed plays well with the EDH playstyle, where you need to hold interaction, but at the same time, you can't afford to not play anything if the table decides to play around it.

Observation 4:

Her second ability makes tokens, which feeds into her first ability, which draws and discards cards, which feeds into her second ability, using discarded cards to make tokens... It's nice when a card is as self-sufficient as this one.

Observation 5:

She plays nice with many of the blue looting effects, and because of that, she can go through the library very fast.

The Old Formula

With that in mind, let’s head to Varina’s EDHREC page and see how she’s usually built:

It's not a surprise that both lists are full of Zombie goodies as she's the only commander that can helm an Esper Zombie deck. It feels like there's nothing much to say... or is there?

The Epic Ingredients

When Varina came out, I didn't pay much attention to her. However after playing a couple of games against the deck, I was impressed. As much as her kit screams "Tribal!" at first glance, she is a lot like Goblin Rabblemaster, as they're both basically a one-person Goblin/Zombie army. When building her as a Zombie tribal deck, you get the full benefit of her first ability. However, there's a drawback to that plan: you are playing with a deck full of Zombies. (Don't @ me on this one! Zombie tribal just isn't my jam.)

So what's the plan? Trading explosiveness for consistency and control. This will allow us to eventually get the full Varina experience, which is pretty fun.

Since Varina rewards putting cards in the graveyard, and she likes having the mana to exile them, we'll be playing this deck as an Esper Talrand, Sky Summoner deck. (Also, WotC, please make an actual Esper Talrand!) We'll play lots of interaction, and once we get our commander into play, we'll always have something to do with our mana. Having a token enabler in the command zone means that we can adopt the Voltron deckbuilding mentality - not as a Voltron herself, just the mentality - where we play a deck full of support cards and enablers, and rely on our commander to do the rest.

Playing control is very often seen as the "fun police," but don't let that stop you from playing it. In my view, games are just better when all players get to have a chance to do something, instead of the usual dynamic where one person snowballs into an overwhelming threat if they go unanswered for too long. Being the control deck in a multiplayer setting is very challenging; it takes a lot of experience to know which threat to answer and how to do it (destroying it, countering it, bouncing it). After all, there're three other players that we have to worry about, and our cards and mana are limited. Because of that, it's very important to keep drawing cards (even if it's just looting them) so we can always have an answer available.

The best part of Varina's looting ability is that we get to do it passively, meaning that we get to cycle through some cards for free! This leave us with fresh hand and 0 mana spent to do it, meaning that we're able to hold up counterspells, removal, or even activate Varina's second ability at a moment's notice.

With all the constant discarding, we get a unique opportunity to build around some underused effects, like Madness, that help us get more value from ours discards. From Under the Floorboards is a great way to stabilize and it also gives us relevant creatures. Faith of the Devoted and Drake Haven are cheap ways to get some advantage, but we need to be careful to not tap more mana than we need to, since we're still trying to hold interaction.

Another way to get value from discarding is to play some Flashback cards, so we can still cast the card we discard, almost like we didn't discard anything at all! Unlike Madness, there are several playable Flashback effects that can fill an wide array of functions, such as card draw (Deep Analysis, Think Twice), tutoring (Increasing Ambition), and tokens (Army of the Damned).

Even though we have the ability to loot away bad cards, we don't have the luxury to constantly do that to bad removal spells. That means that our deck has to be filled with cheap, versatile, and effective interaction. Luckily for us, we are in Esper colors, which means that we have access to some of the best interaction ever printed, from Path to Exile to Reality Shift to Anguished Unmaking.

With all the cards we'll be looting, we are at serious risk of decking out, so as a backup plan, we can run a few ways to shuffle some cards back from our graveyard. Even if those shuffle effects might deplete Varina's stockpile of cards to exile, it's worth it so we don't lose the game! Since Timetwister is a little out of budget for paper players (if you play online, this is a must-have), we can play the next best things, Commit // Memory and Elixir of Immortality. One important skill to learn when playing these effects is knowing what to exile with Varina. It's safest to exile old lands and mana rocks, but be careful exiling your removal or card draw spells, because when we reshuffle, we'll need those effects again.

Control's bad reputation is, in general, due to its lack of good win conditions, which usually means that the game lingers for far too long and starts to get annoying. When I previously said that this deck is like a Talrand, Sky Summoner deck, it's because both Varina and Talrand are good win cons, as long as they get the right support. Cards like Coat of Arms, Kindred Discovery, and Anointed Procession can all help end the game. Aside from the beatdown plan, we also have a few combos to get out of sticky situations. Approach of the Second Sun is a must-include in every Varina list, since all our digging makes it so easy to become a one-turn clock. Kindred Discovery goes to infinity and beyond with any of the doubling effects (Anointed Procession,Alhammarret's Archive), plus any of our mana generators (Mind Over Matter, Ashnod's Altar) and our commander or a handy Zombie Infestation.

The Mixture

As we can see, it's pretty much a blue-based Esper control list, playing a high amount of card draw, removal, and counterspells. The mana rock suite help us get to the point of being able to hold two spells on the same turn. Plus, playing a turn three Varina is pretty darn good.


For our opening hand we need mana sources and card selection. A hand with 2-3 lands might look good on paper, but the cost of missing a land drop in the early game might be crucial for our development. Hands with 4-5 lands plus some cheap way to dig through our library, like (Careful Study or Chart a Course), are pretty solid and usually allow us to have a good game.

In the early game we start very fast, playing some cheap cantrips or mana rocks. When we get to turn 3-4, we need to start looking at what everyone's doing and how can we fight against it. We don't need to counter a creature if we have removal for it on hand; it's better to wait for the last moment before our turn to kill something (unless we're saving it for something else). It's better to always try to leave two mana so we can bluff counterspells. Holding up UU is very scary for our opponents. Because of that, we should be conservative when committing things to the board.

By the mid game we start having fewer cards in hand, this is where our commander truly shines. Getting to untap with her means that we at least we have one free looting effect, plus we also get to hold up her second ability for as long as she's in play. If we get a couple of tokens to untap, we'll be in a decent position. If this is not the case, we can always wipe the board and watch our opponents' faces as they're left with few cards in hand and an empty board. We should be careful when playing haymakers like Alhammarret's Archive without protection, as they tend to attract a lot of attention.

During the late game we might be on a low life total, but that's not a problem since we have our commander to help us stabilize. By now we can activate her multiple times while holding interaction, and we might even have some value engine going on, so it's just a matter of finding a Coat of Arms or Approach of the Second Sun to win the game. Remember that Mind Over Matter is a busted Magic card and that it's the start of many different combos.

Epic Results

As a control deck, your job is to adapt to your meta, which means that adjusting your removal suite to better fight against your meta's threats. The deck is very flexible to accommodate such opposition.

For example, Laboratory Maniac could be a good inclusion, since we can actually deck ourselves if we're not careful with our draws.

Since we have no creatures in the 99, there's also a case for playing a Polymorph package, probably involving Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur and/or Consecrated Sphinx!

That’s it for this Epic Experiment! What do you think about Zombie-less Varina control? Please fell free to leave any suggestions in the comments section. Do you have any questions about the list? Which cards did you like? Which didn’t you? Was the Epic Experiment a success? Please let me know!

Bernardo has been playing(on and off) since portal and somehow manage to survive mirrodin block while being a total casual(beast tribal ftw?). He loves all the shades of blue and being the one saying "nope", while holding a full grip of cards in hand.