Mind Bend - Animar-ed Orzhov

(Mesa Enchantress | Art by Randy Gallegos)

From Protection to Direction

“Scholars seek to understand the way the world is. I wish to shape the world into what it should be.”

Mesa Enchantress flavor text

Welcome back to Mind Bend, the article series that breaks down the conventional notions of the color pie to forge new ground outside the confines of the already established. Last year, I wrote an article that took the spirit of an Izzet-based spellslinger deck to build a Golgari deck that slung its creatures as if they were instants. I found that particular type of Mind Bend worth exploring again, so this time we're going to apply the lessons of a very popular Temur (blue, red, and green) commander to a very different type of Orzhov (white and black) deck. Which Temur commander, you ask? How about the most popular one?

Coming in 26th overall on EDHREC and boasting over 2,000, it's...

Animar, Soul of Elements! This time, I'm letting Animar, a commander that wallops white and black the most, teach Daxos the Returned a whole new set of lessons. We're going to apply some fundamental learning from the Soul of Elements and try to build a Daxos deck with that frontier spirit.

Now, you might be wondering, "Why Daxos the Returned?" It's because ever since I've first seen him in Commander 2015 and subsequently played against him throughout the years, I've always wondered why he struggles the way he does. For some reason, his decks felt way too slow, and never felt like they could get ahead, though I'm sure some players have found a build that works for them.

What's mind boggling, though, is that 1) enchantment decks are well-represented in the format and often quite powerful, and 2) experience counter commanders such as Meren of Clan Nel Toth and Mizzix of the Izmagnus are also fairly strong. So there's nothing particular about the mechanics and style of a Daxos deck that should be hindering it.

To get into why his performance might be stunted, let's first turn our eye to a beast of the format and see what it does well. Animar, Soul of Elements, it's your time to shine.

A Little Bit of Soul

To break down Animar's elements, I took a look at it's EDHREC average decklist, and found that most cards fit into a few staple Commander categories:

  • I counted at least 15 dedicated ramp spells, some of which were noncreature spells, but many, like Birds of Paradise and Rattleclaw Mystic, were helping to grow Animar, Soul of Elements in the process. Ultimately, the key is that most ramp spells aid in colored mana production so that Animar handles the tab when it comes to generic costs. The sticking point for Animar decks are the colored mana pips, so its ramp addresses that.
  • I found at least 17 cards that tutor or draw. Most, like Beast Whisperer and Guardian Project, snowball off the back of the creature-based ramp mentioned above to generate more cards and put more counters on Animar.
  • Animar decks contain an equal mix of answers and finishers. Most answers, like Destiny Spinner and the new Fierce Guardianship are more about protecting yourself than they are dealing with your opponents. As for finishers, they pack a punch. Since Animar can build up counters quick, dropping Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is pretty easy.
  • Then, there is a small package of combo, mostly centered around Cloudstone Curio, Ancestral Statue, and their substitutes. This specific strategy allows you to cast creatures over and over again to make Animar arbitrarily large, or win through Purphoros, God of the Forge damage, or cast that Ulamog over and over again to exile the entire board. The general themes of ramp and draw above makes finding and playing these lines much easier.

So what items from the above breakdown can we apply to a Daxos the Returned enchantment deck? First, we need to focus on cost reduction. Daxos wants a lot of experience to make his tokens formidable, but we need a way to both cast enchantments AND have room left over for making more spirits off Daxos' ability. Cost reductions, as Animar doles out in its decks, are key to those multi-spell and ability turns.

Second, we need to chain our spells as best as we can via accrued cards. Animar wants creatures that draw us into more creatures, so we should try to do the same in Daxos with enchantments. Finally, we should focus on protection as best we can, keeping ourselves in the game until we're ready to unload.

Less is More

Before we begin making changes from Animar's lessons, let's first look at the average decklist for Daxos the Returned on EDHREC to see what's going on currently.

What you'll find is a deck chock-full of enchantments, as expected, boasting over 30 cards of this type. However, the vast majority of those enchantments sit at or above three mana. Combined with the sparse mana ramp (I counted four mana rocks, one mana reducer, and two enchantments that can get you mana, both of which were above three mana), you'll be lucky to cast one enchantment a turn. Things get more dire if you're trying to build up experience on Daxos AND making tokens. You're left with doing one or the other, but not both most of the time.

The thing is, Daxos the Returned's token making ability needs plenty of experience before it goes from good to great. The going rate for power and toughness at three mana is about 3, so to "break even" when pumping mana into Daxos, you need to cast at least three enchantments, which, in the case of the average deck, will take somewhere in the range of two or four turns. Do you want to wait that long for a 3/3? Animar makes 3/3s in its sleep.

So what can be done? As I mentioned before, when looking at Animar, cost reduction is key. Animar makes its creatures cheaper to cast, so why can't we make enchantments easier? Let's meet our cost reduction team, shall we?

The Key to Victory

Starfield Mystic is a holdover from the original decklist, and for good reason. It reduces the costs on nearly a third of the deck. We can shave off a mana for each enchantment we play in a turn, which can make difference between casting one enchantment or two, or give us a little leftover for another Daxos token. In a similar vein, Cloud Key adds to the reduction without the need for a body. Pearl Medallion reduces the costs on all white spells we play, which you will later find make up the bulk of the deck.

To add a few more cost reducers, we need to choose a strategy, of which I think I found a good one.

The Hero We Need

Hero of Iroas and Transcendent Envoy both reduce the cost of a specific type of enchantment: Auras. Auras attach to specific permanents or players, and give desired (or undesired) effects. Normally, as Hero of Iroas encourages you to cast spells targeting it based on its Heroic mechanic, but it's perfectly fine with reducing the costs on Aura we send elsewhere. That also brings our number of cost reduction effects up to five, which is quite good when coupled with traditional mana rocks like Talisman of Hierarchy.

And wouldn't you know it, as soon as we slide into the Aura strategy, we pick up a few great Aura-based card advantage creatures. Kor Spiritdancer and Sram, Senior Edificer can join Mesa Enchantress as more ways to draw through our deck when cast enchantments. Adding to our Auras theme, Heliod's Pilgrim and Three Dreams let us go find the most useful Auras for the time.

Aura Borealis

We've found a way to implement the first to keys from Animar's strategy, but what about protection? This deck was already leaning towards grinding out our opponents with incremental draw, but let's seal the deal with a plethora of Auras meant to hold our opponents at bay.

We have some added sway against creature decks because a lot of positive and negative Auras are meant to enchant creatures. We can stall out big beaters with Pentarch Ward or Spirit Mantle. Or, we can render them useless with Darksteel Mutation.

For other threats our opponents might produce, we have a few other Auras in our pocket. Curse of Exhaustion grinds spellslinger decks to a halt. Evil Presence can turn off a powerful land. And of course, Overwhelming Splendor is best applied to the player most likely to ruin your day.

It wouldn't be Mind Bend without a little trickery, right? As discussed on a recent EDHRECast, Dana's Challenge the Stats pick Pariah is perfect for this strategy. We can at least buy ourselves a turn from attacks, but it gets way better when you toss Pariah onto something indestructible a la Shielded by Faith, or something that has protection from creatures, or even protection from a color other than white.

For even more trickery, you can use the defensive protection Auras as a way to push through damage when coupled with Ethereal Armor. Or repeatedly cast and return Flickering Ward and Conviction to draw cards and build up experience! It's like Cloudstone Curio in Animar!

And finally, although not an Aura itself, Righteous Aura gives the deck a way to stop Animar, Soul of Elements from messing with this Orzhov deck! I'll pay two life instead of taking lethal commander damage any day!

Daxos, with Soul

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Learn and Grow

There is opportunity for learning and improvement just about everywhere. I hope this article shows that taking lessons from a deck completely different from your own can bring your build to the next level. I encourage you to try it out yourself, and post the results in the comments below.

Even more than that, I encourage you to take that same energy and apply it elsewhere in your life. Studying and listening to the plethora of voices out there will only bring yourself to the next level.

See you again next time for more mind bending brews!

Jeremy is a data analyst in his hometown of Chicago. He is the commissioner of a Commander league at a local LGS, Near Mint Games. He is also a board member for AnimeChicago, an non-profit anime club for adults, and an avid craft beer fan.