Power Sink - Elesh Norn, Clear as Mud
(Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines | Art by Junji Ito)
Welcome back to Power Sink, the article series where we remove the clear and present danger from the commanders that tend to get a blank stare from everyone at the table. Today we're taking on the controversial new hotness, Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines.
This iteration of Elesh Norn is currently the most built commander from Phyrexia, All Will be One, with 2,036 decks at the time of writing. She's currently the 7th most popular mono-white commander on EDHREC as well, which is impressive considering it's only been a month since her release and she has a hefty price tag working against her.
Norn is a lot packed onto a single card, so her popularity is understandable. Getting a 4/7 vigilance for just five mana seems like a great deal outside of green, and her ability to double up on enters-the-battlefield triggers is reminiscent of Yarok, the Desecrated, who we covered in a previous article. While she lacks the broader color access of Yarok, she makes up for it by stopping permanents entering the battlefield from triggering your opponents' cards. While this shuts down blink and Landfall strategies, ETB effects are also incredibly common across all Commander decks, with 29 of the top 100 creatures and 19 out of the top 100 enchantments being disrupted by her.
I think this last ability is largely the reason behind her being a controversial card. If there's one thing Commander players hate, it's being told they can't do something. Heck, there are videos out there about this commander where the thumbnail explicitly says 'This commander is disgusting." Is the Mother of Machines really so bad? Perhaps a look at her average 99 will clear things up.
Mother of Machines - Average Deck
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This version of Elesh Norn screams "build a blink deck," so it's no surprise this is what we find. Spirited Companion, Inspiring Overseer, and Priest of Ancient Lore are great card draw in a blink deck, but Norn brings them to another level. Solemn Simulacrum and Kor Cartographer will make sure you have plenty of mana to do what you need. Norn also turns permanent-based removal effects, like Solitude and Fiend Hunter, into two-for-ones, or six-for-one in the case of Grasp of Fate.
From permanents like Eldrazi Displacer, Teleportation Circle, and Sword of Hearth and Home, to instants like Lae'zel's Acrobatics and Ephemerate, this deck has blink effects covered. Panharmonicon is nearly another copy of Elesh Norn. Preston, the Vanisher is probably the craziest synergy with Norn. When you blink a creature, Preston will trigger twice, making two token copies. If that creature has an ETB ability, that ability is going to happen a whopping six times.
One thing this average deck is lacking is win conditions, which honestly tracks with my experience building and playing against these kinds of decks. That said, Reverent Hoplite and Emeria Angel can make a lot of tokens, while Cathars' Crusade and Felidar Retreat can quickly make your creatures huge.
After looking at the 99, is the Mother of Machines a problem? It's not so black-and-white. Having played against her, I don't think she's all that oppressive. Landfall and blink players would likely disagree, but a simple pregame chat will ensure those strategies don't run afoul of a Norn deck. I will say she is powerful, but I'll be bringing back a trick from an old article to power her down.
No Colors Anymore
Early in the life of this series I discussed what I call "color cropping," where you build a deck with fewer colors than what's available to the commander. Back then I did a mono-white deck with Chulane, Teller of Tales, which you can read here. I've never built a colorless deck before, so I figured this was a good opportunity to brew one so Elesh Norn can actually be a Mother of Machines.
Elesh Norn - Clear as Mud
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Elesh Norn at the helm means some cards we would typically overlook become contenders. Cheap cantrip artifacts, like Alchemist's Vial and Wedding Invitation, are drawing double, and getting two triggers off The Mightstone and Weakstone makes this card a powerhouse even without Urza, Lord Protector. We'll also have plenty of mana from doubling up the triggers on Pilgrim's Eye, Solemn Simulacrum, and a kicked Skyclave Relic. We also get to double up on removal effects from Meteor Golem and Spine of Ish Sah. Another benefit Norn provides is the ability to use Plains instead of throwing down the cash for Wastes or digging up a ton of obscure nonbasic lands.
Of the many colorless cards with ETB triggers, making tokens seemed like the most reliable win condition. Night Scythe, Servo Schematic, and Searchlight Companion aren't particularly strong on their own, but they are cheap ways to make a few tokens when we have our commander. Genesis Chamber is a bit of a risky proposition as it will also give our opponents twice as many tokens, but I think we're more prepared to abuse this card. Thunderhawk Gunship can make us four 2/2 tokens, but it also provides that crucial evasion via flying when we need to get through. Precursor Golem seems like a liability, but I doubt anyone is throwing their Path to Exile or Chaos Warp at it.
At the top end of our token production, we have the classic Myr Battlesphere or we can dump a bunch of mana into Clown Car. Both cards can provide us with a huge attacker as well as a token army.
Recreating the blink effects in a colorless deck required some creativity; Conjurer's Closet is an obvious choice, but beyond that required some digging. We can blink multiple creatures by using them to Crew Golden Argosy, though we may need to be careful where we attack with it. Mirror of Life Trapping with our commander will make the creatures we cast trigger enter-the-battlefield abilities, blink out and then right back in, enabling those abilities again, for a total of four triggers.
Aside from blinking stuff, we can also lean on bouncing and recasting things. This gets to be mana-intensive, so we're running things like Semblance Anvil and Foundry Inspector to mitigate those costs. Umbilicus and Blood Clock will let us return and recast our permanents and force our opponents to do so unless they pay two life. Normally these two cards are avoided because they allow our opponents to reuse their ETB effects, but we don't have to worry about that thanks to our commander.
I'm a big fan of Erratic Portal here since we can bounce one of our creatures or make our opponents have to hold up mana with the threat of activation. Once our commander is out, we can use the additional trigger on Ancestral Statue to bounce it and another of our permanents. With the cost reduction effects in this deck it is possible to go infinite with the statue, but it takes so many pieces I doubt anyone would mind. Finally, we have a recursion package consisting of Scrap Trawler, Myr Retriever, and Trading Post, so we can recast the things that end up in our graveyard.
Once we've amassed our token army, it's time to bring down the hammer. If we're lucky enough to see Steel Overseer in the early game, we might have already built up some beefy creactures. Otherwise we can get a boost from Forsaken Monument and Chief of the Foundry, or we can turn them into 5/3 Juggernauts with Graaz, Unstoppable Juggernaut. We can go tall with a single creature using Nettlecyst, or we can just overrun the board using Dragon Throne of Tarkir. Finally, if combat isn't getting there, we can do direct damage with Knight Paladin
Elesh Norn is a character that holds a special place in my heart. I opened the original version in a pack of New Phyrexia in 2011 after a particularly rough day at work. A few months prior, I had come back from a long hiatus from the game and despite having a couple of Commander decks, I wasn't really keeping up with what was coming out, so I was blown away at the sight of such a powerful card and immediately put it at the head of my mono-white Equipment deck. On some level, I write this series for that person. Sure, these kinds of commanders can inspire bad feelings and require some management by the table, but sometimes the card means something more to a player, and high power or cEDH shouldn't be the only option to play it in. People are still having those moments with cards even now, maybe more so with this new Elesh Norn having 10 different printings.
Do you remember getting a card and being blown away with how cool it was? Whether it was power level, art, or otherwise, I'd love to read about it in the comments.