Strategic Planning - Sacrifice Builds Character

(Mazirek, Kraul Death Priest | Art by Mathias Kolros)

Making Sacrifices

Hello all and welcome back to another installment of Strategic Planning, a column where we’ll goldfish a commander's EDHREC Average Decklist to get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t before brewing them ourselves.

Today’s subject is Mazirek, Kraul Death Priest, a native of Ravnica and currently the 8th most popular Golgari commander on EDHREC, with 575 decks to his name at time of writing.

Let’s take a look at what Mazirek brings to the table.

Five mana in Golgari is manageable, and with access to green ramp we’ll likely be able to recast Mazirek several times when he inevitably eats removal. Mazirek’s flight is flavorful, given his role as leader of the Kraul swarm, and means that a victory via commander damage is not out of the question if we can catch an opponent without a blocker and beef him up beyond his 2/2 stats. Luckily, his next line of text means that he’ll rarely be a 2/2 for very long:

“Whenever a player sacrifices another permanent, put a +1/+1 counter on each creature you control.”

This is a potent ability for a color identity with as many sacrifice payoffs and enablers as Golgari. A free Inspiring Roar whenever any player sacrifices a permanent adds up very quickly. This is a powerful build-around that encourages us to go wide, both to maximize the power added to our board from each Mazirek trigger, and to ensure a plentiful supply of sacrifice targets to fuel our grand designs.

Beyond that, this ability triggers whenever any player sacrifices a permanent, meaning we get free value every time an opponent so much as cracks an Evolving Wilds. In matchups against other decks whose gameplan is to regularly sacrifice permanents for value (such as Meren of Clan Nel Toth) our buffs will quickly snowball out of control.

The Average List:

The EDHREC Average Decklist for Mazirek, Kraul Death Priest is as follows:

Mazirek, Average Death Priest

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Commander (1)
Creatures (32)
Instants (5)
Sorceries (9)
Artifacts (8)
Enchantments (9)
Planeswalkers (1)
Lands (35)

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This deck list has an average converted mana cost of 3.43 and a retail price from TCGplayer of $232. Let’s see what it can do!

Test Results and Fine-Tuning:

1. Getting the engine running

While Mazirek’s ability is extremely potent when combined with a supply of permanents to sacrifice and creatures to buff, playing him onto an otherwise empty board tends to be fairly underwhelming. This list could reliably get Mazirek onto the field by turn five or six, but often did so with no good sacrifice targets and nothing to buff but himself, leaving us with a target on our head and not much to show for it.

Because of this, when evaluating whether or not to keep an opening hand, the most critical question after, “Are there enough lands and ramp spells to avoid getting mana screwed?” was, “Does this allow us to set up a synergistic board state for Mazirek before he hits the field?”

To increase our chances of being able to answer both of those questions in the affirmative, in our final brew we’re going to focus on ramp cards that also leave bodies on the field for Mazirek to buff, like Wood Elves or Farhaven Elf, or that can themselves later to fuel Mazirek’s ability, like Mind Stone or Commander’s Sphere.

One effect that provides bodies to receive +1/+1 counters and provides ramp and has sacrifice synergy are Eldrazi Spawn and Eldrazi Scion creature tokens. These can sacrifice themselves for mana in a pinch, and are free Mazirek triggers anytime you need them. Opening hands with Awakening Zone or From Beyond were much more likely to allow Mazirek to do work for us as soon as he hit the field, as well as providing powerful value engines for the rest of the game.

Once Mazirek hits the field, ideally with a few other creatures to put counters on, it’s time to generate as many sacrifice triggers as we can. The Average Decklist contained several spells to force sacrifices, like Tribute To the Wild or Barter in Blood, which do feed into Mazirek’s ability and drain our opponents' resources, but often put us down on cards and severely underperform when Mazirek isn’t on the field. To avoid this, let's instead focus on effects that incidentally cause sacrifice triggers on top of a different primary role, allowing us to further our gameplan even if Mazirek is offline.

Cards like Banewhip Punisher, Shriekmaw and Caustic Caterpillar provide useful interaction while also netting us free sacrifice triggers. Effects like Virtus’s Maneuver and The Eldest Reborn cause our opponents to sacrifice resources, and are playable even if Mazirek isn’t on the field. We’re also including a number of ramp effects with incidental sacrifice triggers, such as Sakura Tribe Elder, Harrow, and Primal Growth.

One more excellent source of sacrifice triggers while goldfishing came from lands like Terramorphic Expanse and Blighted Woodland. In our final brew, let's double down on sacrificing lands by including all of the Panorama cycle that can fetch either a forest or a swamp. Jund Panorama, Esper Panorama or Naya panorama have the added benefit over Evolving Wilds of being able to tap for colorless mana the turn they come down, allowing us to save them until Mazirek is on the field and hungry for sacrifice.

In addition to the Panoramas, we'll also include a number of other lands that can sacrifice themselves for value, like Myriad Landscape, Ghost Quarter and Memorial to Folly. To further capitalize on how many lands we'll be tossing into the graveyard, we can include The Gitrog Monster to turn our sacrificed lands into extra card draw.

2. Keeping the engine running

While Mazirek nets us a good deal of extra value from our sacrifices, this strategy ends up being resource-intensive, and we can quickly run out of cards if we're not careful. To alleviate this problem, we'll focus on squeezing out as much extra value from each of our sacrifices as possible by running effects like Smothering Abomination, Grim Haruspex, and Deathreap Ritual. This will keep our hands full, and prioritizing sacrifice outlets like Evolutionary Leap, Vraska, Golgari Queen, and Spawning Pit, which come with an extra resource reward for feeding creatures into them, will keep us from falling behind in card advantage.

To ensure we have a regular supply of sacrifice fodder, we'll include token-producing effects like Tendershoot Dryad, Animation Module, and Mycoloth, along with a suite of recursion to allow us to reuse our creatures. Recursion effects like Victimize, Dread Return, and Whisper, Blood Liturgist, all of which net us sacrifice triggers in addition to their recursion, performed especially well while goldfishing.

We'll supplement these with other recursion effects that provide value every turn, like Palace Siege, Hells's Caretaker, and Sheoldred, Whispering One. To further ensure we'll always have something to sacrifice when we need it, let's include Reassembling Skeleton in our final brew, along with Jarad's Orders to tutor it into our graveyard.

3. Closing out the game

If everything has gone according to plan, our victories will generally consist of swinging in at our opponents with enormous creatures. That said, there are a few specific late game closers worth highlighting.

While goldfishing the Average Decklist, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Animation Module, Ashnod's Altar, and Mazirek, Kraul Death Priest form an infinitely repeatable loop. Sacrificing a creature to Ashnod's Altar triggers Mazirek to put counters on our creatures. The counters placed by Mazirek then trigger Animation Module, which can be paid for with the colorless mana from the Altar. This gives us Servos, which can then be sacrificed to the Altar for more mana and Mazirek triggers, etc. As usual, Ashnod's Altar forms the backbone of yet another infinite combo.

Notably, this is the only infinite combo I've let into the final list. Mazirek's ability can be stacked with Persist creatures such as Woodfall Primus and any sacrifice outlet for tons of grossness. Since +1/+1 counters and -1/-1 counters negate each other, Mazirek could totally be a crazy combo deck. In the interest of less linear gameplay, though, I've opted out of the assorted Persist creatures that could make the deck go a little too crazy.

One other effect that will end the the game in a hurry if it isn't dealt with comes from the card Triskelavus. This is only found in 18 Mazirek decks total, but it seems almost custom-made to benefit from his ability. Since the Triskelavites, when sacrificed, replenish the counter taken off of Triskelavus that made them in the first place, we can feed as much mana as we want to into Triskelavus to snipe down our opponents' blockers and quickly buff the rest of our board in the process.

Our Final Results:

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At an average CMC of 3.31 and a TCGplayer retail price of $157, we've managed to cut down slightly on our curve and on the damage done to our wallet.

While goldfishing the revised brew, I was pleased to see that the focus on early plays that would ensure Mazirek had toys to play with as soon as he hit the field. These made a difference in the likelihood of starting our engine early, and we often ended up with 30+ power on the field by turn six or seven.

Additionally, the heavier focus on recursion made simulated board wipes and spot removal much less punishing. We still need to be careful when choosing our opening hands, to ensure we have opening plays and avoid over-committing resources to the field. We'll need to establish a reliable source of card draw or recursion, but with good hand selection, we can get our engine started early and quickly produce a substantial threat.

That’s it for this week! Please let me know in the comments if you think there’s anything I missed or if there’s a particular commander you’d like to see on a future installment of Strategic Planning.

Caleb lives in Florida and shares a small apartment with three people, two dogs, six lizards, and three snakes. After finishing a degree in psychology and computer science he now works as a musician and spends his free time reading nonfiction and doing volunteer work