Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines | Illustration by Dominik Mayer
Yawgmoth may have founded Phyrexia as Father of Machines, but Elesh Norn now rules New Phyrexia as Mother of Machines. Beneath her elegant wisdom the World Smasher was grown, and Phyrexia marches on the Multiverse to bring the glory of Phyrexia to all planes and ensure that All Will Be One.
Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines is one of the most talked about cards from the new set for commander potential. It’s a wildly powerful card with massive stats for a 5-mana creature. It pulls double duty as a value engine that doubles your ETB abilities and a stax piece that shuts off your opponents’ ETBs.
Elesh Norn is clearly a powerful piece in the 99 of many decks, but how does this card do as a commander? Let’s find out!
Skyclave Apparition | Illustration by Donato Giancola
Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines
Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit
Knight of the White Orchid
Court Street Denizen
Loran of the Third Path
Priest of Ancient Lore
Preston, the Vanisher
March of Otherworldly Light
Path to Exile
Swords to Plowshares
Settle the Wreckage
Authority of the Consuls
Grasp of Fate
Touch the Spirit Realm
Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire
Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
This deck is pretty straightforward: play a controlling midrange build that doubles up removal-based triggers to clear away your opponents’ boards and claim victory through combat damage or a combo or two. Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines enables most of these shenanigans, and it slows your opponents by acting as a stax piece.
But this isn’t much of a stax deck itself. It wants to be a little less salt-inducing and focuses on high-value plays instead. Build out a board of creatures to help hold the ground until you can assemble a win! This deck performs at its best when playing against other creature-focused decks rather than combo-y spells-matter decks.
Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines is the card that makes this deck work. It’s the reason to build so hard around ETB abilities. Panharmonicon has been great in Commander since its printing in Kaladesh, and getting that effect in the command zone is incredibly strong.
Not to mention that shutting your opponents’ ETBs down makes Elesh Norn really effective at shutting off other value strategies. You’ll come across some decks that just won’t function with your commander in play, making it a target they have to remove or you’ll overwhelm them.
It’s also worth noting that you don’t have to control the permanent entering play because of Elesh Norn’s wording, just the effect being triggered by that permanent. There are several cards in this deck that exploit this fun little feature.
Card draw is super important, especially in a color with weaker tutoring ability like white. White’s not traditionally known for its card advantage, but you’ve got a couple cards to help with that. Especially once you start doubling triggers!
Spirited Companion is an efficient card that’s easy to blink and use to draw a lot of cards. You’ve also got Roving Harper as a slightly more expensive and beefier option to draw cards.
Priest of Ancient Lore and Inspiring Overseer also draw cards and gain a little life on the way.
One of the better ways to get consistent card draw in white is with monarch, so you’ve got Palace Jailer to enable that. There’s a robust selection of creatures to defend the monarchy and a few fliers to steal it back with. Palace Jailer’s exile ability is also doubled with Elesh Norn, making it a doubly effective removal spell.
Wedding Ring might be unconventional, but it’s a great source of card draw. At the very least,you’ll draw one extra card when your opponent draws one during their draw step. You can get two Rings on the battlefield and draw twice as many cards with Elesh Norn.
Gaining life is something white’s pretty good at doing, and it helps to stabilize you in close games. It’s also something Elesh Norn doubles quite well.
Soul’s Attendant and Soul Warden are a classic pairing that have had decks built around them and offer huge amounts of lifegain. As noted, your opponents’ creatures entering the battlefield can double your triggers, and these two make great use of that.
Suture Priest is similar to the Soul Sisters except it only lets you gain life when a creature enters the battlefield under your control. It really shines by making your opponents lose one life when they have a creature ETB. Again, Norn doubles this, causing your opponents’ creatures to cost them two life when they come into play (a decidedly un-white effect that adds a lot of reach the deck wouldn’t have otherwise).
Auriok Champion is here for redundancy, but the protection from black and red can be quite useful depending on your match-up.
The last card that passively gains you life is Authority of the Consuls. It gains life and helps slow your opponents down to open up some good attacks by making their creatures come into play tapped.
You’ve also got Heliod, Sun-Crowned to use this lifegain, and as a combo finisher. Each of these triggers getting doubled counts as separate instances of lifegain, effectively doubling Heliod’s ability.
Token generation is another thing white is great at linking to ETBs, and this deck uses several of the best.
Blade Splicer is a classic token maker. A 3/3 for three is quite acceptable, and first strike makes it an effective attacker. A couple doubled triggers or flicker effects and Blade Splicer produces quite the army to deal with.
Emeria Angel creates plenty of fliers that pressure planeswalkers and players, and it can help get monarch back if something goes wrong after playing your Jailer. And yes, Elesh Norn doubles landfall triggers.
Blessed Sanctuary isn’t a creature, but it gets doubled triggers all the same. It’s easy to trigger it multiple times with all the blink shenanigans in this deck. It can also provide a bit of protection to your board from damage-based wrath effects and save you from burn decks.
Reverent Hoplite is another token producer that costs a little bit of mana, but it makes so many tokens. Your devotion to white is always high in a mono-white deck, letting this zealous fellow swarm the board.
You’ve also got Preston, the Vanisher as another card that generates tokens. To be honest, Preston is a highly vital piece of this deck, every bit as crucial as Elesh Norn. I’ll get into the combos and interactions later, but for now let’s just say that Preston provides obscene value to your value-oriented deck.
No ETB-based deck is complete without the inclusion of blink effects to really trigger your spells, and this one’s no exception.
Eldrazi Displacer is a powerful and repeatable blink effect that you can get a lot of mileage out of, especially because it can be activated at instant speed to protect your creatures. Its activated ability requires colorless mana, but you’ve got some value lands and a couple mana rocks that are colorless sources.
Flickerwisp is a super powerful flicker ability that does a lot more than activate another one of your ETBs. It can remove multiple blockers or problematic stax pieces to allow you to sneak a win through a developed board state. If you can flicker this at instant speed or use it to protect other creatures in response to a board wipe since it doesn’t return the permanents until the end of the turn.
Fans of Aether Revolt Standard will surely recognize Felidar Guardian as a powerful flicker effect that does a lot more than flicker creatures. It was central to combo in its time in Standard, and you still aren’t using it fairly in this deck.
Restoration Angel is another classic flicker card. Getting to play it at instant speed is a nice touch to ambush a creature with a 3/4 flier while getting extra value.
Cloudshift is a clean and simple flicker effect that costs next to nothing. This is best held as a 1-mana card to protect your threats from removal. Especially Elesh Norn since it’s hard for white to ramp, and repeated removal spells can make it hard to play your commander.
Ephemerate might be the best flicker spell ever printed. Even if it’s not the best, it’s certainly up there. It provides the same cheap protection as Cloudshift, but it also offers extra value with rebound. This represents four ETB abilities for a single mana if you have Elesh Norn out.
Eerie Interlude and Semester’s End both provide you with incredible flicker potential. These cards can trigger all your ETBs again, and Semester’s End makes your creatures significantly better. These are also invaluable tools to defend your creature-based deck from board wipes.
Conjurer’s Closet sets you up with a consistent source of blink effects, letting you extract value turn after turn after the initial mana investment. It can be especially strong if you flicker one of your other flicker creatures with Elesh Norn out. The flicker creature then flickers two other creatures, each of whom have their ETBs trigger twice.
Far Traveler also provides steady blinking, but it does so with more constraints. You need Elesh Norn in play to get the ability, and it only affects tapped creatures. But it’s got a really low mana investment and is a strong ability once you get it rolling.
What control deck would be complete without removal? You’ve got spades of it in this deck. It includes all-star white removal like Path to Exile, Swords to Plowshares, and March of Otherworldly Light, but there are also a lot of effects that work well with your commander.
Fiend Hunter is one such card, exiling other creatures on ETB. There are a couple tricks you can perform with this card that I’ll look at later.
Skyclave Apparition is basically a Fiend Hunter that hits a wider range of permanents, though only smaller ones. This is a pretty fair trade-off. Especially since they never get the threatening card back, just a token that probably doesn’t matter.
You’ve got both Leonin Relic-Warder and Loran of the Third Path as abilities that deal with artifacts and enchantments on entering.
You’ve also got a host of enchantment-based removal spells that Elesh Norn triggers twice. Oblivion Ring is the classic, but you’ve also got Borrowed Time, Ossification, and Touch the Spirit Realm. Grasp of Fate is another Oblivion Ring effect but it hits really hard: it’s a three-for-one on its own, but Elesh Norn makes it a six-for-one.
These cards don’t quite fit with those grouped above but still provide valuable abilities to the deck.
Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit is a strong 2-drop that grows your team throughout the game. It can be a little awkward with your flicker abilities since they make the counters fall off, but Anafenza still provides a lot of pressure and strengthens the board.
Charming Prince and Dawnbringer Cleric both fall into multiple slots above thanks to having several different abilities you can choose from when they enter.
Court Street Denizen makes your plan to deal damage easier by tapping your opponents’ creatures so they can’t block. It can also form a defensive front with some instant-speed flicker effects.
Karmic Guide and Emeria Shepherd both get your creatures back from the graveyard. You can also do a neat trick with these: let the Guide die, get it back with Shephard, and get something else back so you’ve always got multiple creatures coming into play. This creates a total of four reanimation triggers with Elesh Norn.
You’ve obviously got Panharmonicon to help double even more of your triggers. Keep in mind that it doesn’t double all your abilities. It only triggers off creatures and artifacts, so your enchantments and landfall cards won’t double off this. Still a super valuable piece, though.
The Mana Base
Ramp isn’t something white’s particularly known for, but you’ve still got a few cards to help. Knight of the White Orchid and Loyal Warhound both put Plains into play if your opponents have more lands than you. Even if you double this trigger it checks for resolution each time. It’s possible to get two triggers of this ability but only one successfully finds a land unless you’re really far behind.
Archaeomancer’s Map is another card that ramps for you, and it finds you some lands to make sure you make land drops to boot. It fuels itself, which is quite good, and draws you four cards with Elesh Norn in play.
Beyond these you’ve got a host of mana rocks that produce colorless mana to help you with the Displacer. You’ve also got some value lands in here. War Room provides a bit of card advantage while Strip Mine and Demolition Field deal with problematic lands like Cabal Coffers.
Now that you’ve got a better grasp of the deck, what are you trying to do with it? Mostly just extract as much value as possible.
This is a deck that really wants to focus on powering out its commander and protecting it. Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines provides so much of this deck’s impact, making all your one-for-one removal into two-for-ones or better.
This deck also comfortably works without its commander, it’s just harder. While you have an abundance of removal, you want to save it for either the most dangerous threats or stax pieces that threaten the combos we’ll look at in a moment. These combos are how you’ll win most of your games even though you’ve got plenty of potential for combat damage-based wins as well.
Combos and interactions
Let’s start by checking out the interaction between Fiend Hunter and your flicker effects. There are a few tricks with this card.
First, the way it’s templated makes its two abilities trigger separately. For example, if you flicker this in response to the first ability going on the stack, then Fiend Hunter’s second ability goes on the stack and it enters as a new instance of the card, getting another trigger. Then the original Fiend Hunter’s first trigger resolves, exiling the original target.
But since there’s a new instance of Fiend Hunter in play, that copy is just… gone forever. Most modern cards aren’t templated like this with the exile ability being contingent on the card being in play, so this trick only works with cards where the two abilities are separate.
For example, flickering Borrowed Time won’t do anything but cause the initial trigger to fizzle. You can also flicker Fiend Hunter in response to a wrath, letting your opponent get their creature back and exiling one of your own so that you get a creature and the original threat is still gone when the wrath resolves.
To start the infinites you’ve got the classic combination of Walking Ballista and Heliod, Sun-Crowned. This one’s pretty simple: you need Heliod and a Ballista with at least two +1/+1 counters in play. Hive the Ballista lifelink with Heliod’s ability and then remove a counter to deal one damage to your opponent. This triggers Heliod and you put a +1/+1 counter on the Ballista. Repeat until the table is dead.
Now let’s look at some combos with Preston, the Vanisher. Shall we start with infinite mana? This combo just needs Preston with Felidar Guardian. This is a good time to mention that all the Preston combos also need a flicker effect to kick them off; I’ll just use Cloudshift for the examples.
With both Preston and Felidar in play, flicker Felidar and have it come into play. Both Felidar and Preston will trigger. Target one of your lands that comes into play untapped with the Felidar Guardian trigger and tap that land to float mana. You can also use mana rocks, but it’s harder for your opponents to interact with lands.
Felidar Guardian’s trigger resolves, flickering the land and making it come back into play untapped. Then Preston’s ability resolves, creating a 0/1 copy of Felidar Guardian that triggers. Use the token’s ability to flicker the original copy of Felidar Guardian, which comes back into play, triggering Preston again and flickering your land.
Rinse and repeat this combo to generate infinite mana and infinite 0/1 copies of Felidar Guardian. You can immediately feed this mana into Preston and start sacrificing the tokens to exile all nonland permanents your opponents control.
You could also cast an infinitely large Walking Ballista or pump it infinitely if it’s already in play to take out your opponents. If you’ve been flickering a Castle Ardenvale, you can also feed the mana into it by using its ability in response to getting targeted instead of tapping for mana to make infinite 1/1s.
This loop is obviously quite powerful, but it gets even stronger if you’re able to incorporate other cards. For example, how would you feel about drawing your entire deck to help find that infinitely large Walking Ballista? For that you just need to add one of the cards that draws a card on ETB. We’ll use Spirited Companion as an example since he’s the goodest boy.
Follow all the steps above. Once you’ve got your infinite mana, stop flickering your land with the original Felidar trigger and start flickering the Spirited Companion. You draw two cards for every flicker since Preston makes another copy of the Companion on top of Felidar’s trigger. Just be careful and don’t deck yourself.
You can also perform this loop with one of the token producers like Blade Splicer to create infinite tokens that actually have the power to end the game. You can gain infinite life while this loop goes off if you’ve got a Soul Warden or any of the other effects that gain life when a creature enters the battlefield.
If Heliod is already in play as you’re gaining infinite life and making infinite tokens, you can also make those tokens infinitely large so they can end the game. Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit also lets you make an infinitely large board with infinite ETB triggers. You can make all these infinitely large tokens at instant speed on the end step of the turn before yours so that you don’t have to worry about board wipes as long as the flicker ability you use to start the Preston loop can be cast at instant speed.
Another way to create infinite tokens requires Felidar Guardian, Restoration Angel, and Blessed Sanctuary. You need Sanctuary and either Felidar or Angel in play. For this example, let’s say Felidar is in play.
Play out the Restoration Angel and target Felidar Guardian with its ability, flickering the Guardian and getting both a Felidar trigger and a Sanctuary trigger. The Sanctuary trigger makes a 2/2 and you target Restoration Angel with Felidar’s trigger, flickering it and getting another trigger from the Angel and the Sanctuary.
Felidar and Angel can flicker with each other until you’re content with the infinite tokens you’ve made. Again, this passively creates a bunch of ETB triggers that can gain infinite life and an infinite number of counters with Heliod, a Soul Sister, and Anafenza. You can also perform the loop at instant speed as long as Felidar Guardian is already in play and you start the loop by casting the Angel.
This loop doesn’t let you include other ETB cards with one of your doublers in play. If you have Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines in play, each of these creatures generates two triggers. One targets the other part of the loop and the other can target another card like Blade Splicer or Inspiring Overseer.
I’ll leave you with one last combo that should be used with caution, or you risk losing friends:
Start with the following cards in play: Preston, the Vanisher, Eldrazi Displacer, Felidar Guardian, and Flickerwisp.
In your end step, activate Displacer to flicker Felidar Guardian. You can execute that whole infinite mana loop and then exile all your opponents’ nonland permanents using Preston’s activated ability. Start flickering Flickerwisp.
This generates infinite Flickerwisp triggers, which you use to exile all your opponents’ lands. Pass through the turn. Your next opponent will untap no permanents because they’re all in exile, then draw and pass the turn. Flickerwisp triggers, returning all lands to play. Then, you can do it all again on every end step after this ability resolves and before passing to the next turn.
This loop creates a soft lock that stops your opponents from doing anything except casting instants with a very narrow window of opportunity. This buys you plenty of time to find something that actually closes out the game with your infinite mana.
Rule 0 Violations Check
Well, if the previous 1,000 or so words weren’t a Rule 0 violation, I don’t know what is. In all honesty this deck probably won’t attract too much salt from a table. If they don’t like infinite combos then they probably won’t like this deck, but (with the exception of that last Flickerwisp loop) they all end the game pretty quickly.
There are more than a few budget cuts you can make. Starting with the land base, Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx costs an unholy amount of money and could get swapped for just a Plains. The ramp is obviously powerful but most of the cards are cheap, and I’ve demonstrated just how much mana this deck can make.
Likewise, Strip Mine provides a valuable service to the deck but could be replaced with a cheaper land-hate option like Ghost Quarter.
Some of the other expensive cards in the deck include a few of the combo pieces that are cuttable, but doing so significantly weakens the deck. Heliod, Sun-Crowned can be replaced with Cleric Class to keep the infinite counters alongside your infinite lifegain, but it leaves Walking Ballista without a combo piece other than the infinite mana you generate with your loops.
You could even cut Preston, the Vanisher in favor of another flicker effect like Distinguished Conjurer. You’d obviously lose out on a lot of combo potential but could fall back on the Felidar Guardian–Restoration Angel loop that’s far cheaper, even if it’s a bit weaker. Most of the other combo pieces don’t cost much.
You can also cut Solitude in favor of another exile effect like Journey to Nowhere to shave the price even more since your commander itself costs a whopping $40.
There are several ways to build Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines as a value-based commander with a broadly powerful effect. This is a very controlling and combo-y build.
One route you could take would be to lean more aggressive and give a much higher focus to cards like Geist-Honored Monk and Captain of the Watch, focusing on building a massive board of tokens to overwhelm your opponents with quickly.
On the other hand, you could lean harder into Elesh Norn’s second ability and build a mono-white stax deck with cards like Drannith Magistrate and friends to craft a powerful deck that demoralizes your opponents and drives your friends away.
Restoration Angel | Illustration by Johannes Voss
Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines is an incredibly powerful card that made for a brilliant reintroduction to an iconic and long-standing villain in Magic’s history. It does an elegant job expressing how Elesh Norn seeks to grow Phyrexia’s influence while staunching any hope of resistance. It’s also just a powerful card, taking some of the best abilities in the game and doubling them while denying your opponents even half the value you’re getting.
What did you think of the build? How would you play Elesh Norn? Let me know in the comments below or on the Draftsim Twitter.
Thanks for reading, and see you next time!Follow Draftsim for awesome articles and set updates: