Last updated on September 20, 2022
Kaalia of the Vast | Illustration by Michael Komarck
White, black, and red are a favorite color identity of mine. I’ve always considered myself a red mage with an understanding of the practicality white and black bring to the table. Naturally I’ve found myself building more and more Mardu decks, with three that I rotate through at any given time.
Formerly known as “Dega” in the Apocalypse block and as one of the “wedges” after that, decks are now known as Mardu in reference to the clan from Khans of Tarkir. It’s also sometimes known as Savai to you Ikorians.
Mardu decks support many different playstyles. Tribal, aggro, and reanimator strategies are just a few of the directions you can take a Mardu deck.
Today I want to talk about the legendary creatures with a Mardu color identity as well as a few interesting partner pairs, and which ones make the best commander. I’ll try not to gush too much, but no promises.
Edgar Markov | Illustration by Volkan Baga
Mardu cards have gone through a few design phases over the years. The Mardu Horde cards from the Khans block were designed for speed. They “center” red as the dominant color in their design as evidenced by the dash and raid mechanics in that set. They watermark symbol is appropriately a pair of dragon wings.
Before that, the original Commander set’s legendary creatures each centered a different color. Tariel, Reckoner of Souls focused black for reanimation, Oros, the Avenger centered white for its removal, and Kaalia of the Vast centered red for its aggressive attack triggers. The Commander 2017 and Commander 2020 precons focused on Mardu tribes (vampires and humans respectively).
White, red, and black share a few key mechanics across their color pie. All three benefit from sacrificing creatures and all three have aggro deck archetypes in various Constructed environments. This lends itself well to aristocrats-style strategies, banking on the death triggers from Blood Artist and similar effects.
Honorable Mentions: Akiri, Line-Slinger & Keskit, the Flesh Sculptor
There are tons of Mardu partner combinations (too many to possibly cover here), so I thought I’d focus on a unique combination with a distinct strategy.
Akiri, Line-Slinger wants to see a lot of artifacts on your field. Keskit, the Flesh Sculptor helps you find just the one you need. Dropping a ton of 0- and 1-mana artifacts early can make Akiri quite the beatstick, and you’ll be digging for just the card you need in no time combined with Keskit.
I don’t need to mention the classic Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer or any other metalcraft card, but I do think it’s worth considering Armix, Filigree Thrasher as an alternative to Keskit if you’re looking to play more aggressively. Be sure to include lots of recursion. You’ll need things like Trash for Treasure and Myr Retriever to return those artifacts you ditched to Keskit or Armix.
I thought it would be nice to bookend the list with Kaalias (we’ll get to that). Compared to its Commander version, Kaalia, Zenith Seeker is just plain mediocre.
Its enters-the-battlefield ability requires more set up for less payoff than Kaalia of the Vast. Cloudshift-ing or Conjurer’s Closet-ing over and over to refill your hand just can’t compete outside of a format like Brawl. Take my advice: go with the original.
Still, it’s not the worst at the head of a Commander deck. Its ability only triggers when it mutates, and sadly there are only 17 mutate cards in Mardu colors. Not quite enough to build an effective deck around.
Negan, the Cold-Blooded and its smug aura mock me daily. It knows it doesn’t belong in this game. It knows it riled up the player base to no end with its release, and still it grins that awful grin.
Unfortunately for me, I love a card that creates a puzzle. Negan forces a fun mind game on your opponent; do you choose the creature you absolutely want dead, or do you try to find the second-best option to get 2-for-1?
That said, I refuse to acknowledge any Universes Beyond cards as a viable commander so Negan receives a low ranking until WotC releases an in-universe version.
Licia, Sanguine Tribune is underwhelming to say the least. Sure, you can easily gain five or more life in a turn to reduce its casting cost and its lifelink ability almost guarantees that once it lands, but its second ability just doesn’t pay off as well as it should.
Paying five life to put three +1/+1 counters on Licia seems good until you realize it’s only once per turn, on your turn. It’s a fine commander, just a bit boring. Licia is effective built around a standard lifegain toolkit but it’s not as exciting as the rest.
Extus, Oriq Overlord is one of the newest additions to the Mardu legendaries club. Hailing from spell-slinging Strixhaven, this modal double-faced card is a unique choice for a Mardu commander. Its spellcraft ability Disentombs a creature to your hand when you cast an instant or sorcery, turning cards like Buried Alive and Unmarked Grave into valuable creature tutors.
Extus’ flip side, Awaken the Blood Avatar, creates the Avatar token and acts as some light removal. Capitalize on those spells with Young Pyromancer and then use those tokens to summon the Avatar for a big cheap threat. Keep in mind that you can reduce the commander tax when casting the back side of this card, compensating you in case Oriq has been removed a few times.
Similar to Piru, Oros, the Avenger is part of the wedge-aligned, 6-mana 6/6 dragons cycle from Planar Chaos. I’ve always felt that these dragons make the perfect commander for any EDH deck, admittedly requiring a significant investment to work well. Oros deals three damage to each nonwhite creature whenever it connects with a player, provided you have the three extra mana to activate it.
Oros is a challenging commander to build around since you want to make sure the right creatures you control are dying to its ability. My Oros deck runs Spirit Link and Spirit Loop to make sure I gain life off its damage, plus Righteous War and The Wanderer to protect my creatures from their own commander’s wrath.
Finally, after many years, Piru, the Volatile gets a creature card. Slain by Dakkon at the climax of the Geyadrone Dihada storyline, Piru is a pseudo-elder dragon reminiscent of the original Legends set elder dragons.
For a staggering eight mana you get a 7/7 flyer with lifelink that requires an extra upkeep cost of . Its steep mana cost makes it difficult to build around, especially in colors without much access to ramp. But it’s still one of my favorite pet commanders.
Set up your board with creatures like Brash Taunter and Stuffy Doll and lean in hard to the board wipe synergy Piru naturally has. Wait for a full board (not hard by the time you can actually cast it), drop it into play, and let it die to gain life equal to seven times the number of nonlegendary creatures in play!
Piru is a one-trick pony (dragon?), but that one trick sure is nasty.
I remember being surprised it didn’t exist yet when Ghen was released in Commander Legends. It fits right into a punishing enchantment-heavy deck. I also hold it in higher regard than the comparable Lynde, Cheerful Tormentor thanks to its access to the white curses.
While Ghen’s recursion isn’t free, you don’t have to spend a turn under your own curse while you wait to move it back to an opponent. It also gives you access to white so you can run the most broken curse of all: Overwhelming Splendor.
Trynn and Silvar are the alternate partner commanders from Commander 2020, and together they create a cute little value engine for a human-focused Mardu deck.
Trynn, Champion of Freedom pumps out a 1/1 human every turn you attack while Silvar, Devourer of the Free, well, devours them to grow stronger. Another commander just begging for an aristocrats strategy.
I’ve also seen Silvar kill on commander damage alone if left unchecked. Its pseudo-regenerate ability keeps it safe from all destroy effects, a rarity among legendary creatures these days.
The humans of Ikoria have united to stave off the attacks from the monsters that roam the wilds and they’re led by Jirina Kudro. Jirina is the face commander from the Commander 2020 Mardu deck and is almost exclusively played as a human tribal deck. It makes a 1/1 human for every time you’ve cast it from the command zone this game, which is a fairly underwhelming mechanic.
You’re kneecapping yourself anytime you need to count on your commander dying and being recast multiple times. It quickly becomes a huge mana investment. I give up casting it after the second time in most games.
While Jirina gives each of your humans +2/+0, it’s not really enough value to make anything out of. I can see it theoretically working in an aristocrats deck if you commit to swinging out with those buffed humans every turn with the expectation that they’ll die. Hopefully you’re able to “trade up” into your opponents’ larger creatures, but it’s no guarantee.
Coming in at #9 we have Mathas, Fiend Seeker. Mathas is a bounty hunter and it’s on the lookout for some high-quality targets. It targets an opponent’s creature with a bounty counter each turn, rewarding you and that player’s opponents when that creature dies.
This commander wants to play a politics game similar to Queen Marchesa, but in my experience, cooperation with it requires a bit more convincing. It heavily relies on your opponents’ playing along and killing the bounty targets. But they may not be interested in helping your cause and now you’re stuck killing the creature yourself and generating value for your opponents at the same time.
Mathas has a fun gimmick but overall isn’t as powerful as it appears.
Kelsien, the Plague is the final new legendary from the Commander 2020 Mardu precon. It uses the experience counter mechanic that was first introduced in Commander 2015. For a mere three mana he starts pinging opponent’s creatures to grow stronger each time one dies.
I love a commander with a removal mechanic, and Kelsien requires minimal set up to get going. Drop a Basilisk Collar or other deathtouch enabler and watch it headshot anything on the battlefield. Getting multiple activations to kill again each turn is crucial, so I recommend Thousand-Year Elixir, Illusionist’s Bracers, or Battlemage’s Bracers. Give Kelsien Scythe of the Wretched and you’re really off to the races!
Tariel, Reckoner of Souls is one of the alternate commanders from the original Commander set. Its random reanimation ability is a fun way to play with your opponents’ creatures and stealing the big threats they’re holding in their ‘yard feels even better than just hitting them with Bojuka Bog.
Tariel’s seven toughness combined with vigilance means it’s usually safe to attack a player, letting you hold off to reanimate something at instant speed. This commander is a little harder to build around since you depend on your opponents’ graveyards more than your own. But since its ability doesn’t need mana to activate, I suggest running an abundance of removal spells to capitalize on the creatures that make it to the battlefield.
#6. Syr Gwyn, Hero of Ashvale
Knight tribal was typically allocated to solely white decks before the arrival of Syr Gwyn, Hero of Ashvale. Mardu has access to the most knight creatures of any 3-color combo, so it seems like a no-brainer that Syr Gwyn should lead the charge. Its stats are average for its 6-mana casting cost, but it starts immediately generating advantage for you if you can attack with a creature or two the turn it arrives.
The real value here is in that third line of text. Attaching equipment to your knights for free is a huge boon. Skip the equip costs for things like Colossus Hammer or Batterskull and ride down your foes with reckless abandon.
#5. Zurgo Helmsmasher
Zurgo Helmsmasher is the guy you’re trying to avoid at the hobby shop. It’s mean, it has no sense of spatial awareness, and it smells kinda bad. Zurgo is the classic “hit stuff” commander for Mardu, and boy does it.
A fun interaction I’ve found while playing this commander is to give it double strike and trample. If your opponent tries to “chump” the damage with a weak creature, your boy kills it in the first strike damage step and then deals even more damage on the regular damage step. Zurgo is a solid choice for a Voltron commander.
The Mardu-aligned Queen Marchesa (long may she reign!) hails from the second Conspiracy set and was one of the first cards to use the monarch mechanic. Marchesa is cheap, fast, and can really get a game going by introducing the monarch early on.
I really love the flavor on this card. Once Marchesa loses its monarch status, it creates assassin creature tokens to eliminate the usurper. The Queen plays a great politics match and the natural advantage of becoming the monarch early in the game makes it a powerful commander in any Mardu deck.
Alesha, Who Smiles at Death is a 3/2 red warrior with first strike. You can pay two white or black mana to reanimate a creature with power 2 or less when it attacks, which it puts into play tapped and attacking.
Similar to Kaalia of the Vast, decks built around Alesha want to sneak creatures into play during the combat step to abuse enters-the-battlefield effects. But that’s not all; Alesha’s strength lies in its versatility. While the typical Alesha deck wins with an aristocrats combo like Karmic Guide plus Reveillark, I’ve seen decks themed around modular creatures, Voltron, human tribal, and even slivers!
I like to win with combat damage, so my personal Alesha deck runs anthems like Glorious Anthem, Balefire Liege, and Flame-Kin Zealot to turn those baby 2-power creatures into a force to be reckoned with.
Good ol’ Uncle Eddie has the honor of being probably the best tribal commander on the market right now. Well, besides any sliver deck. White, black, and red cover almost every vampire in the game, which means Edgar Markov is your go-to for any vampire tribal deck.
Edgar is nasty because of its eminence ability; a static triggered effect that works even when it’s in the command zone. He creates a 1/1 vampire token whenever you cast another vampire, which seems like a small benefit until you realize how quickly that can get out of hand. You can churn out two or three extra creatures in those crucial early turns with a deck built with a lower average mana value.
Edgar is like a 3-color Krenko, Mob Boss that buffs those tokens once it’s actually on the field. On top of all this, it doesn’t even need to be on the battlefield to create the tokens. Seriously! You’d think WotC would’ve learned from Oloro, Ageless Ascetic.
Kaalia of the Vast’s versatility beats out Edgar Markov for the title of best Mardu commander, but only by a smidge! Kaalia is a brutal commander for any (or all) of three tribes, while Edgar players must make do with one.
Kaalia of the Vast is the #1 best Mardu commander. Its versatility across three of the largest and strongest tribes in Magic make it a force to be reckoned with.
Kaalia plays as a classic Mardu commander, generating value in the combat step and dropping scary creatures as soon as it makes its first attack. This commander often ends games before they begin. Besides just straight-up beating your opponents to death, you can also sneak some nasty creatures into combat like Master of Cruelties or Balefire Dragon to drastically change the board state.
Need some removal? Slip in Angel of Serenity and clear away those blockers. Drop in Aegis Angel or Avacyn, Angel of Hope to protect Kaalia, or get Rune-Scarred Demon or Burning-Rune Demon to grab Liliana’s Contract and finish the game.
Don’t forget about those changelings either. I’ve lost to the Contract as early as turn 5 because of them!
Now that we’ve run through every Mardu Commander (and my bias is clear), I wanted to share some of my favorite Mardu decks from my collection. Hopefully they inspire some great deck ideas for you!
Queen Marchesa | Illustration by Kieran Yanner
Revel in Riches
Axis of Mortality
Curse of Misfortunes
Leyline of Sanctity
Aura of Silence
Leyline of the Void
Sphere of Safety
Curse of Disturbance
Curse of Opulence
Curse of Vitality
Curse of Death’s Hold
This list revolves around dropping your life total to near zero, casting something like Platinum Angel or Lich’s Mastery, and then trading your zero (or negative) life total to opponents using Reverse the Sands and Soul Conduit.
Even if you can’t get your hands on Fire Covenant or Toxic Deluge to drop your entire life total, you can entice your foes into doing that for you by cursing yourself with any of your curses. Though Curse of Opulence usually does the trick.
If you feel like being mean, you can become nigh invulnerable with Phyrexian Unlife and Solemnity in play. If you really feel like being mean, you can put Overwhelming Splendor and Curse of Death’s Hold on the same player. If you’re feeling really, really mean, you’ll buy the Lich cards I’ve omitted and really double down on this bit.
Your reign is never ending with this deck. Not even death itself can halt Marchesa’s rule!
Alesha’s Glorious Horde
Alesha, Who Smiles at Death | Illustration by Anastasia Ovchinnikova
Dimir House Guard
Flayer of the Hatebound
Knight of the White Orchid
Magus of the Disk
Subira, Tulzidi Caravanner
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion
Temple of Triumph
Vault of the Archangel
Alesha, Who Smiles at Death is my first love. I’ve played many Alesha archetypes over the years. Aristocrats, warrior tribal, human tribal, you name it. I think I’ve finally found my favorite one.
This deck wants to win with combat damage. It plays a bunch of 2-power creatures from the grave and then buffs them up as they enter the field tapped and attacking. I use Vile Entomber, Imperial Recruiter, and Buried Alive to tutor up my anthem creatures like Flame-Kin Zealot, Balefire Liege, or grab the unique tool I need like General’s Enforcer or Thalia, Guardian of Thraben.
Zurgo Helmsmasher | Illustration by Aleksi Briclot
Mardu decks thrive in the heat of battle. They rain hellfire on your foes and storm their gates with legions of soldiers. They have access to some of the most powerful and diverse tribes in Magic, and they can hit like a freight train. Building, playing, and tuning my Mardu decks has been a truly rewarding experience!
What do you think? Does Edgar Markov or Kaalia of the Vast most deserve the top spot? What are the best Mardu partner pairings? And should we all go back to saying “Dega” as a bit? Let me know in the comments down below or over on the Draftsim Twitter.
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