My descent into the church of Orzhov began with me as a relatively new Magic player. I was having a difficult time making my Ulasht, The Hate Seed deck work in my playgroup. Why? My group had a fascination with board wipes. I would do my best to craft a board state so that on turn four I could drop my commander and get some value going. Unfortunately, I would get wiped off the table. Every single time, it often felt.
So I took to gatherer and looked for a solution. There I found Ghost Council of Orzhova. I loved the idea that I could evade board wipes at instant speed. However I soon found myself with new problems: Not only did I need two black and two white mana to cast him, I also needed another creature on the field to sacrifice. I had in my hands an answer to my group’s playstyle, but at what cost? A deck that was slow and too reactive. I wasn’t spending my first turns setting up my board – I was spending those turns preparing myself to survive a board wipe that may or may not even happen. Even if I did survive the wipe, what did I have leftover? Just a 4/4. Nothing of note, really.
Then one day, the sun shone a bit brighter. I went online to check out the latest Oath of the Gatewatch spoilers and saw Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim. I knew it then – I found the new commander of my Orzhov deck.
Ayli, the Value-Queen
Ayli is the kind of commander I wish that WOTC would print more often because she can command several different archetypes effectively. She has the cleric subtype for all you cleric-tribal fanatics (or heretics). She has a cheap, on-demand lifegain ability for anyone wanting to upset their friends with Felidar Sovereign or Test of Endurance. And for you combo players out there, she is a sacrifice outlet on a stick. Surely there are a few ways to break this ability, right?
In other words Ayli is a value-oriented house of a commander.
The Three Pillars of Ayli: Ramp, Draw, and Tutors
Before getting into the strategies of the deck, I want to briefly talk about the three pillars that enable this deck to function. Given that we are playing in white and black, we will be relying on artifacts to provide the necessary mana ramp to enable our combos later in the game. But in order for the mana ramp to be meaningful we need a healthy amount of card draw to give us the gas we need to win. But sometimes raw card advantage isn’t enough – we need the right cards fast – and this deck’s tutor package aims to accomplish that. One note: readers may scoff at the inclusion of Open the Armory, but it is a two-mana tutor for two of the best cards this deck has for its gameplan – Animate Dead and Skullclamp.
The Main Strategy
This version of Ayli, The Eternal Pilgrim takes advantage of her low mana cost to establish an early board state that provides you multiple options as you enter the mid-game. If you’ve been able to assemble your combo pieces, this is where the deck aims to kill the table. The deck’s power starts to wane in the end-game, but it is still able to compete thanks to large amounts of card draw and value generation.
This deck stretches across a few archetypes, but most closely resembles a combo deck. That said, this list is not a fully dedicated combo deck. I’ve found that I enjoy playing interactive decks that can win games through combinations of synergy rather than pure infinite combos as quickly as possible.
The main combo involves an infinite loop of a creature dying and returning to the battlefield. This is accomplished by a few different key players:
Leonin Relic-Warder + Animate Dead (In order to set this up, you must get Leonin-Relic Warder into your graveyard. The easiest way is to Entomb it during the end step prior to the start of your turn. Then, during your turn, cast Animate Dead targeting Leonin Relic-Warder. Assuming it resolves, Animate Dead will bring Leonin back to the battlefield, placing its ETB trigger on the stack. Target your Animate Dead with Leonin’s trigger. This will exile Animate Dead. With Animate Dead exiled, Leonin will return to your graveyard, which will then trigger its LTB ability, returning Animate Dead to the battlefield and allowing you to bring Leonin back. Repeat this process to your heart’s content, and voila!
Fiend Hunter + Sun Titan (This is simpler than the Leonin loop, but more mana intensive. With a Sun Titan on the board, You cast Fiend Hunter and target Sun Titan with its ETB exile target creature ability. Once this resolves, sacrifice Fiend Hunter to bring back Sun Titan, whose ETB ability will target Fiend Hunter.)
Angelic Renewal + Sun Titan (Similar to the Fiend Hunter loop, as you just need a free sacrifice outlet to sacrifice Sun Titan instead of Fiend Hunter repeatedly. Angelic Renewal will be sacrificed to bring Sun Titan back, whose ETB trigger will return Angelic Renewal.)
From there, you need a finisher piece:
Altar of Dementia will provide the free sacrifices while placing all of your opponents’ libraries into their graveyard
Blood Artist will ping everyone to death
Bitter Ordeal will exile all of your opponents’ libraries. This is my preferred finisher piece because it is the most resilient of the three. Why? Because even if the initial Bitter Ordeal is countered, the Gravestorm triggers are still placed on the stack.
Exsanguinate will kill the table if you are using Ashnod’s Altar as your sacrifice outlet because it will generate you infinite colorless mana.
This is the most fragile combo which is why it is Plan B for the deck. It’s expensive and susceptible to multiple forms of removal. Vizkopa Guildmage’s second ability is essentially an activated Sanguine Bond. You need both Vizkopa Guildmage and Exquisite Blood on the battlefield. You activate Vizkopa Guildmage’s second ability, then activate Ayli sacing a random dork (or you use another simple way to gain life). Assuming it all resolves, the infinite loop of lifegain and lifeloss occurs and you blow up the table. If you have none of the pieces on the board during your turn, you will need six generic mana, three black mana, and two white mana, for a total of 11 mana to cast the necessary cards and activate the necessary abilities. It’s not a very good combo, but it is there. (Note: This is also where Academy Rector can shine, as you can use him to get Exquisite Blood on the board prior to the beginning of your turn.)
One of the problems I’ve noticed with many players entering the combo-deck space for the first time is that they will cram too many combo pieces into their deck that, on their own, don’t advance your board state and become “dead” cards in your hand. This deck tries to minimize that risk by using combo pieces that are versatile in their own right. In this section, we get to see how Corpse Dance becomes a one-way ticket to Valuetown USA.
Mangara of Corondor + Sacrifice outlet + Corpse Dance allows you to deal with multiple threatening permanents provided you have enough mana. Mangara’s activated ability doesn’t require it to be on the battlefield for it to resolve, so you can just sacrifice it in response to its activation, which will place it in your graveyard rather than exile.
The Value Combos are:
Yosei + Sacrifice Outlet + Corpse Dance allows you to lock out the table provided you have the mana to do so. 11 mana will lock out 3 players each turn. Nasty.
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion + Skullclamp
Any creature loop + Grim Haruspex
When things go wrong
Sometimes your main strategy will get hosed. Brago will drop a Rest in Peace, Phenax will drop a Leyline of the Void, or anyone with black will Bojuka Bog your graveyard. It happens, and that’s just fine because this deck runs a healthy package of graveyard recursion that isn’t limited to your own. Keep an eye out for strong creatures in other players’ graveyards. You never know if reanimating that Ruric Thar could end up winning you the game! ( Dance of the Dead, Animate Dead, Reanimate, Nezumi Graverobber, Necromancy, Sheoldred, Whispering One )
Sanguine Bond: Similar to Vindicate and Mortify, I prefer effects to be on creatures. And at the low cost of two mana to cast, Vizkopa Guildmage gets the job done. We can also reanimate Vizkopa Guildmage
Vindicate / Mortify : I’ve always preferred removal options on creatures for a deck like this. It is ultimately easier to get repeated uses from Mangara of Corondor, Fiend Hunter, and Leonin Relic-Warder than with instants and sorceries. However, if you’re lucky enough to have a Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed, then by all means, Vindicate and Mortify to your heart’s content.
The first thing I do when sitting down to play a new game is assess the strengths and probable lines of play from the other decks at the table. Understanding how your deck generates wins against all the available archetypes is key to consistently improving your odds of winning.
While it can be difficult to evaluate archetypical matchups given the variations among each theme, this deck doesn’t do terribly against stax decks. For one, it has a rather low average CMC. Second, it uses a lot of high-impact, low-cost cards. Reanimate, Animate Dead, Anguished Unmaking, Mangara of Corondor, Land Tax following a board wipe, etc., can all do a lot of work for very little mana. Keep in mind that if you’re able to disrupt the board lock, try to do it prior to your turn starting. There’s nothing worse than exiling a Winter Orb during your own main phase, giving the rest of the table a turn with their full mana base.
Aggro decks can be difficult for this deck if their aggression is focused on you first. Commanders like Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest, Krenko, Mob Boss and the like generally still rely on some kind of combo-synergy to one-shot players off the board. If this is the case, consider adding Peacekeeper and/or Maze of Ith to your deck. I otherwise react to these decks like I do Combo. If you can’t combo faster than them, tutor up your board disruption to survive the initial onslaught. This deck probably has enough gas to outpace them in the midgame. Other key cards include Aven Mindcensor, Thalia, Heretic Cathar, and even Wall of Omens.
Dedicated combo-decks will outpace you most of the time. I’ve played this against the true Orzhov combo king, Teysa, and the matchup generally comes down to two things: Establishing effective card draw and aggressively tutoring for your own combo pieces. If you feel that you’re unable to outpace their combos, tutor for your disruption pieces (like Anguished Unmaking, Bojuka Bog, and Mangara of Corondor). In dire situations, you can even use your own combo pieces like Fiend Hunter and Leonin-Relic Warder to disrupt their combo.
I would like to believe that this is the most difficult matchup for this version of Ayli. I’ve run into a number of “feels bad man” moments playing against control-Brago or control-Rashmi, like when my whole board of exquisite mana-ramp gets bounced to my hand. Or when my game-ending Exsanguinate gets countered. And while you have a few answers to control decks, the best way to win against them will be to grind them out with your package of value-combos listed above. Other key cards in this matchup are Boseiju, Who Shelters All and Yosei, the Morning Star.