Is this a goblin deck? NO! It’s a combo-aggro deck!
Zada, Hedron Grinder is an explosive combo-aggro deck that looks to take small creatures (usually 1/1s) and pair them with Zada’s triggered ability to cause huge swings in value and damage. This deck is dangerous because it has many angles to combo from and the combos are flexible and customizable to each game. If you like playing all-in red decks in other 60 card formats this is the deck for you.
The Main Strategy
The main strategy of this deck is to threaten huge bursts of card draw or damage. Damage leads to kills, which leads to wins. Card draw leads to damage that leads to what we want. The gist is that when we are in games that we feel will be prolonged drawing tons of cards usually results in us being able to attrition our opponents.
Like many blue combo decks when you have the opportunity to you want to cantrip. Zada does this best when there are creatures on your side of the field and you have cards that allow you to draw a card. Cards like Crimson Wisps and Expedite are some of the purest examples of this but there are other cards that draw cards at the next player’s upkeep (like Panic). These cards look bad on the surface but they can be angled so that you don’t end up with more than 7 cards at the end of your turn. Many of them have clauses that say “Draw a card at the beginning of the next turn’s upkeep”. Angled correctly these cards can have you starting turns with tons of cards in hand.
We do this while generally threatening to deal huge bursts of damage with our mini-swarm of 1/1s. It is possible to get super early kills on a single opponent around turn 4-5 but most of the combos you can build that warrant enough damage to kill an entire table of player go off around turns 6 or 7.
As a side strategy we also have an infinite combo in the deck. You need Dualcaster Mage and a copy creature effect ( Twinflame or Heat Shimmer ) and another creature. It can be any creature. Start off by targeting the other creature and retaining priority. Respond to your own spell and cast Dualcaster Mage. With Dualcaster’s effect target the spell on the stack and target Dualcaster. Repeating this gives you a infinite amount of hasty Dualcaster Mages. Note that a similar effect can happen even if Dualcaster is already on the field. Cast Zada, Hedron Grinder. If you cast Twinflame on Zada you will get a Zada Trigger. That trigger resolves before the original Twinflame resolves. This lets you resolve a copy of Twinflame that is targeting Dualcaster, and that new Dualcaster can target the original Twinflame and create a infinite cycle of hasty Dualcasters.
This combo is playable in our deck because the cards in the combo can facilitate other types of combo turns. Also, Dualcaster mage targeting enemy Demonic Tutor style effects can help you assemble the Dualcaster combo.
The Main Enabler Cards
While this deck is riddled with small creatures, pump effects, and cantrips you are very likely to run into at least one of these cards. It’s good to find one of these effects in your starting hands so you can start sculpting your hand for your combo turn. You don’t need them to win; they just offer you a concrete position to angle your other cards.
Skullclamp : You have tons of 1/1s. Murder them and draw cards. You usually draw a few more 1/1s. Repeat this process until you’ve sculpted out your combo turn.
Dictate of the Twin Gods : This lets us use our opponents to kill each other, and also doubles the effectiveness of our small creatures and the pump spells that effects them. Those small creatures usually die in combat anyway so the cost of playing a card like Dictate is low for us. Add double strike to make this super spicy for your squad of creatures. This is also a good card for when you are trying to kill someone with just 1 huge creature with several buffs applied to it.
Gamble : This is one of the best Gamble decks in the format. Because your deck is capable of drawing tons of cards you can time your gamble when you have 10+ cards in hand and make it very unlikely that the card you gamble for gets discarded. When going for early game gambles I recommend getting Skullclamp for grindy games, Krenko, Mob Boss for very fast games, and Mage-Ring Network to get mana enabled. Note that if you have no other cards in hand you can tutor for Reckless Charge and still cast it from your Graveyard for a Zada Trigger.
Krenko, Mob Boss : You only need to activate Krenko once to win a game while playing Zada. Krenko is especially cool in this deck because of cards like Crimson Wisps that can give your creatures haste at a moment’s notice. Anyone that has seen a Krenko deck at work knows that if Krenko can activate during end-of-turn and untap and activate again then the other players are in for a world of hurt.
Ib Halfheart, Goblin Tactician : He provides a similar solution that Krenko does, but he is much more all-in. Normally you will cast Ib Halfheart and pass turn. If you can untap with it and Zada in play you can sac all of your mountains in play to generate a swarm of goblins while floating your red mana. Use the mana to cantrip with Zada and you have a fair shot at drawing into pump spells that can make your team huge. Don’t forget to bring a haste enabler!
Empty the Warrens : This card looks terrible, but I swear its good. When you get this card you are trying to sculpt around it. Get as many 1 drop creatures as you can into your hand. The goal of the strat behind this card is somewhere you want to run your Zada out by itself and try to untap with it. If you can, untap with it in play and cast all of your 1 drop spells followed by a Empty the Warrens with multiple storm copies. From there you can easily overrun your opponents. This spell is also good at setting up before you cast Zada. Even if its just turn 5 and you cast a 1 drop into Empty, that’s still +5 1/1s. Its very possible to kill someone with that type of setup in this deck.
“Want all, lose all.” – Zhalfirin Aphorism
Final Fortune : This is the king of all-in cards. At face value this card allows us to overextend onto the board and cheat by taking an extra turn and going for the win on our extra turn. The real power of this card is that it is an instant. So if you are awkwardly sitting in between two control players you could find ways to commit just minor amounts of creatures to the board and then cast Final Fortune when everyone is tapped out (you can take turns when you’re not supposed to). Don’t be afraid to test the limits of final fortune either: I have won many games where I have a fist full of cantrips and enter my final fortune turn not knowing if I can assemble enough damage to win the game. In general having cards like Crimson Wisps allow your Final Fortune turns to have way more range in the amount of maximum damage you can achieve.
You should cast Zada on turn 4 only if you are all-in or are confidant that it will not be removed. Because Zada is usually very crucial to our strategy our opponents might aggressively remove it, even if we don’t have a boardstate. Normally you want to cast Zada on turn 5, 6 or even 7 when you can do something with it even if it gets removed (like cantrip, or fire off your pump spells).
Usually in a game you get to cast Zada 1 time. Make it count. In more grindy games you might get to cast it a second or third time if you are lucky.
Zada is also a great lightning rod. There are a few scenarios where you don’t need Zada to win the game. If you can see these situations come up ahead of time just go ahead and cast Zada. If she dies, so what. If you untap with her in play that is a pure bonus and if Zada dies, hopefully you can follow through on your initial plan of attack.
On the inverse of that last note, there are games where you don’t need Zada and shouldn’t cast Zada at all. Sometimes your opponents will wait for you to commit to your boardstate with Zada before casting their Wrath of God effect. If you never cast Zada you can force the more controling decks into awkward scenarios where they might have to tap out and give you a window of opportunity for a Zada combo-turn.
Psychology of the Deck
When your opponents first play against this deck they might not respect it. They might not understand the range of the deck or how well the pump spells can be implemented. But you should make them respect it.
Be aggressive. I would almost say that you should be reckless a lot of the time. If you are playing against decks that have creatures that they have to use to win the game, don’t be afraid to attack into them. If you have pump spells you can threaten to trade 2 for 1 against your opponent’s valuable creatures. Normally you would think this is bad but so many combo decks in this format are glass cannons that killing one of their enablers can buy you so much time.
It is important to learn how to bluff your attacks because there are many scenarios where you are just short lethal damage on one or two opponents. Getting in for one, two, or three damage here and there actually matters a lot for this deck.
If you have a hard time bluffing take this approach: say you’ve mulliganed and have played out a few 1/1s. You know that in your hand you have 2 pump spells but need more creatures before you feel comfortable committing with Zada. Understand how much damage you need to achieve your goal and play towards that goal. If you do your thinking before your turn starts you can very clearly and quickly draw you card, pass through your main phase doing nothing, and move to your attack step. Give your opponents priority so they can do things, and declare your attacks with no fear (this is the plan, after all). I find that if you can streamline your attack process to be similar from turn to turn it makes it harder for your opponents to detect how “strong” your attack is and might not block at all.
“Better to flare out than to gutter.” – Flamekin expression
Please note that after Zada is in play you might find that people might block much more aggressively. So if you are trying to get in for minor amounts of damage don’t cast Zada beforehand because they might be afraid of you diving them for lethal damage.
Also, you should almost never block. You should only be blocking if you need to block a lethal attacker or you are very certain that someone is going to wrath before your next turn. 1/1s, as well as any creature that inhabits our mini-swarm throughout the game, are so crucial to how our deck operate that they should not be used to chump block.
The core of our deck is large, and our archtype is not very open to running cards that don’t enable our own strategy. Usually our best defense is to be more aggressive and try to tackle our opponents.
Combo: A pure race. You need to understand the combo deck’s timings and enablers and threaten to dive them for lethal damage the turn before they combo. Bluff aggressively when attacking into their combo creatures.
Control: Understand the timing of their mass removal cards and time your combo turns around how much mana they have open. In this matchup its important to have a fall-back plan. If your games are consistently grindy you might be able to get away with running Mizzix’s Mastery. It should almost always win you the game if you can overload it when Zada is in play because when you resolve Mizzix’s Mastery you cast the spells from the graveyard so you can get tons of Zada triggers after you resolve the other effects (like Krenko’s Command). It is also perfectly fine to cast it for 4 to recast another powerful effect from your graveyard.
Aggro: It is somewhat a race, but this matchup can be funny because there are many scenarios where your aggro opponent might be afraid to tap all of their creatures vs your squad of 1/1s because of your burst damage potential. If you are trying to slog through an opponent’s army of creatures cards like Legion Loyalist can break games wide open. When prioritizing pump spells for your combo turn, you probably want to have pumpspells + a trample pump spell so you can kill your opponent even when they block your creatures.
Notes on Sequencing
A lot of spells in our deck offer us the ability to give our entire team haste via our Zada trigger. Its always good though to know how to maximize your triggers so that you can create the most creatures with the most effects applied to them. Sometimes it is the difference between winning and losing the game.
Some creatures have triggers that happen when you cast an instant or sorcery. One of them is Young Pyromancer. You get a Zada trigger and a Young Pyromancer trigger at the same time when you cast an instant targeting Zada, so be sure to resolve Young Pyromaner’s trigger before resolving Zada’s copy effect that way your new 1/1 elemental gets more buffs (or you draw an additional card if you are cantriping).
Cards like Twinflame are good for us because not only do they provide us with more creatures on our combo turn but they also give us the ability to re-enable creature’s enter the battlefield triggers if they have them. Usually effects like twinflame are not very good with Legendary creatures but with cards like Krenko, Mob Boss its actually very good for us. Activate Krenko before you resolve the twinflame and you get to get a new Krenko token with haste that you can use to make even more goblins. You usually want to cast your twinflame effects before casting your pump spells so you can maximize damage.
Don’t Look Back
While there are a host of moderately small creatures in our deck that are good at giving us minor value on a turn by turn basis understand when you are all-in on a plan and don’t look back. Cards like Hanweir Garrison and Grenzo, Havoc Raiser raiser can give us minor value each turn but when we commit to our combo turn the more you play around removal and overthink your attack the more likely you will mess it up or miss lethal damage. You’ll get better as you learn the deck but in general once you hard-commit to your combo you rarely have the luxury to play around removal.
What are your experiences with decks like this in commander? What types of pump spells do you like to run with Zada?