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Budget Commander: Alesha, Who Smiles at Death ($56)

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Welcome to another Budget Commander! I wanted to give the last poll more time for the votes to decide which Tribal deck to build. At the time of writing this, Bears and Elephants are tied for first! For now, let's go over possibly the most requested commander for this series, Alesha, Who Smiles at Death.

On her surface, Alesha shares a lot of similarities with another popular Mardu commander, Kaalia of the Vast. Both cheat creatures into play through the attack step. In some ways, Kaalia is more powerful at doing this summoning, being able to put the creature into play straight from the hand instead of graveyard, cheating creatures in for free instead of paying two mana, cheating in Dragons / Angels / Demons, which are more likely to be game-ending threats than 2-power creatures, and flying gives her an easier time of attacking without coming across blockers.

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Although Kaalia of the Vast may have more raw power, she also draws far more hate. Most Commander players are well aware of Kaalia's reputation (and for good reason!) and will make it their number one priority to make sure she doesn't stay on the table. The fear of what unknown game-ending fattie Kaalia will drop on the next attack step all but guarantees Kaalia will be hated out of the table at every game she's in. Kaalia has to charge out of the gates, guns blazing, trying to end the game before her opponents can answer her.

Alesha is more like Kaalia's chilled out little sister. She's slower to set up, needing creatures in the graveyard before she can use her ability, and lets her opponents know exactly what will be reanimated by her. The 2-power creature restriction means that her cheats are far less physically imposing and unlikely to kill anyone outright (barring some exceptions, Master of Cruelties). These factors make Alesha, Who Smiles at Death look less threatening to the rest of the table, which often lets you play a slower, more controlling game.

In playtesting Alesha, I found that I was often taking the role of policing the game, working with opponents to take out mutual threats. People often left me alone since I was "helping" them, which allowed me to assemble the win behind the scenes. It felt very much the opposite of my experiences with Kaalia.


Toolbox Control

In my games with her, I was often working with the table to take out threats, using my graveyard as a toolbox to animate the right creature for the job. That's the Alesha build I'll be talking about for this article.

The first step to using Alesha, Who Smiles at Death is to have a creature in the graveyard for her to reanimate. You don't need to work too hard for that to happen, as creatures on the battlefield typically last 1-2 turns before they're killed off. We can always speed up this process by dumping cards into our graveyards with Faithless Looting, Tormenting Voice, and (the best) Buried Alive.

A good toolbox needs an answer for any situation. Thankfully, we have a wealth of options in Mardu. Here are some notable budget options that I've come across in my research:

Note on Mesmeric Fiend, Fiend Hunter, Leonin Relic-Warder, and similar: these cards have a trick to permanently exile their targets. These cards have two separate triggers, one that exiles a target when it enters the battlefield (ETB). The other returns the exiled target when they leave the battlefield. If you put their ETB trigger on the stack, then have them leave the battlefield before the ETB triggers, their "leave the battlefield" trigger resolves first and the target is exiled forever. The best way to do this trick is to sacrifice the creature at instant speed when it enters the battlefield, which we'll talk about in the next section.

As you can see, Alesha, Who Smiles at Death has a lot of options for her toolbox. Fill and customize it with the tools you need to overcome the threats in your playgroup. With the proper toolbox, you can work with the table to pull out the right answer for any situation.

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Protecting Your Army

Alesha, Who Smiles at Death is not only vulnerable to removal, but you may also come across situations where there's nobody that you can safely attack into with Alesha without being killed during blocks. You may consider running some support cards that allow Alesha and her creatures to attack safely, and possibly some ways to defend your board from general removal. I don't think you need too much support here, but a few choice cards will be a boon.

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Sacrifice For Value

Alesha, Who Smiles at Death works well with a Sacrifice sub-theme, for various reasons:

  • Sacrificing a creature with an ETB trigger lets you reanimate it with Alesha to get another use of the trigger
  • Creatures like Fiend Hunter can permanently exile their target if you sacrifice them before their trigger resolves
  • Free, repeatable sacrifice outlets enable many combo win conditions, should you choose to run them

Notable sac-outlets include Viscera Seer, Sadistic Hypnotist, Ashnod's Altar, and Goblin Bombardment. On a budget, I'm fond of Spawning Pit, and while it does have a mana cost, Vampiric Rites is pretty sweet too.

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So the game has gone on for a while and now you're ready to end things. How do we do it? We have two main avenues:

Option 1: Swing for Lethal. A few creatures that are legal for Alesha to reanimate can actually end the game. The most notable one is Master of Cruelties, which you get around his "must attack alone" clause by putting him into the battlefield already attacking. Another cutesy one is Wall of Blood, again getting around its "can't attack" with Alesha, and then pumping it up for lethal damage. 

My favorite way to swing for lethal would be pumping up your army with Cathars' Crusade. A lot of Alesha targets happen to be very efficient token generators, my favorites being Siege-Gang Commander, Evangel of Heliod, Ponyback Brigade, and Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder. Simply playing one Siege-Gang Commander gives your entire army 4x +1/+1 counters on them, so things get lethal in a hurry!

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Option 2: Combos. It wouldn't be Budget Commander without at least one combo win condition! Luckily for us, Alesha has several combos that are budget friendly, all of them relying on infinitely sacrificing and reanimating creatures. Here's a couple of them:

Combo #1: Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit / Cathars' Crusade + Murderous Redcap + a sac outlet. Sacrifice the Redcap. The Redcap returns to the battlefield due to persist and it deals damage to a player. Anafenza or Crusade gives the Recap a +1/+1 counter, cancelling out the -1/-1 counter it got due to persist. Repeat until all your opponents are dead.

Combo #2: Beetleback Chief / any creature that makes another creature + Ashnod's Altar + Nim Deathmantle + Blood Artist / Zulaport Cutthroat / Falkenrath Noble. Sacrifice the Chief and a token to the Altar to generate 4 mana, draining 2 life with Artist or similar. Use the 4 mana to pay for the Deathmantle trigger, bringing the Chief back to the battlefield. Repeat.

Combo #3: Fiend HunterSun Titan + any sac outlet + Blood Artist / Zulaport Cutthroat / Falkenrath Noble. Play the Hunter, exiling the Titan. Sacrifice the Hunter, draining an opponent in the process. Titan returns, its ETB returning Hunter, which exiles the Titan again. Repeat.

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Budget Decklist

With all these things in mind, here's my budget decklist:


Upgrades and Fiddly Bits

To upgrade a toolbox deck like Alesha, you'll want tutors most of all. Entomb in particular is an all-star here. Another strong pickup would be Sneak Attack, which cheats in creatures and then puts them into your graveyard for Alesha. Sunforger is a strong candidate for inclusion, and Mardu has a ton of sweet tutor targets for it, Swords to Plowshares, Boros Charm, Anguished Unmaking, and Utter End, to name a few. 

You guys ask for an upgraded version of these decks and I'm happy to provide one. Keep in mind I have not personally tuned these blinged out versions and they should be treated as rough drafts. For this one in particular, I've left out the Kiki Combo and the Sunforger package, which may or may not be the right call. You'll need to tweak things as necessary.


Next Up: Budget Tribal!

Next article will be on the winner of the last poll. It's looking to be either Tribal Bears or Elephants. Either way, it'll be sweet!

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