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Budget Commander: Nikya of the Old Ways

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Gruul Ramp! And Then Smash!

Nikya of the Old Ways immediately caught my attention when she was revealed, for two reasons: first off, I think she's a great card, especially as a commander. Her downside of not being able to cast noncreature spells is unique and very restrictive, but her upside of a personal Mana Flare / Heartbeat of Spring is amazing ramp, making her worth the cost. Most importantly for me, however, is that Nikya is severely limited in terms of Combo potential, something I've been criticized for building around in the majority of my Budget Commander decks. It's refreshing to tackle a commander that isn't working towards a combo finisher and is instead free to win other ways, aka the Gruul way of SMASHING to victory! But I'm probably going to sneak a combo in there too. Sorry  ...

You might like the deck if ...

  • You want to play the most Creature-focused commander ever printed
  • You want to produce BIG MANA to cast HUGE SPELLS
  • You're up for a unique deckbuilding challenge with a big restriction
  • You want to SMASH Control players with BIG CREATURES!

You might NOT like the deck if ...

  • You want to play lots of noncreature spells.
  • You don't want to SMASH.
  • You don't want to be tied down by, like, deckbuilding restrictions, man. You wanna be free!
  • You want to play a very competitive deck.

Do you like creatures? Do you like big fat mana to cast big fat creatures? Want to give the middle finger to all noncreature spells, including your opponents'? Want to SMASH?! Then Nikya of the Old Ways is the deck for you!

As usual, this article is going to be a super in-depth covering all aspects of Nikya of the Old Ways and provide hundreds of card options to brew with her. The budget lists will be at the bottom of the article.


Working With Nikya's Restriction

We can't cast noncreature spells when Nikya of the Old Ways on the battlefield. That sounds like a near-impossible task to build around, but it's really not: according to Scryfall there are 3,789 creature cards that we can run in this deck, so yeah, we've got options. We can assemble a Gruul deck made entirely of lands and creatures without struggling at all or making serious deckbuilding compromises. There are creatures cards out there that do basically anything a noncreature cards can do, including ramp (Birds of Paradise), draw cards (Beast Whisperer), tutor (Fauna Shaman), kill creatures (Ravager Wurm), destroy noncreatures (Acidic Slime), even board wipe (Balefire Dragon). So we don't need to start adding noncreature cards to our deck if we don't want to.

That said, we can - and should! - be running some amount of noncreature spells, since the only time we can't cast them is when Nikya of the Old Ways is on the battlefield. As a 5cmc creature with no inherent protection to removal, Nikya isn't always going to be on the battlefield, giving us time to cast our noncreature spells. But sometimes Nikya is going to be sitting on the battlefield and we need to cast some noncreature spells in our hand. What do?

Thankfully, we have a few great ways of removing Nikya from the battlefield on-demand so we can cast whatever we want, either by bouncing her back to our hand, sacrificing her, or temporarily exiling her. The best card that I could find to do this is Temur Sabertooth, which is a creature we can play when Nikya is already on the battlefield and then bounce her to recast later for just two mana. I also really like Cloudstone Curio for this deck, despite being a noncreature it can easily bounce Nikya and re-use ETB triggers (and possibly enable combos). 

Here are some ways we can remove her from the board when we want to. Having Nikya on the battlefield, tapping all our lands to float tons of mana, then bouncing her with Temur Sabertooth to cast a giant Genesis Wave feels sooooo good! The general criteria we're looking for are cheap, repeatable, instant-speed, and creatures:

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Not Creature? Then Stax!

If you end up leaning hard on the noncreature theme then you might as well turn the restriction into an advantage by punishing players for playing noncreature spells! Alas, most of the best noncreature hate is in White (Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Gaddock Teeg, etc.) but Gruul still has at least three great options: Ruric Thar, the Unbowed, Nullstone Gargoyle, and Thorn of Amethyst are all backbreaking against most decks, and we're largely unaffected.

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Nikya of the Old Ways makes our lands tap for additional mana, so the best sources of ramp will either allow us to play additional lands each turn (Oracle of Mul Daya), put lands from our library into play (Wood Elves) or untap our lands (Arbor Elf) so we can get the most use out of Nikya's ability. Also since our deck is so creature-heavy, any creature-restricted ramp (Somberwald Sage) get a whole lot better in our deck since the restriction is negligible. A lot of the best creature ramp happens to have the Elf subtype, so we can add an Elf subtheme to take further advantage of powerful synergies (Elvish Archdruid). Finally, generic Green creature staples (Birds of Paradise) are still just as good in our deck as anywhere else.

Here are some of my favorite ramp options for Nikya:

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Card Draw

Think all Gruul card draw amounts to is Harmonize and Sylvan Library? Nope! There's quite a few amazing creatures that can keep our hand full of gas, which is important considering how quickly we can empty it thanks to Nikya of the Old Ways' insane ramp potential. In such a Creature-heavy deck, Beast Whisperer and Vizier of the Menagerie are all-stars, offering tons of card draw potential for just 4cmc. Duskwatch Recruiter is another great option in a Creature-heavy deck such as this, being a perfect mana sink from all the mana we're generating off Nikya of the Old Ways. If we end up emptying our hand and need a complete refill, cards like Magus of the Wheel, Dragon Mage, and Sandstone Oracle can refill us in a pinch.

Here are some solid creature card draw options to consider:

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We've got creature options to take out basically any problem permanent we need to deal with. Creatures? Gruul Ragebeast body slams them into submission. Artifacts/Enchantments? Reclamation Sage tears them down. Lands? Acidic Slime melts them. Graveyards? Scavenging Ooze nomnoms on them all day! We even have repeatable "board wipes" with Balefire Dragon! Woo!

Here are some of my favorite creature cards that can act as powerful removal for a Nikya deck:

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Graveyard Recursion

Drawing cards is the best thing ever, but sometimes the cards we really want are already in our graveyard. Fear not, for there are a few amazing creature cards that yoink them back to our hand! Everyone knows of Commander staple Eternal Witness, and it's amazing here like it is everywhere, but one criminally underrated card that everyone should be running is Skullwinder! I've been banging my drum about this card since it was first spoiled and have never been disappointed by it. Skullwinder is an easier to cast Witness with deathtouch so it's actually a great blocker too! "But an opponent gets a card too!" you cry, "that must be terrible, right?" WRONG! You choose which opponent gets a card back and you can turn that "disadvantage" into a huge advantage by doing something unique to multiplayer formats: playing politics! Whenever I cast Skullwinder I will say one of the following:

  • "Who wants to be my friend?"
  • "Hey, X, if I target you with Skullwinder, will you grab Y card to deal with Z?"

The disadvantage of this card always ends up benefiting me. I love it so much!

Here are some of my favorite recursion cards in creature form. I've focused on creature recursion to reflect what works best in a typical Nikya of the Old Ways deck:


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Most of the best creature tutors are going to cost a couple bucks. One notable exception is Fierce Empath, a flexible tutor in our deck with the potential of extra Elf synergies, for under a buck. If you're willing to spend a few bucks then Woodland Bellower and Fauna Shaman are my next picks for best tutors. If you're willing to spend quite a few bucks then Imperial Recruiter is amazing.

While not exactly "tutors," we have some creatures that can dig deep into our deck to find the card we need: Genesis Hydra is a great option for this, offering a useful mana sink for all our ramp and also being a respectable threat on its own.

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Nikya of the Old Ways is a great engine for our deck. Unfortunately, she comes with no protection against removal and our opponents will be keen on removing her as quickly as possible so we don't do crazy things with all that mana. She's also 5cmc, so it's going to be rough recasting her more than a few times per game. It's worth finding ways to protect her and the rest of our board state.

Here are some ways to either protect your stuff from being removed, or at least bounce back from a wipe:

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One of the best things about being in Red is that we get a lot of wonderful ways to give our creatures haste. This lets our mana dorks activate abilities immediately (Arbor Elf) and our heavy-hitters can attack immediately (Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger). I've also tossed in flash to this category because it can also let us dodge sorcery-speed removal for a turn and mess up our opponents' evaluation of our current board. Finally, trample gives our big beaters evasion, so I tossed those into this category too.

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Noncreature Spells

As mentioned earlier, just because this is a Nikya of the Old Ways deck doesn't mean we can't run any noncreature spells. In fact, some noncreature cards are so good for this deck that it would be foolish to exclude them, like the almighty Survival of the Fittest, one of the best tutors in the entire format.

While I'm not sure how good this play is, I think it would be hilarious to suit up Nikya with Assault Suit, stopping opponents from casting noncreature spells on their turn. It makes Nikya and the equipment very difficult to remove, and a 5/5 can do some decent damage around the table. Of course, the downside is that you're doubling your opponents' mana, so if they ramp out a Kozilek, Butcher of Truth then it's your fault. Also if anyone has a bigger creature, two opponents can work together and have Nikya attack into the bigger creature to kill her. Still, it could be hilarious when it works!

Here are my top choices for noncreature spells for the deck:

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The great thing about Creature-heavy decks is that a lot of our creatures can fulfill the role of removal / ramp / card draw while also being able to kill our opponents with their big beefy butts: stuff like Soul of the Harvest, Ravager Wurm, and Bane of Progress are more than happy to knock some heads! That said, it's still a good idea to run a handful of cards that can end the game with minimal effort.

First, we've got sweet cards that scale up with the mana we put into them: mana-sinks like Kamahl, Krosan Protector or Hydra Broodmaster give you a giant army and Hellkite Charger gives you lots of extra combats. Or we can float all our mana, bounce/sac Nikya, and then use all that mana to cast Genesis Wave / Comet Storm for a billion and win that way.

Or, you know, just resolve Eldrazi Big Bois Ulamog, the Infinite Gye and Kozilek, Butcher of Truth. Those do the trick. Avenger of Zendikar works too if your opponents whine about annihilator and insist you run them over without touching their precious lands. Winning with all our mana isn't exactly hard.

One of my absolute favorite ways to win, however, is Primal Surge. If it's the only instant/sorcery in your deck, all you gotta do is cast it, drop your library on to the battlefield, and win the game. Just add haste (Urabrask, the Hidden) and swing for a billion, or maybe just Warstorm Surge to win that way. It's all good.

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I Lied: Here's Some Combos

Look, I tried to pick a commander that doesn't have any combo potential. I really did. And honestly, Nikya of the Old Ways isn't the best commander for a dedicated Combo deck ... which makes these combos even better because they'll catch your opponents by surprise! I know, I know, I always add combos to my articles, but hear me out: I add a lot of things to these articles because I want to give all the tools that you, the reader, could possibly need to build your own deck with. It feels wrong to me to purposefully leave out potential cards just because some of my readers don't like combos. As always, these combos - like all cards I discuss - are presented only as options for how to build your deck, not a requirement, nor do they always necessarily make the deck "stronger." So if you really hate combos, just skip 'em!

With that out of the way, here's some awesome fun time combos we can sneak into Nikya of the Old Ways:

The first is my personal favorite: Kiki Jiki, Mirror-Breaker + Zealous Conscripts. Easy infinite hastey creatures, playable with Nikya on the battlefield, and cards like Imperial Recruiter can help tutor them up.

Another combo is infinite combat steps. Hellkite Charger or Aggravated Assault + Sword of Feast and Famine or Bear Umbra lets you take infinite combat steps. If you're running Assault then you can go infinite with Savage Ventmaw too.

And that's it! Two ways to snag surprise wins via combo. Again, purely optional ways to win; casting hastey Eldrazi Titans is going to do the trick just as well.

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Lands are a huge part of any deck and this is especially true for Nikya of the Old Ways. First and foremost we need basic mana-fixing to make sure we can always cast our spells, from Rugged Highlands on the extreme budget end and Spire Gardens for more expensive better options.

For Nikya of the Old Ways, lands provide the ideal method to get rid of her when we need to cast noncreature spells: High Market is my favorite of the bunch, with Miren, the Moaning Well a good secondary options.

Lands can double as ramp for us too: Blighted Woodland and Myriad Landscape are auto-includes in this deck.

We have some great options for protection as well: Homeward Path is a godsend against Blue or Black decks that run theft cards like Animate Dead and Control Magic effects. Thank the Gonti, Lord of Luxury player for paying the mana cost of your creatures so you can grab them back for free!

Here are some of the best land options for the deck:

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Putting It All Together

Alright, now that we've gone over the card pool we're working with, it's time to talk about how we craft the deck. As I often explain in my Budget Commander articles, every time I build a rough draft of a deck, I make sure I have a certain ratio of mana, interaction, card advantage, etc. This gives me a reference point to compare to the deck and see which areas may need improvement. My general ratio is:

  • 50 mana; lands and ramp, usually a 37–13 split
  • 10 sources of "card advantage;" I use this term loosely but am mostly looking for card draw or any spell that nets me 2+ non-land cards in hand / directly into play
  • 6 targeted removal, split between creature / artifact / enchantment removal
  • 3 board wipes; creature-light decks might want one more, creature-heavy decks might want one less
  • 2 recursion
  • 2 flexible tutors
  • 1 graveyard hate; because you never forget to add some graveyard hate in your deck, right? Right? Right?!
  • 1 surprise "I Win" card; something that can win games the turn you cast it without too much setup

That's always my starting point, which is then tweaked to suit the individual deck's strategy and further tweaked with playtesting. I always find it immensely useful to figure out some quick ways to improve the deck in question.


Budget Deck Lists

Finally we get to the part everyone scrolls down to: the budget deck lists! Here's a couple of lists I threw together using the cards I listed and the ratios discussed previously.


$35 List

Here's the first list! Priced at just $35 USD at the time of writing, this Nikya of the Old Ways has a simple yet very effective game plan: ramp, disrupt our opponents, and beat them over the head with giant creatures! We've got TONS of ramp outside of Nikya herself and more card draw than I usually run just so we can recover from multiple board wipes, since most of our cards are creatures which don't last long in the format. We have tons of removal too, which double as win conditions since we get to bash with Polukranos, World Eater, Gruul Ragebeast, Terastodon, etc. Some of our creatures are there specifically to close out games, which End-Raze Forerunners, Molten Primordial, and Hellkite Charger do a great job of. I also tossed in Assault Suit because handing off Nikya and preventing our opponents from casting noncreature spells is hilarious.

The best card in the entire deck is definitely Primal Surge which basically wins the game whenever we cast it; either keep Nikya in the command zone or get rid of her with Temur Sabertooth or Dark-Dweller Oracle to cast Surge. Since Surge is our non-permanent card, we are allowed to put as much of our library as we want into play, and with Fires of Yavimaya and Ogre Battledriver giving all our creatures haste, and all lands put into play from Surge untapped to fuel Hellkite Charger, we should have more than enough damage on the board to kill everyone. Just make sure to leave some cards in your library because some of our card draw - Guardian Project, Regal Force, and Sandstone Oracle - force you to draw cards, so don't mill yourself out!


$100 List

Upgrading from $35 to $100 allows us to sneak in Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker + Zealous Conscripts combo which happens to make our Primal Surge plan super duper lethal. We've even added Dosan the Falling Leaf to make sure our opponents can't mess with us when we cast Surge. Our manabase leveled up and I focused on an Elf subtheme so we can take full advantage of strong mana dorks Joraga Treespeaker, Elvish Archdruid, Priest of Titania etc. We've got better tutors, better card draw, graveyard hate with Scavenging Ooze, yadayada. The only thing I didn't upgrade much is the lands but I did toss in a Command Tower and High Market so that's something. Lots of upgrades made.


$200 List

Most of the money spent upgrading to $200 was for better lands. We have lots more consistent mana-fixing that enters the battlefield untapped (Spire Garden), two additional great sac outlets for Nikya (High Market), another huge mana-sink to force damage through (Kessig Wolf Run), and protection against Black/Blue theft (Homeward Path). The rest of the deck got upgrades here and there, most notably Imperial Recruiter as one of the best tutors possible for this deck getting basically anything we could ever want, including both pieces of the Kiki combo. The deck is really good!


That's All, Folks!

Hope you enjoyed my take on Nikya of the Old Ways. I haven't quite decided yet what my next article will be, but I'll let you all know what to expect when I settle on something so follow me on Twitter @BudgetCommander if you want to keep updated. As always, let me know what you think of the article and what you'd like to see in the future since I do read all the comments!

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