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Budget Commander: Zada, Hedron Grinder | $25, $50, $100


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This article is is a long time coming.

I first played Zada, Hedron Grinder over three years ago in one of our early Commander Clash episodes. I knew the deck could be strong, but I didn't realize it would be "make a billion tokens, make a billion mana, draw a billion cards, pump all your creatures and swing for lethal in a single turn" level of strong! The deck was disgusting, and most importantly super budget-friendly, but for some insane reason ... I never wrote a Budget Commander article about Zada up until now. I have no idea why it's taken me three years to do it, but I'm finally correcting my mistake.

Zada, Hedron Grinder is stupid good. For those unfamiliar with her, she seems innocent enough at first glance: she's an elk-sized 3/3 for four mana with a neat triggered ability that, whenever you cast an instant/sorcery spell that only targets her, you copy it targeting every other creature you control. How busted can that really be?

Well, lurking forgotten in draft chaff piles of years gone by are innocuous red cards like Expedite, cheap instant/sorceries that target a creature, do something minor ... and draw you a card. That last bit is the most important part! If you cast Expedite targeting Zada, Hedron Grinder, Expedite gets copied targeting each other creature you control. If you have Zada and four other creatures, casting Expedite means you copy it four times, giving them all haste and drawing five cards! For one red mana! That makes Ancestral Recall look like a joke in comparison! That's insane! Expedite, Crimson Wisps, Accelerate, all these crappy draft chaff cards nobody plays ... Zada turns them all into overpowered, explosive card draw. All you need is a bunch of creatures and Zada on the board and a single one of these cantrips will refill you hand for 1-2 mana. 

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Go Wide Combo

With a bunch of creatures out alongside Zada, Hedron Grinder, our janky cantrips become red Ancestral Recalls. To take full advantage of this, we're going to flood the board with creatures plus Zada as quickly and cheaply as possible. Efficient token producers like Hordeling Outburst and cheap utility creatures like Iron Myr and Goblin Chirurgeon can flood our board with creatures in a few turns. Every creature added to the board adds to Zada's power.

We're going to have a very aggressive curve that dumps our hand as quickly as possible for as little mana as possible. It doesn't matter that we're emptying our hand fast because we'll just draw 5+ cards off a red cantrip immediately after. Then we just play more creatures, draw more cards, and give all our creatures haste to attack and win the game! Zada is essentially a combo deck: fast, explosive, and highly effective.

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Zada vs. Shu Yun vs. Feather

Zada, Hedron Grinder isn't the only deck where Expedite is an MVP. These days there are two other decks that play with similar cards: Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest and Feather, the Redeemed. While they share a lot of the same cards, their playstyles are very different.

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The Good. Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest, aka One Punch Man, is the OG commander that first broke cheap cantrips. He is a Voltron deck, looking to KO opponents with a lethal 21 commander damage attack as quickly and efficiently as possible. Of the three option, Shu Yun requires the fewest cards and least amount of setup required to kill someone. Thanks to his prowess and ability to give himself double strike, one-shotting people is absolutely trivial. How trivial? How about attacking with Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest, casting Brute Force and Titan's Strength on him, and paying an additional two mana to give him double strike? That's 22 damage for four mana. Absurd. Shu Yun is also in Jeskai colors, so he benefits from all of White's protection spells (Gods Willing) and not only gets all the best evasion from Blue (Slip Through Space) but more importantly gets access to countermagic to both protect himself and stop opponents (Swan Song). Shu Yun basically goes around the table one-shotting an opponent per turn, and sometimes multiple opponents (Seize the Day).

The Bad. While Shu Yun can kill multiple opponents in one turn (Seize the Day), it's more likely that he'll only be killing one per turn. That gives your other opponents a wider window of opportunity to shut Shu down. You're probably going to first kill whichever opponent is most likely to stop you, but it's still a risk to leave opponents alive. Shu Yun also has none of the insane card advantage potential that Feather and Zada boast, though he also doesn't need as much card draw as the other two. 

You should pick Shu Yun if ... you want a Voltron deck that one-shots people backed up by countermagic. If you're interested in Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest, check out my Budget Commander article on him!

 

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The Good. Feather, the Redeemed is the most consistent of the three options. She isn't looking to kill opponents in one explosive turn. Instead, she's looking to grind out the table through consistent card advantage by casting and recasting cantrips over and over to draw absurd amounts of cards over the course of a few turns. With Feather out you can cast Expedite on your turn, draw a card, return it to your hand at end of turn, then do it again on each of your opponents' turns. That's four cards drawn for RRRR over the course of a single turn cycle. Do that for a couple turns and your opponents will be buried in card advantage. Feather decks are prepared for these long grindy games by running tons of cards that can protect her from opposing removal such as Sheltering Light, Shelter, and Eerie Interlude. Your opponents will soon find themselves out of cards while you just snowball out of control. With Feather, winning isn't a race, it's an inevitability.

The Bad. Feather, the Redeemed is by far the slowest, least explosive of the three. She is just as much the archenemy of the table as the other two, but unlike Zada and Shu Yun, your opponents will have multiple turn cycles to find a way to shut her down. While she is the best equipped of the three to deal with hate, she's still vulnerable to being shut down by a concerted effort from her opponents, especially the first turn cycle when you cast her. And while she's the hardest to be shut down of the three, if Feather is shut down then the deck falls apart.

You should pick Feather if ... you want to play an angelic boa constrictor, squeezing your opponents to death through overwhelming long-term card advantage. I haven't yet covered Feather on Budget Commander, but she's by far the most popular of the three, and if that's something you'd like to see in the future then please let me know!

 

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The Good. Then there's Zada, Hedron Grinder, the powder keg. Zada wants to win the game in one glorious turn -- usually the turn you cast her. Instead of drawing tons of cards over the course of several turns like Feather, the Redeemed, Zada draws all the cards immediately. Instead of killing one opponent per turn like Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest, Zada is looking to kill all opponents in one glorious attack step. Put simply: Zada wants to go BIG!

The Bad. Zada has the highest power potential of all three commanders, but she also carries the highest risk, since she doesn't have access to White for protection like Feather or Blue for countermagic like Shu Yun. Zada is just as much an archenemy as the other two options, but she's also the worst equipped to deal with hate. Do keep in mind, however, that Zada offers the smallest window of opportunity to stop her: either your opponents shut her down at instant speed the very turn you're going off, or they all die. So Zada's vulnerability to hate is somewhat balanced out by her very small vulnerability window. But, just like the other two options, if Zada is shut down then the deck does nothing.

You should pick Zada if ... you want to play a high risk, high reward commander that kills opponents in one explosive turn. That's what we'll be covering with this article, so if you're interested then keep on reading!

 

Zada's Game Plan

Our game plan here is simple: we want to set up one big explosive turn where we cast Zada, Hedron Grinder, draw a ton of cards off our red cantrips like Expedite, generate tons of mana off cards like Battle Hymn, then win the game through a lethal attack with cards like Goblin Bushwhacker. All the cards in our deck will be devoted to setting up our big game-winning turn.

A typical game will play out like this:

  1. Ramp (Iron Myr)
  2. Flood the board with creatures (Hordeling Outburst)
  3. Cast Zada, Hedron Grinder
  4. Draw a billion cards (Expedite)
  5. Generate a billion mana (Battle Hymn)
  6. Cast more creatures, draw more cards, generate more mana
  7. Swing for lethal (Reckless Charge)

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Mana: Lands & Ramp

Lands. The most important thing to look for when picking lands for Zada, Hedron Grinder are lands that enter the battlefield untapped, since we're essentially a Combo deck where every mana counts. As a Mono Red deck we're fortunate that the majority of our lands will be plain ol' Mountains which saves us money without sacrificing power. But there's plenty of fantastic utility lands for a Zada deck! The ones most unique to this deck are any lands that cheaply and efficiently generate a creature to maximize Zada's trigger: Dwarven Mine is the best of the best here, being a Mountain that will almost always enter the battlefield and generate a creature for no mana cost. Kher Keep is another great, efficient token generator. There's also lands that turn into creatures like Blinkmoth Nexus and Mishra's Factory. Castle Embereth is another slam-dunk in this Go Wide deck since it can sometimes push our combo turn into a lethal swing. 

Ramp. Same as the lands, Zada makes creature-based ramp more appealing since they feed into Zada's power. Cards that I would normally hesitate to run such as Iron Myr, Plague Myr, and even Hedron Crawler are strong picks in a Zada deck, despite being vulnerable to removal. For the rest of the slots, all the cheap generic goodstuff options are just as good here as they are elsewhere: Sol Ring, Wayfarer's Bauble, Mind Stone, etc.

Rituals. Finally, there are red rituals to speed up our game plan and make sure we have enough mana to go off on our big turn. There are a few rituals that are extremely potent in a Zada deck. Battle Hymn and Brightstone Ritual (we're mostly a Goblin deck) are both staples in Zada since we're all about flooding the board with creatures, so these two cards can easily net us 5+ mana. Once we've refilled our hand thanks to our red cantrips, Inner Fire is a great way to generate a ton of mana to cast the rest of our spells. Since most of our creatures are Goblins, Skirk Prospector can also help us cast a crucial final spell. And who can forget Standard badboy Runaway Steam-Kin! Even "bad" mini-rituals like Infernal Plunge and heck Lotus Petal are playable options here if you're just looking for speed. It doesn't matter if they tank your card advantage because you draw so many cards!

You know what's a SUPER janky "ritual" in this deck? Kari Zev's Expertise. You're using it to "steal" your own creatures, untapping your mana dorks (Plague Myr), giving all your creatures haste ... and casting a bunch of 2 or less cmc spells from your hand! What? WHAT?! AMAZING!

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Tokens

We're a Go Wide Combo deck so we want to fill our board as quickly as possible. One of the most efficient ways to vomit out creatures are token producers. The less mana it takes to produce them the better. One of the best examples out there is Hordeling Outburst, three goblins for three mana just can't be beat. There's a bunch of cards that give you two goblins for two mana, like Krenko's Command, also great. And despite costing you to sacrifice permanents, Kuldotha Rebirth and Mogg Alarm are two of the best options for the deck because we don't care about sacrificing tapped permanents since we plan to win quickly.

There are a few options that don't give the most mana-efficient tokens immediately, but are still very much worth it. Krenko, Mob Boss is the best token producer in red bar none, and since most of our creatures are goblins he's gonna do serious work here. Empty the Warrens is an absolute house here because we're going to be chaining together a whole bunch of spells so we're easily creating 10+ goblins with this. Genesis Chamber is another potentially great card as long as you're playing a creature-heavy version of Zada. Otherworldly Outburst pairs up real nice with a sac outlet like Skirk Prospector, letting you sacrifice your creatures for mana and upgrade them in the process.

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Card Draw!

I get to talk about the best part of the deck: drawing cards! Yay! As mentioned earlier, the best part about Zada, Hedron Grinder is that she turns cantrips like Expedite into red Ancestral Recalls. They are the main reason why this deck works.

The best cantrips are the most mana-efficient ones. Bonus points if they come with useful utility. Expedite and Crimson Wisps are two of the best because they're both the cheapest cantrips possible at 1cmc but also give all your creatures haste which is very relevant if you're trying to kill people with combat damage. Renegade Tactics doesn't have useful utility -- remember, you're pointing it at Zada, so your creatures can't block, not exactly useful -- but being 1 cmc makes it way better than Accelerate, which has haste but costs double the mana. The only exception to this rule to my knowledge is Fists of Flame which costs 2 mana but can easily pump your army into lethal attackers.

It's important to note that cantrips with a delayed draw, like Balduvian Rage and Panic, are not good in Zada, Hedron Grinder decks, because you're looking to draw and cast all your spells in one big turn. These cards are great choices in Feather, the Redeemed decks because you're looking to win over a ton of turns, but Zada can't wait a turn for that card draw.

Also cards that deal damage, like Rile, are good options but most of your tokens are 1/1's so you'll need to pump them first with something like Brute Force so they don't immediately die.

There's also a few powerful non-cantrip card draw: Skullclamp is a no-brainer in this Go Wide deck, and Wheel of Fortune is always great if you can afford a copy. I would not run incremental card draw like Outpost Siege, however, since Zada wants to win FAST!

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WINNING!

We ramped. We played a lot creatures. We drew a TON of cards. Now let's win!

The most straightforward way we'll win is through combat damage. With a bunch of creatures on the battlefield, a simple pump spell can easily make our army lethal. Reckless Charge is one of the best options since it gives our creatures haste, +3 damage, and it has flashback! Fists of Flame is another nuke in our arsenal being both massive card draw and pump! Downhill Charge is a huge pump for free! Twinflame doubles the size of our army!

Outside of combat damage there's also storm finishers. We're obviously running Empty the Warrens, but Ignite Memories can also be lethal pretty easily. There's also the most powerful "storm" card of them all, Aetherflux Reservoir!

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Protection

And now we come to Zada, Hedron Grinder's greatest weakness: removal. If you're allowed to cast Zada with a board full of creatures and then go off, you win. Your opponents have a small window of opportunity to stop you, basically instant-speed removal, or you win. But if they do stop you, with a Swords to Plowshares on Zada, for example ... you're basically dead. So it's crucial that we run ways to stop instant-speed removal from wrecking us on our crucial turn.

We've got a lot of ways to deal with countermagic: cards like Pyroblast and Ricochet Trap can stop any blue spell aimed at Zada. Defense Grid makes it very unlikely that your opponents will have the mana available to deal with Zada as well, and honestly is probably the single best protection this deck could run. Mana Web also makes it difficult for opponents to advance their board while keeping removal ready for you. One of the jankiest-but-legit ways to protect from targeted removal is Veilstone Amulet, which can make your creatures hexproof.

Fork variants are interesting forms of protection because you can use them to counter the countermagic but they are also versatile enough to help you go off by duplicating key cards like Fists of Flame.

But perhaps the most effective way to protect Zada is actually to stop your opponents from playing the game! Your opponents can't stop you if Blood Moon and Ruination are preventing them from casting spells!

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Removal

Let me tell you a story about the last time I played Zada, Hedron Grinder on Commander Clash. I brewed a sick deck. It was fast. It was furious. My opening hand had all the cards I'd need to win turn 4-5 easily. Then Seth played this on turn 2:

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Damping Sphere completely, utterly shut down my deck. Normally this wouldn't be a problem for a red deck since the color is arguably the best at dealing with artifacts. However, my deck was so focused on combo'ing off I literally ran just a single artifact removal spell, and I didn't even have ways to tutor it up. So I sat at the table doing nothing for most of the game, all because I built the deck too greedy.

Don't be like me, friends. Run removal!

Artifact removal is very important in the deck. No, not because of Damping Sphere -- nobody but Seth would run that -- but more the fact that any non-green deck is going to be running lots of mana rocks by necessity, so blowing them up can really slow them down, which means they'll be slower to respond to your combo turn. Vandalblast and By Force are excellent ways of disrupting your opponents' game plans. Another underrated gem is Mogg Salvage, which is free at most games since it's super likely that somebody is playing blue.

Dealing with creatures is a bit harder in red. The most efficient targeted removal I can think of is Skred, but you need to be running Snow-Covered Mountains and have a decent amount of them on board which isn't too likely in a Zada deck. Other solid options include Volcanic Offering, Transmogrifying Wand, and sometimes Outnumber. I think Zada decks are better off running the better creature board wipes, Blasphemous Act and Chain Reaction, to clear the board before looking to combo off.

There's also a bunch of flexible, catch-all removal spells: Chaos Warp and Aftershock are two good examples in red. Plus there's a bunch of colorless wipes: Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, Nevinyrral's Disk, Oblivion Stone, Perilous Vault, etc.

But you know what's the best removal in Zada, Hedron Grinder? Land destruction. It's bad manners at some tables, but honestly, a card like Ruination is absolutely backbreaking against your opponents. It stops them from developing their own game plan and makes it extremely difficult for them to stop yours.

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Graveyard Recursion

Basically everything you want to recur will be instants or sorceries, and that's good because red is decent at that. Again, the less mana the better for our combo turn. Shreds of Sanity is the perfect fit: cheap and you can easily discard an extra Mountain or whatever. Chandra, Acolyte of Flame is either making two creatures for us or recurring something useful, nice. Dreadhorde Arcanist I haven't tested yet but I think has potential here since there's a bunch of Expedites it can recur plus also if you pump it with Reckless Charge or whatever then it can flashback basically any instant/sorcery.

As for the rest ... hm. Mizzix's Mastery is okay if everything went to crap and you want a second attempt at combo'ing off. Past in Flames is similar. There's a bit of artifact recursion like Goblin Welder and Scrap Mastery but I don't think this is the deck for that.

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Deckbuilding Checklist

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 amount of mana, interaction, card advantage, etc. This gives me a reference point to compare to the deck and see which areas may need improvement. This is my general checklist of minimum requirements:

  • 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; since you need to keep Graveyard decks honest 
  • 1 surprise "I Win" card; something that can win games the turn you cast it without too much setup

The remaining deck slots are filled with whatever cards fit the deck's theme and adds to the overall synergy. 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.

Zada, Hedron Grinder is a fast combo deck, so the card ratios will be uhhhh "different" but still, if there's problems with how the deck functions I'd double check to see if it's meeting to quotas set out here.

 

$25 List

Mmmm, $25 sweetness! Nearly all the best Zada Combo pieces are already here. The only cantrip outside of our budget is Crimson Wisps. But all the other goodies like Expedite and Fists of Flame are here. We ramp a ton, draw a ton, then swing for lethal! Easy peasy! Since we're a bit slower without the best fast ramp cards like Sol Ring we're making up for it with extra removal to slow our opponents.

 

$50 List

The $50 list gets Crimson Wisps, yay! And better ramp like Sol Ring, yay! But best of all we get to add Magus of the Moon and Ruination so our combo can be fueled with the tears of our enemies, YAY!

 

$100 List

Blood Moon.

 

That's All, Folks!

It was great to finally sit down and write about Zada, Hedron Grinder, my favorite Mono Red commander. Speaking of mono colors: lately there's been grumblings about Mono White being in a bad spot, and people at Wizards (especially Mark Rosewater) seemingly being reluctant to bend the color pie a little to give Mono White better card draw when they seem to bend over backwards to give Mono Green everything under the sun over the past few years.

It's true that Mono White is the weakest color, particularly in Commander, due to its most limited sources of card advantage. But that's not to say that it's impossible to build a strong Mono White deck, or a cheap one! So next week I will be covering one of my favorite Mono White commanders and how to build it on a tight budget!


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