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Budget Commander: Zedruu the Greathearted


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The Will of Zedruu

Last time I asked a question: what Commander do you wish to see next? You answered. You've chosen wisely, young padawan. By the will of Zedruu, you and I shall reach enlightenment together.

The way seems strange at first to the uninitiated: we appear weak so we can have a strong board position; we give our own possessions to our enemies to in order to gain more for ourselves; we grant our opponents power so that we may achieve victory through them. These statements seem to conflict each other on the surface, yet they are true.

In order to enter the correct mindset, it is the will of Zedruu that you read this sacred text to help you meditate on what is to come. I will be over here, drawing extra cards.

Zedruu's Bag of Trix

Zedruu the Greathearted has a special place in my heart. I had my first taste of her teachings long ago, before her true wonder materialized on cardboard. Back when I was a young lad, Wizards of the Coast produced a magazine called Top Deck which focused on their trading card games. Every once in a while, I would head into a grocery store to read the magazine's section on Magic where I'd solve the "You Make the Play" puzzle and idly browse through tournament reports and deck techs including reports on the celebrity player named Jon Finkel and his degenerate Tinker deck; I remember thinking that deck looked terrible because you had to sacrifice an artifact for Tinker and Masticore made you discard cards. That's anti-value!

There was one deck tech that I vividly remember as far and away my favorite: a combo deck named "Trix." It took an awful-looking joke card, Donate, and paired it with Illusions of Grandeur to turn into a tournament-winning combo: you play Illusions of Grandeur, gain 20 life, then Donate it to your opponent who will eventually lose 20 life when they can't pay the upkeep cost. It was silly, absurd, hilarious... and competitive! I was enthralled by Trix, which led to my first real taste of competitive Magic when I built the deck for myself.

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Fast-forward to the release of the first Commander products by Wizards of the Coast. My friends and I are looking to try out this cool Commander format by buying the preconstructed decks. I browse through the legendaries until I get to Zedruu the Greathearted. My eyes widen. My mind flies back to the giddy excitement of playing Trix long ago. In her fair goat lady eyes is the promise of my favorite shenanigans brought back to a multiplayer format. She is The One, no doubt about it. My friends try to dissuade me telling me how she looks terrible and nobody plays her; this only intensifies my love. I shall be the one to teach them the will of Zedruu, to find peace in putting age counters on Illusions of Grandeur while I sit here, drawing extra cards. This is my calling.

And so Zedruu the Greathearted became my first Commander deck and has remained with me throughout the years. She is my most played deck, and possibly my most redesigned deck as well: I've done traditional Donate Zedruu, Group Hug "Arms Dealer" Zedruu, Enchantress Zedruu, even a pretty cool Life Gain + Group Pain Zedruu. My favorite archetype remains the traditional Donate Zedruu: I feel it captures the essence of the commander better than any other and plays to her unique strengths. This primer will focus on Donate Zedruu.

The Good and the Baaaaaad

Zedruu isn't a scary commander: she's not going to deal 21 commander damage any time soon, she doesn't enable any game-winning combos, and any value she generates is slow, mana-intensive, and easily disruptable. 

This is both Good and Bad.

The Bad news is that she's not a commander you should pick if you're looking to win tournaments or steamroll the opposition. If all you want out of a new Commander deck is to crush your foes and drink their tears, I'd point you towards Narset, Enlightened Master instead.

The Good news is because Zedruu is a humble commander, it's unlikely that you will be hated off the board. While powerhouse commanders like Narset attract tremendous amounts of hate from the rest of the table right from the start, Zedruu is allowed to set up her board unmolested. Don't underestimate the power of being the "nice guy" at the table: that usually translates into less life lost from being randomly attacked, less of your permanents being blown up by removal, and less of your spells being countered! Wizards knew what they were doing when they named Zedruu's preconstructed deck "Political Puppets."

How it Plays

Zedruu's main schtick is donating your permanents away: they could be helpful permanents that aid your opponent (e.g. Sword of War and Peace); or harmful permanents that disrupt them (e.g. Celestial Dawn); or permanents that have no effect whatsoever on who is controlling it (e.g. Detention Sphere). Whatever you end up donating, Zedruu rewards your acts of charity by drawing you extra cards and gaining extra life. Sweet deal!

Our goat master lends herself best as a control deck: sit back, develop your board, donate some stuff, draw extra cards, stop your opponents from winning, then spring your game-winning unbleatable play!

Methods of Donating

Zedruu the Greathearted is your primary method of handing your stuff to your opponents and the primary method of benefiting from this transaction. Though Zedruu's ability is the bread and butter of the deck, spending WUR cuts down severely on the neat things you can do per turn. Thankfully, we have a few ways to hand stuff off while saving some mana:

  • Donate Themselves: Cards like Akroan Horse, Humble Defector, and Rainbow Vale hand themselves off to the opponents for free while benefiting yourself. These are great!
  • Trade Themselves: What's even better than good cards donating themselves? Good cards trading themselves for something of your opponent's! Cards like Gilded Drake and Perplexing Chimera are awesome in Zedruu decks since they both donate themselves to trigger her ability and snag you something sweet from an opponent!
  • Donate Others: Cards that donate other permanents. The only halfway good one that I can think of is Bazaar Trader and I'm not a fan of it. It's cheap and efficient, sure, but does nothing else that is interesting and is completely reliant on Zedruu being in play to be worthwhile.
  • Trade Others: The cards that trade your dorky permanents for your opponent's best stuff are the true powerhouse cards in Zedruu's arsenal. Cultural Exchange swaps your weenie dorks for your opponent's best stuff permanently and gets around hexproof, Juxtapose does similar swapping but also with artifacts, but nothing compares to the sweetness that is Puca's Mischief, my favorite card in the entire deck. This is how you win games, folks — trade your 1/1 Soldier token for your opponent's Avacyn, Angel of Hope and smash face!

Some of the best donaters/swappers include: Act of Authority, Daring Thief, Humble Defector, Perplexing Chimera, Vedalken Plotter, Puca's Mischief, Akroan Horse, Gilded Drake, Rainbow Vale, Juxtapose, Cultural Exchange, Scrambleverse, Djinn of Infinite Deceits

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Naughty, Nice, or Neutral

The permanents that you gift away with Zedruu the Greathearted can help your opponents, hinder them, or just sit on the board not doing anything. Some players lean towards aiding their opponents (Arms Dealer Zedruu), others seek to cripple them (Jerk Zedruu). I personally stick towards neutral cards, though I advocate running the best naughty and nice cards as well.

A couple tips when donating permanents:

  • Nice donations: These cards are your strongest bargaining chips at a multiplayer table and should be used for their political influence. Hand your opponent something nice that they want on the condition that they do something for you in return. For example, before donating an extra land to someone that is mana screwed, you could "suggest" that they don't wipe your board.
  • Naughty donations: You can also leverage the threat of donating something harmful if an opponent messes with you. For example, you could have Statecraft sitting on your board doing nothing, but it should be obvious to your opponents that anyone trying to attack you with their army will have the enchantment donated to them in response. Be careful though, as jerk cards may receive hate from the rest of the table.
  • Neutral donations: It's best to give neutral cards to players that can't make use of them in some way. For example, don't hand your Akroan Horse to the Prossh, Skyraider of Kher player as there's a high chance that he'll eat it for value.

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Avoid Risky Jerk Cards

When someone asks for tips building a Zedruu the Greathearted deck, invariably someone suggests the following jerk cards: Pyromancer's Swath, Steel Golem, and Grid Monitor. I would not recommend these cards to anyone since they run the risk of blowing up in your face if an opponent kills Zedruu before you can hand these off. After a couple times of my opponents making me discard my hand or locking me out of playing creatures, these cards were gone from my deck for good.

While talking about what to avoid, I'd also avoid low-impact cards like Delusions of Mediocrity and Jinxed Choker — they just don't do enough to warrant playing.

My favorite jerk cards are the ones that don't hinder yourself when you control them: Celestial Dawn and Statecraft being my two favorites. These are benign or even helpful on your side of the board, but can be crippling if given to the right opponent.

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Ramp

As usual, I suggest aiming for 10+ early game ramp cards. Zedruu is extremely mana-hungry as you need lots of mana to both play your cards and donate them with Zedruu's activated ability of UWR. Don't be afraid of having too much ramp! Remember that you can donate excess mana rocks / lands with Zedruu the Greathearted and convert them into extra card draw and life gain.

I suggest the usual non-Green ramp cards: a mix of mana rocks and land ramp. One particularly interesting ramp card for Zedruu is Kor Cartographer, since the 2/2 body can be donated/swapped for extra value.

Some options include: Knight of the White Orchid, Kor Cartographer, Solemn Simulacrum, Myriad Landscape, Azorius Signet, Boros Signet, Commander's Sphere, Fellwar Stone, Izzet Signet, Sol Ring, Sphere of the Suns, Wayfarer's Bauble, Coalition Relic, Chromatic Lantern

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Protect the 'Druu

Zedruu has a tendency to, well, die a lot, at least in my experience. She's a 2/4 with no inherent protection like hexproof or indestructible. She will be a casualty of board wipes and, even worse, be targeted by spiteful foes seeking to deny your well-earned extra card draw. At 4cmc, you can recast her once or twice, but after that it starts to be an issue. It's best to run some protection.

There's a variety of angles to protect Zedruu and the rest of your board from removal. The format staples Lightning Greaves and Swiftfoot Boots do an admirable job of protecting her from targeted removal while also offering a cheap way to give your creatures haste, making cards like Sun Titan and Daring Thief more potent.

My absolute favorite method of protecting Zedruu, however, is Gift of Immortality. Slap this on and no one will mess wih The 'Druu: she'll bounce back from targeted removal, sacrifice effects, board wipes — anything that doesn't exile. Best of all, you can donate your Gift to an opponent without changing the effect at all — you'll just be drawing extra cards and gaining extra life.

Some options include: Lightning Greaves, Swiftfoot Boots, Gift of Immortality, Fool's Demise, Boros Charm, Gift of Immortality, Legion's Initiative, counter magic (Counterspell etc.)

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Disruption

Zedruu isn't a "let's win as fast as possible" type of general. She likes to take things slow: light some incense, graze in the field, and contemplate the meaning of life. Unfortunately, some of our opponents can be all rush rush rush towards a win. The Great Zedruu has to teach patience through humility, and sometimes that means wagging our finger and saying "no" to shenanigans. We've got a wide array of sweet cards to stop our opponents from winning. Options include:

Special mention goes to my new favorite Commander card: Keldon Firebombers. This beauty gives the middle finger to excessive land ramp while still letting people play the game. Everyone still has three lands and can rebuild; an even playing field that punishes people over-extending with land ramp, just like every other board wipe that punishes greedy players in other aspects of the game. It's awesome and I wish we had more cards like it.

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Tutors

For tutors, there have been three cards that have stuck with me for years:

  • Trinket Mage fetches you Sol Ring, Skullclamp, Wayfarer's Bauble, and possibly other things, then you can donate/swap him away for extra value. 
  • Sunforger is pretty much an auto-include in any RW deck and Zedruu is no exception. I would want 6-8 Red/White instants/sorceries to fetch with it with a variety of applications. As a baseline, I love having Counterflux as my counter, Return to Dust for artifact/enchantment hate, Swords to Plowshares as creature hate, Wild Ricochet for shenanigans, and either Boros Charm or Faith's Reward to respond to board wipes. I recommend not going overboard with 10+ fetchables because you'll never need that many and that dilutes the rest of the deck. Even if you do run out of targets to tutor, you can recycle them with Mistveil Plains.
  • Wild Research is a card that I have a love/hate relationship with. I love how quirky it is and how it's a repeatable tutor. What I don't like is that you're spending 5 mana and two cards to tutor that first card, which you might even randomly discard. But the longer the game goes, the better this gets. I don't know. Some days I think this card is awful, sometimes I think it's amazing. You decide!

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Card Draw 

Zedruu the Greathearted is an awesome source of card draw but shouldn't be your only source of it. As I've previously mentioned, Zedruu is extremely mana-intensive to get going and has a tendency to die a lot. We'll need some other sources of card draw for when we need more cards right away.

Some options include: Humble Defector, Howling Mine, Intellectual Offering, Skullclamp, Mystic Remora, Recurring Insight, Consecrated Sphinx, Tidings, Sphinx of Uthuun, Dictate of Kruphix, Well of Ideas, Concentrate

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Winning

We've drawn extra cards and gained extra life. All is good. Now, how do we win?

Well, we're a WUR Control deck at heart, so we can use generic win conditions to steal a game: Insurrection and Rite of Replication are tried and true win conditions. Or perhaps you run enough ramp and haste-enablers that the Eldrazi Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre and Kozilek, Butcher of Truth can reliably end things for you. You could even go big with Enter the Infinite + Laboratory Maniac.

Some Zedruu-specific roads to victory, however, are even more interesting:

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Budget Lists

 

Upgrading and Fiddly Bits

There are a few cards I would prioritize getting before upgrading the rest of the deck:

  • Gilded Drake is the best creature swap card ever printed. It's a highly efficient way to steal your opponent's best creature while also triggering Zedruu's ability.
  • Homeward Path and Venser, the Sojourner are repeatable ways of getting your donated stuff back. These turn swap cards into STEAL cards. For example, one brutal combo is using Puca's Mischief to swap your creature for an opponent's noncreature permanent, then using Path or Venser to get back your creature — but you keep the noncreature permanent as well!
  • Elspeth, Sun's Champion has been an underrated hero in my Zedruu deck. I love Retribution of the Meek in Zedruu decks that focuses mostly on weenie creatures anyway, and Elspeth is a repeatable Retribution plus she's an awesome token generator that you can use to donate, swap, or just plain ol' Skullclamp. And her ultimate wins games!

After those cards, these are the other upgrades I recommend:

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Special Bonus: I'm often asked for an upgraded list, so here's my personal cardboard list that I play at local tables. If I'm playing with strangers, this is my go-to deck to test the waters with.

 

Probably the weirdest inclusion are the three Ravnica karoos: I like them due to their synergy with Land Tax, Weathered Wayfarer, Knight of the White Orchid, and Tithe. I've got a Plateau in there not because this deck needs ABUR duals, but because I've got an extra that I wasn't doing anything with.

 

That's All, Folks!

Magic Origins has brought some superb additions to two of my favorite decks: Enchantress and Lands. The next two articles will be primers for those: I promise you they will be unique and exciting!

Follow me on Twitter @BudgetCommander for notifications on when the next article is up, updates on future decks, and input for what to work on next. Thanks for reading!


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