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Symbiotic Swarm (Abzan Graveyard Keywords) Commander 2020 Precon Upgrade | $20, $200 | Budget Commander

Commander 2020 preconstructed decks have arrived, and that means it's time for another round of my $20 precon upgrade series! This time I'm taking it a step further by not only offering the usual $20 upgrade but also a $200 upgrade list as well! I'll first go over how each preconstructed deck plays, why you should buy it, and the various directions that you can upgrade the deck to make it your own.

We've cycled through Timeless Wisdom, forked all the spells in Arcane Maelstrom, sacrificed our Humans to Ruthless Regiment, mutated all the creatures in Enhanced Evolution, and now we're covering the fifth and final precon from the set: Symbiotic Swarm, a grindy Keyword Soup Abzan deck that uses its graveyard to fuel our Keyword Soup strategy. The deck runs plenty of creatures that are loaded with keywords (Vampire Nighthawk) or grant keyword counters (Void Beckoner), by casting them or milling them into our graveyard (Satyr Wayfinder). These keyword soup creatures in our graveyard are then used as fuel for various payoff cards (Soulflayer). Eventually, the deck wins by overloading our army with powerful keywords (Odric, Lunarch Marshal) or animating a giant beater to smash face with (Zetalpa, Primal Dawn). The precon excels at pressuring the table with hard to kill threats and repeatedly reanimating them if they manage to be dealt with.

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You might like the deck if ...

  • You want a deck that combines both Keyword Soup and Graveyard themes
  • You want a grindy deck that focuses on building up beefed up armies
  • You like combat and want to smash face
  • You want a precon that can focus on either Graveyard, Keyword, or Combos

You might NOT like the deck if ...

  • You don't care about creature-focused strategies
  • You want a Keyword deck, or a Graveyard deck, but not both
  • You think the graveyard is icky and would rather it all go away with a Rest in Peace

If you like where this deck is going, then great! Let's check out the preconstructed list:

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Out of the box, Symbiotic Swarm is a solid creature-focused deck that does a good job supporting both Graveyard and Keyword strategies. I count 17 cards that deal with your graveyard, either milling yourself (Satyr Wayfinder) or interacting with cards in your graveyard (Unburial Rites). I also count 26 cards that deal with keywords, either granting keywords to your creatures (Avenging Huntbonder) or are keyword soup creatures that other cards will use as fuel (Akroma, Angel of Wrath). There's also a decent amount of overlap between these two themes, with at least 8 cards that care about both keywords and your graveyard. It's clear that Symbiotic Swarm is a Keyword Soup deck that uses its graveyard to help fuel its Keyword strategy and give it lategame punching power.

Like all the precons, Symbiotic Swarm comes with multiple potential commanders, each focusing on a different archetype to build around. For this article, however, I'll be tuning the deck around Kathril, Aspect Warper. I'll show you how to tune Symbiotic Swarm into a more focused Keyword Graveyard deck, removing cards that don't fit our theme and adding more cards that do. If you're interested in seeing me build around the other new commanders in the precon -- Tayam, Luminous Enigma or the partners Nikara, Lair Scavenger & Yannik, Scavenging Sentinel -- please let me know in the comments section and I may cover them in the future.

Digging Through Kathril's Keyword Graveyard

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Kathril, Aspect Warper is the face of Symbiotic Swarm and is the best representative of what the deck wants to do: fill your graveyard up with creatures that are loaded with useful keywords, then use your graveyard to pump up your army. Kathril does exactly that: when it enters the battlefield, Kathril puts up to 11 different keyword counters distributed as you choose on creatures you control based on what keywords the creatures in your graveyard have. Kathril then gets a +1/+1 counter for each keyword counter you put on a creature with its ability, up to a whopping 11 +1/+1 counters! You could distribute these keyword counters across multiple creatures, but usually the best approach will be loading Kathril up with most of the keywords and start killing opponents with your enormous, unstoppable commander.

I recommend building the Kathril deck as Voltron Keyword Soup Deathball: the plan is to quickly and consistently fill our graveyard with all the keywords that Kathril cares about, then cast our commander, which immediately turns into a 14/14 with flying, first strike, double strike, deathtouch, hexproof, indestructible, lifelink, menace, reach, trample, and vigilance. We then use our nigh-unstoppable commander to one-shot our opponents with commander damage. If that plan fails then we just mass reanimate all the creatures in our graveyard and win with those instead.

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The first part of this plan is our keyword soup creatures that will fuel Kathril from the graveyard. We want at least one of each of the eleven keywords Kathril cares about showing up on our creatures so we can pump Kathril up by eleven if all of them are in our graveyard. The best keyword soup creatures then are the ones that have multiple desirable keywords, with the best being indestructible, hexproof, and double strike since those benefit Kathril the most. This is why the single best creature in the entire deck is actually Zetalpa, Primal Dawn, which is probably the first and last time anyone gets to say that about Zetalpa. Zetalpa gives us a whopping five keywords by itself, including the highly important indestructible and double strike. Our goal with our keyword soup creatures is to cover all eleven keywords with the least amount of creatures needed to do so. The slimmer our keyword soup package the better, since these cards are subpar if we see them anywhere outside our graveyard and too many of them would only clog up our deck and make it unplayable.

Next, we need to quickly and consistently get our keyword soup creatures into our graveyard so we can cast Kathril for maximum value. The best cards to do this are graveyard tutors like Buried Alive, Corpse Connoisseur, and Jarad's Orders, which let us search our library for the creatures and put them directly into our graveyard. Just casting Buried Alive alone could put in the graveyard Zetalpa, Primal Dawn, Bassara Tower Archer, and Leyline Prowler, netting you 9 out of the 11 keywords and already makes Kathril a lethal threat!

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The next best way to put our keyword soup creatures are self-mill cards like Satyr Wayfinder, Deadbridge Chant, or The Binding of the Titans, but while they're good at worth running they're significantly less important than our graveyard tutors. They do a better job setting up our mass reanimation spells like Living Death and Eerie Ultimatum, however, which is a solid Plan B in our deck in case Kathril gets shut down, letting us take all the creatures we dumped into our graveyard over the course of the game and put them directly on to the battlefield.

So that's pretty much how I plan on upgrading this precon: a Kathril Voltron deck fueled by a powerful Graveyard theme. We will add more cards that strengthen this plan and are free to cut any cards that don't fit what we're doing.

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Analyzing the Precon

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 card draw; cards that net you 2+ cards in hand
  • 8 targeted removal; split between creature / artifact / enchantment removal and countermagic
  • 3 board wipes; creature-light decks might want one more, creature-heavy decks might want one less
  • 2 graveyard recursion
  • 2 flexible tutors; higher budgets I recommend more 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

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.

Let's see what the rough ratios are for Symbiotic Swarm and how it compares:

Symbiotic Swarm is severely lacking in card draw, and having a high amount of graveyard recursion doesn't make up for that. The precon is acceptable in other categories.

Now that we've checked out the general ratios, let's take a closer look at the cards we're working with:

38 Lands. The lands here are pretty good. Having mana-fixing lands that enter untapped is important, and Symbiotic Swarm offers some good ones such as Command Tower, Exotic Orchard, and Caves of Koilos, but not as many as I'd hope. There's a few good utility lands here as well, with Krosan Verge ramping, Gavony Township adding counters to our creatures, and Nesting Grounds being a sweet new way to transfer counters from one permanent to another.

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9 Ramp. The ramp here is a bizarre mix of good and terrible options. We have a thematic option with Karametra, God of Harvests, which comes with the indestructible keyword, along with staples like Sakura-Tribe Elder and Sol Ring. But then there's subpar Commander's Sphere, the terrible Bonder's Ornament, and the completely out of place Cartographer's Hawk. Seriously, the Hawk is a pretty bad ramp card in general that might make the cut in some non-Green decks, by why in the world would a Green deck with land ramp run it? Cartographer's Hawk is a horrible inclusion in the deck, clashing with your superior Green land ramp and generally being subpar at best. It should've been in any of the non-Green precons. This section needs a lot of work.

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5 Card Draw. Symbiotic Swarm has the unfortunate honor of having the least amount of card draw out of all the precons. There's some good options here, like the flexible Abzan Charm, the classic Harmonize, and the thematic Nikara, Lair Scavenger which rewards us for having counters of any kind on our creatures. We need more here, however, and the precon's high amount of graveyard recursion doesn't change that fact.

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6 Targeted Removal. The targeted removal here is solid and flexible. Despark is one of my all-time favorite budget removal options, Abzan Charm can draw cards if we don't need to remove a creature, and Acidic Slime comes with the deathtouch keyword. This section is a solid foundation but could be better.

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4 Board Wipes. I like the idea of leaning hard on creatures that can wipe the board since our deck has so much creature synergy. Cataclysmic Gearhulk, Kalemne's Captain, and Sunblast Angel are all thematic options, but they're also a bit clunky to use. The deck is probably better off just running generic board wipes, or at least better creatures that can wipe the board.

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9 Graveyard Recursion. Graveyard recursion is the big highlight of the deck. Once we've reached the lategame and got our graveyard filled, the deck's high amount of graveyard recursion is what lets it grind out the other precons. We've got some sweet thematic options that both self-mill and recur like Nyx Weaver and Tayam, Luminous Enigma, and even some recursion that works from the graveyard like Unburial Rites. There's a lot of great cards here, but at least two that I'd cut.

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0 Flexible Tutors. None of the precons come with any nonland tutors, which makes sense since this is an introductory product and new players who are unfamiliar with the deck wouldn't know what cards they should be searching for with tutors. That said, adding tutors helps make the deck more consistent and flexible, so we should add some if able.

1 Graveyard Hate. Angel of Finality is a nice thematic source of graveyard hate in our deck. We could expand this a bit but it's a good start.

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0 Surprise "I Win" Cards. I didn't find anything in the precon that can end the game with little setup. To be fair, the deck naturally thrives in the lategame, and dropping down Akroma, Angel of Wrath or Zetalpa, Primal Dawn on their own sort of fits what I'm looking for, but having a more consistent win condition would be nice.

Keyword Graveyard Upgrade Options

Here are my favorite card options to tune Symbiotic Swarm into a more focused, more powerful Keyword Graveyard deck.

To find the best keyword soup options, I browsed Scryfall searching primarily for creatures with "indestructible," "double strike," and "hexproof" keywords, ideally one of these with additional keywords. I also came across this excellent spreadsheet that does a lot of the work for you, so thank you, Reddit user /u/Elektrophorus!. Highlights include Sunblade Angel, a super cheap card that contains 4 keywords, and Avacyn, Angel of Hope, which comes with indestructible and two additional keywords if you can afford its price tag.

To put our keyword soup creatures quickly into our graveyard, we're running a combination of self-mill (Perpetual Timepiece) and tutoring (Jarad's Orders).

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$20 Symbiotic Swarm Upgrade

To tune Symbiotic Swarm into a more powerful, focused Keyword Graveyard deck we're going to make the following swaps:

  • More self-mill
  • More ramp
  • Better keyword soup creatures
  • Tutors
  • Better removal
  • Lower average cmc

That's what we want to add to the deck. We can safely cut cards that don't match any of the above criteria.

Here are the first cards I'd add on a $20 budget:

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And here are the cards I'll cut for the upgrades:

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Finally, here's Symbiotic Swarm with the $20 upgrades installed:

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$200 Symbiotic Swarm Upgrade

The $200 upgrade follows the same philosophy as the $20 upgrade: focus on getting all the keywords into our graveyard as quickly as possible. We increased out tutors even further with cards like Entomb and Fauna Shaman. We have our second best mass reanimation that doubles as a board wipes, Living Death. We also now have a second better Swiftfoot Boots with Lightning Greaves, making the 1-shot potential with Kathril even easier.

Half our budget went into our lands, making sure we have consistent mana each game. 

We add these cards:

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Take out these cards:

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And voila! Here's the precon with the upgrades installed:

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We're Done!

I hope you enjoyed this take on upgrading Symbiotic Swarm. I'm pretty sure that of the new commanders in the precon, Tayam, Luminous Enigma is the strongest of the bunch, but more in a generic "oops I Combo'd" sort of way like a newer, better Ghave, Guru of Spores, running many variations of combos we've already seen before. Kathril brings something more unique, so while it may be a bit more casual, I focused on the new stuff.

That wraps up the C20 series! I'm finally free to explore other stuff! Whee!

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