Standard Commander: Esika, God of the Tree

Commander Clinic is meant to be a read or little five minute diversion about the commander format to get you thinking about improving your game. Deck Techs are more in depth and can take additional time to digest the entire article. Feel free to read the strategy in one sitting up to The Key Three and then read the rest of the article in a separate sitting. Do not forget to check out the full deck list on Arkidect. 

Esika provides an excellent value shell for commander

Kaldheim has brought some exciting commander options. Almost seven months after release Tergrid, God of Fright, Esika, God of the Tree and Orvar, the All-Form are vying for the top commander in the set. Both Tergrid and Orvar give strong suggestions as to how to build their respective decks. Esika, God of the Tree has surprisingly become a god tribal deck.

This is not the only way to build an Esika Commander deck. Several ideas crossed my mind with Esika and there’s a lot of design space for a commander deck as she can be built in many different ways. In the future we will explore a build that focuses on abusing Herald of Leshrac. Today we will instead explore a version of Esika that can adjust to the power levels of the decks you are playing in your pod. For those wanting a little God tribal we will season the deck with a little of that as well. Esika provides an excellent value shell for commander.

Flip Mode

I have always been fascinated with shrines and their potential for value in commander. However, I found with only the Kamigowa block shrines there weren’t enough usable ones to create a package where you could acquire significant value to insert them in decks. With the release of new shrines and Sanctum of All in M21, shrines have become a potential package of cards for a value deck. Unfortunately, they do not provide enough on their own to build a deck around. They will work in some casual settings, but in my playgroup where power creep is a thing… not so much. I have always kept them in the back of my head looking for a place to include a shrine package that would be viable. 

Esika/The Prismatic Bridge provides a unique shell to include shrines in. Shrines wants a slower tempo game to where you can build your board and be left alone to grind value. Esika provides a politics shell where you can build your shrine based battlefield. You can start by focusing on getting out Sanctum of All and then building you card draw and mana base through your shrines. Then as you approach six shrines on the battlefield you can increase the power of the shrines you pull from your deck to force players to lose life and discard cards. If the board gets a little crazy, players bring more powerful decks to the table or if they decide to destroy your Sanctum of All then it is time to up the game and pivot your strategy to The Primatic Bridge. 

The Prismatic Bridge pulls large creatures from your deck  and puts them on the battlefield for free. This is a significant value engine in and of itself. In fact in many cases you can build a top deck manipulation package that will allow you to exploit this ability. In this deck instead we want to use the Bridge as a pivot. If players want to mess with our battlefield they can, but then we will change tactics to something far more punishing. Often this can act as a catalyst to allow you to pursue your shrines unhindered. If the Prismatic Bridge package is more of a threat than the shrine package your opponents will hold their removal for when the Bridge is out.

This strategy works best when you are in a meta where you are a known commodity. Players at the table need to know what The Prismatic Bridge can do. You also need to have to have the reputation to not use The Bridge unless things go wrong for you. Both of these things will take a few games to build the reputation needed. When you build it you can make the deck work for you.  

An Unusual Group of Packages

As with any deck we will want packages for card draw/quality mana ramp/fixing, removal and lands. As for Unique packages for the deck we will want Creatures preferably big fat punishing ones and shrines. We will also want a small miscellaneous package to build in some protection because we can expect to be attacked. Both The Prismatic Bridge and Sanctum of All have upkeep triggers. We can also stash some cards with additional upkeeps in this package as well. 

Over the last year or so Commander Clinic has been breaking away from the standard 10-10-10 model of card draw-ramp removal packages. This is the standard of how decks are built. Instead, we are advocating having one of these packages 15 cards. This is an area where your deck will perform better than the average deck and give you an advantage.

This template makes sense when you look at hypergeometric distribution. Hypergeometric Distribution is math that looks at the probabilities of outcomes. We use it in deckbuilding to calculate the odds of how many of each package can we get in our starting hand if we are willing to mulligan down to six. Most of the time if we are willing to mulligan down to six, then we will have two cards from a package in our starting hand from the package that contains fifteen cards. Usually Commander Clinic will have either a ramp or a card draw package of fifteen cards. 

Esika is a different commander where we will have two parallel strategies in our deck. First we will need to mana ramp to a state where we can generate WUBRG mana to fuel either strategy and we will want to do it as quickly as possible so we can speed up our value engines. Because our engines trigger once per turn we need them up and running as quickly as possible. This places 15 cards in our ramp/fixing package.

At the same time we will need to find Sanctum of All quickly if we are to cast it on curve. This also suggests we should have a 15 card draw/quality package as well. A decision was made early to place Tergrid, God of Fright in the deck as a way to punish opponents if we must pivot from the shrines strategy. A five color deck will allow us to lean into Wheel effects to see more cards to find out Sanctum of All while giving us the potential to capitalize off of Tergid and gaining value or not depending how we feel is best to play our hand. For this reason we will split up card draw into three categories of five cards each Card Draw, Tutors, and Wheels.

Also we will invest in discard effects. While annoying we do not have to play them unless the game gets a little more intense and it also allows the deck to more efficiently capitalize off of Tergrid if it needs to. When we combine removal and discard effects we should also have 15 cards in our deck as well. This is unusual that a deck invests so much into the basic three. However if we can do these three things well our value engine will thrive no matter which strategy we choose to take. Then it will be finding a way to win the game. (Spoiler we did not quite make 15 removal cards unless we count wheels in the discard package as well))

The deck contains the following packages

  • 15 Ramp
  • 5 Card Draw
  • 5 Tutor
  • 5 Wheels
  • 8 Removal
  • 7 (minimum) Discard (Includes Wheels)
  • 5 Misc. Effects
  • 37 Land
  • 10 Creatures (Big Value)
  • 8 Shrines

Winning the game

The deck does not have a clear cut combo that will win the game. Because we are looking to capitalize on value, combo wins have little place in such a deck. Alternate win conditions are useful in value decks just in case. In this sort of deck it’s built in with a second value engine. The shrines are the first line of winning. Through them we can use Honden of Infinite Rage and Sanctum of Stone Fangs to drain out our opponent’s life.

If the shrine value engine is shut down, then we will win through Tergrid and the Eldrazi. The deck will attack with annihilator and whittle down their battlefield while gaining control of their permanents. As this happens it will begin to remove the offending cards that prevent us from winning. It is slow and grindy. It can be very effective. Praetors are also included to slow down our opponents and create a punishing feel to the deck if you must escalate

An Additional Win Condition 

Kaldheim released several other cards that can help this deck out. The first is The World Tree. With this land in play we can fix our mana as long as we control six lands. This is excellent in and of itself if we fall a little behind in mana fixing. It’s a great fallback when we need WUBRG mana and as the game progresses and we want to cast cards in our hand it will help us be as efficient as possible with the mana we have.

The World Tree has a second ability and this is where we eluded to Esika being a God Tribal deck. If you spend ten mana two of each color you can tap and sacrifice The World Tree to search your deck for any number of god cards and put them on the battlefield. Normally you would want to jam your deck full of god cards to take advantage of this ability. Normally, Commander Clinic would advise to ignore the second ability of this card. In this case we are going to use it as a flexible win condition. If it comes up we will use it. Unfortunately, we have a problem in our deck. 

Breaking Gods 

We want to use The World Tree to bring out a bunch of gods and create a surge of value all in one turn. We only have two gods in our deck. In this case we are going to turn all of our other creatures into gods using an artifact that came out in Kaldheim as well, Maskwood Nexus. The Nexus is an artifact that gives all your creatures every creature type whether they are on the battlefield or not. This means that The Nexus turns all our creatures into Gods. With The World Tree we are going to be able to search our deck for all creatures and put them in play.

This surge of value should win us the game. From Eldrazi to Praetors we will have power to lock down the board. We also have abilities that will shut down our opponents. Avacyn, Angel of Hope couples with Gaddock Teeg so that our creatures will be almost unremovable. They will be subject to only exile or -X/-X that cost three mana or less. That is a very short list of cards. You are not building to assemble this combo or to use a tutor to get it, but if you happen to draw Maskwood Nexus, The World Tree is just a land away. 

The Key Three

As with all commander decks there are specific cards that are very effective and cause the deck to run optimally and smooth. You can find the full deck list on Arkidekt. Since our deck revolves round the value engines of Sanctum of All and The Prismatic Bridge these are forgone conclusions to be critical cards and not included in the key three. 

Sanctum of Calm Waters

Of all the shrines Sanctum of Calm Waters is the most critical one and should be fetched first. It seems counterintuitive because it forces you to discard a card but that is one of the main reasons for fetching it first. Sanctum of All also fetches shrines from the graveyard so if you have a shrine in your hand you can pitch it as a discard and get it back later. Therefore, it’s not much of a drawback.

More importantly it provides a discard outlet. The deck contains both Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre and Kozilek, Butcher of Truth. Early game having a way to get them out of your hand and back in your deck is efficient in case you must play The Prismatic Bridge. Also if you are drawing and discard a lot of cards off of your shrine triggers it helps prevent you from being milled out. The second reason is that it is a may ability if you have too many cards you can opt not to draw any. But most importantly the sanctum triggers on your main phase. When fetched with Sanctum of All, you can immediately draw two cards. Honden of Seeing Winds needs to wait a full turn cycle before it can draw you cards 

Sphinx of the Second Sun

Paradox Haze is great but Sphinx of the Second Sun is better. Additional upkeep phases allow your shrines to trigger more. The Sphinx also untaps lands and draws a card creating additional value. Sphinx of the Second Sun plays like a second turn if you manage your resources well. All the additional resources are added onto your turn and while it is effectively giving an additional turn it’s still the same turn. Sometimes players will not notice this and the Sphinx can stay on the battlefield for a couple of table rotations. Most importantly it will give you additional upkeep triggers.  Also, keep in mind the Sphinx gives you the extra beginning phase right away as long as you cast it in your first main phase. Paradox Haze needs to survive one rotation of the table before you see any benefit. Sphinx can be almost immediate in it’s payoff.  

Avacyn Angel of Hope 

Your deck runs off of enchantments. They are difficult to remove. Avacyn makes it that much harder. There are not many cheap exile effects for enchantments. First your opponent will need to remove Avacyn before they can remove your enchantments. This gives you the time necessary to accrue value from your shrines or Prismatic Bridge and allow you to take over a game. Avacyn is also an indestructible blocker to help protect your life total and a flier with vigilance so if you need to put pressure on a players she can safely do so while keeping a blocker up to prevent crackback. 

A note about Upkeep Triggers

Keep in mind the triggers from all the enchantments in a shrine build like this. All triggers that happen at the start of your upkeep happen at the same time and you decide how to order them. For this reason make sure you order your triggers that the Sanctum of all happens first. This way when the other upkeep triggers happen you will gain additional value from the shrine just fetched. Also keep in mind that some Sanctums trigger during your main phase this means they make excellent early fetches with Sanctum of All as you will acquire additional value right away. 

Pet Cards

Commander decks often contain many staples in them. These cards are very strong. Despite this there are always cards on the fringes that synergize well in a deck that replace these staples. Sometimes they are just some cards that a particular player has a preference for. The following are a few pet cards that are included in the deck and why. 

Hour of Promise

Commander has moved towards fast ramp over the last year or two. It is very rare that you will see mana intensive land ramp beyond two or three mana. In this deck, Hour of Promise makes an appearance. This piece of ramp allows you to search your library for any two lands. It’s critical because there are two specific lands you want if you can get them. The first is The World Tree. This guarantees that you will have the mana needed to cast the spells in your hand. Having a tutor for this effect is wonderful. Second is Hall of Heliod’s Generosity. Your deck revolves around enchantments. There are sixteen of them in the deck and Sanctum of All is absolutely critical for your initial game plan. Being able to recur Sanctum of All is a must. There are several other enchantments that are worth recurring as well.

The Locust God

This deck is short on creatures. Many Esika decks would include The Locust God because it is god tribal. This card gets an include because it’s ability to create tokens to dissuade opponents from attacking. It is purely coincidence that this card contains the God creature type. With the amount of card draw this deck can generate between Sanctum of Calm Waters and Honden of the Seeing Winds alone the Locust God can create a swarm to block enough damage from most standard attacks. They are also evasive fliers which also can chip away at your opponent’s life totals. It’s a strong card but a little off from the massive destructive plays The Prismatic Bridge decks can generate when you envision big stompy creatures.. 

Sphere of Safety

There are competing schools of thought on tax effects that prevent opponents from attacking you. Some believe that these cards are no good as games are won through combo. To an extent this is true. When this happens Sphere of Safety is viewed as a nonessential card and not worth the deck space. Although in casual games attacking can happen than this school of thought more often than this school suggests. The other school of thought is you need to protect yourself from combat. Often when people attack they will continue to attack that player. Anything that persuades your opponent from attacking you is good.

If you have ever stared down a bunch of 5/6 plants  or over 500 scute swarms from a landfall deck you know how tokens can get out of hand. There are times where you really wish to have this tax effect. This is the case for Sphere of Safety. When shrines finally get out of hand your opponents will have to do something. Often if it is not destroying your shrines it’s attacking you. There is also some incidental attacking that goes on at the commander table as well. The Sphere helps shut that down. It also scales with the game. Ideally you will be searching for an enchantment per turn with Sanctum of All and every turn the cost to attack you will go up at least one mana. Think of this card as a card that lets you live so that you can play your shrine fun.

Assemble the Legion

 As commander games get quicker some cards that were once great lose some of their effectiveness. This is what has happened with Assemble the Legion. It does greatly impact the board if you get three trips around the table. Some proliferate decks can abuse it. Also decks with multiple upkeeps can abuse it as well. If you can win with it great. In many cases it is just throwing out blockers to protect you from mischievousness coming your way. While you will not see Assemble the Legion as often anymore it still makes an appearance here and there and shrines is a good shell to include it in. 

Final Words 

When you are playing this deck there is a political aspect to it. State early you want to play it casually with shrines. If by turn four or five if you did not draw Sanctum of All or a way to get it tell the table and apologize you are going to have to ramp it up to The Prismatic Bridge. Tell them the table is getting out of hand and you have to keep up with the table. You will need to threat assess well. If you switch gears to the Prismatic Bridge and the board is more than reasonable it will hinder your credibility so be aware of that.

If the table is playing nice when it’s time to discard a card, discard Tergrid. Couple it with, “Everybody’s letting me play shrines so I don’t need this.” This paints you as the casual player at the table which should help reduce opponents’ negative interactions with you. At the same time it leaves an underlying threat that if they poke the bear, then I am going to attack you. In fact go ahead and use the term poke the bear when people attack your battlefield. “Are you really going to poke the bear? I’m just playing shrines over here.” or “I’m just some bees playing in my hive with shrines do you really want to break open the nest?” It adds some fun to the table interaction but also can help you long term when playing this deck.

Sometimes players will not back down and they will do what they will do to you. When that happens go ahead and smack them down if you can add some lighthearted banter it will go a long way with the politics end of this deck. “John Doe must be punished.” said theatrically still sends the signal about escalation but also defuses the situation from tensions. That is a positive thing. There is a lot of room in this deck to switch out fringe cards and season to taste. For example Tergrid can be removed and with it the discard and wheel package. Feel free to experiment with the list a little. There is a lot of room for design with Esika God of the Tree and The Prismatic Bridge.     

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