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Today we’re diving into another Zendikar Rising commander, Zagras, Thief of Heartbeats. He’s a legendary vampire rogue with a CMC of 6, but he costs one less to cast for each member of your party. He has flying, deathtouch, and haste, and gives all of your other creatures deathtouch. Additionally, he says whenever a creature you control deals combat damage to a planeswalker, destroy that planeswalker.
My first impression of Zagras was a bit underwhelming; he costs a lot, he looks like he synergizes well with Party which doesn’t have a lot of support yet, and he doesn’t do much. But then I realized that 1) I’ve never built a rakdos deck, and 2) Deathtouch tribal has been on the top of my mind since Hooded Blightfang was revealed in Core 21. After looking into a strategy with Zagras further, I realized that there is a lot of potential with using low-costing pingers to control the board.
So that’s the strategy: bring out a bunch of small pingers, or creatures that will deal direct damage to any target, and give them deathtouch to control the board. Then, once we’ve built up enough mana, we’ll end the game with one of the many options for finishers. Let’s get into it.
The bulk of the work done in this deck is done by our Pingers. These are creatures that can do direct damage, usually just one point of damage, to any target; and hitting creatures is what we want them to do. I’ve separated these into two categories: the limited use pingers and the mass group pingers, and we’ll start with the limited ones. The nicest thing about pinging is that if you give these creatures deathtouch, they’ll essentially be kill spells because the one point of damage that they are doing is enough to destroy any creature it targets, save a couple of exceptions which we will talk about later.
Blood Cultist, Vulshok Sorcerer, Cunning Sparkmage, Jeska, Warrior Adept, and Endbringer are all essentially the same: once per turn, we can ping something by tapping it. Endbringer can tap a little more frequently and is worth the higher mana cost to keep around. These will ensure that any problematic creature on the board can be quickly taken care of.
Rakdos Ickspitter does the same, but it can only target creatures and subsequently makes its owner lose a life. This is like hitting two birds with one stone, and even though he can only be used once per turn, this is still a kill spell on a stick that stings a little bit more.
Lightning Prowess is not a pinger itself, but it can make a creature a pinger. There are some creatures we’ll talk about later that don’t have recurrable pinging abilities, so this is perfect for them, or even Zagras if the situation requires it.
Brash Taunter works a little differently, in that you have to pay to have him fight another creature, but he’s indestructible and any damage done to him will be done to any target, which means that he can be a pretty flexible blocker and can be turned into a pinger if we need.
Mayhem Devil can’t ping on his own and has to rely on sacrificing permanents, but the great thing is that he triggers off of your opponents sacrificing things, so he can be a deterrent for fetch lands and other treasure-generating value pieces like Dockside Extortionist or Smothering Tithe.
Dreadhorde Butcher isn’t really a pinger, but rather he works better when he has deathtouch and is a really mana efficient creature. He has haste and pumps himself up when he does damage, and while he’s on his way out of the battlefield, he can do some damage to something troublesome.
I’ve included Walking Ballista here because I happened to pick one up from Double Masters. He’s a fantastic card that you’ll typically see in combo pieces, but he’s not really a main win con in the deck and more of a flexible pinging engine that you can include here. He’s not needed, just nice to have.
Finally for our limited use pingers, we have Zurzoth, Chaos Rider, a Jumpstart Devil Tribal commander that makes devils that will ping our opponents when they die, and punish others for drawing cards when it’s not their turn. Zurzoth is pretty situational, but can make us a lot of little devils with deathtouch and make dealing with our board that much harder.
Mass Ping / Board Wipes
Moving on to our Mass Pingers, you can see these as psuedo one-sided board wipes, which, as we know, are the best kind of board wipes. Some of them that I’ve included here are not one sided, but work great as board wipes if the situation permits.
First, let’s talk about Dagger Caster and Goblin Chainwhirler. These two creatures will do one damage to each creature your opponents control and each opponent, and if they have deathtouch, then everything hit will die. Timing on these is important, because you can get these out alongside Zagras on turn 3 or 4 if you play your hands right. They only work once so play them cautiously.
Alternatively, we have other creatures that work after they’ve enter the battlefield with Goblin Sharpshooter and Deathbringer Thoctar. The Sharpshooter taps to ping, and then untaps whenever something dies, which means he can recursively untap and tap again to eliminate each creature on your opponents’ boards. Deathbringer Thoctar works differently where he gets +1/+1 counters when things die, and then can remove one of those counters to ping, which means that if he has one +1/+1 counter on him, he can similarly wipe your opponents’ boards. I recommend both of these because they work in different situations: Deathbringer Thoctar works almost immediately when he comes out and doesn’t have to wait for summoning sickness, but costs twice as much to cast, and Goblin Sharpshooter is cheap to cast, but can’t work right away without a haste enabler. They’re very powerful creatures with our commander out, but take a certain board state to be absolute bombs.
Thornbite Staff works the same as the Sharpshooter, except it’s an equipment which means that we need to attach it to something in order for it to work. The best target is one of our limited pingers from the previous section. Since they only require tapping to ping, any one of them can be transformed into a Goblin Sharpshooter using the staff. There are even a couple of them that are Shamans, which can bypass that equip cost and make it even easier to level the playing field.
The last two cards I’ll talk about in this section are Arcbond and Chandra’s Ignition. These will both wipe the entire board rather than be one sided board wipes, which is less ideal but can still work in our favor if we have Zagras out. In fact, Zagras can be the target for either of these and make it so we save our commander. Chandra’s Ignition is a great win con, and so is Arcbond, but be careful because that damage is also being dealt to you, so it’s very situational.
As mentioned previously, there are some pitfalls to the deathtouch strategy. Two problems in particular come to mind. The first is that some pingers, like Goblin Sharpshooter, do not have haste and cannot work immediately. This makes it harder for them to control the board in a tricky situation. For that reason, we’ve included Fervor and Anger, which can both give all of our creatures haste and make it easier to control the board. From more recent sets, you could also use Tuktuk Rubblefort or Footfall Crater. Rubblefort is a slightly worse Fervor since it’s a creature, and Footfall Crater is a really unique land enchantment aura that can help with our haste problem as well.
The second pitfall centers around the creatures that don’t die from deathtouch. These creatures will have either indestructible, hexproof, shroud (so we can’t target them with our pingers), or regenerate. Regenerate is probably the hardest to deal with, but it’s not impossible. To take care of Hexproof, Shroud, and Indestructible, we have Shadowspear and Arcane Lighthouse. Both of these have abilities that allow us to remove these restrictions from our opponents’ creatures with a pretty low cost. That will allow our pingers to get through with no problem. Shadowspear is also great at giving trample and lifelink to something (like our commander) to finish someone off.
That leaves Regenerate, which I’m going to have to defer Olivia Voldaren to take care of. In absence of the other things we mentioned, our best option is just to steal things, especially with indestructible or regenerate. Olivia Voldaren will normally function as a pinger in our deck, and a pretty good one at that, but if by chance she doesn’t kill whatever she pings, that creature will turn into a vampire. Subsequently, we can activate her second ability and gain control of it. So, worry no longer about that Avacyn sitting across the table; she’ll make a nice addition to Olivia’s vampire army.
We have a few more cards that get better with deathtouch synergies. Ogre Slumlord simply makes deathtouchers when other things die, but the great thing is that if Slumlord gets removed, our rats will still have deathtouch from Zagras. As mentioned earlier in the deck tech, Hooded Blightfang works amazingly when everything has deathtouch, and can even make our pingers take out planeswalkers just by pinging rather than attacking (like Zagras requires). It also allows us to drain our opponents as well; overall, a very nice card for the deck. The last one on this list is Basilisk Collar, which, admittedly, doesn’t do much when our commander is out besides giving lifelink, but lifelink is a valuable resource to keep around with our pingers and it doesn’t hurt to have some redundancy in case our commander gets removed.
Next, I have a small sub-theme of sacrificing and recurring creatures. Naturally, it’s easy to ping our own creatures and let them go to the graveyard, so we’ll want to have a couple of ways to take advantage of that in this deck. We’ll also be seeing a lot of our creatures get interacted with since they’re seen as threats, so getting them back from the graveyard is very important to have in the deck.
Blood Artist has to be my favorite card in this section, mostly because he triggers off of other people’s creatures dying as well. That’s going to give us some extra value when doing what our deck already does. Judith, the Scourge Diva and Midnight Reaper also give us benefits when our creatures die, which will hopefully happen less often, but can still deter a board wipe coming from our opponents’ side.
For recursion, we have the new Agadeem’s Awakening and Thwart the Grave, both of which work well to get cards back from the graveyard and work with the other themes of the deck. Doomed Necromancer will get us one creature back to the battlefield, and Chainer, Nightmare Adept works great to recast creatures that were put in the graveyard recursively. The best, but also most expensive to cast, in this category is Grave Betrayal, a seven mana enchantment that doesn’t recur our own creatures, but recurs our opponents’ creatures to our board. With the amount of board wipe potential in this deck, this is going to go a long way if we are able to hold onto it.
Now that we’ve gone through the meat of the deck, we have the essentials left to talk about: Ramp, Card Draw, and Interaction. Starting with Ramp, you’ll find that we have to rely a lot on mana rocks because we don’t have green in our mana cost. The highlights include Rakdos Keyrune, which I like as a backup deathtouching creature that can be used in a pinch, and Lavabrink Floodgates, a new Commander 2020 card that can also wipe the board if we’re not careful, but will most likely just give us a consistent 2 red mana.
I’m running Dockside Extortionist in this deck because I have one, but the deck doesn’t necessarily need him. He’s especially useful when you have a Mayhem Devil out and can take advantage of the sacrifice synergies on your own board, and he can help you get ahead in certain metas. It’s a good card to have in red, but you don’t need it to make the deck good.
Besides those, we’re running Rakdos Signet, Sol Ring, Arcane Signet, Talisman of Indulgence, Fellwar Stone, Thought Vessel, and Mind Stone. There aren’t any other surprises here; just good ol’ Rakdos mana rocks.
Next, we’ll go over the card advantage, which is actually the part that I’m most worried about covering in the deck. If we don’t have card advantage, since our commander doesn’t give us any on his own, then we’re simply top decking and hoping to get the answers we need beyond our opening hands. That’s why you’ll see a lot of these that can help us dig through our deck. I’m not including any tutors in this version of the deck, but tutors would go a long way to help respond to specific situations.
Rakdos, fortunately, has some interesting options for card advantage. Let’s start with Light up the Stage, a spell we can cast for 1 if we do damage to someone that turn (which is really easy to do with our pingers) and can get us two cards off the top that we can play until our next turn. There’s almost never a feel bad with this spell; even if you get two lands off the top (speaking from experience), that’s actually just pseudo ramp and it’s helping you dig deeper to your answers.
Valakut Awakening is the newest card in this list, and one of my favorites from Zendikar Rising. It allows us to discard any number of cards and draw that many cards plus one (or, can be a land, if you want). In my experience, later in the game, this is very useful for getting lands out of your hand and irrelevant cards to the current table meta, and filling your hand up with cards that will help you more now.
Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast is also in the deck, making it the first deck that I’ve found a bit of use for him. So far, his -2 ability has been the most useful, specifically to transmogrify one of our one-time pinging creatures and trade up to something bigger. The curve of this deck is rather low, so any of the high mana cost creatures that we can find from the deck are going to be a good trade up, and almost all of them can do pinging themselves. His +1 and -7 are also useful for card advantage and as another Chandra’s Ignition effect, but I’ve found myself using his -2 more often.
Next is Corpse Augur, which will work if we have an opponent that is playing a lot of creatures that our pingers have affected especially well. We can choose their graveyard and draw a bunch of cards, simple as that. Mind’s Eye will also draw us some cards, and while it’s slow due to its higher mana cost, it is still very helpful if it sticks around. Additionally, no red deck would be complete without some sort of wheel effect, so Magus of the Wheel is fulfilling that purpose for me.
One that I initially missed when constructing this deck was Castle Locthwain, a land from Throne of Eldraine that will draw us a card and then make us lose life equal to the number of cards in our hands. This will help in the situations when we don’t have a lot of cards in hand, which, as I’ve found, is shockingly easy in Rakdos. I didn’t love this land before, but Castle Locthwain works really well in these colors.
Finally, I’ve included Neheb, Dreadhorde Champion. He functions in two parts: he lets us cycle cards similarly to Valakut Awakening when he attacks, and then he gives us mana based on how much we discarded. He’s an interesting ramp piece that’s pretty situational, but I feel like giving him deathtouch will allow us get through more walls and let us use him multiple times.
Interaction & Protection
Moving on to our Interaction section, we have to acknowledge that our pingers are already really, really good at taking care of creatures. However, there are going to be things that are harder to deal with, and despite the fact that we have a large number of pingers, sometimes they won’t have deathtouch or we won’t have enough. That’s what our interaction is for: getting us to the point that we can play our strategy.
This is the first deck I’m putting Pyroblast in, because it turns out that this deck really functions more as a control deck than anything, so we need our own sort of counterspell. Clearly, it depends on your meta on whether you want to play this, or if you want to play more such as Red Elemental Blast, but I’ll leave that decision up to you.
For targeted removal, we have Terminate, Bedevil (which are just classic Rakdos spells), Feed the Swarm, and Chaos Warp. Feed the Swarm allows for some enchantment removal in black, which is a great addition from Zendikar Rising. Chaos Warp, as always, is just good permanent removal.
And finally, Vandalblast is never a bad option for artifact removal on the small scale or board wipe scale.
If there’s one weak spot that I would point out in the deck, it would be the protection, for which I’ve only included Lightning Greaves. I’ve reasoned that the lower curve of the deck warrants for a little more of an aggressive control strategy rather than hunkering down, so Zagras dying isn’t the end of the world for us. However, if you can protect him, that saves a lot of trouble later on, so consider swapping some interaction or maybe a pinger or two for protection so you can keep what you have on the board.
Finally, let’s talk about the win-cons. Since our deck is primarily direct damage based, almost all of our win-cons have synergies with doing a lot of damage to our opponents. First, we have the ones that make our things do more damage, with Fiery Emancipation, Torbran, Thane of Red Fell, and Furnace of Rath. Any one of these on the field will help when we’re doing direct damage to our opponents. Wound Reflection works similarly but causes loss of life instead. Not necessarily worse; in fact it works just as well as a Furnace of Rath would, but just worth noting.
Comet Storm is our other damage based win-con, which will hopefully also be reaping the benefits of the boosting enchantments mentioned previously.
Last, but not least, we have Torment of Hailfire. It’s just so good late game, it’s hard to pass up, decimating our opponents’ boards and hands if they can’t take the damage. Casting this on turn 7 or 8 is usually a good place to be to swing in and finish off your opponents.
Let’s quickly go over the manabase. I’m running 34 lands in all, with 16 mountains and 9 swamps. Lavaclaw Reaches is in the deck for the same reason that I’ve included Rakdos Keyrune; it can be a flexible deathtoucher if we don’t have any other options. Rix Maadi, Dungeon Palace can simply make everyone discard cards, which isn’t really the point of the deck, but can help with certain board states or if our opponents are running out of cards. We’re also running Graven Cairns, Luxury Suite, Blood Crypt, Dragonskull Summit, and Reliquary Tower. Usually I would advise that the amount of money you spend on your manabase should typically be less, because in reality you don’t need to spend a fortune on your lands. That being said, I would try to make your manabase work a little faster due to the strategy of the deck aiming to get some controlling pieces on the board faster so they can deal with your opponents threats as they come out. Try to minimize the lands that come in tapped as much as you can, and otherwise, basic lands are fine to run as well, as we have enough mana rocks that this two color deck doesn’t typically run into fixing issues.
That’s all for my deck tech, thank you for reading this far! If you liked any of the cards that I mentioned, head on over to Game Grid’s site through our affiliate link to purchase them. They can ship them to you or you can pick them up, it’s really up to whatever is most convenient for you! Personally I’ve really enjoyed my first Rakdos build and I hope to play it many times against my playgroup. See you next time!