Okay, maybe Etali isn’t the 6-mana 6/6 you think of first when I say Prime Time, but I’m doing my best to change that. Etali is one of the five new Elder Dinosaurs from Rivals of Ixalan, and of the five, it’s my favorite one in Commander. Sure, Etali has no enters-the-battlefield ability and no form of evasion, but the ability you get when you swing is incredible. Well, usually incredible. Sure, sometimes you whiff and get all lands, but what are the chances?
Well, okay, let’s actually talk about the chances. I’m no Frank Karsten, HoF Ph.D., but I can do some rudimentary math. Let’s assume that, out of everyone’s deck, 30% of the cards are “hits”—big, splashy spells and creatures, cards that cost a lot but provide a lot of incremental advantage, or utility/situational cards that work well in the moment. The other 70% might be land, mana rocks you don’t currently need, spells without targets or that don’t benefit you, and so on. So in a 4-player game, here’s the probability breakdown for a single Etali attack:
|# of hits||Probability (1 significant figure)|
So Etali has about a 76% chance to get at least one hit with every attack and about a 35% chance to get two or more hits in a single attack. Based on all of this, Etali generates an average of about 1.2 hits per attack under our set of assumptions. That’s pretty good as long as you can get Etali to attack more than once for every time you cast it. So how can we make this work for us?
Step 1: Maximize Your Hits
If you’re going to use Etali as your Commander, you need to build your deck to take advantage of the trigger it generates, and the first step is including large, powerful spells and creatures in your deck.
Etali lets you cast the spells it exiles, so the large Eldrazi with cast triggers are enormous hits. Creatures that cost 6 mana or more are obviously great candidates for Etali decks. Remember, Etali’s job isn’t just to swing for 6—it’s mostly to generate value, and getting to cast things for free that cost more than the spell you used to cast those free things is value 101.
Sticky threats are very important for an Etali deck. The second worst thing that can happen to you when you play an Etali deck is to get a huge creature off Etali’s trigger only to lose it to a Terminate or Wrath of God. Play creatures with indestructible, regeneration, or other protective abilities and force your opponents to draw and use narrower, more valuable spells to clear your board.
Don’t forget that these costly cards can show up in your hand too. With that in mind, don’t be afraid to mulligan a hand that’s too heavy. You get a free mulligan in multiplayer Commander, so make use of that when you see a bunch of Eldrazi and Colossi in your opener, and remember that going down to 6—or even 5—isn’t a death sentence, especially if you can get Etali out quickly.
Step 2: Cast Etali Early and Often
You are going to need mana, and lots of it. Etali costs 4RR the first time around, and you’ll be casting it a few times per game, so you’ll need sufficient mana. My current build for Etali uses 19 cards that can generate mana, amplify my mana, or make Etali cheaper alongside 37 lands. That means that 56 of my 99 main deck cards are devoted to casting Etali, and coincidentally, the other enormously expensive cards in my deck.
2-mana accelerators provide some of the best value of any mana accelerants in Commander, as you’ll get incredible mileage out of them compared to the investment. If you cast one on turn 2, it will have paid for itself by turn 4—and realistically, were you going to do something else of value on turn 2 anyway?
Okay, some mana accelerators are just broken, but after some careful testing, I’ve determined that casting Etali early is extremely good. These cards can also help pay for a more expensive Etali later in the game, so if you have access to them, I strongly recommend them.
These are less “mana ramp” and more “mana amp,” but they’re both very important for Etali. I run Snow-Covered Mountains in my Etali deck because I want to avoid giving another mono-red deck a huge mana edge with Extraplanar Lens, but you might have to swap back and forth depending on whether or not you’re in a mono-color meta with other Lens users. Most of the time, though, Snow’s the way to go. (Yes, this means you “should” run Snow basics in your other decks for Lens value, but those Unstable lands are so pretty…)
Step 3: Attack with Etali Early and Often
You may have noticed that Etali doesn’t have haste. This means that, sometimes, you’re in the unenviable position of wanting to cast Etali but being unable to attack with it right away, which means you might be trading your whole turn for someone’s Swords to Plowshares. It’s a real bummer. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to give Etali haste.
I run ten ways to give Etali haste, and so far, I’ve found that sufficient, if only barely. It’s possible that going very hard and running Mass Hysteria to give everything haste and Threaten effects just to give Etali that one very important turn of haste for 3 mana is correct, but I’m skeptical. After all, you already have Generator Servant, which is just a better version of the Threaten play, and Mass Hysteria seems like an interesting way to die.
Don’t sleep on these—lands that can give Etali haste are very powerful. Hall of the Bandit Lord might hurt a little, but building the haste into the cast is extremely powerful. Flamekin Village isn’t quite as powerful, but a repeatable source of haste is valuable even if it makes Etali essentially cost two more mana.
Another way to maximize Etali’s value is to give yourself more combats because that means more triggers and more free stuff. It also allows you to get closer to a Commander damage kill with Etali. While it’s not a member of the famous Three-Hit Club, hitting 4 times is totally achievable in this deck. My list has 7 cards that create extra combat phases, and I’m waffling on adding Combat Celebrant to bring it up to 8. I’ve even picked Anarchist up with my mouse and considered using it as a bad Eternal Witness.
I don’t have anywhere else to spotlight these cards, so I’ll do it here. Strionic Resonator imitates an extra combat without actually letting you attack again, but it does so repeatably and cheaply, so it made the cut. Scroll Rack doesn’t add more Etali triggers, but it takes heavy cards out of your hand and puts them on top for Etali to cast. I haven’t actually ever drawn my Scroll Rack, but maybe one day I’ll find out how good it is here.
Step 4: Don’t Let Etali Die
Did I mention how much of a bummer it is when Etali dies? It’s depressing, especially when you haven’t even gotten to attack with Etali yet. Fortunately, we have quite a few ways to keep Etali alive.
Hexproof, shroud, and indestructible are the name of the game here. I haven’t gone full Shield of Kaldra, but I’ve certainly considered it. I have five pieces of equipment that protect Etali in this way, so I don’t always have one, but it makes a decent difference when I do.
Here’s my current Etali build for your perusal. For those of you who watched the videos, I’ve added Seize the Day and Flamekin Village to the list beyond what I talked about changing while I was playing, so don’t be surprised if things look slightly different.
Commander: Etali, Primal Storm
A few cards I’ve considered including:
Sunbird’s Invocation: It’s a good card, but it only triggers off spells cast from hand, which means that you don’t get value from casting Etali or from Etali’s attack trigger. I’m skeptical of this one.
Anger: It’s not just my least favorite John Avon art—it’s a lot of setup too. Might be better than I think.
Neheb, the Eternal: I wanted to separate this deck from the Neheb deck, and part of doing that was cutting Neheb fairly early in the build process. She also doesn’t contribute to a pre-combat Etali cast, which is a bummer.
Molten Primordial et al: If you hit these from Etali triggers you can’t attack with the creatures they grab, but they do remove blockers, and of course, the point is to cast them precombat instead of getting them from Etali. I’ll try a few of these out.
What cards do you have in your Etali builds that stand out? Which of my inclusions have you tried and found wanting? Sound off in the comments (or shout at me on Twitter–I’m @RagingLevine) and join me next time for more Elder Dinosaur Highlander!