Today I get to write about something near and dear to my heart. Today I am writing about how to play an Aristocrats Commander deck. If you’re just getting into the format and you like sending things to the graveyard for value, this might just be the archetype for you.
Generally speaking, an Aristocrats deck is one that wants to generate benefits from creatures dying (usually via sacrifice). The name stems from the Pro Tour Gatecrash-winning deck list that combined small Humans with Cartel Aristocrat and Falkenrath Aristocrat, turning the Vampire into a massive game-ending threat. Later builds adopted Blood Artist, an effect which has become synonymous with the strategy ever since.
Aristocrats by Tom Martell
Building an Aristocrats Commander deck starts with the Commander. You should be looking for one that either benefits from creatures dying or one that itself is a sacrifice outlet. Two legends that stand out in the first category are Korvold, Fae-Cursed King and Meren of Clan Nel Toth. Each of these generate value from things hitting your graveyard (albeit in different ways). These Commanders need more sacrifice outlets in their 99 to really sing but also tend to draw the ire of the table. These two, in particular, can overpower less optimized lists with their raw efficiency.
Other, less target-painting versions of these include Sek’Kuar, Deathkeeper, Judith, the Scourge Diva, Syr Konrad, the Grim or Elenda, the Dusk Rose to name a few. These cards also directly benefit from creatures hitting the bin but are not engines unto themselves the same way Korvold and Meren have proven to be.
When it comes to sacrifice outlets that live in the command zone, it’s hard to beat Yawgmoth, Thran Physician or Chatterfang, Squirrel General. There are others, like Kels, Fight Fixer, Varolz, the Scar-Striped or Yahenni, Undying Partisan. Rather than provide value for creatures dying, these commanders serve a vital role for any Aristocrats deck – they let you sacrifice your creatures. Since the entire archetype keys off of creatures dying, having regular access to a sacrifice outlet is incredibly valuable.
Teysa Karlov represents another angle to Aristocrat decks: tokens. You can often find a token subtheme in many Aristocrat builds as these game pieces tend to be easy to accumulate and die just as easily as actual creatures. For the sake of this article, we’re going to be focusing on creature tokens but there are definitely ways to play artifact-Aristocrats using Clues, Food and Treasure tokens.
There are also various Aristocrats-style commanders that come with their own little restrictions. Teysa, Orzhov Scion is a sacrifice outlet for white creatures, which it just so happens to make when black creatures kick the bucket. Slimefoot, the Stowaway loves seeing Saprolings offered up on the altar.
There is a subtheme to Aristocrat decks that have historically used Athreos, God of Passage and Shirei, Shizo’s Caretaker – Shadowborn Apostle decks. These decks use the text on Shadowborn Apostle to run plenty of copies and convert them into massive Demons. While the Demons themselves often end the game, the ability to consistently recur a creature means that an Aristocrats kill is possible. I fully expect Lisea, Forgotten Archangel to also helm these strategies moving forward.
There’s something you should note about all these options – they have black in their color identity. While it is possible to break the mold and build non-black Aristocrat decks, it does limit your options significantly.
Once you have a commander, there are a few key elements you need to consider when playing Aristocrats: sacrifice outlets, cannon fodder and spouts (that is, cards that benefit from your creatures dying).
Sacrifice outlets are the most important part to every Aristocrats deck as they tend to be vital pieces in a deck’s win condition. The result is that these cards tend to be targeted early and often, which means that if you’re planning on playing one of these decks, you better pack plenty of sacrifice outlets. Ashnod’s Altar and Phyrexian Altar are fantastic in that they can generate mana to chain into bigger plays. Ashnod’s Altar also has the ability to kill players out of nowhere with a proper spout, a creature that generates three bodies when it enters the battlefield and Nim Deathmantle. While this combo might be a tad slow at the most optimized tables, it can get the job done at more social games (provided everyone has agreed that that is the kind of game they are looking for).
Carrion Feeder, Viscera Seer, Woe Strider and the Nantuko Husk family are some of the most reliable sacrifice outlets out there. As creatures, they’re relatively easy to recur and these have no timing restriction or maximum use per turn. Spawning Pit, Goblin Bombardment and Altar of Dementia are not creatures but similarly can be used multiple times a turn. Spawning Pit has the added benefit of creating more fodder down the line. Blasting Station, Priest of Forgotten Gods, Whisper, Blood Liturgist are powerful in their own right but unlike the other sacrifice outlets listed here, they have a limit on the number of times they can be used per turn which can limit their efficacy.
When picking sacrifice outlets, you want ones that are both cost effective and resilient. Something like Carrion Feeder might not seem like a high impact card but the fact that it comes down early and can be brought back a myriad of ways means it is one of the best options around. You always want to have one of these cards available so dedicate between seven and 12 slots, more if you’re expecting a ton of hate.
Next up is cannon fodder. These are the creatures you’re going to send to the graveyard. Cards that create tokens upon death – Pawn of Ulamog, Sifter of Skulls, Blight Mound, Open the Graves and Ogre Slumlord all fit the bill. Cards with persist or undying – Kitchen Finks, Murderous Redcap, Geralf’s Messenger – can be part of Nim Deathmantle loops or combine with other cards (like Solemnity) to create a never ending stream of things to die.
There’s also the entire family of Nether Shadows – cards that bring themselves back from the dead – to be fed over and over like some all-you-can-eat buffet of the damned. Reassembling Skeleton is the poster child for these cards but Bloodghast and Bloodsoaked Champion can also fill this role. Finally, there’s nothing like good old creature tokens. Bitterblossom or Awakening Zone can provide a steady stream of things to off and Ophiomancer can provide up to four Snakes per turn with a sacrifice outlet at the ready.
Finally comes to the spouts. These are the cards that benefit from having your creatures kick the bucket. There are a few different spouts – there are game enders, Grave Pacts and card draw.
Grave Pacts are just that – Grave Pact, Dictate of Erebos and Butcher of Malakir. These are board control elements that an Aristocrats deck can easily leverage to keep opposing threats from sticking around.
Card draw are spouts that convert your dying hordes into fresh cards. Harvester of Souls is one of the original but it has since been supplanted with cheaper options like Moldervine Reclamation, Grim Haruspex or Midnight Reaper. Both Smothering Abomination and Korvold also find a home in this camp.
Finally we have the game enders. Blood Artist and Falkenrath Noble can get the job done but do so one opponent at a time. Newer iterations of this effect – Bastion of Remembrance, Poison-Tip Archer, Cruel Celebrant, Zulaport Cutthroat and Vindictive Vampire all hit every opponent each time they pop off.
So how does one play an Aristocrats deck? There are a few ways to go about winning the game. The first is to chip away at every opponent little bit little, biding your time. Because your deck tends to be made up of multiple layered combos, it can be easy to pivot from a stable situation to a game ending board state.
The best advice I can give you is that you never want to try to go for the win unless you have a backup sacrifice outlet available. Putting all your eggs into one basket is a recipe to have your well-laid plans go up in smoke. And if there’s one thing that puts a target on you in Commander, it’s trying to go off and failing, especially when everyone knows you’re just one card away from doing it again.
Here is my current Aristocrats deck. It’s a Teysa, Orzhov Scion deck that is firmly in the token camp. It wants to leverage its commander to not only control the board but also to combine with Darkest Hour to create a never-ending stream of dying black creatures, ending the game in short order. This deck is far from optimized as I’m more keen on playing with the cards I want than the cards that are correct. That being said, it still packs a punch.