For a few years, I had a Commander problem. I kept seeing legends that were slightly different from decks I had built and ready to go, but they called to me in such a way that I had to build it anyway. And since I tend to like playing around with sacrifice effects, these decks almost always turned into builds that really wanted access to Zulaport Cutthroat. It got to the point where it didn’t matter how many decks I brought to a given evening – I was trying to end the games in a flurry of dying creatures. Hence began my journey into Ishkanah, Grafwidow.
Looking back, that must have been a miserable experience for my friends and opponents. “How many times is Alex going to play the same deck with a few different cards in the same evening?” I didn’t realize it at the time, but it also wasn’t fun for me either. That led to me pruning a number of decks and instead trying to focus on unique strategies.
While she was printed before this shift in my deck building philosophy, I never got around to building Ishkanah, Grafwidow. There are a lot of things about the Eldritch Moon standout that tangled me in her web. Her focus on an underused tribe was something the more esoteric part of my brain and the fact she came with a slow, plodding win condition also piqued my interest. The army-in-a-can aspect was attractive and played well with green’s token doublers. Ishkanah’s brood was a double-edged sword as it was also played neatly into an Aristocrats strategy and could easily end the game in concert with one of my favorite combos – Ashnod’s Altar and Nim Deathmantle.
And so for years, Ishkanah stayed in the box where potential commanders are stored for safekeeping. Every so often, I would start writing out a list when new cards caught my eye but nothing ever came of it. The deck would always return to an Aristocrats build and I did not want to travel that road again. It wasn’t until I figured out how I wanted to win with Ishkanah that I stopped putting pen to paper and started putting cards in sleeves. I looked at the Grafwidow and decided that I wanted to build a deck that did what the card set out to do: kill my opponents with Spiders.
I set about building a deck that could reuse Ishkanah’s enter-the-battlefield ability, and other token producers, to make a ton of Spiders. From there, I would either use her ability to slowly drain my opponents or use an abundance of mana to drain out everyone in one fell swoop. See, in the intervening years since my original experiments with the arachnid, the power level of Commander has gone up, While Nim Deathmantle and Ashnod’s Altar was once a common inclusion, relying on a three-card combo that does not outright win the game is no longer viewed with the same lens as five years ago. Since this combo would not outright end the game – I would need another piece to generate black mana – I felt it would be fine to include.
Ishkanah presented an entertaining challenge in deck construction. In order to consistently have active delirium, it meant looking to maximize the number of card types while not giving up on what the deck wanted to do in the long run. Black and green do a good job of playing an interactive game and I did not want to lose that, but I wanted to make sure I could do the Golgari thing while also having four spider friends come along for the ride.
Cards like Font of Fertility, Omen of the Dead, Seal of Primordium and Wayfarer’s Bauble might not be the best at what they do, but they do help put a diversity of card types into the graveyard. Binding the Old Gods and Sylvok Replica similar work and Grist, the Hunger Tide just so happens to get things into the bin while serving as two pips for delirium on their own.
Once delirium was mostly covered, I wanted to focus on being able to get as many spiders out of Ishkanah as possible. Initially I had Spider Spawning in my list but after a few drafts, I realized I didn’t have enough creatures to consistently be worth the cost and so it ended up on the outside. To get Spiders from other sources I turned to Arachnogenesis, Arasta of the Endless Web and Rotwidow Pack. Ishkanah because the centerpiece and I focused on including cards like Undying Evil, Rescue from the Underworld and Back for More to protect my commander from removal while also being able to get more eight-legged friends. Doubling Season, Parallel Lives and Second Harvest all make an appearance doing what these cards are supposed to do. I also looked at other ways to get more uses out of Ishkanah’s trigger with cards like Blade of Selves, Erratic Portal, Helm of the Host and Temur Sabertooth.
But the entire point of this deck was to overwhelm my adversaries with Spiders. Considering that they’re a paltry 1/2 token, I had to look for ways to make them slightly more intimidating. Beastmaster Ascension did the job and with a Brawn in the graveyard, they would go from a nuisance to terrifying. Eldrazi Monument would add more fuel to nightmares thanks to flying spiders. Since I was going to be attacking I also added Druids’ Repository as a way to generate mana that could then be used to activate Ishkanah. Turning my Spiders sideways also meant Throne of the God-Pharaoh became a viable avenue for lots of damage. Cryptolith Rite not only turns on Throne but gives my Spider horde an avenue to victory on a stalled board. The card I’m most excited to resolve in the deck is Skemfar Shadowsage. The tribal fireball seems tailor made for a deck like this as it works perfectly with all the cards that also help Ishkanah foster a brood.
As for new additions, I’m definitely interested in acquiring a copy of Lolth, Spider Queen. As for Phyrexian Altar – a card that helps turn the Ishkanah loop with Ashnod’s Altar and Nim Deathmantle into one that can end the game (once you have unbound colorless, create unbound black mana and go to town), I decided that my copy is best suited elsewhere. In the interim, Priest of Gix can get the job done but maybe down the line I’ll find a home for Black Market.
Ishkanah, Grafwidow Commander/EDH by Alex Ullman