Commander is popular for diverse and anything goes type of decks, many of which are comprised of cards that would absolutely not work in any other format. It’s that fun, laissez-faire type of spirit that originally attracted me to EDH, and for my money there is no commander that better exemplifies this spirit than Zedruu the Greathearted.
Dr. Ian Malcolm would probably describe my first Zedruu brew by saying, "You were so preoccupied with whether or not you could, that you didn't stop to think if you should!" The result was a nefariously unfun deck to play against, and not long after I started handing out the first few permanents, I had the entire group turned against me, teaming up to help each other remove those permanents and take me out as fast as they could. I fell victim to one of the classic EDH blunders; I had become a common enemy against whom the others could unite.
The mood really started to turn when I dropped Celestial Dawn on a Krenko, Mob Boss player, easily the most dastardly permanent you could drop on someone that can’t produce white mana. Since white is in Zedruu’s color identity, the card gave me the ability to use white mana to produce the WUR combination I needed, but when dropped on a mono-red player, they are essentially shut down and unable to do anything.
The others actually found this was funny at first, since Krenko produces goblins at a blistering pace, that player was usually off and swinging early while others were still ramping. But it’s all fun and games until someone uses Copy Enchantment to give you your very own Celestial Dawn and chases it with a Rust Elemental. With the only other player living under the tyranny of a donated Pyromancer's Swath and a Grid Monitor, my days (or turns) were numbered.
Keeping Your Enemies Close
After several months of laboring, researching, and playtesting, I finally settled on this Zedruu brew that was fun pilot while not being miserable for those who are along for the ride.
The overall strategy is not so different from other Zedruu builds. First and foremost, I bring Zedruu out early in the game, as the mana cost is low and the sooner we can start passing around permanents, the more card draw we get and the more life we gain. With that said, because Zedruu’s main ability cost of WUR can be expensive early game, it's good policy to protect Zedruu as soon as possible with and nice pair of Lightning Greaves or a Whispersilk Cloak (she looks great in either!)
Where I begin to stray a bit is on the number and variety of pillow fort cards typically found in a Zedruu build. The usual suspects are all present, including Collective Restraint, Ghostly Prison, and Propaganda, but they are supplemented with cards like Glacial Chasm, True Believer, Windborn Muse, and Dissipation Field.
This sounds like overkill, and builds a Helm’s Deep caliber pillow fort, but what I learned from playing with Zedruu is that it’s not so much which permanents you give to other players, but rather when and why. Rather than use Zedruu to cripple my opponents while I try to ramp and take them out, I get as many of these helpers on the field as I can dole them out to those in need, keeping everyone in the game as long as possible.
Not only does this help keep my perceived threat low, but it keeps the good will towards Zedruu and I flowing. While this is going on, my amount of available mana continues to mount, and the more of these helpers I pass out, the more cards I draw and life I gain during upkeep. With a Reliquary Tower or Thought Vessel in play, I’m free to amass my win condition cards in my hand and wait for my moment to strike.
True Friends Stab You in the Front
By far, the most spectacular Zedruu finisher is accomplished by waiting until someone finally is able to resolve a huge beater like Blightsteel Colossus, Grave Titan, or my personal favorite Terastodon and answering that with a kicked Rite of Replication. An overloaded Cyclonic Rift cast during an opponent’s turn, will not only open everyone up for attack, but will leave most of them helpless against the replicated creatures you just spawned, or even a Stormtide Leviathan cast from your hand. In a multiplayer game, Cyclonic Rift is best played after your turn, but before the next opponent’s end step, forcing them and each opponent thereafter to dump all their precious cards they are unable to cast into their graveyards once they reach their end step, and returning all your pillow fort pieces back to your hand.
Don’t forget, once you’ve reached this point, Zedruu has done her duty, so you are free to equip those Lightning Greaves to your new fatty and start swinging. If your no maximum hand size strategy has paid off, you should have more than a few of the more unfriendly permanents in your hand, and cards like Bronze Bombshell, Delusions of Mediocrity, and our old friend Rust Elemental are great for clearing away the stragglers.
Of course, everyone likes to win. And if you run this strategy consistently, other players in your group are going to react and adjust their decks to better enable themselves to come out ahead at the end. Like all eternal formats, and especially one as all-inclusive as EDH, there are always cards in new sets that can fit into your deck and help keep it feeling fresh to play and more tricky to play against. Given Zedruu’s unusual ability, sets don’t typically have a ton of cards that can fit into the scheme of your Zedruu brew, but even the current standard sets have a few to consider.
Magic Origins has one of the more hostile giveaways in Avaricious Dragon. If you’re playing a more aggressive Zedruu build, this can fit in nicely, and is great for slowing down players that are taking advantage of having no maximum hand size. Beware however, that this is the kind of card that will immediately make your commander a target, so make sure you’ve got the mana to give it away quickly or you may find yourself empty handed. If you’re short on mana but want to set this up for later, you can always use Jhoira of the Ghitu to suspend it early and spring it on the group when you have more available mana.
Battle for Zendikar has a less exciting but still viable card for Zedruu in Quarantine Field. It can work as a nice detainer to lock down a problem nonland permanent or two, and afterward you can just donate it away to pump your card draw and life gain during your upkeep. The good thing about a card such as Quarantine Field is that it can easily fit into the scheme of helping out other players by detaining something that is causing another player grief. Shadows Over Innistrad may have slim pickings for Zedruu, but there is one card that Zedruu can happily give to a player that is under attack either to save them or do them in. Handing Goldnight Castigator over before the declare blockers step gives them a fighting chance to stop lethal damage, and of course, handing it over after the declare blockers step before damage resolves will instead double that damage. If you’ve got a decent pillow fort in place, this creature can happily linger on your battlefield until you’re ready to go to the mattresses.
The best part about playing a Zedruu build like this is that since you spend 90% of the game helping others out, there isn’t the same vitriol or sense of betrayal when you reveal your true nature. In fact, if you’re in a casual playgroup, the chaos and surprises Zedruu is constantly tossing on and around the board helps create an unpredictable and exciting game of commander that keeps the game fun for everyone, win or lose.