Bear Hugs: A Selvala Commander Primer

Everybody loves hugs. Some people like giving hugs, others like receiving hugs, but that positive human interaction is nonetheless reassuring in most cases. It makes you feel good when someone you like gives you a hug, but sometimes, getting a hug from a specific person seems…awkward to say the least. When playing a Group Hug deck in Commander, the Legendary Creature who does it best is Phelddagrif. But today we’re not talking about everybody’s favorite Huggy Huggy Hippo, we’re talking about Selvala, Explorer Returned.


Selvala, Explorer Returned - Conspiracy Spoiler


I talked about this Elf when she first was spoiled here, but I didn’t really go in depth with my analysis, nor did I discuss many cards you could play in a deck with her at the helm. But that’s what we’re here for today.

Now, don’t let the tomahawk in her hand fool you, she gives pretty decent hugs, but unlike Phelddagrif, she has an undeniable ulterior motive. You see, Selvala doesn’t hug other people for the sake of giving hugs, she hugs them for the sake of receiving hugs in return. Simply the initiator of the hug, she pays the initial investment to receive additional benefit, gaining mana and life in return. And while Phelddagrif does the same in a sense, he does so with the idea of staying alive or packing a punch himself, while Selvala does so while ushering in the next big threat.

This chick has the potential to be rather brutal in the right situations, all while masking her true motives under the moniker or “Group Hug”. While she gains you life and mana, which under any other Commander would be seen as a threat, she gives your opponents what is undeniably the best gift of all, card advantage. Now, Commander as a format, since its conception, has been a format of Politics, where silver tongues, a strong wit, and tantalizing bribes can sway the dominance of a game in the blink of an eye. Unlike with constructed formats, you actually have the opportunity to talk your opponents out of doing things you don’t want them to do and bribing them to do the things you want. The sentence “If you don’t swing at me this turn, I’ll do _____ next turn for you.” should be the tag line of the format.

Selvala is a politician. And as corrupt as that may make her seem, she’s does a wonderful job doing what she does. Players love drawing cards, and even on Phelddagrif, his ability that allows an opponent to draw a card is probably the most loved ability, even more so than the one that gives an opponent hippos! Because lets be honest, who doesn’t love hippos. I mean, Pygmy Hippo, am I right? The key to effective Group Hug decks is to make sure that no matter how much advantage you’re giving your opponents, you’re always getting more than they are. Selvala plays this role perfectly, but how well does this scrawny little elf stack up to the lovable, squishable, Huggy Huggy Hippos?


The distinct lack of Blue in Selvala’s color identity leaves us a lot of room to fill in our list. We can’t play Gwafa Hazid, ProfiteerNoble Benefactor, or Braid’s, Conjurer Adept. We have no Prosperity effects, noHive Mind, and worst of all, no Hippos. But that doesn’t mean we can’t give a convincing hug before stabbing our opponent’s in the back. Green and White have amazing group hug cards, many of which are overlooked in my experience, and as such are unexpected. So sans the Islands, what exactly DO we have in our arsenal?

Veteran Explorer is one of the staple cards for decks of this pseudo-archetype. An ideal early game play to get things started off right, and people WILL kill him for the effect, so he’s an effective ramp strategy as well. His benefit empowers players, gives them more to work with, including yourself which is what we’re actually trying for here. Opponent’s see that he lets THEM ramp when he dies, they never really think about the fact that it allows you to do the same.


An undeniable favorite in every group hug deck, Heartwood Storyteller is all you could want. Hitting the board early to win your opponents over is key when playing group hug, but all the same you need to build a defense. Unlike Veteran Explorer, the Storyteller constantly gives, making your opponents less likely to send it to its untimely demise. An amazing source of card advantage, Storyteller fits perfectly into the list, playing your opponents right into the palm of your hand.

I hate squirrels. I had a horrible run in with one as a child that led to an afternoon of hydrogen peroxide and rabies shots, so I hate squirrels. But while I hate squirrels in reality, they’re pretty damn fun in Commander. Liege of the Hollows is a surprisingly fun little card, and for the most part, you can play this Spirit to your advantage. Nobody is going to complain if you give them a way to maintain a board presence after a Wrath of God, but when you’re the one wiping the board, and you’re the one that has the most mana available thanks to Selvala, you are almost guaranteed to come out on top.


A perfect example of what Group Hug decks should be trying to achieve: benefit for an opponent, greater benefit for yourself. Pulsemage Advocate gives you the choice of which opponent and which creatures to return to their hand, and gives you a creature back into play for doing the deed. Who cares if your opponent gets back a Sakura-Tribe ElderSolemn Simulacrum, and a Fertilid when you’re getting a Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger


Even when playing Group Hug, people are going to be dick. There’s always going to be that one guy who doesn’t care that you’re giving him extra cards, life, or land. They’re just going to attack you anyway. In the same sense, there are always going to be players that target others and simply steam roll them out of the game, and that’s no fun. But what if you could play the roll of the hero? What if you got the chance to save that one opponent’s skin? Surely they’d be appreciative of something like that. Well, nothing says “I’m a good person” like Arbiter of Knollridge. When people get targeted in Commander, its easy to see the defeat in their faces. Its disheartening and simply not fun. When an opponent is at 5 life and you’re at the highest life total, sitting comfortably at 40 or more, playing Arbiter is a solid way to say “Don’t worry friend, your fun’s not over yet” and surely they’ll repay the kindness if given the chance.


Clear the Land

A bit of a double-edged sword, Clear the Land is a solid way in Group Hug to give something to your opponents while taking care of potential threats in the process. Hitting three or more lands for yourself is phenomenal, and while you may lose two cards along the way, in a lot of situations you just don’t care. Clear the Land is one of the less huggy hug cards in my list, but often it still puts a smile on an opponent’s face, giving them much needed mana in return for lost cards. This card also has the potential to be absolutely terrible for any given player though. You can easily end up exiling five cards from an opponent’s library, and that may well make you their target for a while, but if you can make a friend or two out of your opponents, that one player may not be much of a threat.


There are a multitude of other good cards (Magus of the Vineyard/Eladamri’s Vineyard,  Eureka,  Hypergenesis, Path to Exile and Swords to Plowshares or Holy Day), but we won’t go into detail with those as I’m sure you can understand why they would be in this list. They just add to the Group Hug package. But as with any deck, you can’t just be nice. You have to have ways to win the game, and while we’ve mentioned a few “love everybody” cards, we haven’t really discussed much about Selvala’s practical uses.

The greatest part about Selvala when it comes to her practicality is the combination of ramp and drawing cards. Her life gain can be relevant in key situations, but more often than not, that won’t be what we’re trying to achieve with her activated ability. In your standard Commander pod, you’re probably playing against three opponents, totaling four players and a potential four mana from Selvala’s activated ability. In a perfect scenario, as I’ve talked about in my previous article, you could easily produce up to nine mana on turn three using our Explorer friend and allowing for some serious shenanigans early on. A turn three Myojin of Life’s Web would be completely bonkers, and what follows a play like that usually isn’t good for the other players in your pod.

Selvala plays out as a pretty typical ramp general, making your early game look more like the late game with things like Avenger of ZendikarVorinclex, Voice of HungerBaneslayer Angel, and the like. But what other things should we look to capitalize on in our Selvala lists?

Because Selvala’s ability requires you to tap her, we’re always going to be looking for ways to UNTAP her. We unfortunately can’t play Prophet of Kruphix in our list, so Seedborn Muse is probably the best we’re going to get. The ability to activate Selvala three additional times before your next turn, gain X amount of life and draw three additional cards is actually insane. Sure, we give opponents cards in the process, but paired with the next card, we care very little.
Vedalken Orrery
Our lack of Blue, yet again, leaves us wanting either Leyline of Anticipation or Alchemist’s Refuge, but fortunately we don’t have to go without. With the same CMC as Leyline of Anticipation, Vedalken Orrey allows us to capitalize on our general to a much greater extent. Ramping into an Avenger of Zendikar at the end of an opponent’s turn before playing Clear the Land for three landfall triggers seems like a decent way to end a game, and combining this with Selvala and Seedborn Muse is a solid way to turn your Group Hug deck into a Punch in the Face at a moment’s notice.


This is your basic “I like to gain life” package, and while I stated earlier that the “gain life” portion of Selvala’s ability was the least important part of her, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s meant to be ignored. Making the most out of her ability is key to running her has your commander, and this means you should make use of ALL of her ability. Even if you’re only gaining two life out of an activation, the inclusion of Rhox Faithmender and Boon Reflection adds an extra level of relevance. If Oloro, Ageless Ascetic decks have proven anything in recent months, its that even small, consistent amounts of life can push you out of your opponent’s reach. Beacon of Immortality is just icing on the cake, as doubling your life total after gaining life with Selvala can easily put you up OVER 9000!!! Not really, but you get the point. Even gaining 10 life from her over a couple activations makes Beacon of Immortality a “gain 50” effect.  Or you can live the dream by having both Boon Reflection and Rhox Faithmender on the field before playing Beacon of Immortality and gain 200 life. Your choice.


In the end, Selvala seems like the kind of Commander that gives you a hug with one arm while stabbing you in the ribs repeatedly. She’s nowhere near as squishable as Phelddagrif, but she certainly does give a nice hug. I love the idea behind her, I feel she’s a well developed card. Her potential is apparent and rather extensive. Whether you’re playing her as your commander, or just as a utility creature in your 100, she deserves to see play.


As always, thank you for reading. Feel free to leave your ideas, comments, and feedback in the comment section below and keep an eye out for more content later this week. Don’t forget to check out our Official CMDTower playmat over at Inked Playmats. Pick yours up today and don’t forget to grab the Promo Code from our page here.

Evan Erickson


Author: Evan Erickson

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