How They Brew It - Ellie and Alan, Paleontologists: The Cycle of Life

Michael Celani • January 23, 2024

Ellie and Alan, Paleontologists | Illustrated by Zoltan Boros

Dinosaurs. For at least ten years, these fascinating creatures have captivated the hearts and minds of hundreds of people. Dinosaurs have dominated displays at museums, put their toothy grins on everything from shoes to spaghetti, and charmed us as the heroes of heartwarming stories like The Land Before Time and Jurassic Park. But have you ever wondered where dinosaurs came from?

There's a lot of misconceptions about how ancient dinosaurs really are, but they were actually invented in 1729 by the world's first paleontologist, Ron Paul, who created them so that he would feel better about how old he was getting. Using a novel technique where he melted down the bones of other animals, like lemurs and snakes, and cast them into molds, Ron created thousands of skeletons of an entirely new type of animal. He then traveled as a nomad, spending years burying his creations underground in special sites across the world in the hopes that the Earth's fertile soil would cause them to regenerate and wreck havoc upon his sworn enemy, the Whigs. Unfortunately, in 1859, a large meteor about ten kilometers in diameter struck the Whig party headquarters, spelling serious trouble for our reptile friends.

Down, but not out, today's paleontologists have made serious strides in dinosaur technology since then. With the help of coding and algorithms, modern dinosaur skeletons are so tightly designed and efficient at reanimation that they can transform into almost any creature imaginable. So the next time you see a pig, goat, or screwdriver, thank your local paleontologist: they might just be the one that brought that cute critter to life!

Dungeons and Dinosaurs

Oi! I didn't see you there. My name's Michael Celani, and it's always a pleasure to meet a fellow paleontologist out in the wild. I don't know what brings you to the island of Socotra, but I could really use your help. My old partner had a rather nasty encounter with a stampede of wild wildebeest. To make a long story short, Greg... Greg is gone forever: those animals are demanding $500 for his safe release, and I only have a five in my pocket. I should have been there to save him.

Why am I here? Well, I got into paleontology because of my childhood heroes, Ellie and Alan. Those two are the ultimate duo. It seems like every day they're burying another gigantic skeleton and turning it into something incredible. That's all thanks to their activated ability, which lets them discover based on the mana value of the creature they exile from the graveyard. They've built a truly perfect team that made them the envy of every dinosaur fan out there, and I've done my absolute best to piece together how they brew do it.

Grave Concerns

Like King Midas at a child's funeral, Ellie and Alan turns rotting organic flesh into gold, since they exile a creature card from your graveyard to discover into a potentially game-ending spell. Sounds simple, but it's not so straightforward. To maximize the value of our paleontologist's talents, we want to have the biggest possible butts in the 'yard. That way, we'll be able to cheat out spells worth tons and tons of mana. As my grandpa used to say, you have to get the bodies down there somehow, but casting a seven-mana creature only to sacrifice it for a chance at another one sounds inefficient at best. Luckily, there are ways to stock our graveyard that doesn't involve creating life only to destroy it the second it takes its first breath, because all things are connected in the great cycle of life.

Burying the Lede

Our strategy is almost devilishly simple: by playing a lot of cards that cycle or otherwise discard themselves, we can stock our graveyard to the brim with expensive creatures without needing any prior setup at all. No need for a Merfolk Looter, a Ledger Shredder, or even a Ring of Renewal; our big creatures are happy with being thrown away like they were the rare and valuable video games from your childhood that your mother, moving to a new townhouse in the Keys, didn't care to keep. Our cyclers are split into two broad categories: the six-drops and the seven-drops. The rest of the deck's curve is built around these two mana values, so knowing when to exile one or the other is crucial to your gameplan.

Lucky Seven

We'll start with the seven-drops. There's far more seven-drops in the deck than six-drops, because your most powerful payoffs live at this mana value, and if you exile one of them, they're still capable of hitting everything in the six-drop category. There's a good mix of regular cyclers (such as Yoked Plowbeast) and landcyclers (such as Nurturing Bristleback) here, but which one you'll want to use depends on the state of your hand. You'll generally want to prioritize landcycling before you have the five mana to cast Ellie and Alan, and switch to regular cycling afterwards. This deck has an extraordinarily low land count, so make sure you landcycle aggressively in the early game to hit each drop. Each of your nonbasic landcyclers can fix your mana thanks to the presence of shocklands and Spara's Headquarters, but pay attention in particular to your forestcyclers; these can grab Dryad Arbor, which will be important for later. Outside of those two broad buckets, we have creatures with Channel and creatures that effectively have Channel. Colossal Skyturtle is both an instant-speed Regrowth and an Unsummon, while Waker of Waves has a sort of turbo-cycling in its ability which can stock your graveyard even further. Mirrorshell Crab is a decent Counterspell option in a pinch, and you can use Titanoth Rex to give one of your big creatures trample in the endgame.

Six Shooter

There's far fewer options at this level, but the main benefit of having a six-drop tier is that they bypass all our seven-drop cyclers and payoffs when you discover with them. That makes it substantially easier to hit your value permanents in the midgame, when you don't yet have a way to get more out of activating Ellie and Alan's ability on a seven-drop. Nothing here is particularly special from the cycling side, though Greater Tanuki is effectively an instant-speed Rampant Growth. It's worth noting that it is possible for one of your cyclers to discover into another cycler when you activate Ellie and Alan; you can choose to either cast the creature for free, leaving you with a relatively buff body for little investment, or put them into your hand to try again later, since you can just cycle what you discovered. If you have nothing in your hand or the 'yard to pitch to Ellie and Alan, you should always put the cycler in hand; otherwise, use your best judgment.

Some Support

We don't have much in the way of making cycling itself more impactful in the deck because we'd really rather discover into a card that wins us the game immediately, but we do have two. Gwenna, Eyes of Gaea untaps whenever you cast a creature spell with five power or greater, and since you can use her mana on cycling, she makes it much easier to keep your graveyard and hand stocked. New Perspectives reduces the cost of your cyclers to nothing as long as you have a full hand, which isn't strictly necessary, but it earns its slot in this deck because it draws you three cards when it enters, too.

Keep The Funding Coming

Of course, you have to make cards to discard cards, and that's why our deck has a bunch of lower-cost spells that get us some sort of value when we cast the bigger ones. Since they're cheap, you can cast draw engines, like Vega, the Watcher, Garruk's Uprising, and Up the Beanstalk, before you play Ellie and Alan, but you're still happy to see them if you get them thanks to a discover. There's also a few regular draw spells here like Lórien Revealed, which you can islandcycle in the early game, and Mystic Confluence, which doubles as a removal spell. Keruga, the Macrosage will often draw you five or more cards when it enters the battlefield, and you can double that if you've found your copy of Teferi's Ageless Insight. The absolute best in this category, though, is Greater Good. Your creatures have more than enough power to make going positive with each activation a reality, you can always discard more fodder that you'd otherwise have to cycle away, and it's a free sac-outlet for when your opponents are pointing a mass exile at your board.

Double Digging

Since our strategy revolves around Ellie and Alan so heavily, we'll want to get way more than one activation per turn as well as more than one activation per activation. A combination of trigger-doublers and untappers ought to do the trick. Among the untappers, we have Retreat to Coralhelm, which turns your land drop each turn into either a scry or another Ellie and Alan activation. Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner both draws you cards when you cast one of your big creatures and can untap with its loyalty ability, though its uses are limited. Chakram Retriever is the best one in the deck: since casting a spell off of discover counts as casting a spell during your turn, you can just keep churning through your graveyard until it's empty. If you have Illusionist's Bracers, Rings of Brighthearth, or Lithoform Engine in play, you can even discover twice for one activation. That's efficiency right there, since it'll still rip through your deck at the same mana value as whatever you exiled, meaning you'll get two up-to-seven drops for just two mana!

Top Ten Hits

It might sound like a lot of work to get started in the field of paleontology, but hey, at least you don't have to worry about if your contributions to the field will inexorably upend the livelihoods of millions of people, like those computer scientists have to. And you're lucky, because it turns out being a paleontologist comes with substantial personal reward, just like anything in life worth doing does. That's why our deck is chock-full of some of the strongest six- and seven-drop payoffs in the entire game. Let's check it out:

I Like Big Butts

Our main method of winning the game is to turn everyone else just as dead as the fossils we're excavating, and the easiest way to do that is hit them very hard and very fast with things that hurt them a lot until they die. It's unfortunate that Bant doesn't have many ways to give a field haste, but Surrak and Goreclaw can do just that, granting each creature you control a counter and the zoomies as it enters the battlefield. Once they're on the field, it's a bloodbath: Nezahal, Primal Tide is a 7/7 beater that draws you more cards when opponents try to remove it; Sun Quan, Lord of Wu and Serra's Emissary make all your creatures unblockable; Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite makes your board even bigger and takes out any bothersome token chumps; Zopandrel, Hunger Dominus doubles your creatures' power and toughness; and Kodama of the East Tree lets you put your cards from your hand onto the battlefield when you cast spells from your library. The newly printed Conspiracy Unraveler isn't terrible either, as it's a 6/6 flier that turns your massive landcyclers into fuel for any big spells that happen to get stuck in your hand. Finally, don't discount the fact that the vast majority of your deck is made up of gigantic statline monsters. Sometimes all you need is a 6/5 with flying and ward.

Spell Shocked

But it's not just huge creatures that can win us the game. We've filled the deck to the brim with strong and varied noncreature spells, too. Approach of the Second Sun is a cheeky victory condition here; you're free to cast the first copy off your library, but, when you discover into it a second time, put it into your hand so you can cast it properly for the game. Nexus of Fate cantrips your entire turn, and it shuffles itself back into your library when you're done casting it, too, so you've always got a chance to see it again; it's at its best when you've amassed a gigantic board with summoning sickness, since it effectively gives your creatures a form of haste. Austere Command often wipes your opponents' boards while leaving yours completely intact. Akroma's Will, Akroma's Memorial, and True Conviction each massively increase the potency of your creatures, while Asceticism will make sure they're not taken out by spot removal. Lastly, even though you're casting it for free, you can still pay the entwine cost on Tooth and Nail, which means you're tutoring two creatures from your deck onto the battlefield for just two additional mana.


All three seven-cost land sorceries are here, too, and they're each incredible; you can play them early in the game as lands to ensure you can cast Ellie and Alan on curve, or discover into them later for a massive boost. Emeria's Call represents two flying beaters as well as a board that's untouchable until your next turn; Sea Gate Restoration doubles the size of your hand and makes it so that you won't have to worry about what to discard ever again; and Turntimber Symbiosis is a much more open-ended creature hit since it lets you select whatever you want from the next seven cards in your library. All are great to play or discover into; you can't go wrong when one of these turns up.


But sometimes, science can be cruel. Your discoveries will be cheapened by future accomplishments, you'll create hypothesiseses that fail, and you'll accidentally birth the world's most powerful supervillain when caustic chemicals from your laboratory explode and spill all over your experiment on the broken husk of a dead god. I've had results so incapable of reproduction even I look like a Casanova by comparison., but worst of all is when you draw the spell you wanted to cast for free off the top of your library. Well, fret no more, because I have the solution to all your paleontological problems.

Remember when I said to pay attention to your forestcyclers, because they can get Dryad Arbor? Well, Dryad Arbor has the unique quality of being both a creature and a land, and what's more, it's also zero mana. This combination of attributes makes it the most perfect choice for jank in the entire deck: since it's a land, it'll never be hit by a discovery and leave you with an embarrassing 1/1 instead of a card that's actually good, and since it's a creature, it's capable of being exiled to Ellie and Alan. The Zero-Day Exploit strikes again, as we're going to discover for 0 into the only 0-cost spell in the deck: Hypergenesis.

With Hypergenesis, it doesn't matter how many of your payoff cards ended up in your hand. It's extremely unlikely that anyone else in the game will be as well-equipped to take advantage of it as you are. All you have to do is find a way to get Dryad Arbor into the graveyard, and between Geier Reach Sanitarium, Greater Good, or even just discarding it to hand size, you're golden. If Hypergenesis itself ends up in your hand, though, don't fret.

This deck was made for Scroll Rack, which lets you set up the top of your library however you want with cards in your hand. If you really wanted to cast Surrak and Goreclaw but just can't find the mana for it, Scroll Rack it to the top of your library and discover right into it. The best discoveries are the ones you make up yourself for personal clout!

A New Era

Thanks to you, my expedition to Socotra has been a complete success! We've found all the dinosaur skeletons buried here by the monks in 1908, and we've brought them back to life with the power of discovery. Absolutely nothing went wrong! It's all thanks to the hard work of all our paleontologists that we're able to enjoy dinosaurs today, even as they rampage around and kill all of us with their huge, sharp teeth. Isn't science incredible?

If you enjoy How They Brew It, please check out the Discord and my other projects at my website. You can vote on what article you want to see next, check out the other cool stuff I do, or even suggest cards for the next article. I'd like to thank Witroese and Naitsab on my Discord, who suggested Garruk's Uprising and Gwenna, Eyes of Gaea respectively. And don't forget to check out all the other amazing content right here on Commander's Herald. Thanks!

The Cycle of Life (Ellie and Alan, Paleontologists EDH)

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Commander (1)
Planeswalkers (1)
Creatures (38)
Sorceries (10)
Instants (7)
Artifacts (9)
Enchantments (8)
Lands (26)

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Newly appointed member of the FDIC and insured up to $150,000 per account, Michael Celani is the member of your playgroup that makes you go "oh no, it's that guy again." He's made a Twitter account @GamesfreakSA as well as other mistakes, and his decks have been featured on places like MTGMuddstah. You can join his Discord at and vote on which decks you want to see next. In addition to writing, he has a job, other hobbies, and friends.