What Would They Play? Marusya Nikiforova's EDH Deck

I'm Charlie, I'm a storyteller, creative writer and author; I handle the historical sections of the articles.

And I'm Dan, a Commander player who is obsessed with building thematic decks. I connect the stories to Magic cards to create decks that reflect the vibrant tales of the past.

We take famous or not-so-famous figures from history and make Commander decks based on their lives, philosophies, and histories.

Our articles are meant to be part history lesson, part deckbuilding guide. We believe that decks can be expressions of personal philosophies, so a fun way to learn about historical figures -- and flavorful brews -- would be to speculate about what sort of Commander deck a given person would play, given their times, opinions, and philosophies.

It's like a history class, only using the medium of Magic: the Gathering.

This is meant to be an accessible glimpse at the people in question, not a rigorous or definitive biography; we have sources at the end of the article for that!

Let us begin!

Who was Marusya Nikiforova?

Maria "Marusya"1 Nikiforova was a anarchist-communist terrorist, guerrilla, and revolutionary. She was active in and around both Russian Revolutions (1905 and 1917). She gained a reputation for daring and being nearly unkillable in the course of her struggles against the tsarist authorities, the White Army, and the Bolsheviks in turn. She persisted despite hard labor in prison, escaped to France, served in the First World War, and then played a key role in shaping the Russian revolution and following civil war. She survived being shot at, bombed, and close-quarters combat on horseback.

Even more remarkable than her long record of actions was the near-complete thoroughness with which she was erased from history until relatively recently. There are hundreds of scholarly works on Russian anarchists and revolutions, dozens on the most famous of them (like Nestor Makhno--I've even written a book on him, and Marusya features a bit more prominently in it than is typical, but I digress), but there is only one dedicated biography of Marusya Nikiforova currently available: Atamansha, by the anarchist historian Malcolm Archibald, and it is from that text we draw most of our resources. Owing to the format of the article, we won't have time to discuss all of Marusya's accomplishments or particulars, but will have to make due with a very broad-strokes version of her life.

Marusya believed that spectacular military actions were insufficient for a true revolution; instead, an aggregation of small, focused actions are needed. In Magic, actions don't get much smaller than creating 1/1 creature tokens, so Marusya's deck focuses on the collective power of these tokens. With Bess, Soul Nourisher as the commander of her deck, those tiny tokens can add up to something truly powerful.

Early Days: Bombs and Terror (1885-1908)

Marusya grew up in Alexandrovsk (now called Zaporizhzhia) in Ukraine. According to Malcolm Archibald, as a young woman Marusya worked at various times as a babysitter, sales clerk, and finally as a bottle washer at a vodka distillery.

In the wake of the first Russian Revolution (1905-1907), Marusya joined an anarchist-communist group dedicated to terror and expropriation of property against the upper classes. We've covered some of the steps that the tsarist government took to crush those rebellions in previous articles under Minister Stolypin, but suffice to say that the repression was brutal. Revolutionary groups used terror tactics against the aristocrats, landlords, and police chiefly through assassinations and bombings. This was the atmosphere in which Marusya came of age, and it profoundly shaped her worldview and tactics going forward.2

In his biography of Marusya Nikiforova, historian Malcolm Archibald puts the method and ideology of terror in the Russian empire into historical context:

"Our age has also not lacked 'motiveless terror' but it is important to try to see the Ukrainian anarchist terrorists in the context of their own times, not ours. The early years of the 20th century created pent-up frustrations among the lower classes of the Russian Empire because of the failure of revolutionary activity to change the country's socio-political order in any meaningful way. This was an empire headed by a monarch who was an honorary member of the 'Union of the Russian People', an organization roughly equivalent to the Klu Klux Klan. Under prevailing conditions it was not just the anarchists who resorted to terror against the regime. All the socialist groups used terror. In fact, even middle class liberals endorsed the use of terror against tsarist repression. And although the Russian anarchists never numbered more than a few thousand, the ranks of their sympathizers were many times larger."

Marusya was involved in several bombings and stickups against the upper classes until she was caught in 1908 and sentenced to death. Fortunately for her, that sentence was commuted to twenty years hard labor in Siberia. She ultimately escaped imprisonment and made her way to France, where she served in WWI against the Germans.

Marusya's temporary exile is reflected in her preferred form of removal, the Oblivion Ring-style effect. Bishop of Binding is even a 1/1 creature itself to go along with the theme. Conclave Tribunal can be cast by all of her tokens, and Touch the Spirit Realm has the alternate mode of flickering token-producers, like Deep Forest Hermit or Captain of the Watch. Removal is combined with an anthem on In the Trenches, which also evokes the Western Front of WWI.

Return To Russia and Trial in Taganrog (1917-18)

Marusya rushed back to Russia in 1917. She was involved in revolutionary committees (Revkoms) in her home town of Alexandrovsk, where she met and clashed occasionally with Nestor Makhno--though they did ride into battle together against a Cossack host in early 1918 and soundly defeated it.3

Marusya wasn't a quiet figure: when she took a city or settlement, she believed in actions and principles first. She was a firm believer in direct action and didn't let order or protocol get in the way of her doing what she believed to be correct, something her Druzhina (armed host of close comrades) doubtless also appreciated. Marusya had no patience for people who abused their power or profiteered and didn't care whose side they were on. To quote Malcolm Archibald again:

"On January 28, 1918, the Druzhina appeared in Elizavetgrad, an important city in south-central Ukraine. Its presence allowed the local Bolshevik organization to take over the city Soviet in a bloodless coup, ousting Ukrainian SRs and Kadets, and set up their own Revkom. Soon Marusya was engaged in her usual brand of mayhem. Hearing numerous complaints about the local military commissar4, Colonel Vladimirov, she went to his quarters and shot him. Then she organized systematic looting of the city's stores, distributing the goods to the poor. Noticing that people were ending up with things they didn't need, she authorized the bartering of goods although this had been expressly forbidden by the Bolshevik Revkom."

Marusya inspired fierce and uncompromising loyalty, loyalty that would save her life many times over.

In April 1918, Marusya and her druzhina ended up in the city of Taganrog, where the Bolsheviks ordered Marusya to disarm her battalion and integrate into the newly formed (non-volunteer) Red Army on the patently false charge of deserting the front against the Germans.

Marusya refused and was arrested.

Her comrades, instead of knuckling under, called for aid.

This attempt to split up and dissipate anarchist units in the Russian Civil War was a pretty standard Bolshevik maneuver: use non-Bolsheviks as shock-troops against shared enemies, then try and execute particularly charismatic ones while dispersing the survivors among the ranks of the Red Army.

The Bolsheviks were not a fan of how Marusya and her companions did things and thought that someone as charismatic and with such broad appeal as Marusya posed a danger to them. The Bolsheviks were quick to begin their purges of anarchists and socialists after assuming power, and then had the unmitigated cheek to yammer on about unity.

However, unlike some of her less-fortunate comrades, Marusya would survive this show trial, in no small part due to the rallying of a variety of people and forces who showed up to support her.

Malcolm Archibald describes the situation in Taganrog like this after Marusya's arrest:

"The disarming of the Druzhina didn't go smoothly either. The troops refused to transfer to Kaskin's brigade and demanded to know where Marusya was being held. The Taganrog Anarchist Federation and the constantly arriving anarchist detachments also demanded that the Bolsheviks justify their actions. Even the local Left SRs supported the anarchists.

"Contacted by the anarchists, the Bolshevik commander-in-chief Antonov-Ovseyenko sent a telegram of support: "The detachment of Maria Nikiforova, and Comrade Nikiforova herself, are well known to me. Instead of suppressing such revolutionary formations, we should be creating them." Telegrams of support were also received from several other Red Guard commanders. And into Taganrog steamed an armoured train under the command of the anarchist Garin, a personal friend of Marusya's."

Even Nestor Makhno--who frequently clashed with Marusya back at Alexandrovsk--stepped up: when Marusya was acquitted by the revolutionary tribunal, the pair of them penned a pamphlet and held a series of lectures excoriating the Bolsheviks before packed audiences at the Taganrog train station. Sometimes you just gotta take a long and satisfying victory lap before leaping back into the fray.

Marusya's Commander deck includes plenty of ways to let her creatures dodge arrest and execution. Clever Concealment and Ephemeral Shields let her comrades help out with the Convoke ability, while Grand Crescendo brings the comrades to the battlefield. Snakeskin Veil, Feat of Resistance, and Gaea's Gift can protect Bess while giving her another +1/+1 counter to further pump up her druzhina during her next attack. For a deck that relies on having a wide board of creatures, especially its commander, these kinds of protection effects are vital against both sweepers and spot removal.

MOSCOW (1918-1919)

It is easy to focus too much on Marusya's admitted skills as a military leader. Marusya ended the tumultuous year of 1918 in Moscow. She was giving full range to her talents as an orator, and she made a key series of observations that are as true now as they were over a hundred years ago.

To make a just and peaceful world, not everyone should or needs to pick up the gun, throw the bomb, enter the fray with desperate daring. Daring sacrifice, a hero's death, the grand gesture--those things were easy. The revolution--a true revolution, not the Bolshevik one--would be determined by the slow aggregation of little, quieter behaviors that were collective but no less important than storied battles. The remarks were captured in the minutes of the First All Russian Congress of Anarchist Communists and went in part, according Atamansha:

"Looking at the way anarchists live their lives, I feel depressed at how many deficiencies there are in their work. What is the cause of this? A lack of talent? But that can't be[,] because you can't say there is no talent among the anarchists. But why then are anarchist organizations collapsing? Why, when anarchists followed where their consciences led them, did they not get those results they had hoped for? For this not to continue, the anarchists must clarify their mistakes.

"In their approach to their work, anarchists must not restrict themselves to the big stuff. Any kind of work is useful. To sacrifice oneself is easier than to work constantly, steadily, achieving definite goals. Such work demands great staying power and a lot of energy. Anarchists don't have enough of this staying power and energy and besides, they must be prepared to submit to comradely discipline and order...

"...The process of social revolution is continuing and the anarchists must be prepared for that moment when they must apply all their forces and then each one must carry out their own task, not holding anything back.

"But our work must be based on examples, for example, in Moscow itself we should create a whole network of vegetable gardens on a communist basis. This would be the best means of agitation among the people, people who in essence are natural anarchists." 

[Emphasis mine]

In the spirit of communal gardening, Marusya's deck plays some group hug elements. Cut a Deal gets her some extra cards and flavorfully references the bartering of goods in the previous section. Rites of Flourishing, Eladamri's Vineyard, and Veteran Explorer create a garden to be enjoyed by the whole table. Rousing of Souls and Alliance of Arms also give everyone some resources, but creating 1/1 tokens with Bess on the battlefield gives the greatest advantage to Marusya.

In the beginning of 1919 Marusya was seized by Bolshevik authorities.

(This was not the last time that Marusya stood trial under the Bolsheviks: in Moscow in 1919, the Bolsheviks arrested her. They were even nice enough to recycle some of the charges she'd been cleared of in Taganrog to see if they'd stick. Again, a leading Bolshevik, Antonov Ovseyenko, stood guarantor for her good behavior along with a notable Soviet anarchist Karelin. This time, Marusya, according to Malcolm Archibald, was only found guilty of: "discrediting Soviet power by her deeds and by the actions of her brigade in several instances; and of insubordination in relation to local Soviets in the sphere of military activities." She was not shot as she might well have been--certainly the Bolsheviks had shot people for much less--and was merely taken off the front line for a number of months, a limitation she ignored and stormed off to Ukraine as soon as she was able.)

A Plan to Change the Course of War: Three Attempted Assassinations (Summer 1919)

 She returned to Ukraine and found Nestor Makhno, by now a major power in Ukraine.5 Marusya had an idea to change the fortunes of the revolutionaries in the war. The Bolsheviks were purging anarchists left and right and worse, losing the war against the nobility and old military castes, the White Army. Something drastic had to be done, and fast. She took the direct approach: she went to Nestor Makhno and the armored train he kept money in, largely expropriated funds, and turned the meeting into a stickup, making her one of the few people to put a gun in Makhno's face and live. She said she needed quite a bit of money to change the tide of the war. Makhno drew his weapon, but ultimately relented and gave her the funds and told her to get out of his sight.

Marusya's very expensive plan to turn the war around for the revolutionaries was threefold and run by volunteers from Marusya's Druzhina and Makhno's Insurgent Revolutionary Army of the Ukraine (Makhnovist). It played to her strengths: decisive action and clarity of purpose. The plan had three different prongs and all were based around assassination:

  • One group was to go to Kharkiv and blow up the Bolshevik secret police (Cheka) headquarters there and liberate the anarchists held prisoner there, though not in that order. That group found that the Cheka had abandoned their base upon their arrival and murdered the anarchist prisoners, leading to this group of Marusya's to continue onto Moscow and combined with anarchist cells there. This group led a bombing of Bolshevik headquarters that killed around a dozen functionaries and wounded about 55 more, sadly missing Lenin. This group was then hunted down by the Cheka.
  • The second group, including Max Chernyak who would survive the war and ultimately end up in South America, was dispatched to assassinate the White Army general Kolchak in Siberia. The good general had been ousted by the time this group reached them, so the anarchists instead joined the protracted guerrilla war against the White Army and then the Red Army after that.
  • The last group, with Marusya and her husband (she did have a husband but it was mostly a marriage of convenience since they were often apart), went to Sevastapol to personally attend to the most dangerous threat: the White Army general Denikin. The plan was to blow up his headquarters and him with it.

This is where we get to the part of the deck that actually wins the game. Much like Marusya's plan, the typical goal of a Commander game is to kill three people. After making a board full of 1/1s and pumping them up with Bess's attack trigger, giving them trample ensures that they can get past blockers and close out the game. Craterhoof Behemoth is a staple for a reason. Kamahl, whether the Fist or Heart of Krosa, can grant the team trample while also providing additional 1/1 attackers. Overwhelming Stampede doubles up Bess's attack bonus, and Pathbreaker Ibex can do the same turn after turn.

Final Days and Legacy (August 1919)

In a life full of near-misses and daring escapes, it was a surprisingly mundane thing that got Marusya caught and executed. Walking down the street in Sevastapol, someone happened to recognize her face and that was enough to have her arrested, put on trial by the White Army, and shot in 1919.

The plan to blow up General Denikin's headquarters sadly didn't go forward. Makhno would go on to play a key role in Denikin's defeat that same year, but that's a matter for next article.

I'll let Malcolm Archibald address the legacy of Marusya, who even in death inspired respect and imitators in the Russian Civil War. Three woman took the name and mantle:

"The three Marusyas:

"Since Marusya had escaped death so many times, it was hard for people to believe she was really gone. Their disbelief created the possibility for false Marusyas to appear. There were at least three of these atamanshas active in the Civil War and they apparently made use of the terror evoked by Marusya's name:

"(1) Marusya Chernaya commanded a cavalry regiment in the Makhnovist Insurgent Army in 1920-1921. She was killed in battle against the Reds.

"(2) Marusya Sokolovskaia, a 25-year old Ukrainian nationalist school teacher, took over her brother's cavalry detachment after he was killed in battle in 1919. She was captured by the Reds and shot.

"(3) Marusya Kosova was an atamansha in the Tambov peasant revolt in 1921-1922. After the revolt was suppressed she disappeared from history."

Many creatures in Magic can inspire others to keep on fighting after their deaths. In this deck, these range from the humble Doomed Traveler and Tukatongue Thallid to the mighty Symbiotic Wurm and Torsten, Founder of Benalia. Marusya's opponents can defeat her creatures, but they'll often find themselves facing a new swarm of 1/1s to refill the board and pump up Bess. Great staying power, indeed.

Marusya Nikiforova's full decklist is below!

Not Restricted to the Big Stuff: Marusya Nikiforova's EDH Deck

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Commander (1)
Creatures (37)
Instants (9)
Sorceries (4)
Enchantments (11)
Lands (38)

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  1. A Slavic diminutive of her formal name that we will be using for the remainder of this article.
  2. It's worth noting that this attitude helped drive a lot of the tension between Marusya and fellow anarchist revolutionary Nestor Makhno. Makhno grew up in a neighboring town and also was a major figure in Ukrainian anarchism. Unlike Marusya, however, Nestor Makhno didn't view class as something inherent to a person's being, rather it was something determined by circumstance and generally was willing to help the former landed gentry form a part of the new anarchist society once their property was expropriated in the early days of the revolutions. Marusya's and Makhno's at-times rocky relationship would take up a whole article of its own, so we won't linger on it overmuch in this one, but they repeatedly clashed over tactics and philosophy while fighting the same foes.
  3. Makhno complains that the Left Bloc government of Alexandrovsk represented by Marusya wastefully put the heavy submachine guns at the front of the line even though they carried the day regardless.
  4. It is worth pointing out that all non-Bolsheviks absolutely loathed commissars, who were often in charge of "political discipline", crushing dissent and forcibly requisitioning food from the already long-suffering and starving peasant population during the course of the Revolution and Civil Wars. Broadly speaking, anarchist forces like the Makhnovists or Marusya's druzhina tended to spare and release captured conscripted troops, but officers and commissars were shot on the spot. This hatred of Bolshevik commissars was used during the Third Revolution of 1920-1921 as a rallying cry, with numerous peasant and anarchist forces using it as a slogan. The former Red Cavalry commander turned Makhnovist Maslakov wrote: "Comrades!...We do not go against the Soviet regime, but fight for it...We do not go against the Communist comrades who are on the right path and are workers...but against the Communist commissars. We gave a word of honour and vow not to abandon our weapons, but will destroy these vermin...Long live the free soviets, but such soviets to be properly chosen by the people rather than appointed from above. Down with all dictators, no matter who they were!"
  5. Estimates vary, but the most common figure for the population of the Free Territory of Ukraine under Makhno, as it is sometimes called, was around seven million people.

What Would They Play? is a collaboration between author Charlie Allison and game designer Dan Sibley. The series is part history lesson, part deck-building journal and aims to bring historical figures back to life through the lens of Magic: The Gathering. You can find Dan on Twitter at @VedalkenSamurai and Charlie on the web at www.charlie-allison.com and https://blog.pmpress.org/authors-artists-comrades/charlie-allison/.