What Would They Play? Shajar Al-Durr's EDH Deck

What Would They Play? • March 14, 2023

From the 1935 Egyptian Movie "Shajar Al-Durr"

Welcome to What Would They Play?

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 (and footnotes!) at the end of the article for that!

Let us begin!

Who Was Shajar al-Durr?

Throughout her life, Shajar al-Durr (b.1220s-1257) was many things: slave1 and sultan, mother and politician, architect and assassin.

She rose in the world as the concubine, and then wife, of As-Salih Ayyub, the second-to-last ruler of the Kurdish Ayyubid dynasty initially founded by Saladin, and she was briefly the mother to their child (this will be important later, trust me). Shajar al-Durr was a skilled politician, administrator, and the first woman in the Islamic world to gain the official title of sultan (sometimes rendered as sultana). You can see her legacy in history books, but also in the architecture (a major marker of a ruler's priorities, legacy, and political power in the Islamic world) of Cairo to this day.

Mausoleum of Shajar al-Durr DSCF2771.jpg
The Mausoleum of Shajar al-Durr in Cairo

Shajar al-Durr's rise from obscurity to the throne is reflected in her choice of commander, Jared Carthalion, True Heir. Just as Jared can't directly make his controller become the monarch, Shajar al-Durr began her life far from any royal court. It was only through her intelligence, ruthlessness, and a few convenient deaths that she rose to bear the title of sultan.

From the Qipchak Steppe to the Ayyubids (1220-1239)

We don't know much for sure about the exact origins of Shajar Al-Durr (that name is Arabic for 'Tree of Pearls', and it certainly wasn't the name she was born). However, we do know that she came from the Qipchak Turkic tribes near the Black Sea and likely was a refugee from the rapid expansion of the Mongol Empire.

Then, as now, empires are preceded by waves of refugees fleeing them. Sometimes, the results of this are quite unexpected.

In Mongols and Mamluks: the Mamluk Ilkhanid War 1260-1281 by Reuven Amitai Preiss:

"Mamluk society was a continually replicating one generation military aristocracy, that is, the sons of mamluks could not become mamluks...It was the last important Ayyubid sultan in Egypt, al-Sālih Ayyub, who unwittingly laid the foundations of the Mamluk Sultanate. Distrustful of his non-Mamluk troops and taking advantage of the flooded slave-markets, an indirect result of the Mongol invasions of southern Russia, he founded the Bahriyya mamluk regiment. This unit, numbering 800-1000 men, was to save the day against the Franks at the battle of al-Mansura in 1250. They were the driving force behind the ending of the Ayyubid regime and the establishment of the Mamluk sultanate..."

Shajar al-Durr was bought by As-Salih Ayyub in the Levant; she later married and had a son, Khalil, by him, who would have been an heir to the sultanate except he didn't live longer than three months. The fact that Shajar al-Durr had given birth to a son--even though the son didn't survive--would be a key factor in later establishing her legitimacy as sultan nearly a decade later.

1249: The Death of As-Salih, Trouble with Louis IX

In late 1249, As-Salih Ayyub died of a protracted sickness in the middle of a conflict with French king Louis IX during the 7th Crusade outside of Damietta. Louis really wanted to take Cairo and Damascus, two core Ayyubid cities, and he appeared to have the upper hand at the moment, especially as one of the Ayyubid commanders had inexplicably abandoned a strong defensive position without being ordered to.

So this is the worst possible time for As-Salih to die.

Shajar al-Durr and As-Salih's councilors were united in not wanting this bad news to get out and give Louis's forces a morale boost or, worse still, prompt their own troops to desert them, so they decided to pretend the sultan was not dead, but just ill. This wasn't without precedent in the Islamic world, but the amount of stagecraft and tact involved in selling it is remarkable. The plot included such elements as:

  • Shajar al-Durr still bringing in food to her (ex-alive) husband at regular times and not moving the body from the tent.
  • Lighting and extinguishing the candles at regular times to keep up appearances.
  • Finding a slave that was familiar enough with As-Salih's handwriting to convincingly forge orders to distant commanders without arousing suspicion that anything had changed.
  • Everyone keeping their mouths shut about the sultan dying.

The official Ayyubid line was that the sultan was still sick, but definitely not dead. This whole charade was an act to buy time, not a long-term strategy.

Though not officially sultan yet, this was Shajar al-Durr's first taste of royal power without As-Salih. Just as this deception helped her retain that power, cards like Protector of the Crown, Archon of Coronation, and Dawnglade Regent help Jared hold onto the monarchy in a Commander game. (Note also that Protector, along with Palace Jailer and Palace Sentinels, has two power; this will be important later.)

Reluctantly, the heir apparent of Salih, the ever-fractious Turanshah, was sent for in order to take control over the Ayyubids. This was a desperate move: Turanshah was a dangerously unstable and manic fellow by all accounts that have survived to present day. Nevertheless, Shajar al-Durr, the councilors, and the few Ayyubid military leaders pinched their noses and sent for Turanshah in secret.

Oh good, it's the new sultan, Turanshah! (February 1250)

The Ayyubids played three months of cat-and-mouse with the French until, in early 1250, Turanshah the unlikable showed up.

Don't worry, he gets worse!

By this point, it's clear that As-Salih is definitely dead, but that's okay, because Turanshah is the new sultan now! I'm sure he'll follow his father, As-Salih's, advice to him, as recorded in his will2 which read (in part):

"Oh my son! I recommend Umm Khalil [Mother of Khalil, i.e. Shajar al-Durr] to you. She was my regent and has rendered such services which I don't know how to describe," As-Salih is said to have written, recommending that Shajar al-Durr stay on at the highest levels of government and diplomacy, before ending the text with: "...Do not deviate from her counsel or example. Such is my advice to you: do not disobey me on any account. You are to serve her as you would me. Have respect for her as you do for me..."

Turanshah was not the sort of guy to follow directions.

Or think things through.

He spent every moment of every day antagonizing--to hear the sources tell it--the very people he needed to stay in power. Turanshah constantly belittled, abused, and mistreated his father's old advisors, soldiers, and political staff. He kicked the Bahriyya Mamluks out of their high-ranks and promoted his own slave-soldiers.

In a telling incident, Turanshah once got plastered, took out a bunch of candles, gave them the names of those he considered political enemies (including the Bahriyya Mamluks) before swinging away at said candles with a sword in what must be the world's least subtle political threat.

The one good thing Turanshah ultimately did was crush the French in April of 1250, succeeding in capturing Louis IX3 and his nobles.

The final straw, right after this victory, came in early May when Turanshah wrote to Shajar al-Durr asking for her to cede the contents of the Ayyubid treasury to him and also please send him all of her jewels.

That tore it. It was clear that Turanshah was never going to stop this sort of domineering behavior; indeed, Shajar Al-Durr and the Bahriyya Mamluks had good reason to fear for their lives. Shajar al-Durr went to the Bahriyya, who as you remember had lost a lot of their prestige under Turanshah's new administration, perhaps appealing to their shared origins and former bond with As-Salih. They agreed Turanshah had indeed sassed them for the final time and he was assassinated by the Bahriyya Mamluks.4

This predilection towards assassination for political ends inspired two of the themes in Shajar al-Durr's Commander deck, namely deathtouch and poison. Attacking the monarch with a creature with deathtouch gives that player a tough choice between giving up a creature or ceding the crown. Infect offers a similar choice between permanently weakening the blocker or abdicating the throne. The same unblockability effects (which we'll discuss more later) that allow Shajar al-Durr to easily claim the monarchy can also clear the way for creatures with Toxic or Infect to get a poison win. Fynn, the Fangbearer and Ichorspit Basilisk bridge the two themes nicely, while Norn's Decree punishes any opponent who tries to claim the monarchy back from Shajar al-Durr.

Additionally, assassination can be represented by destroying tapped creatures. While Assassinate itself is obviously excluded for its color, white versions, like Expel and Swift Response, take its place as key spot removal in this deck.

Two major threats to the Ayyubids--one without (Louis and the French) and one within (Turanshah)--had swiftly been eliminated. The question was: now what?

All Hail Sultana Shajar al-Durr! (May 4, 1250)

Now was the time for Shajar al-Durr to shine! By unanimous decree of the remaining councilors, Shajar al-Durr became the first female sultan. She was elected for her competence, political acumen, and administrative skills. This is the first case of a female sultan in Islamic history; female regents weren't uncommon, but to be an out-and-out ruler was unprecedented. Sadly, ultimately this lack of precedent cost Shajar al-Durr dearly.

Dinar sheger ed durr.jpg
Dinar Coins minted with Shajar Al-Durr's name on them in the British Museum, courtesy of Wikipedia

As mother of Khalil--who had died before he was a year old--she technically had enough standing to take the position on a technicality in accepted Islamic law (even setting aside her decade-plus of diplomatic and administrative experience, naturally).

I'll let Fairchild Ruggles give an overview of Shajar Al-Durr's brief reign over the Ayyubids:

"Shajar al-Durr's Rule as legitimate sultan is confirmed by the invocation of her name in the khutba delivered weekly in the congregational mosques of Egypt, by the minting of coins bearing her name and titles, the signing of official decrees and by the swearing of oaths of loyalty to her. But as a woman, former slave and affine (related through marriage but not by blood) of the Ayyubid house, her position could not be anything but precarious. Although she was selected to lead the people of Egypt as sultan, she did not rule for long. The most significant action of her reign was to end the Crusader attack, thereby strengthening and stabilizing her government. The other important deed was the construction of a tomb for the deceased husband from whom she gained her authority."

Shajar al-Durr was the first sultan of the newly formed Mamluk Sultanate, though it was absolutely built on the remains of the old Ayyubid structures to start out. The remaining Crusaders were ransomed for a substantial profit back to their home country and everything seemed to be going as well as could be expected, given how much had changed and how fast. She immediately began work on her own mausoleum and one for her dead husband in Cairo, both of which are still standing today.

It is difficult to overstate how much status and power were expressed through constructing monuments, madrasas, and mausoleums in Ayyubid and Mamluk Egypt. Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubids, had been proverbial for his insistence on the creation of madrasas (colleges). Not to be outdone, Shajar al-Durr ordered the construction of her own mausoleum and a memorial one for As-Salih in Cairo, this last attached to a madrasa complex that had begun construction while he was still alive.

Minaret of al-Salih Ayyub's madrasa (western side or outer facade), courtesy of Wikipedia.

Both of these structures can still be seen and visited today, an experience not unlike venturing into a dungeon. Conveniently, taking the initiative is accomplished in much the same way as becoming the monarch, so introducing both to the game can lead to accumulating additional advantage through the same actions. White Plume Adventurer, Caves of Chaos Adventurer, and Undermountain Adventurer all offer strong rewards for completing a dungeon, and Ellywick Tumblestrum and Dungeon Map can help get there quicker.

All Hail the New Sultan: Aybak?! (July, 1250)

However, this didn't last. There was serious pushback against having a woman--let alone a former slave woman--stay sultan. A lot of the rumblings came from the Abassid dynasty based in Baghdad, an essential legitimating power for any new ruler in the regions. Some came from closer to home, like the city of Damascus, which refused to carry her newly minted coins, swear oaths of loyalty to her, invoke her name at the Khutba, etc.

This was a catastrophic loss, and the city switched sides to a regional rival of the Ayyubids, worsening the blow. Shajar al-Durr, always a canny politician and knowing when to fold her cards, abdicated from the throne. She regrouped with her councilors: they would need a new sultan and fast, preferably a reasonably competent military leader but with very few ideas of his own in regards to ruling policies. A dupe, a pretty face, a disposable person who could be given the ol' heave-ho if necessary. But what rube would be silly enough to sign up for that?

And that is how Izz-al-Din Aybak, a member of the Bahriyya Mamluks, became sultan.

It was really more of a title than anything; the sources make it clear that Shajar al-Durr absolutely called the shots. She promptly married Aybak and continued to wield outsized political, economic, and other forms of power until her death. All the sources agree that Aybak needed Shajar al-Durr to functionally run the new Mamluk government and that "he couldn't do anything without her [say so]". This marriage of convenience has a small but subtle place in Shajar al-Durr's deck with Love Song of Night and Day, Tenuous Truce, and, appropriately, Wedding Ring. All three allow her to designate an ally in the game, sharing resources for mutual advantage. Love Song's Bird token is also handy for reclaiming the monarchy and/or initiative if they are taken away.

How quickly and smoothly this switch in leadership was enacted shows that it wasn't that Shajar al-Durr's actual policies or maneuverings were controversial or anything; it was because she declared herself sultan that other major powers opposed her. Once she was the power behind the throne, the objections--at least to her specifically--dried up and the Mamluk dynasty was able to relatively stabilize.

Power Behind the Throne: (1250-1257)

The politics and shifting alliances of 13th century Egypt, Palestine, and Syria are far too complicated to get into in an article as short as this. Seven very stressful, very eventful years passed in this manner. Things changed: the Bahriyya Mamluks, a key part of Shajar Al-Durr's support, were driven out of Cairo and into the Levant in 1254. Shajar al-Durr held on, though, and largely was able to retain most of her behind-the-scenes power while limiting Aybak's influence to strictly military matters.

The subtlety of being the power behind the throne is represented by granting unblockability, which also unites the monarch, initiative, and poison themes of the deck. Since red typically can only make creatures with power 2 or less unblockable, Shajar al-Durr has put preference on small creatures wherever possible in her deck. Goblin Smuggler and Pathmaker Initiate can make a single target unblockable to reclaim the monarchy or initiative. while Subira, Tulzidi Caravanner and Break Through the Line can help a whole army sneak through for a poison win.

The thing that pushed tensions over the edge was Aybak searching for a new, more politically advantageous wife to replace Shajar al-Durr. She was furious and had Aybak assassinated in his bath after a game of polo.5 Sadly, while this assassination removed one problem, it also undid her, since the new sultan, the fifteen-year-old son of Aybak, wasn't too pleased. He removed Shajar al-Durr's bodyguards and sent her to a tower, where she was assassinated some short time later.

So ended the colorful life of Shajar al-Durr: master politician, patron of the arts and architecture, and the first ruler of the Mamluk Sultanate. Her full decklist is below!

Shajar al-Durr's Unblockable Rise to Power

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Commander (1)
Enchantments (11)
Artifacts (4)
Planeswalkers (3)
Sorceries (1)
Creatures (37)
Instants (5)
Lands (38)

Buy this decklist from Card Kingdom
Buy this decklist from TCGplayer

Sources: (I also heartily recommend Ann Broadbridge's work on steppe women and empire)

Ruggles, D. Fairchild Tree of Pearls: The Extraordinary Architectural Patronage of the 13th Century Slave-Queen Shajar Al-Durr

Irwin, Robert The Middle East in the Middle Ages: The Early Mamluk Sultanate, 1250-1382

Shiab Al-Din Al-Nuwayri, The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition

De Nicola, Bruno Women in Mongol Iran: The Khatuns, 1206-1335

De Joinville, Jean The Life of Saint Louis

Amitai-Preiss, Reuven Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1260-1281

Wolf, Olivia The Pen Has Extolled Her Virtues: Gender and Power within the Visual Legacy of Shajar al-Durr in Cairo

  1. To quote historian Fairchild Ruggles in their work on Shajar al-Durr about what we mean when we say 'slave' in this context: "The institution of slavery was never benevolent or fair in any part of the world at any moment in history. But unlike slavery in the west, where the institution was tied to large scale agricultural labor and concepts of racial superiority, slavery in Islam did not divide society along racial or ethnic lines but instead offered multiple opportunities for social integrations as mawlas [freed slave] and concubine-mothers. The result was a a society that was highly porous, allowing non-Muslims and foreigners to become integrated and invested in Islamic society, many of them eventually converting to the faith."
  2. Fairchild Ruggles points out that this will may either be legitimate, the result of a dedicated forgery by a slave who could reasonably have anticipated As-Salih's wishes post mortem, or an exculpatory document meant to redeem key Mamluk military leaders and further emphasize just how bad Turanshah was. Ruggles notes: "We cannot know for sure if Salih himself composed the letter, but regardless it is as illuminating as any other document written about people and events from the point of view of their own time. It reveals the anxiety felt as Turanshah's arrival was anticipated..."
  3. According to Jean de Joinville's account of Louis's time in the Crusade, shortly before his capture the French king was suffering from a particularly bad case of dysentery; "...his dysentery was so bad that it was necessary, so often was he obliged to go to the latrine, to cut away the lower part of his drawers." So, that's an image that won't leave my head; thanks, Jean de Joinville. Scatological humor/horror truly is a staple of history.
  4. It is interesting to note that the assassination was not especially well planned or executed: Fairchild Ruggles uses this somewhat slapdash organization of the killing to argue that "...the perpetrators were driven to an acute spontaneous rage by Turanshah's behavior...". The person who killed Turanshah, Baybars, at first only succeeded in wounding Turanshah on the hand. Turanshah fled to a tower by the river and barricaded the doors. The rest of the Bahriyya Mamluks showed up and surrounded the tower. To break the stalemate, the Bahriyya Mamluks promised Turanshah safe passage out of the tower in exchange for amnesty. Turanshah accepted and left the tower, only to find a still very pissed off Baybars waiting for him with a sword. A short chase ensued, which ended when Baybar's aim improved and Turanshah was killed.
  5. Before it was a sport for upperclass snobs, polo was used for training horse-archers and heavy cavalry.

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/.