Commander 2014 is one hell of a set. Planeswalker Commanders (Commandwalkers seems to have entered the public lexicon as the standard shorthand, though I’m still lobbying for Walkommanders) are a fresh twist, the mono-coloured nature of the decks prove both a nice change of pace from previous sets and grant more options to the deckbuilder – a mono card scavenged from a preconstructed deck can be slotted into far more potential builds than a tri-colour – as well as finally providing monored players with some great new Commanders.
My only pre-order was the black deck, largely because I just bloody love black, but also because I currently run a monoblack deck helmed by Ob Nixilis, Unshackled which definitely wants a chance to play with some of Commander 2014’s new toys. While I secretly covet all the shiny new decks, money is a little tight at the moment and so I resigned myself to just sighing deeply whenever I passed a gaming shop. Luckily (very, very luckily) for me, I have an awesome girlfriend who decided to surprise me with a copy of every deck, putting herself firmly into the black on the Brownie Point Scale1 for at least, oooh, twelve years? With all of these wonderful new toys to play with, it seemed only natural to write up a set review for my adoring audience, which – by complete coincidence, naturally – required us to play the living daylights out of all the decks. The things I do for you people.
Straying from the usual format you’ll find elsewhere on the web, I won’t (yet) be presenting a card-by-card breakdown of the new goodies; instead I thought it would be more fun, and more useful to any prospective players who’re on the fence about picking up one of the decks, to talk about the Commanders both new and re-printed with regards to how they perform out-of-the-box. That means no tinkering with decklists, no gutting the decks to shuffle value cards into my personal lists and no comparing the cards to potentially superior candidates for their slot. This will be a review of the pure product, not the street stuff cut with washing powder or Hellkite Tyrant for a little extra kick. Want to know how Built From Scratch works with Feldon instead of Daretti? I’m your man. Need to find out if green’s elf tribal theme makes Ezuri a better general than Freyalise? Read on, my pointy-eared friend. Before we begin, a point of clarification: most of these Commanders have been tested only in 1v1 duel conditions, since the whole “nonstop caring for a helpless tiny human” issue makes it difficult to gather large groups for multiplayer games. Where I’ve been unable to trial a Commander in multiplayer, as it was meant to be used, I’ll still be applying a rating to the card with the caveat that the review is based on my experience and suppositions rather than actual play time.
In order to appease our editor-in-chief’s personal preferences2, the first deck on our list for today is the Teferi-helmed Peer Through Time, a solid “goodstuff” build for blue packed with precisely what you’d expect; tons of card draw, more mana rocks than you can shake a Thornbite Staff at, and some heavy tap-and-bounce based control play. Also Reef Worm. Reef Worm is the coolest.
Duel rating: 4/10
Multiplayer rating: 2/10
Walkommander number one is a true-blue, through and through. High cost on a fragile body, he immediately brings the value when he hits the field by drawing cards or untapping permanents. At six mana he’s a hard-sell in the early game, though mitigated somewhat once his ‑1 ability untaps your Sol Ring, Thran Dynamo, Dreamstone Hedron and Coral Atoll. His +1 is essentially filtered card draw, giving you the choice of either of the top two cards from your library. It’s solid but not earthshattering. I’m not sure it’s all that useful in the build due to the huge number of ways to draw cards3, but if you’re having girl troubles I feel…no, hang on, if you’re having draw issues it’s always nice to get a little extra gas in hand. His ultimate is…meh. For a Superfriends4 deck it’s an absolute bomb, but in a deck that only features a single Planeswalker it kinda fizzles. It’ll allow you to draw an extra card on every other player’s turn or keep untapping mana prepared to drop a counterspell on someone’s Dreadbore, but for a monoblue deck Peer Through Time is surprisingly light on countermagic, running only Dismiss, Exclude and (kinda) Willbender so the need to keep mana open for opponents’ turns is greatly reduced. There are a few Morph creatures included in the deck, but none of them are particularly useful or exciting so personally I wouldn’t bother keeping the mana in reserve.
Given that his ultimate will take a massive eight turns to go off assuming he goes +1 every time (more likely nine turns since you don’t want to ‑10 Teferi to get an emblem he can’t use due to being back in the command zone), it’s not really worth the bother. There’s a school of thought amongst the Spikier blogs that in Commander, a Planeswalker should be evaluated on their first two or three abilities alone, as the ultimate is widely considered unreachable in a format where everyone packs plenty of removal. To that I say “Pah!”. Yes, “pah!”, social niceties be damned. This is Commander; it’s all about getting big and crazy. Aim high. Play a ‘walker just because you want to see the ultimate go off – it may only happen once every ten games, but when it does you’ll be the one laughing. In this case though, I have to agree with the conventional wisdom. Teferi’s ultimate isn’t worth shooting for when an extra card every turn isn’t going to leave us with many more cards than we’re already drawing thanks to the prodigious variety of draw effects in the deck. His untap ability is useful in duel but less so in multiplayer, where there are more opponents and we need to be more conservative about when we choose to Pongify or Cyclonic Rift. You can use it to throw out a big attack and then untap your guys to keep as blockers, but monoblue isn’t that into the all-out “alpha strike” attacking gameplay. As a Commander he doesn’t add a whole lot that the deck isn’t already doing outside of a little mana acceleration, and for that he’s being marked down to the lower reaches of the scale.
This big fella was a real surprise. On first reading the published decklists I’d written him off as just a big, expensive fattie with a repeatable (but also very expensive) Detain ability. And that’s pretty much what he is, with one important distinction; careful reading shows us that Lorthos – who I’m pretty sure made his first appearance as one of the Three Musketeers – is missing a very important word from his ability. There are plenty of creatures like Lavinia, who will allow us to tap down opponents’ creatures and artifacts. Any non-land permanent, really, which is just gravy. Where Lorthos differs is that his ability does not specify non-land permanents, which is a great big ol’ deal since detaining lands is functionally a lockout for the player unable to access their manabase. Given that Peer Through Time has got more rocks on show than Liz Taylor, it’s perfectly plausible to have the big guy come down on turn five or so and go swinging in for damage. Example:
- Turn one – Island, Sol Ring, Sky Diamond
- Turn two – Island, Thran Dynamo, Mind Stone
- Turn three – Island, Ur-Golem’s Eye, Swiftfoot Boots
- Turn four – Island, Lorthos, attaching the Boots for Haste/Hexproof
- Turn five – Island, attack with Lorthos, paying 8 to tap down all the opponent’s lands and mana rocks
- Turn six – Island, repeat until the game is won
It’s the kind of super-heavy control that opponents are often unable to counter. In testing my girlfriend and I have both used Lorthos as our Commander and every game has turned out similar to the example above; once the resources are locked down, players don’t have many options and the early-turn chump blockers are easy enough to either batter down or bounce back to the hand where they will languish, unable to be re-cast. Since the octodude himself is such a heavy hitter we don’t need to worry about populating our side of the board with additional attacking power, which frees us up to cycle through counters and combat tricks just in case our opponent manages to quickly ramp out enough extra mana to actually do something.
With a good opening hand Lorthos is a fast, heavy game ender. With a mediocre one he’ll take longer, but the end result is the same. As a 1vs1 Commander he’s the bees knees and the Kraken’s back…en…who will dominate play once he starts swinging. Unfortunately the very things that make him dominant in duel are what I think will make him weak in multiplayer. He’s a big guy, making him a prime target for the spot removal, the likelihood of which grows exponentially the more opponents there are at the table. His ability cost is high, meaning you’ll often be tapped out on the attack just to lock down a single opponent but leaving the others free to run rampant. Perhaps as a late-game strategy it’s viable, but once your opponents catch on to what you’re doing be prepared to face the wrath of everyone who isn’t enamoured of the idea of being stun-locked for the rest of the game.
Duel: 1/10 (tested, technically)
Multiplayer: 0/10 (untested)
I just do not like this card. It’s not the weak milling (two cards a turn? Whoop-de-doo, Tarantula Town!) or the symmetrical nature of the mill which in this deck generally results in your own value cards winding up exiled or in the graveyard. It’s not the unpredictable stats of the resulting zombie, if one even results at all. It’s not even the vanilla5 nature of the potential zombie, though that is certainly annoying. What really gets me is that when compared to his sister, one of the potential generals from the monoblack deck, he’s such a dud. The two have the capacity to make vanilla zombie tokens in decks that aren’t in a zombie tribal deck (ergo not many ways to buff said zombies into something more useful), but their inverted methods make one a viable leader and the other a frustrating flop. Where Gisa provides not just a sacrifice outlet — which is always useful for any deck looking to draw value from death/leaves-the-battlefield triggers — but also doubles your available attacking power by turning one zombie into two zombies, Geralf prefers to roll the dice and see what he can dredge up. Usually, it’s nothing very much, and even when it is the stats are contained in a single body. The general policy regarding vanilla creatures in Commander is that they’re worthless unless the total power is divided amongst a lot of creatures, a la token decks. A single creature, however large, is easily chump blocked if it doesn’t have Trample whereas the same amount of attacking power spread across ten smaller creatures gives a much better chance of actually landing some damage.
Geralf’s zombies might be big, but they’re easily removed or otherwise dealt with, and then you’re down two cards with nothing to show for it. The only reason he scored any points at all in duel is because the rest of Peer Through Time packs enough combat tricks/removal to let his zombies slip through to the red zone. In a multiplayer game, forget about it. In all honesty, most of the time he spent as my Commander he was just hanging out in the commander zone while the rest of the deck soldiered on without him, and it was all the more effective for it. He isn’t a very good mechanical fit for the deck, which lacks much in the way of recursion (not even Flashback!) for the non-creature cards dropped into your graveyard by his ability, and as flashy as an enormous beatstick might be it probably isn’t going to win you many games.
That’s it for the blue deck — join me next time when I’ll be talking about white’s Forged In Stone, the exciting equipment/token mash-up!
- Also worthy of a shout-out is my month-old son, who has been extremely accommodating by choosing to sleep through the majority of our Magic games. What a champ. [↩]
- The lady loves her some blue, apparently thinking it superior even to black. We must forgive her, though – what sort of world would it be if we all followed the One True Path of monoblack superiority? It would certainly put Reiver Demon out of a job. [↩]
- I count almost 20 non-Teferi ways to draw cards in Peer Through Time, so it’s unlikely you’ll ever be too desperate for draw. Three cheers for a Mulldrifter reprint! [↩]
- A deck archetype that’s usually five-colour, and host to every planeswalker you can jam into the thing, making for an awkward Brady Bunch situation as a gaggle of duelling wizards must learn to get along and survive with the Power Of Friendship. [↩]
- A term here meaning a plain, no-frills creature – one without keyworded abilities like Haste or Deathtouch, no special abilities, who can’t do anything besides attack or block. Essentially a waste of a card slot that could have been used for something that advanced your position a little rather than an unexciting beater. [↩]