Tricks of the Trade: Leadership Material 1

With the recent release of Magic’s 2015 core set, I thought I’d jump on the Internet’s band­wag­on good and hard to review the lat­est crop of poten­tial Commanders. For the unini­ti­at­ed, Commander (or EDH, for the purist) is a 100-card con­struct­ed for­mat which pulls from vir­tu­al­ly the entire back­log of Magic’s his­to­ry1 with an empha­sis on more social gam­ing than the usual tour­na­ment for­mats. It’s intend­ed to be played by a group rather than as 1v1 duels, and – offi­cial­ly at least – pri­ori­tis­es hav­ing fun over win­ning. Further infor­ma­tion on the for­mat can be found here.

Don’t be fooled, though. A Commander game can be as cut­throat as any GP final. The enlarged card pool allows for all kinds of insane combo decks and win con­di­tions, and play­ers still build with vic­to­ry in mind. The basic rules of the for­mat are that decks must con­tain 100 and only 100 cards, all of which (basic lands aside) must be indi­vid­ual copies – no dupli­ca­tion! Chief among those 100 cards is the Commander, or General; a Legendary crea­ture who metaphor­i­cal­ly leads your army to vic­to­ry.

As 2015 is a core set, and very light on multi-coloured crea­tures, almost  all of the new leg­en­daries we’ll be look­ing at today are mono-coloured and thus will only be usable as Commanders in sin­gle colour decks. Naturally this will impact how use­ful they can be, though a well-built sin­gle colour deck can still be high­ly effec­tive. Some day soon I intend to write up a piece on my mono-red gob­lin trib­al deck, which despite its defi­cien­cies is still great fun to play.

With that out of the way, let’s move on to the Generals!

Avacyn, Guardian Angel


Five mana for a 5/4 flier isn’t awful. As a beat­stick Avacyn is per­fect­ly ser­vice­able, espe­cial­ly with the added bonus of vig­i­lance. The first abil­i­ty isn’t too bad either – if you have an essen­tial combo piece on the board and some­one drops a burn spell on it, spend­ing two mana to save it is a fair trade. Doesn’t help against your gar­den vari­ety mur­der spells though – Murder, Hero’s Downfall, Crosis ‘s Charm – because those sim­ply destroy while Avacyn’s abil­i­ty spec­i­fies dam­age, and in all hon­esty you’re more like­ly to see a straight mur­der card than a burn in Commander. It’s a sit­u­a­tion­al­ly use­ful abil­i­ty, but in a sit­u­a­tion that won’t often arise in the for­mat.

That sec­ond abil­i­ty, though. That’s just ter­ri­ble. It’s over-costed (7 mana for a Fog effect which only pro­tects against one colour?) for what it does, espe­cial­ly given that white already rocks options to pre­vent dam­age in much more effec­tive ways – Palisade Giant + Gift of Immortality for instance – and it’s real­ly only going to be use­ful when you’re already los­ing. Even then it doesn’t turn the tables or give you a chance at vic­to­ry, it just post­pones defeat for a sin­gle turn. Picture the scene; you’re on the back foot, with the weak­est board pres­ence and a dwin­dling life total, and the play­er to your left takes a mighty swing at you. You tap out for 7 mana and acti­vate Avacyn’s abil­i­ty, pre­vent­ing all (the­o­ret­i­cal­ly – this exam­ple assumes your oppo­nents are all play­ing mono decks, but if they have more than one colour on the board you just have to choose your poi­son) the dam­age. They pass the turn to the next play­er, who fol­lows suit and swings at you again, except this time you’re tapped out and can’t acti­vate Avacyn’s abil­i­ty. Goodnight sweet­heart.

I can’t even envis­age  a deck build that wants her as Commander, which is unusu­al for me as I like to say that there is very near­ly no such thing as a use­less Magic card: every­thing is exploitable if you look at it the right way. However, white already has a pletho­ra of cheap­er ways to pre­vent or negate dam­age, and there’s no short­age of fly­ing beat­ers either. Avacyn doesn’t real­ly bring any­thing new to the table, and even the redun­dan­cy of effect she pro­vides is too expen­sive to be use­ful.

From a Commander per­spec­tive, for my money Avacyn is the worst of the 2015 bunch. As one of the 99 sup­port­ing cards, I still don’t think I’d play her, not when there are options like Acolyte’s Reward, Dawn Charm or Divine Deflection which all cost less and do more to help you win the game.


Jalira, Master Polymorphist

Alright, now we’re cook­ing! 4 CMC  for a repeat­able  3 CMC tutor? Yes please. The 2/2 body is a lit­tle frag­ile given the hate she’ll be draw­ing from other play­ers, but there are ways around that. You’ll be play­ing mono-blue, so if you don’t have any­thing to counter their mur­der attempts then you’re doing it wrong.

Granted, Jalira isn’t quite a tutor in the tech­ni­cal sense; instead of search­ing for a spe­cif­ic card she sends you dig­ging for any crea­ture that fits her para­me­ters, in this case a non-legendary. That may sound restric­tive at first glance, but we’re talk­ing about a blue deck here, and any blue play­er worth their salt will already have thought of 20 dif­fer­ent ways to abuse that. I’ve seen a sim­i­lar dig-until-you-hit-a-creature trick used in a deck that only ran a sin­gle crea­ture – the blue mage in ques­tion threw the bulk of his library into the grave­yard, but the end result was drop­ping a Blightsteel Colossus onto a board that was woe­ful­ly unpre­pared to han­dle it.


A giant, inde­struc­tible “fuck you” to every­one else at the table

The sac­ri­fice require­ment could poten­tial­ly be prob­lem­at­ic, but Jalira’s word­ing encour­ages the use of other leg­endary blue crea­tures which won’t inter­fere with her tutor­ing. Someone like Talrand, Sky Summoner will eas­i­ly be mak­ing enough tokens to pro­vide sac fod­der for as many dig attempts as it takes to pull ol’ Blighty. Master of Waves, Chasm Skulker or any other crea­ture which brings along a horde of pals, will be wel­come at the party.

Jalira is cer­tain­ly a build-around-me Commander, but unlike Avacyn she does enable some very funky shenani­gans. Three mana and a token crea­ture to sneak Blightsteel, Scourge of Fleets or Stormtide Leviathan into play is great value, as is the fact that the unused cards return to the bot­tom of the library rather than going to the grave­yard. I real­ly like this card, pos­si­bly because I’m a suck­er for throw­ing an unex­pect­ed span­ner in my oppo­nents’ works, and I think it’s one of the best Commanders to come out of the set. It cer­tain­ly fits blue’s char­ac­ter very well, the sneaky bas­tards.


Kurkesh, Onakke Ancient

Why? Why are you red, Kurkesh? You’d fit so well in my Sharuum, the Hegemon deck. A Strionic Resonator on legs for acti­vat­ed abil­i­ties, which pops at only  1R and can be repeat­ed­ly used each turn (cre­at­ing great poten­tial with, say, Voltaic Key and Gilded Lotus) would make so many friends in that deck.

From a less self­ish per­spec­tive, it’s an inter­est­ing colour choice and I can see why peo­ple are excit­ed about the poten­tial for more options in red – wide­ly seen as the weak­est colour in Commander – but I’m just not get­ting it. A red deck doesn’t run a lot of arti­facts. A red deck blows up arti­facts. Artifacts are for those namby-pamby blue play­ers who like to take their time and devel­op com­plex strate­gies; a red deck would rather kick down the door and start throw­ing punch­es.

Kurkesh would cer­tain­ly be a strong con­tender for one of my 99 if I were build­ing a multi-colour deck that heav­i­ly fea­tured arti­facts, but it would still feel like I was splash­ing red just for his sake. A fun combo piece, but not what I’d call Commander poten­tial right now. He’s most­ly excit­ing for what he rep­re­sents; a future where red expands a lit­tle more into other colours’ design space, and maybe even becomes a force to be reck­oned with in the long-game EDH envi­ron­ment. I don’t have that much else to say about this one, sadly, because as much as I love me some arti­fact decks there just aren’t enough rea­sons to make them red.


Ob Nixilis, Unshackled

Hoo boy, Ob. You’re an enig­ma. A decent body, not whol­ly unrea­son­able mana cost, some eva­sion and even tram­ple. As a crea­ture, I think I like you. Dat abil­i­ty, tho.

Tutoring”, the prac­tice of dig­ging through one’s library for a spe­cif­ic card – as we’ve seen with Jalira’s entry – is a very pop­u­lar tool in Commander. With a larg­er library and no dupli­cat­ed spells, prac­ti­cal­ly every deck that can will include a way to find exact­ly what they need, when they need it. It’s some­thing I waver about in my own decks, not entire­ly approv­ing of it yet still includ­ing tutor cards, but that’s a topic for anoth­er day. Ob def­i­nite­ly does not approve, how­ev­er, and is will­ing to hand out harsh pun­ish­ment to any oppo­nent (key word there being “oppo­nent”; Ob is some­thing of a hyp­ocrite, because he doesn’t give a damn about his con­trol­ling play­er going dig­ging for answers) who tries it.

That alone is pow­er­ful enough – lose ten life andsac­ri­fice a crea­ture? That’s enough to give any play­er pause for thought – but Ob goes above and beyond, with his first abil­i­ty feed­ing direct­ly into his sec­ond. Any play­er who goes into the library, whether they’re sim­ply unearthing lands with Dreamscape Artist, find­ing crea­tures with Mwonvuli Beast Tracker or search­ing out combo pieces with Planar Portal, is going to get dinged for a quar­ter of their start­ing life and be forced to kill off one of their own crea­tures. Whenever they do, Ob grows a lit­tle stronger, giv­ing him the poten­tial to become an enor­mous fly­ing, tram­pling Commander and win­ning the game with a deci­sive strike.

There’s a lot of poten­tial for an all-black sac-and-back deck2 in Ob. Consistently mak­ing him stronger while restrict­ing your oppo­nents’ options is a very, very black way to play. He could be a real star in combo decks that don’t mind hurt­ing them­selves a lit­tle to get ahead. For instance:

Ob hits the board, and oppo­nents don’t want to tutor. Then Maralen drops, and oppo­nents have to tutor, which costs them a 13-point life loss (as well as 3 to us on our upkeep, but we don’t mind, because that’s how black rolls) and a crea­ture, but gets them a card they sore­ly need. Then we throw down Thoughtseize (though the sor­cery speed is a lit­tle restric­tive in this case, it’s one of the best single-card dis­card options in the for­mat) or one of the var­i­ous other forced dis­card options, and that essen­tial card they just paid 13 life to draw goes right to the grave­yard. Cue tears of frus­tra­tion.

For those who just want to power up Ob, there are plen­ty of poten­tial shenani­gans with Butcher or Gatekeeper of Malakir, Blood Artist, Falkenrath Noble,  Abhorrent Overlord, Dictate of Erebos and so forth. With a deck ded­i­cat­ed to sac­ri­fice it shouldn’t be hard to beef up our demon­ic pal and beat oppo­nents down with him. So far, so good, right?

Well, not so fast, my fel­low power-hungry black mages. In the right kind of deck, Ob Nixilis could be very pow­er­ful. Given enough trac­tion and a lucky draw, an Ob deck could dom­i­nate right from the start by keep­ing an opponent’s best cards in their library and pulling tricks to keep them sac­ri­fic­ing their crea­tures. All of that sneaky, under­hand behav­iour is going to achieve two things; it will prob­a­bly win you the first game you try it in, and there­after it is going to paint an enor­mous tar­get on your back that will have play­ers rac­ing to take you down. Nobody likes to feel as if anoth­er play­er has them locked into a sit­u­a­tion where what­ev­er move they make is the wrong one. As an addi­tion­al down­side, you know that any­one who decides to take the dam­age and tutor while Ob is on the board is most like­ly look­ing for a way to kill or crip­ple you as soon as pos­si­ble, and if you don’t have a way of forc­ing them to dis­card that card you’ll just have to wait for the other shoe to drop.

Make no mis­take, I will be build­ing an Ob Nixilis deck (though part­ly because I’ve always want­ed to find a way to make Maralen of the Mornsong use­ful), I just don’t expect to have many friends left after­wards.


Yisan, the Wanderer Bard

What’s with the tutor theme in this set of leg­en­daries? We have two Commanders who dig for crea­tures and one who pun­ish­es dig­ging, with two who ignore it entire­ly. It feels like an abort­ed attempt at a cycle to me.

Similar though they may super­fi­cial­ly seem, Yisan is not Jalira. To start with he’s green, and one thing green doesn’t lack for is crea­ture tutor­ing. For anoth­er he’s much more straight­for­ward, lack­ing the crazy combo options Jalira can enable. For yet anoth­er thing he’s com­plete­ly lin­ear; the num­ber of coun­ters dic­tates the cost of the crea­ture we can search for, but there is no way to decrease the num­ber of coun­ters out­side of inter­ac­tions with other cards, so he will always be find­ing you a cost­lier beast­ie with every use. Admittedly that’s pret­ty in-character for green, which likes to ramp every­thing from mana to crea­tures, but it will like­ly present a prob­lem as play­ers hit the top end of their mana curve in a Yisan deck. As far as I can see the only way to go from hunt­ing 8 CMC crea­tures to hunt­ing 6 CMC ones is to get Yisan killed, bring him back and then set about build­ing back up from zero. It sounds time con­sum­ing, frus­trat­ing (espe­cial­ly given all the ways a cun­ning oppo­nent can kill him off on the long path from 0 to 6 verse coun­ters) and against green’s flavour; green always wants to get big­ger. It does not want to dip back down to tutor­ing weak crea­tures while it waits around for the big boys to show up.

My major issue with Yisan is how restrict­ed he is. His tutor­ing is pro­gres­sion­al, mean­ing we need to use him and keep him alive for 12 turns to pull out the Blightsteel Colussus that Jalira can grab so much quick­er. He doesn’t offer play­ers a lot of flex­i­bil­i­ty, which is bad for a card that gives the impres­sion of pro­vid­ing answers to spe­cif­ic sit­u­a­tions but more often than not will pro­vide a crea­ture which is, at best, “OK-ish” for the sit­u­a­tion at hand. More that that, he feels point­less in a colour that already presents so many cards which achieve the same thing with half the has­sle.

As a Commander, I just don’t see a place for him. That said I can pic­ture him being a con­tender for a spot in decks that can exploit his abil­i­ties, though most like­ly as a side­board card. My Vorel of the Hull Clade deck, which focus­es on putting  var­i­ous types of coun­ters onto crea­tures through cards like Doubling Season and Inexorable Tide, would find him pret­ty use­ful if I can man­age his coun­ters prop­er­ly. It would still be a bug­ger though, as the num­ber of verse coun­ters would have to be care­ful­ly cal­cu­lat­ed each time I used Yisan’s abil­i­ty, and once he’d gone over the top of my mana curve (remem­ber, his abil­i­ty search­es for crea­tures whose CMC is equal to his num­ber of verse coun­ters, not “equal to or less than”, which would make him a much more use­ful card but prob­a­bly pow­er­ful enough to drop him straight onto the ban­list) he’d just be dead weight clog­ging up the board. All told, I’d rather play Momir Vig and get con­tin­u­ous value as well as my choice of crea­ture regard­less of cast­ing cost.

Sorry Yisan, but you won’t be mak­ing it into my decks. You’re bard.3


Sliver Hivelord

Last among the leg­en­daries for M15 (leg­endary crea­tures, at least — the leg­endary Chain Veil  final­ly makes an appear­ance, pro­vid­ing some seri­ous heft to a Planeswalker-dominated deck struc­ture) is Sliver Hivelord. Last but not least, despite the strong feel­ings a lot of play­ers have towards the sliv­er tribe. While I’m not as enraged as some about Slivers I do think the joke has worn pret­ty thin, as the sliv­er gim­mick of one giv­ing abil­i­ties to all the oth­ers has got­ten seri­ous­ly out of hand. Prior to the advent of the Hivelord as a Commander, a deck filled with var­i­ous sliv­ers could already poten­tial­ly grant every crea­ture it plays Trample, Haste, Double Strike, Lifelink, Flying, Vigilance and could be unblock­able by the vast major­i­ty of crea­tures. They can play pre­tend as Banisher Priests/Oblivion Rings or act as mana dorks if required. They have whole stacks of sliv­ers  to pro­vide power/toughness buffs to other sliv­ers, they can turn them­selves into Acidic Slime, they can draw cards, be cast at instant speed, become immune to coun­ter­spells or become a milling engine.

And now they can add Indestructible to the list. Thanks, Sliver Hivelord!

Seriously, Wizards? Someone in your R&D Department (or many peo­ple, as is the impres­sion given by Mark Rosewater’s blog, which makes it much more depress­ing) looked over the var­i­ous tribes of Magic and appar­ent­ly decid­ed that the one thing the game need­ed was not only a return of the Mary Sue brigade but that said Mary Sue tribe need­ed to be immune to the major­i­ty of board wipes, burn spells and var­i­ous other ways to remove incon­ve­nient obsta­cles? At this point it’s kind of a “fuck you” to all of the other trib­al decks.

Slivers: the liv­ing embod­i­ment of “any­thing you can do, I can do bet­ter.”

OK. Rant over, on to the point. Is Sliver Hivelord a good pick for Commander? Yes. Five mana for an inde­struc­tible 5/5? You could win games by stack­ing your deck with noth­ing but lands and board wipes, then grind your way to vic­to­ry with 5 points of Commander dam­age each turn. Or you could just do what Wizards seem to want and build a deck entire­ly out of sliv­ers, mak­ing every one of them a nigh-unstoppable mur­der machine pos­sessed of every abil­i­ty under the sun. Either way, if vic­to­ry is your goal then there’s no rea­son not to run Sliver Hivelord. I can’t imag­ine that it would be very sat­is­fy­ing, how­ev­er.

Winning with a sweet combo is a great feel­ing, part­ly because you man­aged to pull it off against the odds and part­ly because it was your own idea put into prac­tice. You’ve con­ceived the deck, built the deck and final­ly won with the deck in a cool way that caught your oppo­nents off guard. Cards like Sliver Hivelord take the art out of deck­build­ing. A pre­ten­tious gripe, sure, but if build­ing a per­fect deck is like paint­ing a mas­ter­piece then build­ing a five-colour sliv­er deck must be like fill­ing out a paint-by-numbers book. Then watch­ing it sell for mil­lions. I wouldn’t even call what sliv­ers have syn­er­gy, because to me syn­er­gy has always been about look­ing for cards that work well togeth­er, where­as sliv­ers are more like one hor­ri­bly over­pow­ered card split into a hun­dred pieces. There’s no process of dis­cov­ery, of exper­i­men­ta­tion – just instruc­tions as if you were putting togeth­er flat-pack fur­ni­ture. Sliver decks are the IKEA of Magic. So sure, if you want to play Sliver Hivelord, you go ahead. Crush your ene­mies into dust beneath your jew­elled san­dals. Just don’t get too cocky about it – it’s not like you had to work very hard.

That con­cludes today’s cov­er­age, chil­dren. If you have any thoughts please feel free to drop them in the com­ments box, and if you enjoyed today’s read­ing speak up and I might even go on to cover the wider M15 set, at least as it per­tains to Commander. Have fun out there!

  1. There is in fact a ban­list for Commander, but it is not offi­cial­ly endorsed and, as the for­mat is intend­ed to be more social and less restric­tive than Standard or other for­mats local groups or metagames are encour­aged to make their own deci­sions about whether a cer­tain card is playable. []
  2. A pet name for one of black’s sig­na­ture styles; there are a pletho­ra of cards which allow a black mage to sac­ri­fice their own crea­tures to gain some advan­tage, and an equal­ly huge num­ber of cards which will return those crea­tures from the grave­yard to the bat­tle­field or to hand. Put the two togeth­er and you’ve got The Deck That Just Won’t Die! []
  3. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. []

Tom Dawson

About Tom Dawson

Tom Dawson is, in no particular order; a two-time Olympic bronze medallist (synchronised swimming), ancestrally Atlantean, a compulsive liar, the Green Lantern of space sector 2814 and the inventor of the cordless drill. His fondest wish is that someday he’ll get paid for writing stuff like this.

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