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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
- 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. [↩]
- 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! [↩]
- I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. [↩]