This Battle Of The Blocks features a clash between Mirage block and multicolored favorite Shards of Alara block. My favorite part about writing these articles is digging into the older sets to find the impact they’ve had on the current Commander format.
After tumbling out of Wizards of the Coast seventeen years ago, Mirage block heralded a change in the direction of Magic as the first block in the silver age of Magic. Mirage block introduced the concept of the block structure with its three sets—Mirage, Visions and Weatherlight—coming together to tell the story of the Mirage war and the beginning of the Weatherlight saga. One of the greatest strengths in this competition for Mirage block is its unique African setting that implants the player into the world of Mirage block whenever they cast a spell from these sets. Mirage block won its last battle on the back of its strong flavor and amazing staples for the Commander format, and I expect these facets of the block to be its selling points in this skirmish.
Shards of Alara erupted onto the Commander scene, giving players an identifiable name and strategy for each allied tricolor pairing. The Commander format thrives on new legendary creatures to expand the flexibility players have in playing their favorite color pairings, and this block more than delivered. Shards of Alara Block brought some great tricolored generals to the format to replace the Invasion Dragons and expand the commander pool for these colors.
The release of Conflux and Alara Reborn took the tricolored start of the block and ramped it up to a five-color dominated set with the reintroduction of the domain mechanic and the start of the Maelstrom. While the shards of the plane of Alara slowly coalesced together in a storm of energy, players were treated to amazing five-color spells and some fantastic five-color generals. Shards of Alara comes off its bye into the competition as an amazingly strong set dedicated to multicolored cards and strong mechanics for the Commander format.
Before we dive into this match, let’s check out the bracket and discuss a new feature of these articles:
Zendikar moved past Invasion block last round in a highly contested matchup where the block with the greatest amount of unique effects survived to make it to the Top 8. The blocks in this article will be compared for their contribution to the Commander format in the standard five categories: Staples, Commanders, Strategies, Flavor, and The Bad.
When researching these articles I look at every single card in the block and pull aside those that have seen moderate to heavy play in Commander. A good example: in the Invasion vs. Zendikar matchup, I pulled 189 cards from Zendikar and 109 cards from Invasion. Sifting through all these spells turns up some great underplayed cards, and in the Staples section I’ll talk about a single card from each block that has been lost in the shuffle of Commander.
Five Notable Staples From Shards Of Alara Block
1) Path to Exile
2) Shards of Alara Tri Lands
3) Fleshbag Marauder
4) Martial Coup
5) Elspeth, Knight-Errant
Out of the 151 cards I pulled aside for Shards of Alara block, Path to Exile grabs the #1 spot in the Staples category. The strength of Path to Exile in this format comes from its efficient mana cost and the ability to break up graveyard-recursion shenanigans by exiling the offending creature. Both Elspeth, Knight-Errant and Martial Coup make Soldier tokens and are strong additions from Shards of Alara to the Commander format.
Elspeth, Knight-Errant helps multiple strategies in Commander; token decks love her +1 ability, aggressive decks thrive on the Angelic Blessing effect, and every deck can use some indestructible permanents. One of the only downsides to most sweeper effects is that the player who casts the Wrath of God is the last person to add creatures onto the cleared battlefield. Martial Coup gets around this small downside by spawning a swarm of Soldiers to the board in order to take advantage of the scoured battlefield and establish a dominating board position.
Five Notable Staples From Mirage Block
1) The One-Mana Tutors
2) Mind Stone
3) Rampant Growth
4) Abyssal Gatekeeper
5) Buried Alive
The one-mana tutors (Vampiric, Enlightened, Worldly, and Mystical) allow the 99-card decks of Commander to increase their consistency by grabbing the perfect card for any situation for the cheapest price possible. There is no doubt that these cards have had a defined impact on the format and are the strongest cards from the entire Mirage block.
Mind Stone and Rampant Growth grab the #2 and #3 spots by helping players ramp into their larger spells quickly. Mind Stone earns the slot over Rampant Growth due to its ability to be cycled away in the late game for a better card. In Commander the graveyard is never off limits, and Buried Alive is one of the best ways to put exactly what a player needs into the bin. My favorite suite of three creatures to put in the bin is Karmic Guide, Reveillark, and Saffi Eriksdotter with a Buried Alive, but the options are endless for this three-mana sorcery.
Cards To Consider
While looking through Shards of Alara block, a card that caught my eye was Minion Reflector. Minion Reflector’s ability doubles the impact of enters-the-battlefield effects and would be a great inclusion in decks like the Flicker orientated Roon of the Hidden Realms deck. Some other decks that should look into this underutilized artifact are Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice, who can proliferate and then keep the copied token, and sacrifice-based decks like Kresh the Bloodbraided or the new Shattergang Brothers, who can sacrifice the Minion Reflector token for value.
The card from Mirage block that seems overlooked for the Commander format is Withering Boon. Withering Boon is not only a black counterspell that will Shock opponents but also plays really well in a Mono-Black Reanimator shell like Chainer, Dementia Master to put creatures that are hard to deal with into the graveyard to Reanimate.
Verdict: These two blocks are extremely close when it comes to the power of the cards they brought to the Commander format. The determining factor for this section is that the cards from Shards of Alara block are suited to help with specific strategies rather than being the singularly strong cards that represent themselves from Mirage Block. Oddly enough, this is a section where the multicolored Shards of Alara hurts itself because the polychromatic spells from Shards block can’t fit in as many decks as the monocolored cards from Mirage block. Mirage block wins this section.
Shards of Alara smashes this section with some heavily played legendary creatures that are pillars of the Commander format. One of the most important things Shards of Alara did for the Commander format was put a face to dominant strategies in certain tricolored pairings. The powerful Sharuum the Hegemon solidified Esper as the premier artifact colors with its abusable artifact recursion ability and large body made for attacking in the air. The hardest part about playing against Sharuum the Hegemon is her recursion ability that can not only hit the normal artifacts like Sculpting Steel or Executioner’s Capsule but artifact creatures, turning Sharuum into a repeatable six-power Animate Dead from the command zone.
Rafiq of the Many is another pillar of the format from Shards of Alara because he showcases the power of the Voltron strategy in Commander. Voltron decks are builds that like in the classic animated TV show Voltron: Defender of the Universe stack a large amount of Auras and Equipment onto a single creature to create an unkillable death machine. Rafiq of the Many is one of the strongest Voltron decks because he already comes with double strike and can easily kill a player on turn 5 because he only needs to hit for 21 combat damage due to the commander-damage rule.
Mirage block cannot compare to the powerful legends in Shards of Alara block. The quirky commanders like Zuberi, Golden Feather and Spirit of the Night fail to impress and are quickly relegated to uninspiring tribal decks. Instead of bemoaning the commander offerings from Mirage block, I want to highlight a general that should see much more play than it currently does: Zirilan of the Claw.
Just like every new Magic player, Zirilan of the Claw loves Dragons, and this mono-red deck has some awesome synergies that make it both competitive and super fun. The three most important cards for this deck are Sundial of the Infinite, Tel-Jilad Stylus, and Conjurer’s Closet to keep the Dragon onslaught flowing by either exiling the trigger with Sundial, putting the Dragon back on the bottom with Stylus, or keeping the Dragon with Conjurer’s Closet. Zirilan of the Claw also has a similar endgame to Braids, Conjurer Adept and Kaalia of the Vast where the commander being exiled or killed isn’t the end of the battle because the deck is still filled with Dragons to cast on turn 6 onward.
Verdict: Mirage block doesn’t hold a candle to the power of Shards of Alara block’s legendary creatures and loses this round handily.
This section is where the themes of Shards of Alara block shine with each shard contributing to a strategy that is heavily played in Commander. The Esper shard solidified the presence of artifact decks in Commandeer with all-stars like Master Transmuter, Tezzeret the Seeker, Sanctum Gargoyle, and Sphinx Summoner. The Grixis shard not only brought out the Zombies in Death Baron and Lich Lord of Unx but the reanimation-assisting Corpse Connoisseur and the entire unearth mechanic that have been important facets of the Commander metagame.
Naya is Ken Nagle’s favorite shard because it brought the fatties with the token-spewing Mycoloth and amazing finisher Titanic Ultimatum. Bant bolstered Voltron strategies in its colors with Finest Hour and improved enchantment decks with Sovereigns of Lost Alara. Sacrifice-based decks received some help from the Jund shard with the amazing Dragon Broodmother, while Fleshbag Marauder from the Grixis shard is one of the lynchpins of a sacrifice-based strategy.
Mirage block doesn’t roll over here like it did in the Commanders section. The previously mentioned Buried Alive as well as Necromancy and Strands of Nights all help reanimation decks. Painful wheel decks, now popularized by Nekusar, the Mindrazer, find both Teferi’s Puzzle Box and Anvil of Bogardan in Mirage block to punish people who draw or discard cards. A great off-kilter strategy, the Donation driven Zedruu the Greathearted, grabs Steel Golem and Celestial Dawn to give away to unsuspecting opponents.
Verdict: Shards of Alara overwhelms the outmatched Mirage block in this category through its strategy-defining cards.
One of the most important parts of any block is the flavor it brings to the table. Mirage block’s unique African theme turns cards like Nekrataal from a simple value four-drop into an assassin with a poisoned blade ready to strike down those who oppose his master. The creators of Mirage block were flavor-text masters, with cards like Reparations, Null Rod, and Ray of Command all possessing amazing pieces of flavor text that turn the card into a flavor win. Even without flavor text, the shocking art on Necromancy is another flavor victory for Mirage block with the grisly depiction of a man being brought back to life painted beautifully by Pete Venters.
The flavor from Shards of Alara block resonates out of the shards themselves. A card like Corpse Connoisseur encapsulates the death-entwined Grixis shard by displaying a zombie who looks at corpses like my girlfriend looks at shoes. Necrogenesis does a great job in melding its creature-exiling mechanic with some great Trevor Claxton art to show the cycle of life and death in the shard of Jund as the bodies of a fallen Bant legion are slowly digested away by saprolings.
Cruel Ultimatum is a card bursting with flavor from its name. To the art depicting a struggling demon against the powerful shadow of Nicol Bolas to the haunting flavor text "there is always a greater power," this spell nails the flavor of Shards of Alara. The only downside to Shards of Alara block in this category is the implementation of five-color spells. Cards like Fusion Elemental tried to showcase a five-color theme but only succeeded in being cool abilities players can attain for extending their mana bases.
Verdict: The flavor in Shards of Alara and the cool cards from the maelstrom in Conflux are great flavorfully, but the five-colored spells from Alara Reborn and some from Conflux don’t impress in a flavor setting. Not enough of the cards from Shards of Alara block displayed the five-color flavor like on Obelisk of Alara; instead, most of these five-color creations feel like rewards for playing a difficult mana base like the previously mentioned Fusion Elemental. Mirage block wins the flavor section with cards that transport the player to a new setting that’s unique in Magic.
There is currently a heated discussion going on about whether the Commander format has been hurt by the profusion of tutors available in most colors. The argument is that tutors like Vampiric Tutor and Demonic Tutor go against the spirit of the format because they cause decks to become too consistent, eliminating the purpose of a 99-card singleton deck and the ability for each game to be special and unique. One of the core tenants of Commander is that each game plays out in a new and interesting way so that decks don’t become stale and game states don’t become boring.
The one-mana tutors from Mirage block spread powerful search abilities across four colors and remain strong parts of the Commander metagame because of their low cost both financially and in their mana cost. I love toolbox decks that use cards like Birthing Pod or Sunforger to create interesting game states and always have an answer for troubling situations, but unconditional tutors like Vampiric Tutor and Demonic Tutor can make playing against some decks unfun. A large density of unconditional tutors in a single deck bypasses the entire point of a 99-card singleton deck and should be left at two or three unconditional tutors in a deck in order to keep game states fun and fresh.
That being said, the large amount of tutors in Commander isn’t all Mirage block’s fault, and when looking at both of these blocks, nothing jumps out at me in this section. Some people still hate playing against Rafiq of the Many decks and others focus fire at Sharuum the Hegemon decks, but neither detracts from the format.
Verdict: Neither block wins this section since both are inoffensive to the Commander format.
The final 2-2 score in this battle doesn’t tell the full story because Mirage block was absolutely crushed in the Commanders section by the important legendary creatures from Shards of Alara block. That advantage is what truly decides this battle, with Shards of Alara outmatching Mirage block in its contributions to the Commander format.
Next week will feature a matchup I can’t wait to delve into, with Time Spiral block going toe to toe with the Spirit-fueled Kamigawa block!