Commander 1995: Alliances

Abe Sargent revisits one of the many formats he is developing to make a big decision about its progress! Read about how to shake up your Commander metagame in a big way!

Is your Commander game still fun but growing a bit stale? Are you looking for a bit of spice for your Magic night this week? A lot of folks have been
looking at Commander variants to scratch the proverbial itch, a simple way to shake things up.

Slightly more than a year ago, I introduced the Commander 95 variant. You may play with any card that was originally printed up through 1995 (that’s
through Homelands). It’s proved to be a much deeper and interesting format than I expected. I’ve written a few articles since then on C95 in order to
explore and develop its metagame with various decks.

Ever since I created the format, I’ve been asked if I think it would make sense to add more Magic sets to it. Today I want to examine the Alliances
Question: Would I consider bringing in Alliances?

In this article I want to consider what would happen if Alliances were allowed in. What are some concerns and issues it could bring, and what results might
occur? What are the pros and cons? This is mainly a mental exercise to augur the future and not to necessarily predict that yes, Alliances will become an
official part of Commander ’95.

I once suggested that perhaps C95 follow the real life trajectory of Magic sets. For example, Alliances was released in June 1996. So in June of 2014,
Alliances would be “released” in C95. Mirage would follow in October of this year, with Visions and Weatherlight next year. I never really adopted that
plan, it was just a suggestion, but you certainly could follow that if you wanted to shake things up. Your playgroup could start with a calendar of
releases and then move on from there.

After considering it, I’m not sure the format would long survive the changes to the card stock that Mirage, Visions, Weatherlight, and in particular,
Tempest block would bring. Mirage alone has too much redundancy, and adds a counterspell in Dissipate, a variety of new tutors, and more. Sure, we could
probably absorb cards like Gravebane Zombie, but what about Volcanic Geyser, Afterlife, and Mystical Tutor? Enough high quality cards like that will change
C95. Then include Desertion, Vampiric Tutor, Survival of the Fittest, and Volrath’s Stronghold, and suddenly the format is beginning to feel like normal
Commander. That’s not what I want.

So if Alliances were allowed, that would likely have to be the last straw, the final line against the night.

I played a ton of multiplayer when Alliances was released, so I know it really well. Therefore, I have some thoughts as to what would happen. So, let’s
begin with the 144 cards that Alliances would add:

The Good

On the good list, we have some great cards that would add a lot of fun for Commander 95!

Alliances would immediately bring a very powerful mana-making tool to multicolor decks that would be amazing (and a bit pricey to acquire). No card in
Alliances would have a greater impact on C95 than Thawing Glaciers. I think that would be a welcome impact too, because in a format with such limited
mana-enabling, having a card that could, over the long term, give you multiple lands and colors is a welcome tool. In fact, some mono-colored decks might
think about running it. It’s a potent land for the format indeed. (And if you really want mana fixing, check out School of the Unseen.)

We also get a decent mana rock in Sol Grail. Yes, it’s three mana for a card that will tap for one color, but it’s the color you choose, so you can make
the color you don’t have. It’s the first serious mana rock since Fellwar Stone. The card has some strong advantages in this format, because making mana is
good. Some people run Barbed Sextant for mana smoothing and drawing a card. Astrolabe might cost more mana to play, but on the turn you use it, you turn
one mana into two of any color, and you can store the drawing of a card into the next upkeep. That’s pretty good for the format too, and you can’t doubt
that at all.

Overall, mana producing gets some aid from the set without getting all crazy, and that can only help the format.

Another benefit is that lots of colors get solid, but not game-breaking creatures for their colors. For example, white gets Wild Aesthir. As a 1/1 flyer
with first strike for three mana, no one is going to exclaim it the next broken card, even when you pump it to its maximum size of 3/1. But having a
potential 3/1 first strike flyer can have some nice defensive bonuses. White also gets super-blocker Sworn Defender, which can block any creature without
dying as long as you have one mana open to activate its ability. Kjeldoran Escort gives you a large defense to combine with banding in order to add damage
to spread out among a gang of blockers. Carrier Pigeons might get some play too. So the additions to white’s creatures are all tame.

And this is true for a lot of other colors too. Blue acquires very little creature-based power. Benthic Explorers are hardly the fastest mana accelerant
we’ve seen. Spiny Starfish is a very expensive 0/1 for three mana, but regenerating into 0/1 starfish tokens is fun. The only real threat is Viscerid
Drone, which needs to be a blue/black deck to work. And even there, the sacrifice costs are pretty high.

Black gets Stromgald Spy and Diseased Vermin to try and slip through defenses. Soldevi Adnate can be used to fuel a great Drain Life or Soul Burn. I like
the flexibility of Lim-Dul’s High Guard, with the first strike and regenerating body. Insidious Bookworms is a decent enough one-drop for some uses. And
the cheap 6/6 Keeper of Tresserhorn has enough of a disadvantage not to be too powerful. Just Krovikan Horror is a threat as a sacrifice outlet for damage,
but in a game with 40 life, even that’s not the worst thing in the world.

Red doesn’t get a lot – most of the options suck – like Chaos Harlequin or Rogue Skycaptain. Balduvian Horde, once the banner card of the set, is now a
generic 5/5 for a random discard; few would consider that a good trade. I think Balduvian War-Makers are a solid body. You also get one of the most fun
creatures in the set – Varchild’s War-Riders. The cumulative upkeep of doling out 1/1 tokens to enemies is one that has been loved by casual players for
almost twenty years.

Green gets one of the best injections of mono-colored talent, like Gorilla Berserkers, Gorilla Chieftain, Deadly Insect, Elvish Ranger, Yavimaya Ants,
Elvish Bard, and Yavimaya Ancients. Even Gargantuan Gorilla is solid in the right deck. At least Elvish Spirit Guide isn’t anything sexy in Commander. The
Bard fits in alongside the decks with Venom/Lure/Regeneration and the Basilisks as another target. You get a lot of decent bodies, and although nothing on
this list is worrisome, they are all playable options.

One major addition to C95 is Phelddagrif. One of the most beloved legendary creatures for Commander is added to the format. I consider that a plus, because
it gives an option that people like. I also think that Lord of Tresserhorn is fun to try and break, but still not that powerful – so yes to giving folks
added options.

I also think the format benefits from some of the spells and enchantments Alliances brings. Let’s look at some of each.

Nature’s Chosen, a double-colored enchantment, gives a bonus for a discard. It’s not a major bonus and you won’t abuse it, but it does make attacking into
your defenses a bit tricky and gives another “engine” for Whiteout besides Stormbind. Cards like Noble Steed are easily absorbed into a set with cards like
Fyndhorn Bow. Cards like Kjeldoran Pride or Casting of Bones give you another reason to play auras (see also: the cantrip ones like Fevered Strength).

Martyrdom is a fun little trick that fits alongside cards like Reverse Damage and Simulacrum. Library of Lat-Nam basically says, “Draw Three Cards” unless
you and a foe can collude to tutor for something like an answer to the big beastie that is terrorizing you both. Tricks like Gorilla War Cry and Burnout
certainly aren’t going to burn the format down. I enjoy Errand of Duty, and think it fits in quite nicely.

I also like the artifact Soldevi Digger. In real life it was used to fuel combos sometimes and also to extend the game. Having a way other than Feldon’s
Cane to put stuff back into your library seems like a decent enough card to have running around. Oh, and Phyrexian War Beast is a suitably fun little

So overall, the format gains quite a bit from Alliances. But…

The Bad

On the other hand, we have cards that my eye is on. They may not prove to be the problem that I expect, but they need some observation just to make sure.

As a perfect example, take Inheritance. It’s a card-drawing engine that rivals Jayemdae Tome, and with fewer mana needed to activate it as well as the
possibility of multiple activations, I am concerned about it in a format with such a small amount of enchantment removal.

A similar card I have concerns about is Browse. It’s basically a simulation of Jayemdae Tome that digs deep, finds the right card, exiles some stuff, and
keeps digging. It might turn our combo decks into a real threat. In real life, it fueled just such combos in multiplayer as well as tournaments. And
remember the whole “I’m an enchantment” thing.

Tornado is a card that looks bad enough to count as a win initially. It can take out those troublesome enchantments, as well as anything else. But
it cannot be destroyed itself until the owner has used it turn after turn after turn to blow up a bunch of permanents. Because of the initial life of 40
that Commander has, I am uncomfortable with this card. My hope is that it would be another fun tool to answer annoying cards, but is it too much in the
other direction? I have no idea, and it would need some serious playing.

With 40 starting life, would Lim-Dul’s Vault be too much of a tool to give a combo player?

As you have no doubt noted above, I have a real concern about overly duplicating existing cards. This is especially true when those cards are utility cards
that are fairly rare in the format – particularly removal or counters. Let’s look at one of my biggest fears.

Force of Will and Arcane Denial give blue two hard counters. It only has two right now in Mana Drain and Counterspell (all others are situational, Spell
Blast, Force Void, Power Sink, Removal Soul, etc). That’s a lot of hard counters. Now Arcane Denial is card disadvantage and Force of Will, like Mana
Drain, is so pricey that many won’t even own it. I think the format could absorb these counters more than the next cards. (Besides, Force of Will won’t do
as much here as in other places, it’s more likely to be a simple five mana counter.)

Take creature removal. White now would get Exile to its list. That’s a surprisingly good removal spell for a creature. Sure, it has to be attacking and
non-white, but it answers virtually every threat at the table. So, white gets a great removal spell. (It also gets Reprisal.) Black gets a lot too. Black
gets Feast or Famine, which is a duplicate Terror that can also make a 2/2 zombie if you prefer. That’s going to make the cut in an awful lot of decks. As
is Contagion, which can kill two small utility creatures, or be a devastating combat removal trick. We also have Phyrexian Boon to kill or pump as needed
and the very powerful Ritual of the Machine. Black gets a lot from this set. Red gets some new burn (Guerilla Tactics, Death Spark, Pyrokenesis)
but not that much.

This set also has a lot of artifact hate. Consider Pillage, which can off either a land or artifact, Gorilla Shaman, or the nasty Primitive Justice, which
will be a blowout later in the game if you are running both Gruul colors.

Another issue is with lands. Kjeldoran Outpost and Lake of the Dead are ones that I would have on my radar. Previously, token making was expensive (The
Hive) or required limited resources (Night Soil). The Outpost just needs a small amount of mana. It was one of the defining cards of its era in decks, and
I would be leery of it. Lake of the Dead can provide a massive increase in mana. But the diminishing returns that you could get alongside the 40 starting
life lead me to guess that it won’t be an issue like it was in 20-life kitchen table formats.

Speaking of Diminishing Returns, we now have a second Timetwister in the format. As far as Draw-7 effects go, it’s a bit weaker than the original ‘Twister
of Wheel of Fortune,’ but it’s also card on my watch list, just in case.

Helm of Obedience could be really annoying, but the random factor should keep it on a level playing field with everything else.

The Ugly

But we have a few cards that are past a simple Watch List mentality of the bad cards. These are downright dangerous.

I have a major concern with Kaysa. Kaysa immediately becomes the most powerful mono-colored legendary creature for Commander. And the introduction of so
many solid green bodies suggests that a mono-green deck would no doubt work really well. Perhaps too well. One of the inherent strengths of this format is
that mono-colored decks are not deep enough to be good while multi-colored decks don’t have enough mana-smoothing to be good. But if Kaysa throws that out
of balance, then we could be heading down a treacherous path.

Another card that terrifies me is Phyrexian Portal. Take a closer look at it. You spend three mana. A foe of your choice takes the top ten cards and splits
them into two face-down piles. One is exiled, you look at the other and put one into your hand and shuffle the rest into your library. Did you notice that?
You draw one card for three mana, and you choose it from several cards. It fits into any deck, it’s quite powerful, it’s repeatable, and it takes a while
to resolve. It’s like the Sensei’s Divining Top of Commander ’95. (Only it takes more mana, more time to resolve, and has a significantly upgraded power

Overall, my greatest fear with Alliances is the introduction of combo elements, Kaysa, and duplicate elements that push the colors too far into their
normal, non-C95 environment. There’s a risk that the high quality additions of creatures and spells would push the combined power level of the cards in the
environment out of balance.

And then consider the large number of potential combo tools – can we take them all on? I mean, if it was just Browse or just Lim-Dul’s Vault, then maybe,
but what about when we add them in with other cards like the Portal and the Returns and so on? It seems like a lot.

Looking at Alliances, there is much to love. Varchild’s War-Riders! Phelddagrif! Thawing Glaciers! But I have a lot of concerns. It would need a lot of
playtesting before being approved, because there are a lot of cards on the radar. I would hate to incorporate Alliances only to ban cards later. We don’t
ever want to ban cards. That’s not really an option. So is Alliances worth the risk?

As of right now, I don’t think so. The format works. Let’s not risk it.