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Commander 2016 Review!

The long-awaited Commander 2016 review is upon us! What does the Rules Committee think of all these new legends and mechanics? Sheldon weighs in!

Every time a new set comes out, I talk about how excited I am to see the new cards. While that might seem a little obvious and a little quaint, it’s never truer than when a new Commander set hits the shelves. Commander 2016 is no exception. The first-ever four-color commanders open a new world of deck design to both the hardcore and casual brewer alike.

In the coming weeks, I’ll talk about the decks themselves and how I and my Monday Night Gamers are going to use them to get our next Rotisserie Draft League running. Today I want to focus on the 56 new cards we get to play with. Partner interests me a great deal, with its ability to sculpt whatever pairs you like; there’s certainly space for analysis of all the potential couplings. Partner seems like a very cool addition to a Commander Cube Draft. Unlike reviews for normal sets, I’m going to discuss each of the new cards, since they’re all designed for our format.

White

Duelist’s Heritage: Double strike is potentially dangerous, especially when a Voltron commander is involved. One can go from alive to dead very quickly. I don’t see this one getting a great deal of play outside the pre-con, but if it does, I hope that it will be to give double strike to a creature in a combat in which the caster isn’t involved.

Entrapment Maneuver: A fine combat trick, especially when it looks like you don’t have enough blockers. Again, casting this in a combat that you’re not involved in might be kind of swingy. Imagine Player A has cast some fashion of Overrun and attacked Player B. Even if you don’t save anyone, you as Player C just might have the opportunity to get a fine swarm of creatures ready for the crack back.

Orzhov Advokist: Other players will likely be willing to buff up their own creatures and not attack you for a turn. Note that the not attacking part applies to all their creatures, not just the ones which get counters. And, of course, it’s an Orzhov card, so you’re playing it with Thief of Blood anyway.

Selfless Squire: Long-time readers know that I’m a proponent of playing Fogs. Fogs that turn around and bash people in the face are even better. Selfless Squire might not completely count as a Fogging, since it only protects you, but that’s hardly an issue. The dream play obviously involves someone else’s Craterhoof Behemoth.

Sublime Exhalation: The majority of my play these days is with the Monday Night Gamers, which means five-player games. In that circumstance, Day of Judgment costing 2W is just fine. I’m a fan of the Undaunted mechanic, but I think there are enough other high-quality battlefield wipes in white that it’s not going to make a splash locally. In larger groups, Sublime Exhalation might just find a home.

Favorite: Selfless Squire.

Blue

Coastal Breach: In a game running with full players, Coastal Breech is really cheap. Even when you get down to only one opponent, it is still worth paying 5U for. It’s no Upheaval (fortunately), but since it only has a single blue mana symbol in its cost, it should be splashable (which will be a thing with four-color commanders).

Deepglow Skate: Wait, what? Double? Chasm Skulker, here we come! Deepglow Skate, the mega-Evolution Vat of the deep, finds a home in so many different kinds of decks that I can’t even name them all. Weird that my first thought was “Hey, this would be cool with Horobi, Death’s Wail.”

Faerie Artisans: Getting to copy all the cool enters-the-battlefield triggers of your opponents is already saucy. Then having fodder to fuel your other stuff is insane. Because you can only have one such token at a time, you’ll want some things to sacrifice either creatures or artifacts to, but your potential list is large: Arcbound Ravager, Goblin Bombardment, Phyrexian Altar, and my personal favorite, Trading Post, are just a few.

Grip of Phyresis: Because it’s an instant, there are many tricks. Sure, you can go the straightforward route and snag someone’s Sword of Fire and Ice, say to heck with the Germ token, and equip it to your better creature, but I like the idea of moving it around during combat to create awkward situations for your opponents. There are many great pieces of Equipment running around the format. Having your pick of them is pretty sweet.

Manifold Insights: Paying 2U to draw the worst four of your top ten isn’t terrible, but it’s not that great either. I like it from a design standpoint; from a practicality standpoint, I’m pretty sure there are better draw spells at the same or nearly same mana cost.

Favorite: Deepglow Skate.

Black

Cruel Entertainment: This is the card most emblematic of the format. Cast it and embrace the chaos. Is it strategically sound? Probably not. Will it make your games more fun? Absolutely. I’m sure there’s some strategic value in choosing yourself as one of the targets, especially if you can manage to kill the other player—but the value in his card will simply be in watching the hilarity ensue.

Curse of Vengeance: I don’t have a good sense of what kind of value you might get out of this Curse, but at the low, low cost of a single black mana, I’m willing to give it a whirl. I suppose that it could sometimes be a complete whiff, but that’s unlikely. I’d certainly be happy with anything that’s five or above. There will be occasional letdowns when Curse of Vengeance gets caught up in some kind of battlefield wipe, but I still see an acceptable risk/reward here.

Curtain’s Call: Killing two creatures as an instant for 2B is strong. If you’re in a late-game situation and absolutely need to get rid of two creatures from your remaining opponent, you’ll likely have enough mana anyway. The special bonus is that it can kill black creatures (which seems like a move they’re making lately).

Magus of the Will: Just like with Yawgmoth’s Will, you’ll have to be careful because of the exile clause, but the idea of reusing anything in your graveyard is pretty attractive. It’s mostly a combo card, so I doubt we see it much locally, but I definitely understand the attraction. I love that the art evokes the original.

Parting Thoughts: When someone targets my Kresh the Bloodbraided with this, I sure hope I have a sacrifice outlet handy. Or not—it might kill them. Lots of players won’t like not knowing exactly what the card is going to do or that it’s situational. For me, that makes the card more compelling.

Favorite: Cruel Entertainment.

Red

Charging Cinderhorn: Aggression is my thing, and Charging Cinderhorn punishes players for not being aggressive. You might even consider not attacking the turn Charging Cinderhorn enters the battlefield and taking the one damage just to get the count up higher.

Divergent Transformations: One of the few cards in the set I’m just not sold on. Unless you’re targeting your own creatures (maybe some useless tokens or something), then there are simply better things to do with your mana. The only possible value I see is exiling two dangerous creatures and replacing them with something worse for the owner. The only situation in which I like the card is when you’ve gained control of creatures from your opponents; then you can exile their good stuff and turn it into your good stuff. This is a niche-use card, for sure.

Frenzied Fugue: The strength of the card is that you can (repeatedly) Threaten any permanent. You’re locked in, so choose well. I like the circumstance in which it’s a planeswalker and you figure out how to use this to get an ultimate/emblem.

Goblin Spymaster: I was just thinking of adding Fumiko the Lowblood back into a deck, so Goblin Spymaster arrives at the appropriate hour. This is going right into my Ruhan of the Fomori You Did This to Yourself deck. Knowing that you’re going force people into attacking means the ability to dagger them when they do. Winning all around.

Runehorn Hellkite: It’s a Dragon, which is always nice. Having a nearly uncounterable Wheel of Fortune effect seems spicy, especially if you’re into reanimating your Dragons (hello, Bladewing the Risen). Sure, Nekusar, the Mindrazer doesn’t need more help, but all in all, I’m okay with the card.

Favorite: Goblin Spymaster.

Green

Benefactor’s Draught: This is one of those cards that seems unexciting. Then the first time you cast it, you realize how fantastic it is. I understand that many folks aren’t fans of Group Hug, but Benefactor’s Draught doesn’t necessarily have to be in a hug deck. People are going to take the opportunity to save themselves, and then you get to kill them will all the cards you draw. The fact that it’s a cantrip means you can’t lose a card. In the worst case, you’ve untapped all your own creatures in order to save yourself. Excellent design.

Evolutionary Escalation: You can make friends with this card, or you can also play it with Cytoplast Manipulator. There are probably plenty of utility creatures around that won’t be dangerous with greater power and toughness. And once again, there’s always Thief of Blood. And Kulrath Knight.

Primeval Protector: Each opponent controls two creatures. You cast a 10/10 for 1G and put counters on all your creatures. Whether or not it’s in your “+1/+1 counters matter” deck, that’s strong. Critics are going to say that it doesn’t have evasion, but that’s easy to come by. Love it.

Seeds of Renewal: I imagine that the developers were very careful with Undaunted. This will always cost no more than one extra compared to Restock, sometimes less, so the splashability makes it worthwhile. It’s nothing exceptional, but pretty solid.

Stonehoof Chieftain: Okay, this one is just silly. Fortunately, it’s silly in a fashion that I’m going to play, whether you Lurking Predators into it or cast it for a single green mana in your Animar, Soul of Elements deck. Best is that Stonehoof Chieftain doesn’t need to attack for its ability to trigger, so you get the benefit right away. Maybe we’re not that far away from a decent Centaur Tribal deck. This is another card which really captures the battlecruiser spirit of the format.

Favorite: Benefactor’s Draught.

Multicolored

Akiri, Line-Slinger: You want a Metalcraft Ally deck? Akiri will fit your bill.

Ancient Excavation: I’ve been talking for a while about building a no-kidding Reanimator deck. Ancient Excavation will be a linchpin card. It’s an instant, so you can keep up mana to do things if you need and then swoop in during the end step of the player to your right and sculpt exactly the hand and graveyard you want. Basic landcycling seems like just a bonus.

Atraxa, Praetor’s Voice: I have no reason to be less excited about Atraxa now than I was the last time I wrote.

Breya, Etherium Shaper: Of the four-color commanders, I’m least excited about Breya, but that’s more a question of style than card quality. Breya will definitely give you something to do with those tokens from Faerie Artisans.

Bruse Tarl, Boorish Herder: I’m pretty sure I’d want to pair Bruse Tarl with one of the green legendary creatures for maximum beef-making. Speaking of combinations, double strike plus lifelink gets lots of work done. Gisela, Blade of Goldnight is also in those colors, which enhances the beatings. Bruse Tarl is also an Ally, so you have some reasonable tribal choices.

Grave Upheaval: It does a simple thing that you want to do, and notably, it’s from any graveyard. Early-game basic landcycling helps smooth you out and keeps you heading in the direction you want to go. Another solid card.

Ikra Shiqidi, the Usurper: Whether you’re playing Ikra in your Doran, the Siege Tower deck or pairing it up with this set’s Bruse Tarl, I see loads of lifegain in your future. Under Ikra’s influence, creatures with lifelink will net you double the life because her ability is different from lifelink.

Ishai, Ojutai Dragonspeaker: Um…the wait for a Bird Monk commander is over? I’m underwhelmed, even with partner.

Kraum, Ludevic’s Opus: Obviously, Mind’s Dilation must be played so that you get triggers on the first two spells each opponent casts. Partner it with something green so you can also play Rashmi, Eternities Crafter, and you’ll be getting triggers all over the place. A five-mana 4/4 with flying and haste doesn’t seem particularly Zombie-like to me, but that wouldn’t keep me from playing it.

Kydele, Chosen of Kruphix: This seems like one of the cards in the set which will produce some of the splashier plays, especially in concert with the big draw spells, which tend to tap you out of mana. I hope to add this to my first Rotisserie Draft deck to go along with everyone’s favorite, Blinky the Eldrazi (that’s Eldrazi Displacer).

Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis: I’m not a fan of giving cards (or lands) to other players without a plan. Of course, K&T is a pretty decent plan, since you also get the extra land drop (although not a second card). This is one which will require far more thought and planning. The art is stunning; I love the statues in the background echoing the union of the figures in the front.

Ludevic, Necro-Alchemist: I’m a fan of encouraging people to attack someone other than me. Ludevic seems like a version of Edric, Spymaster of Trest that’s slightly less likely to come back and bite you. I’m okay with giving other folks a card every now and again, but it seems contrary to my own interests to give them too many.

Migratory Route: A pretty straightforward card for your Bird tribal.

Ravos, Soultender: Here’s another option for your B/W Cleric tribal (after Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim). Ravos provides an Oversold Cemetery effect without the condition. He has partner, so you could add another color or two to get the exact creatures you want, although there honestly aren’t too many good Clerics in blue, red, or green.

Reyhan, Last of the Abzan: I was so excited when this card was previewed that I interrupted writing about Atraxa. Reyhan is so strong in your +1/+1 counters matter deck that you’ll be begging people to kill your creatures. And I know lots of cards are good with Mikaeus, the Unhallowed, but Reyhan might take things to a new level, especially if you have a few other cards which can move around those counters.

Saskia the Unyielding: Saskia’s battle cry is “No more pillow forts!” Battle the defenseless player, also damage the protected one. It gets even crazier with creatures which trigger on dealing damage (although Saskia’s second ability isn’t combat damage). We’re getting assigned four-color commanders at random for our next Rotisserie Draft League; I’ll be happy with any of them, but Saskia is probably the one I would pick if I had the choice.

Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa: I’m very happy to see the return of flanking; it’s always been one of my favorite abilities. Note that Sidar Kondo’s second ability doesn’t just apply when you’re attacking; it applies to everyone who attacks your opponents. The sentence is a little difficult to parse, but it basically says ground-pounders can’t block small attackers. Of course, once they’re unblocked, you can make them as large as you like.

Silas Renn, Seeker Adept: Kylo’s brother? What’s going on with that name? And the fact that he’s a Human as well as an artifact creature just weirds me out a little (even though it’s not the first one ever—there are sixteen others). The ability is cool, especially with low-mana-cost artifacts that might help with your lands, like Mycosynth Wellspring or Burnished Hart.

Sylvan Reclamation: I think I’m okay with paying one more than Return to Dust to not have the extra condition for getting a second target. Basic landcycling is just a bonus at this point. Unless you’re really stuck on land (or maybe a color), you’ll want to hold this because you know you’ll need it at some point.

Tana, the Bloodsower: Tana seems ripe for some Voltron action. Even if you’re just beefing her up a little, you can keep piling up those Saprolings. Since you’re in red, that puts Goblin Bombardment on the table, so Tana damage can quickly get deadly for your opponents.

Thrasios, Triton Hero: I’m quite happy that the commanders with partner are just good enough without going too far. Kudos to the development team for keeping them at the right power level. The scry ability might seem a little spendy, but you don’t need to tap Thrasios to do it, so it becomes a nice mana sink. It’s one of those abilities which will end up being even better than you think it’s going to be.

Treacherous Terrain: I’m already a fan of Acidic Soil as a kill condition (especially in a deck which also has Anathemancer), so I’m not sure I need to pay so much extra mana in order to not damage myself. Of course, there’s no reason you can’t play both.

Tymna the Weaver: A nice design, but a little too conditional for my tastes. I’m certainly always happy to pay a life to draw a card, but since Tymna has a hard cap on how many you can draw plus a necessary condition in order to draw them, I might seek out other ways to go.

Vial Smasher the Fierce: Hey! Free damage! A little top-of-the-library control, and you’re all set for mini-Kaervek the Merciless to deal max damage. Now you just need to figure out how to cast spells on everyone’s turns, too.

Yidris, Maelstrom Wielder: Okay, Yidris is the one I pick if I have the choice in Rotisserie Draft. Cascade is one of those abilities which can get out of hand pretty quickly, as we’ve seen with Maelstrom Wanderer. If you’re playing Yidris, make sure you play Sun Quan, Lord of Wu, for maximum ability to get damage through. As I’m making decks to finish up the now 32-deck Chromatic Project, Yidris will be the one which I’m going to have to give the most thought to, since there are so many different ways to go with it. Ogre tribal? It could happen.

Favorite: Yidris, Maelstrom Wielder.

Artifact and Land

Armory Automaton: While it doesn’t give you control of the Equipment, you can certainly borrow them for a turn. I’d consider playing Armory Automaton in a deck which likes to sacrifice artifacts, which becomes a cheeky way of getting rid of Equipment which annoys you.

Boompile: I’m not sure how useful Boompile is, but I like the chaos-embracing flavor of it.

Conquerer’s Flail: The low mana and equip costs make Conquerer’s Flail a strong addition to your aggressive decks. Once it’s equipped, there aren’t too many Fogs to ruin your day (Spike Weaver is the only one which comes to mind at the moment). Go ahead and bash away.

Crystalline Crawler: If this doesn’t go with Reyhan, Last of the Abzan, nothing does. Or how about Ezuri, Claw of Progress? Forgotten Ancient? You see where I’m going. I’m a fan of all the possibilities.

Prismatic Geoscope: If you’re playing three to five colors, you might consider Prismatic Geoscope as a replacement for Gilded Lotus because you can get any combination of colors instead of just one. The obvious downside is that it enters the battlefield tapped, although there are plenty of ways to tap artifacts. Personally, I prefer my mana rocks a little cheaper.

Ash Barrens: A reasonable addition to your mana-smoothing lands like Evolving Wilds and Terramorphic Expanse.

Favorite: Crystalline Crawler.

Commander 2016 is about possibilities. The partner mechanic is genius; it gives you the opportunity to create new and exciting combinations of cards and strategies. It will be quite a while before you run out of options.

Last Article’s Comments

Kevin Tran writes, “The fact there’s no mention of Parallax Wave, Nexus, and Tide leaves me in abject disgust. Stax feels incredibly underplayed and Atraxa is the perfect opportunity for players to finally get into this field!”

Far be it from me to decide what anyone gets disgusted about, but I’m going to call Kevin on being hyperbolic. I don’t dispute his notion that Stax doesn’t get played much, but I’ll disagree in the judgment that it’s underplayed. As Geoff Wallace responds, “Because people actually like to have fun and play Magic when they’re trying to have fun playing Magic.” Well said, Geoff.

Stax is a viable competitive choice; it isn’t particularly fun for the people not playing it. Sure, there is some small percentage of folks who love the challenge of trying to get out from under it, but for the most part, Stax is inherently anti-social and contrary to the kinds of social games we like to promote. You’re not likely to see me give you ideas on how you can use certain cards to keep the other people in the game from playing Magic.

This Week’s Deck Without Comment: Animar’s Swarm

Commander

Check out our comprehensive Deck List Database for lists of all my decks:

SIGNATURE DECKS

Purple Hippos and Maro Sorcerers; Kresh Into the Red Zone; Halloween with Karador; Dreaming of Intet; You Did This to Yourself

THE CHROMATIC PROJECT

Mono-Color

Heliod, God of Enchantments; Thassa, God of Merfolk; Erebos and the Halls Of The Dead; Forge of Purphoros; Nylea of the Woodland Realm; Karn, Beatdown Golem

Guilds

Lavinia Blinks; Obzedat, Ghost Killer; Aurelia Goes to War; Trostani and Her Angels; Lazav, Shapeshifting Mastermind; Zegana and a Dice Bag; Rakdos Reimagined; Glissa, Glissa; Ruric Thar and His Beastly Fight Club; You Take the Crown, I’ll Take Leovold; Gisa and Geralf Together Forever

Shards and Wedges

Adun’s Toolbox; Animar’s Swarm; Karrthus, Who Rains Fire From The Sky; Demons of Kaalia; Merieke’s Esper Dragons; Nath of the Value Leaf; Rith’s Tokens; The Mill-Meoplasm; The Altar of Thraximundar; The Threat of Yasova; Zombies of Tresserhorn

Five-Color

Children of a Greater God

THE DO-OVER PROJECT

Animar Do-Over; Karador Do-Over; Karador Version 3; Karrthus Do-Over; Mimeoplasm Do-Over; Phelddagrif Do-Over; Rith Do-Over; Ruhan Do-Over

If you’d like to follow the adventures of my Monday Night RPG group (in a campaign that’s been alive since 1987) which is just beginning the saga The Lost Cities of Nevinor, ask for an invitation to the Facebook group “Sheldon Menery’s Monday Night Gamers.”