Commanding The Shadows

With Shadows over Innistrad getting closer and closer it’s time for Sheldon Menery to use his Commander expertise to comment on the legends we’ve seen so far! Which of them will make fine leaders?

Shadows over Innistrad Prerelease March 26-27!

Night’s curtain is lifting and the faintest images are crawling beneath it. Anticipation creeps down your neck a hundred legs at a time. What secrets will be revealed? We’re beginning to find out.

The preview season has begun for one of the most eagerly anticipated Magic sets in quite some time. Shadows over Innistrad will return us to one of the game’s most popular planes and leverage one of its most enduring themes: Gothic horror. Just like you, I’m thoroughly excited about what the set might bring. As the Shadows over Innistrad Card Image Gallery starts to fill, I’ve already started thinking about the impact the already-spoiled cards will have on Commander.

Before we get there, some of us had the chance to be part of a pretty cool thing yesterday. Some Magic Judges you know were involved, to include two of us from the Commander Rules Committee (Toby was the other one). Via Twitter, one account at a time revealing a piece of the card, we spoiled something from the new set. I’ll give you all the Twitter handles (in the order we posted them) and see if you can piece together the card: @magicjudges, @David_DLI, @mtgRikipedia, @cranialtweet, @madtownlems, @twotwobearz, @mtgvalkyrie, @SheldonMenery, @tobyelliott, @ahalavais, @mtgrulestips. Happy hunting!

Over the next two weeks I’ll have my normal set review and then massive deck update. Today, however, I’d like to look at some ideas for decks built around the commanders which have already been previewed. It’s unlikely that I’ll build any of them myself, since I already have a schedule for the next twenty or so decks I’m going to build to finish The Do Over Project, but I thought it would be interesting to offer you a few seeds that you might grow into fully-formed beanstalks.

As of this writing, four legendary creatures have been officially spoiled: Archangel Avacyn; Odric, Lunarch Marshal; Olivia, Mobilized for War; and Sigarda, Heron’s Grace. [Copy Editor’s note: The Gitrog Monster was revealed too late for this article.]

With three of them being white, the bent so far is light over darkness, but I’m sure we’ll see more evil as things develop. I’ll talk about each of these cards individually and offer up a few directions on which you might take a deck.

Imagine (at the same mana cost as Serra Angel), Archangel Avacyn with only its front face abilities being the kill cards in Brian Weissman’s “The Deck.” Now add a cool additional ability (although one which would never likely trigger in said deck). My point? Magic has changed a great deal in twenty years, and we’re the beneficiaries of creatures being way better than they used to be.

Because the front side is white and the back side is red, the color identity of this third incarnation of Avacyn is W/R. You obviously only need Plains in order to cast her. Getting her transformed doesn’t necessarily take any mana at all. It’s up to you if you actually want to play any red cards; you certainly don’t have to, but that’d be missing an opportunity. Three ideas present themselves:

Idea #1: Burn It All to the Ground

Avacyn is clearly angry about something. When she transforms, she deals three damage to everything and everybody (except herself). Channel that anger into something which benefits you. Keep Avacyn angry and keep everyone else’s battlefield clear. There’s no native way to transform her back from Avacyn, the Purifier, so you’ll have to do that by either blinking her or bouncing her back to your hand. The latter seems like the mana-hungry option; the former seems like the techy one.

I don’t need any excuses to play Eldrazi Displacer, but you have to put Blinky the Eldrazi into any Archangel Avacyn deck. Conjurer’s Closet is the next obvious choice. She then comes back becalmed and ready for action. All you need do is engineer the death of another of your (non-Angel) creatures. You’re in red, so you have creature sacrifice outlets like the always-popular Goblin Bombardment. You might try the techier Carnage Altar, since card draw is at a premium in W/R. Use things which create Eldrazi Spawn or Eldrazi Scion tokens, like Emrakul’s Hatcher or Spawning Bed, to create the small creatures you need.

Of course, if you’re doing frequent damage to creatures, you’ll want to protect your own. One of my favorite ways to do this is with Lashknife Barrier. Get the perfect fit for the deck with Balefire Liege, which makes your creatures harder to kill plus adds damage (and lifegain). Obviously, you can make sure your creatures also have toughness greater than three, but why leave things to chance? Keep running with the Goblin creature theme with Skirk Fire Marshal, which also has protection from red, or give yourself the best chance with Mark of Asylum. Rune-Tail, Kitsune Ascendant seems like a perfect fit as well.

Once you’ve protected your creatures and yourself, pump up the damage volume. Aurelia’s Fury and Brightflame will do the trick. From there, it’s the damage-dealer’s choice. You can really hang it all out there with Dictate of the Twin Gods and Furnace of Rath.

Idea #2: The Red (and White) Zone

If you want, just forget about transforming Archangel Avacyn and focus on her first triggered ability, giving your creatures indestructible. A R/W Soldier deck that curves into Aurelia, the Warleader can get pretty dangerous. Then sit back and protect your team, not summoning Avacyn until you absolutely need her. Of course, no such deck would be complete without Gisela, Blade of Goldnight (which also protects your creatures some from a transforming Avacyn). The more I think about this idea, the more I like loading up with all the W/R legendary creatures, like Basandra, Battle Seraph; Iroas, God of Victory; Tajic, Blade of the Legion; and maybe even Anya, Merciless Angel.

Idea #3: Avacyn, Voltron Angel

Avacyn carries a spear. Transform her (which we’ve discussed is pretty easy) and load her up. Godsend makes her truly dangerous. Moonsilver Spear is thoroughly thematic and creates more Angels for attacking with.

Mask of Avacyn will make her more difficult to deal with, as will Champion’s Helm. Get super-techy with Tenza, Godo’s Maul, making her larger and giving her trample once she’s transformed. Red and white are great support colors for clearing the way for the attack, so you’ll be getting those commander damage kills in no time.

I only have one idea here, but it has nearly infinite variations. Odric provides you with a virtual smorgasbord of choices. Like a great buffet, you’ll probably want to get a sampling of each. The big ones are indestructible, haste, and lifelink. Double strike and trample also seem pretty valuable. Being in mono-white limits your choices somewhat, but you can focus abilities with creatures like Akroma, Angel of Wrath. Angelic Overseer combos with Odric because he’s a Human, meaning everyone will get indestructible and hexproof.

You’ll certainly want to add the services of Odric, Master Tactician for both first strike and his general goodness. You can also leverage creature types like Slivers, such as Bonescythe Sliver or Essence Sliver, which give themselves abilities, thereby giving those same abilities to all your other creatures. Knight Exemplar and one other Knight will do a similar trick (but sorry, Odric is a Soldier, not a Knight).

The first thought is to provide those abilities with creatures, but I like even more the idea of adding some equipment to do the work. Haste is the tough one in mono-white, but you can solve that with Lightning Greaves. Darksteel Plate gets your fix on indestructible, and you’ll probably just want to keep it on Odric. Basilisk Collar does nice double duty at a bargain-basement cost, especially since deathtouch is another difficult ability to find in white. I’m just sad that Odric doesn’t also copy protection, but I imagine then that there’d just be too much text on the card, not to mention that it would be very strong.

For me, the only question regarding this version of Olivia is how I’m going to draw enough cards to keep feeding her (and the creatures which enter the battlefield). Note that Necropotence is a nonbo here, since when you discard cards they get exiled. Greed is a better (and underplayed) option since the activation is one cheaper than that of Erebos, God of the Dead (although Greed doesn’t come with being indestructible and the lifegain prevention).

The first two cards which jumped into my mind to put into the deck are Oversold Cemetery and Palace Siege (always choosing Khans), just to help filling back up my hand. From there, it’s all about getting creatures onto the battlefield in whichever way possible, whether that’s traditionally, by casting them, or reanimating them from the graveyard.

The obvious way to go with the deck is to make it tribal Vampires, but that’s been done enough that I’d want to go another way, like making +1/+1 counters matter. Persist creatures, like Puppeteer Clique and Murderous Redcap come to mind, since the +1/+1 counter will eliminate the -1/-1 counter, allowing the creature to persist back again. And again.

Of course, madness is what Olivia is all about. Big Game Hunter is a card I already play in several decks and which never fails to find targets. Grave Scrabbler will put an extra card back into your hand to pitch to something else. Muck Drubb is useless, but I just like saying Muck Drubb. You might get some mileage out of gating creatures like Lava Zombie. Speaking of Zombies, that might be the direction to go if you want to take things tribal, since you can play Graveborn Muse to refill your hand. You could probably get kind of tricky with Cloudstone Curio, but that’s honestly something you can say for nearly any deck.

This clearly becomes the graveyard recursion deck you’ve been wanting to build as well. Since you’ll be discarding cards, you’ll want to be bringing them back somehow. Since you’re in black, the best way to do that is by putting them right onto the battlefield as opposed to in your hand. I don’t always suggest the usual suspects, but here it seems like it’s in order: Living Death, Patriarch’s Bidding (assuming you go tribal, of course), Rise of the Dark Realms, Liliana Vess, Sepulchral Primordial, and Sheoldred, Whispering One. Don’t forget to add Urabrask the Hidden so that you don’t have to discard a card to give everything haste.

Add your favorite sacrifice outlets and the deck kind of builds itself but with enough of a personal touch that it’s not just the same old same old. Harvester of Souls feels like a card which you’ll get mileage from, and it’s a bit of a combo with Big Game Hunter. Discard BGH, pay its madness, murder something, draw another card. It’s the Magic you love. Add Deathbringer Thoctar for even more hilarity. The only real limitation on Oliva, Mobilized for War is that her colors aren’t the best at doing stuff with the counters.

This is the already-spoiled commander which I’m least excited about, but I still see possibilities. I love having hexproof, for sure. I love the guardian-angel theme of the card. The only reasonable way to go here is Human tribal, with perhaps some larger monsters thrown in.

There aren’t that many large Humans with Surrak, Caller of the Hunt; Torsten von Ursus; and Iwamori of the Open Fist the only ones with a power of five. No one is playing Iwamori unless they’re also playing copy/steal; no one is playing Torsten at all. There are a few notables at four, like Baru, Fist of Krosa and Kamahl, Fist of Krosa. Those two being Human Druids leads me to think there’s a two-tribe deck in the offing. Argothian Enchantress, Mesa Enchantress, and Verduran Enchantress are all Human Druids as well, so maybe you can throw in some Elves and make a Shannara deck. I’d have to go back to the source material to see if there are any “good” monsters in the colors (I seem to recall that there were definitely Centaurs, but I’m not sure they were white hats or not).

Sigarda’s activated ability leaves me a little cold because I like the cards in my graveyard. The colors have enough Regrowth and reanimation built in to want to not squander graveyard cards. I suppose fetchlands and the like could be fodder, but for the most part, I want my graveyard online, especially since this deck demands that you play Nut Collector, and you’ll need threshold. What we really need is a Human Eldrazi hybrid. That’d be boss. I’ll see if I can suggest that to R&D without getting laughed at.

Those are the as-of-now officially spoiled potential commanders coming out of Shadows over Innistrad. It’s clear that some are awash with possibilities, some are narrower—but we’ll know more in a week when we’re able to see the whole set. Since someone is bound to ask, I’ll remind you that Westvale Abbey is not a legendary creature (it’s not even a creature at all!), so even if it transforms into one, it’s not allowable as a commander by the official rules. The front face is what matters.

I certainly can’t sign off without saying something about Belgium. The country which I called home for six years and its wonderful people will always have a special place in my heart. Bruxelles is one of the great cities of the world. I traveled through that metro station and in and out of that airport countless times. This week’s Deck Without Comment and normal footer will be silent in honor of those we lost. I leave you with only this message of support.

Belgium in Flag Colors

Stay strong, stay safe.