Re-Thinking Commander

It’s a common line in new-set finance reviews: “Commander staple.” But how many of those “staples” match their hype in reality? Chas Andres has changed his thinking. He gives you his latest, plus this week’s trends and his thoughts on the StarCityGames.com weekly sale!

SCG Regionals August 6!

Sometimes, my fingers have a mind of their own.

This happens most often when I’m writing set reviews, especially for cards that are obviously underpowered in competitive Constructed formats. I take a look at something like Ulvenwald Observer, realize that I don’t have much to say about it, and then my fingers take control and start typing a line like, “it should be good in Commander” or “future Commander staple.”

And then my fingers congratulate themselves for a job well done and reward themselves by grabbing my phone out of my pocket and checking to see if there’s a Pikachu nearby.

In all seriousness, I think a lot of people look at splashy cards and assume that they’ll be great in Commander. In the old days, when Commander was a Wild West format filled with Elder Dragons and forgotten gems from Invasion block, this was more or less true. These days, however, there are entire Commander-centric sets released each and every year, and they’re filled with cards designed to outmode existing staples. Commander has also become a much more streamlined and competitive format, with sites like EDHREC giving statistical advice to deck builders.

When I built my Lorthos, the Tidemaker deck five years ago, I pawed through my entire collection looking for things to include. These days, I’d just go to a website and learn what the “optimal” 100 cards should be. I might tweak the deck a little based on personal preference, but I’d probably include Cyclonic Rift and Whelming Wave no matter what. In fact, most Commander players I know end up putting the same handful of staples in most of their decks.

I don’t think the world of Magic finance has fully caught up with this shift in Commander strategy. Just like in my set review example, people are too quick to deem something a Commander staple without actually considering how Commander decks are constructed these days. Will Mind’s Dilation see play in Commander? Sure, but how many decks are going to want to run a card that costs 5UU and doesn’t really synergize with any of the most popular Commanders? Are we really sure that this card is a great long-term spec?

On the flip side, true Commander staples tend to be underrated. I called Chromatic Lantern a great Commander card back when I wrote my Return to Ravnica set review, but I never imagined it would be an $8 casual card. If you can find the next Chromatic Lantern while avoiding all the future bulk mythics, you’ll be a step ahead of almost all the Magic financiers I know. That’s why I wanted to spend a week taking a look at trends in Commander in order to discover what makes the format tick.

Avoid Cards that are Generically Good…

If you haven’t actually built a Commander deck in the past year or two, I highly recommend you give it a shot. Most Commanders are highly synergy-based these days, and one of the first things that you’ll find is that there will be twice as many interesting cards to play as there are available slots in your deck. After you account for land, fixing, acceleration, and removal, you may have between 40 and 50 other slots to fill and the entire catalog of Magic to choose from.

I don’t mean to keep picking on poor Ulvenwald Observer, but let’s use it as an example one more time. Unless your deck can do something with Treefolk tribal, it’s really just a 6/6 creature that might draw you a card or three if everything goes well. That’s not a bad card, but will it make the cut over dozens of similar effects? I doubt it.

Praetor’s Grasp is the ultimate example of this for me. It’s one of those “generically good” cards I want to fit in all of my black-based Commander decks. I even bought a foil the day New Phyrexia was released. I don’t think it has ever made the cut, though, because it lacks any sort of specific synergy with any of my existing or potential Commanders. Lots of cards like this are deemed “future Commander staples,” and they rarely end up being worth more than the dollar that Praetor’s Grasp will currently cost you. Don’t end up with a failed spec box full of cards like this.

…Unless They Are the Best at Doing Something that Every Deck Needs.

Chromatic Lantern and Cyclonic Rift are both “generically good,” but they are each worth $7-$8 thanks to Commander play. Why?

I suspect it is the same reason that every deck in Legacy needs to at least consider playing cards like Brainstorm, Lightning Bolt, and Swords to Plowshares. We don’t often think of Commander as an Eternal format in the same way, but that’s what it is. And like all the other Eternal formats, it has its short list of cards that are so powerful you always have to consider running them.

This might seem obvious to some of you, but it’s a mistake I see card evaluators make all the time. We rarely look at a new red burn spell and talk about how it might replace Lightning Bolt in Modern, but whenever there’s a new mana rock, someone will inevitably write about how it is the next Chromatic Lantern in Commander. Truth is, these multi-deck Commander staples are just as entrenched as their counterparts in Modern and Legacy. If you think something is going to replace Cyclonic Rift in Commander, you’d better have a compelling reason why. And like we talked about in the section above, these utility slots in Commander decks are extremely limited. A couple of decks might play the second or third best generic bounce spell in addition to Cyclonic Rift, but most simply won’t have the room.

Narrowly Synergistic Cards Are Fine, but Focus on Foils.

Ulrich of the Krallenhorde is one of the most obvious Commander plants in years. People have been clamoring for a legendary Werewolf since the first Innistrad set, and now it is finally here. If you are building a Werewolf deck in Commander, you will probably run Ulrich, even if he does seem a tad underwhelming at first glance.

Financially, this makes Ulrich is a solid long-term buy. I doubt the card will ever be reprinted, and everyone who builds a Werewolf deck in Commander between now and the end of time will want one of these. That’s the sign of a solid casual spec target.

The problem is that we are no longer in an era where the player base is doubling annually. Over the past three or four years, very few of these narrow Commander cards have seen the sorts of gains that most Magic financiers are hoping for. Yes, everyone who builds a Werewolf deck in Commander needs Ulrich, but the number of Ulrichs out there far outweighs the demand. It may take many, many years for that to change.

Whenever I am looking at a narrow Commander card – the sort of spell that is imperative in one deck and unplayable everywhere else – I always focus on foils. Even if the multiplier is high (a foil Ulrich will set you back $10 right now), the supply is so much lower that you will almost assuredly be able to cash out at a profit much sooner. Commander players disproportionately value foils, and original set foils also carry much lower risk because they are relatively protected from crippling reprints. If I were dropping $60 on Ulrich of the Krallenhorde today, I’d much rather have six foils than twenty non-foils.

Don’t Sleep on Widely Synergistic Cards.

Why is Doubling Season a $50 card? Because it synergizes well with about a quarter of all existing Commanders. If your deck does anything with tokens, counters, or planeswalkers, you need to at least strongly consider running Doubling Season.

These are the types of cards that are most resistant to reprinting and are likely to stay expensive and sought-after for years to come.

Doubling Season is the most obvious example of this, but many cards fit the bill. Startled Awake is another great one – if you’re running any kind of mill strategy at all, you are going to play this card. It’s not limited to a single Commander, and Wizards of the Coast could print another ten or twelve mill cards before you’d stop running this in your mill decks. That makes Startled Awake an excellent long-term buy, and one I prefer to Ulrich.

This sort of effect is the sweet spot for Commander speculation. You want cards that are narrow enough to always make the cut but not so narrow that they only end up in a single deck. There aren’t a lot of cards like this out there, but if you can identify one, it should be your top priority when speculating on Commander staples.

Keep an Eye Out on Future Releases.

When Shadows over Innistrad was announced, Mayor of Avabruck went up because people were excited about the potential for new Werewolf Commander decks. Zombie and Vampire cards also saw small increases. The same thing happened on a larger scale when Dragons of Tarkir was teased. Every playable Dragon in Magic’s history began to spike, culminating in Scion of the Ur-Dragon briefly peaking at $30.

These are the best Commander specs because they involve cards that already have low supply and the potential for very quick gains. If you love casual speculation, pay close attention once we learn more about Kaladesh. Will Thopters be a supported archetype? Think about grabbing some copies of Thopter Spy Network. Wizards? Maybe it will be Patron Wizard; Azami, Lady of Scrolls; or Voidmage Prodigy getting its time to shine.

Remember, there’s no shame in admitting ignorance and doing some extra research. If you don’t play Commander and don’t really understand the mentality of its players, go ask that one person down at your store with the twenty foil decks what he or she is most excited to build once the next set comes out. Nine times out of ten, they’ll nail the best possible spec and it’ll be something you never would have thought of.

This Week’s Trends

Let’s start with the biggest news of the week. At long last, competitive games of Magic have been played with the new cards from Eldritch Moon!

As always, I caution against overreacting to results from the first week or two of a set’s Standard legality. The Pro Tour is coming, and there’s a very good chance it’ll shake everything up again. While some innovators are willing to put themselves out there on The SCG Tour®, the best tech might not be revealed until the lights are at their brightest.

So far, the biggest winner is…Bant Company? Really? Yep, that old Standard hobgoblin is back and stronger than ever. Of the 64 top decks at SCG Columbus, a whopping 29 of them were Bant Company variations. Baltimore just went further down this path.

First of all, it’s a good thing that Collected Company is rotating in the fall. We’ve only got a few more months of Collected Company mirrors in Standard, and even if the format doesn’t open up after the Pro Tour, it’ll be shaken up once Kaladesh arrives. Until then…well, $15 isn’t actually a bad price to pay for a card like Collected Company. It’s very playable in Modern, and you can smash people with it in Standard over the next few months before rotation. I rarely recommend buying cards that are very good in Standard and about to rotate, but this might be an exception.

In terms of the new cards from Eldritch Moon, the three biggest risers were Spell Queller, Selfless Spirit, and Liliana, the Last Hope. If you read my set reviews, none of these things should come as a surprise. If you’re risk-averse, wait until the Pro Tour and see how many of these cards make Day 2 before buying in. Many times, a new card has seemed unstoppable for a few weeks before going MIA at the Pro Tour and then never showing up in a competitive Standard deck again. I doubt that’s going to happen this time around, though. Both Spell Queller and Liliana looked great on-camera, and I expect them both to be pillars of the format going forward.

Want a sleeper pick or four? Oath of Liliana showed up in a couple of interesting decks over the weekend, and there’s a chance it’ll find a place to shine in a Tier 1 list. Thalia’s Lancers was a two-of in Ronnie Ritner’s B/W Angels deck, and I’d grab a set while the price is near bulk just in case. Delirium looks like it might have legs, though I’m unconvinced that anyone has found the right angle yet. Keep an eye on Grim Flayer just in case.

Lastly, Jeff Hoogland’s U/W Spirits seems awesome to me. It’s fairly cheap other than the Avacyns and Spell Quellers, which are cards that should hold their value well thanks to other decks, and it emerges from set rotation relatively unscathed. If I were looking to build a Standard deck from scratch right now, this is the build I would go with.

Over in the Eternal formats, Counterbalance spiked last week after Miracles dodged a potential ban in Legacy. I was never all that worried about the deck getting hit with the ban hammer this time around, but it’s worth noting that it might happen this winter (when WotC likes to do most of their tinkering with the banned list) if Miracles continues to over-perform.

Brushland and Mishra’s Bauble are both up as well, thanks to the continued performances of the Death’s Shadow and Bant Eldrazi decks respectively. I like both of these decks, and the price increases feel fairly organic to me. Don’t expect the price of either card to drop again soon. River of Tears also spiked, but that one feels more artificial – I found a U/B Tezzerator deck that ran a single copy back in June, but for the most part the card just isn’t that great. Feel free to sell into the spike.

Legacy keeps seeing more Reserved List movement. Drop of Honey, Transmute Artifact, All Hallow’s Eve, Elephant Graveyard, Power Artifact, Dream Halls, and Undiscovered Paradise are the latest. I still don’t know what will happen to these cards long-term, but selling them into the hype is fine. I know that it can be painful to move on from a card that cannot be reprinted, but getting 30-40% price increases on cards that don’t see much play right now is too much value to ignore.

The San Diego Comic-Con planeswalker set was released last weekend. The all-black Planeswalkers are no more, and this round featured Zombie versions of Liliana, the Last Hope; Gideon, Ally of Zendikar; Jace, Unraveler of Secrets; Chandra, Flamecaller; and Nissa, Voice of Zendikar. Unlike in previous years, where people had to wait in line for hours (or even overnight!) to grab their promos, there were more than enough to fulfill demand this year, and up until midday Sunday you could basically just walk up to the booth and grab a set at the $99.99 plus tax MSRP. StarCityGames is sold out at $230 for the set right now, which is relatively close to the lowest Buy It Now listings on eBay.

They’re worth more than retail, but nowhere close to the $500 price point that last year’s set is worth. If you’ve got a set you want to move, I’d either sell it now while the hype is still high or wait a couple of years until the supply dwindles. If you want to buy a set and don’t care so much about Standard legality, I’d wait a few months and try to snipe an auction while everyone is caught up in the Kaladesh hype this fall.

I’ve heard multiple confirmed reports that Eldritch Moon’s mythic rares have a collation problem. If you open a pack with a mythic rare in it, take note of the wrapper pattern because it’s likely that the other non-flip mythics from that box will be from packs featuring the same art. For example, if you open a Tamiyo pack and get a mythic rare inside, it’s possible that every other mythic in your box will also be found in a Tamiyo pack. This error does not seem to be true for all boxes of Eldritch Moon, but it does seem to be happening often enough that you should know about it.

What does this mean for you? First and foremost, don’t buy loose packs of this set from disreputable sources. If you’ve got a “friend” on Facebook selling two thirds of a box for $2.50/pack or whatever, you should assume it has already been mapped and stripped of its mythics. StarCityGames.com’s packs will be okay to buy, obviously, and all factory sealed boxes will be fine.

I also wouldn’t trade booster packs with people around the table at FNM in the minutes before a draft. At most of the local shops I’ve played at, there’s always someone who wants three Nissa packs or whatever and it’s fun to swap packs around the table. This time, someone might use aesthetics as an excuse to try to pull a couple of mythics in the draft. It’s not worth the conflict.

Comments From Last Week

Do you think Bedlam Reveler is a good spec to jump on at $3? I could see this guy seeing Modern and Legacy play down the road.

– Kurt

If Bedlam Reveler were a mythic rare, Kurt, I’d be all over it at that price. The problem is that regular rares from current sets are printed in quantities that dwarf the demand for Legacy and Modern cards alone.

Cards that are expensive in those formats are old, scarce, or played a lot in Standard or Commander as well. If Bedlam Reveler becomes a major player in Standard and then starts to see play in Modern, the price could skyrocket. If it ends up as a two-of in a couple of Modern brews and nothing else, it will likely keep following.

That said, $3/card is a very reasonable buy-in for something you might want to use personally. At some point in the future, it may see enough play to make your purchase worthwhile. And if it does end up seeing play in Standard (this third place deck from last week’s IQ is pretty spicy), you’ll have a home run on your hands. I wouldn’t buy more than a playset or two unless I knew exactly where and how it would break out, though. Your worst-case scenario involves Bedlam Reveler dropping into bulk rare range.

I know nothing of Legacy but I opened a Karakas in Eternal Masters. In your opinion, should I sell it or hold it?

– @ElbowofKarn

This seems like a good time to check in on Eternal Masters. More than 90% of the packs of this set that will be opened probably have been opened by now, so prices should be starting to climb. Force of Will and Vampiric Tutor are indeed rising in price, but everything else is still falling, including your Karakas. What gives?

The short answer is that the prices haven’t stabilized yet. There are still more copies of these cards out there than the market is demanding, so values should continue to fall until they reach a point of equilibrium. At that point, the supply will start to dwindle and the equilibrium will keep pushing higher. That might happen next week, or next month, or next summer. My best guess, based on previous sets like this, is that it’ll be sometime between October and December.

So. Should you sell? I wouldn’t, even though the price is still dropping and might continue to drop for another few months. Selling expensive cards like this into a soft market is rough, and a year from now nobody at your local shop is going to have a Karakas for trade except for you. Even if the price drops between now and then, it won’t drop much and it’ll just take one buyout or spike to recover all of that loss overnight. Unless you really need the money right now, I’d hold.

Deals of the Week

This week, tons of Moderately Played cards are on sale here on StarCityGames.com. This is one of the bigger sales of the summer, and I wouldn’t miss it. A total of 5,000 cards are on sale, and more than 4,000 of them will be 50% off.

You’re not going to find any of the latest Standard mythics or hottest Eternal staples, but things like Mishra’s Factory, Brainstorm, Dark Ritual, Eternal Dragon, and Sulfuric Vortex will be cheaper than they’ve been all year. Commander players should absolutely take a look, and anyone in the process of filling in those mid-tier Cube slots will have a field day. I rarely see cards like Chameleon Colossus floating around in other peoples’ trade binders anymore, so if you have a long list of cards like that you’ve been hunting around for, now is the time to get them on the cheap.

SCG Regionals August 6!