The Kitchen Table: Commander ’95 Tricks & Treats

Today Abe offers up a bunch of fun tricks available in Commander ’95 in the hope that you’ll give his fun Commander variant a try at your next Magic night!

Commander is a great format that we all know and love, right? And yet things can get a little stale. We start seeing the same cards and concepts over and over again. Why not take a break from that by playing Commander ’95?

C95 is a Commander variant that uses all of the cards printed through the end of 1995–so up through Homelands. The variant retains the banned list of Commander.

I thought C95 would be a fun format to try for a night or two and then move back. But I was surprised by how deep and mature the card pool is in the first few years of Magic. It’s proved surprisingly resilient to most strategies to break it, and the metagame keeps maturing and shifting. C95 can certainly be a diversion for a week or two, but it can also act as something else entirely.

Do you think that the format lacks enough quality to actually build a halfway decent Commander deck? I thought so too until I built my first deck for you! Perhaps you think the format lacks enough depth to have meaningful decks or that C95 cards are just too hard or pricey to acquire. I addressed all of these concerns in a trilogy of articles where I created and expounded on the format. I’ve been playing it for a few months now, and it’s quite deep. Check out the links to the other three articles in the appendix below.

So Commander ’95! It’s a blast because it’s both really deep and fairly powerful. Therefore you are able to use a bunch of cards and concepts that may not normally have gotten your attention. One of those revolves around card tricks.

In a previous article, I mentioned that the tricks in the format help to really define Commander ’95.

Here’s an example of what I meant. Take countermagic. In normal Commander, if I am playing a deck with blue, I can add five or seven or ten hard counters to the deck and then just move on. But with C95, there are just two hard counters: Mana Drain and Counterspell. And assuming that you don’t have the resources to acquire a Mana Drain, that leaves just one option. Spell Blast only works if you have one more mana than your opponent used for the spell in question, and Power Sink works only if you have at least two more mana currently available. The others are situational at best. So when you build a deck with blue in it for C95, you can’t automatically fill your spell slots with counters and move on. I prefer to just set my blue and move on, but now the format forces me to think. What makes the cut instead?

We also don’t have a lot of card draw. There’s Brainstorm and Braingeyser for blue, and that’s about it. The creature base isn’t secure enough to just increase it, enchantments are hard to kill but weak overall, and artifacts have a lot of commonly played answers. So what spells make the cut? Tricks do!

They define decks. Everybody has their own little favorite tricks that they use to inspire and fuel their decks. A lot of janky tricks that you would never touch in a normal Commander deck suddenly are ripe for use. I mentioned a player who got a lot of use out of Howl from Beyond in a previous article—it’s just one trick of many. The tricks of this era are quite good compared to the creatures and other cards, so everybody has a few sitting around waiting to be used.

Today I want to take a look at a few tricks I’ve seen played and how they were used, some I want to bring out as surprises, and other options out there. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show because these tricks are real treats.

Ray of Command, Disharmony

I mentioned these briefly in other articles and wanted to give them a mention here too because both can give you that valuable two-for-one trade that is such precious card advantage. It’s very rare that an attacking situation won’t yield at least one dead creature. While Disharmony can only be used when attacked to steal an attacking creature and use it to block, Ray of Command can be used in various ways. It can be used to get in a swing with a hasted creature or to steal a creature from one player to block an attack coming at you from another. It’s often a winning proposition.

Death Ward

I ran this for a bit as a surprise regeneration to keep something alive. It worked as a combat trick, but too many removal spells prevent regeneration like Incinerate, Disintegrate, Terror, Dark Banishing, Wrath of God, and so forth. It gets old after a while, so I quickly pulled it. If it instead gave target creature indestructible, I would still be rocking it.

Winter’s Chill

Luckily, no one has yet noticed how nasty this effect is in a deck with all snow-covered lands. I want to unfurl it soon! It’s an odd Fog/creature destruction variant. It taxes people’s mana and can devastate a team that tapped out prior to attacking. Take a look at it again.

Venomous Breath

This is another commonly played trick because it can kill a creature in a color that typically doesn’t have a lot of kill. I’ve seen it have a lot of success as a pseudo Basilisk trigger. Because it kills creature that blocked instead of those that were dealt damage like deathtouch, it’s a nasty complement to Lure (along with Venom).


I’ve seen two people run this card to good effect. First of all, black naturally has a lot of regenerators to redirect the damage to, so it can just regenerate the Wall of Bone or Will-o’-the-Wisp. Because it’s retroactive protection, you can run it at the end of the turn after being Infernoed, Hurricaned, attacked, and so forth and then flip it to a creature. However, you have to have taken the damage already for it to work—usually that’s strong in Commander with your 40 starting life total, but it can mean that the card has a lesser impact after you have a low life total to begin with.

Reverse Damage

This is another trick you see a bit here and there. The ability to turn damage into life is certainly a useful way to handle stuff (but it doesn’t work on Lava Burst). You only prevent damage that is dealt to you from a source, so an Earthquake that does seven damage to folks is just going to gain you seven life instead. See also Reverse Polarity for artifact decks.

Sewers of Estark

Only this and Teleport can make an attacker unblockable, which is pretty cool. But the added ability to keep a blocker safe from dying (at the expense of keeping the attacker safe as well) is a nifty second ability that you can safely slide into. Because it can be used for offense or defense, it gives an extra bit of flexibility that could very well see it making the cut in your deck.

Giant Growth, Righteousness

In this format, you certainly run into these creature pumpers. Righteousness is so good on defense that it might as well read that target attacking creature dies. Very little can survive, and very few blockers will die. I’ve seen an Ornithopter kill a Mahamoti Djinn after getting all Righteous on us. Giant Growth is a classic card for attacking or blocking or preventing that Lightning Bolt, Psionic Blast, or Drain Life from killing a key creature. It’s a quick and useful little monkey. I don’t need to tell you stories about it.

Berserk, Fanatical Fever

If you want to grow an attacker while making it trample, we have two instant options. You can Berserk a creature controlled by one player attacking another, kill the creature, and deal double damage to the other foe—a win-win scenario! Or use it to pump your own stuff. The Fever costs more, doesn’t double the power, and just gives +3/+0, but it also won’t kill your guy in case it might otherwise survive the combat. So there is that to consider. And Berserk costs a lot of money too.


Note that Stampede is about as good as you’ll see of an Overrun effect in the Commander ’95 arsenal. It pumps power once and gives the lot trample. (Perhaps Battle Frenzy or Army of Allah is more your style).

Blood Lust

This is one of those odd cards from this era that makes flavor sense but is hard to negotiate. Basically, the creature gets +4 power and then -4 toughness, but it can’t die so it stays at 1 toughness if it began with 4 or less toughness. I remembered it seeing play all over the map during this age, and a lot of Commander ’95 decks continue that tradition today. It can be used to make something small trade with a larger target, bring down a large target to trade with something small, deal some extra damage to the face, or bring down a large creature into burn range. It’s quite flexible, and reprinting it brought down its considerable cost from Legends.

Spoils of Evil

While not my flavor per se, I’ve seen it run to gain a bunch of life and fuel big spells like Disintegrate.

High Tide

Many might normally skip past this powerful combo piece, right? But one Nicol Bolas deck used this to fuel a bunch of mana to pump out a Fireball that blew someone off the table in one hit. You could also use it to draw a bunch of cards off Braingeyser or make a commander lethal with Howl from Beyond and so forth. Good luck!


I’m falling in love with this card. It’s my personal baby. Blocking critters gain first strike, which can really turn the tables on an attack. I wish it just gave my creatures first strike because then I could use it offensively, but I can use it to make Mika’s creatures have first strike to help bring down Dale’s overly concerning army that’s just attacking her. These added levels of flexibility in multiplayer situations are keys to winning the political game. I also really like Lightning Blow to give one creature first strike and draw a card.


Untapping a creature to block while drawing a card has some strong value for blue, which is often lacking in deep tricks after the obvious ones. You can occasionally use it to get another use from a land (such as Maze of Ith) or an artifact too. Since it replaces itself, it’s a nifty trick that doesn’t cost a card.

Holy Light

Someone played this against me, and I was devastated in combat. I lost a creature outright and several others shrank enough in size to get owned. It adds to the "fun ways to kill stuff" tricks that you might be looking for.

Mana Short

I actually have not seen this trick yet, and I’m waiting. It can set up lots of other fun cards like Power Sink, Winter’s Chill, and more. I suspect I’ll run it in a deck of mine soon enough.

Spore Cloud

I’ve never been a fan of Fogs in multiplayer and Commander especially unless they do something else that’s valuable. We have Holy Day, Darkness, and Fog in this format to stop attacks if that’s your sort of thing (see also: Festival). But Spore Cloud is something I enjoy. You tap all blocking creatures (so play it before you block if someone is attacking you) or play it after one player blocks another’s attack. All attackers and blockers won’t untap next turn, so the table gets some time to smash them without having to worry about keeping up their own defenses. Spore Cloud is good people. (I also like Foxfire because it replaces itself.)


It you have one, it’s worth running, but it often just sits there and sucks. So be prepared to wonder if you really want copy that Portent or Siren’s Call.


Just last week I ran into one of these reprints from the Commander 2013 decks that were just released. It’s a lovely way to include some reanimation effects in a deck that has very few options. My foe attacked with a little dork and was chump blocked to kill it. Before it bit it, Reincarnation was used to turn it into a beefy Craw Wurm. Hymn of Rebirth, Resurrection, and Reincarnation—black is not the only master of reanimation.


While there certainly are a lot of flyers that this will kill outright, not that many are seen in this format (Hypnotic Specter, Thunder Spirit, and Nalathni Dragon are the ones that I can remember it working against). But it can bring an attacker down to get mugged by the masses, where the two damage it’s already taken can help kill it off. I’d love to trade my 2/2 ground dork for that attacking Air Elemental, and if I have a Black Knight or Uthden Troll, then it’s an even better trade.

Deflection, Reverberation

Reverberation is good in metagames with a strong usage of sorceries. I’m waiting to turn it against the caster of a Hurricane or Earthquake. It’ll likely kill someone in one turn. An Earthquake set to five damage at a table with four players will deal twenty + all of that damage to creatures combined. And it’s all getting shipped back, postage due! Deflection is used in a lot of decks as sort of a pseudo-counter that can turn a Lightning Bolt or Disenchant on to the "correct" target.

Force Void, Flare

I don’t really know why, but I’ve run into both of these spells that are played more to draw a card than for the effect. Sometimes Flare will kill a utility creature or finish off a damaged creature in combat, but I haven’t seen Force Void counter anything yet. So of the two based on experience, I would recommend Flare first.

Word of Command

This is such a fun card; if you have one, why not toss it into your deck? Sure, you sometimes swing and miss, but it’s a lot of fun doing so. Command your friend over to play Magic tonight! (And you get cool points for playing it in Commander.) 

Commander ’95 is a great variant for a format that’s already great. I’ve played very little original Commander over the last few months, instead poring myself into C95. It has everything I adore about the format and so much more.

I hope that you can see how deep the format truly is. Cards that would never touch your deck are suddenly on the table and interesting. That’s the Commander spirit—play some random card that no one has seen before and win with it.

Have you been playing C95? If so, what has been working for you? I’d love to bring you into the greater C95 discussion!

The Appendix

Article The First – Wherein I Discuss The Format & Consider An Esper Commander Deck

Article The Second – Wherein I Look At The Depth Of The Format & Present My Gabriel Angelfire Deck

Article The Third – Wherein I Consider The Essentials Of The Format And Their Respective Price