The Kitchen Table: The Best Commander Cards From 2013

Abe shares his list of the best ten cards from 2013 for Commander. Let him know whether you agree or disagree with his picks in the comments!

This past year we saw the release of a new Commander series of decks, the last two-thirds of Return to Ravnica block, some useful cards in M14, and Magic got all Greek on us in Theros. That’s a lot of new cards. Which ones of these do I think were the best Commander cards released in 2013? Today I want to look at the best ten cards from 2013 for Commander.

Sometimes we discover that cards are better or worse after playing around with them. For example, I didn’t think Nim Deathmantle was any hot stuff when it was released. I recalled how weak Sigil of the New Dawn often was, and its activation cost was roughly half of the Deathmantle’s. But after playing with the Deathmantle, I saw just how powerful it was because the creatures came back into play and since the Deathmantle could be included in any deck rather than just white ones. So my evaluation of the card increased significantly. Today if you were to ask me what the best Commander cards were from Scars block, I would have to carefully consider the Deathmantle when it didn’t chart much earlier.

Plus we also get cards that are hard to evaluate prior to paying with them. Can you imagine trying to figure out how powerful Mindslaver would be or how useful the planeswalkers would be? They were unique cards and thus needed ample time to play them. For example, the five Gods from Theros are different—fading in and out but keeping an indestructible enchantment effect at all times. We needed to get some play under our belts before we could accurately begin to assess them.

Therefore, this article gives me a chance to review the year and see how some cards did exactly what we thought but others may have played better or worse than expected. Here are my Top 10 cards for Commander from 2013.

10. Erebos, God of the Dead – This is the perfect example of Nim Deathmantle syndrome. It didn’t even make my chart in my initial analysis of the power of the Gods at the kitchen table, and I had it ranked fourth out of five in my mind. However, after playing around with it (and facing it), it has risen to the second spot and just good enough to hit number ten for the year.

Trust me, locking off life gain from your opponents for the rest of the game is a lot more powerful than it appears, and it’s a foil to the single most annoying commander from the Commander 2013 list (see number eight below). Plus the occasional use of its Greed ability is a nice way to get card advantage even when you can’t get in a swing for five damage off devotion. After playing with the cards, Erebos comes out a clear winner.

9. Elspeth, Sun’s Champion – Elspeth is another card that has improved with play. The production of a trio of beaters every turn is a lot more reliable in power for a six-drop than I had initially feared. Plus you can occasionally Retribution of the Meek. That usually clears out most stuff that would hit and smash Elspeth too badly, so she tends to stick in play more than you might think. The combination of mass token making, mass removal, and a downright nasty emblem/ultimate makes Elspeth a force at the Commander tables. She is truly a powerful ally for your team.

8. Oloro, Ageless Ascetic – The most annoying and powerful commander from C13 isn’t Nekusar, the Mindrazer or Roon of the Hidden Realm. No, it’s this guy and his free unstoppable life gain every turn. Decks built around it harness the life gain into resources. That becomes nasty quickly. You don’t even need to cast Oloro and it will have a major impact on the board. Decks built around it quickly become obscene.

For example, while Erebos is a great tool against it, it also works wonders in an Oloro deck, spending that two free life to draw a card every turn. As long as they don’t cast it, there is no ability to tuck into a deck or handle the life gain of Oloro in any manner other than a rude card such as Erebos or Rain of Gore. Oloro disappoints me, and I hope we don’t see more of these types of cards that have powerful abilities in the command zone.

7. Teysa, Envoy of Ghosts – Teysa is an amazing card who plays a lot better than she looks at first. Protection from creatures means she cannot be blocked by any creature in Magic—so barring something like Maze of Ith, she will attack through any defense. Plus with vigilance you can swing for four damage every turn without sacrificing defense. And what a defense that is! She can block any creature and will survive almost every creature’s attack. Now, you will take some trample damage on larger ground-based foes, so Teysa can absorb four damage from something like Panglacial Wurm.

Still, she is a potent attacker and defender in one package. Then on top of that package we have a No Mercy, which is a powerful incentive for your foes to attack somewhere else unless they want their creatures to die. And if that triggers and creatures do bite it, you spit out some flying tokens. There are so many powerful abilities in here that it staggers the mind and dominates the table. Teysa is downright broken.

6. RestoreWhile this may look like an ordinary land returning card, the simple fact is that we have never had this effect in Magic before. Returning a land into play under our control is not new, but taking it from an opponent’s graveyard? That’s sexy! From fetch lands to Strip Mine to that destroyed Volrath’s Stronghold, there are a lot of options to steal. Plus stealing the card from a foe cuts off the ability to get it back into play under the owner’s control. And don’t forget that if the best land happens to be in your own graveyard, Restore will bring it back too! That gives your own Gaea’s Cradle type lands a bit more protection from removal beyond Life from the Loam or Crucible of Worlds. The sheer flexibility of this card cannot be long denied.

Now, what are the Top 5?

5. Prime Speaker Zegana – In my opinion, the second-best legendary creature printed in the last year is Prime Speaker Zegana. It plays very well with the format either as a commander or as a powerful creature in a deck with the right colors (such as Bant or Ana). It arrives as a decently sized threat, ready to smash-hammer someone with one more power than your biggest creature. Plus it draws you a bunch of cards. Having played with and against the Prime Speaker all year long, we all know its power level by now—sick.

Drawing a ton of cards alongside a nice big creature for just six mana is very breakable. We have uncovered all of the cheaper high-power creatures that can be played just before Zegana’s arrival. Look at cards like Arbor Colossus or Changeling Titan. Zegana breaks games open by giving you a big creature and a new grip of cards quite easily—considering the typical sizes of creatures in Commander. There’s no question (in my mind at least) that this lil’ ol’ legendary creature belongs in the Top 5 cards printed in 2013.

4. Garruk, Caller of Beasts – The Caller of Awesome has arrived, and we have one of the best planeswalkers ever printed for Commander here. I thought it would rock after it saw print (it made the top of my best cards from M14 article), and it has played that well too. In a deck with 50% creatures, you will average revealing over 2.5 cards each activation to ramp your card stock with cards that matter. Even in a deck with just 40% creatures (which mine tend to hit), you should average two cards per +1 activation. That’s’ a nice card advantage engine right there that breaks open similar cards like Staff of Nin.

But then we can drop any green creature for three loyalty onto the battlefield. A lot of green decks tend to have some high-profile but expensive creatures. So you can easily play Worldspine Wurm, Terastodon, or Craterhoof Behemoth (or number three below.)  And let’s not forget that Garruk has one of the most powerful emblem ultimates of all time. Very few planeswalkers can blow an opponent out of the water and singlehandedly change the board state to the degree that this version of Garruk can.

Top 3 time!

3. Sylvan Primordial (And the Primordial Cycle) One of the best cards printed in 2013 was seen as powerful from day one. No one doubted that Sylvan Primordial would be a threat in Commander from the moment we laid eyes on it. It remains an iconic powerhouse in the format and in less than a year has become a default card in most green decks I play against. Sylvan Primordial is to green Commander what Acidic Slime used to be (and still is in many places)—a default card that makes the cut almost always. It’s that powerful—it ends threats and speeds up your lands. It does it all!

The rest of the cycle is good enough to see play (although some [Sepulchral] are better than others [Molten]).  But all can blow a game out of the water. Luminate can exile a bunch of creatures to help regain balance at the table, the Diluvian one can give you a bunch of free spells, Molten can steal creatures like a mini Insurrection, and the Sepulchral one can provide a three- or five-person army to tag along with it. All are great. But the Sylvan is the class of the class, and it’s a worthy choice for this list.

2. Prophet of Kruphix Combining two effects that were already amazing, you can untap everything and flash creatures—that’s a potent combination. This is going to be a kitchen table all-star for years to come. It can blow your hand out very quickly, but if you have a way to refill your hand, you can quickly vomit out enough cards to get silly. Five mana is about what you would expect one of these abilities to cost on an enchantment. (Maybe three mana for the flash creatures half. By the way, why is this card not mono-green? What aspect of it is blue? Green already has creatures that flash out, so giving just green creatures flash is nothing new. The untap part is basically Seedborn Muse. So what is this even gaining from being blue? I don’t get it.)

Getting both abilities on a creature for five mana is super nice, and you can protect it with the normal stable of cards (such as Lightning Greaves). We have witnessed its power, and it’s incredible. But for all of that, not only is Prophet of Kruphix not the most powerful card of 2013 for Commander, but it’s not even the most powerful of Theros.

1. Purphoros, God of the Forge – I think it’s very appropriate to begin and end this list with Gods (although that was random and not intentional). To my mind, Purphoros began as the third-best card from Theros for Commander (after Caryatid and Prophet), but it has played its way to the top. In decks built around it, the game can end rather quickly. By far Purphoros wins the prize for best static ability on a God. One Siege-Gang Commander causes enemies to lose 20% of their starting life total. It plays very well with self-bouncing, Flickering, and token-making themes.

You don’t even need it in a deck that reliably gets to devotion for it to be a powerful game-winning enchantment. Plus it has a pretty keen activation cost for a nice ability that can change the board around (people often have to play against it if you have the mana available to use it, and it can do some damage late game when you can activate it multiple times). And don’t forget that when your devotion ticks up you get a cheap and powerful 6/5 body that can roll out the damage. Here comes the God of the Forge, leading the best of the best from 2013.

Now, I didn’t want this list to be littered with good utility cards printed this year, such as Hero’s Downfall, Wear // Tear, Sylvan Caryatid, or Unexpectedly Absent. The best Commander cards all year long aren’t the latest land-fetching tool or a nice new counter. Nope, they are the flash and the game-ending and the hole-filling cards that did not exist before 2013. That’s why Restore is here—it does something new and exciting. Cards like Opal Palace, while new, just didn’t have enough power to make the list.

What do you think of my list? What cards would make your own Top 10 for Commander from 2013? Let me know in the comments below. I hope 2014 is as nice to Commander as this year was!

Until later,
Abe Sargent