Commander is a format about big, swingy plays and epic events. It’s about commanders crashing into the Red Zone for 21 damage or leading in an army for 100 or more. The creatures with the most impact tend to be legendary, whether they’re at the head of the team or not—but there are plenty of non-legendary creatures that do quite a bit of heavy lifting. It’s time to recognize them for their unending contributions to your decks. They’re the often unsung stars that might not be the ones crossing the finish line, but they’ve propelled the team forward in getting there.
For these purposes, a utility creature is defined as a non-legendary one that doesn’t often attack (or at least its primary purpose isn’t getting in during the combat phase), has one or more useful abilities, and is also not part of a well-known combo finisher—so no Protean Hulk, Hermit Druid, or Triskelion here. The one I really struggled with including or not on the list is Reveillark—is it raw utility or is it part of a finishing package? Often, it’s both, so I’ll mention it here but give the other, sometimes less-heralded cards their due.
Some of the cards on the list will also represent several other cards which do similar things. I’ve also left off the list two popular creatures that do strong utility work but also lay out serious beats: Woodfall Primus and Terastodon. I also left off Consecrated Sphinx because, while it’s certainly useful, it doesn’t feel like the same kind of role-player that the other cards on the list are. Finally, I didn’t include Clones; while quite useful, they don’t really do anything on their own—but they deserve mention.
Sure, it doesn’t take out a planeswalker, which might be more relevant these days, but it will get rid of an annoying artifact, enchantment, or land and then be around to threaten to block something dangerous. Should be called Acidic Rattlesnake. There are plenty of creatures that enter the battlefield and blow up stuff, but Acidic Slime doing something on the back end, once it’s done its major work, elevates it into the elite category.
A card that some people have surprisingly still not heard of, Aura Thief is a blowout in nearly every game I’ve seen it cast. You’ll get better use out of it if you have a sacrifice outlet, but it’s also just protection against both flyers and battlefield wipes, since they’re going to have to think twice about battling you. Best use is when someone is playing Child of Alara with a bunch of indestructible Gods.
Getting a little land ramp into the hands of nongreen decks was one of the best choices for utility our friends in R&D could have made. It doesn’t do much otherwise, but its application in decks all across the spectrum make it worthy of inclusion. The way we generally play this to save time is “I’m sacrificing this on my turn; if anyone attacks me, I blocked with it.”
In the running for best two-drop ever (yes, I see you, Snapcaster Mage), we see so much of Coiling Oracle because it’s 1) very, very good, and 2) in the two best commander colors. I suppose the downside could be that there are times you really want one (the land or the draw) but you get the other, but that’s a small price to pay for all the value it brings.
One of the most constantly-discussed cards in the format, Deadeye Navigator is the patron saint of utility. Whether it’s creating value by being soulbonded to any of a number of the other cards on this list or creating some sort of soft lock with Mystic Snake, it’s a card that always must be reckoned with once it hits the battlefield. I see it as a less dangerous card than I know some other people do, but I get how it can be oppressive when used in a certain way. My counter-argument is that it takes quite a bit of mana to do so and there aren’t that many scenarios in which Deadeye Navigator is completely safe.
Red doesn’t get much love in Commander, but Dualcaster Mage is always a house. Whether it’s cheaply doubling up your big damage spell or getting a Tooth and Nail of your own (tip—first creature to get when yours resolves is Draining Whelk), it’s one of those cards that will provide an endless supply of epic plays at your tables. I’ve been known to use Dualcaster Mage early in games to copy ramp spells, especially in a deck that doesn’t have green in it and could use the help.
You can certainly make Duplicant into an attack-worthy creature, but its primary job is exiling something that’s really, really good so that it won’t come back again. Because it’s an artifact, it slots into nearly any deck, and its mana cost puts it in a fun place in your Birthing Pod / Prime Speaker Vannifar chain. Duplicant is representative of Phyrexian Ingester, which can get even bigger and still does the exile job.
Blinky the Eldrazi quickly became one of my favorite cards after its release. I’m pretty fond of good enters-the-battlefield triggers (as this list might indicate), and Blinky lets us get them multiple times. It can also be used defensively to keep attackers off your face or to reset things with counters on them. I’ve gotten some mileage out of it with leaves-the-battlefield triggers, like on Slithermuse and Nevermaker. It’s probably a little less good with Toothy, Imaginary Friend.
A card that’s been popular in the format since the very beginning, Eternal Witness just does a job and there’s something to be said for simplicity. There’s no feeling like it being one of the cards that you get with Genesis Wave (or, in more Timmy fashion, Primal Surge). The combo potential is high, but at least in my local environment, I see it being used more for simple value than to fuel anything ridiculous.
Glen Elendra Archmage
The spells which will treat you the worst tend to be others’ noncreatures. Glen Elendra Archmage will help you with that, not once, but twice (or more if you want to go down the Melira, Sylvok Outcast route). This pick could have also been Mystic Snake or Draining Whelk, although the latter is a little pricey (but who doesn’t love countering something big and then giving crack-backs?). The Archmage is an on-battlefield trick, so no one will walk blindly into it, but it’s also sitting there, preventing them from doing stuff.
What it does is pretty simple—it reanimates a creature from your graveyard. But there’s way more to it than that. It flies and it has protection from black, so it can singlehandedly keep all but the trampliest of creatures off you. My favorite part is the echo ability. It means that you can fail to pay the echo, thereby having it in your graveyard to reanimate with something else (like if you’re playing a Karador, Ghost Chieftain deck), which will get you another thing back. One of the longstanding tricks in the format is to play Karmic Guide alongside Saffi Erikdottir so that you can put the echo trigger on the stack and then sacrifice Saffi, eventually bringing back Karmic Guide (since, in your Karador deck, Saffi is cheaper to cast). Wins all around.
Evoke it or not, your choice. Either way, you’re drawing some cards. My tendency is to play Mulldrifter in something that blinks (why hello, Eldrazi Displacer), so I’m less likely to evoke it. Great utility doesn’t have to be fancy. Sometimes, it can just draw two cards for you.
Probably the most attack-capable card on the list, Noxious Gearhulk also represents smaller cousins Big Game Hunter and Boneshredder. The thing about it is that there are no restrictions on what kind of creature you can destroy with it and you gain life equal to the creature’s toughness. I will confess to having destroyed my own Lord of Extinction with it when my life total was precarious and it didn’t look like I’d survive the next attack.
Oracle of Mul Daya
Land ramp is the primary reason to play green (although there are several other good reasons, like amazing creatures), and Oracle of Mul Daya gets your motor running. Some folks might not like others knowing what’s on top of their library, but the benefit outweighs the cost, because Oracle of Mul Daya also has what I call effective card draw. It’s not actual card draw, but it fills basically the same role. If you’re playing cards off the top of your deck, you’re not spending the cards in your hand. I’m glad they fixed the rules a few years ago so you couldn’t do silly bounce-the-Oracle tricks, but even without them, this is a top-tier card. Don’t forget the Oracle’s cousin, Courser of Kruphix, who isn’t quite as good (since it doesn’t give you the additional land drop), but is quite nice when you play the two of them together.
I keep mentioning cards that do a primary thing and then a secondary one as well. That is Puppeteer Clique in a nutshell. Its primary ability will reanimate someone’s creature for you in order to either get its cool enters-the-battlefield trigger or do a little combat surprise. The better part of it is that it has persist, so you’ll be able to do it again (perhaps on the same turn, given a sacrifice outlet). Even better is that the creature gets exiled at end of turn (assuming it’s still on the battlefield), giving you a measure of graveyard control. I’m unnaturally attached to this card, but there’s a pretty good reason.
You’ll never lack for a good target to destroy with Qasali Pridemage, but what raises its value to me is that while you’re waiting for the right time, it’s making your big solo attacker better. It’s a small thing, but small things sometimes make a big difference.
Blink tricks are very strong in Commander, whether it’s getting another trigger or saving something from targeted removal, and there are few better blink tricks than Restoration Angel. It’s a pretty good thing that they added the non-Angel clause because of cards like Karmic Guide and Angel of Despair. I will concede that there have been a number of times that I’ve momentarily forgotten this as I’m planning a move, only to swear loudly and out of the blue (since I’ve been in the tank). My friends have gotten used to it by now. “Forgot the Angel thing again, didn’t you?”
My graveyard is a wonderful and safe resource. Yours is dirty and dangerous and needs to be controlled. Enter my friend, Scavenging Ooze, who not only cleans things up but boosts one’s life total a little as well. It’s a kill-on-sight creature for many players when they see it on the other side of the table—and I’m one of them. Remember: wonderful and safe.
Another often-discussed card in the format, Seedborn Muse is the not-broken Prophet of Kruphix. It breaks the turn symmetry by allowing you access to (nearly) all your resources on every other player’s turn. Attack and still have blockers. Cast stuff and still have reaction mana. Activate tap abilities and then do it again. It’s justifiably on the list of cards you can’t get upset about when someone blows up.
I originally had Wood Elves, Farhaven Elf, and friends as a separate entry on the list because they have enters-the-battlefield effects instead of a dies trigger (also Sakura-Tribe Elder), but it’s safe to lump them all in here. Seedguide Ash gets dual lands as well, raising its value that much more. It seems a little weird to me that we didn’t really think about the card much in Commander when it first came out, but now most folks have gotten on board the Seedguide Ash train.
One of the cards which in my experience has led to some of the most explosive out-of-nowhere plays, Primordial of the Black lets you reanimate a creature from every opponent—and someone is either playing a Clone or a black Primordial of their own, leading to further shenanigans. Pro Tour Historian Brian David-Marshall is on record as loathing this card and is happy to remind me of that fact every time I see him. It’s pretty cost-appropriate. At seven mana, it should have an impact on the game. If you’re just using other folks’ stuff against them to have a bigger impact, it only seems fair.
There is little to be said about Solemn Simulacrum that hasn’t already been said over and over. It’s a card you’re always happy to see and can sometimes really get you out of a tight spot. It has to be the most-played creature in the format, yet no one groans and rolls their eyes when you cast it. It might be a sad robot, but it makes everyone happy.
Another of the few attack-worthy cards on the list, Sun Titan is included for its ability to keep doing work, and integrates with a few other cards on this list. Burnished Hart, for example, costs only three. You don’t have to worry about sacrificing your Qasali Pridemage to take out a second-tier artifact or enchantment; now you can nuke something every turn. Sun Titan just keeps giving.
Utility can also involve moving life totals, and Suture Priest takes yours the good way and your opponents’ the better. It’s mildly annoying (not Rhystic Study or Smothering Tide level, but still) to remind people to lose a life for every creature, but they’ll get over it. One of the best moments I’ve ever seen at a table was when a player cast Avenger of Zendikar and was going to get a swarm of Plant tokens and someone else at the table cast Mirrorweave, turning everything into a Suture Priest. That player didn’t make it.
Perhaps the grandpa of all utility creatures, Yavimaya Elder gets lands for you and draws a card. There is little else that you could want it to do.
Utility creatures will never be the superstars of your Commander decks. They’ll get your engines running, help you out of a tricky spot, get rid of things that annoy you, and play an important role in any deck’s success. There are certainly many more cards that could have made this list. The fun is in searching for the next 25.
Sheldon Menery’s Deck Database
Check out our comprehensive Deck List Database! Click each section for lists of all my decks.
These are the decks that define my personal play style to the greatest degree and to some extent lay the original foundation of the format. They’re also the ones you’re most likely to see me bringing along to spell-sling at an event.
The Chromatic Project
The Chromatic Project started as an effort to build at least one deck of all 27 possible color combinations, which was expanded to 32 when we finally got four color commanders. There’s more than one of some combinations, mostly because I have a Temur problem, plus some partner combinations are too enticing to pass up.
Shards and Wedges
The Do-Over Project
The Do-Over Project is the next step after the Chromatic—building a deck with each of the same Commanders, but not repeating any cards save for basic lands (props to Abe Sargent’s “Next 99” idea). The Do-Over Project is still ongoing because we keep getting saucy new sets with creative and colorful commanders to build new decks with.