If you’re a Commander player, the hits keep on coming! Right on the heels of Commander 2020, we have Core Set 2021, keeping the needle pegged on our awesome card tachometer. New planeswalkers, new legendary creatures, and new spells of all kinds are going to find their way into your Commander decks in short order.
I’ll review each color, counting multicolored and artifacts/lands as their own sections, grading them individually, commenting on notable cards, and picking a Top three from each. Remember that this is a review for Commander only. Some of these cards will have major impacts in other formats, but we’re talking just about the 100-card decks. I’ll discuss mostly the new cards, but some of the reprints as well.
Is paying the extra mana over Path to Exile worth the flexibility of also hitting a planeswalker? Is giving them a 4/4 Angel worse than giving them a land? The answer isn’t clear, but I’m willing to take the chance and lean toward mostly positive. Exiling things in Commander is always better than leaving them in a graveyard for someone (owner or otherwise) to mess around with them.
What a difference a decade makes. I’d like to see the inclusion in Core Set 2021 to provide a resurgence in play in a card that I’ve simply always liked.
Our newest planeswalker, this Basri gives you opportunity to go wide with a saucy -2 ability that will double the size of your team. That team gets even deadlier if you’re able to run the -6 ultimate out there, making the previously doubled team even larger.
If you’re playing Basri’s Lieutenant, it’s in a deck that’s firing out those +1/+1 counters anyway. You’ll be creating quite a few Knight tokens. Note that the dies ability doesn’t say “nontoken,” so if you manage to get counters on the Knights (Juniper Order Ranger would make it happen), you’re in business. Don’t underestimate the value of protection from multicolored, either. There are lots of important attacking creatures in the format that Basri’s Lieutenant is going to keep off your face.
Another reprint, and one I’m not always happy about seeing, since I like to engage in as many blink shenanigans as the next person.
The built-in protection of not having your stuff permanently exiled if the Idol goes away significantly ups the playability. You get the protection of not having them Bojuka Bog’d away at a relatively low cost. If you’re not already playing a Karador, Ghost Chieftain deck or something with reanimation, Idol of Endurance offers you a little taste of the style.
Drawing cards for getting attacked is better than getting attacked and just sitting there. There’s always a chance that you’ll draw into your Fogs or other interaction. What I think my favorite part of Mangara will be is sitting on the sidelines of a counter war—and just drawing a few cards.
Cats are all the rage in Magic these days and you won’t get an argument from me. You’ll have some turns before the number of counters gets awkward, so you’ll have time to get cards like Power Conduit; Thrull Parasite; Chisei, Heart of Oceans; or Aether Snap to reset the clock. You can also just bounce it back to your hand at a critical juncture. The major risk is obviously proliferate, but you’ll be ready. This one may turn out to be a trickier but less annoying Glacial Chasm.
Doggos are also here in Core Set 2021, and the Pack Leader is ready to rumble. Swinging into battle without fear of combat damage, our brave hounds will fight the good fight. Add something that prevents noncombat damage, like The Wanderer or Mark of Asylum, and you’ll have close-to-unkillable mutts.
Okay, the cute factor might be too much for me on this one. Note that the ability isn’t optional, but because it has the restriction of targeting only something an opponent controls, you can’t have it turned back on you in any way.
Shrines are back, although I need a little more convincing about how good they might be. If this is the start, confidence is low.
More cute pups, more decent abilities.
It’s no Serra Ascendant, but drop this on Turn 1 and you’ll be making Angels in no time.
Grade: B. Decent top-level stuff, reasonable density.
Lots of flexibility going on here with our newest Barrin. You can use it offensively to get your own enters-the-battlefield triggers or reset your fading planeswalkers. I see the primary defensive use in bouncing something with a bunch of counters on it, whether that’s a creature full of +1/+1s or a planeswalker getting to ultimate loyalty. Want more reason to play bouncelands? Barrin’s got you covered.
A Time Stop that’s really cheap to cast on your own turn will probably get you out of quite a few messes, from someone’s instant-speed battlefield sweeper to a combat that’s really gone wrong. The application that keeps coming to mind is avoiding end-of-turn stuff that you would prefer not happening, like with Final Fortune. At the same CMC as Time Stop and only requiring one more blue mana, Discontinuity is clearly the choice if you have to pick one. Time Stop still has nicer art, though.
There’s lots to unpack here. Every time an opponent casts their commander from the command zone, you’ll be drawing a card with Ghostly Pilferer. Same with flashback, or importantly, as the resolution of a spell or ability, like Mind’s Desire, Diluvian Primordial or Mind’s Dilation. After you’ve battled with it (or used it for Opposition fodder), you can pay two to draw a card. Its last ability doesn’t seem all that grand by itself, but if you’ve mutated it with Brokkos, Apex of Forever or friends, you could suddenly have an unblockable commander.
Making other people attack is better if they can’t attack you, like Propaganda, or one of my favorites, Chronomantic Escape. Excepting that, you’ll probably want to have some You Did This to Yourself elements handy.
Again, need some convincing on the value of the Shrines, although looting is generally a decent mechanic. When you’re using it to intentionally put cards into your graveyard for later use, so much the better.
Conceptually neat, it will shine if you have it on Isochron Scepter, cast from the top via Future Sight, or flash it back with Snapcaster Mage.
Holy Cryptic Command on steroids! The likelihood that you’ll choose all five modes at once is low, but it’ll be cool if you do. I suspect four is going to be the standard. Note that trying to both bounce and copy the same creature isn’t going to work out the way you want it to. Although it’s legal to target both, you follow instructions in the order they’re written; when the token-creator tries to do something, the spell sees that the target is illegal (rule 608.2b) and doesn’t do anything for that mode. Is Sublime Epiphany worth two more mana than Cryptic Command to get more modes? There are too many variables for a solid answer, but you had better believe I’m going to try to find out.
Being the face of the set with a jillion different alternate versions is justified in a rule-breaking card. It’s not going to take long for you to get where you’re threatening that -10 to take two extra turns. The fact that you can do it at nearly any time is pretty scary.
The fact that it’s legendary doesn’t impact Commander, but it’d sure be crazy in other formats otherwise. Doubling up on every card draw is a way to make things happen pretty quickly. Note that the replacement draw isn’t optional—if someone’s trying to deck you, you might have just helped them a little. Still, definitely worth the risk. After all, you’ll have enough cards in your hand to stop them. This card is officially bonkers.
With Teferi’s Ageless Insight, milling people out just got easier. Even if you’re not turbo-charging the card draw, Teferi’s Tutelage will get you where you’re going.
I say it every new set: every time I see something that untaps creatures, I smell an infinite combo not far behind.
Grade: A. The top cards are really top, and there are more than three of them, which bumps what’s probably an A- due to density up a notch.
Playing black, you know you’ll want stuff in your graveyard, and Crypt Lurker gives you a choice of ways to get it there.
Is Thallid/Saproling tribal on the table?
It feels like the enchantment needs to do one more thing, or maybe do one that it already does a little better, to be worthwhile. How many non-Demons are you running in the Demon deck anyway? If you’re not running tribal, then the creature type has less value. Flying might be worth the price, but the discard—even in a reanimation deck—seems like a bridge too far.
Love this card so much. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this was in the file of possible cards to build our playtest decks with when I was working on design teams, and it made it into nearly every deck I built. It fits the narrative of black decks that I like to run, namely in sacrificing creatures, but then if it gets recurred without casting, you still get the enters-the-battlefield trigger.
Certainly a card that has generated lots of chatter. If you’re playing some sort of degenerate combo that you’re going to go get a piece of with it, the extra mana and three life over Demonic Tutor (which, upon further review, isn’t all that demonic at all) are not significant. The mana might be a thing in a super-high-powered environment but the life isn’t likely to be. This card is strong, and so is my assertion that raw tutors are bad for the format.
Not that Pharika, God of Affliction needed to get better, but here’s some help. I’m a fan of the Hellrider idea that you can swing a swarm of creatures taking out one person before combat damage and another after. The problem is that you can’t even Fog the triggered ability. You’re just…Snaked.
Dude really is spiteful. Night of Souls’ Betrayal on a stick keeps quite a few other strategies in check. I see it more of a player in the 99 than at the helm, but black has enough tools that you can go mostly creatureless. If you’re playing some kind of Voltron strategy, I imagine the tiny hit to power and toughness aren’t that big of a deal and you clear the field of chump blockers.
This Liliana is all about the ultimate. If I can wait until Doubling Season is on the battlefield, better. Otherwise, I’m happy to use the +1 and proliferate up.
This, or Caller of the Claw (obviously color-dependent)? Do you want creatures or cards? The answer probably revolves around how many we’re talking about. Focusing back in on Liliana’s Standard Bearer, you know you’re in black, so you know creatures are doing to die. I’m a bigger fan of abilities like this when you have a creature state that needs to be answered or people die. If your battlefield gets wiped, at least you get a start to rebuilding.
Well, then. Underworld Dreams, kill you? The card is strong, for sure, and will do some wrecking in Commander games; I’m just not sure the game needed it. I suspect it’s one of those cards people will end up playing a few times and then getting bored with.
You don’t need too many other Shrines to make this one have long-term benefits that outweigh the expense of playing it. One of the more useful Shrines, especially if you want to turn on things like Rakdos, Lord of Riots.
In a deck like Oloro, Ageless Ascetic, you’ll have to try hard to not gain enough life to trigger Silversmote Ghoul. Various lifelink creatures apply as well, plenty of which you’ll find in the Ghoul’s fellow Vampires. The topic of life gain reminds me that I rarely see Divinity of Pride anymore. An 8/8 with flying and lifelink for just five mana is no joke.
A cool little ability for your Rogue tribal, you can certainly up the ante by also playing Conspiracy. There are 89 Rogues in black alone, to include the underplayed Faerie Macabre and everyone’s favorite, Gonti, Lord of Luxury.
Big fan of this card (especially at common). In Commander games, your creatures are going to die. You might as well get some benefit out of it.
One of the strongest cards in the set, Vito will inevitably lead people to Blood/Bond combo, and sometimes very early in the game. Even used without going infinite, you’ll be able to drain quite a bit of life from everyone.
Relatively straightforward, Witch’s Cauldron is all about getting what you want into the graveyard while having the side benefit of drawing a card.
Grade: A. Excellent top cards, outstanding density.
How can you have a creature named Bolt Hound and it not do three to something?
Our planeswalkers from this set seem to all be about just getting to the ultimate ability. This Chandra could get painful in getting there without proliferation because of the +1 ability’s effect of discarding your hand.
Cycling things with Brallin, Skyshark Raider will make Chandra’s Incinerator pretty cheap. On the whole, I was hoping for more from something named after one of the current storyline’s primary planeswalkers and the thing she does.
One of the weaknesses of Goblin decks is that they can run out of cards. With the Snoop (too bad there’s not a Dog you could mutate it onto), that will be less of a problem, since it functions as effective card draw. Add to that the activated abilities of the card, and you could be in for quite a ride, with cards like Krenko, Mob Boss or Siege-Gang Commander. The big one, of course, is Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. Activate Conspicuous Snoop first, making a copy of something, and then cast KJ off the top and do it again.
Clearly meant for doubling up damage with your red spells, but there are plenty of other uses for Double Vision. If you want to start winning counter wars, Double Vision will help you out by forcing opponents to counter twice. Empty your deck of basic lands with Boundless Realms. Get double the Cats with White Sun’s Zenith, and so on.
Following on the heels of Nyxbloom Ancient, we live in the world of tripling things now. All I know about the savage Fiery Emancipation is that damage prevention is going to be really important. It’s not just about Fog anymore. You’ll want to strike back with Deflecting Palm or Comeuppance. Torbran, Thane of Red Fell starts getting silly, too. If you’re thinking about playing Fiery Emancipation, consider creating situations in which damage can’t be prevented, like with Flaring Pain and personal favorite Malignus.
I don’t know about you, but in most of my red decks, I’m highly likely to trigger this saucy reprint from Theros Beyond Death every turn. There’s loads of value here. Note that because the ability to play the card is tied to the triggered ability, you’ll have access to it even if Furious Rise goes away (CR 611.2a).
It’s pitifully easy to have four or more artifacts, whether you’re hard-casting mana rocks or collecting Treasure tokens off Smothering Tithe. Playing Gadrak with small creatures and sacrifice outlets will get you generating Treasures all by itself in pretty short order as well.
Goblin Bombardment is already a thing, so Havoc Jester just makes firing out damage twice as nice. There are plenty of popular things that like sacrifice, such as Korvold, Fae-Cursed King; Fabled Passage; and fetchlands. Maybe put Basilisk Collar on Havoc Jester just for additional laughs.
Probably a little too narrow to see widespread play, but there might be something there with sabotage creatures like Bone Dancer or the always-nasty Master of Cruelties. Guiltfeeder could be compelling as well.
A cheaper Warstorm Surge on a stick, Terror of the Peaks will make life totals dwindle in very short order. Even a medium-sized Living Death could be lethal. Three creatures that come to mind to play alongside Terror of the Peaks are Malignus, Lord of Extinction, and Multani, Maro-Sorcerer. Highly aggressive.
A Threaten that nets mana seems good when you “borrow” a creature while you have Perilous Forays on the battlefield.
I won’t be sad if Polymorph becomes a red mechanic. In many red strategies, you have small tokens. Turning one of them into something much larger is great. Of course, you can exile a really scary creature that someone else controls, hopefully turning it into something less frightening.
Doubling the power of creatures never gets out of hand, right? Unleash Fury on top of Xenagos, God of Revels sets up even the most mid-power of commanders to be one-shot lethal. Since it’s an instant, you can also cast it on something that just entered the battlefield and has triggered Terror of the Peaks. Also don’t underestimate the value of unleashing the fury on an opponent’s creature that’s attacking a different opponent.
Dinosaur decks in particular are going to like running Volcanic Salvo, because twelve damage for RR is what the kids call value.
Grade: A. Finally! Red gets some much-needed love for Commander. The question now is if the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. I’m guardedly optimistic.
A 6/6 with vigilance, reach, and trample for five mana is already good enough. Stapling on one of three triggered abilities, two of which are relevant in Commander (the lifegain is pretty much meh), just kicks this thing into hyperdrive.
Honestly, the name is redundant. This card is so full of flavor win that I almost don’t know what to do with myself. Its play value is good as well, as it’ll start knocking mana rocks off the table pretty early. When I shared with my wife, a fellow cat lover, all of the Cats in this set, particularly this art, she said that we’d have to get an extra copy of each card and have them all framed together. No arguments.
Not splashy or spectacular, but I suspect Fungal Rebirth will end up being quite useful.
As I mention with the other planeswalkers, the ultimate is what you’re going for here. Free creatures are always good; the choice of the best creature in your deck makes this galactically huge. Don’t dismiss the +1 ability, either. Trample kills people.
Hexproof from a color is not nearly as good as protection, but it’ll keep lots of the targeted removal away. You’ll need some other evasion to be able to get the relatively decent trigger.
Just whoa. So many good abilities all tacked onto an uncommon? This card is crazy. You’re most likely drawing a card when it enters the battlefield, then drawing more for most of your creatures. As I’ve mentioned enough times that you’re probably getting tired of hearing it, trample kills people. This card makes so much of what I love to do in Commander an order of magnitude better, you know I’ll struggle to not jam it into a bunch of decks.
Nice reprint, now available in saucy extended art.
Hello, Invigorating Surge. I would like you to meet my very good friend, Kresh the Bloodbraided. I hope the two of you hit it off.
Free Cats are good. Having them with base power and toughness of six or seven instead of two or three will win games.
I play Crowned Ceratok in my Prime Speaker Zegana deck, which is all about putting +1/+1 counters on creatures. Pridemalkin provides some slightly less expensive redundancy.
Even if you’re only getting one mana off this Shrine, it’ll be worth playing. The best of the monocolored Shrines from the set.
Another well-appreciated reprint, especially now that there’s a different version in the alternate art.
The card has generated lots of chatter, more I think because of its adorableness than function.
One of the knocks against Hydra decks is that it’s hard to get them going early. Wildwood Scourge can help with that, but you’ll still need some non-Hydra creatures to make it work. The card that’s obvious to me to pair with Wildwood Scourge is Forgotten Ancient, nearly doubling the number of counters you’ll distribute during upkeep—one to each other creature and the total of those onto the Scourge.
Grade: B. For once, green doesn’t just get all the best stuff, and I’m not too disappointed about it.
The combination of abilities makes me quite happy. Even if it’s just two life, it’s fine. If you’ve leveraged the first ability onto itself, so much the better.
The combat-triggered ability is likely to be more about what you sacrifice or the fact that you sacrificed something (harkening us back to Havoc Jester) than it is about making Dire Fleet Warmonger a 5/5 with trample.
I’m pretty sure you’ll get a value-sized creature out of Experimental Overload, but you’re still waiting for the best part, which is getting that cool spell back. If you’re playing it alongside Double Vision, so much better.
A reasonable addition to your Vampire tribal deck. It’s not going to make or break anything, but it’ll do some work.
Somewhere in a Cloudstone Curio cycle, you’ll get big value out of Niambi. Also, just bouncing back a creature in order to get its enters-the-battlefield trigger again is worthwhile. Then, there’s the value of saving your creature from targeted removal. The activated ability seems a little awkward and tacked-on, but useful if you’re going to Regrow/Reanimate it later anyway.
She does everything all by herself—puts the thing you want into the graveyard in order to reanimate it, and then makes the sacrifice to bring it back. My kind of card. Amusing art as well.
The ever-more-muscled Radha is okay by me. Playing her as your commander suggests a Voltron or commander damage strategy, especially since she’s in the same colors as Xenagos, God of Revels. Add Rubblehulk for more hilarity. Even as one of the 99, as a ramp/utility creature, she’s good. I’m rarely going to say no to playing lands off the top.
Most relevant part of the card might be the ability to search your graveyard for one of the Shrines that someone has taken out. I suspect someone is making Shrine tribal as we speak. No, we’re not going to allow enchantments as commanders, but between us, if you sat down with me and asked if you could give it a run, I’d say yes.
Golgari decks like to sacrifice their own creatures. Twinblade Assassins honors their sacrifice.
Kangee, Aerie Keeper keeps getting better!
There aren’t quite enough multicolored cards to pick a Top 3 or give it a grade, but I’m reasonably happy with what we’ve seen.
Artifact and Colorless
Another of the much-discussed cards in the set, Chromatic Orrery taps to cast whatever you want if you have Jodah, Archmage Eternal on the battlefield. Five mana is no joke; five mana that’s effectively whatever color you want means the joke’s probably on your opponents. Your Sen Triplets deck will probably appreciate this Orrery a great deal.
It feels like there are too many hoops to jump through in order to get value out of Mazemind Tome. Removing counters would be one way to keep it alive, but those are extra resources you have to commit. You also have to pay attention if someone is proliferating. If you have a way of sacrificing it and Regrowing it, like with Glissa, the Traitor, maybe.
Just mentioning it for the cool new extended alternate art.
It’s fine for keeping a broad range of planeswalkers in check, and you can do it in any color. The ability to make it indestructible is a reasonable side benefit.
Another reprint that shows sensitivity to the price of cards on the secondary market. More printings means more availability, and those who want to spend top dollar still can, nabbing the alternate art version.
Again, the selection of the category is too small to actually grade, but no complaints.
Overall, the set definitely gets an A. There are more than enough strong cards that’ll make their way directly into your Commander decks and certainly more that’ll inspire you to new builds. There are compelling new lines of play and return to favorites. Bonus points for red being one of the strongest colors.
If I were to have a concern, it’d be power creep. It’s not that I think anything is individually too strong here strong. My worry is that we might be boxing ourselves in creatively. We’re not quite at a danger point yet, but I want to make sure we heed the warning signs. We’ll see as the future of Magic unfolds.
Visit my Decklist Database to see my Signature Decks, the Chromatic Project, and more!