My Ten Favorite Commander Things Of 2020 (And A 2021 Preview)

Sheldon Menery remembers the most Magical parts of a difficult 2020 before looking ahead to 2021.

Toski, Bearer of Secrets, illustrated by Jason Rainville
Toski, Bearer of Secrets, illustrated by Jason Rainville

In 2020, it’s best to not drag out the end of the year.  The faster that we get this thing in the rear view, the better.  That’s why I’m not laying out a retrospective one week and a preview the next.  It’s all here, right now.  Despite not being out of the woods quite yet on the global pandemic, there’s hope on the horizon — and there was still some good to come from 2020 in the Magic world.  Here’s my Top 10.

10. The Year of Commander

While most of the in-person events planned for the year were cancelled, the focus on Magic’s most popular format was only slightly diminished.  We saw the results of design and development getting on board with the idea that every set is a Commander set and adjusting accordingly. 

There was some angst coming into the year that focusing on the format would lead to too much good stuff-only cards (your Korvold, Fae-Cursed King and Chulane, Teller of Tales, for example).  In the end, as evidenced in Commander Legends, they hit all the angles in the sweet spot.  A card or two might have gotten pushed, but the teams otherwise did a fantastic job of not taking things too far.  What they did with partners was especially grand, following our advice regarding the mechanic from so long ago: be careful

9. Mutate

Brokkos, Apex of Forever Illuna, Apex of Wishes Nethroi, Apex of Death

The mechanic might be a polarizing one, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  In Limited environments, it was house.  Deck brewers also got on board, making clever decks out of Brokkos, Apex of Forever; Illuna, Apex of Wishes; Nethroi, Apex of Death; Snapdax, Apex of the Hunt, and Vadrok, Apex of Thunder

Illuna was my favorite despite being an avowed Abzan fan.  The value chain was nearly never-ending.  Nethroi, on the other hand, made it into a Karador, Ghost Chieftain deck as 1 of 99.  I built a Brokkos deck, whose primary goal is to mutate the commander onto Lord of Extinction and serve.  Also, don’t sleep on Surgeon General Commander (which I would totally let you play at my table). 

8. New Takes on Lands

Zagoth Triome Clearwater Pathway

One of the constant challenges in building a Commander deck is the manabase.  Not only can they be difficult, they can be really expensive.  We went a long way this past year to fix that.  The two big ones for me are Triomes and Pathways. 

Debuting in Zendikar Rising and continuing into Kaldheim, the Pathways became the two-color lands that we didn’t have to sell a kidney for. The Triomes from Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths were an even bigger hit, providing fetchable tri-lands.  Available in the wedge colors, they stepped up the game from Savage Lands, Seaside Citadel, and friends.  What I always seem to forget is that they also cycle, providing more late-game action than a normal land might.  Chef’s kiss to the Triomes and here’s hoping we see them in the shards in the future as well.

7. Even More Alternate Art

Okay, I have a foil problem.  I fully admit it.  The alternate arts are now getting my attention.  Alternate-art foils have obviously become a kind of demented Holy Grail.  I rationalize each purchase of a Collector Booster box as supporting my local game store, but who am I kidding?  The style of the Ikoria alternate art didn’t resonate with me so much because I found them kind of busy in some cases, but they’re still at the top of the selection tree, which goes from alternate-art foil to regular foil to alternate art to normal. 

6. Different You Did This to Yourself Cards

Opposition Agent Hullbreacher

While they’re not really in the same vein as Deflecting Palm, Mirror Strike, or Reflect Damage, cards like Opposition Agent and Hullbreacher can be very healthy for the format (and, if built around to be taken to an extreme, admittedly oppressive).  As I’ve mentioned before, Opposition Agent is a bit pushed on the mana cost.  Otherwise, it punishes players for over-reliance on tutoring.  One of the draws to Commander, and one of the intentional design choices, is variance.  Yes, I get less variance is more efficient at winning games.  It’s also more efficient at eliminating group fun. 

5. “If You Control a Commander”

Akroma's Will Deflecting Swat

Premiered in Commander 2020 and followed through on in Commander Legends, “if you control a commander” spells opened a world of design possibilities.  We’ve recently seen the power of the Will cycle – Akroma’s Will, Jeska’s Will, Kamahl’s Will, Sakashima’s Will, and Szat’s Will – in Commander Legends Boxing Leagues.  Akroma’s Will is my favorite of the bunch.  It’s a card that’ll win you the game, but you also need other stuff happening for it to be great — but what you have going on doesn’t have to be much. 

The Commander 2020 versions – Biowaste Blob, Deadly Rollick, Deflecting Swat, Fierce Guardianship, Flawless Maneuver, and Obscuring Haze – made immediate impacts on the format.  Personally, Deflecting Swat is my jam, but I get how folks might prefer Fierce Guardianship

4. Modal Double-Faced Cards (DFCs)

Ondu Inversion Agadeem's Awakening

Zendikar Rising gave us the first modal double-faced cards and players have taken to them.  Back during my time in Studio X, these were in the file, and back then we worked out all the mechanics details we’d need, to include what happens when one side is legendary.  The Pathways are only the beginning. 

I’m a bigger fan of land on one side, spell on the other.  It makes me want to play the Ravnica: City of Guilds bouncelands again, so I can have the white mana from Ondu Skyruins early and be able to cast Ondu Inversion later.  Of course, I’d play Agadeem’s Awakening even if it had only that one side.  The mythic rares that let you pay three life to put the land onto the battlefield untapped are particularly strong. 

One of the first cards previewed from Kaldheim was Halvar, God of Battle.  It’s a legendary creature on one side, legendary artifact Equipment on the other.  If Halvar is your commander, you can cast Sword of the Realms from the command zone, paying any appropriate taxes.  It confused some folks early on, and I was happy we could make the clarification. 

Speaking of clarifications, I’ll point out rules 711.1 and 711.12, which mention that double-faced cards that don’t have transform abilities can’t transform.  If a spell or ability tries to turn a double-faced permanent face down, nothing happens. 

3. Boxing League

As time currently has no meaning, this seems like both so long ago and just yesterday.  It sprang just a few months ago from the fertile mind of Brian David-Marshall, who brought it up casually during an unrelated conversation we were having (probably about food or booze).  The idea resonated with me immediately.  I put a few finishing touches on it and now we have the hottest format variant in quite a while.  One of the anxieties of unknown groups of players is power-matching.  Even if everyone thinks they’re being honest in their power level assessments, you can get a significant mismatch.  Boxing League mitigates that problem because everyone is starting from the same relative point. 

We’ve had some pretty memorable games with the two Boxing League iterations we’ve done on the RC stream.  Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths may have tilted the table a little bit when we were all starting with the different boxes, but Commander Legends brought us around to the idea that the same exact starting box will likely create better competition and more even games. 

The whole Boxing League idea has the RC thinking about the value of creating and/or supporting other Commander sub-formats.  This is really just the kernel of an idea at the moment, so stayed tuned for more thoughts on it.  First teaser: Snow Battles. 

2. MagicFest Reno

Let’s be honest, this was CommandFest: Olivia’s House, as Commander Advisory Group (CAG) member and Reno resident Olivia Gobert-Hicks led the charge of what is, as of now, the last great in-person Magic event.  I joined a veritable who’s who of Commander notables there, like the RC’s Scott Larabee, CAG member Shivam Bhatt, The Professor, Kess Wylie, and Pleasant Kenobi, just to name a few. 

ChannelFireball’s Command Zone was extremely well-run, with on-the-spot judge support and table marshalling.  All the games I played that weekend were fun, and the players seemed to be genuinely enjoying the environment — which is more than I could hope for.  The after-hours gatherings at Olivia’s place, from which we even streamed one night, are now the stuff of legend.  Maybe not Pizza Fort legend, but getting Vince (Pleasant Kenobi) and Kess involved in a conversation about Cyclonic Rift in which they violently agreed will go down as one of my top GP moments ever. 

1. The Rise of Online Play

Spelltable.  Zoom.  Gotomeeting.  Whatever format you prefer, the restriction of in-person play showed us what’s possible as far as getting together remotely.  What Olivia and SCG’s own Jeremy Noell had planted a seed of in 2019 flowered in 2020.   Sure, streaming was already around and had been for quite some time.  Streaming in this fashion, however, had yet to be done. 

Now, you can check out great games from cool people every night of the week, from the aforementioned duo to our own Commander Rules Committee (RC) stream to the folks from EDHRec, Mana Curves, the Mana Squad, and more.  There’s an entire PlayEDH Discord server where you can find games. 

The best part is the chat.  I’ve likened it to a Grateful Dead fan base — moving from Olivia’s to Jeremy’s to our stream, the same core folks, just enjoying the ride.  Playing the game is obviously fun, but the friends we get to hang out with regularly make it the best.  It’s never going to replace in-person play, but it lets us get together with folks across the globe way more often than we could even with freely open travel. 

2021 Preview

It wouldn’t be a good retrospective if we didn’t also look forward.  In addition to what follows, we also know that there will be another Commander Collection, but they haven’t told us which color.  There have been some exciting things announced for 2021, so here’s a brief take on them. 


You’ve seen the first of the Kaldheim previews.  Toski, Bearer of Secrets has everyone already excited, and I can tell you it’s the tip of a thoroughly awesome iceberg.  Full preview season is just on the horizon starting on January 7 and they’ve already announced where you can see them.  This is a blood-pumping set and deck brewers will be very excited with a number of the mechanics and themes. 

Strixhaven: School of Mages

Strixhaven is the primary set that I worked on, so I’ll be happy to share with you my specific insights once everything becomes official.  I’ll even get to tell you which cards I designed.  What you’ve already heard is that there are five elite colleges, battling it out with their own takes on magic. 

For those of you worried that this is Harry Potter world, I can definitely disabuse you of that idea.  Another set that will have resonant echoes in Commander, it’s a highly stylistic set set in a bright world of possibilities.  I can’t wait for you all to see it. 

Dungeons & Dragons:  Adventures in the Forgotten Realms

Replacing the core set in 2021, Dungeons & Dragons:  Adventures in the Forgotten Realms is the long-anticipated Magic/D&D crossover that will have fans of both thrilled.  It’s a set that Commander players will in particularly be excited about.  We’ve often said that Commander is the closest thing to a D&D campaign in the Magic universe, and you’ll get to see that played out.  I’ve only had the tiniest glimpse at some of the things going on in the set, but what I’ve seen will already change the way you approach a game of Commander. 

Back to Innistrad

Details are thin, but they’ve told us that late in the year we’re going back to Magic’s most popular plane.  While I’ve said before that I’m a little over Vampires at this point, I have faith that the folks involved will make it a deeply story-drenched effort. 

2020 was certainly a year like no other.  We did what we could; we did what we must.  There’s light at the end of this tunnel and while the ride will still be bumpy for a while, there’s plenty for Commander fans to be excited about for the coming year. 

Here’s to making 2021 a year to remember in a very different way. 

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