The Commander 2020 decks are here, and they’re super-sweet. In addition to having more new cards in them and any previous Commander preconstructed decks, they have some pretty spicy reprints. The biggest news on the reprint front is that Arcane Signet is in all the decks.
Arcane Signet isn’t the only thing making it into all five decks. Since there are five instead of four, the designers had the opportunity to leverage the color wheel. In each color, there’s a card that says “if you control a commander, you may cast this spell without paying its mana cost.” As you might imagine, they’re all kind of bonkers. Here they are, by color:
Now you don’t need to keep up mana for Rootborn Defenses; you can go all-in with your team. I like the fact that if someone attempts to use targeted removal on your commander, you can not only protect it but the rest of your creatures as well.
How good is Fierce Guardianship? I’ve already heard some folks on the high-powered end talk about it as a replacement for Force of Will. It’s basically Negate, so it doesn’t deal with problematic creatures, but it’s certainly a counterspell counter that you can count on. Its futures are already trading high in early action. The great news for Commander players is that it’s not nearly as good in other formats, so it’ll still be left for us. I, for one, know that I’m going to play more Vexing Shusher.
Flawless Maneuver won’t save your creature from Deadly Rollick, which does the thing that needs to be done to many creatures in the format — exile them. I’m still a little skeptical about the value of one-for-ones in the format, but a free Swords to Plowshares / Path to Exile that doesn’t give the controller an advantage is okay by me.
Deflecing Swat will definitely save your commander from Deadly Rollick and much, much more. I suspect the best use of Deflecting Swat comes from retargeting that extra-turn spell, like Time Warp or Time Stretch. Cards that retarget things might not always be what you need at the moment, but when they are, they tend to create epic moments.
No mana, no problem. You still have your Fog. If you look a little more closely, it gets even better. It prevents all damage — not just combat damage — that would be dealt by creatures your opponents control; yours are free to damage away. You could create some pretty lopsided combat with Obscuring Haze, which is the best of the five if you’re actually paying mana to cast it.
I’ll break down each deck and offer up an impression on how it will play, starting with the face commander. I’ll also discuss the best new cards from the deck, picking a winner for each; mention the best reprints; and offer a suggestion on the first card you’ll want to update the deck with. At the time we went to press, there were still unpreviewed new cards in these decks which are also in the main set, so not mentioning them isn’t an oversight.
Previewed by our friends Jimmy and CAG member Josh over on The Command Zone, Timeless Wisdom is all about cycling. The commander, straight from the creative mind of WotC’s Commander Architect Gavin Verhey, is Gavi, Nest Warden. Gavi lets you pay zero instead of the cost of the first card you cycle on a turn, and then whenever you draw your second card for the turn, you create a 2/2 Dinosaur Cat creature token. The deck has plenty of cards that cycle, so you can frequently take advantage of Gavi on multiple players’ turns, creating numerous tokens to battle with.
There’s a new pair that partners with each other, Brallin Skyshark Rider and Shabraz, the Skyshark. You’ll notice that all the partner pairs seem to have a backstory. While I’ll confess to not being as taken with the Sharknado franchise as other folks, the pair of them do some work together. When you cycle a card — meaning you’re going to discard a card and then draw one — both Brallin and Shabraz will trigger. Brallin gets larger and pings things, then so does Shabraz as well as your life total. You could certainly play the two of them as partner commanders instead of having Gavi lead the deck. Doing so would change the nature of how you’d pilot it, going from the “go wide” Gavi and the DinoCats to monstrous, flying Shark and rider.
The two new cards which play well with the cycling portion of the deck, either direction you’re headed, are Herald of the Forgotten and Crystalline Resonance. You don’t have to be particularly tricky with the former. Once you’ve done all the cycling you want and would rather they be on the battlefield, cast the Herald, already a beefy 6/6 flyer, and bring back all of the cards with cycling that are permanents, which includes lands. Crystalline Resonance requires a little more reading of the battlefield. People play spicy things in Commander. Copying and cloning are justifiably well-known and well-regarded strategies. The downside is you often have to pick what you want to clone when you cast your spell. With Crystalline Resonance, you can wait for the right permanent at the right moment.
Although Surly Badgersaur is a close second, due to its multiple cool abilities, Dismantling Wave gets the nod as my top new card pick. As a sorcery, it’s fine. You get a Disenchant for each opponent. As mentioned, there are always good targets to be found. The cycling ability, however, is a much harder to counter Purify. It costs eight, but you can do it as an instant, and it fits tightly with the deck’s theme.
The reprint that everyone is talking about is The Locust God, mostly because it’s a card with a price tag. For me, there are two reprints that are even more noteworthy, one relatively new, one quite old. The newer one is Nimble Obstructionist, from Hour of Devastation. Paying three mana to both draw a card and counter an activated or triggered ability is outstanding. In a pinch, you can flash it in for a combat surprise. I’m even happier about the inclusion of Skycloud Expanse, a filter land from Odyssey. It doesn’t tap for mana itself, but you can filter one into a blue and a white. It’s a nice budget inclusion for your mana base.
Run, don’t walk, to the shopping cart and pick up an Astral Slide. The tomfoolery will begin with you Sliding out things from your cycling cards, but it won’t end there. Astral Slide triggers when anyone cycles a card, and you’ll notice that happens a fair amount more in the format than you might expect.
The Mardu deck is Human tribal with three sub-themes: attacking, sacrifice, and death triggers. The deck really likes to make Human token creatures. It’s led by Jirina Kudro, who gives your Humans +2/+0. As if that wasn’t enough, when she enters the battlefield, you get a 1/1 Human Soldier for each time you’ve cast a commander from the command zone this game. There’s no cast restriction, meaning if you blink her, you’ll still get the requisite number of tokens. She’ll shine, of course, when you’re “forced” to cast her subsequent times.
As you might expect, the deck loves to go very wide, with more and more creatures. It also brings some pain if people want to kill your creatures, with the enchantment version of Zulaport Cuthroat (which is reprinted in the deck), Bastion of Remembrance. From the main Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths set, Bastion of Remembrance creates a token when it enters the battlefield. When a creature you control dies, each opponent loses a life and you gain one. Of course, you don’t have to just wait for other people to kill your creatures, you can also use the Bastion offensively. The deck has a number of ways to make creatures die en masse, from Magus of the Disk to Cleansing Nova. It will create more tokens as well, with Xathrid Necromancer helping you recover quickly from a sweeper, whether it’s your own or someone else’s.
The partner pair is Trynn, Champion of Freedom and Silvar, Devourer of the Free. The design story behind them is that Trynn lures bad people—criminals and such—out into the wild so that Silvar can eat them. Trynn triggers on your end step, giving you another Human token if you attacked. In an ability formerly restricted to Vampires, Silvar, a Cat Nightmare, can sacrifice a Human to get a +1/+1 counter and make itself indestructible until end of turn. Silvar becomes that sacrifice outlet with Zulaport Cuthroat and Bastion of Remembrance that will help you put the finishing touches on your opponents.
The alternate commander is Kelsien, the Plague, a 2/2 Human Assassin with vigilance and haste for one each of the Mardu colors. Kelsien goes off in a different direction, getting bigger with experience counters. It then provides you a method of getting those counters by pinging creatures. If they die this turn, you get the experience. Since your tokens tend to have one toughess, you can use them in a pinch. Kelsien is a fine card in the deck; as a commander, it’ll need an upgrade path. There are some cool ideas — like the many ways of giving it deathtouch — but that’s a discussion for another time.
Of the new cards, it’s easy to like Call the Coppercoats, which for just three mana creates a number of 1/1 Human Soldier tokens equal to the number of creatures a chosen opponent controls. The better news is that it has strive, so for an additional 1W, you can choose another opponent. It’s an instant, so at end of turn of the player to your right, you can create a deadly army nearly out of nowhere. Titan Hunter punishes players for being passive. At the end of their turn, if no creatures died, Titan Hunter deals four damage to them. It has an activated ability for 1B to sacrifice a creature and gain four life, so you can avoid paying the penalty on your own turn.
My favorite of the new ones is Fireflux Squad. For just 3R for a hasty 4/3, it has a saucy trigger. When it attacks, you can exile another target attacking creature you control. If you do, you reveal cards from the top of your library until you find a creature, then put that onto the battlefield tapped and attacking. In a deck that creates 1/1 tokens, this becomes a strict and somewhat deadly upgrade.
I’ve already mentioned Magus of the Disk. The deck also reprints Magus of the Wheel and the Odyssey filter Shadowblood Ridge. My favorite is Fumiko the Lowblood, who has been reprinted before and has an odd pair of abilities. She has bushido X, with X being the number of attacking creatures. That’s all well and good, especially if you can get a Lure of some sort on her. The other part is that creatures your opponents control attack if able. That can both get them into unfavorable battles, which is good for you, and clear the path so that there aren’t any annoying blockers. Fumiko will take some effort to get mileage from, but the payoff is worth it.
You’ll be attacking, so ramping up the damage for doing so makes some sense. If you don’t have any Anthem effects, you’re effectively doubling the damage your creatures will deal, and you’ll be gaining life to boot. Add Hellrider, also in the colors, for more of the same.
Like I don’t have enough of a Temur problem, the Arcane Maelstrom deck has two commanders that merit deep explorations. The face commander is Kalamax, the Stormsire, a 4/4 Elemental Dinosaur for just four mana. When you cast your first instant spell each turn, if Kalamax is tapped, you copy the spell and can choose new targets for the copy. Want to win a counter war? Kalamax will hook you up with an extra copy of yours. Want to draw and gain double from Momentous Fall? Kalamax is there for you. There’s the issue of getting it tapped first, but there’s always just the simple solution of battling with it.
The deck is chock-full of other instants you want to cast with Kalamax, from Chaos Warp to Temur Charm to the deck’s free commander spell, Deflecting Swat. Interestingly, the “instants matter” deck also has an “attacking matters” subtheme, from the reprint Etali, Primal Storm to the new Nascent Metamorph. When this 1/1 Shapeshifter for just 1U attacks or blocks, a target opponent (who doesn’t have to be involved in the combat), reveals cards from the top of their library until they hit a creature. Nascent Metamorph becomes a copy of that creature until end of turn. The bad news is that if you hit an Eldrazi, you don’t get annihilator triggers. The good news is, hey, free Eldrazi.
The alternate commander is Xyris, the Writhing Storm, simply a good card. It’s a 3/5 flyer for five. When an opponent draws except for their normal draw step, you get a 1/1 green Snake creature token. That’s already sweet. Then, whenever Xyris deals combat damage to a player, you and that player each draw that many cards. Giving your opponents free cards isn’t the best, but the Snakes will no doubt make up for it. Plus, you get cards. This is a built-around commander that’s just going to have to wait while we explore the rest of the Arcane Maelstrom deck.
The partners are a boy and his dog. Or a dog and his boy. Fitting with the attacking theme, Pako, Arcane Retriever fetches the game and Haldan, Avid Arcanist cooks it up. When Pako attacks, each opponent exiles the top card of their library with a fetch counter on it. Pako gets a +1/+1 counter for each noncreature exiled this way. Haldan lets you cast noncreature spells from exile that have fetch counters on them, and you can spend any kind of mana to cast them. You both get rid of really good cards that your opponents are going to blow you out with and then get to do the blowing out yourself. Big daggers if the card you exile is a Fog. A significant portion of the noncreature spells you’ll find are instants, which go right back into the commanders’ theme.
There are some excellent new cards. Lavabrink Floodgates provides opponents with the choice of letting you have some mana acceleration in red or eventually hitting all creatures for six. They can gang up on you and get rid of it right away (well, on the third player’s turn), but it’ll cost them their battlefields. Curious Herd murders “artifacts matter” by giving you a Beast for each artifact that player controls. It’s another instant, which fits in the deck and again provides end-step tomfoolery. My favorite is Twinning Staff. For just three mana, it’s an artifact that will give you an extra copy of any spell that you copy. Whether it’s copying your own or someone else’s, Dualcaster Mage (which is one of the reprints) will do even more heavy lifting. Additionally, for seven mana, you can simply copy an instant or sorcery you control, which will of course give you the extra copy as well.
While Wort, the Raidmother and Djinn Illuminatus are nice copy spell reprints, the coolest is Charmbreaker Devils. During your upkeep, you get an instant or sorcery from your graveyard back to hand. When you cast instants and sorceries, the Devils get +4/+0, which can add up pretty quickly.
A deck that likes to attack and needs the commander tapped will love Opposition. There are times when your battles won’t be favorable with Kalamax, so you’ll just need an outlet to get it copying. Opposition does that while also keeping the biggest and beefiest creatures off your face. All those Beasts you created with Curious Herd will do some work.
Our friend Mitch over at Commander’s Quarters previewed the deck and has some nice takes on it. I’m fluent in Abzan, so the face commander is speaking my language. Kathril, Aspect Warder is a 3/3 Nightmare Insect for five. It makes use of the new keyword counter mechanic in Ikoria. When it enters the battlefield, for each relevant ability (there are eleven of them) of creatures in your graveyard, you put that kind counter on any creature you control. You can pile them up or spread them out. If that’s not enough, you also put a +1/+1 counter on Kathril for each of those counters.
The deck clearly is about keywords and keyword counters. Like many Abzan decks, it can be wonderfully durdly, but for the most part it’s about going big with Kathril. You’ll want to get stuff into the graveyard, which you can do with one of the cards that the Commander Rules Committee (RC) previewed last weekend on the official site, Selective Adaptation. For 4GG, you reveal the top seven cards of your library and look for any one of twelve relevant keywords (haste being the one Kathril doesn’t mention), putting a creature with one of those keywords onto the battlefield and the rest into the graveyard. Instant Kathril fodder.
The alternate commander is Tayam, Luminous Enigma, a 3/3 Nightmare Beast for 1WBG. Its static ability is that each other creature you control enters the battlefield with an additional vigilance counter on it. The activated ability for three mana and removing three counters from creatures you control is to mill the top three cards of your library and then put a permanent with converted mana cost three or less onto the battlefield. This card is kind of insane. It fits with the maindeck better than any of the other alternate commanders do, but it’s the cost of activating the ability that has me excited. There are counters you don’t want on your creatures, such as the -1/-1s that creatures with persist get. Cumulative upkeep has age counters. There’s even the bounty counter from Mathis, Fiend Seeker. Tayam is a single-card strategy that melds with many others.
The partner pair is Nikara, Lair Scavenger and Yannik, Scavenging Sentinel. Nikara has a simple trigger. When another creature you control leaves the battlefield, if it had one or more counters on it, draw a card and lose a life. It’ll help you rebuild when someone uses a sweeper or you want to do some of your own work in getting them into the graveyard, back into your hand, into your library, or into exile. Yannik does even more. When it enters the battlefield, you exile another creature you control until Yannik leaves. Then you distribute that creature’s power in +1/+1 counters among creatures you control. The clear target is Kathril, who then becomes a giant, face-smashing monster with any number of keyword abilities. It looks like this deck will get a decent number of commander damage kills.
As far as new cards go, we previewed Cartographer’s Hawk on these very pages. It generated its share of debate on just how good (or not) that it might be. Vitality Hunter is another extremely strong card. It’s already an inexpensive 3/4 Nightmare with lifelink for just 3W. It has monstronsity XWW, in which you also put a lifelink counter on up to X target creatures. My favorite, however, is the other card we previewed on the official site, Netherborn Altar, a way to get around the commander tax by using some of your life. It’s an artifact that costs only 1B. Its activation is just a tap to put a soul counter on it, pay three life for each soul counter, and put your commander from the command zone into your hand. The more often you do it, the more life you pay — but there are many ways of removing counters from the Altar. Simply bouncing it back to your hand does the trick. Hex Parasite will do it, as will Vampire Hexmage, which also adds a first strike creature to your graveyard.
Angel of Finality, Deadbridge Chant, and Cataclysmic Gearhulk are the runners-up for favorite reprint, but my top is Karametra, God of Harvests. Because it’s indestructible, it’s not likely to end up in the graveyard, but what it does is more than worth it. The deck has 35 creatures in it. You’ll get some triggers.
Come on, now. It’s my favorite card of all time. How could I not? You have Angel of Finality taking care of other graveyards, so it’s going to be risk free most of the time.
The Sultai deck, as you might imagine, is the one with the most intricate mechanic. It was previewed by our own Commander VS team, with no one more excited about its contents than Jeremy. I swear to you that mutate is not quite as confusing as it seems.
It’s just like melding together Gisela, the Broken Blade and Bruna, the Fading Light. The creatures go into one stack with the power/toughness of the one you want on top. It then has all the abilities of the creatures in the stack. If any of the creatures in your stack is your commander, then the creature deals commander damage. When the creature leaves the battlefield, the cards all go to the same zone, meaning if someone hits it with Leadership Vacuum, you’ll end up with more than just your commander in the command zone. Anything not a commander will be stranded there.
The deck is about its face commander, Otrimi, the Ever-Playful. It’s a 6/6 trampler for six, but its mutate cost is only 1BGU. You can mutate it with a great reprint like Cold-Eyed Selkie for some strong commander damage, which is the deck’s primary threat angle.
The alternate commander is Zaxara, the Exemplary. It’s a 2/3 Nightmare Hydra for 1BGU which has deathtouch and can tap for two mana of any one color. Its triggered ability is quite saucy. When you cast a spell with X in the mana cost, you create a 0/0 green Hydra creature token, then put X +1/+1 counters on it. There are some X-spells and Hydras in the deck to take advantage of it, but this is one that is best left in the 99 unless you’re making some cool Hydra tribal thing out of it, although the deck has a small Hydra subtheme.
The partner pair is Cazur, Ruthless Stalker and Ukkima, Stalking Shadow. Cazur’s straightforward trigger has you put a +1/+1 counter on a creature whenever it deals combat damage to a player. Ukkima guarantees it’ll connect, because it can’t be blocked. When Ukkima leaves the battlefield, it deals its power in damage to a target player and you gain that much life. Melding Otrimi onto that seems even better than the Cold-Eyed Selkie. It also seems like you want to put it into a Ninja deck.
One of the of the most compelling new cards is Souvenir Snatcher. Its normally a 4/4 flyer for five, but when it mutates, for a cost of 5U, you gain control of target noncreature artifact. We’ve repeatedly mentioned that targets will not be lacking. One of the strongest is Tidal Barracuda, which offers a two-edged sword. All players can cast spells as though they have flash — except that they can’t cast any spells on your turn. Capricopian has a very Commander ability. It’s a 0/0 Goat Hydra for XG which as you expect will enter the battlefield with X +1/+1 counters. Its activated ability is deliciously political. It has an activated ability of putting a +1/+1 counter it for two mana, then reselecting the player it’s attacking. Only the player it’s currently attacking can activate it and only during declare attackers.
My personal favorite is the one CAG member Olivia Gobert-Hicks on her Affinity Artifacts stream, Dredge the Mire. For just 3B, each opponent chooses a creature card in their graveyard, and you put all of them onto the battlefield. The ability isn’t targeted, so the choice isn’t made until spell resolution, at which time it’s too late to respond.
As far as reprints go, what got Jeremy excited was Villainous Wealth, one of his favorite cards. Deadly Tempest is also a strong choice. I’m partial to Nissa, Steward of Elements, originally printed in Amonkhet. I’ve played it previously and don’t think I’ve ever used the -6. The +2 and +0 abilities are quite strong in decks that love creatures.
There were four or five different cards I considered putting here, so I just asked Jeremy, and that was his pick. Doubling X on Villainous Wealth seems like it’s pretty strong. He gave me some nonsense about doubling Hydras and whatnot, but we all know the truth: he wants to mill someone out with Villainous Wealth. It’s a solid plan.
The five Commander 2020 decks represent a great mix of the old and the new, cards and mechanics that you loved before and some that will create future memories. They play well together and can certainly hold their own out in the wild. It’s an exciting year to be a Commander player, and this is just the beginning.
Visit my Decklist Database to see my Signature Decks, the Chromatic Project, and more!