Deep in Zendikar’s jungles, things are stirring. When they wake, they will fill your Commander decks with new and thought-provoking cards, mechanics, and themes. Like with all new sets, there’s something to be excited about. How excited? Let’s find out.
Remember that this review is for Commander only. There are plenty of cards that will do well in other formats that we won’t see played in our 100-card decks. Of course, now that #edhboxingleague is a thing, we might find that there are a few which could end up playable in everyone’s new favorite Limited format.
As is the habit, I’ll rate each color, plus multicolor and colorless, based on both how good the best cards are and how dense the color is—that is to say what percentage of the cards show some playability. I’ll also pick my Top 3 of each color. Because I broke down each of the legendary creatures last week, I’ll try to not repeat what I said there, focusing this time on the other creatures and spells.
The returning mechanic of landfall and the new mechanic of the party will both make a splash. Some of the landfall cards will take an already-viable strategy and kick it into overdrive.
Holy alternate win condition! Fifty-five life isn’t so much when you have Angel of Destiny effectively giving all of your creatures lifelink when damaging a player. The life total of the player they attacked is irrelevant—and note that it’s only if it attacked, not if it dealt combat damage. In an Aurelia, the Warleader deck, you could easily take out two players at once. Is a card like this healthy for the format? When we have cards like Oloro, Ageless Ascetic, the answer is muddy. Otherwise, it should be fine.
Because I have Kogla, the Titan Ape in my Boxing League deck, I could only focus on the fact that Angelheart Protector is a Human. Then I went down the reasonable path of considering it for a blink deck, to include Eldrazi Displacer, and I liked it even more.
I’m a big fan of lower casting-cost Archons. This one fits the bill and creates a taxing effect that isn’t too onerous.
The Archpriest is a bit shrug-worthy until you realize it costs only one mana. It’ll always be at worst a 1/2, and step up from there.
It’s clear that one of the design themes in white is parity. White draws cards, for example, under particular circumstances, like letting someone else draw one as well. This is a fine way to give the color some of what it’s missing without violating the color pie.
Felidar Retreat is one that’s sneaky good. It gives you an extra something for things that you’re doing anyway—namely, playing lands. The flexibility of whether you want to create a 2/2 or put counters on all your creatures makes it the kind of card that you can adapt to your circumstances. Excellent design without being over the top.
People already play Oblivion Ring (and friends); I have to believe they’ll play a situationally cheaper version.
Narrow, but when you’re using it in the right deck, it’s going to really pump up the volume.
No, it doesn’t work in Commander, and no we’re not considering changing Rule 11 so that it does.
I think I’d want to only play Maul of the Skyclaves if I were not going to have to ever pay the equip cost.
We don’t see too much Pacifism, but being able to pacify a planeswalker may change that.
I like Skyclave Apparition because it can turn problematic cards into vanilla creatures. Sure, you’d rather destroy it, but you wouldn’t mind turning someone’s Sword of Fire and Ice into a 3/3 creature that’s just getting killed anyway. Even if you’re getting rid of a creature, the Illusion which eventually replaces it won’t have the abilities.
You don’t need to have a full party to get some friends when Squad Commander enters the battlefield; you’ll get at least one. The full party clause, however, is super-important since everybody will be indestructible. You can then slam them into combat without fear or cast your favorite Wrath of God variant.
Definitely better fit to be a commander than just one of your Warriors, Tazri’s build-around is something I expect many players to explore in bringing a new five-color commander to the table.
Grade = B
Good top picks, reasonable density.
The biggest backside in (normal) Magic has fueled conversations on cool combos. It’s made me think about going back to the days of playing Creature Bond.
We’ve needed ways to combat excessive mana ramp, and our friends in Studio X have created one. It slows down fetchlands of all stripes and it creates awkward situations for ramp spells. Confounding Conundrum replaces itself when it enters the battlefield, so it’s never a complete loss. My only complaint is that I’d prefer for it to be symmetrical. As it is, you can jam it into a Tatyova, Benthic Druid deck and get even farther ahead on land than you were able to previously. This is a card that’s great but is also dangerous for the format.
This is the kind of card that won’t see much play, but I want to be able to make use of it. It might not cut the mustard, but it won’t be for lack of trying.
The flexibility is great; I’d be happy spending 3U for any of those things, although they’re the kinds of effects we’re used to seeing as instants (save for perhaps the creature creation one). Spending 5UUU seems like a little too much, even if you’re getting all three. This is one of those I’m going to have to see in play to make a better judgment on.
Being able to have two is fine and certainly worth the extra two mana. It’s the kind of planeswalker no one is going out of their way to blow up, so it will provide you with some long-term value. Just scrying for several turns to set up the free card draws should be fine without having the kind of overt effects we’re used to other Jaces having.
While you’re pretty likely in Commander to get the discount, Lullmage’s Domination is still probably too expensive to see a great deal of play.
Adding one more mana to Traumatize everyone is just fine by me. It’s going right into my Mill-Meoplasm deck, and I’m not going to be shy about using it early.
Sphinx Tribal is a thing, so that’s cool. The enters-the-battlefield triggered ability is decent and worth repeating if you can. The switching of the power and toughness thing is not likely to be all that significant in the format.
I know that friend of the show Brian David-Marshall is upset that he can’t mill himself with Ruin Crab, asking, “What’s the opposite of power creep?” Definitely a playable card in your mill deck, even if you’re not trying to abuse landfall triggers.
Speaking of the opposite of power creep, Snapcaster Mage says hello. The limitation on the converted mana cost of the copiable spell just seems like way too much.
Drawing three for five mana as a sorcery isn’t great. Getting to look at a few extras doesn’t help all that much. Do note that it’s not actually draw, so it won’t trigger things like Ominous Seas or Nekusar, the Mindrazer.
Three mana for a 2/1 and steal your Sol Ring? Solid. Five mana for a flying 2/1 equipped with Sword of Fire and Ice? Sign me up. We’ll see this card played quite a bit. It’ll be fun to see all the various permutations.
Top cards are good, but the density is quite weak.
Okay-ish due to the flexibility of being able to return one card for only one mana. Death’s Duet is a cheaper alternative if you know you want two, and Return from Extinction even cheaper if you’re running a tribal strategy.
Again, you’re paying extra for flexibility. I’d definitely play this in Boxing League.
This could end up as a nearly-free tutor and free spell all in one. Casting the spell is an addition that doesn’t need to be there but because it is, the card becomes pretty strong. The limitation of converted mana cost four keeps it from being broken. Since you have a full party, Squad Commander seems like an okay choice. Otherwise, it’s going to be the thing you need in the moment to get yourself out of a tight spot.
Oh, just what we needed. Another Fleshbag Marauder.
Regular readers know that I love reanimating stuff, so Drana, the Last Bloodchief is my kind of card. Paired with Flayer of the Hatebound, and you might be dialing up some pretty significant damage via favorites like Lord of Extinction (and carefully sculpting your graveyard). Note that while the defending player makes the choice, it’s not targeted, so Ground Seal wouldn’t stop you.
A 5/4 without evasion for five that’s indestructible on nearly every one of your turns still isn’t all that great. There might be some play in being able to use fetchlands in order to have combat tricks, but especially since the card isn’t in a well-played tribe, I doubt we see much of it.
Enchantment removal in black is what you really need to know about this card. I’m a fan. And it’s common.
There are plenty of strategies which involve creatures with +1/+1 counters, so making those creatures tougher to block via this particular Snake seems pretty good. Add Gnarlid Colony or perhaps Archetype of Finality for more fun and hijinx.
Again, flexibility is the key to the card. I’m just left a little wanting at each of the modes. It seems like a card I’m likely to cast unkicked for the cheaper cost because it does a thing I need right now.
The place my brain goes to with Lithoform Blight is modified land destruction. The cantrip makes it worth casting in any situation, but I’d rather put it on someone’s Maze of Ith or Itlimoc, Cradle of the Sun than just making one of my lands able to produce all five colors. Sure, it’s no Wasteland, but it also doesn’t cost you land.
Vampire tribal can get to a full party relatively easily, so the Blood-Priest will be able to drain for max with some frequency. If you’re sacrificing it to Viscera Seer and reanimating, you’re really in business.
Unless all graveyards are empty, Nighthawk Scavenger is going to be well worth the three mana you spent on it. Without stretching too much or playing it in a mill deck, the power will easily get to four or give. On a flying, deathtouch, lifelink creature, that’s saucy.
We probably evaluate every such card in relation to Karmic Guide. Nullpriest of Oblivion doesn’t have flying or protection from black, nor does it have echo. Menace and lifelink are fine, especially if what you reanimate provides any kind of Anthem effect.
Indestructible is an ability black generally doesn’t give, so that makes Oblivion’s Hunger worth a look, and you know if you’re likely to have +1/+1 counters, so it goes from worth consideration to worth playing pretty quickly.
I like gaining life in black but want to avoid easy Blood Bond combos, so Scion of the Swarm might get a second look.
A much-discussed card since its first preview. Having a negative power is important when the card is in other zones. If it’s in the graveyard and is power is -20, for example, you can bring back 30 power worth of creatures when you resolve a trigger from Nethroi, Apex of Death. There aren’t too many times when the creature is going to exist on the battlefield without an Anthem effect, but you’re really using it to plummet everyone’s life total and to do the Nethroi trick with anyway. Kicking it is a deadly combo with Wound Reflection.
I was middling on the card until I got to the part about the graveyards. Exiling things is extremely strong in Commander, and just getting the smaller stuff isn’t too much of a limitation here. The bad news is that it hits your graveyard, too. The good news is that you know how to build around it.
Even if you never use the ability to put +1/+1 counters on creatures, the Shadowcat is going to draw a fair number of cards for you. It’s a convenient, if, as things go in the format, slightly pricey sacrifice outlet, too.
Generally this will get creatures from your opponents since planeswalkers rarely exceed five or six. The most likely play scenario is that you cast this in order to avoid a big hit from one opponent’s creature and then get the added bonus of nicking one from everyone else as well.
A week hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm on Taborax. It’s still going to be part of a deck, not leading it. I suspect it’ll be a new build of Orzhov Clerics, but there are a number of possibilities floating around here in Zendikar Rising that I’m not going to commit just yet.
I’m still back and forth on Thwart the Grave. It might need too many gyrations to build around. It only costs two more than Zombify, which you can then reduce, but you have to build in pretty extreme value with the second creature you want to reanimate.
Solid top cards (could have picked more then three), excellent density.
I’m a supporter of targeted land destruction in the format. There are plenty of things, like Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx; Cabal Coffers; and Gaea’s Cradle which deserve to be blown up. Who cares if they get to replace it with a basic land? Cleansing Wildfire does it at a reasonable price and replaces itself—and it’s a common. Top shelf stuff all around.
Effectively turning another creature into a Coward in the face of Warriors is a flavor win.
Sweeter words have never been uttered than Cowards can’t block Warriors. You don’t need too many Warriors to make Kargan Intimidator an MVP in your deck—especially if one of those Warriors is your commander.
A 4/4 flyer for four in red is already noteworthy. Piling up the red mana and daring someone to kill Leyline Tyrant sets the game on a ticking time bomb. Combine with Braid of Fire and you’ll have folks really wanting to make sure they’re playing Honorable Passage.
Moraug is a kill-on-sight card if you value your safety. I’m likely to add it to deck that has Seedborn Ash and a sacrifice outlet in it to pile up some attack steps. And it’s a Warrior, so Cowards need to beware. A thoroughly exciting card.
Speaking of landfall shenanigans, it seems like Nahiri’s Lithoforming, which is a janky Scapeshift, and Moraug are meant for each other. And you can always include Amulet of Vigor to have access to that mana right away.
Beefy as Wizards go, Rockslide Sorcerer might become an additional win conditionin a combo deck that keeps recasting its instants and sorceries.
This is a very red card. It’s a little unfocused in what it does, which fits the color. There are a vast number of ways to cast spells without paying mana for them which get played in the format. Setting up some punishment—or prevention—for doing so seems like reasonable protection. Being able to choose if you opponents can gain life or not during a particular turn provides for some very compelling politics. Sweet card.
Bottling from landfall is good to start with. Not losing them if you don’t cast them is even better. If this stays around at all, you’ll end up dealing quite some damage as well as filling up your graveyard. It’s a great outside-the-box method of providing yourself with things to reanimate later. I suspect this will go into any number of decks that feature Living Death.
The number of potential top cards makes up for the lower density. Quite pleased that red didn’t get shorted for once.
Adventure does await, because unlike many cards of its ilk, you still draw a card if you whiff. Nice failsafe.
The dredge players certainly got more excited when they saw Ancient Greenwarden. So were the landfall players, who will now get double double triggers for every Evolving Wilds they crack. From Avenger of Zendikar to Zektar Shrine Expedition, lands are once again king. Get out your Zo-Zu the Punisher and Ankh of Mishra, because it’s going to be a land, land, land, land world.
There’s not too much to be said for Ashaya that hasn’t already. The primary thing you need to hear (just in case you haven’t already) is that it makes your creatures Cyclonic Rift-proof.
Hexproof and haste on an uncounterable 6/6 is already strong enough. I can see this getting played but I don’t think anyone is going to hang on for the extra turns to kick it. Hexproof is also nice to have for your mutate commanders.
Arguably the best of the inscriptions because it’s relatively inexpensive and an instant. The second and third modes are strong, especially when you have something suitably huge like Hamletback Goliath or an immense Kresh the Bloodbraided. Love this card.
Landfall and modal DFCs being a thing, suddenly it’s not all that bad to put lands back into your hand.
This spicy reprint will expose a new generation of players to the wonders of getting mana for your new lands even before you tap them.
Oran-Rief Ooze won’t just send your Iridescent Hornbeetle into overdrive, but your entire army. It’ll get really crazy alongside Vigor. For those of you who don’t want to get crushed here, it’s time to polish off all your Aether Snap.
Careful, Marge: there’s Scutes in the rutabagas. Always more Scute bugs indeed. Once you hit six lands, you might need to get out a calculator for multiple landfall triggers. It goes something like this. Play a fetchland, get a copy of Scute Swarm. Crack the fetchland, get a land onto the battlefield; both Scute Swarms trigger, making two more. Cast Skyshroud Claim, getting eight more. Cast Boundless Realms, break the game. It might seems like a harmless little bug, but when you see it, squash it quickly.
It’s already a 3/2 for two. Kicking it for just three more gets another party member or Elf into your hand. Solid without being broken, which it might be if the ability put the creature onto the battlefield.
The best are among the best of the set, but there aren’t that many others that will see so much play.
Since last week’s piece was all about the legendary creatures, I’ll only specifically discuss the nonlegendary ones in this category, but I’ll still consider the legends for the top picks.
Another way to get into the Blood Bond combo, but you don’t really need to focus on both abilities to make the card good. With repeatable lifegain, this little Cleric will get huge in no time.
Magic Players: “We’d like Boros stuff that doesn’t involve combat.”
Designers: “Aren’t stronger Warriors just better?”
Lullmage’s Familiar is a mana creature that would probably get played without the triggered ability. It’ll definitely go into a deck that wants to feature kicker.
Another one that would get played even without the second ability, if you don’t have a land drop for the turn or in your hand, you can still generate the extra mana you need by tapping a basic land for mana, bouncing it and replaying it. That’s the worst-case scenario. In the best, you’re ramping and getting extra landfall triggers. I swear I’m playing more Acidic Soil.
Early-game shenanigans with Colossus Hammer notwithstanding, the ability to attach an Equipment for free is great when you have expensive equip costs, like with Argentum Armor or when your Batterskull Germ token dies. The -2 and -3 abilities seem to have more applications in other formats.
Nissa gone Golgari can plus up its loyalty counters pretty simply with landfall triggers. You’ll need them because you will want to use the -5 ability lots of times. The fact that you can get the creature from hand or graveyard makes this card stratospherically good. The self-limiting factor of the number of lands you control is good design, although it probably won’t matter all that much in this format. I’m a fan of the +1 ability giving you the choice of whether or not you want to animate the land. Most of the time for me the answer is no; I just want to get more mana from my Gaea’s Cradle.
A Rogue with flying has big implications on the prowl ability, especially on a card like Notorious Throng. The milling is cool and all, but there’s likely a pretty easy infinite turn loop here, if you can find an easy way to put the Throng back into your hand, like with Crystal Shard. Because Soaring Thought-Thief has flash, you can do most of the work on the sly and pick your spots. Lots of people play Crystal Shard. Zareth San, the Trickster, which also conveniently has flash, can lead this whole sneaky army.
Even if your party is only half full, you draw three cards for four mana as an instant. That’s pretty strong. The three life is just a bonus.
Even with a smaller number of cards in the category, there are plenty top ones to pick from.
Colorless commanders will appreciate the huge boost since they couldn’t run Caged Sun. And remember when you asked if we could make Emrakul, the Aeons torn legal again? There’s that.
I’ve heard people comparing Lithoform Engine to Paradox Engine, but I don’t get it. While this is most excellent, it’s hardly busted. It’s not like you can untap it every time you cast a spell or anything.
I love the idea of punishing players for extra greedy mana bases. Myriad Construct can do that, and in a format in which targeted removal spells are precious, it’s less likely that this one will eat one of them. Even if it does, you get a pretty good payoff.
Relic Vial is a strict upgrade to Phyrexian Vault, although it’s only an upgrade in narrow circumstances—which is probably the best way to manage power creep. It’s definitely going into that Cleric deck that I’m increasingly more likely to build.
Speaking of upgrades, GGs Darksteel Ingot.
The category is a bit too small to offer a Top 3 and grade for.
Modal Double-Faced Cards (DFCs)
The idea of modal DFCs is to smooth out your resources. No one likes a high-mana-cost spell early or redundant land late. They exist in a pretty compelling design space. Except when you play/cast them or on the battlefield, remember that the exist only as the front face of the card, which is conveniently marked. Some will see plenty of play; others won’t. We’ll talk about the ones which will.
Creating the two Angels is almost secondary to your non-Angel creatures being indestructible until your next turn. That gives you a whole trip around the table.
For only two mana more than Planar Cleansing, you get the flexibility I mention as the purpose of the DFCs. I’d call it worth it.
I’m not sure how often I’d actually play the land here. The Clone for your own stuff at one less is pretty cheap, so I’d think the land version is for some kind of emergency only.
I play Recurring Insight at one less and am often at a loss to do with all the cards. There’s a guaranteed number of cards drawn here and the no-max-hand-size rider makes all the difference.
Another one that’s cheap enough that playing it as a land would come from a specific set of circumstances—like it’s in an opening grip that you don’t want to toss and it’s your only source of blue.
I had to read the sentence a few times to parse it, but it finally sunk in. If X equals five, you can get back Reveillark, Solemn Simulacrum, Eternal Witness, Saffi Eriksdottir, and Spore Frog. Not being specific or anything.
They couldn’t make it strictly better than Murder, so I suppose this is okay.
Another one on the cheaper side that I’d only play as a land under very narrow circumstances.
I’ve been opening the appropriate packs for Boxing League hoping to get a Fling. This would be an acceptable substitute.
This is excellent hand filtering that I’m not sure is solidly in the red wedge of the color pie, but I’m not complaining.
It’s a damn Elemental. You know I’m playing it alongside Risen Reef!
The turn in this set to cards that make sure you don’t completely whiff on searching the top of your library is a refreshing one that we can all appreciate. I’m still hoping for an Eldrazi or something huge when I cast this, but if it ends up as a 5/4 Eternal Witness, I suppose it could be worse.
Just for the idea.
Final grade for the whole set: A. There are many, many new and thrilling cards for your Commander decks in Zendikar Rising. The beauty of design is that not all of them are just obvious power-monsters to jam in, but cards that you’ll need to work with a little more to get the most out of. That’s the kind of direction I’d love to see design continuing to go. And yes, I’m opening six packs for EDH Boxing League at the first available opportunity.
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