Despite its other challenges, 2021 was an excellent year for Commander. If you could stand the onslaught of products, you were rewarded with some real gems. Commander design has shifted and we’re getting more cards that fill niches than we are ones that are just generically good. This is a healthy move for the format and one that I wholeheartedly support.
Since the year is drawing to a close, I want to talk about my favorite cards of the year. This list isn’t necessarily the most powerful or objectively best, but the ones that most struck a chord with me. Between the seven regular releases and associated Commander product, we got nearly 2,000 new cards to think about, tinker with, and enjoy.
The following list says more about me than the cards in general, since I’m aware I have particular leanings. There are cards in here that I designed and others that I had input on in development. The relative lack of blue and red cards isn’t commentary at all on where those colors were, but where my head space was over the year. I think it means that I have to step outside my comfort zone a little more in 2022. We’ll see how it goes.
I want to give a big honorable mention to all the cards that I wrote down when I was populating the list. I won’t talk about them here due to space constraints, but they’re all deserving of your investigation and attention.
Honorable honorable mention goes to Duelist’s Heritage. It’s an enchantment, but the ability was on the first strong draft of the Silverquill face commander during design, who was kind of beefy and had double strike herself. During playtest, we found it a little strong on the creature; fortunately, the play design folks kept it around and made use of it.
Least favorite card of the year goes to Tergrid, God of Fright. With in-person play potentially returning in full force, we on the Commander Rules Committee (RC) are still evaluating whether or not it’s a card we need to ban. Regardless, it can certainly lead to builds that are miserable for other players and games that aren’t conducive to a healthy atmosphere. We don’t like banning cards and don’t do it lightly, so when a new card pops up on the radar like Tergrid, it goes right on my naughty list. That out of the way, let’s get to my Favorite 25 of 2021.
25. Keen Duelist
I swear I’m not just going to list all the cards I designed (and I’m doing my best to make this list not so Strixhaven-heavy), but I’m proud of the simple flavor of this one. It was one of the first in my notebook and made it all the way through without losing any of its essence.
24. Halana and Alena, Partners
I wrote a whole piece on these two, so it’s clear that they’re my favorite partners of the year.
23. Midnight Pathlighter
The combination of abilities is what I like about Midnight Pathlighter. Venturing into the dungeon in fun and I wanted at least one card on the list that did it, but the partial unblockability is the real elbow drop with the card. There are lots of utility commanders out there that don’t want to block, and if it means folks are keeping their battle-worthy ones back, that’s fine with me.
22. Rise of the Dread Marn
Foretell is definitely my favorite mechanic of the year. Having cards tucked away where discard effects can’t get to them is great. Always keeping up one black mana on other players’ turns is pretty easy, so Rise of the Dread Marn can help us recover from a battlefield sweeper—sometimes in thoroughly dramatic fashion.
21. Promise of Loyalty
Okay, really, last card that I designed. Another early one in my notes, the only change to the card all the way through, other than the name, was moving the mana cost from 3WW to 4W.
20. Old Stickfingers
Another one that I wrote about, Old Stickfingers has a cool name and abilities that do things I like—namely, put creatures in the graveyard and bash. It’s significant to me that when you mill with Old Stickfingers that the non-creatures go back into the library. We don’t want to waste our good spells.
19. Toxrill, the Corrosive
How can you not fall in love with slime counters and Slugs? Whether Toxrill is part of a proliferate deck or leads one of its own, it’s going to be in there mucking things up. As a 7/7, it’s also going to do its fair share of bashing. Too bad it’s not also red to allow for Kulrath Knight, a decidedly underplayed card in the format.
18. Wrenn and Seven
When we first saw the card, I intended to write about 250 words on it in our first looks into Innistrad: Midnight Hunt. I ended up with like 750, and if I were to write fresh about it now after playing it a few times, I’d be even more effusive. Just two activations, one of the +1 ability, the next of the +0, are enough to swing a game in your direction in short order. If you manage to start spitting out Treefolk as well, all the better.
17. Dauthi Voidwalker
One of the stronger cards on the list, Dauthi Voidwalker does something that’s significant in Commander: exile anything, not just creatures, that would go to opponents’ graveyards. Graveyard recursion is such an important part of the format that you’ll want this kind of defense against it. Even if you never play any of the cards, you’ve gotten major benefit. Because there’s no link between the exile ability and the Voidwalker itself, you can then sacrifice and recur the Voidwalker to cast more than one of the exiled cards.
16. Void Mirror
While you know I’m not a fan of taking the game away from the other players, I’m also a believer in reasonable protection against them doing broken things (tagging Primal Order here for value). Void Mirror isn’t there to stop artifacts or colorless decks (I’d take it out beforehand); it’s there to stop things that cast spells without paying their mana costs, like off Diluvian Primordial or Mind’s Dilation.
15. Draugr Necromancer
More exiling for opponents’ stuff, Draugr Necromancer is just like Dauthi Voidwalker. The creatures get a particular kind of counter, so if the Necromancer leaves the battlefield and comes back, you can still cast the spells. Plus it’s all icy and stuff, giving it that Skyrim vibe.
Foretelling a battlefield sweeper and then casting it later on the cheap is great because you can then start to rebuild your battlefield state, having not committed all your resources to said sweeper. The borderless art version makes the card look super-spooky, too.
13. Saryth, the Viper’s Fang
A card that’s going into my Kresh Into the Red Zone deck and that I’m also playing in Innistrad Constructed alongside the Werewolves, Saryth has a lot of opportunities for play. When your trampling creatures attack, now they only have to assign one damage to a blocker, the rest going to the defending player’s face. Before things attack, they can’t get tapped with things like Opposition because they’re hexproof. You can use Saryth’s activated ability to give something that’s already tapped hexproof, which is a nice on-battlefield trick. If you don’t use the activated ability for that, you can always get another activation out of your land that taps for more than one mana, like Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx or Cabal Coffers.
12. Liquimetal Torque
A two-mana rock, though I’d still play Liquimetal Torque if it cost three. There comes a point in games where you don’t need the mana the Torque provides, so you’re open to making stuff into artifacts when it’s appropriate—like when someone overloads Vandalblast. Play it alongside the Hidden Gem Tower of the Magistrate (also known as “oops, your creature became unequipped”) for plenty of shenanigans.
11. The Meathook Massacre
Slightly pricey battlefield sweeper that gets around indestructible? Check. Lots of value for creatures dying? Check check. Hanging hand in the art that looks like a monkey? Mate.
10. Fevered Suspicion
The Top Ten has three cards from my Goad is GOAT deck for a reason—they make for intriguing games of Commander. Fevered Suspicion is in the deck for flavor reasons, due to the Beholder in the art, as well as functional ones. Getting four to six spells (invariably, you’ll hit some lands) over two turns for eight mana is the kind of thing that we love seeing in the format.
9. Hellish Rebuke
A new card that makes players do it to themselves, Hellish Rebuke makes you take damage, then punishes the player for it. What I find really great about the card is that because it grants an ability to the opponents’ creatures, you don’t control the ability. This means that Sigarda, Host of Herons can git wrekt. I probably need to make a new kind of You Did This to Yourself deck from Mardu colors; there are some elements of it in Queen Marchesa, Long May She Reign, but they’re just a sidelight. I’ll want to commit fully to the theme, replacing the blue from the Ruhan of the Fomori deck with black so that cards like Hellish Rebuke make it in. Looking at the sixteen Mardu options, Queen Marchesa is probably still the best commander for it.
8. Karazikar, the Eye Tyrant
There’s lots going on with everyone’s favorite Beholder. It plays on opponents’ greed, getting them to attack someone who isn’t you in order to draw a card. As I’ve found to my regret on the RC stream, Scott, Toby, and Gavin D will eschew the card and still try to bash my face. So much for greed being good. Karazikar also gives you incentive for spreading the attacking among opponents, letting you goad more things—so that they’re then forced into the second trigger happening.
7. Kardur, Doomscourge
While it doesn’t use the goad keyword, Kardur is without a doubt goading things. While it tends to get used as an offensive weapon, don’t sleep on the fact that it can just be a Fog for the upcoming turn cycle for you. Then, of course, there’s the second ability, which applies even to situations in which nobody goaded anyone else. Love this card.
6. Gisa, Glorious Resurrector
I guess I’m really hitting the theme of exiling everyone else’s creatures here; I really am going to have to work on playing with different strategies. This is just the happiest black card ever, though. Unlike a few others I’ve mentioned, the ability is linked to Gisa, so if she leaves the battlefield and comes back later, she won’t know about previously exiled creatures. The window for it to happen is pretty small, but it’s still a consideration.
5. Cosmic Intervention
Another foretell card, this one that saves our stuff from the inevitable sweepers that come along. I’m a big fan of Faith’s Reward, but I’m a bigger fan of having to keep up only two mana instead of four. Additionally, because the cards are exiled, there’s no time that they’re vulnerable to graveyard removal. Cosmic Intervention will be a card that I’ll have to avoid just defaulting to in white decks in the future.
4. Breena, the Demagogue
Breena is the replacement for the commander I designed, but set lead Corey Bowen told me that it channeled the kind of energy I like to bring to a game when creating the card. I love the idea that you benefit from attacking someone other than the player with the lowest life (although that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in the weakest position). As I’ve seen in some of the games I’ve played with my Breena Will Do It to You deck, she can get out of hand pretty quickly. By the time she gets to lethal power, most other players have at least a flying blocker, but left unchecked, she going to wreck some faces. She’d be a little reined in if she only triggered when opponents attacked, but that might actually make her too weak.
3. Strixhaven Stadium
A reminder that this list is more about fun factor than raw power, Strixhaven Stadium sets up a game within the game. I’ve won in both Strixhaven Boxing League and Constructed games—it’s in my Breena deck. That deck also has some You Did This to Yourself cards so that it discourages attacking me, letting the point counters pile up in the right direction. Alternate win conditions make for compelling games when they’re narrow and you can interact with them, so Strixhaven Stadium fits the bill. Here’s to more three-mana rocks that do interesting things.
2. Wandering Archaic
This is another one that I struggle to not just jam into every new deck I build. There are plenty of times when the opponent will have the mana but not care that you get a copy of their spell. In fact, in difficult battlefield states, they might have a great incentive to let you copy a removal piece, garnering some positive political influence. Sure, they’re going to pay two less to not let you have a copy of Genesis Wave, but that’s the minority use case.
If you’re a regular reader, it’s not like this one was going to be a secret. Inkshield was number one before I even started the rest of the list. Our friend Inklin Customs even made these cool tokens to go with the card. It just oozes You Did This to Yourself, which is exactly what Corey said the team wanted with the card. I had submitted something that was more like an Inkling version of Arachnogenesis, and the play design team turbo-charged it. I haven’t resolved the spell that many times over the last year, but when I have, it’s been a winner. It’s on the list of my favorite cards of all time.
From a Commander perspective, 2021 will always have a special place in my heart because it saw the release of cards and a set that I spend a labor of love helping create. It also had the release of a long-time gamer’s dream set, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, with the promise of more D&D-related stuff in the future. The new design philosophy for Commander was starting to take shape during my time in Studio X and it really showed throughout the year. These first forays into it make me pretty hungry for what we’ll see in 2022.
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