One of the reasons players are drawn to Commander is that they can play cards from Magic’s entire history. It’s an Eternal format in the truest sense. Whether they like the nostalgia of bringing back cards that were powerhouses in Standard a decade or two ago or discovering cards that came out before they ever picked up a Magic card, players love that they can explored a vast wilderness of cards. They’re free to seek out cards that fit their janky theme deck or try to break a card that never got as much love as it could have.
The format has gotten large enough that a number of people will also be drawn towards the middle — the cards we call staples. It’s a natural progression of a rapidly expanding player base, which has been the case since 2016 or so when the Commander explosion started in earnest. I’m not going to vilify players who go for the tried-and-true cards in any particular color or color combination. Sometimes, you just want value and/or consistency. Not everything in your deck needs to be edgy or contribute to variance (although I think games are much more fun when they do). When I’m building a deck, I check EDHRec for the most-played cards for a particular commander so that I can do my best to avoid them, but I get that your mileage may vary.
I want to celebrate those cards that aren’t the staples, the ones that don’t see much play. You might have to dig through lots of rocks for Hidden Gems, but every one of them is worth finding. Over the years I’ve found quite a few and I’d like to share them with you. We’ll focus mostly on older cards, but there are some more recent ones on the list as well. Remember that I’m focusing on a battlecruiser to mid-power portion of the format here.
I asked some of my friends to contribute to the list this time. I’ll mention cards that were suggested by one (or more) of them. I’m going to give an Honorable Mention to The Professor from Tolarian Community College, who offered up this amusing bit:
Ah, that Prof. Gods love him.
20. Leery Fogbeast
This one was suggested by Logan Isch, otherwise known as Seraph_Six, Tech Support to the Stars. He plays it in a deck with Neyith of the Dire Hunt for the free card draw. You can pair Leery Fogbeast with anything that rewards you for attacking, but especially in situations in which the combat can go against you. There are times in my Threat of Yasova deck in which I have a sacrifice outlet to get rid of a creature, but Yasova would die, too. Leery Fogbeast would let me get rid of something without risking my commander. Leery Fogbeast also goes with cards that have inspired, like King Macar, the Gold-Cursed. You can safely tap them so that later they can untap to do their thing.
19. Cleansing Meditation
There are lots of really good enchantments in Commander. The problem is in getting rid of them en masse without nuking your own. Cleansing Meditation offers you such a solution. Back in the day, when most enchantments didn’t have enters-the-battlefield triggers, we pretty much only looked at the end state result. You had your enchantments and no one else did. Now, with constellation triggers, like with Doomwake Giant, the fact that they all go to the graveyard and come back is extremely important.
Just be careful that one of your opponents’ enchantments that you’re trying to get rid of isn’t Karmic Justice. Putting your enchantments back onto the battlefield happens during the resolution of Cleansing Mediation with no one getting priority in between. Any triggers that happen from enchantments getting destroyed won’t happen until yours are already back on the battlefield and therefore legal targets when the Karmic Justice triggers happen.
18. Gate to Phyrexia
Black doesn’t get much enchantment removal other than player removal. Gate to Phyrexia slowly gets rid of enchantments at the low cost of doing what you wanted to do already, sacrifice creatures. Whether you’re pairing that sacrifice with some kind of recursion (maybe the also-underplayed Corpse Dance) or triggered ability (from Grave Pact all the way to Reaper from the Abyss), there’s tons of value to be had with Gate to Phyrexia.
17. Maddening Imp
All the nettling not-keyworded variants and the goad that evolved from them are some of the best things in Commander. Maddening Imp was one of the reasons we learned to cast creatures after combat. Note that the ability doesn’t say anything about creatures that couldn’t attack, only the ones that didn’t. The upside to Maddening Imp is that if someone taps a creature with an ability so that it doesn’t attack, it’ll still get destroyed at the end of turn. There’s no hiding, like you can with some other abilities. The downside is that, unlike goad, the creatures can attack you. Knowing that, you’ll be ready. This is where a card like Ensnaring Bridge might come into play. I’m a little embarrassed that I haven’t taken the time to dig up a copy of Maddening Imp for my Karazikar Goad is GOAT deck. I’ll rectify that situation in short order.
16. Key to the City
This one was a recommendation from Commander Advisory Group (CAG) member Adam “Stybs” Styborski. There were lots of compelling cards in Kaladesh, and this one might have gotten overlooked. I like the fact that you can discard for profit, then later draw a card to replace it (at a good rate). You’ll be setting yourself up by discarding things that you want in the graveyard anyway, whether creatures to reanimate or spells with flashback. Making a commander unblockable is quite strong and potentially lethal. Don’t sleep on the idea of making someone else’s creature unblockable after it has attacked an opponent.
15. Rayne, Academy Chancellor
Rayne has been on a number of the Hidden Gems lists I’ve done over the years and I still feel the need to tell the kids about it. It might be a strong metagame choice for me and some other RC members, as everyone knows that Scott Larabee is addicted to Maze of Ith and its cousins. It’s just strong against all kinds of abilities that target, replacing anything that gets targeted with spot removal—even if said spell doesn’t resolve. You don’t even need to enchant it to make it worthwhile.
14. Spinal Villain
This one might be hidden because it’s a Legends card and therefore expensive. It’s also part of the color enmity tree that we don’t see so much these days (and I for one think they should bring it back in small doses). What it does is simple enough—it destroys a blue creature. There are so many of them running around the format that you’ll never want for targets. The fact that it doesn’t cost any mana to activate is also a bit silly. Add Thousand-Year Elixir or Illusionist’s Bracers for more killing.
13. Surprise Deployment
This one was a suggestion from Commander Architect Gavin Verhey and we like the same things about it. Four mana lets you flash in a creature, get its cool enters-the-battlefield trigger, possibly block and wreck some attacker, and then put the creature back into your hand for more shenanigans later. Gavin said “sign me up” for that and I would be lending him my pen.
A contribution from fellow RC member Scott Larabee, Aetherplasm is a good rattlesnake. You can return Aetherplasm to your hand, and since the latter part of the ability is optional, you don’t have to do anything else. The creature is still blocked, so you’re good unless it has trample. Alternately, you can drop something bigger onto the battlefield and wreck the attacker. You can even put the Aetherplasm back, although the situations in which you’d want to do that are rare.
11. Deepfire Elemental
Continuing the streak of RC member contributions, this one is from Toby Elliott. He’s gotten a surprising amount of mileage from it. I would have thought it a little expensive to activate, but he’s shown me the light, especially using it to machine-gun tokens. The flexibility in being able to get artifacts or creatures is particularly useful. Including it made me think of Gorilla Shaman, which you should also check out.
10. Martyr’s Cause
This one was already on my list when Stybs suggested it. It combines two of my favorite things: sacrificing creatures and not getting my face smashed by big monsters. I’ve used it to sacrifice some of my smaller creatures in order to save some larger ones from both Blasphemous Act and Chain Reaction. In addition to its obvious uses, I’ve seen it run as a mana-free sacrifice outlet, like Altar of Dementia.
9. Perilous Forays
He didn’t suggest it (offering up Fury Storm, which is definitely worth mentioning it), but I’ve seen fellow RC member Gavin Duggan use it to great effect in his Rhys the Redeemed deck. He’s run himself out of lands more than once, as it can get anything with a basic land type, from a simple Forest to Zagoth Triome. It’s been in my Threat of Yasova build since the first draft, synergizing with the commander for some nice creature removal. It’s also pretty solid for dealing with someone else’s battlefield sweeper—if they want to Wrath of God, they’ll just have to deal with whatever you bring down with all that extra mana.
8. Spectral Deluge
Some months back, Jevin Lortie wrote a piece for EDHRec in Challenge the Stats featuring Spectral Deluge. It’s a one-sided creature sweeper that deserves way more consideration than it’s getting. You’ll obviously want it in a heavily Island-based deck—which should also get you to Floodgate for some mono-blue creature damage.
The fact that you can foretell Spectral Deluge gets it out of your hand, making it immune to discard abilities. It’s one of only three foretell cards that’s cheaper in the long run than hard-casting, costing five over the two turns as opposed to six all at once. There are plenty of foretell cards in which the amount of mana is equal. I’ve heard someone call it a fair Cyclonic Rift; even though it’s on this list, I’m not sure I’d go that far. I’d actually call that Flood of Tears, but that’s a card lots of you already know about.
7. Keep Watch
Keep Watch has saved my bacon so often over the years that I might as well <make some awkward breakfast meat metaphor>. Really, the card draw is often off the charts. It’s pulled cards like Mirror Strike out of my deck to survive a big attack and reflect back damage. It’s also filled my hand when I cast it during someone’s combat in which I’m not involved. I understand that it’s situational, but in the situations you don’t need or want to cast it, you’re probably winning anyway.
6. Tower of the Magistrate
Bennie Smith recently Tweeted about this card and I tried to shush him. Seriously, though, Tower of the Magistrate does lots of work. I’ve used it primarily to get creatures to drop all their Equipment. If it’s the creature’s controller’s turn, they won’t be able to re-equip. As an on-battlefield trick, you can stop someone from equipping with the same result. Occasionally it’ll get you through a big blocker—or maybe a not-so-big one like Solemn Simulacrum. For the most part, it’s anti-Equipment tech. We need plenty of that around in the 2022 version of Commander.
Suggested by CAG member and everyone’s favorite Canadian Jim Lapage, I’ve also seen our own Jeremy Noell play Capricopian. It’s ultimate Commander stuff, and I’ve already shouted my love of it to some folks on the Casual Play Team in Studio X. It’s a little chaotic but not so much so as to devolve a game. Your friends will make it bigger in order to get out of the way, so that next time they’ll be even more likely to pay the two mana to get out from under its Goat Hydra gaze. Play it alongside War’s Toll to push folks into even more awkward choices. Today I learned that it’s a creation of designer Corey Bowen, so big shout-out to him.
4. Tsabo’s Web
I believe that Tsabo’s Web is a fair taxing card that keeps some of the format’s most busted utility lands in check. Certainly the aforementioned Maze of Ith qualifies, as do Volrath’s Stronghold and Academy Ruins. It’s a simple but elegant design. It replaces itself with another card at a cheap price, so it’s never a completely dead draw.
3. Grim Feast
Several friends suggested this even though they knew it was already on my list. It’s quite simple. The one damage you get on your upkeep will be mitigated over the course of the game by a single big creature from one of your opponents dying. Since you’re playing black, you can make that happen rather easily. Even if you don’t, it’s just a natural part of a Commander game. Let the lifegain flow!
2. Equal Treatment
This card has made my Hidden Gems list nearly every time for good reason. It has a useful effect for very little mana and it draws a card to replace itself. It’s close to a Fog in that it’ll prevent a bunch of combat damage. That Craterhoof Behemoth plus Avenger of Zendikar won’t be quite deadly to you anymore. It protects your creatures as well, so Blasphemous Act isn’t going to kill most of them—but beware that it protects everyone’s creatures. The tricky use, which I’ve tapped into before, is doubling of things that do one damage. Once killed someone at twelve with six 1/1s. It was glorious.
1. Mercadia’s Downfall
I’m going to list this one probably for the final time because I think some people are finding out about it. It’s a techier way to kill someone with a greedy land base that doesn’t involve Anathemancer or Price of Progress. While you’ll most often be using it to buff your own attacks, you can use it on someone else’s as well. It only cares about the fact that there are attacking creatures and counts the defending player’s nonbasic lands.
My favorite story with this card involves me getting killed by it. My friend Anthony attacked me with Riku of Two Reflections and Acidic Slime. I wanted to kill and reanimate hit Acidic Slime, so I blocked to kill it. I had ten nonbasic lands, and you can see where this is going. He cast Mercadia’s Downfall and copied it. I died to commander damage and I’ll always remember it.
Don’t let anyone tell you that there are “must-play” cards in Commander. Play the things that give you joy. This list is just a start. I encourage you to dig deep into the treasure chest that Commander offers and find Hidden Gems of your own.
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