The Great Commander Swap

Changing generals may seem tempting, but before you swap, stop and read these tips from Chase Carroll!

Esika, God of the Tree, illustrated by Nana Qi

Choosing a commander can be a fickle thing. It can take ages to settle down on the right legendary creature that fulfills their desired strategy and playstyle, but once you find the one, it can become a match made in heaven. But what happens if something new comes along?

Each and every day, we see dozens of powerful new commanders that often outclass or spark more joy than the ones we are currently using. So what do we do in these predicaments? When do we know if/when to swap out our commanders for something different?

This quandary arose for me recently during my time at MagicCon Minneapolis this past weekend. A brand new Secret Lair deck was debuted on the main stage, and with it, a handful of cards that were perfect for Secret Lair Sisay. From Nicol Bolas, the Ravager to Archangel Avacyn, there were some great new pieces to play with, but one card stood out from amongst them all — Esika, God of the Tree.

Esika is a powerhouse of a card. She likes legendary things, makes mana, and can also give you free things on your upkeep. Originally, I was going to slot her into the 99, but then I remembered that because her backside (The Prismatic Bridge) is WUBRG, she can technically replace Sisay as the commander. So… should I? I stared at the preview image for almost an hour and my decklist for twice as long. How do I weigh these options? 

Theme Disruption

When faced with new cards, I always have to take excitement into account. Do I really like this card or is it just new? I realized this when previews for Phyrexia: All Will Be One were coming out. Ovika, Enigma Goliath took my breath away initially. This card felt like a twisted version of The Locust God. You cast spells and get a bunch of tokens with haste! It even has ward (a mechanic I truly love). So why didn’t I make this big swap so to speak? Well, the ability (while similar) isn’t the same. In fact, it was arguably worse. My Locust God deck was filled to the brim with noncreature spells like Wheel of Fortune, Windfall, and Winds of Change, however, I get more creatures with the more cards I draw. This can result in 36 hastey Locusts coming into play in one turn. If Ovika was in charge, the deck would be considerably worse. Cards like Teferi’s Ageless Insight and Arjun, the Shifting Flame become duds. With Ovika out, Windfall would get me a new hand, but only give me three creatures. It’s just not the same. 

This substitution would have resulted in a disruption of my deck’s key theme. Yes, I could technically swap out The Locust God for Ovika, but the deck would be a lot slower and less impactful. In order to bring my deck back up to my desired power level, I would have to make considerable changes to the entire decklist, which definitely isn’t a bad thing, but it loses the intended playstyle. Tweaking your commander decks is almost always bound to happen – new cards come out, or maybe you discover old ones – but being blinded by hype can result in a complete revamp as opposed to a simple swap.

Color Identity

Since we discussed the possibility of revamping your deck, it should be noted that this can be intentionally done. Sometimes a legendary card is previewed that you fall in love with that has either more colors or different colors than a deck you own. This has happened to many friends of mine. For example my friend Shivam has a Tajic, Blade of the Legion deck. It’s Soldier themed and when The Brothers’ War was dropping, there were a lot of Soldiers that had blue in their identity (meaning they couldn’t be added to Tajic). In a similar vein, Knight players received a new commander in the form of Sidar Jabari of Zhalfir. Most Knight decks stem from Throne of Eldraine and are more planted in Mardu colors. Sidar Jabari is considered to be a stronger commander and while others wanted to transform their Knights deck, that would require an entire overhaul.

When faced with a situation like this, you have to balance out the worth. Is it worth it to you to change the entire color identity of your deck in order to make it stronger/better? In my current situation with Sisay and Esika, I don’t have this issue, since Esika is technically considered to have a WUBRG color identity. But in the case of say, Syr Gwyn and Sidar Jibari, that means a complete restart on everything: your mana base, removal, ramp – everything. No matter which way you look at things, you’re either slightly tweaking the theme or taking the deck apart altogether.


So what do you do? I always recommend brewing and playtesting online before you buy. Whether you’re tweaking a theme or doing a total overhaul, trying before you buy can save you hundreds of dollars. Commander isn’t always a cheap format, and playtesting can help give you information on if the commander swap is right for you. There are tons of websites that can allow you to playtest hands or even entire games of commander. Heck, a handful of my guests on stream sometime use Moxfield to playtest their decks in a stream setting before they commit to purchasing it. 

Since my deck requires no change in color identity, I can simply do a playtest swap. I already ordered my Esika Secret Lair, and when it arrives, I will simply play the deck as normal but with Esika in the lead. This requires little to no change and will allow me to see if there is any disruption in the theme, since Sisay streamlines the deck. Not having a tutor in the command zone will definitely hurt, but having a mana creature/free thing each upkeep isn’t exactly a bad thing either. It’s just different, but I won’t know until I try. 

The process of deckbuilding can be extremely delicate, and when you decide to tweak such a major aspect as replacing the general, you can easily disrupt the balance you’ve created. In order to maintain balance, one must be intentional with how they go about things. If you ever get the spark to try something new, don’t rush in headfirst. Take your time and plan things out. As a result you could save some money or come out on the other side with a better deck.

Happy swapping, deckbuilders!