Welcome to the most difficult set review in the history of Commander: picking the most excellent and admirable gems from a veritable Dragon’s hoard of remarkable cards.
This set is so rich, deep, and resonant that it’s going to require a somewhat different type of structure. There are 85 legendary creatures alone in The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth. Add to that 24 other legendary spells, and we have a mini-set in its own right, which is exactly how we’re going to look at things. As with other reviews, we’ll burrow into things by color, which includes both multicolor and colorless. This time, we’ll simply have a Top 5 for both legendary and nonlegendary things.
Please remember that this review is for Commander only. We’ll be discussing cards within the context of the hundred-card format at the more battlecruiser end, although when things have a more high-powered implication, I’ll be happy to point them out. Given that The Lord of the Rings is the most important fantasy intellectual property (IP) of all time, flavor will have a much stronger bearing in this review than in others. Also, this will include only main set cards. There’s enough small-T treasure to sort through with the Commander decks all by themselves.
There’s not much sense in rating each of the colors. Every one of them gets an A+ (okay, maybe that’s a little hyperbolic, giving that there are sometimes only seven to nine potential picks in a color), like the set as a whole. Still, there are so many cards in Top 5s we’ve had to cut regular review features like Honorable Mention, Best Common, and Best Uncommon for space. We’re still going to make some demands on your eyes, checking in at quite a few more words than normal. There’s just so much to get through.
This is the most ambitious collection of Magic design ever set to paper and the designers, developers, artists, and producers have done a breathtaking job. You know I’m not the type to gush. I’m getting all Niagara over here.
It’s not the pair of Anthems, but the ward ability that pushes this to the top for me. Just making opponents spend that one additional mana can be the difference between them targeting one of our things and someone else’s.
If he’s our Ring-bearer, Frodo will be difficult to block, so I like our chances with the various Swords of X and Y series of Equipment. We’ll get triggers most of the time and be able to performing our skulky deeds.
I was a little worried about this list becoming all-Gandalf, all the time. While that anxiety is borne out in white, not so much in other colors. With even a small storm count, this version can buff our side quite nicely for an alpha strike swing, with some scrying to boot.
Casting legendary spells and artifacts as though they have flash is good enough. I’m a fan of the “hey Elesh Norn, hold half my beer” moment almost hidden underneath. White continues to get the goods in the last several sets, moving it well away from the once-weakest color in Commander.
Lavinia, Azorius Renegade and Nix have some most excellent company. Again, one ability makes Boromir good enough. The flavor dripping off him sacrificing himself to protect everyone else reaches heights Selfless Savior can only aspire to. This one will challenge my resolve in the promise to only put one copy of new cards into my deck suite.
I expect the nonlegendary spells to be quite a bit less spicy on average than the legendary ones, so Dawn of a New Age fits into expected space—and is still quite good. It’ll have enough hope counters on it that, by the time we get to the last few, we’ll have had the opportunity to proliferate some and continue the process. Alternately, being in a very blinky color, we can just reset it. Good times all around at a very low investment.
Effective counterspells without being counterspells, thereby getting around “can’t be countered” clauses, will have me running to sign up. Reprieve replaces itself, which in a white-blue or white-blue-x deck might mean a hard counterspell, which is going to happen and is going to be such a beating.
The first two chapters of War of the Last Alliance are very quiet. We just go get the two legendary creatures we’d like to cast over the next turns, knowing what’s coming. Then, there are all kinds of blammo! (not a Lord of the Rings word) in Chapter III as the entire team gets life total-wrecking double strike. Big numbers.
2. Forge Anew
What we spend zero to equip doesn’t have to be what we regrew with Forge Anew. It’s just a good ability sitting there, waiting for us to use. As an enchantment, like with Dawn of the New Age, we can blink it for more value (although that still gives us just one free equip).
This is my kind of Saga—one with some different abilities that don’t lead us down a particular path, but instead offer us options based on the game state. The creature from Chapter I survives to be one of the creatures that get lifelink in Chapter III, but it doesn’t have to be. I suspect the one from Chapter II is going to be a strong candidate.
The trigger condition is ungated, so we’ll be scrying quite a bit in numerous circumstances. We’ll really be able to sift through our library and grab just the cards we want or need. I won’t rely on it to basically tutor up pieces of a combo, just to provide some pretty extreme value.
Moving counters around excites me a great deal. Let’s get that Crystalline Giant onto the battlefield and see what happens. Note that the first ability moves a counter of each type, not all the counters of one type, onto Goldberry. The artwork is quite something, too.
There has to be something super combo-riffic here. I’ll leave it to the minds of the brewers to figure it out. Let’s see if we can get Arcanis the Omnipotent running somehow. Other/another keeps the card from breaking, and it’s still going to bend quite a bit.
Everyone knows that we cannot offer Gandalf the Ring. Getting to draw a card for doing the right thing is all kinds of positive reward. Oh, yeah, then there’s that sorcery as if they have flash thing. Shouldn’t be all that bad.
Of all the cards in the set, I think this is the one I’ve seen the most difference of opinion on. You can see which side I’ve landed on. Flavor pushes it across, as well as being a 9/9 for five mana. It’s not a big leap to play Arcane Adaptation and make all of our creatures into Tentacles (currently seen as the creature type on zero cards).
Glorious Gale is a card I might play with early as opposed to some different kind of battlefield development. Starting the temptation early has nowhere to go but up. And it’s a common, so I know we’re going to get half a dozen or so in various packages.
Scry plus proliferate is the way I’ll be going here in order to get the extra turn. I have thoughts on extra turns. They mirror them on Mindslaver effects. One is fine. Multiples are boring. Happy that it exiles itself.
Another counter-without-countering, then we get to cast something on top of it for just four mana. If you like Rishkar’s Expertise, you’ll enjoy pressing the enemy.
The whole scry suite in the set looks fairly compelling, especially for a mechanic that’s often just a throw-in. A good precombat scry or two can get the last tricky blockers out of the way in preparation for a big combat step, which isn’t really the kind of play too many folks will be on guard for.
I suppose Scroll of Isildur isn’t legendary because there’s a whole tower full of his scrolls. Still, what we pick up over three turns for just three mana is going to end up paying huge dividends. Drawing a card for each tapped creature an opponent controls means we’ll be deriving a bonus (the card draw) for something we wanted to do already. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: play Isildur’s Scroll with Opposition.
Opponents not being able to gain life is most of what we want from this card. The ability to slowly bleed them via zero-mana creature sacrifice isn’t as important as the creature sacrifice itself. We’re very unlikely to see ungated, free creature sacrifice like Goblin Bombardment and Altar of Dementia again; this is likely as close as we’ll get.
I don’t care if I ever draw the card. I just love the game-within-the-game of this kind of card. That said, I don’t want them to be too convoluted or involve hiding objects or whatever. I just remember being a fan of Nebuchadnezzar way back in the day and have liked the style ever since.
Mean ol’ Lobelia is going to farm Bag End for quite a few Treasures. We don’t have to be greedy, just mana-positive. You know, like with a certain Goblin Pirate.
I’m not sure how creatures controlled by multiple players are going to deal combat damage to me in a turn, but I remain here to see it happen. I’m probably going to Stewie-reference you ain’t got the grapes pretty often while playing this card, so be forewarned.
Cutting the Ring from Sauron’s hand is going to be delightful every time we do it. It’s going to feel rotten if someone does it to us, but who would do such things to hard-working, Vala-fearing folk? Exiling things is one of the most powerful effects in Commander, as many of us love to get multiple uses of the same card.
Even without the coolness of nine different art versions and nine allowable copies, the card does work. It becomes a 2/3 right away, with the promise of more. The fact that it puts counters on each Wraith (which includes all our Shapeshifters) means that it will scale into something that goes wide with some panache.
Once the spell has resolved, we have full access to all the cards for the rest of the game, assuming they don’t change zones. Check out the Release Notes for some interesting details regarding the card’s new “mana of any type” template.
I’m not going to lie: I have concerns about Mirkwood Bats. Some folks have mentioned that it’s not doing anything that can’t currently be done, but that’s hardly a positive argument. Life totals are going to dwindle quickly. That we get triggers coming and going doubles the speed at which life loss happens. This isn’t your mother’s Nadier’s Nightblade.
Another highly hyped card, Orcish Bowmasters stands as reasonable protection against out-of-control card draw. There’s the obvious wheeling, but even without, the card is going to do some very heavy lifting. Add Resurrection Orb or the classic Basilisk Collar to get real frequent flyer miles out of the Bowmasters.
The Chapters of One Ring to Rule Them all are henceforth named okay, pretty good, and what the hell just happened and why am I dying? Both kinds of mill decks, mill-as-kill and milling in order to put reanimation targets in graveyards, will like what happens with this great Saga.
Unless we’re adding flash to the package, we won’t be creating all that many Treasure tokens via Gloin. There are plenty of other ways, however, to up our Treasure count and then get the sweet, sweet feel of goading to our heart’s delight with Gloin’s activated ability.
Often, a single additional combat is enough to close out a game. Éomer, Marshal of Rohan’s price of a legendary creature dying might seem a little steep, but then again, we have some token legendaries, like Boo from Minsc and Boo, Timeless Heroes. One sacrifice outlet and we’re golden.
What bumps up Erkenbrand, Lord of Westfold is that it doesn’t say nontoken, nor is it limited to a number of triggers per turn. Human-themed overrun will be happening here.
Like Gimli, it’s not fancy, but it’ll make people dead in no time. Mono-red Dwarves happening soon?
Burning up artifacts is what Mount Doom does best, and that’s the huge part of the first ability. If we get the creature as well, great. While the second ability will get a little spendy, the fact that we Shock everyone for two along with playing the card makes the rate even better.
In a Goblin or Orc deck, we’ll be burning through cards. Let’s just make sure we don’t run out
I don’t currently play a storm deck because I don’t want to be the person eating up three-quarters of the clock all by myself. Display of Power is a temptation. I’m a big fan of copying spells, especially in my Dreaming of Intet deck, where I could easily see it replacing Dualcaster Mage. What I’m hoping to do with Display of Power some day is come off the top rope onto some seven-spell-tall stack and just dominate the battlefield.
In the mid- to late-game, with plenty of mana resources on the battlefield, Hew the Entwood is going to upgrade us in quality with a little cost quantity. Your The Brothers’ War decks will love it.
Another Saga and another card that has play in it. We might be using it just to finish off someone via clearing the last blocking hurdle in Chapter I. Chapter II is the silent breath before the plunge. Then here comes Smaug in all his Treasure-creating (killing people with Mirkwood Bats) glory.
It is definitely not too late for our friend Elanor to trim the verge. Repeatable ramping for just two mana (plus three life!) is not to be underestimated. While Elanor Gardner is a little modest in effect, our green friends start to step it up from here.
Galadriel can even feed Food to Elanor, in fact. I suspect we’ll use all three different choices in roughly equal measure, which is how I prefer to play. Options are good.
When something costs seven and can fit into a Doran, the Siege Tower deck, we pay attention. For Fangorn, we’re going to sit up and take notice. Not losing green mana through the turn is super-good, and generating it twice for each attacking Treefolk will get us a pile up in no time.
I’m not much on spell-slinger decks, since they are also generally the kind that take up a disproportionate amount of time. The first ability only mildly interests me. The second one, however, really gets my water boiling. For as little as one mana for our Swords to Plowshares or Path to Exile, we get to deal Legolas’s power to something. We’ll want it to deal more than one, and the ways to do that are legion.
In addition to any number of other things, this also gives us some gaudy affinity for artifacts numbers. And metalcraft to beat the band. You know, the stuff that green really cares about.
Wonderful design, with just enough cheekiness to support the very nice value. Up to six +1/+1 counters over six turns for only one mana isn’t going to break anything; we’re essentially getting counters for free. We have to have our Volo, Guide to Monsters-style deck running here instead of a themed one. I’d be hard-pressed to call that a downside.
4. Elven Chorus
In friendly games, we’ll always remind our table-mates that we can still produce mana when they might think we’re tapped out. Then we’ll cast creatures off the top of the library, and all will be right with the world.
How much more can we say besides better Harrow?
I guess we can say that Entish Restoration fuels Last March of the Ents. One would hope that our eight mana would truly tilt the game state in our direction. Like generating mana via Selvala, Heart of the Wilds with Kozilek, Butcher of Truth on the battlefield—okay, we don’t need to get that silly.
In what has become the de facto chase rare of the set, Delighted Halfling is going to end up in quite a few lists at all the varying styles and play levels across the format. And she’s just so happy!
Special Flavor Win: Tom Bombadil
Even with Tom Bombadil being one of my least favorite elements of the story, I recognize the brilliance in design here. Tom keeps the song of Middle-earth eternally going.
The Scouring of the Shire is a part of the novels that folks who’ve only seen the films might not be familiar with, another element of the dark payment for all that has gone on before. It’s part of Tolkien’s cautionary tale about individual greed in the face of fear. Being our modern-day upgraded Tsabo’s Web does not hurt me one bit, although I suspect fellow Commander Rules Committee (RC) member Scott Larabee and his Mazes of Ith won’t like it one whit.
Getting rid of the version of someone else’s very good enchantment (why play Ghostly Prison when someone else will pay for it?), instant, or sorcery that we had to destroy and then getting our own version is good beats. I don’t need to reiterate the point that exiling opponents’ stuff is where we want to go.
How is this only the third-best multicolored card? Because this set is all about the amazeballs legendary creatures. From a flavor standpoint, I love that the two of them get together and unite all peoples via the connection of +1/+1 counters. Mechanically, swelling our team has nothing but upside. The lifegain angle is pretty nice, too. In our combination Current Alliance of Humans and Elves deck, we’re going to gain piles of it.
I might be willing to call it a tie for number one, because Shelob is a blowout. Flavor once again comes to the fore, as anything that Shelob or another Spider kills turns into Food (losing the rest of its identity)—as it always has been, since the ancient days. Deathtouch and ward 2 for Shelob and all her minions make the six mana (for an 8/8!) worthwhile.
Sauron, the Dark Lord costs seven in Grixis colors, so no easy feat on subsequent castings. Fortunately, they’ll be fewer and farther between due to the stiff ward cost. Amass Orcs 1 doesn’t seem like much, but we’ll be casting quite some spells. Once we’re out, Sauron will generate half a refill. If we’re playing some kind of reanimation strategy, it will fill part of the graveyard. This one’s going to get there.
More games-within-games and I’m here for every Fact or Fiction variant that the good folks in Studio X want to throw at us.
A little creature removal, a little player damage. It’s straightforward and unspectacular, but it works.
I’m happy with scope-limited tutors, so long as we are modest about the numbers of them we use. Yes, Demonic Tutor is best, it’s just not the most interesting. I’d rather do it with a little flair and not just the capability to do whatever the hell I want. The game is more enjoyable for me if I have to work out stuff, not just have canned answers. I encourage other folks to give it a try, too.
We’ll likely be using the first two modes quite a bit, although five damage still kills quite a few creatures straigthtaway. It’ll also go a long way to finishing off something pretty big after combat.
It’s okay. Unless it has a great enters-the-battlefield trigger, we won’t want to sacrifice that thing anyway. We’ll want to bring back something bigger, badder, and better. A perfect accompaniment to Oldest Stickfingers, the deck I’ve recently (well—relatively recently considering the vacation I just returned from) had the most fun with.
5. Bilbo’s Ring
Not quite as difficult to get around as Swiftfoot Boots, Lightning Greaves, or Whispersilk Cloak, but the exalted-like trigger suits well if one is inclined to play Rafiq of the Many. The unblockable part is going to litter the floor with some bodies.
4. Mithril Coat
Ooh, mithril! Combat trick, commander-saver, and many other things we need it to be, the Mithril Coat is the iconic piece of Equipment in the story. It saves Frodo, thus saving the day/night/whatever weird time it is when Mount Doom is all explody.
Tell me you’re Winota without telling me you’re Winota.
With most cards in this vein, we put the creature back into our hand, like with Ilharg, the Raze-Boar. Not so with the Doors of Durin. Once we’ve spoken friend, we’ll be entering for good. And I’m only counting it as number three in the color!
Games within games. The times they play-tested in the biodome must have been a laugh a minute. With a little top-of-library control, we can ensure maximum damage. Who wants that, though? Spin the wheel! Seems like the least negative EV is to just let us draw a card.
1. The One Ring
Ash Nazg… If we’re getting protection from everything for a turn, that should build up enough spare life total to draw quite a few cards and still be ahead. I suppose here is where we point out that the reason that the downsides of The One Ring and being tempted by it are effectively nonexistent is that players wouldn’t play them. Too heavy a burden might bring some verisimilitude, which doesn’t always bring the gameplay experience players want. Designers want people to look forward to playing the cards—a truth that didn’t get discovered in Magic for a while. Once they leaned into it, the game hit the turbochargers.
5. Lórien Brooch
It’s a reskinned Trailblazer’s Boots, and Lórien Brooch is going to be just as effective at helping get to the stompies.
Lembas becoming the new Feldon’s Cane in keeping us from decking ourselves is kind of fun. Gaining life is always good. The shuffle is part of a triggered ability, which means there’s a chance for someone (even us, if we want to put it back on the battlefield) to target it.
Say it with me: Three-mana rocks!
More fodder for repeated card draw in that Glissa deck or however else you want to recur it, plus a little mana fixing on the side.
Trample is likely the big one to take away here. It’s definitely defensive in nature. Getting rid of protection is also saucy. First strike and double strike turn out to be way more annoying than we often suspect, so that’s the offensive choice.
Legendary and Nonlegendary
5. Those Map Basics
Bringing Deven Rue’s incredible cartography into the set is just another cherry in the orchard.
4. The Shire
The Shire making plentiful Food? I’m all in.
I’ll use this one in a deck that requires colorless mana, like one that has Eldrazi Displacer in it. The colored mana will just be a bonus. The real bonus is that Alayna Danner art, it must be said.
2. Minas Tirith
Minas Tirith combines two of my favorite things, attacking and drawing cards. Reanimating stuff from my graveyard is the third leg on that tripod. While it’s effectively three mana (since we have to tap Minas Tirith as well), it’s still a reasonable rate on a permanent that’s not likely to go anywhere. There will be much better targets for land destruction.
1. Mount Doom
I can’t wait to kill someone with exactsies for one. Nicely, we don’t have to exile Mount Doom in order to get its last ability. We can Crucible of Worlds to our heart’s delight (or whatever flavor of land recursion one likes best).
A Grand Achievement
I’ve said all I can say and haven’t even yet begun to speak. Once again, everyone involved here has just knocked it out of the park. It’s a testament to what a great strategic vision, coupled with industry-best professionals, can accomplish.
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