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First Looks: Kaldheim’s Impact On Commander

Sheldon Menery breaks down the Kaldheim previews for Commander… and how Halvar, God of Battle works in the command zone.

Realmwalker, illustrated by Zack Stella

We come from the land of the ice and snow

From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow

How soft your fields so green

Can whisper tales of gore

Of how we calmed the tides of war

We are your overlords

 — Led Zeppelin, Immigrant Song

The Kaldheim invasion is coming with a vengeance to Commander tables near you.  Even in the first week of previews, which was more like a sneak peek, we’ve seen some chillingly good cards. 

While I wasn’t on the Kaldheim design team, it was in heavy rotation during my time in Studio X, so I got a strong look at the cards and the themes.  I played with the then-versions of the cards while working on various projects.  I can tell you that what we have up until now is just the briefest glimpse into the power and majesty of this extremely flavor-driven set.  You’re going to love it, from its frostiest Giants to its bloodthirstiest Elves. 

I’m already a fan of the heavy metal tie-in to the set.  When bands like Mastodon and Amon Amarth got preview cards, it was an interesting break from just giving the previews to content creators.  One of my friends inside the building already sent me the Thraximundar t-shirt and it’s gone into my wear schedule.  For those of you wanting to check out the art of all of the cards already previewed, you’ll have to visit the variants page instead of the normal card image gallery.  As of Christmas Eve, the former is the one with more cards on it.  And those runic alternate arts are pretty stunning.  I considered passing this time around on a Collector Booster box, but that art has changed my mind.  Let’s take a look at what we’ve seen so far.

White

Angels are back, and they’re already taking me to Valhalla.  Gaining four life a turn in an Angel deck isn’t all that difficult, so you’ll be able to get consistent triggers.  A token generator that makes large enough creatures and an Archon of Redemption will get you there. 

There are two ways to look at this card.  One is piling onto the design, building the Dwarf Vehicles deck we know is coming, likely led by Depala, Pilot Exemplar.  The card is just spicy in any Vehicles build, letting you get around the crew cost.  You can use it as an offensive maneuver or a surprise defensive strategy. 

Then there’s the part about attaching all the Equipment you control to a Dwarf.  Even if you’re not running any vehicles, you can pile up onto your favorite Dwarf, whether it’s Reyav, Master Smith; Sram, Senior Edificer; or a non-legendary one like Hidden Gem Aerial Responder.  We’ve already seen in Commander Legends how devastatingly powerful Ardenn, Intrepid Archaeologist can be.  Armed and Armored continues that legacy. 

Angels can get expensive.  An early drop of Starnheim Aspirant speeds up your curve considerably.  While I might not be in favor of faster Commander games, letting some tribes get into the game earlier is a reasonable idea.

Probably one that’ll see more play in Limited, Warchanter Skald is a reasonable target for Armed and Armored.

Having cheaper Angels is another way of getting the tribe more active on the early turns, then it gets appreciably larger as its bigger cousins show up.

Blue

You knew Giants were coming, here’s a big one.  It’s an 8/8, so you’re not going to be sad about sending it into battle.  Getting to cast an instant or sorcery from your hand for free is simply loads of value.

Be a little careful with this one, since many of your Shapeshifters are different types after they’ve copied something.  The ones you’ll likely use this with are things like Morphling, turning it to an even bigger beatstick.  When you bounce something large, Taurean Mauler will keep all its counters and really crash into the red zone.  You can get tricky with Chameleon Colossus, activating its ability to double up its power and toughness while Absorb Identity is still on the stack, and then making it immense when you Evacuate someone’s seven- or eight-toughness creature. 

Nothing says “Mine!” like a huge hand.  Very clever and flavorful design.

Black

Two of the four black cards we’ve seen so far are Angels, which is a strong move for the tribe.  Cleaving Reaper might be a little narrow, but it’s solid in the tribal build. 

Resilience is a thing that Elf decks might have been missing in the past.  Elderfang Ritualist will help mitigate that problem. 

The second black Angel, Renegade Reaper sends us in the direction of using our graveyard to Regrow things, not uncommon in Angel-adjacent cards like Emeria, the Sky Ruin. Of course, Angels like Emeria Shepherd

With the popularity of Commander Boxing League, we have to think anew about how cards might get used.  Commander is branching out format-wise, and while a card like Thornmantle Striker might get consideration for a normal Elf tribal deck, it’s going to be a house in Limited.  And you can bring it back with Elderfang Ritualist and have it do its dirty work again.

Red

Really liking the move of branching out with Treasure tokens.  Sure, five mana is good, but spending effectively five mana to tutor for something huge is a definite win.  While the Dwarf/artifact connection is obvious, the Dwarf and Dragon pairing is novel.  Let’s see what else will come of it later in the set.

Sure, you can sacrifice utility creatures, but you can really pile up the damage with fellow Giants.  You know who’s also a Giant?  Hamletback Goliath

While it seems mostly obvious, there’s no reason that you have to run it in a deck with all three of the listed types.  Just in a simple Dwarf tribal will be fine.  This is another one that I expect will do some heavy lifting in Boxing Leagues.

While getting in the damage is fine, getting the choice of a bunch of cards to cast on this turn and your next is even better.  I’m also appreciative of the trend in “bottling” red cards, after Elkin Bottle, in which designers have seen fit to extend the window that you get to cast the spells.  Makes more sense that you get the extra turn since you’ve spent mana getting them in the first place.  The only thing is that you might need to make some difficult choices, because you likely won’t be able to cast them all.  Getting your pick of them will take some of the sting out of having to exile the others. 

More exploration of what to do with Treasures, the thing with Gilded Assault Cart is that its crew cost is way lower than its power. 

Green

This is my kind of card — strong when you build with it as opposed to simply being powerful in the abstract.  It’s not quite Vizier of the Menagerie strong, but close enough to do some work.  Beast tribal seems like a good option for it, so I’ll probably jam it right into my Ruric Thar, the Unbowed deck. 

Cue the nuts puns.  One little Squirrel that does big things. Toski isn’t about sitting back and letting its indestructibility be for defense.  Here’s to more Squirrel tribal!  I’m dusting off the Acorn Catapults

Of the many things in Kaldheim to get excited about, for me Elves aren’t one of them.  I’m just a little over overdoing the tribe.  That said, if Elves are your thing, Canopy Tactician certainly amps up the power of the Elves to near-Sliver levels.  I remember in playtesting the Elves being particularly brutal.  I’ll let you be the judge of just how fierce they are. 

Ditto.  I remember facing down Elves in one of our playtests, and they can make you dead really fast.

While every set is a Commander set, not every card is a Commander card, and that’s just fine by me. 

Multicolored

Inexorable is right.  This version of Kaya is dreamy.  I’m already dreaming of the shenanigans it will pull in a Karador, Ghost Chieftain deck.  One of the dreads of graveyard decks is getting creatures exiled, and Kaya’s ghostform counter will prevent that.  The counter and its ability stays even if Kaya goes away.  Of course, you’re going to want to protect her in order to get to that emblem which will let you cast a legendary spell from nearly everywhere save the command zone.  Great design.

Certainly the most talked-about card so far, Sarulf will get all kinds of large in short order.  Now you’ll just be daring people to sacrifice a pile of Treasures.  You can use its second ability as a battlefield wipe when you have lots of counters on it.  Even if you have just a few counters, it’ll wipe out a legion of mana rocks and token creatures. 

I’m a fan of the fact that you have to strategize with the card.  Sarulf is likely your commander, so you’ll want it large to get in some commander damage kills. Then again, if the battlefield is too clogged, you won’t be able to get through—and you can start rebuilding with Sarulf still on the battlefield.  We’ll be talking about Sarulf for a while at all power levels. 

So I get an Angel and a Grave Pact if you happen to kill my Angels?  Sign me up. 

Sagas absolutely had to make a comeback in the Norse-themed set, and Showdown of the Skalds heralds what’s to come. 

Artifact

Birthing Pod is an extremely strong card.  Tribal Birthing Pod is not going to let you down, either.  Changelings appear to be a theme woven into Kaldheim, so you can use them to bridge the gap in what might be otherwise an awkward choice in your tribe.  As far as existing tribes go, Allies might be viable and we can certainly make Humans work.  Like with Birthing Pod, I’m going to want to play it in a deck that has some recursion, which leans into black and/or white.  We’ve gotten the suggestion of some good recursion in Kaldheim, so I’ll be looking forward to a commander that fits into the theme. 

Modal DFCs

We’ve seen the Pathways, and the thing that stands out to me is that all the art is amazeballs. 

A card that launched a bunch of rules questions, Halvar, God of Battle is actually relatively simple.  If Halvar is your commander, you can cast either side from the command zone.  It’s the same card, so regardless of which face you’re using, you pay the appropriate tax. 

As far as the card itself goes, it’s hard to say which side is preferable.  I like reusing my creatures, so the Equipment side is enticing.  The creature side, as I mentioned with Ardenn, can be pretty powerful, especially when you have expensive equip costs.  Note that, unlike some other cards, the Equipment has to be already attached to a creature you control, keeping some of the power in check.  I love this exploration of the modal DFCs, as it opens some pretty compelling design space.  Personally, I expect that I’ll likely play the card as 1 of 99, mostly to use the Equipment side, which is quite inexpensive when you consider what kind of tricks you can pull with it. 

From our first peek, Kaldheim looks like Ice Age on steroids.  We see powerful popular tribes like Giants, Angels, and Elves, as well as the promise of something new with the setting-appropriate Berserkers.  We also get the promise of bone-crunchingly epic battles, so we’ll be starting off 2021 in strong fashion with another great effort on the Commander front.