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The Year Of Commander… So Far!

Bennie Smith reviews the first five months of the Year of Commander! What made the grade, and what did he mark as “Incomplete” instead?

Cartographer’s Hawk, illustrated by Donato Giancola

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2019 felt like a watershed year where Wizards of the Coast (WotC) appeared to really embrace the idea that Commander really is the most popular format in Magic. They acknowledged the format was a very popular gateway for new people to play Magic and started to make decisions reflecting the new way of thinking.  We got three hastily planned CommandFests that were a smashing success, and it was announced that 2020 would be the Year of Commander, with lots of exciting product announcements.  For a long-time fan of the format, I was thrilled to hear all this!

Back in the beginning of March before we got an idea what Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths and Commander 2020 had in store, I put together my wishlist:

While I don’t have the honor of being on the Rules Committee or the Commander Advisory Group, I have been writing about Commander for thirteen years and have explored all the nooks and crannies of what makes the format as cultivated by Sheldon Menery and the RC so incredibly fun and satisfying.  I’ve watched its popularity grow year by year by year and was thrilled when WotC started dedicating more attention and resources into making Commander better and better. So, my heart tells me that having a whole year dedicated to making the best format in Magic even better is going to be fantastic! 

Now that we’re almost halfway through the Year of Commander, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on where we are through the lens of my hopes and dreams.

More Powerful, Niche Commanders

Grade So Far: A

To me, the best thing about Commander is the journey of discovery.  Ideally when you pick your commander you want your choice to lead you down various card database rabbit-holes to search for cool synergies, combos and weird cards that nobody plays but are suddenly awesome when your commander is on the battlefield. One of the best feelings in the world is revealing your commander and all of your opponents say something like:

“Oh wow, I’ve never seen anyone play that commander!”

Or…

“I played against that once, and it was super-cool!”

Or…

“What does that card even do?”

I want lots of new commanders that bring that feeling, that reward the journey of discovery, and lucky for me — and all of you — there are quite a few new legends that will do just that!

From Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths:

From Commander 2020:

Some of these are rather obvious build-arounds like Gavi, Nest Warden for cycling; Kalamax, the Stormsire for a spellslinger deck; Otrimi, the Ever-Playful for mutate; and Zaxara, the Exemplary for “X-spell tribal.”  But that’s okay — either it was something we didn’t really have available as a commander before or there’s enough room for customization and flair that each player’s version will be cool. 

The others have so many different approaches that you’re bound to be surprised by whomever is playing it against you.  Nethroi, Apex of Death has mutate, but you may also look for a lot of zero-power creatures that enter the battlefield with +1/+1 counters. With Snapdax, Apex of the Hunt maybe you leverage a bunch of hatebear creatures like Hushbringer and Hushwing Gryff to shut down enters-the-battlefield effects that are so popular in Commander, since mutate gives you a trigger that doesn’t rely on that. Maybe you make a crazy Snake tribal deck with mass draw effects in your Xyris, the Writhing Storm deck. I’ve already written some Top 10 guides to some of these or featured them in my Commander deckbuilding stream and will continue with more in the weeks to come. 

Fewer Generically Good Commanders

Grade So Far: C

A few weeks back I sent out this question to my friends on Twitter:

This topic was inspired by an excellent article by Bryan Gottlieb called I Just Want to Love Constructed Magic Again. Bryan very thoughtfully and respectfully gave a critique of recent design decisions that have made the formats he loves to play just not as much fun as he wants them to be. I was surprised to see him address Commander in one of his points, and very much disagreed with his proposed correction (which was basically to get rid of Commander-specific products and just design some cards with Commander in mind within regular booster expansion sets), but his overall critique of design decisions impacting the formats he loved resonated with me.

I’ve had some conversations with smart people who worry that all this attention being paid to Commander will be a net-negative on the format, and while I tend to put a lot of trust in the brilliant designers at WotC and feel nearly certain that this year will be net-positive for Commander, there have been some worrying signs.

The three cards I picked provide a huge reward for doing what’s already quite powerful in green. Cards with enters-the-battlefield triggers are incredibly powerful because they provide immediate value for your investment and are quite easy to reuse without too much trouble, and Yarok acting like a Panharmonicon that you always have access to is absurd.

Chulane, Teller of Tales lets you ramp and draw cards for free, just for playing creatures. Like, you’re playing Bant colors, you already have the best card draw and mana ramp in the game, you already have some of the best creatures in the game, so why not just give you all the things? 

The graveyard is already an incredibly potent resource in Commander. Muldrotha, the Gravetide just takes it to the extreme in a color combination that gives tons of mana ramp, card draw, and self-mill so you can constantly play lots of cards from your graveyard each turn and easily restock in case your opponents nuke your graveyard.

I really dislike the play patterns these sorts of commanders encourage. When you see one of these cards across the table, you have to decide:

1. I’ll have dedicate all the resources I can to keeping this commander in check, so my own gameplay goals are secondary, or

2. I’ll just play a normal game of Commander and just accept that I will very likely get run over by the card advantage engines these commanders provide unless I get lucky.

For the first option, sure sometimes it’s fun to play your butt off just to have a shot, but if the person playing these cards isn’t interested in a game of Archenemy, they may feel angry or picked on.  For the second option you have to fight the feeling of, “What’s even the point of playing this game?”  Neither play pattern feels very good.

In the Twitter thread that followed, there was a lot of disagreement with my picks but here are some other ones that can be your commander:

What many of these have in common: they more or less build themselves, and they provide a value engine that’s nearly impossible to stop without disrupting your whole gameplan. I know that as Commander grows in popularity, there are likely a percentage of players who aren’t really all that interested in going on that journey of discovery that I mentioned above; these folks just want to play a pile of their favorite cards and have a powerful commander at the helm. But the downside of appealing to these folks with such powerful cards is it leaves a lot of the rest of us feeling like chumps for not playing those cards.

So how is the Year of Commander shaping up on this front?

From Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths:

These three are all eye-popping, powerful cards that more or less build themselves and will relentlessly win the game unless everyone bands together to stop them.  Sure, the deckbuilder can make a bad version of these decks in an effort to reduce the power level, but the effects are just so powerful that they’re going to threaten to Oops, I win! over the course of the entire game.

It is encouraging that none of these sorts of cards showed up in the actual Commander product released so far. So, I’m hopeful that if we keep these new potent engine cards to a dull roar, we’ll be okay. 

More Flexible Color-Fixing Like Path of Ancestry

Grade So Far: C

The good news is that we actually got Path of Ancestry reprinted in Commander 2020 along with the omnipresent and awesome Command Tower.  The bad news is that there isn’t a new land that color-fixes according to the commander’s color identity.  That’s a huge bummer.

However, we did get this new cycle of lands: the Triomes!

I’m a little torn on these.  On the one hand, I’m thrilled to have a new cycle of lands that provide one of three different colors of mana, which makes complex manabases easier to pull together. I’m also pleased to know that we’ll likely have a cycle of shard Triome lands at some point down the road.

On the other hand, this cycle encourages people to play fetchlands in their deck.

I’ve been a heavy proponent of the philosophy that people play way too many fetchlands in Commander. I felt like there are plenty of good cards out there to help you fix your mana that you don’t need fetchlands.  The reasons I don’t like fetchlands outside of very niche strategies like landfall boil down to:

1. They’re very expensive.

2. They take so long to resolve, since you’re usually searching your deck for one specific land that will provide you with two colors.

The fact that these Triomes have three basic land types on them means they are incredible targets for fetchlands, fixing three different colors when you activate one. One of my responses to the complaint that fetchlands are way too expensive and need to be reprinted more was always “you really don’t need to run fetchlands in Commander.”

I can’t say that anymore. Now I’ve got to join that chorus. 

More Nongreen Ramp

Grade So Far: B-

Some people consider Arcane Signet “bad” for Commander.  I strongly disagree.

Green’s color-fixing and ramp options are so incredibly powerful and pushed in Commander that I feel any other color combination almost immediately starts the race further behind.  When your green opponent has six mana available on the turn you play your third land, it feels bad and begs the question, “Why am I not playing green?”  As much as I love green, I want everyone to feel good about playing their deck no matter what the color combination is, and Arcane Signet is the sort of card that helps non-green decks keep up. 

But don’t green decks stay ahead of the game because they have access to Arcane Signet too?  No, they don’t — because green decks already have better options than Arcane Signet.

Good news for all of us: Arcane Signet has been reprinted in Commander 2020, so availability should go way up!

So, what about new cards?

Cartographer’s Hawk is a very cool design. I love that it’s a reusable Knight of the White Orchid that can feed into effects that trigger off creatures entering or leaving the battlefield, but there’s a very real downside that it has to connect with combat damage first and has to be recast.  That’s a lot of hoops to jump through and a bunch of things that can go wrong and I’m not at all sure it’s worth a card slot.

Manascape Refractor salvages the grade somewhat because that card is bonkers and can go into any color deck. It scales to the power of what people have on the battlefield — if someone has assembled Cabal Coffers and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, you’ve got a Cabal Coffers now too. Or a Gaea’s Cradle. Or a Maze of Ith. It’s awesome that any color combination can access this powerful card.

More Nongreen, Nonblue “Card Draw”

Grade So Far: B

Again, green and blue gets so many overpowered goodies in Commander, I really love to find cards that can slot into nongreen decks and provide card draw.  One of the recent gems is Tome of Legends!

It was nice to see a sweet new card in this category in both Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths and Commander 2020:

Bonders’ Enclave just slams into any deck that plays reasonably sized creatures, and while green decks tend to have more creatures with power four or greater, most of the other color combinations have a fair number of them too. Species Specialist is a bit more niche, and while it’s mostly going to do its best work in a Human or Warrior tribal deck, there are various other options outside of that such as an Aristocrats-style token deck.

Reprints!

Grade So Far: B

My personal Commander collection is deep enough that reprints don’t affect me all that much, but I do really appreciate making great Commander cards accessible for more people, especially as the format continues to grow in popularity. 

The first thing I was looking for are the land reprints, and I was certainly happy to see all of these quality lands for the format:

I was not happy to see this piece of trash reprinted in several of the Commander decks:

[face palm]

Bad card is so bad…

Regarding the nonland reprints, there weren’t any eye-popping, fist-pumping, jump-around-in-the-air-hooting-and-hollering reprints, but there were a surprising number of cards that are at least worth a few dollars each if you look at the singles prices:

I’m curious. Which of these were you excited to see?

Nothing So Far…

Grade So Far: Incomplete

Sadly, there’s been no progress on these two checklist items:

  • Enemy Battlebond two-color lands
  • Wedge panoramas

Some of the splashiest and coolest cards in Commander are multicolored gold cards, so having more good mana fixing is important.  The gold standard of having “perfect mana” in the format – the original dual lands, and the cycle of fetchlands – is incredibly expensive and just gets more and more costly each year.

The rare cycle of lands from Battlebond go such a long way towards being just as good as the original dual lands that I’m sure WotC will eventually bring us a cycle of the enemy-color ones soon.

These have actually gotten quite pricey over the past few years so it would be awesome if WotC could reprint these. Since WotC went back up to five preconstructed decks for Commander 2020, I thought we might have a chance of getting one of these in each of the different decks, but that didn’t happen.  I have doubts that we’ll get reprints of this cycle and the enemy cycle this year, but I do still hold out hope that we’ll get one of them.

I’ve also been hoping for wedge versions of the Panorama cycle from Shards of Alara.  Entering the battlefield untapped to immediately use for mana with the ability to sacrifice to find one of three basic lands is much better than a lot of people give it credit for. If you want to read more about my thoughts about Panoramas, you can check out Let’s Talk About LandsCommander 2020’s decks were built around the wedge colors and seemed like the perfect opportunity for wedge Panoramas, but alas, no such luck.

So, to recap:

  • More Powerful, Niche Commanders:  Grade A
  • Fewer Generically Good Commanders:  Grade C
  • More Flexible Color-Fixing like Path of Ancestry:  Grade C
  • More nongreen ramp: Grade B-
  • More nongreen, nonblue “card draw”: Grade B
  • Reprints! Grade B
  • Enemy Battlebond two-color lands: Grade Incomplete
  • Wedge Panoramas: Grade Incomplete

While this report card isn’t bad, there is plenty of room for improvement.  Luckily, we still have nearly seven more months of Commander goodies ahead of us, so my fingers are crossed there will be plenty of things to keep me smiling going forward.  What about you—what grade would you give The Year of Commander… So Far?

Do me a solid and follow me on Twitter!  I run polls and get conversations started about Commander all the time, so get in on the fun!  I’d also love it if you followed my Twitch channel TheCompleteCommander, where I do a deckbuilding stream every Monday evening, and pepper in some other Commander-related streams when I can.  If you can join me live, the videos are available on demand for a few weeks on Twitch, but I also upload them to my YouTube channel.

Visit my Decklist Database to see my decklists and the articles where they appeared!

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