Judge rewards have been around for more than two decades. From the old Judge Program to the new Judge Academy, there have been some spectacular hits and disheartening misses over the years. Many of the best of them have been and still are popular and playable in Commander, which is only fitting given the Judge Program’s role in evangelizing the format. What follows is my list of the best of the best.
This won’t just be a list of the most expensive ones, although there will be a few which have reached stratospheric prices. For my purposes, we’ll balance out playability and availability alongside what I see as positive impact on the format. This list isn’t just the objectively most powerful cards, but the ones that I think are best for Commander, considering both power level and format health. A card like Balance isn’t going to make the list since it’s banned, which is a shame since the promo version is sweet (and no, don’t read anything into that).
Some of these cards are extremely expensive. The good news is that for most of them there are more affordable versions. Sure, if you want to bling out your decks you can spend fat wads of cash, especially on the older ones. The good news is that for the most part you don’t have to. For each, I’ll list the recent price of the promo as well as the least expensive alternative.
25. Rhystic Study
- Price: $109.99
- Alternative: Prophecy, $27.99
The card that everyone loves to play but hates to play against earns a spot as one of the most talked-about cards in the format. It hangs in a weird ground between no one really wanting to see it and no one wanting to ban it.
24. Thawing Glaciers
- Price: $69.99
- Alternative: Alliances, $17.99
Mechanically it’s a little slow, so you won’t see it in high-powered environments, but in the mid-range it’s very good value — especially if you’re getting extra land drops from things like Oracle of Mul Daya or Azusa, Lost but Seeking.
23. Command Beacon
- Price: $39.99
- Alternative: Commander 2015, $27.00
Commanders can get expensive to cast the second, third, or fourth time, so Command Beacon is a great way to not have to pay the commander tax at least once. If you can recur it, so much the better.
22. Oath of Druids
- Price: $29.99
- Alternative: Commander 2016, $1.49
In my estimation, Oath of Druids a criminally underplayed card. Even with the exposure in Commander 2016, we rarely see it in the wild. Players probably don’t like that it gives others creatures, too, but that’s just a method of making other things happen. From playing Clones to staging a full-scale Insurrection, there are plenty of creative reasons to run it.
21. Hermit Druid
- Price: $74.99
- Alternative: Stronghold, $14.99
A card well-known for early-turn combo-kill possibilities in decks with no basic lands, Hermit Druid can also be played fairly. I run it for value in my Karador, Ghost Chieftain deck, with twenty basic lands. It feeds the graveyard without over-committing and subjecting yourself to a real blow-out.
20. Pernicious Deed
- Price: $39.99
- Alternative: Conspiracy 2014, $5.99
One of the rare examples of the Judge promo not being the most expensive version of the card (that would be the original Apocalypse printing at $74.99). Pernicious Deed is a sweeper that does a good deal of work in a cheap package. Yes, opponents can see it coming, but its presence is a great rattlesnake. In a pinch, it can be activated for zero to take out a token swarm. Note that, much like Nevinyrral’s Disk, it won’t destroy your planeswalkers.
19. Demonic Tutor
- Price: $179.99
- Alternative: Ultimate Masters, $39.99
Regular readers know that I’m of the opinion that tutors aren’t healthy for the format, which is why this iconic card isn’t higher on the list. It’s great at what it does for a very low casting cost. It also breaks down the variance which is an intended feature of the format. While it doesn’t warrant a ban because we want to keep the Banned List as small as possible, if someone convinced me that a 100-card list would somehow be healthy, this would be a card on it.
18. Vampiric Tutor
- Price: $179.99
- Alternative: Visions, $99.99
The same goes for Vampiric Tutor. At least it doesn’t put the card directly into your hand. The Judge promo was originally printed in 2000; it received a new art printing in 2018 as well ($139.99). My message continues to be that you don’t need tutors to have fun playing commander. I suppose I should also reiterate that you don’t need to worry about them getting banned anytime soon.
17. Mana Drain
- Price: $279.99
- Alternative: Iconic Masters, $169.99
One of the first “strictly better” cards in Magic history, Mana Drain went beyond the original Counterspell (also an early Judge promo) at the exact same mana cost. Designers eventually realized their mistake, and even priced what was normal for a counterspell with no drawback or limitation at 1UU. There really isn’t an affordable alternative to what can be a massively swingy card.
16. Maze of Ith
- Price: $79.99
- Alternative: From the Vault: Realms, $19.99
A card pretty much ignored by all other Eternal formats, Maze of Ith can be a Commander MVP. When you need to keep that Voltron commander off of your face, accept no substitute. Fellow Commander Rules Committee (RC) member Scott Larabee rarely builds a deck without one or its budget replacement, Thaumatic Compass, which transforms into Spires of Orazca. I’d just be careful about how you slot it into your deck. Even if I’m playing Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, I consider Maze of Ith a spell, not a land, for the purposes of my land count.
- Price: $79.99
- Alternative: Tempest, $29.99
The Judge promo in 2010 was a less-expensive version of the original Player Rewards card that still fetches over $200. There was a subsequent printing in 2015, which can be had for slightly less. There was a time in the early days of the format when many of us replaced Strip Mine with Wasteland in order to signal to opponents that we weren’t interested in just stripping lands willy-nilly. We simply wanted a little protection against some of the format’s best nonbasics, like the aforementioned Maze of Ith, Academy Ruins, Cabal Coffers, and then much later many others. You can find Fourth Edition Strip Mines now at $15.99, so there’s an even more affordable alternative.
14. Defense of the Heart
- Price: $49.99
- Alternative: Urza’s Legacy, $10.99
A relatively recent addition to the Judge promo pantheon (2016), Defense of the Heart remains a great value card. It can serve as a rattlesnake against other creature-based strategies, keeping opponents from wanting to cast too many creatures. Of course, there are ways to give them little choice in the matter, such as Forbidden Orchard or a join forces card like Alliance of Arms. How you play the card then depends on your play style. You can use it for extreme value in your favorite flavors, or you can go straight for win-con combos like Mikaeus, the Unhallowed and Triskelion.
13. Land Tax
- Price: $59.99
- Alternative: Double Masters, $29.99
White needs all the land ramp help it can get, and one of the operatives of a Legends-era combos with Land’s Edge will get you there. The math generally works out that you keep thinning your deck early on, even if you’re going to be discarding them. If you really want some insurance, you can always play Land Tax alongside cards that bring lands back from your graveyard, like The Mending of Dominaria and World Shaper.
12. Sword of Fire and Ice
- Price: $139.99
- Alternative: Darksteel, $64.99
The fans went bonkers for the old-school border on the Judge promo, starting a wave that the program would ride for a while and other promotional materials would return to. The progenitor of the Sword of X and Y family, Fire and Ice is a classic. Protection from red didn’t mean as much in Commander until more recently, but protection from blue has always been a kick in the shins to decks that like to steal your creatures. Add to that the draw ability on a very mana-friendly package and you have the makings of a very popular card. Remember that the triggered ability has only one target, meaning that if you want to make sure you draw the card, target a player’s face. If the creature you target becomes illegal, the triggered ability is countered and you won’t draw.
11. Karmic Guide
- Price: $17.99
- Alternative: Commander 2013, $3.99
There was a time when the Urza’s Legacy foil version of Karmic Guide was over $100 (it has since settled around $70). The Judge foil printing and subsequent printings make the card far more accessible for us foil collectors (even though the original non-foil printing never got particularly expensive). It’s now a card you’re quite likely to see in games because it provides great value. You can have any card out of your graveyard for just five mana and if you have ways to blink it (doesn’t work with Restoration Angel, unfortunately) or recur it, your value chain gets better and better. One of my favorite tricks is to put the echo trigger on the stack and then target Karmic Guide with Saffi Eriksdotter. One of the things that often gets forgotten about the card is that it has protection from black — so in the time it’s around, assuming you don’t pay the echo, there are lots of great creatures that it will keep from smacking you around.
10. Command Tower
- Price: $109.99
- Alternative: Commander 2020, $0.59
One of the format’s now-iconic cards, Command Tower can be in every one of your decks for very little money. For those of us who like to foil out things, there’s a heavy price to pay. I’m fortunate enough to have gotten a few of the foils when they first came out; these days, I’ll put the non-foil versions into new decks. I’ve seen people play the card even in monocolored decks, which makes me scratch my head. There are times when I consider not playing it in two-color decks if the basic land types are super-important. For the most part, it’s an auto-include, but one of those that’s never going to break the format.
9. Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
- Price: $279.99
- Alternative: New Phyrexia, $19.99
The highly sought-after Judge foil is the only card in Magic printed with the Phyrexian text on it. It’s one of those cards that you pretty much only see in Commander, given its relatively high casting cost. When you do, it’s a game-changer, sweeping all the small creatures away from your opponents while buffing your own team. I’ve been involved in a few crazy games in which there were multiple copies in play, usually the result of Clone effects. I played and wrote about one from an SCG CON in which there were three on the battlefield, along with Endless Whispers.
8. Gaea’s Cradle
- Price: $1499.99
- Alternative: Urza’s Saga, $699.99
Yeah, I wish the card was way cheaper, too. It can fuel some of the insane plays that the format is known for and while top-tier strong isn’t completely broken. At least there’s a build-your-own version with Growing Rites of Itlimoc, which transforms into Itlimoc, Cradle of the Sun. I know some folks would like it banned, comparing it to Tolarian Academy. I’ll concede to the point that while Cradle will eventually generate more mana, it does so under narrower conditions than Academy, and several turns later (and yes, I get that you can do it somewhat early with Elves, but at that point, it’s just a win-more card).
7. Doubling Season
- Price: $69.99
- Alternative: Double Masters $44.99
Okay, confession time, and one of the few times I’ll discuss how I individually voted on a card in an RC meeting. Several years ago, I supported banning Doubling Season. It’s undercosted for what it does and it breaks planeswalkers. We were seeing a groundswell in players just jamming it into nearly every green deck that even thought about tokens or counters. It was becoming a card that seemed to be at a tipping point. We obviously didn’t ban it and I’m pleased that we didn’t. We tipped away from the epidemic, and it’s become just another really good card. More importantly, it’s a really good card that players love. Sitting here today, I’m happy we didn’t take it away from them.
6. Survival of the Fittest
- Price: $899.99
- Alternative: Exodus, $179.99
This is actually the card that got me thinking about this list. I was updating my decks in Archidekt and was surprised by the price. Unfortunately, being part of the Reserved List (a conversation that has nowhere good to go), it’s not going to see a reprint. It’s an extremely strong card that can nonetheless be played fairly. It’s certainly at the top of the You Can’t Get Angry list. Even if I’m going to use it for simple value to respond to the battlefield (as opposed to just tutor up combo pieces), if someone nukes it, my only response is “fair.”
5. Teferi’s Protection
- Price: $89.99
- Alternative: Commander 2017, $39.99
Having the ability to punch out of a potentially lethal or extremely awkward situation as an instant for just three mana is pushing the power level to say the least. I wouldn’t call it broken, since it doesn’t win you the game; it just keeps you from losing. I would play this card at four or maybe even five mana. Every time I look for a copy of the card, the quantity is zero, so here’s hoping that we’ll see it in a future set some day—or maybe a fixed version.
4. Birthing Pod
- Price: $44.99
- Alternative: New Phyrexia, $17.99
A 2020 addition to the family, Birthing Pod will always be in my mind a fixed version of Survival of the Fittest. It’s powerful with limitations. I mean, I love sacrifice outlets with value, so it’s a card that I want to play as much as possible. Few things feel better than sacrificing Protean Hulk (for value) to go get Ashen Rider. It’s a fun card, so I’m glad it’s affordable.
3. Living Death
- Price: $39.99
- Alternative: Commander 2011, $4.99
We’re getting into favorite cards territory, and I’ve frequently called Living Death my favorite card of all time. As soon as I saw it in Tempest, I knew it was my thing. Magic was dominated at the time by control decks, which were basically counterspells and Wrath of God. I won a number of events by going against the stream — and Living Death was a big part of the spell suite. Today, it’s a Commander win condition, value play, and sometimes, in an emergency situation, a sweeper. My love for this card is old enough to drink.
2. Greater Good
- Price: $24.99
- Alternative: Double Masters, $3.49
The card rightly called Bene Supremo in Italian might eclipse Living Death as my favorite card. The two of them are certainly fast friends, with Greater Good putting cards into the graveyard so that Living Death can later bring them back. I’ll make an effort going forward to not just jam it into every green deck. If I say that one of my things about the format is variance, I have to keep that in mind when deckbuilding as well.
1. Sol Ring
- Price: $199.99
- Alternative: Commander 2011, $3.99
Sol Ring is arguably the card that made this format. Banned in Legacy, restricted in Vintage, it’s certainly become iconic in Commander. In the nascent days, it was frequently the card that people seized on and delighted in the ability to play. It was an early promo that didn’t pick up in value until many years after, and all due to this format. In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s not going anywhere.
The Judge promos have historically been cards that not only helped judges be able to fund their travels in support of the game, but could be worn as a badge of honor for service to something greater than themselves. While certainly not a replacement for an honest day’s pay, their place in the history of the game and the history of its greatest format remains secured.