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Commander (2021 Edition) Commander Set Review

Commander 2021 has loads of goodies for Commander fans. Sheldon highlights some of his favs from the set that he worked on during his time at WotC.

Breena, the Demagogue illustrated by Simon Dominic

Commander 2021 and Strixhaven Commander are one and the same.  Whatever you call it, it’s chock full of strong cards that will make their way into your Commander decks in the blink of an eye.  After this past week’s release of the decks, many folks will have taken a look at the decks themselves.  I’d like to shift gears and examine the individual cards and their impact on the format, organizing by their college association so you can find them more easily.  Like in the set reviews, I’ll pick my three favorites, this time from the college instead of by color.  I’ll also make mention of some of my experience as one of the Commander 2021 designers.  I’ll start with the college I primary worked on.

Silverquill

From the very beginning, we wanted Silverquill to be highly political.  You’ll see that laced through the cards, in both combat and noncombat-based effects.  At the beginning, it was highly focused on combat, but developed through play design to be more balanced.  Interestingly, not many of my initial designs made it all the way through unmodified, but there are a few cards that are amalgams of pieces of some of those designs.

To be fair, I’d play Author of Shadows even if it had only the first sentence.  Getting to cast one of the exiled things as well is a huge bonus, especially since you can still cast it even if Author of Shadows goes away. 

Silverquill’s face commander engages in the kind of politics that we really wanted out of the college.  It entices players to send their attacks elsewhere and gives you other benefits while they’re at it. 

The idea of the card is to catch someone by flashing in Bold Plagiarist, especially with something big like Thief of Blood.  I can’t wait.  In other news, more people should play more Thief of Blood.  And Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter.   No reason. 

Creating Inklings is mostly about giving creatures to other players.  With a power of two, a swarm of Inklings can get pretty deadly, but the power of one leads them to be fragile—so you can get mileage out of also playing cards like Blood Artist.  The other card I’ll suggest playing alongside Combat Calligrapher and other cards that give Inklings to your opponents is Suture Priest. 

Cunning Rhetoric is an excellent rattlesnake.  Players like the cards in their libraries and would rather cast those things themselves.  There will be times when they’ll still attack you, but it’s going to hurt when they do.  My dream will be to one day cast someone else’s Arachnogenesis. 

Four activated abilities seems like a wall of text, but I’ve zeroed in on the second ability, which allows you to remove a counter from a creature you control.  You can remove age counters or the particularly techy play of removing a flying counter put on a creature by Luminous Broodmoth.  I’m particularly interested in removing -1/-1 counters, which is especially effective with creatures that have Persist, like Puppeteer Clique and Woodfall Primus.

Felisa is certainly a build-around commander.  Even though she’s a Vampire, you don’t have to go tribal.  You can still cherry-pick some of the sweet choices, like Bloodbond Vampire or Cordial Vampire, which might get you into some interesting loops.  Remember that it’s any kind of counter, so if you sweep the board with Black Sun’s Zenith, you’re going to rebuild in quite saucy fashion. 

Demonstrate is just a cool mechanic, which I unfortunately can’t lay any claim to.  I’m definitely playing this card, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be letting someone else copy it most of the time. 

Expensive as Fogs go, but what a complete blowout when someone’s come at you with Craterhoof Behemoth or any other Overrun effect.  Based on the game state, you might not want or need to wait for the big blast—getting seven or eight flying 2/1s for five mana is solid value. 

The idea of Silverquill students dueling with other colleges via what I imagined were some version of a rap battle was part of the world-building that we were working off of from the very beginning.  That comes out in Keen Duelist.  I would liked to have seen even more exploration of this space.

Not all politics are about giving something away.  I love the mini-game of the secret choice.  There will be times when the choice is obvious, as one player is about to overrun you, but hey, you gotta play your Fogs.

Something else I thought about when it came to approaching what became Silverquill were over-represented strategies and mechanics in Commander.  It was less about punishing them and more about simply making things a little more awkward for them.  +1/+1 counters is one of those mechanics.  Nils doesn’t just work with the counters that you’ve put on the creatures, but any counters.  That’ll slow them down.

Moving the Vows away from enchantments, Promise of Loyalty might let each opponent keep their best creature, but it’s not coming in your direction anyway.  For me, it’s a nice situational board sweeper. 

One of the closest to an original design, Scholarship Sponsor doesn’t just catch you up to the player that’s gotten way ahead by ramping, it catches up the whole table.  It should earn you some small amount of political goodwill, especially from the player who’s mana-screwed.

You know exactly what you’re getting into with Stinging Study, so there’s a point of diminishing returns with lower-cost commanders.  The sweet spot is probably four or five, although no one’s going to think you’re crazy for playing it in your Thraximundar deck. 

A fine political card, you can teach everyone why they shouldn’t take the tempting offer.

Top 3:

  • Author of Shadows
  • Felisa, Fang of Silverquill
  • Inkshield

Prismari

Prismari is about casting big things.  BIG things.  You’ll also note a musical theme, which vision designer Noah Millrod picked out of the worldbuilding document and really ran with in the blue/red deck.  The individual cards that came out of the process are the splashy kinds of things we love in Commander.

There will always be a risk of the other player getting something better than your two if you’d demonstrated, but red is about living on the edge sometimes.  This is a very Commander card—splashy and random. 

Sphinx tribal can certainly be a thing, and Dazzling Sphinx a major player.  You’re going to get some really strong cards to cast from other players.  In the worst case, you can just leave the thing exiled.   

The thing I like most about the second ability of Elementalist’s Palette is that it doesn’t remove any counters.  You’ll be charging it up to cast those big X spells in your Rosheen Meanderer deck in no time. 

Storming for just a few cards is going to provide you with some decent creature removal.  Fiery Encore will be even more effective if you’re using it to put cards into your graveyard, whether that’s some big instants or sorceries to synergize with Inferno Project or Surge to Victory, or simply fodder for later reanimation in a deck with black in it. 

By the time you’re at the seven mana to cast Inferno Project, its power and toughness are going to be well bigger than the mana you paid for it.  With trample, it’s going to be quite deadly.

Taking a page out of cards like Chronomantic Escape, the play with Inspiring Refrain seems to always be to suspend it early.  Then every third turn, you draw two for free.  Even if you only do it twice or three times in a game, that’s good value.

I see Muse Vortex as card draw with casting a free spell stapled onto it.  You’re going to play it for enough that gets something decent to cast (maybe another card draw spell!), then a few extra cards into your hand.  Sure, you might whiff on a few cards, but you’re playing it in a deck high instants and sorceries, so your percentage will be decent. 

Once you’ve cast most of your smaller spells, Octavia is going to come out ridiculously cheaply, then start making your utility creatures into big monsters. 

I keep saying that given the multiplayer nature of Commander, counterspells need to do something more than just counter a spell.  Reinterpret letting you cast another spell from your hand is that something more.

Always at least one, frequently two, there are some storm-like scenarios with Rionya that are going to lead to absurd combats.  Imagine even just three, four, or five copies of Malignus charging around the battlefield. 

Goad is a mechanic that’s Commander gold.  Sly Instigator will help an opponent’s (hopefully large) creature get through this turn and be sure to swing in someone else’s direction next.  Note that the creature doesn’t actually have to be attacking to be the target of the ability.  Of course, you’ll most often want it to be, so there will be some negotiating involved.

The first thing that will come to most players’ minds is the exiled card being an extra turn card, like Time Warp.  You can also create infinite combat steps with enough creatures to get through and Savage Beating or Relentless Assault. 

It’s neat that Veyran doubles up their own magecraft triggers, making it more and more battleworthy.  There’s a pretty decent path to a different kind of instant- and sorcery-Voltron with Veyran getting some one- or two-shot kills.  Veyran is a Wizard, so Adeliz, the Cinder Wind is a good start.  Charmbreaker Devils gets you going into overdrive. 

Note that there’s no “instead” in Zaffai’s triggers.  If your spell costs ten or more, you get all three.  You’re not likely casting too many ten mana spells over the course of the game, so you’ll probably be getting more mileage out of creating the Elementals, which is still well worth it.  There’s a great deal of room to build a creative Zaffai deck that will suit your individual style; I’m interested in seeing what folks come up with.

Top 3:

  • Dazzling Sphinx
  • Sly Instigator
  • Surge to Victory

Lorehold

While the Lorehold deck involves a new approach to the Boros colors, there are multiple paths—some of them also new—to explore with the cards therein.

Leading your artifact creature deck, Alibou is going to deal out quite some damage over the course of a game.  Myr Battlesphere is a fine addition, especially if you want to go tribal, as activating the Battlesphere amps up the damage that Alibou will do. 

Still not as audacious as Tinker, these Reshapers will do things like help you get Spine of Ish Sah back into your hand or ensure you get the cascade-like effect off of Treasure Keeper.  You can even put Basilisk Collar on it to mitigate the damage. 

Early on, Angel of the Ruins will help you keep hitting your land drops via plainscycling, which can get more than just a basic plains.  Later, it’s going to permanently get rid of two things that are wrecking your day.  Exile is particularly strong in the case of artifacts, which are quite easy to reanimate.

This crisply-designed card will pay dividends even after you’ve dropped the two Plains that it searched up for you.  Whenever you get behind on lands, which is reasonably often in some white decks, like those in Boros and Mardu, the Map will be there to even you up. 

Fellow RC member Scott Larabee positively salivated when he saw this card, imagining what he could do with it in his Brion Stoutarm deck.  The inexpensive equip cost is going to leave you the mana to pay for the triggered ability.  I’m looking forward to putting the Bracers on creatures like Disciple of Griselbrand and Fertilid.  Also, don’t sleep on the ability to simply give a creature haste, which might be the deciding factor late in a long game. 

While it’s not quite Guardian Beast, Bronze Guardian provides a measure of protection for your artifacts, letting you build up your collection so that then it can be an offensive powerhouse. 

I don’t know what’s particularly cursed about this mirror; it seems like a blessing to me.  It’ll be a mana rock next turn no matter what.  On the turn you cast it, it could be the difference-maker in the game, copying something very large and giving it haste. 

While you’re unearthing the past’s secrets, you can build a bit of an army as well—and that army gets more powerful with each new addition.

This card is intensely political.  Especially if there’s someone getting out of hand, you can make an agreement with another player to get rid of a third problematic nonland permanent.  The only downside is giving that player enough Treasure tokens to get their business restarted.

Laelia helps herself pile up more counters in whichever deck she finds herself.  In decks that rely on the “bottling” effect cards like Outpost Siege or Syr Carah, the Bold, she’ll get large relatively quickly. 

Monowhite Arcbound deck?  Commander Tron?  It could happen.  Nice that it prevents damage to only attacking creatures.  Solemn Simulacrum still has to throw itself under the bus on occasion. 

Some folks will see Monologue Tax as a fair Smothering Tithe variant.  As far as I’m concerned, it could have cost one or even two less and still be fair for what it does.  Over the course of a game it’ll provide some value, but it’s never going to be particularly explosive.

In general, I’m not a fan of exiling things from my own graveyard, as I’d like to reuse them later.  Osgir is kind enough to give you two copies of that exiled thing, so I’m a little more open to the idea.  It might seem a little pricey to get two copies of Wurmcoil Engine, but there’s lots of value to be had there.  You might be able to surprise some folks with Osgir’s first activated ability, since it doesn’t tap to activate.  If you have mana and enough things to sacrifice, you could make a creature quite deadly.  That might include Osgir himself, since he’s already pretty combat-capable. 

Because it’s a may, we won’t have to worry about seeing Ruin Grinder in Nekusar, the Mind Razer decks.  Although I’m a fan of filling up my own hand, I’m a little skeptical about giving cards to other players.  Call me old fashioned.

Expanding on the Wurmcoil Engine design space, Triplicate Titan is already scary with flying, vigilance, and trample.  It might just do the job itself before someone kills it.  You might also want to polish off your Goblin Welders. 

Certainly better for you than Open the Vaults, Wake the Past is going to undo all the hard work the other players did to ruin your artifact suite—like when you become a victim of Vandalblast.  If you’re running an artifact creature strategy, you can get into combat right away.  Expensive, but worth it.

Top 3:

  • Alibou, Ancient Witness
  • Battlemage’s Bracers
  • Osgir, the Reconstructor

Quandrix

There are some cards from the Quandrix deck that are going to create hilarious moments in Commander.  Unfortunately, there are also a few of them that the format simply doesn’t need, representing a trend of continuing to give the Simic colors too much simple value instead of something novel and creative. 

I’m not sure we needed another token doubler, but it seems to be the kind of thing that players like.  At least it doesn’t do anything for planeswalkers. 

There might be times when you can deck someone because they’ve cast their Commander a bunch of times, that’s the corner case.  Most of the time, you’re just targeting yourself.  Despite being in the Quandrix deck, Commander’s Insight also works nicely with a number of the Prismari deck cards. 

Obviously built to go with those Fractal tokens created by the Quandrix deck, Curiosity Crafter is also going to draw a fair number of cards in countless other Commander decks.  The thing that might keep it in check is that blue is the weakest color when it comes to token creation—but then again, it still has cards like Chasm Skulker. 

One of the downsides of decks with high instant and sorcery counts is that they necessarily have lower creature counts.  Deekah mitigates that disadvantage, creating creatures while you’re casting other spells.  I also like that her activated ability doesn’t cause her to tap, meaning you can use it multiple times for that alpha strike you’ve been building up to. 

There’s some silliness to be had here. For example, you cast Avenger of Zendikar, and instead of Plants, make the cards copies of Avenger of Zendikar.  If you have ten lands on the battlefield, that gives you instead of ten Plants, ten Avengers, which themselves trigger, giving you 100 plants.  You can see why it triggers only the first time.  Let’s just hope your opponent doesn’t play Massacre Wurm before you get a land drop. 

A reasonable cost to cast is just the starting point for Fractal Harness.  Once the Fractal is gone, you can equip it to your other creature that has counter on it, whether it’s a battle-ready one like Kresh, the Bloodbraided or one that doesn’t often get into the red zone, like Ghave, Guru of Spores. This card is going to get people killed. 

A well-named card, Geometric Nexus will keep your dice busy.  The card gives you the choice of activating regularly to go wide or piling up the counters to go tall.  I suspect with the relatively high activation cost, the latter is where most players will go with it. 

I’m jamming Guardian Augmenter straight into my Kresh, the Bloodbraided deck.  Hexproof is a strong ability for a creature that gets aggressively (and justifiably) targeted.  The bump in power doesn’t hurt, but it’s really not the relevant part.

This card is pretty strong, and I’m not okay with it.  Simic already has nearly every other weapon in the book.  The format doesn’t need it to get mass creature removal as well.  While the card may have played well in the biodome, it’s a card that’s simply not good for the format.  It’s not anywhere close to ban-worthy, but it’s certainly not healthy.

You can imagine I got twitchy when I saw the word paradox, but I’m better now.  This is the perfect Quandrix card, since the college is obsessed with numbers and their functions.  It works in any green token deck, by the third turn creating an 8/8.  Add some proliferation for real hilarity. 

I’ve been waiting for a while for a card that does this.  I don’t recall it in the early drafts, so I’m going to deduce that it came along in play design.  The primary use cases for the card are either as part of a dedicated token deck or as one of those situational cards that lets you punch out of a tight spot. 

As with the other demonstrate cards, there’s some political play here.  You might offer the copy to the player who’s going to give you the sweetest deal or leave you alone with longest.  Note that you’re copying (and giving a copy) of a permanent, not just a creature, so be careful about what things you control that you’re not copying.  I’d hate to see anyone dagger themselves.

Break out your Muraganda Petroglyphs, the vanilla creatures are rising up!  Ruxa also makes chump blockers irrelevant.  I like a Ruxa build that creates tokens.  Be careful with Deranged Hermit.  It’s going to lead you towards Nut Collector, and Squirrel Wrangler won’t be far behind. 

Tapping and activating only as a sorcery will keep Sequence Engine from getting into Scavenging Ooze territory.  It’s a reasonable card, but nothing that will make you want to do handstands. 

In short, this card is nonsense.  Absolutely loveable, my kind of nonsense.

Doesn’t seem theoretical at all.  It’s particularly useful if someone has just cast Tooth and Nail entwined, Rise of the Dark Realms, or it looks like they’re about to cast multiple creature spells on their turn.  I’m a big fan of this card, as it’s going to lead to some hilarious plays in the format. 

Top 3:

  • Esix, Fractal Bloom
  • Guardian Augmenter
  • Theoretical Duplication

Witherbloom

The Witherbloom deck is the one that drips with the most flavor for me.  The design idea from the beginning involved the cycle of life, and they really stuck the landing.  The cards can be very powerful, but in specific circumstances—which is exactly the kind of development that’s healthy for the format.

I like having a backup plan for my creatures and restarting after board sweepers go off.  Blight Mound will your give you something for your nontoken creatures, offering up some small but menacing replacements.  It’s one of those cards that isn’t going to swing the game by itself, but it’ll give you plenty of value for your investment.

Every time you attack, you get a mini-Overrun.  Make it not so mini by extra life gain before combat.  This card alone is enough to make me rethink my Beast tribal deck, switching it from Gruul to Golgari.

The primary use case I see for Essence Pulse is gaining a fair amount of life via lifelinking combat damage (perhaps even with unfavorable attacks) and then being able to wipe out all the creatures. 

Static abilities that make spells cheaper to cast are often better than just ramp, because a land normally just taps for one mana per turn.  If you cast multiple creatures per turn with Ezzaroot Channeler, you get the discount every time.  Being in black, you have lots of life gain options, so you could be casting your creatures just for their colored mana. 

Creating Food tokens for free just for doing what you’d be doing anyway is just fine.  Pair with your other Food cards, like Feasting Troll King for some delicious flavor.  The ability to make things indestructible is just sauce on an already-delicious dish. 

It’ll be pretty easy to choose a safe target to give a copy to.  There are plenty of times when there’s at least one player with nothing all that great to regrow.  Exiling Healing Technique is a good idea to keep some broken recursion from happening. 

Vampires can feel like a bit of an overdone tribe, but I like the creative direction they went with Marshland Bloodcaster.  It gives me hope that I’ll see more of the underplayed Repay in Kind.

Oh, geez, there’s Pests in the rutabagas.  You will always have enough targets in a Commander game for the X value you desire.  Getting twice X power in Pests (plus the attendant life gain) for getting rid of some powerful artifacts or enchantments is outstanding. 

Two things keep Revival Experiment from being too good.  The lesser one is the mana cost.  The greater one is the fact that it exiles itself.  Even as a one shot that will cost you some life, it’s pretty saucy.

This thing could come out pretty early and start setting the narrative of a game.  No one wants to get bashed with a nine power trampler.  If it’s not exiled, it’s pretty hard to get rid of, since you’ll be set up for frequent life gain and able to cast it out of the graveyard.  Pretty fond of the design here. 

I like this card, but I got a moment of panic when I first saw it, thinking that it was a Vampire.  Fortunately, it’s not.  Still, there are plenty of very cool things to do with it, such as play it in a deck with white so that you can have both Serra Avatar and Wall of Reverence.  At end of turn, have the Wall resolve first, doubling your life total, then let Tivash give you one very large Demon. 

You’ll be setting up some passive life gain to go along with Trudge Garden, so you’ll be able to create a 4/4 trampler for just two mana, then another one for two more when you actively gain life.  The Trudge Garden will keep coming, too. 

Having a permanent that regrows creatures for you is strong indeed.  You can get multiple triggers off of Veinwitch Coven in a turn, provided you have separate instances of life gain (like multiple creatures with lifelink in combat) and some extra black mana.

This card would be busted if you could activate it as an instant.  It would be an absurd rattlesnake that simply dared people to attack you, fearing an immense crack-back.  As it is, it can be a powerful offensive weapon anyway.  Sacrifice something large to Momentous Fall or Disciple of Griselbrand, put those counters on a card with evasion, and swing away. 

Who are we kidding?  The only time someone else’s commander is getting lifelink is when Willbender is involved.

Yedora is incredibly good flavor-wise.  You can see the transformation of the creature as it returns to the soil and grows new things.  Mechanics-wise it’s pretty good, too. While I might prefer some other way to get use out of my dying creatures, ramping isn’t awful. 

Top 3:

  • Pest Infestation
  • Veinwitch Coven
  • Yedora, Grave Gardender

Even with the great individual cards, Commander 2021 as a whole will have a special place in my heart because it’s the primary thing I worked on during my time at WotC.  It was a Magic fan’s dream and the work was even more compelling and thought-provoking than you might imagine.  The greatest part was the amazing collection of people that I got to interact and collaborate with on a daily basis. 

I hope that I brought some piece of them back with me.