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Strixhaven Commander Set Review: Part 1

Sheldon Menery kicks off his review of Strixhaven for Commander with single-colored spells and colorless cards. For once, red is not his weakest color!

Multiple Choice, illustrated by Campbell White

Strixhaven is an absolutely dense set for Commander. So dense, in fact, that we’ll have to break this set review into two pieces.  Today, we’ll cover the monocolored cards, artifacts, and lands. Tomorrow, we’ll head into the multicolored and modal DFCs. 

One of the things we’ll talk about first is the learn mechanic.  This was in development — as was companion, by the way — while I was working at Wizards of the Coast (WotC).  Knowing that there were more outside-the-game mechanics coming up, we worked out a wording solution (we being me, fellow Commander Rules Committee (RC) member Toby Elliott and then-Rules Manager Eli Shiffrin) which clarified the RC’s stance on outside-the-game cards. 

Parts of abilities which bring other card(s) you own from outside the game into the game (such as Living Wish; Spawnsire of Ulamog; Karn, the Great Creator) do not function in Commander.

Including that single word was a pretty simple addition that did exactly what we wanted: opened the door for companions to work while not knocking it down completely.  Commander Advisory Group (CAG) member Jim LaPage put together a great video, which summarizes our thoughts on the topic and why we don’t want Wishes (shorthand for all outside-the-game cards) to work in Commander.  I encourage you to check it out.  Also remember that while you can’t bring in lessons from outside the game, they’re playable cards in your deck.

The short version is that the learn ability can’t bring cards into a Commander game.  The good news is that the rummage effect (discard a card, then draw one) still works.  In fact, it was added onto the learn ability in part with the format in mind.  You can also simply play the Lessons in your maindeck. 

The other mechanic to talk about is magecraft.  The ability triggers whenever you cast or copy an instant or sorcery spell.  The copy part has been the one folks have already been talking about, with the relevant cards being those with storm and Onslaught’s Chain of Smog.  There’s one low-mana, two-card, kill-the-table combo with Chain of Smog (Witherbloom Apprentice), and another that costs a bit more (Professor Onyx). 

It’s led to a run on Chain of Smog, but as with things like this in general, we on the RC aren’t going to give a knee-jerk reaction (we’ll watch how it plays out over the coming months).  I suspect what’s going to happen is that people are going to play the combo a few times, get bored with it, and move onto something else.  The magecraft cards that give power and toughness bonuses can also make use of infinite pumps, but the creature still needs to be able to get through in combat. 

White

Cast normally, it’s Planar Cleansing that you have to commit an additional white mana to.  That’s how we’ll likely see it most of the time in Commander.  For the alternate cost, you can have an opponent bounce two of their own nonland permanents — less likely to be an impact play in the format, but occasionally situationally relevant.

PVDDR’s World Championship card might be made for other formats, but it has some value in Commander, especially if tempo is a big part of your environment.  Simply adding two generic mana to the cost of a spell, especially early in a game, means that it’ll take another turn or two to come out.  In faster environments, that might be the difference in the game. 

Many of the other magecraft abilities that pump only do so to a single creature.  Leonin Lightscribe does it to your team, which means you won’t be subject to one Maze of Ith or Icebind Pillar wrecking your day. 

While it can be a prohibitively expensive way to recast spells that don’t target your own creatures, Mavinda will be excellent in prowess or strive decks that might be weak on recursion.  A second casting of Berserk might also not be the worst thing ever. 

White card draw has been a big topic of conversation in the community for a while now.  During Strixhaven development, the politics of white was also a somewhat frequent discussion.  While we’ll see it a little more in the Strixhaven Commander product, Secret Rendezvous is evidence of the spillover. 

Some Commander players — me being one of them — are overly fond of enters-the-battlefield triggers.  Strict Proctor isn’t as devastating to us as Torpor Orb, but it’s going to keep us from getting out of hand.  It will stop my Animar, Soul of Elements / Cloudstone Curio / two morphs loop.  If you’re tapping out to play Tooth and Nail to get Craterhoof Behemoth and Avenger of Zendikar, Strict Proctor would like to have a word with you.  This is one of the strongest cards in the set and will see quite a bit of play.

An alternative to Faith’s Reward at the same cost, Semester’s End brings back your creatures bigger and better while giving you the opportunity to reset planeswalkers that are low on loyalty counters.  Semester’s End is better than Faith’s Reward in that you don’t expose yourself to graveyard hate.  You might also want to do it offensively.  Cast it during the end step of the player to your right; your creatures won’t come back until your end step.  In your main phase, you’re then free to cast Wrath of God or whatever battlefield sweepers suit your fancy.  One of the best cards in the set.

Top 3:

  • Secret Rendezvous
  • Strict Proctor
  • Semester’s End

Grade: A

There are multiple high-quality cards here that will see a decent amount of play.

Blue

The magecraft ability to draw a card whenever you cast or copy and instant or sorcery is very strong without being broken.  Just make sure you don’t deck yourself with your infinite combo. 

Just a clever design, riffing off modal spells and the idea of increasing returns.  I imagine it will be very good in Limited environments like Boxing League (which the RC is definitely going to do with Strixhaven). 

r/magicTCG - [STX] Reject - Jim Davis Spoiler

You’ve heard me say that counterspells in Commander need to do something extra and exiling the card is extra enough for me. 

There’s some possibility this works with a commander like Ranar the Ever-Watchful or other foretell strategies.  The nice part is that you’ll get to count cards even if your graveyard has gotten nuked.

Being a sorcery, it’s certainly no Mystical Tutor, but you also don’t have to wait to draw the card.  I look forward to seeing just how frequently it gets played, especially in more mid-tier decks.

Top 3:

  • Archmage Emeritus
  • Multiple Choice
  • Solve the Equation

Grade: D

Nothing all that saucy and low density.  I’m willing to bet we make it up in the multicolored cards with blue in them. 

Black

Exiling a creature or planeswalker as an instant is very strong.  You can play a little politics with the card draw from the alternate mana cost, either dumping the card on the player who’s behind or taking a little of the sting out of getting rid of someone’s really good creature. 

Callous Bloodmage

The potential to exile a graveyard is the best part of Callous Bloodmage.  There’s nothing wrong with drawing a card, either.  You’re playing black, so there’s a reasonable chance you’ll be able to reanimate it and do both. 

Discard is only a so-so mechanic in Commander, but graveyard hate is a big deal.  This one combines the two.  You’re less likely to cast this early, since you won’t get a big graveyard, instead holding until a critical game moment when an opponent’s hand is lower on cards and their ‘yard just gotta get got. 

I’m quite pleased to see some anti-infinite combo technology here.  It’s also one of those cards that’ll drain more life from people over the course of a game than they think it will. 

Oriq Loremage

Entomb on a stick could create some interesting situations for you.  The creature costs four, so it’s not like you’ll be doing it that early in the game, which is a nice balance to being repeatable and costing no mana to activate. 

We’ve already mentioned the card in the combo with Chain of Smog, but that was only the magecraft ability.  This new Liliana planeswalker does way more than that.  All three activated abilities are strong.  I’m most fond of the +1, which is both card draw and self-mill for performing later graveyard shenanigans.

There are lots of decks that rely on swarms of creatures with +1/+1 counters on them.  With Tenured Inkcaster, you’ll be draining away life totals of the opponents that you’re not attacking, as well as boosting your own.  It’s another card that will end up more dangerous than it seems.

Top 3:

  • Go Blank
  • Oriq Loremage
  • Professor Onyx

Grade: B

Only one top-end card, but decent density.

Red

There’s a bit going on here.  Ardent Dustspeaker is evidence that Lorehold isn’t your classic white-red school.  It’s about discovering the secrets of the past and returning them to the world.  It’s cool that one of the spells Ardent Dustspeaker casts one turn can be returned to the deck the next, providing a cycle of spellcasting that will never end.  Of course, the card also fits into a Prismari deck as well.  Nicely flexible.

Who are we kidding? We’re playing this alongside Fiery Emancipation, right? Fifteen times X would just get silly. Even without everyone’s favorite tripler, this could be a pretty good mid- to late-game finisher on the rest of the table. X equal to six is thirty damage, probably enough for a table-finisher; you can get to that twenty mana with your favorite Mana Flare variant. For more hilarity, just make X one less and take that three to add Dualcaster Mage (calculator not included).

This one looks better than it’s going to turn out to be.  Sure, you get to cast two spells if it connects, but at 1/4, it’s going to be quickly outclassed by other creatures, especially since it doesn’t have evasion.  Without a big mill package to go with it, you’ll also run out of spells to cast.  I suppose the one upside is getting an extra shot with your extra-turn cards.

You’re almost always going to pay the alternate cost on this one, whether or not you’re playing a Nekusar, the Mindrazer deck.  I’m not a big fan of the Gamble-style cards, but you might be okay with a Library of Leng.

Syr Konrad, the Grim now has a little cousin in red. Now, if someone is eating at your graveyard with Withered Wretch, it’ll be painful for them to do so. Or you help yourself out with Junktroller. Just for the fun of it, put Basilisk Collar on Fuming Effigy and run your reanimation strategy.

There are definitely tokens in the format you won’t mind gaining control of (like Marit Lage).  In the worst case, the card is a slightly more expensive Threaten that adds a little power. 

Top 3:

  • Ardent Duskespeaker
  • Crackle with Power
  • Fuming Effigy

Grade: A

A couple of OMG cards, plus we get a little extra consideration for red not getting hosed again.

Green

At the battlecruiser end of the format, Bookwurm will do some work.  While the lifegain isn’t in the Pelakka Wurm category, it doesn’t need to die to get the card draw.  The ability to recur is just a bonus. 

Sometimes, you just need the right kind of evasion.  In a deck like Animar, Soul of Elements, trample can be lethal.  In Limited situations like Boxing League, trample is a stalemate-breaker.  In the worst-case scenario, you can spend just one mana to draw the card that will get you out of a tight spot.

In Commander you don’t have to worry about the “different names” part; you just need to figure out how to get the most bang for your buck.  For Tooth and Nail mana (nine, entwined), you’re getting worse value (getting only two sixes), so I suspect the sweet spot is at X equal to three or four. 

A well-named card because the larger numbers of X get really larger.  Then add the aforementioned trample for a commander damage one-shot that’s not particularly expensive. 

You’re not playing this in a deck where you’re gaining just two life; you’re playing it in a deck with Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice and Serra Avatar. 

We like creatures whose power is greater than the mana value is cost to cast them.  Leyline Invocation has the possibility of being immense.

As we’ve mentioned, trample can be a real killer.  Giving it to your most of or your whole team get can peoples’ life totals to zero in a hurry. 

Paying six to ramp seems like it defeats the purpose.  By the time you’re at that much mana, you want to be casting business spells.  At the four-mana version, you’re getting a two-land Cultivate for one more mana, but you have to ramp someone else at the same time.  There might be some political value gained there, but the best thing I can see to do with it is give someone a land that goes with a landwalk ability you have (that, of course, they didn’t already have).  Your ability to bash them freely will likely outweigh the one extra mana.

Top 3:

  • Charge Through
  • Exponential Grow
  • Master Symmetrist

Grade: B

Reasonable density but nothing that really snaps your neck around (which might not be the worst answer for green).

Artifact and Colorless

While it’s not ramp, Campus Guide offers mana fixing to all the color combinations that traditionally don’t have as much access to it.  When you’d rather your searchers also be able to get into combat, Campus Guide will show you the way to go.

While it’s an artifact, Codie’s color identity is WUBRG.  I’m curious at the types of decks that brewers might craft around the card.  I have a feeling that many of them will start with Mistveil Plains.

The colorless Lessons are conceptually very cool. They’re the intro-level spells for first-year students, who have to learn them before they move on to one of the five colleges.  Environmental Sciences is certainly one of the most important basic skills (smoothing out your manabase).

In the running for the set’s best name, Introduction to Annihilation gives you a great deal of flexibility at a somewhat premium price.  Sometimes, you just have to gamble that the card that the opponent draws isn’t as good as the one you’re getting rid of. 

There are players who will tell you that three-cost mana rocks are obsolete in the format.  There’s a whole argument to be made that we don’t have a power creep issue in Commander, that the problem is speed creep, but that’s a discussion for another day.  Suffice it to say that at some power levels — to include the neighborhood in which the RC likes to spend most of its time — three is still a reasonable cost for a rock.  When you don’t need the acceleration anymore, Letter of Acceptance can sacrifice to draw a card.  It’ll get played in our house.

What was that we were saying about three-cost mana rocks?  Strixhaven Stadium might be a bit pushed.  It’s effectively like an alternate form of poison.  Attacking with ten more creatures than a player has blockers isn’t all that uncommon in Commander (although when you do that, you’re likely dealing them lethal damage anyway).  You might also get there in a pillow fort deck with some proliferate and a Rogue’s Passage.

Top 3:

  • Campus Guide
  • Codie, Vociferous Codex
  • Strixhaven Stadium

Even combining the two categories, there aren’t enough cards to offer up a fair grade.  The same will be true for lands.

Land

Witherbloom Campus

The Campuses are reasonable parts of budget manabases, comparing favorably.  They will certainly go into decks driven by flavor. 

I think the Snarls will see a little more play than the Campuses, with the drawback being relevant only late in games and if your hand is nearly empty. 

The monocolored cards, artifacts, and lands are merely half of the thrilling main set that is Strixhaven (and we still have Strixhaven Commander after that!).  Tomorrow, we’ll get into the colleges themselves and the exciting legendary creatures that will step up to lead those new decks that I know you’re going to build. 

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