This year's batch of Magic: the Gathering Commander decks are, as usual, perfect for weird, casual, multiplayer fun. This time around they're all monocolored decks, and they've brought back some familiar faces in new forms.
A brief primer if you're unfamiliar with Commander: it's a format for Magic games that's intended to be fun and casual and played with more than two players. Each deck consists of 100 cards, with no more than one copy of any card except basic lands. Each deck also has a "commander" that defines the deck's colors and overall strategy, and can usually be cast at any time. Unlike competitive formats, cards never "rotate out" of Commander, so you can build your deck gradually over time and not worry about the cards in it suddenly becoming illegal (although there is a banned list). You can read the Commander rules in more detail at the semi-official site.
On to this year's decks! To evaluate these new Commander decks, we gathered up friends and family and divvied up the decks by color preference. Our game took about four hours to play, which is definitely on the long side for a Commander game, but we were also all being polite and giving each deck a chance to do its thing. Our review decks were provided by CoolStuffInc.
The white deck has a strong focus on equipment, but it's equally adept at cranking out tons of token creatures. The primary commander is a new planeswalker, Nahiri, the Lithomancer. She's apparently the most well-known Stoneforge Mystic (a card which, sadly, does not appear in this deck), and handily supports both deck themes by making tokens and immediately equipping them, cheating equipment into play, and ultimately by making an awesome indestructible stone sword.
What's that you're asking? How is it a planeswalker can be a commander? It's true, Commander rules indicate only a legendary creature can be used as a Commander. Players have long wanted to use planeswalkers as commanders, since it just feels so right for the theme of the format. Instead of a rules change, the designers of these decks made planeswalkers with a special line of rules text: This planeswalker can be your commander. The design and development leads for C14, Ethan Fleischer and Ian Duke, wrote a very interesting article about this decision.
Each deck has two other legends in it that you can choose to use as your commander instead of the planeswalker, depending on how you prefer to pilot the deck. In this case, Jazal Goldmane emphasizes the "make tons of small creatures" angle, while Kemba, Kha Regent really wants you to give her tons of equipment.
In practice, frequent board sweeping effects made it tough for this deck to build up a big army. It worked much better by bringing out one of its heavy hitters, like Sunblast Angel (who killed dozens of creatures over the course of the game by being recast several times), Adarkar Valkyrie, or Angel of the Dire Hour. In fact, angels became a major theme as well — Serra Avatar is ridiculous in a format where you start with 40 life, and Moonsilver Spear made a ton of angel tokens. One way to modify this deck would be to turn the angel factor up to 11 with Entreat the Angels, Baneslayer Angel, and of course Akroma, Angel of Wrath.
Each year's Commander decks include brand new cards, of course, and these cards are considered tournament legal for Magic's "eternal" formats, which mostly means Legacy these days. There's always one card that ends being really good in Legacy, massively driving up demand and the price of that one card. This year it's Containment Priest, a card whose rules text reads, "If you would have fun this turn, instead you have no fun at all."
Monoblue decks have a bad reputation in Commander, because they often end up becoming "I draw lots and lots of cards and then counter every spell you try to cast" decks, which are super unfun to play against. If I could distill the philosophy of Commander into two "rules," they would be 1). don't make other players sit through your 15-minute turns, and 2). let the other players actually play Magic.
This deck only has two real counterspells (Dismiss and Exclude), so that's not a problem. But in the mid to late game, this deck will tend to have a lot of mana available, a zillion ways to spend it, and a ton of ways to draw cards and dig through the deck for answers. Turns that go on and on. The main commander, Teferi, Temporal Archmage, feeds into this problem is a major way. The other two potential commanders, Stitcher Geralf and Lorthos, the Tidemaker, are both probably better options for keeping this deck fun for everyone at the table.
That said, if you're deciding which of these decks to buy purely for overall power level, or for cards to scavenge for your other Commander decks, this one deserves a look. Reef Worm is a really fun card that's begging for a home in "sacrifice my creatures" decks. It comes with a nice selection of Sphinxes (Jwar Isle, Uthuun, Magosi) and a bunch of morph cards (Willbender, Fathom Seer, Shaper Parasite).
This is clearly the best deck of the five, since it's monoblack and full of demons, zombies, vampires, banshees, and evil (I might be biased). This is the deck that has an answer for everything, even if that answer if most often, "destroy everything in the world in a torrent of blood and agony." It's really good at punishing everyone on the board equally, then squeezing some advantage out of it for yourself. Syphon Mind, Necromantic Selection, and Spoils of Blood are the standouts in that regard. I might rebuild this deck by pushing that aspect to the extreme, including every possible black board sweeper. Damnation. Life's Finale. Just one apocalypse after another.
Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath is the planeswalker for this deck, and he's actually a little underwhelming. This is Ob back before he became a demon, and while his abilities are reasonably strong, I didn't find them too interesting or fun, and his ultimate, an emblem that lets you sacrifice creatures for gain, didn't seem worth pushing toward.
I'd much rather build around Ghoulcaller Gisa — there is an epic monoblack zombie deck to be made with her. Alternately, Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief would make an impressive commander for a vampire theme deck. Or any black deck — she doesn't need any help to shred faces.
Demon of Wailing Agonies is a good example of another cool mechanic introduced in these decks: Lieutenant. These are creatures who get a whole lot more impressive when your commander is on the battlefield. It's always good to have a wingdemon by your side, or a wingkraken, or...well you know what I mean.
Here's where things get interesting. This is a red deck, but it isn't the "fast creatures and burn spells" you might be expecting. This is basically an artifact deck that happens to be red. The planeswalker, Daretti, Scrap Servant, is one of the few depictions of a disabled character on a Magic card. His two main abilities help you chuck artifacts in the graveyard, then sacrifice junk to get something powerful back. Basically an entire Goblin Welder combo deck in one card. And his ultimate ability, which gives you infinite recursion with artifacts, is bonkers.
Then there's Feldon of the Third Path. Each deck has a secondary legend that represents a well-known figure from Magic's past appearing as their own card for the first time. Feldon is most widely known through Feldon's Cane, and the designers dug deep into Magic's fiction to find out more about him. Turns out there's something of a Pygmalion story going on, and so this version of Feldon reflects that. It's really a beautiful design, a powerful card that represents a man trying and failing to recapture a lost love through artifice and skill. I also find it really interesting that a card that's basically, "a sad old man building stuff" can be just as impressive and cool as Fiery McBurnDragon Number 53.
How does the deck play? Well...it didn't fare too well in our playtest, but we chalked that up to a slightly crummy draw. This deck takes a while to set itself up and start cycling artifacts in and out of the graveyard, and until that point it's kind of defenseless. It's easy to see that once it gets rolling this thing might be the most powerful deck of the five. That Wurmcoil Engine is going to cause problems for sure. I'm not sure how I'd modify this deck — it's a fairly complicated build, and I haven't fully considered what it can do. Feldon tempts me to build a theme deck, though, something that somehow tells a story each time it's played.
Anyone else feel like the planeswalker for this deck should be Robert Pollard, Lo-Fi Paragon? (If anyone mocks that card up in Magic Set Editor and posts it, I'll give you an io9 no-prize).
The actual planeswalker is Freyalise, Llanowar's Fury. Freyalise has been named-dropped on tons of Magic cards dating back to Ice Age, so it's really cool for long-time players to finally see her get her own card. She's a monogreen badass too, what with her eye patch and her ability to crank out mana elves and blow up artifacts all day. Secondary legend Titania, Protector of Argoth is another blast from Magic's past, and is a super cool card that needs a lot of work to make effective use of. Imagine a day when you have Strip Mine, Crucible of Worlds, and Titania all in play (it's not happening in this deck, you'll need to build that one yourself — expect your Commander friends to hate you).
A major theme in this deck is elves. Lots of elves. If you've ever thought of building an all-elf Commander deck (and they are really fun and crazy powerful), this deck gives you a pretty solid launching point. Ezuri, Renegade Leader makes one hell of an elf commander, let me tell you.
As powerful as this deck is, it suffers in multiplayer games because it can put out big threats relatively early. It can ramp up mana production and fire off Tornado Elemental or Siege Behemoth while other players are still cracking their first Mountain Dew of the night. And that means they're going to focus a lot of hate in your direction. One of the weird things about Commander is that you have to be a little bit political, and sometimes slow roll your threats or protect other players. Or just go all in — sometimes no one has an answer to your huge threat, so can just start bashing heads.
Overall I'm quite impressed with this year's Commander decks. I'm glad they went with monocolored decks, so we get to see that side of Commander, and the decks are mostly balanced and fun to play with right out of the box. The new mechanics are a lot of fun, and there are plenty of interesting new cards to either put in other Commander decks or use in other homebrew formats (I'll be giving a lot of these a home in my Cube). Plus, planeswalkers as commanders is such a great idea! And if you're new to Commander and you're thinking about stopping by your local game store's Commander night, one of these decks right out of the box will definitely hold its own.