Commanders of Return to Ravnica

Written by Cassidy McAuliffe on . Posted in Casual Magic, Commander

Commanders of Return to Ravnica

Cassidy McAuliffe

Cassidy has been playing Magic for the better part of two decades. He's dabbled in every format over the years, but these days he calls Commander home and runs a Commander-centric blog at www.generaldamagecontrol.com. He currently lives in New Hampshire with his wife Nina and son Declan.

Return to Ravnica is turning out to be one of the most interesting sets to be released in a very long time. There are boatloads of new toys being spoiled left and right. The hype for revisiting of one of Magic’s most beloved planes is at a full-on fever pitch.

For Commander players, things unfold in a slightly different way from other formats as new sets are revealed. Sure, there’s a ton of excitement over every new tidbit to hit the Internet, and the theory-crafters among our ranks are already shoehorning new toys into checklists as we speak. However, there are really only two show-stoppers for fans of Commander:

  1. Things that look to break open the core of the format from a ‘social contract’ perspective.
  2. New Commander options.

The former includes cards like Worldfire that present a serious threat to the way that people have come to understand and expect the format to operate. When Worldfire was spoiled, it instantly drew ire for parallels to a card type that the Commander Rules Committee has deemed ban-able (Sway of the Stars), and also for giving a shot in the arm to a strategy (mass land-destruction) that most Commander players shun.

For reference, Griselbrand actually gave the format a card that hit both of these categories pretty equally.

Fortunately, Return to Ravnica so far appears merciful regarding cards that break the social contract. What it has given us is a set of high-profile options for the second category. Let’s take a look at the five legendary guild leaders that will be hitting Commander play groups very shortly.

(A quick note – Each of these new commanders could easily soak up an entire article on their own. For now, treat this as an initial look at all five, with more detail to follow down the road.)

Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius

The new lord of the Izzet is … well, pretty reminiscent of the old Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind.

It’s clear that the design team for this block has been banking pretty hard on nostalgia with the return of the shocklands being front and center. With the new Niv, there’s a fairly loud echo left over from when he showed up the first time as well.

The new Niv hits at the exact same cost as the old one. This time around, he’s been working out. He tips the scales with one more power and one more toughness. Now, neither new nor old is going to score well on the “Titan test,” but in a vacuum, the new variety now cuts a turn off of the Commander damage threshold.

Those of you building U/R ‘voltron’ lists, take note.

In the ability department, we’ve been given a near-mirror image of the old version. Niv-Mizzet is still balancing the line between his red and blue roots, but this time he passively draws cards and actively does damage instead of the other way around.

What does this all mean? Well, to my eyes, this isn’t the most inspired design path. The good news is that there’s no longer an instant-win combo with either Curiosity or Ophidian Eye, but it also doesn’t really suggest anything radically different in the strategy department either. Before, you were probably running a ton of draw to get the damage triggers. Now, you’re going to be running a ton of damage to get the draw triggers.

I’m sure there are some subtle nuances involved, but for the most part, New Niv lists aren’t going to be blowing minds with radical deck designs or strategies.

But hey – it still beats using Tibor and Lumia.

Isperia, Supreme Judge

Again, we’re seeing some subtle mirroring with our new Azorious overlord. In this case, I think it’s a fantastic turn for the better in the U/W world.

First off, the new Isperia reverses power and toughness from the old version for the most part, also picking up an extra point in the defensive department. The takeaway is that this sphinx is far more aggressive than the old one. Isperia 2.0 is more keyed toward attacking as a win condition while the old one suggested sitting back and playing defense for most of the time, sneaking in when the path was clear to try for a tutor trigger off of a little good old-fashioned guesswork.

This is a welcome step in the right direction for players interested in the color combination who don’t want to play the usual control deck. Until now, if you wanted aggro, you would be stuck with either Bruna, Light of Alabaster (and a heavily dictated strategy) or Geist of Saint Traft (and a very…er…soft aggro strategy). I suppose you could also run Hunding Gjornersen if you were really looking for a challenge.

Anyway, New Isperia also does a great job of balancing the controlling strategy that Azorious likes to execute without preventing other players from playing the game, which tends to be the usual slant for these colors. Blue and white love to tell players they can’t attack (Moat, Propaganda) or that their spells are going to cost more than retail (Grand Arbiter Augustin IV) to play. The new version of Isperia dares you to attack, but doesn’t actually make it any harder than a simple decision over whether to refill your opponent’s hand or not. That’s the kind of subtle control that makes the game more interesting.

And it’s passive, so you can still get into the red zone all day long. I’m really liking what Isperia has brought to the table this time around. Of the five new options, this is the one I’m looking into building first.

Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord

This guy has already started making appearances thanks to his inclusion in Duel Decks: Izzet versus Golgari. I’ve already seen three different takes on a Jarad deck at my local game store alone. This is what I’m saying about Commander players: we love shiny and new.

So far, he compares favorably with Savra, Queen of the Golgari, with whom he shares power, toughness, and starting converted casting cost. They both also share the ‘sacrifice matters’ design theme. Things get a bit more interesting, though.

In practice, Jarad usually hits the table quite a bit bigger than the numbers printed in his lower-right corner. Jarad certainly suggests front-loading creature strategies. The usual mana-accelerating suspects such as Yavimaya Elder and Sakura-Tribe Elder serve to make him a monster in short order with no appreciable alteration in the normal game plan. That’s pretty solid design.

What really makes him better than his female counterpart is that he comes with a built-in sacrifice outlet. I can’t begin to explain how big of a deal this is. Savra players can attest to the fact that failing to find a way to bin your own creatures can be a back-breaking deficiency. Jarad never needs to worry about things like that as long as he can hit the table.

Furthermore, the main activated ability itself is really powerful, offering Jarad a synergistic way to both increase his own size as well as exact an Exsanguinate-esque loss of life to all opponents at once. All this makes for a quick start in the early damage department, followed by a relatively large mid-game beater. Cap this with a nasty ability to start sacrificing things like Moldgraf Monstrosity in the late game and you have a serious threat.

Oh, he also recurs himself. Don’t worry about an inflated commander tax as the game progresses.

Is it any wonder he’s catching on the way he seems to be? I know he’s got an unfair advantage, but Jarad may possibly be the best of the five new commanders.

Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice

Trostani is one of the most guild-aligned commanders of the new batch. He’s the only legend of the five that comes equipped with his guild’s keyword mechanic, Populate. To be totally honest, he’s also the one I’m having the hardest time figuring out. I think I’m missing something.

Comparing him to Selesnya’s offering last time, there’s Chorus of the Conclave. The two certainly play nice together as far as Trostani’s life gain ability goes, so there’s that.

How about Tolsimir Wolfblood? I suppose you can gain some life off of Voja tokens each turn by playing them with Tolsimir and then legend-ruling them with Trostani’s Populate ability if you’re looking to gain some life and appreciate a challenge.

In all honesty, the real problem with Trostani is that he really looks like an auxiliary role-player at best. I don’t think life gain is terrible in Commander, but this instance is fairly uninspiring. The ability seems better as just a nice bonus you get while doing other things, rather than something you plan on actually exploiting. From there, you have Populate. I’m completely under-whelmed by this mechanic so far when it comes to Commander. The best thing I have so far in green and white is that it combos with Mimic Vat favorably, giving you an extra permanent copy of whatever you tossed on the Vat on the cheap. Not very compelling, right?

That’s the point. Trostani seems like a cobbled-together pair of abilities that might be neat to see pop up in a deck at some point, but if you’re limited to green and white, it becomes really hard to properly put him to good use as the focal point of a decklist. I suppose he is aggressively-costed for a creature of his size with a decent (if uninspiring) passive ability, but that still isn’t getting it done for me.

Maybe time proves me wrong, but I feel like this might be the dark horse of the Return to Ravnica legendary family as far as Commander is concerned. Hopefully this isn’t the case.

Rakdos, Lord of Riots

That’s an interesting thing to be a lord of, I suppose. Kind of brings me back to when I first discovered Greek mythology as a kid. You had gods of awesome things like ‘war’ and ‘thunder,’ and then you’d hit a head-scratcher like Dionysis, god of wine. Any guesses on who probably gets picked last in the Annual Mount Olympus Dodgeball Challenge?

Silly monikers aside, Rakdos delivers some serious aggression to the table. As soon as he was spoiled, every Kaalia of the Vast player in every forum out there started excitedly extolling the virtues of sliding him into play with her attack trigger, thus handily side-stepping the ‘opponent lost life’ clause.

I guess I’m personally really not sure how much that matters to begin with. He’s already dirt cheap, and it’s not difficult to find a way to deal damage to an opponent in red and black. On top of that, the old Rakdos was a far better one to slide in from Kaalia’s trigger, since it would sidestep your sacrifice trigger while leaving the one for your opponent intact.

No, I think this Rakdos is a better and more interesting standalone commander than he is a role-player in an existing deck. At 6/6 with flying and trample, he’s a huge bargain at four mana, even with the prerequisite life loss clause. That still compares favorably on the Titan scale. From there, we’ve got a really interesting discount ability that is overwhelmingly Rakdos-flavored. With enough draw added to the mix, Rakdos 2.0 can act as a massive mana accelerator for a huge flood of creatures.

People are already talking about discounts on Blightsteel Colossus and Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre. It does seem that Rakdos promotes a colorless creature game plan pretty well. Personally, I’m looking at a two-red-mana investment for Bogardan Hellkite (now we’re up to a free Darksteel Colossus!) or a small handful of black mana for [cardReiver Demon[/card] or Dread Cacodemon. Suddenly, you’re looking at the start of a pretty ridiculous R/B hyper-aggressive toolbox. Rakdos is going to make a splash in Commander for sure and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s hugely popular once RTR hits the shelves in a few weeks.

There you have it, folks: come October 5th, Commander is going to get a decent shot in the arm with these five legendary guild leaders. Enjoy all the new possibilities Return to Ravnica brings to the table; this set is going to add tons of playables to the format.

— Cassidy McAuliffe
GeneralDamageControl.com

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