Another year, another Commander release. Many players always get caught up in the hype of Commander sets, but these sets are very different than other sets. The format for Commander uses every single card ever printed. If Wizards wanted to print a product that could stand up to some of the best cards ever seen then they would. What Wizards wants to do is to print cards that generate buzz and get people to buy them. I am not trying to identify the best or most popular cards of the moment, but the ones that will shine for years to come. So now that I’ve established the context for this review, let’s get started!
The first thing to remember about the Legendary Creatures and Planeswalker Commanders from this release is that single colored Commanders have a huge disadvantage in this format. How good would Maelstrom Wanderer be if it was just Mono Red and couldn’t run Green Ramp spells or Blue Extra turn effects? How would Kaalia of the Vast be if it was Mono Black and couldn’t run all those powerful Dragons and Angels? So while some of these cards are either solid or on the cusp of greatness, the color identity restriction does provide a very real issue for these Commander options.
Planeswalker as Commanders
The biggest news to come from this release is that there will now be Planeswalkers that can be used as Commanders. This is not retroactive so you can’t just stick Liliana of the Veil in a top loader and build a deck around her. For now there will only be a few options for Planeswalkers as Commander and only one per color.
The impact of these new Planeswalker Commanders is that they will allow players to have a different slant for how the Commander operates. Planeswalkers tend to be more of resource collection engines compared to many of the Legendary Creatures that exists. The Legendary Creatures that are most likely to be played in Commander, especially in Competitive environments, either generate resources directly (Maelstrom Wanderer, Zur, the Enchanter, Rafiq of the Many) or punish the opposition greatly (Gaddock Teeg, Grand Arbiter Augustin IV, Child of Alara). Planeswalker Commanders all have some resource and scheme that they bring to the table in their own style and that will make them intriguing to deck builders.
The biggest question mark about Planeswalker Commanders is about removal. They dodge a lot of the normal removal that get directed towards Commanders. Condemn, Bant Charm, and Terminus have no real impact on these Commanders. The tradeoffs are that you will have a lot harder time equipping Lightning Greaves to protect them and that your opponents can deal with your Commander via combat. That makes controlling the board more of a priority when you are using a Planeswalker Commander, but there are fewer spells to worry about. Answers like Oblation, Chaos Warp, and All Is Dust become more clutch in metagames where Planeswalker Commanders are prevalent as they will be able to efficiently handle both creatures and Planeswalkers.
There is a whole lot going on with Nahiri, the Lithomancer so let’s start with the Loyalty. When you pay more than four mana for a Planeswalker, you are hoping for a little more heft than 3 Loyalty. Having such a low starting Loyalty means that you are going to want, or need, to activate the +2 ability to make a token as soon as Nahiri enters the battlefield. Nahiri makes a single 1/1 token you can attach any equipment you control to that token. Depending on what type of Equipment you have in play that can be a big bargain. For something like Argentum Armor or Heartseeker it may save you a lot of mana.
The best ability of Nahiri is also the most limited. The -2 Loyalty ability lets you put an equipment card from your hand or graveyard onto the battlefield. That’s pretty sweet as you can recur strong equipment like Batterskull or Skullclamp for more fun even as your opponents try to keep them off the table. The drawback is that you have to have the equipment already so it requires getting your key equipment out of your deck. Nahiri’s Ultimate is unlike anything that we have seen before. For a cost of -10 Loyalty you get to put a token into play of an equipment which gives +5/+5 and double strike with a cost of 0 to equip. That is an epic ultimate. The only problem is that between bounce spells (Capsize, Cyclonic Rift) and effects that exile permanents (Utter End) the equipment isn’t going to stay around very long. So with a relatively easy to defeat ultimate, a -2 ability that requires other cards to be effective, and a ho-hum +2 Loyalty Ability there isn’t a great reason to run Nahiri as your commander. She isn’t explosive, doesn’t provide an immediate threat, and can’t turn a game around. Compare her to creatures like Darien, King of Kjedor or Kemba, Kha Regent and you can see how Nahiri lacks the power to be a competitive Commander.
So we finally get to see what Teferi, a long time Magic hero, gets to do as a Planeswalker. Six mana is a lot for a Commander. To be competitive with a cost of six mana normally requires some amount of immediate impact that would justify spending so much time and mana setting it up. Teferi doesn’t fail on this with a -1 Loyalty ability that can generate a lot of mana. This mana can be used to protect your Planeswalker Commander. The most intriguing, to me, application for Teferi seems to the potential that it has when used with Stasis; Teferi can keep you with a steady stream of Blue mana while your opposition will be operating under limited capacity. The -1 Ability is really absurd when you start untapping things like Mana Vault, Grim Monolith, and/or Gilded Lotus because that is a lot of mana. Even with just simple Islands, Teferi, Temporal Archmage can ramp you up to 10 or 11 mana the following turn to enable such giant plays as Kozilek, Butcher of Truth or Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre.
Teferi, Temporal Archmage also has a solid +1 Loyalty ability. While it may not be overwhelming, Sleight of Hand is a strong enough ability that you should be happy each time you get to use it. The ability to put cards on the bottom of your library is relevant as you can combine it with Sensei’s Divining Top and Scroll Rack to get rid of cards that you don’t want to see anymore. Teferi’s real shiny ability is that Ultimate. Any time a card fundamentally changes the rules of the game, I perk up and pay extra attention. In this case, Teferi delivers as his ultimate would allow you to get multiple extra loyalty activations a turn cycle. The best part is that you can use them whenever you want for maximum strategic value. The problem, for Teferi, becomes that the pool of Planeswalkers available to mono Blue is so small (and Jace centric) that trying to build around his ultimate in a deck featuring him as a Commander is a losing proposition. What I expect is that Teferi, Temporal Archmage will be embraced by the Five (occasionally fewer) Color Planeswalker Super Friends decks. These decks try to allow their Planeswalkers to dominate the game by providing ample board wipes (Devastation, Decree of Annihilation) and crazy effects like Doubling Season, which lets you immediately activate Teferi, Temporal Archmage’s ultimate.
Overall, Teferi is a high cost, high potential Planeswalker in the same vein of Karn Liberated and Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker. On a power level scale, he is really high when you are building for his strengths but weakens when decks are not built for him. While I am sure that Teferi will not become the default Mono Blue Commander for Competitive Commander, I do think Teferi will see lots of play and wreck people who can’t keep up with some of the explosive mana potential his -1 Loyalty Ability represents.
Mono Black has a real need for strong Commanders. When you compare it to the other colors, it probably falls in fourth for strong single colored Commanders (ahead of White). The rest of the color is so strong that Black is somewhere in the top three along with Blue and Green. This means that there is a lot of room for a commander that is even remotely special to gain a lot of traction.
Starting with 3 Loyalty is already a burden. That puts it right into range for being rushed to death by small creatures or random direct damage effects. The +2 Loyalty ability is cute. It’s half a Syphon Soul, a card that I wouldn’t pay 5 mana for. Assuming a 4 player game, Ob Nixilis’s first ability will gain you 3 life. In a format where people start at 40 life, that makes this amount of life gain (and loss) nearly trivial. So how does Planeswalker Ob Nixilis protect himself? His -2 Loyalty ability creatures a 5/5 black Demon creature with Flying. You also lose 2 life, usually an irrelevant sum of life. This is actually a bad thing. The beast token that Garruk Wildspeaker makes is a mild and nonthreatening creature that people wouldn’t want to waste a removal spell on killing. A 5/5 flier is much more impactful and thus people would be more inclined to use their removal on it. And since you have no (or few) blockers, then they may as well put Ob Nixilis out of his misery by sending any creature towards him. If you want a giant evasive creature that people want to kill immediately, there are plenty of other options that provide more value (Kokusho, the Evening Star, Mikaeus, the Unhallowed).
So the viability of Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath falls upon it’s ultimate. Which is all measures of disappointing. It gives you an emblem that lets you pay mana to sacrifice your creatures to draw cards and gain life equal to their power. So once you finally have some big creatures, you can turn them to cards. Which is a useful option should your opponent be killing the big creatures or you are desperate for cards or life. The problem with Ob Nixilis is that he is a fragile value engine that doesn’t provide much value. Compare Ob Nixilis to Erebos, God of the Dead. Erebos can turn life into cards for a reasonable enough price and is much harder to remove. Occasionally Erebos becomes a creature, but usually he is just giving you some extra cards and keeping your opponents from gaining life. My feeling is that Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath will be embraced by a lot of Commander players because he is the only option for a Planeswalker Commander in Black, but he won’t be doing a lot of winning except when it comes to flavor.
The goblin Planeswalker that people have been waiting for! Daretti, Scrap Savant is a very peculiar card. Mono Red has always lacked card advantage so the reverse looting offered by Daretti’s +2 Loyalty ability is a big deal. The fact that his looting enables his Trash for Treasure inspired -2 Loyalty ability is just gravy. Turn a mana rock into a giant artifact is a pretty effective exchange. Daretti solves the problem that normally plagues mono Red decks that seek to exploit things like Goblin Welder and Trash for Treasure in that it has a built in way to enhance its graveyard. The ultimate of Daretti doesn’t disappoint. For -10 Loyalty you get an emblem with, “Whenever an artifact is put into your graveyard from the battlefield, return that card to the battlefield at the beginning of the next end step.” That’s a spicy meatball! My mind immediately jumps out to using Daretti with cards like Jokulhaups and Obliterate (and possibly Recoup). The first board wipe protects Daretti long enough to build up to his ultimate. The next board wipe locks the game up as Daretti’s ultimate makes your board wipes a lot more one-sided.
Daretti could be the real deal, best Mono Red commander around. The problem is that Mono Red has so many divergent strategies that it will never be unified by a single commander. Zirilan of the Claw bring the Dragon beatdown, Godo, Bandit Warlord provides a great Voltron commander, and Norin, the Wary is king of the annoying grind out game plan. So while Daretti may be the best all-around option for a color that has been looking for one, it won’t become the default Red Commander. One of my personal favorite quirks of Daretti is that you can main deck color hate cards like Red Elemental Blast and Omen of Fire and not get burned by it. Just discard them to dig for other cards.
Freyalise was one of the original powerful characters of Magic’s storyline. It’s cool that she finally gets a card. I just wish it was more awesome. I feel like this is the exact reason why they originally planned to not make Planeswalker cards of Planeswalkers from before the Mending (the event in Time Spiral block that fundamentally altered the way Planeswalkers function in the Magic storyline and set into motion many storyline elements from Shards of Alara forward). Freyalise was so powerful that she realigned the multiverse and fixed Dominaria’s eternal Ice Age. Now? Freyalise, Llanowar’s Fury makes Llanowar Elves tokens… Except they aren’t Llanowar Elves! A shame as Llanowar Mentor already makes Llanowar Elves tokens and that would have been a neat shout out.
So while making a token with your +2 Loyalty ability isn’t the most exciting, it is at least a decent way to protect your Commander Planeswalker. The -2 Loyalty ability is Naturalize, a solid if uninspiring option. Planeswalkers with built in removal are rare enough that we shouldn’t discount it. Also, have your Commander being able to randomly deal with problematic cards like Gilded Lotus or Humility is quite uncommon. Her Ultimate is Collective Unconscious, an effect that works well with mana producing creatures like the ones generated by Freyalise and can set up some combo turns. The ultimate only takes 6 Loyalty which is a bargain when going over the rest of the Planeswalker Commanders. Because of the value she and versatility she represents, Freyalise will probably see some play in Mono Green Ramp decks. Freyalise’s biggest issue is that it is competing with Ezuri, Renegade Leader in Elf decks. Does ramping into a turn 3 Freyalise represent more value than possibly having infinite mana on turn 3 or 4 and using Ezuri to finish off the table? I don’t think so. So while Freyalise and her Indrik Stomphowler impression isn’t a disappointment she won’t be a superstar.
Ajani Goldmane’s brother is no slouch, but he seems more destined to dominate Cube drafts than Commander tables. Jazal Goldmane represents the ability to dump a huge amount of damage on the opposition through his activated ability. Once you have 3 or more other creatures, Jazal Goldmane becomes a giant threat and can overwhelm a table. The problem is that Jazal needs to have an army to be anything other than a so-so body. Armies tend to attract board sweepers and that means you will lose multiple cards for one of two cards from your opponent. This means that Jazal will probably better as a member of decks 99 cards rather than the Commander. I could see him supporting one man armies like Brimaz, King of Oreskos or Darien, King of Kjeldor quite nicely.
Anytime a card mentions sending cards from the library to the graveyard there will be fans. When it comes to Stitcher Geralf, he makes a terrible Commander if you want anything besides fun and variance. It takes too much effort to control his chaos (though his interaction with spells like Time Ebb can be seen as “Blue Removal”) and too much mana to start the token making process to make it justifiable for more Competitive players. The biggest issue for Stitcher Geralf players is that if it is ever not terrible then it will so overwhelm a table that you become the target. So while Geralf is a definite flavor hit, it won’t see a lot of play.
There is a lot of potential for Gisa for more casual play. At the very least, she can turn a single Zombie token into two Zombie tokens. With the ability to do this at instant speed, it makes combat more difficult for the opposition. She’s a natural for use with Thornbite Staff and Illusionist’s Bracers and has some interesting applications for cards like Phyrexian Dreadnought (tons of tokens). The biggest strike against Ghoulcaller Gisa is that when you compare the mana and cards needed to make her be really strong, she is no stronger than other options. It gets even worse when you factor in that she forces you to be very reliant on permanents, especially creatures, and that leaves you vulnerable to the most prevalent type of removal. So while this flavor home run is not a complete dud, she doesn’t differentiate herself from all the other interesting Commanders that Black has to offer.
The big questions for any one building a Feldon of the Third Path deck is how to get the right creatures into your graveyard and which creatures are the right creatures? Personally, I think the best creatures are those with enters the battlefield abilities such as Solemn Simulacrum, Duplicant, Myr Battlesphere, and Bogardan Hellkite. These are creatures who can generate repetitive value and will be worth the mana you need to spend to active Feldon each turn. The question then turns towards how to get your desire targets to your graveyard. I think cards like Wheel of Fortune and Faithless Looting are good, but there is a real need for more options. I was able to dig out some decent options like Anvil of Bogardan, Trading Post, Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded, and our new Planeswalker Commander Daretti, Scrap Savant. It’s tough to rely upon Feldon as six mana is lot before you get your first creature. I like Feldon a lot think he will end up being a solid and good option in Red’s diverse and interesting Commander portfolio.
I’m not sure if Titania, Protector of Argoth is a dud or one of the next great Green Commanders. Pairing her with lands such as Strip Mine, Ghost Quarter, or fetch lands (such as Wooded Foothills) can lead to some explosive, disruptive, and potentially game defining plays. I like how Titania, as a Commander, is begging for players to build around her as the way she functions is contrary to so many concepts of Magic. Having your lands go to your graveyard is normally seen as a bad thing, but Titania provides a huge incentive. Scapeshift seems like it was made for Titania, to both fill up the graveyard with a choice of lands to return later and possibly making an army of creature tokens. Titania’s biggest obstacle to becoming a favored Commander will be all the other strong options available for more land centric decks (Azusa, Lost but Seeking, Omnath, Locus of Mana, Kamahl, Fist of Krosa).
The other compelling thing about Titania is that she actively deters some of the biggest problems facing Green decks. Cards like Armageddon, Obliterate, and Cataclysm are very strong in Commander because they can do so much damage to Green ramp strategies. Players would have to plan around Titania as Armageddon does a lot less damage when the green player gets a huge stack of tokens for compensation. I think that the value that Titania creates (returning a land) and her creature swarm capabilities will differentiate her enough to let a more specialized, and potentially more powerful, Titania deck shine.
So that part one. Join me next time as I go over the rest of the more notable cards from this release.
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