Khans of Tarkir has a lot going for it. It’s really a great set but it has many masters to feed. With the ever increasing focus on Limited there is a greater percentage of cards that just aren’t cut out for any constructed format, especially one with as much depth as Commander. Then there are many cards that are designed for Standard. These cards are meant to be enjoyed best in a context of games with two players and twenty life each. So while the set is well made and has some powerful cards, it’s difficult to be excited for Khans of Tarkir if Commander is your main or only format.
But it’s not all bad news for Commander aficionados when it comes to Khans of Tarkir. The presence of “Wedges” as a theme for the first time opens the doors for a lot of new options. There are very few tricolored cards from the Wedges before so that means more opportunities for even otherwise middling cards to have a chance to shine. That said, there are some strong cards and the multicolored cards provide us with plenty of things to discuss even if there is not an abundance of great new cards.
The Main Mechanics
Having appeared in Onslaught Block and Time Spiral block, morph is a well-traveled mechanic. Anytime an ability reaches a saturation point like Morph has, it will either be starting to veer towards strength or be exposed as fundamentally flawed. Morph has a serious flaw and that is one of resources and scale. It can take excessive amounts of mana to get simple effects. Just compare Echo Tracer or Icefeather Aven to Man-o’-War or Venser, Shaper Savant and see how much mana you have to spend for the surprise factor. There is an upside to coming back a third time and that is an increase, however small, in both the number of quality synergistic Morphs and some new support cards. Outside of a dedicated morph deck there is little chance for many of them to shine but that’s just the nature of the beast.
Outlast is not that great of a mechanic for Commander. While there are plenty of design opportunities for ways that Outlast could shine, it just doesn’t really connect with the needs of a Commander player. The ability has too many drawbacks: Only 1 counter, sorcery speed, and requires tapping. Now you can get around some of that by giving your creatures vigilance or using trick stuff like Reconnaissance, but it doesn’t scale well in Commander. There are three styles of creatures with Outlast: those that just pump themselves, those that also grant abilities to creatures with +1/+1 counters, and those that have triggered abilities when you outlast. The problem is that none of the abilities being granted are that amazing, unique, or cost effective to make that series of Outlast creature desirable. None of the Outlast creatures without abilities are quite up to the rigors of Commander without the ability so tacking it on provides little help. Then you have only one card with a triggered ability when you activate its Outlast ability (Herald of Anafenza). Now perhaps cards more scaled for Commander will have Outlast in the future, but these aren’t going to accomplish much but wasting deck slots and mana.
I like Delve as a mechanic, but it has a problem in Commander. The graveyards are too useful here for a variety of things like Life from the Loam, Living Death, and the numerous other uses graveyards have. The worst part is that there are numerous effects that your opponents can use that impact your own graveyard, either for the good or bad, like Exhume and Time Spiral. So Delve is much more tricky in Commander than other formats as its rare for you to be able to predict what type of options your opponents may have that could possibly impact which cards you wish to leave in your graveyard. My verdict is that while Delve as a whole may not be a big winner, it just comes down to the specific cards.
Attacking with a creature is a pretty easy to meet condition. This is true even more so in multiplayer where there is usually at least one person without much defense. The biggest issue is that you are giving up being able to do anything tricky pre-combat involving these raid cards, but that shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
It’s an either or type of ability which makes is sort of easy. Until you start looking at how the impact of the card fluctuates wildly when you lose control a creature with 4 power right before the spell or ability resolves. The problem is that these type of cards usually have little strategy tied to them. Either you can wait to meet the condition or you have to fire it off anyway.
I am sort of torn on Prowess as a theme. While it is definitely more open than previous Izzet style pump creatures like Nivix Cyclops or Wee Dragonauts, the bonus is much smaller and that does matter. Where Prowess may shine is that is works well with Auras like Flickering Ward, Shining Wings, and Crown of Flames that can return to your hand for repeated uses. Incidentally these effects work with Heroic and Constellation triggers since you don’t need to target the creature with Prowess for the pump. I am not sure that an aggressive Prowess based deck can take effects, but I know people are trying. I think my friend put it best when he said, “It’s like Storm but for creature pumps.” So while I may not be reviewing many of the Prowess cards, just keep them in mind for future reference because who knows what could happen with the mechanic.
Brave the Sands
Giving creatures Vigilance is a solid thing to do. The extra blocking capability is nice too. The only problem is that there are better cards to have for Vigilance or pseudo-Vigilance (like Reconnaissance). If you were going more defensive, it could be solid with Tajic, Blade of the Legion or Commander Eesha.
The Wrath of Khans is no slouch for Commander. While it doesn’t put Commanders on the bottom on their library like Terminus or Hallowed Burial, End Hostilities has some massive upside. Destroying attached permanents means it won’t just eliminate the immediate threat of a creature but also powerful cards like Lightning Greaves and Sword of Fire and Ice. It is definitely much stronger than Day of Judgment and should see some play, especially in metagames defined by “Voltron” or Equipment/Aura heavy decks. It is good to note that End Hostilities has some synergy with Darksteel Plate and Shield of Kaldra as you can load up on equipment that will survive End Hostilities and then plan on using it to harass everyone else.
The Raid ability to create an extra flier is quite strong, just not for Commander. 6 power of flier for 5 mana is not that great of a deal in a format where Serra Ascendant starts off a 6/6 for a single mana. The lifegain is something interesting, but it probably only sees play in token heavy decks. I’m thinking that the Roc sees play with Commanders like Darien, King of Kjeldor and popular Commander cards like Avenger of Zendikar. It’s cool, but not that practical as 5 mana threat.
For extra colored mana we get the most versatile Clone ever. Phyrexian Metamorph, while more flexible to cast, added one permanent type and was a huge upgrade. By copying anything, including Planeswalkers, Clever Impersonator could be yet another powerful Blue spell. For such a promising spell, it doesn’t have much strategy. It just gives you access to the best of whatever happens to be around, which is almost always worth the mana and card slot. It doesn’t have the useful artifact typing that Phyrexian Metamorph does, so I wouldn’t say the cards are interchangeable. But I feel confident in saying that Clever Impersonator is one of the best copy effects ever.
Dig Through Time
The ability of Dig Through Time is pretty great. Its most easily compared to a double Impulse. The problem is that it costs 8 mana, which is pretty nuts. The delve component of the spell is certainly a help, but graveyards in Commander are just much better than they would be in every other format. This makes Delve a much worse value proposition. So for Dig Through Time that question becomes not whether the ability is strong enough, but at what mana cost? Being an instant, I’d say 2UU is a fair price for a format where Fact or Fiction is legal. Which means you would need to Delve 4 cards. Which is not that hard to do, but the rub is when you need to delve away 4 cards that don’t matter. There will be decks that have intense graveyard applications (Life from the Loam, Reanimation, etc) that will stay away, but Dig Through Time may prove to be a solid staple in some of the more controlling decks. Cards like Thirst for Knowledge, Compulsive Research, and Fact or Fiction do all provide some extra fodder for the Delve costs.
I want Disdainful Stroke to be good, but it loses a lot of versatility. I feel like it will rank behind Negate in most metagames, but I have a feeling Disdainful Stroke will be extremely good in more Casual metagames. If people are casting Avenger of Zendikar, Rafiq of the Many, and/or Decree of Pain then you should do just fine with Disdainful Stroke. If people are doing things like Power Artifact/Grim Monolith then Disdainful Stroke not right for you.
Embodiment of Spring
How many people would pay 1UG for Rampant Growth? I wouldn’t pay it and that is essentially what Embodiment of Spring does. It is not the second coming of Sakura-Tribe Elder for Commander and I wouldn’t recommend it for any reason.
My gut instinct is to dismiss Icy Blast. But when I pondered on it more, I figured out that it single handedly cant wreck multiple players when you are playing a big creature deck and are fighting other big creature decks. While I never run into that situation, I know many people do and for that reason I would recommend Icy Blast if you find yourself having a big creature stare down.
Of all the Morphs revealed, this is the most exciting one to me. It’s Spelljack tacked onto a Morph. Which makes it tough to judge as Morphs with very high mana costs to un Morph tend to have a trouble finding a home. However, Kheru Spellsnatcher gets really sick when used in tandem with Vesuvan Shapeshifter. While it isn’t Brine Elemental level of nasty, stealing spells at whim will definitely upset many an opponent. The coolest thing is that Kheru Spellsnatcher doesn’t have to be on the battlefield for you to cast the spell later on, a weakness normally associated to these types of effects.
Pearl Lake Ancient
It’s a big dumb mythic rare. Uncounterable and flash are nifty characteristics, but in a format where you can get Great Whale, Palinchron, and Diluvian Primordial for the same mana cost it just doesn’t stack up at face value. I wouldn’t be shocked if a way to use the big dumb guy shows up, but unless you metagame is nothing but counters and removal, I would stay away from this guy.
I am really interested in Quiet Contemplation. It is a pretty open ended card that can really cause havoc in a game. Being able to pair Quiet Contemplation with reusable cards like Flickering Ward or Capsize will only increase the power you can wield over creatures with this card. I think Quiet Contemplation will be possibly dominant against some metagames, I’m not just sure how it holds up in competitive metagames. I think that I will try it, just to see if turning my mana rocks into tap effects is worth it.
Singing Bell Strike
I love these oddball removal spells that Blue gets from time to time. Singing Bell Strike is a solid enough spell, but the effect is probably not needed as you could just run Control Magic or Treachery instead. Singing Bell Strike would help if your metagame is more aggressive in the “play a creature, untap play Armageddon” way. Of course Singing Bell Strike also enables infinite combos if the enchanted creature is able to produce 7 or more mana in an activation (sup, Metalworker?). I’m not sure where Singing Bell Strike will show up outside of some enterprising Metalworker and Elf combo users, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it did.
Having another option for 1 mana counterspells, like Force Spike had a kid with Negate, is fine. If you are determined to run a lot of “tax” based counters, then Stubborn Denial is fine, even if it is below Spell Pierce and Force Spike. On the other hand, there is a big variable with Ferocious. Getting a 4 powered creature in play does take some doing so Stubborn Denial is essentially weak Force Spike early game and conditional Negate later on. I’m not sure that’s worth enough of a discount to trade away the sure effectiveness of Negate. I think that Stubborn Denial will have application in the most competitive of metas when people are all playing control or combo and need early responses, but it won’t outdo Negate for regular, healthy metas.
It’s a huge upgrade to the skill testing Index (as in you have no skill if you are using Index), but its leagues behind Strategic Planning or the many other options at lower and higher mana costs. At the same converted mana cost there are cards like Idea’s Unbound, Impulse and Brain Freeze (target yourself when someone else casts a spell or two if you want to dump a lot of stuff into your graveyard). So while I’m sure this will enable Delve in other formats, it just has too much competition for that same real estate in Commander.
I feel like this is a Morph with the ability turned up to 11. One of the strongest triggered abilities to be tacked onto unmorphing, Thousand Winds provides a pretty good body (Mahamoti Djinn feels outclassed) and a ridiculous board clearing effect at will. Meanwhile, it also has great opportunity for being absurd with Vesuvan Shapeshifter. There is great potential for some fun Morph decks that I’m sure will gain in popularity.
So that part one. Join me again as we tackle another slab of the new cards.
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