A few days ago, a number of Theros: Beyond Death cards were spoiled to the public. I found them here, on MTGGoldfish. I don’t have much to say about the reason (an error?) or the consequences for such a spoiler (rolling heads?), but I’m happy to think about a bunch of new cards, and give them an early review! I’m also going to look at the Wizards announcement from later the same day about 2020’s slate of Commander products.
I wasn’t playing Magic when Elspeth Tirel was a big part of the story line. Apparently the cards were a big deal through the Standard formats where she was legal. I’ve seen several Elspeths played in Commander, although I’m not so sure about this new one. I could be wrong, but Elspeth, Sun’s Nemesis seems a little lacklustre. The CMC is high for a walker these days, and while some previous iterations of Elspeth offered a sweeper effect, there’s nothing like that here. We have a decent -1, a very good -2, and a mediocre -3 (except against Burn). None of these is likely to be worth the slot in a Commander deck unless the 4th ability, ‘Escape’ is really great. Again, I’m not optimistic. It’s a heavy cost, does some Delving, and is a ‘cast’ ability, which is a mixed blessing. If this card is going to work, it’s because it creates a difficult-to-remove wall, made in parts of tokens, high loyalty, lifegain, and a recurring walker. Either that, or there’s a way to abuse discarding it and bringing it back. I’m not high on Planeswalkers in Commander in general, and I don’t expect to see this get much play.
Ashiok’s Erasure is a pretty wild spin on a counterspell. There are a lot of moving parts here. First off, this is an enchantment rather than the usual instant-type counterspells we usually see. But giving this Flash makes it an instant anyway. Unlike counterspells, this doesn’t actually counter the spell, but because of that, it can target spells that can’t be countered. It also puts the spell in exile, which some counterspells do, but only temporarily, which is more in line with Spell Queller. After resolving, Ashiok’s Erasure prevents future casts of the same card and sticks around as a permanent. I’m assuming the card must remain in exile for the effect to be live, otherwise this is EXTREMELY oppressive to Commanders. If the Commander can just go back to the zone in place of being exiled, and negate the can’t be cast clause, it’s fine. If not…. Then when Erasure leaves, the spell is returned to owner’s hand, not put back on the stack. There’s a number of obvious uses for this card, starting with blue Devotion. This is a counterspell that puts UU on the board. Second, Enchantment/Enchantress decks love this sort of thing. Third, this is great for zapping something you know a number of players will cast, like Sol Ring, so getting the first one is like getting all the others. At 4 CMC, that seems unlikely, but if you know your meta, or your game is heavily weighted towards one colour or deck philosophy, this can do a lot of work. You can also target your own spell, if you know an opponent is going to use the same thing on you for much worse result. There’s also a growing amount of reasons to run this guy:
There’s a few of these, that move stuff from exile to the graveyard at instant speed. That messes with Adventures, Madness, and all sorts of miscellaneous exile. Just sayin’. Because if an opponent has easy Enchantment removal, Ashiok’s Erasure might not be any kind of counterspell at all.
I love Treacherous Blessing. What a cool card. My first thought is pairing this up with something that easily gets rid of it. God-Eternal Bontu as a Commander eats this thing up, literally.
As long as I knew I had a way to ditch Treacherous Blessing, I’d probably run it, and maybe even if not. I’m looking back at game reviews, and there aren’t a lot of games I’ve played where this would have killed me if I played it, even early. I’m not a storm player, and I don’t know that I cast upwards of 20 spells in any game. For a quick burst of three cards, losing some life might be worth it. Stax decks that don’t do a lot of casting anyway will love this, and so will both black Devotion and Enchantment decks. This would absolutely go in my Vaevictus Asmadi all-permanents deck, and would get a try-out in most of my other decks that could cast it.
The return of Sagas is very welcome. Hopefully there will be some sort of Legendary creature payoff so we can build a Saga Commander deck. The Akroan War looks like a ton of fun. This is the kind of thing to play in a deck that is able to manage a large board full of creatures so you’re not the target of a Chapter 2-inspired alpha strike. Each ability is quite strong, although the sequence is tricky to manage. This might be best in a deck that can manipulate the counters, with something like Power Conduit.
Reusing Chapter 1 or 2 would be a powerful play if you could pull it off. Being able to accelerate to Chapter 3 is a decent sweeper option. If we get a red Legendary that can add or remove counters from Sagas, this could be really hot.
Dalakos, Crafter of Wonders is probably going to enable some broken voltron strategies, but probably just as many fair ones. This actually looks like a fun Commander. Izzet has suffered from being really linear, or tied to strongly to things like X-spells and mass card draw, that snowball and make every endgame the same. This promises some variety, given the wide range of equipment. You can go full on Swords of Stuff and Nonsense, or try assembling Kaldra. You can use all the equipment that makes tokens, or do some sort of combo with stuff that equips for free and nasty activations. Playing Lightning Greaves the turn before this guy is a must. I think Dalakos could be a hit, and I hope players give him a shot.
While Labyrinth of Skophos is reminiscent of Maze of Ith, they’re quite different in the details. This is closer in a lot of ways to Mystifying Maze, a card I have cut from a number of Commander decks.
Why? Holding up 4 mana (5 if you include the Labyrinth) is a lot. The Labyrinth has versatility because it can be used on anyone’s attacker or blocker, but paying the cost might be a big chunk of a turn, or just too much to hold up. Decks that need to connect with opponents can use this, as can most control decks who might be holding up 4+ mana most turns anyway. This can be a solid role-player, and an okay budget version of Maze of Ith.
Phalanx Tactics is the kind of card that rarely cracks Commander decks, though this one adds a wrinkle that might make it worthwhile to a couple. The wrinkle is targeting. This means it can go into Feather decks, or Anax and Cymede, for their triggers.
In those decks, this might be a must-have.
I’m a little confused as to what to do with Alirios, Enraptured in Commander. Blink it? I feel like it’s a neat design, and a fun depiction of the myth of Narcissus, but the overall power level seems too low for Commander. I could be wrong, and there’s some crazy combo out there involving Intruder Alarm or something, but this would be a drop in that bucket. Keep an eye out for Reflection payoffs.
Medomai’s Prophecy looks like a cool array of abilities on first glance, but 2 and 4 underwhelm. Unless you’re doing 2 and 3 in the same turn, this seems like a questionable bet to even draw cards. I think this is a fun card, but might not be a good one. Omen of the Sea (below) is a better scry effect with flash.
Devotion is back, and Threnody Singer is a cheap flyer that might negate the occasional attack. This would probably do better in Standard or Limited, though. Blue isn’t known as a permanent-heavy colour, and this would have to have a minimum around 5 devotion to work with to be worth thinking about. I’ll pass.
We’ve seen effects like Minion’s Return before, but like several ‘spells’ in this set, we have a familiar effect on a Flash Enchantment. Black’s spins on Control Magic are cool, but always come with a drawback. This requires the creature to die, but when it does, it’s yours. Great as a response to a removal spell or sweeper. Extra great when played on an indestructible creature as a response to a -X/-X sweeper. Minion’s Return works well as a ‘regenerate’ effect on your own creatures, too. Unlike actual Regenerate effects, this gives you an ETB trigger, making it ideal for Gonti, Lord of Luxury and Xantcha, Sleeper Agent, who are big targets that can use an ETB trigger for profit. Being an Aura is less than great, usually, but Theros: Beyond Death looks like it’s going to take on the herculean task of making auras relevant again, a little bit at a time. Watch out for Aura payoffs!
Dreamshaper Shaman took me a couple of reads, but yes, it is a slightly better Chaos Warp for your own stuff at the end of your turn. I think this is awesome. I doubt Standard will ever be in a place to use stuff like this again, so it can jump right over to Commander. The CMC is a little off-putting, and the Enchantment type makes this a little more fragile than it needs to be, but Minotaur and Shaman are both growing commodities. Do I need to hype up the ability? Once it’s on board, you can turn your 1/1 Goblin token into whatever! Can you use the death trigger? Why not! Can you copy this ability with Strionic Resonator? Yes! Does this seem like a lot of fun? Yes! I hear we’re getting some sort of Behemoth monster maker set coming up, and stuff like this seems like a great fit for that style of set.
Dreamstalker Manticore is a fairly aggressive creature at 4/2 for 3CMC. It seems more made to enable some sort of standard burn strategy than do a lot in Commander, but if you can somehow manage to cast a spell every opponent’s turn, you’ve got a free 3 damage to spread around. If that seems like a lot of work for a minimal payoff, it is.
Furious Rise is really exciting! I love this at uncommon, because it means copies will be plentiful. This is a potential red staple. Not every red deck makes creatures with power 4 or greater (ferocious!) but so very many do. Dragons, Phoenixes, and even big Goblins can get to power 4, and then you’ve got a huge window to play the card you exile with Furious Rise. Since it’s on your endstep, you have all 3 opposing turns to play the card. Terrific if it’s an instant or if you have a Flash enabler. If it’s a land, creature or sorcery, you can play it on your turn. If it’s your lynchpin card, and you can’t play it now, you can remove your 4 power creature and keep the card stashed in exile, where as long as Furious Rise is in play, it is still playable!! I’m going to be giving this some testing, for sure! The CMC and ability to ‘play’ the card, not just ‘cast’ it, meaning lands too, just make this better and better.
In the proud tradition of landfall-not-landfall, and ferocious-not-ferocious, comes another edition of heroic-not-heroic. Heroes of the Revel has a triggered ability that triggers when it becomes the target of a spell you cast. That’s the same as the ‘Heroic’ ability from the previous Theros sets. Why Magic doesn’t just add that keyword for some continuity is a total eye-roller. The card is named ‘Heroes,’ so they’re doing everything but. Maybe bold font costs extra. Anyway, this is a high CMC, but the heroic-not-heroic effect is decent enough to be worth a look in Heroic or Feather decks that want to go wide. The token seems tacked on for no good reason I can see. I’ll take it, though.
Chainweb Aracnir is pretty promising for spider design in Magic. For the longest time, we got Giant Spider, or a differently named Giant Spider. Or a slight variation on Giant Spider.
You’d think perfection had been reached. But now we have a really cool, versatile spider that might be playable! First off, 1 CMC creatures have a good chance in older formats of being something. That can hold a creature back in Commander, so some kind of scaling option is great. Hold that thought. 1 CMC for a 1/2 reacher Spider probably makes the cut in Spider tribal. Coming in with a mini-fight effect is amazing. The first one might only poke a faerie out of the sky, but the Escape ability makes this a better threat to kill something later, not to mention an awesome chump blocker. At the end of the day, this little guy might be a 3 for 1 with a value block and some rattlesnake, too. I’m really happy with this card, even if it sees minimal play.
Hydra’s Growth is another try-hard-Aura that wants so much to be good. In the right deck, this probably is. I played against a powerful Tuvasa, the Sunlit deck recently, and that deck might look at this. But this doesn’t protect itself, or the creature, so it’s simultaneously creating a huge target and asking for a two-for-one removal spell. When it hits big, it’ll likely be win more. Big +1/+1 counter decks can get the most out of this, like Pir and Toothy, or anything that plays a lot of Hydras. But it’s probably not good enough without help.
Thundering Chariot isn’t going to roll over the competition easily, but it’s definitely among the best Vehicle options out there. The CMC is a bit high, and the stats a bit low for a Vehicle, but Trample and Haste are first rate abilities, and First Strike isn’t bad. Crew 1 (the minimum?) is a best-case scenario for a Vehicle. Going forward, this is probably a new staple for Vehicle decks and only needs the right enable to be a big star. This seems perfect for Kwende, Pride of Femeref.
Kwende isn’t a popular deck, but sometimes Commander is about finding that unpopular Commander and making them look good.
I feel like the token creation plus heroic-not-heroic is going to get confusing. A bold keyword would really help. Just like Heroes of the Revel, Hero of the Nyxborn is a Hero (but not officially Heroic), makes a random creature token on ETB, and has a go-wide ability. This isn’t bad, and can add redundancy and budget-efficiency to Feather, Anax and Cymede and go-wide …Heroic.
Warden of the Chained has decent stats, and can team up with flavour buddy Tahngarth, First Mate for some good, clean Bullying.
But the Warden isn’t really scaled for Commander, and though it has Trample, decent stats, and relevant types, it’s not going to get there.
Omen of the Sea seems pretty strong. Cards like Serum Visions and Ponder have powered all sorts of strong decks across a number of formats. I bet this sees play in Standard for sure. Modern? Maybe this is a good control option. It might have to be 1 CMC for that, but you never know. In Commander, this is totally playable, and gets better the more you can use the payoffs. It’s not a great Devotion option, but better than most cantrips for leaving U on board. Enchantment decks will love this, especially in lategame recursion situations with Starfield of Nyx.
The place I’m most excited to try this is in my Ninja deck. Having Flash means I can Scry in Combat if need be, and having a second Scry outlet for later is just so juicy. A great common, and the start of what looks like a terrific cycle.
Omen of the Dead might not have as high an upside as Omen of the Sea, but recurring a creature is generally a good play, and if you can leverage the B on the card by recurring something like Gray Merchant of Asphodel, then you look like a genius. Adding Scry is a pretty nice little ability for black, and sometimes a sacrifice of any kind is a good thing. Flash, too, as a lot of single B recursion is at Sorcery speed. Lots of utility here.
Even the plants are getting Ferocious, or at least blossoming around Ferocious creatures. Ilysian Caryatid is a common that produces any colour of mana, which is not so common. Doubling it up for the low price of a Ferocious creature makes this totally worth a look in Standard, and maybe even in Commander. I feel like there are simply too many better options in Commander, though, although some of those are getting pretty expensive. I’m glad to have a solid budget option with high upside, and in the fun and growing plant type.
Omen of the Hunt is the last of the cycle we get to see at this point. This looks pretty great, like the others. While this doesn’t have the raw ramp power of Cultivate or Kodama’s Reach, it has a much more techy set of upsides, being instant speed, leaving an enchantment behind, and having an on-demand Scry effect for later. One of the big downfalls of ramp is in the lategame, where an extra land or two just adds to the pile, or worse, when all the basics are played, ramp does nothing at all. Having some techy upside can go a long way.
Banishing Light is a reprint, so nothing too exciting here. This is one of many cards that answers a nonland permanent of any kind, and the utility of those cards cannot be denied. I’m glad to have this in good supply, and hope newer players pick up stuff like this to deal with the many different threats you can see in Commander.
Underworld Dreams is also a reprint, from all the way back in Legends. For a very long time, this was the only card in Magic that punished opponents for drawing a lot of cards. It has since been joined by many others, and the effect is very strong. Some decks need to deal with this or it will kill them. It’s a great answer to those Simic decks that just draw and draw and draw, though those decks typically have answers for stuff like this. Underworld Dreams is a great card, though, and will do a ton of work over a short period. It also really helps black Devotion. Very welcome at uncommon.
Here we have the next sexy bling for your deck. These new basics are super-pretty, and I imagine they’ll be big time money in foil. I love full-art basics because I do play stuff that finds them, and having them stick out from the rest of the cards in your deck makes it easy. As much as I love full-art basics, I hope we aren’t saturated with them, and they become less and less special. These are a good new direction, and I’m excited to get some! Can I complain a bit? Just a bit? Once again, the ‘Island’ is clearly not an island. Wizards…!
Later the same day as the leak, the MTG Mothership published this release, a breakdown of the Commander stuff planned for 2020. It’s a doozy, and I want to touch on each of the elements of the post.
General thoughts on Commander by the MTG brass – To read between the lines, here’s what they’re saying: ‘we understand that Commander is the best thing in MTG right now. It’s fun, it attracts new players, and we don’t really control it or really get it. We want to monetize it, but the purchasing isn’t unified in a way that benefits us, so we’re going to try hard to get your money by upping the reprint value (implied) and pumping out Commander product like crazy. We also completely missed the fact that new players gravitate towards Commander because Standard sucks and the other formats are too expensive, and we’re chalking it up to some complexity thing. We’re also pretty much done with Brawl.’
I’m not so optimistic about this. As much as I love new Commander product, I think one of the best things about Commander is how it doesn’t need new Commander product at all, ever. We can derive our game from the regular releases, like the old days. Recent design mistakes concern me the most. Hogaak, Oko, Field of the Dead, and even K’rrik, Son of Yawgmoth, Greven, Predator Captain and Chulane, Teller of Tales are not healthy. Urza and Emry, too. It’s a long list, and when the cards don’t have to pass through Standard to balance them out, all bets are off. I’m anticipating Wizards makes some bad mistakes this year. Commander doesn’t need powerful cards designed for the format. We find cards that are good in Commander in other sets. We’re likely to see the same sort of creep in power that’s plaguing all the other formats, and might even have to make another competitive/casual rules split to get rid of all the unfun powerful quick-kill decks. Also, RIP Brawl. Your mana sucked, and that’s why you died.
One section of the post about new players really drives me crazy. These two paragraphs show how they don’t really have the temperature of the Commander playerbase, and are confused in general:
“For a long time, we had considered the format an anathema to new players, full of complex interactions, every single mechanic, and tons of cards to keep track of. I mean, somebody could even cast a card with banding! We have generally tried to point new players to other places.
However, as it turns out, realistically, that’s not how Magic works. You start playing, and you want to play with your friends. So, of course you’re going to pick up whatever they’re doing. Telling someone, “You want to play with us? Great—go play for about three months and then come back once you’ve learned what phasing is,” just isn’t how it tends to actually go down in reality.”
The second paragraph makes little sense. I think what he’s trying to say is that your friends probably aren’t mean, and will help you learn, but the whole thing comes across really condescending. If they thought exclusion via Phasing was an issue, they’re only about 20 years too late. We have the internet now, and things like Phasing and Banding don’t have to be scary words. In fact, if Wizards, the company that designed Banding in the first place, would put their development team onto developing a concise explanation for Banding (which really isn’t all that complicated, you just have to use colloquial language alongside the legalese quagmire we currently have) this wouldn’t be a problem. It’s strange to me that Wizards thinks the best qualities of their game would be ‘anathema’ to new players. Complexity and 25 years of interactions are a big draw, not landing the fastest Oko and Elking the hell out of everything. And the new player in the example has multiple friends that already play Commander, which is an interesting way to shape an example case.
I’d like to mention that Wizards notably brought in Sheldon Menery, who is one of the originators of the Commander Format, a member of the Commander Rules Committee that decides how we play, and a Hall of Fame MTG Judge. He was in on the new product, at least for approval basis. I’m concerned here because I’m afraid they’re using his cache more as a sales tactic than anything to do with design. Second, I love Sheldon Menery’s work, but I find he casts Skyshroud Claim and grabs a Tropical Island and a Bayou, and that’s not the reality of the average Commander player. I find the Rules Committee to be very insular, and have a shared perspective of long-time play and always having all the cards. Players like these can underestimate a card’s impact because their deck runs 25 years of Magic’s most powerful answers, always cast on time due to perfect Fetchland and OG Dual mana, and nobody in their specific meta is going all-in on abusing it.
Ikoria Commander Decks – Instead of a late summer or fall release for C20, we’re getting them at the same time as Ikoria, the behemoth/monster masher set due in late April. There will be 5, not 4, and there will be an attempt to unify the set’s mechanics with the Commander decks, resulting in expanded play and proper scaling. There will be 71 new cards, and a host of reprints. They are replacing Planeswalker decks for this release.
While the aspect of this that matches up the mechanics for expanded Standard-to-Commander scaling is great, I’m not happy about the release timing. For starters, new releases and spoilers are one of the biggest things that keep me interested in Magic. Lump them all together and there’s less of that anticipation. Wizards could easily have made Ikoria stand by itself, and then give us a later in the summer top-up of the Commander decks, which would infuse fresh interest in a set that was probably solved for Standard in the first weekend.
Zendikar Rising Commander Decks – There will be 2 supplemental Commander decks released at the same time as Zendikar Rising. There will only be 3 new cards per deck, and the rest reprints. No Planeswalker decks for this release either.
These decks are either going to have a few chase reprints, or have little to no value at all. I’m concerned about this as their ‘on-ramp’ for Commander players, because people aren’t stupid, and if they realize they’ve paid $40+ for a box of bulk reprints and 3 new cards, that can do a lot of damage to their faith in Wizards. If there are chase cards like Arcane Signet, there could be a buyout, and then no on-ramp as intended. The product sells, which is good for Wizards, but it’s to a demographic that preys on the less healthy aspects of the game. What is good, is that they claim the packaging might look more like Brawl (and maybe have less plastic involved). This could also have been a staggered release with Zendikar.
Commander Collection: Green – 8 reprints, one box. You can buy them all in foil or not. New art for all.
This is the same idea as Signature Spellbooks, and will likely have a high price tag for a bunch of cards that will probably tank a bit from being overprinted. New artwork or not. I hope everyone wins one of these at Commander Challenge, but I’d hesitate to buy one. Given that they’re Commander staples, the price of the individual cards would probably be low unless there’s something like Doubling Season in there. Doubtful, but you never know. Parallel Lives, maybe, Avenger of Zendikar, probably, 4 commons/uncommons at least, I’d count on it. Beast Within should be there. Sylvan Library? A nice dream. It would be really hilarious if they try to shoehorn a Modern staple in there to move the product, and would be ROFL terrible if that staple was Primeval Titan (banned in Commander).
Commander Legends – A draft set for Commander. 20 card packs with a foil and 2 legendaries. 70 new Legends. Plus Commander decks.
I think this is too much. I have a Commander Cube, but the thought of drafting a Commander deck for a one-time use in a live setting gives me pause. I’m a rare-drafter, which means I cannot afford to buy packs of Magic the Gathering and not take the most valuable or powerful card in them, even if it doesn’t help my strategy. My draft may go badly, but I now have those cards for all kinds of potential use. I’m concerned about the viability of building decks at all from this pool, let alone playable, good decks. In order for this to have properly scaled cards, we’re looking at some insane balance to maintain, and Wizards doesn’t do balance well. As long as they have draft environments that contain cards like Oko and Questing Beast, all the arguments for how they needed a red 2 drop to fill out the curve or whatever are a bunch of crap. If you get the obnoxious bomb, and there’s no immediate removal response, you win. Planeswalkers are the worst for this in limited environs, as they often require multiple removal sources to get rid of, and Wizards hates loading up Limited with removal. I anticipate mistakes. 70 new Legends? That’s too much. They’re guaranteeing mistakes and bad ones. Look at the variance in the uncommon knights in Eldraine and ask yourself if they have 70 Legends worth of balanced design space. Hopefully a few of them don’t derail the entire set. Which would be a huge problem, because this is going to be expensive. 20 card packs with guaranteed foils make for $30-50 drafts. Would you do it if you knew Derevi was one of the possible Commanders? Animar? Chulane? Something worse than those? Or worse in the unplayable sense? What percentage of unplayable Commanders would you tolerate gambling on? I think this Commander Legends is mostly going to be opened for chase cards, and less drafted, but that’s just me. The logistics of the lands involved are a bit of a head-scratcher, too. How big are these decks? Does the LGS have to provide 30-40 lands per player? Will the set suffer from bad mana, like Brawl, making only a few strategies viable? Likely!
I’m sorry to be cynical about all this, but I feel like we’re being told one thing, and the reality is another. ‘Putting the spotlight on Commander that it deserves’ is a nice sentiment, but when it means milking that cow for as much as they can, as fast as they can, with a demonstrated history of egregious, recent design mistakes, I’m really concerned. Commander as we know it depends on the social contract of people not playing the most degenerate thing possible, and having fun. The more mistakes in power level are out there, and the more Wizards tries to make OP chase cards to sell the product associated with the format, the more difficult that will be.
Thanks for reading.