Hello out there, Commander players! Today I’m covering a card that is one of the all-time great answers. What’s the question? Well, it could be asking what your perspective on a hero is. Today it might be a Nurse or Doctor, or the person who stocked your grocery store shelves this morning. It could be the person who brought food to you, or called you when you were feeling like crap, or created something that made a bad time more bearable. We’re a long way from classic heroes, like Heracles, who went out looking for monsters to punch and filthy stables to clean. Those heroes are more in line with what Magic does, and it’s fun to play in that world, where your problems can be solved by casting a removal spell on a Dragon. But even in the fantastical, your conquering hero might be my invading subjugator. In Commander, this is even more so, as your champion is likely my nemesis. The question is perspective. Like I said, there’s an answer.
Hero’s Downfall is the quintessential black spot removal spell, and the evolution of Terror. Not the emotion, the card. It comes originally from Alpha/Beta/Unlimited, and has one of the most iconic and scariest Magic art pieces ever printed on a card.
In the early days of keyword soup, which I guess would be primordial soup, a term emerged for when a spell killed a creature so thoroughly, it couldn’t be regenerated. The term is ‘buried’ and was added with the Revised Edition.
We know better now, and regeneration has been mostly scrubbed from the game as a cumbersome and confusing mechanic. And that means we don’t really need ‘buried’ any more either. Terror was solid, but useless in the mirror, and against the odd artifact creature deck. I say odd because artifact creatures in early Magic were a sad bunch. But being conditional held Terror back. Many less efficient black removal spells were printed over the next dozen years, until finally in M10, Magic got a new piece of removal to define black decks.
I didn’t play in this era, but I’m quite familiar with the phrase ‘dies to Doom Blade.’ That means a creature had to do more than simply appear and get hit with removal to be a big player in constructed formats. Things like haste, ETB effects, death triggers, hexproof, activated abilities, and the like began to the norm for competitive creatures, and being big and cheap was no longer that big a deal. The inability to kill opposing black creatures was still a major drawback, but as fetchlands, fastlands and shocklands improved the mana, players could turn to Grixis or Esper control builds and compensate with removal from other colours. A similar spell, Go for the Throat, appeared in Mirrodin Besieged.
Ultimate Price, yet another variant, came in Return to Ravnica. But every one of these alternatives to Doom Blade were just alternatives. They saw play, to be sure, but conditional was still the biggest hurdle.
In M13, we got another evolution, one that was immediately adopted in Standard, and has been played to some degree whenever it has been printed for that format.
While it takes an extra B, Murder is a clean answer. As long as the creature can be targeted, it dies. It’s really important to note that the card is instant speed. The same card at 1B and sorcery speed would be useful, but probably not as much as Murder here. It might be adopted in tap-out aggro decks, if those are supported by the format, but most control builds like to hold up their removal until absolutely necessary, and that means instant speed.
It wasn’t long, less than a year, before Theros arrived and delivered Hero’s Downfall, today’s Staple. We can immediately see that it’s a straight upgrade on Murder, doing everything that spell does for the same cost, but adding another dimension: the ability to kill a Planeswalker instead. At instant speed, this can be game-saving. Though the same is true of creatures. Hero’s Downfall is certainly capable of being a game saver. There are a few cards printed after it that I also want to highlight and compare.
Fatal Push is what black removal looks like in the competitive scenes of Modern, and even Legacy and Vintage occasionally. At a single mana, the cost is unrivaled, but the drawbacks are tough to swallow unless the format is full of creatures at 2 CMC or less, or they are mostly 4 CMC or less and you have an easy revolt source, like fetchlands. Well, that fits Modern, Legacy and Vintage almost perfectly. Those fetchlands, and their shocking friends enable Fatal Push players to add things like Lightning Bolt, Path to Exile, Assassin’s Trophy, and such to their decks to take care of what won’t be pushed.
There’s another black removal spell that effectively costs 1 mana, and is played in Modern and older 60 cards formats, and that’s Dismember. It’s rarely cast with any black mana at all, with players taking the hit for 4. It goes in colourless decks with few removal options, and some others that can make black mana too. Like Fatal Push, it is played because it kills a big enough percentage of these formats’ relevant creatures. These spells kill a significantly lower percent of the creatures in Commander, and are not recommended for play in that format.
Battle for Zendikar’s Ruinous Path barely made a dint in Standard, and has almost vanished since, despite being a potential 2 for 1. Sad, because it was the buy-a-box promo.
Also rarely played, even in a Standard where Zombies won big, is Never//Return. Even with an additional spell tacked on, these cards show why instant speed is often a make or break. Never//Return remains a decent option for Commander decks that want the zombie token, and for decks that like high CMCs, like Yuriko, the Tiger’s Shadow decks.
On the other hand, Vraska’s Contempt was heavily played during its Standard legality. There’s a lot to be said for exile, and the 2 life helps a lot against aggro, and is a real bonus. But we’re looking at a 4 CMC spell. Slightly tougher to get the mana for it, and much tougher to hold it up and still play cards with some kind of tempo.
Throne of Eldraine brought us what some might consider a straight upgrade on Hero’s Downfall in Murderous Rider. The Adventure spell Swift End is very very close to being Hero’s Downfall, and the added bonus of the zombie knight is something to consider. I will concede that decks that can use the zombie knight for more than a 2/3 lifelink body will take this as an upgrade, but the benefits are not as cut and dried as it might seem.
First off, Murderous Rider never wants to be in the graveyard. Swift End goes to exile, and the Rider goes back to the library upon death. Meaning creature and spell recursion/reanimation are both off the table unless you self mill. Zombies often want to reanimate for value. It’s frustrating to not be able to do it with Murderous Rider. It also can’t be delve or escape fuel, which is niche, but not irrelevant.
The 2/3 zombie knight seems like a good deal as an add-on, but in Commander, the chances of that creature being much more than a chump blocker are slim. It’s also not really a good creature for 1BB without some tribal synergy. Whether you get in a single attack or block with the 2/3 lifelinker, your gain back the life you lost casting Swift End. If the chump saves you from greater damage, or the attack is part of a lethal sequence, great, but if the creature does nothing or is killed outside of combat without the opponent spending extra resources, you might just end up down 2 life. While Murderous Rider has a lot to unpack, Hero’s Downfall remains simple and clean and straightforward. You can definitely just play both.
What Hero’s Downfall isn’t is spicy. The play you make with it might be, however. There are a few reasons to not play it, including the wider and wider range of powerful sweeper options. Black has the ability to kill everything with one card, which addresses the popular Commander go-wide and hexproof voltron strategies. Other colours do even better with that, and have some great single-target removal of their own. You may rely on cards like Maze of Ith for problematic single targets, or cards like Propaganda to deter attackers from even coming your way at all. But opposing Heroes do more than attack, and the Maze can’t target a Hero with an equip trigger from Swiftfoot Boots on the stack. Sometimes packing a kill spell or two is still the answer.
I’ve covered a lot of Staples recently that were cheap and abundant and printed often. This is not one of those. Hero’s Downfall needs a reprint badly. It has only been in Theros, and as an FNM promo foil. Non foils are around $5, and foils can start there and go to $15 or so. As much as I advocate playing it, paying for it is another matter. Murderous Rider is still standard-legal for a while, and isn’t cheap either. Murder is a totally viable budget substitute, and Vraska’s Contempt is only a dollar or two. Both Ruinous Path and Never//Return are way under a dollar. I didn’t talk about the two Rakdos variants in Dreadbore and Bedevil, but if you can also make red mana, those will do. Dreadbore costs RB, but is a sorcery. Bedevil is an instant, and also kills artifacts, but it costs BBR. All are worth looking at, just in case you want to play more than a few of them. If and when the Downfall is reprinted, make sure you grab a cheap copy. You won’t regret it.
In summation, one person’s hero can be another’s villain, and playing a card like Hero’s Downfall, which has inherent villainous narrative qualities, becomes a heroic act. From a certain point of view. If the card had the name Hero’s Triumph, but did all the same things, would it be different? While you can question the nature of heroes, it’s what they do that counts. My heroes these days aren’t glamorous and chic. They go to work with a mask on, and some are actively risking their lives to bring others convenience. I write about Commander Staples, but they’re just a bunch of paper without Life Staples. Thanks to those brave people, I can write about Hero’s Downfall as a card, as a concept, and as a commodity, instead of a tragedy. Thanks for reading!
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