Commander Legends has begun spoiling its cards, and with them an entirely new dimension in deckbuilding has emerged. I have some reactions to the set, the design, and the problems that I think it’s going to cause, but I’ll start with the good stuff. Welcome to the newest, craziest, hardest-of-the-hardcore deckbuilding experience Magic has seen yet. Welcome to the Rainbow!
This is new common Legend The Prismatic Piper. At face, it’s a mechanical necessity for the draft set, allowing players to make sure they can play the colour(s) they want, even if they didn’t draft an appropriate legend. It partners with any existing partner to simply add a colour…. Add a colour…. Add a colour! …Add all the colours!!!
Imagine this scenario: you love partner Legend Kraum, Ludevic’s Opus. In this scenario, you’re apparently me. Kraum is awesome. You would play 5 flavours of Kraum if you could. Well, with the Prismatic Piper, a D6 and some ingenuity, you can build a 75 card Kraum ‘base’ and 3 different add-on packages, one in each additional colour. Before every game, you’d roll the D6 to determine which colour package would be added for the game, and slot it in.
You could also do the same with a full slate of entirely different Kraum decks, each one building around Kraum plus a colour (and one just red/blue), again determined by dice roll, (which you could skip, too, and just decide). I’m sure there are plenty more ways to do this as well. For single colour Commanders, this could mean 5 add-on packages/decks, or even 6 if you wanted to do a mono base and one that skews heavily towards colourless. Hard core. Like the best rainbows, the sky’s the limit.
The amazing thing is that this works for what will be a partner count over 50. And the odd thing is that this will put individual partners in the spotlight. It can be a fun thing to do with your favourite partner commander, or a rigorous testing exercise to find the best support colour for your primary weaponry. It’s wild, a whole new blank canvas to paint on. I’m definitely going to try out multiflavour Kraum, because a two-headed flying Zombie that draws that many cards is just too much fun.
When the set drops, you will also be able to choose any number of new partners for Kraum, and build decks around each of those pairings. There will be a scary amount of combinations, and that brings me to my thoughts on the upcoming cards.
With 70+ Legendary creatures in the set, I’m concerned. The last time we saw a huge concentration of a definitive card type like this, we got War of the Spark. We can talk all day about what Teferis and Narsets and such are broken beyond belief, but War of the Spark had some more insidious effects as well that I see carrying over into Commander Legends.
War of the Spark cemented the 3 mana planeswalker as the benchmark for playable. 4 mana and above better win the game, or get you there in a hurry, like Nissa who Shakes the World and Ugin the Spirit Dragon. It also set the benchmark for what CMC of planeswalker design will push. Wrenn and Six and Oko followed soon after. Now we have to be on the alert for extremely broken 2 and 3 mana plays in the planeswalker sector, instead of knowing that the CMC will provide an inherent balance.
This is seldom a problem in Commander, but if there’s a huge swath of broken 2 and 3 CMC Commanders, it demands a reaction from the rest of the global meta, either to consider them cEDH cards, ban them, or have to adjust deckbuilding towards low CMC removal and interaction, and slowly but surely homogenize the format into a small archipelago of playable tropes… and the kitchen table crowd, who steadfastly refuse to win the game as fast as possible. Like all the competitive formats.
Let’s talk about broken cards. The FIRE design team does not inspire confidence during spoiler season. 70 legends is a huge number. I expect 5-25% of them to be completely unplayable. Most of the white ones, especially. I also expect 5-25% of them, mostly the blue, green, black and simic ones, to be broken in ways that make the format unhealthy and unfun, and would require too many bannings and such to address. I really hope I’m wrong, but FIRE design’s job is to sell cards, not keep a delicate balance. They aren’t given enough time for that balance.
Part of the issue here is combinations. We are getting so many partners, that not only are some of them likely to be broken, but all sorts of combinations may be also. Even the Piper could be an issue if some simic deck just needed a handful of black tutor cards to become a sleek evil engine of turn 1 victories.
Does anybody really even know what’s behind Commander design philosophy anyway? In previous years we didn’t have to think about it, because Commander got cards through Standard like everyone else. We got to sift through the forgotten 5-7 drops for the ones with crazy power, and the cheaper stuff for multiplayer scalability. Now we get huge dumps of cards regularly. Standard and other formats are pretty defined as far as goals. Deal 20 to one opponent. Maybe mill them out. That gives design a pretty strong place to start for each colour. In Commander, the goals widen and become less definite. And there are no weekly tables of results to show us that such and such card has an unhealthy market share, or that a certain kind of play pattern is toxic.
A dangerous place that design has gone into recently is ‘triple.’ Triple mana, triple damage. Is triple healthy? Are we cool with getting into multipliers like that, or is just assumed that Commander will figure it out? Does that math work within the framework of the game, or is it yet another slippery slope? Would Tripling Season be a problem or just an overcosted win-more? I’m sure we’ll find out, because there’s basically no accountability to card design in Commander other than what the Rules Committee deems unsuitable. The RC is fine, but they move slow, they don’t like change, and they’re all entrenched players who haven’t been fresh to a table with a new pile of cards in forever, only to be soundly trounced by an experienced player packing fetches, tutors and cards that hardly belong in a format that has no stake.
Personally I wish design would leave Commander alone and focus on trying to get Standard right. Stop trying to ‘fix white’ and instead take a good, hard look at the bigger acceleration issues the game has. Cards like Keeper of the Accord and the endless parade of ‘we’re trying to give white some ramp’ just fall flat when the rest of the colour doesn’t do much, and it’s outclassed by a dozen green commons anyway. Design has no problem pushing out heaps of green and blue stuff with every release that draw cards and ramp easily. The best white can do is play catch up with stuff like Keeper of the Accord, and then watch it die in a boardwipe. If you’re ahead, or at par with opponents, it can’t even push you further. If I’m playing mono-white, I’m probably looking at Thran Dynamo over this as CMC 4 ramp because white is the colour of boardwipes, and if I’m playing a couple of colours, having enough basic Plains to make it worthwhile seems like a stretch.
Another thing that’s a weird side-effect of Commander releases, and something we saw from War of the Spark, Eldraine and Modern Horizons, is how design mistakes can mess with the older formats as well. Commander cards are legal in Legacy/Vintage/Pauper. These are formats that have relied on the refracting lens of Standard, and minimal disruption from supplements, for years. There is a longstanding notion that part of the appeal of Vintage/Legacy is lack of upheaval. And there is a sort-of understood thing about Pauper that ties the format to pack rarity. Both benefit from cards having to go through Standard. Shaking up formats like these and possibly creating chase cards can be annoying, though at least they’re in packs, and not in precons.
One last thing I want to touch on is the draft nature of the set. I think drafting is fun, and cubes are fun, and the idea of a Commander draft is a good one. However, I have drafted a lot, and have seen good, bad, clunky, too fast, too slow, and all sorts of other environments. What brings them all down are cards like Planeswalkers, or pushed cards like Questing Beast, that far outstrip a lot of what’s available to stop them. It’s great to open those cards, but can torpedo your whole draft to sit across from them. That’s no issue when you’re a content creator with boxes of product sent from the sponsor, or a streamer who makes money from drafting while others watch, or even someone who does their drafting from a cube. But for the players looking to invest some money into a friday night experience, I’m concerned this is going to be feast or famine on a whole new level. There are a lot of things that have to go right for a Commander deck to be playable, and it’s likely that at the end of that uphill climb is an opponent who hit the draft jackpot. Sitting across from an opponent who drafted a pair of great, low CMC partners is going to look like the worst of the companion days if you didn’t do as well. I hope design understands that the removal has got to be up to more than adding commander tax at the cost of a card.
That’s draft, of course, but packs cost money, and games take time. Like many sets, I’m going to sit back and cherrypick singles. Maybe get to work on Kraum’s Rainbow. We have until November 6th to scrutinize, theorycraft, brew, build, etc with this new set, long before we can get the cards, and I’m sure I’ll be doing plenty of that here. At the very least, it promises to be an interesting ride. If a simple common like The Prismatic Piper can be so influential, who knows what the rest of the set is going to bring.
Oh and Zendikar? There’s Zendikar, right? Coming soon? Never a dull moment. Thanks for reading!