Happy September! In previous years, we’d be inundated with three little words that make advertisers glow and children quake. For parents and teachers, those words essentially begin the year, and are often a quake/glow mixture. I’m talking of course about ‘Back to School.’
But this year is different, and many people are going to be taking alternate approaches, some still to be determined. It’s a tumultuous time, and while I don’t mean to make light of it, here’s a list of cards that are everything you want from Back to School: they’re cheap, they’re seasonal, and they’re fun.
For you parents, games like Magic are a great way to show the payoff of all the math your kids will be slogging through. I found Magic inspiring from both a writing and artistic standpoint, too. You never know what kind of things will inspire a growing mind, or where it will choose to apply itself. They grow up so fast, or something. So yeah… cards. All prices are based on TCGPlayer.com. I try to be a little indefinite with prices to account for fluctuations, differing economies and available supply by area.
1. Edge of Autumn is where we are! I like summer myself, so this card is a bittersweet play. There are times it will clog your hand, neither able to ramp, or without an expendable land to sacrifice, but it offers a lot more strategic flexibility than Rampant Growth, particularly for Commanders like The Gitrog Monster. This year’s Autumn set is a landfall set, so cards like this bear watching. While this is around a dollar, making it a bit expensive for a budget list, less-than-perfect copies can be had for less. The Future Sight version with the futuristic framing is actually cheaper than the alternative. Honourable mention to Autumn Willow, that rare Reserved List card available for under a dollar.
2. Teneb, the Harvester is a terrific Commander option for the season. While not really a school card, Teneb can instead bring up things like 4H Clubs and the many kids who will spend a portion of their upcoming year’s learning in a home garden. As only a 6/6 flying, reanimating dragon can. Eat your vegetables, kids! Teneb is also in the dollar-ish range, but has a few printings and a ton of copies available. Finding an even cheaper one should be easy. While there are tons of Harvest cards in green, and some ‘dark harvest’ cards in black, they’re mostly well-known rampers or reanimators. Instead, I’ll throw the honourable mention to Dross Harvester.
3. Road of Return brings to mind that September Morning when it’s finally time to trudge back to School, taking the uphill route that’s also uphill on the way back. Some parents like to entwine their hand with their little one’s for the trip. As a card, Road of Return is a super-flexible option that does most of what a solid recursion spell does (permanents only, sadly) but adds on the ability to get past Commander tax. This can be a huge deal for Commanders that are either big targets, die often, or are natively expensive to cast, like Teneb, the Harvester. At under fifty cents, RoR is definitely worth adding to the collection. Honourable mention goes to Dread Return, pictured way above. We all have to make sacrifices, but sometimes you get a big ole beater out of it for your troubles. Sounds like parenting.
4. Bag of Holding could be the perfect accessory for the fall semester. A cool new backpack is the thing for all your stuff, especially those forgotten gym socks at the very bottom that will make their presence known sometime in October. For the many Magic decks that don’t do much with their graveyards, this is a powerful looting and recursion machine that has little downside if it is destroyed. It can enable a discard concept, too, but with an element of danger. Decks that struggle to draw cards should look at this and the extremely friendly casting cost. Then check out the price. Maybe fifty cents, depending on how particular you are. Even foils are fairly cheap. Honourable mention goes to Druidic Satchel, for the homeschoolers who live in the woods, or wish they did.
5. Folio of Fancies is a pretty well known card, I think. It’s that weird combo of group- hug style effects with a serious game-winning threat, using mill. Right? In terms of raw mana-to-mill ratio, this is possibly the best mill outlet ever. There are plenty of ways to break the symmetry of the hand size and card-draw aspects, too. Like a good schoolbook, this rewards you for the effort you put into it, researching and figuring out how to use this powerful tool. At about fifty cents, it’s an easy add to the collection, just like the cheap CMC to get it into play. Honourable mention to Illuminated Folio, which costs 5 to cast, but draws a card for 1 mana, tap, and reveal 2 cards from hand that share a colour. Not terrible. And very inexpensive.
6. Rayne, Academy Chancellor is the list’s PTA representative. Her husband Barrin helped run the Tolarian Academy with her, and she’s the mother of star student Hanna, who rolled with the Weatherlight kids back in the day. The whole family is a great source of good cards, and Barrin even has a Core 2021 printing that’s getting some play. Terrific flavour text. While individually targeted spells aren’t as much of a thing in Commander as in other formats, Rayne’s ability to also draw on abilities is excellent. Plus a janky reward for using auras! Spectral Cloak anyone? What’s not to love here? How about the price, which is around a dollar, and less for less-than-mint? Honourable mention to Nephalia Academy, which is a bit of a meta choice, but a solid colourless utility land that kinda sounds like ‘no failure’ academy if you garble it right.
7. Book of Rass is a great way to draw cards, especially when you’ve got few other options and have gained a lot of life. Looking at you, white decks. I mean, I don’t know how you’ll ever get to six mana to cast this thing, but…. All kidding aside, this is actually a pretty great late game mana sink, which is often when you need a hand refill. It’s not so far off the totally playable Greed, and being a book, can make you feel smart, or tall enough to reach the cookie jar. It’s amazing that a card that clearly says ‘1994’ on it can be cheap to buy, but Book of Rass is still a bargain at under a dollar for both the Dark and Chronicles versions. Honourable mentions to Spellbook and a surprisingly large amount of Tomes.
8. Junkyo Bell is here because it’s not just jank, it’s name is almost jank, erring on the side of junk. Like the school bell, you’re going to have to figure out some clever timing to make it work for you. I’d slot it into a deck full of death triggers, like one of the Teysas, or even Elenda, the Dusk Rose. Have one of your schoolyard full of token creatures go tall every turn. It’s also under 25 cents a copy. Ding! Honourable mentions to Temple Bell, which is a little too pricey for this list, Ghoulcaller’s Bell, Village Bell-Ringer, and Zurgo Bellstriker.
I’m not sure what to say about Kormus Bell, except that one time an opponent dropped it with Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth in play. On purpose. I remember nobody really knowing what to do and that player eventually destroying their own bell to alleviate the mass confusion. Ding? I suppose it evokes an image of little learners rising from smelly little bodies of water-and-crud to line up for school. Teachers probably identify with that one. Fourth Edition copies of Kormus Bell can be had for fifty cents or so.
9. Lu Xun, Scholar General stands for all the scholars. Or sits on a horse for them, I guess. As Portal: 3 Kingdoms’ answer to flying, Horsemanship is a delightful, quirky mechanic that should get you a chuckle from the table. If this is your Commander, however, that 1 power will probably be quickly boosted, voltron style, and suddenly an unblockable equestrian will bring the pain. There are a number of creatures that have a similar effect as Lu Xun’s, where damage dealing equals card draw, but this legendary soldier has the best version, where any damage works, not just combat damage. The smart scholar takes full advantage of stuff like this. And pays a low price, which is about 30 cents for the reprints of Lu Xun. The original version is not so cheap, however, but that’s a scarcity thing. Honourable mentions to excellent blink target Scholar of the Ages and solid common Scholar of Athreos, just to get another white card in here somewhere.
10. Brain in a Jar is a pretty low-brow metaphor for school, but we can all identify. While this card never quite got there as the spell version of Aether Vial, it has a ton of utility if you can connect it up to the right stuff. Mirari, maybe? A spell heavy deck that likes to proliferate might like this, but I feel like it’s either one of those cards that fits nicely into a lot of strategies as a quiet enabler, or is just waiting for the right Commander to appear. Any which way, it’s cheap and unique and will have some seasonal play well past Back to School. Copies run as low as a few pennies, so it’s a great card to experiment with. Honourable mention to perpetual cross-format allstar Brainstorm, still cheap due to endless reprints. Other brain cards are a little more of the Appetite for Brains and Brain Maggot variety, and maybe are better for Hallowe’en.
A deeper dive into the theme offers a further wealth of on-theme cards, though not all are useful in any way. There are 3 actual schools, Minamo, School at Water’s Edge, which is not cheap, and School of the Unseen and Wizards’ School, which are barely playable. Other school cards are fish related. There is a banned Tolarian Academy, an expensive Academy Ruins, and a silvered bordered Urza, Academy Headmaster.
There are no desks, and no class (haha), but there is a Suspicious Bookcase. We have Painful Lessons and Tragic Lessons, but only a few cards that want us to learn or Relearn. The two pupils, Budoka and Kumano’s, are quite weak, and I’m not even talking about Evil Eye of Orms-By-Gore or Evil Eye of Urborg.
Our Venerated Teacher only helps level-up counter creatures, and Teacher’s Pet is silver bordered. Would you ever really consider a Grim Tutor or Demonic Tutor in real life? Rhystic Study is expensive, and Careful Study isn’t that interesting. Implement of Examination sounds scary. So many of the ‘read,’ ‘reading’ and ‘reader’ cards are blue, and are far outnumbered by the ‘dread’ cards. There are ‘research’ cards, ‘knowledge’ cards, ‘think’ and ‘idea’ cards, and plenty of library cards for that free period. There’s even a red card that sums it all up in Knowledge and Power.
While this year’s school year is going to be unique, it is my hope that it’s a learning experience for everyone on the planet, even those of us without kids, or any connection to that world. Regardless of what happens, a positive outlook and a commitment to learning will do us all a world of good. So will taking the time to share experiences with those closest to us. Maybe that’s a game, or just a conversation, but it’s an opportunity to connect, learn, and figure out what the next step is. Thanks for reading, make sure you vote, stay safe, and be kind to one another. Your life matters! Black Lives Matter!