In last month’s article I exhumed and dissected a professional mono-black zombies deck in the Standard format. The reason I chose that specific deck was to demonstrate the critical importance of synergy in Magic: the Gathering. No longer is it wise to stack together your forty favorite cards plus lands and expect to be competitive. Zombie decks also show how to use your graveyard as a source of card advantage.
Wizards of the Coast has leveraged synergy for a long time and in a variety of ways, giving players limitless options for their favorite deck archetype. As the game has taken on more of a story-like quality, with new planes of existence finding flesh in print far beyond flavor text, the design teams have necessarily operated within a frame of continuity, cohesion, and synergy for the Standard format. Mono-black zombies is just one example of a tribal deck, referring to the card subtype. My first article in this series offered a soldiers deck, which was also a humans deck, both popular tribal subtypes.
With the August release of Commander 2017 we get further acknowledgment from WOTC that tribal decks are the present and future direction of Magic from both a card synergy and storytelling standpoint. Dragons, Vampires, Wizards, and Cats all get the 100-card treatment as pre-constructed decks.
Before digging into these decks it’s helpful to know what’s unique about the Commander format. First and foremost, a deck must contain exactly 100 cards and include either a planeswalker or legendary creature as its “commander.” The commander is not part of the main deck; it resides in a “command zone” until cast, and if it leaves the battlefield for any reason it can return to the command zone where it can be cast again for its converted mana cost (CMC) plus two colorless mana for each time it has been cast beyond the first. Also, every card in the deck must either be colorless or contain only mana colors which are included on your commander, referred to as “color identity.”
Second, a commander deck can contain only one of any card except for basic lands. This is a genius mechanic, as it lets you play a lot of quality cards while rewarding smart deckbuilding. Commander games tend to last much longer than the conventional formats, allowing for larger mana bases and more powerful creatures and spells. These pre-constructed decks include spells as costly as nine CMC, but with a typical game lasting ten to twenty turns you will get a chance to play those big spells that would otherwise be impractical in a sixty card deck.
Finally, each player starts with 40 life instead of 20, but if you take at least twenty-one combat damage from any single commander, you lose.
You may be thinking, “That’s a lot of numbers, Rain Man. Commander doesn’t sound like fun if I can only put one of any card in my deck. How do I create synergy and build combos?” The beauty of Commander is that is allows almost as many cards as Vintage, meaning you can play all those great old cards along with the new powerful commanders! There is a banned card list, so be sure to check that before you go to your first tournament.
Let’s look at the legendary creatures and spells offered in each of the available pre-constructed decks.
No pussy-footing around, Feline Ferocity is an aggressive build. Being only two-color simplifies your mana strategy and makes it easier to put creatures on the battlefield. Arahbo, Roar of the World is a commander whose ability is active from the command zone, meaning it creates value from turn one and you never need to cast it. The rock-star of this deck is Kemba, Kha Regent, who can create an army all by herself once you have equipment cards in play. You may be tempted to use Nazahn, Revered Bladesmith as your commander to fetch Hammer of Nazahn out of your library and attach it to Kemba to swell your pride. For those of you that think the Kemba card art is an offensive objectification of the female body, you’re right! You may find solace in this excellent blog post: pseudonewbmtg.blogspot.com.
Edgar Markov is powerful even without casting him. From the command zone he gives you a free 1/1 Vampire creature token every time you cast another vampire. Combine that with his triggered ability and Door of Destinies and you have a potent and cheap army that can immediately overwhelm your opponents. Many cards in this deck will cause you to lose or gain life, and if you play it right you can put Licia, Sanguine Tribune onto the battlefield for just 3 CMC and make him a 7/7. By the time he is able to attack he could be a 10/10 with first strike and lifelink! Equip him with Blade of the Bloodchief and this creature will bleed your opponents dry. Mon Dieu! Having black mana in his color identity makes him less susceptible to creature removal.
Five-color decks can be difficult to pilot but the power of such spells is typically great. Such is the tradeoff when playing Dragon tribal. Scion of the Ur-Dragon is a well-established commander in the format so when WOTC decided to do Dragons for Commander 2017 they needed to go huge and create one of the most powerful creatures in the history of Magic. The Ur-Dragon does everything you could want; it makes other creature spells cheaper, gives you huge card advantage, spawns any permanent for free, is 10/10 and has flying. The watercolor art gives a sense of magnitude. The only drawback is that it is not indestructible, so it dies instantly to a 2 CMC Go for the Throat or Terminate. C’est la vie! You can always cast it again on your next turn. With Ramos, Dragon Engine, once you reach the five-counter threshold to generate ten mana you should be able to cast your hand every other turn. Au revoir, Pierre!
Inalla, Archmage Ritualist is cool but in reality there are very few wizard creatures with activated abilities you will benefit from having haste. Her second ability has a high cost commitment and the seven damage does not count toward commander combat damage. The best creature in this deck, and perhaps the best creature in the entire set, is Kess, Dissident Mage. This card is insanely good. Being able to cast all of your instants or sorceries twice and treating your graveyard as an extension of your hand is almost broken. By turn nine you could cast Clone Legion and copy all of an opponent’s creatures, then do it again next turn! Add a variety of counter-magic and creature removal and have those spells at your disposal at will and ad nauseam. Mairsil, the Pretender could do exactly the same thing if you allow Kess to hit your graveyard and then exile her using his ability. Abracadabra, you win!
So which deck should you buy if you could only afford one? That depends completely on your play style. I see Wizards and Vampires as the most versatile but complex. Dragons is incredibly powerful but the mana requirements are difficult to manage. Cats is the most straightforward and reliable. The thing with any of these decks is that they are only a pre-constructed framework. You are free to substitute almost any card which adheres to the commander color profile. I bought Vampires and Wizards because many of the cards are interchangeable and I like the versatility of those tribes.
No matter which deck you buy, all of them come with a copy of the best card in the history of Magic: Sol Ring! I’m not joking! Sol Ring is the best Magic card ever printed! You know I’m right because all of these sentences end in exclamation points! One colorless mana gets you two colorless mana immediately and then every turn for as long as it remains in play – that’s insane! If Sol Ring had only ever been printed in Alpha, Beta, and Revised, it would be a thousand-dollar card. That’s how awesome it is! Luckily for everyone, WOTC has generously decided that Sol Ring is a card everyone should have access to, but they limited its usefulness by making it restricted in Vintage and Commander. But who cares? In those formats it is a great card and every Commander deck needs a copy.
Another good reason to buy Vampires or Wizards is that they play well with this fall’s new card set: Ixalan. Prerelease events are still a week away but we’ve seen about half of the cards from the set. The new tribes are pirates and dinosaurs. We’re also getting a healthy infusion of vampires, wizards, and Merfolk.
Some people on social media think pirates and dinosaurs are gimmicky or childish, but so what? Why can’t this game be accessible to young players? And it’s not like the mechanics are dumbed down. I think the idea of treasure counters is fun and evocative and thematically strong. I’m not as high on dinosaurs but we’re seeing a couple very powerful cards that have the potential to make a splash in the Standard format, which is suddenly desperate for reasons not to play mono red.
Seriously, half the top-8 decks right now on the tournament circuit are mono-red aggro and the rest are decks designed to try to beat mono-red aggro. Ixalan does not significantly improve existing Standard decklists for mono-red players and that is a good thing.
There is an important rule change accompanying Ixalan: planeswalkers will be delineated with the “Legendary” supertype, making available multiple non-legendary planeswalkers of the same name on your side of the battlefield. Previously, all planeswalkers behaved as if they were legendary. This is hugely impactful if you’re playing Gideon of the Trials, who can be cashed in for his ultimate ability the same turn he is cast. That emblem makes it impossible for you to lose the game as long as you control a Gideon planeswalker. Pair that with one or more Gideon, Martial Paragon and a few chump blockers and you may hear your opponent say, Bon sang!