Commander Focus: 2020 in Review and What Does 2021 Hold?

An article by    Competitive Play Gaming Magic the Gathering        0

2020 saw an astonishing number of releases of product for Magic: the Gathering, and as Commander is its own essentially eternal format, virtually any release of any cards whatsoever adds the possibility of new cards for the format. And while some of the cards are purely cosmetic (Secret Lair), 2020 was really the first full year of Wizards’ new Commander strategy, putting the format first and foremost. Every set had cards that seemed virtually engineered for Commander, and as such don’t fit well in other formats or are outright only Commander legal. The flagship commander product was moved up in the year and released with Ikoria, planeswalker decks were replaced with more commander decks, commander legends was released in addition to the annual product, as well as Commander collection: Green – obviously the first part of a cycle that should have at least five sets but could have many more (commander collection: artifacts, lands, planeswalkers, enchantments, creatures, instants, sorceries, tribals, tokens, multicolored [or even specific shards/wedges and guilds], or even commander collections focused around specific mechanics such as madness or bushido returning are possbilities). In addition many of the secret lairs seemed somewhat focused on commander; the Walking Dead secret lair contained several possible commander creatures, and other sets featured commander staples such as Assassin’s Trophy.

As a result, 2020 saw the release of a number of highly impactful Commander cards. Opposition Agent, Hullbreacher, Heliod, Fierce Guardianship, Deflecting Swat, Deadly Rollick – are of these virtually all auto-includes for their color identities. Inevitably, Jeweled Lotus is worth talking about, though aside from the price point it should help push some more interesting commanders, but it’s a card that pushes highly uneven, swingy games, where a commander pops out on turn 1 or 2, and if that commander is a value engine the play easily win if they can leverage the early lead.

One of the issues for Wizards with the popularity of Commander must be that commander players are probably most frequently spending their Magic budget on old cards, buying singles rather than shiny new things. It seems clear that Wizards is attempting to change that, with a lot of relevant reprints as well as shiny new things to chase after. Let’s take a look back at the year that was, and talk about what’s to come this year.

 

Credit: Wizards of the Coast

Theros Beyond Death

Thassa’s Oracle and Heliod represent new win conditions, though Thassa sees play in a vast majority of competitive decks due to the simplicity and triggered nature of the effect being difficult to stop. The “enchantments matter” theme, implementation of constellation, and the way the gods worked are all really interesting and well executed mechanics. It was neat to see the return of Flash enchantments and those play well with the constellation theme. And while a lot of the cards are thematically reflective of Greek and Roman myths, many of the cards are difficult to leverage in a singleton environment. Escape is an interesting, somewhat new mechanic, though pretty reminiscent of prior “play from graveyard” abilities, but is mostly relevant in non-singleton formats, Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath in particular has dominated a lot of formats, and both he and Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger, are servicable commanders.

I hope the future brings more Eidolons and Lamias; both are interesting tribes with enormous commander potential but not enough of them really exist.

There were definitely enough cards in this set that are relevant to commander sub-themes such as god tribal, mono-white stax, and enchantress to make it worth pursuing for a Commander player.

 

Credit: Wizards of the Coast

Commander 2020 / Commander Ikoria / Ikoria

Gavi, Nest Warden is interesting, and Ikoria introduced a large number of potential commanders, though I was pretty disappointed to not see a commander themed around mutate, either offering the ability to mutate a target creature or giving all creatures mutate or something in that vein. There are a few absolutely core cards in Commander 2020 (which was themed around Ikoria), as almost always free spells are good, and Deadly Rollick, Fierce Guardianship, and Deflecting Swat are so good they are virtually auto-includes in appropriate color identity decks. The tri-color legendary mutaters offer possibilities as commanders themselves – the way mutate interacts with the commander tax is valuable, and they mostly do something worthwhile even if they have only mutated one time.

It seems like most of the legendary commander possibilities are right about where commanders ought to be in terms of power, but unfortunately that means in an eternal format they are competing with the most broken cards ever printed. Brallin, Skyshark Rider and Shabraz, the Skyshark are shockingly good and competitive, and Ukkima, Stalking Shadow and Cazur, Ruthless Stalker offer a very competitive food chain combo that is more reliable than the traditional five color food chain. I actually really like the mechanic of evergreen keywords becoming counters; it offers really intriguing possibilities including political ones in 4-player game, but it seems like Wizards has already abandoned that experiment.  I hope it returns.

Because of the near auto-include nature of the Ikoria free Commander cards the set is a virtual “must-have,” with commanders geared around recurring mechanics in Gavi, cycle seems like a keyword that will return again and again, and cycle’s interaction with rules is really bizarre which certainly lends it a certain cachet.

 

Credit: Wizards of the Coast

Jumpstart

Jumpstart offered several cards with huge potential, either as commanders in the 99 and then was mostly duds aside from that, focused on reprints or near reprints. It can be fun to play, but Zurzoth, Chaos Rider; Tinybones, Trinket Thief; Neyith of the Dire Hunt; and Emiel the Blessed all offer intriguing possibilities as commander, or particularly as part of a more multicolor deck and in the 99.

I think aside from those huge 99er or alternate commander cards, commander players could’ve mostly ignored Jumpstart. It also came out at a confusing time, seemingly delayed and then released suddenly, and its core idea — grabbing a couple of packs and playing instantly in person — unfortunately didn’t play particularly well in the current pandemic meta.

 

Credit: Wizards of the Coast

Zendikar Rising

Zendikar Rising saw the release of the bond lands, which were a nice addition that fit very well into commander, and the reprints of the “good” fetch lands in Zendikar expeditions might drive the price of these must-haves for any serious commander player down a little bit, which is always good. The introduction of Double-sided lands is just great. One of the worst, most unfun parts of Magic is the lands mechanic: Needing mana, and having games where you get way too much or not enough mana are just not great experiences. Cards that are mediocre-to-good spells and also function as decent lands are a wonderful way of balancing that act. Zendikar rising also offers a bunch of fun haymaker type cards, perfect for lower powered and battlecruiser-ish games.

As far as “lands mattering,” the whole concept is somewhat hurt by a later arrival. Nonethless generating exponential Scute swarms with impact tremors or turning your lands to forests and forests to indestructible giant creatures are at least really cool ways to end games.  Auto-equipping equipment is also a big step in the right direction. Equipment has suffered for a long time because, while it theoretically offers protection against the card disadvantage of creature removal vs auras, it’s generally too slow and unwieldy, there are some notable exceptions, some of which have become commander staples, such as lightning greaves.

I wish the party mechanic was better explored, or that there were different kinds of parties available (perhaps on some planes a party would consist of (a knight, a druid, a pirate, and a priest) but we’ll see if WotC continues with the mechanic. Given the imperative from Hasbro corporate to drive revenues and the opportunity for “cross synergy” I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like party become an evergreen or deciduous mechanic. Which, for Commander, might be neat. My attempt to build a party-based deck was a failure at making something competitive that plays through Opposition Agent, but a shocking number of strong cards happen to be either rogues, wizards, clerics, or warriors. Zendikar also offered some decent commanders, some cards that will obviously see play like Lithoform Engine and the new modal duals.

Given things like modal duals and the lands matter sub-theme for Zendikar, I think most commander players will have been intrigued, the dual modals and the spell/land modals are really valuable to help secure a land base in commander, and become subsequently more valuable with the release of opposition agent to shut down fetch lands.

 

Credit: Wizards of the Coast

Commander Legends

This set didn’t have a lot of the things that I had hoped for or expected. First off, I really expected (and wanted) to see a return of the elder dragons legends. Either new versions, or new dragons. An obvious way to work them in to commander and make them relevant would be to give them a stax-lite ability with eminence, such “when this is in the command zone, the first spell a player casts each turn costs 1 more” or “players may only cast 1 spell of each type each turn”. Then they could still cost in a 4-6 mana, but be relevant as they would automatically slow the game down a bit and push it more towards the battlecruiser zone WotC seems to favor.

To me though Commander legends was a bit of a disappointment as a set.  Aside from the crazy cards and a few of the commanders my impression was a lot of the commanders was lacking in interesting abilities or playability.  The vast majority of cards that are intended for the format seem aimed very hard at the durdley battlecruiser crowd, but there’s already years and years worth of weird big creatures floating around, and putting out more commanders. As a player who mostly focuses on cEDH commander, Legends was probably the most disappointing set of the 2020 group for me. A lot of magical pirates are neat, but I don’t really know what is up with the idea of magical pirates. Yes, I’ve seen Pirates of the Carribbean, I get it, but like, what?

Legends also saw the release of Gilded Lotus, a card that I find personally offensive. Black Lotus was a stupid card when it was released, but at the time you could understand how Wizards didn’t know any better. The same isn’t true today and Jeweled Lotus will end up a must-have chase card that rises in price inevitably as it enables a number of powerful commanders. The gameplay doesn’t lead to great games but instead allows players to power out some really good commanders really fast, like Urza, Lord High Artificer, creating a massive resource disparity that can lead to players being irrelevant or being forced to play kingmaker in a sort of trolley problem dilemma of “who to counter”. The one thing I do like about this new lotus is it doesn’t do much for Thrasios, Triton Hero and Tymna, the Weaver. Unfortunately it helps out Kenrith, the returned King and Golos, tireless Pilgrim, both of which are also top-tier commanders in my opinion.

For more casual crowds the set had a ton of big swingy medium-cost creatures as well as some serious haymakers. I think these are all good things, and I am hoping that opposition agent and hullbreacher really push the meta back to the board state really mattering. The slow drip of strong stax effects, both asymmetrical and symmetrical and the payoff of landing especially a beneficial asymmetrical stax effect ought to push players to include more counters and more creature control, less draw and combo, and commanders should be doing more work.

 

Success or failure?

I think the slow, steady drip of commander content is probably working well for wizards to engage commander-only or commander-focused players with upcoming sets, spoilers/reveals, and the adjustments to the meta. Wizards wants to drive engagement among the Commander player base, and making sure there’s something for commander in every set ought to be getting commander players wanting to be in the loop about new cards coming out. The strong focus that sets seem to be having on pushing tribes, such as angels or pirates, also caters to commander players, as tribal decks are one of the most common commander archetypes.

 

Looking Ahead to 2021

Promises a total of 5 non-block sets, as long a who knows how many accessory sets.  Probably 30-40 secret lairs.  The cross-promotional synergy is tight, so expect to see a lot of references to TSR products, and a Dungeons and Dragons take on Harry Potter.  We’ll probably expect to see some quintessentially D&D things like Beholders and the Tarrasque, more of the party mechanic.

Most of the cards in sets will continue to be in the battlecruiser zone, with high CMCs and haymaker type abilities, but I would expect to see more cards like Opposition Agent and Hullbreacher. At first I was frustrated and angry with these cards, but when I really thought about and saw how they played, they really redefine the competitive format.  cEDH has mostly become a game of minimalist interaction, with an emphasis of free counterspells since they can be used to protect your combo from your opponents minimalist interaction, as well as either a card draw engine or a bunch of tutors with which to get your combo pieces.  Games are either very short and brutal, functioning off a resolved silence or a autumns veil or an end step drop, or else laden down with stax.  But Agent and Hullbreacher don’t just shut down tutors and draw respectively (which, in some sense, Aven Mindcensor and other cards already did) they push the resources to the player dropping the stax piece. Which, as a third party, you also don’t want to allow.  It forces players to try to control the board more than t hey previously had to, and not mostly ignore the board state. The new emphasis on having to play control cards will mean that players can’t rely on a bunch of tutors, a few combo pieces, and a couple counterspells and removal.  In turn these less efficient decks won’t be able to shrug off the effects of cards like Mana Crypt and pain lands so easily. Overall I think this will all be a good thing, once the meta settles down (though, it has less opportunity to coalesce as there really aren’t big tournaments or money to be made).

I think we can expect to see a couple more cards with similar meta altering effects at low CMCs, further slowing the game down, as well as some new types of dual lands, the bond cycle is complete so Wizards will try to come up with another way to slightly mana fix.  The drive seems to be towards 2-3 color decks and away from 4 color decks, though the printing of the ridiculously toolboxy Kenrith, the Returned King in Throne of Eldraine really violates this overall trend.

Depending on the pandemic Wizards may also move to more digital content.  I’m continually surprised that packs dont come with an online pack or something of that ilk, and we could see such a thing if there still is no return to things like Friday night magic. The growing popularity of commander may wane if players cant return to playing live soon, as commander is particularly difficult to play over webcam and most game engines can’t really handle it.  In truth even playing in person can be difficult to maintain board state, and trying to read through several webcams can be quite difficult.

 

Have any questions or feedback? Drop us a note in the comments below or email us at contact@goonhammer.com.

 

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