Sometimes the title of the article tells you everything you need to know! That's true of this one. After playing around with the decks for a few months, I believe that the Commander 2013 product is just better when taken as a whole then the Commander 2011 product. What I'd love to do is go over my reasons why and then give you an opportunity to agree or disagree and tell me why.
So why do I prefer 2013 to 2011 after getting in tons of games with all the decks?
After playing the decks, I want ones that play more smoothly. Over the years I have gamed a lot with the 2011 decks at the desk in my office as well as the occasional kitchen table. I can comfortably speak about what they feel like unaltered. I now have enough experience gaming with the 2013 decks as well.
The 2011 decks were fun to play, but the cards often felt shoehorned in. It was usually more about Commander's greatest hits than it was about the deck, and they didn't work together. Many of the people I've talked to that have played the format for a while admit that they tend to prefer the card that works with their strategy rather than the more powerful one. Sure, Sword of Fire and Ice might be the better Equipment, but if Sword of Vengeance fits your deck because of the first strike, trample, boost to power, and haste, then that's the Sword you should choose. I've run into many players who regularly choose the more flavorful or synergetic beater, creature kill, or card draw over the most powerful one.
The 2013 decks often include cards that initially made me grimace. What's Capricious Efreet doing in here? It sucks! Brood of Cockroaches costs too much mana to keep replaying it. But when I played the deck, the Efreet was a lot better than it seemed, and the Brood slid along lovely. (In fact, I was so surprised by how good the Efreet played that I wrote an article called "Capricious Efreet Does NOT Suck.") There are still cards earmarked for immediate removal (out you go Brilliant Plan, and perhaps in we'll slide Recurring Insight or at least Tidings). But the decks work together much better.
Playing a 2013 deck is about synergy. Playing a 2011 deck is about power (except for Political Puppets, which is a hugely synergetic deck with tricks beyond the obvious). That doesn't mean the 2011 decks are poor, but they seem to include just a bit too much of the typical stuff without the normal thought you expect to see from WotC. You can tell that the 2013 product is more polished and more interesting because of how those decks play.
2013 is the clear winner.
Cards Included: New Stuff
One of the great things about these Commander decks is the fun new cards that we get from them! One of the important criteria in evaluating these decks has to be the new cards that were made for Commander.
This discussion has to begin with the commanders themselves, which are the banner new cards. In Commander 2011, we saw an injection of ten three-color legendary creatures and then an additional five enemy-colored dorks. Because Commander 2011 had the extra five creatures, it has more legendary dudes than 2013.
But let's not forget some great new options. Kaalia of the Vast is still heavily played, as is Edric, Spymaster of Trest. Both of those are major players. I also see the occasional deck built around Ghave, Guru of Spores; Karador, Ghost Chieftain; and Riku of the Two Reflections. So we have contestants that are still regularly seen at tables.
I have never seen Ruhan of the Fomori or Basandra, Battle Seraph work that well. Cards like Tariel, Reckoner of Souls and Zedruu the Greathearted might make the occasional guest appearance in another deck but really haven't done a lot recently.
Now having said that, there are some cards I do see a lot of in decks not as generals besides Edric: The Mimeoplasm; Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter; and Nin, the Pain Artist. All three have some interesting power or subtlety to them and go in a lot of different decks.
The newer commanders haven't had as much time to fade from the scene, but we have two clear winners: Oloro, Ageless Ascetic and Nekusar, the Mindrazer. I've played against fun versions of them, but both can be downright obscene. Derevi, Empyrial Tactician is a big hit online, and I've moved to him in my own Equinaut build. But I've only encountered one in real life so far that I'm not playing myself. I have seen some Sydri, Galvanic Genius decks too.
So overall I'd have to say that Commander 2013 seems top heavy but without the depth of Commander 2011. And since Commander 2011 has five more newly minted guys, it sort of wins by default. (If its list did not include those five, which also includes the best in Edric, then 2013 would win).
What about the other stuff?
Both sets have a couple of hits that might be worth the money but will have little impact at a multiplayer table (compare Flusterstorm to True-Name Nemesis). I pulled the Vow cycle from Abe's Deck of Happiness and Joy after trying it out for a long time and never being impressed (and my deck has like 2800 cards in it, so you don't have to be the best of the best to earn a spot). I also think the similar Curse cycle is a bit weak from 2013. So let's set both aside. What about the rare multiplayer cycle? The Tempt cycle has played out much better than the join forces cycle of cards like Shared Trauma. So that cycle is a win for 2013.
What else is there?
Here are the five best cards from each set that are not part of a cycle or a legendary dork. For 2011, we have Chaos Warp, Scavenging Ooze, Syphon Flesh, Martyr's Bond, and Hornet Queen. Maybe you'd prefer Champion's Helm or Homeward Path in there instead. That starts out really nicely, but the quality drops off. (I also personally adore Soul Snare, but very few seem to share my high opinion of that card).
For 2013, we have Restore, Toxic Deluge, Unexpectedly Absent, Primal Vigor, and Bane of Progress. Perhaps you might also consider From the Ashes or Ophiomancer. From these lists of cards, I think the best of the best is slightly leaning 2013's way, but it's so close that I will admit that I cannot truly make an argument one way or the other.
So this comes down to a tie. 2013 has the better rare cycle with the Tempt stuff, led by Tempt with Discovery and Tempt with Immortality. 2011 has the better group of commanders, and both have some solid additions to the game.
Cards Included: Reprints
One of the goals of the Commander decks from my perspective has to be getting good useful cards out there to folks. You can play the deck for a bit and then take it apart and move the goods into other decks. It gives a quick injection of power into collections, especially those of newer players. How do the two Commander sets stack up?
In terms of adding cards to your deck stock, the 2011 decks pack a nice punch. They have a lot of classic Commander cards, such as Oblivion Stone, Eternal Witness, and Skullclamp. If you were just getting into Commander, then these decks were very good purchases.
Consider just one deck: Devour for Power. Among the great tools are Buried Alive, Fact or Fiction, Cultivate, Oblivion Stone, Living Death, Windfall, Syphon Mind, Grave Pact, Wonder, Acidic Slime, Avatar of Woe, Eternal Witness, Butcher of Malakir, Fleshbag Marauder, Solemn Simulacrum, and Yavimaya Elder. That's a powerful load of cards for Commander. If you get tired of the deck and strip it for parts, you are getting a pirate's chest of booty!
And Devour for Power is not the only one. Political Puppets has Austere Command, Insurrection, Ghostly Prison, Propaganda, Reins of Power, Fog Bank, Wall of Omens, Flametongue Kavu, and Oblation. Yeah, the list isn't as long as Devour for Power, but it's still got a lot to offer folks.
So the first round of decks gave us amazing cards for our collections for Commander, and that was their strength when it came to reprints.
But the newer decks take a different strategy that is really interesting. We still have decks with a lot of quality reprints for Commander. Let's look at Evasive Maneuvers: Pilgrim's Eye; Acidic Slime; Wonder; Control Magic; Krosan Grip; Azami, Lady of Scrolls; Mirror Entity; Farhaven Elf; and Karmic Guide.
And what about Nature of the Beast? It rocks Behemoth Sledge, Cultivate, Harmonize, Fires of Yavimaya, Wrath of God, Avenger of Zendikar, and Eternal Dragon among others like Fireball, Hull Breach, Krosan Tusker, and Rampaging Baloths.
It's obvious that most of the decks in the first set had a longer list of the big names in Commander. But what makes 2013 different is that it intentionally has a lot of cards that had not seen print for a long time. Cards like Basalt Monolith, Reincarnation, and Control Magic hadn't seen print for more than a decade. We'd never had Eternal Dragon, Crawlspace, Goblin Sharpshooter, or Karmic Guide outside of expensive judge promos since before the Modern era began. This is a huge blast to the collections of both new players and older ones.
But we have another level of additions: the cards from Portal sets. It's great seeing things like Lu Xun, Scholar General; Huo Toa, Honored Physician; and Kongming, "Sleeping Dragon" brought to the forefront. These cards are a lot of fun, and we now have them available to us.
We also get cards like Famine, Borrowing 100,000 Arrows, Endless Cockroaches, and Spoils of Victory to add to our Commander stock. A special shout out to Strategic Planning because it had a very high secondary market value due to it being highly desired as a graveyard enabler. It's nice to get it in hand.
Therefore the Commander 2013 product is a lot better at bringing in new cards—those that had been out of print for more than a decade, including those in limited print runs from Portal sets. So in terms of getting new cards into the hands of players all over, 2013 not only had good deck stock but additional aid from ye olde days.
Overall, considering this addition I believe the 2013 product to be better at reprints.
I've taken a look at the Commander product through various lenses. It seems that Commander 2013 came out on top twice in my three categories and tied in the other. The decks play more smoothly and have better reprints than Commander 2011.
Just because I like 2013 better doesn't mean that 2011 sucks. If the next version of Commander product comes out and looks more like 2011 than 2013, I'll still be really happy. I'll buy several copies of each deck and a bunch of singles too.
But overall 2013 is the better set (which makes sense because WotC had experience after making the first set).
What would I like to see in the future for the next Commander product?
- I would love to see four-color decks that have four-color legendary creatures to build around. It seems like the choices of the first two deck sets have been in part to have enough commanders in colors to build around. Well, the next obvious hole to fill is four-color decks, which are simply not possible based on the current rules. So let's have some four-color decks!
- The one thing I didn't like from 2013 is the command zone trigger of Oloro and ability of Derevi. I love when cards are specifically designed for Commander but can be played elsewhere too. I play a lot of multiplayer outside of Commander and usually Commander-specific cards (like Syphon Flesh and Darksteel Mutation) work well there too (although sometimes less so because Darksteel Mutation is obviously a foil against a problematic leader and Unexpectedly Absent tucks away a similar issue). I don't like the designs of cards like Command Tower and Derevi, which feel a bit lazy too me. I would prefer new cards like Skullbriar, the Walking Grave. Skullbriar can keep counters in the command zone so that has synergy with the format, but it can be harnessed in other decks elsewhere too. I would prefer to see more Skullbriars and fewer Derevis.
- I would cherish the opportunity to see more Portal cards, especially Portal Three Kingdoms stuff. Might I recommend Dong Zhou, the Tyrant? He does something no other card in Magic does and would be very welcome in Commander. Another great legendary dork is Sun Ce, Young Conquerer. Both would have massive homes in Commander decks around the world. I'd also love to see Hunting Cheetah, Fire Imp, Ravaging Horde, and Temple Acolyte. You could push out stuff like Personal Tutor or Cruel Tutor as well.
- I'd also love to see some more classic cards from way back that could be reprinted safely. Cards like Regrowth, Sterling Grove, and Spiritmonger come to mind. What about some fun things from Legends like Arboria or Horn of Deafening? The original art of Syphon Soul would look awesome in the new card frame!
The unique fusion of recently printed cards (such as Guttersnipe) along with the P3K and older cards made the Commander 2013 product have a great style that outshone the first set. I can only hope for more in the next one!
Which do you think is better and why? What are some other thoughts you have about the sets? Where did WotC go right?