Dinosaurs, Merfolk, Pirates, Vampires. Pick your pleasure and pick your Treasure as Ixalan sails onto your horizon with all the splashy color of a 1980s Saturday morning cartoon. In a set brimming with flavor, there is plenty to get excited about from a Commander perspective.
For each color, I'll discuss the cards which are worth talking about—whether that's for better or worse. I'll then pick a Top 3 for each and rate the color as a whole.
Remember, this is a review for Commander only. Ixalan looks like it's also going to fun to draft and have a strong impact on Standard and Modern, so there are cards which might be houses in that or other formats which won't get a mention here. This isn't a slight to those cards, just recognition we're not likely to see them in the 100-card decks.
Bishop of Rebirth: The not-anywhere-near-as-good Sun Titan still warrants a look, especially since you're in Sun Titan's color already and can simply have both. You can still bring back your Burnished Hart, Saffi Eriksdotter, or Sakura-Tribe Elder.
Bright Reprisal: One-for-ones traditionally have trouble making the cut in Commander. The only thing that might help Bright Reprisal is that it will replace itself. If you're in a color combination which doesn't traditionally destroy lots of creatures—such as W/G—you might think about this one.
Goring Ceratops: Dinosaurs are downright aggressive. Giving all your creatures double strike is almost like getting two combat steps. Combine with Pathbreaker Ibex for some serious battles.
Kinjalli's Caller: Dinosaur tribal will be a thing. Might as well have them cost one less.
Kinjalli's Sunwing: You don't really need to be playing Dinosaurs to make use of a larger, flying Imposing Sovereign. Your opponents' creatures entering the battlefield tapped is great protection against creatures with haste, especially scary ones like Thraximundar.
Mavren Fein, Dusk Apostle: Anytime you create creatures for what amounts to nothing, you've gained an upper hand in the game. Creating them to go along with your cool new tribal deck is that much better.
Paladin of the Bloodstained: As I was saying, plus lifelink is sweet.
Priest of the Wakening Sun: The one mana casting cost will end up being quite a bargain when you gain a bit of life and eventually get to tutor up the exact Dinosaur you want.
Sanguine Sacrament: Lifegain spells need to have a little something extra in order to get played. Sanguine Sacrament has that boost, as it's an instant, gains you double X life, and gets put back into your library for later reuse.
Tocatli Honor Guard: I'm a bigger fan of the blowout possibilities of Hushwing Gryff, but Torpor Orb on a stick will get plenty of mileage in the format which loves its enters-the-battlefield triggers.
Wakeing Sun's Avatar: In the worst case, you wipe the battlefield and have a 7/7. In the best—meaning you're playing Dinosaur tribal—you get to keep your army.
Ashes of the Abhorrent: The first ability will have some impact on the format since it'll shut down cards with flashback and things like long-time format favorite Genesis (or personal favorite Glory). Of course, it completely nerfs Karador, Ghost Chieftain. The second ability pairs nicely with Soul Warden so you can gain life from creatures coming and going.
Axis of Mortality: Perhaps a little expensive, but will probably be worth it due to the tomfoolery you can engage in swapping around life totals. Exchanging life totals counts as gaining and losing life, so it'll trigger cards like Mindcrank and Exquisite Blood, Archangel of Thune, and Drogskol Reaver.
Settle the Wreckage: I'm already on record in my appreciation of this card, and the intervening time hasn't dampened my enthusiasm for it. Exile is an extremely powerful weapon in Commander, and the trade-off is likely worth it. Of course, you can also combo Settle the Wreckage with one of the worst cards ever, Worms of the Earth, for major style points. Bonus: I can't hear the word enthusiasm without thinking about Robert De Niro in The Untouchables.
Grade: C-. The best aren't all that great, and there are too many cards for which there are similar cards which are simply better.
Chart a Course: If you know you'll be battling, play Chart a Course instead of the more expensive Divination. Also play it if you're not battling but you want to loot and fill up your graveyard.
Deadeye Quartermaster: Great flexibility on either getting an Equipment or Vehicle; pair it of course with Deadeye Navigator for repeatability. It seems like the right thematic call is to get the Pirate's Scimitar or one of the ships, but I'm sure you'll want to get something even techier out of your deck.
Favorable Winds: Add Archetype of Imagination for a complete Anthem for your team.
Jace, Cunning Castaway: Buff Jace might be able to create some crazy loop of infinite Jaces, but otherwise it seems unspectacular.
Kopala, Warden of Waves: In Commander we'll likely find that the second ability is more significant than the first, but do note that if the spell has multiple targets (like Blatant Thievery) it will still cost two more if it targets one of your Merfolk—and if you're playing Kopala, you'll want to think about Arcane Adaptation so that all your creatures are Merfolk.
Opt: An excellent reprint since it's a nice little card that many folks might not have known exists.
River's Rebuke: You can hope to just dagger the one player getting out of hand, but the ground truth is that everyone is getting out of hand. There are some cards which let you copy instants and/or sorceries, so you might be able to cobble together a cheaper (albeit still sorcery speed) Cyclonic Rift.
Siren Stormtamer: Some tribal protection for your Pirate and Wizard decks (also Siren!) or in anything in which you want some counterspell ability without having to sacrifice cards for. The best parts are is the low, low casting and activation costs.
Fleet Swallower: More like Sweet Swallower. Your mill decks have a repeatable Traumatize, so all you need to do is look out for is a shuffling Eldrazi like Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre or Elixir of Immortality. Also, baller flavor text.
Herald of Secret Streams: You're going to find that you're playing more creatures with +1/+1 counters on them than you think you are. Plus, you'll want to slot in Forgotten Ancient and spread around even more counters. Prime Speaker Zegana, here we come!
Spell Swindle: Five-mana counterspells had better do something special. This one certainly does in the format in which huge spells are commonly a thing. Spell Swindle is effectively a five-mana Plasm Capture, although you obviously run the risk of losing the Treasures before your turn—but then again, you also have that mana available to you before then. Top shelf stuff.
Grade: C. Slightly better than white, plus with an upgrade or two instead of downgrade. Unfortunately, also possibly the weakest Jace to date.
Bishop of the Bloodstained: It's not Malakir Bloodwitch, but still part of a Vampire life-leeching suite.
Boneyard Parley: Fact or Fiction Reanimate is just fine by me. It's a little pricey, but there are frequently going to be some really juicy targets in graveyards. I can't wait until I get one with Sepulchral Primordial in it.
Deadeye Tracker: Love this one for some graveyard control with some upside. Unlike Night Soil, it can get noncreature cards. Also unlike Night Soil, you can only use it once a turn unless you find a way to untap it.
Grim Captain's Call: The thing that strikes me most about Grim Captain's Call is that it's not targeted, meaning opponents with limited graveyard removal are going to have to guess what you'll attempt to bring back. Once you've chosen what you are going to return to your hand, it's too late for them to respond.
March of the Drowned: Not sure it'll get played, but for some reason I really like the art.
Raiders' Wake: The additional mana is probably worth the upgrade from Liliana's Caress.
Ruthless Knave: I'm a fan of the sacrifice outlets and I like that the Knave doesn't tap to do it, although the 2B is a little pricey. Of course, drawing cards when people try to blow up your Treasures is good beats.
Skullduggery: Was hoping this would be a card name; was also hoping it'd be better.
Bloodcrazed Paladin: Holy recovery! You're going to have a great army of Vampires, so when someone Wraths them away, you punish them for it. It'll be even sweeter if one of the creatures that dies is Blood Artist.
Revel in Riches: Yo ho ho! Finding that Treasure will get you there in no time, so long as you're patient and avoid sacrificing the tokens for mana.
Sanctum Seeker: More and more it looks like Vampires can win by a combination of combat damage and life loss before (or after) that damage gets dealt. There are going to be some sick Vampire decks (not that there aren't already) and Sanctum Seeker is going to be a part of them.
Grade: C-. Density of cards is low, and there really aren't noteworthy top cards.
Angrath's Marauders: A little pricey, but it doesn't need to attack in order to be effective—the rest of your Pirate team can get the work done.
Burning Sun's Avatar: It's good, not great, but you'll still want to play it in your Dinosaur deck. The three damage to a player isn't all that much, but it'll definitely take out an annoying creature for you.
Captain Lannery Storm: The good Captain looks like she's having a grand time getting in there and battling. I'm happy to oblige her by sending her into the Red Zone as often as possible.
Captivating Crew: I was ready to fire off some exclamation marks until I read the last sentence. Still, because it doesn't tap to activate, you can get more than one creature per turn. A repeatable Threaten is good stuff.
Dinosaur Stampede: It'll only see play in Dinosaur tribal, but that's more than enough to mention it.
Otepec Huntmaster: Cheaper and hastier Dinosaurs? I'm in.
Rile: Is drawing a card for one mana enough to make it playable? In the format with huge creatures which will benefit from trample, the answer is solidly yes.
Sunbird's Invocation: Spells for free? I'm in. Sure, it's limited by casting from your hand (so no cascade or flashback tricks), but still. This is the kind of card that Commander loves, and is in the running for my favorite card from the set.
Star of Extinction: As Brian David-Marshall mentioned, the only thing that would make this better is if it turned all the remaining lands into Snow-Covered ones. Clearly the way to dodge the bullet is to get rid of the land, which is the spell's only target, and thereby counter it. I'm just waiting to play it in a deck with Repercussion.
Grade: B. Red finally gets some of the best stuff in the set and there are more than three cards to consider for the top spots. Maybe it's the dawn of a new day.
Blossom Dryad: Untapping lands always gives me pause, because I see arbitrarily large combos lurking behind them.
Commune with Dinosaurs: Only at one mana does it get played, which is convenient.
Drover of the Mighty: Gives me hope to see Dinosaur tribal in Standard.
Emperor's Vanguard: I'm a fan of the Explore mechanic; I'm a bigger fan of cards like Emperor's Vanguard which let you repeat it.
Old-Growth Dryads: A new tool for Group Hug decks. I will be happy to see someone else play it.
Ranging Raptors: If it weren't for Ripjaw Raptors, Ranging Raptors would be the best of the Enrage cards. It won't likely replace your ramp spells, but it's going to be a great tool in Omnath, Locus of Rage and other landfall decks.
Shapers' Sanctuary: The little piece that people might have forgotten about on Leovold, Emissary of Trest, making this a one-mana enchantment makes it a card I'm thrilled to play. It's unlikely to get targeted, since there will likely be way more important enchantments to take out. It will simply provide continuing value—which make take the form of people not targeting your creatures, which is okay by me.
Thundering Spineback: Should be a Dinosaur lord. I could just as easily see it being a legendary creature with a cool name.
Deathgorge Scavenger: Great graveyard control in a battling package, meaning it's definitely my kind of card. Seems like the play (absent other significant factors) is to put a counter on it when it enters the battlefield, making it more easily survive the following combat.
Ripjaw Raptor: Yeah, so there's this thing. It's big enough on the back side to do lots of work, even if it's just to keep other people off your face. If you want to deal damage and opponents only have chump blockers, so much the better. I see some conversations like "I'll attack you with my Ripjaw Raptor and you can block with your Solemn Simulacrum."
Grade: A. The best cards are sweet, and there is more than enough good stuff down the line.
Hostage Taker: It would have been good enough just for creatures; adding artifacts sends it straight over the top (or gunwale, as it were).
Huatli, Warrior Poet: You play this in a deck with Serra Avatar, right? I can't see the -X ability getting used much save for a final attack. Seems like Huatli will be low on the "planeswalkers must die" list, meaning extended value for you.
Regisaur Alpha: Further evidence that we'll see Dinosaur decks in Standard, this will also be a component in that Gishath deck.
Shapers of Nature: A little expensive to do everything you want with it, but once you have a fair amount of mana, you have lots of options. A solid role-player.
Vraska, Relic Seeker: I'm generally not a fan of cards that set life totals extremely low while still understanding their necessity. Getting Vraska to ten loyalty will be difficult enough that it's not going to be much of an issue for the format.
Admiral Beckett Brass: What can you really say about the new soon-to-be-most-popular commander of Pirate decks? Great theming on the card, as Pirates are known to attack and steal stuff. I look forward to reading about all the cool decks folks will cook up led by the best Admiral this side of Ackbar.
Gishath, Sun's Avatar: All the Timmies are squealing over Gishath. Sure, it costs eight and has to connect. Once it does, however, suddenly there's a Dinosaur swarm—especially given the fact that Congregation at Dawn is playable in a Gishath deck.
Vona, Butcher of Magan: Clearly the new B/W Vampire commander, Vona does a great deal of work. The seven life will be inconsequential since you'll have all those lifelink creatures, plus other ways of draining your opponents. Seems like dropping Vona as soon as possible is most always the right call.
GRADE: A. Good stuff and lots of it.
Legion's Landing: You don't necessarily need to play Vampires to make good use of Legion's Landing.
Search for Azcanta: Once the condition is met, transforming into Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin is optional. It'll take some thought to figure out when it's best to do it, especially if you're playing a reanimator deck of some kind.
Arguel's Blood Fast: This one will take the most jumping through of hoops to make worthwhile. It's certainly enough to start with just drawing cards.
Vance's Blasting Cannons: Another one that I might choose to not transform for a while, since it's effectively card draw for no mana.
Growing Rites of Itlimoc: No more worrying if your Gaea's Cradle will tap for zero mana! An exciting card, although it's one that folks have (justifiably) asked us on the Commander Rules Committee to keep an eye on.
Conquerer's Galleon: The flexibility of the transformed side makes it playable, although if you have it in a deck with Belligerent Brontodon, maybe you just want to battle with it.
Dowsing Dagger: Another hoop-jumper to get where you want to go, it's likely worth the effort, especially given that it costs one less mana than Gilded Lotus (two to cast, two to equip) and is less vulnerable once it's a mana-producer.
Primal Amulet: No doubt about this one; you transform it as soon as you can (unless maybe you're casting loads of spells in a turn).
Thaumatic Compass: Transforming into a Maze of Ith which can also produce mana is strong, especially after the Compass has helped you smooth out your land drops and thin your decks. Note that transforming it is not optional, unlike many other of the double-face cards in the set.
Treasure Map: Lots of value packed into an inexpensive package. Whether you're going for the Treasure win with Revel in Riches, getting extra mana, or drawing cards, Treasure Map will lead you to lots of loot.
There aren't really enough of these to pick a Top 3. They're all pretty good.
Grade: A. From all the clever mechanics to the brilliant design, these might be the best double-face cards yet made.
Artifact and Land
Dusk Legion Dreadnought: Crewing a 4/6 for two is good value; vigilance makes it even better.
Elaborate Firecannon: Perhaps some use just to get the cards you want into your graveyard?
Pillar of Origins: An excellent tool in tribal decks, especially those which don't ramp or produce mana particularly well.
Pirate's Cutlass: Thematically necessary, but nothing special.
Sentinel Totem: I could also see in the design/development process the possibility that this cost zero and didn't scry.
Field of Ruin: It's like half a hug, a weird Tectonic Edge / Ghost Quarter hybrid. I'm certainly more likely to play it than Tectonic Edge, even if it costs one more to activate and gives other players land, since it also replaces itself for me.
Unclaimed Territory: Bargain Cavern of Souls still gets plenty of play for the tribal decks, especially since it can also produce colorless mana. It might be worth playing even in a deck that isn't full tribal but still has a commitment to a creature type. Playing nine or ten of a creature type probably makes it worthwhile.
There aren't enough to grab a Top 3 from, plus it's kind of a mixed category.
Grade: C. The category sort of gets a pass for being outside the focus of the set.
Overall, the set gets a B-. The colors are a little lopsided in which gets the best cards, and the density of good cards is a little low. I wouldn't mind seeing a few more must-play cards for the format, but that's not a huge sin, especially in such a flavor-rich set; in fact, it's the flavor that keeps the grade above C. There are definitely enough new Commanders build-around commanders to mess with. Who can't love that there are now Dinosaurs plus a top-flight Pirate commander? Certainly not me, and I'm guessing not you either. Here's to having great fun at your Prerelease.
Our normal features Idiotic Combo and Deck Without Comment will return after Ixalan release season.
Lavinia Blinks; Obzedat, Ghost Killer; Aurelia Goes to War; Trostani and Her Angels; Lazav, Shapeshifting Mastermind; Zegana and a Dice Bag; Rakdos Reimagined; Glissa, Glissa; Ruric Thar and His Beastly Fight Club; Gisa and Geralf Together Forever;
Shards and Wedges
Adun's Toolbox; Animar's Swarm; Ikra and Kydele; Karrthus, Who Rains Fire From The Sky; Demons of Kaalia; Merieke's Esper Dragons; Nath of the Value Leaf; Rith's Tokens; The Mill-Meoplasm; The Altar of Thraximundar; The Threat of Yasova; You Take the Crown, I'll Take Leovold; Zombies of Tresserhorn;
Animar Do-Over; Glissa Do-Over; Karador Do-Over; Karador Version 3; Karrthus Do-Over; Kresh Do-Over; Steam-Powered Merieke Do-Over; Lord of Tresserhorn Do-Over; Mimeoplasm Do-Over; Phelddagrif Do-Over; Rith Do-Over; Ruhan Do-Over
If you'd like to follow the adventures of my Monday Night RPG group (in a campaign that's been alive since 1987) which is just beginning the saga The Lost Cities of Nevinor, ask for an invitation to the Facebook group "Sheldon Menery's Monday Night Gamers."