With PAX East and the Mythic Invitational in the rearview (congrats to Andrea Mengucci) and the first of the War of the Spark previews available, it's time to take an initial look at what the epic battle will offer us for Commander. Today I'll discuss the cards which have been officially previewed by my deadline on Tuesday. I know I've been away from a high-profile position in the Judge Program for a long time now, but to me it's still a great habit for anyone with public visibility to stick to what's official instead of the speculations or leaks.
Before we get there, I want to talk about planeswalkers as commanders. Or more correctly, planeswalkers not as commanders (unless the card specifically says so).
The reason we're talking about it now is because we on the Commander Rules Committee have been inundated on social media asking if we're going to do a thing with War of the Spark like we did with Unstable. If you don't remember, we made Un-cards legal from the day they were released (8 December 2017) until the ensuing Banned List announcement, just over a month later. We had an easily defined end date. We weren't looking for any data and we weren't testing to see if we should make silver-bordered cards legal. We just thought it would be fun for a short period of time. Because silver-bordered cards aren't normally legal, messaging was relatively easy. It was a little messy because we still banned fourteen cards and warned folks about eight more, representing a significant percentage of the cards in the newly available pool, but not so messy that it might cause trouble in the long run.
Planeswalkers are an entirely different animal.
Making them all legal as commanders for a finite period provides a few administrative challenges and the flavor issues, the combination of which leads us to the conclusion that doing so is not in the best interest of the format. It's not that we think the concept is too difficult for Magic players to grasp; we're pretty comfortable with the community's ability to process complex ideas. The biggest thing is that messaging becomes difficult—not now, but down the road.
First, there's not the same kind of separation between normal Magic cards and planeswalkers like there is with silver-bordered cards, since planeswalkers are normal Magic cards. We wouldn't be making illegal cards legal for a short period of time; we'd be making legal cards function differently for a period of time. We feel like this would cause some long-term confusion, not necessarily for the heavily enfranchised player, but for the occasional one.
The second big reason is that, even though it would seem like having a bunch of new planeswalkers coming out in War of the Spark would seem an opportune time to give planeswalkers-as-commanders a try, we feel like folks would get the wrong impression – namely, that we're considering making such a change permanently. At this time, we are not and we don't have any plans to do so in the long run. To hint at anything else would be quite disingenuous. We'd rather you trust what we say and not have to try to figure out the hidden code. People have suggested that it's a good time to test planeswalkers as commanders, and they might be right, assuming we were considering heading down that road; since we aren't, we don't want to send out mixed signals.
We've already laid out on a few occasions why we don't want to make all planeswalkers into commanders, so I'll just offer you the short version. First and foremost (and perhaps most simply), they're not legendary creatures. We don't see a compelling reason to expand the definition of what can be a commander beyond what it already is, from both flavor and mechanical perspectives. Legendary creatures being commanders is format-defining. It's not like we're hurting for choices, either. There are plenty of potential commanders (800+ if my count is correct) for all play styles and themes and in all color combinations (okay, maybe there aren't too many choices for Azorius Aggro, but you get the point). While there's some support for planeswalkers as commanders, in a recent survey over at MTG Salvation, folks voted nearly two to one against the idea. Obviously that sample size isn't statistically significant enough to make decisions about, but it shows us that, at least in one corner of the community, people agree with us.
The second major point is that we'd have to ban enough of the planeswalkers that we'd swell the ranks of the banned list more than we're comfortable with. Having them available in the command zone makes these already powerful cards even more powerful. Part of the self-limiting factor of planeswalkers is their number of loyalty counters; when you get to refresh them for just a little extra mana, they can get silly. While we like powerful cards just as much as the next person, it would be asking the format to bear an unnecessary burden.
Add to all those reasons that there's a format in which you can play planeswalkers as commanders, Brawl, and it becomes even easier for Commander to maintain its distinctness. Putting all the available planeswalkers in the command zone would undeniably change the shape of the format, and it's not in a direct way that we think we'd be happy with. This of course comes with the caveat that we support local groups modifying things to suit their own needs. People sometimes ask, if that's the case, why have a banned list or rules at all? The answer is pretty straightforward – we simply want to make sure that when folks go outside their local environments, everyone is on the same page. There is a "baseline" Commander for everyone to work from. At your kitchen table, all bets are off.
Let's get to some of those cards from War of the Spark. Before you dive in, read Mark Rosewater's article from earlier this week on making the set. It will give you some great insight on how they approached one of Magic's most ambitious projects. Again, I'll remind you I'm discussing only the officially previewed cards, which you can find here (and I won't necessarily discuss all of them), as of the moment I'm writing this piece. I'm sure that between now and when you're reading this, some saucy new card will have been previewed; we'll probably talk about it next week. We'll break them down by color and I'll see if I can offer up a few thoughts into what they might do in existing environments as well as what kind of things they might be heralding.
The play here will be to make an opponent sacrifice an indestructible Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or Gideon, Champion of Justice. This kind of removal, which targets the player rather than the creature and has a pretty narrow condition, is just what the doctor ordered for big Voltron commanders that have some manner of hexproof or shroud (or even protection from white).
Just wow. Exile is extremely strong in Commander, since it prevents the kinds of graveyard recursion shenanigans that many players (to include me) love. While you'll have to be kind of tricky if you put Ravnica at War into a three-color deck, I can see it doing some heavy lifting in two-color decks as well.
We're seeing uncommon planeswalkers with narrower abilities. My first thought about Teyo is to not use the -2 ability and instead force opponents to attack into him or spend their resources elsewhere. Teyo makes you immune to Gideon's Triumph, already a flavor win of some kind.
Slots right into your decks with Repercussions in them, so you can commit the most Blasphemous Act. I've heard some speculation that, storyline-wise, The Wanderer is Emrakul in disguise. I remain skeptical.
In a world in which there are many, many planeswalkers running around, you'll want to be able to proliferate as much as possible.
Already causing quite a buzz, the latest Jace gives you an alternate win con that can't be Wrathed away like Laboratory Maniac. The trick here will be not getting greedy and trying to win outright with the -8 ability. Seven cards is also often a win condition.
In Commander, counterspells have to do more than one thing. No Escape, at a pleasant three mana, is worth the slot because it exiles the creature or planeswalker that you counter. The scry ability is just the sprinkles on an already-delicious cone.
Save my creature and make it bigger? Sure thing. That Teferi is okay by me.
When one of the great fantasy authors of all time gets preview cards, you know that you've hit the big time. If you haven't read any of Brandon Sanderson's novels, I suggest you change that as soon as possible. Davriel won't make that big of a splash in Commander, but that can't dampen its fire.
Lifelink Zombies, however, will splash all over the place, especially with an inexpensive cost. It's basically Zombie Bitterblossom, but better. I look forward to seeing more amass cards and how they might impact our decks.
I want to type much of the following sentence in all caps. It's no False Demise, since you can't get tricky and put it on someone else's creature, but YOU CAN PUT IT ON YOUR PLANESWALKERS TO RESET THEM WHEN YOU RUN OUT OF COUNTERS AND IT ONLY COSTS ONE MANA.
It's fitting that one of the major stars of the story has a card that can conservatively be called awesomesauce. I'll promise to not use any of her abilities if you promise to let her stay around.
Nekusar, the Mindrazer doesn't really need any more help, but I'm okay with just punishing greedy draws.
Another one that I'd keep around without using its ability to remove counters. It's not quite red's answer to Erebos, God of the Dead. The early previews aren't giving me hope for what remains the weakest color in Commander.
Werewolf tribal, here we come!
Me, with a hot take: I'm getting a little weary of +1/+1 counters. Me also: I'm playing the hell out of this card.
Being able to cast creatures as though they have flash is a major part of what put Prophet of Kruphix in the penalty box, which offers an indication of how strong the ability is. Staple that to a powerful ability that helps sort through your deck, and you have an extremely strong card.
I'm beginning to like this Vivien lady. You're obviously putting this into your Karador, Ghost Chieftain decks in order to get a major additional benefit from putting the creature you want into the graveyard. If you're not, I sure am.
She has a bow, she has a Bear. What's next, a Cave Troll?
Planeswalkers with more loyalty counters than their converted mana cost generate loads of value. This Ajani is no different.
I'm just reminding you that this shares a color with Storm Herd.
The low casting cost and extremely strong static ability make this version of Teferi a card to keep an eye on. Like its namesake Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, it can easily create a situation completely locking other players out of the game.
Kaya laughs at your Swiftfoot Boots. Also, kind of bane of the living, with those seven loyalty counters and ability to exile creatures.
I like creatures with power 4 or greater and I like drawing cards, so you can imagine I'm pretty fond of the new Kiora. Side note: she'd be kind of silly as a commander. Not broken, but pretty silly, especially with seven loyalty counters to start.
Something something Archetype of Finality. Are we ready for Gorgon tribal? Great flavor imagining a little mob of planeswalker-killers running around.
Affinity for artifacts sends up immediate warning signs for brokenness. The +2 ability sets those signs on fire. I imagine there are already folks figuring out how to break the new Tezzeret.
Giving Alchemist's Refuge (okay, only kind of) to other color combinations is a nice gesture and indication that environments with this card in it will be loaded with surprises.
Great design, helping solve some of the mana troubles we all have in multicolor decks. The fact that you can only cast planeswalkers with it keeps it from being busted in half.
From the first look, it's plain to see that War of the Spark will have a powerful impact on Commander. What remains to be seen is what kind of environmental shift planeswalkers, counters, and proliferate will bring to the format. The next few weeks are shaping up to be quite a thrill ride.
Question of the Week will return after release season.
These are the decks that define my personal play style to the greatest degree and to some extent lay the original foundation of the format. They're also the ones you're most likely to see me bringing along to spell-sling at an event.
The Chromatic Project started as an effort to build at least one deck of all 27 possible color combinations, which was expanded to 32 when we finally got four-color commanders. There's more than one of some combinations, mostly because I have a Temur problem, plus some partner combinations are too enticing to pass up.
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; Aminatou's Demonic Fate; Angry, Angry Dinos; Animar's Swarm; Borrowing Stuff at Cutlass Point; Ikra and Kydele; Karrthus, Who Rains Fire From The Sky; Demons of Kaalia; Merieke's Esper Dragons; Nath of the Value Leaf; Queen Marchesa, Long May She Reign; Muldrotha, Speaking Primely; Queen Marchesa's Knights; Rith's Tokens; The Mill-Meoplasm; The Altar of Thraximundar; The Threat of Yasova; Zombies of Tresserhorn.
The Do-Over Project is the next step after the Chromatic—building a deck with each of the same Commanders, but not repeating any cards save for basic lands (props to Abe Sargent's "Next 99" idea). The Do-Over Project is still ongoing because we keep getting saucy new sets with creative and colorful commanders to build new decks with.
Adun Oakenshield Do-Over; 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."