Do you love playing Commander but are looking for more? Would you like to take an unusual variant of the format for a night out at your local Magic night? Then read about Commander '95, a variant of Commander that only uses cards printed through 1995.
A few months ago I created the format and published it here on StarCityGames.com. At that point the format was in its earliest nascent stages. (You can find the article here.) I even built a Chromium Commander deck to demonstrate the rules. Since then I've gotten a chance to play with others online, and we have some results and changes to make.
The point of the first article was to serve as a proof of concept. When people hear the idea of a Commander '95 (C95) format, they think that the deck stock is too thin to support a meaningful deck. So the Chromium deck there uses the good stuff to illustrate that a deck concept is feasible. Of course, a secondary concern was illuminated—people think the format is top heavy, with just enough good cards to sustain some basic good stuff but little in the way of variety (thus all decks would quickly degenerate into the same cards fighting it out over and over again).
There seem to be three mental hurdles some have with playing Commander '95:
1) The format card pool is not deep enough to have good Commander decks—debunked in article #1.
2) The card pool is not deep enough to have meaningful decks because they all have the same cards—addressed here.
3) A player who did not play during this time and owns limited card stock would find it difficult to play it—we'll examine that next week.
So I got a chance to take the format for a spin in real life. I played with some people and saw what the weaknesses and strengths of the format are. It's a lot deeper than you might think. Sure, you run into the same cards like City of Brass, Swords to Plowshares, Sol Ring, and Nevinyrral's Disk. But that's pretty similar to modern Commander with Command Tower, Swords to Plowshares, Sol Ring, and Oblivion Stone.
One of the things I love about Commander is finding some random card that works well and then abusing it and surprising people with it. This format is deep enough to do the same. For example, a friend named Gary unearthed Howl from Beyond. Once he used it to block and kill a Shivan Dragon with his Will-o'-the-Wisp and regenerated the Wisp. He used it later to kill someone with eleven life. We began to fear that instant in his hand. You'd be surprised by how many good tech cards are out there.
One major change we made to the format was expanding it to include Homelands. Homelands was released late in 1995, so it works with the name. At first I feared the introduction of cards like Merchant Scroll. But even Merchant Scroll gets very little in the format. Plus it's nice to have the added commander options of legendary creatures from it. While playing a monocolored commander is not recommended, it should at least be an option.
Ice Age legendary creatures are not diverse enough to cover all colors. While the change doles out commanders, it leaves blue with just one option (Reveka, Wizard Savant—back in Homelands they did not balance color of legendary creatures, so it's the only one in a set filled with choices in the other colors). Other colors get decent options, and it fleshes out the colors well.
So we added Homelands to the list of official sets. Alliances is too good to include (and it's in 1996). I tossed out the idea that Commander '95 should growly organically as real Magic did, with sets added to the format as they came out in real life. While a cool idea, it's not really in the flavor of the format. If you want to in your playgroup, then add in Alliances in a few months and Mirage Block to follow after over the course of a year.
We also decided that color hosers are just not in the spirit of the format. Playing a decent card, like Northern Paladin, was a nasty surprise against a black deck. But it paled in comparison to dreadful cards like Karma or Anarchy. This was the era of downright broken hosers, and we felt that just didn't do the format justice. Or Justice. So instead we leave them alone. The only exceptions are the pro-color creatures because they are legitimately part of deckbuilding strategy. A Mono-White Aggro deck with General Jarkeld as its guy would want White Knight and the two pump guys. (You can also use a hoser for a deck concept. For example, you might add Circle of Protection: Red to keep yourself safe from your own Earthquake or Inferno.)
I want to give you one of my own decks to show that there is a real depth to the format. It includes the Homelands additions as well. Before that I want to discuss the metagame a bit, and then we'll look at my Gabriel Angelfire deck.
Commander '95 Metagame
Every color has legitimate creature removal. Luckily, Ice Age is vital at expanding the redundancy of colors in many ways. This is especially true of removal options, such as Incinerate, Dark Banishing, and Essence Filter.
Enchantment removal is very slim. Other than Disenchant and Desert Twister, there are no targeted removal spells that can take out an enchantment. There are some sweeping effects (Tranquility, Essence Filter, Disk) and a few janky ones, the best of which is Arenson's Aura (Remove Enchantments, Avoid Fate, Miracle Worker, and Savaen Elves are some of the others). This paucity of enchantment removal makes playing them more secure. But with three mass removal spells to fight them, some have metagamed into blowing out enchantments and decks that overly use them.
We do have a bunch of artifact removal, particularly in red. There's Divine Offering, Dust to Dust, Scavenger Folk, and Crumble along with Shatter, Shatterstorm, Detonate, Artifact Blast, and even the black Gate to Phyrexia. We can steal them with Aladdin, Steal Artifact, or Scarwood Bandits. Artifacts are not an issue unless you allow them to be, as you can control an overly artifact deck in a variety of ways.
For mass removal, we have a lot of nice options. Yes, people focus on Wrath of God, Armageddon, the Disk, and the aforementioned Tranquility and Shatterstorm effects. But there's also Hurricane, Inferno, Pestilence, and Earthquake as well as a few other cards here and there like Pyroclasm. Check out my deck below to see some unusual ones in action.
There's a ton of burn. Red has a lot of options, and you'll likely leave good burn on the side. Are you going to find a place for Chain Lightning, Meteor Shower, or Pyrotechnics? You have Fireball, Disintegrate, Lava Burst, Lightning Bolt, and Incinerate. Detonate does some damage, and Dwarven Catapult can wreck a team in the right situation (beware of Deflection and Reverberation though).
The format is rife with tricks, and some are better than you might suspect at first. Part of balancing a deck is figuring out which tricks are worth playing. Berserk? Death Ward? Ambush? Howl from Beyond? Blood Lust? Each deck has different tricks that are useful options. That's what this format is good for: great tricks. There are a lot of pseudo-removal tricks too.
You recall in Sealed or Draft trading a Giant Growth or some other combat trick for a creature, right? Well, the same thing is here too. Take False Orders for example. Play it to force one of your creatures through a block and/or to move a blocker to block another creature that will kill it. Whoops, did your 3/3 Roc of Kher Ridges, which was going to block and kill my Thunder Spirit, instead block my Serra Angel and die? Sorry about that! Disharmony and Ray of Command can take control of one attacking creature to kill another—tricks that have been played since the beginning of Magic.
Let's look at one of my Commander '95 decks to see a deck concept in action!
- 1 Colossus of Sardia
- 1 Shapeshifter
- 1 Urza's Avenger
- 1 Birds of Paradise
- 1 Cockatrice
- 1 Erhnam Djinn
- 1 Fyndhorn Elves
- 1 Ifh-Biff Efreet
- 1 Killer Bees
- 1 Kjeldoran Frostbeast
- 1 Leaping Lizard
- 1 Lhurgoyf
- 1 Llanowar Elves
- 1 Radjan Spirit
- 1 Scaled Wurm
- 1 Scavenger Folk
- 1 Serra Angel
- 1 Singing Tree
- 1 Thicket Basilisk
- 1 Yavimaya Gnats
- 1 Autumn Willow
- 1 Gabriel Angelfire
- 1 Lady Caleria
- 1 Rashka the Slayer
- 1 Basalt Monolith
- 1 Disrupting Scepter
- 1 Flying Carpet
- 1 Icy Manipulator
- 1 Ivory Tower
- 1 Jalum Tome
- 1 Jayemdae Tome
- 1 Joven's Tools
- 1 Nevinyrral's Disk
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Tawnos's Coffin
- 1 The Hive
- 1 Divine Transformation
- 1 Gaea's Touch
- 1 Land Tax
- 1 Lure
- 1 Night Soil
- 1 Sylvan Library
- 1 Wild Growth
- 1 Disenchant
- 1 Spore Cloud
- 1 Swords to Plowshares
- 1 Venomous Breath
- 1 Altar of Bone
- 1 Desert Twister
- 1 Dust to Dust
- 1 Hurricane
- 1 Hymn of Rebirth
- 1 Nature's Lore
- 1 Regrowth
- 1 Renewal
- 1 Resurrection
- 1 Untamed Wilds
- 1 Winter Blast
- 1 Wrath of God
The goal of this deck is to destroy all flyers and then give Gabriel Angelfire flying and fly over a newly shorn flying defense. We have a variety of ways to accomplish this. Hurricane is the obvious example, but consider our good Ifh-Biff Efreet. Just put enough green mana into it to blow up all of the flyers too. (Beware someone else tossing in a bunch of mana to kill you if you're low on life.)
Outside of those options, I have cards like Winter Blast to kill smaller flyers and tap all of them and Cockatrice and Lure to smash hammer a few. Radjan Spirit can drop a flyer to the ground to help swing. Then I have Urza's Avenger and Leaping Lizard to give flying so they can also swing for some aerial beats. I even have Flying Carpet to give one of my guys flying. (I still want to live the dream of sending Colossus of Sardia on a Carpet.)
Because of cards like Hurricane, I'm only using essential flyers like Killer Bees and Serra Angel and not running cards like Seraph or Thunder Spirit. Yavimaya Gnats can regenerate from damage and hold the fort. I thought about Circle of Protection: Green, but there wasn't enough here to care.
After the flying folks, I looked at ground-based pounders like Colossus, Scaled Wurm, and more. I have some decent midrange bodies to drop down—Rashka the Slayer can block flyers but doesn't get hurt by the flying hate, while guys like Autumn Willow, Lady Caleria, Erhnam Djinn, and Shapeshifter hold the fort.
Because I had the Lure, I tossed in both Thicket Basilisks (the other is the Kjeldoran Frostbeast). That way I can really have fun! I thought about regeneration effects like Scarwood Hag or Regeneration, but I decided to keep too many tricks away from the deck. Let's keep it simple. I'm happy to trade my Lure and Basilisk for your whole team.
I added some obvious cards (Swords, Wrath, etc). I also added in some fun tricks of my own. I pulled out Reverse Damage at the last minute, but I still have room for cards like Venomous Breath and Spore Cloud. This isn't a dedicated control deck like the Chromium one in my first article, so it doesn't need the same cards in white (such as Preacher or Witch Hunter). So while they do share a few white cards in common, the decks would not play the same.
The artifacts include some that I love in the format, like the Book and the Stick (Jayemdae Tome and Disrupting Scepter) and Tawnos's Coffin. The Hive is here to make blockers chump flyers until the deck comes online. I'd run Scarecrow if I didn't think it'd get blasted by anyone who was bothered by it (since every color would have lots of ways to take it down).
One fun artifact I like from Homelands is not Serrated Arrows (although some people have gotten good results from it). I don't need too much removal, so cards like Triskelion, the Arrows, or Roots aren't in my deck. Instead, Joven's Tools is amazing. It singlehandedly breaks a stalemate. That will really help against a deck like my Chromium deck or many others. You can make any creature unblockable over and over again. It wins games (and can do so with commander damage).
Anyway, I'll spare you the details of much of my deck, giving you a chance to look up cards and see what to see. It's one of a few Commander '95 decks I've dialed up, and the format is very diverse.
Man, Commander '95 is turning out to be a blast to play! We are building decks, trying out fun cards you would never see in a normal Commander environment, and having a lot of fun doing it. So why not grab a few people and try it yourself?
See you next week, when we look at what cards are staples and how to acquire them.
Appendix: Rules Of Commander '95
As of this article:
1) Every card in your deck must have been printed in Magic as of the end of 1995.
2) The format uses the modern Commander banned list. No other cards are banned.
3) Hosers are frowned upon save for protection creatures and those used for their own deck.
You may play a version of a card from a later set. The legal sets include: