seanblacksheep

I enjoy spoiler season. Hope and possibility fill the air. These magical times each year bring with them a tide of deck building inspiration.

Spoiler season, however, creates an unfortunate side effect with full set reviews. Competitive deckbuilders, players, and financial experts get great value from the reviews, while Commander players take on the role of scapegoat for terrible card designs. The individual nature of Commander groups make even Commander-oriented reviews an exercise in futility. At the end of the day, Commander players must review the set individually.

Keeping this in mind, I will not being reviewing Journey to Nyx. In place of a review, I am going to go over how I look through spoilers in the hopes that you can pick up on better ways to evaluate new cards without resorting to a long trial and error process.

(Gatherer doesn’t update until this coming Tuesday, so still with the MythicSpoiler hyperlinks…)

Legends

Legends top the list of cards I look at in a spoiled set. New legends mean new possible generals and new decks. When I look at a new legend, I look for the primary defining characteristics that matter to me: color identity, converted mana cost, and abilities. I rank them in that order.

I use a simple process when evaluating a cards color identity. With the variety of color identities available to play in Magic, I avoid doubling any given color identity in my deck box. For example, King Macar, the Gold-Cursed (King Midas) and Shirei, Shizo’s Caretaker both fit in the same mono-black color identity. To become one of my generals, Macar would need to be an upgrade over Shirei. While they share color identities, their abilities play differently, and I conclude that Shirei will stick around and Macar won’t be considered as a general again until the Shirei deck retires.

After moving on from color identity, I look at converted mana costs. Commanders with a CMC of six or more represent a Cadillac-style luxury and require more justification to run. I generally end up with lower cost commanders. (Five currently tops the CMC for a commander I run). A legend needs to hold a special amount of awesomeness for me to consider running something more expensive.

Wizards figured this out. None of the legends in this newest set sit in the Cadillac price range.

After I go through the initial culling of legends, I take a closer look at the abilities a legend has to offer. My personal power rankings for these effects (from most to least important) are card advantage (Tutors, Card Draw, Cascade, Ect), recursion, mana production, niche factor, aggressiveness, and inherent control.

  • Commanders that can draw a bunch of cards or tutor create amazing value and will always be worth building around. This makes Erebos, God of the Dead the most exciting Standard-legal legend, for me.
  • A legend that makes your graveyard into a second hand has an instant spot near the top of commander royalty. I wish Wizards would print more legends like that, since there are no reanimator legends in Standard. Good examples of graveyard commanders are Hanna, Ship’s Navigator and Sharuum the Hegemon.
  • Mana fixing, ramping or mana storing legends give a level of consistency to a deck that border on oppressive. One of the few ban list choices I agree with, Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary, fits this profile. You don’t need something quite at that level to make a legend worth it. Karametra, God of Harvests and Kruphix, God of Horizons">Kruphix, God of Horizons provide decent examples of commanders that make for exciting ramp decks.
  • The niche factor applies to legends with any number of triggered or activated abilities that beg to be built around. The sparse offerings from the first three categories means that most commanders fit this mold. Think of cool, build-around-me abilities, like what Rhys the Redeemed has.
  • Barring any cool interactions, tribal themes, or powerful card advantage, the fallback category for a Commander is straight up aggressiveness. Voltron and traditional aggro decks both fall into this category. To be fair, most of the gods fit this bill if they are animated. Purphoros, God of the Forge is the best recent example of an aggressive commander.
  • Inherent Control leads to decks built with prison or stax as a primary plan, something I avoid in most circumstances. However, when legends get printed that fit the theme, they usually run surprisingly well. Hythonia the Cruel is a good example of a commander that has the ability to drag out games.

If a legend doesn’t fall into one of these categories, I consider it awful as a commander and rate it nearly unplayable in that role.

Utility Cards

You probably already own at least one Commander deck if you’re looking through a new set for Commander cards. Judging which cards will be best for your decks is up to you. If you like to grab utility cards for future commander decks while drafting or trading, evaluating generic playability is invaluable. There are four basic types of utility cards to look for: control cards, cards that generate card advantage, mana fixing/acceleration, and recursion.

Removal and control are essential to all Commander decks, so you need to be able to spot which removal is best. There is a hierarchy for removal in Commander. From best to worst, the removal types are:

  • tuck
  • steal
  • exile
  • sacrifice
  • destroy
  • bounce
  • threaten

For countering spells it goes like this:

  • tuck
  • steal
  • exile
  • counter
  • lapse
  • remand

For example, Spell Crumple > Dissipate > Cancel for the same cost. Conditional removal is also usually worse than non-conditional removal. Path to Exile, for example, is usually better than Unified Strike. Removal is usually better if it is as cheap as possible. You should look at the one-to-three CMC range for spot removal and a range of four to six CMC for mass removal.

You would expect more out of a six-CMC wrath than a basic four-CMC spell. For example, Austere Command and Terminus both have superior effects to Wrath of God, so their mana costs are justified. If there is an added effect or body, the right CMC shifts. Acidic Slime is perfectly good spot removal since it is attached to a creature, while Rootgrapple is over-costed for the same effect. For truly “staple” effects, you want a cheap, repeatable ability. This would be something like Aura Shards, Grave Pact or Trygon Predator.

Card advantage is another utility all decks need to run. The ranking of card advantage usually goes:

  • tutors
  • free-playing
  • drawing
  • scrying

[editor’s note: Yes, we know tutoring is not technically card advantage, but the inherent power of pulling any card from your deck leads to lots of opportunities to create virtual card advantage, like wrathing the board]

Tutors are incredibly powerful and will almost always be playable.

Cards that let you play things for free from your library such as cascade or Lurking Predators are rare and will also be worth trying out if they are available. Drawing is the most basic form of card advantage and the most popular. The mana efficiency and upper limits of the card draw are what will usually be the defining factor in playability. Efficient spells like Brainstorm and Rhystic Study set a baseline. Spells that let you draw cards limited only by your recourses such as Blue Sun’s Zenith or Necropotence will be considered for most decks that have access to them.

Mana fixing is probably the most boring form of utility, but also the most essential. It is rare for a card that searches for land or generates mana to be unplayable in Commander. Mana curve is the most important requirement for these cards, but even that isn’t essential for playability.

Recursion isn’t actually required in all Commander decks, but it is enough of a factor that it should be kept on your radar. Repeatable recursion that brings things to the battlefield is the best, but like mana fixing, most recursion is playable in some fashion. This also means anything that removes cards from a graveyard is probably usable in at least casual playgroups. Mass or repeated recursion will be the style that rises to the top and establishes long term staple status.

Theme Cards

The cards lazy writers point to as “EDH Fodder” are typically theme cards. If a theme card isn’t a lord or a utility card, it usually isn’t playable. I only mention it because people will call a card that gives minotaurs deathtouch “made for Commander” and that’s just not right. Commander players still like to play cards that do things that are relevant to the game.

Win Cons

There is an odd category of cards I like to call win cons or “I win” cards. These are things like Omniscience, Primal Surge, Ad Nauseam, and Hermit Druid. When you play the card, you probably win (unless you try not to) or are darn close to it. These cards are good because winning is generally considered a good thing. However, I would never consider any of these staples of Commander. In any given group, you can really only have one person with one deck that uses each of these cards, because they becoming boring instantly. Commander players want originality over point-and-click wins. These cards will see a surge when they are first discovered and die off over time as people get sick of seeing them.

Conclusion

If you look through Journey Into Nyx with these thoughts in minds, you are going to notice there are very few cards that fit the bill for Commander. It doesn’t mean that the set is necessarily bad. It is just the result of Magic being around for so long, and so many alternatives already existing. Personally, I think most of the Commander value in Journey Into Nyx comes from the uncommons in the set. I was initially upset about it because none of the legends made me want to build a deck. However, it looks like we got plenty of good utility players and overall there are lots of things in Theros block worth trying out.

I want to remind everyone I am open to giving out deck advice. If you email me at swordstoplow@gmail.com and just give me your deck list, what you want the deck to do, how competitive your group is, any known issues with the deck, and your budget, I will make sure to help you out to the best of my abilities.

-STP
@Swordstoplow