I want to like the Partner mechanic. I really do. I think it’s interesting and fun, and opens a whole lot of design space for the future. I like the idea that you can have a one-two punch in your command zone, and you get access to more abilities than you normally see on just a single creature. They are like the Praetors from Scars of Mirrodin block (in that you get two things) but they allow you to go out into multiple colours.
I want to like them, like I said. But I don’t. I’m trying to, honestly. But I just can’t.
Each one individually is pretty weak. Vial Smasher the Fierce is really the only one that can stand on her own, but there are better options in red/black for that deck. As a result, you’re kind of forced to have a second commander, which leads you into a mire of options. The problem there is that none of the pairs really complement each other well; the best options are in colour pairs or in wedges/shards that are already home to better options.
For the pairs, you only have enemy-colour combinations that allow partners – Boros, Golgari, Izzet, Orzhov, and Simic. Of these, the Simic pair of Kydele, Chosen of Kruphix with Thrasios, Triton Hero is my favourite. Kydele generates a lot of mana, and Thrasios can give you something to do with it. Which is nice…don’t get me wrong.
Boros brings its own problems, as we all know. Ikra Shidiqi, the Usurper and Reyhan, Last of the Abzan kind of work well together for Golgari (I guess…), but not really. And don’t get me started on the Izzet offerings of Kraum, Ludevic’s Opus and the massively disappointing Ludevic, Necro-Alchemist. Really, Wizards?
The Orzhov pairing is decent, but doesn’t look like a match at first glance. Tymna the Weaver‘s push toward an aggressive style rewards itself with card draw, and is complemented nicely by Ravos, Soultender‘s anthem and recursion.
Honestly, ranking these pairings, I would have to go with Simic first, then Orzhov a close second, followed distantly by Golgari and Izzet, with Boros not even really a consideration.
Of course, you have three-colour Partners, as well. The Alara shards are all represented by five pairings each, with Esper – of course – being the best of the bunch. Two pairings in Esper are decent – Ishai, Ojutai Dragonspeaker paired with Silas Renn, Seeker Adept prove an interesting bond (albeit one that doesn’t really do anything for each other.) I prefer Silas Renn with Ravos, Soultender for a solid reanimator strategy, but, again, Esper does this better with Sharuum the Hegemon, because Sharuum is always the best option.
The wedges have even more options, but nothing really stands out at all. Ikra Shidiqi, the Usurper with Tymna could work, but Abzan has both Ghave, Guru of Spores AND Karador, Ghost Chieftain already, so why bother looking for another deck? You even have a ‘fun’ option in Doran the Siege Tower in these colours.
And that’s really it for three colours. Of course, you can go four colours, too, but why bother? The ACTUAL four colour legends we got in this set are all pretty solid, and all work really, really well. They all also hand you a few lines to build from, which is nice. I know Cass will disagree with that, because he thinks they are all linear and boring (Yup. – Cass), but he also thinks dirigibles are a neat idea. (They’re great in theory… – Cass)
So…none of the pairings really stand out. At least, not for me. They all seem weak, and poorly matched, and none of them really work well with each other. It is annoying – this mechanic has a ton of potential, and it just fell a little short. As mentioned, individually the only one who seems strong enough to stand on her own is Vial Smasher the Fierce, and I have a soft spot for that crazy little goblin.
PAIRING WITHOUT THE PAIR
But I still want these to work. I still want to sit down with two commanders, because that sounds fun and interesting, so I think the better way to look at these pairings is not as two commanders, but as one commander with a second card as part of your 99 that also happens to live in the command zone. Thinking about things this way makes a lot of these pairings shine a little bit brighter – Akiri, Line-Slinger can sit comfortably at the head of an aggressive artifact-centric Voltron build, and having Bruse Tarl in the command zone alongside her basically gives you a repeatable Assault Strobe for your deck. This approach allows you to focus on one partner, and use the second as a ‘backup spell’ to accent your deck nicely. In this way, Ravos becomes an anthem effect that is a lot harder to get rid of, and Sidar Kondo turns from half of the driving force of your deck to a nice way to finish the game with your Tana-generated token swarm. Admittedly, Ludevic is still El Terriblo, but that’s a design issue, not a mechanical one.
Using this approach, I’m less inclined to use partners to push for colour, and more simply as a tool. Naturally, you want to get as many colours as you can in these decks – I know I was sorely tempted to look at just the four-colour options with Partner – but that should not be the main goal. I’m a firm believer that the commander you sit down with should play an important role in your deck, and if you’re playing something just for the colours, then you’ve built the wrong deck. So now, looking at these fifteen Partners, I try to focus on the abilities first – what can this card do for my deck? If I build one of them, I want to build just one. If I happen to find another that would be a nice fit (as described above) then I’ll go for it. If that extra card happens to add a third or a fourth colour, then so be it.
This will likely limit my options, I admit. I am unlikely to ever build with Silas Renn using this approach, for example; if I want blue and black in my artifacts deck, I’ll add white and go with Sharuum the Hegemon or Sydri, Galvanic Genius…but I’m okay with that. I have never wanted to build ALL of the decks – just the ones that are fun. And while Partner certainly LOOKS fun at first glance, the reality is that Wizards did not give us enough to make me want to explore this the way that they clearly wanted EDH players to. It’s a huge hoop to jump through, and doesn’t do much beyond make new players ask you why you’re not following the rules. It adds a layer of complexity that does not bring enough reward, in my opinion.
The kid at your Friendly Local Game Store watches the Commander pods and wants to join in, so she looks up the rules, builds her deck, and shows up the next week to play. The rules state that you have to have one legendary creature as your commander, but she sees two people sit down across the table from her with two commanders each. This is not a huge deal for us crusty old-timers, but it’s another thing to explain to a new player, for no real reason beyond the novelty of it. I get that Wizards is a business, and they are in the business of making money – any company that tells you otherwise is lying, largely to trick you into giving them more money – and as such they have to bring new things to the table to keep people interested. I get that. But MaRo is always going on about the learning curve, and how Magic needs to make sense to the person playing for the first time while also being interesting for those of us who are twenty years in. I know that mentality is geared more toward Standard than any other format, but Commander is supposed to be casual. It’s supposed to be fun. If it was truly geared toward the hardcore crowd, the pre-cons would be a lot stronger out of the box.
The crux of the problem is that Partner is a great idea. Amazing. But the delivery was weak. I feel like Wizards knew that this could completely change how people play the game and intentionally low-balled the power levels of these fifteen legendary creatures to prevent that. Unfortunately, when it was announced people got super excited about it, so it ended up a huge let down. The best way forward, I think, is to keep the mechanic going in the future, but ramp up the power levels. Maybe in the next run we get fifteen more, ones that are way better partners for the ones we have now. Splitting the power level across two sets would make up for a lot of the disappointment with this crop.
But what do I know? I’m just the paying customer.