Happy New Year, QS readers! I hope you got a bit of R&R over the winter holidays and had a good time celebrating the turning of the calendar. Personally, I moved to a new place just in time for 2011. New home, new year, new article - let's go!
At the moment (and as a quick follow-up to my previous article), I have been playing some great games with Rhys the Exiled. He has proven to be quite versatile and effective as a Commander. It's always nice having a legendary creature that comes quick out of the gates, and I have gained 10 life or more at once from attacking a few times. I have also found (firsthand, fortunately) that Nim Deathmantle is extremely good, especially on enter-battlefield-effect creatures like Death-Mask Duplicant and Sylvan Messenger. If you're building a new deck, definitely consider the Deathmantle - I would run it even if it didn't have its equipment benefits.
But I digress. 2011 looks to be an exciting year for Commander players! First, we are at that tantalizing point in time again just before spoiler season starts. Mirrodin Besieged will likely offer new proliferate and infect options for Commander, and our appetites are already whet by the previews for Glissa, the Traitor, Hero of Bladehold and Thopter Assembly. If these cards are any indication, Mirrodin Besieged will no doubt fuel the fires for new decks and strategies.
And as most of you may already know, WOTC is releasing its Commander products this coming summer, and it will promise to bring a new wave of cards, decks and players into the format. The growing interest in Commander has also not gone unnoticed by the financially savvy, as many staples in the format like Bribery, Arachnogenesis and Sol Ring have been slowly rising over time. An exciting year, indeed!
No matter your interest in Commander, whether you're just starting out or are a seasoned veteran, I think it's a good idea to prepare by assembling and maintaining a "Commander Box" which is simply a collection of commons, uncommons and cheap rares that are frequently played in Commander. Commander players will always have at least one deck. Many of us choose to build and play multiple decks at a time and having a box of staple cards on hand can quickly expedite the deck building process. If you've accumulated a metric ton of cards over the years you won't need to sift through all those boxes and random piles of cards to find that Totem Speaker for your Beast deck.
Having a box of cheaper, Commander-oriented cards also helps newer players get a better grasp of what works better in the format without having to break the bank, as most, if not all of these cards are extremely affordable and can be had for under a dollar or as throw-ins in trades. It's not hard to pick up a couple cards here and there, and before you know it you'll have a little library to sift through when brewing up a new deck. And when you've gotten some experience with deck-building and know what you're looking for you can start adding cards that are more obscure and niche - your own hidden gems, if you will.
Check out my Commander box! Although it's deceptively plain, it's all filled up with cheap, Commander-friendly cards: some are as old as Arabian Nights and Antiquities, or as new as Elspeth vs. Tezzeret. I also have a habit of picking up quirky, "hidden gem"-type cards for testing purposes, like a foil Parallectric Feedback for opponents who like giant Fireball-type spells.
This isn't meant to be a definitive Commander staples list - I just want to introduce the concept of a Commander box, highlight some of the choices in my own box, and explain why I think they're worth setting aside. Here we go!
For me, the cards that stand out are ones that provide exceptional value, versatility, or offer an ability not usually seen in that color. For example, Return to Dust can do a lot of damage for just four mana, as can Retribution of the Meek for three. Saltblast is a way for white to kill planeswalkers. Miraculous Recovery is a great recursion spell that can blindside opponents because of its instant speed. Stonehewer Giant unequivocally goes into all my white decks. While slightly janky and on the experimental side, I think Soul Sculptor has a bit of potential for nullifying problem creatures - or if I just have a lot of enchantment removal in my hand.
As we all know, blue is capable of a considerable amount of shenanigans. Aside from countering and bouncing spells, they have a surprising amount of removal. Spin into Myth and Pongify are great at what they do: Spin into Myth is an amazing answer to Commanders, and Pongify's drawback can be easily worked around... and it's just funny to turn an opponent's best monster into an Ape. Drift of Phantasms and Vedalken Aethermage are also great at tutoring for an answer or a vital combo piece. Evacuation and Ixidron are quite serviceable as blue sweepers.
For the record, Crypt Angel is one of my favorite cards (from Invasion Block, surprise!): for five mana you get a 3/3 pro-white flier that also recurs a red or blue creature. And it only needs one black mana, so it's very playable in multicolored decks. A lot of the other cards here are quality removal or tutoring spells. I love Nezumi Graverobber // Nighteyes the Desecrator for graveyard hate, and he is an absolute beast when he flips. Phyrexian Infiltrator is another favorite (Invasion Block again!) as a potentially repeatable steal effect in black.
As you may have guessed, most of the red cards I picked out are good at one thing: blowing other things up. Haste is a very important ability in Commander, and Ancestral Anger is great at giving that to all your creatures. Bloodfire Colossus and Scourge of Kher Ridges are just two red creatures that can serve dual roles of sweeping the board and beating face. Red is also good at stealing creatures, and Insurrection is the often-game-ending culmination of that ability. A while back I spent an entire article talking about red cards, so to avoid rehashing and repeating words, just ch-ch-check it out.
I think green is one of the strongest colors in Commander because of all the ramp and non-creature removal it has, and I have no doubt most of these cards will find their way into one green deck or another. While a lot of these are iterations of ramp effects, I wanted to point out the potential brokenness of Greater Good. In the right deck, you can regularly draw at least a fistful of cards from it. I think Lignify is a little underplayed in terms of removal. It can be destroyed, but for those creatures you can't or don't want to destroy (Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre, Sundering Titan), it's a good way to keep them out of the game for at least a little while. Fun fact: I also have a Visions Giant Caterpillar in my box, because I think I had planned to do an A Bug's Life-themed card alter.
This section is a little less focused because the colors of the cards are all over the place, but I think they paint a good picture of cards you'd want to include in your box. They all offer a good amount of value for their cost, like Aura Shards, or like Identity Crisis, are just so powerful for their cost and colors there's little reason not to play them. As a side note, Mindleech Mass is a pet card of mine. A very ugly pet card, but hilarity ensues when you give him double strike.
Artifacts are commonly used in Commander to shore up any weaknesses or gaps in a deck's game plan. There are very specific artifacts for very specific decks (ie. Evolution Vat and Legacy Weapon), but some of the above artifacts serve more general and flexible purposes. Wayfarer's Bauble is like a colorless Rampant Growth for non-green decks, while Journeyer's Kite can provide a consistent source of lands. I'll be the first to admit that I don't play Whispersilk Cloak nearly as often as I should, but I do think it's a role player almost on the same level as Lightning Greaves.
In terms of mana acceleration, I wanted to mention the Ravnica Signets and Mirrodin Talismans as well. Their differences are subtle, but I like the Talismans a bit more for their speed. Signets are great when your deck has a higher multicolor card count, so their dual mana production helps out more.
I wanted to focus here on utility lands instead of dual lands and other mana fixers. I like these lands because they're almost always usable in some way. Eiganjo Castle and Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers can mess up combat math for your opponents, and Shizo, Death's Storehouse is very good at getting Commander damage through. Skarrg, the Rage Pits and Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion are also great at granting evasion or additional damage.
So that's my idea for a Commander box, in a nutshell! Are there any obscure cards, hidden gems or special dollar-or-less rares you have kicking around in your own Commander collection? Share them in the comments!
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