A Look at Set-Themed Commander Decks

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My four-year-old daughter knows I like “Magic cards” and that’s about the extent of her involvement in the hobby. So when my birthday came and went this past weekend, it’s no surprise that she insisted on picking out some cards for me as a gift.

As I opened the box, I was met with a Kaldheim Commander deck: Elven Empire.

I’ve seen these Commander decks in my local store before, themed around a given set. But I really didn’t know much about them until I received this gift. I know that they’re less expensive than the annual Commander decks, and they probably have a narrower card pool since they are themed around a set. But other than that, my experience with sealed Commander decks never involved such a product.

A Brief (Personal) History

I remember when Wizards of the Coast started producing preconstructed Commander decks back in 2011. Back then Commander was still a newer concept, but the products were a major hit and WOTC has continued to produce different Commander products annually ever since. But from day one I never looked at these products as a way to build/play Commander out of the box.

Instead, my personal experience with Commander back in 2011 revolved around one card: Scavenging Ooze.

You see, each of the 2011 Commander decks had an MSRP of $29.95. Because of its power in Legacy, Scavenging Ooze’s price upon release was north of $30. If you could find these decks at your local Walmart, Target, etc. at MSRP, you could crack them open, sell the Scavenging Ooze and a couple other cards, and have yourself a nice profit and a bunch of “free” leftovers.

The result: you could find lots of the other decks at your big-box retailers, but finding Counterpunch (the deck with Scavenging Ooze became very difficult. People would drive around from store to store buying any copies of Counterpunch they could, leaving the rest behind to rot on shelves.

As an aside, the same problem occurred in 2012 when Wizards released their cycle of Planechase decks. One deck in particular, Chaos Reigns, contained two copies of Shardless Agent—these could be sold, along with a couple other cards, to cover the cost of the entire deck. The same issue occurred then with deck availability as well. More recently, it seems Wizards has tried to do a better job of splitting power across decks equally so there is less of an availability issue.

I have not known any of the new set-themed Commander decks to experience such an imbalance; when I browse my local Meijer, I have seen a full representation of decks.

Does that mean there’s nothing particularly exciting in them? Is WotC simply printing more sets to meet demand? What’s the value of these set-themed Commander decks?

Examining Set-Themed Commander Deck Prices

When I browse Kaldheim Commander singles on Card Kingdom and sort by price, highest to lowest, I am surprised to see an uncommon in the number one and two slot: Sol Ring ($2.49) and Swiftfoot Boots ($2.29), respectively. With all the rares in the set and some unique cards (including the generals), I can’t believe none of them are more desirable than these ubiquitous artifacts. In fact, the commander I received as a gift, Lathril, Blade of the Elves, retails for just $1.99.

This begs the question: are these absolutely horrible to purchase? Can their value be so abysmal that the decks make for poor financial decisions?

First of all, there is some value to buying a playable Commander deck in a single purchase, right out-of-the-box. While the cards are mostly newer and there are surely opportunities to fine-tune the list, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these decks were functional enough to survive in a kitchen-table game of Commander. I won’t discount this fact. Add in the fact that the decks are relatively inexpensive ($25 for Elven Empire and $16 for Phantom Premonition on TCGplayer) is another positive. These are cheap ways to get a playable Commander deck!

But I am wondering if there’s long-term potential for some of these unique Commander cards. Sol Ring and Swiftfoot Boots will always be in demand and carry a little value, but are there other singles that could be worth more over the long haul, especially if they dodge reprint?

It’s hard to say with certainty since these set-themed Commander decks are a recent phenomenon. They started with Zendikar Rising, and those two decks can be purchased for $32 total, so they haven’t shown any appreciation just yet. None of the individual singles really stand out, either. So clearly the timeline for any sort of potential financial gain is longer than a year.

The Case for Elven Empire

Bear with me here—I am admittedly biased because I received the Elven Empire deck as my gift. But I think my daughter made the right choice; among the two Kaldheim Commander decks and two Zendikar Rising Commander decks, Elven Empire has the highest sealed price on the secondary market. Even though the most valuable card in the deck is still just Sol Ring, I think this deck in particular has the most upside potential.

Why? The answer is simple: Elves! Elves are a popular tribe, and as I leaf through the cards in this deck I’m seeing some pretty solid Elf cards. The commander, Lathril, Blade of the Elves, surely has some upside potential as a Commander. Beyond her, there are numerous cards themed around Elves, which may have utility in all sorts of casual Elf builds: Elderfang Venom, Crown of Skemfar, Serpent's Soul-Jar, Ruthless Winnower, and Dwynen, Gilt-Leaf Daen to name a few.

Then there are the elf-themed reprints that previously were worth some decent coin. Rhys the Exiled comes to mind, a rare from Morningtide that spiked to over $15 as recently as this year! Imperious Perfect is another powerful Elf reprint—before all its reprints, this uncommon from Lorwyn used to be worth over $5. Let’s not forget about Elvish Archdruid and Wood Elves, which have always been worth a buck or two.

The fact that this Elf-themed deck contains so many solid Elf reprints, new Elf cards, and a new Elf commander explains why this deck in particular sells for more than the other set-themed Commander decks. Out of the few decks that fall in this category, Elven Empire has the most upside potential so far. I wouldn’t advocate going out and buying up 100’s of these decks, of course. But if you have any interest in Elves as a tribe, this is a nice product to get you started. For this reason, I see some upside potential.

Wrapping It Up

Of course my four-year-old did not have an eye towards Magic finance when she picked out this particular product for my birthday. She just liked the girl on the box! But by a twist of fate, I believe she picked out the most interesting set-themed Commander deck with the most financial potential.

Granted, I try not to sell my birthday gifts on principle—I’ve already opened the box and I look forward to shuffling up the cards and playing with the deck. It’s probably going to be more powerful than the Commander decks I made myself, which tend to be casual in nature and filled with cards I find silly and entertaining. But since MTG finance is in my blood, I couldn’t help but do some research on the product and learn more about it.

The result of my research is summarized in this article. If you’re unfamiliar with these set-themed Commander decks and were curious about them (as I was), hopefully this article sheds some light on what they’re about. I doubt we’ll see Wizards but a Scavenging Ooze or Shardless Agent type card in these sets, so they won’t lead to immediate profit. But the Elf-themed deck, in particular, may offer some possible long-term growth given the popularity of the tribe. It’ll be interesting to see how this deck (and the others) perform on the secondary market given enough time.

It wouldn’t surprise me if a few years from now, some of these Elf cards eclipse Sol Ring and become some of the more expensive cards in the set. And sealed decks, in particular, could appreciate nicely over time (though keep in mind shipping costs on these could really eat into profits). Now that I own the deck, I’ll probably keep an eye on prices to see if the trend plays out.

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