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New Set, New Commander Decks! A Review

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I have not been this excited for a Magic set in quite a while, but it looks like Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty is going to have cards that may shake up every single format!

Today we're taking a look at the two Commander decks that have been spoiled: Buckle Up and Upgrades Unleashed.

Here's a link to the official decklists including an "oops" made at the factory. It turns out the Upgrades Unleashed deck actually has 2x copies of Mossfire Valley, so you get a free bonus rare!

One thing I'd like to mention before diving into the article is that I have had the chance to actually play these decks online using some helpful Magic programs. Our focus in this article is on the contents of both decks. In next week's article, we will talk about the changes I made and how they played out. That will come out just in time for the decks to be released in paper for those of you looking to spice them up immediately.

First Impressions on Power Up

Wow, Wizards really outdid themselves. No, I mean they really outdid themselves, and I mean that in the wrong way. The selection of cards in this deck is unbelievable. It feels like an algorithm built this deck rather than a human being. To pivot the deck in a different direction, a lot of cards need to be removed, so many that it would cease being a Kotori, Pilot Prodigy deck. They've made some good decisions from a synergy and staples perspective, but I feel like there is no big picture to the deck. "What could we reprint for Kotori?" seems like the number one question asked and answered by this deck, and I find it severely lacking in flavor.

An Unlikely (and Underwhelming) Commander

I just don't get it. The way the deck is built, you have very few one- and two-drops to play before Kotori. Most of the time, it's just sitting in play as a 2/3. You get some vigilance and some lifelink, but why? There's very little synergy for this commander. In theory it reduces crew costs, but when that even comes up, opponents will just kill it. Nothing has haste! Just writing these notes has me fuming at the memories of how frustrating it was to actually play with this deck. In next week's article, you will see me try to salvage Kotori as the commander. Ultimately, though, I think I have a better suggestion for the shell.

Is There Any Good News?

The good news is it needs nothing to work out of the box as a casual-friendly, low-powered deck, which is a real plus. I know many Commander players like pre-mades for that exact reason. There's also the Shorikai, Genesis Engine theory, which makes more and more sense as I play the deck. TLDR: My guess is that Shorikai was the original commander, but there was some kind of last minute decision which left the deck the way it is. Oops again, Wizards!

So What's Inside?

Fifteen total Vehicles, with 7 completely new from Neon Dynasty. The deck also has 33 total Artifacts to improve deck synergy. It includes cards like Dispatch, which is perfectly on-theme and also extremely strong given what the deck is about; then, there are staple cards like Swords to Plowshares because... white? For me, that's a flavor fail, and a missed opportunity to imbue the deck with some much-needed identity.

Some Weird Includes from Reprinted Cards

Indomitable Archangel feels strange to me. It's essentially a four-mana Standard Bearer that eats a removal spell. Doesn't this deck have a TON of recursion, stock? Do you really need shroud for your artifacts? This doesn't even protect Kotori, which would have made a more compelling reason to include it.

Riddlesmith is fine, but it's never gotten me more than one extra re-draw per turn. The deck simply doesn't have enough low-cost artifacts to legitimize it for me. Also, there's a Jace in here...? This card has zero synergy with the deck. You could convince me that Jace, Cunning Castaway could be an alright include in this deck, but Architect makes absolutely no sense.

Some Weird Includes from the New Cards

As for Release to Memory, I guess they wanted to add a graveyard interaction answer, and it does include Spirits, which adds Kamigawa flavor. The problem is, this should instead be one of a dozen great artifacts that can interact with not only graveyards but also synergize with your plan. And fine, you might say, they wanted to include a new Neon Dynasty graveyard card. Well, why not Lion Sash, which is unbelievably better for this deck and is also a rare from Neon Dynasty in white? Wizards: crickets.

Given the algorithmic level of reprinting… why aren't there any artifact lands AT ALL in this deck? Overall, artifact lands offer a huge synergy boost. You can play Razortide Bridge and Darksteel Citadel if you are that afraid of your land being destroyed. Raff Capashen, Ship's Mage and Shimmer Myr gives all your artifacts flash, but so what? Basically Katsumasa, the Animator is a version of Raff that makes sense in this deck.

The BIGGEST Weird New Card Include

Let me be clear: Shorikai, Genesis Engine is good, fun, and works well with the deck. I almost wish it was the default commander. If I had more time, I would have played more games with the two legends swapped. This week, I am going to try and get in more Shorikai games, as I have a feeling it's the better choice from every angle. It's an extremely easy swap, but even then, I'm still unsure that Kotori is a card good enough to include in the deck.

Some Awesome Includes That Work in Multiple Decks

Where Power Up somewhat fails at its own theme, I can tell you it does have some really great looking cards that will easily slot into many other existing deck archetypes.

Drumbellower is going into my Mellicent, Restless Revenant Spirit tribal deck and is an awesome include in a HUGE number of Commander decks. It's super flexible between mana ramp, crewing on defense, multiple activations of abilities and so on. Expect to see it frequently.

Organic Extinction is an awesome one-sided wrath for this deck and any other strategy featuring a lot of artifacts. While it does not look as good as Blasphemous Act, it definitely should be at least as good as Day of Judgment, and the one-sided potential cannot be ignored.

Kappa Cannoneer is one of the most on-point new cards. It's an artifact creature. It has improvise. Ward 4 is pretty good. Turtle Warrior instead of Turtle Ninja, but, it has a massive CANNON on its back, and for good reason as it will steadily grow and become unblockable. There are many infinite combos involving bouncing artifacts over and over again that charge up the Cannoneer to one-shot someone. A great include in this deck with definite potential for others as well.

What About the Memes?

Swift Reconfiguration takes the absolute top prize here. Killing a commander is good. Turning a commander into an insect with Darksteel Mutation is better. Sending someone's commander to the moon with Imprisoned in the Moon is hilarious. But now you can turn a commander into a Vehicle, and for the low cost of one mana. I'm getting an unhealthy amount of silly ideas just from this one card. Speaking of which, I wonder when the Secret Lair VIP GTA edition comes out....

Was Power Up Fun to Play?

Well, the biggest flaw is the lack of haste, no doubt one of Magic's most powerful evergreen mechanics. While haste is not a common white or blue keyword ability, it would have been nice if Kotori, being a pilot prodigy and all, at least granted the Vehicle that it crews haste, like Speedway Fanatic. The next thing I find lacking is the overall number of artifacts and Vehicles. This Commander deck suffers from a common issue among pre-made decks which I call it "one third" problem. Basically, while drawing a perfect mana curve of roughly one in three draws, you need to draw exactly one-third "engine" cards like Sram, Senior Edificer, Sai Master, Thopterist or Thopter Spy Network while also drawing one-third "gas" cards like artifacts and/or Vehicles. Every time you draw an instant or sorcery, it slows your engine. Every time you draw another engine piece while you already have one, it's another dead draw. Imagine having Sram, Sai, Network, AND Kotori in play at once… crickets... that's right, nothing triggers, nothing happens, and you're left with a bunch of vanilla creatures sitting around moping. Yikes!

When I curved out, played a couple of artifacts early, got an engine online, and then just drew a couple more Vehicles, the deck showed potential. Unfortunately, I felt like I was durdling a lot of the time the ideal draw scenario did not happen.

If I had to rate Power Up on a scale of one (worst) to five (best): for raw power, it gets just about a two. For fun, I'd rate it at three when it's working, or one when it's not. I played it against other decks that I would consider competitive and casual alike, but I had a hard time because the deck itself does not function well.

How Would I Power Up, Uh, Power Up?

For more on this topic, check out my follow-up article next week. I will say now that improving the deck involves doing a lot more of what I think the deck is trying to do, and adding cards to support those gameplans instead of keeping random staple spells that hurt the probability of drawing engine cards. We can certainly improve the consistency, power, and fun of doing what the deck is meant to do. Can we transform Power Up into a cEDH dream deck? Probably not with Kotori, but raising the fun quotient is well within reach.

Next, let's talk about the other Neon Dynasty commander deck, Upgrades Unleashed, lead by Chisiro, The Shattered Blade.

First Impressions on Upgrades Unleashed: a Night and Day Difference

Wow, Chisiro is both powerful and fun! I can see a bunch of *different* ways to improve this deck, and they are all awesome, but it still plays great right out of the box. It doesn't matter what cards you draw; you are always going to threaten to kill players in a few turns. Since the commander gives you both creatures and counters, it does not matter which one-third of the deck you draw, as you can cover the shortfall with your commander's ability. Nearly every card seems to be both a synergistic card and a potential threat left unchecked.

The Secret Sauce

Chisiro is all about the new modified mechanic, so how many cards synergize with that theme? About 45, and after subtracting the lands that DON'T have synergy, that makes 70% of the deck. All in all, Chisiro has tremendous synergy, and every card choice is either decent, good, or extremely good. Now, it does have some staple cards like Kodama's Reach and Rampant Growth that I already have better ideas for, but those are simply swapping non-thematic ramp for thematic ramp. Ramp is ramp and improving the flavor a bit at virtually no cost in power is a no brainer for me.

Where Are the Bad Cards?

Truth be told, there are very few to be found. There certainly exist more powerful cards than Chain Reaction, Decimate and Starstorm, but I think these have a place here nonetheless. Consider that your monsters are likely unreasonably huge. They can survive damage, but not a boardwipe. On the other hand, you need to wipe the board, or at least clear a lot of tokens. Additionally, the cards pair well with the new spell Smoke Spirits' Aid—in that light, these choices belong.

Decimate can be tricky to put on the stack sometimes, but in a four-player game, it's very likely you just enjoy a four-for-one. Even Walking Skyscraper, which looks a bit odd at first, could be a zero mana 8/8 with trample and hexproof that will grow into one-shot territory quickly. Remember how Power Up has no haste? Chisiro has a ton of haste! Gigantic hexproof monsters with trample AND haste for zero mana are never awful.

Reprints vs. New Cards

For the title of best reprint, it's got to be a toss up between Grumgully, the Generous and Forgotten Ancient. They both do exactly what the deck wants to do, and for very little mana. I think I will give the nod to Grumgully because out of seventeen creatures there is only one Human, Champion of Lambholt, and you can see it was a deliberate design choice to limit the number of Humans.

The Best Cards from NEO

This is a really hard choice, but I want to say the best new cards are either Akki Battle Squad or Concord with the Kami. Getting double attacks is outrageous value, but Concord is super flexible no matter the game state. Ultimately, the ability to draw cards and rebuild your board state helps you win, whereas double attack steps is mostly win-more. Of course, this deck does not need a lot to win, and it can build back up from a board wipe surprisingly fast. Silkguard is another really great card, and i is essentially the very heavily played Snakeskin Veil but even better and more thematic in this deck. Instead of jamming the same 10 cards into every commander deck, this is a great example of just slightly re-tooling an existing card and putting it into a commander deck where folks can have 95% of the power but way more flexibility, which keeps games fun.

What About the Memes?

Well, alright, since you asked. I've got to ask, Collision of the Realms? I know the deck has a very loose token sub-theme from Chisiro and cards like Concord, One with the Kami, Elemental Mastery, and Ulasht, the Hate Seed. But is that really compelling enough to include Collision? Time will tell on this one, but I have yet to even cast it. It feels like it has a significant chance of helping someone else at the table a lot more than me, so I'm not sold on it yet.

Was Upgrades Unleashed Fun to Play?

Heck yeah it was! I cannot stress enough how the deck played itself, and seemingly cannot fail to spiral out of control in just a few turns. While it might not look like the deck is resilient to board wipes and removal, cards like Hunter's Insight, Rishkar's Expertise, and Concord with the Kami can restore a game state in quick order. Plus, there's enough hexproof and totem armor effects that Chisiro is unlikely to just die.

If I had to rate Upgrades Unleashed on that same one-to-five scale, it gets a three for raw power and a four for fun. In any game where I was left alone, at all, I quickly became the archenemy at the table and sometimes could kill two players at once. With just a few changes, I am hoping to turn that into three! While it is certainly not a cEDH-grade deck, it's strong for a casual deck because you are always growing. Be wary if your play group wants a slower experience.

And That's a Wrap... Until Next Week!

I'll be busy playing these decks with a few notable changes. Check in next week for my take on substitutions. I'm already super hyped for Chisiro, but I'm hoping I can get at least as pumped for Shorikai. I'm just not sure there's any hope for Kotori itself, but I will give it the best shot I can, and think I'm onto a few cards that do play into its strengths. In any case, all in all, Neon Dynasty looks great for Commander.

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