Ikoria Commander

Posted in Card Preview on April 3, 2020

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

It's a whole new world of Commander—literally!

Welcome to Ikoria Commander (IKO and C20) preview weekend. This is a year full of Commander, and we're kicking off our first dedicated Commander release of the year with a bang. Five decks, more total new cards than in any previous Commander decks . . . plus the return of some old favorites.

Kalamax, the Stormsire | Art by: Cynthia Sheppard

This represents an evolutionary shift for Commander. We have a large slate of Commander products, and it's the first time that we're lining up a Commander release with a main booster set.

Commander is really jumping up to the big leagues here: our primary sets are getting in on the fun!

How did this come about, how did we design it, and what are some things you can expect? Let's get right into it!

Commander Goes Monstrous

Since 2011, we've released one dedicated Commander product a year, usually the preconstructed decks. And over those nine years, the format has grown into one of the most popular ways to play Magic in the world—it's now the de facto default format for tons of Magic players. Players new and old are all getting into Commander.

But with this surge of popularity in mind . . . what we were releasing hadn't grown at all! In fact, we kept the same model that whole time. These were decks, disconnected from everything else we were doing, dropped somewhere in the year. Releases were scheduled wherever they could fit in and often didn't have ample space to breathe. Yet, the decks were always a hit, growing in popularity year after year! There was definitely an appetite for more.

At the same time, we put so much time and energy into releasing new sets every year. Not just designwise—we build out these worlds and create tons of characters for them. You all get so excited about these worlds, and everybody talks about them.

So, we had an idea: what if we aligned the two?

Otrimi, the Ever Playful | Art by: Victor Adame Minguez

Commander could be a part of a big set release: we could show off more of the world and highlight some of the themes in the decks as well.

What do I mean?

Well, in the past, legendary cards in a main set have had to carry a lot of weight, especially the weight of being commanders that you can use to showcase the set themes. This is problematic for a few reasons:

  1. Because they're in the set, they are bound by Standard. Often, we have to ding legendary cards made for Commander because of how they'll impact Standard, which results in less exciting cards for everyone.
  2. There isn't always room. Even when one does show up, it muscles out some other cool card from the set. And, quite often, we have to cut them for a different rare . . .
  3. . . . Which means that sometimes there are set themes without a good legendary creature to build a Commander deck around! Energy in Kaladesh, Werewolves in Innistrad . . . the list goes on.

Not every deck would have to be deeply tied to what was going on in the set, but at least some of the decks could be. That way, we could make sure there's a legendary commander perfect for the set's theme—as well as some other options in those colors which could command the deck.

And doing it with Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths even made extra sense because it has a light three-color wedge theme. We could do five decks again for the first time since 2016, line them up to the wedges—a very popular ask—and create something really cool!

At that time, we were also working on Commander Legends. That was proving to be a great place to deploy a lot of old characters. (Like Baron Sengir, which you may have seen in a previous article I wrote!) And since that was going to dip deep into the well of throwback characters we normally reserve for Commander decks, it actually freed up the set a lot when we gave it the full ability to tap into the nostalgia for the year while giving Commander (2020 Edition) the chance to show off some brand-new characters.

So, it was settled: we would try aligning C20 with Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths!

Now that led to another set of questions . . . like what did it mean for design, exactly?

Designing for a New World

This was going to be something a little new for us. I was the architect overseeing the whole project from start to finish. And fortunately, I had a great design crew on the task. No, literally great: vision design was handed to Great Designer Search II winner Ethan Fleischer to tackle how exactly these would look!

We wanted to make sure to keep the core elements that made Commander decks great and beloved while showcasing the new world. Ethan and I worked to come up with some guiding principles. A few big ones were:

  • The new cards would be set on Ikoria. This was an additional way to show off the world of Ikoria, which ended up working out in some cool ways I'll get into later. The one loss here was not being able to tap into old legendary nostalgia, but Commander Legends is doing that later on in the year so well that preserving those throwbacks for that set worked out.
  • The reprints could be from anywhere. There were initially discussions of only cards which could plausibly be on Ikoria, and we threw that out the window pretty quickly: it was far too limiting. While the new cards would all creatively be from Ikoria, we shouldn't limit ourselves on where we could reprint from.
  • We could still use whatever mechanics we wanted. We shouldn't limit ourselves to mechanics only in Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths. If we wanted to make a new one-of delve, phasing, or split second card, it was all still on the table. (One of those three mechanics is, in fact, on a new card . . . take your guesses as to which!) This really helps make charming and cool designs, as a part of the novelty of the Commander decks has been these returning mechanics.
  • We would avoid using too many cards from the main set, especially the rares and mythics. A few of them were no doubt going to be needed to make the themes work, but in general we wanted to be giving you something extra with older cards that may be less on-hand. We didn't want to give you a ton of cards that people (you included) had just opened up in packs: if you wanted the new Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths main set cards, there would be plenty out there.
  • Each deck would still have 17 new cards. This would make this the release with the most new cards ever!

As Mark Rosewater often says, restrictions breed creativity. And as it turns out, the small restriction of trying to make cards that could fit on Ikoria really gave us some fun hooks to dive into for flavor. Ethan quickly came up with a lot of fun and resonant designs precisely because he needed to put them on Ikoria.

Gavi, Nest Warden | Art by: Randy Vargas

And while this appeared a lot in vision design, it especially came up after Ethan handed the set off to Corey Bowen for the set design process with one big innovation. While Ethan did the hard work of coming up with the original ideas and general deck structure across a couple months, it was Corey's job to take it home. And one day he came to me with a big idea for the set.

You see, in Ikoria, there are people who are bonders. These bonders have a tight relationship with a specific monster. They partner with each other, going forth into battle and supporting one another side by side.

Wait . . .partner with?

Corey wanted to showcase this in the decks—and partner with was the perfect returning mechanic to show this off. These are partners that can only partner with each other. The community had really liked the mechanic when we debuted it in Battlebond. Plus, given that I was the set lead of Battlebond, well, let's just say it wasn't a hard sell.

Pir

Adding a "partner with" pair into every deck let us build some really cool partner combinations that totally give you the feel of two characters who bond up and fight together. Great suggestion, Corey!

This is an extra little bonus and means each deck has four legendary foils instead of just three.

You'll have to wait to see what they are—but each pair tells a story, and there are some really fun combinations in there.

Ikoria Commander Deck Themes

So, how did Ethan's Vision Design team (and Corey's Set Design team) pick the themes, and what are they?

Well, as I mentioned earlier, they started with the five three-color wedges. They looked at the set themes, used them as starting points, and evolved them from there.

Red, white, black mana symbols

Up first is the red-white-black Human tribal deck, with one of the possible commanders you can use being Jirina Kudro:

Jirina Kudro

Human tribal is a subtheme of Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths. After all, with monsters running around everywhere, the humans have to do something to try and stop them. Teamwork is important here, and there are so many humans in Magic's history . . . but no good human commander to lead them all! The best you get is something like Sigarda. (Yes, yes, and Morophon, I know.)

As such, this was a really great opportunity to support the set theme and create a cool commander that is backwards compatible with tons of other cards. You want to use new Ikoria humans? Great! You want to dust off your Champion of the Parishes and Vigilante Justices? That totally works too.

One other cool thing I'll call out here is that the creative for Ikoria Commander was really developed in parallel with the main set. It's not like the main set got finished and then Commander picked up the scraps: Jirina is a main character of the set and gets to sit on the front of this deck! Awesome.

Blue, red, white mana symbols

Up next we have a blue-red-white deck featuring a returning mechanic: cycling! Cycling is back in Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, and, similarly to humans, there hasn't really been a cycling commander. Now that all changes!

Here's perhaps the most Gavin-esque card ever made—Gavi, Nest Warden:

Gavi, Nest Warden

Besides having an incredible name, this card is precisely what a cycling deck wants. Once again, you can use it with all kinds of cards in Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, but your older cards are totally fair game. Lots of good combinations here . . . cycle Decree of Silence for free, anybody? (If you free-cycle Decree of Annihilation though . . . well, what your playgroup does to you isn't my responsibility.)

Gavi is just one of the commanders, of course, and not every commander has to do with cycling. Like other Commander products, each commander option gives the deck its own unique feel and personality.

Finally, I want to mention, this is another cool main-set connection. Gavi shows up in the flavor text of tons of cards in the main set of Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths . . . and exists in the Commander decks! It really does make both products feel like a whole unit.

White, black, green mana symbols

Humans and cycling were two great examples of previous mechanics that let you use old and new cards. White-black-green brings forth the other direction: a deck which couldn't have existed beforehand or only using main-set cards but works precisely because we made a deck for it! This keyword counters and counters-matter deck is something brand new.

Kathril, Aspect Warper, if you missed it elsewhere, is on the front of this deck:

Kathril, Aspect Warper

This is a really great showcase of a deck that probably couldn't have existed without these Commander decks. And just in case keyword counters aren't your jam, the other legends will give you some other solid options, too.

Black, green, blue mana symbols

In a set full of wild mechanics, mutate is really like nothing you've played before—and this Commander deck is truly something fresh and new. With several mutate cards—including several new ones targeted specifically at Commander play—it lets Otrimi really do its thing:

Otrimi, the Ever Playful

It's really neat to be able to use this product as a way to provide some really new and wild commanders to build around. Once again, though, if mutate doesn't fascinate you, the other legendary options will tickle your fancy. One of them is a Nightmare Hydra that, well, you'll just have to see later.

Green, blue, red mana symbols

And, finally, we come to the green-blue-red deck. While the others stick closer to the themes, we wanted at least one deck doing something different. This is something new to build and has tons of existing cards to give it a whirl with: an instants deck!

While some of the cards do look for instants or sorceries, the core commander of the deck, Kalamax, the Stormsire, really wants you to look for instants.

Kalamax, the Stormsire

It was so much fun to build this deck—I remember hearing Mark Globus, the original designer on the Vision Design team of this deck, tell story after story of cards he selected for it. Whether it was casting Harrow to get four lands or casting a pump spell for lethal damage out of nowhere, this card has led to a ton of fun stories.

All That's Fit to Reprint

As I mentioned earlier, while the rest of the decks are thematically fit to Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, the reprints can be from anywhere. This gave us a lot of flexibility—and allowed us to reprint a number of popular cards.

We intentionally worked to bring the reprint quality up from C18 and C19. And, while I think it's important to set your expectations here to be what you would usually expect from Commander decks, there's plenty of good stuff and a bit more hotness than you may have seen the past couple years.

One specific point of feedback we tried to address was in the mana bases. We looked carefully at untapped lands to try and get some more untapped mana across the decks. You'll see those shown off throughout this preview weekend.

But that wasn't it when it came to mana. There's something else showing up here that I'm happy to reveal to you all for the first time! You saw it back in the Throne of Eldraine Brawl Decks, and now it's back. Yes, you've probably guessed it . . . say hello to Arcane Signet!

Arcane Signet

You can find Arcane Signet in all five of the C20 decks. With the huge surge of them here, hopefully now everybody can always have one on hand for their newest Commander deck.

Commanding Ikoria

And that's a little bit on how Ikoria Commander came to be—and what you can expect as the decks are revealed through this weekend! There's going to be a ton of previews, so stay tuned as those all come out.

We're really looking toward the public reception to see how people enjoy these. We have Commander Legends later this year as well as two more decks hitting with Zendikar Rising and Commander Legends, so there's going to be a lot happening this year with Commander—and I really can't wait to see what you all think.

Please let me know your thoughts as cards come out this weekend! I always want to hear your feedback—and that's how we can continue making Commander products better and better. You're welcome to send me a tweet, ask me a question on Tumblr, message me on Instagram, or even just email me at BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com.

You'll be able to play with these first at the Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths Prerelease, so talk to your store and see if you can reserve a deck.

In the meantime, enjoy Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths previews—it should be a monstrous time!

—Gavin
Email: BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com
Instagram: GavinVerhey
Tumblr: GavInsight
Twitter: @GavinVerhey

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