The Card Awakens

Posted in Command Tower on May 21, 2015

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Lord Acton's words ring true in many respects today as they did over 100 years ago.

Art by Greg Staples

In Commander, power is often viewed as overriding depth—the variety of cards that play with a theme or goal without necessarily being strong in a vacuum. Nathan Holt from Walking the Planes asked a fun question on Twitter last week that Tom Delia, Commander enthusiast and Magic Online Community Cup 2013 community team competitor answered:

It's an interesting dynamic putting tier 1 decks—the most powerful and thoroughly polished options—strictly against variety and diversity of cards in Commander. Filling out a 99-card deck almost assures us that both potent and deep cards will be chosen. In fact, any deck will have some internal ranking from most- to least-powerful when looking over things card-by-card.

But the difference between the "best" decks and everything else is often less a matter of individual cards than how they work together as a cohesive unit.

Going to nine to ten "deep" in Commander is the typical affair for many of you, and I certainly stretch to include a ton of variety and interesting choices in my decks. But there's always a few strong cards that stand out. If you missed it the other week, I shared my most recent take on my strongest Commander deck, Rhys the Redeemed:

Stybs's Rhys the Redeemed

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COMMANDER: Rhys the Redeemed
99 Cards

There are plenty of powerful cards and ways for the deck to run away with the game if left unchecked, but there's just a handful where it can win out of nowhere. Of all the contenders for the most powerful card in my deck—Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite; Jazal Goldmane; Avacyn, Angel of Hope; Kamahl, Fist of Krosa; and others—I believe it's Craterhoof Behemoth that takes the top. In many cases, other players will find an answer for Avacyn, or Jazal, or Kamahl. Elesh Norn might hit hard when she arrives, but she's also not long for the battlefield in most cases.

Craterhoof Behemoth is entirely different.

With a relative handful of creatures, particularly those created by instants like Secure the Wastes and White Sun's Zenith during the end step prior, landing Craterhoof Behemoth simply ends games. There isn't time to find an answer or to wait for me to build up more forces. There isn't a telegraphed future turn of casting Overrun off an activated ability. The Behemoth arrived and players' life totals crumble.

I debate constantly about what to do about the most powerful cards in each of my decks. Having terrifically powerful things to do is great, but the temptation to unleash their full destructive force is strong every time the card comes up. I generally find choosing the less oppressive play to be better in most games, knowing that when the time is right I have the ability to hit hard anyway.

It's a balancing act that relies on measuring how other players are doing. If they aren't having fun it doesn't make sense to pile on even more pain. Of course, sometimes a wallop of Craterhoof Behemoth is exactly what a battlefield needs.

I like those occasions. A lot.

Emergency Powers to the Supreme Chancellor

You too know the power of specific cards in your decks: You shared them in droves. For some, it was simply the card Sol Ring because if you have it on the first turn the early game is proportionally unfair. For others, like Patrick, it was the same reason I highlighted Craterhoof Behemoth above:

The only card that comes to mind as the most powerful card in any of my decks has got to be Eye of the Storm. In my Melek, Izzet Paragon deck that's chock full of instants and sorceries, it has to be the key to that particular deck's victory, enabling it to generate a massive storm count in the turn immediately after it hits the battlefield. Along with Possibility Storm, Knowledge Pool, and Hive Mind, it becomes exhausting and exhilarating for my opponents to play against.

The funny thing was that when I initially built the deck, it wasn't supposed to be the lynch pin of victory. But after it hit the battlefield and I just started overloading it with instants and sorceries that drew cards, untapped lands, and generated mana…I knew that I had something better.

It became the biggest toolbox I could wish for. Whenever anybody put anything on it, it gave me almost immediate access to their spell. I've seen Tutors, removal spells, counterspells, and a lot of other stuff put on there because of my opponents. It does mean I have to pull back and resist the urge to run counterspells, but I feel like it's a fair trade for the amount of fun it provides the table.

Eye of the Storm is one of the best cards I've ever seen and I won't deny that it gathers a collective groan from my usual playgroup when it hits the table.


Patrick's "What happened to the Board State?"

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COMMANDER: Melek, Izzet Paragon

As someone who's not the biggest fan of Counterspell and its many descendants, anything that joyfully nudges players away for traditional control grabs my eye. Patrick's Melek, Izzet Paragon deck won't demolish a game on its own, but Eye of the Storm's effect plays well with any plan filled with instant and sorcery cards.

Patrick's Melek plan isn't unusual or new, and adding Eye of the Storm isn't an earth-shattering revelation. But the way the two plans interact is something much more, and a rare treat in the circle of Commander players I've shared games with. I also appreciate that Patrick is aware how antagonistic Eye of the Storm can be. That self-awareness is exactly the prescient thought needed for great Commander games.

Eye of the Storm | Art by Hideaki Takamura

Others looked at their best card through the Sol Ring lens, but with an eye for flair. Narfnin was one such player:

One of my more entertaining decks is my Borborygmos Enraged deck. Somewhat surprisingly (although not if you play with/against it enough), one of the best cards in this deck is Orcish Lumberjack, and for good reason. Even with all the ramp in this deck, the mana provided by this little 1/1 goes a long way. As it turns out, having a Black Lotus every turn is incredibly powerful!

Oftentimes, I'll play the Lumberjack on turn one or two, with ramp the turn after, enabling a turn 5 Borborygmos! The sheer increase in mana provided by Orcish Lumberjack can't be ignored. Sure, I'm losing Forests, but this deck is used to recycling dead lands. After all, I'm throwing them away in order to win!

Narfnin's Borborygmos Enraged Commander

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COMMANDER: Borborygmos Enraged

Cards that exchange one resource (such as land drops or life) for another (like mana or cards) are generally powerful cards. Orcish Lumberjack won't trip the alarms of too many players early on, like Sol Ring and similar cards do, but when it shines it's absolutely dominant.

Orcish Lumberjack | Art by Steve Prescott

Orcish Lumberjack is a great intersection between power and depth. It's a common—easy to track down for those interested—and obviously powerful in the right kind of deck. It needs plenty of support to annihilate unsuspecting opponents, but that what decks like Borborgymos is all about anyway.

Maybe it's nostalgia for when I learned to play Magic that put Orcish Lumberjack on my radar. That wasn't the case for William's pick for his card:

Powerful, especially in Magic, can mean a lot of things. To me it means game-changing and versatile. My choice then is Darksteel Mutation. If my commander has white in their color identity I am windmill-slamming Darksteel Mutation in the deck, and here's why…

Flashback to my first-ever Commander game. Everybody in the room turns to watch as one of my opponents resolves Nekusar. Several people visibly flinch at the sight of the monstrosity and I sit back comfortably, knowing that I now hold the political head of the table. In my hand sits a Darksteel Mutation and nothing else. I am at 3 life, with everyone else in double figures. My opponent passes the turn. I draw two (both lands), lose 2, go to main phase, cast Darksteel Mutation targeting Nekusar, and now those who stared aghast cheer. I was an ally! Obviously, I did not win, but my former enemies helped me shamble through because once I was gone, Nekusar would rise free from the prison of his 0/1 indestructible Insect body.

That moment brought Darksteel Mutation to my attention. When you focus in on one card, you frequently find a lot of potential: targeting your own Marath but all of the +1/+1 counters remain and he's now indestructible (and also, even without his abilities, he's pretty formidable with enough counters), targeting Phalanx Leader for his trigger, or my other creatures to get a constellation trigger.

Honestly, I could list dozens of reasons for why Darksteel Mutation is my personal "Commander staple," but I don't have to.

I actually relived my "Nekusar moment" with this Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit deck at FNM recently and it was magical, and to me magical Magic moments are all the power I need.

William's Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit

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COMMANDER: Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit

William's choice is all about utility and best functionality in a slot. Shutting down nearly any creature without sending it to the command zone or graveyard is already great, but putting it alongside ways to use it to one's advance is brilliant. On offense or defense, the humble Darksteel Mutation shines for William. Adding in things like Cathars' Crusade or Mindless Automaton could amplify what extra creatures and +1/+1 counters can do.

Darksteel Mutation | Art by Daniel Ljunggren

Give in to the Dark Side

Both of the sides of this coin—power and depth—are orthogonal to the concept of value in Commander. Cards that are powerful in a vacuum…can fall short compared to precisely the right cards in the right deck, but the opposite is often just as true. How you approach handling the balance within decks and between plays is always your choice.

I strongly recommend considering carefully.

This week's question is a fun one for those both new to Commander and grizzled from years of playing: How did you get your start playing Commander, and what was your first Commander deck?

  • Feedback via email, in English
  • 300 word limit to explain the reprinted card
  • Sample decklist (does not count against word limit)
  • Decklists should be formatted with one card per line with just a leading number, such as "3 Mountain"—just a space (no "x" or "-") between the number and the card name, without subtotals by card type (Submissions that don't follow this rule will be ignored.)
  • Name and email required (non-personal information to be used in column)
  • Your Twitter handle if you use it

Everyone starts somewhere, and I'd love to hear more of your early Commander stories. There were some tear jerking moments when I brushed at the idea before, but this time I'm specifically after true beginnings. I'm counting on even greater stories this time around.

Join us next week when we pretend we're legendary enchantment creatures for the format. See you then!

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