A Quintessence of Power

Posted in Command Tower on April 2, 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.

What is Commander? It's a simple question with plenty of ways to answer it.

Living Lore | Art by Jason Felix

We could list the rules and take a look at the essentials of what it means to make a Commander deck. We could discuss the community and experience the format is meant to provide. Or we could discuss two sides of a coin, a debate that will never be settled in Commander: The quintessential cards that define the format.

Ruling Class

The most obvious way to define Commander is with the commanders themselves. Last week, the Commander Rules Committee made an update to the rules around what happens when a commander it put into almost any zone:

11. If a Commander would be put into a library, hand, graveyard or exile from anywhere, its owner may choose to move it to the command zone instead.

(from MTGCommander.net)

What this rule really updated was what is colloquially referred to as "tucking" commanders. Cards like Chaos Warp and Oblation are double-edged swords, answering one threat while giving its controller something else in return. But, putting a commander into a library used to ensure it disappeared for sure. Unlike destroying or exiling a commander, the rules that let you put the commander back into the command zone didn't apply to when the commander was moving to the library.

This "tuck rule" change means that's no longer the case with virtually any zone change for commander: You will always have the opportunity to put your commander back into the command zone, though it's worth nothing that you may not always want to do that. (Fun Fact: I have destroyed my own commander in response to Living Death on the stack.)

There are a variety of reasons the rules for tuck effects finally changed:

  • It means "tutor" effects, such as Sidisi, Undead Vizier's exploit effect, aren't needed to ensure one can get their commander back out of a library. (Though card filtering, drawing, and tutoring is still obviously powerful in a format of one-ofs!)
  • It generally means that it's never going to be the case that one's commander is on the battlefield face-down, thanks something like Mastery of the Unseen, yet behave differently due to the "commanderness" of commanders regardless of their state.
  • It eliminates the downside of having one's commander taken away: Commander is named for the commander, and part of the point of the format is to have your commander available anytime—assuming you have the mana, of course.

It's that third point that rings truest for me. Commander, for better or worse depending upon the commander you're using or facing down, is all about the commanders themselves. Having narrow, color-limited ways to make commanders unavailable to players pushed on what the format means.

In a format where Sol Ring is included in its preconstructed decks, power is certainly relative and high in Commander. There will always be powerful commanders that ask for potent ways to be handled. While putting them into a library is no longer one way to handle them, there will always be the final trump: The "social contract" between Commander players and groups. If there's something problematic or causing unpleasant experiences in your games, you should always talk about it first.

When every player is committed to ensure great experiences—for themselves and opponents—Commander is hands down the greatest way to play Magic. (Except if there are enough sealed boosters available, perhaps.)

Bloodsoaked Champion | Art by Aaron Miller


The other side of the quintessential Commander coin from the commanders themselves are those cards like Sol Ring: The powerful cards that are rarely or never seen anywhere else except on the battlefield and stack of wild Commander games.

It's these cards I asked for your thoughts on, and there were plenty of wild options to share. Alexander started us off with a dark one:

Most quintessential card in commander are the card that your deck is built to work best with, the card that wins the game when it resolves, or at least leaves a huge impact in the caster's favor, the cards that people remember your deck for, and the cards that are just powerful and relatively expensive. Many cards fulfill that role, cards like Flayer of the Hatebound, Rite of Replication, Genesis Wave, the list goes on, but the most quintessential in my opinion, Rise of the Dark Realms.

Rise of the Dark Realms is a card with a massive power level, shown in its cost, and it works in any deck that runs black, and should be there, but really makes you want to run cards like Buried Alive, Golgari Grave-Troll, and Life from the Loam to fill up your yard, makes you want to run insanely powerful creature to play for free when the time comes, like Grave Titan, Overseer of the Damned, and Lord of the Void. You want to ramp up into this spell as soon as possible, playing things like Cabal Coffers, Nirkana Revenant, Crypt Ghast, and Caged Sun. Even if you really want to play combo, Rise of the Dark Realms is an amazing card for that, as it, 9 creatures, Phyrexian Altar, and Eternal Witness/Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed lead to infinite enters the battlefield triggers, and Bloodghast or Kokusho, the Evening Star win the game.

As I said before, any deck that includes black should run Rise of the Dark Realms, but the list I am sending you relies on it. The commander is Sidisi, Undead Vizier, as she is a powerful card in this format for her flexibility, and she can always get us our Rise of the Dark Realms whenever we need it.

Alexander's Sidisi, Undead Vizier Commander

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COMMANDER: Sidisi, Undead Vizier

Rise of the Dark Realms is a card I've heard discussed before, and it's among the splashiest reanimation spells ever printed. Taking everything from every graveyard is as simple and loud as it gets. It costs a boatload of mana, doesn't carry "cannot be countered" or other protection, and requires some setup, but the payout is unbelievable. Rise of the Dark Realms is a card that's untouchable in other Constructed formats, is a genuine rarity to even see—let alone play—and get to cast in Limited, but shines as one of the premier ways to gain card advantage in black for Commander.

Ghastly Conscription, one of my preview cards from Fate Reforged, cost just two colorless mana less but limits it to one player's graveyard and puts the creatures onto the battlefield face-down. It doesn't even compare to Rise of the Dark Realms.

Another card that makes my own short list of obviously Commander cards is the one Travis equipped for his response:

When asked about the quintessential commander card, a number of cards jumped out at me: Sol Ring, Command Tower, Lightning Greaves, Temple of the False God, Cromat, Child of Alara, Temple Bell, and others. However, the only one that I could think of that is in almost every single commander deck and legal in every commander format (sorry Sol Ring), was Swiftfoot Boots. Hexproof and haste for one measly mana is pretty much guaranteed in every deck that ever wants to either attack or protect their commander. I chose the boots over Lightning Greaves because, a lot of the time, you want to be targeting your own commander.

It's an essential piece to every Voltron deck out there including my favorite commander deck. My most dedicated and most surprisingly effective commander deck of all time. Lead by none other than the Evincar of Rath, Volrath the Fallen, this deck is full of crazy interactions including a two-card commander damage combo (Draco discarded to an unblocked Volrath), reanimation back-up plans (Fated Return on Platinum Emperion), and the deck simply wins out of nowhere. And boy does Volrath love his boots.

Travis's Volrath the Fallen

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COMMANDER: Volrath the Fallen

Swiftfoot Boots does almost everything you want when you have a creature you can cast over and over again. Haste means you can use it immediately, whether your commander is combat-focused (like Godo, Bandit Warlord) or ability-bringing (like Rhys the Redeemed). Hexproof stymies lots of ways to get rid of creatures.

While making a commander indestructible (I'm lookin' at your, Darksteel Plate.) is arguably better for battlefield durability, Swiftfoot Boots' one-two combo means you can surprise opponents and often get what you need out of your commander or another powerful creature before opponents can put Crux of Fate to work.

Of course, cards that I think of weren't the only ones submitted. Aidan shared a quintessential Commander card that speaks to how off-the-radar the format really can be:

There's a lot of ways to look at the term quintessential, but I went with "sums up commander in one card." For me, it's Brightflame.

It's big. It's splashy. It's a board wipe, and it wins games (or turns them around when all hope is lost).

Commander for me is all about finding the coolest, most flavorful and badass cards you can, and then slamming them down to wreck your opponents field. Originally this Jor deck was super aggro with a curve mostly under 3, but I've switched it around to be heavy mana threats and a lot of ramp to start kicking ass.

Brightflame clicks into that beautifully. In my group we don't run many board wipes, but what we lack in quantity, our board wipes make up for in quality. Brightflame hits the field late in the game, when the cards are down, my hand is empty and my life total is in single digits. Across from me is a horde of Vampires or Saprolings or just big scary stuff, I'm open and about to lose, I topdeck this baby and it all turns around.

The best part of this card is honestly the lifegain, in my eyes. Sometimes clearing the field just isn't enough, but clearing the field and gaining 40+ life can often swing the game around in a big way. On top of that, if your opponent has his commander on the field, hitting the commander will let you hit every single creature he has, great for knocking one opponent back down.

And for just a bit of icing on the cake, it gets around hexproof as well as ignoring artifact creatures, meaning even against fellow Boros decks the card is still highly useful to me.

Brightflame. It's big, it's expensive, it's freaking awesome.

Aidan's Jor Kadeen Metalcrash

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COMMANDER: Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer
99 Cards

I played a lot of the original Ravnica block. I played in my first Standard Friday Night Magic (and had my best Friday Night Magic finish to date). I learned about drafting better—with archetypes, set up, and mana in mind. And I tried just about every colorful card I could get my hands on.

I still had to look up Brightflame in Gatherer when Aidan shared it.

Brightflame, and the radiance mechanic in general, is a card that looks wild but has surprisingly powerful uses in Commander. Wiping out not just one player's tokens, but splashing over to every other token and creature that shares a color with it while gaining a ton of life is an unbelievable swing in a game.

Nobody will argue the card is obviously powerful or comparable to Sol Ring in deck ubiquity, but it's also only in Commander where something like Brightflame can make the difference between utter defeat and absolute victory. Commanders are exciting, but it's the cards around them that arguably matter just as much.

Tuck it Away

The defining cards of Commander are so numerous and varied it's impossible to pin down, but finding the venerable and new alike is always an interesting exercise for me. This week's question asks a similarly tricky question:

Which legendary creature do you use for Commander but never as the commander itself?

  • Feedback via email, in English
  • 300 word limit to explain the card and why you never use it as the commander
  • 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)

Making a legendary creature a commander is as easy as saying so. Things get interesting when you use a legend specifically outside of being a commander. There are plenty powerful effects stapled to legendary creatures over the years, and some of the greatest are best suited for when you don't broadcast them in advance as your commander. I want to know which creatures you hide away in your deck, and why.

Join us next week when we swap things up. See you then!

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