Temples of the Hidden Legends

Posted in Command Tower on April 16, 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.

Commander has a name for one reason: It's all about the commander.

Crown of Convergence | Art by Jen Page

Choosing a commander is often a pivotal moment for decks, defining the colors, themes, and even game-play experience. With a dizzying array of choices for just the top slot it's natural not every legendary creature makes the top billing.

Fortunately, there are 99 more slots to fill in after that.

When you lay the commander for your Commander deck down, every other player knows it's coming—and reacts accordingly. Creatures like Avacyn, Angel of Hope and Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur put a loud and clear threat on the radar of every other player. Using them as a commander comes with the obvious drawback of placing a target on you at the start of every game.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't use these potent powerhouses in decks. I'm a fan of "hiding" those choices in those other 99 cards.

Having an Avacyn, Angel of Hope tucked away in a deck is more interesting to me than planning my entire game around her. The surprise factor of a late Avacyn protecting just a creature or two, rather than the endgame of an assembled army of certain doom, feels fun. Sometimes I draw Avacyn and she's exactly the kind of powerful, difficult-to-deal-with creature I needed. Other times, she just sits in my hand as I'm short on mana or making other plays to keep up in a game.

That variability is missing when a legendary creature is your commander instead. It takes some real hijinks to keep a commander truly off the battlefield these days, so I expect commanders to stick around and do their thing. If you pack Avacyn, Angel of Hope as your leader I expect nothing less than hopelessness as I fight to outpace an inevitably indestructible battlefield across the way.

Assemble the Puzzle

There are reasons other then mine to put legends elsewhere in decks too. Andrew shared how much better some really perform as part of the other ninety-nine:

Most people wouldn't play Elvish Visionary as a commander, let alone paying six mana for it. On an empty board, that's basically all Prime Speaker Zegana is. She's certainly a cool and powerful card, but the fact that she can't catch you up after a board wipe (not like anyone plays those in Commander, right?) means that I prefer her as a part of the 99 instead of the commander.

Currently, Zegana is part of my Surrak Dragonclaw, The Mimeoplasm, and new Vorel of the Hull Clade decks. My Surrak deck runs over 50% creatures, so it's rare they Zegana will come down without a ton of counters. The Mimeoplasm is also pretty dense on creatures, and the deck's use of reanimation means I'm more likely to have creatures available at a moment's notice. My Vorel deck, below, utilizes Zegana's flavor as the Simic Combine's leader and meshes her into the +1/+1 counter theme.

And I also want to give a shout-out to Inspiring Call from Dragons of Tarkir, for being a new card for +1/+1 counter decks in Commander. Protects your board and refills your hand? Sa-weet.

With mutagenic regards,


Andrew's Vorel of the Hull Clade Commander

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Vorel of the Hull Clade
99 Cards

I've played a Prime Speaker Zegana deck before, and getting your biggest baddie blasted before Zegana resolves definitely feels bad. Slipping her out when nobody expects it is a great example of Andrew's performance boost through surprise.

Ian took a route with a popular commander that serves practical utility first:

My favorite legendary creature I use as part of the 99 is Edric, Spymaster of Trest. In an Animar, Soul of Elements deck the last thing you want is to run out of cheap creatures to play. Edric lets you turn your undercosted creatures into an efficient card drawing engine that also happen to put your opponents on the path to 0 life. I've been interesting in having Edric leading a Commander deck before, but after playing with him quite a bit he seems like more of an important utility creature than the head of a deck. The wording of his ability also helps keep the others at the table from prioritizing me while I build +1/+1 counters up on Animar.

Here's the deck:

Ian's Animar, Soul of Elements

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Animar, Soul of Elements
99 Cards

I have a buddy, let's call him Andrew, that loves to play an Edric, Spymaster of Trest deck. It's wild, full of shenanigans and fun that turn games on their heads, and reward players that are proactive despite being behind on the battlefield. Edric is typically a strong choice for leader, but Ian's pivot to use another powerhouse leader puts Edric firmly in the support seat. Using other creatures to draw cards and create some chaos on the battlefield gives Animar room to breathe, grow big, and start attacking.

Edric, of course, doesn't reward players that attack you, so leaving the defenses down a little bit can still leave you in the clear.

Of course, there's something to be said for utility creatures being the leader. I've had a blast with Pharika, God of Affliction at the helm of a commander deck, but Thomas has fun in the reverse:

Jokingly here I'm cheating because I got a Legendary Enchantment Creature and not a plain Legendary Creature. My card of choice is Pharika, God of Affliction. She's been in my Varolz, the Scar-Striped commander and since it was dissolved, in with Sidisi.

I love the utility of her, the ability to turn lost creatures into a defensive deathtouch snake or clean out opponent's graves of things they want to get back is great fantastic defensively and for stopping powerful threats from returning. When your growing a 2/2 zombie army and have the archetypes of imagination and finality on hand, giving away a few 1/1 deathtouches to prevent problems or mess things up for people attacking other players is worth the risk. I did test her in the Varolz build as a commander once for fun, I quickly gave it up after one round, not always being a creature and only producing 1/1 deathtouches didn't do me enough good as a main battle piece. As one of the 99 she's a deadly hidden weapon, especially against other graveyard decks and I'll be hiding her in mine for utility and to prevent some things from going out of hand.

Thomas's Sidisi, Brood Tyrant

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Sidisi, Brood Tyrant

Utility can fit into either slot, and having utility that's a surprise, indestructible 5/5 for just three mana sounds awesome. So do Snake tokens with deathtouch. Maybe I should put Pharika down for a bit.

Finally, Robert shared thoughts that matched my own about potentially problematic commanders and summarized one of my concerns about every new deck I start building:

One legendary creature that I use in my Aurelia, the Warleader Commander deck but that I would never use as an actual commander would be Linvala, Keeper of Silence. There are so many commanders that rely on activated abilities to function (like Rhys the Redeemed, Prossh, Skyraider of Kher, or Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord just to name a few) that using her as my commander would make games unfair or not fun for those players. I still put her in decks because I feel that drawing her as one card out of one hundred during games against those players just means I got lucky that game.

While opponents using commanders with activated abilities might still find it a bit irritating when I play her, they hopefully won't be discouraged enough to not want to play. If she was my commander, however, and I was playing her every single game on turn four or earlier they would most likely not want to play against me ever again. And who could blame them? This is especially true now that commanders can't be tucked. Linvala would be crippling their commander, the one card that their deck revolves around, every single game and there would be virtually nothing they could do about it. I can't imagine anything more frustrating and that is why I would never use Linvala, Keeper of Silence as a commander but still use her in Commander decks.

Yours truly,


Robert's Aurelia, the Warleader

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Aurelia, the Warleader
99 Cards

You're the Winner!

Wherever you choose to place a legendary creature is up to you, but I hope looking at the upside of keeping it buried in a deep deck is something you'll consider next time you assemble a new deck.

This week's question is one for everyone, I hope: Which Commander deck is your newest, and why did you build it?

  • 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)

Join us next week, when we have the most fun we've ever had before playing. See you then!

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