Just One Card

Posted in Command Tower on September 4, 2014

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.

Although I play as much Commander as I can, I never feel that it's enough. While I'm always chasing that "good game high" that comes with a thrilling victory after twists and turns that would impress M. Night Shyamalan (when he was directing blockbusters), most games of Commander aren't a perfect copy of your vision.

Dimir Doppelganger | Art by Jim Murray

In multiplayer games, the most likely outcome is losing. In a world where every player won games at exactly the same rate, you could expect to lose 66% of the time in three-player games and 75% in four-players games.

We don't live in that world.

Magic is a game of skill. Building decks is hard, and so is choosing which cards to play in any given game. Playing about a dozen games at PAX Prime last weekend reminded me that Commander really is a format of the players. This is a brief list of the cards I saw played over the four days:

The power differential between these cards is hard to quantify, but it's clear Scryb Sprites and Sepulchral Primordial sit in fairly different areas, as do Sol Ring and Armillary Sphere.

There are many ways to talk about how cards are different from one another, but one way I find useful is the idea of scaling: cards with levels of power that fluctuate depending upon circumstances. Something like Sneak Attack rests comfortably at the very top level of power at all times. On offense or defense, dropping any creature onto the battlefield for just is an incredible bargain. Graveyards aren't a safe place to stash creatures in Commander, and it's safe to assume decks playing Sneak Attack will include some way to get creatures back.

Compare it to Sol Ring and the differences creep in. Sol Ring is undoubtedly one of the most powerful turn-one plays in Commander, serving almost as good as casting Time Walk twice. Warping ahead mana is a deal nobody turns down, as playing things like Kiora, the Crashing Wave on turn two gets silly. But late in the game, the comparison breaks down: Sneak Attack can be a dominant power ten turns later, while drawing Sol Ring that late is often marginal at best. When you already have plenty of mana, jumping ahead is far less exciting.

Fecundity is perhaps the best example of a scaling card in this list. While it's a global effect benefitting every player, it's also one that can be baked well into a deck's theme. When you see it alongside Prossh, Skyraider of Kher in last year's preconstructed decks, you can see how casting Prossh to just immediately refill your hand is pretty powerful. But without creatures, or an easy way to sacrifice them, Fecundity doesn't really do anything. Its value scales from marginal to backbreaking in any given game.

Scaling is important because of the issue I hit face-first at PAX: skill and power differentials of players and decks.

I played a slightly modified version of the Prossh, Skyraider of Kher preconstructed deck:

Stybs's PAX Prossh

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Prossh, Skyraider of Kher
Planeswalker (2)
1 Chandra, Pyromaster 1 Nissa, Worldwaker
99 Cards

I made the cardinal mistake of Magic travel: leaving your decks behind. Without my usual decks I had to improvise. Taking the Prossh preconstructed deck and swapping in whatever I could find in Seattle (my binder of cards for trade and a set of From the Vault: Annihilation I picked up), I was left in the unusual position of playing a deck I didn't design, with cards I didn't pick.

It was a refreshing experience.

I lost every game I played, and it typically wasn't close. But without any opportunities to sit in the dominant position, I had plenty of time to observe. In games where players were newer or decks had lower power, I could keep up and generate a few interesting plays. In games with veterans and more powerful decks, I felt woefully behind every step of the way.

It was clear that cards like Foster (which comes in the deck!), Primeval Bounty, and Defense of the Heart were among the most powerful I could play. My most interesting cards were those that scaled up and down with what was going on: Goblin Sharpshooter, Reign of the Pit, Grim Return, and Night Soil. Cards that gave me options and opportunities against more powerful decks relied on the more powerful deck to deliver. If opponents weren't playing powerful cards, these were reined in as well.

The Ups and Downs

What does all of this have to do with Khans of Tarkir? Let's look at a new card from the set: Clever Impersonator.

We asked for it, and now we finally have it: a Clone that can copy nearly anything in play. It's...good. It's really good. But there's a small secret that may not be obvious at first in the whirlwind of ideas pumping through your brain: like every other copy effect, it's only as good as the choices available.

While looking inward at our own decks will reveal incredible possibilities to build around, the real value of Clever Impersonator, and all Clone-type cards in general, is that they scale perfectly with your opponents. The more powerful the permanents opponents are putting into play, the more powerful your options for copying.

Can you break Clever Impersonator? I'm sure there's a way. (See below for the obligatory exercise.) But what I've come to appreciate is how valuable scaling cards are in Commander decks.

But don't just take my word for it. Many of you find value in cards that scale in different ways, like Jackson and his Ætherspouts:

I am sure that there are going to be a lot of high-profile cards from Magic 2015 submitted by your readers, but the one that has had the biggest impact on my games of Commander is an unassuming instant. Well, unassuming may be the wrong word, since it is rare, but Ætherspouts has become my favorite card out of the set.

I play the card in my Dralnu, Lich Lord deck and it has already saved my bacon dozens of times. My playgroup is currently dominated by Slivers, Marchesa, and Derevi; in a field of aggressive creature decks, my control list is grateful for a one-sided reset. I feel way more comfortable staring down a 37/37 Multani when I have my Ætherspouts in hand—or in the graveyard. ;-)



Jackson's Dralu, Value Lord

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Dralnu, Lich Lord

Ætherspouts is probably better called "situational" than "scaling," but it feels similar enough that it's worth calling out. Fighting aggressive decks is usually done by cards like Supreme Verdict and Damnation, but Ætherspouts works in ways those cards don't. At PAX last weekend, DailyMTG.com editor Blake Rasmussen went off with Doubling Season into Elspeth, Knight-Errant for an immediate emblem, ensuring his army wasn't going anywhere. Ætherspouts, conveniently, dodges any destruction by bouncing everything back to the library.

I sorely wished I could have cast it out of Prossh's deck.

There are other cards from Magic 2015 that have impacted Commander. John shared some of his:

That you asked which Magic 2015 cards have had the biggest effect on my Commander *games* made the question much easier to answer. Rather than think about all of the many M15 cards I've added to my decks, I can simply recall the games I've played since the set released, and tell the stories.

Waste Not is the first card story that came to mind. The card that I helped design was the first rare I opened from an M15 booster pack! It went straight into my Nekusar, the Mindrazer deck, winning the game for me the first time I cast Whispering Madness with it and Nekusar on the field. The eighteen black mana it produced gave me the gas I needed to drain the rest of my opponents' life totals to 0 that turn...a turn that would have been my last, otherwise!

The Chain Veil had a solid impact on another recent game, where I was behind the eight ball with my Vorel of the Hull Clade deck. The player to my left was set up for a massive Exsanguinate win on his next turn, with three Cabal Coffers in play thanks to Vesuva and Thespian's Stage. The Veil saved our collective posteriors by allowing me to play Tamiyo, the Moon Sage and activate her twice, tapping down two Coffers and thwarting the black mage's plans!

Kurkesh, Onakke Ancient has affected my Commander games in that he is one of the latest legendary creatures I've built a new deck around. I've played a number of games with him, and while he has yet to score a victory, he's fun to play—something I rarely say about mono-red cards!


While none of these cards scale, they're each examples of the type of high-impact options that come with every new set. (There are a "few" in Khans of Tarkir that have been revealed.) After all, scaling is great for many things, but always-on powerful options can be more exciting.

The Broken Road

With plenty more to come from Khans of Tarkir, this week's question taps into your primal excitement: What do you want to copy with Clever Impersonator, and why?

  • Feedback via email
  • 300-word limit to explain what you want to do
  • Sample decklist or list of cards is requested (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 get a little greedy. See you then!

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