I know there is a theory that the best Commander decks don't really use their commanders. The belief is that a deck that relies on a single card, even one as readily available as a commander, will inevitably fail. Decks that rely heavily on their commanders tend to collapse if the commander is shuffled into the library (aka "tucked" among the veteran Commander players). Some of these commanders are destroyed so many times the cost to return them to the battlefield makes it futile to continue doing so. These decks limp along hoping for a lucky break to steal a win, but they will certainly do nothing exciting, game-breaking, or memorable without their commanders.
Art by Mike Bierek
When I look for commanders when considering a deck, I tend to group the legends into one of three possible groups:
The Essentials. These are the commanders for decks like the ones I described above. The commander is the essential cog for the entire deck to work. Sometimes, these decks are some form of combo that requires the commander's effect or ability to make the winning combo go off. Sometimes, the commander encourages a Voltron style of deck where everything in the deck is designed to make sure the commander can hit each opponent for the 21 points of commander damage needed to get the win.
I admit these generals are my weakness. I get inspired to build Commander decks when I find legendary creatures that do interesting things; I want to build around them. When I find that quirky legend it is just what I always wanted! My own commander! I will name him George. And I will hug him and pet him and squeeze him... er, umm...
I know it doesn't always lead to amazing decks, but I always build something interesting!
The Irrelevants. These are commanders that do nothing other than provide the color restrictions for your deck. When you see Ramirez DePietro as a commander, it is safe to say that he will be irrelevant. Many people use these commanders because they already have a deck worked out that runs just fine, so any commander will do.
The purpose of an irrelevant commander is to avoid any early attention. If you find yourself in a Commander game that has Zur the Enchanter; Ramirez DePietro; and Gisela, Blade of Goldnight as the three opposing commanders, who are you likely to attack first? You certainly are not going to be attacking the player controlling Ramirez. Based on your very limited knowledge, that player will not be the serious threat, so you don't go after him or her early. Thus, the reason for choosing an irrelevant commander.
The Supports. These are the commanders that aren't essential, but they make their decks just so much better. A deck running a support commander usually wants to see the commander in play and is sad to see it go. The deck will continue to work its mojo, just not as quickly, or with as much bang, as it would with the commander in play. A deck running a support commander tends to need the commander in play to get those "Wow!" moments people want to see. It is still fun to play when the commander isn't there, but the bright lights and splashy plays tend to be a 40-watt bulb and not so "Cannonball!" kind of wet. These commanders help you find a particular card. These commanders make all of your creatures a little better. These commanders double all the counters on one of your essential permanents.
...wait, what? What legend does that?!>> Click to Show
While many of you are currently scooping your jaw up off the floor, let's look at the limitations, first. While I just said permanent, that isn't really true. Enchantments and Planeswalkers are not included. Your Five-Alarm Fires, Assemble the Legions, and Black Markets will see no benefit from Vorel of the Hull Clade. The lousy Planeswalkers like Jace and Gideon will still be lousy.
For every enchantment's or Planeswalker's counters you wish you could double, there are so many more other cards that benefit. The most obvious is the creature with the +1/+1 counter. Just within the block, within the guild even, there are plenty of examples where Vorel will shine. Master Biomancer, Nimbus Swimmer, and pretty much every creature with evolve will be an all-star. Cards that add +1/+1 counters will be even more valuable. Increasing Savagery with an untapped Vorel on the board is a frightening situation. Don't forget the older parts of your collection; creatures like Mycoloth and Wiitigo also get a huge benefit. 1
It isn't just +1/+1 counters either. Doubling filibuster counters would get you to a win far faster than your opponents expect. Level counters from Zendikar block or fading counters from Nemesis both offer significant advantages. An Echo Mage with double the level counters can be a dangerous thing!
Artifacts with charge counters and other bizarrely named counters (i.e., study or eyeball counters) can make things miserable for your opponents. With artifacts, though, I'm looking a little farther back. Modular artifacts are a little more fun. Door of Destinies gives even more to theme decks, and Umezawa's Jitte is even more nightmarish.
Even lands like Hellion Crucible will spawn the Hellions a turn faster. I am a fan of the series of Vivid lands from Lorwyn. These uncommon lands are easy to find and make a five-color deck possible. The limitation was that you needed to be careful, since the counters could easily run out. Vorel of the Hull Clade practically eliminates the color restrictions with Vivid lands. Gemstone Mine and Llanowar Reborn are two other lands that benefit from Vorel's doubling ability. Mercadian Masques's depletion counter lands can keep the ramping going much longer. Land junkies like me have a good reason to love Vorel.
Something else to remember is that Vorel doesn't target just your stuff. You can buff up a partner's creature. You can double age counters or, more likely, -1/-1 counters on your opponent's creatures. Vorel helps in all sorts of ways!
The best part of Vorel? You can do it again! This isn't a one-time shot. Every turn, you can do it again. Imagine a turn with Vorel of the Hull Clade and a Master Biomancer with a single +1/+1 counter on it in play. At the end of your last opponents' turn, tap Vorel of the Hull Clade, putting a second +1/+1 counter on the Master Biomancer. On your turn, before casting any creatures, do it again. Even a lowly Birds of Paradise now enters the battlefield as a 6/7 flying beatstick!
Undoubtedly, there are a number of you who, upon first seeing Vorel, said that he is just the lousy version of Gilder Bairn. That's what I thought when I first looked at the card. I mean look at the ways Gilder Bairn is better:
Easier to cast. All the colored mana symbols are hybrid. This means that Gilder Bairn fits in any deck that runs green or blue. Vorel requires both colors in the deck.
Doubles everything. While we can all list off some of the enchantments that benefit from a Gilder Bairn in play, this is far more important for Planeswalkers. Gilder Bairn gets them to their ultimate ability quickly. Vorel's "no Planeswalker" limitation is frustrating.
When you look at this, it is pretty easy to kick into hipster mode: "I've been doubling counters on all my permanents for years before all you Vorel bandwagoners showed up!"
However, don't be too quick to brush off Vorel! Consider what he has going for him over Gilder Bairn:
His 4th toughness. So many cards do 3 damage that the jump from a 3- to a 4-toughness creature is far more significant than the jump from 4 to 5.
His ability only costs two. I know in most casual games, the difference between two and three mana to activate is minimal, particularly when you have to tap the creature as part of the cost. However, an ability like Vorel's is something you'll want to abuse by untapping him as often as possible. When you are trying to tap Vorel of the Hull Clade for the third time in a turn, you are looking at six versus nine. That is a difference that means something.
He taps, not untaps. Finding ways to tap a creature generally meant a card just for the Gilder Bairn. That meant that activating his ability required using up another card. Untapping a creature, or all your creatures, is generally beneficial to all of them. If you are using a card to untap all your creatures, it means you are using a card for more than just the chance to use Vorel again.
Commander. Vorel is the very definition of a support commander. This legend can offer so much to the right deck. His ability likely means that you will eliminate opponents in a single attack or combo off ridiculously fast (if your play group is into the insta-combo win). His ability makes him an asset, but not an essential card that your deck must have to run. Simply being a legend means that he is usually there and ready to help, while Gilder Bairn is simply one of ninety-nine cards in your library. In Commander, Vorel of the Hull Clade is a star, while Gilder Bairn is rarely anything more than a sideshow.
Vorel of the Hull Clade is a casual powerhouse. My group should expect to see me running him in an update of my old Counter, Counters, Counters deck. Vorel of the Hull Clade will be showing up across your Commander table very soon. Buy some more dice. The counters will be everywhere!
1: Seedborn Muse should also be included among the creatures that are better with Vorel of the Hull Clade. The reason I didn't mention it is because Seedborn Muse makes anything that taps better. This group of permanents is almost limitless. If I were to mention it every time I'm talking about a card that taps for an activated ability, then we could safely change the name "Serious Fun" to "The Seedborn Muse Connection." From now on, if a card taps to do something more than just attacking, assume that I mentioned Seedborn Muse. (return)