Today, I want to take about a fun set of cards made by Wizards of the Coast long ago called Vanguard. We’ll look at the top cards in the format, and I even have a Commander Variant at the end I created with Vanguard in mind, if you are interested. I hope you enjoy the article!
What is this vanguard thing?
Vanguard was a format designed around playing as a certain character from the lore of Magic. Much like Commander, you were physically present and playing as Gerrard or Sisay or Rofellos. It was a lot of fun. And unlike casual oversized additions to the games that came later, they were designed for tournament play. You would bring a Vanguard card leading a Standard deck to the FNM tournament of that week for play.
Each of the Vanguard cards had three different dimensions to them. The first was your starting life. Many of them caused you to have an altered life total ranging from -8 to +18. So, from 12 to 38 starting life. That’s a pretty wide range! Meanwhile, you could have a different number of cards in your starting grip (and max hand size) anywhere from -4 to +3 (3 to 10). And finally, they would give you some ability you would have the entire game.
Now, these cards were printed in sets of 8 cards each and were widely available for the first two print runs. You could acquire, for free, at our local gaming store. The last two sets were increasingly rare. I never got the fourth set in real life, I had to buy it from someone on eBay.
Please note that the early cards are pretty cheap. You can pick them up from CoolStuffInc.com for a pretty cheap price. But later stuff is increasingly expensive, and the cards in the fourth set, especially the popular characters or cards, are staggeringly costly.
This is Titania:
She is the priciest of the lot, as a Series 4 Vanguard card. Right now, you’d be set back about $50 to get one from CoolStuff. Cards like Gix and Sliver Queen are also clocking in between $20 - $30 each.
This is not a product that has no demand. You can grab them and play them and acquire some great gaming experience from them.
I have played with Vanguard cards at the Kitchen Table more than any other addition to the game.
Wizards of the Coast loved this idea and incorporated it heavily in their online client. In the client you would choose an avatar, like many. And these avatars were of varying levels of rareness, from giveaways at prereleases to prizes you fought for in tournaments. These avatars were also Vanguard cards as well, which you could play in various formats. They were never printed in real life.
There are almost eighty Vanguard cards out there from the client.
I would love to see Wizards finally print them. You could easily take these cards, which already exist, and print them out in real life, after maybe changing their art. You could just print them in supplementary packs where you could pay like $30 for all of them. Or you could even do random boosters if you wanted to. Here’s a pack of 5 random Vanguard cards — 3 common, 1 uncommon, and 1 rare.
We have vanguard cards for Akroma, both Ashlings, Jaya Ballard, Joira, Phage, Rith, Teysa, and Dakkon Blackblade. All of them are good. We also have a small number of non-legendary creatures as well, such as Stonehewer Giant and Birds of Paradise.
If for no other reason than to get this Vanguard in real life, let’s do this thing! Let’s print these up!
And now, without further ado, what do I think the Top Ten Vanguard cards are? Let’s take a look!
Honorable Mention – Xantcha, Selenia, and Oracle
Only six Vanguard cards have three benefits. Three are in the top ten, the other three are played often enough to make honorable mention — Xantcha, Selenia, and Oracle. Of the three, my preference in multiplayer is the vigilance-enabling Selenia, and in duels it’s usually Oracle for the life gaining and the combat¬ protection.
Orim giving your team reach certainly feels odd and out of flavor for a White Cleric healer. And you aren’t getting any cards from her either. But Orim gets heavy play for that +12 life. There is a lot of benefit to beginning the game with 32 life instead of 20. You have a lot more wiggle room before things start getting ugly. And Orim isn’t the only high-life option either, but she is the only option that has 30 or more life without losing cards in the process. There are three other high life options that do cost cards, and I’ve noted them here as well — Urza, Gix, and Eladamri.
I just showed her to you, so I doubt you’ll be surprised at Titania’s inclusion. A built in Exploration and +2 cards is totally worth the swap to -5 life. Every deck likes mana. Every deck likes land. Getting free land drops is just a keen way to speed up the game, but just for yourself. She obviously plays well with mechanics like landfall and cards such as Zendikar's Roil. Titania rocks and rolls all night long.
Volrath is cleverly good. Again, you get those precious two cards, and a free Volrath's Stronghold when one of your creature’s bites it. What makes Volrath a whole lot better than something like Mortuary is that little word “may” that you see there. You don’t have to put a dying critter on your library. Volrath’s power is in the long game, where it can give you serious card quality in perpetuity, without costing mana or a card. The longer the game goes, the better Volrath is.
The Benefits of Karn are unlocking a multiplicity of artifact loving Karn’s Touch’es that turns all of your metal creatures into major players and beaters. I’m sure you can see just how good knowing you have a Titania's Song on your stuff is going to be moving forward. You don’t even have to run any creatures if you want, because they are all going to be better under Karn’s Rule. But Karn is also +1 cards and +6 life, so you have three separate abilities to help establish your artifact loving ways. Therefore, Karn gets a lot of play.
Because he was in the first set of eight, Squee, was the best control Vanguard option available early on, for two major reasons. First, the knowledge of always knowing what your foe has in their hand gives you perfect knowledge of the game to use. And second, you get a full three cards more to abuse that knowledge with. You start the battle for card advantage so much faster. I think today, if you were to have a tournament, that Squee decks would have a good shot at winning. You can see his sheer value! Special shout-out to the other +3 card option in Takara, but her 12 starting life is a lot worse than Squee’s 16, and she is just a Goblin Bombardment, so there isn’t as many oblivious uses for her.
5. Maraxus and Serra
As mentioned before, there are a handful of Vanguard cards that are all upside. They give you more cards, more life, and an ability as well. All of them are popular at the kitchen table, because there is no reason not to take them. Here are the last two. Both of these are sort of mirror images of each other, and both are useful. Maraxus was one of the choices in Series 1, but you had to wait until Series 4 for Serra. I won the first week’s tournament with a Maraxus Standard deck. I ran Suicide Black, and trust me, creatures like Carnophage and Sarcomancy are just that much better when they get a built in +1/+0 bonus, as well as the extra card to smooth the deck and increase my chance of drawing Dark Ritual. I easily built other decks that abused other Vanguards. After winning the next week as well, the meta-game switched to answers, and they brought mass removal, like Wrath of God. So, I switched as well . . . to creatures that came back, like Nether Shadow, and I was still winning. Maraxus is that good. Serra is a nice adjunct, and I’ve worn both at the multiplayer table with a lot of pride and value.
If you play around Mirri, you could break the game in half. You could have a five color deck with just Forests. Note that her color fixing only works on basic lands, and that would include Wastes as well as Snow-Covered Lands, in case you care. She comes with no disadvantage on the card side of the house, and a bonus five life to boot, which ain’t nothing. Now, if you aren’t putting her with the right deck, and you are just randomly assigned Vanguard cards, then she drops in value considerably. But otherwise, she’ll get you places.
Starke is invariably where I wind up after the race for #1 above winds up. Starke costs you a couple of life, sure. And he isn’t changing your hand size either. But he has one of the best abilities in the set of cards without any of the major risks. He doesn’t have 12 life or 4 cards. 18 life is barely any change. But his ability to churn through your deck and put any card from your hand on the bottom of your library is just so brokenly good instead of a simple Scry: 2. Note that the additional card drawn and the subsequent library stocking is optional.
Hanna is a fun but strong card that really can dominate a table when used well. There are a number of very powerful effects that have a rough cost attached to them, such as Gerrard letting you draw an extra card every single turn or Sisay giving you an extra mana each time you tap a land for mana. Unlike those, Hanna only has a minor loss of life and even gives you an extra card. That’s a level of power you can’t deny. Giving you a one mana discount for your card does everything from accelerate your Sol Rings and Skullclamps to casting your key spells a full turn earlier. Hanna is staggeringly good.
Tawnos is just amazingly good. Many Vanguard formats allow you to use these as a limited resources, like to draft them, auction for them, or random shuffle them or something. I will steer hard for Tawnos every time, although I have a lot of competition, and often wind up at #3 Starke very happy. Tawnos is almost a Vanguard God. You are trading four life for three cards. And you can flash out your artifacts, creatures, and enchantments all day long. Flash forever? It’s so easy to build around. And better yet, Tawnos is almost broken in every deck you twin him to. Tawnos for the win.
And there we have it!
Now, before I leave you, I created a Vanguard-inspired Commander format in my head as I wrote this article, and I wanted to leave it with you.
Have you played Vanguard cards in Commander? If you have, then problem is twofold. Firstly, if you let people choose their own Commander, you are going to wind up with decks that feel out of place for the format. As an example, take Squee. If you have a Azorius Commander deck with a lot of control cards led by Isperia the Inscrutable, then Squee would be a great Vanguard choice. But Squee? He isn’t Blue and White, so the deck feels off.
Another issue with allowing people to choose their own Vanguard card is that they will often make extremely powerful decks that break the game in half, and this pushes that. Consider Takara. In a 40 life game, Takara is just 32 life. You begin with 10 cards, and a built-in Goblin Bombardment. You could easily build an unstoppable infinite combo deck with Takara and a leader in just a few turns.
However, using random elements, drafting, or auctioning off Vanguard cards can feel off as well. We’ve done it successfully many times before, but you can get some zonky moments where the most powerful mono-blue control deck just flipped over Squee but my fun midrange deck was screwed with Lyna, and I die because I can’t block. (Lyna gives your creatures shadow).
So how about this?
For this variant of Commander you will need a copy of the 32 in-print Vanguard cards, as well as the legendary creature that actually exists in Magic. You will be using both as the leader of your Commander deck.
Take, as a useful example, these five characters:
Momir Vig — There is an electronic avatar of Momir Vig that is a Vanguard card, as well as a proper card, but you cannot run a Momir Vig Vanguard Commander deck.
Xantcha — We have a real life Xantcha Vanguard card, but no normal version exists, so you cannot run a Xantcha deck.
Sidar Jabari — We have no Vanguard version of Sidar Jabari at all, so you cannot run Sidar Jabari as a Commander here.
Sidar Kondo — You have both a card and a Vanguard card for Kondo. You may run a Sidar Kondo deck:
Mirri — What if there are multiple options available for the legendary creature? You may run any of them. We have three copies of Mirri in print, so you can play the Vanguard Mirri with any of them. I’d recommend the recent version as it is the only one with multiple colors, given what your Vanguard card lets you do:
So that means the most abusive Vanguard cards by card and hand size, the +3 Takara, Squee, and Tawnos, all have interesting Commander iterations. Squee forces you into a Mono-Red build around Squee, Goblin Nabob. Takara and Tawnos aren’t options as there is no card to lead your team. So those are now mostly answered.
After playing for a while, if you want to make the life gain and loss of these options to mean more, you might want to double them, given you begin with double the life in Commander vs. the real world. For example, take Sisay:
You are obviously going to run her in Selesnya colors with her Captain Sisay iteration. Now the -2 card size is not good, but it’s certainly surmountable if you are playing a leader with built-in card advantage such as Captain Sisay. You also have a minor life loss, for the self-Mana Flare. But if you make that a -6 life loss instead, at least you have a bit more bite. However, while this might make a Squee more reasonable, but it would give a Gix player +36 life for -2 cards, which is probably a bit too much.
One Vanguard card is in a non-legendary form, and I am ruling that it works here, and you can run them together, because it’s not good at all:
Another corner case are the Planeswalkers. A small number of Vanguard cards are ‘walkers. Now Serra never had a card, so she’s not in the conversation. But Urza does.
Crovax — At first, it may appear like you have two options for Crovax, Crovax the Cursed and Crovax, Ascendant Hero. But when you dig into the lore, you will find that Ascendant Evincar is also a Crovax:
Other options with multiple ways to go include Ertai.
As long as Rofellos is banned in Commander, you cannot play an Rofellos deck, unless he is either unbanned for another version of him is printed.
There are a high number of matches of characters and cards — Gerrard, Multani, Mishra, Orim, Selenia, Tahngarth, Starke, Titania, Volrath, Maraxus, Eladamri, Barrin, Karn, Hanna, Greven, and that’s in addition to ones mentioned above like Squee, Sisay, Crovax, Urza, Oracle, Sidar Kondo, and Mirri...
And don’t forget . . .
I know. I know!
Anyways, I hope you enjoyed this look at the Top Ten Vanguard Cards as well as a fun Commander variant that could use them in a fun way. Oh, here is a quick little picture of my Vanguard cards for you. Woot Vanguard!
And there we gave it! I hope you enjoyed this tour through the best that Vanguard has to offer as well as a Commander variant. I expect to run a look at the best schemes and planes over the coming weeks as well. See you next week for a Creepy Halloween inspired Top Ten!