It’s time for another set review! They’re getting closer and closer together and that’s because we keep getting products closer and closer together. We are barely done incorporating Battlebond into our decks and it’s already time for another shake-up. However, having all of this practice on set reviews has given me more ideas about how to best review the set in a way that’s not just a generic Commander review of the set. I had a thought and I’d like feedback from you, so I will do a poll at the end to see if you found this valuable.
I will be reviewing every Legendary creature in the set and discussing how I would build a 75% deck with that creature at the helm, if possible. I will discuss every card I think embodies 75% principles and I will discuss any card I think might be overlooked and could impact the format because, while 75% isn’t a budget or “bad cards so our deck isn’t too good” philosophy, I am trying to add some value to your lives. I have been refining my set review approach and I think this is something that could add some value so we’ll go about it this way. Without further preamble (because I have no idea how many cards I’m going to end up reviewing this way) let’s get to it!
Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants — This Ajani seems pretty poorly-suited to Commander prima facie, but upon a second viewing, I am starting to see some value. Being able to recur creatures that can tutor, sacrifice for effect or impact the board is worthwhile in Commander and that emblem can get pretty nutty with Anointed Procession or Doubling Season out. I like this in some sort of Abzan build and also a Boros tokens type build. You can bring back Stoneforge Mystic, Sakura-Tribe Elder and myriad small but useful creatures and distributing counters can get the ball rolling on a lot of different strategies, a lot of which involve White. I think this has a lot of utility. I tend to underutilize Planeswalkers in my builds and this might not be the one that gets me to stop, but I think this has a lot of utility in Commander for a Planeswalker that wasn’t necessarily designed with that format in mind.
Cleansing Nova — I love modal Wraths. This is a mere mana more than Wrath of God and it has a lot more utility. It’s not quite as customizable as Austere Command, which is the Gold Standard of modal Wraths, but this is very useful and I think it’s also likely to be pretty affordable. I don’t mind paying a little more mana for a Wrath with upside and as one of the few that can so completely cleanse the board of problem permanents while leaving your creatures intact, I think this gets a serious look.
Lena, Selfless Champion — Ajani seems useful in a deck built around this commander. I don’t want to be a generic tokens deck but this deck seems to reward you for playing a lot of small creatures rather than a small number of big ones if you want Lena’s second ability to be meaningful. You’re Mono-White so your mana is going to be a little rough so you’ll want to add lots of rocks and cards like Extraplanar Lens to ramp. Sac Lena a lot to re-buy her from the Command Zone to swell your ranks. I think a Darien, King of Kjeldor deck minus the cards that ding your life but keeping the cards that reward you for having a lot of tokens can be a good place to start. Darien also makes soldier tokens so the infrastructure is identical, but I like the idea of gaining a ton of life rather than hurting yourself to get tokens so try and re-buy Lena as much as possible. If you want, try saccing her to altars instead of her ability to mitigate Commander Tax or let her go to the yard and bring her back with Emeria, the Sky Ruin or Resurrection effects.
Resplendent Angel — Pay special attention to cards that say “Each end step” or “Each upkeep” because they scale much better in Commander where there are lots more of those steps in a turn cycle. This is a powerful card and while it may be a little difficult to reliably gain 5 life, especially on others’ turns, this is worth it. I like this outside of decks where you gain a lot of life, obviously, but this has a place outside of regular Angel decks. Heck, it’s not even that good in Kaalia because it’s not worth cheating into play.
Suncleanser — YES! I love this card. Removing experience counters from an opponent, removing divinity counters, wiping a creature loaded with +1/+1 counters like Chasm Skulker or preventing one of your creatures from being murdered by Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons slowly, this card has a ton of utility. It could see play outside of dedicated hatebears strategies. I also feel like Mark Rosewater was directly responsible for this card lacking the ability to remove poison counters from you, which is too bad. I feel like he saw that scene in Stand By Me where Jerry O’Connell found the leech in his underwear and was grossed out and now none of us get Leeches effects ever again. That would give this creature an additional use but I think it’s fine as-is.
Valiant Knight — This is how I sort of expect a Core set lord to look. We’re spoiled lately with all of the tribal lords being killer commanders and this isn’t that. It is, however, a very solid creature and if you’re playing with Knights, you jam this. It’s narrow but powerful. I am writing about a Knights deck next week so I used this obvious card as a chance to preview those intentions.
Metamorphic Alteration — Blue doesn’t have a lot to write about because it’s all pretty solid, mediocre utilitarian stuff that will make it fine in Limited, won’t ruin Standard and is just good enough to play. That also doesn’t give us a ton of exciting cards. I don’t think this is super exciting, but cloning their stuff is a pretty 75% way to scale our deck to their deck’s power level. This is weird. You don’t get ETB effects but it also doesn’t die as easily as Phantasmal Image and you can tutor for it with cards like Auramancer. You also have to have your own creature. This card is weird, but I want to test it.
Nexus of Fate — Lucky for us, we got to hear the old argument about “dangerous presidents”[sic] that we first heard about Firesong and Sunspeaker (Currently $10 on Coolstuff Inc. with 20+ copies available) and I’m sure we’ll get to hear it every set until they stop trying to incentivize players to buy at their LGS or print a card that’s decent in Standard. I don’t think Nexus is the Commander staple that everyone who doesn’t play Commander claims it is to bolster their argument but I think this is quite good and you could deck yourself and take every turn with this. It’s good, but so is Enter the Infinite and that’s $2. As a builder, maybe one of my decks can use this card. I don’t think it’s a problem and taking turns for taking turns’ sake is annoying, so have a plan when you cast this.
Sai, Master Thopterist — This at first seems a little underpowered but I kind of like it. I think you’re going to see a lot of your deck and that’s exciting to me because I don’t like to run tutors that often, preferring to see if my deck can give me what I need and letting luck play a role. I can see this being built with Skullclamp, cards like Equilibrium and Erratic Portal to bounce your artifact creatures for replay value and artifact creatures like Solemn Simulacrum and Duplicant. I expect Sai to be about as popular as Jalira or Padeem but there are some very interesting things we can do with a pile of thopter tokens. I am putting Mechanized Production in the deck for sure, for example. All in all, this seems sort of underpowered but I think it’s interesting enough and I also think it’s less scary than The Locust God but could function in a similar capacity but instead of wheeling to let everyone access a ton of cards, you’re the only one drawing a ton. Pair with this next card,
Tezzeret, Artifice Master — The +0 draws a lot of cards, which is intriguing to me. Obviously the emblem is completely busted and I think this is at home in a lot of Commander decks if you can protect Tezzeret with thopters and then basically get a free epic spell every turn, but one that lets you play other spells, too. You don’t judge a Planeswalker solely based on its ultimate but this ‘walker has 3 solid abilities and I’m all about it.
Fraying Omnipotence — This reminds me of Death Cloud a lot and I love Death Cloud. The player the farthest ahead loses the most, the player struggling a bit loses the least and can usually catch up and the player with Waste Not (you, I hope) loses the even more least. This is a spell!
Isareth the Awakener — Flavor-wise, this is a very cool card. Reanimating creatures is always a good way to get card advantage and if you have enough mana, you can resurrect something big they killed or that you dredged into. I don’t like that you can’t have access to something like Reconnaissance if you want this as your commander and it’s sort of disappointing that all of the Legendary creatures in this set are monochromatic, limiting how they can be built, but I don’t need to tell you which 99s this fits into — it’s a lot of them. Sultai dredge decks, Golgari grave decks, even decks like Grenzo. I would build this deck with Living Death and Hell's Caretaker type cards to maximize ETB effects on creatures like Massacre Wurm and Liliana's Specter. You may have to re-buy your commander a lot because it likely dies in combat, but if you form an alliance with another player, they could agree to tank the damage or block with something that won’t kill either creature in order to let you use Isareth in exchange for you not blowing their stuff up. Political arrangements like this are my favorite part of Commander. I’ve been on the other side of this, too, throwing Solemn Simulacrum under the bus in exchange for a reprieve later. Favors are a resource, too.
Liliana, Untouched by Death — So they went and built another tribal Planeswalker, I guess. Zombie decks can obviously use this but I’m not excited elsewhere. This is very narrow.
Liliana's Contract — This is my favorite card in the set. I love alternate win condition cards because if you play them right, they won’t see them coming and you can cheese wins. Opponents with stronger decks might be too consumed fighting each other and that could mean you can surprise win with this (Vedalken Orrery is a great way to do it) or this could be your entire focus. There are plenty of demon-centric decks out there like Kaalia and Shadowborn Apostles and demons are pretty good on their own in Commander, usually. This is a great card.
Apex of Power — Not necessarily optimized for Commander, this is a powerful spell that’s at least more likely to be cast in a format where 10 mana spells happen. This digs to find a win condition like Insurrection or lets you cast a bunch of spells like Mana Geyser to fuel a huge turn. I think this has a ton of potential and since Mizzix decks are getting a second look lately, this should factor in. I like this in Aetherflux Reservoir builds and hopefully this gives you enough gas to win the game.
Doublecast — This looks like a terrible Fork but when you think about it, it’s just a very Red version of the card. It stripped all the Blue utility from the spell and left behind the Red parts. I think this is an example of what Red does well, but with Dualcaster Mage and Reiterate and Wild Ricochet, you may not have room for this.
Lathliss, Dragon Queen — This card is incredibly boring. If I were to build this, I would be all but forced to build some weird tribal dragon deck which gives me access to some good dragons but is slow, expensive and kind of obvious. You’re going to lean a lot on artifacts for mana and I hope your Dragons can see you through. I’m sure people will build this and new cards like Demanding Dragon seem cool but this is a really linear deck.
Sarkhan, Fireblood — Core sets sometimes give us really boring cards. This is a really boring Planeswalker. That said, a three mana walker that rummages away some lands and threatens to fill the board with tokens is worth testing, but I bet The Ur-Dragon builds already know which Sarkhan they want and it’s not this one.
Elvish Rejuvenator — It’s been a long time since I got excited about a Wood Elves variant but this one, I like. I think in a deck like Mayael, where you are already trying to make sure the top of your library is what you want, this is a lot of fun. It’s a craps shoot sometimes and you can whiff, but you can also nail a Gaea's Cradle with this. I like this a ton, and you don’t even have to shuffle after you use this, something R&D had in mind when they designed this card.
Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma — In case you were wondering what happened to the Bear who got punched in the face on that Khans card, here it is, ready to throw down and not interact with other Bears in any way. I don’t think that’s all bad, but it is disappointing for people who have waited for 25 years for a Bear commander (I mean, not really but kinda) and now still don’t have one. Ulrich 2.0 here is pretty solid as a card, though, and if you want to load up with Green fatties, he can help ramp them out and make sure they don’t get chump blocked. This is actually a pretty exciting commander and with recent years stapling utility onto big creatures like Greenwarden of Murasa, you can build fatty tribal. Make sure and keep your hand full with lots of Revelation effects, especially ones that draw based on the highest power of creatures and dump fatties with abandon. You will be overextending so make sure you include cards like Heroic Intervention so you don’t get pantsed by a Wrath. Even cards like Drumhunter deserve a spot in the deck. It’s dumb and obvious but it seems more fun that the Dragon deck.
Runic Armasaur — One of the tenets of 75% theory is that we prefer to punish our opponents for doing things rather than prevent them from doing things. That particular tenet has evolved a lot over the years and now more closely resembles us wanting to not prevent them from doing anything but rather slow them down and hamper them by narrowing their options. This is good, though, because it punishes them for doing stuff you don’t want them to do and keeps your hand full. I’ll take a Hateasaurus Rex for my Gaddock Teeg deck.
Vivien Reid — Vivien is the perfect Core set Planeswalker in that she’s pretty boring and unassuming but her abilities all seem to do work. I like the utility from all of her abilities and she is getting tested in a few of my decks. She also showcases the new commitment on behalf of R&D to reducing the amount of shuffling that happens, something that won’t ever translate to Commander but does signal players in other formats. I think this card is solid, as is
Vivien's Invocation — This is not quite Rishkar's Expertise but if you’re in Mono-Green and don’t have a lot of removal, I think this is solid. Green fatty decks will love this, making it pretty narrow but pretty potent. I still prefer Rishkar's Expertise but any deck that would play the Invocation would likely play both anyway.
Arcades the Strategist — I can’t think of a 75% way to build this. You’re a dumb walls deck which could be fun for some and certainly lets you play dumb old cards like Wall of Kelp and Snow Fortress but it also means your deck is unplayable without your commander out. I don’t like this very much. I have been racking my brain for days trying to come up with a new angle and I really can’t. There’s one way to build this, so have at it.
Chromium, the Mutable — Do you ever wish your expensive, 7/7 flier could be an Invisible Stalker? In the situations where that’s called for, Chromium does the trick. If I were to build around this, I would go Voltron, which is dumb and obvious but I don’t have much choice given the abilities. If flying is enough to get there, a completely naked Chromium dispatches an opponent in 3 hits. Hopefully with auras and equipment you can improve on that, especially if you have to shave off 6 power for the convenience of making it unblockable. I like the ability to gain hexproof at instant speed and this could end up very annoying to play against and hard to beat.
Nicol Bolas, the Ravager — Wow. This is quite a card and could end up a chase mythic in a set stacked with chase mythics. I would build this to maximize the value I get from making them discard and play as many Animate Dead effects as I could, and steal the stuff from their board, too. Slave of Bolas seems to indicate this is very flavorful for Bolas. The first time I summon Bolas and flip him I want to be very aggressive with his abilities, trying to get him to 0 loyalty so I can resummon for more discard triggers. You don’t need that many creatures of your own, instead you can just lean into what Grixis excels at and needs - artifact mana, creature theft, discard, removal and card draw. I’m building this deck and it’s going to be glorious to play with spells like Enslave, Rise of the Dark Realms and other black spells that steal creatures to supplement the Control Magic effects from Blue. That’s what I call scaling to their power level.
Palladia-Mors the Ruiner — This is also asking to be built as Voltron, but it’s way worse at it than Chromium. I don’t know what to do with this, honestly. I’d, I guess, build it on-hit which isn’t quite Voltron but rather uses cards like Nature's Will, Aggravated Assault, Sword of Feast and Famine, and Hellkite Tyrant to reward me for hitting them. It’s not quite Voltron since you want to swing with other creatures, too. Bear Umbra and even Reconnaissance will factor into this list heavily. I like the deck but basically any Naya creature could help it and some would do it better. Still, you’re not as likely to get blown out by removal loading Palladia up with a ton of auras and equipment to help you 1-shot someone, or trigger a ton of combat phases.
Vaevictus Asmadi, the Dire — I like this a lot. It hits everyone and the thought of Polymorphing someone’s Commander into a Forest is hilarious to me. I think similar to Palladia, I would try and maximize my combat phases to really get those triggers to keep their best permanents off of the board. I’ll also run Warp World because I love to cheese like that.
Chaos Wand — What’s more 75% than casting their spells? I love this card, and if you have Paradox Engine, you could cast every Instant or Sorcery in everyone’s decks. That may not be enough to win the game, but it would be hilarious and I’m going to do that.
Meteor Golem — This is colorless removal of something other than creatures. I don’t know if this is better or worse than Duplicant but I do know that Duplicant is not as useful as it used to be and is mostly grandfathered in at this point. I think the fact that you don’t have to hit a creature means Meteor Golem is likely to be more useful and I bet foils of this will reflect that soon.
Transmogrifying Wand — More colorless removal? I’m super OK with this, especially since Blue was happy to play Pongify in the past. Sorcery speed sucks, but is there ever a bad time to kill their Commander or utility creature, especially if it’s something hard to kill like Animar?
All in all, this set is about what I expected. It’s got a ton of relevant reprints like Scapeshift and Crucible of Worlds meaning prices on those will be depressed for a while, giving us a chance to buy them for a reasonable amount or even better, trading for them and trading away Standard-only junk that will be worthless in 2 years thus gaining some value that way. Core sets aren’t designed to light the world on fire, but they do add some utility to the Standard card pool. I think there are some decent 75% cards in here but for the most part, it’s dull, plodding utility which is necessary if not exciting. Why fade some of the luster from an exciting set by filling it with Divination and Essence Scatters when you can have the Core set bite that bullet? That’s not to say this set doesn’t have exciting stuff — Apex of Power, Liliana's Contract, Elder Dragon Legends — there are some great, exciting new cards. If there is a card you’d like me to discuss below, write a comment and I’ll do so. And now, briefly, while I still have you.
Until next time!