Romans in the Decadence of the Empire, 1847 by Thomas Couture. Jace, Telepath Unbound by Jaime Jones.
As 2017 winds down, it's time to take a look back at the past year. Every year brings us new cards for use in Commander, new pre-constructed decks, and changes to our rules and banlist. Today you're playing a slightly different game than you were playing twelve months ago.
Let's look at what changed, what didn't, and where our format is at as we go into a new year.
Rules & Banlist Changes
Any change to our format's banlist is a big deal, but opinions about how these kinds of changes affect "the format" are always going to be shaped by our own metas and our personal experiences in the games we play. I got the chance to see both of these cards in action in 2017.
At the beginning of the year, we had a player bring a strong Leovold deck to our Commander League. He won both of his matches easily and it wasn't much fun for his opponents. He then went off to college and I didn't observe a "Leovold problem" in our league or in any of the groups I play with regularly.
When Protean Hulk was unbanned I picked up a copy and eventually added Flash, Phyrexian Delver, and other combo pieces to a deck I had built around The Mimeoplasm. I was able to win a game on turn five using the Flash Hulk combo, but I haven't played the deck that often. I enjoy having a deck I can go to if I want something that can stand up to fast, combo decks and sometimes even outrace them. I do try to exercise restraint and I probably spend too much time playing bad decks and decks I know probably can't compete because I care an awful lot about whether or not my opponents are having fun. I don't think Hulk has been a problem in any of the groups I play in, but I also haven't tried to make it a problem.
I think the Commander Rules Committee made a pretty strong statement with their April banlist changes. They trust us to play with strong cards that can win games quickly. They also understand that oppressive cards which can create deeply un-fun games can be hard to resist for the more trollish players in our community. They're OK with the former but really don't want to encourage the latter.
The December 1st announcement that silver-bordered cards are temporarily legal was a clear message that the Rules Committee thinks of Commander as a fun format where goofy things can and should happen. Every playgroup is different, but I suspect most players who have played a lot of games in the format have seen their share of fun, goofy, silly decks even without the inclusion of "un-set" cards. Legalizing them until January 15th shows that the Rules Committee is fully in favor of making sure our format is one where fun is as important as competitiveness.
This past year has shown us that the R.C. wants Commander to be a format for everyone. Spikes got their Protean Hulk back. Casual players got "Unstable Winter". Commander is a place where groups can shape their own experience based upon the kinds of decks they want to build and the kinds of games they most enjoy having.
A Changing Landscape
Every year brings us new cards and new challenges in Commander, and 2017 was certainly no exception. Every new set, from Aether Revolt back in January, through Ixalan, which came out in September, brought us cards that will someday be seen as staples in the format. The new Legendary creatures released in 2017 are probably going to have the biggest impact on our format, but we've also seen lots of cards that are now so prevalent they feel like they've been around forever. I'm going to take a look back at each of the sets and highlight three cards from each release that I think may have the most lasting impact on the format.
Aether Revolt — January 14, 2017
The second set in the Kaladesh block, Aether Revolt brought us more vehicles, lots more artifacts and a few cards that now feel like they've been in the format forever. Lifecrafter's Bestiary, Mechanized Production, and Rishkar's Expertise are all important cards that are auto-includes in certain types of decks, but there are other cards that had a much, much greater impact.
Heroic Intervention has quickly become a reliable way to turn an opponent's boardwipe into a quick win. You expand your board, inviting a wrath, you keep a measly two mana () ready and after your army has survived the wrath you swing in on anyone unlucky enough to not have this card ready. Not to be outdone, Paradox Engine has quickly turned into a powerhouse of a card, generating wins across a variety of colors and deck types. Simply run enough mana rocks, an Isochron Scepter and the right instant spell and the game is probably yours. One last card that feels like it couldn't possibly be under a year old is Walking Ballista. It has a role as a way to turn infinite mana into a win, and it has taken a place beside Triskelion as one of the two cards you least want to see on the field next to Mikaeus, the Unhallowed.
For new Commanders, Aether Revolt gave us a number of new options:
- Baral, Chief of Compliance
- Hope of Ghirapur
- Kari Zev, Skyship Raider
- Rishkar, Peema Renegade
- Sram, Senior Edificer
- Yahenni, Undying Partisan
None of these new commanders have broken the format and most of them just aren't that good. The only one that seemed to make a lasting impact was Baral, Chief of Compliance and while he's become a strong choice for Blue control decks, it's not like there aren't other good options for that particular type of deck.
Amonkhet — April 22, 2017
The first set in the Amonkhet block brought us a number of cards that have a role in midrange Commander decks. We got new utility creatures in Manglehorn and Prowling Serpopard. Our five-color decks got Cascading Cataracts. Anyone running a deck that likes to tap lots of creatures made sure to grab a copy of Harvest Season. We even got an alternate wincon in Approach of the Second Sun, but none of those are "staples". There were a few cards that will have a place in our format for many years to come.
As Foretold has quickly become a very strong way to cheat costs and abuse proliferate in decks that are in Blue. You only get to cheat costs once per turn but a deck running Leyline of Anticipation or Vedalken Orrery can cast spells as though they had flash and can abuse this enchantment on everyone's turn.
Doubling Season has long had a little brother in Parallel Lives but until Amonkhet these effects were only in Green. With the release of Anointed Procession hundreds of "White Weenies" players got the enchantment they've been looking for. I mentioned Harvest Season earlier, but tapping creatures is even better with Throne of the God-Pharaoh. This Legendary Artifact will do damage to each of your opponents equal to the number of tapped creatures you control. If you've developed a wide enough board the throne can quickly end a game, especially if you've got opponents who have already been losing life. Even ten creatures that are tapped represent a decent chunk of someone's life total.
Amonkhet may not have produced a long list of cards that threatened to break the format, but it certainly delivered in terms of the legendary creatures we now have available to build around.
- Bontu the Glorified
- Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons
- Hazoret the Fervent
- Kefnet the Mindful
- Neheb, the Worthy
- Oketra the True
- Rhonas the Indomitable
- Samut, Voice of Dissent
- Temmet, Vizier of Naktamun
Having a new set of Gods to build around was a lot of fun, and I saw plenty of new Commander decks when this set was released. I don't think any of these new cards are going to establish themselves in the pantheon of great Commanders in our format. Hapatra might be the best option, but none of them really have the kind of high ceiling for abuse that will turn them into the next powerhouse Commander.
Hour of Devastation — July 8, 2017
When July rolled around we saw the second set in the Amonkhet block, and Hour of Devastation brought us a few cards that made their way into certain types of Commander decks. Mill players embraced Fraying Sanity. God-Pharaoh's Gift represented a new and powerful way to bring creatures back from your graveyard. Hour of Revelation was a boardwipe that will often cost just 3 White mana to cast, and White decks also got Overwhelming Splendor, which nicely slides into Iona, Shield of Emeria and any other deck that's comfortable not "playing nice" with opponents.
Hour of Devastation also brought us a few cards that will have a major role in Commander for a long time to come. We now have another answer to an indestructible board in the form of Hour of Devastation's eponymous boardwipe, Hour of Devastation. We also have another answer to the Planeswalker decks that Atraxa, Praetors' Voice helped to further popularize. Solemnity will not only slow down Planeswalker decks – it will also keep you from getting poison counters and will pair nicely with a cards that have a cumulative upkeep. Last but certainly not least, Wizards of the Coast has finally put Crucible of Worlds on a stick in the form of Ramunap Excavator. If you think that's not a big deal, you might just be new to the format. It's big.
This set represented a step up from Amonkhet, with a more dramatic feel and more powerful legendary creatures.
- Djeru, With Eyes Open
- Neheb, the Eternal
- Razaketh, the Foulblooded
- The Locust God
- The Scarab God
- The Scorpion God
- Unesh, Criosphinx Sovereign
Over half of these are hugely impactful additions to the Commanders we as deck-builders now have available to us. Neheb breathes new life into Burn, an archetype that has been lacking support and is already challenged by a format where everyone's life total is doubled and you have to deal with more than just one opponent. Razaketh may now replace Sidisi as the most dangerous Black tutor Commander in the format, even despite costing three more mana to cast. The Locust God is now arguably the strongest Izzet () commander, and is certainly the best option if you're looking to make tokens and win via combat. Any Dimir () zombie deck will also have a hard time finding a better commander than The Scarab God. With over half of the new legendary creatures representing significant additions to the format, Hour of Devastation is a set that will leave its mark on the format of Commander for many years to come.
Commander 2017 — August 25, 2017
Every year's release of preconstructed Commander decks sees a lot of excitement and 2017 was no exception. We got spoiled ahead of time and were treated to four tribal decks that for the first time were in a variety of colorspaces. Everyone had their pet tribes that they wanted to see in the 2017 set and between Cats, Dragons, Vampires and Wizards, most of us were able to find something to enjoy or at least use as a starting point for a new deck.
The decks had a lot of reprints, but we also got a decent assortment of new cards. Alms Collector is a much needed way to deal with opponents that want to draw way too many cards. The Kindred cycle — Kindred Boon, Kindred Charge, Kindred Discovery, Kindred Dominance, and Kindred Summons are all powerful, interesting cards that in the right deck can really have an impact on a game. Not every new card or cycle was a hit. The 2017 Curse cards were usually the first ones player would take out of the deck when looking to make upgrades.
Tribal decks are going to be running Herald's Horn as an auto-include for a very long time. Between Brass Herald and his new Horn, it's hard to imagine better tribal support cards being printed anytime soon. Any deck that wants to survive an opponent's wincon or guarantee that they live long enough to land their own win condition now has a stellar card to run in Teferi's Protection. Commander is a format where players often get huge creatures on the table, so Traverse the Outlands is likely to see play in our format for years to come. It's mana intensive but in the right deck will get you 8-10 lands or more and pairs well with pump effects. Turning an Arahbo, Xenagos or Kessig Wolf Run boost into a ridiculous amount of ramp seems pretty good for five mana.
The only reason these cards might not become staples in the format would be availability. A card like Anointed Procession will quickly become a staple in token decks that are in White, but Teferi's Protection is less likely to find its way into every White combo deck even though it's a fantastic way to protect a winning boardstate.
It should come as no surprise that the Commander 2017 decks brought a long list of new legendary creatures into the format. Setting the many reprints aside, there are sixteen new Legendary creatures we can now build around.
- Arahbo, Roar of the World
- Balan, Wandering Knight
- Edgar Markov
- Inalla, Archmage Ritualist
- Kess, Dissident Mage
- Licia, Sanguine Tribune
- Mairsil, the Pretender
- Mathas, Fiend Seeker
- Mirri, Weatherlight Duelist
- Nazahn, Revered Bladesmith & Hammer of Nazahn
- O-Kagachi, Vengeful Kami
- Ramos, Dragon Engine
- Taigam, Ojutai Master
- Taigam, Sidisi's Hand
- The Ur-Dragon
- Wasitora, Nekoru Queen
These sixteen cards brought a wide range of interesting new possibilities to our format. Edgar Markov was so strong, he was banned in Duel Commander. Grandpa Munster clearly brings some power to the table. Ramos, Dragon Engine provides an amazing amount of flexibility and potential that will let you build a winning deck in any number of ways as long as you can avoid the inevitable Krosan Grips that will surely be flying your way. Nazahn and his hammer give us what might be a new best option for voltron equipment Commander decks, though Balan's ability to grab every equipment you control makes him a pretty sweet option as well.
Ixalan — September 23, 2017
In the Fall of 2017 we were deep into rebuilding and reworking the 2017 "precon" Commander decks when a new Tribal set was released. Ixalan brought us into a world of dinosaurs, vampires, merfolk and pirates and gave us more cards that would change our format in ways both small and large. Cards like Arcane Adaptation, Bishop of Rebirth, and Revel in Riches all have a place in the right Commander deck and will all see play for years to come, but none of them would probably qualify as staples. That doesn't mean the set didn't have staples — far from it.
Ixalan brought us a set of enchantments and artifacts that would flip to become lands that recreate some of the most powerful lands played in Commander. Now if you can't afford Gaea's Cradle, you can run Growing Rites of Itlimoc in its place. If you can't afford Maze of Ith, Thaumatic Compass will replace it nicely. Both have to be "flipped" but in most Commander games you'll probably have a relatively easy time doing that. The other flip lands are worth looking at, but these two are most likely to be auto-includes for many years to come.
Outside of the flip lands, I would probably look at Settle the Wreckage as the biggest staple in the set, but I might be biased. I made good use of it in my Marath deck this year, exiling my own creatures as a way to ramp into a win. Marath is very mana-hungry and in the right deck turning a board of 1/1 tokens into lands is exactly the kind of shenanigan I can get behind. It also works nicely to keep from dying if your opponent is swinging with an wide board of huge creatures — especially if they can't easily rebuild their board and don't have any good ways to use the excess mana.
Ixalan brought us seven new Legendary creatures to build around. These were nowhere near as powerful as the options we saw in Hour of Devastation or as versatile as the many new Commander 2017 legendary creatures, but they still gave us some fun new options to build around.
- Admiral Beckett Brass
- Captain Lannery Storm
- Gishath, Sun's Avatar
- Kopala, Warden of Waves
- Mavren Fein, Dusk Apostle
- Tishana, Voice of Thunder
- Vona, Butcher of Magan
The most powerful of these might actually be Gishath, though I should never underestimate the power of the additional card draw that Tishana, Voice of Thunder provides. I haven't yet seen either of the Pirate commanders make much of a splash, and the Vampires seem to have been absorbed into everyone's 2017 Vampire precon build.
I'm not going to discuss Unstable at any length because there's little chance any Unstable cards will become staples in Commander beyond January 15th. It is worth mentioning that those gorgeous full art lands will be seeing lots of play and you'll be hard pressed to play a night of Commander at your LGS and not see one on a battlefield somewhere. The legendary creatures released in Unstable are fun and silly but any suggestion that they will have a lasting impact on the format would be ridiculous on its face. Maybe that would be appropriate for Unstable, but I'm just going to leave it at that.
The Top Three
We've looked at what I thought were the three most impactful cards in every set in 2017 and have looked over the many legendary creatures we now have available to us.
That begs the question of what I think the top three Commanders of 2017 might be. Many of the new cards we've seen in 2017 are going to have a lasting impact in Commander. Our format is more varied, exciting, nuanced and fun, but there are three Legendary creatures that I think are going to have a greater impact on Commander than any of their peers.
The Locust God is the strongest Izzet card draw commander I could imagine, and I still wonder if the designers were drunk when they decided to give the 1/1 insects haste. You're already drawing cards. You're in Blue so you've got lots of protection if anyone tries to stop you from winning. I put my copy of The Locust God into my Niv-Mizzet deck, but I'm stubborn and didn't want to just build what everyone else was building. The bottom line is that if The Locust God resolves and is allowed to stay on the field for very long at all, you're probably in a world of trouble.
If you want flexibility, Ramos, Dragon Engine might be the single greatest Commander ever printed. He gives you access to any color, he can be cast with any combination of colors, and he is one of the best mana engines you're going to find. He has evasion, so you can win with him as a voltron Commander, and he's finally a good option for building a Storm deck. If you're looking for ways to win, the sky is the limit. In the past month I've seen my Ramos deck win games by hitting him with Chandra's Ignition after giving him infect, and by using Mana Geyser to play Maelstrom Wanderer, Storm Herd, and Craterhoof Behemoth. The bottom line is that if Ramos and Grand Abolisher (or Dragonlord Dromoka) are on the field and Conflux resolves, the Ramos deck should be about to win the game.
My third choice for top 3 Commanders of 2017 is Edgar Markov. Any card that gets banned in a format (Duel Commander) is going to have some serious mojo, and Edgar is no exception. He is the new poster child for overpowered Eminence abilities and anyone building a vampire deck since his release knows full well that they are going with a weaker option. Before the 2017 Commander decks there were a few vampire commanders. Now there is Edgar Markov and everyone else.
There are certainly other Legendary creatures released in 2017 that will see play for many years to come, but these three are the ones I think will have the most lasting impact.
I think this was a great year for Commander as a format. We got lots of great new cards and commanders, saw minimal changes to our banlist and rules, and saw Wizards of the Coast continue to support a format that is in many ways out of their hands. We saw cards printed that already feel like they've been part of our format forever, and other cards printed that reproduce older cards that are so valuable many players simply can't afford them.
I'll be honest that I didn't touch upon any Planeswalkers and didn't explore the change in the Planewalker rules. I don't really play Planeswalkers in many of my decks so while they're clearly an important part of our format, they didn't really play a major role in my deck-building or gameplay this past year.
My own feelings about what cards are worth remembering from the past year and what cards will become staples in our format are hugely affected by the players I play with and the decks I've built. I devoted a lot of thought and time this past year to exploring Ramos, Dragon Engine, so it should come as no surprise that he was in my "top three" list.
I'm pretty sure I missed key cards that deserved more respect than I gave them and I'm very confident each and every one of you probably have a different list for your "top 3" commanders released this year. While I may have gone to the effort of throwing this article together, what I'd really love is to hear what you think.
Scroll back up and take another look.
Tell me what I missed and let me know what YOUR top 3 Commanders of 2017 are!
Comment below and I may well come around to your way of thinking. I've been wrong before and if nothing else, I enjoy these kinds of discussions and lists an awful lot.
As always, thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!
I'm very excited to be able to share the fact that last Saturday I had the honor of being interviewed on CommanderCast. I talked about my writing, my photoshop mashups, and of course I shared my thoughts about running Commander leagues. Andy and Mark were gracious hosts and I can only hope I was a good and entertaining guest. I don't know if I'll ever get the chance to join them again, but it was a lot of fun and, again, it was a huge honor. I expect the episode may be out later this week or next weekend, but at this point I don't really know. I'll share a link to it when it is available.