Partners in Shine
Today Commander 2016 will hit the shelves. Sporting no less than 31 mythic rares and 170 rares in just five preconstructed decks, this is certainly the most loaded product Wizards of the Coast has ever produced.
Value, Value, Value... Right?I shall be honest. When I saw the decklists for the Commander products, I immediately ordered two full sets of decks. The amount of value packed into these decks is nothing short of amazing. Now, I realize mtgbattlebox.com does not often go into the intricacies of Magic finance, but I just wanted to say a few things to this. Obviously, prices for singles will adjust to the value these decks provide, meaning most rares and mythics that are not highly sought after will drop to $0,25-$0,50 each (at least in the short term). This is good news for players who want to pick up these cards for their decks but not so good news for people with large collections that will now see a good chunk of their existing stock devaluate due to the cheap influx of extra copies. I can understand why Wizards of the Coast wants to do this, but it's a strategy that is not without risks. I just hope Commander 2016 will not be this generation's Chronicles. Anyway, if you want some Commander 2016 cards for your decks, I would wait a few weeks because I predict prices for singles will drop more than we're used to from other sets.
And Another ThingBefore we get to the actual set review I have one more thing that I need to get off my chest. I don't like foils. I. Don't. Like. Foils. I don't like the way they bend, I don't like the way they distort the artwork, and I don't like the way they become illegible under a bright light. They are like cards that have had plastic surgery or wear way too much makeup. I know many people (and magpies) disagree with me and I should keep my peculiarities to myself, although I'm equally convinced I'm far from the only one who feels this way. I never buy From the Vault sets, I cried when I accidentally ordered the Duel Deck Niv-Mizzet instead of the Guildpact one, and I have sold all of the Judge foils that were defacing my Cube. Up until now, this quirk was reasonably easy to live with, because Wizards would always first give us a non-foil edition of any card before trying to get us to spend even more money on the foils. Not so in the Commander 2016 set. All the new Commanders are foiled, which means that exactly zero of them will find their ways into my existing decks. Now, I have compromised by building a dedicated Commander 2016 Mini Battle Box (more on that later), but if anyone from Wizards is reading this: Please reconsider this for next year's set. I am sure I am not the only one who feels this way. /end rant. Rest assured that for the remainder of this article I will act as if all Commanders are nice and non-shiny and rate them on their gameplay merits only.
Howdy, Partner!On to the actual set. It has been touted as the four-color Commander set, which to be honest wasn't exciting me all that much. I think the biggest draw to the Commander format is its strict deck building limitations, and four-color Commanders are just way too open-ended (meaning decks will tend to become more similar as they evolve towards "good stuff" decks). They have pushed most of the actual four-color Commanders into specific directions, so I think that part turned out fine if not terribly exciting. What really surprised me was the partner mechanic. I love the idea of getting to mix and match two Commanders and then make a deck around their combined abilities. For Battle Box, there are certainly some nice individual cards that could fit in both two player and multiplayer Boxes, but the real question that was burning on my mind was whether I could fit the partners into the Commander Battle Box. I racked my brain for a day or two, and decided that it's possible with some additional setup actions, but probably not entirely worth it unless you want to replace most of the current Commander Pool with the new partners. Thinking about it a little more I realized that I could make a mini Commander Box using just the cards from the Commander 2016 set. The Commander Pool would be based around the ten best partners, giving a total of 45 possible combinations (9+8+7+6+5+4+3+2+1, in case anyone cares enough about the math to pick up a calculator). This way, I could really let the partners shine in Battle Box without having to change the Commander Battle Box. As I said, I am not adding any Commanders to it because I dislike the foils so much, but if I was I would probably swap in Saskia, Yidris, and Vial Smasher.
UndauntedBesides the Partner ability, Wizards has included Undaunted in the set, giving some cards a cost reduction for each extra opponent in the game. To be brutally honest, I don't get this ability. Are we supposed to find extra opponents to make our cards better? A card like Blasphemous Act also scales well with the amount of players, but in a meaningful sense. If my problem gets bigger, my answer gets bigger. A cost reduction only makes sense if you want to speed up multiplayer games by making expensive spells play more efficiently. If that was Wizards' aim, I think they should have priced the cards more aggressively. For instance, for Sublime Exhalation to cost the same as Day of Judgment requires you to have three opponents. To make it cheaper, you would need four opponents, which doesn't happen in that many games, especially if you use formats like Star to manage the duration of your games. I realize that another effect of the undaunted cards could be that you have an incentive to keep players in the game, but both the volume of undaunted cards and the cost reduction are too small to have an effect on those decisions. My prediction is that after the novelty wears off, you will see very little of these cards around the Commander tables (or the Battle Box tables for that matter).
C16 Mini Battle BoxWith so many exciting new Commanders that are difficult to fit into the existing Battle Boxes, I wondered if it would be possible to construct a Mini Battle Box. The Commander 2016 set has plenty of great Commander staples to make a fine multiplayer Box. I think you could even stretch the Box size to 150-200 cards and still have enough material to make something workable. However, I wanted to stay true to the Mini Battle Box format and fit everything into a 125 card Dragon Shield cardbox. I considered making a 3-player Box for a while, but it felt that if I was going to do this, I would need to go to at least 4 players. To have any kind of deck left, this meant keeping the number of tokens and the number of lands in the land sets low. For the land sets, I settled on five basic lands, one Grand Coliseum and one Sol Ring (like lands, if the Sol Ring gets destroyed, it is returned to the Command Zone to be cast again later). This means the land sets are adding a total of 28 cards to the Box. Not counting tokens and Commanders, this leaves 82 cards for the main deck. With a starting hand of four, this means around 17 turns in a four player game. To make 17 turns work, I lowered the starting life for this Box to 30 life. Normal Commander games run to around 10-15 turns, so I think this should be on the safe side. Obviously, I haven't been able to test the Box yet, so it is possible that I will need to make some modifications once I receive the cards and start testing, including expanding the Box to include more cards. If you're not the experimental type, I would hold off on building this Mini Box for a month or so to see what changes need to be made.
The Commander 2016 Top 20Although not all Commander 2016 innovations are home runs, there is still plenty of excitement to be had in the individual cards. Below are my personal picks for the Top 20, although there are certainly other cards that were equally deserving to be on this list (in the end this is also a matter of taste). I have included both multiplayer all stars and good 1 on 1 cards in this list, so it's a bit of a mixed bag.
20. Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa
A nice option if your Box contains many 1 and 2 drops or tokens. It shuts down most chump blockers, which allows for quicker games. Plus, it's been a while since a new card featured flanking as an ability (bet you had to check what it did too).
19. Orzhov Advokist
I like the ability a lot. You offer each opponent a bribe and if they take it, they can't attack you. It works best in a multiplayer environment, where you can set players up to attack each other. In a two-player game it's not so good, as giving your opponent a choice between two options generally works out bad for you.
18. Grip of Phyresis
Its usefulness depends a lot on whether your Battle Box contains a decent number of equipment (preferably equipment that boosts toughness). It's instant speed, so it's a great combat trick, even if its application is a little narrow.
17. Entrapment Maneuver
Removing a body while receiving some tokens is a nice effect. Because it's a sacrifice effect, your opponent gets to choose which body dies, so the card is very context dependent. Sometimes it will be great, other times it will rot in your hand.
16. Stonehoof Chieftain
This card seems very strong. Once you get it on the battlefield, attacking is essentially without risk. Although eight mana is quite a lot, I'm a bit worried the card will lead to some unfun oppressive board states. I'll certainly try it out, but it's on the watchlist.
15. Goblin Spymaster
10/10 for a wacky, flavorful design. Giving your opponents a small creature while forcing them to attack with all their creatures could be quite powerful. The problem is that in Battle Box, you never know if this is going to hurt you more than them, because you can't really sculpt the battlefield around it. I like it, but I think it's not going to be great in every game.
14. Tana, the Bloodsower
I like cards that incentivize you to grow them as large as possible, and Tana does this in the cleanest possible way. It already has trample, so all you need to do is pump it to let the madness unfold. In most Battle Boxes, pumping a creature is not the most difficult of tasks.
13. Selfless Squire
The latest in a long line of white punisher cards. They are getting so numerous that any player leaving open white mana is inherently suspect. I like the squire better than more direct punisher cards that hit you with lots of damage to the face. At least you can interact with the Squire, and in a multiplayer setting you might even welcome it.
12. Atraxa, Praetors' Voice
Four color cards are very strong in Battle Box. There is no inherent downside because you can develop your mana freely to always have the correct colors available on turn 4. At the same time, their power level takes into account that they normally need an iffy mana base to work. As a result, I would not recommend Atraxa except in the more powerful Boxes. That said, proliferate is one of the coolest abilities in Magic.
11. Bruse Tarl, Boorish Herder
I think this is one of the best partner Legends in the set. However, I am always wary of making lifelink too easily available in my Battle Boxes, because it tends to draw out games that are already long to begin with. If you don't mind that, Bruse is going to be a great card.
10. Ravos, Soultender
The body is nothing impressive, but it does boost your other creatures. And if you manage to keep it around until your next upkeep, the value is really going to add up. A safe but fun Battle Box addition.
9. Faerie Artisans
This will create some nice tokens for you. Of course, your opponents can more or less play around it be playing their worst creatures last, but you will still get a lot of value from it. It will be absolutely amazing with some sacrifice effects.
8. Vial Smasher the Fierce
In a Battle Box, there are no lands in the deck, so you will have one or more live cards every turn. The fact that this deals its damage to a random opponent makes it a bit fickle, but if you like high aggression games where people are on the clock, Vial Smasher might be just what you are looking for.
7. Duelist's Heritage
Double strike is always a strong ability, and the fact that in multiplayer games you can use this to pump an opponent's creature (thus giving you some bargaining leverage) is great. I love the design of this card, it's simple yet deep.
6. Charging Cinderhorn
Although I always say that symmetrical effects are not great in Battle Box (they aren't), I do like the Cinderhorn. It provides a clock of sorts, and it encourages people to attack every turn. Both effects help to push the game along, which from a Battle Box design point of view I really like. And I think a 4/2 haste is just enough value to not let it sit in your hand, even with the risk involved in playing it.
5. Ludevic, Necro-Alchemist
It gives cards to players as long as they attack your opponents. It gives you cards as long as you attack your opponents. It is both a defensive strategy as well as a way to push the game towards a conclusion. I love it. It does draw quite a few cards, so I may need to cut it from the C16 Mini Battle Box for eating the library too quickly.
4. Yidris, Maelstrom Wielder
I think cascade is a great Battle Box mechanic, because it doesn't care about the lands in a deck so it provides exactly the amount of value it was intended to. Having to connect to give your other spells cascade sounds just difficult enough to not be insane, but it will no doubt be powerful. Handle with care.
3. Saskia the Unyielding
The first time I read this, I didn't like it all that much. It felt as if Saskia was going to pick on one player like an annoying elementary school bully. Then I realized most Commander games (where I think she will shine) don't play out that way. You will cast and recast your Commander many times, and each time you can pick a different player for Saskia to pound on. This makes her an excellent equalizer and a great political tool as well. Plus, she has the best warrior queen artwork ever (making it all the more inexcusable they made her a soldier).
2. Kraum, Ludevic's Opus
First of all, a 4/4 hasty flyer for 5 mana is a great place to be in Battle Box. Besides that, Kraum keeps your opponents honest. If they don't limit themselves to playing only one spell each turn, you will quickly spin out of control. Although this potentially also draws too many cards, I think it will more often force your opponents to make tough choices.
1. Deepglow Skate
An unassuming 3/3 with a huge effect. If your Battle Box has planeswalkers, +1/+1 counters, charging artifacts or any other counter shenanigans, the Skate is exactly what you are looking for. Especially fun if your Box has some amount of bounce or blink effects.
That's it for Commander 2016. I think the set is really well put together, and I'm excited to try the new Mini Battle Box. As always, let me know what you think. Have I missed something important? Do I have a Ludevic fetish I need to see someone about? Until next time, may all your partners be as shiny as you like them to be.