Sunday, November 3, 2013

Commander 2013 First Impressions

Good morning, folks. So the new Commander decks are out and we've all had a chance to play with them right? If not, I feel for you because they appear to be (mostly) much-improved over the 2011 offerings. While I'm sure there will be a lot of aspects that we will look back on and consider "misses" in a year's time, WotC definitely appears to have hit a lot closer to the mark this time out.

A lot of the new cards feel rather weak, but the new Legends, at least have so far proven to be pretty darn good. The decks themselves feel a lot more cohesive and playable (in general, with some caveats).

I got to play a TON this weekend, but only 1v1, unfortunately as half my playgroup stood me up. But even the 1v1 games proved to be invaluable experience for gauging the power level of the decks. The two decks that I think were hurt the most by the 1v1 aspect were the Naya and Grixis decks... but I'll get to that later.

Anyway, my overall impression is that the decks aren't quite grand slam home runs, they are definitely better than the 2011 decks by a significant margin (and I didn't hate those). If you are on the fence about picking these up, I definitely recommend it. Get all 5 if you can!

Here's a quick deck-by-deck breakdown:

Derevi, Empyrial Tactician
I was pretty skeptical about this deck, and not super impressed with Derevi. But, boy did I misjudge this one. I still see no reason to claim the sky is falling where Derevi is concerned (I've seen a lot of negativity on the forums - cries of "broken!", "ban her now!", and "WotC negating the commander tax is going to kill the format!". Well, she's definitely a lot more powerful than I thought, I will concede, but more than that, she's interesting and unique, which is frankly a wonderful thing. That she might be a tiny bit overpowered is not really an issue - Edric is still the most broken thing out of the 2011 decks, and he's still not banned.

How the deck plays is the best part. It's made up of a whole bunch of janky and weak-looking cards (with a few exceptions like Karmic Guide), but how they all interact together is what makes it click. While the deck isn't the synergy-driven engine that Oloro's deck is, it is still deceptively, subtly well-designed. The best part is, once it gets going, there are always an impossibly high number of decision trees, making the deck feel like a complicated Sudoko puzzle. Figuring out what to tap and untap with the Derevi triggers, and when, is one thing. Then you start adding some of the "Blink" subtheme cards like Mistmeadow Witch and it gets impossibly complicated.

Which is a good thing! Your opponent can't predict what you're going to do when there are so many little options that even YOU have no idea what you're going to do. 

One of the weaknesses of the deck is the lack of card-draw. There are a couple of options, but it is very easy to run out of gas with the deck. It seems particularly weak to mass removal, but even a well-timed Doom Blade on Derevi can turn a solid attack into a tactical disaster. The other biggest weakness is also one of it's strengths - it is ridiculously complicated to pilot, which offers some incredibly rich and rewarding gameplay for hardcore players, but might be a little overwhelming for newer or more casual players. It'd probably still be fun for them, but they likely will drop a lot of games for making misplays, or more likely, failing to make plays they don't even realize they could have made.

The Commander decks are considered Expert-level products, and EDH as a format is decidedly NOT noob-friendly to begin with... but out of all five decks, I think this one is the least suitable as an entry level deck.

The one card this deck wants most: This is a tough one, but it'd be a toss up between Bident of Thassa (needs the draw badly) and Glare of Subdual (or Opposition).

Best New Card: Another tough pick - the best overall is probably Unexpectedly Absent, but it doesn't do much for this deck. I'd say Bane of Progress is more useful in this specific deck, and another solid overall staple-to-be.

Best Reprint: Karmic Guide. This one was not tough at all.

Oloro, Ageless Ascetic
I might be biased, but... okay I am... but this is my favorite of the new decks. I also think it's probably the strongest, out of the box. Oloro is good, but the synergies his deck brings to bear are wonderful.

With the right cards, Oloro doesn't even need to be cast to become a tireless machine, and engine of value cranking out card advantage in overwhelming supply, all while your life total skyrockets upward.

But be careful, for the "never-ending value train" line of play is a trap. You need to be able to actually bring all that card advantage to bear, interact with the board and make sure your opponents aren't just building an unstoppable army while you draw cards and gain life.

The only time I saw Oloro lose all weekend was when it had mana issues. So that'd mark the first and most noticeable weakness. Finding some ramp options in these colors would go a long way.

The more critical weakness, though, is the overall lack of board control. The deck feels like it wants to be a grindy control deck, but there aren't that many answers to things, and many of the ones included aren't that great.

Finally, you needs a couple more ways to recur key spells and permanents. Well of Lost Dreams is quickly going to become every Oloro player's favorite card - and their opponent's prime target for Krosan Grip.

The "Artifacts matter" subtheme feels a little phoned in, but it makes sense here - there are a lot of artifacts you will want to play in Oloro, but many of the specific inclusions feel like a half-completed and abandoned Sidri deck. Which I'm sure was intentional to a point, but does give the deck a slight bipolar quality.

The one card this deck wants most: Sphinx's Revelation. (It's actually probably Damnation, but Revelation is more fun).

Best New Card: Toxic Deluge, not even close.

Best Reprint: Lim-Dul's Vault.

Jeleva, Nephala's Scourge
This is the deck I have the least data on. I only played one game with this deck, and two against it. It did not perform well against any of the other decks. I will say in its defense that I think this is the deck most hampered by the 1v1 mode in which we were playing it. Jeleva's ability relies on there being more players, to enable more options. Playing the deck 1v1, it was hardly ever worth it to cast her - often she'd miss completely or just fail to hit anything relevant.

Also, the deck seemed to have more stuff included for Nekusar than for Jeleva herself. The deck does feature a rather weak "Instants and Sorceries matter" theme, but doesn't commit fully enough to compete with the stronger synergies of the other decks.

In other words, Jeleva is the one new Legend whose power level is directly tied to the power level of the deck built around her, and her opponents' decks. So playing her at the helm of a rather weak deck against a bevy of stronger but still relatively underpowered decks is a poor environment for a test drive.

Jeleva herself is the Kaalia of the set. Much like Kaalia, she is a cheap Flying creature with whom you must attack in order to get free stuff. Kaalia gave you free Dragons, Angels and Demons, whereas Jeleva gives you free Instants and Sorceries, which makes her far more open-ended. What's more she can also take advantage of any of your opponents Instants and Sorceries as well, so that's even more flexibility.

But at the end of the day, despite all this apparent flexibility, she's still basically the same card as Kaalia. To me, Nekusar is the more interesting Legend, and I theorize that this is why there are way more cards in the deck that appear to have been included strictly for his benefit.

The one card this deck wants most: Probably Sire of Insanity. Jeleva herself will provide you with gas while everyone else is stuck in top-deck mode.

Best New Card: Illusionist's Gambit.

Best Reprint: Decree of Pain.

Prossh, Skyraider of Kher
In one game, I managed to kill my opponent with Prossh in a single hit. Having 16 Kobolds to sac, courtesy of Primal Vigor, made this a fairly easy feat. I'm duly impressed with Prossh himself. The deck, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired. It's the middle child of the set - while it plays better than the Naya and Grixis deck, it is weaker than the Bant and Esper decks.

But, Prossh himself picks up a lot of that slack. Sek'Kuar and Shattergang Brothers are also a good deal more synergistic with the deck itself and with Prossh and each other than the other decks and Generals. It's the one deck where the design of all three Legends and the deck itself intersect perfectly, and it doesn't feel unnatural or forced to have all three Legends in one deck.

Unfortunately there are some other aspects that don't feel as natural. The lack of ramp being one. It is a very expensive deck to operate, and the lack of ramp hurts badly. It feels more slow and clunky than it should, and while it has some great synergies, it feels like it takes forever and a day to bring them online.

Second, with the way the deck is built, and even the NAME of the deck - it's called Power Hungry! - it really feels like it wants some Devour cards. But not a one to be found. Of course Devour is a high risk mechanic in EDH so I wouldn't over do it, but, c'mon, Not even a Mycoloth?

Regardless, it's a pretty powerful deck if you can hit your land drops.

The one card this deck wants most: You'd think it'd be Mycoloth or Thromok, one of the high-end Devour cards... but no. Play it a few times, and I promise you, you will never want Grave Pact so badly as you do with this deck.

Best New Card: Sudden Demise gets my vote, though it gets better the fewer colors you are playing. Primal Vigor will probably get the most love, though.

Best Reprint: This deck has a lot of contenders. Hua Tuo is the most interesting of the P3K reprints, and Reincarnation a fantastically obscure and wonderful Legends card updated with quirky new art and templating that actually makes sense. I'm also a big fan of Mass Mutiny, a Planechase 2012 reprint that by all right should be seeing a lot more EDH play than it currently is.

Marath, Will of the Wild
I was pretty disappointed with this deck and how it played, but no fault belongs to Marath. I just couldn't get a cohesive game plan going, and game after game I was struggling to make do with a hand full of mediocre at best cards like Street Spasm and Slice and Dice.

But when I was playing against the deck, it seemed to be quite capable of kicking ass.

Of all the decks, this is the one that seems most schizophrenic. It has many different sub-themes, but no main theme. Overall card quality is below average for the set, and it seems to be a bit of a dumping ground for cards R&D wanted to put in the set but didn't know which deck to put them in (Witch Hunt, I'm looking at you). Even with a hand of 5 or 6 cards, you essentially feel like your in top-deck mode all the time.

Fortunatly Marath is so damn good you could almost get there by just casting him over and over and ignoring your hand.

And this is another deck that is just absolutely hamstrung by the lack of proper ramp. It actually calls this deck a "ramp" deck in the writeup, but there is almost NO true ramp - Cultivate, Tempt with Discovery and Sol Ring are the only actual ramp spells - everything else is all Landcycling. Oh and it has 42 lands with virtually no card draw. So you often find yourself badly needing mana, or badly needing anything BUT mana.

Ramp and Draw are the two biggest weaknesses, but overall lack of any cohesive theme or synergy is actually just as big an issue. Address these issues first and regardless of the direction you go in otherwise, it should be a pretty solid deck. Marath himself is quite good.

Gahiji surprised me, too. I didn't think much of him, and he's still a little to vanilla for me to build around him as a General, but as a support card he did fantastic things.

The one card this deck wants most: Doubling Season. Even without much of a token theme, Marath will be NUTS with DS on the board.

Best New Card: Tempt with Discovery.

Best Reprint: Wrath of God, by a mile. But honorable mention for the Archangel with the Quinton Hoover artwork. R.I.P., Quinton.

Well, there's my rundown on my first impressions on the new Commander decks. Let me know how your first experiences are going in the comments.


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