Thursday, November 12, 2015

Commander 2015 Set Review

Well…

At this point, I’m not going to assume anyone is still checking this blog. I’ve been dormant for about a year now, so I am sure many of you have written me off as dead or in witness protection or something, and moved on with your lives. I wouldn’t blame you.

And, at this point, I’m not sure if this is me resurrecting the blog, or if it’s just a fluke. I won’t make and predictions or promises about the future of my blog beyond this post, but I can tell you that at this moment, with the Commander 2015 decks being released in just a couple of days, I feel motivated and inspired to write for the first time in a while. What I really want to write about most is fixing up the precons to make them more powerful, more playable and more fun. But as a warm-up exercise to help me get back in the swing of things, I figured I’d keep with my old traditions and do a full set review.

The first thing I want to do is talk about the decks themselves in broad terms – themes, reprints, etc. This year’s cycle of decks brings us two-color, enemy pair decks. I think this is a solid choice, as we still don’t have an abundance of commander options in these color pairs. Some were better supported than others. Sadly, I think the color pairs that needed the most help got shafted, while the color pairs that were already compelling and strong got the best new toys. So, the rich get richer while the poor… well, get slightly less poor actually, as they didn’t have cards REMOVED from their card pool, as that analogy would have implied.

I am sure opinion will differ here, but my ranking for the color pairs PRIOR to the printing of C15 would be like this:
#1 – Simic
#2 – Golgari
#3 – Izzet
#4 – Boros
#5 – Orzhov

Now, before you try to claim a bias of preference in this ranking, let me assure you that White/Black has been my favorite color pair since Guildpact saw print and Ghost Council 1.0 was revealed, and possibly before that, even. I dearly love the Orzhov guild, but aside from Teysa 1.0, their options just don’t compare to what the other colors have. But even outside of power level concerns, the W/B color pair has always had more of an identity crisis problem than any other pair.

Everyone knows what the other color pairs are “supposed” to do, what their gimmick is. Each pair has a cliché – Red/Green is “stompy big creatures with trample” while White/Red is a slightly different flavor of aggro, usually with more double strike and/or Equipment, less trample. G/W is usually tokens. Blue/Black is usually either control or mill. Of course it’s always possible – encouraged, even – to build against these clichés. And usually there are Legends out there that are oddball enough to give those color pairs a variety of options that don’t conform to the standard cliché archetypes. Most Simic commanders encourage a +1/+1 counter theme, but then there’s Edric who would rather you go wide instead of tall. Most Boros commanders are some flavor of “Red Zone Tribal”, but then there’s… well shit. I can’t think of any exceptions for  Boros off the top of my head. I have seen some rather more control-ish lists for Gisela but I still think she is equally capable of just being yet another “attack until dead” option.

And therein lies the problem with C15. Very little new territory was uncovered by this release. Now, don’t mistake me: I like a LOT of the new commanders, in a vacuum. But the only color pair that really got some unique options that present new, unexplored design space is the Orzhov pair. The “face” commander for that deck is Daxos the Returned, who is an odd form of W/B “Enchantress” commander. That is certainly a new take on these colors, but while some people are very clearly excited to explore this territory, I don’t feel it’s a particular deep or interesting theme for W/B to play in. I strongly feel that, over time, the “Orzhov Enchantress” deck will only be unique when compared to other Orzhov decks, but within the archetype there will be very little room for customization and individuality. Basically, what I am saying is, even though Daxos “unlocks” a new archetype, which is cool, that archetype is shallow enough that the majority of Daxos lists will look and play the same.

So while it’s cool that the color pair that most needed a distinctive new archetype or theme got one, I am disappointed that it’s not a terribly interesting or open-ended archetype, and I am disappointed that it’s basically the only new archetype introduced. Everything else is treading on familiar territory. Hell, familiar is an understatement. “Instants and Sorceries matter” for Izzet? Really? They could have at least played off the Prowess thing and made it more of a “Non-creature spells matter” theme so you could focus instead on Enchantments or Planeswalkers or Artifacts or whatever.

That said, while it’s kinda lame that 90% of this set is just rehashing old, well-explored themes, most of the new commanders admittedly do whatever it is they do very well. And in some cases they do provide slightly new twists on old themes. Mazirek is a good example of this – sure, “death triggers matter” is pretty much the stock G/B mechanical theme, Mazirek turns what is normally a more control-oriented theme into an aggressive one. Slight variations on existing themes is welcome.

On the other hand, we have Mizzix. Melek was already a thing, and I felt he was pretty much the epitome of the R/U “spells matter” deck, but then they had to go and make Mizzix. Even though they are different, I feel like they are VERY close in both power level and function, so much so that you can pretty much take any Izzet “spells” deck and flip a coin as to which of them will lead your deck. The both have the same inherent weaknesses and the same inherent strengths. Sure there are some techy cards that would be different – Melek cares much more about things like Top or Scroll Rack to manipulate the top card(s) of your library, whereas Mizzix probably would just rather have cheap draw spells, but the bulk of the decks, and more importantly, how they play and how the win are going to be almost indistinguishably similar.

Boros is faced with much the same problem. Kalemne is a fine commander in a vacuum. Not terribly exciting, but fine. However, she competes with multiple other R/W Legends that are very similar in both function and power. Her experience point mechanic is also the most boring out of all of them (even Daxos who I just poo-pooed above). I am not at all sure hers is the WORST in terms of power level, but it’s definitely the least sexy. She plays in familiar design space for the color pair, doesn’t really add much of a twist, and is not clearly the best option for the themes she represents. And her secondary commander, the angel Anya, is easily the worst of the 10 new Legends.

Meanwhlie, the Golgari and Simic decks, the two color pairs I feel were already strong and well-supported from both a power level stand point and a theme/flavor/identity standpoint, got some of the most jaw-dropping new commanders in the set. Ezuri, Mazirek and Meren are all just absurdly powerful, or at least they do appear to be. The Simic deck did throw us a bone in that they finally gave us a Legendary Snake with both blue and green, so we can now run Coiling Oracle and Mystic Snake in our Danger Noodle-tribal decks. That’s awesome. He also plays pretty well with Edric too. But ultimately even Kaseto doesn’t really do anything U/G couldn’t do before. He’s just a more flavorful version of it.

So the TL;DR so far is, Commander 2015 is firmly a “status quo” product, reinforcing existing archetypes. This is not a game-changing, paradigm-shifting product. I think for a lot of people that will be just fine. For those of us who’ve been playing for years, it’s a bit of a letdown. It feels very “same-same-y” while still having a lot of actually exciting cards despite itself.

Which segues nicely into the more macro review, the card-by-card breakdown.

Like all the other Commander sets to date, there are 55 new cards designed just for our favorite format. On the whole I’d say this is one area where C15 did really well – there are a lot of desirable cards, but nothing that, as of yet, seems to carry the “Scavenging Ooze/True Name Nemesis” effect – no eternal powerhouses that cause one of the decks to be vastly more desirable than the others. So if that holds true, then kudo’s to WotC for finally getting THAT right. There also isn’t anything quite as utterly terrible as some of the uncommons they’ve given us in the past. Thinking about stuff like Hooded Horror and Diviner Spirit for example… I don’t think anything in C15 reaches such abysmal lows. But not every card can be a hit; there will always be some cards that just don’t make the cut.

The Legends – In spite of everything I wrote above, I do think that almost all of the new Legends in C15 are playable. They might not all be the optimal choices for their respective decks, but none of them are clearly garbage. Some might even prove to be sleeper hits. I am exceedingly underwhelmed by Karlov for instance, but I can see him turning out to be better than I think currently. I think a lot of people underrate Kalemne too. I mean, I certainly rate her fairly low myself, but people are acting like she’s Bassandra’s second coming, which I feel is severely misevaluating her. Just because she isn’t really all that exciting doesn’t mean she isn’t good. And I have to touch on this set’s gimmick – the experience counter mechanic. I think if they’d done a few cards aside from the Legends themselves that cared about experience this mechanic would come off better, but as it stands I think this aspect is pretty mediocre overall.
So, while I’d have to give the designers a pretty low grade in the Creativity department, I think they have really hit the mark in terms of power level. Anya is about the only one I think is way below the mark, and nothing seems to be way above the mark. 

The Confluences – This is a really neat cycle, in that their modal spells with lots of options, but unlike most modal spells, you can choose the same mode more than once! These are pretty much the pinnacle of flexibility. I think the Blue, Green and Red ones are clear winners, while the White and Black ones are much less exciting. However even those two are certainly playable. I am actually pretty pumped about the White one simply for the “Exile target Enchantment” portion, as Return to Dust has already been proven to be a critical role-player in my meta, but if I weren’t currently used to seeing lots of enchantments around my table, I’d be much less enthused. Meanwhile the Black one seems cool for the fact that it’s basically a Jace’s Ingenuity in Black, but the other modes feel pretty weak, overall. I think all five have potential, but I would currently rank them (best to worst) like this: Green, Blue, Red, White, Black.

The Myraid cycle – Myriad is a new keyword that essentially lets one creature attack all of your opponents. When you attack with a Myriad creature, it makes additional copies of itself that are put into play attacking all of your other opponents. I’m really not sure any of the uncommon creatures with Myriad is going to see widespread play. The feel just slightly under the curve for even an average, casual EDH environment, but outside factors may contribute to their niche playability. For example a Trostani deck with a populate theme might want the White or Green ones. I can also see the White one, basically a Serra Angel with Myriad, being playable in a Rafiq deck that isn’t specifically trying to be as “optimized” as possible. The red one is pretty “meh” and the Green one feels too expensive. 7 mana for an 8/6 trampler isn’t bad, but if it were a 6/6 for 6 with Trample I’d be a bit more optimistic. There are a LOT of good Green creatures at the 7-mana mark and this does not compare favorably to a lot of them. But again, outside considerations may apply: if you’re running Doubling Season and Parallel Lives, the Caller of the Pack does look a lot more enticing. The red one is a good deal better if you have Warstorm Surge out. I think the blue one is the worst of the cycle. An otherwise vanilla 3/3 with the Shadowmage Infiltrator ability is pretty much garbage, at 5 mana anyway. I love drawing cards, more so than most people, but I still have to say I think this one is pretty terrible. (I’ll talk about the Myraid sword later).

White

Bastion Protector – Snap include for Rafiq, no question. Probably good in Aurelia, and any other W/x or W/x/x commander that likes to charge into the Red Zone aggressively and often.

Dawn to Dusk – Not terrible, but it’s never going to make the cut ahead of Return to Dust.

Daybreak Reclaimer – I really don’t like giving my opponents stuff. Even if I’m the one that gave it to them, I’m the person they’ll most likely use it against. It’s hard to be the political player when you are the one everyone else gangs up on. I also don’t like this as much since it is coming out right after we got the AMAZING Emeria Shepherd a few weeks ago.

Grasp of Fate – O-Ring upgraded for Multiplayer? Nice. I don’t see it getting much use outside of decks with a heavy Enchantment theme, though, as White has too many better answers that more permanently deal with problems.

Kalemne’s Captain – Will be a big hit with some, but it costs ALL of the mana, and has a high risk of friendly fire/collateral damage.

Oreskos Explorer – Would run in Mono-White and R/W but otherwise seems “meh”.

Shielded By Faith – I like making stuff indestructible, but the prevalence of Exile effects means I prefer to do it at instant speed or just as a blanket effect. I don’t think this is good, but it is cute with Sun Titan.

Blue

Aethersnatch – I love it. Six mana is a bit of a bummer, but it’s a fair cost. Can’t wait to blow out a Genesis Wave or something like it.

Gigantoplasm – WotC has a weird fetish lately for “strictly better Clones”. This one isn’t my favorite, and there are getting to be too many to pick from.

Illusory Ambusher – Fine, but not amazing… yet I cannot stop fantasizing about flashing this into play in response to an opponent’s Blasphemous Act. I will live this dream.

Mirror Match – I don’t like this as much as Aetherize, Aetherspouts or Illusionist’s Gambit, but I love this type of “gotcha” spell in general, so I’ll play it.  That said, it’s going to be amazing when someone attacks you with a bunch of ETBF creatures.

Synthetic Destiny – Yet another six-mana Instant. Ouch. That said, the effect is pretty sweet. Do Mass Polymorph shenanigans, or just make someone casting a Decree of Pain cry. Seems fun, but putting a bunch of your own guys into the Exile zone is painful.

Black

Corpse Augur – Not sure about this one. I love to draw cards and I don’t always mind paying life to do so. But this seems unreliable at best, dangerous at worst.

Daxos’s Torment – Black’s take on Sigil of the Empty Throne, I guess. Not as good, but costs less. Fair.

Deadly Tempest – Definitely one of my favorite cards in this set. Sometimes it’ll be an overcosted Damnation with a small but inadequate upside. Other times it’ll just murder the token deck. Usually, though I think it’ll be in between – a solid budget alternative to Damnation with a good deal of upside.

Dread Summons – Cool card. Not bad, but there’s not much more to say about it. Some decks will obviously want it, others won’t.

Scourge of Nel Toth – Believe me, I totally get why this card exists, but even in its native habitat I find it woefully unexciting. It’s hard to believe I’m calling a ZOMBIE DRAGON with a built-in self-reanimation ability unexciting, yet here I am…

Thief of Blood – Boo-urns.

Red

Awaken the Sky Tyrant – Oof! Wow. This is awful. I’m not sure it’s Hooded Horror bad, but it’s definitely bottom of the barrel for this set.

Dream Pillager – Well, crap. Red is getting seriously shafted here. This could have been a bit larger than 4/4 for seven mana, right? It’s like this thing is doing the worst impression of Narset ever seen.

Magus of the Wheel – I’m all about giving Red more ways to draw cards, and I don’t hate Wheel effects like some people do. I’m pretty happy to see this guy.

Metor Blast – This, I don’t like much. Mizzium Mortars has been pretty lackluster in my experience. 4 damage is fine for spot removal – FTK has been a reliable card for years, but for a board wipe, 4 damage rarely gets the job done. And this costs a billion mana against token decks.

Mizzix’s Mastery – Pretty much “win the game” for the R/U spells deck. Very powerful.

Rite of the Raging Storm – Seems like a pretty ineffective way to spend 5 mana. Don’t see this working as intended in most groups.

Green

Arachnogenesis – AKA “Spider Fog”; seems destined to be a fan favorite for years to come. I count myself among its fans.

Bloodspore Thrinax – Cool to see a new Devour card, and I like that it’s a Thrinax. This is probably worse than Master Biomancer in general, but in the right deck it will get out of hand far faster than the Biomancer. Will definitely get played in decks that can both support the devour cost and make use of the +1/+1 counters.

Centaur Vinecrasher – An oddball design, but cool. Very niche, but will probably be solid in the right decks.

Ezuri’s Predation – Another one of the few cards that really makes me giddy with excitement. Can’t wait to cast this with Elemental Bond on the battlefield.

Great Oak Guardian – I don’t like this one nearly as much as the other “gotcha!” anti-attack cards we’ve seen lately. This one is both expensive and highly circumstantial, unlike say Angel of the Dire Hour or the new Spider Fog.

Pathbreaker Ibex – Wild Beastmaster on crack. Craterhoof’s baby brother. Win goat. Win.

Skullwinder – Not going to happen, same reason I don’t like the Angel; don’t want to play the “sure, lemme just get back the answer to whatever it is you are getting back” game.

Artifact

Blade of Selves – I’m torn between thinking this is going to be one of the biggest hits of the set, and thinking it’s overhyped and overrated. It’s undeniable that the effect is powerful, but I don’t know if you can actually get the effect to go off reliably enough. People will be gunning for this or the creature it’s equipping hard.

Sandstone Oracle – I don’t know why but I’m just kinda tired of getting these “do things in a color that can’t normally do them, if you’re willing to pay 7 for an artifact that does it” cards. Especially since card-draw artifacts are already a thing and many of them are better.

Scytheclaw – Compare this to Quietus Spike and ask yourself if getting that 0/0 Germ token and +1/+1 is really worth the loss of Deathtouch and an extra 2 mana? No way. Spike is clearly better, by a wide margin, and it’s not exactly tearing up the format.

Seal of the Guildpact – Yeah, the threshold at which this is better than just playing Guilded Lotus or Thran Dynamo or Hedron Archive or just a couple of Medallions is quite high. Not many decks will be able to meet that threshold often enough to justify it. But, some will so it’s fine.

Thought Vessel – Welcome to Stapleville, new guy! Seriously, though, a lot of decks will be fine playing this, but it’s never going to be quite as ubiquitous as Reliquary Tower.

Command Beacon – Broken in Titania decks. Helps out difficult commanders like Phage, Hakkon, and the Myojins. Cute, but not that great.


Additional Thoughts

• It’s pretty lame that aside from two new Legends per deck, they didn’t design ANY new multi-color cards. I would have loved to get a new, non-Legendary gold card or two in each deck. At least give us a new uncommon and a new rare. We got stuff like Deathreap Ritual in Conspiracy, don’t see why they couldn’t have done that here too. Missed opportunity.

• I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the elephant in the room: No U/R “Artifacts Matter” commander. I am among those disappointed we didn’t get one, but that horse has been beaten thoroughly. Time to move on.

• It’s awesome that they stopped shoving Swiftfoot Boots down our throats and gave us the real deal, Lightning Greaves, again. Kudos for that.

• High Market reprinted in TWO decks? Sweet!

• Eternal Witness, Skullclamp and Signets with new art are also really good reprints.

• At the same time, there are way too many reprints of cards that are both A) recently printed anyway, and B) worth a buck or less. Melek? Staff of Nin? Terastodon, AGAIN? Reprinting stuff like this doesn’t even help new players, when those cards are all recent and plentiful enough the average LGS probably has stacks of them for $0.50. What gives?

• I know, I know, Phyrexian Arena, Eldrazi Monument, Black Market… I know. But this set still has the weakest overall reprint game so far.

Wrapping  Up

     All in all, I feel like there is a lot of valid cause for complaint with this set, especially for an old-timer like me, but despite the many things I have bitched about, I’m still quite pumped to get these decks in my hands. I feel like for all their faults and misguided choices, WotC is still getting closer and closer to nailing this product. We’re getting much closer to a baseline of power that isn’t too extreme in either direction – something other Commander offerings have struggled with in the past.
     Every year, they improve upon their ability to understand what Commander players actually want, and for every step they take backwards, I do think they are taking two steps forward. And, while I would certainly appreciate a little more adventurousness and creativity in their designs going forward, I am pleased that they aren’t still designing cards the way they did back in the 2011 decks. 
     Commander 2011 was a major paradigm shift for the format in a lot of ways, and while I definitely am not looking for that level of shake-up to happen again so soon, I feel the pendulum is starting to swing too far in the other direction – they aren’t shaking things up quite enough. C15 is definitely still exciting, but feels much more tame, conservative, and safe than any previous Commander set. 
     They have figured out how to design for this format pretty darn well, but now they need to figure out how to design cards that will really shake up the format without breaking it. I think they came really close to hitting that particular mark with the Planeswalker commanders last year. Hopefully they will do more of that in the future.

9 comments:

  1. You still have at least one reader. While I don't always agree with your assessments on things, it's nice having a voice in the community who leans towards the competitive side who eloquently gets their point across. The community is lacking in that regard, most of the well-written voices are casual to the point of their opinion being useless. So, I enjoy reading a site where the opinion is both well-presented and not hopelessly casual.

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    1. Thanks, appreciate the feedback. I will say, I find it somewhat amusing that you consider me to be more competitive-leaning, as I tend to think of myself firmly in the casual end of the spectrum.

      That's not to say you're wrong or anything. I just feel like I am by and large holding back a LOT out of consideration for my playgroup's tastes and average power level.

      The one thing I will say is that I am absolutely not afraid to make winning games an actual goal I strive toward - people who treat EDH as a format where winning is actually frowned upon annoy me. And I'm not shy about playing GOOD cards. I'm not going to shun things like Consecrated Sphinx or Prophet of Kruphix, if I like them or think they're fun or whatever. I do avoid some cards, like Insurrection or Craterhoof Behemoth because they're so easy to win with that they get boring even to me.

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  2. Wow , had assumed you gave up, but check every few months hoping you will continue.

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    1. LOL, I basically HAD given up. Video games, work and other, life-related things just got in the way of writing... Plus I actually borderline-quit Magic for several months. At one point I went from having like 22 EDH decks built to only having ONE deck built two weeks later. I never really got to the point where I wanted to sell off my cards or anything like that, but basically 99% of my willpower to write about, think about or even PLAY Magic went bye-bye for a while there. I have to give Origins most of the thanks for getting me back into it - the last core set ever really went out with a bang!

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  3. I'm looking forward to your Mizzix upgrade post!

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    1. Hope I don't let you down - I've been toying with taking that deck in an Arjun-centered direction. My take on Mizzix would almost certainly wind up being VERY similar to my Melek deck. I can't remember if I have ever posted that deck here - I'll look for the list I was using last, if I can find it, and provide a link.

      In the meantime I'm trying to make Arjun work, but I am having some difficulties getting my ideas for him to actually produce the desired results.

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  4. Of course you still got reader, i nearly build all my commander decks thanks to you, and even if i thought that you really had stopped i was checking your blog every so often, i'm glad to see you back, and i really hope to see more post from you if you have the time and will to do so as commander is my favorite format and not only are your article interesting but also very helpfull for deckbuilding.

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    1. Thank you very much, these words mean a great deal to me. I can honestly say that I write more for myself than I do for any kind of audience, but at the same time, it's hard to do a thing for this long if you don't feel like SOMEONE appreciates it. I will try to do better in the future about actually keeping up with this thing, but at the same time I have to be doing it because I enjoy it - when it starts to feel like an obligation or a chore, that's when I start to back off.

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  5. Thanks, everyone, for chiming in to let me know there are still a few out there. This is good motivation for me to follow through on my C15 deck write-ups. I've been hitting walls with some of them, and as of right now only Meren and Kalemne have actually started to come together well enough that I feel qualified to speak on them - my experiences with Ezuri, Mizzix and Daxos have all been... underwhelming. I will redouble my efforts, though, and try to resolve the issues I am having so that I can provide meaningful and practical input on those decks.

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