Thursday, September 1, 2016

Conspiracy Commanders

I’m a bit late to the party here, but in case you haven’t noticed, Conspiracy: Take the Crown is out now, and it is a veritable treasure trove of EDH goodies. I’m working on a set review, but to kick things off I want to focus specifically on the new Legends this set is bringing us. New options for commanders are often the big highlight of any new set, so let’s take a look!

Adriana, Captain of the Guard

The most common response to Adriana has been some variation on “Oh, look, another boring Boros commander that doesn’t do anything but attack”. I certainly understand that sentiment. Kalemne, from the 2015 Commander decks, also received a very similar response. The thing is, while such complaints are accurate in that Adriana, like Kalemne and so many other Boros legends, is playing to a very tired and well-worn theme, many of these commander options actually have subtle variations on that theme that I think the vocal masses largely downplay. So, yeah, basically every Boros deck comes down to swinging into the red zone in some fashion, but an Adriana deck is still going to be built differently and play differently from a deck built around Kalemne, which in turn is going to be different in many respects from a Jor Kadeen deck, etc. Sure they all have some very common themes, in the broadest sense, but they are still different flavors of those themes.

I fully agree that we need more Boros legends that open up new themes, and I hope we start to see some more interesting designs soon… but until then I can’t really be too dismissive of cards like Adriana and Kalemne, as those subtle differences really do matter a good deal more than the player base seems to give them credit for. Adriana, in particular, seems fairly interesting to me, primarily because of the Melee mechanic. Many aggressive strategies in EDH tend to want to hammer one player relentlessly until that player is dead, then turn their attention to the next one. “Spreading the love” as it’s often referred to, is commonly seen as a strategic mistake for an Aggro deck to make in most multiplayer EDH games. I disagree with that assessment in general, but that’s a whole other discussion. Point being, the text on Adriana’s card makes it quite clear that you need to spread the love to take full advantage of her. So regardless of your usual approach to aggro decks, if you’re playing Adriana, you are going to be compelled to attack everyone, rather than focusing on one person at a time.

That said, I prefer Boros decks and commanders that don’t require you to overextend and risk getting blown out. Adriana does not line up with this philosophy so I’m not too thrilled with her at the end of the day, but I think she’s more interesting than people realize… but at the end of the day she IS just another flavor of the standard Boros Beatdown commander.

Grenzo, Havoc Raiser

Grenzo seems like a unique and groundbreaking new commander in exactly the way Adriana isn’t. This little goblin is pretty interesting and definitely a very different design for Red. WotC seems very willing to explore new design space in Red, largely by riffing on mechanics traditionally seen in other colors. Feldon, for instance, made mono-Red reanimator into an actual, viable archetype, but in a way that felt appropriate to Red and wasn’t an egregious breach of the color pie.

In a similar fashion, Grenzo is a kind of a riff on Edric, mixed with a Nightveil Specter. Neither of which is a Red card, but the way Grenzo is put together, he somehow manages to feel appropriately Red, despite doing some very un-Red things. Brilliant design, and hopefully will spawn some original, unique decks. He’s also likely to be a pretty good card to just run in the 99.

Unfortunately, as cool and unique as Grenzo is, I’m still too in love with Feldon to have spent much time or thought on Grenzo – plus, I’m distracted by other, sexier legends out of this set. So as much as I like Grenzo’s design, I just haven’t spent enough time thinking critically about what a deck built around him might look like, how it might play, etc. Thus, I don’t really have a lot to say about the little guy, other than I hope to see him do cool things one day, and I hope I eventually get around to figuring him out.

Queen Marchesa

So far the internet response to Queen Marchesa has been a little muted. Unenthusiastic, even. Sure she’s no powerhouse like Kaalia and isn’t as uniquely build-around as Alesha, but I think she’s actually pretty solid and can be built around in a number of ways. Personally, I have been trying to make a certain deck for years – a deck that wants to promote attacking, but discourage attacking ME. I’ve actually tried it in Mardu colors before, as well as Jeskai. While I’d sorta like it if Marchsa had access to Blue instead of Black, for cards like Aetherize, Propaganda, and Illusionist’s Gambit, Black does offer some good choices as well – No Mercy, Dread, etc.

So basically the idea is to get the Monarch token (not really a token, but you know what I mean), defend it, and try to ride that card advantage train to victory. I haven’t really figured out how the deck wants to win, but whatever. Step 1 is getting the right mix of cards that force my opponents to get into the Red Zone, but also prevent or at least discourage them from sending their armies my way. I think Marchesa might just be the best commander printed to date to make this hypothetical deck idea actually work semi-well. I don’t harbor any illusions that it’ll become one of my most dominant and powerful decks, but I think it’ll work.

But I think she is open-ended enough that there are probably a small handful of various archetypes that would work with her. Stax is already somewhat popular among Alesha decks, but I’m thinking Marchesa might be even better. Could be wrong, as I’m not really a stax player (a bit too mean for my group), and when I do play anything that has any resemblance to stax, it’s usually involves the Golgari… but keeping your opponents from ever being able to mount a reasonable offense is a hallmark of the stax strategy, and I think that coincides nicely with the aim of getting the Monarch token and hogging it all to yourself. Getting a free Phyrexian Arena that can’t be disenchanted, and doesn’t ever cost you life seems REALLY strong to me, so I guess I just don’t understand why people are sleeping on this right now.

But don’t mind me, I’ll just be over here getting all kinds of free card draw off that Monarch ability, then blowing you out with an Angel of the Dire Hour when you try to take it from me!

Selvala, Heart of the Wilds

I can’t tell if this is a Spike card with Timmy appeal, or a Timmy card that Spike will also enjoy, but either way she seems sure to appeal to just about anyone except Johnny. Having already played a game with Selvala (at the helm of my Yisan deck), I don’t think she’s quite as competitive as Yisan, and I think he will continue to be favored by the hardcore players, but if you’re like me and your attempt at building a more casual version of Yisan is still producing results that seem just a little overpowered for your group, I think Selvala is much more reasonable. She’s very powerful, but a lot easier to modulate at the deckbuilding level. With Yisan, it doesn’t really matter what else is in your list, the minute you include Seedborn Muse, the deck just becomes a monster. Seendborn muse is pretty good with Selvala, too, but since you don’t have guaranteed access to a consistent way to tutor the Muse out every single game… well, it just feels a LOT more fair when you have to draw into her.

Basically, commanders that double as repeatable tutors tend to be problematic, as Zur has already taught us.

Leovold, Emissary of Trest

And, finally, we come to the big, bad Elf. This is probably the card that has the most chatter and buzz surrounding it, and for good reason. At first glance, Leo seems innocuous enough. Like any good politician he aims to convince you that his policies are just as good for you as they are for him, but really he stands to benefit far, far more from the deal he’s offering. Let’s break it down – He’s a 3/3 for three mana, and gives us access to, arguably, the best three-color combination in the format. Good start so far, but nothing special.

Then we get to the text box, which has a couple of different things to analyze. I’m going to start with the second ability, which reads “Whenever you or a permanent you control becomes the target of a spell or ability an opponent controls, you may draw a card.” Okay, that’s straightforward enough. Being an emissary an all, he probably has diplomatic immunity. Target me or my stuff, I get to draw a card. Seems fair, and very hard to abuse. Just a small effect to help dissuade people from targeting your stuff with their removal.

Moving on, we get to the real showstopper: “Each opponent can't draw more than one card each turn.” This is where that sneaky, back-channeling politician flavor comes in. Again, at a glance, this just seems like a playing-field leveler. It seems to say “I’m not up to anything broken, I’m just trying to hose everyone’s broken card drawers. Your Edrics, your Consecrated Sphinxes, your Strokes of Genius… are now way more fair!” Note that he doesn’t even completely hose Consecrated Sphinx, he just keeps it in check somewhat. Oh, but there’s that little problem where the ability has the word “opponent” instead of “player”. So he hoses everyone else’s broken draw engines, or at least slows them down to fair levels. But you’re still getting full value out of your own Consecrated Sphinxes, Shamanic Insights, etc. So the deal is already a hell of a lot less “fair” than it seems on the surface.

Oh, but it gets worse. See, Leovold tries to convice you that all he’s doing is making card draw more fair. Class equality. No one should be too rich, right? No elite 1% controlling 90% of the card wealth. Great pitch, but Leovold has made a Dark Deal to ensure that everyone else’s inevitable misfortune is his Windfall. See also Time Spiral, Jace’s Archivist, etc. Yeah, that’s right. The minute you think “Oh, okay, this Leovold guys is just enforcing some fair play rules. That’s fine, I guess.”, that’s when you get hit with a Timetwister-like effect, and Leo over there gets to refill his hand back up to 7, while you and the rest of the middle class get immediately demoted right into the lower class. And, good luck getting welfare, ‘cause you’re White, and therefore too “privileged” to qualify… okay that analogy might have gone off the rails, sorry.

Anyway, also like a real politician, you probably saw that Windfall trick coming, but he still got you to walk right into it somehow.

As you might have guessed I am deeply enamored of this guy, as he’s exactly the type of card I would LOVE to play, where I not aware of this thing called the “social contract”. So, I’m just enough of an asshole that I really, really want to play a Leovold deck, but not quite enough of one to actually do it. Or am I? I don’t know yet. I definitely think that having all of my opponents in topdeck mode by turn 4 is a strong game plan, but it’s also probably not going to be even remotely fun. Me: “Untap. Draw. Dark Deal?” Everyone else: “Anyone have a Swords to Plowshares? No? Scoop.” Yeah that doesn’t sound fun at all. Or does it? I don’t know yet.

So what if we don’t go full-douchebag? What if we don’t run any cards that say “Discard your hand, draw X…”? No putting people down to one-card hands by T4, so we should be safe right? Well maybe… but you can still run things like Kami of the Crescent Moon, Howling Mine or even better (worse): Anvil of Bogardan. Ooh, or even Edric! He hoses opposing Edrics, but stops people from getting advantage off of your Edric. You’re the only one getting value out of Howling Mine, and Anvil of Bogardan will slowly just strip everyone else’s hands as they cast stuff, but never actually go up in cards in hand.

Hmm, that’s not quite as bad as the Windfall synergy, but still seems a little mean. Basically if you run anything at all to synergize with or capitalize on Leo’s ability, you’re probably going to wind up making someone miserable. The thing I like least about Leovold, though, is that he’s a lot like Nekusar in that almost every Leo deck will be running exactly the cards you think it will – Every “wheel of fortune” it can get its hands on. It’s sure to be a good deck, and again, it’s exactly the type of deck I enjoy playing, at least when I’m only taking my own enjoyment into consideration. But it’s a very obvious deck, and not very creative. The thing is, if you aren’t building to exploit the anti-symmetry of his ability, there’s virtually no reason to run him, specifically. At that point, he’s basically a “for the colors” good stuff commander. So if you cut the windfalls, what do you replace them with that makes Leovold the right commander for the deck, but also doesn’t make people flip tables or burn bridges?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I hope I figure it out, because I’m pretty sure at some point my evil side will get the better of me and I’m likely to build an Leo deck at some point. Fortunately for my friends, I’m really digging my newly revamped Sidisi deck, so I don’t have room in my stables for another Sultai deck at the moment.

Well, that wraps up our look at the new commanders of Conspiracy 2. There’s a good mix of stuff for all types of players, from casual to competitive. It’s hard to imagine a player not liking at least one of these new options, but there’s always a Negative Nancy poopooing on everything. Sometimes that’s me, actually, but this definitely isn’t one of those times. I’m definitely loving this set so far. Stay tuned and I’ll try to have the rest of the set review up without too much more delay. Enjoy!

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