The Highs and Lows of Commander 2018.

We’ve now had a little over a week to digest the contents of Commander 2018-  for those not caught up, the full spoiler can be viewed here. When I originally talked about C18, I made what I thought was optimistic but ultimately quite modest predictions about what we might see in them. With the exception of my demand for Scroll Rack in the Esper deck (which is unsurprisingly absent, along with notorious format time-waster Sensei’s Divining Top), I genuinely felt my suggestions for what might show up in these decks were reasonable, and I was looking forward to seeing which of my guesses about characters and reprints paid off when the full decklists dropped.

Well, now we know how that turned out. Remind me never to play the lottery in the future!

Seriously though, it’s fair to say that the reaction from the community has been rather mixed on this one. Some genuinely hold that this is the greatest Commander release ever, whilst others have spent the past week forming a bloodthirsty mob and howling about a lack of quality reprints and inconsistent marketing. Where you stand on this will, of course, depend on what Commander means to you personally and what you expect from these products year on year. My own view is that this is clearly one of the weakest “years” for Commander in a long time, with multiple serious problems running through the four decks on offer. At the same time, there are some things that really seem to work that I’d like to see Wizards continue with in future, and I want to take the time to highlight them. 

To be perfectly clear, nothing I am about to say about these decks is intended to turn you off from buying them or to shame you if you enjoy them. What you like and what you choose to buy is up to you, and if you and your playgroup honestly can’t see what all the fuss is about then I’m glad you have a product you can enjoy. But I also believe that even just compared to last year’s product (the one to which I think comparisons are most appropriate) there are some unfortunate issues with this release which we should talk about, and I am a firm believer in providing constructive feedback. If it sounds like I am being overly negative, then, it is only because these decks are easily my favourite Magic product of the year and I want them to continue to live up to the high standard set by previous years- a standard which I think they fell notably short of on this occasion.

Before that, though, I do want to talk about some unambiguous positives. Part of the problem with assessing C18 is that despite what certain corners of the internet would tell you, the four decks are not disastrously bad (well, with maybe one exception), and Wizards deserves full credit for the things they got right with them. As we’ve come to expect, most of the new cards this time around are great additions to the format, filling some much-requested holes and shoring up established archetypes without being overpowered. Red at last has a playable way of handling enchantments in Enchanter’s Bane, Lieutenants Return in a cheap and useful cycle, and Treasure Napper is an ingenious way of checking that one player in every group who likes to open with Sol Ring -> Signet and then spill their hand onto the table (you know damn well who you are). I’m very partial to Boreas Charger for being a white ramp creature that works under Torpor Orb, Whiptongue Hydra to gorge on all the Dragons and Angels at my tables, and Lord Windgrace as the only Jund legend who cares about land shenanigans.

Image result for lord windgrace

I should also make particular mention of the “Commanderstorm” cycle of spells that get better each time you cast your general- as a longstanding critic of last year’s Eminence mechanic and Oloro, Ageless Ascetic, I am in favour of anything that pushes people to actually use the legend their decks are supposed to be built around. All of this cycle are playable, but my picks for the best are Echo Storm to copy mana rocks (or, for those who think bigger, Darksteel Colossus!) and Fury Storm to make someone’s Exsanguinate, kicked Rite of Replication or Genesis Wave blow up in their face. Truly, red mages know what is best in life.

Then there are the new Commanders, which for me exemplify the highs and lows of this release perfectly. When they’re good, they’re amazing- all three of the Bant commanders are great in subtly different ways, with Estrid, the Masked, in particular, looking like a combo fiend if that’s your preferred way to play. We finally have an Esper Zombie commander in Varina, and for me, the Lich Queen hits the exact right power level: strong enough to be worth picking over the bevvy of other Zombie commanders, but not so much that you’d feel embarrassed running Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, Gisa and Geralf, or The Scarab God instead. The Vorthoses among us are well-catered to, too- it’s awesome to see a powerful Saheeli and we get a bunch of long-requested older characters like Tawnos and Xantcha (the latter hammering on the nostalgia button so hard it breaks). And for all my fellow Kamigawa fans out there, take heart! Yuriko, the Tiger’s Shadow is literally the perfect Ninja commander, and probably my favourite card in the entire set.

Image result for yuriko the tigers shadow

Unfortunately, not everything is so wonderful. As with the past Commander releases, some of C18’s new generals simply don’t seem strong enough to be worth building around in the long run. More disappointing from my point of view is that they also whiff on the theme, despite the decks now being designed specifically around archetypes rather than colour combinations (as they were before C17). The worst offender here is clearly the Jund “lands-matter” deck, with both Thantis, the Warweaver and Gyges, Waker of Corpses struggling on power level and having absolutely nothing to do with lands. Not even the flagship planeswalker commanders are safe from this problem, with Aminatou suffering from a strange mismatch of abilities that don’t really synergise and only one of which cares about the theme of the deck she’s the face of.

Just for a moment, think about how weird this would have been last year. Even though the C17 decks were far from fully upgraded, the tribal themes were unquestionable and ran through every one of them. If Nazahn, Revered Bladesmith had randomly been a Kor instead of a Cat or if Inalla had been the only Wizard legend for her tribe, there would have rightly been an outcry. Why should the same principle not apply here? I’ve nothing against cards like Arixmethes or Varchild that explore interesting design space in fewer colours. But if the decks are going to continue to be designed around themes going forward, then I suggest the Commander options of those decks should (at least broadly) play into those themes in some way. It’s no coincidence that the Bant and Izzet decks feel like the most “complete” products as a whole this year, and a lot of that has to do with how coherent the themes are and the ability to swap the generals around and still have the decks work with them without any major surgery.

So we’ve got a pile of awesome new cards, some outstanding new generals and the only real problem thus far seems to be a weaker set of themes than last year’s product. One might reasonably think I’m being a bit harsh on C18. But the truth is that these are things that the Commander series has always done well. We expect at a bare minimum that the product will deliver new cards and legends that are worth playing in the format, and Commander 2018 is no different. If that sounds entitled, it shouldn’t do- Wizards is selling us an entire deck, not merely a group of new cards, and how the decks perform as a product in their own right is no less important to me than how good those new cards are.

I’ve heard some players say that only the new additions to the format “really” matter in determining how good these releases are, but I firmly disagree. Every year, every Commander player I know considers buying at least one of these decks either to use as is or to upgrade over time. One of my most beloved decks still revolves around the core of the Daretti deck from four years ago. These are not intro or planeswalker decks, deliberately watered down and specifically designed for the new player for the format before they move on to better things. These products have a purpose to help new players enter the format and give them something a foundation to build on, absolutely, but that is not the only important role they play. It is only right therefore that we have certain expectations of the decks as a whole, rather than just the 15 or so new cards they each contain…and here is where the real problems arise.  

One thing that hangs over Commander 2018 in every aspect is that the MSRP of the decks this year has increased to $39.99, or £35.00 if you live in the UK. One might naturally think there would be something extra in the decks this year to justify this increase- more valuable reprints, perhaps, or foil tokens or something- but there just isn’t. I don’t normally quibble about price, but Magic is an expensive hobby and not everyone has the luxury of being able to buy singles of everything they want, so having to pay more for the decks regardless of what’s in them really does matter a lot.  

In fact, despite the higher price point we actually seem to have gone backwards from last year in terms of dedication to theme and providing a solid deck to improve upon. As you’ve probably heard elsewhere the Jund deck is an incoherent mess, with much more of a good stuff “theme” than the promised focus on “lands matter.” Not only are the high-profile inclusions like Life from the Loam, Oracle of Mul Daya and almost all the good utility lands absent, at least half the basic landfall suite like Zendikar’s Roil, Titania, Protector of Argothand Omnath, Locus of Rage is also missing. The Esper deck is little better, with a notable selection of Miracles undermined by too little support for them and too many unsupported subthemes (with Zombies, Ninjas, blinking, and Manifest all making an appearance).

I understand that Wizards deliberately doesn’t include all the archetypes staples so players can upgrade and personalise these decks over time. I’ve no problem with that, but there is only so much you can strip out of a themed product before the theme just ceases to function. This is like selling someone a car with one wheel and half the engine missing and telling them how much “fun” they can have by finishing it themselves. Tuning an already functioning deck can indeed be a very rewarding process, but here Wizards appears to have confused that with dumping twenty cards from Nature’s Vengeance so you can build for yourself the deck which they promised you. It really feels like the themes of these decks were chosen and then dialled back in various ways for some unknown reason, and some of the decks really suffer for it. With Jund, there is barely a viable base to work from even if you are only looking for something to play in the average pod at your local shop. That’s terrible for a product supposedly intended for a new player, who now has to pay more yet money on top of the higher MSRP just to make the deck function as intended.

To be clear, I am not saying nor did I expect Wizards to include highly valuable cards like Dark Depths, Scroll Rack, or fetchlands in these decks. Doing that has real costs for the consumer and Wizards has to manage their reprints carefully. However, there is a spectrum here. If last year’s decks felt 40-45% of the way to being “finished” (if not strictly optimised), these lists feel like 20-25% of the way there at best. Even in the Izzet and Bant decks where the themes are clear and better supported it still feels like something is lacking compared to previous years. Part of this is because of one of the other glaring problems with C18: the manabases, which are truly dreadful this year. Saheeli’s deck has a full 27 basic lands, with Command Tower, Izzet Boilerworks and 3 guildgates as its only duals. Estrid offers a bit more by giving you a Krosan Verge and Mosswort Bridge to go with your set of karoos and six guildgates- with this many lands that enter play tapped, you’d think she made an Amulet of Vigor emblem.

To be fair to the enchantments deck, the fundamentals of the list are very solid. Certain obvious things have been excluded, including many of the central “enchantresses”, but it has three powerful commanders and appealing cards both old and new. The same cannot be said for the artefact deck, which apart from four or five cards reads like a surprisingly familiar list of bulk rares. That’s not to say they aren’t very useful to anyone looking to jump into artefacts for the first time (on paper, this deck hangs together far better than Esper or Jund) merely that we’ve seen most of these cards reprinted multiple times before- in Daretti, in Breya, even in Elves vs. Inventors. Again, value is a spectrum: I’m not lamenting the absence of Mana Crypt or Sword of Fire and Ice, but it’s also hard to justify buying the deck outright when most of the pieces are so individually cheap, especially when you factor in the higher cost and the aforementioned manabase issues.

There’s no easy way to sum up Commander 2018. There’s a lot to like here, and I don’t blame anyone who just wants to brew with their new generals and test out the new cards. But I can’t help but look at the wider picture, and it makes for grim viewing in places. Despite the excellent new cards and delivering on a lot of long-time fan requests, on the whole, it’s difficult for me to shake the feeling that we are being asked to pay more today to receive less than we did only a year ago. I’m not OK with that and based on previous years, I think we had a right to expect more than that.

But what do you think? Am I being too harsh on C18, or not harsh enough? Hit up @MasterOfMagics on Twitter and let us know, and I’ll be back next week with a closer look at one of my favourite new Commanders.

Until then, may you always be the one in command!

 

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