The Highs and Lows of Commander 2019.

Hello, good evening, and welcome back.

Last year I wrote a long review of the Commander 2018 preconstructed decks. Although those decks did serve the dual roles of providing a yearly entry point into the format for newer players and delivering an awesome selection of new cards to play with, I concluded that we had the right to expect better (especially given the higher price we were being asked to pay) in a number of areas. Wizards has confidently reassured us that they would do much better this time around, and so it seems only fair of me to subject C19 to the same kind of assessment. The complete set of decklists can be found here.

I should, however, clarify one thing first. I am not here to tell you whether or not you should buy the Commander 2019 decks. That will depend entirely on whether you think you’ll have enough fun with the new cards and reprints to make the purchase worth it for you. Commander is a social format first and foremost, and if all you’re looking for out of C19 are some awesome new commanders and a fun night with your friends jamming the decks against each other, nothing in this article is meant to tell you that you’re doing it wrong. All I intend to do here is to discuss, at some length, the strengths and weaknesses of these decks to help provide you with the information to determine whether they’re “worth it” for you or your playgroup.

Despite what I’ve said before about the higher price of C18 and C19 compared to previous years’ products, I should also say that I think to look at these decks through a primarily financial lens is to miss the point somewhat. Although the value of the decks and their reprints certainly does matter, this shouldn’t be the only metric by which we judge them. Not only would that be somewhat arbitrary – as getting $90 of value for your £40 is often seen as good enough, while $75 or $80 is seen as a failure – it would also encourage Wizards to pay less attention to making the decks play as well as possible in favour of tossing in a few extra reprints (something C19 already has an issue with, as we will see).

If I had to sum up C19 in a few words, I would say that it is “significantly improved, but not quite improved enough.” If I had a few more words, I would add that we are leagues ahead of last year’s decks in a number of important ways, and Wizards deserves a great deal of credit for that. However, it’s clear that simply being better than C18 is not enough, given the mutinous air that surrounds those decks to this day, and C19 is not without issues in its own right.

In my mind, there are three important criteria by which to assess the strengths and weaknesses of any given year of Commander decks. Again, this is not to say these are the criteria you ought to use when weighing up whether to buy them – merely those I think are most important:

1) What the new cards add to the format, both as Commanders and as part of the 99.

2) The quality (and value) of the reprinted cards.

3) The experience the deck offers to a new Commander player.

So how does C19 fair by these measures?

The New Cards

It’s always best to start on a positive note, don’t you think?

If there is one thing Wizards knows how to do, it’s design great Magic cards. As usual, each deck contains three new legendaries that can be used as their commander and one additional legendary creature that cannot, as well as a host of individual cards that tie into the decks’ mechanical themes (Morph, Madness, Flashback, and Populate). Unlike previous years, there are no new mechanics featured, with a small focus on providing new cards possessing the featured mechanic as well as a large group of generally useful cards beyond that.

Happily, this is no downside. Almost every one of the new cards printed this year are a hit, regardless of the deck you choose to purchase, and there are plenty of new toys if you’re mainly interested in scavenging for parts for existing decks. Nekusar decks and anyone else interested in casting a Windfall would do well to look into both Bone Miser and Curse of Fool’s Wisdom, whilst no token player will be soon be caught dead without a copy of Song of the Worldsoul or Full Flowering. Personally, my treasure is on Dockside Extortionist to be the most popular C19 card in a year’s time. Those respectable souls who prefer to undo other people’s madness rather than cause their own are also well-catered for, with both Sudden Substitution and Leadership Vacuum poised to say “no” in the most amusing ways. And for those like our recently departed Kristen who go to battle wrapped in the Boros flag, the new Gerrard delivers both wrath protection and artifact-based combo shenanigans in an affordable package.  

Then there are the Commanders. We discussed the ‘faces’ of the decks during our initial look into C19, and it seems clear that these are the legends that are supposed to be leading these decks in their preconstructed forms. It’s not that Volrath, Pramikon, or Greven are in any way bad cards, just that the rest of their deck isn’t built to support them. Intriguingly, three of the four decks have alternate options that do tie into the deck’s theme in a way that doesn’t explicitly call it out in the same way as Sevienne or Anje do. I’m a big fan of this as it significantly improves the longevity of the unmodified decks to switch the commander around and feel like you’re getting a meaningfully different experience by doing so. I’m not quite sure why the Faceless Menace deck didn’t get a second Morph-related commander – perhaps Kadena is just so good that any additional option would be redundant?

As mentioned before, I don’t think any of the decks has a particular advantage over the others as far as the “best” new cards are concerned. I do think there are a couple of weak links in the offerings this year, with Aeon Engine being rather amusing but also possessing some real potential to be obnoxious if it’s copied a few times to lock someone out of the game. Scroll of Fate being both overcosted and underpowered (remember that you can only flip the card back over if it’s a creature, and you’re required to pay the full mana cost to do so). I also worry a little that K’rrick, Son of Yawgmoth may be just a little too good once he’s properly built around, but time will tell on that one.

Beyond this, my only general regret is how comparatively few cards either have the deck’s central mechanic printed somewhere on them or care about it in some way. Of the seventeen new cards in each deck, only six to seven of them – depending on how you count – fit this description, which strikes me as a little low given these are ostensibly the themes the decks are built around. It’s particularly painful for the Madness deck since there are so few truly powerful payoffs for building around the mechanic in the first place. Archfiend of Spite and Bone Miser are a good step forward, but it feels like any Madness deck I build will still need to find another way to actually win the game, and that’s something a couple of extra finishers could have easily fixed.

So far, then, so good. What about the cards that aren’t new?

The Reprints

According to an analysis (https://twitter.com/SaffronOlive/status/1161683461394055168) done by MTGGoldish (https://www.mtggoldfish.com/articles/commander-2019-ranking-the-decks), the value of the reprints in Commander 2019 is notably improved from the nadir of last year’s decks (by nearly 10% per deck, in fact). Unfortunately, it is also weaker than the offerings of years past. Rather than pick a couple of higher-value cards – that is, above $10 or so – to carry the value of the decks, Wizards have chosen to scatter various cards that are neither bulk nor particularly valuable across the four. In other words, whilst there may not be very many Mirari’s Wakes and Unwinding Clocks, there are also fewer Rampaging Baloths and Thopter Assemblys. Each deck also includes a reprinted planeswalker, which is a nice touch even when they’re not the most powerful or synergistic card in the deck.

Before we get into the individual reprints, I want to talk about why the choice of reprints matters to this product in the first place. It is true that these preconstructed decks are intended as an accessible jumping-on point for players new to the Commander format. It is also true that Wizards, by design, leaves plenty of room for improvement with each deck so you can modify it to your heart’s content. These are fine and laudable aims, and none of them require high-value reprints like Swords of X and Y, Rhystic Study or shocklands to be met.

However.

More so than with other preconstructed products, these decks are also intended to serve as the beginnings of a Commander collection. In a format with such an emphasis on tweaking and personalisation, to truly enjoy yourself as a new Commander player requires a functional base to be working from. Ideally, this would be the sweet spot for these decks to aim for: acquiring one gives you the chassis and the engine for an archetype, and from there you can design the rest of the car to your heart’s content. This was, more or less, where we were with both C16 and C17.

In the past couple of years, however, Wizards seems to have increasingly moved away from this benchmark. Whilst some of the most fundamental Commander cards were indeed reprinted in C19, several of them (Solemn Simulacrum, Lightning Greaves, Strionic Resonator) only appear in one of the four decks – although Ash Barrens and Exotic Orchard are in all of them, alongside the traditional Sol Ring and Command Tower. Not only this, but certain staples of the archetypes are peculiarly absent, leaving notable holes in your fledgling collection no matter which deck you choose to buy. These absences cannot be explained away on the basis of price, since (for example) Archfiend of Ifnir costs less than a dollar and every player seeking to improve the Madness deck will soon be wanting one. Godsire, Past in Flames, and Whisperwood Elemental tell a similar story for each of the other three decks.

Nor can the justification be deck diversity, as whilst Wizards will never print a “complete” Commander deck out of the box, notable omissions like these result in (almost) everyone looking for the same few cards as a starting point for their upgrades. The defence that you want people to be able to have room to personalise their decks simply does not work when you are leaving out cards that the great majority would want to add anyway. These cards form part of the car’s engine, not its colour scheme, and all excluding them does is artificially inflate the price of the most obvious upgrades – which is bad for everyone who bought that deck.

Even setting this aside, however, there are certain areas where C19 feels oddly, needlessly cheap. And no, I am not talking about the manabases (yet). It’s the small things, like choosing Flayer of the Hatebound over anything that actually interacts with Madness. The inclusion of Standard-legal uncommons like Meteor Golem or Plaguecrafter, which even the newest player would easily have been able to acquire anyway. The Naya Populate list includes Trostani’s Judgment rather than, say, Swords to Plowshares and opts for the laughably bad Emmara Tandris over any number of superior options like Armada Wurm, Linvala the Preserver, or Terastodon. The worst offence here is probably the complete absence of Signets, with both the Rakdos and Jeskai decks preferring the more expensive Lockets and, inexplicably, Armillary Sphere.

To be clear, the point here isn’t really about the individual choices – I’d argue nobody really cares that the Madness deck uses Rakdos Locket over Rakdos Signet. Rather, when the same cards are being cut from the unmodified lists and players are all looking for the same archetype staples which were left out, it begins to look like the penny-pinching is wearing away at the most important purpose of these decks: to give the new player enough tools for a solid foundation in the Commander format.

But let’s be fair to Wizards here. We might legitimately argue that no product is perfect, and the perfect is not the enemy of the good. As long as the decks still provide a great new player experience and continue to get people hooked on the best format in Magic, does it really matter that they aren’t quite as good as they could be, or a bit less valuable than in previous years? After all, aren’t they who this product is really for?

So let’s talk about that.

The New Player Experience

At the time of writing this article, C19 has yet to be released, and so I am unable to properly comment on how the decks play against one another. From examining the decklists and a helpful episode of Game Knights (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXVFl-N2xOc&feature=youtu.be) the four seem to be roughly on par, though I suspect the Morph and Populate decks will be favoured in most pods. The combination of ramp and card draw offered by Kadena and the sheer size and number of the tokens Ghired can power out are well-placed against the generally sketchy removal of the decks, whilst the Flashback deck suffers from a very poor early game and the Madness deck looks like it will struggle to close out games with so few finishers.

What I can discuss, however, is the experience of a new player once they begin to play these decks against more experienced opponents – not cEDH decks or even particularly tuned decks, just the ordinary Commander players you’d find at FNM. And here the story gets complicated, because I think this experience is likely to be quite negative without substantially upgrading your deck first.  

Why do I say this? Because it is apparent from the decklists that even a slightly modified version of one of these lists will be notably disadvantaged in a “normal” Commander pod. The support structures of any solid EDH deck are the ramp, the removal, the card draw, and the manabase, and each of these is substantially worse in an unmodified precon than in what you’ll likely be playing against. This is especially true of the land suite: three of the four decks run an eye-watering fourteen lands that enter the battlefield tapped, plus Temple of the False God. Your ramp and draw tools are frequently expensive and/or awkward to use, and each deck seems to have only one truly solid removal piece in Chaos Warp, Beast Within, and Sultai Charm.

To be clear, this isn’t a criticism about the value of the included cards. It’s that they actively make the experience of the supposed target audience (new Commander players) worse by not allowing them to keep up in the fundamental resource war that takes place in any given game. There are many ways these weaknesses could have been much improved without sacrificing any of Wizards’ precious reprint equity. There are so many cheap dual lands that enter play untapped, but even the tangoland cycle isn’t completed. Even just adding more basic lands over some of the taplands would have served to speed the decks up a little. Again, the benchmark we’re aiming for here is functional, not excellent, and it’s difficult to argue that these decks are functional (even with modification) against anything other than another similarly amended precon.

I find it hard to believe that this is the experience Wizards intends – that these decks are simply functioning as designed, and their shortcomings are not accidental but coldly calculated. That would imply that these decks are designed not to serve as proper introductions to Commander but simply as vehicles to ship 40-45 new Commander cards each year. To be sure, those cards are awesome and the reprints that surround them are not unwelcome, but even if one argues that the only goals of C19 are to provide great new cards and provide a positive experience for new players in Commander, these decks will fall short of one of them. Because feeling like you’re constantly a turn or more behind and losing to your own deck construction is the very definition of a negative Magic experience for a new player, and that is what will frequently happen if you take one of these decks into the wild without overhauling it first. It isn’t flashy or exciting, but if these decks are primarily intended for newer players, surely the contents should at least allow them to enter a normal Commander game without being at such a serious disadvantage?

I do not wish to end on a completely negative note, so I’ll say again that for all my issues with C19 it does have legitimate highs. I’m genuinely looking forward to playing with the new cards, and I appreciate the reprints of the cards we did get even though I think Wizards should do more to address the rising price of the format staples. I like the decision to expand underappreciated themes and would happily see four more mechanics like this next year. And despite the problems with the execution, I am happy that Wizards saw the feedback from C18 and decided to improve C19 accordingly. I hope C20 does likewise, because C19 isn’t a bad product…it’s just not quite good enough.


But that’s quite enough from me, I think. What do you think about Commander 2019? Let us know at @MasterofMagics, and until next we meet- may you always be the one in command!

 

 

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