Commander 2019: Morph and Madness and Flashback Oh My!

Hello everyone. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?

This isn’t the first major hiatus I’ve had to take in writing these articles, but I intend for it to be the last. Finishing my PhD took considerably more out of me than I had originally planned, and the stress involved with finishing that put me out of commission for considerably longer than I had planned. So, before I jump onto the latest leg of the crazy never-ending hype train that has been the past few months, I want to thank Abbie and the rest of the team for allowing me to take the time to recover and get back to writing again at my own pace. I am truly grateful to you all for that.

So! Even though it feels like War of the Spark, Modern Horizons, and M20 have all just been released, we find ourselves once more on the brink of another spoiler season. The Commander products in particular always feel like the Christmas Eve of my year – so much so that I’m writing this article in the hours after the first official reveals at GenCon. Before spoilers begin in earnest next week, I wanted to do a round-up of all the information we already have about this year’s product to try and predict what might be in store for us.

As you may recall, there was widespread disappointment at the time of last year’s release due to a combination of factors: the higher MSRP of the decks relative to past years, a truly lamentable selection of reprints in all four decks, and a disappointing lack of new “lands-matter” cards and new commanders in the Lord Windgrace deck in particular (what a difference it would have made if Wrenn and Six had been printed there, as well as in Modern Horizons!) Might we have reason to hope for better this time around? I think so.

Before that, however, let’s recap the basics: Commander 2019 releases 23rd August, and consists of four 100-card preconstructed decks for our favourite format.

This year, each deck is designed around a specific mechanic:

“Primal Genesis”, a Naya (white-red-green) deck built to Populate.

“Merciless Rage”, a Rakdos (red-black) deck relying on Madness.

“Faceless Menace”, a Sultai (blue-black-green) deck centred on Morph.

“Mystic Intellect”, a Jeskai (white-blue-red) deck focused on Flashback.

If you’re coming to this article cold and you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, I recommend skimming my article Should You Play Commander? to get a sense of what the format is about and whether you should jump in. Spoiler – you should!

Now, because this is Wizards of the Coast we’re talking about, there is the traditional piece of bad news: I mentioned before that part of the issue with the Commander 2018 decks was their higher price point despite nothing new having been included in the decks to make up for it. I am sorry to report that although MSRP is no longer officially a thing for Magic products, an increase in costs to distributors has meant that the price of each deck will be rising again to an eye-watering £40.00 if you live in the UK (or equivalent, in other territories). As of this writing, we do not know if the contents of these decks will reflect this higher price point, but we do have some reason to be optimistic.

Six months ago, in his State of Product Design 2018”, lead designer Gavin Verhey took a detailed look at C18 and acknowledged some of the issues with last year’s product. The entire discussion is worth a read, but I want to highlight one part in particular because it really frames my expectations for Commander 2019:

“The decks still did extraordinarily well. We’ve reprinted them multiple times and had them sell out each time, so clearly, people are still very excited and hungry for them…now, if you weren’t happy with 2018’s reprints, I could see how you might be concerned reading that. “Oh, great, it still worked and sold well, so we can expect the same for 2019.

 Well, that’s why secondly, I want to specifically say that we’ve taken the community’s concerns to heart when designing the Commander release for this year. It’s important to have a jolt now and then to reconsider some things, and as the product architect working on all Commander products, I really felt listening to this was important. I think you’ll be happy with what you find in 2019’s offering.”

Now, perspective is still important here. We won’t be seeing fetchland reprints or the other half of the Battlebond land cycle, and not just because Commander manabases have historically been, well, awful. Wizards is understandably a little paranoid about Modern or Legacy players scavenging the decks for parts, so I’d be legitimately surprised if we got Snapcaster Mage, but there are a surprisingly high number of support cards that have risen in price over the past couple of years that could easily be included without disrupting the decks’ themes. Cyclonic Rift is now over $20, Oracle of Mul Daya and Vedalken Orrery are pushing $35, even something as ubiquitous as Lightning Greaves is $8-10… these are just a few examples of everyday staples that would bring Wizards a lot of goodwill if they were to be reprinted in a (comparatively) accessible form.

These are the kinds of reprints I would expect to see if Wizards are serious about making good on their pledge to do better than last year. This is not to say I think we’ll be so lucky: the fact that Seedborn Muse was chosen as the card to show off their commitment to better reprints this year does skew my expectations to the lower end of the spectrum a bit. Perhaps they are shooting for multiple cards at that ~$10 price point, rather than a few marquee singles? Time will tell.

I’m plotting a more thorough review of each of the decks for after spoiler season has concluded, but it would be very remiss of me to leave you without a least a little discussion of what was revealed last night. Here’s some initial thoughts, because talking about new cards is fun:

When word was first leaked that Morph was going one of the featured mechanics of this year’s product, I was conflicted. I’ve been a big fan of Morph and Manifest ever since I drafted too much Tarkir block, but there is a Temur-shaped elephant in the room when it comes to making them work in Commander. Animar, Soul of Elements is an absolute terror at the head of a dedicated Morph list, and I was concerned Wizards’ new offerings might just end up being effectively worse versions of it. Happily, this is not the case. Even in a vacuum being in Sultai colours offers a potent advantage over Animar, and Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer is a hit on multiple axes in her own right. Being cheap to cast herself, letting you cheat on mana each turn, and providing card advantage for each Morph is an intimidating combination of abilities, and even if she’s not quite as powerful as a tuned Animar list would be, I suspect you should probably still try to kill her on sight.

Turning to Naya Populate, we find a colour combination I have historically struggled with. I’m not exactly sure why – maybe it’s the over-reliance on creature-based win conditions, typically some combination of Avenger of Zendikar, Craterhoof Behemoth, and/or Tooth and Nail. I’m uninterested in Ghired, Conclave Exile as a straightforward aggressive deck, but he does offer the possibility of intriguing token shenanigans. There is Mimic Vat, of course, but this is only the tip of the iceberg: Soul Foundry, Prototype Portal (with Gearhulks, perhaps?), and Mirror Gallery would all make the cut. After all, it only takes two Marit Lagi to drop an opponent from 40 to 0…

Jeskai Flashback is perhaps the most straightforwardly powerful of the four mechanics selected this year, with a pool of existing options that’s both wide and deep. I suspect it’ll be perfectly viable to play this as a value-orientated midrange deck, with plenty of room to stretch into Storm combo if that’s what you’re into. Speaking of which, Sevinne, the Chronoclasm positively reeks of spell-based tomfoolery, with my mind going first to Innistrad’s Increasing cycle (Devotion, Confusion, and Vengeance). These spells already double themselves when you flash them back, so why stop there? Pair them up with the Finales from War of the Spark, throw in a Kykar, Wind’s Fury to help fuel your nonsense, and don’t forget your Mystic Retrieval and Runic Repetition to make sure the value train never ends!

Finally, we have Madness. This is a tricky mechanic to build around in Commander, since it requires both enablers and payoffs to function…and if we’re being honest, neither the existing enablers nor the payoffs are very appealing. It’s not that building your own Army of the Damned with From Under the Floorboards or burning out a table with Avacyn’s Judgment is bad, it just feels very anaemic compared to what you could be doing instead. Jumping through hoops to make your discards profitable is a lot of effort to go to when you have the option of just playing Army of the Damned or Torment of Hailfire and other people are dropping Genesis Waves on you. Yesterday’s previews seemed to solve half this problem, with both Anje Falkenrath and Anje’s Reaver being exactly the sort of powerful enabler we were previously lacking, but I’m still concerned about how this deck is going to actually win its games. For the moment, though, I’m happy to cross my fingers and hope for some suitable rewards for driving myself crazy.

Are you hyped for Commander 2019? Let us know @MasterOfMagics and enjoy the upcoming week of spoilers. Until next we meet, may you always be the one in command!

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