Last Fall, I wrote an article looking back at the previous year of sets and evaluating their impact on Commander. It was meant to be the first in an annual State of Commander series and convenient place to marvel at my successful and unsuccessful analyses of the year. Today I continue that series and peer through all the sets offering new cards from Commander 2018 to Core 2020. This year came with a lot of content to talk about, so I will waste no time.

Returning to a Gimmick

The legacy of Commander sets can be hard to parse, because they don’t become the focus of conversation like Standard-legal sets. Last year’s Commander release will likely be remembered as rather unmemorable in the history of the product line. While I am fond of Aminatou, the Fateshifter and Saheeli, the Gifted, they haven’t made waves in the format. Even after sifting through the set for research, I had forgotten that round two of planeswalkers as generals was in the theme. Sadly, without the innovative buzz, for me the set falls even behind Commander 2014’s execution of the same gimmick and even Commander 2015’s enemy colored generals. That doesn’t mean that some good didn’t come from the release, again—Aminatou, the Fateshifter and Saheeli, the Gifted were both great cards that I personally play with a year later.

Commander 2018 will be remembered for some of the generals it offered below the surface. For example, by injecting Ninja into the format through Yuriko, the Tiger’s Shadow, giving the tribe a solid base before being fed more pieces later in the year. In Yuriko, Wizards crafted a form of ninjutsu that works the way you want it to and then gave a pay off to using ninjutsu and unblockability together to quickly steal games.

Additionally, I see Xantcha, Sleeper Agent as a wonderful success. The group hug archetype already existed; but as a Rakdos general pushing your opponents to make punishing decisions, the decks she helms are highly political. The players that gravitated towards her have grown passionate. I can’t blame them—any deck playing Disrupt Decorum, Sire of Insanity, and Kazuul, Tyrant of the Cliffs are probably going to have a good time.

Checking on the Guilds

Everyone loves going to Ravnica. The plane is extremely popular, and by most accounts Standard is at its best when some amount of Ravnican cards are involved. Honestly, when Guilds of Ravnica was announced, I was excited too. But I don’t entirely know why—besides the shocklands, I’ve never really felt like Ravnica blocks have offered me much for my Commander decks. I think what it often comes down to is that the guilds have so much structure that the legendary creatures are too linear for my taste, and the sought after cards that Standard or Modern players flock to often don’t cut it in Commander.

Guilds of Ravnica was a low point in the year, but it wasn’t all bad. I’ve seen a fair share of Assassin’s Trophy running around; it’s a fine card that can occasionally be a Black/Green Swords to Plowshares if an opponent is too greedy with their mana base. Then there are role players like Citywide Bust and Beast Whisperer. Bust has made waves against Doran, the Siege Tower and the rising tide of Arcades, the Strategist, meaning it will be a niche card, but likely have a home. But I think Beast Whisperer being a second Primordial Sage is going to make it fondly remembered and a staple as the years pass.

Last year I professed my love for Sunbird’s Invocation. Doom Whisperer isn’t as universally powerful as the Invocation, but it might be my personal favorite card to come out in the last year. Nothing in my opinion from Guilds of Ravnica really holds a candle to the promise of Surveil. Scry has already proved to be a great tool in Commander and Surveil’s added benefit of being able to toss unwanted cards into the graveyard makes it much better than scrying to the bottom. The influence of the mechanic could be a long term case study; but with how much synergy it had with Aminatou, the Fateshifter, I was looking to Ravnica Allegiance hoping to see something come out of the Azorius or Orzhov to really cement that deck. Sadly, those synergies never surfaced, but a lot of other stuff did.

A Different Kind of Allegiance

At the beginning, people thought that Ravnica Allegiance was going to best known for Prime Speaker Vannifar and the effect they were undoubtedly going to have on the format. All these months later and Vannifar never really took off, not even making it to the Top 10 Simic generals on EDHrec. For me Ravnica Allegiance was a highlight for enchantments in Commander. Smothering Tithe was easily the most high-profile enchantment of the last year, supercharging white decks since its printing. And it’s easy to understand why: Rhystic Study is a huge staple in Commander while taxing only one mana for each spell cast by an opponent. At the cost of two mana, turning all of your opponents’ draws into mana ramp for you is overwhelming for the table to keep up with.

Living in the shadow of Smothering Tithe we have Guardian Project, which for the purposes of Commander took what Beast Whisperer was doing an optimized it for decks built around Birthing Pod or blinking creatures. Project might historically become a blip on the radar, reasonably popular now, but a hidden gem in a few years when it gets rediscovered. The last of my favorite enchantments to come out of the set is Rhythm of the Wild, which will likely go forgotten in the minds of Commander players, only to be a powerful card that inverts the game in surprise victories. I have had so much success with this card in any creature-based deck I have used it in; more people should give it a shot so they can say they loved it before it was cool.

Blowing Up Ravnica

While I can try to the best of my ability to assess War of the Spark, I feel that the set is likely going to require time to understand its ripple effects in Magic history. The set injected so many planeswalkers at once; we have nothing to compare it against. Planeswalkers have not been impactful in Commander as a card type historically, but the introduction of uncommon planeswalkers means that it’s possible that a lot of those cards may make lasting effects on Commander.

From what I’ve gathered, Saheeli, Sublime Artificer is going to be the most universally adopted planeswalker from War of the Spark. Even though Ashiok, Dream Render and Narset, Parter of Veils are powerful for a multiplayer format, I expect the social contract will keep them from developing into accepted staples. Saheeli is a powerful card that is inoffensive to the progress of everyone else’s battlefield.

Looking at the set from a wider lens, removal has had a good year. Despark has the makings of being a hidden gem for budget players, and I’m happy to see it catch on as an alternative to Vindicate. Casualties of War and Windgrace’s Judgment both coming out in the same year should mean good things for deck that include both green and black. While I know they have some following, I have yet to see them making waves in my metagames.

I cannot move on from War without highlighting the reigning top dog of Boros, Feather, the Redeemed, who came in and changed the way many players looked at Boros for the better. Surprisingly, I have not seen any Feather decks, possibly because people in my groups had their fun with Zada, Hedron Grinder a few years back and notion exists that the two decks are nearly the same. While I favor Gerrard, Weatherlight Hero, this has been a good year for Boros.

Changes on the Horizons

Five weeks after War of the Spark, we were given Modern Horizons. This set was pure gas. I think we all expected something fun for Commander players, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much the set delivered. The cycle of enemy Talismans like Talisman of Conviction were greatly appreciated. We got a legendary bear in the form of Ayula, Queen Among Bears to outclass Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma. Yuriko got more pieces for her deck as they brought back ninja and gave up additional tools like Smoke Shroud. Slivers got a shake-up with The First Sliver, though it’s more suited for the other 99 than the driver’s seat among my groups.

I wish I had more to say about Modern Horizons, because I think did really cool things and might be my favorite set from the release window of this article. But there was so much cool stuff that half of it hasn’t made it way to decks. But I will say that Winds of Abandon is an amazing card that feels like the white Cyclonic Rift.

Hope in 2020

This year’s core set was not for me, which is fine as I started playing Magic almost two decades ago. Core Set 2019 had the leg up by being the triumphant return of core sets with narrative ties to the Bolas Arc that would wind down within the year. Core Set 2020 doesn’t have the same luxuries. It’s probably not a bad set, but I had extreme burnout by the time the set previewed. And maybe that’s a commentary on the stresses of content creation—new sets are fun and exciting, but we’re gasping for air as the floods come in.

I like Golos, Tireless Pilgrim, but I’ve gotten over the excitement of another five-color commander. In fact, Mystic Forge and Bag of Holding are the only cards I’ve added to my decks and seen in the wild. The addition of wedge-colored legendary creatures is fun, and I imagine that some of them will make their way to a Commander night.

As I look back at the year of Commander I’m left with one closing thought: the creation of Brawl may have pushed Wizards to create too many legendary creatures without purpose. I think of it kind of like this: in 2010, we got the cycle of Titans in Magic 2011. If memory serves, Sun Titan was the first one previewed and the internet went nuts. But as the set started getting previewed, Sun Titan was joined by its siblings and slowly became known as the worst of the bunch at the time. With hindsight, all five are great for different reasons and one is even banned in Commander. But that’s how legendary creatures have felt to me for the last year: exciting until the next one is previewed and I forget about the last.

2019 has been great for Commander—many cool legendary creatures were printed. I hope to  return to some in the coming year. But more importantly, a healthy variety of sets has meant that we saw a lot of really cool cards coming out this year. So many in fact, I think I’ve overlooked about 40% of them. I hope to see more sets as powerful as War of the Spark and Modern Horizons, just maybe with some space between them.

Ryan Sainio is a Graphic Designer who writes about EDH and the EDH community. He has been playing Magic: The Gathering since 7th Edition in 2002 and values flavorful and fun gameplay over competitively optimized decks.

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