I am a big fan of a good, old-fashioned set review. But unfortunately with Commander, it’s hard to make definitive calls on what is going to be a format worthy or pet card from a given set with zero experience with the cards. That’s why every year I like to take a look at all the sets that have occurred from last year’s Commander set forward to the most recent one for one big review. You can find my thoughts from 2018 and 2019 accordingly.

Unfortunately for this year’s crop, the movement of the Commander product from August to April/May means we’re going to have a shorter list of sets to look at this year. But I think that there have been enough innovations in regards to how Wizards has been addressing legendary creatures and Commander as a whole, that we will still have plenty to talk about. Today, I will be covering the cards from Commander 2019, Throne of Eldraine, and Theros Beyond Death that have either made a solid impression on the format or stuck with me in the last year.

Mechanical Returns

Starting with last year’s Commander product, my gut reaction was a sense that there was not going to be a whole lot that I was going to like. I think that tentativeness came from the decks all having mechanical call backs, which while appreciated, left me wondering if the overall quality of cards would wear thin. But now after spending time with the cards and really digging into some of the legendary creatures that came out of it, I have to say that Commander 2019 truly impressed me. I consider it one of the best Commander products, easily edging out the two-color pairs from 2015 and planeswalkers as generals from 2014 and 2018.

Sudden Substitution has a special place in my heart, being a card that I feel rewards a creative mind. No one plays around it, and when I cast it the results tend to be memorable. One standout moment: I cast Biomass Mutation for zero and donated it to a tokens player while it was on the stack, removing their board. But just as much fun can be had casting it in response to Gather Specimens or Grasp of Fate.

I love the one-off designs from the set as well. Goad is a political mechanic that I wasn’t sure we’d see much of outside of Conspiracy products, but I’m really happy seeing it on Bloodthirsty Blade, an equipment of all things. Additionally, Scroll of Fate expands the possibilities of Morph/Manifest decks, while also feeding a deck like Aminatou, the Fateshifter, who still seems to be finding new toys to build out her ideal deck. I also don’t think I can reasonably cover Commander 2019 without citing Dockside Extortionist as one of the most impactful cards to enter the format in 2019, alongside Smothering Tithe.

Finally, there are the legendary creatures of the set, the marquee cards of a Commander product. Rayami, First of the Fallen is a rather overlooked card and will be the topic of my next article. The fun interactions keep surprising me as I build the deck. I will elaborate next time, but I love the idea of finally making Soulflayer into a general.

Then we have the returning characters that are getting a second life through this product. Chainer, Nightmare Adept, Gerrard, Weatherlight Hero, Greven, Predator Captain, and Volrath, the Shapestealer were all inspired designs that dwarf their late 90’s incarnations. Other than Chainer, I’ve already dedicated entire articles to these generals. (Kristen has Chainer covered for you.) None of them are so linear that there’s only one way to build a deck. In fact, Volrath gave me so much inspiration, I built three consecutive decks around different themes. While I understand that they’re not for everybody, I think this crop of generals was very exciting and appreciated.

Adventure Time

For somebody who worked on a fairy tale custom set in his downtime over the last couple years, it’s a little unfortunate that I just never latched onto Throne of Eldraine. That’s not to say that there weren’t a couple cards that captured my imagination, but they are more role players in existing decks than anything that inspired me to carve out something new.

Harmonious Archon has made an impact in my samurai deck of all places. Because the tribe is built around such overcosted, small creatures, the archon doesn’t hurt me—if anything, it helps. Setting all non-archon creatures to 3/3 also creates some interesting interactions: Anger of the Gods wipes away every creature that’s not buffed, Beguiler of Wills can take over the game unexpectedly, and Serra Avatar becomes irrelevant.

Another card that has surprised me is Realm-Cloaked Giant, who slotted very well into my Ruhan of the Fomori. On curve, it clears the board the turn after my general comes down; and if I happen to top deck it later, there are options for plenty of different situations. Then there is Mirrormade, which has flown under the radar of most people I’ve played against or seen streaming. An additional Sculpting Steel or Copy Enchantment seems like something that Commander players should enjoy more.

The last year has brought a wealth of innovative Magic products and left us with many new cards to consider. The Brawl product made the time period in which Throne of Eldraine came out a bit more notable. From everything I have seen, Syr Gwyn, Hero of Ashvale made a very positive impact. Players got excited for knights tribal when Aryel, Knight of Windgrace was printed in 2018, but I think we needed Syr Gwyn and the addition of a red color identity to bring knights into their own.

While I do not personally use Arcane Signet, it’s less about avoiding an en vogue card and more that I’ve just never sought it out. I’ve heard good things about how Chulane, Teller of Tales, Korvold, Fae-Cursed King, and Alela, Artful Provocateur play, but have never played against them. I think the Brawl product was good for its audience, but not something I was drawn to.

A Choice of Weapons

Theros Beyond Death is not a bad set by any means, but it left almost no impression on me. I do appreciate the uncommon legendaries they introduced in this set and that they were able to support satyrs with Gallia of the Endless Dance. While many people were excited by the printing of Nyxbloom Ancient, the only card that I have personally used is Shadowspear.

As somebody who loves Loxodon Warhammer, Elspeth’s new story weapon does a lot of what I’m asking the Warhammer to do. Give me lifelink, trample, and maybe some power and toughness. Add the ability to turn off hexproof and indestructible, and suddenly we have a personal staple. I get so much use out of this card, and I really hope it is something that comes back in future Commander products.

This last year has been maybe my personal slowest year for Commander. It started out with a really surprising high point in Commander 2019, then due to the state of the world, lost momentum as the first half of the year developed. But I remain optimistic for the future of Commander. I always have the hope that nothing’s going to break, the social contract will maintain and allow players to carve out their own fun to keep the format thriving.

Forecasting for the next year, I’m not 100% sure where I would like to see the format go. I have high hopes, since the Spring has already given us Ikoria, Commander 2020, Jumpstart and Core Set 2021 with so many potentially interesting cards to play with. And we still have quite a bit to be delivered in just this calendar year with Zendikar Rising and Commander Legends. I hope the Winter and Spring sets bring about interesting new cards, allowing us to move into a new year strong. But of course, that will all be covered next year.

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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