As a Magic player who has been with the game for over two decades, I will say it’s sometimes jarring to be as aware of future products as we currently are. Not only did we just get the road map for two years of Magic sets, including products currently only in concept, but we have been anticipating the release of Universes Beyond: Doctor Who for almost a year. As a moderate Whovean, I knew that I was going to be excited for this. But, I don’t think I was prepared for how much I’d like the cards previewed thus far.

One card amongst all of them has me especially excited. I should have seen a card like this coming. The Universes Beyond products have proven the game designers are not going to just hit on the low-hanging fruit of an IP to generate content from. I’m referring, as many already know, to the ever-fantastic River Song.

For much of the 2010’s, Doctor Who was a very important franchise to me. I would listen to weekly podcasts from across the pond, breaking down every episode and often rewatch episodes from Series 5, 6, and 7, multiple times between new episodes. But much like my love of comic books, it was something which was kind of my own thing to enjoy. Many of my friends didn’t care about it as much as I did. So as much as I know, there is probably an ample audience of people that love River Song. To me, she will always be the indie rock band of Doctor Who characters. 

This week, we’ll be exploring a deck with far greater than the potential what I gave it credit for originally. I even believe that for all the elements I was looking to highlight, there is a completely different build which could be potent. Come along, as we experience our deck from back to front, preventing spoilers, and ending games in spectacular fashion.


To discuss the design of River Song means we also need to discuss a few spoilers about the character. While we are talking about content over a decade old, I know this release may be enough to draw in those loosely aware of Doctor Who. As such, I want to allow them to experience the stories as they were intended, and will be keeping plot spoilers to this section.

We are introduced to River Song in the 2008 Doctor Who story Silence in the Library, where she is an archaeological professor who knows The Doctor very well. For the then-current Tenth Doctor, this is a little confusing, as they have no memory of River. This is where the character takes on a certain amount of intrigue for me, as we can begin to piece together that we are essentially watching River’s story backwards. With her sacrificing herself to save The Doctor in her premiere story, over the course of her appearances, we watch as she knows The Doctor less as he knows her more. Sometimes she’s a friend, a few times, a foe. Until the point when we eventually learn her origin as the half-human half-Time Lord daughter of Amy Pond and Rory Williams.

River also has a journal with notes about her meetings with The Doctor, a point of tension as he is not allowed to see the inside of her journal, just as she’s not allowed to see his matching volume. This is flavorfully tied into her card design where you are working through your deck from back to front. But I also think that her second ability, which can penalize your opponents for trying to dig for spoilers, is a clever play on her efforts to maintain the timeline.

River doesn’t appear until the eighth episode of Series Four, so recommending “Doctor Who” for the River Song episodes is like recommending “Lost” for the Desmond episodes. You’re in for a good time, but you’ll be waiting a bit when you start from the beginning. Some of River’s greatest hits are the stories Forest of the Dead, The Time of Angels, A Good Man Goes to War, and The Husbands of River Song, spanning from Series Four to Series Twelve. As a fan, I would advise starting as early as Series Two – where David Tennant comes in – and letting her sprinkling of appearances starting in Series Four motivate you to continue.


River Song








Life, Backwards

Without some form of deck manipulation, River’s first ability isn’t much different from normal card draw through a randomized deck, except your “top deck” is physically safe from mill. So, my first sweep of cards for this deck were those which interact with the bottom of the library, setting up my draws with River. The card economy of these kinds of spells are normally traded off with losing access to the remaining cards, aside from an occasional shuffle, but the power level rises when suddenly the cards being placed there are going to be our next draw.

One of the big draws of a Commander for me is when they contextually change how we look at forgotten cards. As such, River changes how we use spells like Erratic Explosion, Kaboom!, or Write into Being. These are the kinds of sorceries I would quickly remove from a deck due to being too much of a gimmick, but here they can serve a purpose.

For the permanents Epitaph Golem, Junktroller, Reito Lantern, and Reito Sentinel allow me to recur cards every turn. Instants like Anticipate, Impulse, and Telling Time will also give me what I need in the moment, while purposefully setting up my draws. The one “achievement” I would love to pull off in this deck is using Fire Prophecy as removal and storing Reforge the Soul on the bottom of my deck, then drawing it as my miracle for the turn.

A true miracle, indeed.

Making the Most of Counters

It’s easy to assume that my opponents are going to be looking for “spoilers” on a regular basis, triggering River’s second ability will probably impact most games. Regardless, I wanted to grease the wheel a little and include a suite of cards that care about +1/+1 counters, making each chronological peek by my opponents a little more dangerous. Especially because it also makes commander damage a relevant strategy.

While counters are a pretty universally loved component of contemporary Magic, River helps to redefine a few pet cards here as well. I have had a soft spot for Amok since playing with Ruhan of the Fomori. Since we can so easily recur cards from our graveyard, the random discard doesn’t hurt so much. To me Jace, Arcane Strategist, Wizard Class, and Herald of Secret Streams all prove to be staple effects we want to see every game. In fact, the Herald was such a key card for this list, that it brought my attention to the final pillar holding up this deck.

A Thief without Defenders

The last phase of our game plan is pretty simple, ending games through combat. For this, I am mainly leveraging blue/red’s ability to make creatures unblockable. Herald of Secret Streams and Deepchannel Mentor both work to make River Song a game-ending commander damage outlet. Most importantly, Protective Bubble and Cloak and Dagger will allow River to avoid direct removal, while attacking for large chunks of damage. Tie in all the saboteur effects like Coastal Piracy and Reconnaissance Mission, and all those spoilers will come back like karma.

I wholeheartedly believe this deck is far greater than the potential I gave it credit for when I first started trying to map out what this deck was going to do. While River absolutely gives you signposts for what can be done with her, I think she is open-ended enough that it allows for the creativity to mix in all the elements that make up her card into something that I think could be a very potent commander.

While each incarnation of The Doctor will no doubt get a lot of attention, I have been completely smitten with the potential River Song brings to Commander. In fact, as I was constructing this decklist, I was blown away by just how concentrated of a game plan you can make if you decide to use each aspect of River’s card to their best effect.  And this is all without seeing any of the other cards that were designed to specifically work in tandem with her. Obviously, I will not need to commit to a final list until the cards are actually available, but this is easily my front runner for the first thing I will be physically building once Universes Beyond: Doctor Who is available to us. 

Ryan Sainio (he/him) is a Graphic Designer exploring the Commander format and Magic history on a regular basis. Notable decks that value flavorful and fun gameplay over competitively optimized decks include Shattergang Eldrazi, Doran Soul Sisters, and Chatterfang ProsBloom.

MTG Content Creator Awards 2022 nominee: Format Specialty Writing & Excellence in Writing Overall

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