Commander, or Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH), is a very popular yet casual-leaning format for the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering. Of course, don't tell those who play it that it's a casual format. Many take it quite seriously. That's why we decided for the release window hype to die down and to take our time looking at this year's pre-constructed Commander decks rather than blasting out a rushed article right around launch time.
Commander 2016 (C16) consists of five four-color pre-made decks. This is the first time in Magic history that Wizards of the Coast has made such a product as Commander decks in the past have never consisted of more than three colors (of course, players have been making five-color decks ever since the format moved beyond the three-color combinations of the original Elder Dragon Legends cards from the mid 1990's). In short, all of the decks are pretty good and are well balanced between them all. If you're curious as to which deck appears to be the best right out of the box, however, we do have a favorite.
BREED LETHALITY (BWUG)
Based around +1/+1 counters, this black-white-blue-green deck is probably the most entertaining to play and the most frustrating to play against. The features commander Atraxa, Praetors' Voice (probably the top of the new commander/legends in C16) and is chock-full of cards that both make and take advantage of counters on cards and players (ie: poison counters). Not all of the cards in the deck are tournament quality, of course. Those that are, however, work very well within the deck and have a place in other formats. This includes reprints Scavenging Ooze and Underground River as well as the newly-printed Deepglow Skate thanks to its amazing synergy with Planeswalkers. Cards of note that would be desirable for casual play include reprints of Kalonian Hydra, Exotic Orchard, and Languish. The deck also come with some good removal with cards like Mortify and Putrefy standing out.
Breed Lethality introduces some new legendary creatures that previously either didn't exist or existed in a non-card format (such as a Magic Story). The most notable of such legendaries for this deck are Reyhan, Last of the Abzan thanks to her +1/+1 counter salvaging ability and Ikra Shidiqi, the Usurper thanks to him being a 3/7 with menace and a life-gaining ability that it shares with all of your creatures.
For those looking to crack the decks for value, Breed Lethality also provides the best opportunity for this as well. For its $35 MSRP players get cards worth approximately $77 at the time this article was written. Topping the list price-wise is the deck's primary commander, Atraxa, which lists at roughly $12. Following her is Deepglow Skate at about $9 with a series of other cards (Scavenging Ooze, Reyhan, Ikra Shidiqi, Underground River, Kalonian Hydra, Reveillark and a few others) falling in between $2 and $5 a piece. Leaning a bit closer towards the bulk bin are cards such as Master Biomancer, Darkwater Catacombs, Cauldron of Souls, and Murmuring Bosk with each of those being worth right around a dollar or so. Of course, there's a fair assortment of low-value rares mixed in as well like Duneblast and Mirrorweave.
Looking beyond financial value, however, there is plenty of play value and player-service through the inclusion of a number of cards that are just nice to have in one's collection and, on a player-to-player basis, one's decks. Such low-price cards include Darksteel Ingot, Temple of the False God, Vorel of the Hull Clade, and Citadel Siege -- all worth all of 25¢ each or thereabouts.
The deck's not perfect, of course, and those wanting to use it long-term will need to sub out some cards. Luckily, all of the cards worth taking out are pretty low value and can be replaced without spending too much money (assuming the player doesn't already own better-fitting cards). Some ideas towards this end include throwing in cards like Spike Weaver from Exodus, Inexorable Tide from Scars of Mirrodin, and Chasm Skulker, a Magic 2015 card that's also in one of the other Commander 2016 decks. Breed Lethality could also use a tad more ramp, which is surprising seeing as green is one of this deck's colors. Cards like Rampant Growth and Evolution Charm would be nice additions, as would color-fixing lands like the various Vivid lands (ie: Vivid Meadow) or even the fairly lackluster Henge of Ramos from Mercadian Masques.
STALWART UNITY (RGWB)
The next most impressive deck in our view for Commander 2016 is the very defensive Stalwart Unity. Not only can this deck hold its own right out of the box against a number of offensive threats, Wizards of the Coast gets major kudos for choosing not only to create a commander-caliber card featuring a gay couple, but for also featuring said card as one (two?) of the faces of Commander 2016.
The deck features Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis as its primary commander. Outside of being a dependable 2/8 for four mana, the card focuses on shared wealth. Sure, your opponents will benefit from them being on the battlefield, but they'll be more likely to want to keep you around for said benefit. I guess you could consider it a sort of olive branch. Of course, aside from the very economical casting cost for their stats, Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis really isn't a card you're likely to want to play outside of multiplayer formats for just that reason. This deck also has a number of other notable commander-qualified creaturessuch as Edric Spymanster of Trest, Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa, and a reprint of Zedruu the Greathearted. It also contains the overwhelmingly disappointing Ludevic Necro-Alchemist thanks to his woefully underwhelming ability when you take into account his importance to his role on Innistrad.
It's also highly defensive with cards that should frustrate your opponents' ground game. It includes both Propaganda, its white reprint Ghostly Prison, and its creature variant Windborn Muse as well as cards like Swords to Plowshares, Wave of Reckoning, and (if necessary) Blasphemous Act. The deck also has a bit of control with the old-school counterspell from Alliances, Arcane Denial, leading the charge. Swan Song and Hushwing Gryff also help in this regard.
In terms of monetary value, Stalwart Unity continues where Breed Lethality leaves off by providing players with very good value right out of the box. A-la carte, the deck is worth roughly $67 and features a handful modestly priced cards, though no one card is worth more than the $3.25 that Forbidden Orchard is listed at. Still, there is a nice range of cards worth above two bucks a piece. This includes not only the Orchard, but also Homeward Path, Propaganda, Ghostly Prison, Prismatic Geoscope, Selfless Squire, Collective Voyage, Tempt with Discovery, and the vintage-relevant Oath of Druids. There is also a fair assortment of cards worth right around the one dollar range such as Windborn Muse, Ash Barrens, Howling Mine, and Kodama's Reach.
For those looking to use Stalwart Unity for the long haul, there are more substitutions to be done than with Breed Lethality. Out of the box, the deck has some nice but fairly irrelevant cards as far as the deck's focus is concerned. Such cards include Sidar Kondo, Humble Defector, and Assault Suit. Instead of cards like those, players may want to consider substituting them out for the likes of Bident of Thassa to accelerate card draw for you alone, Collective Effort for its versatility, and Goblin Spymaster to force opponents to take action even if it's not the best idea for them against your defenses.
INVENT SUPERIORITY (WUBR)
Arguably the third best of the five Commander 2016 decks is the artifact-focused Invent Superiority. The deck features Breya, Etherium Shaper as the main commander. As a commander, her ability is fairly underwhelming at first but can be quite useful when employed with the rest of the deck and even more so when paired with some cards after-the-fact that aren't included like Ashnod's Altar. As for the deck itself, it largely plays well with itself thanks to the high level of synergy it provides out-of-the-box, though it's far from perfect.
This deck seeks victory through the use, re-use, and abuse of artifacts. Interestingly enough, it strives to do this without any cards with Affinity for Artifacts -- an iconic card ability from the Mirrodin block -- and only one card (Jor Kadeen the Prevailer) using the Metalcraft ability. While the exclusion of Affinity and the almost exclusion of Metalcraft are odd choices by WotC, there is plenty in the deck to achieve its end goal as it relies fairly heavily on control (ei: Whipflare and Coastal Breach) and combos/card synergy. Faerie Artisans, a card that makes its debut in this deck, in particular can be quite annoying if a player lacks any way of getting rid of it thanks to its ability to clone an opposing player's most recently played creature.
Like with the other C16 decks, the main commander is joined by a selection of others. This includes the intriguingly aggressive Akiri Line-Slinger, the possibly-better-than-the-main-commander Silas Renn Seeker Adept, and the why-is-this-in-this-deck Soda Popinski...umm...I mean Bruse Tarl Boorish Herder. The deck also has a handful of multi-color legendary creature reprints of note including the pre-meding favorite Hanna Ship's Navigator from the Weatherlight Saga and a couple from previous Commander releases including Sydri Galvanic Genius and Sharuum the Hegemon. Daretti, Scrap Savant (one of the stars from Commander 2014) is also included.
When it comes down to monetary value, Invent Superiority continues the trend of providing a good return on investment. When parted out, the cards are worth roughly $65 and that is highlighted by Magus of the Will ($6), a walking Yawgmoth's Will that is only available in this deck. It's one of three cards included that's worth more than three bucks with commander Breya, Etherium Shaper and the Shards of Alara reprint Master of Etherium being the other two. Between the $1 and $3 mark you'll find cards such as Baleful Strix, Hanna Ship's Navigator, Faerie Artisans, Daretti Scrap Savant, Skullclamp, and Sol Ring (a card that's included once again in all five decks). Other cards of note that don't quite register on the value scale include the ever-dependable Nevinyrral's Disk and Soul of New Phyrexia.
If Invent Superiority happens to be your favorite of the five and you'd like to use it long term, there are some alterations you might want to make. The deck contains a bit more "junk" than the previous two. Players should look to take out cards that don't quite fit the artifact focus such as Godo Bandit Warlord, Magus of the Will, Ancient Excavation, Curse of Vengeance, and Bonehoard as well as another dozen others or so. Thankfully, making the deck more competitive doesn't have to cost a king's ransom. Adding in cards like Junk Diver, Goblin Welder, Fabricate, and Inventors' Fair (among others) should help quite a bit.
OPEN HOSTILITY (BRGW)
As this deck's name might suggest, Open Hostility is very aggressive. It wants to hit hard and hit fast. Out of the box, it does a pretty good job at doing just that thanks (in part) to its equally as aggressive commander Saskia the Unyielding. A 3/4 for four mana with both vigilance and haste, she's pretty good with no other abilities to her name. Luckily for her player, she does have another ability -- and it's one that gets shared with all of your other creatures. Saskia lets all of your creatures deal damage twice. No, not as in Double Strike. More like if they deal combat damage to a player, they also deal that same amount of combat damage to another player whether it be that same player or another (said player is chosen when she comes into play). It's a great ability for a commander to have in a deck that's supposed to be this aggressive.
Lining up along side Saskia are some other legendary creatures. This includes new cards Tymna the Weaver, Ravos Soultender, and Tana the Bloodsower, as well as reprints like Alesha Who Smiles at Death and Iroas God of Victory. Looking non-legendary, Open Hostility has a nice selection of other creatures that serve their own purpose in the deck like Den Protector, Selesnya Guildmage, and Brutal Hordechief. The deck also has ways of increasing the strength of the troops though cards like Primeval Protector, Beastmaster Ascension, and the aforementioned Ravos Soultender.
Value-wise, Open Hostility falls right in line with the other C16 decks with an approximate total value of $61 (though it is notably the least "valueble" of the decks). Topping the deck's price list is a reprint of Lightning Greaves at a $3.50 followed by Conqueror's Flail, a $3.25 card that makes its Magic: The Gathering debut in this deck. In the two dollar range are a small selection of singles including the pain dual land Karplusan Forest, primary commander Saskia the Unyielding, Stonehoof Chieftain, and Iroas God of Victory. After that, there are quite a few cards that fall into the $1-$2 range like the customary Sol Ring reprint, Skullclamp, Rootbound Crag, Terminate, Boros Charm, and Mycoloth (among a handful of others). Notable cards in the deck that are worth less than a buck a piece include Den Protector, Managorger Hydra, Fellwar Stone, Artifact Mutation, Aura Mutation, and Windbrisk Heights.
If you want to look towards the future with Open Hostility and play it long term, there are a handful of card substitutions you'll likely want to make. First off, it could use more creature pumping so adding cards like Overrun, Consul's Lieutenant, Elesh Norn, and Nobilis of War. To help with your attacking creatures getting that combat damage in to the defending player, adding in Primal Rage or Archetype of Aggression would help as well. Cards that let you have additional combat phases such as Fury of the Horde are also highly recommended. Also, while not a must-have, including the Ice Age card Total War could be fun to put all decks into a frenzy (including your own). Cards you might want to take out to make room for such additions include Divergent Transformation, Treacherous Terrain, Grab the Reins, Crackling Doom, and Necrogenesis. In terms of creatures, Wight of Precinct Six, Stalking Vengeance, Sylvok Explorer, Zhur-Taa Druid, and Wilderness Elemental are all optional, as is (at minimum) the artifact Sunforger.
While Open Hostility isn't our favorite of C16's five decks, it will most certainly have its fans.
ENTROPIC UPRISING (UBRG)
Risk and reward. Feast or famine. Those're the best way for us to describe C16's Entropic Uprising deck. When this deck goes off, it really goes off. The thing is, all the stars have to align in order to have that game-winning turn (and it doesn't happen all that reliably). One thing is for sure: this deck is fun to play.
The star of the show is its commander, Yidris, Maelstrom Wielder. If he deals combat damage to an opponent he's quite literally gives every spell in your deck Cascade for the remainder of the turn. The fact that he's a five-power trampler means there is a good chance this will happen from time to time. The deck also has a nice assortment of casting costs to its spells, so when Cascade does happen it should at least fire off a spell or two before fizzling (unless you draw into the perfect combination of cards and that can happen). And what are those spells? They include fellow legendary creatures such as Thrasios Triton Hero, Vial Smasher the Fierce, Kydele Chosen of Kruphix, and reprint Etherium-Horn Sorcerer, as well as a variety of non-creature spells like Rakdos Charm, Chaos Warp, Past in Flames, Waste Not, and Burgeoning. There are also eight artifacts included in the deck, headlined by the highly sought-after Chromatic Lantern.
Entropic Uprising concludes C16's theme of having great value for the MSRP as it carries an a-la-carte value of roughly $63 with Chromatic Lantern leading the charge at a value of seven bucks. The nice-priced cards that are next on the pecking order include Yidris ($4), Vial Smasher ($4), Kydele ($3), Burgeoning ($3), and a pair of cards worth approximately $2.50 a piece (Reliquary Tower and Past in Flames). Aside from a few cards worth between one and two bucks (ie: Bloodbraid Elf, Wheel of Fate, and Shadowblood Ridge), however, the per-card value drops quite a bit with most of the remaining cards valued at 50¢ or less.
Due to the deck's boom-or-bust nature, there is quite a bit of work that can be done to it to make it more reliable and more competitive. On it's own it's fairly aggressive and straightforward. That's great for lesser-experienced players, but there is a lot that can be done to slow it down slightly in the name of having a better chance of "drawing the nuts" and firing off. Probably the best way this can be done is focusing on adding Storm to the mix (after all, you'll hopefully be casting one spell after another boom-badda-bing). Cards you might want to take out include creatures like Vial Smasher, Coiling Oracle, Etherium-Horn Sorcerer, and Blood Tyrant, as well as spells such as Frenzied Fugue, Chain of Vapor, Worm Harvest, and Spelltwine. In their place you should look to add cards along the lines of Brainstorm and Ponder for card advantage, Grapeshot and Brain Freeze for Storm, and Aetherflux Reservoir because why wouldn't you. It wouldn't really cost all that much to give Entropic Uprising a nice little upgrade though you really could go hog-wild in making this deck better if you'd like.
So yes, it's probably the weakest overall of the five C16 decks thanks to its inconsistancy, but it's also one of the most entertaining to play. Go figure.
The decks themselves, of course, aren't the only new things that C16 brings with it. There is a nice selection of new cards (some better than others). Probably the most notable of the fresh content are the alternate commanders such Kydele Chosen of Kruphix and Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa, but C16 also introduces a couple of new mechanics (and we're not huge fans of either. The first one is called Partner. It allows deckbuilders to combine two "partner" legendary creatures as the deck's commander... err... commanders. This means that between the two partnered commanders, a deck can be anywhere from two to four colors. For the most part, however, the partner-enabled legendary creatures really aren't all that spectacular on their own and have little synergy between one another. All-in-all, the partner concept seems clunky and poorly-executed. Hopefully it'll be a one-time mechanic, but if WotC does decide to do more creatures with Partner they knock it out of the park next time.
The other notable new mechanic, Undaunted, allows for a discount to be applied to a spell's casting cost. Undaunted spells cost one generic mana less to cast for each opponent. In large-scale multiplayer games, this can mean for some extremely discounted spells. Against six opponents, this means that (for example) the board wipe spell Sublime Exhalation can be cast for a single white mana. On the other hand, against just one opponent that same spell would cost 5W. At it's core, however, it's just a way for WotC to make over-costed variants of current spells. That said, it's still a worthwhile ability that appears on only one card of each color across all five decks. We hope we'll see it again in a future Commander (or possibly Conspiracy) printing.
And then there's the Rebecca Guay basic lands. Sure, they're basic lands but they're just... well, they're just wow. Rebecca Guay is an extremely talented artist and she is among the elite who produce artwork for the game. Like the full-art and special edition lands (ie: APAC and Euro lands), the Rebecca Guay C16 lands should be very highly sought after. Simply put, they're gorgeous.
Wizards of the Coast has been printing annual Commander decks since 2011 with the latest edition, Commander 2016, coming out early last month. This year's decks retail for $35.99 each and can be found at local gaming stores, online retailers, and some big-box brick-and-mortar locations.