There’s no doubt that 2019 was the greatest year ever for Commander.
We saw an unprecedented amount of format growth for a plethora of reasons. Rule Zero, in April, revolutionized the way we sit down to play multiplayer games of Commander. The addition of Command Zones for all future Magic Fests made it possible to play Commander without fear of having to pack up for ‘real‘ events to take place. Our format saw three of our very own Commander Fests! An unheard of type of event that focused solely on fun Commander game play.
Personally, I noticed an explosion of side event game play at the Face to Face Games Opens that I attended, as well. Being from the prairies, that was one of the best things that could have happened as there aren’t a ton of big events that come through this part of the country. Speaking of which, if you can, be sure to come to the Saskatoon Open on Feb. 2 to jam 100’s with myself, Brando and all the Commander Cookout Podcast Dude-Bros. It’s always a great time!
With all that growth comes an all new set of challenges. Both for the players and the designers of the game. From competition level to play styles, preferences, opinions, strategies and deck building experience. As such, it can be difficult to parse through what is now considered the optimal way to play Commander. It’s no secret, the format is speeding up. The allure of combo-ing your opponent out before they do the same to you is a strong one. The need for control to counter this strategy is more important than ever. The desire to stop an opponent is becoming more attractive as the player-base at large has — more or less — figured out many of the fastest, smartest or otherwise optimal builds. Even if you’re not sitting down for a game of competitive EDH, all that still holds true.
So how do we decide what’s best? For me, I still, very much keep my finger on what feels fun. I make sure that I think about what feels unique, as well. Both for myself and for my opponent to get a varied experience when they sit down to play with me for several games. When I’m researching ideas for a deck, I make note of the negative space. What strategies am I not seeing for a particular Commander? What would make people laugh when they found out what the strategy or theme of my deck is? What’s the most extreme and/or redundant case of that strategy that I can pack into one hundred cards? What would blow their mind? Of course, it’s not all about being different and goofy. I still enjoy winning. As such, I partially associate the power level of a card with how fun it is to play with. Casting the best spells in a given colour or a given converted-mana-cost always feels good. So which cards have I been hot for in the last little while? Let’s take a look at how we might start thinking about that.
I start by asking myself which 2019 cards were powerful enough to open up build space that might not have existed before? Which cards allowed for unexplored strategies? Which bolstered existing, unique strategies, that required a little bit of help to stay off the ground? That goes for colours, tribes, strategies, etc.
I strayed away from efficient format-staple removal cards. Cards that slot in to decks in exchange for other, less efficient versions of themselves. Things like Despark and Generous Gift aren’t on this list despite their quality in efficiency. While great cards, they didn’t really feel like candidates for my above criterion. They didn’t really feel EDH-y enough, either. I stayed clear of obvious powerhouse cards that existed as second or third copies of things that already see play. That means there’s no Bolas’s Citadel on this list. Despite being one of the most powerful cards in the last few years, we already have Ad Nauseam, Necropotence, Doomsday, etc. Return of the Wildspeaker was another one that isn’t included. We have Rishkar’s Expertise, Shamanic Revelation, Overwhelming Stampede and Fury of the Horde to fill the same roll.
While one could argue for either of those cards, or cards like them, nobody is wrong with what they include or don’t include. It also might be correct to jam all versions of said cards to add the most redundancy at any particular effect. That doesn’t really allow for unique experiences when setting up for a game, though. With that sort of mind-set, let’s chug through these like Christmas Eggnog. I think I’ve narrowed it down to the gold nuggets of 2019. The cream of the crop.
OK, I cheated on my first pick so I’m not going to count them in my official ten. Think of them as an honourable mention, of sorts. Here me out. These lands, from our return to return to Ravnica block, made the price actually obtainable and affordable for entry level decks and players looking to purchase singles or crack them in packs. Their price tags were slashed by a few dollars a piece when we gained the knowledge that they were to see a reprinting in 2018/19. With the announcement of the Pioneer format in October, we saw the price rebound slightly. Though, not as much as if would have if our most recent access to them remained the 2013 printing in the OG Return to Ravnica block.
Onto the list!
Officially, the first six-drop on the list. The thing is, this card never costs six. Like, literally never. All you need to do is attack. Embercleave made my list not only because it gives red inclusive aggro decks some reach in the mid to late game, but also because it enables Voltron-style strategies. That is, killing someone with twenty-one points of Commander damage. And it does it at the same time as you are attacking a different player!
Attack a few creatures one way, and your big scary commander at someone you’ve already pounded a bit for Commander damage. Slap your Commandy with the old Excalibur and watch your opponent slump. Because they’re dead. Usually, for the mere cost of red, red. Trample takes this card over the top. Never forget that trample is included in the Embercleave package.
Sevinne’s reclamation represents a few things, to me. First, it’s card advantage in white. Similar to how Sun Titan works upon entering the battlefield or attacking. You get small, permanent card types back from your graveyard. Great. How about that mana rock? How about that fetch land? Gaea’s Cradle. Those get destroyed, right? In that way, it acts as mana advantage. Eventually, the mana producing thing you got back with Reclamation is going to pay dividends when it breaks the threshold of what Reclamation cost to cast.
It also gives decks that run white cards some additional redundancy to their strategy. It’ll get aristocrat-style creatures back to enable a combo. It’ll get your Mentor of the Meek back to allow continual white-based card draw. Outside of removal, white requires all the help it can get. Sevinne’s Reclamation allows us to be creative and use it to fill gaps in white’s portion of the colour pie. Then, it allows you to do it again, twice!
Not just a Standard card, Casualties affords us a few options in EDH as well. I’ve seen it used to great affect in control decks to keep the board clean enough to allow for a slower setup. It also eliminates multiple things preventing an alpha strike for aggro decks. I’ve seen it alongside the likes of Maelstrom Pulse and Windgrace’s Judgement as an awesome source of card advantage. There’s just something about this kind of card. Casting it and declaring this, and this, and this, and this. It’s epic.
This is the first of several planeswalkers on this list. Like all the cards on this list, it feels hard to lose when you drop Lili at the optimal point in the game. On-curve, with a couple zombie lords by her side. Or, alongside a couple things that you won’t care if you minus her and draw two cards. The mini-sweeper, draw two with a planeswalker left over. Sounds awful right? The thing is, the difference between Liliana, Dreadhorde General and a few of the other cards on this list is that generally, your opponent won’t know that they’ve lost when this sticks. It’ll take some time. It’ll take them losing their board presence that they spent the first six turns of the game building up. It’ll be a grind. Just how Liliana likes it.
When I first read Ashiok, I thought it was a good card. Then I read it again. At that point, I thought it was really good. Then, in a game shortly after it’s release, I tried to crack a fetch land and wasn’t allowed to search. This was because Ashiok turns off spells and abilities. Like cracking my fetch land. At this point, I knew Ashiok was great. Then, it was a little while later that I realized that I can mill the top four cards of my own library, then have my opponents exile theirs!
Ashiok is nuts! For three mana, Ashiok stops three of the most powerful things one can do in Commander. It stops tutors. It stops ramp spells, (because they tutor for lands) and it shuts down graveyard strategies. For those reasons, it’s good at almost any point in the game. Early to shut off your opponent’s development and late to get rid of potential reanimation targets. This is the first card on this list that actively made me seek out cards that I was running in a deck and take them out. Ashiok, Dream Render made me rethink how I played the game. That reason alone should warrant Ashiok a spot among 2019’s elite.
Narset, like Ashiok before her, is powerful for multiple reasons. Card disadvantage for your opponents. Card selection and advantage for us. Virtual life gain for us as opponents want her dead as soon as possible. She acts as a lightning rod and allows our other powerful plays to survive. But more than any of that, she sits atop the blue-based control decks as a means to stop our opponents from what they want to do. She stops our opponents from doing the most powerful thing in Commander — drawing cards.
Narset is stupendous in control decks as she allows us to dig for an answer after we land her. She’s great in superfriends lists. She helps us find our proliferate cards so we can continue to find additional planeswalkers by ticking her down and looking four cards deep. Essentially, whatever shell you put Narset in, she’s going to help you do whatever it is that you’re doing because she’s a card draw spell. Sometimes, that card draw comes by way of taking more turns in a game because your opponents just can’t do anything on the back of not drawing extra cards.
I know, I know. I cheated again. I chose a card that has some clones in older sets. But, The Great Henge isn’t like the rest. It’s not like Soul of the Harvest or Primordial Sage because it can cost far less mana. So, it’s like Beast Whisperer or Gaurdian Project? Both great cards, but no, because it gains you life and replaces the mana you spent on it as well. So, is it like Zendikar Resurgent in that it gives you the mana back that you spent? Not exactly, because it also buffs your stuff. Rishkar, Pema Renagade? Not quite.
I believe that the closest analog to The Great Henge is actually Glimpse of Nature. A card powerful enough to be banned in Modern. A card that, if you’d like to combo, and you do if you’re running any of the aforementioned cards, makes you build your entire deck around it nowadays. And when I say, build your whole deck around it, what I mean is, include creatures in your green deck. Something you were going to do anyways. Creatures like Soul of the Harvest, Primordial Sage and Beast Whisperer. Creatures that are going to make The Great Henge virtually free. In terms of win the game potential, raw power level and sheer awesomeness, this could have been the best card of the year.
Well here we are, at the top three cards of the year. I think everyone could have seen the Brawl Ring coming from a mile away. Arcane Signet was revealed and instantly became a format staple. The only reason that this card isn’t in ninety per cent of decks, or more, is due to its scarcity. It is still a little hard to find. And when it is available, people find it difficult to justify the price when more traditional, guild-based signets are available.
Throughout 2020, we will probably get a few more chances to crack this signet. New Brawl releases and several Commander focused products should give us our fix. There is most definitely no denying though, Arcane Signet is going to rise to the top of the format within the next year to Sol Ring and Command Tower levels of play. It will become one of the premiere mana rocks in the format once given its fair chance to see play.
Remember when I said cards were going to be on this list due to their ability to help a colour or strategy out where it was otherwise lacking? Dockside Extortionist does exactly that. It gives red the ability to make meaningful mana earlier in the game.
This card is somewhat comparable to Priest of Titania in Green. At a mere two mana, this can give you access to as many as four mana, or more on turn two. In mono-red. And it’s a goblin to boot! Late game, this thing gets ridiculous. Imagine the last few games you’ve played. It’s turn eight. Everyone is ready to win the next time they un-tap. You top-deck an Extortionist and give yourself access to an extra ten treasure tokens worth of mana. The sky is the limit at that point. Cast a sweeper with mana left over to rebuild. Cast a bunch of card draw spells to dig for an answer. Comet Storm the table. Use Extortionist as that last goblin you needed to crash in. All pointy sticks in the same direction! Charge!
The real thing here is, all those examples were taking into account that we’re decent human beings and were going to be using this as a fair card. I won’t even talk about blinking effects in white and blue. Multiple reanimations in a turn when paired with black or storm strategies across the colour pie. I’m sure everyone can use their imagination. This card is bonkers. Especially at two mana.
That’s right folks. I think that this was the best card that the Commander format was gifted in 2019. Contrary to my initial review on episode ninety-eight of Commander Cookout Podcast, this card is the truth. It might be the best four mana, do nothing enchantment ever printed.
It’s comparable to Rhystic Study in blue, Black Market in Black and perhaps even Sylvan Library in Green. Smothering Tithe takes all conventional wisdom of the format and tosses them out the window. You have to pay four to cast it and even if nobody pays, you only will have made, base line, three treasures back when the game comes back around to your turn. So, it takes over a full turn cycle to pay for itself. On top of that, what if anyone pays? What if everyone pays? You might not ever go mana positive with this.
Just another white card on the list of inefficient, slow ramp. But, that’s not the case with Smothering Tithe because rarely do people pay two mana to keep you from getting one mana. Additionally, people draw extra cards all the time in Commander. Remember Narset from a few cards ago? Yeah, Tithe presents your opponents with a different, and equally devastating, sort of predicament. When they draw too many cards, they die because you’ll have a seemingly endless supply of mana as a result.
Smothering Tithe is a stupendous card. It unlocks mana for white like nothing else before it in the history of Magic. It’s an enchantment, so it fits directly into existing enchantress shells. It (potentially) taxes the opponents so it fits into control or Stax builds. It costs less to cast than green or black’s mana-doublers. A couple more cards like this and white will be well on its way to being a mono-colour that ought not to be reckoned with in Commander. A couple more cards like this is all it will take.
That’s the list. The ten best cards for the Commander format as theorized by me. I noticed that my list had seven cards that cost three mana (sort of) or less. If we ever take a trip back in time, it would be interesting to observe how the average converted-mana-cost of the top cards of the year has trended downwards. It’s all part of the format adapting to an ever-growing population of Magic players looking to build the best decks they can for any given level of competition and, of course, Wizards of the Coast wanting to service all types of Commander strategies. It’s not to say that the battlecruiser, giant hay-maker style of yesteryear Commander is in the rear-view mirror. It’s just an observation of mine that I’ve been continually making since the inception of Commander Cookout Podcast in 2017. It just means the format is an ever-changing amorphous blob of players trying to have fun while jamming hundies.
For anyone interested in a list of the top legendary creatures from 2019, sorry to disappoint. I figured a quick search online would yield plenty of decks and inspiration. Everyone likes what they like and will build decks as such, regardless of power level. Build what speaks to you. Make it fun. Just make sure you include some of my top cards from 2019 as a means to close out games.
Thanks for joining me again. Let me know what you think. About my top cards of 2019 and about my observations on the format as a whole. You can get in touch with me on Twitter @CCOPodcast and here on Facebook. You can listen to Commander Cookout Podcast wherever better podcasts are found or right here on Face to Face Games.