Red and white are frequently admonished for their weaknesses in the Commander format. Both colors have limited access to mana ramp and card draw effects, which makes for a difficult time in a multiplayer environment. In 1-on-1 games like Standard and Modern, Red and White make up for this lack of late-game power with their speed, but in a multiplayer game, where your opponent doesn’t have just 20 life, but a combined total of 120, that speed is much less impactful. As a result, red and white have often been relegated to the bottom of the barrel, with little uniqueness to their name.
There is one aspect of their color pie that does shine through, however: equipment. Red and white have made a name for themselves as metallic masters. While Esper deals with metal bodies, red and white focus on metal they can carry, from Argentum Armor to Sword of the Animist. From Sram, Senior Edificer to Nahiri, the Lithomancer, white has especially made a name for itself as an equipment master. One of the most famous white equipment commanders is Kemba, Kha Regent, which held its position as the #1 most-built mono-white commander for a very long time.
Kemba famously creates Cat tokens for every equipment attached to her, but now there’s a new guy in town who makes Elementals instead of kitties. His name is Valduk, Keeper of the Flame, and he’s a new Dominarian commander who packs quite a punch.
Both of these commanders make tokens, but with wildly different payoffs. How do the Cat tokens compare to the Elementals? How does white’s equipment support differ from red’s artifact synergies? Let’s find out on today’s Commander Showdown: Equipment Edition.
Let’s begin with Kemba. With 631 decks below her belt, she’s established quite the name for herself. A Stoic 2/4 for three mana, she creates a 2/2 Cat at the beginning of your upkeep for every equipment attached to her. Suit her up with a Swiftfoot Boots, Loxodon Warhammer, and Sword of Vengeance onto her and you’ll be making a feral army in no time.
Right off the bat I should note that Kemba promotes a somewhat peculiar strategy. Making tokens is powerful, but it is somewhat disconnected from other “Voltron” decks, such as Sigarda, Host of Herons or Uril, the Miststalker. Usually we see decks power up a single creature and use it as a battering ram, almost to the point of excluding any other creatures in the deck whatsoever. The Voltron commander is so powerful that no other creatures need even be present.
Kemba asks us to give her tons of equipment, and rewards us with more creatures. There’s a slight division of labor here; we want Kemba to go as tall as possible, becoming singularly powerful—but we also want to go wide with all the Cat tokens. They’re somewhat mixed signals, as if the deck is pulling in two separate directions.
By no means does this mean Kemba is bad. She defies the expectations of a typical Voltron, and as a result, gets around many of the weaknesses of a Voltron strategy. A sacrifice effect like Grave Pact can totally undo the lonesome Rafiq of the Many, but Kemba has Cats for sacrifice fodder. A Voltron can be outnumbered by an army of tokens, but Kemba mitigates her vulnerability by creating one of her own. While other Voltrons must devote their attack phases to a single player, knocking him or her down with Commander Damage, Kemba can attack multiple players at once, killing one with Commander Damage and another with an army of tokens.
This is all good in theory, but how does it play out in practice? Let’s take a look at her Average Decklist to find out.
There’s some excellent stuff happening here. I’m particularly impressed to see that every member of the Sword of Feast and Famine cycle appears in the Average Deck. These cards are extraordinarily expensive, which usually prices them out of most players’ grasps, but since Kemba is a native to Mirrodin that definitely helped folks that built her get a hold of those fantastic equipment. Each one of those swords packs a punch, and better yet, protects your commander in ways that even shroud or hexproof can sometimes miss.
Not everyone can afford those equipment though, and thankfully, Kemba doesn’t care how flashy her equipment is, just that she wields any at all. To that end, some excellent cards show up here for the budget-minded among us; the new Dowsing Dagger is a treat, and Masterwork of Ingenuity is mighty flexible. Hammer of Nazahn is fantastic, cheating past equip costs and making Kemba indestructible to boot. My personal favorite is Bloodforged Battle-Axe, which makes copies of itself and gives Kemba even more tokens.
Easily the most impressive pieces of her deck are the equipment support cards: Stoneforge Mystic, Stonehewer Giant, Steelshaper’s Gift, and so many other cards will give you the precise equipment you need in any situation. If Karlov of the Ghost Council is breathing down your neck, run and find your Sword of Light and Shadow. Is a wall of blockers in your way? Fetch Whispersilk Cloak. White’s color pie is known for order and structure, stagnant almost to a fault, but here, it offers a welcome degree of versatility.
Kemba isn’t what I’d call a token deck, or even a Voltron deck. She’s what I’d call a Snowball deck. Her first turns will result in one or two Cats, and she’ll be respectably powerful in those early turns as well, able to dish out some clean hits with a sword or two. As the game progresses and more equipment come her way, she’ll make more and more tokens. Left unchecked, she’ll produce such a number of tokens that your opponents might not be able to catch up.
Unfortunately, this Snowball status carries with it an unfortunate reality: your commander is rarely ever left unchecked. Most commanders snowball into unstoppable value, which is exactly why we play so many removal spells like Chaos Warp and Swords to Plowshares. Kemba picks up steam over time, but if she falters, she falters hard. A single Day of Judgment can set her back in ways many other commanders don’t have to deal with. Sure, she’s inexpensive to cast a second time, but re-equipping all those equipment can be time consuming and mana-intensive. You won’t always have a Puresteel Paladin to help you cut costs. Worse still, one Vandalblast can really put you out of business.
Mono-white presents a litany of challenges, and unfortunately, another is budget. Kemba’s deck is not exactly a budget option for most folks. Good equipment cards alone can cost a lot of money, and even the support cards can demand a high price tag. If you’re going to sink money into a deck, you want it to be good, and so far all I’ve done is talk about Kemba’s weaknesses. She’s a strong character, but her deck can be fragile.
So what’s the takeaway here? Well, it’s certainly not to let a curmudgeon like me tell you not to play a deck you enjoy. Rather, I’d like to suggest that Kemba has some learning to do. Kemba decks were forged in an equipment heyday, but now that Commander has adapted and grown, she needs to learn to adapt and grow with it. Some of the old philosophies aren’t cutting it anymore, which is why Sram, Senior Edificer recently eclipsed her as the #1 mono-white deck of all time.
What lessons do I think she needs to learn? I’m glad you asked. Before we can get to them, we need to get to know our new friend, Valduk.
Valduk, Keeper of the Flame differs from Kemba in many ways. Most obviously, he’s Red instead of White, which presents an entirely different set of strengths and weaknesses to Kemba. He also creates temporary 3/1 creatures, instead of permanent 2/2s. However, he makes those tokens at the beginning of combat instead of your upkeep. In addition, they have trample and haste, which makes them quite a bit faster than Kemba’s steady-as-she-goes token production. Lastly, Valduk can create tokens not only for each equipment attached to him, but also each aura, such as Dragon Mantle or Cartouche of Zeal.
Right off the bat, this opens some crazy new doors. While Kemba must cast and equip her Loxodon Warhammer for a total of six mana before she produces a single Cat token, Valduk can create a 3/1 Elemental with only one mana by using Messenger’s Speed. Naturally, these auras will be lost permanently if Valduk ever leaves the battlefield, but if you need a quick burst of damage, Valduk knows how to deliver.
However, Valduk loses access to Kemba’s most valuable asset: aura and equipment support. While red has a great many artifact strategies, especially with Daretti, Scrap Savant, it’s less experienced than white when it comes to Enlightened Tutor effects.
Valduk is not without his wiles, however. Let’s take a peek at a potential deck for this uncommon Legend and see what he’s got at his disposal.
I’ll get this one out of the way: Skullclamp with Valduk’s tokens is insane value. MVP of the deck, not even close. In general, I tried to include mostly cheap equipment. Not “this is broken” cheap or “this is an inexpensive card” cheap, simply ones that didn’t cost a lot to play and equip. I’m less interested in making Valduk the star of the show and more interested in making a lot of tokens, so cheap auras and equipment help pump them out a lot faster. That being said, I really like Bravado, a card I think should see much more play in Tana, the Bloodsower decks. Every handful of tokens makes your commander much harder to kill in combat.
Looking past the attachments, red gives us lots of rewards for getting multiple creatures at once. Purphoros, God of the Forge is famous for the amount of damage he can deal, but his little sister Impact Tremors can be formidable as well. In the Web of War and Ogre Battledriver are potent too, powering up your trampling Elementals. You can even stack the power-up triggers with Warstorm Surge, to make sure your tokens deal 5 damage upon entering the battlefield instead of 3.
Valduk’s tokens only stick around for one turn, but this restriction is frankly refreshing. It reminds us not to let anything go to waste. Not only are there tons of equipment and auras in the above decklist, but there are also tons of cards we can use to take advantage of our tokens before they leave.
Sundial of the Infinite can be used to keep the tokens around. Once your End Step hits and the “exile me” trigger goes on the stack, you can use the Sundial to immediately end the turn, eliminating the exile clause and keeping the tokens for good.
If you can’t keep your tokens, you can toss them instead. Goblin Bombardment will push through some extra damage. Ashnod’s Altar can turn them into more mana for your equipment. A new favorite of mine is Spawning Pit, which can actually create more tokens for you later, re-triggering your Purphoros and Warstorm Surge. The Elementals are going away anyway, so we should use them up before they leave.
PS: Valduk triggers on every combat step, so Relentless Assault, get on in here! You can generate a ton of tokens this way, and attack again with your previous army. Extra combat steps can already throw folks for a loop, but in this deck, Relentless Assault is like casting Second Harvest.
Kemba and Valduk tow a very peculiar line between a “go tall” Voltron and a “go wide” token strategy. This offers them some great versatility; as the pilot, you have to choose whether you’d like to tune your deck more towards a Voltron or more towards your tokens. Is your best card Stoneforge Mystic, or is it Cathars’ Crusade? Are you happier to see Godo, Bandit Warlord to fetch your favorite equipment, or are you more excited to draw Shared Animosity to power up your tokens?
These are the lessons I think Kemba needs to learn from Valduk. Valduk reminds us the power of a low mana curve. Red and white thrive in other formats because of their speed, and that’s something he’s able to emulate. Kemba can benefit from many of the same philosophies. Additionally, Valduk is willing and able to use his tokens as a resource, which is probably a thing Kemba should learn to do as well.
I’ll get to some specific examples in a moment, but the primary lessons are these: First, lower your mana curve. After a board wipe, Kemba’s commander tax isn’t a real problem, but re-equipping certainly is. Err toward equipment that cost a minimal amount to attach to your commander. In other words, play less Argentum Armors. Sure, Brass Squire can help attach it for free, but you won’t always have those free-equip effects.
Second, Kemba shouldn’t be afraid to use her tokens as a resource. Spawning Pit isn’t just good in a Valduk deck, it’s good for Kemba too. If you want to commit to a token strategy, truly commit to it; Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite has little to do with equipment, but it’s a house for your opponents to try and deal with.
Finally, my last piece of advice is to hold out. This is probably the most bizarre thing I’ve said so far, but I genuinely mean it: wait a bit. Mono-white’s greatest strength is the support it can provide to equipment strategies, but we’re not yet at critical mass. In the past few years we’ve seen Hammer of Nazahn, Sigarda’s Aid, Danitha Capashen, Paragon, and several more. Stoneforge Mystic and Puresteel Paladin are getting more friends in the 99.
Just as we saw with Etali, Primal Storm, Wizards of the Coast is designing ever more with an eye towards Commander, and is giving both red and white more room to breathe in the format. With each new product, we get more Sram, Senior Edificers and more Open the Armorys. It may take some time, but the weaknesses of these colors are being examined, and their strengths are being expanded.
Kemba is a solid commander already, but as time goes on, I expect to see a lot more toys coming her way. Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons and Sliver Overlord only get upgrades every few years, when -1/-1 counters or tribal synergies become a primary focus, but Kemba will improve with every single set. That’s the kind of thing I like to see in my commanders.
If you ask me, red and white are on the cusp of a Commander Renaissance. Kemba is a unique Voltron/Token/Snowball among her peers, and like a fine wine, she’s only going to get better over time. As for Valduk, he’s doing exactly what red does best: shocking us out of our complacency and reminding us to reevaluate our preconceived notions about the format. In both cases, I’m very excited to see what the future has in store.
To wrap up, I’ve got a handful of cards that I think deserve to see more play for both commanders. Take a look:
As I mentioned before, both red and white seem to be to be undergoing a shift for Commander. We’ll discover what’s in store soon enough, but for now, we have some pretty fascinating commanders like Kemba and Valduk. While there are some weaknesses to these colors in a multiplayer format, Kemba and Valduk nonetheless have made a name for themselves. I expect we have a lot to learn from them in the coming years, just as they have a lot to learn from each other. Keep your forge lit, and your hammer ready. Whether Cat or Elemental, may your army be well-equipped for the coming journey.
So, which of these commanders would you rather build? Which commanders should have a showdown next? Cast your votes!
Til next time!