Commander Showdown is a series that compares and contrast two similar commanders, analyzes differences in strategy and deck construction, and evaluates how those differences are represented by the data here on EDHREC.
Aether Revolt introduced a handful of new Legendary creatures to EDH, such as Yahenni, Undying Partisan and Rishkar, Peema Renegade. Unfortunately (and probably due to the fact that these legends are all mono-colored), most of them have been relegated to part of the 99 in pre-existing decks, rather than leading new decks of their own.
Talrand has long been the commander of choice for counterspell enthusiasts. He has a handy little ability that creates a 2/2 flying drake for each instant or sorcery spell you cast. For control players, this makes the game plan pretty straightforward: counter all of your opponent’s threatening spells, generate a bunch of drakes, and peck away at enemy life totals.
It’s worth remembering, too, that Talrand makes a drake regardless of the mana cost of your spell. Whether your spell costs one mana or seven, you still get a 2/2 drake. This makes cards like Preordain and Brainstorm very appealing for a Talrand player; paying one mana to get a flying 2/2 that also lets you Ponder makes even the famous Tarmogoyf jealous.
However, a new challenger has arrived on the scene in the form of Baral, a commander who also clearly wants to play counterspells. Even some long-established Talrand players might be tempted to put Baral at the helm of their decks instead. Before you build either of these decks, it’s important to look at how these commanders’ strategies may vary, and Baral has some very important differences.
First, rather than give you creatures, Baral gives you a flat discount on your instant and sorcery spells. From this, we can assume those Brainstorms and Ponders Talrand loves to run are less effective in a Baral deck, since you won’t be taking advantage of Baral’s discount, and they also won’t give you a creature token. Rather than see tiny spells in a Baral deck, you’re more likely to see spells he can make tiny: turning a Cancel into a Counterspell feels pretty darn good, as does gaining mana off a discounted Rewind.
Second, Baral lets you loot every time you counter a spell. It’s a simple draw-and-discard, but it could have some big implications. Delve spells, such as Dig Through Time and Logic Knot look pretty interesting when your commander is putting cards into the graveyard.
There’s another implication this looting effect has on a Baral deck: looting may give you better card selection, but it isn’t necessarily card advantage. If you cast a counterspell and it’s the last card in your hand, looting has almost no effect, since you’ll discard whatever you draw. Thus, it’s pretty important for a Baral player to keep their hand full, so they have more options to discard when they do counter a spell. Instead of the cantrips of a Talrand deck, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Baral running a larger density of spells like Fact or Fiction and Stroke of Genius, to make sure his hand stays full.
The best way to compare these two commanders is with some data, so let’s take a look:
This is my favorite part of the Commander Showdown series. I’ve made a set of columns below to compare the Top and Signature cards for each deck, and to see which cards are played frequently in both decks:
|Talrand, Sky Summoner||Disallow||Baral, Chief of Compliance|
|Insidious Will||Jace’s Sanctum||Preordain|
|Void Shatter||Counterspell||Telling Time|
|Disdainful Stroke||Rewind||Think Twice|
|Docent of Perfection||Dissipate||Opt|
|Swan Song||Sapphire Medallion||Anticipate|
|Arcane Denial||Negate||Treasure Cruise|
|Mystic Confluence||Blue Sun’s Zenith||Pongify|
|Cryptic Command||Capsize||Into the Roil|
|Arcanis, the Omnipotent||Dissolve||Fact or Fiction|
|Mystical Tutor||Rhystic Study||Caged Sun|
|Curse of the Swine|
I don’t know about you, but the first thing that jumped out at me were the counterspells. If we look in the “Both” column, we see six, such as Negate and Disallow. That’s not surprising since we already knew both of these decks like to counter things. However, if we look at the counterspells in the individual columns, we get a very stark contrast:
Baral has nine.
Talrand has zero.
If you’re thinking about building a mono-blue control deck but can’t quite decide which of these commanders to pick, this is very useful information. Baral players are quite eager to get that looting trigger, so they tend to have a much higher counterspell density than Talrand. Since Talrand creates a creature no matter what kind of instant or sorcery he plays, he can diversify his spells a little bit more.
But more than just the sheer amount of counterspells, we should really take note of the types of counterspells these decks are running. Talrand runs cards like Negate and Rewind, which are either cheap or refund themselves, so he can cast more spells. He also plays counterspells with added bonuses, like Dissolve for the scry and Disallow for the utility.
But a few spells are conspicuously absent from Talrand’s list. Powerhouses like Mystic Confluence, Desertion, and Cryptic Command are at a mere 24%, 27%, and 25% popularity respectively for Talrand decks, but at least 50% for Baral. Why is this? You’d think both control decks would want to run them.
This is really where we see the effects of Baral’s mana-discount ability. Mana is a premium for Talrand players, who are hoping to generate multiple drakes per round if they can. Casting a five-mana counterspell could leave them tapped out and vulnerable. They’d rather leave their mana up for two cheap instants instead of one expensive one. Meanwhile, Baral can turn a mana cost of five into a mana cost of four, giving himself a little more leeway to run big spells and still leave mana up for other cheap instants. As a result, we see more basic counterspells in Talrand, rather than the famous and expensive ones. (Although for the record, I still think Mystic Confluence is flexible and powerful enough to justify running in a Talrand deck. But that’s just me.)
The Venn Diagram above does illuminate Baral’s biggest weakness, though. In his column, we see the card Propaganda, which isn’t found in Talrand’s. Talrand isn’t as pressured to play a defensive card like this, since he can easily chump-block with his drakes if need be. But if Baral fails to counter a huge threat, he’s quite weak on the battlefield, having little company to help defend him.
And while Metallurgic Summonings is in the “Both” column, Docent of Perfection certainly isn’t. These cards are a little redundant for Talrand, who makes creatures on his own, but Baral has to go digging to find a way to close out the game. This is most likely the reason that fewer than 150 Baral decks have been made on EDHREC, while Talrand has over 600; Talrand has a win-condition built in, while Baral has to go digging to find his. If you build Baral, make sure you include lots of powerful spells that will help you clinch a victory, because no one has the patience for him to deal 21 points of commander damage.
Before I move on from the Venn Diagram, I want to point out a few final things. I was apparently quite wrong in my prediction concerning Fact or Fiction and delve spells like Treasure Cruise, which both appear in Talrand’s column but not Baral’s. This felt strange to me, so I dug a little more, and while they didn’t show up in the Top cards section, they do have 41% and 43% popularity in Baral decks, respectively. I’d like to see that number go up, personally, because a Fact or Fiction for three mana just sounds dirty.
Lastly, it’s curious to note that removal spells like Pongify, Rapid Hybridization, and Reality Shift show up for Talrand, but don’t seem to be as popular for Baral. The most-played among them is Reality Shift, at 39% popularity, possibly because Baral’s discount ability applies to that card but not the others. I’d caution Baral players against skimping on effects like these; you have more counterspells than Talrand players, but you still won’t be able to counter every threat, so having those backups, even without the discount, can really help get you out of a tight spot.
After looking over the most frequently played cards in each of these decks, I can’t help but feel like there are some cards missing that should be more popular. I’ve got a few suggestions below:
It’s easy to take new legendary creatures and stick them into the 99 of an existing deck, but comparing new commanders against the old reminds us to stay on our toes, and to reevaluate deck archetypes that we might take for granted. Baral brings a neat new twist to counterspell decks, and I’m excited to see how he shapes up alongside Talrand over time.
I’m not, however, all that excited to play against either of them – at least, not without a few counterspells of my own.
Until next time!