Superior Numbers – The Rise of the Supercommanders

Well, I’ve been afraid of changing

Welcome to Superior Numbers, where I conduct numerical analysis on cards and deckbuilding trends using just a little bit of math and a little bit less snark.

I was much happier when Wizards was ignoring EDH. Seeing 5 Commander 2020 decks announced on top of the Ikoria and Brawl decks fills me with such a sense of foreboding.”

That’s a quote from Jason Alt, some random guy on Twitter. Normally I wouldn’t post a link to a quote from someone so completely unknown like that, but in this case, this young upstart has made a pretty good point, as I also have a nagging sense of concern about Wizards of the Coast paying so much attention to my favorite format. It’s because I’m somewhat worried about the long-term impact of regularly printing strong, powerful, do-all-the-things-you-need commanders that permanently warp the meta around them and render existing cards obsolete. Before we look forward at the cards I’m talking about, though, let’s look back:

There is always going to be a ‘strongest’ commander, and in the early days of the format, these three were among boogeymen that tables feared and adults told children stories about to get them to eat their vegetables. “Finish your cauliflower, little Jimmy, or some guy in an ahegao hoodie is gonna show up on EDH night with an Arcum combo deck.”

I’m going to refer to these commanders (or really anything that was designed and released before Commander was a consideration) as the Phase 1 commanders (P1). As time passed, the shine wore off of these P1 Commander titans. They’re all still effective, but lots of things happened to change how they impact games. For starters, more efficient answers were printed, things like Nature’s Claim, Assassin’s Trophy, Toxic Deluge, and Teferi’s Protection. Additionally, the format as a whole adapted and evolved to threats in general by becoming more efficient and packing more interaction. Simply put, people just figured out how to play the format better.

Lastly, the threat they generated in a pod sometimes discouraged people from playing and brewing with them, making them less likely to show up at tables. Today Uril is only the 10th most popular Naya commander, Rafiq charts in at 7th in Bant, and Arcum is only the 18th most popular in mono-blue.

But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.

Later on, once WotC started releasing precons with commanders specifically built for the format, we got a whole new spread of similarly strong commanders. Kaalia could drop beaters into play for free and already attacking, Prossh was a one-shot robot that, unlike Rafiq, could also win with things like Impact Tremors or go wide with something like Beastmaster Ascension, and Ghave just accidentally went infinite with 90% of cards ever printed. I’ll refer to this swath as the Phase 2 commanders (P2). They were WotC‘s first attempts at cards designed specifically with Commander in mind, and, as such, they were intended to be effective in the format, as compared to the P1 commanders that were just accidentally effective.

As you would expect, by and large these P2 cards were good in EDH. Still, they all had visible weak spots, their own two-meter-wide thermal exhaust ports, and in the case of the three shown above, those ports took the form of requiring other cards in the deck to kick off. Kaalia needed cards in hand to do anything, and they were generally high-CMC cards that were a challenge to hard-cast without her. Prossh without Food Chain or Purphoros, God of the Forge has to get through a few times to kill with commander damage. Ghave needed… well, anything, but he still needed it.

They also didn’t really do anything that permanently altered the strength of your position when they entered, at least not without help. When Kaalia came down, if she didn’t have haste, you had a turn before she did anything. Yes, Prossh spat some bodies onto the field, but absent haste, neither they nor Prossh himself were threats to attack for a full turn, and while they lingered around even if Prossh was removed, they were still just 0/1s without some kind of anthem. Similarly, Ghave could kick out some small bodies the turn he came down, but doing so required mana, and it made Ghave weaker in the process.

I’ve lost plenty of games to both P1 and P2 commanders, and as I lie awake after EDH night pondering any changes I need to make for next week (something I actually do, which is both totally cool and 100% normal), the solution I always came up with was to try new answers for those particular commanders. After all, there were only a couple of these commanders that really stood out. Just make a few tweaks and deal with the problem next week. Easy peasy, can’t kill Squee-zy.

Been talkin’ ’bout the way things change

Enter Phase 3. I can’t entirely decide where this phase begins. It might start with Meren of Clan Nel Toth and Mizzix of the Izmagnus in Commander 2015, or it might start with Tatyova, Benthic Druid, Muldrotha, the Gravetide and Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain in Dominaria, or maybe somewhere in between, like the introduction of Partner and four-color commanders in 2016. Regardless, at some point there was a subtle shift, where not only were commanders being designed with the format in mind, but they began being designed to have all the things you wanted in one tidy package.

Almost every time, this took the form of drawing a card or gaining you resources for doing a thing you already wanted to be doing in that deck anyway. They also had the ability to permanently impact the board the second they showed up, and did so in a way that doesn’t really go away when you kill the commander. Additionally, they oftentimes impact the board in a way that makes recasting that commander trivial.

Take Kaalia of the Vast from the first Phase. She could come into play, drop a big Dragon or Demon or Angel, and set to beating face. That was a scary prospect, but if you wiped the board, all that went away. Now Kaalia costs 6 to try and do it again, then 8, then 10. Additionally, she needed you to have one of those three creature types in hand. Once she cheated in the one or two Dragons in the pilot’s hand, she’d be out of gas, and would need draw spells to help her reload. Kaalia may have been a problem, but she was a problem with a solution.

The same is basically true with the second Phase. Prossh, Skyraider of Kher remains a strong commander. Food Chain is the obvious combo, but there’re lots of ways to win with Prossh, from Impact Tremors and Purphoros, God of the Forge to Blood Artist or simple, old-fashioned Beastmaster Ascension. Prossh is strong, and almost gets stronger with each subsequent cast, but once stopped and forced to restart, the pilot needs to begin again. The Food Chain loop is self-sustaining, yes, but for the non-combo decks, once you kill a Prossh, its impact will rarely carry over to subsequent turns. It may enter and deal damage, but a board wipe is still a reset.

P3 commanders, though… they’re different.

Time may change me but I can’t trace time

P3 commanders generate advantage that’s permanent, tend to do it it in a way that doesn’t require one or two specific cards, and rarely need to wait a turn to do any of that. Chulane, Teller of Tales gets to draw and ramp just for casting a one-mana dork. Yarok, the Desecrated doubles up the advantage you’d already be generating from any creature in your deck. Tatyova, Benthic Druid gives you cards for just glancing casually around the room. Moreover, they often give you advantage in a way that makes recasting the commander a non-issue, whether from decks that encourage heavy ramp like Chulane or Tatyova, to doubled triggers that generate similar heavy ramp, like you’d see from Yarok. Golos, Tireless Pilgrim is yet another example, a commander who provides the resource that will both allow him to cast free spells and make it easier to recast himself later. (And don’t even get me started on Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath.)

They also render a lot of commanders in their color identity obsolete in a way we haven’t really seen before. Korvold almost accidentally fits into a Landfall strategy better than Lord Windgrace does, because of how common it is for Jund lands decks to already sacrifice lots of lands in the first place, which allows Korvold to draw more cards than Windgrace will, while simultaneously becoming a lethal evasive threat. I recently built a Jenara, Asura of War Angel tribal deck for my wife, and I’m fairly sure that, with zero changes, Chulane would just be better atop that deck. Even in decks built around a specific theme, some of these commanders are just better than a commander actually tied to that theme.

That’s also something we haven’t really seen before. It wasn’t just that a new commander came out that did a specific thing better than the one before it. No, these commanders seem to do all the things better than what came before them. For example, there are 105 legal commanders that have the words draw and card in their rules text, and 2/3 of them are P3-era commanders.

Now, change isn’t inherently a bad thing. It’s not inherently a good thing, either, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But good or bad, it’s a thing. We now have a significant number of strong, popular commanders that push you ahead out of the zone in a way we hadn’t really seen as prominently in the past. Mentally, my knee-jerk reaction to them is different as well. When I lost to a Kaalia of the Vast or Prossh, Skyraider of Kher in the past, I tried to think of ways to deal with the problem. When I see a Korvold, Tatyova, or Chulane deck go off, I walk away with one nagging concern: that the solution is for me to also pilot a P3 commander.

A change would do you good

So what’s the answer? I don’t know, honestly. Maybe there doesn’t need to be one. But I’m curious, and a little worried about where this all is going. There’s a perceptible difference between the cards we got before Wizards started paying attention to Commander, and the cards we’ve gotten after they started paying attention to it. As one completely unknown professor from some community college no one has ever heard of before once put it, “What will this format look like under Wizards’ rule? It’ll be unrecognizable, because every crackpot idea… that will sell boxes is going to be implemented by people who don’t even play real Commander….”

Change isn’t just coming; it’s already here, and the ripples are just beginning to spread.

What do you think? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em? Will the game just evolve to handle them, just like it did with the P1 and P2 commanders? Is winter coming? Sound off on the comments below.

Dana is one of the hosts of the EDHRECast and the CMDR Central podcast. He lives in Eau Claire, WI with his wife and son. He has been playing Magic so long he once traded away an Underground Sea for a Nightmare, and was so pleased with the deal he declined a trade-back the following week. He also smells like cotton candy and sunsets.