Too-Specific Top 10 – Vanilla

(Gray Ogre | Art by Dan Frazier)

Savoring the Flavor

Welcome to Too-Specific Top 10, where if there isn’t a category to rank our pet card at the top of, we’ll just make one up! (Did you know that Sivitri Scarzam is the only vanilla Dimir commander?)

There always seems to be a push in Commander toward the complex, and not always in a good way. Have you ever tried to resolve three copies of Arcbond on different creatures in the middle of a twenty-creature combat phase? How about navigating whether or not your It That Betrays actually dies to a Massacre Girl with Teysa Karlov initially in play? How about just plain trying to figure out what on earth Chains of Mephistopheles does by you know… reading it?

So I figured, why not take a break from all that this week? Why not celebrate the simple things about EDH by heading down into the archives, rustling around as best we can, and finding those cards that are the easiest to grok. Not because they’re intuitive, but because there’s not actually anything to get about them. They’re simple. Bland. Vanilla.

For those not familiar with the term, “vanilla” refers to cards in Magic that have, at most, flavor text on them. When you hear your friend across the table at the draft mumble something about a Gray Ogre or a Hill Giant, they’re talking about three-mana 2/2s and four-mana 3/3s, respectively.

These most basic examples of early creatures didn’t end with AlphaBeta, and Unlimited. They’ve continued on throughout Magic‘s history, gathering more and more examples of vanilla creatures with differing names, if not always differing power and toughness. This week, we’re going to find out what the best of these basic creatures is in EDH. However, there’s an immediate issue (as there always seems to be).


Bear Necessities

Let me be honest. I love Ayula, Queen Among Bears. You love Ayula, Queen Among Bears. We are all very happy to not only finally have a Bear commander, but one that is an appropriately costed two-mana 2/2 that is still able to make up for much of the Bear tribe not doing anything at all. She’s a gift to the Commander community at large, and I hope to see more Bears printed for her soon and forever.

All that said, she has made my job very difficult this week. Here I am, preparing for a top ten list on vanilla creatures in Commander according to their popularity on EDHREC, and what do I meander over and see all over said top ten?

Bears.

Bears!

 

Hordes of bears!

My number 10 card was Golden Bear. Nine was Bear Cub. Six gets filled in by Alpine Grizzly, then I kick Embereth Shieldbreaker out of the running to give my number five slot to Balduvian Bears. Runeclaw Bear then comes in at number four, with the granddaddy of them all taking the number three slot in the form of Grizzly Bears. There are a total of 23 bears in the game of Magic: The Gathering, and a full quarter of them are in my top ten list.

I couldn’t bear it. Something had to be done.


Top 10 Vanilla Creatures That Aren’t Bears (With Thanks to Ayula)

As always, we’ll begin our top ten list by going over the criteria for cards to qualify for it. In this specific case, you would think the concept of a “vanilla” card would be simple: a card without rules text. Well, may I present our number one card under that criteria, Dryad Arbor!

I don’t know about you, but this card was far from my mind when I thought of the best vanilla cards in Commander. Sure, the From the Vault version looks pretty darn clean, but even that has quite a bit of hidden text lurking in Gatherer, the least of which is the actual “add a green to your mana pool” that comes standard on every Forest. Then after that, there’s the original Future Sight version, which clunkily had to state that it was actually a green card. In short, for me at least, Dryad Arbor is much too complex to be a true vanilla card. As such, we’re gonna have to get a little bit more specific to really drill down on what we mean when we say “Vanilla”.

Criteria: Cards without text of any kind other than flavor text in their main text box (or any iterations thereof, Embereth Shieldbreaker), in any printing of said card. As is tradition, all results are ordered by EDHREC score.

10. Ancient Brontodon

(351 Inclusions, 0% of 137,403 Decks)

More than half of Ancient Brontodon‘s inclusions are courtesy of Gishath, Sun’s Avatar Dinosaur tribal decks, which shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

While eight mana for a 9/9 is a competitive rate, in most decks, eight mana for anything that doesn’t win the game is much too high of a cost. When you have a couple cost reducers and a bunch of ramp, however, it can be worth it in more casual or budget builds of Dinosaur tribal specifically, especially when you might luck out and not have to cast it at all with Gishath’s combat damage trigger.

9. Savannah Lions

(354 Inclusions, 0% of 129,945 decks)

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Savannah Lions has gone from being a chase rare from early in Magic‘s history to being largely a joke that is easily outpowered by modern rares and is often matched with commons and uncommons. Power creep has taken the once proud master of the pride and relegated it to an afterthought that sometimes gets a consolation inclusion in Cat tribal decks. Outside of Arahbo, Roar of the World and Brimaz, King of Oreskos decks, however, there is also a large percentage of inclusions in what appears to be right up our alley for this week’s top ten list: Jasmine Boreal Vanilla Tribal decks!

Granted, there are only 20 total Jasmine Boreal decks, but it does appear that she has become the primary representative for those of us that love a good vanilla creature. While it’s doubtful that vanilla tribal will catch on, much less be competitive, I do have to admit if I pulled up to a jank table and saw someone piloting it, it’d make me smile!

8. Grizzled Leotau

(401 Inclusions, 1% of 65,190 Decks)

And the inclusions for the Selesnya niche vanilla tribal keep coming! In addition to the predictable Jasmine Boreal and Arahbo, Roar of the World inclusions for this vanilla Cat, however, its large rear end also has Grizzled Leotau featured in toughness matters decks like Doran, the Siege Tower.

Unfortunately, Grizzled Leotau doesn’t quite make the cut in the most popular ‘toughness matters’ deck, helmed by Arcades, the Strategist, as it doesn’t draw a card for having defender. It turns out there’re only so many spots available for a truly vanilla creature, at least without a truly impressive rate.

7. Isamaru, Hound of Konda

(144 Decks as Commander, Rank #416; 267 Inclusions, 0% of 129,945 decks)

On the other hand, our number seven vanilla creature almost single-handedly defined an entire strategy in EDH for many a year. If you wanted to go Voltron and get to 21 commander damage as quickly as possible, Isamaru, Hound of Konda was the only one-mana commander option to do so for quite some time. Add in that it has better than Savannah Lions power and toughness back when that meant something, and Isamaru had the market cornered on low-to-the-ground options.

Fast forward to Dragons of Tarkir, however, and Zurgo Bellstriker hit the ground running, quickly followed by Kytheon, Hero of Akros later in the same year. Finally, Kaladesh brought us the cheap, colorless, and flying option of Hope of Ghirapur. Unfortunately, in this more crowded market, everyone’s favorite legendary pupper has suffered a bit, currently being the eighth most popular one-mana commander out of eight total options.

6. Watchwolf

(436 Inclusions, 1% of 65,190 Decks)

Continuing the Selesnya ‘Vanilla Tribal’ madness, Watchwolf actually makes the cut in 80% of the total Jasmine Boreal decks! That said, the majority of Watchwolf‘s 436 inclusions come from Wolf Tribal decks, specifically those helmed by Tolsimir, Friend to Wolves and Tolsimir Wolfblood.

Watchwolf debuted in the original Ravnica set, and at the time was yet another example of the evolution of power levels, being the first two-mana vanilla 3/3, a rate that had yet to be seen without a downside stapled to it.

In the years since, however, we have started to see the Cats trickle into this territory, with the printing of the strictly better Fleecemane Lion in the original Theros. Our recent revisit to the plane saw another addition to this Selesnya powerhouse of a family with the printing of Bronzehide Lion, making it less likely that we’ll be seeing aggro decks lean on the outdated body of Watchwolf unless it’s specifically for tribal considerations.

5. Yargle, Glutton of Urborg

(154 Decks as Commander, Rank #400; 437 Inclusions, 0% of 147,459 decks)

You might be familiar with the walking meme that is Yargle, Glutton of Urborg. Any card that gets that kind of attention immediately upon being spoiled will climb the ranks of Commander play fairly quickly. In the case of Yargle, this is even more impressive given its vanilla nature.

What may make the crowd at large a little bit less excited about their meme deck, however, is the fact that 78% of all Yargle decks feature our friendly neighborhood Infect enabler, Tainted Strike. Yargle’s very competitive rate of nine power for a mere five mana makes it almost impossible to say no to a single surprise attack to destroy target player… and honestly, I can’t even blame Yargle fans. Ten poison counters in a single strike is a spicy way to go!

4. Indomitable Ancients

(617 Inclusions, 0% of 129,945 Decks)

If you thought Grizzled Leotau‘s 1/5 body for a mere two mana was a good rate, then has Indomitable Ancients got the deal for you! However, while I may not agree with making room in a Doran the Siege Tower deck for the Leotau, I do think that on body alone our elderly Treefolk is worth it in not only Doran, but Arcades the Strategist toughness matters decks, too, which use not just Arcades but Assault Formation effects, as well. Being able to swing in for ten damage on turn four or five is pretty darn good, even if you don’t get to draw a card when it comes into play.

3. Gigantosaurus

(1,336 Inclusions, 1% of 137,403 Decks)

If you’re not happy with just having a huge rear end, then you can spend one more mana to get ten power, too! Of course, all five of the mana will have to be green, which is a pretty big restriction. Still, this unseen rate anywhere in the history of Magic has led to a lot of mono-green decks that care about power and toughness to seek out our friendly neighborhood Gigantosaurus.

In a Ghalta, Primal Hunger deck, for instance, Gigantosaurus‘s ten power immediately discounts Ghalta to a mere two mana, for double the gigantic Dinosaur fun! After all, I don’t think there’s a better Timmy/Tammy deal in Magic than seven mana for a total of 17 power and toughness. If you were looking to transfer that power and toughness into something a bit more useful in a world that may include blockers, however, then Selvala, Heart of the Wilds has it covered. While the initial draw you’re sure to get off of her enter-the-battlefield trigger isn’t as good a deal as you’d get with Rishkar’s Expertise or Life’s Legacy, being able to then tap Selvala for ten mana more than makes up for it.

Finally, if you were looking for something a little different to do with GigantosaurusTheros Beyond Death brought us Renata, Called to the Hunt. Getting five pips worth of Devotion will pump your commander, along with increasing your Devotion for everything from Nyx Lotus to Aspect of Hydra.

2. Phyrexian Walker

(1,650 Inclusions, 1% of 284,228 Decks)

For those of us that have been around long enough to remember Fruity Pebbles, there’s no need to explain the inherent power of zero-cost creatures. Aside from that deck’s abuse of Goblin Bombardment, there were many more Vintage builds that abused the likes of Kobolds of Kher Keep with things like Cloudstone Curio for infinite enter-the-battlefield or cast triggers as well.

As such, it might not come as a surprise that the most popular commanders for Phyrexian Walker are rather diverse, although the most popular in terms of sheer quantity is the infinite card draw engine you can make with Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain. It is worth mentioning that you still need to find something other than Cloudstone Curio and another zero-cost artifact to draw your entire deck, however, as Curio specifically states “nonartifact”. If you do find another means of returning creatures to your hand, such as Erratic Portal or Crystal Shard, then Teshar, Ancestor’s Apsotle can become quite the value engine. Does that seem like a lot of hoops to jump through for not much result? Sure! Which is exactly why it sounds like fun.

1 . Memnite

(2,377 Inclusions, 1% of 284,228 Decks)

If you’d rather have a little power for your zero-cost creature, however, then Memnite is actually your only option in all of Magic! Aside from being another zero-cost artifact to try to go infinite with Phyrexian Walker and to get you all of the Aetherflux Reservoir triggers, this also means that you could get triggers off of cards that care about power like Pandemonium. Given that Purphoros, God of the Forge already exists, however, it turns out that that’s not actually that useful most of the time.

What you may luck into a bit more routinely, however, is Skullclamp caring about Memnite‘s one toughness. Outside of that, you’re actually more likely to see Memnite in ultra-aggressive aggro decks, although I personally would call that a bit too aggressive.


Honorable Mentions

Right outside of the top ten we do have some rather interesting exclusions, some of which I definitely would have thought rated more reasons for inclusion than the likes of Ancient Brontodon.

11. Fusion Elemental
12. Field Creeper
13. Woolly Thoctar
14. Looming Altisaur
15. Kraken Hatchling
16. Metallic Sliver
17. Wicker Witch
18. Leatherback Baloth
19. Blade of the Sixth Pride
20. Expedition Envoy

Putting aside my personal feelings of offense at the mere existence of Expedition Envoy, I was actually surprised to see that more tribal options hadn’t made it into the top ten. Field Creeper and Wicker Witch specifically seemed like they would sneak into enough Scarecrow decks to really pump up their numbers, and I was actually under the impression that most Sliver decks actually did play a copy of Metallic Sliver, if for no other reason than how easy it is to make it completely free.

Putting tribal aside, the real exception here that I’m still trying to wrap my head around is Fusion Elemental. It is unironically a threat as a five-cost 8/8, and it turns on all sorts of cards that check for five-color shenanigans. Add to that that it is a 25-cent card, and I actually expected to see quite a bit more of it than 308 decks. I suppose we have gotten to the point where there are enough cheap five-color cards that you don’t actually have to stoop to a vanilla uncommon anymore.


The Bare Bones Bear List

I imagine that, for posterity, some will want to see the full list that does actually include Bears:

  1. Memnite
  2. Phyrexian Walker
  3. Gigantosaurus
  4. Grizzly Bears
  5. Runeclaw Bear
  6. Balduvian Bears
  7. Alpine Grizzly
  8. Indomitable Ancients
  9. Yargle, Glutton of Urborg
  10. Bear Cub

Why are Bear cubs the same size as Bears, anyhow?

It’s also worth mentioning that despite Forest Bear‘s epic meme status, it’s actually not very popular due to its Portal: Three Kingdoms price tag. It would come in at number 19 on this list, a eight full slots behind Golden Bear. That said, I know there is many an Ayula, Queen Among Bears player that is hoping to come across one in a trade binder, so if you happen to have a copy….


Top 10 Vanilla Commanders

With the Bear in the room out of the way, I should also mention that my initial inclination with this list was to go over the top vanilla commanders in the format. While this ultimately is an interesting list, it was really scraping the bottom of jank, as there’re only 13 of them total anyway, and the numbers involved are absolutely minuscule. Jedit Ojanen and Kasimir, the Lone Wolf actually tie at one deck apiece, being the 996th and 994th ranked commanders on either an alphabetic or algorithmic basis. The Lady of the Mountain comes in at a much more respectable 977th place, assumedly tied with many other old commanders who only have two decks to their name. These numbers improve somewhat once you get into the actual top ten list, but not by much:

  1. #400 Yargle, Glutton of Urborg, 154 decks
  2. #416 Isamaru, Hound of Konda, 144 decks
  3. #747 Jasmine Boreal, 20 decks
  4. #855 Barktooth Warbeard, 8 decks
  5. #869 Sivitri Scarzam, 7 decks
  6. #879 Tobias Andrion, 7 decks
  7. #892 Jerrard of the Closed Fist, 6 decks
  8. #910 Torsten Von Ursus, 5 decks
  9. #914 Sir Shandlar of Eberyn, 5 decks
  10. #952 Lady Orca, 3 decks

While it is sort of interesting to wonder about the reasons behind various vanilla commanders being more popular than others (especially when it comes to color combinations), ultimately the takeaway here seemed fairly simple and obvious to me. Given the more complex options available to Commander players, vanilla commanders just aren’t scratching the itch for the most part. Yargle got memed by the internet and has a high power for a low cost, which is actually something you can build around a bit. Isamaru is a great Voltron option for a low-to-the-ground mentality. The old Legends commanders, however, are by and large awful. Jasmine Boreal got a little bit of a bump based on vanilla tribal and being reprinted as a Timeshifted card in Time Spiral, but it’s not surprising that the numbers are bad given what we’re working with here.

There will always be a small corner of EDH players that want to be completionists or hipsters or both, and I do enjoy visiting that corner of jank every once in a while to admire their efforts. However, getting down to the level where you’re honestly trying to decide between Barktooth Warbeard and Lady Orca on any basis other than how funny their names sound is a bit too much, even for me.


What Do You Think?

Today I learned that there was such a thing as Vanilla Tribal, and that it even has a decided commander at the helm in the form of Jasmine Boreal! Outside of that rather niche build, however, how do you feel about vanilla creatures?

And finally, what vanilla creatures are your favorite? Are there flavor-text-only options out there that hold a special place in your heart or your decks?

Let us know in the comments, and we’ll see you at the plain table with the snacks. You know, the flavor table.

Doug has been an avid Magic player since Fallen Empires, when his older brother traded him some epic blue Homarids for all of his Islands. As for Commander, he's been playing since 2010, when he started off by making a two-player oriented G/R Land Destruction deck. Nailed it. In his spare time when he's not playing Magic, writing about Magic or doing his day job, he runs a YouTube channel or two, keeps up a College Football Computer Poll, and is attempting to gif every scene of the Star Wars prequels.