A Magictation by Mikeal Basile
“Magictating” is defined as getting into the zone with your Magic the Gathering collection–thinking, planning, organizing, reminiscing about past games, and imagining future games. It is a combination of hard thinking about the game and calm meditation, reveling in the joy it brings you.
Strixhaven is here, and what cards should be on your Commander format shortlist for each color, school, and rarity? What’s going to be the most fun to play in the most social format ever? Let’s find out. There’s some clear standouts and a few “sleepers” here, so I’d like to dig into this piece by piece. We’ll go through the best commons, uncommons, and rares/mythics by color. I’m going to focus on the uncommons and commons over the rares and mythics. The rares and mythics are usually pretty clear as to what decks and strategies they speak to, but the others hold the key to how much playable value is lurking beneath the surface.
White has some interesting cards in this set. Several Magic designers have openly stated that they are trying out new things for White, and whatever they throw at the wall and sticks is what they’re going with. For the sake of excitement there’s Secret Rendezvous. This is not Alan Seeger’s excellent poem, “I have a Rendezvous with Death”, but a secret card draw spell for white. It’s similar to Homeland’s Truce. You and an opponent each get to draw cards. You are spending a card to cast this, so you are being “disadvantaged” when compared to the opponent you are sharing the gift with. Perhaps that’s a good way for white to get card draw. It helps others while helping itself? It seems mostly on point. There’s certainly precedence for it. Meanwhile, the other white mechanic being attempted here is the one on Mila, Crafty Companion. This isn’t a monowhite cards, so it doesn’t get to be slotted into mono-white decks. That’s the biggest downside to this card. If it was something that could be jammed in any mono-white build, then perhaps we’d find out a lot faster how flavorful and effective a taxable draw is in a white deck. I suspect that this mechanic will fit nicely in white. There’s some precedence for white taxing other colors with cards as early as Karma, and more recent cards like Ghostly Prison. Seeing white get the taxable draw mechanic seems like a decent way to go. I’m certainly not opposed to white being able to do this. The last addition to white card draw is Introduction to Prophecy. Scry 2 and then draw card. Wait, that’s a colorless card you say. Well, my friends, I don’t expect a single mono-white deck in existence not to suddenly jam this in the 99. I’m not kidding. While other colors have other options for drawing cards, this is now one of white’s best options. To be blunt, Introduction to Prophecy will be everyone’s mono-white introduction to the philosophy of cycling through their decks and selecting the best cards for each situation. It’s a pricey cantrip, but the scry makes it worth it in a color so starved for worthwhile cantrips and card selection.
I love the not so great original Sea Serpent. I also enjoy modern takes on sea serpents like this new Wormhole Serpent. Wow, this going to be fun in an Arixmethes the Slumbering Isle or other sea monster build. Making giant sea monsters so slippery they are unblockable is very fun for their controllers. It might be painful for those dealing with the unblockable serpents. The best part of this is that it will draw removal away from the more serious threats that you have on the board. Wormhole Serpent makes all those random big creatures without evasion into terrifying game-ending beat-sticks. I’m so looking forward to sliding this one into a deck.
Speaking of playing for fun, Snow-Day is wonderful. I’m a teacher by trade, and I look forward to snow days more than my students. I cannot wait to cast this during my next snow day and declare myself an auto-winner for flavorful play of the day. Of course I’ll probably feel someone’s wrath shortly afterward. Feel free to keep one handy on snowy nights. Snow Day is no Ingenious Mastery (which is so silly good and silly flexible), but it really feels like a fun card to run. Meanwhile, Curate looks to be a fun card as well for sifting decks and reanimating strategies. Meanwhile, Multiple Choice, much like its real world counterpart seems so flexible and useful at first glance. However, it really is just another disappointing and limited tool. I wasn’t overly excited about anything mono-blue in this set. The MDFC cards that have blue in them, and the traditional multi-color cards with blue are definitely exciting. It’s nice to see that mono-blue isn’t getting all the love, but then again it really hasn’t for many years now. It seems to get the randomly or inexplicable powerhouse every now and then. I can’t help but point to cards like Hullbreacher or even the once hated True-Name Nemesis (who doesn’t seem quite so broken these days). Blue has some decent stuff lurking below the surface.
I’ve had my eye on Eyetwitch, and I’m just so happy to see another creature that can attack when I have my Evil Eye of Orms by Gor in play. That combined with Evil Eye of Urborg, and we’re inching closer to Sauron’s Evil Eye Tribal. Perhaps when the Lord of the Rings set releases we will get a Legendary Eye to helm that absurd deck. Keep your eyes peeled for those spoilers. Ok, sorry, I have the puns out of my system now. Anyway, Eyetwitch looks like great fun in reanimator strategies. It provides a sacrifice outlet for cards like Victimize while using the Learn mechanic to dump reanimation targets into the graveyard. Another grossly good common is Plumb the Forbidden. That card looks seriously strong in any tokens deck or anything running Gravepact. I have a feeling people will be plumbing the depths of despair with this seriously solid common. Crushing Disappointment feels like it won’t be as good as we hope it to be. Making everyone lose life while drawing two cards is decent, but I just don’t love leaving up four mana to draw two cards. Blue black decks will struggle to find room for this, and I doubt it will actually slot in, unless you just don’t have other alternatives in your collection. The best place for Crushing Disappointment will be life-loss decks, like Rakdos, Lord of Riots decks, and a few others of its ilk. Of course, it being an instant doesn’t mesh all that well with casting creatures unless you have your pall the Vedalken Orrery out. Now, Tenured Inkcaster looks grossly powerful for Marchesa builds. Any black and X deck boasting +1/+1 counters is slotting this thing in and stealing games with it as well. It’s a bit like casting an Overrun that doesn’t require you to actually deal the combat damage. If you go wide with this in a black white tokens and counters deck, then this card is a dangerous and powerful finisher. It laughs at Spore Frog and that Constant Mists that keeps being bought back. This is the type of uncommon I love to see, because it functions like a mythic rare in the right decks. As for Mage Hunter, I’m impressed with its hateful mechanic. It feels like a modern take on Ichneumon Druid. Granted this helps punish people doing more than just casting extra spells—you get to nail them for each copy they place on the stack. It feels like using Chain of Smog, Professor Onyx, Hive Mind, and Mage Hunter will be a Johnny Combo Player dream come true. Meanwhile, Unwilling ingredient might be the cutest and most flavorful one mana black creature since Blood Pet. I’m loving the design on that card. There’s a surprising depth of usefulness in black’s uncommons and commons. The problem is that the cards are really only good in particular archetypes and shine only when coupled with synergistic cards. I don’t really believe that’s actually a problem, but a pretty great thing. Don’t be afraid to plumb the depths of darkness in black’s Strixhaven offerings.
Red commons seemed less than exciting to me this time around. Sure, Heated Debate is neat in that it is uncounterable. Three mana for four damage at instant speed is an interesting version of Flames of the Bloodhand. I’ll probably skip running Heated Debate in just about every Commander deck I have. I struggled to find anything exciting in the red commons. The Blood Age General seemed neat in the right Boros builds, and that’s it. Oh, wait, I did notice a dragon card—Dragon’s Approach. That seems like a meme deck, and I fully expect several more versions of it to keep getting listed by people. This is a deck that demands some mathematics. I’m not super interested in building it, but I know I will. I have pages of red dragons just waiting to be cheated in with something other than Dragon Storm. I love that this card actually makes Spell Weaver Helix something that can be played in Commander. I had a sweet Crush of Wurms and Life from the Loam deck that I ran back when Ravnica first came out. I’m excited to build something with Spell Weaver Helix again. Imprinting Dragon’s Approach and Dragon Storm on that Spell Weaver Helix seems like a really fun thing to do in Commander. Spell Weaver Helix is a card that I’ve longingly looked at and wished I could find a way to abuse. Thankfully, the door is open, and dragons will be coming! Maybe I’ll try and do something gross with Balustrade Spy, Bladewing the Risen, and few other sneaky tools. This is another Johnny Combo Player beauty. It feels like this set was made for the combo player in us all. The red uncommons feel pretty narrow, and where the other colors seemed to have some real solid synergies that enabled a few of the cards to be worth serious consideration, I just don’t see it in red. Academic Dispute is maybe a cool and spicy combat tool? The rest just feel very clunky and not particularly exciting. Sorry red, but you’ve gotten plenty of love or should I say treasures, lately.
Green is usually gas. Green gets the most love in modern Magic, and I don’t think Strixhaven (the spells matter set) disappoints for the “creatures matter most” color. Before I speak about a couple neat creatures I’d like to say that the spicy life gain that green is seeing really harkens back to original green’s love for life gain. Stream of Life was the original big life gain spell, and it wasn’t until Alabaster Potion was printed that we got to see white take on a dedicated life gain role. Fortifying Draught (pronounced draft) is a sneaky and wonderful tool for life gain decks. I can totally see someone activating a wellwisher or sacrificing beasts to Ravenous Baloth to one shot someone out of nowhere with this. That’s the type of ridiculous play I love to see. Also, don’t forget that if your creature has lifelink and double strike you can cast this after the first strike damage is dealt, and then pump your creature for gross amounts of damage. Just a fun trick that was first pioneered by Umezawa’s Jitte users back in the days of Kamigawa block. Devouring Tendrils is no Tendrils of Agony. It’s OK, but it’s the type of conditional green creature dependent removal that can be OK, but can also just be utterly useless. To wrap up the spells I’d like to mention how nicely flexible Tangletrap is. Flier hate that hits most fliers that matter, and artifact hate for all those equipment that run wild on everyone. Blow up those swords or knock out those pesky angels with Tangletrap. Now for creatures the standout at common and uncommon is definitely Reckless Amplimancer. I mean elves definitely needed another two mana elf that scales grossly as the game goes longer, right? It’s a solid include in most elf builds, and a fine filler for early builders. Bookwurm is an intriguing card, but even though it replaces itself, I’m not sure I want to spend 8 mana on a 7/7 trample that draws me a card. It does have potential to be annoying, and so by replacing itself and gaining 3 life it could be a decent enough filler in decks that need card draw, big creatures, and perhaps cheap (monetarily inexpensive) reanimation targets. Overall, green leaves most of its grossly powerful cards for the set in the rare and mythic slots. However, overall, the cards are just more narrow.
Getting buffeted with “good-stuff” in every color set after set makes building decks a bit less exciting. However, when good cards show up for particular strategies, then we are allowed to brew and tinker and make our decks our own. So, I feel that despite seeing so many decent cards in the common and uncommons slots for reach color we actually have a decent quality set for Commander play. The rares and mythics are no exception to the design theory in this set. The set, as a whole, appears to be very mechanically driven. The cards in the set work very well when they are allowed to synergize with other cards. If you take most of the mythics and rares from this set and randomly slot them into decks of the appropriate colors you may find yourself disappointed when you draw them. When you look at the elder dragons you’ll see what I mean. They don’t just go in any deck running those colors. They either demand a deck built around them as the commander, or they require a deck that leverages the same mechanics and abilities that they possess or enable. This set is really a breath of fresh air for a standard set.
Most cards in the set are not good in a vacuum, and don’t slot into “good stuff” decks. That’s quite the accomplishment when you consider just how many cards a set like Throne of Eldraine allowed us to just toss into any deck of that card’s color. I could go on about each individual mythic and rare, but I’ll just wrap things up by saying that the cycles that were made in this set are a great example of what I’m talking about. I just touched on the elder dragons, but let’s look at the commands for each school.
Lorehold Command isn’t something that every Boros deck wants or needs to run. At five mana it’s a bit intensive, and it can work in go wide strategies, but not necessarily an equipment based build or even a more controlling build. The same thing holds true for the
Prismari Command. It really needs ways to take advantage of its abilities and finds itself at a competitive mana cost where there are mana three mana card draw and removal spells that make this thing seem just OK in builds that don’t leverage it to greater effect. Spell slinger decks or phoenix type strategies seem the best place for this particular command.
Quandrix Command feels like an odd-ball hoser card. It can punish people running enchantment and artifact spells and recursion. The other modes seem to be a little lackluster for three mana, but they do offer options, and options are a powerful part of Magic.
Silverquill Command is another mediocre offering for black and white builds. It does have some interesting options, but I’d like to point out that this spell is not an instant. It’s a sorcery, and at that speed it really feels a lot less appealing. I’m not saying it should have been an instant, because then it’s a much more powerful card. Yet, as is…well, it’s got options.
Witherbloom Command is the cheapest of the bunch at only 2 mana. It’s probably also the most limited of them all, and really seems like something most Commander decks will be totally fine not running. I mean it does have options, but a slew of poor choices adds up to a poor card. I’m not saying it won’t be good in other formats, but in Commander…well, I’m not enamored.
The best parts of this set are still great things for Commander—Mystic Archive and synergy focused mechanics. The Mystical Archive cards are wonderful. This is probably the best way we’ve ever gotten reprints. They appear in every booster pack, offer unique art, and help break up the monotony of cracking packs for a set. Old reprints and new cards in the same pack is the perfect way to cater to both new and established players. The Mystical Archive isn’t part of the main set, and it may sound like a slight to the set when I say it’s the best part. I don’t mean that the base set itself is awful for Commander players. It does have plenty to offer, but its offerings are more in line with what a Standard set should offer to Commander players. This set gives us mechanically focused cards that slot well into mechanically similar decks. There are cards that work great when they synergize, but fall mostly flat without support. This helps keep power creep from becoming power leap. Overall, Strixhaven is a set that is Standard legal, has great flavor, and offers Commander players interesting and unique tools. That’s great set design, and I hope that we see more sets like this in the future.