Weapon of Choice – Early Christmas; Part 1

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Those of us who play Commander are lucky – we get an early-winter payout regardless of our holiday inclinations. Whether or not we celebrate Christmas, a whole lot of goodies come our way in mid-November. The release of the annual Commander product is an occasion that anyone with great taste in MtG can appreciate.

When the hype about the Commander decks starts (usually with the previews), a wave of articles and opinion pieces crests over the Magic online community. Everyone brews sweet decks and speculates on which Commanders won’t lead to such sweet decks.

Personally, I like to take my time forming opinions about the new cards until after I have had the chance to play with, and against, them. I’ve had that chance, brewed a sweet deck of my own, and I figure it’s probably safe to do my review of Commander 2015.

There is a lot to talk about in this year’s release, so I have decided that I am going to launch another three-parter. This first installment will tackle the A-list Commanders and experience counters. So, let’s get started.

An Unforgettable Experience

Like emblems and poison counters, experience counters interact directly with the players of the game. They are a quantity designed to matter with the five headlining Commanders of this year’s product.

At this point I can safely say that experience counters are friggin’ sweet. Games within games have always appealed to me, and playing “collect the experience counters” is exactly the kind of thing I want to be doing during Commander games. For those that might not appreciate the extra depth but still enjoy winning, the pay-off for successfully accruing the counters is awesome.

Even if you think tracking the counters is a pain, reaping the rewards will make you forget all about the added bookkeeping.

As always, I have a soft spot for things that add accessibility to Commander, and the experience counter Commanders are great for newbies. Each of them plainly spells out the kind of cards you want to be using with them. Got the Daxos deck? Grab as many enchantments as you can. Ended up with Ezuri? Get your hands on some good little creatures.

By being both intuitive and powerful, these new Commanders are the perfect starting point for players interested in exploring a strange, new format.

Counter-Arguments

Okay, now that all of that effusive praise is out of my system – I can focus on some shortcomings.

Despite what I may have just written, I don’t thing the experience counters were a total home run.

For two of the five Commanders, collecting experience counters is just a formality, and if things are going right, the number collected by the end of the game will be too large to bother counting. If things are going right, your deck is not going to have to worry about a dearth of counters because there is very little your opponents can do to stop you from obtaining them.

What I am trying to say is: for two out of the five Commanders, there is a point that can be reached at which experience becomes a non-mechanic; leveraging power from the counters ceases to be a goal, and simply becomes par for the course.

This threshold – the point at which you could basically mark your experience with a little ‘infinity’ symbol – wouldn’t be a problem if all five Commanders could reach it.

My issues with experience counters basically boil down to a lack of balance. If you are playing Mizzix of the Izmagnus there will come a point during the game where your spells will only cost coloured mana; and if you’re playing Meren of Clan Nel Toth, there will be a time wherein anything in your graveyard will enter directly into play at the end of your turn.

Meanwhile, if you have selected Kalemne, Daxos, or Ezuri, you will always be wondering if you’re going to collect enough counters to make them count.

The Main Attraction

Now that I have addressed the good and the bad of experience counters, let’s look at the Commanders themselves. Despite the dour proclamation that ended my last section, I should say: all of these Commanders are sweet – some of them just require a little more effort to be as sweet as possible.

Since I have developed strong opinions of each of them, I am going to be rolling upwards. We’re going to start with my least favourite design and end with the coolest Commander of the bunch:

Mizzix of the Izmagnus

Mizzix of the Izmagnus

Mizzix is powerful – there is no denying that – and I loves me some spell-slinging, but we’ve seen the “blue/red spell-slinger” archetype before; the kind of blue/red decks that care about Storm count and leaving mana up between turns are everywhere. Seeing Wizards double-down on their commitment to blue/red as the colours of instants and sorceries felt, to me, like a bit of a let down.

And I will admit that my opinion of Mizzix is greatly influenced by my own soiled expectations.

What was I hoping for instead? Well, I was a member of the internet chorus clamouring for a blue/red artifact Commander – not because I wanted to play it, but because I wanted to see the archetype properly cemented.

I guess we’ll just have to wait for the story to head to Kaladesh.

Anyways, let’s talk about actually using Mizzix:

She’s a very powerful spell-focused Commander. It can be tempting to jam all of the coolest, biggest spells you can find into a list led by her, but doing that will lead to an unwieldily and awkward deck. A better plan is to curve the spells you include so that you can gradually ramp into your finishers.

Mizzix’s pre-con comes with the perfect finisher for a deck modeled around her: Mizzix’s Mastery. Working towards using the little goblin’s big trick to end the game is likely the simplest road to a successful Mizzix deck.

Rather than turn this article into a detailed deck-tech for each of these Commanders, it’s probably better if I give you a few cards that came to mind when I saw each one. Here are my stream of consciousness picks for Mizzix:

Mind’s DesirePast in FlamesGuttersnipeSphinx-Bone WandTurnabout

Kalemne, Disciple of Iroas

Kalemne, Disciple of Iroas

Funnily enough, Kalemne is the only one of these Commanders that I have actually used myself – and she was a blast to play. The Disciple of Iroas is fun because attacking is fun. However, just because I enjoyed myself playing with her doesn’t mean that I was enamored forevermore.

Kalemne – much like Mizzix – is more of the same. While she puts the emphasis on playing big creatures instead of the small ones that are usually red/white’s bag, she still places the emphasis on playing bodies and turning them sideways; in other words, she is doing exactly what every red/white legendary creature has done before.

You know what a cool card is? Blaze Commando. I would have loved to have seen a Commander riffing in that design space. Or maybe something focused on exploring the applications of Deflecting Palm and similar effects. There is room to grow in red/white and sadly Kalemne is just design splashing in the same puddle it always does.

That said, she is a perfectly functional Commander that can be built in a couple of different ways.

Having played with her myself, I can tell you that Kalemne is a slow roller. While some of her experience counter compatriots are explosive right out the gate, Kalemne needs time to wind up. But, once she is ready to go, she just starts squishing people.

The first Kalemne build that speaks to me would be a Voltron. Spend your early turns laying down equipment, call up Kalemne, and then start playing your big guns that give her additional buffs – things like Aegis Angel, Victory’s Herald, and Moonveil Dragon.

The second build would be an all-in, big creature Stompy. Run out the likes of Ghostly Prison and Norn’s Annex to stop people getting in your grill, and then bring out friends like Magmatic Force and Akroma, Angel of Wrath. In other words, make Kalemne one of a selection of terrible threats.

My recommendations for where to start would be:

Champion’s HelmUrabrask the HiddenConduit of RuinBattlegrace AngelSteelshaper’s Gift

Ezuri, Claw of Progress

Ezuri, Claw of Progress

Oh man, if I built an Ezuri Commander deck, it would be called “Clawgress”.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let’s talk about this card.

Ezuri was actually my top pick of the new Commanders when I first saw him. I liked the idea of turning the small, value creatures of blue/green into an advantage in combat and then using something like Triskelion to win the game.

And then I took a look at the EDH sub-reddit. Sage of Hours! Infinite turns! Infect! Immediately people realized how easy it would be to abuse Ezuri and the hype in my soul died away.

He – like Mizzix and Kalemne before him – falls into a common trap for his colour combination. In this case, it is the curse of the blue/green clones.

No matter what, it seems like blue/green Commander decks always end up playing a very similar selection of cards. Crack open most of their shells and you will likely find Prophet of Kruphix, Deadeye Navigator, and some sort of plan to win with Laboratory Maniac. This uniformity comes from the high calibre of cards that are created when blue and green play together, and it just so happens that Commander is the perfect format for those play dates.

I think Ezuri is a super-cool design, but he isn’t iconoclastic enough to escape the looming shadow of the “green/blue good stuff”.

But, I’m not here to judge, if he still floats your boat (which I would totally understand), here are some sweet things:

TriskelionFable of Wolf and OwlOoze FluxGive // TakeSoul’s Majesty

Meren of Clan Nel Toth

Meren of Clan Nel Toth

My partner, Vanessa, has a Meren deck. She smashed the pre-con together with an older Jarad list she didn’t play anymore. I have played against her new deck a few times, and by the end of our games, it always seems like we should make a custom dice with a little infinity symbol on it and place it on her experience counter marker.

Meren has a very easy time accumulating experience counters. What she uses those experience counters for are endless possibilities. I am a very big fan of endless possibilities.

While Meren is the primary cause of the power imbalance between the experience Commanders, she is also a very elegant design. She takes advantage of black/green’s emphasis on the graveyard in an open-ended way. Basically, you can design whatever black/green deck you want and she will help to make it better. Placing an emphasis on sacrificing creatures like Eternal Witness to effects like Birthing Pod will usually be the most powerful way to go about things, but if you choose to build with Meren, there are very few restraints on what you can do.

Rather than run through a list of recommendations, I am going to show you Vanessa’s list, as it will give you a pretty good idea of where you can take a Meren deck:

Vanessa’s Meren of Clan Nel Toth

Daxos the Returned

Daxos the Returned

Daxos is, in my opinion, the coolest experience counter design. He pushes your deck in a specific direction, while still giving you room to experiment.

One thing is certain: you’re likely to be playing enchantments with him. Beyond the inevitable enchantments, where do you go? Do you focus on auras and buff your Commander with things like Spirit Mantle and Ethereal Armor? Or do you play a bunch of Oblivion Ring effects, throw up a Sphere of Safety, and use your tokens to attack for the win?
Whatever job you decide to give your enchantments, having the ability to generate creatures at instant speed is a powerful one – especially if they are large creatures. Combining Daxos’ eidolon tokens with something like Altar of Dementia or Angelic Chorus will make them very impactful and require your opponents to be wary of the mana you have left up.

I find Daxos to be open-ended in a way that the others are not. He gives you the encouragement of a basic direction, and then leaves the rest up to your imagination, the only way he could be better is if he had some green in his colour identity.

But, even without it, there are some cool things you can do:

Sphere of SafetyCage of HandsMartyr’s BondFlickering WardCloud Key

Getting Paid in Experience

Now that I have finished sharing my strong opinions on the internet – like any self-respecting millennial – I can wrap this first article up.

I am very impressed with this year’s Commander product. While I was initially lukewarm about the decks and Commanders, they have grown on me; having the chance to play with/against them solidified my approval. I like experience counters, I think the decks are well-balanced, and I think that Wizards exploring what is possible in Commander-specific design space is a good thing for the format.

Next time, we’ll find out if my positive feelings about C15 will survive an in-depth look at the second-string Commanders.

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