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Commander 2021 Set Review – Commanders, White, Blue and Black

With the last few sets, I’ve included the cards from associated Commander decks in the set review, but since this is a full-fledged release with five decks, it’s time for a review of Commander 2021. With 81 new cards in the set, there’s a lot to talk about, and I’m interested to hear your evaluations in comparison to mine! For my ratings, I don’t use numbers or grades – I use this more subjective scale:

 

Header - Ratings Scale

  • Commander: You want this card in the command zone at the start the game. Its best use is to lead the charge as the cornerstone of your deck, but it can probably fit into your 99 as well.
  • Build-Around: This card can be a huge player in the theme of your deck. It either enables the theme by itself or is something you’re looking to take advantage of over the course of your ideal game. It’s probably worth dedicating other slots in your deck to cards that work with a build-around.
  • Powerhouse: This card’s not really about synergy, but it’s good all by itself.
  • Role Player: This card might not be the cornerstone of a deck list, but it’s an important part of the engine or strong enough on its own to merit potential inclusion. This category also covers cards that look good enough to try out but don’t seem like obvious winners.
  • Tech Card: Counterplay is important, and if a card doesn’t fit into one of the above categories but is good enough at countering other strategies, it’ll be included here.
  • Niche Inclusion: This card might make your deck if you have a deckbuilding restriction, whether it’s self-imposed based on theme, a power level consideration, or a card availability concern. 

As a reminder, my focus is on social Commander rather than competitive EDH. That means you’ll be hearing about cards largely from that more relaxed perspective. My goal when playing Commander is for everyone to have fun but also for me to have a good shot at winning the game, so if that’s your mindset as well, these ratings will probably resonate with you. I won’t be reviewing reprints, so you can just assume I feel the same way about Angel of Serenity as I did before we found out it was in this set. When you inevitably disagree with a rating, please feel free to tweet at @RagingLevine with your thoughts!

 

Header - The Commanders

Breena, the Demagogue

Rating: Commander

Obviously, when you play a commander like Breena, you have to be cognizant that you’re giving some value away. That said, if you can consistently use counters better than your opponents can use a single card, this is a solid call, and when you’re the one attacking, you’ll be reaping all the advantages. Amplify the counters with proliferate effects as well as cards like High Sentinels of Arashin or Elite Scaleguard that key off counters – or spend them with something like Retribution of the Ancients. You can also manipulate life totals with something like Armistice if you want to encourage a particular player as a target!

Felisa, Fang of Silverquill

Rating: Commander

I’m particularly interested in how this card synergizes with Basri’s Lieutenant and other counter enablers, but don’t underestimate the role of Shaile, Dean of Radiance // Embrose, Dean of Shadow alongside Felisa. Shaile can pump up new nontoken creatures or a newfound Inkling army, and Embrose can help keep the engine running. Either way, turning your Hangarback Walker into a terrifying board presence shouldn’t be tough.

Veyran, Voice of Duality

Rating: Commander

There are a few angles here – prowess is one of them, but I’m partial to Young Pyromancer, Murmuring Mystic and other spellslinger synergies. Of course, Sphinx-Bone Wand is a fun option too, and I’m excited to see how this plays with Beamsplitter Mage, Zada, Hedron Grinder and yes, even Ral, Storm Conduit.

Zaffai, Thunder Conductor

Rating: Commander

With the number of 10 or more mana value instants and sorceries being as low as it is, Zaffai primarily asks you to cast and copy X spells. You’ll need a lot of mana ramp to get the engine going, and that ramp will fuel cards like Doublecast that help you lower the average mana spent per 10 damage trigger. Of course, if your group doesn’t mind cards like Thousand-Year Storm, all bets are off.

Gyome, Master Chef

Rating: Commander

Cards like Beast Whisperer that allow you to fly through your deck at high speed enable a much higher rate of Food gain, and casting your creatures at instant speed using Vivien, Champion of the Wilds or similar will allow you to generate Food at multiple points in the turn cycle. The Food can be used to fuel a life gain theme or provide some sacrifice synergies – either way, make sure to bring your Feasting Troll King and other food-related cards along.

Willowdusk, Essence Seer

Rating: Commander

Willowdusk works pretty slowly without some help from cards like Thousand-Year Elixir or Magewright’s Stone, but if you can get some untap/tap again action going, you’ll be in business – at least, as long as you can gain plenty of life! It’s actually easier to lose life on command with cards like Wall of Blood, but adding counters to a Spike Feeder could really help you go off in a future turn. All in all, Willowdusk supports an exciting mix of themes and will reward careful deckbuilding.

Alibou, Ancient Witness

Rating: Commander

Flooding the board with tokens is the best way to get big hits out of Alibou, so generating a steady stream of them with cards like Loyal Apprentice and Genesis Chamber is one option. A burst approach with cards like Shrine of Loyal Legions is also possible, but honestly, the artifact creature token options in Boros are pretty few and far between. 

Osgir, the Reconstructor

Rating: Commander

Powerful artifacts with ETB abilities like Spine of Ish Sah are solid with Ogsir, and big mana cards like Nyx Lotus can give you a huge boost if you’re willing to sacrifice and rebuy them. You can also use Osgir to play all those artifacts people like to blow up, like Ensnaring Bridge, and then make more copies to force more removal out of your opponents’ hands until they run out. Just make sure you clear the fun factor of those cards with your group!

Adrix and Nev, Twincasters

Rating: Commander

Ward makes it easier to play this early and have fewer worries about getting wrecked before your next turn, though wrath effects are still fairly devastating. That said, since you get to double up on tokens, Adrix and Nev allow you to keep more resources back between each board clear, giving you more longevity consistently.

Esix, Fractal Bloom

Rating: Commander

A flexible Essence of the Wild? Now that’s cool. Make some tokens, but they’re all copies of Solemn Simulacrum, Coiling Oracle or something more devastating like Terastodon or Agent of Treachery. And yes, I’ve heard of Biovisionary as well – I’ll try it out, but I’m worried it’ll be too easy to pull off. 

 

Header - White

Angel of the Ruins

Rating: Role Player

I give this versatile creature a perfect five out of … oh, are we not doing that anymore? Well, anyway, I love cards like this. I was always a fan of Sylvan Reclamation, and this card is quite similar in effect – but don’t forget you can blink this one! Troublesome artifacts and enchantments will run for the hills as long as you can get this card going. 

Archaeomancer’s Map

Rating: Role Player

White continues to get catch-up ramp cards, but this one’s better than many we’ve seen recently. For three mana you get Divination value up front with the double Plains tutor, and those cards become relevant immediately as long as someone is – let’s face it – playing green. If you’re packing other effects like Land Tax that add more basics to your hand, this map will keep you tied for first place in mana for a long time.

Bronze Guardian

Rating: Build-Around

A double striker that grows in power the more artifacts you have? Sounds like an amazing card to slap some Equipment on, right? Even better, it protects those pieces of Equipment and itself via the ward keyword! With just Bronze Guardian and a Loxodon Warhammer, you’re looking at a 7/5 lifelinking double striking trampler. The art even tells you what to do – see those two axes in the creature’s hands? That’s what we in the business call a hint.

Combat Calligrapher

Rating: Niche Inclusion

You’re going to be giving away a lot more Inklings than you get, and once the Calligrapher retires from the world of publishing, you’re eligible to be attacked by those pesky 2/1 flyers. If you’re all about playing politics for fun, go nuts, but I can’t call this card broadly good.

Digsite Engineer

Rating: Role Player

If you’re a fan of Karn, Scion of Urza’s last ability, Digsite Engineer is the card for you. Cards like Welding Jar and Spellbombs go way up in power level when they have a spicy Construct stapled to them for just two mana, and anything that cantrips just skyrockets in terms of evaluation. Of course, this will put a constant drain on your mana… unless you’ve got a Krark-Clan Ironworks! There’s combo potential here, make no mistake.

Excavation Technique

Rating: Niche Inclusion

It’s easy enough to destroy permanents these days at instant speed that this doesn’t impress me… unless you’re ganging up on someone who’s firmly in the lead. Even then, isn’t giving out six Treasure tokens, potentially to a single player, a scary proposition?

Guardian Archon

Rating: Niche Inclusion

I love cards that require this kind of secret note-taking, but Guardian Archon is just okay. A 5/5 flyer with what I’d call “Fog+” stapled to it for six mana is about right in terms of value, but the real value is the fun generated by the mysterious choice. I don’t think it’ll usually be too hard to figure out who you’d choose though, as it’s likely to be the player with the largest attacking force or highest concentration of removal.

Losheel, Clockwork Scholar

Rating: Commander

Mono-white card draw? Sounds great! Pentavus can help you trigger Losheel easily on every player’s turn, as can cards like Myr Matrix and Master Trinketeer. Combine these effects with anthems to pump up your attackers and you’ll have a force to be reckoned with.

Monologue Tax

Rating: Powerhouse

Sure, it’s not as strong as Smothering Tithe, but honestly, that’s a good thing. I’m so tired of that card. This gives other players a real option to avoid it while also seeming innocuous until you’ve built up a serious stack of cash. 

Nils, Discipline Enforcer

Rating: Commander?

You can use white’s few cards with support to help distribute counters as well as occasional cards like Collective Effort, but it’s harder than you’d think to put counters on other players’ creatures. Even if you can do that, once Nils dies, you’re facing down armies of pumped up creatures. You’ll have to put tons of resources into protecting him, and unless this card strikes you as the most fun thing ever, I’d pass.

Promise of Loyalty

Rating: Role Player

I’m not always happy with wraths that leave people with a single creature, but the fact that this leaves behind an effect that prevents those creatures from attacking you really changes the form the next few turns will take. After all, you might ordinarily get attacked in revenge for your wrath, and this prevents that – and in some niche situations, it prevents someone from taking that one creature away and using it to attack you!

Scholarship Sponsor

Rating: Niche Inclusion

Sure, this catches you up, but it does the same for some of your opponents as well. Worse yet, they have to spend zero resources, and they get to use their lands first since they come in tapped. Not a fan.

 

Header - Blue

Commander’s Insight

Rating: Role Player

This card shines with partner commanders, especially low-costed ones like Rograkh, Son of Rohgahh that you’ll play multiple times in the early game. Triple blue in the cost is pretty prohibitive, but casting this for X=3 on your sixth turn to draw five or six cards is a real possibility. 

Curiosity Crafter

Rating: Build-Around

This is just what Talrand, Sky Summoner and other spellslinger decks need to shut the door in the mid-to-late game – more card advantage! No more running out of goodies after a few cantrips. There are so many ways to make tokens in decks like this that, between Young Pyromancer and Murmuring Mystic, you’ll be well stocked. Of course, Simic decks can also make good use of this with floods of Saproling tokens. 

Dazzling Sphinx

Rating: Niche Inclusion

If you’re playing Sphinx tribal or going all in on casting other peoples’ things, Dazzling Sphinx is fun, but that’s about all I can really see here.

Deekah, Fractal Theorist

Rating: Commander

Did I mention creating tokens in spellslinger decks yet? It’s interesting that this one cares about mana value. The ability that grants unblockable allows for some shenanigans with cards like Idol of Oblivion and Desolation Twin, or more likely, Shark Typhoon and Metallurgic Summonings. You can even pay significant life to Phyrexian Processor and then dome an unsuspecting opponent!

Inspiring Refrain

Rating: Niche Inclusion

While this isn’t going to draw you as many cards per turn as Staff of Nin, it’s a solid way to spend your third turn if you can manage to draw this early. Plus, it synergizes with magecraft and other similar abilities.

Muse Vortex

Rating: Niche Inclusion

This looks solid on the surface, but let’s do some math. Assume you’re playing a deck with 34 instants and sorceries and you cast this for X=8. You’re nearly guaranteed a hit – you’ll hit one or more instants or sorceries about 97 percent of the time. Is that good, though? For eight mana, you cast a random instant or sorcery costing six or less from your deck? Well, about 84 percent of the time, you’ll have two or more choices and about 57 percent of the time, you’ll have three or more. Is drawing two instants or sorceries and casting a medium-value one worth 10 mana? I can’t sign on to this one.

Octavia, Living Thesis

Rating: Commander

Playing this with lots of small utility creatures like Archmage Emeritus and growing them with the magecraft ability seems like an easy choice, and since you’ll be packing your deck with instants and sorceries, it shouldn’t be hard to cast Octavia two or three times, even if someone does get around the ward ability with a wrath or two.

Perplexing Test

Rating: Role Player

If this just bounced tokens, it’d be a solid tech card, but bouncing just nontoken creatures leaves open the possibility of swinging for the fences if you’re playing something like Deekah that pumps out sizeable tokens capable of knocking players out of the game.

Replication Technique

Rating: Role Player

As long as you’ve got someone at the table whose board state wouldn’t be affected too much by this, you can safely demonstrate, meaning you’ll be able to double up at a low cost in terms of value to other players. While the last Technique we saw wasn’t impressive, this one seems much better in terms of ease of breaking parity.

Sly Instigator

Rating: Niche Inclusion

This is another fun politics-focused card, but it’s pretty dependent on opposing board states. That said, helping another commander sneak through for lethal is pretty satisfying.

Spawning Kraken

Rating: Build-Around

Yes, really, it’s a build-around! You could sneak through with some changelings, or you could stick with the spirit of this card and play this in an Arixmethes, Slumbering Isle deck or other sea monster-focused list. Something like Deep-Sea Kraken that’s hard to stop can help get this going, but Whelming Wave really pushes this card to its limits by clearing the way entirely.

Theoretical Duplication

Rating: Tech Card

If you’re up against people who love to cheat creatures in with Purphoros, Bronze-Blooded or cast huge Genesis Waves, Theoretical Duplication can be a great equalizer, but its power level is entirely dependent on the actions of your opponents, making it a bit unwieldy.

 

Header - Black

Author of Shadows

Rating: Role Player

While it might be easy to dismiss this as a tech card, it’s not just a graveyard hate card – though it’s a good one. It also effectively draws you a card from one of your opponents’ graveyards, allowing you to play it without worrying about color restrictions. Blinking or reanimating this can be good if the graveyards fill back up again, but the more often you use it, the worse the cards you have access to will be.

Blight Mound

Rating: Role Player

In any sacrifice-focused deck, Blight Mound will be a solid inclusion, generating more tokens as the engine runs. Reassembling Skeleton and other recursive creatures will generate lots of Pests as they travel to and from the graveyard – and remember, the Pests aren’t a bug, they’re a feature.

Bold Plagiarist

Rating: Niche Inclusion

The problem with Bold Plagiarist is that it doesn’t really stop people from doing their thing – it just creates a moderately-sized creature. Sometimes it also puts weird, non-+1/+1 counters on itself due to this ability, and that generally doesn’t do anything.

Cunning Rhetoric

Rating: Role Player

I like this as a rattlesnake-type deterrent card. It doesn’t have an immediate effect, which differentiates it from something like Revenge of Ravens, but if the card you snag is an instant, all bets are off. Of course, don’t forget you’ll be getting land cards about 40 percent of the time – and since this card says “play,” you’re good to use those to make your land drops!

Essence Pulse

Rating: Role Player

For the same cost as Mutilate or Languish, you get a guaranteed -2/-2, but since you’re certainly playing this in a life gain deck, you should easily be able to crack -6/-6 without breaking a sweat. Even an Oloro, Ageless Ascetic in your command zone will get you up to -4/-4 by itself, and that’s the minimum acceptable value for casting this if you’re really interested in clearing things out for this cost.

Fain, the Broker

Rating: Commander

I love these Trading Post-style cards that just pile on the abilities. This one’s a mana sink, so bring your Crypt Ghasts and Magi of the Coffers, but don’t skimp on other, cheaper ways to amplify Fain, like Illusionist’s Bracers or Rings of Brighthearth. Each ability also implies some smaller synergies – counters, Treasures and creature tokens are all worthy subtheme choices.

Incarnation Technique

Rating: Niche Inclusion

You’ll have to be careful who you choose for this, as you can’t control what comes off the top of their library except in certain very specific circumstances. That said, if you’re up against someone who plays few creatures and you don’t mind milling them, you’re good for a demonstration. You can also just go for it if you have a two-card creature combo in your graveyard or a sequence of similar power level.

Keen Duelist

Rating: Niche Inclusion

You’ll want to stack your deck up with high-cost cards to make the most of this, which can be pretty dangerous for your overall curve. This is a fun and exciting card guaranteed to generate cool stories, but it’s not powerful by any means.

Breena, the Demagogue

Rating: Powerhouse

Oh dear. So let’s start by setting expectations – it costs seven mana before you can cast your first spell via blood magic. That said, once this gets going, it’s a ridiculously powerful way to cheat spells out. Life is a resource, and why not use that resource to cast something enormous and devastating? Put some Lightning Greaves on this, line up your Vilis, Broker of Blood and start your spending spree.

Stinging Study

Rating: Niche Inclusion

If you’re in the market for a weird instant draw spell, I recommend Necrologia or Skeletal Scrying, but honestly, this will do just fine as long as you’ve got a commander with mana value of four or more. I need at least Liliana’s Contract levels of value before I’ll slot this in.

Tivash, Gloom Summoner

Rating: Commander

Cards like Gray Merchant of Asphodel and Kokusho, the Evening Star can enable you to gain a huge amount of life all at once, so why not turn that into a huge Demon? Then sacrifice that demon to Disciple of Bolas, gain tons of life, draw lots of cards, use the life to replace the Demon… you get the picture. Magus of the Mirror also lets you do some wild stuff, and don’t forget to dig up your copy of Rite of Consumption for this one.

Veinwitch Coven

Rating: Build-Around

As long as you’re gaining life in small increments with something like Deathgreeter or Blood Artist, it’s easy to make this part of a sacrifice deck and churn through your graveyard over and over again. This card is deceptively powerful, and I expect many players to be surprised by its power level relative to other repeatable recursion engines.

 

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