Much to my surprise, one of my new favorite ways to play casual Magic has become battling unmodified Commander precons. I’ve had quite a bit of experience dueling with the precons and today I’d like to share my thoughts on how the Midnight Hunt and Crimson Vow precons stack up.
I think it’s safe to say the pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench into everyone’s life plans (including playing Magic) for about two straight years now. As far as Magic is concerned, the pandemic’s direct impact on the game has been that “Gathering” for in-person, cardboard play has taken a backseat to online play. As we move into 2022 (and the third year of Covid-19), it does appear we are trending toward a reality where small, safe and responsible gatherings for in-person play are an activity I’m more willing to entertain and feel comfortable with in my personal life.
With respect to a LGS, I’m lucky to have two different geographic regions that I go between – southeast Michigan and Windsor, Ontario (and I technically also had the pleasure to play in Alpena in northern Michigan). While I do perceive regional, cultural differences between how Americans and Canadians have approached the pandemic, it is also my observation that the Magic playing community at the local level tend to exercise a lot more caution and respect for the well-being of others than the general population. When I visited Michigan last month, the LGSs I visited were one of the few places I went where people were still consistently wearing masks.
So, I think we’re at a moment in time where people have to make real choices about how they want to live their lives and be prepared to deal with the consequences of their decisions. For me, I don’t feel comfortable going to a convention yet, but I see enough value and necessity for social interaction that I’m willing to participate in small gatherings with others I trust who are also being cautiously responsible.
Another thing I’ve observed is that casual formats, especially Commander, have emerged as far and away the most popular in-person, cardboard formats to play during this transitional period. As a matter of perspective, my LGS could not get enough players to come out to fire Modern or Standard events but have been hitting capacity and having to turn players away for Commander nights!
Let me begin by saying that I’ve dueled with the precons in two different types of social settings. The first were a series of multiplayer matches I helped organize and participated in where everybody at the table was using a precon and it was also an absolute ringer with Zach Allen, Kyle Boggemes, Stu Parnes, Kevin Cron and Jason Alt of EDHREC fame.
These Commander “jam sessions” were a ton of fun for a variety of reasons. It was the first time I had seen most of these friends in years and it was so much fun to sit down, play some friendly games and catch up. We played some matches with legit powerful constructed Commander decks (power level 8 – Tinybones, Muxus, Omnath, etc) but I actually found the precon games to be more enjoyable and interesting than the games with more powerful decks.
I think part of the reason for that is that with the constructed Commander decks, once the games got to the point where the board states were interesting, it was inevitable that somebody would (and did) quickly end the game, whereas, with the precons (and all roads didn’t lead to combo kills), players had to be a lot more strategic about making plays that could win the game via a sequence of plays that unfold over several turns.
I was one of the best Vintage/Type 1 players in the entire world for a decade straight. I’ve cast Black Lotus, Tinker, Ancestral Recall and Time Walk thousands of times, so playing powerful spells holds little novelty for me.
When I’m playing Commander, I don’t find comboing off with counterspell backup to be particularly challenging or interesting. I’m in it for opportunities to make fun plays, deals, double crosses, risky lines, alliances and so on. Clearly, that’s just a personal preference based on my own experience, but I love playing multiplayer with powered-down decks where choices, much more so than busted cards, dictate the course of the game. There’s really no easier way to get eight pro-level players to deescalate the power level of their Commander decks and just enjoy the game play than to hand out four precons and say “let’s battle.” It’s basically the same premise behind the Danger Room format I write about.
I have decades of high level play experience, I’m a master deckbuilder and I have an expansive collection to match. I’m a firm believer that the power level of a player’s deck is just code for “how big is your budget to spend on Magic.” I typically play one of the $50 budget decks that I write about and always have a precon in my bag ready to go. If there are three other players looking to duel precons that is a game that I definitely want to participate in.
I’m sort of a unique case and clearly I’m not the target audience for any Magic product, especially precons. There’s simply not enough human beings on planet earth who have played as much or as hard to represent a big enough piece of the pie to be worth designing products for. With that said, I do believe the precons are specifically designed to be stepping-stone products geared toward new and returning players looking to dip their toe into Commander.
My biggest criticism of the Commander precons is they’re not evenly matched or particularly well-balanced relative to one another. Not only are the power levels of the decks from one year to the next incongruent, but I observe the decks within the same year cycle (in this case 2021’s Innistrad revisits) to fall into observable hierarchy.
When the pros and I were dueling precons, we distributed decks at random each game and in most cases, didn’t even know what cards were in our decks at first! However, after a round, it was very clear which decks people were hoping to receive via random distribution and which commanders were prioritized to be targeted first because they were powerful.
I do think that replayability is an important attribute of a preconstructed deck – especially, if a player wants to collect or use the precon in an unmodified form. I also believe it’s the case that while some of the decks are better “as is,” others have greater potential for modification. Let’s get to the decks:
Commander 1 Strefan, Maurer Progenitor Deck 1 Anowon, the Ruin Sage 1 Bloodlord of Vaasgoth 1 Bloodtracker 1 Butcher of Malakir 1 Champion of Dusk 1 Cordial Vampire 1 Dark Impostor 1 Malakir Bloodwitch 1 Necropolis Regent 1 Nirkana Revenant 1 Patron of the Vein 1 Sanctum Seeker 1 Stromkirk Condemned 1 Anje's Ravager 1 Bloodsworn Steward 1 Crimson Honor Guard 1 Falkenrath Gorger 1 Stromkirk Occultist 1 Vampiric Dragon 1 Blood Artist 1 Bloodline Necromancer 1 Falkenrath Noble 1 Indulgent Aristocrat 1 Vampire Nighthawk 1 Rakish Heir 1 Stromkirk Captain 1 Damnable Pact 1 Avacyn's Judgment 1 Blasphemous Act 1 Mob Rule 1 Ancient Craving 1 Feed the Swarm 1 Night's Whisper 1 Vandalblast 1 Urge to Feed 1 Rakdos Charm 1 Arcane Signet 1 Charcoal Diamond 1 Commander's Sphere 1 Fire Diamond 1 Rakdos Signet 1 Sol Ring 1 Swiftfoot Boots 1 Unstable Obelisk 1 Underworld Connections 1 Molten Echoes 1 Stensia Masquerade 1 Exotic Orchard 1 Foreboding Ruins 1 Shadowblood Ridge 1 Smoldering Marsh 1 Temple of Malice 1 Command Tower 1 Myriad Landscape 1 Path of Ancestry 1 Rakdos Carnarium 1 Tainted Peak 1 Temple of the False God 1 Unclaimed Territory 14 Swamp 11 Mountain 1 Timothar, Baron of Bats 1 Crossway Troublemakers 1 Glass-Cast Heart 1 Kamber, the Plunderer 1 Olivia's Wrath 1 Predators' Hour 1 Shadowgrange Archfiend 1 Arterial Alchemy 1 Imposing Grandeur 1 Laurine, the Diversion 1 Markov Enforcer 1 Midnight Arsonist 1 Scion of Opulence 1 Sinister Waltz 1 Bloodtithe Harvester99 Cards
Zach and I actually worked together to organize several playgroups to get various players together to play “real” and “precon” games at our LGS, RIW. We had a few before the release of Crimson Vow but only one outing after the Crimson Vow precons were released. So, the impression of the Crimson Vow precons is based on less reps, but with that said, when I asked the player who piloted Vampiric Bloodline what their impression of the deck was they snap replied, “it’s total garbage.”
I’m inclined to agree that the deck did not impress me at all in terms of its gameplay. In fact, nothing it was actually doing even looked or felt like it was geared toward being a multiplayer Commander deck! It kind of looked and performed as though it were just a poorly built Brawl beatdown deck.
Again, I think the deck has a similar problem to the next deck on the list, where it’s built around a set mechanic (in this case, Blood tokens) that is not useful in multiplayer Commander. I don’t think a madness deck is tactically very good in multiplayer Commander and tribal Vampires with a bunch of incidental Blood tokens is even less synergistic. It’s conceptually not a very well thought out deck and that’s reflected in play patterns that are outclassed by even the next deck.
Strefan doesn’t really generate extra cards and its ability isn’t particularly powerful or frightening to play against. The most positive thing I have to say about the Strefan deck being in the Gauntlet was that it provided a lot of opportunities for players to say SNL Stefon quotes.
I get the same sort of impression from Vampiric Bloodline as the next deck – that it’s meant more to be an expansion of tribal cards for a specific creature type (in this case, Vampires) than as a particularly well-built deck for play “as is” out of the box. In my opinion, most of the best Vampire cards tend to be aggressive and well suited to one-on-one duels much more so than multiplayer Magic. I also wasn’t impressed with Strefan as a commander and would much rather see any Olivia at the helm. With that said, the cards stand out to me as particularly useful in Vampire decks or Commander decks:
Notable Exclusive Cards
I do think this and the next precon on my list are much more useful as kits to upgrade than to play “out of the box,” at least relative to what the other decks have going on in terms of synergy for multiplayer. With that said, I actually found the new printings included in Spirit Squadron and Coven Counters more appealing than the Zombies or Vampires in terms of being cards I’d want to put in a Commander deck; but that is a matter of personal preference and the fact that I’m into building budget decks where I can’t start with a weak premise and make it better by adding expensive cards! I need to start with a solid premise and “make it work,” as Tim Gunn says on one of my wife’s favorite shows, Project Runway.
Undead Unleashed Precon
Of the gauntlet of precon we played (over multiple months), Undead Unleashed was selected and piloted more than any other deck and never won a game. Out of the box, as a precon deck to play “as is,” I don’t think it is very well built or very good.
It’s not Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver’s fault. I think Wilhelt is an excellent Magic card and a fantastic commander for a U/B Zombie tribal deck. In fact, I thought it was such a solid card that I’d consider building around in the future that I picked one up for my collection.
The problem with the deck is that it’s built around Midnight Hunt’s UB Zombie mechanic “decayed,” which is not a very powerful mechanic and what little value it has is greatly diminished in Commander by virtue of having three opponent’s with an additional 20 hit points each! The entire deck is predicated around generating tokens that serve little functionality other than to be sacrificed one-per-turn to Wilhelt.
My observation after watching the deck deploy many times was that it spun its wheels, drew some cards and simply couldn’t generate enough of a board presence to compete with the other precons at the table.
Zach Allen had a great observation about the U/B deck that it includes a lot of really nice new and reprint cards for building a tribal Zombie Commander deck. Wilhelt is obviously great, but there are a lot of other standout cards as well:
Notable Exclusive Cards
My advice would be to think of Undead Unleashed as a collection of cards to be added onto non-precon UB Zombies in Commander, much more so than as a particularly well built UB Zombies Commander deck in and of itself. Some of the new cards in the precon are cool, but as far as decks go… after a couple of playthroughs, nobody wanted to get the UB deck.
Commander 1 Millicent, Restless Revenant Deck 1 Dovin, Grand Arbiter 1 Angel of Flight Alabaster 1 Boreas Charger 1 Bygone Bishop 1 Custodi Soulbinders 1 Hallowed Spiritkeeper 1 Hanged Executioner 1 Karmic Guide 1 Knight of the White Orchid 1 Mentor of the Meek 1 Mirror Entity 1 Oyobi, Who Split the Heavens 1 Remorseful Cleric 1 Twilight Drover 1 Windborn Muse 1 Ghostly Pilferer 1 Kami of the Crescent Moon 1 Rattlechains 1 Shacklegeist 1 Supreme Phantom 1 Geist of Saint Traft 1 Custodi Squire 1 Spectral Shepherd 1 Nebelgast Herald 1 Sire of the Storm 1 Spectral Sailor 1 Drogskol Captain 1 Fell the Mighty 1 Kirtar's Wrath 1 Flood of Tears 1 Distant Melody 1 Benevolent Offering 1 Crush Contraband 1 Swords to Plowshares 1 Arcane Denial 1 Midnight Clock 1 Arcane Signet 1 Azorius Locket 1 Azorius Signet 1 Commander's Sphere 1 Marble Diamond 1 Sky Diamond 1 Sol Ring 1 Promise of Bunrei 1 Imprisoned in the Moon 1 Verity Circle 1 Darksteel Mutation 1 Field of Souls 1 Ghostly Prison 1 Reconnaissance Mission 1 Exotic Orchard 1 Moorland Haunt 1 Port Town 1 Prairie Stream 1 Skycloud Expanse 1 Temple of Enlightenment 1 Azorius Chancery 1 Command Tower 1 Myriad Landscape 1 Path of Ancestry 1 Temple of the False God 1 Unclaimed Territory 12 Plains 11 Island 1 Donal, Herald of Wings 1 Rhoda, Geist Avenger 1 Timin, Youthful Geist 1 Drogskol Reinforcements 1 Haunted Library 1 Priest of the Blessed Graf 1 Storm of Souls 1 Sudden Salvation 1 Breath of the Sleepless 1 Ethereal Investigator 1 Haunting Imitation 1 Occult Epiphany 1 Spectral Arcanist 1 Disorder in the Court
I also had the pleasure of getting to pilot UW Spirit Squadron and was able to win a multiplayer game with it. Of all of the four Innistrad block decks, Spirit Squadron has the most controlling attribute of the bunch.
My biggest issue with the deck was that the usefulness of the cards included felt extremely variable. Some of the cards were clearly excellent and others felt so mediocre that overall, it would probably up the consistency of the deck to simply replace them with basic lands or subpar mana rocks.
Cards like Occult Epiphany and Midnight Clock felt even better because they were able to replace cards that were not worth casting in my hand with new cards. Occult Epiphany, in particular, felt like a solid instant speed looting effect that also generated board presence.
I thought Millicent was a nice inclusion as a commander and helped tie the deck together. It was a great way to transition a modest offense into a formidable one. Millicent’s cost being reduced based on controlling Spirits also gave it a bit of a Great Whale type of play feel.
While I did feel like Spirit Squadron was really inconsistently built relative to drawing the “good” or “bad” half of the deck, of all four precons, I prefer the new printings from it the best. While “Spirit tokens” would not have been a strategy I’d likely have chosen to play before, several new printings from the precon are interesting enough that I find them enticing to want to build around or include in future decks.
Notable Exclusive Cards
Storm of Souls is such a powerful card that I’d consider it for inclusion in various types and color combinations of decks that play a lot of creatures.
Anything that allows me to replay my best cards is worth considering. I love that it can straight up bring back Swords to Plowshares without any help.
Timin was absolutely incredible in the game that I won. I was able to pair Timin with Verity Circle to really max out my card advantage. Even without the Circle to “go off,” the ability to tap a creature each combat step allowed me to exert a tremendous amount of influence over the game. Not only was I able to tap creatures that were likely to attack me at key points in the game, but I was also able to tap down other player’s key blockers to make them vulnerable and enticing targets for attacks. Timin and Rhoda also have the “good” partner wording together which means that casting Timin or Rhoda allows the caster to search up their partner.
Coven Counters Precon
As far as my preference of the four preconstructed decks, I don’t think I could give one a more ringing endorsement than to say “I bought this deck.” Which is the truth – I bought, own and play Coven Counters in an unmodified format.
As is, it was the opinion of our playgroup that Coven Counters was the distinctly best deck of the four. It won the most games of any other precon and even in the games where it didn’t win, it was a powerful force in determining the endgame.
Coven Counters is a GW deck with three important themes: Human tribal, token generation and +1/+1 counters. All three of these themes work together well and create a lot of synergies and a lot of opportunities to create significant board advantages in the form of a giant army. Of the four Innistrad-themed precons, it simply puts more power and toughness onto the battlefield than the others.
Coven Counters benefits not only from having a strong 99-card deck but also a great commander in Leinore, Autumn Sovereign, who increases board presence via a free +1/+1 counter each turn but also draws an extra card (which is not exactly something GW decks are typically strong at doing!).
Notable Exclusive Cards
A really nice GW commander for a creature-based deck that is able to take advantage of the “draw a card” ability achieved via coven.
Kyler was one of the standout cards from entire four precon set in terms of impact. Not only does Kyler trigger to gain a +1/+1 counter wherever a Human ETBs, but those additional counters function as a Coat of Arms for your Humans.
In my opinion, all green “Disenchant” effects in commander are measured on a scale of whether or not I’d rather play Krosan Grip (which is an excellent card). There are some decks (such as Coven Counters) where I think the upside of Ruinous Intrusion is worth giving up split second.
My advice and perspective on the Crimson Vow and Midnight Hunt Commander precons would be to go with Coven Counters if you want the most powerful aggressive deck out of the box or Spirit Squadron if you’re looking for the most powerful, but slower and more controlling, strategy as is. I found Undead Unleashed and Vampiric Bloodline to lack power and synergy relative to the other two options, which might make them less attractive options for players not looking to “make additions” and play the decks as is.
With that said, both Vampiric Bloodline and Undead Unleashed do provide some unique new tribal spells to enhance non-precon decks. There are definitely singles from all four decks that are worth considering. I purchased Coven Counters to play as is in original form because I found it to be the most cohesive strategy of the bunch (and as an experienced deck builder, it would drive me nuts to play a deck I felt was shoddily built) and picked up a handful of singles from the others I thought might be useful in Cube, Battle Box or future Commander or budget Commander.
My biggest critique of the decks as a collection is that they don’t feel evenly matched to play against one another, which I just think is a bizarre thing to do. I think the problem is two of the decks are built on faulty premise and around mechanics that are simply not good in Commander (decayed and Blood tokens). Overall, I think they were fun to play and I enjoy the experience of playing powered down decks in general (both precons and budget) but I would like to see more balance and cohesion especially in precons from the same expansion or block of expansions.