Commander is an interesting format, both in gameplay and in the out-of-game discussion. Because of the variety of deck possibilities and card choices, each deck ends up being very unique – in strategy, in execution, in theme, etc. With 100 cards, the possibilities are endless (well, not endless, there are only so many unique Magic cards, so the possible combinations are finite, but rest assured that the exact number would have a lot of zeros).
Some cards, however, make their way into more decks than others, and for good reason. The cards I’m talking about – “staples”, as they are known – have a proven track record of being well-worth the card slot they take up. These staples also have a huge variance in their prices – some, like Rupture Spire or Ashes to Ashes, you can pick up with pocket change. Some are more mid-range, ranging from $4 to $10, like Duplicant or Swords to Plowshares. Some still are more expensive. It is the last group of cards that I will be talking about today.
EDH is a format that is both cheap and expensive, all at the same time. It’s expensive because some of the staples can be pricey (ranging anywhere from next-to-worthless to upwards of $40). It’s also cheaper, on the other hand, because you only need one of each card instead of a 4-of playset. It’s all in how you look at it.
IS [FILL IN THE BLANK] WORTH IT?
Let me first say that any card being “worth it” is entirely subjective – I only can say what I have found from my experience. Also, today we’ll only be talking about regular EDH deckbuilding – pauper has its’ own rules, while every edge (no matter how small) is “worth it” for Duel Commander. Once you start looking at cards that improve your deck by a matter of percentage points, you start getting into the highest value cards.
Let’s take the Legacy staples for an example. Cards like the ABU dual lands (Plateau), Force of Will or Dark Confidant. These cards are all the best at what they do – and their price tags reflect this. In the end, though, as great as they are, getting yourself the Ravnica shocklands, Pact of Negation, or Dark Tutelage instead will save you a ton of money, and you’ll get nearly the same functionality for your EDH deck. Unless you’re able to get one of these cards cheaply, or through a trade you’re happy with, going out of your way to buy one only gives you a percentage point or two added to your deck’s effectiveness, and to me, that’s just not worth it. Especially when you could easily spend the $60-$150 elsewhere (each).
So what is worth it? What should you spend your hard-earned money on? I’ll take a look at some of the $10+ cards commonly seen in EDH and give you a brief analysis, as well as a cheaper alternative or two, and let you decide.
Here we go! In no particular or practical order:
Sensei’s Divining Top: ~$12
This is the poster-child for $10+ staples. As a colourless artifact, it can fit in almost every deck – and it probably should. It’s functionality is great (who doesn’t have a spare mana half of the time?), it sets up your land drops, it helps you dig when you need an answer, it protects itself (Krosan Grip being its’ nemesis). The only card really comparable to the Top is maybe Sylvan Library, but Top is almost always better.
Cheaper Alternative; Crystal Ball – <$1.00
Verdict: Though there’s the argument that the card is too good – it goes in every deck and reduces the variability of decks (one of EDH’s biggest draws), the verdict is an emphatic “Yes”. There’s a reason why you see this card in so many decks. Not only is it that good, its’ usefulness is unmatched by a wide margin.
Demonic Tutor: ~$15+
The granddaddy of all tutors, is also usually considered the best. There’s no restrictions (Beseech the Queen, Enlightened Tutor), it doesn’t send the tutored card to the top of your library (Liliana Vess), and you don’t have to pay any alternate cost ( Vampiric Tutor). Still, there are a lot of tutors in Magic’s long history. Though some cost more to cast, they’re cheaper for your wallet.
Cheaper Alternative: Diabolic Tutor – <$1.00
Verdict: It’s the best tutor around, but you get the same functionality out of a lot of others, and some of the newer ones tutor for more than one card (Increasing Ambition, for example). It’s really your call, but here’s a card I feel you can pass over until you find a good deal.
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth: ~$15+
The most tutored-for land in the history of EDH (well, maybe tied with Cabal Coffers – depends on which one you draw first), Urborg is most effective in Black/X decks as a way to fix your mana, and later on, get a really, really big mana pool (through Coffers and cards like Nirkana Revenant).
Because it’s a land drop and comes into play untapped, you lose no tempo. Sometimes when it comes into play, it’s just a swamp, but others, it makes your deck explode, all without costing you any mana.
Cheaper Alternative: Blanket of Night – <$1.00
Verdict: Every EDH collection should have at least one Urborg if you play Black at all – it’s miles ahead of any other card that does anything similar. Just remember that it’s legendary, so it’s a common Vesuva target.
Doubling Season: ~$25
Doubling Season is one of those cards that casual players just love (which explains the price tag, considering it sees no competitive play). People like getting things, and people like getting double of those things twice as much. Because Planeswalkers have become part of the game after Doubling Season was printed, it’s almost guaranteed never to be reprinted again, unless it is in a premium product (like a “From the Vaults”, for example). This card goes into any deck that runs any kind of counter or token as a central strategy – +1/+1 counters, token creatures, and not to mention that Planeswalkers are just busted with this in play.
Cheaper Alternatives: Parallel Lives – ~$4 and Corpsejack Menace – ~$2 split the difference, though the two together still don’t add up to a Doubling Season.
Verdict: Most decks can skip it, but if your deck can use it, Doubling Season makes your deck so much better that you’d be crazy not to run it. It’s the best card at what it does by a wide margin, and if you have any of the alternatives out along with Doubling Season, you get 4x as many counters and/or tokens. It’s a fun card, but more importantly, it’s the best card if your deck can use it.
Wheel of Fortune: ~$15+
Until recently, Red had very little in the way of card draw. For a long time, it looked like we wouldn’t see any more of the “Wheel” effects for Red. Thankfully, we’ve since seen a few (Dragon Mage, for example), but they’re still few and far between.
Most useful in colour combinations with little card draw (mono-Red, Red/White, Red/Green even), when it’s necessary, it’s very necessary.
Cheaper Alternative: Reforge the Soul – <$1
Verdict: If you’re in the colours that need the card draw, you pretty much have to run every Wheel effect you can get your hands on. Besides the fact that it can disrupt your opponents plans (but can also help them – so it is risky business), it keeps you from running out of steam. This is a big thumbs up from me – besides being a great card, it’s also a lot of fun to play.
Maze of Ith: ~$26+
Until its’ recent reprint in From the Vault: Realms, the Maze was one of those cards that separated those new to the format from the old guard. It’s a nearly unique card and has some great utility, but it’s doesn’t produce mana, so you need to cut a land for it (as it takes up a land drop). It protects you from a big creature or Commanders (especially when you can copy it with Vesuva, and have a Kor Haven and a Mystifying Maze out as well. Make yourself a “pillowfort” using only land drops!), and it can keep one of your attacking creatures alive when something unexpected happens.
Cheaper Alternative: Mystifying Maze – <$1
Verdict: Though it is a staple in some decks (Kaalia of the Vast or pillowfort/combo decks), I’d say that this is one you can pass on until you can find a good deal – there’s other effective ways to prevent attacks that don’t take the form of a non-mana producing land. Great card, though.
There has been a lot said on the “fairness” of Bribery, so I won’t go into that. It’s a very powerful card. For 5 mana, you can often get an opponent’s creature for much cheaper than they ever could. I feel Bribery serves a great secondary function, though – it keeps people from playing cards like Blightsteel Colossus or Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre in their decks. Few want to face those creatures, especially when it came from your deck in the first place.
Cheaper Alternative: Sphinx Ambassador – ~$2
Verdict: It’s a judgement call, it really depends on your meta. If crazy creatures are ruling your games, then it might be a good idea to start playing this card. It makes your opponents think twice about adding an Eldrazi to their decks. Otherwise, you can probably skip it, though it is almost never a dead draw – it pretty much reads “put the best creature in target player’s library onto the battlefield under your control”.
Mirari’s Wake: ~$15
Whoever has the most mana usually wins the game, and Mirari’s Wake is pretty much the only way for a multi-colour deck to double their mana (and not their opponents, as well (Keeper of Progenitus, I’m looking at you…). I’m often surprised by how often people will allow opponents to keep their mana doublers – sometimes, there’s a more imminent threat in play, but I’ll still go after the mana doubler more often than not, and you should too.
Cheaper Alternative: Caged Sun – ~$2. Only as effective for mono-colour.
Verdict: If you have G/W in your deck, you’d be crazy not to run this card. Mirari’s Wake is explosive, and once it lands, it can lead to swift victory.
Cryptic Command: ~$32
All of the Lorwyn “commands” are great for EDH (though the power-level varies), and all can find their place in their respective colours’ decks. The Blue one, though, is arguably the best – Counter, Bounce, Draw, Tap, all undeniably Blue effects, and each one is quite useful.
Cheaper Alternative: Dismiss – <$1 – gives you the two most common choices for the same converted mana cost.
Verdict: Though some will disagree, I feel that Cryptic Command is the best counterspell in EDH. You have unmatched utility for four mana, and I’ve seen this card win games – not many counterspells can make that claim. If it’s in your budget, you should definitely pick one up. That being said, there are literally dozens of counterspells to choose from, so only make the choice to buy this one if you feel you’re at the point where you don’t mind spending that much money on one card.
Tooth and Nail: ~$12
Every deck needs a win condition or two, and Tooth and Nail is one such card. Imagine tutoring-into-play an Avenger of Zendikar and a Craterhoof Behemoth at the same time, stacking their Enter the Battlefield abilities the right way – you’d have a bunch of giant creatures. Or, you could tutor in Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Zealous Conscripts for the combo-win. This card can win the game once it resolves.
Cheaper Alternative: Defense of the Heart – ~$10 – you know that this is a powerful effect when the only comparable, cheaper alternative is still worth $10.
Verdict: This one is your call – it depends on how competitive your meta is. Be warned, though, that there are rumours that the “powers that be” are keeping a close eye on this card. Where it was once merely powerful, with creatures’ power level ratcheting up every year, it is bordering on broken – don’t be surprised if Tooth and Nail sees the “banhammer” in the next 2 or 3 years, and then it’s value will plummet (like Primeval Titan‘s did).
Around the time of the Time Spiral block, it was decided that Black should have its’ own Wrath of God. Though most of the experimenting with the colour pie didn’t leave many lasting changes to the game, giving Black boardwipe is one change that has stuck around, and Black has seen more boardwipe cards get printed in recent years. Damnation is still one of the cheapest (mana-wise) and arguably the best.
Cheaper Alternative: Life’s Finale – <$1
Verdict: Though it’s the best Black boardwipe, I feel that there are enough other, cheaper options that you can wait until this card inevitably gets reprinted. It may not be until a premium product or Modern Masters, but I personally believe that Damnation is a prime target for a strategic reprint. Of course, I could be wrong, in which case, it’s not getting any cheaper. This one I leave up to you.
Karn Liberated: ~$35
Finally, I’ll be looking at the only Planeswalker I’ve included on this list. I remember picking my jaw up off the floor when I first saw his ultimate, but after some time, I realized most of his usefulness would be his -3 ability – exile target permanent. Because he’s colourless, Karn can go in any deck, but where he really shines is mono-red, mono-black, and mono-blue, and any combination thereof. Those three colours have the hardest time dealing with non-creature permanents (namely, Enchantments, and to a lesser extent, artifacts). Karn allows these colours the ability to deal with troublesome permanents in a colourless way.
Cheaper Alternative: Spine of Ish Sah – <$1
Verdict: Once Karn hits the battlefield, he must be dealt with. The level of control he gives you is often too much for your opponents to cope with if he isn’t handled swiftly. Unless you’re playing White or Green in your deck, Karn is pretty much an auto-include in your deck.
These are all cards I have played with personally, so each of these recommendations I give from experience. Most of these cards will never again see a mass reprint, so picking them up now (if they can fit into your decks and/or budget) could save you a lot of money in the long run. Others, you can wait until you can start picking up the $10-$15 cards to “finish off” your decks – some of the older cards on the list won’t go up in value much in the near future. The older the card, generally speaking, the more stable the price.
For those of you playing with a tighter budget, fear not! I’ll have a similar columns for low and mid-range staples in the future. You don’t have to run expensive cards to be able to win in EDH, as I’ll also discuss in future columns – my “best” casual decks also happen to be my cheapest.
Until next time, keep turning cards sideways.
If you have any questions, comments, or have any suggestions for any Commander-related articles you’d like to see, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org