Commander 2021 is More Important Than You’d Think

Kristen GregoryCommander

Due for release on April 23, Commander 2021 will feature five decks themed around the spring Standard set: Strixhaven.

Today, I’d like to talk about why this product in particular is hugely important — not only for the format, but as a Commander product.

81 New Cards

Compared to the 51 new cards in Commander 2019 and the 71 new cards in Commander 2020, we’re getting a whopping 81 new cards in Commander 2021. The number of new cards in Commander products hovered in the 50s for a good number of years up until the increase in 2020, due in part to an increase in the number of decks in the product line (five decks instead of four). It’s still an increase in new cards, though, and even the ancillary Commander decks released with main sets have seen the number of new cards increasing: from six in the Zendikar Rising decks to sixteen in the Kaldheim ones.

What’s most important here is that we’re getting 81 new cards for the Commander format. This isn’t just cards entering the format from a Standard set, but 81 new cards designed specifically for Commander. In recent years, anxiety has grown around Wizards designing for the format, with the main feeling being that power creep is bad for the format. The question then follows: how many resources should Wizards put into designing for Commander in the first place? 

Regardless of your opinions on designing cards for Commander, you can probably agree that some of the Commander card designs we’ve seen in recent years are just really bloody strong. The free spell cycle from Commander 2020 is one such example, and the very fact these cards exist has changed the format forever. 

There’s two things I want to focus on here. Firstly, having an increasing number of cards entering the format is challenging; and secondly, there’s a definite power “ceiling” that Commander players are expecting — no, hoping — to see these new cards arrive under. 

For Commander 2021 to succeed — and in many ways, be a better offering than last year’s decks — the power level of these cards has to average out, and I believe it would be good if we didn’t see any cards on par with the free spell cycle from Commander 2020

There are TWO white-based decks

Hand in hand with new card design comes the inevitable hope for new, flexible, efficient, and powerful white cards. I think a lot of the complaints around white are over-exaggerated, but where there’s smoke, there’s fire. White does need some upgrades, and Commander 2021 is the place to put them. 

First up, we have two places for these new cards to exist: a Boros deck and an Orzhov deck. That’s two decks without access to green or blue, and they’ll both need some type of card advantage, ramp, or card draw included in order to run smoothly.

While they will probably end up containing some of the usual suspects, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that cards like Keeper of the Accord be included in the reprint slots. Above all else, we need to keep access to the stronger forms of white card advantage cheap and accessible to everyone. We’ve seen what’s happened to Tithe, a $60 Reserved List card, and Smothering Tithe, now a $30 card from the past few years. Heck, I’d love to see Smothering Tithe reprinted in the Orzhov deck! 

While reprints are great, it’s the potential for these decks to include new cards that’s most exciting. While cards like Cartographer’s Hawk from Commander 2020 were complete duds, the white cards we’ve seen for Commander since then have shown a marked improvement. There’s card draw on Wyleth and a sister card, Akiri, Fearless Voyager, from Zendikar Rising. Cosmic Intervention is an extremely powerful flicker effect. 

I do want to make clear that, though literal card draw and ramp would be nice, there’s no reason we can’t see other forms of card advantage that help white-based decks sustain their board presence. Akroma’s Will and Flawless Maneuver are two such cards, and really committing to the increase in power level for these types of white cards is what needs to happen. 

I’m confident that, if we get good white cards for Commander this year, they’ll be in these decks. 

Exploring New Ground with the Color Pairs

Strixhaven is going to be an enemy-colored set, and what’s gotten most people excited about this is the chance to re-examine how these colors interact with each other. By now, we’re all familiar with how the colors express themselves in the ten guilds of Ravnica, and I think we’re also familiar enough with Ravnica that it’ll be a breath of fresh air to see a different approach. 

Mark Rosewater shed some light on the approach to the schools of Strixhaven in a recent round of blogatog Q&A. For starters, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that this is exciting from a flavor perspective. It’s almost as if we’re flipping expectations of what these color pairs represent. Instead of white goals being achieved through red means, for example, we’re now embracing our red ethos and drive and using white mana to achieve what we need to. This flips Boros on its head completely.

There’s a reason I picked Boros as an example here (and not just because it’s my personal favorite color pair). Boros has classically been a combat-focused color pair for a long time, with a few cards hinting at prospects outside of that, but nothing of any great quantity. With Strixhaven, we might see some more “outside the box” Boros cards. My bet is on more recursion, what with Lorehold, the red-white school, being focused on archaeology.

It’s not just Boros that can benefit from the change in approach, though. When it comes to design, other color pairs could really do with a breath of fresh air, too. Simic — or Quandrix, in Strixhaven — has been the color pair of “play-an-extra-land-and-draw-a-card” for what feels like forever, and one of the most popular Simic commanders in recent times is Koma, Cosmos Serpent — who does neither of these things. Witherbloom — né Golgari — has also had a mechanically unique Commander at the top of player’s to-build piles lately: Lathril, Blade of the Elves.

Fresh design space is important, especially in a game as old as Magic and in a format as wide as Commander. I see Commander 2021 as an opportunity to really lean into fresh approaches to how to play different color pairs. Why not unseat some of the more popular commanders — not with strictly more powerful cards, but with more unique ones?

This also ties in, quite nicely, to the matter of providing more tools for white decks. The more I read and write about Strixhaven and Commander 2021, the more excited I get. I love seeing new design space!

Strixhaven Setting

Of course, with Commander 2021 being set entirely on Strixhaven, we are losing the yearly opportunity to touch on settings and characters in the rich Magic universe beyond the main sets we receive. 

I have to admit, when I saw that the Commander decks would be tied to a Standard set again, it filled me with trepidation. Commander 2020’s Ikoria theme was heralded by many as a missed opportunity. In addition to limiting the design space for the product, it also took away narrative space that would otherwise be used to check in on other planes and characters.

We’ll have to wait and see how the community responds to these decks, but if I were a betting person, I’d say they’ll probably get a better reception than last year’s. For one thing, people love the idea of new design space in the color pie. For another, they also love identifying with and sorting themselves — no pun intended — into teams or analogous groups based on their personalities. 

Identification with fictional elements influences an individual’s perception of their own personality characteristics and values (Cohen, 2001). Individuals seek to establish connections between fictional elements and themselves, adapting their own views depending on the characteristics and groups identities that represent the main and side characters.

The Science Behind the Magic? The Relation of the Harry Potter “Sorting Hat Quiz” to Personality and Human Values

There’s a rabbithole of fascinating psychology to go down, but in short: if people are sold on the schools of Strixhaven, I can’t see the Commander product doing badly at all. 

Commander 2021, then, is an opportunity to improve on the Ikoria decks of the year before. An opportunity to sell us, the players, on the concept of tie-in Commander decks — especially as we’ll be giving up narrative space in the rest of the Multiverse.

Commitment to a reduction in packaging

Now we’re done, let’s get the packaging out of the way — responsibly. Since Wizards started releasing two Commander decks with each major set, the packaging on Commander products has been different. The amount of plastic has been reduced, and the amount of recyclable cardboard and paper has increased. It’s not perfect, but it’s been a step in the right direction.

The First Lesson: Introduction to Strixhaven

With Commander 2021, that new packaging process will now be used on the yearly Commander product, too, with what sounds like an even greater reduction in needless plastic. I’m sure I speak for most of you when I say that, as long as the cards arrive undamaged, the only thing that’s important is that the packaging is as environmentally friendly as possible.

It sounds to me like Wizards are really stepping up their game here, and I’m happy to see them continuing to work at it. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll see cardboard boosters again. 

In Closing

Commander 2021 — or Strixhaven Commander — has a whole lot of potential. It also has a lot of expectations riding on it. With any luck, it’ll be a success, and improve upon the Ikoria tie-in we got last year. All I know is that I’m expecting great things, and even if there is room for those expectations to fall a little short, I’m happy to dream.

What are you most looking forward to about Commander 2021? Let me know on Twitter!