Has Wizards Fixed Dimir in Commander?

Has Play Designed Fixed Dimir in Casual Commander?

Kristen Gregory Commander

Dimir decks in Casual Commander often revolve around annoying strategies like mill or tutor up a linear combo. Kristen argues that not only is there room for this kind of deck in the format, but that Wizards of the Coast is doing a lot to offer more novel and attractive ways to play Dimir as a Control player.

Casual Commander is many things to many people. One of the reasons pregame chats are so useful (but also do so much heavy lifting) is because one player’s idea of casual can include combos, stax-lite and lots of board wipes while another’s is the more traditional “battlecruiser” style — building up a board and duking it out in combat, where midrange decks and creatures with Flying reign supreme.

Everyone has an opinion on why the 1-10 power level scale is lacking, plus thoughts on how to have better communication. What’s worked for me lately is asking if decks can make bursts of mana, the average turn a deck can get its engine online, whether you feel like the table should mulligan with intent (to removal) and, of course, if a deck is linear with tutors to a combo win. 

All of this is good for figuring out what kind of game to play. But should the table be in the mood for a more relaxed kind of game — the average Casual game, to be clear — certain color combinations lack diversity in what they can deploy. This is especially difficult when trying to match the vibe of the table while playing to their color’s strengths.

COMMANDER HAS CHANGED

If you look at Commander as little as four years ago, it was a very different format. Decks were grindier because they had to be. It was less of a tempo loss to play a board wipe, and recurring your threats to try and last a rotation at the table was vastly more important, due to them costing more, having less of an immediate impact and having fewer ways to protect them.

At least in my experience, 2023 Commander is at least one turn quicker. It has fewer board wipes. People play less recursion and more single target removal. The density of “must-answer” cards in a deck has never been higher. The drive for optimization, proliferation of treasure, volume of designed-for-Commander cards and new-era Precon design has accelerated the baseline experience way beyond what it once was.

Whether you enjoy these changes or not is anyone’s guess. I could write an entire article on those changes (and have covered some of them before, at length), but today the focus is on how Wizards has tried their best to make every color combination and archetype viable for the average table. 

Spoilers: they’re doing a really good job.

SCALING TO COMMANDER

In recent years, we’ve seen Wizards put a lot of effort into scaling up aggro to Commander. One of the reasons the white or red card in a cycle is often the most disappointing to Commander players is that the card is for a format with 100 less life points to chew through. Aggro in 60-card has to be designed with one opponent and 20 life in mind. 

As much as Dominaria Standard was a stellar format, the fact that History of Benalia and Fall of the Thran were basically unplayable in Commander, sitting alongside all-stars like The Mending of Dominaria, was a hard pill to swallow for players.

Over the years, we’ve had fewer Circle of Loyalty vs The Great Henge situations. The Defiler cycle from Dominaria United was pretty well balanced. And now with Wilds of Eldraine, while green has a fantastic mythic in Blossoming Tortoise, white has Moonshaker Cavalry. It’s Craterhoof Behemoth, in white, in a Standard set

I’ve only touched on a few comparisons here between white and green, but you could easily pull out ones between red and blue, or red and green, or even red and black. 

There’s a ceiling to fixing this issue within Standard sets, of course. It’s still impossible to print many cards that might seem fair in Commander into Standard. The Rock-Paper-Scissors of Aggro-Midrange-Control is a delicate balance, and giving Aggro too much card advantage upsets that balance.

Thankfully, Wizards has started to rectify this issue by printing more pushed designs in Commander products. Between powerful haymakers and Commanders that reward you for attacking, Aggro no longer runs out of gas so much — and decks can turn the corner to victory much sooner. There’s even new answers to wipes like Toxic Deluge and Cyclonic Rift.

TRANSLATING DIMIR TO COMMANDER

Players love to play Dimir in 60-card formats. Dimir is a color all about control. It removes creatures, discards cards from an opponent’s hand, counters their spells and otherwise plays a game of resource denial while chipping away at them with evasive utility creatures or tokens, or sometimes by reanimating a haymaker. 

In 1v1 Magic, this is a sound strategy. When scaling to Commander, cracks start to show. 

Stripping resources is less effective in Commander because you’re spending resources to do so, all while three other players are spending resources to kill you and/or win the game. Doing this, and playing counterspells, is card disadvantage most of the time. 

Reanimator is good — but without red, white or green, you lose access to some of the best creatures in the format. This is especially true when you factor in that Dimir doesn’t get mass haste, doublestrike or damage doublers. And it’s compounded by the fact that some of the best creatures to reanimate (much like some of the best Dimir strategies) are perceived as anti-social and anti-fun by the average casual player.

The ways in which Dimir tries to win is either by playing those anti-social cards — by leaning hard into resource-denial in a way that scales to the table and can frustrate people — or by playing combos. Considering that a lot of players find combos boring, and a lot of casual players prefer a more relaxed environment, it leaves Dimir in an uncomfortable place.

WHAT DOES CASUAL DIMIR EVEN LOOK LIKE

Taking a quick peek at EDHRec, we can see the most popular Commanders. It’s quite easy to break them down:

Just looking at that cross-section, it’s easy to see how it can be difficult to pick a Dimir deck that is both enjoyable to play and enjoyable to play against. When I say this, remember I am talking about the average player. Provided a good pre-game chat happens, I and many, many other players have no issue jamming against these builds.

But just as we on the Rules Committee and Commander Advisory Group are tuned in to what the bulk of players are talking about and playing at pick-up games with strangers at the LGS, so, too, is Wizards aware of how Dimir players are essentially in a spot of negotiation every time they sit down at the table. 

Is it playing Combos? Cards like Notion Thief/Narset with Windfall? Oh, you’re on mill? EXILE MILL?!

If you scroll down a little, you’ll see Commanders like Eloise that, on the surface, are interesting — but more commonly devolve into infinite combos (March of the Machines). When you look at what Wizards has done for Aggro, though, why shouldn’t you play tutors and go ham for that combo before you are knocked out? 

Well, that’s an interesting question, because to truly unpack it, we need to think about what cards the social contract ties up for Aggro decks, too. It’s a complex balance of negotiation, trying to build for Casual tables, and it’s why so many players gravitate toward cEDH where their expectations can rarely be disappointed. 

Anyways, after that, things kinda drop off, with far fewer decks being built. Is Dimir fated to be an ostensibly “fun police” color combination that relies on combos and resource denial? Should players just suck it up and stop complaining? 

The answer to the latter is mostly yes, but the answer to the former interests me way more. Can Wizards offer more ways to play the color combination that don’t elicit so many groans at Casual tables?

WHAT MAKES YURIKO SO GOOD?

If your answer is that Commander Ninjutsu is broken, I’ll give you half a mark. It’s a little deeper than that.

First, Commander Ninjutsu performs so well in Dimir because Dimir is one of the worst color combinations at generating mana as the game progresses. If you’re just playing mana rocks, you miss out on dropping your key curve-out units. 

When playing Rogues and Ninjas, this is especially frustrating, as your fragile bodies get stonewalled by the ridiculous amount of low cost x/4s that now hang out in the format (sidenote: x/4s are incredible in Commander these days. You should play more). 

Dimir does “bursty” mana a lot worse than red or green, and it lacks white’s catch-up mechanic. To ramp and curve out, it relies on easily blockable creatures that connect to make treasure. While it has access to Cabal Coffers, that’s only one card. 

Dimir Midrange doesn’t fare much better. Its creatures rarely give mana advantage and aren’t able to disenchant anything, unlike the ones commonly played in other color combinations. They become quickly outclassed and invariably you’ll end up relying on clones.  

The other thing that makes Yuriko so good is she turns Dimir’s otherwise poorly-scaling creatures into lethal damage. Rogues, Ninjas, Faeries… some of the most popular Dimir creatures merely tickle opponents, and UB doesn’t have as easy a time as red or white to make those tokens and low drops win the game. 

Indeed, most Faerie decks opt for Esper Alela, Artful Provocateur because she lets you build up a bunch of buffs and other effects that literally produce the Faerie tokens for casting them. Meanwhile, Yuriko ensures that life totals do indeed drop and lets you do it with unblockable, low drop creatures. 

Yuriko gives Dimir players a way to enjoy jamming creatures and curving out that other Commanders struggle to offer. Dimir isn’t built for midrange beats, let alone for turning smaller bodies into lethal armies. She’s something of an outlier on the plot of Dimir Commanders, though, and I doubt we’ll ever see something as powerful as Commander Ninjutsu again. 

SO HOW HAVE PLAY DESIGN FIXED DIMIR?

Well, first off, with interesting designs that aren’t just resource denial or combo. Runo Stromkirk goes some way toward solving Dimir’s mana disadvantage by letting you turn singular sea creatures into multiple token copies. 

Sure, Simic krakens and co. will always be the most popular way to play this archetype, but porting it into Dimir in an interesting way (Spawning Kraken, anyone?) is excellent or Casual players.

Clones are officially a bit long in the tooth, especially as an archetype. “Your deck, but better” tends to rub people the wrong way. And for many, it takes away one of the core parts of the format’s identity: going all in on a flavorful deck, expressing it through the mana base and cards chosen. 

Just as Runo copies your own stuff, we’ve started to see more and more Commanders that encourage you to stick to cloning stuff on your side of the table. Talion, the Kindly Lord is an ideal candidate for a self-clone deck because you can just keep cloning your Commander and that’s literally your win condition. 

We also got Venser, Corpse Puppet. The game plan is to get in for poison on as many players as you can, as early as possible, before proliferating. Venser can jump your midrange haymakers allowing them to trigger on-damage effects while gaining you chunks of life back to survive to the late game as you slowly poison people to death. 

These are interesting designs, sure, but I think the best designs have occurred when Wizards tries to give players what they really want: a way to play with a bunch of instants to control how the game plays that somehow scales to Commander without relying on combos or reanimator. But how does that scale to Commander?

CONTROL, BUT WITH A CLOCK

Just as Yuriko and Venser keep the clock ticking, the secret to any spellslinger control Commander in UB is to let it move the clock as well, apparently. 

Lord of the Nazgul is a great example of this. Sure, you can jam the nine Nazgul in there (if you can find them!), but the reason people love this Commander is because it lets you play cheap instants and sorceries that would otherwise be medium at best and card disadvantage at worst. 

Getting a 3/3 every time and eventually amassing enough of a Wraith army to trigger a huge power boost to all Wraiths you control? That’s a way to turn the corner. It’s a win condition. 

One card does not a pattern make, but Alela, Cunning Conqueror is operating in a similar design space. As mentioned above, the issue with playing a deck like Faeries is that your bodies are small, and trying to kill multiple players without dying on the back swing is difficult.

Alela makes 1/1 flyers, which by themselves are pretty forgettable. But her true power is in turning those flyers into goad triggers. Goad keeps life totals moving and creates openings for the Dimir deck to swoop in and take the game. 

Tegwyll and Obyra offer different solutions to keeping the clock moving in an anthem and a drain mechanic, respectively, but Alela is popular for the same reason Lord of the Nazgul is. She creates a clock while allowing you to play Dimir in a similar way to how you’d play it in 60-card formats.

END STEP

Overall, I think R&D is doing a solid job with trying to appeal to the Casual player base. Not only has the team made efforts to scale aggressive cards to the multiplayer format, but it has also made a real effort to untether Dimir from its somewhat narrow identity as a perceivably “un-fun” or “spikey combo” kind of deck that is less at home at more relaxed tables. 

Providing fun and interesting build-arounds that help to keep the clock moving is one thing, but marrying that up with Commanders that allow the true Control player’s playstyle to shine through is inspired.

It’s not without pitfalls, however. We currently have no interplay for Goad. There are no spells that grant one-off anti-goad, nor are there any goad hatebears. 

A Casual format with too much Goad is a format that lacks agency, and that’s not a healthy format. So, while Alela is a great design, I want to see less repeatable Goad in future, especially if there are no ways to play around it.

Further, in appealing to the less-invested player and trying to offer ways to play that don’t rub people up the wrong way, there’s a danger that the format stagnates around an “acceptable” idea of midrange value piles. 

This was kind of where Commander was at before fixing Aggro; lower power battlecruiser vs high power combo decks. For us to not end up right back in that spot, there needs to be some maturation from the player base on what constitutes a “fair” version of any kind of deck. 

Many cards used in Aggro decks are still considered faux pas, let alone the idea of focusing down one player or even knocking them out early. Players amass board states that demand wraths at a time where wraths are too often looked down on as “stifling fun” or “adding time to games,” when they could just play faster and build their decks to actually win. 

Just as players should be more open to playing against the decidedly groan-testing side of colors like UB — with resource denial, mill and lots of ways to say “no” — they also need to relax those expectations across archetypes. Only then can we retain access to a healthy and diverse format.