Commander is an ever evolving metagame, with new cards being added all the time. What’s changed in the past year or two? Which keywords are doing the heavy lifting? Commander Advisory Group member Kristen shares her thoughts on how things are shaping up.
It’s been nearly three years since I last wrote about Casual Commander’s Most Underrated Abilities. The format has changed a lot since then; we’ve had new win conditions, plenty of white card draw and nearly 1,000 new Commanders. The mind boggles at that last one — is it any surprise that the format has moved on from it’s decidedly static feel through 2018?
I’ve added some thoughts on some not-quite keywords to this article, too, so expect to see Phasing and Fight, among others, show up.
The last time I visited this, I touted Haste and Lifelink leading the pack, with Vigilance also coming in pretty strong. Do they still lead the pack? Let’s see.
THE BEST KEYWORD ABILITIES IN COMMANDER
OK, so before we go straight into the combat-focused keywords, I’d like to instead cover the more defensive ones. The abilities in this section aren’t in any particular order; they’re all stellar, and ranking them is kind of pointless. Think of them as the S-tier.
Keeping hold of your investments has always been a priority in Commander, given you have three opponents who can draw into removal. Hexproof continues to be the most widely available method to ensure your creature doesn’t get hit with a Swords to Plowshares.
When it comes to choosing between Swiftfoot Boots and Lightning Greaves, it mostly comes down to figuring out how often you’ll be targeting your own creatures: with auras, equipment, abilities and spells like Tamiyo’s Safekeeping or Blacksmith’s Skill.
Beyond the equipment, there are countless methods to grant hexproof. You’ve got it on instants, ability counters, lands…
There’s not a whole lot more to say about it, really. Hexproof is good, it’s always been good and it always will be. You can tell, because they’ve started using Ward way more often now.
There are things Hexproof can’t help with though: bounce, edicts and board wipes. Good thing we have a new kid on the block to help.
Sure, phasing isn’t even a keyword, but let me cook. Hexproof has its flaws, but Phasing is largely impossible to interact with.
The creatures don’t leave the battlefield, so Containment Priest doesn’t work. They don’t require Haste to attack when they phase back in. Phasing keeps all auras, equipment and counters on the creatures that leave play.
Phasing gets around Cyclonic Rift and Toxic Deluge. The two major white protection spells, Teferi’s Protection and Clever Concealment, have all but “phased out” the likes of Make a Stand or Unbreakable Formation. You’ll take Boros Charm or Heroic Intervention if you dip into other colors, but for the most part, they’ll be third or fourth pick.
There are downsides to Phasing, of course. If you use anything but Teferi’s Protection, you’re going to be left without blockers. In a format like Commander, that has to be balanced against the likelihood of you being wiped out.
By and large, if you need to phase your board, it’s in response to a symmetrical wipe, though, so this comes up less often than you’d think.
Phasing keeps getting better. Just look at Galadriel’s Dismissal. It can be used to not only save your own board, but to remove Voltron attackers (or even entire enemy armies) as either a fog or to give your stuff unblockable. Speaking of versatility, it’s time to move to our next keyword.
Protection has gotten way better of late. I’ll go into this more when we look at combat keywords, but getting through for damage without being blocked is relevant at every stage of the game, and it takes, on average, fewer turns to knock people out of the game.
Fewer turns means fewer removal spells, so Protection pulls double duty, keeping your creatures around without the need to fire off a Hexproof or Phasing spell.
It’s no secret that some of the most enduring, older Commanders are still popular today because of their in-built protection. We’ve all been in a game where we’ve forgotten that our Anguished Unmaking can’t hit Animar, right? Or that we can’t block it?
There was a period of time where I took “vanilla” creatures less often in Commander. I use vanilla in air quotes here because these aren’t truly vanilla creatures. What I mean is that in Commander, if a creature doesn’t draw cards, ramp, destroy a permanent or get you closer to winning and only has basic keywords, it may as well be vanilla.
I think given the shift in the meta to a more aggressive style of game with a shorter set-up before hitting the mid-game, I am coming back around to taking these creatures in certain builds once more. Phyrexian Crusader has bodied the table more than once in my friend’s Otrimi deck. Whether you mutate onto it for the infect kill or simply have it as a blocker, that pro-red and pro-white are excellent.
Similarly, I am warming to the idea of packing Mirran Crusader in my equipment decks again. Sword of Feast and Famine already wins me games just from the protection alone, and having a three drop that can double-trigger many on damage effects, like Mask of Memory and Goldvein Pick, can come in clutch, especially when you need to connect to get those triggers.
Protection has been pushed of late; I don’t need to wax lyrical on how good The One Ring is. So instead, let’s look at another Tales of Middle-earth card: Éowyn, Fearless Knight.
Not only does she come in and remove a thing, but she has haste, and gives your Legendary creatures protection until end of turn — opening the door for big swings.
IT’S TIME TO DUEL
Big swings are what Commander is about in 2023. Chip damage is still relevant, of course (and I always encourage you to attack someone instead of rolling a dice, because there’s always a correct attack), but it’s even more relevant now that big swings can come out of nowhere.
With access to cheap protection/unblockable, teamwide doublestrike, goad and doublers (and triplers!), you no longer need to wait until turn 10 to have that alpha strike.
Where a few years ago I was super high on Haste, due to the ability to punish people after board wipes, I’m a little lower on it now and way higher on Vigilance. The way games tend to go nowadays, people are always attacking because they’re always generating value.
Any player who lacks good blockers is going to get creamed just for being alive and able to deliver on those sweet, sweet triggers. It’s partly why I’m a big advocate of running as many dummy thicc 2/4s that synergize with your deck as you can.
Of course, 2/4s don’t take the cake — they just eat it. What you really want is Vigilance.
Vigilance allows you to attack with impunity. In the early game, a decent size body with Vigilance gives you free attacks and free blocks. In the mid to late game, team-wide Vigilance takes a lot of difficult decision making out of combat scenarios.
Without it, you’re forced to calculate just how much damage you can afford to take before dying to the Trap! Undercity trigger you forgot about.
Of course, getting in for combat damage is hampered by good blockers. What’s the answer to that? Well, it’s to avoid tangling with them at all.
Flying remains one of the easiest ways to dominate a game. Flyers come in all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of abilities and payoffs. By taking low cost flyers with relevant abilities, you can ensure you trigger early game on-attack or on-damage triggers while having relevant interaction on board — or just good blockers.
Generating Flyers for doing game actions you’d already do is a little underrated, in my experience. More players should look not just at the Talrands of the world, but also the Pia Nalaars and the Sai, Master Thopterists. A steady stream of flyers can accomplish a lot.
And here’s one you might not have been expecting: Menace. I’m beginning to think Menace is secretly disgustingly good.
Take Syr Gwyn, one of my all-time Commanders. Having both Vigilance and Menace makes her a real pain in combat, and it means that, despite her high casting cost, she can come in and usually connect without much trouble (especially if she hoovers up a haste-enabler).
Now, what is it that makes Menace so good? Well, it’s the fact that unless you’re playing against tokens, an opponent has to give up potentially two of their utility creatures to block you.
That’s a big tempo loss, and it can also pave the way for other, more dangerous attackers to come in, unperturbed. What’s worse: letting your Professional Face-Breaker in for a treasure or taking 10 from a Commander with a Feast and Famine on?
Any time you make it so an opponent can’t chump block or “bounce” creatures off each other helps whittle down their resources or their life total. Menace enables this.
KEYWORDS THAT ARE STILL GOOD
While the keywords already covered are what I would argue as the “best” in the format right now, there are some others that are still really good:
- Lifelink — Lifelink is somewhat adjacent to Vigilance in that it enables big swings with relative impunity. Where it falls short is that it relies on doing damage; opponents sacrificing their blockers means that without trample, you won’t gain the life. In addition, sometimes you need to swing to gain the life rather than hold up a blocker (which is less reliable, ‘cos you might have it removed or they may not attack into you). Swinging can be dangerous.
- Trample — Trample is still great and is up there with other evasion abilities. It does get countered harder by deathtouch and indestructible, though, so I rank Flying and Menace above it.
- Haste — Haste is still incredible, but less relevant than it used to be. The average quantity of board wipes has diminished, so now getting to keep your board in play with protection is worth more than slamming it in sideways.
- Double Strike — Getting to do damage twice is great if your deck has payoffs for doing so.
- Goad — not technically a keyword in the same way, but ubiquitous enough it needs a mention. A little goad in your deck can help pave the way to victory. Reactionary and repeatable Goad like Laurine, the Diversion and versatile Goad like Taunt from the Rampart are the cream of this crop.
ABILITIES THAT FELL OFF
Not every ability is as good as it was, and some have aged less well than their contemporaries. In current day Commander, I rate these effects as pretty medium:
- Indestructible — When you can phase out, indestructible is largely unnecessary. It’s also the same when you have evasion. Too many effects get around it (like exile or -x/-x removal) that it isn’t really worth splashing for unless it comes with something else. Still good if built around, though.
- Deathtouch — Part of a trifecta, I guess, with the above and the next ability. Deathtouch can make blocking annoying for your opponents, but is generally less good defensively than it once was. If your whole deck is deathtouch, you’re likely to be targeted for running cards like Fynn the Fangbearer.
- First Strike — comes up rarely, and usually only in the case against Deathtouch. Due to the power and popularity of 2/4 creatures, it’s gonna fall behind quicker than it used to.
- Edict — most decks make tokens now, so stripping away permanents with single edicts is as bad as it’s ever been. Effects like Soul Shatter are still good though.
- Fight — fight spells are card disadvantage in most decks. They are also incredibly easy to blow-out, and when this happens, you’re often going to lose your own creature, which will still take damage from the now immune opposing creature.
Commander is an ever-changing metagame. Keeping up with it is key to success at casual tables, where you’re most likely to encounter the gamut of abilities in a single game.
As ever, evasion helps get damage through, but look at how you can leverage Menace and Vigilance in order to gain more tempo. Phasing is the new king of defensive utility, and it’s here to stay.
Otherwise, do you think any keywords are missing from any of the above categories? Let me know on X!
Kristen is Card Kingdom’s Head Writer, and member of the Commander Advisory Group. Formerly a competitive Pokémon TCG grinder, she has been playing Magic since Shadows Over Innistrad, which in her opinion, was a great set to start with. When she’s not taking names with Equipment and Aggro strategies in Commander, she loves to play any form of Limited.