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Commander Review: Zendikar Rising | Part 1 | White, Blue


Zendikar Rising is on the horizon so it's time again for my Commander Review! Which cards am I most interested in for our beloved format, and where will they likely find homes? I break it all down so let's get started!

Modal Double-Faced Cards

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Before we begin, I want to briefly cover my thoughts on the new modal double-faced cards in the set. These are cards that you choose which mode you want to play, the front usually being a spell and the back always being a land. So for all these cards they can always be played as a land OR as something else.

The cards are fairly difficult to evaluate at first glance. There's been many, many discussions on how good they are and whether they should count as a land or nonland slot when adding them into your deck. I could write an entire article solely on evaluating modal lands as a concept, but for now here are just some general tips when evaluating them so I don't have to repeat myself a thousand times during this review:

  • The flexibility of modal lands adds a lot of base power to the cards and are important to consider when evaluating.
  • If you are happy playing the card more often as a land, then take out a land for it. If you are happy with playing the card more often as a spell, then take out a spell for it. 
  • Modal lands are never "free" slots. Even the lands that enter untapped, like Emeria's Call, have a cost for running, either not mana-fixing in multicolor decks or simply lacking synergies a Plains card offers when paired with cards that care about basic land types like Emeria, the Sky Ruin, Emeria Shepherd, Extraplanar Lens, etc. Saying "there's no drawback running them" is an oversimplification.

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Modal lands are going to work best in decks that can really take advantage of their modal nature. Decks that can play them as lands and later bounce them back to hand to recast as spells, like Mina and Denn, Wildborn, are gonna have a great time with them. They're also great in decks that can cheat the overcosted cmc that the spell sides are packing, like Narset, Enlightened Master and Golos, Tireless Pilgrim.

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So yeah, modal lands are good in general, terrific in certain decks, but even the best of them have drawbacks. It's a cool design space that I'm excited to playtest.

WHITE

Angel of Destiny

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Angel of Destiny is one of the strongest new White cards that expertly takes advantage of the colors' main strengths and turns it into a savage win con. Here are some of the ways it does this:

  • First and foremost is acting as a payoff for Lifegain strategies. White is the best at Lifegain and keeping your life total at 55+ is trivial for it to do.
  • Next is Equipment strategies. White is the best at Equipments, easily fetching Helm of the Host so you can 1-shot multiple opponents per turn. Also lots of the best equipment have combat triggers (e.g. Sword of Light and Shadow) and Angel's double strike means double the value from them.
  • 2 power is actually a boon in White decks because lots of the most powerful cards are keyed of 2 or less power, like Dusk // Dawn and Mentor of the Meek.
  • Finally this is an Angel and a Cleric, both primary White tribes (e.g. Lyra Dawnbringer).

All these attributes combined make Angel of Destiny not just a new staple for the Lifegain archetype, but worth consideration in a lot of different White decks. I expect this card to show up in every Lyra Dawnbringer, Karlov of the Ghost Council, Trostani, Selesnya's Voice deck and many more. 

Archon of Emeria

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Archon of Emeria is undoubtedly a powerful card: it combines two other hatebears, Eidolon of Rhetoric and Thalia, Heretic Cathar into one flying creature at the exact same cmc, which is a superb rate for a hatebear. The question is: do you want both abilities? Having your opponents' nonbasics enter tapped is a great tempo swing that is useful in any deck, but the Rule of Law effect narrows the usefulness of the Archon to pretty much just Stax decks and decks built around dumping mana into powerful activated abilities instead of casting multiple spells, like Sisay, Weatherlight Captain.

Due to its narrow effectiveness, I doubt Archon will see much play, but in the decks that it's good in it'll be very good: Gaddock Teeg, Sisay, Weatherlight Captain, or Stax-oriented Tymna the Weaver decks will love this card.

Emeria's Call

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Emeria's Call isn't a card that I'm excited to jam into just any White or 2C White deck deck, but there's a few potential homes for it that I'm somewhat interested in. Seven mana is a ton and the effect isn't that great. It makes you next combat safer and keeps your board mostly safe from opposing board wipes until your next turn, or if you have a TON of mana you could cast this before a Wrath of God to make it a one-sided board wipe kinda, but ehhh that's kinda win-more territory.

95% of the time you're just going to play it as a land, which is fine since yeah it can enter untapped, but that's one less Plains to fuel more powerful Mono White payoff cards like Emeria, the Sky Ruin, Emeria Shepherd, Extraplanar Lens, etc. Is it still good enough for me to run in Mono White and/or 2C White decks though? Eh, probably.

Where Emeria's Call kinda shines, however, are decks that actually care about the spell side: Populate decks like Trostani, Selesnya's Voice are happy to copy beefy 4/4 flyers, and Angel Tribal decks like Lyra Dawnbringer are happy to find more ways to dump Angels into play, even if they aren't given indestructible. Is the spell great in these decks? No, but the synergy makes it a bit more appealing.

Felidar Retreat

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Felidar Retreat is a really sweet card. Retreat to Emeria was already pretty good and saw a decent amount of play, but Felidar Retreat kinda beats it in nearly every way; bigger tokens, bigger buffs. The only thing Retreat to Emeria does better now is it produces Ally tokens, which is relevant in Ally Tribal and basically nowhere else. But for everything else, Felidar Retreat is a huge improvement and offers a ton of value to a bunch of different archetypes:

  • The tokens are Cats, so obviously an auto-include in Cat Tribal
  • The buff is +1/+1 Counter so it's solid for +1/+1 counter decks
  • It's a Landfall trigger so Lands decks that Go Wide will enjoy it

It's hard not to jam Felidar Retreat into a deck and not get value from it. But I expect to see it played the most in Obuun, Mul Daya Ancestor Landfall +1/+1 Counter decks, also Omnath, Locus of Creation Landfall decks, and Rin and Seri, Inseparable Cat Tribal.

Kabira Takedown

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Kabira Takedown is a surprisingly strong modal removal option for Go Wide decks. No, it doesn't have the unconditional efficiency of Swords to Plowshares, but it's instant speed, only two mana, and in a Go Wide deck that often has a board full of creatures it can reliably kill pretty much anything. That's a lot of value for a worst-case tapland!

I'd be happy to jam Kabira Takedown in any White-heavy Go Wide deck like Rhys the Redeemed, Winota, Joiner of Forces, and Kykar, Wind's Fury.

Kor Blademaster

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Kor Blademaster is a terrific inclusion in a Warrior Tribal deck that runs a strong Equipment subtheme. Double strike is great paired with combat trigger equipment (Sword of Fire and Ice) and this is a great way to give all your Warriors double strike. The only problem is that Warriors were never linked to Equipment up until this set, so this theoretical Warrior Equipment deck doesn't exist yet. Unfortunate, but if this design space is further expanded upon in future products then Kor Blademaster will be a core part of the strategy.

Thought perhaps Kor Blademaster might be good enough already in a Voltron Equipment deck that happens to be led by a Warrior? It might be worth considering jamming it into, say, Zurgo Helmsmasher as a cheap way to give your Voltron'd up commander double strike. Could be good!

Luminarch Aspirant

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Luminarch Aspirant isn't a flashy card but looks like a solid player in a bunch of +1/+1 Counter decks: it's cheap, it's efficient, not particularly breakable but does a decent job of providing +1/+1 counters. Aspirant is fine in any +1/+1 counter deck, like Atraxa, Praetors' Voice, but since it's a combat step trigger it's a wee bit more powerful in decks that have extra combat steps like Aurelia, the Warleader.

Makindi Stampede

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I can see Makindi Stampede being a decent enough modal finisher for a Go Wide deck. A token deck like Rhys the Redeemed, Akim, the Soaring Wind, or Rith, the Awakener can play this as a land most of the time but cast it as a finisher in a pinch. It's not a fantastic card, but it's never bad, and probably will make it into most of my budget Go Wide brews.

Maul of the Skyclaves

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Maul of the Skyclaves's first equip being free is sweet, but holy moly that's a steep re-equip cost! I do like flying, but overall the card does too little for too high of a cmc to excite me. Maybe in a budget Equipment build it'll be good enough.

Ondu Inversion

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Yes, eight mana is a ton. Yes, the land side enters tapped. But I like this rare Ondu Inversion way more than the mythic Emeria's Call. Planar Cleansing is a fantastic effect in Commander because having a way to fully clear the board is something basically every deck wants to have access to. I can think of a lot of decks where I'm okay with having an overcosted Planar Cleansing that I can play as a tapland in a pinch because that board wipe effect is just so clutch when you need it.

Ondu Inversion is definitely not an auto-include -- both sides are quite unattractive by themselves -- but at casual / mid-power tables that regularly go to turn 11, this is a card that I'm happy to run. I think it will shine brightest in WG+ decks with gameplans that involve heavy ramp, like Omnath, Locus of Creation and Obuun, Mul Daya Ancestor.

Resolute Strike

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Resolute Strike kinda works similar to Magnetic Theft but for Warriors. Theft is used almost exclusively in Feather, the Redeemed decks as a repeatable way to cheaply re-equip Sunforger, which sounds too cute on paper but in practice it's totally worth it. Unfortunately Feather isn't a Warrior, but I could see Resolute Strike doing similar in a Equipment deck helmed by a Warrior like Zurgo Helmsmasher, like a "ritual" to save a bunch of mana equipping a big thing like Helm of the Host for just 1 mana. Or saving a Warrior from removal with an instant speed Swiftfoot Boots equip. Maybe too cute, but definitely a sweet play when it works!

Skyclave Apparition

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HOLY BANANAS, BATMAN! Skyclave Apparition is absurdly good removal! This is super flexible removal on an ETB trigger, sort of like Banisher Priest but it can hit any nonland permanent cmc 4 or less. But what really makes ghostie exciting is that unlike similar cards like Priest, the exiled permanent does NOT return when Apparition leaves the battlefield; it's gone forever, and the owner just gets a sad vanilla creature token instead. And as we know from cards like Beast Within, gifting a random creature token is hardly a downside at all.

This makes Skyclave Apparition not just good by itself but completely bonkers in a Blink deck like Brago, King Eternal and Chulane, Teller of Tales, bouncing / blinking the Apparition to re-use its powerful ETB removal over and over again. The value! THE. VALUE!

Skyclave Cleric

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Skyclave Cleric is a decent budget inclusion in Cleric Tribal decks like Orah, Skyclave Hierophant. It's filler Cleric in a pinch, providing relevant sacrifice fodder and gaining life, both things that feed into Cleric Tribal's main themes of Sacrifice and Lifegain. Or it's a land drop when you need it. Nothing mindblowing here, but it's a solid inclusion that will make it into my budget brews.

Squad Commander

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Squad Commander brings a solid foundation to Party Tribal, creating between one to four tokens with its ETB trigger and making your army indestructible on your turn, letting you attack with confidence but also pairing wonderfully with creature board wipes like Wrath of God, turning them into assymmetrical wipes.

This is a staple in Tazri, Beacon of Unity Party Tribal and a solid inclusion in Tribal Tribal .

Trove Warden

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Trove Warden is an excellent new source of graveyard recursion and card advantage. It's similar to the Commander staple Sun Titan that it puts permanents with a cmc 3 or less from your graveyard to the battlefield, but with big differences on how it does it: this ability is a landfall trigger and you only get the cards once Trove Warden dies. The more lands you can put into play the more potential benefit you can get, so Green decks with lots of land ramp can get the most potential value out of Trove Warden, but even a Mono White deck running all on-color fetchlands (Flooded Strand) can get more than enough value off its triggered ability: cracking a Flooded Strand gives you two landfall triggers to exile two cards, and you can even exile the Flooded Strand itself, putting it back into play once the Warden dies, which is a sweet (but convoluted) way to ramp in White. 

The big downside to Trove Warden though is you only get the cards exiled by it once it dies and the cards will be exiled forever if the Warden leaves the battlefield other ways, like if it gets exiled, blinked, or bounced to your hand. Having a way to consistently sacrifice the Warden is the key to making it amazing, so it will be strongest in decks with a heavy sacrifice theme like Athreos, God of Passage, Karador, Ghost Chieftain, and Teysa, Orzhov Scion.

BLUE

Charix, the Raging Isle

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Charix, the Raging Isle is a wonderful flamboyant design that's impossible to hate: we've got a legendary CRAB that has a whopping 17 toughness! There's just so much cool stuff going on here in a slim word count. Charix has potential as a commander, slapping on a Fireshrieker, becoming unblockable with Tetsuko Umezawa, Fugitive, and going full beatdown mode, simple yet highly effective. But Charix is even more powerful in the 99 of decks that can really abuse that thicc booty like Phenax, God of Deception and Arcades, the Strategist. It's a good Leviathan so it's also an auto-include in Sea Monster Tribal!

Confounding Conundrum

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I feel like Confounding Conundrum is a ridiculously good card in Commander but very few people will end up playing it due to its salt factor. Best case scenario you're up against one or multiple Green decks looking to land ramp with a bunch of Rampant Growth effects and Conundrum slows them down significantly. Normal case everyone's running fetchlands (Wooded Foothills) so this slows them down too. Worst case you've basically "cycled" this card for 2 mana since it replaces itself.

Honestly I think you can jam Conundrum into any Blue deck and get tons of value for it. It's an enchantment so it's even better in Enchantress decks like Tuvasa the Sunlit. Sometimes it can end up helping an opponent like Azusa, Lost but Seeking to get a bunch of extra landfall triggers for free, but far more often it's a powerful soft lock. Just keep in mind that people HATE when you mess with their lands so the salt factor is high and you will definitely be targeted for playing it.

Coralhelm Chronicler

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Can you imagine if Coralhelm Chronicler was a multicolored legendary creature? Oof, what a sick Kicker Tribal commander that would've been! Regardless, Chronicler is a sick payoff for a Kicker deck, such as one under Verazol, the Split Current.

Enigma Thief

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Enigma Thief has a powerful enter the battlefield trigger, bouncing a nonland permanent each opponent controls. Paying seven mana for this Sphinx Rogue is a terrible rate, but its Prowl cost of just four mana is fantastic, making it an allstar in Rogue Tribal decks, decent-ish in Unesh, Criosphinx Sovereign, and not great anywhere else. Pretty straightforward card, powerful but narrow.

Glasspool Mimic

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I've never desired Mirror Image in Commander but being a modal tapland is enough to catch my interest. I still wouldn't jam it into just any Blue deck but any creature-heavy deck that likes these types of Clones will love it. It's also a Rogue so it's an easy include in Anowon, the Ruin Thief and possibly also Tazri, Beacon of Unity.

Inscription of Insight

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I was super excited for Inscription of Insight until I realized it was a Sorcery, not Instant. Don't get me wrong, the flexibility here is nice and appreciated, but I just can't see myself getting excited playing this card at sorcery-speed. If it was instant then I'd windmill slam it into a bunch of Draw-Go Spellslinger lists like Talrand, Sky Summoner but alas, it is not. As it stands I'll give it a shot in Kicker decks like Verazol, the Split Current and possibly use it as a budget option for other decks but not elsewhere.

Jace, Mirror Mage

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Is Jace, Mirror Mage an objectively good planeswalker in Commander? No, not really. It suffers the same disadvantage as all planeswalkers do in a multiplayer format with no instant payoff like some of the better ones have (Ajani, Strength of the Pride) or a busted ultimate that reserves a spot in Superfriends.

But what it does do that's really neat is make a planeswalker token, which opens up a whole bunch of silly synergies that you don't usually have access to with planeswalkers. Who doesn't want an army of Jaces with a bunch of token doublers like Anointed Procession and Parallel Lives? No, it's not a strong strat, but I find this stuff immensely enjoyable.

Jwari Disruption

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In a format that is spoiled rotten with absurdly good countermagic -- Mana Drain is legal here! -- Jwari Disruption is, well, it's bad. Nobody plays Force Spike, and while I do partake in Mana Tithe for the meme factor, a double cost Spike is something I would not recommend ... unless you're playing Draw Go Control like Talrand, Sky Summoner "Oops All Counterspells" deck and you really want to show your opponents how much you hate them by throwing another counterspell into the pile. This is the type of card that you can gotcha someone with early/midgame and just play as a land later on.

Maddening Cacophony

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Maddening Cacophony is Traumatize that hits all opponents and is modal with a cheaper alternative cost as a bonus. Traumatize has long been one of the best mill cards available in Commander, so printing a huge upgrade to that is a big deal for Mill decks. This is a new instant staple, providing easy wins when paired with Bruvac the Grandiloquent to mill all of your opponents' libraries, but even if not outright winning it'll provide a ton of fuel for decks like Lazav, Dimir Mastermind that use opposing graveyards as a resource.

Master of Winds

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Master of Winds isn't a great card, but it's a decent and cheap Sphinx, making it an auto-include in Unesh, Criosphinx Sovereign.

Merfolk Windrobber

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This Flying Men can also sacrifice itself to draw a card, sweet! And it's a Rogue! This is the perfect inclusion in Edric, Spymaster of Trest and Anowon, the Ruin Thief decks, doing exactly what both decks want to be doing.

Nimble Trapfinder

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Nimble Trapfinder has a very high power ceiling, at best being a half-priced Coastal Piracy that itself can attack as an unblockable 2/1. Consistently having a full party is pretty difficult though, and without it the Trapfinder is very underwhelming. It's still good enough for Party Tribal and at least worth considering for Tribal Tribal.

Roost of Drakes

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Roost of Drakes is another welcom staple payoff card for the Kicker deck. Simple, useful effect, and very mana-efficient, this is exactly what I'd want in Verazol, the Split Current.

Sea Gate Restoration

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Drawing cards is the best thing ever. Not having to discard down to hand size right after is great too. The land mode comes into play untapped. What's not to love here? Sea Gate Restoration is a card that I'll happily take out an Island for. It's ridiculous in any Green deck that consistently ramp to seven mana like Tatyova, Benthic Druid or any deck that bounces lands for value like Moonfolk Tribal but I'm happy putting this in any random Blue deck as well.

Sea Gate Stormcaller

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Sea Gate Stormcaller is a super spicy Dualcaster Mage, costing less mana but with heavier restrictions on what it can copy. It's super efficient at what it does and will likely see play in Kalamax, the Stormsire and Inalla, Archmage Ritualist at the very least, plus I've heard rumblings of CEDH potential. 

Silundi Vision

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Silundi Vision is a solid inclusion in Spellslinger decks, mixing together Lonely Sandbar and Peer Through Depths to get this new modal land. I think comparing it to Lonely Sandbar in Spellslinger is fair, and I like Sandbar a lot in Blue-heavy Draw-Go decks. I'll probably run both in Talrand, Sky Summoner, Noyan Dar, Roil Shaper, and many others, taking out a nonland card for it.

Thieving Skydiver

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Oh WOW! Thieving Skydiver is a powerful card that will definitely be spilling salt over many tables soon! Pay three mana, steal an opponent's Sol Ring? Yes, please! Since artifacts are so common in Commander I can't imagine a game where you don't get great value every time you cast Skydiver. Even better if you have ways to bounce it back to your hand to recast with kicker, like Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow. It's a Rogue so obviously an auto-include in Rogue Tribal as well. I probably won't jam it in all my Blue decks, but there's likely multiple good homes for Skydiver since its base power is pretty high.

Next Up: Black, Red!

We continue with Part 2 coming soon! Let me know what you think of the new ZRN cards in Commander: which are you most excited for? How do you plan to use them? I'm curious to hear your thoughts! Thanks for reading!



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