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Commander Review: Zendikar Rising | Part 2 | Black, Red


Zendikar Rising is on the horizon so it's time again for my Commander Review! We covered White and Blue in Part 1, now we're covering Black and Red! 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.

BLACK

Agadeem's Awakening

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Agadeem's Awakening is one of the most impressive modal lands of the bunch. Gruesome Menagerie does not see much play, but an scaling X version that costs one extra B and can be played as an untapped land is very interesting! Black is all about filling your graveyard with creatures to reanimate later, and it's also a great color for producing tons of lategame mana with Cabal Coffers and its many variants, making flexible X spells particularly juicy in Mono Black decks.

It's easy to slip in Awakening in just about any creature-heavy Mono Black deck such as Yawgmoth, Thran Physician, Syr Konrad, the Grim, or 2C Black decks like Meren of Clan Nel Toth.

Blackbloom Rogue

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I would consider running Blackbloom Rogue in exactly one deck: Rogue Tribal. While not an exciting card, it's another Rogue with pseudo-evasion that you can drop down if you need one, or a tapland if you need that instead. Seems like a good deal in Anowon, the Ruin Thief decks.

Coveted Prize

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With a full party, Coveted Prize lets you tutor up any card for just one black mana and then cast a spell with a cmc 4 or less from your hand without paying its cost. That's obviously very good, but having a full party is going to happen way less often than I'd like, at which point Coveted Prize gets a whole lot worse. If you have 1 party member then it's a Diabolic Tutor, 2 is Grim Tutor, and 3 is Demonic Tutor

Unsurprisingly Coveted Prize is only going to see play in Party Tribal or Tribal Tribal, where it's going to be very respectable. Worse overall than say Bring to Light, but still good and definitely flavorful.

Deadly Alliance

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Deadly Alliance is a decent card in Party Tribal: 2 party members makes it Hero's Downfall and any more than that makes it worth the extra requirements. More importantly though is it's flavorful, which is kinda the point of Party Tribal. It's fine in Tribal Tribal too but you have much better options. 

Demon's Disciple

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Fleshbag Marauder just keeps getting more variants. In most cases Demon's Disciple is going to be worse than the best Marauder, Plaguecrafter, with the notable exception that since it's a Cleric, making it the best Marauder variant for Cleric Tribal decks like Orah, Skyclave Hierophant.

Drana, the Last Bloodchief

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For five mana you've got a 4/4 flyer that reanimates a creature from your graveyard each time she swings. It's often going to be the "worst" creature in your graveyard, but who cares? As long as there's something to reanimate then it's free value! Even better is if you've only got a single creature to choose and it's a big one, like Sepulchral Primordial! There's even an opportunity to play politics by having the defending player agree to reanimate a target needed to deal with a mutual threat, like reanimating a Shriekmaw to get rid of a scary creature.

... but let's be honest: Drana, the Last Bloodchief is going straight into the 99 of Edgar Markov decks and that's about it. Red gives you access to better haste enablers to get more value out of Drana and she can turn your non-Vampire utility creatures into Vampires for more tribal synergy potential. It's hard to justify talking about other homes for Drana when Edgar Markov is so oppressively good.

Feed the Swarm

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WOTC has gone on record to say they want to expand Black's color pie to be able to deal with enchantments, and Feed the Swarm is one of the first versions to do so. This is a huge step up from the very first enchantment removal card in Black, Pharika's Libation, as you can now target the enchantment you want gone. While Black did have colorless options to deal with enchantments like Ugin, the Ineffable and Karn Liberated, this 2cmc option is very much welcome in Black, Dimir, and Rakdos decks which were lacking a cheap spot removal option. Definitely give it a shot!

Hagra Mauling

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I expect Hagra Mauling to usually be an overcosted Murder, but sometimes it'll be a same-cost Murder. Either way it's a highly desirable effect on a modal tapland. I think this is one of the better modal lands and worth considering in a bunch of decks, with my favorite being Toshiro Umezawa since it's an instant kill spell.

Inscription of Ruin

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Again I lament that the Inscription cycle isn't instant! I just don't see myself wanting to run Inscription of Ruin outside of a Kicker deck. Is there even a Kicker deck in Black? Let me know!

Lithoform Blight

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Black gets its own version of Spreading Seas but it's a lot worse since the land can mana-fix and unlike Seas which can be used to enable things like Islandwalk (Thada Adel, Acquisitor), Blight doesn't really set up any useful synergies that I can think of. Perhaps there's some uses for Blight that I haven't thought of so tell me in the comments section if you know of any spice with it.

Malakir Rebirth

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I run Undying Evil and Supernatural Stamina as protection in any Black deck that is heavily focused on its commander: Toshiro Umezawa, K'rrik, Son of Yawgmoth, Gonti, Lord of Luxury, tons of them. Malakir Rebirth is just an even better version since it's also a modal tapland. That's friggin' fantastic! One of my favorite modal lands for sure.

Marauding Blight-Priest

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We've got so many variants of this lifedrain effect on Vampire creatures that at this point you can probably pull of a spicy Vampire Lifedrain deck for funsies, either under Edgar Markov or if you're super adventurous then Licia, Sanguine Tribune. Marauding Blight-Priest, Cliffhaven Vampire, Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose, and of course Exquisite Blood all make for a fun time.

Nighthawk Scavenger

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Vampire Nighthawk got bumped up in rarity and power as Nighthawk Scavenger! This new Nighthawk is a great addition to any deck that liked the old version: Vampire Tribal (Edgar Markov), Lifegain decks (Karlov of the Ghost Council), and Keyword Soup (Kathril, Aspect Warper). It's also a Rogue now so it's a fine inclusion in Rogue Tribal (Anowon, the Ruin Thief) as well. This is a solid card that has plenty of homes to see play.

Nullpriest of Oblivion

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A somewhat evasive beater with a Zombify kicker is going to be interesting for a few decks. The first is obviously Edgar Markov, where casting it unkicked is good enough if you just need to curve out, but mid/lategame it's still a solid draw when you kick it. I think Lurrus of the Dream-Den decks will also like this. Other than that, it's a Cleric so maybe Cleric Tribal too. Overall this is a solid card for a few specific decks.

Scourge of the Skyclaves

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You don't play Scourge of the Skyclaves because you want a big undercosted beater. With everyone starting at 40 life, Scourge is almost never going to have a decent p/t -- in fact it'll probably be way into the negatives unless you kick it. But that's what actually makes it great in exactly one deck: Nethroi, Apex of Death. Thanks to a weird rules interaction, reanimating the Scourge with Nethroi when it's at negative p/t actually adds to the total power of creature cards you can animate with Nethroi! So it's an instant staple there for sure.

Other than that, playing Scourge in decks with Archfiend of Despair where the kicker just 1-shots all your opponents works nice. You can also do the same with Wound Reflection provided you have a way to survive.

Shadows' Verdict

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Shadows' Verdict is a very powerful effect but is a bit too conditional for me to get excited about running over less conditional board wipes. If your meta is geared more to aggressively low CMC then Verdict can be great, or if you really want to stick it to Lurrus of the Dream-Den, but for the most part, I'm going to run unconditional wipes like Damnation instead.

Skyclave Shade

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Skyclave Shade is a nerfed Bloodghast, now requiring you to recast it from the graveyard instead of getting it back for free. Actually I guess that makes it a worse Reassembling Skeleton. Still, it's useful fodder in Sacrifice decks, wearing Skullclamp like a champ and dying repeatedly for a bunch of payoffs like Grave Pact and whatnot. Decks that want the Ghast or Skelly will also probably want the Shade, and at the very least it might be a decent enough budget replacement to Bloodghast if the Shade's price settles somewhere low.

Soul Shatter

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First it must be said that I heckin' LOVE Wylie Beckert's art and can't wait to see more of it! The art on Soul Shatter is particularly stunning!

As for the card itself, it's a mono color Crackling Doom that loses the (largely irrelevant) 2 damage. Crackling Doom is a solid removal spell that sees a good amount of play. Not being locked into Mardu means Soul Shatter can start popping up in many more decks such as Mazirek, Kraul Death Priest and my favorite, Toshiro Umezawa. Have I mentioned that I really like Toshiro? Did I mention that I wrote a budget primer on him? Check it out!

Soul Shatter is a good card. It's an edict which means it doesn't always hit the target you want to hit, but usually the biggest threat you want dead is the one with the highest cmc so its accuracy is much higher than most edicts.

Taborax, Hope's Demise

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Taborax, Hope's Demise is a great support card for Cleric Tribal since the tribe is all about combining Sacrifice with Lifegain (Ayli, Eternal Pilgrim). It's also a solid inclusion in Demon Tribal, which does overlap with Cleric Tribal in Black (Skirsdag High Priest). But where Taborax does the most work is in Shadowborn Apostle decks, letting you draw silly amounts of cards and pump Taborax while doing your Apostle sacrifice shenanigans.

Is Taborax the best commander for Shadowborn Apostle decks? Maybe, but probably not: I feel like Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker is probably still better for the role of commander in Mono Black, and if you splash White you get a bunch more Cleric goodies and can run under something like Athreos, God of Passage.

Taborax is still a good commander, but I think it's probably even stronger in the 99, either as part of a Shadowborn Apostle deck or a non-Apostle Cleric Tribal list.

Thwart the Grave

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At first I thought Thwart the Grave returned the cards to your hand, like a party version of Grim Captain's Call. But you actually put them directly into play, making this card way better! Having two party members on the battlefield makes Thwart a great rate, which I think is reasonable in the right deck, and more than that makes it amazing. I imagine this card is going to be one of the better ones for Party Tribal and heck, maybe worth running in Tribal Tribal too!

Whispersteel Dagger

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Whispersteel Dagger is a fantastic graveyard theft card. Whenever equipped creature deals combat damage to a player, you can cast a creature spell from that player's graveyard this turn. This is obviously a perfect fit in Rogue Tribal decks since the tribe is full of evasive creatures to consistently deal combat damage and they have a Mill theme going on to ensure opposing decks have graveyards stocked with juicy creatures to steal. But this Dagger is useful in other decks as well, as long as you run evasive beaters and mill opponents a bit. I can see this Dagger showing up in Syr Konrad, the Grim or Nath of the Gilt-Leaf, for example, and there's certainly other homes for it as well.

RED

Cleansing Wildfire

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Commander is full of powerful utility lands like Cabal Coffers, Maze of Ith, and Glacial Chasm, so it's important to have ways to deal with them. While every deck is able to run old faithfuls like Strip Mine and Tectonic Edge, Red now has an excellent way to do so that doesn't put you down a land/card with Cleansing Wildfire

Being able to snipe a powerful land and draw a card is a great rate for 2 mana. In the worst case scenario where there's no good targets then "cycling" the card for 2 mana is totally reasonable. Having such a high power floor and ceiling makes Cleansing Wildfire very desirable removal for all sorts of Red decks. Since it's a sorcery it's got extra synergy in Spellslinger decks like Mizzix of the Izmagnus, but where it shines brightest is in decks that can cast it on their own indestructible lands like Darksteel Citadel, turning Cleansing Wildfire into a Red Rampant Growth with a bonus cantrip; Daretti, Scrap Savant or Slobad, Goblin Tinkerer are both superb homes for this reason.

Geode Rager

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Geode Rager is a pretty small Elemental for its big casting cost, but it comes with a subtle yet high powered landfall trigger, goading each creature target play controls. This forces your opponents to attack with all their creatures and hit anyone other than you, dishing out extra damage to your opponents, saving you from being attacked yourself, and removing would-be blockers so you can safely attack your opponents.

Despite how much I love the goad mechanic and think the Commander community underrates cards like these, I know most people are going to ignore this card. Still, I love this card and will happily run it in political decks like Marisi, Breaker of the CoilKarona, False God, and Tahngarth, First Mate.

Kazuul's Fury

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Paying an additional mana for a modal tapland version of Fling is a more than acceptable rate. Any deck that runs Fling, like Thromok the Insatiable, Kresh the Bloodbraided, and Brion Stoutarm should immediately jam this modal variant as well.

Leyline Tyrant

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The Red version of Omnath, Locus of Mana, Leyline Tyrant lets Red-heavy decks store excess mana for future crazy explosive turns. Worst case the Tyrant is dealt with and you blow up an unlucky target instead. The power ceiling of Tyrant is very high, forcing your opponents to find removal for it immediately or get steamrolled.

Leyline Tyrant is a strong option in any Mono Red or Red-heavy deck, but it's absolutely insane in Neheb, the Eternal, Neheb, Dreadhorde Champion, and BFFs with Mono Red decks running Braid of Fire and mana doublers like Caged Sun.

Magmatic Channeler

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Magmatic Channeler is an interesting twist on the classic Merfolk Looter, requiring you to discard a card first but you essentially "draw" 2 cards and choose one to cast until end of turn. While I think this is a cool card, it's just a bit too weak for my tastes: even a simple tweak like you can play the card until the end of your next turn like Tectonic Giant and Light Up the Stage allow would make me way more excited for this card, but as-is it feels like too much of a downgrade to a regular Looter effect. It might be good in some deck but I can't think of any.

Moraug, Fury of Akoum

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Moraug, Fury of Akoum is by far the most confusing card in all of Zendikar Rising. Our editor, Niuttuc, had to repeatedly explain to me, Seth, and Richard what exactly Moraug does until we finally got it. But unfortunately not everyone has an infinitely patient editor with a high level of rules knowledge like we do and the internet is circulating tons of incorrect "combos" and my unfortunate Arena opponents are triggering landfall at the wrong time, so let's clarify some things about Moraug's landfall trigger:

  • The landfall trigger only happens if its your main phase. You can't trigger it during your combat phase with Sword of the Animist or similar.
  • Unlike all other extra combat cards (Relentless Assault), you don't get an additional main phase after your extra combat phase.

This means you want to trigger Moraug's landfall on your second main phase so you can have regular combat, second main, then Moraug's extra combat(s) that untap all your creatures. If you do what my Arena opponents do and play a land on their first main phase you'll have your extra combat first, untapping your already untapped creatures, then immediately go into your regular combat step except your creatures don't untap. 

It also means that no, you can't take infinite combat steps by ramping lands with Sword of the Animist or Slab Hammer + Walking Atlas. WOTC made it extremely difficult to take infinite combat steps for some reason. 

That said, even without any infinite combats, Moraug, Fury of Akoum is a powerful game-ender. For a lot of decks it's trivial to play multiple lands per turn thanks to fetchlands (Wooded Foothills) and land ramp (Harrow) and taking 2-3 extra combats on a single turn is often enough to finish games. Just make sure to do it in your second main phase!

Nahiri's Lithoforming

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Now this is some spice! While not as abusable as the classic mass land sacrifice spell, Scapeshift, Nahiri's Lithoforming looks like it'll fit right into the same decks, namely Lands decks like Lord Windgrace that can get back all the sacrificed lands with a big Splendid Reclamation or the ultimate Sacrifice commander, Korvold, Fae-Cursed King. In both archetypes this card is all upside, refilling your hand after depleting it with heavy ramp and then getting back all those lands anyway while getting oodles of landfall triggers that would make even Omnath, Locus of Rage blush.

Roiling Vortex

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Roiling Vortex is at the very least a poor Sulfuric Vortex which might be good enough as redundancy for Group Slug decks like Mogis, God of Slaughter. But it gets way better if your meta runs commanders that cast spells for free, like Golos, Tireless Pilgrim, Narset, Enlightened Master, and Urza, Lord High Artificer. It's not a hard lock to these strategies but it will make them sweat a little.

Shatterskull Smashing

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Shatterskull Smashing isn't my favorite mythic rarity modal land but it's still very solid. Removal is always good to have in your back pocket even if it's overcosted. Once you've sunk 8+ mana into this spell you're basically taking out two threats at sorcery-speed which is ... okay. You'll be playing this as a land 90% of the time but 10% of the time you'll be really happy you can use your "land" to take out a threat or two. Being a sorcery makes it slightly better in Spellslinger decks like Niv-Mizzet, Parun. Overall I'm happy running this in any Red-heavy deck unless that deck has a strong argument for running a Mountain instead, like a Mono Red deck with Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, Extraplanar Lens, and Gauntlet of Power.

Song-Mad Treachery

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Paying five mana for a Threaten is pretty bad for most decks, but in a Threaten deck like Brion Stoutarm, Yasova Dragonclaw, or Greven, Predator Captain, this modal land comes with a desirable effect that is worth running: steal creatures, smash with them, then sacrifice them for value! In these decks, Song-Mad Treachery is a solid new addition to the game plan.

Valakut Awakening

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Valakut Awakening is one of my favorite modal lands in the entire set. I like to think of it as "supercycling" that is comparable to Forgotten Cave: Cave replaces itself for 1 mana, while Awakening replaces both itself and probably a few other cards as well for 3 mana. There's plenty of other synergy differences that make one better/worse than the other depending on the rest of the deck, like Cave is a cycling ability (New Perspectives) and works with discard triggers (Surly Badgersaur), while Valakut Awakening is an instant (Mizzix of the Izmagnus) and can potentially draw many more cards (The Locust God). Do note that Awakening bottoms the other cards, not discard them, so it doesn't set up Reanimate shenanigans.

Overall I think Valakut Awakening is a fantastic inclusion in just about any Red deck. It gives any deck extra consistency, bottoming cards you don't need while digging for the stuff you want. It gets even better in Spellslinger decks or decks that have draw triggers, being an allstar in decks like The Locust God and Niv-Mizzet, Parun. I'm really excited for this one!

Valakut Exploration

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Okay, it's official: Valakut is my favorite place on Zendikar! Valakut Exploration is another excellent impulse draw engine in Red, similar to Outpost Siege. This enchantment is cheaper and instead of impulse drawing 1 card per turn it's now a landfall trigger. The really cool thing here is that if you don't cast the exiled cards by your end step they aren't exiled forever, but instead go to your graveyard where you can use graveyard recursion to get them back later. This means you "draw" cards with Valakut Exploration and not have to worry about shooting yourself in the foot exiling a key card that you can't cast this turn, which is the fear of many a Combo deck. 

I think Valakut Exploration is one of the best impulse draw cards ever printed. It doesn't have the reliability of Outpost Siege but any Red deck can get tons of value from it as long as you're running fetchlands and obviously Green decks full of land ramp are gonna have tons of fun with it: cast whatever you need, let the rest go to the graveyard, then the important stuff back with Underworld Breach and similar!

Part 3 Coming Soon!

We're wrapping up the Commander Review with the big one soon: Green, Multicolor, Colorless, and Lands! Let me know what you think about these cards and which you're most excited for. Thanks for reading!



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