Commander 2020 Set Review - Symbiotic Swarm
(Kathril, Aspect Warper | Art by Mathias Kollros)
Counting Counters Counts!
Welcome to the set review all about Junk. No, not 'junk,' but true, proper Junk, more recently rebranded as 'Abzan,' the color combination of white, green, and black. We're taking a look at the Commander 2020 preconstructed deck, Symbiotic Swarm, and you can expect some graveyard shenanigans, tons of creatures, and probably a hefty amount of value in this deck. We're going to assess the deck as a whole, breaking down its themes, its original cards, and how each of the commanders in the deck help it play out. There're some sharp reprints here, too, but we're just going to focus on the new cards in order to see where they'll land among the greater EDH meta.
Now that the small talk is out of the way, let's dig in!
Kathril, Aspect Warper
The headliner of the deck, The Rolling Stones of the list, is Kathril, Aspect Warper. Kathril really counts on having an established graveyard, so you'll have to wait to play this Insect until you've got a pile of dead things, but Holy Moses are you rewarded for doing so. Kathril is a keyword soup deck, rewarding you for any evergreen abilities on your creatures and redistributing them to the living. Not only that, but Kathril gets more powerful the more love that it's able to spread!
We've seen this type of effect on a much smaller scale with Odric, Lunarch Marshal, Soulflayer, and Majestic Myriarch, so we have at least some sort of idea what types of creatures we will see. Odric's deck, however, was limited to mono-white, which means a Kathril deck will have a much more powerful overall suite of creatures, along with many more ways to fill the graveyard. Rayami, First of the Fallen also happens to be among this ilk, but Rayami is only able to modify himself, where Kathril can choose to keep the counters to itself or empower the entire team. Leave it to the blue commander to be selfish!
Anyways, the biggest difference in these decks is that with the new counters granting the keywords, Kathril isn't even required to be in play for your army to maintain the benefit. Flickering Kathril or even recasting it isn't quite the nightmare you might think it would be because it gives you a chance to apply any new abilities to creatures or to beef up any new additions you might have had in between. It gets even crazier when you remember some key points about Kathril, too. For example, once the counters are applied, the creatures in the yard who helped provide those abilities do not need to stay in the graveyard, enabling some reanimation after you've harvested their keywords. Additionally, the keyword counters stick around even if Kathril goes away. Giving all the keyword counters to Kathril sounds really enticing at first, but using multiple Kathril triggers to spread indestructible or hexproof counters around also sounds pretty darn good.
The preconstructed deck for Kathril actually contains a good number of cards that I would put in a Kathril deck, myself. We just want creatures with as many keywords as possible, like Aerial Responder and Zetalpa, Primal Dawn, amazing cards to put into your graveyard to fuel up the counter distribution. Green gives access to all sorts of trample and hexproof creatures, and black isn't exactly short on lifelink, deathtouch, or menace, and it has the ability to fill our graveyard with ease.
That's the easy thing to miss, too; opponents might think, "Oh, big deal, they're giving some random creature a first strike counter." But we're not giving these keywords to just any random creature. We're giving Vampire Nighthawk first strike to go with its deathtouch, so it's an unstoppable blocker. We're giving double strike counters to our Ghalta, Primal Hunger so it tramples even harder. Kathril is a haymaker that pushes the team over the top.
If I had to nitpick and find a criticism of Kathril - and this is hard to do for me - it would be that it doesn't give or get any haste counters, as there aren't any in this set. I just really want to play Banehound, y'all. It's such a good boy.
To repeat what I mentioned before, the preconstructed product that comes supporting Kathril is a very cohesive and well-functioning deck for this commander. The deck, itself, plays very well into the strengths of the marquee commander with its graveyard synergies, along with being able to generate more and more value throughout the game.
Yannik & Nikara
Partner with returns in Commander 2020! When done properly, Partner with does a very good job at creating interesting deckbuilding synergies and stories for the legendary creatures. This pair is no different, and it brings equally fun challenges to the pod. Do you want to flicker your creatures with Yannik, Scavening Sentinel and bring them back to trigger any number of wild enters-the-battlefield abilities in these colors, like Avenger of Zendikar or Abhorrent Overlord while also beefing up the rest of your army?
Actually... that sounds kind of insane now that I think about it. Slap a Cathars' Crusade in the deck next to an Avenger? Oh buddy...
Now that I have those insane thoughts of value, the synergy between Yannik, Scavenging Sentinel and Nikara, Lair Scavenger is one to also keep an eye on. Since Nikara can trigger off of a creature leaving the battlefield with a Ghostway or an Eerie Interlude, you may want to prepare yourself for a mountain of triggers and a mountain of cards in your hand. This is also just a phenomenal insurance policy to recuperate your losses if a board wipe takes out your big counter-laden army.
There are also potential infinite shenanigans to be had with Yannik, a Karmic Guide, and a sacrifice outlet, but then again, that's the kind of thing Abzan has been able to do for a while now already. Nikara may also show up in Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons lists that need to draw a little extra by poisoning her own Snakes. All told, a great set of cards and a pair of commanders with tons of value to offer.
Tayam, Luminous Enigma
Tayam, Luminous Enigma is much easier to process than Kathril, Aspect Warper, despite also having nine lines of text, itself. Tayam, Luminous Enigma doesn't really get a lightbulb clicking on over my head. Some folks in the EDHREC family are wild about this beast while others are a little dimmer on Tayam's prospects. Having to remove counters from your own creatures seems like a downside at first glance, but using them to fuel your reanimation can lead to some nifty interactions. For starters, who wouldn't want to remove the -1/-1 counter from their Woodfall Primus? Tayam will want to take advantage of both Undying and Persist, even if activating the ability doesn't bring anything back from the graveyard to the battlefield.
And, of course, Ashnod's Altar is up to some gross combos with this commander, too, especially with those Undying creatures. Pump a Devoted Druid, and it can also provide a bunch of counters and the mana to feed Tayam all by itself. But hey, an Abzan commander with a colorless activation cost that goes infinite by sacrificing creatures and manipulating counters... Ghave, Guru of Spores approves.
The defensive abilities also seem relevant, as a Tayam, Luminous Enigma deck will be able to leverage cards like Black Suns' Zenith as mass removal while simultaneously providing fuel for Tayam to remove. Within the context of the preconstructed deck, itself, you only have 10 total targets for Tayam's ability, which is a little low. Plus, the targets are much lower-impact than, say, an Eternal Witness or another desirable target, so if you choose to play this Nightmare, it's best to reshape the deck around it. Like Ghave, just watch out for accidental infinities.
The first new card slotting into the 99 of the Symbiotic Swarm deck here is one that has been fairly maligned but is also something that players have been asking to see for a while. White has infamously been too "fair" in singleton formats since... well, since forever. It routinely lacks in resource advantage effects that allow it to get ahead. Many players have called for white to receive mana ramp effects, while others maintain that lacking mana ramp is not a unique problem for white, as red and blue and even black also don't tend to ramp much without mana rocks, either.
In any case, the card itself. Cartographer's Hawk is not the solid fix that players might be hoping for, but it's also not completely irrelevant as some have come to state since it was revealed. The Hawk won't ever help a player get ahead on resources. Instead, it tries to help white keep up with opponents.
So yes, Smothering Tithe, this is not. However, decks like God Eternal Oketra, which love recasting creatures for benefit, will enjoy having a cheap creature with upside in the deck. The land ramp clause hurts; many traditional decks may regard this along the same lines as Boreas Charger and opt instead to just play more reliable mana rocks, but some specific decks may benefit. This isn't a new white staple, but I do know that creature-based decks in white, or maybe even an Azorius deck with lots of flyers, won't mind finding a slot for a cheap one that helps keep up a little with folks out there playing green.
Daring Fiendbonder is not my cup of tea. It's interesting, but it's also expensive and slow. The ability to put an indestructible counter on a creature is a very powerful effect, no doubt, but we're jumping through a couple hoops to actually do it. Many black decks can fill their graveyard, but this is unlikely to be one of our targets with a Buried Alive or Entomb because there are too many other cards that have a much higher priority. Commanders like Muldrotha, the Gravetide, which are very interested in creating a big graveyard through self-mill, also just have the ability to bring back other cards to access an effect like this already.
I'll throw a nod to last year's Greven, Predator Captain and especially Chainer, Nightmare Adept, which have easy ways of putting it into the yard and would actually like using this as a creature. And, of course, one of the commanders to benefit most from the advent of keyword counters is Skullbriar, the Walking Grave, who will maintain this counter even in the command zone.
These are good uses, particularly with Skullbriar, but I still find myself hesitant, as so many removal effects these days are either bounce- or exile-based, not destruction. This is a unique effect, though, so keep your eyes on it.
Though I'm not a fan of the Fiendbonder, I wouldn't be surprised if Slippery Bogbonder happened to slip its way into a deck of mine. Instant-speed ways to grant hexproof like Heroic Intervention are very powerful. This is certainly not nearing the power level of Heroic Intervention, but it is a clever way to save a creature and make it difficult to interact with for opponents for the rest of its lifespan. Typically this effect resides in the Aura camp, such as on Alpha Authority, but a permanent hexproof that can be played at instant speed is a promising new development.
It does cost four mana, though, which is difficult to hold up for some decks, even in green. I'm sure I'll find myself putting this into my own Mirri, Weatherlight Duelist, and I can envision plenty of [insert Simic commander here] decks that find themselves with an abundance of mana and instants that allow them to routinely justify leaving up this much mana each turn. Might not be a bad pickup for a Voltron commander, either, to protect the deck's engine and also provide a helpful, expendable blocker while the commander runs off into combat every turn. Volrath, the Shapestealer might also want to look into this one if he's looking for ways to put nice counters onto his own creatures.
Oh, and Skullbriar, the Walking Grave wants this real bad, too, of course.
In a Commander set full of insane cards, Vitality Hunter actually slipped under the radar for me. As a creature, it isn't the greatest rate, but having the ability to distribute a slew of lifelink counters to your team in a go-wide deck seems a little underrated. Monstrous-ing this at instant speed is vital to its playability in go-wide decks, and even if you're only granting a counter to three or four creatures, it seems like a high-upside lifegain spell attached to a body.
The white Nightmare will create some interesting board states if you're playing a white/red/x deck and find a way to put a lifelink counter on Purphoros, God of the Forge or a Syr Konrad, the Grim, where the creature damage over the course of a game seems like an interesting prospect. Vitality Hunter intrigues me, and I'll be looking to use this ability next to Chandra's Ignition in the near future. Some may just find that a True Conviction is less mana, though.
The final creature-bonder we'll cover is... another miss for me. Spending five mana to grant double strike to a creature seems like quite the investment when instead you could be playing cards like Duelist's Heritage, which are harder to interact with. If the double strike counter is that important, the Avenging Huntbonder in the graveyard can act as fuel for Kathril, Aspect Warper, but... so can a Fencing Ace, and that one doesn't cost as much as a Cataclysmic Gearhulk to cast. You might find yourself hunting for a replacement for this card out of the box.
Typically, the bar to play Fog effects is pretty high. Constant Mists and Arachnogenesis dominate the ranks of combat-damage-prevention spells, not to mention Spore Frog. Obscuring Haze presents an interesting option as a potentially free spell, and free spells tend to have the potential for a very high ceiling, indeed. Sometimes, when the game gets long, a single Fog effect can seal the game, so having the option to not have to hold mana up for this spell is going to be the biggest surprise in many games.
Additionally, this only prevents damage from your opponents' creatures, giving it a different flavor than other effects that prevent damage from all creatures. This gives us the opportunity to defeat enemy creatures in combat with creatures of our own.
Typically, Angus Mackenzie decks will have the deepest arsenal of these types of spells, but I doubt that this card will be too obscure in green decks around the format due to the amount of "gotcha!" moments it's going to enable. Sometimes all you need is a single draw step, one more topdeck, to buy the time you need to finish your opponents for good, and hopefully this will help buy you those moments. You'll have to weigh this against several other damage-prevention effects, including repeatable ones like Spike Weaver and Moment's Peace, but this is a very good card and part of a very good cycle.
In a world of cheating creatures into play, Selective Adaptation tries its hand at breaking into our decks. Its immediate competition are cards like Selvala's Stampede and the big bad Tooth and Nail, but if you happen to select the newest option you are presented with a very large amount of upside. Since math is not my strong suit, I had an expert drum up some numbers on Selective Adaptation for what you can start to expect from the card
Start with 99 cards in the deck, -7 for opening hand, -6 for cards drawn before you can cast this (draw, play a land, draw, play a land, etc)
Population size = 86. Sample size = 7. Let’s assume there are 30 creatures in the deck, so 30 successes. We'll also make the charitable assumption that they all have enough keywords for this not to run into repeated abilities.
That means our chances of finding creatures from Selective Adaptation...
- Exactly 0 creatures = Almost 0%
- Exactly 1 creature = About 18%
- Exactly 2 creatures = About 30%
- Exactly 3 creatures = About 27%
- Exactly 4 creatures = About 14%
- The odds of 5, 6, and 7 are negligible
That is just the probability of hitting any amount of creatures, but this also requires some creative deckbuilding, as you can't select a different ability twice. If you have two creatures that only are offering lifelink for example, you only can select one of them. This math is also changed if you have 25 creatures, or 34 creatures, and changes even more drastically as the game continues and you draw out even more creatures from your deck, as green is wont to do.
The challenge is making sure you have enough different abilities, as it would probably require creatures to have multiple keywords, rather than just one, to avoid the potential of whiffing on this spell. While some big creatures do have many keywords, such as Akroma, Angel of Wrath, many of the most exciting ones only have one keyword, like Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger or Nyxbloom Ancient. If you cast a six-mana spell and just hit an Aerial Resonder, that probably doesn't feel worth the cost. It takes a lot of careful restriction to create a truly winning situation with Selective Adaptation, and it feels like we could just play any of the other, similar cards like the aforementioned Selvala's Stampede, which doesn't require a a shift during the deckbuilding process to adapt to a narrow but potentially exciting spell.
While some cards like Vitality Hunter have warmed up on me since I first saw them, Netherborn Altar has caused me to move the opposite direction. My attitude is now, "Nethermind about this one."
Phage, the Untouchable, Tetzimoc, Primal Death, Haakon, Stromgald Scourge, eat your heart out. This card is for them. But in general, spending a card slot on this card, and then 3 life to avoid commander tax isn't really worth it. Solemnity can prevent the addition of counters, but would also prevent you from even activating this ability in the first place. Nesting Grounds (which we'll discuss later) can move counters away, or Aminatou the Fateshifter can blink to reset the counters, so there are options to avoid this downside. However, this seems like a lot of work to avoid paying 2 or 4 extra mana. In general, if you're skirting 3+ commander taxes with this card, then yes, paying life instead of mana is a good investment, but also, are you really in a winning position in that game? My guess is no.
Also, if you use this card once, your opponents' Proliferate cards are absolutely coming for you.
The Impetus Cycle
The Impetus cycle featured in Commander 2020 is a neat exploration of space using one of my favorite mechanics, Goad. None of them are great, and they might be closer to the Vow of Malice cycle from previous Commander preconstructed products than I would like to believe, but they are a neat way to fix the Vow cycle that wasn't terribly effective. With each Commander set, we get a fun new round of multiplayer-focused cards like this, especially ones that encourage combat, like the Curse of Opulence cycle.
They may not always blow us away, but they play with the politics of the game in a fun way and open the doors for combat-focused commanders, especially Thantis, the Warweaver, Marisi, Breaker of the Coil, Tahngarth, First Mate, and possibly even Xantcha, Sleeper Agent. Bloodthirsty Blade is only in about 2,000 decks so far, which may indicate the popularity trajectory for these specific enchantments, too, but I hope the design team continues to give us more cards of this ilk in the future.
All Hail the Swarm
And that wraps it up for me! I'm very impressed with how all of the decks look in Commander 2020. The land base and mana-fixing all look strong for the respective decks, and the decks, themselves, aren't stretched too thin on trying to make the backup commanders appealing to play out of the box. Instead of making conflicting commanders within the same deck, Wizards made the backup commanders play nicer with the leading actor to give you a few options within the deck idea that you choose. I am a big fan of this direction, as it lets the deck play out much better and can help direct the reprints that go into the deck.
The reprints in the decks aren't too flashy, but they're solid in their roles. Reveillark has become a necromancer's best friend over the years, and Karametra, God of Harvests is cool to see.
While the precons this year aren't quite something I'm personally going to rush out to buy, myself, I do think the decks are going to appeal to a very large number of people. They are cohesive, and, according to one Sheldon Menery, they might be the most well-built precons in the history of the product.
I would love to hear what you all think about the set and the Symbiotic Swarm overall. Is it a hit, or does it miss your creative spot? Let me know in the comments!