Commander 2020 Set Review - Timeless Wisdom
(Gavi, Nest Warden | Art by Randy Vargas)
It's the Cyyyyyyyycle of Life
The gauntlet has finally been thrown down, and the Cycling strategy belongs to Jeskai. Now that we've revived @TheJesGuy, it's time to see what this revival of the old with a full infusion of the new means for Commander players everywhere, especially those who've been begging for a Cycling commander. And good news, everyone! There are actually three of them!
Well, technically two of them are Partnered, so it's more like two, but still!
Gavi, Nest Warden
When it comes to Cycling for free, Gavi, Nest Warden isn't New Perspectives or even Fluctuator, although both happen to be in the deck. With that said, the Gavin-est Gavi, Nest Warden will more than do the trick, especially since you'll also get some bonus Dinosaur Cat tokens whenever you do cough up the mana to actually cycle for a second time in a turn. That should be more than enough to get us Cycling enthusiasts excited about this little gift from R&D.
Also, for you aspiring Cycling players out there looking to do a little upgrade, your second cycle with Gavi, Nest Warden might not be free, but with Ashnod's Altar, your third one is! Having a Fluctuator in the command zone is great and all, but having a total of four in the deck couldn't hurt, and that's exactly what Ashnod's Altar is if you've got enough tokens.
However you swing it, I think we're all just glad to see that not only do we finally have a dedicated Cycling commander, but the one that we get is actually good! Five mana is a bit steep for an initial cost, but even if she gets removed immediately, you'll still get a free cycle out of it. And if Gavi does stick around for a full roll of the table, you'll get three more before you untap, at which point you'll start also getting tokens, and there may not be a reason to actually cast another card ever again!
Brallin & Shabraz
While not officially Cycling commanders, it is hard to miss the fact that the act of Cycling involves both discarding a card and then drawing one. If you feel that's a little restricting, however, then it's also worth noting that both rummaging and looting draw and discard a card as well!
Whichever way you choose to feed them, however, Brallin, Skyshark Rider and Shabraz, the Skyshark both have the ability to get large quickly, followed by extra add-on abilities that make it harder to keep them from swinging said large bodies at you. While many will play this pair just because there's a Bird Shark involved (and I am all for that), that in no way means that they are not powerful commanders all on their own.
Wheel effects specifically really highlight that point here, especially the ones that discard. With a full grip, for instance, Wheel of Fortune would not only make your man and his Shark get a permanent +7/+7, it would also drain the entire table for seven at the same time. And if you can't win the game with a 28-point life swing (you gaining 7 life and three opponents being dealt 7 damage), two 10/10s with evasion, and a brand new hand of seven cards, then we have real issues.
The Cycling effects may eventually prove to be too slow for these commanders, as the deck may seek to capitalize more specifically upon wheel effects, in the same vein as Nekusar, the Mindrazer and The Locust God. Pair with Smothering Tithe for repeated dastardly deeds or, if you're really looking for some enemies, Narset, Parter of Veils!
Akim, the Soaring Wind
The preconstructed decks have a reputation for being rather unfocused, and Akim, the Soaring Wind is here to keep that trend alive! The subtheme in Timeless Wisdom is... tokens! There are 12 cards in the deck that make tokens, two of which are commanders. Rather than tying into the Cycling theme as Gavi, Nest Warden does, however, Akim, the Soaring Wind just creates Bird tokens whenever you create tokens for the first time each turn. Then, with all of that token overflow, you can pay six mana to give all of your creature tokens double strike!
With tokens and double strike all packaged together on one card, it's easy to imagine the next step in an Akim deck. While going wide, you can also go tall with the likes of Cathar's Crusade for general tokens, or Soulcatcher's Aerie for the more Bird-centric among us. Additionally, note that Akim's ability makes Bird tokens the first time you make a token each turn; it actually doesn't state that they have to be creature tokens, so if you're looking to ramp and go wide at the same time, steady treasure token-creators like Smothering Tithe are a great option!
Akim, the Soaring Wind seems like it will be a hot commodity as a go-wide commander in Jeskai. It does have to compete with Kykar, Wind's Fury, however, and I'm not sure that it really comes out on top in that particular head-to-head competition. With that said, there are quite a few players who would probably consider Akim's less favorable comparison to Kykar to be a good thing since it will draw much less hate!
Words cannot express how excited I am that Goad is getting more love. 'Attacks matter' decks everywhere, rejoice! Much like Bloodthirsty Blade before it, you can now Goad creatures and make them bigger as they point at your opponents, all at the same time. The only twist is, you don't actually get to choose which creatures you make bigger. Your opponents do.
While there is obviously some nervousness that comes with your opponents willingly saying "I'm going to make this Atarka, World Render bigger, but I'm not swinging it at you... yet", I think the trade-off here is worth it. Agitator Ant will probably get a few pumps around the entire table, and all of that aggro will go other directions in the short term. (Note that the Goad lasts until your next turn, so using this ability on one of your own creatures does not force you to attack!) Whether it be a Marisi, Breaker of the Coil deck or a Thantis, the Warweaver deck, if you're building a deck that incentivizes others to attack, you should be able to close out the deal. And if all else fails, there's always a board wipe!
Adding the card that cares about counters to this deck as opposed to the Abzan deck, which is built around counters, is an odd choice, but I suppose it does make some sense. Cryptic Trilobite is another means to let you cycle cards more often, allowing you to remove counters from it to cycle at will for the more common two-mana cost, or to remove a counter to cycle the new one-mana Cycling cards, and then use the extra mana left over to immediately tap it and add the counter back on.
That said, as far as custom-built Commander decks go, Cryptic Trilobite is much more likely to be seen in the wild in decks that care about +1/+1 counters or would just like a means to gather infinite mana.
There are any number of means to go infinite with our little Trilobite here, almost all of which require only some doubling of counters, or some untap effects. They don't all just result in infinite mana, either. For instance, Marath, Will of the Wild decks will be excited to find that they can make infinite counters and infinite mana to kill the entire table with only their commander, the Trilobite, and Hardened Scales. It also combos with Ghave, Guru of Spores, but then again... what doesn't? Oh, and Walking Ballista also deserves a hearty mention here.
If you'd rather play fair, however, then Cryptic Trilobite can also be a great mana dork for +1/+1 counter decks, though you'll have to make sure you have an appropriate number of activated abilities for it to fuel. Just don't be surprised when you look down at the table and realize you accidentally have a means to go infinite staring back at you. It really is that easy when a card creates a resource and then a means to transform that resource into mana all in the same text box.
First, there was Astral Slide. Then, there was Archfiend of Ifnir. Now, there's Crystalline Resonance. While not quite cut from the same vein as far as the ability to build on itself, anyone who has seen Mirage Mirror abused before probably has an idea of how ridiculous this card can get.
Only, it's actually quite a bit better, for a couple of reasons. One, you have to pay to activate Mirage Mirror's ability, and that is very often not the case when it comes to Cycling. Two, Mirage Mirror actually has a drawback that many are unaware of, causing constant misplays: it can't copy more than once per turn, as it loses its copy ability whenever you use it. You can stack the copy ability several times to somewhat mitigate this, but even that is unnecessary when it comes to Crystalline Resonance. Three, this enchantment stays as a copy until your next turn, not just the end of the turn it transformed.
Fortunately, Crystalline Resonance comes with a drawback, too. It's only playable in blue decks that care about Cycling. Don't get me wrong, there are about to be a heck of a lot more of those. But for now, at least for 99% of the decks out there, Mirage Mirror is still king when it comes to flexible copy shenanigans.
There are discussions upon discussions when it comes to the concept of card advantage in multiplayer. The general prevailing theory is that it's a hard concept to actually achieve in a four-player game. Using one removal spell on one opponent's card means two players get a benefit without spending any resources. Or if, for instance, each player draws a card, you're not at parity with one opponent like regular Magic, you're technically getting three-for-one'd. Those of us that dabble in politics or Group Hug know that that theory is poppycock, however, as your opponents are just as often your opponent's opponents as they are your own.
Game theory aside, Dismantling Wave gets around this card disadvantage issue entirely by just targeting each opponent by default. There are competing effects in white that allow for you to destroy two artifacts or enchantments with various limitations and advantages, but they cost four mana and are still a card down by comparison.
That is not to say that you should always be playing Dismantling Wave over Return to Dust or Crush Contraband, but even before you get to the alternate Cycling ability, it is worth consideration. If you do care about Cycling or aren't heavy into artifacts and enchantments yourself, however, it's hard to beat spot removal and Purify all on the same card. In short, Dismantling Blow is a powerhouse of sheer efficiency and flexibility, and should always at least be under consideration if you have the means to play it.
While I am a bit disappointed in this particular rendition of an elemental skywhale, there's no disputing that it will often be a two-mana 3/3 flyer that will generate card advantage. In other words, if you're in the self-mill deck or the spell-slinging strategy, odds are you should at least consider finding room for this particular cetacean.
Another free blue Counterspell! I don't know who was asking for that, but here it is!
While the ability to counter spells while tapped out is certainly nothing new, Fierce Guardianship does take the ease of use up a notch when compared to other free 'pitch' spells like Force of Will and Force of Negation. Though having extra blue cards in your hand is something that comes rather naturally, it's still a rather steep price to pay. There is certainly an argument to be made that having your commander in play is a fairly large restriction as well, especially at the levels of play where Fierce Guardianship will be more a requirement than a novelty.
Even if that is the case, however, the hard casting cost of three mana is hardly a burden, and whether or not to get rid of another player's commander is now just another bit of complication that has to be kept track of in the middle of a combo-centric hellscape of decisions.
As for the more casual circles, I have no doubt that this will see some play and be a delightful surprise that more often than not saves or wins the game. The times you tend to want to counter noncreature spells are usually the same times that you also have your commander in play. If you're playing Negate and Counterspell and the price of this card stays reasonable, I don't see why you wouldn't just add it right in.
Herald of the Forgotten
As the proud player of a five-color Cycling deck, I've had a fair amount of thinking to do about this card. There is no doubt that Herald of the Forgotten can be powerful if there are enough reasons to play it in your deck. So let's go through some of those possible reasons:
- Lands: This is easily the most prominent reason. In a dedicated Cycling deck, you can easily make the entirety of your land base out of cards with Cycling, so it probably will not be uncommon to get 10 to 15 lands into play off of a Herald of the Forgotten. That said, you already had eight mana to cast it...
- Large Creatures: There are 28 possible Cycling creatures with power or toughness 5 or greater, 12 of which are in Jeskai. This means that, in five-color, this could be an avenue toward victory. In just Jeskai, however, this tally is rather underwhelming from a sheer power perspective.
- Splashy Effects: A lot of the engines that make a Cycling deck go or the big effects that actually win it the game do also have Cycling. Notably, Archfiend of Ifnir if you're in black, and Tectonic Reformation, Cloud of Faeries, Decree of Silence, and Astral Drift in Jeskai. There are also the free Cycling enablers in the form of Fluctuator and New Perspectives.
So, with all of that gas, the real question is, is Herald of the Forgotten worth the eight mana? Does it more or less win you the game when you cast it?
I'm not so sure that it does, honestly. You will definitely get a lot of value out of it, but you still have to have the right ingredients in your graveyard when you cast it for you to be able to do much in the immediate sense. In the case of creatures, if they don't have haste they'll very likely be dealt with. All of your Cycling lands will similarly come into play tapped. So really, you're talking about your splashy effects, and after tapping eight mana, really only the ones that let you cycle for free. So I suppose the question is... do you feel lucky?
As opposed to returning permanents en masse, Spellpyre Phoenix rewards you for playing the splashy instants and sorceries that you can cycle away early when you don't need them, giving you an opportunity to get them back in the late game when you do. It's still at a rather hefty cost of five mana, but it is repeatable with an Astral Slide, Astral Drift, or just a good old-fashioned sacrifice effect followed by Cycling a few spells.
As much of a fan of Phoenixes as I am, however, I do think that this particular Bird is only as good as the targets it has. At least currently, those targets is rather restricted to a smattering of board wipes, Decree of Justice, and some Fog effects if you get into a pinch. There is certainly a toolbox element available, however, and that by itself might be enough if you can manage to get a train of blinks going with the Astral enchantments.
That said, that is a fairly achievable goal in a Cycling deck, so if you are leaning more the route of spells over creatures and permanents, then Spellpyre Phoenix could be worth the inclusion.
Hey look, it's Waste Not-on-a-stick, but for you, not your opponents! Wait, isn't that Bone Miser?
Kidding aside, both Bone Miser and Waste Not see play in discard decks, at 66% for the former and 56% for the latter. Those are impressive numbers, and there are certainly quite a few decks focused on discard that play red in addition to or instead of black. With that in mind, I think Surly Badgersaur makes the cut even outside of Cycling, being a removal and ramp spell in one that might also get big enough to swing in for the win after it fights whatever it wants at the table. Oh, and remember those wheel decks? They'll probably like this thing's Treasure output to keep their wheels spinning again and again. That's quite the package for four mana.
The Impetus Cycle
With my general excitement about the expansion of Goad, I had to at least throw in a couple sentences on the full cycle of Goad Auras. They are actually in each of the decks, with a copy for each color represented. For the Jeskai variants, you get a Glorious Anthem for your opponents' creatures that aren't attacking you, an attack-triggered scry 2, and a free Treasure token, in white, blue, and red, respectively. Combined with a buff that points them in any other direction, and these are spicy, though not overtly powerful.
That said, I do honestly believe that the ramp from Shiny Impetus will let it see some play, and aggro decks probably should at least try out Martial Impetus. As for the blue one, Psychic Impetus just isn't pushed enough for my liking.
I Want to Ride My Bi-Cycle
So, what do you think of Timeless Wisdom? Is it the best of the Commander 2020 decks, the worst, or somewhere in the middle? Will you be buying a copy, or just looking for a few singles here and there? Most importantly, as a Cycling player on the edge of packing up his deck for a few months, are you planning on building Cycling now that it has a dedicated commander?
And finally, how is Commander Christmas treating you this year? Is it providing you with comfort in this tumultuous time, or just reminding you that you can't go out and play with friends?
Let us know in the comments, and we'll see you at the virtual video conferencing table.
Stay safe out there, folks, and send us pictures of those remote EDH setups!