Commander Showdown — Baral vs Talrand
Commander Showdown is a series that compares and contrast two similar commanders, analyzes differences in strategy and deck construction, and evaluates how those differences are represented by the data here on EDHREC.
Aether Revolt introduced a handful of new Legendary creatures to EDH, such as Yahenni, Undying Partisan and Rishkar, Peema Renegade. Unfortunately (and probably due to the fact that these legends are all mono-colored), most of them have been relegated to part of the 99 in pre-existing decks, rather than leading new decks of their own.
Talrand has long been the commander of choice for counterspell enthusiasts. He has a handy little ability that creates a 2/2 flying drake for each instant or sorcery spell you cast. For control players, this makes the game plan pretty straightforward: counter all of your opponent’s threatening spells, generate a bunch of drakes, and peck away at enemy life totals.
It’s worth remembering, too, that Talrand makes a drake regardless of the mana cost of your spell. Whether your spell costs one mana or seven, you still get a 2/2 drake. This makes cards like Preordain and Brainstorm very appealing for a Talrand player; paying one mana to get a flying 2/2 that also lets you Ponder makes even the famous Tarmogoyf jealous.
However, a new challenger has arrived on the scene in the form of Baral, a commander who also clearly wants to play counterspells. Even some long-established Talrand players might be tempted to put Baral at the helm of their decks instead. Before you build either of these decks, it’s important to look at how these commanders’ strategies may vary, and Baral has some very important differences.
First, rather than give you creatures, Baral gives you a flat discount on your instant and sorcery spells. From this, we can assume those Brainstorms and Ponders Talrand loves to run are less effective in a Baral deck, since you won’t be taking advantage of Baral's discount, and they also won’t give you a creature token. Rather than see tiny spells in a Baral deck, you’re more likely to see spells he can make tiny: turning a Cancel into a Counterspell feels pretty darn good, as does gaining mana off a discounted Rewind.
Second, Baral lets you loot every time you counter a spell. It’s a simple draw-and-discard, but it could have some big implications. Delve spells, such as Dig Through Time and Logic Knot look pretty interesting when your commander is putting cards into the graveyard.
There’s another implication this looting effect has on a Baral deck: looting may give you better card selection, but it isn’t necessarily card advantage. If you cast a counterspell and it’s the last card in your hand, looting has almost no effect, since you’ll discard whatever you draw. Thus, it’s pretty important for a Baral player to keep their hand full, so they have more options to discard when they do counter a spell. Instead of the cantrips of a Talrand deck, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Baral running a larger density of spells like Fact or Fiction and Stroke of Genius, to make sure his hand stays full.
The best way to compare these two commanders is with some data, so let’s take a look:
The Venn Diagram
This is my favorite part of the Commander Showdown series. I’ve made a set of columns below to compare the Top and Signature cards for each deck, and to see which cards are played frequently in both decks:
I don’t know about you, but the first thing that jumped out at me were the counterspells. If we look in the “Both” column, we see six, such as Negate and Disallow. That’s not surprising since we already knew both of these decks like to counter things. However, if we look at the counterspells in the individual columns, we get a very stark contrast:
Baral has nine.
Talrand has zero.
If you’re thinking about building a mono-blue control deck but can’t quite decide which of these commanders to pick, this is very useful information. Baral players are quite eager to get that looting trigger, so they tend to have a much higher counterspell density than Talrand. Since Talrand creates a creature no matter what kind of instant or sorcery he plays, he can diversify his spells a little bit more.
But more than just the sheer amount of counterspells, we should really take note of the types of counterspells these decks are running. Talrand runs cards like Negate and Rewind, which are either cheap or refund themselves, so he can cast more spells. He also plays counterspells with added bonuses, like Dissolve for the scry and Disallow for the utility.
But a few spells are conspicuously absent from Talrand’s list. Powerhouses like Mystic Confluence, Desertion, and Cryptic Command are at a mere 24%, 27%, and 25% popularity respectively for Talrand decks, but at least 50% for Baral. Why is this? You’d think both control decks would want to run them.
This is really where we see the effects of Baral’s mana-discount ability. Mana is a premium for Talrand players, who are hoping to generate multiple drakes per round if they can. Casting a five-mana counterspell could leave them tapped out and vulnerable. They’d rather leave their mana up for two cheap instants instead of one expensive one. Meanwhile, Baral can turn a mana cost of five into a mana cost of four, giving himself a little more leeway to run big spells and still leave mana up for other cheap instants. As a result, we see more basic counterspells in Talrand, rather than the famous and expensive ones. (Although for the record, I still think Mystic Confluence is flexible and powerful enough to justify running in a Talrand deck. But that’s just me.)
The Venn Diagram above does illuminate Baral’s biggest weakness, though. In his column, we see the card Propaganda, which isn't found in Talrand's. Talrand isn’t as pressured to play a defensive card like this, since he can easily chump-block with his drakes if need be. But if Baral fails to counter a huge threat, he’s quite weak on the battlefield, having little company to help defend him.
And while Metallurgic Summonings is in the “Both” column, Docent of Perfection certainly isn’t. These cards are a little redundant for Talrand, who makes creatures on his own, but Baral has to go digging to find a way to close out the game. This is most likely the reason that fewer than 150 Baral decks have been made on EDHREC, while Talrand has over 600; Talrand has a win-condition built in, while Baral has to go digging to find his. If you build Baral, make sure you include lots of powerful spells that will help you clinch a victory, because no one has the patience for him to deal 21 points of commander damage.
Before I move on from the Venn Diagram, I want to point out a few final things. I was apparently quite wrong in my prediction concerning Fact or Fiction and delve spells like Treasure Cruise, which both appear in Talrand’s column but not Baral’s. This felt strange to me, so I dug a little more, and while they didn’t show up in the Top cards section, they do have 41% and 43% popularity in Baral decks, respectively. I’d like to see that number go up, personally, because a Fact or Fiction for three mana just sounds dirty.
Lastly, it’s curious to note that removal spells like Pongify, Rapid Hybridization, and Reality Shift show up for Talrand, but don’t seem to be as popular for Baral. The most-played among them is Reality Shift, at 39% popularity, possibly because Baral’s discount ability applies to that card but not the others. I’d caution Baral players against skimping on effects like these; you have more counterspells than Talrand players, but you still won’t be able to counter every threat, so having those backups, even without the discount, can really help get you out of a tight spot.
Cards to Consider
After looking over the most frequently played cards in each of these decks, I can’t help but feel like there are some cards missing that should be more popular. I've got a few suggestions below:
- Rite of Replication. Baral lacks win conditions, and that makes this spell an absolute premium. A kicked Rite of Replication can totally end the game on its own. Copy an enemy Gray Merchant of Asphodel or Avenger of Zendikar. Even getting five Acidic Slimes can set you up for victory.
- Fog Bank and Guard Gomazoa. Having good blockers is important, and these guys can absorb a lot of hate before they die. Baral doesn’t generate chump blockers like Talrand, so he really needs as much help as he can get against powerful creatures. I also think it’s worth it to consider Aetherize and Aetherspouts, and the famous Maze of Ith for good measure. When you inevitably draw the ire of a player who’s sick of your counterspells, it’s nice to have a backup ready.
- Spelljack. If you like Desertion for four mana, you’ll like Spelljack for five. This is a counterspell that lets you steal any kind of spell, not just creatures and artifacts, and it lets you play the stolen spell whenever you need it.
- Mystic Speculation. Two mana to scry three cards every turn is a better deal than Sensei's Divining Top.
- Blatant Thievery, Bribery, et al. I’m really serious about Baral’s lack of win conditions. It may be a wrench tapping out on your turn for sorceries, but it’s an even bigger wrench to elongate the game with no real end in sight. Turning your opponents’ win conditions against them is a clean path to victory, one that I think Baral needs desperately.
- Bident of Thassa and Coastal Piracy. These may not be instants or sorceries, but they’re quite useful if you have a handful of evasive creatures at your disposal.
- Diluvian Primordial. I know tapping out for a card at sorcery speed is risky. But this thing wins games. Where do you think all those amazing spells you’ve been countering end up? In opponents’ graveyards. Plus, you get a 2/2 drake for each spell you steal.
- Overburden is nasty. You have very, very few creatures in this deck, and it doesn’t trigger on your tokens, so this can really keep your opponents one step behind you.
- Stroke of Genius. Blue Sun’s Zenith is cool, and so is this. I’m not sure why this isn’t higher for both of these commanders, frankly.
- Hidden Strings. I know, this is a weird one. But imagine encoding this card on one of your drakes. Attack, cast a copy of Hidden strings, untap two lands, and get another drake. This can help you cast a valuable spell on your turn but still have mana open for your counterspells. Hands of Binding might be worth considering too, to keep other pesky creatures tapped down while you generate more drakes.
It’s easy to take new legendary creatures and stick them into the 99 of an existing deck, but comparing new commanders against the old reminds us to stay on our toes, and to reevaluate deck archetypes that we might take for granted. Baral brings a neat new twist to counterspell decks, and I’m excited to see how he shapes up alongside Talrand over time.
I’m not, however, all that excited to play against either of them - at least, not without a few counterspells of my own.
Until next time!