Grapple With the Past – Alara Reborn

(Maelstrom Nexus | Art by Steven Belledin)

After the Gold Rush

Greetings, everyone, and welcome back to Grapple With the Past, a series in which we look back at the set pages for old releases to discuss the cards that made it and the cards that fell into obscurity in EDH. Once a set releases, Commander players write and read reviews, test out the new cards, and incorporate winners into their EDH repertoire. But with the constant stream of new products, it’s easy for cards to slip through the cracks. I’ve found that by exploring set pages on EDHREC, I frequently stumble upon cards that could easily find a spot in one of my decks. In this series we look for irregularities in the data, try to identify sleeper cards from formats past, and discuss the legacy of particular sets in Commander.

Today we’re looking back to Alara Reborn, a set that I return to every few years. This set pitched itself as the definitive multicolor release. Every single card in this set is gold. No lands. No colorless artifacts. While this was and remains a gimmick, it led to intriguing design. Just look at Unscythe, Killer of Kings, for example. This Equipment is indicative of the bizarre nature of the set as a whole: it’s an artifact with four colored pips in its casting cost, split up across three colors. In EDH, this means that Unscythe, Killer of Kings can only be played in Grixis decks with good mana-fixing. Beyond that, what Grixis deck wants this Equipment, or any Equipment beyond Lightning Greaves?

Alara Reborn is alluring exactly for the questions that it raises and refuses answer. To me, this set has the same elusive flavor as Future Sight. There are powerful and interesting cards that suggest a world to come that is still unimagined. Even eleven years later, I’m unsure where Unscythe, Killer of Kings fits, or whether it could ever find a home in our format. I feel the same about Fight to the Death and several other cards here. Let’s dive in.


The Commander Class

As far as commanders go, this set is actually fairly tame. The most salient common factor here is that the most popular among them are annoying to play against. Even if the commander options presented in this set aren’t overpowered, some of them do affect the table in abrasive ways. Who really likes playing against Sen Triplets?

Sen Triplets can be frustrating both for its ability to strip opponents’ hands as well as its pseudo-Telepathy effect. Then we get to Uril, the Miststalker, Bogle incarnate. Voltron as a strategy may not win games very often, but Uril decks can fairly efficiently remove at least one player on a whim. The other commanders present here are a bit underwhelming: high-costed and not particularly worth it. Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund might make it big one day, but it needs a new Conspiracy effect that turns all of your opponents’ creatures into Dragons as well. Until then, it’ll do as a conventional Dragon tribal commander.


The Top 10

I am not a fan of Maelstrom Pulse, and I was slightly surprised to see that it’s so highly played. It has never been included in a Commander product and is not frequently reprinted. When I first started playing EDH, I arrived with the preconception that versatile, sorcery-speed removal would be the best in the format. I bought a couple copies of Vindicate and traded for Maelstrom Pulse, neither of which were cheap at the time. Now, years later, I’ve found that I vastly prefer the versatility of instant-speed to the versatility of hitting more permanent types. Yes, I like Mortify better than Vindicate and Putrefy better than Maelstrom Pulse.

Also in the top ten, we find cards that illustrate the skew toward cards of three or more colors that exists on EDHREC. By percentage, Maelstrom Nexus and Wargate see play in 7% and 6% of possible decks, respectively, and they’re the first and third most-played cards from Alara Reborn, respectively. In total number of decks, however, they only see play in 2,146 and 3,208 decks, respeectively. In between them, the second most-played card from the set is Qasali Pridemage, which sees play in 6,102 decks, or 7% of possible decks. Although it sees play in nearly three times as many decks as Maelstrom Nexus, Qasali Pridemage it is less represented on EDHREC This isn’t a mistake, and is a better way to present this data, but it is a skew to keep in mind when using EDHREC as a resource.

As cards, these are three stellar options in their colors. Maelstrom Nexus is obviously highly restricted by its identity, but it provides an enormously powerful effect. The first spell you play on each turn, including your opponents’, you draw and play a spell for free. All for five mana. I would play this in nearly every five-color deck I make. Qasali Pridemage is a good role-player in creature-based decks, and Wargate is an extremely powerful tutor that could probably find a home in any Bant deck.


Think Twice

As I alluded to earlier, Alara Reborn is speckled with hidden gems waiting to be found. I feel like every time I visit the set’s page, I find more cards that I want to pick up and jam into a deck.

Three such cards can be found above. Soul Manipulation is one of the better counterspells that nobody plays. Sure, it costs three mana, and it only counters creatures, but it exists almost in its own category. This is a value spell that trips an opponent while replacing itself in your hand. This card is like Exclude, another underrated counterspell, but better in the right decks, because you can be selective about the card you return to your hand. Nobody likes a three-mana counterspell, but sometimes they aren’t bad.

Tainted Sigil, on the other hand, is one of the best lifegain cards that has ever been printed. Lump sum lifegain can be underwhelming in our format because it doesn’t scale as well to four-player games. Tainted Sigil, however, is the exception. This card can be used to deter and negate a big attack on your life total, capitalize on another player being hit hard, or cap off your own drain strategy. I play this card alongside Blood Artist and Zulaport Cutthroat, and it does not disappoint, often gaining twenty or more life.

Finally, Sigil Captain has been a powerhouse in my Selesnya tokens decks, and it often reminds me of Cathars’ Crusade. The Crusade has a higher ceiling and can spiral your board out of control, but Sigil Captain has a higher floor and is no slouch in its own right. It can give token strategies a significant kickstart or bolster +1/+1 decks that focus heavily on 1/1 creatures.

Mitch from the Commander’s Quarters mentioned Flurry of Wings in a video last year, but the extra exposure hasn’t yet translated into increased popularity on EDHREC. It only sees play in 479 decks, 1% of the possible. This card is the real deal, though, and is one of the better armies in a can in the format. Flurry of Wings is just so versatile: you can use it to produce a squad of chump blockers, or make a board from nothing. You can use it when you attack with your own creatures, or wait for your opponents to attack either you or each other. Combine this with Sigil Captain for maximum effect.

Sigil of the Nayan Gods is a confusing card that lacks a clear direction. Do you want to go wide or tall? Overrun your opponents, or knock them out one by one with a single creature? That’s part of the beauty of this card, you can do either. And if you don’t want to, cycle it for just one mana! Try this out with Shanna, Sisay’s Legacy.

Finally, Necromancer’s Covenant is a garishly expensive form of graveyard hate, and it only exiles creature cards. The true power of this card, though, is what it can do in Zombie decks. Yet another army in a can, this card can build an imposing board without much effort. Varina, Lich Queen, in particular, reaps huge benefits from giving your Zombies lifelink, which almost earns the card its slot by itself.

I imagine people have two aversions to playing Identity Crisis. First, this card only targets one opponent. Second, it is an undeniably mean card. I had these reservations when I first found a copy in my collection. But, after playing with Identity Crisis for several years, I think it has an often misunderstood purpose in our format. This is a punishment card. This is the vinegar to Group Hug’s honey. Verbal threats can be a powerful tool in EDH, but they need to be substantive. Identity Crisis is one of the best cards available to back up your threats. Think of it like River’s Rebuke. Rebuke has less sheer power in EDH than Cyclonic Rift or even Crush of Tentacles, but these comparisons are slightly facetious because River’s Rebuke should be used more as punishment than removal. If somebody crosses you, it is valuable to punish them specifically.

Switching gears, Sages of the Anima seems like it should be very good. I’ve picked up several copies over the years without any particular deck in mind. I still haven’t found the right home for it, but I have faith that one day, I will play it, I will draw three cards two turns in a row, and it will all have been worth it.


Up Next

That was Alara Reborn, one of the most perplexing and compelling sets to contemplate as a whole. What do you all make of this set? Did I miss any good one? Let me know in the comments below! Next time, we’ll be digging into Planar Chaos, a set that broke the barriers of the color pie. In Commander, a format of color identity, how does this expansion of effects available to each color impact our decks? Tune in next week to read my take and chime in. Remember to EDHREC responsibly: always dig a little beyond the statistics. I’ll see you all on down the road.

Steven Vincent is an ESL teacher located in Oaxaca, México who uses Magic as a teaching tool. He hasn't introduced his students to Commander yet, but he is inching them toward the format so that he has a play group and can more frequently sate his thirst for EDH.