Grapple With the Past - Guildpact
( Debtors' Knell | Art by Kev Walker )
Guild the Lily
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 going back to one of the most popular blocks of all time—the original Ravnica block. We all remember Ravnica: City of Guilds fondly, but Guildpact may have actually been even more influential as time has passed. This set introduced us to the wild Gruul barbarians, the wacky Izzet tinkerers, and the ecclesiastical Orzhov racketeers. But more importantly, it introduced two of the most popular characters in magic history: Teysa Karlov and Niv-Mizzet.
The most striking realization from looking at Guildpact all these years later is how the identities of the guilds were still budding during this time. Now that we’ve been back to Ravnica two additional times, some of the ideas associated with certain guilds were either abandoned or changed over time. While elements of the Orzhov’s proclivity for taxing and draining opponents can be seen on cards like Pillory of the Sleepless, the emphasis here seems to be on their gothic aesthetic—hauntings, towering cathedrals with flying buttresses, bats, gargoyles, and the like. While the Izzet guild is certainly very Weird here, they are much more controlled in this set than their later iterations. Just compare the composed Goblin Flectomancer to the unhinged Runaway Steam-Kin. Even so, Guildpact laid the foundation for some of the most compelling and flavorful groups in Magic.
One of the most striking revelations that comes with revisiting older sets is just how much design philosophy has shifted with regards to legendary creatures. These days, it would be shocking for a major release not to include at least one legendary creature that was specifically designed to energize EDH deckbuilders. Back in 2006 and before, EDH wasn’t the force that it is today, and legendary creatures were either accidentally very good EDH generals or nearly unplayable.
Guildpact is a perfect representation of this idea. The two most popular commanders from this set, Teysa, Orzhov Scion and Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind, are both extremely powerful combo pieces that live in the command zone, pairing with Darkest Hour and Curiosity, respectively. On the opposite end of the Commander spectrum, Borborygmos is a bafflingly clumsy design. Seven mana for such a slow ability was never good enough. Bad commander options are still printed, but usually nothing nearly as bad as Borborygmos. Ghost Council of Orzhova is also a bizarre relic from the world before EDH came to power, stipulating that you only drain target opponent. If this card were to be printed today, this creature would absolutely drain each opponent. Even then, it still wouldn't be a very powerful commander.
Among this competition, Ulasht, the Hate Seed represents a happy accident. I’ve never built this commander, but I have played against it, and it seems to hit the perfect balance between fun and power for EDH. It's versatile, and it scales to the format, leveraging some of its most powerful cards. Hint: play this commander with creatures that are both red and green for two +1/+1 counters on Ulasht per creature.
The Top 10
It comes as no surprise to see shocklands and Signets in the top ten cards from Guildpact. Every staple land cycle is in the top cards of its set: seven of the top ten cards from Zendikar are lands, and the top five from both Shards of Alara and Khans of Tarkir are the two cycles of tri-lands that enter the battlefield tapped. While I rarely think of lands when reminiscing on a particular set, good or decent lands are the legacy of many Magic sets. I could use this space to discuss the importance of shocklands and Signets to EDH, but that sounds like a waste. Instead, I'll use this section to discuss the top ten cards not part of a mana base. With that in mind, what are the most-played cards from Guildpact?
Gold cards will almost always be overrepresented on EDHREC set pages. The number of decks that they could be included in is much lower than their single-colored companions. Invoke the Firemind and Storm Herd are both in the top ten, for example. Storm Herd sees play in nearly twice the number of decks, but they both see play in 2% of possible decks. As such, eight of the top ten are multicolored cards. Mortify is number one, seeing play in 26% of available decks—shockingly popular. Other Orzhov cards are also near the top here, in the form of Angel of Despair and Debtors’ Knell. Both of these are old seven-mana standards of EDH and can be powerful in the right deck. They may be outclassed these days, but no surprises here.
The truly bizarre cards in the top ten are Stitch in Time and Storm Herd. Don't get me wrong: I’ve cast Stitch in Time several times, and it can certainly be fun. It's mostly playable in decks that are already playing Krark’s Thumb. Even then, though, that's a two-card combo that costs five mana to produce a Time Warp. On the card’s EDHREC page, the first commanders to appear are unsurprisingly the resident coin flip generals, Okaun, Eye of Chaos and Zndrsplt, Eye of Wisdom. But those decks only account for 752 of the 1721 Stitch in Time decks. Again, it’s a fun card, but it seems very niche to be in the top ten.
Storm Herd, on the other hand, is a subpar win condition. I’ve played this card in several mono-white decks, and it has never performed to my expectations. Oh, and it costs ten mana. It costs a full Kozilek, Butcher of Truth. A Pegasus army is one of the cutest ways to kill an opponent, though.
This set released when I was young and it made a strong impression on me. It introduced two of my favorite guilds, the Izzet and the Orzhov, with two stellar and flavorful mechanics. These days, however, some powerful cards from this set are largely forgotten. Let’s see what we can find.
Although Haunt may have been outdone by later representations of the Orzhov, I still enjoy its gothic flavor and how it parcels out value over time. Seize the Soul, in particular, is a card that I’ve had a lot of fun playing, and it can be used to set up powerful chains of play, like responding to a an opponent’s removal spell and Haunting the target of that removal. Belfry Spirit, similarly, complicates board states really well. If you like armies in a can, this one is for you. At face value, it doesn’t seem like a great rate: for five mana, you get five 1/1s with flying. However, by Haunting another creature on the board, this card can act as board clear protection, giving token decks a leg up when rebuilding. I played both of these cards in my old Krav, the Unredeemed and Regna, the Redeemer deck, and they exceeded my expectations.
Here are two cards that I’ve never played before but might try out, now. I know Cerebral Vortex from Nekusar, the Mindrazer, but I might even consider this in any tricky izzet deck. This is essentially a modal spell. In its first mode, this is an instant-speed Divination that deals two damage to you. In its other mode, this card punishes decks that try to draw their whole library in one turn, an extremely common gameplan in EDH.
The next Izzet card on the docket is Mizzium Transreliquat. Raise your hand if you like Mirage Mirror. While this can only target artifacts, this card seems extremely useful to me. If you need mana, copy a Gilded Lotus. Time to go on the offensive? Target a Wurmcoil Engine. While this card has limited application, we’ve been given several Izzet commanders that focus on artifacts in recent years. Consider this card for Tawnos, Urza’s Apprentice and Saheeli, the Gifted.
Finally, here are two miscellaneous cards to consider. Normally, there is only one enchantment deck in any given pod, so Primeval Light is the perfect removal spell to check that player. Gruul War Plow on the other hand, seems like a fair evasion-enabler for Gruul decks that want to swing in with big creatures. Although worse than Garruk’s Uprising, Gruul War Plow could make the cut in decks that need redundancy of this effect.
So that was Guildpact, a set from one of the most beloved blocks of all time. As an EDH player, I appreciate the original Ravnica block not only because it provided some good cards and formative generals, but also because it shaped design space that is important for the format. Commander runs on legendary creatures with strong personalities, distinct mechanics, and multicolored identities, all of which are hallmarks of the plane of Ravnica. Next time, I plan to tackle a set that I frequently revisit and fondly refer to as the hidden gem set for EDH: Alara Reborn. Until then, let me know what what I missed or misevaluated from this set. And, as always, let me know what sets you would like to see covered and why!
Remember to EDHREC responsibly: always dig a little beyond the statistics. I’ll see you all on down the road.