Pure//Simple — Where Are They Now?
I started playing Commander in 2010, about a year before it was even called Commander—when Wizards officially acknowledged the format with the release of Magic: the Gathering-Commander. At the time, it was hard to navigate Magic forum posts to figure out what to play. There wasn't the wide breadth of information that sites like EDHREC provide. You were stuck with the bare minimum: a listing of top cards in each color, and maybe a deck primer - an overview of what strategies to play with the legendary creature you chose as your then-called “general”.
Recently, I was curious about those old deck building strategies and top card lists, so I decided to do a little digging. I wanted to see what cards were considered the staples back before so much quality content was available. And, more importantly, I wanted to ask “where are they now?” in regards to some of the cards that may have fallen off the list. Perhaps we will find a hidden gem or two, but at least we'll get some insight into how much the format has changed in the last seven years.
If you want to follow along with the top cards list I used for this article, you can find it here.
A Flash in the Flying Pan
When I saw this card on the list I had to look it up, because I'd forgotten about it. There are some cool things you can do with it, essentially provide Wrath of God protection for a few of your creatures, but it's pretty much just a 5/7 flyer for six. Now, keep in mind that this list is from July 2010, not long after the release of Rise of the Eldrazi, which leads me to believe that it might have had an early boost in popularity. That being said, there is good reason for this card to have fallen by the wayside. Aegis Angel most likely took its spot when it was introduced in 2011 with Magic 2012, and I know that was gone once Avacyn, Angel of Hope cemented her place in top white creature lists. When you look at Deathless Angel next to Avacyn, the difference is staggering. Deathless comes down for six, then costs at least two more white mana to make just one creature indestructible for one turn, so that makes eight total mana. Avacyn comes down at eight mana and makes everything, not just creatures, you control indestructible. Plus, she has a higher power and toughness and vigilance. I would say Deathless Angel's run at the top was very short indeed.
As of the time of this article, Deathless Angel is played in 918 decks on EDHREC, which is a lot considering better options. But it still makes sense considering that most of the listed commanders are all geared towards angel tribal, especially Kaalia of the Vast, which is the overwhelming majority of decklists. Cheating Deathless Angel into play seems like a great way to get around that prohibitive mana cost.
Kederekt Leviathan was one of blue's ways of resetting the board in 2010. If the game went on long enough, blue players would have difficulty keeping up with some of the other colors' strategies, especially since Upheaval was banned long before this list came out. Leviathan was a niche card that had some extra usefulness on account of its unearth ability, and allowed for certain decks to stay in the game. It did have the downside of returning every nonland permanent you had back as well, so it's no wonder that once Cyclonic Rift made its debut in Return to Ravnica in 2012, the Leviathan was quickly forgotten. Still, if you're looking for another mass-bounce effect, Leviathan is not a bad choice, though you have to navigate its downsides. There are other options, especially if you focus mainly on creatures. Ixidron, which was around at the time of this list, but not on it, has grown a bit more in favor since 2010 considering the increased power level of creatures, and Scourge of Fleets can do great work in Island-heavy decks. I run all three in a mono-blue deck built around only playing creatures and lands. Check it out:
Back from the Grave
This card was seemingly ubiquitous in black decks at the time, so much so that it was included in the first set of precons the following year. It was pinpoint removal for problematic cards in the graveyard, especially creatures that were begging to get returned from the graveyard. Sometimes you'd get a repeatable Rise from the Grave out of it to boot. However, this kind of removal just seems to be too slow for today's decks, even with mono-black mana doublers like Crypt Ghast and Nirkana Revenant. The first Commander precons saw the release of Scavenging Ooze, which does more work, most of the time. Add in even better graveyard hate like Rest in Peace, Nihil Spellbomb and Deathrite Shaman, and you can quickly see why Graverobber has gotten the ax over the years.
EDHREC lists 1258 decks with Graverobber, with a large portion being commanded by Marrow-Gnawer. Graverobber still has a home in rat tribal decks.
A Flash in the Flying Pan (Pt. 2)
When you look at Bogardan Hellkite, you can see reasons for it being played. Depending on the kinds of creatures on the board, Hellkite can be a better version of Angel of Despair, killing a few creatures at once. Flash was also handy in that you could trick a player into an unsavory attack. However, the biggest downfall for the Hellkite is its mana cost. In the early days of Commander, big splashy spells like this were common and expected. Nowadays, Commander decks are getting cheaper by way of converted mana cost. This is partly due to many creatures being much more efficient than they were in 2010. At the time, Bogardan Hellkite was decently powerful but has since been replaced with even better dragons like Utvara Hellkite and Balefire Dragon. Newer dragons have come at lower mana costs or much better upside, or in some cases a little bit of both.
Hellkite is found in over 3000 EDHREC lists and the top commanders are spread among three varying strategies: the aforementioned Kaalia of the Vast which makes that seven mana cost nonexistent; Feldon of the Third Path which can repeatedly make copies of it out of the graveyard; and Rakdos, Lord of Riots which wants to deal all kinds of damage to make other creatures cheaper to cast. If you haven't noticed, all three top strategies are trying to not play Hellkite for its mana cost.
Tusker was another card that saw enough play back in 2010 to warrant a slot in the first Commander precons. It was a big body that you could get two cards off of early in the game. However, the big body you'd get was just a vanilla 6/5 that didn't impact the board too much. Cultivate made its debut in the same year as this list, and Primeval Titan wasn't banned yet, which meant that Tusker was on the way out. Green decks want the lands on the battlefield and non-green decks can't play Tusker. Add to the fact that mana fixing has gotten better since 2010 by way of new dual land cycles and Chromatic Lantern, and you can see why not many people play Tusker anymore. With cycling getting more support in the Amonkhet block, you might see someone cycle a Tusker once again. However, even then it has to compete with Shefet Monitor, which puts the land directly on the battlefield.
Tusker sees play in 1447 EDHREC lists, and although its top commander is Mayael the Anima, it's only a marginal play above cards like Cultivate since you won't whiff off of activating Mayael.
Just Plain Rotting
Vulturous Zombie was an efficient beater in 2010. As is true today, Commander games at that time were all about attrition, things were constantly going to the graveyard. This meant that the Zombie could get huge pretty quickly. However, a simple large flyer doesn't make the cut as often as it did then. Sure, it has been reprinted in three different Commander products, but it might be one of the first few cards to cut once you want to tune-up the precon. If you want a creature that gets bigger with the graveyard, there are many great options that work better than Vulturous Zombie. The biggest of them being Lord of Extinction, which doesn't have to wait for cards to hit the graveyard. In a similar vein, you can run Consuming Aberration. The Zombie does have flying, which the cards I mentioned do not, but if you want to win off of something like Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord, those are better options. Mazirek, Kraul Death Priest is very similar to Vulturous Zombie, if build in a specific way, but can be your commander and pumps up your entire team.
The Zombie is part of 1844 EDHREC decklist, with the top two being Atraxa, Praetors' Voice and Meren of Clan Nel Toth, which are the two face commanders for Commander 2016 and Commander 2015 respectively. My guess is it hasn't made the cut for everyone's decks just yet.
Darksteel Colossus was a big, near game-ending beater that rewarded decks for getting to 11 mana or finding some other way to cheat it out. However, as I discussed before, there are more efficient threats that have made their way onto the scene since 2010. Avacyn was one, but another is Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger if we're just talking about colorless spells. For one less mana, you get one less power and toughness, lose trample, but gain the ability to exile two things on casting the card. This doesn't help decks that want to cheat Ulamog out but usually makes it a better play than decks that want to cast the creature. Obviously, it would be wrong to not mention Blightsteel Colossus, since it was already on the list in 2010 and quickly replaced Darksteel in most decks that played it. Being able to one-shot kill people with Blightsteel is much easier than it ever was with Darksteel.
The original Colossus can be found in 2108 EDHREC decklists and is pretty even in multiple artifact and colorless creature-based decks.
Nostalgia Achievement Unlocked
All of the above mentioned cards might have fallen out of favor with Commander players in the years since 2010, but they can still be powerful in the right builds. Many of them, while overshadowed by other options, allow for decks to have redundancy in various effects, and add consistency to an otherwise inconsistent format. If they were good at one point, why can't they be good again?
Next time, I'll dive back into the year 2010 and talk about cards that are as strong then as they are now, maybe some even more so. But for now, I have a question for all of you: which former format all-star do you still think deserves the love that it once had? Let me know in the comments below!