The Jeskai Friends of Ikoria
el(Vadrok, Apex of Thunder | Showcase Art by Tomasz Jedruszek)
An Embarrassment of Riches
Hello friends! I'm here with a break in my weekly series to write a bit of a passion piece.
Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths and its sister product, Commander 2020, introduce a whole slew of Jeskai commanders. These four legends come hot off the heels of four other Jeskai commanders last year: Core Set 2020's Kykar, Wind's Fury and the three commanders from Commander 2019, Sevinne, the Chronoclasm, Pramikon, Sky Rampart, and Elsha of the Infinite. The reason I bring this up is because before last year, Jeskai had a mere five non-Partner commanders to their name.
The whole point of this article is to celebrate the new design space for Jeskai and help players new to the color combination get a feel for what these commanders bring to the table, as well as serve as an on-ramp to help kick-start your journey to Master the Way. I will only be going over the four Jeskai legends from Ikoria, as they have piqued many people's interest.
As a side note, I also want to congratulate all of my fellow wedge fans out there. Our favorite three-color combinations have been getting quite a bit of love recently across the board, and I only hope it will continue into Commander Legends. We're finally reaching a point where we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Shards in terms of commander diversity, and I am incredibly excited for it.
(Vadrok, Apex of Thunder l Art by Zack Stella)
Vadrok, Apex of Thunder
I won’t lie - while Vadrok seems like it can easily helm a deck, it looks like it was designed as more of a 60-card-format creature rather than a creature for Commander. That's not a complaint, merely an observation. There are plenty of things we can do with this Elemental... Cat... Dinosaur…?
Whenever Vadrok Mutates, we're able to cast a noncreature spell from our graveyard with CMC 3 or less without paying its mana cost. We don’t even have to exile it! Now that is some good value. While Vadrok may sound similar to Sun Titan, we have to keep in mind that this happens only when Vadrok Mutates. As such, there are two ways that we can build it at the head of a Commander deck:
The first is its baseline. If you simply Mutate Vadrok onto a creature, you are buffing the creature and also netting a Mutate trigger. This can provide a decent amount of value, but not enough to warrant building the entire deck around Vadrok. You will be utilizing Vadrok for two main purposes: for its colors and for the value/bonuses it provides, and not much else. This assessment is not a dig at Vadrok, but it is the floor. It isn't the kind of commander who can “go off” like Narset, Enlightened Master in a build like this (thank goodness), but I think they have a good enough baseline to be able to use as a commander. Incremental value is good, and not having to absolutely rely on your commander for your deck to function is sometimes a positive in decks.
The second way to build Vadrok is entirely dependent on the Mutate cards printed in Ikoria. This build is looking to Mutate Vadrok quite often, mash monsters together, and bring back a bunch of cards from our graveyard. I can't guarantee that this will be the best build for Vadrok, but it will be fun to make a huge scary monster! There are some great Mutate card in Jeskai, like Everquill Phoenix, Souvenir Snatcher, Lore Drakkis, and Sea-Dasher Octopus, so this build isn't entirely out of the question. I'm a fan of most Mutate cards, since most of their effects are decent at best, and will keep triggering the more you Mutate and stack creatures onto one another.
Regardless of how we plan on building the deck, they both pose the same question: what are we recasting from our graveyard?
Path to Exile, Swords to Plowshares, Wayfarer’s Bauble, Teferi, Time Raveler, Narset, Parter of Veils, Mystic Remora, Steel of the Godhead, Windfall, Wheel of Fortune... there are a bevy of incredibly powerful spells under 3 CMC that we can bring back. The only variable to these different builds is how often we plan on doing that.
Overall, while I think Vadrok is a card made for constructed 60-card formats, I think there is a home for it in Commander, as well. Vadrok is similar to Sevinne, since they both care about casting spells from the graveyards, but they do them in different enough ways that I think that they each can carve out their own interesting niche without stepping on their toes. They aren’t the most compelling of options, but they are a welcome addition to the Jeskai arsenal.
(Gavi, Nest Warden | Art by Randy Vargas)
Gavi, Nest Warden
Gavi is to Timeless Wisdom as Sevinne, the Chronoclasm is to Mystic Intellect. Both are the deck's face commanders, and both care about your deck doing something specific. I broke down my opinions of the two of them on a Twitter thread the day Gavi was spoiled, and I had a lot of positive things to say about her in comparison to Sevinne.
Sevinne is neat, but there's little synergy between his two abilities. He is also fairly niche, and completely reliant on other cards' strengths to be any good. Most Sevinne decks I've seen (including my own) have issues closing out games and keeping the board under control. This is due to the power level of cards that you get to play more than once. Thanks to their added bonus of being able to play them from the graveyard again, they are often over-costed, or don't provide the exact effects we need. This ends up pushing a Sevinne deck away from its intended purpose to rely on one-time-use cards as opposed to ones you can potentially copy from your graveyard.
Gavi, on the other hand, is a much more broad, powerful commander in her own right. Her power is her own, and she is only reliant on card draw to help her function. You simply need to keep cards flowing. On top of that, Gavi's two abilities synergize, but aren't required to work together. Her first ability feeds into her second, but neither are reliant on the other to function. You can focus on one, the other, or both to build you deck. In other words, she's flexible. You can build her as the head of a Cycling deck, but you are by no means forced to build around the mechanic she supports, unlike Sevinne.
The most obvious route for Gavi is at he helm of a Cycling deck. There are a lot of Cycling payoffs printed throughout Magic. Astral Drift/Astral Slide for fun blink shenanigans, Ominous Seas and Shark Typhoon for token creation, Unpredictable Cyclone to turn your Cycling cards into actual cards... there are a lot of good reasons to cycle your cards besides just churning through your deck.
To go along with them, there are cards like Decree of Justice to help you make more tokens, Spellpyre Phoenix to buy back your instants and sorceries with Cycling, Rooting Moloch and Abandoned Sarcophagus to buy back any of your cyclers, New Perspectives to help back up Gavi as a way to reduce Cycling costs, and many more. All of these really help the deck hum and give you ways to progress to the late game. In a deck without access to green, Cycling really helps us smooth out the deck and lets it run like a dream.
Thanks to how wide open Cycling is, we are able to avoid falling into the same traps that Sevinne unintentionally leads us to. For example, we can actually build a non-Cycling Gavi deck if we so choose. We can combine Gavi with things like Improbable Alliance, Monastery Mentor, Purphoros, God of the Forge, Consecrated Sphinx, and Cathar's Crusade and come out with the workings of a solid token deck. We can leverage these tokens to have a deck that can attack on multiple axes, whether it's through combat, incremental damage, or even turning them into fodder for Goblin Bombardment or Phyrexian Altar.
That being said, there are other ways to utilize a Cycling-centric deck, so don't let me discourage you. Sphinx's Tutelage, Psychic Corrosion, Psychosis Crawler, and Glint-Horn Buccaneer are all fantastic options for a deck that wants to utilize Cycling to its fullest.
Unlike Sevinne, there are multiple ways that you can build Gavi, and she won't be shoehorned into a single strategy, so have fun with her and play her however you please!
(Akim, the Soaring Wind | Art by Filip Burburan)
Akim, the Soaring Wind
Of all the Jeskai commanders in this set, Akim is the one I am most lukewarm on.
Akim has two abilities. The first will create a single token whenever you make a token for the first time each turn, while the second will give all your tokens double strike. These abilities aren't bad, but I personally think they'll have a hard time finding a home in Commander since it directly competes with Kykar, Wind’s Fury. Kykar is not the Jeskai commander with whom you want to get into a popularity contest. Kykar is both the most popular Jeskai commander on EDHREC and the most popular Jeskai tokens commander, and it only came out nine months ago. Kykar is a great commander with a strong following, and isn't a commander who can easily be overtaken. I therefore think Akim will put up some of the weakest numbers of the Jeskai commanders from this set.
Akim is restricted to only producing one token per turn. This really hurts its ability to keep up with Kykar, who can produce a token whenever you cast a noncreature spell, which is pretty much Jeskai's favorite thing to do. On top of that, Akim costs a full mana more than Kykar while only boasting marginally better stats. Kykar is also able to recover easier from board wipes, since you aren't reliant on having to create a token in order to get things going.
That being said, not everything is all gloom and doom for Akim. I have a lot of nitpicks, but remember, we're comparing Akim to Kykar, who I consider to be the apex of Jeskai commanders. There is still plenty we can do with Akim in order to distance them from the shadow of Kykar and find a way to make a fun, unique deck. How can we do that, though?
The answer is in Akim’s second ability. By focusing on Akim's ability to give our tokens double strike, we can carve out a distinct niche for the Bird Dinosaur. For six mana, we can give our token team double strike and easily allow us to close out games. I’m a huge fan of True Conviction in go-wide decks, and having half of one in the command zone that I can pump mana into whenever I want is pretty enticing.
Due to this, Akim seems like it will need to carve out a niche opposite of Kykar to really stand out. They both can helm token decks, but we need to utilize Akim at opposite sides of the spectrum. Where Kykar can churn out tokens at a rapid pace and overwhelm opponents with noncreature spells and sheer numbers, Akim will want to take it a bit slower. Our best bet is to imitate a Ghired, Conclave Exile build, and seek to go over the top with large tokens.
We’re going to want to intermittently produce a token on each turn, and make those tokens count. Ancient Stone Idol, Arcane Artisan, Banish into Fable, Desolation Twin, Doomed Artisan, Extricator of Sin, Idol of Oblivion, God-Eternal Oketra, Golden Guardian, Rite of the Raging Storm, Utvara Hellkite, Wharf Infiltrator, Wingmate Roc... there are a lot of ways to make sizable tokens, and that’s where we want to focus Akim, to get the most from its activated ability.
While we aren’t going to fully build around Akim's first ability, we still want to keep in mind and trigger it when we can. We can trigger Akim on opponents' turns with spells like Supplant Form, Masterful Replication, Stitcher Geralf, Heliod, God of the Sun, Talrand Sky Summoner, Smothering Tithe, Shiny Impetus, and Curse of Opulence. Don’t forget, we also have access to copied tokens! Brudiclad, Telchor Engineer, Cackling Counterpart, Clone Legion, Helm of the Host, and Quasiduplicate can create token copies of our favorite creatures.
While I don’t think Akim is better than Kykar, it is also important to note that it doesn't have to be. They read similarly, and both care about tokens, but their differences lead them down two opposite paths. Kykar is more Spike-friendly, while Akim is more Timmy- and Tammy-friendly. Akim has a lot of interesting potential. My opinion of it hasn't changed much, and I still like Kykar more, but it’s also important to take my opinion on this with a grain of salt, since I am a Spike. ?
(Brallin, Skyshark Rider and Shabraz, the Skyshark l Art by Paul Scott Canavan)
Brallin, Skyshark Rider and Shabraz, the Skyshark
The Sharkfriends™ are a lot to unpack. They have sweet abilities and are hyper synergistic, which is exactly what you want from Partner commanders. While both of these fellas are awesome, the standout to me is Brallin, Skyshark Rider.
Whether he is leading the deck or in the 99, there are a lot of different options for the Skyshark Rider. The Command Zone covered these two in depth, particularly Brallin, when they previewed the pair, so I don't want to rehash too much. It is important to touch on some important synergies with Brallin, though. Curiosity or Ophidian Eye on Brallin are incredibly strong. When you start discarding cards, you can potentially burn out the entire table as long as you have enough cards in your deck to churn through. Infect is another great ability to give to Brallin, whether through Grafted Exoskeleton or Corrupted Conscience. With either of these on Brallin, all it'll take is an easy 10 discards to knock out the whole table! If you decide not to focus on combo or Brallin's passive damage, don't forget that he's also getting +1/+1 counters each time you discard a card! With Shabraz, the Skyshark's help, Brallin can take to the skies and attack to deal loads of damage too! He can put pressure on your opponents on a number of different axes, which I think is his biggest strength.
Speaking of Shabraz, while the Shark is no slouch, its won't break games open as often as Brallin's will.
I see Shabraz as a support piece to Brallin, rather than a focal point. Shabraz has innate evasion, which is something that Brallin lacks, and allows Shabraz to attack and be more aggressive more often. This allows Shabraz to often act like a battering ram of sorts, taking huge chunks out of opponents' life totals. Let's not forget about Shabraz's ability to gain increments of life, though; gaining life just to gain life won't ever win you a game, but it is a great bonus to have. We can channel this lifegain to draw into more cards by utilizing Dawn of Hope, Well of Lost Dreams, and even combo out with Laboratory Maniac and/or Jace, Wielder of Mysteries in conjunction with Drogskol Reaver!
There are a few 'odds and ends' cards that work really well with these two, as well. Abzan Battle Priest and Ainok Bond-Kin reward our duo for having counters on them, Heliod, Sun-Crowned, Archangel of Thune, and Ajani's Pridemate are aggressive ways to channel our lifegain, and Nadir Kraken, Chasm Skulker, Thought Sponge, and Toothy, Imaginary Friend function similarly to Shabraz, growing larger the more and more cards we can siphon into our hand. To go along with them, wheel effects like Wheel of Fortune, Reforge the Soul, Rielle, the Everwise, and other cards like these really pump up your card draw and discard abilities to 11. If you were interested in this kind of build, I'm sure The Locust God's Wheel Theme would be a fantastic place to start!
I think there are builds for casual EDH decks as well as powerful, tuned EDH decks for these two, and they cover a lot of ground. They are interesting, silly, and look like a real blast to play. I wouldn't be surprised to see these two be the premiere Jeskai commanders coming out of Ikoria, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them eventually catch up to Kykar, Wind's Fury. They are unique and facilitate a lot of decks on both ends of the power level spectrum. I believe this pair has a lot of staying power and expect to see them a lot.
A Veritable Cornucopia of Opportunities
Going through all of these commanders, I kept writing about the same thing: how flexible and interesting they are. Even Akim, the Soaring Wind and Vadrok, Apex of Thunder, who have more niche uses than Gavi, Nest Warden and Brallin, Skyshark Rider/Shabraz, the Skyshark, are still interesting to build around and have quite a bit of depth.
I thought 2019 was a great year for Jeskai, but apparently 2020 is shaping up to be even better. Our themes are getting fleshed out more, we are coming into our own as a token and card draw color combination, and our commander quality (and quantity) has increased significantly.
At this point, I think there is a potential Jeskai commander for every kind of player out there. There are enough tools in these three colors to facilitate most lines of play if we really dig into it, and it makes me absolutely giddy. I finally feel like the wedges as a whole are finally coming into their own, and can potentially stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the shards. It is a great time to be a Jeskai player, and I'm excited to see what the rest of the year brings.
Tell me what you all thought of this little detour from the usual Archetune-up! Did you like it? Would you like to see more deep dives on recent commanders like this? Did I dive deep enough, or do you think I only scratched the surface? Let me know down below, I'd really love to hear your thoughts!
If you’d like to reach me I’m quite active on Twitter (@thejesguy), where you can always hit me up for Magic- or Jeskai-related shenanigans 24/7. If you have any comments, questions, concerns, or anything else of the sort, please don’t hesitate to leave them below or get in touch! Stay safe, wash your hands, and I'll see you next week, my friends!