War of the Spark Set Review - Red

(Finale of Promise | Art by Jaime Jones)

City on Fire

War of the Spark is the perfect name - this entire set has been nothing but gas, and all it takes is a single spark to light up the whole Commander format! Today we're looking at the set's red offerings, to see which ones might ignite our inspiration in EDH! Let's go!


Sarkhan the Masterless

Sarkhan, Sarkhan, Sarkhan. I have a soft spot for the Dragon man.

First, his self-defense clause. Whenever someone tries to hit you or your walker, he turns each of your scalelords into a Circle of Flame. Sarkhan doesn't care how strong the Dragons you control are, so his survivability (or at least, the likelihood of defeating an oncoming creature) goes up the more Dragons you have in play. Most Dragons are fairly high in mana cost, so it's often tough to get too many of them into play. Plus, Dragons tend to kind of be their own deterrents - who wants to attack the player with the huge flying 7/7? - but it's nice of Sarkhan to give us peace of mind, allowing us to attack all we want with our beasties and protect us from potential crackback. Plus, as it turns out, there are some neat cards capable of making multiple Dragon tokens, including Sarkhan himself!

Most Sarkhan planeswalkers are in decks with high proportions of this tribe, and it's no surprise to anyone that this new Sarkhan will slot right into those selfsame decks. One might think the buck stops there, but I'd posit that this card would also do well in any red-inclusive Superfriends strategy. He doesn't just transform himself anymore, he turns each of your walkers into an evasive beater! No need to wait on your walkers to hit their ultimate abilities, he can turn a board of three planeswalkers into a lot of damage out of nowhere. This card will do well in EDH.

A final thought: I think that this Sarkhan would be especially strong in Rakdos or Jund builds because of access to one card that makes a neat but expensive combo for a rattlesnake player: Archetype of Finality. Deathtouchy Dragons? Hilarious.

Chandra, Fire Artisan

Quick question: what happens if you punch someone on fire?

You catch on fire, genius.

That sentiment is handily embodied by the latest form of Chandra Nalaar . While her ultimate, in my view, isn’t much to write home about compared the fiery glory of some of her other incarnations, her static ability allows her to protect herself in a way we’ve never seen before on a planeswalker. True, she doesn’t deal damage to the creature attacking her, just to an opponent or planeswalker, but it forces people with low life totals and especially those who have walkers of their own to think twice before dealing damage.

Furthermore, her +1 addresses red’s issue with card draw (something this set is pretty good about dealing with; we'll see others in a moment). It perhaps feels weird that her loyalty abilities don't do anything with fire, since setting things ablaze something I'm personally quite used to seeing Chandra do - see Chandra's Ignition, for instance - but as long as she sticks around, she's another Outpost Siege, and that feels great. I suspect a lot of midrange EDH decks and anything that runs a lot of burn will enjoy making a slot for this card.

Jaya, Venerated Firemage

A bit overcosted for my taste; a five-drop planeswalker better do something pretty awesome other than acting as a glorified, repeatable Shock. However, there are definitely some decks I would imagine have a use for her, since she says ‘red source.’ She could be at home in a Krenko, Mob Boss deck to give your swarm of Goblins a bit more oomph, or perhaps in a low-curve deck like Adeliz, the Cinder Wind, helping your Wizards hit harder than they should. Five mana is a lot, though.

Tibalt, Rakish Instigator

At present, there are a bare handful of cards in mono-red that prevent lifegain. The most notorious of them, Rampaging Ferocidon (played in 1234 decks), even got itself banned once upon a time. Flames of the Blood Hand (299 decks), Skullcrack both penalize lifegain, but are narrow one-shot effects. Stigma Lasher could be the bane of Oloro, Ageless Ascetic deck everywhere, though the on-hit clause is tough to enact. 

Preventing lifegain can be a big deal in some playgroups, though, and it is in mine. Even if you never use new Tibalt's ability, a true lifegain deck would have to devote some resources to getting rid of him, because he does shut down their entire plan. If you need to hate out lifegain decks, Tibalt could work for you, but I imagine you'll mostly want to stick to Sulfuric Vortex. Ah, well. He's cheap, not great, and makes everyone groan - vintage Tibalt!


Ilharg, the Raze-Boar

All hail the lord of full boar-action, the swine in time, the snuffling truffler, the sounder pounder, the onerous oink, and the big pig on battlefield: ILHARG!

Yeah, no matter how many times I type it, the name still sounds like me choking on a spare rib.

Ilharg, the Raze-Boar is a Sneak Attack/Through the Breach stapled to a viciously efficient 6/6 trampling body for five mana. Ilharg dodges a lot of the problems that plague medium- to heavy-cost red commanders like Neheb, the Eternal (726 decks), Lovisa Coldeyes (306 decks), and Heartless Hidetsugu (396 decks). Namely, these commanders have to wait a turn before they come online. Sure, Ilharg waits just like the others, but killing him doesn’t nearly disrupt the gameplay as much as it does with other commanders. Most board wipes don’t phase Ilharg any more than spot removal does. While vulnerable to enchantments like Darksteel Mutation or some such, Ilharg is an absolute house - in fact, he rather demands that your opponents have a removal spell, or else they'll soon be taking a ton of damage. He can easily summon any of the Eldrazi titans (though keep in mind that he won't get their on-cast or on-attack triggers), or perhaps a Blightsteel Colossus for a one-hit knockout out of nowhere. Any number of nasties will do the trick; even just resummoning a Meteor Golem over and over could be pretty dang rude. And Ilharg accomplishes all this just by attacking. Let that sink in. Not even dealing damage. Just attacking.

For the folks who love Jeskai-flavored Solitaire, you also might enjoy his interactions with Medomai the Ageless. Attack with big boar, sneak Medomai into play. When the damage is dealt, you'll get an extra turn! Then Medomai will flit back to your hand. On the next turn - which is to say, on your next turn - Ilharg can attack again, sneaking Medomai back into play. This bypasses the "can't attack on extra turns" clause, because while Medomai can't initiate an attack on an extra turn, he's put into play already attacking. Voila! As long as you can continue to punch people, you can have all the turns you want.

As a member of the 99, expect Ilharg to flock to commanders like:

Each of these commanders (and others in their type) caters to a different aspect of Ilharg. For example, Samut and other haste-enabling commanders allow Ilharg to come out swinging when he appears. Mayael is already filled to the brim with big baddies to cheat into play, and Ilharg fits right in. Gisela, Blade of Goldnight is a walking Furnace of Rath that makes the game even shorter, which is perfect for an aggressive creature like Ilharg.

PS - want to keep your creatures in play? Use the Feldon of the Third Path trick. At the beginning of your end step, Ilharg's delayed trigger will go on the stack, to send the creature it summoned back to your hand. In response, activate Sundial of the Infinite, immediately ending the turn. Ilharg's trigger will go away, and you'll get to keep your free creature!

Finale of Promise

Oh dear. Another big, splashy Niv-Mizzet card along the lines of Epic Experiment, except this one is more focused on recurring instants and sorceries from the graveyard. Holy hand grenades. You can recur an obscene amount of burn, card draw, or other good stuff with the Finale. My first thought is that a copy of this belongs in every Wort, the Raidmother deck out there for more fun copying action (she's fairly popular on this site, running at 700+ decks). Close behind would be another Gruul commander: Rosheen Meanderer.

While not as popular as the Raidmother (just under 500 decks), Rosheen makes casting X spells like Comet Storm and friends much simpler, not to mention the natural advantage of green's ramp, which all goes a long way toward hitting that X-equals-10 threshold and getting double copies. Neheb, the Eternal (700+ decks) is a prime case for this card too, as a damage-focused build means you'll have plenty of opportunities to ramp into this card just by hurting the rest of the table. Expect this card to be a staple in decks that deal with explosive damage and quick mana.

Of course there are a butt-ton of Izzet commanders who would love this card, but I think the strongest case actually belongs to the Gruul and mono-red due to their focus on damage. That could be my own bias, though.

Krenko, Tin Street Kingpin

At one red mana less than his previous (and more dangerous) version, Krenko embraces some weaknesses. His token generation is no longer an activated ability, but a triggered one based on his power when he attacks. He’s also dropped from a respectable 3/3 to an uninspiring (and Shock-able) 1/2. Like his predecessor, Krenko lacks abilities like first strike, menace or trample, though the previous iteration didn't particularly need them.

This leaves a lot of design space open for Krenko 2.0. Hero's Blade in particular, dropped the turn before, auto-equips when you play Krenko and insures when you attack you get a minimum of five, count ‘em, five 1/1 Goblins for no extra investment.

Other solid choices to make Krenko large and in charge include Brute Force, Fit of Rage, Wrecking Ogre, Run Amok and of course, Blood Lust. Plus, since Krenko generates Goblins upon attacking, expect a lot of extra combat phase cards in his decks: World at War, Hellkite Charger, or even the super-dangerous-but-rewarding-if-your-back-is-to-the-wall Final Fortune for when you just need one more turn to squash your enemy with your Goblin horde.

If you want use Krenko as a member of the 99, then both Become Immense and Might of Oaks would be solid calls in a Gruul build, maybe even with Wort, the Raidmother as mentioned above, since she's a great commander for extra token- and spell-copying action. Oh, and if you prefer Rakdos or Jund?

Your hate, as it turns out, has turned into Goblins. Nice.

So the takeaway on Krenko? I personally like him, and he’s certainly cost-effective. He rewards a more aggressive playstyle at the cost of being individually underwhelming and somewhat dependent on other cards or effects to make him as exponentially scary as his previous version. Could be a good replacement if you've found OG Krenko to be too aggressive, and could be a fun token provider in red-inclusive decks. Good stuff!

Mizzium Tank


Tank goodness, am I right?

The Izzet are bringing the heavy artillery here. The fact that the Tank has trample is a welcome bonus, as is its pseudo-Prowess when you play a noncreature spell. Giving it a Crew cost (and a cheap cost at that) ensures that this thing isn’t locked into any one strategy (spellslingers, token-spam etc). I could see the Mizzium Tank being an easy include in any deck that runs Wee Dragonauts or Gelectrode quite happily, as it’s a self-sustaining threat. It could also be at home in mono-red beatdown. Stonebrow, Krosan Hero decks would always like another budget trampler too, and since our favorite centaur has under 200 decks to his name, I'm thinking this would be a good fit. It’s a fun card with a little utility and a unique design space, and it's the answer to the question nobody asked: what if the Izzet made a tank?

Neheb, Dreadhorde Champion

Ah, cripes, it’s Neheb. The Minotaur that won’t stay dead. A 5/4 for 4 mana is a good deal. Adding trample, mana generation, and a card rummaging ability is excessive, although less excessive than his last iteration, Neheb, the Eternal, who didn’t even need to even hit an opponent to generate a bazillion mana (thanks, Heartless Hidetsugu).

New Neheb has some considerations to ponder. He does have to hit a player or planeswalker to get the party going, but hey, so does Yidris, Maelstrom Wielder. Neheb does a lot of stuff, too, reloading your hand, stocking your graveyard, and getting a full tank of mana. 

Call me optimistic, but I think this guy will surpass his previous iteration in popularity. While less bursty than before, this Neheb addresses one of Red’s key weaknesses: card draw. Does he put you up on card advantage? No, not necessarily. But he does put you up on card quality, filtering away all your extra Mountains and turning them into something useful, and all on an aggressively-costed creature with evasion. The key difference between this Neheb and his previous iteration is that he doesn’t need any other cards to support him or make him terrifying, but if you do get other cards to help him out (say, Alhammarrett's Archive) he’s a standalone threat that needs to be dealt with at once when he hits the table. Expect great things from this undead monstrosity!

Dreadhorde Arcanist

I’ve heard this one’s nicknames—"Slapcaster Mage," "Smackcaster Mage"—the iterations go on and on. This is a clear reference to that totally balanced card that came out some time ago, Snapcaster Mage, who sees play in over 13522 decks. Suffice to say the blue meanie is a bit popular.

I expect folks will try to chase this one down. Even without a red or green buff (or the +1/+1 counters flying around like free candy in this set) this Zombie Wizard can recur some important spells, like Swords, Path, or Gamble. Things of course get much better when his power gets higher which means he might be a fun addition for Equipment-based decks to recur their Open the Armorys and Steelshaper's Gifts. I suspect that this guy and Sunforger (played in 8547 decks) will be among the best of friends! Plus, remember that he's a Wizard! Adeliz, the Cinder Wind can pump his power and give him lots of spells to abuse.

Oh, and Zada, Hedron Grinder? Make some room for your new buddy.


Bolt Bend

Every single Temur creature-based deck needs this yesterday, especially since this is just an un-keyworded version of Temur’s signature ability: Ferocious. Paying one red mana to Redirect can change the whole flavor and tempo of the game if you’re playing efficient beaters or a general that needs to survive long enough to go off. For example:

I suspect that this card will be one of red’s budget must-haves for any commander with power four or greater. No one suspects wacky shenanigans from you with just one red mana open, but it can make a very big difference when you catch them off-guard. Yidris is an especially interesting choice, since his Cascade means he doesn't usually get to run protection spells, but depending on how you've built him, this could eb a good option to keep him protected from rogue removal spells while never being in danger of blanking one of your Cascade triggers since it has a naturally higher mana cost. Plus, we get to watch Ral Zarek try to stick it to Kefnet, the Mindful . What's not to love?

Finale of Promise

This set is totally on fire, each card running hotter than the last. Which red cards are you most excited for? The Boar God? The Dragon planeswalker who makes all your planeswalkers Dragons? The Tank? Let me know in the comments below!

I'm from just north of hell, I was schooled in a blossoming backwater, and currently am the worst living bureaucrat since Franz Kafka breathed his last, tremulous breath. I’ve been playing Magic: The Gathering since middle school, and Commander in particular since college, putting about a decade of experience brewing, scheming and fuming over historical travesties under my belt. I get dizzy walking in straight lines. 
I recently received my MFA from Arcadia University's creative writing program. My work has previously appeared in Podcastle, Stonecoast Review, Devilfish Review and Bride of Chaos.