Commander: Heavenly Inferno Review (Part 1 of 2)
It may seem unusual to our modern Magic sensibilities, but long-time players can attest to the fact that we weren’t always blessed with the variety of formats that the modern player is today. When the game first began, there was only one format: duel your mates. As the game moved forward and developed, we began to see the rise of changes like regulation of deck contents (card minimums and maximums), the limited formats (sealed and draft), and the like. On account of the passage of time and that we seldom take proper notice of things that begin slowly, the origin and development of Commander is shrouded in some degree of mystery. What we can say is that like any other idea, there’s often no singular point in time that we can point to and say aha, this is the founding of it!
But that’s not to say we can’t get at least close.
Once upon a time in the Halcyon days of early Magic, Wizards produced a slick, glossy print magazine called The Duelist each month, and it is within those ancient manuscripts that we find the first resonant stirrings of the format. In an article by Jesus Lopez in the July 1996 issue, the alternate format “Elder Dragon Legend Wars” is explained and codified. It’s a bit like finding a fossil, where you can’t tell for certain whether its a progenitor or simply a parallel track of evolution, and perhaps it raises more questions than it answers. But if we move forward in time a few years and transport ourselves to Alaska, we can witness the birth of modern Commander.
At some point in Anchorage, a Magic player by the name of Adam Staley had an idea. Perhaps buried somewhere in his mind was the article by Jesus Lopez, perhaps not. Perhaps it sprung fully-formed from his own mind, or perhaps he was distilling what he had witnessed around him and layered it with ideas of his own imagining, in the absence of his testimony we’ll never quite know. But he began to kick around the concept for “Elder Dragon Highlander,” and this concept took hold. It was embraced early by a fellow member of Staley’s community, David Phifer, and a web page was created to codify it.
The idea took hold, and when another member of their community moved to Virginia, he brought the idea with him. This individual was Sheldon Menery.
Regarded by most as the Godfather of modern Commander, Menery spread the word of Elder Dragon Highlander through his pulpit as a judge writer for Star City Games, featured first in a column devoted to explaining the format that appeared in August of 2004. Of course, Sheldon did not blaze the trail alone, for by this time there were a number of others who played formative and contributing roles. But it was Menery who gave it the greatest gust beneath its wings by bringing it to the attention of players on the Pro Tour, where its casual and fun-focused nature was eagerly adopted by those looking from a break from the rigid focus that pro play requires.
And that, perhaps, is the format’s overarching characteristic: fun. Never intended to be a win-first endeavour, Elder Dragon Highlander caught on precisely because it emphasized the fun of the game through card interactions and forced variety through its singleton structure. Over time, the term “EDH douchebag” entered common parlance to describe those who took it too seriously and played anti-fun cards and combos. Although a relative term, the fact that such a notion even exists gives insight into the mentality of the format.
Such was the popularity of the format that in 2008 Wizards of the Coast implemented a version of Elder Dragon Highlander on Magic Online. Called ‘Commander,’ this made it accessible to an even wider audience. By now the format was firmly in place, and as evidenced by the move very popular with the Magic community, and there was a formal ‘Rules Committee‘ in place which oversaw card bannings and looked after the general health of the game. Elder Dragon Highlander was here to stay.
The year following saw the release of Magic’s first casual multiplayer variant with the launch of 2009’s Planechase, which carried oversize planar cards along with a preconstructed deck. Such was the success of Planechase that it encouraged Wizards to develop 2010’s Archenemy, another variant format which used oversize cards and encouraged multiplayer play. And with those two moves, the notion of Wizards releasing an annual multiplayer format release took shape. Still, few would have expected that the next one up would be Commander.
From the outset, Wizards wanted to preserve the player-driven nature that made EDH such a success- why tinker with a proven thing? The goal of Commander was not to co-opt the format, but rather to give it a massive infusion of sanctioned support. Towards that end they entered into dialogue with Menery and the other members of the Rules Committee, and in December of 2010 head of R&D Aaron Forsythe announced that EDH was merging with Commander to give official form to 2011’s multiplayer release. Today we bring you the first fruits of this product that quite literally has been years in the making.
A Word of Disclaimer
Although well-versed in the precosntructed format, none of us here at Ertai’s Lament have any great experience with Commander. The total number of Commander/EDH games we have played in to date is zero. Although a number of things can be determined by any Magic player (what role cards play, what the strategy of a deck is), there are other aspects of our reviewing process that may be altered or bypassed as we may not feel qualified to comment on them. An example of this would be mana curve analysis- from casual exposure to Commander players we understand that the games run long and give you much more opportunity to play a collection of expensive cards. However, the detailed experience that would allow accurate assessment is lacking, so we won’t even try. By the same token, you’ll notice that we’ve expanded the curve table to give a better perspective to the deck’s curves, so that more experienced readers may draw their own conclusions.
Another obvious change is in our playtesting methodology. As most know, we play an unrecorded ‘friendly’ match followed by three matches which get recorded and posted for our playtest analysis. For past multiplayer products (Planechase, Archenemy), we have disregarded the extra multiplayer element to focus on the decks themselves. For Commander, because the quality of so many cards are tied to the fact that the format is multiplayer, we will be trying a three-way attack left/defend right set-up, which we hope will find the appropriate balance between table politics, effective deck assessment, and length of writeup.
One game obviously won’t be enough to see every card in the deck, but we hope that it will give readers insight on the playing experience and still be short enough so that you don’t spend your entire afternoon reading about it. As always, your mileage may vary. With that having been said, let’s crack open this deck!
Call on Every Force
Our first introduction is the deck’s primary commander and mythic rare, Kaalia of the Vast. Each Commander deck comes equipped with three different commanders, so that players with the same deck aren’t precluded from playing in the same game. That said, Heavenly Inferno is built around Kaalia, designed to take full advantage of the strength she brings to your forces. One of the many new cards designed just for the set, Kaalia demands that you maximise the number of Angels, Demons, and Dragons carried in the deck to be able to get the most out of her attack trigger.
Luckily, out of the deck’s pile of beaters, just under 70% of them are represented by at least one of these three creature types. As Kaalia is on par with the cheapest of them, you’ll seldom have great difficulty making use of her ability at least once early on for a surprise attacker.
After Kaalia we have Tariel, Reckoner of Souls. Not only was she the subject of a feature article on the mothership, she is also your other mythic rare commander. A massive flying body with an intriguing tap-ability, Tariel is almost assured card advantage in any environment where graveyard hate isn’t the order of the day. Although her recruitment can be a little unreliable- it is random, after all- it still gives you steady value each turn, and her vigilance ensures that you won’t be missing out on attacking with her either. Finally, for an extra dose of synergy, she is an Angel, allowing you to cheat her into play with Kaalia (though note that her vigilance would not take effect on that first attack, as Kaalia specifically requires you to tap the card attacking alongside her).
Finally we have Oros, the Avenger, who although lowest on the totem pole here has perhaps the most interesting story of all. 2000’s Invasion set brought us the tale of the Primeval Dragons, five ancient and powerful Dragons which once ruled Dominaria. Although it would take another eight years for the term ‘shard’ to enter the vernacular, each Dragon consisted of a colour of mana alongside its two allied colours (by way of example, see Rith, the Awakener, whose colours we might now associate with Naya). These Dragons were very popular as generals for EDH at the time, but then 2007’s Planar Chaos would bring a gift in the form of a little twist- another cycle of five Dragons, patterned after the last, but with an unusual colour scheme: the wedge (for more information on wedges, click here).
Oros, the Avenger was the White-Black-Red member of the cycle, and up until that point there had ever only been one card with those three colours- and only those three colours- in the casting cost: Fervent Charge from Apocalypse. All of a sudden, EDH players woke up and discovered they could create entirely new decks that they couldn’t have before, as a deck’s colour content is dictated by its commander’s colour identity. Indeed, given the heavy underrepresentation of wedge-coloured cards, it is no coincidence that the Commander release consists of five different wedge-coloured decks: the field is expanding.
In Service of a Perfect Will
The creatures of Heavenly Inferno can be easily divided into two camps. The first are your Angels, Demons, and Dragons that synergise with Kaalia of the Vast, and the other is your supporting cast- creatures whose utility has earned them a slot on the bench (although one of them is a game-changing bomb). First here is the mana curve (you may need to click on it to see it in full size due to size compression):
The Angels are your most populous tribe, with numbers greater than the other two combined. You have a pair of lifegain Angels in the Shattered Angel (from New Phyrexia, no less) and the Lightkeeper of Emeria. Other Angels are here to twist the game state in your favour. Look at the Angelic Arbiter, who made her debut in Magic 2011 (and was the foil premium rare for the Blades of Victory intro deck)- she brings an element of sheer inconvenience and disruption to the table for your opponents, who must now contort themselves to pull of their plans. Basandra, Battle Seraph brings an outright ban on combat tricks across the table, and has a built-in taunt ability. Finally, the Archangel of Strife– a new card for Commander- presents each player with a choice, and with a very real benefit depending on their choice. This will make aggressive players all the moreso, and at the same time help turtles and other defensively-minded players to hole up all the more.
The rest of the Angels have more varied abilities that defy easy clumping, but tend to be a little more straightforward. You have perhaps the most classic Angel in the game in a Serra Angel, along with her more sinister counterpart the Fallen Angel. A Voice of All is smaller in stature, but gains protection from the colour of your choice when she enters the battlefield. The Angel of Despair from Guildpact is an automatic two-for-one and can solve nearly anything on the board when summoned, and lastly what Angel deck would be complete without an Akroma (here in her ‘Angel of Fury’ guise). Sadly, no Sunblast Angel is in evidence, though the deck almost begs for her inclusion.
The Demons are a far less diverse bunch. You have a Razorjaw Oni, which has an interesting table-wide restriction that could suddenly make things very grim for an opponent relying heavily on Black. The Oni of Wild Places would be a great inclusion if the deck packed in an assortment of Red creatures with enter-the-battlefield abilities, but sadly there aren’t all that many here to make it a viable synergy. The Reiver Demon is a monster, threatening to wipe the board clean of most of its creatures, but it’s important to note that the Reiver must be hardcast to take advantage of this ability- simply trotting him out when Kaalia calls won’t allow its employ. The Dread Cacodemon– another new card for the set- has a similar requirement, and while he is more expensive than the Reiver, his wipe is an imbalanced Damnation which delightfully only affects your opponents. The fact that he taps your creatures down, though, prevents you from using him to set up an immediate alpha strike. Finally there is Malfegor, whose dual nature as a “Demon Dragon” makes him the perfect segue between tribes. Unlike the Caco- and Reiver Demons, Malfegor’s ability to turn your entire hand into supercharged Diabolic Edicts doesn’t necessitate his being hardcast. Throwing him in alongside Kaalia will get you the full benefit of his villainy.
Lastly we have the Dragons, an admittedly sorry bunch and the first place you might want to begin if you look to improve the deck on your own. You have two Whelps- Furnace and Dragon– which barely qualify. Bladewing the Risen’s ability sounds nice- returning a Dragon from your graveyard to play, what’s not to love! But with only six Dragons in the deck, you’ll often either find yourself holding him to get the advantage, or casting him without bothering. These are somewhat compensated for in quality if not in number for the brand-new Mana-Charged Dragon. Using the new join forces mechanic in an intriguing way- on a creature rather than a spell- this gives any player at the table a chance to pump up your brute to do some potentially awe-inspiring strikes. His trample ensures that your opponents’ largesse- as self-interested as it may be- won’t be going to waste.
The last seven creatures are your utility bodies. There’s a Mother of Runes for protection, a pair of Guildmages (Boros and Orzhov) for virtual card advantage and a very useful mana sink for later in the game, and a pair of Eventide’s Hedge-Mages (Duergar and Gwyllion) with their land-dependant shenanigans.
The last two are a little higher up the power scale. Anger– once he dies or is otherwise discarded to the graveyard- gives all of your creatures haste, which is often just as useful for allowing any activated abilities to be used immediately as it is to enable surprise attacks. And the new Avatar of Slaughter is a beating in a box, another creature with abilities that affect the entire table. Once he comes down, prepare for the bloodbath.
I Grant You Blades
The noncreature support afforded Heavenly Inferno is unsurprisingly heavily weighted on the removal side- the overwhelming majority of these cards manage threats in some manner or another. We’ll begin, though, with the deck’s ramp/fixing package, a standard suite of cards that seems to be de rigeur for the format.
The most exciting news for the Commander decks as late seemed to be the inclusion of Sol Ring in each of the five decks. A longtime format staple and $10 card, Wizards opened wide the gates of generosity and made this vital accelerant a fixture. You also have a trio of the Ravnica guild Signets that correspond to the deck’s colours (Boros, Orzhov, and Rakdos), a Darksteel Ingot, and an Armillary Sphere to ensure that you’re able to cast what you need when you need it, and to get you to those more expensive cards as quickly as possible.
From there we have a pair of board-impacting enchantments with Righteous Cause and Stranglehold. Rightous Cause can be a massive lifegain option if cast early at a full table, as it gives you life whenever any creature attacks, regarless of whom its attacking. Stranglehold caught fire in the Magic community not just because of its fantastic flavour text, but also because of its effective hosing of two frequent themes in the format. Preventing opponents from searching libraries shuts down all manner of tutors, while the anti-extra-turn-taking measure seals shut one of the preferred tactics of certain clever folk who love to string endless loops of them together, a combo generally fun for only one person at the table.
Before we touch on the removal, we’ll look at the assorted odds-n-ends that round out the deck. Lightning Greaves, with their low cost and free equip, are another frequent sight in Commander, and again Wizards ensured that every deck has access to them. There’s a tutor in the Diabolic mein, a mass discard/card draw effect with Syphon Mind, combat tomfoolery with Ravnica’s Master Warcraft, potentially substantial lifegain with Congregate, and instant-speed protection with Bathe in Light. Finally, the first Commander preview card- Death by Dragons, makes an appearance here as well, giving you and everyone else at the table (save one) a 5/5 flying Dragon token.
Now, let’s get into that removal.
We can widely divide the removal package into three broad categories: edicts, pinpoint, and mass. Edicts (so named after Diabolic Edict, the first of its type) compel the sacrifice of a creature, but allow the affected player(s) to choose which one. In this case, there is but a single spell of this type- Syphon Flesh– the latest in the ‘syphon’ type effects which harm your opponent and help you in direct proportion to the degree of harm. In this case, each opponent at the table loses a creature, and you gain a 2/2 Zombie token for each creature sacrificed. It’s cute, though diminishes in effectiveness rather quickly the smaller the table becomes.
Pinpoint removal is just that- removal that lets you select what’s being killed. In general these tend to be a little less effective in the Commander format since you tend to have a lot more potential targets at the table, but they’re still critical to take care of the attentions of direct threats to you. Soul Snare– another of the deck’s new cards- has the ability to exile a single creature that’s attacking you or one of your planewalkers at a cheap cost, with the drawback being that it’s first-and-foremost an enchantment, only gaining instant-speed activation once its resolved and on the table. Guildpact’s Mortify has an unusual overlap you don’t often see- the ability to deal with a creature or an enchantment. Wrecking Ball gives you the same choice except for lands instead of enchantments. Path to Exile– one of Conflux’s best-known cards- is instant-speed exile with a drawback much less relevant than it is in Constructed given how many lands you’re going to see in play. There’s also a Terminate and a Comet Storm, the latter giving you the option of killing off multiple targets (as does the deck’s Cleansing Beam, with less focus). Artifacts and enchantments get their due with Return to Dust and Orim’s Thunder, the latter also enabling creature burn if the kicker is paid.
Another new inclusion in the Commander release is the Vow cycle, five creature auras with a unique twist that prevents them from being used against you. Although you’re certainly free to use them on your own beaters, their potential is fully realised when you instead place one on an opponent’s creature. This effectively neutralises the threat, which is why we’re including them in our removal assessment- but also can make the targeted creature even more painful for your other opponents at the table. Heavenly Inferno packs three- Duty, Lightning, and Malice.
Finally what Commander deck would be complete without some board reset? Most of the cards here are creature wipes, but Akroma’s Vengeance goes a few steps further, and even lets you cycle it away for another card if you hold the upper hand and don’t need it. Earthquake, Evincar’s Justice, and Sulfurous Blast all allow for boardwide damage that also impacts the players- just the thing for finishing off a wounded foe or two. Pyrohemia– Planar Chaos’ version of Pestilence– does the same, with the added perk of being an enchantment.
Every World is an Organism
Supporting all this must be a manabase that is at the same time both consistent and flexible, and each of the five Commander decks have enough nonbasic lands to fit the bill. Heavenly Inferno gives you the full spectrum of Onslaught’s on-colour cycling lands (Barren Moor, Forgotten Cave, and Secluded Steppe), giving them relevance at any stage of the game when drawn rather than just being a late-game dead draw. Ravnica block’s trio of bounce-lands make an appearance as well in the Boros Garrison, Orzhov Basilica, and Rakdos Carnarium.
From there we have a more individuated collection of lands including a Vivid Meadow, which trades coming into play tapped for a little colour-fixing; the Akoum Refuge from Zendikar; a storage land in Molten Slagheap; fetch with an Evolving Wilds; graveyard hate with Bojuka Bog; and the option of a creature instead of land with Zoetic Cavern. Finally, the last two lands provide tremendous colour flexibility- the Rupture Spire (with a drawback) and the much-anticipated Command Tower– exactly the kind of card that should come with a gift bow attached for Commander players.
And there you have it, the first of the five Commander decks to go under the microscope. On first blush it seems a solid theme solidly represented, but of course one never fully knows until the deck is bloodied. We’ll be taking Heavenly Inferno on a field test and return in two days’ time to report on its accomplishment. See you then!