ommander! It's the format where over-the-top dream teams of legendary badasses haymaker each other into stupors so self-expressively unique that they make snowflakes look netdecked. The format where punch-drunk commanders rise again and again to out-over-the-top one another above a din of battle-cries screamed in the key of ridiculous.
This is a thing? People do this? I want... I want to go to there.
On June 17, the Magic: The Gathering Commander decks will be available. They are five Commander-legal decks outfitted with juicy reprints and all-new cards that were designed with just this preposterous brain-splode of a format in mind. If you were considering dipping your toe into the deep end of this off-the-deep-end format, I can tell you that now might be the perfect time to assume cannonball position and just go for it.
But before you lob yourself in, you'll want to prepare yourself.
You will need a legend to serve as your commander. Conveniently, or should I say intentionally and with great care, the aforementioned decks come pre-packed with a menagerie of legendary dragons, archmages, fungus-monsters, and eland-like minotaurs who are just itching to do the job. My preview card today is among them.
You will need high-impact cards that will help you survive the inevitable pummel-fest. It is a format where timid wrist-slappers need not apply. Every card you draw needs to make a big hurt or help you endure one. Ideally, every card you draw works on multiple axes, helping you to advance the fight on one front while staunching the bleeding on two others. My preview card today can do this for you.
You will need a theme or direction for your deck. The 99-plus-one-card decks of this format are so diverse and so laden with choices that you risk catching case of option paralysis from even brief exposure to a Gatherer search. Happily, choosing your commander naturally restricts your color choices and can machete a thematic path through the option jungle. If you can pick a commander with a clear, strong theme, it can inform every card decision in your deck—making deckbuilding a state like unto beatific bliss. My preview card today can provide this bliss.
Plus, if you ask me, you will need a commander that has kickass art. It is emblematic of that blinged-out, teetering stack you've painstakingly assembled, so it should look cool. Plus, as your chosen legend moves from the command zone to the battlefield and back again, you will be looking at it a lot. You want a piece of art worthy of frequent eyeballs. My preview card today eminently qualifies.
Art first. Bam.
Damia, Sage of the Stone | Illustration by Steve Argyle
Damia, Sage of Stone is a legendary Gorgon Wizard, and she is a bit of a riddle. She lairs in a vault of lore, but she owns few scrolls or tomes. She has access to a library of secrets, but she surrounds herself with bottles, jars, and powders. She is known to answer the queries of curious travelers, but she is also known for her statuary of petrification victims.
Who is this Damia, Sage of Stone? It's time to unveil her.
Damia fights! Damia deathtouches! Damia enables a three-color deck according to the deck construction rules for this format! And most importantly, Damia lets you say a very fun phrase over and over again:
"Untap, draw back up to seven...."
Whatever else is going on during your Commander game—even if you're being assaulted by legions of mystical all-stars from the annals of Magic history, and you will be—things just don't look quite so grim when you get to say that every turn.
"Untap, draw back up to seven...."
No matter what's going on, Damia has a plan. She's like everlasting ammunition—she just keeps putting another bullet in the chamber. Another cousin in the cannon. Another papaya in the fruitapult.
"Untap, draw back up to seven...."
So selfish. So greedy. So naughtily noninteractive, like the wails of a set of Howling Mines being funneled into your brain only. By some kind of ear trumpet, presumably?
Plus, Damia is not just a fun new card in the blue-black-green "Devour for Power" deck. That deck is more focused around the graveyard-feeding powers of a legendary being called The Mimeoplasm than around the tank-filling capabilities of Damia. But given some clever deckbuilding, she's a prime choice for a commander in her own right.
Say you've got the Sage of Stone on the battlefield. She has set up her advice kiosk (her and her 4/4 frame) and is ready to supply secrets (mittfuls of cards) to respectful questors (you). What kinds of effects maximize her abilities?
No matter how many cards you start your turn with, you are drawing up to seven. If you start with six, you'll draw one—no better than if you hadn't had Damia around in the first place. If you start the turn with a hand of two, then Damia will help you draw five. That is what you call a measurable difference. So you're going to want to do a lot of stuff in a given turn. That means you'll want a lot of mana. Lucky for you, Damia is already green, so you're already running the color that's best at ramping your mana and diversifying your lands. Also, Damia is a seven-mana creature, so in order to ensure an early audience with Her Writhiness, you'll want to be running some mana acceleration anyway. Finally, remember that the Commander format is about bang, not whimper, and so it can be pretty friendly to "ramp into seven-drops" strategies anyway.
Did I actually use the phrase "another papaya in the fruitapult" earlier?
Despite your ramping, you may want to surround Damia with an arsenal of inexpensive, flexible spells. Pretend you just drew a pile of cards from Damia. Good feeling. To get that good feeling again, you want to cast as much of your hand as possible by the time it's your next turn. Sure, you'll probably be playing a land, so at least Damia will bring you something next turn. But besides that, if you spend your whole turn tapping out for one mana-costly monster, you might only get a secret or two out of that greedy Gorgon. On the other hand, if you spend your turn hurling one-for-one Terrors, Naturalizes, Go for the Throats, mana stones, and Rampant Growths around the field of battle, you'll machine-gun your opponents to Swiss cheese—leaving Damia ready to supply you with a whole new magazine. Make sure to use adaptable, general-purpose spells for this. Take the advice of this gentleman who wrote about Prismatic control decks about six years ago (*cough*iamold*cough*), and choose multi-tool-like cards that you'll never be sad to draw. The last thing you want with Damia is finicky cards with narrow targets that can get stuck in your hand.
Ready to take the safeties off? Ready to get dangerous? The ultimate way maximize Damia's effect is to discard cards for some kind of benefit. Let a Wild Mongrel munch on your excess land while Damia keeps your hand equally fat and happy. Feed a Mindslicer to a Vampire Aristocrat and watch the hilarity, as Damia keeps you at seven while everybody else flounders at zero. This is perilous territory, however, as Damia has a tendency to eat removal spells, especially if everybody's losing their hand anyway. It can get costly to rebuy her at nine or eleven mana, so if you're embracing the Way of the Empty Hand, be prepared for Damia hate.
Deathgazing and Other Trickery
Damia enables other, subtler powers as your would-be commander. She's not just a Sage, but one of Stone, so you can take advantage of her deathtouch, too. Equip her with a Heavy Arbalest, Thornbite Staff, or Viridian Longbow to take advantage of her petrifying damage. Color-pie-violating cousins Hermetic Study and Psionic Gift can also grant Visara-like powers to Damia. You could combine her with Sigil Tracer to copy spells, or even equip her with a Diviner's Wand to really power her up, taking advantage of her unusual Wizard class type!
Damia is one sly chica, and a one of my favorite new legends from the Magic: The Gathering Commander decks. My advice is to get yourself a commander like Damia, build something fun around her, and play this volume-cranked headbutt festival of a format. It's an express ticket to Ridiculopolis, and a great way to highlight some of those unique legend characters of the Magicm. Even if you find that your knucklehead friends have figured out the format quicker than you have, just remember the mantra:
"Untap, draw back up to seven...."
Letter of the Week
Today's letter comes from Justin.
If there are two different card versions of a planeswalker, for example, Jace Beleren and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, what is the flavor of casting a previous version?
Since there is only one Jace, you would think that if I call him to my aid, I would always call him in his current form, as he is currently in the multiverse. But instead, it is possible to call out Jace Beleren to my aid, although that person no longer exists, technically.
I was just wondering if you had any sort of explanation for me. Thanks!
In some cases there is clear chronology between two appearances of a planeswalker character. Ajani Vengeant represents Ajani during a certain vengeful, red-mana-fueled phase in his life, and Ajani Goldmane represents him later in his life, mellowed out and focused more on order and community. You'll probably see planeswalker cards in the future that actively reflect what has happened to the planeswalker characters in the storyline.
But as we do more planeswalker cards, I think we'll come to see the flavor of some of these printed variants in another way, too. Jace is a mind mage and Chandra is a fire mage. In each of their cardboard incarnations, they have put on display mechanical abilities that match their mystical profile. In those cases, I see them less as chronological stages of the character and more as the same planeswalker showing up with different magical arsenals prepared. You can summon Jace when he's ready to draw cards efficiently, or summon him armed with ways to bounce creatures and sculpt your opponent's brains. Jace knows even more spells than either of his cards let on, but we won't see him cast those until he shows up in some new printing; any given planeswalker card just showcases a sliver of the character's full mystical power.
It's worth noting that the planeswalker's cost is not intended to be an indication of personal growth. Here's a fictional but not-that-far-from-reality exchange that once happened between me and another member of R&D:
R&D Person: So, the next time we see Chandra, she'll cost seven, right?
Me: *blink* What? Why?
R&D Person: Because she's leveling up.
Me: *continues blinking* What do you mean?
R&D Person: Well, her first card cost five, then Chandra Ablaze cost six, so...
Me: Hold on hold on hold on. No. No, no, no, a thousand times no. It doesn't work like that.
R&D Person: It has so far.
Me: *thinks* Huh. That's... true. But that is not how we think of it. Those cards just cost what they cost because of the power level of their particular suites of abilities.
R&D Person: But haven't they learned new spells?
Me: No. I mean, maybe. But most of the time they're just different manifestations of the same character.
I've talked before about how a planeswalker's converted mana cost is not an indication of their power as characters. Similarly, the various printings of the character do not necessarily mean that those characters are gaining or losing abilities over time. You can summon the same character in different forms, because all you're asking is that they come prepared with a different set of spells.
Thanks for your question, Justin!