Hey y’all, I’m back, this time to take a look at the 7 potential commanders from the new set, Ravnica Allegiance. I’ll go through them one by one, talking about the cards themselves, the decks that could be built with them, and how they’d fare in the 99.
Let’s start off with probably my favorite legendary creature in the entire set, Prime Speaker Vannifar.
Vannifar is an incredibly powerful creature, whose activated ability is basically that of Birthing Pod, but without the ability to pay phyrexian mana, and without the mana cost to activate her. This is very clearly an incredibly powerful ability (Birthing Pod is banned in Modern), and allows her to generate incredible value. She lets you sacrifice creatures that have already done what you wanted them to do, say, a mana dork you were using to cast her on turn 3, and get more value out of them, by using them to grab a creature with higher CMC out of your library directly onto the battlefield.
This leads to a few possible archetypes for decks you could build around her. First of all, she can very easily lead to a relatively good Simic ramp deck. Build the standard Simic shell, with ramp like Kodama’s Reach and Llanowar Elves, and build up to bigger threats like Avenger of Zendikar. Where Vannifar really shines, though, is that you can cast your Avenger of Zendikar, get your tokens, and on the next turn, sacrifice Avenger to Vannifar to grab a Craterhoof Behemoth or End-Raze Forerunners to make those tokens much larger, and swing out to win. The ability to tutor creatures to the battlefield without giving your opponents nearly as many options to react as they would normally have makes Vannifar a very powerful value engine.
Alternatively, you could build her as a control deck. Using that same Llanowar Elves, instead of grabbing a pieces of ramp or value, you could get a Baral, Chief of Compliance, and use it to make your control pieces cheaper and more effective to cast. This strategy uses Vannifar as a value engine again, but instead of value towards a finisher, use her to enable a control strategy that eventually finishes with any one of the many win conditions available to Simic control decks, usually milling your opponents out with Stroke of Genius, or with Reality Shift.
Finally, and the way I hope to build Vannifar, you can go for a more combo focused build. As long as you have either an Elf and a Forest or two Forests on the field, you can chain untap effects (anyone who read my Selvala Deck Tech will recognize many of these pieces) with Vannifar activations all the way to a 7-drop, where you grab Protean Hulk, and win by sacrificing or destroying Hulk any number of ways. One such chain goes as follows: 0-cmc creature such as a token on the field, sacrifice it to Vannifar to get Wirewood Symbiote. Activate it to untap Vannifar, then grab a Scryb Ranger with your next activation. Use that Scryb Ranger to untap Vannifar, and grab a Pestermite with the following activation. The next link in the chain is Breaching Hippocamp, before you’re forced to resort to something unusual. There are no 5 drops that explicitly untap a creature, which leaves you with two good options, which would be used differently depending on your build. Either grab Chakram Retriever or, more interestingly, Body Double. If you grab Body Double, have it enter as a copy of one of the untappers you sacrificed earlier, and untap Vannifar (if you grab Retriever, cast a spell and continue from there). The next step in the chain is Great Oak Guardian, and from there, you can grab Protean Hulk. Destroy or sacrifice the Hulk somehow, and finish with the usual Simic Hulk pile, Grand Architect, Pili-Pala, Walking Ballista, and Rootwater Diver. You can skip any step on this chain simply by starting with a higher CMC creature. This results in a shell capable of some incredibly fast wins by simply ramping out Vannifar as fast as possible and then winning off of the creatures you used to ramp out Vannifar.
In the 99, Vannifar fills a similar role to the slot already occupied in many decks by Birthing Pod. She can be used as a version of Birthing Pod that is cheaper to activate, and can fit into most of the currently used Birthing Pod combos equally well, or can be used as a value engine, sacrificing pieces that have already done what you need them to do to get new pieces to use.
The other Simic legend in this set is Zegana, Utopian Speaker.
While Zegana isn’t the card draw engine she was back when she was Prime Speaker, she’s a relatively effective card in her own right. It’s fairly easy to ensure you draw a card when she enters the battlefield, and giving all of your creatures with +1/+1 counters trample makes her quite effective at the right power levels. Her Adapt ability is expensive, but it gives her +4/+4 and trample, so it’s useful, if not particularly powerful.
Zegana is most effective helming a +1/+1 counter themed deck. Fill your deck with creatures that give themselves or other creatures +1/+1 counters like Endless One and Vorel of the Hull Clade, and spells that do the same, like the new Stony Strength. Round it off with some ramp, and removal (and a few counterspells if that’s your style), and you’ve got an effective counters deck. Play a few large creatures, land Zegana, and then use the trample she provides to beat your opponents to death quickly.
Zegana is less effective in the 99. While she does often replace herself, if you’re looking for a trample enabler based on +1/+1 counters, I’d run Bramblewood Paragon or Tuskguard Captain over Zegana most of the time, especially when you take in to account the fact that unlike Zegana, Tuskguard Captain can put +1/+1 counters on your other creatures to give them trample. If you need a third effect, or you prefer one that will cantrip most of the time, consider Zegana, but otherwise, I’d leave her at the helm.
This brings us to our next potential commander from Ravnica Allegiance, Lavinia, Azorius Renegade.
Lavinia has two incredibly powerful abilities, though which is more powerful is going to depend heavily on your meta, and the power level at which you play. More than most hatebears, Lavinia basically stops the game and says “Ok, now we’re going to play a game of fair magic.” She doesn’t limit the number of spells people can cast, but she shuts off a lot of mana ramp strategies (artifact ramp, mana dorks, etc). She doesn’t prevent anyone from casting spells, she just counters any spells that were cast without paying for them. Especially in more powerful metas, which rely on casting high cost spells very early, and rely on being able to protect them with free interaction, Lavinia is a very powerful stax piece. In less powerful metas, where ramp is less common, and free spells aren’t frequently used, Lavinia is not particularly effective.
As a commander, Lavinia is powerful, but not amazing. She runs into the same issues as most of the Azorius stax commanders, in that she doesn’t really have an amazing finisher. My old Brago stax deck won to opponents scooping something like 2/3rds of the time when I won, and Lavinia hits many of the same problems. Proposed finishers I’ve seen include Isochron Scepter-Dramatic Reversal combined with either Aetherflux Reservoir or an Isochron Scepter copy with Swan Song under it, or Approach of the Second Sun. None of those are great, but they do work. On the other hand, where Lavinia shines is breadth of hate effects, and in this, I’d compare her favorably to something like Gaddock Teeg. She has access to all of the hate effects that Teeg gets in white, but replacing green with blue gives her access to various counterspells and card draw effects you wouldn’t have in Selesnya. Additionally, because her effects are not symmetrical, you can still take advantage of artifact ramp and free counterspells to lock down the board and punish your opponents.
Where Lavinia truly shines, though, is in the 99. While Azorius lacks quick and effective win conditions, adding pretty much any other color, or better yet, two other colors, gives you access to many other quick wins. Lavinia works incredibly well to slow down your opponents, especially in conjunction with other hatebear effects you can run in other colors. This allows Lavinia to do what she does best, preventing your opponents from completing their game plans, while letting your commander, such as Thrasios and Tymna, allow you to execute your own. Ultimately, Lavinia is an extremely powerful hatebear, and she works best when fit into a slot for a hatebear, rather than a forced build-around brew.
Next up, we have what has been, in my opinion, the most unfairly maligned legendary creature in this set, Rakdos, the Showstopper.
This is admittedly not the best Rakdos card, that’s by far Lord of Riots. However, calling this card awful or terrible, both of which I’ve seen, is simply incorrect. While perhaps not the most powerful Enter The Battlefield (ETB) trigger, when properly used, that trigger can devastate your opponents’ boards, preparing the way for you to get though with massive amounts of damage. Additionally, as usual, he has flying and trample, which makes it way easier to get damage through, and this Rakdos continues the pattern of being able to land significant amounts of damage very quickly.
This incarnation of Rakdos requires a weird sort of build around. Based on the ETB trigger, it definitely warrants some sort of Demon/Devil/Imp tribal build, using Rakdos himself as a sort of Vona’s Hunger with guaranteed city’s blessing and a 6/6 flying trample follow on. While it isn’t a guaranteed board wipe, wiping approximately half your opponents’ boards entirely at random while leaving yours untouched is a powerful effect, and unlike Vona’s Hunger, your opponents don’t get to choose which creatures they lose. Additionally, you get to take advantage of effects that let you double up on your coin flips, making it even more certain that your opponents will lose their creatures. Using, for example, Krark’s Thumb gives you a 75% chance of killing each creature your opponents control that isn’t a Demon/Devil/Imp, and a 25% chance of killing any of your own. If you add in something like Panharmonicon or Strionic Resonator, those odd separate even further. If you stack two of those effects (Krark’s Thumb with either trigger doubler), you get an 87.5% chance of killing affected creatures your opponents control compared to a 43.75% with affected creatures you control (which should be fairly easy to make none). Playing black should make it easy to find any of these effects, especially when two of the best Demons in the format have tutors stapled to them. All in all, Rakdos, the Showstopper should make an effective if unusual Demon/Devil/Imp tribal commander, and certainly a better one than some of the comments I’ve seen have indicated.
As a member of the 99, Rakdos is far less effective. He’s decent in a Demon tribal deck, when he can be used as a beater that destroys half of your opponents’ boards, but an incomplete board wipe that can’t be easily recurred is far less effective than one that you can recast repeatedly. A 6/6 flying trample with a solid upside for 6 is a decent play in the right deck, but without the proper set up, Rakdos’ ETB will often fall short of solid, and in the wrong deck, or without a good board state, can wind up hurting more than it helps. Ultimately, as a member of the 99, Rakdos can be too situational to be reliably valuable, though I might still play him in a Demon tribal deck.
The other Rakdos legend from this set is Judith, the Scourge Diva.
Judith does pretty much everything you want a basic Rakdos card to do. She provides a pseudo-lord effect, buffing your creatures slightly, and provides value if your creatures die. At 3 mana, she comes down early enough to be relevant in faster aggro style, and then provides a fairly significant amount of value while she’s play. She’s not my favorite card in this set (I’ll probably talk about that in another post), but she’s definitely up there.
As a commander, Judith lends herself to numerous deck archetypes. You could play her as a combo deck, making use of the fact that you have a Blood Artist type effect in the command zone to pull off any number of sacrifice shenanigans. She can also easily helm an aggro deck, giving a buff to all of your creatures, and landing early enough to be relevant, especially if you can follow her up with a quick token producer like Krenko, Mob Boss, or with a bunch of one-drops like the new Footlight Fiend, and land meaningful amounts of damage with them relatively quickly. She also provides value as your creatures dies, and you can use her pretty effectively in a value based-sacrifice deck, running useful sacrifice effects like Viscera Seer and being able to use those creatures as a source of either damage to your opponents or removal against their creatures.
In the 99, Judith is equally effective. Since the value she provides is a fairly generic effect, she can be utilized effectively in quite a few decks, especially given that most decks that use both red and black actively making use of both combat and things dying. While she won’t always be the best option, she’ll fit fairly easily into decks like Kresh, the Bloodbraided and Alesha, Who Smiles at Death, both of which actively encourage both lord effects and sacrificing your creatures.
Speaking of sacrificing your creatures, our next legend is Teysa Karlov.
Teysa is an all around very good card. She provides a Panharmonicon style effect, but instead, for creatures dying. While she doesn’t double your sac triggers, she does double Leaves The Battlefield (LTB). She also works well with tokens, letting you use your tokens for value and to protect yourself while you use your death triggers to beat your opponents down, or the reverse, letting creatures die for value while you use your tokens to kill your opponents.
Building Teysa effectively is fairly simple. Stuff the deck full of creatures with death triggers and LTB effects, and let Teysa double them to gain value. Add in some reanimation (particularly LTB reanimation like Reveillark) to reuse these effects, and you’ve got a fairly effective Aristocrats deck. If you want to make her into a combo deck, you can run Karmic Guide as well, and Karmic Guide and Reveillark with something like Blood Artist or Zulaport Cutthroat (each of which would be extremely effective on its own) to drain your opponents on the spot. Otherwise, you can simply accrue value and life from sacrificing your creatures, use a few token generators to protect yourself, and drain your opponents out.
Teysa is less effective in the 99, but is still quite effective. She fits pretty easily into the same types of decks she would normally helm, and is useful there. She doesn’t fit into the combo decks as well, though, since there’s no advantage gained by doubling triggers you already have an unlimited number of. She could also fit into an Orzhov tokens deck, though she’d be less helpful there than she is in a deck that relies on death triggers.
This brings us to the final legendary creature of the set, Nikya of the Old Ways.
Design-wise, Nikya might actually be my favorite card in the set. While she has a fairly significant drawback (right alongside Nullhide Ferox from the last set), getting a mana doubler stapled to a 5/5 creature for 5 mana is incredibly powerful. Losing the ability to cast noncreature spells is not nothing, but if you build effectively, you can take advantage of the mana doubling effect without losing too much to the downside.
Nikya is definitely a build-around commander. Use creature-based ramp to land Nikya quickly, such as Elvish Mystic or Wood Elves, and then use the mana doubling effect to start casting huge threats (who doesn’t love a turn 5 Ulamog?) very early. You can run non-creature ramp or other supporting pieces, but be aware that if you draw them with Nikya in play, they will be dead cards until she leaves play. The other way I would build her is one of my favorite non-competitive archetypes: Primal Surge. In any Primal Surge deck, you’re already running 98 permanents and Primal Surge, so the disadvantage of being unable to cast noncreature spells is significantly diminished, especially if you can make sure that Primal Surge is the only noncreature spell in the deck. Run something like Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and Zealous Conscripts to finish the game once you resolve Primal Surge. The trick to this is being able to get rid of Nikya when you’re ready to cast Primal Surge. While your options are relatively limited in Gruul without access to non creature sac-outlets, you have access to a few that you can use. Float the mana to cast Primal Surge, remove Nikya somehow, and then cast Primal Surge for the win. Cards like Brutalizer Exarch let you tutor the creatures you need from the deck, while cards like Woodfall Primus and Acidic Slime let you remove problematic permanents on your way to victory.
The only situation in which I would run Nikya in the 99 is in a deck with already punishes players for casting noncreature spells, like a Ruric Thar, the Unbowed deck. Without that setup, the downside of not being able to cast noncreature spells is just too much, and is a hard lock against many decks. Other than a deck like that, leave Nikya at the helm of her own deck.
I hope you enjoy the new set, and good luck with all of your commander builds!
EDIT: An earlier version contained a math mistake, claiming that with Krark’s Thumb and Panharmonicon, your creatures had a 12.5% chance of being destroyed. The actual number is 43.75%, and has been fixed. Thank you to aliasi on reddit for pointing out the mistake.