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MAGIC: THE GATHERING’s Latest Expansion Asks You to Choose a Tribe (Review)

Currently the largest and most successful trading card game in the world, Magic: The Gathering has burgeoned into a hulking, many-armed beast, much like the cards themselves depict. The competitive scene is vibrant, the resale market is its own micro-economy, and live streams of professional players reach many thousands of viewers. But at the heart of this creature beats what most of MTG actually is: casual players building decks at their dinner tables, playing games without worrying about the meta, pacing, or pros. MTG‘s support of casual play is seen best in its popular “Commander” format, a format created by players that got elevated into a full release from publisher Wizards of the Coast in 2011.

The latest Commander release, Commander 2017 (C17), is arguably the best of the series. It offers critical staples, valuable reprints, commanders you’ll actually want to build around, and card value easily double that of the asking price.

Like previous years, C17 has an overall idea it wants you to build around. Instead of experience counters, or planeswalkers, or 4-color commanders, this time you have tribes. So-called “tribal” decks are one of the oldest archetypes in MTG — a common one in Commander play. The idea is to fill a deck with creatures that share a type, like dragons, and include cards that take advantage of that. (For example, an artifact card that increases the power and toughness of each creature depending on how many of those type you have in play.)

C17 offers four new tribal decks: Feline Ferocity (cats), Vampiric Bloodlust (vampires), Draconic Domination (dragons), and Arcane Wizardry (wizards). Like goblins and elves, dragons and vampires are decently supported Commander builds, pulling creatures from MTG‘s decades-long history. But in that history, cat creatures aren’t nearly as numerous, and so Feline Ferocity is a welcome addition for anyone who finally wanted to bring an equipment-based deck to bear with the creatures that support it best.

On the other hand, wizards have existed in MTG since the very beginning. C17 acknowledges this, and so Arcane Wizardry offers some of the most exciting new commanders in the set. Rest assured, someone is going to absolutely break Inalla, Archmage Ritualist when these decks hit store shelves.

But at $35 a pop, which deck should you buy? That’s going to depend heavily on play style and cards you already own. Still, let’s break it down.

Commander — owing to the fact each deck can pull almost any card from anywhere in MTG‘s history and play it legally — is a powerful format. It’s where you play those giant spells, throw down ridiculous creatures, and pivot from quick, all-or-nothing games to hours-long, ever-shifting duels between 2-4+ players. That means most Commander decks will be bursting with expensive rare and “mythic rare” cards. Competitive play is impossible without them. Again, it’s obvious Wizards understands the format enough to know this, and so the rares and format staples abound. Totaling up the current cost of each card in the decklists, all four offerings boast card value at least two times the MSRP.

Dollar for dollar, any of the decks are worth purchasing, and the most value (Arcane Wizardry) is separated from the least (Draconic Domination) by less than $10.

Of course, value doesn’t matter if the decks aren’t any fun to play, or at least any good. In my playgroup, Vampiric Bloodlust was easily the best out of the box, with Draconic Domination following close behind. What led my hungry pale horde to victory was the new mechanic in C17: “Eminence.” Eminence is found on the four “main” legendary creatures in each deck (the suggested commanders), and bestows a passive ability that takes advantage of the tribal theme. For example, Edgar Markov’s eminence creates a 1/1 vampire token every time you play another vampire creature spell, and the rest of the deck really gets going when many vampires are on the battlefield. The Ur-Dragon makes dropping dragons much easier, Arahbo, Roar of the World, gives cats even more claws, and Inalla, Archmage Ritualist effectively doubles the number of wizards in your deck.

The worst deck out of the box (again, at least over the 12-hours of game time I put in) is Arcane Wizardry. There are seriously powerful cards in the deck, but the 100 cards lack focus, and therefore a real win condition. Feline Ferocity and Draconic Domination fell somewhere in the middle. When either got going — giant flying reptiles or hyped-buffed kitties — they were seriously hard to stop.

They vary in power level, but if you’ve never played the Commander format, any of the decks are a decent introduction, and decently powerful. It was maybe the fifth-ever game for one in our group, and she was not only able to play, but play well. The look on someone’s face when they realize, for the first time, that they’re about to end a 2-hour long slug-fest is priceless.

On the other hand, I’ve been playing MTG for almost 15 years, and the Commander format (almost exclusively) for seven of those. I’m not really thinking about which deck is best out of the box, because I know I’m either going to take it apart for its cards or tweak it to make it really hum. Here, all the decks have serious potential, packing a number of alternative commanders that could substitute in at the top slot or break away into their own 100-cards (the dragons offer by far the most back-ups/alternates, and vampires the least).

The spell-slinging Arcane Wizardry, however, is the most upgradeable of the four decks. With a few reasonably priced changes, Inalla and her mages are sure to see competitive play. Feline Ferocity is the least updgradeable if you’re looking to save money (those swords will never be cheap). Draconic Domination is almost there if you want to start running a dragon deck, and Vampires have a lot of decently cheap support available from years of MTG.

Thankfully, there isn’t an outright bomb or bust deck in Commander 2017. Each deck either has new commanders you’ll want to build around, or valuable reprints you’ll want to get into other decks, or new cards (56 in total) that will surely make it into all compatible commander decks going forward, or all of the above. The value is there, as is the fun. Wizards of the Coasts clearly loves the format, so the only question left is: which is your tribe?

Commander (2017 Edition) releases on August 25th with an MSRP of $34.99 per deck.

Images: Wizards of the Coast

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Editor’s note: Wizards of the Coast provided Nerdist with a review copy of Commander 2017.

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