I have some strong opinions about Commander. My "thesis statement"—the core idea I want to explore—is pretty straightforward: The Commander banned list is the best way to illustrate game play as laid out by the social contract. September 2014 was the last major shakeup in the list, with only one card — Prophet of Kruphix — getting the axe in the last two years.
But that's a discussion for another day.
Today I'd like to go in the opposite direction and look at the biggest cards that are coming to Commander with Aether Revolt. If you're lucky and found your copy at the Prerelease—awesome. For the rest of us unlucky folks, we'll be trying to track these down at this Friday's release.
Let's go get some busted cards.
Scrap Trawler was one of the first cards we saw from Aether Revolt, and did it ever set the tone. The new release is packed with combo potential, and every artifact-heavy Commander deck will be considering Scrap Trawler soon. While it takes serious gymnastics to "go infinite" with it, being redundant synergy and a combo piece for Sharuum the Hegemon is more than enough.
Speaking of artifact decks, Efficient Construction is much easier to go off with. Whether you go with Era of Innovation into a slew of ways to make artifact tokens or something else a little fancier is up to you. The real deal for artifact decks is just making extra bodies: Protect yourself or add fuel to the sacrifice fire.
Rishkar, Peema Renegade is two cards in one. At a high level, it's a fine elf for tribal decks, adding a little extra mana with the right elves and triggering everything that cares about elves. The real power comes from planning to break him in half. It's easy to add +1/+1 counters to your creatures— Cathars' Crusade, etc. — which means the turn you drop Rishkar you go off adding mana to your mana pool. Suddenly emptying your hand and casting card draw, chaining a pile of effects together off just three mana and some creatures, is as powerful as that sounds.
Baral, Chief of Compliance is the mono-blue control dream, making countermagic (and other tricks) cheaper while looting away useless stuff. He's also just two mana, meaning he comes down early to get the party started and returns even after getting kicked out once or twice. Add him to an Izzet-flavored mixer for even more shenanigans.
Tezzeret, Master of Metal won't be found in any booster packs. You'll need to grab his Planeswalker Deck to have him, but I think he's worth the time. There's a card in Commander that strikes fear into almost every player, and it's Sorin Markov. While Sway of the Stars and Biorhythm—notorious "set life total"—effects are banned in Commander, Sorin is not. For six mana you effectively kill an opponent, dropping them to just 10 life.
Tezzeret, Master of Metal doesn't do that per se, but a deck like Sharuum the Hegemon or Breya, Eterium Shaper that can quickly amass a pile of artifacts and then tutor up Darksteel Forge will love a way to blast for direct damage. Failing that, drawing artifacts every turn isn't a bad option either.
It's easy to underestimate these two effects, and while I'll be happy if I never get nuked by Tezzeret, I suspect control decks will enjoy a way to get card advantage or a Banefire on a high-loyalty Planeswalker.
Planar Bridge is a known Commander card already. The moment we first saw it we knew it was going into the "big mana, big plays" decks. While assembling Urzatron or casting Cultivate effects until you have more mana than anyone should ever need is the required setup, pulling any permanent out of your deck at instant speed is simply excellent.
And it's another way to get Omniscience out, so that's great. I don't need to dwell on how busted that is, and anything that can tutor it out on the spot gets just as busted along with it.
Exquisite Archangel's replacement ability is a doozy. Resetting to a full 40 life instead of losing isn't something most players will allow, so the real secret to this Angel lies is planning to abuse her from the start. Necropotence is the classic way (Draw your life total at end of turn, have 40 life) but don't dismiss others: Treasonous Ogre can convert a multiple of 3 life into a ton of red mana; Unspeakable Symbol can spread the love of +1/+1 counters (add a dash of Rishkar, Peema Renegade to your Adbzan tokens deck); and Bonds of Agony and Toxic Deluge get to go full blast.
Reading Exquisite Archangel as a de facto combo piece rather than insurance policy makes her far more dangerous than most expect. And since you technically gain the life (Thanks rules weirdness!) cards that care about that work too: Add this to the "kills opponents dead" pile next to Sanguine Bond. (Bonus points for Defiant Bloodlord.)
Jimmy and Josh over at The Command Zone previewed Rishkar's Expertise and their analysis was spot on for why this take on "draw cards equal to great power" is a little over-the-top.
To sum: Paying six mana to just draw a pile of cards without developing your battlefield is usually just ok. Playing a five-mana spell and getting a kicker of one mana to draw a pile of cards is very good. Plan your deck accordingly and you can't go wrong.
You're probably sick of hearing about Felidar Guardian and the first week of Standard events hasn't even fired. That's how I feel about Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker shenanigans in Commander. Felidar Guardian is redundant with other creatures that let you go off with Kiki-Jiki, the ultimate combo goblin. (See Restoration Angel and friends.) The fact a Jeskai shell can also look at jamming Saheeli Rai into a mix with Soul Sisters cards means finding a way to go infinite just got a lot easier and more redundant.
Figuring out the best Jeskai commander(s) for this is an exercise left to the reader. (Hint: Ruhan of the Fomori looks pretty innocent.)
Renegade Rallier might singlehandedly bring back Saffi Ekrisdotter decks to the forefront of my nightmares. It works like this: Have a free sacrifice outlet (I vote Viscera Seer) then add Saffi and Rallier. Sacrifice Saffi to ensure Rallier comes back, then sac Rallier to the outlet.
Add Juniper Order Ranger and synergies to taste. Repeat until opponents bemoan how good at tutoring up creatures green and white are.
Trophy Mage isn't broken by itself. In fact, it's among the most innocuous cards on this list. What is it, however, is another blue tutor spell. Artifact decks, control decks and even Bant aggro decks (The fear of Rafiq of the Many is strong) all love ways to find things like Sword of Feast and Famine (and other lesser swords), Ashnod's Altar, Chromatic Lantern (and a million other mana rocks), Cloudstone Curio, Crawlspace, Crucible of Worlds, Damping Matrix, Darksteel Plate, Ensnaring Bridge, Forcefield, Foundry Inspector, Heartstone, Lifecrafter's Bestiary, Metalworker, Oblivion Stone, Phyrexian Altar, Rings of Brighthearth, Scrap Trawler, Sculpting Steel, Shardless Agent, Static Orb, Vedalken Shackles and dozens of other options.
Trophy Mage is a tutor for some of the most busted cards in the format, and alongside them in 100-card deck will be as good as the Mage ever gets. Pick your targets wisely and your toolbox of answers can feel unbeatable.
What's better than Trophy Mage? How about an instant tutor-onto-the-battlefield for artifacts of any size that, generally, costs just three blue mana? Whir of Invention isn't Tinker, but in the mid-to-late game it's probably better: You don't have to sacrifice anything to pull it off.
Look at Trophy Mage targets above, then think about all the other busted artifacts in the format that don't cost three mana and you can do the math. (Solution: It's gross.)
Pia's Revolution is Athreos, God of Passage for artifacts. Athreos isn't entirely comparable (Fact: Piza's Revoluton is very destructible) but adding yet another way to pressure opponents with a red-based artifact deck is amazing. Once you narrow life totals down it becomes a soft lock, letting you sacrifice and recast any artifact you want since nobody will pay 3 life to stop it.
While Pia's Revolution will have to wait in games, once it's time to drop the hammer it'll be time to console your enemies. What if the Revolution is worthless? Red's growing array of ways to loot and filter cards means, like blue, you can count on sending it away for something useful.
Lifecrafter's Bestiary is almost a permanent Glimpse of Nature. The "pay a green mana" rider to draw a card is moot in decks that can pack Cryptolith Rite and all of the mana-generating Elves combo pieces. You can even do it on an end step with Yeva, Nature's Herald or Vedalken Orrery. If you haven't seen Combo Elves in Commander before, expect it soon.
As a cherry on top, you get to scry to start your turn because extra card advantage is just what a combo enabler needed.
Did you think I forgot about Paradox Engine? Have you read Paradox Engine? There are so many combos you can pull off it's well beyond my ability alone to break down. Enough mana rocks and artifact card draw and your deck jumps out. Cryptolith Rite and Duskwatch Recruiter goes infinite.
It's absolutely as dumb as it sounds, and it's my pick from the set to potentially get banned from the format.
Throwing Paradox Engine into a Sharuum the Hegemon deck should double the number of ways you can win on the spot. I can't make this any more emphatically clear: Paradox Engine is bad news and should be considered as obnoxious as things like Kokusho, the Evening Star, Seedborn Muse or Metalworker. No good will come from it, so my suggestion is to get on the combo train and enjoy it for as long as it lasts.
Calculating based on the most recent Commander banned list announcement, it will last forever so take that as a ringing endorsement to invest. Have fun!