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Reviewing Commander 2020’s Alternate Commanders

As with all Commander releases, since the first one in 2011, each Commander 2020 deck comes with at least one “alternate” commander that shares the same colour identity as the face commander that one can see in the product packaging. The concept of having alternate commanders means that players can swap out the face commander with an alternate one, if they want to, and then try out the deck in a different way. However, the alternate commanders don’t always fit into the same themes as the face commanders do and you are left with a non-synergistic deck. In the previous article, Reviewing Commander 2020’s Face Commanders, we reviewed the face commanders. In this article, we will focus on the alternate commanders and what decks they’ll helm or be a part of.

This year’s commander set features five different decks based on the three-colour wedges (a colour and its enemy allied pair). As a small reminder those decks are as follows:

The Alternate Commanders

Kelsien, the Plague

c20 11 kelsien the plague

Kelsien, the Plague is the alternate commander for the Ruthless Regiment deck that, unfortunately, as with many of the alternate commanders, doesn’t specifically fit with the overall deck theme. He sports the return of experience counters which debuted in Commander 2015 and led to the infamous Meren of Clan Nel Toth and her ilk. Kelsien seems to be the long-awaited assassin tribal commander for those that have been waiting for one, even if his card doesn’t actually mention the assassin creature type on it. He doesn’t synergise at all with either Daxos the Returned or Kalemne, Disciple of Iroas, so he’ll most likely be generating his own experience counters rather than sharing them. His keywords do mean that he can come out swinging and/or shooting whenever you are ready for him to do so.

The obvious card pairings for Kelsien are artifacts that give him deathtouch along with other combo pieces. If building around him, you’ll want to start off with Basilisk Collar, Gorgon Flail, Gorgon’s Head, and Quietus Spike. Redundancy is going to be very important for a Kelsien deck since your opponents will see what’s coming a mile away and will always look for answers to your deathtouch granting equipment. The ultimate combo is going to be with Thornbite Staff and one of the above. Shoot down any creatures on the opposing side of the board, rack up those experience counters, and swing for victory.

Xyris, the Writhing Storm

c20 18 xyris the writhing storm

As the alternate commander for the Arcane Maelstrom deck, Xyris, the Writhing Storm shows us the other way that this three-colour combination can behave. Xyris is all about drawing cards and making tokens… Snek tokens to be exact. As a five mana 3/5 flying Snake Leviathan, Xyris takes advantage of every opponent sporting a Rhystic Study or Consecrated Sphinx on their side of the board. You’ll definitely want to add lots of additional draw effects to your build to give this deck a bit of a “group hug” feel such as Howling Mine, Dictate of Kruphix, and similar; all while taking advantage of snake token doublers by including Doubling Season and Parallel Lives.

Xyris really pushes for a great Temur tokens build and will do so under the radar. It won’t kill with commander damage, but it will definitely mill out or swarm opponents with snakes. This isn’t a card you would put in your 99 of another Temur build, but it will definitely enjoy other cards such as The Locust God, Chasm Skulker, Improbable Alliance, Mad Ratter, and Nadir Kraken (with mana) that also make tokens off of drawing cards. A particular underplayed noteworthy addition is last year’s Commander 2019 card, Idol of Oblivion.

Tayam, Luminous Enigma

c20 16 tayam luminous enigmaThe counters matters theme in the Symbiotic Swarm deck surprisingly extends to the alternate commander in Tayam, Luminous Enigma. To add to that, Tayam also deals with the graveyard so if there were any two commanders in these decks that could be “swapped out” easily, Kathril and Tayam are those two.

Tayam’s Hill Giant body seems to be the norm for many of the 4 mana commanders in this set but it isn’t one of those that gets +1/+1 counters put on it. It does, however, create a very resilient team by making sure each creature you summon has a vigilance counter on it. You can plan to be a lot more aggressive when you know that you’ll be able to defend any backswing from your opponents. While you’re building a wall of creatures, you also have the ability to self-mill and return any three mana or less permanent to your battlefield.

If you’re going to go with Tayam as your Commander, you’ll want to replace some of the big hitters in the preconstructed deck with some smaller value creatures and begin a reanimation loop of permanents with upside. Creatures with sacrifice effects such as Fleshbag Marauder are great targets to bring back and maintain the status quo, or enchantments such as Seal of Doom that you can sacrifice when you are ready to do so. In fact, when building this deck you will most likely share a lot in common with Muldrotha, the Gravetide deck builds (aside from the blue cards).

Tayam definitely pushes for its own deck to be built around it but still works just as well in any Abzan counters matters deck as part of the 99. You just have to figure out how to get enough counters on your creatures to be able to reliably activate its ability.

Akim, the Soaring Wind

c20 6 akim the soaring wind

The alternate commander for the Raugrin (think Jeskai) based dinosaur clade of Ikoria is Akim, the Soaring Wind. Akim is the ultimate Jeskai tokens commander. We’ve had an attempt in the past with Kykar, Wind’s Fury but with Akim, we now have a means of making those tokens count. In fact, you’ll want to combine them together for the best strategy but which will be the preferred commander and which will be in the remaining 99? Since this is a fairly new deck archetype, it will depend on whether your support plan is based on casting multiple noncreature spells or by making tokens by some other means. Either way, Akim helps you create a host of flying tokens that can do lethal damage once you’ve managed to pump them and give them double strike.

This is definitely a new challenge for deckbuilders and one to look out for. Some ideas to begin with are a populate subtheme along with permanents that help create and/or augment tokens such as Divine Visitation, Assemble the Legion, Anointed Procession, Idol of Oblivion and Monastery Mentor.

 

Zaxara, the Exemplary

c20 20 zaxara the exemplary

The alternate commander for the Enhanced Evolution deck is Zaxara, the Exemplary. This is (almost) the legendary hydra commander that we have been waiting for. Hail Hydra! The preconstructed deck has already provided a few hydra reprints to get the heads growing including Genesis Hydra, Hungering Hydra, Vastwood Hydra, and Heroes’ Bane along with the new Capricopian. Zaxara’s ability adds value to every {X} spell by giving you an additional X/X hydra along with that spell.

On its own, Zaxara is a 4 mana 2/3 with deathtouch and the ability to add two mana to help fuel those {X} spells you’re planning on casting. The only problem with Zaxara is its colour. As a Sultai coloured commander, you lose all the hydras with red in their colour identity which means no Apocalypse Hydra or Savageborn Hydra which are the best of the bunch. The others that cannot be played are Ulasht, the Hate Seed, Gyrus, Waker of Corpses, and Progenitus which aren’t the “best” hydras for a tribal deck anyhow; along with 5 old monored hydras from Magic’s early days. Once you remove those 10 and Phytohydra (yes, that’s a card), you are left with only 37 other hydras (not all {X} spells mind you), of which only one has black in it Polukranos, Unchained.

Zaxara would have been better off as a Jund coloured tribal commander. Regardless, you have a great starting point for the {X} spell deck, beyond just hydras, and the preconstructed deck includes a few spells that help out such as Mind Spring, Profane Command, Animist’s Awakening, Gaze of Granite, and the commander all-star, Villainous Wealth. Zaxara will always be the lead of a deck and never one of the 99 though.

And that rounds off the “alternate” commanders. Next time we’ll have a look at the spicy bonder-monster partner pair commanders as they are definitely the most pushed partner pairs we’ve had thus far.

Remember to pick up your copy of the decks in question from the online shop or in-store.

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