Standard Commander: Return to Ravnica Analysis

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This article is a continued exploration of what a Return to Ravnica/Gatecrash/Dragon’s Maze/M14/Theros Commander format might look like. Previous articles in this series covered basic deck design principles available in the format and what each of the mono-colored decks might contain. When Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord was spoiled as a set preview in the Izzet vs. Golgari Duel Deck, many Golgari fans anticipated using this extremely strong guild leader. When Return to Ravnica was fully spoiled, all the guild leaders seemed to be strong contenders for Commander. Later, Dragon’s Maze and Theros would add further options. Despite having a Standard-only card pool, these legendary creatures still represent some interesting deck construction possibilities.


A white-blue Standard Commander appears to best be served by adhering to its stereotypical control archetype by playing a singular, but effective, threat and protecting it with removal, counterspells, and board wipes. The best generals for this strategy are Medomai the Ageless and Isperia, Supreme Judge. Lavinia of the Tenth is a weak choice because there are no flicker effects in the environment with which to repeatedly detain the lower-costed permanents on the board.

With control and card draw in mind, the deck build below runs no fewer than four Ophidian-type creatures in addition to Bident of Thassa. If possible, play an Ophidian creature early and hit an undefended opponent repeatedly to draw into counter magic. Counterspells should be used to stop gods, primordials, board wipes that negatively impact your board state, and any other game-changing spells. An Elite Arcanist imprinted with a counterspell that sticks will be a powerful play that only Supreme Verdict can easily handle. Dismiss into Dream with Elite Arcanist imprinted with any spell will similarly be a very strong synergy if opponents are unable to remove either half.

Alternatively, a Daxos of Meletis voltron deck is possible, but it loses a lot of power with the large amount of creature token generation in a Standard Commander environment. The lack of extremely strong equipment to significantly boost attack power discourages this route as well. Daxos of Meletis is much stronger in an Eternal Commander card pool. A player looking for an unusual alternate win condition should consider Azor’s Elocutors. Unfortunately, the current Standard environment is missing the proliferate mechanic to really break the card.


Unfortunately, Selesnya only has one real choice for its commander, but it’s not an awful one: Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice. Trostani really encourages going all-in on a token creature theme, but risks being severely hampered by every black deck playing Erebos, God of the Dead. A Selesnya deck is going to have to rely on Angelic Edict, Trostani’s Judgment, Selesnya Charm, and Fade into Antiquity to stop an Erebos. Sadly, Selesnya decks have some of the weakest card draw available in a Standard Commander format. With this in mind, a Selesnya deck might look like this:

It’s true that this deck is running a significant amount of lands coupled with mana acceleration. However, the populate mechanic is going to be key in shoring up Selesnya’s lack of card draw. Unfortunately, there’s a finite amount of room in the deck and hoping to add the Trading Post / Prophetic Prism combo without any ability to tutor is a waste of two slots. Additionally, the Selesnya player is going to want to have plenty of mana to cast end-of-turn spells in addition to the expected “end of turn, populate target token” activation.


An Izzet deck will be lead by either Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius or Melek, Izzet Paragon. The deck concept below intends for either legendary creature to serve as the commander. There’s a wealth of instants and sorceries combined with cards that allow for synergies with these card types. In both cases, the intends to play few or no early threats, but instead concentrate on building mana and dealing reactively with threats. When there’s enough mana to successfully play and protect Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius or Melek, Izzet Paragon, then this Izzet deck can begin either drawing cards or doubling instant and sorcery spells. This deck build may be familiar to “pillow fort” players.

Some readers may note that Epic Experiment is absent from this list as well as Dragonshift. Unfortunately, Epic Experiment is best when cast for 8 or higher, but Standard just does not have the artifact mana to power that level of spell or the tutors to seek it out. Also, this build focuses on having many counterspells, making Experiment much more likely to have no effect. The creature base is inherently too varied for Dragonshift to be an effective win condition. A Young Pyromancer is just not likely to stay a threat long enough to successfully build an army worthy of becoming dragons for a turn.


Rakdos colors have three different available commanders, two of which have definite possibility. Rakdos, Lord of Riots can be a very speedy general to build around with large creatures being nearly free after a successful turn-five attack. Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch is really designed to be an efficient beater in regular Standard and the unleash mechanic does not do enough to unleashed creatures to make them viable even in a Standard Commander format. Most interestingly though, with Tymaret, the Murder King as commander, a Rakdos deck can run a semi-combo deck built around Shadowborn Apostle to tutor out must-answer threats such as Lord of the Void, Master of Cruelties, Rakdos, Lord of Riots, and Sire of Insanity. This presents a very fun engine to build around as every sixth Shadowborn Apostle in play can search out a serious threat at instant speed.

The Shadowborn Apostles should most often first search out Sire of Insanity to put each opponent into topdeck mode, followed by Lord of the Void or Shadowborn Demon depending on the board state. The token generation from Ogre Slumlord and Xathrid Necromancer, as well as the tribal synergies of the Shadowborn Apostles with Titan of Eternal Fire and Door of Destinies may help with this. Underworld Cerberus and Rise of the Dark Realms both recycle the Shadowborn Apostles to repeat searching out a demon. Alternatively, once can just win with an army of clerics buffed by Door of Destinies. Diabolic Tutor will be key for getting Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx in order to power Titan of Eternal Fire’s ability. In the later game or when stuck in topdeck mode, unnecessary Shadowborn Apostles function as fodder for Tymaret’s ability.

This approach is somewhat akin to a Kaalia of the Vast deck, meaning that it’s very much a glass cannon-style deck and may lack resiliency without more Shadowborn Apostles and Thrumming Stones. The appropriate number of Shadowborn Apostles in this deck needs to be tested as well. Cards such as Elixir of Immortality, Darksteel Ingot, Rakdos Cluestone, and Rakdos Keyrune have been cut to add seven more Shadowborn Apostle to the list, giving an average of 2.68 Shadowborn Apostles in each opening hand, with a 38% chance of drawing another on turn one. That chance naturally increases incrementally with each draw. The weakest part of this deck concept is going to be the potential for useless late-game draws if you lose your big threats, which is only minorly assisted with Tymaret, the Murder King’s sacrifice ability. However this deck does it, when it wins, the deck will win spectacularly off the back of working-class clerics.


Golgari has two possible commanders in Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord and Varolz the Scar-Striped. As with Eternal Commander, a Golgari Standard Commander deck is a potent color combination focusing on quickly assembling a strong, creature-based board presence. When those creatures die, there are recursive elements to bring them back for minimal mana cost. With Jarad, there are some obvious and very strong synergies making him the go-to general for a Golgari Standard Commander deck. The deck is even able to run a possible repeatable removal, life gain, and opponent life loss engine.

Standard Jarad

Creatures (4)
Token creature generation (2)
Sacrifice outlet (1)
Card draw (7)
Creature removal engine (4)
Creature removal (8)
Noncreature removal (2)
General removal (1)
Discard/milling effects (6)
Recursion (11)
Board wipe (3)
Graveyard hate (2)
Mana acceleration (11)
Tutors (2)
Lands (38)

With a light deck-milling theme, Nighthowler, Wight of Precinct Six, and Jarad can become very credible combat threats. At some point in the final stages of the game, it may be possible to cast Nighthowler or Erebos’s Emissary with bestow, sacrifice the enchanted creature with Jarad and then sacrifice the Nighthowler to finish off the entire table. Nemesis of Mortals fills a similar role by being a possibly cheap, large creature to sacrifice to Jarad, but it could be replaced by Gyre Sage if necessary. Garruk, Caller of Beasts may be sub-optimal for his -3 ability, but drawing additional threats is still very relevant.

The removal engine consists of assembling an active Bogbrew Witch and Bow of Nylea on the battlefield. Once this is accomplished, spending 4G at instant speed results in -4/-4 to target creature until end of turn, each opponent losing four life, the Jarad player gaining life equal to the total life lost in this way, and up to four cards being shuffled from the Jarad player’s graveyard back into his library.

Golgari also still has Varolz, the Scar-Striped with which to build a voltron strategy based around +1/+1 counters. This idea has too much possibility not to explore in this article, so here is a second bonus Golgari deck list. This deck almost built itself:

Death’s Presence, Primeval Bounty, Corpsejack Menace, Korozda Guildmage, and Rot Farm Skeleton make a potentially solid basis for repeatedly large threats. Additionally, the deck runs almost every creature in black and green with power equal to or greater than its converted mana cost, allowing the pilot to utilize scavenge to maximum effect. Witchstalker and Reaper of the Wilds are going to be possibly the most effective threats to scavenge onto due to hexproof. Gladecover Scout is the only other green creature with hexproof available in Standard currently and may fit in this deck. However, making space for Gladecover Scout is difficult without cutting a land. Mutavault is another prime scavenge target because the counters stay even when the land is not a creature.

Notably, Abrupt Decay is absent from both of these Golgari lists. This may be a mistake, but with so many of the major threats in a Standard Commander format being indestructible gods or having a converted mana cost of four or greater, Abrupt Decay does not seem to be an optimal choice, even in a Golgari deck. If a Golgari deck pilot determines his environment has enough targets to warrant including Abrupt Decay, Liturgy of Blood is possibly the card to cut from either deck list.

Of all the Return to Ravnica guilds, the Azorius and Izzet decks will likely be the strongest thanks to the blue card draw component. Golgari is most likely a tier-1.5 archetype due to black shoring up a lack of reactivity. The rest of the guilds are definitely tier-two decks. Rakdos will satisfy the Johnny player while Selesnya satisfies the Timmy player.

Next time, we’ll cover the Gatecrash guilds. Please comment below!

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Kirsin Koch

@duneecho     -     Email     -     Articles

Kirsin Koch works as an IT professional and trainer. As a Magic: The Gathering player since Revised in 1994 and one of the original founding members for, he deeply enjoys Commander, Legacy, and Draft.
Kirsin Koch

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