28, Dec, 23

Unleash the Potential of MTG Secret Commanders Outside the Command Zone!

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Have you heard of having a hidden or secret commander? While not new, the idea has come to mean different things to different players. Let’s talk about what building a Commander deck that utilizes a hidden commander looks like now and in the future.

Don’t Know and too Afraid to ask

First, a hidden commander is a card that works remarkably well with the rest of your deck but is not strictly in the command zone. That being said, why put effort into making a deck that wants to see a particular card but not have it be the actual commander? There are multiple reasons.

Part of the purpose of creating such a deck is in concealing what you are doing. If the rest of the table does not know what you are up to, it’s going to make stopping your strategy that much more difficult. More importantly, it’s part of the reward for building a deck like this in the first place. Catching a table completely off guard with a hidden build is “doing the thing” in this case.

Furthermore there is a bit of wiggle room when discussing exactly what counts as a secret commander. For example, whether you run Phenax, God of Deception or Oona, Queen of the Fae as the face commander in a mill themed deck, drawing another effective option is simple redundancy. In that case is a backup commander a hidden commander? To some the answer is yes, to others, it does not qualify. Even a card like Primal Surge can be considered a hidden commander. When you build the rest of the deck around a “no spells, all permanents” restriction that puts heavy emphasis on Surge as the potential “commander” of your deck.

Speaking of deck restrictions, can a deck using the companion mechanic count it as a hidden commander? Consider that you are giving your opponents significant information, pre-game. It’s not really very secret and it’s effectively in the command zone, so it seems unlikely to qualify for most people.

So where is the line between secret versus simply high synergy? Do you necessarily need tutor effects to get your hidden commander, and nothing else counts? Here’s essentially the best example printed to date which can provide a little more clarity.

A Captain

There are few cards that both conceal intention and also make your hidden commander go off regularly. Sisay, Weatherlight Captain is an example of a face commander that can enable a hidden strategy in any color. Sounds too good to be true, so why not use Sisay? There’s almost no reason not to, and it’s an incredibly common choice. That being said there are complications.

Playing with five colors is both secret and obvious. You have access to the best cards throughout all of Magic. The level of ambiguity of any five color deck is already as high as it can get, so are you really hiding anything? Seeing Krenko, Mob Boss in the command zone is going to give a very good idea of what that deck is about. Sisay? Well, it will have good cards in every color. It’s ambiguous without uncertainty.

Next, Sisay is a legitimate choice for a tournament winning, competitive Commander deck. Because your deck could have anything in it, it may be treated as more of a threat than it truly is simply for that fact.

Furthermore, you’re either a five color deck or you’re not. What that means is, all else equal, you must have a mana base that can support those five colors. If you’re dripping in fetches and duals, this is doable, but outside of that it can get awkward. Are you not really playing all five colors? Maybe there’s a better commander option in that case.

Additionally, Sisay gets a legendary permanent. Certainly there are many excellent ones to choose from, but a lot of hidden commanders end up being non-legendary creatures or other types of cards entirely. Her restriction is a bit limiting, even if she is in all five colors.

Finally, is the deck more about playing Sisay and having a hidden wincon than about having a hidden commander? “Sisay good stuff with X wincon” is normally how Sisay works. In that case, your commander is Sisay. Suffice it to say sometimes it’s a potential spring board for any secret commander but other times it’s just Sisay doing Sisay things. Is there a clearer example? Thankfully, yes!

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A Cook?

Enter the definitive commander for hidden commander decks. Rocco, Cabaretti Caterer enables a large diversity of decks without tipping your hand. If you cast Impact Tremors on turn two, does that mean you’re playing tokens? Goblins? Elves? Does that Sylvan Library mean it’s an enchantment based version or are you merely running a good card? You can put an entire Krenko, Mob Boss shell inside of the kitchen just as easily as a Norin, the Wary Pandemonium deck. Next week, you can do it all over again with significant variation. A five color deck? You’re incentivized to play good cards in every color, changing only a handful of pieces. Rocco is an example of both secret flavor and hidden substance because he can get any creature you want.

When it comes to flexibility this is one of the most unique and functional enablers for the hidden commander concept that exists outside of Sisay. You have strong access to any hidden commander at any stage of the game. Why is this different than simply tutoring up a combo piece? That comes down to deck construction. Yes, if you are always using Rocco to get a combo piece to win on the spot it’s just another combo deck and Rocco is, in fact, your commander. But using Rocco to guarantee access to an engine that makes the deck run fits the feel of a hidden mechanic.

Furthermore, Rocco is just a 3/1 with no other abilities. He’s never going to do anything significant outside of being a living tutor. While he does not have a trigger when he leaves the battlefield, he might as well because you don’t really want him in play. This is completely different than Sisay who you want to stay in play as long as possible. Hopefully the differences between the two are clear. Rocco sets the table and then your “real” commander gets to work.

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Monocolored does it too

There’s way more than one way to play a Polymorph deck and Jalira, Master Polymorphist can turn any nonlegendary creature into your hidden commander. A deck full of legendary creatures and spells does not interfere with the mechanic in the slightest and blue has always been the color with the best spells. There’s a world of difference between a Jalira deck full of spells using Hullbreaker Horror as your hidden commander and one using Guile and counter magic. Can you run Blightsteel Colossus and call it a hidden commander, not a wincon? That’s where the rest of the 98 comes into play to qualify your choice. While it seems likely this will be a combo piece, there could be interesting deck building decisions that make it the secret commander. Much like beauty being in the eye of the beholder, the intention behind a secret commander is in the hands of the deck builder.

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What about…?

There are also piles of candidates like Haakon, Stromgald Scourge who has an incredibly hard time entering the game from the command zone. But much like a regular commander, once you do get Haakon involved, he can be recurred relatively easily. While Sidar Jabari of Zhelfir is clearly a better overall choice for a Knights matter deck, the deck runs so much better with Haakon involved that it certainly feels like it’s the commander. There are many cards like this and a lot of them are not legendary creatures. Additionally, there are some legendary creatures that are only one or two colors which restricts your access to more cards, so it makes sense to use a slightly worse commander to give you better overall options. More options means more access to your hidden commanders whether through tutoring, draw engines or other tricks.

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A bit Complicated and Nuanced but Worth it

While there are many caveats to the idea of a secret commander, the payoff is certainly well worth it. The Commander format is intensely about custom deck building and nothing gets more unique than making deck defining decisions on this level. It is a trademark of Magic: The Gathering to work past traditional constraints once enough cards have been released. We have mana-less dredge, stax decks that don’t use Smokestack and Commander decks revolving less around the face commander than a hidden card. This is why Magic has remained an exciting and interesting game. Will 2024 support hidden commanders even further?

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