What Brawl Does for Commander
- Robert Giel
In March 2018, WotC announced a new format; Brawl. A singleton, Commander-like format that would only use cards for Standard, and thus rotate. After a rough start, WotC has decided to revive the format, but what does this mean for commander players?
When the announcement of Brawl was made on March 22nd, 2018, I was very skeptical. The format was released at the same time as Magic's anniversary set, Dominaria, and seemed a great combination with that set's focus on Legendary creatures. Still, the general public opinion was somewhat negative. Why would you play Brawl when you could just play Commander? WotC claimed that Brawl was also a format where you could play the cards you picked up in draft that weren't good enough for Standard. A format where you could unleash your creativity with non-competitive Standard cards. Most people, however, just saw it as a quick cash grab.
The Baral Issue
Brawl had a rough start. Brawl saw a lot of play on MTGO, and the format was dominated by decks utilizing Baral, Chief of Compliance. Sure, you can run a spicy Grixis control deck with Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh at the helm, as Gavin Verhey mentioned, but why would you when you can just run Baral and a ton of Counter spells. Our very own Jamin Kauf dominated a Brawl challenge by going 10-0 with his Baral deck.
Baral's Brawl, Jamin Kauf, Brawl Challenge
This was a challenge that Brawl was facing. If a format intended for casual play ends up dominated by a single competitive deck that oppresses diversity, the player base will diminish. WotC didn't sit around too long before announcing that Baral, Chief of Compliance, Smuggler's Copter, and Sorcerous Spyglass were banned on May 10th, 2018, roughly one and a half months after Brawl's release.
From Bad to Worse
Things didn't get better either. WotC wanted to promote Brawl as a premium event, so they hosted Braw multiplayer events at GPs with some interesting results. On June 29, 2018, player Joep Smit won the Multiplayer Brawl event at GP Barcelona with a Hallar, the Firefletcher deck. Unfortunately, he never got to play a single game. He was the sole contester and thus instantly won the event without ever having to compete. This was exactly the sort of negative publicity that this format didn't need. The community responded with cynical, sarcastic comments, making fun of what was already considered a questionable format.
Then, on September 19, 2018, roughly seven months after Brawl's release, WotC released an article stating that Brawl would be retired from Magic Online's two-player queue and leagues. While WotC continued to claim the format was doing well, many people decided that this was the nail in the coffin.
The Real Issue
So, what was the real problem with Brawl? I spent some time thinking and discussing with fellow Magic players and came to the following conclusion: Brawl, as a format, is fine. Singleton is fun and people love Commander. There is plenty of deckbuilding variety and it is true that you can play cards you normally wouldn't play in Standard (much like Commander plays cards that don't see play anywhere else). The reason why Brawl failed (in my opinion) comes from two different factors.
First, nobody was waiting for another paper format to spend their money on. Magic is already expensive as it is, and Standard players who were interested in playing a singleton format revolving around Legendary creatures already had a format – regular Commander. Brawl was in an awkward position from the start.
Second, WotC didn't directly encourage people to play Brawl. Commander receives pe-constructed products once a year. With Brawl, the rules were posted, and the rest had to be figured out by the players themselves. While I don't think it's bad to expect players to figure certain things out, it's important that WotC gives a certain way to guide and introduce players to the format. Especially when everyone was new to the format.
Brawl's Second Sunrise
Now, almost 1,5 years after Brawl's initial launch, it seems like it's getting a second wind. WotC fixed the above two mentioned problems. Brawl will be coming to Arena with the release of Throne of Eldraine, and I have to say that I'm very pleased with this development. Arena seems the perfect medium for a format like Brawl.
We can't expect WotC to ever incorporate an extensive format like Commander into Arena, so we'll have to settle for Brawl. Arena brought us the opportunity to play fast, easy games of Magic with formats like best-of-one standard, and Brawl is essentially doing this for us Commander players. We can feed our Commander and deckbuilding urges from the comfort of our own computer. You might be afraid that this could replace paper Commander in the long-term, but I don't think that this is a real concern. Brawl is a very welcome addition, offering a unique Commander experience. At the end of the day, we all care about playing Commander, and WotC just gave us a new way to do it.
WotC also fixed the second problem I mentioned by introducing out of the box playable Brawl decks. These decks, along with their dedicated Commanders, allow for a great introduction and starting point to the format. And, cleverly enough, WotC also introduced new goodies for Commander players, making these products not only for Standard players. Arcane Signet is a prime example of a card that will likely see play in a lot of Commander decks.
I would like to spend the remainder of this article taking a closer look at the new Brawl precons that were spoiled. After the (in my opinion) slightly disappointing Commander 2019 decks, the Brawl precons were a pleasant surprise. All four commanders are strong and thematic, but do not restrict deckbuilding (in the way that Kadena, Slinking Sorcerer does). I was also happy with the actual reprint value in the decks. They are currently around 18 € on Cardmarket and in addition to the Legendary Creature, every deck contains at least one shock land (e.g. Watery Grave), one temple/scry land (e.g. Temple of Silence), the sought after Arcane Signet, as well as spicy new Commander cards like Tome of Legends. Keep in mind that I'll be looking at these cards from a Commander perspective, rather than a Brawl one.
Probably, the most powerful card of the lot is Chulane, Teller of Tales. Five mana isn't cheap, but it does so much with so little effort. You can already think of all the disgusting things you can do with this card in combination with cards like Intruder Alarm, Peregrine Drake, and Aluren. The precon itself is mediocre, with Hallowed Fountain as a shockland and Temple of Mystery as the temple. Other interesting cards are Steelbane Hydra, Faerie Formation, and Thorn Mammoth.
Finally, we get a worthy knight commander. Knights are a cool tribe that recently started to get a lot more love. Dominaria gave us Aryel, Knight of Windgrace, but not having access to red severely limited deckbuilding, both in available knights and the general card pool. Syr Gwyn, Hero of Ashvale does a lot; it draws cards, synergizes well with equipment (which goes together with the knight theme), and has two powerful keywords. What I don't like is that it costs a whopping six mana, which is fair for a card that does so much, but annoying in the color combination that is all about playing fast and aggressive. I also wish that they just made this into one of the Commander 2019 precons. Imagine how cool this precon would be if the card pool wasn't limited to standard. They could reprint cards like Puresteel Paladin, Knight Exemplar, and, dare I say, maybe even a Sword of Fire and Ice / Sword of Feast and Famine? I guess one can only dream…
Another commander that is a home run in my opinion. Korvold, Fae-Cursed King is right in the sweet spot of a commander providing you some guidance on what theme to build a deck but giving you all the freedom to explore this how you see fit. Want to build a token fodder deck? How about Jund lands with fetches? Maybe even a stax deck with Shattergang Brothers? Korvold provides you with a sacrifice outlet, draw-engine, and win condition all in one card, and all for five mana. Other interesting cards from this deck are Chittering Witch, doing her best Siege-Gang impression, the engine Savvy Hunter, and the removal spell Taste of Death. All of which play nicely into theme with the commander.
Last but not least, Alela, Artful Provocateur leads the charge on a new Esper style deck. It combines artifacts and enchantments (two themes that already have support in Esper) with a theme that needs some love in EDH – Faeries. This commander also allows for a variety of different builds, and I'm looking forward to seeing what people come up with. Interesting new cards include Shimmer Dragon as an artifact payoff and Banish into Fable. The precon even comes with a reprint of Smothering Tithe, which is not bad at all!
While I don't think I will ever play Brawl in paper, I'm very glad it will continue to receive support by Wizards. On Arena, it's a way of playing a few quick games of Commander-lite with the comfort that the online client has to offer, and every product that Wizards releases in paper are just extra additions for Commander decks. I call this a win-win situation. What do you think of Brawl? Will you play it in paper, or will you just stick with the online version? What do you think of the new decks? Let me know in the comments below! As always, thanks for reading, and until next time!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.
Check out our Throne of Eldraine: Extras page if you're interested in picking up any of the new Brawl cards!