Commander is a unique format for many reasons. Having access to thousands of cards from Alpha through Amonkhet gives you countless ways to optimize and customize your build. Many players hold their Commander deck near and dear to them, sometimes an extension of who they are as Magic players. So… what could be more fun than picking and playing with one general? Two generals, duh!
To date, Wizards has released 5 Commander supplemental products. Each year they try to explore a new design space with both their generals and other cards included. In 2016, they introduced a new mechanic that would forever shape the landscape for all Commander formats.
From the official Magic rules:
702.123a Partner is an ability that modifies the rules for deck construction in the Commander format (see rule 903), and it functions before the game begins. Rather than a single legendary creature card, you may designate two legendary creature cards as your commander if each has partner.
Seems simple enough, right? Two Commanders instead of one means I have some room for flexibility on which general I cast. No big deal, right? WRONG.
The partner mechanic is one of the strongest upgrades to Commander in a long time. There has been a huge power creep toward generals over the last few years. It started with the March 2015 rules update, which added the inability to “tuck” a general, or shuffle it into the opponent’s deck. Because of these updates, I have seen a growing trend of picking a powerful general first and then building around it. In previous years, it was frequently fine to choose a play style or deck and find a suitable Commander afterwards. While you should always have some way to win that doesn’t entirely rely on your general, it has become less necessary, as has the frequency of resorting to plan B or C.
So what advantages does the partner mechanic offer?
Additional Color Support
When you have two generals in your command zone, you get access to the colors of both of them. You could play 2, 3, or even 4 colors of your desired combination. Competitive players will frequently play 3- or 4-color partner Commander decks without using a more casual-oriented general. An example of this would be something like Thrasios, Triton Hero and Tymna the Weaver over Atraxa, Praetor’s Voice.
Constant Access to Two Spells
Many players see Commander as analogous to having 8 cards in your opening hand. In a way this is accurate, as you will always have access to your general, so really it can be seen as card advantage of sorts. Of course, your opponent has access to this same advantage… or do they?
With partner, it is more akin to having 9 cards in your opening hand. Some players have voiced their concern and complaints about the mechanic, as why would anyone opt to start with 8 cards instead of 9? I can absolutely echo this grievance, and I believe if Wizards had strongly considered competitive 1v1 Commander when designing the product, partner may have never been created.
In addition to card advantage, there is a tempo advantage as well. The way 1v1 Commander games play out, generals often trade for the opponent’s resources, usually in the form of counterspells or removal. The trade-off is that the general will have an additional “tax” of 2 generic mana, allowing it to be re-cast later in the game, but at greater cost. Generals that can circumvent this tax have proved powerful in Duel Commander in the past. Cards like Tasigur and Derevi, Empyrial Tactician are banned there because they provide too insurmountable an advantage. The inability to tuck the pesky generals made banning these cards the only option for enthusiasts of that format.
In a way, partner generals provide a tempo advantage over someone with access to just one general. If one general has been killed multiple times, you can just opt to cast the other one. Rather than having one general stranded in the command zone, you can cast the other general and apply pressure as though nothing happened. Having the ability to cast your spells on time and with consistency is the key to maintaining good tempo.
Surprisingly, most partner generals do not excel in the synergy department. There are some secondary synergies between partners, where cards combine well together but do not provide an obviously powerful combination. Some secondary synergies between partners include cards like Bruse Tarl, Boorish Herder’s ability to give double strike and Akiri, Line-Slinger’s potential high power. Or Thrasios, Triton Hero’s ability to be played on turn 2 followed by Tymna the Weaver on turn 3 to immediately draw a card in main phase 2. This secondary synergy, combined with access to 4 different colors, actually makes this partner combination one of the most competitively viable for 1v1 Commander.
So weren’t these extremely powerful aspects glaringly obvious when designing the partner generals? Yes and no. It is obvious that as standalone cards, partner generals are weaker than the average multicolor Commander. This lower power level is absolutely a good thing and it must have been a consideration in design. Having access to two powerful generals at once would lead to unbalanced games and, worse-case scenario, lead to a world where every Commander deck would simply employ two generals as a requisite.
In reality, I do think Wizards did an excellent job creating fair, balanced, and fun generals for casual, multiplayer Commander. After all, that was the targeted demographic for their supplemental product. But in my opinion, the 1v1 Competitive and Duel Commander scenes have both suffered from the partner mechanic.
So what are the best partner combinations in 1v1 Competitive EDH? The number one performing at this time is the combination of Vial Smasher the Fierce and Kraum, Ludevic’s Opus. Here is a sample deck list of this powerful Grixis combination.
Commanders: Vial Smasher the Fierce and Kraum, Ludevic’s Opus
dawts, 5-0 on MTGO
I love the way this deck is constructed and this is absolutely one of the top decks to beat in the format. Having two generals is a powerful upgrade in itself, and keeping it down to 3 colors increases consistency with your mana. The inclusion of Wandering Fumarole and Creeping Tar Pit for additional pressure comes as a result of just needing 3 colors of mana for the deck.
In my opinion, Vial Smasher the Fierce is the most powerful partner general by a landslide. Designed to be much more random and chaotic for multiplayer, his ability is backbreaking in 1v1 Commander. The only thing “random” about his ability is when he randomly kills your opponent out of nowhere.
Vial Smasher rewards you for just playing Magic each turn. He requires little investment to surmount a large advantage by taxing the opponent’s life total. Combined with powerful blue spells cast on the opponent’s turn, he allows you to double-dip on your damage output. Vial Smasher is excellent at killing planeswalkers as well, which is always an excellent commodity for blue decks. His synergy with x-spells is just gravy.
So why Kraum? Kraum, Ludevic’s Opus has Stormbreath-Dragon-like stats and is a perfectly functional card on its own. Even though it would never be a playable general on its own terms, that’s the beauty/terror of the partner mechanic. Consider Kraum as and extra card in your hand that you can just say, “oops, I kinda want a hasty dragon right now, BOOM,” rather than an important extension of the deck. The significant extra damage from its haste output, combined with the fact that it will trigger 5 damage off of Vial Smasher, makes Kraum a top choice for many players when it comes to partnering.
Kraum isn’t the only partner that works well with Vial Smasher. Thrasios, Triton Hero also combines quite well with him. Most Thrasios/Vial Smasher decks I see play the various Time Warp effects that litter the format. Time Warp itself, along with Capture of Jingzhou, Temporal Manipulation, Temporal Mastery, Temporal Trespass, and Part the Waterveil all make up a suite of spells that grant the caster an extra turn, albeit at a cost. Though they are somewhat clunky and expensive to cast, the extra turn effects combine powerfully with Vial Smasher’s triggered ability and access to green mana allows you to ramp into these spells effectively.
Thrasios, Triton Hero and Tymna, the Weaver give you access to all the most powerful tutors and combo cards in 1v1 Commander. Thrasios is an excellent infinite mana sink, so he serves not just as an early creature to cast, but as a win condition when a combo has been assembled. Tymna is there mostly as backup, but she can provide a serviceable follow-up to Thrasios on turn 3.
Whew! Well partner, I sure am all worked up from talking about all these sweet partner combinations. Oh wait, there are 105 total partner combinations available to try out? Sweet Mother of Phyrexians, that is a golden boatload of possibilities. Basically, there are endless options when it comes to the partner mechanic in EDH. The cards have been out for less than a year, so expect many new innovations as time goes on. Like it or not, I believe partner is here to stay.
Thanks so much for reading! What partner generals have you tried so far? What aspects of the partner mechanic do you enjoy or dislike? Time to grab a friend, grab a partner and get to battling. Until next time, may your spells always be castable.