Commander Spotlight: Ashes to Ashes

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It’s an old adage that bears meaning in any number of ways, from a reassuring notion that despite life continually changing certain elements remain constant, to an exacerbated critique that no matter how much things change, certain things seemingly never improve. Whether it’s complaining about taxes, bureaucracy or your in-laws, or relishing in the fact that the sun always rises, Spring eventually comes, and the most important aspects of life have remained constant for centuries despite practically everything else shifting around us, it’s a fairly harmless message that lets people utilize it however they feel it’s most warranted at that moment.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

When it comes to Magic: the Gathering, this message can likewise be used as a celebration or condemnation of the game’s evolution – or lack thereof – over 26 years.

On the one hand, few would argue that despite tens of thousands of new cards, decades of game design, pages and pages of new rules, the core essence of the game has remained relatively constant over the years. People still open packs and build decks with the same fervor and excitement as they did in the 90s. The mechanics and artists may have changed and the overall quality of the cards improved, but at the end of the day, both a card from Arabian Nights and a card from Ixalan are still the same thing. Players still ruminate over mana problems, lament or cherish the tides of games that turned on lucky draws, and fervent discussion over which color Wizards is seemingly favoring at any given time.

(Just kidding. The argument is always Blue. Always and forever.)

On the other hand, Magic has changed. The game is nothing if not constant experimentation to see whether something would work or not. Some mechanics become ardent fan favorites, while others become nearly universally despised. The game no longer cares about ante or mana burn, and the designers are much more cognizant about which abilities belong to which colors. We have planeswalker cards and mythic rarity. We even take The Stack for granted on resolving card responses, but early Magic used a more convoluted batching system – hello Interrupts! The game has changed because by its nature, Magic must evolve or die. Its real challenge, in more ways than one, was actually ensuring that the more the game changed, the more it stayed the same.

As the game has progressed, new mechanics have come along to supplant or improve older card ideas, which in totality, has moved the needle on what the baseline feel of the game is in terms of power and capability, which is often part of that disconnect. Shroud was replaced with Hexproof. Color-based evasion was expanded, refined, and then axed again. And Regeneration has now completely given way to Indestructible.

There is a typical belief that anytime a new card idea comes along, that answers to that cards will always arrive parallel with them or follow shortly thereafter. That is, the answers to new problems are always forward looking, plus or minus a set or two – as Wizards does occasionally like to seed potential answers to problems they haven’t revealed yet from time to time. Yet one of the most wonderful things about Magic is that answers are not necessarily linear. With every new set, every new idea, Wizards neither has the will, desire, or resources, to ascertain how everything at present will interact with cards of the past. So long as the new cards don’t break Standard, everything else is pretty much up to the players to figure out. Which means that every new card runs through an invisible and intangible impact filter for possible (and often unforeseen) interactions. As Commander players, part of the enjoyment to this Eternal format is in finding those interactions and making something lost for forgotten about suddenly relevant again.

This week’s card is an excellent reminder of this fact. With Indestructible becoming such a staple ability choice in EDH games nowadays, the arms race has dictated that players look not just for spot removal cards in general, but those that specifically force creatures into being sacrificed or exiled. This card is one such answer, but it’s not pulled from the latest set. Rather, it goes back nearly to the beginning.

Today we have: Ashes to Ashes

Name: Ashes to Ashes

Edition: The Dark / Fourth Edition / Fifth Edition

Rarity: Uncommon

Focus: Spot Removal

Highlights: Ashes to Ashes was an incredibly potent card when it first arrived on the scene, second only to Swords to Plowshares in terms of raw creature removal power for its mana cost. And while it was certainly used, namely among the casual gaming crowd, Ashes was still often passed over as Black’s spot removal card of choice in favor of the faster and slightly more restrictive Terror for one major reason: five life is huge in a 20 life total game. Without a means of regaining that life, especially in multiplayer settings, smacking yourself for 1/4 of your life total just to remove two creatures hardly seemed worth it unless you were playing aggressively. So while it certainly got use and was reprinted a couple times, it never really saw a lot of mention among the top echelon of Black’s most effective spot removal cards. At least, until the arrival of EDH.

Ashes to Ashes simply states that for three mana and five self-inflicted damage, you can exile any two nonartifact creatures on the battlefield. In Commander games, this can mean anything from gods to an annoying creature that Simply Won’t Die Already! Three mana to exile two creatures is incredibly potent in a format that is awash in giant, dangerous, and often hard to get rid of creatures, and it’s way above the modern mana curve for such an effect. That alone makes the card worth considering. The tradeoff of doing five damage to yourself in exchange for permanently ridding the game of two of the table’s most problematic creatures on the battlefield is well worth the hit, both in terms of shifting the balance of power, but also in terms of the potential political benefit – valiantly sacrificing your own life to rid the board of a problem facing multiple opponents can definitely earn you some political capital. Five damage isn’t also as potentially crippling in games with twice as much life, which negates its original drawback among players.

Instead, from a Commander perspective the only real drawback is that it can’t target artifact creatures. However, this is much more situational than it seems depending on the decks being faced and your general game meta.

The name Ashes to Ashes itself is a metaphorical reference to endings, and it’s true that this card’s time in the limelight came and went many years ago. But in this game, so long as a card still physically exists, there can come a time when some new idea will bring it renewed purpose.

For in Magic, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Keep an eye out for us to be regularly featuring other more accessible-but-worth-it Commander cards going forward. In the meantime, we’ll keep the light on for you.

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