Commander Spotlight: Debtors’ Knell

Magic is a difficult, complicated game to get into.

Better yet, it’s more accurate to say that Magic: the Gathering is fairly easy to learn the basics of. However, the complexity comes from the slow trickle of learning the extensive array of nuance and card interaction that lies just beneath the surface. It takes several months of regular gameplay to fully grasp the full strategic and tactical potential the game possesses, and that’s just to bring you up to speed as an average Magic player. But thanks to the ever-growing card base, no one is ever 100% prepared for every single game they sit down for. That works to the game’s advantage. Between the cards themselves, the luck of the draw, and the human element behind the wheel, there’s a reason the game continues to excite players well into its second decade in existence.

The difficulty getting into the game, on the other hand, has less to do with the extensive rules lattice behind the scenes and more with the forces around the game. Things like accessibility to other players, the uneven culture and attitudes found in the community writ large, and the fact that the products most marketed most to new players – the latest sets and the Standard tournament format – change so frequently it can get disorientating. More than anything, though, is the cost involved. Magic may be a game, but it’s a game with an insatiable appetite for funds. Its CCG nature demands new product be continuously being rolled out, and there is a constant FOMO feeling in effect once you become even modestly emotionally invested in the game. You want to participate in the newest releases and improving your deck, but those mean spending money. Sometimes a lot of it.

What’s worse is that doing so largely leaves players with two avenues. The first is purely random. Sure, preconfigured decks exist, but they only contain a fraction of the possibilities a set offers. Open some packs, buy a box. You just have zero control over what you’re going to get. Cracking packs certainly contains its share of highs and lows, and it’s what Wizards pushes most (as to stay in business of course), but it’s not the most efficient approach.

Which brings us to the second possibility: the aftermarket. It usually doesn’t take much effort to find an online site or local store that caters to selling Magic singles. If you’re after specific cards, someone has it for sale. The only question is how much you’re willing to pay for it. But if it’s one of the more powerful or popular cards, you are most certainly going to pay a premium for it.

Sure, some of this is simple supply and demand, but there is no central exchange rate for cards. Most of the time these places merely base what they should sell cards at against other places doing the exact same thing. This cyclical effect results in plenty of cards staying artificially high in value despite no one buying them. And there’s no real incentive to drop their prices much unless no one anywhere is buying. These places want to stay in business after all, so why should they sell their product for less than the competition? It’s not overt collusion, but the business of the Magic aftermarket leaves much to be desired. The fact remains, though: if you want the rarer or more popular cards, it’s going to cost you. There’s an old criticism that Magic is a pay-to-win kind of game, and there’s a reason it continues to stick around. This is especially true in certain formats.

Commander is not one of those formats, however. Between its multiplayer focus, longer game sessions, higher life totals, and access to more than 95% of the entire card base for deck building purposes, Commander is very casual focused. While chase cards can be helpful at times, they’re often not worth the cost of tracking down solely to be part of a 100 card deck unless it’s paramount to the deck functioning. Commander decks don’t need to be tricked out to win. I’ve seen EDH decks with total card values under $40 win just as well as those worth $400.

All of this ties into this series’ longstanding desire to only focus on championing cards that won’t break your wallet attaining. I feel this is an important aspect to keeping the focus on the casual side of Commander. That’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t buy whatever you want. Rather, it’s our way of saying that you don’t need to in order to play in this format. You don’t need to seek out high value cards when a slightly different and much cheaper option will do.

Sometimes, though, we get lucky and a vaunted EDH-worthy card, for a number of reasons, actually decreases in value enough for consideration. Cards such as this week’s pick.

Today we have: Debtors’ Knell

Name: Debtors’ Knell

Edition: Guildpact / Guild Kit: Orzhov

Rarity: Rare

Focus: Graveyard Recursion

Highlights: Ever since its initial release, Debtors’ Knell has been a highly popular card within the casual Magic community, and it doesn’t take much effort to understand why. A potent recursion card with a hybrid mana cost, this enchantment has made its way into many decks due to the heavy double-sided swing potential it offers: repeatably and reliably stealing an opponent’s creature from their owner’s graveyard and using it to hurt them with it.

Debtors’ Knell as was one of the Orzhov’s original powerhouse cards when the guild was first introduced, mixing its mafia-church ideology of providing help in life while collecting the toll in death. It’s reflected too in the card’s Black / White color balance, with the hybrid casting cost indicative of the fact that while either color alone has the capability to bring creatures back from the graveyard, the scope of doing so differs slightly from one another. Despite its hefty seven mana casting cost, for many players its hybrid costs made it easier to run in numerous styles of decks that it may not have otherwise.

The end result is one that’s to die for. At least from a casual and multiplayer perspective.

Yes, while it has briefly seen some competitive play here and there at times, it never took off heavily due to that aforementioned casting cost. For many aggressive players, seven mana for an enchantment that’s conditional on your opponent having creatures in the graveyard worth taking and only triggering once per round simply wasn’t fast enough. And they are not wrong. Debtors’ appeal resides in the long game, where you have the time to get it onto the battlefield and take advantage of stealing notable creatures – something multiplayer is particularly adept at – even if it’s only particularly effective in the middle and later stages of the game. It’s generally seen as one of those cards that’s well worth the wait.

Naturally, even though it loses some of its deck building color flexibility in Commander due to how color affinity works (a rule, for the record, that I am perfectly fine with), it was precisely the sort of card that the early EDH adopters sought out. It’s big, flashy, and players felt it emblematic of the ethos of the format. As a result, the desire to acquire and utilize Debtor in this burgeoning casual format of choice forced its aftermarket value to notably spike. In the spring of 2011 (just before the first official MTG Commander decks were released), the asking price for the enchantment shot up into the $8-10 range and plateaued, staying there quite literally until about 9 months ago with its reprinting in a supplementary product for Ravnica Allegiance. Only recently has that caused the value to drop back below the $5 mark, once again making it eligible to showcase here.

Costs aside (casting or otherwise), the only real area of concern for Debtors’ Knell is that it brings with it a rather notable target on its back. Given that each round you can select the largest, most dangerous creature from among all graveyards and put it directly back onto the battlefield, this can create some substantial shifts in the board state the longer it stays out, especially if you start swinging at those same opponents with them. The longer it sits, the more dangerous it becomes. Because of this, it often makes a nearly irresistible removal target. Still, if that’s the card’s biggest problem, so be it.

Plus, even just a couple rounds of its staying on the board should well pay off the investment and give you some much needed advantage. After all, there’s a reason it’s been a popular card for so long.

We’re just also now happy that such a card has dropped back into a more widely affordable purchasing range so even more people can see that for themselves.

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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