Despite all entreaties to the contrary there are certain cards that, no matter how much you try to make a case for, simply never make the cut in Commander decks. We’re not speaking of the chaff that appears in any set that exists to balance the needs of the set, Limited, or Constructed, or that which is largely to pad out the size of the set in general. Rather, these are cards that have the potential to serve a valuable and worthwhile purpose given the chance but whose existence is either deemed too weak compared to other card options – the plight faced in any Eternal format – or too transactional to make much of an impact in a setting with multiple opponents, higher life totals, and the average play time lasts several hours.
The most common victim in this is generally Auras. For many competitive players, Auras are already a hard sell, as they can’t exist on the battlefield themselves, they are expressly tied to the permanent (usually a creature), and destroying said permanent ends in a two-card loss for you versus, at most, a one card loss from your opponent. As cost-benefit reasoning goes, Auras are often a losing prospect – except in the situations where the benefits offset such concerns with a valuable boost to the efficacy of whatever they’re enchanting. This is both why Wizards has been making a concerted effort over the years to raise the relative power of Auras and why they typically make up a small percentage of EDH decks. In drafts, adding a halfway decent Aura to a halfway decent creature makes for powerful creature. In Modern or EDH, on the other hand, it makes much more sense to simply slot an inherently powerful creature instead and save yourself the hassle. Which, you know, most people do. To be a worthwhile Aura in these situations, its advantages need to outweigh its limitations.
The same goes for many one-shot style Instants. Similar in nature, Instants serve an important purpose in a deck by bolstering your offensive or defensive capabilities. Yet because their relative power level is lower than Sorceries and they can only be used once, most people are mindful of not overloading a Commander deck with too many. You almost always want a few in there to have some answers to your opponent’s moves, but, again, because you don’t usually have too many in a deck, logic says you’re going to pick cards that have more bang for their buck, so to speak.
The end result in both of these cases is that more “generalized” abilities are left behind. One such is temporary power boost cards. Traditionally associated with Red thanks to Firebreathing effects, these are cards that allow you to boost a creature’s power by X for the turn. However, up until 7th Edition, Black was also closely aligned with power boosting thanks to classic cards such as Howl from Beyond. The idea in both cases being that these colors were more front-loaded on offense and this allowed them a helpful combat boost without making them prohibitively powerful – partially because it’s a temporary boost and partially because a 1-for-1 mana to power boost isn’t going to break the game. These colors (namely Red) also tend to have more extra mana sitting around in as the game progresses, and this gives its players something to do with all that mana.
While super common in casual circles, cards granting ‘Firebreathing’ boosts to others are one such subset that didn’t make the transition to an EDH setting as easily as so many others. In fact, it’s down right uncommon to see.
Coincidentally enough, however, an uncommon card that does exactly that is why we’re here this week.
Today we have: Demonspine Whip
Name: Demonspine Whip
Edition: Alara Reborn
Focus: Creature Buff
Highlights: Demonspine Whip was part of an Alara block cycle of colored Equipment, several of which paid homage to Auras and/or Instants from the game’s past. In the case of Demonspine Whip, this was seen as an amalgamation of Firebreathing and Howl thrown together, though it was likely also referencing the Tempest card Endless Scream – basically Howl in Aura form. Like most of these artifacts, it took the major concern of the faster yet more fragile effect and stabilized it into a reusable piece of Equipment. That is, a repeatable creature buff.
As cards go, Demonspine Whip is incredibly straightforward, with only two lines of actual text. It also happens to be a very cheap piece of Equipment, with a casting cost of only two mana and an Equip cost of one – making it an equipment that can be dropped out anywhere from the early to late stages of the game, can be reequipped cheaply, and doesn’t require a mana penalty in order to utilize that flexibility. All of which makes it incredibly versatile.
That lattermost point is particularly key to the Whip’s efficacy, as having any other mana cost in order to activate its +X/+0 effect would immediately dilute its worth as a card. Instead, it keeps things on a traditional 1-for-1 basis, stating that for X mana, the equipped creature gets +X/+0 until end of turn. Like Firebreathing, this can be done multiple times as often as you have the mana and desire to do so, adding some useful leverage while in combat. The cheap Equip cost also means, if desired, it can also work as a rotating Howl, giving you the option of boosting multiple creatures with smaller amounts or one creature substantially. Best of all, the mana activation in both cases is generic, which both frees you from Firebreathing’s Red mana dependency and opens the possibility of using it in all manner of Commander decks.
Just like its predecessors though, Demonspine’s one real drawback is inescapable: it is only useful in tandem with an equipped creature and mana to spare. Some may balk at the idea of having to spend mana every time you want to boost the creature in question, but X not need be an insane number to be useful, as most creature combat is decided within a difference of 1-3 power. Still, if you have the ability to sink substantial amounts of mana into it, especially for a timely block or opportunistic attack, then have at it. There is no right number for X in this case to be useful.
Auras and temporary boosts can be a hard sell in Commander games, but that doesn’t mean that what they offer is inherently bad. Sometimes it just needs a little tweaking to give it the necessary edge to handle a much larger stage. And in this case, it certainly works. Painfully well, even.
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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