Commander Spotlight: Nephalia Academy

Welcome back to week thirty of Monday Magic: COVID Edition. It has been a whopping 247 days since my last summoning, which has reached a point where that last game feels like yesterday. Not because time has remotely flown by or that recent events have reminded me wistfully of past events exactly, but instead because we have long since reached the point in 2020 when time has no meaning. When an entire calendar year exists both as a single, endless nightmarish day and an entire decade all at once. 2020 is a mobius strip of fatigue, failures, and frustration. It is Schrödinger’s Year, with the events transpiring both taking place within and outside of normal time as we know it, with no real way to determine when it will reach a fixed conclusion.

Which, given the current skyrocketing caseload – again – in the US and the sheer abdication of the federal government to do anything about it – again – things unfortunately are likely only to get worse before they get better. Preliminary vaccine reports are showing promise and are on the horizon. An already more competent administration is due to take over in 8 weeks. And many states are once again taking it upon themselves to provide guidance in the meantime. (Many is far from all, however.) In the meantime, we must continue to steel ourselves against a pandemic that has upended every facet of our lives, silenced more than a quarter million, and whose numbers only continue to be going in the wrong direction.

It also means, on a more mundane level that, yes, it’s probably going to be a little while longer before regular Commander sessions in person are going to resume around these parts.

And by little I mean it could be a few weeks. Or another year. Who knows?? 2020 is like an episode of The Twilight Zone, except the subject of the story still hasn’t gotten their comeuppance and we’re all stuck on one of those endless background loops.

So endure we shall. Wait we must. And make the best of it we can. Therefore, the COVID-based article focuses continue, where rather than dive into something particularly Magic-community focused or take a specific topic and tie that into championing a particular Commander-friendly card, I instead continue with a look at specific Magic cards that I’ve personally wanted to put into an EDH deck for quite some time but haven’t for one reason or another.

In the case of this week’s pick, that reason came down to an issue of desire versus necessity. Plus a story.

Today we have: Nephalia Academy

Name: Nephalia Academy

Edition: Eldritch Moon

Rarity: Uncommon

Focus: Hand Manipulation

Highlights: Low costing but situationally useful Artifacts have been a staple of the game since its very beginning. In the early days, when the available card pool was smaller and options more limited, it was much easier to justify such cards in your deck. In time, however, the game became more refined and in the views of many, streamlining was key to a successful deck build. (The 60 card “requirement” for casual and multiplayer builds is something I’ve railed against adhering to for decades now, but that’s another topic for another day.)

To continue making those card effects available as the game evolved, sometimes they would be recycled into more advantageous packages, either by including it along with other card abilities or by changing its permanent type to make it easier to use. In the era of EDH particularly, this has led to more than a few instances of a card effect moving over on to non-basic lands. One of the best examples of this is having no maximum hand size. Until the advent of Reliquary Tower, your options for having that ability were incredibly limited, and for many years revolved around using one of two cards: Spellbook or Library of Leng.

Library of Leng is less heard of nowadays by Magic denizens, but it was used quite frequently during its tenure. I was one of them. Yet though I always found the hand size cap removal to be helpful in certain occasions, I actually tended to use it more for its second and less renowned ability: disrupting discard decks.

It is the Library itself that brings us to talk about Nephalia Academy. But it’s also particularly memorable from a personal perspective.

See, over the first few years of my Magic career, there wasn’t the instant access to current card errata that there is now. The internet was still a nascent thing, which meant that you either needed to keep apprised of official changes by way of magazines, a handful of websites that tracked changes (CrystalKeep anyone?), or through subsequent printings. As a result, among my friends and siblings, most of the time when playing we based our interpretations of a card’s interactions almost exclusively on the text as printed. On the one hand, this typically kept things simple from a rules confusion angle. On the other hand, it also meant sometimes we got things drastically wrong – as you do. It also meant that we treated the same card with different text wordings as behaving two different ways. The most famous example in our households was Cursed Land, a mild land Aura by today’s standards that does 1 damage to you during your upkeep. Except, the way it was worded from Alpha through Unlimited, it was easy to interpret as dealing you 1 damage during each upkeep. Because of that my step-brother went out of his way to get Beta or Unlimited versions of the card for his Black Swampwalk / Vampire deck to take advantage of that fact.

At the other end was me, who refused to use 5th Edition versions of Library of Leng because it removed the line stating that if the discard was random you could still choose where it goes. I understand now that this is implied and is therefore extraneous text, but 13 year old me wouldn’t have wanted to take the chance.

All of which brings us back to Nephalia Academy, which has transposed the Library’s anti-discard effect onto a land. In addition to tapping for colorless mana, the Academy fittingly absorbed the Library, stating that if an opponent forces you to discard a card, you can choose to put it on the top of your library instead. While this isn’t necessarily the best move if someone makes you discard your entire hand – a common EDH occurrence with ‘windmill’ cards for instance (Windfall, Wheel of Fortune, etc.) – it can still be quite helpful in cases where you may want to hold on to a card or two for some key offensive or defensive purposes. By being able to put it back onto the library, it ensures you’ll be able to draw it again at your next opportunity. This can admittedly set you back draw-wise without the means to draw additional cards, but depending on the circumstances or the card(s) in question, retaining a card or two may be more than worth the temporary setback.

Arguably, Nephala Academy is a better option than the Library because its effect is so situational in multiplayer games, even in Commander. Unless your meta has someone who specifically uses a lot of mass discard cards, there’s no guarantee it will come up frequently, so it’s handy to simply have it sitting there on a land as a ‘just in case’ rider and not taking up an important card slot.

For most monocolored or dual colored decks, it can easily be included with little to no issue.

Ironically, it is the fact that this land only generates colorless mana that marks the reason I haven’t been able to include this card myself just yet. In the last three decks constructed before The Great Magic Pause of 2020, two of them were tricolored decks and I needed to limit the number of colorless-generating lands for balancing purposes. The third was a two color deck but was incredibly color-heavy and I avoided almost all lands that didn’t produce one of the necessary colors for the same reason.

Still, don’t let my deck building choices sidelining this card give the impression that you should as well. It’s an easy to include card in most decks, and if you feel it’s even remotely useful against one of your Magic cohort, it’s a pretty painless addition.

And really, we could all benefit from having more painless choices these days.

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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