Commander Spotlight: Savage Knuckleblade

There is a truism about Magic: the Gathering that most new players inevitably come to grips with, a fact which seems completely baffling at first but then becomes grudgingly understandable thereafter:

Not every card is designed to be the best at what it does.

Yes, the game intentionally makes less optimal cards. On purpose. Which, devoid of context, does seem pretty weird on its own. After all, in a game designed to entice people to stay with it for years on end, wouldn’t you want to continually be making better versions of older cards?

The answer is, as expected, no. The notion of power creep – that individual cards and the card pool overall are continually pushed to be better and better – is a very real concern that Magic’s developers contend with, and though it’s practically impossible to prevent entirely, they try their very hardest to keep that crawl to a minimum. The primary reason being that power creep would inevitably lead itself to cards so powerful as to never need to play anything else and would invariably end up unraveling the game itself. It is an endpoint a CCG never wants to actually reach. Therefore dragging that influence out as long as possible is in the game’s, and therefore its players’, best interest.

That, coupled with the needs of the ever-fluctuating Standard and Limited scenes ultimately means that the game will make card variations that are inherently worse off than those in the past. R&D isn’t focused so much on comparing card strength to every iteration that’s ever been done before but rather the currently released game meta and the meta just on the horizon.

Nevertheless, that realization can be a frustrating thing to initially process.

What’s more is that this sensation isn’t felt equally across all card types. Because they make up a smaller percentage of their overall colors and overall breakdown of cards in the sets, sorceries, enchantments, planeswalkers, and nonbasic lands don’t change all that much. The same can usually be said of artifacts, though some artifact based settings such as Mirrodin or Kaladesh have made rapid leaps forward in power content before. Instants fluctuate a little more in their usefulness over time, but they have certainly gotten more potent over the years on average, especially on the lower rarity levels.

But it is creatures where this ebb and flow of power is felt the most.

When the game was young, creatures stood out for two reasons. For one, creatures by and large weren’t as strong as many spells out there. For every Shivan Dragon, there were 10 largely ineffective, largely forgettable creatures beneath it. Which led most of us during this era to build decks that had a lot fewer creatures percentage-wise than a typical deck of the modern age. Ergo, when creatures were cast, it generally was good to know what was hitting the board. Especially if they were among the heavier hitters.

Second, back then a creature’s potency was even more tied to its casting cost than it is now. While it has been true for a long, long time that there is a correlation between casting cost and power level, this was especially true during the first few years of the game’s lifespan. There were a number of notable duds (particularly from the Legends set) as exceptions, but for the most part, if you were casting a creature of CMC 6 or higher during this era, you were getting something worthwhile out of your investment. Six was seen as the bulwark between an ok creature and a dangerous one. Six got you access to cards like Force of Nature, Lord of the Pit, the elder dragons, Nightmare, and when Ice Age rolled around, the massive Polar Kraken itself.

Which is why cards that pushed this six cost barrier such as Serra Angel and the super popular (and expensive) Juzam Djinn were so dangerous.

Most of these are quaint by today’s standards, but back then, between the lower frequency of appearance and their higher casting costs, creatures tended to make a bit more of a statement entering the battlefield than they do now, where they are seen as the workhorses of the game. It’s also why when you hear some of us old timers complain about the power level of creatures now and then, the boilerplate answer by Wizards is that they haven’t made creatures more powerful than spells; they’ve just made them equal. (An argument I only 2/3 agree with, but that’s another topic for another day.)

As the game has evolved, however, it’s undeniable that creature efficacy has gone way, way up, and most creatures above common easily provide a usefulness worthy of their casting cost. Yet even now the game does like to poke and prod at their standard creation formulas to make creatures stand out a bit for one reason or another. Sometimes this is to make a really splashy mythic, or to make a particular card useful for the tournament scene. And sometimes it’s just because the circumstances allow for it.

Circumstances like a multicolor focused set. Circumstances that in turn bring us to this week’s pick.

Today we have: Savage Knuckleblade

Name: Savage Knuckleblade

Edition: Khans of Tarkir

Rarity: Rare

Focus: Creature Efficiency

Highlights: Savage Knuckleblade is part of a long and worthwhile tradition of creatures with a power and toughness of 4 or 5 being released with a casting cost of just three mana, but traditionally those cards would come with some kind of additional drawback such as only lasting for a turn, or needing to sacrifice something else. As part of the multicolor-friendly Tarkir block, the Knuckleblade emerged as a card that had no such drawback, allowing you to drop a rather dangerous creature onto the battlefield cheaply, be it for an early game strike or as part of a quick rebuild after a board reset.

In fact, not only does the Knuckleblade not have a drawback effect, it brings with it a trio of abilities that make it potentially even more scary. At the onset, it is a 4/4 creature for three mana, which is already above the normal curve. For one additional mana, it can enter with haste. This is less important in EDH games compared to duels since early game strikes are less relevant, but it does make casting it during later on more useful when you’ll likely have more mana at your disposal and quick damage may be more essential to your situation.

Second, and on that same thought, is the creature’s first ability, which for three mana will boost it into a 6/6 creature for the turn. Although a 4/4 is still respectable in its own right, being able to invest three mana into a combat to boost its size even more can often be quite handy in quite a few scenarios.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, is that the Savage Knuckleblade comes with a built-in protection ability, allowing you to bounce itself to your hand for three mana. In Commander settings this is highly useful, not only in that you’re more likely to have three mana to bounce it when the need arises, but if you keep that mana available you end up with a cheaply cast creature that is especially hard to get rid of. And more ammunition in dragged out fights is always better.

With all that said, this fierce ogre does have two limitations. First, its tricolor nature significantly limits the decks it’s able to go into. And second, for all of its usefulness, Savage Knuckleblade is…sort of a stapled together creature. Its effects don’t particularly overlap beyond having the mana to heavily buff it out in a single turn, and that makes it hard to stand out as all that memorable. Which makes it get easily overlooked when searching for effective creatures to consider during your deck build.

Of course, as circumstances also have it, overlooked cards is kind of what this is all about here.

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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