Commander Spotlight: Scholar of Athreos

Welcome back to week fifty of Monday Magic: COVID Edition. It’s been 387 days since my last summoning. Fifty. It’s been over a full year of my Magic-related interim already, and now it’s creeping up on a full year since I altered course on this weekly segment and dropped the pretense that nothing in the outside world was happening on an historic and tragic level – as some areas of the Magicverse and tabletop gaming in general have continued to do. I’m neither business savvy or social media savvy enough to provide a lasting distraction from what was about to become the longest and most challenging years for millions of people. To outwardly recognize that was happening but then drop in to say, “Ok, this week let’s talk about Ikoria and how annoying Lukka is as a character,” felt disingenuous to the larger circumstances. Hence the tonal shift towards a chronicling of the events as they unfolded and a pivot from having specific Magic topics to discuss in favor of a wish list of cards that had often been considered as a discussion point but never made it to the article pile.

Luckily it’s a long and continually fluctuating list.

That being said, to be sitting here crafting them nearly a year after making such a decision is definitely sobering; I had no initial assumptions or expectations as to how long the era of COVID would last, but as we sit on the cusp of an entire year’s worth of Monday Magic articles, I have to confess I never considered the implications of reaching such a milestone either.

I know, I know. Things are, generally speaking, getting better. The vaccination efforts are rolling out en masse across the country. Just within the last week of writing this many within my own game circles – including some of the Magic-playing contingent! – have been able to at least schedule their first shots if not already gotten that first jab. It’s a promising sign across the board that progress is being made even as concerns mount over the country heading into yet another wave of cases. There is a finish line within sight to be reached if we can stay vigilant, both on the macro societal level and the micro level in bringing this sub-series to an end upon playing a physical game of Commander with friends again. Clearly the latter moment has no such bearing on the state of the pandemic, not does moving on from passively covering it mean that it’ll stop being important to, well, everyone. But it will serve as a sign of hope. Even if that sign embodies a group of gaming geeks once again repeatedly reenacting the plot of the Highlander movies with a bunch of expensive cardboard cards. It’ll be good for the series, good for my personal well-being, and good for Magic-based coverage in general.

I’m certainly ready.

But that week is not this week. So we soldier on.

Hence, as has become the standard fare for our COVID-driven interlude series, rather than discuss Magic-related topics or a specific discussion point around the card being showcased, this week we’re carrying on per usual by looking at Magic cards I’ve wanted to put into an EDH deck for some time but haven’t for one reason or another. And the card this time around may need a slight bit of explaining as to why.

Today we have: Scholar of Athreos

Name: Scholar of Athreos

Edition: Theros

Rarity:  Common

Focus: Life Loss / Life Gain

Highlights: Yes, Scholar of Athreos is a Commander-worthy card, despite what amounts to three arguments, both internalized and externalized in player deck behaviors that typically would try to argue against it. Though it may have principally been conceived for Limited drafting, and secondarily with Black / White Cleric tribal decks in mind, the Scholar is a rare-but-laudable example of a card that transcends its unassuming draft fodder inception and ends up being much more worthwhile than it outwardly appears. That is, if you can get over the biases standing against it.

The first and foremost of the three hand-waiving arguments about Scholar of Athreos is: “Why not just use Extort?” On the surface, this is understandable. The only ability this card has states that for 3 mana each opponent loses 1 life and you gain that amount. The Ravnican-based mechanic Extort, which almost exclusively already exists in the same Black / White color sphere, does the exact same effect for just 1 mana – and that mana can be Black or White. Left just to those facts, it would admittedly be hard to justify – though there is a key difference. Extort is an additional cost when casting spells – your only opportunity to siphon life from opponents comes when you are doing something else. While powerful (sometimes frustratingly so), Extort is limited to when you can cast something. The Scholar on the other hand can be activated any time you have 3 mana to spare, and since it doesn’t require tapping can be activated multiple times. This can be incredibly handy on turns when you didn’t actually have something to cast, or at moments, such as later in the game, when you tend to have spare mana lying around at odd moments. Yes, spending 3/6/9 mana for some basic life drain seems expensive in aggregate, but no one says it has to be done in one large chunk. Just like Extort, Scholar of Athreos can be effective at bleeding your opponents 1 life at a time – without needing to cast another spell to trigger it.

Second, and tying into the first, is why take the ‘thousand cuts’ approach when there are more explosive siphon cards that fit into Commander’s splashy aesthetic of giving you a bigger potential payout (i.e. Corrupt, Debt to the Deathless, Exsanguinate, Gray Merchant of Asphodel, etc.). There’s nothing wrong with such cards, but most life siphon cards tend to either be one-time use and best used when you have ample mana or are limited to upkeep triggers or spellcasting. The Scholar, by contrast, allows you to nip away at opponents whenever is the most opportune for you to do so. Taking life piecemeal versus larger chunks also has the added bonus of many players not finding it a problem until the losses really start adding up. If you steal 10 life from each player and gain 40 all at once, it sets off alarm bells and shifts the table politics quickly against you. Bleed them for one point at a time and it takes much longer for players to start noticing there’s a problem. It may be less splashy from an EDH perspective, but the format also favors playing the long game, and this card is certainly set up to aid you in that.

Finally, the third argument made against Scholar tends to fall into an implicit bias that most Commander players have when it comes to deck building: they’re completely stacked with rares and mythics. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate failing, as wonkier, more complex cards, giant creatures, and expensive, powerful spells have a habit of being at higher rarity. EDH is a format with higher life total, more opponents, and much longer play times than normal duels, and so it makes total sense to infuse your massive decks with as many potent cards as possible to help you while still ensuring the deck can actually function. The end result is that the contents of most decks – event preconstructed ones – are inversely proportional to rarity, with lots of rare-heavy decks and few lower rarities to speak of. While commons and uncommons are definitely still used, they tend to either be those that fit a deck’s theme (e.g. creature tribal), fill a basic but functional purpose (mana rocks, land fetch, etc), or are commons from older or other supplemental sets that aren’t as beholden to the modern rarity / power curve formula. Most Commander players as a result tend to skip over commons entirely, be it intentionally or unintentionally. Now and then a newer common card can prove its EDH mettle, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Given the chance, Scholar of Athreos can do just that.

I certainly subscribe to that vantage. The only thing that has stopped me is that I don’t have a current Commander deck with its particular colors. Yet. And given how long it usually takes me to build a deck, I hope that I still don’t have one by the time I can sit down for a game again.

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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