The Often Overlooked Best Ability in Commander
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Some players might tell you that drawing cards is the best ability in Commander. Others will tell you that ramp is the second best and closely followed by giant back-breaking spells. While both of these approaches and visions have their merits, and often decks that lack either tend to fall behind, those are not the best abilities in Commander. The best keyword ability in Commander, often overlooked, is Vigilance.
Vigilance. That one word should be more terrifying than Deathtouch, First Strike, Double Strike, and even Indestructible. The thing with Vigilance is that it takes time to notice just how devastatingly powerful it can be. There are over 500 cards, over 200 of which are rare or mythic rare, that have or grant Vigilance. Vigilance is an overwhelming White ability. I believe this is why it is being overlooked as the most powerful keyword ability in Commander. I want to drill down and look at what makes Vigilance so devastatingly good, and help you to take advantage of this powerful ability.
Vigilance is predominantly found in the Naya colors: Red, Green, and White. While Red and Green both have this ability from time to time, it's usually when the Creature is also White, as in the creature is some sort of multi-colored Creature that's picking up Vigilance as a secondary ability from Green or Red. Either way, I'm not overly upset by Green or Red having access to Vigilance as a secondary keyword—provided it's done sparingly. I say this only because Green and Red enjoy so many advantages and have incredibly powerful Commander cards.
Not convinced Vigilance is so great? Let's look at a very powerful card, Elder Gargaroth, and analyze why it is so darn powerful. What makes Elder Gargaroth so powerful. A 6/6 for five that Tramples and has Reach is honestly just OK for most green decks. The triggered abilities are amazing: draw a card, gain life, or make a Beast. You had me at draw a card (we all know which one we are picking 98% of the time). That's decent and all, but Elder Gargaroth is amazing because it has Vigilance. Being able to be both aggressive and defensive is one of the most powerful options you don't normally get in a game of Magic. Elder Gargaroth triggering on defense also makes it doubly nasty. However, it would only be triggering on defense, or at least mostly so, if it didn't have Vigilance. Being able to crack in on someone, draw a card, and then still be able to block with it is incredible. None of that can happen as efficiently without Vigilance.
Yes, yes, that is all well and good for that one card, but what about all the other cards with Vigilance? Surely, they aren't nearly as good and are not worth considering. No, my friend, you are simply wrong. Vigilance is amazing. Let's take a look at a couple more examples like Serra's Guardian, Realm-Cloaked Giant, and Sun Titan. These three are all relatively large creatures. They each grant you access to other abilities or buffs, and they are all supremely powerful because of that simple key word—Vigilance. Vigilance is the key to breaking the balance of any Commander game. Serra's Guardian is merely a 5/5 flying Vigilance angel for six mana. Except that it also gives every creature you control this ridiculous ability. You don't have to choose between offense and defense. That is gross. With Vigilance, you can crack into any favorable board position, and feel assured that you will have enough chump blockers, or blockers to make combat for your more aggressive opponents an absolute nightmare. Let's look at Realm-Cloaked Giant. It is nice in that you can blow up the non-Giant world, but having a 7/7 that gets to play both offense and defense non-stop is what makes it really gross. Sun Titan is one of the most popular and important staples in the format. Yes, it is efficiently costed, returns fetchlands, and generates value, yet it wouldn't be nearly as good at all if it didn't also play defense so darn well after getting that attack trigger.
Vigilance breaks the balance of play. Seriously, it is by very definition a broken, or rule breaking, ability. When your creatures have Vigilance because of some enchantment like Serra's Blessing or a creature like Angelic Field Marshal, then you are actively cheating one of Magic's most basic systems of balance—combat. Sure, people cheat the system all the time. They routinely break the resource management aspect of the game by drawing extra cards, or not paying mana for their spells. Granted, when you are able to repeatedly break the systems in Magic, then you are on your path to victory. The balance of combat is rooted in attacking Creatures becoming tapped. Blocking Creatures must be untapped, or they are unable to block. Vigilance breaks the penalty for attacking. You can attack with no worries. You can attack and have blockers leftover—you keep ALL the blockers when your entire team has Vigilance. This allows you to beat down future threats without leaving yourself open to some other opponent's sense of justice. That is a broken and powerful ability indeed.
What are some cards or commanders that help you do this sort of thing? How about a really old school one with Johan. If you read it correctly, then you will notice that as long as Johan is not attacking, then you are able to attack with your team without tapping (Vigilance). Johan also happens to be all three colors (Naya) that you would want if you planned on building a combat-breaking Vigilance-themed deck. This ability is something that most players don't notice. Technically, Johan triggers at the beginning of combat and reads, “Johan can't attack this turn” and in return your remaining creatures don't tap to attack this turn. If he skips attacking then everyone else gets pseudo Vigilance until end of turn. It is an interesting and odd way to word it. Overall, it is a rules interpretation that seems interesting, and sadly doesn't play well with cards like Akroma, Vision of Ixidor, or Odric (Johan doesn't technically grant Vigilance). Still, Johan is an interesting and affordable odd-ball choice (the Chronicles version is well under $1).
If you're looking to truly go all-in on this combat breaking ability, then consider picking up and jamming cards like Tayam, Luminous Enigma or the partner pair of scavengers that loves Vigilance: Yannik, Scavenging Sentinel & Nikara Lair Scavenger. When you start running these types of cards, then you start realizing that combat is easy for you and your team. Everyone else starts getting really annoyed at how you can just pick away at life totals and get attacking triggers whenever you like. You don't have to worry about having blockers left over.
Using Creatures with other tap abilities, but that also have Vigilance makes them supremely annoying for your opponents. Stonehewer Giant is a great example. Without Vigilance, Stonehewer Giant would almost never be grabbing an Equipment for itself. Certainly, it would not be grabbing those Equipment during combat. However, with Vigilance, we can declare Stonehewer as an attacker, swing in and then, based on blockers, choose to activate the ability. Likewise, we can choose not to use the ability and then do it right before our turn, all while leaving Stonehewer up as a blocker that could grab anything to help it defend. Osgir, the Reconstructor and Razia, Boros Archangel are both similar in this respect. Powerful cards that also get free attacks whenever we want.
Free attacks are especially powerful when you combine them with cards that eliminate or hamper blocking for your opponents. If you have ways of tapping down blockers or making them moot you are able to really run away with a game. Recently, I had the chance to use Elite Scaleguard and Angelic Field Marshal to completely dominate combats. I had several ways of putting +1/+1 counters on creatures, so my team had Vigilance, tapped down blockers, and sat back during opponent's turns able to block anyone that was foolish enough to attempt an assault. It was gross. It was also only possible because of Vigilance. Tapping down other people's blockers is only so good. Getting in for damage is great, but when you are left wide open, then the crack back can often be more than what you expected. Defense is good, but as the saying goes, “a good offense is the best defense”, but if you can benefit from both, then how can you lose?
If you find yourself often skipping your attack phases because you are overly worried about your opponents cracking back for more than you can comfortably handle, then perhaps it is time you considered using the most powerful keyword in Commander—Vigilance. Consider using Equipment, Creatures, Enchantments, and spells to grant Vigilance to your team. Use Vigilance to augment your armies and crush people without fear of being wide open to their attacks. Now that you know the most powerful keyword in Commander, it is time to use it. When you remain vigilant my friends, you will find that the odds are ever in your favor.