The Best Commander Cards From... Alpha, Beta, Unlimited

Luka Sharaska • March 7, 2023

Sol Ring by Mark Tedin

Welcome to The Best Commander Cards From..., a series focusing on the most powerful Commander cards printed throughout Magic: the Gathering's rich decades-long history. With tens of thousands of cards printed across the years, we'll be looking at cards from a specific set (or group) and only traditional expansion sets. This means Commander-themed sets, Masters sets, Un- sets, and other premium sets are off the table. I'm doing this to cut down on the number of sets that are either fully illegal in Commander or intentionally designed to be powerful enough for Commander play. You wouldn't be surprised if a preconstructed deck contains a Commander staple, but you might be shocked by what comes out of Mercadian Masques or Arabian Nights.

Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited Edition

Today we're focusing on Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited Edition. Although each of these sets technically has a different name, they were all intended to be the same exact list of cards. This list was called Limited Edition, and the first of which was nicknamed Alpha. Due to an oversight, the already-limited Alpha print-run was missing certain cards, and Beta was created to fix those issues almost as soon as Alpha had sold out. Unlimited was simply an expanded print-run of Beta, which had sold out just as quickly as Alpha. Together, these sets contain some of the most powerful and expensive cards in the game. Let's get into it!

The Power Nine - Mostly Banned

Across the whole of Magic, nine cards from these sets are widely regarded as the most well-known, expensive, and powerful ever created: Black Lotus, Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Timetwister, Mox Sapphire, Mox Ruby, Mox Jet, Mox Pearl, and Mox Emerald make up the Power Nine, and only one of them is legal is Commander. It's pretty easy to see why: most of them are hyper-efficient and break some of the fundamental rules of Magic.

The Moxen and Black Lotus produce mana for free, enabling explosive combos and heavily unbalanced sequences at a multiplayer table. Then there's Ancestral Recall, which is arguably the most efficient card-draw ever printed. Finally, Time Walk is markedly more powerful than any other extra turn spell and with none of the downsides. The only Commander-legal card in the Power Nine is Timetwister, which is a more powerful version of effects like Wheel of Fortune and Windfall and an important part of cEDH. If you want any of these, you'll have to spend a pretty penny. Their presence on the Reserved List means that reprints are highly unlikely, and most cost upwards of $2000.

Animate Dead

This reanimator staple somehow dates all the way back to 1993, and was reprinted in Core Sets until 1997. Since then, Animate Dead only been reprinted in a handful of premium products. Why anyone thought -1/-0 was a major drawback is beyond me, but that's the only downside. If you're building almost any black deck, this card is likely already on your radar. Since creatures are only ever getting better, the potential upside of this card will only ever do the same.


From casual to competitive, almost everyone knows Armageddon. The formula is simple: break parity using mana rocks and mana dorks, then leave your opponents in the dust. Although a few variants of this effect exist, including a functional reprint in Ravages of War, this is still one of the most iconic spells in Magic history. Even today, you can still catch many decks off-guard with a well-timed Armageddon.

The Original Dual Lands

From Taiga to Underground Sea, these lands are the cream of the crop. There simply isn't better mana fixing in formats like Vintage, Legacy, and Commander than these. Although shock lands, like Breeding Pool, are perfectly playable, the superior original duals are only held back by their cost. Due to an error during the printing of Alpha, Volcanic Island was missing, which only contributes to its rarity. All of the duals are sought-after, multi-format all-stars, and are protected by the Reserved List.

Balance - Banned

No card does what Balance does for such a low mana cost, and that is reflected in the fact that it's banned in Commander. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and the lack of card types like enchantment, artifact, and planeswalker on this card would prove to be one of the more problematic aspects of its hyper-efficiency. The purpose of the card is, as the name implies, to bring balance. However, you can break the parity quite easily using the card types mentioned above. Don't believe me? Well, the card is actually banned in Legacy as well, and even restricted in Vintage. If that doesn't show you the power level quite clearly, not much will.

Basalt Monolith

Despite being printed in Alpha, Basalt Monolith remains one of the most consistently reprinted cards across the Commander format. Whether in preconstructed decks, Commander anthology sets, or premium sets, it has mysteriously retained its uncommon rarity. There are many ways to go mana-positive with this card, creating combos with cards like Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy, Zirda, the Dawnwaker, and more.


There's a reason this is sometimes called the green Swords to Plowshares. Although Berserk can be used to push through damage with your own creatures, it can also target your opponents' creatures. This can allow you to deal with an attacking creature an opponent controls and possibly even deal a hefty chunk of damage to another opponent. In mono-green decks, this kind of versatility is rare and prized.

Birds of Paradise

This is the definitive mana-dork, the premier example of high-quality mana ramp in creature form. Despite ample reprints across more than ten Core Sets, Birds of Paradise still demands a price rivaling significantly less common cards. Since this is ramp, fixing, and even a relevant card type for synergistic cards like Beast Whisperer, it will likely remain a mainstay of the Commander format indefinitely.

Red Elemental Blast (And Blue Elemental Blast, I guess)

In a format as dominated by blue as Commander, Red Elemental Blast is a card that's never really blanked. I can count on one hand how many times I've played at a table without any blue in the last several years. Whether you're countering a commander, keeping your own from getting hit with a Counterspellj, or destroying a Rhystic Study, this card will treat you well. Although blue isn't hurting for counters, you can still play Blue Elemental Blast if you're in a red-heavy meta. Just don't blame me if more of them start playing the red version to spite you!

Channel - Banned

Very few cards are as obviously powerful as Channel, especially in a format where you start with 40 life. It's no stretch to say that entire decks would be created around this card if it was legal. With wheel effects, like Wheel of Fortune, and ways to earn back the life you're spending, like Aetherflux Reservoir, I have no doubt that it would be an overtly broken card. It certainly pulls its weight in Cube, where it's usually casting heavyweights like Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, Karn Liberated, or Portal to Phyrexia.

Demonic Tutor

The impact of Demonic Tutor on any format is obvious. It's banned in Legacy, restricted in Vintage, and immensely powerful in Commander. Despite several reprints in recent memory, it still commands a $30+ price tag for its cheapest variant. If your goal is an optimal build of any deck that includes black, this is almost a must-play. Whether you're searching for combo pieces, removal, or even a land, it does what you need at every stage of the game. There's even been fights on this very site over whether it's healthy for the game or the single worst part of the Commander experience.

Fastbond - Banned

Mass card draw, library manipulation, and/or life gain can break this card completely. Fastbond is only legal in Vintage, and for good reason. Cards like Oracle of Mul Daya and Tatyova, Benthic Druid allow you to churn through your deck. Additionally, wheel effects allow you to refuel if you've spent all your lands in hand. In a 40-life format, Fastbond may as well just be a supercharged Burgeoning or Exploration with a very minor downside. Almost any commander in green with built-in card advantage would get a huge and disproportionate boost from this card.

Mana Vault

Most tend to think of Mana Crypt when they think of fast mana, but that card wasn't actually in any of the first Core Sets we're covering today. Mana Vault, on the other hand, has been around since the start. If you're wondering why this card is good, you can think of it like a Dark Ritual you get to save and perhaps use again later. Although it's not as ubiquitous in the format as a few other key artifacts, it still demands a high price as an artifact that makes more mana that it costs.

Sol Ring

Speaking of ubiquitous artifacts, none have had such a dramatic impact on the format as Sol Ring. This card has dozens of printings, is included in most Commander decks, and is widely regarded as one of the most iconic cards in the format. Many have called for it to be banned, but its accessibility, low price, and popularity make such an event seem improbable. I own more than twenty of these, and it won't be long before I have more.


This is a card that looks relatively fair if you haven't played against it. Of course, if you have, you probably know the trick. Like any symmetrical effect, all you need to do is make it one-sided, and suddenly Stasis is by far one of the most frustrating cards to see. I'd stay away from this one unless you want to elicit a groan from the other players.

Swords to Plowshares

If you're playing white, this is inarguably one of the most efficient creature removal spells in the format. Few one-mana removal spells have so few timing restrictions, and fewer still exile instead of destroy. The downside of Swords to Plowshares is negligible most of the time, as the tempo one loses from having a creature exiled often outweighs the life gained. Look no further than its dozens of printings, each of which still cost at least $1, to see its popularity.

Time Vault - Banned

It is laughably easy to untap Time Vault, and so the card is pretty obviously banned. Additionally, it's banned in Legacy and even restricted to a single copy in Vintage. Aside from the fact that you can play commanders like Derevi, Empyrial Tactician that grant access to artifact tutors and enable free untaps, there are dozens of cards that easily untap Time Vault across the history of Magic.

Wheel of Fortune

The power level of Wheel of Fortune tends to creep up on you. While it doesn't look too different from any other wheel effect, it's only somewhat worse than Timetwister. For this reason, it's banned in Legacy and restricted in Vintage as well. If you have fast mana and cheap spells, this is a great way to refill your hand and possibly mess with the hands of your opponents.

Winter Orb

There was a time when this card merely slowed down the game to a snail's pace. Those days are gone, thanks to cards like Urza, Lord High Artificer that make it completely one-sided. If you have any way to consistently manipulate this card, you're going to create real problems for everyone else at the table. There's a reason that Winter Orb is consistently rated one of the most salt-inducing cards in the format.

That's All, Folks

While there's some other cards from AlphaBeta, and Unlimited that are indeed strong, there's just too many to list! As you can imagine, consistency in power level wasn't something that they had years of experience fine-tuning just yet. Did any of these cards look like the perfect fit for your deck? Perhaps you're already playing one or two. There's dozens of other sets we'll cover in the future, but for now, I'm Luka "Robot" Sharaska, and I'll catch you next time.

Luka "Robot" Sharaska has been playing Magic for more than a decade, since the days of New Phyrexia. They've been captivated since that day. They earned the nickname "Robot" with their monotone voice, affinity for calculating odds, and worrying lack of sleep.