Zero vs. Hero: A Case Study of Jank
Not all commanders are created equal. Core Set 2020 birthed both Golos, Tireless Pilgrim, a card so ubiquitous it could conceivably sit at the helm of any deck not built top-down around a legend, and Drakuseth, Maw of Flames, also technically a card. Putative commanders have been coming in hard and fast, with each 2019 set featuring no fewer than eight new legendary creatures eligible to lead decks. With such a constant stream of possible options vying for attention, it's only natural some fall to the wayside as others become widely adopted.
While it's usually pretty safe to correlate popularity with open-ended value or beloved tribe support, as evidenced by the prolonged reign of Brawl-minded powerhouses and Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow, this is not always the case. Every now and then, a legend that's objectively janky manages to catch wind in its sails and gain traction. A prime example is Feather, the Redeemed. She immediately rocketed to the most-played commander slot of both the set she was in and her color pair, managing to have more decks than spots #2-#4 combined in both cases. Yet, judging by her textbox alone, she is pure jank of the highest caliber.
Why was Feather such a runaway success? And why do other janky legends fester in obscurity? To try to get a feel for this question, I'm going to pit Feather against Eutropia the Twice-Favored, a commander who leads to a comparable gameplay experience at a fraction of the recognition.
Gameplay Similarities and Differences
At first glance, Feather and Eutropia are not immediately comparable. One rewards targeted instants/sorceries, the other wants to see enchantments, but they both trigger when the player is firing off spells. This naturally incentivizes running low-cost fuel that can be pumped out en masse for the engine to consume. I have decks built around both of these commanders, and they sport low curves (~2 average CMC), loaded with vaguely impactful one-drop propellant spells like Crimson Wisps and Whip Silk. Once they assemble a critical mass of resources, the decks take a breakthrough turn that sets them up with a massive advantage they hope to drag across the finish line.
While this faux-storm, trigger-heavy setup may be the primary similarity of the pair, there's still a good degree of overlap in the minutiae of their execution. Both support voltron kills, yet also grant the flexibility to pursue other payoffs. For example, Feather can dabble with heroic or flicker, whereas Eutropia can pile counters on other bodies or target opposing creatures in the presence of synergistic hosers. Both draw cards recklessly, ripping through the deck for more kindling to keep the process going. Both are also in kooky colors for what they do. Feather feels like she wants to be blue, while Eutropia is an enchantress deck without white. Furthermore, the faux-storm core conceptually feels Izzet, which bleeds into the odd color ranges even more. Finally, both decks have access to early flying out of the command zone. This lets them run Dowsing Dagger, the only non-land overlap between the two, for ramp.
At the same time, there are still plenty of gameplay traits setting the decks apart. Feather is an explicit engine herself. Eutropia, however, is more of a payoff piece. One is not strictly better than the other, as both decks will likely need to dig for complementary elements of the setup, but these differences matter for deckbuilders. Casting a bunch of spells is better with Young Pyromancer, and enchantments prefer coming down when an Argothian Enchantress is around. Another difference is Feather's lower synergy requirements, which allow her to start circulating repeatable value instants without fears of missing out on payoff later. On the other hand, Eutropia has to be a lot more calculated with when and what she deploys.
Disruption also hurts Feather's engine a lot less. The perpetual recursion of targeted stuff means you should be out at most one spell if the commander gets shot down (unless you lost a massive stack war). Meanwhile, enchantments land and that's that. If an opponent removes a countered-up Eutropia, it will take an entirely new set of synergy spells to get her fat again. That's not to say Eutropia is strictly disadvantaged relative to Feather, as green and blue are generally stronger Commander colors than white or red. She gets better ramp, countermagic, and ridiculous high-end haymaker spells Feather can only dream of (see Blasphemous Act vs. Cyclonic Rift). These are just a few differences pilots need to appreciate when comparing the cards.
The Power of Hype and Novelty
The exact nature of a card's spoiler debut ultimately has little impact on its play rate. The official Magic Facebook profile tossed up Smothering Tithe with a minimal blurb, and look what happened. Nevertheless, Feather made a grand entrance in a Command Zone preview video, benefiting from immediate hype by one of the major Commander content creators. This attention was not undeserved - Boros was consistently berated for being by far the weakest Commander color pair. The colors' mutual appreciation of straight-faced, small creature aggro works fine in conventional constructed settings, but having multiple opponents on 40 life tends to put a major damper on the strategy.
There were plentiful attempts at aggressive, swarm-themed legends in the hopes they'd be enough for a multiplayer pod, but few forays into different territory. Firesong and Sunspeaker incentivized a combination of damage wipes and life sink outlets, but lacked card advantage. Depala, Pilot Exemplar attempted to remedy that, but Dwarves tested poorly and got sidelined, which led to Depala having to pick through little more than a block's worth of chaff for her creature refuels. Feather handled all that while doing something genuinely unique Magic's scope. No other card interacted with targeted spells in the same way, and it was somehow Boros that got to have her. As such, potential pilots got to live out the fantasy of a Boros deck with actual card advantage while exploring hitherto uncharted mechanical territory.
The very next Standard-legal set brought Kykar, Wind's Fury, who handily added the missing blue and packaged up a very good emulation of Feather's strongest setup (Young Pyromancer or other cast token generation plus Phyrexian Altar) right out of the command zone. While technically not intruding on Feather's mechanical niche, the general utility legend bested her in every practical way. In spite of Kykar's technical advantages, Feather retains a sturdy cult following and beats Kykar in EDHREC deck count at the time of writing. For now.
Eutropia's story is the polar opposite. Limited Resources previewed Eutropia to little fanfare, likely as a draft/sealed uncommon. Nothing about her screamed desirable commander. Dispensing a +1/+1 counter and temporary wings is not unheard of in Magic, and doing so off an enchantment entering the battlefield was a common enough occurrence to get a mechanic named after it. She was also obsolete from preview day. Tuvasa the Sunlit already did everything Eutropia wants to do, but better. She gets to have white, doesn't get blown out by spot removal (she'll come back out and still see all the enchantments), and even gets to have a weak enchantress effect for good measure. Technically, Tuvasa responds worse to enchantment wipes and doesn't have baked-in evasion, but those nitpicks are grasping at straws in the grand scheme of things.
Eutropia's Simic colors also didn't help because Simic, unlike Boros, never had stigma in need of repair. Blue-green has plenty of good commanders, and is functional to the point of borderline infamy. Eutropia may have been the first Simic enchantment legend, but she failed to register at all, condemned to being a shadow lieutenant in whatever superior enchantress decks may want her. To top it off, her fellow designated lieutenant Siona, Captain of the Pyleas immediately forced her to play second fiddle due to Siona's flashy interaction with Shielded by Faith. This site's corresponding Commander set review proclaimed poor Eutropia to be the worst new legend in the entirety of Theros Beyond Death, a tragic culmination of all the unglamorous design and eclipsing she's put up with since day one.
Comparing the two legends reveals just how much novelty and preconceptions play into the reception of jankier commanders. Feather and Eutropia both encourage similar styles of deck, but one rode in as a mechanically unique first, a true source of card advantage in its colors. The other did not. This observation is not meant to chastise snap judgments, but rather encourage a more thought-out evaluation if there's anything at all appealing about a commander. I wouldn't have spared Eutropia a second glance if she didn't have the magical word "constellation" on her. As a known sucker for enchantments, I'm glad I did. The purportedly dirt-tier legend led to a surprisingly fun deck that comes pretty close to a revered cult favorite. Go ahead, take a chance on some jank. Maybe chaining together some interesting engine pieces that aren't apparent at first glance will lead to a fun shell as well.