Cruel Ultimatum – Shards of Alara
Date Reviewed: April 28, 2022
Commander [EDH]: 3.17
Ratings are based on a 1 to 5 scale. 1 is bad. 3 is average. 5 is great.
It’s interesting how things evolve in Magic, even in broadly similar decks. For example, Cruel Ultimatum was once considered a tournament-quality finisher for control decks in Standard. It doesn’t literally attack for lethal, but the effects – and the swing in resources it generates – are so large that an opponent is often functionally defeated once it resolves. There are some situations where an opponent could theoretically fight back (like if they somehow had ten cards in hand when you cast it), but they come up so rarely that it can almost be disregarded, especially since it was played in decks designed to run the opponent out of resources.
That still works now, but more at casual tables. There are current tournament decks that operate on the same principle, of course, but Modern is much faster than this card wants, and many other decks operate with cards that generate swings in advantage repeatedly (ie. planeswalkers, creatures with certain kinds of abilities). Part of me still finds it crazy that there could ever be a context where Cruel Ultimatum has a downside, or that it’s “only one time”; I guess that’s more fodder for the argument that this is actually the bizarro twisted mirror universe. Still, you won’t be disappointed with this card in casual metagames – it feels downright unfair when it goes right.
Commander [EDH]: 3/5
Way back in Shards of Alara, the first explicitly three-color set, the Ultimatum cycle represented big and impressive effects for a heavy, color-intensive mana cost. Cruel Ultimatum is appropriately named, as seven mana gets you way more than that in terms of return. It might be surprising to hear that this was a big deal back in its time, both for foretelling the return of the most Evil of all dragons in Conflux and just for its sheer devastation it wrought. If you get to the 7 mana, they’re going to feel it, and control decks of the era certainly could pull that off. Its influence led it to be in From the Vault: Twenty as its year’s representative, which is impressive when you consider all the other cards from Shards of Alara that could have merited a spot.
Of course, the devil is always in the details. Seven mana is a massive investment, and seven particularly colored mana is even more so. You break an opponent’s proverbial back if you cast this and it gets through, but the demands to cast this spell are certainly remarkable. All the same, this is certainly a spell that’ll give you more value than you can shake a stick at…if you can live long enough to cast it.
Constructed: 2.5 (it’s way too hard to cast in Modern)
Limited: 3.5 (the issue is getting to those particular colors of mana; Alara and Modern Masters 2017 were light on useful color-fixing, and so you have to put in a lot of effort to even drop this on someone)
Commander [EDH]: 3.5
Very expensive and specific color fixing is needed to cast this card but when it goes off it can turn the tide of the game to your favor or set you up for the win if you’re in the lead. Flavor wise it is a very Bolas specific card with each of the abilities focused in one of it’s color spaces, it just needs to be in the right deck to capitalize on it’s high expense.
In commander this is easier to cast since the games go longer and the access to utility artifacts, it is less impactful than in constructed because it will only impact one of your opponents and not the table (that would be bah-roken). It’s still good because it can help you come back if you’re behind but it’s not the game warping card that you might need for the high cost.
Commander [EDH]: 3/5
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