Illusions of Grandeur is one of the more interesting cards on Magic the Gathering’s Reserved List that will never again be reprinted. Not only is it one of the best combo pieces of all time, and saw play in top competitive play as recently as 2003, it’s also one of the more memorable cards from my early days of playing the Commander format. Recently, I decided to finally add a copy of this Ice Age rare to my collection, not so much as an investment, but as a piece of Magic the Gathering history I feel it necessary to own.
Most of the time when people say someone has “illusions of grandeur,” they really mean “delusions of grandeur,” except when people are actually referring to the Magic the Gathering card from 1995. When it was first printed, it wasn’t necessarily a “good” card, but it wasn’t horrible, either. For four mana, this Blue enchantment gives you a whopping 20 life when it enters play. Who wouldn’t play this card to literally double your starting life total, right?
There are two catches, however. First of all, it has cumulative upkeep, meaning that each turn, you must pay an additional two colorless mana to keep it in play. So, on the turn after playing it, you must pay two generic mana or sacrifice it. On the next turn, that upkeep cost increases to four generic mana, then six, then eight, and so on. This doesn’t seem all too bad, until you realize that as soon as this card leaves play, you lose 20 life.
So, why would you play this, outside of the occasional case where gaining that 20 life gives you another turn or two to win the game? For the longest time, that’s pretty much all you would do with it. However, in 1999, there would be a card printed in Urza’s Destiny, called Donate, which would become another Reserved List card itself, that would change the usefulness of Illusions of Grandeur for good. Donate is a three-mana Blue sorcery that gives control of a permanent you control to an opponent. If you Donate an Illusions of Grandeur to your opponent, chances are you’re going to win that game within just a few turns.
The Tournament Winning Heyday of the Illusions of Grandeur Combo
This Donate and Illusions of Grandeur combo was so extremely powerful that top players built entire decks around casting this combo as their win condition. One such “Trix” deck was championed by Scott McCord at Grand Prix Philadelphia in 2000, where he finished 3rd. A similar Blue/Black/Red Trix deck was piloted by Tsuyoshi Ikedia to a Top 8 finish in Grand Prix Kuala Lampur also in 2000. This deck was all in on the Illusions of Grandeur and Donate combo plan, using Mana Vault and Dark Ritual to ramp up mana quickly, then using Demonic Consultation, Necropotence, and Vampiric Tutor to search up the two necessary combo pieces. The player of the combo didn’t worry about life loss, as they would gain 20 life before passing the Enchantment on, anyway. As soon as the deed was done, the deck played Force of Will, Contagion, and Hoodwink to buy the necessary time to win the game from the eventual cumulative upkeep from Illusions of Grandeur got the best of the opponent.
The Illusions of Grandeur combo deck would continue to see play in Magic’s Extended format, and legendary Magic player Kai Budde would even win Grand Prix New Orleans in 2001 with an updated version of Trix. Budde would play essentially this same version of Trix in 2003, as well, although this time the deck didn’t make the Top 8. This Blue-Red Trix deck played Merchant Scroll to select useful instants from the deck to stall the opponent until the Illusions of Grandeur and Donate combo could be successfully set up and deployed. The options included Counterspell, Fire // Ice, and Capsize, plus other options that could be brought in from the sideboard depending on the match-up. There was plenty of card selection and draw in the deck, including Accumulated Knowledge, Brainstorm, and Intuition. This deck wasn’t quite as good as the 2000 version, thanks to many of those cards no longer being legal in the Extended format.
The Revival of Illusions of Grandeur in EDH / Commander
After the deck began to fade in relevance once Budde failed to Top 8 with the Red/Blue Trix deck in 2003, Illusions of Grandeur fell into obscurity. Occasionally, the Enchantment would still crop up in the odd deck, but it remained a pet card for many years to those who still longed for the once mighty win condition to become relevant again. It would take until 2011 and a relatively new casual format known as Elder Dragon Highlander being adopted by Wizards of the Coast by the Commander moniker, but the Donate & Illusions of Grandeur combo would not only once again become relevant, but actually gain a new ally for their cause.
Zedruu the Greathearted was an instant hit as soon as the Political Puppets pre-constructed Commander deck hit store shelves. At the time, I’d quit playing Standard due to the Splinter Twin combo making the game un-fun for me. I picked up a copy of the Animar, Soul of Elements deck and one of my first opponents with that deck was the Minotaur Monk herself.
Zedruu is a lot of fun to play for several reasons. She literally has the ability of Donate printed right onto her as an activated ability, costing just three mana (one Blue, one Red, and White mana). Right away, people dug up copies of Illusions of Grandeur and Donate and slammed them right into the deck. (There’s also Delusions of Mediocrity from Urza’s Legacy / 7th edition that’s just a worse version, gaining 10 and losing 10 instead of 20.) Of course, Commander is typically a multiplayer format, although people played one-versus-one even in 2011. So, you couldn’t win with Illusions of Grandeur on its own, especially as Commander players start with 40 life rather than 20, but suddenly it was a key piece in what was shaping up to be one of the best commanders of the early official Commander format.
But, what makes Zedruu the Greathearted so powerful has to do with her main ability. At the beginning of your upkeep you draw X cards and gain X life, where X is the number of permanents you own that your opponents control. The initial idea of Political Puppets was to hand over permanents to opponents in order to gain their favor to team up against one or more players. Politics are a huge part of Commander gameplay, and Zedruu was the ultimate political commander. Before long, though, people realized the mean things you can do with Zedruu’s Donate ability, intentionally playing cards with significant downsides to hamper opponents while gaining card draw and life gain in return.
Over the years, the Donate strategy with Zedruu has become more powerful than ever, as more cards with powerful effects but huge downsides continue to be printed. Nine Lives is a good example of this, functioning similarly to Illusions of Grandeur, but actually losing its controller the game. (Heck, Nine Lives and Harmless Offering saw play as a fringe competitive combo deck in Magic Arena’s Historic format for a bit.) More ways to donate cards to your opponents kept being printed, too, with Bazaar Trader from Worldwake and Harmless Offering in Eldritch Moon.
While Zedruu the Greathearted has fallen a bit in popularity over the years, just missing the Top 100 Commanders of the format starting in 2022, she still has her fans. Part of this is due to there simply being so many more options to be your Commander. I’ll never forget my first experience with the Commander format, though, watching someone get destroyed by an Illusions of Grandeur when they were already below 20 life.
Illusions of Grandeur Combo in 2022
While Illusions of Grandeur is still played in about half of all Zedruu the Greathearted decks scraped by the EDHREC algorithm, it’s not the only deck in which it sees play. There’s a much more recent Legendary Creature that makes use of Illusions of Grandeur, a Jumpstart Djinn called Inniaz, the Gale Force. While not especially popular, the “flying tribal” Commander has a curious ability: whenever you have three or more creatures with flying attack, each player gains control of a nonland permanent of your choice controlled by the player to their right.
There’s a significant difference with the Inniaz decks that play Illusions of Grandeur, though, as it’s not at all a deck concerned with donating its own cards in particular. The chaos of spinning permanents around the board is fun, but the combo piece here is actually Transcendence. This Torment rare Enchantment is quite a bit tricky to play with, but it’s perfect for Inniaz. The six-mana White enchantment has three parts: you don’t lose the game for having 0 or less life, but when you have 20 or more life, you lose the game, and whenever you lose life, you instead gain 2 life for each 1 life you lost.
It requires some set-up, but it’s possible to pass around Illusions of Grandeur and Transcendence to the point where you can take out one or more players with this very bizarre combo. Is it a good combo? Considering that only about 7 percent of all Inniaz decks even play Transcendence, probably not. Yet, over 20 percent of Inniaz decks play Illusions of Grandeur, so you could argue people should give the awkward six mana card a chance. Notably, Transcendence also sees play in some Zedruu decks, obviously for the same reason. In fact, if an Illusions of Grandeur combo is going to take out any players in 2022 Magic, it would likely be because Transcendence comes in to finish the job!
Another Commander who may end up adopting Illusions of Grandeur is Yarok, the Desecrator, whose ability duplicates enter the battlefield abilities. The idea of a Yarok deck playing this historic enchantment is actually pretty tempting, and despite people mentioning that they may include it, I’m yet to find lists actually playing said card. There are several Blue cards that donate permanents other than Donate, but most of them only target creatures and artifacts.
Also, it can’t be overlooked that Paradox Haze, an Enchantment which gives the enchanted player an additional upkeep step each turn, works well with stacking cumulative upkeep costs on an unsuspecting player. Zedruu players have been playing this enchantment for years, but it’s recently found some new homes with Commanders who benefit from extra upkeep steps themselves. Unfortunately, the main Commander playing Paradox Haze in 2022 is the popular new Curse Commander, Lynde, Cheerful Tormentor.
Paradox Haze is one of the key cards for Lynde, because you obviously want to play this on yourself so that Lynde can attach an additional Curse to an opponent. That’s because when Lynde brings a Curse enchantment back into play, it starts out attached to you. Still, because who controls the Curse in play doesn’t matter so much, it really doesn’t make sense for a build of Lynde that donates permanents. However, there is a creature in many Lynde decks that could make Illusions of Grandeur at least a possibility.
It’s unfortunate that this creature, and probably the most fun Donate-style Commander, is Blim, Comedic Genius, who’s Red and Black, and could never dream of playing a Blue Enchantment like Illusions of Grandeur. Blim can make everybody lose a lot of life and cards in a hurry, and while it’s not a play style for everyone, people do have fun with him. However, Blim does see play in Lynde, Cheerful Tormentor decks. It’s just hard to see packing in an Illusions of Grandeur sub-theme in a deck that takes additional up-keeps for its own benefit.
For now, it seems like Illusions of Grandeur will only see play in Zedruu the Greathearted decks, as well as the odd Inniaz deck, for the foreseeable future. There just hasn’t been another Commander yet who can play the classic enchantment to the fullest. Of course, that could change at any time, as Magic isn’t slowing down on printing exciting new Legendary Creatures with some far-reaching effects on the vast card pool available. It will remain a target for serious Magic the Gathering Reserved List collectors, and no matter what its future, Illusions of Grandeur will remain one of the most important cards in competitive Magic history.