On first glance, Mercurial Pretender looks like just another Magic the Gathering Core Set rare destined for the bulk bins. Generally, that initial impression would be correct, but it’s also important to consider what this card was meant to do. As clone effects go, Mercurial Pretender is seemingly a bit overcosted at five mana, where as many of the best clones cost four mana or less to cast. But, when you consider that the Pretender is a watered down version of a strong Legendary Creature from Betrayers of Kamigawa, you can better understand what the Wizards of the Coast team was doing with this card.
The card that clearly inspired Mercurial Pretender was Sakashima of a Thousand Faces. He could come into play as a copy of any creature, but would retain his name and remain legendary. But, he could also be put back into his owner’s hand at the end of the turn by paying four mana (two generic and two Blue). Essentially, the best way to play Sakashima was to copy a creature that had a powerful enter-the-battlefield ability, then return him to hand in order to repeat the process. He remains playable in a variety of Commander decks even in 2021.
Mercurial Pretender is in some ways clearly watered down: he costs five mana to cast and can only target a creature you control. The key difference is that while he has the same ability to return to your hand, he can return immediately when you pay for his activated ability. This is best done if your Pretender is targeted by removal, as with how Magic’s ability stack works, you can resolve his effect to return to your hand before the removal spell resolves. Of course, this effect can backfire if you activate the ability to return to hand, but your opponent instead removes it before it can bounce back safely. It’s also notable that the Pretender is a base 0/0 creature, whereas Sakashima is a 3/1 creature in hand or if it loses its abilities somehow. Indeed, this is something that only needs to be considered in some corner cases, but it’s worth pointing out nonetheless.
Because so many better clones exist in Magic, Mercurial Pretender languished as a card which was forgotten and buried in game store bulk boxes and deep within player collections. Ironically, what finally allowed it to see some significant play was a Legendary creature printed in Commander Legends: indeed, a new variation of Sakashima himself. Sakashima of a Thousand Faces is undoubtedly a better card, and while he is only able to clone a creature you control, he has two other abilities that he retains. The first is most important: the “legend rule” doesn’t apply to permanents you control. The second is that he has Partner, meaning he can partner up with another Legendary Creature with Partner so you can have two Commanders.
What does this fancy Partner Commander do for Mercurial Pretender? Suddenly, your five-mana clone that can return to hand becomes a lot more valuable. You also can clone your own legendary creatures without having to sacrifice one to the legend rule. Sure, there are plenty of strong clone effects in Magic, but depending on who you partner Sakashima of a Thousand Faces with, you may not have access to some of the better ones that also require Black, Green, Red, White, or some combination of these other colors of mana. Therefore, Mercurial Pretender sometimes becomes a necessary evil, despite being relatively inefficient and with a bounce ability that can easily be foiled if you’re not careful in how you use it.
The few niche cases in which Mercurial Pretender can be relevant isn’t going to make it a valuable card. But, it’s certainly far less underwhelming given that it does have its spots where it can play an important role. Sakashima of a Thousand Face’s most common Partners, Vial Smasher the Fierce, Krark, the Thumbless, and Kodama of the East Tree, offer enough alternatives in their colors to make Mercurial Pretender redundant. You’d likely have to play this Sakashima as a solo Commander, or have a Partner that’s either Blue or White/Blue, which limits your Clone options. Even so, Mercurial Pretender isn’t even among your best options with those limitations. Still, it’s worth considering especially if you’re trying to build a Commander deck on a strict budget.
There is one other case where Mercurial Pretender has seen play, and that is in Duel Commander. In Animar, Soul of Elements decks, Animar itself can reduce the generic casting costs of your creatures. So, Mercurial Pretender can cost as little as a single Blue mana to cast as a Clone. The few lists we’ve found that actually include it were from several years back, at which points there were fewer options for Clones and many of the better clone effects had not yet been reprinted in supplemental products or reprint sets. It’s not impossible to see the Pretender pop up in an Animar list that’s looking to snowball cheap clone effects, but it’s certainly far from the best option available.
What do you think of Mercurial Pretender? Do you think that it deserves more of a shot in Clone theme Commander decks, or is it simply too underwhelming to bother including even in the most budget of builds?