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[Article] So You Want to Build a Commander Deck? (Part 1)

I’d like to extend my hand out to the Rogue community and help ease people into trying out Commander/EDH. To do this I’ve decided to write an introductory guide on deck building in Commander.

I highly recommend the format if you want to try something new and more importantly, fun. If you love building decks as much as I do, that’s reason enough to play Commander! There are hundreds and hundreds of possibilities and its nice being able to have use for those random “One ofs” lying around in your collection. Especially if they’re powerful rares, you only need one of them to go into your deck anyways! This makes Commander a pretty accessible format and even if you don’t have a full playgroup to play multiplayer, grab a friend to join you since 1v1 Commander is perfectly viable!

This will be a multi-part series on Commander deck building. Not sure how many parts, but definitely more than one or two. It won’t be as in-depth as some but that’s because it will be an introductory guide to Commander building as opposed to a fully detailed one. Not everyone has the time (or patience) to read a 5,000+ word guide!

Part 1: Preparations

Deck-building in Commander is, in some ways, more daunting than other constructed formats.

The format allows for almost every set to be legal. This means if you’re starting from scratch there’s quite a few cards to look over! However there are some cards/commanders that are banned which you can look over HERE. The basic rules for the format are also at that link so please look them over if you’re brand new to the format because I won’t be explaining all the basic rules in this guide. I’m going to assume you know them already.

The legality of the cards combined with the fact you use singleton, 100 card decks makes decisions quite tough when building a deck. If you’re like me and you didn’t have the luxury of playing with a lot of the older cards, get ready to do your research!

So where to start?

As with most things in Magic, you can start from many different places. I recommend deciding on an archetype/style of deck you’re interested in making before choosing a commander.

Choosing a play-style/archetype

Similar to the other formats there are the three major archetypes (Aggro, Control, Combo) but there are many sub-themes that go into a commander deck with a lot of them overlapping most of the time. Even the major archetypes will overlap to some degree.

To keep things more concise, there are many strategies which I won’t go over but here’s a summary of the more popular/basic sub-themes people use in commander (keep in mind, due to the amount of cards in Magic, there will always be exceptions):

Tokens – Games go on longer, meaning more time to build up an army. Token decks provide a steady stream of blockers, attackers, or fodder for sacrifice effects such as Grave Pact. Anthem effects are also popular in these decks, since they pump all your tokens.

Graveyard Shenanigans – This can be divided up into multiple themes. Reanimator, Sac and Recur, Dredge.

–     Reanimator decks are all about dumping large creatures into the graveyard and then “cheating” them into the battlefield with lower cost spells such as Reanimate or Exhume.

–     Sac and Recur decks are similar to reanimator decks however they abuse Enter the Battlefield (ETB) and Leave the Battlefield (LTB) effects by sacrificing creatures, returning them, then repeating that over and over whether it’s for extra utility with cards like Sun Titan or for hitting your opponent’s life total (Kokusho, the Evening Star).

–     Dredge decks are already popular in Legacy however commander decks are less dense in terms of dredge cards meaning it’s not usually a core strategy although it can enhance other graveyard based decks with cards like Karador, Ghost Chieftain or Life from the Loam.

Blink/Bounce – These decks are similar to Sac and Recur decks as they abuse ETB/LTB effects. However, rather than bringing things in from the graveyard they use cards to remove permanents briefly from the game and then return them (usually soon after). This is referred to as “Blinking” or “Bouncing” cards. Popular cards for this are things like Flickerwisp and Momentary Blink. Unlike Sac and Recur, Blink/Bounce decks will generally have more white and blue in their lists as opposed to black and green.

Thief/Steal – The name should be self-explanatory. Thievery/Stealy decks involve taking control of your opponent’s permanents (usually creatures) with cards like Switcheroo, Bribery, Enslave, and Threaten.

Voltron – An aggressive strategy that involves suiting up your commander with many artifacts and/or enchantments to deal a quick 21 commander damage to your opponents. Creatures such as Uril, the Miststalker or Thrun, the Last Troll are the kind people use for their commander/target to suit up and will have other creatures supporting them (ie. Stoneforge Mystic). The commander isn’t always the creature you’re equipping though.

Artifacts – Almost all commander decks have some amount of artifacts within their deck but you can build a deck them if you choose, especially with mechanics such as “Metalcraft”. Blue and White are the best colors that synergize with artifacts, however red can work well at times too. Making a deck filled with artifacts makes cards like Sharuum the Hegemon and Master Transmuter much more effective.

Stax/Tax – A very annoying, but effective, strategy that involves either taxing your opponent for anything they do and/or denying resources so you can build up your own. Cards like Smokestack, Sphere of Safety, Death Cloud, and World Queller are good examples of this. Land destruction strategies can fit into these decks as well.

Mill – Even though you have 100 card decks (and usually multiple opponents) to try and mill out it is still a viable strategy in commander. The difference is you’ll usually have to do it as a combo and mill them out in one or two turns as opposed to over the course of the game.

Ramp/Explosive – These decks are all about ramping with cards such as Skyshroud Claim or making explosive plays with cards like Mana Geyser to get large creatures and/or game ending spells in play. Explosive decks tend to be combo decks.

Choosing your Commander/colors

Once you’ve chosen what kind of deck you want to build, it’s time to pick the legendary creature that will lead your deck to victory. Not only will your commander determine which colors are allowed in your deck, they will influence your deck’s construction and what cards to add. It’s important to note that as long as the mana symbols appear on the commander’s card, you can use that color in your deck. Daughter of Autumn for example has no white in her casting cost but since a white symbol appears in her ability you can use white in that deck.

I would suggest a commander with either two or three colors. It gives your deck enough versatility while not being overly complex. Although you can choose a commander just for a certain combination of colors, it’s best to try and include your commander in your overall strategy. Some decks such as Voltron might focus purely on the commander, while other decks may just play out the commander at certain points of the game to interact with specific cards. Regardless of what strategy you choose, you almost always have access to your commander in the command zone so playing him/her should always be a possibility.

Commanders can be quite similar in terms of what archetype they’ll fit in and what kinds of abilities they may have. However, different commanders might influence your deck in different ways. For example, Glissa, the Traitor and Teneb, the Harvester both involve your opponent’s graveyard and are B/G but Glissa is cheaper and more concerned with artifacts; Teneb is more expensive and is focused on your stealing creatures. You can see why I mentioned before that things can overlap and the important thing to remember is you’ll likely have multiple strategies/archetypes in your deck so keep that in mind.The cost of the commander is also something that should be considered; because your commander will likely die at some point, if he/she costs 6+ mana you may only get to cast him/her only 1-3 times in the course of a game. This is assuming you send them back to the command zone each time.

To further help you choose your commander, here is a summary of what major things the different colors offer(again, there are exceptions/overlaps for all of these):

Black
Black contains the majority of removal in the game and is the best color to support graveyard strategies or sacrifice effects. There is a large amount of hand disruption/discard as well and many ways to draw cards. There is also a heavy emphasis on utilizing your own creatures and life total as resources to do other things such as draining opponent’s life or drawing cards. Black also has the best tutors (cards allowing you to search for specific cards in your library) to get pretty much anything from your deck. Popular tribes/themes are Zombies, Vampires, and Demons.

Blue
The main color for any control deck, blue offers straightforward/mass card draw and countermagic as its main attractions. Library manipulation is also quite popular in this color. Stealing opponent’s creatures or copying effects can also be found in this color as well as milling and artifacts are both related to blue.  Popular tribes/themes are Wizards, Merfolk, and Faeries.

White
The go-to color for any defensive strategies, life-gain strategies, or protection spells. White also comes in a very close second in terms of removal for anything with more exile effects than black. This color emphasizes enchantments and it contains not only creature recursion, but enchantment/artifact recursion as well. Similar to blue, flyers are dominant in white and anthem effects are also popular in this color so aggressive weenie or token strategies are supported well here. Popular tribes/themes are Humans/Soldiers, Cats, and Angels.

Green
Hands down the best color for ramping, monsters, and anything creature or land related. Has quite a bit of removal but focused on non-creature permanents. Alongside white and black there is an emphasis on tokens in this color. The best and largest single target pump spells can be found in this color with an emphasis on trample for creature abilities. Popular tribes/themes are Elves and Saprolings/Treefolk.

Red
The most aggressive color that also contains removal focused on lands and artifacts. There are a lot of spells in this color that focus on direct damage (burn) and emphasize haste as one of its creature’s abilities. Red includes one of the best tribes in Magic which is Goblins. Other popular tribes/themes are Dragons, Minotaurs, and Giants/Cyclopes.

There are many legendary creatures out there to use and if you don’t already have one in mind head to gatherer.wizards.com and filter “Legendary”. Click search and have fun browsing!

Now that you’re commander is chosen, in the next part I’ll go over the foundation of a Commander deck and things you should to consider before picking those other 99 cards.

Until next time!

– Michael Y.

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