A Quick Guide To Building Budget Commander Decks

The Godfather of Commander lays down the law: Commander is only as expensive as you want it to be! Get his insights into the cards that make it cool to be cheap!

One of the commentaries we sometimes hear about Commander is that it’s a necessarily expensive format.

I’m here to reject that notion.

While there’s some truth that it can get pretty pricey—especially once you get into seriously pimping out your deck with foils, Guru lands, exclusive Judge promos, and the like—it doesn’t have to be the case if you don’t want it to be. I’m not going to pretend that Commander is a pauper format or anything, but due to its very nature, you can get along quite nicely on a shoestring if you want (or have) to. I’m going to discuss why that’s the case and then offer some ideas on how to get by on a shoestring if you want to.

A measure of fiscal conservatism is built right into the format’s DNA. One of our banning criteria is called Perceived Barrier to Entry. At the first EDH Challenge at the Magic World Championships 2004 in San Francisco, former fellow SCG columnist Peter Jahn played with some Moxen and the like. It wasn’t so much about Mox/Mox/Mox/Balance as spectators commenting on the fact that it seemed like people needed Moxen to play. Early on, we decided to quash that idea. We figured that the fewer people we kept away from our burgeoning little project, the better. There was already plenty to be excited about, so putting up walls didn’t seem like a good idea—and it still doesn’t.

We’d like the format to be welcoming, especially to the player who wants a different kind of Magic experience. We knew in short order that we definitely didn’t want the format to become Alt-Vintage (and still don’t), which is why the Perceived Barrier to Entry idea still exists. We’ve gone on record over the last few years saying that we’re unlikely to invoke PBtE in the future—but that’s mostly due to the availability of cards in the contemporary era. There really aren’t recently printed cards which suffer from there not being enough of (in addition to doing broken stuff). Even if cards commonly associated with this criterion were to become readily available and come down in price, it’s unlikely that we’d unban them—since, once again, Vintage already exists. We’d like it to be what it is on its own terms, just like we are.

As a side note, I’ll mention that a decade or more ago, folks were calling Commander (well, its name back then, Elder Dragon Highlander or EDH) “the dollar rare format.” People started scouring trade binders for the kinds of things that no one wanted to play in other formats, like Time Stretch. If it costs ten mana and half a dollar, it was a viable card.

Sure, there’s an argument to use Perceived Barrier to Entry for all super-expensive cards, but that can be a path to difficulty. Banning a card simply for its cost means we’d need to dedicate someone to watching the secondary market all the time. Creating a simple cost threshold won’t work because cards that are near the threshold and constantly going over and under would be nightmarish not just for us, but for players. “Wait? I thought Bazaar of Baghdad was banned?” “Nope, it dipped under [whatever the dollar figure is] for the last three months, so they had to bring it back.”

Additionally, there are expensive cards which don’t have the same iconic status that the Power 9 might. The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale might be worth a month’s rent, but Commander players aren’t clamoring to put it into their decks. It’s not the kind of card which everyone feels the need to play or else they can’t compete—which leads to my next point.

Swords Down

You don’t need to compete.

Unlike every other Magic format, Commander is built around being the anti-tournament format. This is not to say that there aren’t Commander tournaments, and if folks want to play competitively, we wish them the best of luck—it’s simply not the focus of the format. Yes, if you’d like to compete, you’ll probably want the most broken deck possible, but that’s not the direction we look. It’s not my intention to start the casual/competitive debate here, although I’m sure there are some folks who will want to weigh in, which is okay. Our hallmarks of victory are different. We want to promote—both through the use of the banned list and other social factors—games which are at their heart enjoyable, in which anything can (and often does) happen.

Commander is the format that embraces something other than the objectively best deck—we wrap our arms around every theme, whether that theme is tribal, the initials of your significant other, or the deck based on a favorite piece of literature, like Lark Ballinger’s Battle of Arrakeen. We’ve sculpted the format around being able to play what you want, so feel free to indulge your inner artist and come up with decks that feature the Magic storyline equivalents of the characters of your favorite TV show or ways to turn all permanents green every turn. Because we actively embrace this chaos, we attract people who enjoy the same style of game, so you’re more likely to find like-minded people hanging around the Commander tables than you might at the PPTQ or playing Day 2 of a Grand Prix. As a friend of mine who was in the car business says, “There’s a seat for every butt.”

Not having to compete means you can use cards which might not be quite as good as others but are easier on the wallet. If you don’t want to lay out the cash for Demonic Tutor, its slightly more mana-intensive cousin Diabolic Tutor is available. If you’re not worried about having to combo out on Turn 2 before anyone else does, the two extra mana isn’t that much of a difference; you’ll still get done what you’re aiming to get done.

One of the beauties of Commander being an Eternal format is that you can slowly build, update, and improve your deck over time. Even if you want some expensive cards in your deck, you don’t have to run out and get them all at once; you can, well, budget for them. A birthday present here, a few dollars saved there, and you can over time acquire all the goodies you might want.

Of course, we’re still playing a game, and even if our primary goal is for it to simply be fun, each of us also wants to win our fair share. If epic things happen, we don’t mind if we lose—but we mind a great deal if we’re never really a factor in the game. We certainly don’t need to spend thousands to get there, though. I’ve featured a few budget decks over the years, none more memorable than that of former Armada Games regular and now self-avowed “professional lucker” John Bolt. Even though it’s been more than six years since we showed off the goods, you can still see the quality of the build. John demonstrated that you can be relevant in the game, win your fair share, and have a great time without necessarily emptying your piggy bank. So how might we go about finding the right wallet-friendly cards without resorting to Pauper or Peasant formats? Let’s take a look.

Budget Tips

The first thing (obviously) is to look at prices. On this very website, we have excellent search tools for pulling up cards by price. I just did a search on multicolored red/green/black legendary creatures under $3 and got two pages of results. When I narrowed the search to requiring all three colors, I still got nine different cards to pick from to play a Jund commander. Sometimes, you’ll be pleasantly surprised that there’s an affordable version of a card available. Yes, the Urza’s Legacy foil version of Karmic Guide is $65—but the non-foil version from the same set is $4.

The Eternal Masters version is $2. With a little hunting around, you’ll find plenty of great deals on cards you really, really want to play.

The Land Base

One of the most difficult things to do on a budget is build the kind of land base which top-tier competitive decks do. Here, we go back to the idea that you don’t have to compete. Of course, original dual lands are the most efficient, since there’s no drawback and you can get them with fetchlands—but even at its most conservative, Wooded Foothills into Taiga will cost you north of $100.

The primary point here is that because the format is significantly slower than any of the other Eternals, you can smooth your mana at a slightly more leisurely (and inexpensive) pace. The combined cost of Cinder Glade, Sheltered Thicket, and Stomping Ground is $22.23 ($2.25, $4.99, and $14.99, respectively), or less than a quarter of that Taiga—and they’re all fetchable with that Wooded Foothills (Khans of Tarkir version a cool $19.99). There are plenty of other low-cost cards which can replace Wooded Foothills in this example, not just other lands like Krosan Verge (obviously better if you’re also playing white), but spells like Nature’s Lore or creatures like Wood Elves.

Even the original Mirage fetches like Rocky Tar Pit aren’t all that bad. They enter the battlefield tapped, but the land they search up doesn’t. They’re not identical replacements, but they will get you where you’re going.

I try to not play too many enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands, but a few are just fine. The Shards of Alara tri-lands, which have been reprinted in Commander 2013, Commander 2016, and Commander 2017, as well as Modern Masters 2017, are great for your three-color decks. About the only other enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands I play anymore are the ones with lifegain such as Akoum Refuge, Vivid Creek and friends, and the bounce lands like Boros Garrison. I’ve cut down some on the latter in recent years, but I still love them to bounce utility lands such as Bojuka Bog.

You can also look to some older sets for values. Odyssey has filter lands such as Sungrass Prairie or Darkwater Catacombs for about $2. If you’re playing Swamps already, check out Tainted Field, Tainted Isle, Tainted Peak, and Tainted Wood from Torment at less than $3.

Also don’t underestimate the value of just playing mostly basic lands. You can use lands like Terramorphic Expanse and Evolving Wilds to smooth out your colors relatively easily. If you play lots of basic lands, you can then run strategies which punish opponents for playing too many nonbasics, my personal favorite being Primal Order (Homelands version, 49 cents, thank you very much).

The good news is that it looks like Wizards of the Coast is interested in printing lots of ways for us to make sure that we have the right mana available most of the time. It’s part of Magic that you don’t always get to have the perfect combination of colors available always, but unlike in competitive formats, which are won and lost on the tiniest slices of value, Commander is far more forgiving. With the exception of a few high-priced utility lands, such as Yavimaya Hollow or Minamo, School at Water’s Edge (which are more about the ability than the mana), you can pretty much pick up an entire land base for the cost of a single dual land. All you need to do is dig a little deeper.

Use Hidden Gems

Speaking of digging deeper, there are way more cards available in Commander than just the list of staples. I’ve previously done quite a few Hidden Gems pieces (such as this one), although it’s probably time to do a new one. Because there are so many obviously good cards in newer sets, combined with the fact that there are just more cards in Magic than there used to be, there are things which will avoid being on peoples’ radar.

One of the fun parts of Commander is being able to play with jank and have people rave over it when you do. I can’t count the number of times people have gone “Whoa!” (or the number of cards I’ve drawn) when I cast Keep Watch. Or Batwing Brume. Or Chronomantic Escape. Or Snakeform. This list goes on. You’ll know you’re successful at finding a Hidden Gem when it gets played against you a few weeks later. Okay, one more: Makeshift Mannequin.

Most of the good Commander websites have forums or threads dedicated to Hidden Gems. Checking them out will be well worth your time. Arguing whether or not they’re still hidden probably isn’t. You might also look at intentionally budget-minded formats to see if popular cards therein can fit your own Commander style.

Pick Up Precons

The Commander preconstructed decks are a great place to start building on a budget. At a retail price in the neighborhood of $35 (or about 50 cents per card that isn’t a basic land), you get a perfectly playable deck. We’ve built Leagues around the precons and their commanders. The decks (using Commander 2017’s Feline Ferocity as an example) contain favorites from both the recent past (Zendikar Resurgent) and days of yore (Mirari Wake), as well as spectacular new cards (Mirri, Weatherlight Duelist). I’ve heard numerous stories of folks who have played the precons right out of the box and held their own against their friends’ tightly tuned decks.

The bottom line is that while you can indeed spend your kid’s college fund on a Commander deck, the good news is that, by the very nature of the format, you don’t have to. You can spend your kid’s college fund on a few dozen decks instead.

This week’s Deck Without Comment is my own budget deck, Nath of the Value Leaf.

Nath of the Gilt-Leaf
Sheldon Menery
Test deck on 12-30-2012

Check out our comprehensive Deck List Database for lists of all my decks:


Purple Hippos and Maro Sorcerers; Kresh Into the Red Zone; Halloween with Karador; Dreaming of Intet; You Did This to Yourself.



Heliod, God of Enchantments; Thassa, God of Merfolk; Erebos and the Halls Of The Dead; Forge of Purphoros; Nylea of the Woodland Realm; Karn Evil No. 9.


Lavinia Blinks; Obzedat, Ghost Killer; Aurelia Goes to War; Trostani and Her Angels; Lazav, Shapeshifting Mastermind; Zegana and a Dice Bag; Rakdos Reimagined; Glissa, Glissa; Ruric Thar and His Beastly Fight Club; Gisa and Geralf Together Forever.

Shards and Wedges

Adun’s Toolbox; Angry, Angry Dinos; Animar’s Swarm; Ikra and Kydele; Karrthus, Who Rains Fire From The Sky; Demons of Kaalia; Merieke’s Esper Dragons; Nath of the Value Leaf; Rith’s Tokens; The Mill-Meoplasm; The Altar of Thraximundar; The Threat of Yasova; Zombies of Tresserhorn.

Four Color

Yidris: Money for Nothing, Cards for Free; Saskia Unyielding; Breya Reshaped.


Children of a Greater God


Tana and Kydele; Kynaios and Tiro; Ikra and Kydele.


Animar Do-Over; Glissa Do-Over; Karador Do-Over; Karador Version 3; Karrthus Do-Over; Kresh Do-Over; Steam-Powered Merieke Do-Over; Lord of Tresserhorn Do-Over; Mimeoplasm Do-Over; Phelddagrif Do-Over; Rith Do-Over; Ruhan Do-Over.

If you’d like to follow the adventures of my Monday Night RPG group (in a campaign that’s been alive since 1987) which is just beginning the saga The Lost Cities of Nevinor, ask for an invitation to the Facebook group “Sheldon Menery’s Monday Night Gamers.”