How To Pick Your First Commander

Inspired by a questioned asked on his Facebook page, Bennie tells new Commander players what they should consider when choosing their first legend to build a Commander deck around.

Sam Waters put a question up on my Facebook page:

“How exactly do you decide which legendary creatures to actually build decks around? There are easily 15+ which have caught my eye for my first Commander deck, and I evidently can’t build all of them. Do you ever have this problem, and if so, how do you prioritize?”

As I pondered how to reply, I realized that it was a pretty complex question. So much so that to do it justice, I think it warrants more than just a couple sentences.

I actually covered this question a bit in my Commander Primers (see the links at the bottom of each of my columns), but I’ll expand on what I wrote then.

So…how do I pick my first Commander?

Consider Your Mana Base

Commander is a game that tends to be about playing big spells and big creatures to create fun and exciting board states, but you can’t pull those off if you can’t cast your spells. That’s why the most important consideration is whether you have the right color fixing available to let your deck play out the way you want to.

While there are a ton of great budget options for mana fixing available to Commander players, the fact remains that the best mana in Magic tend to be rares, and some of them are quite pricey. If you’re fortunate enough to own some Revised dual lands (Savannah, Bayou, Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author], etc.), they should definitely play a role in deciding which Commander deck to build—they are by and far the best color fixers in the game, but their age and rarity means that picking some up now could be a stretch for those first starting out.

Not far behind the original duals in utility are the “shocklands” printed during the original Ravnica block (Overgrown Tomb, Breeding Pool, Blood Crypt, etc.). Lucky for us, half of them have been reprinted in Return to Ravnica, with the other half coming soon in Gatecrash. They’re still on the pricier end due to being in high demand for both Standard and Modern, but they should be much easier to acquire through trade or purchase.

Next up are the five improved “tap lands” that first saw print in Magic 2010 and have seen print each year since (Glacial Fortress, Drowned Catacombs, Rootbound Crag). If you’re playing a large enough quantity of basic lands, these are actually more powerful than the shocklands since if you draw one late game it will nearly always be able to be played untapped without hurting you. Wizards has wisely printed a ton of these over the years, making them incredibly easy to acquire for your Commander decks.

There are also five of the same type of lands printed in “enemy color” pairings (Clifftop Retreat, Sulfur Falls, Isolated Chapel), but since they only appeared in Innistrad and are in-demand for Standard, they’re a bit more pricey than their core set counterparts. Still, it’s totally worth picking up one of each eventually because they’re going to always be go-to cards for any Commander decks you build.

Worldwake gave us a cycle of five friendly-color dual lands that are also “manlands,” able to both fix your colored mana and also provide a creature when you need one. They’ve been out of print a couple years but are still rather reasonably priced as singles.

I could go on and on about mana bases in Commander, but that’s not really the focus of this article. I just want to make the point that when picking a legend to build your first Commander deck around, don’t get more ambitious than your available color fixing. As cool as it would be to build a five-color deck around Child of Alara right out the gates, I’d recommend starting out with a two- or three-color legend with a solid mana base to build on, but if not there are also plenty of great mono-color legends too! And playing a mono-color deck gives you the option to stuff your deck with lots of colorless utility lands. These are extremely helpful ways to squeeze additional use out of card slots that normally just provide mana—if your land can give you mana and also give you an effect then you’ve really maximized that card slot.

If you’re playing a color-intensive deck, putting in too many of these can really cause you to have some colored mana problems more than you’d want. But if you’re rocking a deck stuffed full of the same basic land, you can really leverage a lot of nonbasics like Strip Mine, Homeward Path, Reliquary Tower, and Mystifying Maze without causing you many color issues.

Consider the Reason Why You Want to Play Commander

Think about what is it about the format that made you decide to give it a try. We can probably group you into one of two camps:

Top-Down Approach

Perhaps you’ve seen a legend card that you think is really cool and the idea of building a deck around him or her (or it) really appeals to you. Legends in Magic have a long history of being infused with flavor and fun—after all, they’re called legends for a good reason! Even if you don’t read all the Magic fiction or follow the storyline, just looking at a legend card suggests a story: the artwork, the creature type, the creature’s power and toughness, its abilities, colors, casting cost, and flavor text. Taken as a whole, each legend card gives you a good sense of the character being portrayed.

More than likely, the character’s style resonates with you. Perhaps you like the badass vibe of Kamahl, Pit-Fighter…or maybe the undead necromantic power of Dralnu, Lich Lord…or you want to rally the Elves with Ezuri, Renegade Leader…or build an Angel deck around Avacyn, Angel of Hope. What’s really cool about being able to use cards throughout Magic’s long history in your Commander deck is that you can flesh out the other 99 cards with flavorful cards to support your Commander’s style. Would Kamahl not pick up and swing a Sword of Vengeance? Wouldn’t a Lich Lord have a Jar of Eyeballs on his table?

Or perhaps it’s more that the legend’s abilities give you a puzzle to solve and that intrigues you. How can you build a deck around Norin the Wary if he can’t even attack or block? Can you take advantage of your opponents taking advantage of Braids, Conjurer Adept’s abilities? Can you play enough birds to make Kangee, Aerie Keeper worth it? How big can I get Korlash, Heir to Blackblade? Can I keep feeding Shisato, Whispering Hunter Snakes while also making sure it can deal combat damage each turn?

Or maybe the abilities on the legend aren’t so much a puzzle but rather they’re something so cool you just can’t wait to use over and over again. Dropping Angels and Demons into play for free when you attack with Kaalia of the Vast? Sign me up! If you’re a griefer at heart, you probably just couldn’t wait to play Grand Arbiter Augustin IV the first time you laid eyes on him. Sachi, Daughter of Seshiro makes the already good green Shamans (Eternal Witness, Ulvenwald Tracker, Fauna Shaman) even better—mo’ mana please!

If it’s the top-down approach that’s brought you to Commander, go for it—pick the legend that calls to you. Just make sure it’s not too ambitious for your available mana base (see the section above).

Bottom-Up Approach

Or perhaps it’s just the allure of Commander’s vast card pool that’s pulled you in. Since Magic’s introduction in 1993, there have been over 12,000 Magic cards printed! Maybe you played some Magic in the past but aren’t really interested in jumping back into the rat race of keeping up with Standard tournament play—you just want to play your old favorites. Or maybe you’ve watched some games of Commander and are intrigued by all these older cards that you’ve never seen before. Commander is the perfect format to scratch that itch.

Another draw is the relative forgiving nature of the format. At most Commander tables, people aren’t playing for prizes and everyone is there to just have a good time. Games last longer and there is opportunity to find and play some pretty spectacular spells. Perhaps you cooked up a sweet combo that just didn’t have the stuff needed to compete in Standard or Modern or Legacy? In a one-on-one duel/tournament setting, only the strongest plays and the best cards can compete, but Commander might be the perfect place that allows your cool brew time to execute. Though keep in mind the “highlander” restriction (“there can be only one” copy of each card outside of basic land) needs to be accounted for, either with Tutoring or card draw or redundant cards.

Or maybe you just want a format where you can just play some of your most favorite Magic cards of all time? Unless they’re on the relatively small banned list, Commander is the format for you!

Typically with the bottom-up approach, you gather together the cards you want in your deck and let that be the guide for the color identity of your Commander (while also keeping in mind your available mana base). Once you know the colors you need, it’s pretty easy to look in a card database for “legendary creature” with the right colors. If you can, try to pick a legend that perhaps complements what you’re trying to do—maybe it can fix or accelerate your mana or benefits nicely from your combo. If you can’t find one that does though, that’s okay. There are plenty of legends that are just inherently awesome all by themselves and can give you fun stuff to do until you execute your master plan. If you want to be sneaky, you can even pick a legend that might distract your opponents and make them worry about what your commander might do to them so much that they never even think about the card combination you’re trying to assemble!

When choosing the colors, keep in mind that while we have legends for every two- and three- color combination and five-color Legends, we don’t yet have four-color legends (though I’m keeping my fingers crossed for legendary Nephilim one day). If your idea requires you to go four colors (and you actually have the mana base to support it) that’s okay though—you can just pick one of the five-color legends as your Commander even if you’re only running four colors. Remember too that you don’t actually ever need to cast your commander if that’s not really your deck’s goal.

Consider Your Playgroup

The last but important consideration when building your first Commander deck is who you’re going to be playing with. The general philosophy of the format as laid out by the creators and caretakers (the “Rules Committee”) encourages casual, fun, interactive play. You can (and should) go to the Commander rules page and read up on the rules and information available there, but I’ll put up their philosophy statement here:

Commander is designed to promote social games of Magic.

It is played in a variety of ways, depending on player preference, but a common vision ties together the global community to help them enjoy a different kind of Magic. That vision is predicated on a social contract: a gentleman’s agreement which goes beyond these rules to include a degree of interactivity between players. Players should aim to interact both during the game and before it begins, discussing with other players what they expect/want from the game.

House rules or “fair play” exceptions are always encouraged if they result in more fun for the local community.

That last statement is the exception clause to remind everyone that each person brings their own idea of what’s fun to the table. I can tell you that at most Commander tables if you play a deck that encourages game play to go longer than the first few turns, allows your opponents to play their spells, and wins the game in such a way that leaves your opponents smiling or at least grudgingly giving you props, then you will typically be fine no matter where you play.

But keep in mind that some groups may have decided they want to play more cutthroat, aggressive Commander games. For them, perhaps it’s more fun to have a fast and brutal game that’s over quickly so they can shuffle up and get more games in. Or they may have altered the banned list by adding or subtracting cards from it. It’s probably helpful to search out the local Commander players you’re going to end up playing with and watch a few games; one of them might even be able to let you borrow a deck and play with them. Getting a good sense of what passes for the gentleman’s agreement of the group will go a long way in helping you choose a Commander deck that will let you fit in.

It will also let you know what legends other people have already built decks around. You don’t want your first Commander deck to use the same commander that someone else always uses. You also don’t want to spend a bunch of time building a sweet Hokori, Dust Drinker deck if the playgroup is generally hostile to griefer strategies.

To wrap this up, I thought I’d talk about my current Commander decks and why I chose each legend to build them around.

Johan:  Bottom-up, built around Breath of Fury + Nacatl War-Pride.

I thought of this two-card combo and was intrigued, and starting building a deck that could assemble the combo and pull it off. Since Breath of Fury is an enchantment, and there ways to help find enchantments in white, I ended up needing a Legend that was red, green and white. While searching the available Legends I ran across Johan—not only is he really cool, one of the original Legends from Legends, but his psuedo-vigilance seemed like a good fit with the game plan I was trying to put together. I go into more details on the deck here (Cat Breath of the Infinite!).

Maelstrom Wanderer:  Bottom-up, built around Deadeye Navigator and Zealous Conscripts.

I was originally excited about this combo for Standard, but after it seemed less than impressive at the tournament table I decided to give it a try in Commander. One thing I quickly realized was that in Commander you can potentially generate infinite mana with Deadeye Navigator. Once you have infinite mana, you can combine with Zealous Conscripts to steal every permanent on the board…with haste! Now that’s an epic play worth working towards!!

I originally chose Riku of the Two Reflections as the commander because the colors fit and his ability complemented a lot of what I was trying to do anyway…but after playing him a few times, I ran across two problems. One, Riku is actually a pretty popular Commander, and I kept finding that other people were bringing their Riku decks to the table. Secondly, Riku is actually a pretty potent Commander, so playing him tended to draw a big bull’s-eye on my head.

Since I was trying to assemble a couple cards to pull off a spectacular play, I didn’t exactly want to have a commander that would get people agitated even if I hadn’t cast the legend yet! Luckily, when Planechase 2012 was released I picked up the deck featuring Maelstrom Wanderer, and since he was the right colors—and adding a cascade element to the deck seemed both fun and powerful—I made the switch. I wrote about the original Riku deck here.

Phage the Untouchable:  Top-down, puzzler.

Part of Phage’s ability text clashes directly with the rules of Commander, which state that you must start with your commander in the command zone, which means you have to cast her the first time from the command zone. But Phage says when she enters the battlefield if you didn’t cast her from your hand, you lose the game. That dilemma means that, for most Commander players, she’s unplayable, but me—I wanted to solve that puzzle! There are just a few ways you can do it, and once Sundial of the Infinite was printed, I decided to go ahead and put ’em all in the deck for the cool factor of actually being able to play my commander without her killing me. I wrote about her here.

Thrun, the Last Troll:  Bottom-up, [CLASSIFIED].

I haven’t yet written about my latest creation and it’s got some big surprises I don’t want to spoil yet, but once I log some games I’ll go ahead and share with you all, hopefully in a few weeks. For now, I’ll just say that Thrun was picked as a relatively low-profile legend for camouflage to keep the bull’s-eye off me until I can execute my shenanigans. As plan B, I can also just let Thrun get big and beat down!

Skullbriar, the Walking Grave:  Top-down, sweet ability.

I’d originally written Skullbriar off as a weak aggro card and not something I was overly interested in, but over time I began to be intrigued by his possibilities, especially given his unique abilities. Plus, it was nearing Hallowe’en and I wanted to build something on-theme; I wrote about it here.

Rakdos, Lord of Riots:  Top-down, puzzler + sweet ability.

This is another sweet new deck I haven’t written about yet but hope to soon. I was intrigued by the puzzle of his drawback, which gives him a cheap cost for his size and abilities. How could I minimize the restriction? And the benefits! Not only is he just a gigantic beater with double evasion, but once your opponent loses life you can potentially cast huge creatures with deep mana discounts! How can this be abused? Well, I know how I abused it, but you’ll have to check back in to read how (either that or contact me directly).

Commander veterans—what would you recommend to Sam and others who might be interested in giving Commander a try? What should they think about when choosing a legend to build their first deck around? Sound off the comments below!

Take care,


starcitygeezer AT gmail DOT com

Make sure to follow my Twitter feed (@blairwitchgreen). I check it often so feel free to send me feedback, ideas, and random thoughts. I’ve also created a Facebook page where I’ll be posting up deck ideas and will happily discuss Magic, life, or anything else you want to talk about!

New to Commander?
If you’re just curious about the format, building your first deck, or trying to take your Commander deck up a notch, here are some handy links:

My current Commander decks (and links to decklists):

Previous Commander decks currently on hiatus: