I’ve been talking a lot about Standard and Limited lately. My focus has been on the competitive side of things, but today I want to change it up and talk about Commander. People often make this distinction between the “competitive” player and the “casual” player, as though these things never overlap, but I’m here to tell you that even though I love the tournament atmosphere and competing to win a prize, every so often I like to enjoy a nice, casual, multiplayer game with friends.
Now, whenever we talk about a “casual” format, we have this idea that people don’t care about winning, but I just don’t think that’s true. When we sit down to play multiplayer, maybe the game gives us a reason to socialize, but the goals and rules of the game are the glue that holds everything together. We could be playing any game or no game at all. However, we’re playing Magic because we enjoy it. It’s important to understand that players get this enjoyment for different reasons. Me, I like to put my mind to work, and winning is a good gauge of one’s success.
As a format, Commander has quite a few unique elements that I find interesting to explore. You have to play a 99-card deck. You can only play one of a card except for basic land. You start at 40 life. You have a Commander that you can play several times throughout the game from a zone exclusive to the format. Commander has its own banned list. Not to mention, you are usually playing it as a multiplayer game, which adds a fun political twist.
Let’s take a closer look at the things that separate Commander from the other formats:
The “Spirit” of the Game vs. the Rules of the Game
For as long as I’ve played Magic, there has been a kind of tension between the competitive and casual crowd. It was easy to sort out who was who in the comments after my last article: The Art of Netdecking. The competitive players found value in thinking about whether they should netdeck or not and what netdeck they should play; they looked at netdecks in a purely pragmatic, +EV or -EV kind of way. The casual players stuck to their guns about how terrible netdecks and the people who play them are. Now, just as I said earlier, I want to make it clear that I think there’s an overlap.
There’s this perception that some people have that the world is black and white. I think there’s value to be had in realizing that things are often not so clear-cut. Players can be genuinely friendly to their opponents AND still be seeking information. Wizards can be out to make money AND still trying to provide us a great game. Players can care about winning AND playing to have a good time. These things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, many opposites like this go hand and hand.
For example, do you suppose that the best way Wizards can make money is by providing us a terrible game? So, as far as the outcry about the changes to the Pro Players Club and Worlds, absolutely make your voices heard, but give things time. This time, NOBODY is happy about the changes, so I’m sure that Wizards will find a way to make us happy again. This is not naiveté or false hope speaking; I just realize that there is a financial incentive to keep a customer happy.
Since I’m on that subject, let me share with you what I consider to be an appropriate and effective response to the changes. It’s okay to vent our frustration and let Wizards know when we’re upset. It’s not okay to threaten physical violence. At least one player has (allegedly) received a lifetime ban for threatening a Wizards employee because of the recent announcement. Their argument was that they were just venting or joking. Some people think that Wizards punished them too harshly. Understand that people who actually do violence often threaten it first. Then, when nothing is done to prevent violence from being carried out, the public is outraged because of the warning signs and the inability of authorities to act. This time, the authorities acted. Threats of violence are not a joke. If we’re not happy with something, it’s important that it be handled in a mature way.
Do I think rage-quitting Magic over the announcement is mature? I guess that depends. I can say this much; you’re giving Wizards an incentive they’ll certainly notice (if enough people quit over this), but you’ll be depriving yourself of an otherwise great game. To me, that seems awfully “lose-lose.” I’m all for less extreme methods: wearing all black to a specified FNM was one suggestion, signing petitions, boycotting a single Grand Prix. Some people say these things won’t work, but I disagree. Let Wizards take notice, give them a chance to reconsider (or even announce what they feel the future holds for competitive play). I don’t think they are out to get their customers. That doesn’t make any sense. However, it is very possible that they are out of touch with the wants and needs of their customers. So just let them know, in a calm and respectful manner.
Back to the subject of the competitive vs. the casual player, I think it’s important to understand that they’re both playing for the same reason: fun. It’s just that the source of their enjoyment might be different. Some people like to build rogue decks, and that’s fine. Other people like to copy an existing deck (and that’s fine too!). When we start talking about a format that developed AS a casual, fun format, the topic of the “spirit of the game” inevitably comes up. I view the spirit of the game to be about fun, but, as I just said, fun is an entirely subjective experience.
It may sound unbelievable, but many groups don’t mind infinite combos in their games. Some players hate playing against counterspells, but other players like PLAYING counterspells. Still other players dislike the presence of certain ubiquitous cards (looking at you, Sol Ring!). Now, some groups may agree to not play certain cards or strategies. You can always house rule whatever you want. But even a house rule is a rule. The reason we would need a rule is because it is an objective thing that we can look at and agree upon.
Don’t be surprised if someone doesn’t agree on your definition of fun. If you consider someone unfun to play with, don’t play with them. In a competitive environment, like a tournament, you might not have a choice, but in Commander, you do. On the other hand, I think Magic should be an inclusive experience, and nobody wants to be told they can’t play. So I’m all for giving people a chance. Just as I don’t judge people in life and expect them not to judge me, I also don’t judge what they may or may not find fun. I think we all live more enriched lives when we live in harmony with each other’s differences and embrace them, rather than exclude people who’re different from us.
Imagine that five players get together for a Commander game, and they all play a different color. I think this would make for a very interesting type of game. It’s varied; everyone brings something totally different to the table to add to the whole experience. Now imagine that most of the players want to ban blue (they hate counterspells!). Where does that leave the poor blue player or the game experience as a whole?
In summary, the rules of the game exist for reasons, so that everyone knows exactly what is expected of them; gameplay is smooth, and gameplay is fair. If your group agrees that something should be in the Commander rules, then make it a house rule. Just remember that there is no “one size fits all” fun and allow people to enjoy Magic in their own ways.
I’m a competitive player, most of the time. But I like to relax and have fun just like everyone else. So I’ll play Commander. But my approach to building a Commander deck is pretty much the same as it is for building a Standard deck. One of the things that I find fun about Magic is trying to solve a problem; that is just how my mind works. Commander is a social game, but we could socialize without the game. Yet we don’t. So who wants to be the first person eliminated from a multiplayer game? It seems perfectly natural to me that we build our “casual” deck, if not to win, then at least to not lose!
Choosing a Commander
In Commander, the legendary creature you choose to be your Commander or “General” not only determines what colors you can play in your deck (which is obviously one of the biggest defining characteristics of a deck) but is also the most consistent quality of your deck. It provides card advantage over a long game, as long as you have the mana to keep paying for it. It can circumvent your opponents’ life totals by dealing 21 damage. Really, your Commander is the backbone of your deck.
You can choose a Commander in two ways. You can decide what colors you want to play and then find a Commander of those colors. Or you can find a Commander you want to play and then find a bunch of cards that belong to its colors. Either way is perfectly legitimate. I tend to pick my colors first.
Next up is figuring out how much card advantage you hope to get from your Commander over the course of the game. The cheaper your Commander, the more times that you can play it, and the more extra cards you’ll effectively have. Cheaper isn’t necessarily better. Playing the same bad card three times might not be better than playing a good card once. You’ll have to figure that out. Some players like Rhys, the Redeemed because he’s about as cheap as they come, and his abilities can actually be pretty relevant, even in the late game. If you’re looking at G/W Commanders though, Gaddock Teeg is another good bet. Players will want to kill him, but at least he’s cheap enough that you can really benefit from playing him over and over. Additionally, Teeg is pretty nice if you ever play one-on-one Commander!
Since Commander is usually a multiplayer format though, you’ll want to think more about incentives. Rhys and Gaddock Teeg are cheap, but people might actually want to kill them, while Norin, the Wary is pretty innocuous. Sygg, River Cutthroat seems pretty nice; it’s cheap and provides a really cool effect, but you may just encourage people to attack you with creatures they might’ve used on someone else, just because they don’t want you to draw extra cards.
If dealing 21 points of Commander damage is your goal, Karrthus of Jund hits for a nice solid third of that and, since he has haste, is much more likely to get to connect. Other creatures are going to have to survive all your opponents’ turns before they can attack, and that often doesn’t happen.
You could play a Commander like Sharuum the Hegemon if you’re looking for even more card advantage and want to make sure you get value even if one of your opponents kills him. Plus, the fact that the card you get comes directly into play can be really abusive since you’re not just getting a card; you’re getting a card you want, and you don’t even have to pay for it. Great cards to get with Sharuum are any of the capsules (Executioner’s Capsule, Courier’s Capsule, or Dispeller’s Capsule, just for general utility), Magister Sphinx (you get a savings of 7 mana, a 5/5 flier, and you can potentially drop one of your opponents by 30 or more life, just from it coming into play!), or you can go infinite and kill everyone by getting Sculpting Steel back and copying Sharuum with a Disciple of the Vault in play.
Commanders like Phelddagrif and Zedruu the Greathearted let you manipulate the political aspect of the format by providing nice boons to your opponents (allies?). Ruhan of the Fomori sort of falls into this category because you get to attack someone (which is nicely divisible by 21), and you can say that it wasn’t your fault. You HAD to attack someone, and it was decided randomly, after all.
The Mimeoplasm is a great way of hating on your opponents’ graveyards while providing incredible benefits. Since you’re going through all the trouble of playing with creatures that aren’t likely to live long, the multiplayer environment is full of creatures with awesome abilities, especially ones that have coming into play abilities or are just huge.
Really, there are too many legendary creatures to possibly name them all here, but you should always keep in mind these three things:
Commanders are a reusable resource: The cheaper their mana cost, the more often you can afford to play them. But you also want to balance this with the effect they’re likely to have on the game. Riku of Two Reflections is a great Commander when you can pay five and still have mana left over to copy things but is exponentially less appealing every time he dies. Therefore, I don’t usually plan on using Riku in this way. Instead I wait until I can set up a turn where I have a lot of mana to play and use Riku or some way of untapping with Riku in play. I won’t just run it out on turn 5! And even if Gaddock Teeg is amazing, do you really want to pay ten for him?
Commanders circumvent life totals: Being able to deal 21 Commander damage is a nice alternative win condition, especially if someone has gained some absurd amount of life. Sure, I’ll play a Commander that’s a 2/2, but I’d much rather have a real, sizeable threat so that I can have this as an option.
Creatures die a lot: You’ll be glad that Commanders are reusable with how fast creatures usually hit the bin in multiplayer, but you don’t want to pay an absurd amount of mana just to move your creature right back to the command zone. So it’s nice to have a Commander with a coming into play ability or an activated ability that you can use right away. Failing that, try a Commander that has haste or find a way to give it haste. That way, you’ll always get some use out of it.
The Commander Metagame
You may be surprised that Commander HAS a metagame, but it’s possible that EVERY game has a metagame. Probably, if there was some reason to spend a lot of time thinking about it, you could even figure out a metagame for Monopoly!
I think the best way of stating my multiplayer philosophy is the quote “Go Big or Go Home.” Think about it. Players start with 40 life, and there’s usually 3-5 other players to take down! Attacking people with Llanowar Elves is like chopping down a tree with a butter knife! Big, powerful, expensive plays abound in multiplayer. The creatures often have coming into play abilities and/or 4+ power. Mana acceleration rules the day, getting you to your powerful plays that much quicker. You can play most Vintage-legal cards.
It used to be that spells were much more broken, but creatures were much worse. Now you can have the best of both worlds: yesterday’s spells and today’s creatures. That’s an explosive combination. Speaking of combinations, with that many legal cards, there are a lot of potentially deadly combos:
The list is nearly endless. Just like in any format, you’ll want to figure out what your opponents are up to, but you’ll also want to do powerful things of your own. That doesn’t mean that you have to play your own combo; it just means that you should try to set up some kind of endgame inevitability. A good way to do this is with an engine of some sort.
Future Sight is an amazing engine all on its own. Combined with shuffle effects, other card draw, or some way to set up the top of your deck like Sensei’s Divining Top, you can see (and get) a lot of extra cards per turn. Generally, I’ll make worse plays in the abstract if I have a Future Sight because I know it’s not likely to stay out long, and the more cards I play with it, the more cards I’ll have “drawn,” so I may not make what would normally be a better play because I’ll have to play a card from my hand instead. Also, leaving a counterspell on top of your deck with a Future Sight so everyone can see it (and be afraid of it!) is a fun political tactic. Brainstorm, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and Scroll Rack are all cards that deserve an honorable mention where Future Sight is involved.
Primeval Titan can be an absurd mana engine, especially if it lives long enough or you just give it haste. However, it can also be a card-drawing engine if you throw cycling lands and bounce lands into the mix. Return a cycling land with a Simic Growth Chamber, and you’ll still get two mana, but you’ll be up a card besides. Or combine the Titan with creature or hideaway lands to get even more gas.
Survival of the Fittest is incredible. Genesis makes a good engine on its own, and Survival can make sure you get it and can immediately send it to the graveyard. You can also give all your creatures haste with the timely discard of an Anger. You can find a counterspell if you go for Draining Whelk or Mystic Snake. You can find recursion. Whatever you need, Survival provides it.
Life from the Loam + the cycling lands (Lonely Sandbar, Forgotten Cave, Secluded Steppe, Tranquil Thicket, and Barren Moor) can put a lot of cards in your hand (and in your graveyard!); just beware an opponent with graveyard hate.
Speaking of which, graveyards are used a lot for various recursion engines, so you absolutely must be playing something to deal with them.
Relic of Progenitus is an obvious choice because you can always cycle it for a card, and you can also find it with Trinket Mage. Nihil Spellbomb and Bojuka Bog are also cards with a small opportunity cost that can help you deal with players’ graveyards.
Graveyards will fill up fast too. As I’ve said before, creatures die A LOT. Most players play with some kind of board sweepers: Nevinyrral’s Disk, Oblivion Stone, Pernicious Deed, Wrath of God, Damnation, Rout, Black Sun’s Zenith, Day of Judgment, Kirtar’s Wrath, Akroma’s Vengeance, and Austere Command are all pretty common cards people play.
Artifact and enchantment removal are important. Artifacts and enchantments are some of the most powerful cards in the environment, and you have answers to them. Mass removal has its merits when you’re dealing with so many other players, but certain one-for-one cards stand out: Krosan Grip because of split second (it can even kill the ubiquitous Sensei’s Divining Top!), Dispeller’s Capsule because you can have it on board as a threat, Dismantling Blow because you can kick it to draw extra cards, Shattering Pulse because of its buyback, and Hull Breach because you can potentially hit two targets (and get it back with Nucklavee!). I’m sure there are a ton of other options that I didn’t list.
Creatures that can kill artifacts and enchantments are also pretty nice. Some people like Trygon Predator. I’m not one of them. I prefer to rely on things like Acidic Slime and Indrik Stomphowler because they get rid of the problem permanent right away. Angel of Despair is expensive but nice.
Lastly, instants are really important in Commander. It’s such a waste to kill a creature that wasn’t even going to attack you (although sometimes you do what you gotta do!), and instants let you wait and see how things play out. Sometimes your opponent knowing you have it (from a Future Sight for instance) can work to your advantage because everyone would rather you used your removal on someone else’s creature rather than theirs. Therefore, they’ll often not attack you. I’ve held off three players with a single Slaughter Pact once because they all had creatures they didn’t dare lose! And who says that 1-for-1 answers are bad in multiplayer?
Speaking of 1-for-1 answers, counterspells are generally thought to be bad in multiplayer. After all, players lose games all the time trying to go 1-for-1 in two-player games! It’s pretty hard to keep up with your opponents if you’re trading 1-for-1 with three or more other players! But you have to look at counterspells a certain way if you’re going to play them in multiplayer.
Use them only for game-breaking spells: A card like Tooth and Nail has the potential to win the game then and there. Use a counterspell on it. Most of your opponents will thank you!
Use counterspells with alternative costs: Pact of Negation and Force of Will both cost a lot in one sense, but their ability to be available immediately, even if you’re tapped out, is invaluable. You can stop a combo, protect your own, or just stop or protect an important game piece. All while advancing your position and not having to leave mana untapped every turn “just in case.”
Use counterspells with the potential for a better exchange: Desertion may be a 1-for-1 answer if you counter a Future Sight or a Tooth and Nail (but like I said, “you do what you gotta do!”). However, if you counter a Primeval Titan with one, think how far ahead you’ll be. Even just an “ordinary” creature leaves you with a 2-for-1 exchange. Spelljack is another great counterspell for this reason. Glen Elendra Archmage can counter two spells and can’t be counterspelled back. She can also be copied and recurred to your heart’s content. Draining Whelk gives you a creature for your trouble, as does Mystic Snake. And again, creatures are the easiest things to find and recur in Commander.
The Staples of Commander
Having played a lot of games of Commander, there are certain cards that you tend to see a lot. I wouldn’t say that all of them are “must-have” cards, but many of them are. The following list is not meant to be exhaustive, and, by all means, play whatever cards you think are best and enjoy playing. It’s just here to get someone new to Commander started. That being said, not all the cards are going to be cheap, though most of them are relatively inexpensive.
Sol Ring (This is one of those “must-haves,” right off the bat. If you want to build a competitive Commander deck, you need one of these. Oh the flames I’ll get for using the phrase “competitive Commander deck!” No worries!)
Ravnica Block Signets (Dimir, Simic, etc.)
Spell Crumple (Gets honorable mention because it can get rid of a Commander for a long time)
Eternal Witness (essential)
Glen Elendra Archmage (essential)
Duplicant (I consider this absolutely essential to any deck. Exiling creatures is huge. They can’t be brought back; they don’t persist; it doesn’t matter if they’re indestructible. Plus it’s a creature that you can bounce or reanimate, and there are a host of cards to search up creatures: Survival of the Fittest, Eladamri’s Call, Chord of Calling, etc.)
Phyrexian Metamorph (also essential; it’s so versatile and cheap for what it does)
Swords to Plowshares (essential, cheap, and exiles)
Condemn (one of the few ways of getting rid of a Commander for a while)
Swords (especially Sword of Feast and Famine and Sword of Light and Shadow)
Card Draw / Graveyard Filling
Revised Duals (Tropical Island, Tundra, etc. Not necessary but always nice!)
Fetchlands (both Onslaught Block and Zendikar Block)
Now, as I already stated above, none of these cards are “necessary,” but, if you’re like me, you like making your deck perfect. It’s nice to be able to play any of your fetches into any color mana or to have access to the mana fixing of the older lands, but Commander games usually develop slowly, and there’s a lot of back and forth in multiplayer that will give you time to develop. Not to mention, the modified Paris mulligan is pretty lenient, so don’t feel that you have to have a fortune in cards to even compete. In fact, sometimes, the better your deck, the more players gang up on you, so it can actually work against you!
I’m sure there are a lot of cards that people might consider “staples,” and they may be right. The list above is made up of cards that I’ve personally played in a lot of decks and that I’ve seen played in a lot of decks. I think that it’s more a list of “older cards one should look into” if they’re going to play Commander.
Before I wrap things up, I want to talk about multiplayer strategy for a minute. Many players have perfectly good decks but seem to have trouble winning a multiplayer. The biggest reason for this is not going after the biggest threat. Look at it this way; if someone was the biggest threat a turn before, and you don’t do anything to them, isn’t it likely that they’ll stay the biggest threat? You can’t always count on someone else to do something about it. If you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself!
So what are some good rules of thumb?
Know who the biggest threat is: Always be aware of who has the best position. Just like in any game, this is determined by a variety of factors, not just by life totals. Do they have more mana than everyone else? More cards in hand? Better creatures? A combo they’re trying to assemble? You can’t go after the biggest threat if you don’t know who it is!
If you’re the biggest threat, try not to look like it: Obviously, if people know to go after the biggest threat, and you’re the biggest threat, then you’re in trouble, but you can often deflect attention from yourself. Point to someone else’s problem permanent, pretend to be helpless, leave your big creature back to “defend”; there are a host of things you can do. Again, it’s a common ploy in any game to make your position seem stronger or weaker than it really is.
Remember that intimidate is not just a card mechanic: This is a good idea whether you’re the biggest threat or not, but sometimes, when you’re the biggest threat, you can get people to ally with you who really shouldn’t, just because you intimidate them with some threat or perceived threat. For example, “If you kill my creature, I’ll disenchant your artifact.” “If you attack me, I’ll kill your creature.” And so on. Often, even if it’s in someone’s best long-term interest, they’ll be afraid to act because of the short-term cost.
Try not to annoy the other players: Obviously, you shouldn’t be trying to get on anyone’s nerves since everyone just wants to have fun. Here, my meaning is a bit different. I mean, don’t do something that has very little purpose just to be spiteful. Someone comes out slow and you Strip Mine one of their lands, cackling with glee. Don’t be surprised if they’re cackling right back later in the game when their horde is all turned sideways in your direction! Certain things tend to annoy people more than others, countering their spells for example, especially if you aim a Spell Crumple at their Commander! Don’t expect them to thank you. You better be ready for their retaliatory strike!
When someone is no longer the biggest threat, give them a reprieve: Everyone is freaking out because someone has an army and will kill them all on her next turn. The next player casts Wrath of God. The threat is gone, for the moment. There’s generally no need to viciously focus on one player (unless they have a grudge against you already, then go for it until they’re willing to call a truce!).
I’ve used the word “incentive” many times, in totally different contexts, but it’s just as applicable here. People respond to incentives. So use that. Do you want one of your opponents to attack someone else? Then promise them not to attack them while they’re tapped out. Someone wants to kill your creature? Kill their creature. One of your opponents plays Fact or Fiction, give them a favorable pile… as long as they do the same for you. And so on.
Hopefully, this week’s article has been informative and helps you look at Commander in a whole new way. It’s a fun format, and it hasn’t been spoiled yet by all that evil netdecking!
Bonus Commander Decklist
- 1 Sakura-Tribe Elder
- 1 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
- 1 Genesis
- 1 Anger
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 1 Mystic Snake
- 1 Duplicant
- 1 Draining Whelk
- 1 Body Double
- 1 Intet, the Dreamer
- 1 Mulldrifter
- 1 Glen Elendra Archmage
- 1 Nucklavee
- 1 Acidic Slime
- 1 Oracle of Mul Daya
- 1 Primeval Titan
- 1 Phyrexian Metamorph
- 1 Deceiver Exarch
- 1 Snapcaster Mage
- 1 Strip Mine
- 4 Forest
- 1 Wooded Foothills
- 1 Karplusan Forest
- 2 Mountain
- 6 Island
- 1 Volcanic Island
- 1 Tropical Island
- 1 Taiga
- 1 Tranquil Thicket
- 1 Lonely Sandbar
- 1 Forgotten Cave
- 1 Yavimaya Coast
- 1 Shivan Reef
- 1 Gruul Turf
- 1 Izzet Boilerworks
- 1 Steam Vents
- 1 Stomping Ground
- 1 Breeding Pool
- 1 Simic Growth Chamber
- 1 Vesuva
- 1 Mosswort Bridge
- 1 Spinerock Knoll
- 1 Cascade Bluffs
- 1 Misty Rainforest
- 1 Scalding Tarn
- 1 Command Tower
- 1 Sensei's Divining Top
- 1 Brainstorm
- 1 Treachery
- 1 Tooth and Nail
- 1 Exploration
- 1 Force of Will
- 1 Wheel of Fortune
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Regrowth
- 1 Fellwar Stone
- 1 Rewind
- 1 Impulse
- 1 Capsize
- 1 Rampant Growth
- 1 Land Grant
- 1 Decimate
- 1 Starstorm
- 1 Future Sight
- 1 Desertion
- 1 Evacuation
- 1 Savage Twister
- 1 Survival of the Fittest
- 1 Misdirection
- 1 Snap
- 1 Hull Breach
- 1 Prophetic Bolt
- 1 Guided Passage
- 1 Repulse
- 1 Fact or Fiction
- 1 Spelljack
- 1 Compulsive Research
- 1 Life from the Loam
- 1 Izzet Signet
- 1 Simic Signet
- 1 Careful Consideration
- 1 Krosan Grip
- 1 Search for Tomorrow
- 1 Pact of Negation
- 1 Cryptic Command
- 1 Ponder
- 1 Primal Command
- 1 Explore
- 1 Preordain
- 1 Slice in Twain