Coming down off a drama-filled Christmas and New Year holiday to the US (flights cancelled by snow: 3, entire legs of trip cancelled by
1, impromptu trips to
1, flights home brought forward to dodge another snowstorm: 1). I was left with something of a dilemma. The only time I’ve touched a Magical card in the last month was an unplanned mid-holiday team draft with
[rampant namedrops deleted]
in a bar in Manhattan, and little has changed in the world of Limited over that time.
But what’s that,
I don’t have to stick to Limited anymore? And Timmy’s fallen down the well?
Timmy; what was that first part again?
Now, I’m not going to lie. There’s something in this article that does, in fact, broadly fit the description of â€˜Limited Magic.’ It’s not, however, something that’s going to help you pwn more noobs or crack that 1700/1800/1900 rating threshold. If anything you read here today makes you better at Magic, it’s going to be because it asks you to think around unfamiliar situations, analyze cards in unusual and often complicated contexts, and think of cards as being parts of systems as well as just â€˜cards.’
And for those of you who are already wise to such semantic tricks, yes, you did spot the trap. â€˜Unfamiliar situations?’ â€˜Unusual contexts?’ Yeah, you got me. I’m talking about Casual Magic — specifically Commander. Well, I’m talking about Elder Dragon Highlander really, but you know what I mean (from now on, I’ll use Commander exclusively, to avoid being a grumpy old man complaining on his porch about the gorram kids and their bleepy bloopy music.)
As it’s one of my two favorite casual formats, I’ve enjoyed a lot of Commander over the years, as I’ve bounced between Spike, Johnny, and a weird hybrid of the two. And over those years, I’ve noticed something of a trend in discussions about Commander deckbuilding, in that those discussions tend to fall into one of two broad categories: the â€˜Here is my deck!’ and the â€˜Isn’t this card awesome?’ And while I enjoy reading both, and both can have a lot of value, there’s relatively little discussion about the ground between the panoramic view of an impossible-to-fully-process 100-card decklist and the zoomed-in focus on single cards (although you can have my
Rings of Brighthearth, and
when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.)
It’s the Goldilocks problem all over again. Discussing a Commander deck as a single unit renders it impenetrable to all but the most dedicated readers — those ready to export the list to Magic Workstation and bash a few goldfish or go even further and play other people with it. Discussing single cards, while nice, is of limited value in a format with decks containing up to 100 different cards and usually no fewer than 70 or 80 (for those without my aversion to clumps of basics in Highlander.) So where’s the missing middle? Where’s the not-too-hot, not-too-sweet, not-too-salty discussion? I’d suggest that it’s the discussion of
of cards — the wide assortment of building blocks and systems — that can help you get started on the daunting process of building a new deck, that can help you pick out blind spots in your existing decks, and that can give you a more coherent base from which to modify, experiment, and tweak.
To briefly illustrate what I mean, the first step in building a new Commander deck is often to flick through trade folders, boxes of rares, and so on. Anything that fits the theme, or even anything good in the Commander’s colors, gets pulled out and dumped in a pile, and what you’re left with at the end is… a pile of cards. For some Commanders (I’m looking at you,
Isamaru, Hound of Konda
) that might make sense, but I at least prefer Commanders that have a little more to say about the contents of their deck than â€˜make Isamaru bigger, eat faces.’ And even if your Commander isn’t mechanically complex, you might have a theme or plan in mind for your deck that isn’t best served by the pile o’ cards approach.
Where a more systematic approach to deckbuilding can help a lot is in giving your deck a stable core — think of it as the scaffolding around a building under construction (with, to extend the metaphor, your mana base as the foundations.)
I’ll say upfront that this approach will generally have much more application in non-aggro archetypes. Although pure aggro tends to be reasonably rare in Commander, it certainly exists (Commanders like the aforementioned Isamaru,
Uril, the Miststalker, and
Rafiq of the Many
spring to mind) and will be less likely to be satisfied with an approach that, as a rule, is happy to trade tempo for consistency and stability. Midrange control, pure control, or combo control (and yes, pure combo, but I’d rather not encourage people down that path in Commander, to be honest) can all benefit.
So how about an example?
Let’s say that you’re building a creature-heavy U/G deck (
Momir Vig, Simic Visionary
), and you’ve realized that
(and man, is it). Here, you can either take two approaches — you can jam every card you can find that says â€˜search for any land’ into your deck, or you can think a step further and both run direct tutors and build some systems into your deck that can find your Cradle when you need it, while not being awkward and narrow the rest of the time.
Look at the above cards, and see if there are any little engines or combos you can build into your deck to let you cut the less exciting cards from that list (
Reap and Sow
particularly) without decreasing your access to Cradle and while making your deck more flexible and efficient in the process.
So what are some other cards I think of when I think â€˜find
Gaea’s Cradle?’ How about
Trinket Mage? Or, hell, cards that find one of those, like
is almost enough on its own to make Scroll great). And yes, you’re right. Neither of them actually find
directly. What do they do?
Life from the Loam,
Gaea’s Cradle, and anything else you might want in your graveyard (maybe a
to go with the Loam.) This kind of system, with different types of tutor or recursion chaining or overlapping, can squeeze out a ton of extra utility from fewer card slots.
is a great example of the difference between the approaches. The first approach sees it merely as a tutor for Cradle, the second as a flexible card that can find Cradle, but also an engine piece, prompting a search for other potential targets:
Ancestral Vision, other land.
then bridges back into the
targets, giving more access to your Crypt or Explosives.
adds another gear to the engine, working well with your
targets, the Ruins or the artifacts, being searchable with
Tolaria West, and letting you
Life from the Loam,
Academy Ruins, and an artifact (although I’d recommend against
unless you enjoy being kicked under the table and having your drink â€˜accidentally’ spilled).
Approach 1 ends up with:
Reap and Sow,
Primeval Titan, and
Tolaria West, which give you seven ways to get Cradle from seven slots, with very little additional flexibility. That is, once Cradle is out of your deck, the value of your search cards drops sharply.
is still flexible, and
does give you a nice trick of searching up
Simic Growth Chamber, flipping the transmute land back into your hand.
Approach 2 ends up with:
Trinket Mage, and
Life from the Loam
for the same access to
and considerably more flexibility.
Life from the Loam
is probably the weakest of the newly added cards, but it not only makes
a lot more powerful, it makes all kinds of other things better — retrace spells, other discard outlets like
Compulsion, cycling land, fetches,
Mouth of Ronom
… With this approach, your cards feed into each other much better —
Life from the Loam
Life from the Loam
make each other better. If you have Genesis in your deck,
better as well. Plus,
Life from the Loam
and more ways to find it means you’re more likely to make use of Cradle for more than a couple of turns.
This approach particularly helps with decks based around cards other than Commanders or Commanders that need specific types of support. The ability to greatly expand the numbers of lines of play that can both find those cards and enable them once found is a very powerful one, and while the goal isn’t really to make a deck that â€˜plays the same every game,’ it allows you to build around strategies and cards without relying on sheer weight of numbers to get you there. While, for example, you can choose
Kresh the Bloodbraided
as your Commander and simply max out on sacrifice effects, creature recursion, evoke and so on, a more systematic approach to deckbuilding means you can broaden your scope and build around something like…
So I have this deck. It’s a
deck, and it’s the evolution of a deck that I built for a specific event that was, to be entirely honest, not the most friendly of beasts. It was kind of fun and exciting, in that it made lots of big plays and used fun cards, but when it came right down to it, it wanted to
with a bunch of planeswalkers in play and crush everyone’s faces.
Rings of Brighthearth, spend three turns hitting doubled planeswalker ultimates, including
Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, and
Garruk Wildspeaker? Yeah, that’ll do it. The more recent iterations of the deck are a lot lighter on the griefing reset buttons, and the deck has shifted to being a planeswalker control deck somewhat focused around one card:
Maelstrom Nexus. It has a lot of other cascade, a few cascade-friendly bullets like Boom / Bust,
Ancestral Vision, and
Restore Balance, and some other fun stuff. So how do you build a deck around
when you don’t want to go all-in on narrow enchantment tutors (of which there’s only a couple anyway)?
And once I’ve found
Maelstrom Nexus, not only do all these cards still do useful things, but take a second look, and think about what Nexus actually does. Cascade on the first spell you play each turn? How many of the above cards are great for setting up cascades? Vampiric/Mystical/
Jace, the Mind Sculptor,
Sensei’s Divining Top
(for the instants, you cast the spell you want to use to cascade, put the cascade trigger on the stack while retaining priority, then cast your tutor). So the same package that finds
also helps make it more powerful once found.
This more involved approach certainly requires more thought and more time, but not
much more, and you end up with a more streamlined deck at the end of it. A lot of the work comes down to recognizing certain types of cards — not just tutors but tutors that dump multiple cards into more accessible zones (like
), tutors that can be used multiple times, easily-recurred tutors and reusable recursion.
You don’t have to bury yourself neck-deep in convoluted combos and engines or be
guy who tutors multiple times every turn — what you’re really aiming for is just a greater degree of stability than the higher-variance 100-card Commander format might otherwise permit. You don’t have to go full combo with
in your multicolored, slower deck; you could just fetch
Life from the Loam, a cycling land, and a fetchland to crack while everyone else takes their turn. You could pass on extra land to go with
Life from the Loam
in favor of
Worm Harvest, or
Call the Skybreaker, or
Spitting Image. You don’t have to use
to set up some game-ending
Bladewing the Risen
deck uses it for, generally, Anger,
Bladewing’s Thrall, and a Dragon to return with the Commander.
This isn’t quite the same thing as talking about â€˜Commander staples.’ There are certainly those who would scoff at virtually any decklist missing a
Solemn Simulacrum, or a three-color deck missing a
Coalition Relic. I’m not saying â€˜play these cards,’ I’m saying â€˜understand what playing card A and card B means to the rest of the deck and which cards X, Y and Z gain in value because of them.’ That is, you don’t have to play
in your blue deck. But if you
Intuition, you should understand what that means for the rest of your deck. You should have some idea while building your deck of what
is actually going to do, rather than just jamming it in and then scratching your head every time you cast it before pulling out three good cards and getting the worst one of the three. If you’re going to play
Congregation at Dawn, you should think beyond â€˜three good creatures’ and think â€˜what can I do with knowing the top three cards of my library?’
Maybe you set up a cascade chain with
Eternal Witness, rebuy the Congregation, and stack up another three creatures. Maybe you go combo with
Quillspike, with a
for insurance. Maybe you need some help controlling the board and boosting your life total against an aggro deck, and you want to go with
Ravenous Baloth. It doesn’t really matter what your specific plans are; just have
plans! Not only will your deck perform better, but you’ll also find yourself taking a lot less time to resolve tutors, which is always a good thing in a more social setting like Commander. If you’ve ever seen a player pick up someone else’s Commander deck and resolve a
(now appropriately banned, in my opinion), you probably have some idea of what I’m talking about…
Obviously, certain types of cards lend themselves very well to this kind of use, and it’s in your interest as a Commander deckbuilder to be familiar with them. Consider the following a combination of reference point and, hopefully, source of inspiration when it comes to finding new tricks and engines to keep your Commander brews running! It won’t be completely comprehensive, but hopefully it will spark some inspiration.
And don’t forget; try to think about how cards in the different categories interact!
from the first category can set up the various creature-based tutors from the third category with Genesis from the fourth.
Life from the Loam
can set up recursion for card types other than land by finding
Academy Ruins, in addition to all their other land-recurring and zero-cost-permanent-tutoring duties.
can fetch a
Pattern of Rebirth
to find a
Sphinx Summoner, a
to put on the Summoner, letting you search out a
and bodies to sacrifice, to fetch… whatever you like!
Forge[/author]“]Darksteel [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author],
(a little niche, but 1U for
Think Twice, and
is a lot of slow card advantage, while
Roar of the Wurm,
Crush of Wurms, and
provide options for fat),
(okay, this might be a little greedy)
Eye of Ugin
(remember that it finds artifact creatures as well as Eldrazi!),
One-shot tutors that can be reused relatively easily:
Drift of Phantasms,
Dimir House Guard,
(one of my personal favorites),
Life from the Loam, Genesis,
Sword of Light and Shadow,
Sigil of the New Dawn,
(not only will there often be someone with an unexciting graveyard, but this is a really, really good way to make friends at the table),
Lord of the Undead,
Wort, Boggart Auntie,
Proclamation of Rebirth,
Academy Ruins, Argivian Archaelogist,
Hanna, Ship’s Navigator,
Skull of Orm,
(these aren’t inherently reusable, but creatures are a very easy card type to reuse)
Now, after this week’s diversions, if I have the good fortune to survive another round of the Talent Search, it feels only right that I should let you know that I plan on returning to my preferred stomping grounds of Limited writing with a vengeance — with a publication date only two days before the Mirrodin Besieged Prerelease, what else could I aim to put out but a draft primer for a format that no one outside Wizards of the Coast has drafted yet? With Besieged/Scars/Scars and triple Besieged likely to play very differently, there should be plenty to talk about! It’s something I don’t think I’ve seen done before, and something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, so I hope I get the chance!
Thanks for reading, and hit me up in the forums for any of the usual arguments and questions…
Oh, wait. I promised something Limited-related, right?
Bonus Section — Cube Commander
Want to play some Commander with unusual decks without the days spent brewing them up? Want to draft some Cube but hankering for some of the focus and consistency of Commander decks?
Well, why not have both?
Obviously, you’ll need to draft more than the usual three fifteen-card packs to be able to put together regular 100-card Commander decks with any degree of card selection possible. Five or six packs should be enough, with more cards to work with giving more opportunity to fine-tune decks towards particular archetypes. Four players should be plenty and also gives a good number for chaos multiplayer or two-on-two teams. As for the Commanders themselves, I have a few suggestions;
1) Select Commanders freely, possibly using roll-offs to deal with duplicated choices. This gives you the most flexibility but lets people stay closer to existing comfort zones.
2) Randomly generate an order and pick from a group-agreed list of Commanders. Start with a single Commander from each color combination (five mono-colored, ten two-colored, ten three-colored, one five-colored; I wouldn’t bother with a colorless Commander with all but the oddest Cubes). I’ve included a suggested list below that you could start with that tries to include a mix of â€˜archetypal’ Commanders and â€˜good stuff’ Commanders.
3) Same as 2) but with Commanders from a specific format rather than a selected list (Standard, Extended, Ravnica Block, Kamigawa Block, Legends).
Obviously this is going to take longer than a single normal Cube draft, but it can put an interesting twist on the whole process. What do your neighbors’ Commander selections say about their plan for the draft? How does hate-drafting change when you have that additional information? How greedy do you want to get with colors in your Commander selection?
Alternatively, if you have the packs, you could do the same with regular boosters. You’d probably want a good mix of different sets — Shards block + Zendikar block or maybe even 12/24 different sets (for four or eight players) for a special occasion tournament! Or a full-block Rotisserie!
Suggested Commander Pool:
Ith, High Arcanist,
Wrexial, the Risen Deep,
Lyzolda, the Blood Witch,
Wort, the Raidmother,
Ghost Council of Orzhova,
Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind,
Momir Vig, Simic Visionary,
Nath of the Gilt-Leaf
Ertai, the Corrupted,
Sedris, the Traitor King,
Oros, the Avenger,
Intet, the Dreamer,
Vorosh, the Hunter,
Numot, the Devastator,
Teneb, the Harvester
(obviously this category becomes more interesting with the release of the Commander decks and the influx of fresh â€˜wedge’ Commanders)