The Modular Approach, Part One

What’s the best way to get a variety of Commander decks without using up too much space or money? In the first installment of a two-part article, Sheldon Menery explores a modular approach to Commander deckbuilding and showcases his latest list of Lazav, Dimir Mastermind!

How many cards are there in three Commander decks? How does a total of 150 sound?

This two-part article is going to make two assumptions. The first is that you don’t have the time, inclination, or mania that it takes to build a huge pile
of Commander decks. The second is that there is a group of cards in two colors that you really like to play. I’m going to take a base of two colors and
build three different decks around it. The idea will be to sleeve up all of them and just take the colors in the off color out, slide in the cards of a new
color, and you have a different deck. It will keep down the total cost of building decks and the amount of necessary storage space while letting you
frequently play all your favorite cards without necessarily getting tired of a deck.

Long-time readers will know that this approach to deck building/design is contrary to the sort of “build around a theme” or “build around a commander” idea
that I usually run with. In part, it’s an exercise for me, and in part it’s an idea base for you. The process here is far more important than the actual
cards, and I’m looking for feedback on the process itself. Is this modular approach (not to be confused with the mechanic of the same name, although that’d
be cute) a viable option for folks who have favorite cards but want to take a variable approach to playing them?

We’re not going to be able to avoid “good stuff” cards in our primary colors, but we’ll look for opportunities to play some favorites as opposed to cards
which are “strictly better” (a term I have a fair amount of disdain for). The whole idea of this is getting to play cards you love in multiple incarnations
— and not have to build three full decks to do it. I suppose you could also build a fourth that’s just the two primary colors as well.

The first thing to choose is the primary color set. The obvious choice (and certainly my first idea) is green and blue, the two best colors in the format.
Those aren’t my two favorite colors, though. I think I’ll go with green and black. I very much love my own graveyard, and even though graveyard hate is
getting better and better (Pharika, God of Affliction really upsets many of my plans), we’re going to go with the green/black base. The trick will to be to
build a core and then make the colors of the other three decks synergize with it in different ways.

The Core

The core of the deck needs to be the chassis on which we can put different bodies. It has to do the basic things like have win conditions, smooth or ramp
mana, be able to take care of problematic permanents, and protect our resources. Fortunately, our core colors can do all of these things.

Our next thought has to be what the rough size of the core is. Assuming that we’ll target 62 nonland cards (although that number may slide 1-2 in either
direction, depending on the deck we build), we’ll target the number of core cards at slightly more than two-thirds (which is 42). Let’s call it 45 for now.
That will give us 17 or so cards to swap in and out with each build, plus appropriate lands — although we’ll try to come up with clever ways to keep the
number of those to a minimum.

The next decision is what we want our core to do. If we were in the aforementioned green/blue, we might consider a more controlling strategy or doing lots
of stuff that would tap and untap permanents (maybe there’s the spot to make the modular inspired deck, since you could leverage the inspired creatures of
all five colors). I’ve already mentioned the graveyard, so I think I’d like to head this in the direction of Recurring Toolbox Monsters (as opposed to
dumping a whole pile of creatures into the graveyard and reanimating them en masse, like with Living Death). This means that creatures are going
to do all the heavy lifting, probably through enters-the-battlefield effects, but we’ll ensure that we’re not too one-dimensional in that regard. We don’t
want to get the whole deck shut down by Torpor Orb. We’ll also do some things that ensure Grafdigger’s Cage can’t completely ruin our day.

We’re pretty familiar with the great enters-the-battlefield trigger creatures, so we’ll put them on the back burner for the moment. I did a Gatherer search
on black and green color identity creatures which have activated abilities that destroy things. There are 56, but many of them are too narrow. The ones I
added to the consideration list are: Avatar of Woe; Druid Lyrist; Eastern Paladin; Eater of Hope; Elf Replica; Elvish Scrapper; Elvish Skysweeper; Glissa
Sunseeker; Helldozer; Kalitas, Bloodchief of Ghet; Notorious Assassin; Nullmage Shepherd; Plaguebearer; Possessed Centaur; Rathi Assassin; Repentant
Vampire; Royal Assassin; Skyshooter; Stronghold Assassin; Sylvok Replica; Viridian Zealot; Visara the Dreadful; Wall of Corpses; Western Paladin;
Wickerbough Elder; and Woodripper.

We’ll want flexibility out of these. The ones that jump out at me immediately are Avatar of Woe, Glissa, Sylvok Replica, Viridian Zealot, and Wickerbough
Elder. We’ll put them on the short list along with two of my favorites, Nantuko Vigilante and Nullmage Advocate. When we later want to fill in the last
spots, we’ll consider some of the others. I’d really love to find room for Kalitas — it’s one of those creatures I keep putting in decks and taking out,
but I’ve been playing him in decks without green to help him get there, so maybe this is a viable place for him.

As far as our ramp suite goes, dedicating about eight cards to it seems right. Two each at CMC two, three, and four gives us Rampant Growth, Sakura-Tribe
Elder, Wood Elves, Farhaven Elf, Explosive Vegetation, and Solemn Simulacrum. For the other two, we’ll go with the awesome Cultivate and the
graveyard-feeding Burnished Hart. Skyshoud Claim might seem better than Explosive Vegetation, but it gets only Forest cards, and since I have the idea to
not play too many nonbasics (we’ll get to that in a bit, but no, I don’t think I want to play Hermit Druid) and we want flexibility in whichever deck we’re
playing, we’ll stick with the latter. You’re probably thinking right now about Yavimaya Elder. He doesn’t really qualify as ramp, but we love the old man,
so in he goes. We’re going to add one more kind-of ramp, kind-of beater, and one of my long-time favorites: Seedguide Ash.

The last of our utility creatures will be those with enters-the-battlefield abilities. Boneshredder seems perfect for the deck because it gets rid of a
creature and it feeds the graveyard. We could also use an evoked Shriekmaw for that purpose. Acidic Slime is a natural, as is my old favorite Big Game
Hunter. Let’s leave the big guns, like Woodfall Primus and Terastodon, for later consideration along with our big beaters.

By my count, we have 21 cards, or roughly half of our allotment. Many of those slots are dedicated to stuff you’ve seen before, the previously-mentioned
“good stuff” cards. Again, it’s not my normal direction, but in a project like this there has to be some surrender to the value of the usual warhorses so
that you can do the kinds of things you want to do. Let’s see how we can spread our wings a little on the other half of the cards.

We’re going to want to do three basic things with the rest of deck: put stuff into the graveyard, reanimate things out of it (again, mostly one at a time),
and beat down with big monsters. We’ll also need to do a few more utility things, like the ability to control other players’ graveyards and draw cards. It
seems like the three gods in our colors (Erebos, God of the Dead; Nylea, God of the Hunt; and Pharika, God of Affliction) will help a great deal with that,
so in they go. Oversold Cemetery will help reusing our yard at no additional cost. Sheoldred, Whispering One, the least offensive of all the praetors,
also fits here. The awesome card that both puts something in the yard and brings (two) something(s) out is Victimize. Note that the sacrifice is not an
additional cost to cast the spell. You sacrifice something on resolution, and if you do, put the two targets onto the battlefield.

Getting stuff into the graveyard is a tricky thing. The big thing about this deck is not wanting to over-commit, opening ourselves to a huge blowout. I
don’t want to do too much self-milling in the core, although we might consider some of it in the blue version. We also want to have some control over when creatures go to the yard. The three major pieces here will be Phyrexian Plaguelord, Phyrexian Altar, and Greater Good (the latter also being
a card-drawer). We’ll also add Phyrexian Tower to the land base for this purpose.

Let’s talk about the beef next. We want to think about big creatures with great cost-to-power ratio. The first one I want to add is Multani, Maro-Sorcerer.
Despite not having any evasion, he’s going to change the narrative of any game he’s in, especially if Nylea is on the battlefield. Lord of Extinction is
next on our hit parade of creatures with disproportionate power. I can’t escape themes, so I’d like to explore the idea of demons here — they tend to have
more power than CMC, but some come with downsides. Since we’ll have sacrifice outlets, we can deal with them. We’ll add Abyssal Persecutor (which can
create insane situations in multiplayer games), Bloodgift Demon, Lord of the Pit, Lord of the Void, Reaper from the Abyss, Shadowborn Demon, and Xathrid
Demon. We’ll keep in mind when we’re adding our other colors that our creatures will get sacrificed to our demons, so we’ll remember creatures with “dies”
triggers. Speaking of which, we have to have at least one of Butcher of Malakir, Grave Pact, or Dictate of Erebos. Because we’re a creature-heavy deck,
let’s go with the Butcher.

By my count, we’re now at 40 cards. We still need a little more reanimation for our creatures, both in putting them back into the hand and onto the
battlefield. I’m a huge fan of Phyrexian Reclamation as a way to both recast things and save them from graveyard hate. Cauldron of Souls is a criminally
underplayed card in the format, so we’ll add that as a hidden gem. As reanimation spells go, there are arguments for both Dread Return and Makeshift
Mannequin. The strength of the former is that you get to cast it twice; the latter is an instant. Going again with the flexibility, we’ll go with Makeshift
Mannequin. I want at least one mass reanimation spell, so we’ll go with Rise of the Dark Realms over my more common choice of Living Death. We don’t have
any kind of mass removal in the core. When we build the white deck we’ll have some choices, but we’ll add Pernicious Deed and Decree of Pain because
they’re the class of our colors. Finally, I want to add at least one Fog effect. Tangle and Spore Cloud are my personal favorites. We’ll go with Tangle
because Spore Cloud is in several other decks.

Two great cards for this deck which I’ve avoided because they’re overplayed are Puppeteer Clique and Sepulchral Primordial. They would go extremely well,
but we’ve used enough old favorites that I think we can avoid them. Also missing is Eternal Witness. We’ve also gone tutorless. The biggest temptation here
is to add Survival of the Fittest. It will put cards in the graveyard as well as getting the creature you want or need into your hand. Another card that I
had considered from the beginning is Primal Order. I wanted to build a nonbasic-light mana base and wreck the greedy people. It just didn’t fit.

The nonbasic lands will need to be capable of producing our core colors and tertiary color. City of Brass, Rupture Spire, Mana Confluence, Exotic Orchard,
and Forbidden Orchard all have a spot. We’ll keep the budget reasonable by including Overgrown Tomb but not Bayou. We don’t have too many
enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands, so I’ll also include Temple of Malady. In the land slots for the other colors, I think the appropriate temples will
fit, as well as Tainted Peak, Tainted Isle, or Tainted Field. I’m replacing Wasteland in all my decks with Ghost Quarter for budgetary concerns. Foil
Wasteland has gotten so crazy in price that I don’t want to hang onto them anymore. Ghost Quarter is also friendlier. For fetchlands, we’ll run with
Terramorphic Expanse and Evolving Wilds so that we can get whatever we need when it comes to that third color.

With lands in, here’s the core list:


Cauldron of Souls

Phyrexian Altar


Burnished Hart

Solemn Simulacrum

Sylvok Replica


Abyssal Persecutor

Acidic Slime

Avatar of Woe

Big Game Hunter

Bloodgift Demon

Bone Shredder

Butcher of Malakir

Farhaven Elf

Lord of Extinction

Lord of the Pit

Lord of the Void

Nantuko Vigilante

Nullmage Advocate

Phyrexian Plaguelord

Reaper from the Abyss

Sakura-Tribe Elder

Seedguide Ash

Shadowborn Demon


Viridian Zealot

Wickerbough Elder

Wood Elves

Xathrid Demon

Yavimaya Elder


Erebos, God of the Dead

Glissa Sunseeker

Multani, Maro-Sorcerer

Nylea, God of the Hunt

Pharika, God of Affliction

Sheoldred, Whispering One


Greater Good

Oversold Cemetery

Pernicious Deed

Phyrexian Reclamation


Makeshift Mannequin




Decree of Pain

Explosive Vegetation

Rampant Growth

Rise of the Dark Realms



City of Brass

Evolving Wilds

Exotic Orchard

Forbidden Orchard

Mana Confluence

Rupture Spire

Tainted Wood

Temple of Malady

Terramorphic Expanse


Phyrexian Tower


Forest 8

Swamp 10

With 47 cards in the core, we’ll have 15 additional cards to work with in each of our three decks. When we pick up in Part 2, we’ll first have to decide
how we want to approach the Jund, BUG, and BWG builds, how to synergize each of them with what the core does, and most importantly, pick commanders that do
the things we want or need to do. If you have thoughts on which directions might be cool to go, speak up!

As always, here’s the latest version of one of my 28 decks, presented without comment (although feel free to comment on it yourself if you like).