Ready For Commander?
Commander, also called "EDH" (stands for "Elder Dragon Highlander," an outdated in-joke), is the most popular format of the collectible trading card game Magic: The Gathering, counting over-all formats.
While EDH doesn't appear much in competitive formats when the tournament is over, and the last booster box handed out, look for the players to be huddled up in the corner over a Commander game.
It has every reason to be popular; it is the only MTG format created entirely by the fans of the game, where the game's makers, Wizards of the Coast, picked up on the idea after the fact and now market products exclusively to EDH players.
But Commander is also the most daunting format to enter. While other formats have limited deck-building constraints and force a more linear strategy, Commander is open to the wind. It utilizes more individual cards from MTG history than any other format save Vintage and has the widest variety of viable strategies and archetypes.
At the same time, it has restrictions unlike any other format: Only one copy of each card save basic lands, the cards all have to agree with the commander's color identity, and it must have exactly 100 cards (counting the commander - or "commanders" now that the 'partner' keyword is a thing).
This leaves new players frustrated with no idea where to begin. And that's where this article comes in. We're going to assume you already know the basics of Magic: The Gathering, otherwise, you probably wouldn't have explored far enough to seek out this article.
The Commander Philosophy:
Here are some general rules of thumb to keep in mind:
- There's a huge difference between the "just for fun" players and the "spikes." EDH is a format where it's possible to guaranteed win in 3 turns or less, like Legacy. Try to feel out your intended playgroup to see where they fall on the casual-vs-competitive spectrum.
- You'll have to think "bigger" if you're coming from other formats. Cards that top other formats, like Lightning Bolt, Tarmogoyf, or Thoughtseize, just don't have as much of an impact in EDH.
- The most versatile card always wins. There is no room in EDH for vanilla beat sticks or limited-target removal. Make each card in your deck do as many different functions as you can squeeze out of it.
- Mana ramp and card advantage are ten times more important than in any other format. When building a deck, set up your mana and draw engines first, and never build a deck without a tutor.
- Your first deck will fail. So will your fifth deck. It takes time and practice to get it right. Stick with it, accept that you're going to make mistakes and have plans go awry, and learn from experience.
- Budget need not be a constraint. By 2018 prices, a perfectly competitive deck can be within $150. Viable mid-level decks exist in the range of less than $100.
- "Redundancy" is a wonderful word. Just because you're limited to one copy of each card doesn't mean you can't have ten cards doing the same thing. If Counterspell is good in your deck, then so is Arcane Denial, Disallow, or Pact of Negation.
With all that said, this is the most popular casual format for a reason: It is the perfect arena for creativity! Every wild and crazy idea you've ever thought of probably has a home somewhere in EDH. It's the perfect format for splashy plays, outrageous stunts, and freedom of expression in deck-building.
Now, the Present Author will share a personal little deck-building philosophy: An EDH deck is like an animal. It has to breathe (mana), it has to move (card draw and tutor), it has to have a plan of attack, and it has to have a plan of defense. It helps to see a deck as an organism, specialized in a niche sometimes but having a plan nevertheless.
We all know that a turtle, a rabbit, and a skunk all have a defense plan (hide in a shell, run away fast, or meet aggression with a nasty counter-attack), but you wouldn't want a shell on a rabbit (weighing it down so it can't run) or musk glands on a turtle (it can't turn around fast enough to count). Similarly, know what works for a Commander and your chosen strategy.
There are vast resources online for determining popular cards, and in recent years EDHRec.com has emerged as the best. We'll circle back to how to use that resource later. For now, we're going to skip over the full list of available commanders and archetypes and assume you have a commander in mind.
Our only caveat is: There are two general categories of the commander: there's the linear (build-around-me) and the open (anything goes). Try to choose a general-purpose commander that allows open "good stuff" build, giving you as many options open as possible. Here's an example of what we mean, using the Grixis color trio:
Jeleva, Nephalia's Scourge - She exiles cards off your deck and can only cast instants and sorceries once she's connected in combat. She wants combat for herself, while eating cards off your deck if they're not spells; then she's only as good as the free spell you're getting to cast. This is highly constrained and difficult to pilot.
Marchesa, the Black Rose - She's less constrained, but still requires you to have the lowest life total all game long to be effective, and wants creatures in combat at the same time. She wants an aggressive strategy, but she's also something of a re-animator. Not back-breaking, but still difficult to build right.
Kess, Dissident Mage - All Kess asks is that you have instant and sorcery cards in your graveyard at some point. And then you get a nice bonus; Kess functions like a Snapcaster Mage once per turn, without even the need to bounce. It's easy to build a general strategy around Kess, and Grixis colors give you a great choice in spell-slinging strategies.
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Like training wheels on a bicycle, this template is a rule made to be broken after you get enough experience, but it's a good beginner's start:
Take this diagram as a general rule of thumb. It shows 63 card slots, not counting the 36 lands, considered the minimum land in EDH. It shows six columns of ten cards each and three extra at the bottom. Let's explain those columns:
- Win conditions (win-cons). The cards you will need to win the game. If it wins through combat, these are your best creatures. If it wins through commander damage (called "Voltron"), this is your equipment. If it wins through infinite combos, they go here.
- Backup. This can be either extended win-cons from column 1 or alternate win-cons in case your first plan failed. Good decks have many paths to victory. Think of it more like insurance: If you must have your commander on the field to win and your opponent keeps killing it, this is your "answer to their answer," be it graveyard recursion, hexproof equipment, and so on.
- Defense. This is where you think about how to stop your opponents from winning. Your removal, counterspells, sweepers, and other defensive measures go here.
- Gimmicks. This is the most flexible column; you can save it for "just for fun" cards, redundant support for your other strategies, or the extra column for whatever your deck wants to do. Control decks just make this the second column of answers from column 3.
- Card advantage. Mandatory at least ten cards. This can be draw spells, draw engines, tutors, whatever you can get to stuff cards into your hand.
- Mana. Also mandatory ten cards. This can be mana rocks like Sol Ring, mana dorks like Birds of Paradise, or land tutoring spells like Cultivate.
- Flex spots - If your commander is mana-hungry, run more mana here. If your deck seems too slow, run more card advantage here. Add it to whatever category you need.
Using this general map, lay out your cards on a nice big table and think of the primary purpose of each card. Take a card like Yavimaya Elder; he's a basic land fetch on legs but he also cantrips for (2) mana. He can go in either category, but best to put him in the mana ramp slot.
For general-purpose commanders that work with "good stuff," this template will be your best starting point. From here, test the deck, and over time pull and replace cards that don't turn out to be a good idea.
One further suggestion is to punch the deck in on TappedOut.net, so you have a record of it and even if you disassemble the deck and then later want to rebuild it, you have a record of the last most viable build.
The Perils of Netdecking
"Netdecking" means finding a decklist online and copying it for your deck. There's nothing wrong with that! You'll hear players complain about netdecking if their opponent is playing a popular, powerful deck, but ignore that.
Here's the real problem with netdecking, coming back to EDHRec.com being a site you can misuse: If you copy a decklist blindly, you're not going to pilot it very well if you don't understand why those cards belong in that deck.
If you pick a commander and go to EDHRec to look it up, you'll see hundreds of cards to choose from that are all the most popular cards statistically.
If you run out and buy Magic cards based on this list, you're liable to be disappointed, because you're picking based on popularity, not how you play, what level your playgroup runs, what decks you commonly face, and so on. For instance, Sol Ring is probably the most-played card in EDH.
But does it go in every deck? If you have a deck that already ramps hard (green), loves mana dorks, and hates on artifacts (Bane of Progress), then no!
Just take it with a grain of salt. It's still advisable to keep an eye on EDHRec while you're building, for inspiration, but it's not your bible.
EDH Deck-Building Resources:
Other resources to help beginning EDH deck-builders:
- BIG EDH deck-building guide - Outdated (the Commander tuck rule doesn't apply anymore), but still good in places.
- Mana Base Crafter - Full available land listing per commander.
- Scryfall - A far better card search than WotC.
- EDH Commander Card Reference - The perfect resource for seeking out cards in a specific category. Up-to-date and well-maintained!
Thanks for joining us on this little tutorial, and have fun out there. We'll see you at the tables!
"Penguin" Pete Trbovich - http://penguinpetes.com/