Commanding Commander Primer

Building a Commander deck can be incredibly easy, or incredibly complex. It all depends on your personal style, and how much you let that affect the deckbuilding process. I envy the people that just jam the 55-60 cards they enjoy the most into their decks because really, the game is about having fun, and who cares if maybe your deck isn’t ‘optimal,’ whatever that means. The best part of being part of ‘those people,’ is that they never get stressed when their deck doesn’t do what it was intended to do, because really it wasn’t designed with a specific purpose in mind beyond “I want to play these spells.”

I’m part of the other end of the spectrum. Perfection in form and function are my goals when building a deck, and I seek endlessly to improve upon existing designs to create a better gaming experience for everyone. It doesn’t hurt that I usually rack up a ton of points and kills along the way from a successful design, so long as we have fun first. This mindset can make it a truly arduous task to create even the simplest decks. After all, there are sometimes thousands of cards to choose from, and many have very, very subtle differences that can have an impact on the other 98 cards in the deck. Often, I try to force myself to accept the more freewheeling style of deckbuilding, to situate myself somewhere in the middle between purely logical decisions and those made on intuitive impulses. It never fails me to slowly drift back towards perfectionism in design over time however.

It is walking this line between two theories that inspired me to write this article, perhaps the first of a series that explores the depths of the decision making process when designing an EDH deck, using decks I’ve built and played at GG’s league as examples.

Where To Start?

There are two typical ways I begin to design a Commander deck. Either I see a specific spell combination or interaction that I think is interesting, cool, unusual, or fun, or I see a potential General that is a part of an overall theme, be it tribal, or linked to the abilities of the card itself. Think of it as either building from the ground up, or the top down.

Ground Up

Building from the ground up is usually the starting point for a brand new idea. I see a General with potential for interaction with a large variety of cards, like the Mimeoplasm, or Sharuum, the Hegemon, and start to build the core of a deck directly around it. I try not to consider just how many cards I can link to the General since I’m not actually trying to make a 99 card deck with nothing but lands and cards that have synergy with the chosen general. What is actually happening is the formation of the core of a deck; those cards that the deck will collectively be centered around.

For example, I’ve thought for a long time about building a Glissa, the Traitor deck. Glissa is a very obvious choice for a ground up style deck. She has a fairly narrow interaction that is excellent with a specific range of cards. Here’s a quick sample of the skeleton of a Glissa core:

  • Oblivion Stone
  • Lifespark Spellbomb
  • Executioner’s Capsule
  • Engineered Explosives
  • Necrotic Spellbomb
  • Nihil Spellbomb
  • Horizon Spellbomb
  • Ratchet Bomb
  • Expedition Map
  • Wayfarer’s Bauble
  • Thornbite Staff

There are plenty of other great interactions available to Glissa, but these are the ones that have a very basic theme, or in this case, two. This core can draw cards and destroy stuff. Yes, this is only a dozen or so cards, but that is what cores usually are, and they end up being what defines how your deck functions since when you do draw them, you are certain to have the interaction you desired with your general. You can play around with the other 20-30 spells, but unless you stray very far from your overall theme of artifacts in your yard and your opponents’ creatures dying, this is what your deck will do. This can be very important is determining whether you should even spend more time going forward. Sometimes, I’ll build a deck and realize I don’t even like what it does. The previously mentioned Glissa, the Traitor deck is a prime example of this in action. When I finally built it, I realized all it did was draw cards and blow up stuff. It had no ability to close out games, or truly take advantage of a full grip and a crippled opponent other than serving for three with Glissa.

The other way to build from the ground up is to make your deck ‘thematic’ in some way, whether it be creature type, spell type, or a milling deck. These decks do not start with the General at times since finding the correct colors to best suit your theme is more important. Take Treefolk as a theme for a moment. One might think that having a Treefolk deck means having a Mono-Green deck because Verdeloth the Ancient is pretty good, but someone else could say that a B/G deck is more interesting with Colfenor. Still someone else might like Doran, and believes that there are enough good white cards that play well with Treefolk to want Doran over Colfenor. The point is, don’t bottleneck yourself into a color combinaton before finding out if it’s actually the one you want to use when you’re building on theme.

Top Down

Top Down is a far more difficult method for achieving success, and can often lead down a fairly dark path in terms of just how much fun everyone has. Building from the top means focusing in on some very specific interactions, like Starstorm + Reprecussion, or Stuffy Doll + some doubling effect like Rage Reflection, Furnace of Rath, or Gratuitous Violence. I say that this approach can lead to the dark side of Commander(unfun stuff happening) because often, when you assemble your desired cards, at least one person really stops having fun, usually because they are dead or under the control of someone else. Mindcrank + Bloodchief’s Ascension, or Academy Ruins + Mindslaver are common example of how people end up doing unfun stuff to people, not because they are winning the game, but because they cut short an enjoyable game by assembling a two card combo with the intent of just killing everyone.

Building this way isn’t always nasty and mean. My first Commander deck was Zo-Zu, the Punisher. It was built from the top down, and had several of the aforementioned cards like Stuffy Doll, Fire Servant, and other fun stuff. People disliked the deck, but only mainly because of the general, who played a support role by pecking away at life totals until people were in range of the long guns. There were no tutors in the deck(Gamble was an option though), and that kept each draw fairly fresh and different. I often killed everyone at once, myself included, and people never seemed to get tired of seeing it, even after the inevitable groaning from seeing Zo-Zu on turn three every time.

The Other 40ish

No deck really needs to function purely from the power it’s core cards provides. Even something like an Elf deck doesn’t even WANT all the Elves it could choose from. It wants a little raw power, and a bit of support to shore up bad draws or problematic strategies opponents will use against you. I once had a Commander deck centered around Elves in fact. I waffled back and forth between Green and Green/Black for a long time. In the end, I felt that Nath, although a generally inferior General to Ezuri, allowed Black to support the rest of the deck very well. Black provided Living Death and Patriarch’s Bidding to undo board sweepers, Prowess of the Fair to discourage them in the first place, just a smattering of tutoring power to get the cards I wanted, and a few neat Black Elves I wanted access to anyway. If my deck was nothing but synergy, with three people watching me build up some massive Elf army, it was a certainty that someone would get nervous watching me build a bigger arsenal than the Russians did and just proactively Wrath, or cripple me in some other way without actual provocation. A deck almost always wants, or NEEDS, support to survive what other players will do to them.


Some spells just scream to be included in a Commander deck. A Green deck almost always wants Primeval Titan, Cultivate and Kodama’s Reach. A Black deck almost always wants Demonic and Vampiric Tutors. Every deck wants a Sol Ring(a card I think should be banned. Draws including it are so much more powerful than ones without that it sometimes just isn’t fun. It also is a mandatory inclusion in 99% of Commander decks). You don’t have to include any one particular card in any deck, but experience from building dozens of decks has taught me that, at least for me, I tend to include some of the same cards in most decks of a certain color, dependent on what it is paired with. Harmonize makes every Green deck when not paired with Blue. Seer’s Sundial, Mind’s Eye, or Liar’s Pendulum makes the cut when I’m not Blue as well. White has the best removal overall. Swords to Plowshares, Path to Exile, and Condemn just trumps almost everything. I could go on and on about staples, but all you really have to know is that it’s OK to have them. They are in every deck because they ARE powerful, and there’s nothing wrong with having 10-15 cards in your deck that feel very ‘old hat.’ They provide stability and power to your overall strategy without overshadowing it.

Shoring Up

This was mostly covered above in the intro to Support, but it’s worth reiteration, with a reminder that your deck does not function in a vacuum. Other people are out there to kill you, and you need to play accordingly. If your Elf deck can’t remove an Enchantment, how are you going to beat Moat? Or the 15 Wrath effects your combined opponents have? Interacting is the heart of Commander, and it serves you best when you interact with their problematic cards you can’t beat. There is nothing wrong with having the trio of Decimate, Hull Breach, and Beast Within in a R/G deck. It may not be directly supportive of your plan, but since you face the unknown, it’s a good idea to take the equivalent of a broad shotgun blast of removal rather than the stopping power of an accurate rifle shot.

The Icing

This is the fun part. Usually when building a deck, I end up with 5-10 spots leftover, and nothing that I really feel the need to include. What you do now depends on how you started. If you built from the Ground Up, now is the time to consider some very specific favorable interactions you can create without going overboard and screwing up the ideology of your deck. These slots are usually the ones I constantly tinker with, trying out different ideas within the same shell. Often times it just won’t work out, like Vicious Shadows in my Wort deck from a few weeks back. Sure, it’s a great card, and is generally considered great Top Down design with Red removal. The problem was that it went too far towards the dark side of design, and when I played it, people died quickly and in an unfun way. Other times, we find a winner. Being a part of the ‘Icing’ is how I discovered how awesome Wort, the Raidmother is in the first place. Don’t be afraid to do something weird with the remaining 10% of your deck; it can be the starting point for brand new concepts and ideas if it turns out you like what’s happening.

All of the above is really just a primer on what’s going on mentally as I construct Commander decks. I know that not everyone thinks the way I do about this, but it never hurts to see things from a new point of view. This primer also prepares a reader for an upcoming mini-series I’m working on, where I break down a deck I’ve built using the concepts presented here, and probably tinker with it a little, showing a easy way to look at an entire Commander deck on the table without just jamming everyone onto a mana curve that really doesn’t make a ton of sense.

Up first(probably), my current pet deck, Wort, the Raidmother!




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