We’ve all been there, created a great list, scoured for the best cards that fit our strategy and then you play your deck … and it flops. Or maybe you already have a great list, and a new set comes out introducing some spice. Either way, tuning a Commander deck is a natural part of the format, and can be a lot of fun. I have some decks I’ve tweaked two or three times and others that I tweak every few months, it’s quite surprising how much a deck can change when you swap out 20 cards. For this article, I’ll focus in on early tuning, specifically how to make systematic adjustments to get your deck where you want it to be.
If you haven’t yet, the first place to start is with play-testing, and it’s important to play test a few times before you start making tweaks. Either with a group in a friendly game or goldfishing will suffice, but you’ll want to keep track of a few things as you do:
- Amount of extra cards you’ve drawn
- How many land-drops you hit
- How much you’ve ramped
- If you’ve felt that you needed something you didn’t have (like a removal spell)
- What prevented your deck from going off
- How many different strategies were you trying to implement
- What turn the game ended on
Of course, playing actual games will give you a better idea of what your deck needs, but goldfishing can be a good proxy if you need to figure out the mechanics (ramp, land-drops and card draw). Need more ramp and don’t have access to green? Try adding a Sapphire Medallion or Herald’s Horn if you’re on a tribal list. Or maybe you need some card draw — don’t overlook Harmonize or Read the Bones. Along with collecting the above information, it’s also important to take a step back and review what your deck’s strategy is. For myself, I often find that I try to do too many things with a deck, when sometimes the themes or strategies would be better in separate lists. I’ve spooled up quite a few lists by splitting out a sub-theme and building around it — that’s how my Thantis, the Warweaver Reanimator deck came to be. Sometimes you’ve got to hone in on what you want out of your deck rather than playing all the fun stuff.
You may also find a new strategy while playing that you want to pursue, and you should lean in if so. This new strategy may have arisen from a sub-strategy in the original list, or stumbling upon an interaction you didn’t catch in the first draft. Sometimes these can be the most rewarding to build. Take my Kresh deck as an example, it originally started as a +1/+1 counter deck with Fling as a back up plan. After some play-tests I found that the tossing strategy was quite strong, and I refocused it to make one creature big enough to kill everyone (thanks Chandra’s Ignition). Whatever strategy your deck aims to employ, it should be focused — try to do one thing, and do it really well.
Once you’ve refined your decks strategy and pared it down, you can start digging into resolving some of the problems you identified in play-testing. If you felt that your deck was clunky or that you didn’t get the pieces you needed you should add more draw. Didn’t hit all your land-drops, you should increase your ramp (yes, ramp is very important in Commander). You could change the number of lands in your mana base, but adding more draw and more ramp will be a more effective way to solve the problem as it’ll help your main strategy as well. Before you actually get to adding the cards though, you’ll want to take a look at your mana curve. Reducing the average CMC of your deck will help a lot, so if you have any high cost cards, you should consider cutting them in favour of options you’ll be able to cast. Your curve should be heavier on lower cost cards, and have a few higher cast cards, but you should also consider when you want your deck to pop off, as that will inform how high your curve should go. If you like longer games in the turn twelve+ range, you’ll be able to play more high CMC cards than if you want your games to wrap up by turn eight.
Before you get to picking your cards that you want to switch in, you should take a look at how many cards meet your different criteria. My typical spread looks like fifteen ramp spells, fifteen draw spells, five targeted removal and three wraths, along with a target of fifteen or more for cards that drive my primary strategy. Based on that count it would be fifty three and my standard mana base is thirty-six lands, which leaves about ten cards for wiggle room — it’s critical to find cards that fill multiple roles so you can have more wiggle room for what your deck needs, whether it’s more removal or more core strategy pieces. Now fifteen is an important number for Commander decks, because it’s the number of cards we want in our deck that fit a specific role to make us reliably have one in our opening hand (roughly 70 per cent, increasing the number of successful targets will increase that % further). The bottom line is you should be trying to draw as many cards as you can, and you should be using that to fuel your main strategy.
Now with a tight strategy and new success targets defined you can start to make changes. As hard as it can be, taking out cards that don’t push your strategy forward should be the first to go — these will often be the fun cards, so I’d recommend making these cuts to your preference. If you can cut sub-strategies that can help, and you should be on the lookout for cards that fit multiple roles like Deathsprout. These modal cards can open up more slots for main strategy cards, which will increase that opening hand hit rate. When making your cuts, you should be mindful of the CMC, try to bring your curve down if needed by removing high cost cards in favour of low cost ones. You’ll also want to take another look at coloured mana requirements, but it’s best to do that once you’ve made all your swaps (for a refresher on building a mana base, you can check out this article).
After you’ve made your tweaks and adjusted your mana base, it’s back to playtesting. After a few cycles following this approach you should find that your deck is more consistent, and that you’re able to do what the deck is intended to do. To really bring this home, let’s walk through an example with a list I’m currently tuning.
Pramikon, Aeon Engine Mechanic
Strategy: Get an Aeon Engine in play and then make a bunch of copies to give one opponent infinite turns. To do this, we’ll need to make lots of copies of Aeon Engine, and we can do this by making tokens, then changing them with Brudiclad, Telchor Engineer. Since we’re planning on having tokens to transform, treasure seems like a good fit. A small flicker package is added to get full value out of Dockside Extortionist. Along with Pramikon, Sky Rampart, the list runs a few other Pillowfort effects to keep attacks at bay while we set up the combo.
Play-testing Results: This deck flopped hard in almost every game I played, with one exception. Most turns I felt like I had two out of three pieces needed for the combo, often desperately needing Aeon Engine — too bad it can’t go in the Command zone. I was able to hit most land drops, and felt that I had appropriate removal/staying power with Pillowfort effects.The treasure theme and flicker sub-theme felt kind of “meh”, and didn’t seem to have a big enough impact. Looking at the deck stats, it’s obvious why this deck was floundering — there’s no way to get the combo together if you’re not drawing cards.
Pramikon, Aeon Engine Mechanic – Bryan Smith
Pramikon, Aeon Engine Mechanic v2
Sticking with the same strategy, I’ll be running play-tests with this revised list.
With these tweaks, I expect Pramikon will be closer to complete, but there’s likely a few more iterations of tweaks to go yet. I removed 15 cards total, dropping the flicker effects and most of the treasure cards. I pumped up the draw, added some other token generators and slid in a few more tutors to get Aeon Engine or a supporting draw/ramp/pillowfort enchantment.
Tuning your lists should be driven by what you want the list to do. The best route is always to go for more consistency, and to tighten up your strategy where you can. Making revisions can be an exciting part of Commander, as decks can evolve into something completely different after a few iterations of play-testing and making adjustments. Happy tuning!
Pramikon, Aeon Engine Mechanic V2 – Bryan Smith