At this point, I am going to operate under the assumption that you, the reader, has taken it upon yourself to build a Commander deck. You have it and you probably want to start using it. For the moment, I am going to set deck construction aside and instead talk about the format of Commander itself.
There are three primary environments in which to sample Commander:
1. The Playgroup
2. The Local Community
3. The Large-Scale Event
The playgroup is small, usually consists of people you know, and usually throws down wherever there is an available kitchen table. As you build and grow your Commander deck for use in the playgroup environment, it will probably evolve in unexpected ways. Your card choices will be determined by what those around you are playing and how they like to play.
Every playgroup is different and there is no way to speak in generalities about what you should expect from an iconoclastic group of friends. The only general advice I could give you for improving your deck in a playgroup environment is to start with the cards you love and then play lots of games to find what works for you and your group. The playgroup environment is difficult to predict because of how common “house rules” are. Since Commander has no sanctioned competitive events, there is no true incentive to adhere to what the Rules Committee suggests.
Things change when you venture beyond your friends, their beer, and their comfortable living spaces.
A Big, Scary Place
If you decide to try Commander in your local community or at a large scale event, you will be entering a completely different world. Generally speaking, if you are playing Commander at your local game store’s league or at a Grand Prix in a side event, you will find the environment more rigidly structured. For the sake of having a common standard, the word of the Rules Committee will be taken as gospel.
Politics change once you go beyond the kitchen table, becoming both more and less complex. Since most games played in a tournament or league environment will have an incentive for victory, you are more likely to find people playing a cutthroat game of Magic. With more people trying to achieve out-and-out victory, politics will be less influential on the game. At the same time, finding out how to use the multiplayer environment to your advantage will be harder.
The transition from playing casually against your friends to playing in the outside world can be jarring. For example – say you’re used to playing with slightly modified Commander pre-constructed decks. One day you’re buying cards and see two other Commander players shuffling up. You sit down and join a game with a well-tuned Zur the Enchanter and Marchesa, the Black Rose. Up until now, you have been used to being on par with the other players at the table, but suddenly you find yourself struggling with the new level of competition.
I feel like I can speak with some authority when I say that most die-hard Commander players cut their teeth at kitchen tables. Most of you reading this can probably relate to being the pre-constructed player in my above example. I am writing today’s article for that brave explorer. I am hoping to speak to those making the transition from home gaming to a more public venue.
List and Shout
It is impossible to prepare for every card you will encounter out in the world of Commander. There are just SO MANY specific cards that can be played. However, there are certain categories of cards that will appear with startling regularity. Being prepared to encounter these particular pieces of strategy can give you an idea of what Commander looks like when it is being played by people who are not your immediate group of friends
I have a soft spot for easily digestible lists. I definitely click an embarrassing number of Buzzfeed articles in my Facebook feed. So today, I am making a list for you, my loyal reader.
May I present:
Jackson’s List of Ten Cards That Help Define Commander
Before I continue, I should note – I am not telling you to look out for these cards in particular, I am instead warning you about what these cards embody. The cards on this list are emblematic of certain “staple” parts of a Commander deck according to the conventional wisdom of the format.
10. Swords to Plowshares
Swords to Plowshares represents the pinnacle of efficient removal. For the low, low price of one mana, you can permanently remove a threat from the game at instant speed. The fact that it can be repurposed to save yourself in a pinch is just gravy on the turkey.
Commander decks tend to come with loads of removal aimed at taking out one or two specific targets. When you are looking at targeted removal, Swords to Plowshares is the Platonic Ideal. Every time someone selects a spell to kill something, they are trying to get it as close to Swords to Plowshares as possible.
When you sit down to play with scary strangers, you can be sure that they are going to be trying to kill the things you play with very good cards. You can never rely on any of your threats to last long enough to end the game. Whenever you are casting something powerful enough to be a target, you can expect to find your foes ready to react.
You don’t always have to be playing around removal, but you will certainly have to keep in mind that getting hit by it is always a possibility.
9. Eternal Witness
(One of the reasons) Swords to Plowshares is the ideal for pin-point removal is because it exiles its target rather than sending it to the graveyard. Throughout Magic’s storied history, every colour has been blessed with ways to draw strength from expended resources, and in Commander those blessings are exploited as much as they can be.
From black’s obvious cards – like Reanimate – to more esoteric options like red’s Surreal Memoir, Commander decks are loaded with ways to make sure their cards come back for a second go. If you breathe a sigh of relief after destroying their Oblivion Ring, be very aware it can return on the back of a Sun Titan.
Figuring out whether or not you should remove something can be nerve-wracking, especially against an unfamiliar deck. You will get blown out by cards like Faith’s Reward from time-to-time, but learning how to weigh the risks of such a consequence when making your plays will ultimately make you a better player.
8. Sol Ring
Some Aggro and Combo decks will skimp on removal. Some decks with inconvenient colours will skimp on recursion. Most decks out in the world will not miss the chance to ramp their mana. The reason I chose Sol Ring as the prime example of a ramp card is because it is the example with the most raw power. The fact that it can go into literally any deck certainly helps as well.
There are lots of people that choose to avoid Sol Ring for the purposes of either making a statement, or making their decks more unique. You can bet that most of those players are still going to reach for things like Burnished Hart, Myriad Landscape, and Skyshroud Claim. Playing one land a turn is a good way to fall behind the curve in Commander.
The increased resource requirements of Commander are probably the hardest truth for some people to face about the format. If you want to compete in the wider world, you will have to spend at least a deck slot or two on accelerating the pace of your plays.
Solemn Simulacrum is to creatures in Commander what Swords to Plowshares is to removal.
“Enters the battlefield” triggers define which creatures are good in Commander. Primordial Titan and Sylvan Primordial are both banned because of their triggers. Deadeye Navigator is reviled because of the way it interacts with triggers. Roon of the Hidden Realm is a top-tier Commander because of the way he abuses triggers.
Abilities that trigger on leaving the battlefield/hitting the graveyard are close behind on importance. Wurmcoil Engine, Scuttling Doom Engine, and Archon of Justice are all common and powerful choices in Commander decks.
The reason these kinds of triggered abilities are so important is because they essentially combine a creature and a spell into one card. Solemn Simulacrum is the best example of this because the sad robot combines two spells and a creature. Short of eating a counter spell, Solemn is going to be benefitting its controller every moment that it does anything. It arrives, benefit. It blocks/attacks, benefit. It dies, benefit.
The more mileage you can get out of each of your cards, the more “free” slots you have in your deck for other powerful cards. Decks that rely heavily on the synergy of a variety of different cards love Solemn Simulacrum because it leaves lots of room for the cards they need to execute their plans.
6. Krosan Grip
If you are used to playing 60-card constructed, you are probably pretty used to your artifacts and enchantments being safe for the first game of a match. In regular tournament Magic, artifact/enchantment removal is the purview of the sideboard. In Commander, with more variety in the decks, there will almost always be problematic artifacts and enchantments to target with spells like Krosan Grip.
Be as ready to protect your non-creature permanents as you are your creatures. Of course, there isn’t much you can do to protect against Krosan Grip, but simply being aware of it will let you make more informed choices about what you play and when.
5. Consecrated Sphinx
I hate Consecrated Sphinx, but I will grudgingly admit that it has earned its place on this list. I will do this while also proudly announcing that I have never once included it in a deck.
What does Consecrated Sphinx represent? In a word – cards. Pure, unfiltered, endless cards. Part of playing competitively in Commander is staying ahead of each of your opponents. The Sphinx lets you do this in the least subtle way possible. You don’t even have to do anything other than control the Sphinx. Other engines like Mind’s Eye, Rhystic Study, and the classic Necropotence will also be common sights at Commander tables.
The ultimate goal of many of the more tightly constructed Commander decks out there is to make the fact that it is a singleton format irrelevant. Between drawing cards, recurring those that have been expended, and combining as many spells with their creatures as they can, they will play just a consistently as many 60-card decks.
4. Toxic Deluge
The third category of removal mentioned on this list is here because it represents one of the biggest unbalancing factors Commander games. Board-wide removal can take a game you thought was going one way and completely turn it on its ear.
Usually, if the Kaalia of the Vast player slaps down an Avacyn, Archangel of Hope and an Iona, Shield of Emeria – you can bet they are going to stand a pretty good chance at winning. However, if they didn’t name black with Iona, they can still lose everything to a Toxic Deluge. If they didn’t name white, Final Judgement can do them in. Blue has Cyclonic Rift, red has Warp World.
Just like every colour has ways to reuse their graveyard, every colour also has ways to set the board back to zero. Most people who build their Commander decks by painting by the numbers will likely have a board wipe or two for when things aren’t going well for them.
It is always a good idea to keep board wipes in mind when the game shifts into its midway point and real threats start arriving consistently. It can be very easy to overextend and walk into a back-breaking Wrath of God. It is always tempting to embrace overkill, but it is not always wise.
3. Chaos Warp
A long time ago, Magic was very different. The balance between what each of the colours could do was not yet established. It was during this time that cards like Withering Boon, Concordant Crossroads, and Psionic Blast were printed.
Later still, supplementary sets started printing new cards that were not bound by the usual laws of Standard-legal expansions. It is these supplementary sets that brought us Chaos Warp, Hornet Queen, and Song of the Dryads.
If you are a convert to Commander from 60-card constructed, and you have only picked up Magic in the last year or two, let me tell you: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
There is all kinds of weirdness out there, and if it looks like your opponents don’t have anything – beware. There was a time when Obliterate was in red’s portion of the colour pie.
To succeed beyond the kitchen table, you have to cultivate the ability to improvise. Magic can be a bizarre game, but if you embrace the weird and start to think accordingly, whole new vistas of enjoyment open to you.
2. Deadeye Navigator
There are some cards in Magic’s history that are synonymous with abuse of the game’s rules. Most of these cards are open-ended combo enablers. Deadeye Navigator just happens to be the most high-profile of these in Commander. Don’t like the idea of your opponents play spells? Combine him with Mystic Snake or Draining Whelk. Don’t like taking damage, ever? The Navigator and Spike Weaver get along great. Want infinite mana? Combine with Palinchron or Great Whale.
There are countless combinations of creature + Deadeye that make the game swing unfairly towards the combo’s controller. The Navigator is not the only creature with such potential. Palinchron is rarely used fairly, neither is Kiki-Jiki. It’s not a creature but Earthcraft is just as abusable as everything I just listed.
A lot of these cards get set aside in the playgroup environment. Cards that break the balance of the game can generate a lot of ill-will towards those that use them. In the wider world, when you’re less likely to be playing with the same people again and again, players are more willing to put offensively powerful cards in their decks.
The thing is, most of these cards don’t do anything crazy on their own. A lot of players won’t see them as big threats until they witness what they can do. After you have lost some games to Mind Over Matter or Earthcraft, you will know that these somewhat unassuming cards should be far bigger targets than blunt instruments like Inferno Titan.
1. Demonic Tutor
Tutors are present across all colours, and they are a common sight in decks concerned with edging out wins consistently.You can usually tell how competitive a deck is based on how many tutors they are running. Tutors – like recursion, value creatures, and excessive card drawing – are another tool that singleton Commander decks can use to escape the specter of inconsistency.
Demonic Tutor is the straightest example of a tutor out there – but everything from the arguably superior Vampiric Tutor, to the obviously worse Diabolic Tutor sees play. The ability to grab what you need, when you need it, is something that is worth its weight in gold during Commander games.
Go Forth and Conquer
Before I wrap up here, I want to make sure you know that I’m not trying to tell you what you should be playing. You are more than welcome to try your hand at making your mark with whatever cards you enjoy. I am just doing my best to try and prepare you for what is lying in wait beyond the kitchen table.
Commander is frequently billed as an easy-going place where you can experiment with whatever captures your imagination. While it certainly is that, it is also a place where people can freely play some of the most powerful cards in Magic. Sometimes, how one person wants to enjoy Commander won’t always line up with how you want to. If you are ready for this going into the format, you can avoid being discouraged by one or two lousy games.
I know how much fun Commander can be when you give it the chance, and if I can encourage you to give it that chance, I have done my job right.