Imagine you wake up one morning and everything seems normal, but the people you know and love are just a little… off. They look and sound the same but there’s something about the way they are acting that doesn’t seem quite right. Over the course of the day you realize that you have to adjust your behaviour and your mannerisms to these familiar, yet strange people if you want to keep living a normal life.
Yes, that is most of the plot to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it’s also what adjusting to Commander feels like after getting used to 60-card Magic. While you’re still playing Magic with the same creatures, spells, and lands – the decisions you make and the reasons you make them change ever so slightly. Everything about the game you know is familiar, but not quite the same.
I touched on some of the small adjustments in thinking you have to make during a game of Commander when I talked about multiplayer politics. Today, I am going to focus on deck building and how some of its most basic precepts have to be tweaked when approaching Commander.
The Holy Trinity
For a long time, the core of Magic deck building has been centered on the idea of the three archetypes: Aggro, Control, and Combo. Each of the three has their own strengths and weaknesses – and each of the three attracts a different kind of player. The Big 3 exist in Commander, just as they do in 60 card constructed, but as you might have guessed – they don’t look quite the same.
One of the easiest ways to get started in Commander is to take an old, familiar, regular deck and transform it. By looking at how the basic principles of 60 card Magic shift when viewed through the lens of Commander, it becomes a lot easier to take a deck designed in one context and retool it for another.
Some decks are going to take more extensive retooling than others. I figured, since I had my work cut out for me anyways, I may as well start with the archetype that has the hardest time converting to Commander: Aggro.
Sorry for the Aggrovation
As you might expect, Aggro decks are all about dealing massive damage as quickly as possible. They tend to be active rather than reactive – they attack, they use their removal spells to clear a path, and they aim to win before the opponent can muster a defense.
In typical constructed Magic, with only one opponent who has 20 life, the Aggro deck is very effective. Blitzkrieg style offense can frequently steal victories from better decks if the opponent has the simple misfortune of drawing a clunky hand. The Aggro deck’s main strength is the ability to draw lots of blood very quickly. The Aggro deck’s main weakness is its low battery life – it tends to expend its charge quickly and have trouble getting it back.
Traditional Aggro has a hard time adapting to Commander because of the increased scale of the opposition. Sometimes the Aggro deck can have trouble killing one opponent at 20 life, imagine what it’s like trying to kill three or four who start at 40?
Building an Aggro deck in Commander is challenging, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. The Voltron archetype, which I have already discussed, is a riff on the Aggro deck that takes advantage of Commander’s unique rules. However, there are other ways to effectively crush your opponents in the combat step, as today’s deck aptly demonstrates:
Joe Kareem, Gym Teacher – Kevin T.
This list right here is the trademark deck of my good friend Kevin. Kevin likes to play very straightforward Magic, he likes permanents and attacking and isn’t too big on instants. An artifact based, combat-focused deck fits him like a glove. His straight forward approach makes this the perfect deck to demonstrate traditional Aggro in Commander.
In 60 card constructed, Aggro decks go deep – they commit utterly to their strategy, they focus on low mana costs and high power; they sacrifice everything for the sake of brute force and speed. You can try that in Commander, you might even take out one player. But once your fuel is used up, one of the healthy players will crush you off-hand just to get you out of the way. To survive in longer games, the Aggro deck has to go wide. It will still win by attacking and it will still do it faster than most of its competition, but it has to acknowledge its weaknesses and make some effort to patch them up.
So what does “going wide” mean?
Let’s start with Jor Kadeen. On his own, he’s a pretty efficient creature. He’s got a sizable body with a great evergreen keyword in First Strike. However, once you’ve got his metalcraft ability active, he suddenly makes everything you’re doing that much scarier – including himself.
Kadeen, and others like Stonebrow, Krosan Hero or Edric, Spymaster of Trest, are great examples of Commanders that widen the scope of Aggro decks. They make every creature you play better – which means that each creature, no matter its intended purpose, can make more of an impact during its inevitably short life.
People won’t think twice when you play Gold Myr, Solemn Simulacrum, and Pilgrim’s Eye, they are useful creatures that give red and white access to mana fixing/ramp. In Jor Kadeen’s presence, they are three artifacts that turn on metalcraft. Suddenly, you have 13 points of power spread among your utility creatures and the robots can start giving the beatdown.
You play Solemn Simulacrum to fix your mana, but with the help of Jor Kadeen, it also becomes an effective attacker – in other words, its role has been widened with the help of your Commander.
A hard truth about Commander is that you have to play certain types of cards to keep up with the game – removal, mana ramp, and access to extra cards are ubiquitous for this reason. These kind of frivolities are the kind of thing that Aggro usually cuts back on to become a lean, mean killing machine. In Commander, they get to have their cake and eat it too. Aggro decks can run these extra perks because the other cards they are running with will turn these tools into weapons after they have served their intended purpose.
Rallying the Troops
Since Aggro decks in Commander rely heavily on making sure each of their creatures can be used as a valuable attacker, they get a lot of mileage from cards that give them lots of attackers for a reasonable price.
In Kevin’s deck, you can see cards like Increasing Devotion and Myr Battlesphere. These bring a lot of little creatures to the table, which then get a lot bigger with Jor Kadeen around. Increasing Devotion is 20 points of power (minimum) if metalcraft is active – even in a format as comically over-the-top as Commander, that is enough to turn heads.
Obviously, Kevin’s deck goes beyond relying on only Jor Kadeen to make his creatures the best they can be. Perennial classics like Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite; Gisela, Blade of Goldnight; Avacyn, Angel of Hope; and Akroma’s Memorial all make appearances. These kind of powerful, late game plays are needed in every Commander Aggro deck. The appearance of one of these monsters will usually close out a game once your opponents have been softened by supercharged utility creatures.
I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again
Aggro’s biggest weakness will always be a lack of defense. This is mitigated a little by the meatier life totals of Commander, but if you play out your hand wrong, a well-placed Planar Cleansing can functionally end your game. If you do not make recovering expended resources a priority, you are going to burn out after hitting that first stumbling block. The advice “make your deck resilient” might sound like a truism, but when you’re building an aggressive deck, it can be easy to forget.
Kevin’s recursion options are very specific to his deck. Frantic Salvage and Remember the Fallen are not cards you will see very often, but both of them are very effective here. The artifacts in his deck are the most important thing for Kevin’s strategy, so having cards that focus on recovering them first makes the most sense.
Focusing on artifacts does great things for Kevin’s deck to begin with. Spells that remove artifacts are far less common than spells that remove creatures. In this way, a good piece of equipment for Kevin is far more valuable than a halfway decent creature. It is almost guaranteed to stick around a lot longer and it will automatically improve the quality of each creature you draw. Drawing a Gold Myr on turn twelve doesn’t seem so bad when you have a Sword of War and Peace and a Grappling Hook to give it.
Dropping the Hammer Without Breaking It
In 60 card constructed, Aggro decks have to hit incredibly hard just once. If your only opponent is beaten, it doesn’t matter what kind of shape you are in at the end of the game. In Commander, Aggro decks have to be able to pummel foes again and again without faltering. To do this, they have to push every permanent in their deck as far as it will go. If you want to build an effective Aggro deck in Commander, you have to look at how you’re going to make every creature in your deck into a weapon and how you’re going to rebuild those weapons when they break.
When Aggro wakes up and finds itself living among the pod people, it is forced to realize that the same old carefree attitude won’t get it anywhere. It has to think about the future beyond one defeated opponent. However, it still gets to have the fun of throwing everything it has into big, exciting plays. Aggro decks will always be straight-forward and explosive. While they may not be the same lightning-fast fighters that they are in 60 card form, Aggro decks will still drive the game forward – they will still be the ones forcing the rest of the table to react to them. In other words, they will still be a helluva lot of fun to play.