Commander is often thought of as a soft-ball format. Since there are never going to be any Commander Pro Tours or GPs, many people write it off as the place to go when you’re not tough enough for the competitive grind. There is an element of truth to these generalizations – Commander is first and foremost a social experience, not a way to earn pro points. However, characterizing Commander as the land of casuals and bad cards can be dangerous, especially for those who are new to the format.
Commander is a powerful format, a fact which frequently gets overlooked. With access to nearly all of Magic’s vast history, almost all of the most powerful cards in the game’s history are legal, and most of them get played. Commander may not be a haven for the competitive player, but it is definitely best suited for the highly enfranchised among us.
I have seen many new players, drawn to the siren song of a format that prizes fun above all else, ripped to shreds without the chance to fight back by a Uril, the Miststalker wearing a Runes of the Deus. They have scooped up their slightly modified Forged in Stone precon and walked away with no interest in continuing to play Commander.
To me, Commander is the perfect expression of casual Magic. It pains me when I see a potential new convert to the format having their dreams crushed by a highly-tuned deck right at the beginning of their exposure. I want to do my best to help those newer players navigate the landscape of the Commander world and adapt to the high power, high complexity games that they will be playing.
To understand a format, it is important to understand the decks that are unique within that format. Usually, the decks that make up a metagame are defined by the strongest cards that aren’t banned. In Commander, things are a little different. When the nature of a format is formed around the idea of creating a social environment and rather than winning tournaments, the concept of a meta-game can get kinda hazy.
But hazy or no, the goal when playing Magic is usually to win games. In any format, there will always be decks that try and take advantage of the rules to win those games. One of the easiest rules in Commander to exploit is the rule that 21 damage to a player from a single Commander is enough to eliminate them from the game. Attacking your opponents from the angle of Commander damage has birthed one of the most competitive, powerful, and emblematic aggro archetypes in the format.
Allow me to introduce you to Voltron.
Building Your Own Monster
So, what is Voltron? Well, Voltron was a cartoon robot in the ’80s. The crux of the robot’s power was that it actually consisted of a group of individual robots that when combined, formed a greater, more powerful whole. If you are building a Voltron deck, your goal is to transform your Commander and a bunch of equipment, auras, and other support cards into your own giant, killer robot. For the purposes of this article, we’re more concerned with the Magic type of Voltron, and less with the retro cartoon.
Before I continue, let’s get to an example:
How Can He Hold All Those Swords? – Steve L.
This beauty comes courtesy of my buddy Steve. This deck is his trademark Commander list and I have seen it in action enough to know what it is capable of. But what makes the deck work? Let’s take a look:
The Commander is going to be the heart of any Voltron build. The best Commanders for Voltron decks are defined by being difficult to interact with. Commanders like Uril, the Miststalker and Sigarda, Host of Herons come with hexproof to ward off interference. Bruna, Light of Alabaster relies on one explosive trigger to become gigantic, only allowing opponents a small window of time to interfere. Commanders like Rafiq, our man of the hour, rely on blistering speed and offensive potential to outpace opponents.
Thanks to his very versatile colour identity, Rafiq can select all of the best toys to play with. White and blue give access to artifact interaction, while green allows access to mana acceleration and instant-speed buffs. Best of all, each of the three colours has some excellent auras to choose from.
After years of playing and tuning this list, Steve has settled on a very powerful and particular selection of buffs for Rafiq. All five Swords of [___] and [___] make an appearance; Swiftfoot Boots and Lightning Greaves do an excellent job of making the threat posed by Rafiq even more imminent; Hero’s Blade comes with what is essentially a free equip cost; Darksteel Plate grants the most powerful defensive keyword in the game; and Batterskull might be in the running for the most powerful piece of equipment of all time.
The lone aura that makes an appearance is Spirit Mantle, which for only two mana provides both evasion and a powerful defensive boost. Alongside Spirit Mantle, permanents like Noble Hierarch, Qasali Pridemage, and Finest Hour serve valuable utility purposes while also aiding Rafiq’s efforts with their own exalted triggers.
Shattering the Glass Cannon
Playing a Voltron deck is essentially the Commander equivalent of running down a long hallway towards your worst enemy while brandishing a knife and screaming; they see you coming a mile away and know exactly what you want to do to them. Even though you have momentum and a lethal weapon, if they have a way of stopping you, they have the chance to use it.
What I am trying to say is, Voltron is a powerful strategy, but it is linear. Generally speaking, most Voltron decks rely on their Commander as their Plan A for victory. Sometimes, in their efforts to make Plan A more reliable, they will sacrifice parts of Plans B and C, if they have them at all. If you can disrupt the Plan A of many Voltron decks, they will have a hard time recovering.
A card like Nevermore can ruin the game for a Voltron deck before it even really starts. Arcane Lighthouse means that all the spot removal you thought Sigarda blanked is suddenly live again. Using Stifle on Rafiq’s double strike ability means he trades with an insignificant creature. Setting a Voltron deck back their Commander can mean that you have two – three turns to put them onto the defensive, and Voltron decks do not play well on the defensive.
Piecing it Back Together
As a Voltron player, what can you do to make sure you don’t fall victim to a serious loss of tempo? Well, you can pack your deck with things to make it more reliable. In Steve’s list, Steelshaper’s Gift, Stoneforge Mystic, and Stonehewer Giant all act as back-up copies of relevant Swords. Gifting Rafiq with protection from your opponents’ colours can help you avoid unfavourable trades and getting sniped by Doom Blade.
Academy Ruins, Sun Titan, and Eternal Witness help recover equipment lost to things like Krosan Grip. Elspeth, Knight-Errant and Ajani, Called of the Pride can help smooth out equipment-light draws by applying repeatable buffs and also presenting threats that can turn into win conditions on their own.
Sprinkled throughout the list are creatures that can act as back-up Voltrons. If Rafiq dies too many times to be a practical option, creatures like Brimaz, King of Oreskos; Mirran Crusader; Baneslayer Angel; and Thrun, the Last Troll can pick up the fallen Swords and charge on to victory.
Having a few tutors, recursion options, and back-up creatures is not enough to fill out a hundred card list. Steve has chosen to place all of his required pieces within a fairly conventional Bant Control shell. Some choices, like Cataclysm, are obviously influenced by the desire to have Rafiq attacking on his own. Otherwise, the deck packs fairly standard removal and permission, along with cards like Sensei’s Diving Top; Jace, the Mind Sculptor; and Brainstorm to help make sub-par draws manageable.
This Land is My Land
I wanted to note one really cool thing that Steve does with his deck – he weaponizes the mana base. I have seen tons of games with this deck stretch really long. Rafiq costs 12+ mana to cast, all of his backup targets are dead, and he only has one Sword and a Batterskull left. Everyone else is looking equally screwed, so what does Steve do? He animates his Celestial Colonnade and starts attacking.
Running lands that can act as back-up beaters is a great way for a Voltron deck to sneak in some extra attacks in long games. The Kamigawa “interacts with legendary creatures” lands are also great choices since your Commander is usually going to be
the creature you’re most concerned about.
Every land onto which you can sneak an extra effect is one more spell you can devote to making your deck more flexible and more powerful.
The Voltron deck is a strange paradox: it can not properly exist outside of Commander, but it seems to fly in the face of everything that Commander is supposedly about; it avoids interaction, attempts to win as quickly as possible, and is best suited for playing one-on-one. However, the fact that Voltron can exist and thrive is a testament to how diverse and unique Commander is. While building Voltron may seem to some like turning your back on the social aspects of Commander, it is simply embracing a different way of approaching the format.
Playing against a Voltron deck after very little exposure to Commander might send the wrong impression about the format. If you started reading this article because you were smarting from a loss at the hands of a super-charged Zurgo Helmsmasher, I hope that you have finished it better informed about what you might be up against in the great, wide world of Commander.
Maybe now you’ll know how to build your own player-crushing monster.
Next time, join me as we tackle the opposite side of the Commander spectrum and take a look into the world of multiplayer politics.