The first steps into a new format are difficult. Moving from the kitchen table to Standard can be daunting. The transition from Standard to Modern overwhelms the player with potential decks. Moving to other Eternal formats can be even more difficult because the card pool and number of strategies keeps increasing. Commander is not much different.
While the competition is often far less intense than that of an SCG Tour®or Grand Prix event, the options are sometimes greater. In the residence halls where I work, I was asked by two different students this week about how they can get started in Commander. I gave them some explanations and advice. But I struggled to find a single source of advice to get them started in Commander.
Where should you start?
Learn the format! Before you buy someone a marble chess set, you make sure they really love chess. Don't start shelling out money and trading cards for a Commander deck you might not love. I know players who are highly skilled but they dislike Commander. Some claim there is too much going on to track easily. Others dislike the group dynamics. Some just really want to be hyper competitive and find better outlets for their joy. Play some games first.
Ah, but if you are a Commander neophyte, you don't have a deck. Borrow one! Magic is a game that spreads well by friends teaching friends. Commander is no different. Learn from a friend. Borrow a deck and play some games. I have a deck I bring to my LGS every Sunday specifically to lend to Newbie McNooberson so that they can enjoy some games. No pressure to keep playing, no pressure to buy things.
Play some games. Then when you start making decks, make only one. One. Deck. One! I see the same issue time and time again whenever a person leaps into Commander. They build a deck and another and another and suddenly all of their decks are bad. Slow down. Build one deck and make it good. Then make another. Don't rush to be Dr. Suitcase with over 50 decks carried around in matched luggage. The games will be better if your deck can handle your friends or LGS than if you have eight decks that all get steamrolled.
The Commander product released each year is one of the best ways to get started. November 11th is right around the corner for the Commander 2016 set. The Commander set for a given year provides a ready-to-go deck. Some of them, such as Daretti, Scrap Savant, are incredible. I have a friend who still has a stock Daretti deck that he regularly plays. It is amazing that the precon can do so well against a wide field. Other precons like Ezuri, Claw of Progress are a blast to play but require more to get going.
The last iteration, which you can still find at places like Walmart and Target, were enemy-colored decks (W/B, U/R, R/W, B/G, G/U). The ones coming out in November are going to be four colors. Pick your favorite colors and go to town.
With a Commander set, you are free to start tweaking. Many player worry about the expense of tuning up a precon deck that was $35. But have no fear! Many of the cards in your collection will improve the deck and give it greater focus. You might be able to make leaps in the deck's power before ever needing to spend a cent.
First, pull all the garbage Cleansing Beam types from the deck for real cards. Don't worry; these will be pretty obvious.
Then get to work on the manabase. After that, you can start saving up to make changes with some big splashy cards. The deck is yours. Pick a theme and go to town.
Do It Yourself
Not everyone wants to use the precon commanders. No argument from me. I thought Mizzix of the Izmagnus and Meren of Clan Nel Toth were the bee's knees, but then every single deck was the same! You don't have to be one of these people. When you are building a Commander deck from scratch, my favorite advice is to pick something cool and do it. Some people will build a cool deck and find a commander to fit it best. Others start with the commander and build the deck around it. There's no wrong way to do this. You can just pick something you love.
I prefer to build a deck starting with a commander. I can talk about building in the reverse, but I think new players should usually start with a legendary creature. Find something that excites you. The card doesn't need to be huge or expensive or even that flashy.
Kaldesh provided several new options, and all the sets in Standard provide a handful of legendary creatures to explore. But honestly, a card database is a handy way to find legendary creatures. StarCityGames.com® is the place to search and shop, but magiccards.info and edhrec.com are both useful. Magiccards.info can search everything, is fast, and user friendly in the advanced search function. Edhrec.com can assist with finding legendary creatures in specific color combinations or generating just a random legendary creature.
There is a legendary creature to excite every player. You'll find yours.
After picking a commander, pick a gameplan. With all things being equal, you should only win 25% of your games (assuming four players). The gameplan is how you want to win, but winning shouldn't be your sole goal. There are too many variables that make Commander a frustrating venture if you only want to play to win. For example, my Lyzolda, the Blood Witch deck wants to sacrifice a bunch of creatures to Lyzolda for fun and profit. I try to deal enough damage and amass enough tokens to claim a win, but really the deck is just hardcore durdling to get value.
Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest can Voltron to win (and often does) but the deck is all about using Sunforger for shenanigans. If I activate Sunforger a handful of times, I don't even care about winning. Ramirez DePietro is about getting a crew, a ship, a cannon, stolen booty, and taking a picture to post on Twitter. You should seek to do something alongside simply winning the game. Your experiences will be better for it.
Here is a short list of the things you can accomplish in any color or color combination:
- Commander damage kills (Voltron)
- Giant creatures
- Fun themes such as Alice in Wonderland or Ladies Looking Left
- Alternate win conditions
- Tribal decks
But there are so many options, it is easy to try to do too much. To combat this, you should strive for synergy. Running pet cards is something I encourage, especially for new players to Commander; you want to have as much fun as you can. But jamming something that is simply a great card without any thought about the deck is sure to make your opponents roll their eyes. For example, a Lord of Tresserhorn deck that is a Zombie deck with a few cards to one-shot an opponent with some tricks (Hatred or Tainted Strike) can definitely generate enough card advantage with themed cards to not need Consecrated Sphinx.
However, you can take some fun and jam the big dumb spells that no other format permits. Zombie tribal deck, meet Rooftop Storm. Sure, the card may not actually be “original,” but how many other formats allow you to run a card that casts your Zombies for free? You can run some vehicles to put your Zombies on a Zamboni. Don't tell me Renegade Freighter is a train; with a Zombie crew, it is a Zamboni. If you play Conspiracy or Xenograft, the Zamboni can become a Zombonie. This is the stuff Commander is meant to do: build a whole deck to make a crappy joke about Zamboni Machines.
Even a janky legendary creature can be powerful. My friend James has a whole series about making a card people consider awful into something great. Most people will skip right over Latulla, Keldon Overlord up until James pseudo-Blazes your burning butt out of the game. This is why I am adamant that any legendary creature that excites you can be useful for Commander.
If you are not as easily amused as I am, that is perfectly fine. Commander can support your interest too. While the precons and borrowing work well for players moving from kitchen table games to Commander games, players who frequent tournaments may want to take a different approach. They often want a more serious deck that can bring the pain to a whole table.
Take Marath, Will of the Wild and Ghave, Guru of Spores. These cards are monstrous synergy machines. Doubling Season, Parallel Lives, Hardened Scales, Durable Handicraft, Second Harvest, Parallel Evolution…running even a few of these cards will make either deck hum. The best part is that most of these are cheap (Doubling Season excluded); Parallel Lives is $7 mint but all the other cards are bulk price.
But you need to have a plan with all this. As I said, winning cannot be the sole plan. You need to have a goal. Maybe run Epic Struggle to give yourself a goal as you make a bazillion tokens. Even without the card, you can make the Zerg Rush your goal for the game.
When you are making a deck more serious or more focused, a trick is to look for packages. I have a friend who jokes about running “Ponder Tribal” for card advantage and digging to find the real cards he wants to play. If you are in blue, adding a strong smattering of cards that generate small card advantage can add up. Ponder, Preordain, Serum Visions, Anticipate, Impulse, Telling Time, Think Twice…you get the idea. These may not be as powerful as Blue Sun's Zenith, but they work in the early-game and alongside big spells in the late-game.
Removal works the same way. Swords to Plowshares is much more affordable than Path to Exile and doesn't have as strong a drawback. Oblivion Ring, Banishing Light, Soul Snare, Condemn, and Intrepid Hero can do a lot to have answers to big scary creatures while also having a couple of catch-all cards.
Green, of course, has an excellent ramp package, but even artifact ramp in a small package can help. Sol Ring, Thought Vessel, Mind Stone, Hedron Archive, Dreamstone Hedron, Commander's Sphere, and Darksteel Ingot help make sure you can cast all your spells on time.
There are several ways to walk the path of Commander. You can borrow decks, start with a preconstructed deck, or build your own deck from scratch. When someone asks you how to get started in Commander, make sure you take the time to explain all the options and encourage them to do what is best for them.
How did you get started in Commander? How do you recommend your friends or fellows at an LGS get started? I hope this article can be useful in the future to reflect on helping a player get into Commander. Send it to a friend!