Commander decks are bigger than the Constructed decks played in sanctioned Magic tournaments excluding shenanigans like Battle of Wits. What does that change about how we should build decks?
Most players hear the rules of Commander and immediately expect a high-variance format. After all you have nothing but singletons beyond your basic lands—how can anyone expect to achieve consistency? In actuality Commander as a format is much more consistent than it seems at first glance for three reasons:
1. Larger Card Pool
Commander has a card pool of comparable size to Legacy and Vintage but its functional card pool is actually far larger than either of those formats. Why? The speed and competitive bend of those formats combine to make a lot of cards virtually unplayable—cards that might be just fine to slide into a Commander deck. Having a significantly larger quantity of options also means that you can triumph over the singleton restriction by duplicating an effect more often than not.
Not only are all the various Tutors legal in Commander but ones that weren't quite good enough for sanctioned Constructed play are often very reasonable for the format. This means that players can find what they want when they need it pretty often.
3. It's Commander
You start with eight cards in Commander not seven and one of them is always the same: your legendary creature of choice. It's probably the single most important part of your deck because it's where you derive the most consistency.
There are lots of ways to achieve more consistency in deckbuilding; the most obvious is basic redundancy. Consider Legacy Burn one of the most singularly consistent decks in tournament Magic at this point. It basically wants to try and resolve about six spells to win the game. Which spells isn't especially relevant because they are all so similar.
Naturally that's not the case for your average Commander deck—nor would we want it to be as that would be pretty dull. But you do have the ability to achieve unheard-of consistency through correct implementation of your commander. As you build your deck think about how each card impacts your commander's functionality and your own options.
If your deck wants to cast its centerpiece legend on turn 2 in virtually every game—as a Gaddock Teeg or Radha Heir to Keld pilot might—how many other cards should you run that are at their best on turn 2?
Probably not very many and the ones you do run should be hella good.
Because you can access your commander consistently building to leverage the commander's abilities is a significant perk in deckbuilding. For example should Radha Heir to Keld run Cultivate? Not before maxing out on every Skyshroud Claim variant in the books because those cards are going to be way better when she lets you cast them on turn 3 almost every time without interference.
This offers us a unique way to maximize our deckbuilding experiences and I believe that it merits a unique way to build decks.
Most "normal" Magic decklists are written a card at a time sometimes separated by mana or card type because we have been subconsciously trained to be able to read decklists this way. It's intuitive to you already and your brain can break the deck down into little pieces and see how the cogs work together.
It doesn't work the same in Commander. It doesn't work the same at all.
Combining the facts that there are more cards more unique cards similar cards across types and a completely different pace to the game...our brains do not evaluate a Commander decklist very well. For example here's my Glissa deck posted in the conventional form for the StarCityGames.com database:
- 1 Duplicant
- 1 Solemn Simulacrum
- 1 Sylvok Replica
- 1 Acidic Slime
- 1 Avenger of Zendikar
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 1 Fierce Empath
- 1 Fleshbag Marauder
- 1 Mwonvuli Beast Tracker
- 1 Oracle of Mul Daya
- 1 Primeval Titan
- 1 Rune-Scarred Demon
- 1 Woodfall Primus
- 1 Yavimaya Elder
- 1 Azusa, Lost but Seeking
- 1 Glissa, the Traitor
- 1 Myojin of Night's Reach
- 11 Forest
- 8 Swamp
- 1 Bayou
- 1 Bloodstained Mire
- 1 Command Tower
- 1 Golgari Rot Farm
- 1 Homeward Path
- 1 Marsh Flats
- 1 Maze of Ith
- 1 Misty Rainforest
- 1 Overgrown Tomb
- 1 Polluted Delta
- 1 Strip Mine
- 1 Thawing Glaciers
- 1 Twilight Mire
- 1 Verdant Catacombs
- 1 Wasteland
- 1 Windswept Heath
- 1 Wooded Foothills
- 1 Woodland Cemetery
- 1 Volrath's Stronghold
- 1 Yavimaya Hollow
- 1 Basalt Monolith
- 1 Crucible Of Worlds
- 1 Executioner's Capsule
- 1 Grim Monolith
- 1 Mana Crypt
- 1 Mana Vault
- 1 Nihil Spellbomb
- 1 Oblivion Stone
- 1 Sculpting Steel
- 1 Sensei's Divining Top
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Necromancy
- 1 Pernicious Deed
- 1 Phyrexian Arena
- 1 Sylvan Library
- 1 Beast Within
- 1 Chord of Calling
- 1 Entomb
- 1 Grim Harvest
- 1 Krosan Grip
- 1 Putrefy
- 1 Skeletal Scrying
- 1 Slice in Twain
- 1 Vampiric Tutor
- 1 Mindslaver
- 1 Boundless Realms
- 1 Damnation
- 1 Decree of Pain
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Diabolic Revelation
- 1 Explosive Vegetation
- 1 Genesis Wave
- 1 Green Sun's Zenith
- 1 Harmonize
- 1 Hunting Wilds
- 1 Increasing Ambition
- 1 Life from the Loam
- 1 Maelstrom Pulse
- 1 Night's Whisper
- 1 Praetor's Counsel
- 1 Rain of Thorns
- 1 Ranger's Path
- 1 Regrowth
- 1 Skyshroud Claim
How does this deck play an average game?
What are its primary engines?
How does it win?
Odds are you can answer these questions to some extent and the particularly perceptive among you might even get all of them exactly right…but it wasn't an intuitive conclusion from the information above. You had to parse the decklist carefully and analyze it thoughtfully without the luxury of leaning on your brain's autopilot decklist-analyzing powers.
And those were three pretty basic questions. What if I'd asked something hard?
It's not unlike trying to read a book in a language you're learning. You can do it usually but it's tough to get through. Reading a book in your native tongue? A breeze by comparison even given significantly more complexity. Consider how you might lay a Standard or Draft deck out on a table when building it for a tournament. Do you do it the exact way that our database orders cards?
I imagine you organize them by mana curve with certain spells separated or mixed into the permanents as you deem relevant. You organize the deck so that looking at it assists your ability to understand its function and performance.
Here's how the Glissa Commander decklist I have on my computer looks—and every other deck I build looks basically the same.
This organizational method allows me to look at Commander decklists and figure out how they tick where they're vulnerable and which cards just don't belong.
Note that cards are duplicated—this is just the easiest way for me to get a full count of the cards and understand the deck's curve. I start by filling in the cards at the bottom sorted by their purpose within the deck and organized within that by utility and cost. For example Disenchant effects are Solutions just like creature kill but separated within the category.
In fact just looking at this list now I realize I'm running slightly more removal and slightly less draw than I probably should be. Nick Spagnolo convinced me to give Rain of Thorns a try which is one reason why and the deck leans significantly upon Glissa for cards so I trimmed some draw. Since then I've allowed a few too many spot removal effects to make it into the deck—whoops!
I'll admit there can be some vague distinction between "Solution" and "Defense" but I determine how they're used by how I play them. Executioner's Capsule isn't used to remove problematic creatures in general—it sits on the board and deters attacks. Because Fleshbag Marauder is a sorcery-speed Edict it's only really useful when everyone's getting a bit rowdy on the board; I'll rarely use it against a specific problem as it's just there to offer some board control that I can recur.
For the sake of clarity: by "Threat" I generally mean "card that should win me the game" more often than not.
Cards will switch categories between decks. For example Primeval Titan is the core engine of my deck and I dedicate significant effort to putting him into play often because it's how I win. Other decks might run Primeval Titan for value without making him the centerpiece—those decks wouldn't consider Titan a game-winning "Threat" most of the time.
Frederick Parker messaged me on Facebook and asked me to take a look at his deck with a competitive eye. While I'm pretty busy and sadly can't offer this service wholesale I decided Frederick had presented me with an excellent opportunity. I elected to mash a review of his decklist into this article demonstrating how I can use my deck template to analyze Commander decks—even ones I haven't built!
For the record I actually do this really rarely and mostly use my form to build from scratch. That makes this an adventure for everyone involved so enjoy the ride.
Here's Frederick's original decklist sorted into my spreadsheet:
Let's examine the list starting with its mana curve. Obviously I'm not Frederick so I've sorted his curve based on the range in which I'd expect to be wanting to cast most of these cards and I'll be considering their function and power level within the context of what's going on.
A glance at this decklist should immediately show you that the general goal is to beat the opponent to death with Sigarda. Failing that Frederick can equip some other sweet creature with various Swords and bash and he has a few engines to accrue card advantage and let him recur his best creatures. I'm a fan of "Voltron" decks as a concept but I don't get to build with them very often myself.
My first notes:
Too much fragile mana acceleration – I dislike vulnerable spells that only jump you a single mana such as Birds of Paradise Selesnya Signet etc. The Moxes are so costly that I only run them in decks that want to win with a combination kill—beating someone to death the hard way isn't worth the card disadvantage.
With the spells organized it appears there are too many cards dedicated to mana ramping and a number of them are fragile without any explosive gains (the Birds and Talisman/Signet) so my instincts at first glance indicate that there's room to trim here. I'd rather be playing Sakura-Tribe Elder than any of these cards and I don't like him much either.
It's worth realizing that Birds does fly making it great with a Sword and also enables both turn 3 Sword or turn 2 Cultivate / Kodama's Reach ramping you into a third-turn Sigarda. That's definitely not being overlooked here but I don't consider it worth all the times you'll throw away a card for little value. I'm just saying that it might be your jam and I can get that.
Cultivate > Skyshroud Claim – Kudos to Frederick for realizing this one. While my deck is all about a six-drop and seven-cost ways to find the win Frederick just wants to jam his commander on five mana as often as possible making these spells better. That's the sort of decision that is worth breaking the "staples" list I posted last time!
Most four-drops should enhance Sigarda – Yeva and Garruk Wildspeaker are fantastic choices. Yeva improves Sigarda while turn 4 Garruk turns a turn 3 Sword into a quick equip on the turn 5 Sigarda. Elspeth's no slouch either.
The card manipulation is weak – I've played with Realms Uncharted and been pretty unimpressed although I recognize that Frederick's decision to add in the cycling lands creates a pseudo-engine. Trading Post seems pretty mediocre in this deck as it's designed for decks that want to grind advantage rather than muster a potent offensive. Other cards have similar issues.
On the Tutor end Time of Need is really narrow but I do like the cards it looks for. Worldly Tutor offers more selection but is a worse card...hm. I can get behind these spells but I do want some more pure card advantage available. Birthing Pod has got to go though.
A few narrow/underpowered cards – This critique actually encompasses a number of the cards reviewed above and it's the sort of issue I see cropping up in virtually every Commander deck including my own. These are the cards I'll look to cull and replace or avoid altogether.
What makes these cards narrow? Well by "narrow" I mean that a card only demonstrates worthwhile value under specific and often infrequent circumstances. It's an evaluation that simultaneously accounts for power level and influence. Take Birds of Paradise: if I go turn 1 Birds turn 2 Cultivate that's sweet! But I won't always do that and even in the games that I do the tempo advantage could be easily negated by a sweeper that catches my little friend.
Cutting Me Softly
Here are my cuts from Frederick's list.
Chrome Mox Mox Diamond Birds of Paradise Selesnya Signet Talisman of Unity – I love to ramp but ramp isn't powerful in Commander because you get to play your cards first. Ramping mana is powerful because it lets you fill your deck with powerful spells. Over the course of a long game casting those spells a little faster and chaining "haymaker" plays will win it for you. These cards will let you drop a threat or two early and then get wiped away—often along with the threat! We should approach deckbuilding with the plan to make most of our spells powerful and these spells are very weak.
Seedborn Muse Birthing Pod Voltaic Key Trading Post Nostalgic Dreams – These are all very different cards but they're also similar at the same time. All of these cards work better when you're trying to make them work but that's not how a Sword-laden Sigarda deck works. You can build decks that play these cards—even build decks based around them—but this deck is doing other things.
I'll admit I have a slight bias against Trading Post; too many Roanoke denizens getting excited about it has really dulled my expectations (*cough* Brad Nelson *cough*). It may be worth exploring but the Voltaic Key is just too niche regardless.
Angel of Jubilation – I'd rather be playing more fetchlands for my Crucible Loam Scroll Rack and Top. Maybe this card is worth it but in a deck already lacking creatures—and really short on white ones—I'm not feeling it. Maybe in some metagames?
Whitemane Lion – Underpowered and out.
Reflecting Pool – This card is pretty underwhelming.
Realms Uncharted cycling lands – I've tried to make these work myself believe me. All my efforts taught me that the juice is really only worth the squeeze when you're U/G with access to more Intuition-style effects.
And with my Emile Hirsch reference out of the way...
I've got fourteen nonland slots to work with so I'll be quick about it. You'll mostly be seeing some of the cards I discussed last week so I can't promise it will be super-interesting.
Oblivion Stone – It's not what this deck wants to be doing the vast majority of the time but with Enlightened Tutor in the deck it's a must. Having a Tutorable sweeper is actually very valuable! Even if it won't get a lot of use it will be huge when it's needed and serves to defend you from opposing Stones.
Darksteel Ingot – This is not an expensive Fellwar Stone. It's a land that jumps you ahead a turn and doesn't die to Geddons at the cost of a little over two mana. In this deck it enables turn 4 Sigarda at no real cost beyond playing it.
Lightning Greaves – This card might seem like an odd suggestion but it's actually very good. It's true that Sigarda becomes "worse" with the Greaves on but I want to run it mostly for the free haste and the fact that Stoneforge Mystic can find it (and thus anything that finds Mystic can find it). This list also packs several powerful creatures that would benefit from haste and shroud such as the Titan duo at six.
Land Tax – It's good I promise.
Serra Ascendant – I don't like it any more than you do but opposing life points aren't going anywhere on their own. When this card's bad there are multiple ways to trade it for new creatures and when it's good it's very good. Even if you lose a lot of life the Swords can make this guy a cheap and reasonable way to get some back.
Chord of Calling – Just a very good card and I want to add more creatures and pseudo-creatures to this deck anyway.
Sylvan Library – One of green's strongest spells in the format by a lot.
Yavimaya Elder – Great creature that accrues card advantage and carries a Sword later on.
Restock Praetor's Counsel – Both of these spells generate controlled card advantage—I prefer them to Nostalgic Dreams as a general rule. They're also way less vulnerable to hate as you're only out a card and some mana if they can remove your targets in response not most of your hand. If you don't like Restock Creeping Renaissance is a similar card that may be more powerful in this sort of deck.
Acidic Slime / Woodfall Primus – While Harmonic Sliver is a better bullet for Disenchants being able to destroy a particularly dangerous opposing land isn't anything to sneeze at. You can get away with just one of these and in that case I weirdly want the Slime... I think Reveillark is luring me in there but I could see playing either one.
Last but not least...
Blasting Station – Gotta run at least one combo right? Reveillark and Saffi or Karmic Guide will let you loop infinite to kill the table with this one and it's a target for Enlightened Tutor. While it's relatively easy to disrupt and not an unexpected capability it might not be your thing. If that's the case run something like Garruk Primal Hunter to generate threats and card advantage.
For lands I've already cut the four cycling lands and a Reflecting Pool; cut two basics for the remainder. Running 36 lands with a Maze of Ith and Hall of the Bandit Lord is a touch lighter than my usual but it should work fine—if another land becomes necessary I'd trim Baneslayer Angel.
"Staples" I Cut And Why
If you'll recall from last week my definition of a Commander staple was a card that wasn't uncuttable—my definition said cutting it merited an explanation. Since I'm not running 100% of my legal staples in the update of Frederick's deck that means I've got to put my money where my mouse is!
I'm actually using a keyboard and trackpad but I really wanted to hit that alliteration.
Ulamog the Infinite Gyre – This deck is threat dense and makes use of its graveyard while simultaneously lacking a heavy ramp element. Ulamog would be a reasonable card but not much better.
Oracle of Mul Daya Skyshroud Claim Explosive Vegetation Hunting Wilds Ranger's Path – These cards are all still powerful enough for this deck but they're all good because they ramp to six—this deck is more interested in hitting five ahead of time which these cards won't help you do; in order to cast them early you have to already have an accelerant. Oracle is the closest thanks to its work with Crucible Scroll Rack and Top but I don't mind benching her either.
Genesis Wave – This deck wants to fire the sorcery on nine mana to hit most of its spells. While it's a relatively permanent-dense deck the truth is that Genesis Wave makes this build more vulnerable to sweepers. Here I'd use it as a spell to follow something that mopped the board...but Faith's Reward Restock and Praetor's Counsel are all more reliable ways to generate a similar gain.
Hope I didn't forget one; that would be awkward. I'm writing this on an airplane from Las Vegas so...
Featured Format: One-Drop Cube
Finally! I've played a lot of this format since I rebuilt my One-Drop Cube and I'm happy to show you the current list.
If you haven't followed my development of this project here's a quick primer. In order to qualify for inclusion spells must either:
- Be counterable by Mental Misstep or
- "Feel" like one-drops.
That last rule is real subjective but it's my subject—take that! I created that rule to make things more interesting allowing the inclusion of some lands and fixers like the Alara Reborn Borderposts.
The draft uses three twelve-card packs while deckbuilding rules are minimum 30-card decks. Starting life is 20 and starting cards are seven. The decks are smaller in order to give blue a potent mill identity—mission accomplished for the record. The other reason was to guarantee that people would get to play with the cards they drafted and wanted to play with which was a common problem when the early games went by quickly in a flurry of flood or screw.
One thing I learned from WoW TCG is how different Limited plays with a deck 25% smaller. When you know with certainty that your opponent is going to see certain cards over the course of the game it really emphasizes planning and skill-intensive technical play which I find very fun. I love to puzzle over a game struggling to figure out how I can beat my opponent's combinations in advance and figuring out how to establish strategy superiority within the end game.
Before I go any further here's the current list along with a link to the Google Spreadsheet I use to upkeep the whole thing.
We've been debating the best five cards in the format in Roanoke; right now my list is something like Engineered Explosives Cursed Scroll Mental Misstep Grindstone and Shared Trauma with Ancestral Recall knocking on the door.
Decking isn't just a part of this format; it's a real concern—I may be dialing back the mill element as I've successfully built more than a few decks that plan to deck people without using more than one or two mill cards and it's not uncommon to shift strategy to decking someone without such cards just by drawing out the game. I've even purposefully built 31 cards more than a couple times!
Shared Trauma and Minds Aglow are counterable by Mental Misstep but they really don't feel like they belong. The cards are powerful and you can interact with them to a degree—Shared Trauma is harder to fight but Minds Aglow will wind up drawing the game against some savvy opponents. I'm considering cutting them out.
Solving which direction to take red and how to make black playable has been difficult but I like where it's at now. I've given red and black a hyperaggressive identity although red's a good secondary color in control strategies too. These decks have been a lot of fun for me; here's a picture of my most recent one which played very well:
That deck's way cooler than a bunch of stupid Goblins and assorted Midnight Charm variants!
Big thanks to Wizards for Magic 2013 which includes some awesome one-drops. Slumbering Dragon has been a really cool card to explore in this format especially with cards like Hunger of the Howlpack and Blade of the Bloodchief performing.
There's plenty more work to be done with this cube and I'll be tinkering with it constantly I'm sure. I'll record the updates in a more sophisticated Google Doc likely borrowing from the excellent template Justin Parnell used for his own cube!
I've chattered long enough. Feel free to try your own hand at One-Drop Cube as there are a lot of different ways to build one. Constructing mine has been a really fun discussion topic at the office and around tournaments lately; if you're at #SCGDC or Gen Con you might even spot me playing with it!