Fact not Fiction – Commander 101 by Michael Maxwell

Fact not Fiction – The Winners and Losers from Pro Tour Paris by Michael Maxwell


With the release of Commander (or EDH to most of us) just around the corner, I’m going to give you 5 tips for constructing an effective 100 card deck. Hopefully this will be some use to those planning to get into the format this summer – which should be everyone, since Commander is awesome! This is a bit of a change of pace from my usual constructed based articles, I hope you enjoy it.

When it comes to building an EDH (I mean Commander, grumble grumble) deck there are 2 usual approaches: build a deck with the cards you want and then pick a general in those colours, or pick a general and build around him. Personally I prefer the second, since I feel it gives the deck much more of a personal touch and usually has a stronger theme, but these tips should apply however you go about it.


1. Get the manabase right.

Not the most exciting of tips, but perhaps the most important, particularly if you’re playing 3 or more colours. Get your hands on as many duals as possible, from original duals to ravnica shocklands all the way down to shards block panoramas. Nothing is worse than not being able to cast your spells because you don’t have enough lands or they make the wrong colours.  I have 2 decks, Doran, the Siege Tower and Sedris, the Traitor King. In each deck there are only 10-12 lands that can only make colourless or one colour of mana. Both of them play a vast number of fetches and duals, and I don’t mean Bayou and Bloodstained Mire – I mean Esper Panorama and Grasslands. Yes I have some better non-basics in there than that, but the major point is that a fetch/dual has to be pretty atrocious to not be worth including.  Another important point is to revisit your manabase every so often. Commander decks are constantly evolving – cards are always coming in and out, and if you aren’t careful you may end up doubling the number of green cards in your Horde of Notions deck without adding any additional green mana sources. Also, you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a good manabase – a lot of sets had some pretty good dual/fetch lands at common and uncommon, so don’t feel like you have to go splash out on original dual lands and Onslaught fetches. The other thing to remember is artifact mana: ravnica block signets, shards block obelisks, Thran Dynamo, Sol Ring, the list is endless and again most of them are common or uncommon, so don’t leave home without them.


2. Cards have to be as effective on turn 10 as on turn 3.

I don’t play Grizzled Leotau in my Doran deck. Why? Because a 5/5 for 2 isn’t even that good on turn 2 in Commander, let alone turn 10. In Commander your mana curve will typically peak much higher than it will in Standard – say around 5, 6, and 7 rather than 2, 3, and 4, but that doesn’t mean that you can ignore the early turns completely. You need things to do in the early turns, but most of the low drops you play have to be effective top decks late in the game (ramp spells and artifact mana being the main exceptions). The cheap creatures in my decks are guys like Fauna Shaman, Sygg, River Cutthroat, and Knight of the Reliquary – they are great on turn 2 or 3 but you aren’t unhappy to draw them at any point in the game. Seeing someone with their Rorix Bladewing or Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief deck draw Mogg Fanatic or Pulse Tracker on turn 9 is just depressing. Even if they were drawing really efficient guys like Vampire Nighthawk, that still isn’t good enough. Cheap creatures typically need powerful and repeatable effects to be good in Commander.


3. Power is more important than efficiency.

This is a bit of a follow on from the previous point. In Standard, Nature’s Claim sees a lot more play than Naturalise. Why? Because being 1 mana cheaper is all the difference, even if you give your opponent 4 life for it. Commander games last a LOT longer than Standard games, so that 1 mana isn’t going to matter. The basic point is this – Commander is all about big, powerful effects. Slagstorm is almost always better than Pyroclasm in Commander. But we don’t want to be playing either of those. You want to be playing Flame Wave, or Destructive Force, or maybe even Decree of Annihilation if you want to get really big! If you can’t decide between 2 cards, and one is basically a more expensive but more powerful version of the other, go for the bigger effect. The same applies to creatures – bigger is almost always better!


4. Card advantage is King.

Most games of Commander are multiplayer games. If there are 4 of you, you start with 7 cards whilst your opponents start with 21. That’s a lot of ground to make up. Now, obviously you don’t have to kill all 3 by yourself, as your opponents will be attacking each other too, but the fact is that you have to outlast all your opponents in order to win. This isn’t going to happen if you have no cards in hand by turn 7 every game. In both my decks combined there are only a handful of cards that don’t generate more than 1 cards worth of effect. From Day of Judgement to Primeval Titan and from Planeswalkers to Cruel Ultimatum, cards need to generate card advantage if you’re going to survive in the world of Commander. This is the reason a lot of decks include cards which provide some degree of graveyard recursion – getting double duty out of your cards is extremely important if you aren’t to run out of gas. Most decks run a lot of mass removal effects for the same reasons.


5. The point of Commander is to HAVE FUN!

The point of this article wasn’t to tell you to cut cards from your decks that you like and have fun with for the most expensive and powerful cards in the history of Magic. I hope these tips give you some ideas on how to build a deck that can be competitive and win games in the world of Commander, but the point of the format is not to build the most unstoppable killing machine at all costs (at least I don’t think it is). I want my decks to be able to win, and they do on a regular basis, but they both include cards that are there mostly for fun or because they are some of my favourite cards from when I started playing years and years ago. With my Doran deck in particular, whenever I’m looking at adding new cards I always make sure that at the end it still feels like a Doran deck, not a G/W/B deck that happens to have Doran as a general. If that means including some cards like Orchard Warden or Indomitable Ancients over more powerful cards that I could put in, so be it. Grinning Totem might not be the best card ever printed, but I remember playing it in my mono-red deck 10 years ago just to steal the Cruel Fate out of my brother’s blue deck, and I like the memories it brings back every time I cast it. Build your deck to be powerful, but also build it to be fun. If that means playing with your signed, foil Colossus of Sardia then go nuts! Just be aware that if you want to actually win some games then you probably need to limit the number of cards like that you put in your deck to maybe 4 at most.


So, those are my 5 tips for building an effective Commander deck. Whether you’ve been playing for years, are just getting into it, or are planning to buy one of the Commander products this summer, I hope they were helpful.

Want to play Commander but don’t have a deck? You’ll be glad to know that you can buy pre-constructed Commanders decks here!

Are there any other tips you would give to people when building a Commander deck? Did you enjoy reading about a casual format for a change or should I just stick to competitive formats? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for reading,

Michael Maxwell

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