A Beginner’s Guide To Magic: The Gathering Duel Commander And Everything You Need To Know, by Ben Cabrelli
You don’t normally sit down for Round 1 of your next big Magic tournament and ask “Who’s your Commander?” But maybe you should.
Duel Commander is a fun, interactive and competitive format, with lots of viable decks and archetypes. It allows for the varied nature of a 100-card singleton format while also having the strategic complexity and tactics of the Legacy format.
Duel Commander follows the same basic rules as traditional multiplayer Commander. For those unfamiliar with the Commander format, I have tried to summarise how it all works below:
Each player chooses a legendary creature as their Commander. The Commander’s mana cost limits the colours of cards you can play in your deck. Your deck must contain exactly 100 cards, including the Commander and, except for basic lands, you can only have one copy of each card. Much like other Magic formats, Commander has its own banlist.
Players begin the game with 40 life. Commanders begin the game in the command zone. While a Commander is in the command zone, it may be cast, subject to the normal timing restrictions for casting creatures. Its owner must pay an additional two mana for each previous time it’s been cast from the command zone this game. If your Commander would be put into a library, hand, graveyard or exile from anywhere, you may choose to move it to the command zone instead.
Where Duel Commander differs from multiplayer Commander:
• Players begin the game with 30 life
• Duel Commander has its own specific banlist
• In a tournament setting matches are best-of-three with a recommendation of 55 minute rounds.
The specific banlist, lower starting life total and 1v1 nature of the format mean there are vast differences between the viable Commanders, card choices and playstyle in Duel Commander vs the classic multiplayer format.
There are obviously many ways to play a game of multiplayer Commander. However, it is not uncommon to see players casting ramp spells and mana rocks over the first few turns before haymaker creatures and spells with incredibly powerful effects start littering the battlefield and stack. Countermagic is often in short supply and there is commonly a ‘social contract’ whereby players agree not to do anything too silly for the 5 turns or so to make sure everybody gets to play the game.
This is most certainly not the case in Duel Commander. They playstyle of the format is more akin to Legacy rather than its multiplayer Commander parentage. There is no social contract here. Countermagic and disruption run amok. If you are not interacting with your opponent during the first few turns then you are at risk of getting steamrolled. Don’t fret though, the Duel Commander banlist is there to ensure that this isn’t the Wild West and that you have a chance to interact and compete with your opponent. Let’s look at a few key differences between the multiplayer Commander and Duel Commander banlists.
Sol Ring and Mana Crypt – banned in Duel Commander, but not in multiplayer. These bans ensure that nothing too ridiculous can happen on the first few turns. As many multiplayer Commander players will attest, the player who starts with a turn 1 Sol Ring/Mana Crypt more often than not wins the game. There is an argument to ban these cards in multiplayer as well, however the fact that the player with the fast mana has to contend with 3+ opponents means that there is more resistance to/control of their dominance in the match. Sol Ring is also considered the signature card of multiplayer Commander and therefore appears to be exempt from banning.
Primeval Titan & Sylvan Primordial – banned in multiplayer, but not in Duel Commander. Prime Time was banned in multiplayer because it appeared to warp the format. While it did not necessarily end games on the spot, many games devolved into “Cast Primeval Titan, steal your Primeval Titan, Clone your Primeval Titan, cast my own Primeval Titan”. In Duel Commander however, Primeval Titan is just one powerful card in a sea of many other powerful cards. It is not defining the metagame. Similarly, Sylvan Primordial generated a huge swing in the multiplayer environment, often destroying 3+ noncreature permanents, searching for 3 Forests and giving the caster a 6/8 body, and usually resulted in a win. Again, the 1v1 nature of Duel Commander means that while still playable in ramp decks such as Maelstrom Wanderer, Sylvan Primordial at 7 mana does not generate anywhere near the same value and board advantage, and therefore is not considered ban worthy.
Mystical Tutor, Vampiric Tutor & Entomb – banned in Duel Commander, but not in multiplayer. Similar to the bannings of Sol Ring and Mana Crypt, these tutor effects are banned to reduce the consistency and power level of specific strategies and combos. The two tutors previously allowed control decks to tutor-up the specific answers they needed at the time, they allowed aggro-control decks such as Geist of Saint Traft to resolve their Commander and then search for Armageddon to seal the win, and they allowed combo decks to find their missing piece, all for the low low cost of 1 mana. For very similar reasons, Entomb was banned for facilitating overly consistent reanimator decks, often allowing game changers such as Griselbrand, Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur and Iona, Shield of Emeria to hit the battlefield as early as turn 2. Not only does Entomb search your library for a specific card, it also deposits it into a beneficial zone again all for only 1 mana.
Recurring Nightmare – banned in multiplayer, but not in Duel Commander. Recurring Nightmare is obviously a very strong card and, given little to no interaction from your opponents, it is possible to start to doing very silly things such as recurring Yosei, the Morning Star locks. However, in Duel Commander your opponent will be interacting with you. Your Recurring Nightmare may well get countered. When you target a creature it your graveyard it may well get eaten by Deathrite Shaman or Scavenging Ooze. Your opponent may be playing Anafenza, the Foremost as their Commander. They may force you to discard the Recurring Nightmare while it is in your hand. Much like Primeval Titan, Recurring Nightmare is a very powerful card that enables a number of different synergies. However, in Duel Commander, it is just one of many different powerful (and fun) things you can be trying to do.
Hermit Druid – banned in Duel Commander, but not in multiplayer. The only reason this card is not banned in multiplayer is because of the social contract and the unwillingness to play to win. In a competitive format, with prizes on the line etc, there is no reason not to play 5-colour Hermit Druid combo and win the game on turn 2 or 3 with disruption to force it through. For these reasons, Hermit Druid is not allowed in Duel Commander.
Necropotence– banned in Duel Commander, but not in multiplayer. Another card that amazingly is legal to play in multiplayer Commander. 40 life format? With Necro? Come on. The social contract is again surely the only thing keeping this card legal. No such fun can be had in Duel Commander.
Derevi, Empyrial Tactician, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Oloro, Ageless Ascetic – these legendary creatures are banned from being played as Commanders in Duel Commander, but are legal in multiplayer. There are a number of creatures that are deemed too strong to be allowed as Commanders. Derevi and Tasigur break the fundamental rule of your Commander costing more to cast as the game goes on. Derevi synergises with Birthing Pod all too well while Tasigur and the graveyard are BFFs. Oloro is another legendary creature banned as a Commander as it breaks another fundamental rule. Gaining 2 life a turn, for no cost, meant that control and combo decks had even more time to setup and implement their game plans. While Oloro was legal, aggro was forced completely out of the format.
Edric, Spymaster of Trest and Yisan, the Wanderer Bard – these legendary creatures are banned from being played as Commanders in Duel Commander, but are legal in multiplayer. This is a recent trend to ban Commanders who are deemed too strong when cast on turn 2. It is also worth noting that other 3-drop Commanders that can be played on turn 2 off a mana elf (Marath, Will of the Wild, Animar, Soul of Elements and Jenara, Asura of War) have been added to the ‘watch list’. The watch list has been designed for potentially dangerous cards that could end up getting banned in the near future.
Duel Commander Archetypes
Now that we’ve discussed what cards we can and cannot play, let’s looks at some established Duel Commander archetypes. Duel Commander is a wide open format and there are many viable strategies and Commanders available to chose from. I have identified a few of the more popular ways to go below:
Duel Commander Aggro
Unlike in the multiplayer format with players starting on 40 life, aggro decks are playable in the 1v1 Duel Commander 30 life format. That said, there aren’t a great deal of true linear aggro decks. Zurgo Bellstriker is the best example of a classic mono-red aggro deck while Titania, Protector of Argoth shows what a mono-green approach would look like. Most aggressive decks can best classified as either aggro-combo or aggro-control. Good examples of this are Marath, Will of the Wild and Jenara, Asura of War. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben offers mono-white an aggro option, but again this would most likely be classified as aggro-control.
Here’s an example of a Zurgo Bellstriker deck:
Duel Commander Control
There are a number of different and varying control strategies available in Duel Commander. Geist of Saint Traft and Grand Arbiter Augustin IV are popular Commanders when playing Blue White control, be it a traditional draw-go or prison build. Wydwen, the Biting Gale and Keranos, God of Storms offer similar draw-go strategies for the Blue Black and Blue Red colour combinations. Daretti, Scrap Savant and Griselbrand offer players the opportunity to play board control while Maelstrom Wanderer, The Gitrog Monster and Narset, Enlightened Master each control the board while utilising their Commanders’ abilities to leverage advantage.
Here’s an example of a Wydwen, the Biting Gale deck:
Duel Commander Combo
Comdo decks are alive and well in Duel Commander. Mono-blue High Tide decks can be seen when piloting Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound and Teferi, Temporal Archmage while mono-black Sidisi, Undead Vizier decks try to setup the Necrotic Ooze, Triskelion and Phyrexian Devourer combo. Animar, Soul of Elements is a blazingly fast combo deck using Animar’s cost reducing ability to litter the board with creatures, often killing on turn 3. Elfball is another popular combo deck of choice with Prossh, Skyraider of Kher and Selvala, Explorer Returned as the commonly used Commanders.
Here’s an example of a Sidisi, Undead Vizier deck:
Duel Commander Tournaments & Events
I’ve hopefully piqued your interest and got you hankering for some games of Duel Commander, so let’s talk about where you can play.
Following the relatively recent change that allowed Tournament Organisers the flexibility to choose the format for their Friday Night Magic events, it is now possible to run Duel Commander FNMs. What better way to get a handle on the format and try out different decks etc than at you rlocal game shop. Try and ask your friendly TO for a Duel Commander FNM pod and take the leap.
Large European tournament organisers often run Duel Commander side events. Next time you are at a GP (or at Bazaar of Moxen’s London event in August perhaps?) and are at a loss for what do on the Sunday, how about you join the queue and get your Commander on.
As I am actively trying to support and grow this amazing format, I run quarterly Duel Commander events up here in Scotland. We have managed to get between 30-40 players at these events, with a very attractive cash payout to the top8 and booster prizes for all other players.
There has also been talk recently of a large Duel Commander tournament to be organised and run by the fine folks here at Manaleak in Birmingham. While no details are available at this time, keep your eyes peeled to the website and their Facebook page for news.
Duel Commander Online Resources
If you are interested in Duel Commander and want to learn more, here are a few places you should go:
The official Duel Commander website
The official Duel Commander Facebook page
The UK Duel Commander Facebook page
MTGSalvation Duel Commander forum
MTGTop8 Commander page
I also hope to continue to write more articles about the format, maybe looking at specific archetypes, decks, card choices etc. Plus any tournament reports I am able to provide. Comments and suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
I thought I would leave you with my latest Duel Commander project. I am an avid deckbuilder and always looking to try something new. I have played a load of different decks in the format. Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, Daretti, Scrap Savant, Alesha, Who Smiles at Death, Nin, the Pain Artist, Jori En, Ruin Diver and most recently The Gitrog Monster, have all led my troops into battle. But there’s always a card I wish I could play that sits outside my Commander’s colour identity. Why oh why can Gitrog not play Intuition! So, with this in mind, it’s time for me to build 5 colour control. I give you, Child of Alara.
Until next time