Commander (EDH) Deck-Building Tips & Tricks – Part 1: Choosing a General
I love building Commander decks. Sometimes I’ll even build a deck, goldfish test it two or three times and then take it apart. As lame as this may sound, I think it’s important to try building different decks – even if you never actually play with them – as it allows you to know what kinds of things to expect to play against, as well as just generally improving your knowledge of the vast amount of cards that exist in Magic: the Gathering (almost 16,000 according to Gatherer).
I’m hoping to have as much of a structured series-type thing as I can either weekly, bi-weekly (or something if I can manage it) in which I break down how I personally design, make and iterate Commander decks and hopefully help some of you with making your own decks.
To be able to understand the process of picking a general for your deck, you first have to understand exactly what a general is, as well as what they allow you to be able to do (and what they restrict).
A general is the card that you choose to have as the “leader” of your Commander deck. The card that you choose as your general must either be a Legendary Creature (one that is not banned) or one of the 5 Plansewalkers introduced in the decks released in 2014. This card creates some restrictions for your deckbuilding but also comes with some benefits.
The core benefit (and one of the reasons why Commander is so popular) is the use of the “Command Zone”. This is an area in the game where your general stays when not in play. While in this area generals have no impact on the game and cannot be targeted by any player unless specified otherwise (Oloro, Ageless Ascetic I’m looking at you).
While in this area you can play your general at any point you could play a card of that type (if it’s a creature you can only play it when you could play creatures for example). This is good as it means that there is a card in your deck that you will always have access to.
When your general dies you are allowed to choose whether you would like to place them into the graveyard or back into your command zone. If you choose to place your general back into the command zone they will cost (2) more to cast. This is the same for when it is exiled, when you are forced to shuffle it back into your library or when you are forced to return it to your hand.
The other benefit to the creature generals is that they make it easier to kill your opponents. Since each player starts with 40 life in Commander our rules committee overlords decided that it would be a good idea to make “Commander Damage”. This is a rule in that says if a player takes 21 damage from one general they lose the game. This is mainly a way to prevent life-gaining decks from overrunning the format (Oloro, Ageless Ascetic I’m still looking at you).
While having a general does mean that you will always have access to a card it also brings a downside, and this plays into the deckbuilding stage. You are only allowed to put cards into your deck that match your general’s colour identity. In short this means that if you play Marath, Will of the Wild for example you are only allowed to play cards whose colour idenity is green, white or red (or any combination of the three). For more information on colour identity check click here.
So that’s a quick definition of what your general is and what it does. But is it that simple..?
Of course not. This is Magic: the Gathering, one of the deepest and most complex games that you can play. There are a number of other factors to take into account when you are choosing a general for your Commander deck.
Types of General in Commander
When approaching a new deck I like to think about what the general I have chosen can/will be able to do and how that affects the structure of the deck overall. I have broken down some of the different types of general below:
- Combo Piece
Some of these may need some explanation so I’ll break them down a little more.
This isn’t an official term by any means but it’s what I call generals who you only have at the head of a deck for the colours. A very good example of this is Tasigur, the Golden Fang. While this slouching, banana-loving shaman has shown time and time again that he is the king of a number of formats he is less useful in Commander than some of the other creatures you can use. His ability can be incredibly powerful but you’ll likely find that most players would rather use their turns playing cards like Jace the Mind Sculptor than a 4/5. For this reason you’ll find that a lot of Tasigur decks will simply run him to get the colours they need for their other powerful cards whilst but who want to have access to a 1 mana 4/5 rather than a Sidisi, Brood Tyrant.
This is the type of general who takes advantage of the fact that you will always have access to them. A brilliant example of this is Prossh, Skyraider of Kher who you can play an infinite number of times with Food Chain.
Oh Siege Rhino no longer are the days of being able to play you with a smug face knowing that we would be getting a 6 life point swing as well as a 4/5 creature with trample. Sigh. The old Rhino may be retired from Standard but if you’re in pursuit of incredible value look no further than Commander. If it’s using Meren of Clan Nel Toth to reanimate Bane of Progress/Reclamation Sage every turn or using Marath, Will of the Wild in conjunction with Skullclamp to draw a into your Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker combo pieces, the format is chock full of value generating cards that quite simply put our turn 4 4/5 to shame.
Anyone who is a fan of Power Rangers, Transformers or basically any Mecha anime ever will love the idea of voltron decks. In these decks you pick a creature that has the ability to protect itself built in using hexproof, indestructible or some form of protection and then attaching an armoury worth of equipment or enchanments to it to make an incredibly powerful beast that will quite simply one-shot your opponents.
These are just a few of the possible ways in which you can use your general but are a few of the much more common ones that I see in the playgroups that I play in.
Now of course not everyone likes to look at their general from a spikey perspective and some even like to base their decks around themes or with lore connections. I know, disgusting.
Now of course I’m just kidding and this is a perfectly valid way to play the game and to approach your deckbuilding. One of the more common ways that people do this is by picking a general and then using their colours to match the playstyle of a specific guild (for example picking Melek, Izzet Paragon and then trading in some stronger cards such as Jace, the Mind Sculptor for more thematic cards like Ral Zarek or Epic Experiment). Below I have outlined how you could focus a deck around the the lore of your commander:
Lavinia of the Tenth (Azorius) – Make a deck based around apprehending your opponents. A police force to detain your opponents creatures (Archon of the Triumvirate & Azorius Arrester), prisons to put the detainees into (Ghostly Prison) and of course for when the rest of your pod gets too rowdy Martial Law
Meren of Clan Nel Toth (Golgari) – Simple dredge strategy. Put lots of creatures into your graveyard to reanimate. Bonus points the more creatures that have scavenge.
Melek, Izzet Paragon (Izzet) – As an Izzet mage myself this type of a deck resonates with me more than an actual spikey version of this deck. The idea is to fill the deck with as many crazy cards that do Izzety things as you can. Epic Experiment is a perfect example of this and Firemind’s Foresight fulfills the flavour requirement to a tee.
Not all generals can be pigeon-holed as easily as Zurgo Bellstriker or Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and in fact, a lot of generals fit into a multitude of decks. A perfect example of this is Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. Kiki-Jiki is one of the cards that epitomises the difference between decks in a format like Commander.
It is VERY easy to break Kiki-Jiki by accompanying it with Zealous Conscripts, Village Bell Ringer or Deciever Exarch. Because of this, you’ll more often find Kiki-Jiki as part of the 99 of another deck; however he does also have potential to be a very powerful general. Mono-red is often seen as one of the least powerful mono-colours to play in commander, however you can generate a lot of value using Kiki-Jiki alongside cards like Siege-Gang Commander or Fanatic of Mogis. While these combinations are nowhere near as powerful as the Kiki-Jiki + Conscripts combo, they can put a very fast clock on your opponents forcing them to react to what you are doing and often catching them off guard completely. This shows that generals can be powerful in different kinds of decks (in the case of Kiki-Jiki value-based decks and combo decks).
Picking your General in Commander
Picking your general can be a long and excruciating process but this is what makes it that much better when you finally find one that you LOVE playing.
When looking at generals I like to follow the following steps to make sure that I (and other players) are going to enjoy playing or playing against my deck:
- Is it using colours that I love playing (in my case does it include blue/red/a combination of the two)?
2. Does it push the deck to have cool/interesting interactions with either itself or other players?
3. Is it oppressive/ does it promote an oppressive deck to be built around it? (Hokori, Dust Drinker is overly oppressive and therefore I’ve never built the mono-w taxes deck of my dreams)
4. Could you win with with card as your general?
I try to follow these pointers as best I can as I feel that they are the outline of choosing a general that you can have fun playing with and your opponents can have fun playing against.
Hopefully this has in some way helped those among you who are still having trouble picking your perfect general to find the legendary creature (or planeswalker) of your dreams. As mentioned before I am hoping to make this a weekly/bi-weekly thing where I talk about my own deck-building practices in an effort to make it easier for you to make your own decks. For this to work well it is important that you comment below what you did/didn’t like and what you would like me to talk about. I know that I use anecdotal evidence way too much when I’m writing but I also think that is important for this tips & tricks style of article as it is the perfect format for me to use my experience and pass it on to new Commander players.
The next article should be covering creatures and how important they are to a format like Commander.
Thanks for reading!