Commander and EDH Deck Building Tips & Tricks – Part 2: A Guide to Creature Selection in Deck Construction
Firstly, I would also like to say that the information in this article is based on my personal experience and knowledge of the format, and must be considered that what is mentioned in this article is different from playgroup to playgroup.
In my last article (Commander (EDH) Deck-Building Tips & Tricks – Part 1: Choosing a General, by Paul Palmer), we looked at a number of Generals, their uses and the decks you can construct around them. To headline the research for this article, I’ve been playing a lot more Commander and trying out more decks with the hope that I could gain more experience with the format in order to share my experiences.
While Commander is often considered the land of big spells and control magic, creatures still play a vitally important part in all decks (the obvious being, of course, your chosen General). For this article, I’m going to use the three key archetypes to explain how different creatures can be incredibly useful in this vast format that relies heavily upon combo-like synergies and immediately impactful value. These will be large generalisations based on the three formats, and may be open to areas of overlap between archetypes. (I.e. a ‘midrange’ creature could be used in a ‘control’ deck).
One of the biggest issues that players I know find with creatures in this format is that there is such a high volume of potential removal (both single-target and board-wide) that some creatures or creature-centric stategies could be considered ineffective or subpar. To surpass this, players will focus on creatures that have immediate impact on the board rather than those that have to survive until their following turn. This immediate impact comes from two main sources:
- Haste Keyword
- Enter The Battlefield (ETB) Effects
And if you’re lucky enough to have a card with both of these combined (*cough* Craterhoof Behemoth *cough*) they are normally game winning cards.
Burn’s Best Friend – The Wonderful World of Haste
Haste is an historic ability that has been around since the days of Alpha and has been a cornerstone of a number of aggressive decks since its inception. Haste is something that is conventionally a feature of small creatures with low mana costs to allow them to get in damage as quickly as possible, finishing off opponents with high-reach spells once the initial impact has been made. This can be seen in Modern and Legacy burn decks which use creatures such as Goblin Guide and Monastery Swiftspear, before finishing their opponents off with efficient, high-impact spells like Lightning Bolt, Lava Spike and Fireblast.
While haste is an incredibly powerful keyword in most constructed formats, aggressive strategies often struggle in Commander due to the higher starting life total found in the format. This means that many smaller creatures don’t make the cut in multiplayer Commander, but the mechanic itself finds a new purpose by enabling powerful abilities, especially on cards like Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, a card that has been known to take over games by itself.
Conversely, the provision of haste allows other creatures with tap abilities to make an impact the turn they enter the battlefield, allowing some of the objectively powerful, yet rather cumbersome creatures, reach their full potential a turn earlier. Some of these cards (Urabrask the Hidden or Anger) only benefit only your creatures, giving you an edge over your opponents, while others (Concordant Crossroads and Mass Hysteria) benefit everyone but in exchange have a much lower mana cost.
Enter the Battlefield Effects
Enter the battlefield effects (also commonly known as ‘ETB Effects’) are the abilities that read similarly to this: ”When Nekrataal enters the battlefield, destroy target nonartifact, nonblack creature. That creature can’t be regenerated.” These effects can be incredibly powerful and are often the reason why players run a handful of counterspells (colours permitting). Although effects from cards such as Torpor Orb provide word-for-word prevention of enter the battlefield abilities, the most common form of protection from these powerful abilities comes in the form of counter magic. Manaleak editor and writer George Mostyn also recommends the ‘Judge’s Favourite’ when it comes to questions concerning rules interaction, Humility, for preventing ETB effects in Commander, especially when dealing with his infamous Purphoros, God of the Forge Commander deck.
According to EDHREC’s Top Cards list, the five most used creatures are Solemn Simulacrum, Eternal Witness, Sun Titan, Sakura-Tribe Elder and Acidic Slime. As you can see, four out of the top five of these creatures have ETB abilities that have extremely powerful utility effects, while Sakura-Tribe Elder has an ability that can be used regardless of summoning sickness. If the history of Modern has proven anything, the reign of Splinter Twin–Deceiver Exarch provides the benchmark for the sheer power level ETB effects can have on a format.
Two Is Better Than One – The Best of Both Worlds
As I mentioned earlier, the immediate impact of Haste and Enter the Battlefield effects are incredeibly powerful in a format where every creature enters the match with three opponents dead-set on destroying it and, while it isn’t always the case in Commander, combining one good thing with another makes it better.
I made a very bold claim that creatures with haste and an ETB effect normally win you the game and while this isn’t always true, there are a number of situations when this is often the case: Craterhoof Behemoth being the best example. Even on a board of just three or four creatures, Craterhoof will normally allow for a significant attack. Red cards also provide the best of both worlds: Zealous Conscripts can also go infinite with the infamous Splinter Twin, Molten Primodial becomes a miniature Insurrection, whilst Goblin Bushwhacker is a great finisher for Goblin strategies, providing a Trumpet Blast effect and the added bonus of giving the team Haste too.
Not All Creatures Have Haste or Enter the Battlefield Effects – What Are My Other Options?
Haste and ETB effects are definitely not the only cards that have a huge impact on the board in Commander. There are some creatures that don’t have haste or an ability when they enter the battlefield. These creatures are often incredibly powerful but need some kind of protection, be it counter magic, indestructibilty or literal protection from colours.
Going back to EDHREC we can see some of these powerful creatures that don’t have the immediate impact: The first of these is Consecrated Sphinx. Just like Prophet of Kruphix (before its ban), Consecrated Sphinx is one of those creatures that the entire table will fight over the control of, either copying, stealing or simply trying to remove so that noone has control of it. This all comes down to one of the big rules of not only Commander but Magic in general: Card advantage wins games, and Consecrated Sphinx is the poster child of card advantage, letting you draw twice as many cards as every opponent, allowing you to run away with games in quick fashion.
Card draw isn’t the only way that creatures can give you advantage, Sheoldred, Whispering One allows you to get ahead of your opponents on the board by forcing them to sacrifice creatures as your continue to recur your fallen comrades turn by turn. While she is a lightning rod for removal, Sheoldred is normally run in decks that have huge abounts of reanimation with cards like Exhume, Dread Return and Animate Dead.
With card draw comes its dark world counterpart, discard. You’ve probably played against him at least once and never wanted to play against him again, but although Jin Gitaxias, Core Augur is another card that doesn’t have an immediate impact, but if given free reign completely dominates games. If you accompany him with a card like Kruphix, God of Horizons or Reliquary Tower you end up with a hand chock with good cards while your opponents are relying on top decks to get what they need to kill the Praetor or wipe the board, hoping that when you draw those 7 cards in your end step you don’t find yourself a counter spell to protect Jin Gitaxias himself.
And of course there is Deadeye Navigator and the newly added Eldrazi Displacer: Two creatures that allow you to flicker creatures as many times as you can afford and piece together more combos than I care to think about. Both sometimes you just need a couple of simply powerful beatsticks to bludgeon your opponents with until they can’t take anymore. These cards range from the highly flexible Wurmcoil Engine and Steel Hellkite, to the game-winning, friendship-destroying Blightsteel Collossus.
With So Many Options How Am I Meant To Choose The Right Creature? What Fits Where?
Now I could talk about different creatures and their benefits until the cows come home but that’s not what this article is meant to be about, but to help you in evaluating creatures for your deck. Card selection varies from deck to deck, playgroup to playgroup but there are some rule of thumb that I use when deck-building that I’m going to cover here.
Aggro – Xenagos, God of Revels
This deck uses creatures in a number of ways, with the deck being built in the opposite way to most Commander decks, relying on the biggest, baddest most brutal creatures in the format to facilitate a number of purposes while using as few spells as possible. Rapacious One and Pathbreaker Ibex allow you to make a large army of Eldrazi, pump them and crash into your enemies. The deck even relies on creatures to draw cards, pumping them up with Xenagos and then using cards like Greater Good to sacrifice them and draw like the blue decks that dominate the format. This deck holds maintains the core values of a true Timmy: Smash with big creatures and slam them into faces. Simple. Efficient. Beautiful.
Control – Narset, Enlightened Master
While it may seem strange to cover a creatureless deck in a discussion on creatures but Voltron/Control decks take up enough of a percentage of Commander playgroups that they’re worth bringing up. This deck differs to most however, as the majority of control decks run utility creatures like Sun Titan and Snapcaster Mage and personally that is how I would approach a deck like this, value-driven creatures and powerful spells.
My friend Charley has taken a very different approach: To make the most out of Narset’s ability the deck runs only one creature (Narset) which it relies on to be able to play the biggest, most powerful spells in the format for free. Charley’s deck perfectly demonstrates how deck can be constructed around a single creature for maximum benefit, maximising the powerful ability attached to a Commander which is inherently difficult to interact with, even in EDH.
Combo – Teysa, Orzhov Scion
Unlike the two decks above Teysa, Orzhov Scion does not rely solely on creatures to win its games, or to control the board, but instead uses them to generate value and combos that, in conjunction with artifacts and enchantments such as Grave Pact and Martyr’s Bond, allow the player to move ahead by denying players of their resources or create an infinite loop that wins the game in one fell swoop. Also combo archetypes are sometimes frowned upon in some playgroups, but the resource deprivation plus threat of a combo-finish can also be a great challenge to a playgroup to overcome.
As Jesse Schell says in his book The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, experiences differ from person to person and recreating that experience is impossible. While paraphrased, what one person experiences in a game is completely different to what another might, but I hope that you can relate to the experiences I have had playing Commander and take them into account the next time you take on the challenge of constructing your next deck.
Part 1 of my Commander (EDH) Deck-Building Tips & Tricks Series
PDF of Jesse Schell’s Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses
Original Article for the Featured Xenagos Deck
Other Commander Articles on Manaleak
Thanks for Reading!