Opening Moves

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The letter T!here's an order to the world of Commander.

Ordered Migration | Art by Heather Hudson

Nearly every game of Commander I've played—in recent memory, at least—involved one of these four cards:

Well, not these exact four cards. These are the flagship versions, the preeminent versions, of four archetypes of mana management:

  • Sol Ring is a ubiquitous way to jump ahead in mana, efficiently giving you more mana than what you needed to put in the same turn you cast it. It's the cold fusion reactor of science fiction, putting you into warp speed from the get go.
  • Darksteel Ingot is a ubiquitous way to fix your colors of mana, efficiently giving you an extra mana of any color you need. It's the Swiss Army knife of mana ramp, giving you whatever tools you need.
  • Rampant Growth is a ubiquitous way to search out and add an extra land in the battlefield, efficiently adding to your mana count in a nigh-indestructible way. It's the bicycle of growing your mana, reliably getting you where you need to go.
  • Solemn Simulacrum is a ubiquitous way to extract maximum value from a creature, efficiently giving you mana acceleration and card replacement in a body that attacks or blocks if needed. It's the duct tape of repairs by providing multidimensional mana utility.

We could look at all of the sisters, cousins, and other extended relatives of these archetypical cards, but you get the drift of what they each do. The name and details often matter less than the outcome they're used to generate: consistency. There's another word I like to use instead of consistency, though, and its connotation isn't so positive.

I'm talking about repetition.

Silver Borders Playbook

Let's be honest: Adding to your mana count, collecting enough of every color you need along the way, is an awesome way to start Commander games. You cast spells easier and earlier. You have more opportunities to act and react with more of the cards in hand. You use and activate extra abilities more often with the extra bits of mana you collect. In general, having enough mana of the colors you want lets you do whatever it is what want to do.

I've created plenty of decks that started with green Rampant Growth cards with a sprinkling of Darksteel Ingot or Solemn Simulacrum types. Building out an impressive curve of mana-setting options meant every game I played felt something like this:

  1. Land.
  2. Land. Rampant Growth.
  3. Land. Rampant Growth/Darksteel Ingot.
  4. Land. Rampant Growth/Rampant Growth/Darksteel Ingot/Darksteel Ingot.
  5. The biggest, baddest, boldest card I have in hand.
  6. Repeat Step 5.

It wasn't that I didn't get to do the things I wanted to do, but that every game played out in the same way. Laying my decks out by their mana cost created a "U" shape: The six-, seven-, and eight-drop slots packed with the most powerful cards available in the colors, with two- and three-drops meant to exclusively get me to the top end as quickly as possible.

It got rather boring, so I decided to change things up.

Mana fixing and land searching still get added to the pile when I'm building a deck, but I've started making a point to find other options that add to the multiplayer experience. While Burning-Tree Shaman and Nekusar, the Mindrazer won't necessarily make me friends, they do force others to think about the things they're doing. Turning off autopilot in the early turns has been much more fun than simply reliving the same opening moves.

Magic isn't chess, after all. Fortunately, there's plenty of variation to explore in the opening turns of games. I'm not the only one who has looked for other ways to spend the early turns. Plenty of others have gravitated toward making moves that matter early on, like Michael.

The obvious answer—at least when using the infamous Kemba, Kha Regent—is "Play my commander, of course!"

The answer is no different for my own version on the theme, which I call "Equip Fuzzy, Get Kitties," a Kemba, Kha Regent Equipment deck with a lifegain twist.

While some commanders are late-game arrivals, some are reliable utility pieces, and others are simply color-enablers, Kemba is a "front-line" Commander, which means she HATES sitting in the command zone. Rather, the sooner Kemba gets onto the battlefield, the happier she is. The real nice thing is that since she only costs three to play right out the gate, and with only one color to worry about, she's probably one of the easier and faster commanders to play, especially for a commander that's just as adept at smashing people's faces in for a commander damage victory as she is playing army builder as a utility piece. She's certainly the easiest and fastest one I have.

This being Kemba, of course, the other thing that this deck wants to happen first is for Equipment to be played so she has plenty of support pieces to trigger off of. The best part is that, with the way Equipment works, even if Kemba gets tucked or otherwise becomes unavailable, the deck isn't completely DOA, since the friends I've included are still capable of going Voltron in her place, should she go AWOL, by taking up her sword. Or shield. Or boots.

It gets especially fun—and it's among my favorite moments when it happens—when I manage to pull off a Voltron with my Darksteel Myr. There's something I find hilarious about a normally unassuming 0/1 Myr turning into this indestructible walking arsenal.

But then, I have a thing for Myr anyway.


Using commanders meant to come down early and go to work is one way to point to the beginning of the game. Rhys the Redeemed is among my favorite commanders of all time, and he leads to decks very similar to Michael's, above. Making tokens and building up into an army that attacks is one of the primal experiences to have in Magic. Commander is no exception.

There are other types of commanders that lead to interesting early action, even if it isn't casting them, as Murphy shared:

For me, the most fun thing to do in the first few turns is help everyone out! You get no better reaction than being the one who plays a Kami of the Crescent into a Rites of Flourishing or Heartbeat of Spring. I was inspired by your Bear Hug article from a few years ago and built this as my first Commander deck, with The Mimeoplasm as the commander.

Even when people know the sharp end of the stick is coming later, they can't help but be friendly to you until that happens. Overall, I've had more rewarding games (for the whole group) playing this deck than any other.

Here's the decklist.


Murphy's Mimeoplasm
Commander: The Mimeoplasm

Main Deck

99 cards

Breeding Pool
Command Tower
Darkwater Catacombs
Dimir Aqueduct
Dimir Guildgate
Drowned Catacomb
Ebon Stronghold
Flooded Grove
Frost Marsh
Golgari Guildgate
Golgari Rot Farm
Havenwood Battleground
Hinterland Harbor
Jwar Isle Refuge
Misty Rainforest
Overgrown Tomb
Polluted Delta
Reliquary Tower
Rootwater Depths
Salt Marsh
Seafloor Debris
Simic Growth Chamber
Simic Guildgate
Sunken Ruins
Svyelunite Temple
Tainted Isle
Tainted Wood
Temple of Deceit
Temple of Mystery
Timberland Ruins
Twilight Mire
Waterveil Cavern
Watery Grave
Woodland Cemetery

35 lands

Aku Djinn
Blood Artist
Borderland Ranger
Braids, Conjurer Adept
Coiling Oracle
Duskmantle Seer
Essence Warden
Experiment Kraj
Gilded Drake
Havengul Lich
Horizon Chimera
Hunted Phantasm
Hythonia the Cruel
Jace's Archivist
Kami of the Crescent Moon
Maralen of the Mornsong
Massacre Wurm
Netherborn Phalanx
Noble Benefactor
Phyrexian Metamorph
Seizan, Perverter of Truth
Spike Cannibal
Sylvan Caryatid

26 creatures

Awakening Zone
Beseech the Queen
Black Market
Black Sun's Zenith
Defense of the Heart
Diabolic Tutor
Dingus Staff
Doubling Season
Font of Mythos
Forced Fruition
Gate to the Æther
Hall of Gemstone
Heartbeat of Spring
Hive Mind
Howling Mine
Leyline of Vitality
Living Death
Maelstrom Pulse
Malignant Growth
Minds Aglow
No Mercy
Oath of Druids
Paradox Haze
Primal Vigor
Primeval Bounty
Relic of Progenitus
Rites of Flourishing
Slaughter Pact
Spell Crumple
Spoils of War
Stronghold Discipline
Temple Bell
Tombstone Stairwell
Vision Skeins
Well of Knowledge

37 other spells

Jace Beleren

1 planeswalker

The Mimeoplasm

Using cards that help other players while helping yourself is a great way to do something different early and set up a late-game payoff. Playing to politics may not be everyone's cup of tea, and Westin's approach to setting up later turns isn't about every else:

A lot of Commander games can go into the realm of lasting a couple hours, especially when everyone is trying to set up their combos or armies in tricky and snail-paced ways that Commander is wont. But it doesn't matter if you're not doing enough in the early game to defend your plans.

My early game consists of getting in a couple sources of protection for my commander, Kaalia of the Vast. With a deck style full of big sticks that are a minimum of five mana, I usually won't have any creatures out before I get out my commander, so keeping her alive is of utmost importance.

Equipment like Sword of Feast and Famine or Haunted Plate Mail (which sadly recently left the deck for a Sword of War and Peace) are often viewed as great pieces to beat face with or finish off opponents. But when you have a commander as threatening and fragile as Kaalia, they turn into early-game insurance plans for keeping the key to my deck alive.

Enchantments are a big help in Commander when multiple players can either benefit or be held back by a few cards. Basic anthem effects like Spear of Heliod or Dictate of Heliod are of great help in the deck, but particularly shine in keeping my Kaalia from dying early on to a very hilarious Lightning Bolt.

One card that really stands out to me as helpful and underrated is Legion's Initiative. The anthem effect is helpful, but it's really good for its bounce effect. Not only can this help avoid wraths or removal effects, but this can also give you a big hasty finishing move when you need it. I think more RW creature decks need this card.

Here's the decklist.


Westin's Kaalia
Commander: Kaalia of the Vast

Main Deck

99 cards

Akoum Refuge
Blackcleave Cliffs
Blood Crypt
Boros Guildgate
Cavern of Souls
Clifftop Retreat
Command Tower
Dragonskull Summit
Evolving Wilds
Fetid Heath
Godless Shrine
Graven Cairns
Isolated Chapel
Lavaclaw Reaches
Orzhov Guildgate
Rakdos Guildgate
Reflecting Pool
Reliquary Tower
Rogue's Passage
Rugged Prairie
Sacred Foundry
Slayers' Stronghold
Temple of Malice
Temple of Silence
Temple of the False God
Temple of Triumph
Terramorphic Expanse
Vault of the Archangel

38 lands

Akroma, Angel of Fury
Akroma, Angel of Wrath
Angel of Despair
Angel of Serenity
Angelic Skirmisher
Archangel of Thune
Aurelia, the Warleader
Avacyn, Angel of Hope
Balefire Dragon
Baneslayer Angel
Bloodgift Demon
Dragon Mage
Forgestoker Dragon
Gisela, Blade of Goldnight
Harvester of Souls
Hellkite Tyrant
Hoard-Smelter Dragon
Iona, Shield of Emeria
Iroas, God of Victory
Kokusho, the Evening Star
Lord of the Void
Moonveil Dragon
Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis
Oros, the Avenger
Rakdos, Lord of Riots
Shivan Dragon
Silver Seraph
Sire of Insanity
Stormbreath Dragon
Sunblast Angel
Utvara Hellkite

31 creatures

Akroma's Memorial
Aurelia's Fury
Banishing Stroke
Blasphemous Act
Boros Charm
Boros Signet
Darksteel Plate
Debtors' Knell
Demonic Tutor
Dictate of Heliod
Gilded Lotus
Gleam of Battle
Legion's Initiative
Marshal's Anthem
Merciless Eviction
Orzhov Signet
Painful Quandary
Rakdos Signet
Rise from the Grave
Rise of the Dark Realms
Sever the Bloodline
Sol Ring
Spear of Heliod
Sword of Feast and Famine
Sword of War and Peace
Thran Dynamo
Unburial Rites
World at War
Wrath of God

29 other spells

Gideon, Champion of Justice

1 planeswalker

Kaalia of the Vast

Kaalia of the Vast costs enough to come down early but benefits from the groundwork other early plays make. It isn't just Equipment like the powerful Sword of Feast and Famine that can work out well. One of my favorite new cards is the humble Journey into Nyx uncommon Chariot of Victory. First strike, trample, and haste are all fine abilities is a world of oversized creatures, but equipping all three for the bargain price of 1 Mana is awesome.

It certainly doesn't scare anyone like a Sword normally would. Another way to set up a bigger game without scaring everyone is to play creatures that point others elsewhere, as Mike does:

I like to get a credible defense on the board as soon as possible. Being the last person to put a creature down is usually an invitation to unnecessary pain early in the game. Deathtouch + reach make a great deterrent to opportunistic attacks, so Deadly Recluse and Thornweald Archer see a lot of play in my green-heavy decks.

Cheap, hard-to-kill creatures are also nice for encouraging aggressors to attack into other players who don't want to block with their cheap utility creatures. Lotleth Troll and Phantom Nantuko fit the bill in my Vorosh, the Hunter deck.

With an expensive, tricolor commander like Vorosh, I also spend early turns to prepare for his arrival and maximize his time on the board. Vorel of the Hull Clade; Corpsejack Menace; Master Biomancer; and Thassa, God of the Sea are the typical targets for creature tutors, while Doubling Season, Evolution Vat, and (now) Solidarity of Heroes gets fetched with the noncreature tutors.


Mike's Vorosh
Commander: Vorosh, the Hunter

Main Deck

99 cards

Bad River
Breeding Pool
Command Tower
Dimir Aqueduct
Drowned Catacomb
Evolving Wilds
Gemstone Mine
Golgari Rot Farm
Hinterland Harbor
Homeward Path
Llanowar Reborn
Maze of Ith
Opal Palace
Overgrown Tomb
Rushwood Grove
Simic Growth Chamber
Temple of Deceit
Temple of Malady
Temple of Mystery
Temple of the False God
Terramorphic Expanse
Thawing Glaciers
Tolaria West
Tropical Island
Underground Sea
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Watery Grave
Woodland Cemetery

40 lands

Acidic Slime
Avenger of Zendikar
Coiling Oracle
Corpsejack Menace
Courser of Kruphix
Deadly Recluse
Desecration Demon
Golgari Grave-Troll
Hell's Caretaker
Heroes' Bane
Kavu Predator
Kiora's Follower
Kruphix, God of Horizons
Lotleth Troll
Master Biomancer
Mold Adder
Murkfiend Liege
Phantom Nantuko
Plaxcaster Frogling
Progenitor Mimic
Renegade Krasis
Szadek, Lord of Secrets
Thassa, God of the Sea
Thornweald Archer
Varolz, the Scar-Striped
Venser, Shaper Savant
Vorel of the Hull Clade
Zameck Guildmage

30 creatures

Aqueous Form
Artful Dodge
Cyclonic Rift
Demonic Tutor
Doubling Season
Evolution Vat
Fertile Ground
Give // Take
Mystical Tutor
Otherworld Atlas
Primal Vigor
Rain of Thorns
Slaughter Pact
Sol Ring
Solidarity of Heroes
Summoner's Pact
Tempt with Discovery
Unravel the Æther
Vampiric Tutor
Verdant Haven
Worldly Tutor

26 other spells

Garruk, Caller of Beasts
Kiora, the Crashing Wave
Vraska the Unseen

3 planeswalkers

Vorosh, the Hunter

With friends like these, it's no wonder Vorosh, the Hunter thrives in Mike's hands.

Classically Trained

Ultimately, what you choose to do in the early turns—mana management, battlefield entrenchment, political puzzling, or something else entirely—is up to you. But if you find games are playing out the same way each time and your deck doesn't feel exciting or fresh, it may be time to try different cards in the early turns.

This week's question pivots from the idea of doing something different in the early turns, though it's a deep topic all its own: What are your favorite "spell creatures"—creatures that come attached to a spell-like ability?

  • Feedback via email
  • 300-word limit to explain which creatures, and why
  • Sample decklist is requested (does not count against word limit)
  • Decklists should be formatted with one card per line with just a leading number, such as "3 Mountain"—just a space (no "x" or "-") between the number and the card name, without subtotals by card type (submissions that don't follow this rule will be ignored)
  • Name and email required (non-personal information to be used in column)

There are many ways to consider what, exactly, a "spell creature" is, but typically they're creatures that give you a trigger when cast or entering the battlefield. Artisan of Kozilek, Wood Elves, and Ixidron are all examples of spell creatures, but the definition is certainly fuzzier than what these three share in common. I want to know which you like to use, and why.

Join us next week when we fill our spellbooks with creatures from across the multiverse. See you then!

Adam Styborski
Adam Styborski
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Command Tower

Adam "Stybs" Styborski joined in 2009 to take over Serious Fun, before switching over to begin Command Tower in 2013. With his passion for Commander and community inclusion, you'll find plenty of opportunity each week to share your thoughts about everyone's favorite casual format.

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