ommander is a world unlike any other. Carrying an unusual deck-building restriction, a high starting life total, and the ability to always have access to a single creature, building for Commander is as much an art as it is a play experience.
That last part especially turns the game on its ear: the ability to always have access to a single card. Normally situational cards become much more palatable when you can always be ensured to have the combination piece. Thousand-Year Elixir will consistently have a Merieke Ri Berit to team up with; Battle Mastery will always find its way onto your Uril, the Miststalker; and Ivy Elemental can take advantage of Rosheen Meanderer's mana.
Similarly, when you will always have a legend on a certain turn and can keep playing it even upon death, you can build your deck knowing it will get the job done. Arcum Dagsson is fragile, but in Commander there's a good chance he will eventually get rolling. Zur the Enchanter may die the first two times, but eventually he's going to attack and start building up Auras. And Vendilion Clique might just kill everyone all on its own, despite the blue mage paying seventeen mana to cast it the last time around.
Also integral to Commander is its fun, multiplayer nature. While it may come as no surprise to many of you that I also happen to enjoy a good competitive game of one-on-one Commander, that's certainly the less-played version of the format. In most places, you'll see four-, five-, or even higher-number player games of Commander taking off, each one a crazy descent into multiplayer mayhem.
Normally, this column takes a look at just one deck, focusing heavily on how to improve it. But considering that there are so many unique Commanders to use, that different Commanders will catch different players' eyes, and that the multiplayer nature means that playgroups will want a breadth of ideas, finding the perfect Commander deck to cover was going to be tricky.
So instead, I'm going to break all the rules.
Today, rather than look at one deck and have several honorable mentions, I'm going to take a look at four different Commander decks, highlighting a few recommendations and cards to look out for with each. And, as if that's not enough, I'll also provide some multipurpose Commander tips, my recipe for delicious pumpkin cookies (to eat while playing Commander, of course!), and maybe a pun or two.
Ready? Let's get started!
Damia, Sage of Stone
Damia, Sage of Stone | Art by Steve Argyle
Every other format gets plenty of cards made for it, so why not Commander as well? In 2011, we gave Commander its own product, filled to the brim with cards designed just for the unique format. (As you may have heard, 2013's offering of Commander products come out this Friday.) One popular commander from the first time around was Damia, Sage of Stone. Let's take a look at Anthony Bergeron's take on the deck:
Anthony Bergeron's Damia Control
Commander - Damia, Sage of Stone
Let's first take a look at this deck from a top-level view. What is it trying to do?
Full of control elements, this deck can spend several cards accelerating into a Damia (and then drawing back up to seven) or just happily trading one-for-one with all of your opponents until dropping Damia and moving back to a full grip. Even if someone can kill her right away, eventually you should be able to stick a Damia for good and head back up to seven cards.
The deck is also full of powerful creatures that can cause some trouble if your Damia is a bit too pricy to cast. And, if the game goes on really long you can even use Enter the Infinite and/or Omniscience to win in one fell swoop.
Now let's zoom down a little bit. What comments might I have on the overall build of this deck?
The first comment is about something near and dear to my heart: lands.
Commander is a format full of temptation. You have nearly all of Magic to choose cards from, and you want to fit as many sweet cards into your deck as possible to interact with everything else. Many Commander groups even use special mulligan rules to make playing with fewer lands a more palatable thing to do.
But don't forget: lands are awesome! You can play one every turn... for free. It's like a free Rampant Growth every turn. The ability to play lands is pretty undercosted.
And just like there are many awesome spells to play in your deck, there are many awesome lands to choose from as well! Dual lands, man lands, cycling lands, fabulous colorless lands... the list goes on. You are seldom at a loss for good options—in fact, often in my Commander decks, the trouble is finding room for all the lands I'd like to play!
In a deck like this, which wants to hit a ton of mana to drop Damia and a crew of huge creatures (and has many expensive control elements to boot), you definitely want a lot more than thirty-five lands. I'd start with forty, minimum, and then probably creep upwards of forty-five or so. You really do want to play one every turn of the game with this deck. And Commander games will often go long enough that you'll find your spells, but if you skip playing lands on your turn then you're just permanently down a mana.
As for individual card considerations, there are a few I would recommend.
Ramping in a Damia deck is fantastic, since if you can get to Damia quickly enough you'll just draw back to seven anyway. I'd definitely want to look at Farseek, Nature's Lore, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Explosive Vegetation, Ranger's Path, and other ramp cards in the same vein.
And speaking of lands, Life from the Loam could work out great here. It's a great card advantage engine with fetch lands and cycling lands.
In the realm of big creatures to consider, Sylvan Primordial is a nice pick that isn't already in the deck. It ramps you closer to your Eldrazi while also cutting off troublesome permanents. The new-with-Theros Prophet of Kruphix is another good choice, letting you both cast Damia end step and also giving you tons of mana to spend on everyone's turn.
Celestial Kirin | Art by Adam Rex
Sometimes in Commander you get a great opportunity to build around a card that wouldn't see much play otherwise. Like this deck, for example:
Alex's Wrath of Kirin
Commander - Celestial Kirin
Now, this deck mostly has a bunch of weak-looking Spirits. Cards like Torii Watchward and Lantern Kami would basically never make it in Commander otherwise. However, in this one specific deck you can put all of these oddball cards to good use: Celestial Kirin can blow up a specifically chosen mana cost every turn!
You might not end up taking down every game with a deck like this, full of slightly weaker cards, but it's a kind of deck that is so unique and keeps everyone guessing that winning is almost a secondary concern a lot of the time. (I think it's safe to say this deck is very much in the Spirit of the format.) Plus, Commander is self-correcting: if you don't look like a big threat, people will often stay away from you.
The question for me with a deck like this is: what is the deck trying to do?
There's the Spirit tribal thing going on... but what happens after that? What is this deck's actual plan besides annoyingly blowing things up over and over again with Celestial Kirin?
This deck is a bit conflicted. It partially has an aggressive bent right now, with cards like Crusade, Honor of the Pure, Coat of Arms, Shared Triumph, and Door of Destinies. But on the other hand, Celestial Kirin is constantly wiping the board and this deck also has many expensive creatures and some fairly reactive cards like Rebuke.
I would pick one side and stick to it. You could go further down the aggressive route with cards like Adaptive Automaton, or up the ante on the control side and just play cards like Wrath of God. But the middle area seems like a dangerous spot to me. Trying to be the control deck sounds like it might work out a little better to me since you're clearing the board anyway and you have a bunch of soulshift, but either could be worth trying.
Zo-Zu the Punisher
Zo-Zu the Punisher | Art by Matt Cavotta
When people think of Commander, so often do they think of this slow, forty-turn format. However, there are some pretty quick decks out there. Purphoros, God of the Forge hits all opponents, working great at killing people off in Commander. Krenko, Mob Boss can create some truly explosive starts that put your opponents into a Wrath-or-lose situation. And then there's something like this:
kojima kouji's Zo-Zu Commander deck
Commander - Zo-Zu the Punisher
Everyone needs to play lands in Commander—and, quite often, lots of them! People want to search for lands, play extra lands, activate extra lands—lands, lands, lands! I should know: I'm one of those people. A quick Zo-Zu puts those players into a tight spot... not to mention if you follow it up with cards like Manabarbs or Sulfuric Vortex!
Now, this kind of deck isn't for everyone. In fact, a deck like this will often paint a target onto your back at the table. But, since I am featuring several decks, I want to hit several different play styles—and this is certainly one that's less-often discussed, but often still quite effective, in Commander. People often trim their removal spells back further and further the more they play... leaving a perfect opening for a deck like this.
Aggressive decks are often at a big disadvantage in Commander because there are multiple opponents, starting with 40 life each, and burn cards often only target one player. The key tends to be playing single cards that hit everyone—and while this deck does that all right, there are some more options that aren't currently included.
Enchantments are great sources of reoccurring damage. Burning Earth is a great new choice. While not as good as Manabarbs, it still has a pretty significant impact on how people use their lands. Antagonism, Pyrohemia, and Impatience are all cards that consistently punish your opponents as well.
As for spells, Flame Rift hits everyone for 4—and that life is probably going to be a lot more valuable to your opponents than you. Acidic Soil is another nice—and thematic—way to punish people who decide to defy Zo-Zu.
Pumpkin, the Cookies
This isn't a Commander deck, but it's something you might certainly use at a Commander Night. (Or, you know, just for life in general.)
I may not write an article called ReConstrudel (yet), but I do tend to cook quite a bit of food and I especially love baking desserts. And during this time of year, my favorite thing to make by far is frosted pumpkin cookies. It's the right season for them, and there are lots of parties (and Commander games indoors!) during the holiday season, which make cookies a nice dessert to bring that's easy to share.
After years of doing this, I've slowly tuned the recipe to what you'll find below. It's not too tricky, and is usually a very popular item at most holiday parties I go to. Give them a try for yourself!
1-1/2 cups of melted butter
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of pumpkin
2 cups of flour
1 tsp of baking soda
1 tsp of cinnamon
1/2 tsp of ginger
1/2 tsp of salt
4 tsp of milk
1/2 cups of brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1-1/2 cups of powdered sugar
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Then mix together one cup of melted butter (save the half a cup for later), sugar, pumpkin, and egg in one bowl. It should develop a kind of creamy texture.
In a separate bowl, mix the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, ginger, and salt together. Add in a little bit at a time into the first bowl, slowly stirring as you add to incorporate the ingredients.
Once it's all mixed together, put them onto a cookie sheet.
But wait! Your work isn't done here. You still have to make the most important part: the frosting!
Mix the other half cup of butter with the milk and the brown sugar in a pan until it's well mixed. Then—and here's something you may have not expected—put the pan on the stove and bring it to a boil for three minutes.
Remove it from the heat and let it cool for another three to five minutes, until it's warm but not hot. Then add in the vanilla and powdered sugar, stirring until it's a spreadable mixture.
If you timed it right, you should be finishing this up as your cookies get done. Take them out, let them cool for a few minutes, spread frosting, and voila! They should look too beautiful to live. (Which is appropriate, since those cookies won't be alive much longer.) Now you have a batch of delicious political bribing tools for you and your friends and your enemies. (But likely future friends.)
And hey, if you don't manage to kill all your opponents in Commander, hopefully they'll eat enough cookies that they give themselves a sugar overdose.
Sliver Queen | Art by Ron Spencer
So far in this article, I've highlighted several of the areas of Commander I've wanted to hit. The big mana midrange/control deck. The thematic deck. The aggressive deck. Well, there's one area left I'd definitely like to look at: the combo deck.
Dimitris Kiourtsoglou's Looking for Aluren
Commander - Sliver Queen
Some Commander players may just want to scroll down: this kind of deck isn't for you and it isn't welcome in your playgroup. But there are several faces to Commander, and some players enjoy playing with and/or navigating around this kind of combo minefield.
This deck can kill everybody at the table in one turn if they aren't prepared for it. There are numerous Aluren combos crammed in here: unbounded life with Æther Adept and Soul Warden, unbounded milling with Æther Adept and Sage's Row Denizen, several Cavern Harpy combos, and more. And with several ways to go search up Aluren, this deck can find the enchantment without too much difficulty.
In the event something disastrous happens to Aluren—it's exiled, for example—this deck still has a pretty reasonable build in plan B. With plenty of value creatures and Sliver Queen as a commander, it can still stay in good shape even without the combo.
With that said, its secondary plan could be more refined. I would consider having a few big creatures—like perhaps a Kozilek and Ulamog—as heavy hitters you can search up if you are no longer on the combo plan.
One notably absent card from the combo is Imperial Recruiter. While very hard to acquire, it does get several cards that can be used in the Aluren combo and is worth having around if you can find one.
Card selection is quite important in a deck like this—and I think I might like to see a little more. The deck has Sensei's Divining Top, but Mirri's Guile and Sylvan Library would be reasonable additions, too. Lim-Dûl's Vault is a fantastic card for setting up a combo like this, practically digging you right to the card you need.
On a final note, it's always important to not overlook the staples in Commander decks. It's easy to forget about them, but you should definitely always have room for cards like Sol Ring and Demonic Tutor in your deck. Those should be in here for sure.
Commanding the Monsters
I hope you enjoyed today's look at Commander! Now it's time to head back toward Standard. In two weeks is Monstrosity Week—which means it's time to get monstrous!
Restrictions: Your deck must contain at least 1 creature with monstrosity
Deadline: November 4, at 6 p.m. Pacific Time
Submit all decklists by clicking on "respond via email" below. Please submit decklists using the following template. (The specific numbers below are arbitrary, so please don't feel a need to use them—it's just how an example of how a decklist should look when laid out.)
4 Other Spell
4 Other Spell
What will you come up with using monsters? Let's see what you can do! (And don't just send me a Jund deck or variant—I've seen plenty of those already!)
In the meantime, I'd love to get your feedback on today's article! This is the first time I've tried doing a quick-hits article like this, and if you enjoyed it I might put it in the bag of tricks I can reach into for a future week. Let me know by sending a tweet or posting in the forums.
Have fun with Commander and cookies, and I'll be back next week with a look at playing Standard on a budget. Talk to you then!
When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he wanted a job making Magic cards. Ten years later, his dream was realized as his combined success as a professional player, deck builder, and writer brought him into Wizards R&D during 2011. He's been writing Magic articles since 2005 and has no plans to stop.