It's a Process

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The letter W!hen planning for Commander Week's article, I knew I wanted to do something different. It isn't often you get a theme week that is so focused on casual Magic, so I knew I wanted to do something special. Adam Styborski and I brainstormed and we decided we would each build a deck with a new commander. This in itself is not all that exciting, but we want to take this opportunity to showcase different deck-building styles. I'll lay out my deck-building style and you'll get the chance to compare it to what the Stybs displays for all of us on Thursday.

Nekusar, the Mindrazer | Art by Mark Winters

My deck-building style, particularly when it comes to Commander, is strongly influenced by Brandon Isleib. Brandon, myself, and Daryl Bockett were all part of the StarCityGames Talent Search several years ago. We all enjoyed writing and weren't really ready to stop, so we started our own site, the now-defunct Muse Vessel, and published articles every week for a year.1 It was during this time that I read about Brandon's deck-building "formula" and later applied it to my deck building. I'm not going to tell you that I built a powerhouse deck and now I never lose. I did build a solid deck that was a lot of fun to play. I've used the same formula to good effect since then, so I thought I would share it. I've broken it down into three easy steps, because every good idea can be implemented in three easy steps.

The First Easy Step to Building a Commander Deck: Find a Cool Card and Figure Out What it Does.

Finding the cool card was easy. A few nights ago, I was a guest on one of my favorite podcasts: the Mana Pool! The entire set wasn't previewed yet, so we were looking at the handful of cards that were there. Everyone seemed most interested in Nekusar, the Mindrazer, so I knew I had my card picked.

Figuring out what the card does involves breaking it down into its most basic parts:

Power and Toughness

Nekusar, the Mindrazer is a 2/4 creature: not all that exciting here. A 2-power commander probably isn't going to win a lot of Commander games with commander damage, so building a Voltron deck based on a decent power is probably out. The 4 toughness should allow Nekusar to survive some direct-damage removal, so we are getting some resiliency in the toughness.

Creature Type

I love running a theme deck more than most, so having a Zombie Wizard offers two possible tribes if we opt to go that route, although if I was going to build a Zombie Commander deck, I would probably choose a different commander. Wizard offers up all sorts of options, so we'll certainly keep that in mind. The difficulty with a Wizard deck is that Wizards do all sorts of things, so it is easy to lose the theme and end up with a deck that is just a bunch of good cards that happen to be Wizards.

Casting Cost

Nekusar, the Mindrazer comes in at a comfortable 2 ManaBlue ManaBlack ManaRed Mana.For Commander, this means a number of things: The most important is that we will not be running any white or green cards in this deck. The next thing to consider is the likelihood of recasting Nekusar, the Mindrazer and how often that will happen. I tend to assume that I'll be able to cast my commander as long as the casting cost is ten or less.2 This means I will be able to cast my commander three times. With a handful of cards to protect Nekusar, I expect that I should be able to keep him in play. When a commander costs so much that you can't realistically expect to keep it on the battlefield by recasting it, you need to view your commander as a way to supplement the deck. This option allows the commander to be used as though it is a sorcery: you expect that it will be on the battlefield for about one round and you build your deck to maximize that round. If it stays longer than that, you treat it as a bonus.

Keeping Nekusar, the Mindrazer on the battlefield means I have more options with my deck. Everything can revolve around Nekusar. He can make the rest of the deck—which would be just okay—awesome when the Zombie Wizard arrives. Rafiq, by adding double strike and exalted to a single attacking creature, often has decks built around him that way. He can be just another card in the deck that I can cast when I have nothing else to do. This is often seen when players build a five-color good-stuff deck. Child of Alara is often run in these decks, getting cast only when there is nothing else to do with the cards in the deck. He can be a way to throw everyone else off the scent. If you have a great idea for a deck, but know that you'll get targeted right away if you include a commander everyone will see before the game that gives away your devious plans, you'll pick a commander that gets your opponents thinking in the opposite direction. If, for example, you built a red-white land destruction deck, Numot, the Devastator may be the commander that best works with your deck's theme, but he alerts everyone to your plan right away. Instead, you could choose Gisela, Blade of Goldnight. Everyone thinks you will be attacking with creatures and won't be casting your commander for a long time.

Card text (which I'll break down into its parts)

At the beginning of each player's draw step, that player draws an additional card.

This opens up a variety of options. Group Hug decks, where everyone gets benefits from your deck, discourages your opponents from attacking you;3 there are all sorts of ways to make your opponents take damage for drawing or discarding cards. Another option is to find a way to set it up so Nekusar, the Mindrazer is only in play on your draw step, so you are the only one getting the benefit. This would also make Nekusar much harder to kill.

Whenever an opponent draws a card, Nekusar, the Mindrazer deals 1 damage to that player.

And here is the crux. Everyone will be drawing two cards per turn, but my opponents will be taking 2 damage per turn to do it. Most players will be okay with a few points of damage or life loss to draw some extra cards. It is a theme for most black card drawing. The difference here is that they don't get the choice to not draw and save the life, particularly as they get closer to 0.

I think we have our angle. This should work out fairly well. There are plenty of cards that can up the card drawing or up the pain for card drawing. Group card drawing is also a common theme in many other decks, so we'll likely find help from other decks with cards like Rites of Flourishing. It can also slow down many decks. The player who chooses to Brainstorm will be taking 3 damage, as well as discarding two cards.

The Second Easy Step to Building a Commander Deck: Find More Cards to Go with It.

Brandon makes a handful of solid suggestions for finding cool cards to go in your deck. I am going to list them here, but if you would like a little more detail, I recommend checking out his article.

Look at other cards in the set or block that share a color with that card.

This is a great option normally, but in this case, if you do that, then you are likely to just end up with the deck Nekusar, the Mindrazer is already in. You can pick that up at your local game store in just a few short days.

Consider blocks with relevant traits.

For newer players, Brandon gives a bit of a cheat sheet to help you determine where to find particular traits. To best explain what this is doing, imagine if we were looking for interesting artifacts and cards that worked with artifacts. Looking at cards from Mirrodin block, Scars of Mirrodin, and the Esper cards in Shards of Alara will guide you to many of the cards you are probably looking for.

Go to Gatherer.

Gatherer lets you search deep for cards with particular abilities. If you know of a card that does what you want, and you want to find more like it, check the Oracle wording on that card and use that in your search. Older players (like me) still catch ourselves using "comes into play" in our searches. This is an outmoded term for "enters the battlefield."4 I won't find what I'm looking for that way.

On this step, I admit I cheated a little. While on the Mana Pool, we did something called a Story Circle. This is where we choose a card (we chose Nekusar), then each player in turn selects cards that either work with that card in some way or work with other cards the other players have chosen. We chose twenty cards, all of which you'll see in my deck below

The Third Easy Step to Building a Commander Deck: Tweak It

At this point, you have the cards for your deck. You may even have too many. While you choose which of these cards make the cut, you also want to consider how your deck will deal with the cards your opponents play. Is your deck so fast that what they are doing is irrelevant? Does your deck provide answers to what your opponents are likely going to attempt? I can't possibly suggest a complete list of questions you need to ask. As you get to know who you are playing, you'll learn what and how they play, and the list of questions your deck needs to answer will get shorter.

My deck?

If Nekusar Dealt 3 Damage He Would be the Machrazor
Commander - Nekusar, the Mindrazer

Main Deck

99 cards

Bojuka Bog
Command Tower
Creeping Tar Pit
Crosis's Catacombs
Crumbling Necropolis
Dimir Aqueduct
Drowned Catacomb
11  Island
Jwar Isle Refuge
Maze of Ith
10  Mountain
Steam Vents
Sunken Ruins
Temple of Deceit
Underground Sea
Volcanic Island
Watery Grave

40 lands

Apprentice Wizard
Arcanis the Omnipotent
Baleful Strix
Barbed Shocker
Blizzard Specter
Consuming Aberration
Crosis, the Purger
Crosis's Attendant
Dragon Mage
Flametongue Kavu
Hypersonic Dragon
Jace's Archivist
Kederekt Parasite
Lord of Tresserhorn
Mercurial Chemister
Nin, the Pain Artist
Noggle Ransacker
Notion Thief
Psychosis Crawler
Sedraxis Specter
Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
Whirlpool Warrior

23 creatures

Æther Sting
Arcane Denial
Bloodchief Ascension
Champion's Helm
Cyclonic Rift
Darksteel Ingot
Darksteel Plate
Demonic Tutor
Dimir Signet
Dire Undercurrents
Dream Fracture
Forced Fruition
Howling Mine
Izzet Signet
Minds Aglow
Mystical Tutor
Obelisk of Grixis
Phyrexian Tyranny
Reforge the Soul
Slave of Bolas
Sol Ring
Spiteful Visions
Swiftfoot Boots
Teferi's Puzzle Box
Temple Bell
Time Reversal
Time Spiral
Urza's Guilt
Wheel and Deal
Wheel of Fortune
Whispering Madness
Winds of Change
Words of Wind

35 other spells

Jace Beleren

1 planeswalker


There is still tweaking to be done here. There are likely cards that need to be straight-up replaced, and others that will be useless in games. I'll have a much better sense after a couple of games.

I look forward to seeing just how the Stybs puts his decks together. New ideas and processes will only help each of us build better decks!

1: You can find more from Brandon and Darryl at (return)

2: I know many of you are thinking to yourselves, "Why only ten? I regularly get fifteen or twenty mana in my games." I too have had those games, but unless I'm running significant mana ramp, I don't always reliably get there. Saying ten mana is a failsafe. It is the level that I feel I can count on reaching as the game goes on. (return)

3: This is a faulty premise if I've ever heard one. Players who give you something are definitely getting a much bigger benefit from it than you are. They are setting you up for the big surprise at the end. Do not fall for it. Every player who has any skill is actually running Group Bear Hug, which means every player is crushing you with love. Take them out before it is too late. (return)

4: These terms are often used in Magic articles as "CIP" or "ETB." (return)

Bruce Richard
Bruce Richard
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Bruce's games invariably involve a kitchen table, several opponents, crazy plays, and many laughs. Bruce believes that if anyone at your table isn't having fun playing Magic, then you are doing it wrong.

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