In a traditional game of Magic, you're playing one-on-one. You've got your library, you draw your cards from it, and those are the resources you have. There's no guarantee you're going to find anything in particular; no assuredness you'll have access to the card you need. A lot of deckbuilding is crafted with this in mind. You learn to play and build with these constraints.
But some formats add a new wrinkle.
Perhaps you've heard of Brawl or Commander. These are two formats where you get to start with a legendary card outside the game, called a commander, in a special place called your "command zone," and you get to cast it over and over again.
This changes quite a bit. It'll make your decks look a little bit different—and it's important to take that into account.
Now, there's nothing wrong with just taking a commander in the colors you want to play. You can certainly design a deck bottom-up, where you choose the colors you want to play and then find the commander to fit. You'll end up with something just fine. But a top-down design, where you choose your commander and build around it, is where the format really tends to hum—and where you get some of the coolest moments in both Brawl and Commander.
If you want to get into the format, this is a little different than what you've been learning. Today, I'm going to walk through how this might impact your deckbuilding and how to maximize playing your commander. I'll be focusing on Brawl with my examples, but of course, you can take any of these lessons and apply them to Commander as well.
As a reminder, Brawl is a 60-card format with a higher starting life total, where you can only play one copy of any card other than a basic land
Ready? Let's get started!
Look for Combinations
All right. So, you've picked who your commander is going to be. In Brawl, that means any Standard-legal legendary creature or planeswalker.
Well, the first thing I would be sure to do is look for cards which go particularly well with that commander. Combinations and synergies which would be harder to pull off if you had to just draw one card become significantly easier in this format: you're already guaranteed to have one of the cards!
These cards are pretty loud about wanting you to play with a bunch of Wizards or artifacts, respectively. No surprise there, and probably something which doesn't need much explaining.
But some commanders are less subtle.
Let's take Rashmi, Eternities Crafter as an example:
This powerhouse—and currently the leader of one of my favorite Brawl decks—is a card which you can entirely play on its own and get plenty of strength out of. It's plenty strong. But, with some careful selection, you can squeeze even a bit more value out of Rashmi.
What's better than a free card on your turn? A free card on your opponent's turn! Looking closer, Rashmi triggers on each player's turn, not just your own. So, she pairs particularly well with instants and cards with flash. While not an obvious bonus just from reading the card, it's elements like this that help put my deck over the top.
As a result, I have a lot of cheap instant-speed cards in my deck, such as Unsummon, Aether Meltdown, and Blossoming Defense. This lets me easily keep a mana or two up to cast my spell and draw a card on my opponent's turn, and also ensures my deck has a ton of cheap options for the spells I do cast on my turn to find with Rashmi. It's the deckbuilding intersection between these two things.
It's important to make sure that the cards you're adding with the synergy are still better than the alternatives that don't have synergy—but it's entirely worth looking through cards you wouldn't normally consider playing because of how they work with your commander. Finding the kinds of cards that synergize with your commander is a way to level up your decks, and definitely one of the first things I look for when deckbuilding in this format.
Plugging the Curve
One notable though less-discussed thing about having access to a commander is that it fills your curve consistently.
In a normal Magic deck, let's say you want to make sure you have a spell to cast on turn two most of the time. You could put sixteen two-mana creatures into your deck and still whiff on having a turn-two play. That's Magic.
In Brawl, if your commander is Naban, Dean of Iteration, you are going to have access to it on turn two every single game. Period.
What does this mean?
Well, one big thing you can do is potentially reduce the number of cards of that mana cost in your deck you want to cast on that turn. For example, in a Naban deck, not only are most two-drops in your deck unlikely to be cast over Naban on turn two, but those slots are taking up potential space for three-drops in your deck which would help you have a turn-three play instead.
Now, it's important that this isn't taken too far. You probably do want other two-mana creatures in your deck: there's going to be turns you want a two-mana creature to fill your curve, or a card that makes a lot of sense in the deck, like Merfolk Trickster. But it does mean you can trim the number down.
And the higher the mana cost of your commander, the more you can shave off. If Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh is your Brawl deck's commander, you probably don't really want many, if any, seven-mana cards.
Why? You are almost always going to want to play Bolas once you have seven mana; if it sticks on the battlefield, you are going to be in pretty good shape, and then you can always recast it later.
Crucially, it also means that you don't risk drawing a bunch of seven-mana cards in your hand when what you need is early game spells. Playing an expensive commander is sort of like putting it off to the side in "reserve" for later—and that means you can eschew the need to risk clogging up your hand with several as you draw them.
And with all this talk about mana costs, there's one more very important thing.
The Whole Mana Sink
In general, Brawl (and Commander as well) are mana-hungry formats. You have some splashy cards in your deck, the games will go a little longer if you're playing multiplayer, and you'll want to have mana around to activate any expensive abilities on your permanents.
But another compelling reason to play extra lands in your decks is this: to cast your commander over and over!
If your commander would die, it heads back to the command zone where you can cast it for two additional mana each time. This means that as the game goes on, you're going to need more and more mana to cast your commander. And while it's always possible that your commander is on the battlefield and you have plenty of mana with nothing to do, usually if your commander is sitting pretty on the table, you're in solid shape.
As a result, I tend to add more lands and other mana sources to my Brawl decks than I might traditionally put in. The format's one free mulligan definitely helps you with having lands early game, but I want to make sure I can recast my commander and take advantage of that free card repeatedly. Even if I draw a couple added lands, I can always focus that mana late game back into my commander. My tip is to add at least one more land in than you think you need. For slower Brawl decks, I've even been playing 26 and 27 lands.
Follow the Leader
Those are three primary ways that having a commander will influence your deckbuilding. (Well, aside from the color restrictions, of course!) They aren't the only ones—but they're the ones I think of every time I build a Brawl or Commander deck.
I hope you enjoyed this foray into building with a commander! If you're interested in trying to build your first Brawl or Commander deck, you're now armed with a bit of extra information of what to look for once you've chosen your legendary.
Have fun with Brawl and Commander, and I'll talk to you again soon!