Level One Hundred: Building Decks

Posted in Command Tower on November 13, 2014

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

There is one challenge in Commander that stands above all others: Building a new deck from scratch.

Zombie Fanboy | Art by Matt "I'm your Boy" Cavotta

You can build a near infinite number of decks in Commander. Between combinations of commanders and the cards eligible to play with them, even leaving off all the nonsensical combinations (say, adding 99 Islands to go with Teferi, Temporal Archmage) leaves far too many to try and compute.

The possibilities for decks are, in a word, daunting.

I don't have a special secret for you. There's no magical way to ease into things. What I do have is a set of tools Commander players should put into their pockets and a set of suggestions based on years of play.

This is everything you need to know to start building a deck in Commander.

The Beast at Tanagra

If there's a guiding principle to have in mind sitting down to build a deck it's this: Use the cards you want to use. Whatever follows that follows the right path.

Commander is the format where we get to try the wildest cards and strangest combinations alongside some of the most powerful cards ever printed. Our decks should have everything between, and including, those extremes. Using the cards you want to—reveling in and accepting the fate they create—is part of what Commander is all about.

Just like the decks the format can create, there are too many ways to build a deck to cover in any article. What I share here is just a set of tools to help you find your own way. Using the cards you want means deviating from any list of instructions you might use. Never forget that guiding purpose.

For me, building a Commander deck means to start with a commander you like and a theme that seems fun. For example, Surrak Dragonclaw piqued my interest as both a powerful tool to dodge counterspell cards (he comes with "Creature spells you control can't be countered" at the ready) and a focus on going "deep" with beefy creatures, rather than "wide" with an army of tokens (He also comes with "Other creatures you control have trample.")

Casting uncounterable, big creatures sounded like fun and a great way to use cards I normally don't.

From there, I'll always split into two parts: finding 59 other cards to play and finding 40 lands to finish the deck. Finding a total of 60 cards, including the commander, is easy. Generally, I end up with far too many cards. The reason is I fill up "buckets" of related cards.

For example, I always want a few ways to "ramp" ahead in mana in my Commander decks. This comes in a variety of forms.

Mana Rocks:

Mana Creatures:

Ramp Spells:

These effects help me reach the biggest spells faster and help patch in the holes of mana when lands end up a little light on the draw. With ramp out of the way, I turn to finding groups of cards that support my plan. For this deck, I want to go big with creatures, so it probably helps to have some creatures that go big.

Big Creatures:

Efficient-for-the-Cost Creatures:

Evasive Creatures:

Any of the creatures I picked here could be other things. Just as my choices were limited to cards left over from drafting and kept in unsorted storage in my office, yours will face the same limitations of your own collection. That's okay. It isn't important to have the "perfect" set of cards when building a deck. You can always tweak, improve, and change decks later—all of which are important ways to make playing "the same" deck fun over time.

With a mass of creatures that look good for attacking piled up, I wanted to stay on theme and find creatures that worked like spells.


Drawing Cards:


Ways to Reuse Spell Creatures:

While my theme is definitely on a plan to kill opponents with creatures, having ways to do things other than just cast another fatty is important. Finding a variety of things to do trumps being a slave to a theme. Acidic Slime likely won't deal the last damage to finish off a player, but clearing away a tapped Nevinyrral's Disk can mean the difference between dealing a ton of damage and missing the opportunity altogether.

With some variety within my theme of creatures, I next look for ways to support my theme.

Things That Make Haste:

Creature-Based Card Draw:

Noncreature Ways to Draw Cards:

Random Cards That Seemed to Fit:

Playing with creatures means keeping a steady stream going (card draw) as well as making the most of them as soon as possible (haste). While I was looking for these kinds of cards, others that didn't fit into either category popped up. Gruul War Chant is great for attacking, but so is Propaganda...plus, it can keep the door closed on a counterattack. Beast Within and Mindswipe can deal with things my creatures normally can't, and Savage Twister ostensibly clears away an army of tokens when they pop up.

Again, none of these cards are necessary. Playing around with Temur Ascendancy seems natural, but Propaganda has interesting interactions too. It takes a deck with both to find out which is more helpful more often.

I could easily have gone in a different direction. Looking at cards that scale based on my opponents, a suite of Control Magic effects would stand out. Looking at cards that care about multiplayer would lead me to seek out Verdant Force or Breaching Leviathan. Looking at the most powerful cards possible would return things like Mystic Snake; Draining Whelk; and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. Being on-theme doesn't mean literalism, it's just a tool to help sort out cards I'm more interested in playing from cards that I'm not.

At this point in building a deck I'll look at how deep my piles of card are and pare it all down to just 60, leaving me with space for 40 lands. In those lands are three general categories.

Spell Lands (Lands That Act Like Spells):

Lands That Fix All My Colors:

On-Color Dual Lands:

None of these lists of nonbasic lands is an exhaustive one of cards eligible for my deck but, thanks to Khans of Tarkir and previous off-the-shelf ready multiplayer decks, it's more than enough here.

While on-color dual lands and lands that fix all the colors of a deck are default inclusions for any deck, I’d like to highlight another class of lands: spell lands.

Spell lands are a valuable resource to include in Commander decks. Cards like Treetop Village and Faerie Conclave can survive situations that leave most armies wiped off the battlefield. They can become the last line of defense in the darkest of times. They can give you something to do even if you're down to "just" your lands. Cards like Skarrg, the Rage Pits can turn your extra mana into productive boosts to creatures in a way that doesn't mean casting spells. Cards like Tectonic Edge bring things full circle, giving you a way to deal with the awesome spell lands opponents might play.


In sum, this is the process I walk through to build a Commander deck:

  • Choose a commander I like and want to build around.
  • Find 59 more spells I want to play.
    • Look at ramp effects like mana rocks, mana creatures, and ramp spells.
    • Fill up buckets of themes with cards that play along with my commander.
    • Add in a few random, fun cards I just want to try.
  • Find 40 lands that let me cast my spells.
    • Look at on-color duals and other lands that fix all my colors.
    • Look for great spell lands so I always have some options.
  • Find friends and shuffle well.

That's exactly how I built the deck I shared last week:

Stybs's Surrak

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Surrak Dragonclaw
Planeswalker (1)
1 Sarkhan Vol
Other (1)
100 Cards

Of course, that isn't the end of the story. As mentioned earlier, Commander is also about adjusting decks. You never really finish building a deck inasmuch as you have your latest version ready to play. After getting several games in against a variety of opponents, I found myself thinking about a few questions:

  • Can I draw more cards? Relying on creatures left me lurching after repeated volleys of cards like End Hostilities and Duneblast.
  • Can I find more powerful creatures? Creatures with 3 or 4 power felt slightly too small compared to the 5, 6, or more life chunks other decks' creatures seem to take out.
  • Can I fix my mana better? The skew toward basic Forests seemed too hard, and there weren't enough ways to fix lands early in games.

Like creating from scratch, there are far too many ways to work at changing decks to cover here. What I prefer to do is to play several games and reflect on two or three major issues that occurred regularly. In any given game you might just be unlucky to draw too few lands or too many expensive spells. Over several games you can begin to see any patterns of performance. Those common threads are where I choose to change things first.

Just like building decks, I use these questions as buckets for cards to consider adding. For my Surrak deck, I'm left to leaf through the bits and pieces I can find in my copy of Duel Decks: Speed vs. Cunningand several Magic: The GatheringCommander (2014 Edition) decks.

Cards from Cunning:

Cards from Speed:

Cards from Peer Through Time:

Cards from Guided by Nature:

Cards from Built from Scratch:

From just five other decks a total of 22 cards look good to shift to Surrak. To do that, I pulled out the cards already in the deck I felt didn't live up to their expectations:

For those counting, that's six cards off the top of the deck I wasn't happy with for 22 potential cards to come in as replacements. Fortunately, several of the cards I want to add are lands and there are plenty of basic Forests to tweak with. This is the grid of the changes I'd make today:

From here, it's wash, rinse, and repeat for as long as I'm enjoying the deck. Whether these changes address my concerns (so new ones can take their places), or reinforce the need to make more changes is something only playing the deck can answer.

It's a good thing Commander is so much fun to play.

Darmok and Jalad on the Ocean

With the rules for Commander cleared up and my pithy summary of building decks complete there's just one more important angle to share about the format: The very best its community has to offer.

Commander brings together our unique and interesting ideas into a melting pot of reactions and results. Next week will feature the toughest questions and best tips the entire community has to offer.

After all, Commander is so much more than what any one of us can share alone. See you next week!

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