Although couched in years of play experience and feedback from readers, there's one aspect to the format I alone could never delve: Commander is truly of the people that play it.
When I started Command Tower almost two years ago, it began as I had handled Serious Fun beforehand. Feedback was a part, not the feature, of what I put into every article. While there were advantages to the "expert first" approach (and mind you, "expert" here is a loose description!), the idea of including more decklists for Commander bubbled up.
As you know, building multiple decks for Commander every week would be a very difficult challenge. That's when the column pivoted into its current form, built on sharing the voices and knowledge of the community first. Capturing how everyone plays is impossible, but dedicating space to the talents and thoughts of everyone else was better. Now it's natural to expect totally unexpected commentary and ideas.
Those new ideas have driven in even better feedback. It's exactly the type of positive loop I hoped for.
Since I covered what Commander is and how we built decks for it, the third and final piece of this Level One Hundred miniseries is all about everyone else. These are the best tips, tricks, and ideas other players—new and veteran alike—have encountered for Commander.
Grab your pen and paper: Your test will come the next time you can play.
Parks and Recreation
At the end of this week's Command Tower article there was a question about the most valuable advice for Commander we have ever received. I am not generally the kind of guy who responds but this is something I feel passionately about.
My first Commander deck that I built was a Uril, the Miststalker deck. I played a few games but I kept getting rolled over and I could not figure out why. I had some powerful Auras but I kept losing. It wasn't until I went back home and talked with my friend Izaak that I found out the issue; I didn't have enough ramp.
Ramp is not usually somebody's first thought when it comes to building a Commander deck. They are excited about the cool cards they can play or the interesting interactions with their commanders. Therefore ramp often gets pushed aside and forgotten about and a lot of people end up with 2–4 pieces of ramp.
In my opinion, that is way too few spots dedicated to ramp. The point of playing Commander is casting big flashy spells. You can't do that if you don't have enough mana, plain and simple. The faster you get your mana the faster you can play things that impact the board, putting you ahead. In my opinion, you should be running 7–10 ramp slots in every deck.
Now here is a list of some of my favorite ramp spells. Green obviously gets the best ramp but there is enough love to go around.
Mana Geyser (this generates insane amounts of mana)
Extraplanar Lens (I would recommend play Snow-Covered lands to prevent your opponents from also getting the bonus)
Gauntlet of Power
The Signets from Ravnica
There are more, but this is the list I always start with. Some are good in multicolor decks, some in monocolor, and some in both.
Now go cast some cool spells!
In my sample build around Surrak Dragonclaw, I made a mention of ramp front and center. It's a balancing act between creating the ability to cast awesome spells and ensuring you always have awesome spells to cast, but Erik's point about ramp is always valuable. There's a reason every preconstructed Commander deck Wizards released has Sol Ring.
Once upon a time I had a Zur the Enchanter deck. It was rough enough to play against in multiplayer, but it was near unstoppable in a duel. Enter my girlfriend and her Olivia Voldaren deck. Most of my decks are stompy-creature based and would be lambs to the slaughter against Olivia. My normal MO is to bring on the Goblin hordes. But as I looked over my decks, Spike whispered to me "Zur is a bit much but if I go easy it should be a fair enough matchup."
Who was I kidding? It didn't matter what she played. I shut Olivia down at every corner. There were only 7ish turns before my girlfriend threw her hand at me quitting in righteous fury. Really, who knew Seal of Doom could make someone so angry? She readily informed me if I play a deck like Zur I deserve to have cards thrown at me. And she was right (about the sentiment not the card throwing). I chose a sure win over a good game, which goes against our play group's values. Winning is secondary to everyone's fun in our group. Her tip, while masked in anger, was clear enough. To play on Wil Wheaton's Law: Don't be a Zur.
Commander, like the Eternal formats that keep adding cards without taking any away, lends itself to crafting powerful decks. With commanders as reliable, reusable tools, the potency of some decks reaches heights that are all but impossible for other players to reach.
While Mark had to learn the hard way, his point is one I made clear as well: consider the experience of other players when you sit down to play. Nobody wants to be told they can or can't play a certain card or commander. After all, if we want to play something why shouldn't we?
It's impossible to answer that question fairly. We all deserve to play cards we want, and every player deserves to have a chance at a good time. What Erik, myself, and thousands of other players want you to consider isn't "Why shouldn't I play this card/commander/deck?" but "Is there another card/commander/deck I want to play instead?"
Fun is a relative experience to each player. Choosing cards that are fun for you but also more fun for everyone else goes a long way in creating great experiences. (And significantly reduces the odds of cards getting tossed your way.)
"Stick to your theme." Sure, some people enjoy "decks" that are just piles of "the best green cards." They bore most everyone else. I've found that simple bit of advice I got when I started making my first decks to be the best I've ever gotten in this format. Why is that Craterhoof Behemoth in your Elf deck? It doesn't go there. Use Ezuri instead. Why is Sheoldred in your Goblin deck? Wort, the Raid Mother does nearly the same thing, and she doesn't suck the fun out of the game.
Playing powerful cards is fine, but the best games come from themed decks, along with the best building challenges.
This is another take on building "optimal" decks, but looks inward instead of outward. What Michael means is to reconsider your default choices, and find more interesting options to try out. Commander has access to so many cards it's impossible to play them all, but with every deck built there are many more options that don't make the cut.
Go back and make a new cut. Swap in and out things that are more flavorful for the Commander and cards in your deck. Experiment with things that can only fit into what you've created. Remember that in multiplayer games, the odds are better that you will lose than win. Cast aside the narrow "this card helps me win more than that card" thoughts and you'll discover a host of new ways to delight yourself and everyone you play with.
Hi Stybs! I have a definite answer to the question about what's most difficult about Commander:
Different groups have radically different power levels.
In the past few weeks I've played with one friend who's built a Commander deck that literally consists of about 50% of all her green cards; one friend whose deck consists of lots of different two-card infinite combos; one friend who buys tons of mythic rares to keep his deck at the top of its power level; and one friend who...well, within the first few turns he got out Crypt Ghast; Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth; Sheoldred protected by Swiftfoot Boots; Erebos, God of the Dead; and Sepulchral Primordial. A different friend tries every game to cast Tooth and Nail entwined, copied by Wort, to dig out Scourge of Valkas, Bogardan Hellkite, Utvara Hellkite, and Urabrask, immediately attacking for 15 flying and burning things for 11 before blockers are declared.
It's going to be impossible to have one deck that'll give fun game against all these different opponents. That's fine—I'm happy to have lots of Commander decks :)—but then you get the problem of how you communicate what power level your decks are. I have a friend who I play Magic with from time to time and when we bring out new decks, he'll ask "Are we playing good decks, bad decks, or medium decks?" But this doesn't work with people I've never met before because they'll naturally have different concepts of what's "good" or "bad." And it's pretty painful being *either* side of a huge power mismatch, even if it's just for the first game until I can switch decks to match power levels better.
Of course, there's no way any one deck is "perfect to play against" for everyone. What's "too powerful" or "boring" will vary person to person and group to group. Building different decks with different purposes in mind—power, theme, wackiness—helps, but having the decks doesn't mean as much as talking about them.
Communication is paramount in multiplayer games. Is your beck wacky and wild? Are your opponents expecting the most powerful cards or an Elemental tribal deck to match wits against their own Merfolk tribal? Some issues don't have easy answers, and this is one of them. The best players can do is to be honest about their decks and make good faith efforts to match the decks and expectations of everyone else.
For what it's worth, I've sat out plenty of games where the power was more than I could handle. In the end, we all had more fun that way.
I'm a fan of having enough lands. It's why I start every deck with forty and tweak from there. However, there are more pithy tips than just that.
Hi, I'm Tony. I've been playing magic for almost 20 years and most of my play group has adopted Commander as our format of choice. These lessons are from lots of kitchen table games and the collective wisdom of some great people I have played with. Thanks for reading.
- Have an answer for everything. From generic removal (creature, artifact, enchantment, land) to very versatile (Beast Within, All Is Dust, Oblivion Stone, Nevinyrral's Disk) and board sweepers (Damnation, Wrath of God, Chain Reaction) and cards that deal with indestructible (Return to Dust, Into the Core, Fade into Antiquity, bounce spells), if you lose to one card or kind of card you have a big hole in your game plan.
- Land is a source of card advantage and can act as spells. Academy Ruins, Volrath's Stronghold, Valakut, Thawing Glaciers all provide mana and do what spells can do, often repeatedly.
- Reusable cards provide card advantage: buyback, flashback, cards with repeatable activated abilities (Viashino Heretic, Survival of the Fittest, Journeyer's Kite).
- Your commander is a tool (Marath, Will of the Wild; Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed; Child of Alara) you can both build around and use and reuse without staying on the battlefield.
- Balancing your curve is important; there are lots of things you can do early that set you up for late game without drawing too much negative attention. Fetching lands, thinning deck, playing Signets and mana rocks, drawing a few cards. All of those put you ahead without making you a target.
- Hold back resources like land and creatures to recover from the inevitable board sweeps or land destruction. Having cards in hands also keeps players guessing at what you might have.
Tony covers all of the basics of advancing your deck to higher power levels. If you start with fairly random cards and plenty of lands you can get a quick feel for what's working and what's not. Tony's six tips advance your deck to a high level, creating ways to scrape out incremental advantages in every game. Combined, these tips are what separate "I have a wacky deck and I'm just playing these cards!" from "I have a tuned deck and I'm specifically playing these cards."
How much you mix tuning to variety is an individual choices, just check above for some thoughts on communicating that.
This brings Level One Hundred to a close for now. Understanding the format, building decks, and learning from players in the format can only go so far. It's up to you to put it all together and play for yourself.
That's precisely why we're all here.
Join us next time when we unwrap the latest gifts bestowed upon the format. See you then!