Welcome to Level One Hundred

Posted in Command Tower on November 6, 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.

Here's a rhetorical question: How did you learn the rules of Commander?

Careful Study | Art by Scott M. Fischer

While you may have found a column on Commander (like this one!) and searched up the rules from there, and some more saw the Commander decks that came out in years past (and this week!), I would wager the vast majority of you were introduced to the format by a friend who already played it.

Like the phenomenal work Marshall Sutcliffe and Reid Duke brought when they rebooted Limited Information and started on Level One, respectively, going "back to the basics" is the best way to start exploring what something is really all about.

In fact, if you substitute "Commander" for "Magic" in the first few paragraphs of Duke's introductory Level One article, you'd find much of what I'd want to say reintroducing Commander as a format.

While it'd be convenient (and powerful) to lean on others' writing to start over looking at Commander, we can settle for just not reinventing the wheel: I've asked for advice from you and it's going to be used. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

It's everyone else I'm speaking to now.

Format. Best Format.

If you're new to the format—from friends, new decks, or just plain curious—I want to introduce you all over again, starting from the beginning.

Commander isn't like most Magic formats. Commander is the format of the people. Started by a small cadre of friends and spread around the world through judges at Grand Prix and Pro Tours, Commander eventually found full support from Wizards of the Coast.

There are a lot of moving pieces happening to make the format what it is today, but everything anyone needs to know about Commander can be found on the official Commander Rules website. If you visit there, you'll find four subsections of rules, although only three are vitally important to us today.

The philosophy of Commander underpins everything in the format:

1. Commander is designed to promote social games of Magic.

It is played in a variety of ways, depending on player preference, but a common vision ties together the global community to help them enjoy a different kind of Magic. That vision is predicated on a social contract: a gentleman's agreement which goes beyond these rules to include a degree of interactivity between players. Players should aim to interact both during the game and before it begins, discussing with other players what they expect/want from the game.

House rules or "fair play" exceptions are always encouraged if they result in more fun for the local community.

Unlike all of the other ways to play, Commander focuses not on maximizing the potential power of decks but on creating an experience every player in the game takes part in, on being a fun social experience, where the outcome of the game matters less than the stories and moments that come out of it.

Also unlike most ways to play, Commander is intended to always be a multiplayer experience. Games should start with at least three players, although four or five, or more, work as well, and a conversation. The "interaction" element of the philosophy can be read in a lot of ways, but it's specifically meant to be inclusive of every player doing things. Players should be able to:

  • Reasonably expect their spells to resolve.
  • Reasonably expect their creatures to be useful.
  • Reasonably expect their other permanents to be available when they untap next.


This is not exhaustive and is still vague. What "reasonably" can mean will vary from player to player. An effect or synergy that will end the game isn't reasonable to expect others to pass over, but what about "just" a powerful one? What about a creature that can only attack one player but none of the others? It just depends what you and the other players want to experience.


It's this vague area between harmless and game-ending that makes discussion—socialization—so important for Commander. You need to talk to the other players. Explaining what your deck does and how it goes about doing it, before ever shuffling up, will help others identify if they have an issue with that or if your idea of a great game won't be possible with everyone else. Explaining that your Sidisi, Brood Tyrant deck likes to Sidisi all over the place and nothing else, for example, might make another player put away Anafenza, the Foremost and reach for a different commander.




It also means the best games and the most fun are had when you ask, listen, and stay open-minded about what everyone else has planned as well.

There's no specific set of cards that define a good or bad, fun or unfun, in a Commander deck. The texture of your group of players—from friends you've known for years to random visitors like you at a Grand Prix—means every game is a different discussion and a different experience. The "right" answer for how to play a deck, or which deck you should use, will vary. It's up to you to follow through and discuss things before creating a disappointing game for yourself or others.

That's something of the "what" for Commander. Since "how" games play out matters so much, now is a good moment to look at how we get there. Deck construction is a tall order.

2. Players must choose a legendary creature as the "commander" for their deck.

3. A card's color identity is its color plus the color of any mana symbols in the card's rules text. A card's color identity is established before the game begins, and cannot be changed by game effects.

The Commander's color identity restricts what cards may appear in the deck.

4. A deck may not generate mana outside its colors. If an effect would generate mana of an illegal color, it generates colorless mana instead.

5. A Commander deck must contain exactly 100 cards, including the Commander.

6. With the exception of basic lands, no two cards in the deck may have the same English name.

7. Commander is played with Vintage-legal cards, with some exceptions:

Cards are legal as of their set's Prerelease.

The following is the official banned list for Commander games. These cards (and others like them) should not be played without prior agreement from the other players in the game: Click here for the official Commander banned list.

Let's break this down in order.

Commander is about the commanders you choose. Any legendary creature can be a commander, from new faces like Surrak Dragonclaw and Jazal Goldmane to the original Elder Dragons, like Nicol Bolas and even legendary creatures that are other types, too (see Bosh, Iron Golem and Mogis, God of Slaughter).




However, your commander defines your deck. While there are any number of reasons to choose a commander, whatever commander you choose provides a color identity you need to follow. Color identity is simply the mana symbols in costs and abilities on your commander's card. Surrak Dragonclaw has a color identity of green-blue-red. Bosh, Iron Golem has a color identity of red. Thelon of Havenwood has a color identity of black-green.

That color identity is the first requirement for building a deck. Every card in your deck must be within the color identity of your commander. All of the following cards are legal for a Surrak Dragonclaw Commander deck:


Just like commanders, cards have color identities. As long as a card's color identity is within the commander's, it's fine.


What about Reflecting Pool and Ghostfire Blade? Reflecting Pool says it makes any color of mana, but it doesn't use any of the mana symbols on itself. That makes it colorless—without a color identity—so it's eligible for any deck. Similarly, Ghostfire Blade only has colorless mana symbols on it and, therefore, doesn't have a color identity. Cards like Crystal Shard do, since it has a colored mana symbol in one of its costs.




What about a card like Spiteful Visions? It's red too, right? Spiteful Visions has a color identity of black-red. Because Surrak doesn't have black as part of his, it doesn't work for his deck even though you can cast it with just red mana. (Although the curious or incredulous can rest easy knowing that's a contentious topic among some players.)

What about a commander like Erebos, God of the Dead? Can I put Crypt Ghast in it? Here's one of the corner cases: Yes, you can put Crypt Ghast in an Erebos deck! While extort, as a mechanic, lets you pay either W or B for its triggers, the white-black hybrid mana symbol isn't actually part of the rules text. Reminder text and flavor text don't impact color identity, although looking up older cards in Gatherer will answer if some cards that spelled out colors switched to use mana symbols. Magic is a complicated game with many changes over the years, and Commander is a complicated format, so it isn't always easy to know how a modern concept like color identity works with odd cards, without looking things up.

As a flavorful extension of the color identity rule, lands like Reflecting Pool and Vivid Crag can't produce any colors of mana outside of the commander's color identity. This means that, with a commander like Erebos, God of the Dead, there's no way for you to pay U for Quenchable Fire if it hit you, even if someone tried to give it to you with Spectral Searchlight!




So can I use any basic land with my Kozilek, Butcher of Truth Commander deck? Unfortunately, no. A basic land has a color identity of the color of mana it produces. Swamps are black, Plains are white, and Kozilek has no color identity at all. You'll have to use nonbasic lands like Tomb of the Spirit Dragon. (Fun fact: Cards like Windswept Heath are eligible for a Kozilek deck, but any of the cards it would be able to find for you aren't. Keep that in mind when looking at effects!)




The color identity of cards in your deck is one half of the Commander complexity. The other is that, including your commander, you need a total of 100 cards and (except for basic lands, for obvious reasons) they all need to be unique. It doesn't matter which language version you use, only one copy of any card can be included in a deck.

By limiting the colors and copies of cards that can be used while requiring 40 more than a typical Constructed deck, building a deck for Commander is challenging. You need a lot of different cards, and the fewer colors in your commander's color identity the harder it can be to build a deck. There are far fewer total cards available to choose from for a Kozilek deck than a Surrak deck.

What does "a lot different cards" look like? I recently went back to my roots as a Commander player to build decks with, literally, whatever I had laying around. With commons and uncommons stretching back a couple years, artist-signed cards I've since changed out for premium foil copies of, random rares from playing in recent drafts, and odds and ends from preconstructed decks, it's the closest to new-to-Commander I can limit myself to and the deck shows it:

Stybs's Surrak

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Surrak Dragonclaw
Planeswalker (1)
1 Sarkhan Vol
Instantáneo (3)
1 Mindswipe 1 Fact or Fiction 1 Beast Within
99 Cartas

For more on learning to play Commander, check out Part 2 of the series here.

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