Mastering Commander

Posted in Feature on March 6, 2008

By Chris Millar

Welcome back, coterie of Johnnies. While we're still (as of this writing) in the darkest days before the dawn of Morningtide on Magic Online, I thought I would take a gander at the coolest new development in the realm of electronic Magic. For those who missed it, along with the latest update to the various Banned and Restricted lists seen here, there was the addition of a new rules set for the 100 Card Singleton format called Commander FFA. Basically, what we have here is an online version of Elder Dragon Highlander, which some have dared to call the "Best. Format. Evar." I can't say I disagree with that assessment.

For convenience, or in case your mouse is broken, here's the rules rundown:

Commander FFA is a rule set for Magic Online players, much like Two-Headed Giant or Emperor. It is based on the offline Elder Dragon Highlander rule set, which you can read more about here. Commander FFA is a variant of multiplayer free-for-all and can only be played with the 100 Card Singleton format described below.

In Commander rules, each player has a starting life total of 40 rather than the usual 20. A player chooses a legendary creature, called a commander, and builds a deck including his or her commander. Only colorless cards and cards of the commander's color(s) may be included in the deck. Note that split cards and hybrid cards count as all of their colors. Aside from these deck building restrictions, your commander works differently from other cards in-game as identified below.

Before the game begins, each player removes his or her commander from the game. If a player's commander would go to the graveyard from anywhere, he or she may choose to remove it from the game instead. A player may play his or her commander from the removed from the game zone for its normal costs plus an additional 2 for each previous time it has been played this way. If a player would add mana to his or her mana pool that's a color his or her commander is not, colorless mana is added instead. In addition to the normal Magic loss conditions, if a player is dealt 21 points of combat damage from a single commander over the course of the game, that player loses the game.

Commanders are immune from the "legend rule," so don't worry if your commander is the same as someone else's.

Garza Zol, Plague Queen
As far as I can tell, there are only a few minor differences between Commander FFA and EDH. First, two (or more) players can use the same commander (or general) in the online version. Second, the B&R lists are necessarily different. Both lists seek to maximize fun (apparently, a controversial subject these days), while eliminating what I am going to call "total lameness" in multiplayer (See: Victory, Coalition). I've written a bit about EDH before.

In that article, I provided a brief overview of the format and some handy links (like this one) before discussing some of my very own EDH decks (and why I love them) and then I finished things off with the building of a flavourful Garza Zol, Plague Queen deck. This time around, I thought I would do something a little different. I'm going to attempt a sort of deckbuilding walkthrough, sharing my thoughts on a number of topics along the way. Hopefully, they will be relevant for players looking to try out the format online, as well as for those who prefer the paper version of Magic.

The Gold Standard

As I mentioned in my report from Worlds 2007 in New York, I spent an inordinate amount of time at the dealer tables sifting through boxes full of bulk rares in the hopes of buffing up my Elder Dragon Highlander decks. After many minutes of searching, I think I ended up with around 200 of them. If I had a girlfriend, she'd probably kill me. She'd have to get through a Sabertooth Nishoba first, though. While many powerful EDH cards (or cards that are powerful in multiplayer in general) are rares, they can often be picked up on the cheap because they are unplayable in more competitive formats. Cards like Blatant Thievery, Insurrection, and Cabal Conditioning are get progressively better with more players in the game, but they are much too expensive to hold much long-term appeal for tournament goers (although Yann Hamon nearly won a Grand Prix with two maindeck copies of Cabal Conditioning during Onslaught Block Constructed, making him my deckbuilding idol for some time). Other staples, like Wrath of God, are coveted by tournament players and casual players alike, but if there's any format where Tier 2 "Wrath" effects are viable (like March of Souls, Kirtar's Wrath, or Final Judgment), it's one where your deck "must contain exactly 100 cards—no more, and no less—and no two cards in a deck can share a name unless they're basic lands." Better still, no matter what combination of colours you wish to play, most commanders can be had for a pittance, online or off. I picked up almost all of the Planar Chaos multicolour Dragons at a rate of four for a ticket (Teneb, the Harvester was the lone holdout), and you can get similar deals on the Ravnica block guild leaders like Agrus Kos, Wojek Veteran, Borborygmos, and Isperia the Inscrutable. The name of the game is fun, and part of that fun is looking at what you have available and piecing a deck together with those parts. Due to the nature of the format, it is unlikely that your deck will be a well-oiled machine, but that to me is also part of the fun of highlander (or singleton). So relax, open up your binders, fire up your card databases, and don't worry too much if you don't have card X, Y, or Z. Substitute as needed or as you see fit. The following tips and suggestions are just meant to get you started. On to the building!

Your Commander. There are a couple ways to figure out what commander you wish to use. You could decide what colour or colours you want to play and choose a commander with those colours. Perhaps you like the card advantage and graveyard recursion provided by blue, black, and green. Hello, Vorosh, the Hunter! Perhaps you prefer board control with a hint of nastiness. Howdy-do, any number of blue, black, and white commanders! Perhaps you enjoy the mana-ramping, board-sweeping, and gigantic fatties offered by green, red, and white. I know I do. Or maybe you just really, really, really like blue (or black or red or white or green). There are plenty of monocoloured commanders that are ready and willing to lead your army into battle (except maybe Norin the Wary). There are legendary creatures of each one-, two-, and three-colour combination. If your want to use four colours, you are out of luck, but at that point, you might as well use all five. Hello, Atogatog!

Oros, the Avenger
The other way to go is to pick your commander first, and build your deck from there. This is my preferred method and is what I'm going to do right now. I'm going to start with Oros, the Avenger, Magic‘s greatest scaly luchador. There's nary a green mana symbol to be found on the big lug, so I'm already out of my comfort zone. Oros provides two key things. One, he's an enormous flying beatstick (not to be confused with an enormous flying beetstick, one of the many weapons in the boggart arsenal), which makes the fact that you can kill players by dealing 21 damage to them with your commander much more relevant. This is not the case with some other commanders, like Arcum Dagsson or Momir Vig, Simic Visionary. And two, Oros has a nice board-sweeping ability, a combination of Radiate + Sunlance. Provided you aren't playing with nonwhite creatures (and, for the most part, I won't be), there's a good chance you can sweep the board each turn. If your opponents are playing white, too, well...nobody's perfect.

To give the deck a little more focus, I'm going to include another build-around-me rare. It's the only one (online) that shares all three of Oros's colours: Fervent Charge. Besides making Oros into an 8/8, which means you'll only need three hits to take out a player, it points towards other cards that I like, such as token makers. Cloudgoat Ranger, Sacred Mesa, Kher Keep, Pentavus and his Pentavites, and ground-pounding Fireball, Firecat Blitz, all get disproportionately better with the +2/+2 bonus for attacking.

There are many other ways to help make your commander deal the 21 damage necessary to kill another player. Adding some equipment is a good place to start. Loxodon Warhammer, Sword of Fire and Ice, Sword of Light and Shadow, the dreaded Jitte of Umezawa, Fireshrieker, and Tatsumasa, the Dragon's Fang are all fine options for lowering the number of attacks needed to trigger the alternative-win condition. I usually like Tenza, Godo's Maul if my general is red. Godo, Bandit Warlord makes the flavour circle complete and makes Tatsumasa a near autoinclude.

Since we're in both white and red, Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion provides an unobtrusive way to make your commander's attacks more devastating. Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers provides a seemingly small upgrade, but it can shave a whole turn off your commander-kill if you're playing with a five- or six-power green commander.

Early Defense. This is a common element of most regular multiplayer decks, and for good reason. With only 19 life to spare, you quickly can find yourself behind the eight-ball if your opponent plays something as simple as Call of the Herd and you have nothing in front of you that suggests they'd be better off attacking someone else. Traditionally, early defense has meant Walls. Steel Wall, the entire cycle of two-mana Walls from Stronghold (Wall of Tears, Wall of Souls, Wall of Blossoms, Wall of Razors, and Wall of Essence), Angelic Wall, Wall of Glare, Fog Bank, and Wall of Roots are notable examples. Lately, I've become pretty dissatisfied with Walls in multiplayer. They might be fine in the early game, but there is nothing more demoralizing than topdecking a Wall in the late game, especially if you desperately need to deal a few more points of damage. That's why I've more or less traded in my Walls for some Wall-esque creatures. Beloved Chaplain blocks as well as anybody, but is also an evasive body that can sport a hefty piece of equipment and beat down in the late game. Spectral Lynx is either amazing or slightly improved Drudge Skeleton, depending on the situation, but at least he can get in there when the time is right. Auriok Champion is in a similar boat, a fantastic defender at times, with the ability to recoup some of the life you will lose to the creatures it can't block. It also fits in with the token subtheme. Epochrasite and Stinkweed Imp are recurring threats that your opponents will not be too keen to attack into. I'm particularly fond of Stinkweed Imp, because unlike many of our Wall friends, he can actually trade with opposing creatures of any size (the graveyard filling is an added bonus).

Wall of Souls (or Souls of the Faultless) might say steer clear, but those words aren't all that relevant if your opponent has a 4-power creature and a decent life cushion. I don't mean to suggest that I am completely anti-Wall. I still like some Walls, mostly the green ones like Wall of Roots and Wall of Blossoms. In both of those cases, though, their ability to accelerate mana and draw cards are equally as important as their ability to block stuff. There are other cards that I like to play in the early turns that make attacking less appealing for my opponents and that act as card-advantageous speedbumps in the event that my opponent does attack. Among these cards are Sakura-Tribe Elder, Yavimaya Elder, and Solemn Simulacrum. Which brings me to my next point:

Mana. Generally, you will want and need lots of it, so play lots of land. If you're playing green, play some of the cards I just mentioned or something like Explosive Vegetation, Kodama's Reach, or Hunting Wilds (which can fetch the green-producing Ravnica dual lands as well as Murmuring Bosk). There are many options for the non-green player, including Wayfarer's Bauble and any number of artifact mana producers, from Signets of the appropriate colours to Gilded Lotus. Weathered Wayfarer or Journeyer's Kite can also keep you in mana. I always like to include some of the landcyclers from Scourge. Eternal Dragon, Elvish Aberration, and Twisted Abomination are probably the best ones, but the rest are quite usable, too, if less efficient. While mana flooding is still devastating in Commander FFA, another advantage of the format is that you will usually have something to play in these instances: your commander. Since it costs progressively more mana to play your commander, having a little extra mana can't hurt. What else can you use all of this mana for? How about:

Bombs. Huge beaters, devastating board-sweepers, and incredibly powerful, incredibly spells with strange effects define Commander FFA for me. It's all about the Gorillas. Due to the higher starting life totals, you are much more likely to reach what would normally be the late-late game. In Standard, you might not survive long enough to be able to play multiple six-mana (or even eight-mana) spells, but double the amount of life you have to work with and it becomes the norm.

Utility cards. Besides the sweepers, you're going to want include some other spot removal, some graveyard removal (there are many powerful cards make the graveyard relevant, like Genesis, Glory, Debtors' Knell, and Academy Ruins), as well as some cards that simply make life for your opponent very difficult. As mentioned, you generally have more time, so 187 creatures, those with comes-into-play ablities like Indrik Stomphowler, Flametongue Kavu, Stonecloaker, and Shriekmaw, are almost always better than their less expensive, but bodiless, equivalents. Depending on the deck, nuisances like Damping Matrix are worth considering. Depending on the decks you expect to see, hosers like Compost or Crusading Knight might be worthwhile. Cards like Aven Mindcensor and Voidstone Gargoyle are more generally useful. The former is nice because of all of the tutoring that gets played and the latter can be excellent because it allows you to cut off access to a commander (if you have nothing more pressing to name).

Possessed Nomad
Experimental cards. Somewhat surprisingly, it's always hard for me to trim a deck down to 100 cards. That's partially because I like to have an answer to everything, as I do in any free-for-all format. But it's also because there are so many cards worth experimenting with. I've had a lot of success with oddballs like Null Chamber and Reverse the Sands, with decks that push a tribal theme and ones that are not tribal at all. It really is a tinkerer's format. I always like to push the "What the heck?" envelope a bit. With 100 cards to work with, it's tough for one potentially "bad" to bring down your whole game plan. I generally play my EDH decks whenever my play group gets together to play some multiplayer chaos, and the general unpredictability of my deck has almost always been an advantage, I think. While you might groan immediately upon seeing a Mox Diamond (or some other card that is indicative of a certain strategy), you can't build up the same distaste for 100-card Singleton decks. It makes it more difficult to keep track of what cards are in your deck, what threats you might pose, and how you might react if someone tries to mess with your stuff. That's why I always like to tweak my decks and try new things, and a forgiving Highlander format does half the work for me. So just as nobody expects the third Spanish Inquisition reference, nobody expects the Possessed Nomad or the Moratorium Stone or the Reflect Damage. (Why would they?)

Combos. Combos in Commander FFA are a little trickier to pull off than in other formats, because it's hard to achieve the necessary level of redundancy. That's why I prefer combos between good cards that are (usually) good on their own. Stuffy Doll is a powerful deterrent and Earthquake is a powerful board-sweeper, but combine them and you can probably eliminate one or players from the game right there. Stuffy isn't so bad with Oros, either. Godo, Bandit Warlord is just fine when he's in the middle of a one-man Relentless Assault and Mirror Entity is nice with any other creatures (especially Pegasi), but put ‘em together and you have an army of translucent ETs trained in the ancient art of the samurai. Patron of the Kitsune loves to hang out on the Sacred Mesa. Those aren't necessarily the kinds of combos you think of when you think "Combo!" One recent combo that fits the criteria of "cards that are good on their own but better together" is the Reveillark, Body Double, Mirror Entity combo described in a recent Ask Wizards.

Here's the deck that I ended up building. It's not perfect by any means. Playing and tinkering are the best ways to make a deck better and with a card pool so large, there is a mindboggling number of possibilities. Hopefully some of you will give the format a try and help to make it easier to get a game going on Magic Online.

Oros, the Avenger

Download Arena Decklist
100 Cards

Until next time, master commander.

Chris Millar

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