Building Around Your Legend

Posted in How to Build on November 4, 2016

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.

Quick history lesson: When they first arrived, and for many years after, all legendary creatures in Magic had the Legend subtype.


It's why you'll sometimes hear the "What's your Legend?" anachronism from grizzled veterans like me. I've seen some things—a lot of it Commander—and getting excited about a commander for Commander is one that never changes.

There are many ways to jump into playing Commander. One way is to choose your favorite Magic: The Gathering—Commander deck coming out and give it a try. The decks come ready to play and are filled with jumping-off points for your own adventures thanks to the other legendary creatures in each deck.

That's where today's article comes in.

Whether it's a partner duo from your deck or a sweet leader you cracked from a booster pack, the odds are good that if Commander is a format you find interesting, it's because there's a legendary creature you're imagining on top of your deck. Building around your "Legend" is pretty straightforward.

What's in a Card?

For starters, we're assuming you're up to speed on the basics of the format and its decks. The underpinnings of your average Commander deck apply to every build, but there's more to making your commander work for you than just generic good cards (however helpful they may be).

For starters, you need to read your card. Take, for example today, Gisela, Blade of Goldnight.

Gisela, before she broke her blade, was a Human-protecting Angel in service to Avacyn. I really like Gisela, and I've tinkered with different decks around her over the years. Each time I've looked at different ways to work with her, and all of them rely on understanding what she can actually do.

Keeping Your Entire Commander in Mind Is the First Step

For Gisela, she has a few features:

  • She's red-white. I know red-white is often an aggressive color, and typically lacks ways to draw extra cards.
  • She's expensive—seven mana to bring out. I know expensive commanders need more mana support since casting her, even if she's gone back to the command zone a few times, will be important.
  • She has flying and first strike. This is a great pair of combat keywords: She has evasion in two forms, meaning she's more likely to hit than other creatures.
  • She has two abilities: The first doubles damages to all opponents. I know this is going to draw attention, and bring some pain back my way. Her other ability answers that by halving the damage we'll take—both to us as a player and to our permanents.
  • She's a 5/5, which is a fine if not dominant size for Commander. (See Primeval Protector and Stonehoof Chieftain.)

Understanding what your commander can do is critical to building the deck around it. It's easy to overlook how cards that support one side of your commander can actually diminish another, and it's important to consider your commander holistically.

With Gisela, each part of her card feels connected:

  • Being an expensive red-white commander means her game is late game. Getting to the later turns where she shines in combat matters.
  • Her two abilities are not equally annoying. Nobody likes taking double damage, but there are plenty of Commander decks that don't mind you take half the damage.
  • Since she comes down late, we won't get the benefit of her abilities fast. You need a plan between the start of the game and when our Angel arrives.

Every commander is different, of course. Some are more straightforward (Bruse Tarl, Boorish Herder wants to make something else into a monstrous attacker every turn) or self-explanatory (Kydele, Chosen of Kruphix just asks you to draw extra cards before tapping her for mana), but others are just a door to going deep (Ghave, Guru of Spores is pretty gnarly to consider).

What's with the Other Cards?

Listing out things that matter for your commander will help you with the second step: looking for complementary cards.

This is the toughest part about Commander. What "supports" your commander will depend on how you evaluate things. Both Howling Mine and Treasure Cruise are great for a Kydele, Chosen of Kruphix deck, but some of you likely want one of those cards way more than the other.

Both are correct choices.

Building around your commander isn't about finding "the best" options, but ensuring you've picked the options you like best. It's counterintuitive to building decks for Sealed or Standard, where there are good reasons one card is objectively better than another.

What matters is you pick the cards you like that fit into what you're planning to do with your commander.

For Gisela, Blade of Goldnight, there are a few things I want to do:

  • I want to set up amazing attacks. Using Equipment or just other solid creatures, I want to attack unafraid.
  • I want to stay alive. I need time to get to Gisela and my (presumed) army, so cards that help me avoid damage are a necessary stopgap.
  • I want any card draw I can find. Picking up some extra cards or converting less-useful cards into something (perhaps) handier is important for aggressive decks.
  • I want mana rocks and ways to get more land onto the battlefield. Having Gisela in play for as long as possible will make the "fly high, hit hard" plan work better.

Identifying the specific ways other effects will help your commander gives you clarity when looking over cards. Commander allows practically every card you can think of (and many more we've probably never seen), so knowing the types of things you need before you head off to grab them streamlines things.

For Gisela, filling out those four categories was easy.

Equipment and Support:

Staying Alive:

Card Draw:

Mana Rocks:

While not comprehensive of every possible option, this is the pile of everything I dug up:

Stybs's Pile of Gisela, Blade of Goldnight

Download Arena Decklist
113 Cards

What's with the Cards We Leave Behind?

There are too many cards in my piles here. As your collection of interesting cards grows, you'll inevitably find there's more good choices you want than space in a given Commander deck.

Finally, It's Time to Cut Your Darlings

Adapting from Arthur Quiller-Couch's original quip about writing, you are free to—and should!—include everything you possibly want in the first pass at building around your new commander. Then, be unafraid to really cut down on things to finalize a stronger deck.

Editing your deck is the last step to building around your commander. You have to choose what's more important among the things that work with your deck. This is the part I can provide the least illustration for—what you want is up to you, and any method I use to winnow might not work with a different set of goals in mind. If you value having early plays and more mana, you'll keep them over the big, splashy, expensive cards at the top end of the curve. If you don't mind when your deck whiffs on mana, keeping several more whammies to close the game out faster works.

It's really all about buckling down to make the hard decisions yourself. If you're curious how I ended up, this is the final decklist I'm taking to battle against my coworkers:

Stybs's Gisela, Blade of Goldnight

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Gisela, Blade of Goldnight
99 Cards

In short: I went all-in on Angels and setting up a sweet army of flying retribution. I want Gisela, Blade of Goldnight to be the leader of my host of Angels ready to set upon my enemies and put them down at the end of my many swords.

Why go total Angels-for-everything? My aforementioned coworkers also built tribal-like decks. One is Zombies with a twist, built by a player who recently returned to Magic:

Aimee's Zombie Horde

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Drana, Liberator of Malakir

She built her deck around Zombies, then found a suitable commander to attack with, excited to mix some of her old cards with the many new Zombie options that have popped up recently.

Another coworker, a brand-new-to-Magic player, on the other hand had a different approach to Commander.

"I liked Werewolves and I wanted to build a Werewolf-heavy deck. I play Pauper but I wanted the opportunity to use my non-common cards. I heard there was a Werewolf legendary coming in Eldritch Moon," Meaghan explained. "I did a lot of searching for various cards that were Wolves, Werewolves, brought out Wolf tokens, or featured Wolves in the artwork. Every card has some kind of Wolf-relation. I also wanted to draw some Wolf tokens."

Meaghan's Lycan Legion

Download Arena Decklist
COMMANDER: Ulrich of the Krallenhorde

"I went all-in on the Wolf theme. I was surprised there were so many available. I had to pare down on some things. There's also a lot of Werewolves I'm looking forward to getting someday."

Her deck hits hard and can come out of the gate with an explosion of damage on the ground. She's also won the first few battles around the office.

"Wolfir Silverheart can pair with something, so when Ulrich transforms back, it makes something into a 12/12 or larger," she said. "Cards like Second Harvest and Arlinn Kord can let me take over by just getting bigger with 2/2s and then giving them all trample."

My Gisela deck isn't meant to head out on the road or be the best example of the power available in Commander, but building around my commander's strengths, playing up a theme everyone in my play group is on, and charging into the unknown with just a host of Angels to back me up makes Gisela, Blade of Goldnight exactly the kind of commander for the kind of Commander I'm excited to play.

Which "Legend" will you build something legendary around?

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