How to Choose Your Commander

Posted in How to Build on August 15, 2017

By Chas Andres

Chas Andres is a freelance writer and MFA student living in Wilmington, North Carolina. When he's not at his keyboard dreaming up stories, you can find him playing with his cats, listening to records, or building yet another Magic deck.

The first time I built a Commander deck, I had no idea where to begin. The format was in its infancy, and all I really knew was that people tended to build decks around their coolest Dragon. I sleeved up my foil copy of Dromar, the Banisher, shuffled up a bunch of bounce spells, and tried to craft a world where the ancient Vodalian Dragon could reign as the undisputed lord of the skies.

Commander has grown a lot since then, and so has my love of the format. I have about a dozen Commander decks these days, all with different goals and philosophies. While some of these decks came to life because I opened a sweet new legend, most of them started the other way around; I had a cool idea for a brew, but I needed to find the right commander to lead my army.

Choosing a commander can feel overwhelming, but don't worry—I'm here to help. Whether you're a veteran of the 100-card trenches or you're planning to get your feet wet by picking up one of the new Commander (2017 Edition) decks, my goal is to guide you through the process that I use when selecting a commander.

Pulling Focus

Before we start looking at specific legends, we need to develop a vision for our deck. I've had plenty of fun with Commander decks that are essentially just a stack of my favorite cards shuffled together, but nothing beats coming up with a cool idea and brewing around it. In fact, most of my Commander decks fall into one of the following loose categories:

Tribal Battles

You're probably familiar with this concept thanks to the Commander 2017 decks, but you can expand the idea of "tribal" to include other, less obvious commonalities between creatures. What if all your creatures live underwater? Or they each have activated abilities that require self-sacrifice? Or they each use a particular type of weapon in combat?

If you've selected a classic tribe—say, Zombies or Merfolk—you should start by looking at the available lords for that tribe. There tend to be at least a few. Since you can't play any cards in your deck that don't share a color with your commander, it's important to choose a leader that won't cut you off from important spells. Gisa and Geralf is a fantastic choice as a Zombie commander, but it cuts you off from playing any Zombies with white, red, or green in their casting cost.

You'll have to decide for yourself whether or not this is a deal-breaker, but it's worth noting that I rarely end up short on cards that I want to include. Instead, I always seem to end up with 150–200 cards and I'm left agonizing over which spells to cut. By choosing a commander that restricts your options, you might actually end up with a more streamlined deck.

When I build around a tribe that either doesn't have a lord or is more like a loose affiliation of similar creatures, I tend to let my imagination rule the day. Which sea monster looks like it would be in charge? What legendary 2/2 best embodies the concept of "Bear"? What character might I want to role-play while I'm running out my legion of Angels, Clerics, and other holy devotees?

Mechanical Creations

Magic is full of mechanics that are fun to build around in Commander. When cycling returned in Amonkhet, for example, I immediately knew that I wanted to build a deck designed to show off everything the mechanic was capable of. You don't have to stick to keyword mechanics when building a deck like this, though—I've built Commander decks around broader mechanical ideas like graveyard reanimation, stealing my opponent's creatures, and having as many enchantments in play as possible.

With these decks, I usually look for a commander that helps enable my strategy in some way. For example, Ravos, Soultender is a great leader for a cycling deck because it lets me return a creature (usually with cycling) from my graveyard to my hand each turn.

Getting into Character

Almost half of my Commander decks focus on either a major character (Chandra, Urza, Nicol Bolas . . .) or a major faction (House Dimir, the Mardu Horde, the Church of Avacyn . . .) from Magic's lore. These decks are fairly easy to build (you're usually limited to cards from just a couple of sets), and they're fantastic if you enjoy role-playing while you're at the table.

Selecting a flavorful commander is paramount here. The transforming planeswalkers from Magic Origins are perfect if you want to build around the Gatewatch, and most of Magic's factions have obvious choices available for you. If you're building around the Temur Frontier, for example, you're basically just choosing between Surrak and Yasova Dragonclaw—the clan's two leaders.

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Consider recruiting Surrak Dragonclaw as your Bear-punching commander.Savage Punch | Art by Wesley Burt

Story Spotlights

Commander is also a great format for recreating key moments in the Magic storyline. Want to play out the battle at Sea Gate, the revolt on Kaladesh, or the fall of Naktamun? Commander's 100-card singleton restriction means that these events will unfold differently each time. Once, I was able to give Pia Nalaar so many pieces of Equipment that she was able to take down the entire Consulate by herself. It was awesome.

These decks tend to need access to more colors than the character-centric versions, so you may be forced to go with a commander who wasn't actually a faction leader or key figure in a particular event. I usually end up narrowing my deck's focus and going with the most flavorful commander, but there's no shame in selecting a more generic four- or five-color commander and inventing a new role for them in your battle. Who's to say that Zendikar doesn't have its own version of a Horde of Notions?

All About Art

There are infinite ways to build a Commander deck around Magic's incredible art. If you have a favorite artist, take a look and see if they have enough cards to build a deck comprising solely their compositions. You can also build decks designed to showcase different aesthetic looks—a deck where every card has harsh shadows, for example, or one where all the art features rich, saturated hues. I've even seen a deck where every card has "scale birds" in the art—those tiny flocks of birds that artists use to show the viewer just how large an object actually is.

Picking a commander here is generally a matter of finding the legendary creature that best showcases your chosen aesthetic. Again, you might be tempted to pick a random five-color commander to be as inclusive as possible when deck building, but in this case I find that staying disciplined leads to a more satisfying outcome. There's an elegance that occurs when 100 cards all work together to showcase something beautiful.

Restrictions Breed Creativity

What would a Commander deck look like if you couldn't play any creatures? What if you could only use creatures and basic lands but no other spells? What if every card in your deck was colorless? What if you couldn't play any spells that cost more than three mana to cast? What if your deck had to include at least 30 different planeswalkers?

With these decks, it's all about finding a commander that fits your restrictions while (ideally) enabling your deck to succeed. For example, Animar, Soul of Elements is the perfect leader for an all-creatures deck because it makes them much easier to play. If you want to play an all-colorless deck, Karn, Silver Golem will let you turn all your non-creature artifacts into an unstoppable robot army at a very reasonable cost.

Weird Ways to Win

Not every Commander deck needs to be about damaging your opponent until they hit 0. It's difficult to pull off, but I have one Commander deck that tries to win by milling every other library at the table. I've seen other decks that don't think about winning at all, instead focusing on "group hug" cards that buff their allies. I even used to own a deck full of cards like Grip of Chaos, Dovescape, and Hive Mind that tried to create as much chaos as possible. (At the behest of my playgroup, this deck has been disassembled.)

Going off the beaten path is difficult, and you should try your best to find a commander that helps you out. Phenax, God of Deception is essential to my mill deck's success, and Zedruu, the Greathearted is crucial for anyone who wants to donate a lot of permanents to their friends. Whenever I'm dreaming up decks like these, I try to choose my commander first so I always know what I'm building toward.

Last Lessons

Don't forget that one of the most fun ways to build a Commander deck is by opening a cool legend and figuring out what other cards pair well with it. Legendary creatures with cool abilities tend to work best. In fact, I've already seen half a dozen Commander decks based around The Locust God and The Scarab God from Hour of Devastation. They all had some similarities, but they were different enough to be interesting.

It's also important to remember that most commanders can't do anything if they're not in play. I'm always tempted to go with a big, flashy creature that will end the game by unleashing death and destruction upon my enemies, but whenever I do this, I end up going about half the game without even getting to cast the coolest card in my deck.

In my experience, it's best to leave the seven-plus-cost commanders for decks that are designed to generate a ton of mana. Commanders that only cost three or four mana to cast might seem less powerful, but being able to re-cast them multiple times each game more than makes up for the deficit. When in doubt, choose the leader that you'll have the easiest time getting into play.

At the end of the day, though, the only real lesson is this: go with the commander that you like best. More than any other format in Magic, Commander is about self-expression. Whether it's a massive Demon, a brainy Ogre, a shy Wizard, or a silly Goblin, there's a commander out there for all of us. Go find yours.

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