The Spirit of the Format

Posted in Top Decks on March 13, 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.

What is the spirit of Commander?

Extravagant Spirit | Art by Edward P. Beard, Jr.

Wacky. Fun. Multiplayer. Clever. Unique. Powerful. Expensive. Flashy. Big. Colorful.

Adjectives like these are those I'd use, although how each one applies can vary. One way to talk about the spirit of Commander is to focus on the colors of the commanders themselves. Both releases (2011 and 2013) of Magic: The GatheringCommander decks included commanders that were three colors, and decks build on the different advantages the colors contribute. When I think about Commander I often think about these three-color legendary creatures, and how awesome it is to find so many cards of different colors that work together.

But does that mean less-colorful choices aren't in the spirit of the format?

Pro Tour Historian, coverage commentator, weekly author, and game designer Brian David-Marshall has been a bit busy and under the weather recently, so I'll have to play devil's advocate on his behalf around this cryptic argument.

Monocolored commanders aren't as interesting, engaging, or strange as those with multiple colors.

Cards like Command Tower aren't advantageous. You forfeit every multicolor card ever made. The odds of choosing a commander that's already found success in other formats is good. What makes Commander different is everything attached to multicolor: Stranger spells, difficult mana costs, and unique effects mean using multicolor and means seeing more of the things that best represent the format.

Multicolor commanders represent all that is good with the format.

Arguing With Myself

I don't know if that's what Brian had in mind, but I can relate to the concept of monocolor decks feeling very different to multicolored. My first two Commander decks were Kresh the Bloodbraided and Kamahl, Fist of Krosa. Kresh was thematic, with wacky cards and personal flair (Backlash, Sprouting Thrinax, and Fallen Ideal all featured highly). Kamahl was... redundant. It ramped mana, dumped several token creatures onto the battlefield, and could Overrun three or four times for victory.

Every game Kamahl won was exactly the same. The deck just didn't have the personality of my Kresh deck.

Kresh the Bloodbraided
Kamahl, Fist of Krosa

But does that really mean monocolored isn't for Commander? The overwhelming response from you was "No!"

I run a Commander League at my local store. I have put some thought into this topic. From the folks at "Commander is designed first and foremost for social players." This is the essence of the game, and I believe it means that all players at the table have a chance to have their decks fairly compete. Destroying lands (Armageddon), destroying mana production (Blood Moon, Winter Orb), and preventing spells from being cast (Iona) (counterspells are fine) are all effects that are frowned upon. Any deck that "does what it does" while still allowing other decks to "do what they do" is living in the spirit of Commander. Mono- and multicolor decks alike can equally live up to this philosophy or ignore it. I embrace the monocolored deck into the Commander fold. It is the player who needs to live up to the Commander philosophy, not the deck.


Iona, Shield of Emeria

Commander is driven by the players and their choices, not their colors. I think Kevin made a great point here, but what do monocolored Commander decks look like?

In regard to the spirit of Commander, I think that the deck is much less important than the player. How you behave and the decisions that you make, in and out of play, during a game mean a lot more than any aspect of the cards that you're packing.

At the end of the day, it's a variation of a game that you all chose to sit down and play. The spirit of the game, in all its various forms, is to enjoy it with others.

Consider the following monocolored list for Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief:

Jack's Drana

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It's basically just a Vampire's tribal thing. Other than being monocolored, there are a lot of things about this deck that could be considered to "not be in the spirit of Commander." Tutors and instant-kills are often frowned upon, even by the esteemed writers on DailyMTG.

However, I can happily say that I have never gotten a complaint (in so far as I am aware) about this deck. Mostly because I am very careful who I play it with, and how frequently. The spirit of Commander is consideration of other people. Everything else is secondary.


Diabolic Tutor
Sanguine Bond

A deck that's social doesn't mean forfeiting power or potential, and that's what Jack has done here. While I might not be a big fan of Tutors, it's more because they can become a crutch for players to play out decks in exactly the same way each time. How you use your powerful cards matters more to the spirit of the format than which cards they are.

I find monocolored, or dare I say no color, commanders to be fantastic additions to the Commander format. Commander at heart is about interactivity. A monocolored commander does not reduce interactivity at all. Monocolored commanders push players to play cards they may have never seen before or never given a second glance because they are not good in normal tournament Constructed formats.

Max's Braids, Conjurer Adept

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I present my mono-blue Sphinx Tribal deck. It's all the blue Sphinxes, with Braids, Conjurer Adept, who pushes interactivity and accelerates the game so we can get to the action. I run the Howling Mine effects to let everyone draw more cards to throw down with Braids. A few counterspells and removal spells to keep things fair. The three colorless sweepers (All Is Dust, Larry Niven's Disk, and Oblivion Stone) in case things get too degenerate. The big thing is the deck is fun to play and fun to play against, which is the true spirit of Commander.


All Is Dust
Oblivion Stone

One of my favorite Commander decks of all time was a three-counterspell-packing copy deck I took to Worlds 2011. Copying other players naturally kept my deck's power closer to theirs, and when you get to cast Rite of Replication kicked on someone else's Solemn Simulacrum you know what "value" feels like. Swapping copying for Sphinxes sounds like it worked out for Max just fine.

I say monocolored commanders are, if anything, more in line with the format's spirit. Color identity deck building restrictions are one of the defining aspects of Commander; unless you're building around Karn, Silver Golem or a non-banned Eldrazi legend, you can't get any more restrictive than limiting yourself to a single slice of the color pie.

According to the official website, Commander "emphasizes social interactions, interesting games, and creative deck building." All three can be accomplished just as easily with a single color as with two or more. All three tenets can also be violated just as easily. I believe that the number of colors in a Commander deck has almost nothing to do with how well it adheres to the spirit of the format. It's more about the intentions and play style of the deck builder—as Commander players, we should be aware of the morale of those we game with, and of how our tactics affect their enjoyment of the game. That's one of the reasons I won't run the same deck every game, and also the main reason I rarely bring one of my own monocolor creations to the table.

I didn't put this deck together with the intention of violating the principles of the format. It started out as an attempt to build around a weird card: Kuon, Ogre Ascendant. I later added Chainer to it and decided he'd make a better commander. When it's working, it's NOT fun for the rest of the table, making it impossible for the rest of the table to keep any creatures in play.

John's Chainer

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John's aware of the social impact of an oppressive deck. While he's thoughtful to keep it away from the table some of the time it's his other point I want to look at: Monocolored is more challenging to build for than multicolored. Is that in the spirit of the format?

In regards to your question about monocolored commanders, I do believe that monocolored commanders are definitely within the spirit of the format. Monocolored decks require a specific focus, geared toward their color's strengths while having to forgo that color's weaknesses. Monocolored decks can be incredibly fun to play, especially if you're looking at a color like mono-red. Mono-red is a very difficult build, but rewarding and fun, as it requires a good amount of thought to build. To me, Commander can be very political and it's a format where things happen that don't happen in other formats. A deck being monocolored doesn't detract from that, it's the commander itself that is typically the problem.

Also, it's funny that you mentioned Purphoros in your question, here's a deck that I've been piloting with him at the helm that has been incredibly fun to play. The theme here is to use tokens to work Purphoros's triggered ability to deal damage to the table.

Joe's Purphoros

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Narrow. Restricted. Focused. Monocolored commanders add additional strain to building the right kind of deck. If Commander is meant to be a restrictive format, going monocolored is one way to challenge yourself further. And we all know how restrictions breed Commander creativity.

Break Me Shake Me

So who's right? Is monocolored in or out of the spirit of Commander?

I have a personal preference for monocolored commanders. No one in our playgroup has ever brought that up as a problem. Instead, since I joined, they have also delved into monocolored. To me, it's a different kind of challenge. Each color has its weaknesses, so it takes a bit of creativity to get only one color to work (also, politics works).

On the other hand, three-colored decks tend to be prohibitive for new players. Getting the mana right becomes hard or takes an investment they are not ready for or willing to do. Also, since each color has its own staples, multicolored decks have a tendency to fall into the good-stuff trap. If each color has about ten "musts" and each color combination has a few as well, and you play forty lands and some ramp, that's most of the deck right there. Multicolor therefore tends to stifle creativity.

However, I wouldn't judge anyone for their decision for a commander. Any commander can be interesting if done right and most commanders can be boring if done wrong.

Also, there is no spirit of Commander. There is only the spirit of your gaming group. Some foster interactivity, some foster broken combos, some foster thematic decks. Most probably evolve over time. Who am I to say some specific group is wrong?


Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
Oloro, Ageless Ascetic

I agree with Aki: If you follow the flow of your local group you won't go wrong. I'll continue to build wacky piles of multicolor cards and choose new commanders that require just one type of basic land to work.

I hope you do, too.

This week's question aims to answer another angle of the spirit of Commander: Which of your Commander decks has the best story from playing it, and why?

  • Feedback via email
  • 300-word limit to explain your story
  • Sample decklist is requested (does not count against word limit)
  • Decklists should be formatted with one card per line with just a leading number, such as "3 Mountain"—just a space (no "x" or "-") between the number and the card name
  • Name and email required (non-personal information to be used in column)

Whether it's one, none, or every color, the ability for decks to play out and create great memories is a hallmark of Commander I seek out. I'm looking forward to stories far better than my own.

Join us next week when we borrow our way to the top. See you then!

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