What's Truly Important

Posted in Top Decks on May 16, 2013

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.

I have an idea about what's important in Commander. My preferences and desires, iterated over years of decks, led me to believe it. But that's a tricky place to be. What I, or you, or any individual thinks about Commander isn't the whole story. In fact, most of us will have something quite different to say about the importance of things for the format. That's the danger of declaring things that seem true: "Real truth" is multiple truths existing simultaneously.

Simply put, what's important for someone may not even matter to you.

However, there's a powerful opportunity here, too. Just because you believe one facet to be paramount doesn't mean to exclude considering others. Seeing why others understand things different from you can open up entirely new ways of exploring your cards and decks. You may not change your mind, but you can certainly expand how you look at things.

Or, said differently, it's not about anyone being wrong but that everyone is right in their own ways. Today, we get to see just how important so many different things are in Commander. Buckle up, because this is a wild ride.

Truth, with a Capital "T"

While there are plenty of other answers to the question of importance in Commander, one appeared more frequently than the others (although not as the majority): the commander itself. Nick said it clearly:

Azami, Lady of Scrolls
Azusa, Lost but Seeking

The most important kind of card in your Commander deck is definitely the commander itself. It's the first card your opponents will see out of your deck and it will often have political ramifications before the game even begins—if I see an Azami, Lady of Scrolls or an Azusa, Lost but Seeking across the table, I instantly know who to target. Your commander also clues your opponents in on what kind of deck you're playing—if I spot a Vorel of the Hull Clade or an Experiment Kraj deck, I relax and get ready to see some cool, goofy things happen.

Without knowing anything else, the commander you choose can say a lot about your deck. While what others read can be wrong—I've played hilarious Wizard aggro decks that used Azami to reload on underpowered attacking creatures and a brutally efficient Experiment Kraj deck that drew all the cards and took all the turns—it is the first thing others will see.

There were other reasons for placing importance on your commander, as Reece shared:

Rakdos, Lord of Riots
Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch

The commander is definitely the most important. It defines the whole deck and is often the focus and theme of it. The commander can draw you toward unusual cards that you would normally never play just because they work well with the commander. I personally find unique cards to be the main draw for me to use unusual commanders. I try my best to use different cards in different decks whenever possible; it makes building multiple decks interesting rather than having all the staples of a color in every deck you build.

Reece, and several others, believe that the commander sets up the opportunities for the rest of the deck. The cards you choose, themes you include, and variety that's ultimately included rests squarely on the shoulders of the leader you pick. It's not quite predestination, but the cards you'd choose for a Rakdos, Lord of Riots deck would differ significantly from an Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch deck. There's overlap, for sure, but it's the differences driven by the commanders that stand out.

Some of you felt that commanders were really important, but as a function of the rules that govern them. Since you can cast them as soon as you have the mana and can bring them back over and over, Benjamin points out the power that provides:

Lightning Greaves
Varolz, the Scar-Striped

I think the most important part of a Commander deck is whatever keeps your commander around. Most likely this is Lightning Greaves, but anything that provides staying power to the one card you know you'll have access to every game is essential.

If you want your commander to be meaningful, and build your deck in mind for that, it makes sense to place priority on keeping it around. When we looked at building a deck around Varolz, the Scar-Striped, it's clear that having him in play is vital for the deck to do its thing. Benjamin would probably add a few more cards to cover our Troll Warrior while he's on the battlefield.

The flip side to the view on commanders is looking at generally powerful cards that fit into many decks. Things like Lightning Greaves and Sol Ring are common elements to decks because of the consistent power they provide. Willaert explained further:

Coiling Oracle
Sol Ring

In my Commander box, I have a spot saved for what I call the all-stars, cards that I always include in decks that match the colors, some kind of super staples.

Cards such as Coiling Oracle or Qasali Pridemage, little guys that don't take away the spotlights in a deck, but make your game run so much more smoothly. They're the blue collars in my decks, greasing the machine. I construct decks as I imagine medieval warlords build an army, and these guys are the pikemen that have the knights-in-shiny-armors' backs.

To me, these kind of cards are the most important in a deck. They can come down early to give you an edge that opponents sometimes just can't catch up to, and later in the game they don't stall you as they can either replace themselves or still have a useful impact in the game.

I admit that I'm never upset to draw Coiling Oracle in my Prime Speaker Zegana deck, just as I've never heard anyone sigh about having Sol Ring on the first turn. While it won't always happen, unlike access to your commander, when you include enough of these potent cards in your deck you'll have plenty of chances to use them. Clearly, that's more than good enough.

Having strong cards isn't enough for some of you though. Having access to them outweighs the individual picks you put in according to JR:

Sphinx's Revelation

Card-drawing is the most important ingredient in a Commander deck. You cannot rely upon topdeck love in a 99-card deck of singletons (excepting multiple basic lands). Tutors can fetch combo pieces and answers to problems, but they generally find one card at a time, and you are in a multiplayer game.

What JR's getting at is that drawing one card each turn makes it tough to keep pace with three other players each drawing a card. Using something like Increasing Ambition or Firemind's Foresight might net an extra card while you're finding the one you want, but it's still nowhere near the amount of cards others draw. With something like Sphinx's Revelation, Harmonize, or Greed handy, you can expect to keep solid cards coming to your hand.

But what are solid cards? If getting them into your hand can be important, then so can the cards you're after. That's how Josh felt:

Proteus Staff

I believe the most important kind of card for a Commander deck is the kind that can perform multiple functions, including ones that aren't necessarily obvious to your opponents at first. Although 99 cards to work with your commander sounds like a lot, Commander's singleton aspect makes it so that maximum possible utility from each card you pull is extremely important. A personal favorite of mine in the format for this reason is Proteus Staff—I can polymorph my early small stuff, constantly remove threats from the board, and (best of all) make another commander disappear for the longest time possible.

The guiding force behind Josh's words is versatility. Having multiple functions built into the same card means that whenever you draw it you can do something with it. Cards in hand are all different choices, and packing extra choices into them seems smart. There's another kind of choice that can be made, but it's destructive. Jon's perspective on versatility is a little different:

Wrecking Ball

The most important kind of card for a Commander deck is versatile removal. Spells like Oblivion Ring, Vindicate, Maelstrom Pulse, Putrefy, Acidic Slime... even oddball stuff like Wrecking Ball. You never know what kind of decks your opponents will be packing, and you want to be able to answer diverse threats and take out key enablers of degenerate combos.

Instead of creating different types of actions, Jon wants to have as many choices available for each spell. We've established that players will have their commanders, backed by powerful cards, in every game. Answering them—that is, having cards that break up what other players are doing—is a natural desire.

Jon's idea isn't necessarily stopping everything, but having ways to interfere with potentially anything opponents bring. Every type of card, from Planeswalkers to lands, can be used in ways you don't like. Firing back makes sense.

But variety comes in a third way: volume. Ian likes cards that give us more than just one thing at a time:

Sylvan Primordial
Wrath of God

The most important kind of card for Commander is big sweeping cards with the word "each" on them. Things like the Primordials (Sylvan Primordial, Sepulchral Primordial), or Wrath of God, which affect everything and make politics easier

Instead of having the most function or available choices, Ian wants to get the most stuff from every card. While the politics of hitting everyone can be easier (in the sense everyone dislikes it equally), the end result of affecting as much as possible makes these effects powerful. It's a variety pack purchase from using just one card.

Of course, all this talk about casting commanders, protection, and other awesome cards leads to a question: Just how are we going to do all this stuff? Jack's thought on what's important makes it clear:

Caged Sun

I must say I find your columns always interesting and fun to read. Just felt it needed to be said. Anyway, I think the most important card in a Commander deck is something to smooth out your mana. Whether this takes the form of Manamorphose, Birds of Paradise, Cultivate, Dark Ritual, or all that kickass land out there, they are all the most important. Even in monocolored decks cards like Cabal Coffers and Caged Sun are all amazing. Mana is the most important thing.

Without mana, things tend to fall apart. Jack's point is abundantly clear to anyone who discovered too few mana sources in a deck, and the hundreds of ways Commander had ready for making mana make it easy to do so. This also happens to be very close to the top of things I believe are vitally important for Commander decks, and why I usually include close to forty lands in every deck I build. Having enough mana to do anything you want is an exciting place to be.

Using cards for their discrete effects is the mechanical side of Magic. But the game is much more than the sum of its parts. What players like Justin feel is most important is the interaction of multiplayer:

Praetor's Grasp
My First Tome

I think the most important kind of cards for Commander are those that encourage fun interactions with other players. I love playing cards such as Praetor's Grasp (what could it be?), Sphinx Ambassador (even when they solve the riddle correctly), and especially My First Tome (cards from different sets often have unique flavor text), which all encourage unique interaction between players.

While I wouldn't be the first to say that getting hit by Praetor's Grasp is "fun," the idea makes sense: Bring cards that create an experience with other players. If you're asking questions about flavor text or flipping through an opponent's deck for a card to borrow for the game, it's easy to make conversation and discussion happen. The mechanics of what a card does isn't all that you can get from it.

Creating an experience isn't just about what one card can do keep other players involved, but what they see within your deck.

Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis
Kaalia of the Vast

A Commander deck's most important element is uniqueness, something to distinguish it from everything else. To do this, it's all about FLAVOR. Flavor cards that feel like they belong make the deck cool. Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis in Kaalia of the Vast because it's safe to assume she one day gets her revenge and captures him; a Niv-Mizzet deck stuffed with overload spells and Guildmages; Karn Liberated would have a spot in a Venser, the Sojourner deck, because you can't split friends like that; and Thalia without a Human-matters theme is criminal. Always look at the source, but also think thematically and widen the scope.

Senyuno is talking about telling a story, or reflect the Multiverse of Magic as we know it. What tale would you weave from the cards you play, and why do they fit together the way they do? What cards "make sense" in a deck that's meant to highlight the relationship between two Planeswalkers—say Jace and Chandra—or that creates the feeling of a zombie apocalypse will be dramatically different from decks that don't consider these ideas. Once you've experienced "the Squirrel Commander deck" you understand how the feeling during the game is different from anything else.

But picking cards for others doesn't necessarily make you happy, which is why players like Andrew felt the most important consideration was to look inward first:

Blood Tyrant
Molten Psyche

I feel the most important kind of card for a Commander deck is one you WANT to play. It may not be a great card, or even a good one, but it's one you want to play with.

I love playing Blood Tyrant because he gets no love anywhere else. I love to Swerve spells and sculpt the perfect timing for a Molten Psyche.

Sure, it's fun to win, but make sure you enjoy what you are playing as well!

Making the most important feature of Commander simply playing the cards you want to play is easy to overlook. Choosing the "right" commander, with the "right" support and "right" strategy doesn't mean the resulting deck will be pleasant to pick up. Andrew's point isn't about using cards others don't, but choosing the cards that you simply want to use. They don't have to be on a best-of list to feel just as good.

All That Glitters

Are there even more angles to things that can be important in Commander? What you can believe in is almost limitless, and I hope today's path through what twelve of you had to share gives you something else to think about.

While my focus on land is something not everyone puts first, we can all agree that including lands in Commander decks is something everyone does. The prompt for this week is simple: Which six lands are the most useful to include in a Commander deck, and why?

  • Feedback via email
  • 100 word limit to present the cards
  • Name and email required (non-personal information to be used in column)

There are plenty of land out there, from Maze's End in Dragon's Maze to the original five basic lands that started it all, but all of them are used in surprisingly different ways. I'd like to know what you reach for first, and why.

Even better, you'll have two weeks to share the lands you love most. As you read this I'll be in sunny San Diego, gearing up to write at Pro Tour Dragon's Maze. After looking over the schedule, taskmaster and DailyMTG.com Editor-in-Chief Trick Jarrett recommended a small break.

That means you'll get to see just how Weird things get in two weeks, on May 30. Trust me: You won't have time to miss me in the meantime. Catch you then!

Latest Top Decks Articles


August 2, 2018

Team Trios Constructed at the Pro Tour – Modern and Legacy by, Simon Görtzen

Pro Tour 25th Anniversary Coverage Begins Today! Tune in to twitch.tv/magic for four days of Pro Tour coverage celebrating Magic's 25th Anniversary, beginning TODAY (August 2) at 2 p.m. ...

Learn More


July 31, 2018

Team Trios Constructed at the Pro Tour – Standard by, Simon Görtzen

Tomorrow, I'll board a plane to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to cover Pro Tour 25th Anniversary. On Thursday, August 2, the $150,000 Silver Showcase kicks off the action with a once-in-a-lifet...

Learn More



Top Decks Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All