Who's on First?

Posted in Top Decks on June 20, 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.

There's a good reason the format is called "Commander."


When talking about Commander it's easy to get wrapped up in the details: The cards you play, the reasons for choosing them, and the other players you share games with are all deep topics of discussion. Just the differences between and reasons for choosing Orim's Thunder and Wear & Tear is enough to fill an entire article.

Just like looking at just one leaf while you still can't see the forest for the trees.

Animar, Soul of Elements | Art by Peter Mohrbacher

That's why we started big two weeks ago when I asked you "What's the first thing you do when you start to build a Commander deck?" I wasn't sure what to expect, and I thought I'd get a diversity of responses. Surely the kernels that sow so many deck must be wildly different?

Commander is, apparently, almost all about the commander. Funny that.

Kings, Queens, and other Royalty

Almost universally, the first thing you do when you start to build a Commander deck is choose the commander itself. Alexander summed it neatly:

The first thing I always pick is a commander. It's how you build the deck. It's what provides you the starting point to what you wish to do. Whether it's milling with Mirko Vosk, Mind Drinker or going all-out-creatures with Animar, Soul of Elements, your theme is fixed almost as soon as that commander is picked out.

Your commander defines your deck, is what Alexander is saying, and it makes total sense. What's interesting is the why so many of you brought up choosing your commander first.

Jeffery looks for uniqueness:

The very first thing I do when building a Commander deck is to look for a commander that is outright amazing. Something with pizzazz that no one in my playgroup has considered. This gives me the baseline as to what other awesome cards I can play or gives me a theme to begin building my ninety-nine. The commander is generally the focus of many decks and should rightfully be first to be decided. My very first commander, Scion of the Ur-Dragon, not only gave me five colors, but gave me something to focus on when building (tribal).

Scion of the Ur-Dragon | Art by Jim Murray

Having commanders different from other players' is an idea I can get behind . If you're creating something new and different, it's hard to feel somewhat original if it's the same commander your fiend has. Sometimes, even though the composition in decks is distinct, the feeling it creates can be all too familiar.

Some of you even look for the most far-fetched and unique commanders out there, as Stephen shared:

When I am building a new Commander deck I always start by choosing a commander. I'll go over to Gatherer, search for legendary creatures, and skim for anything that seems interesting or useful. Choosing a commander this way removes any uncertainty from the deck's color identity early on, when it is most important. Establishing the commander first also helps me figure out where the rest of the deck will be going, since the commander will likely be of some importance to my overall strategy, or even act as a win condition.

That desire to find things different from what you've seen before is a recurring idea itself. While there's something to be said about using known, reliable tools (Like, say, basic lands?) the opportunity to try something off the wall is easy to understand when you have sixty or more unique cards to find. It's what Michael shared best:

The first thing I do when building a Commander deck (assuming the commander has already been picked) is to sit on the living room floor and go through my entire collection: rare binders, uncommon binders, long-boxes full of commons, random piles of things laying around the apartment. Everything. I pick out anything that seems interesting or useful and drop it into a pile representing some general topic, like creatures, removal, core theme, tutoring, etc. With eighteen years worth of stuff, it can take weeks to get from there to 100, but the method has led me to many fun cards I would have otherwise forgotten.

Karl, too, thinks this is the way to go:

I search through all of my trade stuff and the random cards I refuse to get rid of. I take everything that I can play first, and then go from there.

Covering the basics of what you want to include in your deck is a fine way to start things off. If you're settled on a Commander, then finding cards you like to put next to it works wonders. As we saw building our first pass at the Melek, Izzet Paragon deck, taking the suggestions of multiple people still led to a deck many of you liked. It really can be as simple as piling up cards you like.

But staying focused on a theme was important to just as many of you. Poul shared it like this:

The first thing I do is get the idea.

Before I pick out cards, I need a solid concept for at deck, a concept that will stand out.

Sometimes it starts with the commander ("Animar, Soul of Elements seems fun, let's put a lot of creatures in a deck with him"). Sometimes the idea comes first and then I hunt for a commander who fits ("I wonder if I can make a deck that centers about sacrificing humans?").

Once I have the idea, it is much easier to figure out what kinds of cards I want in the deck.

According to many of you, that theme—the overriding goal and focus within the deck—can even overpower the choice of commander. If you're sacrificing creatures, Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter seems like a better fit than something like Uril, the Miststalker or Isperia, Supreme Judge.

Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter
Uril, the Miststalker

It's the idea that the experience and play you want to create comes first, even before which champion you'll be choosing. John summed it up clearly:

Decide what the deck should do.

Often that involves choosing the general. For example, Glissa the Traitor. What's Glissa want? Artifacts that sacrifice for profit and ways to kill opponents' creatures. Fill her deck with cards that do these and she is formidable.

Alternatively, I'll choose a theme, and the general more for colors. I wanted a flicker deck; blue and white bounce/flicker effects and creatures with enters-the-battlefield abilities. Isperia, Supreme Judge was my commander. Her ability is nice, but I found that I rarely bothered to cast her. Come Dragon's Maze, she quickly found herself replaced by Lavinia of the Tenth!

David put it in the context of his friend's deck:

I believe that the creation of a Commander deck has two important factors: choosing the actual commander, and having a game plan. My friend's Commander deck (Riku) suffers most because he tries to do too many different things to not lose rather than trying to find a way to win. Have a plan that works well with your commander's abilities and find as many ways to make that plan work and put them in the deck. You can also make the game plan first and then look for a commander that fits that plan.

Jules, too, felt theme was an overriding consideration:

The first thing I do is set a goal. Picking cool cards can be fun, but with a concrete aim in mind I can make better decisions. Whether its game play that I want to enable, a card that I want to work, or a zany concept that doesn't affect the game, knowing what I want to do allows me to make choices that lead to achieving my ends.

Just as the commander you choose can affect the theme and cards you'd look for, players like Jules feel the theme and cards you want will affect your commander. At it's very core, Magic is about the experience we create for ourselves. Commander is just another way to shape what we create.

How do you flesh out a theme? AJ brings up the Gatherer again:

The first thing I do once I've decided on a commander is to hit up Gatherer and look for cards that fit the theme/mechanics of the commander in its color scheme. This leads me to discover cards I've never heard about before or have forgotten.

For example, I'm making an Exava deck, and I did a broad search on creatures that come into play with a +1/+1 counter to utilize her haste ability. I was reminded that bloodrush, devour, and undying would be awesome. I also discovered some interesting creatures such as Magmasaur; Savage Firecat; and Ob Nixilis, the Fallen.

Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch
Savage Firecat

Whether it's with a specific legendary creature or theme in mind, searching for cards that fit your focus is a logical way to progress. As Taz put it:

The first thing I do when prompted to build a Commander deck is deciding both what I want to do with it and which colors I want to play, in either order. Practically everything follows from those two decisions.

Since Commander creates restrictions, and "restrictions breed creativity," knowing what you're restricting yourself on can be the driver for what you decided to focus on. I'll let you in on a secret: Do you know why the feedback for Command Tower is limited to a few cards and words?

It's restrictive.

Forcing you to consider carefully your choices and words helps create so much awesome feedback that it's been impossible for me to fit it all in. As you start to create a deck, the decision you make will create boundaries that challenge your goals. That's what Taz meant by "everything follows from those two decisions."

Samuel put all of the above ideas together as a three-way choice:

Regarding your "What's the first thing you do when you start to build a Commander deck?" I do one of 3 things.

  1. I build off of a theme or a way to win with the deck. ex: My Isamaru deck in progress wins with commander damage.
  2. I build the deck off of a commander. ex: My Progenitus deck (he is my favorite).
  3. (Most Important) I build off of what's fun to play with, not an infinite combo. (I try to stay away from those.)

Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir | Art by Volkan Baga

While nearly all of you jumped to sharing that commanders, themes, and colors all matter for Commander decks, there's a tantalizing consideration Taz touched on as his third point. Joseph spelled it out clearly:

I honestly think that the first/most important thing to consider when starting a Commander deck is fun. I mean, yeah a Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir or Memnarch deck could rule the board, but is it really worth people not wanting to play? As far as deck building, keep in mind that Commander is multiplayer by design, so being the strongest player doesn't make you win. Killing one opponent isn't the game. You have to outlast them all and being friendly helps.

This was the final "first thing" some of you shared: the idea that Commander is more than just another game of Magic with your own experience. Commander, as a way to play with several other players, means considering them first. After all, there's three, four, or even more of them playing in the game. Why should you, yourself alone, outweigh everyone else?

This is probably the toughest idea to explain, but I feel it's among the most important. It isn't about not playing things you like or in a way you enjoy, but communicating and working to ensure the experience of the game is mutually shared. During my tenure on Serious Fun, I laid out several "rules for Commander gatherings " to help ensure this happens. In summary:

  • Follow the banned list and other Commander rules
  • Bring different commanders for the same Commander deck
  • Bring multiple decks if you have them
  • Follow the social contract
  • Assume nothing and communicate everything

Commander is a social format built on the principle that players will appreciate a shared experience, one where everyone has the opportunity (although no guaranteed success) to do their own thing. Locking out spells and taking all the turns are two surefire ways to remove opportunity.

And I know I'm not alone in being pleased to hear many of you feel the same way.

Take Me to Your Leader

Between the calls for choosing a commander, theme, or experience first, we can safely say the only true first thing to do for building a Commander deck is to go with what your gut tells you. I hope seeing how so many others approach the format in the same (or different!) ways helps you start your next deck.

This week's prompt leapfrogs from some of your thoughts on how Commander is experienced: What's the most awesome story from playing Commander you have?

  • Feedback via email
  • 200 word limit to answer the question
  • Name and email required (non-personal information to be used in column)

Since stories can take a little more room, the word count target for responding to this has been upped to a luxurious 200 words. That's right: I'm 100% more generous than weeks past. Enjoy it!

Join us next week when we extract the very best of building decks you have to offer. See you then!

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