How to Tell a Story with Your Commander Deck

Posted in Ways to Play on November 2, 2016

By Cassie LaBelle

Cassie LaBelle is a freelance writer. When she's not at her keyboard dreaming up stories, you can find her playing with his cats, listening to records, or building yet another Magic deck.

Whether I'm sitting next to a crackling campfire or typing words into my laptop, I feel like I'm at my best whenever I'm telling a story. There's something both remarkable and fun about the act of building worlds, inventing characters, and keeping people in suspense as the action begins to unfold.

Believe it or not, Magic is an excellent storytelling medium. The game is erupting with narrative possibility. Ever played one of those games where your tiniest Treefolk ended up winning the game for you at the last second? Ever watched, open-mouthed, as your opponent continued to get stronger and stronger...only to die thanks to her Demonic Pact? Then you know what I'm talking about.

Now that Commander (2016 Edition) is here, I'm excited to start building some Commander decks that will help me unlock more of Magic's vast storytelling potential. Commander is the ideal format for telling a Magic story—shifting multiplayer alliances, splashy plays, large deck sizes, and the command zone are all helpful tools for encouraging narrative play.

Telling a story with your Commander deck might sound daunting, but it's fairly straightforward once you understand the basics. This week, I'll be walking you through some fun actions you can take—both during deck building and gameplay—that will help you turn all your Commander games into epic tales.

Want to get started? Say the words with me now: Once upon a time...

Character Creation

If you want to tell a story, you must start by creating some interesting characters. Not only do characters drive the action, they allow us to have an emotional connection with the events that unfold. In fact, if all you do is fill your Commander deck with characters, stories will naturally begin to burst forth as you play.

I like to think of every creature and planeswalker in my deck—from the silliest Kobold to the cleverest Artificer—as its own unique character. The same goes for all of my opponents' creatures. If you give them villainous motivations, beating them becomes even more satisfying.

When you choose to create your characters is up to you. I tend to invent a few during deck building—often, it's the creation of a character for my commander that inspires my deck in the first place—but I like to keep many of my characters a mystery until they come into play. That way, I can tailor their personality around whatever interesting situation is currently happening on the battlefield.

How can you create so many characters so quickly? Well, a good character only really needs two things:

  1. Traits. These tell us in broad terms what our character is like. When in doubt, the color pie is a great source of potential traits. Red characters tend to be impulsive, for example, while blue characters like to think things through.
  2. A goal. In Magic, the obvious goal is "win the game." Not all of your characters will share this goal, though. Some may have a vendetta against a specific opponent. Others might be agents of chaos, neutral parties, or spies. Don't be afraid to get creative here!

The trick to avoid being overwhelmed by complex characters is to accept that most of your creatures aren't going to be more than bit players in your story. For every Servo that manages to wield a Sword of Fire and Ice (a compelling character for sure!), there will be dozens of Beasts and Thopters who will enter the battlefield, attack a few times, and die. These minor characters do not need super complicated traits or goals. For example, here are some potential traits and goals that one of your Soldier tokens might have:

  • Traits: Well-trained. Follows orders. Wants to be on the just side of the battle.
  • Goal: Think tactically, fight with valor, do what it takes to win the war.

And here's a Goblin:

  • Traits: Always fight! Not care if enemy too big. Bring lots of friends. Blargitty argh!
  • Goal: Attack!

As the game progresses, however, some of your characters will naturally begin to take on more important roles in your story. This is where imagining new traits or creating more interesting goals will help you take your story to the next level.

Goblin Token
Goblin Token | Art by Wayne Reynolds

When that happens, try to figure out what interesting traits your character might have that separate him or her from their brethren. Is your Solemn Simulacrum slowly developing human emotions? Is your Elf tired of the forest now that she's had a taste of the city life on Ravnica? Is your Warrior secretly a Coward?

The most important story telling rule in Magic is this: you cannot betray your characters' goals or traits to further your board position. If your commander has sworn never to wield a sword, don't hand him a piece of equipment and then create some flimsy excuse that allows you to get closer to a win. The integrity of your characters always has to come first.

Commanding Your Protagonist

Most great tales have a single character at the center of the narrative: the protagonist. It's the protagonist whose eyes we see the story through, and it's the protagonist whose actions push the action forward. What would Star Wars be without Luke Skywalker? What would Spider-Man be without, uh, Spider-Man?

I like building my story-based Commander decks with a protagonist in mind. In fact, most of the time my commander is the protagonist. Since the rules allow you to return your commander to the command zone each time it dies, your protagonist will never be far from returning to the action. And since you were probably going to build the rest of your deck around your commander's abilities anyway, there should always be a lot of flavorful actions for your protagonist to take.

But that isn't the only way to create a protagonist in Commander. One of the most fun ways to play is to make yourself the protagonist and treat your commander as your most important ally. This gives you a little more leeway to create changes in the story between one game and the next without swapping out any of the cards in your deck. Gisa and Geralf are going to behave more or less the same way each time, but you can be a power-mad necromancer today and a delirium-addled madman tomorrow. Either character might conceivably ally themselves with Gisa and Geralf, but the outcomes of each story are likely to be quite different.

It's harder to pull off, but you can also build your deck around a protagonist who cannot be your Commander—one of the non-Origins planeswalkers, say, or a non-legendary creature. The trick here is to try and represent the essence of your protagonist with as many of the cards in your deck as possible. If your protagonist is Fblthp—the frightened Homunculus depicted on the card Totally Lost—you may want to run stand-ins like Curious Homunculus or Doorkeeper as well as cards that give the feeling of being lost in a huge city. If your protagonist is Ajani Goldmane, having multiple Ajani planeswalker cards in your deck (as well as other cards that depict Ajani) will allow you a lot of leeway with which to tell his story.

Whoever your protagonist ends up being, it's important that you know as much about what makes them tick as you can. Feel stuck? Art and flavor text are great at providing inspiration, as are the pieces of the official Magic story. You can even use events from previous games you've played as backstory that might help explain your characters' actions—has your Rashmi, Eternities Crafter been killed by your friend's Sorin, Grim Nemesis too many times? Well, she might not be quite so open to an alliance with him in the future.

You should probably also have an idea of what your main character wants to accomplish before the game begins. And if you want your story to be great, that goal should be more important to you than anything else—even winning. If your protagonist is in the Gatewatch, for example, they might be satisfied simply by ridding the game of any Eldrazi they see. Other protagonists might not be okay unless their win is overwhelming—to them, a tight victory might be as bad as a loss. Still others might define victory as creating chaos between everyone else at the table. These goals can change over the course of the game, but you should have some sense of where to begin before you sit down to play.

Causal Friday

Great storytellers know that narrative is all about cause and effect. Important story events don't happen in isolation—they happen because of previous plot points. "You attacked me, therefore I am going to attack you back" is part of a good story. "You attacked me. On an unrelated note, I am attacking my other opponent" is not.

Lucky for us, causality is something that naturally happens in the flow of a Magic game. You are more likely to attack people who attacked you, and you will probably use your removal spells on whatever creatures are causing you the most harm. But there are still plenty of things that can happen thanks to luck or whimsy. In some games, you'll rip the creature you need off the top, for example, but in others you'll draw ten lands in a row.

The trick to telling an interesting story is to focus on the interesting chains of causality while ignoring or repurposing events that don't fit your narrative. If something happens that doesn't make sense, either come up with a fun reason for it (after I destroyed your Island, you put my family under a curse that prevents me from connecting with the land—so of course I can't draw any more Mountains!) or just ignore it and focus on something more interesting. There's no shame in abandoning minor characters or chains of events if you have to.

You can help encourage causality by filling your Commander deck with the sorts of cards that lend themselves to fun cause and effect chains. Auras are great at this because they directly affect creatures (and, therefore, your characters). Will your Dwarf embrace her Angelic Destiny, or might she turn to Pacifism instead? Equipment and Vehicles are great as well—they can be used by multiple creatures as the game progresses, so they may end up taking on interesting characteristics of their own.

One of the deck-building hurdles I run into when building a story-centric deck is that some of the most flavorful cards are tied to specific events in the greater Magic story. This can create some awkward situations. For example, can you play Fateful Showdown but not Pia Nalaar? What about playing the card while Pia is still stuck in your command zone? Or if your opponent doesn't control Tezzeret?

Since Magic isn't fun if you can't play your spells, my favorite cards are those that have the flexibility to be played in both a "correct" flavor situation and in a more freeform one. Fateful Showdown is a great example of this—once in a very great while, you will draw it at the absolute perfect time and Pia Nalaar will get her epic showdown with Tezzeret. Your friends will applaud, and you will feel like a storytelling champion. The idea of a "fateful showdown" can apply to many different situations, though, and you will rarely find yourself in a game of Magic where you don't want to shout "THIS ENDS NOW" at some opposing creature.

Phew—this has been a pretty long story! Until next time, may all your characters be fascinating and all of your Commander tales end with an epic victory.

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