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A Commander Deck Formula

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This article marks my fifth contribution to this site. My initial installment was an advanced guide to playing the Commander format. Over the last couple of weeks, the readership and I have journeyed through the design and implementation of creating a Commander playgroup, and this week, we're going to the "wheelhouse." Recent articles by Adam Styborski, Robby Rothe, and me add to GatheringMagic's reputation as a really solid bookmark for Commander content. Robby provided a recent look into great NPH additions for your hundred-card lists, while Adam outlined a Pauper Commander build using only commons and uncommons.

I am constantly looking forward to the summer release of the preconstructed Commander decks and have spent some time in the proverbial lab brewing up new decks as potential Commanders are spoiled. Karador, Ghost Chieftain, has been my first project. There is a great deal of buzz around the first Commander that was spoiled by Magic's Director of R&D, Aaron Forsythe (@mtgaaron). When I first read about Karador, I knew that it was going to be a great summer and that the new Commander decks were going to be great for the format. That reminded me that many new Commander players would undergo the journey in deck construction that I first took when I started. Deck construction in Commander comes with an array of challenges.

Time in the Lab

Over the past three years, I have built and play-tested a number of fantastically fun and surprisingly powerful Commander decks. Our Commander channel on YouTube features some of our greatest creations and outlines some of the most abusive strategies for the format. While a primary goal of Commander is interactive game play and socialization, there has to be a lab in which you test out various versions of your Commander decks. Sometimes you make decks that are too efficient, brutal, or broken, while other times, your initial deck idea is stone cold against a certain popular archetype or lacks the power to hang with other casual decks. You have to assess the degree to which your deck's performance aligns with your deck-construction objectives.

I was talking with Twitter friend @mtgcolorpie about deck-building and his upcoming formation of a Commander league at Card Kingdom in Seattle, Washington. He mentioned that he typically develops casual decks and decks for league play. I replied that I typically do the same, but have a different sort of split. I spend about 20% of my deck-construction time making very competitive decks, 60% designing balanced decks for our Commander league play, and 20% making super-casual decks that do silly or narrow things.

The Broken 20%

I believe in building context and operating with a sense of history. Therefore, I have taken the time to build, modify, create, and joyfully tear apart various competitive Commander decks. When I first started playing, my context was competitive tournament play. I thought that it would be cool or fun to build a really powerful deck that functioned on abrasive engines of destruction. I began developing a monocolored deck for each color. Braids, Cabal Minion, was my Black Commander. She was abusive and nutty. A few times, I hit a Vampiric Tutor, dropped a second-turn Bitterblossom, found said Vampiric Tutor, and had the game basically wrapped up by casting my Commander on turn three. I played the deck twice in a local league and never felt very good about it. She was banned by December of that year, and I had her disassembled before she could even make a "Most Hated Commander" feature on our YouTube channel. Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary, was our Green Commander. He took about twelve additional months before he was banned. Azami, Lady of Scrolls, headed our Wizard tribal deck and could have easily seen the axe along with her Black and Green counterparts. Basically, my first foray into the format had bad intentions and allowed me to gain a great deal of perspective on what could be considered "broken."

I tested the format like I test for Legacy or Standard. I would make the best rush decks, the most competitive combo decks, and would pilot them against my best control decks in order to sort out the format. It did help gain understanding of potential strategies and certain powerful cards, but mostly educated me on the nature of the format. If you want to make something crazy, the raw materials are available. However, there are possible financial and social penalties in addition to having to live with the guilt of eliminating a player from a fun experience in under six minutes when you could have enjoyed the game for an hour or more.

My advice: Understand the power of various strategies in the format. Experiment with competitive decks and learn how to make broken decks and competitive Commanders more balanced for long-term enjoyment. Don't sink all of your money on a deck that your playgroup will hate. You will run the risk of alienating yourself, losing the opportunity to play with others, and you might ultimately feel like you wasted money on a "worthless" deck for a format that you don't play.

Today, you can still find me building and testing out the toughest decks. You won't find me playing them during league, but occasionally they might make an appearance between rounds at an FNM or playing heads-up against another busted deck. I have a Spike side to my love of Magic, but have learned to tame it through education.

The Wheelhouse 60%

The majority of my time is spent crafting lists for play during our Commander league. Our league has three ways to win prize support during a tournament, but we also have designed a positive-reinforcement system borrowed from online gaming. Have you ever leveled a character in a role-playing game? Imagine doing that in real life while playing Commander and hanging out in your local game store!

I am a psychologist by trade, and try to use some of my professional training to enhance the play experience at our local store. My personal goals include growing a healthy, social network of players who enjoy playing Commander. With luck, that social network will allow many players to enjoy their hobby, trade cards, and play in large tournaments with other fun individuals. In order to promote growth and rock great tournaments, we stole a successful device from online gaming and RPGs.

Immediate positive reinforcement is an amazing way to maintain interest in gaming and provides players with a satisfying experience. Therefore, we have added additional positive reinforcers to the already reinforcing game play provided during Commander. Imagine when you kill someone with your Commander getting a "+1 Commander Experience," and landing "+5 Commander Deck Building" when you win your table. Now imagine earning these experience points for all sorts of fun achievements throughout your tournament play. Now extend it into participation and collaboration on other store activities.

We provide this type of positive reinforcement and allow players to "level up" IRL as they play Commander. At Level 1, you might earn three packs of the latest set. It is tougher to make Level 2, and by Level 3, you might have earned yourself a treasure trove of packs, foils, and store credit. When you accomplish various goals in and outside of league play, you can level up for prizes and reputation.

Therefore, I spend a good amount of time chasing achievements and working toward building my league experience points. Some achievements are unlocked when you play five different monocolored decks, while others simply require you to make a turn-one play. Each achievement has almost no relationship to the actual outcome of the tournament or winning league tournament prizes, but is a whole game within the gameā€”er, league.

I try to play a different deck each week. Some weeks, we trade decks with friends, and other weeks, we try to build a new tribe or play with a creatureless deck. There are all kinds of wacky tasks that require a good deal of deck-construction work. It has been very successful and added a great deal of flavor to the league. Instead of facing a guy who always brings the same build for twelve straight weeks, you tend to face different people playing new decks all of the time.

The key to making successful league decks seems to be understanding and balance. You have to understand the relative strength of your opponents and the power of their strategies, and balance your deck so that it is not too strong or too weak. If your deck is too strong, you might be able to play over the top of everyone, dominate the game, but you also might ruin the interactions and fun for others. If your deck is too weak, you might be unable to contribute to multiplayer games at key times or just get trucked over by everyone else's deck. This can be a real art form.

Many times, our first-time players will join a tournament that is not balanced for our league. Either they are super-competitive players bringing in a deck that is much more competitive than the average deck, or players are very new and might have thrown a couple of commons in with a preconstructed deck. Both situations can be handled with grace on the part of league members. We typically try to hang onto our new players. We don't try to kill them first or give them too hard of a time when they combo out on turn five. However, we do take some time to let them know about the casual nature of the league, the typical game lengths, and how they might be better received in the future. This works in 95% of cases.

In turn, members of our league are likely to help newer players out with a few staples that might help enhance their decks. I often take the time to sit with players and help them identify a wish list of cards they might want to add over time and identify alternatives to ineffective cards. Eventually, many of these players build awesome, balanced decks and become members of your Commander family.

I call the majority of league and semicompetitive decks the wheelhouse because these decks will be your bread-and-butter, go-to decks for the format. You can throw these decks in your backpack and travel. You can jump in with players playing some competitive decks and hang in there, or you can sit with a really casual group of players without offense. I would suggest that most of the decks that you develop should have that type of goal. I want to build a deck that might win a tournament through eliminating other players, but might also allow me to win prizes for sportsmanship. I want to interact without domination. These types of decks are not for every play, but they work like an all-access pass for Commander fun. You can break them out at any time, and they never leave you feeling scummy or helpless.

If you're just starting out, consider building decks that have a couple of win conditions. You might pack in an obscure two- or three-card combo that might win the game, but maybe you don't hit it every game. Maybe you can win without it, or maybe you leave out a couple of tutors that make it harder to pull off. I consider ratcheting down the power level in my decks by doing a couple of things:

  1. Consider losing the fetches and dual lands.
  2. Consider reducing the number of tutors for a combo.
  3. Give your deck a competitive win condition, along with two to three more casual win conditions.
  4. Take out the brutal combos or develop alternatives for less competitive forums.

The Last 20%

For every Epic Win that I have landed, there must be a mountain of fails. The final 20% of my deck-construction time is spent off of the proverbial reservation. I try to build decks entirely of land, ones that run one creature and sixty-six enchantments, or decks that only do one repetitive thing like burn, steal cards, or draw cards. We all have our narrow, experimental builds. Many folks have tried the Brown decks (all artifacts) or Pauper decks. These are fun and can turn you on to some great cards that you might not otherwise play; however, they can also result in some silly games that might not work for league or even casual play. No one wants to kill you by attacking with their tribal Elves as you play thirty enchantments that never intend to deal with the pointy-eared opponents.

The narrow, experimental category might be reserved for special occasions, a very strict deck-building competition, or some other off-the-wall event, but should not be the first place you drop your Commander budget if you are entering the format. There are always exceptions, but most players want to start building decks in the wheelhouse.

The Formula

We will close this week with a sort of foundational formula that can help new players build decks for a very different format. After generating fifty decks (all tested and constructed in paper), this formula seems to function well for a beginning deck shell:

1Commander
12High-impact creatures
15Ramp/mana-generating cards
32Lands that tap for mana
8Mass removal cards
10Cards that secure more cards/card draw
3Tutors
10Specialty/win-condition cards
7Spot-removal cards
2Cards that remove graveyards
100Total

If you are picking up some cards for Commander this week, consider colorless staples that fit into every deck. I think every player should consider owning and including the following seven cards in just about every deck:

  1. Solemn Simulacrum
  2. Duplicant
  3. Sol Ring
  4. Sensei's Divining Top
  5. Reliquary Tower
  6. Maze of Ith
  7. Tormod's Crypt

In the comments section, let me know about cards that you consider essential staples. What cards form the foundation for nearly every deck? What should a new player prioritize early in their budget? Thanks for reading.

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