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Six Tips for Building a Commander Deck


Hello folks! I hope that you are having an awesome and/or safe day today. Preferably both!

I write a lot of Commander for you folks. I thought it would be fun to look at some ways to build a good, strong, Commander deck. What tools and strategies do I use when I build a Commander deck? Let's face it, this can be an intimidating format to some. By giving you my tricks to building a Commander deck in this article I can hopefully show ways that you can tap into building your own deck.

This is in the place of my Top Ten Article, but I don't have a full ten tricks and I didn't want to force the number. So instead we'll be bringing you my Six Tricks for Building a Commander deck!

Let's look at my tips!

#6. Use What You Have

Fact or Fiction
Kodama's Reach

I have a friend who works at a game store named Chad. We called him Big Chad because he was older than a high school Chad who was in the same group. Big Chad was all about the ideal play and the ideal deck and was constantly fine tuning his decks. We played a lot of games using an older casual format called Five Color, which is a format which (at the time) required a minimum of 250 cards and 20 cards of each color. (It's now 300 cards and 25 cards of each color, gold cards count for one color in their identity only). We had a Highlander deck in the group we passed around that we called The Essentials which was a selection of the best cards in the format as agreed upon and voted on by the group. It had cards like Fact or Fiction and Kodama's Reach in it. Chad was working to build his deck and was looking to assemble his own copy of The Essentials. He didn't build his own deck and play and get a feel for what he wanted, he waited months until he had assembled the perfect machine. Adding new cards is great! Aiming high is great! But don't be a Big Chad. Don't wait to enjoy the format (and the game) until you have the perfect deck.

Play what you have! Run what you can! Enjoy it!

Then target trades and acquisitions from local game stores.

Speaking of which...

#5. Lean into Standard

Emergent Ultimatum
Genesis Ultimatum
Eerie Ultimatum

Standard is the lifeblood of today's game. They are being made in much bigger numbers than older sets and you can acquire packs and singles from these expansions for a long time after their release date. Standard-legal casual cards that aren't hot in a tournament are incredibly cheap and easily available for trading or purchasing. The card quality of new cards also stands up very well when compared with older cards out there such as cards from earlier eras in Modern. You won't have to trade quality in order to use newer cards. Plus, you likely getting new cards from drafts and packs and other methods of card acquisition. Also raid the "draft rejects" section after each draft concludes as you'll likely uncover some great inspiration for your builds.

A good example of this in action is the Ultimatum cycle from Ikoria: Lair of the Behemoths which are powerful and cheap and fun. Enjoy the latest tech, but don't let it keep you from running older cards as well.

Speaking of which...

#4. Lean into Older Cards

Tortured Existence
Avenging Druid

I find that one of the most fun things to do in Commander is to give some long-forgotten card a new lease on life. If it's a long forgotten legendary dork like Ragnar, then use it as a leader for a fun Commander brew! That's cool, and you get some Cool Points(TM)! There are tons of unique and great cards out there that don't get the play they deserve. Look at Tortured Existence, a common from Stronghold, as one good example as it's a Survival of the Fittest for graveyards. Over at EDHREC.com its only registered in 1790 decks! Unfurl it! Similarly consider the power of Avenging Druid. Only 152 deck run it and it's amazing to get free ramping and filling of your graveyard in one body.

Enjoy the awesome random cards that you can find!

Speaking of which...

#3. Gatherer and Similar Databases Are Your Friend

Medomai the Ageless

How do you find those awesome older (or newer) cards? Use Gatherer or similar databases like Scryfall. There is a Gatherer app I have on my phone. For example, suppose you are building an Azorius Commander deck around Medomai the Ageless. Awesome! You add in cards to help ensure that your leader will reliably get that smash-trigger such as Rogue's Passage, Whispersilk Cloak and Steel of the Godhead. And then you think to yourself, "Self, you should add in some other creatures with 'combat damage triggers' so that the cards that work with Medomai will also work with them." Good thinking! But this game has been around for a long time, so where do you go to find them?

Check out the Wizards homepage. See that button on the top right-hand side called, "Card Database?" Click on this. It will take you here.

Awesome! Now you want to search for these:

  • Cards with the text: "deals combat damage,"
  • In the color field: Cards that are either blue or white and no other colors (by adding in the no other color filter you will prevent yourself from snagging gold cards like Green/White creatures that may other wise meet your requirements.)
  • In the type field: Creatures
  • Then you will see that there are 123 cards that fit your criteria.

It's not perfect, but the vast majority are here, from Augury Adept to Windrider Patrol and everything in between.

Make sure you take good use of these as we have more than 20,000 cards so the use of Gatherer or similar database tools is a key part of the modern game.

Use these databases well and they will give you gifts to sing about!

Speaking of which...

#2. Use EDHREC.com as a Jumping Off Point, Not a Landing One

Kels, Fight Fixer

Another great resource for modern Commander gaming is EDHREC.com, which has hundreds of thousands of decks registered! It's a great tool. You can search up a Commander, and then see the most commonly used cards with that Commander and this can open up new synergies, but the tool has its limitations.

For example, take Kels, Fight Fixer, a recently released card from Jumpstart. There are many ways to build around Kels. When I saw her, I loved how much she reminded me of classic sacrifice and net effects in the Golgari color combo and then moved that over to Dimir in an article. I included classic Golgari cards like Blood Artist, Dictate of Erebos, and Attrition. I was really excited!

And here is the Kels EDHREC.com page.

As you can see, the general population of players has chosen to interpret Kels in a way not that dissimilar to my own. My cards are high on the Kels list, although we disagree in some places. And that's the problem with EDHREC.com. Only the most common interpretation of a Commander is listed.

For example, take Jason Alt's take on Kels for you here at CSI. In Jason's take on Kels he uses the blue half of her color identity to steal opposing creatures that you can sacrifice for value. He uses cards like Vedalken Shackles, Helm of Possession, and Control Magic to steal opposing goodies, sacrifice them to Kels, and then draw a card. You could add in more like Seasinger and Old Man of the Sea that play into that same space and can untap and keep on going.

Don't rely on EDHREC.com building your deck for you or showing you alternate paths of building. But it can be quite useful for using as a launch point for additional layers or synergies or cards you may not have expected. Use it! But in this case, do refuse it sometimes.

This is an awesome place to dig into synergies. But don't forget to watch your wallet as you target new acquisitions from EDHREC.com.

Speaking of which...

#1. Keep Budget in Mind

Path to Exile
Crib Swap

At the end of the day, the most important factor about a card is how much it costs. Very few of use are bringing enough bank to not worry about the price of a card when evaluating it for your deck-building needs.

There also always budget versions of cards available. I'll toss you a few examples;

Path to Exile here is $4.99 here at CSI for its cheapest version

Swords to Plowshares is $1.49 for its cheapest version

But Crib Swap? Which is a three-mana "exile target creature" effect with a better disadvantage than Path to Exile? Just $0.25!

Kodama's Reach? $2.99 here for its cheapest version

But Peregrination? Which is a 4 mana Kodama's Reach that adds scry? It's just $0.25.

What about one more?

Anguished Unmaking is $9.99 for its cheapest near mint version here. That's a good instant removal option for Black and White players. You trade three life at 3 mana to exile any target that's not a land.

Utter End is $1.49 for its cheapest version and it's 4 mana version of this identical effect that doesn't cost you any life.

Budget matters! And you can find these alternate cards with your Gatherer Fu. Many of these cards will do the same.

And there you go!

So, what did you think of my ideas? Anything in here resonate with you? Are you inspired to build your own Commander brew now? What steps did I miss? Have an awesome day!

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