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Top Five Deck-Building Tips for Beginners

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I built my first Commander deck in 2008. (Anowan, the Ruin Sage Vampire Tribal. And at the time of this writing, it's the end of 2021. By the time this comes out, it'll be an entirely different year!) Since that first taste, I have never stopped. I recently did a digital catalog of all my Commander decks, and I currently rotate a stable of 26 decks, running the gamut from complete jank to just this side of cEDH. I've been playing Commander for a long time.

One of the most amazing things about it is I've never played at a time where there wasn't someone new to the format in my orbit.

The casual, multiplayer nature, the fact you can build a deck with just about any amount of cards (and normally have a group willing to pitch in with things to help out, like a couple of Guildgates or a pair of Cluestones), and the ability to make the game your own are all draws. Recently my group has been meeting at an outside, family-friendly bar (an advantage to living in Texas is it doesn't get too cold too often), and every time we play, at least one person comes up curious. Several have asked if they can join us sometime. There are always new players.

The thing is, deck-building in Commander for beginners is weird. There are things that port over from traditional heads-up 60 (or 40!) card Magic, but there are also things that don't. So, I thought I'd use this, my last column of 2021 and my first column of 2022, to do a top-five list of deck-building strategies for beginner Commander players. Of course, all of these will have exceptions, but they should do a good job of starting you down the path correctly at the outset. And even if you're not a beginner, trust me, it's worth it to refresh this stuff every once and a while. Let's get to it.

Tip #1: Build your deck with 40 lands.

There's a reason I'm putting this first. There's a reason I mention it in nearly every article I write on this site. There's a reason my playgroup is tired of hearing me say it. 40 lands is almost always correct.

Mark Rosewater says all true games are some mix of strategy and random chance. (Strategy rewards quality play; chance means anyone can win.) The chance aspect of Magic is in the draw; most of the time, you don't know what you're going to draw off the top of your library. Considering Commander is a high-mana format and you are unlikely to win any game where you either a) cast no spells or b) cast spells which are reliably weaker than your opponents' spells, hitting your land drops is really important.

Frank Karsten, an excellent player, writer, and all-around guy (I'm assuming - we've never met) has done a ton of research on this subject. Just search "Frank Kars10 mana base" and you'll find a lot of great information. But one conclusion of his work is this:

A 60-card deck running 24 lands is likely to hit the fifth land drop a little over 60% of the time.

From that, we can extrapolate the following:

In order for a 60 card deck to hit its land drops up to drop five 60% of the time, it must run 40% lands. Therefore, a 100-card deck must run 40% lands to hit its land drops up to five 60% of the time. 40% of 100 equals 40 lands.

Yes, we run ramp, and we're going to talk about it. Yes, the precons come with fewer lands than that. Yes, many writers will build decks with 36 or 37 lands, and you'll meet great players who insist they start with 35 or 38 or whatever. They are wrong. How many of you are running multiple spells at five mana or more? How about a Commander which costs five or more? One that's very likely to die at least a couple times in the course of a single game, costing two more each time? Want to be able to actually cast those spells? Run 40 lands.

Additionally, playing a land every turn is a free action. It can't be responded to and doesn't change anything else about your turn. If you don't play a land on your turn, you're not maximizing the value of your turn, so you want to have plenty of lands to draw so you can not miss your land drops.

Play 40 lands. If it's hard for you to make the cuts to your non-land cards, get better at it. Think of it as a format where you have 40 lands and 60 other cards, and you can't change those numbers. As you play your deck more, you might start to adjust (a little), but start with 40 lands. Every time.

Play 40 lands.

Tip #2: Create slots for ramp and draw. Put them in first, and don't adjust them.

The two most important things a player can do is draw cards and make mana. Those two actions power everything else we do, so we want to make sure we can do both of them. Here's a good rule of thumb (though note this is more flexible than the 40 land rule, and will definitely adjust as you build more decks):

8-10 slots for mana ramp

10-12 slots for card draw

Ramp can be based on the cost of your Commander. (It's better done based on the curve of your deck. You run fewer if your deck is cheaper and more if your deck is more expensive. The problem is you don't know what the average mana value of your deck is before you build it! So, we'll go with the Commander here.) If your Commander costs three mana or less, go with eight. If it costs four or five, go with nine. If it's six or more, go with 10. Note ramp is anything which increases your access to mana, which includes mana rocks (Sol Ring, Golgari Signet, Ebony Fly) and spells which put lands directly on the battlefield (Rampant Growth, Burnished Heart, Explore). Spells which put lands in your hand (Land Tax, Traveler's Amulet, Armillary Sphere) can be quite useful, but don't count as ramp.

Card draw is different and depends a fair amount on the type of draw available in your colors. For this purpose, Skullclamp, Divination, and Sign in Blood all count as "card draw", though they are all different spells. Skullclamp in a deck which makes a lot of tokens or has creatures to recur like Reassembling Skeleton is fantastic, reusable card draw. Divination is a classic, and Sign in Blood is a good example of Black's style of draw, though it's cheaper, causes damage, and costs bb as opposed to a single u. Look at it this way: If your card draw spells are repeatable (they stick around and draw you multiple cards over multiple turns) or if your Commander draws you cards, run 10 card draw spells. If your spells are more limited because they're single-use or narrow, like Red's impulse drawing (put a card in Exile and play it this turn), run 12.

As you're building, put these cards next to your 40 land cards and don't move them. Don't take a single one out as you're building the rest of your deck (unless you add something which is an obvious replacement; you realize Tezzeret's Gambit is better for your deck than Divination or something). You can adjust later, but I think you'll be delighted at how well your deck plays when you can reliably add cards to your hand and make more mana every turn to cast those extra spells!

Tip #3: Play some interaction.

Run at least a few cards which interact with the board. A few spot removal spells, a board wipe or two, and a couple of ways to deal with problem Enchantments/Artifacts/other permanents is a good starting point. Sometimes those things serve multiple purposes; a White Enchantment deck may run Oblivion Ring and Banishing Light, which deal with any permanent on a one-for-one basis. A wb deck may run Utter End the same way. A Mono-Red deck is going to have to look at a spell like Fissure, a strange Artifact like Spine of Ish Sah, or go to damage-based spells like Comet Storm or Lightning Bolt. A Green deck may have more ways to interact with non-Creature permanents. One deck might run Chained to the Rocks, and another might run Ride Down. However, having an answer at the right time occasionally will both save your ability to stay in the game and demonstrate your deck can deal with problems, a thing people will remember the next time they sit down to play against it.

Tip #4: Build to your Commander.

Now that we've filled your deck with enough lands and used many of the remaining slots for card draw, ramp, and removal, we need to decide what to do with the remaining slots. (In reality, it should be in the neighborhood of 35 slots, which is more than a third of your deck.)

Use those slots to work with your Commander. Does your Commander give an advantage to a certain tribe? Play a lot of cards with that Creature type. Does your Commander benefit casting non-Creature spells? Run a lot of Instants and Sorceries. Does your Commander want creatures on the battlefield to die? Run spot removal and Wrath of God effects. Does your Commander bring back creatures from the Graveyard? Run creatures with great Enters-the-Battlefield effects or solid death triggers.

There are a few reasons to do this. First, you're likely excited about your Commander. You saw the card and thought "I want to build a deck around that creature." Great! This is the opportunity to let that Commander and your card selection shine. Second, it focuses your deck-building. Rather than running a card because "it's good," you're running a card because it works. I go back to Tezzeret's Gambit. It's better than Divination in Vorel of the Hull Clade. It's worse than Divination in Talrand, Sky Summoner. The most important thing about it is you get to decide what you're trying to do and make the deck do it. And the nice thing is, because you've done the other three things, you'll have plenty of mana to cast all these great spells you're choosing, and you'll have plenty of draw to make sure they're in your hand, where you want them!

Tip #5: Ignore combos... for now.

If you're trying to get your start in cEDH, ignore this tip (in fact, ignore this entire article), because that format is basically exclusively about combos. If you're just getting started in regular casual EDH, don't worry about combos for now. There are combo decks in the casual world, but building to a combo is a specific, fairly non-interactive and mostly repetitive method of playing the game, which isn't what a new player wants to be doing. Yeah, you can jam a deck with a bunch of tutors and a two-card combo, but you won't learn what your metagame is like, or what else your deck needs to have or do to succeed.

Plan on winning without a combination, whether it's the red zone or direct damage or milling or whatever. Build a deck which does things and interacts and messes with your opponents, because that's the only way you will learn what about your deck needs to change. Always getting color-screwed? Add more dual lands or more lands of the color you don't get. Don't have enough to do with all your mana? Add a few more mana sinks to use it all. Commander dying too much? Perhaps it's time to look into some protection or a few Counterspells. You have to play the game to learn about the game and get better at the game, and combos are designed to not play the game.

What are your favorite tips for new deck-builders? Please let us know in the comments. I'd love a discussion about this subject, because there are so many great ideas out there!

In the meantime, a Happy New Year to everyone celebrating this week. Here's to hoping for a good 2022.

Thanks for reading.

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