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New Player Commander Decks: Gruul & Dimir

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Crawford Notch by Thomas Cole (1839). Nikya of the Old Ways by Ryan Pancoast.

If you had the opportunity to build and market a set of precon Commander decks, how would you approach such a challenge?

Would you run all the usual staples? Would you up the power level and cost or would you see how much fun and balance you could cram into each 100 card list for as little cash as possible? Would you even include a Sol Ring?

I'm happy to tell you that the folks at CoolStuffInc.com have taken the plunge!

This week, the crack team of Commander writers here at CSI will be sharing the company's new product with you. CoolStuffInc.com has ten guild-themed preconstructed budget Commander decks on offer. Today I'll be sharing the Gruul (rg) and DImir (ub) decks and all week long you can look forward to similar articles from Bruce Richard, Mark Wischkaemper, Jason Alt, and Abe Sargent.

I should note that none of us were involved in the planning and construction of these decks. I definitely wonder how our input might have affected the eventual product, but I'll save those thoughts for the end.

I've been playing a lot of Gruul lately and I've always had leanings toward Naya, so I was very happy to snap up the Gruul deck. I also got picked to write about the Dimir deck. I've built my share of Dimir decks over the years, and my very first Commander deck was a Mirko Vosk, Mind Drinker deck so I'm pretty comfortable writing about those colors. With two full decks to look over, I'm not going to do a really deep dive on either one. I will do my best to go over their strengths and discuss what directions I would take them in if I were to upgrade each one.

The Challenge

You might think it would be an easy thing to develop a series of ten Guild-themed Commander decks. You'd be right. The hardest part might be accepting that it is pretty much impossible to do this and make everyone happy. Wizards of the Coast can't do it, and they get to print brand new cards in each new set of precon Commander decks.

What CoolStuffInc.com has done is create an entry-level set of Commander decks designed for new players who want a taste of the format without a big financial investment. These decks are designed to try to bring the feeling of a Commander game at a price point - $14.99 - that should make them accessible to almost anyone.

They are also a starting point. Like an official Commander deck, they have a mix of different strategies and are basically designed to be played against each other and against other decks of a comparable power level. They have ramp, draw, removal, threats, weird cards you might never have seen before, and a ton of room to grow.

They are opportunities.

Our invitation to you is to consider giving one a try. Fun can be had with any Commander deck, given the right playgroup, the right decks and the right attitude.

Starting Points

Big & Loud - The 2019 CoolStuffInc Gruul New Player Commander Deck

The Gruul new player deck is extremely creature-heavy, running 42 creatures in all shapes and sizes. There are 8 Sorceries, 6 Instants, 4 Enchantments and 3 Artifacts. There's recursion, removal, evasion and everything else you might expect to see in a Gruul deck, including a slight lack of card draw. The deck's average Converted Mana Cost is 3.63, which is higher than I would normally want, but which seems reasonable for a budget entry-level commander deck.

Ruric Thar, the Unbowed
Nikya of the Old Ways
Hallar, the Firefletcher

The possible commanders are Ruric Thar, the Unbowed, Nikya of the Old Ways and Hallar, the Firefletcher. Ruric Thar and Nikya play really well to a creature-heavy strategy and Hallar can be a force to be reckoned with if they get going. I think they all represent strong directions you could take the deck in.

History Repeats Itself - The 2019 CoolStuffInc Dimir New Player Commander Deck

The Dimir new player deck is a very different animal from the Gruul deck. It is well-stocked with removal spells and has an interesting blend of traditional Blue and Black tactics. You can take extra turns and steal threats. You can tap down your opponents' creatures, counter spells, return dudes from the graveyard, and, most importantly, you can draw cards.

Etrata, the Silencer
Rona, Disciple of Gix

Etrata, the Silencer represents an interesting kind of threat and a way to exile creatures even if you don't expect to kill anyone with Etrata's extra abilities. Rona, Disciple of Gix might seem underwhelming, but gives you a form of pseudo-draw, which can be very helpful, and can be a key part of a combo wincon. I'll go into more detail about that later on when I discuss upgrade paths.

This list has a better balance of card types, but still has more creatures than any other type of card outside of lands. From 23 Creatures it drops down to 14 Sorceries, 10 Instants, 9 Artifacts and 7 Enchantments. The deck has an average CMC of 3.52, which again is a decent point for a deck of this type.

The Dimir deck's biggest strength is probably its removal package. When you can present some big threats, remove your opponents' bigger creatures and bring stuff back from the graveyard you can pretty much always keep up with other decks at the same power level.

The Decklists

If you're like me, you'll see a few unfamiliar cards in these decks. Forget about your tired old staples and check these lists out!

*Note: This is version 1.0 of the deck. Some cards in later batches of this deck may vary*


You'll note that I haven't commented about the land package. For a budget deck I think it's fair to say that you shouldn't expect to be seeing anything particularly impressive. The mana base is serviceable and is definitely a good place to start with upgrades if you've got better lands to throw into the mix.

*Note: This is version 1.0 of the deck. Some cards in later batches of this deck may vary*


If you've lost the ability to imagine how decks like these can be enjoyed in fun, back-and-forth tilts where victory is probably going to be won or lost on the battlefield, I actually feel a little sorry for you. The format of Commander has a lot to offer and that includes both fast, efficient, deadly decks and goofy, fun, underpowered decks.

Whether you find these lists goofy, sad, inspiring, or maybe all of the above, I'm pretty sure lists like these two could make for some really enjoyable, if possibly a little longer than usual, games of Commander.

Upgrade Paths

While I always advocate playing preconstructed decks at least a few times without modifying them, you might have a card collection and you might find yourself thinking about what direction to take your Gruul or Dimir New Player commander deck.

Really Big & Loud - Upgrading the Gruul Deck

I'm going to look at possible upgrade paths for each of the three possible commanders in this deck. The official precon Commander decks feel like they are trying to go in multiple directions at once, and are generally stronger when you rework them to focus on one strategy. The same is true for these decks.

Possibility Storm
Dictate of the Twin Gods
Grafted Exoskeleton

If were to decide to run with Ruric Thar, the Unbowed there are interesting ways to force your opponents to play additional spells. I would probably start with Possibility Storm and then add in a slew of chaos-oriented cards because I find that kind of thing fun. A damage doubler like Dictate of the Twin Gods or Furnace of Wrath will take the slightly inconvenient 6 damage Ruric Thar deals and double it. Twelve damage might still be tolerable, but if you equip Ruric Thar with Grafted Exoskeleton, that will turn the damage into infect damage and make lethal if it's been doubled. Ruric Thar can be developed into an extremely strong deck, but for new players you'll probably want to start simple and not learn about Stax and resource denial just yet.

Reclamation Sage
Manglehorn
Primal Surge

A deck led by Nikya of the Old Ways might lead even more heavily toward creatures, replacing removal spells with creatures like Reclamation Sage and Manglehorn. If you want to go all in, you can drop down to just a handful of noncreature spells and run Primal Surge. You'll definitely want to add more mana-producing creatures, as Nikya won't let you cast noncreature spells. You can read more about an all-in Primal Surge Nikya deck in my "Feel the Surge" column from earlier this year.

Vines of Vastwood
Comet Storm
Biogenic Upgrade

If you wanted to run with Hallar, the Firefletcher, you can build a pretty strong kicker tribal deck without spending a lot of money. There are 8 spells with Kicker in the list, so you'll want to pick up Vines of Vastwood, Comet Storm, and a number of other spells with either kicker or multikicker to make this version work well. Ways to add counters to Hallar like Biogenic Upgrade will also help you churn out the damage. You can read about how to build Hallar in my column from last year titled "I Get a Kick out of Hallar". The Hallar list I'm currently playing has evolved since that column but it's a solid place to start.

One thing I noticed while reviewing the Gruul list is that it seems to be heavily focused on Dinosaurs. That's not a bad thing, and it could make this deck serve as the starting point for a building a tribal Dinosaur deck. Dinosaurs are big and mana-intensive, so Nikya might be a good pick if you want to go this way. You could also expand the deck into Naya (wrg) colors.

Gishath, Sun's Avatar
Zacama, Primal Calamity

Another option is to add Qhite and pick up a copy of Gishath, Sun's Avatar or Zacama, Primal Calamity to run as your commander. Neither would cost more than the Gruul deck, but each of these is a step up from the cards you'll find in these new player decks and a great choice for a Dinosaur commander. Adding White will also give you the chance to learn about the challenges and pitfalls of building a three-color deck.

An experienced deck-builder will go through these lists and think of every staple they normally run in Green and Red. Efficiency is King, and staples are nothing if not efficient, but I would urge you to try the deck at least a few times without making any changes. You might only learn how much you love playing hyper-efficient decks. On the off chance it will open your eyes to all the variety that is available in a more casual game, I think it's worth it.

History Repeats Itself Again and Again and Again - Upgrading the Dimir Deck

If you decide to run with Etrata, the Silencer at the helm of the Dimir deck, you're going to face some very unique challenges. Etrata will shuffle herself into your library when she does combat damage to a player, though you can also just return her to the command zone. If you can get three shots in with Etrata on the same player they lose the game.

[3-card strip: Ghostly Flicker, Essence Flux, Helm of the Hosts]

Ghostly Flicker
Essence Flux
Helm of the Host

What this means is that you'll want a way to flicker Etrata. When she comes back into the battlefield she'll represent a new instance of herself and that will help you get around the headache of having to re-cast her or find her in your library. You could also run Helm of the Hosts and send your token copies of Etrata at your opponents, saving you the trouble of having to lose her.

If you decided to go with Rona, Disciple of Gix, you're looking at what appears to be a pretty unassuming commander. When she enters the battlefield you exile a card and you can cast it. If you flicker Rona or for some other reason she leaves the battlefield, she is no longer associated with the cards her earlier instances were responsible for exiling. That means you can't cast the old cards that the previous incarnation of Rona had exiled. They're just gone.

While Rona might not seem great, she can definitely win you games. All she needs is a little thing called infinite mana.

Deadeye Navigator
Palinchron
Peregrine Drake

When paired with Deadeye Navigator and any of the various creatures (Palinchron, Peregrine Drake, Great Whale) who untap lands when they enter the battlefield, you can find ways to generate infinite mana. With infinite mana, a way to dump your deck into your graveyard, and a Deadeye Navigator you can flicker Rona to go through your entire graveyard, exiling and casting any card you want to cast.

Laboratory Maniac
Skull Storm
Torment of Hailfire

Loading your Rona Deadeye deck up with draw spells, tutors, and a Laboratory Maniac would make for a typically Blue strategy to try to win the game. If you're making infinite mana and want a Black wincon, Skull Storm, and Torment of Hailfire are worth looking at. You'd have to send Rona back to the command zone a few dozen times for Skull Storm to win you the game, but these are definitely game enders that can work with this combo.

Mask of Avacyn
Swiftfoot Boots
Turn Aside

Looking back at our need to flicker Etrata when she does combat damage so we don't have to re-cast her, Deadeye Navigator fits into that plan pretty well. Etrata may be unblockable, but she doesn't have hexproof, so it will be a tall order to hit each of our opponents in a four player Game 3 times before someone finds a way to kill us. Adding in ways to protect key pieces like Etrata, Deadeye Navigator or Rona will probably help, so equipment like Mask of Avacyn a staple like Swiftfoot Boots and counters like Turn Aside that deal with spells that target your most valuable permanent are worth considering for this deck. Unconditional counters, while they cost more mana, are even better but you can guarantee Etrata will get targeted if she's going to be a key part of your strategy.

The Target Audience

While it would be a mistake to assume that your average Commander player is the target audience for these decks, I think there's a lot of fun that could be had with them.

Younger Players

You never really know if kids will get into a game or not. If you've got a small group of younger players and want to pick up a set of four official precon Commander decks from Wizards of the Coast, you're going to be looking at a pretty big price tag. Paying over $100 might be worth it, but then again those kids might be playing something else in a month and those Magic cards might wind up lost, ruined or just gathering dust.

At such a low price, you can buy multiple CSI New Player Commander decks for the kids in your life and not worry so much about what will happen if they don't fall in love with the format the way you and I have.

Brand New Players

These aren't being called New Player Commander Decks for no reason. They are an option for someone who has never played Magic before, provided they will be played in games with decks of a comparable power level.

If you're wondering why you wouldn't just throw a bunch of old cards together for the kids or for a new player, it's worth remembering that newer players often don't have much of a collection to draw from. These decks make for a decent way to jump into the world of Commander if you're budget-conscious and like many new players, you don't have a collection of Magic cards yet.

The Playgroup Challenge

The big issue with these decks is what would happen if you were to play them in a more competitive playgroup. Regular Wizards of the Coast Commander precons have trouble keeping up with the better decks in the format, so these ones are probably going to get crushed.

The challenge I'd have you make to your playgroup is to each pick up one of these decks and see who can pilot theirs to victory over a set number of games. Make up a way to control how you are allowed to improve them and then play for a set number of weeks, keeping track of wins or even having a system for earning points.

The eventual winner will have had to pilot a budget deck against other budget decks and make thoughtful upgrades over the course of the challenge. They won't be able to lean on overpowered strategies or expensive cards and if they win, they'll sure have something to brag about!

Once your challenge is over, you can keep your winning deck together as a "fallback" casual deck for when you'd otherwise pubstomp a casual table, or you can take it apart and just keep the sweet, sweet memory of your glorious victory. I'd love to have the chance to do a challenge like this. Some of the games might be a little slow or underpowered compared to what I'm used to, but it would be a refreshing change of pace and the players would all be at roughly the same power level.

Final Thoughts

Some players just can't abide playing with underpowered cards. I've known folks who never wanted to play with anything but the most optimized builds and the most powerful cards they could get their hands on. These New Player Commander decks aren't for those players.

If you are someone who might be able to embrace a more casual playstyle and these decks have piqued your interest, please tune in tomorrow and all week long to see what the other decks look like.

I promised at the outset that I'd tell you what cards I would have included in these New Player decks. It's worth saying that I have no idea what kind of stock CoolStuffInc has available, so my suggestions might have been impossible or at least impractical, but I'll leave you with these three cards.

Sisay's Ring
Krosan Tusker
Dreamscape Artist

These CoolStuffInc New Player decks don't come with a Sol Ring. Given their price, that's not surprising, but I would have loved it if each one had each come with a poor man's Sol Ring - Sisay's Ring. Sure, it's overcosted and outclassed by 2019 standards, but having one with each of these decks would lend it an amusing bit of character that i think would have worked pretty nicely. It would have tied them all together in the same way that Sol Ring provides a common bond between all of the Wizards of the Coast precon decks.

I could list dozens of other cards that I might have thrown into the Gruul deck, but Krosan Tusker's ability to go get a land would be a pretty sweet addition to a deck that very much wants to avoid running noncreature spells. I might have added in a few more kicker spells as well. Dreamscape Artist is just an amazing ramp creature for decks that aren't in Green, and I've thrown it in more than a few Dimir decks over the years.

I have no idea if these CoolStuffInc.com New Player Commander decks will become an annual product or if this is a one-time experiment, but I really hope they help bring some new players into the format.

That's all I've got for you today. Tune in all week long for more of these deck reviews and I'll be back next week with another Commanderruminations column. Thanks for reading!