Two weeks ago I shared a Top 10 list that was an exploration of the kinds of cards you might want to think about including when you build a deck for casual Commander games. My "Cards to Consider for Casual Commander" was fun to throw together so I thought it made sense to look at the other end of the EDH power spectrum.
These lists aren't necessarily lists of specific cards, but each slot will have a "poster child" for whatever I'm going to be talking about. My inclusion of "Fog" in the previous installment of this series could easily have been replaced by Darkness, Constant Mists, Inkshield or whatever else makes the most sense for your deck.
Before I dive into "Cards to Consider for Competitive Commander" it's worth looking at what it means to be building decks for "competitive" play. These thoughts are my own, and I don't pretend to be an expert on all things cEDH.
In competitive play, the focus is on winning. That is true for lower power levels, but when you're playing competitively you don't drop your power level down because you're winning too much. In terms of card choices - you generally don't play pet cards or make suboptimal choices when you are building your deck. That doesn't mean you can't experiment with new cards and strategies, but your goal is to win and if a card isn't helping you achieve that goal you need to consider switching it out in favor of a better card.
These ten cards should be seen not as specific cards that should go into any deck you want to make more powerful, but rather as examples of things to consider whether you're trying to build a top tier deck or you're just trying to push a lower powered deck a bit higher up in power.
With that out of the way, let's dig into some of the cards you might want to look at if you want to up your game and start playing with more of a focus on winning.
10: Better Lands
The more competitive you want your deck to be, the more you want your lands to enter untapped and the more you want them to give you lots of colors and lots of mana. As you move from low to mid-powered play, you're likely to stop playing lands that enter tapped. In high powered play and especially in cEDH, you'll almost never see a land that both enters tapped and can tap for only one of two colors. There are corner cases in very specific decks, but in general having access to as much mana as possible as quickly as possible is very important.
The "OG" Dual lands (Tropical Island etc...) are too expensive for many players to buy, but recent years have seen cycles of lands that produce two colors and are affordable and incredibly playable in EDH. The best of these may be the Battlebond lands, which enter untapped if you have two or more opponents. To my mind, those "bond lands" have become the new baseline for a non-proxied multicolored EDH manabase and if you can also pop some OG dual lands into the deck you're really off to the races!
City of Brass might seem bad to newer players. Sure, it taps for any color, but you'll be losing life every turn! The reality is that in high powered and competitive EDH, having access to your colors vastly outweighs that one damage you take from tapping it. High powered and cEDH games are usually over long before a little incremental life loss would amount to anything. In decks that require three, four or five colors to cast your commander(s), a land that taps for any color is incredibly important.
The deeper down the competitive rabbit hole you go, the more you'll start looking at cards like Cabal Coffers, Serra's Sanctum, Gaea's Cradle, or even The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale. You might be in a group where you can proxy cards, or you might be in a situation where you can actually buy them, but the edge that a powerful, expensive old land might give you really can make the difference between winning and losing.
I've played, tapped, bounced and replayed a Gaea's Cradle in my Chulane, Teller of Tales Druid deck and I cannot understate how powerful that land can be. Cabal Coffers might be a fraction of the price of a Gaea's Cradle, but it can also make a ton of mana that can be poured into an Exsanguinate or Torment of Hailfire to help you threaten a win.
Better lands can help you get your colors faster, which in turn helps you play your commander and play all the cards in your deck. They can also crack a game wide open if they're of the more powerful, "big mana" variety. You may not need them to play high-powered EDH, but they can make a big difference in terms of consistency and overall success when the games are shorter and you absolutely have to get your colors so your deck can do what it was built to do.
9: More Draw
Every deck does better when it's consistently drawing cards. It's no accident that I often write that the three most important words in Magic: the Gathering are "Draw a card." That doesn't mean additional card draw will make a bad deck good, but if you're moving up into high powered or competitive play you really want to be sure that your deck is going to be able to keep your hand as full as possible.
Drawing cards does a lot of things. It helps you hit your land drops. It helps make sure that you have an answer in hand when someone plays a spell or permanent that absolutely has to be answered or the game will end. It also helps you develop and maintain a boardstate if you are playing the kind of deck that wants a real battlefield presence. Whatever your deck was built to do, it will do it more easily when you're drawing more cards.
To be clear, "card draw" in this context does not strictly mean drawing cards - it means putting cards into your hand OR into a zone from which you'll have access to them. Ad Nauseam will let you put cards into your hand, but you aren't drawing them. Necropotence is an enchantment that will let you pay life to exile cards face down from the top of your library and at the beginning of the next end step you'll put them into your hand. Some cards and commanders like Laelia, the Blade Reforged, will exile cards and let you play them from exile.
A little incremental card draw (or card advantage) is good, but the more you push up into high powered play, the more you'll learn that games are often won or lost on huge swings of card advantage. That Ad Nauseam player isn't playing a normal deck - they are playing a deck specifically designed to let them put a ridiculous number of cards into their hand at the cost of nearly all of their life, and if they're lucky (and good) they'll be able to win once they have drawn into cards that can let them find and play their actual wincon.
A card like Peer into the Abyss will draw you cards equal to half your library and will have you lose half of your life. It costs 7 mana, but it's in Black - the best color for tutors - so the idea is that you should be able to win the game with half of your library in your hand. If you can't, you either didn't build the deck very well or you got really unlucky.
Whether you want a slightly better flow of cards into your hand or you're looking to do something truly busted and put dozens and dozens of cards into your hand, card advantage is incredibly important as you push up in power levels. One might easily argue that this should be number 1 in today's list.
8: More Protection
In casual play it's not at all uncommon for players to play out key parts of their deck and not worry that much about whether or not a particular card gets removed from play. That "key part" might just be a slightly larger Hydra that they plan on sending into battle. Their game plan usually won't revolve around having that specific creature, so the downside of having it get removed isn't that bad.
As you move into high powered or competitive play, chances are good that you will start building more degenerate decks with more powerful and degenerate strategies. If your opponents are playing equally degenerate decks there's a very good chance they're going to be prepared to remove your combo pieces or key permanents so you can't "go off" and win the game. That means you're going to have to use a little protection before you go for that win.
Cards like Silence and Grand Abolisher are widely seen as indicators that the game is likely going to end very soon. If you're in white and you absolutely, positively, do not want your opponents messing with your plans for the rest of the turn, casting Silence will lock them out of casting spells. They'll still be able to activate abilities, but they won't be casting spells if it resolves. Grand Abolisher will take things a step further. If that 2/2 Human Cleric is on the field, your opponents can't cast spells or activate abilities of artifacts, creatures or enchantments.
There are lots of ways to protect your wincon and they will vary based upon the color you're in and what you're trying to do. If you're in Blue you can just run a suite of counterspells and plan to counter or stifle any attempt to stop you from winning. If you're in colors that don't have access to counterspells, you might run Conqueror's Flail, which will lock your opponents out of casting spells on your turn if it's equipped to a creature you control.
If you're playing a deck that wants to win with a combo that involves permanents on the battlefield, you might run a card like Heroic Intervention, which will give your permanents hexproof and indestructible until end of turn. Depending upon what you're using to try to win, you may have more or less options. If any of them involve your commander or another creature you might throw in Swiftfoot Boots and Lightning Greaves. The former gives hexproof and the latter gives shroud to the equipped creature.
If you try to win without any protection for your wincon, you're just hoping that you get lucky and nobody has a way to interact. You might have so much redundancy for your combo pieces that you aren't that worried about being stopped because you'll be able to try again in a turn or two. You might even bait out a removal spell by playing a combo piece if you have a way to win without that card on the field.
When everyone is really focused on winning, you have to assume that your opponents are going to try to stop you. That means interaction and removal, so you'd better come prepared. Put on those boots. Get that counterspell ready. Don't let them stop you without putting up a fight.
7: Cheap Interaction
If you know your tablemates are going to try to stop your attempts to win the game, and you know they're probably running something equally degenerate for their decks' wincons, you really ought to be ready to return the favor.
Decks in all power levels should be running the basics, and that starts with ramp, draw and removal. Removal can be interaction on the stack (usually counterspells) or it can be as simple as removing a key permanent before your opponent gets the chance to use it.
It's easy to say that you should be playing interaction, but you have to keep up mana in order to be able to use it, and you'll usually have to use it on an opponent's turn so it had better be at instant speed.
The more mana you keep untapped at the end of your turn, the less you had available to you during your turn. For that reason, you will want your interaction to be as cheap as possible. If you have a Krosan Grip in hand, you'll be keeping 3 mana up, but if you're dealing with a lot of low mana artifacts and enchantments, you might just run the 1-mana instant Natural State. The two spells are definitely not equal, but in games where you have to be ready to interact early and often, you need to be as efficient as possible.
Chain of Vapor is a great example of low-mana, high-impact interaction. Players are often (not always) just narrowly squeezing their wincon into the mana they have available on their turn. They might have exactly enough mana to go for the win and protect it with an extra 1 mana worth of interaction. If you use Chain of Vapor to bounce a key permanent to their hand they'll suddenly need to replay that permanent in order to try to win. That might be enough to push them out a turn and give everyone else time to dig for answers - or to win before that player's turn comes around again!
You might think that it's better to destroy or exile a key permanent than to bounce it. You're not wrong, and cards like Rapid Hybridization, Swords to Plowshares, Path to Exile and even Tragic Slip have pulled their weight in high powered Commander for years. I put a spotlight on Chain of Vapor because it's cheap, it hits any targetable permanent, and in high powered Commander you sometimes have to deal with a problem that will absolutely end the game if it isn't stopped.
You also often have multiple players with problems that have to be dealt with. Chain of Vapor can be copied by the controller of the permanent that it targets. That means if you (player A) have Chain of Vapor in hand, player B is threatening to win, but player C also has a very dangerous permanent on the field, you can sometimes get a "2 for 1". You target player C's combo piece and if they don't sacrifice a land and then copy Chain to target player B's pending wincon, they're going to lose the game. They might not like it, but they should copy Chain and stop player B's win attempt. There's always a chance they'll instead copy Chain and target one of your permanents, forcing you to sacrifice a land and either stop the win or keep the Chain back-and-forth going.
The key here is that you want to pay as little as possible for your interaction. Even though Krosan Grip has split second and can't be responded to, it's worse than a number of cheaper removal options in green because three mana is a lot of mana to hold up. You rarely want to go a turn cycle and not use all the mana you had available to you either to build your boardstate, advance your game or degrade an opponent's boardstate.
6: Asymmetric Effects
Another key element to high-powered and competitive play is learning how to create and take advantage of asymmetrical effects. An asymmetrical effect is any spell or permanent that will hurt your opponents more than it will hurt you. I can't think of a better example of this than Drannith Magistrate.
This Human Wizard is uniquely problematic in Commander because many decks rely upon their commander, which starts in the command zone and therefore has to be cast from somewhere other than your hand. Any deck that has a high mana commander or does not draw into removal is going to be relying on the rest of their deck for as long as Drannith Magistrate is on the battlefield. Some decks are fine with this, but many are looking to center their game plan around the card or cards that start the game in the command zone.
Cards that affect your opponents more than they affect you aren't always as brutal as Drannith Magistrate. The flexible and eminently playable Cyclonic Rift will bounce your opponents' nonland permanents if you pay its overload cost. You can also play it as a 2-mana bounce spell for those times that you have to interact or you'll just lose the game. The overcosted and much less playable black sorcery In Garruk's Wake will destroy all creatures and planeswalkers you don't control. Finding and leveraging these types of cards is a huge part of improving your deckbuilding and moving into higher powered play.
Sometimes you'll want to create an imbalance as part of your deckbuilding. You might just play Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines and load up on permanents with enter-the-battlefield abilities. A card like Possibility Storm will affect everyone, turning any card cast from a player's hand into the first spell revealed off the top of the player's library that shares a type with it. A player with a deck that is built around cards that cast spells from exile can gleefully play Possibility Storm and then watch their tablemates struggle to resolve anything meaningful while they have full control over what they're casting.
Finding these angles where an effect works with your deck but hampers everyone else's game plan is the sort of thing you want to do at all power levels. In high-powered and competitive play you try to crank that approach up a few notches. When you fully commit to playing these sorts of unbalanced and oppressive cards you'll be moving into "stax" territory where everyone is slowed down and can't play the game and you are going to try to win because your deck is built to be able to work in that sort of environment. If everyone else's race car is stuck in the mud and you're driving a tractor, you're probably going to end up winning.
You might think of tutors as being boring cards that lead to everyone playing combo decks that always go for the same stale, compact wincons every single time. I'll be the first to admit that does happen. I've got a Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord deck that wins a lot of its games with Phyrexian Devourer even though it's loaded up with some great big mana Elf cards and combo pieces and can win in a bunch of different ways. It's very easy for tutors to lead you down that path and in competitive play that's OK. You are trying to win and you want to win quickly and efficiently.
As you may know, Demonic Consultation is often used to win games with Thassa's Oracle, but you may not know that it also sees use as a last gasp way to tutor for an answer. If an opponent's win is on the stack and nobody else has open mana or any way to stop it, Demonic Consultation can be used to try to dig into an answer. You'll name a card, exile the top six cards of your library and then reveal cards until you reveal the named card. With just an untapped swamp and an untapped island you might stop a storm deck by using Demonic Consultation to tutor up Flusterstorm, a counterspell that also has the storm keyword. Any normal counterspell would stop only a single spell, but when dealing with a storm deck you need to be able to counter the original spell and all of the copies that the storm keyword let you create.
I'm a pretty good player, but I do tend to lean on tutors as a way to find my wincons. Truly great players know when to tutor for the win and when they need to hold onto that tutor and use it to find an answer for another player. Often in higher-powered games the win is found by letting someone try to win, get stopped, and then you try to win when everyone else's answers have been exhausted.
Remember that a tutor isn't just a second copy of your best card. It's a theoretical copy of every card in your deck, and if you learn how to use it for just what you need, when you need it most, you'll find yourself moving up into higher powered play.
4: Mana-Positive Rocks
Remember that Ad Nauseam wincon I mentioned earlier? Did it seem insane to you that someone might put a bunch of cards into their hand and then somehow find a way to win even though they had just spent a whopping (for cEDH) 5 mana on that instant?
The secret to playing Ad Nauseam, and the secret to playing a number of other high-powered strategies like Izzet Storm, is the use of mana-positive rocks.
Mana Crypt can tap for two mana but only costs... well... it doesn't cost anything at all! It's better than Sol Ring and you're very unlikely to lose the game due to its beginning-of-upkeep 3 life coin flip effect. I've actually lost a game this way, but I have zero regrets - it was a hilarious way to lose a game.
We are playing a singleton format so you can't play more than one of any card (outside of basic lands), but you can still load up on cards like Mana Vault, Mox Opal, Chrome Mox, Lotus Petal and even spells like Dark Ritual or Jeska's Will. When you have zero mana available but half your deck in your hand, cards like these let you not only advance your game plan, but sometimes even threaten a win if you drew into just the right stuff.
These cards are expensive because they are very powerful and very much in demand. I can't think of a red deck that wouldn't be better with Jeska's Will in the 99, and nearly every deck ever built would be a tiny bit better with both a Sol Ring and a Mana Crypt. If you're interested in playing with these kinds of cards but they are out of your budget, talk to your playgroup. Lots of players are OK with using proxied (fake/pretend) Magic cards and even take great pride in playing "against the player, not their wallet".
3: Free Interaction
There's no better feeling than knowing that you've got the win in hand, and none of your tablemates have any open mana. Cheap interaction is important, but if everyone is tapped out you should be all clear to go for the win, right? The more you move into high powered and competitive play, the more you'll learn that your spells are never truly safe from being messed with.
Even free spells have some sort of cost, but that cost might not come in the form of spending mana. Force of Will can be cast for the cost of 1 life and exiling a blue card from your hand. It can be countered, so it's not as solid an answer as Dovin's Veto, but it can counter anything and your opponents often won't see it coming.
There aren't many other free spells that see as much play as Force of Will, but if you can find ones that fit into your deck's colors and what it wants to do, definitely give them a look. Force of Vigor can destroy up to two artifacts and/or enchantments and is arguably an auto-include in any high-powered Green deck that can keep an extra card in hand.
There are a bunch of older spells that are free if an opponent controls a certain type of land and you control another type of land, but they aren't great. There are also ways to set yourself up to be able to play a spell for free. The enchantment As Foretold gets a time counter on your upkeep, loves to be proliferated, and will let you play a spell for free each turn if it has a mana value equal or less than the number of time counters on As Foretold.
My point isn't that As Foretold is your gateway to high powered EDH or that every deck should be running Force of Will. My point is just that if playing cheap interaction is good, playing free spells and interaction is great. You have the advantage of surprise and you can often catch players when they haven't taken into account that you might have a way to stop them.
Free interaction can also come in the form of permanents that you play out and then use on a later turn for zero mana. You usually have to sacrifice them, and they are right out in the open where everyone can see them, but that ability to tap out and still have interaction is still very powerful. You'd also be surprised how often players forget that they are there. Deathrite Shaman can yeet a card out of a graveyard in response to the card being targeted and can come down on turn one. It might only stop certain graveyard-based interactions but it's a powerful card in the right situation. Just don't forget when you have interaction on the field just waiting to be used.
2: Compact Wincons
In more casual EDH games it's not that uncommon to see players try to assemble unwieldy and fragile combos involving four, five or even a half dozen pieces that all work together to do something game-ending. It's janky and fun to try to accomplish these sorts of combos and brave (and patient) casual players may even run those decks without any tutors to help them out. After all, why try to do something easy when you can do something ridiculously hard?
When you're moving towards higher powered EDH and especially when you start playing cEDH, you wind up prioritizing compact, mana efficient wincons. If your two card combo involves your commander and costs two mana less than your tablemate's two card combo - which doesn't even work with their commander - you've got an edge. Of course, not every compact wincon works directly with a deck's commander.
It's hard not to talk about compact wincons without talking about Thassa's Oracle, and I'm not aware of any top tier decks that have their commander as a combo piece with this powerful wincon. All Thassa's Oracle has to do is enter the battlefield at a time when your library has been exiled or milled into your graveyard. It can be countered and that ETB trigger can be stifled, but you're in blue so you should be able to protect this wincon.
Thassa's Oracle costs just 2 mana and most commonly gets paired with Demonic Consultation or Tainted Pact, which respectively cost one mana and two mana. Three or four mana to win the game is pretty efficient and removal does nothing to stop it - you have to interact on the stack, which is something only certain colors are even capable of doing.
You don't have to run Thassa's Oracle to move into higher power levels of commander, but you'll still want to prioritize wincons that take fewer cards and less mana. The better you do that, the more likely you will be to actually get those wins.
There are lots of powerful, complicated, mana intensive combos that are very playable in high powered EDH. If your combo only generates an infinite loop, or possibly infinite mana, you'll have to take into account how you actually win the game.
Food Chain and Misthollow Griffin work great together, but on their own they only amount to a neat party trick. You still need to actually win the game. Pairing Food Chain with a commander who will let you establish a winning boardstate or land an actual wincon is what you want to do. Food Chain and Prossh or The First Sliver are great examples of that.
If you're the kind of player who finds two card combos tiresome and would rather play a janky spider deck than put Heliod, Sun-Crowned in the command zone and spend your games searching for Walking Ballista, you should take comfort in the fact that there is lots of room in high powered Commander for non-combo decks. It is easier to win games with combo but you don't have to play that game if you don't want to. Just be prepared to stop the combo players because they're going to be in your high-powered and cEDH games and they're going to try to win.
1: Pet Cards
What? Pet cards in competitive commander? Didn't I just spend an entire column trying to explain that competitive EDH is all about optimization, efficiency and playing the best cards? Do I have to quote myself here???
"You generally don't play pet cards or make suboptimal choices when you are building your deck."
I'm right, of course. You generally do NOT play pet cards when you're playing cEDH and you usually try to avoid them in high powered play if you're really trying to push your power levels up. Lots of players even go out of their way to find established, proven, well-tested cEDH decklists to use because the format's best players really do know what they are doing. Those "net-decks" are solid and are often tuned to be able to play in any meta - not just the meta that the deckbuilder happens to be playing in. They are resilient. They win games.
The process of tuning up a deck often involves adding in cards that you don't initially think are optimal choices. You try things out, see if they work, adjust your approach and evolve the deck to better do what it wants to do. You might not know if Silkguard is going to be worth playing in your Selvala, Heart of the Wilds deck, but you know that you want ways to protect your commander and it's not that hard to swap it in for a few games to see how it does. I have no idea if high powered or cEDH Selvala decks actually play Silkguard, but I do know that these finely tuned decks don't just show up in their final, polished, perfect form. They are the result of countless changes and upgrades and it's arguable that no deck ever has a "final, polished, perfect form" because they are constantly evolving and adapting to a changing meta and a changing game. Cards will get added and removed, and some of those experiments might well be called "pet" cards. Some of those pet cards stick, though many of them do not.
I can share one example of this from my own experience, but it doesn't really have a place in today's cEDH meta. I have had a Narset, Enlightened Master deck for many years. I don't play it much, but it's a guilty pleasure and I don't see myself taking it apart any time soon. It wins with extra turns and combat steps and when it "goes off" it's a real beast. It's just too slow for today's cEDH game, where you want to be able to consistently threaten a win or a table lock by turn three or four.
The card Penance is my own pet card. It's a do-nothing enchantment that lets you drop a card onto the top of your library to prevent the next damage to you from a black or red source. The card text is old - you can look it up in Gatherer and you'll see that the oracle text confirms that you can do this even if there is no red or black damage on the stack.
Penance was great in Mayael, the Anima, letting me cheat a card from my hand into play by putting it on top of my library prior to a Mayael activation. With Narset, I found that I could often extend my turn(s) by adding an extra turn or extra combat spell stuck in my hand to the top of my library so I could swing and "flop" into it. That would let me get another bite at the apple, so to speak, and over the years Penance helped me win plenty of games by giving me that extra help to turn one swing into enough turns and combats to kill the table.
Narset may only be a high-powered deck these days (at least, the way I've built her) but Penance started out for me as a "pet" card and became a staple in my list. It might be viewed by more experienced Narset players as being suboptimal - and they might also insist that Narset is viable in cEDH. They might suggest that I should swap it out for more interaction. I should put in Drannith Magistrate and drop out Penance because it's more important to stop my tablemates than it is to play a do-nothing, "win more" card. They might be right, but my point is that these sorts of experiments and "pet cards" are exactly how decks evolve and how you try to find the next great thing for your commander.
Hopefully this column has helped you get a better understanding of how to adjust your deckbuilding for higher power levels. It's not uncommon for players in more casual metas to want to move up in power, but it can be hard to let go of the habits you get from playing at the power level you are used to.
It might seem insane to suggest that Krosan Grip isn't a great removal spell, but when you start playing in games where every bit of mana counts and you don't have a lot of time to get your deck up and running, you'll see that it's a lot harder to rationalize playing a three mana removal spell that only targets artifacts and enchantments.
If you're an accomplished cEDH player much of this might have been familiar to you. I don't pretend to be an expert in cEDH but if you think this piece might help other players better appreciate and understand the top end of our format's power spectrum, please feel free to share it. Fundamental concepts, tips and tricks or "cards to consider" aren't a replacement for a true cEDH deckbuilding primer, but hopefully it can serve as a good starting point for players who are interested in moving up and entering into the higher power levels of deckbuilding and EDH play.
Before I wrap up, I'd like to suggest that in a competitive meta, you may not need to worry at all about "winning too much" but if you are trying to tune up your decks, please consider checking with your playgroup.
It's great to want to improve and it's great to want to win more games, but if you have regular tablemates who are looking for a little less combo, a little less stax, or a lower power level in your games, you could be setting yourself up for some headaches. In a casual meta, folks generally are looking for a balance in power levels, and that often means not having anyone winning the lion's share of games.
To my mind, casual play is about a shared, fun, balanced gameplay experience and sometimes that means not doing everything you can to win every game you play in. Sometimes you drop your power level down, especially if you've been dominating play. In competitive play you are usually good to push that envelope, string together wins and see how well you can do. Maybe that's a bit simplistic and I'll be the first to admit that our format's power levels are a spectrum, not a black/white, casual/competitive dichotomy. Hopefully you can find the sweet spot in that spectrum for you and your playgroup so your games are fun, your expectations are met, and the salt is kept to a minimum.
That's all I've got for today. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!