Building a Commander Deck, Part 1: What do you want to do?
I’m not a name in the Magic: the Gathering community. I don’t create content. I don’t stream. You wouldn’t recognize me from some rando at your LGS. In fact, if you play in the suburbs of Dallas, I probably am some rando at your LGS. So why should you listen to me?
Because I play a lot of commander. Like a lot of it. Most of my non-working thoughts these days are about playing Commander, building Commander decks, and generally being a dork about the best format in Magic: the Gathering (sorry, Legacy players).
I do find myself looking at building a series of decks, though. It helps to have several decks across a variety of power levels and play styles if for no other reason than power level mismatches are profoundly unfun. Bringing Urza Powered Scepter (the list references Paradox, but it doesn’t run Paradoxical Outcome, and Paradox Engine ate a ban) to a table of not that constitutes the single worst experience I’ve ever had playing Commander. Of course I won, but it wasn’t fun, and I did a couple of coworkers very dirty by doing so.
On the other hand, I’ve been utterly miserable bringing a Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis Group Hug deck to a table of decks actually designed to do things. It turns out that some players absolutely hate people playing for 2nd.
So at this time, I’m looking at putting together five decks, one at each tier:
- Optimized. This is the land of MAXIMUM POWER. Expect Thrasios and Tymna Flash Hulk builds that win by Timetwister loops. I actually own the aforementioned Urza deck. All 100 cards in your deck are the right choice, with maybe two meta-specific flex spots. In the Urza example, you might find yourself running Capsize instead of Legacy’s Allure because your meta does not prioritize creatures.
- Tuned. This is usually where most commander playgroups max out. Decks usually hit the wall in terms of money invested versus win rate (which seems to happen around about $1000 in December of 2019).
- Focused. Most commander decks overall hit this realm. You don’t have to spend much money to have a focused deck: The Commander’s Quarters frequently does deck techs that fall squarely in the Focused range. Generally, you’ve picked a strategy to win the game and focused on it, even if you’re running suboptimal cards due to availability/the fact you have them in all that bulk you obtained from drafting/the fact that Force of Will is a $100 card on average.
- Mechanical. You’ve decided you like a mechanic and want to build a deck around it, but you haven’t extended that mechanic into a core strategy. Most preconstructed decks fall in this category in no small part because that’s what they’re supposed to do. Even making a tuned deck as a precon would allow for less customization options.
- Orthogonal. Winning the game doesn’t mean winning the game, but rather means something else. Maybe it means that you’ve told your commander’s story. Maybe you’ve managed to tell the story of your favorite Magic block. Maybe it’s just that you’ve built a deck built out of Christopher Moeller’s cards. Group hug decks tend to fall here as well, especially if they don’t have a win condition as in the 6th most upvoted Commander Deck on Tapped Out.
So, what’s the first question you have to ask?
What does it mean to win?
This can mean a lot of things here. For example:
- Your fellow players now have an appreciation of the work of Rebecca Guay.
- Your deck has told its story in true Vorthos fashion.
- You have enabled everybody else at the table and ultimately politicked your way into second place, scooping to the king you made.
- You have played a long, grindy game.
- You have played an intense, interactive game.
- You have executed your strategy to the maximum extent.
- You have crushed your enemies, seen them driven before you, and heard the lamentations of their friends.
So what does that mean for my project?
As I said, I’m building five decks. Here’s the set of strategies I’m planning to build:
- Urza Powered Scepter. I own this one already (all right, fine, I don’t own a Timetwister yet, but it’s on the to-do list — but I already have the Tabernacle). It’s evil. My coworkers hate it.
- Mikeaus the Unhallowed. For those unfamiliar with this deck, your wincon is the good, old fashioned Mike and Trike machine gun: put Mikeaus the Unhallowed and Triskelion down, then ping everybody to death. This deck will have a budget of approximately $500 to $1000 — so no Imperial Seals.
- Ayula, Queen Among Bears. This is a bear deck featuring all the mono-Green bears and things that like bears. For an example of how this deck plays out, go check out this episode of Game Knights. I’m unsure about Graham’s ramp package and definitely unsure about the appropriateness of Gaea’s Cradle at this power level. It’s focused: it wants to play bears, pump bears, and make opponents’ creatures fight Grizzly Bears. I may even buy an Alpha Grizzly Bears for this because they cost about $25, so sure why not?
- Morpheon Horse Tribal. Horses are not a supported tribe. If I play all of them, I have just enough for a horse deck. But not all of them are playable. I will likely add some things like Sun Quan, Lord of Wu because granting horsemanship is totally on theme for 5 color horse tribal. Winning here is a bit less about winning the game and more about playing a bunch of horses — but should have an effective beatdown plan with evasion thanks to horsemanship (which is an unusual mechanic from Portal: Three Kingdoms).
- Five Color Group Hug, expanding on the Phelddagrif deck linked above using Kenrith, the Returned King as my commander.
Unfortunately, my favorite Magic artist does not have enough cards to make a Commander deck and never will because he is no longer among the living. And I’m not much of a Vorthos player: I like cards that affect the board state. (Interestingly, my favorite card of all time is Lightning Bolt, which is really mediocre in Commander — and yes, I own a playset of German Black Border Revised Lightning Bolts as well as a single Revised French Black Border Bolt.)
Next up: Building an Optimized deck.