Building a Commander Deck, Part 2: Building an Optimized Deck
Before, I begin, I want to start by sharing the decklist that will be the core of this article. I have this deck. But to start with, an Alton Brown quote:
The only unitasker allowed in my kitchen is a fire extinguisher.
Our Optimized Deck
This is where I’d usually provide a summary of the deck we’re going to look at. However, as the goal of this deck is to have the fewest dead draws possible and combo off early if needed, the summary will get windy. Take this as fair warning.
The deck we’re working with here is a Urza Powered Scepter deck — we’re not brewing, but rather we’re analyzing. The deck runs a number of combos that present an overwhelming board state. Some of them are infinite, some of them are not.
- Isochron Scepter/Dramatic Reversal. Dramatic Scepter is a classic Commander combo that allows you to pay 2 mana to untap all of your nonland permanents. With 3 mana in mana rocks down — and when Urza is out, all of your artifacts are mana rocks — you have infinite mana: Isochron Scepter with Dramatic Reversal imprinted on it will untap itself, too. While you can dump this mana into Urza, there are also two sub-combos here:
- Isochron Scepter/Dramatic Reversal/Codex Shredder. It’s infinite mill, which you can use to knock out any player who isn’t running a way of shuffling their graveyard into their library as a triggered ability (Ulamog, Kozilek, or Gaea’s Blessing).
- Isochron Scepter/Dramatic Reversal/Sensei’s Divining Top or Trail of Evidence. Combined, these cards present infinite mana and infinite draw.
- Grim Monolith/Power Artifact. This is yet another infinite mana combo: when you put Power Artifact on Grim Monolith, you can tap Grim Monolith to get 3 mana and then spend 2 of those mana to untap Grim Monolith. This gets dumped into Urza to exile and cast your deck.
- Sensei’s Divining Top/Future Sight/Etherium Sculptor. Tap Top to draw the top card of your library, then cast Top from the top of your library for free thanks to Future Sight (allows you to cast the top card of your library) and Etherium Sculptor (reduces Top’s cost to 0 mana). Repeat until your deck is in your hand. If you have infinite mana, Etherium Sculptor matters less.
- Urza, Lord High Artificer/Winter Orb or Static Orb/The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale. Urza turns Winter Orb and Static Orb into mana rocks, allowing you to tap them at the end of the turn, allowing you to untap all of your lands/permanents while nobody else does. And if they want to keep their creatures, they’re going to have to keep paying mana, denying them the resources to further their game plan.
- Urza, Lord High Artificer/Sensei’s Divining Top/Future Sight/Sai, Master Thopterist. It’s another infinite draw combo: Tap Top to draw and send Top to the top of your library. Cast Top, getting a thopter that you can use to generate the mana to repeat the process until you’ve drawn your deck.
- Cyclonic Rift/Timetwister, Time Spiral, or Windfall. Blue doesn’t get boardwipes. But this combo can deal with indestructible things and graveyards and recursive threats.
- Narset, Parter of Veils/Timetwister, Time Spiral, or Windfall. This establishes crushing card advantage. If you combine this one with Cyclonic Rift, you’ve done an oppressive amount of damage to your opponents’ hands, graveyards, and board states. They are not likely to recover.
- Timetwister or Time Spiral/Narset’s Reversal. Cast Timetwister or Time Spiral. Hold priority and cast Narset’s Reversal targeting your Timetwister/Time Spiral. Narset’s Reversal resolves, sending Timetwister/Time Spiral to hand and putting a copy of Timetwister/Time Spiral on the stack — and Narset’s Reversal goes to the graveyard. Then the copy resolves, shuffling both Narset’s Reversal and Timetwister/Time Spiral into your library, setting you up to be able to do it again (with infinite mana and infinite draw, this produces infinite spell casts).
- Timetwister and Codex Shredder. Cast Codex Shredder. Cast Timetwister. Use Codex Shredder’s second ability to sacrifice Codex Shredder and return Timetwister to your hand. You can then Timetwister again, and if you have infinite mana and infinite draw, you can get the Codex Shredder back in play to repeat the process for infinite spell casts.
The entire deck is designed to put these combos — in particular the infinite mana combos — on the board as fast as possible and protect them using counterspells. Additionally, it is designed such that outside cases of mana flood or mana screw, you are not going to have a dead draw.
Ultimately, it will win by either using its infinite spellcasts to flood the board with artifacts courtesy of Trail of Evidence and Sai, Master Thopterist and turn them into creatures with Tezzeret the Seeker while you’ve got the board on lockdown for your opponents turn so they can’t do anything and have nothing but lands on board and no hands other than the card they draw for turn, or you’ll go for the Isochron Scepter/Dramatic Reversal/Codex Shredder infinite mill combo.
What can we learn from this deck?
What does our commander bring to the table?
Urza is a bit of a kitchen sink. He:
- Provides ramp. A lot of great commanders provide ramp as their primary ability. Most elfball decks use their commanders as ramp. Chulane has done great work in Brawl because he provides ramp.
- Puts more bodies on the floor. He comes in with a token that is likely going to be a 3/3 to start, and only gets bigger as the game progresses. Also, it can tap for mana immediately thanks to the ramp ability and the fact that it’s an artifact.
- Provides a sink for all that mana that provides card advantage.
Those are all individually very powerful abilities. When you put them all together on a single commander, you’re going to get something incredibly busted — something that will make a splash even at the top tables of the format. It’s a single card engine, and it’s in the command zone. It’s the best of all possibilities.
Interaction: the most important part of any deck
Most people think that the defining characteristic of an optimized deck is the mana base. After all, it’s the most expensive part, right? That isn’t so: the most important part of your Commander deck is your interaction package: the cards you put in to slow your opponents down or even stop them outright.
This deck runs 27 pieces of interaction, including Mystic Remora and Rhystic Study, which are both taxing pieces that make opponents’ spells cost more lest they accelerate you towards a combo. Additionally, Muddle the Mixture fetches any of our infinite mana pieces (Isochron Scepter, Dramatic Reversal, Grim Monolith, and Power Artifact). Beyond that, we’ve got 4 cards that can tutor up instants and/or sorceries (including Muddle the Mixture), which we can use to get counterspells or Dramatic Reversal and one card that can easily get a spell out of our graveyard to to reuse (Codex Shredder).
Look at that mana curve on the interaction package. There is one and only one interaction card with a converted mana cost greater than 3: Force of Will. That is important: the most your interaction should cost is 4 mana — for boardwipes. If it costs more than 4, it needs to have an alternate casting cost or some kind of cost reduction. That allows you to more easily hold up mana while establishing your own board state.
Ramp: Fundamental to all Commander Decks
Since we want to interact heavily, we care about colored mana pips. So what can we learn from Urza?
Second, let’s look at our ramp package. For this purpose, any actual mana rock, anything with an ability to add mana, or anything that can get a mana rock is ramp. Thus, all of our artifact tutors are ramp in addition to being tutors for several of our combos. Copy Artifact is ramp — you can use it to copy a mana rock if you need to. As I mentioned earlier, Urza himself ramps us — that’s why he’s a top tier commander. Anything that produces artifact tokens is ramp thanks to Urza. And Mana Drain is the best Blue Ramp spell ever.
As a result, 25 cards in the deck — including our commander — are ramp. A good chunk of it isn’t unitasking, either: our artifact tutors can also get a wincon. Grim Monolith is a part of one of the deck’s key combos. Mana Drain is a counterspell with ramp attached. Our token generators also flood the board with card draw or creatures. Urza is also an outlet for that mana that advances our game state. And I haven’t even mentioned the power of stealing mana dorks from our opponents using Legacy’s Allure or Gilded Drake, which has mattered. Of them, all of them are involved in one of our combos — even if that combo is simply being mana rocks to fuel Dramatic Scepter.
Drawing cards: the lifeblood of any good Commander deck
The deck runs 14 dedicated draw spells plus two Wheel effects (Timetwister and Time Spiral). Our curve here is a bit wackier, but there are also things that aren’t dedicated draw that can lead to more card advantage:
- Narset’s Reversal, which allows us to pay UU to return a draw spell to our hand as we cast it, thus allowing us to use it again.
- Sai, which we can use in a pinch to sacrifice artifacts for card draw
- Urza, who doesn’t so much draw cards as he allows us a free spell or two per turn — or at least gets rid of unnecessary lands.
- Narset, Parter of Veils, which allows us to look at the top 4 of our library on two different turns in order to dig for whatever we need.
- Codex Shredder, which can be used to return a draw spell to hand.
- Future Sight, which extends our hand to include the top card of our library
- Sensei’s Divining Top, which allows us some card selection.
Utility and Recursion
Beyond interaction, ramp, and card draw, we have a handful of other things to talk about that provide utility:
- Isochron Scepter: While obviously a combo piece, this card can *also* copy Counterspell, Mana Drain, Brainstorm, Impulse, or any number of other situational spells, so long as they have a converted mana cost of 2 or less.
- Copy Artifact: Can copy any artifact on the table if it’s useful — even someone else’s artifact.
- Academy Ruins: Can get back any artifact we’ve sacrificed or had destroyed — whether that’s a mana rock or a combo piece.
- Power Artifact: Perhaps the narrowest card in the deck, as most of our artifacts don’t have activated abilities that cost mana.
So what’s left?
The rest of our deck consists of 5 fetchlands (everything that can get an Island untapped) for the purposes of shuffling after scrys, Top, Brainstorm, Impulse, using Narset, or Dig Through Time and 20 Snow-Covered Islands because we don’t want to find ourselves hoisted by our own Back to Basics.
Choosing an Optimized Commander Deck
So how and why did I choose this deck? Well, it goes back to our first article: choosing how to win. I wanted to win by having no dead draws after being in a situation where so many cards were dead too many times. I wanted to be in a monocolor deck because I like how monocolor decks can highlight each color’s part in the color pie. And I wanted it to be an established deck in the optimized metagame.
Finding Optimized Decks
The best place to find optimized decks is to look at the cEDH Decklist Database. They’ve got a sizable listing of the best possible decks built according to the rules laid down buy the Commander Rules Committee. You’ll notice that all of these decks are combo decks — even the control decks are proactively working to combo off. You’ll also notice that the commanders generate card advantage, mana advantage, or they are combo pieces themselves.
So with that list, I had a series of choices to make. The following decks are monocolor and feature a minimum of dead draws:
- Chain Veil Teferi: a deck looking to use its commander, Teferi, Tempral Archmage and The Chain Veil to produce infinite mana with Teferi’s -1 ability and Chain Veil’s tap ability — and also getting you to a point where you can get Teferi’s emblem out and then use it to generate infinite draw.
- Our Urza deck. I’ve talked enough about it.
- Sidisi Ad Nauseam: An Aetherflux Reservoir deck that uses its commander as a tutor to enable casting a lot of spells on one turn then shooting people to death.
- K’rrik Doomsday: a deck that looks to cast a bunch of spells out of its graveyard and kill people with Aetherflux Reservoir.
- Godo Helm: a deck that uses Helm of the Host in combination with Godo, Bandit Warlord to create infinite combat steps.
- Wanderer’s Song: A Yisan, the Wandering Bard deck that uses its commander as a repeatable tutor for disruptive, silver-bullet creatures.
There are no White decks. The weaknesses of mono-White in commander are well-covered by literally every other person who’s talked about the format, so I won’t beat that dead horse. The short version is that it can’t ramp or draw cards.
Analyzing what I had
Like every other Commander player, the second step was figuring out what cards I already had. I’d played a semi-competitive Baral draw-go control list previously, and it had been rekt by the move from Paradox Engine (because it ate a ban) to Powered Monolith. It meant that I had a large chunk of the expensive cards, except Transmute Artifact and Intuition — I could fake it with respect to Tabernacle and Timetwister until I had the money for those cards: my meta is a bit more forgiving, as we usually see off-meta decks.
The same could not be said for any of the other decks. I would need to make significant investments into new cards if I wanted to play them.
As a result, Urza was a fairly easy choice. It not only did what I wanted to do (build a deck with the fewest possible cases where there were dead draws) and it played into the cards I already had in my collection. So I started building Urza — and the easy part was starting with what I had.
Buying what I could
The vast majority of the cards I did not already have were in the <$10 range. There were a few exceptions:
- Transmute Artifact and Intuition: I managed to pick those up at an SCG tournament in Fort Worth. I seriously considered buying a Tabernacle there as well, but I’m actually kind of glad I didn’t.
- Time Spiral: I added this to a package with a bunch of other assorted things from Card Kingdom, a Kingdom of Cards.
Budget substitutions for what I couldn’t
So obviously, there are two cards that are not going to be in your average person’s card collection: Tabernacle and Timetwister. However, a couple of bonuses at work have put even those cards in my collection. Of course, that doesn’t happen overnight.
So I had to do some things to make it work. Obviously, playing on PlayEDH is going to be more proxy friendly, so I’ve done what anyone could do: sharpie on basic. I pulled out a Mountain from WAR and wrote Tabernacle’s Oracle text on it. Similarly, I pulled out a Divination from my mountains of bulk and sharpied on the Oracle text for Timetwister.
But sometimes, I wanted to take this to major events in my area. So here’s what I did:
- For Tabernacle, the budget choice was easy: add another basic land. I didn’t really like the other options, and I felt they might impact how I play out the deck.
- Timetwister had two major options: Stream of Consciousness and Echo of Eons. The truth is that the difference here was more about what I knew to expect in a meta. I have a shop near me where Echo of Eons is a common budget substitute for Timetwister. However, this really pisses off the competitive community — they’ve been spoiled by the general acceptability of proxy and playtest cards at the top of the metagame. As such, Stream of Consciousness would be my go-to outside that shop near me, that is, when I went to major events.
So what did we learn?
Our key takeaways are:
- Pick a commander that is a value engine and that enables itself. This means that either it generates mana, generates card advantage, puts bodies on the floor, or is a combo piece — ideally it’s several of those things at once.
- Keep an eye on your interaction. A quarter of your deck should be interaction, and you should keep the mana curve of your interaction suite low.
- Color ramp matters more than colorless ramp. It’s going to enable you to cast multiple spells per turn cycle earlier.
- Work with the cards you have, and leverage them to get the cards you need. But you knew to do this already.
Optimized Commander brings a lot of rules to deckbuilding. As a result, there aren’t many viable decks at that power level. However, keeping those rules in mind — even as we break them — will enable us to build decks that do whatever we want to do.
I’m going to be taking a few weeks off for the holidays. When I come back, we’ll talk about Mike and Trike — a less spikey, less competitive build, but still packing an infinite combo finish.