Building a Commander Deck Part 4: Building a Focused Commander Deck
Let us begin with a decklist. Unusually for this series, I even have gameplay video of this deck, featuring its author, Graham Stark of Loading Ready Run. He explains the backstory of the deck in the video quite nicely. In fact, that video is the reason I chose this deck: I feel it most epitomizes what a focused deck is and what it can do. Just remember: math is for attackers, lest they get had on blocks.
What is a Focused Deck?
A focused commander deck is perhaps the platonic ideal of a Commander deck. That’s right, even after my discussion of a maximum power deck, telling you straight up that I play it regularly and enjoy it, I’m telling you that no, this is the Commander deck you want to play, you should be attempting to build, and that will result in the most fun and memorable game play.
Generally speaking, a focused deck has a game plan and it sticks to it. However, that game plan is rarely comboing off for a table kill. It’s expecting the game to go long, the game to be relatively fair, and the need for compact combos and tutors is greatly reduced. Yes, you may have tutors here, but they’re more for silver bullet answers whose use is properly negotiated with the table. You may have a combo, but it’s just because those cards fit well into your deck, and it’s not really what you’re looking to see happen — if it does, it’s a happy coincidence.
What’s more, almost any commander can be built like this. Yes, even Phage the Untouchable — and you didn’t think that was possible. It appears that there are some clever ways to get around her ETB trigger. There is no need to run some ridiculous broken and expensive Reserved List card unless you have it and you want to. There’s no need to jam Force of Will unless you want to. Yes, your deck may be better for it: Graham put a copy of Gaea’s Cradle in this deck, after all — but I’m trying it with a basic in that spot for a reason: I need to wait for my bonus next year to get it.
The heart of a focused deck is that it chooses cards that synergize well and build together. You may find yourself ditching the formula (25 interaction cards, 10 ramp cards, 8–15 card advantage cards, ≤4 combo pieces, and 30–35 lands) in favor of including more flavorful or fun cards — or because you don’t need nearly as much ramp or interaction due to your choice in commander. This tier will include almost every available commander: even the vanilla legendary creatures can be pushed up to this tier. In fact, the commanders to avoid here are commanders that are too good on their own — combo pieces in the command zone are especially going to be inappropriately good.
As I break down his deck, I’m going to suggest some newer cards that Graham could not have included because they hadn’t been printed yet (because Core 2020 and Thrones of Eldrane had a lot of bonkers green cards, as anyone who has played Standard in that format would know) in addition to cards I might put in that he omitted, probably to be on power level with Game Knights. He knew what he was doing, and he probably brewed this deck alongside Kathleen, Josh, and Jimmy to ensure a fair, fun, and watchable game. In fact, that’s part of the joy of focused decks: you can usually find something you’d like in them and not be wrong to put in them.
How do you want to win?
This deck says, “I really like 2/2’s for 2”. That’s not a bad place to be in limited Magic, after all. For those that didn’t watch the gameplay video, there’s a running gag in Loading Ready Run sketches where Graham would claim to have a Bear Force One commander deck that was in bear tribal. This was the defictionalization of that deck, which truly became possible with the release of Modern Horizons.
Thus, we’re going to want to bear down and get grizzly with our opponents. We want to flood the board with cheap, efficient beaters that cause our commander to trigger, making bears bigger or make bears fight other things on the board, ultimately making the game unbearable for our opponents.
As such, you want a creature that is a 2/2 Legendary Bear that costs 2 mana to be your commander. That’s Ayula, Queen Among Bears.
Ramping: this time in Green
Green obviously has the best ramp suite in the game, so color me surprised when I find that Graham…doesn’t really take much advantage of it? He only runs three rocks: Emerald Medallion, Moss Diamond, and the obligatory Sol Ring. Admittedly, Arcane Signet didn’t exist when this list was published. That part isn’t too surprising: rocks aren’t really how Green wants to ramp. Green wants to find lands to hit its land drops, play extra lands for turn, and play mana dorks.
And yet, we don’t have much here. The only dork it runs is Wearbear. It doesn’t run any extra land effects. But there are four lands his list runs that I find interesting.
First, we have the aforementioned Gaea’s Cradle. This card is a Legacy staple as well as being a staple of mono-Green decks. If you’ve got a lot of creatures on board, it produces a LOT of mana. It’s the most expensive card in the deck, and it’s very obvious why it’s here.
Second, and unsurprising considering Cradle, we have Growing Rites of Itlimoc. It’s a second copy of Gaea’s Cradle, as it has a different name. Also, it’s not a $200+ card.
Third, we have Havenwood Battleground. It can, as a one-shot effect, give us one extra Green mana.
Finally, we have the depletion land Hickory Woodlot. I’ve expressed my displeasure with the depletion lands before, but I must admit that they can lead to some of our most explosive second turns. In this case, it’s more like it can cast two bears.
This is where you’re asking me why I’m featuring a list that breaks one of my rules. Shouldn’t Graham have 8–10 pieces of ramp? Isn’t he running a bit short with this package? Given that he curves out on 3 mana and is looking to gain incremental advantage with other cards, particularly token generators, no. He’s got an aggressive enough curve that this is just enough ramp. He’s instead relying heavily on triggers to get there. When your curve is this aggressive, you genuinely don’t need as much ramp.
If you wanted to give this deck a little more punch, I’d cut Muraganda Petroglyphs for Oracle of Mul Daya, and two vanilla bears in favor of Exploration and Wilderness Reclamation. Other possible inclusions are Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx and Dryad Arbor. The former would do very well in this green mana symbol heavy deck, and the latter would get better with Green Sun’s Zenith. I might include them if you have them. Similarly, I love the fetchlands (Windswept Heath, Misty Rainforest, Verdant Catacombs, Wooded Foothills, and Prismatic Vista), and if you have those and want to run ‘em, put ’em in.
That said, I think it’s excessive. When the deck is focused on dropping two creatures per turn, it’s fine to curve out early. You just don’t need the benefits of ramp: you aren’t casting big things, and you aren’t casting a lot of things each turn. You’re instead trying to gain incremental advantage by making each card count more.
Interaction: It’s not easy being Green
Green has the best ramp suite and the second best card advantage suite, but it has the worst interaction suite. It’s not even close. In terms of creature removal, you get fight effects and you get combat. For planeswalkers, it’s combat. At least you can destroy any kind of artifact or enchantment, and you can smite fliers like nobody’s business.
The other good news is that we can sidestep this with Beast Within. Beast Within is one of the few catch-all solutions in Green. It can take care of any problematic permanent in exchange for giving our opponent a 3/3.
We also get Heroic Intervention. That’s blown me out a couple of times as a Blue player, as it functions as a counterspell for anything that might wreck your creatures.
It had not yet been printed when Graham played this deck on Game Knights, but Veil of Summer is perhaps some of the best Green interaction ever printed — so good that it’s banned in every tournament format without Lightning Bolt. (The moral of the story is that Lightning Bolt is a necessary part of tournament Magic, and Wizards R&D can fite me IRL about that one.) If you’re going to build this deck for yourself, you should find room for it, even if it means cutting a vanilla bear.
But most of our interaction is going to be either fight effects or destroying artifacts and enchantments. Force of Vigor, Vivien Reid, and Savage Swipe are our small handful of noncreature interaction spells. But creatures are where green shines.
Ayula herself gives any bear an ETB trigger that allows one of your bears to fight a creature an opponent controls. As such, she’s a one-creature fight club, allowing you some amount of interaction with your opponents. That’s actually a good thing to have on a commander, even if it isn’t a more engine or combo commander that we’ve seen previously.
In fact, the fact that Ayula turns all of our bears into, if not removal, at least something that discourages blocking, allows us to go a bit lower on interaction spells: all of our bears become creature removal even without going to combat. Thus, we find ourselves with a reduced interaction package because of the bear engine that is Ayula.
In terms of cards Graham didn’t include beyond the unavailable-at-the-time Veil of Summer, I might also recommend EDH all star Krosan Grip. It can deal with a number of problematic permanents — including win conditions from combo decks. That’s a meta call, though, and the meta that Graham was building for didn’t bring in a Blue artifact commander (because they explicitly don’t play with commanders that look busted, the video was featuring new commanders from Modern Horizons, and the blue legendary creature that cares about artifacts in Modern Horizons was obviously broken in half). Bring it in if you’ve got blue decks looking to do broken things with their artifacts.
Graham did build in significant card draw, much to nobody’s surprise. Green can draw cards like nobody’s business, second only to Blue.
Guardian Project, Sylvan Library, and Vanquisher’s Banner do great work as permanent-based Green draw. Harmonize, Shamanic Revelation, and Rishkar’s Expertise are also solid draw in Green, and of course Graham’s running them. Finally, he’s got Beast Whisperer, which is another great source of repeated card draw.
Vivien Reid can also function as card advantage, as her +1 ability puts cards into our hand. Growing Rites also can help us dig for another creature if we need it as a part of its ETB ability — and of course it’s flipping the turn it comes down.
Another recent addition that Graham couldn’t have run due to its debut in Thrones of Eldraine is Once Upon A Time — yet another card that got banned in tournament formats without Lightning Bolt (seriously, Wizards, put Bolt in Standard!). But as it stands, he’s running about 10 cards worth of draw, which at this level, is a pretty good spot to be.
Other suggestions I might also make to brewers interested in Graham’s list as a starting point include Whisperwood Elemental as a way of helping power through boardwipes, jamming Sensei’s Divining Top because I just took a DNA test and it turns out I’m 100% that jerk that thinks it belongs in every Commander deck, even if it really doesn’t (and it does not belong here), and I’d also consider Regrowth effects. As you can see, this is a land where upgrades, meta calls, and personal preferences can dominate the discussion: there’s a reason I haven’t made literally any of these adjustments myself, as I’m actually bewildered by the choices I know I have, and I derive no small amount of pleasure from working with a deck from a person I look up to. Also, I need to put it through its paces a bit more than I have before I start messing with someone else’s work.
This deck doesn’t run combos. That’s actually fairly normal for a focused deck. There are lots of players who simply do not like combo wins, as they get repetitive and boring after a while. They are probably right, too, but that doesn’t stop me from playing combo decks all the time.
That said, this deck does include Overwhelming Stampede. If I were considering adding other cards as things that help win the game, the likes of Triumph of the Hordes and Craterhoof Behemoth would probably wind up in here. That said, only put Triumph of the Hordes in a focused deck if you’re a jerk or you’re really stuck. Nobody likes dying to infect. Lastly, you wouldn’t be crazy to take a page from Seth, Probably Better Known as SaffronOlive’s book and jam a Panharmonicon for value if that’s something you want to do.
Graham is running a lot of vanilla creatures. Normally, that’s more draft territory: you usually want your creatures to be doing something in commander. However, he is using a commander that effectively gives them useful ETB triggers. What’s more, he’s in a moderately-supported tribe, and playing moderately-supported tribal decks means that occasionally, you’ll need to put in some vanilla creatures. Ayula really made Bear Tribal possible, though — without her, the archetype would be firmly in Precon tier.
So repeat after me: don’t put vanilla creatures in your focused decks unless your commander gives them additional rules text.
Other deck options to consider
I played this Baral list for a very long time. It gave me stories like the time I dragged a game out for 3.5 hours before finally winning by blue creature beats. That’s just not a thing that should happen, but it did. In fact, that was perhaps the most fun I’ve ever had playing Magic. The problem was that everybody thought I was running this Baral list, which is about as optimized as you can take mono-Blue counterspell tribal. Being the jerk I am, I totally blew a bonus on the optimized variant. It was better back then thanks to Paradox Engine, and the Paradox Engine ban led me away from the list.
That list generally adheres to the spirit of a focused deck: it’s not even running the Dramatic Scepter combo — it intends to use Isochron Scepter as a way of repeatedly Brainstorming.
Similarly, The Commander’s Quarters has a cornucopia of effective focused decks. I love his content, and if you like focused decks (and you should: they really are the apotheosis of Commander) but don’t like spending money, you will too.
Next time: Mechanical Decks
I will also promise to leave the land of mono-color decks — and my favorite play styles — behind. This is mostly because the next deck I’m going to talk about is the deck I ultimately started thinking about deckbuilding for.