Off Topic: Commander Theory

Life is great and I have been enjoying it. I've been going Commander crazy the last few months. I have hooked up with a new and loyal group of casual players with an equal love for Commander. Actually, they found me through my writing. It is wonderful because a long time ago I told my wife I always wanted to have a poker night and now I have it. Twice a month on Thursdays in Rochester, MN, three guys with beer, whatever food we can find that delivers, get to play eight hours of uninterrupted Magic. On top of this, I have the luxury of getting to play Commander with a friend back home on the weekends.

My only focus has been Commander. The side effect has been a lot less stress. I'm no longer worrying about the metagame, playtest time, and keeping up with tournament reports. If I were missing something during my break, it would be all the Magic theory. The complexity of the game is what intrigues me. At the competitive level, theory is boiling over and splashing everywhere. Everyday, dozens of writers across the multiverse are talking about Vintage, Legacy, Modern, Standard constructed and draft. In comparison, theories about the format are rare. This bugs me. Just because Casual is the quote unquote fun format doesn't mean theory should be thrown to the wayside.

This is a problem. As a born again casual player, I've been engrossing in the very few articles out there every week for casual players. Most of the articles grate me the wrong way. It is because the articles are subjective and simply a matter of opinion. Maybe it is the scientist in me. I want objectivity, a hypothesis, or at least focal point to give the discussion context. The articles usually result in a writer pimping out a deck from anecdotal experiences. It is fine and all, but I didn't learn anything. Today, I am going to remedy this by presenting some basic theory for building a Commander deck.

Deck Building Strategies

At the basic level, there are eight different approaches/avenues to take when making a Commander deck. They are represented in the image above as aggro, control, combo, good stuff, group hug, chaos, nostalgia, and theme. Choosing an approach is very important because it will give a deck builder direction during the construction process. It will make decisions about the card selection process easier. In essence, it will help streamline the process. I should point out that any of these eight could be mixed and matched to create a multitude of combinations. I suggest no more than two of the above with a possible splash for a third. Too many combinations will only confuse yourself and the people who those decks are leant to. Let's go through some brief explanations.

Nostalgia: this approach is all about pet cards and old favorites. The focus here is the cards you love to play and have sentimental value. Nostalgia decks will be full of fan favorites such as Sengir Vampire or Serra Angel. Every card you cast should make you smile.

Good Stuff: this approach means exactly what it means: Good Stuff. The focus is simply good cards. Vindicate could be considered the poster child for a good stuff deck. A deck builder isn't trying to accomplish anything fancy. A viable strategy would be to take all your best cards and stuff them into a deck. Ta da, you have a good stuff deck.

Group Hug: see Zedruu the Greathearted. The idea behind group hug decks is to select cards that can benefit your opponents and maybe yourself in the process. Focus should be constructing a deck that’s fun for the whole group. If a group hug deck is constructed correctly, your opponents will keep you around for the fun of it.

Combo: Combo decks can be built in a variety of combinations. A combo deck could consist of a variety of small combos as well as one big combo. Many may frown upon combos that take out the entire group. This doesn't mean mini combos are impractical and unwelcome.

Aggro: An aggro strategy is about being proactive and attacking into the red zone. A successful aggro deck will never be sitting idly by and waiting. Aggro is about pulling punches and starting fights. Just don't confuse this strategy as being dimwitted.

Control: A viable strategy that is calculating and about strategic planning. Spells are reactive to the players and the board state. A control strategy is solely about counterspells. A control player is the master manipulator in getting to decide what lives, dies, and when.

Theme: A good theme deck will be immediately recognizable by your opponents. Whether it is tribal, discard, or picturesque with an artistic style, the theme deck has a homogenous feel to it.

Chaos: Anarchist dreams come true when Confusion in the Ranks is in play followed up by Living Death. Personally, I find chaos players to be extremely dangerous because a player never knows what they will do next. Chaos is all about anarchy and piloted by a mad hatter.

Mana is King

Over the years, it has been my observation that the person with the most mana production wins. This entails speed of mana development, the efficient utilization of that mana and the amount of mana available to the spell caster. It may be even more important in the Commander format than a regular multiplayer free for all. Mega amounts of mana allow those menacing Commanders to repeatedly hit the battlefield. I will take a moment to talk about each of these areas.

Commander decks with access to green have inherent luxury of mana fixing and production. Nongreen decks have a bitter pill to swallow. Besides pulling lands off card draw, the only other option is artifacts. Luckily, a plethora of artifacts are at a deck builder's disposal. A deck builder has to be careful though with the amount of artifact acceleration used in a deck. It seems players are inherently drawn to blowing up the world effects from Akroma's Vengeance, Pernicious Deed, to the colorless Oblivion Stone. Artifact mana acceleration can therefore be a liability excluding the fan favorite Darksteel Ingot. I'm not saying signets should be avoided, but rather I am warning to use them judiciously.

There are other options to negate drawbacks. Dreamstone Hedron and Mind Stone are great ways to ramp while negating the inherent disadvantage to board sweepers. If you can afford the price tag, Solemn Simulacrum helps ramp any deck. My hunch is competitive Magic will only make acquiring this staple worse as prices will continue to rise. The last colorless option for those nongreen decks is the colorless Rampant Growth in Wayfarer's Bauble. If ramping isn’t your style, reducing mana costs can be uncannily beneficial. The familiars such as the notorious Nightscape Familiar or the medallions such as Emerald Medallion are great reasonably priced alternatives if you can find them.

A different approach is to double the mana available with cards like Gauntlet of Power, Extraplanar Lens, Gauntlet of Might, and surprisingly affordable Caged Sun. Unfortunately, these options are only viable in some monocolored decks. However, nothing beats land. It is the reason I am a big advocate for the use of Explorer's Scope in creature heavy decks and Walking Atlas for decks heavy with card draw or Karoos. Explorer's Scope simulates the power of Oracle of Mul Daya to ramp mana. Walking Atlas does wonders to ramp for land heavy hands.


Compared to other formats, Commander plays a diverse amount of spells, due to the one card restriction, across a wide range of mana costs. Hardcasting a Reya Dawnbringer is not unthinkable in Commander. Spread is a concept about taking an idea or mechanic and spreading the effect across mana costs and types. For example, a player wants a heavy amount graveyard removal/control in their deck. A selection of spells with an appropriate amount of spread go Bojuka Bog, Scrabbling Claws, Withered Wretch, Necromancer's Covenant. Here, we have cards of different types across the mana curve.

Essentially, spread helps reduce the risk of a player having a foil to the desired effect. Magus of the Moon could really put a damper on a person relying too heavily on Bojuka Bog to get the job done. Null Rod makes Relic of Progenitus or Scrabbling Claws look silly. It is a valid strategy that can be found in nature in number of iterations. In my opinion, I think it is a mistake when players congregate spells around a specific mana cost and type. A common real world example is those players playing multiple Wrath of God effects in a deck. Eventually, they run across something they can't handle or end up blowing up creatures they would rather have hanging around.

I talked early about mana production for nongreen decks. Using spread for context, I believe the key to successful mana production is to spread the mana production across a variety of options. In a sense, don't toss your eggs all in one basket. I suggest Explorer's Scope, Dreamstone Hedron, Solemn Simulacrum, Pilgrim's Eye and Signets to boost mana production. The diversity will make the strategy more robust and versatile in the long game.

Leading by Design

It is surprising to me how virtually no theories have been developed about the Commanders themselves. The additional layer of complexity Commanders add to the multiplayer format deserves attention. The waters are uncharted without an explorer in sight. As no surprise, I have been developing my own theories about Commanders. Most of it has been developed from trying to improve a couple of my decks. One in particular is my Hanna, Ship's Navigator deck. It has fizzled continuously despite the shining star I believe it to be.

In order to provide context, I looked towards my more successful decks. My Thraximundar deck is probably the most successful. Yes, Thraximundar is a brute, but I do find that the deck is very well balanced and versatile. My conclusion is there are two different types of Commanders/decks. The crude concept is Commanders fall into either the brute or brain category. The divide influences on how the deck around the Commander is built. From this, I have developed the concept of heavy lifting.

Commanders like Thraximundar or Teneb, the Harvester don't need a whole lot of help from the deck to be effective. A swing into the red from either one can quickly change the tempo of the game to my advantage. My mistake with Hanna, the Ship's Navigator is I was expecting her to basically get me there. As I reconsidered my ninety-nine, I was relying too heavily on Hanna. When I reconstructed the deck, I put Hanna in her place where she belonged: as a supportive role. She is not meant to win the game. She is meant to help the deck win the game. In a Hanna, Ship's Navigator deck, the deck itself needs to do the heavy lifting. In contrast, brutes like Thraximundar don't depend on the deck and can do the heavy lifting themselves.

Mana Dumps

One last thing before ending this theoretical extravaganza, every Commander deck should have a mana dump. Every turn offers the opportunity to utilize a player's mana. Often, mana goes untapped turn after turn. It is a waste. I would highly urge players to account the amount of times mana goes unused during a game. Each untapped mana source is a lost opportunity. Therefore, I suggest the inclusion of mana dumps. This could include cards like Jayemdae Tome, Ghave, Guru of Spores, Myr Matrix, Sphinx of Magosi, and etc. The inclusion of mana dumps will help maximize the usage of mana during every game.

Political Upheaval

I must admit I miss the days of the Ferrett and Anthony Alongi. Back in the day, Anthony Alongi was a pioneer in multiplayer theory. Most of his thought on gorilla and rattlesnake cards still hold true today. Got to love taxonomy. Ferrett's articles were always enjoyable in a dark humor kind a way, but enjoyable nonetheless. However, between the sarcasm and humor, the take away in between the lines was always practical and sensible. However, little on theory has been developed for the multiplayer format since then. The good news I think the Commander format is ripe for the taking for writers wanting to make their mark on this multiplayer format.

Off Topic: Creature Names

On a side note before I go and not worthy for an entire article, something has been bothering me as I scour Magic cards for my Commander decks. The irritant in question is the use of creature types in card names. The usage feels overly redundant. Take angels for instance. Every angel has angel in its name. Really? We have cards like Serra Angel and Baneslayer Angel. For one, we have creature types. If I really need to know the creature type, I can, well, look at the creature type. Second, the art speaks for itself. I can see it is an angel. As long as the artist does their job appropriately, I should be able to recognize the card as an angel. Between the creature type and art, I still get the type in the name of the card. Lastly, the practice is not used across the board. Imagine if we did the same thing with every Magic card. Dark Confidant Human, Tarmogoyf Lhurgoyf, and etc. For more insanity, check out how many dragons have dragon in their name. As far as I am concerned, the entire practice seems pretty ludicrous.

Anyway, Later.


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