Welcome to my newest Approaches to Deck Building article. Today, I’m focusing more on players newer to Commander who are struggling with their deck building, or just want a few more tips to get going. Learning to play Commander is tricky, but when it comes down to it, learning to build a deck is even more difficult.
Every journey needs a first step. For anyone, I think the best starting point for Commander is identifying the goal of the deck. I’ve said this many times, but ‘winning the game’ cannot be your goal. If everything is equal in EDH, then you can only expect to win about 25% of your games; this number will adjust for each group, but if winning is the goal, things will go poorly on average – and thus very poorly for your enjoyment. It means that 75% of your games will end in a loss – that means 75% of your games are a failure.
Do not focus on winning like this.
While you certainly should play to win, you should instead pick something for your deck to try to pull off. I like to use a little combo or synergy as a goal. For example, my Glissa Sunseeker deck wants to kill off artifacts for value and use mana doublers and mana sinks to clog up the board for my opponents; my Vial Smasher the Fierce deck is trying to cast huge X-spells like Comet Storm to deal tons of damage to the table; my Kydele, Chosen of Kruphix and Bruse Tarl, Boorish Herder deck is trying to power out Eldrazi or make a huge amount of mana for a Fireball. These decks all have something to attempt during the game; this allows them to be successful without needing to win a game outright. Having a plan is important.
The main place to begin deck building is usually one of two things – the commander itself, or a cool deck idea. Either way, one choice follows the other; a commander needs a cool deck to lead, and a cool deck needs a commander! However, the cool deck doesn’t need to be a complete deck. It could be a core group of cards or a concept to build into a deck.
To be fair, there are other places to start too, such as modifying a Commander Pre-Con deck (or mashing together multiple Pre-Cons – modifying 2.0!) For purposes of this article, though, we’ll stick to the ‘building from scratch’ angle; for that, we start with a goal and a commander.
In the beginning, there was chaos. Then, Dr. Garfield said “Let there be limits!” The color pie was born – and it was good. Soon after, Mark Rosewater sought to strengthen the color pie identities.
And it was also good.
The color pie frequently dictates plans and archetypes available to deck builders. For example, how often do you see green in a control deck? Mark Rosewater is incredibly fond of the phrase “Restrictions breed creativity.” In Commander, this still holds true. The color identity directs your deck in some subtle ways – and some very unsubtle ways.
For example, a Rakdos deck basically cannot interact with enchantments. Red has a single catch-all spell (Chaos Warp), and the only other interactions are convoluted or impact all permanents. Black also has no way to interact with enchantments without reaching beyond its colors. As a result, red and black decks need to turn to colorless answers. Lesson #1 – Do not neglect the strengths or weaknesses or your color combination!
With that preamble done, I highly recommend that new players start with a two color deck. Using a second color provides the deck more options without becoming as overwhelming as a three (or more!) color deck can be. It also enables you to more easily focus on the theme and goal of the deck. Four and five color decks are more difficult to build, and this is also especially true with their mana bases. Also, the pull to create a goodstuff deck and abandon the deck’s goal increases with more colors. This is probably most evident in UGx decks – the slippery slope of degeneracy, redundancy, and goodstuff is strong and calls to every builder.
The color selection for a deck is usually an afterthought. A core deck concept will largely have its colors chosen when a commander provides the color restriction. For the example deck I’ll build in this article, I used magiccards.info Advanced Search and pulled up every legendary dragon. (I used dragons because they’re cool and the format originated from the Elder Dragons!) This resulted 40 dragon options, so I used random.org to get a number to select my dragon commander.
Number 29 leads me to Rith, the Awakener.
Heck yeah! Brian Kibler earned the nickname Dragon Master using this card to Top 8 his first Pro Tour. Rith is also awesome for being powerful, having a strong build-around effect, and has good colors to support her effect. I like having a goal related to her ability, so we’re just going to try to make oodles of tokens and make them high impact.
Brian Kibler used Armadillo Cloak with Rith the Awakener, so we will too…as well as it’s functional reprint – Unflinching Courage. Since we’re now looking at mechanics, this leads us into adding some trample effects so that Rith can connect with our opponents. We’ll need mana to activate her ability and continue developing a board presence. Double strike will let us activate Rith multiple times in a turn. Finally the deck should have some global pump effects to make the tokens bigger than mere 1/1 critters.
You can find templates for decks in many place. Sean provided one years ago here and you can find more on the various Commander sites, forums and blogs all over the internet. The Command Zone podcast notably uses templates in nearly all their deckbuilding casts.
Here is the template I’ll be using with Rith, the Awakener
- 1 commander
- 38 lands
- 12 ramp
- 10 card advantage
- 6 Removal
- 20 Focus Slots
- 13 Flex Slots
Let’s get started.
One of the largest amounts of time spent on a deck will be sorting through cards to find ones that fit your build. There are plenty of tools to assist with that, from card search engines like Magiccards.info and Gatherer. You can also use EDHRec, Reddit, and other Magic forums to find good suggestions to assist whatever game plan you are aiming for. For us, that is for cards that will meet the four points I listed above – ramp, trample, double strike, and token pumping. These will allow the deck to have a strong combat focus synergy – the trample and double strike effect for Rith can help our tokens beat down too.
You can – and should – use other resources too. Don’t discount Standard or Modern Magic content. The goal for those formats is finding the most powerful cards and abusing them, but you’ll find some great suggestions nonetheless, regardless of your intended goal. Podcasts about Commander are typically overflowing with hidden gems too, as players love finding new toys to try out.
Basically, don’t pass on these opportunities to let others do some of the heavy lifting for you.
But while you search for cards, never forget that math is our enemy. 2+2=4…this is true. But if we use synergy, we can beat math. We can change things so that 2+2=5, and with enough synergy we can break math entirely so that 1+1+1+1=237 or some ridiculous number like that. Synergy in Commander is a force multiplier; Sean’s article above turns a 20-turn clock into a two-to-five turn clock by abusing synergy. Kaka’s Magnum Opus abuses synergy as well. It’s a very powerful tool. Use the synergy you can find to support your deck’s goal.
This synergy goal can be anything. Anything. +1/+1 counters are easy with several redundant Doubling Season and Hardened Scale effects about. Plus, you can add stuff like Inspiring Call to dig deeper and protect your critters. The goal could be be using Wheel of Fortune and friends to power up Kydele, Chosen of Kruphix to cast big dumb spells for cheap. Use searches to look for the specific effects you want and you’ll find all sorts of great options, like drawing extra cards with Thought Reflection and Alhammaret’s Archive.
For Rith, some searches pull up several cards:
- Parallel Lives
- Anointed Procession
- Second Harvest
- Parallel Evolution
- Armadillo Cloak
- Unflinching Courage
- Loxodon Warhammer
- Collective Blessing
- Berserker’s Onslaught
- True Conviction
- Beastmaster Ascension
- Overwhelming Stampede
- Five-Alarm Fire
- Druid’s Repository
Doubling Season would be amazing, but the card is very expensive for a new player to invest in. Parallel Lives and Anointed Procession are much more affordable and are only going to continue to climb in value. Continuing with this effect are Second Harvest and Parallel Evolution; Evolution is tricky because it can help opponents, so it may get cut in the end.
To further support trample, I love Loxodon Warhammer; it’s a bit of a pet card, but the lifegain and trample effect supplements Armadillo cloak well. The token support is huge: Collective Blessing, Berserker’s Onslaught, True Conviction, Beastmaster Ascension, Overrun, Overwhelming Stampede, and finally Five-Alarm Fire. I completely forgot about that last card, but James mentioned it in the GDC chats. Ramp doesn’t support tokens too much but Druid’s Repository will be amazing to push the deck forward.
Ramp and card draw are like shoes. I know this sounds funny, but go walk a mile barefoot. It sucks…especially if you are walking on pavement or a track surface. Imagine running that mile barefoot- it would be sheer torture.
Playing card draw and ramp is like adding shoes. It makes the terrain easier to navigate, and provides cushioning for your joints. Card draw is not strictly card drawing spells; any draw/tutor/filter/card advantage card can assist. Wrath of God is not card drawing, but it provides virtual card advantage by removing many creatures off only a single spell. Red has gotten better with card advantage with the ‘rummage’ effect (like Rummaging Goblin) – using graveyard shenanigans makes this effect much more powerful.
The number of ramp and card drawing pieces are so high because they provide consistency and enable you to simply not fall behind. Running about 20 or more cards that “don’t do anything” may seem like a waste, but they are not; they allow a deck to focus on the important parts of its game plan and not run out of gas.
However, you should look for synergy here too. Some decks want mana dorks – cards like Wood Elves – over Cultivate because being a creature matters (my Sek’Kuar, Deathkeeper deck is an example since I profit from my creatures dying). You can also look to further your game plan with choices like Elemental Bond in a dragon deck, because every creature triggers Bond to keep cards flowing.
How does this work in practice? For Rith, I would run something like the following ramp pieces (assuming the crazy stuff like Mana Crypt is off limits):
- Sol Ring
- Birds of Paradise
- Search for Tomorrow
- Rampant Growth
- Sakura-Tribe Elder
- Boros Signet
- Gruul Signet
- Selesnya Signet
- Nature’s Lore
- Kodama’s Reach
- Commander’s Sphere
- Explosive Vegetation
- Cryptolith Rite
- Druid’s Repository
I went with a higher count because ramping was one of the goals for the deck. I hit the twelve slots pretty easily, and then added a few more to bring the total up to sixteen. Fortunately, I left a few cards floating in the ‘focus slots’ section to make room for the ramp. Most of these are just really solid green spells, and the Signets. I personally like Signets a lot, and they’re cheap to get.
Cryptolith Rite turns tokens into further ramp when they aren’t going into combat, and everything else is staple-ish…but they do their job and get out of the way. Also, Commander’s Sphere pulls double duty and can cash in for a card later.
For card draw I would run something like this:
- Shamanic Revelation
- Regal Force
- Eternal Witness
- Rishkar’s Expertise
- Mentor of the Meek
- Hunter’s Prowess
- Enlightened Tutor
- Knollspine Dragon
- Runehorn Hellkite
Several of these take advantage of all the tokens we make – Skullclamp, Regal Force, Shamanic Revelation, and Mentor of the Meek. Eternal Witness is a catch-all recursion piece, while Hunter’s Prowess can help make lots of tokens with Rith while drawing cards. Rishkar’s Expertise is a draw spell that lets us play something immediately; Enlightened Tutor is useful with all the enchantments and artifacts to supplement card drawing, damage, or even ramp. Finally, the two dragons provide some extra fat creatures to use while enabling us to draw more cards when we run low on gas.
Running removal isn’t quite part of the shoe metaphor, but removal is very important. This includes removal for artifacts, enchantments, lands (mostly nonbasic), and creatures. As always, you want to use synergistic pieces when possible. A deck focused on emptying its hand such as Damia, Sage of Stone will value free spells like Slaughter Pact and Snuff Out more than most decks, while a deck that is low on card draw may prefer removal that hits multiple targets like Decimate or Relic Crush.
For Rith I would start with the following removal pieces:
Swords to Plowshares is just the best creature removal spell printed, and Path to Exile is its little brother. Artifact Mutation and Aura Mutation remove problem artifacts or enchantments while providing more saprolings for the deck. Hour of Reckoing can wipe the board while leaving the saproling horde intact, also the saprolings can help pay for it if we end up behind. Finally, Decimate just takes out a whole bunch of problems at once.
Run your Fun cards
Commander allows you to maximize synergy, but that is no reason to abandon some fun cards. I love leaving some flex slots in a template for pet cards, powerful cards that may be a bit off theme, and just plain cards that can’t be played anywhere else. Sometimes, this is a crazy strong Grim Monolith, but more often that is a Butcher Orgg or similar over-the-top card that is too inefficient for any other format. Jam those giant cards! This is EDH; we can play the original Elder Dragons with a straight face, so feel free to run a couple cards that do whatever it is that you love about Magic. In a pinch, you can also shore up perceived or real weaknesses in the deck with these flex slots.
For Rith, we have several open options. First, I want to look at removal. Aura Shards is repeatable destruction for artifact and enchantment focused decks. It’s a ‘may’ trigger so we don’t wreck ourselves. Rith’s Charm can make tokens, provide a Fog effect, or destroy a nonbasic land; I love versatility, so we can add this and Naya Charm. (What’s the fun of being in Naya colors without running the Charms?)
Oblation, Chaos Warp, and Beast Within provide several catch-all answers for different problems we might see. Boros Charm can save our permanents from most removal, give Rith double strike, or finish off a player. Excellent!
If we want to support Rith more, Sword of Feast and Famine helps Rith punch through and afford her ability to make some tokens. Scourge of the Throne can give give Rith and all the saprolings an extra combat phase. Now she has plenty of support.
The deck looks a little light on recursion, so we can add Greenwarden of Murasa. Impact Tremors can help make sure that our tokens do work (it also doesn’t have the stigma of Purphoros, God of the Forge, though I won’t fault someone playing it). Haste is normally heavily valued, but the tokens from Rith come after combat, so we can just cut down the basics of Lightning Greaves and Swiftfoot Boots to help protect key cards. The deck is also clearly lacking a ridiculous big creature, and Autochthon Wurm has convoke and is utterly massive! Imagine having this out and casting Overwhelming Stampede? Mega Saprolings!
With this we have one more spot open. I think we can grab a sacrifice outlet in case our opponents cast a sweeper or something dreadful like Massacre Wurm. Goblin Bombardment does the most damage and is more importantly a free sacrifice outlet, so it will also protect our stuff from theft effects and let us squeak in some damage when an opponent is low on life on the cheap.
Run More Lands
One of the biggest tips I can give is for players to use more lands. Probably more than you think you need. In fact, I’m going to steal an old Anthony Alongi tip – if you think you should cut a land, instead add a land. Flooding is always better than being mana screwed because the cards you draw are more likely to be impactful. Also, with the commander tax, you will often need more mana than you planned. Run more.
Lands also can provide ways to cheat spell effects without taking a deck slot. Maze of Ith is a premier example, but the hideaway lands (Mosswort Bridge) are useful too. Bojuka Bog is easy graveyard hate and won’t take a slot away from your deck. You can even add some extra combat effects!
If you are stuck figuring out what nonbasics to run, then you should take a look at Manabase Crafter. When you want to avoid getting wrecked by your colors read this. I regularly link to this article; Dr. Mouldenhauer-Salazar wrote an outstanding article years ago that still helps me make sure my colors work, so check out his formula. I often cheat and just use it work out the basics in my deck and run full cycles of any nonbasics I include, or I count them as a basic in the case of a Bojuka Bog. Use this formula, improve your deck!
The template I’m using calls for 38 lands; with so much ramp I don’t think we need to add more. We can start with obvious stuff like Command Tower; if you have the shocklands, run them. Same with on color fetchlands. They fix mana wonderfully. Of course the original dual lands like Plateau are amazing, but very pricey – for Rith, I’ll use Shocks but skip fetchlands and duals.
In a three color deck (or most decks actually) I recommend painlands. They can provide colorless mana when you don’t care what they do and they’re a dual land when you need that extra color to cast a key spell to win, stay alive, or just stop an opponent’s power play. Using them and the checklands or buddy lands (Hinterland Harbor) provide plenty of options for a three color deck to get colors fixed.
We start with the following:
- Command Tower
- Jungle Shrine
- Stomping Ground
- Sacred Foundry
- Temple Garden
- Clifftop Retreat
- Rootbound Crag
- Sunpetal Grove
- Battlefield Forge
- Karplusan Forest
This brings us to 15 non-basics. We may not want to go too much further, because the ramp pieces add a lot of basics to the battlefield and we need to leave plenty of them. However, I do think the hideaway lands will be good. We only have one land that must enter the battlefield tapped (Jungle Shrine) so the hideaways won’t hurt our tempo much.
From here, we can go back to the formula I linked to in the Five Rules for Avoiding Mana-Screw. Without doing the math well, I would be something like:
- 10 Forests
- 6 Mountains
- 4 Plains
And that’s that.
Decklist-Rith, the Awakener
[Focus 15 (Upped Ramp count so this number appears low)]
Birds of Paradise
Search for Tomorrow
[Flex Slots 15]
Sword of Feast and Famine
Scourge of the Throne
Greenwarden of Murasa
Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion
Kessig Wolf Run
Thanks for tuning in! I really hope this serves to help out those of you who are struggling to get over the initial deck building hump, or who are having trouble tuning in general lately Good luck with your builds!