You’re excited to build a new deck. You have some ideas, a couple hidden gems, and the joy in your heart that only deckbuilding provides. But how do you get from your ideas to a fully-built deck?

Like all things in this format, there are many paths to building a Commander deck. I’m going to break down a few approaches; the ‘philosophical’ or ‘goal’ methods are focused on deciding what overall criteria to use in your selection, while the ‘construction’ approaches are focused on just getting cards and selecting cards for the deck.

For many people, the building process might even use one approach from both categories. You may pick cards based on the mechanics of a deck, and then use a template to ensure that you have the minimum types of effects you are comfortable with.

It’s all very subjective.  Let’s dig in and see what each angle is about.

Philosophical or Goal Approaches

‘I Love This Card!’

The first approach I want to break down is the ‘I Love This Card!’ approach. This is basically just where you start jamming all your favorite cards into a deck. This approach creates a giant pile of cards that you adore, but as a result it may lack some of the synergy that many players strive to include. This approach will create a deck that makes you squeal in delight at each topdeck. We have all done this at some point, it is completely fine to make a less-coherent deck (*cue* elitist stance) for a deck that is more akin to a pile of fun cards with lands shuffled in.

The Good – The deck is super fun. Every topdeck provides a new chance to draw a beloved card. If you have some well-developed instincts about what a deck needs, then you can often pull off something pretty phenomenal.

The Bad – This deck is idolized like a Ferrari during building, but performs more like a Pinto up on blocks. This is especially true if you don’t have “Commander Instincts” – making sure certain essential things are in the final deck.  (Skimping on graveyard hate, for example.)

‘I’m Going to Break This!’

This approach is somewhat common among spikier players in the format. You decide that a card is ban-worthy, but somehow the Rules Committee is making a tragic mistake of allowing the card to continue tainting the format. How can you show them the error of their ways?

By building a deck to abuse the living shit out of that card.

Then, you go to something like a Grand Prix and play in some casual pods.  You curb-stomp everyone with a competitive deck, take their lunch prize money, rince, and repeat. Because you’re an asshole. Then you can go and make an article for Star City Games or wherever and get published for documenting being an asshole.

The Good – You broke the card. Good job.

The Bad – You accomplished… what exactly? You ruined some people’s fun and took the prize money after playing a decidedly-unfair deck.  You’re probably an asshole. Doubly so if you do this against casual groups and not ones with specific competitive decks.

Mechanical Focus

The ‘Mechanical Focus’ approach is based on a primary plan of utilizing game mechanics. This can be a deck focused on a single mechanic like prowess, ferocious, or affinity; it can also be a focus on making the Commander’s effect work a specific way. The former is pretty straight-forward and needs no explanation, while the latter is a little more involved; it can be something like using Rhys the Redeemed or Damia, Sage of Stone to maximum effect. The end result is that a deck can produce oodles of tokens or dump its hand to reload. The common thread is that nearly every card contributes to the primary plan.  Mechanical-focused decks try to maximize synergy in the deck to break math. When a Commander deck has real quantifiable synergy, it snowballs until 2+2=5, instead of just four.

I want to note that I actually think most decks tend to fall into this approach. We want to make Kydele, Chosen of Kruphix tap for enough to cast Eldrazi or go infinite with untap effects and win through a Fireball. Or we want to make a deck that abuses flying in several ways, or finds ways to make Kaseto, Orochi Archmage an absolute house. The approach varies in implementation, but the goal is the same – pushing a mechanically-focused build to accomplish a specific goal.

The Good – The deck has a very strong goal and there are plenty of ways to support that goal in the deck. This deck is likely to be powerful and consistent.

The Bad – Your deck probably looks like anyone else’s deck around a specific Commander. Focusing on making a mechanic work and then choosing a commander can avoid this, but it isn’t as common.

Thematic Focus

The ‘Thematic Focus’ is all about making some specific theme work, as opposed to a mechanic. You pick a theme like “Pirates and Sea Monsters!” or “Nevertheless She Persisted” (A recent Mr.P brew featuring all female-identified characters on the art, and Cauldron of Souls to make them, er, persist) and search your collection for cards to help. Then, you search a card database for cards that match the theme. If you are going hard on the theme, then you will likely end up buying the missing pieces.

The theme approach is usually less focused on mechanics and trying to win. You can make a coherent deck that follows the theme, but it just takes serious work. This would be like selecting a specific version of Naturalize art, or needing to use a functional variant that matches the theme.

The Good – This deck has a strong identity. The deck is fun to talk about, other players are typically interested in it, and you can surprise people with offbeat cards we have all forgotten.

The Bad – The deck may be missing key effects to win the game or simply not die. Adhering strictly to the theme may limit the options you have available.

Construction Approaches

Template Approach

This approach to building a deck seems to be growing in popularity. You create a template based on the things your deck is trying to accomplish, and then use the template to whittle down the extra cards. It can be an Excel spreadsheet or Google Doc, or just a simple category breakdown.

Without taking a specific commander or goal in mind, an example template would like this:

  • 1 Commander
  • 38 Lands
  • 12 Ramp
  • 10 Card draw/tutor/filter
  • 6 Removal
  • 8 Recursion
  • 10 Win cons
  • 15 Flex slots

This template would then adjust as you change commanders and deck goals. I also think it is best to include a ‘synergy’ section when building to avoid the pull to just run goodstuff cards.  I’ve personally only recently started using templates to build – before, I tended to instinctively have my categories covered – but using a clear template on Google Docs lets me share with friends and get better feedback.

When you are using a template approach, the best goal is maximizing each category with your choices.  For example, Abzan Charm in a deck using +1/+1 counters is removal, card draw, and synergy – using it in any one slot frees up space to address other needs in other categories. Versatile cards increase category numbers while also filling other roles. Pestilence Demon can be removal and a win condition. It may even be synergistic with the rest of the deck strategy as well.

The Good – You will have a very playable deck. As long as you pay attention to your mana curve, your deck will run smoothly and be able to handle most of the common Commander situations.

The Bad – Rigid adherence to a template makes for a stale deck. Some decks will wildly change the template, but if you don’t adjust the deck will underperform.

The ‘Cards on Hand’ approach

This approach uses the cards you have lying around – EDHRec and Gatherer be damned. You want to build a thing. You have a list of cards and a commander that use/abuse/support this thing you want to do. You go through your collection for the stuff on your list. You find a good chunk of it, but not everything. Now your deck is suddenly only 85 cards.

What is the solution? Well, you start using other cards in your collection to fill in the missing pieces. It’s just like the scientists did with dinosaur DNA in Jurassic Park. You still end up with a complete functional deck, but it looks and feels way more organic.

The Good – This approach allows you to build without spending more money on cards. I’m down with frugality, especially when cards like Protean Hulk go from $2 to $20 in a single day.

The Bad – You may end up using the same cards all the time, since that’s what you’ve got on hand.  It enables hate cards and your group to metagame against you all that much easier.

The other problem is that your deck may be a dinosaur, but it still has some frog DNA keeping it from being a true T-Rex.  If you’re someone who needs the best cards for the job, this is going to drive you nuts.

Your Approach

What approach do you personally take to building? Is there an approach I have not listed that you think I should include? Let me know your thoughts in the comments and on Twitter.

-Erik