As I continue to write, more people come to me asking for deck advice. To really help out with a deck, I need to know the direction that the person asking wants to take. I find that players like the approach of playing cards they happen to own and hope to turn into a winning strategy. I support including a player’s favorite cards in a deck. However, an effective deck needs a strategy that involves more than just playing fun cards.Time spent weighing the value of cards against each other is wasted without a solid focus.
Before players go out seeking assistance with their decks, they should help themselves by deciding what they really want to do. Decks fall into three primary deck types: control, aggro, and combo. Before we can delve into specific deck advice, we need to understand these strategies and their related win conditions.
This may sound odd to some of you, but Control decks should make up the majority of Commander Decks in any given playgroup. Control decks focus on answers (cards that stop other players from winning) and as a result control decks have the most flexibility in choosing what “questions” (ways to win the game if they are not answered) to ask. The high life totals and features of a multiplayer environment make aggressive decks that focus on questions less dependable. If a player focuses on staying alive instead of winning they can pick the moment when fighting becomes most advantageous to them. On a more casual note, decks based primarily on answers can be the most interactive. In a vacuum, control cards don’t do anything. They require other players to be effective.
The stereotypical way for a control deck to win in EDH is through a combo. A player sits back and stays alive until they can tutor up their combo. Then, the player unleashes their combo and POOF game over. Control decks such as these are best suited for players who care more about the mechanics of Magic than trying to forge a narrative. In my opinion these decks are far and away the strongest group of Commander Decks. This tactic is popular for the traditional control player because the win conditions occupy a minimal amount of space in a deck. If they only have to spend two to seven spots in a deck for non-control they end up with the maximum amount of space to keep themselves alive.
Multiplayer politics give these decks a huge advantage when they play opponents for the first time. These control decks don’t tend to look like a threat, so there is a chance people just leave them alone. If they get ignored they don’t even have to spend the control to keep them alive.
Unfortunately this can also be the most hated form of control. If a player sits at a table, does nothing except barely survive and then abruptly ends the game from nowhere, they aren’t making too many friends. These kind of decks can have the side effect of giving playgroups the “always attack the blue player” mentality. However, they are great in more competitive playgroups where counterspells and instant-speed answers fill decks.
Perhaps a more notorious way for control decks to leave a bad taste in players’ mouths is through a lock win con. They set up a lock by creating a situation in which players other than the control player can’t cast spells or use mana effectively, so the control player wins by default. These decks are usually played by players who like being the archenemy. If a player choose to build a deck like this, they need to at least partially like it when people fear and dread them. Players usually don’t like playing against these decks if they aren’t expecting them.
If they are expecting it, players can be prepared and end a game feeling like Frodo taking down Sauron. The most notable of these decks, Erayo, Soratami Ascendant, has already been banned as a general. The Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir + Knowledge Pool lock is the next most popular lockout based on a Commander. Lockout decks are interesting because they are basically 100% control decks. These are the only decks where control is not only their main tactic but also their primary win condition. The strength of these decks is that the win condition protects itself. The weakness is that if someone has a deck that can still function during a lockout their chances of winning drop dramatically or even entirely.
I suggest using card advantage for struggling to decide on a win condition. Anyone playing a good stuff deck should look to make their deck into a card advantage (cards that produce more cards in hand or on the board than opponents have) based control deck. This typically entails a simple process of balancing the types of answers for the player’s individual playgroup and switching many of the cards players often consider “good,” because they usually give card advantage anyway. Creature-based answers are a common example.
The win condition for card-advantage-based control decks that run meta-tuned answers is straight the conventional attack step. The most common way for these decks to work is creature-based control. Naturalize becomes Acidic Slime and Counterspell becomes Mystic Snake. These decks swing at who they can and eventually win the game just by having things on the board while removing threats.
Pure aggro decks constitute the most commonly played decks in Commander. Players usually think about winning in Magic as bringing opponents’ to zero life. So it is only logical that decks aimed at doing that would be the most popular style of play.
Among aggro decks, ramp decks prevail as the most popular. These decks have a simple plan. Play a bunch of Rampant Growth style spells or mana rocks and then play big stuff. These decks represent battle-cruiser Commander at its finest. They play a pair of giant wurms and someone else plays an epic monster that looks like Cthulu’s bastard child. Then, they both watch them square off like Mothra fighting Godzilla. The issue is that even halfway decent control players are going to just vaporize or enlist the ramp players’ creatures for themselves. The way to make these decks the most effective is to be careful with the choices of what high end spells get played. Serra Avatar may be big enough to one-shot an opponent, but Woodfall Primus has already given value twice by the time it has been permanently removed from the board. Creatures need to have an immediate impact upon entering the battlefield.
The rest of aggro falls roughly into the same category of traditional/multiplier style aggro. These decks use synergies of different cards where the value of the whole produced by synergies between all the cards is something stronger than the sum of the individual parts, let alone any one card by itself. An example would be equipping a Kor Duelist with Grafted Exoskeleton and Inquisitor’s Flail. By themselves each of these cards has no effect. When combined they can knock out a player in a single combat. These decks are fun for players because they are challenging and wining with them requires tactical decisions.
This style of aggro deck is great if players want to feel like a real Commander that has to direct an army of moving parts to achieve victory. The weakness of these decks is that they require multiple moving parts throughout the game to have impact. In a control-heavy environment it may be difficult to build a proper board state through other players casting mass removal. These decks benefit greatly for card advantage that works alongside their tactics and strong recursion packages. They need to be able to rebuild a board state quickly to have any chance of victory. These are also the decks that get the biggest boost from playing land regulation (mass land destruction, Balance effects, and Winter Orb effects).
Combo decks win by assembling a combo as quickly as possible and then winning the game. These decks are played by players with an inner super villain. Pure combo decks either go all in around one particular strategy like Ad Naseam or try and fit as many different doomsday machines into a deck as they can. In playgroups that are light on control (most of them), these decks are incredibly powerful. Imagine a world where the Joker exists without Batman, or Magneto doesn’t have to face off against the X-men.
The problem is when someone shows up with a control deck it works like a normal superhero fight and the villain never wins. Any combo deck that wants to survive in a group with control needs to have ways of forcing their combos through. More than deck advice, pilots of these decks need to learn patience. Players who prefer to be the super villain need to know how to fly under the radar and not make a push for victory until they have the support needed to protect their doomsday device.
Combo decks can be built in two primary ways: the one-to-two-card combos such as Ad Naseum or Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker and the three-or-more card combos such as everything with Ashnod’s Altar. With a two-card combo, it’s ok if cards don’t do anything outside of combine for the win. In three-plus-card combos, this isn’t the case. Every any individual piece of the combo should also fill a vital role in the deck.
For example, if they are going to be playing Coretapper + Magistrate’s Scepter + Mimic Vat without anything else in their deck that uses charge counters, they have wasted a spot on Coretapper. Add mana batteries, Everflowing Chalice, Flux Cannon, and others, and Coretapper becomes an essential roleplayer and can be used without guilt. All combo decks benefit from the ability to hide a card’s true purpose in plain sight. They can use the utility of cards to obscure which ones are essential parts of your machine and which ones are just efficient utility.
Please continue to write me with requests for deck advice. I love helping you out and I always need more ideas for articles. You can write me over at swordstoplow(at)gmail.com or for quick questions tweet me @swordstoplow.