Last updated on June 14, 2021
Commander’s Authority | Illustration by Johannes Voss
Maybe you’re just getting your first Commander precon and want to start upgrading it. Maybe you’ve built a few decks already but there’s still that little something missing that you can’t clearly pinpoint. Maybe you already know most of these cards. No matter what your level of expertise in the world of EDH, it’s always good to find that one card that your deck’s been missing.
I’ve been playing Commander for several years, but I’ve spent more time brewing decks by myself or with my playgroup to find weird or fun ways to exploit the format than I’ve spent actually playing some of those decks. And through all of this deckbuilding and homebrewing there’s been one thing that stands out: a lot of cards show up time and time again in almost every deck I’ve built.
I’ve dug through YouTube and EDHRec to try and make a good list of what cards you should always put into your decks. It should go without saying that these are my personal picks and they’re in no particular order, and if some of these don’t fit into your deck for whatever reason, you should always include what you want to play and what makes your deck fun above all else.
With all that being said, let’s jump in and see which cards to add to our decks!
The Best White Cards
We all know that ramp tends to be a really big issue for white. If you’re playing a white deck that doesn’t also play a lot of green, you’ll probably find yourself extremely behind on mana really early on. Land Tax is one of the safest ways to work around that.
It won’t put your lands on the field for you, and you might find yourself with a lot of cards in your hand really quickly if you’re not playing enough things. That being said, it’s still worth the risk when it keeps you from falling behind in the ramp race.
As an additional bonus, this is still a great first-turn card to play in decks with green thanks to cards like Azusa, Lost but Seeking and Exploration that allow you to play those three lands really quick.
Wrath of God
I don’t think this card needs any introduction. Wrath of God gives the slang term “wrath” its meaning in MTG. This is the first mass creature removal ever printed in Magic and it’s still just as powerful.
Commander boards can get very populated very quickly. No one enjoys having an almost-empty field when all the other players have ten or more creatures ready to run you over. That’s why Wrath of God exists. Anything that isn’t indestructible gets destroyed and can’t be regenerated.
There are plenty of other board wipes in white, but to this day I don’t think any of them is as effective as the original wrath. Cards like Fumigate and Austere Command offer some circumstantial advantages but also have a higher mana cost and become more complex to play at the right time. And none of them state that creatures can’t be regenerated, which doesn’t sound like much but it’s always a safe bet to have that in your wrath.
I’ve talked about how white gets left behind when it comes to ramp and mana. Here’s the clear proof that the people at Wizards are aware of this and working to fix it. Land Tax is an amazing card for early game but, as I mentioned, can draw you too many lands. It becomes pretty stale in the late game. That’s where Smothering Tithe comes in.
We’re obviously facing a much larger mana cost, but the reward of this card is huge. You’ll either create a Treasure token for each of your opponents or force them to play with two mana less each turn. And that’s the bare minimum you can expect, because if there’s something EDH players love to do, it’s draw cards.
Swords to Plowshares
Effective and to the point. This is probably one of white’s best single-target removals. You can get rid of basically any creature that can be targeted and they can’t be brought back. The only downside is giving your opponent some life which isn’t a huge problem in a game of Commander.
White cards excel at one thing and that’s protecting you and your creatures. This is probably the greatest example of that. You’re basically out of the game until your next turn. No one and nothing can interact with you in any possible way.
It’s a risky move because it also means you can’t do anything, but it’ll allow you to survive basically anything that would destroy your board or finish you off in a dire situation.
The Best Blue Cards
This doesn’t make much of a difference a lot of the time except for some advantage since you can choose cards from your hand to put back in your deck. But take a commander like The Locust God or Niv-Mizzet, Parun and it suddenly becomes a lot better, especially for a 1-drop.
Narset, Parter of Veils
Now we’re facing the exact opposite way. Say your opponents play decks that take advantage of card draw. Play Narset, Parter of Veils. They don’t anymore. Something that simple makes this planeswalker an almost universal addition to any of your decks.
Narset’s second ability is all right, but it’s not what makes it powerful. It can give you some advantage if you play plenty of non-creature spells, but that’s about it. If you need a better explanation for why its passive skill is reason enough to play this, let me get to the next card.
“Do you pay one?” You know exactly how unnerving those four words are if you’ve played enough Commander games.
This is easily one of the most “staple-y” staples for EDH. Almost any game of Commander that makes it to its late stage will have players casting plenty of spells each turn. And I mean plenty. I’ve seen people play eight spells in a single turn.
I don’t think I need to give much more reason to why Rhystic Study is a must have in any blue deck. You’re either gonna be drawing cards like crazy or forcing other players to waste their mana. And it’s a “may” effect, so you don’t have to worry about drawing more cards than you can hold without discarding.
I almost feel like a bad person writing this, but I said I was going to make a list of Commander’s must-haves and this is definitely one of them. It’s also an easy way to lose friends while playing a card game.
There’s only two reasons to cast this card for its overload cost. First: is everyone is way ahead of you and you need to hold off for a few more turns. Second: you’re the one who’s ahead and you’re about to end the game. Either way, play Cyclonic Rift in every blue deck because you’ll always find a good use for it.
If you’ve ever played Magic against a blue player then you’ve heard the word “no” right after you cast your favorite spell many times. There’s a good reason for that. For two blue mana you can dismantle an infinite combo. You can get rid of that one piece of a huge combo that would give someone else the game. You can hold off your opponents and stay ahead. Whatever you choose to do with your Counterspell, it’s almost always going to be a great idea.
There are a lot of other counter cards you could play. Some are even more powerful. You could have things like Mana Drain or Force of Will, but you should also have a lot of money to get them. And let’s add that they tend to be more restricting in some sense and require you to be more aware of both your and your opponents’ strategies at all times.
The Best Black Cards
Let’s get this out of the way first because it has so much text. The idea of the card is pretty simple, though. Bring a creature from a graveyard under your control and it gets -1/-0. The creature also dies if you get rid of Animate Dead since it’s an enchantment. That’s pretty much it.
Basically, it means that you can grab any creature in any graveyard and get it on your field for just two mana. Think things like Entomb on turn 1 to put Terastodon in your graveyard. Turn 2, you play Animate Dead, and you can see where this ends. Everyone plays a lot of enchantment removal in Commander and it’s not so easy to have both cards in your opening hand, but it’s still worth a try.
One life is a small price to pay every turn for card advantage when your starting life total is 40. This is a simple and straightforward card. Each turn you have to pay a small price in life and, in exchange, you draw an extra card.
As with Phyrexian Arena, this card has a theme of “you can have great power if you’re willing to pay the cost.” Paying life is never the most fun because it makes you feel like you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage. This card wants you to make that sacrifice, but it’s easily one of the most powerful board wipes in the whole game.
The truth of the matter is that it’s pretty unlikely you’ll ever cast Toxic Deluge and pay more than five or six life. It’s a card that’s usually at its strongest when removing large amounts of not-so-large creatures than focusing on fewer, larger threats. And giving them -x/-x means indestructible is worth absolutely nothing when this hits the field.
Zulaport Cutthroat and Blood Artist
I chose to make this one a tie between two cards because they do almost the same thing, but the very slight differences might make a huge change in strategy.
I’d say Zulaport Cutthroat proves to be stronger on sacrifice-themed decks. It’s obviously stronger when you’re playing against many opponents because you’ll hit them all instead of having to choose one, but you’ll only hit when one of your creatures dies.
On the other hand, Blood Artist only lets you hit a single opponent at a time. However, its ability triggers every time any creature dies. If you’re playing against something like a token deck and you cast a Damnation, it could mean instantly killing at least one opponent and gaining you a lot of life.
Whatever strategy you chose, they’re both great additions in decks that run black because they’ll win you a nice amount of life. Especially if you’re running any of the previous cards I discussed that make you pay for things with your life.
Tutors are one of black’s strongest effects. I had Vampiric Tutor and Diabolic Tutor as runner ups for this position, but Demonic Tutor stands undefeated as the most flexible tutor to run in any deck that plays black.
Some of the other tutors have circumstantial advantages when you put them in with some strategies that make the most use of what they do, like putting the card on top of your library instead of your hand. But even when all that is considered, I’d rather run a Diabolic Tutor that’ll quite simply give me what I need for little to no drawbacks.
The Best Red Cards
Curse of Opulence
Red and ramp aren’t concepts that get along well. Red and political play aren’t the most compatible playstyles either. This card gives a hand with both of those things. You’re offering your opponents reasons to attack someone other than you while simultaneously giving yourself a pretty solid source of mana.
The plan might backfire and you’ll end up giving some extra mana to whoever attacks your chosen opponent, but it’s a risk worth taking.
You may not be the biggest fan of giving free mana to your opponents with your Curse of Opulence. That’s more than reasonable. With this card you can give yourself plenty of free mana without worrying about your opponents taking advantage of it.
If there’s two things that see a lot of play in Commander, it’s artifacts and enchantments. There are entire decks built around both of them. It’s almost impossible to play this card and not reap a huge profit from it. And you can always blink it or sacrifice it to cast it again for even more treasure if you’re playing with colors other than red.
Some people may disagree with me, but I feel like you could get Cyclonic Rift levels of rage from the other players if you play this card at the right time. I’ll let you decide if that’s a good or a bad thing.
But in all seriousness, getting rid of every artifact you don’t control can give you a huge advantage in an EDH game. Even if your opponent isn’t playing an artifact-themed deck, everyone in Commander tends to play a significant number of them and destroying them all in one sweep can change the whole board state.
The high mana cost in this card can make you think twice when putting it into your deck. But if you think it slowly, it’s really easy to have at least five or six creatures at a Commander table at any given time. And it probably means you want to get rid of several creatures at once if you’re casting a board wipe. All I’m trying to say is that you’ll be casting this for just one mana more than you’ll be casting it for seven or even six.
If the cost-reducing effect isn’t enough to convince you, just remember that dealing 13 damage will get rid of almost any creatures on the battlefield. And this is the only red wrath out there that won’t win you the undying hate of your entire play group. I’m talking about Jokulhaups of course. Never play that card.
This is another card that doesn’t seem so good at first glance. It can backfire really easily, but it can also send your opponent’s win condition into their deck and replace it with some really low tier jank or a basic land. And most of the time you’ll have the latter happen.
I’m not gonna try to tell you this is the best removal in the game. It isn’t. But Commander games sometimes aren’t about winning or playing the best cards. Sometimes the game has gone on for way too long and you decide to Chaos Warp your opponent’s Sol Ring only for that to give them a free Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. Red isn’t the most strategic color, but creating a little chaos on the table can be even more fun.
The Best Green Cards
Cultivate and Kodama’s Reach
I think it’s pretty obvious that I chose to put these two together because they’re exactly the same card, just with different names. It’s cards like these that gave green the fame of being the best color for ramp. They’re not the most powerful cards in the game by a stretch, and they won’t singlehandedly win a game or anything of the sort, but they will fix your mana base in an efficient way that might be enough to give you the advantage you need.
You can also play cards like these alongside Scute Swarm or Tatyova, Benthic Druid and they suddenly become a lot more interesting. It’s like having two of the same card even though Commander’s a singleton format since they’re different cards with the same effect.
I’ll admit, I wasn’t really sure why so many green decks played Beast Within when I first started building my own decks in Commander. It’s clearly not as good as other single target removal at first glance. Giving your enemy a 3/3 creature can be an obvious issue if you’re not careful.
Then I took a second look at it and saw it in play. “Destroy target permanent” at instant speed. You can get rid of basically anything for just three mana and that makes it really strong in a Commander game. No one wants their win condition to turn into a simple 3/3 beast, after all.
Birds of Paradise
There’s plenty of green cards that tap to add mana, but I don’t think any of them are as iconic as this one. It’s been a staple in almost every format it’s been in, and with good reason. Having three mana available on turn 2 can put you ahead by a lot if you know how to use it. Take Cultivate for instance. You play that on turn 2 and have five mana by turn 3. Now you can play everyone’s favorite card, Gigantosaurus.
All jokes aside, green is the color of ramp, and Birds of Paradise is a perfect example of that. If you’re searching for more budget-friendly options, you can also opt for Llanowar Elves or Elvish Mystic. They’re not as good, but they’re not too far behind either. They fit right in on that elf tribal deck you’ve been brewing.
This is no Teferi’s Protection, but it’s still an amazing safeguard for your creatures. Maybe someone casts a board wipe or targets your creatures for some removal. Maybe an opponent attacks you and blocking would kill several pieces of a combo you want to trigger. This prevents any of your creatures from dying by any of that for just two mana.
It’s the same as with basically all of the green cards before. This card won’t win you any games by itself, but it’ll make sure that the cards that would don’t leave the battlefield too soon. And if that doesn’t work you don’t need to worry, because there’s one last card I want to talk about.
There seems to be a trend in Commander where green cards aren’t game changers but rather utility cards. This isn’t an exception. There’s one harsh reality about Commander and that’s whenever you play that one powerful card you’ve been wanting to play for the longest time, it’s immediately gonna get sent to the graveyard. I’ve had it happen so many times I can’t even count them. And that’s exactly why I try to have Eternal Witness in all of my green decks.
It should also be mentioned that there are a lot of graveyard-centered decks that run green in their color identity. Golgari have always been centered around filling your own graveyard, after all.
The Best Artifacts and Colorless Cards
I’d bet this was the only card in the whole list that absolutely everyone saw coming. There’s dozens of mana rocks out there and they’re all great, but Sol Ring remains the most versatile and useful in basically every deck you could think of.
It’s cheap and it’ll put you ahead in terms of mana really quickly. No drawbacks or side effects. Of course, cards like Mana Crypt are stronger in some ways, but they also come with risks that you sometimes can’t afford taking. Some decks won’t be at an advantage running cards like that. Every single deck profits from Sol Ring.
The second-best thing right after Sol Ring if you ask me. It costs one mana more and only adds one mana. What makes it worth your while is that the mana it adds can be of any color in your commander’s identity.
Getting two mana is always good, but colorless mana isn’t as good as colored mana most of the time. That’s where Arcane Signet shines. You could technically play both on your first turn if you enjoy having a huge target on yourself right from the start.
Let’s get one thing clear right away: you’re gonna have a lot of creatures die during a game of Commander. So take advantage of that. The only possible drawback to this card is that it gives +1/-1 to the equipped creature but even that’s not really a big issue.
You can use this on small and expendable tokens, on creatures you know are not gonna last long, or even when you want to hit your opponent. Sometimes they’ll prefer taking damage over letting you draw two cards. This is a deceptively simple card and that’s why it works so well.
Lightning Greaves and Swiftfoot Boots
In most cases I’d pick Lightning Greaves without a doubt. Giving your creature shroud for a free equip cost is invaluable in Commander. But shroud also means you can’t target your own creature and that could be troublesome. It’s in those cases that Swiftfoot Boots has the advantage. It’s not as easy to equip but it’ll let you interact with your own creature.
You can always play both and see what works best for your deck. Either way, always have at least one in your deck to make sure your commander doesn’t almost immediately get killed by removal.
Sensei’s Divining Top
I’d say this card is irreplaceable in some decks, and a great way to fill in empty spaces in every other deck. There’s almost no decks that won’t benefit from being able to reorder their top three cards to make sure their next draw is always the best it can be.
This card also has the advantage of a low cost both for playing and activating its effects. Paying only one to reorder your top three cards can be a lot more useful than it seems.
The Best Multicolored Cards
This one’s a very simple card. Green and white aren’t particularly strong when it comes to tutors, but they sure like their creatures. It was only fair that they’d get an effective tutor that lets you dig through your library for that creature you need.
Another interesting way I’ve seen this card being used is by searching for a creature that’s good but not too important. Maybe you have that one creature in your hand that you absolutely need to play and you don’t want it to die. Use Eladamri’s Call to search for something good that you don’t need that much and show it. Make everyone think that’s the final piece to your combo and play it. Your opponents will waste a counter or a removal and it’ll help clear the way for the card you actually needed.
I’m not here to tell you how to play your cards, but if you play Boros Charm for anything other than its indestructible effect, you’re not playing it right. Double strike and four direct damage are good but there’s a lot of other cards that can do that for the same cost.
Giving all your permanents indestructible for two mana at instant speed is an invaluable protection in the face of wrath cards and even targeted removal.
Rhythm of the Wild
If this card had been a three CMC enchantment that made your creatures impossible to counter, it would’ve been great. Making sure your creatures enter the battlefield and then rewarding them for it is the welcome advantage against control decks that green and red needed.
Riot is probably Gruul at their strongest we’ve ever seen them. Giving you the choice between haste or +1/+1 counters can absolutely change the way a creature-based deck plays. This goes great with “enters the battlefield” effects and creatures that need to tap for effects, but it’s also amazing in counter-centric decks.
I’m not a fan control decks. I really don’t like playing against them. But if there’s one thing that’s more annoying than an obsessive control deck, it’s a control deck that’s immune to their own strategy.
I’ve seen stacks of around five or six counterspells all targeting each other. This card may not be the most fun to play against, but it’ll save you from situations like that when you just need to make sure that something gets countered.
This is probably one of the strongest single-target removals in the game. For three mana and three life you can get rid of any nonland permanent for good. There’s almost no instance where losing three life is a worse option than getting rid of a huge threat.
I have to give recognition to my other option for this one, though. Assassin’s Trophy can be extremely good when played at the right time. But there’s two main differences: it destroys instead of exiling and it gives your opponent free mana which can be risky early on in the game.
The Best Land Cards
This land has been around since the first Commander precon and it’s been a staple ever since. It helps fix your mana base and has absolutely no drawbacks. It’s simple and effective and that’s the best a land can be in Magic.
The original dual lands are way too expensive to just throw into any deck you build. Shocklands aren’t exactly cheap either, but they’re more accessible. The only drawback is that they either enter the battlefield tapped or you lose two life.
What sets shocklands apart from other duals is that they also include land types. Effects that allow you to search your library for a specific type of land can fetch you a shock too as long as it doesn’t say it has to be basic.
If shocklands and dual lands are still too expensive, you have other options. Check lands don’t have land types so they’re slightly worse than shocks. That doesn’t mean that they’re completely useless, though.
If you control lands that have the correct land type, these will enter the battlefield untapped. This means that basically the only way to have them enter tapped is if you play them on your first turn or if you’re really mana screwed.
Maybe some people will disagree with me on this. Having no maximum hand size isn’t strictly necessary on some decks and you’re wasting a land slot for some generic mana. It’s understandable if you want to replace it with something else.
I choose to keep this card in most of my decks not because of their own strategy, but because of my opponents’. If you’re playing against a Nekusar, the Mindrazer deck then you’ll be glad to have no maximum hand size. There’s plenty of decks that make their opponents draw cards just to discard them. With Reliquary Tower, you can take advantage of that.
Sometimes we get obsessed with throwing in all the powerful lands we can find when we’re building our decks’ mana bases. Color fixers and utility lands are always great to make your deck a little stronger, but be careful not to forget your basic lands.
Most ramp cards exclusively care about basics. They don’t have drawbacks the way most other lands do. They’re so simple and basic that they remain one of the most reliable type of cards in the game.
Jokulhaups | Illustration by Richard Thomas
As much as I hope this list helps you build your Commander decks, the truth is that EDH is a format that keeps fun at the forefront. Always build with the cards you want to play and that you think will make the game more fun. Except Jokulhaups. Trust me on that one. Don’t make the same mistakes I once made.
That’s all from me for now. Brew some amazing decks, and if you think I forgot any cards let me know down below!