Advice from the Fae | Illustration by Chippy
Commander is the format for homebrewed decks. There’s nothing wrong with netdecking, but Commander players often build their own. As a more socially-forward format compared to competitive formats like Modern and Legacy, EDH is the place to let your creativity as a player shine.
But maybe your brew isn’t doing what you want. You’re not fast enough, or your deck is just a bad match for the tables you’re playing. You’ve picked out your commander, but you still need to refine the 99. I’ve got tips to help with just that.
As a quick caveat, these tips aren’t meant for cEDH so much as casual and high-powered casual decks. cEDH has its own rules of engagement and deckbuilding that are outside the scope of this article.
With that out of the way, let’s get to it!
Tip #1: What Power Level Do You Want Your Commander Deck to Be?
Apex of Power | Illustration by Svetlin Velinov
The most important thing to consider before brewing your deck is the intended power level you want your build to be. This sets a solid baseline of the cards you will and won’t include.
For example, most EDH decks use ramp. But a lower-powered deck will ramp with cards like Cultivate, Harrow, and Hour of Promise. In contrast, higher-powered decks want to play fast mana like Mana Crypt, Mana Vault, and Grim Monolith. They’re the same type of card, but at vastly different power levels.
You also want to consider your deck’s power level in relation to the rest of the table. As a guideline, here’s the 5-10 power scale that my friends and I use:
- 5: This is the lowest grade of deck. They’re unfocused and clunky, closer to a pile of cards than a polished and functional deck. At this grade you won’t win many, if any, of your games because something more structured just blows past you.
- 6: This grade has a more cohesive theme and better focus. It’s a deck, not a pile of cards. That said, this level still generally has a lot of inefficient card choices and lacks removal. This grade wins games, but it usually requires other players to ignore them for it to happen.
- 7: This is a more polished 6. You’ve let go of most of the weaker cards and the ones outside your theme to focus on what your deck needs to be doing to win the game. At this level the deck is likely missing resilience and efficient interaction to disrupt your opponents’ gameplans, or you lack your own win conditions. This deck wins a decent amount of the time.
- 8: This is proper, high-powered casual. You’re doing extremely strong things efficiently, even if you still have some cards you’re playing because they’re fun rather than good. You’ve got ways to win the game and plenty of cheap disruptive elements. You have resilience to stop your opponents from winning, and stop them from stopping you. This is a seven with the weaknesses polished away, and it can win often.
- 9: With grade 9 you’re starting to push into cEDH territory. Any fun cards that might have been in grade 8 are replaced for pure efficiency. You’re starting to build a critical mass of fast mana and free spells, and your win conditions are cheap and super hard to interact with.
- 10: This is the highest grade in power level, and basically the meta decks of cEDH. These are the best, polished to a keen edge with no fat and an average mana value of .75. It’s generally hard to brew a deck that hits this power level.
Obviously Commander power levels are a finicky thing to apply. You might find these grades don’t work with the system your friends use, and that’s fine. There’s far more subjectivity to Commander than other formats; this is just a guideline.
Having a power scale and a level in mind is useful for building your deck from the perspective of the other players. You can bring a 7 to a table of 8s and still play a game of Magic, but you’ll be obliterated if you’re rocking a 5. And on the flipside it might be a good idea to tone down the power level of your deck sometimes. If all your friends on playing precons (which generally sit between 6 and 7) and your Urza, Lord High Artificer deck is a 9, you may need to dampen things to cultivate a fun play environment.
As a last note, you’ll find this section leans into the idea that in Commander, better doesn’t equal stronger. A 9 or 10 is always stronger than a 6, but it might not be better when you’re actually playing with your friends. Understanding the power level you want to play gives you a strong baseline for the cards you can and can’t include, like deciding the colors you want to play.
Tip #2: Don’t Rely on Just Your Commander
This one might be a contentious tip, but hear me out. Your deck is and should often be built around your commander, but being built around your commander is wholly different than relying on them.
A deck built around its commander uses its themes as a guideline for a powerful deck. For example, you could choose Veyran, Voice of Duality as your commander and build a spellslinger deck around it that uses its ability to get tons of value out of cards that care about casting instants and sorceries. In that deck, those other cards are the win conditions. Veyran is a valuable tool, but the deck can win without it.
On the other hand, say you’re building a storm deck built around Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain using cheap artifacts to build a storm count with Jhoira as the main card draw engine thanks to its ability. This is a deck that can’t win without Jhoira in play.
The weakness of a deck reliant on its commander is simple: it needs the commander in play, or it won’t win. Your opponents have a clear path to victory: remove the offending commander and take you out.
There are a few ways to avoid relying on your commander. The first is to have other win conditions in the deck and use your commander as an enhancement. For the Veyran example, Veyran complements cards like Archmage Emeritus and Niv-Mizzet, Parun, making them incredibly strong. But these pieces are already strong on their own; Veyran is a piece of a greater whole.
Another way is to build redundancy into your deck so that your commander isn’t the only version of the effect that makes your commander so strong. For example, if you build a deck around Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines that focuses on ETB abilities, add Panharmonicon as a redundant version of the effect. Now you can use either card to make your abilities trigger an extra time, adding a layer of resiliency and consistency to your deck that wouldn’t be there if you just relied on Elesh Norn.
Of course, maybe you do want to rely on your Commander. That’s fine. In all honesty, Jhoira storm is a fun and powerful deck, which proves that you can rely on your commander. But that doesn’t negate the weaknesses, so you need to consider how to keep your commander safe.
If you’re relying on your commander, you need ways to protect it. Countermagic is an easy include. You also want cards dedicated to protecting it. Cards like Lightning Greaves, Tamiyo's Safekeeping, Slip Out the Back, and Malakir Rebirth keep your commander safe so that your opponent doesn’t just remove it. Effects like Command Beacon are also helpful if it’s removed a few times.
Tip #3: Build Around Your Commander’s Desires
Every commander desires something from their 99, and these desires are often what give you your deck’s themes.
Let’s use The Gitrog Monster as an example. As a card, Gitrog cares about getting lands into the graveyard so you can draw cards. Self-mill cards like Wrenn and Seven and cards that let you sacrifice lands like Crop Rotation and Zuran Orb work well with Gitrog.
Once you’ve established that you want cards in your graveyard, you can further extend those desires. Cards like Crucible of Worlds and Splendid Reclamation get way better if you’re filling your graveyard, and cards like Titania, Protector of Argoth benefit when you sacrifice lands.
You could go further to keep brewing, but this gives a solid foundation for the concept. Matching your commander’s desires is important to make the most of them. The Gitrog Monster is a fantastic card with the cards above. But it wouldn’t shine nearly as much if you try to helm a green-black elves or Golgari () aristocrats strategy with it.
Building around your commander’s desires is much easier with something as specific as Gitrog, but even commanders that are just generally good have conditions that they want. For example, Tymna the Weaver is a strong commander that doesn’t necessitate any one strategy. But it’s still got desires. Tymna wants to be played alongside plenty of creatures that can get in and damage your opponents. Small evasive creatures are often best so that you can reliably attack multiple opponents per turn.
Your commander doesn’t want you to sit back and stall behind enchantments the way one like Zur the Enchanter might. You always have access to your commander in your opening hand, so you want to maximize its potential by giving it what it wants. Of course, some commanders might want multiple things, which is where the next tip comes in.
Tip #4: Focus on Your Core Strategy
I try to build my commander decks around a singular theme or strategy that’s built to maximize my commander’s strategy. This is like the above tip, with the critical difference that this is how you translate your commander’s desires to a win.
Let’s revisit Veyran, Voice of Duality. Veyran’s desires are pretty straightforward, right? You want to build a spellslinger deck that casts a bunch of instants and sorceries for value. But what kind of value?
My Veyran EDH deck focuses on tokens as the source of its value. I’m looking to double triggers from cards like Young Pyromancer, Docent of Perfection, and Shark Typhoon to overwhelm my opponents on the board. This is critically different from trying to use Veyran to pilot a storm deck that probably uses it to get extra triggers from effects like Birgi, God of Storytelling and Storm-Kiln Artist, making combo’ing off easier. Both of those would be different from a burn-style deck trying to double effects like Guttersnipe.
All three outlined strategies fall under the spellslinger umbrella, though each requires specific cards. There is overlap; Storm-Kiln Artist is a card that’s great in all three strategies. The purpose of focusing on your theme is to cut the cards that aren’t. For example, Balmor, Battlemage Captain goes great in the token version but does virtually nothing in the others.
Building around your core strategy makes the deck stronger and more consistent. If you don’t have a particular angle you want to take your deck, you may want to test a few strategies and see what comes out as the theme you want to keep building around. Focusing on your core strategy also helps inform the kinds of cards you need in your deck.
Tip #5: Sort Your Cards by Function, Not Type
Players often lay out their deck grouped by type. Let’s say you have 30 creatures, 20 instants, 20 sorceries, 10 planeswalkers, and 40 lands. But what are they doing? What’s their function in the deck?
To break it down further, let’s see what your instants are doing. Are all 20 of them counterspells? That’s more countermagic than the average Commander deck needs. If there’s a type of card you need more of, countermagic can be the first thing to go. Or maybe there’s no countermagic here, just card draw. Similarly, you can shave some card draw for countermagic, and so on.
Spreading your Commander deck across the table based on function is a great way to work on some of the above tips. Let’s say you’ve decided once and for all that Veyran is a storm deck and lay it out in piles. Your ramp pieces go in one pile, card draw in another, and so on until you find a few stray cards that don’t fit with any group. These cards often fall outside your theme.
This also exposes any holes in your deck construction. If there’s too much countermagic, too little ramp, too many big threats and not enough ways to survive long enough to play them… Maybe your commander needs a critical mass of a card effect you thought you had, but didn’t. Maybe you weren’t getting mana screwed because you were unlucky, but because you only added 30 lands. These slip-ups become more apparent when you lay your deck out like this.
There aren’t hard and fast guidelines for how much of which group you really want. This is another thing heavily affected by your commander’s desires and core strategy. The Veyran deck wants a much higher number of instants and sorceries than the Jhoira deck, which prioritizes a high artifact count. A deck with a commander that provides card advantage like Rashmi, Eternities Crafter can often play fewer card draw spells than a commander that doesn’t have card advantage, like Kodama of the West Tree.
It’s up to your strategy, your commander, and what you want out of the deck.
Tip #6: Look for Cards That Fill Multiple Functions
This can help elevate your deck’s consistency a lot. Finding cards that fulfill multiple roles in your deck makes the deck more flexible because more of your cards give you more options.
Let’s use Prismari Command as an example. At any point in the game, this card is: artifact removal, creature removal, card selection, a discard outlet, ramp, and color fixing. Similarly, Titan of Industry is a top-end card, artifact and enchantment removal, a token producer, a protective spell, and a source of lifegain.
Your decks might not care about all these modes, but they offer invaluable flexibility. Prismari Command is basically never a dead card, and that’s what you want. Cards that fill multiple roles help your deck function smoothly by letting you do what you need more often.
That said, a lot of your cards only serve one function. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and is inevitable to some degree. If your cards serve one purpose, make sure they’re very good at it. For example, Vandalblast is an EDH staple for good reason. It only does one thing, destroying artifacts, but it does it exceptionally well and is still flexible. It deals with the turn 1 Sol Ring but also devastates players on turn 10 when you overload it.
Tip #7: Run Better Interaction
Most of the people I play Commander with are newer to the game, and the most common flaw I find in their decks by a wide margin is a lack of removal and interaction. You can’t play Commander without running interaction.
Your cool thing almost always loses to somebody doing a cool thing, with a counterspell. It’s also a great way to make your deck stronger. The difference between a 7 and an 8 on the power scale can often be a few clunky cards that should be interactive spells.
When adding interaction to your commander deck, consider three things: diversity, efficiency, and relevancy.
A diverse suite of interaction is important because you’re inevitably going to face an array of threats. You want removal to hit the major card types. Most Commander decks are creature-forward, so spells like Doom Blade and Infernal Grasp are also good. You also need to answer artifacts, planeswalkers, enchantments, and occasionally even lands like Cabal Coffers. This is a great spot to look for cards that fill multiple roles like Feed the Swarm, which deals with creatures and enchantments. You can also file spells that protect your creatures in this slot because it interacts with your opponent’s interaction, like Tamiyo's Safekeeping.
Efficiency is tied to cost. Swords to Plowshares is one of the best removal spells ever printed because it permanently removes a creature at instant speed for a single mana. This is far worse than something like Blessed Light, even if the latter hits more permanent types. You generally want the cheapest removal possible. That said, flexibility is something worth paying more for. Prismari Command is a less efficient way to remove an early mana dork or rock than Burst Lightning or Shatter, but it does so much more.
Finally, consider your removal’s relevancy to your deck and how it works with your core themes. An enchantress deck built around Sythis, Harvest’s Hand is much happier playing enchantment-based removal like Oblivion Ring. Likewise, Bone Splinters probably isn’t worth running unless you’re an aristocrats deck that benefits from sacrificing a creature.
Relevancy goes double for board wipes. Frankly, I think board wipes aren’t good in Commander from a player’s perspective. They’re very good at stopping you from losing the game, but terrible at ending it. Staying alive isn’t worth it at a certain point. I’d rather die in a game that takes an hour and a half and shuffle up for another round rather than sit through a four-hour slugfest where every player casts Wrath of God as soon as somebody gets ahead.
If you run wraths in your Commander deck, try to make them finishers instead of stallers, which often means you want them to be on theme with your commander. If you’re playing an Urza, Chief Artificer deck that primarily wins with a board of artifact creatures, Phyrexian Scriptures and Organic Extinction are great finishers because they leave your board mostly untouched while destroying everything else.
Tip #8: Your EDH Deck Needs More Lands and Ramp
Remember that quip about getting mana screwed because you’re not running enough lands? It happens all the time. Hitting your land drop is one of the most powerful things you can do in Magic. There’s a reason landfall strategies are so powerful.
I generally don’t run less than 37 lands and don’t mind going as high as 40, with 38 being my standard. A high land count allows you to hit all your land drops. It makes your deck more consistent, though more subtly than redundant card effects would.
Ramp is also really important, and the two are intertwined. Ramping lets you play the game faster than your opponents. If you play a Gruul Signet on turn 2, you’re basically playing a turn ahead of an opponent who doesn’t play a Signet. Ramp is the easiest way to get ahead in Commander.
You might think that incorporating ramp with a high land count means your deck has too many mana sources. You have a lot, but not too many. If you cut lands in favor of ramp, your deck suffers because ramp only works if you hit your land drops.
In the above example you’re only a turn ahead if you make your third land drop, giving you access to four mana on turn 3. If you miss your third land drop, you’re on three mana on turn 3. You’re no longer ahead, you’re just on par. Not only are you not ahead anymore, but your opponent also gains an advantage because you spent your second turn playing a Signet to keep pace with the game. If they played something like Magda, Brazen Outlaw to develop their board, then they’re ahead. And if your Signet gets destroyed, that doesn’t put you on par with the rest of the table: it puts you a mana behind.
As with all these other categories, consider what your commander wants when picking your ramp. Kalamax, the Stormsire copies instants, so Harrow becomes far more appealing than it is in Kogla, the Titan Ape. You also need to remember that some commanders are more reliant on artifact ramp, especially those without green.
Your decks should probably also run more modal double-faced cards. These are cards like Bala Ged Recovery and Shatterskull Smashing that are a spell on the front and land on the back. This helps keep a high land count and high spell count.
I said I run 38 lands before. This often includes MDFCs, so it’s more like 35 to 36 lands and 3 or 4 of these cards. They’re lands early and spells late, and most decks can generally find one or two they don’t mind playing.
Tip #9: Your Commander Deck Needs More Eldrazi
This is a tip a friend gave as I started to get into Commander. I mostly play Draft, and a lot of those concepts don’t translate well to Commander. It’s a bigger, slower format and my earlier decks were often missing Eldrazi.
… Not in a literal sense. My friend wasn’t telling me to tuck Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and Kozilek, Butcher of Truth into my Rashmi, Eternities Crafter deck. What the deck lacked was true top-end finishers that closed the door once I got ahead.
Commander is full of finishers. They’re not always big; Thassa's Oracle and Demonic Consultation win just as effectively as Craterhoof Behemoth. The important part is having these finishers and having several. If you’re reliant on Craterhoof to end the game, what will you do if an opponent has a counterspell? Are you even running a green deck that Craterhoof reliably ends the game with?
This is really the culmination of all the other tips. Why do you need these ways to end the game? Because everything else we’ve looked at focuses on this final point. You’ve got interaction to stop your opponents from winning and to protect these Eldrazi. You’ve focused your deck around a singular theme to put yourself in a position to play it, increased your land and ramp counts to reliably cast your win condition, and cast it faster than your opponents. Because you aren’t reliant on one win condition, your opponents need more than a single spell to disrupt your gameplan.
The metaphorical Eldrazi is the final piece to build a better Commander deck. Value doesn’t win games; massive spaghetti monsters do. Your deck won’t close out the game if it’s all ramp and interaction and neat ideas. It just durdles around until one of your opponents shows you their Eldrazi.
Piece It Together | Illustration by Peter Polach
Commander is the format to let your skills and desires as a deckbuilder shine. The purpose of the format is to do cool and flashy things instead of always doing the most powerful or correct thing, and that subjectivity to deckbuilding is what makes the format. These tips are equally as subjective; you might find they don’t mesh well with how you play Commander, and that’s fine.
These tips come from my experiences, from what I’ve learned going from playing Limited for years to a format that’s wildly different. It’s a culmination of what my friends have taught me and what I’ve learned teaching the format to others.
What did you think of these tips? What lessons have you learned when building Commander decks? Let me know in the comments below, or join the discussion over in the Draftsim Discord.
Thanks for reading, and stay safe!
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