Last updated on November 29, 2021
Demonic Tutor | Illustration by Scott Chou
When you started playing Magic, odds are that you were playing a deck that was just a combination of some of the cards you owned. Cards that you liked (and had enough of in the first place) to put in one big pile and call it your deck.
This simplicity is my most missed characteristic of the typical Constructed formats like Standard and Modern. Not only do you have a more narrow range of cards but you also need to get up to four of each.
Commander’s success in both casual and competitive settings can be attributed to many of its qualities. The wide range of legal cards and how easy it is to get your hands on them are two of its best. But what else is there to know about this popular format?
Hold on to your hats, I’m about to dive right in.
What Is the Commander Format?
Sol Ring | Illustration by Mike Bierek
Commander, also known as Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH), is a singleton format that revolves around building 100-card decks that usually work around a single card: that deck’s “commander.” Commander has its own set of unique rules that separates it from the typical Constructed formats.
The Rules of Commander
Commanders must always be a legendary creature and your deck can only include cards with mana symbols that are present on your commander’s card face (this is their color identity). This means if your commander is a card like Morophon, the Boundless, then your deck can use any cards as all five color symbols are present on the card.
When your commander dies, you can recast it, but you have to pay a tax of two additional mana each time.
A commander deck has to be exactly 99 cards, plus your commander.
You deck must include no more than one copy of each card (i.e., it’s singleton). No playsets required here (woohoo!). This rule is what helps Commander be such an accessible format for players on a budget as well as what leads to players having unique and creative ways to play. There’s no need to buy four of each on-color fetch or shockland. This saves you the price of a used car payment each time you build a deck.
There’s also an alternative way to win than regular damage. Every time a commander deals combat damage to a player it also does commander damage. If a player receives 21 or more commander damage from a single commander throughout the course of the game, they lose.
Your starting life total in EDH is 40 instead of 20 and the format runs as a free-for-all between two to six players.
Path to Exile | Illustration by Todd Lockwood
The higher life total and multiplayer aspects mean that games not only go much longer but also offer a wide variety of ways to interact with your opponents. Strategies like group hug, where you deliver table-wide benefits to your opponents, become a very opportunistic game plan.
Cards like Heartbeat of Spring ramp everyone into their threats as early as possible and Dictate of Kruphix gives them the resources to keep going. Group hug can be a unique and refreshing way to play Magic. Playing politics and forming secret alliances are standard methods of play and strategies that leave you as the last man standing are paramount in a multiplayer environment.
EDH vs. Commander? Which Is “Right”?
Commander’s origin dates back to a format called “Elder Dragon Highlander” that was nearly identical aside from the options you had to pick from for your “commander.” Instead of any legendary creature being your commander, players chose from one of the Elder Dragon creature cards printed in sets like Legends, Masters II, and Chronicles.
These original Elder Dragons included Arcades Sabboth, Chromium Rhuell, Nicol Bolas, Palladia-Mors, Vaevictis Asmadi, Ugin, and Piru, which each represented a different 3-color combo. These origins resulted in the format having the alternative and exchangeable title of “EDH.” This acronym is also used in the competitive Commander sub-format often referred to as “cEDH.”
Why is Commander So Popular?
Counterspell (Mystical Archive) | Illustration by Olena Richards
Commander’s success and popularity stems from its ability to act as both a casual format as well as one with a large level of creativity. There’s no serious meta-gaming aside from the ultra-competitive scene and the format allows players to build decks that represent their play styles. The scope of a typical Commander/EDH deck is much broader than that of a Standard deck that usually aims to reach a very narrow goal as efficiently as possible.
Commander also gives you the option to throw a bunch of “good stuff” cards into a pile, add in some mana fixing and table interaction, and just have it work. Your ability to politic and persuade acts as a sort of equalizer between your deck’s power level and that of your opponent’s deck.
My love for the format comes from two aspects. First is the part where I only need to buy one copy of Snapcaster Mage for my deck instead of four, and second is that it allows for interactions that simply don’t happen in any other format. Where else do you get to Cyclonic Rift an entire board of elves, dragons, and zombies in one turn? Certainly not Standard, that’s for sure.
Arcane Signet | Illustration by Dan Scott
Any card with white or black borders that was released by Wizards of the Coast is legal in Commander — with a few notable exceptions. This is in stark contrast to having a legal range of sets like in Modern or Pioneer. So as long as the cards you’re running aren’t silver-bordered, from a promotional set like Unglued, and it’s not on the ban list then you’re good to go!
Commander Banned List
Speaking of the ban list, here are all of the cards that are banned in Commander:
- 25 cards with the card type “Conspiracy.”
- 9 cards that reference “playing for ante.”
- Cards whose art, text, name, or combination thereof that are racially or culturally offensive are banned in all formats.
- Ancestral Recall
- Black Lotus
- Braids, Cabal Minion
- Chaos Orb
- Coalition Victory
- Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
- Erayo, Soratami Ascendant
- Falling Star
- Gifts Ungiven
- Golos, Tireless Pilgrim
- Iona, Shield of Emeria
- Leovold, Emissary of Trest
- Library of Alexandria
- Lutri, the Spellchaser
- Mox Emerald
- Mox Jet
- Mox Pearl
- Mox Ruby
- Mox Sapphire
- Panoptic Mirror
- Paradox Engine
- Primeval Titan
- Prophet of Kruphix
- Recurring Nightmare
- Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary
- Sundering Titan
- Sway of the Stars
- Sylvan Primordial
- Time Vault
- Time Walk
- Tolarian Academy
- Trade Secrets
- Yawgmoth’s Bargain
Where to Play Commander
Paper and IRL
Cyclonic Rift | Illustration by Chris Rahn
Many Magic players ask the question: “Where can I play Commander IRL?” Lucky for us, Commander has been growing increasingly mainstream over the last few years. In addition to playing in casual pods with friends, game stores have started their own casual Commander events. My LGS has even made an entire weekly event called “Commander Monday” that separates players into random pods based on the strength of their deck. Commander also found a permanent home in the side events at SCG opens. R.I.P. Grand Prix.
If you’re looking for a bit of history, CommandFest was a WotC-sponsored weekend-long event featuring both casual and competitive Commander events. It was cancelled in the 2020-2021 season thanks to the pandemic. Unfortunately Wizards has announced that they’re “not yet ready to publish the details for the 2022-2023 season and beyond,” though they did stress the importance they’re putting on returning to “The Gathering” part of Magic. I hope that it comes to fruition sometime in the 2022-2023 season.
But if you’re dying to get to an in-person Commander event, you’re in luck! Commander Party is a WPN event that revolves around players progressing through a narrative story in the world of Innistrad by playing games of Commander in pods and winning prizes and bonuses as the event progresses. There’s only so much info available regarding the specific details of the event, but the first Commander Party is scheduled to take place October 30 and 31, 2021.
MTG Online has long offered both 1v1 and multiplayer Commander games. both in casual and league formats. It offers a great alternative to paper Commander thanks to the affordability of buying singles on the platform.
Swords to Plowshares | Illustration by Terese Nielsen
Since MTG Arena only has cards from Kaladesh: Remastered onward, the sets that would be legal in Commander aren’t even accessible on the platform. WotC introduced “Historic Brawl” as a workaround. This is essentially the Arena variant of Commander/EDH, the big difference being the only legal cards are the cards in Historic, which includes all cards on MTG Arena except for a few banned cards (looking at you, Oko).
Commander Precons and WotC Decks
With every new set block comes a new set of preconstructed decks from WotC for us to pick at. These decks offer a bang-for-your-buck type entry into the format and usually come with Commander staples like Sol Ring and Arcane Signet. Each release covers a variety of themes and play styles within each deck and is a solid choice in terms of content and value for new players.
Innistrad: Midnight Hunt Commander Decks
The newly released Innistrad: Midnight Hunt decks offer two different archetypes to choose from: a Selesnya “Coven Counters” deck and a Dimir “Undead Unleashed” zombies list. These decks contain cards with a combined worth beyond that of the MSRP for the precon, which makes them a worthwhile pickup.
Cover Counters, as you may have guessed, builds around the newly introduced coven mechanic. This means that you’ll benefit from strength and bonuses from your plethora of coven cards if you can manage to stick three or more creatures with different powers.
The deck includes a variety of coven cards as well as ways to activate them. There are plenty of buff spells, auras, and artifacts included to help diversify your team’s power and ensure you can activate coven at any given moment to maximize your potential threats.
Undead Unleashed doesn’t care about your creatures being diverse or even being alive too long. In fact, it actually benefits from them dying.
The deck includes a long list of sacrifice outlets like Empty the Laboratory and board flooders like Army of the Damned. They ensure that you get value from losing creatures and that you can easily get more at any time.
Adventures in the Forgotten Realms Commander Decks
Forgotten Realms also gave us four new precon decks to choose from. The themes included in this release were an aura enchantment based Bant deck, an Esper reanimator deck, an ultra-aggressive Gruul dragons deck, and a Rakdos Treasure-value deck.
Older Commander Precons
WotC has been giving players new precons on a regular basis since 2012 which means there’s a long list of precons to choose from. Draftsim, lucky enough, has evaluated all of the precons from 2017 onward for your choosing pleasure (plus a couple extras).
Take a look:
- Commander 2017
- Commander 2019
- Commander 2020
- Commander Legends
- Zendikar Rising Commander decks
- Kaldheim Commander decks
- Strixhaven Commander decks
- Forgotten Realms Commander decks
- Midnight Hunt Commander decks
- The Best Commander Precons
- The Cheapest Commander Precons
Popular Commanders and Deck Building Resources
Cultivate | Illustration by Anthony Palumbo
So you’re a more advanced player and want to go beyond the power of the precons. Where do you start? With over 1,200 unique legendary creatures to choose from there are nearly infinite routes to take building a Commander deck in a single lifetime. If you can think of a strategy or theme, then there’s absolutely a commander that powers it.
The best way to get yourself going is to pick a central theme or color you want to play. This can be as open as “mono blue fun stuff” or something much more narrow like “Jund Hydras.”
The next step is the most obvious: pick a commander that promotes or empowers your chosen theme in a useful or consistent way. This decision isn’t as easy as it seems. The choice can feel overwhelming with so many options.
Luckily for you, we’ve already done the hard work and broken down a few of the best commanders in different categories to get you started:
- Best partner commanders
- Best 4-color commanders
- Best 5-color commanders
- Best dragon commanders
- Best group hug commanders
The real fun begins once you have a theme and style established. There’s a near-infinite number of resources online about the best cards to include in any color, the best removal and board wipes, or the best tutors. There are even large databases like EDHREC which give you example decklists for various themes if you need inspiration.
Azorius Flicker/Blink Commanders
Let’s say you’re looking to build an Azorius Flicker/Blink deck and want to start from scratch. You have a couple of really strong choices here.
Brago, King Eternal offers an excellent way to benefit from a wide board of creatures with ETB effects. Grand Arbiter Augustin IV gives an overall cost reduction to all of your spells while hindering your opponents. Ephara, God of the Polis provides card advantage if you’re flashing in your blink creatures on other player’s turns.
What you see here in your quest to pick our commander is a bunch of choices and roads to go down. This is the higher level of creativity and choice that only Commander offers as a casual format. Brago gives you a very narrow and clear path while Grand Arbiter allows you to push your main goal while simultaneously benefiting you in multiple other ways.
There’s no right or wrong choice. It all depends on you and what you think will be the most fun for you. That’s the beauty of the format.
cEDH vs. Casual EDH
Kodama’s Reach | Illustration by John Avon
As with anything Magic there exists both a casual and ultra-competitive sub-format. Competitive Commander, often referred to as “cEDH,” is a unique breed of EDH that highlights using a lot of mana rocks and tutors to create a decklist that consistently wins by combo-ing off as early as possible and killing everyone but yourself.
An extremely common way to do this is to create an infinite mana combo through cards like Isochron Scepter and Dramatic Reversal paired some mana rocks. They can then be used through outlets, like drawing your whole deck with Blue Sun’s Zenith and winning off of a Thassa’s Oracle or Laboratory Maniac. Instead of focusing on tribes like elves or themes like flicker, cEDH decks focus on using whatever means necessary to win.
Casual EDH Decks
Casual EDH, as the name suggests, is a much more laid back and “for fun” format. This means that play groups typically follow the unwritten “Rule 0” which is just “have fun.” Instead of winning as soon as possible through infinite combos that blow everybody up on turn 4, casual EDH games go much longer and include unique and more exciting interactions that wouldn’t exist in cEDH. Playing big ol’ Eldrazi like Kozilek, the Great Distortion or group hug show-and-tell effects like Braids, Conjurer Adept is the name of the game.
Casual play groups sometimes even set their own rules like “no tutors” or “no combos” to promote a play style and game that prevents players from being one-shot before they’ve even gotten comfortable at the table. This is all in the name of promoting a fun and welcoming environment where new players aren’t being crushed before they can play their third land.
A few varieties and flavors of Commander have popped up since it began as a casual and unofficial format. These variants include Commander Cube, Commander Jumpstart, Canadian Highlander, Oathbreaker, and Tiny Leaders. Each of these spinoff formats bring a refreshing ruleset that still resembles the official EDH we know and love.
Jori En, Ruin Diver | Illustration by Igor Kieryluk
Commander Cube is exactly what it sounds like: a cube meant to be drafted that creates 60-card Commander decks in a Limited format. The cube, over 900 cards tall, is drafted in a standard draft format with four 15 card packs or from a sealed kit of 120 cards.
There are a few rules for Commander Cube that aren’t present in traditional EDH:
- Mono-colored commanders can splash one color.
- Some legendary creatures can’t be used as commanders but can still be included in a decklist.
- Decks are a minimum of 60 cards with one commander.
- Each player receives one free Command Tower after the draft to use as mana fixing.
Commander Cube can be difficult to get going since the cube cost roughly $7,000 to own in paper. This means that players typically phantom draft online and then play their drafted decks on MTGO or another online card sim like Tabletop Simulator where they can access the cards they drafted.
Radiant, Serra Archangel | Illustration by Chris Rallis
Just in case you’re not familiar, Jumpstart is a Limited format where you combine two boosters and create a finished deck instead of drafting from three packs. The packs include lands, multiple rares, and all the cards needed to create a 40-card deck when combined. You can probably see where Commander Jumpstart is going.
With this EDH variant you combine two different Commander packs plus a third pack. This final pack includes a variety of lands, fixing, acceleration, and other gold cards that all revolve around the color combo you created with your first two packs.
This allow players to scratch their Commander itch while providing a refreshing scene. It also improves on the time it takes to get started since similar formats like Commander Cube can take up to two hours just to draft, let alone build your deck.
Ancestral Recall | Illustration by Ryan Pancoast
Canadian Highlander is a singleton format that shares lots of similarities with conventional EDH. It was first developed in (you guessed it) Canada. It’s been an increasingly popular format in recent years.
It may seem like Commander without the commander at first glance, but don’t let the fact that it’s a singleton format fool you. Canadian Highlander differs from its format sibling in a few unique ways that totally change the pace of the game, deck building strategies, and how players interact with each other.
The first and largest difference is the ban list. Canadian Highlander’s ban list is identical Vintage’s ban list except for Lurrus of the Dream-Den since there is no sideboard. This means that all of the Power 9 as well as infamous cards like Mind Twist and Time Walk are legal, Don’t get your hopes too high just yet; there’s a unique rule exclusive to Canadian Highlander that you’ll have to contend with. It’s called the “points list.”
The points list means that each deck is allocated ten points to “buy” some of the most powerful cards in the game. The cards on the points list are mostly tutors, extremely fast mana, or some of the most powerful and efficient cards in the game. Black Lotus, for example, would take seven out of ten of your available points to include in your deck while something like Mana Vault would only take one. This means that players have to get creative in order to fit in their combos or make some tough decisions on just how consistent their deck will be.
Life totals are still at 20 in Canadian Highlander. This means that the game’s pace is very similar to how Vintage plays out, especially since they share a ban list. It’s also much more competitive than casual EDH. There also isn’t a “Rule 0” for Canadian Highlander. Locking your opponents out and refusing to let them play Magic is not only allowed but encouraged.
Canadian Highlander is obviously a lot less popular than Commander, but that doesn’t mean it’s terribly hard to find a playgroup. The Canadian Highlander Discord is a great place to find games and players to play with online. Loading Ready Run also occasionally plays Canadian Highlander which is both fun and very helpful to improve your skill level.
Silkwrap | Illustration by David Gaillet
Last but not least is Tiny Leaders! This is the most similar to Commander and comes with only a few differences:
- All cards, including the commander, must have a mana value of three or less.
- Decks are limited to 50 cards instead of 100.
- Players start at 25 life instead of 40.
- Hand sizes are eight minus the number of cards in the command zone (seven unless you have partner commanders, in which case yours would be six).
- There are no commander damage win conditions.
These rules result in a much more unique format. Bomb creatures like Avenger of Zendikar are out and the tiny little 0/1 plants it would otherwise make are your go-tos. While aggro decks are most unaffected by these rules they’re also much easier to deal with since a lot of finishers have a mana value of four or greater.
Tiny leaders can be easy to get going since the card limitations present a narrower range of options and less cards needed to power a strategy. It may be easy to convince one or a few members of your playgroup to throw something together because of this. While the format isn’t as popular or supported, Tiny Leaders offers a refreshing but still fun break from Commander.
Smothering Tithe | Illustration by Mark Behm
As with any kind of subculture or hobby, there’s more than one subreddit or Discord server attached to Commander. Here’s a list of all the relevant subreddits, Discords, podcasts, and YouTube channels that you might find useful or entertaining when it comes to EDH:
- EDH Subreddit
- cEDH Subreddit
- Pauper EDH Subreddit
- cEDH Discord Community
- PlayEDH Discord Community (Great for finding online playgroups!)
- Casually Competitive MTG YouTube Channel
- Playing with Power MTG
- EDHRECast (EDH-focused MTG Podcast)
- EDHREC (EDH database and decklists)
- The Command Zone YouTube Channel
- MTG Muddstah YouTube Channel
Rampant Growth | Illustration by Steven Belledin
That’s all there is to know about Commander. Have any suggestions or decklists you want to share? Leave a comment or head over to our Discord and talk to us there! I’ve been really interested in building a nice wizard tribal deck that does nothing but draw cards and counter spells. My friends will think it’s just awesome, right?… Right?
Anyway, I hope this info was useful to you in your quest to understand more about what I think is the best format in Magic. Until next time, stay safe and healthy!
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