There is a conundrum at the heart of the Commander format. It is a very newbie-friendly format, due to its friendly, non-competitive nature – but it’s also pretty expensive to get into, on account of the 100-card singleton deck building rule. Even if you have a deck full of $1 cards, that’s $100 you spent to put that deck together. And let’s face it – the “good cards” are gonna cost you way more than a single buck.
I have oftentimes said that the best preconstructed decks Wizards of the Coast ever put together were the Commander precons of 2011. At a MSRP of $30, the decks were fairly well assembled – playing one at a table of 4 or more gave you a reasonable chance at actually winning a game. Plus, they were pretty fun. That being said, I have three issues with them:
First, their power level, while much better than that of an Intro Deck, was still pretty low. I assume this is because Wizards seems hesitant to print cards as powerful as Sword of Light and Shadow in a preconstructed deck.
Secondly, though the decks were three-colored, most of the lands were basics, so they were not terribly consistent. I frequently found myself mana-screwed playing Heavenly Inferno, always looking for that third color to get Kaalia of the Vast onto the table.
Finally, while the decks certainly had a theme (which matched the name of the deck), they weren’t terribly coherent. One of the selling points was that each deck contained three legendary creatures that could serve as general for the deck. This meant that the card composition had to suit any of the three generals, and it just didn’t work sometimes. The worst of these was Counterpunch – most of the deck was centered around Ghave, Guru of Spores. In this deck, Ghave was a token general (without any of the combo pieces that make him a powerhouse outside of the precon deck), and most of the cards in the deck facilitated the making of tokens, or +1/+1 counters. However, the remainder of the deck was geared toward Karador, Ghost Chieftain, who is a recursion/reanimation general.
So, how can we build a coherent deck to play at the Commander table when you’re on a tight budget? Well, the first question that must be asked is…
WHAT IS THE BUDGET?
This seems like a simple enough question – how much money do you have to spend on your deck? Well, it’s actually quite a bit more complicated than that.
First, there is an absolute lowest limit. Sure, you can buy a box of bulk commons for $5 and put together the best thing you can with what you just picked up, but the deck is not going to be coherent. It will have a difficult time winning, and you will be lacking any theme or flavor – which is what makes Commander decks awesome.
So, $10 isn’t going to buy you a proper Commander deck. What is the absolute lowest number?
Well, there really isn’t a perfect answer to this question. If you have a certain archetype in mind, then it may have a lower baseline than others. Decks based around tokens, enchantments, or equipments are going to be more expensive than other decks – because these archetypes have cards that are all-but mandatory to make the deck properly function.
Likewise, it also depends upon what cards you already have in your collection. If you already possess a Doubling Season, then you’re going to be able to build a Token deck much cheaper than you could if you had to acquire one.
If you don’t already have your heart set on a specific archetype, and you’re going to buy most (if not all) the cards in the deck, then the only criterion that must be met is “what does it cost to make the deck coherent?”
As stated previously, the preconstructed decks are not coherent. So we need to do better than them, but only just barely. Once again, those decks were pretty good, just not coherent.
For a low-budget coherent deck, I would say that $35 is the lowest you should aim for. This is only five bucks more than a preconstructed deck, so it seems to me extremely reasonable. However, there is one caveat to this – it has to be a mono-colored deck. Let’s say you’re running a deck with only 10 basic lands in it. For a $35 deck, the average value of each card would be 39 cents. That just isn’t enough. Most playable commons are going to come close to that number, to say nothing of uncommons, rares, or mythics. However, for a mono-colored (budget) deck, you’re running around 39 basic lands, bringing that total up to 59 cents average per card. That is far more reasonable.
So, if you’re running a multi-color deck, then your lowest possible budget has to scale with each color you add. Nonetheless, I would suggest $50 as the lowest budget for a multicolored deck. Assuming you’re running 10 basic lands, this gives us an average value per card of 56 cents. That puts us pretty close to the spending power of our mono-colored deck.
So, how do we make the most of our limited money?
LEVERAGING YOUR BUDGET DOLLARS
So how do we spend our money, once we figure out how much we’re spending? I would suggest following these steps, in order:
1) Decide what type of deck you would like to build. You can’t build a deck until you know what you’re going to build. You don’t need to know what cards are going into the deck at this stage, but you need to know what play style the deck is going to have. How does it win? What’s the theme? While you’re thinking about this…
2) Seek out cost-efficiency. Find engines and tribes that are fairly inexpensive. Around 1/3 of most commander decks either focus on an engine to win (reanimation, control, combo, tokens, Voltron) or a tribe of creatures. If you can fill this 1/3 of your deck cheaply, then you’re well on your way.
Examples of inexpensive engines: Ramp, Countermagic, Reanimation, Lifegain, Auras (with 1 or 2 exceptions), Chaos (think Warp World), Burn, Poison, Proliferate, Bounce, and Blink.
Examples of inexpensive tribes: Goblins (mostly), Atogs, Bears, Cats, Birds, Drakes, Griffins, Shamans, Clerics, Scarecrows, Rogues, and many more.
3) Use what you already have, or can trade for. The first slots filled out on your 100 card decklist should be the cards you don’t have to acquire. If you have an Earthcraft, you’re on your way to a strong combo or token deck. Even if you have nothing but a bunch of commons or uncommons available, every one that fills a slot is 59 cents that can go to better cards in the deck.
4) Decide which cards your deck can’t do without. Figure out whether or not your tribal deck is going to need a Coat of Arms. Estimate how many tutors your combo deck must have. Every token deck’s budget is reduced by exactly one Doubling Season. If you’re playing a mono-white lifegain deck, you need to have money for a Felidar Sovereign, and Test of Endurance. NEVER accept substitutions for mandatory cards in your deck. Not only will you hamstring the power level of your deck, but you’ll always be wishing you had those cards, and resenting your deck. That’s not fun, so it completely misses the point of Commander.
5) Accept the limitations of your budget. You’re not going to be able to run a full set of sweepers. All commander decks have some weakness, and those weaknesses are exacerbated in budget decks. Know that you are going to have to make sacrifices, and be smart about where you make them.
6) If you want speed, play a mono-colored deck. Lands that produce more than one color but don’t come into play tapped will quickly kill your budget. Let’s take blue-white as an example. There are precisely seven cards that will produce blue or white mana without coming into play tapped or requiring specific conditions be met: Tundra ($95), Hallowed Fountain ($8), Mystic Gate ($9), Command Tower ($6), Forbidden Orchard ($5), City of Brass ($4) and Adarkar Wastes ($1.50). One cannot possibly build a budget manabase around these cards.
On the other hand, if you’re willing to let your two-color lands come into play tapped, then you have options like Sejiri Refuge, Azorius Guildgate, Boreal Shelf, Coastal Tower, Evolving Wilds and Transguild Promenade that cost a quarter or less.
7) Make smart cuts. Chances are, when you’ve come up with your decklist and priced all the cards, you’re going to be over budget. This means that some cards are going to have to be cut and replaced.
The first place to look is your manabase. Unless you need your deck to be blazing fast (or are mono-colored), this is the safest place to cut. In a 100 card budget deck, there is little justification for running a $10 Stomping Ground where a 20¢ Gruul Guildgate will do.
Next, there should be no room for any single card worth 10% or more of your deck, unless that card is absolutely crucial to its function. For example, if you’re running a $35 decklist, start looking at any cards worth $3.50 or more that aren’t critical to your engine or win condition, and substitute it for a cheaper card. If you can replace that $5 Mind’s Eye with a 25¢ Book of Rass? Do it.
Finally, if you’ve made all the cuts you can to your manabase, and made substitutions for all non-essential cards, and you’re still over budget? Then I’m sorry, but you just aren’t going to be able to build a budget version of the deck you’ve envisioned. You either need to increase your budget, trade harder to acquire the more expensive pieces of the deck, or go back to the drawing board.
BUILDING A $35 COMMANDER DECK
So, let’s put this article’s advice into practice and build a $35 deck. As previously noted, at this price point, it must be a mono-colored deck in order to retain coherency.
For the purposes of this exercise, we’re going to assume that the deckbuilder has zero cards to his/her name, other than basic lands. While this locks out certain archetypes, many still remain – and the one I want to focus on for this deck is mono green ramp.
If we’re willing to live without the likes of Exploration and Azusa, Lost but Seeking, then ramp cards are very inexpensive, most falling at or below our average card price of 59 cents. This lets us build our engine cheaply, so we can focus our budget on the parts of the deck that win us games.
One of the greatest benefits of mono-green is the set of creatures with characteristic-defining abilities tied to our lands. A recent example is Dungrove Elder, whose power and toughness are equal to the number of forests you control – and he’s got hexproof as an added bonus! These creatures have a very low ratio of price (money-wise) to their potential power level with 8+ lands in play, so this is an excellent starting point for the deck. We’re going to be ramping hard, trying to get as many forests in play as possible – I want to run every single one of them we can. Molimo, Maro Sorcerer is a legendary creature that fits this description, so I think we’ve found our general.
Next, we’re gonna need some face-beaters. With the exception of the Eldrazi (like Kozilek, Butcher of Truth), most creatures with high casting costs are going to fall below our dictated average card price. Cards like Moldgraf Monstrosity can be acquired for a quarter. If there’s anywhere we want to spend our money it’s here – but since our budget is so limited, we really can’t afford to go higher than a buck or so. It looks like Worldspine Wurm is going to represent our monetary ceiling for beaters.
Now we have to shore up our weaknesses, and there’s not a whole lot of good news here. Mono-green does not have anything in the way of sweepers, and it gets rocked in the air. Two or three angels is enough to put us out of business. Unfortunately, with our low budget, colorless sweepers are out of the question. In fact, with the exception of Brittle Effigy (which we HAVE to run, just in case Iona, Shield of Emeria shows up) we’re probably going to be short on removal altogether.
So this is where we have to make the sacrifice in our deck. Let’s give up the notion that we are going to be able to control the board in any meaningful way. What this means is, we have to put down threats powerful enough to make our opponents sweep the board instead, give ourselves plenty of card draw to keep up with the board sweepers, and give ourselves some means of protection against flyers.
So, without further ado, here’s the deck I put together!
The deck plan is simple -get as many forests down as you possibly can, as quickly as you can, and play nasty creatures. Eventually, the general will be large enough that he can easily do 21 damage by himself, with just the aid of Strata Scythe, Blanchwood Armor, Primal Bellow, or Strength of Cedars.
Plugging the deck into the TCGPLayer.com optimizer, allowing for all conditions up to Heavily Played, the deck comes out to $33.48 at this time of this article. That puts us within our $35 budget, with a solid ramp deck.
What this provides us with is a soild shell of a deck that can be immediately played, and improved as more cards are acquired. I wish I had room for Oracle of Mul Daya, but alas it would just put us over budget. This would be the first card I would track down to improve the deck.
With the insane mana generation this deck is capable of, it could easily cast Blightsteel Colossus, Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre, and Kozilek, Butcher of Truth for a huge impact at the table. Any of those cards would have been 33% of our budget or more on their own, but the addition of even one of them into the deck would greatly increase its power level.
For quick improvements in the ~$5-10 range, the following certainly couldn’t hurt: Asceticism, Defense of the Heart, Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger, Regal Force. Avenger of Zendikar, Primalcrux, Rampaging Baloths, and Garruk Wildspeaker.