You will often hear me (and other Commander aficionados) discuss Theme in deck building. Some of you may be wondering why theme is so important for a Commander deck. Others may not know what having a theme actually means for a deck. Well, the answer to both these questions is the same…
Your deck’s theme is what you want people to remember about your deck.
What separates competitive Commander decks from casual Commander decks is not the level of power, but the aim of the deck. The aim of any competitive deck is to win, via whatever means possible. The aim of a casual deck (and as such, for the purpose of this blog, ANY commander deck) is to create a fun experience for yourself and the table. Simply put, themes are how this is accomplished.
HOW DO I GIVE MY DECK A THEME?
Well, I’m glad you asked, because a deck’s theme can come from any number of aspects, and most decks with a strong theme derive that theme from multiple aspects. Here’s a few examples:
Archetype: The engine that makes the deck run defines much of how the deck plays, so that’s what most players see. A Voltron deck is, by definition, going to have a strong Equipment or Aura theme. Reanimation, Lifegain, Mill, Pillow Fort, Group Hug, Tokens, Theft, Bounce/Blink, and Artifacts are all archetypes with self-contained themes. You pretty much can’t play one of these without having a thematic deck. Even so, your archetype does not exclusively define your deck’s theme, only provides a baseline.
Creatures: Obviously, a tribal deck is highly thematic – if your deck has 30 elves in it, your opponents are going to remember all those elves. However, your deck does not need to be tribal in order to have a coherent theme. A red-white deck filled with Kithkin, Goblins, Dwarves, Kobolds and Gnomes has a rather obvious theme. Same deal with a blue deck full of fish, whales, krakens, and crabs.
General: There are several generals in the game that have a default theme implied. Consider the cases of Kaalia of the Vast, Mayael the Anima, and Arcum Dagsson. In each of these decks, you can bet that you’re going to find big flying creatures, creatures with power 5 or greater, and artifacts, respectively. Now it’s entirely possible that you could be running a general for its color alone, and its abilities are incidental. However, if you’re running a general like the ones listed above or, say, Stonebrow, Krosan Hero, you’re going to be using their abilities, and tailoring your deck to maximize the use of those abilities.
Mechanics: Many decks have a heavy focus in a particular mechanic. For example, combat tricks are not a particularly popular mechanic in Commander – so a deck that utilizes many of them is certainly going to be remembered. An all-multicolor deck is pretty rare, and though it might be hard to cast all your spells, I love the “one color isn’t good enough for me” theme. I have personally played against decks utilizing chaos effects like Impulsive Maneuvers, a black-green deck built around Scavenge-type effects, and a deck built around damage redirection. There are numerous mechanics in the game to build around.
These are the most common theme infusers in a Commander deck. Any or all of these are sufficient to create a thematic deck worthy of remembrance. However, what if you want to go beyond this? Well, here are few ideas…
Setting: Where does the story of your deck take place? Is your deck heavy on Scars of Mirodin cards, and now the rest of the table is suddenly caught up in the Phyrexian/Mirrodin war? Does your deck pit the crew of the Weatherlight up against the converging decks at the table? Maybe your deck isn’t of the Magic universe at all. Perhaps your deck is actually set in the world of Skyrim, or Lord of the Rings, or feudal Japan, or Sherlock Holmes – using Magic cards as best you can to reflect characters and places.
Narrative: If your deck were allowed to run its course without interruption, what story would it tell? This doesn’t even need to be that complicated – you just need a single idea. “Fueling the Missiles,” for example, is a deck where you use cards that keep your mana pool from emptying (or storing mana up) in order to launch a huge kill spell. Simple is sometimes best, like “Garruk’s Followers Fight Everything,” “Legally Cheating Cards Into Play,” or my personal favorite, “Nicol Bolas Screws You Over.”
One place you definitely want to look for inspiration is the Scheme cards of Archenemy decks. They have such awesome narrative names… “Feed the Machine” is an awesome name for a deck that sacrifices creatures to empower artifacts. “I Know All, I See All” could be a blue deck that exposes all your opponents’ secrets – using Field of Dreams to see the top card of their library, and Telepathy to see their hands. “Mortal Flesh is Weak” is an awesome theme to supplement a zombie deck – you’re not satisfied just making zombies… you have a point to prove by turning humans into zombies. “Only Blood Ends Your Nightmares” suggested a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t theme” that makes your opponents pay life or discard cards to avoid nastier effects.
I personally have always wanted to build a certain deck, but never had the opportunity (so I’m probably going to do it on this blog at some point): “RPG Heroes Questing.” It would feature all the classic RPG classes: Fighters, Clerics, Wizards, Paladins, Rogues, Druids, Monks, and Knights . These characters would go on quests to obtain the power needed to vanquish their enemies (my opponents).
Color/Guild: Each color has certain aspects that it represents. White represents order and morality, Blue loves intelligence and artifacts, Black embodies power and death, Red embraces chaos and action, and Green is the steward of nature and strength. If you can take one of these aspects, and turn it up to eleven, then you have a strong theme. Add some color-hosers in for your enemy colors, and your thematic position is even stronger. Likewise, each two-color combination has a personality (thanks to the Ravnica blocks). The Boros Legion, for example, is all about standing together and supporting one another – as reflected in its Radiance and Battalion mechanics. If you employ that philosophy in your deck construction, then when you’re finished building, you won’t have a red-white deck. You will have a Boros deck.
Art: Though I have heard of several players constructing decks filled with cards drawn by their favorite artist, I have never actually played against one myself. One particular deck I have played against, however, was a Dimir control deck filled with cards like Plagiarize, Kraken’s Eye, Deathmark, and Baleful Strix – where the art either featured an eye, or a character looking right at you. To make the deck even more unsettling, he sleeved it up in Eye of Sauron sleeves. After this experience I’ve been seriously considering making the front page of my trade binder nine copies of Evil Eye of Orms-by-Gore to deter theft.
Card Name: In contrast, one of the funnest decks I have ever played against was a mono-black deck where every single card (lands included) started with the letter S. Every time this player would play a card, he would hiss. “Ssssswamp.” “Sssssshriekmaw.” “Sssssyphon Mind.” “Ssssstrip Mine.” After about four turns of this, everyone at the table was doing it and laughing like madmen. You don’t have to go to this extreme, however – if you happen to be running all three versions of Liliana, you might include her reaver, her shade, her specter, and her caress. Add another planeswalker in, and you’ve got the sub-theme of a planeswalker battle (or teamup) going on within your own deck. Or, maybe do a search on Gatherer for Urza, and see how many of his relics make sense for your deck. The possibilities are numerous.
Flavor: This category is a catch-all of pretty much everything else. It basically encompasses a single idea explored within the deck. For example, an “old-school” black-white deck would include old-art versions of Serra Angel, Sengir Vampire, Lord of the Pit, Wrath of God, Unholy Strength, Hypnotic Specter, Juzam Djinn, and Terror. If I were to ever build a Jaya Ballard, Task Mage deck, you better believe that every non-land card in it is either setting something on fire, is playing with fire, or is on fire. A “swords” deck would not only feature all five Mirrodin swords (ex. Sword of War and Peace), but also creatures like Wall of Swords and Seraph of the Sword. You could also take a cue from previous theme decks like the Divine vs. Demonic duel deck.
HOW MUCH THEME DO I NEED?
Well, that’s up to you. The easy answer to this question is, “however much it takes to illustrate your theme to the other players at the table.” How much this is depends on the complexity of the theme, and how you play it. It takes fewer cards in your blue-black Dimir deck to let the table know you’re representing your guild if you keep your hand close to your chest at all times, refuse to volunteer information (obviously, other than questions about the board state, cards in hand, etc.), and eye the other players with suspicion.
Once you get past the basic choices of the deck (archetype, tribe, colors, general, etc.), the more space in your deck you devote exclusively to theme, the lower the power level of your deck will be. This is not always the case, but if you’re choosing cards based on art, name, or pieces of a combo (like Scepter of Empires,Throne of Empires, and Crown of Empires in an Artifact “Assembly” deck), then this is pretty much unavoidable. Not that this is wrong – far from it! However, don’t sacrifice your deck’s ability to win games just to get a point across. If you have harmed the power level of your deck to the point that it can’t realistically interact with the table, then you haven’t created a deck – you have created a novelty. And it will get old fast, which would be a terrible shame.
So, only go overboard on theme if you still retain a coherent deck capable of winning games. It would truly be a tragedy to not have any fun because you were trying to have too much of it.
PUSHING THEME TO THE LIMIT: A SAMPLE DECK
I had originally created this deck in an attempt to showcase a $50 budget multicolored deck, but, well, I missed. I could get it down to $100, but it started to lose cohesion at that point, so I might as well have not even been building. I decided in the end to salvage it for this article, and push its theme to the limit. Here it is!
If you look at the lands and creatures, you’d be sure this was a Simic deck. Then you see the artifacts, and it looks more Mirrodin-themed. So what’s going on with this deck?
We’re putting counters on EVERYTHING! That’s what! We’ve got counters on our lands, putting counters on our creatures, our artifacts, even our enchantments! We’re proliferating them, adding to them, doubling them, moving them around, and spending them for mana!
So how does this deck win? With COUNTERS, of course? My favorite method is to stack 20 counters onto Darksteel Reactor. If we can’t do that, we’ve got a field full of creatures with +1/+1 counters on them that just keep growing – eventually we’re going to overpower the table. We’ve got a trio of hydras that can get insanely large too – I won’t be satisfied playing this deck until I see a Primordial Hydra with a number of +1/+1 counters in the triple-digits.
Bring a bucket full of dice with you, because you will need it to keep up with all the counters this deck is capable of creating and manipulating!