The token archetype has representative decks in every format in Magic, and Commander is no exception. As should be obvious, the aim of the deck is to make token creatures, and then utilize them in some way to win the game. Built properly, a token deck is capable of high power levels, excellent consistency, and multiple win conditions.
Unlike other formats, token decks in Commander tend to go all-in on the token theme. While spells like Lingering Souls are excellent for 2-player formats, the higher starting life totals and much higher power level of creatures in the Commander format makes individual token creatures much less valuable. In Commander, the value of tokens is in their consistency and synergy.
ADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE
1. The Tokens archetype is extremely versatile. It is capable of more than a dozen win conditions, and token decks can easily support multiple win conditions in the same deck. I will discuss what all one can do with tokens in a later section.
There are also numerous tribal options for a token deck. Just a couple token-friendly tribes are Saprolings, Zombies, Goblins, Rats, Soldiers, Slivers, Cats, Birds, Elves, Insects, Snakes, Spirits, and creatures with the Devour mechanic. I will include a tribal token deck at the end of this article.
2. Token decks have options in all five colors. Green is usually considered the be best color for token decks simply because it has Doubling Season and Parallel Lives, which are extremely powerful cards in the format. However, all five colors have token generators and token support. This article details such generators and support cards better than I could ever hope to. Suffice it to say, they are numerous.
3. Tokens can be a budget-friendly archetype. Don’t count on it, however. I will go over the most expensive pieces of token decks, but none of those are absolutely critical to the deck’s function. One can still build a very powerful token deck on a more limited budget. For example, with $35 and Krenko, Mob Boss, you could easily build yourself a goblin swarm deck that your opponents at the table will quickly learn to fear.
4. Tokens is a self-contained theme. People are going to remember all those tokens you generated, and they’re going to remember doing math and watching numerous copies of a token creature hit the table. You’re not fighting your opponents with cards in your hand – you’re fighting them with permanents that come from nowhere.
5. This archetype is less susceptible to sweepers than other archetypes. If all your creatures die, you will be able to rebuild your army much easier through token generators than your opponents who will have to get cards out of their deck to recast.
DISADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE
1. Tokens have a converted mana cost of zero. This may not seem like a big deal, and most of the time it isn’t… but when it becomes an issue it really sucks. A single Ratchet Bomb, Powder Keg or Engineered Explosives in a Sharuum the Hegemon deck can shut your entire engine down. Hosers and Sweepers like Consume the Meek, Crime // Punishment, Culling Sun, Deepfire Elemental, Droning Bureaucrats, Forced March, Gaze of Granite, Lavinia of the Tenth, Pernicious Deed, Plaguebearer, Sever the Bloodline,Steel Hellkite, and Void all become one-sided against you. It is true that most of these spells are not played by default in Commander decks. However, if you show up to your playgroup with a Tokens deck consistently, expect to start seeing a couple of them.
2. Most tokens have low power and toughness. In fact, most tokens are 1/1 creatures. Now this generally isn’t a huge problem, since Token decks don’t need their tokens to be anything else. However, this means that you are singularly vulnerable to spells like Night of Soul’s Betrayal, Curse of Death’s Hold, Slagstorm, and Whipflare. It also means that you will either lose a bunch of life, or a bunch of tokens when faced with a particularly large creature with Trample.
3. The budget of a Tokens deck can get out of hand. Though this can be a budget-friendly archetype, the most bleeding-edge tokens technology can get very expensive. Some of the most powerful token decks run Gaea’s Cradle, which currently sits around $120. Earthcraft will set you back about $18. If you’re running green, you pretty much have to run Doubling Season, which is currently running around $14, a price which was thankfully cut from $25-35 thanks to its reprinting in Modern Masters. These are just three examples, but there are others.
4. Token decks come with a target painted upon their backs. Because tokens are capable of supporting so many different win conditions, your opponents have to assume that you are employing the nastiest amongst them and prepare accordingly. If you drop anything that looks like a combo piece, expect it to get destroyed. If you cast Doubling Season, it will be countered if an opponent can counter it. If you can generate tokens consistently, expect the table to ally against you, to “take you out before you get out of control.”
WHAT CAN YOU DO WITH TOKENS?
This is the part of the article where I explain the numerous win conditions the archetype can support. Well, there’s a great many things one can do with tokens, so here’s a non-exhaustive list of them:
You can swarm with them! If you can generate a hundred 1/1 Saproling tokens, you can pretty much just run over any opponent you want with them. The chances of them having enough blockers to stop enough of them is rather small.
You can sacrifice them for mana! Using cards like Ashnod’s Altar can generate absurd amounts of mana if you have enough creatures to sacrifice. What you do with that mana is up to you.
You can use them for control! Your opponents will not be happy to sacrifice their Shivan Dragon because you sacrificed one of your 1/1 Rat tokens with Grave Pact in play. But you know what? A dead dragon is one that can’t eat your face. If sacrifice control isn’t your thing, you can employ effects like Glare of Subdual to tap down an entire board.
You can devour them! Creatures with Devour love having tokens in play as they enter the battlefield. All it takes is five Goblin tokens to make Thromok the Insatiable into a 25/25 creature.
You can enhance them! Even just six 1/1 Snake tokens are a scary sight when Overrun gets cast. A Coat of Arms turns those six 1/1 Snakes into six 6/6 snakes.Beastmaster Ascension turns your weenie army into a shocktrooper horde.
You can combo with them! All you need to make Infinite Squirrels is Earthcraft and Squirrel Nest. Ghave, Guru of Spores gets ridiculous with Doubling Season, and goes infinite when you add Ashnod’s Altar. There are countless other combos you can utilize.
You can populate them! Using the Populate mechanic (like that found on Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage) allows you to make a copy of a token you control. This is more useful if your deck can create large creature tokens, like that from Slime Molding, Grove of the Guardian, or even the tokens created by Riku of Two Reflections.
You can gain life from them! Token decks have the capacity to gain a great deal of life, either by effects that gain you life when creatures enter the battlefield, like Soul Warden or Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice, or those that count the number of creatures like Congregate.
You can seek alternate win conditions! It’s not difficult to meet the conditions of cards like Epic Struggle if you can make a bunch of creatures at will. Likewise, you can easily gain the life required for Felidar Sovereign, Test of Endurance or Celestial Convergence. Or, you could generate the mana to charge up a Helix Pinnacle. Just a couple examples.
As I said, this is not an exhaustive list, and there’s many more things you can do (like use 1/1 tokens to draw a bunch of cards off Skullclamp).
CHOOSING A TOKENS GENERAL
You usually want your general to either be a token producer itself, or facilitate the use of them through one of the means listed in the previous section. Once again, this article lists all the possible token generals better than I ever could, but I’ll give a quick rundown of some generals I think are amongst the cream of the crop.
Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice: There’s a great deal to like about her. She’s only four mana, in two very desirable colors. She populates at will, and gains you life when creatures come into play, making her both generator and facilitator. She’s perfect for a Selesnya-themed deck, or one centered around the Populate mechanic. She has very little downside.
Rhys the Redeemed: In the same desirable colors as Trostani, Rhys is capable of some ridiculously-high token generation. His low casting cost means you can probably afford him any time you need him, and his second ability literally doubles your token army. His first ability generates elf tokens, so you can make use of awesome tribal elf cards like Priest of Titania, Elvish Archdruid, and Heritage Druid, amongst many others.
Krenko, Mob Boss: She is the general I see underestimated the most. Despite being mono-red, she is capable of generating an insane number of goblin tokens. She goes infinite with Ashnod’s Altar and Thornbite Staff. And when she’s not creating tokens, she’s still nestled in the shell of a Goblin tribal deck.
Ghave, Guru of Spores: Ghave is known primarily as a combo general, despite that fact that he is one of the best token generators in the game. His three colors and ability to generate both tokens and +1/+1 counters turns the number of combos he facilitates into the triple-digits. It’s hard to get that kind of combo consistency. However, Ghave is a great token commander, able to spawn out swarms endlessly with the help of Doubling Season, Parallel Lives, and Corpsejack Menace. He’s also great for Saproling tribal, and can employ almost every win condition you can imagine with his token generation and color selection.
Odric, Master Tactician: This may seem a surprising selection for a token deck, given that Odric is not a token generator himself. However, his ability changes the rules of the game such that you become pretty much unblockable. His low casting cost facilitates token aggro, accompanied with white’s crusade effects, most notably Intangible Virtue. If you can get Odric out at the same time as Darien, King of Kjeldor then you can create some absolutely scary board states.
Tesya, Orzhov Scion: She is a very strong choice for a token deck with a heavy sacrifice control element. She is capable of generating spirit tokens and has an ability that serves as a sacrifice engine.
Thromok the Insatiable: As previously noted, all he has to do is devour five tokens when he comes into play, and he is strong enough to one-shot an opponent with general damage. He likes to ride with devouring creatures like Dragon Broodmother, Mycoloth, Preyseizer Dragon, and Skullmuncher.
A SAMPLE TOKEN DECK
(Bonus geek points if you get the reference in the title.)
This deck is a Rat tribal deck that uses tokens as an engine to empower several different win conditions.
A few cards in the deck generate Rat tokens: Lab Rats, Plague of Vermin, Pack Rat, Ogre Slumlord, and most importantly the general, Marrow-Gnawer. This deck wants to make maximum use of its general, and as such employs five different tutor effects to get it out of the library once tucked.
This deck is, in many ways, the mono-black version of Krenko, Mob Boss swarm decks. We want to use our general’s ability as many times as we can to get an army of rats on our side of the table. We maximize its ability to make rats with Thousand-Year Elixir, Thornbite Staff, and Rings of Brighthearth.
Once we have a bunch of rats at our disposal, we have many options. We can just start swarming our opponents with them. We can feed them to a Phyrexian Altar or (the less-good) Ashnod’s Altar for mana to fuel a kill spell like Profane Command or Exsanguinate.
Or, we can turn around and play a bit of control, drawing cards off the power of Skullclamp, and cleaning up the board through judicious use of Grave Pact and Attrition. Rats are very good at hitting your opponents’ hands. I’ve included Gnat Miser, Locust Miser, Nezumi Shortfang, Okiba-Gang Shinobi, and Nezumi Bone-Reader to help move that process along.
If you want to go infinite, all you need is the general and Thornbite Staff. (And an initial rat to sacrifice.) Just don’t be a jerk about it.
If our token engine gets shut down, this is still a tribal rat deck. We’ve got rats, we’ve got Coat of Arms, and two pieces of equipment that reward us for being mono-black. It’s not hard to figure out.