25 Underplayed Generals

Just about everyone who’s writing about Commander at some point does something akin to the “Top 10 Generals” list. You’ll find the same names popping up on pretty much all these lists, with little deviation – Sharuum the HegemonKaalia of the VastAnimar, Soul of ElementsJhoira of the GhituUril, the MiststalkerRafiq of the ManyZur the Enchanter, and Gaddock Teeg are names you’ll see over and over.

I’m not going to do one of these lists, because honestly? I can’t imagine anything I have to say on the subject can possibly add positively to the discourse. What I am going to do this week, however, is run down 25 generals that I believe have slipped under the radar.

What are the criteria by which I selected these 25? Well, simply put, personal taste. The sample of legendary creatures are those that have worthwhile abilities or characteristics, that have either been overshadowed by other generals, or just plain under-utilized. You won’t find the likes of Jedit Ojanen on this list, as awesome as his card art is. What you will find are legendary creatures who have little reason not to be run as general, but for various reasons aren’t. These are generals who, if you search a database, you will only find a couple of decklists for, as opposed to the dozens you will find for more popular dudes like Rhys the Redeemed.

So, without further ado, here’s 25 under-rated generals!

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Thelon of Havenwood: The poor Green-Black Thelon has been mostly overshadowed by Ghave, Guru of Spores, who does his job better in most ways. What Thelon does have going for him over Ghave is a cheaper casting cost, and a much smaller target painted on his back. If you want to go straight Thallid/Fungus Tribal, then he’s probably your guy. Thelon lends himself well to a Tokens strategy, from where you can either go Swarm Aggro, Control, or Combo.

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Kazuul, Tyrant of the Cliffs: Kazuul is mainly a victim of his color; Mono-red is not terribly popular in the format. His ability is fairly unusual – Red doesn’t generally carry much in the way of taxing effects. I like the potential to use him in a “scratch my back” style of politics. You let an opponent hit you with a creature that doesn’t do much damage, but lets him draw a card or something, and you get an ogre token for it. He’s got other possibilities though – like Ogre Tribal, or some insane Pillow Fort deck that wants to punish those who attack you through red’s chaos effects.

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Melira, Sylvok Outcast: I would venture a guess as to why she’s not as popular in Commander as she is in Modern: her color identity limits her combo potential. Sure, you can’t sacrifice a Kitchen Finks infinite times with her as your general, but just think of the possibilities she possesses when paired with Cauldron of Souls! Certainly there has to be a deck possible that uses her to abuse cards like Woodfall PrimusPhyrexian HydraAboroth and Essence Warden.

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Lady Evangela: It must be the $20+ price tag that is scaring players off, because Lady Evangela is a strong general. She’s cheap to cast, gives access to three colors, and her ability fogs a single creature. She’s the best Pillow Fort general in Esper colors, and a strong contender in the field of Political and Control archetypes. It’s hard to believe she isn’t played more, though to be fair she shares the same colors as Sharuum the HegemonZur the Enchanter, Sen Triplets, and Merieke Ri Berit, so that probably has something to do with it.

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Michiko Konda, Truth Seeker: There is a type of card in Magic called a “Rattlesnake.” Rattlesnakes are those spells you want played in full view of your opponents in order to deter them from doing something, usually attacking you. Michiko Konda’s fangs are clear as day – you attack me, you sacrifice a permanent (on top of what I’m going to do to you that you DON’T see). Nonetheless, despite her clear usefulness, she hasn’t seen much action as general compared to other mono-white legends like Darien, King of Kjeldor and Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero.

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Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch: It could be because she just came out in Dragon’s Maze, but it appears that the Commander brewmasters of the world have very little interest in the Rakdos champion. You would think that with the number of creatures available that come into play with counters on them (via Unleash, Devour, Undying, and various other means) that there would be some crazy aggro decks out there with her at the helm.

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Ascendant Evincar: This guy would make an excellent Mono-Black control general. It’s like having a Night of Soul’s Betrayal in your Command Zone. For “mono black general,” he’s competing primarily with Xiahou Dun, the One-EyedMaga, Traitor to Mortals, and to a lesser degree, Kagemaro, First to Suffer. All have their merits, but I like Ascendant Evincar if my primary win condition is creature-based.

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Thromok the Insatiable: This guy was seriously hyped when he came out in Planechase 2012. Devour X? That had never been done before, and if you sacrifice 5 creatures on the way in, your general is a 25/25! As awesome as this sounds, unfortunately, Thromok runs up against some harsh realities in Commander – he has no other abilities. No trample or evasion, so his “instant-kill through general damage” is stopped by a 1/1 Saproling token. Nonetheless, I can’t help but envision a Doubling Season-powered nightmare deck full of hydras and tokens, with creatures capable of possessing +1/+1 counters in the triple digits.

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Adamaro, First to Desire: Adamaro is another victim of being mono-red, but for three mana, he possesses a potentially amazing power-to-cost ratio, making him a strong Voltron general. In a format where the prevalent wisdom is “no matter what, run Reliquary Tower,” certainly SOMEONE at the table has a hand full of cards. Admittedly, red’s options for putting cards in their opponents’ hands is limited, but there’s a good amount of equipment support available – so he’s got solid support for the Voltron plan.

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Halfdane: Halfdane is another “forgotten brother” in the family of Awesome Esper Generals. Running Halfdane as your general means that when it gets to your turn, you will at the very least be tied for the biggest creature on the board. This means he can support a variety of strategies – but if you’re wanting a thievery deck in Esper colors, then he should be at the top of the list.

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Patron of the Kitsune: Mono-white is not exactly short of options for a Lifegain general. You’ve got Rune-Tail, Kitsune AscendantAtalya, Samite MasterGerrard Capashen, and Kiyomaro, First to Stand to name a few. What Patron of the Kitsune offers is a reactive lifegain plan – allowing you to pursue something more akin to mono white control than “racing to eighty hojillion life for the win.”

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Tsabo Tavoc: He’s the Magic: the Gathering equivalent of Deathstroke the Terminator – he’s a general who specializes in killing other generals. He’s not very popular primarily because single-target destruction is not valued highly in the format. However, even having Tsabo in the Command Zone slows down the game – players don’t cast their generals until they have means of protecting them. This makes him valuable as a Control general.

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Ayumi, the Last Visitor: Historically, Legendary Landwalk has not been considered a good ability, because legendary lands are few and far between. However, with the changes in the Legendary rules with Magic 2014, Legendary Lands are becoming more popular, and Ayumi’s evasion ability is becoming more relevant. Even though she has 7 power for 5 mana, she is still overshadowed as a Voltron general by the mono-white Kemba, Kha Regent. So she’s never going to be top-tier – but she is a very playable general if you want something a little different.

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Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius: The Return to Ravnica version of the Izzet guild leader is generally considered weaker than its Guildpact version, Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind. Since you can run both versions in the same deck (and even have both in play at the same time), the Dracogenius usually loses the General slot to the Firemind. That being said, if you’re wanting to focus more on the burn aspect of a Blue-Red deck than the draw aspect, the Dracogenius is probably the better general.

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Masako the Humorless: I have a particular fondness for generals who “change the rules of the game,” and doubly so for those with Flash. Mono-white aggro is an archetype that has been largely unexplored in the Commander world, and I can think of no general better to experiment with than Masako. She allows you to attack all-out in the mid-game without regard for your own safety, then flash in whenever you’re under attack so you can still defend yourself. That, to me, seems solid.

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Rubinia Soulsinger: Bant is a strange color combination where Commander is concerned. Each Bant general lends itself almost exclusively to one particular archetype.Phelddagrif is the quintessential Group Hug commander. Jenara, Asura of War and Rafiq of the Many are pretty much exclusively Voltron generals. Angus Mackenzie is a Pillow Fort guy. Rubinia has the distinction of being Bant’s Thievery general, but white and green are not popular thievery colors. This tells me that players who are used to mono-blue and blue-black thievery decks won’t be prepared to fight against a Bant thievery deck.

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Kuon, Ogre Ascendant: Kuon often finds himself listed amongst the 99 cards of a Sacrifice Control deck, but rarely as the general. He’s usually overshadowed by Sheoldred, Whispering One and Anowan, the Ruin Sage. What I like about Kuon is his casting cost – he comes into play faster and gets the sacrifice engine going as quickly as turn 3 (barring some Dark Ritual shenangians) if you’ve done proper setup.

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Mishra, Artificer Prodigy: At first glance, it’s pretty obvious why Mishra isn’t popular in a singleton format. This is because people aren’t using him creatively. When tweaked for Commander, his ability might as well read, “whenever you cast an artifact spell, you may shuffle your library.” If you can’t make use of that, you’re not even trying (or at the very least don’t own a Sensei’s Divining Top.) Consider also creatures like Thada Adel, Acquisitor. “Oh, you have a Sol Ring in your library? Awesome, I’m gonna cast it. Then I’m going to grab my own out of my library and put it into play.” Look past the obvious, and Mishra can become amazing.

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Iname, Life Aspect: I would guess that Iname, Life Aspect’s low popularity is at least in small part due to players not understanding how his ability interacts with the Commander replacement effects. The good news is Iname’s ability only cares that you sent him to the Exile zone – not that he got there. So, it hits the graveyard. You choose to exile it, but it goes to the Command Zone instead. Nonetheless, you still get to put any number of Spirits from your graveyard into your hand. I’m sure there’s more than enough green Spirits to make this worthwhile.

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Boris Devilboon: Even I have to admit this card looks pretty weak. However, it also looks pretty fun to me. Some crazy brewer out there has to be able to do SOMETHING with a guy who produces Demon tokens. He wouldn’t be a bad general for a Demon tribal deck either, giving access to the Rakdos demons that mono-black can’t cast.

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Joven: You see the place in the background of his art? “Snarg’s House of Sin.” That’s the kind of art theme that just begs a deck to be built around it. Or, if you’re more interested in function than form, Joven is repeatable artifact destruction, in a format with plenty of non-creature artifacts. You can even play around with Liquimetal Coating to make him able to destroy any non-creature permanent. While he lacks the punch of larger creatures from better sets than Homelands, there seems like a great deal of untapped potential here.

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Borborygmos: Red-Green has a problem in the Commander format, and that problem is Jund. Pretty much anything you can do with Red-Green, you can do better by adding black. The Gruul guild leader is no exception to this unfortunate rule, and a 6/7 trampler for 7 is not exactly special in this format. Sure, he makes your creatures bigger whenever he connects with an opponents’ face, but this is a format where sweepers are popular. All is not lost though… think of him as a late-game puncher for Red-Green Aggro. Or perhaps paired with some Hydras?

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Skyfire Kirin: Red has a strange all-but exclusive mechanic, the ability to steal opponent’s creatures until end of turn. It’s become so ingrained in the color that spells likeTraitorous BloodTraitorous Instinct and Act of Treason are being printed at common. It’s the mechanic that was attached to red’s portion of the Primordial (Molten Primordial) cycle. Molten Primordial is considered the weakest of the cycle, and the entire “Treason” mechanic is not well-valued in any format, Commander included. I think, however, that Skyfire Kirin could make use of the mechanic properly as general, because it’s cheap to cast, and you can reliably make use of it through spirit and arcane spells. I think it’s worth brewing up.

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Sliver Legion: You won’t find nearly as many Sliver Legion decks on the ‘net as you will decks featuring the other two legendary slivers. This is a shame, because Sliver Legion is potentially one of the most explosive aggro generals in the game. It’s probably the cost of an efficient five-color manabase more than anything that scares people away from building a Legion deck. That, or not wanting to play aggro in a multiplayer format.

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Kaysa: Believe me, I totally get that mono green has no shortage of solid legendary creatures to fill the general slot. As an elf, she’s outclassed by the likes of Ezuri, Renegade Leader, and as a druid, she stands in the shadow of Seton, Krosan Protector. As a “green lord,” she’s in competition with Baru, Fist of Krosa. Nonetheless, she’s so versatile that I can’t believe she’s not played more. It’s a rare green deck that can’t use a Gaea’s Anthem out of the Command Zone.

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Examining Commander Archetypes #3 – Tribal

Tribal decks have been around since the dawn of Magic, built around creatures like Lord of Atlantis and Zombie Master before creature types even existed. Today, these decks are full of creatures that share the same creature type, and seek to win games through tribal synergy.

At the time of this article, there are 224 different creature types in Magic: the Gathering. With the exception of those types that have only one representative (sorry to crush your dreams of a Dreadnought tribal deck), most of them can be played as a tribal theme.

Alas, he’s the only one. Wombat tribal would have been off the chain.

The following creature types have 25 or more cards with that creature type, and as such can be easily built around: Advisor, Ally, Angel, Ape, Archer, Artificer, Assassin, Avatar, Barbarian, Beast, Berserker, Bird, Boar, Cat, Centaur, Cleric, Construct, Demon, Djinn, Dragon, Drake, Druid, Dryad, Dwarf, Elemental, Elephant, Elf, Faerie, Fish, Fungus, Giant, Golem, Horror, Hound, Human, Illusion, Imp, Insect, Kavu, Kithkin, Knight, Kor, Lizard, Mercenary, Merfolk, Minion, Minotaur, Monk, Mutant, Myr, Nomad, Ogre, Plant, Rat, Rebel, Rogue, Samurai, Scarecrow, Scout, Shade, Shaman, Shapeshifter, Skeleton, Sliver, Snake, Soldier, Spellshaper, Sphinx, Spider, Spirit, Treefolk, Troll, Vampire, Vedalken, Viashino, Wall, Warrior, Werewolf, Wizard, Wolf, Wurm, and Zombie.

Three things should be noted. First – Nightmare, Rhino, Serpent, and Thrull are close to 25, and should all be considered viable with a little help. Second, there are several tribes that are well-supported, but don’t have many creatures of that type. Of note are Atogs, Eldrazi, and to a lesser extent, Ninjas. Third, Saprolings have precisely zero creatures of that type, but there are so many different ways of making and supporting Saproling tokens that one would be crazy to not consider them a viable tribe.

The good news is, even if a tribe you think would be fun to play doesn’t have many creature cards (for example, Phoenix has 10 cards – 11 if you count Worldheart Phoenix which requires a 5-color general), there are still options. We’ll discuss this more later.


ADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE

I bet this deck wants some Elementals.  And graveyard stuff.

1. It is friendly to new players. The great thing about the tribal archetype is, the cards themselves pretty much tell you what you’re supposed to do with them. Goblin Chieftain gives all Goblins haste and +1/+1 – it seems pretty obvious that you’re supposed to get a bunch of goblins into play and swing with them the turn they come out. Because the game play is intuitive, most tribal decks can be piloted with lower play skill and still compete at the table.

2. There is a great deal of support for tribal decks. In fact, there was an entire block focused on tribes. Lords (creatures that give +1/+1 and possibly other bonuses to a creature type) exist for a great many creature types. Many tribes have their own mechanics found nowhere else (Prowl, Ninjutsu, Bushido, Kinship, Soulshift, etc.). And, of course, cards like Coat of Arms exist.

3. This is a very versatile archetype. Tribal is more a theme than an engine, so it has a vast array of win conditions. (For example, recall just how many ways Slivers can win the game.) The larger the number of creatures of a specific type, the more options they have. Consider one of Magic’s largest tribes: Elves. Elves can generate tons of mana, allowing you to ramp into huge creatures and X-spells (like Genesis Wave or Comet Storm). They can also generate a bunch of tokens, allowing you to swarm your opponents. There are multiple game-ending combos elves can engage in. Under Ezuri, Renegade Leader, just a couple of them can get huge and wreck your opponents’ faces. A particularly crafty deckbuilder can do every single one of them in the same deck.

Birds and Banding, got it. Wait, Banding?!?

4. Tribal decks are fun. It’s a rare magic player that won’t have fun with a deck full of their favorite creature type. In fact, there is an entire Commander variant where nothing BUT tribal decks are played. It’s very easy to make a personal connection with your deck when you’ve picked out your favorite tribe, and then all your favorite members of that tribe.

5. Some tribes are budget-friendly. You’d be surprised just how cheaply you can build a dragon deck once you already have Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund. If you’re looking at an off-beat tribe, like Warriors, then the creatures of your deck are probably not going to be expensive, and you can afford the tribal support cards (more on these later) to make them awesome.


DISADVANTAGES OF THE ARCHETYPE

Normal people call an exterminator to deal with their rat problem. Tsabo was not a normal person.

1. Though rare, tribal-hosers exist. A couple of them can completely wreck you. If your meta is particularly tribal-heavy, expect anyone not playing tribal to pack Extinction, or worse, Tsabo’s Decree. In addition to these two, Circle of Solace shows up on occasion in Enchantment and Pillow Fort decks. Human tribal decks often run Riders of Gavony, and blue tribal decks can include Faces of the Past – which they run for their benefit, but can easily be tailored for your detriment. Less-popular tribal hosers include An-Zerrin RuinsEndemic PlagueEngineered PlagueOutbreak, and Walking Desecration. Oh, and watch out for specific-tribe hosers too! On a rare occasion, you just might see a Plague Sliver or a Tivadar’s Crusade.

2. Synergies can be broken. Because you’re relying on multiple cards to threaten the board as opposed to single cards or small combos, your board is more vulnerable than non-tribal decks. You are more susceptible to sweepers, because it’s much harder to rebuild a synergistic collection of permanents than it is to play one or two permanents that are powerful on their own.

Lhurgoyf tribal would be cheap, were it not for this guy.

3. Some tribes are very expensive to build. Angel decks want Iona, Shield of EmeriaAvacyn, Angel of Hope, and Linvala, Keeper of Silence. That’s $68 for three creatures. Elf decks can be similarly expensive because of their popularity in Legacy. Same deal with Goblins (see Goblin Piledriver if you don’t believe me.) Slivers not only have a couple expensive members (like Sliver Queen, who is on the reserved list), but they have to support a five-color mana base. Oh, and you just can’t have a Djinn deck without good old $150 Juzam Djinn. Well, you could, but it wouldn’t be a real Djinn deck…


TRIBAL SUPPORT CARDS

In addition to support cards geared toward one particular tribe, the following cards can be utilized to support any tribal deck.

Colorless: Coat of Arms is the most famous and popular one. It rewards you by having multiple creatures of the same type in play. If there are five wolverines in play, each one gets +4/+4. Door of Destinies gives a flat bonus to all your creatures, which increases as you cast them. Urza’s Incubator makes all your tribal creatures cost 2 less to cast. Adaptive Automaton is a lord for any creature type. Brass Herald is a lord that lets you draw some of your tribal creatures into your hand when he comes into play. Konda’s Banner is an equipment that turns a legendary creature into a tribal (and color) lord. Cryptic Gateway lets you cheat tribal creatures into play, as does Belbe’s Portal.  Volrath’s Laboratory and Riptide Replicator let you make tokens of your chosen creature type.

Land: Though there exist many tribe-specific lands like Riptide Laboratory, there are two lands that are universally good for tribal decks: Cavern of Souls produces any color of mana and makes your tribal creatures uncounterable, and Mutavault is a man land that turns into every creature type.

White: Only two tribal support cards exist in this color, and neither are exciting. Shared Triumph gives your chosen creature type +1/+1, and Crown of Awe gives your creatures a one-shot protection from black and red effect.

BlueCall to the Kindred and Riptide Shapeshifter allow you to cheat tribal creatures into play from your library. Peer Pressure lets you steal creatures of your chosen tribe that your opponents control. Crown of Ascension gives your creatures a one-shot flying effect. Distant Melody lets you draw a number of cards equal to the number of tribal creatures you have in play. Faces of the Past allow you to untap (or tap) all your tribal creatures when one goes to the graveyard. Mistform Warchief can tap to make your creatures cost 1 less to cast (though he doesn’t have to tap if you’re playing Illusion tribal.)

BlackPatriarch’s Bidding is a powerhouse. It lets every player choose a creature type, and return all creatures of that type to the battlefield. If your deck is full of the same creature type, then that’s a massive board advantage for you. Aphetto Dredging lets you return 3 tribal creatures from your graveyard back to your hand. Cover of Darkness gives all your tribal creatures Fear. Pack’s Disdain is a removal spell that gets more powerful by having more of your tribe’s creatures in play. Crown of Suspicion gives your creatures +2/-1 until end of turn.

RedMana Echoes is a tribal combo machine, capable of generating infinite mana easily. Roar of the Crowd is a burn spell powered by the number of tribal creatures you have in play. Crown of Fury gives your creatures +1/+0 and first strike until end of turn.

Green: Green has some amazing tribal support cards. Descendants’ Path gives you the chance to cast a tribal creature for free every upkeep. Alpha Status is two Coat of Arms enchanted onto a single creature. Steely Resolve gives your tribal creatures shroud. Luminescent Rain gives you 2 life for each tribal creature you control. Tribal Unity makes your creatures huge for a turn if you have sufficient mana. Reins of the Vinesteed is a +2/+2 aura that, when it hits the graveyard, comes back to the battlefield and enchants one of your tribal creatures. Tribal Forcemage gives your creatures +2/+2 and trample until end of turn. Bloodline Shaman lets you put the top card of your library into your hand if it’s a tribal creature. Crown of Vigor gives your creatures +1/+1 until end of turn.

 

 

COPING WITH LOW-MEMBERSHIP TRIBES

So what do you do if you’re in love with Basilisks, but there’s only ten of them in the game? Well, you have a couple options.

Zuko here doesn’t have a creature type, so he will be forever tribeless.

1. Add a second tribe. Let me be clear – ONLY one more tribe. There is a rare selection of generals capable of supporting three different tribes (Kaalia of the VastLovisa Coldeyes, etc.), but if you have more than two, then the synergy of your deck is going to be shot. If Tribal synergy is going to be the strongest focus of your deck, then two tribes is an absolute maximum. The best two-tribe combinations are the “race and class” combinations. Faeries and Rogues, for example. Since there are several Faerie Rogues in the game, those creatures that have both types will synergize with both Faeries and Rogues. To help make this work, you can…

2. Force some creature types. Enchantments like Xenograft and Conspiracy will turn all your creatures into whatever type you want. Unnatural Selection will make your creatures a specific type for as long as you have the mana to keep them that way. Standardize and Mirror Entity will do it for a turn. Runed Stalactite turns whatever creature is equipping it into all creature types. Artificial Evolution will permanently change one creature’s type.

Believe it or not, he’s a Mutant Ninja Turtle.

3. Employ some changelings. Certain creatures in the game have the Changeling ability, which makes them all creature types. Some more notable changelings are Taurean MaulerAmoeboid ChangelingChameleon Colossus, and Shapesharer. Because changelings are all creature types, they can fit into any tribal deck of the appropriate colors. Yeah, so maybe it seems weird having a deck half full of Basilisks, and half full of changelings, but you know what? Maybe being a basilisk is so awesome that all these creatures, who can be anything they want, choose to be basilisks. That’s what I’m going to tell anybody who questions their presence in my basilisk deck, anyway.

If you’re running blue, the Mistform creatures (like Mistform Ultimus and Mistform Skyreaver) function like lesser changelings and can change their creature types to whatever you want, provided you have the mana.

4. Go non-tribal. If none of these options work for you, then you may wish to consider abandoning the tribal focus, and instead putting as many creatures of your favorite type into a different archetype. All those basilisks fit right into a deck heavily focused on Deathtouch. Even if the deck isn’t relying on tribal synergy, it’s still a Basilisk deck if you want it to be.


CHOOSING A TRIBAL GENERAL

The absolute most important thing is your general’s color identity. Unlike other archetypes, you can’t pick your general first and then build around him/her. You already know what 1/3 of your deck is going to be, and your general has to squeeze into those colors.

There are a great many generals that synergize with a specific creature type, and I will give a few examples shortly. However, it should be noted that this is not a requirement – Xira Arien would make a fine Tribal Insect general, though all she does is draw cards and fly.

Dragons: If you want to go five colors and nab all the awesome tri-colored dragons (like Numot, the Devastator), then your choice of general should be Scion of the Ur-Dragon. If you can reanimate, recur, or return cards from the graveyard to your hand, then the Scion is a never-ending dragon tutor. If you don’t want to go five-color, then Karthus, Tyrant of Jund is a very popular general. Dragons are popular enough in Commander that his enter-the-battlefield ability is completely relevant, and hasty dragons are a scary force. Bladewing the Risen is also very popular, able to recur and pump dragons. Of course, any of the elder dragons (like Nicol Bolas) are excellent flavor choices.

SliversYou have three choices. They’re all good, and they enable different types of decks.

GoblinsWort, Boggart Auntie gives you access to black, and brings your goblins out of the graveyard back to your hand, making her great for a recursion deck. Wort, the Raidmother gives you access to green, and is a solid choice for a token or swarm deck (finishing with something like Overrun.) Krenko, Mob Boss is a combo machine, and even if you don’t like combos, she can put an insane number of goblins into play without going infinite.  Krekno with a pair of Illusionist’s Bracers is downright frightening. Squee, Goblin Nabob is a great flavor choice for old-school players.

 

Elves: There are a total of 21 legendary elves, so you have plenty of options here. Ezuri, Renegade Leader has become the default tribal elf general, and with good reason. She’s inexpensive, casts Overrun whenever she feels like it, and her ability to cheaply regenerate elves makes her deck very resilient to sweepers and targeted destruction. Eladamri, Lord of Leaves is a somewhat less-popular elf general. He’s a classic lord, giving forestwalk and shroud to other elves. Though not as versatile as Ezuri, making your other elves impossible to target (and block, if your opponent controls a forest) makes it much harder to interact with. Rhys, the Redeemed is a very strong elf token general.

 

Angels: Even though she’s not an Angel herself, it’s hard to find a better Angel general than Kaalia of the Vast. Her ability to cheat very expensive angels into play early in the game is practically unfair. For mono-white, Avacyn, Angel of Hope turns your heavenly army into an indestructible army. Sigarda, Host of Herons gives you access to green’s powerful tribal support spells, and gives your angels protection from forced sacrifice effects. Aurelia, the Warleader gives you access to the boros angels, and gives you a powerful win condition by having multiple combat phases.

 

VampiresOlivia Voldaren gives you access to red and black, which enables you to make use of the vampires from the Innistrad block that get larger the more damage they do. Her ability lets her sire more vampires (and then steal them), making her a solid choice for vampire general. Anowon, the Ruin Sage is another great general if you’re willing to go mono-black (and there are more than enough black vampires to support this choice.) Whenever he’s out, each player has to sacrifice a non-vampire creature during your upkeep, making him a solid control or reanimator-oriented general. Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief is another popular vampire general – her draining ability makes her well-suited to control the board and do 21 general damage reliably.

WizardsAzami, Lady of Scrolls is a powerhouse wizard general. She’s able to turn all your wizards into a massive card-draw engine. With this mass of cards, you can dig for combos with the help of Descendant of Soramaro, control the board with bounce and counterspells, or hit hard with creatures such as Sturmgeist.  Ertai, Wizard Adept is a very strong choice for a more control-oriented wizard tribal deck, given his ability to counter a spell with four mana whenever he’s untapped.  Teferi, Mage of ZhalfirNiv-Mizzet, the Firemind, and Ertai, the Corrupted are other possibilities that are worth considering.

Zombies: There are several good choices here. Grimgrin, Corpse-Born loves the zombies that regularly come back from the grave. His ability to destroy your own creatures and your opponents’ can generate a massive amount of +1/+1 counters, quickly, making him a serious threat for 21 general damage. He’s also at the center of several infinite combos (and the Night of the Living Dead ultra-combo.) Mikaeus, the Unhallowed is a wonderful thematic choice, being the highest ranking member of the church of Avacyn who was tragically assassinated and raised as a member of the undead. His abilities give all your undead +1/+1 and undying – ensuring that your horde of the damned keeps fighting on. (Also, enabling quite a few infinite combos.) Other good tribal generals to consider are Thraximundar and Balthor the Defiled.

Merfolk: Sygg, River Guide is the most popular Merfolk general, able to protect your Merfolk army by giving them protection from the color of your choice. Empress Galina is another good choice for Merfolk general, and her ability to take control of your opponents’ legendary creatures is a good start to a thievery deck. Thada Adel, Acquisitor is another strong thievery Merfolk general, though she also would be strong in an Islandwalk theme – blue magic has several ways of turning your opponents’ lands into Islands.

 

 

SAMPLE DECKLIST

Here’s a tribal Golem deck I built while writing the article. While Karn, Silver Golem seems to be the obvious choice for general, I decided I wanted all six Splicers from New Phyrexia. That put me in Bant colors (white, blue, green). Alas, there weren’t any generals in those colors that made much sense, but I chose Ragnar, because regeneration is always useful, and he looks like he belongs in a heavy metal band. I could see him rocking out with some golems. So, here it is…

Heavy Metal Tribe  
General
Ragnar

Lands: 39

Island
Plains
Forest
Command Tower
Seaside Citadel
Bant Panorama
Evolving Wilds
Terramorphic Expanse
Mirrodin’s Core
Shimmering Grotto
Tendo Ice Bridge
Tarnished Citadel
Grand Coliseum
Aysen Abbey
Unstable Frontier
Temple of the False God
Cavern of Souls
Academy Ruins
Buried Ruin
Alchemist’s Refuge
Winding Canyons
Gavony Township
Ghost Town
Strip Mine
Tectonic Edge
Dread Statuary
Mutavault
Darksteel Citadel
Reliquary Tower
Homeward Path

Creatures: 31
Blade Splicer
Master Splicer
Sensor Splicer
Maul Splicer
Vital Splicer
Wing Splicer
Adaptive Automaton
Altar Golem
Arcbound Bruiser
Arcbound Overseer
Arcbound Reclaimer
Blightsteel Colossus
Brass Herald
Colossus of Sardia
Darksteel Colossus
Darksteel Sentinel
Enatu Golem
Glassdusk Hulk
Golem Artisan
Guardian of the Ages
Junktroller
Karn, Silver Golem
Lodestone Golem
Mycosynth Golem
Phyrexian Colossus
Platinum Emperion
Precursor Golem
Solemn Simulacrum
Voltaic Construct
Arcum Dagsson
Master Transmuter

Artifacts: 17
Conversion Chamber
Darksteel Forge
Golem Foundry
Golem’s Heart
Guardian Idol
Rusted Relic
Titan Forge
Unwinding Clock
Voltaic Key
Coat of Arms
Urza’s Incubator
Mind’s Eye
Mana Vault
Basalt Monolith
Sol Ring
Mirrorworks
Nevinyrral’s Disk 

Enchantments: 4
Call to the Kindred
Alpha Status
Steely Resolve
Doubling Season 

Sorcery: 6
Fabricate
Tribal Unity
All is Dust
Cyclonic Rift
Harsh Mercy
Stroke of Genius 

Instant: 1
Enlightened Tutor 

Planeswalkers: 1
Tezzeret the Seeker

This deck really, really wants a Mishra’s Workshop, but I could never justify the $380 cost, and assume most of my readers can’t either. (Same deal with Wasteland, but that’s a fraction of the Workshop at $50).

You may notice there’s several creatures that have some issues untapping, like Colossus of Sardia. This is one of the things you’re saving your artifact tutors for – to grab a Voltaic Key or Unwinding Clock to make sure you don’t have to pay a bunch of life to untap them.

Some things are just unfair when made indestructible.

Another thing you may notice is that the mana curve of the deck is a tad high. This is why Basalt Monolith and Mana Vault (which ALSO benefit from the Key and Clock) are in the deck. You can also cheat high-cost artifacts into play by judicious use of Call to the KindredMaster Transmuter and Arcum Dagsson.

Getting Darksteel Forge down as quickly as possible makes the deck nasty – just the forge and Platinum Emperion makes you very, very hard to kill. Since there are a great many cards in the deck that produce golem tokens, and several cards that come into play with counters, Doubling Season has been included.

The Importance of Theme

Thanks to a certain Commander player, I now get the Pirates of the Caribbean theme stuck in my head every time I see this card.

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:

Play him in a Giant deck, or a Norse god deck. You decide.

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.

So… elf deck?

General: There are several generals in the game that have a default theme implied. Consider the cases of Kaalia of the VastMayael 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.

 

I see scarecrows, lions, golems, and witches in your future.

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.

 

Well now I have to make a Nicol Bolas group hug deck, just to mess with people.

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:  FightersClericsWizardsPaladinsRoguesDruidsMonks, and Knights . These characters would go on quests to obtain the power needed to vanquish their enemies (my opponents).

They share their strength.  Just like slivers...

They share their strength. Just like slivers…

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 PlagiarizeKraken’s EyeDeathmark, 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.

SSSSSSSINKHOLE!!!

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 reaverher shadeher 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.

“Of course you should fight fire with fire. You should fight everything with fire.”

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 AngelSengir VampireLord of the PitWrath of GodUnholy StrengthHypnotic SpecterJuzam 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.

AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!

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!

Bring a Bucket Full of Dice  
Commander
Vorel of the Hull Clade

Lands: 39
13 Island
13 Forest
Breeding Pool
Flooded Grove
Simic Growth Chamber
Temple of the False God
Hinterland Harbor
Yavimaya Coast
City of Shadows
Alchemist’s Refuge
Llanowar Reborn
Novijen, Heart of Progress
Yavimaya Hollow
Hickory Woodlot
Saprazzan Skerry

Creatures: 29
Primordial Hydra
Kalonian Hydra
Vastwood Hydra
Predator Ooze
Renegade Krasis
Simic Manipulator
Spike Feeder
Coretapper
Myojin of Seeing Winds
Champion of Lambholt
Fathom Mage
Fertilid
Forgotten Ancient
Lorescale Coatl
Plaxcaster Frogling
Master Biomancer
Sage of Fables
Zameck Guildmage
Gyre Sage
Mycoloth
Prime Speaker Zegana
Simic Fluxmage
Vigean Graftmage
Experiment Kraj
Draining Whelk
Plaguemaw Beast
Viral Drake
Thrummingbird
Momir Vig, Simic Visionary

Artifacts: 15
Chimeric Mass
Golem Foundry
Everflowing Chalice
Grimoire of the Dead
Evolution Vat
Sigil of Distinction
Kyren Toy
Pentad Prism
Sphere of the Suns
Darksteel Reactor
Power Conduit
Eternity Vessel
Orochi Hatchery
Contagion Clasp
Contagion Engine

Enchantments: 5
Druids’ Repository
Doubling Season
Iceberg
Mana Bloom
Inexorable Tide

Sorceries: 7
Urban Evolution
Increasing Savagery
Tezzeret’s Gambit
Cyclonic Rift
Give // Take
Creeping Renaissance
Whirlwind

Instants: 3
Fuel for the Cause
Steady Progress
Plasm Capture

Planeswalker: 1
Garruk, Caller of Beasts

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?

“I have had it with these mother#@*%ing snakes on my mother#@*%ing planeswalker!”

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!

Budget Deckbuilding

This is NOT the focus of today’s article.

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.

Oh, and this guy was in the Counterpunch deck too.

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.

Some card stores will pay you to take this off their hands.

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.

If you hate making friends, just add Dark Ritual, Ad Nauseam, Zombie Infestation and 96 Swamps for a $2 Commander Deck.

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…

Shown above: 10¢.

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.

Colorful and cheap.          Not fast.

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 RefugeAzorius GuildgateBoreal ShelfCoastal TowerEvolving 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.

Shown above: roughly 420% of the budget for a $35 token deck.

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.

I’m very curious how they eat forests to regenerate, given that I can’t get my cat to eat anything other than $50-a-bag pet food.

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.

Maybe next time.

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!

Hardwood Beatdown  
Commander
Molimo, Maro Sorcerer
Lands: 38

38 Forest
Creatures: 33

Dauntless Dourbark
Dungrove Elder
Coiling Woodworm
Timbermaw Larva
Traproot Kami
Utkabi Wildcats
Budoka Gardener
Allosaurus Rider
Sylvan Primordial
Baloth Woodcrasher
Worldspine Wurm
Pelakka Wurm
Scute Mob
Artisan of Kozilek
Avatar of Might
Moldgraf Monstrosity
Plated Slagwurm
Spearbreaker Behemoth
Terra Stomper
Verdant Force
Arashi, the Sky Asunder
Baru, Fist of Krosa
Brawn
Wolfbriar Elemental
Ursapine
Garruk’s Packleader
Dosan the Falling Leaf
Fierce Empath
Mwonvuli Beast Tracker
Soul of the Harvest
Fertilid
Sakura-Tribe Elder
Frontier Guide
Enchantments: 9
Aspect of Wolf
Blanchwood Armor
Deadfall
Kavu Lair
Gravity Well
Gaea’s Touch
Vernal Bloom
Rites of Flourishing
Khalni Heart Expedition
Sorceries: 14

Genesis Wave
Fruition
Howl of the Night Pack
Reverent Silence
Revive
Corrosive Gale
Land Grant
Nature’s Lore
Ranger’s Path
Skyshroud Claim
Cultivate
Kodama’s Reach
Boundless Realms
Rampant Growth
Instants: 4

Primal Bellow
Strength of Cedars
Momentous Fall
Sprout Swarm
Artifacts: 2

Strata Scythe
Brittle Effigy

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 ScytheBlanchwood ArmorPrimal 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 ColossusUlamog, 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.

Likewise, the awesome, expensive reserved-list cards Natural Order and Exploration would be welcome additions.

For quick improvements in the ~$5-10 range, the following certainly couldn’t hurt: AsceticismDefense of the HeartVorinclex, Voice of HungerRegal ForceAvenger of ZendikarPrimalcruxRampaging Baloths, and Garruk Wildspeaker.

The Five-Color Manabase

The following is a preview, of sorts, of next Monday’s update.  This will be a segment of that update, with minor alterations (and a much different decklist) – but since this section deals with theory that is pretty universal for pentacolor decklists, I wanted to go ahead and separate it for now, so that it can be more easily referred to in the future.  Enjoy!

Coping with a Five-Color
Manabase

An Atog with a CMC above 3 is as rare as a blue mage who never counters any spells.

How the heck do you build a manabase for a five-color Commander deck? Well, it depends on what the average CMC of your deck is. The higher the average CMC of your deck, the harder it is going to be to consistently achieve all the colors you want. For decks with a low average CMC (like Atog and Sliver decks), your focus needs to be getting all five colors down, rather than getting larger amounts of mana. For decks with higher average CMC (like 5-color control decks), you should limit your card selection to three primary colors, splashing the other two for powerful cards. For 3+splash decks, your best bet is this: build a core 3-color mana base, but include one of each basic land outside the color core for fetching, and several of the 5-color lands listed a few paragraphs below.

It also depends on how fast your deck needs to be. If lands coming into play tapped frequently is going to be a major hindrance to your deck, then your options are going to be very limited.

I will admit that it does seem a bit daunting to build a manabase for a color-balanced deck (I know it was for me when I built my first 5-color Commander deck.) The good news is that you have multiple options. The bad news is, each one comes with drawbacks.

It’s like the designers of this card forgot that fetchlands existed.

The Optimal Manabase: The perfect 5-color manabase uses the 10 original dual lands, 10 shocklands, and 10 fetchlands, preferably with Crucible of Worlds to keep reusing the fetches – and 8-10 utility lands. Of course, this is crazy expensive. Using the TCGPlayer optimizer for conditions up to Heavily Played, the cheapest you can currently get this set of 30 lands for is $1,183.73. So, unless your discretionary spending budget is a heck of a lot bigger than mine, or you’ve been playing since 1994 and have smartly saved up all these lands, this isn’t the manabase for you.

Basic Landfetch: This is the cheapest version of a 5-color manabase you will find. It runs 5-6 of each basic land, and many if not all of the following lands that fetch basics:

Basic Land Fetchers  
Bad River
Flood Plain
Grasslands
Mountain Valley
Rocky Tar Pit
Krosan Verge
Jund Panorama
Naya Panorama
Bant Panorama
Grixis Panorama
Esper Panorama
Evolving Wilds
Terramorphic Expanse

Thawing Glaciers and Terminal Moraine are possibilities as well. Note that the first six lands listed will also fetch shocklands (and duals), just not as fast as the Zendikar and Onslaught fetchlands.

For those who have been spoiled by the Return to Ravnica cycle’s wonderful mana base, this is what a Painland looks like.

Semi-Budget Speed: This is the go-to build if you need your deck to be fast, but can’t afford a mortgage payment to make it happen. It wants 10 Shocklands (which you should have been picking up over the last year), 10 Buddy Lands (the M10/Innistrad duals), and the 10 Painlands – plus several of the 5-color lands listed below. This is not a terribly consistent manabase, but if you just can’t have lands coming into play tapped and don’t have access to the Optimal Manabase, then this is pretty much your best option.

If none of these mana bases appeal to you, and you can afford the speed-loss of having lands come into play tapped, then you can pick and choose from the following options (in addition to basics and basic-fetchers):

5-Color Lands: There are many lands in the game that will produce any color of mana, with either a price or a restriction. You should always have Command Tower, because it’s the only one without any drawbacks. Also, Cavern of Souls is a must-have for any tribal deck, as it produces any color of mana (for tribal creatures) and makes your tribal creatures uncounterable.

Other lands in this category to consider include Vivid Lands (more on these a bit later), Grand Coliseum and City of Brass (1 damage), Rupture Spire and Transguild Promenade (they come into play tapped and cost 1 mana to play), Exotic Orchard (only produces colors your opponents can produce), Forbidden Orchard (gives an opponent a 1/1 token), Mirrodin’s Core (has to charge), Reflecting Pool (only produces what your other lands already can), and Ancient Ziggurat (only for creatures).

Counter-Bounce: This is a manabase style I have developed for my own Sliver Overlord deck. It’s slow, but consistent. It utilizes lands that tap for any color but have diminishing counters on them, and the 10 Ravnica karoos to bounce them back to your hand once you’ve used all the counters:

Don’t even THINK about trying to play these in a 5-color deck unless you intend to turn the bounce effect into a benefit.

Counter-Bounce Lands  
Counter Lands: 7
Vivid Meadow
Vivid Grove
Vivid Marsh
Vivid Crag
Vivid Creek
Gemstone Mine
Tendo Ice Bridge
Ravnica Karoos: 10

Azorius Chancery
Boros Garrison
Dimir Aqueduct
Golgari Rot Farm
Gruul Turf
Izzet Boilerworks
Orzhov Basilica
Rakdos Carnarium
Selesnya Sanctuary
Simic Growth Chamber

Alara Taplands: Two-color taplands are too much of a hindrance for a five-color manabase, but the cycle of three-color taplands can definitely benefit such a deck. These lands are Arcane SanctumCrumbling NecropolisJungle ShrineSeaside Citadel, and Savage Lands.

You ever wonder if the Commander format is just one big Dimir conspiracy?

Artifact FixingChromatic Lantern is a godsend. It’s a colorless Prismatic Omen (which you should totally also have.) Any cheap artifacts that produce any color are also worth considering: Coalition RelicDarksteel IngotColdsteel HeartFellwar StoneManalith, and Mox Diamond. Just remember – artifacts are much easier to destroy than lands!


Sample Deck

So here’s a sample deck I built for fun, but haven’t had the chance to play yet. I wanted to take the “Basic Landfetch” mana base to the extreme, and run a deck full of cards that reward you for having basic lands, and punish your opponents for having nonbasic land. The deck wants to get to one basic of each type on turn 5, at which point the deck “turns on.”

Rainbow Road  
Commander
Child of Alara
Lands: 38
Forest
Mountain
Plains
Swamp
Island
Jund Panorama
Naya Panorama
Bant Panorama
Grixis Panorama
Esper Panorama
Evolving Wilds
Terramorphic Expanse
Bad River
Flood Plain
Grasslands
Mountain Valley
Rocky Tar Pit
Creatures: 21

Magus of the Moon
Detritivore
Draco
Knight of the Reliquary
Tek
Seasinger
Cromat
Fusion Elemental
Horde of Notions
Maelstrom Archangel
Etched Monstrosity
Bringer of the Black Dawn
Bringer of the Blue Dawn
Bringer of the Green Dawn
Bringer of the Red Dawn
Dune-Brood Nephilim
Witch-Maw Nephilim
Yore-Tiller Nephilim
Solemn Simulacrum
Bloom Tender
Consecrated Sphinx
Enchantments: 10
Back to Basics
Blood Moon
Destructive Flow
Primal Order
Collective Restraint
Spirit of Resistance
Genju of the Realm
Maelstrom Nexus
Rowen
Khalni Heart Expedition
Sorceries: 15

Price of Progress
Global Ruin
Allied Strategies
All Suns’ Dawn
Conflux
Farseek
Shard Convergence
Cultivate
Kodama’s Reach
Rampant Growth
Wrath of God
Damnation
Akroma’s Vengeance
Hallowed Burial
Final Judgment
Instants: 9

Worldly Counsel
Dominaria’s Judgment
Mogg Salvage
Refreshing Rain
Snuff Out
Reverent Silence
Bant Charm
Hinder
Spell Crumple
Artifacts: 5

Door to Nothingness
Legacy Weapon
Fist of Suns
Gem of Becoming
1 Crucible of Worlds
Planeswalkers: 1
Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker

One-Color Wonders

In the Commander format, your General’s color identity determines which cards your deck has access to.  There are legendary creatures that qualify to be general in every two- and three-color combination, as well as a total of eleven generals with all five colors in their identity.  With each color beyond the first a general has in its color identity, the pool of cards available to your deck increases greatly.  So why, then, would anyone ever choose a mono-colored general?

Well, put simply, it’d be kind of a boring game if there weren’t mono-colored generals running around, because there are more mono-colored generals available than multicolored generals.  There are currently 64 white creatures that qualify to be a general.  It is entirely possible (though extremely inadvisable) to build a mono-white deck with nothing but legendary creatures in it.  In comparison, each two-color combination tends to have around 20 qualifying creatures, each allied-three-color combination has an average of 8, and each enemy-three-color combination sports 3 or 4.  Without mono-colored commanders, the format would be far, far less diverse.


ADVANTAGES OF MONO-COLORED GENERALS

“Who else is gonna do my job? Tariel? Oros?”

Mono-colored decks tend to be less beholden to their generals.  If you build a Doran, the Siege Tower deck, then he’s set in stone as general.  None of the other three Green-White-Black generals are going to be able to fill his shoes if, for whatever reason, you felt like changing him out with another legendary creature in your deck.  With 63 other options, however, your mono-white general can more easily have someone else in the deck substitute in for him.

The mana base is much more stable.  You never have to worry about finding all your colors of mana to cast spells.  If you have a mono-green deck, the majority of your lands are going to be Forests.  Any lands you pick beyond your basic lands are going to be used for utility instead of mana fixing.  You will never get hosed by the likes of Blood Moon.

Mono-colored decks are more budget-friendly.  Since somewhere around 1/3 of your deck is going to be basic lands, you only have to worry about that other 2/3 of the deck.  You can spend your budget on awesome spells, instead of the lands that let you cast those spells.

Restrictions breed creativity.  Unless you have a very specific plan going in, it’s daunting to build a five-colored deck.  There are over 12,000 cards available to choose from, and you have to select the best 99 of them.  When building a deck for a mono-colored general, say for instance Balthor the Defiled, your card pool is a fraction of that.  Pretty soon you’ve developed yourself a minion-tribal renimator deck in an hour or two – a process which would have taken much longer for a multicolored general.

There are great cards that reward a mono-colored strategy.  Cards like Strata Scythe, Extraplanar Lens, Vedalkan Shackles, and Crackdown.

The shallower card pool isn’t as big a deal as you think.  Consider the pool of available mono-blue cards and artifacts.  I’d estimate there’s probably about 1800 cards to choose from (keep in mind this is a VERY rough estimate).  Of that pool, there’s probably 200 cards that are really good, can win games, and/or are contenders for “format staple.”  Well, guess what?  You can only include 99 cards in your deck, and a third of those are lands.  So, realistically speaking, you can only play about 60 of those 200 “really awesome cards,” minus the less-than-awesome cards you are adding for flavor and theme.   A five-color deck has access to every single one of those over 12,000 cards, and it can STILL only play about 60 of them.  The power level of a mono-colored deck is, for all practical purposes, equal to that of a multi-colored deck in this format.


DISADVANTAGES OF MONO-COLORED GENERALS

“Gosh, I hope you weren’t planning on playing 90% of the spells in your deck…”

Iona, Shield of Emeria exists.  Seriously, look at her.  That’s ridiculous.  With one spell, your opponent can shut down your entire deck.  “Yeah, but she’s nine mana,” You might say.  You think Kaalia of the Vast cares about that?  Or Mayael the Anima?  How about anyone with a reanimator deck or a Quicksilver Amulet?  You must assume that any deck capable of managing that triple-white casting cost, or cheating white creatures into play counts Iona amongst their 99 cards.  Sometimes, people even play her as their general.  You MUST have a plan for dealing with her, or you put yourself at the mercy of everyone else at the table.

Color-Hosers exist.  True, they’re not played with great frequency, because they’re limited in scope, but they are played nonetheless.  Some, like Karma, combo with cards like Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth.  Others, like Gloom, are flavorful.  Hosers like Omen of Fire are just plain powerful, and always worth considering – especially in mono-colored decks.

Having only one color limits options.  Mono-black decks are going to have a hard time dealing with enchantments and artifacts.  Mono-blue decks are going to have a hard time keeping up when everyone else at the table is ramping.  Generals with protection from colors like the popular Animar, Soul of Elements are going to find your deck a paved, 8-lane highway to dealing 21 general damage.

So how does a mono-colored Commander deck overcome these disadvantages?  Well, I’m glad you asked…


OVERCOMING THE DISADVANTAGES OF ONE
COLOR

Every commander player needs to have some idea about the weaknesses of their deck.  “What is my Merfolk Tribal deck going to do about flying creatures?”  “How do I cast my own non-creature spells with my Ruric Thar general out?”  This is no different for mono-colored Commander decks, because their weaknesses have a tendency to be amplified.

Have colorless removal available.  If a player casts Iona, naming your deck’s only color, you can’t count on anyone else at the table to get rid of her.  You have to be proactive, which means you need the tools to do so.  I’m a big fan of Brittle Effigy, because it means most times I’m never going to see that problem card again for the rest of the game.  Oblivion Stone has become a colorless Commander staple, and should be in any mono-colored deck.

Beware of other mono-colored decks, especially those in your enemy colors.  If you’re playing mono-black, and another player is playing mono-white or mono-green, then keep your eyes on them.  They are the most likely to run color hosers, because these are the decks that take maximum advantage of them.

Ally with players whose decks share your color.  Just because you can’t count on other players to bail you out doesn’t mean it never happens.  That guy who is playing Lavinia of the Tenth as his general is going to be almost as miffed as the player sporting Empress Galina as their general  when Curse of Merit Lage comes into play.  Sometimes they have even MORE to lose.  Putefaction (seen to the right) is going to be a much bigger problem for Tolsimir Wolfblood than it will be for Jolreal, Empress of Beasts.  Don’t neglect the “above the table” game.  If you can’t deal with a threat that’s terrorizing your deck, perhaps your ally can.


ANALYZING COLOR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES


WHITE:
 
Though many Commander players consider blue or green to be the strongest single-color decks in the format, I believe this distinction actually goes to white.  Unlike every other color, white really has no weaknesses.

Nice army you have there. It’d be a shame if something happened to it.

Strengths:  It has the strongest and most numerous sweepers.  It is able to exile or destroy every permanent type except planeswalkers.  Excellent equipment support makes for great Voltron decks.  Plainswalk is rare to find.  Strong control options.  Great flying creatures, and excellent defensive options.

Weaknesses: Few cards to deal directly with Planeswalkers.  Not much in the way of ramp; you’re limited to artifacts and cards like Land Tax and Tithe.

Notable Generals: Avacyn, Angel of Hope, Kemba, Kha Regent, and Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero.

Supported Tribes:  Angels, Cats, Clerics, Rebels, Soldiers, Knights, Humans


BLUE:
  Considered by many to be the strongest single-color deck in Commander, it hosts strong control and combo options.

You’re not in Kansas any more.

Strengths:  Almost every counterspell in the format is blue.  Strong control options through tap and bounce effects.  Many effects change control of permanents, making for strong thievery decks.  This color has many draw effects and can easily achieve card advantage.  Many game-ending combos are available in mono-blue, and these decks can take infinite turns.

Weaknesses:  Very limited removal.  Sweeper cards don’t destroy, they bounce – like Evacuation.  Few aggressively-costed creatures.  Mono-blue decks tend to be ganged up on at the table, because players assume the deck is seeking to take infinite turns or win by combo.  Has the same problem with ramp that white does, if not worse.  Creatures with Islandwalk tend to do unfair things when they hit you.

Notable Generals:  Azami, Lady of Scrolls, Teferi, Mage of Zalfir, and Sakashima the Imposter.

Supported Tribes:  Wizards, Merfolk, Faeries, Sphinxes, Illusions, Drakes


BLACK:
 This is the most played color in Commander, though it’s not known to be a very popular mono-colored deck in the format.  It probably has simultaneously the greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses when played alone.

Yes, your opponents can lose more life than they actually have.

Strengths:  Black has the best tutors in the game.  It is second only to white in quality and quantity of sweepers.  There exist many amazing black cards that cannot be easily played in multicolor decks – cards like Phyrexian Obliterator and Necropotence.  It has strong card advantage, rivaling even blue if you can keep your life total high enough.  With reanimation and recursion spells, black makes the best use of the graveyard.  Demons are huge creatures that grant unfair advantages, at a price.

Weaknesses:  Artifacts and enchantments are going to rock you hard.  Black has practically no ways of dealing with them.  Protection from black is relatively common.  Color hosers hit black the hardest in the game – if you play Commander long enough, you are definitely going to see Lifeforce.  It will hurt bad, and since it ‘s an enchantment, there’s precisely squat you can do about it.

Notable Generals:  Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief, Korlash, Heir to Blackblade, and Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon.

Supported Tribes:  Demons, Vampires, Zombies, Minions, Rats, Horrors, Humans


RED:
 
Commonly considered the weakest of colors in Commander,  it has some fun chaos options, speed and utility.

I smell untapped mountains.

Strengths:  Dragons.  Strong tribal support.  Land destruction options.  Dragons.  Aggressively-costed creatures.  Mono-red can make use of great creatures with cheap pump effects that multicolored decks can’t properly abuse.  Plentiful artifact destruction in an environment with many artifacts that need destroying.  Dragons.  Red has big creatures with flying, trample and/or haste.  Like dragons.

Weaknesses:  The speed that makes red great in other formats doesn’t matter much in Commander, when everyone starts with 40 life.  Burn isn’t terribly strong either in a format where creatures tend to be big.  No means of dealing with enchantments.  Sometimes you cast Warp World and end up in a worse position than when you started.

Notable Generals:  Jaya Ballard, Task Mage, Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, and Krenko, Mob Boss.

Supported Tribes:  Dragons, Goblins, Giants, Elementals, Minotaurs, Humans, Dragons


GREEN:
  Mono-green Commander decks tend to be the fastest, swifter even than mono-red.  With big creatures, reliable ramp, and wide flexibility, Green is a solid mono-color choice in Commander.

That squirrel isn’t so cute when you realize he alone is responsible for 1/3 lethal general damage.

Strengths:  A mono-green deck can generate absurd amounts of mana quickly.  Many spells and abilities destroy “target permanent,” giving the color great utility and board control.  Excellent creature tutors.  Elves are in contention for strongest tribe in the game.  Green creatures come with big power, and lots of excellent abilities – deathtouch, trample, and regeneration.

Weaknesses:  Green has the weakest sweepers, the majority of which only hit creatures in the air.  This color loses it’s strongest characteristic – big creatures – in this format, because most decks are playing big creatures.  Its most reliable creature-destruction mechanic is fighting, and so mono-green has little means of destroying larger creatures.

Notable Generals: Azusa, Lost But Seeking, Ezuri, Renegade Leader, and Omnath, Locus of Mana.

Supported Tribes:  Elves, Treefolk, Spiders, Snakes, Wolves, Wurms, Humans, Druids, Beasts

The Rules of Engagement: Getting Invited Back to the Table

Social Contract theory is much more fair than Infernal Contract theory.

Social contract theory is a philosophical supposition developed over time by many professional thinkers, including John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Rawls.  The concept, simplified, is that individuals have consented to give up certain powers and freedoms in order to enjoy the benefits of society.  Kitchen table Magic players very quickly develop their own social contracts, in order to maximize players’ enjoyment of the game.  Newer players will quickly agree upon rules such as “no blue,” which is an agreement that “I forfeit my freedom to play blue cards in order to enjoy the benefits of not having my spells countered.”

Obviously, the rules at the kitchen table change drastically over time as play skill improves and card inventories grow.  This works for the kitchen table because there generally isn’t a great deal of players joining and leaving that particular group.

Commander is a different beast, because the format is essentially kitchen table magic played at the game store.  While there certainly exist closed groups that play Commander only with other players in the group that have their own established rules, the majority of players who will partake in this format will often find themselves playing with those whom they haven’t played with before.  Magic’s tournament rules and ban lists are created with competitive magic in mind, and their purpose is to ensure a fair game.  The implied social contract with competitive magic is that if it’s not in the rules, then it’s acceptable.

Don’t be this guy. He didn’t get invited back to the library.

But Commander is different – while the purpose of playing competitive magic is to win, the purpose of playing Commander is solely to have fun.  Decks capable of countering every spell played in Standard format may irritate many opponents, but they’re perfectly acceptable.  A limited metagame and sideboards help to counteract strategies that stop your opponent from playing their deck.  Commander has no such built-in safeguards – the only ‘strategy’ that Commander players can employ against a player that is ruining their fun is to not invite that player back for the next game.

So how then can one avoid being “that guy?”  How can someone reasonably ensure they’re not making an un-fun game for the other players at the table, when everyone at that table has a different definition of fun?  Well, you can’t.  Not a hundred percent, anyway.  However, over the years that EDH and Commander have been played, there are some pretty universal rules that one can follow and be perfectly okay to play at pretty much any table.  So, let’s go over these Rules of Engagement.


SECTION ONE:  THE GOLDEN RULES

I cannot express enough that, with the exception of a small group of people who play Commander competitively (sorry guys, this blog will never be for you) – there is only one purpose for playing Commander: to have fun.  Anything that gets in the way of that is bad.  It’s just that simple.

While everyone defines fun differently, there is a short list of things that are universally NOT fun, and the subsequent sections of this article will go into them for detail.  In the meantime, here are three golden rules that define Commander philosophy:

1) If players don’t get to play their decks, they aren’t going to have fun.  Strategies that rely upon non-interaction are bad, and strategies which require 20 minute turns are horrible.  Every player at the table should have the opportunity throughout the game to have just as much time on their turns as everyone else, and equal opportunities to interact with the rest of the table.

If your group allows this card to be played, it’s power and toughness should never change more than once due to the clock.

2) Games should neither be too short, or too long.  Yeah, on occasion it’s cool to watch a turn 3 Mimeoplasm faceroll an entire table – on a RARE occasion.  Players can say “wow, that was cool,” and shuffle up for the next game.  But if you do it more than once, the novelty is gone and it’s just not fun.  Likewise, if a game has stalled because everyone’s board is full of creatures and no one wants to commit to an attack, and you counter a Day of Judgment just because you had the mana open, you are not going to be very popular.  Don’t try to cheat victories before other players can react, and don’t heavily interfere when a stalled game wants to progress.

3) It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, as long as you look awesome doing it.  Style points are huge in this format.  Winning a game with a combo of Exquisite Blood and Sanguine Bond?  Meh, anyone can do that.  Rolling up with Kemba, Kha Regent decked out in all three pieces of Kaldra’s legendary gear, and a Sword of Fire and Ice, riding a Batterskull with an army of 2/2 kittens in his wake?  Now that’s awesome. Every deck should be able to win games, but if that’s the sole focus of the deck, then you (and the rest of the table) are not going to have a good time.

So, let’s analyze the application of our three golden rules in detail…


SECTION TWO:  DECK CONSTRUCTION

It’s banned for a reason.

Banned Cards:  Always assume that any card on the offical banned list is disallowed.  Do not take this to mean, however, that if the card isn’t on the list it’s totally okay – more on this later.  However, don’t assume these are absolute bans either.  While certain cards are never acceptable to play in Commander, there is a great deal of leeway.  Primeval Titan is a much different card in a 5-color Giant Tribal deck than he is in a mono-green Ramp/Landfall deck.  Always ASK BEFORE THE GAME if you have such a card in your deck.  “Hey, guys, I’m playing some Unglued cards in this deck – is that okay?”  “I’m running Recurring Nightmare in my nightmare-themed deck, but I don’t have any infinite combos with it – is that cool?”  Most players are going to be okay with these sorts of things, but be prepared in the event someone says no.  The official ban list is the community standard, and you are the one who wants to deviate from it – if that makes another player uncomfortable, then you need to be prepared to either play a different deck, or swap that card out for one that isn’t banned.  If a banned card is crucial to the functioning of your deck, then you probably shouldn’t have built that deck in the first place.

Land Destruction:  This is a little tricky, and is probably the most hotly-contested aspect of Commander deckbuilding.  To that end, more specificity is needed.

You better know what you’re doing.

Single-target land destruction is always okay.  There are some very powerful lands in the game, and land destruction keeps them in check.  No one wants to play a format where the presence of Academy Ruins means a Nevinyrral’s Disk standing upon the face of humanity forever.

Recurring land destruction is on very shaky ground.  This is the reason Sundering Titan was banned.  If you are playing Strip Mine every turn (or multiple times a turn) with the aid of Crucible of Worlds in order to keep the rest of the table unable to play spells, then you’re probably crossing the line.

Mass land destruction is horrible.  What Obliterate usually means is that the table is going to spend the next ten (or greater) turns in topdeck mode, waiting for someone to get lucky and win the game.  That’s not fun.  If you are going to use mass land destruction spells, then you will be expected to win the game very shortly after using them.  If you don’t, then you’re the reason Golden Rule #2 has been violated.

In summary, land destruction is a powerful and necessary tool that should be used to keep the game fair, not to lock a person out of playing their deck.  To that end, it should NEVER be the primary focus of your deck.

Not even once.

Lockdown Cards:  As big a fan as I am of the art on Stasis, no one ever wants to see it played in a Commander game.  It is entirely okay to employ a “prison” strategy, limiting players’ options in a game – but what is not okay is locking them out completely.  Smoke is perfectly acceptable, because it still gives players options.  This card will annoy the bajeezus out of a token swarm deck, but it won’t lock down the opposing player’s mana so they can’t fight back and destroy it.  Smokestack is fair because it gives players time to react, and gives them the choice of what permanents get sacrificed.  Winter Orb, just like Stasis, is not a fair card – it slows down the game to the point of violating Golden Rule #2, and means that players will have hands full of cards they can’t play (violating Golden Rule #1).  Fortunately, evaluating a prison/lockdown deck is fairly easy if you’re honest with yourself – just ask, “would I still have fun if I were to play against this deck?”  If the answer is not yes, then do not bring that deck to the table.

Resetting the Game:  Golden Rule #4 might as well be, “Don’t play Shahrazad.”  Restarting a game isn’t fun for anyone (except maybe the person who restarted it).  It creates a negative play experience, and no one should ever ask, “so why did we just waste 20 minutes playing?”  Same deal goes with Obliterate mentioned above.  This is not to say that resetting the game is never an option; it takes Karn Liberated a good deal of time to get enough loyalty to use his -14 ability.  But you should NEVER restart the game out of nowhere (like Shahrazad does for 2 mana) – or the players at your table will be starting a new game without you.

They'll thank you when someone tries to cast Jin-Gitaxias.

Countermagic:  Even though the common wisdom says that casual players hate counterspells, they’re almost 100% okay in Commander.  This format has some pretty degenerate spells that, once they hit the battlefield, are almost impossible to get rid of.  Hitting these spells on that stack is perfectly acceptable.  It’s healthy to have a nice dose of countermagic at the table, but what isn’t healthy is concentrating that countermagic power on a single player so that he or she never gets to cast a spell or interact with the table in any meaningful way.

Discard:  You had better have a damn good reason to play Identity Crisis.  Discard in itself is fine, and discard in a strategy involving cards like Megrim is perfectly acceptable.  When discard is used to put single players in topdeck mode (violating Golden Rule #1) or putting the entire table in topdeck mode (violating Golden Rule #2), then there is a problem.  As with lockdown decks, ask yourself if you would still have fun playing against your deck.

Combos:  Oooh boy.  Here’s another hotly-debated point of contention in the format.  There’s certainly room for combos at the game store Commander table.  What there isn’t room for, however, is non-interactive combos.  I would recommend against using any 2-card combos.  Any game-ending combo that can be tutored up with Tooth and Nail is just going to cause negative play experiences.  No one wants to have a fun, interactive game of magic end abruptly simply because the blue mage was tapped out.  If your combos are 3 or more cards, or take at least a full turn to go off, then you’re probably okay.  Otherwise, it’s probably not worth risking killing everyone’s fun.

You better believe he’s packing Mycosynth Lattice, Darksteel Forge, and Nevinyrral’s Disk.

Unfair Generals:  Let me preface by saying that, other than the generals on the banned list, there are no unfair generals.  However, if you play Commander long enough, you will encounter a Jhoira of the Ghitu player who suspends an Obliterate followed by an Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre.  Certain commanders, like Jhoira, Sharuum the Hegemon, and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker are simply known for non-interactive wins and abusive combos.  Every one of these generals is okay to play in the format, but unless you let them know otherwise, experienced players at your table will assume you’re playing the “unfair” versions of them and gang up on you before you can ruin their play experience, which will in turn ruin yours.  It pays to know what other players are building with your general before you take it to the game store.


SECTION THREE:  TABLE ETIQUETTE

So now that we’ve covered what to do before showing up at the table, let’s discuss what you should do once you’re there.

Communicate.  The table should never have to wonder whose turn it is, because players should be clearly announcing the end of their own turn, and players shouldn’t be taking too long on their own turns.  Clearly announce all targets of spells, because there’s multiple players who may wish to respond.  Be prepared to tell the table what the card you just played does, because with a pool of over 12,000 cards available, chances are eventually you’ll play a card someone hasn’t seen before.  Also, don’t be afraid of small talk.  Commander is a social game, and should be enjoyed socially.  However, always…

Pay attention to the game.  If you’re trading while a game is going on, texting someone on your phone, or playing a game on your DS, the game state is progressing without you.  In this instance, every time your turn comes around, you have to catch up to everyone else before you can make your plays.  This unfairly slows down the game (in violation of Golden Rule #2).

I have seen this card take nearly ten minutes to resolve.

Don’t take forever using tutors and search effects.  For cards like Evolving Wilds, always use its ability at the end of your turn so that play can continue around the table while you’re searching for that land. It’s understandable, however, to use that ability at another time ONLY IF you have a very good reason for doing it (Landfall, a creature that cares how many forests you have in play, etc.). Whenever you’re searching your library (or an opponent’s library), try to minimize the amount of time other players are waiting on you. A certain amount is understandable and unavoidable, but if players are constantly waiting for you to finish your turn, they’re not having fun. For cards like Worldly Tutor, established playgroups will allow players to say something like, “I cast this card on this player’s end step,” pointing to the player on their right. This allows the player to search for the creature without making other people wait for him, but reserves the right to have that creature on the top of his/her library at the start of their turn, in case card draw or library shuffling happens. NEVER assume this is okay with a new group, however. Always ask first.

If you have multiple decks, assess the “power level” of the table.  If 3 players in the pod are playing preconstructed decks, don’t bring out your most expensive, finely-tuned deck and run everyone over with it.  They’re not going to enjoy the experience, and chances are you’re not going to enjoy it much either.

NO TAKE-BACKSIES!!!

Don’t be a rules lawyer.  Don’t leverage the rules to your advantage to the detriment of fun, or try to make a player cast a spell that they didn’t fully understand.  When the inevitable happens and someone casts Warp World, then five minutes later there’s 30 enters-the-battlefield triggers to resolve, don’t bog down the game and insist that each trigger resolve one at a time.  Go in counter-clockwise order (starting with the player to the right of the active player) and let each player resolve all their triggers in the order they choose, allowing for other players to react to those triggers when they come up.

Above all, have fun.  There’s no point to it otherwise.  There are no prizes or titles on the line here.  Appreciate the flavor and themes of the decks at the table.  Enjoy the narrative that the progressing board state creates.  Express yourself creatively through your decks and your play.  The more fun you allow yourself to have, the more fun everyone has, and you are certain to receive invites back to the Commander table.