Magic: the Gathering's legendary casual format, Commander, got a huge boost this month with the release of five new decks full of multiplayer shenanigans. This guide to Commander will help you get started and find the right deck to destroy your friends in the most horribly fun way possible.
Whenever I post Magic: the Gathering articles, a lot of the commenters lament not being able to play because it costs too much or it's too hard to keep up with new releases. I totally feel your pain (I've stopped playing in tournaments for similar reasons). But there are tons of fun ways to play Magic with your friends without emptying your checking account, and Commander is one of the best.
In Commander, each player uses a 100-card deck. You can only have one copy of a given card (other than basic lands) in your deck, which is why it's known as a singleton format. In addition, your deck has a Commander – a single legendary creature who begins play in the "command zone." It can always be cast from your command zone, and when it dies it goes back to the command zone (although the cost to cast it increases each time this happens). This means you can build the rest of your deck to take advantage of the commander's abilities, since you'll almost always have access to it. Your deck also has to be built from the same colors as your commander.
Commander was originally invented by judges who wanted a low-pressure way to play when they weren't judging tournaments. Back then they called it Elder Dragon Highlander, or EDH, and you'll still hear players refer to the format this way. But in 2011, Wizards of the Coast released their first official Commander product (and changed the name out of fear of trademark infringement). The Commander rules are still maintained by a committee of fans – you can read the full rules at their site – there's an informal overview of the rules here.
Why is Commander such a good format for casual players?
- It's designed as a multiplayer format, perfect for a group of four or five friends.
- Cards never "rotate out" of Commander, so you don't have to worry about buying new sets or rebuilding your deck with new cards every three months. You can work on your Commander deck gradually, adding cards over time and as you can afford them. (Cards are sometimes banned by the rules committee for being unfun or making games go on too long, but this is pretty rare).
- Commander is supposed to be a low-stakes, fun format (it's in the committee's official philosophy). It is certainly possible to spend a ton of money building your deck, but it's equally possible to build a great, fun deck with inexpensive cards and you'll never feel bad that your deck couldn't win the big tournament. Because there are no big tournaments.
- It tends to be a slow format, so you can play all those ridiculous huge creatures and spells that cost too much mana to play in a "serious" Magic game.
- Building a 100-card deck around your Commander of choice is a huge opportunity to show off your creativity and use some of the weird cards in your collection.
If you'd like to dig a little deeper into Commander strategy, there are some excellent blogs where players share new deck ideas and alternate ways to play.
- Jules Robins writes a regular Commander column for GatheringMagic.com.
- Adam Styborski writes about Commander (among other things) for the official Magic site.
- Sheldon Menery also has a Commander column, this one at StarCityGames.com. Menery is on the Commander rules committee, and he has a lot of interesting things to say about the format.
- Commander games can get complicated with four or five players' creatures, artifacts and spells creating a tangled web of weird interactions. There's an excellent Magic rules judge blog that posts interesting rules tips a few times each week. They even devoted this week to some of the new Commander cards.
- If you have a burning rules question that needs answering immediately, Wizards of the Coast maintains a 24/7 live chat (actually an irc channel), where a qualified MtG judge will answer your question on the spot. I didn't know about this until we did our playtesting, so I tried it out this morning, and they answered my question about Price of Knowledge within about two minutes.
Now, on to the review of the new decks! Building a Commander deck from scratch is pretty daunting for new or returning players, which is why the official Commander decks are so nice. Wizards released the 2013 Commander decks recently, and while the decks aren't perfect out of the box, they're a great foundation to start with. They include reprints of classic cards, some great Commander staples like Sol Ring, and a bunch of brand new, never before printed cards. Many of the new cards are designed to take advantage of the quirks of the format (like commanders that get stronger each time you cast them from the command zone).
When it came time to review all five decks, there weren't quite enough review copies to go around. So we turned to our friends at CoolStuffInc. They hooked us up with the four decks we still needed so we could give them all a serious test drive. They also sell single cards from the decks, so you can grab a specific commander if you'd rather build around it yourself. With all five decks in hand, we sat down with our friends Laura Grace (who is, incidentally, an amazing cosplayer) and Joe Azzarella for a few games.
Each of the five decks is built around a new commander, but also includes two other legends in the same colors, so you can use one of them as the commander instead. A deck will play a little differently depending on which commander you use, so there's some flexibility to pick the one that suits your favorite style of play. Each deck also comes with three oversized foil versions of the three legends. I've frankly never heard anyone express the slightest bit of interest in these giant cards, and have never seen them used in a Commander game. During our playtest we decided that some token creatures cards representing some of the creatures the deck can generate would be much more desirable. The decks do come with nice deck boxes that are designed to fit the giant cards.
Eternal Bargain – White, Blue, Black
Built around Oloro, Ageless Ascetic, this deck strives to gain tons of life, then spend it on powerful effects like drawing lots of cards or killing every creature in play. Oloro himself is very powerful while in play, but he lets you gain life even when he's languishing in the command zone. Some of the reprints in this deck are particularly interesting, like Brilliant Plan and Kongming, "Sleeping Dragon." These cards originally appeared in a sort of beginner's set called Portal: Three Kingdoms several years ago. The more powerful cards in the set have become scarce and expensive, plus this is the first time they've ever been printed as regular Magic cards (Portal cards looked a bit different).
In our playtest, this deck gained a lot of life early, but that seemed to paint a target on it as other players would attack to keep the growing life total under control. It also ran out of steam and struggled to find a way to finish off opponents. It was terribly difficult to kill, though – just when you thought it was down to its last few life points, it would gain 12 more.
Some ideas for improving this deck: Ajani Goldmane (whose ultimate ability gives you an avatar creature equal to your life total); Obzedat, Ghost Council gains you more life and is difficult for opponents to kill; Blood Baron of Vizkopa becomes truly horrific as soon as someone gets below 10 life; Beacon of Immortality will make your friends hate you; any of the Extort creatures from Return to Ravnica will let you chip away at your opponents and keep gaining life.
Nature of the Beast – Red, Green, White
Built around Marath, Will of the Wild, it was a little tough to see what this deck was trying to accomplish. It clearly wants a lot of mana, and has a few effects like Cultivate to ramp up your mana production early, but not as much as you'd expect from a dedicated ramp deck. You can also cheat out bigger creatures with alternate commander Mayael the Anima. Unfortunately, there weren't enough really solid targets for either of these strategies. This deck felt the weakest and least focused of the five. However, it has a lot of potential if you want to add more huge creatures like Woodfall Primus or Worldspine Worm. Just be aware that adding in Natural Order to get a turn four (or even turn three) Worldspine is not going to win you many friends at the table, and Commander can be a very political game.
Another really fun (and less abusive) option for this deck is Birthing Pod, which lets you gradually escalate the creatures you have while searching for just the right threat for any situation. Like all of these decks, Nature of the Beast would benefit from improving the lands. It's a three color deck, so gaining access to more versatile lands like Wooded Bastion or Clifftop Retreat will make sure you can cast your spells more consistently.
Power Hungry – Red, Black, Green
With Prossh, Sky Raider of Kher as Commander, this deck's goal is easy to discern. It creates a lot of small, disposable creatures, then sacrifices them for some beneficial effect. Sometimes you can eat your own creatures to draw cards, but most of the time you'll use them to deal damage to your opponents. In one of our test games, I was going to lose on my draw step (thanks to being at 1 life with an opponent's Price of Knowledge in play). Using a Scarland Thrinax, Stalking Vengeance and a bunch of small creatures, I was able to kill off one opponent before I died, and if I didn't suck at math, I think I could have won the game. So the deck has the potential to be explosive and come out of nowhere with huge plays.
This deck offers a nice opportunity to play a faster, more aggressive deck than you usually see in Commander. Adding cards like Madrush Cyclops and Ogre Battledriver will put on the early pressure, while a kicked Goblin Bushwhacker can make all those little kobold and saproling tokens a genuine threat. Just be prepared to deal with some hate from the other players when you start bashing away at their life totals. Since you're not playing nice anyway, you might as well stock a Lavalanche to really punish anyone who tries to stem your assault.
Mind Seize – Blue, Black, Red
This is the deck most likely to be out of stock or sold way above retail price. The reason is that the new cards in the Commander sets are legal in Magic's competitive "eternal" formats, where players can use almost any card in Magic's history to build decks. Occasionally the Commander cards are so good that supply and demand drives the price of the card (and the deck it's in) way up. Such is the case with Mind Seize, which contains the totally fair in a multiplayer game but horrendously overpowered in a head-to-head match True-Name Nemesis.
In any case, this is a really fun Commander deck if you can get your hands on it. It plays a great political game by allowing everyone at the table to draw lots of extra cards with things like Temple Bell and Prosperity. Everyone loves drawing cards, so no one will want to kill you or destroy your awesome card drawing effects. Then, when everyone is feeling fat and happy with their bulging hands full of cards, you punish them for their greed with Price of Knowledge or Nekusar, the Mindrazer.
Skyscribing, Braingeyser, and Forced Fruition are good ways to overflow everyone's hands with a bounty of extra cards. For a win condition other than Price of Knowledge, you could use Megrim or Liliana's Caress to harm them when they discard down to seven cards at turn's end. Alternately, you can focus on commander Jeleva, Nephalia's Scourge, who exiles cards from libraries and casts instants or sorceries for free when she attacks. You can't control what's in your opponent's decks, but you can stack your own deck with great Jeleva targets. Spells that give you extra turns will seem tempting, but they can seriously ruin a Commander game for everyone else at the table. Be more creative than that.
Evasive Maneuvers – Green, White, Blue
This deck has a really fun theme that's sort of poorly executed. What it aims to do is "blink" your own creatures in and out of play to gain extra benefits from effects that trigger when they come into play. Derevi, Emperial Tactician is ok as the commander, but one of the alternate commanders, Roon of the Hidden Realm, is much better. Roon will let you blink your Farhaven Elf or Acidic Slime in and out of existence all day.
While there are a few good blink targets in the deck, it needs a lot more. Mulldrifter is a natural pick, along with Eternal Witness, Solemn Simulacrum, and (if you're feeling mean), Draining Whelk. Better ways to blink your creatures will help too: Deadeye Navigator, Restoration Angel, and the planeswalker Venser, the Sojourner.
What legendary Magic creature would you build a Commander deck around? Or if you already play, what's your favorite commander?
Special thanks to CoolStuffInc.