CMDR 101: Deckbuilding

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[Editor's Note: I'd like to welcome Carlos Gutierrez to the Quiet Speculation team! He'll be discussing Commander, and Commander deck building. If you've been hungry for decklists and want to see even more Commander ideas, Carlos is the guy for you!]

My name is Carlos, and I have a problem. I’ve got piles of cards scattered all over my desk, and a folder full of half-finished decklists on my desktop. I’m a Johnny to the bone, and I’m always brewing up something, regardless of whether it ends up being something powerful and synergistic or hilariously awful is another issue altogether. The other important thing that you should know is that I've been playing Commander for about two years now, and that I play Commander almost exclusively at this point, almost to the point of exclusion of most other non-Limited formats.

Since this is my first article for Quiet Speculation there’s clearly only one way to start this off – with a controversial blanket statement. Here goes:

Commander is the healthiest constructed format in Magic. It is the format with the broadest range of viable decks and strategies, contains a huge number of powerful threats and answers, and a myriad of angles from which the format can be attacked profitably.

Now, what does that actually mean? There are more broken cards legal in this format than there are in Legacy, meaning that you can do an awful lot of powerful, potentially degenerate things. Additionally, because of the higher life total you have time to play some of the more expensive powerful cards as opposed to being restricted to the efficiently costed ones. This means that the format lends itself to a broad base of viable strategies backed by some of the most powerful cards in the game.

However, because of the social and multiplayer aspects of the game it’s pretty difficult for any particular strategy to be completely dominant, or even overpowering. You have to fight through multiple other players, who are all going to have some mechanism of interacting with your deck. The singleton nature of the format is also a factor which allows decks to be very powerful without being degenerate and overbearing.

Under these conditions, the format is, in a sense, self regulating: allowing any deck to succeed, so long as it has a powerful, cohesive approach to the game and a diverse set of answers.

Deckbuilding is Hard!

Building a deck for this format can be a daunting task for people who aren’t used to the idea. In my experience, there are two reasons for this.

First, the format is so wide open that newcomers don’t know where to start. What cards are good? What kinds of answers are necessary? What kinds of engines are too fast/slow? This kind of issue is complicated further by the social nature of the format, since one has to worry not only about the context of a metagame, but also what is socially acceptable within a given group of players.

Secondly, the 99 card singleton nature of the format is a complication that is difficult for a lot of people to deal with. It’s not like a most formats, where you can pick 20 or so good cards with synergy, run varying numbers of them, add lands, and call it a day. Sure you can deal with the singleton issue with tutors and redundant effects, but the card pool is staggeringly diverse. It can be hard to find the cards that do exactly what you want.

Now that you understand some of my thoughts on the format in general, I think we can get down to business. Future articles are going to follow one of two formats: I’ll either be building a deck, my own idea or a reader-submitted one, or I’ll be tweaking a reader’s submission based on whatever criteria they specify.

However, for this first article, I want to try to break down the process by which I build my decks in the hopes that it will be helpful to people who are trying to build or tweak decks of their own. In the process, I’ll be putting together some skeleton lists which I’m sure will be fleshed out in future articles!

What are you Building?

Oddly enough, building a deck starts by deciding what you're building. What are the central themes or elements that you want to incorporate? You don’t necessarily have to start by picking a general, or colors, or by picking a bunch of staples. Whether your theme is colors you like, cards you like, a mechanic, tribe, or particular card/interaction, that’s always the starting point.

Once you’ve picked a theme, you’ve got to expand on it. Pick the cards that fit into your theme that give you some space to build around, and see if there are ways to piece them together. Here’s a few examples:

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If you're building Soldier Tribal, then Catapult Master and Knight-Captain of Eos seem like two very powerful effects to build around. Similarly, Field Marshal and Veteran Swordsmithare powerful anthem effects that synergize with any tribal themed cards that make the cut.

Darien, King of Kjeldor is the only general that gives you a number of soldiers to work with, so he seems like a good place to start. Lands like City of Brass and Tarnished Citadel suddenly start giving you free creatures. If you run Soul Warden, Soul's Attendant, and Ranger of Eos to find them, then you'll gain the life back or even turn a profit!

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Nath is fun to build around, because you get to run some of the most powerful discard effects in the game, and then use other cards to turn a profit off of them. Syphon Mind and Myojin of Night's Reach are obviously absurd, and Sadistic Hypnotist combos with your general as a super Mind Twist that makes guys too!

Geth's Grimoire seems like an obvious inclusion when you're building around discard. It also puts Words of Waste, which is good just with your general, over the top, since it turns it into a repeatable mechanism to make people discard their hands.

If you're making Elves, Regal Force is another crazy-good draw engine, and Heritage Druid lets you turn discard spells into mana. These cards give you a solid framework that abuse both of Nath of the Gilt-Leaf abilities.

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Mirror-Sigil Sergeant seems like a sweet card to build around. The problem is that it's not legendary, so the first thing you have to do is find ways to consistently and efficiently assemble the cards you need.

The first things I thought of were things along the lines of Defense of the Heart and Oath of Druids, using Phelddagrif as your general to make sure an opponent has more creatures than you do. You could also go with something like Tooth and Nail or Survival of the Fittest, or any number of other creature tutors.

The real question is this: what do you do once you dump him into play? Glamerdye and Alter Reality help you turn on your Sigil-Sergeant, and Paradox Haze, Doubling Season and Clone help you double up.

What would be interesting is to add Time Warp effects so that your opponents don't each get a full turn to deal with the Sergeant before you reap the benefits of your awesomeness.

I've Picked my Theme, What Next?

Now that you’ve got a baseline game-plan or theme to build around, and you’ve picked out the cards you want to build around, you need to get them into a functioning shell. That is, you need to make sure you can consistently FIND the pieces that make the deck work by making the shell as redundant and resilient as possible. This means searching for effects that are similar, for tutors, for recursion; anything that makes it easier for you to assemble the pieces you need, and execute the plan you want. It means adding disruption and recursion, so that it’s harder for other people to break up your synergies and combos.

Soldier Tribal
This list probably wants Darksteel Plate or Shield of Kaldra to protect Darien, King of Kjeldor. More ways to deal yourself damage would be nice, since your general is really the engine.

Diversionary Tactics is probably very good, and Sun Titan recurs a number of your powerful pieces. Something like Stoneforge Mystic or Taj-Nar Swordsmith tutors up key equipments, and might even let you play Basilisk Collar plus Mortarpod to turn miscellaneous soldiers into removal.

Nath of the Gilt-Leaf Discard
The way this goes depends on what you want to do with it. If you want to build a Rock-ish deck, you’re going to add more attrition spells like Deathcloud, and some recursion engines like Genesis or Strands of Night.

Alternatively, You could also go all elf combo with Summoner's Pact, Green Sun's Zenith, Glimpse of Nature and the like. Heritage Druid seems absurd in that style of build and Earthcraft is reasonable backup. Primordial Sage and Gilt-Leaf Archdruid give you some more card drawing. I suppose Ezuri, Renegade Leader or Joraga Warcaller would be reasonable win conditions once you've gone off.

Bant Mirror-Sigil Sergeant, the Deck
Here, you’ve got to decide if you want to play control with this as a win condition, or a “combo” deck. I’d start with Emeria, the Sky Ruin, Genesis as recursion engines. Eternal Witness and Fierce Empath both seem very good, as does Auramancer to recur the Defense of the Heart.

Basically, the base-plan is to make a bunch of Rhinos. You can back that up with lots of utility guys, recursion, tutors, Reveillarks and whatnot. You could back it up with Enchantress effects and all kinds of prison-based enchantments, or just countermagic and wraths. Personally, I’d go with utility guys, Reveillark, and Wild Pair, since it provides the most synergy considering that your “combo” is creature-based and already wants a ton of clones!

What Else do I Need?
So, once you’ve built your engine, made it sleek and redundant and resilient, what’s left? Well, you still have to be able to interact with other players meaningfully, make your key plays in a reasonable amount of time, and play the attrition game with an entire table.

This is where you have to start asking about what your deck is missing. Maybe you have enough slots left to consider another theme. Maybe you need some acceleration, spot removal, card drawing, or Wraths.  Usually you can go digging into your box of staples and generically powerful cards.

Most decks are going to want some number of mana ramp spells, either rocks/signets or Rampant Growths In my experience, the majority of decks want 6-8 spells that either ramp or help consistently hit land drops, as well as about 39 lands that tap for mana. Some decks can certainly make use of further mana ramp spells, but I find that people tend to overload on ramp spells and run too few lands. If an “average” 60-4 constructed deck runs 24ish lands, which is the same as about 39 lands in a 99 card deck.

Similarly, most decks are going to want about five ways to consistently draw multiple cards so that you don’t run out of gas in a long game, seven to ten ways to destroy specific permanents of various types, and at least one or two ways to reset the board in case things get out of hand. Obviously, these numbers are very fluid.

Different decks are going to have different constraints on their ability to deal with certain kinds of permanents, or may not really want to run terribly many answers. However, if you start with a solid theme of powerful interaction, back it up with some tutors and recursion for redundancy, and fill the rest in with powerful removal, card drawing, and utility answers, odds are you’ll have a really powerful starting list.

Wrapping Up
I hope this was a helpful overview of the approach that I take when I’m building new commander decks. Next week, I’ll follow through by taking a look at the deck that I play most often and have talked about extensively on a number of other sites: the five-color lands archetype!

What are the key roleplayers? Can it be built on a budget? Which cards look good but aren’t? Find this out, and more, next week!

Carlos Gutierrez
@cag5383 on Twitter

2 thoughts on “CMDR 101: Deckbuilding

  1. Hey Carlos,

    Welcome to the QS team! This article was a good read, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of your stuff. I'm certainly glad to see that you're promoting building around a theme for decks over pure goodstuff, and while I'm not a big fan of posting Commander deck lists, I'll be interested to see how you manage it. Also, as an aside: try Followed Footsteps with the Sergeant; it makes for good times.

  2. Nice post. Having made a Rafiq deck with Mirror-Sigil Sergeant in it, I'd probably throw in some decent blue auraas such as Diplomatic Immunity and Protective Bubble. These can enchant your general or the sergeant and turn the sergeant on even if you don't have those other spells to change his text.

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