Divide and Conquer

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Previously, I've written about the debates surrounding hybrid mana and format staples. This week I’m going to touch upon another such divide which I’ve noted hasn’t garnered as much public attention and debate: how many Commander decks should one build? I know a lot of people who only keep one Commander deck at a time. I, on the other hand, currently have five completed, with another two under construction, and dozens of deck lists in the works. This divide doesn’t fall solely along lines of availability or expendable income; a friend whose collection must be worth at least twice what mine is takes his current Commander deck apart every time he decides to build a new one, and another with an even larger collection has only ever played one Commander. I’m not really sure why they choose to play this way, but I can tell you why I’ve chosen the alternative route.


The first reason is the same one that makes limited so popular: even with six times as many different cards, playing the same ones game after game can get tedious and repetitive. (But we’re working to reduce that, right?) Personally, I burn out quickly. After a full night of gaming with one Commander, I don’t want to touch that deck for at least a week. You might not get tired of your deck as quickly, but somebody else in your playgroup could.

Playing along the same strategic lines might still be enjoyable for you but particularly if your deck is one of the more powerful ones at the table, or does a good job of dictating pacing, other players are going to get fed up with games that feel like repeats. You can work around this issue by making your deck less consistent, but with one deck you’ll have a tough time both keeping it fresh and having your deck play out in a way you enjoy.


Moreover, even a deck that consistently leads to novel games which you enjoy is going to get frustrating to play after a while. Magic is a game of tradeoffs, and every deck you build to be good at one thing will come with a weakness to some other strategy. You’ll encounter that strategy …and you’ll lose.

And the next time …you’ll lose again.

And again.

And again.

Pretty soon it may start to feel as if it’s impossible to beat, or you may catch yourself thinking that their deck is unfair, or too competitive. It probably isn’t, but if you only run one deck you have no point of reference to gain perspective. You’ll be able to keep having fun if you play different decks. Sure your [card Wort the Raidmother]Wort[/card] deck lost to Mageta the Lion, but he’s not going to have so much luck against the great [card Sapling of Colfenor]Sapling[/card]. Moreover, if you play a lot of different decks your playgroup won’t have the above reaction to your brews. If someone in your group can’t beat one of your Commanders, it won’t be as hard on them if that Commander only represents you for a quarter of your games.

Rampant Growth

Even beyond immediate effects on gameplay, building a lot of Commander decks can help you grow and evolve as a player. In brewing deck lists, you’ll probably find recurring themes that you build around across Commanders. Maybe, like me, you’ll find that your [card Shirei Shizos Caretaker]Shirei[/card] deck is all about sacrificing creatures with enters-the-battlefield abilities for another use. Your [card Kiki-Jiki Mirror Breaker]Kiki-Jiki[/card] deck is an assortment of 187 creatures you’d like to trigger again. Your Rubinia Soulsinger list is a conglomeration of [card Momentary Blink]blink[/card] effects and [card Sun Titan]Titans[/card]. You might be okay with whatever your tendencies are, but they can lead to a lot of games that resemble one another.

Through identifying these tendencies, you can consciously build your decks to explore new strategies. You might just find something new to enjoy(to the Horizons). Even without uncovering whole new ways of playing the game, by building more decks you’ll have to play more cards and, thusly, gain more exposure. Assuming you aren’t completely disregarding your Commander, you’ll try new types of cards in search of synergy. I would never have played Tombstone Stairwell if I didn’t build a Glissa, the Traitor deck, but doing so opened me up to a whole family of [card Genesis Chamber]board[/card] [card Liege of the Hollows]cloggers[/card].

Beyond just finding new cards, you’ll get to practice incorporating them into decks. The more decks you build and play, the more feedback you get about what works well or poorly in deck design. You’ll improve your ability to build working decks off the bat for Commander, and this practice will help you brew for competitive formats if that’s up your alley. Moreover, playing all of these different strategies will make you more comfortable with different play styles in general. If you’ve always been an aggro player, but you build a [card Teferi Mage of Zhalfir]Teferi[/card] list, you’ll quickly learn to play a more controlling game, and these new skill sets will carry over into other formats. In fact, you’ll be able to try out even more than you’d expect to just from having more decks to improve: while with a single deck you have to make all of your changes at once so that you have something to play, running multiple Commanders lends you the flexibility to get in on the action while you’re in the editing process!


On top of all of the positive implications for your game, investing more in Commander decks will most likely help your wallet. Commander’s growing quite quickly at the moment, and I can only assume that the format’s growth will accelerate with the release of the summer products. This means that the trends you’re already seeing, like [card Minds Eye]Mind’s Eye[/card] going from $1 to $4, will continue, and most of what you invest in Commander cards now will pay you back whenever you take those decks apart. You’ll get to play your cards and make some money off of them rather than having to choose one (Standard) or the other (Binder). Even if you aren’t looking to make a profit, the more Commander decks you’re working on the easier time you’ll have finding cards you want to trade for with whomever is desperate to get their hands on your newly opened Sword of War and Peace.


But the real reason you want Commander cards isn’t to make a profit: you want to play. I bet you’re asking yourself whether I’m going to tell you that you can play with your multiple decks. As insightful as that might be, instead I’m going to tell you that other people can play with your decks. Many a potential Commander inductee is lost because they come up to ask you what you’re doing, you explain yourself, and then they go do something else.

Don’t let them go.

If you have more than one deck, you can lend them out. No matter how much you tell a friend that playing Commander is awesome, nothing will convince them of the fact so readily as playing it themselves. Once you play your first game of Commander it’s easy to get hooked, and the more people you bring into the community the more people you have to play with. I’ve often had games with new Commander players that were four of my decks facing off. While it might not have been the most exciting for me because I know the ins and outs of each of my decks, a few weeks down the line each of the players I’d lent a deck to had constructed their own.

Even if you already have a healthy-sized playgroup, bringing in new players still benefits you. Until fairly recently, Wizards of the Coast didn’t pay any attention to Commander in designing sets, but as the community has grown so too has our spending power. Today, Wizards designs a few cards for Commander in every expansion, and a lot of cards are tweaked with us in mind.

It could still be more.

What if as many cards were designed for Commander as for Standard in a given set? There’s no reason that with a slightly bigger demographic we couldn’t have tipped the scales so that our mythic Living Weapon was an [card Akroma Angel of Wrath]Akroma[/card] instead of a [card Kiyomaro First to Stand]Kiyomaro[/card]. The more people we pull in, the more cool cards we get, and more importantly, the more people get to enjoy this wonderful format we call EDH, er ...Commander.

How many decks do you have? What factors have contributed to your decision? Do you plan to build more? Let me know!

Jules Robins
@JulesRobins on Twitter

8 thoughts on “Divide and Conquer

  1. My main problem with building new Commander decks is card availability. Because the format uses such obscure cards, I either have to go online and buy a ton of commons/uncommons or play with a sub-par deck. That's why I now play decks that are basically just a bunch of good cards thrown together with a few incidental combos rarely related to the general. I'm not really interested in building anything new because all the cards I like playing with are all in one deck.

    1. Bertrand,

      While I agree that it's annoying to have to find obscure cards online, in general I find the commons/uncommons for a new deck for under $15 dollars, and can eventually trade for the rares (though often I'll just buy the junky ones). Anyway, I feel your more important point is that all of the cards you like it into one deck. I believe that if you try out a lot of strategies, you'll find other ways to play that you enjoy, but there's no need to shell out for a new deck based on my word. I would recommend that you ask people to let you play with their decks so that you can try out other modes of play. If you don't enjoy any of these, you'll have lost the opportunity to play a few games with a deck you like, but if you find something else to love, the effort will be well worth it.

      Good luck finding new ways to play, and thanks for sharing your stance!

  2. I do not really care about card availability, commander is supposed to be a fun format. I have 2 jank decks, 1 what I would consider good deck and one deck that is still in construction.

    Reason for me having so many decks, I am a local tournament organizer and I really want to punt the format without going broke doing it, so having backup decks is something that I must do. Another reason is that you cannot predict the power level of a new group, so the ability to switch up decks changes that as well as alleviates the boredom of playing with the same deck time and time again.

    My players are for the most part casual, multi-player gamers and the commander format is new to all of us. Most of them do not even posses any sweeper type cards.

    1. That's an excellent point: having multiple decks certainly does make it easier to adjust to groups with differing levels of competitiveness.
      Glad to hear you're exploring Commander. Have a great time!

  3. As you know from my comments on staples in EDH I'm a power player. I want to win. But I'm not sure these are actually problems, or at least are REALLY easily solved.

    As people have stated card availability is only a problem when card stores dont have good selections, but also when someone isn't willing to pay 15 bucks plus for a sol ring. But it's very possible to make a good EDH deck by spending 1 dollar per card for 50 cards 1-5 per card for 25 cards and 5-15 for the last 25. Obviously! depending on the deck and the colors! But that's up to the person whether they can trade for those cards or want to purchase them.

    As for variance? I believe my play group has it right, we, for the most part, have been agreeing that you shouldn't use a general the same as someone else. Then we also have a knowledge of our metagame, we acknowledge when to "hate" on someone's deck because they combo out too much, but it's generally ok because when playing in multiplayer games you can just gang up on them if they are about to win, which obviously should happen a lot when you are understanding of the format.

    As for Weaknesses? I don't find that to be a problem, if you build a deck that cannot handle an array of attacks, then you should probably fix it. I don't find this to be a format problem but a personal problem. If you cannot handle games because many different kinds of attacks beat you, then ask your friends what you should change. Specifically ask a competitive player what can be done and I think that is the best course of action.

    As for finding new cards for decks. I do think it is important to find cards that work for your general. I do not however believe that making bad card choices because of flavor is a good idea. I don't think the idea of WOTC which is creatures should be the most important thing, is not the proper way to play magic, it should equally be spells and permanents. But for Glissa, what happens when you play those board cluttering creatures and someone just combos out instead of attacking you to death? Or if they are playing sharuum and have tons of large fliers? I'm just not sure exactly what card choices like that do. I feel like there are much better choices that you can make and still have fun and make the format interesting.

    I actually find competitive EDH a good way to enter people into your play group. This is because you can have them play or help them play a match, they get hooked, and you have them build a deck or get a list. Then they go back to the competitive players and show them the list then they work together to get a good list going. Such as lately me and another competitive friend worked on a friends Isperia the inscrutable deck. And helping that new player out really made a difference in our meta and our playgroup. So I feel like it's more about connections and actually interacting with people is required for this to work.

    But of course EDH is technically "casual" and decks are up to you and decks are up to your playgroup. But you shouldn't complain when your deck got stomped cause you played questionable cards and your teferi opponent played to win.

    But that's just me.

    1. MiHammett,

      Thanks for continuing to contribute to the discussion! I'll address your points in order: I think you're correct on the card availability issue; decks don't have to be inordinately expensive to compete. However, on the variance front I must contend otherwise. Just stopping Commander overlap is certainly a step in the right direction, but for the majority of people who don't have time to tweak their Commander deck constantly, it will be tough to maintain a high level of variance with only one general. Moreover, I have to disagree with you on the question of weaknesses: for instance, though black has a few ways to deal with enchantments, and lots of tutors to find them, a mono black deck will have a really tough time beating Lurking Predators. Sure, you do have ways to deal with enchantments, but to find them you'll have to tutor and spend more, putting you at a distinct tempo disadvantage and most likely card disadvantage. My point wasn't so much that there aren't answers, but that decks are weaker to certain strategies.

      On the token makers in Glissa, I should have made that point clearer. The intention of those cards was not so much to block as to give all of your opponents creatures so that Glissa would get back all of your artifacts when you Damnation-ed. That aside, I agree that competitive Commander can draw players in, I just don't think it has as much utility because all of the tournament formats already lend outlets to that type of optimization.

      Thanks for commenting, and please let me know if I failed to adequately answer any of your concerns or if you have any other ones.

      1. I believe the variance is within the different generals. I mean there is only so much you can do with one general, and it's not variance if 3 people at a table of 4 are playing "different" sharuum decks. It's really just not that different.

        I have to politely disagree with your comments on weakness of black. EDH is not a format similar to standard, and it's not necessary to deal with permanents that do not effect you in a negative fashion. Yes, lurking predators is really good, but why try and deal with the enchantment when you could spend your tutors on Sorin Markov and put them at ten? Now instead of you having to deal with lurking predators, they have to deal with your planeswalker or they die in a minimum of 5 turns. Though I guess that's just because of the power of Sorin, but the idea is the same. Use the amazing black tutors to find game winning plans that win faster, rather than playing the reactive game. You can just about goldfish most games in EDH. There really is not a NEED to interact with your opponent on a "destroy target artifact or enchantment" kind of way.

        I whole heartedly believe that the best way to deal with things certain decks cannot deal with, is to just not deal with them. If someone has a hyper aggressive creature deck, and you are playing a slightly competitive combo momir vig deck, the best plan is to just try and win the game, and not deal with it, and just employ your own game winning plan. Although not the most exciting way to play EDH.

        But now I getcha with the Glissa tokens thing I was kinda confused.

        1. MiHammett,

          Thanks for clarifying. I'd misunderstood what you were saying about variance, but I agree that playing against the same Commander a lot makes games repetitive. However, I still hold the same view about weaknesses, though Lurking Predators probably wasn't the best example. Instead let's look at Future Sight: not only will this still have put them at significant card and tempo advantage if/when you deal with it, but it actively aids them in stopping you from killing them. It is certainly true that killing your opponent answers any threat, but that doesn't stop some decks from being weaker against certain cards/strategies than others.

          Thanks for commenting!

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