Commander is a casual format. With the exception of something like StarCityGames Open Series side events, there's nothing to win; everyone you sit down with is there for the sole purpose of having a good time. Everyone likes different parts of the game, as Shaheen Soorani explained in his article about play styles. We each have different types of game play that we enjoy most, and we like decks according to the degree to which let us play the way we want to.
In a tournament setting that's as far as we need to go. If you enjoy your deck, your opponent won't complain about it being unfun for them; they just want to win, so enjoy yourself. But in Commander, if you ruin the rest of the playgroup's fun they won't play with you anymore. For instance, I'm a fan of attrition based, grind-‘em-out decks. But while these might not offend other people in the early or mid game, it isn't much fun to sit staring at an opponent who you know you can't reasonably catch up with yet is going to take another twelve turns to actually kill the table. Similarly, most people don't appreciate watching someone else take a lot of extra turns in a row, nor do they enjoy sitting helplessly staring at a Jhoira of the Ghitu after having all of their lands Obliterated.
There are a lot of strategies that very few people find enjoyable, so if you have a special place in your heart for one of these be aware of it. Don't pursue that line of play every game. Just like you, you're opponents are here to have fun so give them a chance to.
Something that most people do enjoy is a big, memorable play. The reason that everyone remembers the time that you Genesis Waved for X=72 is because it was new, interesting, and exciting when it happened. It was fun during the game, and fun to talk about afterwards. It left people feeling good. It made them want to play more. This is the sort of experience we're looking for, so how can we build decks to facilitate these sorts of plays?
Ramping With Style
Huge plays like these usually require quite a bit of mana to pull off, so in order to make them consistently we'll want to include a lot of mana acceleration in our decks. We can go about this with green ramp spells, [card Mind Stone]mana rocks[/card], mana doublers, or something land-based like a Cabal Coffers engine. These methods each yield different amounts of mana, and vary in difficulty to dismantle. Whichever approach (or combination of approaches) you can play or works best in your deck should be able to fill this role.
This one is pretty obvious, but all that mana won't get you anywhere unless you have something awesome to do with it. This could be Genesis Wave, flurries of cheap spells into Mind's Desire, kicking Rite of Replication, setting up and epic Warp World, or Marshal's Anthem multikicked six or more times. The point is that the spell will do something memorable and, more importantly, something that will feel unique every time. Notice that each of the cards I listed depends upon board position or chance: Comet Storming the table might be memorable once, but the result is the same each time. People will get fed up pretty quickly.
Singular, splashy spells aren't the only way to make cool, memorable games. Combinations of less awe-inspiring cards can have similar results. For instance, evoking Reveillark to return an Eternal Witness (getting your Mirari's Wake) and a Karmic Guide, grabbing Sun Titan, which in turn returns Knight of the Reliquary) may not involve any cards as singularly impressive as Genesis Wave. The end result is still pretty spectacular. Once again, the secret to success here is to have different cool plays. In principle, assembling Thopter Foundry and Sword of the Meek isn't any more obtrusive, the combo's repetition takes the excitement out of it. Variance is key.
War is for the Tugging
We understand that huge moves and synergy are fun, where a combination like Dark Depths-Vampire Hexmage wouldn't. But under this model, I should be able to build myself a Richard Garfield, Ph.D. deck that will be fun because I combo kill the table a new way every game, right?
This proposed deck would be a flop because it lacks the most often cited source of fun in Commander: back and forth. Making a huge play can be fun, but you know what's even better? Making your awesome play, having it answered, and then getting to see an equally cool move out of your opponent! This explains why "instant win" combos aren't fun for most people. Even if they evade the trap of repetitiveness, they can never be as much fun as answerable threats because they preclude the possibility of more cool moves in the same game and leave people feeling helpless.
By the same token, we want to make sure that all of our master plans have a weakness for our opponents to exploit. In the case of the Reveillark chain above, while your board position is devastating it leaves you vulnerable to [card Wrath of God]Wraths[/card]. You've pulled ahead, but everyone else can still play the game. On the other hand, if you instead evoke 'Lark into Eternal Witness (returning Crystal Shard to your hand) and Karmic Guide (getting Reveillark back), your play is less awesome as the table now has a much harder time coming back from it (Wrath of God gets them nowhere). For this reason the first line of play will make for a more enjoyable game for the table, and thus is the sort of game play we ought to aim for.
Forge a Path
If there's one thing that most memorable plays share it's that they're proactive. You're going to have a much harder time doing anything that the other players find fun if your deck is chock full of Counterspells, board wipes, and removal. That's not to say you shouldn't run any. They can help create swingy moments, but your games will be faster and more exciting if everyone's decks have proactive game plans with light disruption, rather than packing heavy disruption before winning through Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir beats.
Putting it into Practice
I'm not a fan of posting Commander deck lists in articles for people to copy. Your deck is your own creative endeavor, and there's something deeply rewarding about finding a diamond in the rough amid endless Gatherer searches. To this end I avoid posting decklists when it's plausible to do so, but these card comparisons should make one thing clear:
My golden rule of commander deck building: if you have a choice between a creature and a non-creature to perform a function, pick the creature.
Magic is, and has always been, a game about creatures. Not only does this mean that a lot of effects can be found on creatures, but also that a staggering number of cards are designed to interact with them. More interactions between your own cards will usually lead to more craziness, so let's cultivate it! For instance, in a vacuum, Zombify is a much better card than Phyrexian Delver. Rarely will a 3/2 body offset costing an additional black mana and hitting you for six to eight damage. Nonetheless, I often consider the Delver for decks, and have yet to consider adding Zombify to one. By running Delver over Zombify, I allow myself to pull off cool moves like casting Careful Consideration during my opponent attack step, discarding a creature, and then casting Momentary Blink on my Phyrexian Delver to immediately block and get whatever interesting effect the new creature has. On the other hand, it's very difficult to make Zombify do more than what's written on the card.
While running creatures over their non-creature counterparts will go a long way towards building more interactions into your deck, even choices where a creature isn't in the running (or between creatures) can profoundly impact how many interesting things your deck can do. For example, I would pretty much always run Greater Good over Harmonize. While Greater Good requires you to have some resources to work with, and can't dig you out of a zero board position hole as well as Harmonize can, it makes more opportunities for cool plays by stocking your graveyard via discard, giving you an opportunity to reuse the enters-the-battlefield abilities of the creatures you sacrifice via recursion.
These are some good ways to build interactions, but what about the other type of play we identified? Let's talk about giving yourself the opportunity to make a splash. Imagine that you're playing a black-green deck and are looking for a way to ensure your development in the early turns. You can choose between a card advantage package to ensure an unending supply of resources, or a land tutoring package to guarantee yourself a lot of mana as the game progresses. (And, yes, I understand that these are best in concert.)
Let's say the two packages are:
- Necropotence + Phyrexian Arena + Sylvan Library + Mind's Eye + Greater Good + Harmonize
- Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth + Vesuva + Deserted Temple + Petrified Field + Cabal Coffers + Primeval Titan + Crop Rotation + Reap and Sow + Expedition Map + Sylvan Scrying
The first package is much stronger; you'll never be unhappy to see the cards because they'll help you get to the card you want, and while you might not have as much mana as you would with the second package, you won't be missing any land drops either. The second package on the other hand opens you up to bad top decks (when you're flooded or already have the Coffers-tron pieces) and leaves you no way to find specific answers to most problems. Nonetheless, this second package will usually be more fun. Sure, sometimes you'll get flooded out when you could have been in the game, but the games that work out will involve you making awesome and ridiculous plays rather than mundane ones.
I hope that this article has helped you to think about making your commander decks more enjoyable for you and your playgroup, and I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments, on twitter, or over email.
@JulesRobins on twitter