Building for Commander — An Extensive Undertaking

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Hello and welcome! My name is Andy Martin and I am a long-time Magic player from Minnesota. I started when 5th Edition came out and have played ever since (cracking Shivan Dragons was sweet). While I have dabbled in almost every format Magic has to offer and spent quite a bit of time playing competitively, I usually gravitate back towards casual formats. The one competitive format that does still hold my interest is Limited. But my passion is Commander.

A judge friend of mine introduced me to Commander a few months after it's creation, and I found it to be a refreshing take on casual Magic. I've spent the last few years building and tearing apart Commander deck and loving every minute of it. I hope these articles provide my readers with unique and refreshing perspectives on Commander and keep the format going strong.

Building a Commander deck can be quite a daunting task, especially if you haven't played Magic for 15+ years. Even if you have, the pool of quality Commander cards is so much more vast than in other formats which can be overwhelming.

Today I am going to show the step-by-step process I use when creating a new Commander deck. Hopefully you can employ these strategies yourself and get the full value out of what Commander has to offer.

Step 1: An Idea

When I run across a deck with an arbitrary commander and ninety-nine remaining cards seemingly chosen with no synergy in mind, it makes me cringe. This is what I call a 'good card Commander deck'.

I see this all the time, most often with new Commander players. I am certainly not allowed to say this isn't fun, but you will never see any of my decklists built like this. To truly unlock the splendor of Commander your deck needs to create an interesting game of Magic for you and your opponents. I believe this is most easily done with dynamic synergies.

This brings us to step one, an idea. Every time I build a Commander deck, it needs to have at least one theme. Here are a few themes that are easily doable in Commander:

  • [card Doubling Season]Tokens[/card]
  • [card Living Death]Reanimator[/card]
  • [card Ghostway]"Enters the battlefield" triggers[/card]
  • [card Gilt-leaf Archdruid]Tribal[/card]
  • [card Stoneforge Mystic]Equipment[/card]
  • [card Replenish]Enchantments[/card]
  • [card Vicious Shadows]Death[/card]

These are just a few, and the list goes on and on. As you become a seasoned deck builder, you will begin to derive decks that make use of obscure themes people would never expect. This is the most satisfying kind of deck for me.

Choosing a theme prior to building your Commander deck will ensure that you have many fun synergies and interactions to keep your deck exciting. The above strategies are so broad that they can be used as the sole theme of a deck without requiring much filler. When using more obscure themes with fewer available cards (e.g. tribal snakes) it will be helpful to add a second theme so your deck doesn't devolve into a boring collection of 'good cards'.

Step 2: Choose a Commander

Another folly that I encounter in a lot of decks is the irrelevant commander. I can't tell you how many times I've watched my opponent do nothing turn after turn while his/her commander sits in the command zone, only to remark after losing, "Oh, I guess I could have played my commander." Your commander should not be an afterthought! He is the identity of your deck and you should be excited to play him as soon as possible.

I often begin with a theme or two and choose my commander afterwards, although sometimes a commander will inspire a theme. Choosing a commander requires a simple gatherer search for every legend printed. There may be several choices that fit the theme, but a lot of times one will stick out.

Say I want to make a reanimator-themed deck. Here are a few options that I would consider as a commander, followed by some pros and cons for each.

Balthor the Defiled


  • He reanimates a lot of creatures at once and can easily be repeated because he exiles himself.
  • Low mana cost (relative to most commanders).


  • Mono-colored.
  • Little chance of utilizing commander damage.
  • Might help opponents.

Bladewing the Risen


  • He is a reanimator target himself.
  • He can be quite aggressive with his pump ability.


  • High mana cost.
  • Only reanimates dragons.

Chainer, Dementia Master


  • Repeatable, cheap reanimation.
  • Can reanimate opponents' creatures.


  • Mono-colored
  • Little chance of utilizing commander damage.
  • Lose reanimated creatures if he dies.

All three of these are solid choices, but Bladewing the Risen catches my eye. I like this choice because it forces a secondary dragon theme (which isn't much of a handicap as there are so many dragons) and he is two colors. This opens up much more design space.

Step 3: The 'Theme' Core

I put the theme(s) of the deck at the forefront of design and prioritize them first when choosing cards. I again turn to a gatherer search.

It requires a bit of thought to ensure I see all possible cards for my deck without spending hours weeding through every card ever printed. The first thing I do is set the filter to the colors of my commander. I obviously can't use cards outside my commander's color identity, so why look them up? Second, I carefully apply other filters to narrow the search to on-theme cards. This may require multiple searches.

Say I am making a blue-green deck with an "enters the battlefield" theme. My first gatherer search would be like this:

This provides me with every card in blue or green that does something when it enters the battlefield.

Or, back to the Bladewing the Risen deck, I would make these searches:

I usually have a text doc open to keep track of cards in consideration. This process provides me with a strong core of cards that establishes the deck's theme.

You may have noticed the lack of artifacts in the searches. I like to do two searches at the end for every artifact and land. If you don't want to peruse through that many artifacts you can apply the above filters to narrow the search. It's kind of hard to apply filters for lands, so I just look through all of them.

Step 4: Support Cards

This is where the 'good cards' go. Most of the time the theme won't fill all major aspects of a Commander deck, so we need to fill out the deck with good support cards. Here are some examples for the Bladewing deck:

Mass removal:

Targeted removal:

Card advantage:


Mana ramp:

These are some examples of 'good cards' that I would use to fill roles that my theme couldn't. Commander decks also need win conditions but my theme already fills this role quite well with a horde of terrifying dragons!

Evaluating card quality in Commander is much different than in any other format. Low mana cost is less relevant because games often go on and on and starting with forty life makes you stay in the game much longer. Also, because Commander is a multiplayer format, one-for-one cards should be minimized, except for particularly versatile or cost effective ones (think Vindicate or Exterminate!).

In my opinion generating a lot of extra mana is the key to victory, so I make sure that every deck I make has some sort of mana acceleration. Being able to cast your expensive spells first is usually good!

Step 5: Lands

This step is pretty straight forward. I just do a gatherer search for every land and choose the best ones for my deck. Be careful not to run too many lands that enter the battlefield tapped, because while the format is slow, being a turn behind the whole game still sucks. Also, make sure you have at least some basic lands for cards like Path to Exile, New Frontiers, Ruination or Blood Moon.

There are a few lands that are surprisingly powerful in Commander. Two that often get overlooked are High Market and Tower of the Magistrate. People often play stealing effects and being able to sacrifice your creatures for free is very beneficial. Tower of the Magistrate gives protection from artifacts to an opponent's creature that's reaching for a Sword of Fire and Ice or some other equally powerful equipment.

There are other lands that are better than you'd think, so don't be quick to pass judgment.

You can expect your opponent to be running lands like this as well, so it is a good idea to run Strip Mine, Wasteland, and Dust Bowl. Don't be a jerk and Strip Mine someone's first turn Mistveil Plains though.

Step 6: Make the Deck

Now that I have a good database of cards I need to actually build the deck. Hopefully I have 20-40 solid candidates for cards fitting the theme. Once those are chosen, I add the filler 'good cards'.

I usually shoot for about 60 spells and 40 lands but there is a bit of wiggle room here. Remember this is a mana intensive format, so always err towards more lands and acceleration.

Step 7: Playtest

Once I have compiled a list I get to move onto the fun part: playing some Magic!

This is an important step because I want to find out the deck's weaknesses and what it's lacking. I always play several games against a variety of Commander decks before making any judgments about cutting or adding cards. As I play, I note which cards don't work with the theme as intended, whether the curve of the deck is too high, and which cards are beating me. Then I adjust accordingly.

I usually go through two or three versions of my deck before I get it how I want it. The process may take a while, but in the end I am rewarded with a finely-tuned, entertaining Commander deck.

I find it important to spend a lot of time crafting a deck to ensure your play experience with it is enjoyable. I've witnessed many people, including myself, hastily construct a Commander deck and take it apart within a day because it's just a pile of awkward cards that don't provide an entertaining game of Magic. Hopefully this article provides you with ideas and strategies to avoid this problem as you begin/continue exploring the world of Commander!

Andy Martin

4 thoughts on “Building for Commander — An Extensive Undertaking

  1. Were you really introduced to Elder Dragon Highlander a few months after the Duelist article that was published in 1996?

    You approach is similar to mine. Rather than a text file I like to use magic workstation, adding cards I'm sure I'll be playing to the main deck and cards I could consider to the sideboard. I tend to get up to around 300 cards total before I start tweaking down.

    My group is not huge on playing lots of acceleration, as a result I don't play much of it either. I'm aware that if I would I would probably increase my win percentage for a while, but they'll just catch up in the arms race eventually. I much prefer longer games and more room in my decks for additional synergy, so I don't want to be the one starting this arms race (and my win percentage is already quite high regardless).

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