Whether it is a momentary flash of inspiration, watching another deck operate, a new set release or seeing an old card for the first time, there are many motivations for building a new Commander deck. So far I've talked about some of the nuts and bolts of deck design here, as well as my own personal spin on Commander philosophy here, and have even written about specific decks such as this one. What we will be discussing today is how to arrive at the right commander for the right deck.
Dos and Don'ts
Every rule is bifurcated into a do and a don't. Why? Because building a deck for Commander is most often about hitting a moving target of sorts. You are attempting to balance a wild mixture of variables like fun factor, originality, uniqueness, power, and budget. No one formula can take you to your final destination without a long journey. It is this journey that we call "playing" that will refine both the deck and the commander.
Do Pick A Unique Theme and Subtheme
Hazezon Tamar is a classic commander from Legends. He's an obvious pick for a token based deck and can generate an extremely high number of bodies as the game progresses. Green, red and white all have many effects that naturally boost the effectiveness of Hazezon like Parallel Lives, Anointed Procession and Doubling Season. However to differentiate my deck from a pure token deck I added a Warrior subtheme with cards like Lovisa Coldeyes, Moraug, Fury of Akoum and Ogre Battledriver. Over time I shifted the deck more from tokens into Warriors and it has become a tribal deck.
Eventually I noticed other subthemes starting to develop like trample, double strike and haste. Now I have a much clearer focus for cards that fit the deck in the future so I know if they are a Hazezon Tamar card or not. There are few cards that generate as many Warriors per mana as Hazezon Tamar and it's always a great feeling to cast in virtually any situation. These are both dead giveaways that Hazezon is the right commander for the Warrior deck. Sorry Najeela, the Blade-Blossom!
Don't Use The Same Generic Base Cards
There are a pile of universally good tribal cards like Morophon, the Boundless and other Changelings that make a five color tribal deck possible even if few actual examples of that tribe have been printed. However, the problem with this line of deck building is that you have the same 30-40 base cards and just rotate in a handful of other cards. In effect you're playing the same deck over and over again. That cannot be good for originality, replayability, or fun factor.
Much like staple cards, these filler cards and Commanders can be over relied upon to fill holes in a deck. Forcing a deck builder to come up with imaginative solutions for shortfalls in card selection can often be the point where creativity shines through and you really make a unique deck. If you surround a commander with the same supporting cards as other decks how does that legitimize playing that particular commander over any other? The answer is it does not.
Do Try Variations On A Theme
Slivers are definitely a very heavily played Commander deck. Once a new player discovers Slivers it's a good bet that they will consider building a Sliver deck at some point. However, how many players playtest a Sliver deck with different commanders? Sometimes the solution to a problem with power level, deck consistency or fun factor is just the commander and not the other 99 cards. All four of these Sliver commanders make sense but not every one of them will make sense for your specific group. Obviously more creature based wincons enjoy Hivelord and Legion as commander while more combo oriented versions lean on Overlord and Queen. Each has its own merits for a deck and your local meta.
Don't Be Inflexible
According to EDREC about half of the Sliver decks reported there use either Overlord or The First Sliver as commander and more Sliver decks use Morophon than Sliver Legion for the Commander. I can understand a budgetary variable when it comes to Sliver Queen who can be unaffordable for many, however, most of the other Sliver commanders are around the same price with Overlord being more expensive but not unreachable.
The fact is Overlord is probably the best overall Sliver commander by a decent margin. What that tells me is that you can more easily depower your deck by just switching your commander. Rather than starting your deck building with "If I'm building Slivers I *must* use Sliver Overlord," consider choosing Hivelord or Legion and seeing how they play instead. If you find that your deck is not powerful enough for your group, you can always upgrade your deck by upgrading your commander.
Do Remember The Old
Anyone know the oldest commander in the Top 50 of the EDREC 100? It's Zur the Enchanter from Coldsnap in 2006. A very powerful and potentially unfair card, Zur is now competing with many new cards. Even inside of the top 100, there are few older commanders represented. Massive new print runs are giving players a lot of choice in terms of exactly what a commander can do for a deck. This is distinctly different from the original battlecruiser nature of Elder Dragon Highlander where your commander was a big creature with a minor upside rather than a combo piece or engine. Again, this is not so much about power level as it is about getting creative where older cards are concerned. Limitations can build creative leaps whereas completely synergistic choices generate a formulaic and static outcome.
Don't Forget The New
Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty introduced us to several new potential commanders. Each of them plays completely differently and has a very unique color identity. In particular Isshin, Two Heavens as One seems to be enjoying massive play right now. Sometimes perfecting a deck means trying something new as a variation of a theme or completely discarding a poor theme for something that simply works better. I found that the best way to complete my Brion Stoutarm deck was to actually transform it into a Minsc, Beloved Ranger deck. I could only do this when AFR released, so don't forget to always be on the lookout for new commanders that better fit your themes!
Do Lean Into Inspiration
If you fall down a rabbit hole when looking at Tatsunari, Toad Rider imagining what a Sultai Toad Enchantment drain deck looks like, throw a first draft of the deck together. Play the deck! It will either reinforce your original inspiration and let you know where you need more of something or it will show you what is wrong with your thinking. In either case, reform your idea and try again until you've nailed the feeling for the deck and the commander to go with it.
Don't Copy, Remix
There's no harm in checking out decks on EDREC, MTGDecks or any of dozens of Magic sites. As I've mentioned before it's great to get a second opinion and see if there are any cards or commanders you may have missed that are simply too good for your deck. One must be careful though, not to just follow others without making your own build decisions. When you end up playing someone else's version of a deck you are doing yourself a disservice on several fronts. Their local metagame is likely different and the play style of the original builder might clash with your own, so you may end up spending money on cards you don't find particularly fun to play.
Do Let The Commander Choose The Deck
Your commander is the single most important card for your deck. It does more than simply define what cards are allowed in the deck, it should be the top guiding principle behind what your deck seeks to do, how it does it, and why. There are over 1,000 different options now, so if you are not feeling excited every time you cast it you need to ask yourself why you are still using that same commander.
Don't Let The Deck Choose The Commander
I've played some variations of Oona, Queen of the Fae as mono-Swamp decks. That is to say even though my commander is hybrid blue black, I only include Swamps. I've taken this idea to a more absurd level by playing five color commanders with only Swamps to allow me to run better mana rocks, i.e. all the various signets. These decks are effectively mono black but *technically* not.
Most of the time the decks feature about the same 80-90 cards with only minor variations. I did this for a variety of reasons, one of which was to confuse my opponents, but also to make a point about the format. Essentially, if my commander was a soulless requirement that needed to be fulfilled to access the other 99, well, I could fulfill that "requirement" many ways, but still do the exact same things anyway.
Obviously Golos has been banned for good reason, however, Kenrith and Sisay are starting to look like Golos replacements, and not in a good way. Commanders that let you play "good stuff" will always be a part of the game, but I would argue that this is not what really makes the format fun and worth playing. If you are considering these types of commanders maybe it's a sign that your deck idea is not refined enough, and with a little more focus you could find a more fun direction with an even better commander.
What are your primary criteria for selecting a commander? Let us know in the comments!