How to Avoid Common Commander’s Deckbuilding Traps

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There are numerous factors when it comes to deckbuilding in Magic. Because Commander has such a massive card pool along with bigger deck size, it can easily be the most difficult. Experimentation is a valuable tool when tuning a deck but there are limits whether it be time, budget, and/or experience. Here are some stories with tips that can save players new and old time, frustration, and in some cases even hard-earned cash.

Real-World Examples

I buy and sell Magic cards, no surprise there. On the buying end it's typically entire collections from retiring players as I detail here. For sales it's most often singles or custom Commander decks. Many of my sales involve newer players. My general rule is that the customer is always right, except for when they're new. In that case, sometimes, they need a little help to make a more informed purchasing decision. The most help, however, comes during custom deck creation. Just the other day I spoke with a brand new player and they asked, "Can you build me a Dragon deck?" My response:

"I Can, But..."

Knowing that the player is new allowed me to steer the conversation in a productive direction. I needed to get an idea of current or potential play groups so that I could help build their 100. Of course, new players do not know... that which they do not know. So how do you help them help *you* to... uh... help them?

You can get an idea with questions like "Do you know if your friends are tournament players or play for fun?" or "Do you know if your friends have spent considerable money on their decks, or if they have precons?" These are questions that even a player with little game knowledge can answer rather than asking them about something more esoteric like "power level." With these bare bones questions answered, it becomes possible to make good recommendations.

When this player told me they had played tournament Yu-Gi-Oh! years ago and were looking to get back into card games on the competitive side, that told me everything I needed to know. With a budget prepared, it's time to build Tribal Dragons! We don't have to potentially consider Vintage cards like Shivan Dragon while Old Gnawbone and Ancient Copper Dragon exist. This player is fine purchasing chase cards from the start, letting him avoid spending money on budget cards that will eventually get replaced by higher end rares and mythics.

Here, we avoided a potential cost trap.

Meanwhile, in Another Build...

A newer player wanted help building their second Commander deck. They already had acquired the Spirit Squadron precon, played it many times, and even upgraded it to give it a stronger Spirit Tribal focus, removing most of the non-Spirit cards for pure bodies. Because this deck was blue and white, they wanted to try out different colors and opted for black and green.

I pitched a few different ideas like Skullbriar, the Walking Grave with a +1/+1 counters theme that could utilize scavenge and self-mill. Milling was acceptable, and they wanted to play some cards they enjoyed like Spider Spawning, but the +1/+1 counters angle was not appealing. We looked through some cards and Falthis, Shadowcat Familiar soon become a requirement.

Who Pairs With a Grey Ogre for Profit? Hill Giant, of Course!

First off, there were few options and, second, fewer great options to pair with Falthis. Eventually Anara, Wolvid Familiar struck their fancy, and the ball was in my court to figure out how to make something work. Several playtests and builds later I felt that I had a very spicy brew utilizing creature cards with mill. It used the commanders as graveyard bonus creatures and got extra synergy from undergrowth. After a few games of pumping out 39/39 haste Golgari Raiders or nuking people for over 20 with Lotleth Giant, I happily presented the deck for testing.

Surprise, They Hated It!

While almost every card in the deck had some form of graveyard synergy, the player did not enjoy the mechanics therein. In typical Beardy fashion there were a dozen different keywords, some cards from older sets with old, confusing wording, and the player was bummed out that their commanders were "useless."

Now, we had to agree to disagree there. To me, I felt that the "best" use of their commanders was as fodder for the graveyard, and in my playtest games the ability to pitch a couple of extra creatures into the 'yard early made the deck function better come late game. Also, shout out to Falthis! Turns out having a 2/2 deathtouch creature is really effective at discouraging attacks. I digress.

The player simply had different needs and expectations. Counting the graveyard for one HUGE Spider Spawning appealed to them. Constantly counting it to determine Mortivore's power/toughness or other less game-breaking effects? More of a chore. I saw interesting interaction and potential for decision making with upkeep and dredge triggers. The player, however, experienced analysis overload.

The Solution? Back to the Drawing Board!

Here I was trapped by the idea of maximizing Spawning with Falthis and Anara because these were all key requests from the player I was helping. Unfortunately, I was overly zealous, not unlike a long-time experienced brewer can be in such a situation. I felt that I had found the solution to optimizing a combination of cards and was excited to share my findings. However, I had ignored the most important factor: the player!

Here, the end result was scrapping this deck idea and completely going back to the drawing board. Wolf and Cat version 2.0 removes mill and graveyard checks while adding in more removal, because every deck needs more removal.

Limiting the scope of the deck allowed us to avoid a complexity trap.

Even Experienced Players Can Use a Second Opinion

A player that has been playing since 2000 approached me with a list for a A-Satoru Umezawa deck complete with a Rogue subtheme. Nice! They had a very respectable build with both powerful, synergistic cards alongside thematic choices that were deliberately suboptimal. It was a thoughtful list and really a highlight of the heart of commander.

I did ask about the potential T1 Sol Ring, T2 Umezawa, T3 Blightsteel Colossus kill when they mentioned they wanted the deck to be mostly casual. They said it was alright with their group because they played no tutor effects; an opening like that would be memorable, but exceedingly rare, and everyone was alright with that.

However, I identified what I believed to be some holes in their list, and these were clearly not budget or power level based. One example was Slither Blade which seemed like a perfect fit. Extremely inexpensive, not crazy-powerful, and on-point as an unblockable Rogue. They liked the suggestion and mentioned they missed that entire Magic block because, you know, real life happened back then!

This player had a good idea of the scope, features and power level of their deck, but was short on another key component. I don't think they had hours to spend pouring over every single choice for their deck but they did well with the time they had. By asking someone else for advice, they did not have to spend hours pouring over every card and thus avoided a time trap.

Acknowledging Limits Is Healthy

We all have limits, and Magic deckbuilding is no exception. While it would be nice to be able to playtest and refine every potential deck idea and list, it's simply not practical in terms of budget, experience, or time. But with a little bit of help from your local playgroup and other brewers, you can avoid common traps and make the most of your deckbuilding. Now get out there and brew, share, and ask for advice. Happy building!

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Joe Mauri

Joe has been an avid MTG player and collector since the summer of 1994 when he started his collection with a booster box of Revised. Millions of cards later he still enjoys tapping lands and slinging spells at the kitchen table, LGS, or digital Arena. Commander followed by Draft are his favorite formats, but, he absolutely loves tournaments with unique build restrictions and alternate rules. A lover of all things feline, he currently resides with no less than five majestic creatures who are never allowed anywhere near his cards. When not Gathering the Magic, Joe loves streaming a variety of games on Twitch( both card and other.

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