By Justin

Welcome to part 2 of my deckbuilding series. Last time we talked about using a theme as the starting point for your Commander deck. But where do we go from there? Today we’ll discuss how to progress from that single starting theme to a final, honed decklist.
Branching Out
One of the tenets of major themes is supportability, and that’s what I’m going to focus on today. Sure, some themes have so much space and are so modular that it makes sense to build your entire deck around them.  For instance, well-supported tribes such as Elves or Goblins will have more than enough on-theme cards to fill an entire deck. However, most themes aren’t like this. Even if your theme has enough support cards to fill the deck all by itself, it won’t necessarily be the best thing to do. Mindlessly following a theme may not let your games develop the way you need them to, leaving you without some important resource or making you very vulnerable to certain types of attack. As an example, tribal decks probably won’t get very far just focusing on playing synergistic creatures and turning them sideways until your opponents die.

Decks built around a single theme are probably going to play very similarly each game. A classic example is a deck built around Uril the Miststalker. Such decks are almost always built around putting awesome auras on Uril and attacking with him until they win the game.  The problem with this is that when your deck plays so uniformly each game it probably won’t remain fun for very long. You or your playgroup will get tired of it. One of the defining elements of Commander is the 100-card singleton nature of the format, so having a little bit of randomness isn’t a bad thing.

Last time I wrote about support cards for your main theme, but we’re going a little deeper into that today. For now, the simplest route to take is to look at our main theme again.  We’re looking for other themes that fit with our main theme. Synergy is the important thing.  Supporting themes will either boost what our main theme does or cover its weaknesses. Either way, it’s important that the supporting themes mesh well with the main theme and don’t create a lot of conflicts. For example, if you’re building a deck themed around a small creature tribe like Goblins and you want to be able to beat the larger creatures that your opponents will throw at you, you probably won’t want to make Wrath effects a secondary theme. You need your creatures too, so wrath effects will conflict with your main theme’s goal. Focus instead on something that works with your main theme, like creature pump.

What would go naturally with what our main theme is doing? What weaknesses does our main theme have and how do we want to address those? The answers to these questions are not only going to help lead us to good supporting themes, but they will also help tell us what supporting themes are going to be more important than others. After all, your main theme may have more than one weakness in need of support.

For example, I have a deck built around creatures with enters-the-battlefield triggers. As a general rule, creatures like this tend to be weaker than simpler creatures because they are most effective when they enter play rather than once they get into the thick of combat.  There are some exceptions of course, but on average your creatures are going to be weaker than your opponents’.  There are plenty of ways to address this problem, from utilizing a lot of removal on your opponents’ creatures to using bounce and “flicker” effects on your own to reuse their abilities. You can even use Equipment, Auras or pump spells to let your naturally weaker creatures win in combat versus Titans and Dragons.

Whatever theme you use, it’s important to ask these and other questions so that you can shore up the weaknesses of your deck. Additionally, asking these questions helps you determine whether your main theme is, in fact, going to be your main theme. You may find that the idea you started with is a little too narrow or it doesn’t do enough to really be the primary focus of the deck. Maybe you thought your main theme fit the five points I talked about last time, but it turns out it’s a little too small or needs too much support. Sometimes, you’ll find that the main theme you started with isn’t panning out, but one of the supporting themes seems like a lot more fun, and you use that as your main theme instead! It’s great when this happens because you can use everything you’ve already put together and start thinking about the deck from a different angle.

One more thing to keep in mind when choosing your supporting themes is to make sure they go well with one another, not just with your main theme. After all, you probably won’t be able to control how the cards come out of your deck each game. If you draw cards that are all from your supporting themes, then you want to make sure that they complement each other as well.

Deckbuilding is meant to be a fluid process, and if you’re like me at all you’ll tune your decks frequently between games and play sessions. Maybe in actual play it will turn out that one of your supporting themes isn’t pulling its weight. There’s nothing wrong with taking out entire themes if they don’t pan out and replacing them with more effective cards. The key is to be thinking about how the cards in your deck are working together so you can identify what cards need to be replaced.

One by One

Through this whole process, you might have found that your main theme has a lot of different areas that could use support, and you have too many supporting themes to try to cram into the deck. After all, the entire point of the process is to get your starting list down to the 100 cards you’ll play with, and too many options can be as difficult to work with as too few. This is where individual supporting cards, rather than themes, come in.

Every color has numerous options for powerful utility cards, and lists for these can be found on sites such as dragonhighlander.net or mtgsalvation.com. These utility spells are multipurpose and will often serve as great answers for single or widespread problems. For instance, if your deck seems weak against graveyard recursion, Tormod’s Crypt or Relic of Progenitus may be all the support you need. Artifacts and enchantments getting you down?  Rather than a full destruction supporting theme, it might be enough to play a Krosan Grip or Return to Dust.

It is important, however, to keep these utility cards in perspective. Many people will refer to these cards as “auto-includes” due to their versatility and power level. I strongly disagree with this assessment. The most appealing thing to me about Commander is being able to play with whatever I want. The very idea of “auto-includes” goes against that philosophy. If I’m just “supposed” to play with all the best utility cards, then there is often not much space left for my themes, and my deck is going to play like any other deck of the same colors. That’s not particularly interesting to me, and I like to get a little more enjoyment than that out of my Commander experience.

How do we resist the allure of the “auto-includes”? The simplest way is to look at those cards only as ways to fill out your deck once your main and supporting themes are in place. Let’s say our “enters-the-battlefield” deck has problems with artifacts and enchantments. I can play a few on-theme cards like Acidic Slime or Kor Sanctifiers to handle those problem cards and thus have less need for the “auto-includes” that have similar effects.

If you look hard enough, you can often find on-theme answers that will allow you to eschew the “auto-include” cards. Gatherer (or magiccards.info) is going to be your best friend, as you’ll be able to locate every card that could possibly fit your theme. This can lead you to some Secret Tech gems that would have otherwise gone unplayed.

Sometimes, however, you will need to go to the more general utility cards for help, and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, you may want to play with them once or twice anyway just to see what all of the fuss is about. Just don’t get stuck in the trap of thinking that any particular card “needs” to go in every deck.

Even ubiquitous cards such as Sol Ring and Sensei’s Divining Top are not necessarily in any of my decks. My mono-green ramp deck, for instance, doesn’t play Sol Ring because the green ramp spells are more permanent and harder to disrupt. Sol Ring gets easily out-classed in this case. I have a few decks that can’t make great use of Top because of their having few shuffle effects and plenty of other ways to draw cards; the card selection doesn’t help as much. This is not to say that those cards and others don’t belong in any deck, of course. Just make sure you think about every card you include and have a reason for it to be there. Autopiloting your way through a deck is the quickest way to ensure your deck is less fun for you to play.

Closing Points

We’re going over many different aspects of deckbuilding here, and there is still a lot more to say. For now, just remember to think about what your themes do and how they interact, and make sure your cards work together to form a cohesive whole. Even “bad” cards can be good in a deck that supports them. Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to explore new ideas!

Next time I’ll be discussing the most important—and probably the most ignored—aspect of deckbuilding: the mana base.