A Commander Primer

November 20, 2014

By Dodo Bird Commander writer Ryan Zeitz


Hey everyone. In today’s article I’m going to give an introduction to Commander for those new to the format.



Commander, previously known as EDH, is different from other ways of playing Magic.

  • It’s meant to be played with more than two players.
  • It’s a social format.
  • Your personality is more important than your deck’s speed or consistency.
  • Games are longer, leaving time to cast expensive, powerful spells.

The Basics
To play Commander, you’ll need a deck of 100 cards. One of these cards will be your commander, the card you enlist as the leader of your deck. Your commander is a legendary creature whose colors define the colors of your deck.

The other 99 cards in your deck are spells and lands of your commander’s color(s). For example, if you enlist Krond the Dawn-Clad as your commander, your deck will consist of green and/or white spells, and lands that produce green and/or white mana (or colorless mana).

Using Krond the Dawn-Clad as your Commander lets you include green and/or white spells in your deck.

In a Krond the Dawn-Clad Commander deck, you can include green and/or white spells in your deck.

Commander decks are singleton, which means you can only play a single copy of each card in your deck (besides basic lands). This leads to one of the most challenging–and fun–deck building experiences you can have in Magic. It also makes for games that vary greatly from one to the next.

A Higher Life Total
When playing Commander, you’ll start with 40 life instead of the usual 20. This gives you more time to hammer out an intricate gameplan, and more time to cast expensive, dramatic spells. But be careful, because you’ll be knocked out of the game if you take 21 points of damage from a single opposing commander. This is called commander damage.

The Command Zone
While not on the battlefield, your Commander inhabits a place called the command zone. You can summon your commander from the command zone as if he was in your hand. If your commander dies, you have the choice to either put him in your graveyard or send him back to the command zone.

To cast your commander for the second time from the command zone, it’ll cost you 2 colorless mana plus his base casting cost. Likewise, each successive time you cast your commander from the command zone, you’ll be charged 2 colorless mana more than last time. So if your commander has died 3 times, it’ll cost you 6 colorless mana plus his base casting cost to cast.

Making Your Start into Commander
There are a few ways you can get started playing Commander. One is the Commander preconstructed decks–all you do is open them up, shuffle up, and play. They’re really good for getting used to the format. There are 15 preconstructed decks so far, including the most recent Commander 2014 set, which consists of 5 single-color decks with an exciting new twist: five Planeswalkers with special rules text that allows you to use them as your commander!

The Commander 2014 decks are a great way to get started playing Commander.

The Commander 2014 decks are a great way to get started playing Commander.

Another good way to get started with Commander is to build an entirely original deck yourself. Building a commander deck from scratch for the first time can be a daunting task (remember, 100 unique cards!), so if you’re going to go this route, I recommend sticking to just one or two colors.

Picking a Strategy
One type of deck that’s easy for beginners to construct is one centered on a Magic tribe or creature type. Zombies are a great example of this kind of deck. I personally have a zombies commander deck. My commander is Grimgrin, Corpse Born.

You can also build a deck that revolves around your commander–protecting him, making him big, and racking up commander damage. This style of deck is called a volton deck, named after the Voltron: Defenders of the Universe cartoon which features a massive built-up robot who unleashes powerful attacks. Rafiq of the Many is typically used as a voltron commander.

Deck Tips
There are a handful cards that will are worth their mettle in just about any deck–keep these in mind as you construct yours. Mana rocks like Sol Ring, Darksteel Ingot, and Coalition Relic are wonderful mana producers that will keep your deck churning right along. And you’ll want to have a few of your favorite removal spells on hand to be sure you can cope with threatening monsters–all five colors offer some type of removal or another. Mass destruction in particular shines in multiplayer Commander. Finally, in addition to your deck’s overall synergy, a big key is to have a few two-, three-, or four-card combinations that work together to do something very powerful. An example of this, from my Grimgrin Corpse-Born deck, is Havengul Lich, Butcher Ghoul, and Grimgrin.

deck interview

My Grimgrin, Corpse-Born Zombies deck is an example of a tribal Commander deck. You can see me explain the basics of this deck in episode 7 of Command Tower at http://youtu.be/Bq_5597GzHo

How Many Lands to Play
As for lands, you’ll want between 34 and 40 in your deck. You can use less than 34 if your cards are generally really cheap to cast, but don’t be tempted to skimp on lands! Remember, Commander is a format of big powerhouse spells, and letting a few turns pass without playing a land can spell your demise.

Learn More!
In closing, I just want to say that building a commander deck is no easy task, so in future articles I will help you out with pointers on nice card combinations and “staple” cards that are great to have on hand for any deck. I hope you found this Commander primer useful, and happy battling!

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