This entry is part 12 of 17 in the series Accumulated Knowledge


Playing Commander long enough gives you a skewed perspective.  Recently my friend, Andrew, asked me a question that took the wind out of me. It was such a simple question that didn’t have a simple answer. “How do you build unusual decks?”  This forced me to look at my own deck building process in a general sense.  Without going into specifics, how do you build a unique deck?

I used to think that the idea for a deck must be unique for the deck to be unique.  I have got a bit of an ego; I think I am pretty awesome.  However, I am not so far over the narcissistic edge that I believe I can regularly think of deck ideas that 40 other Commander Players could never come up with.  Any deck can be made unique.   It just takes a little bit of effort.

There are two major options for building a deck that feels like it is uniquely yours; you either need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Magic cards throughout history or you need to be proficient in using an online card database.   For a deck to be unique it should play cards that few players remember or have seen in action.  My preference is to use a card database instead of relying on my admittedly limited mind.  A card database is that it knows every card, while you may forget some.

One of the most direct ways to break away from normalcy is to defy the color pie.  It’s natural to try and build decks that work with the strengths of a color. Building within a color identities strengths is usually about picking the best cards available.  Trying to do things that a color identity is not good at is more about simply finding the few cards that do what you need.  When you choose the best card for a slot, chances are most people playing that card’s color identity will also be playing that card.  In Andrew’s case, he wanted to make a blue deck based around combat damage.   He chose Sun Quon to be his Commander.  Sun Quon is a good choice because he gives strength were blue is not usually known to participate, the combat phase.

Keeping an open mind is essential for building a unique deck.  It is tempting to give up designing a deck halfway through when it doesn’t fit into an ideal mold.  In Andrew’s case, he really wanted to find efficient blue beaters to put the smack down on his opponents.  He couldn’t seem to find enough of these creatures to make an effective deck.  I helped open up his card pool when I suggested that he include cards that give him a benefit whenever they attack or deal damage.  While the most direct path is usually the best, being unique is usually about taking the more scenic route.  Secondary synergies can be more fun than the obvious combinations.  Instead of beating people to deal with an Inkwell levitation, he is now stealing artifacts from others decks with an unblockable Thada Adel.

Online card searches and databases are great tools if you have a general idea of the primary and secondary strategies your deck revolves around.  Using these search engines is a bit of an art.  You need to know how card designers like to word rules to get useful results.  This knowledge will make creating a card pool simpler and more effective.  For example, in Sun Quon you may want to find any creature that gives a benefit when attacks, isn’t blocked, or deals damage.  The easiest way to search for this is just to look at all blue and colorless cards and look at any card that both has the words ‘whenever’ combined with either ‘combat’, ‘damage’, ‘attacks’, or ‘blocked’.  You may get a few extra results, but it is unlikely you will miss anything.  Using a database is like most actions, the more you do it the better at it you will get.

As you challenge yourself with deck building, you will sprint into walls.  By that I mean, you will have moments of incredible inspiration followed immediately by mental blocks.  Andrew ran into a wall early on.  Once he got the idea of benefiting from combat damage, ideas began to flow in rapid succession; Coastal Piracy, ophidian creatures, ninjas, the Mirrodin swords, Jitte, Wanderwine Profits, Notorious Throng, and more instantly made the deck list.  Once the gas ran out, he hit another wall.  Now that he had the core of the deck, where did he go from here?  

When you hit a wall, the best course of action is to talk to friends and play more Commander Games.  Unique decks are rarely the first deck you will build. You should be able to continue playing Commander with another deck while you build.  Even if you aren’t playing the deck you are trying to build or tune, playing gets you thinking more about Commander.  Nothing sparks the fire of inspiration like playing.  Friends give you a fresh pair of eyes, which is essential in creating anything new or great.  We all know the saying, “two heads are better than one.”  If you don’t have friends to bounce your ideas off, feel free to send me an email.  

Once you have put every unusual combination into your decklist, you will have to go through my least favorite part of deck building.   You have to go through and cut cards to drop down to make room for utility cards.  In almost every creative situation, you will have more ideas than you have space for.  Even heavily themed decks need some of the basics for Commander.  You need your lands, mana fixing and answers to common win conditions in Commander.  While you won’t need to cut all your favorite cards, this section always hurts me a bit.  Once this is done you can console yourself by finally playing with the deck you worked so hard to create.

Don’t be surprised if your deck doesn’t work perfectly right out of the gates.  New ideas are unproven ideas.  Be open to making major changes to the deck to make it work.  I recommend keeping a pad of paper and a pen to make notes about what is working and what is failing.  When you first build a new deck, I also recommend playing more lands than you actually want.  This will stop you losing from mana screw as often and will give you a few easy cuts when you identify gaps in the deck.  All Commander Decks are works in progress.  Never be afraid to try taking a card out and trying something new.

I hope everyone enjoyed the article today.  Andrew should have his deck built and ready to play by the time you are reading this.  Going forward my articles are going to start focusing more on helping players either just getting into Commander or at a low level of play who want to start having more interactive and effective decks.  My hope is that the veterans who read this will spread the word to their less experienced friends to help start putting them on equal footing.   I believe that while most people who read Commander Articles are experienced players.  I also believe that the readers who benefit the most  from articles are newer players.  My goal is to help people as much as possible, so I will be trying to focus more on tips for new players for the foreseeable future.

In response to several questions, I will not be doing any sort of deck doctor series.  In Commander, deck advice is best when it is tailored to a specific playgroup and a budget. Segments on improving a deck are rarely useful to anyone but the person whose deck is being looked at.  Even then, the person will rarely take 100% of the advice.  If you would like advice on a deck, please email me at  I am happy to help out with deck ideas or tuning on an individual basis.


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