This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series Community Contribution

By JUDSON aka GUDoug
It is hard to imagine a world without Eldrazi, Infect, Titans, Consecrated Sphinx, Avenger of Zendikar, Rite of Replication, Genesis Wave, Praetors, Exsanguinate, or Shards of Alara Block and it’s many generals. A world where color fixing lands and utility lands like the Shards of Alara Tri-lands, any number of dual lands, new man lands, enemy color fetchlands, panoramas, Evolving Wilds, Emeria, the Sky Ruin, Oran-Rief, the Vastwood, Reliquary Tower, and Mystifying Maze don’t exist. A world where cards like Tinker, Tolarian Academy, Fastbond, Gifts Ungiven, Staff of Domination, Channel, and Metalworker are all still playable. A world where your general is super-legendary and doesn’t die to clone effects. That is the world of EDH I starting playing in back in the spring of 2008.

Ninety-nine cards just don’t go as far as they used to. I said this about cards I wish could play but just don’t have room for anymore awhile back to a fellow EDH player. It seemed like the possibilities for deck spots were limitless when I started. Shadowmoor was recently released back then, and to be honest (and in the name of full disclosure) the only reason I started playing the format was to have something to do in-between rounds and after FNM. There was a small group that always played EDH during these times and they would never want to play standard, which were the only decks I had. Fourteen sets have come out since then, 15 if you count the Commander product. That is a staggering amount of cards. My first two decks I built are still in active rotation and just thumbing through them over 50% of the cards in each were not around when I started playing.

With the release of M11 onward, EDH has changed drastically. Even though Shards added a lot of cards and generals it didn’t have as big of an impact as M11 did to EDH in my mind. A lot of that change all started with Primeval Titan followed by a lot of game changers in Zendikar block and forward. Now when I sit down to build a new deck and start typing in my usual array of cards that fit the color identity of my new general the deck list is practically filled up with just some of the staples “that should be in every deck.” It seems that the biggest challenge in deck building these days is simply fitting in your non-staple cards. This very premise has convinced me to stray away from the “Best/Optimal Build” and try other ways of deck building that lead to more creative construction. A different way of assembling decks that present more of a challenge to build and craft into a competitive or semi-competitive final product. I am talking about theme decks.  They present a compelling and enjoyable means of coming up with new challenges, finding new cards, culling down the card options, and assembling them into a playable and cohesive units.

There are many ways go about making a theme deck. In a sense every EDH deck is a theme deck. They are just lumped into different categories like reanimation, life gain, tokens, +1/+1 counters, equipment, sacrificing, or stealing your opponents’ cards. Then you’ve got your theme decks that are tribal based like goblins, elves, zombies, spirits, or soldiers, or if really want to get out there birds, golems, myr, or elephants. Even building a deck around your general’s ability can in and of itself be considered a theme. Even decks with a restriction on rarity, monetary value, border color, or what sets can be used could also be considered theme decks. These are not the theme decks I am talking about.

The theme decks I am alluding to are ones that have more specific deck building constraints and stray little if at all from those set rules. Having constructed several themes decks myself, there are four main ways of guiding your deck building process that would fit most of these types of decks. Those being:

1) Non- subject or keyword based
2) Card art based
3) Subject or keyword based
4) Some sort of combination of those three, but most likely using cart art and subject/keyword to steer creation.

A non-subject or keyword based theme deck basically is one that has a card pool based on a specific rule restricting construction. Essentially, the theme is whatever bogus limitation you decided to give yourself to handicap your deck building. It is a great way to find new cards, challenge yourself, and waste a lot of time. Then again, most theme decks will pretty much turn into a giant time suck. The only one of these that I have really worked on used the alphabet. The deck was to have one creature for each letter of the alphabet and 1 non-creature/non-land card for each letter of the alphabet. That made for 52 cards and when 38 lands where added that it left 9 extra slots. So I added the caveat that those 9 cards had to be non-creature/non-land cards and the deck could not contain more than 3 non-land cards starting with the same letter. In the end this was painstaking process of going though the Gatherer making several selections for each letter, and then going through those and selecting the right balance of acceleration, answers, synergies, and threats. When all was said and done I was left with two different decks lists that entertained me to put together, but ultimately I had no real intention of playing.

Card art based theme decks are fun to build but the hugest pain in the ass to find your card pool for. Basically, you only play cards with a certain type of picture on them. I have one deck of this type and it is based on an elderly/geriatric theme with Zur the Enchanter as the general. Every non-land card in the deck has a old person in the art somewhere, and I chose to try and keep them as humanoid as possible while trying not to add any zombies that looked too decayed, vampires that weren’t old in appearance, or just random dudes with mustaches and beards that were not exactly old enough. My best advice is to use when looking at cards because it provides you with larger pictures to look at than any other source that I have found. Also remember to check all promo cards, alternate arts with in a set (I’m looking at you Fallen Empires), and any duel deck or premium deck that may have include alternate art.

My favorite type of theme decks is one based on a subject or keyword. I have built many of these and it is a blast to construct a whole deck based around one subject and make it playable. For example one of my favorite themes decks has a Grim Reaper theme. I found it best to start by do some generic searches in your favorite card finder typing in various words that fit the theme to see if there are enough cards to work with. In this case I used words like grim, reaper, soul, death, reckon, scythe, and a few others to make my initial judgment call. After seeing more than enough, I went looking for a general in the legendary creature pool to see if there is something that fit a Grim Reaper theme. The list of possible fits included:

Sisters of Stone Death
Sek’Kuar, Deathkeeper
Rubinia Soulsinger
Reaper King
Iname, Death Aspect
Horobi, Death’s Wail
Animar, Soul of Elements
Tariel, Reckoner of Souls

I had a Tariel, Reckoner of Souls that I had wanted to do something with, it was one of the best options thematically, and it had a great ability that could potentially be built around with enough of the right cards. Then it just a matter of compiling a list of cards that fit the theme by conducting more keyword searches on card names. When you hit an impasse thinking there couldn’t be anymore words you could search, take some of the terms and throw them into a couple internet thesaurus search engines. You would be surprised at all the things you didn’t think of.

From there it is just a matter of crafting the best deck that you can with the cards available. Look for synergies, mechanics, and even engines that can gain you advantage or value. The more effort you put into the deck building the less the deck will play like a clunky machine built with sun-dried turds and more like a deck that is playing these specific cards for a reason, not just forced into them. Posting your list online will also yield pretty good results as long as you include a write up stating that this a theme deck based around a certain subject. Be sure to include any interactions you have, explain how the deck plays out, and don’t be afraid to ask for help finding cards to fill holes in your game that you have found. There are a lot of helpful and bright people out there who will probably come up with some good ideas you never would have thought of.

Lastly you can combine any of these, but most likely card art and subject. There may be plenty of cards that fit your theme art-wise but not in card title. It is another avenue for making your deck more on theme and maybe even a little better. A while back I wanted to see if I could build an EDH deck based around a movie. All the movie characters would be represented by similar looking characters on creature cards and the movie’s plot points, character attributes, and dialog would be represented by non-creature cards. I chose one of my favorite movies, “The Big Lebowski”, to build around and while working on it my list spiraled completely out of control and turned into something more than I could handle. What did I do? I posted the card pool online and told people here is a bunch of cards, build your own Big Lebowski deck, make a scene or couple scenes from the movie, do what you want with or nothing. I thought it was funny and humorous and shared it. The reception to just the list has been pretty positive and people have even made some pretty good card recommendations. I most likely will never build the deck but the fun I had working on the unfinished list was worth the work.

Theme decks are a great way to break out away from the normal EDH staples. You would be surprised at how useful all sorts of cards you would have never thought of playing are during game play. These decks are a great way to personalize your game and show creativity. Even when I play a theme deck that doesn’t win, a lot I tend to have more fun than playing the same old thing. There is a special feeling you get by beating people with cards that shouldn’t be good, or using a card you have in your deck that is on theme that ends up being a game changer. When new sets come out it is always an adventure to look through literally all the cards to find new playables for these types of decks. Once you get the hang of it, compiling a card pool becomes pretty easy. Anymore when I get an idea it turns into two or three possible deck options with the same theme. While they may not be for the most cutthroat of play groups, I urge everyone to try there hand at building a theme deck. If you do it right the outcome is fun, competitive, and most likely pretty amusing to everyone you are playing with and yourself.

Judson is CommanderCast’s biggest fan and a driving force behind the website’s improvement, whether he recognizes this or not. If you listen to the show, you can thank GU Doug for some of the positive changes and better directions it’s taken over the lifetime of the podcast. Otherwise, all I know about Judson is he’s a baller who once endorsed using Diamond Kaleidoscope in a roundabout way. He also totally won the Season Two Contest and was a runner-up in the Season Three Contest. If you don’t follow him on Twitter (@GUDoug), you’re missing out on one of the most refreshing voices of the Commander community. To see his Grim Reaper deck, click here; the Zur Old People deck is here; and the Big Lebowski deck is here.

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