This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Unifying Theory

By Justin

When I first started playing Commander, my decks sucked.  They sucked big time.  The worst part was not that the decks weren’t good, but they weren’t even much fun to play (which is the whole point, isn’t it?).  But through much trial and error, I’ve figured out how to get the most out of my deck ideas and themes, and that’s what I’d like to help all of you with.  My goal is to give you all a glimpse into how I approach deckbuilding, which is really about turning concepts and thoughts into finely focused deck lists.

Focus is one of the most important parts of Commander deckbuilding since the card pool is so large that the process can feel understandably daunting, especially when you’re just starting to build a deck.  That feeling can be even worse with Commander since, in addition to the size of the card pool, you’re having to look for 60+ separate options instead of just maxing out on 10-20 best options like you might in other formats.  Hopefully, this look into deckbuilding will help you refine your own decks and deckbuilding process so that you can have fun in Commander doing what your deck is trying to do!

Generally Speaking

So, where do you get started with building a Commander deck?  Often, that hurdle is what discourages players from delving into the format.  When you have virtually every card in Magic to work with, how can you possibly narrow down thousands of choices to just the hundred cards that you want to play with?

From my experience, there are two main places where an idea can start:  a great General or a great main theme.  Either of these starting points can lead to a fun deck that serves you well for years.  Two of my oldest decks represent each of these starting points, with my Verdeloth deck built around the General and my Bant-colored deck singularly focused on a theme (but having changed Generals a few times already).  Whichever route you decide to go, it is absolutely critical to have a theme to your deck, something which ties the deck together and makes the whole thing really click.

A great main theme can mean a lot of things.  It can be as broad as “making tokens” or as narrow as “Octopus Tribal.”  Your theme is going to give you some focus to start your deck and help you look in a direction to take it.  Obviously, your deck will have lots of variety and won’t be completely single-minded in its plan, and the theme that gets you started won’t always be the theme that your final product is built around.

That Octopus Tribal deck isn’t going to get you very far as a main theme when you realize that your deck will have a grand total of two non-Changeling creatures in it, one of which has no abilities.  In fact, I’ve often had ideas for the main theme for a deck that ended up being secondary supporting themes to something else.  The important thing is that the theme idea is going to be the kick that gets you started.

But wait! How will you know if your theme is one that can be the backbone of a full deck, or if it is better suited as a supporting theme?  There are a couple of key things to look for in a theme to make sure it can form the basis of a deck:

1. Focus:  
Your theme needs to achieve something.  For your theme to really be the core of your deck, you want it to be doing something.  It doesn’t even really matter what that something is, whether it’s playing a ton of crazy rules-bending enchantments like Eye of the Storm and Hive Mind or playing a group hug strategy with New Frontiers and Font of Mythos or even just straight-up suiting up some creature with Swords and other equipment and smashing face.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is to maintain a somewhat narrow focus.  The whole point of your theme is to narrow down the list of cards you’re looking at, so it doesn’t really help you if your theme is too broad.  One of my earliest decks was built around attacking as a theme.  This theme was problematic because, although it seemed fairly straightforward, just focusing on “attacking” was too broad a theme.  I would have a myriad of cards that triggered on attacks or did things when I attacked or gave me more guys to attack with, but none of those things really helped the deck do what it wanted to do.  To be honest, I didn’t even know what the deck wanted to do, which probably should have been the first sign of a problem.  Whatever your deck wants to do, at least make sure it has some kind of focused plan.

2. Size:
Your theme needs to be large enough to support the whole deck.  While narrowing down your options is important, you still need enough cards to make a deck.  I once had a deck idea based on attacking with Planeswalkers.  Unfortuantely, there are only about 4 ways to turn Planeswalkers into permanents that you can then turn into creatures.  As awesome as it is to attack with Nicol Bolas and Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, that theme isn’t going to be headlining a deck for a while.

The exact definition of “large enough” isn’t set in stone, but at least 10 cards are necessary to make sure you’re seeing at least a couple cards from your main theme every game.  After all, it’s probably not accurate to say that your deck is focused on a particular theme when it can go an entire night without seeing the theme cards that it’s built around.

3. Synergy:  
Your theme’s cards need to at least work well with each other.  One of the big difficulties with building a “good stuff” deck that is actually good is that the power level of the individual cards is very high but the cards don’t necessarily interact well with each other to form a cohesive deck.  Power cards like Bribery, Tooth and Nail, and Insurrection are all very strong cards, but they aren’t particularly stronger playing with each other than they are independently.

More importantly, without thinking about it, it’s very easy to include powerful cards that actually detract from the power of your other cards.  Necropotence, for instance, is an extremely powerful card drawing engine, and Survival of the Fittest is one of the best search engines in the game.  However, since Necropotence exiles the cards you discard for Survival, it actually makes Survival weaker by stopping itself from running the recursion the deck usually thrives on.

4. Supportability:
Your theme should have some other cards to make the deck better because it was running that theme.  Even otherwise generic Tribal themes are OK because they can run some universal cards that benefit them because all their creatures are the same type.  However, it is this factor, that makes the more widely supported tribes more powerful, like Elves and Goblins, since they have much more focused cards that are generally not that good but are excellent when you have a critical mass of appropriate creatures.

It is important, though, to make sure that you have effective support cards for your theme.  Let’s say that you want to theme your deck around shroud creatures.  Most creature decks can easily be supported by Equipment or pump spells, but none of these boosts work for most shroud creatures since their core ability stops you from helping them in combat.  It’s important that you can support your theme before you center your deck around it.

5. Power:  
Your theme should actually do something to advance you toward winning.  This is admittedly not as important if your goal isn’t to win the game, but most decks will actually want to try to win, so for them this factor is important to keep in mind. For example, let’s suppose you really like Boomerang effects and want to build a bounce deck.  There’s obviously plenty of bounce spells you can play, and they work well together to create a web of permanent control.

The problem, though, is that if your deck has nothing but bounce spells in it, you’ll have almost nothing that lets you win the game (a lot of bounce effects are spells rather than creatures, and the creatures are often not going to attack all that well), and your spells will only keep your opponent behind rather than pushing you ahead.  Reactive themes like this can be very powerful, but they will often slot in better as supporting elements to a deck built around a different theme.

Now, that’s all well and good, but how do you come up with a theme in the first place?  The theme might come from a particular deck style, a particular combination of cards, an old deck you used to play in tournaments, or even a single card that you just have to play with.  The germ of a deck idea can come from anywhere, but let’s start with the most obvious one, given our chosen format: your General.

A Trip to the General Store

One of the best ways to get started on your Commander deck is simply to find a General. The General is probably the most unique aspect of Commander as a format, and it is a rich and interesting avenue for deck construction.  Using your General as your starting point serves a couple of functions.  First, it determines your colors, which immediately narrows down your card pool, whittling away at the huge amount of options you have to weigh.  That alone might be all that you need to get started.  Second, it will often give your deck a direction and theme to follow.  Your choice of General will help you here since your General’s abilities will help dictate what cards will go well in your deck.

One of the simplest ways to get started on a Commander deck is to pick a General that you can build around.  Having a card that you are (usually) guaranteed early and frequent access to during a game is extraordinarily game-changing and allows you to build around your General in ways that other singleton formats don’t.  Moreover, many Generals lend themselves quite well to being built around.

For instance, Wort, Boggart Auntie is a General that’s pretty straightforward, but extraordinarily powerful as the General for a Goblin Tribal deck.  A deck like this is pretty strong and synergistic, and it’s also pretty easy to get started at building it;  you can just start with all the red and black Goblins and go from there.

Experiment Kraj is another example, as it clearly wants to be played in a deck with lots of +1/+1 counters and creatures that benefit from them.  This simple starting point can lead you in all kinds of cool directions, from creatures with +1/+1 counter-centric mechanics like Phantom Centaur, Spike Weaver, and Cytoplast Manipulator to proliferate cards such as Inexorable Tide.  If you’re having a hard time figuring out where to start your Commander deck, Generals like these can be a great way to get into the format.

However, it’s not necessary for your General to be such a single-minded card to build around.  Many Generals have a lot of different ways to build around them, and you can quite easily use any, all, or even none of the obvious build strategies if you want.  This method is very useful if you have a more generic theme and want to find a General that works well with it.  You can also just find this kind of General and use it’s abilities to guide your thoughts into what kind of themes it wants you to play.

A great example of this type of General that I’ve played for a while is Godo, Bandit Warlord.  His abilities clearly lean toward killing opponents with General damage since he gets to attack twice each turn and gets a free Equipment for himself.  You can also play a more controlling deck with a toolbox of Equipment for your other creatures.  The deck can also be a more aggressive build with lots of multiple-attack-step cards like Savage Beating or Aggravated Assault.  Godo’s ability affects Samurai in addition to just himself, so you can even start a Samurai Tribal deck around him.

Now, these themes are obviously not all created equal (go ahead and do a Gatherer search for Red Samurai.  I’ll wait.), but the great thing about Commander is that you can feel totally free to try all the avenues and not worry too much about how good the themes are.  I tried to fit all three into my Godo deck, and, although the Samurai tribal theme has fallen by the wayside, it did lead me to find several hidden gem Samurai (Ronin Cliffrider is probably my favorite) that I would otherwise never have thought to play.

Of course, your General doesn’t have to be the centerpiece of your deck.  A lot of decks, particularly the typical “good stuff” decks, only use their General to determine their colors.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and depending on your color combination, there may not be a General that allows you to play the colors you want and also does something interesting for the deck you want to play.  This is especially true (for the moment at least) of the “enemy wedge” combinations that pretty much have to play the Planar Chaos dragons like Intet and Vorosh, but enemy color decks in general have fewer options to choose from.

However, be careful when building a “good stuff” deck that you still have some kind of theme or focus.  Even if you’re just using your General for its colors, make sure your deck has some semblance of a game-plan to take advantage of the unique gameplay elements that this variant format affords.

Wrapping It Up

I’ve been rambling quite a while here, and we haven’t even touched on how to build your manabase or how to whittle down your theme or themes into a 99-card masterpiece. While I do have a lot more to say on those and other topics, I’m going to have to save that for another time.  For now, I just want to leave you with this thought: however you’re building your Commander deck, make sure you have a game-plan and cards that play well together for that plan, because, if you don’t, your deck will be unfocused.  If that’s the case, you won’t have as much fun, and that’s really what we’re all in this for, isn’t it?

I hope you found this advice useful.  Stay tuned for part 2, where we’ll talk more about trimming your theme down to those final 99.