If you want to start playing Commander, building your first deck can be one of the most daunting parts. Commander decks can include cards from throughout Magic’s 27 year history, and narrowing that down to 100 cards is tough. In this article, I’m going to aim to make that process a little bit easier for you.
Building a Commander Deck – Rule #1
Rule #1 about building a Commander deck is that there are no set rules about building a Commander deck. I am very passionate about deck-building and self expression. If you want your deck to be exclusively built from cards released in the Kamigawa block, please do that. If you think it would be awesome to build a deck inspired by the time you went to the San Diego Zoo when you were six, you’re right.
That being said, I am also passionate about Commander being fun to play. While I’m not saying that the previously mentioned deck ideas wouldn’t be fun decks to try out against your friends, building a Commander deck that is inspiring and meaningful to the player AND creates fun play patterns in a four-player game is typically the way most people prefer to play.
So, even though I don’t believe that there is a blanket rule to building Commander decks, I want this article to offer some general guidelines that a new player might be able to follow when building a deck. Please, feel free to break these rules. The most important thing is that the deck and its play patterns are fun for you.
Take a Step Back
It would be good for all players everywhere to take a step back and look at their decks with a critical eye. Maybe your deck just isn’t quite as strong as you think it is. Or maybe there’s a specific card that you need to take out. Maybe your deck is way too strong and your friends don’t like playing against it.
Either way, being honest with yourself about your deck’s current state as well as what you might need to do to it to improve it is an important and constantly changing part of deck building.
Now with that out of the way, let’s move on to actually building your first Commander deck.
Choosing Your First Commander Deck
The first thing you have to do when building a Commander deck is choose a deck to build. I think that there are two main ways to choose which deck you want to make.
- Pick a legendary creature that you love or are inspired by and choose 99 cards that you think will complement this creature’s abilities.
- Pick 99 cards (or a few cool ones that you like or think are powerful), and find a commander that fits the theme, power level, or colors of these cards.
I’ll refer to these to types of deck building as “top-down” and “bottom-up” deck design respectively.
Top-down design is exciting because many commanders lend themselves to multiple different kinds of decks. Anje Falkenrath, for example, cares about discarding Madness cards.
This could lend her to being a Madness Commander. This strategy by itself could be built many different ways depending on how much you want to commit to the Madness theme.
It is also possible for her to be a Vampire tribal deck. Red and black have many vampires so combining them all would probably make a fun deck. Maybe the deck has both Madness and Vampire cards. Either way, building the deck around the commander is how you make a top-down deck.
Bottom-up decks lets you choose some of your favorite mechanics, themes, or individual cards from Magic’s history and then find a cool commander to tie them all together.
For example, let’s say you really love the Madness mechanic. Anje Falkenrath is one obvious option for a commander, but you want to play with cards that are more than just red and black. Here are just a few great options:
- Chromium, the Mutable lets you discard cards at instant speed.
- Brallin, Skyshark Rider and Shabraz, the Skyshark are a good pair for Madness cards, as long as you provide other discard outlets.
- Rielle, the Everwise gives you additional pay-offs for discarding.
- Nicol Bolas, the Ravager could make everyone discard, but you get the most value out of it.
- Lord Windgrace gives you access to green, which could help you get more cards back after you discard them.
- Glint-Eye Nephilim, if your playgroup allows it, lets you use the most colors.
Basically, in a bottom-up deck, the commander is more there to serve the overall theme than vise versa.
So, first you choose what kind of deck you want to build: Top-down? Or bottom-up? Once you make that decision, you need to figure out what cards are going to fill the 99.
Lands, Ramp, Removal, and Card Advantage
Now we get to some more logistical parts of this article. One of the things that makes Commander a unique deck-building challenge is that you need to figure out how to balance the things that are fun with the things that are necessary. My golden rule about it is to try to find cards that meet both requirements.
First, let’s start by talking about lands. In 60-card formats like Standard and Modern, decks can run anywhere from 19-25 lands. In 40-card draft decks, most people run about 16-18 lands.
Not only do these formats have decks of different sizes than Commander decks, but the gameplay is often quite a bit different as well. Formats that have smaller decks often have no need for more than 4-7 lands on the battlefield at the same time. In Commander, on the other hand, players love to cast spells that cost 7 or more mana on a regular basis.
How Many Lands to Play in a Commander Deck?
Like I said before, there’s no set rule. But if someone held a gun to my head and asked me to tell them how many lands they should run in a Commander deck, I would say the life-saving number was 37.
Some people run closer to 40 lands, some more like 34. Some cEDH decks even run 30 or fewer lands in their decks. Ultimately, it depends.
Typically, the more colors you have in your deck, the more lands you should have. Mono-colored decks get away with having fewer lands because they don’t need to worry as much about color fixing. Decks with more colors need to have cards that can help them find all of their colors, and searching for lands out of the deck is a great way to do that.
Other Factors to Consider
If you are running a lot of mana rocks you might not need as many lands. I’m not going to say that a mana rock is as good as a land, but a turn 1 Sol Ring into a turn 2 4-drop is undeniably powerful.
And in that situation, if your deck curves out at 5 mana, you don’t want to continue to draw lands after you have enough to cast your whole hand; you would rather draw threats.
Speaking of curves, decks with a low mana curve and lots of card draw can afford to run fewer lands. If you can find a way to draw a lot of cards in a turn cycle, you are bound to find a land among them eventually. Plus, if you draw lots of impactful 1-2 drops, you only need a few lands to really take advantage of them on your turn.
On the other hand, if you run a lot of ramp spells and high-costed threats, you will probably want more lands. Nothing is worse than getting stuck on 4 lands with 5-drops being the cheapest cards in your hand. This might happen on occasion to the best of decks, but you can mitigate its frequency by adding a land or two to the deck.
In general, 36-38 is a safe average that I would recommend in a vacuum without knowing anything else about your deck. However, if your deck needs more or less lands in it, please feel free to break this rule.
I talked a little bit about ramp in the last section, because it can be integrally tied to lands. However, it is important to remember that lands are not the only ways to ramp into higher costed spells.
Why is Ramping Important?
Let’s look at a basic game of Commander that lasts ten turns. If every player plays no more or less than one land per turn every turn, they will have had access to 55 cumulative mana throughout the game (one mana turn one, plus two more turn two, plus three more turn three et cetera until turn 10). The player who then utilizes their 55 mana the best, will likely then win the game.
Now let’s change the example. Lets say that one player casts a Sol Ring turn 1. If that player doesn’t ramp anymore for the rest of the game and plays a land each turn, they will have access to 88 mana throughout the 10-turn game. That’s almost twice as much mana as any other player at the rest of the table. If they utilize their mana effectively, they can almost assuredly win.
So this is why ramping matters so much in Commander. The more mana you have, the more spells you can cast and activate more abilities.
Different Kinds of Ramp
These are just the tip of the iceberg, though. Rituals, while often thought to be underwhelming in Commander, can actually be quite powerful in the right deck. Mana-doublers like Caged Sun, Mana Reflection, and High Tide are backbreaking against your opponent. Black can increase black mana with Cabal Coffers, Crypt Ghast and Liliana of the Dark Realms.
Find the ramp spells that work best for gaining your deck an advantage.
How Many Ramp Spells in a Commander Deck?
Again, the answer depends on your deck. Some players recommend building your deck so that 50 cards can produce mana. If we subtract the average 37 lands from that number, we get 13 non-land mana-sources. Personally, I think that 10 is plenty, but your deck might need more or less, depending on how you build it.
This category is a little bit more complicated, because of how many different purposes removal serves. Commander games tend to see lots of big threats of all different kinds, so packing spot removal that can deal with multiple different kinds of permanents and spells is important. The last thing you want is to be stuck losing to an enchantment deck with only creature removal in your hand.
Some examples of versatile spot removal spells are:
In addition to spot removal, it is important for Commander decks to have a few board wipes to clear everything away at once. Board states often spiral out of control pretty quickly. Resetting the board back to zero and building back up is often times the best way to swing momentum back into your favor.
I’m going to use this as my first opportunity to plug a personal belief of mine. Not only does your removal have to be flexible, but it is so much more powerful if it also synergizes with the rest of your deck.
Swords to Plowshares is probably the most efficient removal spell in the entire game, but I would pick Oblivion Ring instead to go in an enchantress deck. Similarly, Oblivion Stone takes care of everything on the board, but wouldn’t you rather have Nevinyrral’s Disk in your Superfriends deck?
Often times if you choose removal (and for that matter, ramp and card draw) that synergizes with the strategy you are trying to play, you will find that your deck is overall stronger than the sum of its parts.
So how many removal spells should you run? 6-8 spot removal spells and 3-5 board wipes is a good place to start. Adjust these numbers to match your specific build though.
This is one of my favorite topics to talk about in all of Magic. Another firm belief of mine is that the player who uses the most cards from their deck usually wins the game. Often, this looks like simply drawing more cards than your opponents do. Other times, however, card advantage looks a little different:
- looting, rummaging, impulse draw
- self mill
- copying spells or creatures
- dealing with multiple threats with a single card
- synergy (like I talked about relative to removal)
Each of these forms of card advantage increases what you are able to do for your mana relative to what your opponents are able to do with theirs.
So don’t despair if the deck you have been dying to build is not in the right colors to play Rhystic Study. There are other great ways to accrue card advantage without actually “drawing” cards.
Card Advantage and Ramp Need Each Other
Despite what I said at the beginning of this section, drawing cards in isolation is not even enough to win the game. Absent of cards like Laboratory Maniac and Thassa’s Oracle, drawing cards alone actually knocks you out. Earlier, we talked about ramp. Ramp is important, but if you only have ramp cards in your deck, it doesn’t get you any closer to winning.
This is why card advantage and ramp need to be closely tied. The one gives you the resources to use your spells and the other gives you the spells you need to use. This is why the person who draws the most cards usually wins. You are more likely to find powerful win conditions if you are able to look through more of your cards. Then, if you have more mana available, you are more likely to be able to play those powerful win conditions.
To read more about what I have to say on card advantage, read my article about white in Commander.
But How Many Card Advantage Cards Should You Run?
Since card advantage is pretty important, I think you should commit a good number of cards to it. Ten is probably a good place to start.
If you find that your deck gets stuck without enough things to do or draws into more draw spells, adjust this number accordingly. You can find the balance between too many and too little by playtesting.
Finally – Jazz Up Your First Commander Deck
I love playing Commander, but I’m also a big fan of Jazz music. I played it a lot when I was in High School and College. One defining characteristic of Jazz is that in the middle of just about every song is a section where the musicians can make up a solo. These solos are both what make Jazz so amazing and so tough to master.
So how, then, do Jazz musicians make up such awesome solos? A very wise professor of mine gave me this advice: Jazz is about making up rules for yourself. If you decide that you can only play these specific notes, or use those specific rhythms to make up your solo, then you can actually make something really beautiful without being overwhelmed with options.
It seems counterintuitive, but restricting what you can play by establishing rules (to follow or break) actually makes it so the players have an increased opportunity for creativity.
So How Does This Apply to Commander?
A very wise Magic designer once explained this concept in this way: Restrictions breed creativity. Any time we give ourselves specific rules to follow when building our decks we open up the possibility of actually building something amazing. Without such restrictions, we risk building a deck with no cohesive theme tying it together, or no unique characteristics that set it apart.
So how do you breed creativity in Commander?
Rules to Build Your Commander Deck By
Restrictions look different for every single deck. Some restrictions might just be for fun, such as, “Every card in my deck has a hat in it.” Other restrictions could be a bit more practical: “Every card in my deck synergizes with my commander, Kess, Dissident Mage.” Choose restrictions that make your card inclusions and cuts easier.
If you choose rules that aren’t specific enough, add another one. For example, we could clarify the restriction in the previous paragraph to say: “Every card in my deck is an instant or sorcery that I can play from the graveyard with Kess, Dissident Mage.” That way, if you are trying to decide if you should cut a certain card or include another one, you can ask if the cards are in line with the rules you made. If they are, put them in, if they are not, take them out.
You could choose any number of ways to restrict your deck-building choices:
- Mana Cost
- Card Type
- Keyword Mechanic
- Creature Type
- Inspired by a movie or video game
- Exclude certain kinds of cards
- Art style
- Card Frames
- Specific strategies
- Copy a Standard/Modern/Lecagy/etc deck
- and so many more!
There are as many deck-building restrictions out there as you can think of. See if you can come up with some that are fun for you to build around and help you make a full deck, then just go for it!
To bring it all together, these are the basic guidelines for how to build a Commander deck:
- 1 awesome Commander
- 36-38 lands
- 10-13 ramp cards
- 6-8 spot removal cards
- 3-5 board wipes
- 10 card advantage cards
- 0-3 unique restrictions
If I haven’t made it clear yet, these guidelines don’t have to be followed exactly. Play around with the cards that you like or think would be good and adjust these recommendations accordingly. This is the best part of building a Commander deck.
The Most Important Part
If your first Commander deck isn’t fun for you to build and play, you might have built it wrong. This is a great game that should make everyone playing it happy.
Go find yourself an awesome Commander or your favorite cards and build a great deck out of them. If you still need help coming up with ideas, EDHREC is a great resource for building decks.