Command of Etiquette—How I Build

I’ve met a bunch of people who are apprehensive about learning to play Commander. Usually there are three main concerns keeping people from this format. Some people don’t like the multi–player social dynamics and overpowered card pool, and worry that EDH is a more degenerate Vintage format. Some people think that money is a major issue, as many Commander decks contain high–priced dual lands, artifact ramp, and other cards that are inaccessible to casual interest. And finally, some people worry about the simple mechanics of making a 99–card deck.

I can’t really help with the first two concerns, although I would like to be on record as saying that I think the idea that you need “staple” cards to make an EDH deck is untrue. But I can certainly help with the third. Here are the steps I go through when I put together a new EDH deck, as illustrated by a deck I am currently doodling.

Step One—Come up with an idea

I prefer to build around a theme. I find that decks built around a theme tend to be more fun to play, and tend to have stronger synergies than the “good stuff” mixes some other people prefer. That’s not to say that your theme needs to be overly complicated; “large dudes” is a perfectly acceptable theme, and sometimes starting with a specific commander can help give you a base. Lazav, Dimir Mastermind, helms the deck I am currently putting together, but I came up with a theme first: making a mill strategy work in a multiplayer format. Mill has traditionally been one of the hardest strategies to successfully pull off in EDH; not only are the cards often less powerful than their damage or poison counterparts, but most of the effects are limited to a single targeted opponent. But if there ever was a commander that was dying to make mill work… well, okay, it would probably be Wrexial, the Risen Deep. But I like Lazav for the strategy as well. He’s a four drop commander who has built in protection, and doesn’t need to hit your opponent to gain you incidental card advantage from your game plan.

Step Two—Pull a bunch of cards

So, we have a theme! My next step is to go through my rares boxes to see what cards catch my eye. I tend to start with the rares boxes because they house some of the most powerful effects, and often you’ll see cards there that were never powerful enough to make a splash, but still might make for interesting strategies. With Lazav, I quickly found my options forked between three different ideas.

First, there was a potential Hive Mind/Curse of Echoes strategy to defray the single–target issue that many of the mill spells have. My thought was that, particularly with Hive Mind, if I had out a Witchbane Orb and one of those enchantments, every other player at the table would either have or want to copy the individual mill spells I was casting, and have to target one of my opponents with the spell in question since I have hexproof. So I pulled a bunch of cards that supported that strategy.

My second option relied on there being a lot of artifacts that have repeatable mill effects. These range from M13’s Sands of Delirium to Rise of the Eldrazi’s Keening Stone, both limited all–stars that never quite made the leap to constructed formats. Since these cards tend to be mana hungry artifacts, that lead me to consider supporting cards including mana rocks like Dimir Keyrune and the potentially bonkers power of Unwinding Clock. With the Unwinding Clock and artifact mana, I can potentially activate these artifacts on every player’s turn, mitigating the fact that each only targets a single player per activation.

My final thought was a turbo–fog strategy. For those unfamiliar with the concept, turbo–fog decks make every player draw a large number of cards through artifacts like Temple Bell and Howling Mine, while using disruptive effects like Fog to keep your opponents from killing you. Since neither blue or black has access to Fog, I decided to look into cards like Meekstone and Propaganda to prevent people from wanting to swing at me while they’re on the table.

Now, these are just a few of the cards that I pulled. I pulled a bunch. There are cards like Consuming Aberration that are going to make the deck no matter what strategy I go with, alongside cards like Increasing Ambition and Underworld Connections that don’t specifically go with any of these strategies, but help me make sure I am drawing into my win conditions.

Once you finish going through your rares, make sure to fill it out with commons and uncommons that support your themes. For example, I made sure to dig out a copy of Jace’s Erasure. The card is weak on its own, but when you put it in a turbo–fog strategy it might make the final cut.

Step Three—Edit it back down

Of course, once you have a huge pile of cards, the most important step is editing the deck back down to about 61 non–land cards. Usually I try to run 37 or 38 lands in each one of my decks, but depending on your curve you can stray from that rule of thumb. Still, even with the lowest curve I wouldn’t drop below 30 lands, and the only deck that needs to be running 99 lands is Ashling the Pilgrim (incidentally, I hear the 99 mountain Ashling deck can be a lot of fun to play).

Usually, in the editing step you end up discarding at least one of your sub–strategies. Here, I ditched the Hive Mind idea. It was a little too cute, and it relied on me dropping several specific cards in a specific order, which is usually a red flag. Plus, Hive Mind has some really negative social connotations because of the way it combos with the Pact cards to force each of your opponents to lose the game; it’s a great Legacy play, but not the type of thing you want to be threatening around the command table.

Step Four—Try it out!

This is basically the last step! You have to be ready for your deck to be either more interesting or less powerful than you had anticipated, since sometimes interactions that seem awesome in the pile of cards play out terribly when other people interact with you, and vice versa. But so long as you have a positive attitude and set out to have fun, not only will you get to have a few interesting experiences with your new deck, but you’ll be able to spend some time tuning it to better reflect your style of play.

So that’s my process. It’s fairly simple, and I find it fun. So, to all those people who think Commander is a difficult format to get into, try it out! Work with the pool of cards you have, not the so–called staples that people think you should be including.

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  1. […] other topics, Jess Stirba explained her process for building a Commander deck. Zac Clark found his first official pupil for his new […]



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