Commander Deck Building Inspiration

A Magictation by Mikeal Basile

“Magictating” is defined as getting into the zone with your Magic the Gathering collection–thinking, planning, organizing, reminiscing about past games, and imagining future games. It is a combination of hard thinking about the game and calm meditation, reveling in the joy it brings you.

Greetings, fellow Magictators! I love thinking about Magic the Gathering’s Commander format, and if you are reading this, then so do you. I am going to outline my method for brewing a Commander deck. I’ve been playing this game at the kitchen table for over two decades. It helps to be aware of your process while building decks. My deck building process has been something I’ve always enjoyed, and I’d like to share my ideas and approaches with you. Commander decks can be lumped into three major areas of inspiration: commander, theme, and archetype. They certainly overlap as you continue through the initial building and refining stages of deck building, but I feel that if you are aware of your initial inspiration, then your deck building process will go much more smoothly in the long run.

INSPIRED BY NOSTALGIA: “Does this card work well with my commander?”

Commander-inspired decks focus on the commanders. Before Wizards started printing cards with the Commander format in mind, the commanders for my decks were usually legends from the Legends expansion with which I had a nostalgic connection and wanted to try building a deck around. My Adun Oakenshield, Angus Mackenzie, and Nicol Bolas decks were all designed to have my commander in play. These decks are constructed to maximize the commander’s abilities, and usually lean toward a “commander-centric” design. “Commander-centric” decks function the best when the commander is in play. Things don’t go super smoothly without the commander. Another more recent example of a commander-centric commander would be Gavi, Nest Warden. Magictator’s Tip–protect your commander with Lightning Greaves, Swiftfoot Boots, Spectral Shroud, Cloak and Dagger, Darksteel Shield…you get the idea. Now that your leader is safe, you can proceed to win target game!

SPURRED BY THEME: “How does this card advance my theme while helping me win?”

Themes can be equally inspiring. I usually start by asking myself which theme I want to build around. Can I build a Tribal Drakes deck? How about a Landwalk deck? Flying? Deathtouch? Islandhome? These decks tend to develop around the mechanical theme, and the commander comes later on or jumps out during the initial build process. For example, I stumbled across Radiant, Archangel while building a white fliers deck and suddenly had my new commander. These decks can be very creative, and that’s because you are forcing yourself to move within these self-imposed restrictions. Commanders for these decks can easily be swapped for others in the same color identity. These decks are about as far from commander-centric as you can get. So, when we begin designing decks based on themes, we tend to stumble upon a commander later on.

MOTIVATED BY ARCHETYPE: “How will I win games? Aggressive creature development? Controlling Spells and Card Advantage? Janky Combos?”

Archetypal inspiration is centered on traditional tournament archetypes such as Aggro, Control, and Combo. Commander decks often follow these same lines, but in a more grandiose fashion. Usually I am inspired this way by a resounding defeat. When my buddy Andrew destroyed me with a grindy, controlling, value driven deck, I was thoroughly inspired to build one like it. I hate losing, but certainly sparked some inspiration for me to build a quality archetypal Control deck like it. Archetypal decks require you to focus on what they need: creatures, control spells, or combo pieces. The commanders for these decks tend to come in at the end. Sometimes they fit nicely into the overall plan as a complement (Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma in aggro decks), and other times they actually enable the combo (Maga, Traitor to Mortals), or allow the deck to close games it has successfully controlled (Azor, the Lawbringer). 

BINDER SEARCHING: “What rares and mythics do I have to start this deck with?”

After becoming inspired, it’s time to get cards pulled for building the deck. Picking out all the rares and mythics in the colors, themes, and/or archetype of your deck allows things to form as quickly and efficiently as possible. I separate these into two piles: a definite pile and a maybe pile. At this stage I may have way more than I need, but I wait to make cuts until later. Having a larger selection allows you to stumble across interesting synergies.

THE STAPLES: “What cards do I need to include so I can actually play Magic?”

Staples aren’t as exciting as the rares, but you need them. If you fill your deck with fun and powerful spells that don’t hit on the things staples provide, then you don’t actually get to play much Magic. The staples are what allow you to hit the 10’s jackpot: 10 ramp spells, 10 draw spells, and 10 answer spells. This balance of effects can be found on flashy spells, but are usually more along the lines of Sol Ring, Swords to Plowshares, Kodama’s Reach, Demonic Tutor, Counterspell, and Faithless Looting. Depending on the deck, I’ll include around 20-30 creatures on average, but it really depends on the deck. For example, an archetypal Control deck may run as few as 10 creatures. You’ll notice these numbers don’t add up to 64. The numbers to include for the rest of the 34 cards depend on the type of deck you’re building. Aggro? Pack in the creatures! Control? Wraths please! Combo? Tutors!

SPICE IS NICE: “What cards will no one expect and still help me to win?”

I started playing in 1995, and I’ve been spicing up my decks since my first trip to my local game store. Odd-ball cards that people won’t expect in your deck are the cards you need to hunt down. These are cards like Outmaneuver, Meddle, Strands of Night, Reverent Silence, and Miraculous Recovery. I love that moment after I play an underappreciated card and everyone at the table asks, “Wait, what does that do?” Spice up your deck, and I promise you will find your Commander games are even more fun.

MANA MATH: “Which 35 lands should I include?”

I often run 35 lands, but if my mana curve is mostly in the 5 cmc range or higher, then I up the land count. I generally don’t play fewer than 35, as I hate to mulligan. The fewer colors your deck has, the simpler this process is. I start with trying to meet the color requirements for my deck, and I use a simple method. Count up the number of each colored mana symbol and look to provide double that number of sources for each color in the deck. If this doesn’t work, then I just look for the ratio between colors and divide the sources that way. Give priority to colors that you need early on in your mana curve. The more colors you have, the more you will need to invest in rare lands. Buy them! I am always buying and trading for these, as there is no better investment (from a playing perspective) in Magic than rare lands. 

WORK IN PROGRESS: “What happens when the deck isn’t perfect?”

As you know, it takes time and money to build a great deck. It is better to have a deck that is playable now than to have a deck that is perfect. Have something in your deck as a place-holder and keep thinking about potential replacements. I enjoy the feeling of swapping out subpar place-holder cards for superior ones. This work-in-progress mentality allows me to continually adjust and refine my deck. Borrowing ideas from online deck lists can help you get started with ideas and create shopping lists, or it can help you round out and finish your own creative style. Continual thought and tweaking is key to a solid deck, and playing through its inadequacies can be incredibly enlightening. 

ADVICE: “Make your Commander deck today!”

You can always go online and copy a premade deck list, but for me Magic is more about time spent “Magictating,” using my brain and creative energy to make something new. Identifying your inspiration, combing through your binders, utilizing staples, and spicing your own deck is extremely satisfying. Inspiration is personal, and it is the key to fun and creative deck building.

If you enjoyed this article then I would love to have subscribe to the blog. The community of magictators is growing, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. Thank you for your time, and I hope the cards are ever in your favor!

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