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Commander Deck Building Guide: How to Build a great deck

Building your deck can be one of the best and most enjoyable parts of magic the gathering along with actually playing a game with your friends. It may seems intimidating and complicated if you don’t know how to start, but that’s the reason this article is all about, giving basic guidelines to make it easier for those who have little/no experience so that they can enjoy the process. It may even contain some advice for those who have some experience as it covers many aspects and hopefully everyone can find a sector that will give him some insight on how to improve his deck building.


Above all, Commander is meant to be a fun format. So the first and more important rule is that there are no set rules on building a commander deck. Of course the official rules should always be the base to start upon and they can be found here, but even those rules can be modified by playgroups according to their needs and can lead to much better gaming experience. Those modified rules are often called house rules and I’ll talk more about them in a later article since they can affect deck building but are not meant to be part of the basic guide, since the deck building guidelines are meant to work with or without them.


Deck building can be a progress where you can express your ideas, your passion, your creativity, your inspiration, your love, your strategic planning, your good/evil/neutral side, your will to explore, create, destroy, alter reality and dominate the multiverse. If you can combine all of the above into a fun and meaningful deck then you will have a deck you can be proud of. But sometimes narrowing that down to 100 cards from throughout Magic’s history can be a hard challenge when the available options can be tens of thousands unique cards. This article has the purpose of making it all easier by sharing some common knowledge along with some personal opinion/experience of the author.


Be free to break those rules and differentiate as you see fit, as many times special builds/decks require quite different approach and it heavily depends on your preferred playstyle, the chosen commander and the mechanics in use, among other things as well.


Let’s get started!


The first thing to consider is the way you want to build a deck. You can either build around a legendary creature and try to find cards that will complement this creature’s abilities (referred as top-down building) or you can build around a mechanic/theme or combination of both that you find interesting and search for a Commander that will best fit to lead the deck (referred as bottom-up building). For example you may want to build around Elminster because you love that character and the obvious choice would be to build around his abilities which involve scry mechanic, big spells, tokens and flying theme or even combinations of the above. You might want to build around a dinosaur tribe deck or a +1/+1 Counters theme so you have to choose among some of the best options available.


Either way, when you decide about the head of the deck, you can then proceed to the backbone. Some call it check list, guide, reference template etc. but no matter how you name it, it is guidelines that come from statistics from regular plays. They differ a little among deckbuilders, but after studying many of them you can come to a general rate/estimate which I will present and explain further and I will add some personal advice/opinion on top of that. The general categories and ratios are:

  1. Lands 34-40
  2. Ramp 10-13
  3. Card Draw 10
  4. Target removal 6-12
  5. Board wipes 2-5
  6. Graveyard Recursion 2
  7. Graveyard Hate 1-2
  8. Tutors 1-2
  9. Finishers/ Surprise /Alternate win conditions 1-2
  10.  
  11. My personal experience and belief is that there should be at least one more category

10. Protection 1-3

 

Moreover, apart from the optimal ratios and all the math, I would like to discuss some different categories like synergy and flavor.

 

Lands

The first question everyone asks is “-How many Lands should I play?”

There is no right answer, but in most cases players run from 34 to 40 lands with the middle number 37 to be the golden number. Some believe 34 are too low and 40 are too high, but it all depends on the deck.

Specifically it depends upon:

    1. Colors: The more colors one deck has, the more lands it should have. That happens because decks with fewer colors have fewer problems with color fixing, while decks with many colors need more lands so that they can consistently find all their colors and avoid color screw, the lack of having the correct color to play certain spells. Of course cards that search for lands can help color fixing and reduce the need for more lands to a certain point.

    1. Ramp: The more ramp sources you run in a deck, the less lands you need. One general ratio to consider is that you need about 2-3 ramp sources per 1 land you remove from the deck.

    1. Mana curve: The lower the mana curve, the less lands you need. Decks with low mana curve may run less lands compared to decks with higher mana curve. If the deck runs many high mana cost cards, it would be wise to run more lands as there is higher danger to be mana screwed, not having enough mana to play the spells in your hand.

    1. Card draw: Decks with lots of card draw can afford to run fewer lands. Card draw is one of the most important aspects of the game and affects all other categories of deckbuilding with a great gravity. Decks with extreme card draw can lower the lands number even below 30.

Personal opinion: The best practice is always to playtest your deck and decide what feels better for it based in its needs and the way you like to play. I build my decks to compete against each other, so I have built a pattern that I follow on most of them to make them somewhat equal in power lvl. Based on the above, I start on the lower end for monocolored and 2-colored decks at 34 lands, 35 lands for 3-colored, 36 for 4-colored and 37 for 5-colored. To keep them at those low numbers I always try to run a decent amount/quality of ramp and card draw at a normal mana curve. Also, because I like creatures, I also like to run creatures that search your library for a land and put it into your hand because they work like land tutors and help you both on staying on curve and on color fixing. If the mana curve is higher on some decks, I can add 1-2 lands. Of course all rules need to be adjusted according to the deck as exceptions are not so rare.


Ramp


Along with card draw, ramp is considered one of the most important categories and that is because usually the player who has more mana can cast more spells and activate more abilities thus having higher chances to win the game. There are many categories of ramp, the most common of which are:

    1. Mana Rocks: Artifacts that generate mana.

    1. Extra Land Spells: Spells which allow you to put extra lands into play beyond the one-per-turn limit.

    1. Mana Dorks: Utility creatures with unimpressive combat stats that produce mana.

    1. Land Enchantments: Spells that enchant lands and give them abilities that accelerate mana production.

    1. Mana Doublers: Spells that double your mana production.

    1. Riruals: A one shot, mana generating spell that typically takes the form of an instant or sorcery card.

The number of suggested ramp cards is depending on the deck and its strategy, but 10-13 ramp cards are considered a good amount. I find 10 to be enough to most of my decks but it always depend on the number of lands and card draw available. Generally I prefer quality over quantity. It’s worth noting here that cards that search your deck for lands are not considered ramp, but as mentioned above they are considered land tutors. Eventually they all help with mana production consistency.


Card Draw


Whenever you draw a card, you’re getting closer to however you intend to win the game. Moreover if you do the math, drawing many cards gives you card advantage and access to all other aspects of your deck more quickly, so you have greater chance to have access to more lands, ramp, removal, utility, creatures, combo pieces, even more card draw and any other strategy you may run in your deck. So it’s natural that card draw is considered one of the most important aspects of any deck and in my humble opinion the most important of all.


Of course card draw is not always the regular card draw everyone has in mind, where you put a number of cards from your library into your hand, but appears in other forms or abilities the most common of which are:

    1. Impulse draw: Exiling cards from the top of the library to cast them for a limited time period.

    1. Cantrips: Spells that draw a card in addition to their other effects (usually minor)

    1. Wheel effects: Effects that cause each player to discard their hand and draw a completely new one.

    1. Looting: draw one or more cards, and then discard a number equal or less to what you drew.

    1. Card filtering: Drawing several cards, but you can keep only few of them. The remaining cards go into the graveyard or are put onto the top or bottom of the library.

As always playtesting  is the best way to find the balance and the optimal number of card draw that your deck needs, but 10 cards are considered a starting point. I would like to add some personal advice here as quality of card draw has a great range and as I mentioned above, I prefer quality over quantity. It’s not always easy to measure how effective is the card draw is, but most deckbuilders count as card draw only cards that net 2+ cards in hand.


I personally use a simple ranked system that helps me define the number of card draw. I rank cards with minor draw like cantrips and 1-card draw with half a point (1/2) and cards that net you 2+ cards in hand with 1 point. In some cases some cards have combos and/or synergy with others or with the commander or with the strategy so they can count for more than one point. It depends on each case but they can count as 1,5 or even 2 points. For example Discover counts as ½ point, Brainstorm counts as 1 point, while Skullclamp counts as 2 points, as it is one of the best cards in the game in the right deck (one that is full of small creatures and /or produces many 1/1 tokens). Then I try to reach 10 points for a starting point. I’m very strict when it comes to giving more than one point though, as I wouldn’t recommend only 5 cards for card draw, even if they are exceptional, due to the fact that you must keep the chances of having access to them high and avoid to depend on only a few cards because you can be a victim of a removal spell.


Speaking of removals, it’s time to proceed to the next categories:


Target Removal


This is the caterogy of spells that help you remove single threats. Because in Commander there are various types of threats, target removal needs to be more flexible in order to be able to deal with multiple different kinds of permanents and spells. Usually it is split between:

    1. Creature Removal

    1. Artifact Removal

    1. Enchantment Removal

    1. Countermagic

The number of suggested target removal cards are 6-12 with a range of 8-10 to be more popular and more to my personal liking. You never want to have very few removal options but on the other hand on the commander format the target removal is not as important as in 1v1 games because of the multiplayer factor. Of course target removals that cover many categories are considered superior. For example a “destroy target permanent” spell is better that a “destroy target artifact or enchantment” spell and by far better that a “destroy target artifact” spell. Creature removals should be slightly more than artifact and enchantment removals while countermagic is always very strong. On creature-heavy decks you can run less creature removal while on creature-light decks you need more.


Board Wipes


Sometimes target removal is not enough. There are situations where you are in a great disadvantage or in a dire position and you need something massive to stay alive and come back to the game. Board wipes can clear everything away at once and give you another chance to start over. Same as with target removal flexible board wipes are better. Even better are one-sided board wipes that clear only the board of your opponents and leave you in a lead position in the game. On creature-heavy decks you should run fewer board wipes because you don’t want to clear your own board too often (about 2-3 seem enough, unless they are one-sided where you can add more without hurting your own strategy) while on creature-light decks you need more (about 4-5 is a good number).


Graveyard Recursion


Graveyard Recursion is a common and very powerful way to gain card advantage. “What is dead may never die” “But rises again harder and stronger.” That common saying from Game of Thrones reflects the power of graveyard recursion. Bring your best cards back from the grave is a big deal and there are whole decks and strategies build upon it. Whether you build a whole strategy or you simply reclaim your best card with a one-shot spell, the effect on the game can be of great gravity. There are spells that can target simple cards and mass recursion spells that can net you crazy card or even board advantage. In any case every deck is recommended to have at least 2 graveyard recursion cards. Sometimes, cards with instant speed that contain graveyard recursion can even be used as protection by bringing back your whole board from a board wipe turning it into a one-sided board wipe. Other times recursion can be used repeatedly leading to great card and board advantage.


Graveyard Hate


Graveyard strategies can be so powerful that lead us to the point that every deck should run some graveyard hate cards, cards that either shut down graveyards or just specific cards from graveyards (the biggest threats). 1-2 cards of graveyard hate are recommended in any case.


Tutors


Although tutors are in fact card draw with extreme filtering, its superior quality makes them a category on their own. Cards searching your library for any card are the most powerful tutors and can elevate the power level of a deck since it adds consistency and makes any strategy/combo/synergy much efficient. Tutors that search for a specific card of a specific type/subtype can be very powerful too in the right deck. There are playgroups that don’t like to do too much tutoring, as it can lead to similar and repetitive games. Playing 1-2 tutors can give your deck a great boost in consistency without being broken. You can always discuss with your playgroup about power level and tutors as they are usually connected. Best tutors in the game are among the most expensive cards in the game and that’s no incidence. There are great budget options too that can be more balanced than broken if you care more about balance in the playgroup. It all depends on the way you like to play, but either way, tutors are they way to higher power and competitive gaming.


Finishers/ Surprise /Alternate win conditions


Sometimes you reach a point in the game where you need just a finishing move to claim victory, other times you keep a low profile only to set up a big surprise that will devastate your opponents and some rare times you can steal the victory by just doing something out of the ordinary. This is the category of the cards that can help you win the game all by themselves. Having at least 1-2 cards that can be your trump card to victory is considered a good amount but as always you have to consider adding more depending on the strategy of your deck. Since most of them are resource-heavy the suggested number is somewhat low, but if you can add more without hurting your mana curve (and your wallet since low mana ones are pricey) and consistency (for the alternate win conditions) everything more is a bonus.


Protection


When I’m talking about protection, I’m not talking about the ability keyword, but for cards everyone uses to protect a single target (usually the commander or key cards), the board and both. Your commander is always one of the most important cards of the deck and strategy so it is a good idea to try to keep him alive and safe. Some commanders are so crucial to a strategy, that the deck does not operate well without them. I would suggest running at least 3 cards for protection in that case so that they won’t reach an unaffordable mana cost from removal(s). Of course lower mana commanders can afford some removals and still be playable so you can run less protection cards (1-2). In decks with many creatures you may want to run at least 1 board protection card with more (2-3) to be recommended unless you can have other ways to recover your board like mass recursion.


Synergy


Another factor that must be taken into consideration is synergy. Using the considered “best overall” cards doesn’t always mean they are always the optimal for your deck. I personally believe synergy plays the most important part in deckbuilding and many times some theoretically weaker cards can have so great synergy with your deck/strategy that they can be greater options than the general best overall cards (and can be a super budget option too, as they only work with too specific decks/strategies.) Synergy applies to all categories analyzed in this article but also to cards that do not fit in any of the categories above but has a unique utility. Powerful combos are an example of extreme synergy. I will further analyze budget synergetic deckbuilding in future articles.


Flavor


Trying to create the optimal working deck is one thing, but there is also a different kind of quality to consider. Flavor is the concept of evoking a specific feeling, providing a unique and distinguishable quality to the game and is accomplished either from unique synergy from some cards or even from non-functional parts of cards, such as the illustration or flavor text. You can have a concept, create a unique world and tell a story about it. You can express yourself by creating a deck that is fun for you. I find myself to deeply enjoy flavor in deckbuilding and I can tell that sometimes I even find synergy in flavor combinations/concepts that feel so great that you can ignore the fact that they are not the optimal choices. Commander is a format of magic that anything can happen and above all is meant to be fun for everyone.

Playgroup Rules


One last thing to consider when you are building your deck is any special rules your playgroup likes to follow. Games can be great if everyone enjoys them and discussing what your friends like or hate is crucial to get the best playing experience. If you would like some guidance on casual house rules that may provide a better player experience you can read my article about casual playgroup rules.

2 thoughts on “Commander Deck Building Guide: How to Build a great deck”

  1. Nice post. I learn something new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon everyday. Its always interesting to read content from other writers and practice a little something from their sites.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I’m glad to hear you found it useful, I will slowly add more content to the site, including deck strategies and guides. It’s a new site, so your words are most encouraging!

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