Sooner or later, as you go about playing in paper and acquiring a paper collection, you’ll heard about getting into Commander. Commander, or EDH, is one of the most popular ways to play Magic – you’ve almost certainly heard of it. It’s a multiplayer format and tends to focus on the more casual side of the game, although there certainly are people who take their decks’ power levels very seriously and put together ridiculously strong lists.
Should you get into Commander? It’s a great way to enjoy Magic, and an excellent way to make use of cards that would otherwise languish in your trade binder. However, Commander isn’t for everyone. Today, we’re going to get across what Commander is, what it isn’t, and how to get into it if you decide it might be for you.
Commander is a 100-card singleton format usually played in multiplayer. This means that you build a deck of 100 cards – 99 cards plus your “commander” – and outside of basic lands and cards like Relentless Rats, you can’t have more than one copy of the same card. Games are typically played with four players, although it’s possible to play with fewer (and, technically, more, although games with five or more people become unwieldy and awkward).
Your commander must be a legendary creature and determines which colors you can include in your deck based on the mana symbols printed on the card. For example, if you choose Shadrix Silverquill, you can only play black, white, or colorless cards in your deck. Note that if you choose a card like Codie, Vociferous Codex, you can play all five colors, as all five appear on the card (being in the text box counts, as long as it’s not reminder text). You start with 40 life, rather than 20, and if you take 21 damage from a single commander, you lose the game.
Commander games are very different to regular games of Magic. They’re slower and longer, people tend to chat and play with a very relaxed approach, and it’s rare to find people being hugely competitive. Takesies-backsies are often allowed, missed triggers are usually forgiven and on the whole it’s a much more casual affair.
It’s certainly not for everyone. While competitive Commander exists, generally speaking Commander is not a way to scratch a competitive itch. It’s a way to play with your favorite cards, to express yourself through deckbuilding or to play Magic without cutthroat competition. It’s not a way to amass prizes or test your skill against other spikey players; it’s not always a place for ruthlessly optimized lists. Again – it’s not for everyone.
Before doing anything else to get into Commander, there’s one thing you should do. Don’t make any purchases or begin building any decks before doing this, as you’ll save yourself a lot of time and money by just performing a simple test before actually diving into the format.
Find people who are into Commander – most LGSs will have an established Commander crowd – and ask if you can join them for a game or two. Almost every single enfranchised Commander player will have multiple decks (I have four, and that’s on the low end of most players) and they’re usually more than happy to lend you a deck so you can play.
After they’ve talked you through the deck, its general strategy and its key cards or combos, sit down and play a game to see how you like it. You’ll notice games are a lot slower, a lot sillier and a lot longer than regular games. Commander usually involves suboptimal cards, lines and strategies – it’s a format where fun is prioritized above winning. By most, at least.
Play a couple of games. How did it treat you? Did you enjoy the huge, silly plays, the politicking with other players, the swingy gameplay, the constant sweepers, the “do you pay for Tithe?” If you didn’t, perhaps Commander is not for you. It might be worth trying again with a different playgroup – playgroups do differ in approach and style – but broadly speaking, you should get a sense of whether Commander is for you after playing for a bit.
If you decide you’d like to give Commander a go, great! There are a couple of ways you can get started. Every year, Wizards releases plenty of prebuilt Commander decks, referred to as “precons.” These are a decent place to start – the decks themselves usually kinda suck, but they’ll have a bunch of staples in them like Sol Ring and Command Tower, which are played in virtually every deck. They also usually have some sweet cards geared specifically for Commander, with mechanics like goad and melee.
These precons are usually themed around something – a Jeskai deck might be themed around copying spells, for instance, or a Selesnya deck might be themed around +1/+1 counters. If you already have an affinity for a playstyle like this, a precon that allows you to lean into that is a great starting point.
If you don’t want to use a precon or can’t find one that interests you, starting from scratch is perfectly fine, as well. Find a commander that speaks to you – one that can be used to build around a mechanic you like – and start putting cards together to support it. I strongly suggest, at a minimum, collecting Commander staples – Sol Ring, Command Tower, Arcane Signet and Ravnica Signets of your colors go in more or less every deck, while green decks should almost always play Cultivate, white decks should almost always play Swords to Plowshares, etc.
Finally, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the theme of your first Commander deck being “Cards I Own In These Colors.” Empty your binder of the cards you like or want to play with, whack ’em together and call it a day. Recognize that your deck won’t be hugely powerful, but also recognize that you’ll be able to work on it over time and improve its power level, synergy and playability as time goes on.
One of the things about Commander that continues to provide fun and interest even away from the table is developing your decks. Regardless of how you started – with a precon, or a legendary creature you like, or even just the classic “Cards I Own” deck – once you’ve built your initial deck, you can now improve upon it.
When trading, keep an eye out for succulent additions to your list that people are trying to get rid of. Dig through the dollar rare bins at your LGS. Give a home to the weird cards the store hasn’t been able to shift for years. Commander breathes life into cards that would otherwise be utterly unplayable in regular Constructed!
If you’ve picked a commander or a theme that you like, head over to EDHREC to see what they have to say on the topic. They have a comprehensive database of commanders, themes, color combinations, tribes and so much more – you’re bound to find some hidden gems there that you didn’t even know existed. Trawl through there and built a little wish list of cards for yourself, then pick them up at your own pace.
Also, note that Commander can be very expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. A lot of top-end Commander decks, with their Doubling Seasons, Smothering Tithes or Rhystic Studies, can cost hundreds – but there are so many ways to build budget decks in Commander, and so many resources online that will tell you how to do it. There’s no shame in playing budget decks, either – if people make fun of you for it, rest assured that they are the ones who look like idiots, not you.
I’m not going to offer high-level strategy or advice on how to win games of Commander at the expense of everything else, because a) that’s not really the point of the format and b) I don’t really know myself. I can give you some advice, however, as to how to best navigate some of the differences between two-player and multiplayer games, because they can be very different animals.
1. Commander is political
Like it or not, Commander is a political games. You need to wheel and deal, make agreements and alliances and then be ready to break them (or have them be broken on you). Some people don’t like the politicking, but it’s essentially unavoidable in this format – alliances and betrayals are a big part of the texture of Commander. It’s important, however, not to bring baggage between games. If someone backstabbed you in the last game, sure, you can try to repay the favor in the next one, but don’t hold a petty grudge and ruin their fun.
2. Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak
Noted EDH fan Sun Tzu wrote this, thousands of years ago, and it’s still true today. Nothing will make you lose a game of Commander faster than revealing how far ahead you are – the rest of the players at the table will turn on you and, by their powers combined, undo everything you’ve worked for. Conversely, when you’re on the ropes, do everything you can to appear like you’ve got it under control and hope that they’ll leave you alone for fear of reprisals.
3. Be prepared for long, long games
A typical Commander game usually lasts between one and two hours. Sometimes, however, games just go on forever and ever. Some Commander players see this as a feature, not a bug, but most can’t stand it. I’m always sure to include an “oops, I win” button that I can try to deploy once the game has gone on for too long. Some people take a dim view of infinite combos, but sometimes it’s the only way out (and I only ever use them to end interminable games).
4. It’s only your turn 25 percent of the time
You’re used to it being your turn half of the time, but in Commander that drops to a quarter. Stay engaged in the game, however – don’t go off on your phone or start chatting with people to the point you’re not paying attention. Often there’ll be a fair bit of table talk, so stick to that, and don’t be afraid to hurry up the slow players who can’t remained focused.
5. Is only game, why you have to be mad
Even more so that regular Constructed, remember that Commander is about fun more than it is about winning. Don’t get cranky if your opponents crush you, you don’t get to do your deck’s thing or if you just have one of those games that kinda sucks. Don’t get bogged down by negativity – shake it off, let it go and start afresh in the next game. The good news is this: you can always play more Magic.
Commander can be great fun, but let me finish up by reminding you that it’s not for everyone. It’s a terrific way to put a paper collection to good use, and to play with pet cards that would otherwise gather dust in a drawer somewhere, and I wholeheartedly recommend you take my above advice and ask your local playgroup if you can play a game or two with them to see how you like it.
If you do, great! Commander will open up whole new horizons of fun for you, and allow you to play with cards you never thought you would. If not, however, don’t worry about it. Magic can be played in so many ways, so there’s no need to force yourself into a format that doesn’t do it for you. You’re not alone – while Commander is extremely popular, plenty of people don’t find it to their liking, and that’s fine.
That is about it for this series on making the transition from MTGA to paper Magic! I do hope you’ve gotten something out of it, and some of those burning questions you had about making the leap from digital to IRL Magic have been answered. As someone who has played for a little while, it’s been a pleasure to revisit some of these fundamentals and, in some cases, laugh at how truly ridiculous some of the culture and customs within Magic are.
In any case, I hope these articles have been of some use to you, and that you feel more prepared to dive into paper Magic and begin your journey as part of your local Magic community. If you still have questions or concerns, almost any Magic player in good standing will probably stand ready to help you – don’t be afraid to ask around at your LGS. If you feel I’ve missed something critical in these guides, however, be sure to let me know so I can amend them!
Thanks so much for reading through this series, and best of luck as you start slinging actual, factual cardboard.