One thing I adore about Commander is the sheer number of options available to a deckbuilder. For some strategies, there are a bounty of options, and these usually play in the spaces where colors normally tread. For example, if you wanted to build a Zombie deck, there are several dedicated Zombie Commanders (Gisa and Geralf, Varina, Lich Queen, Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver) and several sideways options – that is, legendary creatures that play nicely with Zombies even if they aren’t explicitly a Zombie Commander (Grimgrin, Corpse-Born, Sidisi, Brood Tyrant). When coloring within the lines of the color pie – the foundational philosophy of color identity – the sky’s the limit.
But this is Commander we’re talking about here, a format that draws on the entire history of Magic including times when the color pie was either different, or far more mutable than it is today. This, friends, is where we find the weird stuff. There are some Commander players, myself included, who enjoy building decks that either skirt the limits of color pie or take a chainsaw to the very same limits and go their own way. This article, I hope, will serve as an introduction to this vein of deckbuilding. If you’re Mark Rosewater, you might want to stop reading.
The first step in any deckbuilding experiment is to figure out exactly what you want to do. If you’re trying to go against the grain, it’s beneficial to understand what the colors are good at and areas where they struggle. For example, red notoriously does not play well with Enchantments while blue, despite being great at a lot of things, is not so great at ramp. Maybe you want to build an Aristocrats deck in every color combination possible and it’s time to figure out white. Ideas are an important first step because they’re going to influence everything that comes after. If you do not have a clear idea of what you want to be doing when building a deck that runs afoul of the color pie, it will be challenging to effectively and efficiently find cards that fit your mold.
From the above list let’s take an example. Today let’s theorycraft a Mono-Red Enchantress style deck. This will serve as our focal point.
Once you have an idea of what you want to be doing it pays to look at sets where that theme is prevalent or times where it plays into a set’s draft environment. Different worlds have different needs and as a result there are cards – occasionally legends – that play into a color or color pair’s draft identity in a way that is tangential to what the color combination normally does. So if you wanted to focus on enchantments, it means looking potentially to Urza’s Saga Block, Theros Block or Theros Beyond Death. Artifacts gives you both Mirrodins, Kaladesh and several draft archetypes from the history of Magic. If you care about the graveyard, well, might I recommend one of the Innistrad blocks for inspiration?
If we are looking at a Mono-Red Enchantress based deck, well, the pickings are slim when it comes to a Commander. None of the enchantment blocks have a dedicated mono-red commander. However, that doesn’t mean our experiment has to fail. Instead we can look at Auras and return to Dominaria, where Auras and Equipment was part of the white-red draft strategy. And there we can find Valduk, Keeper of the Flame.
Building off type also means exploring sets where the color pie is a less firm beast. Sets like both Modern Horizons and the entire Time Spiral block give colors access to abilities that are normally harder to come across. While Modern Horizons plays within the bounds of the color pie, Time Spiral Block, specifically Planar Chaos, takes an alternative view of color philosophy. These sets are often goldmines for weird takes on different effects.
For our theorized Valduk deck these sets have a few key options. Dust Corona is a cheap Aura that grants a weird form of evasion while Emblem of the Warmind could potentially work nicely if we go with a token subtheme. And while it is not technically from Modern Horizons 2, Goblin Bombardment does give us a way to use all those tokens we have laying around.
The last real key to trying to build the core of one of these decks is to look at artifacts. While they may not play specifically to a theme, artifacts can help shore up a deck’s weaknesses. For Valduk, this means looking at cards like Cloud Key, Crystal Chimes, Helm of the Gods and Skull of Orm.
Now it might be obvious, but this method is not always going to get you enough cards to round out a deck. That is when looking at subthemes can be added. For Valduk, we already want to be creating a ton of tokens and having them enter the battlefield for cards like Pandemonium and Warstorm Surge, and then die while potentially turning on Stalking Vengeance. As a result we probably want to look at red cards that generate tokens – Elemental Mastery fits perfectly into this concept. In turn, the deck may also look to other ways to generate value off of the tokens, whether that be Raid Bombardment, Cavalcade of Calamity or Subira, Tulzidi Caravanner. It’s these secondary themes that, when needed, can really make an off-pie Commander deck sing.
Of course, there is one other trick that exists in building an off-color Commander deck. If your theme has several perfect options in a commander that touches on your preferred color, you can just build the deck using that commander and eschewing the other colors. While color identity is normally seen as an additive feature – that is, one that adds options by adding colors – there is no reason that has to be the case.
Take, for example, our Valduk deck. What if instead of Auras we wanted to focus on some of the powerful red enchantments such as Sunbird’s Invocation or Vicious Shadows? Valduk is less than ideal in that situation but Ghen, Arcanum Weaver is a perfect fit. There’s no rule that says you cannot build a deck that lacks white and black cards and instead runs enough white and black sources to reliably activate Ghen at your leisure. In fact, once you free yourself from the idea that you have to run every color in a commander’s color identity, then your options grow by an order of magnitude.
So, with all that in mind, what off-kilter Commander deck are you going to be building next?