Today’s topic is simple: I spent the past week and a half designing the most powerful Commander deck I could conceive with the limitation that I got it built on a $50 budget – I ended up getting it done for $35. The MSRP on the new Commander Preconstructed Commander decks is $35 and I was curious to see what I could cobble together with miscellaneous singles for an equivalent cost, so I’ve collected my thoughts to explain how to build a budget commander deck.
The first section of today’s article is going to discuss some of the challenges of building for Commander (particularly on a budget) and the second will focus on my Gretchen Titchwillow deck – so, feel free to just skip to the end for the list.
THE TRUE CHALLENGE OF COMMANDER: BUDGET
The Magic: The Gathering topic that has captured my attention and imagination over the past few months relates to how to build Commander decks for “open play.” As a long time former professional Magic player who has had success playing a range of all the formats from Vintage to Limited and owns most of the Reserve List cards, building an excellently designed deck isn’t the issue for me; I’ve built hundreds, possibly thousands, of decks over the years with emphasis on refining and editing my ideas for competitive play against other highly-tuned strategy decks piloted by professional or semi-professional competitors.
The rules of competitive constructed deck-building are simple: the “format” dictates the cardpool players can build from and the objective is to build the most consistently powerful strategy possible.
Commander deckbuilding, especially for “open play,” is significantly more challenging and complicated than any other format for a couple of reasons: first, the cardpool and number of card choices a player needs to make are both ABSURD! Commander has approximately the same cardpool as Vintage or Legacy and requires deck builders fill up 99 slots without 4x archetype staples.
Secondly, we need to build a multiplayer setting which changes the relative valuations of every single card. A card that is great in 1v1 duels like Doom Blade which trades 1 for 1 with a threat has significantly diminished value when a player has three opponents to outlast as opposed to just 1.
WHAT IS COMMANDER?
Truth be told, neither of these aspects throw me too much as they are simply recalibrating Eternal Magic card evaluations in context of a 99 card highlander, multiplayer deck.
The element of Commander I find challenging (and thus truly interesting) is there is no uniform agreement about what the format actually is or how we want to play it when we gather in the abstract. There are schisms within the format (for instance, cEDH) that clearly delineate two different mindsets for approaching deck construction and deck building and players are encouraged to discuss the “power level” of their decks before games (especially against opponent’s we haven’t played with before).
I’ve had readers comment that the best way to play Commander is to form a playgroup with agreed upon house rules for deck construction and of all the advice for achieving high quality and balanced game play I think this makes the most sense to me. With that said, part of what is cool about The Gathering aspect of Magic is the meeting new people and seeing new cards and decks.
My observations of Commander being played at LGS is that “how much money a player is willing to spend” is a direct corollary to the power level of the deck they built.
I specifically want to make a point of shouting out to the cEDH playgroups who want to play with the classic Reserve List cards and allow players who cannot, or choose not, to afford them to play their game. The SCG 10 Proxy Power 9 Vintage circuit was the absolute best blend of competitive Magic with a casual, friendly mindset that I ever played and there’s no doubt in my mind people playing cEDH with proxies are creating similar communities for themselves about enjoying The Gathering. 10-Proxy Vintage (a nearly ten year institution) dissolved into The Abyss when WOTC released Power 9 Reserve List cards on MTGO and started cracking down on stores and tournament organizers for running events that allowed proxies.
As great as I personally think proxies are as a tool for allowing a more diverse demographic of players to enjoy the game and leveling the playing field with regard to budget they are not a supported part of MTG and a store running proxy events is breaking the rules. I’m not going to advocate stores breaking the rules but I have no issue saying that I think the rules are awful for the wallets of fans.
Anyways, here’s a deck that is legit powerful on a tiny budget:
$35 U/G GRETCHEN TITCHWILLOW
My inspiration for today’s deck was a random guy at the LGS. I’ve been toying with different budget brew ideas for a while but nothing inspires me creatively more than a practical application for my mental energy.
I was looking at a binder of foils at the counter and a guy came in and asked for some help. He was getting together on the weekend with some friends for a casual, monthly MTG game night and he needed a new deck. The cashier correctly pointed him in the direction of Commander and Brawl precons but the guy expressed that he’d already purchased these products in the past and they sucked compared to the decks his friends had built.
What he was describing was interesting to me as budget and power level have been two topics I’ve been thinking about for my content over the past month or so. I suggested he could take one of the preconstructed Commander decks he already owned and do a google search for an article about how to upgrade or improve it. Unfortunately, it seemed like the results for that essentially equated to: add a bunch of $10+ cards to a Precon.
$50 Gretchen Titchwillow
Where better to go for inspiration about building a busted deck on a budget than Pauper! What I’ve ended up building here is essentially the equivalent of Pauper Flicker Tron using the best possible cards I could find within my budget.
My deck uses these two double flicker effects to generate value and eventually combo off via my swath of Archaeomancers:
Essentially, we’ll reach a point where we’ve assembled two “Regrowth” creatures, a double flicker, and a spell that allows us to untap our lands:
We can make infinite mana this way and then use Gretchen Titchwillow’s ability to draw through our deck to assemble the condition of victory. I couldn’t find a “win the game with infinite mana” card that I thought was budget friendly and flexible enough to warrant inclusion. Walking Ballista seems like an obvious choice. I do have a Riftwing Cloudskate in the deck, so once I have my combo I can bounce every single permanent an opponent controls to their hands. I can also beat an opponent who has “infinite life” by infinitely blinking Verdurous Gearhulk for +1/+1 counters to match their life total.
When building a multiplayer Commander deck it’s important to think about what your “ENDGAME” is, in a sense that means “what does your deck do and how will it win.” Even on a $35 budget I think my Gretchen Titchwillow deck has a pretty incredible endgame that goes bigger than most decks can while also using a bunch of cards that are still pretty useful and flexible in situations where I’m developing my board or trying to play defense and stay alive.
The most expensive cards in my deck are Sol Ring and Early Harvest which both came in at $2 each.
It’s funny that when I’m building Commander decks I always draw upon the ghosts of the decks of yesteryear I’ve played. Early Harvest is insane in this deck because I have essentially no non-basics – the same as it was in the Kamigawa black Heartbeat of Spring deck.
I also feel great about the $1.50 crop of spells I included:
I feel these are actually format staples that improve 90% of Commander decks via inclusion.
In my $0.75-$1.00 slots I went with:
Again, the cards I allotted more than a quarter to were either integral or extremely synergistic with my Endgame (Early Harvest, Ghostly Flicker, Wood Elves) or extremely powerful format Staples with price points suppressed by reprints (Sol Ring, Beast Within, Verdurous Gearhulk).
My $0.50 cards fall into two categories: Extremely potent Commons with multiple printings:
Or, “Bulk Rares” that are excellently powerful spells BUT there’s an even more excellently powerful variant with a more expensive price point. For example, Displacement Wave and Molder Slug were Cyclonic Rift and Bane of Progress within my $35 budget).
I checked around multiple online sellers and everything else was readily available at about a quarter a card and I factored in basic lands at $0.00. I also used NM or EX pricing of the cheapest possible set variant for each card.
Eight cards that I thought would be EXCELLENT inclusions in the deck but I had to eliminate because of my working budget:
The overall value of these eight cards was approximately $40 and more than my entire 100 card deck combined! If you’re going to splurge on exactly one upgrade – I’d go with the Eternal Witness. I really wanted to find room for it at $4.00… But, at what cost!?
4x $1 bombs?
It sort of plays into my perspective and theory that power level = budget. The only constraint keeping me from improving my deck is opening my wallet deeper and spending more. With that said, I’d be perfectly cool with playing a deck like this in an open game at a LGS. It’s a well built deck, with an inherently good strategy, full of individually solid and flexible cards. While it is a budget deck built on a $35 budget – it really doesn’t play like one.
I actually found the experience of building on a budget to be a fun challenge that taught me quite a bit about how the Commander format works. I was able to find budgetary workarounds for a lot of things, but it was clear that I ran out of useful or better options pretty quickly without increasing my budget.