I mainly stick to writing about competitive, tournament formats here on ChannelFireball.com. However, I’ve just gotten through two weeks of unusually heavy engagement with Commander, and I’m bursting at the seams to share my thoughts on Commander card types!
I was fortunate to be part of a cool promotion where a randomly-drawn fan got to play Commander for $100,000! Since said fan might have come from any background or experience level, they hired me on to coach them into shape (they won, by the way!).
I’m by no means a Commander expert, so I was glad we didn’t need to do any deckbuilding or reinvent the wheel in any way, shape or form. Instead, my job was to start with established decks, and teach someone to play well in a competitive environment, which is just the thing I love to do. Today, I’ll pass along some of that knowledge to you.
With Commander, every game is different and every deck is different. However, you can definitely recognize patterns, and identify important card types. Doing so can give you a head start towards playing well, and knowing what to do when faced with tons of complex options.
Mana is the most important thing in Commander, and every deck will have some amount of artifact-based ramping. With the high starting life total and the multiplayer dynamic, it’s better to develop your own resources and progress your own game plan, rather than attacking an individual opponent. Plus, getting more mana lets you do more cool stuff!
Sol Ring is an extreme outlier when it comes to power level. It’s one of the best cards ever printed, but unlike Black Lotus and the Moxen, it’s legal in Commander (unless house rules say otherwise). Every deck will have one, and starting with it turbocharges you to an extreme degree. While you can’t count on having Sol Ring in every opening hand with a 99-card deck, it can have an impact on your mulligan decisions. You should be happy to keep any functional hand with Sol Ring, and you can even utilize your free mulligan to increase your chances of finding it – although I’m definitely happy to keep a decent hand with a more “honest” mana rock as well.
Green is my favorite color in Commander because it taps you into even more mana ramping. In some ways, these ramp spells are better than artifact mana because they aren’t vulnerable to cards like Vandalblast or Dockside Extortionist.
As mentioned, in multiplayer it’s generally more profitable to focus on your own game plan than to trade resources against one opponent. That said, a few well-placed pieces of spot removal can take out key threats (including commanders) and stop opponents from assembling devastating combos.
I like spot removal to be cheap, and to be instant-speed. This maximizes your ability to be ready with it when you need it. Is that creature attacking Johnny or Jenny? No response from me – have at it! Is it attacking me or my planeswalker? Then it’s getting Terminated.
I’m allergic to giving my opponents free stuff in a game of Magic. I try to avoid cards like this in normal tournament play, and boy do I hate them even more in multiplayer. When I do engage with Commander deck building, my first move is typically to take cards like Beast Within right out of my deck.
That said, these cards are popular and can be a necessary evil to get out of some sticky situations. Don’t use them early on; save them until you really need them.
Board sweepers are extremely powerful, and perform much better in multiplayer than spot removal spells. There are even a few, like Cyclonic Rift and Ruinous Ultimatum, which leave your own battlefield intact!
There are two main ways you can play with creature sweepers.
The first comes up if you have multiple sweepers, or if you can tell you’re going to have to use one soon. In this case, you can stop casting your own creatures that might be vulnerable to, say, Wrath of God. Don’t make it too obvious, or else your opponents will know what’s coming. While you’re not casting creatures, it’s the perfect time to develop your mana and draw extra cards!
The second is to use them like “get out of jail free” cards. By this I mean, play your game normally, cast your creatures and try to get ahead. If your plan works, you never need to cast Wrath of God. However, if something goes awry and your opponents start to overpower you, you have this powerful option to reset the game.
Permission spells are like spot removal in the sense that trading resources against one opponent is less-than-ideal in a multiplayer game. They’re also like spot removal spells in the sense that having a small number can give you much more control over the dynamics of a game.
Counterspell isn’t there so you can stop somebody’s Arcane Signet or Tarmogoyf on turn two. It’s there so that you can fight to a powerful position, and then stop the small number of cards that would threaten that position.
Pay close attention to what’s happening in the game, and use your permission spells to prevent people from assembling combos or blowing up the world.
Speaking of blowing up the world, a more specific category of “permission spell” includes the cards that stop your creatures from dying to board sweepers. While more narrow than Counterspell or Mana Drain, these also provide more finesse, since you can allow the board sweeper to resolve and kill everybody else’s stuff while yours stays safe and sound.
It’s also cool that non-blue decks can access useful instants like this.
In a multiplayer setting where games are going long, permanents that accumulate value turn after turn are as good as gold (or at least as good as the Treasures they might create).
These aren’t restricted to enchantments, although many of the best examples happen to be. After all, creatures, planeswalkers and even artifacts can be killed off more easily than enchantments.
Tutors are great. With a 99-card singleton deck, you have more options in Commander than virtually anywhere else in MTG. Plus, Commander gameplay is so complex and so varied that you can sometimes find something very specific that’s great in the given situation.
I highly recommend having a short list of cards that you’ll most often search for. I do this in tournament Magic too, like thinking ahead about when my Vintage Storm deck wants to search Yawgmoth’s Will versus Ancestral Recall versus Tolarian Academy. Identify your best cards ahead of time, and the different game states where each one is at its best.
Why is this important? Well, for one thing it saves time. Even if they won’t explicitly rush you, you want to respect the other players’ time and not spend seven minutes resolving Vampiric Tutor. For another, it will help you avoid mistakes, since you’ll have prepared for complicated decisions ahead of time. Finally, it helps you know what your tutors can do for you before you cast them, so that you can plan things out properly before you’ve committed to picking up your library.
I hope this helps you organize your thoughts when it comes to Commander gameplay. It’s one of the most intricate, overwhelming formats in all of MTG, so having a few shortcuts is never a bad thing. Whether you’re new to Commander or an old veteran, I hope I’ve given you something to think about.
In the comments below, let me know if you think differently about anything I mentioned. Also, let me know if there are some important categories of cards that I haven’t yet touched on!