Commander, the ultimate casual format, is defined first and foremost by having fun. For many players, however, the most fun part of a game is the end goal: winning. The joy of achieving victory can often outweigh the pleasures of socializing or coming away from a table with epic stories (all still very present aspects to a good game), and it is this drive to win that has given rise to increasingly competitive games of Commander. The apex of this form of fun is cEDH, or competitive Elder Dragon Highlander.
The philosophy for cEDH isn’t complicated: you play to win. In a “proper” cEDH game, when all players are packing as many powerful Magic cards as possible and all share that same goal, everyone is out to get that big burst of dopamine from overcoming the odds and coming out on top.
Now, that is not to say that cEDH is antisocial or entirely denies the social contract that drives more casual Commander games, but instead it plays with the undeniable, “lizard brain” understanding that everyone is out to win – ideally there are no grudges held and no negativity felt because everyone is guaranteed to be at the table for that reason.
Interestingly, and logically with winning being the primary stated goal of the format, the majority of cEDH decks are defined not by their chosen commander, but instead by their win condition. You’re out to win the game as quickly and efficiently as possible or to stop your opponent from doing the same so you can assemble your own doomsday machine. In more casual circles the common cEDH win conditions represent the boogie men of the format: Laboratory Maniac, Thassa’s Oracle, Ad Nauseam, Doomsday piles, Food Chain, Protean Hulk, Dockside Extortionist loops, storm and more combo and stax plays than one can imagine.
As with other formats, cEDH is best defined by its archetypes, which then contain a multitude of deck types within them. cEDH decks tend to come in three distinct flavors that will often intermingle:
Your goal is to win as fast and efficiently as possible, often choosing to forgo more direct interaction (as is more common with control) or other ways to impact the table in favor of including even faster mana options and as much redundancy in win conditions as possible. Otherwise, the exact combos involved are limited to your imagination, though digging for a win with Ad Nauseam or emptying your deck for Lab Maniac or Thassa’s Oracle is common.
Your goal is to win the game while ensuring that your opponents do not. The deck likely includes a combo or two to sink the win, but instead of opting for speed, you play interaction. Powerful counterspells, solid removal and efficient card advantage supplement your game plan while you watch your opponent’s fold. Best of all, because you’re running more reactive answers, you get to enjoy playing all kinds of protective spells to defend your own win condition.
Named for the original Smokestack, stax plays similar to control in its efforts to deny others victory, but does so by instead denying resources. The goal is to strip lands, hands and otherwise stop the opponent from playing the game entirely. In other, “friendly” formats, stax can be frowned upon for breaking the social contract, but cEDH lets your griefing streak run free and proud as a viable way to win. You build your deck around having fewer resources, include mana-efficient combos and resource-generating effects that are entirely in your favor.
cEDH is a format defined by fast, brutal wins despite the 100-card variance of Commander. While it’s not the format for everyone, it’s definitely worth trying if you love Commander but still have that competitive itch in need of scratching. Sleeve up your Thoracles and Food Chains and give it a shot!