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What Is Commander? How to Play the 100-Card Format Taking Over MTG

Commander is the most popular format in Magic: the Gathering. This format challenges players to show off their deck-building and piloting skills. Whereas other formats seek to lock-out the competition with predictable strategies and metagame decks, Commander is about the experience of playing with friends. 

With a philosophy of fun, Commander is generally considered a casual format (although we will discuss its competitive side) that encourages board interaction, expensive creatures and splashy combos. Commander decks allow players to express themselves. The play styles and possibilities are infinite, with the largest card pool of any format. 

Originally named Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH), the format was created by Adam Staley in 1994. Inspired by the quintet of Elder Dragons from Legends, this shortlist of five Dragons became the first Commanders. Wizards of the Coast (WotC) eventually realized that players were flocking to the now incredibly popular format. In 2008, Commander was made an official WotC format and given a legally-safe new name. 

The first step to playing is choosing a Commander. But, “how do you know if an MTG card can be a Commander?” We’ll start with this topic and cover everything from how to play to building a deck for the Commander format in Magic: The Gathering: 

What Makes an MTG Card a Commander?

For a card to be considered a commander in Magic: the Gathering, it must fulfill one of the two following criteria:

  • The card must be a legendary creature; or,
  • The card must state, “This card can be your Commander”.

Commanders are always either a creature or planeswalker. This is the first decision a player must make when building a Commander deck: who will lead your army? 

The Importance of a Commander’s Color Identity

A Commander’s color identity is the combination of colors required to pay for its mana value. For example: Muldrotha, the Gravetide costs six mana to cast: three colorless, one blue, one black, one green. Therefore, Muldrotha, the Gravetide’s color identity is blue/black/green, also known as Sultai in Magic. 

Muldrotha, the Gravetide (Etched)

Here’s the kicker: Commander decks must conform to the color identity of its Commander. In the example of Muldrotha, the Gravetide: the deck can only include cards that are blue, black, green or some combination of those colors. 

In other words, the color identity of your commander limits what cards you can include in the deck (it is the only limitation, in fact, aside from the ban list). 

How to Play Commander MTG (+ Rules)

In general, playing Commander is the same as any other MTG format. Up to four players can face-off in Commander, each with a deck of exactly 100 unique cards – the commander included. 

Deck Rules

  • Commander decks are exactly 100 cards: 1 commander + 99 other cards (or two partner commanders + 98 other cards).
  • Only one copy of each card (by name) can be included, aside from basic lands.
  • All cards within the deck must match the commander’s color identity.

Play Rules

  • Commander requires at least two players and no more than four.
  • Players begin with 40 life.
  • All commanders start in the command zone.
  • The mana value of a player’s commander increases by two for each time it has been cast from the command zone. This cost is in addition to its original mana value. 
  • If any single commander deals 21 combat damage to a player during the game, that player loses. 
  • Last player standing wins.

When a commander is put into a graveyard or exiled, it can be returned to the command zone instead. The same is true if a commander is put into its controller’s hand or put into their library.

What is the Difference Between Standard & Commander? 

There are some key differences between Standard and Commander that make this format unique. Standard, as well as most constructed Magic formats, require a minimum 60-card deck and player’s begin with 20 life. 

Additionally, Standard games are relatively short, lasting about 20 minutes. Commander games, on the other hand, can go anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours.

Standard is also a competitive format. It has a clear metagame. The best decks in the format are often played in tournaments. And of course, Standard rotates every year. 

Commander is a casual format. It is easy to find a playgroup or join a playpod at your local game store. However, there are Commander tournaments – these are technically competitive EDH (cEDH) games. 

Finally, Commander does not rotate. Cards are sometimes banned for a variety of reasons. Otherwise, the card pool only grows. 

What MTG Cards Are Banned in Commander? 

Every Magic: the Gathering set, since the game’s beginning, is legal in the Commander format. This is a large reason this constructed format is so fun and unpredictable. The following cards are banned from legal Commander play:

The following cards are also banned from the Commander format:

This list will inevitably grow as more cards are released. We will update this article to reflect future card bans. The last time this article was updated was March 15, 2022. 

How to Choose a Commander for Your Deck

It’s entirely possible you already have a commander in mind. Oftentimes, players are inspired to build a Commander deck when they discover a commander they’re excited to build around. For me, this card was Nicol Bolas, The Ravager. One of the few planeswalkers that can also be a commander, it’s still one of my favorite Commander decks – even though I’ve built many others since. 

All that to say, follow your heart! Or whatever other criteria made you want to build a Commander deck in the first place. If you’re not sure where to start, here’s a few different ways to approach choosing a commander:

Start with the 99

Instead of building a deck plan around a commander, there may be a certain card combo that’s caught your attention. Or maybe you’ve collected a handful of stompy creatures that need a commander to lead them. Whatever your starting point, you can consider what cards you want to include in the 99 and use the Magic Card Database to find the ideal commander. 

Choose a Tribe

From Dragons and Goblins to Merfolk and Dogs, there are a lot of specific creature types a player can build around. Certain commanders exploit tribal abilities or mechanics to create ultra-powerful combinations or attacks. 

Common Deck Strategies

Aggro, control, combo and midrange represent the four main Magic: the Gathering deck archetypes. An aggro deck focuses on dealing quick, direct damage, while a control deck prevents opponents from playing spells and using resources. Combo decks rely on a certain combination of cards to pull off a winning strategy. Midrange decks incorporate elements of both aggro and control decks. If a player knows what type of deck they want to create, this can be a great starting place for choosing a commander.

Synergy for a Mechanic or Card-Type

There are commanders for players who love a specific mechanic or card-type. For example, a player who wants to build around ninjitsu is probably going to want to use Yuriko, the Tiger’s Shadow. When Ikoria was released, the mutate mechanic was a blast to build a commander deck around. 

Similarly, if a player wants to build an artifact-heavy or Equipment-focused deck, there are various commanders that capitalize on what those types of cards can do. For example, Syr Gwyn, Hero of Ashvale and Nazahn, Revered Bladesmith are both great commanders for an Equipment deck. However, the commander’s abilities are vastly different. Therefore, the deck a player would build for each commander will be too. 

Review Your Collection

Look through your collection of rare and mythic Magic: the Gathering cards. You may discover a legendary creature or planeswalker that you want to build a deck around. This is also a wise step when choosing a commander because you’ll get an idea of what cards you have. Since every card in the deck must be unique, it’s important to know if you have the cards you need or will need to buy singles. Reviewing your collection is a great way to build a Commander deck on a budget by using the cards you already own. 

Color Combinations

Each color in Magic has certain characteristics. Therefore, it’s common for players to have a favorite color combination. If you’re having a hard time choosing a commander, limiting your choices by selecting a color combination is another option. You may even do this after reviewing your Magic collection. For example, you have enough black and green cards for a deck and want to buy your commander as a single. 

There are an infinite number of ways to choose a commander. If none of these spoke to you, don’t be afraid to take an entirely different approach. Ultimately, Commander decks are like potato chips: you can’t build just one.

How to Build a Commander Deck

One of the first questions player’s have when approaching a 100-card deck is, “how many lands do I need?” In a Commander deck, 36 to 38 lands is generally recommended. Of course, decks that include mana dorks and cheap mana rocks might include less. 

The podcast, Command Zone shared an episode last year that discussed a Commander deck formula. This is meant to be a guideline, not the rule. One redditor even created a particularly impressive graphic to summarize the following information. 

Commander Deck Template:

  • 36-38 Lands
  • 31-33 Deck Plan 
  • 10 (minimum) mana ramp
  • 10 card draw
  • 5 targeted removal
  • 5 board wipes
  • 1 commander

Remember the Mana Curve

It’s also important to pay attention to the mana curve of your deck. The mana curve is just a fancy way of referring to the range of mana values for the cards in a deck. 

Commander is a relatively long-form version of Magic. Therefore, there is generally plenty of time to set up bigger spells and combos. But a player needs to be able to cast spells at every point in the game. Ensuring a deck has a balanced amount of mana values is important to the overall execution of any deck. 

There’s no consistent formula for mana curves within a Commander deck. That being said, here is a rough outline player’s can use: 

  • Zero and one-mana value cards: 5-10
  • Two-mana value: 14-20
  • Three-mana value: 12-20
  • Four-mana value: 8-14
  • Five-mana value: 5-10
  • Six-mana value: 4-8
  • Seven-mana value or more: 1-5

This formula does not include lands, since they have no mana value. 

Note: Keep in mind that these numbers don’t consider card types. This redditor’s graphic does a great job of representing an example of this visually. 

How Do I Win?

Commander offers players more creative options than any other format. This landscape of possibility means there are many ways to win a game. Below are some common win conditions that a deck can be built around: 

Combat & Direct Damage

The most common way to win a game of Magic is through combat damage. Each player’s creatures battle it out as their controller’s life totals are reduced. Eventually, only one player is left standing. This strategy can be enhanced by including creatures with keyword abilities (i.e. trample, haste, flying, etc). 

Alternatively, it’s difficult to prevent damage from an army of 1/1 creatures. While the strategy for dealing damage will vary, the goal is simply to deal enough damage to knock out the competition.

Alternatively, a deck might attempt to sidestep combat damage by dealing direct damage instead. This decidedly aggro deck focuses on cards like Lightning Bolt, which can deal damage directly, whittling away player life totals. 

“Win the Game” Cards

These types of cards are a lot of fun to pull off. However, they can also be frustrating for playgroups. It’s wise to discuss the kind of game player’s want to engage in before dominating a game with this kind of deck. This discussion before a game is often called “Rule 0.”

Win the game” cards allow a player to automatically win the game when the card’s condition is fulfilled. Chance Encounter is one such example: if the player is able to acquire 10 luck counters, they win the game. 

Biovisionary is another card like this, except the player needs to have four copies (token copies count) of Biovisionary to win. When crafting a deck around this type of card, player’s should focus their deck plan (or strategy) on completing the necessary requirements for the win-con.

For example, a deck built for Biovisionary would need to have the ability to create a lot of token copies and fetch target creatures from the deck. It would also need to prevent opponents from targeting this card or be able to bring it back from the graveyard – as well as consider alternative win’s such as combat damage from stompy green creatures. Since Biovisionary cannot be the commander, the chosen commander should aid in this deck’s overall strategy. 

Just by thinking through the strategy one would need to win with a deck, the player can quickly begin to fill-in the necessary elements. While building around a commander is fun, so too is finding a commander to perfectly fit a broader strategy. Other examples of “win the game” cards include: Mechanized Production, Test of Endurance and Aetherflux Reservoir.

Infinite Combos

This is another win-condition that should be discussed with a playground before being introduced at the table. Infinite combos utilize card combinations to extend a combo indefinitely – or until it is used to win the game. 

For example, Freed from the Real and Selvala, Heart of the Wilds creates an infinite combo that provides the player with all the mana they could possibly need. Selvala, Heart of the Wilds is played, then enchanted with Freed from the Real. The infinite combo is activated when Selvala is tapped to produce mana equal to the greatest power among creatures the player controls. Freed from the Real can then be used to untap Selvala and do it all again, infinitely. This combo doesn’t win the game on its own, but infinite mana sure helps. 

A lot of infinite combos are used to take over a game, then acquire the “Win the Game” card needed to finish it. For example: Azami, Lady of Scrolls and Mind Over Matter create an infinite combo that allows the player to draw their entire library. Before they end their own game this way, the player casts either Laboratory Maniac or Thassa’s Oracle to win. This strategy technically uses two win-conditions: an infinite combo and self-milling. 

Mill

There are two ways to win through deck-milling – which is forcing a loss or win through emptying a player’s (or players’) library. In Commander, Mill decks must be able to target multiple player’s libraries because players usually face more than one opponent at a time. This type of deck limits board interaction and doesn’t follow the philosophy of Commander. Nonetheless, it is a beloved playstyle, especially in competitive EDH (more on this later). 

For this reason, cEDH Mill decks will often be self-milling. This strategy involves emptying your own library and using a card, such as Thassa’s Oracle, to win the game. It’s important to note that this type of deck is not common in playgroups or among casual players. Mill decks are intended to deny resources or opponent progression and quickly end the game once properly set up. This is also not a great deck for beginners to build. 

Crafting the Deck’s Strategy

There are many places to start when building a Commander deck. Up to this point, I’ve provided a lot of different jumping-off points that have hopefully helped you decide:

  • How you want your deck to win; and, 
  • What strategy or commander you’ll use to do so. 

If you haven’t already chosen a commander, it’s important to do so in the early stages of crafting your deck’s strategy. You can only use colors that are part of your commander’s color identity; therefore, you’ll need to use this limitation when choosing the other 99 cards. 

Previously, we discussed an ideal Commander Deck Template. This template recommends that about 32 of the deck’s cards are focused on executing the strategy. This is a great second aspect of a new deck to consider, research cards for, and add to a deck list. 

Staple Commander Cards

This category will be narrow or broad, depending on who you ask. For this article, Commander staples are those cards that every deck should consider including (regardless of win-con or strategy). It’s not important to include all of these in a Commander deck. However, these staples are so helpful that you’ll want to include at least a few:

For a more extensive list of Commander staples, I recommend checking out this resource. It covers the best staple cards in every color. Since the Commander format allows cards from the beginning of Magic, there is a huge card pool to sort through. An extensive list like this allows you to see if there is a better card to include than the one on your deck list (that does the same thing). This list is also helpful to review. 

Bringing It All Together

Once I begin building a Commander deck, I find it most helpful to start a decklist in a Word or Google document. I start by adding the card types: creatures, sorcery, instant, planeswalkers, etc. 

When I find a card I want to include: I add it to my deck list along with the number of copies in the deck, a link to where I can buy the single, and the mana value in parenthesis. This allows me to easily build a deck with all of the information. For example:

Since this is a Commander deck, my next step was to find a commander. The Magic Card Database is extremely helpful for finding specific cards based on type, text, or name. 

To keep my deck plan on track, I will write a basic outline of my commander and the strategies I need to incorporate into my deck. Keeping with the Biovisionary example, this might look like:

  • Commander: Adrix and Nev, Twincasters
  • Deck Plan: Fetch target creature from deck // Create token creature copies // protect from control & removal // return target creature from graveyard // atl win: stompy creatures with trample & haste

I consistently refer to the Deck Template and Mana Curve outline as references while building. I find this approach to be much easier, even if I plan to only use cards I already own. Without mapping out a deck plan and deck list, my Commander decks quickly lose focus and fail to have a winning strategy. 

Competitive Commander (cEDH): An Overview

This is a subformat of Commander that has grown in popularity along with the overall format. cEDH shares the same ban list as Commander, and has no separate official rules from WotC. cEDH can be played 1v1 or in a group of four. 

cEDH games are much faster than Commander games. Not every cEDH deck is built to win as quickly as possible, but all cEDH decks will win quickly when compared with casual play. cEDH decks nearly always utilize powerful combos. They are also built to be more consistent and deny opponents access to their resources. 

cEDH decks can be extremely expensive (even more so than competitive Modern decks). Decks often use the best cards available from the long history of Magic – resulting in high-power and high-cost. This style of Commander is ideal for advanced players.

Where to Play Commander MTG

There are a number of ways to play Commander – other than with friends or your local playgroup. Whether the desire is to play casually or competitively, the following platforms provide the arena:

Local Game Store. Tried and true, the best way to play outside a group of friends is at your local game store. 

Magic Arena. Available on PC, Mac and mobile phones, Magic Arena is the gamified way to play Magic: the Gathering and the most popular online way to play. Learn more here

Magic: the Gathering Online. The original way to play Magic online is still a fantastic way to play. Magic Online is generally preferred by seasoned players, as it mimics the paper format nearly one-to-one.

SpellTable. Part of WotC, SpellTable is an all-in-one solution for playing paper Magic remotely. It has a lot of impressive features and promises to make remote play easy. 

cEDH Tournaments. Players that wish to try their hand at cEDH can seek out tournaments. Finding Commander tournaments can be tricky, but local game stores are a great place to start.

Improve Your Deck with Play

No deck is perfect in its first game. Commander decks in particular are difficult to build with synergy and consistency. Building a deck is a fun puzzle, but make sure you don’t get stuck in the building process. Consider using just the cards in your current Magic collection to build your first deck, then buy singles as you improve the deck and make it stronger. 

To this day, my favorite Commander deck to play is one I built entirely around the Ikoria set. My commander is Nethroi, Apex of Death and the deck revolves around the mutate mechanic. Sometimes, imposing limitations is the best way to spark creativity. What aspects of Magic inspire you? What colors represent your playstyle? Commander offers infinite creative possibilities for players of all levels.

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