Building a Commander Deck

We’ve previously covered the basics of Commander – check out our Getting Started article here – but in today’s article we’re talking about how to build a solid Commander deck.

One of the frequent questions people ask is “How can I improve my Commander deck?”, or even more basically: “How can I build an effective deck around a given commander?” In today’s article, we’re going to talk about building decks in Commander, designing to a goal, and tweaking what you’ve built.

Building Your Deck

One of the most useful ways to approach something like this is teleological thinking: What is the purpose of the deck? Generally speaking, the purpose of a deck is to win the game. This seems trivial, but it can inform a useful deck building process, which we can break into four steps:

  • Step 1: How will I end the game (win)?
  • Step 2: How will I get the pieces to end the game?
  • Step 3: How will I protect my tutors or draws, and prevent others from winning?
  • Step 4: How will I power my tutors, draws, and protection?

But this boils down to, most succinctly, how does your deck win the game?

Imagine it’s turn 5 in your normal pod, and you’ve drawn exactly what you wanted with every draw all game. What is in your hand, and how are you going to end the game (hopefully right now)?

By default, standard magic games are won by dealing sufficient damage to your opponent, often through combat damage, to drop their life total to 0. Milling opponents to death, forcing them to draw when their library is empty is becoming a more commonplace win condition, but it’s difficult. There are also some card effects that cause you to win the game, or cause a target player or opponents to lose the game.   

Win Conditions in Commander

Winning a game in Commander is more difficult than standard games: Having three opponents means that winning via normal combat requires triple the damage – to reduce all three opponents to 0 life requires dealing at least 120 damage (or causing a loss of at least 120 life). To deck your opponents, you need to make them draw at least 276 cards, and this assumes they don’t have any protective reshuffle effects such as Eldrazi Titans.

In general it may be easier to “combo off,” setting up a game state that can be repeated endlessly, either causing damage, loss of life, or targeted draw, in order to create the volumes required for winning in a single turn.

Because of this, I would consider the following order of competitiveness when thinking about choosing win conditions:

  • Cards that make you win the game.
  • Cards that make your opponents lose the game.
  • Cards that make your opponent draw themselves to death.
  • Cards that make your opponents take sufficient damage or loss of life to lose the game.
  • Cards that deal sufficient combat damage to your opponents to make them lose the game.

Sometimes there is some wiggle room in here. I have a combo Najeela, the Blade-Blossom deck that deals sufficient combat damage to my opponents to make me win the game by creating endless combat steps.  Essentially it’s a combo. But in some senses it’s a weaker combo than others, because if one of my opponents casts fog, I can’t win the game on that turn.  And there are a lot of fog effects in this game.

You may be saying it’s difficult to “win” the game via drawing when your library is empty, but given there are 3 cards that cause you to win the game when you would draw but your library is empty Thassa’s Oracle, Jace, Wielder of Mysteries and Laboratory Maniac, and many ways to empty your deck via infinite mana as well as the simple Demonic Consultation and Tainted pact options. These are actually among the most common and consistent win conditions for competitive Commander decks.

What is the best way to win?

If we rank the ways to win by utility, I’d suggest the following: 

  1. Alternate win conditions (i.e. effects that say “you win the game”)
  2. Dealing damage to opponents
  3. Forcing opponents to draw with empty libraries
  4. Dealing combat damage to opponents
  5. Effects that cause a player to lose the game

Why do I order them in this way?

  • There are lots of cards that prevent combat damage, prevent attacking, or other such effects.
  • There are lots of cards that make you make you gain arbitrary amounts of life
  • There are some cards that reshuffle your graveyard into your library, so if you’re drawing or milling one at a time, this can be prevented, but if you’re being forced to draw 150 cards at a time, these cards are irrelevant
  • There are cards that prevent you from losing or being targeted.
  • There are only a couple of cards that prevent your opponent from winning, off the top of my head Angel’s Grace and Platinum Angel are the really relevant ones
  • While making a player instantly lose can seem powerful, most of the effects that accomplish this are difficult to pull off and specifically only target 1 player, meaning that in addition to getting your resources, assembling your combo, and pulling it off, you’d then have to duplicate it, twice
  • Incidentally, this also explains why life gain isn’t particularly good in Commander.  Many games end because one player simply wins, or a player sets up an infinite damage combo, or cause them to draw.  If you gain 900,847 life, and your opponent gets an infinite damage combo onto the board your arbitrarily large life total is irrelevant.

Given the desire to combo off, and that availability of the commander as a combo piece, most commander decks function around the commander, using it as a combo piece that is always available, though some just treat the commander as a value engine. One of the fears of combo decks is that combo pieces will be frittered away or removed, perhaps exiled, and the combo can never be achieved.  This is particularly acute with singleton decks, if a particular combo piece is exiled (face down) it can be gone forever. Given how difficult it is to get rid of a commander permanently, building your combo around your commander is a fairly safe bet.

Types of Commanders

Combo Commanders

Credit: Wizards of the Coast

These commanders can generally have an infinite combo built around them, and frequently have an ability that costs no mana and happens whenever something happens.  

Heliod, Sun Crowned combos with Walking Ballista, giving it lifelink and then whenever the ballista removes a +1/+1 counter to deal 1 damage, it puts a +1/+1 on the walking ballista as you gain life from dealing damage (via the lifelink).

Chulane, teller of tales combos with a number of cards to keep drawing through your deck until you win the game or create such an oppressive board state

Ukkima, Stalking Shadow and Cazur, Ruthless Stalker combo with Food Chain and any creature that can be cast from exile to generate infinite mana then cast and sac Ukkima repeatedly causing damage each time

Value Commanders

Credit: Wizards of the coast

These commanders generally allow you to draw cards or tutor.

Tymna the Weaver, allows you to draw cards each turn by attacking and paying life.

Thrasios, Triton Hero allows you to reveal and place lands into play or cards into your hand, can also be a win-con if you have infinite mana as he allows you to draw your entire deck.

Kaalia of the Vast puts angels, demons and dragons into play, allowing large etb effects and haymakers or comboing off with cards such as Razaketh

Identity Commanders

Credit: Wizards of the Coast

Then there are commanders who don’t really do anything for you other than fulfill the requirements of being a legendary creature (or specifically noted planeswalker) and giving you access to cards of their color identity.  An example of this is Jasmine Boreal from the original legends expansion, Jasmine is simply a 4/5 creature with no abilities, costing 3WG, thus giving you access to white and green in your deck.


Deck Archetypes

Commander is a unique format in that it is generally played multiplayer. This has some implications, such as card effects no longer being zero sum. If I use a card to to remove a card, I’ve no longer traded 1-for-1. Instead I’ve hurt myself and the opponent whose card I targeted, and essentially helped my other two opponents. This can lead to politicking and negotiations, as well as frustration, but it’s part of the fun of commander.

Aggro: Decks that put creatures into play and attack with them.

Combo: Decks that set up a repeatable game state, often generating infinite mana to power draw then cast a spell.

Group Slug: Decks that have many effects that cause damage to all players or trigger whenever they do something, such as cast a spell or tap a land.

Staxx: Decks that put powerful inhibitory effects into play that either asymmetrically effect the caster or else the deck is designed to play around.  Consider Tangle Wire at first glance this may seem like a weak card, but because of how upkeep triggers work, tangle wire will come into play and force each of your opponents to tap 4 permanents on their turn.  On your turn you put the tap effect on the stack then the fading effect.  Remove a counter, then you’ll only have to tap three permanents, because by the time the effect resolves only two three counters remain, but Tnagle wire is itself a permanent, so you can tap it.  Effectively you tap 2 permanents, and your opponents tap 4 each, 2 for 12.

Tribal: Decks built around a particular tribe, such as Goblins.  May be competitive or non-competitive, but generally any time you arbitrarily limit deckbuilding the deck will be less good.

Theme: Decks built around particular themes, such as Aristocrats (triggers off creatures dying) or Blink decks (triggers off creatures entering the battlefield).

Regardless of what type of deck you choose you should have an idea of how to win the game with them.  It can be quite helpful if you can boil your deck down to a single sentence such as:

I will cast Thassa’s Oracle, and then with the draw effect on the stack, cast Demonic Consultation and name a card which isn’t in the deck, thus exiling my entire library, and thus when Thassa’s scry effect resolves I win the game.  

Many times Thassa consult decks have backup win plans, such as Jace and Laboratory Maniac and Tainted Pact as a draw out mechanism, with a backup of Thrasios, Triton Hero / Dramatic Reversal / Isochron Scepter.

Many times when players build decks they find a commander they like, perhaps with an interesting or neat mechanic built into them, and then throw some cards they think are good into a pile.  There’s nothing wrong with this step in deckbuliding, but at some point you should step back and say “what am I trying to do?”  Will I use an effect that makes me “win” the game? Will I deal 120 damage to my opponents?  Will I force all 3 of them to draw cards until they are decked?

Let’s Build a Deck

A quick refresher on the basics of Commander deckbuilding:

Players build singleton decks of exactly 100 cards.  Commanders have special rules associated with them, making them almost always available to play.

Color identity includes colors in the casting cost of the card as well as those present in the card text, though not in rules reminder text. This is an edge case though, and will most likely only come up when using cards with the Extort mechanic. Hybrid mana costs DO count as being both colors for color identity purposes, however.

Zaxara, the Exemplary

Zaxara costs 1BGU, so it’s color identity means that a commander deck with Zaxara as commander is allowed to include cards from the colors Black, Green, and Blue, the basic lands of that color identity, and artifacts and colorless cards. In commander, players are limited to a single copy of each card, with the exception of basic lands that produce the appropriate colors, so an Atraxa deck can have any number of Swamps, Islands, and Forests, and likewise any number of Snow-covered varieties of these cards. A Zaxara deck can also have artifacts that produce these colors, but cannot include an artifact that automatically produces mana of a color outside her color identity, such as Gruul Signet; while Gruul Signet produces G, which is inside Zaxara’s color identity, it also produces red, which is outside Zaxara’s color identity, and thus cannot be played. The truth is the color identity is mostly intuitive and simple to follow.

Alesha, Who Smiles at Death costs 2R, however she has B/W in her card text, so a deck with Alesha as commander could include cards with the color identity White, Black, and Red. It’s worth noting that a player can have an artifact like Fellwar Stone in their deck, which is potentially capable of creating mana outside the color identity of the commander, and if in game they end up in a situation where they need say Green mana, the Fellwar Stone could be used to produce it, but such cases are rare.

The commander starts the game in the command zone, (which is technically present in all games of M:tG). At any appropriate time (generally on your turn during your main phase) you can cast your commander for their normal mana cost + the command tax.  Command tax is 2 colorless mana multiplied by the number of times the commander has been cast from the command zone this game. Whenever a commander would be put into its owner’s hand or library, or if it was put into a graveyard or exile since the last time state based actions were checked, the controlling player may have the commander move to the command zone instead.  So if you cast your Zaxara, and your opponent casts Counterspell, you can recast her, this time for six mana, the normal 1BGU, and 2 colorless mana to pay the command tax.  On their turn, another opponent casts Toxic Deluge, paying three life, so Zaxara is destroyed and goes to the graveyard briefly.  Once any ‘dies’ triggers like Omnath, Locus of Rage are triggered, you can choose to have her go to the command zone instead of remaining in the graveyard (as a state-based effect).  This ensures that your commander is virtually always available to you, if you can pay the cost – Zaxara is now up to 5BGU to cast!

Commander decks must consist of exactly 100 cards. The commander(s) count against this limit.  Some cards have the “partner” or “partner with” abilities, which allow them to be co-commanders.  In this case the deck would consist of 98 cards, plus the two commanders, such as Thrassios and Vial Smasher who have a color identity of Black, Blue, Green, Red.  Command tax and commander damage are tracked separately for partner commanders.

Commander decks can include companions as companions if their deck follows the companions deck building requirement, however Lutri, the Spellchaser is banned.  When played as companions they begin the game as usual in the sideboard zone.  Companions can also be included in the 99 as a normal card.

Commander is a singleton, or highlander (there can be only one) format, so each card in the deck must possess a unique name.  This does mean that some cards essentially have duplicates, such as [[Kodama’s Reach]] and and [[Cultivate]].  While these cards texts are identical, because the cards have different names, a commander deck could include 1 of each.

Commander does not normally allow a sideboard, however a special exception is made for companions played as companions.

So we’ve established our commander, Zaxara, the Exemplary.  I want to make a medium/low power deck, so I’m going to use combat damage as a wincon.  Zaxara can be used as a basis for a more powerful x-powered spells archetype, generating infinite mana via spells like Pemmins aura, but for this deck I wanted to play around with a more casual archetype: tribal.  

For our Hydra Tribal deck, we’ll start at the end. Then from the end, ask ourselves how will we get to that end?  How will we get our end pieces into play? Tutors or mass draw?  Having them available in the command zone? Then ask ourselves what cards we need to protect our combo and our pieces to put the combo into play. Finally, assess what mana sources we need to power all these things.

Step 1: End the game

I want to put a bunch of large hydra creatures into play, and deal combat damage with them.

Zaxara is a hydra, and I’m going to limit my creatures to those that are hydras.  People build tribal decks for fun, with as loose or complex sets of self-imposed rules as they want.  I’ve heard of tribal decks that are very strict, such as decks that only allow cards with wolves in the art, but for my purposes I want to build a deck that will put out medium/large x-based creatures, double or quadruple them via enchantment effects, and then turn them sideways (attack with them).

I am including a couple more doublers, Spark Double and Sakashima the Imposter, while these creatures are technically not hydras, they are going to pretend to be hydras, thus I choose to justify them.  And also because of the double doubling effect, and double double doubling effect. Cards that copy other cards are fairly common, but there are only a couple that copy a card while maintaining their name or bypassing the legendary rule, and these two both accomplish that.  

To accomplish my win condition I need creatures, big fatties I can turn sideways on my opponents:


Creatures (21)
Feral Hydra
Hungering Hydra
Mistcutter Hydra
Protean Hydra
Wildwood Scourge
Genesis Hydra
Hydroid Krasis
Primordial Hydra
Steelbane Hydra
Voracious Hydra
Lifeblood Hydra
Managorger Hydra
Polukranos, Unchained
Polukranos, World Eater
Heroes’ Bane
Gargos, Vicious Watcher
Hydra Omnivore
Nessian Wilds Ravager
Oran-Rief Hydra
Ulvenwald Hydra

But I want a lot of hydras, and I want to really leverage Zaxara’s triggered ability. Thus, Sakashima the Impostor and Spark Double both of which I plan to use to copy Zaxara.  But that’s not enough for me.  I’m going to double the doublings, with Doubling Season, Primal Vigor, and Parallel Lives, as well as Copy Enchantment and Mirrormade, to copy them.  If I cast a hydra (nearly all of them X spells) with Zaxara in play, I’ll get a hydra token with X power and toughness.  But if I have Zaxara and Spark Double, I’ll get 2 tokens, each with X power and toughness.  If I have Doubling Season in play and Zaxara, I’ll get 2 tokens, each with 2x power.  If have Zaxara and Sakashima and Doubling season, I’ll get 4 tokens, each with 2x power. Add one more enchantment, such as Primal Vigor, and I’ll get 8 tokens each with 4x power.  So a 5x spell means I get 8 20/20 hydras. Wow.

Step 2: Get the pieces to end the game

Credit: Wizards of the Coast

For draw and tutors I go with the standard tutor array, Demonic Tutor, Imperial Seal, and Vampiric Tutor, but if you don’t have these you can go with slower tutors or any of the variety of black “draw 2 – cards, lose 2 – 3 life” cards.  I’ve also got Green Sun’s Zenith and Finale of Devastation, both in the deck to fetch the non X hydras, but as these themselves are X spells, they will generate tokens nicely. Finale of Devastation is also a pretty good wincon, letting us fetch a large hydra, and with 10 mana, giving all our creatures +x/+x and haste until the end of the turn.  If the board state devolves into a draw, slamming some 10/10 (or 20/20, or 40/40) hydras with haste and another +10/+10 should let us end the stalemate.  

Rhystic study, Greater Good, Sylvan Library, and Bred for the Hunt are around for pure card draw.  It  would be tempting to include cards such as Kavu Lair, except it doesn’t work well with Zaxara’s trigger. Zaxara’s trigger creatures a 0/0 creature and then puts counters on it, meaning the creatures enter the battlefield with 0 power. This means any effects that rely on creatures of a certain power entering the battlefield won’t work on our tokens, just on the main cast.  


Step 3: protect your ending game pieces and tutors or draws

For protection I went pretty light, with Abrupt Decay, Assassin’s Trophy, Pact of Negation, and fierce Guardianship. This is a true battlecruiser deck, with limited control.  It also includes force of vigor to stop a combo, crop rotation to tutor out power land or respond with a bojuka bog or cephalid coliseum to disrupt a win.  Heroic Intervention and Inspiring Call can keep our creatures alive in a pinch.

Pestilence and Withering Wisps will work as control and boardwipes in a pinch, and since our creatures will tend to be large we can use them to keep the board clean of powerful utility creatures, such as pesky elves or Dark Confidant.

I’m also running the often-hated Null Rod, but since we don’t have any activate-able artifacts and I chose not to run mana rocks, it seems prudent to lock down opponents artifacts if we can.


Step 4: power your protection, fetches, and combo

Since I’m making a battlecruiser deck, and sticking to tribal, I avoided any of the standard ramp, via Elves such as Llannowar Elves or Fyndhorn Elves.  Since I’m not running any mana dorks, or small utility creatures, this also makes my board clears safer for me.  I can give every creature in play -2/-2 pretty safely, or deal 2 damage to every creature, and Zaxara and my hydras should be fine. This also means even if I start out slow, I can do an early board wipe of small creatures to catch up.

So that I can power up those big hydras, I’ve included several of green’s land tutors, Kodama’s Reach, Cultivate, Tempt with Discovery, Nissa’s Pilgrimage, and Pir’s Whim.  Each of these lets me fetch lands, and to get them onto the battlefield I’ve included Burgeoning.

I think this will be a fun deck to play, ramping out a bit and putting out a number of large hydras. It doesn’t run many stax effects nor counterspells, so opposing decks will get to do their thing. I designed it to be a fun deck with spectacular effects that still interact with my opponent, and safe to bring out with people I’ve never played before. Currently the deck has a number of very expensive cards, but each of these could easily be substituted with cheaper version.  Substitute black draw for tutors, substitute basic lands for the duals and fetches, and you’ve eliminated most of the cost of the deck.

U.S.S. Exemplary, Cruising Into Battle

Zaxara, the Exemplary

Feral Hydra
Force of Vigor
Gargos, Vicious Watcher
Genesis Hydra
Heroes’ Bane
Hungering Hydra
Hydra Omnivore
Hydroid Krasis
Lifeblood Hydra
Managorger Hydra
Mistcutter Hydra
Nessian Wilds Ravager
Oran-Rief Hydra
The Ozolith
Polukranos, Unchained
Polukranos, World Eater
Primordial Hydra
Protean Hydra
Sakashima the Impostor
Spark Double
Steelbane Hydra
Ulvenwald Hydra
Voracious Hydra
Wildwood Scourge
Withering Wisps

Abrupt Decay
Assassin’s Trophy
Branching Evolution
Bred for the Hunt
Carpet of Flowers
Chord of Calling
Copy Enchantment
Crop Rotation
Demonic Tutor
Doubling Season
Drown in Sorrow
Enchantress’s Presence
Fierce Guardianship
Finale of Devastation
Garruk’s Uprising
Greater Good
Green Sun’s Zenith
Growing Rites of Itlimoc
Heroic Intervention
Imperial Seal
Inspiring Call
Kodama’s Reach
Nissa’s Pilgrimage
Null Rod
Pact of Negation
Parallel Lives
Pir’s Whim
Primal Vigor
Rhystic Study
Sylvan Library
Tempt with Discovery
Toxic Deluge
Vampiric Tutor

LAND (34)
Bloodstained Mire
Bojuka Bog
Boseiju, Who Shelters All
Breeding Pool
Cephalid Coliseum
Flooded Strand
Gaea’s Cradle
Karn’s Bastion
Marsh Flats
Misty Rainforest
Overgrown Tomb
Polluted Delta
Prismatic Vista
Scalding Tarn
Snow-Covered Forest
Snow-Covered Island
Snow-Covered Swamp
Tropical Island
Underground Sea
Verdant Catacombs
Windswept Heath
Wooded Foothills

Collector Ouphe
Cursed Totem
Damping Matrix
Destiny Spinner
Glistening Oil
Tainted Strike
Triumph of the Hordes
Worldly Tutor

Some notable exclusions: I decided to stick with hydra tribal, so I’m not running some obvious cards, like Collector Ouphe, Destiny Spinner (uncounterable creatures and enchantments, don’t mind if I do), Karn, the Great Creator and Cursed Totem, Damping Matrix to slow the game down.  The various Infect abilities would combo well with large hydras, some of which have trample, but since players tend to hate that I excluded them.  I also chose not to include strong countermagic and cards like Cyclonic Rift, a favorite of cEDH.  I also didn’t include some cards like Pir, Imaginative Rascal and Toothy, Imaginary Friend, both of which would combo well.