Marak’s Guide to Magic: The Gathering, Commander Format

Marak

September 24, 2019

Introduction

I’ve been playing Magic: The Gathering for almost 25 years, since Unlimited. I started playing Commander several years ago when I moved back to the United States and was introduced to the format by friends. I was immediately hooked by the friendly and social nature of Commander games.

I had previously played both casual kitchen sink games and competitively formats like Extended and Modern. Playing Commander presented a fun and new challenge which required not only a strong knowledge of the game, but having to learn the new dynamics of politics and multiplayer.

I’ve written this book as a way to share the knowledge I have discovered in the hopes the reader can take this information, apply it their own Commander games, and make a more enjoyable play experience. It is assumed the reader of this book already has a working knowledge of how to play Magic: The Gathering and knows the basic rules of the Commander format.

I’ve tried to not name any specific Magic cards in the main section of this book. Instead this book will cover the fundamentals of playing Commander with a focus on game mechanics. If you’d like to see this theory applied please skip ahead to the end of the book where you can see the cards used in my own constructed Commander decks.

Any advice found in this book should not be considered absolute or unbending and I encourage you to define your own philosophy based on your own social experiences playing Commander.

Social Format

Commander is a social format of Magic. This means that the objective of playing a Commander game is not to win, but the act of playing itself. Embracing this mindset for both deck construction and gameplay will yield amazing games where everyone gets a chance to play cards, have fun, and even possibly win.

Discourage Unfun Cards

Certain cards can create unfun play experiences in a Commander game. These cards are considered not fun because they limit or impair the ability for other players to actually play the game.

Mass land destruction effects are awful to play with and against in a multiplayer game. No one has ever felt good about having all their lands destroyed and not being able to cast anything for the rest of the game.

Stax effects aren’t the worst, but excessive Stax effects can be just as bad as mass land destruction. I understand that certain decks want to gain advantage by slowing down their opponents ability to use resources. What is not fun is when no one can actually do anything because the Stax effects are grinding the game to a halt.

I don’t prefer cards which lead to very long turns or create a delay in game play. Certain Red cards require all permanents to be auctioned off between players or randomly assigned to each player. Cards like this take up way too much time and can lead to long drawn out confusing games.

The Annihilator ability is not my favorite. Unless they have a lot of tokens, it can be devastating for a single player to get attacked with Annihilator and in most cases it begins the start of a slow death for that one player. I use to have a deck which contained all the large creatures with Annihilator. It didn’t lead to fun games and I’ve since moved all my Annihilator creatures to the Power Cube, which worked out great.

Use your own judgement to determine what you would consider to be an unfun card. See how your playgroup reacts to the card being played. Does playing the card result in you getting high-fives from players, or are you hearing groans from the entire table?

A good test to determine if a card is unfun is to ask yourself how you would feel if someone else cast this spell against you or if someone manages to steal or copy the card during gameplay. If you wouldn’t want a card used against you, then you should probably not be running it.

Non-Linear Deck Design

A linear deck is a deck that is designed to follow the same few lines of play each game. These decks usually run several Tutor effects or rely heavily on the Commander to do one very specific thing.

Linear decks make for less interesting games. Linear decks have less ways to interact with other player’s cards, are repetitive to play, and tend to be either overpowered or not resilient enough to be consistent.

In a well tuned non-linear deck every single card slot matters. Instead of running Tutor effects, it’s better to have more cards capable of creating additional lines of play or cards that will synergize with other effects in your deck.

I run almost no Tutors in my deck collection, but I do find utilizing a Wish Sideboard for some decks is very rewarding. Certain spells allow players to Tutor for a card they own outside the game. For decks which have these cards, I maintain a ten card Wish Sideboard. I use these sideboards to contain answers for specific threats or to include cards which can help recover my boardstate.

Singleton Across All Decks

I try to build my Commander decks with a singleton rule applied across all constructed decks. This means I try not to repeat the same card between any two decks. The major exceptions to this rule are mana rocks and Lands.

There are a few very specific cards that I will run copies of across multiple decks, but I always try to avoid this and continually work to move them to singleton. Usually these exceptions will be defensive cards that can help protect my boardstate.

Moving towards singleton design across your Commander decks will positively impact your play experiences. Restriction breeds creativity. Singleton encourages non-linear deck building and will yield unique gameplay across all your decks. Singleton encourages more resilient decks as you will be able to utilize the synergy of cards that you wouldn’t normally have room to try out.

Remember that Commander is a social format with the goal of having an enjoyable game. Playing new and unique cards can be a fun and interesting experience for the whole table.

Deck Building

Selecting a Commander and building a Commander deck is an expression of your personal style of playing Magic. The sheer amount of unique Magic cards available allows for endless possibilities for deck construction.

Your deck should have some purpose, direction, or theme which it’s built around. This could be almost anything. Get creative. Find something you like about the game of Magic: The Gathering and try to build your Commander deck around that. You can even build a deck that’s primary objective is not to win the game.

I recommend for most decks to make sure they can still function in the event that your Commander gets hated out of the game. The Commander should be the icing on the cake that is your well-tuned deck.

Essential Parts of a Deck

Regardless of what the theme of your deck is, you will usually need the same few key elements in order to have a good play experience. I always try to keep the following parts in mind when building a deck or working on a deck.

Mana Ramp

Mana Ramp is usually the most important part of a Commander deck. Without a way to accelerate your mana development you will fall behind while other players are able to cast more expensive spells and advance their boardstate.

There are many colorless mana rocks available that cost (3) mana or less. Specific mana rocks will synergize better with certain decks. Certain Enchantments and Artifacts can help produce additional mana by doubling your mana or reducing the casting cost of spells. There are many Creatures that can produce mana ramp, but I tend to not include these in my decks unless they can actually fetch a land card. Creatures that tap for mana are powerful, but Creatures will be destroyed to a board wipe more frequently than Artifacts, Enchantments, or Lands. For mana ramp Sorcery spells, Green has some of best cards in the game.

The amount of mana ramp required is relative to the deck itself. On average, a deck should have around nine cards dedicated to mana ramp. The optimal amount of mana ramp cards for a deck will vary based on factors relating to spell casting costs and permanent activation costs. Decks with more mana ramp cards usually need to also have more card draw spells or Scry effects to keep your hand filled with spells.

Card Draw

Card draw is essential for Commander decks. Without the ability to draw extra cards, you will eventually get stuck with an empty hand while your opponents continue to play cards. It’s not fun when you have no cards to play.

I try to include a minimum of three cards per deck that can draw more cards. Some of my decks have over ten cards to draw cards. The amount of draw cards required will vary per deck design and archetype. Decks with less card draw usually need another way to generate advantage such as replaying cards from the graveyard or generating tokens. Decks with more card draw may require cards to eliminate your maximum hand size to prevent having to discard down to seven.

Removal

Removal effects are effects that can disable, Destroy, or Exile permanents like Creatures, Enchantments, Artifacts, or Planeswalkers. You can also use spells that will bounce, steal, copy, or counterspell your opponents spells or permanents. Exiling is generally stronger than sending something to the graveyard.

Without a way to remove permanents from your opponents boardstate, you will lose many games. It’s critical to have a way in every deck to interact or alter your opponents boardstate. Without having at least one removal card in your deck, you could get locked out of any possibility of winning the game.

The amount of removal and kinds of removal will vary based on your deck design and playgroup’s meta-game. I try to run at least five removal effects in every deck and always have at least one way to remove an Artifact, Creature, or Enchantment.

Win Conditions

If you’d like to win any games, your deck will need cards that can create a scenario where you can actually win the game.

Your win condition could be as simple as the combat damage produced from including ten dragon cards with Haste, or as complicated as trying to assemble a six card infinite combo. Some cards even enable you to win the game with an alternate win condition.

Be creative and make sure to give yourself options. I try to have at least two win conditions in every deck and I try to vary the types of win conditions each deck can achieve.

Life Gain

While life gain is not a requirement in every deck, it’s still very helpful to have some way of recurring gain life. In a well balanced multiplayer match, gaining as little as ten to twenty life over the course of the game can be powerful.

I try to include at least three ways to recur life gain in every deck and focus on finding cards that can gain life as an additional or secondary effect of the card itself. The Lifelink mechanic can be very powerful when it can be re-used, multiplied, or amplified across multiple creatures. Any card synergies that can cause life gain triggers to recur are good.

Protection From Combat Damage

Players are going to cast Creatures and attempt to attack you with those Creatures. You’ll want cards that discourage players from attacking you and encourage them to attack other players instead. The options will vary based on the deck archetype.

If you can maintain an army of 1/1 flyers with Deathtouch, it’s most likely you won’t get attacked much with the exception of creatures that are Unblockable or have Trample. Certain Enchantments will trigger negative consequences if a player attacks you, such as destroying a creature or having to pay additional mana per attacker. Re-usable Fog effects can keep you protected from combat damage almost indefinitely.

Regardless of your choice, you will need a way to protect yourself from combat damage. Remember that if all else fails you can simply use board wipes to get rid of all the Creatures.

Finding Cards For Your Deck

The best way to find new cards for your Commander deck is to search the official Wizards Oracle database. It’s free and publicly available online. Learn to use the Advanced Search and exercise patience. Searching the Rules Text for specific phrases such as: “whenever”, “double”, “every”, “each”, “lose the game”, “win the game” all yield very interesting results. Be creative in your searches and remember some of the older cards may have different keywords and wording compared to the newer cards.

Some players find new cards by visiting Commander deck aggregator sites which show the most popular cards used for any specific Commander. I don’t recommend designing your decks based on these deck aggregator sites. While it can be a good way to see some of the most popular strong cards, remember that popular doesn’t always mean it’s the best.

Calculating Mana Base

It’s critical your Commander deck has a well balanced and consistent mana base. This will allow you to reliably cast your spells every game and not get stuck in situations where you are short on the mana to make game changing plays.

Choosing Lands

There is no magic forumla for calculating your mana base and optimal desired land count. The average amount of Lands in a Commander deck is around 34-35 assuming you are running nine mana ramp cards. Some of my decks contain 38 lands, and one deck even runs 23 lands. The amount of lands will heavily be determined by the deck design.

The amount of colored mana producing lands will depending on the colors of your deck and color pie distribution of your cards. I will usually count both the total amount of cards of each color, as well as a separate total amount of colored mana symbols which appear in the cards casting cost. Gold cards are counted multiple times for each color they contain. Once I have these color ratios, I will compare them and attempt to use a similar distribution ratio with my basic lands. I will then substitute out some basics for multi-color lands while still maintaining the same ratio. Multi-color lands are counted towards the ratio multiple times for each color they contain.

Once I have a good distribution of colored mana production I will determine if any non-colored or utility lands should be added. Decks with three or more colors tend to have less room for lands which produce colorless mana.

Considering Mana Rocks

Certain mana rocks can help fix colored mana production in you deck, while other mana rocks can produce colorless mana or offer secondary effects such as drawing cards or gaining life. It’s important to consider which mana rocks would work best with your deck and to not just auto-include the same mana rocks in every deck.

Test and Adjust

The only way you will truly know if the mana base is built well, will be by testing the deck several times. You can start with a few solo games playing out your first five turns to see what you would have been able to cast or not cast. Move next to real games and take note during your sessions if you are flooded with mana, don’t have enough mana, or are missing specific colors of mana to cast spells.

Make small adjustments to your land counts, land distribution, and mana rock selection and test again. Eventually you will get to a point where your mana base feels very consistent and doesn’t fail you often. Once you hit this point of consistency, don’t be tempted to try to replace a land or mana rock with a spell. Do be aware that when you update the deck with new non-lands card you may have to adjust your mana distribution.

Generating Advantage

To generate advantage is to utilize your cards in a way to improve your position in the game or to increase the amount of a resource you control in the game. Resources could be things like your life total, the amount of cards in your hand, the amount of Creatures you control on the board, or even the amount of cards in your graveyard.

The act of generating advantage can take many forms or be specific to certain game mechanics. When selecting cards for a deck, you should always be thinking about how and where you can generate additional advantage.

Re-usable Effects

A simple way to generate advantage is to play permanent cards which have a re-usable effect. The more times the effect can be re-used the better. Effects that generate tokens, gain life, draw cards, or remove other permanents can become very powerful if re-used multiple times.

Multiplicative Effects

Certain effects can multiply based on factors such as the amount of players in the game or creatures on the board. Multiplicative effects usually contain the keywords “each”, “every”, or “double”. There may also be an X value in the rules text which is not dependent on the casting cost of the spell.

Suppose you are playing in a five player game and cast a spell that reads, “Each opponent loses 5 life. You gain life equal to the life lost this way.”. You just did 20 damage and gained 20 life.

Imagine you have ten 1/1 creatures on the board and you cast a spell that reads, “Creatures you control gain trample and get +X/+X until end of turn, where X is the number of creatures you control.”. You now have ten 11/11 creatures with Trample.

When used in the right situations, cards with multiplicative effects can become very powerful very quickly. Try to look for ways to synergize with these types of cards to increase their multiplicator value.

Synergistic Effects

The best way to generate advantage and also the most the difficult way is to utilize synergistic effects between multiple cards. This is when you play a line of cards that generate large amounts of value that normally wouldn’t be expected from the amount of resources spent.

An example of this would be playing a combination of cards which can trigger multiple re-usable effects from common game events like drawing cards, attacking with creatures, or casting spells. Another example would be playing many cards that share similar effects in order to create a cumulative effect that is re-usable and difficult to disrupt.

Gameplay

Magic: The Gathering was recently proven to be the most complicated game in the world and Commander can be one of the most complicated forms of playing Magic. Mastering the game of Commander is going to take time and practice. It requires making both strategic decision making as well as keeping the politics in your favor.

It is inevitable you will make mistakes, so do your best to remember your mistakes and try not to repeat them. The following gameplay advice is distilled from years of experience and observation and is split into two categories: Strategy and Politics.

Playing Strategically

Commander is a game of strategy. Every action matters. You will need to manage your resources intelligently and be able to adapt to new situations quickly with recalculated lines of play.

The boardstate can get complex quickly and you may feel overwhelmed trying to form good strategic plays. Instead of trying to achieve perfect-play, I recommend trusting in your intuition and using the following guidelines.

Be Aware of the Boardstate

It’s important to have at least a basic awareness of which permanents are in play. If someone has a potential win-condition on the board, you should know about it. If the Blue player has all their mana untapped and a full hand, they might be holding a counterspell. If a combo player cast a piece of a combo last turn they might untap and win the game on their next turn.

If a specific card is going to cause a long-term problem for you and other players, you should be aware of it and have a plan to deal with it. Certain cards might not affect you directly, but will generate a large advantage for your opponents. Be aware of which permanents your opponents might try to use for generating advantage.

Hold Your Removal and Counterspells

I’ve seen a lot of new players make this mistake. Do not cast your counterspells and removal spells too early!

Removal should be held back for game-changing threats. Consider how threatening a permanent is to your position before casting a removal spell on it. Consider if someone else might find the permanent more threatening and will use their own removal to take it out first.

I only use counterspells when I think I may lose the game if I do not counter the spell. A good counterspell play is one that either prevents your opponent from drastically improving their boardstate or protects your boardstate from being disrupted.

If you happen to die while still holding a counterspell or removal card in your hand, you should review the line of play which brought upon this death and determine which spell you could have countered or removed to prevent your death.

Stack Response Priority

In a multi-player game there is an order in which players can respond to the stack. It follows the same order as turn order.

It is important to maintain this order when responding to big events in the game and not be tempted to jump in front of someone else’s priority. If a player sitting across from you casts a board wipe that you want to counterspell, you should ensure the players sitting between you have a chance to respond first. One of those players might decide to counterspell it instead, leaving you with an extra counterspell card to use later in the game.

This same principle applies to triggered effects and abilities. It’s better to always enforce the turn order of responses for each action as it gives you more options for creating lines of play.

Plan Your Line of Play

At the beginning of your upkeep, you should already have a strong idea of what cards you will play and what actions you will take that turn. After you draw for turn, you might decide to take a new line of play based on the card drawn, but your general plan will most likely remain the same.

It’s best to be constantly planning your line of play based on new information which presents itself on the board. I will generally have an idea of what I’m trying to do for the next few moves to improve my boardstate. If the boardstate drastically changes or a large threat hits the table, I will then take time to adjust my line of play accordingly.

Playing Politically

Commander is a social multiplayer format. Politicking is the act of talking to your opponents in order to generate favorable outcomes to your boardstate. In this free for all gaming environment, it makes strategic sense to create temporary alliances and work together with your enemies against a common enemy. Politics is just as important as deck design or creating lines of play.

If you have the strongest deck on the table and don’t play politically, you will probably lose the game. Once your opponents see you generating advantage and casting threats faster than anyone else, they will inevitably team up on you.

It’s best to remember Commander is a social format. Don’t be the person who attacks the player with the weakest boardstate. Show compassion to the player and hope later they might be able to help you later to take out a common enemy.

Be Friendly

This should go without saying. Be nice, friendly, kind, and empathic to your fellow players.

Being friendly will generate a strategic advantage in the game, but really it’s just the right thing to do as a human being.

Remember that Magic is suppose to be a fun game and that Commander is suppose to be the most social of all Magic formats. Your entire playgroup should be having fun while playing the game.

Discuss Decisions with the Table

If you are about to cast a spell that will significantly alter the boardstate, you should consider discussing the action with the table first. Your opponents are going to see the card soon enough and discussing what is about to happen might work out in your favor. If you have Priority there is little to lose by discussing your intended spell.

Many times your opponents might reveal information that will change your decision and lead to you to taking a more strategic line of play.

Don’t Make Yourself a Target

In a Commander game, it’s important to not make yourself a target for other players to attack. It’s best to try to not appear as the biggest threat on the board, especially when you are. This means you may have to hold back certain spells or actions that might draw too much attention to your boardstate. Playing certain cards might seem very advantageous for you, but they can act as a focal point for all opponents to attack or remove.

Identify Targets

Actively look for and announce potential targets that other players should attack or remove. It’s usually going to be in your best interest to have your opponents fight against each other. This requires some degree of subtlety because if you are constantly pointing at other targets in an alarmist fashion the table may decide to target you instead.

The best kind of target to point out is one that is a shared threat amongst the other players. The goal is to keep your opponents from attacking you and instead have them chipping away at each others boardstates.

Don’t Try to Win Every Single Game

If you develop a reputation for winning every game, you will become the default target and everyone will learn to attack you first. Commander is a social format and your play group might not appreciate you ramping up to a turn five win every game.

Ideally you should be winning N percent of games where N = 1 / Players. In a five player game, you should aim to be winning about 20% of the time. If you find yourself winning far more than N, consider tuning down the power of your decks or working to help the players in your group who have a low N value to improve.

Etiquette

Magic is a game and games are meant to be played for fun. There is a certain etiquette you should follow when playing games in order to ensure everyone will have a fun time. If you find yourself not having fun at the table, discuss with your playgroup what could be changed for the positive. Good etiquette can keep you happy and will create a friendly and enjoyable play experience for everyone.

Allow Take Backs and Do-Overs

If a player asks if they can take back or do-over a simple mistake, I will almost always approve. There can be a lot of information on the board to keep track of and it’s very easy to forget that the creature you are trying to target now has Shroud. Obviously the player didn’t intend to waste their spell, so you let them take it back.

My general rule is that if no new information has been presented to the table, then a do-over is allowed. If a player casts a spell or activates an ability and no new cards were drawn or revealed, or anything like a coin flip or dice roll happened, I will allow the do-over. It’s really not fun being punished for accidentally playing a card out of order or making an obvious play error.

Additionally, if a player casts a spell and then a majority of players on the table object to the timing of the spell or actual usefulness of the spell and the caster wants a take back, I will allow it. It’s not fun to punish newer players for not understanding the nuances of the game.

There does have to be a limit for take backs and do-overs. If new information has been presented I will not allow a take back or do-over. If a player has drawn more cards since the action, they cannot take it back. If an opponent revealed a new card in response to the action, the action cannot be taken back.

Ultimately what is allowed and not allowed should be decided by your playgroup and on a per incident basis. I would recommend being consistent with the allowance and use of take backs in order to keep your playgroup fair and balanced. If you see a player at your table consistently making play errors, you should take the time to try and teach them to play better.

Don’t Take Too Long On Your Turn

In a multi-player game the boardstate can be complicated. At a certain point, it’s going to be impossible to analyze all lines of play in a reasonable amount of time. It’s inevitable you will make play errors or not take the most optimal line of play.

Instead of trying to find the best plays and taking very long turns, I will try to pick a line of play that feels intuitive, or that will result in interesting gameplay. If I really can’t decide what to do, playing defensively is usually a good option. Just announce that you “have nothing to play” and pass the turn. I’ve seen players take fifteen minute turns after drawing twenty-eight cards and still not win the game. Don’t be that player.

Sometimes you may have to take a long turn and that is okay. When you think you may be starting a long turn you should first let the table know. This will give a chance for the other players to possibly stretch their legs, or even give you some advice on a line of play to take. I’ve announced to the table before that I may have to start a long turn, only to have a quick reaction explaining a board wipe was coming or that we were all going to die unless a specific threat was removed immediately.

Don’t Concede In Spite

Sometimes it might be tempting to concede in response to a player attempting to steal your permanents or attack you for a lethal amount of Lifegain damage. Conceding in a situation like this is usually not a sporting play and in most cases you should just let the game play out. Take your defeats with pride and don’t be spiteful and deny players their triggers by conceding early.

In some situations, it does make sense to condede in a response to an action. The difference here is that you are making a calculated play to quit the game instead of trying to get one last punch in on the person who took you out of the game.

Like most things in Commander, discuss the situation with your table and see what your playgroup considers the best course of action.

Putting It All Together

Now, you should have the tools necessary to become a Commander pro. You know how to build fun, unique, and strong decks that generate amazing play experiences. You know how to make strategic decisions that will advance your boardstate and you are a master of politics and social gaming etiquette.

Your mindset is no longer focused on winning games, but playing games. You get excited when your opponents beat you in a fair matchup. Your playgroup openly communicates and adapts to create a more positive gaming experience.

It’s now time to take these tools and continue with the journey that is playing Commander player.

Conclusion

Thank you for reading the Alpha edition of Marak’s Guide to Magic: The Gathering Commander Format.

I hope that by reading this book you have learned new ways to improve the Commander experience for both yourself and your playgroup. I hope you will be generating more high-fives in response to casting new spells. I hope that you now feel inspired to go work on your decks. Good luck and have fun!

Look online at http://www.marak.com/magic for updated editions and updated deck lists.

Releases

9/24/19 - Alpha Version Released

Glossary

Boardstate The state of the game including things like permanents in play, cards in hand, cards in graveyard, and life totals.
Flooded With Mana Having too much mana and not enough cards to cast. Continuing to draw land lands cards turn after turn while having no spells to play.
Fog Spell or effect that prevents all combat damage for the turn. Named after iconic Green spell, “Fog”
Hated Out When your commander hasn been removed so many times their commander tax becomes too high to cast. Also when your command has been enchanted and turned into a Forest or Beetle.
Mana Rock A colorless artifact used to generate mana
Mana Ramp A spell or ability that will increase the amount of mana you can generate
Playgroup The group of players you usually play magic with
Politics Talking with your opponents in order to generate favorable outcomes to your boardstate
Stax Any effects that prevent mana from being produced or apply a mana penalty for casting spells
Threat A card that is going to negatively affect your boardstate or life total, usually a powerful creature.
Tutor A spell or effect used to search your library and find another card

My Decks

Here I have included some of my own Commander decks in approximate order of strength. Each deck is trying to do something different.

These are not intended to be fully tuned or extremely high powered. These decks are tuned to a style of play which I personally enjoy and some high powered cards have been purposeful left out or removed to create a more enjoyable play experience.

These decks attempt to follow a singleton rule applied across all decks. I have tried to not re-use the same card between any two decks with the exception of mana rocks and Lands. There are still some notable duplicates, but I do try to keep them to a minimum and I am continually working to move them to singleton.