Saturday, January 31, 2015

Commander Cube: Starting the Build

Nahiri, the Lithomancer

I've been building Commander decks for a few years now, one deck at a time. A cool new legend is printed? I totally have to build a deck around it!

Then the deckbuilding process starts. What does the Commander do? What cards work with that Commander? What's the theme? What's the strategy? Finally, it all comes together. And I play a couple of games with the deck. And, I want to try something different.


I've written before about how, on a fundamental level, many Commander decks are similar. The individual cards and flavor might be different, but the way each deck plays out will be largely the same. Certain strategies work because they work.

Drawing, tutoring, utility, creatures, ramp... all of these concepts can be roughly applied to any Commander deck. The degree to which each can be applied might change, but they are mostly going to be there. Because they work. They make the deck tick.

Rampaging Baloths

The other issue is that there is a push toward a style of play that exemplifies the format. Hard-lock prison strategies, land destruction, hand destruction (discard), and fast combo, all exist, but I'd be willing to bet that most playgroups will only tolerate those strategies for a while before getting bored with it. There are other formats for that stuff, better suited to handle those situations. Commander, in the end, centers on explosive value, creature beatdown, and yes, politics.

Sol Ring

I've also written about how some cards are really good at what they do and become format staples. There's good reasons for why it works out that way that are fundamental to the game itself. You can make a decision to look for off-the-wall pet cards to accomplish the same things, but as soon as you stumble upon a gem, other players are going to pick up that tech and it will become the new staple. But no matter how you slice it, your deck will not be full of tech from top to bottom. You will end up leaning on staples to some degree.

Put this all together and you get decks that are similar in composition and strategy, cards that are similar from deck to deck, and a handful of pet cards that give your deck personal flair or synergy.

In other words, you have a cube.

A cube is a curated collection of cards, typically used for drafting, often with a theme. I'm building a cube, but specifically for my own personal one-man drafting. I'll be using it to build a variety of Commander decks in all colors and combinations, so that I always have something new, or at least varied, to play.

Ephara, God of the Polis

This allows me to evaluate cards on an individual basis for inclusion in the cube as a whole, instead of for an individual deck. Cards that fit more than one strategy will be more important and interesting for the cube. This naturally cuts out super-specialized cards that, in my experience, aren't all that much fun. Decks that do one thing only, but do it well, are boring to play with and boring to play against.

The other thing this does is tone down the power level of the decks I am playing, but without toning down the power level of the individual cards. If I can't cherry pick the cards I need to maximize a particular line of play while constructing the deck, it will be less consistent. That variability will require me to play with a more open strategy. But since all of the cards were cherry picked for the cube in the first place, each card I play will be something I'm looking forward to slamming down on the table.

Visit to check out (or even try out) my Deckbuilding Commander Cube.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Getting Needlessly Fancy With: Lands

Command Tower

There are a lot of lands in Magic. Lands that do all kinds of crazy things. And that's good! It gives our decks dimension and adds important tradeoffs to the deckbuilding process. But, one thing that always comes up when I build a new deck is how to get the right mix of lands to produce the right colors of mana I need when I need it.

My deckbuilding process usually starts with my Commander, the legendary creature I'm going to build a deck around. You could start with a color combination or a particular card you want to theme a deck around, but for me the Commander is what makes this format what it is.

From there, look for the spells I will use to make the deck work. What creatures do I want to see? How will I draw cards? What control elements make sense in this deck?

After I narrow the list down to about 60 cards, I start thinking about the lands to support all this awesomeness.

For me, selecting the right lands looks something like this. I shoot for about 38-40 lands because I hate (hate, hate) not being able to cast the spells I put in my deck. You can get away with less lands depending on how you build your deck, but that comes later.

Thassa, God of the Sea

Single Color
If I run a Commander in a single color, the mana base is the easiest to build and the most flexible. It is also the least expensive.

Of the 38 lands, about 28 of them will be basic lands. Good old Island or Mountain or whatever basic land I need goes a long way to making sure I hit my colored mana sources. The other 8-10 lands are utility lands, like Temple of the False God or Buried Ruins. Reliquary Tower is another popular choice. Cycling lands like Lonely Sandbar and Blasted Landscape are criminally underplayed, but easily make the cut in my single color decks.

Xenagos, God of Revels

Two Color
At two colors, my manabase is more complicated (and more expensive). I hate lands that come into play tapped. With a vengeance.

It's bad.

My worst play experiences are having the land I need to do something awesome, but knowing that it doesn't matter because my lands come into play tapped. The only thing worse than lands coming into play tapped, is missing land drops entirely.

In a two color deck, I can put pressure on the colored sources of mana but not as easily as in a single color deck. In other words, I pull back on the utility lands to make sure that I have enough colored mana sources. Instead of 8-10 utility lands, I drop down to 5-6. They have to be good to make the cut. Like, Maze of Ith good.

Mayael the Anima

Three Color
This is where things get interesting. I go back through my spells at this point to make sure that I haven't included too many double and triple color requirements in my casting costs. Insurrection requires three red sources. Jamming that into a deck with Necropotence and Future Sight is a recipe for disaster. My best bet is to have two primary colors and a support color. The support color spells should require only a single color to cast. I bend this rule, but following it will reduce the number of times I have a handful of spells I can't cast.

Green and blue are good support colors to have in three color decks. Green ramps and color-fixes with spells like Cultivate and Kodama's reach. With Green, I will almost certainly be able to build a deck that can get the other colors I need. Blue draws cards and manipulates my library with spells like Fact or Fiction and Brainstorm. This helps me hit every land drop and find the right lands to make the colors I need.

Four Color
There aren't any four color Commanders yet, but the mana base would be similar to a five color base.

Sliver Hivelord

Five Color
The cost in real money to do this right is frightening. With five colors, I worry about getting the colors I need when I need them. Color costs for spells are all over the map. Utility lands are at a huge premium here and I need to start running lands that can produce all five colors of mana.

It's still best if I stick to a couple of primary colors, with the other colors as backup. Blue is popular for control. Black is popular for tutors. The other colors, white, green, and red, are used for the "greatest hits" from each. Otherwise, I go with a multi-colored deck with lots of multi-colored creatures like Slivers or Dragons. Either way, getting the colors I need when I need them is the most challenging with a five color deck.

If you are new to Commander, a single color deck is by far the easiest, most consistent, and least expensive to build. You could build several single color Commander decks for the cost of a two or three color mana base. But if you expand into multi-colored decks, these are the lands that I would look for first.

Underground Sea

(A few words about the original) Dual Lands
The gold standard of multicolored lands are the original Dual Lands. They are old, broken, and very expensive. They are also the best. Although they are non-basic, they count as the type of land that corresponds to the mana they produce, and they come into play untapped. No fuss, no muss.

However, when just one of these lands costs as much as several great Commander decks, you can skip getting these and still do fine. Think of it this way: It'll be one card out of 100. How often will that come up? One in five games? Maybe less? And when it does, you get to make two colors of mana from one land with no drawbacks. It's not, in and of itself, a game changer.

If you want the best, and can afford them, by all means get one each of the original Dual Lands.

Polluted Delta

Fetch Lands
By this, I specifically mean the ten lands that fetch two colors for one life without coming into play tapped.

For a cost of one life, the right fetch land will "fix" whatever color of mana you are missing by getting you the correct land. The downside is that if you fetch the Island you need at the moment, that Island will only produce blue mana going forward. It's a one shot deal. Still, the fetch lands can turn into whatever color you need at the moment. And! they work wonderfully with the Shock Lands we'll take a look at in a minute. (And yes, they work will with the original Dual Lands for the same reason.)

Watery Grave

Shock Lands
These ten lands are as close as we get to the original Dual Lands. Prices are considerably closer to reality, but still expensive for a collection that includes one of each. They count as the land types that correspond to the mana they produce, which means that they can be fetched with the Fetch Lands. They also have a condition that we can easily control, costing two life to come into play untapped.

These lands are really, really close to the original Dual Lands when you consider that we have 40 life in this format. I would start collecting them after the Fetch Lands because the Fetch Lands are more flexible and have more uses.

Drowned Catacomb

Check Lands
This is a format where games go long. Ten or more turns is common. The condition on these lands is one that we will typically meet by simply doing what we are doing anyway: playing lands. It's "nearly" unconditional, expect for the first turn where you likely don't have a play to make anyway. They can't be fetched with the Fetch Lands, but they will often come into play untapped and make two colors of mana.

Underground River

Pain Lands
These ten lands do not count as the land types that correspond to the mana they produce. But, they come into play untapped and produce colorless mana with no drawback. Often, you can play around the damage they cause, unless you really need the color of mana you are missing. In other words, it's land with a drawback, but one that we can easily control in a format where we start with 40 life.

Mana Confluence

Five Color Lands
These lands tap to make any color of mana. But, the game designers don't want these lands to be so good that you end up playing them instead of other lands that make less than five colors of mana, so get ready for substantial drawbacks.


Command Tower

Except Command Tower, because hey, let's make sure we sell a bunch of Commander preconstructs.

City of Brass and Mana Confluence damage you (or cause you to lose life). Grand Coliseum is slower, but has flexibility the others don't. Forbidden Orchard has additional functionality for politics.

Terramorphic ExpanseEvolving Wilds

When in doubt, don't forget Terramorphic Expanse and Evolving Wilds. Since I hate (hate, hate) lands that come into play tapped, I avoid these. But, if you are running a bunch of colors in your deck, these two lands will get you what you need. Just be ready to burn a turn since the lands come into play tapped.

Other than the list of lands above, here a few other lands to round out this party.

Reflecting Pool

Reflecting Pool doesn't do much on its own, but for making two mana of a single color when you need it, it works great most of the time.

Tainted Isle

The cycle of Tainted Lands are also great if black is one of your colors. They are similar to the Check Lands, except they never come into play tapped. You will almost always meet the condition, since the condition is simply that you also control a Swamp.

For a great visual reference, check out Head over there, search for you Commander, and flip through the various lands that might work for your deck. But remember, there are a lot of lands that you could use for your deck that actually make things worse. Just because it taps for two or more colors of mana, doesn't mean that you should run every single possible variation of it in your deck. Too many lands that come into play tapped or have a condition you can't often meet, will actually weaken your manabase instead of making it stronger.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Fate Reforged Spoiler: Archfiend of Depravity, Reality Shift

We are in the thick of spoiler season for Fate Reforged, and things are looking tasty. Check out the action over at, why don't you? The set is shaping up nicely, but there are a couple of standout cards that caught my attention. Let's take a look!

Archfiend of Depravity

This aint your regular fiend.

That's his slogan, I'm pretty sure.

That, or, this one.

He's fiendy!

If you follow this blog, you know that I have a demon (tribal) Commander deck (Oops! All Demons). Before Griselbrand was banned, it was my pride and joy to slam demons onto the table and cackle. After the banning, the deck lost some shine. Still, every new set brings demons to the party, and Fate Reforged is no different. It's party time.

Archfiend of Depravity, in addition to being depraved, is a 5 power flyer for 5 mana. With creatures getting pushed further up the power curve, this is par for the course. But, I like my demons to have drawbacks. Not regular drawbacks, mind you. Interesting drawbacks. This guy, however is all upside. His ability causes your opponents to sacrifice creatures. He leaves a couple creatures around to worship him, I guess. But, that isn't really a drawback so much as simply not the most powerful version of his ability.

For those of you who are wondering what I'm talking about, a more powerful version of his ability might be something like, "During each opponent's end step, that player exiles all creatures he or she controls." Even less interesting.

Woebringer Demon

To make him more demoney (it's a word!), it would have been cool if it affected all players including the controller, but with a loophole, like it only affected "non-demon" creatures. Loopholes are what makes demons, demons. We are starting to lose the flavor of making questionable deals with demons.

Reality Shift

Here's something fun.

This blog is about the Commander format, so I'm looking at cards from that perspective. That said, I suspect Reality Shift will make waves in several of the constructed formats. It is an efficient removal spell that has the magic word, "exile."

When I was reworking my Grixis control deck built around Nicol Bolas (Bolas Is Behind It All!), I was looking at spot removal spells in Red, Black, and Blue. Red has burn. Black has destroy. Blue has bounce. Right?


FireballLightning Bolt

Well, in Commander, the efficient burn of Red isn't big enough. You could make an argument for the flexibility of Fireball, but Lightning Bolt doesn't do enough. Black has great spot creature removal available. Hero's Downfall, Dismember, Go for the Throat. Nasty stuff.

DismemberGo for the Throat

Which brings me to Blue. The color that bounces problems. The color of tempo and impermanence. Blue gets Pongify and Rapid Hybridization. We're dancing on the very edge of flavor here. These are both spells that flat out destroy a creature, and for only one blue mana! Sure, the creature's controller gets 3/3 creature to play with, but in Commander that's hardly worth mentioning.

PongifyRapid Hybridization

As I built Bolas, I kept coming back to the Blue removal spells. They made the cut over other removal spells. They are low-mana-cost, instant speed, destroy a creature, spells with a negligible drawback of leaving a vanilla 3/3 creature in their wake. Plus, they are thematically funny. Here, have a frog.

Reality Shift is like that. A low-cost, instant speed removal spell. Except this one exiles the creature entirely and leaves a 2/2 behind. If that 2/2 happens to be "not a creature" underneath, then the party is over. If it is a creature, the controller can turn it face up later. I'll take those odds.

How often is it not a creature? Roughly two-out-of-three times. Maybe less. Many decklists cap out at around 35 creatures.

So, now Blue has (at least) three efficient creature removal spells at instant speed. Oh, good.