Just a few days ago, we offered some tips on how to build your first Commander deck. If you’re still looking for ideas, the upcoming Commander 2019 precons are a perfect starting point! These decks come out of the box ready for high-powered multiplayer action.
But for the best Commander experience, you’ll want to find a consistent group of players to gather round your table. Multiplayer Commander has its own unspoken rules of etiquette, which are essential to keeping a good playgroup together.
If you’re wondering how to bring a group together at your local store, or if you want to get a new Magic friend into your next game, here is my best advice on how to approach Commander.
PLAYING FOR FUN
The Commander format has become synonymous with casual Magic. It is a refuge for players who want to play pet cards, create complex board states, or avoid the pressure of following a metagame. There are few Commander tournaments, and most Commander fans wouldn’t enter one, anyway. They would rather play around the kitchen table with friends, as a large chunk of Magic players always have.
That’s because Commander, like tabletop RPGs, is about telling stories. The lack of stakes in a game, the variance of 99-card decks, and the format’s inherent politics all mean that winning alone is less of a prize. It’s still heaps of fun to win, but the fun comes from the way you achieve that goal. It can be just as fun to lose spectacularly when the spectacle is what you came for.
Now, does playing for fun mean you’re not allowed to play good decks? A lot of players coming to Commander seem to worry about this. Magic is more fun when the things you’re doing feel strong! What if your idea of fun involves casting spells like Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise? If you’re feeling nostalgic for Winter Orb, does that justify preventing other players from casting their spells?
The only real answer is “if your playgroup is cool with it.” This core philosophy can be applied to pretty much every question around what “should be allowed” in Commander. The goal of the format is having fun, but everyone’s definition of “fun” is different, so make sure your playgroup is on the same page.
Not everyone can win a game, but most players do go in with an idea in mind of what their deck “wants to do.” If they can get close to that, or just have a big turn or two, often that’s enough to feel good about the game. This is why decks which close very fast, or prison-like decks which stop people doing their thing, tend to be less popular in Commander.
SCOUTING YOUR POWER LEVELS
If you’re starting a playgroup, talk to your friends about the power level of your decks before you even decide what to build. Some players want to run Legacy-level combos, and others want to play odd tribal decks full of vanilla creatures. If you’re in the former camp, try throwing together an all-hydra Gargos deck on the side so you can offer a more balanced matchup! Or have each person in your playgroup buy their own Commander precon and try playing them out of the box.
If you’re looking to join a public game of Commander at a store or with a group you don’t know, try and get a read on what sort of game they expect. If nobody is interacting on your deck’s level, you might be tempted to style on them and end things early. But what does that prove to anyone? Set yourself a different goal, like reaching an unusual alternate win condition or playing only at sorcery speed.
FOR FUN & PROFIT
Commander decks can have huge power disparities because the pool of available cards is tremendous. The format is barely more restrictive than Vintage, a format with the smallest banned list available. Everyone gets to play their favorite cards or archetypes of yore, from Stax to Trix to Rebels to Pickles!
This also makes the format a little bit pay-to-win. There are budget decks that can be tuned to punch above their weight: aggro decks can still curve out with affordable creatures, and certain Commanders enable tribes or themes which are not in high demand. Strategies which focus heavily on the Commander itself can often skimp on the 99. But there will always be a huge difference between what can be achieved with Diabolic Tutor and Commander’s Sphere vs. Demonic Tutor and Mana Crypt.
If your group runs into this sort of power disparity, then encourage your budget players to try and beef up on premium disruption. Magic’s best hatebears, removal, and counterspells are available at a fraction of the price of the threats they stop, which should help keep things competitive.
THE SPICE OF LIFE
The Commander format is all about deckbuilding and personalization. Most decks are an expression of what their pilot loves most in Magic, but I believe there is a right way to brew for Commander. While you can definitely make decks that have tons of redundant pieces or tutors to maximize consistency, this is against the format’s goals.
If Commander is about telling stories, then they will be more interesting if every game plays out a different way. Lean into the variance of the format and focus on cool, strong cards that synergize with your commander. This is yet another reason why you should have several decks, so you can change things up!
In an average multiplayer game, there’s plenty of time when it’s not your turn, or you’re the first one out (more on that in a moment!). Whether you’re playing with the same group of friends you’ve had for years or you all just sat down at a MagicFest table together, just starting a discussion can drastically improve the experience. You can make connections with players that lead to a sense of community and those long-lasting playgroups everyone loves.
Magic can be a great icebreaker – you have at least one common interest! – and table talk gives you a chance to control the story of the game. If one player isn’t drawing enough lands, the whole table has no doubt been there before. Having everyone chant “land, land, land” every draw step will at least raise their spirit and make it feel like a victory when they manage to get back to casting spells. If two players pull far ahead of the pack, a bit of trash talking or dramatic commentary from the others can keep the whole table involved in the outcome.
That’s the best advice I can give to anyone buying into the format with Commander 2019. Remember to set clear expectations with your group and focus on the story, and you’ll be enjoying Commander’s unique appeal in no time!
Tom’s fate was sealed in 7th grade when his friend lent him a pile of commons to play Magic. He quickly picked up Boros and Orzhov decks in Ravnica block and has remained a staunch white magician ever since. A fan of all Constructed formats, he enjoys studying the history of the tournament meta. He specializes in midrange decks, especially Death & Taxes and Martyr Proc. One day, he swears he will win an MCQ with Evershrike. Ask him how at @AWanderingBard, or watch him stream magic at twitch.tv/TheWanderingBard.