Playing with Non-Permanents in Commander

Playing with Non-Permanents in Commander

Tom AndersonCommander

Quick question for the Commander players in the audience: without checking, what percentage of cards in your deck non-permanents?

Does 50% sound right? 75%? Even higher? I know there’s some blue/red spellslinger players or cEDH decks with tons of instant interaction helping keep the averages down, but I’d guess most other decks the number is closer to 80% than 50%.

As a cut-throat multiplayer format that lends itself to synergy-focused deck building, Commander is all about seeking maximum returns on the resources you invest in your spells. Even the most efficient instants and sorceries generally provide a fixed effect, once per cast, and then are gone.

Meanwhile permanents stay in play and can generate recurring value from triggers, activations, combat and static abilities — to say nothing of how they fuel the effects of other permanents by entering play, being sacrificed and so on. It’s not hard to understand why Commander focuses so much on building up board states when the rewards for playing these cards scale so much better.


I’ve been thinking about this tension in Commander decks a lot more recently after I noticed how many of my decks were going out of their way to avoid non-permanent spells. I don’t just mean mono-green or creature-heavy decks, either. 

Even my blue-heavy draw-go decks like Rashmi and Sefris have been steadily replacing instants and sorceries with permanents whenever they can get away with it. And it turns out you can get away with it quite a lot!

More and more often you can find a creature or artifact or enchantments that duplicate the effect of an important sorcery on ETB or death, while also providing the inherent utility of permanents; attacking, blocking, reanimating, flickering, tapping and sacrificing.

By far the biggest reason to include non-permanent cards is the timing advantage afforded by instants. But many of these equivalent permanents also have flash, activated abilities or otherwise find ways to be useful at instant speed. 

Better yet, permanents with abilities can often be activated for little or no mana cost in the moment, meaning you can keep your shields up while still developing your board further each turn. Given that permanent cards usually have more powerful supporting synergies, what reason then to go without them?

Even if you do want to play that way, is it still possible to keep up with the players who are expanding the potential of their boardstate with each passing turn?


The most common and straightforward justification for upping your instant and sorcery count is an explicit mechanical theme or restriction. You might be playing a commander whose abilities specifically reference instants and sorceries. Or maybe you’re building around tons of prowess creatures, or you’ve chosen a companion like Lurrus or Zirda whose requirements leave loopholes for non-permanents.

Because these “spellslinger” decks tack on so much extra value to instants and sorceries, they tend to warp card choices toward simply casting as many as possible regardless of their printed effects. 

It’s certainly one way to find power in non-permanents: spellslinger synergies have found tournament success across Magic’s history through decks like Storm, Burn, Prowess Aggro, Izzet Phoenix and Delver. But in Commander, these decks tend to be much more reliant on permanents to multiply the impact of their instants and sorceries.

I’m not going to take someone’s spellslinger license away because they run Archmage Emeritus over Cosmic Epiphany, but it’s worth acknowledging it’s not that big a departure from any other permanent-dependent deck. It’s also a theme which is pretty tightly limited to blue/red/X color identities, even in the bloated card pool of 2023 Commander. So what other strategies can we try?


Rather than building a deck that tries to make instants and sorceries better, what if we made nonland permanents worse? Instants and sorceries may only have a one-off, momentary effect, but that does mean your opponents have a single, small window to interact with them. Permanents sitting around on the battlefield makes them more vulnerable to being bounced, stolen, turned off or blown up at a critical moment.

I like to explore an idea like this by taking it to the logical extreme: a deck that intentionally keeps a low permanent count in order to jam double-sided anti-permanent effects the way creatureless control decks jam Wrath of God. Given how much anti-permanent firepower is needed to keep three or more opposing boards in check, we’ll need to rely on the open-ended potential of one permanent we can’t avoid playing: our commander.

Celestial Kirin is the first legendary candidate for clearing away boards en masse. While we don’t have perfect control over what it destroys, there are enough Spirit and Arcane spells in white to potentially hit any mana value we need. 

Shining Shoal and Ugin’s Conjurant are especially useful since they can be “customized” to snipe the exact cost we need. The Conjurant can even hit mana value zero to destroy all the tokens in play… and all the lands.

Of course, playing this many Spirits to enable Kirin also means we can gain a lot from go-wide creature-type synergies like Herald’s Horn or Door of Destinies. But the high likelihood of immediately blowing up our own cards means including those generic engines is not nearly so automatic as usual. 

I’ve had this deck built for about a decade, and it is just the kind of grinding, table-policing, painfully fair pile I hoped it would be. It’s a favorite pick for lower-power games, especially with players who don’t mind having to execute their gameplan through an extra layer of interference.

But the changing metagame and growing power level of the average deck has not been so kind to poor Kirin, and lately the inherent lack of resource generation has felt harder and harder to overcome. Wizards of the Coast has been working hard to give mono-white decks reasonable access to ramp and card draw, but rarely within the narrow band of spells Celestial Kirin asks you to play.

So I’m starting again with a new commander; one who can even more effectively sweep clean enemy board states, and whose color identity can at least give me access to the kind of resource acceleration that has become mandatory in today’s Commander meta. Sarulf, Realm Eater is in a completely different league of power to Celestial Kirin; as you might well expect of a card whose designers were actually aware of Commander’s existence.

His permanent-sweeping ability can be triggered without additional cards, is more easily “tailored” to the needs of the situation, hits multiple mana values at once and exiles its victims to prevent recursion. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of Celestial Kirin’s deck building limitations, but I admit it feels a lot nicer that Sarulf just asks us to play with +1/+1 counters — Magic’s most ubiquitous and flexible mechanic.

Not only do green and black have tons of efficient ways to load counters onto Sarulf without needing other permanents, but many of them are tied to extremely relevant effects like land ramp, spot removal, card draw or protection for Sarulf. The overall mana efficiency of these small instants (and of repeated free sweeper triggers) should be more than enough to offset the limitations of being so commander-dependent, or the occasional collateral damage from Sarulf exiling our own cards.

Because yes, I do think this deck will ultimately end up playing some non-land permanents in the 99. To me, this project is about trying unique play styles — not arbitrarily restricting myself from playing the right cards. And if we deliberately look for cards with unusually large printed mana costs, we should rarely need to crank Sarulf’s Pernicious Deed effect high enough to hit them.


Personally, I’m extremely proud of both these decks and I love the games they create —  how differently they make me think about Commander. However, there’s more than one player at the table who will have an opinion on this new approach to the format…

From my Celestial Kirin experience, I already know some players consider this level of permanent-vandalism to be against the spirit of Commander, and just generally not their idea of fun. We can agree to disagree on whether playing through the carnage is an engaging puzzle or a joyless slog. But at the very least, it’s a conversation to have with your playgroup (hell, with yourself!) before you commit to this style of deck.

But if it seems like any of your group are on the fence about it? Ask them to give this article a read, or even get in touch with me online. Magic in the age of Commander is constantly being pushed towards faster, more consistent, more permanent-driven games. I’m certain it won’t hurt for some decks to push back a little.