When Chooseing What Commander to Build Gets Tough

When Choosing What Commander to Build Gets Tough

Kristen GregoryCommander

Sometimes choosing what Commander to build next feels like an impossible decision. Kristen sits down to work through the often complex decision making process by sharing some thoughts on how to break through the indecision paralysis. 

Under the monitor are a seemingly random assortment of Magic cards, numbering in the multiple-hundreds. To any uninvested onlooker, it might seem a chaotic mess, in need of a good sort. To you? Well, it’s actually quite organized. You see, those three larger piles? Each has a potential Commander on top, and it’s the cards you’ve pulled out to brew with. That pile in the back? That’s stuff that’s arrived in the mail that you need to sort through — though you’ve already fished out the great new removal spell for your existing Orzhov deck. Beyond the scattered tokens, prerelease spindowns and random sleeves, there’s a pile to the side that looks a little messier. You can say for certain those are offcuts from previous experiments, and they just need to be put back. But that’s a job for future-you, right?

The scene I’ve just described is probably one you’re intimately familiar with. It’s what graces our workstations, often for weeks — or even months! — at a time. Some of those piles of cards will go on to form decks, but just as often, they’ll sit there, in the green room, waiting for their time to shine. Sadly, when it comes time to audition? They won’t be what you’re looking for, and they will be amalgamated with the pile marked “to sort”. Eventually, you’ll get frustrated and file it all away again. 

It’s a familiar experience, sure. But why does it happen?

What Are You Waiting For?

There are a few different reasons why ideas and decks end up accumulating in your dumping ground. The primary one for many people right now is that there is just way too much choice when it comes to what deck to build. We are absolutely spoiled for choice, and it’s never been a better time to play Commander. With that choice, however, comes some amount of indecision. It feels like there’s a new product every five seconds, and when a new piece of candy drops so often, you’re likely to end up in a food coma — passing up on the opportunity to be creative by filling up on carbs. 

Preview seasons are exciting — lord knows I’m ready for Kamigawa: Neon Destiny already — but they can often distract from getting a deck built. At the tail end of 2020, I experienced a frustrating journey of deck building. I pulled out a pile of cards to build an Orzhov tokens deck with, and while it was originally meant to be Regna and Krav, I was suddenly excited about building Clerics with Orah, Skyclave Hierophant

Before long, Commander Legends brought Thalisse, and so my tokens deck that was already on the backburner suddenly had a brand new Commander to consider! Awesome. Well, until Kaldheim. Kaldheim brought some sweet Angel and token support with cards like Rampage of the Valkyries, and so my deck building idea shifted somewhat. Should I do traditional tokens? Or concentrate on Angel tokens? What if I built two? Which deck should I put Ophiomancer in?

“Rampage of the Valkyries” art by Billy Christian

That pile ended up being dismantled when I moved house, and the deck went on the backburner again. Since Kaldheim, Black-White Tokens decks have received cool additions in nearly every set, and so have many other archetypes. It became apparent that my inaction was causing me to miss out on enjoying the deck. I never built it — and still haven’t to this day — because something else always came along to occupy my time or my passions. 

Ultimately, overthinking is what puts the nail in this coffin, and being too preoccupied with what’s coming down the road. The thing is, Magic cards are printed in such quantities that few cards from each set truly become unobtainable. Build your idea, even if it’s not perfect. You can pick up other cards later, and if new cards come out? You’ll have a better idea of whether you want them or not if you’ve actually built and tested the deck idea. That way, you’re actually saving money.

Fast Fashion

The other prevailing barrier to building a deck is finding out that others in your playgroup have already jumped on the idea. It’s a natural reaction to be averse to hype, or to feel like being a contrarian. If everyone is already invested in making something happen, then maybe there’s less value in you building it, too. This is often felt more keenly in smaller playgroups with players that have fewer decks in their repertoire. While it’s nice if everyone has a dozen decks to choose from to keep things fresh and match power levels, in practice, this can be prohibitively expensive, which is an unfair bar to set for your friends. 

Maybe the choice not to build a deck is selfless rather than selfish, too. If a friend is super excited about an idea, you might want to just leave them to it. Maybe it’ll make them happy to experiment with an archetype or deck idea without the temptation of comparing their build to yours. Maybe you can afford to build more decks due to a deeper collection, so you leave the easy-to-build deck to another player with fewer cards in their pool. 

Regardless of how you approach this, what matters is that you’re not really one for picking the mainstream option. The inevitable issue then arises when your interest in a new Commander piques because it speaks to you on a personal level, and mainstream-be-damned, you just have to build it. 

“Tovolar, Dire Overlord” art by Chris Rahn

On occasions like this, I find it helpful to truly own that build. Make it yours with pet cards, make it yours by making it the best possible deck it can be. Maybe try an alternative strategy when it comes to building it, even. A good example is my recent deck building article on Tovolar, Dire Overlord. I espoused an approach that concentrated more on Wolves than Werewolves, a direction that can distinguish the deck from the rest of the pack. 

A Few Times I’ve Been Around That Track

Sometimes, a deck idea can feel fresh when you sit down to work it out, but after you do the math, it can end up feeling a little too familiar. If you’re familiar with my style of Commander, you know that I love attacking. I have a good selection of combat-focused decks, from Wulfgar to Aurelia, from Edgar to Lyra, from Sigarda to Syr Gwyn. The deck I’ve built the most is Voltron, and even in builds that don’t aim for Voltron as a win condition — Elsha of the Infinite, Cosima, God of the Voyage — I end up often having outs built in that can give me a Voltron win condition.

As such, brewing Adeline has been a bit of a journey for me. It’s very easy to have her using Commander damage to end the game, and when I’ve added my favorite consistency cards like Sword of the Animist and Mask of Memory (among others), the shell of the deck ends up feeling a little samey.

Some of that, no doubt, comes down to the more narrow selection of “good” cards that white has access to. But a lot of it invariably comes down to what I’ve found to be empirically successful, and what cards I have in my collection. I still want to build her, especially because it lets me use some sweet cards like Dragon Throne of Tarkir, Intrepid Adversary and Court Street Denizen. She’s just been sitting around on my desk a little too long, and the motivation to finish my deck building process just isn’t there. 

At times like this, I find it good to check in with other people about their experiences playing a deck. Ask them how it plays, talk about your concerns, and ask them about any cool and interesting cards that they might recommend. If the deck does turn out a little similar to something you already have, then choosing to not play duplicate cards between decks can go a long way to making the deck feel unique. With Adeline, for instance, I don’t need the likes of Blackblade Reforged or Sword of Vengeance. Stoneforge Masterwork and Haunted Cloak can do just fine. While cards like Archaeomancer’s Map and Smothering Tithe might feel necessary still, I can also have fun with Strixhaven Stadium, Fey Steed and Crackdown.  Just playing cards you don’t play elsewhere can go a long way to making a deck feel attractive to build. 

Making Do

Somewhat related to the previous points, what you have in your collection can really have a big impact on what you want — or can — reasonably build. If you’ve historically loved playing more combat-focused decks but want to build Spellslinger or Artifact Matters, you might be short on staples. We can’t possibly pick up every Magic product, so if you missed precons in the past that can jump-start certain archetypes, you might find yourself sorely lacking certain cards. Precons are a great way to boost your collection, in that case, and an option I recommend if you’re seeking ways to diversify the decks you play. 

“Burrog Befuddler” art by Zoltan Boros

It can be tempting to add everything to your basket before you’ve even built a deck, but more people should consider testing their ideas and their decks before buying everything. By all means, pick up the key cards you know you’re going to play — I’m not suggesting for a second to build sub-optimally. But I would suggest that you take a look at my article on the benefits and pitfalls of 1v1 Commander testing, as it goes in depth on how this approach can help you refine what your deck needs, and help you to make better researched and tested purchases. 

On the flipside, building from your collection can often be a liberating process. They say restrictions breed creativity (something I’ll get onto more later), and there’s no better restriction than “cards I own”. Many players adopt this concept — some unknowingly — and it helps to keep gameplay fresh between decks. While a card like Teferi’s Protection or Mana Drain is good in every deck, I own only one or two copies of each, so I leave it at that. I run Semester’s End in my Edgar deck (which cares about +1/+1 counters and Sorin planeswalkers, actually) and it’s nice to have some variety. 

Mo’ Colors, Mo’ Problems

I mentioned earlier that restrictions breed creativity. It’s a common enough concept at this point that it doesn’t bear laboring over, but there’s one aspect of it that I do want to cover. Sitting down with a three-, four-, or even five-color Commander can give you way too many options to build from. With access to so many powerful Magic cards, it can become overwhelming to try and cut down to 99 cards. And, in doing so, you might become disillusioned with a pile of “goodstuff” — at least, if that’s not what you’re aiming for. 

While there are always exceptions to rules — and in this case, the exception is a Five-Color Goodstuff deck that’s easy to throw together because it’s goodstuff — my point is rather that trimming down your options can make it easier to be creative, and harder to rely on crutches like pure value. 

“Keruga, the Macrosage” art by Dan Scott

Fewer colors isn’t the only way to help zone in on a decklist. Brewing with companions has become pretty popular recently, with my good friend TheHermitDruid popularizing Keruga. While that deck might be more powerful than you’re after, it does show how creativity can be born from restrictions. Fewer colors, companions, tribal cards, cards you own… it doesn’t really matter what the restriction is, just lean into one. 

Building for your playgroup is also a scenario in which restrictions present themselves, and in my experience, the best way to restrict yourself is to consider the commander you’re playing. While a commander like Korvold, Fae-Cursed King might seem great for a Jund Food deck, it might be too strong for your friends’ more durdly decks. Removing consistency from the command zone can do a lot to temper a deck’s power and the type of game it’ll have.

Likewise, you might find a commander like Vadrik super fun, but find that he’s winning too quickly for some of the tables you play at. In that scenario, I encourage you to build the deck that you want to build, rather than trying to arbitrarily power it down by removing individual cards, or tutors, or fast mana. All you’ll end up with there is an inconsistently powerful deck, which is often treated the same by opponents as if it were tuned to the max — because some games, it’ll feel like it. Instead, be true to your vision, and just accept it might not always have a table to play at. Either encourage your friends to build something to play against it, or diversify your playgroups so you can enjoy the best of both worlds. Trying to straddle the line between power levels is more trouble than it’s worth, and an unnecessary hurdle you don’t need. 

Inspiration on the Cutting Room Floor

The home of half-forgotten ideas and bursts of creativity, the cutting room floor when it comes to building Commander decks is a place where dreams go to die. But it’s also a place where you can rediscover an idea and fall back in love with it, or even pick up a cool synergy for a different build. It’s a place where nuggets of gold can be found, and a place that you’ll get away from eventually. 

It’s also a place you should tidy up. So you should probably get on that before your next package arrives. 😉

Ultimately, I want you to be able to pick something that resonates with you. It doesn’t matter if it’s popular. It doesn’t matter if a new card or commander might come along in the future. It doesn’t matter if it won’t be perfect the first time, or if it might suck a bit. The beauty of the format is in how you can make something personal to you, and that’s what often gets left in the dust when we are distracted both by the process and what’s around the corner. 

Let me know your deck building stories on Twitter