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10 Tips on How to Win Commander Format of Magic: The Gathering

Jeremy casts spells in between his careers as a chemical analyst and campus manager.

How to Play Commander Format in Magic

Magic's commander format rivals standard play in popularity, letting you access cards from all sets, not just the current rotation. It utilizes the following rules:

  • 100 cards (including your commander)
  • 40 starting life (30 in 1v1)
  • Legendary creature (your "commander") available throughout the match, can be recast from the command zone for two extra mana per revival
  • The deck must contain only colors your commander possesses
  • Singleton rules (other than basic lands, no duplicates allowed)

Despite larger deck sizes, commander lessens randomness since you always have your general available, letting you build around their theme. But moving to EDH is a big change from other formats—how can you secure victory? Here are 10 tips to help master commander mode in Magic: The Gathering!

Sliver Hivelord

Sliver Hivelord

1. Avoid Overloading on Colors

Often players are tempted to simply use a commander with all colors, making any spell valid in their deck. However, these structures generally don't perform well, running a big risk of drawing the wrong land types and not having the right kinds of mana available.

Sure, there are exceptions (the sliver rainbow decks aren't bad at all), but don't be too eager to overload on colors, especially since many of the best multi-color lands cost hundreds of dollars and are thus unavailable to most players. I often recommend 2–3 colors, balancing variety with focus.

Thrasios, Triton Hero

Thrasios, Triton Hero

2. Build Around Your Commander

It seems obvious, sure, but don't just blindly throw together the "best" cards of your colors. Instead, tailor to your commander's playstyle, as it's the most consistent part of your deck.

For instance, blue/green creature "Thrasios, Triton Hero" can potentially offer extra draws, but he also possesses both the merfolk and wizard subtypes. Each group offers several powerful clan effects; be sure to utilize Thrasios's twin lineages with supports like "Stonybrook Banneret" and "Patron Wizard."

Skullbriar, the Walking Grave

Skullbriar, the Walking Grave

3. Choose a Low-Cost Commander

A commander is only as good as your ability to actually cast it; strive for creatures that require four or less mana, letting you take advantage of not just their base cost but also potential revivals from the command zone.

Save your expensive titans for your main deck, where you can gimmick them into play with cards like "Norwood Priestess" or "Sneak Attack," which avoid their hefty fees.

Atraxa, Praetors' Voice

Atraxa, Praetors' Voice

4. Avoid Cards With the Same Cost as Your Commander

Assuming you don't run out of cards, each turn you'll play a land and gain access to higher-cost spells, gradually casting better units. But here's a tip many players don't consider: try to avoid cards that share the same cost as your commander.

After all, if you run "Atraxa, Praetors' Voice," you probably know what you'll play when you acquire four mana; stockpile other spells for turns with differing mana amounts. You can definitely bend this rule when there's a card that's just too juicy to ignore, but as a whole, try to diversify your mana costs from your general.

Serra Ascendant

Serra Ascendant

5. Exploit Your Increased Life

Commander's higher life totals make self-mutilating cards safer, lessening the costs of black spells like "Phyrexian Arena." Better yet, you can gimmick the effects of cards that require certain amounts of like to function (often found among white) like "Serra Ascendant" and "Felidar Sovereign."

In formats like standard, you'd have to build towards their abilities, but in commander, your increased health lets you take advantage of them much sooner. For instance, as long as you have at least 30 life, Serra (who only needs one mana) serves as a flying 6/6 beatstick with lifelink!

Dack Fayden

Dack Fayden

6. Play for the Long Haul

Because of the increased life, commander matches offer more time to build resources, making late-game spells and long-term strategies more effective. Cards that gradually gain power (like planeswalkers), increase your hand, or offer extra mana are generally more helpful than ones that only dish out damage.

This also means that the red faction can struggle in EDH, as it may run out of fuel before its damage-centered spells fully burn through your opponents' life. Not that red doesn't have its place (offering excellent removals like "Lightning Bolt"), but often you'll want to pair it with a secondary hue. And speaking of removals...

Malicious Affliction

Malicious Affliction

Inexpensive creature removals for every Magic color

ColorCardCost

Green

Berserk

1

Red

Lightning Bolt

1

Blue

Unsummon

1

White

Swords to Plowshares

1

Black

Malicious Affliction

2

7. Emphasize Creature and Artifact Removals

While you can never entirely predict opposing decks, be sure to include several creature removals. After all, you know your rivals will have at least one monster available throughout the game, and creature removals also defend against annoying infect strategies (which kill you after applying 10 poison counters). Additionally, since most artifacts are colorless and applicable to any theme, you'll find them everywhere (especially mainstays like "Sol Ring"), making relic-punishers just as crucial.

Cards that hinder legendary permanents also excel since the usual downside of legendaries (not being able to field duplicates) doesn't matter in singleton format, ensuring you'll encounter several renowned warriors.

Cyclonic Rift

Cyclonic Rift

8. Include Nukes (Mass Removals)

While early-game removals are important, you'll also want stronger board wipes to blast multiple units at once, especially considering how full fields become in EDH's lengthy games.

Nukes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and many impact your own units as well, but you can avoid the damage with either careful timing or by not running the card type they affect. To get you started, try "Cyclonic Rift" and "Damnation" against creatures and "Armageddon" against lands.

Sol Ring

Sol Ring

9. Know the Differences Between 1v1 and Multiplayer Commander

Remember that increasing the player count does more than, well, increase the player count. Having an elite deck isn't as essential to victory in multiplayer, as stragglers can gang up on the leader, whereas you're on your own if you fall behind in 1v1.

That applies to any format, but commander has a few extra alterations based on player count. Remember that 1v1 decreases life from 40 to 30 (still more than standard's 20, but worth noting), and some 1v1 games use an altered ban list called the "duel commander" list, outlawing the use of many spells that are otherwise legal (like "Sol Ring" and "Mana Drain").

Vampiric Tutor

Vampiric Tutor

10. Use Tutors to Find Your Aces

With 99 cards in your deck, even a top-tier theme can be unpredictable, but you can quickly find your necessities with spells that search cards from your deck, often called tutors. These come in a variety of colors and tend to be inexpensive, letting you access them early in your duel and swiftly pull your cornerstones.

With these tucked up your sleeve, you'll soon access your best cards no matter how scattered your initial hand, making them essential for any structure.

Building Your Commander Deck in Magic

Most EDH decks carry between 32–38 lands, but other card types depend on your theme; some builds have 20 enchantments while others include none. Look at your commander and see which cards and card types best support the theme, and go from there.

Many sample decks are available online to get you started, but for now, as we eagerly await Wizards of the Coast's next expansion of legendary creatures, vote for your favorite commander color, and I'll see you at our next MTG countdown!

Questions & Answers

Question: In Commander format, where do the rules say that 1v1 grants a life total of 30 each?

Answer: Good question, EDH life totals are a murky area that WOTC is still tinkering with. Magic Online's official rules state "In Magic Online Commander 1v1 matches, if you only have one opponent, each player begins the game with 30 life." Many players (myself included) prefer this for 1v1 since it gives red damage-based decks a much better chance at winning.

© 2019 Jeremy Gill

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