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How to Build a Commander Deck in MTG – Full Guide!

Building a Commander deck may be one of the most fun things to do in Magic: The Gathering! MTG Commander decks offer a lot of flexibility and give you the opportunity to let your personality shine through.

That being said, building an MTG Commander deck isn’t easy. If you start putting in cards randomly, you may not get the result you were looking for. This article will give you the resources you need to build a Commander deck with the perfect balance of functionality and fun!

mtg Commander cards
Commander cards

How Many Cards in an MTG Commander deck?

Unlike in most other MTG formats, Commander decks require you to have exactly 100 cards. These 100 cards include your deck’s commander (more on that in the next section). To make matters even more interesting, every single card in your deck needs to be unique. With the exception of basic lands, you can have only one of each card.

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Choosing Your Commander

Your commander will probably be the most important card in your Commander deck. After all, the format is called Commander! Before we start going over what makes a good commander, let’s first understand the concept of color identity.

What is Color Identity?

Kess, Dissident Mage and Kenrith, the Returned King mtg cards.

A card’s color identity refers to which colored mana symbols appear on it. For example, Kess, Dissident Mage’s color identity is blue-black-red, because its mana cost consists of those three colors. Kenrith, the Returned King’s color identity is actually all five colors, even though it only requires white mana to be cast. This is because it has five activated abilities, each one costing a different color.

As for how this all relates to your commander, each colored mana symbol that appears on a card in your deck must also appear on your commander. For example, if your commander is Kess, Dissident Mage, you can only play blue, black, and red cards (or cards that are a combination of these colors). On the other hand, if your commander is Kenrith, the Returned King, you can put any cards you want in your deck because Kenrith’s color identity is all five colors.

The big takeaway here is to pay attention to your commander’s color identity. The fewer colors that appear on your commander, the harder it will be to find good cards that fit in your deck.

What Cards Can Be a Commander?

According to Magic’s official rules for the format, your commander must be a legendary creature.

Legendary creatures have a whole set of rules that apply to them, but for the purposes of this article, all you need to know is that a legendary creature has the ‘Legendary Creature’ text on it, like Kenrith, the Returned King below.

Can a Planeswalker Be a Commander?

Some Planeswalkers have the text “[planeswalker name] can be your commander” written at the bottom. Those Planeswalkers can be your commander.

One example is Terefi, Temporal Archmage.

Sidenote: Commander was designed as a casual format, which means the whole purpose of it is to have fun. If you and your friends want to change the rules to your liking, go ahead! Pick any Planeswalker to be your commander if you like. Just make sure your friends agree to this first.

What is the Best Commander?

Technically, there’s no “best” commander, but some are definitely better than others. While there are plenty of great commanders out there, we can group them into two categories: value commanders and combo commanders.

Okay, now for the fun part: choosing your commander!

Value commanders

Kenrith, the Returned King and Kess, Dissident Mage

In the first category, we have value commanders. Creatures like Kenrith, the Returned King and Kess, Dissident Mage are great examples of this. They give you lots of deckbuilding flexibility because they work well in nearly every type of deck. These are some criteria you’ll want to look out for when choosing a value commander:

  • Good color identity. The more colors that appear on your commander, the more cards you’ll be able to pick from when building your deck. If you pick a commander with very few colors, you’ll be putting tight restrictions on what cards you can play.
  • Value-based abilities. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but having a commander that can draw you some extra cards at any point during the game will make sure you never run out of things to do.
  • A reasonable mana cost. If the mana cost of your commander is too high, you may never get the chance to cast it.

Combo commanders

Yisan, the Wandered Barn and Urza, Lord High Artificer are two great combo commanders.

In the second category, we have combo commanders. These are commanders that have unique abilities which you’ll want to take advantage of by building your deck around them. Creatures like Yisan, the Wandered Barn and Urza, Lord High Artificer are two great combo commanders.

Here are some criteria to look out for when picking a combo-based commander:

  • Synergistic color identity. The number of colors available to you doesn’t matter so much as what specific colors are available. If there is a card that synergizes very well with your commander, make sure it fits within your commander’s color identity.
  • Unique abilities. After all, these abilities are what you’ll be building your deck around. For example, Yisan, the Wanderer Bard has the unique ability to search your library for specific creatures and put them directly onto the battlefield. If Yisan is your commander, you’ll want to pay close attention to which creatures go into your deck.
  • Cheap mana cost. In a deck that requires your commander to operate at full power, you’ll want to cast it as quickly as possible. The earlier you can get it in play, the earlier you can start putting your gameplan into action.

The Command Zone

What’s so special about a commander anyways? Well, every other card starts the game somewhere in your deck. The commander’s special because it starts in the command zone, a zone unique to the Commander format.

In terms of mechanics, before a game of Commander starts, each player sets aside their commander before shuffling their deck. At the start of the game, your commander starts face-up in the command zone. It can be cast at any time for its mana cost, plus an extra two mana for each time you’ve cast your commander from the command zone. Whenever your commander is sent from the battlefield to either your hand, graveyard, exile, or library, you may choose to have it go back to the command zone instead.

Basically, you’ll always be able to play your commander assuming you have the mana available, so having a great one will make a tremendous difference in every game you play.

Strategy

Because many of the rules in Commander are different from most other Magic formats, you’ll want to change your strategy accordingly. First of all, each player starts the game at 40 health instead of 20. This makes archetype aggro decks much less popular in Commander because it’s so much more difficult to finish off games quickly.

Thoughtseize and cyclonic rift mtg cards

Plus, Commander was designed as a multiplayer format. Most games of Commander are played with four players. Some cards that are great in two-player games (such as Thoughtseize) become much less popular in four-player games since their overall impact is much lower. Cyclonic Rift, on the other hand, hardly ever gets played in two-player games of Magic, but it’s one of the best cards in Commander.

Commander Damage

If a player has been dealt 21 or more combat damage by the same commander over the course of a game, that player loses the game. That may influence which commander you choose and the strategy you choose for your deck.

You may build a deck around that win condition and boost your commander to get that player damage in!

Choosing your MTG Commander deck theme

Like with any Magic deck, you’ll want a central theme that pulls it all together. This theme is likely to be led by your Commander because you want cards that synergize with them. 

However, there are still several different ways you can choose your Commander in the first place, and the type of deck you create. Consider these different deck theme types for some inspiration. The power level of your deck isn’t everything. It’s also about what’s fun for you to play! 

Creatures

Lathliss Dragon Queen commander card art
Lathliss, Dragon Queen card art. Artist: Alex Konstad.

Your deck could revolve around a particular creature type such as goblins, dragons or rogues. With tribal decks, there are often plenty of opportunities for cards that boost every other creature of that type. Better have some counters ready! 

 

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Spells

Instead of focussing on creatures, you could favor spells. For example, your deck could contain lots of enchantments and artifacts to boost a relatively low number of creatures. The interesting Arm for Battle preconstructed Commander deck revolves around boosting the commander with lots of auras and equipment. 

Mechanics

Your deck could be built around a key mechanic like doing damage to a player whenever one of your creatures deals combat damage. Or your deck could make interesting use of the exile mechanic to remove and return creatures to play for bonuses such as creating flying creature tokens like the Phantom Premonition deck does.

Abilities

If you really enjoy particular abilities like vigilance or hexproof, then why not build a deck around a combination of them? You could build the deck around just one, but a mixture of a few will make your deck stand up better against different commander players.

Decklists

You could get inspired by looking at other Commander player’s MTG decklists on places like TCGPlayer. That’s not to say you’ll copy their decks exactly, but they can be fantastic for getting ideas. Have a browse and see which ones look like fun to you. 

You could even look up the decklists of previous tournament-winning decks for ideas.

Once you’ve decided on your theme, it’s time to decide what to put in your deck! In the next section, I’ll go through the fundamental card types and identify what to look for when deciding what cards to put in your Commander deck.

What Should Be in a MTG Commander Deck?

100 cards is a good number of cards to play with, so you can have a good mix of different types of card in your deck. Cards in a Commander deck can generally be sorted into the following types.  

Win Conditions

First things first, you need to know how you plan on winning Commander games. Whether you intend on drawing all the cards in your deck and playing Thassa’s Oracle or building a huge army of creatures and attacking everyone the old-fashioned way, you should have one (or more) plans on winning the game.

Oftentimes, your commander will be part of your win condition. Niv-Mizzet, Parun is a very popular commander because he has an infinite combo with Curiosity. With both cards on the battlefield, you can draw as many cards as you want and deal that much damage. Two-card combos are hard to pull off because you need both cards at the same time, but when one of those cards is your commander, you’ll always have at least one of those cards at the ready!

However, Commander is a singleton format, meaning you can only put one of each card in your deck. To get around this restriction, it’s a good idea to play backup cards that are functionally similar to your win condition.

Ophidian Eye and Tandem Lookout

The Niv-Mizzet, Parun deck I mentioned earlier wouldn’t be that great if it only worked whenever you drew Curiosity. However, Niv-Mizzet, Parun also combos with Ophidian Eye and Tandem Lookout. While these combo pieces cost more mana than Curiosity and essentially do the same thing, including them greatly increases your chances of drawing your win condition.

Including functionally redundant cards in your deck isn’t the only way to improve your chances of drawing your win condition. This takes us to our next section…

Tutors

In Magic, a tutor is a card that allows you to search your library for another card and either put it in your hand or at the top of your library.

In a format where you can only play one of each card and where there are 99 cards in your library, your chances of drawing the exact card you need are slim. With a healthy number of tutors in your deck, your games will generally be more consistent.

MTG Tutor cards, Imperial Seal, Demonic Tutor and Muddle the Mixture

Cards like Imperial Seal and Demonic Tutor are typical examples. Muddle the Mixture’s transmute ability technically makes it a tutor too.

How many tutors in a Commander deck?

As for how many tutors you should play, I say play as many as you can! Obviously, we’d all love to just draw the perfect card each turn, but anyone who’s played a game of Magic knows that hardly ever happens. The more tutors you play, the more likely you are to get your hands on the card you need.

Mana Ramp

Chances are that every deck you’re playing against will be running powerful win conditions. In these scenarios, games aren’t decided on whose win condition is the best so much as who pulls of their win condition first.

This is where mana ramp comes in. Without mana ramp, you’re restricted to playing one land per turn. If you want to play a five-mana card, you’ll have to wait until turn five to do so assuming you draw enough lands.

With mana ramp, you can accomplish this much earlier. When you play cards like Farseek and Birds of Paradise, you can play your five- and six-mana cards as early as turn four or even turn three!

Mana ramp cards can be broken down into a few categories:

Mana dorks

Birds of Paradise, Deathrite Shaman, and Arbor Elf

First, we have what players refer to as “mana dorks.” These are one-mana creatures that can tap for one mana. Some of the more well-known ones are Birds of Paradise, Deathrite Shaman, and Arbor Elf. What’s so great about them is that they can be played on turn one, so you can start ramping up towards your win condition as soon as the game starts. Most mana dorks are green, so keep that in mind when choosing what colors you want your deck to include.

Mana rocks

Sol Ring, Arcane Signet, and Fellwar Stone mtg cards

Next, we have “mana rocks.” These are artifacts that can tap for mana, like Sol Ring, Arcane Signet, and Fellwar Stone. Mana rocks come in all shapes and sizes, but not all mana rocks are created equal. My philosophy is that if it costs two or less mana and can tap for mana right away, then it’s good enough for me. Since mana rocks are artifacts and thus impose very few color restrictions, you can expect them to be in any type of deck.

Miscellaneous

Finally, we’ve got, well, everything else. Let’s call it the miscellaneous category. Farseek counts as mana ramp, but so does Dockside Extortionist, and those are two very different cards. Pyretic Ritual is also a form of mana ramp, although it only works when you cast it. Feel free to be creative when planning on how to cast your powerful spells earlier than your opponents expect.

How many mana ramp cards in a Commander deck?

If you want to talk numbers, I’d say 8-10 pieces of mana ramp is a good number to aim for, but that’s very arbitrary. Just remember that the more expensive your cards are (mana-wise), the more mana ramp you’ll need.

Card Advantage

Card Shark MTG card art. (C) Wizards of the Coast. Artist Randy Elliot.
Card Shark MTG card art. (C) Wizards of the Coast. Artist Randy Elliot.

Card advantage basically means having more cards in hand than your opponents. Not only does having more cards in hand decrease the likelihood of you running out of things to play, but it also gives you a wider range of options for your turn.

Card advantage comes in virtually all forms, whether that’s creatures, enchantments, artifacts, or other spells. Rhystic Study is a form of card advantage because it will draw you several cards over the course of the game.

You could also make use of the graveyard recursion mechanic to return useful cards from graveyards to the battlefield, your hand or the top of your library, effectively giving you more card options. 

Value-based commanders are usually sources of card advantage in and of themselves. When your commander is capable of drawing cards for you, this limits the need to include multiple sources of card advantage in your deck.

However, if you’re playing a commander that doesn’t generate value, such as Kaalia, the Vast, you’ll definitely want to include many ways of drawing extra cards.

How many sources of card advantage in a Commander deck?

How many sources of card advantage are good for your deck really differs on a case-by-case basis. My advice is to play a few games and notice if you often run out of cards to play. If that’s the case, then you might want to add more sources of card advantage.

Removals

Single target

Vindicate, Swords to Plowshares an Abrupt decay mtg cards

In four-player formats like Commander, single-target removal (like Vindicate) becomes less popular than in two-player formats. This is because as the number of players increases, the number of creatures on the battlefield generally increases too. Removing creatures (or other permanents) one at a time becomes quite the hassle!

That’s not to say that single-target removal is bad in Commander. Having a copy of Swords to Plowshares or Abrupt Decay in your deck is generally a good idea. Just make sure not to go overboard with it.

Board wipes

Wrath of God, Merciless Eviction, Cyclonic Rift mtg cards

Board wipes, on the other hand, are great in Commander. We’re talking about Wrath of God, Merciless Eviction, Cyclonic Rift, and other such cards. Oftentimes, there will be dozens of creatures, artifacts, and enchantments on the battlefield.

Removing them one at a time with cards like Assassin’s Trophy won’t really be possible, but if you pay a bit more mana and cast something like Cyclonic Rift for its overload cost, then all your problems will be taken care of with just one card.

How many removals in a Commander deck?

10-12 removals across your deck. Of those, a handful of single-target removal spells is all you need. It’s the same with boardwipes, I wouldn’t go overboard. After all, you want to leave enough space in your deck for all that other stuff we talked about!

Lands

Building a good manabase in Commander can be tricky. I’ve mentioned earlier that playing many colors in your deck is good because you’ll have access to more cards. While that is true, playing several colors means that you’ll have to put extra effort into building your manabase if you want to be able to cast all your cards consistently.

The general idea here is to play lands that tap for as many colors of mana as possible. There are plenty of lands out there, but the best ones come into play untapped so they can tap for mana right away. Here are some of the best lands for Commander.

Command Tower mtg card

Command Tower: This might be the best land to play in Commander. It comes into play untapped and will tap for any color you need. The best lands are usually quite expensive (money-wise), but Command Tower is dirt cheap, so it’s a great pick even if you’re on a budget. The only time I wouldn’t include this is if I was playing a one-color deck.

City of Brass, Mana Confluence, Exotic Orchard, Forbidden Orchard, and Gemstone Caverns mtg cards

City of Brass, Mana Confluence, Exotic Orchard, Forbidden Orchard, and Gemstone Caverns: are all functionally similar to Command Tower, only they come with slight downsides and restrictions. If the downsides are low enough, then they’re still great picks.

Dual lands

Volcanic Island, Stomping Ground, Morphic Pool

Dual lands (Volcanic Island, Stomping Ground, Morphic Pool…): Unfortunately, there aren’t enough lands out there that can tap for all the colors you need at once. Dual lands are still great because they can produce two mana colors, and if your deck only runs two or three colors, then chances are it’ll be able to cast most of the cards in your hand.

Fetch lands

Polluted Delta, Bloodstained Mire, Flooded Strand

Fetch lands (Polluted Delta, Bloodstained Mire, Flooded Strand…): Fetch lands work great in conjunction with dual lands because they can fetch the dual land of your choice directly from your library. If you’ve already played a few lands and you’re just missing a color or two to cast everything in your hand, fetch lands will fix that for you. They can also search for basic lands and triome lands (such as Ketria Triome), giving your manabase that extra bit of flexibility.

How many lands in a Commander deck?

You generally want between 30-40 lands in a Commander deck including basic and special lands. The exact number of lands that’s right for your deck you’ll figure out through playtesting.

The perfect amount of land for your deck depends on a few factors. First, consider the mana costs of each card in your deck. If you’re playing a lot of cards that cost five or more mana, then having a high number of lands (36-40) would be a good idea. If you mostly play cards that cost four or less mana, then you might be able to get away with only running 30-35 lands.

In addition, how much mana ramp you include in your deck will affect how many lands you want to play. Because decks running a lot of cheap mana ramp will be less reliant on their lands to cast their spells, those will tend to run fewer lands.

Once again, I suggest you playtest your deck a few times and notice if you often have too much or too little mana. Playtesting is always the best way to find the best balance of cards.

MTG Commander Deck-building Template / Ratio

All right. We’ve just gone over the most important card types, so let’s put this all together, shall we? Here’s a rough idea of the number cards of each type:

  • 1 Commander – The legend themselves that synergizes wonderfully with your deck!
  • 35-40 lands – Remember to factor in the average mana cost of cards in your deck as well as how much mana ramp you’re playing.
  • 8-10 mana ramp effects – Think of this as a way to supplement your land base. If you play 40 lands and 10 mana ramp effects, that means half of your deck is mana, leaving little room for the other stuff. Aim to strike a nice balance between lands and mana ramp effects.
  • 8-12 card advantage effects – Card advantage usually means card draw, but cards that allow you to recast spells from your graveyard are also examples of card advantage. If your commander itself is a source of card advantage, then you can get away with a lower number here.
  • 10-12 removal spells – This includes both targeted removal and board wipes. Most decks run a bit more targeted removal than board wipes since they’re cheaper and more versatile.
  • That leaves you with 30-35 cards that will help you enact your game plan. These cards include tutors to find your key cards, the key cards themselves, and any supporting elements to improve your chances of winning. This is where the true soul of your deck shines through.

Remember, these are guidelines, not rules. You may find that the optimal numbers for your deck are completely different from this template!

The main thing to remember is to find cards that have synergy with each other to help you achieve your win condition. 

Building a MTG Commander deck on a Budget

treasure cove crad art. Copyright Wizards of the coast. Artist Cliff Childs.
Treasure Cove card art. Copyright Wizards of the Coast. Artist: Cliff Childs.

Buying Magic cards for your deck can be expensive, especially if you have to buy 100 of them! Fortunately, you don’t have to spend ridiculous amounts of money to afford a fun and competitive Commander deck. Here are some ways to reduce the price of your deck:

Run Fewer Colors

The best lands for Commander (and all Magic formats as a whole) tend to be expensive. Some players end up spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars on lands alone just for a single deck. Obviously, you have to be a pretty serious player to make this kind of investment, but not all of us can afford to spend that kind of money.

Decks that run only one or two colors can have more basic lands in their manabase than decks that run upwards of three colors. Basic lands are super cheap, and you probably have plenty of them already, so replacing those expensive lands with basics will work wonders in helping your budget.

However, I’d like to warn you about the dangers of running all basic lands in a multicolor deck. Decks that contain three or more colors and only have basic lands often struggle to find the right lands to cast their cards. If you want to play a lot of basic lands, I seriously would suggest building a deck that only runs one or two colors.

Play Unconventional Combos

The law of supply and demand teaches us that as demand for a product increases, so does the price. This applies to MTG cards too. If your deck plays all the most popular cards, then that deck will probably be expensive.

My favorite solution to this is to come up with fun, never-before-seen combos. Because many of the cards in a new combo deck aren’t super well known, most of them will be cheap to acquire.

This method does require quite a bit of card research as well as time to test out new ideas. Many of them may not work, but when you stumble across an idea that turns out to be super powerful, you’ll have the satisfaction of having created something new and original.

Take a browse at TCGPlayer and sort the cards by price to find cheap cards to inspire you! 

Upgrading Your Commander Deck

Powerstone SHard card art. Copyright Wizards of the Coast. Artist: Lindsey Look.
Powerstone Shard card art. Copyright Wizards of the Coast. Artist: Lindsey Look.

A great Magic Commander deck is seldom built in one sitting. Nobody ever gets it right on the first try, and some players may take months or even years for their deck to be just how they want it.

Whether you’ve increased your budget or Magic released a new set with some cool new cards, you may want to upgrade your Commander deck over time.

I would first look out for cards that have strictly better versions of them available. If you’re playing Diabolic Tutor, which costs four mana, I would replace it with Demonic Tutor, which does the same thing for only two mana. If you’re playing Cancel, which costs three mana, I’d replace it with Counterspell, which costs two. You get the idea…

Lands are also a great place to look for upgrades. If you’re running a lot of basic lands or lands that enter the battlefield tapped, this is an opportunity to make your deck more streamlined and consistent.

Beyond that, it’s mostly a matter of making better card choices. Sometimes, I look at a card and think, “wow, this will be great for my Commander deck!” Then I actually play it, and it doesn’t do a whole lot. Playing a lot of games with the same deck will help you learn which of your cards are overperforming and which ones are underperforming. Then, when it comes to adding a new card to your deck, you’ll have an easy time deciding which cards to replace.

Conclusion – How to Build an MTG Commander Deck

As you can see, quite a bit of thought needs to go into building an MTG Commander deck, especially if it’s your first. That being said, it’s a fun experience, and it only gets more fun over time (at least it does for me).

So, don’t let the 100-card deck size or all the new rules scare you. Go ahead and try building a Magic Commander deck for yourself! Trust me, you won’t regret it. Being a Commander player is awesome!

If you haven’t already read my article on building a standard 60-card MTG deck, go ahead and give it a read! It’ll teach you the deckbuilding basics you need and might even help you with your Commander deck!

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