A Unified Theory of Commander

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Commander is a complicated game. Despite being a “casual” format, the massive pool of playable cards, multiplayer politics, and varied expectations of what constitutes the “Spirit of Commander” can make trying EDH for the first time quite intimidating. The trouble finding sound advice on how to build and play a deck online doesn’t help the situation much for new players either. While veteran players in places like the EDH subreddit are happy to share their knowledge of the format with new players, their advice is often complicated, contradictory, and overly specific.

It’s no surprise then that new players often turn to a preconstructed product like the recent Commander 2013 decks or to copying a list they find online to get started. It often takes months of trial and error, adding and subtracting, and lots of long, difficult games before a player begins to understand what their deck really wants to do, let alone what cards are actually effective at helping them have fun and win a few matches along the way. This steep learning curve inspires some players to improve, but also drives some players clear out of the format.

Just imagine what he might tweet if someone tried to teach him Commander.

Just imagine what he might tweet if someone tried to teach him Commander.

Easy to Learn

Contrast this to any thread where a player asks for advice on how to draft for the first time. Veteran players virtually trip over each other to be the first to post the BREAD system for drafting. If you aren’t familiar with the system yourself, it provides a basic framework for how to draft an effective deck no matter what three packs the players are cracking at the table. It goes like this:

B is for Bombs – The first thing players should be looking for are cards that win the game. These are powerful cards that are difficult for opponents to deal with and usually either win the game immediately or put the player so far ahead that the opponent has little chance of coming back.

R is for Removal – After game winners, players need cards that remove or otherwise disable powerful creatures and other troublesome permanents played by their opponents.

E is for Evasion – Creatures that can fly, are unblockable, hexproof, or are otherwise good at pushing through damage are said to have evasion. While these cards don’t usually win the game themselves, they can put a player well ahead if left unanswered.

A is for Aggro – Aggressive cards are usually cheap or undercosted creatures and spells that let a player race ahead in damage.

D is for Duds – Usually the last few picks in any pack are the “bad” cards in the format, or at least the ones with very narrow utility. Pick these last, but look for cards in your colors that might provide a good sideboard option in a specific match-up.

No matter what set a player might be drafting, he or she can generally follow this advice and find success in an event. Each time the player picks up a stack of cards, whether its a “pack one, pick one” moment or the dregs of the third pack, evaluating the available picks using the BREAD system sets a player up for success. Of course there are other nuances to drafting, like knowing when to force a particular deck archetype or how to signal your picks to the table, but these additional elements are dependent on the player first applying the BREAD system effectively.

Difficult to Master

So why is it so easy to communicate a basic theory for drafting, but so difficult to offer sound advice on how to play Commander? Why can a five-letter acronym start any player off at Friday Night Magic, but building your first deck for a casual game of EDH requires multi-thousand word essays to explain? Some might argue that the complexity of the format demands this much detail. Others will suggest that since there is a wide spectrum of expectations for the format that fall somewhere between the casual “House Rules No Counterspells, No Attacking Until Turn Ten” and the cutthroat  “Stax Lockdown No One Plays But Me” playgroups, that any general advice is essentially meaningless.

I disagree. I believe that if you break Commander down into its constituent parts and examine every deck that successfully creates fun and interaction at the table, you can assemble a list of rules for EDH deckbuilding and playing that are as simple to learn and apply as BREAD. Whether you are building a casual squirrel tribal deck for laughs or assembling a competitive Animar list for a local tournament, I’d like to suggest a Unified Theory of Commander that can help inform your decisions both during deck construction and while you are slinging spells at the table.

While I don’t have an acronym like BREAD for you, I do have a mnemonic device to help you remember the theory. Repeat after me:

My Deck Tickled A Sliver.

My Deck Tickled A Sliver.

My Deck Tickled A Sliver.

Not sure I actually want to know what could make her giggle...

Not sure I actually want to know what could make her giggle…

No. I’m not advocating you do a little stand-up comedy in a brood pit. I want you to remember the five letters MDTAS in that particular order. My Deck Tickled A Sliver. MDTAS. Got it? Good. Now let’s learn what it means:

Mana, Draw, Threats, Answers, Synergy

Why is the order important? Because I believe that understanding the ordinal value of each of these elements can help players make good decisions about how to assemble a fun and functional EDH deck. Applying this theory to both building and playing a deck will cut down on the more frustrating parts of learning Commander and help new players start enjoying games more quickly. It might even teach a few veterans a thing or two as well.

So let’s do a brief introduction to each element of the theory.

Mana

Whether a player is attempting a Hermit Druid combo deck meant to win every match (and lose all his friends) or a group hug Phelddagrif deck with zero win conditions, playing cards in Magic requires access to mana. If a deck does not produce enough mana to reliably cast its spells, then the deck does not work. You cannot play the game without mana.

This may seem like a truism, but its a fact that is often lost on new players. They often run too few lands in their decks and when presented with the choice of adding a mana rock or another cool threat, they pick the threat. Unfortunately, that often means eight-drop game-winners end up as dead cards in their hands because they are stuck on six mana. So no matter your commander, your colors, your deck archetype, or your goals, the most important part of any Commander deck is access to mana.

Draw

Volumes of work have been written about how to define card advantage in Magic and not all accounts agree, so I won’t try to summarize or compete with the various arguments here. All you need to know for the purposes of this introduction to my Unified Theory of Commander: more cards is good. Fewer cards is bad. So drawing cards is one of the most important things your Commander deck can do.

Imagine for a moment that a game of Commander is a shoot out. Your hand is your gun and the cards in your hand are your bullets. The more bullets you’ve got access to, the more shots you can take and the more likely you are to start hitting your targets and eliminating threats. So run cards that reload your hand and keep you in the fight.

Threats

Brace yourself for another truism everyone: You must resolve threats to win a game of Commander. You need to play your cards to actually play the game, right? But what do I mean by threats? I mean cards that can win the game for you quickly if they go unanswered. Whether that means a giant creature, combo pieces, or an explosive spell, each deck should run enough game enders to make sure it can reliably have an impact on the board state in each game.

Now before players that pilot decks with goals other than winning the game grab their pitchforks, remember that for most players, the object is to win the game. So a threat is usually defined with that objective in mind. If you are piloting a deck with the goal to keep the game going until everyone has to concede and go home, then a “threat” means something different for you. It means a card that advances the mission of your deck.

Answers

This is perhaps the easiest element of my Unified Theory to explain, but potentially the most contentious part for new and casual players to swallow. Commander is not a four-man solitaire game. So even if you are running a theme deck with only a single, complicated win condition, it is not the responsibility of the rest of the table to let you play solo until you finally get that game ender online. It does not violate the spirit of Commander to interact with your janky deck.

It’s important for each deck builder to consider what removal options are available in her colors and which permanent types might be a problem. For instance, a monoblack player will likely need to consider some colorless options for removing enchantments. Do your homework and make sure your deck can respond to the win conditions other players drop on the table. Even a group hug deck needs to occasionally consider tucking someone’s commander to keep the game rolling and execute a political path to victory.

Synergy

The lowest ranked item on my list is perhaps the most discussed topic in any deck building thread. When a new player asks for advice online about getting into the format, the responses tend to be chock-full of suggestions about picking a commander and filling the deck with synergistic cards. But take a quick glance at the rest of my list and perhaps you’ll see why that’s a trap. Focusing on synergy can tend to make players overvalue cards that do not develop access to resources, threaten to win the game, or deal with the threats of others. Most sinister about this problem is that the synergy between cards can make the deck feel pretty good in certain instances, leaving players without a gut understanding of why its being ineffective.

Picking cards that synergize well with a commander must be less important than these other elements. Synergistic cards don’t matter if you can’t play them (lack of mana), can’t get them into your hand (lack of draw), can’t threaten to win the game (lack of power), or respond to the game plans being executed by other decks (lack of answers). Players have been advising each other to build their decks in reverse order. No wonder the format feels so difficult to understand.

Feeling Ticklish

Now you might have noticed that I didn’t include specific cards in this article. That’s because I didn’t want to distract you by talking about details. Like BREAD for drafting, the Unified Theory of Commander should be card agnostic. It’s a universal system that you can apply to any deck. But have no fear. I’ll be diving deep into each element of the theory in future articles. We’ve laid the foundation with My Deck Tickled A Sliver. Next we can start looking at what those tickle-fingers look like in practice.

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Jason Rice

Jason is a creative director in the video game industry. When his crippling Commander addiction isn't consuming his thoughts, money, and free time, Jason can be found hiking the beaches, hills, and forests of California or climbing mountains in Utah. If you'd like to contract him as a writer or designer, he accepts payment in the form of EDH staples. He can also be followed on Twitter at @jasonthinks.
Jason Rice

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  1. This is great. While I don’t agree with some of it, more of this kind of high level theory is totally what the fomat needs. Awesome work.

    1. I’d be interested to hear what you don’t agree with. I’d like to take criticisms into account as I write the follow-up articles.

      1. Hey Jason,

        Thanks for the response. I’m going to defer responding at length cuz team GDC had a discussion/argument about some of your points and I think someone is going to do a response type thing this week. The short response is I think your appreciable desire to make this piece accessible to newer players led you to over-simplify in such a way that your formula leads to goodstuff decks if taken literally (ie without the lens of context. seasoned players have this lens, but newer ones don’t). Essentially, I think synergy should be a concept presented at “point 0,” something that helps govern choices within all the other components of your device, as opposed to it’s own component at the bottom of the rung.

        Nonetheless, I overall like it and think in the current near-vacuum of good EDH content this piece is especially valuable.
        =D

      2. If you’re interested, part 1 of gdc’s response is up. I’d also like to add (since cass didn’t talk about this) that if I were to make some sort of simplified/easy to digest thing to give new (to the format) players trying to wrap their heads around deck building, that synergy is the essence of a good EDH deck, because it’s one of the few tools that reliably overcomes variance to produce a deck that actually does something, but that the disagreement may be an issue of definition. The card Mentor of the Meek is an obvious example. In a token-focused build, I’d include that as card advantage, and put an asterix to indicate a synergy-based card. I’m assuming you might not include the asterix in the same scenario, demonstrating how definitions lead to part of our divergence.

        1. I think there is some misunderstanding of this system as it should be practiced and that is probably my fault for not expressing more clearly the application in the first article. I intended to explain more about how to use it in future articles, so I think a lot of the concerns raised in GDCs rebuttal will be addressed there. I should mention though that this system is meant to be general and colors agnostic. It’s meant to start when a player is ready to build a deck, so staring at the general you picked and thinking about ten thousand possible cards for the deck is a little less intimidating. It comes after exploring a format and picking a card or theme to build around.

    • Jared on May 7, 2014 at 9:55 am
    • Reply

    This is a great concept! Passed along to my playgroup! Thank you.

  2. But synergy is what makes EDH fun! Vorel of the Hull Clade + a bunch of things that have +1/+1 counters is the type of interaction that is the most fun in EDH. Finding every card Wizards has ever printed that does “X” and throwing it in a deck is what it is all about in my opinion.

    If someone is new, or has a deck and just keeps losing, these are good tips, but if your commander deck is just a bunch of efficient cards to win at Magic then why are you even playing this format? EDH is (mostly) for Timmy’s and Johnny’s.

      • laurent on May 11, 2014 at 4:26 pm
      • Reply

      Cheers to that! Finding homes for orphaned / weird cards is my jam!

      Like the added value of sprouting vines in a borborygmos enraged deck or the look on an opponent’s face when you animate a faerie conclave before hitting their demonic tutor with a spellstutter sprite it pays off tenfold when you find that gem in the rubble.

      • Anonymous on May 26, 2014 at 5:12 am
      • Reply

      Ross MDTAS isn’t supposed to be what wins you the game, it’s supposed to be the foundation on which you build whatever your decks theme or plan is. If you think of a deck as a car, the decks theme is the frame and paint-job and rims, the thing that makes people on street look and say “oh snap”, while the MDTA part of the deck is the engine and wheels, the stuff that allows the deck to actually do whatever it was built to do.

    • QED2 on May 7, 2014 at 4:01 pm
    • Reply

    BREAD is a complete load of crap. Don’t spread misinformation; it’s about as useful as “a deck should have 20 lands, 40 spells” (another ‘truism’ developed in the 90s that we know if worthless today).

      • laurent on May 11, 2014 at 4:10 pm
      • Reply

      Nice write up, interested in where you and the guys at GDC will take the conversation.

      Reading this I thought back to when I first got into commander (abt 2 years) . My first deck’s iterations (animar) organically followed these principles. In order no less, with synergy being the last tenet fully explored. I feel like this describes the initial experience of building a deck, learning to avoid the trap of too many bombs / goodstuff includes. Additionally I believe we tune our decks for synergy , I agree with it being last because it requires playtesting to fully implement.

      Over time my approach to building has become to find a goal for the deck, figure out it’s strengths and play to them seeking a balance of the principles you describe above.

      I have a Talrand sky summoner deck that illustrates the idea of balance applied to your deckbuilding principles for edh. The goal is make drakes and beat face , playing aggro-control. Talrand rewards us for playing instants and sorceries. As such I sought balance between those types. I added cards like spelljack , desertion and overwhelming intellect to gain board position and value from countering spells. This required additional mana to pull off, requiring additional Permanents to get that mana (mono blue after all). Balance was all wrong, the deck needed to generate tempo by playing cheaper spells, allowing for fewer permanents.

      Blue’s strengths are stack interaction, bounce and draw, I focused on these and applied a filter for cmc. The result is spells such as disrupt, squelch, quicken, boomerang, high tide, aetherize, exclude, envelop to name a few. Playing these types of cards allows the deck to represent interaction at any point in the curve. It also allows for Permanents to have increased synergy. Isochron scepter is already very good, with 25+ targets and the likelihood of spawning a drake with each activation it synergizes completely.
      Runechanter’s pike. There are others that are better: swords of value, eldrazi monument, gravitational shift. But the synergy of pike wins the day by virtue of the cheap and constant cycle of cards. It routinely gives drakes double digits on the front end.

      The end result is that by building for this synergy I have balanced the deck’s need for mana, playing cheap spells with cantrips to ensure I hit my land drops. The threats are designed to reward you for playing cheap spells and having flyers, pike as well as tidespout tyrant, windreader sphinx, diluvian primordial and stormtide leviathan all meet that requirement, the creatures filling out a proteus staff package that pulls serious weight.
      Overall it meets my goal of playing aggro-control in an interactive way, playing for synergy as the path to power without being outright oppressive. I purposely left out cards like jin gitaxias and consecrated sphinx who are mostly better but don’t synergize and I personally don’t find fun. (Resolving a draw step after someone copies a sphinx sucks, and they’re both lightning rods for removal).

      Thanks again for the article, looking forward to future reading!

      L.A.

    • Nate on July 1, 2014 at 6:29 pm
    • Reply

    Great article we will be covering this on my podcast Commander’s HQ.

    1. Great? When can I tune in to hear the discussion?

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  1. […] your favorite cards stuck in hand is no fun. It’s also why mana is the first element in our Unified Theory of Commander. Big spells require big mana, so access to mana sources should be the starting point of every […]

  2. […] Magic players skirt the rules too. Commander is supposed to be a format of 100 singleton cards, creating a high degree of variance in each match. In reality, players are able to search their library for specific cards and gain access to them more reliably. This is thanks to a class of cards known as “tutors” that can grab cards from the library and put them into hand, the top of the library, the graveyard or even directly into play. This reduction in variance obviously increases the consistency of a deck, if not its outright power, which is why tutors are highly controversial and why they are necessary to address as we continue our discussion on card draw in our Unified Theory of Commander. […]

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