Kirsin Koch – When Nukes Hit the Commander Playgroup: The Standard Commander Challenge

Share Button

It is entirely likely that many a Commander playgroup is approaching the final stretch of the arms race to build increasingly powerful decks full of format staples. And why not? Thanks to Eternal players and speculators seeking to offload extra pieces of the Mind Seize deck, there is a massive influx of Commander 2013 product. Command Tower and Sol Ring are currently affordable format staples for Commander players. However, as everyone knows, the glory of Magic is the flexibility of its deck building possibilities. As Mark Rosewater so often says, “Restriction breeds creativity.”

Earlier this year, Redditor 956Wulfe asked for deck-building advice regarding a local game store hosting a Standard Commander Challenge. The idea of a limited Commander card pool has been explored in the past. Cassidy Silver last dealt with this type of deck-building challenge when Scars of Mirrodin block was legal, building a Glissa the Traitor deck. Sheldon Menery completely dismissed the Standard Commander format as it lacks long-forgotten cards he likes to play and he feels it’s those cards that are the point of Commander. However, Sheldon’s conclusions arequite franklyvery wrong. A Standard Commander format is an interesting challenge to all player types and inspires worthy exploration and innovation.

A playgroup may wish to try Standard Commander format for any number of reasons. First, Cassidy Silver previously noted that Standard Commander decks are a good way to depower any gaming group that has “launched the nukes.” Second, the limited Standard card pool allows deeper exploration of lesser-played card interactions. Standard Commander decks may generate some of the same surprise factor that Limited players enjoy. Third is the financial factor. If a playgroup is trying to incorporate players who are newer, lack older cards, or scale down card purchasing, Standard Commander encourages a more level footing between the various players in the group. It’s very difficult to be priced out of a format when everyone only needs one of a card and is able to play the same set of cards. Finally, a Standard Commander format also has about the same power level as the Commander 2013 product, encouraging interaction between the two. It is very easy for a player to build a Standard Commander deck out of his draft winnings/table leftovers, a Return to Ravnica-block intro deck, and the local game store’s bulk rare box. A deck like this would be competitive with the decks of players opening brand new Commander 2013 decks.

This four-part series will first cover deck-building highlights such as key cards available for typical strategies. Subsequent articles will discuss sample mono-colored deck lists and highlights, Return to Ravnica guild-colored decklists and highlights, and finally the Gatecrash guilds will be given the same treatment. There will also be some financial suggestions for the Standard player as to cards they may come across while building these decks.

Deck Building Considerations


There are a few notable observations to make regarding the current Standard card pool. First, the current Standard Commander format, like many New World Order-designed Standard environments, has a minimal number of tutors, reducing the consistency that Eternal Commander can engender. Of all the available tutors, only black’s Diabolic Tutor is completely unconditional. If a combo deck actually existed in Standard, the lack of tutors in a singleton format like Commander would make combo decks even more unlikely and aggro, control, and midrange strategies the de facto archetypes. The available tutors currently in Standard are:

Diabolic Tutor

The only unconditional tutor. Orzhov, Dimir, Rakdos, Golgari, and mono-black decks will all run this card.

Gatecreeper Vine
Lay of the Land
Seek the Horizon

Each of green’s tutors are functionally counterable basic landcycling and fairly mediocre with the amount of color fixing and mana ramp available in the format.

Firemind’s Foresight

Firemind’s Foresight may cost 5UR, but it gets a combination of cards like Dissolve, Cyclonic Rift, and Blustersquall. Thanks to the overload mechanic, this is an excellent card for Izzet decks.

Jarad’s Orders

The ability to both Entomb and Eladamri’s Call at the same time will work very well for Golgari.

Ring of Three Wishes
Traveler’s Amulet

Any player building for a Standard Commander challenge in today’s Standard should presume that each opponent will be running Ring of Three Wishes. It’s comparable to a slightly-more-expensive Jayemdae Tome for decks lacking card draw and is an obvious, extremely-strong multiple-use tutor, especially for control and ramp decks. Lastly, Traveler’s Amulet functions as a basic landcycling spell for all decks.

Mana Acceleration

Ramp decks must have a strong green component. Outside of Chromatic Lantern, Darksteel Ingot, guild Cluestones, guild Keyrunes, and Opaline Unicorn, non-green Standard Commander decks have few options. Green decks can utilize up to twelve additional mana accelerants and/or mana fixers which include:

Axebane Guardian
Elvish Mystic
Gyre Sage
Into the Wilds
Karametra’s Acolyte
Mana Bloom
Manaweft Sliver
Ordeal of Nylea
Sylvan Caryatid
Verdant Haven
Voyaging Satyr
Deathrite Shaman

Obviously Nylea, Selesnya, Simic, Golgari, and Gruul decks will have a very specific advantage over other Standard Commander decks. In addition to these available green cards, don’t be surprised if every deck runs a copy of Burnished Hart as a colorless substitute for Ranger’s Path to accelerate or fix mana. Most mono-colored decks will also try to squeeze in Chromatic Lantern and Darksteel Ingot for additional mana ramp. All the guild-colored decks will most likely run the appropriate guild Cluestone and Keyrune for additional card draw and battlefield body. Some players will happily note that Deathrite Shaman has some difficulty maintaining its normal mana ramp effectiveness in this format due to lack of fetchlands and mass land destruction.

Financially, Chromatic Lantern is an excellent foil to pick up for Commander. The card’s relevance despite its comparison to Coalition Relic is undisputed and will be a staple for years. Burnished Hart in foil is another card to keep an eye on as a possible Commander staple. The ability to recur Burnished Hart and immediately fetch out two more lands is very appealing to graveyard recursion decks such as Karador, Ghost Chieftain or Golgari decks such as Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord.

Card Advantage

Most importantly, card draw is heavily concentrated in blue, black, and green, putting white, red, and Boros decks at quite a disadvantage. Izzet has a superior amount of card draw with Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius as a Commander and Mercurial Chemister in the deck. Mercurial Chemister is a creature that has been showing up more often in Grixis Eternal Commander decks and has proven its worth to both repeatedly draw cards and remove creatures. Simic similarly has lots of options for card draw with Prime Speaker Zegana being a Commander, but is less abusable than Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius. (Red is not included on the below list because none of the cards offer consistently pure card advantage.)

Bident of Thassa
Jace, Architect of Thought
Jace, Memory Adept
Ordeal of Thassa
Prescient Sphinx
Prognostic Sphinx
Scroll Thief
Stealer of Secrets
Thassa’s Emissary
Thassa, God of the Sea
Windreader Sphinx

As expected, blue will have vanilla draw spells, repeatable draw triggers, and repeatable scrying to find key cards and refill the hand.

Liliana of the Dark Realms
Altar’s Reap
Blood Scrivener
Dark Prophecy
Erebos, God of the Dead
Read the Bones
Underworld Connections

Black will have to deal with sacrificing creatures or paying life to draw cards. The trade-off will be frequently worth it. Financially, it may be worth it to try and pick up foil Read the Bones as a throw-in on trades. The card has been discussed by Vintage players as very playable and is an excellent utility staple for Eternal Commander players.

Garruk’s Horde
Garruk, Caller of Beasts
Nylea’s Presence
Seek the Horizon
Warriors’ Lesson

If green needs to put creatures or lands into hand or is able to do damage with creatures, these are the cards to expect.

Isperia, Supreme Judge
Righteous Authority
Sphinx’s Revelation

Triad of Fates

Conditional and slow, Triad of Fates is a terrible draw engine that opponents can probably dismiss. It’s only included on this list for completeness.

Bane Alley Broker
Coerced Confession
Notion Thief
Pilfered Plans
Soul Ransom
Whispering Madness

For blue and black, most of the Dimir cards are less noteworthy than the straight mono-blue or mono-black cards available. Notion Thief, Pilfered Plans, and Whispering Madness are the exceptions.

Blast of Genius
Mercurial Chemister
Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius
Steam Augury

Bred for the Hunt
Give // Take
Prime Speaker Zegana
Unexpected Results
Urban Evolution
Zameck Guildmage

Most of the Simic draw spells are conditional on +1/+1 counters or functionally work as cycling. Prime Speaker Zegana and Urban Evolution are the exceptions. Both of these cards are excellent pick-ups in foil.

Golgari (repeatable, conditional scrying):
Reaper of the Wilds

This card’s effect is very unique in Magic, particularly for Golgari colors, and picking up some foil copies as trade throw-ins may be a good idea.

Artifact (repeatable scrying):
Witches’ Eye

Witches’ Eye is possibly one of the most interestingly innocuous cards available to a Standard Commander deck. For the sorcery speed cost of {2} and tapping a creature, any deck can scry repeatedly regardless of color. This is as close to Crystal Ball as a deck builder will find in this environment outside of Thassa, God of the Sea. Since Crystal Ball is often called a “budget player’s Sensei’s Divining Top” by Commander players, this card may have its place in the environment.

Creature Removal

Lastly, creature removal will most likely be one of the most difficult aspects of a Standard Commander challenge. This format is missing many of the more-efficient, non-conditional, flexible, and instant-speed staples and board wipes available in the Eternal card pool. Mass creature removal is mostly the domain of white and blue, making Azorious the most obvious creature and board control guild. Due to the power of the Theros gods, cards that can exile a creature should probably be given “staple” status. A list of possible removal and board wipes in Standard Commander looks like this, but is not a conclusive list:

Angelic Edict
Angel of Serenity
Banisher Priest
Celestial Flare
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Luminate Primordial
Spear of Heliod
Planar Cleansing
Trostani’s Judgment

Colossal Whale
Curse of Swine
Cyclonic Rift
Rapid Hybridization
Sea God’s Revenge
Voyage’s End

Assassin’s Strike
Doom Blade
Grisly Spectacle
Hero’s Downfall
Keepsake Gorgon
Launch Party
Liturgy of Blood
Shadowborn Demon
Sip of Hemlock
Ultimate Price

Anger of the Gods

Azorious Charm
Detention Sphere
Supreme Verdict

Ashen Rider
High Priest of Penance
Merciless Eviction
Teysa, Envoy of Ghosts
Triad of Fates

Chained to the Rocks

Selesnya Charm


Simic Charm


Gaze of Granite
Vraska the Unseen

Ratchet Bomb
Volatile Rig

The Mana Base

Decks in a Standard Commander format are quite limited in the number of utility lands and dual lands available. Two of the three types of dual lands (the ten guild Gates and five scrying Temples) must enter the battlefield tapped, further reducing the speed of non-green decks. The third type, shocklands, allow the expected flexibility with loss of life, but have no stereotypical fetchlands to pair with them. The remaining utility lands that are applicable to the format are:

Encroaching Wastes
Grove of the Guardian
Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
Rogue’s Passage
Shimmering Grotto
Thespian’s Stage
Transguild Promenade
Unknown Shores

A player using Encroaching Wastes has the possibility to knock an opponent out of a crucial color or utility land at the right time. It is reasonable to assume every deck will be running Encroaching Wastes. Due to this safe presumption, Standard Commander brewers will probably want avoid running Shimmering Grotto, Thespian’s Stage, Transguild Promenade, and Unknown Shores. Additionally, Shimmering Grotto and Unknown Shores are simply inefficient to use and are unfetchable with Burnished Hart, making them even less desirable. Basic lands are less flexible, but they’re much less complicated in this narrow card pool.


Notably, Standard Commander is currently missing many stereotypical “enters the battlefield” creatures, exceptionally strong Equipment, and graveyard value recursion. For instance, there is currently no cheap, targeted instant speed removal for white (e.g. Swords to Plowshares, Path to Exile), blue hard counterspells that cost less than 3 or have “draw a card” text, and flexible noncreature removal (e.g. Acidic Slime) for green. The Gatecrash Primordial cycle should also have an even larger impact on longer games than they already do in Eternal Commander due to slower game development and lack of efficient board control cards. Additionally, the mana base of each deck will be impacted with the limitation of dual lands and decks run an increased risk of mana issues.

One of the issues that Standard Commander playersparticularly players that power down from Eternal or Modern Standard to this formatwill notice is how noncreature cards are more problematic or impactful without the ability to answer those threats. The Theros indestructible gods will be glaring for players’ inability to react outside of Angelic Edict, Trostani’s Judgment, Fade into Antiquity, Council of the Absolute, Merciless Eviction, or counterspells. Once a Theros god enters the battlefield, the legendary permanent will continually impact the game until it is over.

Interestingly, this Standard Commander card pool has some startling synergies that will be quite entertaining for Johnny-type players and, as previously mentioned, hearken back to Limited drafting strategies and give them extended life. For instance, Trading Post allows you to recycle Vial of Poison and Prophetic Prism. Bubbling Cauldron turns your creatures into 4/4 Angels with Angelic Accord. Shadowborn Apostle tutors for demons. It’s this aspect that make for a very potentially interactive and refreshing format between players that should energize playgroups willing to sleeve up a Standard Commander deck.

Have comments? Please share below!

Share Button

Kirsin Koch

@duneecho     -     Email     -     Articles

Kirsin Koch works as an IT professional and trainer. As a Magic: The Gathering player since Revised in 1994 and one of the original founding members for, he deeply enjoys Commander, Legacy, and Draft.
Kirsin Koch

1 comment

    • Martin Coppersmith on December 26, 2013 at 3:27 pm
    • Reply

    My play group on occassion does what we called ‘aladdin packs constructed’. The intent is to drop kick net-decks and see wht people can scrape together out of the cards they have floating at home.

    Inspired by a challenge I made in the Jace, WalletSculptor days, your goal is to builda 60 card deck under legacy rules with 3 additional rules:

    No Power/other cards over 20 bucks
    Max 6 total rares/mythics
    Minimum 10 Commons

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.