About the Author
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.

Unified Theory of Commander: Synergy

Repeat after me:

“Synergy is not the same thing as having a game plan.”

No. No. Don’t just read it. Say it out loud with me. For real. Let’s say it again:

“Synergy is not the same thing as having a game plan.”

Good! Now that we’ve got that in your head, we can really dig into why synergy is the last element of the Unified Theory of Commander. Throughout the writing of this articles series, this has been the most hotly contested part of the structure we’ve put forth for building decks. But once we’ve properly defined synergy and explained how it differs from your deck’s game plan, I think the reason for its position in the My Deck Tickled A Sliver mnemonic will become more clear.  

So how should we define synergy? Google’s dictionary gives us this:




  1. the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.

It’s easy to see the definition of synergy within the context of Magic emerge from this dictionary entry. We can replace “organizations, substances, or other agents” with “cards.” So when two or more cards interact to produce an effect that’s greater than they could create on their own, we can call that synergy. To put it in context of our previous articles, you are creating a kind of card advantage by pairing these cards together to exceed their normal value.


The simplest version of this is when one card just makes another one stronger. The usual example given for this in magic circles is Forest paired with [card]Kird Ape[/card]. By having a forest in play, Kird Ape gets stronger. In Commander, a more clear version of this kind of linear, obvious synergy is putting an enchantment on [card]Uril[/card]. This is what I would call “programmed synergy,” since it was the obvious intent of the card designers, but it’s a solid place to start to understand interactions that produce value.

Synergy Still Requires a Game Plan

Relying on this kind of synergy to build a deck for you can function as a limited kind of game plan. Uril, lands, and a bunch of enchantments can certainly feel like a game plan. It’s also very often not enough to get your deck over the finish line. Let’s look at a couple examples that show us why not.

[card]Exquisite Blood[/card] and [card]Sanguine Bond[/card] are a pair of cards whose synergy can instantly win the game, assuming you can find a way to make an opponent lose life or find a way to gain some. They create an infinite combo that drains all your opponents for all their health. That’s a potent interaction that is obviously synergistic.

ExBlood SanBond

So if that’s your win condition, how do you intend to get both cards into play and trigger their effects before your opponent’s win the game? How do you plan to stay alive until those cards hit the board? Can you deck produce enough to mana to get them both into play? The synergy between those cards can only produce the desired value for your deck if you’re able to effectively turn them into a threat. Without a gameplan to support the synergy, it’s random at best, and at worst… useless.

Support The Game Plan

When [card]Dragonlord Silumgar[/card] enters play, it allows you to take control of a creature or planeswalker an opponent controls. At first glance, the UB dragonlord appears to pair quite well with [card]Conjurer’s Closet[/card]. Flickering Silumgar allows you to always grab the best threat in the game and turn it against your opponents, stealing something else at the end of turn if that threat is somehow lost. I see Conjurer’s Closet on quite a few of these decklists. It’s a nice piece of synergy with the commander of their deck.

DragonSil ConjCloset

Yet if the deck’s strategy doesn’t include ETB effects on many other creatures, how often do you think that Conjurer’s closet is actually a dead draw? If the commander is not available and there are no other cards that benefit from Conjurer’s Closet being in play, then you’ve not only lost the synergy between it and Dragonlord Silumgar, but you’ve lost the majority of the card’s actual value in the first place. You’d be better off having another card in that slot.

This is how synergy can become a trap. If you select cards for your deck based on synergy alone, but don’t consider their place in the broader game plan of the deck, then you’re losing value any time those brilliant interactions aren’t possible. Not only does the game plan need to support your synergy, but the synergy needs to support the overarching game plan as well to maximize value. Otherwise attempts at synergy can simply become a waste of a draw step.

Game Plans Without Synergy

Let’s use another example to drive home our point about synergy vs strategy. [card]Hazezon Tamar[/card] is a commander that cares a great deal about the number of lands you control, and where you find lots of lands, you tend to find [card]Avenger of Zendikar[/card]. These two cards do not synergize with each other. You gain no additional value from casting one before the other or by having them on the battlefield at the same time. Instead, these cards are both working towards the same game plan.

Hazezon AvengerZ

The flavor of Hazezon’s deck is not compromised by having two different cards that care about lands and make tokens. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who sees you cast Avenger in this deck and responds by accusing your deck of just being a pile of “good stuff.” It’s obvious from your card selection that there’s a theme. The support cards that synergize with Hazezon, also happen to synergize with big green EDH staple you put in the deck as well. This is bigger than “programmed synergy,” that vaguely points your deck in a direction. It’s a game plan that uses synergy to create value all the way down to the tactical level.

So no, synergy does not define your game plan. It doesn’t define the theme of your deck either. It can support those things or be supported by them, but synergy is not the first order of operation in construction. It’s not the ultimate goal of a commander deck. It’s actually just one element, and its less important than having threats, answers, and the resources to use them. Decide what the deck is doing first, then use synergy as a tool to edit, not as your primary guiding principle.


When this series first launched, some critics argued that the Unified Theory homogenizes decks and reduces fun interactions. It should become very clear now that this isn’t the case. More themes and strategies are actually opened up to players when they build around a strong game plan first. This allows us to explore new design space while knowing the core elements of their deck are still going to work.


A unifying theory opens up new opportunities in deck building

This obsession with synergy can be why many decks fall back on aggressively using tutors and gradually stop being fun or flavorful. A deck that is relying on a few synergistic pieces to “get there” is going to become quite frustrating to pilot when those pieces aren’t coming together. Tutors are a shortcut that let players lean on narrower, less interesting deck designs that rely too much on synergy and not enough on an effective game plan.

Ultimately, synergy should be about editing a deck and finding ways to squeeze more flavor and more value out of every draw and every interaction, supporting the deck’s goals, themes, and game plan. It’s last in the Unified Theory because it has to work in support of all the other elements for the deck to be effective. No matter how much synergy you stick into the 99 card pile next to your commander, it’s all worthless if you don’t have the resources the cast those cards or a way to turn that pile into victory before someone else does.

But hey, let’s not forget why we’re playing Commander in the first place. We’re playing to have fun and bond with other players over a game of cardboard make-believe. Never be afraid to make some sacrifices to this proposed structure if it means you’ll have more fun. If eventually the deck just isn’t working anymore, the Unified Theory is always here waiting to help you diagnose the problem and make some adjustments. So good luck, have fun, and keep brewing!

Unified Theory of Commander: Political Answers

You may have noticed that the further we’ve progressed into the Unified Theory’s MDTAS system, the more we’ve discussed the “character” of your deck. This isn’t a coincidence. Every deck needs mana sources, and the rules that help players improve their mana base can be broadly applied. Every deck wants card draw, so resource acquisition is an easy topic to tackle from a general point of view.

However, as we progressed past resource acquisition and into resource selection and utilization, it’s become more necessary to identify the specific goals of our decks. This allows us to make focused card selections that keep each deck functional and fun. So to wrap up our discussion on Answers, it’s important to shine a light back on that topic and make sure our selected answers are genuinely working in service of our goals.

Answers to Answers

The easiest way to introduce this topic is to go back to the example of [card]Soul of New Phyrexia[/card] from our previous conversation on answers. While[card]Wrath of God[/card] or [card]Path to Exile[/card] are answers that address threats, Soul of New Phyrexia might be better seen as an answer to an opponent’s answer. A tokens deck is most vulnerable to board wipes, so running a card that grants immunity to those sets up an army of 1/1 soldiers, elves, or goblins for victory.

Answer to Answers

Answer to Answers

Pause a moment and consider what makes [card]Swiftfoot Boots[/card] an EDH staple. Sure, it can allow an aggro general to swing in a turn sooner, but is that really why it’s so ubiquitous in decks that focus on the commander? I would argue Swiftfoot Boots more important function is being a cheap, near-universal answer to single-target removal. Granting haste is just gravy. What players really want is to know their commander, or another critical threat, is safe from most instant-speed answers.

To retread the most beaten path in Magic scholarship, this is what makes counterspells so immensely powerful and annoying. The “universal answer” isn’t just an answer to threats. It’s an answer to answers too. Consider how often you’ve heard the phrase “I was holding [THREAT] until I had a counterspell to back it up.” So while an aggro deck might have to pick between a removal spell or some kind of defense for their threats, a blue mage can use one slot to cover both. Answers to answers are incredibly valuable.

Bringing the Pain

Taken too far, this “answers to answers” concept can create some of the most powerful and frustrating decks in the format. A prime example would be the “stax” deck archetype. These decks are often helmed by commanders such as [card]Grand Arbiter Augustin IV[/card] or [card]Derevi[/card] and are packed with cards like [card]Winter Orb[/card], [card]Smokestack[/card], and [card]Tangle Wire[/card]. They lock down resources, prevent opponents from getting threats online and make it virtually impossible to answer their own threats. I’m sure you can see why these decks have a reputation for being the least fun in Commander.

Sorry, dude. No one likes you.

Sorry, dude. No one likes you.

You may have heard similar complaints about decks that rush a threat online, then activate mass land destruction to prevent answers. Watching an unchallenged [card]Jor Kadeen[/card] topple one player after another or a [card]Narset, Englightened Master[/card] play solitaire while being unable to keep lands online just isn’t fun. Mass discard decks like [card]Nath of the Gilt-Leaf[/card] also tend to have a crummy reputation for putting the rest of the table into topdeck mode for the entire game. So aggressively pushing answers to answers in other ways can clearly create bad feelings over time.

Cards such as [card]Painful Quandary[/card] or [card]Sadistic Sacrament[/card] don’t feel that mean when you are putting them into your deck. They feel like answers, and in some situations they really can function that way. In practice, they tend to push their controllers to play more competitively and require judicious utilization to not be incredibly frustrating. Aggressively and preemptively answering everything can produce obvious results. It can win you games. It just might not win you very many friends.

Prevention vs Reaction

So this brings us back to the goals we’ve set for our decks and the environments in which we expect to be piloting them. Most answers tend to be reactionary, which allows them to be used contextually and politically to your advantage. Holding a board wipe until someone has presented themselves as a major threat is not only wise, but it can also position you as an ally to the rest of the table and garner some goodwill that can be utilized to advance your own gameplan later. This is another great reason to always include answers of some kind in your decks.

Reactionary answers can be risky though. They require the right threat to target and sit in your hand until that threat presents itself. This  is why players tend to include preventative answers in their decks as well. Preventative answers can be the “answers to answers” we discussed above, but they can also be cards that slow down opponents like [card]Aura of Silence[/card], remove their resources like [card]Strip Mine[/card], or provide general protection like [card/]Avacyn, Angel of Hope[card]. While these preventative answers can frustrate opponents,  they generally aren’t bad choices and many decks should consider them to meet specific goals.

Be aware that how far do you go with prevention is going to characterize your deck in the minds of other players and will skew the way you pilot the deck too. Taking prevention to its extremes, we find cards such as [card]Iona, Shield of Emeria[/card] and [card]Contamination[/card], which can lock out opponents and make your deck not only seem more aggressive, but also make it quite hard to play politically. If the rest of your table isn’t expecting to play that competitively, you may find yourself playing archenemy instead of EDH, and rightly so. Don’t play cards that preventative and potent and then complain when the table teams up to stop you. You made those card choices and if playing solo against the table isn’t your goal, then you made some bad decisions during deck construction.

Prevention to the Extreme

Prevention to the Extreme

If your goal is to be as competitive and aggressive as possible (and there’s nothing wrong with that in the right setting) then select answers that support that goal and don’t be sheepish about including them. But if your regular table is very political, has mixed power levels, or just prefers a friendly game of spellslinging to nuclear war and you want to build a deck for that environment, then make sure to pick answers that fit the zeitgeist. Skew more reactionary and save the preventative answers for the stuff your deck just cannot  answer otherwise.


Deciding what kind of deck you really want to be playing isn’t just about selecting the right threats. Answers have a tremendous impact on the power level and character of your deck as well. You may have built a deck to be “friendly” by skipping certain potent threats and format staples, but selected more aggressive answers that frustrate your friends anyways. You may have tried to build a genuinely potent deck, but failed to identify the threats you need to prevent instead of simply answer. Both mistakes will leave your deck feeling unsatisfying and produce uneven results.

So make sure to run answers, but choose them carefully and be certain they align with the goals you set for the deck. Do your answers support or interfere with the deck’s plan? Are they meeting your expectations for potency and reliability? Most importantly, are you still having fun? If the answer to any of these questions is unclear, don’t be afraid to make some edits and experiment until it feels right again.


Unified Theory of Commander: Answers

Up through this point in the Unified Theory of Commander, we’ve been primarily concerned with what our own decks want to do. Threats define the goals of the deck, while Draw and Mana give us access to those threats and the ability to cast them. As we move into the fourth element in our theory, its necessary for us to switch gears and start thinking critically about our opponents. Answers are all about responding to the other decks at the table.

Why Answers?

Remember from our last discussion that threats  attempt to advance a gameplan and create a win condition. They exert pressure on the table and “demand answers.” That means answers are the cards that respond to and hopefully stop threats from creating momentum for another’s players strategy. They relieve pressure at the table and ideally put your deck in a position to continue executing its own plan.

So we’ve got a functional definition of answers, but a lot of players who understand what an answer technically is still miss the material advantage of running answers in their decks. If we go back to our discussion on card advantage, its clear that Commander is a game of resource acquisition and management. Acquiring and utilizing resources is bound by rules, which dictate the time and pace at which we can use them. Threats attempt to reduce the amount of time left in the game. That’s “pressure.” It says that if this threat goes unanswered, then the table only has X turns before its controller wins. And sometimes X equals zero! If no one is holding an instant speed answer, the game is over.

Many answers cards may seem like card disadvantage in the moment, but when used properly they actually create time. They add to X, which creates more turns for you to acquire and utilize resources. So making sure your deck has appropriate answers to the threats at the table is going to be critical. Maintaining card advantage is pointless if you don’t have the time to execute your strategy and win the game, right?

The Answers Menu

So what cards qualify as answers? The most ubiquitous and obvious answers for our multiplayer format are wraths and boardwipes. A single spell that clears potentially dozens of your opponent’s assets from the battlefield clearly produces significant card advantage. Rarely does a friendly game of commander reach its conclusion without a single one of these powerful cards making an appearance, but these aren’t your only options.

but its still good!

Not Your Only Option

Single target removal spells such as Swords to Plowshares certainly have their place in the format, especially since they tend to function at instant speed and allow you to be very selective with their use. Removing artifacts, enchantments and other permanent types is important to consider as well. And yes, no matter how sad you are when it happens to you, land destruction is part of the answers package as well. Being able to use Strip Mine on  the Maze of Ith that’s keeping your commander from getting in for lethal damage might be pretty important if you are playing a voltron deck.

There are broader answers available as well. Cards like Chaos Warp or Karn Liberated hit just about any permanent and cover weaknesses in colors that struggle removing specific threats from the table. “Prison” cards such as Oblivion Ring and Detention Sphere and other oddball defensive spells such as Nevermore see play in specific deck archetypes as well, so always be on the lookout for the right options for your deck’s specific gameplan.

Selecting Answers

So how do we go about selecting answers for our decks? For that, we need to turn inward again for a moment to the goals we set for our decks. If you know what your deck wants to do, you can begin to figure out what threatens it. If your deck isn’t creature heavy, then wraths will certainly work in your favor. Wraths become your enemy in a tokens deck, so finding answers that protect your side of the battlefield are much more important. Suddenly a card like Soul of New Phyrexia might seem attractive as an answer.

We also need to consider each type  of threat we might see at the table and make sure we are able to respond to all of them. We can do this broadly to get started. Make a list of permanent types and consider whether or not your deck has a way to deal with each of them. If your deck is missing removal for a particular permanent type, consider how it is going to handle one of those being played as a threat. You may need to make some edits.

A Threat & an Answer in the Right Deck

A Threat and an Answer in the Right Deck

We can get more specific by building another list of threatening deck archetypes, particularly those that might show up at our own card shops or regular gaming night with friends. If your deck is combat oriented, do you have answers for a “pillowfort” deck stacked with defensive enchantments? If not, a Bane of Progress might be an excellent inclusion. Is a voltron deck king of your playgroup? Then make sure your deck is packing enough instant-speed removal or sacrifice effects to keep their commander pointed at someone else. Consider the strategies that tend to leave your deck feeling hopeless and go find the tools to fight back effectively.

Reliability of Your Answers

Including another threat is almost always going to make you happier during deck construction than adding another answer. Its easy to imagine the myriad of ways each threat can win the game, but hard to consider all the ways in which you might need another answer. Have you ever daydreamed about casting Wrath of God for four mana on your own turn? Or blowing your Swords to Plowshares on turn three against a threatening Rafiq? Probably not.  So almost every EDH player to sleeve up a deck has fallen into the trap of overvaluing the density of their threats and undervaluing the need for answers.

It's about density of answers, get it?!?!

Is your coverage dense enough?

We try to avoid hard rules for things like card ratios in the Unified Theory because each deck has its own goals and each playgroup its own nuances. However, it is safe to say that when an opponent plays a big threat, you are almost always going to wish you had an answer in your hand. So its generally a good idea to distribute answers in your deck in such a way that you will see at least one in your opening hand or by the turn at which players at your table tend to start resolving major threats.

It’s relatively easy to follow that rule and use a hypergeometric calculator (like we did for mana sources) to find a good number of answers for your deck. If players at your table start resolving big threats around turn six, then fifteen answers makes your deck 90% reliable at playing defense. You can tune up or down based on a variety of factors, but remember that this is just a starting point. Just like the “start with 40 lands” guideline, make sure you don’t just cram 15 answers in your deck and call it a day. Like mana sources and threats, your deck needs answers that fit its strategy and the expected play environment. So keep adjusting until you don’t feel helpless against any strategy, but don’t give up the character of your deck to fit a specific rule.


Answers don’t feel as good as threats, but they are every bit as vital to making sure your deck is fun and functional at any table. When holding a shiny new threat from the latest set that desperately needs to join your favorite deck, you will be tempted to remove an answer to make room. You will even feel good about the swap when that threat resolves and the table collective groans at the advantage create your new toy. But those good feelings might be covering up the way your deck is actually getting weaker and less able to respond to your opponent’s own shiny new toys. Don’t fall into that trap. Find that answers that keep your deck in the game and run them.

It’s Time to Tuck the Rules Committee

This week, the EDH Rules Committee announced a change to the format that set my Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook feeds abuzz: players are no longer able to deal with pesky enemy commanders by shuffling them into the opponent’s deck. Any time an ability would cause a commander to return to a player’s hand or be “tucked” into their deck, there is a new replacement effect that allows players to simply return it to the safety of the command zone.

This change will have a pretty big impact on the format (not to mention the price of several cards) and its justly getting a lot of attention from the community. Most of the feedback is negative, and rightly so. The reasons the committee gave for the change are embarrassingly bad, poorly argued, and inconsistently applied. And as a game developer myself, this reeks to me of the kind of bad game design I witness studios make when they try to simplify a game for new players, but end up going about it all the wrong ways.

Bad Arguments

First, the Rules Committee posits that nothing feels worse than having your commander unavailable for the whole game. While I’d agree that having a commander tucked can be a feel-bad experience, I’d also say that I’ve had much worse feelings during an EDH game. Having my commander get tucked may be annoying, but at least I can keep playing the game. There are plenty of individual cards and broader interactions that force me to either concede or sit there and not play until someone else finds their win condition. So kicking off their justification with hyperbole is a pretty bad place to start.


Second, they suggest that the threat of tuck leads players to run more tutors. This is an outright falsehood. Players run tutors because this is a singleton format. Period. Full stop. Conversation over. Players want access to their favorite cards and win conditions, so they run tutors. I’m aware that Sheldon has written about going tutorless in his own decks, but that’s not the reality for the majority of the players in the format. Tutors exist and they are used at all levels of power and competition. This change will not reduce tutor usage by any meaningful amount.

Third, the argument that tuck only exists in blue and white and thus potentially forces players to run those colors is just plain silly. Magic is a game about a color wheel with unevenly divided power and mechanics. Saying this needs to get banned because of the color wheel is like suggesting we should ban land ramp spells because they are only available in green. Do players feel like they must run green for mana? Or blue for draw spells? Or black for tutors? Each deck you build is bound by its color restrictions. That’s an essential feature of this format, not a problem for it. This argument is entirely a nonsequitor and sets a truly dangerous precedent.

Fourth, the idea that this clears up some rules fuzziness is perhaps the worst statement of all, especially if the Rules Committee is trying to make this game more accessible to new and casual players. There is now an entire class of cards that doesn’t do what the card actually says, including cards like [card]Spell Crumple[/card] that were designed specifically for the Commander format. [card]Terminus[/card] now reads something like, “Put all creatures except for commanders on the bottom of their owner’s libraries. Players may choose to put their commander onto the bottom of the library or into their command zone. The command tax applies for this return to the command zone.” [card]Chaos Warp[/card] is even more confusing, since you could cast it targeting your own commander and just put the top card of your library into play without the drawback of targeting your own creature.


Do we really believe this is easier for casual players to understand? Should we have to explain even more rules intricacies to these players for them to follow the rules of the format? I would argue this is absolutely not the case. One of my many playgroups is a trio of work friends who only play with preconstructed retail decks. They can already barely keep the stack straight when more than a few spells are cast on the same turn. Adding in more special rules will only make the game more obtuse to them. Oh, and this rule doesn’t clear up any fuzziness about commander identity anyways… because you can still choose to put your commander into your deck, right? So this fails, and only fails, to make the rules more simple.

Time for a Change

So this rules change is bad. It’s bad for new players and absolutely will not achieve its stated purpose for improving the format. It’s a terrible decision and its being thrust onto a massive, dedicated community of players that overwhelmingly didn’t want this change. All this only highlights a long-running problem and one that I’ve been meaning to write about for some time: the Rules Committee has outlived its ability to meaningfully manage this format.


Yes, I’m suggesting that the Rules Committee shouldn’t be governing the format anymore. Yes, I’m saying the guys who had a hand in creating EDH and guiding it to become the format that we know and love today are the wrong ones to keep leading it. The issue is that this isn’t a niche format played in hotel rooms by judges and Magic insiders anymore. It’s gone commercial, it’s reached the masses, and it’s too big for the Rules Committee to keep effectively managing.

The Rules Committee has demonstrated repeatedly that it is not representing the majority of the players in the format by the way the members inconsistently apply their own guidelines when banning cards or making changes to the format. The committee suggests that their guiding principle is to “create games you’d love to remember, not the ones others would like to forget.” But the format is still host to any number of cards and strategies that throw that notion right out the window. [card]Sylvan Primordial[/card] could create a pretty unhappy board state if a player was fortunate enough to ramp into it quickly, but is that any less fun in those limited instances than a consistently powerful Stax deck locking down the table and playing solitaire? Or a Narset deck blowing up lands over and over while gradually eking out a victory through inevitable commander damage?

I don’t actually want to spill much ink arguing over one ban or another, though. Perhaps [card]Sylvan Primordial[/card] was the worst offender in the format at the time. Perhaps [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card] doesn’t centralize the game around itself quite as much as [card]Primeval Titan[/card] did. That’s not really the point. The point is that a very small group of players, however intelligent and influential, are making very big decisions that impact tables all over the world, and they are doing it wildly inconsistently.


The Big Delusion

The Rules Committee attempts to hand wave this issue in a few places in their statement on philosophy. First, they say that they attempt to avoid “cascading bans” because it leads to an unmanageable list. The idea here seems to be that they ban the worst offenders in any given category, but leave it up to the players to understand how these bans should guide their deck-making process to keep the format social, fun, and fair. This is smart-sounding way of saying, “We’re going to be inconsistent and we don’t care. We’re leaving it up to the masses to figure out.”

Piggy-backing on that idea, they point out that they believe “local groups” and the official rules can peacefully coexist. They encourage players to engage with the game how they want, being aware they may need to make adjustments when playing with different groups. This may have been a really great statement before Wizards of the Coast began printing official Commander products, but since then, the format has grown tremendously and it’s become increasingly hard to apply in reality.I play at my office, at two local card shops, a kitchen table game, and at various official Magic events like grands prix. Does the Rules Committee really expect me to manage a shifting ban list across all my decks to match the philosophy of each group? This is a painfully disingenuous statement at this point in the growth of EDH. We’re largely stuck with the official rules and they know it.


The Solution

It’s time to hand the format over to Wizards and start applying more consistent, data-driven rules changes. The format is huge now and players are engaged in so much cross-group play that its no longer viable to hand-wave inconsistencies and expect people to just swallow them. Its unfair to the community to expect us to just roll with the changes determined by the whims of a tiny, semi-official group of players who think the social contract is a good enough solution for the format’s problems. There needs to be accountability in place that drives the format towards a more healthy balance and doesn’t result in ridiculously bad rule changes like this week’s announcement about tuck spells. That’s not going to happen as long as the Rules Committee continues to own the format.

As for the tuck change? I predict it ends up being reverted. It will not meaningfully change the number of tutors players run. It won’t change how players pick the colors for their decks. And it certainly isn’t going to make the format more accessible for new players. It’s only going to make strong commanders stronger, force players to run more removal instead of additional fun threats, and ultimately make for a less interesting format.

It’s unfortunate that we’re being forced to endure this experiment in bad game design until these things are made apparent. It’s inevitable that Wizards eventually takes over stewardship of the Commander format. It’s just too bad it didn’t happen before this week’s announcement.

Unified Theory of Commander: Threats Part 2 – Your Commander

Imagine for a moment that your commander is an actual living being someplace out in the Magic multiverse. He, she, or it wants something. Can you say what that something is? Does she want to grab a sword and slice someone open? Does he want to make it impossible for his enemies to cast a spell? Maybe it just wants to consume and destroy anything in its path? Whatever it is your commander wants, its your job to provide it when you are building your deck.

Who’s #1?

In our first discussion on threats, we talked about setting goals and asking yourself a few important questions as you select the cards that will define your deck. What kind of deck do you really want to build? Generally, the answer to that question revolves around your choice of commander. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to start every deck concept with a commander in mind. Perhaps you picked up an [card]Assemble the Legion[/card] in a trade and it inspired you to build a Boros tokens deck. Maybe there’s a tribal deck like Goblins or Treefolk that you are just dying to play. But unless you are picking a commander  just for the colors, that card is generally going to be your number-one threat.

Inspiration... but not your #1 Threat

Inspiration… but not your #1 threat

The reason should be perfectly clear. Unlike any other card in your deck, your commander is available any time you have the mana necessary to cast it. Even with the clever tricks we outlined earlier in the series to make sure our mana sources are correct in every deck, we can’t even be certain that a particular basic land is going to be in a given opening hand. So sometimes the randomness of the shuffle keeps particular threats out of reach, but the big boss of your deck is waiting for you in the command zone  as soon as you are ready to produce a threat and advance your game plan.

Commanding Threats

This unique  availability of your commander is obviously a useful part of picking the threats that will define your deck, but it doesn’t come cost-free. The stacking command tax of two colorless mana begins to add up if you are forced to recast your commander multiple times. Lose your commander to removal or a bad combat phase enough times, and suddenly your number-one threat could be out of reach. So knowing the right time to bring your commander into play is an important part of executing a gameplan.

A cheap, aggressive commander such as [card]Rhys the Redeemed[/card] or [card]Edric, Spymaster of Trest[/card] wants to come online as soon as possible. This type of commander’s goal is to start putting pressure on the board right away and generating card advantage. With a good start, they can force an entire table’s worth of opponents to expend their answers instead of developing their own board states. Picking other threats that align with this strategy can help this type of commander run away with the game and pick up quick victories.

Not every commander wants to be this fast.

Not every commander wants to be this fast.

However, not every commander should be played that way. One of the most common mistakes I see made by new players is casting their commander as soon as they have the mana, but before their board state is in a position to take advantage of the commander’s  presence.

Even other seemingly aggressive commanders require some consideration before being cast. [card]Aurelia, the Warleader[/card], the commander we discussed in our last article on threats, is a great example. With a converted mana cost of six in colors that do not naturally ramp into huge amounts of mana, she wants to be aggressive, but casting her before you are ready to kill or cripple one of your opponents is generally a bad idea. She wants a suite of equipment or a supporting army waiting when she comes online to maximize the damage she can inflict and minimize the number of times she needs to be cast.

Going back to our initial question helps us determine when to cast our commanders. [card]The Mimeoplasm[/card] wants to eat something awesome in the graveyard, so casting it before there is something delicious to consume is not generally the right choice. [card]Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir[/card] is best used once there’s enough mana available to combo out or lock down the table. And sad to say it, but [card]Oloro, Ageless Ascetic[/card] doesn’t want to be cast at all. He just wants to keep feeding you life every turn and let the other threats in your deck benefit from the value.

This guy doesn't even want to get out of his chair to play with you.

This jerk doesn’t even want to get out of his chair to play with you.

So to refine our question even further, perhaps you should ask yourself, “What kind of board state does my commander want to see when it joins the battle?” Then pick threats and play hands to set up that condition before calling the big boss into action.

Optimizing Threats

Now that we know what our commander wants and when we really want to bring them into play, we can start refining our other threats to maximize their value. Let’s go back to our Aurelia example for an illustration. She wants to enter the battlefield with the ability to quickly eliminate an opponent, so having potent equipment waiting for her is obviously important. Equipping those artifacts can be expensive, though, and Aurelia already costs at least six mana to bring online. So cutting a bigger, more threatening creature in lieu of a [card]Puresteel Paladin[/card] might make Aurelia much faster and stronger. This isn’t synergy in the traditional sense: it’s optimization. The paladin improves Aurelia’s potential to threaten the table even though the two cards by themselves don’t directly interact to create card advantage.

Small Body. Big Threat.

Small body. Big threat.

Optimizing our threats also means deciding which “version” of a deck we want to run. Consider [card]Hazezon Tamar[/card]. Some versions of this sand warrior’s deck are meant to play him early, then cast threats that benefit from the tokens he produced. Cards such as [card]Regal Force[/card] or [card]Slate of Ancestry[/card], that care how many creatures you control, are fantastic in this version of the deck. Hazezon’s deck can also be tuned to be a bit more combo-focused. Cards like [card]Food Chain[/card] and  [card]Goblin Bombardment[/card] become much more threatening in this version, allowing Hazezon to produce a massive number of tokens and then shoot the table for the win.

This highlights again why synergy is last in our “My Deck Tickled a Sliver” method for deck building. All of the cards above synergize with Hazezon Tamar’s token generation, and it’s certainly possible to build a hybrid deck that uses all of them, but that doesn’t mean including them all creates the best-performing version of the deck. By picking threats that optimize towards a primary strategy first, we improve each draw and greatly simplify the decisions we need to make while piloting our decks.


So does your deck make its commander happy? Does it have a gameplan? Do all the other threats point the deck in that particular direction? Your number one threat is wasted if the deck doesn’t produce the type of board states that create card advantage when you cast it from the command zone. If you disappoint your commander, the deck will likely disappoint you. So align the other threats in your deck with your commander’s desires and you’ll find that even a budget deck can be fun to pilot—and pick up some wins along the way.

Unified Theory of Commander: Threats

What kind of deck do you really want to build?

This question is at the starting point of every Commander deck, isn’t it? There’s no sense in building a deck that won’t be fun to pilot. So EDH players need to start with this question and then continually revisit it to make sure that the deck they actually build ends up being the deck they set out to play in the first place. Your own personal definition of “fun” is at the heart of deck building.

The answer to that critically important question is what defines the Threats portion of  our Unified Theory of Commander. Threats are the cards that advance the game, execute your plan, and eventually defeat your opponents. They are the cards that define your “critical mana points,” are the primary targets for your tutors, and should be producing card advantage in one form or another if they stick around long enough to do their job. Threats are the cards that great EDH stories spring from.

Revisiting “My Deck Tickled A Sliver”

So if threats are the starting point of every EDH deck, why aren’t they  the first element in the Unified Theory of Commander? Remember that order of operations is different than order of importance. You might pick your favorite cards to build around, but they aren’t ever really “threats” if you can’t get them into your hand or afford to cast them. So while the order of operations for deck building might dictate that you pick your threats first and fix your mana last, it’s important to remember that in order of importance, acquiring the resources that power your threats is most critical to building a deck that actually does its intended  job.

With our discussion on resource acquisition behind us, threats now become the hinge point for the rest of the theory. Understanding our threats helps us determine which mana sources to run and what kinds of card draw we need as the underlying framework for our deck. It also informs our decisions about what kind of answers to run and how we’ll edit our decks for synergy.

Threats vs Synergy

We discussed in our introductory article how focusing on synergy first tends to lead new deck-builders astray. The issue of synergy is probably the most contested point in the entire theory so far, so it’s important that we revisit it now that we’ve come to threats in order to bring a little more clarity to the discussion. Threats can absolutely synergize with each other, but synergy by itself does not constitute a threat.  So understanding how to differentiate between the two can tremendously improve your deck-building skills.

Go to War with Real Threats.

Go to war with real threats.

Let’s use [card]Aurelia, the Warleader[/card] as a tool for illustrating the difference between threats and synergy. Our fiery angel of the Boros Legion has an ability that creates extra attack steps, so a player thinking about synergy first will immediately consider creatures with  abilities triggered by attacking. Getting two activations of battle cry or battalion will absolutely seem exciting, powerful, and synergistic, but does that synergy necessarily “get you there” when the game is on the line? Does it create meaningful card advantage? Does it put enough pressure on the table to threaten to end the game if it goes unanswered? If not, it’s not really a great example of a true “threat.”

Consider the card [card]Warmind Infantry[/card] and how it synergizes with Aurelia. It gets +2/+0 when its battalion ability triggers, so with two combat steps, it has the potential to deal 10 damage on a single turn. Seems pretty great strictly within the context of synergy. That’s a quarter of an opponent’s life total by itself, potentially ballooning to more than half their health when you consider Aurelia and at least one other creature are attacking as well. It sounds pretty appealing to deal half of someone’s health on a single turn, doesn’t it?

So is [card]Warmind Infantry[/card] a good inclusion in your Aurelia deck? Probably not, unless you are building on a strict budget. Three toughness means it’s not likely to survive the first combat step in the first place, so getting a second combat step isn’t guaranteed. The synergy is often wasted right there. More important though, is that Warmind Infantry isn’t very good on its own. It doesn’t threaten to end the game by itself, so without Aurelia to power it up and an empty battlefield so it can avoid blockers, the card just isn’t going to provide enough value to really qualify as a meaningful threat in EDH.

Not a Threat. Sorry.

Not a threat. Sorry.

Now compare Warmind Infantry  to [card]Tajic, Blade of the Legion[/card]. Battalion givesTajic +5/+5, so Aurelia’s bonus attack step means Tajic can deal 19 damage on a single turn by himself, which is already almost double the synergistic value for just one white mana more. More important is that Tajic is indestructible, so not only does he hit harder, he survives every combat to hit his opponents again. He doesn’t need an empty battlefield to produce value, nor does he need Aurelia to begin being scary. Tajic demands answers all by himself and synergizes with far more cards to put pressure on the table.

Maybe it’s cheating to compare a common card to a legendary rare, but the hidden rule we’re trying to uncover with this illustration is sound. Synergy does not produce a threat all by itself. It can increase value and potentially produce card advantage, but it doesn’t actually define what your deck is trying to do. Synergy is the salt and pepper, but threats are the meat of the deck.

Defining Threats

So how can we properly define Threats? How can a deck builder identify cards that are ideal to build around? There are a few key characteristics to keep in mind when selecting the right cards to lead your deck.

First, a true threat should threaten to end the game or eliminate at least one opponent if it goes unanswered. If we think back to the BREAD acronym for drafting, Threats are Commander’s equivalent to Bombs. They are powerful cards that apply pressure on your opponents and advance your own game plan. Flowing from this idea, we should also note that true threats should demand answers from your opponents. The table should not be able to safely ignore your key cards  in most reasonable board states.

No Synergy Needed.

No synergy needed.

The second big idea to keep in mind is that your threats should either be very powerful by themselves or synergize in multiple ways with the rest of your deck to end the game if left unanswered. Playing an [card]Avacyn, Angel of Hope[/card] can be a threat all by itself. It’s an indestructible, vigilant, flying 8/8 that can put enormous pressure on the table alone. [card]Helix Pinnacle[/card] can also function as a threat in a defensive deck like [card]Angus Mackenzie[/card], although it may require a lot of synergy and protection to succeed. Finding a card that is both potent by itself and synergizes well with the rest of the deck is really the ultimate goal. [card]Avenger of Zendikar[/card] is good in just about any deck that runs green, but it’s astounding in a deck like [card]Hazezon Tamar[/card] that is built to abuse all those tokens in multiple ways.

Selecting Threats

Now that we know what really defines a threat, how do we go about picking the right ones for our decks? To answer this question, we really do need to go back and ask the question that started this article again: what kind of deck do you really want to build? Your threats should be selected in service of that goal.

Do you want to play Voltron? Then threats are the cards that either suit up your commander or are other creatures that can get powered up when your commander is unavailable. Potent equipment and resilient creatures become the threats that drive the deck towards its goal: turning a creature into an unstoppable combat machine.

What about combo decks? Their threats are the combo pieces that demand answers before they trigger a win condition that no other player can stop. So no matter how interesting or cute, cards that do not either set up the combo or protect it are good choices to get cut during the deck-building process. [card]Colossal Whale[/card] might be a big creature with a strong ability, but its probably not the best thing to draw when the game is on the line and your deck really just needs to hit its combo pieces. It’s not a threat. It’s dead weight.

Don't End Up Like This. Run Real Threats!

Don’t end up like this. Run real threats!

We can repeat this pattern with every deck archetype and commander in the format to narrow our choices for threats. During our discussion on card advantage, I suggested you ask yourself, “What value do I get for playing this?” Perhaps another question to ask yourself when evaluating threats is, “Does this card align with the goals of my deck?” Just because a card is good, it doesn’t mean it helps advance your primary game plan and win the game. Those cards need to get cut, however painfully, if you want your deck to succeed.


If there is nothing else we take away from the discussion on threats, it should be this: set goals for your deck before you start building. Once you know the deck you want to play, then aggressively build toward that idea and cut anything that doesn’t service its goals. This is more than synergy. It’s directionality.

You don’t build a house by picking a bunch of wood that looks nice when hammered together and seeing what comes out once you throw some nails at it. Maybe that’s art. Maybe it makes you happy sometimes, but it certainly doesn’t qualify as a house that meets the requirements of shelter and safety. Instead, you get a blueprint and build using that as the guide. Building against that blueprint results in a solid structure that can successfully house a family.

Likewise, an EDH deck shouldn’t be made by taking a bunch of cards that synergize and throwing them into a 100-card pile. That might feel good sometimes, but it certainly doesn’t result in a consistent deck that always feels fun to pilot. Instead, set some goals for your deck before you begin. Pick your threats based on those goals and your deck building skills will improve tremendously.

Unified Theory of Commander: Card Advantage

We’ve already spilled quite a bit of digital ink discussing the first two elements of the Unified Theory of Commander: mana and draw. Over the last four articles in this series, we learned why to make mana production a priority during deck construction and how to utilize card draw to create options that help our decks succeed. Yet all these topics can get boiled down to one simple goal: acquire resources.

I should probably add a little something to that generalized goal for decks that actually want to win games of EDH. The goal is not just to acquire resources. The goal is to acquire them faster and better than your opponents. That’s why this article marks an excellent midpoint in our discussion in the Unified Theory. The concept of card advantage bridges the gap between acquiring resources and then actually putting those cards to use to execute a game plan.

Defining Card Advantage

Grasping the basic idea of card advantage is pretty easy. Simply put, it’s the action of gaining and using more cards than your opponents. If you cast an [card]Ancestral Recall[/card] and get three cards into your hand at the expense of just one card, that’s card advantage. If you force an opponent to discard two cards from their hand using [card]Mind Rot[/card], that’s card advantage too. In two-player Magic, its relatively easy to count cards and get a general idea of whether you are ahead or behind.

Card Advantage, Pure and Simple

Card advantage, pure and simple.

Card advantage becomes quite a bit more treacherous to define when we start taking permanents on the board and life totals into account. In fact, it’s so treacherous that a number of competing theories have sprung up that attempt to mathematically “solve” card advantage for any situation. While these theories all have their merits, I’d argue that they are almost impossible to apply to a game of EDH without a degree in statistics. Trying to count fractional card advantage as multiple players take turns around the table will drive you insane long before it helps you understand how your deck is performing.

So the simple solution here is to throw away all the complicated theories. Frankly, you don’t need them. At no point during an EDH game are you going to score bonus points for being able to explain which player is one-third of a card ahead of the rest of the table. And even if you could, it doesn’t mean that player is actually “winning.” So don’t bother. We’re going to find a better, more simple solution to this problem for Commander.

Breaking the Rules…

For just a moment, let’s ignore specific cards, deck archetypes, themes, and flavor and just consider how Magic: The Gathering actually functions as a game. Magic is a game of rules. At the start of my turn, I get to untap my permanents once and draw one card. Next I get to play some spells, and after that, I get a single attack phase. We follow the rules for attacking and blocking. Then I get to play some more spells before passing the turn to my opponent. I’m grossly oversimplifying here, but I want you to look all the way down to the bones of the game.

Vanilla Test? Pssshhh... Shriekmaw is too cool for school.

Vanilla test? Pssshhh… Shriekmaw is too cool for school.

Just about every card that we play in this “game of rules” actually modifies those rules somehow. Casting [card]Divination[/card] modifies the “draw one card per turn” rule. I spend some resources and get to break that particular rule in exchange. Normally when I play a creature, the rules say I get a certain power and toughness for the mana I’ve spent and I can use that card to attack or defend. If I cast a [card]Shriekmaw[/card], I modify those basic rules. I not only get a body from my creature spell, but I also get an effect that kills a creature my opponent controls as well.

…And Getting Value

In addition to the basic rules that govern Magic, there are also basic values for cards and effects that have been defined over time through the design of the cards. For instance, we tend to get one power and one toughness for each point of mana invested into a creature. Creatures that either exceed or fail this “vanilla test” tend to do so because they are either breaking another rule or because they are saddled with some other drawback that changes their effectiveness.

Hungry? Have Two Slices of the Color Pie!

Hungry? Have two slices of the color pie!

Because of Magic’s “color pie” of game mechanics, some of these base values are tied to specific colors as well. So drawing a single card may generally cost just one blue mana, but could cost more mana in any other color. Cards that violate these color-specific restrictions tend to get played a lot because they cover weaknesses or gaps usually found in that color. Board wipes are supposed to be in white’s slice of the color pie, but [card]Damnation[/card] is a four-mana version in black that sees play in every format it’s legal. So the value of a card can be inflated if it’s doing something its color isn’t usually supposed to be doing well.

Redefining Card Advantage

So now that we’ve looked at the bones, let’s try to piece together this card advantage animal for the purpose of building a deck for Commander. Since we can’t consider every possible table scenario while building our decks, we have to look at each card choice based on how well it helps us break the rules and create value.

A simple way to start evaluating a card is to ask yourself, “What value do I get for playing this?” EDH is a game of big spells, big creatures, and big plays, so a vanilla 2/2 probably isn’t going to get very far into your deck construction process if you start with this question. Compare that to something like [card]Serra Ascendant[/card], which enters the battlefield as a 6/6 creature with lifelink for just one white mana, and its easy to see why that card is a format staple. It gives you six times the normal value in power and toughness for the cost and it has an upside!

Sometimes simple math is all it takes to evaluate staple cards and see why they are so strong. [card]Sol Ring[/card] lets you spend one mana to get two on the same turn. [card]Wheel of Fortune[/card] draws seven cards for just three mana and possibly has the upside of disrupting an opponent’s game plan too. [card]Tooth and Nail[/card] costs a whopping nine mana, but it searches for any two creatures and puts them directly into play, bypassing the usual rules for tutoring and the casting costs for associated with massive creatures. A Tooth and Nail that grabs [card]Avacyn, Angel of Hope[/card], and [card]Archetype of Endurance[/card] creates an obscene advantage… and that’s one of the more “fair” uses for the card.

Don't be sad, Robot. You're a staple!

Don’t be sad, robot. You’re a staple!

Perhaps the best illustration of a value-producing card is [card]Solemn Simulacrum[/card]. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard a new player ask why this sad robot is so good in EDH. Just do the math, friends. It’s four colorless mana. It produces a 2/2 body, which accounts for two mana from its casting cost. Then it grabs a basic land from the deck and puts that card into play tapped. That action generally costs another two mana at least, but with the restriction of being in green. So four colorless mana for a 2/2 and a land is already ahead of the value curve by dodging a color restriction, and then it has the possibility of doing some damage, preventing some damage, and drawing another card when it dies. In just one card, we have mana, draw, a threat, and an answer. It’s almost all of the Unified Theory by itself. Now that’s value!

Card Advantage in Action

Picking a card based on its value above the standard is only the first half of card advantage. While building decks and theorizing about their power is fantastic, we actually have to play the game to prove that the cards actually behave as we expect. We also have to make good choices about how and when we play our cards to get maximum value.

So another good question to ask yourself is, “What value am I getting for this card if I cast it right now?” If you have a [card]Wrath of God[/card] in hand and there is only one creature card on the table at the moment, you better have a really good reason to want that one creature dead. Otherwise the inherent value of casting a card that destroys all creatures is going to be wasted. You would usually prefer to cast that later in the game and hit an entire table’s worth of creatures, trading your one card for a dozen from your opponents. That’s a much better value proposition for your deck.

I bring this up because it’s quite easy to get too focused on your own deck’s strategy and put your blinders on, plowing ahead with each turn irrespective of your opponents. This drastically reduces the value of the cards in your deck and can result in some lousy games. You might even start blaming your opponents for disrupting your deck instead of accepting your own mistakes. So make sure to pause a moment before each play and make sure you are getting the best value possible from each spell.

Multiplayer-Enhanced Card Advantage

Most games of Commander are played with more than two players and with double the starting life of vanilla Magic, which causes certain types of card advantage to become more valuable than others. These format-specific adjustments are vitally important to remember when making value judgments for your cards.

Let’s use spot removal as an example to demonstrate how multiplayer adjusts our card valuations. Assume for a moment that your opponent played one of those pesky [card]Serra Ascendant[/card]s on the second turn of the game. You are holding a [card]Go For the Throat[/card] in hand and have mana up to instantly kill it before it attacks someone. Should you?

A good rule to follow in both life and EDH: Only murder things when you absolutely have to.

A good rule to follow in both life and EDH: only murder things when you absolutely have to.

Well, let’s do some basic math here. Your opponent spent one mana and one card to get the [card]Serra Ascendant[/card] online. If you spend two mana and a card to kill it, you are only down one mana. In a normal game of Magic, this kind of one-for-one trade seems fine, but in this case, there are two other players at the table who spend zero cards on this exchange. So two of you are now down one card each and the other two have developed a little card advantage. Unless you have some political reason to spend your card this way, you should probably hold your removal until the Serra Ascendant is pointed toward you. Someone else might spend the card instead and leave you ahead in card advantage.

Another card advantage adjustment to make for Commander is to remember that recurring card advantage is significantly more potent than one-time effects. We touched on this a bit in the article on draw. [card]Divination[/card] is a fine card in a draft but it doesn’t do much work in EDH. [card]Rhystic Study[/card] has a recurring card draw effect that has the added bonus of potentially slowing down your opponents or at least eating some enchantment removal. Doing something multiple times is a lot better than just doing it once.

"Your turn? I think you mean OUR turn..."

“Your turn? I think you mean OUR turn…”

Also make sure to consider when the recurring effect happens to help measure how strong the card might be. [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card] is one of the most potent cards in the format specifically because it’s a multiplayer game. If no one is holding an answer in a four-player pod, its controller can gain six cards just off the draw phases of her opponents. [card]Prophet of Kruphix[/card] untaps lands and creatures at the start of every upkeep, effectively giving a player multiple extra turns. These effects are significantly more potent because they occur during each other player’s turn, producing card advantage at hyperspeed.

Finally, remember that symmetric effects are significantly more powerful than single target effects. Not only do they get around defensive cards such as [card]Witchbane Orb[/card], but they also set all opponents behind instead of just one at a time. Compare [card]Bloodchief Ascension[/card] to [card]Purphoros, God of the Forge[/card] for a solid example here. Purphoros hits everyone at the table for two life at a time, whereas Bloodchief Ascension is only hitting one. The extra lifegain just doesn’t make up for the lack of symmetry.

Synergy-Enhanced Card Advantage

Remember, the Unified Theory of Commander ends with the element synergy, so it’s something we also have to take into consideration as we build card advantage into our lists. One of the great joys of playing this format is finding otherwise unplayable cards and turning them into valuable parts of our decks. Even the most oddball cards can find a home and produce some card advantage in a deck built to abuse them.

The King of Janky Synergy

The King of Janky Synergy

[card]Norin the Wary[/card] is a really fun example of this kind of synergy in action. He’s not really much of a threat on his own. Neither is [card]Confusion in the Ranks[/card]. Put them together, though, and you have a potent combo that steals everyone’s creatures and keeps sending Norin back to his controller for maximum annoyance. Throw a potent card like [card]Purphoros, God of the Forge[/card], into the mix and suddenly Norin becomes a clock for the entire table.

We’ll deal more with these kinds of synergies as we move into the second half of our discussions on the Unified Theory of Commander, but for now it’s sufficient to remember that the more pieces of your deck that interact with a card favorably, the more card advantage it’s likely to produce. Remember that the most important elements of any EDH deck are the things that produce resources (mana) and open up options (draw), so if a synergistic piece doesn’t satisfy those elements, spend a little extra time asking yourself why it’s going into the deck.


Don’t get bogged down by complicated definitions of card advantage. A few simple rules built on top of a simple definition can help any Commander deck achieve its goals for resources and keep up with the table. Use cards that help you break the rules and generate as much value as possible. Play cards when they best benefit you and produce the biggest losses for your opponents. Use recurring and symmetric effects whenever possible. Understanding card advantage in EDH doesn’t require a calculator or an advanced degree in mathematics—just keep these rules in mind.

Unified Theory of Commander: Draw Part 2 – Tutors

There are ways around just about every rule ever made by mankind. We’ve all learned to push the boundaries and discover which rules really apply and which ones are not fully enforced. Kids learn which parent to ask to get that extra TV show before bed. Students figure out which teachers are pushovers that let them turn in assignments late. And let’s face it, rich people with high-powered lawyers have learned which laws they can skirt thanks to their wealth and influence.


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.





Teach the Controversy


Once again, we need look no further than the Commander Rules Committee’s own Sheldon Menery for some important thoughts about the topic at hand. Sheldon has gone almost completely tutorless in his own EDH decks and had this to say about it:


One of the reasons I developed the format the way I did was because of the sometimes-random nature of the 100-card singleton design. I really wanted there to be a looser, more open-ended format for multiplayer. When I’m playing, I want my decks to be able to do many different things or to do the same thing multiple different ways. Going tutorless helps squeeze in more opportunity.



Here’s where the controversy tends to really heat up. Commander was crafted with the intent of being a social format, with a relatively high degree of variance, encouraging players to create fun interactions in more than a single way. So there is a certain group of players that find just about any tutor objectionable and in conflict with what they consider the “Spirit of Commander.”


The opposing view tends to come from an equally fair position. Regardless of the intent of a game designer (or Rules Committee, as the case may be), a great game can usually be played in more than one way. In fact, I’d argue that a huge part of Magic’s wild success has to do with its virtually unlimited ability to be remixed and enjoyed the way players want to experience it. That’s how we got EDH in the first place, isn’t it? So even if the judges and players who first gathered together to create the format had one idea about what it should look like, the reality is that its going to look like what players in any given group make it into. Since tutors are part of the magic cosmos and they aren’t officially banned, they are entirely fair game when building an EDH deck.



Gideon (The Good)


The fact is tutors do bring some good elements to the game that simply cannot be overlooked. First of all, most mana ramp spells count as a tutor, don’t they? Take a look at [card]Lay of the Land[/card] or [card]Skyshroud Claim[/card] and what do they say? “Search your library.” That technically makes those cards into tutors that allow players to reach the critical mana needed to cast fun spells. Sure, mana ramp can be a problem for the table when its twelve mana on turn three, but most of the time its used to smooth out mana draws and create the good kind of interaction at the table. So right off the bat it looks like tutors aren’t all bad.


Not exactly a problem card, is it?

Not exactly a problem card, is it?


Tutors also leave players an opportunity to search for answers that let them escape sticky situations and even better, help the entire table out in a bind. Say the player to your left cast [card]Ulamog the Infinite Gyre[/card] and after a quick chat the table realizes that no one has an answer in hand. Someone is sacrificing four permanents on the next turn unless you can find an answer right now. You could always pray to top-deck a [card]Path to Exile[/card], but a tutor gives you the option to grab a specific solution instead of appealing to the EDH gods for your out to be on top the of deck. By blowing your tutor on an answer, you score some political points with the rest of the table and get to play the hero.


Remember in our first discussion on card draw, we demonstrated how drawing cards is like increasing the sample size in our hypergeometric calculations for success. I pointed out that this is great because its difficult to increase the number of successes in a population across all our elements of the Unified Theory. We can’t just keep devoting more cards to Mana, Draw and Answers because our decks are limited to 100 cards. Well, tutors actually hack the calculation and do a little bit of both for us. They can serve as functional duplicates of important cards in our deck by searching them out.  So the options a tutor presents to an EDH deck are incredibly potent.



Nicol Bolas (The Bad)


There is some danger associated with relying too heavily on tutors though and its something new players to the format need to consider as they construct their first decks. The simplest challenge tutors present is the risk being “two-for-oned” by a smart opponent that is holding a counterspell or a piece of spot removal. If you cast [card]Diabolic Tutor[/card] in your [card]Karador, Ghost Chieftain[/card] deck to go get a combo piece like [card]Karmic Guide[/card], a clever control player is going to let you spend the mana on the tutor and then spend more mana to cast the creature, only to toss a two mana [card]counterspell[/card] at your angel spirit. So you just spent nine mana and likely your entire turn only to end up with nothing. The same can happen when the [card]Avacyn, Angel of Hope[/card] you pulled from your deck with [card]Chord of Calling[/card] ends up on the bottom your library thanks to an opponent’s well-timed [card]Terminus[/card].


Tutors also run the risk of making a deck particularly boring and predictable. Most players enjoy the social aspects of the multiplayer format and the variety offered by singleton deck construction. Run too many tutors and your shiny new commander deck might start to feel old hat to you and to your playgroup after only a couple games. If a deck rushes to exactly the same combo pieces, exactly the same way at the start of every game, then you might find yourself wondering why you are playing EDH instead of just playing a more consistent format like Modern.



A Nuke in the EDH Arms Race


The deck may also fall on hard times when the local playgroup learns which cards to remove on sight. If that Karador deck is looking to [card]Tooth and Nail[/card] into [card]Mikaeus the Unhallowed[/card] and [card]Triskelion[/card] in every game, we can be certain that the table is going to look for ways to exile those cards from the deck before the tutor even gets into your hand. It’s not the playgroup’s fault if they decide to answer your deck that way either. They aren’t being mean to turn off the instant-win combos in your deck. They want to win the game too and if the only way to make sure you don’t win first is to remove the non-interactive parts of your deck, that’s a good decision on their part. Which brings us too…


Garruk (The Ugly)


Here’s where tutors can become a problem in certain playgroups. The consistency they create in a deck can lead to frustration for the rest of the playgroup, who see themselves losing to the same pieces over and over again. It’s not an immature response for those players to then tweak their decks to respond to the potency of a consistent deck filled with tutors. Of course this can lead to an arms race that spirals into hurt feelings and accusations that one side or the other forgot about the “Spirit of Commander.”


No Man is an Island. Neither is an EDH deck.  But this is...

No Man is an Island. Neither is an EDH deck.


It’s important in these instances that everyone in the group can take a step back and have a mature conversation about the situation. Commander is a game, and if its stopped being fun then then healthy communication broke down somewhere and the group is missing the point of sitting down at the table together in the first place. It’s OK for power levels to go up over time, but its important to have conversations about it and make sure the players are communicating their expectations of fun and fairness. That’s the real spirit of the format, whether you are playing pre-con decks straight out of their boxes or piloting thousand-dollar decks that would make a Spike at a Legacy tournament laugh maniacally. Don’t let things get ugly because you are unwilling to talk about your expectations for the game or unable to accept that your version of fun might not be entirely compatible with every player at the table.



My Advice


Tutors can do good things. They can also do bad things. Tutors can help your deck hit its land drops and play a savvy political game, but they can also make a deck boring to pilot and annoying to the other players. So what should you do? My advice is to set some clear goals.


Before you build or adjust any deck, take a few minutes to consider what you want the deck to do and just how consistent you really want it to be. I showed you in our article on mana how some basic math can make your deck hit its land drops and cast its big spells. We also discussed in our first article on card draw how this second element can increase options over the course of a game.  But you don’t have to dial these elements all the way up to 100% in every deck, do you?


Certain deck archetypes really need tutors to function. So if you goal is to play some kind of combo deck, then tutors are going to be necessary to hit those combo pieces. That’s got to be part of your goals for the deck, even if some players aren’t going to be happy about it. They can’t force you to play a different archetype because they have fun a different way than you do. But be aware that if your deck is too consistent, you may become the table archenemy and be forced to play 1v3 each time you pull it out. If that falls outside your vision for the deck, you should consider reducing the consistency so the deck aligns with the playgroup and your overarching goal.


Please Tutor Responsibly

Please Tutor Responsibly


Likewise, you might find your deck a bit underpowered and inconsistent for your playgroup, violating your goal for the deck by failing to be competitive at all. If your voltron deck is having a hard time pushing damage through for the win, you may need to consider adding a card like [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card] or [card]Idyllic Tutor[/card] to go digging for auras or equipment to keep the commander swinging and picking up its fair share of wins. Don’t be afraid to add a little consistency to the deck if you feel like a tutor is a necessary addition.



Unified Tutor Theory


So this continued discussion on card draw actually brings us back to utilizing the My Deck Tickled A Sliver mnemonic to edit our decks. Tutors allow a deck to hit its land drops and to draw the threats and answers it needs to be successful. Utilizing the right tutors for the deck’s archetype taps into the synergy element and helps a deck meet its stated goals. Using too many or the wrong kinds of tutors just because they are available in the deck’s colors can result in a boring, noninteractive experience that leaves the entire table underwhelmed. It might not even make the deck functionally stronger either, as you may become too predictable or be grabbing the wrong pieces simply because you drew into a tutor.


So set some goals and then don’t be bashful about using a tutor to help achieve them. Just make sure your deck is actually meeting its stated purpose and that you aren’t becoming the instigator in an arms race that leaves an entire playgroup unhappy. As I’ve said before, editing an EDH deck is a process, even using our Unified Theory. Finding the right balance of tutors for your deck might be as well. So make sure to review after each game and after each adjustment and keep asking yourself if the deck meets your standards for fun and interaction. You and your playgroup will be happier with the deck and the EDH experience if you do.



Unified Theory of Commander: Draw

Let’s continue our discussion of the Unified Theory of Commander with a simple question. Would you generally rather be the player at the table with zero cards in hand or the player with a full hand of seven cards?

Yup. That's me.

Yup. That’s me.

No, this isn’t a trick question. It’s a thought exercise to make sure you are in the right frame of mind for the next element in our Unified Theory. I’ve had to invest a lot of effort convincing players why mana is important enough to be first in the My Deck Tickled A Sliver mnemonic, but pretty much everyone nods in agreement when I mention that drawing cards is the next most important element. It just seems obvious. Yet one of the most common pieces of advice I have to give to players looking for help with their decks is to include more ways to reload their hand. So ask yourself again, do you want to have seven cards in hand or zero? Good. Now let’s figure out how to be the player with the hand full of awesome cards.

Card Draw is Mathematical

We spent a lot of time doing hypergeometric calculations in the first discussion on mana, so I don’t want to dive too deep into that again, although we can use that math to demonstrate exactly why card draw is so valuable. Remember that we defined “success” in those calculations based on the percent chance that we’ll hit the right number of mana sources by a specific turn. That calculation was done by using the population (size of the deck), number of successes in the population (amount of mana sources), and the sample size, which is the number of cards you’ve drawn from the deck by the time you reach the target turn.

In the mana article, we adjusted our probability of success by increasing the number of successes in the population. By going from 40 mana sources to 43, we increased the the chance of hitting our critical mana from 72 percent to 97 percent and made our fictional aggro deck more consistent.  Card draw can also improve our chances of success, but it does so by adjusting a different variable. Drawing cards increases our sample size, giving us more chances to hit the mana we need to cast our big, battlecruiser spells.

Deck construction is...

Deck construction is…

This is important to remember because Commander decks are a fixed size. So while I can advocate devoting more cards in the deck to mana production, its impossible to devote “more” slots to each of the other elements as well. We cannot just increase the number of successes in the population for both Threats (element #3) and Answers (element #4) without taking from somewhere else. Drawing more cards to adjust the sample size instead provides a better, more flexible means of creating consistency.

In practical terms, drawing cards is actually creating options for an EDH deck. In any particular game state, your deck might want a specific creature on the table to threaten an opponent. It might need a specific answer in hand to deal with a scary enemy board. It also might desperately need to draw another land so you can play a blocker and leave mana up for a counterspell after. The more cards you can get into hand, the more likely those favorable options will be available when needed.

Crayons (AKA – Drawing with Colors)

Just like you don’t have to play green to achieve the right amount of mana, you also don’t have to play blue to find satisfactory card draw options in the format. That doesn’t mean blue isn’t the best color for drawing cards, because that’s specifically its slice of the color pie. [card]Blue Sun’s Zenith[/card] and similar options are always going to be the easiest, most cost-efficient ways to get cards. What it does mean is any deck builder playing with any color combination can find ways to reload their hands. Thanks to twenty years of printing cards and artifact-based draw, every color has a fair amount of available options.

Turning Blue All the Way Up to 11

Turning Blue All the Way Up to 11

Black is second-best at drawing cards, although those cards usually come at a price. [card]Necropotence[/card] and [card]Phyrexian Arena[/card] are the quintessential black card draw options, asking you to pay life to get cards into your hand. Fortunately, players start with 40 life and black provides access to spells like [card]Exsanguinate[/card] that refill your life total, so paying one per card usually isn’t too painful.

Green tends to draw cards based on creatures. [card]Greater Good[/card] and [card]Garruk, Primal Hunter[/card] draw cards based on a creature’s power, while [card]Soul of the Harvest[/card] and [card]Primordial Sage[/card] draw based on creatures coming into play under your control. Thanks to the color-shifted cards in the Time Spiral block, Green also has access to [card]Harmonize[/card], providing three cards for just four mana. Seems like pretty good card draw options for the color that is sometimes accused of being “Magic for Dummies,” doesn’t it?

Red’s options are a bit more limited, getting access to “rummage” effects (allowing players to draw cards if they discard first) or temporary card advantage effects like [card]Prophetic Flamespeaker[/card]. It also has cards such as [card]Wheel of Fortune[/card] and [card]Reforge the Soul[/card] that reward players for getting cards out of their hands. By making everyone discard their hand and draw seven more, the mage who puts more permanents onto the battlefield first gains a significant advantage.

White tends to have the most narrow draw options, with cards like [card]Kor Spiritdancer[/card] or [card]Mentor of the Meek[/card] that fall into very specific deck archetypes. Otherwise, white has to fall back on colorless draw, such as [card]Staff of Nin[/card], [card]Skullclamp[/card], and [card]Mind’s Eye[/card]. These artifact-based draw cards generally work quite well in white due to the color’s ability to search for artifacts and enchantments. Getting these into play will help even a mono-white deck keep the cards flowing freely.

Draw in Action: Ephara

So what does a deck that satisfies this element of our theory look like? My friend Swag has an [card]Ephara, God of the Polis[/card], deck that I think epitomizes this particular element in our Unified Theory. While he professes to “hate card draw” during our games, what he really means is that he hates when other people draw cards. He’s pretty happy to be drawing them for himself. I made the mistake of trading him an Ephara and he ended up putting together this deck:

[deck title= Ephara’s Flash Mob]


*1 Snapcaster Mage

*1 Deputy of Acquittals

*1 Whitemane Lion

*1 Suture Priest

*1 Spellstutter Sprite

*1 Silverchase Fox

*1 Vedalken Plotter

*1 Pestermite

*1 Aven Mindcensor

*1 Stonecloaker

*1 Dewdrop Spy

*1 Deceiver Exarch

*1 Ethersworn Shieldmage

*1 Venser, Shaper Savant

*1 Phyrexian Metamorph

*1 Dust Elemental

*1 Thistledown Liege

*1 Restoration Angel

*1 Glen Elendra Archmage

*1 Kor Cartographer

*1 Hollowhenge Spirit

*1 Voidmage Husher

*1 Ephara, God of the Polis

*1 Sturmgeist

*1 Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir

*1 Darksteel Sentinel

*1 Deadeye Navigator

*1 Draining Whelk

*1 Angel of Serenity

*1 Phyrexian Ingester

*1 Diluvian Primordial

*1 Luminate Primordial

*1 Trench Gorger



*1 Saving Grasp

*1 Wayfarer’s Bauble

*1 Enlightened Tutor

*1 Flickering Ward

*1 Sol Ring

*1 Swords to Plowshares

*1 Scout’s Warning

*1 Mystical Tutor

*1 Hoofprints of the Stag

*1 Confound

*1 Talisman of Progress

*1 Remand

*1 Azorius Signet

*1 Into the Roil

*1 Fellwar Stone

*1 Forbid

*1 Hinder

*1 Cackling Counterpart

*1 Repulse

*1 Sphinx’s Revelation

*1 Dream Fracture

*1 Capsize

*1 Detention Sphere

*1 Return to Dust

*1 Cloud Cover

*1 Dismiss

*1 Evacuation

*1 Desertion

*1 Austere Command



*1 Academy Ruins

*1 Adarkar Wastes

*1 Azorius Chancery

*1 Command Tower

*1 Calciform Pools

*1 Celestial Colonnade

*1 Eiganjo Castle

*1 Glacial Fortress

*1 Hallowed Fountain

*1 Halimar Depths

*1 Homeward Path

*1 Kor Haven

*1 Maze of Ith

*1 Minamo, School at Water’s Edge

*1 Mystic Gate

*1 Reliquary Tower

*1 Skycloud Expanse

*1 Springjack Pasture

*1 Strip Mine

*1 Temple of Enlightenment

*1 Temple of the False-God

*1 Vesuva

*5 Plains

*11 Islands



Swag focuses on playing a control game with this deck and uses a whole host of flash creatures to repeatedly trigger Ephara’s ability to draw cards. As very few of his cards require being cast on his own main phase, Swag is able to leave mana open to threaten a counterspell or a bounce effect during everyone else’s turns. The counter spells, flicker effects, and untapped mana serve as excellent rattlesnakes that tend to keep this deck in the game all the way to the very end. The repeatable card draw also means he rarely misses a land drop, satisfying the first element in our Unified Theory of Commander without using green at all.

The biggest takeaway from this should be the value of recurring card draw compared to one-time effects. It’s nice when you get to cast [card]Divination[/card] and draw a couple cards, but its nicer still when [card]Rhystic Study[/card] sticks around and draws you ten. Even if your deck isn’t a well-oiled competitive EDH machine, it can benefit tremendously from having a recurring source of card draw on the table. Whatever your plan for the deck is, it’s more likely to be able to accomplish its goal if you see more cards. So even if you aren’t trying to “win” exactly, drawing more cards lets you put your own janky, ridiculous plans into action.

To Be Continued…

Of course, taking cards off the top of your deck isn’t the only way to hit the cards you need or to produce a resource advantage in Magic. Card advantage is a troublesome, much debated topic in Magic circles and a challenging one to tackle in terms of a multiplayer format like EDH. Utilizing tutors, graveyard recursion, and other effects to create additional value from your cards all support the elements of our Unified Theory. Unfortunately, those topics will have to wait for a future article.

For now, remember that including ways to reload your hand is vitally important in Commander. Getting cards into your hand creates options that allow you to execute your game plan and respond to others. There isn’t a hard and fast rule for how many draw options to put into your deck, but I’d argue you want to see at least one in every single game you play. So take a look at your deck again and ask yourself: does this deck turn me into the player with zero cards or the one with a full hand of options? You already know which player you want to be, so make sure you are piloting a deck that helps you get there.

Command Theory: Power Without Gameplay

It’s not that I’m a pessimist. It’s true that I recommend you mulligan like one when you play Commander, but I’m actually a positive person in general. I look forward to every new Magic set release. I pay attention to spoilers and get excited about cards that might fit into one of my EDH decks or inspire a new one. But when Mark Rosewater confirmed via Tumblr that we will be getting a new Commander set every year, I was suddenly very nervous for the future of my favorite format.

Don’t get me wrong. The last two sets of Commander decks did a lot of good things for the format. They brought down the price of staple cards such as [card]Sol Ring[/card] and introduced cards like [card]Chaos Warp[/card], which help mitigate color-pie weaknesses that can make for very lopsided games. The first set also introduced sorely needed wedge-colored commanders to make previously non-viable color combinations accessible and fun. So with all the good things the Commander sets bring to the format, why am I so wary of the next one?

I’m worried we’ll get more cards like [card]Oloro, Ageless Ascetic[/card].

Please don’t take this as a personal slight if you play Oloro. It’s not your fault Wizards printed the card or that you are attracted to the Ageless Ascetic as a player. I also want to emphatically note that I don’t think Oloro is unfair or objectively “overpowered.” I just think the card demonstrates really, really bad game design.

Bad Designer. Bad. No Cookie.

Bad Designer. Bad. No Cookie.

Net Negative Fun

You could maybe dismiss the smallest problem I have with Oloro as a nitpick. The Commander 2013 decks, among other goals, are meant to introduce new players to the format. While Oloro seems to be pretty friendly to new players with all the free life he provides, he’s particularly unfriendly in that he creates a trigger that must be remembered every turn. It’s not a “may” trigger either, so not only is the card asking new players to remember the trigger, its suggesting the rest of the table does so as well.

My problem with Oloro goes a lot deeper than expecting the table to keep track of forgettable triggers. An incredibly important element of good multiplayer game design is that game objects shouldn’t add power without also adding gameplay. Oloro’s ability to trigger life gain every turn for absolutely zero cost breaks this rule in a particularly unfun manner.

I could buy a Foil Tarmogoyf if I had a nickel for every time...

I could buy a foil Tarmogoyf if I had a nickel for every time…

Why is giving players something good without asking them to pay a cost or perform a game action to get it a bad thing? Multiplayer games are generally at their best when all the players are treated as equals by the game rules and the outcome is measured based on all the choices the players are making over the course of the game. By providing power to a particular player without asking for anything meaningful in return, a game designer is essentially bending the game rules to give someone an advantage outside the context of player agency.

That might be fun for the player getting two life per turn, but the bent rules tend to create “net negative” fun in the overall game economy. The other players generally don’t enjoy that one Esper fellow getting to play with a slightly different set of rules than the rest of them.  And while Magic is a game of modifying the rules, those modifications almost always come in the form of cards, paid for by resources and in way that leaves room for other players to respond. But Oloro generally can’t be interacted with in the command zone, so he just sits there, bending the rules, providing power without gameplay and breaking a cardinal rule in good multiplayer game design.

Missing Interaction

The lack of interaction is where Oloro really fails both the opponents and the player at the helm of his deck. Most lifegain combos (or combos in general) require more than one card to execute and often those cards are of two different types. Any given deck might have a hard time interacting with one type of permanent, but might be well-equipped to deal with another. This makes combos tend to feel more manageable and certainly makes them more fun to play against. Oloro gets to provide some portion of these combos for “free” without asking a player to invest any game actions into getting him “online” and working as part of an engine.

In fact, its usually a bad idea to cast Oloro at all. Why risk your life gain engine getting tucked? Or hit with a [card]Darksteel Mutation[/card]? [card]Mind Control[/card]led? It’s too risky when you build your deck around the free power Oloro provides, and most players do just that. I’ve played dozens of games against Oloro decks and I believe I’ve seen him actually cast just one time. Ever. And all those players were completely justified in protecting their real source of power, even if it seems backwards to build a Commander deck that never wants to actually use its commander.

Of course there are a few ways to “interact” with Oloro, but they create net negative fun as well. Just cast [card]Erebos, God of the Dead[/card]. No lifegain until the Oloro player can deal with an indestructible enchantment. Seems good, right? You can also run [card]Rain of Gore[/card], [card]Leyline of Punishment[card], or [card]Sulfuric Vortex[/card]. These are all perfectly legitimate means of countering life gain. They also tend to completely hose Oloro players, particularly the newer players in the format who just wanted to build something fun around their life gain commander. These answers are not fun, meaningful kinds of player interaction.  Oloro being in a playgroup just tends to push the group in this direction.

Design Space

I’m a game designer too. So I understand the good intentions that created Oloro in the first place. Wizards clearly wants to explore the design space opened up by the format’s existence. Cards like [card]Marath, Will of the Wild[/card], and [card]Prossh, Skyraider of Kher[/card], are actually a good examples of using the unique attributes of commanders to create fresh designs and new avenues for fun. Oloro was just the worst idea to spring from this exploration that also survived the development process. I can’t fault them for the attempt. I’ve certainly made mistakes developing my own games in the past. I just hope Wizards is paying attention and understands why Oloro was a swing and a miss.

Exploring is Good

Exploring is Good

My precognitive abilities are telling me that the responses to this article are going to mainly consist of complaints about other commanders. Commenters will say “If you think Oloro is bad, you should try playing against X!” where X is Kaalia, Animar, Ghave, or whatever other legendary creature is currently a thorn in their sides. I’m just not that worried about those cards. Remember, this isn’t about power. It’s not even about a commander being annoying. It’s about designing commanders that encourage interaction and create net positive fun at your table.

While linear commanders like Nekusaur, with decks that virtually build themselves, aren’t that interesting to me, they do have a place in the format and help fill in certain niche roles that engage specific types of players. Oloro is a whole different kind of problem. “Styles of fun” aside, he’s designed to not ever be cast and to provide power that opponents can’t meaningfully interact with. Even if that is fun for a certain group of players, its not healthy for the format overall. I don’t believe any other commander-specific legendary creatures share that particular set of nasty design problems. Power without gameplay is fine in something like a single-player adventure game, but its toxic for a social format like Commander.

Dear Wizads: More of This Please!

Dear Wizards: More of this, please!

Assuming the fine folks at Wizards of the Coast are considering these tricky design issues, I suppose I can dial the format anxiety down a bit. Until they prove they are willing to make the same mistake twice, I should probably just keep hoping for an affordable [card]Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed[/card] reprint. If we get awesome, flavorful new commanders in the vein of Conspiracy’s [card]Grenzo, Dungeon Warden[/card], who explores one of those underused design spaces really well, then I’ll be incredibly happy with future sets. Until then, consider me cautiously optimistic and hopeful that someone from the mothership is reading my design rants.

Unified Theory of Commander: Mana Follow-Up

I advised my readers in my previous article that acquiring mana was a big deal in Commander. As it turns out, it’s such a big deal that I wasn’t able to contain it all in one post. After we published the first piece, so many comments, questions, and (gasp!) criticisms came pouring in that I felt like a follow-up was warranted.

Now equipped to our mana discussion

Now equipped to our mana discussion

Unified Theory Operations Division

The first point I want to clarify is the difference between order of importance and order of operations in our Unified Theory of Commander. As I said last time, editing an EDH deck is a process, and so is applying the MDTAS system to effectively build and improve a deck. Mana is first in the order of importance. A deck is dead in the water (there I go with the boat analogies again) without access to the mana necessary to cast cards. So it simply has to come first in importance while deckbuilding.

This doesn’t mean that a player will lock in her mana sources before she adds any other cards. And it certainly doesn’t mean she won’t come back later to edit the mana sources according to the other cards that ended up in the deck. This where the Order of Operations is applied. Expect that mana will likely be both the first and the last steps in any deck building process. No wonder it ranks so high in importance.

Mulligan Like a Pessimist

The second point I want to clarify is how to add extra cards to the sample size portion of a hypergeometric calculation when accounting for mulligans. I noted in the last article that a friendly mulligan may allow you to see up to seven additional cards at the start of the game, inflating the sample size used to hit your critical mana by quite a bit. Also recall that I said I try not to rely too heavily on that number. Why? Because it assumes that I saw zero lands in hand out of my first seven and grabbed a fresh seven off the top to find my land drops. That rarely happens in practice, so the “additional seven” figure is overly optimistic for our system. Always assume fewer than that when doing your mana calculations that include mulligans or just leave them out entirely.

Mulligan math is hard...

Mulligan math is hard

So in practice, how should you mulligan? I believe that for most decks, it’s best to mulligan aggressively for lands and cheap sources of card draw. Yes, [card]Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite[/card] is a fantastic card for closing out games. She also costs seven mana and if you are looking at a one-land hand, its better to shuffle her away and go digging for lands. After all, it is an EDH deck. It probably has another bomb or two to draw into later.

More on Mana Rocks

The discussion on mana rocks also appears to have touched a nerve with quite a few players, so let’s take a moment to expand on that topic. In particular, readers wanted to debate about the value of “fast mana” like [card]Sol Ring[/card] and how cheap, artifact-based ramp leads to explosive, game-breaking starts. For instance, a [card]Jor Kadeen[/card] deck that opens with a [card]Mountain[/card], into a [card]Sol Ring[/card], and then a [card]Boros Signet[/card] is in a prime position to run away with the game, isn’t it? Absolutely. That deck also better be prepared to face the combined wrath of the table if it doesn’t win before the other players all get some answers in hand.

A Format Staple for a Reason

A format staple for a reason

Fast mana from [card]Sol Ring[/card] and its kindred can be an incredible leg up for decks that want to run fast and hot, but it doesn’t fully shield the player from the consequences of running so far ahead so fast. As I mentioned in my last article, those artifacts are vulnerable to removal and they don’t replace themselves. So leaning too heavily on them can be a kind of all-or-nothing play, especially if the removal-heavy player sitting at the table doesn’t appreciate taking 12 damage before he even played a single creature.

So its important to have balance in any multiplayer deck that isn’t specifically utilizing the artifact ramp strategy as a win condition. It’s also useful to look for mana rocks that provide some additional value, utility, or synergy once on the battlefield. [card]Darksteel Ingot[/card] is indestructible and produces mana of any colorthat’s value. [card]Mind Stone[/card] can be used to draw a card once artifact ramp becomes unnecessarythere’s your utility. And Everflowing Chalice can be kicked multiple times to multiply existing ramp into an even bigger spell the following turn. That’s synergy, and it also leads us into our final follow-up topic.

Mana Flood (And Other Aquatic Puns)

As much as I discussed having enough mana in the previous article, I neglected to discuss what to do about having too much. It wasn’t really fair of me to discuss “mana screw” without also addressing “mana flood.” Neither situation is fun and both generally stem from the same lack of consideration during the construction of a deck. Doing a little bit of math can go a long way to improving both ends of the mana problem spectrum.

So how much mana is too much? The “too much” threshold is going to be different for every deck, but generally it means that a deck has exceeded its time to critical mana threshold and continues to have a high probability of drawing mana sources rather than threats and answerscards that advance the goal of the deck.

To illustrate, let’s think back to my friend’s Omnath deck from the last article. Assuming that he heeded my advice and added about three more mana sources to his deck, he can now expect to consistently hit his six-mana threshold by turn six roughly 80 percent of the time without aggressive mulligans. So assume we’re measuring games where Omnath is actually able to stick, protected by [card]Whispersilk Cloak[/card] or [card]Asceticism[/card]. What are the chances the deck gets flooded instead of mana screwed?

[card]It That Betrays[/card] is at the top of the deck’s curve with a mana cost of 12, so we’ll assume that’s about the maximum amount of mana the deck wants to see in the early turns. In about 20 percent of the games where Omnath sticks, the deck will still end up with 12 mana sources online from its pool of 44 by the tenth turn. So one in every five games, the deck is going to be particularly heavy on mana and have only drawn into five to six other playable cards. If its pilot draws into [card]Dictate of Karametra[/card] or [card]Unravel the Aether[/card] at this point, the deck starts to feel a little anemic despite the massive pool of mana available. All the mana in the world goes to waste if there isn’t anything awesome to spend it on.

So what should a deck that relies on early ramp do to make sure to improve its draws? Well, one solution is to draw a lot of cards to go find the threats necessary to advance the game, but we’ll be covering card draw and threats in the coming weeks (they are the D and T of MDTAS), so let’s set that aside for now. An immediately relevant answer, and one our Omnath example deck does pretty well, is to provide “mana sinks” that can take maximum advantage of all that excess mana. That’s where cards like [card]Everflowing Chalice[/card] come into this discussion again. Mana sinks are cards that get better the more mana is available to “sink” into them, or at least those that have a repeatable effect where excess mana can be spent for value.

A great example of a mana sink in the Omnath deck is [card]Wolfbriar Elemental[/card]. If an Omnath player is sitting on a huge store of excess green mana and top-decks this particular threat, he is able to pay any amount extra to create a massive army of 2/2 wolf tokens. [card]Hydra Broodmaster[/card] is another great sink in this Omnath deck. My friend recently activated it to put forty-seven 47/47 hydra tokens into play. Is that Timmy enough for you?

Hydra Sinkmaster

Hydra Sinkmaster

Of course, the other colors have mana sinks available as well. Black is notorious for fantastic X-costed spells like [card]Exsanguinate[/card] to sink its excess mana. Blue has X-costed draw spells, red has X-costed burn, and even white gets into the game with token producers such as [card]Sacred Mesa[/card] or [card]Decree of Justice[/card]. Quite a number of powerful commanders in the format have these types of abilities as well. [card]Oona, Queen of the Fae[/card], [card]Memnarch[/card], and [card]Sliver Queen[/card] all immediately spring to mind.

Once a deck has access to enough mana, make sure to do a little math to make sure it isn’t sitting on too much as well. If the deck relies on early ramp or requires particularly high critical mana points to succeed, make sure it’s also running effective mana sinks to keep excess mana from going to waste. The more the deck wants to ramp, the more necessary those mana sinks become. This editing process will take time, but it doesn’t have to be scary or frustrating if deck builders are aware of how to diagnose the mana problems outlined in these articles.


So despite the fact that mana is first in our order of importance, you really don’t have to give up and play green to be effective in Commander. Every color combination has access to the mana necessary to succeed. Every mana problem has a solution. So pick a commander that speaks to you and then make sure your deck has all the resources it needs to succeed.

Unified Theory of Commander: Mana

Playing the biggest, splashiest, and most ridiculous spells in Magic is one of Commander’s best selling points. EDH isn’t called “Battlecruiser Magic” for nothing. But these format-defining spells won’t ever create incredible moments of gameplay if you don’t have the mana necessary to cast them. Having 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 Commander deck.

Think I’m overstating the importance of mana in Commander? Consider the bans issued by the format’s rules committee on cards such as [card]Primeval Titan[/card], [card]Sundering Titan[/card], and [card]Sylvan Primordial[/card]. These cards were not necessarily banned on sheer power level, but on their ability to warp a game around themselves, and potentially creating huge disparities in resources that quickly spiral games out of control.

From the rules committee itself:

One of the concerns that we’ve had recently is the overrepresentation of heavy ramp strategies to the point where it makes up a large proportion of the aggregate decks out there. While we think ramp should be good—this is battlecruiser Magic after all—it’s probably a little too prevalent and needs reining in a bit. With that in mind we’re banning the most egregious offender Primeval Titan.  





One of the criticisms of the format is that if you’re not playing green, you’re behind…



I’ll save debating Sheldon Menery about the best color in the format for another article, but for now it’s sufficient to recognize that getting access to lots of mana isn’t just powerful: it’s format-warping. For better or worse, mana is top of mind for the custodians of the formatand that should be enough of an indicator that you too need to give it prime consideration while you are building your deck.

So mana is important. You get it now. But what are you going to do with this information while building a deck? Let’s start with some general rules and then use the My Deck Tickled A Sliver system to help us pick the right options for any commander or color combination.


Start with 40

The first and easiest rule to communicate regarding mana is to start with 40 lands. This doesn’t mean you should start with a giant pile of cards you want to run and then try to make cuts to hit roughly 40 lands in your deck. It means the starting point of every deck should be a commander and forty land slots. That is your empty canvas from which to paint a deck. Only then can you start layering on color to make a complete image.

Now this doesn’t mean your deck needs to end up with exactly forty mana sources. If your commander costs more than five mana and doesn’t have green in its color identity, you may want to consider adding some artifact-based ramp to make sure you can cast your commander more than once per game. My [card]Aurelia[/card] deck packs [card]Sol Ring[/card], [card]Coalition Relic[/card], and [card]Boros Signet[/card] for exactly this reason. Alternatively, you may end up piloting an aggro deck with [card]Krenko, Mob Boss[/card], at the helm and only end up running 32 Mountains and a [card]Strip Mine[/card]. Goblins are cheap and Krenko just needs four lands to get started. So work from a 40-land starting point and adjust up or down into the right number for your commander.

Also make sure to take the mana costs of your spells into consideration, just like any other Magic format. You will need to run more dual lands in a three-color deck than in a deck with just two colors. Try using one of the various ratio-based mana calculators available online to make sure that not only will you get the right number of lands, but the right color sources as well.

Dirt is Better Than Rocks

Another basic rule to keep in mind: “Dirt is better than rocks.” Land-based ramp is generally better than artifact-based ramp. Why? Well, almost every deck is going to be packing artifact removal and sometimes your mana rocks will end up unintentional targets of a [card]Bane of Progress[/card] or an [card]Austere Command[/card], setting you back tremendously. Fewer decks run land destruction and usually those spells are reserved for pesky utility lands like [card]Maze of Ith[/card] or [card]Cabal Coffers[/card]. It will be pretty rare for someone to waste a [card]Strip Mine[/card] on your extra Forest. So it’s generally safer to cast a [card]Kodama’s Reach[/card] than a [card]Simic Signet[/card], even if both are good cards.

Green mages have it easy

Green mages have it easy

This doesn’t mean mana rocks don’t have a place in the format. They still make for excellent additions to most decks and a few really only function because of the power colorless mana ramp provides. You might even be running a land destruction deck (if you don’t like having friends) that strategically uses artifacts to keep casting cards after you resolve an [card]Armageddon[/card]. But in general, be careful of cutting lands and leaning too heavily on artifacts. An overloaded [card]Vandalblast[/card] could choke your access to resources and put your opponents way ahead.

But I’m Not Playing Green

So what if your commander isn’t green and those safe ramp spells aren’t available? There are still plenty of options to help almost any deck “get there” and have an impact on the game. White can run cards such as [card]Land Tax[/card], [card]Tithe[/card], or [card]Kor Cartographer[/card]. Black has the classic [card]Cabal Coffers[/card] and [card]Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth[/card] combo, but can also run several creature-based mana doublers like [card]Crypt Ghast[/card] and [card]Nirkana Revenant[/card]. Red and blue are left a little out in the cold here, but in a pinch can use a copying effect such as a [card]Fork[/card] to piggy-back on a green player’s ramp spell.

Despite my previous warning not to rely too heavily on artifact ramp, there are definitely lots of ways to use colorless cards to keep up with the table in mana production. For instance, [card]Staff of Nin[/card] is a phenomenal utility card that draws an extra card each turn to help you dig for lands. Mono-colored decks can also consider [card]Gauntlet of Power[/card] and similar mana doublers to suddenly ramp into big spells. Whatever your colors, I believe there are enough options out there to reach reliable amounts of mana in every deck.

How Much Mana is Enough?

So how much mana is really enough and how fast is it needed? The answers to those questions are difficult to pin down in a format so diverse. The right answer depends on your goal for the deck, the environment in which it’s being played, and the spells it intends to resolve. For a deck to thrive in a very competitive setting, it will need to start resolving or answering threats as early as turn three or four. In a more casual playgroup, those forty basic lands and no acceleration might just do you fine. If everyone else just wants to durdle, why rush?

So you need the right amount of mana at the correct time in each stage of the game to keep playing and answering threats. We will call this our Time to Critical Mana problem. To solve it, consider what your deck wants to be doing on any given turn of the game. This is analogous to curving out in vanilla Magic, but without such strict requirements for success.  We can solve Commander’s version of this problem by using some basic statistics. To illustrate, let’s start with a simple critical mana point: the cost of your commander.

Let’s say we are playing an aggro deck and our four-mana commander wants to come online on turn four in as many games as possible. That means from our deck of 99 cards, we need to see at least four sources of mana by the fourth turn. Calculating the chance of this happening is called finding the hypergeometric probability, which is actually a lot less scary than it sounds. We can use an online calculator like this one to do the math for us. To simplify:

Population Size (cards in the deck): 99

Number of Successes in Population (number of mana sources playable by turn four): 40

Sample Size (number of cards you will see by turn four): 11

Number of Successes in Sample (number of mana sources you need to draw): 4

Our probability of success is 72 percent, or roughly three out of every four games. That’s pretty good, but personally, I’d like to be more consistent than that in an aggro deck. If we increase the number of mana sources in our deck to 43, the chance of hitting our critical mana point increases to almost 80 percent, or four out of every five games. That feels a lot better.

10 minutes crunching numbers will save you hours of bad EDH games

Ten minutes crunching numbers will save you hours of bad EDH games

If we apply this math to the win conditions in our deck, it gives us a second critical mana threshold to hit. Let’s assume that our aggro deck is in red and its most potent win condition is [card]Insurrection[/card], an eight-mana spell. We know that the playgroup our fictional deck is competing in has the power to hold off our early aggro attempts, so to keep up with the rest of the decks in a longer game, we want to see enough mana to threaten an [card]Insurrection[/card] by turn 20. What are the chances our 43-mana deck can get there?

Population Size: 99

Number of Successes in Population: 43

Sample Size: 27

Number of Successes in Sample: 8

Probability of Success: 97%

Looks like 43 mana is working out just right for this deck, isn’t it? It fits right into the local metagame and solves the Time to Critical Mana problem quite well. Taking a few moments to consider your mana requirements during the deckbuilding phase will save you a lot of boring games where your favorite cards are stuck in hand.

One additional note about the above math: it doesn’t take mulligans into account. The friendly mulligan rules in most Commander playgroups will allow us to see up to seven additional cards for free. I try not to factor that in too heavily when building my decks, but it does help even out the mana requirements a little. If I add an extra seven cards to the sample size for casting that four-mana commander on turn four, we hit it in 99% of games. That’s pretty good for an aggro deck, isn’t it?

Applying “My Deck Tickled A Sliver” 

I don’t mean for the Unified Theory of Commander to result in a bunch of flavorless good-stuff decks that bore players and their opponents alike. Editing a deck for Commander is a process, and so is applying the MDTAS system to make your deck both functional and awesome. So when picking mana sources for your deck, make sure to use the rest of the list to help make cuts.

Haters gonna hate...

Haters gonna hate…

Draw is our second most important element, so mana sources that pull cards from your deck are all the more powerful. That’s why green ramp spells are so potent and why I’m willing to accept the ridicule I get for running [card]Knight of the White Orchid[/card] in my Boros decks. Threats and answers that also ramp are so powerful that [card]Primeval Titan[/card] and [card]Sylvan Primordial[/card] got banned, so make sure to pick those responsibly. Finally, synergy is really what makes the format fun for most players, so look for the right mana sources that don’t just get you to your critical mana thresholds, but that also support the rest of the deck. For instance, your bant blink deck is probably better served by a [card]Farhaven Elf[/card] than a [card]Deep Reconnaissance[/card].

Mana in Action: Omnath

To illustrate the power of mana in EDH, let talk a look at an [card]Omnath, Locus of Mana[/card] deck run by my good friend Omid.

[deck title=Omnom’s Mana]


*1 Gyre Sage

*1 Primordial Hydra

*1 Scavenging Ooze

*1 Borderland Ranger

*1 Courser of Kruphix

*1 Dungrove Elder

*1 Eternal Witness

*1 Fierce Empath

*1 Omnath, Locus of Mana

*1 Brawn

*1 Karametra’s Acolyte

*1 Nylea, God of the Hunt

*1 Oracle of Mul Daya

*1 Solemn Simulacrum

*1 Wolfbriar Elemental

*1 Yeva, Nature’s Herald

*1 Acidic Slime

*1 Garruk’s Packleader

*1 Heroes’ Bane

*1 Seedborn Muse

*1 Brutalizer Exarch

*1 Deadwood Treefolk

*1 Hydra Broodmaster

*1 Primalcrux

*1 Rampaging Baloths

*1 Sakiko, Mother of Summer

*1 Soul of the Harvest

*1 Vigor

*1 Avenger of Zendikar

*1 Moldgraf Monstrosity

*1 Archetype of Endurance

*1 Colossus of Akros

*1 Craterhoof Behemoth

*1 Terastodon

*1 Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger

*1 Woodfall Primus

*1 Artisan of Kozilek

*1 Pathrazer of Ulamog

*1 It That Betrays



*1 Green Sun’s Zenith

*1 Sol Ring

*1 Doubling Cube

*1 Unravel the Aether

*1 Bow of Nylea

*1 Genesis Wave

*1 Krosan Grip

*1 Sword of Feast and Famine

*1 Sword of Light and Shadow

*1 Whispersilk Cloak

*1 Bear Umbra

*1 General’s Kabuto

*1 Into the Wilds

*1 Momentous Fall

*1 Triumph of the Hordes

*1 Asceticism

*1 Dictate of Karametra

*1 Garruk, Primal Hunter

*1 Gilded Lotus

*1 Overrun

*1 Caged Sun

*1 Garruk, Caller of Beasts

*1 Primeval Bounty

*1 Akroma’s Memorial

*1 Boundless Realms

*1 Eldrazi Conscription

*1 Primal Surge



*33 Forest

*1 Oran Rief, the Vastwood



While I tend to be a Spike in practice, I’m a Timmy at heart.  So I’m genuinely excited whenever Omid breaks out this deck. Utilizing Omnath’s ability to save mana across turns, he can start threatening the board with both serious commander damage and begin dropping huge green monsters to terrorize the table as early as turn four. I’ve seen this deck resolve a [card]Primal Surge[/card] before turn six on more than one occasion. The suspense of each card reveal, the groaning when it hits an eldrazi or the laughter when the second card is a sorcery—all of that adds a lot of fun to the table.

Approves of this deck!

Approves of this deck!

Unfortunately, the deck isn’t always so consistent. When Omnath hits the board early and sticks, the deck generally has plenty of mana available to cast big cards. If his general gets removed or tucked before my friend is able to get other mana sources into play, the deck can quickly get jammed up and those glorious green monsters get stuck in hand. When this happens, it would be easy to blame one’s opponents and complain that they aren’t letting Omnath have any fun, but if we look at the deck’s Time to Critical Mana, then we can see why the deck tends to whimper as often as it roars.

Scroll up and look at the lands again. This deck is only running 34. This initially seems reasonable because Omnath only costs three, acts as a mana battery, and there are a number of mana doublers in the deck. The deck is also running a few creature-based mana accelerators such as [card]Gyre Sage[/card] and [card]Karametra’s Acolyte[/card]. But are these sources really enough?  It’s a bit hard to pick a critical mana point with so many huge creatures, but I believe six mana is probably a reasonable starting point. Of the 34 creatures in the deck, 11 cost six mana or more, and that’s also the power threshold at which those creatures start to become particularly threatening to the table.

Counting the lands, creatures, and artifacts that can produce mana and be cast before turn six, the deck has 41 mana sources. That means if Omnath’s pilot doesn’t mulligan aggressively for lands, the deck only has a 46-percent chance of hitting six mana by turn six. By turn eight, the chances have only improved to 65-percent, while the rest of the players at the table are aggressively developing their board states. Meanwhile, 26 cards—more than a quarter of the deck—cost six mana or more and may be piling up in hand. So confronted by a [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card] or an early [card]Wrath of God[/card], this otherwise brilliant deck, that is both fun to play with and against, suddenly has a 50-50 shot of going nowhere.

Now, Omid is a great Magic player and I’ve learned quite a bit about Commander playing with him over the last year. When we went over the math together, he instantly realized that he should probably put a few more Forests into the deck. He just hadn’t previously paused to do the math this way. This tells me that even smart, experienced players can overlook the importance of mana in their EDH decks, especially when focusing on synergy first can make the deck feel explosive and fun in specific instances. Cutting a few cards for Forests, however painful that might seem, isn’t likely to reduce the joy of piloting this Timmy-inspired Omnath build. It will actually help the deck become more consistent and hopefully increase the fun for everyone at our table.


If you want to play Battlecruiser Magic, make sure to start with your mana base. Do a little math after each round of edits to make sure you can reliably hit your critical mana on the right turns. Whether your deck intends to be a proper warship or just a rubber ducky, your favorite cards will get stuck in dry dock without the resources necessary to launch them [Ed. note—Funny, when I think of battlecruisers, I’m not thinking of water. I’m thinking of this.] Keep mana at the top of your mind during the deck building process and the final product will consistently get the chance to create that fun and interaction we all crave from the Commander format.

Have comments on building a strong mana base for your Commander deck? You know what to do!

A Unified Theory of Commander

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.


Whether a player is attempting a [card]Hermit Druid[/card] combo deck meant to win every match (and lose all his friends) or a group hug [card]Phelddagrif[/card] 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.