The Mana Dork

THE MANA DORK—Building A Commander Deck, Part 1

A bunch of friends and I got together for a solid day of Commander on Saturday. Many of them are much more competitive than I am — if you’ve sat down with me in the store, you know how much I love playing politics! — ‎but I ended up performing surprisingly well. Decks I thought I’d tossed together out of janky cards functioned nicely, and decks that I’d tuned did their jobs beautifully.

‎So I figured I’d take a moment to talk about how I start to build a Commander deck, because I know it can be intimidating when you have 15,000-plus cards available to you!

This’ll be a two-part series: this time ’round, I’ll talk about the ratios of different cards you should include, and in two weeks, I’ll break down one of my decks‎ and talk about my card choices.



Thirty-eight. Any deck, whether it’s aggressive or more control-based, I start with thirty-eight lands and tune from there. This means playing a few games and seeing if I need more or less.

Place a priority on lands that come into play untapped — including basics. Which, I mean, you knew. But you’d be surprised how often I see someone play a really cool land that taps for any of their colours… and then sigh, and do something that they’re clearly not excited by, because that tapped land  held them back for an extra turn.

Command Tower

One of the few lands I will use just for its mana-fixing is Command Tower. It was only printed in the Commander 2013 pre-constructed decks, but it’s great, because it comes into play untapped and taps for any of your colours.

Other good choices in this vein are City of Brass and Mana Confluence (you can take the 1 life, you have 40!), and conditional taps-for-any-colour ‎lands like Sliver Hive if they fit your theme.

Finally, if you’re running a lands-matter commander like Borborygmos Enraged or Azusa, Lost but Seeking, you may want to start with a higher number of lands—say, 60 for Borborygmos and 50 for Azusa. But that’s the only time I’d consider starting a deck with more or less than 38 lands.

Realm Seekers


This‎ set of categories isn’t original to me — take a look at the Unified Theory of Commander articles over at Brainstorm Brewery for more — but I have found them incredibly useful.

The basic idea is that you want a good percentage of cards in each of these categories, in that order of priority. So you want cards that get or fix your mana more than you want cards that draw you more cards, and so on.‎ This is because mana and cards represent your ability to do things in the game, while threats, answers, and synergy are things you do.

MANA— Non-land cards that can tap for additional mana or fetch lands. This includes “mana rocks” like Sol Ring and Coalition Relic, land-fetchers like Expedition Map and Realm Seekers, and other ways to generate mana, like Prophet of Kruphix. (Realm Seekers and Prophet of Kruphix actually function beautifully as both mana and threat—more on that later!)

DRAW— Cards that help you draw more cards, or search for them in your library. There’s plenty of these in blue and black, but some good choices in other colours include Outpost Siege, Greater Good, and Mentor of the Meek.

Consecrated Sphinx

THREATS— Things that must be dealt with. Big creatures, creatures with amazing abilities, enchantments and artifacts that lock the board down, and so on. Realm Seekers is a threat because it usually comes in at 20+/20+, along with being able to fetch any land from your deck. Consecrated Sphinx is a threat because it’s a fairly big flier that generates tons of cards. Prophet of Kruphix is a threat because if it stays on the board, that player has an insane amount of mana compared to everyone else, and can fill the battlefield with creatures or play anything they please.

Sultai Charm

ANSWERS— Things that answer threats. Counterspell is your classic answer, especially if you can find one of the older two-mana ones. Other answers include kill spells like Sultai Charm, boardwipes like Nevinyrral’s Disk or Supreme Verdict, and “prevention” cards like Pithing Needle and Torpor Orb.

(Quick note: be careful about using answer cards on commanders themselves. Make sure you’re in a fairly competitive game before you do. Lots of people build their decks around their commanders, and if you name a commander with Pithing Needle, you’re basically telling them they can’t play Magic or have fun today. So make sure you’re in a group that accepts commander hate before you use them!)

Baton of Morale

SYNERGY— These are the cards you probably thought of first when you picked your commander. Things like Dire Undercurrents in an Oona, Queen of the Fae deck, or Jeskai Ascendancy in a Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest spellslinging deck. I put Baton of Morale up there because it functions beautifully in my Horobi, Death’s Wail deck – two mana to kill any creature at instant speed, without tapping? Yes, please!


Depending on how competitive or how theme-focused I want a deck to be, I’ll start with anywhere from 5 (theme-focused) to 10 (competitive) of these cards in each of these categories, and then tune from there.

Note that even with ten cards in each of those five categories, I’ll still have twelve extra slots for “fun” cards, or cards I just couldn’t bear to cut. So there’s still room for creativity!

Next time in this space—making choices, and making cuts. See you in two weeks!

Jesse Mackenzie is a regular contributor to A Muse N Games. Tune in every second Tuesday for The Mana Dork, his column on getting back into Magic.