Identifying Commander Decks: It's Easy as ABC
- Robert Giel
Let's look at the wild wild west that is Commander with its infinite ways to build Commander decks, but only certain ways to fit specific playgroups and play styles. What decks are considered "casual" and what makes a deck competitive?
Commander, the Format for Us All
This topic has been on my mind for a quite some time now. Every time I brew a new deck, it's not just about the cards I want to play or what cards I want to buy/acquire. A big factor of deckbuilding is also how much fun the deck is. I don't necessarily mean how fun the deck is for you, but rather, how fun is it for your opponents and/or playgroup. Not every person has access to the same budget or resources, which may mean cutting some expensive cards. Naturally, a lot of these expensive cards are also good cards, creating this pseudo "pay to win" scenario. This results in an issue wherein people with a smaller budget can become unhappy when their opponent(s) play expensive cards that have a huge impact on the game, making them feel like they can't keep up.
I think a solid way to prevent these scenarios from happening is to attempt to put Commander decks in groups. I know that some websites or content creators have done similar things, but I want to go a bit deeper and try to give a more in-depth explanation of every group. Your advantage and main takeaway will be that you will be able to create a deck for certain groups and manage expectations when you do sit down with other players.
Disclaimer: We Are All Casuals
Before we dive into these groups, I want to leave an important note. I feel like the term "casual" has a negative connotation in Commander. This is false. Commander is a casual format and playing a competitive deck does not change this. Casual decks are a lot of fun and not any easier to build. I would even go as far as saying that they can be harder to build, as you have to restrict yourself a lot more (be it budget or theme). There is no "real" way to play Commander, anything goes, and anything is viable as long as you enjoy playing your deck.
I have also chosen not to use the label "tiers". Tiers imply that some decks are worse and others are better. And while this is in a way true, the goal of Commander is not to play "the best deck" – it's about playing the cards you like in a deck you enjoy. If you enjoy an optimized competitive deck, great! If you enjoy a jankier budget list, more power to you! Keep in mind that all this does is give us a possibility to scale and compare decks in terms of general power level. Playing a "Group A" deck doesn't mean that you have a "bad" deck. It just means it might have a harder time to play against people who put more focus into optimizing their deck.
(Group A) "I want to play cards that I like, but within a budget" Decks
A Group A deck doesn't utilize the play styles that are generally perceived as strong in Commander. These decks can be built on a very small budget, but provide a lot of fun, interactive games. Group A decks can be built around themes or some of the less powerful tribes. The point of Group A decks is not to win as fast as possible in the most efficient way, but to play a solid game of Commander. It's not about winning; it's about enjoying a game of Magic with friends. That is not to say that these decks cannot win. There are more than plenty of powerful spells that are affordable and/or in theme with what you want your deck to do.
I would say the biggest difference between these decks isn't even based on their power level. There are so many powerful cards in Commander that when included, even the most budget deck can win against a deck with only expensive bombs. The biggest difference lies in the speed and efficiency in which these decks operate. If you use Dimir Guildgate with Diabolic Tutor, you are doing the same as someone who uses Underground Sea plus Demonic Tutor, only a lot slower.
Another very cool aspect of Group A decks is that they require out-of-the-box deckbuilding, either by budgetary or theme restrictions. You will find that some cards that normally would never see play can shine in these decks. If Commander is a way to have fun with your friends without spending too much money, these decks are worth looking into.
This deck is a perfect example for Group A. The deck is based on a tribe and plays a lot of cards that are on-theme with that tribe. The power level is not too high, but the deck is very much capable of winning. No individual card is more than 10,00 €. Some costs were spared in both the mana base and in the addition of some pay-off cards like Elesh-Norn, Grand Cenobite or Doubling Season.
(Group B) "I want to play cards that I like and without a budget" Decks
The difference between these decks is mainly the budgetary restrictions… or rather the lack of. Group B decks are still all about having a good time, but don't necessarily cut cards out because of their price. Think of cards like Sylvan Library. It's an expensive card that does make the deck "better," but isn't an absolute necessity if you have no intention of building a completely optimized deck. Even more janky tribal or themed decks get better by adding some more expensive cards, although Group B decks are more often based on the better and stronger themes in Commander.
I will make a small contradiction here with what I mentioned earlier. Yes, more expensive cards tend to be more powerful, but this doesn't immediately mean that the deck is competitive. Take dual lands for example. Players can put dual lands in Group B decks without the deck becoming more over-powered.
This sample list perfectly captures what a Group B deck is about. The deck is playing strong cards that fit perfectly in the Commander spirit and doesn't really try to be on a budget. The deck is also clearly still about having a good time, as there are no combos or cards that are generally perceived as oppressive. (Okay, Consecrated Sphinx and Cyclonic Rift are in the deck, but you don't really need to play these.) Still, the deck is very much capable of winning the game, possibly even by taking out the entire table in a single turn. The reason that this deck is not a Group C deck is because it lacks a certain synergy and is not completely streamlined yet. The only place where costs were spared is in the mana base (no fetches) and acceleration like Mana Crypt.
(Group C) The "70-80%" Decks
These decks reach a sweet spot between "I want to play for fun" and "I want to win". Usually these decks do not have any budgetary restrictions and don't defer from playing cards that are generally perceived as unfun. Group C decks have a very high level of synergy and consistency, but are still in line with other Commander decks. These decks rarely run budget cards, although they might not necessarily include the most expensive cards. A great example of this is a card like Gaea's Cradle. These decks generally want to run this card if it fits the strategy, but deciding not to run this card doesn't meant the deck is suddenly in "Group B". These decks are also often referred to as the 70-80% decks, meaning they are close to being a completely optimized cEDH deck – but they still include some personal preferences and even a janky card or two. These decks often also run fast mana cards like Mana-Crypt and friends, but use them for more "Commander-like purposes" than Group D decks.
This deck is clearly more optimized than the Group B sample. The mana base is streamlined and optimized by using off-colored fetches and dual lands, plus the cards have a very high level of synergy. The deck plays plenty of tutors to find cards for certain situations and includes a total of four infinite combos. This is, however, still not a Group D deck for several reasons. It lacks the sheer speed and raw power to assemble combos as fast as possible, as well as ways of interacting with your opponent. The deck is also not built to combo. Rather, it has the incidental potential to combo.
(Group D) The cEDH Decks
Competitive Elder Dragon Highlander (cEDH) decks have one and only one goal: to win as fast as possible. These decks don't necessarily care about everybody having a good time. They are meant to win the game as quickly as possible. You could almost say that cEDH is a different format from regular Commander. The decks are often ridiculously expensive and run all the cards that "normal" EDH decks would find degenerate. They almost always win by achieving some sort of combo. cEDH decks also run a lot of permission and spot removal that can be considered bad in regular EDH. Again, it's all about winning as fast as possible – while preventing your opponent(s) from doing the same.
And at last, a true cEDH deck. This deck combines absolute speed with highly efficient cards to assemble an infinite combo as fast as possible. Thrasios, Triton Hero provides a sink for the inevitable infinite mana you will require. Tymna, the Weaver accumulates card advantage and provides two additional colors. If you look at the deck, every single card is either an acceleration, interaction/disruption, or a combo piece. This deck is built to do one thing: WIN. Can you see the combos?
Commander, Truly the Format for Us All
While these groups are subjective, it can help you identify your own decks and those of your opponents. All decks from all groups are fun, but they don't always necessarily work well together in a game. A good place to start would be to agree on certain limits within your playgroup, as well as identify problematic cards and decks.
What are your experiences on different decks? Is your playgroup balanced? Or does it have decks from different group types? As always, thanks for reading and until next time!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.