Identifying Commander Decks: It's Easy as ABC

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.

Command Tower

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.

Sigarda Human Tribal - Group A Sample Decklist by Robert G.
Commander
Sigarda, Heron's Grace
34Lands 31Creatures 20Sorceries & Enchantments
1Blossoming Sands 1Angel of Glory's Rise 1Beastmaster Ascension
1Canopy Vista 1Angelic Overseer 1Cathars' Crusade
1Command Tower 1Avacyn's Pilgrim 1Collective Blessing
11Forest 1Banisher Priest 1Divine Visitation
1Fortified Village 1Bastion Protector 1Growing Rites of Itlimoc / Itlimoc, Cradle of the Sun
1Gavony Township 1Benalish Marshal 1Radiant Destiny
1Krosan Verge 1Champion of Lambholt 1True Conviction
11Plains 1Champion of the Parish 1Ulvenwald Mysteries
1Scattered Groves 1Devout Chaplain 1Collective Effort
1Selesnya Guildgate 1Eternal Witness 1Collective Unconscious
1Selesnya Sanctuary 1Grand Abolisher 1Cultivate
1Sunpetal Grove 1Hanweir Militia Captain / Westvale Cult Leader 1Dusk // Dawn
1Temple of Plenty 1Herald of War 1Farseek
1Temple of the False God 1Hero of Precinct One 1Gather the Townsfolk
  1Heron's Grace Champion 1Harmonize
  1Juniper Order Ranger 1Increasing Devotion
  1Knight of the White Orchid 1Kodama's Reach
  1Mentor of the Meek 1Nature's Lore
  1Metallic Mimic 1Overwhelming Stampede
  1Mikaeus, the Lunarch 1Rampant Growth
  1Militia Bugler  
  1Mother of Runes  
  1Odric, Master Tactician  
  1Shalai, Voice of Plenty  
  1Shanna, Sisay's Legacy  
  1Silverblade Paladin  
  1Sun Titan  
  1Thalia, Heretic Cathar  
  1Thalia's Lieutenant  
  1Thraben Doomsayer  
  1Tireless Tracker  
6Artifacts 7Instants 1Planeswalker
1Commander's Sphere 1Eladamri's Call 1Ajani, the Greathearted
1Lifecrafter's Bestiary 1Heroic Intervention  
1Selesnya Signet 1Path to Exile  
1Skullclamp 1Pledge of Unity  
1Sol Ring 1Repel the Abominable  
1Vanquisher's Banner 1Swords to Plowshares  
  1Sylvan Reclamation  
 

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.

Sigarda, Heron's Grace

(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.


Surrak's Battlecruiser - Group B Sample Decklist by Robert G.
Commander
Surrak Dragonclaw
37Lands 30Creatures 16Sorceries & Enchantments
1Alchemist's Refuge 1Acidic Slime 1Asceticism
1Ancient Tomb 1Avenger of Zendikar 1Rhythm of the Wild
1Breeding Pool 1Balefire Dragon 1Sarkhan's Unsealing
1Cascade Bluffs 1Clever Impersonator 1Sylvan Library
1Cinder Glade 1Consecrated Sphinx 1Temur Ascendancy
1Command Tower 1Courser of Kruphix 1Cultivate
1Fire-Lit Thicket 1Dragonlord Atarka 1Explosive Vegetation
1Flooded Grove 1Etali, Primal Storm 1Farseek
10Forest 1Farhaven Elf 1Finale of Devastation
1Frontier Bivouac 1Frilled Mystic 1Kodama's Reach
1Hinterland Harbor 1Frost Titan 1Rampant Growth
4Island 1Ghalta, Primal Hunger 1Rishkar's Expertise
1Kessig Wolf Run 1Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma 1River's Rebuke
3Mountain 1Ilharg, the Raze-Boar 1Skyshroud Claim
1Reflecting Pool 1Inferno Titan 1Soul's Majesty
1Rootbound Crag 1Maelstrom Wanderer 1Urban Evolution
1Sheltered Thicket 1Oracle of Mul Daya  
1Stomping Ground 1Paradise Druid  
1Sulfur Falls 1Prime Speaker Zegana  
1Temple of Abandon 1Rashmi, Eternities Crafter  
1Temple of Epiphany 1Ravager Wurm  
1Temple of Mystery 1Reclamation Sage  
1Temple of the False God 1Sakura-Tribe Elder  
  1Scourge of the Throne  
  1Shaman of the Great Hunt  
  1Solemn Simulacrum  
  1Trygon Predator  
  1Wood Elves  
  1Wurmcoil Engine  
  1Xenagos, God of Revels  
4Artifacts 8Instants 4Planeswalkers
1Chromatic Lantern 1Chaos Warp 1Domri, Anarch of Bolas
1Gilded Lotus 1Counterspell 1Garruk Wildspeaker
1Sol Ring 1Cyclonic Rift 1Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner
1Thran Dynamo 1Growth Spiral 1Vivien, Champion of the Wilds
  1Krosan Grip  
  1Negate  
  1Plasm Capture  
  1Swan Song  
 

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.

Surrak Dragonclaw

(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.

Alesha, Who Smiles at Death - Group C Sample Decklist by Robert G.
Commander
Alesha, Who Smiles at Death
37Lands 33Creatures 16Sorceries & Enchantments
1Arid Mesa 1Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit 1Goblin Bombardment
1Badlands 1Avalanche Riders 1Grave Pact
1Blood Crypt 1Blood Artist 1Phyrexian Arena
1Bloodstained Mire 1Dark Confidant 1Reconnaissance
1Clifftop Retreat 1Dire Fleet Daredevil 1Smothering Tithe
1Dragonskull Summit 1Duergar Hedge-Mage 1Austere Command
1Fetid Heath 1Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite 1Buried Alive
1Godless Shrine 1Fiend Hunter 1Cathartic Reunion
1Graven Cairns 1Grand Abolisher 1Damnation
1High Market 1Grim Haruspex 1Demonic Tutor
1Isolated Chapel 1Imperial Recruiter 1Diabolic Intent
1Mana Confluence 1Iroas, God of Victory 1Faithless Looting
1Marsh Flats 1Judith, the Scourge Diva 1Reanimate
1Maze of Ith 1Karmic Guide 1Toxic Deluge
2Mountain 1Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker 1Victimize
1Phyrexian Tower 1Master of Cruelties 1Wheel of Fortune
4Plains 1Mother of Runes  
1Plateau 1Murderous Redcap  
1Polluted Delta 1Purphoros, God of the Forge  
1Reflecting Pool 1Ravos, Soultender  
1Rogue's Passage 1Recruiter of the Guard  
1Rugged Prairie 1Remorseful Cleric  
1Sacred Foundry 1Restoration Angel  
1Scrubland 1Reveillark  
1Shizo, Death's Storehouse 1Rix Maadi Reveler  
4Swamp 1Siege-Gang Commander  
1Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth 1Solemn Simulacrum  
1Verdant Catacombs 1Stoneforge Mystic  
1Windswept Heath 1Sun Titan  
1Wooded Foothills 1Twilight Prophet  
  1Tymna the Weaver  
  1Viscera Seer  
  1Zulaport Cutthroat  
7Artifacts 5Instants 1Planeswalker
1Lightning Greaves 1Anguished Unmaking 1Nahiri, the Harbinger
1Mana Crypt 1Entomb  
1Phyrexian Altar 1Rakdos Charm  
1Skullclamp 1Vampiric Tutor  
1Sol Ring 1Wear // Tear  
1Sword of Feast and Famine    
1Sword of Fire and Ice    
 

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.

Alesha, Who Smiles at Death

(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.

Paradox Scepter Thrasios - Group D Decklist by AlwaysSleepy and ShaperSavant
Commanders
Thrasios, Triton Hero
Tymna the Weaver
28Lands 10Creatures 32Instants
1Ancient Tomb 1Arbor Elf 1Abrupt Decay
1Bayou 1Avacyn's Pilgrim 1Ad Nauseam
1Bloodstained Mire 1Birds of Paradise 1Angel's Grace
1Breeding Pool 1Bloom Tender 1Assassin's Trophy
1City of Brass 1Dark Confidant 1Brainstorm
1Command Tower 1Deathrite Shaman 1Chain of Vapor
1Exotic Orchard 1Elves of Deep Shadow 1Counterspell
1Flooded Strand 1Noble Hierarch 1Cyclonic Rift
1Forbidden Orchard 1Notion Thief 1Dark Ritual
1Gemstone Caverns 1Priest of Titania 1Delay
1Gemstone Mine   1Dispel
1Mana Confluence   1Dovin's Veto
1Marsh Flats   1Dramatic Reversal
1Misty Rainforest   1Enlightened Tutor
1Morphic Pool   1Flusterstorm
1Polluted Delta   1Force of Will
1Savannah   1Lim-Dûl's Vault
1Scalding Tarn   1Mana Drain
1Snow-Covered Island   1Mental Misstep
1Tarnished Citadel   1Mystical Tutor
1Tropical Island   1Narset's Reversal
1Tundra   1Nature's Claim
1Underground Sea   1Negate
1Verdant Catacombs   1Noxious Revival
1Watery Grave   1Pact of Negation
1Windswept Heath   1Plunge into Darkness
1Wooded Foothills   1Silence
1Yavimaya Coast   1Spell Pierce
    1Swan Song
    1Tainted Pact
    1Vampiric Tutor
    1Winds of Rebuke
13Artifacts 10Sorceries 5Enchantments
1Chrome Mox 1Demonic Tutor 1Carpet of Flowers
1Fellwar Stone 1Gitaxian Probe 1Copy Artifact
1Grim Monolith 1Imperial Seal 1Mystic Remora
1Isochron Scepter 1Ponder 1Necropotence
1Lotus Petal 1Preordain 1Sylvan Library
1Mana Crypt 1Regrowth  
1Mana Vault 1Timetwister  
1Mox Diamond 1Toxic Deluge  
1Paradox Engine 1Windfall  
1Sensei's Divining Top 1Yawgmoth's Will  
1Simic Signet    
1Sol Ring    
1Talisman of Dominance    
 

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?

Thrasios, Triton Hero Tymna the Weaver

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.

4 Comentarios

HueCicero(2019-05-30 14:54)

This article is a must read for a new commander player. Often people don't realize the power level argument.

LaGalop(2019-05-21 14:22)

Thanks for putting this together. Some creature cards in the first deck at least (Militia Bugler, Mother of Runes etc.) are duplicated. It would be nice to remove those duplicates.

Coalgolem(2019-05-21 10:57)

Wow, very good article that sums it up perfectly. Thanks!

h4xxx0r(2019-05-21 09:09)

This list is quite accurate and also shows the reason why I almost completely stopped playing multi player commander. If you're not in a fixed playgroup you usually have a mix from different categories which for me doesn't make the game interesting for me.
Also there's always have that one guy in group c) or d) and claims he is in a) or b) because he wants to buffer his or her self esteem by crushing some casuals.
Luckily we have a very healthy Duel Commander / French EDH player base and if I want to play with multiple friends it's usually going to be a variant of the game like planechase commander or pentagram.

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