Building on a Budget

This one was requested by a very good friend of mine who is new to the game. She needs to allocate her money toward bills and normal adult expenditures rather than buying Alpha duals, so she’d like to know how to build a Commander deck that doesn’t cost multiple hundreds of dollars.

I just mentioned duals, so let’s start with the lands. There’s nothing wrong with running basic lands. You’re probably not going to be getting a particular non-basic anyway, since it’s just one card in 99, so there’s really no need to pay an exorbitant price for a card that’s only going to show up one in five games or so. With multicolor decks, it’s worth running guildgates and refuges; Commander is a slow format due to the starting life of 40 and the presence of multiple players, most of whom are going to present more of a threat than you, so running lands that enter tapped isn’t really going to be noticeably detrimental to your game play.

My advice is, you should run between 35 and 40 lands. So what about the other cards?

Some people are going to tell you, “If you’re building a Commander deck, you have to include x, y and z.” Usually they’ll mention cards such as Sensei’s Divining Top and Sol Ring. Ignore them. While it’s true that those cards are good in almost any deck, they’re far from necessary. I don’t run Top in any of my decks, and I keep taking Sol Ring out of decks to put in cards that are actually on theme. What you need to keep in mind whenever someone tells you that you have to run a specific card is that you’re running a deck with 100 cards, and you can only run a single copy of each card. Most cards aren’t going to come up in any given game (refer to the Aura Shards in my previous post, which never did manage to destroy my Havoc Festival, no matter how much that player wished he’d drawn it).

If you already know who you want to use as your commander—maybe a legendary creature you have on hand—great. At that point, go on the internet and look up “EDH {your commander’s name here}.” See what other players have done. A lot of the lists will pull up an image of the card, along with its price, when you hover over the name. Pull up several different lists and pick and choose the cards that you think will be fun to play and are in your price range.

But maybe you don’t have a commander in mind. Maybe you have a theme, or a color combination. Themes are good; if, say, you’re building an Abzan outlast deck, the cards you’re going to need should run a lot less than a green-white-black “good stuff” deck, where you’re just running the most powerful cards in those colors, which naturally everyone else who runs those colors wants to run. Or you could be building a Myr tribal deck, which won’t require a lot of super-powerful, in-demand cards. As far as I know, Myr Master Race is not a deck archetype in any format that has actual monetary pay-outs.

Once you know what you want your deck to be like, you can look for a commander. Gatherer has an advanced search option where you can search for a legendary creature that meets your requirements—maybe you put in the colors you want (and be sure to exclude unselected terms). You can scroll through the results, and when you see one that looks interesting, first check its legality (no, you cannot have Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary as your commander), and if it’s legal in the format, go on TCG Player and check the price. If you want to run a tribal deck, and your tribe has good, affordable cards in four or five colors, consider running Karona, False God as your commander. I run her as my commander for my spirit tribal deck, and she’s going to be the commander for the Eldrazi deck I’m building; I know she looks a little iffy, but when I tested that deck on Cockatrice, if I’d remembered that she was my commander, I could have cast her and won the game that same turn.

Once you have your commander, you can do a Google search as described above, possibly adding a stipulation about your theme (“EDH Daghatar outlast”). In addition, you can do a relevant Gatherer search; for instance, putting “+1/+1 counter” under rules text and specifying the appropriate colors, or putting “spirit” under subtype for a spirit tribal deck.

So you’ve got your decklist. Maybe there are some cards you want but can’t quite afford—you’d really like that Eladamri, Lord of Leaves for your elf tribal deck, but until you get your next paycheck you’re really not keen to spend $10 on a single piece of cardboard, so for now you’re just running and extra forest. Except you don’t even have that forest, since you’re a brand-new player and have yet to accumulate a collection of cards. So where do you start? Well, you’re playing Commander, and it’s likely that the reason you’re playing it is you’ve got friends who play, probably friends who are avid players and have accumulated quite a collection of cards. Most likely one of them at least has a box of basic lands sitting around gathering dust. And if you’re willing to do the searching, they might let you take any commons or even uncommons you need, either at no charge or for a severely reduced price. I personally am happy to give friends basic lands and duplicate commons (or even uncommons if I have a lot of them), especially if they’re willing to help me sort my collection. For the remainder, you can either take a list to your local card store (who might also be willing to give you commons and uncommons at a reduced price; the local card store here on base lets people take commons and uncommons at no charge as long as they’re not being used in specific tournament-legal decks), or order them off TCG Player.

So, let’s put this into practice.

Let’s say I want to build a deck around the Abzan outlast mechanic. I already know my colors (Abzan is black-white-green), so I look at the potential commanders and determine Ghave, Guru of Spores would probably be best, but he costs six or seven bucks, so I’ll go with Daghatar the Adamant instead, since he’s almost as good, and he can steal +1/+1 counters from my opponents’ creatures. Next I do a Gatherer search and add in all the cards with outlast. Bolster will be a pretty good support mechanic for my deck, so I’ll toss in those cards as well. I know that the Simic mechanics interacted with +1/+1 counters, so next I’ll look up mono-green cards from the Ravnica and RTR blocks. Graft and evolve are pretty cool; I’ll put those cards in, along with Crowned Ceratok, who gives all my creatures with +1/+1 counters trample. Tuskguard Captain, who’s already on the list, does the same thing, but since it’s a 100-card, singleton format, it’s nice to have multiple cards with the same effect. Abzan is a great color combination for removal, so I’ll fill out the list with some cheap removal spells.

At this point I could just toss in an even spread of basic lands, and hope I get at least one of each within a reasonable time; but I’d rather have a better chance of hitting my colors, so I’m going to put in a Sandsteppe Citadel, the three Khans block refuges, and the three guildgates in my colors. I’ll also put in an Evolving Wilds and a Terramorphic Expanse, and then fill it out with basic lands.

Because I have an extensive collections, I already have most of these cards on hand, especially the lands. If I didn’t, I could order them off TCG Player. Below is the final deck list with the (current) TCG mid price for each card (if you’re on a really tight budget and don’t care so much about the condition of the cards, you can order them cheaper if you find ones that are heavily played, although with newer cards you might not be able to find them in less-than-stellar condition).

Daghatar the Adamant ($0.31)

Abzan Advantage ($0.12)

Abzan Ascendancy ($0.26)

Abzan Bannre ($0.13)

Abzan Battle Priest ($0.17)

Abzan Charm ($0.36)

Abzan Falconer ($0.17)

Abzan Skycaptain ($0.14)

Ainok Bond-Kin ($0.13)

Disowned Ancestor ($0.12)

Herald of Anafenza ($0.27)

Longshot Squad ($0.14)

Mer-Ek Nightblade ($0.17)

Salt Road Patrol ($0.13)

Tuskguard Captain ($0.16)

Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit ($1.33)

Anafenza, the Foremost ($3.98)

Aven Tactician ($0.14)

Cached Defenses ($0.23)

Dragonscale Boon ($0.14)

Dragonscale General ($0.30)

Dromoka Captain ($0.23)

Dromoka Monument ($0.18)

Dromoka, the Eternal ($0.46)

Dromoka’s Command ($3.00)

Dromoka’s Gift ($0.20)

Echoes of the Kin Tree ($0.23)

Elite Scaleguard ($0.17)

Enduring Victory ($0.14)

Gleam of Authority ($0.34)

Honor’s Reward ($0.19)

Map the Wastes ($0.13)

Pinion Feast ($0.14)

Sandcrafter Mage ($0.14)

Sandsteppe Mastadon ($0.30)

Sandsteppe Citadel ($0.75)

Sandsteppe Outcast ($0.12)

Sandsteppe Scavenger ($0.14)

Scale Blessing ($0.23)

Sunbringer’s Touch ($0.31)

Adaptive Snapjaw ($0.14)

Aquastrand Spider ($0.15)

Battering Krasis ($0.13)

Crocanura ($0.12)

Crowned Ceratok ($0.17)

Cytoplast Root-Kin ($1.19)

Cytospawn Shambler ($0.15)

Death’s Presence ($0.25)

Experiment One ($1.08)

Forced Adaptation ($0.15)

Gyre Sage ($0.85)

Ivy Lane Denizen ($0.14)

Rengade Krasis ($0.47)

Simic Basilisk ($0.20)

Simic Initiate ($0.15)

Sporeback Troll ($0.15)

Thrive ($0.15)

Harsh Sustenance ($0.14)

Naturalize ($0.11)

Murder ($0.70)

Tragic Slip ($0.20)

Duneblast ($0.29)

End Hostilities ($1.00)

In Garruk’s Wake ($0.55)

Rout ($1.12)

Merciless Eviction ($0.54)

Golgari Guildgate ($0.15)

Orzhov Guildgate ($0.18)

Selesnya Guildgate ($0.16)

Jungle Hollow ($0.13)

Blossoming Sands ($0.14)

Scoured Barrens ($0.13)

Evolving Wilds ($0.11)

Terramorphic Expanse ($0.15)

Forest x9 ($0.45)

Swamp x8 ($0.56)

Plains x9 ($0.45)

In all, the deck costs about $30, including basic lands. As an experienced Magic player, I’m pretty happy with this deck. There are maybe some other cards I would want for an optimized version of this deck, but those can wait until I have a bit of spare cash. If I really wanted, I could probably get most of the cards at reduced or no price, and the deck would cost me maybe $15 and an afternoon sorting cards for my buddy.

So there you have it. A decent, fun deck for $15-$30. Or you could buy one of the mono-color planeswalker commander pre-con decks currently for sale. I’ve seen those beat well-made Commander decks straight out of the box. If you have something more specific in mind, feel free to leave a comment with your deck idea and budget and I’ll be happy to come up with a prospective deck list for you.


This is my first post, so I guess it’s appropriate that it hearkens back to my very first time playing Magic. It was back in March of 2013; we’d thrown together my deck the night before, since I was only in town for a few days on leave between duty stations. Olivia Voldaren was my commander—yes, I dove right in to the most complicated format, with absolutely no prior experience in the game.

So, there I was, brand-new player, no idea what I was doing beyond what it said on the cards and the instructions to remember “untap, upkeep, draw,” playing a completely untested deck. Turn two, I got down a Falkenrath Exterminator. At a table with probably half a dozen other players, nobody else had any creatures. So I proceeded to go around the table, attacking each player in turn, my creature becoming bigger with each attack. Amidst cries of, “Somebody kill it already,” I looked at my hand, perplexed to realize that I was the only person at the table with a kill-spell in hand. My Exterminator did eventually die, but by that point it had gotten probably half a dozen counters on it, making it, for that game, more valuable than a Tarmogoyf.

About the time my Exterminator finally bit the dust, I was able to play what immediately became my favorite Magic card ever, Havoc Festival. Across from me was a player with a green-white life-gain deck. As long as my enchantment was on the battlefield, he was screwed. “But you’re playing green-white. Don’t you have enchantment removal?” Yes, of course he did. He had an Aura Shards, somewhere in his deck. Which did him absolutely no good when he failed to draw it. This was compounded when I somehow got Havoc Festival in four of the other five games played that night.

There are two lessons to be learned from this: First, I am actually an evil mastermind who enjoys other people’s pain, and second, always run removal. When I later made my own green-white life-gain deck, I packed it with enough enchantment removal that I could be almost guaranteed to have it in hand when Havoc Festival came down.

Several months later, I was home on leave for July 4th, and had some people over, and started a game of Commander. I was trying out my Teysa, Envoy of Ghosts deck, and one of the players had gotten down a lot of scary creatures. Another player turned to me and said, “You’re playing white-black, don’t you have removal?” Well, naturally I was running some kill-spells, like Murder and Tragic Slip, but I was working with a limited supply of cards, since I was still just starting out. But I took that off-hand comment to heart, and when I got a chance, loaded that deck with removal of all types. It’s now the most powerful deck I own (although Olivia will always have a special place in my heart).

Point being, removal is key. So many Commander players fail to realize this. They’d rather put something powerful in their own deck, rather than something to deal with an opponent’s powerful thing. Or they’ll just put in boardwipes, since that’s card advantage, and they feel they’re getting more value. But when you use a Damnation to kill a Master Thief that’s stolen your mana-rock, you’ve just pissed off the entire table, which is a bad idea in such a political format.

In the playgroup I created at my new duty station, my friends at first refused to run removal, citing the fact that I would take care of that for them. That’s all well and good, until you’re staring down a 21/21 Olivia Voldaren, with no fliers because I’ve stolen them all, and I’m the only one at the table with removal in hand.

So. Removal. Have it in your deck, in whatever forms your commander’s color identity allows. Have enough of it that you have a shot of having it in hand when you need it. And have some targeted removal for that time when you just need to kill the Master Thief to get your mana-rock back and don’t want to piss off the merfolk player.