Versatility

A lot of Commander players like to hone their decks in order to increase their win percentage. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Winning is fun, and more winning means more fun. However, the way people tend to go about it often ignores the aspects that make the Commander format unique.

For instance, many players will try to make their decks as consistent as possible. While consistency is good, part of the fun of Commander is that every game is different. The singleton, multiplayer format means new interactions come up every game, even when playing with or against the same deck. It can get boring when one of the decks plays the exact same sequence of cards every single game. If you want to play the same game every time, there are formats like Legacy that are far more suited to making that happen.

In addition, decks that depend on a certain combination of cards have an inherent weakness. If you play the same game every time, and I play against you once, the next game, I can predict your every move. I know what spell to counter or permanent to destroy to disrupt your combo. I once locked a Kaalia player out of the game entirely by simply playing and leveling a Guul Draz Assassin. If I know you require certain combo pieces which you fetch using tutors, for instance Curiosity to put on Niv-Mizzet in order to combo off for the win, I can hold a counterspell in hand until such time as you attempt to tutor, or wait for you to activate your combo and Naturalize the enchantment. If that’s the only thing your deck is designed to do, you’ll be left twiddling your thumbs while the rest of us continue to play, acknowledging you only as long as it takes to eliminate you from the game. While you may have succeeded in increasing your win percentage—even playing Talrand, my counterspell deck, I’m not necessarily going to have answers every single game—you’ve decreased the amount of fun you can have in games you don’t win. If winning is all that matters, play some format where it actually matters, like Modern, where you can improve your skill enough to win significant prizes. Commander is about maximizing fun.

So how do you do that?

The answer lies in versatility. If you build a deck that can adapt and respond to challenges, you’re going to have more fun. Have several wincons, not just one—or have ways to retrieve key combo pieces if they get removed.

For example, I have four decks that run heavy on tutor effects. Although I depend upon tutors to dig for my combo pieces, I have several different combos to choose from. In my Judgebreaker deck, which I wrote about in a previous post, the idea is to create a situation that is confounding even to certified judges; to that end I have several different interesting interactions requiring vastly different cards. If I played the same cards every game, the judges would soon learn how they interacted and it would be impossible to provide a challenge. Instead I have a baker’s dozen distinct combos that each require knowledge of different rules. If an opponent gets rid of my Hive Mind before I can cast Warp World, I can still copy my Doubling Season using Progenitor Mimic. If last game the judge nailed the interaction between Eye of the Storm and Possibility Storm, this game I can tutor for Hamletback Goliath and Rite of Replication.

Garza Zol and Damia, on the other hand, are all about synergy, things like making Master of Cruelties unblockable using Aqueous Form or perhaps Rogue’s Passage, and then tapping Niv Mizzet to make the opponent lose that last point of life; or creating a loop with Inexorable Tide, Seedborn Muse, and Ring of Three Wishes that allows me to tutor and cast a new spell each turn. Both decks are chock full of fun little combos like that, so if one gets disrupted, I can search up another to replace it.

Then there’s Phage. Unlike the other decks mentioned, Phage is designed with the commander as its wincon. The idea is to find some way to cheat Phage into play without losing the game, be it Command Beacon, Torpor Orb, Sundial of the Infinite, or some other method. Once Phage is in play, I have a number of ways to keep her from being blocked, either through fear, shadow, or just plan unblockable. Of course, none of that does me any good if Phage gets countered or killed until she’s uncastable, which is why the deck doesn’t depend solely upon its commander. It can also do things like use a Vampire Hexmage to remove all the counters from my Dark Depths in order to get that sweet Marit Lage token.

Giving the decks versatility accomplishes two things. First, it allows me to recover from an opponent foiling my original strategy. Second, it keeps games from becoming dull and repetitive.

Perhaps you don’t rely on tutors. Why pay extra mana to tutor up the card you need when you can just run a bunch of cards that do essentially the same thing? An example of this might be my Talrand deck, which is home to every halfway decent counterspell I could find. Doesn’t matter if Talrand gets countered or killed; I can always re-cast him. Until the command tax is 8 mana plus Talrand’s original 4 and I’m stuck on 11 Islands.

With Talrand, I’m unlikely to run into that problem, since I can probably counter any kill-spell thrown at him, netting myself a fancy Drake token in the process. And on the rare occasion where my commander does become inaccessible, such as when all my lands got destroyed via a Cycling effect I couldn’t counter, I can get petty revenge by countering everything else that player does. I may no longer be in contention for victory, but I can still affect the game.

Krenko, on the other hand, doesn’t have that advantage. There aren’t a whole lot of counterspells in mono-red, and without my commander to create exponentially increasing numbers of tokens, the deck is seriously hobbled. But even then I can get out a great number of goblins with abilities ranging from first strike to menace to mountainwalk to haste. I might not be able to win, but that Kresh player is going to be really sad when my ten 3/3’s come at him for that final 30 points of damage and he can’t block because he controls a Mountain.

What these decks have in common is the ability to do something even when the commander isn’t in play. The Kaalia deck I mentioned couldn’t even play creatures without Kaalia to cheat them in—the mana cost was too high.

So what could the Kaalia player have done differently?

Well, first off, he could have run removal. He’s in the three best colors for creature removal, after all. With Guul Draz Assassin out of the way, he could have re-played his commander with impunity. Alternatively—or additionally—he could have run some way to protect Kaalia. Slip on a pair of Lightning Greaves and the Assassin is left without a target. If he did this when the Assassin was already tapped, I wouldn’t have had a chance to respond.

For dealing with everyday, non-repeatable removal, including counter-magic, recursion can be a good idea. If you sit down with a Kaalia deck, you’re making a statement. It’s extremely likely that the rest of the players will try to gang up on you to prevent you from taking advantage of your commander’s ability. They’ll try to counter or kill her until you don’t have the mana to cast her. If, rather than sending her to the command zone, you instead allow her to go to the graveyard and then return her with something like Animate Dead, you can get around having to pay the command tax.

In addition, being able to hard-cast some sort of threat can make people think twice about targeting you. If you have a nuclear bomb and no way to defend yourself, your opponents want to kill you before you get the chance to use said bomb. If you have a nuclear bomb and also a couple of tanks and guns, and can retaliate if attacked, they might hesitate to attack until they can kill you in one swing, which gives you a chance to marshal your forces and cast your commander. For Kaalia, those cards might include Archangel of Thune; Master of Cruelties; and Linvala, Keeper of Silence. (Linvala, incidentally, would have been a beautiful answer to Guul Draz Assassin, and at only four mana, she’s quite easy to cast.) Note that these cards are still good if you have Kaalia out; you’re not sacrificing a slot you could fill with a bigger threat in order to include them. Master of Cruelties in particular is an auto-include in pretty much every Kaalia build, since her ability gets around his attack restriction and allows for a one-turn kill if the opponent has no blockers. While this might mean you want to hold off on playing him in case you get Kaalia out, it’s nice to have the option if you know there’s no hope of getting your commander any time soon.

Point being, honing your deck should be about more than just maximizing your chance of winning. While those decks are great for commander pods at GP’s where you’re playing against strangers and the winner actually gets a prize, a more versatile deck is a lot more fun to play sitting around the kitchen table, drinking beer with your friends. To make your deck more versatile, include alternative wincons and/or ways to recycle your primary wincon, either through multiple cards with similar effects or methods to retrieve them from the graveyard. While this won’t always ensure that you win—or even have a shot at winning—it will increase your potential to have fun. And at its core, that’s what Commander is really about.

Deck Tech: Nekusar

Nekusar, the Mindrazer is a cool commander, because his effect, while not entirely balanced, is generally beneficial to everyone at the table. Card advantage is a good thing, even when it hurts you. That’s why Dark Confidant is such a good card in Modern. Sure, you might lose a bit of life here and there, but you’ll have answers and threats, and that more than makes up for the drawback. This makes Nekusar kind of a double-edged sword. Sure, you’re hurting your opponents, but you’re also helping them dig through their decks for their own wincons.

That being said, Nekusar lends himself to a certain type of deck construction. Wheel effects are especially useful in a Nekusar deck. Who cares that you just lost some good cards from your hand; your opponents just took seven damage apiece. Things that cause players to draw extra cards, and things that punish card draw, are also quite good. Since you’re already running a lot of wheel effects—and all that card draw means your opponents will probably be discarding at end of turn—you can also run things that punish discard.

A lot of people run Nekusar as a control deck. Lots of counterspells to keep their opponents from being able to do anything while they whittle away at life totals. I don’t like to do that. I’d prefer my opponents to be having fun, even if it means I’m less likely to win.

One thing I do in my Nekusar deck that I haven’t seen in other decklists (although I can’t be the only person to have thought of it), is I run ways to give Nekusar infect. Nekusar with infect plus some other draw effect plus wheel means ten poison counters per opponent. (I managed to do this Turn 6 in one particular deck test.) True, most people dislike playing against infect and might be a bit miffed to lose so early in the game, but at least they got to witness a pretty cool interaction, and it’s unlikely to be repeated the next game.

So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the deck. Since there are so many cards in this article, I won’t be hyperlinking all of them; if you want to see what they do, just copy the name into the search feature on this website.

Wheels:

Teferi’s Puzzle Box

Barbed Shocker

Dragon Mage

Jace’s Archivist

Magus of the Jar

Shocker

Whirlpool Warrior

Wheel and Deal

Dark Deal

Incendiary Command

Molten Psyche

Reforge the Soul

Time Reversal

Time Spiral

Wheel of Fate

Wheel of Fortune

Whispering Madness

Windfall

Winds of Change

Notice there are quite a lot of these. They make up the core of the deck. Sometimes they say draw seven, sometimes equal to the number of cards originally in hand (or that minus one), sometimes equal to the largest number of cards any player had in hand. Some of them say discard, some say shuffle into the library, some say put on the bottom. It doesn’t really matter; the point is they’re forcing a lot of card draw, all at once, and with Nekusar out, that means a lot of damage. The ones that say discard also synergize with other cards in the deck as we will discuss later on.

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Card Draw:

Font of Mythos

Otherworld Atlas

Temple Bell

Diviner Spirit

Kami of the Crescent Moon

Master of the Feast

Nin, the Pain Artist

Seizan, Perverter of Truth

Dictate of Kruphix

Fevered Visions

Forced Fruition

Spiteful Visions

Jace Beleren

Prosperity

Some of these cards make the card draw hurt; others are free gifts when Nekusar isn’t in play. But when Nekusar is in play, they speed up the process of whittling away at life totals until everyone is dead.

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Punishing Card Draw:

Fate Unraveler

Kederekt Parasite

Phyrexian Tyranny

Price of Knowledge

Underworld Dreams

We don’t want to count on Nekusar himself to deal all the damage. If we did that, our opponents could just make sure our commander never saw the light of day. With these back-ups, we can still win even if we don’t have access to our commander for one reason or another. And if we do have Nekusar out, they’ll just speed up the process.

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Discard:

Jin-Gitaxias, Core Auger

Liliana’s Caress

Megrim

Painful Quandary

Waste Not

I’ve grouped together all the cards that deal with discard (excluding the wheels already mentioned), since there aren’t very many of them. Some of them cause discard; others punish it. And since so much discard is going to be happening, Waste Not is an auto-include.

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Control:

Lightning Greaves

Swiftfoot Boots

Silent Arbiter

Cancel

Counterspell

Dissipate

Dissolve

Murder

Tragic Slip

Scatter to the Winds

Void Shatter

While the deck isn’t control-oriented, it’s still a good idea to have some methods of control. Countermagic is great for that. I also like having ways to protect my commander and myself. Having ways to get rid of annoying creatures is also nice.

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Infect:

Grafted Exoskeleton

Corrupted Conscience

Glistening Oil

Phyresis

As mentioned before, giving Nekusar infect is just mean. Grafted Exoskeleton is great because it’s re-usable, and can be equipped to one of my other damage-causing creatures if Nekusar gets killed. Corrupted Conscience can steal an opponent’s creature if I feel the need. Glistening Oil is also repeatable, since it returns to hand when the creature it’s enchanting dies.

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Miscellaneous:

Library of Leng

Phyrexian Metamorph

Psychosis Crawler

Dictate of the Twin Gods

Furnace of Rath

Havoc Festival

Wound Reflection

Library of Leng means that when I wheel, I can keep the hand I already have. Phyrexian Metamorph can copy one of my utility creatures like Dragon Mage or Jace’s Archivist, or one of my artifacts like Teferi’s Puzzle Box. Psychosis Crawler punishes my opponents each time I draw a card, and because state-based actions aren’t checked in the middle of resolving spells or abilities, he can survive when I wheel. Dictate and Furnace speed up the game by doubling the damage Nekusar deals; Wound Reflection does the same thing by doubling the amount of life lost. Havoc Festival is my favorite card, and keeps life-gain decks from becoming a problem while bringing all decks within easy kill range.

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Lands:

Bojuka Bog

Command Tower

Crumbling Necropolis

Dimir Aqueduct

Dimir Guildgate

Dragonskull Summit

Drowned Catacomb

Geier Reach Sanitarium

Grixis Panorama

Island x7

Izzet Boilerworks

Izzet Guildgate

Mountain x7

Rakdos Carnarium

Rakdos Guildgate

Reliquary Tower

Swamp x6

Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

Most of the lands here are pretty self-explanatory. I need the right distribution of mana to be able to cast my spells. Geier Reach Sanitarium is there for the card draw. The Urborg is because Underworld Dreams can be awfully hard to cast, and the Reliquary Tower means I don’t have to discard if I wind up with more than seven cards in hand, which in this deck is a distinct possibility. Bojuka Bog is a more recent addition, just in cast I encounter graveyard-heavy decks.

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So that’s the deck. Now let’s see what it looks like in action.

Two weeks ago, I brought it to the card store to play in the Commander pods. I was intending to play Kaalia of the Vast, but when I saw one of the players in my pod was a friend of mine, and another player pulled out Gisa and Geralf, whom I intend to use to replace Grimgrin as my commander for my zombie deck, I decided to pull out Nekusar instead. While still mean, Nekusar doesn’t have land destruction, and the amount of card draw he engenders is a great recipe for shenanigans.

My choice paid off. By Turn 2 I had a Waste Not in play, and it started netting me zombies immediately, since unfortunately my friend (who was playing Grimgrin) was mana-screwed and had to discard. Even mana-screwed, he still managed to be the hero of the game, which we’ll get to in a bit. In the end I had seven zombies tokens, which is the best use of Waste Not I’ve had to date.

Turn 3 I got a Master of the Feast, so my opponents were already drawing extra cards even before Nekusar hit the field. That also provided me with a 5/5 flyer with which I proceeded to beat face.

Turn 5 I played Nekusar, because I could. There are very few better Turn 5 plays for that deck. Magus of the Jar might be a better option, because then I’d be able to play Nekusar the next turn and sacrifice the Magus immediately, but I didn’t have that particular card in hand. As for what I did have in hand, Nekusar was definitely the correct play.

The Karador player seated to my right had played Pernicious Deed, and I assured him that he was going to want to sacrifice it for 5 on my next turn. He shrugged and said maybe he would, maybe he wouldn’t. Well, the next turn rolled around, and I swung with Master of the Feast and my seven Zombie tokens, all of which got +1/+1 because Gisa and Geralf had played a Bad Moon. I arranged it so the damage would be distributed fairly evenly, including blockers (G&G had some, the other players did not). Karador didn’t want to take the 6 from MotF, so he decided to sacrifice the Pernicious Deed for 3, despite the fact that I’d repeatedly told him he’d want to get rid of Nekusar; he was trying to be nice. (Protip: Don’t be nice to Nekusar. He’s pure evil and does not understand.)

Second main phase, my only nonland permanent was Nekusar. So I enchanted him with Glistening Oil. The Grimgrin player wasn’t paying close enough attention, and allowed it to resolve. I then attempted to cast Molten Psyche, which Grimgrin countered, thus saving the entire table from a terrible fate.

Of course, Nekusar still had infect, so when I passed the turn that two draw step damage became two poison counters for each of my opponents.

Then it was Turn 7. I had Havoc Festival in hand, along with the mana to cast it (I hadn’t yet missed a land drop that game), but instead chose to cast Barbed Shocker. The reason for this was that the Karador player, whom I deemed the most immediate threat, had no blocking creatures and six cards in hand. I swung Nekusar and the Shocker at him, forcing him to discard his hand and draw six. With the two poison he’d already taken during his draw step, that should have been game.

Instead, Karador chose to dredge a card from his graveyard to replace one of the draws, and managed to stabilize at 9 poison counters. Grimgrin returned Nekusar to my hand using Cyclonic Rift, and Glistening Oil went to the graveyard, triggering its ability to return it to my hand, as well. I had enough mana to re-cast both cards the next turn, thus renewing the cycle; but Karador used Birthing Pod to dig for Mindslicer during my draw step, which he then sacrificed to another effect, forcing me to discard my entire hand, including the card I’d drawn for turn. He’d also gotten a Dark Depths during his turn; when I asked if he played Vampire Hexmage, he said no, but that he did have a Thespian’s Stage somewhere in the deck. During my main phase I re-cast Nekusar, then passed the turn. That was, incidentally, the only time I missed a land drop that game.

Meanwhile G&G had been building up quite a boardstate of zombies and swinging at us, getting everyone down around 30 life. But Karador’s Turn 9 play of Peacekeeper put a stop to that. I was quite happy with it myself, since Nekusar doesn’t need to attack to do damage (although being able to get in there with my Barbed Shocker might have been nice).

Turn 10, I drew a Time Reversal, but couldn’t play it, because Karador had just (re)played Gaddock Teeg. Grimgrin got an Agent of Erebos, and exiled Karador’s graveyard. In response, Karador cycled a card so he could dredge his Life from the Loam. The three cards he dredged into oblivion were Sigarda, Host of Herons; Phyrexian Altar; and Thespian Stage. In all, he lost 32 cards.

The next turn, I got a Phyrexian Metamorph, choosing to copy Karador so I could cast Seizan, Perverter of Truth from my graveyard. There were one or two more turns after that, with nothing really exciting happening. The game ended in a draw due to time constraints, with everyone around 20 life, except Grimgrin who was at 8. Given enough time, either Karador would have combo’d off, or Nekusar would have beat everyone down to zero, but it doesn’t really matter, because everyone had a great time.

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I played the deck again last Friday. I almost played Kaalia, since one of my opponents was one of those unfun players who plays cards like Jokulhaups, and it would have been a perfect test for her; but I wanted to get in one more test of Nekusar before I posted this article.

Again, I didn’t miss a land drop almost the entire game. Opening hand I got Reforge the Soul, which I sat on for turn after turn, just waiting for the right time to cast it. Turn 2 I got Swiftfoot Boots. Turn 3, Megrim. Turn 5 I got down Nekusar, having luckily drawn an Island on Turn 4; before that I was stuck on one Swamp and a bunch of Mountains. The Tasigur player across from me copied my Nekusar using Clever Impersonator, which was pretty awesome. Turn 5 I got down Dictate of the Twin Gods and should have equipped the Boots but forgot. That allowed the Marath player to kill both Nekusar and the Clever Impersonator clone before his draw step, meaning no one took the twelve damage from drawing three cards with two Nekusars and a Dictate in play.

Turn 7 I had a Havoc Festival in hand but chose to play Font of Mythos and Fevered Visions. Card draw was no longer directly detrimental, but I was keeping my opponents above maximum hand size and thus forcing them to take damage upon discard. Unfortunately the Marath player O-Ringed my Dictate, which was a good play but left me very sad. I’d been planning to cast Reforge the Soul on my next turn and kill all my opponents.

Instead, on Turn 8 I replayed Nekusar, this time using my extra mana to equip the Boots. I try not to make the same mistake twice. At this point the highest life total other than mine was twenty; with everyone at seven cards, Reforge the Soul was going to win me the game.

Alas, it was not to be. The unfun player, whose commander was Norin the Wary, cast Jokulhaups, wiping the entire board save for enchantments. Megrim was still happily dealing two damage to those opponents who weren’t drawing lands and thus were forced to discard. Luckily I still had a land in hand, and Turn 10 I drew another, allowing me to cast Shocker. By this point Norin had a Purphoros down, which meant two damage to each of us whenever anyone played a spell, since Norin would get exiled and return, thus triggering Purphoros’s ability. The next turn I planned to attack Norin with my Shocker. Norin would get exiled, and he didn’t have the devotion to make Purphoros a creature, so the damage would go through, and the fourteen damage from discarding his hand would be enough to kill him. Unfortunately—well, fortunately for him—he had Confusion in the Ranks, which he played, exiling Norin and stealing my Megrim. When Norin returned, he traded it for my Shocker, thus saving himself from a grisly end.

A turn or two later, after being hit with my own Shocker, I was able to play an Island and cast Phyrexian Tyranny, getting back my Megrim. Tasigur died during his clean-up step due to being stuck at only one mana and thus being unable to pay for Phyrexian Tyranny’s cost, and then being forced to discard and taking another 2 from Megrim. Norin won at 6 life.

Considering the majority of the damage was dealt by my deck, I can’t be too unhappy about the results. In two different instances, if Norin hadn’t had exactly the right card, I would have won. The fact that I didn’t win is incidental. If that’s all I cared about, I would have played Kaalia. I wanted to see how Nekusar behaved when he didn’t have infect, and this game was a perfect example. Also, if not for the exiling of my Dictate, I would have been able to win the game without re-casting my commander—proof that the deck is versatile enough to function without Nekusar in play.

All in all, I’m quite happy with the way the deck turned out. I don’t normally have any fun playing against the Norin player, and this game I actually enjoyed myself, despite the fact that he won. The previous week the entire table seemed to have a good time, even though infect usually elicits groans from everyone involved. Overall it seems to be a pretty good deck. The card draw and lack of overt control means that other players get to play their decks and interact with each other and also with me, so that if I do win it doesn’t feel like an inevitable train wreck they’ve been watching approach for half a dozen turns.

And with that settled, I can move on to my Kaalia deck, in all its violently destructive glory.

Commander Rules

A while back I posted about the basic rules of Magic. If you’ve read that, you should have a pretty good idea about how a turn goes, what creatures do, et cetera. Now you want to play an actual game. You’ve heard that Commander is a casual format, and you kind of like the idea of just sitting around the kitchen table with your friends, playing whatever cool cards you can get your hands on. Maybe your brother-in-law used to play and donated his collection to you when he heard you were interested in the game. Now you want to put together a deck.

If you don’t have an extensive collection of cards, you might want to refer to my post about budget deck-building. Or you could just buy one of the pre-constructed decks. If you want to build your own deck, there are some rules specific to the Commander format that you need to be aware of.

First, color identity. Your commander’s color identity includes all mana symbols found anywhere on the card, excluding reminder text. For instance, while Bosh is a colorless creature, because there is no colored mana in his mana cost, he has a red activated ability, which makes his color identity, for the purpose of Commander, mono-red. Rhys the Exiled is a mono-green creature, but his black activated ability means that his color identity is green-black. Note: You are allowed to run Bosh (Bosh, Iron Golem) or Rhys as your commander. Because Bosh has red in his color identity, you would be running a mono-red deck; with Rhys, it would be a green-black deck. Hybrid mana counts as both colors that it could be; Daghatar the Adamant, for example, is a white-green-black commander.

You are only allowed to run cards that are in your commander’s color identity. This includes basic lands. According to the rules of Commander, you can’t run basic lands that would produce mana outside your commander’s color identity. Likewise, you can’t run any guildgates in your Bosh deck, because they all have mana symbols that are outside your commander’s color identity. You can, however, run lands that say they tap for any color of mana, as long as the actual mana symbols don’t appear anywhere on the card. There used to be a rule that if you tried to tap a land for a color not in your commander’s color identity, it would produce colorless instead; with the advent of cards that require colorless mana in casting or activation costs, this rule has gone away. Hybrid mana, again, counts as both colors of mana. You can’t run a Dominus of Fealty in your mono-red Heartless Hidetsugu deck, because Dominus is both red and blue, at the same time.

Now that you understand how color identity works, you can choose your commander. Your commander has to be a legendary creature. Any legendary creature will do, as long as it’s not banned in the format. (You can find the updated Commander banned list here.) You start the game with your commander in the Command Zone, and can cast it from the Command Zone on your main phase (or at any point if it has flash, like Yeva) as soon as you have the mana to cast it. Since you are guaranteed to have access to your commander, and its color identity dictates what you can and cannot put in your deck, choosing your commander can be the most important decision you make when constructing your deck.

Commander is often referred to as a hundred-card singleton format. What this actually means is that, including your commander, you have a total of one hundred cards, and you are only allowed to run a single copy of each of those cards, the exceptions being basic lands, and cards that specifically say you can run multiple copies, like Relentless Rats (because card text trumps game rules).

Once you have your deck, you’re ready to start playing. Each player starts at 40 life (as opposed to the usual 20 for most formats). Commander is generally a multiplayer format; I recommend four players minimum. You can play with only two, although there is a different banned list for two-player; but part of the beauty of Commander is that if all parties agree to ignore the banned list, that’s fine, because you’re just playing to have fun. Three players is technically multiplayer, but what often happens is that the two players with weaker decks will gang up on the player with the stronger deck, which doesn’t tend to be very fun.

You can roll a die to determine who goes first. After the first player, proceed around the table in a clockwise fashion. Since it’s multiplayer, the first player does draw a card on his or her first turn (for two-player Commander, as with most formats, the first player does not draw a card on his or her first turn). Also because it’s multiplayer, the first time you mulligan it’s “free,” that is, you go back to seven rather than immediately down to six. (Subsequent mulligans do decrease the number of cards.)

For the most part, Commander is the same as other formats, with a few exceptions. As already noted, you start at 40 life, rather than the usual 20. Priority is passed around the table in turn order, which usually isn’t relevant to know, unless you want to know who gains possession of a sacrificed creature when there are three copies of It That Betrays on the battlefield. (What is the proper plural of It That Betrays? Its That Betray? They That Betray?)

The main thing that distinguishes Commander from other formats is your commander itself. As previously mentioned, your Commander hangs out in the Command Zone until you’re ready to cast it. If your Commander would change zones, you can choose to send it back to the Command Zone rather than whatever zone it would go to (hand, library, graveyard, exile), so it will be available for you to cast again later. The only catch is that, for each time you’ve already cast it from the Command Zone this game, you have to pay a “commander tax” of two mana. So, if you’re running Olivia Voldaren as your commander, the first time you cast her, she costs two, a red, and a black, for a total of four. If she gets killed, you can send her to the command zone rather than the graveyard (which incidentally will not trigger any effects that happen when a creature dies, or if a creature died this turn, since she never actually hits the graveyard); later you can cast her again for four, a red, and a black, or a total of six. If she then gets exiled (Olivia is a scary commander, and clearly your opponents have been following my advice and running removal), you can again send her to the command zone. At that point, the next time you want to cast her, you’ll have to pay six, a red, and a black, for a total of eight. If, however, someone casts Cyclonic Rift overloaded, and she gets bounced to your hand, you can choose either to send her to your hand or to the Command Zone; if she goes to your hand, you can cast her from your hand for her original mana cost. If she dies again, or if someone counters her when you try to cast her, and you send her back to the Command Zone, she’ll cost eight, a red, and a black, since commander tax keeps track of how many times she’s been cast from the Command Zone this game. Keep in mind that this is a choice; if you have a way to reanimate your commander from your graveyard, by all means, let your commander stay in your graveyard. If your commander then gets exiled from your graveyard, you can at that point choose to send it to the Command Zone instead. If you’re running Obzedat, Ghost Council as your commander, and want to use his ability to exile him at your end step and return him on your next turn, you’re welcome to do so.

In addition to whatever cool effects you can get from whatever abilities your commander has, you can also kill your opponents with commander damage. If a player takes a total of twenty-one (or more) combat damage from a single commander over the course of the game, that player loses the game. This applies to combat damage only; Ruric Thar, the Unbowed‘s ability that deals 6 damage when a player casts a non-creature spell will not add to the total. Also, it’s not the total combat damage taken from all commanders; if you’ve taken eleven combat damage from Olivia Voldaren and twelve from Ruric Thar, you’re still in the game. And keep in mind that you can die to damage from your own commander; I once almost died to my own Sliver Legion because the Lorthos, the Tidemaker player had tapped down all my creatures, and the next player stole Sliver Legion for the turn and swung it at me. Luckily I was able to flash in Quick Sliver and save myself.

And that’s about it. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments.