Note: I am approaching this article from the perspective of a casual deckbuilder, meaning I’m focusing on function and flavour more than I’m focusing on win percentage. These concepts are a little different in competitive play, where the 160-card Budgetless CEDH Core will allow you to build a solid 80-90% of the common decks in the competitive meta without significant additional investment. When efficiency and efficacy are your primary concerns, there are correct answers, and these core cards are tried and tested.
Often when I’m cruising Commander forums, there’s at least one or two discussions about “format-defining”, “goodstuff” or “staple” cards. A quick trip over to EDHREC.com shows us that these are the most commonly used cards in EDH decks by colour:
A 5-colour mess
With the releases of Commander 2016 and Commander 2017, the game’s overall meta has taken a really hard shift towards playing 4- and 5-colour decks. When you’re playing in all 5 colours (as well as colourless), if you approach the deckbuilding process with a mindset that certain cards are “auto-includes”, you’re met with a pretty interesting problem: there just aren’t enough slots available to do what you want to do. Let’s take a look at a 5-colour goodstuff list that utilizes the top “staple” cards from each colour identity:
If you were to sleeve this up and sit down at a table, you’d basically be ramping into your commander and frantically tutoring for responses for the entire game. I’m not even going to work out a mana base or pick a commander* for this list, because it should be pretty evident that – despite the fact that there are a ton of great cards here – this list doesn’t actually accomplish anything worthwhile.
After this exercise, it should be pretty evident why I don’t like classifying cards as “auto-includes”. These cards are (for the most part) great individually, but are not necessarily good as a group. Increasing the number of format staple cards will not necessarily make your deck better (by any definition of the word “better”). Including the right ones for the right reason definitely does make your deck better, but it’s not always a matter of outspending your opponent.
By extension, I’d like to propose that accomplishing something worthwhile in EDH means deliberately excluding at least a few of these cards, which works against the idea that they are “autoincludes” at all. In fact, I think that people often approach brewing totally backwards.
*It’s probably Progenitus, but who even cares?
Rather than trying to come up with a polished list from the start (including all the staples you’ll need), try to come up with a first draft that deliberately eschews the top 20-50 cards in each of your colours, and see what that list looks like. While doing this exercise, try to focus on the cards that are going to directly support your game-winning strategy, and give particular preference to those that are on-theme or mechanically interesting. If a staple card happens to be on-theme (like Solemn Simulacrum in my Golem Tribal deck), I throw it in my list anyway. The point of this exercise, after all, is to maximize flavour and intended function rather than cutting staples for the sake of cutting staples.
As far as lands are concerned, I pick a number (usually between 34 and 38) plug in a roughly even split of all of my on-colour basic lands, knowing that I’ll have some manabase decisions to make after I’ve somewhat solidified the rest of the deck. I do this to visually remind myself that I’ve only got about 65 real slots in the deck to establish my strategy, rather than the full 99.
Shore up with staples
Once I’ve got my first draft, I sit down and take a long, hard look at the list. I mentally separate it into functional packages and take notes on what I expect to be the deck’s biggest strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes that means going back to Gatherer/Scryfall/magiccards.info to find more hidden gems, but more often than not I’m starting to think about the staples I’ve been deliberately excluding up until this point:
- If I don’t have enough functional redundancy with respect to a specific effect, I’m thinking about tutors that can increase consistency.
- If the curve is absurdly high, I start to think about acceleration and ramp
- If the curve is absurdly low, I start to think about card advantage engines that can refill my hand
- If my game plan is slow, I start to think about disruption that can help me stall for time
- If my game plan is fragile, I start to think about ways to protect myself
Intended power level
Perhaps one of the most important things I do when I’m building a deck is consciously deciding on an intended power level. I explore this concept a little in my previous article, Fun with Friends, but I think it bears repeating – having several decks across a broad spectrum of power levels helps you have more positive interactions with the people you play against. When I build a deck, I try to think about what kind of a table I’d be sitting down at if I wanted to pull that deck out. As deckbuilders, we are not only making card choices to support an overall strategy, we’re making deck choices to support a desired social environment.
After putting together a list sans staples, the result is generally about as low-power as the strategy can possibly go. By shoring the list up with staples and addressing the weaknesses I listed above, I’m able to bump the power level up incrementally as I playtest, stopping when I get it to where I want to be.
What does it look like?
If you regularly engage in this exercise you might surprise yourself with what you come up with. I did this when I built my Vial Smasher / Silas Renn deck, and I couldn’t be happier with it. I started out by tossing around a few ideas about how I could dish out 120 damage by casting spells, and landed on the idea that I could trade card advantage for damage by developing a significant alternate casting cost theme.
The deck has a thousand dollar manabase (this is where my staples binder comes in). This ensures that I’m able to hit my double-coloured-mana requirements reliably in the midgame, but aside from that the deck is essentially free from staples. Things like Blasphemous Act and Reforge the Soul are in the list mostly due to their alternate casting costs, rather than their specific effects, and we run Time Spiral where a lot of lists might run Wheel of Fortune because it domes for 6 and refunds its mana cost.
If I’d started out by making a Grixis goodstuff list from EDHREC, I’d probably be running Sol Ring, Brainstorm, Demonic Tutor, and Cyclonic Rift instead of Pyromancer’s Goggles, Blast of Genius, Beseech the Queen, and Submerge. There’s no doubt in my mind that the former are more powerful than the latter, but the deck wouldn’t be nearly as fun to play if I made those substitutions.
Why do you hate EDHREC so much?
I definitely don’t hate EDHREC. I actually really love gathering and analyzing data – it’s what I do for work. I admire the project, and there are a ton of valuable insights to be gained about which decks are popular and which cards are popular within those decks. I do find, however, that if you allow the popularity of a card to influence the likelihood that you’ll include it, the tendency is to stray towards building homogenous decks. Some people enjoy building deck after deck whose sole purpose is to cheat in Jin Gitaxias, Core Augur, but that’s not really my thing. When I build a new deck, I like it to have its own personality.
Format staples have a very important role to play in doing that, but it’s definitely a supporting role that helps ensure that my lesser-known beauties get their share of the spotlight.