If you’ve been reading this series for awhile, you know that one of my favourite aspects of Commander is the truly enormous card pool. I love being almost totally free from deckbuilding restraints, and how I can discover a card, get excited about it, and start thinking about the possibilities without worrying about whether it’s legal in my favourite format.
One of the pieces of administrative baggage that comes with such a wide-open deckbuilding sandbox is the idea that 99 cards simply isn’t enough room to build the monstrosity I came up with while I was daydreaming at work this morning. How do I reconcile the idea that a 35-card Survival of the Fittest package might need some non-creature support? How do I play all the best merfolk in Magic’s history without cutting the ones with my favourite art?
How do I get from my list of 110 cards down to 99?
This is one of the toughest things you’ll learn to do as a deckbuilder. I find that when I’m building around a theme, like I did with my Narset Form of the Dragon deck recently, my initial list could be as big as 150-200 cards. I tend to go really deep when I’m deciding which themes are worth exploring and which aren’t. After I’ve finished this list, it’s usually fairly easy to eliminate the worst 40% of the stuff I’ve turned up in my search. These are vanilla creatures, horrendously overcosted spells, sub-themes that aren’t worth including, or other things that don’t really synergize with my original plan. This puts me in an all-too-common situation that I’m sure will resonate with anyone who’s build an EDH deck before – having to decide which cards will not make the final cut.
Today I’d like to talk about my method for doing that in hopes that it will make this task a little more manageable.
Stay on target
I’ve talked about this before in some of my other posts, but thinking long and hard about your deck’s objective is one of the most important things you can do. I encourage people to actually write it down somewhere (such as the mandatory deck description field on TappedOut) so you can refer to it later. I encourage people to do this because it helps to frame the “cut or keep” discussion for each of your cards. Keep the description short and sweet – one or two sentences at the very most. Here’s some examples from my current gauntlet of decks:
Make infinite mana and kill people with it.
Hack instances of “blue” to “green” and chain elves into Temur Sabertooth / Great Oak Guardian.
Break stax symmetry by never casting anything ever.
Midrange stax with an option to finish with Hulk or Nooze
Leverage enchantress synergy to buff the team and attack every turn.
[Bad spell] + [x damage] = [Average-to-good spell], where x is the spell’s converted mana cost.
Be a deck to house my cards that are too nice to sit in a binder.
Use lords and obscure tribal synergies to buff changelings.
These are really useful descriptions because they prevent you from straying too far off-course in the early stages of deckbuilding. I might really love Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur, but does it really fit in my Vial Smasher deck? Sure, my favourite Praetor gets a lot better when I staple 10 damage to it, but is paying 10 actual factual mana where I really want to be with that deck? Absolutely not. It also doesn’t really fit with my theme of [Bad Spell] + [x damage] = [Average-to-good Spell], because the starting point is a really good spell.
Once you’ve got your deck’s mission statement distilled to its most basic concept, you’re ready to start eliminating cards. I like to do this by looking at my deck through a few different lenses:
Is the core strategy too good?
I’m not going to write a ton about this, but building a deck that’s too good for your expected meta should be one of the primary concerns whenever you’re drafting a list. If you’re familiar with which strategies are fast, resilient, and devastating, and you want to build one that fits in a playgroup that’s not ready for it, your first pass at the deck should be with an eye to neuter it a bit.
This can mean cutting some really incredible spells, and it’s not always going to feel good, but I find it’s a lot easier to guess on the low end of the power spectrum and adjust upwards. I do this because I can control how I react to losing, but I can’t control how other people will react. I don’t want to be the reason that a 10 year old kid never comes back to Commander night at my LGS because he couldn’t blow a year’s allowance on a Force of Will.
We explored this idea in some detail when I was brewing Narset Form of the Dragon, and again when we were talking about building on a budget, but colour identity can be a great way to focus your theme. When I was brewing my Kangee deck, I looked at a few different commanders. Reaper King was a pretty obvious starting point, and I’ve seen a few Reaper King tribal decks in my internet travels. This busts the card pool wide open and gives me access to 26 changelings and literally hundreds if not thousands of pieces of tribal synergy. This would be great if my only objective was to pack the deck with changelings, but I know that as part of the deck description I need to have some mix of changelings and creatures that modify changelings. There’s unique tribal commanders in all of the colour identities under the sun (all the way down to Mistform Ultimus in mono-blue), so I can remove entire colours from my searches to narrow my search for changeling perfection. With each colour I remove, I also have to consider what types of functions I’m removing from my pool, but it also makes it easier to keep some of the jank I’ve uncovered in the colours I want to keep.
I ended up going with Azorius under Kangee, but I almost went with Bant. The deciding factor was ultimately the lack of an appropriate commander that synergized with the deck. Restricting colour identity to Azorius still gives me access to 12 changelings, which is plenty to make the deck run, but I don’t have to worry about spreading anything too thin. It also has two pleasant side effects:
- Building two colour decks is easy (/easier) on the wallet, which means I’m not out hella skrilla if the deck sucks or I hate playing it
- Devoting fewer nonland slots to colour fixing allows me to go deeper on my theme without sacrificing consistency
Jack of all trades, master of none
Similar to having too many colours in your identity, having too many distinct strategies can make cutting the last few cards cumbersome. If you’re going to work towards separate win conditions, try to first ensure that the cards that support them are relatively similar or even interchangeable. Combat damage is a fine way to close out the game, but packing your Phenax deck with fatties that don’t feed off or compliment your core strategy of milling will dilute it to the point where you don’t execute any of them effectively. Looking at your deck through this lens means that your Consuming Aberration makes the cut, but poor ol’ Jin-Gitaxias gets the axe yet again.
This is something that I see so often when people build Commander decks – they get stuck in a rut of thinking that a card is good, so it must be an “auto-include” in decks that contain those colours. I’ve already written a ton about why I disagree with this approach, so I’ll leave it at this: Not every blue deck needs a counterspell package, not every black deck needs a reanimation package, and you’re doing yourself a disservice by cramming some of these packages into decks where they don’t make sense. Take a step back and ask yourself what you could be doing in those slots to take a bigger step towards your objective.
If you’ve got pet cards you want to play with, do it right and build a deck around them rather than cramming them in the first (or every) deck you can fit them in.
Mind the curve
I’m probably going to write one or two articles about why mana curve is so important in the future, but for the purposes of this article I’m going to treat it as though it’s a given. When I look for cuts to my decks, one of the major ways I decide is to take a look at the very top-end of my curve. Usually this means pulling all the cards that cost more than 6 mana and laying them out. I ask myself “What is the impact of casting this card?” and “How does this card look in my opening hand?”. I look at what conditions need to be present for it to operate the way I want it to, and whether the benefit for resolving it is worth the risk of tapping out to cast it and potentially having it countered. 6+ mana spells should be absolute haymakers, because Wizards R&D isn’t generally worried about breaking constructed formats with 6+ mana spells.
Similar to cutting colours, cutting from the top end of the curve allows the deck to do whatever it’s trying to do more efficiently. Replacing an 8-drop with a 4-drop can feel like you’re cutting power from your deck, but if you manage to cast that 4-drop every game as opposed to casting the 8-drop every 10th game, you’re going to get way more value out of it in the long run. I often see people use the argument “people like playing Magic and dislike people who prevent them from playing Magic”, but you’d think people would back that up by packing their deck full of spells they can reasonably cast. This isn’t usually the case, and when people come to me for deck advice they’d better hunker down for a discussion about mana curve.
The last 2 cards
Once I’ve cut the cards that are too good for my meta, assessed the colour identity to see if I can get by under a more restrictive commander, cut unnecessary themes and packages, and smoothed out my curve, I’m usually under 99 cards. If I’m not, though, I’m generally looking at less than a handful of cards.
I frequently see people agonize over the last two cards, and I’ve never understood it. In my view, a deck is never complete – and why would it be? We get a few hundred new cards every year, and that’s a feature of the format, not a bug. In Commander, we’ve got an unending process of card, deck, and strategy evaluation that’s fed by not only new card additions to the format, but metagame changes, rules changes, and even changes in personal preference that keep us constantly on our toes.
If our deck is never complete, and we’re not racing against the standard rotation clock, why are the last two cuts so difficult? You can pick literally any criteria by which to judge them – art, dollar value, most birds in the artwork – and cut the ones that don’t meet your criteria. Start playing the deck, and keep the cards you’ve cut in the back of your mind. Sometimes you’ll find that the deck is perfect as it is, and sometimes, throughout the course of gameplay, you’ll develop more informed decisions about things that underperform.
Either way, if you’ve done your diligence and the deck is technically and mechanically sound, arbitrary tiebreaking criteria are as likely to lead you to the correct answer as anything else. The absolute worst case scenario is that you were wrong and you have to play a few games of EDH to figure out why. Doesn’t sound like much of a punishment at all.
Do you have a method you use to decide which cards get the axe? Do you think I’m being irrationally hard on Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur? Do you have any 110-card lists you’d like to talk about? As always, hit me up in the comments!