June 18, 2015

Commander Origins

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Beginnings are usually the best part about discovering things. While it's possible to turn that idea on its head, generally a fresh start is exciting, fun, and something we can all share.

Among all the formats I've learned, Commander has the lead in players telling others how sweet it is.

Prophetic Flamespeaker | Art by Cynthia Sheppard

That's just an anecdote, of course, but it sure seems that way. Plenty of other fun formats have been shared and flared in popularity over the years, but through it all Commander stayed. Beginning down the path of one-hundred card decks and pawing through pages of legendary creatures is an important moment in our Magic histories. While mine was drawn by the fun of flinging things around despite losing, many of you have different starting stories to tell.

And they're all awesome.


The Format that was Promised

Recommendations are a powerful way to learn about something, and among the most consistent stories from fellow Commander players is that it was friends in Magic that referred them to the greatest of formats. Nic's story should be a familiar one:

In early June 2010, my little brother (11 years my junior) and I stopped at a game store having a going-out-of business sale. Neither of us had played Magic in over 5 years, but on a whim we bought some heavily discounted Lorwyn Starter Decks. We mentioned getting back into Magic to a mutual friend and he said, "A lot of guys in my play group are playing EDH (Elder Dragon Highlander, now known as Commander) now." We looked it up, loved the concept, dug up our old collections, and thus an obsession was born. We played head-to-head games pretty much every day that summer.

I agonized over where to start for my very first commander, but eventually settled on my old favorite strategy for the first of what are now 160 Commander decks (and counting): Bird Tribal. Soraya the Falconer was briefly considered; but Kangee, Aerie Keeper was the best option as there was no way I was building a bird deck without Zephyr Falcon in it. Next, I looked for ways to get big mana to pay Kangee's kicker, but sadly, Tolarian Academy was only in the deck for 2 days before it was banned. I've only updated it a little bit from the early years, making it more Bird-y as new Birds came along, and pulling out 'good-stuff' that was off-theme, like Grand Arbiter Augustin IV, for other decks. But it still has some of the hallmarks of my early decks, like low land-counts and Mesa Falcons.

- Nic (@nickelninety7)

Nic's Kangee the First

COMMANDER: Kangee, Aerie Keeper

Bird is the word in Nic's deck, and tribal themes are among the most fun to begin exploring when so many different cards are needed. Adding our favorite cards to a cohesive theme, focused on fun, is a primal Commander recipe. There are few other decks that would want to see a Zephyr Falcon, but as someone that recalls Fifth Edition fondly, I can appreciate its appearance here.

Upgrading it on the battlefield with things like Day of the Dragons doesn't feel so bad either.


Recommendations from groups come both far—like Nic's—and near. A cozy group of dedicated players meeting up every week is one of the ways I love playing Magic, and it's how Mike got his Commander game going:

I've been playing Magic off-and-on since Antiquities. There have been a few on-cycles over the years; the last two being work-related groups playing what I like to call Limited Constructed. Rules are set regarding the acquisition of cards for your group pool, including trading restrictions, if any. Then, during game night, you play decks built from that pool. It's a great way to get new people interested in the game without being overly dominated by long-term players.

I discovered Commander shortly after that first Limited Constructed group dissolved (Ravnica / Time Spiral era), and built a variety of decks on paper, but didn't start playing until the second group. It doesn't take long before people want to experiment with format variations, particularly multiplayer variants, and eventually this second group stumbled on Commander. The first time we played, we simply didn't have enough cards in the pool. Many people didn't even have a legendary creature. It wasn't the most fun game, so it didn't get played again for a while. But the next time we did, people were ready. I played a Grimgrin, Corpse-Born deck. An Olivia Voldaren deck that was stealing other Commanders won, but the other players let me play out the Mirror-Mad Phantasm / Grimoire of the Dead combo before doing so, just to see what would happen. It was awesome.

These kinds of groups tend to last for a couple of years before falling apart due to changes in careers and families, especially if you don't build your rule set to account for the friendly addition of new players (i.e., plan on it being a Standard environment vs. Extended). That group finally fell apart during Theros block, so the decklist I'm providing is the final evolution of that Grimgrin deck.

- Mike

Mike's Grimgrin, Corpse-Born

COMMANDER: Grimgrin, Corpse-Born

Commander uses a limited pool of cards thanks to its color identity rule. Unless you're going all-out with a commander like Horde of Notions, most decks will be limited to two or three colors. Mike's adventure with Commander took that idea further.

Getting into Commander is a tough if you're also getting into Magic, but Mike's groups solved that problem in a clever way: more restrictions. With all of Magic's decades of cards at your disposal, it would seem easy to build the best Commander deck possible. Limit that to the past few Standard seasons' sets and it quickly becomes a fascinating exercise in choices. Tricks like Crypsis and Hidden Strings work well with a commander like Grimgrin, Corpse-Born; as well as inspired choices like King Macar, the Gold-Cursed. Mike's adventure through a narrower scope of card options takes away from the breadth of exploration, but it evens the opportunities between players veteran and new. Using "whatever cards I happen to find" is an idea I've enjoyed as well.


Another way players first experience Commander is at the helm of another's deck. My first game in the format was with a deck handed to me, complete and ready to go. Taylor's experience was another popular response sent in:

Originally, I was a Standard-only Magic player, back during the Return to Ravnica block. I was out playing Magic at a fast food restaurant with some friends and three of them brought out their Commander decks. I had never played it or heard of it, but once they started playing and explaining the rules, I was hooked. One of them let me borrow one of their decks (Gisela, if I remember correctly) for the game, and then afterward went through some of my rares and what-not and we built a Kaalia of the Vast deck, an easy enough commander for beginners.

Looking back to when I first started playing, the deck was atrocious, no denying it. I think that's why people didn't mind playing it, because the mana base was all out of whack, I didn't have the budget to fill it with the more staple cards (Rune-Scarred Demon, Avacyn, Angel of Hope), so it wasn't competitive and didn't draw hate, since I didn't know how to play her that well and she only went off about 30% of the time. I've kept her as a commander, and fine-tuned the deck, updating her occasionally. And now it's at the point where I only bring her out on special occasions, or for 5- to 6-way games to offset the hate she focuses, or occasionally because: why not. But thanks to the memories of how I got started, I don't think I will ever end up taking her apart.

- Taylor

Taylor's Kaalia of the Vast

COMMANDER: Kaalia of the Vast

Some commanders draw more attention than others. Kaalia of the Vast can plop powerful creatures onto the battlefield quickly, demolishing life totals and getting expensive effects in play long before they're meant to hit the battlefield. The danger of the unknown in Taylor's hand is scary, but that's not all that makes Kaalia so interesting to consider.

Her theme is an obvious one, but that's great for a jump into the format. Getting a taste from a friend's deck only to turn around and furiously build one's own deck for next time is as classic a Magic introduction gets. Taylor's experience with Kaalia may have caught up to her perception by others across the battlefield, but the endearing nature of one's first deck in the format is hard to shake.


I'm going to be rebuilding my darling Kresh the Bloodbraided soon. It's hard to let good times with a good commander and good friends go. Of course, it's not always friends and showing off something new. Other than new commanders and other cards, one of the biggest benefits of the yearly Commander deck releases is how they serve as a stepping stone for introducing the format. It's through a humble pre-constructed deck that John got his start:

I started playing Commander upon its official adoption and promotion by Wizards. When investigating the first set of premade decks, I instantly fell in love with Zedruu the Greathearted. Eschewing the suggested stock themes of wheeling and dealing, I instead focused on breaking the symmetry of her ability. How? Pacifism and Dehydration effects! A threat removed, and a steady source of life and cards for me.

Ghostly Prison, Propaganda, and Æther Flash help deal with token swarms I can't match card-for-card, but the real MVP is Portcullis. Pacify a couple creatures and you won't have to worry about any more—not tokens, not even commanders—until someone breaks it. The combos of Urza's Armor + Manabarbs and Righteous Aura + Jinxed Choker serve as win conditions, with Serra Avatar and Numot, the Devastator as backup. Replenish, Retether, and Open the Vaults should help when recovering from a board wipe.

The color combination appeals to me because I can run both Dismantling Blow and Orim's Thunder, both Allay and Shattering Pulse; but what I remember most fondly about those early days was being able to run Oblation, Chaos Warp, Spin into Myth, Hinder, Spell Crumple, and Condemn all in the same deck, to solve that pesky Command Zone problem. But I guess it's all come full circle: now that the library can no longer contain them, what's the best zone for enemy commanders? On the battlefield, under Arrest. >:D

- John

John's Zedruu the Greathearted

COMMANDER: Zedruu the Greathearted

Jumping into a format with a deck ready to go, then tweaking and turning it into your creation from there, is as straightforward as starting Magic can be. You'll still need friends to game with, and you'll still need time to play and journey into how deep a format can go, but a deck ready to roll is exactly the bungee lifeline you need when taking the leap.

It's exhilarating to hold on tight and see where things go.


Origins Return

Everyone's story is a bit unique, and those four are hardly all the ways we've learned to love Commander. While your story has already happened, I hope you get to star in someone else's Commander start.

Sharing is caring, after all.

This week's question is for everyone that's had something to share with others: How did you introduce someone else to Commander?

  • Feedback via email, in English
  • 300 word limit to explain the moment and what made it special
  • Sample decklist (does not count against word limit)
  • Decklists should be formatted with one card per line with just a leading number, such as "3 Mountain"—just a space (no "x" or "-") between the number and the card name, without subtotals by card type (Submissions that don't follow this rule will be ignored.)
  • Name and email required (non-personal information to be used in column)
  • Your Twitter handle if you use it

Starting our Commander story is just the first step. So many of us picking the format up from friends made me curious just how often we end up pulling in someone new. I want to know how you do, and what's been successful (or perhaps not) about that.

Join us next week when a new origin tips the scales to completion. See you then!



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