So, you've just finished a prerelease and opened a cool new Legendary creature, or you stumbled on an obscure Legend from your LGS' dollar bin, and now you want to build a Commander deck? Worry not, hypothetical reader, I am here to help you build that deck quicker than you can say quetzalcoatlus!
But before we raid your staples binder, let's figure out what kind of deckbuilder you are. I divide them in the following categories, based on the inherint conflicts involved: Netdecker vs Brewer and Number Cruncher v Intuitive Builder.
Netdecker vs. Brewer
First we need to talk about the inherent conflict that is the Netdecker versus the Brewer.
This conflict stems from your deck's genesis. If it's from without (using sites like tappedout.net or EDHRec.com) or from within (moment of inspiration).
Both types do actually use outside sources, but they do so for two different goals. The Netdecker snoops out the most optimized deck while the Brewer seeks what path others took, and then goes their own way.
Some voices on the Internet would have you think that netdecking is the greatest plague after the Spanish Flu, but there's nothing wrong with using outside sources to build decks! Why not use the vast amount of knowledge that hundreds and thousands of like-minded players have accumulated? The Netdecker wants simply to build an efficient machine or translate their idea as smoothly as possible, without the process of trial and error taking up their time.
On the other hand, the Brewer wants to express themself through new and unexplored ideas, enjoying the journey as much as they do reaching the goal (and in some cases, even more!). The Brewer will often make decks that don't work but rather than be discouraged, each mistake is a lesson learned. One big advantage to this process is that the Brewer sees a much bigger array of cards than the Netdecker (including that one weird uncommon from Odyssey that is just PERFECT fro your new
Omnath, Locus of Mana deck).
What's really interesting is that one kind of deckbuilder feeds into the other. The Brewer makes a new wild deck and posts it on TappedOut and EDHRec, where it's found by other people who refine it. Once the hive mind does its stuff, our Netdecker picks it up which causes the Brewer to seek a new way to build the deck, and so on.
Number Cruncher vs. Intuitive Builder
This conflict comes after we start building the deck, when we go to optimize it.
The Number Cruncher uses math, graphs, and charts a la Frank Karsten to build the deck – especially the mana base. Each card has a specific reason for being on the list and the difference between an extra Basic Land versus another Non-basic land is a life and death decision. Even though this is the more complicated method to start, it does save time in the long run.
The Intuitive Builder on the other hand feels the deck should have 6 Plains and 4 Mountains, and that's just the way it's supposed to be. That gut feeling often comes from great number of games playing the deck, which means a greater time investment.
Now, as I mentioned, no matter what kind of a deckbuilder you are, outside sources still have a purpose.
For the Netdecker it's easy. Go to EDHRec, find your general/commander and check out some sweet decks and staples you might want to run.
But what does a Brewer get out of EDHRec? Simply put, the information needed to go their own way. EDHRec provides the most frequently used staples -- that gets treated as a map to find the road less travelled.
Take my Alesha deck. After I chose her to lead the 99, I scoured the Internet for lists and found mostly token strategies. I tested them and found them lacking, but that got my gears working. An archetype I felt was ignored for this particular deck was Death and Taxes, so that's what I built. And I'm happy to say it has caught on.
Building the deck
Whenever people approach me to help them with a deck, I ask them one important question: What does your deck want to do?
For such a simple question, it's where we can start untying the Gordian knot. People usually have some idea in mind and can answer "I want to smash face" or "I want to abuse extra turns" but don't focus on what tools get there and what to do once they're there. I've seen too many decks either filled to brim with cards that are only good when winning, or worse, cards that are good only for that one 4 card combo they want to win with. Look at my Alesha, Who Smiles At Death and Taxes – the all combo pieces are useful cards on their own and interact with more than one card (
Goblin Bombardment's a sacrifice outlet,
Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit buffs the team etc).
This doesn't mean we can't put in our pet cards in the deck! It's EDH after all, and we have somewhere between 60-65 spots to work with. Just make sure that the pet card still helps the overall strategy.
I've also seen way too many decks losing to their own mana curve. The is the worst mistake to mak. To quote the MTG Gamepedia, "The mana curve is the application of mana optimization theory to deck construction."
Even though this is Commander and you don't have to play cards in the same timline as 60 card competitive formats, you still have to take care of the mana curve. It'll improve your deck's performance by a wide margin. If you've ever tuned in to my podcast you'll know that one of my pet peeves (besides people having lands that I haven't blown up) is a deck with outlandish CMC cards. Those decks that have
Sol Ring as their only one drop and 10+ cards that have a CMC of 8+... You've all seen them and played with/against them.
Now to give credit where credit is due, because of the huge impact that EDHRec has had in recent years, players worldwide have started lowering their CMC slowly but surely, even in very casual decks and metagames.
But, what should be the desired CMC? That depends on deck type, and on what level it's being played – is the meta casual, 75%, or cEDH? While cEDH CMC is always lower than 2, for others I'd advise going under 4 (and if we are in 75% and above try to keep it well below 3,5), and aiming to keep it low as possible. Even if you are on a slow control or a ramp deck, remember that the greatest advantage goes to the army that arrives to the battlefield first!
Speaking of the meta, that's another huge consideration its own. Analysing the meta becomes much easier if you're lucky enough to have a permanent playgroup, but even if you only play at your LGS you will still notice some trends. This means you will be able to prepare accordingly.
But, why even take our local metagame into consideration? To put it simply, no deck is an island – you can't just try to play your game and hope nobody will interrupt you (or win before you do).
Cards that we refer to as "metagame calls" often aren't the staples you get out of your binder first while making a deck, but often make a world of difference. Think of cards like
Leonin Arbiter if faced with a lot of tutors, or
Dispel if you keep finding yourself in a lot of counterspell wars).
And removal's a big issue in any meta. No matter what level of Commander or color combination you're playing, removal is still important and you shouldn't skimp on it.
While there is no rule of thumb when concerning number of removal we should slot in the deck (it is highly dependent on what is our role as a deck – control v aggro v combo v (s)tax) the lowest I'd recommend is 8 removal spells.
However, the number of Wraths you should be running should honestly be no more than 2 or 3 unless your meta is filled with swarm decks. This seems a bit counter-intuitive to most Commander player's mindsets. In the end, a Wrath may be an x-for-1 but pure value isn't everything; there is also the matter of efficiency. What spot removal spells lack in value, they more than make up for in speed. To use a real life example, you could have a grip full of
Supreme Verdicts etc, but when your opponent plays
Deadeye Navigator and tries to pair it up with
Palinchron, you really need that
Swords to Plowshares.
This covers part of my thought-process on how to build fun and functional decks for the format I hold most dear. But none of this should be taken as gospel! Use everything I've provided you with in the proper context for your deck, your playstyle and playgroup.
If you disagree with some of my points, please feel free to share your thoughts!