Graveborn Musings – Commander in Casual Perspective (plus a deckbuilding challenge!)

I’m a huge fan of Evan Erwin’s The Magic Show, but I was watching the New Phyrexia set review he did with World Champ Brad Nelson (good, but not as good as ours, natch) and I noticed something kind of disturbing—every time they talked about a card that was clearly designed for multiplayer, they said something along the lines of “the Commander crowd is going to love this.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I am definitely part of the Commander crowd, but that’s only because I’m part of the casual crowd. I’d always assumed that the former was just one part of the latter, but it seems that a lot of folks think differently. I’d like to take some time to figure out where Commander fits in relation to the rest of the Magic community and offer up some advice both for the Commander crowd and for those who haven’t learned to love the bombs yet.

Why Commander is Awesome!

I’ve never been a big fan of alternative formats, but I love EDH (sorry, it’s a strain to keep calling it Commander) for three main reasons. First, the Highlander format brings out cards you’ve never played with before, which can only be a good thing. I’ve always said that not playing with good cards is a crime—which may explain why my trade binder is so pitiful—and EDH is to cards laying idle what Dirty Harry is to street crime. The world of sixties is about consistency, and while you can play highlander with smaller decks, most people won’t. Sixties are almost universally regarded as the place to put playsets of shiny cards, but EDH both allows you to use a card effectively even if you’ve only got one of them, and forces you to look further afield for power, synergy and functionality. A set of Go for the Throat will get the job done in most decks, but when you play the hundreds you have to consider the capabilities of every black removal spell since Terror. And while there are cards that could legitimately claim a place in 99% of all EDH decks—Lightning Greaves, Sol Ring and Solemn Simulacrum leap to mind—most people have enough cards lying around unsleeved to build a whole bunch of decks, and at some point you just don’t have enough of the so-called staples to put them in every deck (at which point deckbuilding becomes even more skill-intensive).

Secondly, the format encourages exactly the kind of play that I like. When you have almost constant access to an awesome creature, you’re more likely to play that creature and, in most cases, swing with it. I’m still waiting for my invitation to join Team Lives-in-the-Red-Zone, but in the meantime I continue to attack with all of my commanders except for Arcanis. Even if you only choose a general for its colors, such as a friend of mine who plays Oros purely because RBW are such great griefer colors, it just makes sense to have a back-up beatdown plan when you can play a 6/6 flier any time you like. On top of that, less consistency and higher life totals lead to longer games and bigger spells. Damnation is just a better spell than Decree of Pain, but Decree is so much more fun to cast that I still want to put it in decks. With the hundreds, I have a lower chance of drawing it at an inconvenient time, but a much higher chance of being able to play it in any game I draw it, which lets me play with the toys I want and save my Damnations for the decks that can really make the most of them.

The third thing that I really like about the Commander format is Sheldon. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve never met the man, I have no idea if he’s a saint or a jerk in real life, and I don’t agree with everything he says. But I think it’s great that we have an authoritative voice pushing publicly for a certain style of play. Sheldon’s authority comes from a combination of his role in the development of the format, his status within Magic generally from being a level five judge, and his role as the front-man for the official EDH rules committee. That doesn’t mean everyone does or should play Sheldon-approved EDH, but it means that when we say EDH “should” be played a certain way, that’s more than just our opinion; it’s universally known that EDH was intended from the very beginning to be played in a certain way. People will still interpret that in a wide variety of ways, and there will be some who just don’t care, but because of Sheldon there is a certain baseline standard of play.

What all of this means is that EDH has been my favorite way to play Magic since before Shards of Alara. If you haven’t tried it then you owe it to yourself as a casual player to put a couple of decks together and play. On top of that, EDH has become the Visa of Magic; if you go overseas or travel to a new store or playgroup, you have a better chance of finding a game with an EDH deck than with any other type of deck except perhaps Standard and it may be your best chance to fit into whatever multiplayer action is going on there.


Extremely Disproportionate Highlander

Despite the fact that I am a huge fan, advocate and evangelist of EDH, I feel like my current playgroup is overdoing it. For example, I put together a sweet little Venser the Sojourner deck that should be able to get Venser to his ultimate even in a four-player, but I have had exactly one non-EDH multiplayer game since I started writing at SCG (and Murphy’s Law being what it is, I didn’t have Venser with me that night). I’ve built other decks around playsets of my preview cards from MBS and some older cards I’ve picked up in the last six months, but they’ve hardly seen the light of day because it’s all EDH, all the time.

Worse, until recently there was a lot of pressure to build the strongest possible EDH decks, which meant that I could only bring my top-tier decks (Teneb, Kresh, Thrax and Molimo, for the record). I get to play at least two great games of EDH with at least four great guys every Wednesday, so I’m not really complaining, but it’s always EDH and these guys haven’t even seen a third of my EDH decks.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that the group as a whole has come to play well within the confines of Sheldon-approved EDH, but they arrived there in a kind of round-about way, having pushed every strategy to its unfun extreme before settling down to the level we’re at now. One of the most important players in our group, Brent, limits himself to a particular strategy because he says that if he tries to play anything else he’ll just combo out and make everyone else unhappy. Other players overreact when anyone displays even the slightest hint of so-called “douchebaggery,” despite the fact that they play painfully degenerate decks in any other format, even “casual” sixties multiplayer. It seems that “casual play” is harder for some people to understand than quantum mechanics!

Putting Commander in Perspective

All of these things got me thinking, and I realized I was wrong about what position EDH occupies in the Magic universe. EDH may originally have been intended as a subset of casual play, like all of the other casual formats documented on Wooberg, but I think it has actually shifted to occupy the overlap between casual and tournament play.[1] Casual players have always enjoyed the social element of multiplayer, as well as the variety of cards, decks and board states, and EDH offers all of these elements in spades. But I think the rules structure of EDH has little to no effect on Team Casual. Sure, I picked up a Protean Hulk before it became an Extended combo piece, and I own a couple of other cards that have been banned that I might otherwise want to play with, but basically nothing on that official Commander banned list forces me to change the way I play in a fundamental way.[2] And my perspective on Sheldon’s social contract is very simple: I have always played that way in any format, and I’ve often struggled to understand why some people don’t automatically grok that. If that’s how you approach the format, then we’re speaking the same language, but it is important to understand that there are other ways to look at EDH.

For our Spikier brethren, I think EDH is a way to take a breather from the more serious—and restrictive—world of duels, tournament metagames and so on. As I looked at earlier, a lot of tournament-oriented players have struggled to know where the line is drawn in casual groups, and often give up on non-sanctioned formats altogether. EDH offers players like this a lot of things that they can’t usually find in either casual or tournament play:

  • A banned list that makes it clear what abusive strategies are not permitted
  • A set of norms that are easier to understand/more clearly articulated than “casual”
  • A more social format and a new community to engage with[3]
  • A new challenge in deckbuilding
  • A chance to play with virtually every card ever printed
  • A new format to break

This list isn’t exhaustive, and different players will be attracted to different items here. Those who appreciate the banned list and the opportunity to break a new format will obviously build and play differently than those who appreciate the social nature and the norms of the social contract, and they will tend to fit in with different playgroups, but both types of player will get something out of EDH.

Crucially, these types of players may jump into EDH more enthusiastically than the casual players that it was designed for, because the difference between EDH and casual free-for-alls is usually smaller than the difference between EDH and tournaments or play-testing. In other words, if EDH fills a distinct hole in your life that other formats don’t, then there’s a good chance that you are not primarily a casual player. That cuts both ways though, because even a relatively cutthroat EDH environment can expose people to the awesomeness that is multiplayer Magic. I’ve been encouraging the guys to get into larger games than just three or four players, and they’ve had a blast. Some games have gone stagnant, but more often not we’ve had the kind of epic games that turned most of us off duels years ago. When you have players who focus a lot of their time on a range of sanctioned tournament formats (as opposed to someone who just has a couple of Standard decks for FNM) and get them to build non-killer decks, adapt to a casual setting, enjoy the larger, more chaotic games and even experiment with variant formats, then you’re a real casual ambassador!


Commander is the fastest-growing multiplayer format out there and probably the funnest – plus it works just fine with Star, Emperor, Planechase, Archenemy or most other variants. That means that if you’re a casual player who isn’t slinging the hundreds, then you’re just letting the best in life pass you by. On the other hand, if your only multiplayer experience is EDH then there’s a whole world of fun out there for you to discover.

My advice for anyone else whose playgroup is caught up in EDH fever is to use it like marijuana—a gateway drug that may lead them to experiment with other forms of multiplayer or casual play. Make a contest out of perhaps—proving something to others is apparently the hallmark of the Spike psychographic—with a budget rare night or a break-a-Chancellor night or something. Maybe you can have one player bring decks for everyone just to balance the power level, or play pauper without the net-decking combo silliness that this can entail (I’m looking at you, Van Lunen!). However you get it done, make sure that EDH doesn’t become the be-all, end-all of multiplayer to your playgroup—get them to embrace the full range of chaos that Magic has to offer!

Bonus Feature: The First Official Musevessel Deck-Building Challenge!!

One of the first packs of New Phyrexia I opened had a Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer in Japanese foil (or as we say in Japan, a “foil”). I said in the set review that I wanted to build a Standard-legal (post-Zendikar) EDH deck featuring JK his bad-ass self, and I am taking this as a sign from the-powers-that-be that you, our loyal readers, should build it for me. So for the first stage I want you to go to the Comments section below and suggest up to 10 cards you want to see in a Jor Kadeen EDH deck, featuring only cards from Scars of Mirrodin, Mirrodin Besieged, New Phyrexia or M11. I’ll give you two weeks to get your suggestions in, then in stage two we’ll choose the best ones, and in stage three I’ll use it to beat up my playgroup and wreak havoc across as much of Tokyo as I can. Then we can update it as Standard expands with M12, Innistrad and whatever else.

Are you up to it? OK, then, get to work with those card ideas!

[1] This is of course a generalization—for many purely casual groups it remains no different from Planechase, Emperor or Tribal Night at Bobby’s House, while for some, a Commander tournament is treated exactly the same as any other tournament. But let’s pretend that a significant number of Magic players can be divided into one of these two groups.

[2] I was working on a Braids deck when she was banned as Commander, which may have led to some harsh words and thumping of tables, but Braids was basically my attempt to see if I could break her as badly as others had (I couldn’t), so in a sense I was already trying to change the way I play with that deck.

[3] Let’s not pretend that Spikes, pros, or whatever you want to call them are a different species. They enjoy variety and socializing as well—it just doesn’t necessarily appeal to them in the same way or to the same extent that it does to us.


About Graveborn Muse

Daryl Bockett has been an avid Magic addict since Legends/Revised. He lives and breathes deckbuilding and casual play. "The more the merrier" is his creed! In those brief moments when he isn't playing, reading or thinking about Magic, he teaches at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. He has a Ph.D. in International Relations, which is basically only useful for helping him to understand the strategic interactions at a multiplayer table.
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13 Responses to Graveborn Musings – Commander in Casual Perspective (plus a deckbuilding challenge!)

  1. Boshea says:

    I thought you wanted a standard deck based on the description from the EDH forums, not a standard legal EDH deck. Just replace the Mesas with 2 Mountains and 2 Plains if I’m still getting this wrong, otherwise here are my ten picks from M11 forward for a Jor Kadeen deck.

    1-Puresteel Paladin-One of the best ways to get metalcraft is with equipment, and this guy lets you equip for free when you have it.
    2 Sword of War and Peace, 3 Sword of Feast and Famine, 4 Sword of Body and Mind- The effectiveness of the triggered effects will vary but giving your 8/4 combat monster some evasion is always good.
    5-Batterskull-Vigilance is pretty sick to give a first striker, 4/4 vigilance lifelinker for 5 is a solid creature on its own, and it can dodge removal if you keep the mana open to bounce it
    6 Spikeshot Elder-Give him equipment and he becomes a terrifying mana sink. Unfortunately your building restriction keeps this guy from getting deathtouch currently.
    7-Hellkite Igniter-Being on the receiving end of metalcraft fire breathing hurts a lot.
    8-Darksteel Plate-Indestructibility is pretty good I hear
    9-Kemba Kha Regent-Spitting out 2/2s every turn makes Kemba a threat on her own. Spitting out 5/2s every turn will probably win a game.
    10-Bonehoard-Was tough call on the last pick. The equipable Llurgoyf beat out Indomitable Archangel since the Llurgoyf can win a games on his own, and Archangel just helps your artifacts dodge spot removal.

    • Graveborn Muse says:

      Sorry for the confusion – these are ten good picks! i agree that Bonehoard beats the Angel, although they probably both deserve a place…we’ll see if someone else suggests it.
      And just to clarify, the actual voting will come later, we’re just getting ideas at this point.

  2. Matthew Banister says:

    1. Myr Battlesphere- not only is it just fun it fulfills the metalcraft by itself
    2. Hero of Bladehold- it works well with the card above and battlecry is fun with all the tokens
    3. Indomitable Archangel-protection
    4. Karn the Liberated- just seems fun to float 5 mana and hit his ultimate on at exiled Indomitable Archangel and Myr Battlesphere. Then cast Kadeen(yes im living dreams) and if not he still does work with never ultimating
    5. Sword of Feast and Famine- its fantastic
    6. Batterskull- better than the sword? maybe
    7. Stoneforge Mystic- Yeah pretty obvious
    8. Kazuul, Tyrant of the Cliffs- I always loved this guy
    9. Kudoltha Phoenix- Sexy
    10. Phyrexian Reclamation- Its fun you get a creature and DoJ should already be in there
    11. The mana myrs of appropriate persuasion

    • Matthew Banister says:

      ok i missed the no zendikar part so out go kazuul and the mystic. Hmmm two replacements…
      Urabrusk the Hidden- i think this guy is good really good
      White Sun’s Zenith- if you have metalcraft and urabrusk this is game winning

  3. Andrew Dumas says:

    these aren’t in any particular order, but just 10 cards I think should be included.

    1) Dispatch, because with metalcraft it becomes pretty sick removal
    2) Shrine of Loyal Legions. Lay it out early, crack it late and swing.
    2.5) Shrine of burning rage, cause it’s yet another good removal card that just gets better, and works with…
    3 & 4) Bludgeon Brawl + Kemba. Get ready to crank out 2/2 cats with this, when you can equip the shrines, wellsprings and things like Conversion Chamber. Also, it would be interesting to see if you could break conversion chamber. Even if you don’t have Kemba, equipping your first striker with a bunch of +2 artifacts is decent.
    5) Urabrask, cause it’s sick
    6) Elesh Norn. I hear the only thing better than giving your creatures +2 is also giving their -2
    7) batterskull and the swords should be there, obv. Gonna just include them in 1 line here.
    8) Volt charge. Goes well with the shrines, conversion chamber, elspeth, koth and karn, titan foundry, and really a plethora of other standard legal cards that have counters.
    9) speaking of, I love me some planeswalkers. Those should probably slide in there.
    10) moltensteel dragon. Drop it on turn 3 or 4, and then swing and firebreath for the win.

    I know these may not all be the BEST cards available, but I think there’s some synergy that you can play with, and lets be honest… bludgeon brawl is hilarious and deserves a try. I know i’ll be attempting it.

    • Andrew Dumas says:

      not sure why, but putting in number 8 came up with the cool emoticon. That’s another row though. 🙂

    • Andrew Dumas says:

      If i may add one more. I think Suture Priest has some promise in an EDH deck. just a thought.

  4. Eli says:

    So far the posts have followed a similar theme so I tried to think of utility spots to augment good suggestions already posted, in no particular order, except that I love the first pick the most.

    1) Liquimetal Coating–This might be my favorite card from SOM besides always being 2 artifacts, which makes it super easy to get your general online. It also makes all the artifact removal in red and white turn into anything removal.
    2)Silverskin Armor–On the same vein as LC in that it gives you 2 artifacts for the price of 1, but doesn’t have the same wealth of awesome interactions.
    3)Auriok Survivors–If you are playing a bunch of equipment then your probably going to want to get back the ones that have been destroyed.
    4)Darksteel Sentinel–This dude is a surprising house in EDH. No one wants to waste a swords on a vanilla 3/3 so he sticks around and eventually picks up a Sword of Wreck and Face and goes to town.
    5)Elspeth Tirel–Since you don’t have access to all the sick board wipes that white usually has she gives you a pretty good one that can under favorable circumstances make 3 4/1 dudes.
    6)Into the Core–I play this card in all my red decks anyways it is the best kind of 2 for 1 cause it gets rid of pesky artifacts that have a tendency to Academy Ruins/etc themselves back. LC combo!
    7)Kuldotha Phoenix–I have been trying to find a home for this bad boy, and i think a deck that is dedicated to metal craft because if the general sounds like just the thing.
    8)Mirrorworks–I hear that have 2 Swords of Wreck and Face is even better than 1 especially when it makes all your creatures huge.
    9 & 10)The Titans–Don’t forget you best big bodies in your limited pool. You will need someone to go to town should something untoward happen to JK. And if I remember correctly ST gets back Sword(s) of Wreck and Face.

    • Boshea says:

      The titans are both really strong picks for this deck, and I run both in my JK deck, but I’m not sure if they’ll works as well in a M11 forward deck. Inferno Titan suffers the same problems as Spikeshot Elder where he can’t get Deathtouch (or exile if Sword of Kaldra is your thing). He’s just a big beater with fire breathing and an Arc Lightning trigger. Not that its a bad thing.

      Sun Titan still has a far amount of promise since there is a lot of really powerful stuff that he can get back still. Swords, Plate, Cloak, and Deathmantle for equips alone. Really depends how the deck comes together to determine if Sun Titan can carry his weight.

  5. Graveborn Muse says:

    Guys, those are some great ideas, thanks! Also, “Sword of Wreck and Face” is the best name for the cycle I’ve ever heard – I will definitely steal that, I mean, pay an homage to Eli.
    A lot of the suggestions so far have been on the expensive side, both in terms of my poor, abused wallet and also in terms of CMC. The first isn’t a problem, as my group is pretty generous about proxies and they’re all cards that I’ll want to acquire at some point anyway, but the second is more of an issue. Don’t forget to consider curve when making your suggestions!

  6. Jason says:

    Hmmm, let’s see… I want to avoid the most obvious inclusions… So here we are, in alphabetical order.

    Concussive Bolt: It always sucks to have an army blocked, not with this baby (since you will probably already have metalcraft.

    Elixer of Immortality: Reuse all of your graveyard, in the colors with the least reanimation? Awesome.

    Hoarding Dragon: Search for your sword of such and such, and watch people hesitate to kill this dragon.

    Into the Core: Definitely a necessity to stop darksteel shenanigans.

    Inkmoth Nexus: Having a 4/1 infecting man-land seems pretty awesome!

    Myr Battlesphere: An army in a can! Stunning with Jor Kadeen.

    Thopter Assembly: Another army can. This one can end a game pretty fast!

    Urabrask the Hidden: With all of these army-cans, it seems excellent to get haste, and to slow opponents blocking crap. (pshhh, who needs to block?)

    Victory’s Herald: Another crazy buff (why yes, my myr battleshpere and co will fly over your saporling army for crazy life swing!)

    White Sun’s Zenith: Another army-can, but this one is reusable, scalable, and instant!

    These are just a few of the awsome choices, I skipped some obvious stuff, like the three stooges (I mean swords) batterskull, Elesh norn, et cetera. I think that your probably looking to use stuff other than just the obvious playables, and that play to jor Kadeen’s strengths.

  7. SwordsToPlow says:

    Shameless link to Jor Kadeen EDH Deck –

    My favorite cards for a standard legal deck
    1. Kuldotha Forgemaster – There are not a great number of tutors in these colors for standard. Plus, I would play this guy in most artifact heavy decks
    2. Myr Battlesphere – Other people have already listed it, because it is amazing with Jor Kadeen. The amount of damage here is ridiculous
    3. Precursor Golem -I like any one card that sets of metalcraft by itself. BTW, 18 damage when Jor Kadeen is on the field isn’t to shabby.
    4. Shimmer Myr – There should be enough artifacts in this deck that playing them at instant speed will be an advatage
    5. Steel Hellkite – I like Pernicious Deed with wings
    6. Thopter Assembly – Remember what I said about cards that set off metalcraft by themselves? I like em.
    7. Blightsteel Colossus – He is a pretty good target for Kuldotha Forgemaster. I guess . . .
    8. Sword of Vengeance – Since Lightning Greaves and the Kaldra artifacts are not an option, this is a good way to get your haste on. This is better than Strider Harness in any case.
    9. Mimic Vat – I do not know if I have ever been disappointed to see this card. With cards like Precursor Golem and Myr Battlesphere it can pump out armies of creatures.
    10. Mirror Works – I have used this in a few Commander decks already, it is the real deal. There is not much better than a continual sculpting steel.

    Great Article!

  8. Eli says:

    I know you said you wanted up to 10 per person, but when I am given a challenge I have trouble letting up. So, here are a few more ideas all with CMC <=4 to fill in some of the gaps in the current deck list. They are divided into sections.

    Sick cards that should have come up by now:
    Bonehoard–Just a sick card in any deck.
    Serra Ascendent–Feels lame every time you play her on turn 1, but in such a restricted card pool no one can really hate on you for it.

    Combat tricks:
    Condem–An auto include in every mid range white deck IMO. We all know why tuck is good in EDH.
    Dispense Justice–It's no wingshards but it will have to do and you will always catch someone slippin.
    Mystifying Maze–Just as good card that can handle most creature related EDH problems, except titans and Woody Primus of blows up Maze.

    Mana Fixers:
    You have only two fetch land fixers that you can use if you are willing to allow Evolving Wilds from Rise, and no R/W duals at all. So the mana base is gonna be shaky.
    Mycosyth Wellspring–Artifacts die all the time in EDH this one does something when it dies that now card in color can.
    Alloy Myr- Your only source of either color from one source.

    Brittle Effigy–It gets rid of a problem for good, but also gets rid of itself in the process.
    Arrest/Pacifism–Sometimes making a general just sit there being useless is the best thing you can do. Cage of hands if you find your are severely lacking in this area but only because of the bounce ability.

    Card Draw:
    Temple Bell–Its really all you got and it usually puts the pressure on a game as people will have to play a land and a spell to avoid discarding.

    Might be worth a try:
    Torpor Orb–There are currently less than 10 creatures with ETB effects in the deck and the titans can still get theirs off of an attack trigger. Is that too many? It might be worth it to not have Hoarding Dragon trigger if everyone else has Prime time and Woody that they like to recur and clone, but that would be a meta game decision.

    Ok, that might have been like 15 cards, but are you really keeping track?
    And, I might build this beast once I see how many of the cards I have. It can't be any more janky than my Ib deck.

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