Imagine the following scenario:
It is Friday Night Magic at your local game store. You and your friends have just been invited to play a game of Commander with someone from out of town. You have already taken a look this guy’s trade binder and can guess from the Volcanic Islands and Force of Wills in his collection that his Commander deck is probably pretty sweet, so you bust out your Hanna, Ship’s Navigator “Voltron” deck to give him a run for his money. You and your friends shuffle up and present your commanders but, lo and behold, the new guy is packing his own Hanna, Ship’s Navigator deck! “Alright,” you think to yourself, staring down a grip containing Bribery and Acquire, “he’s just made it that much easier for me to find some equipment!” You think of all the Stoneforge Mystics and Stonehewer Giants hidden somewhere in his 99 and anxiously shuffle through the two five-mana sorceries in your hand. Turn five rolls around without anyone doing anything too ridiculous, and you windmill slam the Acquire onto the table targeting the other Hanna deck. Your opponent calmly passes you his stack of cards and you flip it over to find…
… Rings of Brighthearth? Grim Monolith? Power artifact?! His Commander deck is completely different than yours!
You settle on acquiring his Lightning Greaves, a sit is the only equipment you can actually find in his deck. “He built his deck totally wrong,” you think, mentally preparing for your next turn where you plan on dropping Hanna, Ship’s Navigator, and suiting her up with a Sword of Feast and Famine before bashing the other Hanna player to punish him for making your commander look bad. Only you don’t get a next turn. The other Hanna player calmly untaps for his turn, drops Grand Architect, Pili-Pala, and Laboratory Maniac, then casts Stroke of Genius for infinite. “Good game,” he says, and everyone scoops up their cards.
You go home the following day and lay out your Hanna, Ship’s Navigator deck on your desk, looking at all the sweet equipment that, up until recently, you thought was the best route to victory with your favorite Commander. You have a foil Sword of Feast and Famine, for Pete’s sake!
Suddenly, your world view is shattered. You exile yourself to Paris for a year, take up smoking, and start writing the next great American novel. While there, you fall in love with an upper-class French girl whose father does not approve of your relationship. During a rather heated argument, you accidentally push her father onto a pike taken from the Bastille during the French Revolution. You and the girl flee the French authorities to an island country with lax extradition policies, where the two of you marry and live out the rest of your days in relative peace, though every night you are wracked by doubt as to whether or not you had the best Hanna, Ship’s Navigator deck.
Or you simply realize that there are a number of ways to build a Commander deck for every Legendary creature, you silly person.
Confirmation Bias and the Hive Mind
Building a Commander deck is not as simple as choosing a Legendary creature, throwing in as many staples as possible and shuffling up. It is not like other Constructed formats, where you can netdeck the “best deck” and be happy with your decision. Granted, some people are happy taking a list they have found online and changing a few cards to add in some personal touches, but I find the people who enjoy their decks the most are the ones who start from scratch and build something unique. There is no right way to build a deck for a certain commander, no matter how many forum trolls disagree. To prove this point, let us discuss Animar, Soul of Elements, one of the more popular commanders in my local playgroup.
Since I started playing Commander, there have been at least five different Animar decks that have popped up at one point or another. The first belonged to my friend Steve, who built an Elemental tribal deck that, as he put it, lost to Wrath of God. Dustin was the next in our group to sleeve up an Animar deck, his being the more traditional “play creatures and good spells” RUG deck that eventually morphed into a Maelstrom Wanderer deck. Then there was Ronnie, who put together a deck similar to Dustin’s save for the fact that he included Kiki-Mite combo in his 99 (yuck!); his deck later morphed into a Grixis control deck. As of right now, only two of our Commander regulars have Animar decks; my friend Christian with his Primal Surge deck and my friend Ian with his “pingers” Animar deck, which I want to write about in the near future.
It is for this reason that I am hesitant to tell a person what must or must not be in his or her Commander deck. While there are some cards that are very powerful to the point of being auto-includes in their color, such as Eternal Witness and Demonic Tutor, not every deck is in need of something like Decree of Pain or Sylvan Library, and not everyone can even afford cards likes Damnation or Scrubland. Moreover, it is a personal joy of mine to see the personal touches people add to their decks.
There is a psychological term known as confirmation bias which is mainly used when discussing how people decide on their personal politics and religious beliefs. Basically, what confirmation bias means is that if you believe something, then your mind will actively seek out opinions and facts that confirm what you believe, and ignore facts and opinions that differ from your beliefs. Thus, when your girlfriend insists that you turn left at sixth street to get to the theater when you know perfectly well that turning at fourth street will get you there quicker, her staunch refusal to accept a contrary opinion will leave you sleeping on the couch tonight (sorry, bro).
Confirmation bias is equally apparent in competitive Magic. It is the old argument of “my deck is good against X because I beat X in testing,” even when your deck has never put up a winning result at any major tournament. However, confirmation bias occurs in Commander as well, leading us to conclude that because card X has been used to do Y in format Z, I should use card X to do Y in Commander as well! The problem with confirmation bias is that it causes homogenization; if people keep using the same cards in all of their decks, then nothing new will ever be discovered. This is why I switch around a few cards in my Commander decks from week to week; it is important to test all possibilities to see if there is anything awesome I may have missed.
Glissa, the Beatdown
Recently, I set about building my sixth(!) Commander deck, mostly out of boredom but also due to the fact that I had quite a few random cards sitting around my room, collecting dust. (Metaphorically, of course; I keep my cards in good condition.) I had been thinking about making a Glissa, the Traitor deck for some time, up until my Sharuum, the Hegemon deck filled the role of “artifact combo” in my Commander collection. As I sat on my bed, staring down my foil copy of Glissa, I thought to what strategies her combination of abilities and traits could lend themselves. What kind of deck would want a 3/3 first strike, deathtouch 3-drop with built-in artifact recursion?
What’s a girl to do?
This is why I bring up the topic of homogenization and confirmation bias when it comes to building Magic decks. Most people, when looking to build a Commander deck with Glissa, the Traitor at the helm, will focus on her artifact-recursion ability and build a deck that uses Glissa to protect combo pieces like Triskelion or Mycosynth Lattice. I instead decided to focus on the fact that Glissa is a 3/3 for three mana with first strike and deathtouch, meaning she is an aggressively-costed beater that opponents will not want to block, making her the perfect creature to carry any Sword-of-X-and-Y or other powerful equipment. The fact that she brings back equipment whenever an opponent’s creature dies is just icing on the cake.
Rather than do my usual general analysis of the deck, I am going to take the Sheldon Menery approach to deck discussion and actually comment card-by-card, as some of the choices are obvious and others require a little explanation. (Also, this should make up for the fact that I have not written an article in about a month). Since I am writing on a card-by-card basis, there is no need to waste space with a full deck list.
Batterskull – One of the last additions to the deck. Giving any of my beaters vigilance, especially Glissa, is a great way to shift back and forth between offense and defense. The lifelink is just icing on the cake.
Coalition Relic – One of the best mana rocks in the game.
Darksteel Ingot – One of the mana rocks in the game.
Darksteel Plate – Protects any one of my beaters, but is especially nasty with Glissa as it protects her through wraths.
Dreamstone Hedron – Ramp early, card draw late. Every time I cast this card, I smile.
Executioner’s Capsule – One of my less original inclusions; pretty much every Glissa deck runs this card. However, it does highlight the importance of spot removal; sometimes you need to kill something before greaves are equipped!
Gilded Lotus – Better than Dreamstone Hedron in most circumstances.
Golgari Signet – Another mana rock.
Horizon Spellbomb – Necessary to help find the mana for Glissa’s odd mana cost, yet not a dead draw late as it cycles while finding a land.
Lightning Greaves – Hasty Phage? Yes please!
Loxodon Warhammer – Glissa tends to attract a lot of attention, so gaining life becomes very important with this deck. Hooking this up to a Primeval Titan is a huge beating.
Mind Stone – I was going to write that this is a mini-Dreamstone Hedron, before I remembered that Dreamstone Hedron is just a giant Mind Stone.
Nevinyrral’s Disk – “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Nihil Spellbomb – I have come to the realization that my playgroup does not play enough graveyard hate. I do not know if this is a trait shared by most playgroups, but recursion is one of the most powerful and oft-used abilities in Commander, so having answers to Reanimate and its ilk is very important.
Nim Deathmantle – Absolutely bonkers with Grim Backwoods or Trading Post and a value creature like Solemn Simulacrum. I am almost at the point of adding in Phyrexian Tower and High Market for even more shenanigans.
Oblivion Stone – “Leonard Bernstein!”
Sensei’s Divining Top – “You spin me right round, baby.”
Sol Ring – Rather than link to another YouTube video or explain to you why Sol Ring is good, here is a picture of a cute kitty:
Staff of Nin – For those of you who do not like to run tutors in your decks, it is important to set aside a number of slots to actual card draw. Digging is just as good as actually searching for what you need, and leads to more varied and fun games in the long run. Staff of Nin acts as an expensive Phyrexian Arena with upside, which is something I can get behind.
Swiftfoot Boots – A bad Lightning Greaves is still another Lightning Greaves in a Voltron deck, and this one allows for equipping after being attached, which might actually make it better than greaves.
Sword of Feast and Famine – The best sword in Commander, in my opinion. It is a close race between this, Fire and Ice, and Light and Shadow, but Feast and Famine basically gives you a free Time Walk, and who hates a free Time Walk?
Sword of Fire and Ice – If you can keep connecting with this sword, it is basically another Phyrexian Arena with upside, and that is always sweet.
Sword of Light and Shadow – The incidental life gain from this card has been relevant more times than I can count and, as previously stated, recursion is very important.
Sword of Vengeance – This sword provides a sick combination of abilities, and equipping it to a creature with deathtouch is a savage beating.
Sword of War and Peace – The worst of the swords by a fair margin, but it excels in an aggressive deck and once again provides incidental life gain.
Tormod’s Crypt – See Nihil Spellbomb.
Trading Post – Trading Post is, quite possibly, my favorite card to come out of M13. The games where I cast this become less about beating face and more about generating value, so sometimes I think I should cut it, but then I remember it makes goats.
Umezawa’s Jitte – The “sixth” sword, its power level is on par with Feast and Famine and Fire and Ice in decks as aggressive as this. I have almost killed people with Skithiryx simply because of the jitte.
Vedalken Orrery – If your aggressive deck is unable to run counter magic, the Orrery is a good way to get ahead of decks trying to play a reactive game against you.
Wayfarer’s Bauble – More and more I am thinking this should be an auto-include in every blue Commander deck, as it is colorless mana ramp that can be searched for with Trinket Mage.
Bloodghast – A recursive beater that synergizes with cards like Magus of the Abyss and Trading Post is always welcome in this kind of deck.
Bloodgift Demon – If you have not figured it out by now, I love me some Phyrexian Arena.
Butcher of Malakir – I am not sure if this warrants a spot in the list, but I love this card and the situations into which it places my opponents. Also, a flying sword carrier is always welcome.
Eternal Witness – Unoriginal, to be sure, but the versatility of the card along with having a body to carry a sword makes it impossible to cut.
Fleshbag Marauder – Going spellbomb into spellbomb into marauder is not unlikely for this deck, and the amount of card advantage to be accrued off the little bugger cannot be understated.
Genesis – Brings back all my powerful creatures or serves as another beater no one wants to kill.
Graveborn Muse – Between Fleshbag Marauder, Nim Deathmantle, and Glissa herself, the zombie clause is likely to be relevant more often than not. It is the best Phyrexian Arena in the deck, to be sure.
Harvester of Souls – Turns every board wipe into Decree of Pain, and makes Fleshbag Marauder amazing.
Magus of the Abyss – The Magus acts like a slow Fleshbag Marauder that gets around Tajuru Preserver (pretty niche benefit), but a 4/3 body is huge for four mana and it can hold a sword as good as anybody.
Moriok Replica – Value town, population this guy.
Nether Traitor – See Bloodghast, only this time with shadow!
Phage the Untouchable – It enables free wins off Lightning Greaves, but I would advise against ever playing Phage without some way to give it shroud, as Zealous Conscripts is a card.
Primeval Titan – “When nature calls, run.“
Rune-Scarred Demon – Glissa does not have access to Stoneforge Mystic, so the demon acts like a pseudo-Stoneforge while offering the ability to find answers.
Sheoldred, Whispering One – In the list for much the same reason as Magus of the Abyss, with the added bonus that my playgroup often plays Urborg, creating a giant, unblockable sword carrier.
Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon – Less deadly than Phage, but still awesome to suit up. Also, it’s really fun to shout “Taste the rainbow!” when swinging with him.
Solemn Simulacrum – Jens is the mayor of value town.
Steel Hellkite – It is a flying artifact with a relevant ability when it connects with an opponent. Pretty much an auto-include from the moment I began building this deck.
Sylvok Replica – Repeatable artifact and enchantment destruction. Destruction is nice!
Wurmcoil Engine – Deathtouch and lifelink; two great tastes that taste great together!
Bitterblossom – This card is a nightmare for the grindy control decks some of my people like to play (myself included). It can act as a pseudo-Forcefield when I’m on the defensive, or create an endless stream of flying sword carriers on the offensive.
Black Market – This is the train one rides to get to value town. It tends to get blown up rather quickly, but dropping this onto a board with Sheoldred or Magus of the Abyss is a great way to ramp into silly things the following turn.
Call to the Grave – See Sheoldred, only this time sans the body. It works great with Nim Deathmantle.
Grave Pact – I have mixed feelings about this slot. This makes the grade mostly on the fact that I have a foil of the sweet 10th Edition art, but if I manage to find a foil Elbrus, the Binding Blade, this card might get cut.
Pernicious Deed – “Here comes the BOOM!”
Phyrexian Arena – What can I say about Phyrexian Arena that has not already been said? Play it, love it.
Krosan Grip – Answers pesky artifacts like Tormod’s Crypt or a badly-timed Oblivion Stone, while sometimes doing nothing more than taking out a Sensei’s Diving Top. You know; for the lulz.
Putrefy – Like I said with Executioner’s Capsule, instant-speed spot removal does not get the respect it deserves in Commander, which is why cards like Consecrated Sphinx get a bad rap.
Damnation – I added this to the deck after I realized that my board wipes were all ridiculously slow, leaving my deck open to aggressive attacks. I try not to deploy the nuke until Glissa is on the board for maximum value.
Demonic Tutor – As previously stated, Demonic Tutor is about as close to an auto-include as you can have in my book.
Maelstrom Pulse – I anxiously wait for the day I cast this to destroy three Sol Rings, then drop my own Sol Ring for the sick rub-ins.
Praetor’s Counsel – There is rarely a game in which I resolve this that I do not win soon after. I used to find this card rather boring, but people have learned that they have to deal with this kind of effect if they plan on winning the long game.
City of Brass
Golgari Rot Farm
These are all your typical color-fixing and basic lands. Nothing too spectacular, just running as many dual lands as I can find that do not have a huge drawback. As for the rest of the lands:
Bojuka Bog – See Nihil Spellbomb
Buried Ruin – Sometimes, Glissa will not be in play or be too expensive to reliably use as a recursion engine for a key artifact. In those circumstances, Buried Ruin does the job quite nicely.
Grim Backwoods – I like this card a lot more than most, but I am always a sucker for value. Getting around stupid cards like Rite of Replication or threaten effects is always nice.
Phyrexia’s Core – Mainly here to keep people from stealing my artifacts, it works very well with Nim Deathmantle and Solemn Simulacrum.
Reliquary Tower – This deck has a tendency to keep a lot of cards in my hand, and I would rather run Reliquary Tower than waste a spell slot on something like Spellbook or Venser’s Journal.
Shizo, Death’s Storehouse – Most of my Phage wins come from the unblockability granted by Shizo. I am surprised more people have not started running this land in place of a swamp, as there is basically no downside to running it.
Strip Mine – Screw you, Cabal Coffers!
Treetop Village – Trample works very well with swords, and the village gets around pesky wrath effects.
Volrath’s Stronghold – In for much the same reason as Genesis, sans the body with which to swing. I find myself tutoring up this and the following land with Primeval Titan more often than anything else.
Yavimaya Hollow – Where Shizo makes my creatures unblockable, this protects them from dying when there is no way to keep an opponent from blocking.
While some of the card choices are pretty obvious, the deck’s main strategy for winning is wholly different from most other Glissa decks that I have seen. All of this is meant to illustrate my initial point; do not feel as if there is only one way to build a deck for each Legendary creature. While Standard and Legacy function on established decklists with very few differences in card choices between similar archetypes, Commander is the format where you can let your creativity flow. Case in point; on Magic Online, I built another Glissa deck, and while it shares a few similarities to the list discussed in this article, its overall game plan is entirely different:
1x Bloodstained Mire
1x Bojuka Bog
1x Buried Ruin
1x Cabal Coffers
1x Command Tower
1x Golgari Rot Farm
1x Grim Backwoods
1x Llanowar Wastes
1x Marsh Flats
1x Maze of Ith
1x Misty Rainforest
1x Overgrown Tomb
1x Phyrexia’s Core
1x Polluted Delta
1x Reflecting Pool
1x Reliquary Tower
1x Strip Mine
1x Tainted Wood
1x Twilight Mire
1x Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
1x Verdant Catacombs
1x Volrath’s Stronghold
1x Windswept Heath
1x Wooded Foothills
1x Woodland Cemetery
1x Coalition Relic
1x Crucible of Worlds
1x Darksteel Ingot
1x Darksteel Plate
1x Dreamstone Hedron
1x Executioner’s Capsule
1x Expedition Map
1x Gilded Lotus
1x Golgari Signet
1x Horizon Spellbomb
1x Lightning Greaves
1x Mind Stone
1x Nevinyrral’s Disk
1x Nihil Spellbomb
1x Nim Deathmantle
1x Oblivion Stone
1x Sensei’s Divining Top
1x Sol Ring
1x Staff of Nin
1x Swiftfoot Boots
1x Tangle Wire
1x Tormod’s Crypt
1x Trading Post
1x Wayfarer’s Bauble
1x Bloodgift Demon
1x Braids, Cabal Minion
1x Butcher of Malakir
1x Eternal Witness
1x Fleshbag Marauder
1x Graveborn Muse
1x Magus of the Abyss
1x Nether Traitor
1x Primeval Titan
1x Reassembling Skeleton
1x Rune-Scarred Demon
1x Sheoldred, Whispering One
1x Solemn Simulacrum
1x Wurmcoil Engine
1x Yavimaya Elder
1x Barter in Blood
1x Decree of Pain
1x Demonic Tutor
1x Innocent Blood
1x Maelstrom Pulse
1x Praetor’s Counsel
1x Krosan Grip
1x Call to the Grave
1x Descent into Madness
1x Nether Void
1x Pernicious Deed
1x Phyrexian Arena
1x The Abyss
Commander is what you make of it, so go out and make it fun!