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How to play Commander format in Magic: The Gathering

Take charge as we guide you through one of MTG’s most popular formats.

You’ve been playing Magic: The Gathering for a while now, and you like it enough, but you’re ready to take it from your kitchen table with your friends/willing partner/very patient partner to somewhere more official. The thing is, learning about formats and legality and card sets can be a little daunting at first.

What you need is a little bit of knowledge. Which format is the best one to start off with once you know the rules? Does it have to be Standard or Modern? Well, we don’t think so. In fact, we think that, despite the size of the decks, learning how to play Commander is the best starting point for people looking to play MTG with more players.

How to play Commander MTG

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Commander, originally known as Elder Dragon Highlander, was first built around the Elder Dragons - including the legendary Nicol Bolas. Image: Wizards of the Coast

What is MTG Commander?

If you’re looking to make your way into your local game store and face off against players you’ve never met before, then you’d be wise to look into Commander. It’s not as elegant or refined as some of the more serious formats, but that’s the beauty of it. So, here’s what you need to know about Commander, and how you can get into it.

Commander is the best format in Magic: The Gathering. Alright, that’s obviously a very subjective take, so how about the facts? Commander - also known as Elder Dragon Highlander, or EDH - is generally considered the most popular format in MTG.

The Commander format rules nowadays are that you choose a Commander card to build around. Your commander must be a single legendary creature, with a few special exceptions for one of the Commander sets that Wizards of the Coast released. You have to have a deck of 99 cards plus them. You can only use cards in their mana colour identity; so, if you’ve got a card that is Red and White, then you can only use Red, White and Colourless cards. You can’t have more than one of any card that isn’t a basic land, which makes the variables much more volatile.

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Players build a 99-card commander deck around a single legendary creature that determines which mana colours they can include.

When did Commander start?

Commander was originally created by Adam Staley back in 1996, but its origins can also be traced back to an article submitted to MTG magazine The Duelist by one Jesus M. Lopez in July 1996.

Either way, the format was built around the Elder Dragons released for the trading card game in 1994. These are Nicol Bolas, Arcades Sabboth, Chromium Rhuell, Vaevictis Asmadi and Palladia-Mors. These cards got reimagined in Core Set 2019, so you might have heard of them even if you haven’t been playing that long. Well, Nicol Bolas is one of the great villains of the MTG universe, but he’s an exception here.

How do you play Commander in MTG?

In Commander, each player starts with 40 life instead of 20. Your Commander sits in their own special zone and can be cast whenever you can afford them. If they die, get exiled or anything else that removes them from the board, you can instead put them back in the Command Zone, but you have to pay two more mana to cast them - and that cost goes up every time.

Other than that, you draw cards and play them like a normal game of Magic: The Gathering. The only other main difference is that Commander damage is a thing. If you can deal 21 or more combat damage with your Commander, over any number of turns, your opponent loses the game. This is to help fight against absurd life gain strategies, as well as just allowing for some entertaining deck designs.

Commander can be a lot cheaper than many other forms of MTG because you only ever have to buy one copy of any card you want instead of the four you’d need for a more serious format. Plus, there are so many good cards that cost nothing to buy, you can often build decent Commander decks for less than £20.

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You can build your own Commander deck with your existing Magic: The Gathering cards, or buy a pre-built Commander deck for the latest set.

How to build a MTG Commander deck

We’ve covered the basics of how to build a Magic: The Gathering deck before; while Commander decks use many of the same ideas, you do have other things to consider. The first of which is who you want as your commander. The simplest way to build your first Commander deck is to find a legendary creature you like and then get a bunch of cards that support what they do. The easiest way to do this, outside of sourcing all of the cards yourself, is to buy one of the premade decks that Wizards of the Coast sells.

The premade Commander decks are a great way to get some powerful cards and a very strong skeleton for any Commander deck. You can play them as-is, of course, but you can also take them apart and add in new cards, take out ones you don’t like and just generally experiment with them.

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With so many commanders to choose from, the best choice often comes down to how you prefer to play. Image: Wizards of the Coast

Who is the best commander?

There are a lot of different commanders and ways to build around them, but you generally want one of two things when choosing a commander. Either you want a card you want to build around - one who does something you want to do, and therefore want to support in the deck with synergies - or you just think they’re powerful and like the colours they give you.

The former is great because you often get to do absurd things like put 1,000 1/1 tokens onto the battlefield in a single turn and kill off seven other players at once by sacrificing them all. The issue with the synergistic strategies is that they’re often a little too easy to dismantle and if your deck relies on your commander then stopping you is a little too easy to do.

The latter is also great, but for different reasons. Instead of each card working together like an army of ants raising each other up, it’s usually a bit more like throwing giants at the enemy and seeing what sticks. Each card can end a game on its own, and the aim is often to have far more individual threats than anyone can deal with. When each card can win the game, you’re nearly always ahead of the curve.

No matter the way you plan on building your Commander deck, you’ll need some good resources to be able to do so. It’s not just buying the cards that can be tricky, but actually discovering some of the excellent cards you can use can be a trial too.

How to find cards for your Commander deck

There are two main ways to find new cards for your deck.

The first is EDHREC, a frankly absurd database compiling the most used decks per commander in each archetype, which commander fits into which play style and, well, whatever you want really. It’s a great place to go for ideas on new decks, how to upgrade your existing ones and making sure you don’t miss out on the most popular cards. After all, popular often means good in Commander, so it’s always worth paying attention to. Just search for the Commander you plan on using and browse around a bit. You’re not wrong for not including any of the cards it suggests, nor are you right for doing so. Commander, at its core, is about creativity and fun - more so than any other MTG format - so you do you.

The other resource, and this one is particularly good for finding unloved or underappreciated cards, is Scryfall, specifically the advanced search. Here you can whittle down cards by Commander mana colour identity, casting cost, actual cost, card type, a specific keyword you want on all of them or pretty much anything you can think of.

While EDHREC is great for seeing what’s popular, it’s very easy for some hidden gems to fall through the cracks. Scryfall is perfect for finding exactly what you want, but you actually need to know what kind of card you want for it to work well.

Once you know the cards you want, you just need to buy them. It’s worth searching around for your local game stores or even some online trading communities for some of the more niche cards. When you finally complete your first Commander deck you’ll feel unstoppable. Just remember to at least let your friends think they’re going to win before flexing too much.

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