Commander: Just Starting Out

It’s OK to be a Noob. Everyone is a Noob at whatever hobby they start enjoying at first. I’m writing this for new players who want to get more info about Commander and get into the format. Perhaps you got linked to this article by a friend who wants you to play with them. Either way I’m going to give you the scoop with what it takes to start out in Commander.

What Is Commander?

Commander (also called Elder Dragon Highlander, or EDH) is a multiplayer format in Magic typically played with 4 players. Like every format in Magic it has different styles of play, different communities to play in, and its own banlist (see here).

Decks normally consist of 1 Commander and 99 cards. The 99 cards of your deck match the color identity of your commander. You can choose any legendary creature (that isn’t banned) to be your commander.

Let’s take a look at an example:


Meet Experiment Kraj. He’s one of the first commander decks I ever built *sniff*.

Experiment Kraj’s color identity are blue and green. This means all the cards in your deck have to be one of the following: blue, green, blue and green, or colorless.

So a card like Llanowar Elves is fine, and Momir Vig, Simic Visionary works too for Experiment Kraj. You look at their mana symbols in the top right of the card to determine most of the card’s color identity.

If a card has activated/triggered abilities those can also effect their color identity. For example Alesha, Who Smiles at Death has an ability that is visually marked as having a cost of double hybrid white/black. This makes her total color identity Red/Black/White. If she were your commander you would have access to those three colors and colorless cards, but not cards that contained blue or green.

Singleton Nature

Another factor making Commander different is that it is a singleton format. You can only have 1 of each card in your deck, no copies. The only cards that you are allowed to have multiples of are lands with the basic land type (like Forest or Wastes).

Other Base Rules:

As opposed to starting with 20 life like in most other formats in commander players start with 40 life. The player who goes first draws on their first turn. Play traditionally goes clockwise from the starting player.

The standard mulligan rules are that everyone gets a free mulligan. A mulligan is where you shuffle your hand into your deck and redraw a fresh hand. After this initial mulligan you can choose to mulligan again if you still don’t like your hand. This time it is not free however: shuffle your hand away and draw 6 instead of 7. Each time you mulligan after your first free mull you drop a card for each mull. The only benefit to mulliganing below 7 cards is that after you say “I keep this” you get to scry 1 before the game starts.

Players generally win the game by either eliminating other players through combat damage or through infinite combos that eliminate players by making them lose infinite life/take infinite damage or give them some other form of infinite value. Players are also eliminated when they try to draw a card from their deck and there are no cards left to draw.

Players are eliminated by commanders themselves sometimes. If any commander (like Uril, the Miststalker for example) deals a total of 21 or more damage to a player that player is eliminated. This damage is cumulative: if Uril were to be removed from play then recast later on in the game his damage dealt is put into the damage total to determine total commander damage. Yes, it is possible to steal someone else’s commander and deal 21 damage to them using their own commander!

uril-the-mistalkerCommander also utilizes a special in-game zone called the Command Zone. It’s where you put your commander at the start of games (usually the top left or right of your play area). Any time you could normally cast a creature you can cast your commander from this zone.

If your commander changes zones from the battlefield to anywhere else you have a choice: instead of putting the commander into that other zone you can instead send it back to the Command Zone. If you do, put a tax counter on it there. The next time you want to cast your commander it costs 2 generic mana more to cast. When you cast the commander the tax counters stay in the Command Zone. They don’t evaporate and players cannot use spells or abilities to interact with them. Whenever your commander goes back to the Command Zone for any reason you add another tax counter to it. For each tax counter you have on your commander it costs 2 generic mana more to cast, so if you had 4 counters on your commander it would cost 8 generic more. Ouch!

What Direction Do I Take My Deck?

Well, that’s up to you! That’s part of the beauty of commander. A lot of times the commander of your deck dictates the direction of your deck. Just make sure you have a way to close the game out.

For Experiment Kraj you could focus on two different types of strategies with a good amount of overlap: activated abilities and +1/+1 counters. In this archetype and colors there is good support for both of these strategies.  You could build it to have infinite combos that kill everyone when they synergize, or build it to make titanically large creatures with +1/+1 counters to smash your opponents to death. You could choose to focus on one half of this equation; or go for another strategy that nobody expects!

You can also choose to have a certain style of deck you want to build and use your Commander as an element that supports that idea.


Let’s say you want to build a planeswalker deck. You could choose Atraxa to get a good spread of colors for your deck to give you lots of options for planeswalkers. Then you can occasionally play Atraxa to defend your walkers and proliferate to give you value! She’s not the end-all to your strategy but she definitely supports it.

There are so many ways to make decks; I’ll be making deckbuilding articles soon for the site that are aimed at beginners so come back soon!

How do games play out?

This is why I like Commander. Games vary based off chance, deck design, commander design, and the perceptions each player holds. Just like in life you will draw up a game plan and things do not always go as planned. That’s part of the fun though!

I find that playgroups with decks that are faster usually have games end in the neighborhood of 30-45 minutes. Slower decks can have games last into the area of 1-2 hours.

Talk to your playgroup about how long you want games to last. When people start feeling salty or tired in a game it can dampen the user experience for everyone.

Have a loosely agreed upon system for ending games. A classic example is this: players A, B, C are locked out of a game because player D (playing a hard control deck) has made it nearly impossible for the other players to play the game. Nobody is having fun because the game hasn’t progressed for the past 25 minutes and player D is having a hard time closing the game out. In scenarios like this don’t feel afraid to talk to the other locked out players about agreeing to a group concession. It will end the game and let everyone shuffle up, get water or a snack, swap decks if they want to, and reset their overall mentality. It’s not worth getting salty and angry at your friends. Making the concession a group concession can make people feel like their choice is a group choice (some players have a lot of pride and don’t like the idea of surrendering because they might feel it reflects upon them personally).

These challenges aside there is much more to gain. I have met tons of friends playing magic and if you put in the time and effort these relationships can thrive if you and your playgroup are right for each other.

I Want To Start Researching Decks, Where do I begin?

Google is a decent place to start, find a commander you want to play with and type in their name followed by “EDH” to find example decklists online. You can also check out articles here on that showcase various decks and content created by their designers (see example here).

A really good tool to use is Gatherer. It is a modestly well designed search engine for every magic card in the game. You can use the basic search functionalities to filter by color and type to give you a broad impression of cards you might want to include for your deck. It’s also great to use for searching what creature you want to use as your commander! There is a very detailed advanced search option that lets you be much more specific for what you are searching for. If I wanted to build a Grenzo, Dungeon Warden deck I could use Gatherer to search for red and black goblins, and further sort by their power/toughness if I cared about that.


EDH REC is one of my favorite EDH websites. It is another research tool you can use to build decks where you type in a commander’s name and the site shows you information on cards commonly played with that commander. It gets this information by aggregating information from online decklists across the web. This information is displayed to you buffet style and is a really good starting point for getting ideas for decks and looking for new cards to improve your deck. You can also click on non-commander cards and see what other decks they are commonly played in.

There are many different content creators (old and new) who have made tons of content about commander. If you want to look for new ideas or get fresh perspective these connections are good places to start: : A good site with lots of content on it (Written and Audio content mostly, with other media). There is a lot of old content on this site so if you wanted to look at commanders from the past this is a really good place to peek into. They also have reasonably consistent podcasts. I used to write with this group. : Another content site that has tons of Commander stuff going on alongside other formats. They’ve been around the block and have a deep roster of writers.

CommandersBrew : A pretty good podcast/youtube show that has a somewhat comedic stance on commander content.

The Command Zone : Very high production value Commander talk show. Great podcast and video content. I’m very impressed by them.

This isn’t all of your options; it is only the tip of the iceberg of what is a huuuuuuuge amount of commander content that exists on the web. These are the sources that I regularly listen/look at. You can scour twitter and engage directly with some of these content creators to get specific answers to some of your questions!

I Have Little To No Collection, Where Do I Start?

Understand how much you want to spend. I’ve made custom commander decks that cost $60 and decks that cost over $1,000 (#bling). Some decks you won’t mind playing without any sleeves and other decks you might want to double sleeve. If you play enough commander you’ll probably end up seeing someone’s all-foil deck with masterpiece/expedition foil cards included!

Commander has a very low initial barrier to entry if you wanted to get started today. You can go to Target/Walmart and pick up the latest commander product for somewhere in the neighborhood of 35$. These products have everything you need to get started with Commander and are pretty good products developed by Wizards of the Coast. They are not incredibly powerful but are a really good start for players looking to jump into the format and give you an instant deck. They are modestly straightforward to play and have a good mix of simple, complicated, and fun cards to cast. It’s fun to get a group of people together to play games with just the preconstructed decks with no modifications made when they come out!

If you want more options or wanted to browse previous commander products you could go to amazon and look at options such as: here (I like having more options).

New Partner Commanders

In the 2016 Commander Product release (you can order online here) there are new legendary creatures that have a mechanic called “Partner”. This mechanic lets you have 2 commanders if you desire, but they both have to have the partner mechanic. There are 105 combinations of these partners coming out with the Commander 2016 product release.


With the partner commanders you add up all their colors to determine color identity: if you have a total of 4 colors your can build with cards from all four of those colors if you desire to! You can also make pairings that make a total of 3 or 2 colors to build with.

Where Do I Play? How Do I Get Involved?

Like any format there are different communities you can choose to play in. With Commander the same is true; people play at local gaming stores (LGS) and other grassroots areas (like a friend’s house). Commander can be a good way to meet new people and get out of the house. In school I met friends playing Commander both at LGS and at local meet-ups on my college campus.

As with any community you should scope it out before you commit to it or spend money on a deck. Ask a friend on social media where you should go to try to catch games. Call/message the card shop and ask when people meet for commander matches (you don’t want to show up when nobody is there). You could also grab a group of players/friends who are all new to the game and enjoy it together via the preconstructed decks. It doesn’t feel as intimidating to start playing EDH when you play with others on the same skill level as you.

Any magic community worth its salt should be open to giving you more information on commander. Note that there are many sub-communities that exist within Commander.

“Magic: The Gathering is at a crossroads between Poker and Dungeons and Dragons”

Some groups are really competitive and play with very expensive decks. It can be incredibly intimidating to play in the same communities as these decks because they are filled with very expensive cards and played by people who have been playing the format for awhile.

You can find more casual crowds to hang out with. An analogy I like to use is that Magic: The Gathering is at a crossroads between Poker and Dungeons and Dragons. Commander especially embodies this. Some players play more for the poker aspect: they want to be more cutthroat and have sharp interactions dictate a game. Other players want to play it more like D&D where they are there to build a story together and make big sweeping plays back and forth. There’s a spectrum and if you look hard enough you’ll find the players that are not too hot or too cold for your cup of tea.

I personally feel more at home on the poker side but I respect both ends of the spectrum. It is important to feel welcomed and respected whatever way you choose to play. Embrace the path you take.

Also note that different play groups sometimes have slight differences in how they approach the rules. Often called “house rules” these are minor adjustments that everyone in the group agrees to when you sit down to play. They can include letting people play with a banned card, or agreeing to not use a certain card. Some groups agree that a player having 10 infect counters on them means they are dead. Other groups think 15 is a better number. With my local playgroup we agree that when we roll off to see who goes first we use 2D6. If you roll doubles you re-roll your dice. If you roll doubles again repeat. If you roll doubles 3 times in a row you are the last player to start the game and the player to your left in the rotation goes first. Monopoly rules! Talk to your playgroup about your default rules before playing. This is helpful when new players start entering your group.

Hope you enjoyed the article! With this information you should have the basics down and be ready to research decks you want to build or go out and buy your own preconstructed decks. We regularly add new content to the site so come back soon! More articles aimed at newer players coming soon as well.



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