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How to play Commander in Magic: The Gathering (MTG)

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As of 2024, there are over 27,000 unique cards in Magic: The Gathering. But despite the high number of cards, most formats such as Standard and Pauper include restrictions for the types of cards allowed. If you’ve found your parent’s old MTG cards or came across some at a garage sale, chances are the cards can’t be used in a majority of the game modes that local game stores (LGS) hold events for. 

One type of game mode that is an exception to this is considered the most popular game mode of Magic: The Gathering: Commander. It’s a little different from your normal Magic duel.

How to play Commander in MTG

Commander, also known as Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH), is considered the most popular (and most fun) format in Magic: The Gathering. Walk into any LGS and if there are MTG players, they most likely have a Commander deck. So what separates this format from the rest? 

  • Commander is a free-for-all format played with 2-6 players
    • For the best experience, it’s recommended to play with at least three players. This is due to Commander-specific cards that introduce interactions with multiple opponents
  • Each player begins with 40 health as opposed to the standard 20 health.
  • Each player has a designated Commander card (more information on that below). 
  • Commanders are played from a zone known simply as the Command Zone
  • When destroyed or exiled, Commanders are returned to the Command Zone instead.
  • Each subsequent cast of the Commander will require an additional two colorless mana (there isn’t a cap to this additional cost).

An additional rule in Commander that helps players get home at a decent hour is the Commander Damage rule. If a Commander deals at least 21 combat damage to an opponent over the course of the game, that opponent loses the game. So don’t worry, if your former friend has a field of Lifelink Angels and their health is well over 300, you don’t have to swing on them until midnight. 

Other than these rules, everything plays exactly how typical Magic: The Gathering modes do. So with these rules in mind, it’s time to move on to what my personal favorite part of Commander is: deckbuilding.

How to build a Commander deck in MTG

Commander decks have 40 more cards than their Standard counterparts. While that seems like it’d make for a more expensive game mode, the opposite is true. Since Commander has far fewer restrictions and banned cards, it means that the demand for the majority of cards is much lower than that of the Standard format.

Local game stores often have boxes with unsorted cards that are perfect for filling out a Commander deck, often priced under a dollar. Online, many of these cards go for as little as a penny each. With that in mind, here are the rules for building a Commander deck in Magic: The Gathering:

  • Your deck must be comprised of 99 cards plus your Commander.
  • Any Legendary creature can be used as a Commander.
  • One Legendary creature card is designated the Commander.
  • Two exceptions to this rule are:
    • Two Legendary creatures that have the Partner ability (this would allow 98 other cards in the deck)
    • Planeswalkers that contain the text, “this card can be your commander.”
  • The rest of the deck must be built around the Commander’s mana color identity.
    • This includes the mana colors used to cast the Commander card along with any mana costs associated with abilities that the card may have.
    • Ex. Ghired, Mirror of the Wilds has a mana cost of Red, Green and White. If used as a Commander, the deck can only contain cards that have Red, Green, White, or Colorless mana costs.
  • Besides basic land cards, each card must be unique.
    • Cards that have the same name but are from different sets are considered the same card.

Having access to nearly the entire library of MTG cards makes putting together a cheap, well-built deck much more accessible for players. It’s worth noting that your Commander or any other card in your deck doesn’t have to be in English. You can find great deals on MTG cards in various languages by using sites such as EDHREC or Scryfall which have many filter options that streamline your card search.

Wizards of the Coast makes it even easier to jump into Commander by selling preconstructed (pre-con) Commander decks. Wizards has begun to increase the number of Commander precon sets every year, with 2023 having 25 Commander precons, up from past years that saw only 4-5 decks being released. These preconstructed decks provide access to Commanders that are crafted specifically for the game mode and are a solid foundation for new players. 

standard commander decks magic the gathering modern horizons 3
Image via Magic Madhouse

Many guides can be found in the MTG community that give ideas on how to take pre-con decks to a higher level with various budget options. However, it’s recommended that you learn how the Commander plays first so that you understand what synergies or directions that the deck can take before you begin spending money. 

Why Commander over other MTG formats?

Unlike Standard, Commander decks truly feel like your own. Instead of chasing a meta where everybody plays Azorius Control and players know the exact decklist that their opponents have, Commander allows for endless possibilities. You can build around your favorite Legendary creature, your favorite tribe, or construct a deck entirely around a single win condition (such as this example from Commander Mechanic with the Luck Bobblehead from the Fallout Universes Beyond set).

With your first Commander deck in hand, you’re ready to join players of the most popular format in Magic: The Gathering. If you don’t have an LGS near you or you’re hesitant to put your friendships on the line with an absurd deck strategy, you’re in luck. Nowadays, MTG is easier than ever to play online, with options for every type of player. From official platforms such as Magic: The Gathering Online or SpellTable, to community-managed apps like Cockatrice and XMage, your cards won’t ever have a chance to collect dust.


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