The Commander’s Chair – The Archetypes
With the new Commander decks on the horizon, we are hopefully going to see a large influx of new players in the format. They are going to be wondering, “What kind of deck should I build?” There are so many possibilities that the format can be overwhelming for first timers. It could be productive to review the main archetypes present in commander, to better help them in deciding what they want to play. There are a surprising number of archetypes in commander;
- Hyper Combo
- Voltron Combo
- Traditional Control
- Creature Control
- Moat Control
- Prison Lock
- Mass LD
- General Damage
- Jurassic Park
- Mass Tokens
- Alternate Win
- Good Stuff
- Group Hug
A Snake-in-the-Grass combo deck runs either unknown or unusual combinations of cards to win the game. These decks will sit back, doing almost nothing the entire game. Out of nowhere, they will combo off and win the game. This type of deck is a good match for players who like to surprise their friends and opponents. If you want to leave a stunned look on the faces of your friends, this is the deck type for you. These decks are also great for people who want to play some of the less played generals in the format. You want a general that is as unthreatening as possible.
Strengths: These decks have the largest surprise factor. It can be difficult to stop a deck, when you don’t know what it is doing.
Weaknesses: These decks can create long term hate for their pilots. When you are constantly winning out of nowhere, people will make you the top priority. Even when you switch decks, the mistrust will carry over into the next game.
Hyper Combo tries to win through one of their combos as quickly as possible. These decks are aimed at ending the game in the first 5 turns. More often than not, these decks will be playing islands and lots and lots of artifact mana. These decks are suited for players who are in a competitive play group. If you like quick 5-20 minute games over 1-4 hour games, this might be your deck of choice.
Strengths: Speed. These decks are incredibly fast. If nothing can be done to stop one in the first few turns, it is game over.
Weaknesses: These decks make you a target from the start of the game. If they disrupt your initial plan, you will be staring down everyone at the table with a target on your forehead.
I wrote an article a couple weeks ago called The Voltron Matrix that covers how I build this particular style of deck. Voltron decks are one giant machine. They run multiple redundant cards and tutors to build their combo engine. They are not as fast as Hyper Combo decks, but each of their components accomplish more than just finishing a combo. A voltron style deck is meant for players who want a deck overflowing with synergy. Each of the cards works with any of the others and every card you play makes all the other cards better. If you want to play a well oiled machine, Votron Combo is the way you should go.
Strengths: Resiliency. These decks are very difficult to shut down. It is unlikely that getting rid of a few of your cards will completely shut you down.
Weaknesses: Predictability. Everyone knows what to expect with these decks. That is a problem when you are playing with the same group week after week. It may take awhile for them to figure out how to stop you completely. Once they do, you might be stuck building a new deck.
Traditional control decks win by preventing you from playing cards, destroying your permanents and stealing what you play. These decks are good for players who can handle complex threat assessment and enjoy creating card advantage. If you are playing UB control in Standard or Countertop in legacy, this could be your deck.
Strengths: These decks excel at controlling the pace of the game. In the hands of a highly competent pilot, there is not much they cannot handle. These decks are likely the most effective 1v1 commander decks around.
Weaknesses: Group games can be aggravating for this style of deck. Trying to control multiple people can mean that there is a high chance that they will find a way through your defenses.
Creature control decks are focused on making sure that no one’s creatures will survive a turn around the board. These decks are filled with as many Wrath of God effects as possible, or they run enough sacrifice effects that nothing can stay alive. These kinds of decks are meant for people who are tired of being beaten with hoards of creatures.
Strengths: These decks dominate decks that depend on creatures to win.
Weaknesses: These decks do not interact with the fast combo decks or any other decks that don’t depend entirely on creature damage for the victory. Indestructible creatures can also be a bother.
Example Generals: Child of Alara and Mageta the Lion
Moat control decks want to make it as difficult as possible to attack. They play permanents that punish people for attacking with their whole army. Then they play giant flying creatures that can attack freely with the restrictions in place. This kind of deck is for the player who believes that Commander is all about having giant creatures engaged in epic battles. They would lose a dozen times to a Hellkite than once to couple pathetic little kithkin.
Strengths: These decks do very well politically. Most of their effects let people swing at each other before they can swing at the moat player. They will hold back token decks with great ease.
Weaknesses: Combo decks will eat moat players alive. Moat control is also very bad in most 1v1 situations. These decks were not built to be very fast.
Example Generals: Rune-Tail, Kitsune Ascendant and Grand Arbiter Augustine
The plan with a prison lock deck is to stop everyone from playing Magic the Gathering. The goal here is to either keep people from having any mana or to set up a situation where all of their spells get countered. Prison lock decks are best wielded by players who enjoy being the Archenemy of the group. If you want to challenge everyone in your group all at once, you can give one of these decks a try.
Strengths: These decks are good against damn near everything they fight against. If they can lock down the board quick, the game is over.
Weaknesses: Politically, these decks are suicide. Everyone will start gunning for you as soon as they see your general. These are by a large margin the most hated decks in Commander. Watch out for anyone who truly hates these decks. They will have vigilant cards, cards that cannot be countered, and ways to put permanents into play without casting spells or tapping mana.
Mass LD seeks to win the game by throwing out a huge threat, then making it so that no one can deal with that threat. These decks can be misplayed very easily. If you misjudge the other players’ ability to deal with your threat, you could end up prolonging the game rather than ending it. Red and White are the two most popular colors for land destruction, though I am seeing more and more blue and brown decks giving it a shot. These decks are made for players that want to have absolute victory with their large creatures.
Strengths: You can do very well against control decks by taking away their ability to control the game. Any deck that depends on spells more than sorceries should lose to these tactics. They can be set up to take on any mono colored deck.
Weaknesses: Jurassic Park and General Damage decks laugh at these decks. For a Mass LD to be effective, it has to have a significant board advantage before a wipe. The big creature aggro decks make that very difficult.
Example Generals: Jhoira of the Ghuitu, and Numot the Devestator.
Toolbox decks pride themselves on being able to take on all comers. This genre was covered in the Tool Time article. Basically, the decks revolve around being able to tutor up an answer to any problem. These decks are good for players who want a consistent, well rounded deck.
Strengths: Toolbox decks are really good at derailing plans that try to end the game quickly. In the right hands, they can make quick work of Prison Lock, General Aggro and Hyper Combo decks.
Weakness: This style of deck doesn’t do well against decks with a lot of redundancy. Token decks and Voltron decks can quickly overrun the removal that toolbox decks run.
Fast aggro decks are all about efficiency. This is one of the few decks that play creatures during the first few turns of the game. When looking to put cards into this deck, you look for card advantage and mana efficiency. This kind of deck is well suited for people who like to play RDW or Zoo.
Strengths: These decks are very good against most control decks. The quicker you can put control decks on their heels, the better chance you have.
Weaknesses: These decks lose to every other aggro deck, aside from weenie decks. The bigger creatures will come out and then there is little that you can do
Generals only need to do 21 points of damage to a player. There is no way to heal from general damage. So, these decks try to reach those 21 points of damage as quick as possible. General Damage decks work more like a swordfight than a war. These decks are good if you like treating your general as a weapon and killing players with it.
Strengths: These decks can be very good against Moat control decks as well lockdown decks. Realistically, you only need to untap one permanent a turn anyway.
Weaknesses: The biggest bane of these decks is the traditional counter and control decks. Sadly, these decks are mostly for 1v1 and the control decks are more popular.
RAAAAWWR!!! These decks are perfect for all you mono-green players out there. These decks are about getting out the biggest fattest creatures you can get your hands on. If casting a giant war elephant sounds amazing, this is your deck.
Strengths: In long group games, these decks end out on top a lot of the time. They don’t have many early threats so people leave them alone. When life totals get low and mana counts get high they are there to rip people screaming off the toilet. Moat decks and Mass LD decks are your best matchup.
Weaknesses: Every combo deck out their will crush these decks. These decks just don’t play enough removal to deal with the combo player. Token decks will also give you some problems, as they can create a nearly infinite number of blockers.
Example Generals: Myojin of Life’s Web and Omnath, Locus of Mana
All you have to do is flood the board with bodies. The plan for these decks is to get as many creatures as possible on the board. Then, cast an enchantment that boosts their stats or cast an Overrun effect. If you like battles where vast armies trade blows across an alien landscape, this deck belongs to you.
Strengths: Token decks quickly run past larger creatures and into the faces of your rivals. Token decks thrive in a multiplayer environment as they just get stronger over time. Creature Control decks that depend on sacrifice mechanic have a hard time keeping up with the number of bodies.
Weakness: Wrath centered decks will keep the board devoid of bodies. It’s a bad day when your plan is to hope they run out of spells. Moat decks will leave token decks stranded and unable to fulfill their potential
Example Generals: Rhys the Redeemed and Hazezon Tamar.
Poison decks are likely the quickest aggro decks. The plan is simple, get in for 10 poison. These decks are good for people who want to attack early and attack often.
Strengths: Speed, Speed and more Speed. These decks have to potential to race combo decks for early turn kills.
Weaknesses: Melira, you probably will never beat her if someone uses her as a general.
Example Generals: Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon and Sisters of Stone Death.
Reanimator decks work by throwing large creatures into their owner’s graveyard then casting spells that bring them directly onto to the battlefield. These decks are very resilient to the normal creature disruption and they can get out their big creatures quicker than most Jurassic Park decks. These decks are great for people who want to play large creatures without including green in their decks.
Strengths: Large creatures being put onto the battlefield quickly is a solid plan. By choosing large flyers, you can get past both the Moat Control and Creature Control decks with relative ease.
Weaknesses: Reanimator is a style of play that people are either prepared for or they are not. It’s uncommon to have more than one of these in a play group, since the hate against the deck is both efficient and colorless.
Example Generals: Sharuum the Hegemon and Sedris, the Traitor King
Weenie decks are a combination of both aggro and control. Weenie decks run creatures that are almost exclusively 1-3 CMC and then run either Winter Orb effects or Armageddon effects. The idea is to turn the game into a low mana environment, where your small creatures can run wild. These decks are meant for players who want the game to be about more than who can cast the biggest spell on the earliest turn possible.
Strengths: These decks beat up Jurassic Park decks. The fringe nature of these decks can make them a difficult matchup for most Commander decks.
Weakness: These decks were not built to make friends. Most people don’t want to be beaten slowly to death by an Elite Vanguard. .
Example Generals: Isamaru, Hound of Konda and Gaddock Teeg
Alternate win decks play cards that say “you win the game.” These cards normally require a certain number of charge counters, a certain life total or any other condition that is difficult to meet. If you choose to play one of these decks you will need to be able to protect both yourself and your alternate win conditions. Some of the Moat and Mass LD decks will also fall under this category. These decks are good for people who want to win, but don’t want to have to kill everyone to do it.
Strengths: Your playgroup will almost never see you as a bad guy with these decks. Normally, you will be allowed to play without interruption until your win condition hits the board.
Weaknesses: The decks are pretty weak as a whole. These will not win many 1v1 matches. If you build a really strong deck, you might find yourself in an archenemy situation. Unlike Lock Down, you probably won’t be able to handle the group turning on you.
Chaos decks create game situations so impossibly complex that only the pilot of the deck knows how to properly work through them. You need some incredible math skills as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules to be able to properly run one of these. I have heard rumors of Chaos decks used to train judges. These decks are for people who love puzzles and really want to exercise their brain while playing. For example you might see a play that would include casting Radiate on a Rites of Replication targeting Ink-Treader Nephilim, while Hive Mind, Precursor Golem and Living Plane are in play.
Strengths: If you know how to pilot one of these properly, these decks can take on an entire table. Chances are that you will be the only one who understands what is going on.
These decks are neither fast nor easy. The biggest weakness with these decks is pilot error. Fast combo and poison are not what you want to see staring at you across the table.
Example Generals: Intet the Dreamer and Cromat
Good Stuff is the archetype most commander decks fall into. These decks are made by choosing a general and all your favorite cards for that general’s colors. These decks have a huge variation in power level and play style. In the end, these decks are for people who are just starting Commander. As a whole, they are the worst decks out there. The plan is to randomly stumble into a win or just to have fun. These decks are great for people just starting or people who want to play Commander while hanging out and don’t particularly care about the outcome of a game.
Strengths: These decks should be free to build. There is almost no reason to go out and buy cards for a Good Stuff deck, so you can save some cash and just play Commander. These decks are good for practicing group politics.
Weaknesses: The deck doesn’t follow a path to victory. As a result, you lose most races with decks that have a plan.
Now who doesn’t want a hug? How about some candy? Just like you wouldn’t trust anyone who offered free hugs and candy, do not trust these decks. They try to make friends at the table by letting everyone draw cards and play additional lands. In the end, these decks are just buying time to play massive game ending spells. These decks are great for people who care way more about having fun than they do about winning, or people who like to trick their friends.
Strengths: You will have friends for most of the game. You can be relatively sure that you won’t be the first one out each game. You can also be a kingmaker with these decks. You have the power to control who wins, except it is normally not you. These decks ruin the plans of Mass LD and Weenie decks.
Weaknesses: These decks power up everyone else’s decks. If you are playing against a group of streamlined Commander Decks, they will end the game before you have a chance to take advantage of all the extra cards and mana.
Karona and Braids, Conjurer Adept
Tribal decks are decks that have creatures mostly, or entirely of one creature type. The strength of these decks lies within the tribe you choose. These decks will inherently have synergies, even if you are not attacking a specific game plan. These decks are most fun when everyone in your group has a different tribe. These decks are good for anyone who enjoys the dual decks printed by Wizards.
Strengths: Most tribes are not color intensive, so they have a secure consistent mana base. They play into their colors and represent the color pie very well. Tribal decks are great for playing the star format.
Weaknesses: Any decks that run multiple wrath effects can run over most of the tribal decks.
I will be covering how go about building each of these archetypes as this series goes on. I love feedback, so let me know if there is anything you would add/remove from this list. If you ever want help with a decklist, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.