What is Commander?

I love Commander. Before the Covid-19 pandemic it was my preferred way to play Magic in paper. The last social event I did before the shutdown was attend a Commander night at a friend’s place. At one point I had 20 Commander decks in a fully constructed and ready to play state. And if there’s one thing I like almost as much as playing Commander, it’s talking about it with my friends. The time of social distancing has given me plenty of time to do just that.

Over the past four and a half months I have seen a ton of discussion about the format. These were the same conversations I had witnessed before, but it seemed that time spent forcing ourselves to not see each other had exacerbated the underlying issues. These were chats in my circles but they are ones I have seen repeated in the wider Magic community. Some cards and strategies are too powerful; games tend to steamroll when someone has an advantage; all these new cards take away the fun of Commander.

None of this is new to me. I remember having the very same conversations with friends over beers in 2012. Personally, I think that while the past few years of Commander specific designs have largely been too pushed, I understand the need to do this so that newer players do not feel completely outmatched at tables with folks like me and their 25 year collections.

But back to the conversations. They all stem from the same place: when people sit down to play Commander they want to know what they are going to experience. A good game of Commander should start like any good relationship: with clear communication.

I tend to drill down my philosophy in Commander with trying to balance playing the game with winning the game. When I sit down, I want to be actively engaged in the game. I want to do things that will provoke reactions and honestly, I want to make those reactions meaningless. I tend to like attrition and value strategies that will accumulate resources over time, but I’ve had to adjust to give my decks a little more explosive power.

I’ve also pared down my decks to eight. Still far too many to play in one sitting, but enough that I don’t feel like I’m going to get bored of doing the same thing over and over again.

After years of talking about it, I have finally built a Teshar, Ancestor’s Apostle deck. I knew I wanted to build Teshar from the moment the card was spoiled. I got sidetracked along the way but a list was always percolating in the back of my mind. These conversations with friends, as well as some games on Magic Online, finally encouraged me to get off my butt and put a deck together.

I want to use this list as a way to talk about interaction. I tried to include several interactive elements, including the staples Path to Exile and Swords to Plowshares. I put in a few board wipes – Cataclysmic Gearhulk, Dusk // Dawn, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, Fell the Mighty, and Mageta, the Lion – in an effort to directly impact the board instead of just building up my own.

I also found slots for cards to limit my opponent’s interaction with me. Fanatical Devotion and Martyr’s Cause help to keep me and my stuff alive, while the various tax elements slow down their development. Finally, I put in Smokestack, which is a card I think can create a lot of interesting decision points during a game.

Of course Smokestack is a hated card and I understand why. It can be distinctly unfun when you are locked out by it and creates an effect that is never quite symmetrical. At the same time it is a card that interacts with the opponents.

This is one reason why framing Commander discussion around a vague notion of “interaction” can only go so far. Just like so many things in Magic the word will mean different things to different players.

So how would I describe this deck? Mono White value, based around Teshar, with some like tax and stax effects.

How does this deck win? I amass a giant board and win with creatures, pumped by Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit or Cathar’s Crusade.

But here’s what I want to know from you: is that a fair elevator pitch of my Teshar deck?

Published by Alex Ullman

Alex Ullman has been playing Magic since 1994 (he thinks). Since 2005, he's spent most of his time playing and exploring Pauper. One of his proudest accomplishments was being on the winnings side of the 2009 Community Cup. He makes his home in Brooklyn, New York, where he was born and raised.

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