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DUEL – How to Choose a [Good] Commander

*Disclaimer*

This is a guide for 1v1 Pauper DUEL Commander (PDC). Although there may be some crossover with multiplayer PDH, the differences between the formats mean that the advice in this guide is not necessarily appropriate for PDH. Viewer discretion advised!



How to Choose a [Good] Commander


Let’s do a card search. “Uncommon creatures legal in Commander”… 4,071.

Okay, how about: “red, or red plus a second colour”?… 927.

Oof.


For the newly initiated, pauper commander brings a mind-boggling selection of commanders to choose from. This article is intended as a guide to help simplify that decision for new and aspiring PDC players, sharing community-gathered tips to help you get off to a strong start. Its first aim is to help you choose a commander at all, but the second aim – the more important aim – is to allow you to determine for yourself if your choice is actually any good for PDC.


If you like the sound of PDC but have no idea what’s good, this is the place to start!



Too Many Choices? Start in Two Colours


Like most of this guide, this is a tip rather than a rule. There are some fantastic mono-coloured commanders, and plenty of options in 3+ colours, too. But by sticking to two, you gain a few easy advantages:


  • Most colour-pairs have between 60-80 commander options, compared to 600+ for each mono-colour.

  • More colours means a better-rounded deck, expanding the deck’s options per the colour pie.

  • Two-colour mana is quick enough. Mono is quicker, but two is well balanced. In 3+ colours, you’re forced to run more nonbasic lands, which in PDH almost always enter tapped.


If you don’t already have a commander in mind, a nice place to start is your two favourite colours by mechanic. For example, if you like control decks, you might start with blue and black; if you like lifegain midrange, you probably want black and white. Next go to your favourite MtG search-engine and browse the 70-ish uncommon creatures in those colours. I can cut a few down for you right now: if it costs 5 or more, it’s probably bad!



Don’t Rush Off to the Shop


Once you’ve chosen a commander, pauper is cheap, right? So the next step is an impulsive shopping spree to buy all the niche commons you’ll need. Right??


While it’s your prerogative to do so, my advice at this stage would be “probably not yet.” I’d always recommend brewing a first draft of the deck online before you build it in paper, but before even that, there’s an easy step you can take to make sure you’re on the right track.



Evaluate Your Commander


Before you commit to your choice, there are a few “green flag” questions you can ask to get a sense of your commander’s power level in PDC. If you don’t already have years of experience with the format, think of this as the condensed advice of a community that does. Again, these are tips – not rules – and like all things in Magic there are exceptions to every one of them. But if your commander answers “no” to two or more of these questions, there’s a good chance your choice isn’t as great as you’d hoped.


  • Does it cost three or less?

  • Does it have an immediate impact?

  • Does it have long-term impact?

  • Does it still look good for two more mana?

  • Does the deck work without it?


To each of these, if the answer is “yes,” you’ve got a green flag. Even if the answer is “no,” that doesn’t mean your choice is untenable. Ask yourself how much it’s a yes or a no, and keep in mind the overall picture. See the green-flag breakdown below.



Does it cost three or less?


For players coming from EDH, it can be tempting to go for beefy monsters like Nucklavee who (in the right conditions) represent a heap of value and synergy. But, as anyone coming from Pauper or Duel Commander could tell you, size is very much not everything. PDC is a format where the most aggressive decks can have you dead by turn four, and control decks have the advantage of seeing your best card from turn zero. Against basically every archetype, the general rule is “the cheaper the better.” There’s no such thing as a Commander that’s too cheap, but you may notice that most of the 1-drop commanders fall foul of the other four flags.



Does it have immediate impact?


Does the card do something right away, or does it need a full turn-cycle to have any effect? In PDC, it’s smart to assume that your commander will die at least once every game (even the hexproof ones); if it doesn’t achieve anything before then, your best card will have performed no better than any other vanilla common. This impact doesn’t have to be a “when this creature enters the battlefield” effect: it can be a combat trigger, a death trigger, or even something as subtle as Soaring Thought-Thief, who has the uncanny ability to deter attackers without even being cast.



Does it have long-term impact?


Just as important as immediate impact is long-term impact: what is the commander capable of when it slips through the minefield of removal? Crackling Drake has an obvious immediate effect (it draws a card), but it has long-term impact too, as it becomes more and more threatening the longer the game goes on. The same cannot be said for something like Thornscape Battlemage, which is impressive on cast, but a vanilla 2/2 thereafter. Consider the upper limit of how much impact your commander can have, and how easy it is to make happen. The value potential of Tatyova, Benthic Druid is huge and relatively straight-forward; it goes a long way to excuse her high mana cost. In contrast Tiana, Ship’s Caretaker can produce similar value, but rarely as much, and with many more hoops for getting there.



Does it still look good for two more mana?


This comes down to how much impact the commander has (both immediate and long-term). Elves of Deep Shadow look great in some ways – guaranteeing three mana on turn two every game – but if it dies (and you’d better assume that it will), is it still worth recasting for three mana? This is a subjective question, but try to consider the size and practicality of the impact the commander has. Crypt Champion can give you an instant boardstate, but it comes with steep conditions if you want max value with none of the downsides. For six mana plus all those conditions, it doesn’t look very practical. On the flipside Slippery Bogle has almost zero immediate impact, but the long-term impact is so huge (game-winning, in fact) that it easily justifies being recast for three, even five mana if need be.



Does the deck work without it?


If it’s smart to assume your commander will be killed at least once, it’s smarter still to consider the worst-case scenario. How will the deck’s general strategy perform if (for whatever reason) your commander is permanently removed? It’s legitimate to claim that “this won’t happen with my deck” – perhaps because your deck is hyper-aggressive, or because you’ve packed enough protection spells to fight it – but in all but a voltron strategy it’s good practice to build your deck with a Plan B. Tribal is a great example of where you could go wrong: King of the Pride is a huge payoff for cats, but are cats otherwise very powerful? There are basically no other payoffs in the tribe (at least not at common), so once the commander is removed, you’re left with a deck of mostly sub-par creatures. Most decks answer this by exploiting synergies within the 99; the commander enhances that strategy without being essential. One of the reasons Loyal Apprentice is powerful is that even if the commander is removed, mono-red burn is still perfectly strong on its own.



Go Forth and Brew


Hopefully this guide will help set a few players out on the right track. Ultimately, no guide will ever replace pure experience, but with the right direction you can maybe avoid getting trounced by those Tier-1 pros quite so completely. Nothing left to do now but to get brewing, build your deck, then go out and play!


Thanks to the PDHHomebase community for your input and support, and thanks to you for reading!


– Danny


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