Commander beginner's guide to mtg elder dragon highlander

Beginners Guide to Commander Format MTG Magic: the Gathering

Magic: The Gathering (MTG) offers a diverse array of formats for players with varying interests, and the Commander format stands out as a fan favorite. Renowned for its dynamic multiplayer gameplay, Commander elevates the social and creative dimensions of MTG, making it as suitable as a casual format for relaxed games at home as it is for competitive events.

The cornerstone of this Magic format is the commander itself—a legendary creature that not only shapes your deck’s strategy but also brings a distinctive thematic flavor to your play experience. Your commander determines the color identity you’ll play with, which is reflected in the narrative and mechanics of your 99-card singleton deck.

mtg Atraxa, Praetors' Voice card art
Atraxa, Praetors’ Voice – Artist Victor Adame Minguez, TM and Copyright 2020 Wizards of the Coast

To truly appreciate and succeed in this deep and personalized format, players need to understand its core rules, including the unique singleton rule (except for basic lands), which guarantees a varied gameplay experience each time.

Deck building for commander games is akin to an art, offering players the opportunity to express their individuality through their card selections and combinations.

mtg the ur-dragon card art
The Ur-Dragon – Artist Jaime Jones, TM & Copyright 2023 Wizards of the Coast

From choosing your commander to mastering the nuances of the rules, each aspect of Commander intertwines elements of challenge and fellowship, solidifying its status as MTG’s premier multiplayer format.

Key Commander Format Takeaways

  1. Commander: A Social and Creative MTG Format – At its core, Commander is a socially-driven and creatively rich format in Magic: The Gathering. It revolves around a legendary creature, chosen as the deck’s linchpin, which influences both strategy and gameplay.
  2. Deckbuilding as Personal Expression – Building a Commander deck is a deeply personal endeavor. Each deck must follow the singleton rule, where aside from basic lands you can’t have a copy of any card, and adhere to the color identity of the chosen commander card. This encourages unique cards and decks and an expressive approach to deck construction.

mtg Lathril, Blade of the Elves card art
Lathril, Blade of the Elves – Artist Caroline Gariba, TM and Copyright 2021 Wizards of the Coast

  1. The Importance of Community Knowledge – In Commander, the collective knowledge and resources of the MTG community are invaluable. These resources are crucial for both newcomers and veterans to learn, master, and continually evolve within the format.

Understanding Commander format Basics

Embarking on a journey into Commander, also fondly and originally known as Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH), in MTG presents a distinct and exhilarating challenge in deck-building. Let’s demystify the key components that make this one of Magic: the Gathering’s most popular formats among multiplayer enthusiasts.

mtg Isshin, Two Heavens as One card art
Isshin, Two Heavens as One – Artist Ryan Pancoast, TM & Copyright 2022 Wizards of the Coast

Commander Selection and Color Identity

The first step in building a commander format deck is choosing a legendary creature, (or in some cases, a planeswalker may say that it can be a commander in its rules text,) to serve as your deck’s commander. This choice is pivotal as your commander not only leads your forces but also sets the color identity for your deck.

Color identity encompasses all mana symbols found in the commander’s casting cost and ability texts. For example, if your commander’s casting cost includes one red and one blue mana symbol, your deck can only contain cards within the red and blue color spectrum, unless it has an ability in its rules text that includes another color.

graphic explaining mtg color identity featuring card Kenrith, the Returned King

This being Mono Color Magic, we have a write up on the top 100 of each color commanders. You’ll find black commanders here, blue commanders here, green commanders here, red commanders here, white commanders here, and for good measure, the top 20 colorless commanders here!

The Commander Deck: Size and Structure

The main difference in commander format from 60 card formats is that your deck must adhere to a singleton rule, which means, with the exception of basic lands and a few cards that specifically state they can have as many as you want (ahem, Relentless Rats, ahem), each card must be unique, culminating in a total of a 100-card singleton deck.

mtg Relentless Rats card

This count includes your commander, leaving 99 cards for you to tailor your strategy. It’s important to maintain a balance among creatures, spells, and lands, ensuring your mana base adequately supports your commander’s strategic needs.

You’ll typically see 35-40 land in these 100-card decks.

One thing that sets EDH apart from other Magic formats is its massive use of mana rocks. These artifacts, especially in competitive Elder Dragon Highlander (cEDH) where if you didn’t draw a Sol Ring or Mana Crypt the first time you’re likely to mulligan, help to quickly ramp mana and can lead to massive plays and combos in the first few turns for a competitive EDH deck.

Deck Components

  • Commander: Legendary creature chosen to lead your deck, think of them like the general leading your army. This card’s color identity determines the colors you can use to build your deck.
  • Creatures: Essential for both offensive tactics and defense. Colors need to align with your commander’s identity or be colorless.
  • Spells: Includes instants, sorceries, enchantments, and artifacts, providing a range of strategic effects. Must fit into the commander’s color identity.
  • Lands: These should align with your commander’s color identity, either producing or fetching the appropriate colors or producing colorless mana.
  • Mana Rocks: Artifacts that help you ramp your mana no matter what colors you’re playing, to play bigger spells faster.
mtg Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow card art
Yuriko, the Tiger’s Shadow – Artist Yongiae Choi, TM & Copyright 2023

Gameplay Overview

In the Commander Magic: the Gathering format, each player starts with an expanded life total of 40.

Your commander begins the game in the command zone and can be cast onto the battlefield from there.

If your commander is removed from the battlefield, you have the option to return it to the command zone, but be aware that recasting it requires an additional two mana for each previous time it was played from the command zone.

A commander’s casting cost increases by 2 colorless mana for each time it is cast from the command zone beyond the first. This additional cost after the first play is known as Commander Tax.

Monitoring commander damage is crucial; if a player receives 21 points of combat damage from the same commander, they lose the game. You’ll frequently hear Voltron thrown around as a commander strategy because it builds up the commander to do massive damage and get the kill for far less than 40.

Another key rule in commander format involves poison counters. As in standard MTG gameplay, if a player accumulates 10 poison counters in Commander, they are defeated. This rule adds another strategic element to the game, as players must remain alert to threats that can rapidly accumulate poison counters.

Mono Color Magic has exactly what you’re looking for to track all of these things!

custom commander scoresheet by mono color magic
Front / Back

Key Gameplay Points

Commander format is all about the interplay between uniquely crafted decks, each led by a commander. 

  • Starting Life: Each player begins with 40 life.
  • Commander Damage: Accumulating 21 combat damage from a single commander results in defeat.
  • Poison Counters: Receiving 10 poison counters also leads to a loss.
  • Player Count: While Commander can be played with any number of players, it is typically experienced as a four-player game, offering balanced and dynamic gameplay. However, it can be adapted for groups ranging from two to many more players.

mtg Miirym, Sentinel Wyrm card art
Miirym, Sentinel Wyrm – Artist Kekai Kotaki, TM & Copyright 2022 Wizards of the Coast

Building Your Commander Deck

Crafting your first Commander format deck is about balancing personal expression with strategic acumen.

Your goal is to create a deck with a coherent theme and strategy that resonates with your play style, while ensuring your mana base effectively supports your spells in both quantity and color.

Remember, in Commander, the singleton format only allows for different cards, other than basic land.

mtg Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver card art
Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver – Artist Chris Rallis, TM & Copyright 2021 Wizards of the Coast

Selecting a Theme and Strategy

Begin by choosing a Commander that aligns with your preferred playstyle. This decision will steer your deck’s thematic direction and strategic approach.

For example, if you’re inclined towards aggressive play, a commander like Zurgo Helmsmasher could be an ideal choice, enabling a strategy centered on rapid, powerful attacks.

A commander such as Chatterfang, Squirrel General unlocks massive token combos.

A commander option like Arcades, the Strategist changes the fundamental rules of Magic while on the battlefield. It even works as the head of a dragon tribal deck!

How do you want to play? Do you want to charge in guns blazing? Or do you want to sit back and let the game come to you? There’s a commander out there to fit every play style.

Mana Base and Mana Curve

The backbone of your deck is the mana base. A well-balanced selection of lands, mana rocks, and mana-producing spells, matching your deck’s color identity, is critical to ensure a smooth flow of play.

Construct your mana curve thoughtfully, encompassing a variety of costs to guarantee you have playable options at every stage of the game. A good starting point is to include about 35-38 lands. Incorporate ramp spells like Cultivate if you can use green to efficiently access your mana. Strategically distribute your card costs as follows:

  • Early game: 1-2 mana (moderate number of cards)
  • Mid game: 3-4 mana (high number of cards)
  • Late game: 5+ mana (fewer, but more impactful cards)

graphic explaining mana curve in mtg

In Commander format, the ideal distribution of early, mid, and late-game cards can vary based on your deck’s strategy and commander. But, generally, you’d want a moderate number of early game 1-2 mana cards for a strong start and to set up your strategy.

The bulk of your deck should focus on the mid-game (3-4 mana cards), as this is where most gameplay and interactions occur in Commander. These cards should provide significant impact and help establish or advance your game plan.

Late-game cards, typically 5+ mana, are usually fewer but more impactful, turning the tide or closing out the game.

mtg Edgar Markov card
Edgar Markov – Artist Volkan Baga, TM & Copyright 2017 Wizards of the Coast

Incorporating Synergies and Combos

Integrating synergies and combos into your deck facilitates potent interactions that can dramatically shift the course of the game.

Seek out cards that enhance your commander’s abilities or synergize with your overall theme.

If your strategy involves graveyard play, for instance, cards like Buried Alive and Living Death can be exceptionally effective.

Remember, combos in commander format aren’t always about infinite loops (though there’s plenty of those too); often, it’s about tactical intelligence and synergy.

Advanced Commander Concepts

Advancing in Commander format entails understanding the ever-evolving meta and deploying less conventional strategies to surprise your opponents. cEDH is one of the most competitive formats in Magic, and it can be expensive. But, it can also be a lot of fun!

Our scoresheets can help you keep track of your games and improve your decks and your play over time.

Understanding the Commander Meta

The meta encompasses the predominant strategies and decks within your play circle, or that you regularly see at your local game store.

mtg Shorikai, Genesis Engine card art
Shorikai, Genesis Engine – Artist Wisnu Tan, TM & Copyright 2022 Wizards of the Coast

It’s crucial to stay informed about the competitive scene, even outside of cEDH (competitive EDH). This knowledge guides your Commander selections, deck color identity, and spell choices.

For example, if artifacts are prevalent, including answers like Vandalblast can be a wise move.

  • Keep an eye on popular cEDH lists for competitive insights.
  • Tailor your deck to the current meta, weighing the strengths and weaknesses of different color identities.
  • Keep track of what you’re seeing and how you’re doing against regularly seen decks
  • Learn from your games, make subtle but powerful improvements to your favorite decks!

mtg Krenko, Mob Boss card art, one of the best commander format cards
Krenko, Mob Boss – Artist Karl Kopinski, TM & Copyright 2023 Wizards of the Coast

Niche Tactics and Alternate Win Conditions

Commander format offers diverse victory paths beyond reducing opponent life totals. Commander damage, for instance, is a unique win condition where accumulating 21 points of damage from your commander against an opponent can secure victory.

Don’t underestimate colorless cards for their adaptability. Consider alternate win-cons like Blightsteel Colossus, which can potentially defeat an opponent in a single attack through poison.

mtg blightsteel colossus card

Employing unexpected combos and rare spells can provide strategic advantages in complex board states.

  • Utilize Commander damage as a strategic win path.
  • Explore alternative strategies, like pairing Thassa’s Oracle with Demonic Consultation for a sudden win.

Equipped with a deep understanding of the meta and the utilization of various tactics, you’ll enhance your mastery of Commander’s intricate dynamics.

Navigating Rules and Etiquette

In Commander format, understanding the rules and practicing good table etiquette is as vital as your deck’s strategy. These elements contribute to a fair and enjoyable experience for all players.

Commander at Local Game Stores

Exploring Commander nights and events at local game stores is an excellent way to engage with the Magic community.

It’s polite to inquire about any group-specific house rules. Most stores have a judge or organizer to clarify rules and resolve disputes.

Remember, social interaction is the philosophy of Commander format – embrace the opportunity to connect with fellow players. Forming alliances to take down opponents can be essential.

mtg Go-Shintai of Life's Origin card art
Go-Shintai of Life’s Origin – Artist Alexander Mokhov, TM & Copyright 2022 Wizards of the Coast

Mulligan Rules and Starting Life Total

Grasping the mulligan rules and the starting life total is crucial. In Commander format, players typically begin with 40 life. The commonly used “London Mulligan” rule allows players to redraw a seven-card hand if unsatisfied with their initial draw, subsequently placing a number of cards on the bottom of their library equal to the number of mulligans taken.

  • First Mulligan: Draw 7 cards, then place 1 on the library’s bottom.
  • Second Mulligan: Draw 7 cards, then place 2 on the library’s bottom.
  • Third Mulligan (and beyond): For each additional mulligan, draw 7 cards and place an increasing number on the library’s bottom.

Rule Zero and Social Contracts

Rule Zero – recognizing the importance of social contracts – is foundational in Commander format. This unwritten rule emphasizes pre-game discussions about expectations and play styles.

live mtg game on card table

It’s not merely about whether you can execute that infinite combo or control the game; it’s about considering the collective enjoyment.

If you brought a cEDH deck, it’s best to ask if it fits with the game the other players want to play, because many may not have decks that powerful and could get very salty about the situation if you play it without asking about the deck power level the group wants to play.

The formation and dissolution of alliances and deals are part of the game, but they should always be approached with a spirit of fun and fairness.

Embracing Rule Zero fosters open communication and aligns player expectations, ensuring a fulfilling and enjoyable gaming experience for everyone involved.

Resources and Community

In the vibrant world of Magic: The Gathering, the Commander format is renowned for its diverse community and extensive resources, offering ample opportunities for engagement, learning, and play. Whether refining your deck with the latest Commander Masters release or seeking a game on SpellTable, the support systems available are as rich and varied as the game itself.

Online Play and Communities

Platforms like SpellTable allow players to enjoy paper Magic remotely, connecting with friends worldwide. For a more digital approach, Magic Arena is the gateway to MTG’s online world, reflecting Wizards of the Coast’s latest digital initiatives.

Example game on Wizards of the Coast's SpellTable platform
Example SpellTable game –

Websites like serve as a central hub for Commander format enthusiasts, offering rules, ban lists, and forums for interaction. For deck-building insights, is invaluable, providing card recommendations based on community trends and detailed analytics.

Notable Sets and Cards

Sets like Commander Masters significantly impact the format, offering powerful card options.

New sets such as Murders at Karlov Manor and The Lost Caverns of Ixalan also contribute unique thematic elements to the game bringing new tribes and combos with each new set.

mtg Murders at Karlov Manor banner

Dinosaurs, for instance, have been a major tribe in commander format since the first Ixalan set, and now with a new set are even more potent.

Wizards of the Coast’s careful curation ensures each set revitalizes the format with new dynamics and choices. Staying updated on the latest trends and popular cards is easy with the plethora of MTG forums and social media groups sharing deck ideas and strategies. I’d recommend checking out the Facebook group Magic The Gathering EDH-Commander.

If you found this helpful, let us know in the comments! If there’s something we missed, please let us know that too!

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Frequently Asked Questions

Embarking on your MTG Commander journey might raise several questions. This section addresses some those common inquiries.

Is Commander Sanctioned by Wizards of the Coast?

Commander format, also known as Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH), is a format that has been recognized and supported by Wizards of the Coast, although it is primarily governed by its own Rules Committee.

While Wizards of the Coast does produce products specifically for Commander format and acknowledges the format, the day-to-day rules and banned list are managed by the independent Commander Rules Committee.

Wizards of the Coast’s involvement is more about supporting the format with products and acknowledging its existence rather than directly sanctioning it like they do with formats such as Standard or Modern.

Essential Rules for Constructing a Commander Deck

Your Commander deck should consist of a legendary creature as your commander and a 99-card deck matching the commander’s color identity. This format follows a singleton rule, prohibiting duplicates of any card except basic lands (unless a card explicitly says otherwise.)

Starting a Multiplayer Commander Game and Turn Sequence

Multiplayer Commander starts with each player drawing a seven-card hand, revealing their commanders, and beginning with 40 life. The turn sequence follows the standard order: untap, upkeep, draw, main phase, combat, second main phase, and end step. Play passes clockwise to the next player at end of turn.

Prohibited Cards and Banlist

The Commander banlist, overseen by the Commander Rules Committee, addresses cards banned for power balance or to preserve the format’s social aspect. It’s accessible on

Beginner Tips for Commander Gameplay and Strategy

Focus on building a deck with synergy around your commander’s abilities. A balanced mix of creatures, spells, and lands is crucial, as is engaging in the format’s social and strategic aspects.

Two-Player Commander Match Rule Modifications

In two-player matches, consider starting with 30 life. While other rules remain the same, the gameplay dynamics can differ significantly from multiplayer settings.

Best Online Platforms for Commander and Comparison to In-Person Play

MTG Arena and Magic Online are popular for online play, though they differ from tabletop experiences, particularly in social interaction. Digital play offers convenience, but the in-person experience is often more engaging.

Bryan - MCM
Author: Bryan - MCM

Magic player since Revised in 94. Still remember opening boosters of Revised, the Dark, and Arabian Nights as a kid. Watching it be a big deal (and then let down) when Fallen Empires dropped. Then Magic got it right again and really took off. While the current state of Wizards is debatable, I still enjoy playing with friends and my kids. I don't do tournaments much these days but I've played Draft, Sealed, Standard, Extended (not a thing anymore,) Pre-Release, Grand Prix, States Qualifiers, and Teams tournaments. Though I'm not a judge, I'm the one the friends turn to when there's a rules question, and if I don't know it, I find it. Please, ask me anything, comment on posts, and share Magic with your friends and family!

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