Variability, and Loving the Unknown in Commander

Andy Zupke • October 27, 2022

Commander decks pile up on my shelf, unplayed and unloved, like stuffed animals in the back of a teenager’s closet. I grow bored of my decks quickly and regularly tear down large swaths of them like a grim Marie Kondo. The ones that grow stale the fastest are those that aim to do the same thing every time. While this repetitiveness can be comforting to many Commander players, and I don’t begrudge anyone their long-lived and blinged out pet decks, the banality of an old deck that has shown me all its tricks removes all of my desire to play it. So how do I make a deck that won’t be the same every time? How do I avoid tiring of my decks after just a few games? How do I keep a deck fresh?

Hello my friends, and welcome back to Cardsphere. While we’ve got a couple of days to breathe between new sets, I thought I’d take a little time to discuss a topic that is becoming more and more important to me as I get on in my content creator years. So today we’re discussing ways to keep your Commander games feeling fresh by crafting your decks in a way that they give you a new experience every time. We’re talking about variability.

What’s Variability?

I’m glad you asked. Variability means that something is subject to change. In a Commander deck, this can take many forms. From the way the deck is constructed, to the individual cards that present an unknown quantity, we can craft decks that change the game in different ways each time we play them.

We’ll begin by looking at a couple of decks that I recently wrote articles about, then built in paper and played. These decks demonstrate how much fun a game can be when you don’t know what’s coming next.

We’ll start with the Random Rainbow Bridge deck I brewed around Esika, God of the Tree // The Prismatic Bridge. You can check out the full details in this article I wrote about it, but the short version is that you start with 175 cards. 75 of them are played in every game (these are the things you need for a deck to function: lands, ramp, interaction, etc.). The other 100 gets shuffled into 4 piles of 25, and only one of those piles gets put into the deck for the game. With my Bridge deck, the 100 cards are all legendary creatures and planeswalkers of all power levels, but you could build it other ways as well. Atla Palani, Nest Tender would also be a great commander for this style of deck, especially if you’re not looking to do 5 colors.

An important, if not crucial, aspect of these “random inclusion” decks is that they’re so much better if you don’t know what’s going in the deck. For instance, in my Bridge deck, I have absolutely no tutors. There are zero ways to pick up the deck and look through it. I don’t even run any land tutors like Kodama’s Reach or Evolving Wilds, which is huge loss for a 5 color deck. But I want the deck to surprise me, and my opponents, as I play it, so I make the deck rely on other forms of mana-fixing.

Nice Deck You Got There

Another way to ensure that your deck does something different each time is by crafting it to play with your opponents’ cards. I recently did this with my Wilson, Refined Grizzly & Shameless Charlatan deck, which you can read about in-depth here. The goal of the deck is to turn Wilson into whatever the best, or most useful, creature on the board is, and then make clones and token copies of it. And the clone effects aren’t just for creatures. I’ve got Thespian’s Stage for lands, Phyrexian Metamorph for artifacts, Mirrormade for enchantments, and more. The deck will never be the same way twice because I’m always facing a new configuration of players, playstyles, and decks.

There are plenty of individual cards that will allow you to actually play your opponents’ cards. Mind’s Dilation is the classic example of doing this. Chaos Wand and Wand of Wonder will let you yoink instants and sorceries from other people’s decks. Cunning Rhetoric lets you take your opponents’ stuff defensively. Stolen Strategy gives you access to their top card every turn. Or The Ruinous Powers can nab an opponent’s top card with a little extra pain on top. You can even run this type of effect in the command zone with Gonti, Lord of Luxury or Etali, Primal Storm.

You can also just steal their stuff right off the board with Confiscate, Corrupted Conscience, or Steal Artifact.

Into the Unknown

An important part of embracing variability is to learn to appreciate the unknown. The most well-oiled, fully tuned Commander decks tend to leave nothing to chance, always opting for the most powerful, efficiently costed cards. But we don’t want that. We’re aiming for plays that could be explosive, or could fizzle out with a whimper.

We’ve got a lot more of these kinds of cards in our arsenal now, thanks to the two D&D themed sets, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms and Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur’s Gate. These sets gave us a ton of cards that make us roll dice, with the effect being determined by what you roll, usually giving you the best effects with the higher numbers. Some of my favorites of these are Cone of Cold, Myrkul’s Edict, Wyll’s Reversal, and Overwhelming Encounter.

Dice rolling cards aren’t the only ones that take a chance. There are also cards that can benefit or hurt you or your opponents based on random outcomes. The most well-known of these in Commander is Chaos Warp. Rather than just removing the thing, Chaos Warp adds that moment of anticipation to the game, the thrill of “What’s it gonna be?” We’ve all heard stories of a Chaos Warp that brought out the same card that it tucked away, or even a card that posed a much more serious threat. Blessed Reincarnation has a similar type of effect, and is vastly underplayed.

You can also tempt the fates with cards like Divine Gambit. Sure, you could just cast Path to Exile on that creature for one mana less, but there’s much less risk with getting them a fresh land than there is with giving them a free card from their hand. Take the risk! YOLO!

Or maybe you want to have your whole game be decided by randomness. With Neera, Wild Mage as your commander, you can have that. With Neera your experience is still limited to the 99 cards in your deck, but you’re giving control of your outcomes to the luck gods, which makes for a much more enriching gaming experience.

Final Parting

I know variability isn’t for everyone. To many, playing their favorite deck the same way for the 100th time is like rewatching their favorite movie. It’s comforting. And I’m not disparaging those people in any way. We should all play the game the way we love with people who enjoy it the same way. But if you’re like me, constantly striving for that new experience, searching for that deck that you’ll never grow tired of, then give variability a chance. Life is short my friends, so go spend that 8 mana on Fevered Suspicion and see if you get lucky.

That’s all for today! Check back next time when we’ll start digging into The Brothers’ War. You can also catch me making budget Commander content with the Scrap Trawlers over on YouTube and Twitch. Until next time, take care. And play lots of games!