Last week I had a conversation with my friend Glen about Commander that got the ball rolling for today’s topic. The gist was a lament that we no longer had a regular Commander night at the store and how we’d like to start one up once again.

I’ll openly admit, right here and now, that I’m not a Commander guru. If you tuned in today to learn about how to absolutely dumpster your playgroup with a broken deck packed with infinite combos, there’s not much I can do for you. In fact, I tend to fall on the opposite end of the spectrum where I enjoy playing the political game and fight an uphill battle with a fair deck.

The general conversation about what caused the regular play group to dissolve was largely rooted in the escalation of an arms race toward increasingly broken decks that created ho-hum games where people lost interest over time. Commander is a strange format because there is a wide range between how different people want to play and build decks for the format. There are dozens of format variants, each with different banned lists and guidelines. It’s clear different folks have their own ideas about what kind of a game they would ideally like to play. It’s not a question of who is right or wrong, but an issue of preference. I’ve always found the biggest challenge of Commander to be walking a line between having a deck that’s relevant, but not too broken in relationship to the other decks at the table. I want a deck that can play a role no matter who my opponents are and what they are packing, but I also don’t want to be the person who makes people roll their eyes because my deck isn’t fun.

This Commander deck is too HOT!

This Commander deck is too COLD!

Hopefully, the Bear deck I’ve been working on is on the path to getting it ‘just right.’ I’m not looking to get super deep into Commander and build a deck for every variant and banned list but I’d like to have one deck that I can work, update, and get into a multiplayer game when the opportunity presents itself. The key is that I wanted to make a deck that was relevant in a powerful game, but not oppressive in a casual game.

Previous Commander Attempts

I asked my social media friends for a fun concept to build a casual Commander deck around and I got a bunch of fun responses. A few people suggested placing restraints or restrictions on what my deck could be, and/or possible themes to try and build around. I’ve tried both options separately in the past and gotten interesting but mixed results.

One of my favorite variants was to build a Commander deck that was 100% Standard-legal at some point in time. I chose Lorwyn, Time Spiral, and 10th Edition Standard and built a fairly baller Merieke Ri Beritt control deck.

Merieke Ri Berit

While the deck was a cool concept and turned out better than I thought it would be at the time, it was still just a bunch of sweepers, ramp, and most of the games I was able to win came via an infinite combo with Reveillark and Body Double. It was basically the standard blueprint for a combo control Commander deck, the only thing that made it unique was the fact that I limited myself to a handful of sets.

What I learned from this experience was that putting a handicap on the cardpool doesn’t get to the essence of building a deck that is unique, interesting, or fun to play. It’s just drawing a line and saying, “I’ll only go as broken as my arbitrary rules allow.”

Another version of this exercise I’ve tried out came when a friend challenged me to build a Silver deck. It only took me about a week before I was playing a Sliver deck that always went off with an infinite combo on turn five through counterspells and removal. While the deck was a sweet exercise in deckbuilding, it was kind of a one-trick pony and didn’t provide a ton of replayability and was disassembled within a month.

The conclusions I reached from these experiments was that simply restricting the cardpool or building around a concept can still lead to the same problems if all one does is to find workarounds for the patterns of gameplay I was trying to avoid in the first place.

Another fun one I did with some friends a while back was to build around the first letter of one’s name. It was fun in theory, until I got utterly dominated by my friend Stu’s “S” deck!

Bears in Commander

Bear Force 1

I mentioned I took suggestions from social media and the one I liked the most came from Jeff Wilson: “Bear Force 1.”

I thought the name was catchy and since I’m fresh off of writing a series about the History of Bears in Magic, it was something I was interested in working on. Plus I’ve been looking for any opportunity to explore playing and building around Ayula, Queen Among Bears!

Mono-Green Bears. I’m in. The first thing I considered was a deck jam-packed with every Bear card I could cobble together. Unfortunately, quality Bears are kind of hard to come by once you get past the first two or three good ones… There were about 10 Bear cards in total I thought were “passable” in a Commander deck. While I debated the merits of playing with actual Grizzly Bears and Balduvian Bear, I stumbled upon an actual published “Bear Force 1” list:

Wexandywn

Bear Force 1 Commander

1 Cavern of Souls
25 Forest (347)
1 Llanowar Reborn
1 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
1 Oran-Rief, the Vastwood
1 Sapseep Forest
1 Tranquil Thicket
1 Adaptive Automaton
1 Alpine Grizzly
1 Ashcoat Bear
1 Balduvian Bears
1 Bear Cub
1 Caller of the Claw
1 Craterhoof Behemoth
1 Dragon-Scarred Bear
1 Druid's Familiar
1 Duskwatch Recruiter  Flip
1 Fauna Shaman
1 Forest Bear
1 Golden Bear
1 Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma
1 Grizzly Bears
1 Melira, Sylvok Outcast
1 Mother Bear
1 Naya Soulbeast
1 Nessian Game Warden
1 Pale Bears
1 Paragon of Eternal Wilds
1 Razorclaw Bear
1 River Bear
1 Runeclaw Bear
1 Scavenging Ooze
1 Seedborn Muse
1 Somberwald Sage
1 Spectral Bears
1 Striped Bears
1 Ulvenwald Bear
1 Ulvenwald Tracker
1 Werebear
1 Wild Beastmaster
1 Yeva, Nature's Herald
1 Zoologist
1 Sylvok Explorer
1 Grizzly Fate
1 Harmonize
1 Insist
1 Kamahl's Summons
1 Overrun
1 Regrowth
1 Revive
1 Savage Swipe
1 Wave of Vitriol
1 Winter's Grasp
1 Awaken the Bear
1 Giant Growth
1 Krosan Grip
1 Primal Bellow
1 Reclaim
1 Relic Crush
1 Ayula's Influence
1 Bear Umbra
1 Bearscape
1 Epic Struggle
1 Favor of the Woods
1 Helix Pinnacle
1 Hibernation's End
1 Leyline of Vitality
1 Muraganda Petroglyphs
1 Predatory Urge
1 Words of Wilding
1 Door of Destinies
1 Slate of Ancestry
1 Sol Ring
1 Winter Orb
1 Garruk, Caller of Beasts

Simpsons did it!

Ayula, Queen Among Bears

Not only did Wexandywn do it, I think they really nailed it. All the Bears, all the time. I wanted to work on something of my own (it’s Commander and that’s the point, right?) and so I began to spin my wheels about how to take Ayula in a different direction.

I decided that I’d set out some basic guidelines. I wanted a deck with cool flavor, full of cards I think are sweet, and that would be passable against powerful decks but not overpowering in a casual game. Here are the guidelines I laid out:

  1. No infinite combos.
  2. No tutors or search effects (unless it’s Bear-related)
  3. Minimal artifacts (unless it’s bear related or cool flavor)
  4. I wanted to play up synergies between Bear cards whenever possible, without limiting myself to a Bear Tribal Beatdown deck like Bear Force 1.
  5. I wanted to avoid the “generic Commander bombs” that everybody always plays like Doubling Season, Mana Reflection, etc. I already know these are the kinds of cards that facilitate broken decks and that was more or less what I wanted to avoid.

The concept I ultimately settled on was “The Bear and the Maiden ‘Fair,’” which is a reference to a song from Game of Thrones but is also a neat play on the three angles I settled on with my fluff and flavor.

  1. Obviously, Bears, since my Commander is Ayula.
  2. I decided I wanted to incorporate an “Enchantress Theme,” since Bears have a bunch of good Enchantment cards. So, the Enchantresses are the “Maidens fair.”
  3. I’ve got a “Hate Bear,” or anti-combo subtheme which is a nice play on a “fair” deck.

So, here’s where I’m at after about a week of brewing:

The Bear and the Maiden “Fair”

1 Oran Reif, The Vastwood
1 Tranquil Thicket
1 Slippery Karst
1 Winding Canyons
1 Desert of the Indomitable
1 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
1 Strip Mine
1 Maze of Ith
1 Blast Zone
25 Forest (347)
1 Arbor Elf
1 Joraga Treespeaker
1 Collector Ouphe
1 Scavenging Ooze
1 Mother Bear
1 Ashcoat Bear
1 Argothian Enchantress
1 Nightshade Peddler
1 Spectral Bears
1 Den Protector
1 Eternal Witness
1 Caller of the Claw
1 Courser of Kruphix
1 Manglehorn
1 Loaming Shaman
1 Verduran Enchantress
1 Killer Bees
1 Chameleon Colossus
1 Striped Bears
1 Seedborn Muse
1 Black Vise
1 Wild Growth
1 Utopia Sprawl
1 Burgeoning
1 Exploration
1 Root Maze
1 Vessel of Nascency
1 Elephant Grass
1 Carpet of Flowers
1 Oath of Nissa
1 Winter Orb
1 Null Rod
1 Gaea’s Embrace
1 Night Soil
1 Sylvan Library
1 Life from the Loam
1 Heroic Intervention
1 Evolutionary Leap
1 Lignify
1 Khalni Heart Expedition
1 Constant Mists
1 Sprout Swarm
1 Hall of Gemstones
1 Awakening Zone
1 Holistic Wisdom
1 Enchantress Presence
1 Words of Wilding
1 Overgrowth
1 Growing Rites of Itlimoc/Itlimoc, Cradle of the Sun
1 Ayula’s Influence
1 Kruphix’s Insight
1 Bearscape
1 Beast Within
1 Krosan Grip
1 Force of Vigor
1 Bear Umbra
1 Fecundity
1 Primal Order
1 Frontier Siege
1 Freyalise’s Winds
1 Harmonize
1 Wilderness Reclamation
1 Hibernation’s End
1 Grizzly Fate
1 Sandwurm Convergence

I think the deck actually looks pretty decent for a first take, especially considering the massive constraints I put on the deck. There is only a single card that allows me to search my library and I only included it because it’s got sick Bear flavor (and is also an enchantment for my Enchantress synergy).

Hibernation's End

I’m only playing a total of three artifacts:

Black ViseWinter OrbNull Rod

All three are pretty good “hate cards” that tend to be fairly punishing against broken decks that are trying to make a ton of mana and do busted stuff. I considered playing with even more hateful cards like Choke and Compost, but decided against it for the time being.

I also managed to squeeze more “Bear” in than I thought I would be able to:

Mother BearAshcoat BearCaller of the ClawChameleon ColossusStriped BearsBear UmbraGrizzly FateWinter OrbWords of WildingBearscapeSpectral BearsAyula's InfluenceHibernation's End

Nearly 20% of my total spells are directly Bear-related, which is about as good as I could hope for. One of the fun things with a deck like this will be continuing to work on it and adding new potential Bears in the future.

Playing as an Underpowered Deck

So, obviously this deck could be better in the sense that I could do more of the typical broken stuff that spikey green ramp decks typically do or add some combos. But I wanted to be the kind of deck that applies pressure to the more broken decks that I probably can’t beat in an endgame scenario. I also didn’t want to be “all-in and swept away” when people start firing off Wraths, which is the downside of beatdown in multiplayer.

My hope was to consistently be among the least broken decks at the table but to still impact what happens in the game in a big way. One of my favorite aspects of multiplayer is the political game. The alliances and team ups are always great and I certainly wanted to play the kind of deck that is likely to help form a “coalition of the good.”

If I had I had a quarter for every time the player with the most broken player at the table feebly lied, “Don’t attack me! Why are you attacking me? I’m not the biggest threat at the table!” I could buy a Black Lotus. I wanted to be the deck attacking that player directly, but also be a deck where other people are not going to be dead-set on trying to get me out early. Against those decks, I’m reasonably decent at setting up speed bumps like Root Maze or Null Rod.

I could certainly see taking this deck down a road where it becomes more focused on being a prison deck, rather than a goofy bear deck. I’d add white to shore up some of the weaknesses to opposing creatures: Humility, Wrath of God, Moat, etc. However, the point of the deck I was trying to build wasn’t to lock everybody out of the game, but rather to incorporate some speed bumps to keep the combo decks at the table in check long enough to get my Bear beatdown on.

My goal wasn’t necessarily to build a deck designed to punish combo decks directly. Ideally, that isn’t the type of game that I’m looking to play, but if I end up playing with people who have legitimately powerful decks, I want to make the most of the brief period I’m alive! That’s sort of the reason I didn’t push the prison angle too hard, as it’s not the type of game I’m looking to play. It’s more of a “just in case” angle.

While my deck doesn’t have many busted combos, I’ve found a couple of neat interactions and have been keeping my eye out for more to potentially add in the future. One of the biggest problems I’ve found is that there are few ways to deal with opposing creatures directly in green, but I’ve found a few cool tricks.

Nightshade PeddlerBearscapeWords of WildingAyula's Influence

Ayula allows Bears to fight other creatures when they enter the battlefield and so soulbonding to a creature that gives deathtouch is pretty amazing (since you control both triggers, you can stack the order for the best possible outcome). All these enchantments can potentially be activated at instant speed and multiple times per turn, which is actually kind of great.

Chameleon Colossus

Colossus is good already, but doubling its power and toughness with the fight trigger on the stack creates a body that is big enough to rumble with most problematic creatures. I’m specifically worried about Elesh Norn, since it kind of shuts my deck down pretty hard.

I think it’s pretty telling that I’m always looking to make the leap from “let’s have fun!” to “how can I make my deck more powerful.” I think it comes with the territory of challenging oneself to build better decks, which is a natural part of the game. In today’s quest, the goal wasn’t to build the most busted deck, but rather to build a deck that was fun. A big part of the challenge will be in the political gameplay and making the most of the tools I have available to me, since I don’t have a bunch of directly busted routes to victory.

I’m certainly open to suggestions about neat cards I could try out, as well as advice about how to build fun, casual, and unique Commander decks that have some real play to them. Since I’m also looking to try and put together a Commander night in my area, I’d also love to hear suggestions about how the readers out there navigate the range of power level in Commander and keep things fun, fresh, and exciting.