cEDH 101: Introduction and Philosophy

Let’s talk about Commander, better known to many members of the Magic community as Elder Dragon Highlander, or EDH. EDH is a singleton format, meaning you are only allowed to have one of any given card (other than basic lands) in your deck. Your deck must be 99 cards, plus one (for the most part) Legendary Creature (for the most part) who is your ‘Commander.’

The presence of the Commander is the single most powerful distinction that EDH has from any other format. You will almost always have access to this particular card, which gives you so many more options than you would have in other formats. It also determines the colors you are allowed to play in your deck, so it influences deckbuilding in more ways than one!

Due to the singleton nature of deckbuilding, you might expect that the variance of this format is much higher than most constructed formats. You would be very correct. A consequence of this is that many people choose to embrace the variance, and dislike when other players use cards like ‘tutors’ which let you search your deck for a particular card. Even though I do believe people should be able to play in the style they choose, I don’t personally think that removing such a class of spells from the deckbuilding pool is the best idea.

This difference in philosophy is one of the biggest driving forces behind the artificial distinction between what I’m going to call “Battlecruiser EDH,” or EDH with bigger and slower spells than in other formats, and “Competitive EDH,” or EDH played with the most powerful and tuned decks that their pilots can come up with. An interesting comparison happens when looking at the effect of self-imposed limitations on deck construction. The decks and game plans of Battlecruiser EDH are much closer to the Standard format while decks and game plans of Competitive EDH are much closer to Vintage. This is notable in the centralized nature of Standard (at least in recent years) towards midrange strategies, peppered with Aggro and Control flavor, when compared to the massively distinct archetypes in Vintage of Combo, Stax, and Tempo strategies with very little overlap. 

Players sitting down at a competitive EDH table are playing to win. They are willing and ready to shed all artificial limitations and do everything in their power, while deckbuilding and while playing, to win the game. If this means they take up strategies that some players deem “unfun,” like mass land destruction or infinite combos as early as the first turn of the game, then they will. If this means to reduce variance by playing as many tutors as possible to increase the likelihood that they can efficiently execute their gameplan, then they will.

Now this doesn’t mean that Competitive EDH (or cEDH) players hate fun. Quite the opposite, in fact. One of the things that crops up when people ask, “why?” is that we want to play as much Magic as we can. If we have two hours, and can either finish three to five competitive games or one battlecruiser game, why wouldn’t we want to play more Magic? The amount of interactions that occur in a battlecruiser game and competitive game aren’t often too far off from each other. Similar to how a 14 turn game of Standard can easily have just as many spells cast as a three turn game of Vintage, competitive EDH has a high density of Magic per turn. For those less familiar with some of the older formats, the primary reason for this distinction is due to the cardpool available. When players can pick from over 15,000 cards, they can usually find more powerful options available for less mana than an equivalent effect in the Standard cardpool of 2,000 or less cards. Compare Jace’s Ingenuity to Ancestral Recall. They have more or less the same rules text, but one costs while the other only costs .

One of the goals of this series, as well as our entire YouTube Channel, is to try and remove the stigma that exists around competitive EDH. Both the unfun stigma I mention above, and the stigma surrounding power level discrepancies within individual games. Since I started playing cEDH, I have played more fun and more interactive games than any of the many, many games I have played of battlecruiser EDH. The biggest downside of cEDH is that few people play it, so it becomes difficult to find other players at your Local Game Store (LGS). Despite this, there is a thriving online community via simulators like Cockatrice, and many of us have found our niche on the PlayEDH Discord for paper cEDH.

Getting into cEDH might appear to be a daunting task. If you’re coming from battlecruiser, there are a great many differences in deckbuilding, the most impactful of these being the cost factor. Many players who primarily play battlecruiser EDH will have decks ranging between whatever the preconstructed deck they bought is worth and several hundred dollars. Costs exceeding the mid to high triple digits are uncommon, and often draw some aggression just by virtue of being expensive. Contrast this to cEDH, where the cheapest ‘budgetless’ deck sits at around $1200, and the majority range from $4000 to $8000.

This is obviously a large cost gap, but it is not insurmountable. There are multiple ways of working through it, all of which are accepted and encouraged in the online communities for cEDH. The first of these is to to use what Wizards of the Coast refers to as ‘playtest cards’ or what most people colloquially refer to as ‘proxies.’ These are, officially, cards that you alter with a sharpie or other writing implement to indicate them being a different card. Note that this is the only kind of playtest card that is officially accepted by Wizards. There are other methods of reaching this same effect, but with a slightly better aesthetic, and that is using paper to either hand draw or print out the image of the intended card, and sliding these into a sleeve overtop another card. This is a very commonly seen method of playtesting cards on the PlayEDH discord, and is actively encouraged by the Moderator team as a means of removing cost as a factor from balancing power level.

Another method of bridging this cost gap is through the use of play simulators. Cockatrice is the most common of these for cEDH, and has a thriving community, with many people using that platform to play games they organize on the cEDH Discord. Tabletop Simulator is a Steam game that many people have recently begun using for EDH, which is also a viable option. Other platforms, like Untap or Xmage exist, but are far less commonly used for competitive EDH play.

A third practical method exists for people who desire to play in sanctioned events in paper, but don’t have the budget to spend on a full cEDH deck. There are many Budget Builds of cEDH decks, all of which have given up some degrees of speed, consistency, and efficacy for the purposes of reducing the financial strain of the deck. It is important to note that budget, when applied to cEDH, is slightly different than other players may assume. A budget cEDH deck is one that usually costs anywhere from $250 to $1500. This is obviously not the same as budget decks you may see in other formats, but it is a somewhat necessary evil to not misrepresent the final product. These budget decks are a great way to introduce people to the format, and for players with existing collections, provide an easy way to jump right in.

I want to point out something here that is an oft argued point; many people claim that budget decks aren’t or can’t be competitive. The competitive mindset is based on the shedding of all internal restrictions. Your monetary budget is not an internal restriction. It is very much an external one. The presence of external restrictions is not something that you, as a deckbuilder or player, can control, and so does not affect the competitive value that your decks have. Another example of this type of restriction is house rules at an LGS. While it is very difficult for other players to help you build for an extremely restrictive setting, that does not mean that what you optimize for that specific setting isn’t competitive. It may not be compared to decks with no such external restrictions, but in its specific place it is absolutely something that is competitive.

In addition to philosophical discussions about budget, the sheer effect that multiplayer has on threat assessment and gameplay is important to note. If Player A has slightly less efficient cards due to budget, it is very noticeable when you’re on your own against a single opponent. In a multiplayer situation, the weaker individual cards can often be partially propped up by the presence of other opponents interacting with the current “threat to the table” opponent. So, while in 1v1 your lack of Force of Will maybe be consistently backbreaking, in multiplayer, there are two other players that also are in the same position of “needing to have it,” giving you some cushion.

While overcoming the differences between battlecruiser and competitive may be daunting, it is for these concerns that we are trying to compile every piece of information out there on competitive EDH. We want to build this site into a repository of information, of all kinds. We aspire to present you with decklists, deck primers, single card and strategy discussions, articles about entering the format, the philosophy of the format, videos of gameplay both in paper and online, and forums for discussions including specific ones designed to help you enter into cEDH from battlecruiser.

This will be the first of multiple articles written to attempt to cover the very first introductory steps that all aspiring cEDH players should progress through when familiarizing themselves with the format. I hope that you are able to gain something from each and every one of them.

Before I go, I want to  give you a few specific links that I hope will be helpful:

My cEDH Decklist Conglomerate

My Budget Deck Series Collection

All of those will, hopefully, provide you with a variety of decklists at a variety of budget points, alongside a brief overview of the most common decks being played. Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you next time with cEDH 101: Strategies and Archetypes!

-Dan

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