Welcome back to cEDH 101! In today’s article, we’ll be taking a closer look at deck archetypes and strategies in Magic: the Gathering, why these archetypes don’t quite work for competitive multiplayer Commander, and what this means when categorizing cEDH decks.
In traditional Magic, there are three (and sometimes four) archetypes of play; these are Aggro, Control, Midrange, and sometimes Combo. The reasons for sometimes is that modern design theory has begun to incline playstyles away from Combo being a dedicated archetype for a variety of reasons. You’ll note the omnipresence of the other three in every Standard since design philosophies began to modernize as far back as M10. While older Standard formats as far back as Pros Bloom’s time in the sun featured combo decks, they haven’t had a consistent presence in many, many years. Despite these archetypes being Magical mainstays, they don’t really hold up in cEDH. Why is that the case? Let’s first look at a few simple definitions for the Aggro, Midrange, and Control archetypes in 1v1 formats:
An Aggro deck aims to reduce their opponents’ life totals to 0 as quickly as possible. This means that they focus on converting their cards into damage in some way, be it through burn spells or aggressive creatures. Rather than relying on card advantage to win the game, they want to outrace their opponent. They often will eschew card quantity for card quality, maximizing the amount of playable damage spells over the ability to acquire more. Though as card quality improves as we increase the card pool size, the ability to draw more cards becomes less and less relevant. In Standard currently, the Burn decks may need cards like Experimental Frenzy or Risk Factor to keep pace with other decks, but as we move farther back towards Legacy, you’ll see exactly 0 ways to dig further into your own deck.
Control decks have two common forms in 1v1 Magic. First, let’s look at the Draw-Go style of Control. This type of deck plays a slow, reactive game and positions itself to deal with their opponent’s threats while slowly creating card advantage for themselves, which they use to outlast and eventually defeat their opponent. The name comes from the tendency to play primarily Instants, allowing all decisions to be made with as much information about the opponents gameplan as possible. The second type of Control deck that sees frequent play is Tap-Out control. These style of decks aim to leverage powerful sorcery speed advantage engines and focus more on broad applicability rather than reactive information gathering. Decks like Solar Flare, from SOM-ISD Standard feature this strategy, eschewing counterspells for Oblivion Rings and Planeswalkers.
Midrange decks are in a position between Aggro and Control decks – they usually play slowly to start, using the first few turns to advance their resources, and will then start to overwhelm their opponent by continuously deploying strong, effective threats. The most midrange decks that exist are the Rock decks of Modern: Jund, Abzan, and GB. They play quite simply the best cards they can to flesh out a well balanced deck. Some ramp, some removal, some planeswalkers, some creatures. Everything is about efficiency. Your card quality matters far more than your card quantity, because your cards will often deal with multiple of your opponents. It takes two Lightning Bolts to remove a Siege Rhino, and a third to make up for the triggered ability.
Now that we have a good working definition of archetypes in 1v1 Magic, let’s establish two things that are fundamentally different about EDH. First, every player has forty life instead of twenty. Second, you play against multiple opponents rather than just one. Going back to our archetype definitions, we saw that Aggro decks don’t really care about card efficiency, but instead try to reduce their opponents’ life totals to zero as quickly as possible. When the amount of damage we need to deal is 120 (three opponents with forty life each) instead of twenty, it’s quite apparent that a traditionally-built Aggro deck will run out of steam very quickly. For those of you who have read about the Philosophy of Fire: In order to keep up with with the increased life totals, our baseline damage spell wouldn’t have to be two damage per mana and card to kill everyone with ten cards, but rather twelve damage per mana and card. And while that may be the dream of every burn player in existence, it’s probably not going to happen.
Similar to how a classic Aggro deck can count the amount of cards it takes to kill their opponents, classic Control decks can “count“ the amount of card advantage they need to accrue while dealing with their opponents’ threats. At some point in the game, they’ll need to pull ahead in a significant manner, but this is only possible by maintaining net positive card advantage. Here’s where the Multiplayer nature of EDH throws a wrench in the works of Control decks: if the Control deck deal with a single opponent’s threats in a 1-for-1 manner, the other two players at the table gain card advantage over both of the players that just interacted, because one player played a card that got dealt with, and the other player spent resources to deal with that card. In other words, both of those players just lost a card while the other two players didn’t need to contribute anything. This means that any Control spell would have to consistently be a 3-for-1 or better while also being mana-efficient to enable a classic Control deck in EDH.
Midrange, as it is known in 1v1 formats, is also in a tough spot in EDH since the value of its efficient threats can be expressed by how much of an advantage they generate. Similar to how Control cards would need to scale in their efficiency to deal with threats, a Midrange deck’s threats would need to be efficient enough to be threatening to every opponent at once. These types of threats are usually so expensive mana-wise that a classic Midrange deck would have trouble deploying them continuously. Overwhelming three opponents with card quality is significantly harder than overwhelming one opponent.
This raises the question: what can we do in this forty life Multiplayer format to quickly and efficiently win the game? The answer to that lies in the fourth classic archetype: Combo. Going back to the Philosophy of Fire, the underlying question is: how many cards do we need to kill our opponents? For Combo, the answer to that can often be two or three. That’s an amazingly efficient way to win the game, even with multiple opponents. This is why, in competitive EDH, nearly every deck utilizes combos as their primary means of winning the game. However, calling every cEDH deck a combo deck would be very dismissive of the format’s diversity and variety of strategies precisely because combo utilization is a prerequisite for competitiveness, rather than a specific method of competitiveness.
If we assume that every deck is going to have a combo finish among their options to win, we need to find other ways to describe how they play out so we can distinguish them. To do this, I’m going to start by taking three sample decks, briefly describe the way their average game plays out under ideal circumstances, and then attempt to categorize them into an archetype.
The first of these decks will be Breakfast Hulk Thrasios/Tymna. This is a deck that aims to win as fast as possible, consistently doing so by turn 3. While there are many flavors of Breakfast Combo in Flash Hulk, they’re all relatively as fast as each other. The ways one such build does this are, primarily, Hermit Druid or Flash Hulk. These cards allow you to mill your entire deck, and win via Dread Return into something. There have been Laboratory Maniacs, Angels of Glory’s Rise, Muldrotha the Gravetides, exactly what is selected for the true final combo is somewhat irrelevant to the categorization, though.
The second deck will be Rashmi. While she has slowly filtered out of the meta in most groups, she’s still a good deck to illustrate points with. This deck wins at a glacial pace, with games consistently lasting upwards of 2 hours. It seeks to make 1 for 1 trades with countermagic, making up the lost card advantage through Rashmi’s triggered ability. Exactly how the deck wins can vary, from Seasons Past loops fueled by an Enter the Infinite to, looping Extra Turn spells.
The exact method, as with Breakfast Hulk, doesn’t really matter to us here, and is secondary to the process of getting to the point where any of those can be applied to begin with.
The third deck here will be Yisan. This deck has incredible versatility, applying the nature of Yisan’s activated ability to turn on a toolbox style gameplan, capable of playing slow or rushing into a win. Starting from the very first verse, you can either play a Sylvan Safekeeper game, protecting your threats with your lands, or a Quirion Ranger, untapping Yisan and starting to power yourself into a combo finish with Temur Sabertooth and Karametra’s Acolyte. The deck utilizes quite a few silver bullets, from Phyrexian Revoker to Kraul Harpooner, giving it the ability to interact with any number of decks on any number of axes.
Looking at these three decks, you can see many equivalent aspects of 1v1 archetypes coming through. If we generalize “aggro” to be the deck that wins as fast as possible, Breakfast Hulk slots into the Aggro archetype, Rashmi into the Control archetype, and Yisan into the Midrange archetype. So how about we take those known and expected archetype definitions and extend them so that they can apply to these decks?
An Aggro deck aims to win the game as quickly as possible. This means that they focus on converting their cards into combo pieces in some way, be it through cantripping or tutoring for the cards needed to combo off. Rather than relying on card advantage to win the game, they want to outrace their opponent. These decks will often seek to use their commander as one such combo piece, to decrease the cards needed to outright win. Decks I would consider Aggro include Breakfast Hulk, Lightning Druid, or Brostorm Selvala.
A Control deck plays a slow game, either reactively through countermagic or proactively through stax elements, and positions itself to effectively interact with the opponent’s threats without giving up too much card advantage in the process. These decks will often seek to use their commander as a way to offset the card disadvantage, to prevent them from running out of cards, and thus, interaction. Decks I would consider Control incude Rashmi, Blood Pod Tana/Tymna, and Taisgur.
Midrange decks are in a position between Aggro and Control decks – they usually play slowly to start, using the first few turns to advance their resources, and will then start to overwhelm their opponent by deploying powerful threats with precise timing, be they engines like Yisan or burst effects like Ad Nauseam. Acting in the midgame, when other decks have spent their interaction to deal with any Aggro decks at the table, the midrange deck will be able to deploy a threat and protect it. These decks will often seek to use their commander as one such engine, either by producing cards like Yisan, or by producing card advantage, like Thrasios. Decks I would consider Midrange include Yisan, Scepter Thrasios/Tymna, and any of a variety of MAN (Midrange Ad Nauseam) decks like Tymna/Kraum.
With this, we now have slightly modified archetype definitions that can be applied to decks in competitive EDH, as they all contain the potential for combo kills, and remove the 1v1 assumption involved in card advantage. They are, hopefully, intuitive for players transitioning to the format with experience in 1v1 Magic. And finally, they allow for an inverted version of the metagame triangle to be applied. To clarify, in cEDH, the aggro decks are able to sneak in under the midrange. The midrange are able to protect their win against the control, and the control are able to hard stop the aggro. With that in mind, let’s explore some of the prominent strategies that these three archetypes contain in the current cEDH meta. Note that this is going to be somewhat subjective, as broad categorization is. Many decks can play out across archetype lines depending on the pod composition and the draw they have, so take what I’m saying with a grain of salt. This is just supposed to be a somewhat helpful heuristic for quick reference and learning.
There are a lot of different strategies, and ways you could frame strategies in cEDH. Do you define them based on the wincon? Do you define them based on the commanders? What about decks that use the same finisher setup but differ only in wincon? Does play pattern for the bulk of a game count? It’s somewhat nebulous what to count, so everybody’s answers may be different. In this article, I’ll be focusing primarily on the last point, which is ‘primary play patterns.’ To that end, the following are strategies I’ve observed in cEDH and use in my own head to structure the format’s options. Not every deck falls nicely into one of these categories, but I’ll be trying to get as many popular decks shown as I can.
These are decks that primarily aim to use Flash to trigger a Protean Hulk, and win the game with actions that follow it. These decks are typically aggro decks, and among the fastest in the format. They often utilize mill combos like Cephalid Breakfast   , Hermit Druid  , or Sacred Guide  to set up a nice Dread Return to win. Flash Hulk, while incredibly power and cost efficient, is a very slot intensive strategy to take full advantage of. Flash, Protean Hulk, Nomad’s en-Kor, Cephalid Illusionist, Dread Return, Narcomoeba, the list of cards you need to be able to win goes on and on. These are not slot efficient combos. But, they are combos that can layer, like in Hulk Druid Tazri. Being able to put in several combos that are all capable of using the majority of the same pieces is a way to make positive use of this slot inefficiency to gain resilience. So in general you are trading off slot efficiency for play efficiency, playing 5+ mediocre maindeck cards to enable your “win” spell to be a 2 card combo that only costs 3-4 mana.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be both, it could easily just be one or the other. But these are commonly seen together due to the minimal downside of including both. Paradox Engine and the Dramatic Scepter combo both key off the same setup, which is nonland mana sources. Decks that want to use one will almost always be able to take advantage of the other. This is a fairly slot efficient strategy, because at any given point in the game, your Isochron Scepter can come down with a Mana Drain on it, or Dramatic Reversal can be a +4 ritual to get you to the counterwar mana you need. These are actively decent cards in addition to their pairing being an infinte combo. What you give up to get such a slot and card efficient combo, however, is commander selection. To be able to optimally make use of this pairing of combos, you will need an infinite mana sink in the command zone. Whether it’s Thrasios partnered with Tymna or Vial Smasher, Breya, Circu, or some other options, there are numerous choices available based on your preference and budget.
Non-Scepter Paradox Engine
Some commanders can make us of repeatedly being untapped by a Paradox Engine trigger. People have designed some very clever win lines to make use of this in decks like Arcum and Sisay. What’s extra helpful about those two in particular is that they’re capable of finding the Paradox Engine themselves, so your combo initiation is simply to cast your commander and activate them. Obviously this is another case of restrictive commander choices, but you also have to give up some number of slots for mediocre cards to support this combo. For Arcum, that number of slots is close to 1/3 of the deck. For Sisay, it’s significantly less. And you get to play some dope old school spice like Skyship Weatherlight or Bow of Nylea.
This is a nice card with some sweet combos to go along with it. There are several creatures that can be cast from exile, allowing you to produce infinite mana to cast creatures with Food Chain. There are several ways to win once you’ve done this, but that’s topics for the next article, really. The point is, being actively looking to exile some number of cards from your deck means you’re actually rewarded for playing the ‘forbidden tutors’ like Tainted Pact and Demonic Consultation, mitigating their primary downside of exiling a bunch of your stuff. Tazri (and to a lesser extent, Prossh) are both very capable of taking advantage of these cards, and using them to fuel their combo. Food Chain decks also give up meaningful commander selection to be able to accomodate the ‘creature only’ clause of Food Chain, but the options currently available are perfectly sufficient for multiple cEDH decks to be built.
These decks are built around the Forbidden Tutors I just talked about. If you cast a Demonic Consultation and name a card that isn’t in your deck, you very conveniently exile your whole deck for a single mana. While that may seem bonkers, it gets a lot better if you can have a Laboratory Maniac in play before you draw your next card. Commanders like Kess can be extra efficient with these kind of decks, being able to double cast the Consultation, the first time to find Lab Maniac, the second time to exile the deck, and so on. For this strategy, there aren’t any commanders significantly better suited to the playstyle than Kess, but plenty of UBx(y) variants have been running around lately and seeing positive results. This is a very compact strategy, which is very nice in these UBx(y) midrange decks with piles of options for interaction and draw.
Once a household name, now known only to a few who still remember. Doomsday is an incredibly powerful card that has begun to fall out of favor (in every format it used to be good in). While it is still just as powerful now as ever, people have begun to move towards significantly more efficient ways to set up a Laboratory Maniac win than with Doomsday and Lion’s Eye Diamond and Gush and Yawgmoth’s Will and so on. We even just looked at Consultation decks that do it for a single black mana. Doomsday is triple that, so you can see why it’s less attractive. However, some commanders like Yidris still have some decent Doomsday tech to offer, like setting up highly protected piles with his Cascade trigger active, and so on. But to really Doomsday, you need to dedicate a lot of slots to subpar cards, and have quite a bit of mana ready to use them.
These decks are also quite a bit more scarce than they used to be. Back in Jeleva’s prime, High Tide lines into Mind’s Desire and finishing with a massive double Tendrils at the end to finish things off were the norm, and what peak performance looked like. At this point, Dramatic Scepter makes infinite storm for 4 generic mana and two cards, and also makes infinite mana along the way, so the draw for Natural Storm at this point is mostly just ‘for fun.’
This is where I lump a few decks together that are kinda iffy in some ways. There are several creatures decks that function in a midrange capacity, using hatebears and value engines like Eidolon of Rhetoric and Yisan to gain tempo and accrue value. Several Tymna decks will function in the same realm, using her as a crucial card advantage source to stay ahead of the table. These decks are inherently slower than many of the spell based combo decks, but they have the advantage on board. They can chip away at Naus players over time that they gain using these stax elements, and finish things off with a Saberooth, Kiki Jiki, or Razaketh combo.
As new strategies emerge and play host to multiple decks, I’ll update this with a brief synopsis for them. Remember, this is only meant as a vague guide towards a few of the commonalities between multiple cEDH decks. This is not some kind of empirical list. But hopefully it is effective at helping newer players identify and play somewhat optimally against the various decks they encounter on a regular basis. With that, I’ll conclude this article. Thank you all for for reading, and I’ll see you next time with cEDH 101: Combos and Finishers!
-Dan (ft. Sigi)