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Commander Staples and You: Power Versus Creativity?

By Roberto Moser • February 22, 2017

So you want to update your Commander deck

Commander is a beautiful, interactive, funny and intriguing format. It speaks to – almost – all kinds of players, allowing everyone to dive with passion into challenging deckbuilding. Whether you are a hard-core Timmy/Tammy, wanting to cast huge and epic spells, or you are a Vorthos, longing for flavour-based deckbuilding, Commander has a lot to offer.

The beauty – and the curse – of the format is that decks are rarely completed and tuned to their final form. One or two cards might sneak in every so often, massive re-buildings might be in order every couple of years and constant tuning is a reality for all Commander aficionados. It's a beautiful journey of constant improvement that just never seems to reach it destination.

This means every new set, every new supplementary product offers a chance to re-evaluate your decks and see what deserves a permanent spot in the list and what might the cut, replaced or improved. In time, almost the entirety of your original decklist might be completely subverted, aside for a few staples, the cards you are never ever going to cut from your deck, because they are simply too good.

It happened to me very recently with my Grimgrin, Corpse-Born deck. The list is more than five years old, so a lot has happened since I drafted it for the first time – back then, to be fair, the deck included questionable options like Stitched Drake, so let's say this has been quite a long journey. I finally got around to include Sword of Feast and Famine, after years of telling myself I didn't need protection from Green – guess what? I was wrong! – and I seized the opportunity to also add Trophy Mage, just to increase my chances of finding one of the three Swords of Things and Stuff I run.

With Aether Revolt hitting shelves, I also decided to give Disallow a try. The mix of Counterspell and Stifle seems like an interesting trick to have up your sleeve. While I do not want to shift my deck towards a Counterspell-heavy list, having a couple of them for insurance really embodies my idea of Control in a complex multiplayer format like Commander. You never know, sometimes it's better to prevent an Armageddon, rather than playing around it.

Sword of Feast and Famine

Three new cards come in, three need to leave. I took it to Twitter and to my local playgroup to discuss my options and find suggestions on what to remove from my deck. Many good ideas popped up, interesting choices were discussed and I really found myself flooded with very good suggestions.

In the midst of all the safe options, a couple radical suggestions emerged. For these, I have to thank none other than Kyle Carson, bearded Commander cowboy with some great contents under his WordPress belt and Kaka, General Damage Control contributor and bearded Blue mage. Yes, there seems to be a direct correlation between Commander proficiency and possession of a beard, but that's a topic for another day.

While every other suggestion gravitated around cards that were good, but not necessarily optimal for the deck, they dared to suggest the cutting of actual staples. Most notably, Sensei's Divining Top and maybe, with that, the cards that orbit around its sphere of influence, like Trinket Mage.

Were they insane for suggesting such a drastic approach to deckbuilding? Or were they enlightened thinkers, willing to walk paths rarely dared by common players? Are staples untouchable resources in an average list, or are they but general guidelines for uninspired deckbuilding, wanting to acquire power without overthinking the list?

But in the end, what is a staple, when it comes to Commander?

Darksteel Ingot

So you want to define “staple”

Magic players love hyperboles. Some cards are absolutely unplayable others are broken bombs that will ruin Magic forever. Within this spectrum, there are staples. The best of the best. The card that you just have to play.

But what is a staple? If we were to give a univocal and pretty standard definition, a staple is a card that is so good, you should always play it if you have access to it within a certain format, as long as your deckbuilding goal is crafting the most competitive deck possible.

Notable examples include Force of Will in Legacy, ubiquitously played by pretty much every deck having access to a critical mass of Blue cards. Or Black Lotus in Vintage, a card that essentially appears in each possible list and is among the most defining traits of the format itself.

The line between a great card and a staple, however, is extremely thin. While many would consider Lightning Bolt as a staple of Modern, Scapeshift and Goryo's Vengeance decks often opt to not run any copy of the powerful Instant, having to devote the entirety of the decklist to a specific combination of cards.

So, by the definition we gave, Lightning Bolt is not a Modern staple, right? Well, not necessarily.

The term staple has been often used to refer to commonly played cards that are not necessarily mandatory, but simply manage to sneak in most of the decks that have access to it. Lightning Bolt, Path to Exile and Tarmogoyf fulfil the requirement, as they are played in most of Red, White and Green, respectively. However, some Nahiri, the Harbinger Control lists do not run Path to Exile and most Green-based infect decks do not run Tarmogoyf. The cards are very powerful, but sometimes they do not add anything to the core strategy of the deck, so they are put aside in favour of more specific and focused options.

Refining this definition, we could say a staple is a card that is played in the vast majority of the decks having access to it, aside for those occasions were the staple doesn't sufficiently contribute to the overall strategy. Sure, Lightning Bolt, Path to Exile and Tarmogoyf are amazing cards, but maybe your Scapeshift deck has no room for a removal that doesn't advance the strategy. Maybe that Path to Exile is extremely anti-synergistic with your Blood Moon and maybe the raw damage of Tarmogoyf is pointless, if the plan is to win via poison counters.

Lightning Bolt

Let's move to Commander, now. The format has a pool of options comparable to Legacy and Vintage – let's keep in mind this, because it will be useful later, through the article – but it requires players to gather more than the canonical fifteen-or-so non-Land cards in multiple copies. Players have to carefully select around sixty different cards, navigating a vast ocean of options, spanning more than twenty years and featuring hundreds of hidden gems.

Where to start, then? With the staples, of course! The Internet is a goldmine of lists, charts, articles and videos gathering the staples of the format, the fundamental, inalienable cards that should always be in your deck, provided you have access to a certain Colour.

One again, we could adapt the definition, this time for Commander. In the Elder Dragon Highlander format, we could define staples as those cards that are to always be expected within a certain Colour combination, disregarding the Commander and the related strategy. Whether an opponent plays Rafiq of the Many or Olivia Voldaren, it is safe to assume that Sol Ring and Command Tower will be in the list. It would be safe to expect the former also runs Swords to Plowshares, while the latter has Terminate.

Because those are staples. Every Commander deck with White runs Swords to Plowshares, much like every Commander deck with Red and Black runs Terminate.

If you want to go a little deeper and actually read what those Commanders actually do, you will probably manage to guess something more Legend-specific, rather than general Colour-based options.

Rafiq of the Many is a great Commander for Voltron strategies, but it has no in-built protection. It probably runs some good Equipments, like Lightning Greaves and Sword of Fire and Ice. Having access to White, Stoneforge Mystic is another safe guess.

Olivia Voldaren can be built Voltron, Control or Vampire-Tribal, so it is harder to predict what will surely be in the list. However, all her versions need copious amounts of Red and Black Mana, and she has no access to Green-based ramping, so it is absolutely likely that an Olivia Voldaren deck will include a Rakdos Signet, among its Mana producers.

Rakdos Signet

We could consider these cards as Commander-specific staples, or conditional staples – for how ridiculous that sounds – as they might not appear in all lists having access to the same Colours, but are almost guaranteed when certain Commanders are involved. Derevi, Empyrial Tactician has the same Colour Identity of Rafiq of the Many, but her Prison-Stax style is likely to divert deckbuilding priorities towards Winter Orb, rather than Stoneforge Mystic. Exava, Rakdos Blood Witch is Black and Red like Olivia Voldaren, but she is way more likely to run Unspeakable Symbol for the haste bonus, which serves little to no purpose in Olivia Voldaren.

So you want to play with staples

Because we are Magic players and we like lists, charts and analyses, we have the habit of rating cards, prioritizing choices and giving scores and ranks to our deckbuilding options.

Staples are the top of the crop, the best of the breed, the obligatory picks when building a deck. Between general staples, Colour-specific staples and Commander-specific staples, you could easily build any given deck with minimal effort and creative inputs. But before picking up our pitchforks and condemn the concept of staples for limiting creativity and discouraging innovative deckbuilding, let's state the obvious and focus on the actual pros of the existence of staples as a deckbuilding concept.

Solemn Simulacrum

Sometimes a new player comes to our game store and catches us playing Commander. We are a casual playgroup: everyone obviously wants to win, but we strongly discourage non-interactive strategies and we like to chat, joke and have fun during games. It's a really welcoming environment and we have had many players building decks just to join the fun.

The first question we get is “where do I start?”. I like to give as little inputs as possible, so my first approach is to just “pick a Legendary Creature you like, add forty-ish Lands and all the spells you like in those Colours!”. Game after game, the new player will see which cards work, which don't, what is missing and what elements should be further explored. Sure, it takes more time than just printing a net-decked list, but the process is way more rewarding than adopting a full, pre-compiled list of a hundred cards without questioning all options.

Many players, however, want to know more, before piling up cards. Their constructed Magic instinct points them towards the best cards, the best decks, the best Colours. Each of this topic would lend itself to a thorough discussion, so providing good, but not excessive inputs to a new player can be a real challenge. Staples get immediately mentioned and for a good reason: many players want to know what are the absolute musts of a format they do not know, so the usual names get thrown in the discussion.

All the PreCons have a Sol Ring, which is always auto-include” is usually a good hook to check out the latest iteration of the Wizards' supplementary products.

Sensei's Divining Top is amazing!” is usually proclaimed by an impatient player, who is then forced to explain why the card is actually good in a format like Commander. It seems very intuitive if you are used to spinning Sensei's Divining Top in Commander games, but to a new player the card might not seem that big of a deal.

If you play Blue, check out Cyclonic Rift and Consecrated Sphinx” is when we start diving specific Colours. “In Green, don't forget to give Oracle of Mul Daya a spin!” proclaims the enthusiastic Green player, ramping and acquiring card advantage.

You must play Prophet of Kruphix!” I usually proclaim, just to pour salt in the wound of the Simic player who is still recovering from the most painful ban of his or her life. I just hated the card and I am glad it's gone. Sue me.

Oracle of Mul Daya

While it's great to give new players the opportunity to experiment and figure out the best options, staples provide a good perspective on where one might want to start, living options open for a lot of creative deckbuilding. While I would never force a player to run a certain shortlist of cards, hiding the existence of Sol Ring, Sensei's Divining Top and Command Tower serves no purpose in one's journey of Commander deckbuilding.

Because, once again, building a Commander deck is a never-ending journey of tuning, refining and improving. There is no optimal list – and if there is, I want nothing to do with that – just a lot of small, tentative steps towards improvement and fun.

Maybe your journey will never have you removing those precious staples from your deck. Or, maybe, you'll grow tired of them and you will decide to replace them with something more interesting, more personal, more entertaining.

Sure, Turn-one Sol Ring is amazing, but maybe Turn-one Brainstorm is more your style.

So you don't want to play with staples

Among the most compelling arguments against the automatic usage of staples is the fact that they easily limit choices and explorative deckbuilding. A hundred cards might seem a huge number, but every Commander player knows the feeling of wanting to add something new to the list and feeling like there is no room available.

It might feel like a small percentage of the entire list, but the uncritical acceptance of staples in every single list can significantly reduce the fun of building and playing Commander.

You start with Sol Ring, because it was in the PreCon. You add Sensei's Divining Top, because it's amazing. You play Creatures, so Skullclamp comes in. Darksteel Ingot might be useful and Solemn Simulacrum is just too good to ignore. Commander's Sphere is great both in the early stages and the late game and a couple of Signets might be worth it. You want your Commander to survive targeted removal, so Lightning Greaves look like a great option. Gilded Lotus is excellent for fixing and, since you'd like an explosive start now and then, Mana Vault doesn't sound bad at all. You were lucky enough to find a Mana Crypt in a pack of Eternal Masters, so you might as well play it.

Without touching Colours, you already have a good ten percent of your deck locked by staples that are unquestionably powerful, but effectively take ten slots away from your creative deckbuilding.

Start diving into specific Colours and the usual suspects get thrown in the ring. Black demands Demonic Tutor and Damnation, White calls for Day of Judgment and Swords to Plowshares, Red bring in Chaos Warp and Blasphemous Act, Green has Oracle of Mul Daya and Eternal Witness, Blue gives you Consecrated Sphinx and Cyclonic Rift. Before you realize it, twenty or more slots in the deck are locked by staples. And as you start playing, you find out the cards are so good, you don't want to cut them from the list.

Day of Judgment

So where is the line? On one hand, staples are arguably the most powerful cards available in Commander. On the other, indulging in staples leads to repetitive deckbuilding and the risk of converging on a bunch of Good stuff decks that look like almost identical to one another.

Is there a point where you grow tired of knowing that all the decks at your local game store have the same thirty-or-so cards in them? Even worse, how does it feel to know that all the decks you have include the same twenty cards?

So you want to just play Commander

The Latins used to say “in medio stat virtus” – literally, “virtue stands in the middle”. A great motto for any Commander player wanting to balance raw power with creative deckbuilding – actually, a great motto in life, but that's again a topic for another article.

When you are pulled by the need for intelligent and out-of-the-box thinking, but you also feel the push to sometimes win a game here and there, you need to learn how to balance the contrasting forces in your deckbuilding life.

To me, this translated into different degrees of stapling within different decks. If you follow the amazing Erik Tiernan – yes, he also has a beard! – on StarcityGames.com, you might have stumbled upon this article. In that he perfectly summarized my Commander story.

For years I have refrained myself from building multiple Commander decks. I wanted to focus on a single deck, play my favourite cards and make the list my own. I wanted the deck to be good, to feel good and to play good. No degenerate combo, no degenerate locks, just powerful cards that gave me a good vibe. Grimgrin, Corpse-Born is, to this day, my favourite deck. It showcases my favourite Colours, it quenches my Spike thirst, it nods at my Vorthos soul and it winks at my Timmy instinct. I get to play good spells, flavourful spells and epic spells.

For years I failed to see the need for a second deck. Why would I have wanted to build another deck? I would have had to acquire another copy of all the staples and a good chunk of the list would have played very similar to the deck I already had.

I mean, I loved Sword of Fire and Ice and Sword of Light and Shadow. Would a second deck require another copy of each of my favourite swords?

Sword of Fire and Ice

Then it hit me: I don't have to play another good deck. I can build a fun, Casual, dumb deck that doesn't even try to win the game. Enter Diaochan, Artful Beauty and a lot of wacky Chaos cards. Enter Warp World, Omen Machine, Confusion in the Ranks, Grip of Chaos, Possibility Storm, Scrambleverse and all their friends. Suddenly, the need for staples was gone. I willingly chose not to play Sensei's Divining Top, because I did not want to know and adjust my draws. I did not want Sword of Fire and Ice or any of the other Swords, because the deck was not supposed to bash in for damage. Chaos was the name of the game.

In medio stat virtus”, so when I decided to embark on two more deckbuilding endeavours, I picked my poison and chose how to limit myself. Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger was built with an Eldrazi Tribal theme. So no Solemn Simulacrum, no Wurmcoil Engine, no Steel Hellkite, no Burnished Hart. Just eldritch monsters and Mana rocks. A lot of Mana rocks. Seriously, I had to scour Gatherer for hours to find all the Mana rocks I wanted.

Bruna, the Fading Light, on the other hand, was built on a theme. Complete annihilation was the motto; so mass removal became the guiding theme for the deck. That, and I wanted to fully dive into Bruna, the Fading Light's ability, so only Humans and Angels were allowed. Sure, Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite is a White staple, but there was no room for her in the Church of Nightmares. No Sun Titan, no Reveillark, no Stoneforge Mystic. To quote Subjugator Angel's flavour text, “the remnants of Innistrad's corrupted angelic hosts collapsed to form the Flight of Nightmares”. Epic flavour is served.

This is where I am now. I love all my decks and I have fun playing each of them. Depending on the table, I can choose whether I want to play tight Control, wacky Chaos, epic Eldrazi or massive board wipes. And knowing the themes and what each deck is supposed to do, I know how many staples I actually want.

Sometimes, self-limitation is the key to explore uncharted territory.

Gisela, the Broken Blade

So you want to address the elephant(s) in the room

The way I view it, self-limitation should never be blindly accepted, but handled with awareness and consciousness. Despite my willingness to build on a theme and to craft decks with a very specific set of goals in mind, I couldn't escape the temptation to play some of the most powerful cards of the formats.

I considered the self-imposed deck limitations as paramount components of my deckbuilding, but I wanted to make sure the rest of the deck was as powerful as possible. Sure, Solemn Simulacrum is not an Eldrazi, nor an Angel, so it was rightfully left out of my Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and my Bruna, the Fading Light decks. But the card is just too good to not be included in my more competitive Grimgrin, Corpse-Born or in my wacky Diaochan, Artful Beauty – where it also triggers Confusion in the Ranks and Possibility Storm in different ways, so additional randomness is possible.

The biggest offenders when we talk about staples are usually a bunch of usual suspects. Sol Ring is the most ubiquitously played card in Commander, according to EDHREC.com. The card is extremely powerful in almost any kind of strategy, offering a two-Turn acceleration that can be decisive in very cutthroat games. The card is also easily available, as it was printed in each and every Commander PreCon deck so far. Wizards has essentially presented Commander as a format where decks always include ninety-nine cards and a Sol Ring, so the card is easily the prime example of a staple for new and veteran players.

Sol Ring

While the vast majority of decks tend to run Sol Ring without ever questioning its adequacy, three are the main reasons why the card might be purposely excluded from a certain list.

First and foremost, Colour or strategy requirements. Rhys, the Redeemed, Seton, Krosan Protector, Ezuri, Renegade Leader and Oviya Pashiri, Sage Lifecrafter decks might prefer a Turn-one Llanowar Elves for the guaranteed Green Mana, rather than the two Colourless provided by Sol Ring. Ramping and increasing the Creature count is something that Green excels at, so it comes as no surprise that Green decks might be the first to turn their backs to the powerful Artifact. Rakdos, Lord of Riots is another great example of a deck that often doesn't really want a Sol Ring, as casting the Commander only requires Coloured Mana and the cost reduction makes Colourless Mana almost irrelevant.

The second reason comes with conscious self-limitation. Yes, I'm back there. If you are building a Ruric Thar, the Unbowed or a Melek, Izzet Paragon deck, you might want to only include cards of a certain type. Sure, both decks could benefit from the efficient ramping of Sol Ring, but building with restrictions allows to explore new approaches and options. When you don't have to lock an average of ten slots for the most powerful Artifacts in the format, there is way more room for experimentation.

The third and – for the purposes of this article – most interesting reason to not run Sol Ring in your Commander deck is a matter of fairness and balance within your playgroup. How many times a Turn-one Sol Ring completely warped the game? How many times the boost it provided was just too much to recover from?

Press the Advantage

While some playgroups might enjoy the game-warping effects of a Turn-one Sol Ring and the target it paints on the forehead of its caster, others might want to keep things fairer and more balanced, preventing explosive starts before they even happen.

The Commander Rules Committee periodically updates the Ban List for the format, but local playgroups are always encouraged to enforce their own preferences, as long as everyone is on the same page for what Commander should be.

Sheldon Menery recently published an article on StarCityGames.com where he discussed the philosophy of the Rules Committee and, with that, the inspiring principles of the format itself. One of the passages I found more interesting is the continuous work to prevent the feeling that Commander is “simply Alt-Vintage” – I told you to keep in mind the card pool of Commander, compared to Vintage!

Despite having access to a very similar card pool – where else can you play Sol Ring and Mana Crypt on your first turn? – the goal of Commander was never to promote an extremely competitive environment based on Turn-one kills or hyper-efficient Combos.

Sure, your local game store might have that guy who always tries to Combo off before Turn three, but, to the majority of players, Commander games are well-fought battles, filled with machinations, power and pure fun.

The line between Vintage and Commander, here, is tricky. Let's say you are resolving a Turn-one Mana Crypt, what do you do with those three Mana? If your answer is “Trinisphere!, you might want to consider Vintage as your format of choice. If the first card that came to mind was Burnished Hart, welcome to Commander.

Nevertheless, a playgroup that wants to ensure that games are never warped by a Turn-one Sol Ring might opt to internally ban the card and there is nothing wrong about that. Talking to your playgroup is usually the best way to deal with any attrition that might exist between the people behind the decks.

Sure, they are your opponents. But if you are lucky enough, they are also your friends.

Blessed Alliance

So you want to count your staples

I would like to finish this dissertation on a personal note. Getting back to the topic that sparked the whole discussion, I ended up adding Trophy Mage, Disallow and Sword of Feast and Famine to my Grimgrin, Corpse-Born deck, by cutting Spell Crumple, Liliana Vess and Gilded Lotus. While I wasn't brave enough to remove Sensei's Divining Top from my list, I still managed to cut one of the most powerful cards of the format. So, to some extent, I'm counting this as a personal victory.

Gilded Lotus is an amazing card and I would suggest to always consider it, when building a new deck. But sometimes, your deck tuning and refinement take you to a pretty low curve and to a relatively small number of six-drops and seven-drops. As much as I love the card, I felt it was time to include something else in the list, maybe at the cost of raw power.

As of this moment, to be honest, Gilded Lotus is still proudly displayed in two of my four decks. As much as I might want to limit the number of staples, I still can't really move too far from them and from their immense playability.

So here comes a brief confession time. Done by numbers, because Magic players love numbers.

Gilded Lotus

Among my four decks, the most played cards are – unsurprisingly – Sol Ring, Mana Vault and Lightning Greaves. These three are the only cards to appear in all four of my decks and they simply manage to sneak in every single list I have put my hands on. They just work very well in all my decks, between the Mana acceleration Sol Ring and Mana Vault provide and the excellent combination of shroud and haste given by Lightning Greaves. These three cards are always a welcome sight in my opening hands and one key contributing factor, here, is their availability. They are just very cheap and easy to acquire, so there is little to no budgetary limitation.

Three decks include Sensei's Divining Top, as Diaochan, Artful Beauty is the only deck that does not run the powerful Artifact. As I said, this is more of a self-imposed limitation, than an actual strategic decision. Diaochan, Artful Beauty just doesn't want to scry or rearrange the top of the library. I mean, Timesifter is only fun when nobody knows what's on top of the library. Otherwise, there might be a chance my deck might end up actually winning some game.

At the same count we have Mind Stone, Worn Powerstone, Wayfarer's Bauble, Hedron Archive, Coldsteel Heart and Thran Dynamo. Ironically, all these cards do not appear in Grimgrin, Corpse-Born, but are proudly included in the other decks, which tend to require way more Mana and have pretty challenging curves. Although the status of staple is very debatable for some of these cards, their usage is pretty significant in my decks, as they provide a good and versatile effect, as long as Mana ramping is something the list needs.

Among the other classic staples, Solemn Simulacrum and Mana Crypt only appear twice. Between the Tribal limitations affecting the first and the limited availability of the second, these cards are just not omnipresent as they might be for other players.

Other cards sometimes referred to as staples appear even less in my lists. I only run a single Darksteel Ingot among my four decks, I just don't like the card that much, so I ended up cutting it from most of my decks – aside for Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, who pretty much demands all Mana rocks I can squeeze in it.

The same is true for Skullclamp: amazing card, but only my Grimgrin, Corpse-Born deck can really profit off of it.

So where do I land in the staple spectrum? I would not consider myself a staple devotee, as I often try and limit myself from always play the same cards in each deck. On the other hand, I am really not against the usage of the cards that I consider very good, but, at the same time, somehow fair.

As much as Sol Ring and Mana Vault provide an unfair Mana advantage in the early turns, they are also excellent lightning rods that tend to spontaneously push players to form an alliance against that one player and the explosive start he or she pulled off.

If I were to summarize the core of the matter in a single sentence, here, I'd say staples are awesome, but you might want to play them with a grain of salt, as they might limit your deckbuilding fun and they will surely draw a lot of attention on your board. So pick them up with a grain of salt, or, as the Latins would say “cum grano salis”.

Yes, here at MTGAssist.com we not only provide amazing articles, but we also teach you amazingly epic languages that you can use to show off with your friends.

So you want to segue into something awesome

Where does this dissertation on Commander staples takes us? Well, here at MTGAssist.com we take things very seriously and we are working on a series of articles covering the various staples of the Commander format.

We are working on a discussion composition between fellow writer and Commander extraordinaire Joseph Graves – another bearded Commander savant? What is this format? Beard town?! – and I – the one without a beard – as we delve into what cards Commander decks want in their construction.

Tandem Tactics

So stay tuned, because we might have discussions, debates, fights and drama ahead of us. Until then, let me know what are your favourite Commander staples, what cards you think should always be played and what cards you consider overrated.

We will welcome all opinions – unless you suggest me to cut Sol Ring from my decks, because evidently I am not ready for that! – and we will surely find some interesting inspiration from your comments!

Bonus points if you have a beard.

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