It's 1:27 AM. You've just returned from a night of playing Commander with your friends. You won a game or two, lost a game or two, but the vibes were great, and the games were great, too. You're sitting in front your deckbuilding website of choice. A copy ofstares balefully back at you. It's been staring at you for the last twenty minutes. There must be a card to cut from your deck, something that isn't quite working. You're tagging and untagging your cards, sorting by mana value, counting your pieces of interaction, checking your land count. There are no obvious cuts because the deck is working as intended. But you know you can find room for Sculpting Steel.
I'd say that about half of you have been in a scenario like this one. I've found, in my experience talking with players at my local game store and thinking out loud on the microphone during recording sessions for the Get Commanded! Podcast, that this ratio usually holds up.
Most of us who've been playing Commander for more than a year or two own several decks. Some of us - like me - own several more. Most of us build our decks ourselves, putting together a list using the cards in our collection, or building a digital decklist, then either buying the singles we need or using the tried-and-true method of trading our friends for the cards we need, so most of us are building Commander decks on a regular basis, but only half of us are sitting in front of our computers at 1:27 AM. What's happening here? The difference lies in what happens after the deck is made. The difference is large enough that I think we might need different names.
So, if half of you have been in my shoes, making substitutes to a deck at ungodly hours of the morning, what's happening for the other half of you? Well, let me introduce you to the Architect.
For the Architect, everything is about the building of the deck. They examine the deck draft from every angle to ensure it will play the way that they want it to. The Architect likely 'goldfishes' a lot, drawing sample hands and playing out turns one through five over and over again. The mana curve is lowered, lines of play consolidated, weak cards cut, and stronger ones added. A deck often goes through several iterations in this conceptualizing phase as the Architect identifies weaknesses in the design and strategy. An Architect is likely to be someone who shares a decklist online, asking if anyone can share better cards that have been missed.
I call players like this "Architects" because their entire goal is getting the "building" - the deck - finished. In the physical world, an architect spends a long time with a building as a concept - they draw up schematics, position load-bearing walls, calculate the strength of the foundations - but an architect doesn't return to a building to make repairs. Why would they? The building is finished, and the building is what the architect sets out to complete. An architect dreams of building the perfect skyscraper, or home, but not living in one.
As a Commander player, the Architect's mission is complete before they sit down with a pod for the deck's maiden voyage. When Architects think about agonizing over potential additions or reductions to a deck, like I do at 1:27 AM, they probably think it sounds like a terrible waste of time, because to an Architect, the deck is finished as soon as they sleeve up their 100th card.
For some Architects, the deckbuilding itself is a challenge that must be overcome. I know some Architects who set themselves budget limits when deckbuilding, or sometimes even time limits; I've heard of Architects who try to build an entire deck in only twenty minutes, or in one afternoon but using only the cards in their binders and storage boxes. The joy of deckbuilding is so strong in an Architect that these constraints only heighten the experience.
An Architect is more likely to be someone who builds new decks frequently, because the build itself is so important to them. Once a deck is sleeved up, outside of piloting it, the theorycrafting is over, and the only place to have that feeling again is by starting a new project. Also, because the Architect spends so little time toying with a deck after it is complete, they have a lot more time to devote to new ideas.
On my podcast, Get Commanded!, me and James, my co-host, talk a lot about how we build our decks, and there are a lot of similarities between the two of us. We both place enormous importance on the essentials of deckbuilding: card draw, ramp, and removal. We both count the number of cards that fit these categories to ensure that our decks conform to our own 'Ultimate Deckbuilding Template'. However, James is an Architect. While he might make occasional swaps to a deck if he opens a particularly powerful card in a pack, or spots one in someone's binder, the swapping is not an integral part of the deckbuilding process, and many of his decks will go months without a change. A key detail here is that James really loves being an Architect. If he had more time, I don't think he would spend more time with existing decks, like I do; he would just build more of them.
The Architect's approach is a common one, but as I said earlier, only about half of the players I know are Architects. The other half of us can empathize with my 1:27 AM ponderings, because they're intimately familiar with the Tinkerer.
For the Tinkerer, the deckbuilding process never ends. While there may be a lengthy process of drafting a deck, for the Tinkerer every deck is a draft, even decks that they pull out regularly for games. There is a strong drive in the Tinkerer for improvement and optimization, but the improvement is the means and the ends; the Tinkerer may never arrive at the 'perfect' deck, but they are usually content to continue striving for perfection anyway.
I call people like this Tinkerers because I think it conjures up an image of a scientist in a lab, happily pottering away at their latest project. Imagine Tony Stark, for instance. Tony's Iron Man armor Mark I is utterly revolutionary at the time that he makes it. Incredibly energy efficient, robust, and adaptable, it's the perfect weapon or tool, depending on its use, and we see several of Tony's earliest villains adapting Tony's rudimentary technology for nefarious uses of their own. But Tony is not content with this armor, and he constantly adds elements to its design, making it more efficient, more robust, and more adaptable. There are various reasons behind this, like his motivations, family history, and fears, but a key element is that Tony himself enjoys improving his armor. Likewise, the Commander player who tinkers does so because they enjoy it.
Tinkerers consider deckbuilding to be a constant process of improvement, where cards can come and go but the deck philosophy remains the same. A Tinkerer could own a Commander deck for several years that only contains 20 of the 60 nonland cards that were present in the original build, for instance. Sometimes a Tinkerer may even change the Commander at the helm but consider this new deck to be the spiritual successor to the original, because the strategy, style, or theme is the same.
During spoiler season, the Tinkerer is looking for cards that could go into decks they already own, and they are often doing so avidly. If we imagine the average Commander player might aim to pick up four or five cards from each new set, the Tinkerer may be chasing ten or fifteen or more. A Tinkerer who owns adeck is looking at every single Knight or Equipment card from the new set to see if anything is worth trying.
Some Tinkerers build their first iteration of a deck purely from cards they own, doing a trial run of sorts while they decide if they like the deck's gameplay loops. From here, if the Tinkerer is satisfied, the real work begins. However, not all Tinkerers build incomplete decks like this. I know many Tinkerers who go through a deck development as rigorous of that of an Architect. The Tinkerer might goldfish or add and remove cards in the deck draft, like an Architect. Unlike an Architect, though, the Tinkerer's job is not complete when the deck is sleeved up the first time. That first version of the deck is exactly that; it's version 1.0. The Tinkerer may even have several cards already lined up for version 1.1.
Sometimes a Tinkerer might get tired of a deck, but rather than disassembling it, they jump to version 2.0. An entire subtheme might be cut or added from the deck here, with a bulk update of 10-30 cards. Andeck might go from a straightforward aristocrats build to a combo deck, for example. As discussed earlier, this may occur several times over the lifetime of a Tinkerer's deck, to the extent that the latest deck is almost unrecognizable when placed next to the original.
If it wasn't already obvious from the beginning, I am definitely a Tinkerer. I derive enormous joy from the process of stripping away the impurities in a deck until I'm left with solid gold. This isn't a process of power creeping though, it's a process of distilling strategy and theme, until the deck I have is the purest expression of my original idea. To me, leaving a new deck alone would be akin to eating uncooked risotto. Sure, all of the ingredients are in the pot, but half of the cooking process is still to be done. There's heat to tamper with, stock to add, herbs and spices to throw in, and that's to say nothing of presenting it on the platter.
In my next three articles, I'm going to do a deep dive into Architects and Tinkerers individually, outlining the benefits and drawbacks of each approach, and wrapping up with a comparison of the two to work out if there is a truly 'correct' style of deck refining. As with most aspects of casual Commander, though, the search for an answer will likely tell us far more about ourselves than the answer itself will.
What happens to your decks after they are built? Are you an Architect or a Tinkerer?