What makes a commander good enough for cEDH? What draws competitive players to one new legendary creature while another is ignored? Why are casual nightmares, like and , largely irrelevant while otherwise unassuming legendaries helm some of the best decks in cEDH?
Any deck can throw a two-card combo and a fistful of fast mana in the 99 and call it a day, but without an appropriate commander, I'd hesitate to call it cEDH.
Your commander is everything.
Color identity is half the battle, but that's an article for the new year. For now, I want to look at three traits a legendary creature can have that make it appropriate for cEDH. The more of these traits they have, the more likely it is to be viable.
Whether it's having more cards, more mana, or reliable access to a combo, each trait helps with one thing: consistency.
Before we dive into it, this article is descriptive, not prescriptive. There are always exceptions to these criteria, and "viability" can be nebulous. This is my subjective analysis of the format, and mine alone. Most information is drawn from the cEDH decklist database.
If you already play EDH, or have even a passing familiarity with Magic, you know how important card advantage is, but cEDH demands that the card advantage you have access to is reliable and efficient.
is the poster child for this discussion. She asks only that you have creatures in play and that you connect with them. Dork, engine, combo piece, Tymna herself, it doesn't matter; as long as you can deal damage, you can draw. This is just one of the reasons she's been so dominant since 2016. The same is true of and . Your deck need not be built around them, the advantage is right there on the card.
can draw far more cards than Tymna, as can . But to do so, deckbuilding concessions must be made. They are still obnoxiously powerful, but when assessing a freshly spoiled commander, it's important to question what conditions you'll need to meet to draw cards. If it's too slow or too conditional, it's probably going to fall short. The bar is just that high.
Card "advantage" also comes in the form of filtering. Take . Her ability is card neutral, but it allows you to race through your deck with vampiric speed. When all you're trying to do is find the pieces to your game-winning combo, this is more than good enough.
Virtual card advantage is also available via effects that let you cast cards from other zones. is the most famous example of this, but and also fit the bill.
The other type of card advantage we see in cEDH is commanders that can tutor. Commanders like , , and all provide reliable access to specific cards. The power of tutors - and my love of them - doesn't need restating, and it's easy to see why having them available in the command zone is powerful. Mitigating the variance inherent in a singleton format is one of the best ways to ensure consistency and speed.
Ultimately, if the card in your command zone represents access to even more cards, there's a good chance it has competitive potential.
Other Examples:, , , , , , ,
Anyone familiar with EDH or Magic at large understands just how important mana is. Being able to produce more of it than your opponents - or cheat on costs in the first place - is crucial in cEDH, and like card advantage, mana acceleration comes in many different flavors, all of them viable in their own right.
The most obvious form is outright mana production. , , and are some simple examples of this. With no deckbuilding cost, the creature in your command zone will start producing mana once you have it play. With a deck built from the most powerful cards released in the last 30 years, more mana means more power.
Likewise, cards like and amplify your existing mana production to the moon and beyond. In a cutthroat format like cEDH, every last drop of mana matters, and the more you can produce, the quicker you can win. This sounds obvious, and traditional EDH is just as fond of ramp, but it can't be overstated how important fast mana is in cEDH.
Commanders that produce or amplify mana are the most obvious form of acceleration, but I put legends like and in the same category.
While they don't make any mana of their own, if you can execute the gameplan they demand, you won't be paying full price to cast your spells. Cheating on costs is one of the most broken things you can do, as the infamous Phyrexian mana mechanic illustrates.
Mana acceleration can even come in abstract ways. You wouldn't know it from looking, but oddly enough is an incredible acceleration piece. He makes no mana, but turns into , into , and ensures your , , and are live from your first turn. Neat, huh?
But like card advantage, mana acceleration is worse the more hoops you have to jump through. lets you cheat on costs, but by requiring an initial investment of three and another eight before you see any return, it just isn't fast enough. And nevermind the deckbuilding cost.
Other Examples: , , , , , , , ,
This is the real meat of the format. Efficient combos are often frowned upon in traditional EDH, but they're the bread and butter of cEDH. While combat damage, soft locks, or grinding your opponent out are fine as backup plans, the vast majority of decks look to infinite combos as their primary goal. In a format that revolves around combos, it's no wonder that having a piece in the command zone is coveted. This often overlaps with commanders capable of tutoring.
This means combo potential is the most common justification for a cEDH commander. With enough setup, nearly any commander can be part of a combo, but to cut it in cEDH, that setup has to be lean, clean, and as mean as possible. A cute interaction isn't enough; it has to be something that wins you the game, or at least puts you within spitting distance.
The meta also changes with every successive set. A commander with no combo potential can become a monster overnight with the spoiling of a single card. Look at . Hailing from the original Kamigawa block, he was a casual commander for over a decade before cEDH paid him any attention; he skyrocketed into the competitive sphere in 2018 with the printing of .
The more common occurrence is that a new commander is spoiled, and bright-eyed brewers scour Scryfall and Commander's Spellbook looking for the missing piece. As someone who loves to brew cEDH decks, the hunt for new commander combos is one of the thrills of spoiler season.
These combos range from the painfully simple - pair Malcolm with or Heliod with - to the nauseatingly complex. What they all have in common is the ability to present a win straight from the command zone.
Unfortunately, this also means that combo-centric commanders are difficult to recognise. While a commander that draws cards will say so on the face of the card, you need an incredible amount of game knowledge to look at and realise you can create a 17-step loop with to win the game.
The most common style of combo potential a prospective cEDH commander can have is an outlet. Infinite mana is all too easy to produce in this format, which means that any commander with an infinitely activatable ability can immediately present a win. Look no further than format staple for this.
Other Examples: , , , , , , , , etc...
But What About...?
Admittedly, there are a few decks on the cEDH decklist database and currently being brewed that don't neatly fit any of these categories. While I would call most of these fringe, they're still valid and viable. What these rogue commanders tend to have in common is helming stax decks.
Commanders like Nath, Lavinia, and Ruric Thar exist in cEDH as decks poised to attack the meta. While they don't fit the above criteria, they nullify or mitigate the abilities of the commanders that do. They are a small minority, and despite their unique effects, the strongest commanders for the stax archetype - Winota, Heliod, Kenrith - also provide advantage or associated combos.
As far as identifying new commanders for cEDH viability, I'd argue that stax is by far the hardest to assess. Without an in-depth knowledge of the cEDH meta, it's hard to know which stax effects are up to scratch.
Not The Whole Picture
You'll have noticed by now that a lot of commanders have overlapping traits. Kinnan gives you mana and is a combo piece. Winota is both card and mana advantage. Selvala even manages to tick all three boxes. This isn't to say that any commander capable of ticking multiple boxes is necessarily better, but it's a good rule of thumb to steer by, at least when assessing new cards.
I should also note that this article only covers the broadest features and facets of cEDH commanders. It is by no means all there is to commander assessment at the competitive level. Every cEDH commander has its own strengths and weaknesses, not to mention unique appeals.
Take the recently spoiled not . The -1/-1 boardwipe ability is strong, interesting, and a new way to play Dimir in cEDH. It's also the feature that has drawn so many brewers to the Slug. But it is what makes it viable. Toxrill is viable on account of being an infinite mana outlet. The boardwiping is powerful, but if that was all the card could do, it wouldn't be seeing play in cEDH.
Colors and costs are the next half of this discussion, but we can talk about that in the new year. I hope I've shed some light on what makes a cEDH commander viable, and if you have any questions, please reach out to me on twitter at @Jake_FitzSimons.
But for now, happy holidays everyone!