How To Create Jank Commander Decks

Michael Celani • May 14, 2024

How You Can Brew It Like They Do

I'm Michael Celani. You may recognize me for How They Brew It, my collection of seventy-or-so deck techs on this website, all of which are some form of insane or illegal. My decks are examples of jank: they may not have the raw power of an optimized Commander deck, but they have the potential stored within them to unleash something crazy or fascinating. Jank decks weave the type of stories you'll remember and share with other players for sennights (or even fortnights) to come.

Over the years I've been writing articles for Commander's Herald, many have asked me how they, too, can craft completely bonkers Commander decks with which they can impress their friends and concubines. In this video essay, I'm going to show you the tricks I personally use to brainstorm new lists, provide examples of how they've turned into decks I've written about, and give advice on how you can put them into practice yourself. Let's get started!

Remember Your Ancestors

One of the simplest ways to make a jank deck is to look at old stuff. Because Magic's designers didn't yet have the twenty years of hindsight necessary to determine what works from the perspective of making a well balanced, understandable, and entertaining game, older cards feel substantially more experimental than new ones, even when you factor in the more out-there sets like Future Sight and Modern Horizons III.

Old commanders can create interesting play patterns

Ancient commanders are an especially straightforward recipe for jank. They won't completely dominate a deck's strategy the way new commanders do, but they still have unique effects that are difficult to replicate even today. One major benefit to helming your jank deck with an old commander is that they come from an era where the color pie wasn't as rigidly defined as it is now. You're going to find far more ways than usual to take a strategy into an unlikely color identity if you choose this technique. Imagine such lists as mono-blue sacrifice, Esper <em>Landfall</em>, or even Selesnya aristocrats, and you'll see what I'm getting at here.

Look for generals that do things outside the modern color pie

Try to seek out old legends with these unique abilities. You can search for them on Scryfall by using a date filter, and don't be afraid to go relatively recent: Commander products only started in 2011, meaning every legend before then was ostensibly designed without the format in mind.

Once you've found a sufficiently strange general, build from the top down by taking it at face value. You won't have to do much more to have a deck that's uniquely yours; the restrictions of building around an old commander should guide you to a sufficiently bizarre list all on its own. For example, Gabriel Angelfire, the first Commander deck I wrote about, has a unique blend of Selesnya color identity and rampage which makes him the best fit to helm an Enchantress-style Lure deck.

Choose a Strange Strategy

Another method to create jank decks is to choose an esoteric strategy and build around it from the bottom up. Having a wide breadth of knowledge about the Commander card pool is important if you want to construct a deck this way, and you'll need to be willing to weather some hits on efficiency for the flavor, but taking this approach can be a rewarding experience for newbies and well-versed brewers alike when the whole thing comes together.

An example of a card that could inspire a deck

As a toy example, suppose you discovered the card Plummet, which can destroy flying creatures for cheap, and you'd like to build an anti-fliers deck around it. Your first step is to search for cards similar to the one you discovered to see how much grassroots support it already has. The more spells you find, the more likely you'll be able to build a coherent deck around your strategy.

With this information, you should determine whether or not your concept is viable as an entire deck. For our example, there are a lot of Plummet-plagiarizers, so an anti-flier approach could work. Note that there will be times your idea fails to pan out, though: as an example, I tried to build a Fblthp, Lost on the Range deck that involved plotting spells with kicker so that you can cast something like a Rite of Replication over two turns, but I determined that there weren't enough playable cards with an additional mana cost to build a deck around it at this time.

Other cards that are similar to our main inspiration

Should you decide that there's enough support in your strategy for you to pursue it, it's time to look for commonalities in the cards you've discovered to find a commander. To even cast Plummet, it has to target a creature with flying, but most creatures in the game don't have the ability naturally, which would limit the effectiveness of your deck.

If only this could be our commander...

Knowing that, you'd want a commander that could give arbitrary creatures flying. If such a commander existed, you could use your vast array of Plummet spells to keep the skies clear for your attackers, jump your own creatures to avoid enemy blockers, and then shoot enemy creatures without flying that would otherwise give you trouble into the sky so you can remove them. Also, since all of the anti-flier spells in question are green, you need a commander that has at least green in the color identity so you can actually legally play them.

You've got your ideal commander. Now, you can construct a Scryfall search, which would inevitably lead you to Eutropia the Twice-Favored. From there, it's a balancing act between including enough flying and jumpable attackers, having enough repeatable sources of Constellation that you can use to throw enemies and allies alike into the air, packing enough removal (and recursion for that removal) so you can keep the skies clear, and making sure there's enough engine pieces to keep the deck running smoothly.

Examples of cards that could lead to interesting themes

While this example is a bit contrived, I've built many lists using this ground-up concept before. Phasing, banding, land animation, land blink, stickers, buyback, color-hacking, Eldrazi Processors, Bloodrush, and splice onto Arcane are all examples of decks I've constructed by investigating specific cards and taking them to their logical conclusion.

An excellent place to start looking for ideas about building around specific cards is to read all the keyword abilities defined in the Comprehensive Rules. Most of these keyword abilities were only really used in a specific set as a Limited mechanic, so taking one of those and making something unique based on it could lead to an interesting game plan.

Ignore Words on Cards

This technique is a bit more avant-garde, so stick with me. Modern Magic cards have way too much text; we all know this. With the average complexity of game pieces creeping up and up with every set, it can be pretty easy to miss the individual trees for the forest. And no, I didn't get that backwards.

Consider Zask, Skittering Swarmlord. There's a lot of text on this card: it lets you cast Insect spells from your graveyard, mills cards whenever an Insect dies, and it even has a mana sink that makes your Insects stronger and more poisonous venomous. Taking all of this together, you might expect Zask, Skittering Swarmlord to be the perfect Commander for Weevil Underwood alone, but you're getting razzle-dazzled. Consider instead this interpretation of the card:

While their EDHREC page is crawling with Insects, if you ignore the vast majority of the text on the card, you'll discover that Zask, Skittering Swarmlord is actually an incredible Golgari Landfall deck. You can play as many fetchlands as you want from the graveyard, and unlike Crucible of Worlds or Ancient Greenwarden, it's not getting removed permanently since it lives in the command zone. At the time of this writing, only 124 of the more-than-3000 Zask decks out there are playing Glacial Chasm, a card that (correct me if I'm wrong here) would make you invincible with no downside.

All of this power is unavailable to most players, not because there are too few words on the card, but because there are too many. You may be conditioned to try and find a use for every single part of your spells, but it's okay to ignore some abilities if you don't need them. Shorikai, Genesis Engine doesn't need to focus on Vehicles; Chatterfang, Squirrel General can bypass including kindred synergy for Squirrels; and you can even build a Pantlaza, Sun-Favored deck without any other Dinosaurs if you include enough blink spells.

Identify Missing Clauses

Reading the card to understand the card works the other way, too. While sometimes you'll find it useful to ignore sections of a spell that don't fit the type of deck you're trying to build, other times you'll need to find cards that omit specific clauses to get that sweet, sweet jank.

Consider Malcolm, Keen-Eyed Navigator and Breeches, Brazen Plunderer. Both of these commanders trigger when Pirates deal damage to players. The word omitted here is combat: while the vast majority of kindred commanders care about their chosen creature type dealing combat damage to a player, Malcolm and Breeches do not. This was probably so that they'd work together in draft with exactly Lightning-Rig Crew (surprise! They're in 80% of Malcolm // Breeches decks), but it left a glaring loophole to be exploited for jankier builders.

By realizing that there are plenty of cards that turn creatures into all creature types, you could easily transform something that pings everybody, like Reckless Fireweaver, into a Pirate to gain way more value than ever intended off of Malcolm and Breeches. Oh, what a difference one word can make! This interaction forms the backbone of various Malcolm-related cEDH decks.

My Volrath, the Shapestealer deck works on a similar principle of exploiting a missing word. In this case, the missing word is "another," as in "another target creature." Since I realized that Volrath, the Shapestealer is legally able to target himself, I delved into the potential implications of that omission and created a deck that can reset once-per-turn abilities for a massive profit. Ardenn, Intrepid Archaeologist is famously missing the phrase "you control," as in "permanent you control," meaning it's the only reasonable way to equip your opponents' creatures. There's nothing more satisfying than Clamping an enemy Llanowar Elves to kill it and draw two cards.

If you're worried you won't be able to recognize these missing words, don't worry: you'll learn to intuitively as you play the game more and understand Magic's shared vocabulary. Eventually, you'll spot them sticking out like sore thumbs and be able to capitalize on them to build interesting decks.

Use a Deckbuilding Restriction

If finding a more graceful way to build a jank deck is eluding you, you might consider forcing it by trying your hand at a list with an explicit restriction, whether it be mechanical, flavorful, or financial. How good of a deck can you make that's under ten dollars? Can you build a list where every single creature is wearing a hat? How about one where every single creature is a 0/0?

Every Creature Is a 0/0

View on Archidekt

This deck uses the restriction of making every creature a 0/0, and through some tinkering, it found extra value in cards like Dino DNA and Scale Up, which specifically set the base power and toughness of the creatures they affect. Those cards are at their literal best here, as there's no floor lower than 0/0 for them to change (except for that one card).

When building with a restriction, lean into it heavily. You'll be tempted to break your rules for one or two cards, but resist that urge. Not only will it preserve the purity of your deck, it'll force you to be creative when it comes to filling out spots that you'd usually slam staples into.

Also, don't be afraid to go wild with your restrictions to challenge yourself and see what you can come up with. Even completely implausible ideas, like "build an enchantress deck with no enchantments," can lead to great results. If you fail to adhere to your challenge, that doesn't mean you're a bad deckbuilder; take it as a learning experience, and use those new cards you found as a seed for other lists in the future.

Turn Nonbos into Combos

A particularly fun way to build jank decks is to take the intended way to use a mechanic and throw it out the window. There's plenty of ideas that, on the face of it, wouldn't particularly work. Casting an X spell for 0 does nothing. Copying equip mechanics doesn't seem to have any value since an Equipment can only be attached to one thing. Unearthing creatures with triggers that require you to have cast them won't get those triggers. But while it's true that in general these plays don't do anything at best and actively harm you at worst, all you have to do is search for specific cards to make your nonbos into combos.

Perhaps casting an X spell for 0 could help if it gets you two death triggers for free. Or, if those equips are copied through your whole army, maybe the Equipment being copied could give each of your creatures a powerful activated ability. Maybe you can unearth a creature with a cast trigger to cheat its mana cost, only to clone it with a Phantasmal Image.

The important thing to take away from this technique is that you shouldn't dismiss nonbos out of hand as mistakes. If you investigate the reason why a way to play a mechanic is ineffective, you can come up with ways to subvert that interaction, and build jank decks out of that.

Think of a Really Cool Thing

Some jank decks come about by thinking about something interesting you want to accomplish and working backwards from there. Ask questions that make no sense in the context of a regular Magic game, and then see if you can make it happen through sheer force of will. Some such questions I've answered are:

  • "Can I deal combat damage to multiple players simultaneously?"
  • "Can I build a deck that recurs not just destroyed, but exiled creatures?"
  • "Can I win by giving my opponents infinite turns?"

Those three commanders above are the answer to each question respectively, and that might be surprising. That's the point! Oftentimes, to make something truly unique happen, you'll need to not only include your commander as part of the solution, but specific silver bullet cards as well.

The interaction between Opal-Eye, Konda's Yojimbo and Ward of Piety makes it possible to consistently redirect combat damage to multiple players at once. Myrkul, Lord of Bones can unexile anything necessary by copying enough Riftsweepers. And Horde of Notions can consistently cast and sacrifice Eon Frolicker to leave my opponents with infinite turns.

Understanding the game's rules can help you come up with interesting questions to answer, too. I'm not going to tell you to read the entire Comprehensive Rules, but in particular, try to understand the steps of each phase and the steps to casting spells, as well as the basics behind layers. Real combos, like Modern's once-famous Krark-Clan Ironworks combo, often only come about by a deeper knowledge of how Magic works.

I've used my knowledge of the rules to exploit the healing effect of the cleanup step to get more out of my Enrage creatures, as well as using Licids to enchant a creature on the battlefield with Darksteel Garrison, both of which are undeniably jank ideas.

With enough knowledge and a willingness to search, you can answer almost any question the game has to throw at you. Try as hard as you can to make your fanciful ideas work, no matter where it takes you. There are times you won't be able to find an answer, but that's okay: sometimes, you'll find something cool!

A Conclusion

This guide has presented ways to get started brewing jank of your own, but remember that none of these methods are prescriptive; jank, like the appropriate amount of cinnamon rolls to eat after a breakup, is ultimately whatever you want it to be. You can use some or all of the previous techniques to get a baseline for brewing, but don't feel like you have to abide by any of these like they were handed down from on high. In fact, a few of these rules of thumb may not work well together, or are outright contradictory. Pick and choose what works best for you!

Many of the examples I've given are taken straight from my article series How They Brew It. If you want to look into them more in-depth, you can find a full listing by commander and strategy here. Now get building!

Newly appointed member of the FDIC and insured up to $150,000 per account, Michael Celani is the member of your playgroup that makes you go "oh no, it's that guy again." He's made a Twitter account @GamesfreakSA as well as other mistakes, and his decks have been featured on places like MTGMuddstah. You can join his Discord at and vote on which decks you want to see next. In addition to writing, he has a job, other hobbies, and friends.