Magic Gatherings #4: Dream a Little Dream of Themes

By Harry Huberty on

About Harry Huberty

Harry blogs about games for GeeklyInc. He loves Magic: The Gathering, but he's always looking for new things to try, too. Find him on Twitter (@cutefuzzy_).


In last week’s article about preconstructed Commander decks, I mentioned that among the best features of these decks (as well as a source of a few of their flaws) was that each deck supports multiple themes.

By “theme,” I mean a set of cards in each deck which all support a common strategy or gameplan—they all try to do similar things, or help other cards do that thing better.  Your theme is the thing (or things) your deck is trying to do to win the game.

In many ways, themes are the building blocks from which your decks are assembled.  They’re excellent ways to think about Commander decks, for a several reasons.

Demystify art by Veronique Meignaud

Demystify art by Veronique Meignaud

First, they make the deckbuilding process easier.  Putting five precons in front of your friends is all well and good, but there’s real joy (and real fun) in making each deck your own.  The tradeoff is that building 99+1 card lists can be a little overwhelming.  It’s time-consuming, for starters, and it’s easy to get lost in the possibilities you’re considering.

Choosing a few themes for your deck (and better, understanding why your commander wants those themes, and how those themes can intersect) gives you a roadmap for the process.  It gives you an overarching plan to work toward, as well as a way to categorize the different groups of cards in your deck as you start to add them.

Second, it makes individual card choices easier.  You’re debating a card that supports theme A, but not theme B?  Hm, maybe.  The next card supports theme A, and it has extra value with theme B?  Definitely.

Plus, having themes make explaining your decks a lot easier too.  You can hand a deck to a friend and say, “This one’s trying to gain a lot of life and make a lot of tokens,” and your friend will know what to expect—she’ll even have a sense of how to best play the cards as she draws them.  She doesn’t even need to look through the whole deck first.  Plan A, plan B.  Simple.

Finally, themes lend themselves toward varied play experiences.  Even if a deck is fun to play, drawing the same cards and executing the same plan over and over again can get dull.  The singleton restriction of Commander naturally fights this, but even different cards can feel too similar, if they all fundamentally accomplish the same thing.  Having two or more themes in a deck mean that your plan can vary from game to game.  Even better, if those themes work synergistically, you’ll be constantly discovering powerful interactions.

Renowned Weaponsmith art by Eric Deschamps

Renowned Weaponsmith art by Eric Deschamps

This latter point, as I mentioned last week, is among the shortcomings of the precons.  Sometimes their themes don’t work especially well together.  Other times, the individual cards which support each theme are just not powerful enough to be fun in Commander.

Those flaws are in some ways inherent to the precon project.  But that’s all the more reason to be aware of them when you’re building your own decks!  Make your themes synergistic, and make your support cards strong.

So today we’ll be starting a longer-term project: going through themes you can use in your Commander decks.  For each given theme, I’ll spend a little time discussing it, I’ll suggest some good cards for it, and I’ll note themes that it often combines especially well with.  We’ve got a good list to cover: blinking, fatties, sacrifice, tokens, equipment, artifacts, tribal, ramp, graveyard, recursion, lifegain, +1/+1 counters, pillowfort, group hug, and instants and sorceries.   It’s not impossible I’ll add one or two by the time this project is over.

However, at the outset I’d like to note that these suggestions are by no means exhaustive.  Not only are there more themes than I’m listing here, but the themes can cross over in more ways as well.  So always be on the lookout for cards that suggest new themes and new ways to combine them!  After all, don’t we play Magic for the limitless possibilities?


Roon of the Hidden Realm art by Steve Prescott

Roon of the Hidden Realm art by Steve Prescott

Blink/ETB Effects

This theme leverages the large (and ever-increasing) number of creatures which have spell-like abilities that trigger when the creature enters the battlefield (hence, ETB).  Sometimes called “value” creatures, these guys are like spells that leave creatures behind; usually (though not always), you’re more interested in the effect than the body itself.  Utility effects like [mtg_card]Mulldrifter[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Reclamation Sage[/mtg_card] are common, but big effects like [mtg_card]Angel of Serenity[/mtg_card] also show up.

What makes these guys more interesting than ordinary spells is that you can get them into play over and over again, with a little work—which means you get the effect over and over again as well.  The most efficient way is to “blink” them, removing them from play briefly and then returning them to the battlefield.  You can also return the creature to your hand and then cast it again ([mtg_card]Species Gorger[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Temur Sabertooth[/mtg_card]) or return it from the graveyard to the battlefield.

There are so many ways, in fact, that these cards tend to be staples in lots of Commander decks.  Triggering ETB effects can also help you keep up in the game without spending cards from your hand, which are precious resources when you have multiple opponents.  They also ensure that you get some value out of your creatures, even when your opponents deal with them right away.

One weakness of this theme is that your value creatures tend to be smaller than other creatures at the same mana cost.  This sometimes doesn’t matter in Commander—and can even be a bonus, when your creatures look unthreatening—but it’s possible to get a string of small creatures and lose to bigger monsters from your opponents.

Useful Cards: [mtg_card]Momentary Blink[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Ghostly Flicker[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Flickerform[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Conjurer’s Closet[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Roon of the Hidden Realm[/mtg_card]

Crossover Themes: Recursion, Sacrifice, Equipment

Loxodon Warhammer art by Jeremy Jarvis

Loxodon Warhammer art by Jeremy Jarvis


Equipment are a subset of artifacts, which usually represent weapons or tools your creatures can pick up and use.  They grant useful abilities like trample and lifelink ([mtg_card]Loxodon Warhammer[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Behemoth Sledge[/mtg_card]), or just plain make your creature enormous ([mtg_card]Strata Scythe[/mtg_card]).

Decks that have strong equipment themes often have a primary strategy of suiting up their Commander with lots of weapons, then trying to kill opponents with Commander damage—often called a “Voltron” plan, since you assemble a terrifying monster out of multiple pieces.  These Commanders might naturally have abilities that give them evasion (like flying) or resiliency (like hexproof), or simply be cheap enough to come down early and pressure opponents right away.  [mtg_card]Aurelia, the Warleader[/mtg_card], who flies and gets extra combat steps, is quite popular.

Equipment is a strong card type because it stays in play when the creature carrying it dies: every creature you draw for the rest of the game has the potential to be that much more threatening.  The tradeoff is that equipment can’t do anything by itself.  For that reason, equipment themes also benefit from having lots of incidental creatures in play—tokens or value creatures can be especially good.

Useful Cards: [mtg_card]Puresteel Paladin[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Stonehewer Giant[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Steelshaper’s Gift[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Brass Squire[/mtg_card].  Creatures with double strike work well too.  The “Sword of X and Y” cycle (like [mtg_card]Sword of Fire and Ice[/mtg_card]) is powerful, but the cards are expensive on the secondary market.

Crossover themes: Tokens, Blink/ETB, Artifacts

Assemble the Legion art by Eric Deschamps

Assemble the Legion art by Eric Deschamps


These strategies overwhelm opponents by swarming the board with cheap creature tokens.  Usually, these tokens have small stats—often just 1/1 Soldiers, 1/1 Goblins, or 2/2 Zombies.  But tokens can get big bonuses from “anthem” effects (named for the card [mtg_card]Glorious Anthem[/mtg_card]; [mtg_card]Intangible Virtue[/mtg_card] is an even better effect for tokens) or cards with battle cry, whose power increases with every additional creature token you have.

Very few one-shot that just “put X creature tokens into play” can really hang in a multiplayer game.  The best are ones that make a LOT of tokens, like [mtg_card]Deploy to the Front[/mtg_card] or [mtg_card]Storm Herd[/mtg_card].  Cards like [mtg_card]Martial Coup[/mtg_card] or [mtg_card]Decree of Justice[/mtg_card], which have added utility, are also good choices.

For that reason, an especially important thing to include is cards which steadily make new.  Enchantments which add tokens every turn are among the best, like [mtg_card]Assemble the Legion[/mtg_card].  Some lands have this ability, like [mtg_card]Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree[/mtg_card], though usually at a high cost.  Having non-creature sources is especially useful, since a single [mtg_card]Wrath of God[/mtg_card] won’t destroy all your tokens and all your ways to generate new ones.  Often you can get a little extra utility out of these, too—[mtg_card]Night Soil[/mtg_card] or [mtg_card]Necrogenesis[/mtg_card], for example, give you dudes and keep your opponents’ graveyards under control.

There are also some cards that make very big tokens, like [mtg_card]Grove of the Guardian[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Phyrexian Processor[/mtg_card].  If your deck includes those, you leverage them with the populate mechanic.  Usually added as a rider on cards with other effects, populate can add another copy of a big token to the battlefield for very little mana.  [mtg_card]Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage[/mtg_card] give repeatable populate.

Power cards: [mtg_card]Soul Warden[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Cathar’s Crusade[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Juniper Order Ranger[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Jazal Goldmane[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Rhys the Redeemed[/mtg_card], [mtg_card]Signal Pest[/mtg_card]

Crossover themes: Sacrifice, tribal (especially Soldiers, Goblins, and Zombies)

Three themes down, and that’s the space we have for today!  Be sure to come back next week when we’ll go over a bunch more themes, and also take our first look at Dragons of Tarkir previews!

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