7 Tips for Building Thematic Commander Decks

Today, I’m going to talk about deck building. However, this may be a little different to what you’re used to. I am not an authority on building game-winning decks. If you’re a Spike, turn back now. Everything that follows has nothing to do with winning games of Magic.

What I love most about Magic is building Commander decks. Commander decks come in all shapes and sizes, but my personal favourites are theme decks.

Theme decks come in two flavours: mechanical theme decks and flavour theme decks. Mechanical theme decks are built around specific mechanics, like +1/+1 counters or landfall. You build a synergistic deck around a card mechanic and go from there.

Deck construction is fairly straightforward. The cards that you need have “+1/+1 counter” (or whatever mechanic you are building around) written on them somewhere, so you just collect them up and shave cards from the list until you have your deck.

Flavour theme decks are much more nebulous. They’re a collection of cards that convey a theme that is not necessarily built into the mechanics of the game. Instead, you have to look for art, card names, and flavour text to see the thematic synergy.

I’ve had a number of people ask for advice on how to build flavourful theme decks, so I’m going to outline my deck building process. It works for me, so perhaps it will work for you too.

To help illustrate my build process, I’ll be using one of my favourite theme decks…

This is my H.P. Lovecraft theme deck – The Best Weird Tales. It’s had several iterations over the last ten years, with new cards taking the deck in new directions. It started as a “Cosmic Horror” deck, focusing on the monstrous aspects of the Lovecraft mythos but has gone through several iterations since its initial inception.

How to Build a Flavourful Theme Deck

1. Choose a theme

First, you need to choose your theme. Every card you choose will relate back to your theme, so this is very important. Your theme can be anything, but ideally it’s something that you’re passionate about. It could be a book series, a film, or something more abstract like a feeling (e.g. rage) or an idea (e.g. Capitalism).

For The Best Weird Tales, I chose the Lovecraft Mythos. As a lover of horror fiction, I’ve been a fan of H.P. Lovecraft for many years. I wrote essays about his work when I was studying at university, I’ve read all his stories and played the Call of Cthulhu tabletop roleplaying game. I wanted to build a deck that oozed with cosmic horror flavour.

2. Explore your theme

Once you’ve chosen your theme, it’s time to go deep. Think about all the things that you associate with your theme and put together a list or a mind map. Use word association and synonyms to broaden your ideas further. This will give you a whole bunch of words that we’ll use in the next step to build a thematic deck.

For my deck, I started with Lovecraft’s monsters. The mythos’ creatures include slumbering Cthulhu, Azathoth, and a bunch of cosmic monstrosities from beyond time and space: rats, fire vampires, unspeakable horrors, and even ancient Egyptian god-things.

Madness is another strong theme of Lovecraft’s stories, as is the idea that humans are fragile and doomed when they encounter Lovecraft’s horrors.

 

3. Search for thematic cards

Now that you have a list of thematic words and ideas, it’s time for the fun bit: searching for cards! When I first started building theme decks, I had to use stocklists in the back of magazines for inspiration. Today, we have the marvellous Scryfall.

The easiest way to find your theme cards is to enter your theme words into the Lore Finder field in Scryfall’s advanced search options.

This handy search scans every word on the card – including flavour text – for the searched term. This will instantly give you an expansive list of cards to explore.

For The Best Weird Tales, the first word I searched was “horror”, the genre of Lovecraft’s stories. The search spits out all the Horror type creatures in the game, cards like Cruel Reality, Dimir Keyrune, and Village Cannibals – all potentially useful cards in a Lovecraft theme deck.

As well as the words, you need to think about the visual theme of your deck. Scryfall’s Tagger is a crowd-sourced database that is applying tags to card art so you can search by picture.

In the Lovecraft mythos, particularly in the pulp areas, you find a lot of betentacled monstrosities. Search “tentacles” in the Tagger reveals some interesting cards, including Manic Scribe, Treasure Hunt, and Wrexial, the Risen Deep.

4. Choose your Commander

Hopefully, your theme word search will have revealed a few legendary creatures that you can use as your Commander. If it didn’t, don’t worry. The colours of your cards combined with your game plan will help you figure out which Commander is best for your theme deck.

The Best Weird Tales has Wrexial, the Risen Deep as the commander. The art in this card is ideal for a Lovecraftian deck, because it looks like Cthulhu, Lovecraft’s most famous monster. It also has a UB colour identity, which suits the flavour of the deck very well.

5. Make a game plan

Search for synergy in your theme cards. This will help you put together a game plan for your deck. You don’t always need a win condition, but knowing what you want to do in the game will make your experience with the deck more satisfying.

For example, the plan of The Best Weird Tales is to have foolish human creatures investigate mysterious circumstances and be punished for their Thirst for Knowledge. Eventually, they See Beyond the perception of the apes we are and discover our Human Frailty as the horrors are unleashed.

6. Make it playable

You can’t show off your cool cards if you flood out or durdle around with a deck that doesn’t do anything. Assuming an average land count of 38, you have 62 cards to work with. To help your deck actually work, dedicate around 20 slots to utility cards:

  • Ramp/Fixing
  • Card Draw
  • Spot Removal/Answers
  • Board Wipes

Fixing and card draw are especially important because they allow you to showcase your theme. If you can fit some theme cards into your utility slots, so much the better.

The Best Weird Tales has included Human Frailty as an on-theme removal spell since its first iteration, but also includes Fact or Fiction, Bojuka Bog, and Cyclonic Rift (don’t @ me) to keep the deck relevant and functional at the table.

7. Test and update

Finally, test your deck. This will help you refine your list and optimise the balance between theme and playability. When a new set comes out, check out the spoilers and keep an eye out for cards you can add to improve on your initial build and be truer to your theme.

When Shadows Over Innistrad was released, The Best Weird Tales was able to capture something more esoteric… a sense of dread. Cosmic Horror, Sunken City, and Voidmaw were out. While the monsters are cool, the thing that makes Lovecraft’s tales so gripping is the atmosphere.

The stories are dripping with a sense of dread and poignant doom that previous cards have never been able to capture. Cards like Gone Missing, Trail of Evidence, and Bearer of Overwhelming Truths helped infuse the deck with a much richer flavour than before.

The Best Weird Tales

Creatures (22)
Archaeomancer
Brine Shaman
Wrexial, the Risen Deep
Withered Wretch
Chasm Skulker
Daring Sleuth
Deranged Assistant
Distended Mindbender
Docent of Perfection
Doom Whisperer
Doomed Necromancer
Dream Eater
Drownyard Explorers
Elder Deep-Fiend
Faceless Butcher
Fathom Feeder
It That Betrays
Nemesis of Reason
Priest of Forgotten Gods
Sire of Stagnation
Survivor of the Unseen
Thing in the Ice

Spells (33)
Ancient Excavation
Befoul
Behold the Beyond
Capsize
Commit // Memory
Confirm Suspicions
Crush of Tentacles
Cyclonic Rift
Decree of Pain
Descent into Madness
Diabolic Tutor
Discovery // Dispersal
Fact or Fiction
Fraying Omnipotence
Gone Missing
Hieroglyphic Illumination
Human Frailty
Imprisoned in the Moon
Life’s Finale
Mind Twist
Mnemonic Betrayal
Murder
Overwhelming Intellect
Reality Strobe
Rise from the Tides
Rite of Replication
See Beyond
Syphon Mind
The Eldest Reborn
Thirst for Knowledge
Trail of Evidence
Unnerve
Windfall

Artifacts (6)
Commander’s Sphere
Dimir Signet
Hedron Archive
Scrabbling Claws
Talisman of Dominance
Tamiyo’s Journal

Planeswalkers (1)
Jace, Unraveler of Secrets
Lands (38)
Arch of Orazca
Barren Moor
Bojuka Bog
Cabal Coffers
Darkwater Catacombs
Deserted Temple
Dimir Aqueduct
Drownyard Temple
Fetid Pools
Field of Ruin
Geier Reach Sanitarium
Ghost Quarter
Island
Jwar Isle Refuge
Lonely Sandbar
Strip Mine
Submerged Boneyard
Sunken Hollow
Swamp
Tainted Isle
Temple of Deceit
Temple of the False God
Underground River

So, those are my seven tips for building themed Commander decks. I hope this article helps you build more thematic and satisfying Commander decks. If you have any comments, suggestions or tips of your own, let me know on Twitter @WhiteRobbit.


We’d like to thank Rob for writing up his tips for creating themed Commander decks. If this has inspired you to make your own, please let us know! Make sure to follow us here and on our social medias so that you can read our content as soon as it goes live.

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