Budget Commander: 5 Tips for Navigating the Table with a Budget Deck

As many of you will agree, playing Commander with like-minded friends is always the most fun way to play, no matter whether you’re jamming some janky tribal decks, playing some speedy and efficient combo decks, or simply trying out the latest pre-constructed offerings from Wizards. The one thing you have in common with your friends is your approach to deck building, and when you’re all on the same page it’s a joyous affair.

Sadly, it’s not that common for people to have an entirely like-minded group of friends. Some simply have more money to spend, whilst others will stand stubborn and flat out refuse to keep up with growing power levels. Others still might only play online, and to that group of players I have a lot of sympathy – having a great local playgroup is something too many of us take for granted.

How then can you stand a chance of winning when the scales are tipped from the outset? How can you hope to claim victory with a budget brew when playing against a foiled-out fortress of power? Let’s dive in and see – you can do it, believe me.

1. Identify the threat early

When sitting down at a table with a Budget brew, your game plan starts before you even decide on whether to mulligan your opening hand. You should be assessing the different Commanders at the table to formulate an idea of the power level of each. You also shouldn’t be afraid to canvas the table for some facts before you get settled in – it’s good to know how you’ll be spending your next couple of hours, and all players should have the basic respect to have a healthy conversation about the kind of deck they’re playing. Announce from the offset that you’re playing a Budget deck, giving a relative idea of the power level your deck is aiming at, and encourage the other players to introduce themselves and their decks too. Feel free to ask if anybody is playing combo – they don’t have to answer, but unless they get satisfaction out of winning with minimal effort, they’ll probably be happy to disclose if they are – and if they don’t, you can assume they might well be, especially if their chosen Commander lends itself to a combo strategy.

One of the more popular combo decks at the moment is Teysa Karlov, so if you see her, you’ll want to head into the game prepared. In a game I was playing recently, I asked someone if they were playing a focused combo version of the deck and they dismissed me with an ‘Oh no, definitely not.’ We were dead a turn or two later when they deployed the combo pieces they’d been saving in their hand. Sure, they won, but they didn’t win us over as a table, and it created a ‘feels bad’ situation. We all learned a lesson about threat assessment and trust that day! If in doubt – gun for them.

Once the game begins, the first way to identify the strength of your opponents is how they set up. If one player is playing cards like Evolving Wilds and another is using a Fetch land to go get an original Dual, that’s an early indication of who to go after. Looks can be deceiving, but make an educated guess – it’ll shape your early game.

Single Combat by Livia Prima

2. Don’t become the Threat too soon

Politics is one of your best tools when playing a less powerful and/or cheaper deck in Commander, and so not becoming the threat too soon goes hand in hand with identifying the player sitting across from you that is. When playing a cheaper deck, your cards may be less powerful, you may have more expensive removal, and your ability to bounce back after sustained assault or continued board wipes might be lower than in a more focused deck. Look for an opening and try to encourage other players to agree with you on who is pulling ahead using reasoned logic. Politics can involve lying, sure, but in the meta-game of Commander, if you lie too often you’re likely to not be trusted – the same goes for betraying a deal or pact with another player. Even if you are pulling ahead, using reasoned logic to convince your opponents that you aren’t a threat is much more powerful than creating an elaborate lie that falls through under a little scrutiny. Really sell them on the potential threat posed by the enchantment sitting across from you – it might just save your life.

In short – don’t become the threat too soon, but pay attention to the board – you might be able to sway the public opinion if you spot someone setting up.

3. Save your premium cards for game-changing plays

When playing a Budget brew, you’re unlikely to be sporting a deck rife with the most powerful spells available as they are, by and large, often expensive. A good example is Swords to Plowshares vs Path to Exile – most players will play the first, but the inclusion of the second is usually limited to decks which are more tuned and is often dependent on a players budget. As such, you’re unlikely to have much ‘redundancy’ (having multiple copies of the same type of effect in your deck) in a budget deck. Think including both Vindicate and Anguished Unmaking, or Cryptic Command and Mystic Confluence, or a Craterhoof Behemoth to accompany your End-Raze Forerunners. Typically, your options are reasonably broad for most cards (e.g. there are plenty of options as far as removal and board wipes are concerned, even if they are less efficient than their more expensive counterparts), but when it comes to win conditions, your options are often far more restricted – if you’re running Exsanguinate as one of your main win conditions, you’re never skimping on adding Torment of Hailfire too. 

When playing a budget deck, since your card redundancy is usually relatively low, you should be ensuring you use your more narrow and powerful cards wisely. ‘Wasting’ these cards for purely ‘value’ purposes is often not the best line to take. While Mana-efficiency is a thing, and having a card sitting in your hand turn after turn can make you want to use it as soon as possible, tempo and threat assessment can also be just as important – exiling a combo creature or an opponent’s Commander that’s looking to mark a chunk of Commander damage on you is a far better play than simply getting rid of a ‘strong’ card because you could.

While we’re on the subject, don’t get overcome with revenge – ‘chip damage,’ the early game hits from mana dorks and such, is rarely anything to become seriously annoyed with (unless you control a Luminarch Ascension, but at that point you deserve it). Similarly, if someone wipes the board to deal with someone who was getting out of control, unless the player was you, trying to get one over on them is unwise as you’ll not only be wasting resources but will also be making an enemy.

Haphazard Bombardment by Jesper Ejsing

4. Read up on the Budget Commander articles I’ve been putting together

I’ve written before about the best Budget cards to include in your decks – the following articles will shed light on some great underplayed and cheap cards that will help you during the deckbuilding process. I’m a big advocate of cards that can do more than one thing, or cards that perform their function efficiently, and you’ll find plenty of examples of cards which meet both of these requirements in my previous articles. Have a read of:

5. Don’t sacrifice consistency for ‘chase’ cards

It can be tempting to sacrifice deckbuilding consistency to play more spells in your decks, especially when you’re feeling like you’re not having the same level of impact on a Commander table as your more tuned-up friends. You might reduce the number of boardwipes or removal you’re running, thinking that your friends can just ‘deal with the problems’ for you, giving you time to get set up. Similarly, you might cut lands because your playgroup is usually pretty relaxed about mulligans.

Both of those scenarios can actually be pretty detrimental to your win percentage – even if it’s not obvious from the outset. If you play an insufficient number of answers in your deck, the probability of having one in hand when you need it is significantly reduced. This doesn’t just cause problems for you, but for the whole table as well – if three players have built their decks consistently, the probability of one of them having an answer for the fourth player’s combo or game-ending attack is reasonably high. Having just one player who skimps on including answers in their decks can cause problems for an entire playgroup, not just for the player in question. If more than one player isn’t running enough answers? Well, you’re unlikely to be surviving many games in the near future!

If you cut answers and lands from your deck, and find yourself sitting down at a table with a playgroup that is less relaxed with mulligans or that plays high-power decks, it could spell disaster and a miserable time for everyone involved – your opening hands will often be borderline at best, and more often that not, unplayable.

In a similar vein, spending your monthly card budget on a splashy, more powerful card instead of upgrading multiple key strategic pieces and your suite of answers often results in only a disappointingly small increase in the overall power level of your deck. It’s a simple numbers game – spending up to $90 on a Mana Drain and never drawing into it can leave you feeling frustrated, but playing a $1 Counterspell and spending that other $89 on five, ten, or even twenty playable cards that contribute to your overall win condition and ability to deal with threats will increase the power of your deck in a much more tangible manner.

In Closing

Just because you’re playing a Budget deck, it doesn’t mean you have to make Budget gameplay decisions. Playing the ‘table’ rather than playing the ‘game’ can often make up for your lack of interaction or your less-than-explosive starts. Similarly, using your hard-earned money to increase the power level of a large chunk of your deck rather than splashing out on a single card can really pay off! Following these tips will help you to keep up with the most powerfully tuned decks, and can really give you the opportunity to win games you’d otherwise be too shy to take part in. These tips don’t just apply to Budget games, though – they should also be applied to all levels of play.

I hope you enjoyed this piece – Budget articles are one of my favourite articles to write, and I’ve had some great feedback on them so far. I’ve also got some ideas for other pieces, like the deck tech I put out this weekend and some more focused essay pieces that take a deeper dive into the format and deck construction. As things move forward, I’ll be mixing things up and throwing some more variety into your Monday Magic column. If you have any suggestions on what you’d like to see, or any feedback in general, hit me up on Twitter @TheKristenEmily

I’ll be at MagicFest London later this month with the rest of the Master of Magics crew – come find me to jam some Commander games 🙂

Catch you next week!

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