MTG Commander Explained: A Beginner’s Guide to EDH

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MTG Commander Explained

Do any searching for Magic: the Gathering formats online, and we can promise you you’ll find tons of articles about Commander/EDH. This is without a doubt one of the most beloved formats out there for a number of reasons.

If you’re a new Magic player, you may not have much experience with Commander. Even if you’ve been playing the game for years, Commander may be a format you haven’t tried yet.

We’ve created this beginner’s guide for anyone who’s on the fence about making their first Commander deck. In this guide, we’ll be discussing the following topics:

  • The benefits of playing Commander
  • A quick guide to the format and its tenets
  • The answers to a handful of common Commander questions

Let’s take a closer look at this beloved Magic format….

A lot of people just getting into the game start with Standard, a rotating format with a small number of legal sets that changes every year. To be specific, usually the most recent several sets are legal in Standard. This constant rotation of legal cards forces players to keep up-to-date on Magic-related news.

But keeping on top of a constantly rotating format can be exhausting and not to mention expensive. Those who play Standard may find themselves frustrated that cards which were legal not too long ago are now essentially useless for their favorite decks.

This is one of the first benefits of playing Commander. It’s an eternal format, which means, aside from a narrow list of banned cards, all cards from Magic’s history are fair game in a Commander deck. If you’re a Standard player looking for a way to recycle cards that have phased out of legality, this could be a great format for you to get into.

Another benefit to playing Commander is how slow the games tend to be. Initially, this sounds like a bad thing, but allow us to explain.

Many formats with smaller decks naturally tend to play faster. You may prefer this when you’re competing in a tournament and playing against a stranger, but when you’re playing with friends, you may prefer a more relaxed pace. That way, you can enjoy a longer game together, which Commander is perfect for.

Additionally, since games tend to go longer in Commander, you have more time to experiment with complex and expensive combos. Cards with a high mana cost are simply not as feasible in formats where the games are shorter because you may not be able to build up an expansive enough mana base.

A Quick Overview of the Commander/EDH Format

Convinced to make your first Commander deck? That’s great – now it’s time to get into the rules of the format. Let’s give you a very brief overview before we dive into a bit more detail below.

In Commander, players start with a total of 40 life points instead of 20. They have 100-card decks, with one of those hundred cards being a legendary creature called their Commander. Aside from basic lands and cards that specifically say otherwise, players can only have one copy of any given card in their decks.

When it’s not on the battlefield, the Commander rests in the command zone. Players can choose to return their Commander there whenever it would leave the battlefield for any reason. Every time you cast your Commander from the command zone after the first time, you must pay two additional mana to cast it, which is called the “Commander tax.”

The steps of each turn and playing spells largely remain the same. Deck structure and life totals are where requirements differ here.


Nekusar the Mindrazer

Let’s start with the most important part of your Commander deck: your Commander. On occasion, some people will also refer to this card as their general, so don’t be confused if you see that terminology floating around.

Either word is a fitting name for the card, because your Commander is essentially the helm of your deck. A well-constructed Commander deck falls into place once the Commander is selected, so this card often indicates what kind of strategy or theme a player is aiming to use.

Generally, Commanders can only be legendary creatures. There are a small number of exceptions, however, such as planeswalkers that state they can be Commanders in their text. You can also usually only have a single Commander, unless you have Commanders with the partner ability that allows them to be paired with a particular card or any other card with partner. 

Your Commander should be chosen with the utmost care. The Commander’s color identity, which is the color of any mana symbols represented on the card’s costs (whether a casting or ability cost), determines what colors can be used in your deck.

So, for example, if you choose the above-pictured Nekusar, the Mindrazer as your Commander, you can only include blue, black, and red cards or some combination thereof in your deck. Colorless cards don’t count and can be included in decks of any color.

The reverse does not hold true. If you choose a colorless Commander, your deck can only feature colorless cards.

Related Article: MTG Names for Color Combinations (And How They All Work)

Deck Structure

Shadowborn Apostle

Your Commander is only a small, albeit important, piece of your deck. In Commander, you must have 100 cards in your deck, so you’ve got 99 more to go after picking a Commander.

You cannot have multiple copies of a card. The only exceptions are for basic lands and for cards that say on them that you can have more than the format allows. An example would be Shadowborn Apostle, pictured above. As you can see, it says you can have as many of them in your deck as you want.

Cards from throughout Magic’s history can be used in a Commander deck. This format doesn’t rotate, so sets stay legal indefinitely. That being said, you can’t use any cards from “un-sets” (cards with gray borders) or cards from the ban list. 

If you’re wondering about the land to spell ratio in a Commander deck, read our guide on the MTG Commander deck ratio. There, we discuss how to build a mana base.

Finally, you should be aware that the cards you include in your deck must share color identity with your Commander. If your Commander is blue, all cards included in your deck must be blue, with the exception of colorless artifacts (provided they don’t tap for mana that’s a different color from your Commander’s color identity).

If your Commander is multi-color, then your cards can be any combination of the colors in its color identity. For example, a green-black (Golgari) Commander can have a deck with green, black, or green-black cards.

Read Also: 10 Best MTG Green Black Commanders

Turn Order

Officially, Commander only supports up to six players, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t have more if your play group agrees to it. You can choose the person who goes first however you like. Commonly, players will roll dice and see who rolls the highest number to determine who’s first.

Once the first player is chosen, each turn thereafter goes to the person on the left. As far as what happens on your turn, you follow the same standard turn setup as in any other game of Magic. Each turn has the same normal phases: untap, upkeep, draw, first main phase, combat, second main phase, end step, and clean-up.


Approach of the Second Sun

Another important topic to address is how you actually win a game of Commander. Keep in mind that all players start with a total of 40 life as opposed to 20. One way to win, of course, is to reduce everyone else’s life total to 0. This is the traditional way of ending a game.

That doesn’t always mean you have to do 40 or more damage to a player to defeat them, though. There’s a thing called Commander damage, or combat damage dealt by a Commander. Each player can only take 21 Commander damage before they lose the game.

However, another way to win is to incorporate some sort of win condition into your deck. A win condition is a card or combination of cards with requirements that, once fulfilled, say you win the game. An example is the famous Approach of the Second Sun, which we’ve included above.

Generally, Commander games are free-for-all. All other players aside from yourself are considered opponents to defeat.

This doesn’t have to be the case with your play group. Many people have their own variations of the format in which they play on teams. One option is a “two-headed giant game,” in which two players function as partners, sharing the same life total. Both players still use their own decks and cast spells separately.

Read Also: 10 Best MTG Commander Mana Rocks

Commander Questions

What is the difference between EDH and Commander?

If you’re a beginner just looking into Commander, you’ve likely seen two different names: EDH and Commander. What is the difference between them? Are they even different from each other?

The answer is kind of complicated. Technically, EDH and Commander are two separate formats if you want to split hairs.

EDH was a sort of predecessor to Commander. It stands for “elder dragon highlander.” In original EDH, most the rules were the same, except the possibilities for eligible Commanders. You could only choose an elder dragon card for your Commander. 

Nowadays, the terms “EDH” and “Commander” are pretty much always interchangeable. You can assume that when someone refers to a format as “EDH,” they just mean Commander. It’s kind of the default social format for the game.

Can you use legendary planeswalkers as Commander?


There’s usually only one type of card that can be used as your Commander: a legendary creature. Planeswalkers aren’t creatures, so they mostly can’t be Commanders.

We put an emphasis on the word “mostly.” As with many other things in Magic: the Gathering, there are exceptions to this statement. Some planeswalkers can be your Commander, including flip cards that start off as legendary creatures or planeswalkers that say on the card they can be commanders.

One example of a planeswalker that can be your Commander is Aminatou, the Fateshifter. You can see at the bottom of her card that it says she is Commander-eligible.

Is Sol Ring Banned in Commander?

Sol Ring

For some reason, there has been a rumor online that Sol Ring, a popular mana rock in Commander and widely considered a must-have card for any deck, is banned. At the time of writing this (mid 2021), Sol Ring is not banned in Commander.

This is subject to change. For that reason, it’s a smart idea to periodically check on the Commander ban list just to be safe. 

We personally do not see any reason why Sol Ring would be banned. A card is usually banned when it’s so powerful it’s no longer fun to play against or it has a mechanic that’s incompatible with the format. Neither of those situations really applies to Sol Ring.

Can you die to your own Commander damage?

In some rarer circumstances, it is possible for another player in the game to take control of your Commander. If this happens, they may choose to attack you with it. This begs the question: can you lose the game from Commander damage dealt to you by your own Commander? Or are you immune to your own Commander’s combat damage?

The way the rule is worded, it basically says that players cannot take 21 combat damage from the same Commander, or else they lose. It doesn’t say the damage has to be dealt by an opponent’s Commander. Thus, it is seemingly possible to lose as a result of your own Commander attacking you too often.

You might want to put some counterspells in your deck to prevent people from stealing it!

Wrap Up

Commander is a wonderful format for just hanging around with friends and shooting the breeze. It can also work as a nice introductory format if you’re meeting new people and you’re not sure which format to play together.

It’s one of our personal favorite formats. We highly recommend giving it a try, especially if you have a large collection of cards that are no longer legal in rotating formats like Standard.