Many players new to Commander end up with one of the preconstructed Commander decks for their early games. They start messing around with those builds, shifting out some cards and adding others. At some point though, they decide to try and build a deck from scratch.
Building Commander decks can be intimidating for newer players. Finding 100 cards that function as a cohesive deck can be a chore for even seasoned players. When players find themselves struggling, it is often because they just aren't sure where they want to end up – they need the initial structure or framework to get started. Without a clear direction, you start adding in the cost and suddenly the deck that is being built from scratch is a mess of cards that just aren't working out, and have cost you just too much money.
One way to get around these struggles is to find something to start with, and go from there. Wizards has been kind enough to give us two decks with every new set, the Planeswalker Decks. These 60-card decks are meant as a way for new players to get into Standard, but they can also be used as a basic framework to build a Commander deck!
I've been building a lot with black lately, so I thought I would focus on the Ajani deck this time. In an effort to keep costs down, I'm also avoiding cards over $5. I figured anyone new to the game is not going to want to spend a ton of money until they are sure they actually enjoy the format. This is also part of the reason to try to convert a Planeswalker Deck: multitasking! A player gets a deck they can use for Standard, and the shell of a Commander deck!
The Planeswalker Deck had 21 different cards to use in our deck, not including lands. After our Commander deck is built, many of these will likely get replaced as they aren't particularly amazing in Commander, or at least in this Commander deck, but for now, they are staying.
The deck involves a lot of +1/+1 counter shenanigans, which is something that I love. There are several revolt cards as well, so we'll be looking at smaller creatures that will likely die in combat, and sacrifice effects to get revolt. Both of these themes demand creatures, so I wanted to be sure to load the deck with creatures where it makes sense to do so.
I was also pretty sure the deck was going to revolve more around the +1/+1 counters than the revolt. The two themes are somewhat at odds. Why work to get counters on a creature, only to sacrifice it later on? I knew that my primary focus would be on the counters, likely saving revolt for those situations when the creature was going to die anyway.
Another, smaller theme of the deck revolves around Ajani. There are cards that help find Ajani or get better when Ajani is around. I figured this would be a good place to start, but it quickly turned into a non-starter. Planeswalkers, particularly versions of Ajani, aren't cheap. I was tempted to remove the Ajani cards outright, since I expected them to be lost in a 100-card deck. In the end though, I left them in. Ajani is a big part of the original deck and removing him before the Commander version played even one game just seemed unfair. Besides, it is a theme that players can expand on as the deck sees further alterations and updates.
The next key ingredient had to be the commander. I wanted a green and white legend for a reasonable price that worked with the +1/+1 counter theme. I figured finding a white and green legend that encouraged you to sacrifice your creatures would be unlikely, so I was hoping for a +1/+1 counter focused legend.
No such luck. I reduced my options to five creatures, then started to eliminate them. Selvala, Explorer Returned is a Conspiracy favorite, but she has nothing to do with the theme at all, except to enable the deck. I put her in the 99, and continued looking.
Sidar Kondo of Jamuraa was also considered. I haven't built much with the partners and do like the idea of making small creatures more difficult to block. However, if the +1/+1 counter theme works, most of my creatures will be far too big to enjoy the benefit. Karametra, God of the Harvests digs for lands but just isn't on theme. Sigarda, Heron's Grace was another green and white legend, but giving humans hexproof was a deckbuilding limitation I didn't want.
I finally settled on Tolsimir Wolfblood. While Tolsimir doesn't provide counters, he does give a boost to my creatures so I figured that would be close. He also creates a legendary wolf. This means that if I need revolt, I can create a second Voja token and the first one dies.
At this point I looked at what I wanted from the deck. I like to do this to get a sense of how many cards I need in each theme. The sections I decided on were:
Ramp: Every Commander deck needs some ramp, it is just a question of how much. If all of your cards are five mana or less and none of them are mana sinks that need mana to work properly, then you probably don't need very much ramp. This is not one of those decks.Card draw - White and green have some recursion, but not too much, so the ability to draw more cards is even more important.
Removal: Some creatures just don't die in combat like you want them to, so having another way to get them off the battlefield is a must.
Artifact/Enchantment removal: Kaladesh is a big artifact set, so you are bound to be seeing plenty of artifacts in your playgroup. Being able to deal with them is essential.
+1/+1 counters: I want plenty of ways to pump up my creatures. This is the purpose of the deck!
+1/+1 benefits: These are cards that get a benefit because your creatures have +1/+1 counters. Might as well take advantage!
I considered adding a category for token creatures. This would give me a ton of creatures to put counters on when the time came, but decided against it. I was already asking a lot from my deck, so adding another section seemed heavy. I decided I would keep it in mind when building the deck and try to add that option in when it fit in another section.
With 22 cards already in the deck, I only needed 38 more to get to 60 and start thinking about the lands. I broke down the cards in the shell, trying to fit them into the sections so I had some idea of how many more cards I needed for each category. I knew that I would only be adding a few cards in each category, so I started with a search, looking for cards that fit multiple categories while staying in the budget. Rhys the Redeemed was out. Gaddock Teeg was out. Knight of the Reliquary was out. Thankfully there were plenty of others that fit the bill. My deck was close to 150 cards before I started slimming things down!
One of the cards I'm excited to see perform is Abzan Falconer. Since most of the creatures I control should have +1/+1 counters, I think the Falconer is going to a big surprise to most players. Cauldron of Souls is a card I'm not too sure on, but I hope it will work. With so many ways to get +1/+1 counters, I'm expecting to be able to get rid of the -1/-1 counters it will put on my creatures fairly easily. Cauldron of Souls can make your opponents very reluctant to use a mass removal spell, and can provide you with a way to ensure all your creatures enter the battlefield effects go off again!
Twilight Drover is a favorite pet card of mine that looks to perform well in this deck. Adding +1/+1 counters can get more flying creatures, who can then get +1/+1 more counters. Phytohydra is another rarely used card that could really shine in this deck. I look forward to seeing how the new cards from Kaladesh block perform. Lifecrafter's Bestiary and Rishkar, Peema Renegade are just two of the cards I have high hopes for in this deck and many other decks I run!
Where the deck goes from here is up to you. Do you push the token creature theme to really abuse the +1/+1 counters? Do you add in other Ajani planeswalkers and try to abuse that theme? Reduce the +1/+1 counter theme and push the revolt mechanic with far more sacrifice effects? A deck like this offers plenty of opportunities for the new Commander player to stretch their deckbuilding muscles and really get into what the format has to offer!