Duel Commander is very popular in some parts of the world. However, in North America, there are many who don’t know much about it. I want to talk about the format, why you should play, the myths, and where to go from here.
Introduction to the format
I will assume everyone is familiar with multiplayer Commander. Duel Commander (also known as French Commander) is very similar to multiplayer Commander:
- Your deck must be singletons except for basic lands
- You must have a total of 100 cards
- You have a Commander (colour identity restrictions, recasting with tax are the same)
- There is no sideboard
- You mulligan Vancouver-style
However, there are many differences:
- The banned list is different
- You have 20 life
- There is no 21 Commander damage win condition
Most importantly, games are 1 versus 1 and best-of-3.
Why you should play
Duel Commander takes the best elements from multiplayer Commander and Legacy: fairness, competition, and excitement.
The format is fair
In multiplayer Commander, you can play broken cards like Sol Ring because a table can group up and punish a fast start or a threatening board. In 1v1, the format needs to be fair for people to have fun, and not feel like the lost because they didn’t get an Ancient Tomb in their starting hand.
How many times have you been at a Commander table and everyone but you played a Sol Ring? It feels bad. This is partly because you were unlucky, but really, it’s because a card as good as Sol Ring (or Mana Crypt, Mana Vault) is allowed in the format. Those cards are too swingy in 1 vs. 1 and simply aren’t fair.
Duel Commander achieves fairness with a specific banned list and with a reduced life total. Now that life totals have been reduced to 20, all deck variants (and their combinations) are valid: Aggro, Control, Combo. Bans focus on discouraging fast starts, must-have commanders, cards that are too good, or too-easy combos. With most games, I can walk away from the table thinking: I had a fighting chance.
The format is competitive
If you’re normally a casual player, this isn’t a selling point. If you are someone who competes in constructed formats, Duel Commander will appeal to you. Like other constructed formats:
- Games are 1v1 and best-of-3
- Tournaments employ Swiss-style pairings
- Multiplayer politics are non-existent
- You are rewarded for knowing your and your opponent’s deck
In addition, I can’t stress enough how well-managed the banned list is. Duel’s band list is actively managed by a committee who does extensive testing, watches for dominant strategies, and course-corrects when necessary.
That said, just as Magic naturally has elements of chance, this is a singleton format after all. With some noteworthy tutors banned (Vampiric Tutor, Imperial Seal, Mystical Tutor) and without the ability to have four-ofs, your commander is your best source of consistency.
The format is exciting
What excites someone is subjective, however, just like multiplayer Commander:
- You will have splashy, noteworthy, and re-countable plays
- It’s exciting to build the deck (even top tier commanders have a number of flex spots)
- A singleton format has high variance which means different games each time
- The games are complex as you think about years upon years of cards you can expect your opponent to play
Debunking the myths
It’s just another fad like Tiny Leaders or Frontier
Duel Commander has been around for years. Several event results are posted every week on mtgtop8.com from all over the world. The committee continues to have an active role in monitoring the metagame and tweaks when necessary.
This isn’t the case. Especially with the recent life total change from 30 life to 20 life, Aggro deck percentages have chipped away a bit at Combo metagame share. Its share currently sits around 14%.
However, this does not mean you can expect to make it to turn 10 with a durdly combo. You should expect to have a game plan and answers if your games are going long.
It’s a solved format
Between new cards, the life total change, people with pet commanders, and committee’s eye on the metagame, the format is constantly evolving. If it does become solved, it won’t be solved for long.
Well, this one is true if you’re looking to build a 100%-optimized deck and your reference point is casual or cards-that-I-have constructed. However, its costs compare to those of a Modern, Legacy or multiplayer Commander deck.
With cost-effective substitutions to some of the top net deck’s most expensive cards, you can still have a competitive deck.
… but it’s too much of a change from my normal Commander deck
If your multiplayer deck already has all the staples for your colours, you’re usually not far from a Duel Commander deck.
Games take forever
Though there are always exceptions, you can expect to finish a set of two or three games in the same time allotted for any other constructed format.
This sounds great. Where do I start?
Find out if you can already play in your community
The format is much more popular outside of North America, but there may be pockets in your city or online (ex.: Cockatrice, Xmage). In Ottawa, Canada, there is a Westboro Magic League that meets on Mondays.
Look at sample decks
If you’re looking for inspiration, mtgtop8.com has results dating back to 2014.
Some examples of commanders:
- Aggro: Zurgo Bellstriker, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben (both can be built on budget)
- Control: Keranos, God of Storms
- Combo: Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
- Aggro, Control: Geist of Saint Traft
- Aggro, Combo: Elves
- Control, Combo: Narset, Enlightened Master
- Aggro, Control, Combo: Vial Smasher the Fierce with partner Kraum, Ludevic’s Opus
If you want to stray a bit further from the meta, edhrec.com can help with suggestions based on your commander.
I hope I have sold you on the format. It’s complex, exciting, and has a lot of room for personalization. There is no other format quite like it and I think it can offer something to current fans of constructed formats.