Commander: Best Budget Generals
Every Cards Counts
Dallas Meidinger (DallasM)
Generals determine how you build your Commander deck. They determine colors and hopefully some kind of strategy as well. Commander is a tricky format to play on a budget, so starting with a cheap general never hurts. This week, I'll count down the best budget generals and some, ahem, general strategies that you can build around.
Choosing a general can be a daunting task. To make a wise choice, one must spend some time analyzing a general's inherent weaknesses and strengths. While it’s important to have plenty of win conditions other than your general, there's one thing to keep in mind: Your general will likely hit the battlefield more than once per game. If your general is a good fit for your deck, you'll probably play it at least twice in a game. Therefore, your general is still important, and will likely play an integral role in victory.
Just to set some ground rules, I won't be using any banned generals (Sorry, Braids), and I'll set a price cap of $4.00 on MtgFanatic. Since a general is such a large part of a commander deck, it seems reasonable to use a higher card budget than what I normally stick to for these lists. If there's any card in your Commander deck that you should invest in, it should be your general. Without further ado, let's list the best.
Monocolored Commander decks are deceptively tricky to build, but they can also be quite strong. Having a full set of cards that play on your chosen color's strength can be trouble for players using an unfocused strategy.
Blue is an excellent choice for Commander. While hard counters are generally better in one-on-one scenarios, blue has enough card draw and permanent stealing effects to make it mean in multiplayer too. Blue cards also have strong interactions with artifacts, which brings me to our general.
Must-play general: Arcum Dagsson
- Ability does not require an activation cost
- Basically repeatable spot removal if necessary
- Very rarely a dead card in a well-built deck
- Reasonable mana cost
- Ability is board-dependent
- Has huge potential to backfire, especially since blue lacks artifact destruction
- Power/toughness leaves much to be desired
Arcum Dagsson’s Tinker-esque ability is very powerful. Unfortunately, most players seem to use it with lockdown strategies involving Winter Orb, but we’re all about fun here. Consider new cards like Mimic Vat. Mimic Vat allows you to sacrifice a good artifact creature and replay it repeatedly. Of course, this is but one example of how much potential synergy this general has. It hurts my head just thinking about the possibilities.
Arcum also lets you target an opponent’s artifact, which makes him a great way to deal with big threats. However, blue lacks a way to deal with artifacts once they hit the board, so be sure to play some Boomerang effects as well. Blue is powerful in Commander, and Arcum Dagsson is no exception.
White is likely your best option for a mono colored Commander deck. Let's face it, white is the most versatile color in Magic. White has good weenies, good fatties, artifact and enchantment removal, nearly the best creature removal, graveyard recursion, board sweepers, damage prevention and protection-granting cards, and lots of cantrip spells to make up for mediocre card draw. In short, you'll almost always have an answer when playing white.
Must-play general: Crovax, Ascendant Hero
- Fits well into white weenie or token strategies
- Even harder to get rid of than other generals
- Respectable power/toughness
- Affects the board immediately
- Higher-than-optimal mana cost
- Potentially hoses your own artifact creatures
- May just be a six (or more) mana Honor of the Pure
Crovax is at home in any kind of token or weenie strategy. He’s certainly more straightforward to build with than most generals: just pump out plenty of tokens and swing away. A soldier subtheme may be something to consider as well. Cards like Darien, King of Kjeldor and Benalish Commander pump out tons of soldier tokens. Non-soldier token generators like Spectral Procession are valuable as well. In addition, don’t forget about Hour of Reckoning. It’s a powerful sweeper that leaves token decks way ahead of the competition. Throw in a few more Glorious Anthem effects (Marshal’s Anthem is one of my favorites) and you’re golden.
Green is a much better choice than one would imagine in Commander. Spot removal isn't nearly as good in these long, often multiplayer games, so green can usually get by just fine. Green also does well at dealing with troublesome noncreature permanents, and bashes face with tokens or monstrous fatties.
Must play general: Multani, Maro-Sorcerer
- Gets ridiculously big in multiplayer
- Shroud and potential size offers plenty of resilience
- Can win games via general damage quite often
- Dependent on opponent's hands as much as one's own
- Doesn't affect the board upon arrival
- Unable to enchant or equip
Multani is simply a tank, and can be quite hard to kill. If you’re worried about keeping everyone’s hands full, try cards like Howling Mine and Temple Bell. Cards like Overrun and Predatory Focus are some of the better finishers for Multani as well, since they don’t target.
Try pairing Multani with ramp spells to help offset her expensive cost. This will also let you take advantage of green’s plethora of big creatures. Don’t forget to be versatile, though. Green has plenty of ways to destroy noncreature permanents, and cards like Beast Within can help with pesky creatures. In short, Multani is a hell of a win condition. Make sure you give her the support to get there.
Red lacks an all-star general, but makes up for it with a ton of spells that affect the entire board. Red's Commander game doesn't always focus on overwhelming with little creatures (these strategies are tougher in 40-life, multiple opponent games) or burn spells. Red Commander decks often take advantage of devastating X spells, artifact destruction, plenty of haste, and dragons instead.
Must-play general: Heartless Hidetsugu
- The king of comebacks
- Amazing with lifelink
- Huge effect on the game with a simple tap
- Toughness is a bit low
- Doesn't immediately affect the board
- Very often a potentially fatal double-edged sword
For anyone who has ever complained about Commander games taking too long, Heartless Hidetsugu may be the general for you. He effectively cuts the game in half with a single tap. Giving him haste is always fun, but lifelink is even better. Unfortunately, we don’t have access to white. We can still get lifelink through equipment like Basilisk Collar and Loxodon Warhammer, though. Don’t leave home without them. In any case, Hidetsugu can produce an absurdly large life swing if you’re losing, and help you put an opponent into Fireball range if you’re winning. Hidetsugu is definitely a powerful general.
Black Commander decks generally revolve around controlling the game's creature presence and powerful, constant recursion. Since black doesn't have many ways to deal with artifacts and enchantments, winning the creature battle is not only important, it's nearly a requirement.
Must-play general: Balthor the Defiled
- Repeatable mass recursion is godlike
- Pumps the seldom-used minion tribe
- Reasonable mana cost
- Zombie Dwarf Legend may be the most awesome creature type in Magic
- Low power/toughness
- Building around minions is somewhat impractical
- Repeated use gets tricky
Balthor can be an absolute nightmare. To use him effectively, pair him with dredge cards like Golgari Thug and Stinkweed Imp, among others. From there, stack your deck with powerful creatures and board-sweeping effects. Liliana Vess and Living End also give you mass recursion options in case your Balthor plan fails. You may want to try to build with the minion subtheme, though you may not. There aren’t too many powerful minion creatures around, although Bone Shredder, Minion of the Wastes, Priest of Gix, and Rag Man are still playable.
Top five multicolor generals
Multicolor decks allow Commander players to compliment each color's strengths and weaknesses with support from other colors. This often means a more powerful, well-rounded deck. For budget players, it also may be easier to build a Commander deck with cards you have sitting around when utilizing more than one color. And of course, there are some very good multicolored generals.
Just one quick note: I have left a few generals off this list since they have been discussed to death elsewhere. I left Jhoira of the Ghitu off this list since you'll have no trouble finding plenty of strategy talk on Jhoira without me rambling about her. I'll just say this: Jhoira is a very popular general, and a very good one. Don't forget about her.
Uril, the Miststalker is also absent. Uril is a great general if you like to win with general damage. Again, there are tons of resources for Uril strategy and decks out there. Don’t rule him out, but I think we’re better off discussing some less-used generals today.
General #5: Brion Stoutarm
- Efficient power/toughness and cost
- “Build around me” activated ability, lifelink is very relevant
- Not afraid to attack and win with general damage
- Needs haste to be truly effective
- Ability is board-dependent
- Can be predictable
Brion is a highly underrated general who can do a lot of damage if left unchecked. Brion is best played with Threaten effects, as it can fling stolen creatures for plenty of damage. Helm of Possession also works quite well. You may wan to consider factoring in Brion’s life-gaining potential as well. While I’m not a fan of playing Test of Endurance or Felidar Sovereign in Commander, cards like Cradle of Vitality and Well of Lost Dreams can do your deck wonders.
General #4: Horde of Notions
- Respectable power, can do plenty of attacking
- Recursion ability is priceless
- Relevant creature type with plenty of deckbuilding options
- Mana can be tricky
- Easy to become too ambitious with your deck’s color commitments
Horde of Notions pairs well with any of Lorwyn-block’s powerful elemental creatures, among others. Evoke abilities become even better when Horde of Notions can pull evoked creatures right back onto the battlefield. Since creatures with evoke almost all have triggered abilities when they enter or leave the battlefield, cards like Astral Slide, Momentary Blink, and Galepowder Mage become quite good as well. Don’t forget color fixing, either. Green will have to be a major player in your deck, but there are also artifact options like Kaleidostone and Prophetic Prism.
General #3: Glissa, the Traitor
- One of the best defensive generals around
- First strike and deathtouch is a potent combination
- Repeatable recursion with huge combo potential
- Low mana cost
- Not exceptionally dangerous as an attacker
- Relatively easy to kill (although being black helps)
Glissa is a very tough general to play against. First off, her low mana cost means she’ll likely spend most of the game on the battlefield. Combine that with first strike and deathtouch and you have a creature that gives an opponent some very good reasons to attack someone else. That being said, Glissa works well with creatures like Sheoldred, the Whispering One and Anowon, the Rune Sage who force your opponents to sacrifice their creatures repeatedly. They’ll need a steady supply of creatures if they ever hope to keep pace and break through your defenses. Glissa herself can cause some serious damage by recurring artifacts like Executioner’s Capsule and Sylvok Replica.
General #2: Zur the Enchanter
- Repeatable tutor ability
- Three colors means plenty of enchantments to find
- Reasonable mana cost
- Low power
- Needs to attack before it affects the board
- May have difficulty surviving attacks
Zur is in the perfect color combination for his ability. White, blue and black have enchantments that range from disabling auras like Arrest to recursion engines like Phrexian Reclamation. Zur finds them all, and likely will find a few throughout the game. Greater Auramancy is absolutely essential as well. My personal favorite target, however, is Rhystic Study. It draws you plenty of cards, but it does have the downside of making you a big target. Steel of the Godhead is probably the best aura to fetch for Zur himself, as making him unblockable will ensure he lives to see more than one combat phase.
Zur is a very powerful general, and one of the most hated in the format. I was debating keeping him off to the side with Jhoira and Uril, but I find he has a bit more variety to his game plan and was worth discussing. Wouldn’t you agree?
General #1: Experiment Kraj
- Amazing combo potential
- Very versatile
- Reasonable power/toughness
- Solid board politics tool
- High mana cost
- Doesn’t usually win with general damage
If you’re playing Experiment Kraj, you’ll likely want to play cards like Thrive and creatures with graft from Ravnica block. Spreading +1/+1 counters around the board may win you some friends, making Kraj decks great political tools. Opponents may be suspicious of your motives, but they’ll still likely go after the players that didn’t pump creatures for them. This will buy you valuable time and let you set up some combos for Experiment Kraj.
One of my favorite combos involves using Bloom Tender and Horseshoe Crab alongside Experiment Kraj to generate infinite green mana. From there, you can Genesis Wave for two thousand if you really want to get crazy. That’s just one example of the many insane combos that make Kraj the ultimate blank canvas. You can paint this deck any way you like and still come out with a masterpiece. Just don’t forget Training Grounds and a few ways to untap creatures.
I hope that gives you a good idea of what you can do with these generals. I truly believe that these are the strongest reasonably-priced generals in the format and you’d be wise to give them a shot.
Commander is an exciting format because it is largely untainted by tournament coverage. It was developed for casual players by casual players, which means that the variety of decks that people play is much larger than in Standard or Extended. If you’re opposed to netdecking, Commander is definitely the format for you. In reality, Commander is for any player looking for a fun and challenging twist on regular Magic, which encompasses 90% of the players I know. In short, tell your friends. Commander is one of the best social formats in the game, and it still has a place for budget players. Enjoy the preconstructed Commander decks next week, they look pretty solid.