A Beginner's Guide to MTGO 1v1 Commander
Commander is an ancient format that was rumored to have been started by only the most knowledgeable planeswalkers in the multiverse -- the judges. The format was known by the name Elder Dragon Highlander, as these iconic dragons had made their mark in the stories of Magic's past. Like Commander today, the format was mostly multiplayer and focused greatly on diplomacy - a skill no good judge lacks. It shouldn't be surprising that a format fostered by some of the most knowledgeable people hasn't had the rules majorly changed in quite some time despite the fact that the rules and banlist are constantly tweaked to stay relevant to modern mages. In 2011, Wizards released special product primarily for use by players of this format and renamed it Commander. This official support from Wizards has been appreciated by the community and, ever since then, Commander has only continued to grow in all forms.
Commander the format is 100 card singleton with decks featuring a "commander". 100 card singleton means that each deck contains 100 cards and there can be no duplicates of cards outside of basic lands or cards that explicitly have rules to be used in multiples (e.g., Relentless Rats). The commander itself can be any legendary creature, or specific permanent that states it can be used as a commander. In addition to this, there are some legendary creatures with the ability "partner" which allows them to be “paired” with another creature that also has “partner” - to be used as a duo of commanders. The commander(s) count towards the 100 card restriction, so decks are either 98 or 99 cards plus the commander(s).
The choice of commander is very important since cards in a deck must match the commander's color identity. The total color identity of a card is any colored mana symbol that is found on the card; this includes the mana cost and the card text. No cards in a deck can contain a colored mana symbol that does not match that of the commander. For example, if the commander of a deck is Tasigur, the Golden Fang that deck's color identity is black+blue+green because the mana cost is black and the card text contains hybrid blue/green symbols. This means that the deck can contain no cards that have a red or white color identity, but any combination of black, blue, and green are fine. In addition to this, colorless color identity cards are legal in any deck, even if your commander’s identity is colorless. For example, Thought-Knot Seer and other colorless Eldrazi are commonly used in Nissa, Vastwood Seer and other ramp decks despite the commander not being colorless. Keep in mind that even though a card can have a colorless mana cost, the color identity of the card is still influenced by the card text as well.
Commanders start the game in the “Command Zone”. While in the Command Zone, a commander may be cast at any time they could be normally cast by paying their mana cost+2 colorless mana for each time it has been previously cast in the game from the Command Zone. When a commander would change zones, it is by default instead sent to the Command Zone. However, the player who owns the commander may choose to send it to the zone that it is designated to go to rather than the Command Zone. Once a commander is in a zone other than the Command Zone, it is treated as a normal card and may not be moved back to the Command Zone unless it would change zones again. This means allowing a commander to be put in exile or the graveyard can potentially make it difficult to get back. However, when a commander is cast from somewhere other than the Command Zone the 2 colorless mana tax doesn't apply so allowing a commander to go to a player's hand can make it cheaper to recast.
Finally, Commander has an alternate win condition not seen in other formats; if a player takes 21 points of combat damage from a single commander, they lose the game. This damage is tracked by each actual commander, not just by name. This means that if you take control of an opponent's commander and it has the same name as your commander the damage dealt will be tracked separately. This "commander damage" can not be manipulated in any way once it is dealt.
MTGO 1v1 Commander is a format created for Magic Online play starting on May 10, 2017. The intent was to create a version of Commander that would appeal more to Magic Online players. The data on Magic Online showed that their Commander players were primarily playing 1v1 and the current format wasn't balanced. This is because the players were forced to use multiplayer Commander as their format for their 1v1 games. On July 5th the format officially gained a unique ban list separate from multiplayer Commander, as the Magic Online team aimed to create a more balanced 1v1 experience without affecting the multiplayer format.
The most important details are in the name of the format. It is primarily a Magic Online format and it is exclusively 1v1. In regular Commander, diplomacy and social skills are very important because of the multiplayer aspect, whereas in MTGO 1v1 Commander, it is possible to never say a word to an opponent.
In addition to this, the starting life total for each player is 30. Duel Commander is a form of 1v1 Commander played in paper and the life totals are 20 to encourage aggressive strategies while multiplayer Commander has a starting life total of 40 to give games and relationships time to develop. Each player is given 20 minutes per match and each match is best of 1 game. This means no sideboarding. There are also no special mulligan rules in MTGO 1v1 Commander despite other Commander variants usually having them.
There are many variations of the Commander format, including other 1v1 styles. However, the MTGO 1v1 Commander format is the only one officially monitored by WotC.
The traditional strategy archetypes of Aggro, Control, Combo don't really apply to MTGO 1v1 Commander since there are so many potential commanders to build around. It wouldn't do the decks justice to try and force the commanders into only those 3. Rather, it may be useful to break down into 6 different strategies. There is the traditional Aggro and Combo with "Control" being able to be broken down into Board Control and Counterspell Control. There is also Ramp strategies. Finally is something I would call "Flexible". When seeing a specific commander at the start of a game it should be possible to narrow down their primary strategy into one of those first 5 categories. However, Flexible commanders are basically unpredictable until the game progresses. There are good cards that each color will almost always play, but a Flexible commander will have a greater variety in the cards it could be playing outside of those generally good cards. Some examples of commanders that represent each strategy:
Due to the nature of a 100-card singleton format, there aren't really any decks that only play all the best cards. There isn't enough redundancy in raw power cards. Synergistic decks will always have an advantage over decks that just pick a random commander and try to just play the best overall cards. There are many potential commanders that share color identities. Selecting a commander that also fits in with the primary strategy of a deck is very important. Since commanders can be recast multiple times in a game, it is crucial that they are relevant to the main strategy as they can become a source of card advantage. While it is possible to pair most commanders with most strategies, picking a known good pairing is the ideal place to begin.
Since this format has so many viable strategies, it is best to start off by deciding what type of strategy is most appealing. Starting with selecting one of the main 6 strategies and then going deeper into the nuances of particular commanders is ideal. Once a strategy and commander have been chosen, the next step is to figure out the best cards for the basic deck slots. Scouring deck lists or asking for help will save a lot of time for this part since there are strange printings and synergies that even the most knowledgeable MtG player can overlook in a format as vast as Commander.
Once your first deck is built, it is time to start playing some games on Magic Online. As games are played, keep track of impressive cards and under performing cards. Try to find functional reprints of impressive cards and replace the under performing ones. Finally, when a deck feels ready feel free to join the Friendly 1v1 Commander League on Magic Online and start trying some real competition. Every weekend there is also the 1v1 Commander Challenge which is the premier event for the format. Expect only the best competition at those events.
Official Duel Commander website with strategies more relevant to the MTGO 1v1 Commander than most multiplayer resources. Be aware that Duel Commander uses different rules and banlist than MTGO 1v1 Commander
Both of these resources show top finishing MTGO 1v1 Commander lists. Be aware that some lists contain cards that are no longer legal since there isn’t a breakdown by ban cycle: