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Build Better EDH Decks With Just 12 Hands!

Updated: Oct 15, 2023

Hundred Handed One
Hundred Handed One - Art by Brad Rigney, © Wizards of the Coast

8 by 8 EDH - 12 Starting Hands Principle

The 8 by 8 EDH System is a strategy first approach to EDH deck building that aims to build fun and reliable decks. The system is founded upon a few simple principles that help guide strategy decisions, making deck design and building much quicker and easier.

What to Expect

This guide's focus is on the 12 Starting Hands principle, which aims to achieve the following:

  • Explain what the principle is

  • Demonstrate the 12 Starting Hands Principle in an experiment

  • Reveal how the principle balances 8 by 8 Recipes


  • The commander isn't so important for this principle, rather focus just on card probabilities within the deck

  • We won't look at land strategy breakdowns here, although it does also work when deciding the types of lands (Utility, fixing, fetch, basics etc.) you intend to use

  • A Starting Hand is 7 + 1 cards (your first 8 cards drawn)

  • A maximum of 12 starting hands from an EDH deck

  • A Good Strategy would need at-least 12 cards to have the chance of appearing in every starting hand

  • Ineffective strategies have less than 4 cards

  • Effective strategies have more than 12 cards

  • The 12 Starting Hands Principle helps show you why balancing strategies helps build more effective decks

What is the 12 Starting Hands Principle?

Deck building doesn't have to be rocket science, full of complex mathematics and statistics. Instead, this guide aims to be more practical and just requires an EDH deck and a small amount of note taking (trust me, this really helps!).

The most fun part of deck building is always practical experimentation. So we aim to use that alongside some simple deck analysis to try keep track of any improvements we make. This is the (repeatable) process we will be following:

  1. Make some initial observations about an EDH deck of your choice

  2. Design a hypothesis, I call this the Recipe

  3. Perform the experiment, and compare the outcome to your expectations outlined in the Recipe

Step 1: Make Some Initial Observations

In EDH a hand is typically 7 cards, and all players start their turns by drawing a card. This means that when your very first main phase comes around, you have 8 cards in hand! This is what I mean when I refer to a Starting Hand.

In our starting hand, we hope to see on average, 2 lands, a ramp spell, a card draw spell, and if we are lucky some removal/interaction. We can count how many of each kind of card type and strategy there are and note it down. This however, only gives us an example of one starting hand. Realistically, the deck has around 98-99 cards in it, and a hand could consist of any combination of these cards. Millions of permutations are possible. We don't have time to check all of that, so instead, to get a reasonable idea of what our starting hands could look like, we can just keep drawing starting hands from the deck until we can't anymore (there will be just a couple cards left over, as 8 doesn't divide cleanly into the 99).

To save you some math, what you will find is that at most you can draw 12 starting hands from the deck. Ah ha! Now it makes sense right?

This number 12 is where this principle's name comes from. The basic idea is that a good strategy is one where you expect (on average) to get at-least 1 card in each of your starting hands. Spread out each Starting Hand you draw from the deck infront of you, and compare them with each other. You can then identify how many look like acceptable hands and give them a rating out of 12 (eg. 6/12 decent starting hands). This is something you can do repeatedly to track adjustments you make, so keep it in mind.

After observing all the starting hands, and making some notes, organize the cards into their respective strategy piles and tally up the totals. Some versatile cards can go into multiple strategies, so just pick the one that makes the most sense (it's easy to move it to a different pile later). It should be obvious that some strategies are more/less reliable relative to each other. Strategy piles containing less than 4 cards are considered ineffective by the 8 by 8 system, and we typically want at-least 12 cards in a single strategy for it to be considered effective. Larger strategies (16 or more cards) can be detrimental to deck design, so see if you can break them into subset strategies (this makes the strategies more manageable and less vague).

Step 2: The Recipe

I won't go into too much detail about primary or secondary strategies in this guide, here we are really just interested in looking at which strategies are more or less reliable, and then drawing up an improved recipe to help the deck become more reliable.

To draw up the decks strategy recipe, make a list of whatever the strategies are that you see. In my case I have something like this:

  • 1x commander

  • 38x Lands

  • 13x Card Draw

  • 5x Ramp

  • 10x Removal

  • 2x Wraths

  • 6x Counter Spells

  • 3x Combo Pieces

  • 1x Tutor

  • 7x equipment

  • 3x overrun

  • 5x creature token generators

  • 6x flying creatures

To be honest, this is a really mixed pile. I put the flyers in, but I hardly seem to draw them, and this bugs me. Most of the time, I have an overrun in hand and no generators so no creatures to really use them with. The tutor helps when I have it, but most of the time I am simply too far behind in mana to do much. Only in the luckiest situations have I managed to win, and that was after watching two big threats take each other out and I snuck through with a win in the end... but the game wasn't really fun, as most of the time I felt like I wasn't really doing anything. Interactions are okay, I counter some things, and remove others, but it still happens too often that a player gets out of control and I am powerless to stop it.

So, my rant over, what do I do about it?

Well, firstly, we already did the most important thing, perform some observations and write down the strategy totals (giving us a baseline to work from). We can see our problems already. Too many things that don't really work, and not enough of the things we really want. Lets change that by writing ourselves a new better recipe.

The things we will do to improve the recipe are as follows:

  1. Remove ineffective strategies

  2. Increase strategies we want to rely on to 12 cards

  3. Solve the miss match of having overruns but not having enough creatures

  4. Keep the flyers, but find a way to get more out of them

The tidied up recipe now looks like:

  • 1x commander

  • 12x Card Draw

  • 12x Ramp

  • 12x Removal

  • 4x Wraths

  • 12x flying creatures

  • 8x anthems (all creatures get +/+)

  • 4x Counter Spells

  • 35x Lands

To fix the overrun generator problem, I decided to replace it with 8 anthem cards. This lets me put the anthem out and permanently buff my flying creatures. Sure they don't have trample anymore, but they are flying, so this is reasonable evasion. Most anthems are also cheap, so I can cast them early. I also raised the number of flyers to 12, to ensure that I should get at-least one in my opening hand. I raised the amount of ramp, so that I can be sure to keep up with my opponents in the early and mid game and this let me reduce my land count a bit. The extra couple wraths should also help me deal with those pesky board states. I took out stuff that I just don't have enough of to make reliable, like the combo pieces and the tutor. Equipment is too broad of a strategy, rather, I decided to allocate equipment under other categories. This helps the recipe look much simpler.

The Recipe you write down is essentially a prediction of what you should see in your starting hand. It predicts the chances that a strategy will appear relative to other strategies. It's not a guarantee however, but should reduce the amount of bad hands you get. Writing it down helps you in a number of ways:

  1. Helps you decide what strategies to focus on (during deck building, this gives you reasons to put aside those favourite cards that just don't synergize!)

  2. Helps you remember what a deck does (in the future you may have forgotten what you put in, seeing the strategies in the recipe will remind you of the decks goals)

  3. The totals let you know when to stop adding more cards, and instead start thinking about swapping cards to improve efficiency or versatility

A thought that helps me decide when to leave a beloved card out is "This card deserves a better strategy!". You should never feel bad that you didn't put your favourite card in. Instead feel bad that it is getting used less effectively in this deck. There is always a better home for the card, you just need to find the right Commander.

Step 3: The 12 Starting Hands Experiment

Once you finish designing your new recipe, and making the adjustments to your deck, you are ready to do an experiment! Repeat the drawing of 12 starting hands, and compare notes against the previous iteration.

I would encourage you to also try playing the deck out a few times, and see how it feels. I'm quite certain you will notice the reliability improve, as you have balanced the strategy probabilities.

You will also notice an increase in games where you simply out ramp/draw your opponents, or feel really powerful at the table as you always have the answer. Never underestimate the importance of draw, ramp and removal. These are the core(primary strategies) of any good functioning deck.

Base on the outcome of your experiment you can either go back to step 1 and make some adjustments again or you are now happy with the deck and it's now ready to head into the big wide world!

Final Remarks:

To understand and prove why the 8 by 8 EDH system works, we first needed a way of testing the reliability of our build, some baseline to compare strategies against. The 8 by 8 recipe provides the overall guide we use to balance strategies. The 12 starting hands principle tells how many cards a good strategy should have. We wanted some strategies to be more effective than others, so we adjusted them either up or down from 12 as our mid point, or removed them if they simply were not effective.

In the next article we will discuss the Minimum Viable Strategy Principle and why having an MVS helps you make meaningful adjustments to your decks.

You may now be wondering a bit more about other ways the 8 by 8 EDH System can help you build better decks, and I hope to explain more in some upcoming guides, so make sure you subscribe/follow @intothe99podcast on YouTube and Instagram to keep up-to-date!

Thank you for taking the time to read this guide, and I hope that you found it helpful! You can find me on Instagram as well as a bunch of my decks and 8 by 8 EDH Recipes (in the Primers) on Moxfield if you do have any questions @thunder.emperors.command

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