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The Ultimate Guide to EDH Strategy

Updated: Oct 15, 2023


Strategic Planning Artwork
Strategic Planning - Art by Robbie Trevino. © Wizards of the Coast

8 by 8 EDH - How to design Strategically

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.


If you haven't read any of the articles in this series, you may want to start here:

You may also want a refresher on the Strategy Priority Principle:


Exclusions

I will not be discussing quantities or balance in this article, but I will touch on how to properly identify synergies with your commander. As well as ways strategies help each other or overlap for better synergy.


I also won't discuss secondary strategies exhaustively, instead I will categorize them using some higher level terminology here, and in future write some articles regarding deck archetypes and the secondary strategies that help them function properly.


For mana-base related strategies checkout my previous article:


What to Expect

This guide focuses on helping you better understand what strategies are and what they are not. It will also help you recognize when you need a particular strategy to complete your decks engine. I will also explain what makes a strategy good or bad so you are able to write up more meaningful recipes.


TLDR

Primary Strategies are (but could also be):

  • Draw (Card Advantage)

  • Ramp (Increase Mana Potential)

  • Removal (Interaction)

  • Wraths (Resets)

Secondary Strategies can be categorized by (could be):

  • sustainability (recovery or resurrection)

  • resilience (protection or evasion)

  • amplification (doublers)

  • augmentation (modification or anthems)

  • control (counterspells, goading)

  • fixing (mana or tutors)

Not all strategies are equal

  • Overly generalized strategies are ineffective at focusing their responsibility

  • Overly focused strategies limit your choices too much

  • Some strategies overlap and result in super synergy


Primary Strategies

The Strategy Priority Principle makes clear that some strategies are more important than others at ensuring deck reliability, and these I classify in the 8 by 8 EDH System as primary strategies.


These are:

  • Draw

  • Ramp

  • Removal

  • Wraths

But you could also write these out like:

  • Card Advantage

  • Increase Mana Potential

  • Interaction

  • Resets

So, what exactly are these? And what are the differences between them?


A small disclaimer here, is that its easy to miss things when writing an article here. If you spot anything that you think should have been mentioned, let me know in the comments and I will update the article accordingly.


Draw vs Advantage

Card draw is the most recognizable of all of the primary strategies, as it correlates directly with a game mechanic "Draw". But it isn't the only way to gain an extra card that you can play. Hence you can use the term "Card Advantage" instead.


Draw is simply the action of taking the top card of your library and putting it into your hand.


Card Advantage refers to any means that gives you an extra playable card (either from your own battlefield, from exile or an opponents library or hand). Some common variants of this strategy are:

  • play/cast from a graveyard (common in black, and sometimes straight resurrection from opponents graveyards!)

  • exile card from top of a library, you may play that card (common in red and often used to cast from opponents libraries)

  • play from opponents hand (less common)

  • The Manifest mechanic lets you put a card from your library onto the battlefield, and play it by paying its mana cost

  • search your library for a card and either put it in your hand/graveyard or directly onto the battlefield (tutoring)

  • play from top of a library (eg. future sight)

  • when you discard a card, you can cast it or put it back in your hand or in or on your library...

  • tutoring multiple cards (2 or more)

  • cascade! ( you get to cast a spell of lower mana value)

  • or simply draw more cards... (cantrips or bigger draw spells or abilities)

Any of these will give you some extra card that you wouldn't normally have had access too. This means you have gained an extra card to play, beyond the typical one you are allowed to draw at the start of your turn.


Some strategies I don't consider to be this kind of primary card advantage are:

  • rummaging(where you draw one and discard one)

  • tutoring (a single card) or replacement of a card

  • sacrifice something to gain a single thing

  • scry or surveil

  • milling (unless you get to return something back to your hand)

These I consider to be secondary dependent advantage, or a form of strategy fixing. What this term means is you need to prop that mechanic or ability up with another primary advantage strategy to actually gain advantage.


If you do intend to use one off these you should definitely consider including a graveyard recovery strategy (either resurrect or back to hand or make castable/playable). This can result in you running into issues if you don't happen to draw any recovery, so make sure you give this strategy sufficient priority. This is probably the most common deck engine across all of magic so definitely worth considering.


One last point is make sure to balance repeatable abilities vs temporary abilities. They each have pros and cons:

  • repeatable means you can keep gaining advantage, but usually at a higher initial investment (economy building! I will talk more on this under the ramp section)

  • temporary means you benefit just one time, but either at a cheaper cost or at a greater quantity (for more mana usually)

Its good to balance these out so you get early game benefits as well as mid and late game. More competitive strategies will want cheaper faster benefits rather than mid or late game.


Ramp vs Mana Potential


Why mana potential and not fixing? Many of you might be wondering why I did this, but I have good reason. The Ramp strategy has become somewhat ambiguous in recent years and many players tend to get it confused with card advantage (explained above). While ramp is technically card advantage, its main purpose is also to give you access to more mana either immediately, temporarily or a future turn. Mana fixing I consider to be part of a more generalized secondary fixing strategy or subtheme. Many lands already fix mana on their own, or ramp spells let you pick which land you want (allowing you to fix at the same time) so your only real concern should be the scope of the fixing (which lands or cards you can choose from).


I will still clarify these terms as best and simply as I can (many people struggle to do this, so maybe learn these so you can help them):

  • Ramp - any action resulting in you gaining additional mana potential beyond your typical +1 mana from your single land per turn.

  • Fixing - any action that transmutes mana from one to another, OR gives you a choice of mana options (eg. tutor a basic land of any type to the battlefield or pay one of any colour to make any of another colour)

  • Mana Potential - this refers to the either immediate increase, temporary increase or future increase of generatable mana


I love building deck's engines. But maybe its not obvious to some people what this really is. A deck engine refers to a deck's ability to become sustainable i.e. have some means to recycle and re-use of cards, or gain repeatable unlimited battlefield advantage (maybe tokens, maybe mana, maybe combos). An easy way to think about this, is to ask the questions:


"What happens to the card after I use it? And can I get it back so I can use it again?"


For a deck engine to work well, and start quickly, you first need to invest in your battlefield economy. Anyone who plays RTS or computer games will be very familiar with this concept. Invest early and consistently, to increase production potential faster than your opponents, and usually you will win as a result. You might lag behind in initial production, but later you will out perform. Your life total is usually what keeps you in the game long enough to become effective.


Aggro decks ignore this and try to knock you out asap with temporary advantage or damage. Essentially they try to cast as many aggressive damage dealing spells to deal fatal damage as quickly as possible (whether creature or just direct damage). The problem with going all in like this, is you give yourself no room for economy development, and inevitably you will reach a turning point in the battle. Either you win just before this point or afterwards your ability to sustain damage wanes and your opponents engine kicks in and you now have no way to win. This is why in arena often aggro players will simply resign if they run out of cards in hand. In commander this is even worse, as you have more than one opponent, and due to all the high life totals, your opponents will usually survive your meagre attempt to kill them immediately. Politics kicks in and then you lose as you were the obvious immediate threat. Maybe a board wipe comes out early and you lose your entire board, and now have no way to rebuild.


I bring up this example, as its a very common pitfall for new players. You often will find yourself building decks that satisfy your need to just play stuff, but you haven't thought about sustainability or interaction. So play a bunch of creatures, not enough card draw or recovery, and bam you are left feeling like you are stalled and nothing is happening. To avoid this, stick with the Golden Recipe! Put enough cards in to satisfy the primary strategies, and you will at the very least have a rudimentary engine.


Ramp is the key enabler of your engine, as it raises your mana potential and lets you play your spells and abilities more easily and in greater quantities. Your first two turns will likely exclusively be focused on this, and any player who doesn't will fall behind in the mid game.


Removal vs Interaction


Removal refers to any act of removing something, from somewhere and putting it somewhere else. This could be from battlefield to exile/library/hand/graveyard/under different players control.


Interaction is the act of doing in response to something else. Removal is a subset of interaction, along with other interactions such as counter spells/abilities or control effects (tap, pacify, steal). Giving protection or hexproof are also forms of interaction.


One key factor here for both, is that repeatable abilities or instant speed are better than sorcery speed(only when the stack is clear, and in your own main phase). So prioritize these over sorcery speed spells or abilities.


I typically prefer focusing on having exile/destroy removal in the deck recipes though, as there really isn't anything better than out-right destruction or exile of a problem. So be mindful of this if you keep leaving it out or not having enough! You don't want to be bouncing problems to hand, and then having to keep dealing with them later.


Counterspells are probably technically better than removal (as they stop the threat at the source), but they force you to always be ready... which means stagnating your board (holding mana up to maybe do something) and this can set you back. Control or counterspell strategies thus make more sense in competitive settings where you MUST stop a combo, or in smaller combos to stop battlecruiser spells. Its very unlikely that you can stop every player at the table all the time... so inevitably you will still need some removal later. Giving yourself options like instant speed draw or ramp that you can do just before your turn will help mitigate this stagnation though, so just be mindful of this if you do want to build a control deck.


Wraths vs Resets


Wraths get their name from the card Wrath of God. They encompass the idea of destroying all of something. Some are asymmetric like Plague Winds that destroys only your opponents creatures, or maybe target only enchantments. In the more modern sense, they also now could exile all of something or give all creatures -X/-X. The basic idea is they are widescale removal.


Resets are resetting some board state and aren't limited to just destruction or exile. Cyclonic rift resets your opponents board states when overloaded by returning all their non-land permanents to hand. Similarly how removal is a subset of interaction, I consider wraths to be a subset of Resets. Some other ways you can reset board state:

  • exile grave yard

  • discard hands

  • shuffle non-land permanents into library

  • sacrifice all of a particular permanent

These are obviously frustrating cards and some playgroups try avoid having them in their casual games. But realistically, even in casual settings people want to win, and resetting a board state or wrathing can help other players have a chance to showcase their decks mechanics if someone gets too far ahead too early. This is why I recommend limiting these to the bare minimum. If everyone is resetting/wrathing every other turn, its just not fun anymore.


Some commanders like Nevinyrral or Child of Alara aim to constantly wrath, but just be careful that you have something else on hand as they maybe aren't so fun to play against.


I still keep this as a primary strategy as I consider resetting board state as a valuable tool to get back into a game (everyone loves a comeback story right?). Sometimes I am a bit loose with this strategy and swap it for something else like protection or a set of repeatable removal options instead like Dictate of Erebos (if you kill my thing, you must sacrifice one too....) or Avatar of Woe (tap destroy target creature).


There are loads of powerful artifacts and enchantments these days so carrying some wraths for those can certainly help (think stax decks!)


Secondary Strategies

Secondary strategies are any that don't fall under one of the primary 4 and don't necessarily improve the reliability of your deck (except for tutors). I can't cover all of them as they are very diverse and really up to you and how you want to synergize around or with your commander. So instead, I have boiled down secondary strategies into a few higher more generalized categories. When writing your recipe, be more specific than these.


Almost all secondary strategies can be grouped by the following categories:

  • sustainability

  • resilience

  • amplification

  • augmentation

  • control

  • fixing (I won't discuss this much, it overlaps with mana base/ramp strategies)

Its worth mentioning that there is definitely overlap depending on your intent, so make sure to use sub-themes (in the recipe) to clarify your intent. This kind of overlap isn't bad, rather its brilliant, as it lets you super-synergize.


A simple example of this is indestructible. It is protection, making your creature resilient, but giving creatures indestructible is a form of augmentation. It in the end is up to you to decide how to write the recipe, and I would always advocate naming in a way to convey the simplest most obvious meanings so its easier to remember later. (the KISS principle, keep it simple stupid!)


Some Special Mentions


Combo's are a form of super synergy that in some cases can be used infinitely. Whilst I do recommend having a dedicated standalone combo strategy (keeps it modular, easy to swap to reduce power levels), I won't discuss it here. You could also refer to these as win-con strategies, things that instantly win you the game.


Tutors are a special case here, as they always improve the deck, but as they increase power level, they get their own secondary category slot to keep them modular (you can easily swap them out for something else to reduce power level). I consider tutors to be a form of fixing, but you would in most cases just call them tutors. They can only be considered advantage if they tutor 2 or more things to hand, otherwise its really just trading one for one (a better one, but just one nonetheless).


Recovery or Resurrection


Sustainable


Recovery refers to the act of regaining a card from somewhere. It could be from the graveyard, or even from exile (yes, technically possible, but there are very few cards that do this currently eg. Riftsweeper or Pull from Eternity).


Resurrection refers to the act of returning a card back to the battlefield from the graveyard specifically. It can be from any graveyard, and doesn't just need to refer to creatures. Lands, artifacts, enchantments and can be played from graveyards also. There are several abilities and mechanics that can do this like unearth or Phyrexian Reclamation.


I find recovery to be the most useful and fun when building a deck engine as it always feels good to get things back that you can use again. The graveyard essentially becomes a toolbox, and helps you solve problems.


If you are wanting to build a sustainable engine, you should avoid strategies that exile cards from your graveyard (these are some of the worst costs in my opinion, as you are removing potential for temporary gains). I know some exile cards are super powerful, and can win games on their own, but they are all or nothing type cards and carry some risk. Opponents can easily counter them resulting in you wiping yourself out.


Graveyard hate or mill win-con decks can be a thorn in your side if you aim to use your graveyard alot. You can counter these by having cards that shuffle your graveyard into your library eg. Gaea's Blessing.


Protection or Evasion


Resilience


This strategy comes in two sub-themes, "all of" or just "one of". This could be done by:

  • making something indestructible

  • giving something hexproof(opponents can't target) or shroud (nothing can target)

  • flickering something to break the targeting

  • phasing out things

  • literal protection (from a color or permanent type, stops damage or destruction and can't be targeted)

  • instant reanimation (when it dies, return it to the battlefield or destroy the totem aura instead)

  • ward (pay cost to target or else it gets countered)

  • making something or all your things hard to block (kinda like unable to target with blockers)

This is a subset of Interaction but is useful for reacting to opponents trying to remove stuff. There are many enchantments, lords (anthem creatures) and artifacts (equipments) that give protection, so it is a very well supported strategy.


Often times you sacrifice some of your deck economy for protection though, and there isn't anything wrong with simply out valuing your opponent by making too many things to remove them all (especially when they choose not to use wraths).


Doublers


Amplification


This strategy is one I use a bit ambiguously, so I usually add sub-theme in brackets next to it in the recipe. This can refer to anything that doubles up some aspect of my battlefield.


It can refer to:

  • copying abilities

  • copying spells

  • double triggers

  • double strike

  • double power and toughness

  • extra combats

  • double tokens

  • double damage (or triple!)

These often can be used together to super synergise, such as double strike AND double combat phases. This leads to an exponential increase in how much damage can be dealt!


This strategy works well alongside commanders that have some triggered/activated ability or that is combat focused (like a Voltron commander).


Modifiers or Anthems


Augmentation


This again comes in two sub themes, "all of" or "one of". Anthems will apply to all your creatures, and modify them in some way (either pumping them up, or giving them a new keyword like deathtouch or trample). Equipments or Aura's target just one thing, and usually add or take away from the permanent. In this category we are only considering those that add to or improve; those that take away from are considered removal instead.


Voltron refers to a strategy where you build around your commander with the intention of knocking your opponent out with unstoppable commander damage. You don't have to care how much life opponents have. But as a consequence, your commander is the main focal point of your deck, and if removed, you lose your momentum. They are also scary to play against, as often you never know when someone is about to get annihilated. This sudden smash scenario means you will inevitably become arch enemy.


Voltron in this case doesn't refer to:

  • protection (hex-proof)

  • doublers (increased damage)

  • evasion (hard to block)

Instead it refers to equipment or enchantment auras that increase your commanders damage output to get them to the sweet spot of 21 damage or more.


Voltron decks can benefit from enchantress engines (draw cards when enchantments are cast/etb) or equipment engines (various equipment related synergies).


What makes equipment great, is they are often colorless in manacost, so by using (artifact) cost reduction ramp, your equipment can essentially become free!


Sram is probably the greatest Voltron commander of all time, due to his low cost, and support for card draw. Card draw is super important in Voltron decks (to keep momentum) but also protection. You have to protect your commander to avoid stalling or losing out in key moments. You invest so much into knocking a single player out, so if they suddenly remove your commander at the last moment, you often just wasted all that investment. Luckily equipment stay around even when the creature dies, but just keep in mind that artifact wipes are a thing!


Counterspells or Interaction


Control


Not to be confused with removal, the interaction here is limited to just interference like tapping/untapping or goading. Control generally implies that you are aiming to control situations and mitigate any fallout through some kind of action. These could be:

  • countering a spell or ability

  • forcing a creature to attack disadvantageously

  • stopping a creature from being activated or used as a blocker or attacker

I don't think I need to go into too much detail on this one. It often gets a bad rap (blue mages constantly countering all the fun!) but its necessary in higher power games to deal with win-con situations.


You could also argue that this strategy category covers Stax or Hatebears which are effects that make it harder or impossible for certain abilities, conditions or spells to be cast or triggered/activated. This has a negative impact on the whole game and will also likely arch enemy you to the table.


Strategies, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Not all strategies are equal in their effectiveness of conveying their focus. Overly generalized strategies lead to confusion, but overly focused strategies lead to tight coupling (harder to find cards that fit or modularity).


Lets consider two extreme scenarios to gain better understanding of what this means.


Too Generalized


If I call my one strategy "creatures" when building tribal deck, what are the consequences?

  • I can't tell at a glance what kind of tribal it is

  • The focus is too broad, it could be any creature with any ability

  • Lack of focus means harder to make decisions around what goes into the strategy

We can fix this by being more specific, such as Elf Tribal, but again, I have found that this still leads to problems. Broad sweeping strategies like this should rather be a sub-theme and not a strategy. Consider the following:

Deck Recipe (elf-tribal)

Primary Strategies:

  • Draw (play creature/attack with creature/deal damage)

  • Ramp (mana dorks)

  • Removal (tap to destroy)

  • Wraths (non-elf)

Here we give very meaningful targets for the card responsibilities. Its specific enough to quickly identify cards that will fit, and if I come back to the deck a few months later then I immediately know what these all mean.


Too Focused


If I focus my strategy too precisely eg. "2 mana value counterspells that draw cards" I run the risk of not actually finding enough cards that match! Part of designing the strategies upfront is to simplify us finding cards, so if we pick something too specific, we may not find enough to make it work.


To mitigate this issue, we need to keep in mind that there may be a limited set and be a bit more generalized in our initial expectations eg. "counterspells that also draw".


Scryfall can help you quickly validate a strategies while designing, this can help you get the right focus very quickly (click the link to see the query).


Strategy or Sub-Theme?


This is a good question! I would say the easiest way to tell is that often sub-themes are able to apply more broadly across multiple different strategies. For example, equipment is very general, as equipment are able to do may things (sacrifice to draw, sacrifice to deal damage, double strike, card draw, create treasures...) thus it makes sense that equipment is better at being the sub-theme not the strategy.


Overlapping Synergy


The most experienced deck builders are masters of overlapping synergy. These are situations where cards in the deck always seem to super synergize with each other. This will limit your options to some very specific cards though, and they will probably take longer to find and verify. The more abilities on a card, the greater the probability for super synergy.


Consider the new Aragorn, the Uniter commander. This card is super powerful for a number of reasons. One, it opens you to 4 different colors. It also reacts to you casting spells of any of those colors. If you cast a 4 color spell, then all 4 of Aragorn's abilities will trigger. This is a super synergy, as firstly you get the benefit of the original spell, plus 4 extra triggers! Now lets be crazy, and put out a Maskwood Nexus. Whilst this doesn't appear to help Aragorn at all, if you put out a Harmonic Prodigy something unbelievable occurs! The Maskwood Nexus makes Aragorn into a wizard, which alongside the Prodigy now makes all his abilities trigger twice! Add tutors to ensure you can more regularly see this happen, and with many 3-4 color spells in the deck, you will quickly overwhelm the board. Its worth mentioning also that the maskwood nexus also creates creature tokens, and the harmonic prodigy has prowess so can really lay down the damage if you casting mainly non-creature spells.


Final Remarks

The main goal of this guide was to help you properly recognize strategies, and to clarify distinctions between them. It also helped give some overviews over some categories of strategies and give insights into relationships between them (synergies). Formalization of the terminology helps us to better classify what we are doing and leads to better understanding.


The recipe is arguably the most important part of a deck as it outlines the deck strategy break down, the sub-themes help reflect the synergy and also remind the player about what the deck does without having to memorize the entire decklist.


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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