Originally called generals, the first ever Commanders were the Elder Dragons from Legends: Arcades Sabboth, Chromium, Nicol Bolas, Palladia-Mors, and Vaevictis Asmadi. These five Dragons were later reprinted in Chronicles, the white-bordered reprint set that has plenty copies of these guys still available on the cheap.
The five Elder Dragons have three different colors in their mana costs. Each of them cost 8 mana in total, 2 colorless, and 2 of each of “allied” color wedges - Blue-Black-Red, Black-Red-Green, White-Blue-Black, White-Blue-Green, and White-Red-Green. They each have 7 power and 7 toughness, flying, and an upkeep cost of one of each color in their mana costs.
When choosing one of these five, you could only play cards in your deck that were either colorless, or were in the colors of the Dragon you chose as your general. This is the same rule used today, except that the more complex rule of “color identity” is now used. The official MTG Commander rules page explains these concepts the best.
The 7 power is the reason that a win by Commander damage is 21 points. Essentially, hitting the same player with the same Elder Dragon three times was the primary way of winning. Let’s take a quick look at each of the Elder Dragons and how good they actually are.
The White-Green-Blue Dragon is not one of the more popular Dragon Commanders today. Arcades is very defensive, able to pump his own toughness by 1 for one White mana at a time. He also grants your untapped creatures +0/+2 as long as they are not attacking - for example, if they have vigilance they will not gain this bonus. Still, you can build a pretty fun deck that can outlast your opponents, pairing Arcades with big finishers like Rafiq of the Many and Dragonlord Dromoka. Overall, though, Rafiq and the other White-Green-Blue Legendaries tend to just be better commanders.
Being in the White-Blue-Black color combo, Chromium tends to play into control strategies. Essentially, the deck is built to prevent your opponents from pulling off anything big, giving you time to get Chromium and some of the decks bigger flyers into play. Rampage isn’t an ability you see anymore, and the +2/+2 bonus only applies when Chromium is blocked by two or more creatures. It does make him rather tricky to block, though. He’s a classic control finisher, and more people really should play with him.
By far, Nicol Bolas is considered the best of the Elder Dragons. His ability is very strong, forcing your opponent to discard their entire hand when Bolas deals combat damage to him or her. Nicol Bolas has also become an iconic character in the Magic the Gathering storyline. He even later became a planeswalker! Nicol Bolas decks play the best cards that his three colors have to offer, grinding down opponents and gaining card advantage. He’s the Original Gangster of Commanders.
Unfortunately, Palladia-Mors isn’t incredibly exciting. All he has is trample. Still, he’s not the worst leader in a color combination that allows you to play some of the biggest beasts in Magic the Gathering. While there are better Commanders you could build around, just to say you build a beastly beat-down deck with an original Elder Dragon just feels good.
The Black-Red-Green Dragon is actually quite powerful. For either Red, Green, or Black mana, you can pump his power as much as you have the mana available. This means that at a certain point of the game, he can take out a player in one shot. His decks are built around keeping the board clear so that you can do just that. His game plan is extremely simple, but very powerful.
Of course, today, you can use almost any Legendary Creature as your Commander. But it’s pretty cool to look back at the original five. Along with the five other Legendary Dragons introduced in Invasion, which offered the other five 3-color combinations, these Dragons were the inspiration for one of the most beloved ways to play Magic.