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How to Run a Commander Precon Upgrade League

I love to talk about upgrading preconstructed decks, so it should be no surprise that I recently put together a little Commander precon upgrade league! A few of my friends and I, including one friend who hadn’t played in a while but was hinting at a desire to be brought into the world of Commander, picked up some preconstructed Commander decks from the more recent sets and started battling with the stock lists, and so far, I think we’ve had fun. Today, I’m going to talk about how to do this – I know it sounds simple if you’re entrenched in Commander already, but your friends who might just be getting started will appreciate having a one-stop shop for what to do!

 

 

Header - The Setup

First, set some ground rules for which decks can be used as starting points. Facing down Edgar Markov with a deck from Innistrad: Crimson Vow might not be the worst power level mismatch in reality, but it can feel pretty bad given how pricey the Vampiric Bloodlust deck is these days. Decks from the past two years have stayed nice and affordable, and it may be worth limiting your group to those for both simplicity’s sake and for budgetary reasons.

Otherwise, you can set a budget limit, but make sure you and your group agree on a particular site for where prices are sourced! Obviously people can buy from their LGS or use an unopened precon they picked up previously – if you set a pricing source, it stops people from scouring auction sites for “deals” or arguing that the cards they traded for the deck two years ago are now only worth about $15. 

Innistrad: Crimson Vow - Commander Deck (Vampiric Bloodline)Innistrad: Crimson Vow - Commander Deck (Spirit Squadron)Innistrad: Midnight Hunt - Commander Deck (Undead Unleashed)Innistrad: Midnight Hunt - Commander Deck (Coven Counters)

Ideally, everyone gets a different deck, and just as ideally, everyone is representing a different color identity. This prevents things from becoming homogenous down the road – even if the themes are different, it can be easy for two Simic decks to start to feel the same. It’s very important that everyone has a deck they’re excited about though, so if two players do want to play the same precon, hopefully they’re excited about taking those decks on different journeys.

Many Commander precons come with a single headline commander as well as a few other options, and in my opinion, players should feel free to use those in place of the headliner as long as they can supply the deck’s full color identity. Keep in mind though, that the decks are built with the primary commander in mind, so your mileage may vary on how well the deck performs after a swap.

For instance, my friend Eric is playing the Wilhelt, the Rotcleaver precon from Innistrad: Midnight Hunt but uses Eloise, Nephalia Sleuth instead of WIlhelt – the deck has a few weaknesses out of the gates, but those weaknesses are slightly exacerbated by the swap. That said, he is much more excited about Eloise, so it’s important for him to play her as the commander now – that way he knows which cards perform well with her and which ones should be on the chopping block early.

 

Header - Initial Games

Before making any changes, I would absolutely suggest that everyone get some games in with their stock lists. Making swaps out of the gate is a recipe for disappointment – you might not have a handle on how the deck actually plays yet, and changes you think are positive might turn out to be negative. Not all preconstructed decks are created equal, and some players could have a harder time out of the gate. That said, if you stick to decks from the last couple of years, they are (in my experience) decently well balanced against one another, so you shouldn’t have terribly lopsided games. 

Encourage your players to take notes about which cards they think are performing well and which ones aren’t pulling their weight – not just for their own deck, but for other players’ decks! That way, the upgrade process can be better – more on that later.

Additionally, if there are cards players find particularly unfun to play with or against, those should be noted too. After three games or so, players should have a handle on their deck’s current strategy, which themes and subthemes they want to explore and which ones they’re looking to cut down on or remove entirely. They should also have some thoughts about land count and color balance as well as creature count – creature combat is a very important part of games featuring preconstructed decks.

 

Header - The Upgrade Process

After a few games, it’ll be time to upgrade! Once again, communication is key. Make sure you agree on a dollar value for upgrades, just as you might have done for the precons themselves, and in the same vein, choose a single source for your prices. Make sure to take condition into account! For example, in our league, our $20 budget is based on Near Mint pricing. That doesn’t mean you can’t buy a played copy to save some cash, just that it’ll be counted against your budget the same as a NM card would. Of course, I recommend using ChannelFireball.com for all your singles needs!

I also recommend that, when cards appear in multiple printings, you use the lowest cost printing currently in stock as the price. That way, if someone has their signed foil copy of a card they want to use, they don’t have to go buy a version they won’t enjoy casting. We’ve already implemented this even before upgrades – one player upgraded their Boros Signet to the Dan Frazier Secret Lair version before we even began, but since that doesn’t change the composition of the deck, no harm done! Your mileage may vary on this point, though, as some players may feel uncomfortable playing against a deck full of borderless foils when they can’t afford to (or don’t want to) do the same – as with all of these things, discuss with your group! My way is not the right way for everyone.

When you’re swapping cards out of your list, don’t hurl them into the garbage or put them back into your wider collection. Instead, keep those cards nearby! In my view, any card that comes in your deck or that you add during an upgrade should be part of your card pool. That way, if you regret cutting a card or an addition backfires, you can revert to a different version of your deck. 

One last note about the procedure of upgrading – if you’re hoping to do multiple iterations of the upgrade process over time, as I think you should, I recommend that you not let players carry unused budget over. Every time you upgrade, you get some number of dollars to use. Any unused dollars go away – no saving up to buy something wacky after three upgrade cycles!

 

Header - Upgrade Tips and Tricks

Not sure where to start with the upgrade process? Let me walk you through how I do things. It’ll be a good excuse for me to figure out my upgrades for this league! Right now, I’m playing the Arm for Battle preconstructed deck from Commander Legends which features Wyleth, Soul of Steel as the commander. Here’s the deck list right out of the box:

 

Arm for Battle Precon

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The first thing I like to do is identify the themes and subthemes in my deck. You should already have an idea of these after playing, but I find writing things down really helps me make sure I don’t miss anything. This deck is pretty straightforward, though, so it shouldn’t be too difficult.

The main theme is obviously the Voltron theme, where we’ll be trying to attach lots of Auras and Equipment to Wyleth. After all, that’s what fuels the deck – even though Wyleth starts small, the trample and the card draw really encourage us to build him up as big as we can. There are a scant few auras in the deck, with most of the attachables being Equipment, and I think that’s the best direction for this deck in this color combination.

Sunforger

The only real subtheme here is centered around a single card: Sunforger. Nearly all of the instants in the deck are Sunforger-eligible, and while not every selection is my favorite, each one has an interesting place in the deck. 

If we had more themes and subthemes, I’d spend some time picking and choosing which ones to focus on and which ones to cut down on. That would help me focus the deck and suggest some initial cuts. That said, with this list, we’ll be in more of an individual card by card mode, with my only thematic thought being that I’d like to focus on Equipment rather than Auras. 

Scavenger GroundsDesert of the TrueDesert of the Fervent

Next, I like to take a look at land count and creature count as well as color balance. In terms of lands, this deck has plenty at 40, and honestly, with a curve this low (2.68 average mana value ignoring lands) I would look to cut one or convert a couple more into cycling lands. We already have Forgotten Cave and Secluded Steppe, so perhaps a Deserts and Scavenger Grounds package would be appropriate. Some of our lands, like Transguild Promenade and Rupture Spire, will just have to go – those two do not belong in a two-color deck in my opinion. I’d honestly rather have basics.

In terms of creatures, this deck has only 11, a pain point I noted while playing a game recently. Even though Wyleth is our primary attack vector, you sometimes have to suit up other creatures – I won a game with Tiana, Ship’s Caretaker recently, and I spent a long time not drawing creatures beforehand. I think this problem could be fixed with reliable token generators like Castle Ardenvale, at least partially, but a couple more creatures, especially ones that do a good job sticking around, could be good too. 

The mana balance is fine – 59 percent of our mana symbols are white, and nearly half our lands produce white mana. 

If you’re not as familiar with the card pool in Commander, EDHRec can be a nice resource, but don’t just look at the front page! Open up decks with similar themes and budgets and look through them to notate possible inclusions. If you just look at the commander’s main page, you’ll get some very middle-of-the-road ideas, which are nice, but you’ll miss all the spice. You can do this on your alternate deck aggregator of choice as well. The more decks you look at (and the more Scryfall searches you do), the more you’ll familiarize yourself with the card pool and the less you’ll need that main page.

Next, I like to choose my cuts before I start adding cards. That way I’m not trying to jam too many cards into too few slots; instead, I can focus my budget and avoid cutting cards I’d actually prefer to keep. How do I avoid making too many cuts? Well, I give each one a relative priority level – that way, when I am figuring out what to add, I can replace the high priority cuts first and leave the lower-powered ones around. So what gets left behind?

Dualcaster Mage

Priority: Low

I suppose holding this and responding to my own Sunforger spell is a possibility, 

Flickerwisp

Priority: High

I wasn’t super excited about this any time I drew it, and while it has some niche applications with some of our Auras, I don’t foresee a future for it here.

Odric, Lunarch Marshal

Priority: High

This was only good in a game where I got to Dualcaster Mage a Migratory Route, and that won’t be happening often. Having two creatures is barely realistic. See ya.

Oreskos Explorer

Priority: Low

This deck’s land count is high enough, but our creature count is low, so I will keep this low on the list.

Winds of Rath

Priority: Medium

Having a second wrath is nice, but with only five Auras (some of which are on their way out), I was not excited to draw it.

Jaya's Immolating Inferno

Priority: Medium

While Wyleth should hopefully be alive most of the time, if he’s dead, so is this card (generally).

Comet Storm

Priority: Medium

It’s hard to imagine going off with this when we’re not ramping, and I think we’ll usually have other things to do. 

Fists of Flame

Priority: High

I understand this is a Sunforger card, but I never want it when I use Sunforger, and I don’t imagine being too happy to draw it.

White Sun's Zenith

Priority: Low

Again, our low creature count makes me hesitant to cut this, but our deck is very busy doing other things.

Word of Seizing

Priority: Medium

With no sac outlets, this instant that isn’t Sunforger-eligible starts to feel a lot worse.

Blazing Sunsteel

Priority: Medium

We’re not going to do any shenanigans with indestructible creatures and this, and the equip cost is just so steep. 

Explorer's Scope

Priority: Medium

With no landfall synergies and basically no library manipulation, I’m not excited about this.

Haunted Cloak (463)

Priority: High

It gives no stats, and Wyleth already has trample. Pass.

Ring of Thune

Priority: Low

It’s cheap to equip, but it doesn’t do enough (especially compared to the Ring of Valkas) right away to be really good. I’ll keep it around if I can’t find a replacement in budget.

Faith Unbroken

Priority: High

It puts more of a target on our commander and provides no protection of any kind, so I’m happy to get rid of this expensive enchantment.

On Serra's Wings

Priority: High

I don’t think I can really justify Auras that don’t protect Wyleth in any way.

Memorial to War

Priority: High

There are so many better low-cost options for dealing with nonbasics, and they don’t come into play tapped.

Rupture Spire (490)Transguild Promenade

Priority: High

The ETB tapped duals with no upside are rough enough, but these have an even greater downside. They’ve got to go.

Boros GuildgateEvolving WildsStone QuarryTerramorphic Expanse (497)Wind-Scarred Crag

Priority: Low

If we can turn these into better lands, great, but if we end up leaving some or all of these in I’m not going to be too sad about it.

I’m also willing to cut a basic land if we can keep the curve low.

Coincidentally (or something) I’ve managed to find exactly enough cards to add that I can cut all these (and a basic Mountain), which is kind of amazing on a $20 budget, but that’s the magic of the ChannelFireball Marketplace apparently. Let’s take a look at our additions!

Bruenor BattlehammerAkiri, Fearless VoyagerReyav, Master Smith
Bruenor Battlehammer Akiri, Fearless Voyager Reyav, Master Smith
AFR ZNR CMR
$0.10  $0.20  $0.10 

Some creatures to pump up our Equipment theme! I’m particularly happy with Akiri as an extra card draw measure, but the other two really increase our damage output.

Armored SkyhunterChampion of the FlameSun Titan
Armored Skyhunter Champion of the Flame Sun Titan
CMR DOM ZNC
$1.58  $0.10  $0.32 

Champion of the Flame is another great Equipment carrier when Wyleth isn’t around, and Armored Skyhunter does just fine in that role as well. Sun Titan brings back important cards that get destroyed – I’m looking at you, Sunforger.

Mantle of the AncientsHyena UmbraRobe of StarsBoots of SpeedMaul of the Skyclaves
Mantle of the Ancients Hyena Umbra Robe of Stars Boots of Speed Maul of the Skyclaves
AFC UMA AFC AFR ZNR
$2.50  $0.37  $3.90  $0.10  $0.26 

I’m adding more Equipment and Auras; we’re cutting six total Equipment and Auras, and I want to get close to the old number. Each one does something different – Maul is a great snap-on piece of Equipment, Boots provides more haste, Robe is repeatedly protective, Hyena Umbra is proactively protective and Mantle adds another recursive element.

Open the ArmoryFighter Class
Open the Armory Fighter Class
CMR AFR
$1.00  $0.33 

Since we’re down an Equipment, let’s add two Equipment tutors! Open the Armory is pretty direct, but Fighter Class adds some extra fun to the system. I’m a particular fan of the equip cost reduction.

Slash the Ranks
Slash the Ranks
WAR
$0.49 

As a replacement for Winds of Rath, I give you Slash the Ranks, which leaves commanders in play. I’ll give you one guess as to who I think that favors.

Bolt BendEmerge UnscathedTibalt's Trickery
Bolt Bend Emerge Unscathed Tibalt’s Trickery
WAR IMA KHM
$0.20  $0.70  $1.79 

I’m adding some more goodies to the Sunforger package. Bolt Bend is a great redirection spell that even works well when drawn. Similarly, Emerge Unscathed is powerful out of the hand or as a protective Sunforger card with some cool upside. Tibalt’s Trickery is one of my favorite cards currently, giving red a counterspell that results in hilarious game states.

Axgard ArmoryFurycalm SnarlCastle ArdenvaleTemple of TriumphBattlefield Forge
Axgard Armory Furycalm Snarl Castle Ardenvale Temple of Triumph Battlefield Forge
KHM STX ELD M21 M15
$0.20  $0.60  $2.50  $0.20  $0.89 

We have some upgrades to the mana base here – Temple may come in tapped, but at least it scries, while Furycalm Snarl and Battlefield Forge threaten to embarrass cards like Stone Quarry simply by existing and not being expensive. Axgard Armory is more tutoring (yay!) and Castle Ardenvale makes tokens without needing to be cast.

Scavenger GroundsDesert of the TrueDesert of the Fervent
Scavenger Grounds Desert of the True Desert of the Fervent
C21 HOU HOU
$1.09  $0.10  $0.10 

I don’t know if this is good here, but I’m going to give the additional cycling lands/Scavenger Grounds package a try and see if it works!

Anyway, that’s an example of how to get an upgrade done on a $20 budget!

 

Header - More Games and Iteration

What’s next? Well, play more games! Once you’ve done that, try different configurations with your existing cards if you’re unhappy with some of the new additions, adjust the basic land count, and eventually, iterate even more by doing another upgrade cycle! Eventually you’ll reach a state where people feel done with the process, and you can leave the decks as they are or upgrade them further to your liking without worrying about budget constraints other than, you know, your actual budget for buying cards. 

One last thought: if someone is consistently losing or their deck just seems underpowered relative to the rest, consider giving them some extra budget or an additional upgrade cycle all to themselves. Talk to your group, figure out what works, and don’t be afraid to improvise some mechanics to help a player catch up if their upgrade just didn’t turn out how they wanted!

 

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