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Is Commander Power Level Code for Budget?

To preface today’s discussion about Commander power level, let me start by saying that I’m not a “Commander format specialist” yet… 

I consider myself to be more of a Magic: the Gathering jack-of-all-trades. Over the years, I’ve played all of the formats (including formats that don’t visibly exist anymore) and done pretty well for myself. I’ve even created a few formats of my own. I’ve always gravitated toward playing the formats that are most popular in cardboard form in my local area. In the present, Commander and cEDH are the only formats being played and since that’s where the action is that’s where I go. 

I’m by no means a novice Commander or multiplayer slouch. I’ve built dozens of different EDH decks over the years and I love multiplayer in all of its various forms including Emperor, Type 4, Battle Box and Two-Headed Giant. I’ve always enjoyed the group dynamic of multiplayer Magic. I’m not a specialist because I don’t specialize in anything in particular, rather I play every format under the sun well. 

 

 

Header - How I Build Commander Decks

Dragonlord Silumgar

 

Dragonlord Silumgar is the fourth Commander deck I’ve built since I began playing the format again about a month ago. The primary way I build Commander decks is pretty straightforward: I find a Commander I want to build a deck around and then I flip through my binders and pull out cards that seem interesting or reasonable to add. 

For me, a well organized collection is the best resource for building Commander decks. I’ve been collecting and playing Magic for over 20 years and I have the advantage of a deep collection of cards to build decks from. I have eight large binders of cards, one for each of the five colors (white, blue, black, red and green) and a binder for lands, multicolor and colorless spells. 

 

Pictured: A Tenth Edition “Fat Pack” Bundle, with booklet

 

When I was playing a lot of professional Magic back in the day, in the times before Gatherer, I spent a lot of time building, tuning and looking for tech cards by flipping through the booklets that came in the “fat pack” box sets. The “fat pack” booklet was essentially just a book with a picture of every single card included in a new set separated by color. So, if you had all of the fat pack booklets for each Standard set, it was very easy to look at every blue card in Standard – it was basically a proto-Gatherer search. 

I enjoy doing this with my own collection – it’s basically like doing a Gather search of cards I already own and thus don’t need to buy to play with! 

When I wanted to build a U/B deck I could flip through the blue, black and artifact binders to see exactly which options I had available without spending a single penny. 

The best advice I can give any player is to build decks from a base of cards that you already have

First, it allows us to “run back” cards we’ve already enjoyed playing with in the past. If your deck is based upon cards you already have fond memories of jamming from yesteryear – win, lose or draw, chances are that you’ll be having fun.

Second, it’s a lot cheaper to reuse cards you already own than to buy new ones from scratch. 

Building a skeleton of a Commander deck from cards you already own and playing some games with it will also give you a solid understanding of what cards you actually want to potentially buy to add – rather than just guessing. 

For instance, when I built my Dragonlord Silumgar deck, if I hadn’t built a rough draft from my own cards I likely would have bought a bunch of cards that I thought I wanted, but ultimately wouldn’t have made the final cut! So, in a sense, playing a rough draft helps you identify exactly which cards you actually want to buy in order to be the most cost effective. 

A well-organized and accessible collection is the best possible resource for building new Commander decks on a budget. 

I typically enjoy working on a different deck in advance of each game night that I intend to play. So, I take my decks apart and put them back away in the binders afterwards so I can continue using the binders as a deckbuilding resource. I’ve also started writing down the deck lists for my Commander decks and saving them – so, after I take Dragonlord Silumgar apart and put it away, if I want to run it back in six months, I can look up exactly what I had in the list the last time I played it. It helps avoid the necessity of owning more than one copy of any given card to support multiple decks. 

 

Header - What Really is Power Level?

“Commander” as a format is intentionally broad, abstract, and undefined. It’s more of a conceptual ideal than something with rigid borders. 

The more “powerful” or “competitive” one tries to make their deck the more expensive the format becomes. Commander is very much a pay-to-play format if you want to maximize each and every possible card choice. 

The best cards in the format cost thousands of dollars:

 

The Tabernacle at Pendrell ValeTimetwisterMoatThe AbyssGaea's Cradle

The next best crop of cards cost hundreds of dollars:

 

Grim MonolithTime SpiralSurvival of the FittestLand Equilibrium

It’s typically the case that what makes a card “expensive” is that it is on the Reserved List and there’s no equivalently powerful version in print. For instance, Signets and Talismans are the bread and butter of Commander and Grim Monolith is the best Signet in the format.

 

Grim Monolith

I try to be budget conscious with my articles, which is why I gravitate toward Pauper and Battle Box, but in Commander, there’s no real way around the best cards having a tendency to be the most expensive. For example…

 

Jeweled Lotus

Jeweled Lotus is easily one of the overall 10 best cards in the format and there’s no other card that does anything even close for the same mana cost. You either have a Jeweled Lotus, or don’t. 

 

Lotus Bloom

Playing with a similar but significantly worse spell simply doesn’t achieve the same results. Unlike Jeweled Lotus, a Lotus Bloom won’t help a player cast their commander on the first turn which is precisely what makes Jeweled Lotus such a useful card. Jeweled Lotus also makes deckbuilding easier – instead of building a 99 card deck, I only need to build 98 card decks from here on out. The same can be said for cards like Mana Vault, Mana Crypt, Grim Monolith, etc. (all of which are $100 bills). 

I’m in sort of a weird situation where, since I’ve collected for decades, I have a lot of the expensive cards but don’t own the newer budget-friendly cards. First world problems!

So, I’ll be starting from the end and working backwards. In general, I do think the point of content (at least my content) is to make high level Magic play accessible to a wider audience of players at an affordable price. Everybody should be able to play a high quality version of the game at a price they feel comfortable with.

For instance, I think we all agree that playing a fully-powered Vintage deck against a Standard preconstructed deck is not “quality” gameplay. It’s extremely mismatched both in power and budget. 

A fully powered Vintage deck against an equivalently powered and budgeted Vintage deck is high quality gameplay, as is a Standard deck against another standard deck. 

In Commander or cEDH, I see a lot of language that talks about “how spikey is one’s deck” or “what is the power level?” used to try and discuss which decks would be appropriate or well-suited to play against other decks. For instance, a cEDH deck will crush a preconstructed deck. The point I’m driving at here is that the language being used is largely concealing the larger issue: “How big is your budget to play Commander? Are you able to afford the requisite Reserved List cards? Are you able to afford the requisite $25+ Modern cards?”

In my opinion, the mismatch has very little to do with play skill or spikey ambition to build the best deck possible and everything to do with mismatched budgets. 

Commander as a format functions as a sort of “prisoner’s dilemma.” The rules of the format allow $1000+ and $100+ staples (many of which are the absolute pinnacle of best cards in the format). If somebody else plays with the best cards, they will have an advantage, which means that if we don’t play with the best cards, we’re potentially disadvantaged in the game.

How much are you willing to pay to play? I have absolutely no issue or embarrassment with saying that as a responsible adult, I set a budget for how much money I’m willing to spend on Magic: the Gathering per month and operate within that budget. Would my Dragonlord Silumgar deck be marginally improved if I bought a $200+ Time Spiral? Sure, but that’s not the best bang for my buck. 

The interesting thing about Commander is that it is a casual format as opposed to a competitive format. The thought of not playing an optimized competitive deck in a tournament makes me uncomfortable. Between friends, teammates, stores and sponsors, card availability never played a role in what I was or wasn’t able to sleeve up for a competitive REL event. So, not having that $200 Time Spiral to maximize my cEDH deck feels a little bit different to me but at the end of the day it all comes down to taking ownership of how I choose to spend my hard earned money. 

Often, players are just playing for fun for the experience and not for prizes. So, not having that $200 Time Spiral doesn’t matter much if at all. However, once prize enters into the equation, there’s incentive to build the best deck possible, but keep in mind the stakes. If the stakes are the winner gets a booster pack, the equity of spending $200 on a single card is still a terrible ROI. As smart and good with numbers as most Magic players believe themselves to be, I think the blind ambition of wanting to win often gets in the way of an objective perception of our own behaviors. 

The absolute best way to play Commander on a budget is reusing the cards you already own and, more importantly, owning the cards you enjoy playing with! A well organized collection that allows your cards to be easily accessible to you is a huge time and money saver in the long run. 

 

Header - Matchmaking

The absolute best way to find the best matched games of Commander (in my opinion) is creating playgroups that have equivalent budgets as opposed to trying to qualify “power level.” 

Instead of trying to rate a deck’s power level abstractly between one and 10, we get a lot more information by breaking decks down into categories: 

  1. Does your deck include Reserved List cards? Yes or No. 
  2. Does your deck include cards that are not legal in Modern? Yes or No. 
  3. Is your deck a preconstructed deck? Yes or No. *I actually think preconstructed modified (with cards from the set the deck belongs to) would be an extremely fun budget format. 

If I were to break Commander down into informal power levels (budget levels), I would assign the following: 

  • Power Level 10 – Type 1 EDH – no banned list other than ante cards. 
  • Power Level 9 – cEDH, basically Commander as we know it with the current banned list. Reserved List cards are legal. 
  • Power Level 8 – Commander as we know it with the stipulation all Reserved List cards are banned. 
  • Power Level 7 – Your Commander deck must be Modern legal. 
  • Power Level 6 – Your Commander deck must be Standard legal. 
  • Power Level 5 – Preconstructed deck. 

I think these categories naturally tend to inform similar budgets and thus inform actually similar power levels as opposed to imagined equivalent power levels. 

The absolute best way to get the best games of Commander is to play in a pod with a similar power level, which is actually code for budget. I do think that in order for that to be possible, it likely means players need to be honest the issue at stake is budget and not “power level.”

Part of the fun of building decks is trying to find ways to improve them. I play some games and afterwards, I sit down, lay my deck out on the table and think about what worked and which cards under performed then think about how to make the deck better. 

My issue with deck building for Commander is that the answer, when I sit down and lay out my deck on the table, is always, without fail, replace a suboptimal card with a $50+ card and, for my trouble of potentially buying an expensive card, I widen the budget gap (power level) between my deck and other potential opponents. 

So, buying the $200+ card would be not only be buying into the prisoner’s dilemma but also perpetuating it, i.e., crushing my opponents with less powerful (expensive) decks. If they want to win, they would need to buy better cards to keep up with the Jones’, or in this case, the DeMars’.

 

Header - Conclusion

In the abstract, and as the rules of the format currently exist, Commander is very much a pay-to-play format. How much you’re willing to pay to play with the most powerful cards directly informs your chances of winning. With that said, there are two ways to win more:

  1. Spend more money. 
  2. Play with other players who agree upon a similar power level (code for: budget). 

Formally, or informally, agreeing to build along the lines of Reserved List, Modern legal or modified precon are a fantastic way to balance power level without feeling like you need to pull your punches when building a deck. Trying to build a deck that feels good, but not too good, is weird and unnatural to me. “The point I’m driving at here is that the language being used is largely concealing the larger issue: ‘How big is your budget to play Commander? Are you able to afford the requisite Reserved List cards? Are you able to afford the requisite $25+ Modern cards?'”

Building on a budget doesn’t mean you’re poor, or don’t care about playing quality Magic. It means you’re becoming a responsible adult and have some comprehension of the value of money. It’s your money and you’re free to do with it whatever you please. With that said, I find it problematic that deckbuilding in Commander always boils down to throwing $100 bills at deck slots. As both a high level gamer and responsible adult, I find that $100 Reserved List cards, or $50 Commander deck-exclusive cards are the answer to every question. 

The absolute best way to build great decks on a budget is to recycle the cards you already have and when you do invest in new cards buying cards that have a high degree of replayability. Personally, I like to build a rough draft version of a new deck with the cards that I have, goldfish it a bunch, play it once or twice and then retool, thus making sure I’m spending my monthly budget on cards I will actually play as opposed to cards that will sit in the binders. 

Ultimately, I think Commander has the ability to represent what is the absolute best about Magic: the ability to be creative, build decks and play multiplayer games. I also think it has the capacity to represent the worst about Magic: the element where players can’t win if they don’t “keep up with the Jones’.” I also observe that a lot of the conversations players are having about “power level” are really veiled conversations about money (whether they realize it or not). There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a super expensive deck; in fact, I wish there was a version of Commander where I could use my Power 9 against other players who wanted to play with Power 9. 

My point is that, when we are talking about power level, we’re really talking about budget level. The reason Commander isn’t a “one-size-fits all” experience has more to do with money than it has for play-style, play-preference, or spikiness. 

 

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