Why You Should De-Optimize Your Commander/EDH Decks

It’s a lot of fun to optimize things. Take it from me, a well-known optimizer. Why do I play so many JRPGs? Why did I spend so many years on dial-up farming Mephisto in Diablo 2? Why did I spend so much time in college writing on forums about downranking healing spells in WoW? Optimization is fun – it’s a good feeling to craft something that performs well in pretty much any arena. But how much should you de-optimize your Commander decks in this “casual” format?

As most of us understand by now, the “casual” designation is a bit of a misnomer. Many people are plenty serious about their Commander decks regardless of power level. The answer, of course, is contextual – the cEDH crowd loves to take optimization to the max, while some prefer to stay around the precon power level and play longer, more relaxed games. I’ve been playing with groups recently that don’t take most games past the hour mark, but as long as there’s action rather than stagnation in a game, I’m happy.

That said, I think there’s a lot of value to be had in building a deck below your normal power level. But why, and if you end up agreeing, how?



Header - De-Optimize

Some cards crop up in most every deck. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that, but it can get pretty tedious seeing and playing the same cards over and over in a singleton format! One of my favorite parts of Commander is getting to play cards that simply don’t see play in other formats. It’s easier than ever to build a Commander deck these days, with all the content available and sites like EDHRec helping you find cards that synergize within your build. All that makes it much simpler to build a cohesive deck that fires on all cylinders, but it makes it harder to build something that feels like it stands out. After all, you could just build something you know works! 

If you’re getting tired of seeing and playing the same things, or if you want to cast cards that are unexpected because that would bring you joy, it can be really fun to build something de-optimized. Alternatively, if you normally play with higher-powered decks but want to spend time with friends who think a little differently about power level, using some of these methods can make it easier to build a deck that would be appropriate for that table.


Header - How to Build De-Optimized

The first time you set out to build something below your usual power level or less focused than what you normally play, it can be pretty daunting. Many of us are used to building around mechanical themes, and stepping away from that can feel like you’re set adrift. Luckily, there are some easy tricks for how to do it.


Underappreciated Creature Types

There are plenty of powerful tribal decks out there. Elves, Goblins, Slivers and more make lots of appearances at tables on the higher end of the power spectrum, though not so much the cEDH world. There are tons of commanders out there that represent the underappreciated creature types of Magic, though, and that can be a great shortcut to building a lower power level deck. 

For example, I have a Shu Yun, the Silent Tempest deck that’s built as a Monk tribal list. There’s not exactly an overflowing list of cards that buffs Monks exclusively, so it’s going to be naturally lower in power level than many other tribal decks might be. I’ve tried to keep the curve reasonably low – 3.26 average mana value, ignoring lands – and I have a little subtheme of making my creatures unblockable and getting them through with double strike from Shu Yun. There’s also a touch of redirection effects, both in terms of damage and “I countered your spell and it had some other effect” that felt like it fit the Monk flavor. Here’s the current deck list:


Shu Yun Monk Tribal by Eric Levine

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Cards 99


If I wanted to push this deck even further into the theme, I’d remove some of the more generic elements and replace them with more thematic cards or cards featuring Monks in the art. If you’re looking for cards with something particular in the art, the Scryfall Art Tagger is the perfect tool, though it’s not always going to give you everything you want.


Other Card Elements

It’s also possible to build a deck around elements of cards that aren’t what you’d traditionally latch onto mechanically. I’ve built a deck using only two-drops, inspired by a friend who has one deck of only three-drops and another of only four-drops. I’ve seen decks built with Wild Pair in mind where all the creatures have power and toughness that add to the same number. You could find ways to use card names – name lengths, occurrences of letters, or just the content – to build themed decks. Another friend of mine has a deck where every creature has some kind of body part in its name, helmed by Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed and featuring cards like Hand of Emrakul, Evil Eye of Orms-By-Gore and Tooth of Chiss-Goria

One option is to build a deck featuring only cards illustrated by a particular artist. Of course, you’d need to pick someone who has illustrated enough cards or, alternatively, pick a few artists you like and build a deck with all of them featured. 

To show you the possibilities here, I’ve put together a Kev Walker deck based around Ertai, the Corrupted. I love the Weatherlight saga, and since I collected the alt-art promo cards from Planeshift, I have the right version of Ertai to theoretically build something like this:


Ertai Kev Walker Tribal by Eric Levine

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Obviously this isn’t a perfect deck by any means, but it does have some interesting elements. Kev Walker has illustrated enough wraths and suboptimal removal spells to create a well-balanced deck, and cards like Adorned Pouncer and Dragon Shadow don’t mind being sacrificed to Ertai every once in a while. There’s even a mutate subtheme!


External Theming

Of course, you can always look outside Magic for a theme. Is there a musician, movie, book, game, comic or similar entertainment unit you really love? Something you either know front to back already or want to learn more about? I’ve thought many times about building myself a deck built around one of my personal favorite games, movies, or books, but I’ve never quite gotten that together for myself. Good news: next week, I’ll be doing just that. If you head over to my Twitter, I’ve put up a poll so you can vote on which of my ideas I should actually go with! 

Hopefully this inspired you to try something new or at least gave you something interesting to think about. See you next time for a deep dive into a de-optimized, thematic build!


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