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Power Level in Magic the Gathering : Commander

Discussing the power level of your commander deck is becoming a very tricky, but important topic. Over the past 2 or so years, many players moved to playing Magic over webcam, and very quickly, Commander became the format of choice for many players. Being the “sandbox” format for Magic the Gathering means that this can quite often lead to friction between those players who want to play competitively and those who are interested in running a deck containing only Mark Poole artwork.

As I see it there are two major difficulties when having this discussion. The first is that it is a fairly new phenomenon, and almost exclusive to commander. When I go to my LGS for a Modern FNM there is no such discussion, everyone is there to win. Everyone accepts that this is a competitive environment, and that getting 10 poison counters on turn 2 or 3 is a very real possibility. (especially if you are playing me).

The other is that there is no consensus on what the power level means or how to rate your deck. Power levels also vary wildly from play group to play group. A deck that we deem to be a 6 in my playgroup might be considered to be a high 7 or an 8 in another playgroup. 

How do I rate power level?

I spent the better part of last year helping a friend organize commander streams, and one of the things I did was to look at the decks to try and make sure we were playing at roughly the same level. There were mistakes but generally this went pretty well. Unfortunately one of the most useful aspects was having a single person decide the power levels, which is not maintainable in a play group let alone the whole commander community.

When I look at power level I tend to ask myself the question “at what turn does this deck push for the win”. The earlier the deck can push for the win the more powerful it is. Below are some areas I look at, please note that these are guidelines or suggestions as opposed to rules.

Combos and Tutors

As a general rule of thumb the more tutors a deck has the more powerful it is. As a tutor is effectively another copy of whatever card you need it to be. There is a reason that many cEDH decks look to run black. They allow decks to be more consistent and have easier access to key pieces.

I am not adverse to combos or even infinite combos at almost any power level. The thing you should be looking for is how easy is the combo to assemble, disrupt and how many pieces it needs. Also whether the combo is actually going to win them the game. For example two card combos such as the now classic Demonic Consultation + Thassa’s Oracle is a big red flag for any deck that claims to be under power 8. However, the infinite combo in my Mazerik deck requires at least 4 pieces. Mazerik, Animation Module, Ashnod’s Altar and a creature to start the loop off. But it is not going to win me the game, just make my creatures infinitely big. They are still vulnerable to removal, fog effects or just being chump blocked. 

How optimized the mana base is

As the mana base and ramp becomes more optimized the faster that the deck is going to be. If they are running a fully optimized mana base that prioritizes lands coming in untapped and gaining access to all of their colors as quickly they are going to be able to cast spells faster.

Similarly looking at the ramp that they are running will help you identify how optimized the deck is. For example, are they running Farseek, Nature’s Lore and Three Visits over Cultivate over Cultivate or Harrow. They are not only going to be able to ramp earlier but more efficiently. There is a big difference between getting a triome on T2 as opposed to a basic land on T3. The same is true of mana rocks, Mana Crypt, Grim Monolith and Mox Diamond can all all provide mana faster than Commander’s Sphere, or a Chromatic Lantern.

If you start building your board state earlier than your opponents you will already be in a more advantageous position.

More Information on land ramp can be found here.

The Mana curve

If your deck is full of lower mana value spells you are going to be able to cast more spells earlier in the game. Additionally you are less likely to be lumbered with that high MV spell in your hand, or draw into something you don’t have enough mana to cast. All of this will make your early game more consistent and allow you to push for the win earlier.

As you can see from the image below, as the power level increases the more the concentrated the curve becomes at the lower end. While spells with an MV of 2-4 are always likely to be the most common. Spells of 5 MV+ become increasingly rare as the power level increases.

You can learn how to lower your curve here.

The win-con

How the deck is looking to win is also important. Is the win condition instant, and will allow them to win out of nowhere? Or is it a slow build up that will take several turns to come to fruition. For example are they looking to use a 2 card combo to win instantly, create a board state of big creatures and turn them side wards, or simply looking to out value you over multiple turns so you can never catch up to them.

Cards that send the wrong message

This is less something I look at when determining power level, but more advice to people to help stop their decks being seen as more powerful than they are. A prime example of this is the OG dual lands, if you have them I fully understand the desire to play with them. However, if you sit down at a table claiming that your deck is a 5 and on T1 or T2 you play an OG dual land it might send the wrong message. It is entirely possible that the deck is a 5 as the OG dual lands alone are not enough to bump up the power level of the deck. But they are synonymous with powerful decks and powerful formats. Another example might be Wheel of Fortune. By itself it is not going to win you the game. However, it is associated with powerful decks and formats.

This is also a good example of why you shouldn’t just look at the price of a deck to determine the power. There are a myriad of old cards that are very valuable but not powerful. Whereas Mitch from the Commanders Quarters YouTube channel has proven that you can build powerful decks on a budget.

The deck might also be their pet deck and be fully blinged out with pricey legacy foils, or collectable versions of cards. But you might be able to pick up a more recent printing of the same card for pennies.

What conversations do I have before a game?

No matter how many times I see it, it is still disappointing to see people turn up to a commander game and just put a deck on the table. No discussion on what the deck is, how powerful it is or even what kind of game they are expecting.

Rule 0

This is without a doubt one of my favorite aspects of commander. The fact that as long as everyone agrees you can change the rules. One of my favorite commanders is Ink-Treader Nephilim, a non-legendary creature. Thanks to rule 0 I get to play it more often than not. But the important thing to remember is just because you want to do something, it doesn’t mean the people will also want to. You might really enjoy playing with silver bordered cards but that might not be the game people were expecting.

Unlike other formats a game of commander can be quite the time investment. So it is important to make sure that everyone is aware of what kind of game they are about to play. The best commander games is when everyone at the table is having fun. Try and make an agreement with the table, in game 1 we are going to have a higher power game but in game 2 were going to have a more casual game.

Deck power level and warnings

You should always try and be honest about the power level of your deck. If you don’t know what the power level is or you are not sure, say that. Describe what your deck does, or how much effort has gone into making it. Ask one of the players at the table who seems more confident with power levels to have a look at the deck. Knowing what someone is doing and stopping them are two completely different things. If you have any cards that send the wrong message let the other players know.

For example: “I am playing Muldrotha the Gravetide, it’s my pet deck so there are some quite expensive cards including OG dual lands so watch out of them. I have spent quite a long time tuning it to make it efficient but I have tried to keep it to a 7 and usually becomes threatening around turn 7. It’s a standard reanimation game plan, I am looking to fill my graveyard and play the same threats multiple times.”

It can also be a good idea to warn people about the themes that you are playing. There are some themes such as Stax and Infect that a lot of players don’t like. As someone who plays a lot of infect I am used to people complaining about it. If I am going to be running a dedicated infect deck I ask people at the table if they are happy with me running infect. Otherwise you run the risk of being hated out of the game first whether you are the threat or not.

Table

The following graphic shows at what turn decks can start to push for the win against suggested power levels. This is the average turn that the deck becomes threatening. Not if I get X, Y and Z in my opening hand I can push for a win on turn 7. Magic and in particular commander is a game of variance. There will be games where you just sit there spinning your wheels, and other games where everything just goes right. It is important to balance these out and find the average.

The power pyramid. A pyramid showing on what turn decks become threatening to power level.
You’ve got to unleash the power of the pyramid.

Conclusion

At the end of the day to the overwhelming majority of the Magic community it is a game that we play for fun, and I am not here to tell you how to enjoy it. I am not going to tell you that you are enjoying your hobby wrong. As long as you and the people you are playing with are having fun, you are doing it right. It doesn’t matter if you are looking to combo off on turn 1, or just enjoy sending a 1/1 mountain walking goat at someone. We have all made mistakes when it comes to determining the power level of our decks. Instead of berating someone who made an honest mistake, teach them how to not make the mistake again.

We should be focusing on what unites us as a community as opposed to what divides us. Magic and in particular commander is an opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. To join a community of like minded people, and use it as a jumping off point to find a D&D group, an MMO clan, or even find a 4 for a round of golf. The best thing that you can do for your community is to remember that it is just a game that is played for fun.