Deck power level is an ambiguous and intriguing aspect of playing Commander casually. While one person's five may be another's eight there is much to be said for understanding the approximate power level at a local venue. This is a unique challenge for me in particular. I regularly play at two different local venues and also against players all over the world via SpellTable. On top of that, I also play a few games on my own kitchen table. Power level expectations are extremely different at each table. Finding one deck that meets every level is tough.
What Makes You Hated At One Table Is Normal At Another
When playing with strangers, consider starting out low power and gradually easing into a range that makes sense. This method seems to result in fewer "non-games" than starting with a higher-powered deck and ratcheting down. However, there is a human factor to consider. How many games and how much time is it worth spending playing underpowered decks knowing the odds of winning are very low?
I'm willing to take one for the team to fine-tune where my power level should be. I can lose a few now to "win" on a different level later. How many games can anyone tolerate losing though? How about one game? A night's worth of games? A week or two in a row? Surprise! It turns out I'm not a huge fan of losing. and neither are many other players. For the last couple of months, though, I have been playing mostly with"kid gloves" on while meeting new players. I can tell you, it felt good to take them off! But was it the right thing to do? Turns out, yes it was. Allow me to explain.
That Week My First Goal Was Winning
This was a casual Commander game night and I was not there to have fun. While some venues toss a few promo packs into pods, there were no stakes here. I was, frankly, tired of losing and did not want to hold back. Let the shellacking begin!
The Play By Play
I planned on playing decks one to two steps above my normal range. To put it numerically, I generally play fives or sixes but tonight I was going to play decks that were at least sevens or eights. As a reference, I rate fives around the pre-constructed level. Sixes are, therefore, slightly modified pre-cons. Once you've changed, upgraded, or otherwise altered about ten cards or more out of a pre-con you're past the point of modification, you're optimizing and moving towards a seven.
My Edric, Spymaster of Trest deck is at least an eight. It hovers just under cEDH power levels. It's effectively 30 evasive, cheap creatures, 20 counterspells, and 20 utility spells. The entire deck's engine hinges on a turn two or three Edric plus something to protect him. Generally, I'm drawing extra cards every single turn until the game ends. We ended up with a three-person pod. Winning a one versus two is much more manageable than a one versus three. My opponents? The first was on Noyan Dar, Roil Shaper, a deck that I'm familiar with as I traded with them to build it. It's a casual deck, a five or six. The other player had a Grist, the Hunger Tide deck which was still being refined, but was probably a six.
Lucky me, going first I had a great hand! I played turn one land and Triton Shorestalker with Mental Misstep in hand. Noyan tried to play a turn one Esper Sentinel. Not in my house, eat a Mental Misstep. Grist played their land and passed. I played a land and passed. Next, Noyan played land and cast Sol Ring. Not in my house! I countered it with a Spellstutter Sprite. Turns cycled around and I quickly assembled Edric and a few creatures. By turn four I was drawing four or more cards a turn and countering anything relevant my opponents played for the rest of the game.
Are You Proud Of Yourself?
On the contrary, I felt bad for absolutely molly whopping my opponents. They played much more casual and lower-powered decks in this game. On top of that, luck was also against the other players. The Noyan player got a bit land screwed and the Grist player never hit a double mill trigger. This made the game feel even worse. I've played many games with the Noyan player. I asked them after the game if they noticed anything different about my deck than what I usually play. They said, effectively, that it was a world of difference playing against me when I use a "real deck" versus the "pile of cards" I normally bring. When I asked them if I should play stronger decks more often the expression on their face told me everything I needed to know.
Mono Black Oona
Oona, Queen of the Fae is my longest-running, oldest Commander deck. I've played different variations with Geth, Lord of the Vault and Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed as former commanders, but Oona offers better build options and a secondary win condition. The deck is highly optimized at cEDH levels of power. It has multiple infinite combos, piles of tutors, huge ramp, and excellent answers.
Sitting down I had the same Noyan player, with a different deck, and another player with their Raffine, Scheming Seer deck full of Secret Lair prints and various good cards. Our last player was a young lad of 10 or 11 who usually plays alongside their father but was going it alone with a Sisay, Weatherlight Captain deck. I knew ahead of time the Raffine player always comes in too strong so I decided to match that.
It was a funny game because I had both Candelabra of Tawnos and Mishra's Helix in play. Half of my mana tapped down the Raffine player so they could not play Magic. The rest was used on Candelabra to ramp the other two players who fought each other. The Raffine player was looking for a Disenchant effect but I had an Imp's Mischief waiting.
Eventually, I put down Ensnaring Bridge and got down to one card in hand so almost no one could attack. Oona started making 1/1 Faeries, and the game ended in short order. The table experienced the power of my fully armed and operational battle station.
The end result was a game that was a lot less fun than it could have been. In this game and the previous example, I removed the other players' agency until the games became effectively solitaire. What did I learn?
These Games Confirmed My Estimation
For one, I now know I have a firm grasp on relative power levels at this venue. Everyone is playing decks that are safely in the six to eight range. Almost no deck strays from that range, and, if so, I would be the player to do so. One important thing to grasp is that by starting with lower-powered decks I developed a very good idea of what the power floor is for a deck. Now that I've brought more powerful decks as well, I have a good idea of the power ceiling. Now "five" and "eight" matter less. I know the line from first being below it, and then above it. I can adjust accordingly and bring decks that better fit the environment.
Finding the Right Power Level, or the Right Answers?
I try my best not to bully a table. Sitting back and casting cards while chatting is how I like my casual games of Commander. Yes, it gets frustrating to lose what seems like every time. The reality of a multiplayer game, though, is that you should be losing far more often than winning. In retrospect, for me, it was less about losing and more about the feeling of never winning. With my lower-powered decks, games tended to end before I could pull off a cool play or demonstrate a unique aspect of my deck. The reason? Many cards these days are so incredibly high-powered that anything left unchecked gets out of control quickly. This is true even of cards in otherwise lower power decks. Is this the part where I mention that everyone needs to play more removal? It is, it is that part! Please play more removal. I'm going to work on adding more "fun" removal to my casual decks. Wizards, please print more fun removal!
What About Other Tables?
SpellTable is a very, very mixed bag. While practically no one makes games using decks at the one through four or ten levels, the band of five through nine is actually much wider than it would seem. There are gulfs between five, six, and seven. Power levels are definitely relative. I find it helpful to establish my own definitions and try the best I can to have a good rule-zero conversation before playing. I recommend asking about the EDREC salt score of everyone's deck when playing casually as these are widely accepted as the most unfun cards on the receiving end.
One nice part about playing competitive games on SpellTable is that there are fewer social issues because everyone is there for the same reason. The social experience is a distant third in priority behind winning and deck testing. Paradoxically enough this can sometimes make the social experience better. It's simply harder to find a casual table where everyone wants the same thing. The best bet there is to network. Anytime I find players I enjoyed playing with, I save their contacts. Discord is great for this. That way it's easier to build tables full of like-minded players from all across the world instead of going back into the vast, unknown, ocean of random players hoping to pair up with equally casual or competitive players.
It's The Same At Home
At my kitchen table, it was Kraken versus Spirit! On one side, was my boat deck, where every single card must have a boat somewhere in the artwork. This meme deck has grown from its conception—when I had to utilize cards like Dandân—but it is far less powerful than most precons. I rate it as a three or four. Facing off against it was the Millicent precon Spirit Squadron deck. Millicent seems like it weighs in at about a five. It has a few too many themes vying for space in the deck, and not enough cards to make all the themes useful.
Playing the boat deck against new players who have one year or less of experience playing Magic, I figured this would be a fair battle. While not perfect, Millicent at least has some deck synergy. It has Swords to Plowshares and Sol Ring! The boat deck just has... boats. On the surface, the formula appeared to be boats > ghosts. Realistically though, the more correct formula was boats+30 years experience > ghosts. Capsize had the highest salt score in these home games, which forced me to remove it from the deck.
Unlike the previous examples, here I genuinely knew my deck was inferior to what I was up against. There were different problems at hand. Here, my superior threat assessment was what was at issue. It was easy for me to simply bide my time and remove the correct things, typically Millicent, making the spirits deck not function. Because of that, practically every game went the same way: Millicent got bounced, killed, or countered the first time it was played. I correctly hit the weak point of the deck with everything I had. Turns out, because that deck was only a bit more powerful than mine (like a five versus a four) if I hit its weak spot, it stopped being an even match.
A New Challenger Sets Sail
So how did we compensate? I tuned and streamlined the Millicent deck. I removed dead synergies and added more Spirits. After boosting Millicent up to a six or seven, I could no longer win a single game against it with the boat deck. Even in games where I messed with Millicent or board-wiped multiple times, it did not matter. If the goal was to make 50/50 match odds, I may have gone a little overboard. That doesn't bother me though. I've been patiently waiting for a reason to start optimizing the boats. Tuning it to fight Millicent was just the sign I needed. Enter the new captain at the helm:
I hope that the Pirate Horror versus Spirit matchup is a close and more exciting one going forward. In any case, this example just reinforces how power levels can be relative. The upgraded boat deck with Captain N'ghathrod in command will be a perfect fit for my kitchen table games as well as for one of my local venues. It will definitely be a bit less powerful than other decks in my SpellTable games though.
Is The Heart Of Commander About Power?
No. The heart of Commander is having fun during the social experience of playing Magic. Understanding deck power levels, and how relative they can be though, is important when trying to tune for a specific table of players and their expectations. Hopefully the experiences I shared resonate and point others in the right direction to make their Commander games more interactive, social, and fun! Remember, every once in a while it's okay to test the waters and not just with lower-powered offerings. Sometimes playing a higher-powered deck can reveal a clearer picture of the power level of a group.
What's the power level of your most fun Commander deck if it's not a seven? Let me know in the comments.