22, Dec, 22

How to Assess an MTG Commander Power Level

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We try to answer various questions or cover multiple topics that we see floating around different MTG social media channels, and this one is constantly all over any Commander-focused discussion.

Because Commander is mainly a social format, a deck’s priorities don’t involve just winning the game. The play experience for everyone at the table matters most. As a result, the nightmare scenario in a game of Commander generally isn’t one where you end up hitting a bad matchup, but instead one where three of the four players are playing a similar power level deck, and the fourth is playing something out of line with the rest of the table. If it’s something weaker, the fourth player generally gets beat back to obscurity and cannot do anything for the majority of the game (but can win in the end because of it). If a player’s deck is too strong, the game generally turns into Archenemy, where three players try to beat one player before they inevitably win the game.

To avoid this, Commander players engage in a ‘Rule Zero’ conversation where a deck’s ‘power level’ is assessed. The only problem? No one can really agree on what power level means! Here, we will suggest a guide to determine your deck’s power levels in the context of a Rule Zero conversation. That said, there is no perfect way to do this since it’s highly subjective.

Introduction

In most circles, potential Power Levels for a Commander deck tend to be anywhere between one and ten. Ten means your deck is a cEDH powerhouse built to be the best possible Commander deck you could have, while a one is generally a pile of bulk thrown together to have long games full of nonsense. The biggest issue, drawing from various social media comments, is that this range of power levels is far too wide:

“The 10 scale is both way too big (seriously, what EVEN is a 1-2 deck, a pile of random cards?) and not nuanced enough (what exactly is the difference between a 6 and 7 deck?)” – rccrisp

“Powerlevels are subjective and these numbers are absolutely meaningless without context. If you have a regular playgroup you can all decide together what a “6” or an “8” is. Without those reference points you’re much better off describing how your deck works in a pregame discussion rather than labeling it with a number.” – SP1R1TDR4GON

Preconstructed Commander decks are ones offered by Wizards of the Coast. You can buy these and immediately play Commander with them right out of the box. These decks tend to be better put together than piles of bulk but can easily be outscaled by powerful strategies in the format. Many players, especially ones newer to the Commander format, will have a preconstructed deck, maybe with a few cards swapped, as their Commander deck. As a result, when I tend to have a Rule Zero conversation with a pod of players, I use the “is this better than a precon?” as a sort of measurement gauge. If it is well above a prebuilt Commander power level, the following question gauges how the deck would stand up at a cEDH table. That said, even among prebuilt decks, there is a wide range of power level differences.

urza, chief artificer

Urza’s Iron Alliance, for example, has been an incredibly popular preconstructed Commander deck in my area as of late. Most players, including myself, have a variation of Urza, Chief Artificer, that they want to bring to the table. That said, depending on how the deck has been upgraded, various power levels exist between the decks. I’ve swapped out about 10-15 cards in my list personally and would say the deck stands above a prebuilt deck’s power level, but just above that.

If I draw one of the significant upgrades, like [tooltips]Anointed Procession[/tooltips], that I added to the deck, preconstructed decks generally won’t be able to stand up to it (as long as they don’t remove it immediately). That said, I also added a lot of fun cards, like the new [tooltips]Starscream, Power Hungry[/tooltips], simply because I like the idea of making other people Monarchs. Because not all the cards added are strictly for power level reasons, it gets a lower grade on the power level scale than a more optimized Urza deck.

A “Widely Accepted” Commander Power Level Chart

Almost every MTG player has their own definition of what each number on a scale of one to ten means for a Commander power level discussion. The chart provided above from Imgur happens to be one of the more detailed ones, and, for the most part, it’s a pretty good representation of a commonly accepted Commander power level scale. That said, as demonstrated by this comment, different numbers can still mean different things to different people:

“Super subjective, but I go with the following:

  1. Complete jank/random pile of cards.
  2. Most precons.
  3. Good or upgraded precons (Prosper, Captain N, Lathril, etc.).
  4. Decks that do one thing (97 land Maelstrom Wanderer, 69 land Sidisi, etc.).
  5. Casual deck with poor interaction and/or no wincon.
  6. Casual deck with some of the above but not all the way there.
  7. Focused casual deck, solid list.
  8. High powered but not quite cEDH.
  9. Fringe or outdated cEDH.
  10. True cEDH.” – Glad-O-Blight

According to this list, most of my decks are either an 8 or a 3 and nothing in between. That said, my prebuilt upgrades do tend to have a game plan and wincons, so they could also be considered a 5, even though they are just upgraded prebuilt decks. On the more detailed list provided, most of my decks would either fall around a 5.5 or a 7.5, depending on the power level of the table. The point here is that numbers generally aren’t good enough when having a Rule Zero Commander power-level discussion. Make sure to compare your decks to easily identifiable power levels, like a prebuilt deck, an upgraded prebuilt deck, a high power deck, and a cEDH deck, to give more context.

How to Assess Your Commander Deck

Even with all the context of the Commander chart used above, it can still be tricky to identify a Commander power level to any given deck correctly. Using the detailed chart above, here are some potential guidelines for determining your deck’s power level:

  • How quickly is your deck trying to win on average? This is a great way to determine your Commander deck’s strength. With this assessment, my decks tend to fall into two categories: decks trying to win by turns 6-10 and decks trying to win by turns 15+. This method of assessment is available in the chart above in the third column to the left. Just note that if you are using a stall or Stax strategy that creates locked game states, assess your deck by the turn that lock comes down, not on turn 54 when the deck actually wins the game. Win conditions being met, therefore, should be your assessment when analyzing your deck’s Commander Power Level when using the turn win strategy.
  • Using the Prebuilt/Upgraded Prebuilt/High Power/cEDH guidelines, your decks will tend to be a 3/4, 5/6, 7/8, and 9/10, respectively. Combining these numbers with your average win attempt turn can give a really strong indication as to where your Commander deck stands.
  • Using budget for a deck can be a last-means way of assessing a deck’s power level but, in my experience, budget is not always a great way to assess just how good a deck is. I, for example, have a very extensive collection, and this results in a lot of my decks containing expensive cards. That said, even though some of my decks are expensive, according to the win-turn measurement, they’re still around a preconstructed/upgraded preconstructed level. Alternatively, there are incredibly powerful budget decks out there that can compete at a 7-8 level.

Read More: This MTG Card May be Banned in The Game’s Biggest Format!

Some Examples

I’ve done breakdowns of some of my EDH decks historically on the site and will use those, alongside some other examples in an attempt to help you identify where your decks stand in terms of their Commander Power Level. Any of the decks we’ve written about on the site will have links so you can check out the decklists.

Gorion Adventure Tribal

gorion, wise mentor

I’ll start with the Gorion, Wise Mentor Adventure Tribal deck. I personally like taking decks I enjoy in constructed formats and immortalizing them as Commander decks. I really liked the [tooltips]Lucky Clover[/tooltips] decks created by Aaron Gertler in Standard so, once they got an appropriate amount of support in Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur’s Gate, I built the deck pretty quickly.

Notably, there are two variants for this particular deck: the battlecruiser version that isn’t really running win conditions outside of draw engines, and the self-mill version that wants to win with [tooltips]Thassa’s Oracle[/tooltips] using various milling effects from Adventure spells. It didn’t take me long to realize that the winconditionless Adventure deck was being overpowered at a majority of my pods, so this deck probably ranks around a 2.5-3. There are a lot of really powerful (and expensive) inclusions in the deck, but it’s not actually capable of winning the game in any real way, allowing other decks to progress their gameplan to the point where we may not be able to keep up.

I did add a section here of suggested win conditions in case this version of the deck is too slow, which, in my opinion, bumps up the power level of the deck to a 4. The more win conditions you add, the higher this deck’s power level gets. The core of the deck is quite strong and consistent, its just very slow and does not close out games.

The other deck is still very slow, but has a reliable way to convert our advantage into a win once it gets rolling. That said, the self-mill version rarely wins before turn 15, but has a lot of protection, interaction and redundancy. Generally, this deck will consistently win around the turn 15 marker, or will get aggroed down if I start generating too much advantage. That said, the synergy that this deck offers is more powerful than the average precon, putting the self-mill version, in my opinion, around a 4.5-5 power level.

Planer Bridge Planeswalker Tribal

esika, god of the tree

This was originally a Golos, Tireless Pilgrim deck that had to change with the times once the Commander got banned. The power level of the deck definitely took a dive as a result, but not a huge one. This deck generally aims to get its game plan going by turn five and, if left undisturbed for a few turns, can win the game outright, but will generally just accumulate way too much advantage. This deck, on a perfect draw, can start putting win attempts together around turn 6, but generally will not win the game until turns 8-11.
Planeswalkers are surprisingly difficult to interact with for the average Commander deck since most board wipes do not apply to Planeswalkers. I would, therefore, rank this as a 7 according to the power level chart. Notably, I added an [tooltips]Ajani, Mentor of Heroes[/tooltips] to this deck recently and its been a very strong addition. The only thing holding this deck back from being an 8 is that its generally a little bit slower than other focused strategies, and has a built-in weakness so it doesn’t totally dominate other decks just below the cEDH level.

Vadrok Mutate Combo

vadrok, apex of thunder

This deck is a few hairs short of a cEDH deck. The mana base is laughably atrocious compared to most decks around the same power level, and my personal reasons for building the deck include a few cards that are strictly suboptimal in a personal attempt to immortalize a deck that I loved playing in Standard. If the mana base were stronger, this deck would probably be between an 8.5 and a 9. In its current iteration, it probably sits around an 8 because it has a depressingly high brick rate. I don’t play this one all too often because I’m currently using a lot of cards in my Modern deck.

A cEDH Example

I personally do not own a cEDH deck, but figuring out if your Commander decks function at this power level is not too difficult. Outside of decks trying to win the game in the first three turns, anything that functions on a similar level to the decks featured on the Playing With Power cEDH YouTube channel is comfortably in a 9-10 range. Do note that cEDH has a metagame of its own, so there are some specific cards run because they interact well with most strategies played. Ironically, the cEDH decks that aren’t trying to turbo out a win on early turns can perform surprisingly bad at a table with casual decks since they will just go over top the specifically turned anti-meta strategy.

Communication is Key

At the end of the day, the largest takeaways from this article are as follows:

  • Prioritize clarity of communication during your Rule Zero Commander power level conversations. Just because you think your deck is a 7 doesn’t mean that your definition of a 7 matches somebody else’s. There’s a reason that everyone thinking every Commander deck is a power level of 7 is a meme.
  • While this wasn’t written into the article, try to have a variety of different power level decks available at a table. Generally, having a deck around a prebuilt level is a great way to ensure you can play as many games as possible.
  • A good way to approach measuring your Commander deck’s power is by analyzing what turn the deck tries to consistently win on. For decks that care more about slowing other people down, establish your win turn once your deck really starts to shut people down consistently.
  • To add context, feel free to try the precon/upgraded precon/high power/cEDH power levels as a clearer means of communication.

While I did not provide a great example of a deck that differentiates between a 7 and 8, I do have a deck that is definitely at an 8 in comparison to the 7 provided in the Esika Planeswalker tribal deck. As MTG news begins to slow down for the holidays, there is a good chance that I will do a deck tech for that particular strategy (it’s a pretty common one). Hopefully, you can use this article as a reference point to have clearer Commander power level conversations.

Read More: EDH Rules Member Suggests Potential Reserved Ban List!

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