An End to Power Level Discussions in EDH

What if we’re getting all of this wrong?

When I build my decks, I tend to have a metagame I’m targeting. I want to play with people who are building their decks for the same reason and with similar considerations. Maybe I’m targeting the online full proxy meta. Maybe I’m targeting my LGS’s real card meta.

  1. The card’s Emotional value. This is about how the cards make you or the rest of your table feel. If you’ve ever packed a flavor win in a deck, this is why. We play these cards because we actually like them.
  2. The card’s Mechanical value. This is about what the cards do in your deck, how good they are at doing that thing, and how they get themselves to a victory.
  3. The card’s Financial value. This one is pretty clear cut: how much does the card cost? How available is it? I mean, just because I have $8000 doesn’t mean that buying a Timetwister is easy. I still have to find a reputable person selling the card.

The Four Deck Philosophies, and how they create Three Metagames

From my experience, there are functionally four deck styles in Commander:

  1. The Resonant style, where everybody’s building for flavor wins, telling the story of their commander, or otherwise focusing on a theme. In these decks, cards are chosen for their emotional value, rather than their mechanical or budgetary value. The point is being on theme, on brand, on story, or otherwise creating an emotional reaction both within myself and from the table. I don’t currently know of too many creators who focus on this segment. An example of this kind of deck is my Jace Tribal deck, where I’ve taken efforts to make Jace the star of the show. That’s right, every card in here is Jace, has Jace in the name, Jace in the rules text, Jace in the flavor text, or Jace in the art. Even my basics have Jace on them, thanks to Ixalan’s Useless Island.
  2. The Competitive deck, where everybody is building to win as quickly and reliably as possible given the constraints of the Commander format. Cards are chosen exclusively for their mechanical value, and their emotional value is not considered. Uniquely among metagames, this one does not care at all about real cards: quite the contrary, it expects full proxy decks because so many staples have severe availability problems going even beyond their high price tag. If you’re not brewing to play in the online full proxy metagame, this is not you. This is the land of The Spike Feeders and other playgroups like them. This kind of deck is a lot more powerful than you think, and they routinely bring in Legacy and Vintage staples. Out of my own collection, there’s my Urza deck.
  3. The Budget deck, where cards are chosen to maximize both emotional and mechanical value for given financial value. People are building and playing with the cards they have or can obtain. Mitch from the Commander’s Quarters is easily the biggest patron of this segment, and if you watch his videos, he’ll tell you everything you want to know about this segment. (Put Mitch on the CAG!) A good sign that you’re here is that you aren’t running Sol Ring because you’re not spending $2.50 for a card that isn’t a part of your deck’s payload. I have a bunch of preconstructed decks that I keep sleeved up for this kind of purpose. I collect the precons because they’re just that good at being an out-of-the-box commander experience.
  4. The Balanced deck, which chooses cards for all three reasons at once. Normally, I’m not a fan of serving multiple masters, but the reality is that this metagame is what the vast majority of Commander players want: they want some good cards, some pet cards, and they don’t want to have to take out a second mortgage or max out a credit card to build a deck with real cards. Generally, you’ll see this kind of thing from The Command Zone’s Extra Turns. (I don’t regard Game Knights as Commander game play content, and we’ll get to why in a bit — trust me, there’s a good reason for this.) My Ayula deck is my own personal representative in this category.

Why this works better than power levels

The biggest problem power levels have is that you can’t determine them for yourself. You have to either play the deck repeatedly or get someone who knows how to rate decks to look at it and evaluate it. What’s more, you have to ask a lot of people, because you need a lot of opinions.

How to Goldfish, if you really care about your power level

Goldfishing is playing against three opponents who aren’t doing much to interact. Imagine three opponents that are drawing for turn, playing a land, then creating N 0/1 creature tokens with Defender and “If this creature would receive combat damage, it receives no combat damage instead,” where N is the number of turns that have elapsed. Note that this isn’t damage prevention: Skullcrack doesn’t get you out of it. You are going first. Any creature without evasion will be blocked if possible.

  1. The average win turn
  2. The median win turn
  3. The modal win turn
  4. The protection percentage
  5. The standard deviation of your win turn
  6. The percentage of wins that happen on the modal turn
  7. The difference between the average win turn and the median win turn

But this won’t stop pubstompers from bringing in their competitive decks for cheap wins!

Pubstomping is not about power level.

Pubstomping is about creating and exploiting toxic table dynamics.

If you want to take a look at what a game between four pubstompers looks like, go watch The Command Zone’s Game Knights. If you watch enough of it, you begin to realize that they’re all engaging in toxic play patterns and table dynamics. I’ve never seen anyone as happy about playing kingmaker as I do when I watch Game Knights. I’ve never seen anybody make an obviously terrible open-ended deal as I’ve seen on Game Knights.

Pubstomping is a playstyle. You don’t have to do it. You don’t have to put up with it. You deserve better.

But even beyond Game Knights chicanery, I can choose not to pubstomp with my Urza deck. If it’s all I have for some reason (maybe because I allowed a friend to play my Ayula deck while I was playing in a cEDH pod that ended, then three other people wanted a fourth to get a four man pod), I’ll deliberately play to other tactics, fetching counterspells, hate pieces, and value pieces instead of going straight for a combo. And I’ll show off an early combo hand, then say, “But no, I want this game to happen, so let’s not do that.”

So what’s a player to do?

Tell people what you have. Tell people what you want.

  1. What is your intention with this deck? Is this a deck about game wins, flavor wins, commanding your budget, or some combination of the above?
  2. If it’s a combination, give us an idea of exactly how much went into flavor and how much went into function.
  1. What kind of game do you want? Do you want something with tightly controlled play and everybody trying to perform the most optimal play, or do you want something where people are making the plays that make them feel good?
  2. Are there any red flags, cards, or archetypes you don’t want to face? Is there something that your deck simply cannot deal with? Believe me when I tell you that there are plays that can radically change a table’s tenor and attitude, going from “everybody is sitting back and having fun” to “this player absolutely must die now”. (I have a particular memory that stands out here: dropping a Tabby against Selvala, Korvold, and another go-wide deck suddenly made three people, very, very angry with me.) If there’s an archetype you don’t want to face, be specific: “combo” is not specific enough, as most decks that pack combos can easily play a fair game until they combo off, but most decks don’t win most games by comboing.

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