An End to Power Level Discussions in EDH
For years, we’ve all obsessed over power levels in EDH. We’ve tried to give our decks power scores to try to seek out “even” matchups. However, we’ve all been in a situation where someone’s 6 turns out to be a 9 to you. We’ve all been pubstomped, nutted, and even speed bumped in spite of power level discussions.
I’ll note here that Jim from The Spike Feeders has a video that approaches this same topic. It’s worth a listen: he dissects power levels, the reasons we use them, and why they suck at negotiating our play experiences. This is an alternative that I’m offering.
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.
But sometimes, I’m not targeting a metagame. Sometimes, I’m brewing to brew to a theme. I’m brewing not to compete, but to create resonance. And when I do that, I wind up with very different decks to what I do when I brew to a meta. Sure, I’ve still typically got the things that make a deck work: a bit of permission, a bit of removal, a bit of card advantage or selection, some graveyard hate, a bit of ramp, 30–35 lands, and some kind of payload that these things are enabling. But that payload looks different: it’s not about ending the game, but rather about creating an opportunity for resonant interactions between my cards.
But the payload may change based on what kind of card value I’m focusing on. There are, fundamentally, three kinds of card value that players tend to focus on in their deckbuilding:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
However, there’s one thing I’ve noticed: decks brewed for budget constraints often acquit themselves well enough to hang with balanced decks, because at their soul, they are balanced decks: in prioritizing budget, they balance the demands of both emotional and functional qualities. But this is not so for competitive and resonant decks. Playing resonant or competitive decks outside their bubbles tends to go very badly. Resonant decks often present speed bumps with budget and balanced decks (and may as well not be playing against competitive decks), and competitive decks tend to steamroll non-competitive decks.
So at this point, we really have three metagames: a competitive meta, a resonant meta, and an event meta that consists of balanced and budget decks (I’m still looking for a better name for it than “event”, but given that the whole point is that these are the kinds of decks you’re most likely to see at open Commander events, that’s the best name I can come up with).
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.
However, with this system, you’re not telling me how powerful your deck is. You’re telling me what you took into account when building it. You’re also telling me that you probably want to play with other decks that took similar considerations into account. And when we actively seek birds of a feather rather than stumbling around and using numbers, we actually get the games we want.
You know why you built your deck. When you find opponents with similar deckbuilding motivations, you’re far more likely to have a good time than you will by trying to stress out about power levels and numerical scores.
I’ll also point out that maybe power levels aren’t as mystical as we make them out to be. Frankly, if you want to know what power level you’re on, here’s some advice: goldfish. I’ll digress here for a bit: the next section is optional if you’re already familiar with the concept.
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.
Play 100 games, each time taking a note of how many turns it takes you to win, throwing out any game that takes longer than 15 turns (call those losses: you should not be taking that long to win). Also, take a note of whether you had protection for that win, for whatever that means for your deck.
You’re looking to get seven values out of 100 wins (if you lose, you shouldn’t have kept the opening hand):
- The average win turn
- The median win turn
- The modal win turn
- The protection percentage
- The standard deviation of your win turn
- The percentage of wins that happen on the modal turn
- The difference between the average win turn and the median win turn
The first three values are about speed, the last three about consistency, and the protection percentage is an extra piece of information.
I don’t know how these data actually correspond to power. And I don’t know exactly how much this matters. But at least with these standards, you can come up with some kind of numerical values for the power level of your deck.
But this won’t stop pubstompers from bringing in their competitive decks for cheap wins!
Pubstomping is not about power level.
I’ve curb stomped before. This usually happens when people see that they’re matched with me, know I have that Urza deck and want to play against it. They want to know if they can take it. So I play it as I would at any competitive table, because they wanted me to do this. And then they get rekt, and I ask them if they’ve had enough and if I can play a more appropriate deck that they’ll enjoy playing against more.
But pubstomping is more than that. It’s more than even being deceptive 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.
This is because Game Knights isn’t Commander game play content. It’s ad copy — remember that Game Knights is paid for by Wizards of the Coast to sell Magic product and the Commander format. It’s a sitcom centered around a game of commander. And those toxic table dynamics and bad faith plays make for videos that are fun to watch. When you watch one of the Command Zone staff pull Game Knights stunts on Extra Turns, you see them get shut down for it. Threaten to kill a player with your Aetherflux Reservoir while at 51 life to counter a spell? Okay, you both lose, because the next player will cherry tap Mr. Player Removal.
While many pubstompers are gadflies and jerks, I was one for two years because Game Knights — and the rest of my playgroup — led me to believe that was normal Commander game play. No, it isn’t. Game Knights is a catalog of how not to play Commander. It’s fun to watch, but it’s a bad example.
So what do you do about someone who plays like they’re on Game Knights? You take the L when they make a flashy play that kills you while putting them on the back foot. Then you refuse to play with them again until they demonstrate that they’ve learned that Game Knights shenanigans don’t fly. You do what the Command Zone staff does on Extra Turns when someone there forgets that it’s Extra Turns and not Game Knights. This is why they’re a successful playgroup: they don’t play like they’re on Game Knights most of the time.
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.”
In fact, the win I might want to go for is some kind of Stax rock, Narset, Parter of Veils, and a Windfall effect. Narset isn’t something a blue deck can just conjure up on a whim. This line of play is considerably more likely to backfire, and provides my opponents with plenty of opportunities to stop me by swinging at or removing Narset, getting rid of the Stax rock, or otherwise preventing me from getting what I want out of the Windfall (which is a hand full of cards while my opponents have one card each).
You don’t have to pubstomp. You don’t have to agree to pubstomping. And most of your losses aren’t coming from being pubstomped: you should be losing 75% of the games you play over time. The sooner you accept that a losing record is still good in this format, the happier you will be. If you want to have a winning record, 1v1 formats are more likely to be to your liking, including 1v1 commander variants, including MTGO 1v1 Commander, French Commander, and simply playing regular Commander in a pod of two.
So what’s a player to do?
Tell people what you have. Tell people what you want.
When telling people what you have, tell us:
- 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?
- If it’s a combination, give us an idea of exactly how much went into flavor and how much went into function.
Then, when asking what you want, tell us:
- 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?
- 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.
When you communicate, you’re more likely to get the experience you want. I get that you want your super secret deck tech, but the games you win because people don’t know what’s in your deck are not worth the miserable experiences you’ll have because you don’t want to talk about what anybody at the table is playing.