A Defense Of Homebrews In cEDH

Harvey McGuinness • May 4, 2023

Liberator, Urza's Battlethopter by Ekaterina Burmak

Like all competitive formats, cEDH has a meta - an ecosystem of decks which compete for dominance, each displaying comparative strengths and weaknesses relative to the competition. There are stax lists and turbo lists, midrange lists and glass-cannon lists. What sets it apart from other formats, however, is the viability of the experimental. cEDH is Commander, after all, and what would Commander be without its homebrews?

The Commander Competition

Let's start off with the basics. In cEDH, the deckbuilding conversation nearly always begins with argumentation on Commander viability. Think of a Commander (or pair), any will do. Now ask yourself: why would you want to play it? Does it enable something unique, or is it the best in its otherwise overpopulated field? More specifically, what sets it apart? Viability in cEDH isn't simply a question of "is this commander powerful?" but rather "does the value of choosing this commander outweigh the opportunity costs of not choosing someone else?" This distinction may seem to be a bit of a nitpicky one, as well as at odds with our introduction to homebrew viability, but bear with me for a moment as we break it down a bit further.

Here's an example of this viability debate, as illustrated through two popular stax lists: Jetmir, Nexus of Revels and Minsc, Beloved Ranger.

Each of these decks attempt to grind out a stax game with an aggressive board presence, and each is (conveniently) Naya. This makes for an excellent example comparison, as they attempt similar overall gameplans, albeit with different win conditions as afforded by their commanders. Here's a brief rundown of their standard plans:

Jetmir, Nexus of Revels and Minsc, Beloved Ranger both attempt to disrupt their opponents through on-board pieces. Drannith Magistrate, Collector Ouphe, Archon of Emeria - these are all ubiquitous cards between their lists, and the value gained from deploying them is increased relative to that of other decks due to the synergy across their lists. Where these two differ, however, lies distinctly in the end-game plans afforded by their Commanders.

Jetmir, Nexus of Revels is a win-condition within the command zone. While cEDH rarely seems to acknowledge the combat step outside of punishing the Ad Nauseam player or grinding value off of Tymna the Weaver triggers, Jetmir revels in it (pun most definitely intended). Having guaranteed access to a non-deterministic, non-linear win condition is Jetmir's allure, at the cost of building a deck that is almost exclusively creatures (see two prominent lists here and here).

Minsc, Beloved Ranger, however, commonly runs a Protean Hulk line, something which adds to its lethality and speed at the cost of adding several dead draws to the deck. While Minsc doesn't exactly hide from the combat step, it certainly plays more traditionally in that it often ignores it. Minsc may not be a win condition in its own right, but it does play another defining role shared by many other cEDH Commanders - it is an enabler.

Minsc, Beloved Ranger runs many stax pieces which symmetrically disrupt the board, often such that they slow the Minsc pilot as well. Where the commander comes in, however, is that it enables the deck by shutting these pieces off. During the Hulk-line victory turn, Minsc, Beloved Ranger serves to unlock the Protean Hulk combo not just by killing the Hulk, but also by sacrificing any problematic stax creatures which the Minsc player may otherwise control. This turns traditionally symmetric disruption into situationally asymmetric disruption, a key point in Minsc's favor (the database list and primer is linked here).

So, on to the viability question. Both of these commanders have put up results, there is no doubt about that. What is important to understand is the tradeoffs which each deck makes in order to make the case that it is "the" Naya deck to play. Minsc can argue that it is hyper-efficient and flexible, able to change the rules of disruption at any point thanks to the commander. Jetmir, meanwhile, is able to claim that the deck runs no dead draws while simultaneously guaranteeing access to its win condition thanks to the command zone. In choosing one deck to play between the two, the player is effectively being asked the question of what is a bigger cost of deckbuilding: the potential of dead draws, or the restriction to creature-based disruption and pressure. Where these commanders are the same, however, is in their pivotal support to their respective decks, whether it be as combo-enablers or win conditions.

This comparison can be repeated for any potential commander, and throughout the evolution of cEDH it is this gradual competition that has led to the prominence of many of the format's most notable decks. Blue Farm, Winota, Joiner of Forces, Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow; each of these lists can provide thorough answers as why their commanders are either enablers, win conditions, absurd value engines, or truly unique linchpins to their gameplans.

Knowledge as a Resource

Moving beyond the foundations of selecting a commander, let's get to discussing the problem of entering the Competitive landscape and the principle advantage of homebrew decks.

There is an argument to be made that some decks are better than others. A Korvold, Fae-Cursed King list without a Dockside Extortionist is going to be worse than one with a Dockside Extortionist, and while this is a gross oversimplification, it nonetheless highlights a a key part of Magic. Deckbuilding is a skill, and some decks are simply going to be built better than others. That being said, assembling a deck isn't the only part of playing Magic, otherwise we'd all settle on one list, play that, and wind up with draws far more often than anyone wants.

As with all competitive games, knowledge of the environment is key to succeeding, both in developing the primary plan of your own list as well as responding to the plans of your opponents. With this in mind, we can think about deck lists as approximating the "floor" of potential player success, the baseline from which to evaluate skill growth over time. I love playing Korvold as my Ad Nauseam list, but if I wanted to introduce someone to cEDH TurboNaus, I'd almost certainly hand them a RogSci list and its corresponding primer. That deck is just good.

So, if some decks have higher floors than other, then what is the point of workshopping a homebrew, outside of entertainment (which I would argue is most definitely a good enough reason, but I digress). Enter knowledge, and the proverbial ceiling on a deck's performance.

First off, it is important to understand the importance of playing to your preference. By this I mean playing the strategy you like, not just the strategy you are told is viable. The gameplay reason for this is that players perform better when they enjoy the deck they're playing, and there's nothing quite like piloting a deck you designed. Even if it is a small rework of an established deck, making something your own frequently brings with it the added benefit of imprinting player intuition into your plays. This may sound overly sentimental, but there is a difference between simply being able to logic your way through piloting a deck list and truly understanding your decklist. I can certainly appreciate the appeal, structure, and playstyle of Winota, Joiner of Forces, for example, but that simply isn't how I enjoy playing stax, and it shows in my match win percentages.

When a new player enters cEDH, I frequently advise them to find a primer that suits their playstyle and go from there. This serves as an introduction to the format, the key lines and cards, as well as providing the aforementioned power level floor such that they may become accustomed to playing in competitive pods. After some experience with the format, however, I frequently find myself in conversation with established players discussing their love of niche, outdated, or completely left-field decks. When Slicer, Hired Muscle first hit the scene, I remember my friends and I losing our minds that a Transformer was putting up results. I certainly didn't see it coming, and it was exciting to see something new. Similarly, the recent successes of Liberator, Urza's Battlethopter are a wonderful development for the format, and a testament to what an experiment can accomplish. Blind-piloting a meta list can only take you so far, but understanding why that list works is the key to propelling yourself forwards. Homebrewing forces you along the journey from start to finish, and regardless of the end-viability of the deck I can guarantee that your skills will be better for it.

Outside of personal knowledge and intuition, however, it's important to recognize the threat which homebrewed decks present their opponents. Knowledge of a format's meta - whether local or holistic - is key to success, and homebrewed decks present an unknown quantity. When playing into a known field, each meta player is at a slim but non-zero disadvantage. Their decks can be telegraphed, key lines anticipated, and moments of weakness pounced upon. Playing with an unknown list maintains as much hidden information as possible, which means that your opponents cannot interact as expertly as they otherwise may against known decks. For some decks, this information discrepancy is so key to their success that, after a brief while, they fall off the map due to their exposed linearity.

Codie, Vociferous Codex is a notable example of this. A blisteringly fast TurboNaus deck, Codie exploded on to the scene in its early iterations and then subsided in the months which followed. The deck is viable, don't get me wrong, but its relative strength in the meta was weakened once its hand was played. While this is an exaggerated case of the information dilemma, seeing as many other hidden decks have gone on to less explosive, more sustained careers, it nonetheless represents the quasi-tangible nature of information as a resource skewed in favor of the homebrew.


Multiplayer and Experimentalism

Finally, we can't talk about Commander without discussing what wraps it all together and sets it apart from other formats: multiplayer variance. Unlike other formats in which each deck must be directly evaluated against the rest of the field, cEDH decks have to be evaluated together with the rest of the field.

In traditional competitive Magic, the opposition is clear: it's the person sitting opposite you. Each person sits down in direct competition with their singular opponent; there is no room for politics or teamwork. This means that the role of each player is assigned from the beginning, as is each deck. The two players may race each other, exploiting openings and weaknesses along the way, but the overall path towards victory is the same. In cEDH, however, the multiplayer nature of the format opens up opportunities for deck dynamics which don't exist in other formats. Stax, Turbo, and Midrange are often cited as the three pillars of cEDH, with each having advantages and disadvantages in the archetypal Rock-Paper-Scissors match which pervades all of Magic. While this classification has some merit in opening up deck discussion, it glosses over the fact that decks don't need to directly compete with each other in cEDH in order to secure a victory. Some lists can thrive by attrition while others can police the table and then close the game out of nowhere. By removing the direct competition aspect of Magic and introducing social variance, the puzzle of a competitive meta becomes much more difficult to approach.

This is where homebrews can thrive. Experimenting not just from a decklist perspective, but from a gameplay philosophy as well can cause otherwise uncompetitive decks to become playable in the right hands. This takes knowing your list to another level, as now you have to move beyond "how does this deck work?" to "what is the role of this deck within the broader game system?" Politicking is an integral part of Commander which, when implemented properly, can be a key and unique component of a decklist's repertoire.

Wrapping Up

Despite the success of cEDH's hallmark lists, the format is far from solved. New players, new ideas, and new decklists continue to surprise and succeed, and for good reason. To those of you joining cEDH for the first time, use the decklists and primers as a welcome to the format. We're happy to have you, and can't wait to see you succeed. For those of you who have become entrenched in the goings-on of Competitive Commander, try tweaking the settled lists a bit, or even build your own from the ground up. Magic is full of surprises, and I'm sure you'll learn something amazing along the way.

Harvey McGuinness is a student at Johns Hopkins University who has been playing Magic since the release of Return to Ravnica. After spending a few years in the Legacy arena bouncing between Miracles and other blue-white control shells, he now spends his time enjoying Magic through cEDH games and understanding the finance perspective.