Mechanical Engineering - On Floors and Ceilings

Commander Mechanic • September 9, 2021

Eureka Moment by Anna Steinbauer

Hey folks, I'm Chris and I'm YOUR Commander Mechanic. You may recognize me from my YouTube Channel or from guesting on major streams around the community--I'm a deck builder and brewer with a very analytical view of the format of Commander. Some have said I take a competitive mindset and apply it to casual Commander, but I prefer to think of it as taking an efficient look at deck building. More of the game is played before you ever sit down at a table with other players.

There's a lot to be said about other players' impact on play experience. Expectation mismatches, lack of communication, and differing opinions on what constitutes 'fun' can all play a part in how much you enjoy Commander.

Throughout this series I want to take a look at how you can improve play experience--your own and that of others--before you ever play a game. Avoid not being able to play the game due to deck building issues, avoid imposing poor scenarios on others, and ensure you have concentrated efforts in mind when deck building.

But, as always, Commander is about having fun YOUR WAY--don't let anyone tell you there's a right or wrong way to play this game.

From the Bottom to the Top

In this week's article I want to take a look at value--not monetary value, but in-game value. When evaluating a card during deck building there are two criteria I like to take a look at; value floors and value ceilings.

The value floor of a card is evaluated by how good it is at all times. This is where you find "format staples" that are included in every deck just because they're good. Rhystic Study, Esper Sentinel, and Sylvan Library are all high value floor cards because they always do what you want them to do when you play them. They're always going to provide a return on investment.

The value ceiling of a card is evaluated by how good the card is in conjunction with other cards or your primary game plan. Cards that warrant inclusion because they do something multiple cards in your library want to see happen--cards that pour gas in the engine your deck creates, for instance.

My simplest example is this: Llanowar Elves is a high value floor card. It's a mana dork that either sticks around and generates far more mana than it costs far faster than other decks, or it eats removal and helps protect another important part of your deck later.

Sakura-Tribe Elder has a good value floor but comes down later than Llanowar Elves, not generating you quite the value as fast. But in a deck that can recur the elder, like Meren of Clan Nel-Toth or a deck that wants landfall triggers like Omnath, Locus of Rage, the elder has a much higher value ceiling.

How High Value Means High Cost

I had mentioned several high value floor cards, and something they have in common is that they're all relatively pricey. The higher the value floor on a card the more ubiquitous they seem in the format--typically what people call "staples" of the format--and that leaves them in high demand. That drives up costs based on availability and that can preclude many players from having the capability of ever obtaining those cards.

Looking at EDHRec's top cards in each of the colors, there are multiple cards that cost as much as a whole budget deck would. Dockside Extortionist, Mana Drain, and Vampiric Tutor each cost as much as some budget decks. The mindset here is to think of the value ceilings rather than the value floors if you want to build efficient decks that don't break the bank.

Last week we talked about running removal that synergized with your commander, and now we want to take that concept to building an entire deck. How can we use lower value floor cards with higher value ceilings to create a deck that runs well and can hold its own?

Being Choosey

When I look at cards with high value ceiling potential I look at what they do and how many similar effects exist. 'How narrow is the card' versus 'how broad is the card'--and what do I mean by this?

For instance, a commander with an obvious tribal leaning like Tiamat is narrow. You'll see Tiamat leading dragon tribal decks and little else. That may leave you in a position where there are perceived lynch-pin cards you MUST run like Old Gnawbone or Dragonlord Dromoka or Urza's Incubator that all run $30 - $40 dollars EACH. This can leave budget-minded players discouraged about building a deck because they can't build it optimally, or it's just out of their price range.

On the other hand, a broad commander is one that synergizes with actions or card types or permanent types. The more broadly a commander can be relevant the more options you have to include cards that work with what your deck wants to do. A great example of this are the original partner commanders--Vial Smasher, the Fierce, Silas Renn, Seeker Adept, or Tymna, the Weaver. These are cards that lead to very broad strategies like casting high mana value spells, synergizing with artifacts, or just encouraging you to turn your creatures sideways.

A narrow commander is like a paint-by-numbers--it's almost begging you to color inside the lines. Where a broad commander is a blank canvas you can do whatever you please with. But that may leave broader commanders with a higher dollar value because their value floor is much higher.

Fix a Leaky Ceiling

I'll no doubt dive into value multipliers in a future article but when it comes to deciding what to include in a deck, synergy is what leads to determining a value ceiling. How many cards in your deck care about what another card in your deck does?

A value floor is qualified by "a card is good whenever I see it" and a value ceiling is qualified by "a card is good when I have other cards available". Ideally you want to find a middle ground where a card will always give you some kind of benefit, but that benefit is MULTIPLIED by how many other cards care about what it does.

A Waste Not wouldn't be included in every deck, but if you're making opponents discard regularly its value shoots through the roof.

A Xorn doesn't belong in every deck but if you're making treasures it's basically a Doubling Season.

Much of this depends on your commander because your commander is the most reliable part of your deck--the only piece you can ensure you have access to. As such when I'm considering building a high value ceiling deck I look at commanders I can cast reliably (mana cost) and can cast often (mana value). So let's consider this week's build:


This Kalain, Reclusive Painter deck is part of a $50 deck battle box that I put together--4 budget builds that use uncommon commanders out of Adventures in the Forgotten Realms and are meant to be played against each other as an introduction for newer players.

In my opinion this is a perfect example of a high value ceiling deck--everything revolves around what you want to do here; creature treasures and put counters on creatures. There are clear examples here of value floor and value ceiling so let's break it down.

For card draw, Sign in Blood is a high value floor card. Reliably it will always draw you two cards. On the flip side, Idol of Oblivion is a high value ceiling card. As long as you're able to do the core thing your deck wants to do it has the potential to draw you far more than two cards over the course of the game.

In a normal deck a Krenko, Tin-Street Kingpin has a decent value floor, attacking and making multiple goblins a turn. That value gets multiplied if we're in a goblin-centric deck that makes the tokens larger, or in this deck when we can have Krenko enter with additional counters on him to make MORE goblins FASTER.

This deck was built where the majority of card choices don't have the highest value floors, but their ceilings are much higher. Cards that generate tokens to ensure wherever we're at with our game plan we have the gas our engine needs to get running.

Leveling the Floor

Compromising on the value floor in favor of a value ceiling is a choice that opens you up to failure states. When your deck relies on other cards in your deck, even in volume, you may just not get to the right parts of your deck. Maybe you draw all your gas but none of your engine. All of your advantages but none of your wincons. That's something that can happen--you draw a card you just don't want to see at that moment.

And the value floor is the opposite of that. The higher your deck's overall value floor the more likely you're going to have a use for every card you draw. You'll be pleased to see a card every time, but not THRILLED to see it every time.

In the end that's the exchange. A value floor is being 'ok' with the cards in your deck, where a value ceiling is either being disappointed with the cards in your deck or ecstatic about them.

I advocate for a mix of both, in the end. But if you're waffling between a $50 card that's always good or a card that multiplies the value of 20 other cards in your deck... I'd advocate for the ceiling rather than the floor.

Build the Frame First

Have these questions in mind when you set down to build your next deck:

  • How crucial will my commander be?
  • How many pieces work with my commander?
  • How many cards get better when I have other cards available?

And that will give you a good idea of whether you're shooting for a value floor or a value ceiling. Typically if your commander isn't NECESSARY to your game plan you're shooting for a high value ceiling. If there's an effect with redundancy you're including throughout your deck, you're building with a value ceiling in mind. However if your deck is just including cards that are always good like Wurmcoil Engine or Smothering Tithe or Damnation--chances are you're building with the floor in mind.

Do you take these factors into consideration when sitting down to build a deck? Are there "must-haves" or "always-includes" you keep adding to every deck just because you have them or because they're always good? And are there alternatives you could be running that have higher ceilings based on your overall strategy?

Let me know in the comments below how YOU decide what interaction goes into your decks and what your favorite piece of interaction is!

Until next time folks, good luck & have fun!

"I'm Chris and I'm YOUR Commander Mechanic!" A die-hard Commander player, Chris is a brewer, deck builder, and player experience advocate. Check out YouTube for Tune-Ups, Twitter for hot takes, and catch him on streams all over the community!