Mechanical Engineering - The Power Dynamic

Commander Mechanic • April 7, 2022

Thrasios, Triton Hero | Illustrated by Josu Hernaiz

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.

Feeling Powerful

"My deck is a '7'," is what you'll hear at every random table and Local Game Store (LGS) when you sit down to a game of Commander. It's such a meme that EDHRec's April Fools joke was a deck power level auditor that deemed any and every deck a '7' on the power level scale.

This scale, from 1-10, was originally formulated by Channel Fireball for the launch of Command Zone events and was meant to create a standard for players to describe their decks but... it's a flawed system.

A large part of WHY the system is flawed is personal bias as to how we feel about our decks and specific cards. "You can't build an Atraxa, Praetor's Voice as a 7," or, "You can't play Force of Will in a deck under 9," or, "If you play Mana Crypt, your deck is a 10!" are all things I've heard proclaimed in-person and in my video comments, but power is a mindset, not cards.

A lot influences how we talk about OUR OWN decks on the power scale, too. If you play in a very small environment with a small group, your Omnath, Locus of Rage deck may look like a nightmare to play against! Maybe it wins all the time and all your friends fear it... but does that make it a Power Level 9 deck? YOU may think so, but that's personal bias, too!

I want to break down some of these biases and examine objectivity and subjectivity and how that relates to deckbuilding AND play styles, as well as give some advice on how to remove the arbitrary power level labeling from your habits.

Powerful Players or Powerful Cards

The first dynamic to discuss is the idea of cards being powerful. Cards are good, we can all agree to that, and some are better than others, but the inclusion of a card or cards in a deck does not inherently make the deck powerful; this is a concept MANY players struggle with.

One or two cards in your 99 does not immediately make your deck more powerful, but rather what your deck is trying to do is the determining factor. HAVING the cards that comprise a combo in your deck is harmless if the pilot isn't trying to assemble that combo as a primary strategic line.

A deck packed with tutors with very linear combo-oriented strategies can be powerful... as long as those combos are aimed at ending the game. Some players want to tutor up combo pieces in order to do something funny, like make infinite copies of a Llanowar Elves, and that should be taken into account; what a deck can do and what a deck will do is often a mile apart. Intent is the real determining factor, and that's a PILOT issue, not a DECK issue.

A skilled pilot can turn a precon deck into a nightmare. They can be handed a random deck, sight unseen, and pilot it to success. Or they could play an extremely powerful deck at a much more deliberate pace and decide to do FUN things with it. It's what a player does with the tools they have that determines "power level" in a lot of instances.

Players choose how and when to play cards, not the cards themselves. Cards have no power if they're not used. Many players claim that individual cards are powerful because they've been hurt by them before, or they've abused them against other players, but in both instances that's the PLAYER, not the CARDS.

A turn-1 Mana Crypt is powerful, but it's the player that says, "I'll play this because I can;" the player is CHOOSING to play the deck at a power level that may not match the table.

Echoes of a Stomp

Bias against certain commanders can lead people to fear them as well. Everyone has seen a commander do wild, powerful stuff, but does that mean EVERY instance of that commander is built the same way?

We can't apply the stereotype to a single card or commander--not every Kaalia of the Vast deck is a '9' by default. Just like you shouldn't discount the ability for a Kentaro, the Smiling Cat deck to be lower-powered. It's what the deck is built to do, and what the pilot wants to do with it.

Many players have experienced what is called a 'pubstomp'--a colloquial term for sitting down at a random table and, due to the lack of a pre-game discussion of deliberate misrepresentation of intent, had a poor play experience, and that's a trauma that's carried forward in our biases, be it biases against players, playgroups, experiences, commanders or specific cards; we then take that with us and apply it against everything and everyone.

"Dockside Extortionist is too good! Your deck is too powerful!" you might hear someone say. But why? Is it because someone looped Dockside Extortionist with a Temur Sabretooth to win a game once? Is it because they watched gameplay where Dockside made 6 mana on turn 2? Explore that thought: what led this player to have that expectation? How can you show them that you aren't out to ABUSE a card, but use it fairly?

Cards get reputations through no fault of their own, but unless a deck is built to take advantage of cards or use them in situations where it throws off the expectation of a game or an agreed-upon style of game, individual cards are harmless. It's the people behind the cards that are threats to your enjoyment of the game.

Talking Tactics

You might now be asking how do we solve the issues of the biases we bring to the table, the intent of ourselves and others, and traumas from past poor play experiences? It's not easy, and it requires some further discussion. A blanket, "My deck is power level X," is easy, but it leads to mismatches. Instead, try talking about what your deck DOES or what you WANT from a game.

I ask some simple questions:

What does your deck want to do?

This is a BIG question. Sometimes it's, "I want to play creatures and attack," sometimes it's, "I want to assemble a combo," sometimes it's, "I don't want other players to play spells," but that gives you an idea of what to expect. More information that you can glean from a Commander and a number.

What turn can your deck win?

This question goes a little deeper and has players consider how long they want to play a game for. Are you capable of a turn-3 win? Maybe, but the pilot might qualify that and say they aren't TRYING to win by turn 3. THAT makes a player take ownership of their deck and play pattern: if they pop off on turn 3, it's on them as they said they weren't going to do that. That's a break of the social contract that's been created, and that will lead you to reconsider playing with that person again.

Once everyone at the table talks about how long they want to be playing the game or what turn they'd be capable of ending the game on, we form an idea of what kind of game of Commander we ALL want to play.

  • 8 turns, most players want to attack, keep an eye on the combo players.
  • 6 turns, 2 players on control decks, 2 that just want to mess around and try new decks.
  • 10+ turns, full battlecruiser Magic, let's see how crazy we can get.
  • "We all want to win as soon as possible"

There's just a few examples of what kind of info you get asking TWO simple questions of your pod.

Malicious Intent

Honest players lead to good games of Magic. Be wary of people who don't want to show you their commanders or refuse to tell you what their decks want to do; it's OK to choose not to play with someone or tell them when their behavior sets you on the defensive. If THEY go on the defensive when you ask them to clarify intent, that's a red flag.

This week's deck is one I'd call flexible. It's my personal favorite goofy theme deck, Unlucky 1/3s: every creature in the deck, even the commanders, are 1/3s. Thrasios, Tioton Hero is one of the commanders, and that typically sets some players off. It's definitely capable of doing absurd Academy Manufactor bullshit (my favorite kind), BUT, based on player intent and how a game goes, it can be played at ANY table. Take a look:

[deck=Unlucky 1/3s]

[Commander]

*1 Thrasios, Triton Hero

*1 Keskit, the Flesh Sculptor

[/commanders]

[lands]

*1 Breeding Pool

*1 City of Brass

*1 Command Tower

*1 Exotic Orchard

*6 Forest

*7 Island

*1 Llanowar Wastes

*1 Mana Confluence

*1 Misty Rainforest

*1 Morphic Pool

*1 Overgrown Tomb

*1 Polluted Delta

*1 Reflecting Pool

*6 Swamp

*1 Treasure Vault

*1 Underground River

*1 Verdant Catacombs

*1 Watery Grave

*1 Yavimaya Coast

*1 Zagoth Triome

[/lands]

[creatures]

*1 Academy Manufactor

*1 Augur of Bolas

*1 Avenging Druid

*1 Cuombajj Witches

*1 Curious Pair / Treats to Share

*1 Dina, Soul Steeper

*1 Disciple of Deceit

*1 Druid of the Cowl

*1 Erdwal Illuminator

*1 Glasspool Mimic / Glasspool Shore

*1 Glint-Nest Crane

*1 Hoard Robber

*1 Kappa Tech-Wrecker

*1 Marionette Master

*1 Masked Vandal

*1 Minn, Wily Illusionist

*1 Morbid Opportunist

*1 Nadier's Nightblade

*1 Sakashima of a Thousand Faces

*1 Sakashima the Impostor

*1 Skullwinder

*1 Tempting Witch

*1 Tetsuko Umezawa, Fugitive

*1 Thassa's Oracle

*1 Thorn of the Black Rose

*1 Tomebound Lich

*1 Triskaidekaphile

*1 Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose

*1 Vizier of Tumbling Sands

*1 Voltaic Servant

[/creatures]

[spells]

*1 Wild Pair

*1 Witch's Oven

*1 Vampiric Tutor

*1 Swan Song

*1 Sylvan Library

*1 Tamiyo's Journal

*1 The Underworld Cookbook

*1 Three Visits

*1 Trail of Evidence

*1 Rhystic Study

*1 Sculpting Steel

*1 Second Harvest

*1 Simic Signet

*1 Sol Ring

*1 Quasiduplicate

*1 Reanimate

*1 Persist

*1 Nature's Lore

*1 Mind Stone

*1 Mirrormade

*1 Golgari Signet

*1 Heroic Intervention

*1 Idol of Oblivion

*1 Exquisite Blood

*1 Fae Offering

*1 Confront the Unknown

*1 Deadly Rollick

*1 Demonic Tutor

*1 Dimir Signet

*1 Cackling Counterpart

*1 Arcane Signet

*1 Beast Within

[/spells]

[/deck]

See anything scary in there? Of course! The deck has fetch lands and tutors, combos and wincons galore despite being a deck about the best creature size, 1/3. But should you be "afraid" of playing against this deck?

No! Because it's about doing things with 1/3s, not winning the game. It can, and has, gone toe-to-toe with high power players because it has the option to, but the restraint of choosing how to play a deck is what Commander players are responsible for. We can't give up OUR responsibility as deckbuilders and players and blame it on the deck doing something.

We control how we play.

Admitting Guilt

Now, admittedly I've failed at practicing what I preach at times. Sometimes that urge to pop off "because you can" overwrites what you SHOULD be doing. That's when you need to gauge how frequently you're abusing your own deck and how often you're affecting the people you're playing with. This is a game, sure, the point is that someone wins, but many players miss the fact that the winning player doesn't have to be YOU.

Play to do something cool, or show off your deck, and ask yourself how often you're creating poor experiences for someone else. That's where a deckbuilder's restraint needs to kick in. If you're finding you can't trust yourself to not ruin someone else's day, maybe it's time to stop including cards in your deck that have that effect--stax pieces, free counter magic, tutors--until you get adjusted to being able to play to a table's agreed pacing. If you can't trust yourself with a weapon, don't keep one nearby.

Again, I've been guilty of this. Having powerful combos in decks and swearing to myself I wouldn't use them... but when they presented themselves I still went for it. Or at least presented to the rest of the table that I COULD win the game. That ended up being just as toxic in most instances--showing off that you can win but NOT--giving everyone else a feeling of futility to play, and makes you seem pretentious and tone-deaf to what talks may have transpired pre-game.

If you can't trust yourself, how can you trust others? That's another bias we bring with us.

Bridging the Power Gap

Being able to trust random players, trust yourself, and abandon biases against cards comes from a journey, and doesn't happen overnight. It's also not the responsibility of someone else to do this for you--not the other players, not the Commander Rules Committee, and not your LGS owner. You can't absolve yourself of that responsibility and expect to get satisfying results.

Pre-game discussions and recognizing when you're the problem come first. Having civil discussions with other players that might not recognize these behavior patterns is another great avenue, especially in smaller play groups. But start with evolving your pre-game discussion and you'll find players naturally adopt an openness to describing their deck and their expectations for what happens during a game.

"My deck's a '7'" needs to die, and we need to learn to communicate.

Let me know how you've tuned your pre-game discussions and decks to be more flexible, and if you use techniques that allow you to play decks based on what your opponents are expecting.

And, as always 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!