Mechanical Engineering - The Upgrade

Commander Mechanic • September 23, 2021

Mana Crypt by Matt Stewart

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.

Take it to the Next Level

There comes a time in every Commander player's journey where they say to themselves "it's time to upgrade my deck" or "this card is underperforming" and that's a MAGICAL time--because now there's a lot to think about.

On the surface it may seem pretty straightforward; swapping a couple of cards now that you can afford better ones, replacing a card that underperforms for one with a higher value floor (see my last article for more on what that means), or maybe even replacing some of the core concepts and interactions in the deck. Maybe that Reforge the Soul gets swapped with a Wheel of Misfortune, or a Dreadhorde Invasion gets replaced by the Bitterblossom you were finally able to get your hands on, or your Brimaz, King of Oreskos deck becomes an Adeline, Resplendent Cathar deck.

Even small changes can have big impacts on your play experience and the effectiveness of your deck, so let's dive into how to gauge these changes and ensure you're not changing the entire axis upon which you've based your previous play experiences.

Software Update Available

The first upgrade we'll look at an example of is the card-for-card swap. Maybe a new set is bringing something you're interested in running that works better with your theme or synergies. Maybe you've traded for or opened a card that goes perfectly in the deck but you never had access to it before.

With new cards being released all the time it's easy to find new reasons to add new cards, but the decision of what to replace isn't always clear. Maybe a Sword of the Animist replaces an Explorer's Scope, but maybe you find yourself with a Necropotence and you're wondering what gets cut for something generically good.

Here's where I'd ask the question of context. Is there a card or cards in your deck that you could draw that are dead? That don;t do anything UNLESS you have another piece out? Here's where the concept of "Is this card good when I draw it?" versus "Is this card good IF I have something else?" comes into play. Much like my article on value floors and ceilings details, the higher the value floor of the card the more likely it's "good when" and the higher the value ceiling the more likely it's "good if."

Replacing an underperforming card is always a good call, especially for one with a higher floor and/or ceiling, but what's the impact it has on your deck and your deck's performance?

A Fine-Tuned Machine

Making just a few changes to a deck can significantly impact how the deck plays. Adding in fast mana to a deck, for instance, can create situations where you increase your deck's performance clock by 2-3 turns! That's a massive change in power level and performance that can catch many users unaware. If you've ever had to say "I'm sorry I didn't know it could be this fast" chances are you just made some upgrades to a deck and have surprised yourself.

I've had viewers of my YouTube channel come back to me after a tune-up saying that changing ~10 cards in their deck changed their ENTIRE deck. It plays differently, works smoother, and is able to consistently DO THINGS. And that consistency is what matters. I covered this in my piece on tutors, but consistency and power go hand-in-hand.

If the piece you've just added to your deck is another redundant piece, chances are you've significantly improved your deck. Did you add a Demonic Tutor? Did you add a Jeska's Will to go with your Seething Song and Mana Geyser? Chances are you just increased the chances you can do things faster and better in your deck.

Some changes aren't going to have that kind of impact--replacing a Murder with a Go for the Throat isn't going to warp your deck--but be careful because every upgrade and change has the chance of increasing your overall effectiveness.

The Overhaul

The other kind of upgrade we should look at is the overhaul. Replacing a few cards with better or different cards is one thing, but what if we want to replace the HEART of the deck? What if we want to swap the commander?

We recently had Innistrad: Midnight Hunt cards released and with them come a few really interesting new commanders that can replace existing commanders. Tovolar, Dire Overlord is replacing Ulrich of the Krallenhorde in Werewolf-tribal decks, but that's not necessarily going to change the ENTIRE deck. It WILL make Werewolf decks more consistent and provide them with a strong source of repeatable card draw in the command zone, so chances are those decks are about to become a lot stronger and more consistent. That needs to be considered before showing up to a table and expecting the same results from what could now be a drastically differently performing deck!

Personally I'm going back and revisiting an old deck and pivoting it based on a handful of new cards received recently. My Brimaz, King of Oreskos mono-white tokens deck is being updated with Adeline, Resplendent Cathar at the helm. This results in a lot of the cat- or soldier-related cards being replaced with human-centric tribal pieces, and many of white's new high-value-floor cards added in. Here's the NEW list:

Since my original list was built THREE YEARS AGO white has received a significant amount of quality of life cards that bring its base power up pretty significantly. With this in mind the deck won't play like it did three years ago anymore--it no longer has some of the same weaknesses with mana generation or card draw that it used to. Thanks to Monologue Tax, Archaeomancer's Map, Esper Sentinel and Mangara the Diplomat, none of which existed when the deck was first created, there's a lot of big benefit that can now be found at a baseline within the color.

Sitting down saying "this is a goofy mono white tokens list" doesn't have the same meaning when you're able to generate at least 3 tokens every turn with your commander, or your commander representing lethal commander damage after a turn or two. The entire dynamic of the deck has shifted with an upgrade of about 12-15 cards.

A Performance Machine

Upgrading decks always means just that--upgrading them. Very few decks get WORSE when you swap in or out a few cards, so expecting a deck to perform the SAME as it did before is a fallacy. If you're still in testing after an upgrade or overhaul, make sure to represent that with your playgroup--honesty is the best way to generate a good collaborative play experience.

Being able to say "I don't know how it's going to perform" is perfectly valid as well--a trusted playgroup is happy to be a guinea pig for your experiments in many instances--but if you're playing a deck you just upgraded against strangers? Be honest.

Finally getting that Dockside Extortionist for your Izzet Spellslinger deck might not seem like a lot, but when you slam it on turn 3 and get 5-6 treasures, cranking out your Niv Mizzet, Parun and a Curiosity to infinite combo 3-4 turns sooner than you ever have before... that's a REAL upgrade that shouldn't be underestimated.

Even taking the above deck and adding a Mox Opal to it could open up for scenarios where a turn 2 Adeline is a possibility and a turn 3 Cathars' Crusade is on the table. Don't let your deck and your new upgrades surprise you, and don't allow for them to create non-games within your playgroup.

The Downgrade

Remember that you can dial a deck BACK as much as you can dial it UP. If you're finding that your deck is a little faster, more powerful, or less fun to play or play against, don't hesitate to walk back some changes. I've started removing cards like Grave Pact and Dictate of Erebos from a lot of lists because they create soft locks in casual games. You may be looking at upgrading your deck and ignoring how it will PLAY--and that's natural. But 'Upgrade' MEANS Upgrade, you don't get worse after an upgrade.

If a deck is too powerful for your playgroup try toning it down before you throw the whole concept out. Identify which cards were just too much, or worked too well, or created situations where play experience was impacted. Focus in on what you want to happen--that sweet spot--and make it a reality.

How do you upgrade your decks? Is it on a card-by-card basis or do you sit down and say "I need to make this better"? Do you revisit your decks every new set, or every once in a while for a burst of new blood?

I'd love to hear from you--either here in the comments or over on my Twitter @CMDRMechanic

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!