Mechanical Engineering - Variance and Optimizing

Necropotence | Illustrated by Dave Kendall

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 deckbuilder 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.

There's No 'RIGHT' Way to Play

In past articles I've written at length about tutors: how they work to increase consistency and how that's not necessarily a good thing. In a 99-card singleton format, variance is a built-in balancing factor and ensures that every game with a deck can be entirely different. You're never assured to see your Sol Ring every game.

In higher-powered metas, you seek to eliminate variance and seek to win as quickly as possible. If that's the agreed-upon outcome of the game you're going for, more power to you.

But if you're sitting down at a table with friends or strangers for a good, relaxing game of Commander, why is everyone so concerned with being "optimal"?

There are good cards that push the limit of how good cards can be in Magic; the cream of the crop, the best of the best, but are they necessary? Most players think so, believe it or not; why NOT run the best cards in the format, even if I'm playing a cool, chill game with strangers?

They feel they HAVE to. If you're in white, you play Smothering Tithe; if you're in blue, you play Rhystic Study; if you're in red, you play Dockside Extortionist. We've all had that mentality: when sitting down to brew, we immediately populate 20+ cards in our decks with the best of each color.


Breaking Staples

These "must-have" cards are often called 'staples', named so because they "hold a deck/format together", and are a holdover of competitive constructed formats. But Commander is an altogether different beast. This isn't an inherently competitive format, though if you dive into cEDH more power to you, so the thought that there are staples you 'must' play is flawed. You're never going to see every card in your deck, and there are no stakes so there's no reason to play "optimally".

Breaking this notion that ONE CARD makes or breaks your deck is the first step to realizing that you can do whatever you want with this format. It's not a program, it's a coding language.

This means there are no straight lines; they're all convoluted, random, chaotic messes! So thinking to yourself "This deck doesn't work without card X" is flawed. If your deck doesn't work without a single card in a 99-card format, why are you building it?

There are, of course, exceptions to this. I mentioned high power games in the format, for instance; those decks want to streamline as much as possible and eliminate as much variance to win as quickly as possible. Another exemption is something like a hidden commander deck, which I've also written about previously. In this case you're going to go find a card buried in your 99 around which your deck functions.

Those are tricky builds, and you need to ensure your deck functions as well with it or without it, but that just goes to show: if your deck doesn't work without a non-commander card, rethink your concept.

Break Through The Floor

These perceived "staples" are often thought of as such because they are very high-value floor cards, another concept I've covered in this column, that represent consistent value independent of other cards in your deck.

And that is, inherently, the problem. If they're JUST GOOD but don't care about anything else in your deck, why are you running them? Why are you beholden to them?

Being able to expand beyond staples and high-value floor cards allows you to do fun things with cards that aren't typically seen. It might not be the "BEST" play, but why are you concerned with the "best" play in a format where you're sitting around with friends? Is playing perfectly going to make the experience better for you, or will doing so stress you out about what your next move is? This isn't chess we're playing, it's Commander. Embrace the chaos, variance, and interaction.

I have a shorts series on YouTube about "bad" cards. Viewers write in what they feel are terrible, useless cards from Magic's history, and I find a use for them. This spans from Wood Elemental to Scornful Egotist to Break Open and everything in between. Knowing this premise, people STILL respond with "but that's not optimal" or "why even bother?". My friends, that is the point. Of the series, of the format, of everything: to do something because you can. It's not about winning or losing, it's about doing something fun and cultivating a story.

Do Something Crazy

This week's deck is a deck I built around the new Perrie, The Pulverizer from Streets of New Capenna. It's not about being the BEST Perrie the Pulverizer deck, though I'm sure someone could build that. Instead it's about doing fun things with cards like The Ozolith and Luxior, Giada's Gift.

In blue, white, and green I could easily have included Rhystic Study, Smothering Tithe, and Sylvan Library, along with countless other cards considered "must-have staples of the format", but would any of those make this deck run better?

No! Because they're good. They're boring. And they don't progress my gameplan. Take a look:

Perrie Pulverizes with Lands and Artifacts

View on Archidekt

commander (1)
lands (37)
creatures (22)
spells (43)

You may take a look at that and see some notoriously good cards, like Mystic Remora, but there's a reason why it's in here: in a deck based around different kinds of counters, the age counters from Cumulative upkeep factor into the deck's synergies, and that's perfectly fine: include cards that have a high value floor if you can help improve their value ceiling as well!

But would this deck work better with classic staples included? It may run smoother, but better? No! Why am I concerned about this deck being better when I want to do goofy things like animate a Dark Depths and equip it with a Luxior?

Why are you so concerned with how good your Moonfolk Tribal deck is that you're including Force of Will and Force of Negation?

Take a step back for a moment during deckbuilding and ask yourself how many times you've cut a cool card you really want to include in favor of a boring card everyone always plays. How much more enjoyable would Commander be if you just... played the cards you enjoyed?

Fun Is Not Zero-Sum

This is a phrase many people need to learn and love. Just because you don't win a game of Magic doesn't mean you can't still enjoy it, can't still have fun. You never 'need' to run any cards in this format, because it only ever equates to a 1% chance to ever draw and play that card. A 1% chance to play a card everyone plays and maybe doesn't enjoy playing against, versus a 1% chance to play a cool card no one has ever heard of that actually makes your deck better?

I know which one of those I'd choose, every time.

And here's a not-so-secret fact: I haven't played these so-called staple cards in my non-competitive decks for months. And my experience, personally, is richer for it.

So if you want to keep taking up precious spots in your 99 for generically 'good' cards that prevent you from playing cool cards you enjoy? That choice is all yours; never let someone tell you how to play this game. But if you want to make a cut that makes your games more enjoyable? Try leaving those staples at home.

Let me know what you think in the comments: what do you think about the most played or so-called 'best' cards in the format? Do you still 'auto-include' these, or would you consider leaving them out of builds in the future?

And of course, 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!