What is cEDH? Defining "Competitive"
"Is my deck cEDH?" ponders Reddit user u/thoraclebad on the latest post to the /r/competitiveEDH subreddit. They've followed the rules on deck help, submitting their homebrew Yuriko Moxfield list as a reference. It's missing Mox Diamond, Force of Will, and, of course, Thassa's Oracle and Demonic Consultation. "It's boring," they proclaim, significantly preferring to establish their board of Ninjas and kill opponents via chunky Yuriko flips.
Who needs this...
When you could have this?
The comments cry out in response: "This isn't cEDH! You're missing staples and the best combo in the format!" Utterly and egregiously unphased, u/thoraclebad responds to these claims: "I win games against cEDH decks all the time. I won my local 20-person cEDH FNM last week with this exact deck, I don't need Thassa's Oracle to be cEDH..." The argument posed, the subreddit devolves into an argument about what cEDH actually is. Every commenter knows in their mind what cEDH is, they can point to it when they see it, but the debate rages on. Nobody gives the same definition when asked.
This article explores what it means to play competitively, what definitions and language we use to define competition, and what the difference is between a competitive deck and a tournament-viable deck.
Introduction to Tournament EDH
The year is 2020. The first summer of the pandemic, I sat down in front of my computer, booted up Cockatrice, and got ready to play in The Best Boi Cup, an online cEDH tournament. My deck of choice? Chulane, Teller of Tales. I had been working and brewing Chulane for the past six months, I'd wrote a 40-page primer for it, and I wanted to prove to the world that my deck could compete. I was here to compete, as Merriam-Webster puts it: "to strive consciously or unconsciously for an objective (such as position, profit, or a prize)."
I think it would be pretty reasonable to argue that I was competing, but was I going to win the event? Almost certainly not. I possessed neither the skills nor experience necessary to compete for the trophy. While our decision to participate in a competition is an effective bar in determining if we are competing, it is an entirely ineffective method of determining our relative viability as a serious competitor for the championship. The key word here is viable : to "have a reasonable chance at succeeding." My Chulane deck, in my hands, was not a viable champion. It would have been unreasonable to expect myself to succeed, despite playing what I, and many others, believed to be a cEDH deck.
This intrinsic lack of clarity native to our format's name is an intense source of debate in our community. Players who are particularly interested in winning can tend towards a definition of cEDH that is far more restrictive than those most interested in expression or experience. u/thoraclebad wants to win in a way that is fun, not just in a way that is best. The fragmentation between self expression and desire to win illustrates cEDH's great naming flaw. To be competitive makes no statement on someone's viability. To be a viable champion makes no statement on someone's intent; thus I find myself ever increasing my desire for new and more clear language.
tEDH: To play cEDH using the strategies with the highest probability of success
I've used the term tEDH before to try to illustrate the differences between playing in a tournament and playing cEDH at home with friends. In tournament play, you're not allowed to take game actions back if new information has been gained. You're not allowed to remember Rhystic Study triggers after a spell has resolved. You are bound to a time limit for the duration of the game. These tournament differences fundamentally demand faster and tighter play. To help build out the vocabulary I can use during the rest of the article, I will be using tEDH and cEDH as contrasting terms between "cEDH played for fun with friends" and "cEDH played for money at competitive REL."
What Makes a Deck Competitive?
Using our above definitions, most decks are competitive when built and piloted with the correct intent. u/thoraclebad is playing cEDH even without Mox Diamond, Force of Will, or Thassa's Oracle. They are striving for an objective during a competitive game.
Choosing a standard higher than "competing" as a definition for cEDH causes some problems. We don't have a clear bar in the community for "how cEDH a cEDH deck must be to be a cEDH deck." Even if we did, how do we begin to tune that measure? The cEDH Decklist Database is the closest thing to a bar that we have, and as incredible as the resource is, it accumulates plenty of complaints.
Certainly if we wanted to create an arbitrary metric to measure cEDH decks, we could do so. Let's imagine for a second that we made the claim "if your deck wins very rarely in a pod of 3x Codie or 3x Rog/Silas, you aren't playing cEDH." Are there any decks we currently consider "cEDH" for which this isn't true? I don't really think so, but it underscores the problem with such radical statements in such a diverse format. There are decks that we consider cEDH that are very predatory on the cEDH meta. Decks designed to beat 3x Codie that might struggle against more traditional "high-power" decks. Something about this rock-paper-scissors metagame and multiplayer variance demands nuance. In the absence of some infinitely complex algorithm to determine competitiveness, by far the clearest method of defining cEDH is simply "with intent to compete."
What Makes a Deck Tournament-Viable?
tEDH, on the other hand, holds a bar far higher. A tEDH-viable deck is a deck that can stand up to two intense rigors: variance in the swiss stage of a tournament, and impressive player skill in the top cut. These are two things that force many decks out of the running. Decks that are designed for tournament play make decisions on the basis of viability rather than intent. Tymna/Kraum offers better play with regards to tournament variance and is better able to leverage player agency than Breya, Etherium Shaper. A tournament-focused player will almost always select Tymna/Kraum, as it's generally understood to be the stronger deck.
u/thoraclebad, if optimizing for a major tournament, would be remiss to exclude the aforementioned "staples" in their deck. A player playing the same deck, but with those cards, would have a stronger gameplan in the high-variance swiss stage as well as provide more agency in the second stage. Remembering these two components during the assessment of a "tournament-viable" deck is very important.
We can break this down even further than just commander selection within a set of colours, or format staples being a part of your decks. The mere selection of your colours is a note to your competitive viability. Each colour provides access to a greater number of tools that your deck can leverage. At this stage of cEDH, we have close to perfect access to mana. Excluding one or more colours from your deck must be justified by some distinct payoff. Those payoffs, in cEDH, are the commanders themselves. We justify the exclusion of blue, black, and green in Winota (certainly a tournament-viable deck) by putting a fricking Winota into our hand at the start of every game.
What Does a Tournament-Viable Deck Look Like?
Viable: "A reasonable chance at succeeding."
Before I dive too deeply into tournament-viable decks, I want to make clear that I won't be talking about the 99/98 cards you add into your decklist. There could be an article of this length made about Sol Ring, and I simply don't have the time to discuss individual cards. The archetypes that broadly see the greatest amount of success are decks both able to present early win attempts as well as maintain advantage throughout games of all lengths. How one does that is entirely dependent on the most important card in your deck: the one(s) you put in the Command Zone.
In my opinion, the best place to start is to determine the minimum viable list of decks, some universal baseline we could all agree to use as a premise. Some players might consider success simply winning their local tournaments. Others would consider success placement into the top-16 of a major tournament. It's up to you to decide what success means, but for the purpose of this article, I want to know the decks capable of winning a Major. I pulled most of my data from Rebell's video on Tier Lists here, but reformatted and expanded the data for purposes of this article.
In rough chronological order, we have the following Major-winning decks:
- Thrasios/Vial (PWP February event)
- K'rrik (PlayMax 2)
- Magda (Marchesa 2022)
- Kenrith (PlayMax 3)
- Krark/Sakashima (Tier1 2022)
- Teferi (Cash Cards Unlimited)
- Tymna/Kraum (x4) (Ka0s 4 & 5, Okotoberfest 2022, Mox Masters 2)
- Tivit (Mox Masters 1)
- Winota (Punt City)
Between some results from big events in 2021 and the first big event in 2023, we can add:
- Tymna/Thrasios (Marchesa 2021)
- Codie (Tier1 2021)
- Thrasios/Bruse (Okotoberfest 2021)
- Tymna/Malcolm (Silicon Dynasty 2023)
There's a few key notes we can observe about our guaranteed list of viable decks. The commanders themselves must provide incredibly unique and powerful effects (K'rrik, Winota, Tivit, Teferi, Magda, Codie), or the decks must be three or more colours with card advantage in the command zone. This should come at no surprise to the vast majority of players, but this list further reinforces what it means to be playing tournament EDH. Something you may notice: only three of the 16 listed decks don't play blue.
We can also begin to hazard a guess as to decks that might be viable, but that haven't won yet. Some examples include Rog/Thrasios, Malcolm/Tana, or Najeela, all decks that have made multiple top-4 finishes and follow the patterns consistent with other high-placing decks. Either a commander with a unique effect (Rog, Najeela, Malcolm) or a commander with card advantage (Thrasios); the decks also have three or more colours, one of which is blue.
As a bit of creative liberty, I would extend our list of viable decks down the line of Rog decks, with Rog/Tevesh, Rog/Silas, and Rog/Tymna all having top-4 placings in various events last year. I suspect at least one (if not more) of these decks are viable, we just haven't seen pilots taking them all the way yet. I am also confident there are decks not listed here which are viable. It takes a lot of time, thought, and practice for a player to win a tournament with any deck, and it's possible that there are commanders that just haven't yet gotten their day in the sun.
The Evolution of Tournament EDH
Magic is not a static game. New cards are printed every year that change the way decks function. One of the viable decklists we noted here, Tivit, was only released to the world nine months ago. cEDH is a slow-moving format. It can take months or years for new strategies to be found, refined, and used to effect inside a tournament. Innovative pilots are carving out names for themselves with unorthodox decks, as shown by Anthony's success with Teferi at Cash Cards, or Ken's success with Krark/Sakashima at Tier1 2022. Reid's victory with Codie at Tier1 2021 may be the best result the deck ever receives; players are now familiar with its extremely telegraphed play patterns and early game lethality. It might not be fair to even call Codie viable anymore, given how well-known the deck is. A question we may need to begin to explore is "what is the statute of limitations on a cEDH tournament victory?"
Some commanders may only ever have their time on top for a few short weeks or months before players or decks evolve. The best deck in cEDH was Tymna/Thrasios for many years. Cards like Dockside Extortionist, Underworld Breach, and even smaller-impact cards like Ranger-Captain of Eos have all shifted the title towards Tymna/Kraum. No deck can stay on top forever.
Attacking the meta on new and unsuspecting angles is a valuable component in tEDH, but in the same breath, known decks with extremely well-tuned piles of 98 cards perform with relentless consistency. There's only one deck with four wins in 2022; in fact, there's only one deck with more than one win in 2022. Tymna/Kraum is the gold standard of a cEDH deck going into 2023, and it will take skilled pilots, innovative brewers, and constant tinkering to find new niches to take on the tEDH metagame. Of course, you have to be sufficiently lucky. No tEDH player stumbles across the finish line without a bit of luck.
Going into 2023 with record numbers of cEDH tournaments both online and in the LGS space, players will be pushed to the limits as they seek glory in competitive Commander. I'm unimaginably excited to see what players will do in 2023 and beyond!