Why You Should Consider Starting A Precon League

Christopher Smith • January 15, 2024

Kitt Kanto, Mayhem Diva by Fariba Khamseh

This is a story about the way my playgroup has been playing Magic for the last year and a half. It's called a Precon League and it's awesome.

The Genesis of the Precon League Idea

To my great joy, my younger brother decided to start playing Magic The Gathering in 2022. I had recently moved thousands of miles away and was pretty lonely. Having my brother suddenly interested in Magic gave me one more weekly human connection and another player for our pod.

There were some issues though. I'm a member of an entrenched playgroup. I've been playing since before some of you reading were born, all the way back in Alpha, and several of the members have played for over two decades. We aren't rich but our collections are deep because we've been playing forever.

Back to my brother, he needed an entry point into the game. I considered doing something like a $25 deck limit league but that still put him in the position of putting together 100 cards out of 25,000. That kind of deck is also of limited use at an LGS and he would probably want to play outside of Spelltable. Pauper Commander wasn't going to happen. I knew I would't be able to convince six people to switch to a new format just so one guy can join us.

It needed to be affordable, allow for play outside of our trusted playgroup, and the decks needed to be constructed in a manner that was basically "correct" for Commander. Starting from whole cloth didn't seem to be an option.

So a couple of the guys in my playgroup and I made up our own Precon League. It seemed like an easy way to get him involved. What we didn't expect was that it would become a thing.

Sample Rules For A Precon League

The rules of our Precon League are as follows. 

  • Each player starts with an unaltered Precon deck, listing its contents on the Miro board.
  • After each week's match, regardless of attendance and performance, each player earns $5 in upgrades and may swap up to 5 different cards in their deck (although basic-for-basic land swaps to mana fix do not count against this limit).
  • By the end of each Monday, players must track on this board all the cards they removed and which cards they've added - as well as the TCGplayer's lowest market price for any legal English version of that card.
  • Any money not invested into upgrades that week can be rolled over to the next week, provided the amounts are tracked on the Miro board by Monday, the week of the match.
  • Season lengths vary, yet typically run 10 - 12 weeks, depending on seasonality and holidays. 

So Why Start A Precon League?

This formula created some of the greatest games of Magic I've ever played. The league has been running now for 6 seasons. It's doubled in size and shows no sign of slowing down. It's also rekindled a joy in brewing that I haven't experienced since I started playing Commander in 2013.

Why does it work? What makes this better than just having a conversation about what decks to play? 

The pregame conversation is in a bad place in 2023. There are some things it can iron out and it's not useless, but "every deck is a 7" is a real phenomenon. A "7" can mean anything from "off-meta cEDH" to "It's got every Zombie I own!". Attempts to define power level have failed as a meaningful way of matching decks, and the constant negotiation to try and determine a good matchup has become exhausting.

The Trusted Playgroup is somewhat better but even this holy grail of Commander suffers from problems like budget, difficulty in matching competitive vs casual, and the depth of players' collections. 

But a Precon League solves several of those problems. 

How Does A Precon League Solve Some of Commander's Issues?

To date, Wizards of the Coast have produced 96 preconstructed commander decks. That's enough variety to satisfy most people's desire to have something unique, and despite some discrepancies in precon power levels, it provides a consistent baseline for everyone to begin from.

Now, if you're a Spike, your immediate thought is that not all precons are created equal. That's true. The precons prior to Strixhaven had a very different design philosophy and they tended to be unfocused. There have been several recent stinkers such as Upgrades Unleashed which was so off the cuff that it isn't even legal for Commander play out of the box. March of the Machine brought us Tinker Time which is so casual it's almost unplayable. However, don't discount those decks! 

The unfocused nature of the earlier precons provides a level of freedom that isn't available in a highly tuned engine like Party Time. Something like Upgrades Unleashed can turn into an absolute monstrosity given a bit of vision on the part of the player.

The second solution is to have a paced level of progression. Magic: the Gathering is inherently pay-to-win. There's nothing wrong with that. The ability to customize your deck with the cards you buy is the heart of the game. However, runaway customization results in an arms race, and some players are in a better position to win that race than others. Limiting that arms race is key to a successful playgroup.

We settled on $5.00 a week and five cards swapped out. That was small enough that everyone in the group could afford it. Five cards in, five cards out, gave us enough customization that it was easy to see a progression from a base precon to something more personal from week to week. 

It's up to each group to determine what budget and card replacement level is appropriate for them but we've had a lot of luck with $5.00. I think it's worked so well because $5.00 is low enough to exclude a lot of format staples while not being so low that you're always working with draft chaff.

The last thing we added was a competitive structure. We found that it all works better if everyone is on the same page right from the start. If that page is "we are all trying to win" it reduces a lot of salt simply because there are no misconceptions about what kind of cards can be used. You use what will win you the game. What we have also found is that a lot of the cards that people consider unfun don't win you the game, they just unite the table against you. It helps that the Winter Orbs and Expropriates of the world are generally outside of the available budget.

Possible Problems With A Precon League

Why wouldn't I make a Precon League?

A Precon League is work. All of the updates to your decks need to be tracked. It takes work to build a League page and work to maintain it. We used Miro because one of us was already familiar with it, but that might not work for you.

A Precon League is a commitment. This isn't something that people can just show up for if they feel like it. It's a specific time and a specific range of dates. One date for updates, one date to play and the larger the League becomes the more difficult it becomes to arrange a schedule that everyone can adhere to. 

Working out exactly what 5 cards to change and which cards to remove every week is a level of constant tinkering that not everyone wants to do. Some people just want to build their deck and go on with their lives. 

And of course, a Precon League is inherently competitive. Many people feel that competition goes against the "spirit" of the format.

Wizards of the Coast want to push a particular strategy in their precons. The majority are designed to win via combat. Many of them are typal-focused and lock you into certain creatures. You may find that if you are a hard control player, don't want to play creatures, or prefer combos as your wincon you are out of luck, at least early in the season. It can be a bit stifling to feel like your favorite archetype is out of reach.

How Do I Get A Precon League Up and Running?

Fear not Johnny! The creativity comes in how much you can do with five cards in a week, and you can get pretty creative. One of the first things I almost always do is swap out the commander. 

That's right. Your commander is just another card and swapping them out is probably the biggest change you can make to the overall power level. Let's take a look at the deck I'm running this season. I started with Cabaretti Cacophony as you'll see below. 

Kitt Kanto Precon Decklist

View on Archidekt

Creatures (23)
Artifacts (8)
Instants (10)
Lands (38)
Enchantments (10)
Sorceries (11)

Buy this decklist from Card Kingdom
Buy this decklist from TCGplayer
View this decklist on Archidekt

I can confidently say that this deck isn't very good. It's an unfocused melange of Group Hug, Go Wide Tokens, and Goad. The face commander Kitt Kanto, Mayhem Diva doesn't draw cards, make mana, act as a haymaker, or have a one-card combo that wins the game with it. The alternate commander Phabine, Boss's Confidant is somewhat better but I wouldn't call her good. So why would I choose to run this deck?  

This deck has a large number of cards that care about other creatures entering or leaving the battlefield under your control. Outpost Siege, Rose Room Treasurer, Rumor Gatherer, Sizzling Soloist, and Boss's Chauffeur all care, and other than Sizzling Soloist they are all pretty good cards. The mana base is solid and I'm not going to have to worry about using up a bunch of slots to fix my colors. The overall plan of Go Wide Tokens is solid and it can be expanded upon. 

The "alliance" creatures allow me to abuse enter the battlefield triggers. They were probably included in the deck because the designers expected them to synergize with the tokens. We can take it even further by switching the commander to Rocco Cabaretti Caterer. Rocco could get one of the best engines ever made for a deck that cares about creature ETB triggers: Norin the Wary

These were my first 5 swaps.

Wirewood Symbiote can send Rocco back to our hand and lets us reuse other Elves enter the battlefield triggers. It's a tempting target for removal but as long as we get Rocco back into our hands once it's worth it.

Impact Tremors will do four damage a turn to all our opponents with Norin out, and the deck has a lot of easy ways to drop several creatures a turn.

Frodo Baggins is there for a few reasons. People are unwilling to block Rocco because if he goes back to the command zone you can use it to pull out another threat. Norin plus Frodo lets you speed run the Ring triggers. If you choose Rocco as your Ringbearer he becomes a threat that your opponents either have to kill or let you gain advantage turn after turn.

The deck still isn't good but there's a potential Go Wide/Burn deck in there and further updates will strengthen that aspect. 

What I'm trying to say here is that the space for creativity is a lot larger than it looks.

Let's End This

Precon League turned out to be not only a great way to introduce my brother to the format but it's also solved all my playgroup issues. Everyone is nice to everybody else all the time. Nobody is hungry and disease is a thing of the past. Precon League saved my life and it can save yours! 

Seriously though, it even improved my relationship with preconstructed decks themselves. Like a lot of you, the pattern I fell into when I popped open a precon was to pull out two cards and leave the rest to rot. That's a real shame when there's so much thought put into these decks. Using these rules has turned what often felt like a throwaway product into a few months of fun with my friends.

Have you tried a Precon League of your own? Let me know in the comments below!


Christopher Smith has been playing Magic since Alpha and getting salty about it for almost as long. He's currently on a quest to save the Commander format.