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When a Six is Better than an Eight: Ranking Your Deck

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With the big success of the Command Zone at MF Vegas, and the two sellout CommandFests in Seattle and Chicago, talk has turned to Commander. More specifically, finding fun games.

The organizers did their best, offering pools for competitive commander games and even had small tournaments for players to show their stuff. For others, they offered a split between challenging and casual games. While I didn't attend any of the events, the general consensus of those who did seems to be that they enjoyed games against players who were playing decks on a similar level but there were still issues.

The Magic community continued to focus on the issue of varying power decks in games and how to make it better. The question always seemed to come down to, "how do you quickly explain the power level of your deck to someone you have never met?" Most players seem to want a game where everyone is on the same level, but finding ways to explain how strong your deck is, in a single phrase or quick conversation seems tricky. The default is simply providing others with a rating of your deck on a scale from 1-10.

"My deck is a six."

"My deck is a seven."

"My deck is an eight."

"My deck is a six."

"That sounds close enough, let's play!"

The problem with this rating system is two-fold. First off, we are asking someone to properly rate their deck. This is difficult at the best of times. Most players simply compare the deck to their other decks and the decks in their playgroup and give you an estimate of how powerful they think the deck is based on that. The rating is based completely on what they see and how their deck has performed in the past. Another person who builds decks with more of an edge to them because their play group plays with more tuned decks would use the same comparisons. These players could both say their decks are each a six, but the decks are not even in any way.

This leads to the second problem: the players aren't using the same scale. You may say your deck is a seven based on the resiliency of the deck due to card draw and ramp. I may say my deck is a seven, but my ranking system is based on the power of the cards I used and how much tuning I have done with the deck. Two sevens, two decks with very different power levels.

How to fix this seems pretty straightforward. Create a rating system to rank decks based on game experience that will allow different players to look at a single deck and give you the same score, based on the rating system. Then you just need all Magic players to know the system. With that, I could accurately tell you that my deck is a five, and if you tell me that your deck is an eight, then we know that one of us should probably switch decks, since the game probably won't be a lot of fun for either of us.

This effort has already begun happening! The Command Zone podcast has had a ranking system for decks for a while and recently talked about it again. Their system rates decks from jank (0-2) to cedh (9-10). I recommend taking a listen to hear how they describe each level to get a sense of where your decks lie.

Naturally, a system like this is only good if everyone knows about it. While Josh and Jimmy have a pretty wide reach with their weekly podcast and regular episodes of Game Knights, not everyone knows about them and it will take time for any ranking system to achieve the level of notoriety to work effectively.

What really struck a chord with me wasn't the ranking system, but what they said in relation to the Commander deck product that Wizards of the Coast puts out every year. They describe the early years of the product as a deck that was in the 3-4 ranking. Lately, the recent product has been decks more in the 5-6 ranking.

This shift in decks up the power scale has matched up with my experience with Commander games at conventions and just generally outside my play group. My play group tends to run decks that land in the 5-6 range. That was fine several years ago when most players also had decks in that range, but now the decklists are more fine tuned with better commanders at the helm. The average deck to me seemed to have moved into the 7-8 range. I wanted to get a little more evidence about today's Commander decks so I put it to Twitter. Since I can't explain their rankings in a single tweet, I looked specifically at when the decks actually win games. Part of the way to determine the power level of a deck is when it is expected to win games. They gave this chart at 53:18 of the YouTube video:

Power Level | Turn
10 1-4
9 4-6
8 7-9
7 10-12
6- 13+

Given that, I put up a poll, asking when players expect their opponents to win games.

The results are hardly scientific. We are talking about 77 people that follow me on Twitter. We also know that players tend to overestimate the number of turns in their games, so if we could actually see the results of the games these people played, we would probably find that games end even sooner than they claim.

In spite of the limitations of the poll, it does match up with what I was feeling. Most convention players are running decks that are either a seven or eight, meaning that their decks are basically as good as they are going to get without them just being 100 cards of crazy brokenness.

Have we always been at this ranking? While there is no Twitter poll to tell me about the power level of decks from years ago, we do know a few things. Virtually every player I have talked to has described a power creep in Commander decks.

Wizards of the Coast has improved the level of their preconstructed decks. YouTube and podcasters have provided way more help to the average player when building their decks. EDHRec provides lists of the most used cards for every commander. Wizards of the Coast has been printing cards specifically for Commander and making the cards better and better.

This level is not good for Commander. Decks that run at this level strangle the creativity in deck-building. There is no room in your deck for high mana cost cards that do fun things that don't expressly lead to a win. When you are playing games with decks at 7-8, you are either running a 7-8 and just trying to win, or you understand that you are trying to do "the thing" your deck does, before one of the other players wins the game. There are times when your "five" deck gets to do its thing and can pull out the win, but those opportunities are as rare as a blood moon.

Decks at 5-6 have themes. They can have cards in them that are just there for the surprise factor. They can go outside the box and use suboptimal cards. They aren't trying to push the mana curve of their decks down further and further. Commander is supposed to be a format where you can play your cards, but when you are matched up against decks that are seven or higher, that isn't an option.

Decks at 5-6 also give new players a shot. In spite of all the help a new player gets from online sources, they are still new to the format. Their decks start out as 3-6 level decks because they are new and don't have all the cards they probably need to build the optimal deck they will likely need to face the high end decks they will see in the wild. Add in their limited play skill and it just makes their chance of winning fall even farther.

We should be doing everything we can to make Commander games fun! The push behind ranking decks is to get games where everyone is at the same level or at least close to it. I think that is great as it ups the number of fun games, but there is no way four decks running at eight on the power scale are going to have the same fun as four decks running at five. Funky cards and crazy interactions are just far more likely to happen when players have time to see the board state develop. Games where the new player gets to see their deck do something wild and fun is where we need to be.

The truly insidious part of the average decks being seven or eight on the power rankings is the willingness of the Commander community to accept that. Wizards pushes that with the cards they create, and content creators reinforce it by showing our optimized decks and treating them as normal and appropriate for games. When a sign says that they are looking for casual games, it shouldn't involve decks that are all sevens or eights, but that is what the average Commander player is now expecting.

We have to slow our roll. New players are believing that these high power decks are the only way to play the format. Pick up our five and 6 power decks and enjoy the strange back and forth. Enjoy a board state with a hundred permanents. Slow down and smell the roses.

Bruce

@manaburned