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Starting a Precon League

Morning on the Estuary, Ville d'Avray by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1870).

Flash by Naomi Baker

This week I've got the 2018 precon decks on my mind and I'm guessing you do too.

Are you incredibly disappointed by what you've seen so far and can't decide which deck is the bigger, more raging dumpster fire?

Are you eager to get your hands on a new starting point for yet another journey into Commander deck-building?

Players desperate to build as competitively as possible will often be disappointed by precons. Players interested in slower decks with distinct themes may find that the precons are a little too scattered and need a lot of work to really get them to where they want them to be. Brand new players will be glad to have an easy way to get into Commander but will soon learn that the format is an incredibly deep and wide-ranging place where the biggest challenges sometimes have nothing to do with decks and cards.

For all these types of players, regardless of how strong or casual your meta is, there is a way you can set yourself up to have a lot of fun with the 2018 precon Commander decks for weeks or even months on end.

Start a precon league!

The weekly league I run at the local game store I play at is public and anyone can jump in for a full month to compete for the top point total, or just one or two rounds of play if that's all they can make. When you don't know who's going to attend on any given week, and you're trying to create an environment where anyone can just drop in and play, it's not really possible to require every participant to play a precon deck. As much as I think it would be a neat experiment, I just don't think it's right in that context.

I think a precon league is a great way for any group of 4 or more Commander players to set themselves up for a limited time with a structured, balanced break from their usual Commander games.

After some brainstorming, I've got three basic ideas on how to run a Precon Commander league. The only option I'm not going to entertain at all is to have your players play the same Commander deck for the entire length of the league without making any upgrades. You don't want anyone stuck with a deck they're not enjoying with no ability to mix it up or improve it.

All of these leagues will need some method of earning points. It can be as simple as a point per opponent eliminated, and it can be as complex as you like. I would definitely urge you to use a system your players are familiar with and which will not intrude upon or distract players from the actual game.

All of these league ideas can also run for however many weeks you want them to run. I'll probably run our precon league for 8-10 weeks, giving us enough time for a player who misses a week to still be able to compete for the top point total.

Yankee Swap Precon League

This isn't a true “Yankee Swap” but I'm from New England so this name has a nice feel to it. If you can think of a better or more accurate name, I'd love to hear it.

In round one, players would bring and play with the 2018 Commander Precon of their choice.

Precon decks would not be upgraded or altered at all for this type of league. In any game a player may choose to use any legendary creature from the deck they are playing, providing it has a color identity that covers all the colors of cards in the deck.

In every subsequent round after the first, players would pool all of their precons and then pick the deck they want to play for that game. I would have the players pick in order of their standings in the league, from last place to first place. They only borrow the deck for that round of play, and return it at the end of the game.

At the end of the league you have everyone wind up with the deck that they began with, though players may want to trade decks at this point if they really enjoyed one of the other precons they got a chance to play. The player with the most points at the end wins and if you really wanted you could even do an actual Precon Yankee Swap after the last game was played.

Positives: This is probably the best way to test raw skill. Over a number of games, the highest skilled players should be able to perform well regardless of what deck they are playing. They won't have the advantage of added cards or even the strongest precon deck to lean on. If they're going to win, they will at some point in time have to perform well with even the weakest of the precon decks. Players will also get to try different decks, which can be a lot of fun.

Negatives: You bought the deck you want to play with. Some folks won't want to part with their precon. Players also generally want to upgrade their decks. That's a big part of the fun for many of us, so not changing a deck at all for the entire course of a league might be a little frustrating.

Booster Precon League

This can be a way to help encourage your players to support your LGS if you're playing at one. If you're not playing at a LGS, you can order a variety of individual booster packs from CoolStuffInc.com and use those as your booster packs.

In round one players would bring and play with the 2018 Commander Precon of their choice.

After each round players buy up to three booster packs from the store hosting the league. If you're not at an LGS, you can always order your boosters packs ahead of time.

Players open their packs together and may trade between each other at the same rarity level — so rare for rare, uncommon for uncommon, etc . . .  The hope is that players will want their friends to be able to make good upgrades so games remain challenging. If you have players who enjoy helping each other build decks, trading cards and working on upgrades could wind up being one of the most fun parts of playing in this type of league.

Every player may replace up to three cards in their precon deck with one of the cards they opened or trade for in their booster packs. Any player who was the first eliminated from their game may replace an additional three cards in their precon deck.

The player with the most points at the end of the league wins.

Positives: This is a great way to work supporting your LGS into the process of running a league, and it also gives you the chance to build and play with decks that nobody in their right mind would ever go out of their way to build. You'll wind up with weird cards getting added and surprises nearly every week. Also, cracking boosters is fun!

Negatives: Players who really want to make build great decks might find having to pick upgrades out of booster packs to be disappointing. You might not open anything good in your colors and you might not be able to convince anyone to trade with you for a card they have that you really need. The luck of opening a key Mythic Rare, or the choice of allowing a table winner to upgrade their deck could result in one deck really dominating play for weeks on end.

Tiered Upgrade Precon League

My last suggestion is a minor variation on what I think of as a “traditional” precon league. You upgrade your deck based upon some criteria after each round of play. The first eliminated gets some kind of bonus, and the table winner gets the smallest upgrade. The assumption is that the winner needs the least help to keep winning, and the losers need the most help.

You essentially set up three tiers of upgrades and after each game you use that system to determine how players are allowed to revise their decks. For these listings, the Winner is the table winner, Runners-Up are the players who didn't win but weren't eliminated first, and the Redshirt is the player who was the first to be eliminated in that game.

Dollar Value Tiers

The actual amounts should be adjusted so they are appropriate for the player base you have participating in your league.

Winner: May add one (1) card worth up to $1.00 to their deck.

Runners-Up: May add up to two (2) cards worth up to $5.00 to their deck.

Redshirt: May add up to three (3) cards worth up to $10.00 to their deck.

Rarity Tiers

The numbers of cards are just a suggestion. You may want to also include a cap on the amount of money that can be spent, or the dollar value of cards added in addition to rarity.

Winner: May add two cards that were printed at Common rarity to their deck.

Runners-Up: May add two cards that were printed at Common or Uncommon rarity.

Redshirt: May add two cards that were printed at Common, Uncommon, Rare or Mythic Rare.

Positives: This approach to running a precon league allows players to do what they really want to do — tweak and modify their decks, and it gives them freer rein to add cards from the entire history of the game. It rewards a player's ability to identify cards that are going to work for your deck's strategy within the constraints of the tier restrictions you've set up.

Negatives: This may be the most boring approach because it's what you'd expect from a precon league. Another negative is that a player's ability to get cards between rounds of play can be a challenge. If you play once a week, an order for cards to complete an upgrade might not arrive in time for your next game.

League Point Systems

The method by which you total points from each game is only important in that it must be fair, consistent and sensible. It shouldn't punish or reward particular styles of play or particular players. It shouldn't change over the course of the league — you need to start with the same rules you end with. It also should be easily understood and supported by your player base.

You also want a system that is detailed enough to allow for enough of a point spread to make things interesting but not make it easy for a single player to run away with the top point total too quickly.

Keeping it Simple

If you want a no-frills point system that will let players just play and deal with points later, it's pretty easy to throw something together.

One point for killing an opponent.

One point for being the last player alive (i.e. “winning” the round).

Making a simple system is easy enough, but one of the things that attracts Magic players to Commander is intricacy. We love intricate decks, intricate strategies and games with lots of interesting and convoluted boardstates.

Finding a Middle Ground

You can go really, really crazy with your point system. I've seen Commander league scoresheets that made my eyes swim with so many boxes and categories to look at and try to remember.

I prefer a middle ground. I eschew systems that include what feel like random or “silly” point categories that distract from the fundamental goal of playing and winning the game. I want to pay Commander, and I want my system to keep the focus on the game.

The Commander league I run has a fairly complex system. While normally I'd just run that for the precon league point system, some of the categories wouldn't make sense. As an example, our “bodyguard” point would never get used if none of the precon decks have a way to save an opponent from being eliminated.

We also have “size matters” categories that reward players for having the most permanents of certain types, but the precon decks would probably just hand certain points to certain decks way too often. Saheeli would get artifacts, Lord Windgrace would get lands and Estrid would get enchantments. Handing a point to someone basically just for playing a certain deck isn't what I would want to see for a league like this so the “size matters” points are also out.

I think I'll wind up suggesting something like this:

Tubthumping: +1 pt / casting of your commander from the command zone (max 3 pts)

First Blood: 1 pt for first combat damage, 1 pt for first non-combat loss of life.

Knockouts: 2 pts, 3 pts if done with exact damage.

Eye of the Tiger: 1 pt for each opponent you outlive.

These are all lifted right out of our Commander league system, but I've dropped out the vast majority of categories. Keeping them identical to categories on our Saturday Commander League scoresheet will help to reduce confusion for any new players we have who want to go from one league to the other.

Prize Structure

The LGS I play at has had a free league with no pay-in and no prize structure for over two and a half years and it's been quite successful.

I think pay-in and prizes make sense for some formats of Magic: The Gathering, but have long felt that the casual nature of Commander isn't a great fit for the competitiveness of pay-in tournaments and leagues.

If you and your playgroup want to use prizes to spice up your league, I think you should go for it. As with anything else in Commander, it doesn't much matter what I or anyone else on the internet thinks — what matters is that what your group does results in a fun experience for you and your friends.

As to how you set up your entry fee and payout, just make sure everyone is on board with what you go with. If everyone thinks it's fair, that's what matters.

If you find that players who are “out of the running” start dropping out in later weeks, that might be an indication that your structure isn't great at encouraging participation. When everyone is playing for fun and not for prizes, I'd hope there would be fewer players that would consider dropping out. My goal would be for everyone to be almost as excited about playing on the last week of play as on the first week.

It's Out Of My Hands

I don't just mean that how you run your Precon League is out of my hands.

How I run MY Precon League is also out of my hands.

As Foretold by Tommy Arnold

I'm going to be asking interested players at the LGS I play at — NexGen Comics in Pelham, NH — to gather on the Monday night before the precon decks come out to discuss and agree upon how our Precon League will run.

I set up and run our monthly Saturday Commander League. I'm comfortable setting these sorts of things up and managing the rankings and point totals. I'll be happy to do this for our Precon League as well, but I won't be able to make it on the night when we'll be wrangling over how to run things.

This article is not just my attempt to get YOU to set up and run a precon league, it's also my best effort at putting my thoughts in front of my friends and tablemates at NexGen. If they read this (Hi guys!) and like any of the ideas I've put forth here, my hope is that they'll be able to come to a consensus on what we'll be doing for the next few months on Monday nights.

Final Thoughts

Most of us have had moments where we've grown tired of our current meta.

The games aren't always fun, and keeping power levels balanced can be a real challenge. Setting up and playing a precon league is no guarantee that you will have fun, balanced games, but it's a way to breathe fresh air into your meta and give folks something fun to do for however long your league runs.

If things go well and your players had fun, you can also take the momentum you gained from your league and channel it into something new once the league's last games are played. You could develop some new deck-building challenge and run another themed Commander season with similar rules and restrictions. I'd definitely urge you to keep the same scoring rules and upgrade pattern if you can manage to do so. You could have everyone start with decks that cost $20 or less, only include commons, or have some other restriction so you are starting with a relatively weak deck that you'll be able to upgrade over time.

That's all I've got for you this week. Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!