Advanced card search Random card

Ranking your Commanders and Improving your Playgroup

By Roberto Moser • August 1, 2017

Unbalanced games: the bane of Commander

Commander is one of the best ways to play Magic. The format caters to almost any possible kind of player, from the creative Johnny/Jenny, who just crafted an elaborate Combo around Blistercoil Weird, to the casual Vorthos, with his/her Pia and Kiran Nalaar flavour deck centred around the Nalaar family. From the hardcore Spike, who just brought the sickest Prossh, Skyraider of Kher deck, to the excited Timmy/Tammy and his/her new Progenitus giant Hydras deck – anyone can find a place in the format.

Although a plethora of articles have been written about the Spirit of Commander, the importance of keeping a casual environment, the crucial role of fun and the social nature of the game, not all players approach the game the same way.

And this is fundamentally good. This is what makes Commander so good as a format. There is room for the wacky Chaos deck that never wins, as well as for the Zur the Enchanter list that systematically seals the deal before turn five. And there is room for everything in between. Any deck can be built with any goal in mind and it will likely find its place in the vast ecosystem of Commander.

Battle of Wits

Because the format is so vast and so open to possibilities, this also means that anything may show up at your local game store. Your average four-player game may be a tense and well-fought Battle of Wits, a clash of four well-represented Magic tribes, or a race to unleash the fastest and most powerful Combo.

On the other hand, this also means any playgroup may end up with a bunch of mismatched and poorly balanced decks, each struggling to accomplish something different. What glory there is in firing off a powerful turn-two Hermit Druid Combo, if the rest of the table is just aiming for a turn-four Hazoret the Fervent into a Minotaur Tribal strategy? What fun there is in seeing your Joven Death-Metal-themed Commander deck getting crushed by the insane card advantage of Edric, Spymaster of Trest?

Unbalanced games do not make players any service, diminishing the glory of the winner and extinguishing the fun in the loser. So many of these games end up with one side complaining about the other, with the strong decks accused of not respecting the Spirit of Commander and the weak decks disregarded as poorly built.

And from there, things only get worse. Unbalanced games have essentially no replay value and in the end both the winner and the losers feel like they need to find someone else to play with, so as to adjust the power level of the whole table. If the motivation drops any further, players may end up dismantling their creations after just a couple of games, discouraged by the mismatched power level or by the lack of a true competition.

Would you keep bringing your Cloudhoof Kirin Spirit-Mill deck to a game store full of Spikes with highly competitive decks? On the other side of the spectrum, would you be surprised in nobody, in your local casual environment, is interested in playing against your Narset, Enlightened Master Land Destruction deck?

Armageddon

With so many players approaching the format – and so much support by Wizards itself – we can hopefully expect the player base to continue expanding, gathering more and more fans of the format, each with a different background and a different passion for the game.

Just to throw a couple famous names in, Shivam Bhatt – the new Commanderin' host and all-around great guy – is a strong supporter of Tajic, Blade of the Legion as a great Token-centric Commander – the recent Commanderin' episode dedicated to the Boros Legion is a testament of Shivam's love for the Colour combination and an absolute must for all fans of Red-and-White.

Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cassius Marsh has been growing in Magic popularity thanks to his recent appearances at Grand Prix Las Vegas and on The Command Zone's Game Knights series – twice so far, actually - and he admitted he is a very competitive and Spike-ish Commander player.

Shivam Bhatt and Cassius Marsh may have nothing in common – aside for both knowing Jimmy Wong and Josh Lee Kwai, the hosts of The Command Zone podcast – they may have different interests, a different job, a different attitude in life. But they both love Commander.

They may love different aspects of the format and they may seek different ways to truly enjoy a Commander game with friends, but, for them, Commander is a meeting point. Two completely different individuals that otherwise may never cross paths in their lives are brought together by a Magic format. A Magic format that, to one of them, is a way to express his love for Soldier Tokens and his creativity in deckbuilding; while, for the other, it represents an opportunity to play one of his favourites competitive games and just be himself.

Kjeldoran Outpost

You may be a Shivam or a Cassius, but Commander has surely something to offer to you. The only question you should ask yourself, before you slam your newly crafted deck on the table and shuffle your ninety-nine cards in front of three opponents, is: is my deck the best choice of the situation?

Ranking your Commanders to improve your playgroup

In a recent episode of The Command Zone, Jimmy Wong and Josh Lee Kwai discussed the quite difficult topic of adjusting to new metas, providing suggestions and tips on how to have fun – and make sure everyone is having fun – when you are sitting across one or more strangers to play a Commander game.

One of the things I found more interesting was Josh Lee Kwai's suggestion to have everyone at the table ranking their decks, so as to make sure that the match can be as fair and balanced as possible. The suggestion is pretty simple: whenever you find yourself sitting at a table of players you do not know, start by asking everyone to rank the deck they intend to play, just to make sure that each deck is roughly at the same level.

While this is an intuitive and easy way to prevent the amazingly tuned Breya, Etherium Shaper deck from quickly disposing of a very casual Tor Wauki Archer Tribal deck, it is also true that a 1-to-10 ranking can be a highly subjective measure of a deck's power.

A player might underestimate the power of a certain deck, while another might be used to a more casual environment than the one he or she is presently facing. An eight for someone might be a six for another player and, despite their best efforts, the players might still end up fighting over what is a seven and why Merfolk Tribal is not on the same level as Centaur Tribal.

I was still very intrigued by Josh Lee Kwai's suggestion and I really felt like a ranking system could be an amazing tool to welcome a new player in an environment, as well as to support a more consolidated playgroup.

Balance

Like many fortunate Magic players, I have a local game store where I feel welcome and accepted, where I get to meet a lot of amazing players and – more importantly – a lot of nice human beings. One of the best things about my store is that Commander is among the most played Magic formats and there is almost always someone happy to shuffle a deck and play a game. Although the meta keeps a pretty casual attitude, our player base ranges greatly, from the long-time player with just one highly tuned deck, to the guy who always packs a dozen different decks and is always looking for something new to build.

With a yearly supply of new Pre-Constructed decks from Wizards, even the most reluctant players have fallen prey of the social pressure and have started building Commander decks to join the fun.

With such a dedicated and supporting player base, I really wanted to seize the opportunity to test Josh Lee Kwai's idea in a more stable environment, to see if we could improve on our own games and if we could help new players feel welcome, whether they are a Shivam or a Cassius.

Safe Haven

The idea at its core was very simple and a direct evolution of Josh Lee Kwai's proposal. Introducing a 1-to-10 scale, so that everyone could easily rank each Commander deck in his or her possession and then attempt and minimize the variance during our casual games, selecting the most appropriate deck out of all the options available. What we could really benefit from in our little experiment, however, was the fact that we all had some level of experience with each other's decks and that we were trying and rank each deck at the local game stores, with an all-encompassing approach.

Instead of coming up with numbers and calling it a day, we could contribute to everyone's evaluations, adjusting numbers and discussing strengths and weaknesses of every deck that could show up at the table. Not to criticize the lists, nor to boost anyone's self-esteem, but to ensure that the resulting deck clusters could support balanced and funny games.

A WhatsApp group and a shared Excel sheet later and we were discussing tiers, clusters and individuals lists.

A ranking proposal

We worked quite hard on univocally defining ten consistent power levels for the decks, taking into account the effectiveness, the flexibility, the strengths and the weaknesses we wanted to base our judgements on. While there is still no way to ensure the resulting ranking system is supporting a univocal and quantitative-based measurement – I mean, I considered averaging the number of wins of each deck, but that also was completely meta-dependent and would probably require a volume of data I did not have – we still came up with some clusters that felt good enough for our purposes.

Although I would encourage any other playgroup to customize the levels and adjust the scale based on its individual meta, our 1-to-10 scale can be a valid starting point for anyone wanting to replicate our experiment.

Deep Analysis

Our end result is a five-tier, ten-level scale, with each level defined in terms of deck's power and capabilities:

God Tier

10 – Decks at this level systematically win games and are extremely hard to contrast, even in case of a whole table teaming up against a single opponent. These decks include non-interactive and easy-to-defend and hard-to-contrast Combos, or effective and efficient strategies that can be restarted at will, even if contrasted.

9 – Decks at this level are extremely resilient, effective and efficient and can easily dominate a game. These decks can only be contrasted by other highly tuned and highly competitive decks, generally belonging to the same Tier.

Zur the Enchanter

Tier 1

8 – Decks at this level are very consistent, effective and capable of facing different strategies. These decks perform solidly all throughout traditional game phases, but they can lose the game if adequately contrasted by the table or via key countermeasures throughout the games' development.

7 – Decks at this level are consistent and effective, but can suffer from specific vulnerabilities linked to their Colour restrictions or their strategies. These decks may work as effective one trick ponies and can consistently manage a whole game, but they may find it hard to deviate from a pre-determined game plan. On the other hand, this level also includes flexible decks that might encounter consistency problems when under pressure.

Mizzix of the Izmagnus

Tier 2

6 – Decks at this level are very effective in the development of a specific strategy, which is clearly defined and adequately supported. These decks have a number of easily identifiable vulnerabilities and they can be contrasted if faced with adequate countermeasures – for reference, this level includes partial improvements of traditional Pre-Constructed decks.

5 – Decks at this level are the definition of mid-level; they include strengths and weaknesses that convincingly balance each other. In a vacuum, decks at this level win a number of games equal, on average, to 1/n, where n is the number of players at the table – for reference, this level includes traditional Pre-Constructed decks.

Saskia, the Unyielding

Tier 3

4 – Decks at this level may be a meeting point between competitiveness and flavour or they are built around themes that partially limit their potential effectiveness. These decks are overall balanced, but feature a number of characteristics that keep them slightly below the average table's power level. Because of implicit or willing restrictions, these decks have a limited range of pursuable strategies or a limited number of deployable countermeasures.

3 – Decks at this level may win games, but they feature significant restrictions that strongly limit their performances. These decks may be purposely designed with very tight restrictions containing their effectiveness or efficiency and are usually little to no match for an average deck.

Unesh, Criosphinx Sovereign

“You tried” Tier

2 – Decks at these level have extremely limited chances of victory and are designed to be purposely non-competitive. These decks are only sporadically able to effectively contrast opposing strategies; they include significant limitations or simply do not aim at presenting a winning action plan to the board.

1 – Decks at this level are specifically designed to never win games or are built around an expressively non-competitive theme. The number of win conditions in the deck is null or close to zero and the player piloting this deck usually does not approach the deck with any interest in achieving a victory.

Join the Ranks

As you can see, the ten levels attempt to cluster various degrees of deck competitiveness and power, defining some more-or-less objective criteria to rank each deck.

Because this is not an exact mathematical science, one may object that the levels lend themselves to some degree of interpretation. What does it mean to be “very consistent”? Who is to say a deck feels “overall balanced”?

This is the point where I turned to my friends – and my usual opponents – at our local game store, so as to gather second opinions and make sure everyone was on the same page in terms of deck rankings.

Refining your rankings and re-discovering your meta

As we said in the opening sections of this article, different players have different opinions on their decks and on their friends' decks. Some players might underestimate the power of the lists they crafted, while other may be blinded by a new and shiny strategy to the point of overestimating its actual power.

To circumvent the issue, we started ranking our own decks from the ones that everyone had experience with, focusing on the pillars of our meta in the first place. To make sure everything was clearly defined, identifying the extremes – both theoretically and practically – served to outline the perimeter of our meta.

If the theoretical spectrum goes from a deck that always – and maybe intentionally – loses the game, to a deck that always – and I mean always – wins the game and is essentially uncontested, we identified Wizards' Pre-Constructed decks as a perfect average. While not all Pre-Constructed decks are at the same level out of the box – Freyalise, Llanowar's Fury is a pretty impressive list even right out of the box, while Prossh, Skyraider of Kher comes in a solid package, but can be easily pushed in Combo territory – the good Pre-Constructed decks include a shortlist that is easily identifiable.

Prossh, Skyraider of Kher

With the theoretical perimeter outlined, we could move from its extremes to the bulk average, defining steps while identifying good examples within our playgroup.

My friend's Brago, King Eternal deck includes a solid Combo package, backed up by a good Control shell. While the deck is not unbeatable for the average table within my playgroup, it surely is one of the most versatile and consistent decks one may encounter at our local game store. Last time the deck tried to stack an infinite loop of Rishadan Cutpurse's triggers, it was randomly stopped by a Staff of Nin I had inadvertently thrown on the table the turn prior. Nevertheless, the same deck has often dominated the board with a timely and well-defended Rishadan Brigand, surviving Counter wars and coming out of the fight unscathed. Between Strionic Resonator and Panharmonicon, sometimes there is nothing an average deck can do to stop Brago, King Eternal's fury.

So, is the deck a ten? Definitely not, nor it is a nine. Despite feeling powerful and sometimes borderline unfair, the deck is nowhere near unmanageable territory. We all agreed on giving the deck a solid eight, placing another flag on the ranking system.

Brago, King Eternal

Let's shift to the other side of the tier list. As some of you may know, I have a Diaochan, Artful Beauty deck that is full of wacky and chaotic cards. Confusion in the Ranks, Warp World, Whims of the Fates – which I always play putting all my permanents in a single stack, because I like to live my Chaos game one die roll of the dice at a time – Scrambleverse, Goblin Game and all those senseless cards have a place in my list. But, I also wanted to include all the Red Planeswalkers I could get my hands on, so the deck includes personal favourites like Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded and Chandra, Torch of Defiance, as well as actual good cards like Chandra Ablaze and Koth of the Hammer.

Going back to the ranking system, does this deck have an actually winning game plan? Most of the times it doesn't, as it essentially goofs around between an Omen Machine and a Wild Evocation, resulting is an experience that is close to “playing Planechase, but with someone actually piloting the Planar deck”, to quote a friend. But sometimes the deck might still a win out of nowhere, simply because the rest of the table doesn't take it seriously enough and a sequence of weird events unfolds. Reaching Koth of the Hammer's ultimate ability is an insanely powerful effect, even if the damage is then thrown out randomly thanks to Grip of Chaos. Sometimes you manage to take down both yourself and you last surviving opponent with a Goblin Game and an amazing poker face – I pulled this off only once and it was glorious – or you could somehow benefit from an Avatar of Slaughter propelling the game to a ridiculous and premature conclusion.

Is the deck consistent? No, absolutely not. Does it have a solid game plan that may lead to a victory? Not even close. Does it sporadically win a game, thanks to the unwilling cooperation of the table? Yes, it does. The deck feels like a two, meaning that it will occasionally win a game, but it is never approaching the table with a confidently winning strategy.

Diaochan, Artful Beauty

One by one, we populated the various levels with our decks, adjusting the definitions in the process and making sure we agreed on the score given to each deck. Another positive aspect of involving many players in the process was that each person could bring experiences and impressions to the table. By openly debating on the evaluations, we almost always reached a consensus on the scores – and when we couldn't, I'm happy to say the difference was always minimal, of one or two points at most.

One good example of score dissonance was my Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger deck. The deck is built with an Eldrazi Tribal approach, but it also features an absurd amount of Mana rocks. As a result, it can usually deploy Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger between turn three and turn five, re-casting him during the following turns if needed. At the same time, the deck lacks various non-Eldrazi Colourless bombs, like Soul of New Phyrexia or Solemn Simulacrum.

The end results can lead to a very oppressive and-hard-to-contrast gameplay, as even a Counterspell does not prevent Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger's trigger from exiling two permanents. That said, the extremely limited Colour Identity of the Commander and the Artifact-based ramping make it very easy for a Vandalblast or a Shattering Spree to significantly devastate the deck's main plan.

As a result, some of my friends considered the deck as an eight – or even more – while others, who often pack more responsive decks with various multi-purpose countermeasures, considered the deck way fairer and manageable. Long story short, we agreed on considering the deck a seven, despite my attempts of lowering it to a six.

Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre

One thing that is sure, when you follow this approach, is that both the ranking system and the resulting scores are significantly meta-dependent. Instead of fighting this concept and attempting to define a universal Commander ranking – which is an awful concept in and on itself – I would suggest to embrace the richness and variety of the format, accepting the fact that not all Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger decks are a seven – and even identical lists may have a different score within different metas.

In a local game store where everyone runs five or six Artifact removals, the average Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger deck is probably going to be perceived as a low-tier deck, while a meta that only includes casual and wacky decks is likely to deem the same list as an almost unmanageable threat.

While I would encourage all local metas to take into consideration the same experiment we are performing, I would also recommend everyone to consider our ranking system as nothing more than a starting point.

Do we really have to do this?

The short answer is: “absolutely not”. I personally have always been into charts and rankings, so I immediately seized on the opportunity of converting our meta in an Excel sheet meant to cluster the power level of all our decks. I just get excited when words like “Excel” and “cluster” get thrown around. At the same time, I understand that many metas would prefer to keep a casual vibe for their Commander games and many players would not be interested in managing decks with a rather reductive point system.

But if you are into keeping a list of all your friends' decks, periodically updating each deck's score based on deckbuilding choices, improvements and changes, I would strongly encourage you to give it a try.

Welcome to the Fold

Think about the possibility of welcoming a new player in your group – maybe someone who previously only played Standard, or even a veteran Commander player who is visiting your local game store for the first time – with a comprehensive register of what the playgroup has to offer.

Is a casual player joining you with an un-sleeved Pre-Constructed deck? Maybe leave your competitive Atraxa, Praetors' Voice deck in the backpack and start shuffling your Drana, Liberator of Malakir Vampire Tribal deck for a more balanced experience.

Is the new guy at your store rocking a double-sleeved competitive Teferi, Temporal Archmage Control deck? Pick your strongest Sidisi, Undead Vizier Combo deck and battle on!

While a structured register of all your friends' decks may seem superfluous to just guarantee a balanced game against a new opponent, I think it is also interesting to take a look at your decks' scores to gather some information about where your meta is focusing.

Is your meta pushing for competitive decks? Are the scores of all your friends' decks creeping up towards eight, nine, or even ten? Or, on the other hand, are the new decks appearing in your meta always ranking between four and six? What can you tell from this? And, more importantly, how can you improve your and your friends' experience with the game, based on these rankings?

Disharmony

Let me use, once again, my playgroup as an example. As of the moment I'm writing this article, we have no deck scoring a nine or a ten – although some lists may be pushing the limits of eight. On the surface one might think this is due to a poorly calibrated list, but I would say this is not really the case. We all know what a ten is and many of us have actually played against a ten or a nine. Our playgroup simply grew out of these decks and, although we strive for some level of competition, we don't really have – or want – a hard-to-manage, extremely competitive list.

I have often described my playgroup as casual competitive and I think the same definition can apply to many playgroups around the world. We like competitive games, we like to win and we like tense and hard-fought games, but we want to maintain a casual spirit and we want all decks – including the most powerful – to always feel fair and manageable by the average table.

Of course my friend's Brago, King Eternal deck is winning way more games than my Diaochan, Artful Beauty Chaos list. But that Brago, King Eternal deck still doesn't win so many games that it feels oppressive or miserable to play against. On the contrary, that deck pushes the others to increase the level of competition during games, teaming up against the stronger contender, while keeping it as interactive and enjoyable as possible.

We like to compete, but we also like to make sure that everyone can enjoy everyone else's deck. This means that nobody feels encouraged to build a deck that aims at always Comboing off in the first turns of the game. There would just be no interest in such a game, within our meta.

Strength in Numbers

If, once again, we look at the other side of the spectrum, I find it very interesting that there are very few decks ranked three or lower. This means that deckbuilding around a non-competitive approach is not really a widespread trope in our meta.

My Diaochan, Artful Beauty deck may be the polar opposite of competitiveness, but the fact that there presently is no other deck in my meta with a score of two means that wacky non-competitive decks are something my friends are not that interested on. As a result, although I may enjoy the sporadic laid-back game gravitating around an out-of-control Possibility Storm, this may be often perceived by my friends as something frustrating, rather than enjoyable.

There simply is little to no push towards casual and intentionally wacky decks in my meta. Seeing my lonely Diaochan, Artful Beauty deck populating the bottom tier easily helps me understand that I should probably refrain from systematically bringing this deck to my local game store, as Confusion in the Ranks will be perceived more as a disturbance, rather than a funny addition to our Commander landscape.

Shoutouts and closing thoughts

Ranking your playgroup's Commander decks can be a great thought experiment and a very nice way to manage a semi-stable meta, allowing new players to easily join the fun and tuning your experience to ensure everyone is enjoying a balanced competition. It takes effort, enthusiasm and participation among your friends, but it can turn out to be a bonding experience in an already close playgroup.

Alliance of Arms

The thing I appreciated the most was the great openness towards mutual critiques we encountered. Numbers were spewed around, but there was no fight, no anger, no resentment, even when a deck was significantly demoted from an originally proposed ranking. While not all playgroups may be this open, it surely is worth a try, if the experiment can be of interest to you and if you feel like it can improve your games.

In the end, the goal is always to make games more interesting and funny for all participants, even if a player is completely new to the playgroup. Even if one player is a Shivam and another is a Cassius.

Speaking of which, Shivam and Cassius are both on Twitter. And so are Jimmy Wong and Josh Lee Kwai. Special thanks to all of them for inspiring this article and providing countless hours of entertainment.

The Commanderin' podcast and The Command Zone podcast are both absolutely recommended if you are a fan of Commander – and if you are not, you are really missing out – and if you like to listen to amazing people speaking about the best Magic format of all time.

Followed Footsteps

Until next time, thank you for reading. I hope to keep you posted on how our ranking system evolves and how we can improve on the first batch of decks. As of this moment, we have ranked twenty decks – with half of them still in a semi-tentative slot – so the road is still quite long. But we are already seeing the first benefits from this experiment, as our games now feel supported by a form of Enhanced Awareness of what anyone can bring to the table. We know what to expect and we know how to welcome new players to the table.

As always, let me know if you are also attempting something similar in your playgroup. Or if you have any secret you want to share, to improve and manage your playgroup, respecting and enjoying everyone's passion for the game.

© 2017 MTG Assist • DisclaimerTerms of Use / Privacy PolicyContact MTG AssistLogin

Magic: the Gathering is trademark and copyright Wizards of the Coast, Inc., a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All rights reserved. MTGAssist.com is not affiliated with these entities. Articles and comments are user-submitted and do not represent official endorsements of this site.

MTGAssist.com is not affiliated with the mobile app "MTG Assist" or Kiiwi Up.