Another Look at the Commander Deck Tier Spectrum

Hello everybody, my name is Alex Gershaw, and I’ve been playing Magic in Leeds for around 10 years. I’ve played a wide range of formats casually and competitively, but I haven’t played Commander regularly for a while. Just lately, however, I’ve been playing a lot more than usual. I’ve recently learnt a great deal about the variability in the power levels, or tier, of Commander decks, and so in this article I thought I’d share my thoughts on what I’ve learnt.

Commander deck tiers

I’ll open with a quick anecdote.

I recently visited a local game store with my White/Green Commander deck led by Captain Sisay. It’s a deck I’m rather fond and proud of. On that evening, even before the first game had started, a friend of mine warned me: “You can’t bring Sisay to that store, you’ll wreck everyone!” I played the deck anyway, and I did ‘wreck everyone’ on that occasion. Victory was achieved, but it didn’t feel like a particularly satisfying experience. It reminded me about times in the past when I played Commander more regularly, where I’d build decks, destroy tables (or get annihilated on turn five), and wonder: “Was I the problem?” This got me thinking:

  • Kristen Gregory mentioned in one of her recent articles that being able to come to a table and say, “hey, my deck is very powerful, would it be ok for me to play here?” is a great first step to being able to sit down and have an honest game, even if you picked the wrong deck.
  • In addition, my friend from the story above recommended the following Commander podcast episode. Interestingly, he admitted that he used advice from it to ‘power down’ his decks by doing the reverse of everything they mentioned. I decided to check it out. How to Power-up Your Decks | The Command Zone #217 | Magic: the Gathering Commander/EDH Podcast. The podcast defined 5 tiers: Jank, Casual, Focused, Optimised, and Competitive.

In the next section, I’m going to set out what I think are the tell-tale signs which might place your deck in each ‘tier’ of power. I’ll also provide a score (1-10) to help clarify my view of the tiers just in case people are more familiar using other words to describe them. 

I’ll be renaming ‘Jank’ to ‘Relaxed,’ primarily because the word “Jank” is typically used in Magic as a colloquial term for ‘bad’. However, because there are so many kinds of tables you can play at, and what is ‘bad’ is subjective, I think using it in this context is in poor taste.

Power level tiers

Relaxed Tier (1-2)

  • Overview: The deck is a theme deck. For example, a deck using only cards from a certain Magic set (or block), only cards with pictures of chairs or people sitting in chairs, or any other obscure or unique quality, like ‘goats tribal.’ It doesn’t really care about winning or losing – simply playing the deck is an expression of its owner’s love for the game.
  • Tell-tale signs: Decks that are artistic endeavours or embody a strict dedication to tribes which often don’t have access to optimised manabases or efficient spells – the theme is far more important! Sometimes a deck of this kind doesn’t even make particular use of its Commander (maybe because an appropriately themed commander doesn’t exist yet).

Casual Tier (3-4)

  • Overview: Relative to the previous tier, decks in the casual tier often have a core game-plan or theme driven by game-related mechanics (e.g. +1/+1 counters) or an overall strategy (as opposed to artwork or flavour). They mainly focus on applying these core ideas into their game plan, but are not optimized and can lack strategic versatility. Winning is definitely something the deck can do, but more as a byproduct of applying the power of its cards rather than due to the deck having a core goal in mind.
  • Tell-tale signs: Frequently, casual decks are defined by their Commander. The deck will often run a number of expensive spells – splashy instants or sorceries like Expropriate and/or permanents with the potential to have a big impact on the game, for example Doubling Season or Vicious Shadows. Removal also tends to also be of a similar nature – more like Decree of Pain than Wrath of God. Decks of more than one colour often include a high number of lands that enter the battlefield tapped, like Scoured Barrens to make sure they have the appropriate colours to cast their spells.

Focused Tier (5-6)

  • Overview: Differing from the ‘Casual’ tier, Focused decks aim to apply their core game-plan in a more efficient and consistent manner. This often goes hand in hand with a greater emphasis on being able to actually win the game, and some card choices will be made with this goal in mind. The Commander pre-constructed decks from 2017 and 2018 are good examples of ‘Focused’ decks.
  • Tell-tale signs: Focused decks sometimes revolve around their Commander, and are often simply ‘powered-up’ versions of casual decks. Removal spells are usually flexible (e.g. Austere Command) and will consider the deck’s overall game-plan in its card choices far more than decks in the previous tiers. For example, decks with a plan involving equipment and auras will likely not be running cards like End Hostilities or Bane of Progress. Splashy effects might still be present, but they are fewer in number than in decks of the previous tier. Focused decks tend to also have a bit more ‘targeted’ removal spells to ensure they have more potential to interact with opponents more precisely. The manabase will seek to enable the colour requirements of the deck a bit more consistently than in the previous tiers, but will often run some which enter the battlefield tapped. In addition, more utility lands also tend to feature to support the deck’s arsenal of spells

Optimised Tier (7-8)

  • Overview: Optimised decks are very similar in style and approach to focussed decks, but they are designed to carry out their game plan even more efficiently and consistently.
  • Tell-tale signs: Relative to the previous tier, spells cost even less mana to enable the deck to operate far more efficiently or during earlier stages of the game – for example, they may run Swords to Plowshares over Crib Swap. Their manabases care more about how many lands are entering the battlefield tapped, and will often become more dynamic via the inclusion of ‘Fetchlands’ and ‘Shocklands’ like Wooded Foothills and Stomping Ground over cards like Shivan Oasis and Rugged Highlands.

Competitive Tier (9- 10)

  • Overview: The deck conforms to a competitive contract instead of a social one. Winning is all that matters and the deck aims to kill from the outset, often being able to consistently represent the kill in as little as two to three turns.
  • Tell-tale signs: All elements of the deck aim to operate at maximum efficiency and consistency. They often also dedicate more spell slots to combat specific threats from their opponents which may prevent them from winning. These are also often tailored to a known metagame. One of the most common ways the manabases in decks like which run two or more colours are optimised is by using original dual lands such as Underground Sea or Plateau. No expense has been spared in the goal of creating the ultimate fighting machine!

With these tiers in mind, it’s possible to work out where any individual deck can be placed on the scale.

Atraxa, Praetor's Voice Cropped for use in MasterofMagics community article Magic: the Gathering Artist: Victor Adame Copywright: Wizards of the Coast 2016

Power-level quiz

I thought this would be a fun way to assist the descriptions above and help determine your own deck’s power level. For each question below, total the scores associated with the descriptions that suit your deck best.

Winning the game: how quickly does your deck aim to win the game?

  • I don’t care for winning at all. I want to express myself through my Commander deck. (2)
  • Quite slowly. The game is about the journey, not winning. (4)
  • Within about ten turns I will usually have assembled the pieces that enable me to try and make the win happen. (6)
  • Within about seven turns I will usually have assembled the pieces that enable me to try and make the win happen. In addition, my deck can shift gears almost instantly – I can go from having fun to killing a table in about a turn or so. (8)
  • From the outset of the game, the deck is aiming to win as quickly as possible.  (10)

Efficiency/consistency – How lean is the deck?

  • My spells are all goat-related! As long as they reference goats or create goat tokens, I add it to my deck. (2)
  • I haven’t really considered efficiency or consistency much. I have prioritised including spells because they have big splashy effects regardless of their mana cost or what other cards are required for them to work well. I am excited around spoiler season to see what awesome spells are being printed and whether I can fit them into any of my decks! (4)
  • A handful of cards have been included in this deck on merit of being efficient or making the deck more consistent. The deck includes few spells which don’t immediately impact the game, or work best only if I’m already winning or require other cards to function. I often try and switch up the decklist when new sets are released – changing things around is fun. (6)
  • The majority of spells and most lands are optimised in terms of efficiency and/or their contribution to the deck’s overall game plan. It includes a couple of spells which are big and splashy, and this is because they further my game plan or play to some other element of my overall strategy. I sometimes put cards from new sets in to try them out, but usually they don’t last more than a couple of games. (8)
  • Lean and mean, hopefully every time. There isn’t a card in the deck that doesn’t help me win the game. Every card is well-considered in terms of its efficiency and if a card fails to achieve results it gets cut. If I add any cards, they are usually added because they help me win more in a competitive commander metagame. (10)

Removal: what types of removal does your deck run?

  • Any removal in the deck is included solely on merit of being in line with the theme of the deck. For example, Goatnapper has a picture of a goat on it. (1)
  • There might be no or only some removal in my deck. It focuses more on building up its own battlefield or casting instants and sorceries that don’t really affect it. (2)
  • The removal I run is less about being efficient and more about being able to do extra things like drawing cards, gaining life, or dealing damage in addition to removing whatever it needs to remove. This naturally means most of the removal is more costly than its ‘efficient cousins.’ This applies to both mass and targeted removal, the latter of which doesn’t feature much in the deck. (3)
  • The removal I run is efficiently costed and is a mixture of flexible mass-removal spells that I can use to control overloaded battlefields and efficient spells that can target specific permanents. I ensure that my removal can answer different threats or is flexible in what it can remove (e.g. Beast Within). (4)
  • Not only is all the removal I run efficiently costed, I even have removal spells with roles specific to the metagame I play in. (5)

Deck budget: How much are you willing to pay for cards that go into your deck?

  • I bought an expensive card because it had a goat on it. (1)
  • I generally use cards from Standard legal sets or trade-binders built up over time. I don’t need expensive cards to have fun. (2)
  • If the effect is on no other cards, I might buy a copy of it, but its unlikely. I’ll find an alternative until it becomes cheaper, it’s part of the fun. (3)
  • If the card is powerful enough and it’s on theme enough, I’ll probably splash out for it. (4)
  • Greatness at any cost! For example I am willing to buy original duals for the slight edge they give me in making my manabase more efficient and consistent. (5)

Manabase: what does your manabase include?

  • Flavourful lands, perhaps they all have goats on them! (1)
  • Lands that let me cast my spells but with no additional benefit (2+ colours, many of them come into play tapped). (2)
  • As above, but I also include utility lands such as cycle lands (2+ colours, some of them come into play tapped). (3)
  • Shocks and fetches with utility lands that augment the deck’s plan. (4)
  • Original duals or otherwise the most efficient and optimised version of what it could be (5)

Calculate your score

  • 7-10 = RELAXED TIER
  • 11-18 = CASUAL TIER
  • 19- 25FOCUSED TIER
  • 26-31 = OPTIMIZED TIER

Wall of Runes by Zezhou Chen

Please note that the above ideas are certainly subjective, being based on the aforementioned podcast and my own and other members of my Magic community’s thoughts – I’m not professing this to be the only way to define how powerful a deck is. In addition, consider the questions and scoring more as ‘guidelines’ than actual rules. For example, if your ‘goat tribal’ deck contains dual lands to make sure it can cast its goats as reliably as possible, and a minor amount of card draw spells to help you make goats more consistently, your deck is more likely to be Relaxed than Casual, even if you scored a total of 11+ points (5 for mana and a total of 6 for the other categories).

I hope I’ve provided you with a starting point for categorising decks’ power-levels. This will help you judge the power-level of your deck when you play Commander with new people and reduce the chances of playing in unenjoyable games due to power imbalances.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to hit me up with your thoughts on Facebook or if you see me at an event or game store!

Cheers for that Alex! We hope you’ve enjoyed this piece on Commander power levels. If you enjoyed this article, make sure to give Alex a follow on Facebook, and make sure to follow us here to keep up to date with all we do.

Liked it? Take a second to support Master of Magics on Patreon!

In response...