Superior Numbers - Power Begets Power
Of the 897 Gisa and Geralf decks in the EDHREC database, just 5% are running Mana Crypt, compared to 8% of the 1,921 The Scarab God decks with Mana Crypt in their list. What does this tell us? That I'm a genius, and Joey Schultz is wrong. Okay, maybe that language is a little hyperbolic. How about this: it tells us that I'm a genius, and Joey Schultz is incorrect.
For context, on Episode 81 of the EDHRECast we did an exercise trying to decide who would be the biggest threat at the table among groups of four hypothetical pods of random commanders, basing our evaluations solely on the assumptions of what those commanders would do during the game before that game actually began. A minor disagreement came up between myself and Joey "Wrong Answer" Schultz (we call him that) when I made the assumption that the player running Gisa and Geralf would be less of a threat at a table due to their choice of commander.
Joey's logic was that a player's choice of commander does not necessarily reveal anything about their skill level, and that it's possible to make assumptions about a commander's general lines of play, but risky to assume a 'weaker' commander means that the deck will also contain weaker cards. My logic was that a player whose primary goal was victory would have chosen a different Dimir commander, even if they did want to play Zombie tribal. It's not that Gisa and Geralf is a bad commander as much as it is that The Scarab God is just generally better, and that a player who chooses a weaker or more restricted commander is probably less focused on building the strongest deck possible.
How do we quantify that, though? What tools, aside from subjective judgments of "I think this commander is stronger", are available to us? The Scarab God is much more popular than Gisa and Geralf, but we certainly can't say that a commander's popularity is directly tied to its power level.
Well, how about the power level of cards found within the respective decks? After all, a deck where the brewer is focused on winning is probably more likely to have some strong, expensive cards than one where power is less of a focus. Additionally, someone picking a 'weaker' commander might not even be aware it's weaker, also indicating that some of the choices they've made for their build might be less impactful.
A Tale of Two Zombies
For this little experiment, I'm going to look at cards in three basic categories that, in my experience, tend to indicate a deck is being built for power rather than being built with an eye toward anything else (funny synergies, pet cards, etc), that therefore make a given deck more of a threat.
Let's start with the genesis of this little debate, Gisa and Geralf vs. The Scarab God, and see which deck is more likely to run the powerful cards that I think indicate the brewer is more focused on strength and victory, and which therefore make them a scarier opponent. I just selected the first cards that popped into my mind as markers of power that tend to only show up in decks if the brewer is deliberately seeking to tweak their deck upwards on the power level scale. This tended to mean older and pricier cards. Yes, Swords to Plowshares is amazingly strong, but it's also, like, fifty cents, and is much less indicative of someone going the extra mile to acquire a card for a deck than, say, a $10 Path to Exile. I also threw in Sol Ring just for fun.
Also worth noting: statistics for this article are as of 12/20/2019.
|Gisa and Geralf (479)||The Scarab God (1,313)|
|Cyclonic Rift||38.20% of decks||50.34% of decks|
|Force of Will||0.63%||6.70%|
Literally every strong card I chose shows up at a higher frequency in The Scarab God decks than they do in Gisa and Geralf decks. Every single one. Even the Sol Ring.
One thing worth noting here is that there is a price difference between the two commanders: The Scarab God currently sits around $15-20 and Gisa and Geralf can be acquired at a much more tame $3. While I don't think a price discrepancy on a commander alone would make one a budget commander and the other not budget-friendly, there are probably more budget G&G decks than there are budget Scarab God decks, and that would exclude a lot of the above cards.
Taking that into account, let's look at some strong (or at least perceived-as-strong) budget-friendly cards just so we're sure about this theory when discussing it with Joey "In Error" Schultz:
|Gisa and Geralf (479)||The Scarab God (1313)|
|Brainstorm||10.23% of decks||17.21% of decks|
These are just the first few strong-and-also-budget-friendly cards that popped into my head (so take the personal bias into account here) that aren't usually available in Draft chaff, but rather require a player to do a little digging to find for their deck.
We obviously don't want to put all our eggs into the Gisa and Geralf vs. The Scarab God basket. Instead, let's look at some precon commanders that were released at the same time as each other. Korvold, Fae-Cursed King and Syr Gwyn, Hero of Ashvale both originate from 2019's Brawl precons, and folks largely seem to have converged on the idea that Korvold is more powerful than Syr Gwyn.
Rather than me just picking a bunch of cards that I deem are indicators of power, this time I'll use the presence of ABUR dual lands such as Bayou, Savannah, Tropical Island, and so on.
Admittedly, the ABUR dual lands aren't necessarily that powerful in Commander, but I look at them as the kind of thing people tend add to a deck to polish it off or take that last final step to tweak things they way they like it; even if the duals themselves aren't necessarily that much powerful than other options, they serve as a bit of a bellwether regarding the attention to detail a brewer has put into their deck.
Korvold, Fae-Cursed King (983 decks)
Syr Gwyn, Hero of Ashvale (641 decks)
Almost twice as many brewers for the generally-accepted-to-be-more-powerful Korvold, Fae-Cursed King have polished their deck to the point of adding ABUR duals. While that isn't necessarily an indicator of power, I would argue it is an indicator of attention to deckbuilding maximization that might indicate a higher power level in the deck.
So what's the takeaway here? Well, since there's no perfect comparison, we wouldn't want to get too invested in these stats. The Scarab God and Gisa and Geralf make for decent comparisons, but it's not perfect, and the same holds true for Korvold and Syr Gwyn. The two respective pairs have major differences that make one-to-one comparisons difficult. G&G and Scarab have different timing and mana cost restrictions, for example, and Gwyn encourages tribal strategies in a way that Korvold does not.
Still, I think it's generally safe to assume that when you see a commander that is perceived to be powerful, and one that is perceived to be less so, the stronger commander is more likely to sit atop a pile of stronger cards overall, and absent any other signifiers of power level, that's something to consider carefully when assessing the biggest threat at the table.
If you have any thoughts on this, please sound off below, and remember, any and all mistakes in this article are the responsibility of my editor, Joey "Makin' Mistakes" Schultz!