Superior Numbers - The Anatomy of an Upgrade

Turn and Face the Strange

How do you make a change to a existing tuned-ish Commander deck? You pull out a basic land and add the card, right? EZ PZ.

No, not really. That's how you wind up running 27 lands, and I'd by lying if I said that that wasn't something I learned once upon a time from experience. No, there has to be an actual process, right? Well, I have one such process, and in this article I'm going to describe it, at least in part, because quite a few readers have asked how I go about upgrading decks. Given the absolute glut of riches the Theros Beyond Death gods have bestowed upon us (buncha puns intended there), this seemed like a good time to go about detailing that process. I'm not saying this is the correct way to do things, but it is a way, and I'm going to detail it to you in this article for your edification, amusement, and, possibly, horror.

To start, the moment previews start being released, I start making a note of which cards interest me as they come out, and usually at the end of the day I glance over the list of what we've seen to see if I missed anything. Of course, when I write "at the end of the day," I mean 3-4 times a day. And by "3-4 times a day," I mean 6-8 times a day.

Then, at the end of the week, when we get the official full spoiler list from the mothership, I give that list a final go-over to see which commons and uncommons might have slipped through the cracks or to decide if chatter over the week has changed my mind on anything, and add any cards to the notes I've been keeping.

I used to track these all on a spreadsheet, but I found it was easier to access on multiple devices if it was just a quick little .txt file that didn't keep growing. The set's particular sheet has an entry for a deck, and an entry for cards I want to add. Let's use Theros Beyond Death and my Reki, the History of Kamigawa deck as an example.

That's five cards I'm interested in adding to or at least testing out in this deck. I note the card name, type, and CMC, mostly because it's nice to ideally swap out something similar; my goal is to make the net total of my changes to my deck's average CMC either zero or negative. I'll note that just because a card makes the list doesn't mean I put it in the deck; sometimes in going over a list I just can't find room, there's no obvious replacement, the act of looking at my deck changes my mind on whether it'll be a good fit, etc. In this case, I decided I wanted to try all five cards.


Don't Want to Be a Richer Man

Here's my current decklist:

Reki, the History of Kamigawa: Legendfall

Commander (1)
Creatures (23)
Instants (5)
Sorceries (10)
Enchantments (11)
Artifacts (13)
Planeswalkers (2)
Lands (35)

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There's Gonna Have to Be a Different Man

Next up is to stare at that list for an embarrassing amount of time to see if anything jumps out. Here's what I came up with for this deck.

I usually start with the easy ones first. Shadowspear is a neat little piece of Equipment that can disable hexproof and indestructible, and as a legendary card, it'll draw a card off of Reki. As mentioned, I currently run the legendary (in all senses) Umezawa's Jitte, and that makes for a natural swap. The main reason I'm making this move is because, as I mentioned in a previous article, I wanted to remove Jitte from my deck for power reasons. This is perfect; I'm making a swap for a lower-CMC card, exchanging two similar card types, and presumably lowering the deck's power slightly per one of my goals. This is one kind of upgrade: bringing the deck in line with my desired power level.

As with the previous cut, I'd ideally like to make this move between two cards of the same type, in this case creature-for-creature, to keep the deck balanced. The first step here is to look at all the existing creatures and determine which ones have been under-performing. In evaluating each creature, the first that jumps out at me is Omnath, Locus of Mana. I literally couldn't think of the last time in a game it's had an impact.

The downside here is that Nylea costs one more to cast, but that's probably okay as Shadowspear moved me down one in the previous swap. Nylea will leave me CMC-neutral for now, and that's fine. The logic here is that Nylea is a hard-to-remove, big-bottomed body that reduces my spell costs and gives me a mana sink in a deck filled with mana-doublers. That seems way more useful than Omnath, a card that's on occasion a swole beater, but is way too often just a three-mana cantrip. That's not to say mono-Omnath is bad; quite the opposite, it's not. But it's a card that does its best work in a deck built around it, and this is not that deck. This is another type of swap, probably one of the easiest kinds to make: one that replaces an under-performer. The difficult part is just looking critically at the deck to determine what the under-performers really are.

Polukranos is a solid card that can occasionally mop up a couple of mana dorks or small utility creatures. Arasta, on the other hand, is going to passively generate me bodies with reach, in addition to having reach herself, in a deck that can at times struggle to answer flyers. The go-wide nature of the card will also at times be useful if I cast a big Finale of Devastation or fire off multiple Overrun-type effects in a single turn. I think it'll just consistently generate more value than Polukranos. This is a third category of card swap: one that addresses a weakness of the current build.

Ideally I'd like to remove an artifact for another artifact, and in giving my list a look one jumps out: Alhammarret's Archive. That would make it an artifact-for-artifact exchange, both are legendary, and Nyx Lotus costs one less. Perfect.

Is Nyx Lotus going to be any good? I'm not entirely sure. It doesn't do anything the turn it comes into play, but, more often than not, neither does Archive. I don't know that I particularly love Lotus, or the swap, but sometimes the only way to really figure out how well a card performs is to slot it into a deck, so this is where it's going for now. We have here yet another type of card exchange: the homework. I want to see how this card works, and the only way to really find out isn't to hem and haw over the list, but to actually test it. I'll trade it in, do my homework on it to see how it really plays, and give it a grade later once I've seen it in action. If in three months I wind up reversing this change, or swapping Lotus for something from Ikoria or Commander 2020 I wouldn't be remotely surprised.

Okay, so I already scanned creatures once for underperformers. Any others? Well, honestly yeah. Rishkar, Peema Renegade hasn't really been getting it done. Sure, he drops and maybe turns Reki into a mana dork, and he himself becomes one next turn, but that's it. Renata puts counters on all the things as they come into play, and she'll get ginormous just by existing. The upside is just significantly higher here. Now, she costs one more than Rishkar, but I saved one mana on Nyx Lotus, so the total change winds up being a wash. This type of swap is related to the 'replace an under-performer' mentioned above. Instead of just replacing an under-performer, though, this change is more about finding an over-performer.


Time May Change Me, But I Can't Trace Time

So that's it, that's the process. That doesn't mean it's the 'right' process, mind you. EDHRECast's own Matt Morgan often waits 6+ months after a set to add new cards to a deck, and when I interviewed DJ of Jumbo Commander fame a year or so ago, he said he often didn't update decks until cards had rotated out of Standard. There's no right or wrong way to do it, just your way, and I hope my way is at least a little insightful.

I'd love to hear some feedback about how you all update your decks, though. It's a process I find fascinating, and I'd be delighted to learn from any of you just how you go about it, too.

Dana is one of the hosts of the EDHRECast and the CMDR Central podcast. He lives in Eau Claire, WI with his wife and son. He has been playing Magic so long he once traded away an Underground Sea for a Nightmare, and was so pleased with the deal he declined a trade-back the following week. He also smells like cotton candy and sunsets.