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You are wrong! Why Power Levels are a Meaningless Metric

Updated: Oct 15, 2023

Tibalt in shackles
Tibalt's Trickery - Art by Anna Podedworna. © Wizards of the Coast
8 by 8 EDH - Efficiency vs Versatility Principle

The 8 by 8 EDH System is a strategy first approach to EDH deck building that aims to build fun and reliable decks. The system is founded upon a few simple principles that help guide strategy decisions, making deck design and building much quicker and easier.

This guide aims to point out the problems with tiered power levels systems and to propose a better standardized grading approach that acknowledges different play styles and takes advantage of deck recipes to provide more meaningful power ratings.

What To Expect

This guide focus is on the Efficiency vs Versatility principle, which aims to achieve the following:

  • Explain what the principle is

  • Demonstrate how the principle changes our conversation around power levels

  • Reveal to you why power level is a meaningless metric

  • Provide an alternative to power levels

  • Competitive and Casual represent different play experiences, with different player requirements and expectations

  • Power levels thus cannot effectively explain a deck's relative power properly, when the underlying requirements are fundamentally different

  • Competitive players are okay with instant win conditions and prioritize efficiency over versatility

  • Casual players don't want instant win conditions and prioritize versatility over efficiency (these are not mutually exclusive)

  • To effectively grade power levels, we need to reduce the complexity of what we are comparing; instead of looking at specific cards being powerful, rather we should compare strategies (that contain cards meeting defined requirements)

  • Power Grades should identify the requirement using plus or minus

    • + for competitive

    • - for casual

  • Strategy Grading should follow a series of standardized tiered baselines

    • A+ Most Efficient Combo to D+ Least Efficient Combo

    • A- Most Cost Effective Versatility to D- Least Cost Effective Versatility

  • If possible, retrospect the outcome of games to better understand other peoples opinions and even out your expectations

Some Considerations

Before getting into the details of the rating system or the Efficiency vs Versatility principle, we need to first consider what is actually going wrong for most people. Its already very clear that the EDH community is fractured by the debate over power levels, and this isn't because one group of people want to win ASAP or take a more scenic route. If it were that simple, you could just decide upfront before each game and the expectations are already universally set and players would be happy. The main issue is actually that we fail to acknowledge that we are only humans, and that we make way more mistakes than we even realize. These mistakes are diverse, complex, and not easy to recognize. They could be:

  • Letting our stressful work day decide how we treat someone later

  • Raising our expectations too high before game night, only for our opponents to brake check our ambitions

  • Over-commitment to a goal, only to find things not going our way and then taking those frustrations out on the people around us

So the very first thing I would ask of anyone reading this article, is to take a step back. Don't let our ambitions or stresses overwhelm our ability to have fun. On the flip-side, we can be a bit more understanding of people having a hard time. Mistakes are going to happen, its not the mistake that matter, rather the way we choose to improve ourselves after making the mistake that matters. We are all learning from each other all the time. Nobody is perfect. It doesn't matter which way people want to win, what matters is talking things through upfront, and then again after the game to gain common understanding. Magic is a game of friendship, not of strife. Aim to have fun, and learn and get better. Once you reach a point where you are having good discourse, then power level discussions become much easier and less frustrating.

What is the Efficiency vs Versatility Principle?

Efficiency refers to the relationship between the benefit a spell provides versus how cheap it is. The trade-off is usually cheaper spells do less things or do a smaller more focused thing. These cards are highly prized by CEDH players, and usually they are expected to either get you to your combo, or be able to efficiently disrupt your opponents combo. The sacrifice here is obviously reducing varieties of choices, or not caring too much about scaling into the mid to late game. CEDH decks aren't aiming to build value engines, they aim to skip the fluff and win immediately through efficiency.

Versatility refers to the amount of options a spell offers. This usually results in the card having a higher mana value or a greater variety of coloured mana. These kinds of cards are highly prized by casual players as you are "hedging your bets" for possible situations you may encounter. Casual players typically prize synergy with the commander or some mechanic over efficiency. Casual players are thus aiming to win through synergistic engine building and sustained damage, which takes longer and requires more options to be available.

Its not impossible that some cards will fit both these goals (as they are not mutually exclusive), and can be both versatile and efficient. Instead of thinking of these as competing notions, think of this as a list of considerations, where at the top we rate one requirement higher than another. We may want a balance of both, not too efficient, but also not too versatile (mana intensive!). For competitive scenarios, combo efficiency and having tutors makes the biggest difference to how reliably you win, where as in games that players don't expect to suddenly lose in, you need to cater for more scenarios as opponent decks are often not so predictable, so versatility is prized over efficiency (we've all seen players burn out in a early flash of glory only to be hamstrung by a tactful board-wipe).

Its worth also keeping in mind, that some commanders improve the effectiveness of synergistic cards, but as this adds substantial complexity to our ratings, I leave that up to your retrospections to determine (avoid guessing, testing the deck out with friends is the best approach). You may want to up your ranking a notch as your commander synergy is next level!

Why You Are Wrong About Power Levels

In the past Daniel did a stellar job explaining an approach that you could use to determine what power level tier your deck fits into, promoting being honest about what your deck does and then guiding players through a series of explanations that could be used to figure out where your deck fits in the bigger scheme of things. There are other similar tiered systems promoted on various other websites and social media platforms, and most come down to saying either that some cards are just really powerful, or that you need to play the deck a bunch of times to get a feel for how strong it is. But there are several problems with these approaches to determining power levels effectively:

  1. Having "powerful" good-stuff cards can help, but doesn't guarantee a strong synergistic deck (I often see people ignoring better commander synergy cards and just going with what is maybe popular, which is unfortunate as it makes decks look awfully generic, and doesn't necessarily make them better or more fun)

  2. Opponents may not be playing very strong decks, so your results are not a good measure and you may never actually be putting your deck through its paces (try shake things up in your pod if this is happening, mess with metas, try deck roulette to encourage other plays to play something different)

  3. Most tiered systems ignore circumstantial considerations, or broadly label some kind of deck as a particular level (not all pre-con decks are low power level *cough* Veyran *cough*)

Powerful Cards

You can buy the most expensive lands, and have the combo's all setup in your deck, but if you are missing some key element eg. interaction spells, or tutors... the deck simply won't be reliable. I put forward that its not the specific cards that matter in these cases, rather the strategy that matters, and making sure you have the right balance and mana curve.

Strategies are groupings of cards that all perform a particular task in the deck. In CEDH they are actually much easier to define as the cards are simpler (due to the lower mana cost expectations). For a CEDH deck to work reliably you must have a balance of the following strategies:

  • tutors

  • combo pieces

  • interaction (removal and counter/protection spells)

  • ramp

  • card draw

The combo's might be different, but without them, you cannot win quickly. The tutors fetch the missing pieces, and card draw ensures you get interaction or tutors in hand to deal with problems. Ramp ensures you can more quickly play your combo, and have mana up for responses.

We can also on our Strategy Recipe's define requirements as follows:

  • 4 tutors (1 mana only)

  • 4 combo pieces (most efficient instant win combos only, less than 3 mana)

  • 20 interaction (prioritize free or low cost)

  • 16 ramp (cheap 0 cost mana rocks or cheap temporary bursts of mana)

  • 20 card draw (scry, draw 2 or more, 1-2 mana, instants only)

As a result, we are making it clear that this is a recipe that prioritizes efficiency and the fastest strategies. Everything is instant speed or can be played very cheaply or quickly. Its clear that this is a competitive recipe, and aims to win instantly. I can grade this easily as an A+ build (based on the gradings below).

A few things stand out here. I didn't name any specific cards, and it doesn't give away my win condition. Using the recipe abstracts away complexity, and decks can then be compared fairly upfront without giving away to many details.

Reducing Power Levels

An easy way for you to reduce your deck power level (knowing the priorities mentioned above) would be to remove combo's and tutors. Combo's become somewhat pointless without tutors, so there really isn't much of a reason to keep them in if you take them out. You could also choose a slower more inefficient combo, or set of tutors. In the gradings I list out later, tutor and combo efficiency drive which tier your deck falls under in the competitive section. And this mirrors this same concept of reducing power level.

Its worth also noting that ramp efficiency requirements will shift in favour of more versatile ramp when moving from competitive to casual. As game goals shift from efficient combo, to building an engine, you want a reasonable amount of land based ramp over mana rocks, as there is more likely hood of getting hit by board wipes that would leave you wrecked. So keep this in mind also.

Draw and interaction is up to you. Maybe swapping out some efficient cards in favour of more expensive, more versatile options or synergistic, repeatable abilities will help you with the deck's late game economy or being able to rebuild more effectively after a wipe.

Winning Results

Just because you winning a bunch, doesn't mean its fair competition. If you have subjective numerical estimates (that may even rank differently depending on whose website you checked), you could easily think its a fair match-up. But you may be very wrong. Your opponents may not be running enough counter magic to stop you, or they have a more janky combo which they think is really good, but its really not. Maybe their tutors are all sorcery speed or they left out ramp or card draw... We all experiment from time to time to see what happens.

Would it not make sense to double check before the game what the recipes are? Not only would this give you the right kind of confidence from your victories, but it allows proper retrospection afterwards when wondering about why maybe you lost. If a pattern emerges, then you know one of your strategies is needing attention. If you don't, and you just remove something and put something else... its easy to create another imbalance in the deck. The recipe isn't there to force you to stick to certain totals, rather, it helps show you your strategies side by side with each other, making it easier to balance them based on what you want to prioritize.

If your deck still isn't winning, but its definitely top tier construction with a great strategy balance, then its probably meta or politics that are holding you back. This isn't something to quickly discount. Some players are very shrewd negotiators and play decks that suit their style. You would need to make some strategy compromises to handle them, so consider developing a meta package (few cards you set aside just for that group or player).

Types of Win-cons

This is a massive topic on its own but I will try keep it concise and relevant. Here we are mostly interested in types of instant win conditions, and some high level archetype's that casual players tend to enjoy.

Competitive players typically instantly win by:

  • meeting some criteria, you win the game

  • dealing infinite damage to all opponents (direct damage or via lots of creature tokens)

  • locking out other players from being able to do anything (exile their library, or they can no longer cast spells, infinite turns...)

  • infinitely milling out opponents or making them draw too many cards

Casual players typically win by:

  • Stompy Overruns (repeated beat down by creatures)

  • Steady burnout (keep doing direct damage over a few turns until opponents are dead)

  • Slow milling (everyone fills graveyards until there are no cards left to draw)

  • Consensus, someone did something making the game a bit pointless to continue, so they agree to end

The rate of the engine makes a big difference. A very synergistically built Yoriko deck will burn out all opponents so quickly that it appears to be a super competitive CEDH deck, even when it isn't. We may in cases like these want to give these an honorary + rating, just because we know how borderline competitive the build is. This is an example of a retrospective upshift. But this does demonstrate a bit of a grey zone between the two classifications I discuss below.

The Big Split

Up until now, focus was mostly on the competitive side of power levels. Here I will aim to separate the competitive and casual use-cases based on each type of players requirements and expectations.

Competitive Mentality

Competitive players want to win as soon as possible with the most efficient cards and instant win combo's. Efficient cards those which have the lowest cost for best value at that MV. The excitement happens early, as players compete to win faster than opponents, while at the same time, attempting to prevent opponents winning. The fun for competitive play is in the intrigue over "will my deck do what it needs to to win!?" and the fast paced games. Think of this as a quick lunchtime board game, where the game is a bit more predictable, and players aren't aiming to take their time and weigh economic decisions. Its kill or be killed, no time for dilly dallying.

Casual Mentality

Casual players don't want to instantly lose, instead they hope to have a chance to build their synergy engine and hopefully win due to their economic superiority. Decks are built carefully around a specific commander, and contain cards that prioritise versatility (offer choices) and not necessarily cheapness. Games are expected to take longer, so more eventualities are catered for and some bigger more expensive but powerful spells can be included for late game fireworks.

What Criteria Separates Mentalities?

Ultimately it comes just down to efficient instant win combo's. These are situations that end the game immediately for all players, and can in some cases be performed very early in a game. Casual gamers don't want games to end so quickly like this, as it feels a bit like a waste (they didn't get a chance to do anything). So this makes sense to use as the key criteria for identifying a deck as CEDH or Casual.

Which Metrics should we Consider?

As the 8 by 8 EDH System aims to reduce complexity through focusing on strategy instead of specific cards. We can leverage this approach for indicating deck strategy power levels. Its not necessary to rate every strategy, instead we will focus on just Primary Strategies (Draw, Ramp, Removal) and a couple Secondary Strategies (Tutors, Counterspells, Combo's) as these are the most popular.

Each of these should be evaluated from an Efficiency vs Versatility perspective. Casual prioritizes versatility and then cost (Most choices for that MV, but higher MV's are acceptable if impact is greater). Competitive prioritizes win-con efficiency or impact efficiency (cheap cost, instant, maximum impact at that MV, also reliability improvement strategies).

A New Grading Approach

I already pointed out how we can separate the use cases:

  • + indicates competitive (contains an instant-win combo)

  • - indicates casual (no infinite or instant win combo)

These ratings are reasonably easy to understand as we are all familiar with grades, and remembering + for competitive and - for casual is fairly straight forward.

To help guide people into a working out their decks respective grading we can define the grades as follows...

Competitive Tiers

Here we prioritize instant win efficiency. Everything has to be as cheap as possible, free is better!

  • A+ No expense spared, all the best lands and highest efficiency cards (elite, mostly already well-known)

  • B+ I still need to eat, I will settle for what most people use (standard)

  • C+ I like instant wins, but maybe 3 mana rocks need a home too and combos shouldn't be that easy

  • D+ Jank Combo's for life! I tattooed the combo steps on my arm to help me remember.

Casual Tiers

Nobody will suddenly win early in a single turn, so we have time to develop board states. Board Wipes are likely, so diversity and versatility is important.

  • A- These are low mana-curve (around a 2), cheap commanders, with a reasonable balance of versatility and efficiency; and often run a high synergy build (very repeatable, lots of advantage at minimal cost)

  • B- higher mana curve (3ish), more expensive commander; probably very strong late game, sol ring is the cheapest ramp but there are some ways to regularly get advantage, but costs are higher

  • C- reasonable balance, but no real commander synergy, and curve is fairly high (4+) and cards tend to just do one thing, like destroy a single creature... maybe a bit of recovery

  • D- Its your first deck, you don't know any of the 8 by 8 EDH System principles and just put a bunch of your favourite cards together in a hail Mary list. What is ramp? Isn't card draw for blue mages?

S-Tier Commanders

As mentioned before, we still end up with a small grey zone between these to categorizations of Casual vs Competitive. Retrospectively, we learn that some highly synergistic casual commander (or even secret commander) builds can carry the illusion of being CEDH or just too competitive as they win "too quickly". These types of builds are right on the edge of being considered combo winners. Inevitably it gets harder to track these over time as more and more highly synergistic cards are printed.

Once a deck shows that it fits this competitive edge-lord category, I would recommend classifying it as an honorary combo deck and switch its rating from - to +. Tournament organizers and PODS will simply have to learn retrospectively about these decks, and shouldn't reject them outright, instead acknowledge them on a "Hall of Fame" so people are able to remember more easily what the stronger more synergistic commanders are.

You can later choose to gate-keep these commanders in tournaments, with a condition of don't play this commander in our casual tournament. Its not fair to penalize players if their decks passed the initial scrutiny of the organizers, but turned out to be really strong. Keep in mind, its also possible that their opponents all play significantly jankier decks and thus will always fare much worse. This is easy to figure out by comparing deck recipe's upfront, as any strategy deficiencies will be obvious (like nobody is playing removal spells... or specifically no enchantment removal, but there is an enchantress at the table).

Decks are not made strong just by having some good-stuff in them, or by having a strong commander. Its the strategy make up that ties them all together. We shouldn't be generalizing and classifying by specific cards, but rather by strategies and synergies.

Final Remarks

This was definitely a difficult article to write, and took me many moons to think everything though. I may not be solving all our troubles with this system, but I do believe that at the very least, by engaging in better communication about our decks (comparing recipes, not deck lists), and reducing complexity, we can even out our expectations and get a better understanding of where things stand. Acknowledging that players have different styles, and providing different power grading systems for each makes alot of sense. Competitive players don't care much for casual rankings, and vice versa, so why combine them?

I know this was a long one, but if you are to come away with anything, its that we definitely have ways to better engage with each other. And it doesn't have to be super technical or complex. Recipes are simple, and give us a way of talking with other people at the same table, which shows us that they are like us, and helps build solidarity. Lets build a common framework together, and choose a path of learning and happiness.

In the next article I will be discussing lands, mana and approaches to building effective mana bases: The Ultimate Guide to Effective Mana-Bases

If you haven't already, you may want to checkout some of the previous articles in this series:

You may now be wondering a bit more about other ways the 8 by 8 EDH System can help you build better decks, and I hope to explain more in some upcoming guides, so make sure you subscribe/follow @intothe99podcast on YouTube and Instagram to keep up-to-date!

Thank you for taking the time to read this guide, and I hope that you found it helpful! You can find me on Instagram as well as a bunch of my decks and 8 by 8 EDH Recipes (in the Primers) on Moxfield if you do have any questions @thunder.emperors.command

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