Making a Precon Your Own

Posted in How to Build on August 25, 2017

By Quinn Murphy

Quinn has been fascinated with Magic ever since Revised Edition. When he is not spending time with his lovely wife and amazing son, he's constantly brewing decks for, playing, and writing about Magic.

You've just gotten one of the Commander (2017 Edition) preconstructed decks. After a few games, you start thinking about customizing the deck, adding improvements and refinements that make it yours. You could move in any direction with all the cards available to you—but where does one start?

We're going to look at one possible process for personalizing any Commander preconstructed deck. It starts with analyzing the themes of the deck, and from there we:

  • Narrow our focus. Choose a theme to exclude, giving us more cards to use for the remaining themes.
  • Bolster a theme. Focus on one theme, looking for the best cards for the theme. Also look for extra support.
  • Cover the fundamentals. Add staples of the format, "upgrading" lands where possible.

As I discuss each point, I'll provide a few examples from one of the Commander 2017 decks. I am all about Cats lately, so I'll use "Feline Ferocity" as a basis.

Before we start, I also want to talk about proper ways to set yourself up for this process to make more efficient use of your time.

Change in Chunks

While big overhauls can be satisfying to complete, they can also be exhausting and time-consuming to complete. Extensive adjustments also bring the danger of changes ruining a theme of the deck that was previously working. That can be demoralizing after spending a lot of time and energy revising the deck and acquiring the cards.

I recommend that you change cards in chunks of no more than a dozen, playing a few games in between changes so you can observe what effect the changes have. Decks are complex systems, and though many interactions are obvious and intuitive, just as many interactions are non-intuitive and can only be seen in play.

Spread it Out

I often lay out my deck on the table in one of two ways: cards grouped by theme or cards grouped by converted mana cost. The former lets me see the "weight" of different themes while the latter grouping lets me see the weight of the deck's casting costs. You can do this in a decklist as well, and I recommend it so you can observe how your changes affect the deck. Maybe your changes raise the average casting cost of spells in the deck, implying that you need more mana. Or maybe you are noticeably altering the amount of removal in a deck, leaving it vulnerable to situations it once had more protection against.

Every deck is a series of trade-offs, so it's best to arrange the deck in way that lets you observe those trade-offs as you make them.

Gather Around

Gatherer is your best friend, especially when dealing with the wide pool of cards that you can choose from. It pays to get comfortable using "Advanced Search" so you can get the most refined results possible.

For "Feline Ferocity," the major theme is Cat tribal, so I would use a search like this:

To get results like this:

I keep a document with links for each useful set of searches to make it easier to revisit and revise in the future.

Now that we have our tools, let's take a deeper look at our deck and its themes.

Defining Themes

First things first: When I talk about themes in this context, I am referring to a grouping of card effect and/or types. These grouping can have subthemes with more narrow focuses within them. Examples of themes as I consider them here are:

  • Removal. Taking permanents out of play, with subthemes that include creature, enchantment, artifact, and "sweeper" removal.
  • Tribal creatures. All decks in Commander 2017 have this theme, but each has a subtheme using different creatures. This theme also includes cards that support the tribe and act as "payoff" cards for using that type.
  • Ramp. Effects that increase the mana available to a player. Subthemes include creature-based, artifact-based, and land-based ramp.

A deck's strategy is built off the use of one or more of these groups, but isn't, for our purposes, the theme itself. Identifying themes points us toward our viable strategies. Themes can become very focused and specific, but it is sufficient to define the three or four most prominent themes for your deck. These are our major themes and will be our focal point.

Looking at "Feline Ferocity," the major themes (and their strategic implications) are:

Tribal Cats. We are focusing on one creature subtype, and using cards like our commander, Arahbo, Roar of the World, to augment our Cats. We also have cards like White Sun's Zenith and Kindred Summons to help us "cheat" Cats into play. We have smaller Cats to pave the way for our big Cats like Raksha Golden Cub and Jareth, Leonine Titan.

Equipment. We're using Equipment with cards that create benefits for using Equipment to create powerful individual Cats. Equipment provides us with the synergy to go wide attacking with many Cats, or "go big" with overwhelming individual attackers.

Ramp. We have mana acceleration to help us more quickly get to the point where we can cast big Cats and spells.

Removal. Using sweepers and some targeted removal to maintain battlefield dominance. Use Equipment to recover before our opponents.

Now that we understand our themes, we can start to personalize the deck.

Narrow Focus

We can increase the power of a deck by narrowing its focus. We become better at doing fewer things and use that power to overwhelm our opponents. After you've identified your themes, choose which theme you least want to use. Then pick the theme you want to reinforce. Remove some or all cards that support the former theme, and then use the freed slots to insert cards that support the latter. You'll lose some variety, but the focus will give you consistency and power. Remember: every decklist is a set of tradeoffs. You can't have everything!

In "Feline Ferocity," I least want my removal. I want to focus on being proactive.

What I care most about are my Cats. I'm willing to sacrifice removal to focus on getting more utility Cats (in some cases they might make up for the missing removal) and big Cats. What I most want in this theme are more cards to help me find and replace Cats.

Freeing up removal slots would let me add in cards like:

There aren't any wrong or right ways to narrow the focus if you understand what you will lose and what you will gain. You could easily put more focus on removal and less on ramp, for example.

Bolster a Theme

When we bolster a theme, we are looking at "upgrading" the cards that support the theme. We keep the card count of a theme the same, but find cards that do a better job of supporting that theme.

The best way to go about this is to first make a short wish list of cards you want to include. For each of these cards, compare it to other cards in the theme. When you hit a card on your wish list that you feel contributes better than a card in your decklist, swap it. Try to make comparisons with converted mana cost in mind as well. If you are swapping out low-cost cards with higher-cost cards, you are going to alter the flow of the deck! Swapping high-cost cards for low is rarely a problem, but make sure you aren't lowering the power level of the deck for too many cheap spells.

In "Feline Ferocity," I bolster the Cats with:

  • Scythe Leopard
  • Adorned Pouncer
  • Pride Sovereign
  • Regal Caracal
  • Felidar Sovereign

I'd swap out:

  • Jedit Ojanen of Efrava
  • Leonin Shikari
  • Oreskos Explorer
  • Alms Collector
  • Leonin Relic-Warder

I want to lower the overall converted mana cost a bit but also add a Cat that synergizes with ramp (Scythe Leopard plus Traverse the Outlands could get explosive pretty fast!), Cats that make Cats, and a Cat with a built-in win condition.

Cover the Fundamentals

Covering the fundamentals is about fleshing out your deck with the staples in your colors and including them. Commander preconstructed decks do a good job of supplying many of the basics like Sol Ring, Command Tower, and Vivid lands, but there are many more that we can include.

When in doubt about directions to tweak a deck, we can simply take out cards that underperform or we don't like and replace them with these fundamentals.

Here's a far-from-comprehensive list of staples I might want to include in "Feline Ferocity":

Green

  • Tooth and Nail
  • Sylvan Library
  • Praetor's Counsel
  • Genesis Wave
  • Craterhoof Behemoth

White

  • Land Tax
  • Oblivion Ring
  • Faith's Fetters
  • Dawn Charm
  • 247297

The other side of fundamentals is getting your mana correct. You may need to add more lands for consistency, or you may want to upgrade your lands. You can replace basics or other lands with mana that better suits the requirements of the deck or add lands that provide strong effects.

I'd include the following lands in "Feline Ferocity":

  • 386725
  • Temple of Plenty
  • Brushland
  • Sunpetal Grove
  • Mutavault

Look for lands that don't come into play tapped or provide an effect strong enough to make up for coming into play tapped.

Change Never-Ending

Personalizing a deck is a never-ending process; a decklist is never truly done.

There are also many other ways to tweak a decklist. We haven't even addressed the implications of changing your commander or adding completely new themes. Hopefully these tools will provide a good starting point to make your Commander preconstructed deck an expression of your choices and desires when playing Magic!

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