Last updated on March 15, 2023
Biogenic Upgrade | Illustration by Tomasz Jedruszek
There comes a time in a Commander precon owner’s life when an upgrade is in order. Maybe you’re losing too many games, or maybe you’ve come to learn that there are some non-synergistic cards in your deck. There are a number of things to consider if you’re looking to tune your precon to perform just a little better on game nights: the goal of your deck, the budget you have in mind, and the power level you’d like to achieve, just to name a few.
Here’s why and how you should upgrade your MTG precon deck. Hopefully some of these tips will help you net a few more Commander wins. Let’s get into it!
Why Should You Upgrade Precons?
Neoform | Illustration by Bram Sels
Wizards makes preconstructed Commander decks so that players can easily jump into games with a ready-to-play set of cards. It’s a great way to have several hours of fun playing with friends for the money (an average Commander precon runs around $40).
Given the cost and intent of a precon, precons aren’t exactly designed to be highly-tuned decks that consistently win games. You’ll occasionally find a small handful of cards that sort of fit the theme of the precon deck, but you can leave them out without derailing your game plan. In fact, cutting some cards can only benefit your strategy.
You can consider upgrading it and to start winning more games once you’ve played a precon out of the box long enough and you understand the concept of the deck.
How Good Are Precons Out of the Box?
Some MTG precon decks are much better than others. They’re all designed to be playable out of the box, so most can win games when paired with other decks of similar power levels.
On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being low power and low synergy and 10 being an extremely competitive deck, many Magic players would rank Commander precon decks around power level 3-4.
There’s some synergy in the precons (they’re built to mostly synergize with your commander), and there are few cards in the deck that are completely out of place.
How Do You Upgrade a Precon Deck?
The best way to upgrade a Commander precon deck is to remove low-power, lower-synergy creatures and spells along with bad artifacts, lands, and equipment and replace them with better ones. This sounds very broad and general, but you have to start somewhere. Besides, this way you’ll get an idea of how many slots in the 99 you’re looking to fill.
It might be your first time doing so if you’re looking up how to upgrade a precon deck, or at least the first time you’ve decided to do it with some guidance rather than randomly swapping cards on your own. The easiest way to get ideas for swapping cards in and out of your deck is to see what thousands of players have already done through EDHRec.
Once you’ve decided on which cards to add and remove from your deck, you’ll want to buy singles from sites like TCGplayer or CardKingdom. You could hang out at your local game shop for a few hours if you want to support them and they have an enormous collection of card binders.
Typical Issues with Commander Precons
The usual problems you run into with precon decks are low-power, low-synergy cards and slow mana bases. There are some fairly easy ways to fix this.
Low-Power, Low-Synergy Cards
Most precon decks contain cards that synergize with your commander. For example, if you’re playing the Exit From Exile precon from Baldur’s Gate then you’ll want cards that you can cast from exile to synergize with its face commander, Faldorn, Dread Wolf Herald.
There are several cards in that precon that don’t synergize with the game plan for the deck. Cards like Hornet Queen, which has an ETB effect that creates four 1/1 green Insect tokens with flying and deathtouch. Maybe it’s not the worst card in the world in a vacuum, but that’s not what Faldorn wants to do.
Faldorn is made to create Wolf tokens every time you cast a spell from exile. You’re better off adding something like Professional Face-Breaker, which allows you to make Treasure tokens and then sacrifice them to exile the top card of your library and play it that turn. More Wolfs!
Weak Mana Base and Slow Lands
The biggest issue you’ll find with precon decks is the weaker mana bases and slow-tapped lands (lands that enter the battlefield tapped). While commander decks usually include staples like Sol Ring, Command Tower, and Arcane Signet, there are other mana-producing cards that slow you down.
If there are too many conditions to produce mana, like paying to cast an artifact and then later paying a greater cost just to tap and sacrifice a card to produce one more mana, you’ll want to consider a different card. The fewer restrictions and the faster the mana is available, the better.
In some precon decks, like ones that have many big creatures and high-mana-cost spells, there aren’t enough ramp cards like Sakura-Tribe Elder or Farseek.
Lack of Interaction
Many Commander precon decks lack any meaningful interaction cards and can often make you feel like you’re playing solitaire. There are even some precon decks that contain blue, the most interactive of colors, but still lack interaction cards!
When you’re building toward your theme or goal, whether it’s to go really wide with tokens or Voltron your beastly commander (attach equipment to make it more powerful), you want interaction spells to protect that goal. Otherwise a single removal spell from an opponent could derail your plan and set you back several turns.
Alternatively, if you have no means of board wiping an opponent who has 30 1/1 flying zombies with deathtouch, you’ll be out of luck in no time.
Suboptimal Mana Curve
Your mana curve is the distribution of your cards’ mana costs and the deck’s average mana cost. For example, if your average mana cost is 2.6, you can assume it’s a low-mana curve deck. A deck with a 3.8 average mana cost might be a higher mana curve deck with some big creatures and spells.
Some Commander precon decks have relatively higher mana curves and not enough ramp to get you going. You’ll often find yourself having no impact in the game until around turn 15 or higher!
Easiest Initial Upgrades
Most of the initial upgrades you make to your Commander deck are fairly easy. You may already have some of the cards that you need to swap into the deck. The key is to cut out the cards that have very little to no synergy with your commander, and possibly lands that slow you down.
Swap Tapped or Slow Lands
Removing tapped and slow lands isn’t the hottest topic of debate for many Commander players. It’s what to swap in for them that stirs the pot.
In an Azorius () deck, you might be better off adding a Plains or Island card in place of an Idyllic Beachfront. This way you can use the mana as soon as the land hits your playmat rather than waiting a whole turn during which your opponents are being proactive and you’re just waiting for your land to untap.
Another land that causes some arguments in the Commander community is Temple of the False God. While it’s great that you can add two colorless to your mana pool, you have to control five lands before you can activate it. But it may be worth having this land in your deck if you’re playing a deck that loves to ramp.
Add Missing Staples
WotC does a fine job of adding Commander staples into its precon decks, like Sol Ring and various Signets. But not all decks have cards you’d want in your Commander deck, like Swiftfoot Boots or Darksteel Plate. We’re often scratching our heads as to why some precons have these cards and others don’t.
Websites like TappedOut have a comprehensive list of what cards are considered staples in Commander. It’s worth looking at these cards to see which ones fit in your deck (some are color specific).
Swap Out Low-Synergy Cards
While precons are intended to be playable out of the box, not every card out of the 99 is going to advance your game plan or synergize with your commander.
There are dozens of Commander precon decks, so I suggest looking at budget upgrade options (more on this later) and seeing what pros recommend when swapping cards in and out of your deck. You’ll find that there’s a lot of overlap in what they recommend, but others have varying opinions on other cards.
One example is in the very popular Elven Empire precon from Kaldheim. Lathril, Blade of the Elves is its commander and wants you to create Elf tokens so that you can eventually tap them, deal a ton of damage, and gain a lot of life.
Tergrid’s Shadow works well in other decks, but it doesn’t really fit Elven Empire that well. It wants you and each opponent to sacrifice two creatures, and it has foretell. The precon has a few cards that rely on creatures in your graveyard, but that’s not its main goal. Tergrid’s Shadow can come in handy when you have 1/1 Elf tokens to sacrifice in exchange for seeing some of your opponents’ meatier creatures leave the battlefield, but it’s not part of Elven Empire’s overall game plan.
Swapping out a card like this for something like Heroic Intervention is an excellent choice. It’s a green instant spell that gives your creatures hexproof and indestructible until the end of turn.
Imagine what this could do for your huge army of Elves! You’re closing in on using Lathril’s tap ability and your opponent casts Cleansing Nova to destroy all creatures… hit them with Heroic Intervention on the stack and everyone’s creatures are gone but yours.
How Much Should You Spend to Upgrade?
You didn’t buy a Commander precon hoping to turn it into a cEDH deck, but you do want to give it a little boost. How much you spend to upgrade your deck depends on your budget and just how much you enjoy playing your precon deck as currently constructed.
A little bit can go a long way in some precons, while others need a little more monetary help. There are multiple schools of thought on what to do with a precon.
The Bare Minimum
The minimum you can do to your precon deck to make it instantly better is to take about 10 of the lowest synergy cards in the deck and swap them out with better ones. And better doesn’t always mean more expensive. It’s worth spending the $0.25 if your green deck could benefit from a Llanowar Elves.
Another thing you can do is consider removing your tap lands in favor of basic lands. You might get things done a turn or two sooner with a basic land than with a dual tapped land if you find that you don’t need that much mana fixing in your early-to-mid game.
To Face Commander, or Not to Face Commander
A lot of Commander precons have a secondary commander or different legendary creature or planeswalker that can be used as the deck’s commander instead of the one on the face of the box.
In the Exit From Exile precon example you can swap Faldorn with Durnan of the Yawning Portal and pair it with Passionate Archaeologist as your background. This commander arguably does more for your deck by having you exile cards every time you attack, and the cards you have in exile cost one colorless less for each opponent you have. This deals damage directly to your opponent with Passionate Archaeologist.
It’s worth playing several games with an alternate commander to see which play style you like more and then plan your upgrades around that card.
There are upsides to having expensive lands for your mana base, but there are also obvious downsides: they’re expensive. But costlier land cards can help you get things done quicker with other beneficial effects.
For example, Ancient Tomb generates two colorless mana every time you tap it. It deals two damage to you, but soaking the damage in favor of casting bigger spells might be worth it if your deck has sufficient lifegain or your aim is to get to your win condition as fast as possible.
You can have Boseiju, Who Endures, one of the best lands from Neon Dynasty. You can play it as a land or use its channel ability to destroy an artifact, enchantment, or nonbasic land an opponent has.
A lot of expensive land cards slot easily into other decks. If you have other precon decks that can take advantage of a $50 land card then it might be worth getting one, assuming your budget allows for it.
Budget Upgrade: Yes or No?
Yes, you should strongly consider doing a budget upgrade for a precon deck. Others may answer “it depends,” but I strongly dislike vague and obvious answers like this.
Commander precons are great, and upgrade options are plentiful. In the end, they’re preconstructed decks. There are a lot of cards that cost more than a precon deck alone, so it’s worth considering your short- and long-term goals with a precon deck.
If you absolutely love the precon and have the money to spend, it’s worth considering upgrading the deck with cards that are also useful in other decks. After all, you might have a bit of buyer’s remorse if you spend $300 to upgrade your precon and end up totally bored with it six months later.
There are dozens of budget upgrade videos and articles online, and I highly recommend taking a look at those to see how more experienced players might craft a precon.
Start small, around $20 to $50, and see how you like the deck after a modest upgrade. Remember that you’re not going to transform your precon from a power level 3 to 7 with just $50 thrown into it, but that’s not what you’re looking for when upgrading a precon.
Commander players who want high-power decks generally build their own from scratch. If a precon happens to have a chunk of the cards they need then they’ll tend to throw a considerable amount of money to swap out the majority of the deck.
Budget Upgrade Ideas
The best place to start is to take out one or two of your tapped lands and swap them for basic lands. Then play a few games or goldfish your deck (play Commander alone as though you’re playing with other players) to see how this affects your ability to do things on certain turns.
The next thing to do is to consider your commander’s abilities and how it affects the deck’s plan. Do you want to go wide with zombies through Wilhelt? Or maybe you want to flood the board with spirits and take advantage of ETB effects with Ranar?
Take the obvious low-synergy cards out and swap them with cards that advance your plan. Again, I strongly recommend EDHRec as a starting point. They even have a section where they list all the precon commanders, and each takes you to a page of cards to cut and add.
One other thing to do is look at cards with good synergy with your commander but are expensive to cast. Do you have 7-mana creatures with effects that a 3-mana card can produce? It may be worth considering some of these swaps to bring your deck’s overall mana curve down.
Making changes like these can be a very inexpensive way to easily upgrade your precon deck.
Buying a Precon vs. Building an EDH Deck from Scratch
You have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into when you buy a precon deck. You’re relying on someone else doing the work for you so that you can just sit down and enjoy the game. Sometimes you’ll find that you’re losing a lot of games even when you’re piloting your deck as best you can, and you’ll start thinking about upgrading the deck.
If you’re building a deck from scratch, you’re already going into it with the idea that you want something that’s fairly tuned and cohesive. You want a deck with a clear goal and game plan with obvious win conditions.
If you’ve decided that you want to build a deck from scratch rather than upgrade a precon after this, you might consider buying an EDH “precon” deck that was built by another player. They’re often found at around the same price as WotC’s precons, but they might be more tuned and focused.
If you’re looking to build a powerful deck and money is no object (no questions; no judgment), be sure to brush up on the foundational elements of building a Commander deck.
Lord of Change | Illustration by Games Workshop
Now that you’re armed with more info on how to upgrade your precon deck, I hope that you’ll get more enjoyment and life out of your precon. Remember, in the end, there’s no right or wrong way to upgrade or tweak your Commander deck.
This format is meant to be fun and casual, and there’s plenty of room for experimentation. But if you happen to put something like a Gilded Drake in your deck, definitely share it somewhere and tag us!
Let me know how your game nights go on Twitter or our Discord, where you can ask friendly and experienced players which cards you should put into your precon decks.
Thanks for reading, and ‘til next time!
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