How to Become a “Better” Commander Player: Three Key Questions!

As a player of both competitive and casual formats, I’m mindful that what I think it means to be a ‘better’ player in the context of competitive Constructed or Limited differs wildly from what I think it means to be a ‘better’ Commander player. In this article, I want to share my thoughts on the latter because, unlike in other Magic formats, I don’t believe it’s really about playing more powerful or more efficient cards, making the ‘best’ in-game decisions, or even winning a lot of games. At the heart of the matter lie some things I consider even more important, which we’ll explore together in this article. I’ve chosen three (hopefully) relatable questions to explore some scenarios that call to mind some of the things I feel have put me on a path to becoming a ‘better’ player than I once was. I can’t over-emphasize that these are mere ‘suggestions’ based on my own experience, not ‘rules’ per se. Rather than being about ‘right from wrong’, the article is aiming to raise awareness or improve understanding of some things I wish I had grasped sooner.

Trying to define ‘better’

Before we begin, I’d like to briefly clarify that I keep putting quotation marks around the word better because measuring success in Commander feels much more fluid and uncertain to me than in Limited or Constructed. Some people measure it in numbers of games won. Winning is fun! It’s logical that if winning is fun, more wins means more fun. In traditional Limited and Constructed, I’d agree that results can carry a lot of weight. However, in Commander, I think there’s a lot more in success than results.

Over time, I’ve met many other players who measure success in a way that is distinct from winning or losing. Sometimes fun and success come from the number of times they cast their favourite card during an evening’s play, or how much damage they can deal with their favourite spell when they cast it. Maybe it’s something even more specific. For example: one of my friends in a group I play in regularly has a ‘pirates’ deck, and whenever I face this deck, the game is dominated by sea or ship-based puns among players and theatrical pirate-sounding grumbles whenever cards like Capsize or a Scourge of Fleets are cast (because pirates don’t like things like those) and success is defined by… how many treasure tokens generated? how many pirates in play at once? I’m not sure!

While I didn’t come up with a definition, hopefully it’s clear to you why not.

Some of the points I make are supported by examples; these all assume a pod of four Commander players: Player A, Player B, Player C, and Player D. These are not specific people. Let’s jump in.

When is it fair to rewind the game state?



While maintaining the game-state is enforced in competitive events by judges, the casual setting for Commander allows it to be enforced in an amicable way among the players at the table. Sometimes the concept of being relaxed about rules enforcement leads to a spectrum of what game states players feel they should and should not be able to rewind, and this is the focus of my examples below. Consider the following interaction between players:

Now I’m going to give four different examples of where this might go.

Example one

  • Player B: Oh, I didn’t notice your Tormod’s Crypt there, that was silly! *Exiles their graveyard*

Example two

  • Player B: Oh, I didn’t notice your Tormod’s Crypt, you’ve got so many permanents out, does anyone mind if I just get a Wood Elves instead, I wouldn’t have gotten the Witness if I had seen that.
  • All other players: Yeah, we don’t mind
  • Player C: As long as I don’t have to sacrifice Tormod’s Crypt!
  • All other players: Yeah, that’s fair enough.
  • Player B: I’ll just search for a Forest with Wood Elves then!

Example three

  • Player B: Oh, I didn’t notice your Tormod’s Crypt, you’ve got so many permanents, does anyone mind if I just get a Wood Elves instead, I wouldn’t have gotten the Witness if I had seen that.
  • Player C: Actually, I think it’s a bit late, you’ve searched your whole library and put a trigger on the stack, announced a target and passed priority.
  • Player B: Ok, I guess I just made a mistake there, that was silly of me. *Exiles their graveyard*

Example four

  • Player B: Oh, I didn’t notice your Tormod’s Crypt, you’ve got so many permanents, does anyone mind if I just get a Wood Elves instead, I wouldn’t have gotten the Witness if I had seen that.
  • Player C: Actually, I think it’s a bit late, you’ve searched your whole library and put a trigger on the stack, announced a target and passed priority.
  • Player B: I mean, it’s a casual format c’mon. When did that Crypt come into play? I didn’t hear you announce it. It’s next to a bunch of other artifacts that do loads of things. You play so many weird cards, I can’t keep track of everything. You’re across the table from me, it’s hard to see them all.

In example four, it’s quite clear that Player B is unwilling to accept that they have not paid attention to the board state and is now trying to persuade the table (mostly player C) that they shouldn’t have to face the consequences of their mistake for a plethora of reasons. Unfortunately, a gracious table may give in to such a style of persuasion, especially if Player B is more forceful with their view than Player C.

My suggestion here is to be honest with yourself about when you have simply not paid attention to what’s going on in the game. If you press the table into getting your way, the short-term return might be a game win, but in the long-term, misreading the board state could start to become a habit leading to careless play more frequently. Also, you might build a reputation with other players as ‘that player who always wants to rewind when things go wrong for them.’

This leads me on to my next, slightly broader suggestion.

Why are you attacking me?



Phrases like “why are you attacking me?” or “why are you targeting my stuff?” come up a lot in Commander. Sometimes, players are genuinely interested as to why an opponent has made an in-game decision a certain way – but these are exceptional cases. More often, players use these expressions to inform others at the table that they disagree with the in-game decisions taking place. It’s only natural for someone who’s been ‘outed’ as a threat to contest the threat assessment of others, so this isn’t about condemning the mere voicing of opinion. I’m more trying to suggest that there’s a slippery slope that leads to players routinely ‘complaining’ to get what they want. For example, let’s say Player B is brute-forcing ‘complaints’ regularly and persistently to influence the decisions of others.

While it’s true that Player B might get the other players to do what they want, I find it impossible to endorse this as a proper navigation of the political element of the format. Other than potentially being tiresome for all other players to listen to, asking other players to justify their plays is potentially quite unfair. Even in a casual environment, Magic is quite a complex game requiring a lot of mental energy. On top of this, the justification might be there but be based on hidden cards or strategies unbeknownst to a  player’s opponents. For example:

  • Player B (to player C): Why are you attacking me? Player D is the threat, just look at their board state!

Imagine if Player C answers honestly when they have a devious hidden strategy. Here’s what they might be forced to say.

  • Player C: I’m attacking you because you don’t have any blockers and if I can draw a card with Shadowmage Infiltrator then I can draw the Comet Storm I need to take out all opponents. I know the top card of my library because of Sensei’s Divining Top which I activated in your end step. I didn’t draw that spell in my draw step and chose to draw a land instead because Player D’s Commander is Vendilion Clique and they could play it in combat with the three mana they have up if they get suspicious. I also need the land to ensure I have enough mana. Sure, I could have used the Top’s draw ability and ‘Cometed’ pre-combat, but I think you have a counterspell, so if I deal with you through combat damage, the Comet Storm is more likely to resolve and I will win.

Many people Player B complains to in games probably don’t think it’s worth the effort to use up their time on an argument. To minimize having to listen to Player B complain about things, the other players start to take game actions that they think Player B is less likely to complain about. In extreme cases, this could be likened to bullying. Eventually, behaviours like this might result in players not wanting to come to the same table, store, or community as Player B and this is a loss overall (even if they get to win more games).

Is it fair to target the ‘best player’ more often?



Here, I want to suggest a broader point using the context suggested by the heading as an example. Assume that Player C is considered (by players A, B, and D) to be the most skilled at the game of Magic.

Voiced aloud or simply shared in thoughts, there will almost always be a ‘strongest’ player in the group. The logic of games being easier to win if the strongest competition is eliminated is hard to dispute, but its application can come at a cost. While it’s only natural that Players A, B, and D conclude that they are more likely to win more games if player C is eliminated, I’m suggesting it’s an unfair heuristic to enforce when the sole basis is ‘because they are a better player.’

Let’s say Player C makes specific plays that put them in a position to win. Players A, B, and D will likely target or attack C a little more teaming up with a concerted effort to dismantle C’s advantage. However, this kind of scenario falls outside the scope of the broader point here. Here, the ‘victimisation’ of Player C is based on things that have happened in the game at hand, not the fact that C is considered ‘more skilled’ (though that might have helped get them into their initial winning position). My broader point is about discouraging players from deciding to target another player more than they would others because of who they are, which includes their relative skill-level. Treating other players differently on this basis, especially given the casual and social context, is just a form of discrimination or negative bias.

I picked the scenario where the strongest player is targeted because I think it’s one that people commonly justify or simply accept, partly because victimising the strongest player is portrayed as a form of ‘praise’ or a ‘sign of respect’ – masks for an unfair bias.

By contrast, sometimes the ‘saltiest’ player, Player D, is disproportionately targeted because the other players enjoy watching them overreact. I’ll admit that this tends to happen under more amicable circumstances where the players are in a closely-knit group of friends, where even D (to some extent) enjoys adopting the role of the ‘saltiest’ player and plays into it. However, this is not always the case, and when it’s not, Player D might just end up feeling bullied.

Let’s pretend an opponent has cast a spell and Player B has a counterspell. When in doubt, it’s maybe worth Player B stopping and thinking “if someone else was playing this spell, would I counter it? Or am I just countering it because…

  • Player C is playing it and I think they are better at Magic than me so I should counter their stuff.”
  • Player D is playing it and I think they will throw a hissy-fit which will be fun to watch.”

The real cost of persistent victimisation might be that Player C or Player D disassociates from the table, store, or community (which again, likely outweighs any players getting more game wins).

A quick note on favoritism

There’s something to be said of the inverse – it just works a little bit differently. In my earlier days of playing Magic, before I discovered events or even played with people outside of my university dormitory block, I played multiplayer games with whatever 60 card piles could be mustered. While I was building a new deck one day, a friend of mine said to me that ‘the games we play reflect the relationships at the table.’ This comment immediately reminded me of the games where Player B never attacked Player C with their creatures, never countered their spells, discarded their cards, or destroyed their permanents, instead targeting other players. This often led to player C winning almost every game through having more resources than anyone else later on. At the time, I just shrugged, naively assuming that because player B has a crush on player C, that was a ‘normal’ consequence. I never considered that it was a bit unfair on everyone else (including myself). I was quite new to the game, so my mind was probably more preoccupied trying to understand why my Raging Goblin wasn’t quite getting the 20 damage in despite a promising start in each game. I now reflect on it many years later after a lot of time playing Magic and with much clearer thoughts.

I understand that every relationship between Player B’s and Player C’s that this might remind you of will come with its own set of circumstances. However, such things can create a bias that is disadvantageous to all except Player B. While keeping B happy might be important to C, it might not be what the other players are expecting to sign up to when they join the table for a game. This can foster silent (or not so silent) pacts between Player A’s and Player D’s who quickly realise they are effectively up against a ‘team’, but sometimes it just simply leads to negative vibes or, eventually, animosity.

In conclusion

As foreshadowed in the introduction, this article’s goal wasn’t to aid you improve your technical play or aid in deck construction, yet I hope it has offered some food for thought.

One of the sacred qualities of Commander, at least to me, is that there is no defined way that it ‘should’ be played. The objective of winning the game guides the path players might take during the game, but it drives player choices and interactions in different ways depending on the players themselves.

It’s my observation that some people are more prescriptive than others about how Commander ‘should’ be played. I’m sure this is intended as an attempt to balance everyone’s ‘fun’ at the table, but assuming that what is prescribed to is correct can be a slippery slope in itself. At the heart of all three of the things I’ve suggested is a sense of giving the other players the respect and credit they are due. Part of this comes through appreciating that your view might not always right, be it in how you think the game ‘should’ be played, or even in something as specific as your opinion of your opponents’ threat assessment or if you think a game-state rewind is fair. Prescriptiveness can lead to Player B-like behaviour in some players whenever their opponents deviate from playing the version of Commander they see in their mind. Some will handle it, but others might not. This isn’t to say their view is ‘wrong’ or that it’s wrong to hold views – this article is just suggesting that imposing them on others might not be the path to an improved experience for yourself or other players.

It is through being aware of things like these, reserving judgment, and respecting other players that I truly believe players can become ‘better’ at Commander. I have felt at my more successful in Commander when I’ve been told I’m a fun person to play against or have in the pod than when I win any amount of games. The repeated casting of Skyscanner might have helped with this (I am fond of this card), but I think treating my opponents with respect and appreciating the way they want to ignite their Spark has made a much bigger contribution.

What’s next

The Throne of Eldraine pre-release is on the horizon and I have a lot to learn about new Standard and Limited before I go to the Mythic Championship in Richmond in November! Expect a return of content on more competitive Magic very soon.

You can find me on Facebook and Twitter @Chris54154. What are you playing in Commander? Do you feel you’ve grown or improved since playing the format? Feel free to hit me up with any of your thoughts!

As always, thanks for reading, good luck, and have fun in your next game!

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