Hi all, I’m back to writing after taking some time off over the last month or so.
Today’s topic is Commander and is based on part of episode #711 of Mark Rosewater’s (MaRo) popular Drive to Work podcast. In this particular episode, MaRo discussed some hypothetical changes that could be made to the Commander format to craft new and fun environments for players. These were explored from the perspective of a game designer, which is obviously different to that of a player. Based on what I’ve seen since on social media, it’s clear that the way players would like to play the game (or what they hold dear) doesn’t always line up with what a game designer thinks might function better or create more engaging play environments. Today I’m going to delve into arguably the most ‘controversial’ topic discussed on the episode, which is the removal of Commander Damage (which I’ll abbreviate to ‘CD’). Spoiler alert – MaRo suggests he would get rid of it! I’ve heard many people say they would rather keep it and, naturally, I have my own thoughts on the matter.
This article isn’t necessarily about trying to validate/invalidate what MaRo has suggested, however, I do want to provide some food for thought around what I perceive to be the potential benefits and drawbacks of removing CD. I haven’t got any data, nor am I going to crunch any verified numbers, so please don’t take my word as more than my opinion.
For the less initiated, click here to view a the current rules for CD.
Why get rid of it?
Less to track during games
Removing CD means fewer things to keep track of during a game. This is something experienced players are used to, but it’s also something that might tax newer players somewhat. MaRo talks about this extensively in the podcast episode in terms of cognitive load and, in essence, it’s about getting players to focus more on the things that matter a lot, and focus less on things that don’t matter very much.
Play design have made a number of changes with respect to the above more recently, for example, changing the text of cards which place other cards on the bottom of libraries from “in any order” to “in a random order”. Something that was found to only matter in a very small number of cases was changed to simplify play in a positive way.
MaRo theorises that the same would be true for Commander damage, suggesting that it rarely has any effect on play patterns. Assuming he’s correct, this change would prevent players from having to think about something that rarely matters, making games less of a chore and, subsequently, more enjoyable. Commander has a crazy-sized card pool and is a multiplayer format, meaning it can get very complex without the need to track external factors like CD.
The reason for the rule is no longer relevant
MaRo also provides the original rationale for the CD rule. Back in the day, Commander was actually called EDH, which stands for Elder Dragon Highlander (some people still call it that today). In that era, Commanders had to have the creature type ‘Elder Dragon’. So originally you had to pick one of:
21 damage came from the fact that all of them are 7/7’s and the idea that connecting with an opponent three times equated to victory. In the context of today, this rule seems very arbitrary given how much the game and its structure have developed since. The original reason for the rule is not really applicable anymore given that not all Commanders have seven power or more.
Why keep it?
Removing CD eliminates a viable route to victory and effectively neuters a popular strategy. This could fundamentally affect how people design their decks or play out games and many would argue it would be more restrictive.
The demise of ‘Voltron’ Commanders
‘Voltron’ decks are those whose strategy centres around dealing 21 to an opponent with their Commander. Suiting up a glorious leader with equipment, auras, or +1/+1 counters is something enjoyed by many, and it can be a very effective strategy – dealing 21 is often a lot easier than dealing 40 in the right deck. If CD is removed, these types of decks are going to be much more challenging to pilot than they were before and we could eventually see the ‘invalidation’ of the entire archetype and a reduction in deck diversity across the board. There is a question of how many ‘invalidated’ decks fall into this category, but we’ll touch on this later.
As a slight extension of this point, the removal of CD arguably makes Commanders ‘less cool’, as if they had lost some intrinsic power that they currently possess and wield in battle. Commander can be a flavour-heavy format, and some would argue that removing CD would mean losing a flavourful and loved part of the format.
Fewer options to eliminate threatening opponents
The removal of CD would reduce the number of options players have to eliminate one another. Of course, there are still plenty of ways left to win in such an expansive format as Commander, but removing CD could make a lot of games far less exciting. CD can defeat decks that often reach high or even infinite life totals, and in such times, sometimes its the only method to prevent inevitable victory from these strategies.
Playing Commanders with power seven or greater (particularly if they have evasion) or indeed equipment and auras provides an effective and resilient win condition, that is handy in situations like the ones described above. This can be a big draw for players of all experience levels and those who enjoy the powerful and heroic leader as a cornerstone of their playstyle would be adversely affected both strategically and sentimentally.
Combo decks start to ruin the format
In anticipating how the landscape would change if CD is removed, multiple people have suggested to me that (because you have to always 40 people instead of being able to 21 them) fewer large creatures will be played as Commanders in favour of things that simple help assemble combos or infinite loops that end the game. This is because it’s just a more efficient way to eliminate opponents. However, in the name of such ruthlessness, the cost might be a less interesting Commander environment.
I understand how MaRo has arrived at his decision to lean towards it being removed. From a game design point of view, I can appreciate why reducing cognitive overload and keeping the game relevant and simple is enough to sacrifice some current options that players are used to. But, this doesn’t necessarily mean I agree.
For me, whether I think it is a positive or negative change depends on my understanding of the following two factors working together:
- How often does CD matter?
- How much do players care about CD’s role in the game?
Let’s look at these in a bit more detail so that I can better explain how combining them affects which way I lean on the CD debate. This is impossible to do with complete precision and I’ll be making some broad-brush categorisations and drawing lines in the sand to demonstrate principally how I arrive at my viewpoint.
How often does CD matter?
To be more exact, I’d want to understand CD’s effect on ‘win/elimination-rate’? Unfortunately, I don’t have or know of any data to support this, save for my own experience of playing the format. This obviously has its limits, but I think it’s a starting point worth sharing. I personally haven’t experienced CD resulting in player elimination as often as the following:
- Infinite loops and combos
- Taking multiple additional turns (and not using them to deal 21 CD)
- Repeating devastating effects other than CD multiple times, but not necessarily infinitely (e.g. Price of Progress >> Snapcaster Mage >> Flashback Price of Progress or recurring Gray Merchant of Asphodel a couple of times).
- Generic go-wide combat damage. Sometimes this involves going tall as well (e.g. Craterhoof Behemoth) or making sure the opponent can’t block very easily (e.g. Insurrection, Champion of Lambholt)
All of these eliminate players far more frequently than CD in my opinion, but this only eliminates CD mattering 20% of the time or more (assuming we discount other causes of player elimination that don’ t fall into the categories above, in which case CD matters even less often).
While arriving at a real-world number is somewhat difficult, perhaps it’s better to think of this in terms of a threshold. At what point should I decide CD matters ‘too much’ to get rid of? This is very subjective and I think thresholds will vary from person to person. If I had to give a number, I’d say it would have to matter more than 10% of the time for its removal to have an impact on the format overall. However, if it matters more (for example, in Voltron decks), we should consider the other factor more heavily.
How much do players care about CD’s role in the game?
If it’s unknown how often CD matters, it’s still important to think about how much players care about its role in the game. This is something that will vary from player to player. I’ll use some examples to illustrate my point:
- Perhaps for some players, it’s a matter of principle. Having fewer options than before is fundamentally curbing the play experience for them, even if the options were only relevant a small percentage of the time. Reducing play options even 1% of the time is still a reduction and even knowing that is unsettling for them.
- Some players have a Voltron deck and really enjoy playing it. They will naturally care quite a bit, given how important the CD rule is to their deck’s power level and enjoyment of the game.
- Even when not playing Voltron decks, some players want to keep CD because they anticipate the world without it simply making their preferred strategies ‘worse’ and lead to some kind of imbalance in the game they know love. In some ways, this could be seen as a halfway-horse between 1 and 2.
- Other players either wouldn’t notice or care if CD was removed. Even currently, they sometimes play games and only realise after the game that everyone forgot that someone dealt enough CD to eliminate someone else before that player won. This doesn’t bother them that much.
While the examples I’ve listed above somewhat exemplify the thoughts of a few types of players, it’s important to note that there are likely far more types of players out there that I haven’t touched on. However, it’s my opinion that the examples above represent the largest forces at play in the playerbase and that most players can identify with one or more of them. The examples aren’t mutually exclusive – I think it’s quite possible that a player’s feelings on CD can incorporate some elements of each in any combination, but often one of the mindsets is going to be dominant – and that’s the one of interest here. As may already be apparent, I’m suggesting players with a similar mindset to 1, 2 or 3 probably care about CD’s role in the format while players who relate to viewpoint 4 probably don’t care as much.
In general, and based on what was said in the podcast episode, I think MaRo assumes that the vast majority (around 80%) of players adopt viewpoint 4, with only a minority of players agreeing with viewpoints 1,2 and 3. But this is just my interpretation of the podcast episode. My own opinion is that there are more who would care, with the split being more similar to 75%/25%. Again, at what point do I think the percentage of dissenting players is too high? Distancing myself as a player, the intuitive answer to me is 51% but something inside of me feels uncomfortable about a change that even 25% of the player base would be unhappy about, even though it’s a big minority numerically. Maybe I’m not thinking purely enough in pleasing a majority as much as possible (like MaRo) but this is probably an example of how players and game designers differ in their thinking.
In combining the two factors I consider important, I’d like to outline two prevailing scenarios, which assume perfect knowledge of how much CD matters and how many players care about it. If:
- CD matters 10% or more of the time AND 25% or more players care about CD. DON’T REMOVE
- CD matters 9% or less of the time OR 24% or fewer players care about CD. REMOVE
You might be wondering, what if…:
- CD matters 10% or more of the time AND 24% or fewer players care about CD?
- CD matters 9% or less of the time AND 25% or more players care about CD?
I think these scenarios are possible, but a bit paradoxical. To clarify:
- In A, if players know that CD mattered 10% or more of the time, I think maybe more than 24% would care about CD, so this percentage of caring players is likely to surpass 25%. What if I’m wrong about this and 75% or more players still don’t care about CD despite knowing it matters 10% or more of the time? This would probably convince me that pursuing the benefits of a world without it outweighs the drawbacks. Only a minority (at the level I’m happy with) will be put out by the change in this case.
- In B, if players knew that CD only mattered 9% or less of the time they might be a lot more amenable to its removal and so the percentage of players caring about it would likely shrink below 25%. If I’m wrong and that many (or more) players still wanted to keep it, I’d still likely maintain my view that something that only matters a small amount of time is outweighed by the simplicity conferred by removing it – unless a large portion of the player base still doesn’t want to lose CD in spite of this evidence. So for this one, I’d likely want the precise data to be conclusive.
Obviously, I’ve drawn lines in the sand at 10% and 25%. There are personal estimates to try and illustrate a rationale of why I lean a certain way based on the combination of the two factors I mentioned above. The science is not exact. I’m aware that 9% is only 1% away from 10% and that in practice maybe knowing CD matters 9% of the time has the same effect as knowing it matters 10% of the time. Having said this, hopefully, you identify my rationale for responding to the scenarios in the way I do.
Perhaps it’s now obvious that I’m generally quite open to CD’s contribution to the game being outweighed by having less to track. I’m personally a big believer in the positive contribution of accruing more players and helping newbies to the richness and positive aspects of casual formats. This may also contribute to why I attach value to reducing cognitive overload and not having rules for reasons that are no longer relevant.
When I first speculated on the subject, I thought that some players might believe that CD matters more often than it does creating the illusion of its importance to the fundamental functioning of the format. In a sense, I still think this is true, and I also think that how much importance some players attach to winning influences their opinion.
To paraphrase MaRo in the podcast episode (admittedly, while discussing ‘Fourth player advantage’ but I think it’s relevant here):
“In casual it’s more about having fun and hanging out with your friends, and who wins is not quite as important. Who wins is very fundamental to competitive Magic. However, who wins in casual is not as big a thing. It’s not unimportant, people want to win and it’s fun to win, but how much does winning a little more or a little less really matter?”
This is something I identify with as someone who plays both competitive and casual Magic. I definitely have a different mindset when I’m at a high-level event with prize money on the line as opposed to when I’m at a Command Zone, a local game shop, or a kitchen table. I would suggest that, for some, the importance of CD is inflated by a mindset of winning being strongly related to overall enjoyment. I’m not saying these players are ‘wrong’, more that they may have lost sight of the fact that winning games in this format is not necessarily as important to many other players.
By expanding on MaRo’s discussion and explaining how I feel about the different dimensions to this hypothetical suggestion, I hope to have provided some perspective for thinking more objectively about how often CD might matter in a given game and reasons why players might or might not attach importance to its role. Whichever way you lie, I’d be interested to hear your views.
As I suggested in my last article, I’m going to be playing a bit more Pioneer. Having seen the results of the first Players Tours, it feels convenient that Bant Spirits is one of the top contenders in the metagame – it means I don’t have to go too far for my next possible deck. I’ll also be listening to the next podcast episode where MaRo discusses Commander changes and if something from there inspires a future article, you may well see it soon.
You can find me on Facebook or Twitter @Chris54154 – feel free to hit me up with your thoughts online or if you see me at an event. I regularly attend competitive tournaments in the UK including Magic Fests and events that pave a pathway to the Player’s Tour. I also have a love of casual play including Commander and Cube.