Today’s article is a guest submission from Sam Waters, our local EDH Advisor. I had previously enlisted his help with building my Tazri Deck, which I now play on a regular basis. (That list needs updating.) Sam has taken a break from thesis writing to give a detailed essay considering the question “Should you play Commander?”
Mark Rosewater is fond of saying that one of Magic’s greatest advantages is its adaptability and flexibility. Other games may be simpler or more intuitive, quicker to jump into and certainly cheaper, but almost nothing compares to Magic’s endless customisation. Whether you’re taking your first steps at a Prerelease or navigating the weird and terrifying world of Vintage, there is a niche for everyone to enjoy the game in exactly the way they want to. Like squeezing every bit of value from of a truly terrible pile? Play Draft. Want a massively multiplayer brawl? Star or Emperor will oblige. Perhaps competitive games just aren’t your thing? Horde Magic is a fully co-operative experience. Or if you’re seeking a white-knuckle ride where the slightest mistake will cost you everything, including your friends…why, the Judge’s Tower is right over there!*
For me, this diversity is the true beauty of our game. No card is good everywhere, but almost every card is good somewhere. But of all the myriad ways to play, there is one format that has exploded in popularity in recent years. A format that has captured the casual consciousness, invented by Magic’s fans rather than its creators. A format as malleable as the game itself, one tailorable to every desire. A format where you really can play exactly what you want- and win with it.
EDH. Elder Dragon Highlander. Or, as it is known today- Commander.
Commander is a multiplayer format, usually played in groups of three to five. Each player begins with 40 life, you may only have one of each card (excluding basic lands) in your 100-card deck, and the colours you can play are dictated by the titular Commander: a legendary creature which serves as the centrepiece of your strategy. Each time your Commander leaves the battlefield it may be recast from the “command zone”, at the cost of an additional two mana each time. More details can be found at the Rules Committee’s official site- http://mtgcommander.net/rules.php.
The goal of this first article is to offer an overview of the format as a whole. We’ve already spoken about the basic rules, but what I want to do now is give you a sense of what playing Commander feels like. I’m going to talk a bit about how the games play out, the general habits and attitudes of the community, and why you’d want to start playing it- and, perhaps, why you might not. If you’re just discovering the format for the first time, or you know a little but are on the fence about jumping in, this is the article for you. Much of what I’m about to say may, therefore, be old news to experienced Commander fiends, and from them, I beg a little patience whilst I get everyone else caught up.
So, why play Commander? First, it offers a unique experience at a fraction of the cost of other formats. Not only does Wizards of the Coast print yearly preconstructed decks to assist entry into the format- which contain what are easily some of the best Commanders ever- the bar for what constitutes a playable card is very, very low. I am barely exaggerating when I say you could stand a decent chance of winning a Commander game with a handful of basic lands and the contents of the nearest bulk rare box. Everyone has pet cards that were a little too expensive or underpowered to cut it in the harsh worlds of Standard or Modern, but here finding the perfect home for such cards is all part of the fun. The singleton rule adds a unique deckbuilding challenge and also means there’s no need to hunt down a playset of the latest mythic dragon or planeswalker before going to battle. There’s no rotation to worry about and cards are rarely banned- and even when they are, the format actively encourages the use of house rules if they make the game more fun for your local group. For the time and/or budget-conscious Magician, Commander is easily the most accessible Constructed format.
Commander’s second advantage is its humongous card pool. As an Eternal format with a tiny banned list, nearly every card throughout the game’s 25-year history is legal. If you like your Magic high-powered and no-holds-barred, Commander can provide- the mana is smooth enough to make a Legacy mage weep and the spells are among the most absurd the game has ever produced. If you play Magic to truly test your skills, there are few challenges as difficult as a properly cutthroat Commander game. Imagine a four-man game of tournament Vintage with a wider effective cardpool and you’ll begin to get the idea.
Yet if that sounds intimidating, don’t worry. Unlike normal tournament formats, Commander is rarely played at the bleeding edge. Its creators describe it as a “social” format and its rules are designed explicitly with the aim that everyone playing should enjoy themselves as much as possible. To paraphrase Jurassic Park, just because you can do horrifyingly broken things in this format does not necessarily mean that you should do them. But neither does it mean you should not do them if broken is what everyone at the table wants. In practice, this means that most groups or local stores tend to find their way to a power level that most people are comfortable with, albeit one that may differ significantly from place to place. In fact, many players deliberately maintain a variety of power levels amongst their decks to make sure it’s a fair(ish) fight, and so the average Commander game tends to be reasonably lengthy and interactive. The format is big and popular enough to support all playstyles and power levels, and that’s great whether you’re here to win or just for the beer and pretzels.
Finally, and I think most importantly, Commander is wish-fulfilment personified. I ask you, dear reader: what is best in life? What’s the greatest thing you could possibly do in a game of Magic? Do you want to refight the great battles of the official story, like Urza’s war against the Phyrexians or the Gatewatch’s ill-fated scrap with Nicol Bolas? Winning a game at 1 life with a Fireball pointed at your face? It could be something simpler, like seeing just how high your life total can go or how many tokens you can make without going infinite. Or maybe a pet deck of yours never quite got there during its Standard lifespan and now you want to port it over to a different format. Whatever your answer, Commander lets it happen…and the next thing you think of, and the one after that. More than any other, it is the format of epic stories, of roars of laughter and cries of bloody vengeance.
But Commander also has its downsides, and they are real and significant. The politics and complexity of multiplayer play might not be your cup of tea, and although various 1v1 variants of the format exist none of them really succeed in preserving the magic of it (I’ll talk more about this in a future article). As said before, the games last many turns and they can often drag on a bit, particularly if there are more than four players.
It is also important to recognise Commander isn’t remotely balanced in the normal, competitive sense of the term. The Rules Committee that runs the format takes a deliberately hands-off approach, banning cards only when absolutely necessary and encouraging individual players and local groups to regulate themselves with a social contract rather than relying on the rules to do it for them. For some players, this approach is criminally negligent- the worst kind of absentee-landlordism which allows clearly overpowered cards and combos to run rampant. It’s the Magic equivalent of leaving the alcoholic alone with your liquor cabinet and expecting them not to get drunk: naïve in principle, the argument goes, and unworkable in practice.
The inherently casual nature of the format creates another, related problem. In most formats, anything that’s legal is fair game for us to use. If the most effective tactic available is to drop Emrakul the Promised End on Turn 4 through Aetherworks Marvel, that’s what people will do, and if that’s “too powerful” we naturally think it’s WotC’s responsibility to sort it out. Not so in Commander, where the available card pool is simply too large to be policed in the same way. Thus, we are asked to decide for ourselves what isn’t acceptable to play, whether through explicit house rules or a more unspoken gentleman’s agreement not to play certain cards or strategies.
The problem with this, of course, is that what we enjoy playing against varies a lot from player to player, and navigating the social minefield of everyone’s likes and dislikes can be exhausting. This is especially the case if you don’t have a fixed group for whatever reason, or if your personal idea of the most awesome thing ever clashes with what most Commander players find fun. Let’s face it: it’s not great to be told nobody wants to play against your favourite deck because you happen to adore prison strategies or mass land destruction, and drama over what’s within the spirit of the format can damage or even kill playgroups. The player who just wants to play Magic without particularly worrying about other people’s feelings- and I mean no criticism by that- can easily have a rough time playing Commander. The format explicitly acknowledges that its written rules are insufficient to properly balance it, and a social contract of some kind (even one as basic as “don’t be a dick”) is needed to get the best out of it. For more competitively-minded players who would naturally seek to optimise their decks as much as possible, the idea of voluntarily restricting themselves for the sake of their playgroup’s fun may be difficult to swallow.
Ultimately, however, I think most of these problems are solvable as long as you can find people to play with who enjoy the game in the way that you do. That’s not a trivial task, but it’s easily the most rewarding way to enjoy the format and the payoff really is worth it. Be prepared to talk to people you don’t know very well about the kind of games you want to play, and to switch to a different deck if needed. Don’t be afraid to (politely!) walk away from a table that looks like it’s not going to be fun for you, either. There’s no sense in a game that nobody involved will really enjoy.
So that’s Commander in a nutshell. Are you in? I certainly hope you are- for my money, it’s the greatest format ever invented. If you’ve made it this far I hope to have at least given you enough information to help you make up your mind, one way or the other. If you’re already an aficionado of the 100 cards, I thank you for sticking with me through this introduction. Next time, we’ll start talking about how to do well at the format: what goes into building a Commander deck, including how to select a Commander and the various types of strategy you might pursue.
Until then, may you always be the one in command.
*For more on this most bizarre of formats, see here (http://judgetower.pdxmtg.com).