Embracing The Chaos: Two-Fifty And Counting

Sheldon hits a milestone with article #250, reflects back on the past five years of writing and how Commander has grown in that time – and looks forward to the next five years of growth and change.

One day in mid-2009, Star City President and Lord Admiral of our Glorious Galactic Forces casually asked me if I was writing again. I said yes. He asked why I wasn’t writing for this here site, the best one in Magic. I said “you didn’t ask me.” He said something like “I’m asking now.” Our original agreement was for me to write about whatever I wanted (I was playing a fair amount of Standard at the time in an effort to prove that the average judge is a better player than the average non-judge; the jury is still out), and soon all I wanted to write about was EDH/Commander.

Two hundred fifty weeks and two hundred fifty articles later, here we are. A fair amount of water has passed under the bridge in the interim. We’ve had three different editors here at the site. We’ve had numerous people writing about the format. I ascended from Level 5 Judge to Judge Emeritus, went to a bunch of events as a spell-slinger (some of the most fun I’ve had in my life, especially at GenCon), became a member of the Pro Tour Coverage Team, and then retired from it all to go back to school.

We banned Painter’s Servant, Grindstone, Staff of Domination, Channel, Tolarian Academy, Rofellos (as a Commander), Emrakul the Aeons Torn, Erayo (as a Commander), Sundering Titan, Griselbrand, Worldfire, Primeval Titan, Trade Secrets, and Sylvan Primordial. Games got better.

We unbanned Worldgorger Dragon, Lion’s Eye Diamond, Staff of Domination, and Kokusho, the Evening Star (except as a Commander). The world didn’t end. We wrote a detailed philosophy document to carry the ban/unban vision forward. We wrote an internal policy on how change happens.

We’ve had two sets of preconstructed decks released and numerous individual cards designed specifically for the format. We’ve seen an explosion in the fan base, a take-off of web sites, and a new Rules Committee member. Like the world, the format has changed. It’s still a niche format compared to various Constructed and Limited formats, but it’s a far larger one than the quirky little format the judges were playing at Pro Tours circa 2005. Once the “dollar rare” format, we’ve had an impact on some card prices, especially for foil versions of staples (off the top of my head, I think Skyshroud Claim might be the most expensive foil non-land common outside of Brainstorm, but I’d have to double-check that). We, the fans of the format, are now legion.

Sure, we’ve had our bumps along the way, especially agreeing on the way to approach the format. I think that we’ve come far closer to what we originally set out to do than most people imagine. We wanted to create a broad experience which was then more-or-less customizable down at the group level and consistent on a large scale. I didn’t expect the vehement divide between the casual and competitive players, and to some extent I was responsible for fanning those flames — for which I’ve apologized several times, having realized that I wanted to unite the community, not fracture it. There’s room for all of us, especially if we talk to each other about our hopes and desires for the games we play. I’d love to see us continue the trend of making room for each others’ styles and finding the real bottom line of the format: people having fun.

So what do the next 250 weeks look like? As far as these pages go, I’d like to continue with some of your favorite features, like play-by-plays, new deck ideas, new card features, interviews with both characters from the Magic storylines and actual human beings, other peoples’ decks, and more. I’d love to develop some new features to go along with what we’ve already been doing, and you’re a major part of that. Crowdsourcing is a significant component of online communication in the twenty-first century, and while I don’t think we have to simply give in to populism (I’m not a fan of competitive art, like American Idol, because instead of the best art/artist, you get the ones that win competitions), the things that you’d like to see are nonetheless important to me. Feel free to ship me your ideas, no matter how wacky. You never know — one of you might have the next great idea that becomes a popular regular feature and revolutionizes this space.

As far as the format itself goes, there are a number of things I’m hoping for. The first is continued support from our friends in R&D at Wizards of the Coast. I’m happy with them pushing the envelope in card design, both specifically for Commander and indirectly. I know they make cards with an eye on multiplayer formats in general, and I’m pleased to take the bleed-over. I look forward to more clever multiplayer mechanics like will of the council. There’s a great deal of design space there and I hope they explore it. I’d like to see them tinker around a little more with the commander itself. There could be cards that get better when the commander is in play — perhaps even a cycle of them in each color. They’d get color-appropriate abilities. For example, the black one might get +2/+2 and deathtouch and the blue one get +2/+2 and flying. I’d love to see the red one with some sort of saboteur ability (like Dwarven Vigilantes). Alternately, the creature could get some bonus when you cast your commander — some sort of buff until end of turn (perhaps infect, trample, or the ability to sacrifice it to do something) or +1/+1 counters. Both of those things could actually be combined on one card. All of that could pretty easily be ported over to an enchantment as well (“Whenever you cast your commander, [do stuff]” or “target creature [gets stuff]”) or even an instant in the vein of Savage Summoning.

The other way to go is with cards that make your commander better. Cost reducers are the first things that come to mind (“your commander costs {1} less to cast”), but you have to be super-careful there that you don’t create easy infinite combos, especially in the case of colorless ones. Evasion and buffs are the obvious ones, but there is more design space there as well. What if you could turn your commander into (or add the ability of) Arcanis the Omnipotent? Kresh the Bloodbraided? There could be an Aegis Angel variant that as long as it’s in play makes your commander indestructible. I’m really stretching here, but what if you could turn your commander into a planeswalker? It’d have to stop being a creature or maybe have some Gideon Jura-like ability. Okay, I think that idea is a little more complicated than it needs to be. How about something that makes your commander tuck-proof? The card would simply have to set up a replacement effect that sent it back to the command zone instead of the library. It could certainly be from any zone, which would include the stack. I think tuck is healthy for the format, but I also see that tuckproof (a new keyword?) would add another dimension.

With the addition of commander-specific benefits, I’d love to see commander-specific protections. Some sort of legend-slayer equipment would be cool. It could be red/green (artifacts with colors are all the rage these days), buff the creature and have it fight or deal damage directly commanders. I know it’s really asking for a whole bunch for a way to get rid of commander damage (I’d also love to have a way to get rid of poison counters other than Leeches, but that’s a different conversation). The problem I see, at least in my own group, is that there is the general lack of representation of commander damage. We’ll sometimes remember to use a die, but most of the time, it’s memory (which admittedly isn’t the best way to do things) or if someone is going to kill you with commander damage, it’ll be in one shot. It shouldn’t be too difficult, though. I could also see some kind of Veteran Bodyguard-like creature that soaked commander damage for you.

In 250 more weeks, I can see more variations on the format developing. There’s already a pretty good board full on the official forums, and I expect that trend to continue. What I’m most hoping for is someone to come up with a great cooperative variant — like the Zombie Horde one, only better. A good variant would involve both cooperative and competitive goals — so your Draining Whelk won’t be completely wasted. There would still be reasons for you to counter the other players’ spells or destroy their creatures, like short-term individual goals or something that lead to group goals — or maybe positioning within the group. No one can win unless the group achieves the goal, but once the group hits its milestone, what the individual player has done to forward the team goals matter (this actually sounds like a good idea for any kind of game). I’d love to spend some serious brainpower on this, but it’s going to have to take a back seat for now, what with school and all. I’m sure there are people more creative than I am who could give this some thought.

One of the other things I’m still dreaming of is a Commander Invitational, featuring some of the format’s luminaries and the odd celebrity. The logistics of getting together the people we want when we want in a forum we want are going to be the snarly part. I think we’ll simply have to face the fact that we’re not going to be able to get everyone who we’d really love to be a part of it involved. Of course, the capital resources for such a thing are also an issue, meaning it might be better served as a part of some other event.

Talking about an Invitational leads me to my biggest hope for the future: Commander events. Not tournaments, events. What’s the difference? A tournament is a competition. An event is where people come together for enjoyment of a shared interest. A Grand Prix is an event. It has the Grand Prix tournament, but it also has many other things: side events, dealers, artists, gunslingers, and people who enjoy the game of Magic in its multitude of forms. The sticky wicket here is preventing the devolution of games — which is why tournaments, at least in the traditional sense, would not be the focus. When you bring together a bunch of people, you’re going to get some wildly divergent views on what’s the best way to do things or what’s acceptable. If you’re offering big prizes for tournaments, you’ll get that devolution. I imagine Commander events to be more like a Ren Faire. Sure, there are a few people in armor actually hacking at each other, but for the most part, it’s about immersing oneself into the experience. You put on some old-timey clothing, eat a turkey leg, and watch the ThreeWackyBardsmen perform the entire Shakespeare canon in 22 minutes (I guarantee they’ll skip over Coriolanus, to my mind one of his greatest pieces of work; it’s the best play no one has seen). It might be that these events start limited in scope (“okay, a bunch of us are going to GenCon two days early, join in if you want to”) and grow into a thing. It’s just that there is a no-longer-insignificant number of Commander fans. Us having our own thing would be cool. Once again, resources drive everything, so that’s where we’d have to start — which is why attaching it to something else might be worthwhile.

In 250 weeks, the banned list is likely going to be larger than it currently is. We’re committed to keeping it as trim and tight as possible, but there will be 20+ sets between now and episode 500. There are going to be a few cards which simply interact poorly with the format (Worldfire is a prime example). I know that this isn’t the only format that R&D is designing cards for, so there will be times when something new simply won’t do for us, and that’s fine. Just like there are draft bombs which are unplayable in Standard, there will be cards which we’ll be better off without. We’re also committed to constant review of the cards on the list. I wouldn’t hold out too much hope for Balance to get out of jail, but there are a few other cards which might in 250 more weeks seem kind of inoffensive or even quaint. The game of Magic will change — there will be new card types, keywords, and abilities.

I believe the format itself won’t undergo any radical modifications — there will still be commander damage, color identity and the like, but the way we look at the format will probably be different, just like our outlook is different today than it was back then. We’re moving into a period of the format’s maturity, and with that maturity comes slower, more incremental change. Back in 2009, we were still relatively undeveloped and things could (and sometimes needed to) change quickly. We were The Little Format That Could, and now we’re moderately sophisticated. 2009 was the late spring; 2019 will be the height of summer. Let’s hope that it will be long, fruitful, and healthy (and without sunburns). I certainly hope that when episode 500 comes around, you’ll all still be here with me, Embracing the Chaos.