To wrap up 2016, I thought I’d head to the mailbag. Your questions are always compelling, often insightful, and frequently inspiring. As I normally do for these Q&A sessions, I solicited questions on several online forums a week or so in advance and then picked up on the most interesting ones. Let’s get right to it.
The first question needs a little contextualization. On the message boards on which I asked for the questions for this piece, I mentioned that my current graduate research project is called “Coming to Terms: Un-Frenching the English in Henry V.” The short (and oversimplified) version of the work’s thesis is that, in addition to winning military victories against the French, Henry kicks the French out of his language. I won’t discuss more of it here, but if it’s the kind of thing which interests you, feel free to reach out via PM or email. It’s a topic I’m very happy to discuss.
En voyant ce que EDH est devenu, Que feriez vous de différent si vous le pouviez? (Here is a little practice opportunity for you to un-French the message boards!)
Like Henry in the play (as opposed to the real-life Henry V, who was likely fluent in the language), I understand enough French to make sense out of the question: seeing what Commander has become, what would you do differently if you could?
I’d figure out how to guarantee I made more money out of the whole thing. I’m not sure what that would involve, since it’s not likely that I would have had any reasonable intellectual property claim. Perhaps the simple answer—again, hindsight being 20/20—would be to have stocked up on foil Karmic Guides. As far as the format itself goes, I would have produced the philosophy document a few years earlier than we actually did. It would have focused our efforts in the early days as well as helping fans of the format better understand what we were trying to accomplish from the get-go.
If you were to turn Shakespeare into a Commander deck, what commander and theme would you use? Also, from which works would you draw inspiration?
Henry V is probably my favorite play, so I’d start there. I’d want to choose a Soldier, since that’s how Henry identifies himself a number of times, like in Act 5, Scene 2, when he’s wooing Catherine of France (“If thou would have such a one, take / me; and take me, take a soldier; take a soldier, / take a king”). I might ask my local group if I could use the partner mechanic with Odric, Lunarch Marshal and Odric, Master Tactician—representing the title character’s move from the exuberant Prince Hal to masterful King Henry.
Excepting that, I’d go with Tajic, Blade of Legion, who is better when he inspires others into battle with him. I might also consider developing something out of Coriolanus, the best Shakespeare play no one has ever heard of (which has a great film adaptation starring Gerard Butler and Ralph Fiennes). The play might be a little too politically-driven to build an interesting deck out of. Of course, you could also build a Richard III deck with a commander that everyone hates, like Nekusar, the Mindrazer.
Commander 2016 brought us legendary creatures with the Partner mechanic; what’s your opinion on that? A good idea, executed well? A good idea, executed poorly? A cop-out idea because Wizards couldn’t come up with more than one legitimate four-color design?
A good idea, well-executed. I love the idea and hope that they return to it at some point. As I mentioned in my review, the mechanic opens plenty of possibilities. The creatures with partner are interesting without being broken. Regular readers know that I’m a fan of the modular approach to things. I think my favorite commander with partner is Ikra Shidiqi, the Usurper, since I love B/G/x decks and I love battling.
Follow-up: I’d assume you (like me) are going to build four-color decks to fill out your roster; who’s going to head those decks, and will you be using any Partners for it?
Yes, like you, I’ll be building all five possibilities for the four-color decks.
My current plan is to use the four-color commanders to fill out my list and then return to the ones with partner to figure out those which most inspire me (again, Ikra Shidiqi being somewhere near the top of the list).
Do you think they open interesting avenues for decks which might have been previously difficult to construct?
I don’t know if they’ve opened up ground for a new archetype or anything, although Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis puts a different kind of face on Group Hug decks. They did a nice job design-wise of not making each of the four-colored commanders about the missing color.
Do you like the recently printed four-color legendary creatures? Out of the five, who do you find the most interesting?
I like them all save for Breya, Etherium Shaper, which just doesn’t seem to live up to the other four. Yidris, Maelstrom Wielder probably suggests the most different builds, while Atraxa, Praetor’s Voice seems the strongest.
What Magic creature best represents Christmas to you?
Assuming I can’t pick any of the creatures created specifically for holiday mailings (the top answer being Fruitcake Elemental), it’s clearly Arcum’s Sleigh.
Has there been any uptick in chatter over the past six to twelve months on whether particular, specific cards should be banned? In other words, is there any particular card people are talking about much more now than they used to? I remember you saying somewhere that Iona, Shield of Emeria had been a more popular topic of discussion recently, but I might be just wishful thinking.
Not really. After banning Prophet of Kruphix, we got into a particularly good spot.
Iona has probably generated the most noise, although discussion of Sol Ring certainly hasn’t died down.
As we pass through this Holiday season, what is the one thing non-Commander related that you are most thankful for?
That’s a slam dunk. I have an amazing partner in my wife Gretchyn, who is simply put the finest human being I have ever met. She’s brilliant, insightful, kind, and fun. I really couldn’t ask for things at home to be more perfect.
What is the thing you are most thankful for, in regards to the Commander format?
The fans, who make the work we do worthwhile. It gives me a great deal of pleasure to see or hear of people getting together, playing, and having epic experiences.
As we enter the New Year, if the format itself could be personified and have a resolution, what do you think it should be?
The format would be like everyone else who makes a resolution—it would be to go to the gym more.
Do you do anything special, holiday related, with your Commander group?
Not specifically, but then again my group also contains some of my closest friends, so we end up seeing a great deal of each other outside of playing Magic.
What literary or historical culture/world would you like to see realized in MTG? We’ve seen bits and pieces of Lovecraftian lore in recent sets and I’ve been talking adamantly with some friends about some of the Utopian Star Trek-like elements that seem present in pieces of Kaladesh, but is there something you’d like to see?
Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series would be an outstanding setting for a Magic set. It has a powerful villain, legendary heroes, and sufficient uniqueness for the talented folks of R&D to explore. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series has enough cultures and races to provide great fodder for a set—the Aiel being the coolest race ever in any fantasy series.
I am going to go with the cliche of all MTG questions: What is your favorite Magic card?
The answer has been the same ever since Tempest came out: Living Death.
Do you read banlist discussions? If so, then what is the most ridiculous or out of place card you’ve seen discussed?
I do indeed read them (although I frequently skip ahead during the Sol Ring discussions). There are often out-of-place cards, because people will post about the latest card to annoy them. Zendikar Resurgent recently came up and I was totally confused. That card seems emblematic of the format—expensive and epic.
What are underrated or niche cards you been playing with recently?
One of my recent favorites has been Keep Watch, which you can play during anyone’s combat for extreme value.
I’ve used it a number of times when being attacked to draw into an answer. One of those answers is Equal Treatment, a real hidden gem. I’m still waiting to use it to kill someone whose is at two life with a 1/1. Once, I cast Keep Watch which got me Equal Treatment, but it still wasn’t enough to save me—but since it’s a cantrip, I cast it looking for answers. The result was a nicely timed Holy Day.
What mono-red cards do you believe are the most powerful in the format that do not involve land destruction and are not named Vandalblast?
Does Pyromancer’s Goggles count as a red card? Because if so, that one. The strongest actually (mono-) red card is probably Insurrection. It’s usually a game-winner.
What type of deck(s) have you been piloting lately?
I do my best to rotate through all 39 of the decks I have built, especially my new Animar Do-Over deck, which I enjoy because, while it can be a little busted with Animar on the battlefield, it has run extremely well without. Of course, I always enjoy playing my signature decks, but these days I’m more in the mood to run the newer ones.
Lotus Petal. Underrated, overrated or somewhere in between?
It’s perfect, because if I see someone playing it in Commander, I know exactly what kind of player they are.
What challenges do you foresee the Rules committee tackling next year and even perhaps the next three to five years?
One of the problems with hitting a great spot in anything—whether it’s a TV show, a relationship, or the format—is that even when it’s outstanding, people don’t want it to be the same all the time. The challenge will be keeping the format fresh without undercutting the philosophy or alienating our primary fans. That’s not to say that we’ll just randomly just make changes for their own sake, but we’ll be paying attention to make sure that the format doesn’t get stale.
Yawgmoth, Nicol Bolas, or Emrakul?
Are we playing Kiss, Marry, or Kill here? Kiss Emrakul because of that scene in Galaxy Quest, marry Nicol Bolas because he’d definitely take care of you, and kill Yawgmoth because he’s just nasty (and not in the good way).
On reflection, how do you feel about the removal of the “banned as a commander” list? Has it been a success by your measure?
It’s been successful since it did exactly what we wanted in simplifying understanding the banned list. Looking at the move in retrospect, I actually wish we had done it earlier.
Why is the Rules Committee so heavily opposed to allowing planeswalker cards to be legal choices for Commanders?
I disagree with your characterization that we’re “heavily” opposed. We don’t oppose planeswalkers as commanders any more than we oppose normal creatures or enchantments as commanders. Simply put, having legendary creatures as commanders is a foundational piece of the format, giving it part of its unique flavor. There’s no compelling reason to expand the definition of what can be a commander, since there are more than 600 choices.
What did you have for Christmas dinner this year?
We did dinner for fifteen people this year. For appetizers, we had crab meat flown in from Baltimore to make homemade mini-crabcakes, roasted some local Florida shrimp for a classic shrimp cocktail, and made a version of our goat cheese and roasted red pepper dip. For the main course, we slow roasted a beef tenderloin (225F for two hours and then crusted it under the broiler) and picked up some smoked turkey. As sides, we had potato/fennel gratin, broccoli casserole, maple/walnut butternut squash, and a version of Waldorf salad. For drinks, we started with Le Grande Courtâge Grande Cuvee Blanc de Blancs Brut, a French sparkler. We moved onto a host of other wines from around the world, then finished with three rather special sweet wines with desserts. The first was a twenty-year-old Port, then a 1997 Château Rieussec Sauternes, and a 2013 Martinelli Jackass Hill Muscat.
I seem to recall that you know your wines. I’ve recently seen a cocktail suggested using absinthe and red wine, but very little indication on what particular sort of wine would be suitable for such a drink. If you were to attempt such a concoction, what red wine would you suggest?
I’m a little skeptical because absinthe tends to be flavored with bittering agents, which I imagine clashing with red wine. It’s also flavored with things like licorice and tarragon, so trying to complement those aromatics is the direction I’d go if I were forced (but I think I’d definitely have to be forced to give this a whirl). There are plenty of red wines with licorice or anise flavors in them—California Cabernet Sauvignon or Spanish Tempranillo probably being at the top of the list. I’d imagine that heavily-oaked versions of those would best suit the purpose.
Can I have Gifts Ungiven back?
No, because you’ve been nice without it, but if we give it back, you’ll be naughty.
Is there any Commander archetype that you wish was more playable?
Elephant tribal. Been waiting a while for a legendary Elephant, and all we have is Frankie Peanuts.
If Wizards told you that you could make any legendary creature you wanted and it would get printed in the near future, what would your card look like?
Stompy, Elephant Lord. 3GW
Elephants you control have trample and menace.
When an Elephant you control deals combat damage to an opponent, put a trumpet counter on Stompy, Elephant Lord.
Elephants you control get +1/+1 for each trumpet counter on Stompy, Elephant Lord.
Do you have any tips or guidelines on how to create a deck that is powerful but also fun to play against, all in accordance with the RC’s vision on the format?
That’s a pretty tall order, especially since powerful means different things to different people. It’s not necessarily what happens, but when it happens that are my best guideline. Dealing 1,000 damage on turn 3 does not lead to good games; dealing it on turn 12 is perfectly acceptable. A powerful deck which stays within our vision is one that doesn’t take the game away from the other players—so while Stax might be a strong win-con, it actively prevents players from participating. When it works well, everyone else is just an observer.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t protect yourself from what other people are doing—running some removal or graveyard hate is fine. I have a commonly repeated mantra when folks ask this question: create the games you’d love to remember, not the ones everyone would like to forget. For example, I don’t even remember or care who won the recent game I played which involved both Perplexing Chimera and Djinn of Infinite Deceits. I just remember that it embraced the chaos.
For the first part of your question, you can check out our Philosophy document, which lays out how and why we ban cards. For the second part, the short answer is that we don’t think they currently meet the criteria. We don’t ban cards lightly, taking a more conservative approach. We prefer a list which is as short as possible. We’d rather leave something borderline legal than ban it “just in case.” We don’t do “test” bannings, partially because the messaging to a broad audience is difficult, and banning something and then unbanning it can create a great deal of confusion. We don’t argue for why a card is unbanned; we only give reasons for why cards are banned. The cards you mention are certainly some of the most commonly-discussed.
Of the three, Derevi is the one most on our radar. I’ll say that we don’t simply ban every card which someone finds annoying or unlikeable. We want loads of potential archetypes for deckbuilders to explore, even if some of them don’t resonate with our personal styles.
Why is the phrase “(and others like them)” even on the ban list page? All it does is create dissent.
I disagree that all it does it create dissent. There’s clearly a hard-and-fast banned list, but we’d also like for those cards to be exemplars for others that your local group might also consider not playing with.
If you convinced your local group to house-rule Partner as a new rule on any commander, which two legendary creatures would you partner up to lead your deck?
I’m sure there’s something completely degenerate to be had there, which is why you can expect that we’d never implement such a rule (plus, it would make the ones that have it less special). I’d combine Karador, Ghost Chieftain with Meren of Clan Nel Toth for complete graveyard shenanigans. Use Meren in the early game, the Karador later.
In my league recently we had to implement a Dookie for infinite combos because the number of players complaining about it has been steadily increasing. By their own word, “it’s a Cold War and you’ll have to make us stop.” As a player who considers himself capable of self-restraint and not running something just because it’s good, this mentality frustrates me. So my question is, was this something you or BKM ever experienced in your leagues? How did you address the concern?
We did what you did—make the things we think lead to bad games into penalties. It still doesn’t prevent anti-social behavior, but it goes a long way to reducing it (if someone doesn’t care about league points, then they still do whatever they want). Socialization is the best answer, but I understand that it’s also the most difficult to implement. Having a polite conversation is a good start, but if it’s epidemic instead of just a few players, that’s a different challenge. The more extreme case is league ban of offending cards, but that doesn’t help with changing the mindset. I’ve heard of leagues limiting the number of iterations of any combo to five or ten at a time or per turn.
Who are your top five favorite artists of all time? Also, if there is someone from recent blocks who stands out as a great card artist to you? Does card art ever sway you to play one thing over another like it does me?
My favorites are the ones who are great artists with whom I’ve also developed good relationships, to include Rob Alexander, Terese Nielsen, rk post, and Steve Argyle. I’m not sure I’ve played a card merely for the art, but there have been times when I’ve chosen one version of a card over the other because I like that particular picture better.
If there was one card other than a basic land that you would absolutely recommend getting in foil over nonfoil, what would it be?
Decree of Pain is the first one which comes to mind. The contrast foiling produces on dark cards can be quite attractive.
How do you feel about the slowly increasing number of players who think that WotC should take over the format?
I feel like summarily rejecting the notion, since you’ve invented a “fact.” I don’t deny that some people might think it; I just hear it less these days than in the past.
How do you keep deck ideas fresh and avoid doing what you have done before while still building lists that last and you want to keep together for a while (years, sometimes)?
This is the eternal question for those of us who love creating and constructing decks. The Do Over Project has helped, since I can’t use any of the original 99 in the build. I’ve also attempted building decks from the limited number of foils I have on hand instead of designing them first and constructing them later.
There have been many blocks in the past with multiple factions and mechanics unique to those factions, such as Alara, Ravnica, Khans, and Return to Ravnica blocks. This typically leads to less cards overall with those abilities. Which, if any, of these faction mechanics would you like to see used as a major mechanic in future blocks and why?
Ferocious seems like something which could exist outside of Khans of Tarkir block without too much difficulty, either mechanically or flavor-wise. Energy is a neat mechanic, but I suspect that it can get quickly broken if there are too many good cards dedicated to it.
I’m going to be proposing to my girlfriend of three years very soon. She is the love of my life and I’m confident she is going to say yes. This makes me a bit nervous, though, and I feel pressured to make it perfect and from the heart. How did you ask your lovely wife to marry you and how did you come to settle on that plan?
You’ve already answered your own question. Making it from the heart will make it perfect. You don’t need big, showy external things to make it special. Putting the engagement ring in the dessert or in skywriting seems to be more about the demonstration than the actual question (not to mention being overdone at this point). Make it about the two of you, not just you and not just her. When people are in a relationship, the relationship becomes a living entity. You’re still you, she’s still her, but there’s also the you-and-her. If you both pay attention to that, your relationship will stay successful. To that end, find a place that’s meaningful to both of you.
I asked Gretchyn to marry me on Election Night, 2004. We were already living together, but you never want to wait to do the good and important things in your life.
Thanks to everyone for the questions for this piece as well as all the readership, friendship, and support over the course of the year. Here’s to wrapping up 2016, which has been challenging for many people, in high style. Have a great and safe celebration over New Year’s Day.
Our normal Deck Without Comment feature will return in 2017.
Check out our comprehensive Deck List Database for lists of all my decks:
Lavinia Blinks; Obzedat, Ghost Killer; Aurelia Goes to War; Trostani and Her Angels; Lazav, Shapeshifting Mastermind; Zegana and a Dice Bag; Rakdos Reimagined; Glissa, Glissa; Ruric Thar and His Beastly Fight Club; You Take the Crown, I’ll Take Leovold; Gisa and Geralf Together Forever;
Shards and Wedges
Adun’s Toolbox; Animar’s Swarm; Karrthus, Who Rains Fire From The Sky; Demons of Kaalia; Merieke’s Esper Dragons; Nath of the Value Leaf; Rith’s Tokens; The Mill-Meoplasm; The Altar of Thraximundar; The Threat of Yasova; Zombies of Tresserhorn
If you’d like to follow the adventures of my Monday Night RPG group (in a campaign that’s been alive since 1987) which is just beginning the saga The Lost Cities of Nevinor, ask for an invitation to the Facebook group “Sheldon Menery’s Monday Night Gamers.”