The Genesis

Sheldon begins going over the history of Commander from how the format got started through the EDH Challenge at Worlds 2004.

I thought that a great way to kick of 2013 would be to talk about the genesis of the format, about some of the thoughts and ideas that got the first rocks rolling into the avalanche that it has become. I’ll confess that some of my memories about the earliest days are a little fuzzy. It’s not like the format EDH has become was a top-down design with a planned-out development. I wasn’t taking too many notes along the way. The format developed quite organically, as I think the best things do. The sculpting came later when some great minds like Gavin Duggan’s got involved to help codify what we were doing.

As we get further away from when and where things actually happened, the details of exactly what happened in which order get somewhat cloudier, but this is more about the why of things and what I remember as having motivated ideas and changes. In the modern era of the format (let’s call that 2007 and forward), things are more well documented. Today, I’ll talk about events leading up to and including the big EDH Challenge at Worlds 2004. Down the road (sooner rather than later), we’ll talk about some of the formative events and mindsets of the middle and then recent years.

It all started back in Anchorage, Alaska when I was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base. I was a part of a great gaming group which included my ex-wife Lisa, David and Ariel Phifer, Adam Staley, Brent Yocum, and Jameson Fisher, among others. We played Magic, we played RPGs, we hit all the nerd culture tropes with startling frequency, gathering at David’s “The Place To Be” at a minimum of every Monday night.

One of those Monday nights, the group was already playing this “new format that Staley came up with” when we showed up (although there is some evidence that someone writing in an early issue of The Duelist had a similar idea much earlier). I remember taking a quick look at it before playing the latest PlayStation rage, Hot Shots Golf. It wasn’t all that unusual for a new Magic format to come across our transom, so I just kind of shrugged and got to the Hot Shots (and probably a movie, which had a reasonably good chance of being “Snatch” since that was what we were always watching at the time). It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I eyeballed it a little more closely. The second glance became more significant than the first.

The format—being played by five people, each with one of the Legends Elder Dragons as their general—didn’t really have a banned list, but a gentleman’s agreement of cards to not play. Back then, the format was true singleton, so even basic lands were one-ofs. The agreement was to play no nonbasic hate (we’re talking Back to Basics, not Wasteland). That was it. I know that by the time I wrote the original article in August 2004, Test of Endurance and the Wishes were already banned, but I don’t remember if they made the list right away. I’m pretty sure that nonbasic hate was never formally banned.

The rules set of the time was pretty simple. Decks were exactly 100 cards, including the general. You couldn’t generate mana outside your general’s colors (not being able to include a card outside your colors was added later). If a general would be exiled (which is a term I’m pretty sure we were using), it would go to the graveyard instead. You started the game with life equal to 200 divided by the number of players in the game (so yes, when you played 1v1, you started at 100). If you took 21 damage (of any kind) from a general, you lost no matter your life total.

We had been playing a fair amount of multiplayer “regular” Magic for a while already, although I don’t recall having played too much Singleton. I’m pretty sure that we played with everything being legal in those “regular” games except ante cards. One of my decks (and now I’m not even sure that I had multiple multiplayer decks) featured four Blood Pets and four Quirion Sentinels as a method of recurring Living Death. What kept us mostly in check was that no one had or was interested in playing Power coupled with relatively small collections. We also didn’t put too much effort into it. With FNM and PTQs and other gaming, we only got together for multiplayer stuff every now and again.

Anyway, the first thing that struck me about the format was something that I had been thinking about for some time already: the idea of limitations. We had previously done theme nights (“all the creatures in your deck have to be Goblins” or whatever) and some Pauper tournaments which had been fun, and I really liked the idea of building around a more restrictive set of rules. It seems easy to build something good (or broken) when you have access to everything. When you intentionally limit the card pool, you need to reach deeper into your bag of tricks.

I probably also held the idealistic but unreasonable idea that limitations could keep people from building completely broken decks, fostering a more social atmosphere, which is what I loved about those multiplayer games in the first place. We played many of those social games in a cyber café called The Cyber Cup, and it was as much about drinking coffee, having laughs, and eating pastries as it was about beating down with Blastoderm. At the time, these were distant, nearly subconscious thoughts, but I’m sure they laid a great deal of the groundwork for the future format.

We talked about the format a fair bit and started planning on expanding it to more than the original five but maintaining the “one general per person” idea. Choices were comparatively limited back then, but there were still more than enough good legends for the dozen or so people in our extended group. The first card I ever suggested banning was Biorhythm. It was clear that at worst, it was always an auto-draw. Indestructible wasn’t really a thing, so there weren’t too many wins that way, but games were devolving to Biorhythm battles.

Remember that this was a time when the creatures weren’t so great so there weren’t really too many creature strategies. There certainly weren’t any “generate a zillion tokens” strategies. The idea was to get just one or two more creatures into play than anyone else, cast Biorhythm, and attack for lethal whomever you hadn’t already killed. I don’t think the Alaska group ever actually got around to banning it, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t get played in my own group after I left there. It didn’t get officially banned until a bit later.

The second thing I suggested was allowing multiple basic lands, an idea that was shouted down and roundly rejected. My parentage may have even come into question. The principles really wanted to stick to the “true singleton” nature of the format, which I appreciated from a philosophical standpoint. The problem that I saw was that you were really at the mercy of your land draws, especially since there weren’t as many good land-specific Tutors at the time. There was Rampant Growth from Mirage, Harrow from Tempest, and a card that has now become a format staple, Skyshroud Claim—but no one was playing it.

We were still in the days before Onslaught and the original fetchlands came out (which was October 2002), so getting the colors you needed was sometimes difficult. If you weren’t in green, you were pretty much out of luck unless you wanted to use Demonic Tutor to get lands. Even then, it was certainly a challenge to simply find enough lands to fill out your deck. People were playing all sorts of jank just to get to that 37th or 38th one. The cycling lands from Urza’s Saga were popular, as were the lairs. We actually thought that the lairs were super tech, especially since you could bounce a cycling land back to your hand.

Even after all the discussions and planning, I never actually played before moving to Virginia in 2003. There were other formats, not to mention other games (including what had become a thoroughly engaging Sunday afternoon RPG) to be played, and talking about the format while doing other things was less time consuming than actually playing. Nonetheless, I was still pretty excited about the idea of the format. After getting settled in, I quickly found a new group of casual players, including Justin Norris, Brian Ponzar, Todd Hughson, and Chuck Weaver. Not long after, I asked if they wanted to try out this interesting format, and they agreed. For a while, we bounced back and forth between EDH and “regular” multiplayer, but soon EDH was all we played.

Right from the start in Virginia, I suggested the basic Land change. Primarily it was because the guys had much, much smaller collections and were even more casual players than the Alaska group. I believe at that point none of them had even been to a PTQ. It felt like they would really struggle to put together enough lands for a cohesive deck, so I ran the idea up the flagpole. They all agreed, and it became the standard for the format.

Folks read about the format in an article I wrote in August 2004. I had already introduced it to a few judges, but the most significant early event in the format’s history was the EDH Challenge we ran at Worlds 2004. Both Pete Jahn and I have reports on it in the article archives if you want to check them out.

Post-event, Balance and Worldgorger Dragon became the first “miserable to play against” bannings. We were still in a time when comparatively few games had actually been played and many possibilities had yet to be explored, so we hadn’t seen much of what could go terribly wrong. With Worldgorger, I wasn’t so much against combo (I seem to recall running Palinchron combo at the time)—I was against easy, early combo. I don’t need to tell anyone how bad Balance is.

The next issue I resolved was about the general itself. Even though it determined the colors one could play, it started the game shuffled into the library, so there was no guarantee you’d be able to cast it. I don’t recall specifically the moment that it occurred to me to have it start the game in the RFG zone, but in retrospect, I wonder why we didn’t think of it even sooner. I had known for a little while that I wanted the general to be more significant than just choosing colors without it going the other way and being too important. The “Rofellos Rule,” of the general costing at least six the first time you cast it came from this idea, although that was later changed by just getting rid of Rofellos.

The Wishes got unbanned here as well. I think it was Duncan McGregor’s idea initially, pointing out that exile effects are far more powerful in a singleton format because you don’t have the second, third, and fourth copies of a card to fall back on. Unbanning the Wishes and Ring of Ma’Ruf would allow players to get cards that had been “RFG’d” but not allow the silliness of Wish-boarding with binders.

This was also when Phelddagrif became my signature deck. I had been playing Arcades Sabboth, which was one of the original five (not to be confused with Battlestar Galactica’s Final Five), and I wanted to start beating down with a purple hippo instead. It didn’t really change the deck composition much, but since my general change corresponded to the rule change, I certainly ended up casting it far more frequently.

My mindset in the earliest days of the format was far less refined than it is today. I didn’t have the benefit of the experience that all these years shepherding EDH have given me. I also didn’t have the benefit of some giant Magic brains like we now do on the RC. I had a loosely defined idea of how I wanted to shape things, which was nothing like the finely honed philosophy we have today. I hope this has been an interesting look into those ancient days. Soon enough, we’ll explore the middle years and EDH’s meteoric rise.