What Makes Commander Fun

In this week’s article, Sheldon breaks down the reasons why he thinks Commander is the most popular casual format in Magic.

We sometimes get so lost in strategy articles, theorycrafting, card evaluations, and deckbuilding that we forget the big picture of why we play the format in the first place. To me, there’s a simple reason that Commander is the most popular casual format in Magic: it’s epically good fun. I’d like to break down for you why I think so. I’ll explore five major elements: Social Nature of Play, Challenging Deckbuilding, Cards You Never See, Cards You Never Get to Play, and Epic Board States.

Social Nature of Play

While there are other draws to the format that we’ll talk about shortly, the best thing for me is that the format is by design quite social. It’s beer-and-pretzels Magic. Multiplayer means that there are additional people to talk to. Sure, in 1v1 Magic, you communicate with your opponent, but you’re not likely to spend your time talking about new Game of Thrones episodes or why Anne Hathaway (and her leather) was so awesome in the last Batman movie. You have extra time after your own turn to launch into whatever chats you want, whether it’s about the game state ("Hey, can someone deal with that Lurking Predators?") or about Kafkaesque themes running through Breaking Bad.

You have that luxury because you’re not the only one paying attention to what’s happening on the current player’s turn. You don’t need to be a hawk to make sure he pays the right mana for spells or activates abilities in the correct order because there are two or three other people watching as well. It frees you up.

In many circles, the social nature of play also applies to how players win games. Mass land destruction and prison-type decks are frowned upon, not because they aren’t efficient (they can be terribly so) but because they create miserable games for other players. If a player is prison-locked, the time between turns goes from having the advantage of good conversation to the dreariness of waiting around to do nothing.

The social nature of play also impacts game state situations. In competitive Magic, you leap on advantages. If someone misses an early land drop, you use your Wasteland to set them back even further. That won’t happen in most Commander games. The guy that misses early land drops is more likely to get left alone for a while so he can catch up. We don’t necessarily care if we win games; we care that the games are awesome. Simply crushing someone who doesn’t have a chance isn’t really epic fun.

I was playing in game just recently where I was the guy behind on land drops but I had a Sol Ring and a Signet. The player to my right plopped out turn 3 Aura Shards. He blew up every good enchantment that I put out but made a point of leaving my mana alone. If I was ramping out lands, I have no illusions that those mana rocks wouldn’t have lasted long. He wanted me in the game, at least in the early-to-mid stages.

The social nature of play is best reflected in two things I’ve repeated for quite a while: "build casually, play competitively" and "create the kinds of games people will love to remember, not the ones they want to forget."

Challenging Deckbuilding

The limitations on deckbuilding are a significant part of the draw to Commander. The color identity and hybrid mana rules force you to make choices that you might not have to make in other formats (in Modern, for example, you can have Kitchen Finks in your Jund deck). Theme decks have become highly popular. Tribal theme decks are the most obvious, but themes take many other forms, like being built around sacrifice for Thraximundar; life gain for Trostani, Selesnya’s Voice; or +1/+1 counters for Animar, Soul of Elements. I’ve seen decks built with only cards that start with the letters of the player’s initials. I’ve even seen a deck built around the Book of Revelation.

There’s no limit to the imagination of Commander deckbuilders or how far they’re willing to take an idea to fit a theme. It means that not every Kresh deck you see will be identical to any other (there’s a guy at Armada who plays Kresh Humans for example). Sure, there are going to be similarities, but the 100-card singleton rule allows players plenty of room for expressing their personal creativity. Deckbuilding can end up rewarding not because of results-oriented factors but simply for the enjoyment of doing something interesting and unusual.

Cards You Never See

Some of the most fun games happen when you have to pick up and read the cards another person plays (like anything with banding). "What does that do?" is probably the most frequently asked question in the format. "How man cards do you have in your hand?" only gets asked when someone is about to Sudden Impact you (or Storm Seeker for even bigger style points). In competitive formats, there are few surprises. In Commander, surprises abound. A long time ago, someone called it "the dollar rare format," and while that may no longer be strictly true, the sentiment continues. In what other format does Storm Herd get there?

Players get mad props from each other for coming up with hidden gems, cards that end up playing well that no one would think of. There are lively Hidden Gem threads on the boards that I frequent. I’m always searching for the next Mirror Strike or Vorrac Battlehorns (go ahead, I’ll wait while you look it up), and I’m not alone in that search.

I combed through my decklists, and here’s just a sampling of outside-the-box cards I’m playing:  Copperhoof Vorrac; Llanowar Empath; Hunter’s Insight; Nantuko Vigilante; Nevermaker; Shivan Wurm; Slithermuse; Portcullis; Sun Quan, Lord of Wu; Vanish Into Memory; Guided Passage; Plague Boiler; Cerebral Vortex; Reflect Damage; Turn the Tables; Acidic Soil. The list could go on and on. Whether it’s from playing cards that don’t see play but fit into your theme or just cool effects that you’d like to have, the possibilities are legion.

Cards You Never Get to Play

Nearly every card ever printed in Magic is legal for play. The banned list is basically the Vintage list plus the addition of some cards that don’t work well with the format (like Biorhythm and Worldfire). Otherwise, you get to play cards that you might have loved at one time or another but don’t get to play anymore because they’ve rotated out or are banned in those competitive formats.

Do you remember loving Survival of the Fittest? You can play it. Have a Diamond Valley (or for better yet props Elephant Graveyard) collecting dust? It goes right into a deck. Jonesing for Oath of Druids? Build it. Just like with deckbuilding, your individual card choices are nearly infinite.

Epic Board States

Nearly every week I report some crazy thing that happened during the Armada Games EDH League. It goes to show you that not only do insane things happen but they happen with startling regularly. It’s battlecruiser Magic that’s more than just ramping into fatties. We’re not talking just sacrifice outlet Living Death plans here but wildness borne of interactions that you haven’t considered.

Just last week I included a picture of an Animar game with a turn that started with me having ten lands, Animar with one counter on it, and Possibility Storm[/author]“][author name="Possibility Storm"]Possibility Storm[/author] while another player also had Possibility Storm[/author]“][author name="Possibility Storm"]Possibility Storm[/author]. We know that Animar can get silly on his own, but in this case the turn ended with Rubblehulk; Flametongue Kavu; Yeva, Nature’s Herald; Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre; Wall of Roots; Sylvan Primordial; Roaring Primadox; Mischievous Quanar; Darksteel Colossus; Duplicant; Phyrexian Metamorph; Garruk’s Horde; Progenitor Mimic; Eternal Witness; and Venser, Shaper Savant all on the battlefield and Animar with 24 counters.

This all came from the fact that the two Possibility Storm[/author]“][author name="Possibility Storm"]Possibility Storms[/author] both triggered every time I cast a creature spell, allowing me to play more creature spells. Even if you only exile the original spell, you’ll still get two new ones. It was an interaction that we simply hadn’t thought of to that point. There was a Maelstrom Wanderer in there somewhere too. When Garruk’s Horde came into play, we remembered that Possibility Storm[/author]“][author name="Possibility Storm"]Possibility Storm[/author] only triggers on being cast from hand, so I didn’t have to spin the roulette wheel on the creatures on top of my library, another Possibility Storm[/author]“][author name="Possibility Storm"]Possibility Storm[/author] interaction we hadn’t thought of. The journey of discovery, especially leading to ridiculous board states, is one of the many fun things that can happen in this format.

Epic doesn’t always just mean someone plopping their hand onto the board and winning. It sometimes means trying to extricate yourself (and possibly others) from a tricky position. A few weeks back we had a game where the player with Rubinia Soulsinger had assembled a soft lock (I’d actually call it a medium because it wasn’t particularly soft and we weren’t on complete lock down, but I don’t think "medium lock" is a thing) with Seedborn Muse, Nephalia Smuggler, and Draining Whelk, adding Gavony Township to keep growing the size of his army. Since we knew he could counter a spell on each of our turns by blinking Draining Whelk with the Smuggler, we had to figure out how to play around it—baiting out the counterspell use with good stuff so that we could try to get through the great stuff.

He correctly didn’t counter a Momentous Fall for twelve (100% thanks to Primeval Bounty, one of my favoritest new cards), keeping it back to counter the Survival of the Fittest that would have gotten me Lord of Extinction. I would have next turn cast it and when it inevitably got countered then had the opening to cast Morgue Burst since he had conveniently put Boom Tube in the graveyard by countering it. Unfortunately for the rest of us, we didn’t get there.

Even though we didn’t work our way out of that situation and he swarmed us with giant creatures a turn or two later, it was fun nonetheless because we had to go outside the lines of normal play in order to figure out a solution to an otherwise lost situation. Obviously, it’s even more epic if we do manage to pull it out (a timely Trickbind would have been cool), but even without it’s one we’ll remember.

Another recent one that didn’t appear to be much started with a pebble that became an avalanche. I’m at 26, and it’s looking bad because everyone besides me has an army. The good news is that they’re all tapped out. Jesse (playing Animar, Soul of Elements) is at 20, Anthony (with Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter) at 40, and Shea (Karador, Ghost Chieftain) at 34, each with enough creatures to be dangerous to me and everyone else—the relevant one of which is Anthony’s Blood Artist. I have to do something or I’m toast.

I have one card in hand, Puppeteer Clique. I topdeck the big answer: Life’s Finale. I cast Life’s Finale, targeting Anthony, knowing that he’s going to lock me down with Yosei, the Morning Star anyway. This triggers Shea’s Lurking Predators, but he whiffs. Anthony points the triggers for all sixteen Blood Artist triggers at my head, taking me to ten and putting him at 56. I put Sepulchral Primordial, Angelic Skirmisher, and Angelic Arbiter in Anthony’s yard, floating the rest of my mana. I cast Puppeteer Clique, getting Anthony’s Sepulchral Primordial. That gets Shea’s Sepulchral Primordial, Jesse’s Maelstrom Wanderer, and Anthony’s Yosei.

Next Primordial gets Jesse’s Phyrexian Metamorph (which copies Primordial), Shea’s Angel of Despair (which is going to blow up his Maze of Ith), and Anthony’s Angelic Skirmisher (which I know is going to say lifelink when I attack). The next Primordial gets Jesse’s Clone (obviously copying Primordial), Anthony’s Blood Artist, and Shea’s Restoration Angel (which blinks a Primordial). Two more triggers give me more creatures with no relevant abilities except for an Acidic Slime that takes out Shea’s Lurking Predators, which doesn’t matter all that much anymore because there probably aren’t too many more spells getting cast in this game.

Due to Jesse’s Maelstrom Wanderer, my creatures have haste, meaning I get a useful combat step. I have to be careful, though, because there’s not 110 points of damage here. I can mill out people, but I can’t kill anyone because then I wouldn’t have their creatures available for milling. I have 69 combat damage to distribute, so I attack Anthony down to six and Jesse to one, leaving alone Shea. I then use Altar of Dementia to mill Shea with Anthony and Jesse’s creatures, killing them with Blood Artist and tapping down Shea with Anthony’s Yosei. I keep Shea’s creatures and my own and then kill him on my next turn.

The four of us are friends, and we play a fair amount together, so this might not happen in too many other games, but my actual favorite part of this situation was that the other three players were helping work out both which creatures to regrow in which order and then the combat math for maximum killing. Although it was already part of my calculations, someone was helpful enough to remind me that if a Clone was being regrown with Sepulchral Primordial, I couldn’t Clone something else that that Primordial regrew because they all enter the battlefield simultaneously.

This goes back to the social nature of play. They were all more interested in the cool thing happening and all of us having fun together than sneaking out a win due to a technicality or me punting something obvious. When I got the first Sepulchral Primordial, for example, Jesse immediately grabbed his graveyard and tossed Maelstrom Wanderer in my direction.

There are as many epic play stories as there are players. I’m sure you’ve had plenty of your own. Feel free to share them here or wherever you talk about the format online.


Commander is rabidly popular because it fulfills some of the joys of the game of Magic that players love, like building cool decks, finding unusual interactions, and choosing interesting cards, while adding an additional layer of social enjoyment that is unique to the format. It’s the version of Magic where there are the most laughs and the most wildly epic moments. It is and will continue to be the most fun you’ve ever had playing the game we love so much.

Embracing the Chaos,


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