A Commander Weekend With The Format’s Stars

Sheldon Menery shares how he celebrated Commander and good friends over an epic weekend and offers insights on making space for intentional gaming fun.

The First Iroan Games
The First Iroan Games (detail), illustrated by Noah Bradley

When you surround yourself with excellent people, wonderful things happen.  So it was this past weekend as I welcomed some of my local friends and a few luminaries from the Commander community here at the house for several days of nothing but Commander (well, also eating and drinking).  There was a plan for the weekend and we executed it.  I’m going to offer you a brief highlight of some of our games, all of which landed in the Commander sweet spot of getting each player significantly involved in each game. 

I’ve started doing monthly Commander Saturdays with the idea that you have to make a plan to play Magic in order to play a lot of Magic.  I’ve taken to calling them Commander Shel Games.  I have quite a bit of lost time to make up for.  I certainly wasn’t playing during the nearly seven weeks I spent in and out of the hospital, and it had been a month or so before that since I had slung spells on the stream due to trouble with my voice. Small wonder that I was champing at the bit to shuffle up and do some smashing.

Our Cast of Characters 

Long-time readers of the column will know a few of my local friends that were here. They include current Monday Night Gamer Keith, who plays more banding than anyone ever should, and former Monday Night Gamer Shea, whom we don’t get to see much since he moved to the other side of the state.  Also on the crew was former Magic Community Cup member Tom Delia, who happens to live nearby.  Tom is a nurse who ended up being one of the folks selected to go to the Super Bowl when it was here during the pandemic.  Our eighth ended up not being able to make it.

Dormant Volcano

There’s a strong chance you know the other three, all of whom came a long distance to hang out and see their old friend.  I’m lucky enough to count Gavin Verhey, David McDarby, and Jim LaPage as friends close enough to invite them into the house for several days at a time.  Gavin you’ll know as a Principal Magic Designer at Wizards of the Coast (WotC) who once fell into a volcano.  McDarby is an OG of Commander VS, a designer on Arena, and proud to be known as Millie’s partner.  Jim is one of my hard-working compatriots on the Commander Rules Committee (RC), devoutly Canadian, and bringer of All-Dressed Chips.

Commander R&R

I went into the weekend with clear goals.  Our friends from out of town all spend most of their Magic weekends working. I wanted to provide an opportunity for them to take a rest.  No cameras, podcasts, no interview questions. The primary use of our phones was looking up card text.  I just wanted to gather some of my longtime friends, letting us get into the Red Zone and ramp to our hearts’ content. 

Even the food was a little toned down from normal—we did a homemade sausage and potato cheese soup for Saturday’s dinner.  Friday was Sicilian pizza.  On Sunday, Jim made these great tuna bowls.  It was all nothing we’d confuse with haute cuisine. That was just part of setting the right tone.  We really just kicked back and slung spells. The vibe was so strong that at one point, within minutes of each other, two different players cast Guided Passage

Guided Passage

We played many, games.  From all reports, we got our deck-matching right, ending up without having any off-balance games or ones in which someone ran away with them early.  In short, they were good Commander games that let us both socialize and play at the same time.

Something New, Something Old, Something Borrowed

 Jim played a couple of his Rule 0 decks, to include my favorite, The Ozolith (which he won by combining it with Phyrexian Devourer).  Here’s his list, which he also has on Moxfield:

We got in one three-player PreDH game, with me, Keith, and McDarby.  It meandered along a little bit until McDarby threatened to kill me.  I had assembled this combo:

Phelddagrif Intruder Alarm Noble Hierarch Suture Priest

I was on both of them for some interaction (Sudden Spoiling being the back-breaker), so I didn’t want to commit too early.  When David swung at me for lethal, I had no choice.  Fortunately, it turned out my read was wrong and all those little Hippos won the day. 

With Gavin borrowing decks, as he is wont to do, thirteen of my decks got played over the weekend:

In skilled hands like Gavin’s, several of them over-performed. 

The Thirteenth Deck

I listed twelve decks there after noting that thirteen had showings.  The last was Bilbo Goes Dungeoneering, which I played four times on Sunday.  It showed itself extremely well. 

Here’s the final list I put together after the initial design last time (sometimes you just can’t find the individual cards you want on short notice).

I won three of the four games I played in with it, and all of them were normal kills—no Aetherflux Reservoir, no combos, just grinding out value via the creatures’ inherent abilities and synergies. Getting into the dungeon and initiative were huge value plays. 

The downside is that the deck is way more fiddly and involved than I had planned for.  It takes some brain power to play. It’s not so much of a clock hog unless I’m playing too slowly, but it eats at the synapses, with choice and decision trees that branch right back into Fangorn.  I’ll confess that Gavin, sitting to my left, pointed out a few play lines that were better than the ones I was going down.  With more reps, I’ll get there.  It’s a fun-to-play deck that I look forward to running with for a while.

The Social Side

More important than the gameplay was the social aspect of the weekend.  I’ve already mentioned the tone and how it impacted our time together.  First, since we weren’t creating content, we simply played.  When you’re making content, there is stoppage, reshooting, getting better photos and angles, a production schedule, and all the things that make a polished finished product.  When you’re shooting, there are a thousand things that can go wrong and someone has to pay attention to them while also playing.  Here, there was no stress over any tech issue.  We took the chance to laugh, talk, and play our games.  We weren’t beholden to any kind of standard.  Since there were no cameras, I suspect there was a minimum of hair combing.

Ornate Kanzashi

The other thing we realized part of the way in was that we all had the opportunity to interact with each other in ways that we might not be able to when we meet up at events.  Jim pointed out that he’d never played against one of Gavin’s own decks, since Gavin, as mentioned, tends to borrow them at events.  We also rarely have the time to have conversations of any substance, since we’re (rightly) spending time with the show’s guests instead of each other.  We had a real chance to have insightful and candid conversations with each other about a host of topics, opportunities that we simply don’t have at public events.  The two WotC and two RC folks reserved time when no one was here to talk about Commander format-level issues, but even that was low-key, poured into a lounge chair with drinks in our hands. 

Going Deep

The setup also provided my local friends—all of whose discretion and sensitivity I trust—to interact with people that they might not otherwise on a far more in-depth basis and in a fashion than they might otherwise.  When you hang out with a Special Guest at an event, you know your time is limited.  There are other folks who are waiting to do the same.  When you have more time, you spend it getting to know the other person, not just picking their brains regarding your shared hobby.  Here, the questions were less “What do you think of cards X, Y, and Z?” and more “How many pets do you have at home?”  Folks took the chance to see each other as people, not entities. 

Set Your Own Tone

Of course, most groups also don’t have to worry about setting aside their shooting schedule in order to have a relaxing game time (and I’m talking about established groups here).  What I’d like to offer them is a variation on what we did—use some intentionality to approach our time together. 

Treebeard, Gracious Host

You have the power to set your own tone—so do it.  Before you shuffle up for the first game, talk about what you want the day to look like.  The end state doesn’t matter so much as the fact that you simply had the discussion.  The real idea here is to use what tools you have at your disposal to underscore the nature of Commander as a social activity.  Jointly order food.  Stop your game for half an hour and watch a fun video together.  Do something nice for your host’s significant other.  Do something nice for your host.  However you manage it, give yourself the opportunity to talk to your group outside the bounds of play.  I think you’ll be very happy you did.


Commander is a social format first and a mechanical one second.  By proactively approaching the social aspect, we can enhance its positive impact on our games and on us as people. This is the banner under which Commander first made its way into the Magic collective consciousness and the way which has resonated with orders of magnitude more people than we ever thought it might.  It will continue to be a strong part of our way going forward.

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