Ask Sheldon Anything: Magic, Managing Commander, And More

Commander Rules Committee member Sheldon Menery opens the mailbag for questions on epic Commander MTG plays, the format’s popularity, and why his Pako and Haldan deck made a powerful enemy.

Letter of Acceptance
Letter of Acceptance, illustrated by Daniel Ljunggren

Welcome to our semi-annual Ask Me Anything!  Heading into the mailbag a couple of times a year gives me the opportunity to answer the burning questions that folks have about the format or anything else that I feel like I have a reasonable chance of speaking intelligently on.  On the Commander Rules Committee (RC) Discord server, we have a channel for folks to submit AMA questions, so I pointed folks there over the week leading up to writing this piece.  Let’s get right to it. 

From cmassive: 

What has been your favorite Commander of 2022?

The possibilities presented by Kros, Defense Contractor have really excited me.  As I covered last time, moving goad into Bant really got me thinking about the mechanic.  Plus, Kros is simply different from anything we’ve seen before. 

From Azraekos, Tome-Bound: 

Do you see goad becoming something that appears at a similar rate to Treasure in casual games, meaning hard to avoid and basically every deck [has] some? Do you see mass goad as problematic for format health?

No to both.  While we’re getting some cool goad stuff and our friends in Studio X are certainly playing around with the space, it’s nowhere near as ubiquitous as Treasure.  I can’t imagine anything catching Treasure at this point.  They’d have to print quite a few more really inexpensive and easy-to-slot-in goad cards for it to get anywhere close. 

From Gnast:

Are you looking forward to Unfinity?

We’ve seen some of the cards through the development process, and the good news is that nothing raises any concerns.  The Un-card voice isn’t something that particularly resonates with me, but it’s not like I dread it or anything.  Unfinity will be fine. 

From DementedKirby:

Can we revisit silver-bordered cards for legality?

It’s just not something that’s worth the administrative overhead.  There are too many silver-bordered (or I suppose non-Acorn) cards that mess sufficiently with the mechanics of the game that we’d have to ban too many of them.  That would create unnecessary messaging difficulties.  Like I mention above, it’s not really my thing, but I fully support the folks who want to explore them doing so.  It just doesn’t make sense to legalize them from a top-down perspective. 

From Swmystery:

With more Commander-focused products and cards being released than ever before, it seems likely that the average table of the format will keep gradually increasing in power level and speed.  How can/should the RC push back against this trend, given that it seems to be largely the result of the volume of cards being injected into the format, rather than the power level of specific offenders?

I’m not sure that I agree with the average table increasing in power and speed so significantly as other folks think it is.  Yes, to some extent it’s inevitable to a small degree, but what I think we’re seeing is overrepresentation of the idea due to the fact that it’s a path that’s good for content creators to go down. 

That said, I can still answer the second part of your question.  The thing we have to do (and I’m pretty sure we’re committed to doing) is to continue to reinforce our philosophy for the format and the style of play which resonates with the fan base that made it Magic’s most popular format.  You don’t need to engage in arms races to have the good of games of Commander.  There’s lots of fun to be had by tuning down as opposed to up.  Imposing restrictions on ourselves to build decks that are different is something you’ll see us continuing on the RC stream.

Trusted Advisor

From Tivit Supremacy:

Is there any chance of attempting to address untrusted play as it increases in a post-pandemic world?

We do address untrusted play, although I don’t think we’re going to do it in the way that you’re asking.  We’re not going to shape the format so that it looks like every other one, whether that’s philosophically or materially.  What we can do is help players develop language and thought processes to better navigate untrusted play.  We simply can’t ban our way to making sure that everyone has positive experiences.  We have to lay the foundation much deeper than that. 

From ChoirBoy2020:

Would the Rules Committee consider updating the Commander Philosophy Document to be more inclusive of Commander as a whole, including more competitively-minded approaches to deckbuilding and game play?

With the sentence “Commander is designed to be a malleable format,” I think the Philosophy Document already provides for inclusiveness.  Don’t confuse focus on one thing for exclusion of another.  We’re not going to shift our priorities so that we focus on tournament and competitive-style play, but we’re also not going to tell anyone else that they have to do things our way.  The important part is when people sit down together, they simply agree on the kind of experience they’d like to have.  Again, our role is to help players find skills that enable them to get to that point more quickly and efficiently when they’re sitting with players they don’t know. 

Feroz's Ban

From Joking101:

Many of the same comments and questions about Commander have been rehashed for years, especially with relation to the banned list. These questions are often easily answered, yet misinformation and fundamental misunderstanding is still widespread. In my experience, this information failure is surprisingly common among even highly invested players familiar with the format philosophy. What do you believe the biggest barriers are to widespread and authentic community understanding of Commander philosophy? What new resources (broadly) could reduce this divide?

Well, there are plenty of people who understand the philosophy but simply don’t like it or disagree with it.  They want something different from the format than we do, so I think unfortunately that divide will always to an extent be there.  The good news is that quality communication can ease the anxieties of those differences. 

The second part of that is empathy and understanding.  It’s okay if folks don’t like this the same way we do.  No one is “doing it wrong,” so long as they’re enjoying themselves and treating others with respect.  The answer to your question echoes the ones above.  Providing players with tools, and to strain a metaphor, perhaps road maps to navigate Commander’s sometimes rocky terrain, is something for the RC to focus on.  What I’d like folks to see more of from the RC is value-added service to the community.  We don’t need to evangelize or promote the format any longer.  I suspect that our acquisition numbers will remain robust, so we can shift our focus from making the format more popular to making it even better. 

From Defy Fate:

Commander seems to be far and away the most popular, played format in Magic, and likely has been for some time. What qualities of Commander do you think have given it such ubiquitous appeal and longevity compared to other variants? Second, does the RC see any major developments for Commander in the next few years, or do you just hope to keep the cart on the rails so to speak?

The strength of Commander is the fact that it’s a social format first and a mechanical one second.  Our message and philosophy have resonated with a big portion of the player base—quite honestly, way greater than we had dared dream.  Commander players have responded to the social message.  It’s not just that they play the format, it’s that they’re invested in the community. 

We’ve established a format with a conscience, and it’s clearly something that people are interested in and enjoy.  Some people like the fact that there’s little to no pressure on play of the format like there is in other, more competitively-minded, ones.  Even beyond the social aspect, there are pretty big mechanical draws as well (and for some folks, the mechanics are the bigger attraction).  Players love that they can pick from nearly every card in Magic history.  Commander’s additional rules make for compelling game play.  

I hope you’ll see the answer to the second part of your question in the previous responses.  I don’t want us to just maintain; I want us to be even better.

Shrewd Negotiation

From stadlad:

Has the RC ever had any discussions about or given any thought to publishing some form of template for pregame conversations with strangers?

As we talk about above, I think we can help with tools.  Maybe a rough outline or checklist could be a thing we’d do.  I wouldn’t want some convoluted flow chart or hard-and-fast rule set.  You’re certainly not going to see a power level chart from us.  The moving parts and variables that go into any individual Commander game make such a thing way less useful than it might seem. 

From sovereign’s scion:

What’s your current pet card? What card are you most excited to play with from Commander Legends:  Battle for Baldur’s Gate?

I think my love of Inkshield has become a meme at this point.  The card from CLB that I think is going to have the most uproarious impact is Windshaper Planetar.  It’s going to have to go into a blink deck, for sure. 

Inkshield Windshaper Planetar

From raining up and down the city:

What’s your favorite card on the banned list?

Recurring Nightmare is one of my favorite Magic cards of all time.  Despite that, it’s justifiably on the banned list.  I actually don’t think it would ruin the format, but it wouldn’t do anything to help create memorable, interactive games or establish play patterns that are healthy. 

From Ishazi:

If you could see any non-WotC IP introduced as either a set or Secret Lair, which would it be?

It’d be easy to say something swords-and-sorcery fantasy-adjacent, like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, but that might also be because I’ve just started reading the final book in the series.  Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn might make a cool set, too.  Trying to think way outside the box, I want a Deadwood Secret Lair.  Unique cards for Seth Bullock and Al Swearingen would be bonkers.

From Lucia:

How much involvement did the RC members have in creation and testing of the 2022 pre-constructed decks?  As a follow-up, what power level would you rate them as and how do they compare in power to your own decks?

Scott did post-vision design of the Bedecked Brokers deck, which obviously came with some play testing.  The rest of us saw and commented on cards from the set a few times along the whole development process. 

It’s hard for tags, like mid- or high-power, to have a great deal of meaning.  As we’ve discussed, there are lots of variables in a Commander deck.  So long as we accept that any identifier is only vaguely accurate, I’d call the preconstructed decks mid-power, right in the format’s sweet spot.  Most of my decks live in that range as well. 

From Arcticblast:

If you had to introduce a new border color for aesthetic purposes only, what color would it be?

Gold, silver, black, and white are already taken.  Nothing metallic makes too much sense.  Probably purple, for a nice, regal feel. 

From NoCoinFlips:

What 5 hallmarks would you say a good community for Commander (and beyond) continually has and works on?

Conscience, purpose, honesty, compassion, and resolve.  Sounds like there could be a decent essay in the making there.  Thanks for the idea. 

From Chief @ PlayEDH:

Which card on the current banned list would you be least likely to consider unbanning?

I’ve frequently said in the past that if there were a Survivor-like thing, voting cards off the banned list, Balance would be the last one standing, but that’s actually not the case.  When push comes to shove, I think Limited Resources is probably the one that actually stays. 

Balance Limited Resources

From Draz:

Which deck that [an]other member of the Rules Committee plays do you dislike the most? Which one do you fear the most?

I’m really stretching to think of one I dislike (although I will tell you that Scott has had some unkind and not family-friendly words to say about my Pako and Haldan deck).  Gavin has a deck that has a somewhat-heavy discard theme (maybe Nath of the Gilt-Leaf?) that I don’t love, but it doesn’t turbo-discard or anything, so even then it’s not all that unpleasant.  There is no fear in this dojo, but the one that I like seeing the least because it can end a game very quickly is Scott’s Zurzoth, Chaos Rider deck. It can quickly (meaning on a much earlier turn than I like my games going) get into the situation in which we’re all going to die from what he has on the battlefield, or we’ll die if we kill what he has on the battlefield. 

Zurzoth, Chaos Rider

From Tiran:

Commander grew in no small part because it served a need that other formats were not serving at the time. What need(s) do you believe currently exist that are not (well) served by existing formats?

The need for a community inextricably intertwined with the format itself.  I don’t mind repeating the point that this is the clear separator between Commander and other formats.  There’s no mechanical need that’s going unanswered in Magic; we have lots of cool formats.

From Squirrelmob:

In the past you’ve indicated that you felt tournament-style events are not what Commander is for, but the growth of events in subsets of the community continues.  What do you think might be driving that growth/desire for events, and how do you feel about it as a reflection of Commander overall?

I don’t think it’s a reflection of Commander at all.  That one isn’t about the format, but about the players themselves.  It stems from the natural and perfectly reasonable desire of some players to have competitive outlets for their hobby.  The growth of tournament-style events isn’t out of pace with the growth of the format itself.  I’d say what real growth you’re seeing is that competitive and high-powered games make for compelling content, leading to a likely over-representation of those styles among the Commander content you’ll find. 

From Spekter:

Do you feel that Commander has eclipsed other forms of play more than intended? Would you like to see support for other casual play modes from Wizards of the Coast?

We never intended it to eclipse anything, so I guess yes is the answer.  We didn’t set out to be the biggest Magic format ever, for sure.  I would love to see support for other casual play styles.  I think other healthy formats make Commander healthier, too. 

Abyssal Persecutor

From Awesome Guy 63:

What is the most epic play you’ve seen in a Commander game?

Two come to mind.  First, I once won a game with Liliana’s Contract despite having Abyssal Persecutor as one of my four Demons.  On my upkeep, Liliana’s Contract triggered.  Everyone shrugged due to Abyssal Persecutor.  I then responded to the trigger by casting Sudden Spoiling on myself, removing the Persecutor’s abilities. 

The second involved someone casting Tooth and Nail, entwined.  They didn’t have any other creatures, but did have a boatload of lands (like nearly twenty).  Everyone else had between four and eight creatures.  They got, as you might expect, Craterhoof Behemoth and Avenger of Zendikar.  In response to Avenger of Zendikar’s trigger creating the Plant tokens, someone cast Mirrorweave, turning everyone’s creatures into Suture Priest.  The lifegain the Tooth and Nail player got from their two Avengers-turned-Priests was nowhere near enough to compensate for the life they lost. 

Thanks to everyone who submitted questions.  There were also some asked on Facebook.  I couldn’t answer all of them due to space considerations.  I’ll do my best (given some time restraints) to head back over into the channel and FB to answer those that got left out.  Until then, please enjoy the server, its many other channels, and the wonderful people who hang out there.