ChatGPT and its ilk are all the rage right now. Regardless of what any of us might think about AI art, the technology is out in the world; we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. How we use it—just like other tech, from the heavy plow to the cell phone—is up to us. It’s a fun toy to play with and also to provoke thought.
I asked ChatGPT to write a 2000-word article for Star City Games “in the style of Sheldon Menery” on how Commander has changed over its lifespan. I left it moderately open in that way so that we might get what the AI thought was significant. As we read through, remember that the software is intentionally populated with factual errors in places, I assume so that you can’t just have it write your paper for you and get away with it.
The program got to only 750 words before conking out, so I had to regenerate the response. It wrote a complete piece the second time, at around 1000 words. I’ll make a note that it doesn’t quite hit word counts. The second response was a more complete version of the first. As we go through, I’ll leave the AI’s text in normal font and italicize what I have to say about it. I won’t be correcting the AI’s grammar, although I’ll point out if there’s a factual issue.
Title: The Evolution of Commander: A Journey Through Time
Commander, also known as Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH), has become a worldwide phenomenon since its inception. Originally created by fans as a casual multiplayer format, it has grown into a flagship product for Wizards of the Coast and a beloved format for Magic: The Gathering players of all skill levels. In this article, we will explore the fascinating evolution of Commander, tracing its journey from its humble beginnings to its current state. Along the way, we will delve into the format’s rule changes, card pool expansions, and shifting player attitudes that have shaped the game we know and love today.
I’m curious why is specifically chose the topics it did. I’m heartened by the fact that it didn’t immediately go, as many players do, straight to the banned list. What the AI has done is pretty broad in scope and generalized, but we’ll see it has some salient points.
Origins and Early Days
Commander emerged in the early 2000s as a variant of Magic played with oversized cards (obviously incorrect-S.) and centered around legendary creatures. The format’s birth is often attributed to the Elder Dragon cycle of cards from the Legends expansion. The original concept focused on a 100-card singleton deck, with a unique legendary creature acting as the deck’s commander (we called it the General back then-S.).
In its nascent stages, Commander was purely a grassroots format, spreading through word of mouth and local playgroups. It embodied the spirit of casual multiplayer games, encouraging social interaction and promoting memorable, epic moments. It emphasized creativity, allowing players to build decks around their favorite legends and showcase their personal flair.
The format spread through the Judge Program first. Before EDH even came along, I was searching for post-event day activities for judges—something that would help them wind down after a tough day on the Pro Tour floor. When the format gained some traction with my little playgroup in Suffolk, Virginia, I gave it a whirl and brought it. It was like touching a match to gasoline-soaked tinder.
The Rise of the Command Zone
One of the defining features of Commander is the introduction of the Command Zone. Originally, commanders were shuffled into the deck and had to be drawn naturally. However, this changed in 2010 with the release of the “Commander” product, which introduced the rule that commanders start the game in the Command Zone. This innovation added consistency, making commanders accessible from the very start, and allowing players to build strategies around their chosen commander’s unique abilities.
The Command Zone also enabled the introduction of the “commander tax” rule, where each time a commander was cast from the Command Zone, its casting cost increased by an additional two colorless mana. This rule brought an additional layer of decision-making and strategic depth to the format, encouraging players to consider carefully when to deploy their commanders.
When I saw the header, I thought they’d be talking about Jimmy and Josh, who have certainly been one of the primary influences in the rise of Commander’s popularity. Creation of the Command Zone was indeed a bellwether moment in the format’s history. It gave us a convenient space to put commanders that wasn’t just jamming them into another game zone. I think there’s actually more exploration of the command zone that could be delved into (eminence can go rot, though).
We had burned through lots of ideas on recasting your general. We knew we didn’t want there to be no extra cost. At one point, we had something called “The Rofellos Rule,” which said that if your commander cost less than six (remember, most people were playing chonky commanders at this point), it started costing six. The progression was then 6-6-6-8 instead of 2-4-6-8. The idea became pretty clunky, and we didn’t want to shut out the less expensive stuff.
Expanding the Card Pool
As Commander gained popularity, Wizards of the Coast recognized its potential and began supporting the format more actively. They introduced new preconstructed decks specifically designed for Commander, starting with the Commander’s Arsenal in 2012 (another one of those likely intentional factual errors to keep the kids honest; it was the Commander decks in 2011-S.). These products gave players a ready-to-play entry point into the format, featuring unique cards and legendary creatures that quickly became staples in many decks.
In addition to dedicated Commander products, sets like Conspiracy, Battlebond, and Commander-focused sets like Commander 2013-2021 further expanded the card pool. These expansions brought new legendary creatures, powerful spells, and valuable reprints to the format, providing players with an ever-growing array of deck-building options. The inclusion of Planeswalkers as potential commanders, beginning with the release of War of the Spark in 2019 (clearly not accurate-S.), added another layer of diversity to the format, broadening the range of strategies and archetypes available.
I’m not as sold on the idea of the expanding card pool being a significant event in the format’s history. It’s been great, it’s been welcome, and getting those reprints into folks’ hands has been wonderful. I’m all for access to cards for the players (I’m also all for the crazy alternate art treatments and whatnot; if the game piece is inexpensive, but there’s a blingy version of it, that satisfies everyone).
Planeswalkers as commanders, on the other hand, is a more contentious issue. Fellow Commander Rules Committee (RC) members Scott Larabee and Toby Elliott were both at my house when we first heard from Studio X about the idea. Our initial response was, “Be careful.”
There was never a serious discussion from us on making all planeswalkers into commanders. In fact, from the outset, we were strongly opposed. Too many of them would have to be banned. They’re simply too much coming out of the command zone. Messaging would be sticky at best. Saying no at that point while leaving the door open to some planeswalkers—importantly designed and developed as commanders—was a better path. It’s a well they didn’t go to too often, and I suspect we’ll see even less in the near future.
The Birth of the Partner Mechanic
In 2016, the Commander 2016 product introduced a revolutionary mechanic called partner. This mechanic allowed players to have two commanders instead of the traditional single legendary creature. The partner mechanic opened up a wealth of new deck-building possibilities, encouraging creative combinations and cooperative playstyles.
I’ll disagree that partner encouraged cooperative playstyles. For the most part, I think they pushed players inward instead of expanding them out.
The partner mechanic was met with mixed reactions. Some players praised it for its flexibility and ability to create unique synergies, while others voiced concerns about its potential for abuse and power imbalance. Regardless, it marked a significant turning point in Commander’s evolution, further emphasizing the format’s adaptability and openness to innovation.
Innovation is great. When only a half dozen or whatever of the myriad pairings get regularly played, that becomes devolutionary. We said the same thing about partner that we did about planeswalkers as commanders: “Be careful.” We advised to make neither partner particularly strong, leaving the players to find the good synergies that didn’t just smack them in the face. We didn’t do all that well with this one. Partner with became a very nice solution, as did Backgrounds later.
Shifting Metagame and Competitive Scene
Over time, Commander evolved from its casual roots into a more competitive format. Tournament play, including the establishment of the Commander-focused “CommandFest” events and the annual “Commander Championship Series,” gained traction and attracted a growing community of competitive players. This shift led to the emergence of optimized deck archetypes and more focused strategies, often referred to as “cEDH” (competitive Elder Dragon Highlander).
I summarily and vociferously reject the notion that Commander became a competitive format. Yes, there is a cEDH end, but it is neither the heart nor the frame of our corpus. Commander has maintained its roots as a social format first and a mechanical one second, while also staying true to the Philosophy Document statement that it’s a malleable format. Commander doesn’t have to become a competitive format in order for there to be room for people to play in that space. We’ve hard-coded in the idea that what you and three of your friends do together is okay by us.
As the competitive scene expanded, players and content creators began analyzing the format in a more analytical and strategic manner. The rise of online platforms, such as MTGO and spelltable.com, provided accessibility and convenience for players to engage in virtual Commander games, fostering a vibrant online community and promoting the exchange of ideas.
This paragraph makes two different points. It’s accurate that the competitive scene opened up new avenues of analysis. The second point, which wants to tie the rise of SpellTable to the cEDH scene is inaccurate. SpellTable helped save Magic during the pandemic, and the lion’s share of those games were right in the format’s social game wheelhouse. From early adopters like Jeremy Noell and the RC’s own Olivia Gobert-Hicks to the legion of folks playing online now, SpellTable has reshaped what’s possible for us when we want to sling the 100-card decks.
Rule Changes and Format Adaptations
Commander’s popularity has not been without its challenges, prompting the Rules Committee, the governing body overseeing the format, to make adjustments and implement rule changes over time. The committee has aimed to strike a balance between preserving the format’s casual nature and addressing concerns about power level and gameplay experience.
Recent changes have included the banning and unbanning of cards, often based on community feedback and the impact on the metagame. The Rules Committee has sought to address problematic strategies, reduce the dominance of specific cards or combinations, and maintain an enjoyable and diverse environment for players of all skill levels.
Two pretty generic paragraphs are true, but not particularly insightful. You’ve seen all the discourse over power levels and expectations management. We (the RC) are very unlikely to be able to solve unknown play. What we can do is help provide players with the language they need to safely navigate the often rocky waters of finding the right pod and people to play with.
Here would have been a good spot to go into pregame conversations as well. They’re not a panacea, but they’re a step in the right direction. At the very least, they demonstrate players’ willingness to consider the experiences of everyone else at the table, which is what we’ve asked for all along.
Commander has come a long way since its humble beginnings as a fan-created variant. It has grown into a dynamic, vibrant format that continues to capture the hearts of Magic players worldwide. The introduction of the Command Zone, expanding card pool, innovative mechanics, and the emergence of the competitive scene have all contributed to the format’s evolution.
Commander remains a testament to the power of community and player-driven innovation. With each passing year, it continues to evolve, adapt, and redefine itself. The format’s ability to foster creativity, encourage social interaction, and create memorable experiences for players of all backgrounds ensures that Commander will continue to enchant Magic enthusiasts for many years to come.
Definitely not going to argue with that paragraph. We’ve done something no one else has done before. We did it by staying true to the vision that Commander is a social format first, a mechanical one second. There are folks who enjoy it the other way around, and more power to them. The community-driven aspect is nonetheless hard-baked into the format’s DNA. We have many good years in front of us, spending time with our friends, and occasionally blowing them out with Inkshield.
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