Commander State Of The Format 2023

Commander Rules Committee member Sheldon Menery reflects on the format’s progress in the past year and how it is set up for the near future.

Keeper of the Accord
Keeper of the Accord, illustrated by Denman Rooke

Commander comes into 2023 in a powerful position, but not without some areas of concern. Taking a slightly different tack from previous State of the Format pieces, I want to give a nod to the things we’re currently facing, but focus more on how we’re going to tackle them. We’ll discuss three broad areas.  We’ll start with contextualizing how we did some of our goals for 2022.  The second and largest section will cover where we are and where we’re going, to include a sneak peek at our work-in-progress, an updated Philosophy Document.  Finally, we’ll engage on some thoughts on community support in the operations of the Commander Rules Committee (RC).

2022 Goals

I already talked at length about how we did with our 2022 goals, so I’m not going to rehash the specifics of everything.  Suffice it to say that we fell short of where we could have gotten on a number of things, with the simple resource of time (and sometimes money) being the major bar to achievement. Our major accomplishment of the year was the rousing success of adding Jim LaPage and Olivia Gobert-Hicks to the RC.  The two of them have already demonstrated why they are such great additions:  much of the work on the updated Philosophy Document you’ll see is theirs. 

What’s most important to point out here is that it’ll be way easier for us to accomplish our 2023 goals once we’ve established the kind of framework discussed below.  We’ll then leverage tools like the website and the Discord server as significant items for us to bring to bear in getting other things done.  Taking stands on issues requires firm footing.  You’ll see how we’ll develop a stronger, more objective foundation as the basis for what we do and why we do it—without changing the underlying truth that Commander is primarily a social format. 

Where We Are

It’s no secret that Commander is the most popular way to play Magic.  The message of inclusivity has resonated with orders more players than we ever expected.  The primary things that cause the most consternation at the moment are dealing with open play (environments like CommandFests or MagicCons, where you don’t know who you’ll be sitting down with) and a concern about the format speeding up and losing the ability to take its time for games to unfold into the social experiences we’ve come to know. 

I like to think about where we are within the context of using our popularity as a springboard to other things.  We have a platform, so it seems like a waste to not use our voice.  As I mentioned, Commander is a social format first, a mechanical one second.  Addressing social issues, both inside and outside the format, is a good use of our time.  An example of an internal thing would be helping players develop the tools they need to navigate pregame conversations.  An external thing would be fierce support for diversity issues. We have the opportunity and willpower to accomplish both.

Commander is in the mature stage of its development. We intentionally move slowly and make changes in smaller pieces.  There’s nothing that’s come up recently which has demanded radical change, since the format is relatively healthy.  We have a broad group of people and play styles which co-exist relatively peacefully.  CommandFests and Command Zones at other events demonstrate that players are ready and willing to gather together to sling spells.  The vibes in those areas have been at an all-time high (at MagicCon Philadelphia, it was particularly infectious). 

There are many more Commander events already planned for the rest of the year.  The simple truth is that we’re in a pretty good spot (which we can say while also recognizing that not everything is perfect).  We then have two fundamental questions to ask ourselves.  What are our improvement vectors, and where do we go from here?

Where We’re Going

Two of the primary calls from the community for RC activity historically have been objectivity and transparency.  We want to update our philosophy to provide for both.  With a more detailed document providing an objective basis for everything we do, it will be easy to point to something specific and tangible whenever someone asks why we made a particular decision—or even for them to not have to ask in the first place, since the document will be freely available. 

I’ll remind you before taking in this preview that nothing is complete or set in stone.  Our underlying philosophy is intact, but we’re happy to listen to suggestions on how to improve on what you see here.  In fact, there’s a whole channel on the Discord server now dedicated to discussing it.  If this were software, we’d be in the pre-alpha stage.  We have the vision; we’re eminently adaptable on the implementation.  Let’s take a look at one piece of it. 


Commander is social. Each game is a journey the players share, where every player is considerate of the experiences of everyone involved. Magic is a competition in the same sense that all games are competitions, but whenever the act of competing comes into conflict with a social atmosphere, Commander prioritizes and protects the social atmosphere. Format management decisions are intended to:

  • Encourage positive, communal experiences where people can bond over the shared experience of gaming
  • Help players communicate their preferences and arrive at a set of shared expectations

Commander is a format for creative expression. It’s the format where players can use nearly the entire catalogue of Magic’s history to build decks rooted in lore, showcasing art, or telling stories. It is also a place where players engage with the mechanical aspects of the cards like a puzzle, discovering novel and exciting configurations as they explore. Format management decisions are intended to:

  • Promote an environment where players are free from pressure to conform to any specific method of deck-building
  • Maximize the available card pool
  • Incorporate new first-party Magic content into the format as it is created

I’ll once again remind you that we’re in draft mode here.  How significant a pillar stability might be, or if it’s a pillar at all, is still under deep internal discussion between the six of us.  If we were to list stability as one of the full pillars, here is a taste of how it would read (and it’s one of the topics we’d love you to weigh in on):

Commander is stable. Commander players become emotionally attached to their decks through play and personalization, and we value that experience. We only want to disrupt that bond when necessary. Players who build Commander decks can be confident they will play with them over long periods of time. Format management decisions are intended to:

  • Minimize disruptions except when absolutely necessary
  • Minimize changes that require players to actively maintain their decks

The role of the Commander Rules Committee is to keep the format Social, Creative, and Stable, and to preserve these three concepts to the greatest extent possible when they come into conflict.

Our Philosophy

Our motivation behind these updates essentially boils down to three main ideas:

Continuity. Planning for the future of the format involves discussing and documenting the things we agree on and disagree on as a leadership team. We’re not fond of morbid hypothetical scenarios like “What if everyone in leadership got hit by a meteor”. It’s extremely important to us, though, that the next generation of leaders understand fully where we came from so that they can make the best decisions about where we should go next. Our goal is to do this proactively rather than scrambling to do it reactively.

Communication. We know that a lot of well-intentioned players occasionally feel like a leaf in the wind, because it can be relatively difficult to research and understand the rationale behind format management decisions. Through these changes, we’re intending to create both a centralized resource for researching the format, as well as a roadmap to communicating and discussing format changes when they happen. This also extends to our interactions with Wizards of the Coast. By communicating in a way that centers the things we care about most, we’re able to provide better feedback to them when they ask.

Focus and Accountability. There are external benefits to communication, but being able to properly articulate a problem and the strategies for attacking it are also important for us internally. This structure will allow us to set and prioritize goals and assess our own performance. 

With that in mind, we’ve structured this document in a way that separates the WHY of what we do from the HOW. This snippet exists in a broader system and serves as our North star for format management decisions. This section of the system is going to be relatively static, but it will be accompanied by a slightly more fluid document that describes the tools we have at our disposal.

Our Toolbox

Historically – aside from the banned list – our methods for influencing and guiding the format have been relatively opaque. When this project is complete, our goal for this section is to publicly share some information about the strategies and methods we have at our disposal and how we use them to maintain, protect, and develop the aspects of the format we care about the most.

The remainder of the document (and most dense part) concerns the operations put forth in support of the philosophy.  It discusses the baseline rules and how we maintain them, the greater functions and operations of the RC and Commander Advisory Group (CAG), communication with Wizards of the Coast (WotC), a detailed section on community outreach, and other specifics of operation, to include a historical activity log (like noting when each person joined the CAG).  Each part of the document will be publicly available on the website. 

One of the most significant points regarding the RC’s role is in preserving the concepts of sociality, creativity, and stability when they come into conflict.  It’s relatively simple to deal with them individually and keep them harmonious when they’re not bumping into each other.  We don’t need to privilege one thing over the other when they’re not interfering with the shared experience, leading to a more inclusive and diverse body of players and attitudes.  We must apply a more deft hand when they start colliding and eventually have to privilege one over the other as it applies to that particular case.

For example, there are aspects of tournament play, like angle shooting and strict rules interpretation, and prescription on which decks and cards one must play, which conflict with a social experience and serve as a bar to creativity.  While allowing for the possibility of tournament play to exist, we would make high-level decisions based on maintaining sociality and creativity, such as not banning cards solely for their impact on tournament play.  Fortunately, most elements of inclusivity work in harmony (or at least agnostic relative to each other) to the point of requiring no action on our part. 

As another example, we can point to stability as the reason for keeping the banned list as small as possible.  We want players to know that their decks will be playable whenever they decide to pick them up, so we’re loath to ban cards and take away that option.  It’s definitely a feature that one can play their PreDH deck or the Dinosaur-themed deck they built when Rivals of Ixalan came out in a regular pod and still have it make a decent showing. 

There’s still work to do on this document and we’ll be happy to have your investment in it.  Pop over to the Discord server channel I mentioned and offer your thoughts on whether you think we’re headed in the right direction or any specific implementation details. 

Community Support

The last bit I want to cover is community support of the RC’s expanded efforts.  Up until this time, we’ve run things on a shoestring, simply funding them out of our own pockets when necessary.  In order to do more and to do it better, however, we’ll need to generate more resources. 

While we already have a Patreon, it hasn’t had the attention that it deserves.  We’ve engaged the services of someone experienced to take care of that end of things for us, which also includes Discord subscriptions.  Our plan is for the two to mirror each other and to really be worth your time and investment in us—for benefits to actually be benefits.  We’ll also find other ways of raising capital so that we can do even better work. 

While we have a few stretch goals, for the time being, we want to cover the costs of what we regularly incur.  These include (but aren’t limited to) paying the server moderators, the person running our stream (which will also have enhanced benefits) and Patreon, our IT support, and running the website ad-free.  We can’t be a charity, as defined under 501(c)(3), but I’m pretty sure we can be a nonprofit.  The purpose will certainly be to return to the community everything we earn in one way or another.  To that end, we will endeavor to publicly disclose what we’re spending that money on, which is important in maintaining the trust which I believe we’ve already built within the community. 

Money is always a tricky subject.  In short, we want to handle it with delicacy and discretion, letting it be a resource that works for us (the broader us, meaning both the RC and the Commander community) instead of the other way around. 

The State of the Format 2023 is that we’re in a strong and healthy place but we can always be better.  We can’t truly address the issues that people are most talking about, like mismatched expectations in open play or whether the format is “speeding up”, until we find strong foundational footing on how we’re going to address those issues.  To that end, we’re working on capitalizing on the success that we’ve had and using it as a launching pad to an even better future. 

Always remember, we have a channel on the Commander RC Discord server dedicated to discussing my articles.  I’d love to hear about features that you’d like to see, material you want more coverage on, ideas for subscriber/Patreon benefits you’d like to see, or even things that you think just aren’t working.  Join nearly 10,000 friends for discussion of not just this piece, but on a wide variety of topics—both Commander-related and not.  See you there. 

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