Commander: State of the Format, 2020

2020 is the Year of Commander and Sheldon Menery is here to provide insight into what that means for Magic’s favorite 100-card format!

Sol Ring, illustrated by Mike Bierek

2020 is the Year of Commander.  You’ve heard me say it, you’ve heard folks from Wizards of the Coast (WotC) say it, and you’ve heard other important people in the community say it.  What I’ll be offering here today is a State of the Format, something we haven’t really done (at least formally) in the past, but seems like a good idea to do annually in the future.

Seventeen years ago, I brought the seed of an idea, scooped from the fertile loam of my gaming group in Alaska, with me when I moved back to the lower 48 in Virginia.  From the very beginning, I imagined it as something different from the Magic we were all playing. 

When my new local group of very casual players got very excited about it, I realized that we were onto something.  As the flower continued to grow, I conceived of it as a break from tournament Magic.  I didn’t want to set it in opposition to the competitive scene, but simply to make it a safe ground for an under-served demographic.  I won’t pretend that I saw the grandest picture or all the possibilities, but after I brought it to my friends on the Pro Tour and they got excited about it, I saw more possibilities. So did some other well-placed people.  And here we are.

The year has already gotten off to a good start.  If you haven’t seen it already, there’s a new official Commander website.  You can find all the things you currently need, such as the Format Philosophy Document and Banned List.  There are personal pages for each Commander Rules Committee (RC) member, which will expand to those members of the Commander Advisory Group (CAG) who would like one. 

As the year continues, we’ll be adding new features.  There will be an expanded FAQ to include Commander-specific card rulings and expanded community content.  Part of that community content will be a place to amplify voices that you might not have heard before.  The last issue that remains undecided for us regarding the website is whether or not to continue forums.  If you have an opinion, please reach out to me or any of the RC or CAG.  We’re happy to listen.  The sky’s the limit on the website in the year in which my personal Commander motto is “Dream Big.”

We’ve already heard about the exciting products which will be released for Commander this year.  I reached out to friend of the show and WotC Commander Architect, Gavin Verhey, for some of his thoughts on those products and more.  Here’s what Gavin had to say:

2020 is the year of Commander. Here at Wizards, we haven’t just doubled down on Commander – we’ve quintupled down on it! Between Commander 2020 (Ikoria Commander), Commander decks linked to Zendikar Rising, Mystery Booster (which is full of Commander reprints!), Commander Collection, and, of course, Commander Legends to end the Commander year with a bang—well, we’ve never done anything close to this scale before. And that’s not even counting things like Secret Lair Drops or the Command Zone at MagicFests – plus some cool stuff you don’t even know about yet!

We’re trying out a lot of things here. I’m incredibly excited about them and bringing my (and the whole team’s) visions to life. I have full confidence in all of them being awesome. The corollary to this is that I’m sure, by the time the year ends, some of these things will have been smash hits; it’s possible a couple of them may have hit a few bumps. If I knew what those bumps were now, I’d change them – but we won’t know until the rubber hits the road here.

I ask for you all to please send your feedback as they’re happening: anytime we make new things, hearing what you think is going to be integral. For us, at this point, all the Commander products for this year are done and locked in, so let us know what you think as it’s happening, and we’ll take it into account for next year. We’re on this journey together!

And finally, as Commander continues to grow by leaps and bounds, there’s a lot of things to figure out. Some of it is on us at Wizards – for example, trying to get Commander players the reprints they need as more and more players enter (Fortunately, we’re reprinting a bunch of Commander cards in all these sets… especially Mystery Booster and Commander Legends.)

However, some of these are things we can tackle as a community. For example, how can we create good systems for pairing people by deck power? This is something we’re going to be looking at, and I’d love the Community to keep engaging in as well.

This year, with all the new deck products, there’s going to be a lot of people learning Magic through Commander. Be thinking about if you were to explain Magic through the lens of Commander, what the best way to do that is – and how to help fold new Commander players into your games and group even if they don’t fully understand everything yet. Those opportunities are going to come up, and we should be as welcoming as possible. While we at Wizards make the products, we will have to work together as a community to have 2020 truly be the year of Commander.

I cannot wait for you to see everything we have in store. Please stay in touch (@Gavinverhey on Twitter/Instagram) – and I hope you enjoy 2020!

That’s not the only thing that Gavin had to say on the topic.  When I told him I was working on this piece, fellow RC co-founder, Gavin Duggan, put together some deep thoughts as well:

It would be easy to say that everything is great.  2019 was a big year for Commander, with a lot of wins (such as the CAG, website, product announcements, and online play).  The coming year has a lot in store, including more content from the RC, more games, more venues to play, and more cards to explore. When things are great though, there’s a big risk of resting on one’s laurels.  This is exactly when we should work to prepare for future challenges.   I see three big challenges to focus on for 2020:

  1.  Two-directional visibility: As the community grows, it gets more difficult to accurately gauge what is happening at the playgroup level.  The online community are our most visible user base, but are only the tip of the iceberg.  In 2019 we worked to gather data from stores and groups across the continent, and across the world, but we need more.    We also need a way to surface what we find from that data gathering, back to the community.  We can publish content on mtgcommander.net about the data, how we interpret it, and possible ways to react (or not react).  Then we need to make sure that data is seen and discussed by the community so they understand why we make our decisions.
  2. Focus on The Philosophy:  Commander is a fragile beast.  We work, with every update, to make it a rallying point for relaxed, social, experiential gaming—to make it something different.  The philosophy document we released last year was a big step; it helps us (and hopefully you) understand what we’re trying to achieve and gives us a north star to follow when deciding what’s next.  That philosophy is complex though.  We’re trying to help people be social, and there’s no way to write rules which force people to be nice to each other. We can only inspire and guide people with examples and hope they follow. To do that, we need to focus on what we know, from experience, most people enjoy—awesome, surprising, interactive games where people explore and tell stories together through Magic cards.
  3.  Shake things up: success breeds failure.  There’s a lot of truth to the expression “If it a’int broke, don’t fix it,” but not-broken is a lie we tell ourselves.  It’s “good enough” hidden behind fear.  Something as big and complex as a game played by millions of people is never close to perfect, and there are probably a thousand ways Commander could be better—more exciting, more diverse, easier for players to tap into.  There’s also ways to make it worse, but we need to try things, even if they offend some people.  Fortunately, the player base is remarkably diverse and resilient, the perfect partner for us to work with in exploring the possibilities.

So keep a weather eye out, let us know what you think (good or bad).  Even if we can’t always respond, we’re always listening and working on the future.

Gavin wasn’t the only RC member who had thoughts.  Toby Elliott also weighed in:

“I walked into CommandFest Seattle and found a room with about 800 people in it, all just having fun. I’ve spent years haunting the convention halls at the highest echelons of Magic play and it’s hard to explain how different the atmosphere was, even with the familiar concrete floor and doomed table coverings. The Little Format that Could had been recently declared the most popular format in Magic, and people were ready to party.

Almost every game of Commander I played this past year was great. From the before-draft throwdowns at the local store that don’t always finish, to playing with the whole Rules Committee at GenCon. I won the first game I played with no-win-condition Etali, Primal Storm (it found someone’s Aetherflux Reservoir on the first swing and then it was off to the races) and got crushed by Ethan Fleischer’s monogreen horsemanship. I ogled a ton of shiny new commanders and settled on Etali, Niv-Mizzet Reborn and Omnath, Locus of the Roil, while bidding farewell to long-time favorites Skullbriar and Zedruu.

Etali, Primal Storm Niv-Mizzet Reborn Omnath, Locus of the Roil

We revamped the philosophy in 2019. The words I made sure we bolded were “resonant experience,” as I believe that’s why the format has gone so viral. Commander lets you interact with Magic in ways that other formats don’t, and we really wrestled with what it meant to play Commander while crafting the philosophy. It’s not working on the same axes as other formats, and that’s a good thing, as it provides an opportunity for people who haven’t found what they’re looking for elsewhere. That was true at the inception of the format, and it’s been true for all the formats that have sprung up in its wake. Everyone should find a Magic format they love, and it’s thrilling that for a lot of people, that format is Commander.

The party isn’t stopping in 2020. Wizards has declared it the Year of Commander, and who are we to argue? There are challenges ahead.  We’re aware of the problems faced by players pushing the format to places the philosophy tries to steer them from, and spend a lot of time discussing the appropriate response. I think a lot about an article that was written at the tail end of 2018: which, while not directly about Commander, does get to the heart of what we’ve tried to accomplish. We consider ourselves guardians of the format, and that means being measured in any action; the primary audience sees the game as a fun diversion, not something that needs to be constantly tracked for updates. But, there’s also a few fun surprises planned, starting with the revamped website, so stay tuned!

The number of opportunities that you’re going to have to get outside of your local group (should you desire) and play Commander will be greater than they’ve ever been before.  Gavin mentions Command Zone at MagicFests, but he doesn’t mention CommandFests.  While I don’t have any inside knowledge, I suspect that we’ll be seeing them in the future.  The unbridled success of the three late in 2019 demonstrate their viability and popularity.  What they’ll look like and where they’ll be remains to be seen.  Regardless, the members of the RC and CAG stand ready to support and attend them as well and frequently as possible. 

During my time in R&D last year, you can imagine that we talked a great deal about Commander.  I can confirm what Gavin says about more than doubling down. 

In addition to what we know we’ll be seeing in 2020, I can tell you that there is significant effort and support going into the format. 

There are more than a few people who are putting a great deal of work into making cool Commander cards and sets.  What I also noticed was a sensitivity to how certain cards—especially legendary creatures—in non-Commander sets will impact us.  Designers are aware that Commander is an Eternal format; once cards come in, they don’t rotate out unless they get banned. 

One of the anxieties I’ve heard from the player base regarding all this new product is power creep.  As I helped design a future set and examined others in the pipeline, I was especially sensitive to those anxieties.  Part of the job of good designers is pushing the envelope and taking cards, themes, and ideas in directions they haven’t been before. 

No one wants to design the thing that already exists but is just cheaper.  Everyone on my teams truly focused on innovation and finding the under-served (there’s that word again) corners of the format.  I obviously can’t offer you specifics, but I can tell you that most of the vision designers I worked with understood the nature of Commander and put themselves in that framework.  They have a good grasp on what the format is and how it wants to be what it is on its own terms. 

Commander, even in design, isn’t “Magic as usual”.  My fellow designers understand the multiplayer and political aspects of the format and insist on finding space to explore them.  Will we get cards that are better than before or strict upgrades to things which already exist?  Of course we will.  That’s the nature of moving forward.  Yes, Wurmcoil Engine is better than Obsianus Golem.  If we didn’t have cards that were better than previous ones, the game would have died a long time ago.  The good news is that the people who are making Magic for Commander are pretty good at lateral development as well as recognizing how and where to make improvements and find upgrade paths that don’t eventually just lead to three mana 20/20s with trample and no drawbacks.

Wurmcoil Engine Obsianus Golem

In 2020 we see more Commander content than ever.  From the wildly popular Tolarian Community College and Command Zone, to a host of small streamers, there are people who are spreading their love of the format across the globe.  The RC will support and signal boost as many of them as we can. 

The unprecedented popularity of the format was never part of the plan.  The first morning of CommandFest Seattle, I had an experience similar to Toby’s.  I stood up and looked around the room.  In 2004, I wouldn’t have imagined that many players in the world, let alone in a single room.  What struck me most was the vibe.  The atmosphere was chill and unstressed—exactly what I had hoped for in the format so long ago, but simply hadn’t hoped it for so many, since I really wasn’t aware that so many existed.  It was a moment of immense pleasure and sense of accomplishment. But as Gavin said, we can’t just rest on our laurels. We have to think about tomorrow.

Part of the reason Commander has reached this state is an unflinching commitment to be itself.  This doesn’t mean we’re locked in any kind of stasis.  We can maintain the original vision and still remain flexible and adaptive.  Yes, the popularity means that there are many more people playing the format in a fashion in which it wasn’t intended.  That’s fine.  We support players who look at things in other ways; in fact, we built into the philosophy the very capability to make local changes. 

With the popularity of the format comes some density of players who want a different experience.  We support the notion of their validity.  I suspect that there are now, for example, more players who want a competitive/tournament version of Commander than the total number were playing the format ten years ago.  Still, those players remain a minority of the total number of players engaged with the format.  This creates the controversy and challenge which the format currently faces.

The cEDH community is an extremely vocal subset of Commander players, which creates a portion of the controversy.  They’re highly invested in and highly passionate about their side of the format.  Because of their investment and passion, they’re more likely than folks from other demographics to ask for attention, leading to the impression that they’re a greater portion of the player base than their actual numbers suggest.  

There are legions of Commander fans who are content with exactly where they are, because the format is currently serving their needs.  We’re not going to hear from them (save for when the conversation gets toxic, then we’ll get the occasional “keep up the good work, don’t listen to the haters” message).  There is also a legion of Commander fans we know nothing about because they don’t self-identify and engage in a manner which fosters data collection; they don’t play in tournaments and they don’t have DCI numbers.  In other words, there’s a vast swath of players that we know we know nothing about.  So what does the RC do with the vocal minority?

We treat them with dignity and respect.  We listen to what they have to say.  To that end, for more than half a year, we’ve been engaged with leaders from the cEDH community.  We trust their analysis on the way they like to play the format.  We trust their advice—which, by the way, was far from unanimous on recent issues.  What those cEDH community leaders understand which escapes some other players is that our first responsibility—as we’ve set it up ourselves and have no intention of changing—is the core demographic of Commander.  The percentage of the player base which we found our decisions on is the one which put Commander on the map in the first place.  We have been nothing but clear about who we serve and why.  This is not a slight to those who would like things another way, this is not to demean anyone, nor is it a rejection of anything or anyone. 

Some folks feel like their voices aren’t being heard or their interests aren’t being represented.  Please don’t think that us doing something other than exactly the thing you want means that we’re not listening. The challenge is to help find a space in which we’re all comfortable.  It’s not going to be easy, but few things worth doing ever are.  A measure of success in our future will be how we integrate other voices into our chorus without creating disharmony.  If it’s possible, we’ll look for a way. 

We will continue to focus on our core demographic and reinforcing the format’s primary messages.  What Commander most wants is to create resonant experiences, the kind that bring people together.  It’s not about winning and losing, it’s about playing and doing.  It’s about being with people and sharing moments, creating the games that you’ll always remember.  Being different from every other format of Magic is in Commander’s DNA.  You could say that it was born this way. 

2020 is a coming out party for Commander.  We will celebrate together and face its challenges as one.  That, too, is hard coded into the very thing that gave us life. 

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