Ask Me Anything: March 2021 Edition

Sheldon Menery answers a variety of community questions about Commander, its Rules Committee, card bannings, and the future.

Damnation, illustrated by Kev Walker

It’s been nearly a year since I’ve done an AMA.  Quite a bit has transpired in that time.  When I wrote the last one, I was preparing for Gavin Verhey to visit for the weekend on his way back from a cruise.  Little did we know he’d be the last visitor since. 

I reached out to the fine folks on the Commander RC Discord for these questions.  Nothing was off limits, although I tried to avoid the same things we get all the time and find the real gems.  Let’s dive right in.

From ShifuDaxiongmao:

With all this (flails arms around at the world), how are you doing?

I honestly count myself really fortunate.  Even with the health concerns, which are looking up at the moment, my life has been pretty stable in the COVID era.  I have an amazing life partner and we have a privileged life together.  To be secure in these insecure times is a blessing beyond measure. 

From LeesusFreak (and in various forms, many others): 

What’s your opinion on the recent news of Universes Beyond and what effect do you expect of them on the community and format?  Where you aware earlier than the public announcement?

I found out quite a while ago, when I was working inside the building.   The impact on the community has been immediate, and we’re seeing some of the natural resistance to change. 

I have a few opinions.  First, the RC isn’t about to tell Wizards of the Coast (WotC) what can be a Magic card and what can’t.  Second, I’m fine with opening the game of Magic to people who aren’t yet Magic fans through something else they’re a fan of.  Personally, Warhammer 40K doesn’t resonate with me (neither did The Walking Dead), but I’d never want that to stand in the way of other people finding their enjoyment or discovering a bridge into our game.  As a Tolkien fanatic, I’m of course thoroughly excited about that crossover. 

The thing I’m most happy about with Universes Beyond is that the cards will be available through normal channels, and not a limited and time-sensitive release, which was our biggest problem with Secret Lair x The Walking Dead — and we let our friends at WotC know that in no uncertain terms.

From (name withheld by request):

What’s your favorite card previewed from Time Spiral Remastered?

As of writing this piece, we’ve only gotten through white, blue, and black.  Hands down, it’s Damnation.  The card has gotten a little absurd in price and the fan base has been looking for a reprint for quite some time.  Very happy it finally happened. 

From CthutluHoopsCereal:

What is the stance on further changes made to Commander specifically to impact the cEDH community?

We don’t have one — that is to say that it’s no secret that we’re not specifically crafting the format to be a competitive one. We support the folks who want to swim in that end of the pool, but future changes will be made in light of our philosophy document and in the best interest of the long-term health of the format.  As a side note, from the experts I talk to, cEDH is in a pretty healthy place right now, which seems like good news for all. 

From Corey:

What’s your favorite precon released in 2020 designed by your friend Corey?

I’m just happy that Corey is my friend and wouldn’t want to make him feel bad because I’m beyond bored with Elves. 

From Stefouch:

Do you miss the era before the power creep of Magic?

It’s pretty easy to wax nostalgic about when Battlefield Scrounger was a great card in the format, but I’m aware that the game needs to grow in order to survive.  Do I think that some things have gotten pushed?  Sure, but pushing the envelope is healthy, even if it occasionally gets broken.  Growth is sometimes painful, but it’s necessary for survival. 

From BirdBoy:

What’s your favorite album that tends to shock people the most when you throw it on (shocked that it’s something you’re into, not because of intentionally shocking content)?

I think that due to my age (I’ll be 60 later this year), some folks are shocked that I like metal.  My recent favorite discovery is Unleash the Archers, and I happen to be listening to their album Abyss while I’m writing.  The band is great and Brittney Slayes rules. 

From Parishioner:

Can you unban Balance?

We can.  Will we?  Not a chance.  There’s nothing good to come from it. 

From Carson:

How are your kitties doing?

They’ve been a great help getting me through recovery from chemo.  Whenever I wasn’t feeling well, I could count on one of them keeping me company.  Cupid actually started looking forward to taking naps with me, crawling under the covers and everything. 

From SeraphSix:

What’s your favorite deck lately?

Pako and Haldan.  Who can resist a good boy?

From ASlothNamedArgyle:

What is your stance on intentional game-drawing effects like Divine Intervention, especially if you aren’t making players aware beforehand that’s your end-game plan?

I don’t think I’ve ever seen it happen or heard much about it, so the idea of taking a stance hasn’t crossed my mind.  It seems like the kind of thing you might want to tell the folks you’re sitting down with, but I don’t think I’d be upset if someone didn’t. 

From AwesomeGuy63:

What do you think is the best way to judge the power level of your deck?

There are two different axes on which to evaluate your deck:  what it does and when it does it.  It seems like lots of folks are focused on the former, but to me the latter is more important in making a deck more “powerful.”  The most ridiculous nonsense on Turn 13 is fine.  If you’re doing it on Turn 3, you’ve entered a very different sphere.  I think I’m more concerned with time creep than power creep

From AddOneGreen:

What is the best three-color combination with green in it?

Sous vide lobster, homemade parm broth risotto, and sauteed spinach.

From BalefulStrix:

Was there ever a deck that you built where no matter what you did, it just didn’t feel right?  Did something come out later that made you reattempt that deck?

I’ve been struggling with my Saskia deck for a while.  It’s not just the four-color nature, but the fact that it’s only worked in spits and spurts the entire time I’ve had it and tinkered with it.  It’s likely that I’m trying to have too many options and need to focus better. 

From Looter-Scooter:

I’d like to know the inverse of the above question. What’s a deck you didn’t think would work out or you’d enjoy, but have ended up loving/working very well?

When I built Aminatou’s Demons, I thought it would be moderately effective, but not a particular joy to play.  It’s been the opposite.  I’ve had a grand time playing it. I even got a win once by casting Sudden Spoiling on myself. I’ll confess to having only pulled it out once in the post-COVID webcam era.  Doesn’t seem like the right thing to play remotely. 

From Kushanu:

How has the philosophy of the format changed as a result of it becoming more popular and supported directly by Wizards of the Coast?

The philosophy hasn’t changed, but the necessity of articulating it well certainly has.  Our audience isn’t just larger, it’s broader.  We have to be aware that it encompasses not just the target demographic, but the folks on the fringe as well.  We want to be as sensitive to their voices as we can. 

From Ecoli13:

If you could beam a single thought into every Commander player’s head, what would it be?

Gavin says it at the end of nearly every RC stream:  Be excellent to each other. 

From ClydeBankston:

Is there any chance some of the CAG members will join the RC?  If so, who?

From Darkflame:

With the massive increase in Commander-related product, has there been any discussion on expanding the size of the RC in order to increase the number of eyes on the ever-growing format?

These two questions kind of go together.  I’ve said very publicly that if in three to five years the RC looks the same as it does today, we haven’t done our job right.  As far as I’m concerned, the increase in the popularity of the format demands better leadership representation of the player base (as well as is logistically reasonable).  To some extent, we’ve done that with the formation of the CAG, but that’s just the beginning.  The CAG was intended to get more eyes on what’s happening in the format and more expert input back to the RC, and we’re really happy with how they’ve done so far. 

As far as the next RC member(s), we’ve said since beginning that the CAG wasn’t a stepping stone to the RC, but we’re also aware that the members of the CAG are very smart and invested in the format.  It wouldn’t make any sense to ignore them just because of the position they currently hold. 

As far as RC and CAG numbers go, we don’t want either to get unmanageably large.  As an advisory body, the CAG can be quite a bit bigger than the decision-making group, the RC.  I can’t see the RC functioning effectively with more than five or six people. 

From TheSavvyRaspberry:

When will the banned list be updated for today’s power level?

As previously mentioned, we’re not crafting a competitive banned list. 

From Gweedle:

What set from 2021 are you most excited about?

Strixhaven, since that’s the one I primarily worked on when I was at WotC.  I’m also looking forward to the Forgotten Realms set because I’ve already seen some of the goodies within. 

From Jester:

Looking at legal commanders, which one is your least favorite to play against?

Grand Arbiter Augustin IV.  I’m not a fan of sitting down and not playing Magic. 

From friendofcats:

Is there any ongoing discussion of potential unbans?

Always.  In fact, in every RC meeting we go through the thought exercise of arguing to unban something.  Even moreso now, we’ve heard some community input on cards that they think might be safe for the format, so we’re currently talking about them.  I don’t want to mention any specifically because we’d rather not give fuel to speculators. 

From TrixterHalloween:

What plane, if any, would you like to see a return to in a future expansion?

Kamigawa always seemed like a plane that should have been well-explored but didn’t end up that way.  I’d love to see modern-day design teams have a crack at it. 

From Bubbin:

Why won’t you return to Banned as a Commander?

I’ll point you to last week’s article, Is Bringing Back Banned As A Commander A Good Idea?  If you still have questions, feel free to hit me up on the RC Discord.

From (name withheld by request):

How has the Commander landscape changed since you first started?

It’s like we’re in entirely different worlds.  We started as the plucky little format that could and are now the 800-pound gorilla.  The biggest thing is that now decisions get made in Design and Development with Commander in mind.  Although not every card is designed for the format (not should it be), every set is a Commander set. 

From PacoTaco:

Why is Tolarian Academy banned but Gaea’s Cradle isn’t?

We don’t do cascading ban logic; that path would lead to an unmanageably large banned list.  To directly answer the question, though, the short version is that while Cradle might eventually make more mana, Tolarian Academy makes too much far sooner. 

From Krazikarl:

How does the RC weigh the desires of the community against your personal vision for the format?  In other words, if there is a contradiction between what the community appears to want and your personal vision of the format, how do you resolve that discrepancy?

From the beginning, our stance has been “this is what we’re doing; we hope you’ll follow along.”  If we had listened to what the community appeared to have wanted, we’d have made the format like every other one a long time ago.  Sticking to our guns led to the most popular format in Magic. 

And you’ve touched on something important in “what the community appears to want.”  The ground truth is that more people will be vocal about something that they don’t like.  You can’t assume that the most vocal are representative of the largest group of people.  Still, we know that there’s a vast and valid chorus of opinions in the community.  We’re going to listen to people who are interested in helping us do better at what we’re doing.  For the people who want us to change what we’re doing and make Commander like every other format, not so much. 

From cobblepot:

Branching off of Krazikarl, how do you reconcile things that you want for the format against things that are right for the format?  Do you have personal tools for distinguishing whether there’s a difference?

Actively taking the 10,000-foot view helps distinguish between personal preferences and the best interests of the format.  What I really like (or the things I dislike) to an extreme (or even just a slightly more conservative reading) might lead to an excessively large banned list, which isn’t a good idea.  It would alienate large sections of the player base, which isn’t good for the community.  While there’s a definite direction I want to head, it’s necessary to balance that with the idea that my version of fun isn’t the only way to enjoy things.  Sometimes, you have to realize that the thing you want to do has additional consequences. 

From ClydeBankston:

Is there anything in hindsight you regret banning or unbanning?

Not really.  If we felt like we’d made a mistake, we would correct it. 

From lookingupanddown:

In hindsight, was there any card you should have banned earlier?

Iona, Shield of Emeria could have gone away a long time ago and the format would have been better for it.  “If it was that bad, why haven’t you banned it yet?” isn’t an argument to not do a thing right now. 

From the1andonlyn:

What’s your favorite color pair or combination?

Orzhov and the Orzhov-adjacent Abzan.  I think white, which is getting much better these days, is a great support color.  It has some cards that I really love, like Faith’s Reward and Cosmic Intervention, which can turn the narrative of a game on its head.  I’m overly fond of graveyard recursion, so black is a natural.  Adding green lets me play Karador, Ghost Chieftain, and all is right with the world. 

From Squirrelmob:

How successful do you feel the RC has met its goal to communicate to a wider group of people, and what steps do you still want to take toward furthering that goal?

The Discord server has been a great step as a follow-up to founding the CAG more than two years ago.  We have an opportunity to meet with and have meaningful conversations with way more people than we ever have.  The platform also offers the advantage of being able to break off into more focused conversations.  I’m particularly pleased with the quality of the discussions in the format philosophy channel. 

As far as communication goes, we’ve expanded the CAG to ten with some more room to grow into.  More engagement is always a good goal, so to that end, we’ll be searching for even more useful ways to simply have time with the broadest cross-section of the player base we can. 

From Tiran:

If you could be any Marvel superhero, which one would it be and why?

Iron Man.  I could do a lot of good in the world with those Tony Stark resources.  Also, built-in theme song. 

From (name withheld by request):

Could you theoretically unban ante cards?

We could, but we wouldn’t want to, in theory or in practice. 

From SumNeuron:

What, if anything, do you think Wizards of the Coast should do (or not do) to help balance the color pie for Commander?

Balancing the color pie goes beyond the scope of just Commander, so I don’t think they should do anything specifically for us.  Interestingly, when people talk about balancing the color pie these days, they’re almost always talking about improving white.  The Council of Colors is doing a decent job at the moment, especially giving white more tools in its arsenal that are still consistent with what we think white should do.  If they want to do anything specifically for Commander, maybe slow down giving green even more good stuff. 

From ClydeBankston:

Do you still stand by your Commander Cards You Shouldn’t Play article and why?

Sure, and you have to read the whole thing.  If you focus just on the title, you might get the wrong impression.  I talk about that right away.  The critical part is the assertion that “they’re cards that we choose to not play with and would invite you to consider the same.”  Nobody’s saying you’re a bad person if you like playing those cards.  The whole idea was about creating the most positive communal space.  The title was intentionally provocative, and hopefully it got people to read it.  

From Kleedrac:

Is there a solution to mechanics which only see printing in one set and aren’t deep enough for Commander decks to be based on them?

The only one I see is to cobble together other similar mechanics or combinations of cards that do close to the same thing. Or make “under-printed mechanics” tribal.

From gothgirl:

If the Rules Committee does all of its work “behind the scenes,” why should anyone believe it’s doing anything?

I don’t believe we’re doing all of our work behind the scenes.  Sure, there are specifics we don’t share (like individual RC votes on things), but we’re not some secret cabal.  Considering that we can’t actually go to events, via social media we’re still out in the community more than we’ve been in the past.  We’ve been transparent about how we make decisions and it’s pretty clear at any given time where our collective head is on most issues. 

From ExtendoHugs:

Can we make the commander going to the command zone a choice that can’t be controlled via Mindslaver effects?

It’s a corner case at best, so it’s not the kind of thing we’d make a rule for.  I’m not even sure what writing such a rule would look like without some pretty extreme gyrations and hand-waving. 

From CannibalSoup:

As this format grows increasingly popular, it is inevitable that people who love “unfun” strategies such as prison and STAX will find their way to this format. Especially in the face of power creep, should we reevaluate how we approach the social contract of this format? Should we try to be more accepting of “unfun” strategies as a way to help balance the format?

The basic and significant part of the social contract is to consider the experiences of the other people playing with you, so we’re definitely not changing that approach.  Balance isn’t one of our goals.  If the field is tilted towards more people having a good time playing games because they actually get to play them, then we’ll keep it leaning in that direction. 

While denial strategies are valid ways to play and we definitely believe in running interaction, we’d rather err on the side of letting people do stuff than completely shutting them down.  All that said, demonizing people who like to play particular strategies isn’t helpful nor is it in the long-term benefit to anyone.  If things are outside your comfort zone, by all means don’t play them, but that doesn’t mean those other folks are the enemy. 

From the_jmenz:

Why is there a banned list if the Rules Committee is willing to use the Rule Zero defense in situations like TWD Secret Lair?

We didn’t use Rule Zero to defend anything — and I went back to the announcement on TWD to make sure that we didn’t.  People think we lean in the Rule Zero idea more than we actually do.  As I’ve mentioned before, we make rules and bannings based on what we think brings the broadest possible positive experience to our community.  I’ve used the analogy previously and will continue to do so because it fits — Rule Zero isn’t our engine, it’s the ejector seat. 

From ISBPathfinder:

If you had to eat one specific meal the rest of your life, what would it be?

Although I’m a big fan of fancy foods, if I were limited to one meal, it would be relatively simple:  a high-quality rib-eye, a baked potato (otherwise known as a sour cream delivery platform), and roasted asparagus.  Add a classic Left Bank Bordeaux and you can’t go wrong. 

From MilkQuEEnV01:

When discussing things like pre-banning the crossovers, is it a majority vote in the RC, or do some voices have more weight than others?

You’ve asked two different questions here, so I’ll try to navigate both.  When it comes to the idea of pre-banning anything, we rely on our philosophy to only do it in extreme situations.  People sometimes get up in arms when they first see cards, and we’re bigger fans of taking time to examine things and get the lay of the land before making decisions. 

In answer to your bigger question, everyone on the RC has an equal vote on all things.  That vote, however, is weighted by each individual based on how we feel about the issue.  Because we trust each other to not game the system, we don’t just give a yes or no vote, but weighted it in a range of +2 to -2, with 0 being a valid choice.  Then, if the number hits a total threshold of 3, the motion is carried.  You can see that one member’s -2 isn’t enough to kill a motion if the other three are +2 on it. 

Again, this system works because we’ve been doing this together for a long time, are personally very close, and have a great deal of trust in each other.  That said, not everything comes to a vote—sometimes we’re already in unanimous agreement about a thing (whether that’s a rule change or a ban/unban) and a vote is not required. 

From HeraldsofWack:

Do you have a favorite deck that you’ve built? What deck is it?

Absolutely.  You Did This to Yourself creates hilarious and memorable games.  From the simple idea of punishing players with Parallectric Feedback for greedy Exsanguinates came an archetype that I will always love. 

From Jacket:

What would you say is your favorite color in terms of its philosophies/flavor?

White.  I like the idea that it tends to create boundaries in which you have to operate.  Some taxing effects, especially those that rein in greed, are good for the game. 

From JonuahL:

What’s a card that you love but wish was just a little bit stronger so you could play it more often?

Wurmcoil Engine just keeps finding itself replaced by other things in decks, and I’m not quite sure why. 

From Thromoking:

What are the biggest threats to the continued growth of the format?

It’s actually hard to imagine that we can maintain the current growth rate, which has been a little absurd over the last few years.  I suspect we’ll continue to grow, but at a somewhat slower pace, which will still bring lots of new players into the format. 

The only actual threat that I see to the format would be to try to make it into a no-kidding competitive one.  I think if we tried to do that, folks would leave in droves.  One of the main reasons fans have flocked to the format is that we don’t have the same kind of pressures that others do, and we’re just focused on raw enjoyment.  Continuing that is the best way to keep the format alive and flourishing.

From Stefouch:

With the recent change in Hasbro, do you fear they could now force WotC to fully take over the format and dissolve the RC (note that I don’t want this)?

No fear at all.  Happily, we have an excellent relationship with Wizards of the Coast and look forward to maintaining it in the future.  Weirdly, they couldn’t dissolve the RC since they don’t own us.  They might be able to form their own and wrest control of the format from us (after all, it’s their intellectual property), but I imagine the cost would be quite high.  The resulting schism would be the worst thing to ever happen to the format.  Fortunately, the likelihood of something like that happening is extremely low. 

Thanks to all the people from the RC Discord server for their great questions.  Additional thanks to Tech Support to the Stars Logan Isch and team of mods for taking such great care of us and all our friends who hang out there. 

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