Commander is in the healthiest place it’s ever been. We weathered the Year of Commander that never quite got off the ground due to the global pandemic and were stronger for it. Online communities around the world exploded with the wealth of opportunities via webcam games. We may not have done it in person, but many of us got to see more of a wider selection of people. There are also even more high-quality content creators, streaming and writing about the format with the kind of passion that the Commander fan base is known for. If you love Commander content, you’re not going to run out of options anytime soon.
We remain committed to Commander being a bastion of stability in a sometimes-tumultuous Magic world. Our updates will still come quarterly, on the Monday before the Prerelease. We’re also keenly aware of Commander as an Eternal format. Players have invested significant energy, time, and resources into their Commander decks with an expectation of some security. We’ll certainly address cards (even those which have been around for a while) which become problematic in the format, but we’re of the mind that Commander is not in need of any tectonic shifts.
The casual versus competitive divide which has so often torn at us in the past seems to have reached a détente. The community has come to a broad realization that, regardless of how we like to play, there’s no need to villainize those who enjoy things differently. It’s a result of talking to each other more often and clearly about our expectations before we ever sit down to a game. While there’s no absolute and completely accurate power level scale, the existence of multiple attempts to craft them demonstrates that folks in the community are making the effort to help us all find our comfort zones.
The Commander Advisory Group (CAG) expansion has already paid dividends. Adding Jim LaPage, Rachel Weeks, DeQuan Watson, and Greg Sablan to the group of Olivia Gobert-Hicks, Charlotte Sable, Rachel Agnes, Adam Styborski, Josh Lee Kwai, and Shivam Bhatt further broadened the horizons towards which we can reach, adding more strong voices to our ever-growing chorus.
The value that the individuals on the CAG add to both the RC and the community is immeasurable, from being advocates for certain styles of play and strategies to helping amplify your voices. As we said in the announcement back in January, there’s still room for a few more seats at the CAG table as we reach out to underserved demographics and geographic areas. Commander is a global format, full of diversity of background, thought, and opinion; we’d like to reflect that as much as we can.
The recent past hasn’t been without its controversies, with many fans dubious over products like Secret Lair x The Walking Dead and the recently-announced Universes Beyond, and removing cards for their depictions of racism. Secret Lair x The Walking Dead was an incredibly emotional issue and some in the community wanted us to “make a statement” by banning the cards, which we didn’t feel was a necessary or appropriate action. For one thing, we don’t believe banning them would have the effect those supporting a ban hoped it would. For another, banning them wouldn’t have been consistent with our philosophy document.
One of the simple truths of this complex situation is that we’re not in the business of telling Wizards of the Coast (WotC) their business, as it were. We will continue to advise and suggest on community-level issues where we can (as we did in the wake of Secret Lair x The Walking Dead). We support them printing what they see fit to be a tournament-legal card. If we feel that individual cards are unhealthy for Commander, that’s when we’ll take action.
We’re on board with the broadening landscape of future Magic sets. Whether it’s an onramp to Commander for fans of other properties or a way for invested players to explore new horizons, there’s room in our community for a vast range of experiences. One of the great parts of the format is that you don’t need access to every card ever printed to have a great deal of fun playing. Each of us gets to choose which experiences resonate with us individually, and we have a great number of options in finding our comfort zones.
Another of the community’s anxieties comes from power creep and pushed card designs. The folks in design and development loop us in during the process and we have several opportunities to offer suggestions on Commander product along the way, giving us more input and access than we’ve ever had. We can help alleviate some of those anxieties by supporting cards that are clever and interesting, that deckbuilders must do a little work to turn into stars, as opposed to cards that simply end up as staples due to their increased power or decreased costs. The game needs to evolve in order to stay fresh and relevant, but we can help point that evolution in a productive direction.
Creation of the RC Discord server has given us opportunity to be more directly involved with more of the community than ever before. It’s a safe space in which you can interact on multiple topics with one or more RC and CAG members nearly every day of the week. We remain committed to keeping open lines of communication with the player base, hearing and addressing your concerns as well as we possibly can.
In resounding terms, players have made Commander the most popular format in Magic. Even in times when we can’t get together physically, you’ve made it all about The Gathering. We look forward to the coming time when we join back together in person to enjoy each other’s company and play the best format in Magic history. When the State of the Format comes around in 2022, we hope to give you the same message: Commander is in the best place it’s ever been.
Here’s where the address would end if you were watching it on TV. What follows is more like the analysis afterwards. I thought it would be compelling to hear what some other folks have to say, and then offer some additional commentary. I reached out to a few big names in the community for some thoughts.
First, let’s look at what fellow Rules Committee founder Gavin Duggan listed last year, three challenges for the format in 2020.
1. Two-Directional Visibility
The data Gavin was talking about here isn’t the same kind of data that tournament formats might gather, such as which decks, strategies, and cards are tilting the environment in an unhealthy direction. The data that’s useful to us is more experientially based. How do particular elements (to be fair, mostly cards) impact the people playing the format? What can the collected experiences of players tell us about how we might resolve the challenges they have? In the past — and hopefully in the near future — some of this data was (will be) collected in person once we’re capable again of large gatherings.
Unlike competitive formats, what we do with this data is different as well. They seek to find a competitive balance. We’re not interested in balance at all — we want to tilt the field in the direction of good times for as many people as possible. While that might lead to nerfing some particular card, deck, or strategy (a great deal of sameness can pretty boring after all), the goal is still radically different.
Focus on the Philosophy
The philosophy document is still our guiding light. It’s not a checklist and it’s definitely not science. It’s about helping create an environment that promotes those resonant experiences which have made the format what it is. Although we have a direction that we think is best for the broadest audience, we also want to balance that with the fact that there are many different ways to play and enjoy the format, all of them perfectly valid. We’ve intentionally left things pretty wide open in order to accommodate them.
Shake Things Up
Gavin’s thoughts here might seem contrary to the earlier message of stability, but they aren’t. What he’s talking about here isn’t about changing the foundation of the building, but maybe knocking down a few walls and doing some room makeovers. Commander is still going to be its best self on its own terms, but that doesn’t mean it needs to suffer from inertia. We’ll continue to seek ways to keep things fresh moving into the future and are happy to hear ideas on how to do so. There’s nearly always a lively chat going on in the format-philosophy channel on the RC Discord server.
One of the folks I reached out to is The Professor from Tolarian Community College. Here’s what he had to say:
However, all that attention is not necessarily a good thing. I feel the biggest obstacle facing Commander is the plethora of made-for-Commander cards that have flooded into our libraries and pushed so many older cards out of consideration. The most popular Commanders are the precon and Commander Legends ones. How can Brion Stoutarm and Karn, Silver Golem stand up to Edgar Markov; Atraxa, Praetors’ Voice; and Chulane, Teller of Tales? What once was a format where you tried to figure out how to make your favorite old, goofy cards work in a deck is transforming, fast, into the format where cards are made to be so good that there’s less and less reason to use those older cards.
Prof’s concerns echo those of many folks in the community. I’ve already noted that we on the RC can nudge design and development along the way and our next respondent will have something to say along those lines. We’ve already offered the feedback to stop stapling additional broad abilities onto commanders (and cards in general), instead giving them a narrower focus that you might have to work a little harder to get value from. They’ve told us that they’ve heard and understood.
What else we can do is to continue to reinforce the message that I offered earlier: to a large extent, you get to sculpt your own Commander experience and there’s no such thing as a “must play” card. The more we can get people talking and considering the experiences of the people they’re sitting down with, the better we all are for it. As much as possible, we don’t just want folks to play games, we want them to feel invested in the whole experience.
I also asked Senior Designer and Commander Architect Gavin Verhey for a few sentences, and true to form, he over-delivered.
In 2020 we had the year of Commander — and immediately ran headfirst into one of the most impactful historic events of our lifetime with COVID. We were all terrified about how this would impact the year.
Well, what impresses me so much about Commander players is that Commander didn’t just survive COVID, it thrived. Our Commander sets were hits pretty much across the board, and the capstone of Commander Legends at the end of the year both did phenomenally for us and delighted players around the world. And that’s without draft being an option in most circles (I hope you do get to draft it eventually though)!
But I think far more important than any of that is the community. I have been so impressed by the community banding together and making online, webcam Magic such a staple. What could have been a huge disconnection for everybody came as precisely an opportunity to connect even further! I’ve been able to consistently play Commander with people around the country and world, who I never would be able to get in regular games with otherwise. It’s because of platforms like Spelltable that some great Commander creators have really began to rise up. In my mind, more than any individual product, 2020 will always be the year in Magic where webcam Commander took off and became a shining beacon of fun and unity in a globally troubling time.
So, where are we going forward?
Well, you can expect to continue to see a lot of Commander going forward. Nearly everything we did was a hit, so it makes sense to keep moving ahead. However, with all of our successes, I (and we) did hear a lot of community feedback. With growth, comes lessons and challenges. And there are a few big areas we’re looking to reign in future releases.
A big one is staples and the rate at which new cards impact Commander. Commander is fun in part because your decks aren’t determined and you have a lot of room for innovation. Every Arcane Signet we make, that fits into a huge swath of decks, just cuts into that creativity. Going forward, we are mostly looking to create cards which are interesting options, but not staples. Will we miss sometimes? Yes — I would be a fool if I thought we were going to be perfect. But by aiming toward more niche archetypes and being judicious in the kinds of cards we print, it goes a long way there.
Except for maybe white. We know white needs help. I recently made a video about exactly this — and I wouldn’t mind making a couple white cards which most white decks will want to play. Though even there, restraint is important. Every card we add into Commander is there for the long haul, and something to fix white today, if a nuisance, could be a source of constant frustration five years from now. In any case, we have a lot of cards targeted at white in the pipeline over the next year or two, and I hope you will enjoy them as they release and be patient on the journey there.
Reprints is another big topic. As Commander continues to grow, staples become more necessary than ever. In 2020 we got a lot of cards out there between Mystery Boosters, Double Masters, tons of Commander decks, Commander Legends, and so on. Finding more ways to get players cards they need is important.
I could go on and on about everything that happened in Commander in 2020 — but I’ve already hijacked enough of Sheldon’s article as is. I just want to say thanks to the incredible Commander community for everything you all have done over the past year. Magic literally wouldn’t be the same without you.
See you in a game soon (and maybe, if all goes well with this vaccine rollout, I’ll truly see you in the flesh!)
You can see that Gavin and the RC are on much of the same page. One slight difference is his note about staples, but there he’s coming at it from a business sense, and we approach from an aesthetic one. The two can often pull in different directions. Otherwise, we seem to have our fingers on the same pulse.
We look forward to continuing to have a honest, fruitful, and productive relationship with Gavin and the folks from WotC. Our strategic partnership with them will be able to keep the format steaming on, even in the roughest of seas.
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