Sullivan’s Satchel: Commander Cards In Constructed, One-Off Designs, And The Power Of Collaboration

Patrick Sullivan answers mailbag questions on Commander-leaning cards appearing in Constructed and why some designs are best in small doses.

Knight of the White Orchid, illustrated by Mark Zug
Knight of the White Orchid, illustrated by Mark Zug

Hello, and welcome to this edition of Sullivan’s Satchel. I’ve got that fire back! After a bit of a lull with Constructed Magic, I’ve gotten my groove back thanks to Devon O’Donnell (aka d00mwake) and his Izzet Prowess deck in Modern, featuring Strixhaven standout Expressive Iteration.

I’ve run through a few Leagues, and I have some thoughts/critiques on the list, which I may share in a future column. But the list is dope, there’s a lot of merit to playing with blue over white (as I typically do, mostly for Kor Firewalker in the sideboard), and there’s some novelty in playing with similar-but-not-the-same cards in this sort of shell. The details matter, and I’m plainly playing worse as a result of the different cards between the two lists, but that’s part of the joy as well, discovering the details and working your way through fringe situations.

I keep coming back to Prowess in Modern because the iteration cycles are so satisfying. You play Burn, every once in a while a new Bolt comes out that’s maybe better than the worst one you’re currently playing, and you make a swap. Here, the cards interlock in weird ways and so unpacking the sum is important. Sometimes you change twelve cards. I think Devon’s list could use a Threads of Disloyalty in the sideboard. Anyway, expect more posts on this in the future.

With that, the questions. As always, you can send in yours to [email protected] or DM on Twitter @BasicMountain. Questions get posted as they do, and the best question gets $25 in SCG credit, hopefully enough for a Fiery Islet (just checked, currently sold out, but plenty of Steam Vents in the meantime).

From Tommy Ashton:

Mailbag: some competitive players recently have blamed cards they don’t like on how there seem to be targeted designs for commander. what type of sh*t do you like in commander / would you be doing in commander if you played?

Also, what’s your favorite emoji

I think, to the extent there’s a criticism of the Commander-to-Competitive pipeline, it’s the heavy-handedness combined with some examples that are more suited for one-on-one play sneaking their way into Commander products. Arguably Palace Jailer is a bit too much that experience, and True-Name Nemesis is several bridges too far.

But I think competitive play is well served by having higher-cost and somewhat fancier designs populate the top decks a bit more than they do otherwise. I think the difficulties in tracking down the cards are a bit overstated once you’re talking about Legacy or Vintage and you need Tabernacles and Moxes anyway. Once you call something “Commander X” some competitive players will bristle at anything from there showing up in tournament decks, but I don’t think there’s an inherent problem.

I don’t play much Commander; my multiplayer experience was soured at an early age as Eugene Harvey skillfully navigated the political waters to win a disproportionate share of made-up multiplayer formats in the mid-90s. I was also the worst Smash Brothers player in our group (Eugene, again, was a master) and so I got joy from playing as Donkey Kong and judiciously grabbing people and taking them into the depths with me. Kingmaking as the king of the jungle, as it were. My Magic strategy is somewhat similar in that I don’t have the skill or patience to navigate the meta-considerations of multiplayer, so as long as I get to do some stuff, have an impact, and then go check out and do something else I’m pretty satisfied.

My favorite emoji is the flame, with my favorite style of emoji text being the “3x flame, person’s name in all caps, 3x flame” when the person in question does something horrible or reckless.

From Ernie McCracken:

Potential Mailbag Q: Teferi’s niche phasing ability has me thinking.

When designing cards/mechanics, do you think it’s effective to print a teaser/test version of it in a set before 100% implementation? Imagine if this was done with Companion, perhaps even in a supplemental product, with only Obosh….

This question was from a while back; I assume it’s a reference to Teferi, Master of Time, which I believe was the first planeswalker to be usable on all turns. I don’t think the process works exactly the way the question frames. Figure of Destiny wasn’t a “teaser” for a series of activated powers. It got printed, turned out to be beloved, and then served as the inspiration for Level Up and a number of individual designs.

Teferi is a slightly different case because it’s more mechanically ambitious and ostensibly “dangerous” than Figure of Destiny, but it still is playing within Magic’s core game engine. The design landed in a good spot: it shows up a little, it’s flavorful, and the “play on multiple turns” thing is a big part of what the card does without being problematic. Maybe it serves as proof of concept for doing more in the future, but if Teferi came in high, I don’t think that dooms the mechanical space by any means.

Obosh (and companions generally) are a different case altogether. The mechanic is so specific and so burdensome (relative to Teferi, which just asks you to put the card in your deck and cast it) that doing it as a one-off isn’t worth the squeeze. And if the issues with companion are ultimately of rate (Lurrus and Yorion are just too strong with the intial companion rules), having Obosh floating around as a good-but-not-great card wouldn’t clarify that. It’s hard to know what’s going to be an issue ahead of time, or else you wouldn’t do it. But it is useful to go back and look at successful unique designs and build more designs out of that, which Magic does all the time.

From Steve Bowden:

My design question is: Do you think it would be possible/desirable to make a mechanic centered around being on the draw. Meaning I’m on the draw so this creature enters with a +1/+1 counter or draws a card or does something additional for that reason. I was calling it “prepared” so the flavor being these creatures or spells have been “readied” and therefore more effective. In terms of the game I was trying to to think of something that could nullify the advantage of being on the play somewhat.

Too rough to be on the play and have your cards not do very much. I think one or two cards that explicitly call it out and are priced to move (Knight of the White Orchid, as an example) do a lot of work to make being on the draw feel closer to parity without populating the ecosystem with a bunch of cards that don’t have text in roughly half the games. That’s not a dig; there are tons of cards out there that do good work as one-of designs or infrequent references that aren’t conducive to full keyword support. I think “if you’re going second” is a bit heavy-handed and artless as a callout but a little of it can make competitive ecosystems much healthier, if done right.

Lastly, from friend of the Satchel Ben Seitzman:

Satchel q: If you’re in a mood to reminisce, what is the most important lesson (design or otherwise) that you learned at some of your previous employers (Upper Deck, Dire Wolf Digital, etc)?

There are a bunch of ways of building collaborative environments and bringing out the best in people. It isn’t a democracy; the most skilled people should have more say in the shape of the product. But the less talented/experienced/whatever members can still bring value to the table if you make an effort to bring it out of them, and that can only happen when they feel respected and empowered. It’s a tough balancing act I think I’ve messed up more often than not, but in my ideal version of myself I’d do a better job of blending “authority” with “collaboration” than I have done at certain points.

I think there’s also something to be said for efficiency and alignment that was lost on me in my earlier years. There is a lot to be gained by people being on the same page and believing in something. Sometimes, if enough people are enthusiastic about an idea, the passion and coordination that emerges from it is actually more valuable than having something that’s better in absolute terms, and so instead of fighting against the tide forever, give more room to explore things that you aren’t enthusiastic about if it pays dividends in other places. If nothing else, information and experience is valuable, so even if it goes the “bad way” you imagine it isn’t a totally sunk cost.

That’s it for this week. Ben can’t win back-to-back, so we’re rolling over the credit till next week, where $50 will be in play. Until next time, get those questions in.