Twenty Plus Years: Remembering Sheldon Menery

Bennie Smith looks back on the early years of Commander and how Sheldon Menery impacted his life, both inside and out of Magic

Playing Commander with Sheldon, image courtesy of Bennie Smith

The Magic community lost a giant of a man with the passing of Sheldon Menery last week. I had the distinct privilege and pleasure to have known and worked alongside him for over twenty years, and I still find it surreal and hard to believe that I now live in a world that he is no longer in. And yet, his presence and legacy will remain with us who knew him, and in those who play and love Magic: The Gathering for years to come.

When Star City Games first launched a website with dedicated Magic content, Sheldon and I were among the writers that they tapped to join their team, but it was my role as Contributing Editor for Scrye Magazine that I first came to know Sheldon. There was an article series called Ask the Judge that Scrye ran where people could email in their Magic rules questions; I would then comb through them to select the best ones, and send them to our resident judge, who at the time was one Sheldon Menery. If memory serves he was a Level 3 Magic judge at the time and was very well known and active in the professional Magic scene. Working with Sheldon on the column was easy—he always hit deadline, and his answers were crisp, clear, and never in need of editing. I have to admit, as someone who played quite a bit of competitive Magic at the time, sometimes I’d slip in my own rules question into the mix to let Sheldon tell me whether or not whatever wacky deck idea I had at the time would actually work.

Sheldon was a very busy man, and at some point he moved on from Ask the Judge (after kindly referring a replacement judge to join the team), but when he moved to Virginia he started judging Star City Games events in Richmond and I got to meet him in person. He was smart as a whip and charismatic, and it was always fun to grab a few minutes to talk about anything at all with him. At the time for us it was Magic of course, but also movies and role playing games. Little did I know that Sheldon was also working on a special Magic format called Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH) that he played with fellow judges, and how that format would change my life.

In 2006 or early 2007 I believe, Sheldon began writing about the EDH format to bring it to Magic fans outside of the judge community and I was instantly intrigued. My gaming background prior to Magic included a lot of roleplaying games, especially Dungeons & Dragons; RPGs are fundamentally about a group of friends gathering together to communally have a lot of fun, and when I discovered Magic in early 1994 and brought my gaming crew into it, we played multiplayer Magic with that same mindset.  Sure, someone had to win the game at some point, but it was mostly about sitting around a table with good friends and everyone having fun. Over the years, most of those friends dropped out of Magic while I focused more on the tournament scene, but I definitely missed that casual, multiplayer Magic style of play. EDH seemed like the perfect way to recapture that spirit, and in late summer of 2007 I first started to dabble in EDH, which you can read about here:

After that first game, I started playing EDH regularly. Whenever I saw Sheldon at local SCG events, I’d pick his brain for deckbuilding ideas and strategies, and he was always a joy to talk to. EDH strategy started creeping into my columns on a regular basis, and my editor encouraged me to do more. EDH popularity was exploding, and people were hungry for content, so I did my best to add to those early voices.

When Wizards of the Coast (WotC) adopted EDH as an officially supported Magic format – redubbed Commander – I was excited that Sheldon’s incredibly fun pet format had grown into a popular juggernaut with the guidance of the Rules Committee (RC). Opening those first five preconstructed Commander decks was surreal and exciting, and I imagine it was even more so for Sheldon. Official support and products from WotC for Commander certainly piqued more interest from Magic fans around the world, and my editor encouraged me to do even more Commander content, eventually asking me to focus on it exclusively. Fans were constantly reaching out for advice and strategy, and at some point I got the idea to write a book about Commander. I reached out to a good friend MJ Scott to be my editor and producer, and in early 2014 we released The Complete Commander, which was truly a community-driven effort. If the book was to be a success, we knew we needed to have Sheldon’s endorsement, and after I reached out to him, Sheldon’s generous spirit shone through—he volunteered to do the foreword for the book. His words there still resonate, and I think it’s time well spent to re-read his thoughts here and now:

Commander is an example of what happens when a few highly motivated, highly dedicated people are successful in infecting others with their own mania. It is a triumph of both spirit and expertise and reinforces the fact that sometimes a cool idea—and a few cool people—are all you need. No one, not even someone like me (who is known to occasionally have visions epic in scope) could have envisioned what the format has become.

Commander is the greatest example in Magic—maybe in the entirety of gaming—of a communal work. While it may have started in the humble confines of an awesome group of gamers in Anchorage, Alaska before moving to my equally-humble-and-awesome group in Virginia, its virulence can only be attributed to its fan base, to people both motivated enough and skilled enough to preach the word. From proactive thinkers like Gavin Duggan (who had the idea to form the Rules Committee to shepherd the format forward); to stalwart defenders of the rules set like Toby Elliott; to zealous writers like Bennie Smith, Sean McKeown, and Uriah Oxford; the thing that the format boils down to is always people—people who love something so much that they can only envision a world where they share it with their friends.

There were a few lucky bounces along the way. Longtime friend, then-DCI Tournament Manager (now Rules Committee member) Scott Larabee just happened to be looking for me after a long Pro Tour day only to find me ready to introduce “this wacky new format” to some of my judge community friends who hadn’t already gotten infected. He decided to sit in, got hooked immediately, and became primarily responsible for introducing it around the office at Wizards of the Coast. Like everywhere else it got introduced, it spread. Soon, Director of R&D Aaron Forsythe was one of the baptized, and we were off to the races.

The greatest share of the credit for the spread of our particular gospel belongs to the dedicated members of the Judge Program. Already skilled ambassadors and community representatives, the format simply tagged along on their Magic crusades. The list of names is just too long to mention. Their attitude, zeal, and willingness to carry the format with them wherever they went—the local FNM, the Grand Prix, even proselytizing to whomever would listen in the Public Events area at the Pro Tour—was instrumental in the meteoric rise of the format.

Two things that have made the format successful are that we haven’t tried to make it all things to all people, and we’ve intentionally kept it different from other formats. Our strident unwillingness to bend to a competitive mindset—to not just let the format become alt-Vintage—has kept it healthy. By providing a banned list that deals with the worst offenders and a philosophy that lets local groups use that as a guiding principle has been a recipe for success. Critics may charge that we’ve grown too large to have a bottom-up view, but those critics are wrong. It’s exactly what has kept things from getting stale. It’s exactly what’s kept the format accessible to new players. It’s exactly what’s led to our popularity.

So, in this Commander foreword, how will we take Commander forward? The simple answer is by not messing with it too much. The format is a work of art, and art isn’t something to be grabbed in a stranglehold and forced to submit. It’s something to be carefully tended, nudged in the right direction. It’s a bonsai tree we will continue to feed, water, and lovingly craft into something perpetually amazing.

Not long after I published the book and WotC began putting out Commander decks yearly, Star City Games began having Commander Celebrations at their big events, and I was thrilled to be counted as a special guest at these events alongside Sheldon and many others. It was at these events that I really got to spend quality time with the man, playing many games of Commander, and having those great personal conversations that spring up when friends old and new sit around and have fun together at a game table. These events started out small, usually in a corner off the beaten path, but as the format continued to grow in popularity, so did these Command Zone areas get bigger and bigger, with more and more people. It’s wild that now Commander is the main event for many Magic events.

If you know Sheldon or have read anything about him, you’ll know that he loved enjoying good food and drink with friends, and at these events Sheldon would always extend an invitation for me to join them. I’m sad to report that I never did; for me, spending a lot of money on an expensive meal sounded like a waste, especially since I could eat a cheaper meal and spend that other money on Magic cards. I definitely regret it now, because I was missing the point: life is to be lived and enjoyed to the fullest, and sharing a really well prepared meal with friends is an experience to treasure. And I just know I would have treasured sharing that experience with Sheldon. As much fun as I’ve had playing Magic and talking Magic with Sheldon over so many years, I regret not spending much time outside of Magic with the man.

But I do want to raise a toast to Sheldon for the many times we worked and played together: you changed my life for the better, and you definitely made this world a better place than it would have been without you in it. You lived life ferociously, and were a huge advocate for kindness, equality, and representation in Magic and in life. What a legacy you leave behind, and I know it’s something you must have been so proud of.

I feel so blessed to be a part of the Commander community all these years and hope that I contributed in a small but meaningful way to the early tending of that beautiful bonsai tree. I promise I will do what I can in the years to come to keep it growing strong and welcoming in the fertile earth that Sheldon planted and tended so well. I will continue to zealously write about it for as long as people want to read me.  Rest easy sir – we’ve got it from here.

I was looking back at our conversations on Twitter messenger, and there was an exchange that brought a wistful smile to my face; where he’d invited me to play on the Rules Committee stream, and I was telling him about the deck I was wanted to play, recently built with some of the cards from the Stranger Things Secret Lair I called “Friends Forever Playing D&D.” It had Eleven and Mike as the commanders.

Sheldon: Sweet. I’m really looking forward to that one.

Me: Me too!  Five colors let me put all the sweet Adventures in the Forgotten Realms cards in, along with all the Stranger Things characters.  Hopefully my d20 rolls will be HOT! LOL

Sheldon: Obv you need to warm them up before game time and get all the bad rolls out!

Me: Exactly!

Sheldon: Things Gamers Know™

I’ll end with a saying I remember Sheldon quoting often from one of his favorite movies, The Godfather:

“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”