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Exploring The Many Ways Of Playing Commander

How do you want to play Commander? Sheldon Menery covers variants ranging from the theoretical to his own successful experiments.

Wandering Archaic, illustrated by Wayne Reynolds

Not only is Commander the most popular way to ever play Magic, there are many different ways of enjoying it.  I’m not just talking about various tiers or power levels that players try to fit themselves and/or their decks into, but different sub-formats.  What we’ll talk about today are those sub-formats, some of which already exist, and some that might not but are reasonable enough ideas that warrant bringing to light. I’ll hit on what each of them might look like laid across the framework of Commander, to include banned list thoughts and a vision of what the environment might be like.

Of course, there are already-existing formats that can be ported over to Commander.  Commander is already an Eternal format, so it’d be difficult to make Legacy or Vintage versions, especially since we on the Commander Rules Committee (RC) have been adamant that the format isn’t alt-Vintage.  That message is why the Power Eight were initially banned (Timetwister had fallen off the list at the time).  We were carving out our own identity as an alternative to tournament formats and didn’t want to be confused with anything that already existed. 

Vintage and Legacy occupy some of the same mechanical space which Commander does, so it’s not likely that there’d be an attempt to recreate them.  A few others might be worth exploring.  We’ll get into the biggest two existing ones before looking at “new” sub-formats.  Just for clarity, during this discussion we’ll refer to what we currently call Commander as Classic Commander. 

Modern

It’s easy to think about Modern since Modern Horizons 2 is the rage.  There’s plenty of fun stuff happening from Eighth Edition and Mirrodin forward in Commander.  A significant portion of the most popular commanders are Modern-legal.  Simply put, creatures (to include legendary ones) are better in the Modern era than they were before, so we wouldn’t see too many different leaders compared to Classic Commander.  What we wouldn’t see are some of the broken older cards that still pair extremely well. 

There’s some awkwardness here, though.  If we went with only Modern-legal, we’d actually leave out a bunch of made-for-Commander cards.  None of the cards from the Commander precons would be available to players, which doesn’t make much sense at all.  I’d then move to call this Modern-Era Commander.  Everything printed after Eighth Edition and Mirrodin would be legal (so 2003), to include sets like Eternal Masters and Conspiracy, despite the fact that they were intended for a different audience. 

While it might make some folks a little twitchy, especially those who are regular Modern players, it’s the simplest and cleanest thing to do, and would be easiest for future management of the sub-format.  It’s a straightforward bit of “nothing before this date/everything after.” That would include all “regular” supplemental product like Secret Lairs, but still not silver-bordered stuff like Un-sets and holiday cards. As far as The List cards go, I’d consider them according to their original set symbol, which is still on the card.  If it’s from Visions or whatever, it’s still a no-go.  Amonkhet Invocations might throw some chaos into things, but that’s one we’d judge after some play. 

That would leave us from the current banned list Biorhythm (reprinted in Ninth Edition); Coalition Victory (Time Spiral); Emrakul, the Aeons Torn; Flash (Masters 25); Gifts Ungiven; Griselbrand; Iona, Shield of Emeria; Lutri, the Spellchaser; Panoptic Mirror; Paradox Engine; Primeval Titan; Prophet of Kruphix; Sway of the Stars; Sundering Titan; Trade Secrets; Upheaval (Modern Horizons 2); and Worldfire.

Biorhythm Coalition Victory Emrakul, the Aeons Torn Flash Gifts Ungiven Griselbrand Iona, Shield of Emeria Lutri, the Spellchaser Panoptic Mirror Paradox Engine Primeval Titan Prophet of Kruphix Sway of the Stars Sundering Titan Trade Secrets Upheaval Worldfire

There might be a few of these that are safe to pull off the list in the Modern-Era environment.  Gifts Ungiven probably leads the charge. There’s considerable support already for bringing it off the list now; without some of the more busted older cards, there’s a reasonable argument that it won’t be such an easy combo enabler. 

There’d be some talk about wanting to remove Coalition Victory and Biorhythm.  I’d still consider them to be the kind of finishers we wouldn’t want to encourage, but I doubt that they’d break the format.  I’d certainly listen to arguments on them.  If the arguments were the same as they are now, they wouldn’t sway me, but if something in the sub-format changed said argument, there might be room.

As far as adding cards, there’d be a few things to talk about.  There are currently cards, such as Hullbreacher and Opposition Agent, which engender much discussion already, and that would continue here.  Deadeye Navigator has in the past had quite of bit of chatter swirling around it, although that seems to have died down over the last few years.  I doubt it would get serious consideration.

There are certainly a few commanders that would get some time under the interrogation lamps.  It might be an opportunity to look especially at the stapled-on good-stuff commanders like Golos, Tireless Pilgrim; Korvold, Fae-Cursed King; and Chulane, Teller of Tales.  I’d also want to take a hard look at already on-the-edge commanders like Narset, Enlightened Master; Tergrid, God of Fright; and Atraxa, Praetors’ Voice.  All of these commanders are more powerful in the slightly smaller card pool, which might be enough to put them over the edge. 

The environment of Modern-Era Commander would look much like Classic Commander does, just missing a few cards and a few hobbled archetypes.  Most notable would be some of the fast mana, like Mana Vault and Grim Monolith, slowing things down most obviously at the higher-powered end.  That may lead to consideration of other fast mana, like Mana Crypt. 

I’ll continue to be brutally honest about Sol Ring: even in situations in which the math might suggest banning it, there’s more than just the math to be considered.  Sol Ring is a standard-bearing card for the format, arguably a major part of the springboard to our success.  We want it around.  I understand that some people simply can’t plug into that argument.  Commander is a social format first, a mechanical one second; social concerns are often going to take precedence over gameplay choices.  It’s the way we’ve managed the format historically and is part of the success vector.    

Deadly easy combo enablers like Demonic Consultation would be gone, although we’d still have Ad Nauseam (which might open it up for banning consideration).  With less redundancy, maybe Thassa’s Oracle becomes much safer.  I’d want to look how things shape up after a few months of play before making that kind of determination.  On the surface, it seems like without some of the old bombs play might be way less broken.  We’ll see. 

Pioneer

Much like Modern, Pioneer-Era Commander is a temporally-based sub-format: everything from Return to Ravnica forward.  That’s currently 35 sets, which means well more than enough cards, and importantly, still a great selection of playable commanders.  Much like with Modern-Era Commander, Pioneer-Era Commander would include all the same order of cards printed after its inception, from 5 October 2012 forward.

The good news about Pioneer-Era Commander is that the banned list gets pretty tiny.  Only four cards on the Classic Commander list are from the era:  Lutri, the Spell-Chaser; Sylvan Primordial; Prophet of Kruphix; and Paradox Engine.  There’s a pretty strong possibility that they would all stay here.

Looking at the Pioneer banned list, the news gets even better.  Because the nature of the multiplayer format is significantly different than 1v1, nearly none of those cards would qualify for banning.  Oko, Thief of Crowns continues his free rein in Commander sub-formats.  About the only two on that list I would likely give strong consideration to are Teferi, Time Raveler and Nexus of Fate.  Teferi is pretty strong, although planeswalkers are vulnerable to combat damage from three opponents.  Still, shutting down potential interaction in the smaller card pool might be simply too powerful.  Nexus of Fate hasn’t really shown its teeth in Classic Commander, but there’s a decent chance that it may lead to unhealthy play patterns.  Otherwise, this list is decidedly unproblematic.

I’d once again take a strong look at the aforementioned commanders: Golos, Tireless Pilgrim; Korvold, Fae-Cursed King; Chulane, Teller of Tales; Narset, Enlightened Master; Tergrid, God of Fright; and Atraxa, Praetors’ Voice.  The smaller the card pool, the more powerful commanders become.  Edgar Markov might get a little side-eye, but is probably pretty safe.

Play patterns in Pioneer-Era Commander would go somewhat slower, having lost a good deal of the fastest mana.  Ramp is still pretty good, so stuff can get going in short order, but there will be far fewer early-turn kills than in Modern-Era or Classic.  Some well-worn combos like Triskelion / Mikaeus, the Unhallowed, and Sanguine Bond / Exquisite Blood go away.  Tooth and Nail sneaks in by virtue of being in in Modern Masters (June 2013), so Craterhoof Behemoth / Avenger of Zendikar is still there for you. 

Standard Commander doesn’t make much sense.  One of the main draws to Commander is that it’s an Eternal format, not subject to card rotating out.  Remaking 100-card decks can be a pain at best, and we’d never want to force players into it on a regular basis.

There’s also something to be said for playing versions of Modern- and Pioneer-era Commander without the made-for-Commander cards and all the Commander-associated reprints, allowing just the cards printed in the Standard-rotating sets (so no Modern Masters, Modern Horizons, Secret Lairs, etc.).  Running it that way would pretty significantly reduce the card pool and likely better capture the feel of the newer eras of Magic, as we couldn’t rely on some of the old standards and staples.  Importantly, the number of viable commanders goes way down.  Restrictions breed creativity, and there are still enough cards available so as to not break the format, but playing Commander without Commander cards is kind of awkward.

Speaking of Commander without Commander cards, there’s something called Pre-EDH, in which everything that came out before the release of the first Commander product is legal.  It’s a return of the format to the very earliest days, in which players always had to hunt for value.  The pickings were not nearly as good as they currently are, and some players think that’s a fun idea. 

They’re not wrong.  Let’s move on to some made-up stuff.

Boxing League

The hit of last fall, and the brainchild of Brian David-Marshall with an assist from yours truly, Commander Boxing League combines Limited and Constructed in one.  The idea is simple.  You open a box of regular Magic product and build a deck out of it.  Then, at intervals (perhaps a number of games or a time period), you open a predetermined number of boosters from a set that you haven’t opened before.  Your deck then evolves and obviously gets stronger over time.  A big part of the first iteration was strategizing what your down-the-road booster pack picks would be. 

What we found was that when we all picked different boxes to start from (although a good number of use chose Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths) we had some wild power level swings.  There seemed to be only a few great starting boxes, and we all kind of glommed onto them.  The major fact was the choice of commanders; if you were unlucky in your box, you were kind of screwed.

Things got better when we tried iterations in which everyone started with the same set.  Commander Legends was pretty much built for this kind of thing, and we had a great time with it.  We never even needed to move on and add boosters to have a great time with it.  It’s okay that the decks were well underpowered compared to the decks we normally played.  They were all in the same neighborhood quality-wise, and it led to good games.

The thing that keeps a Boxing League from getting long-term traction is that there’s always the next Boxing League to think about.  Some weeks into Kaldheim, Strixhaven appeared on our radar.  We like the fact that new sets come out, but the current pace means that we have a little less time to enjoy them than we might like.

Themed Constructed

There’s lots of room for creativity here.  With the release of Kaldheim, we chose to do something called Snow Battles.  It was basically Kaldheim, Ice Age, Coldsnap Constructed, with some snow-related cards from other sets.  19 of the 24 came from Modern Horizons.  We didn’t ban any cards, but collectively agreed that no one got to play Jorn, God of Winter, since it was clearly better than any of the other choices.  I ended up with the second-best, Koma, Cosmos Serpent, and the whole League became Archenemy, since Koma becomes inevitable in a limited environment. 

The idea of Themed Constructed is to pick a theme and then significantly narrow the card pool you build from.  You want Themed Constructed to force you to play some cards that you might not see in broader environments, heightening the newness factor. 

We’ve talked about the idea of putting together all the Ravnica sets to build from and are definitely considering later this year doing an all-Innistrad thing. The question there becomes whether or not we include Avacyn Restored.

I’m sure that, as creative as Commander players are, there are plenty of great ideas.  From Pirate Battles to five people building off the original Elder Dragons leading armies from the Tarkir block, the sky is truly the limit.

Build Your Own Block

An idea that’s nearly as old as Magic itself, in Build Your Own Block, you simply choose any three sets and go from there.  Although we don’t have blocks the way we used to, generally you can’t choose more than one set from any single block.  For example, you could choose only one of Invasion, Planeshift, and Apocalypse.  

The RC has talked about the idea of everyone starting with Adventures in the Forgotten Realms when it drops, and then adding two more sets — perhaps further limiting ourselves to only other classic “high fantasy” sets, like Dominaria (and the pre-Mirrodin Dominaria-adjacent sets), Throne of Eldraine, and so forth. 

A Word on High-Powered Commander

Splitting high-powered Commander off into its own sub-format isn’t going to solve any of the problems that folks seem to think; it’s not a direction that we’re considering.  It might be viable in a world in which we formally create a slew of sub-formats, but this is all really just in a theoretical state.  Currently, we think folks are doing a pretty good job of self-selection, minimizing the amount of pub-stomping that happens and feel-bads running around.  High-powered players want to sling with other similarly powered decks just as much as battlecruiser players want to play with other folks in the same zone.  I do have some thoughts about what a high-powered banned list might look like, so tune into this space in the near future for more on that. 

Formatting Commander is a relatively low-priority conversation that’s been floating around the RC for a while.  It’s not something that we feel immediately compelled to, giving us plenty of time to tinker around with it and do it right when it’s time to pull the trigger.  Until then, may you enjoy Commander in the multiplicity of fashions which resonate with you.

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