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Top 5 Current Commander Concerns

Sheldon Menery sees Commander in a good place, but there’s always room for improvement. He shares his Top 5 concerns for the format.

Whirlwind of Thought, illustrated by Bram Sels

Back in March’s State of the Format article, I mentioned that Commander is in the healthiest place it’s ever been.  I believe that it still is, although I might add the qualifier “since it’s become popular.”  There were probably some days when just some of my judge friends and I were playing and we had no worries at all.  It’s probably too easy to be idealistically and even naively nostalgic about those bygone times.  Nonetheless, in our current incarnation we’re in a good spot. 

We’re undisputedly the most popular way ever to play Magic.  We can’t, of course, just rest on our laurels.  There are some issues our format faces—and we need to be able to address them head on.  I want to make sure that you understand that these are concerns, not problems, and will be addressing them that way—with the caveat that the final one is likely drifting into the problem area.

A few weeks back, I somewhat hyperbolically suggested that Wheels (Wheel of Fortune, Windfall, et al.) were Commander’s most pressing issue.  There’s a reasonable reading that they are quite problematic—we have a few popular cards (some of which we’ll talk about today) which would be healthy for the format without them, and Wheels come to fill a role for which they were never intended.  Their use has historically been utilitarian, with their mana values reflecting that role.  Wheels occupy a great strategic niche in Commander (and all of Magic, really).  They can quickly refill an empty or small hand, with the secondary value of filling the graveyard.  There’s also something to be said about disrupting the plans the other players have laid. 

We started to get into difficulties when Wheels gained offensive value. In the olden days, there may have been a few cards, like Underworld Dreams, Phyrexian Tyranny, and Spiteful Visions, which took advantage of Wheels, but we hadn’t gotten into difficult territory just yet. Nekusar, the Mindrazer is when things started getting oppressive, and we’ve amped it all the way up to Hullbreacher since.  Wheels as overpowered offensive weapons have indeed reached a crisis state; when we really boil it down, though, we find that Wheels are a symptom, not the underlying disease.  The cards that make Wheels aggressive are the real concern here. 

I had the pleasure of hosting Commander Architect Gavin Verhey from Wizards of the Coast (WotC) for a few days last week, concurrently with a visit from fellow Commander Rules Committee (RC) members Scott Larabee and Toby Elliott.  We had many conversations, some of the results of which will play into what I’ll talk about.  One of them was the Wheel problem (as in cards that combo really well with Wheels are bad), and I’m happy to tell you that Gavin acknowledged hearing the message loud and clear.  The good news is that the RC gets to see cards as they come down the pipeline, giving us opportunity to call out things that we see as potentially problematic.

We can’t always make the changes that we’d like—it’s WotC’s game, after all, so they’re going to print what they want—but the RC has had some real impact over the last few years and headed off a mistake or two.  I have no reason to suspect that that impact will diminish. 

Note that while the foundation for this piece came from the aforementioned conversations, the depth of these concerns is my own.  Other members of the RC share these concerns, but at varying degrees. Most notably, Gavin Duggan wasn’t able to join us, and we haven’t yet back-briefed him on our chats, so I can’t really distill in any of his thoughts. Additionally, to be clear, we’re talking about high-level concerns here, not really about specific cards.

Before we get to my top concerns, I have a few honorable mentions.  A big one is making sure everyone understands their voices are heard.  We spend considerable time on social media and in conversations like on our Discord server’s Format Philosophy section. Commander exists under a pretty big tent, with lots of folks holding different ideas about what the format should be.  We’re going to listen to everyone (well, not the bad actors), and do our best to meld their thoughts and desires into action that’s consistent with our format’s philosophy.  

We’re definitely open to folks digesting the philosophy document and offering ideas on how to better implement it.  If you’re interested in trying to convince us to make the format something we don’t want it to be (such as a tournament format), we’re going to politely decline.  The success of this format is predicated on its philosophy, and we’re not going to abandon it.

Although folks are doing a pretty good job of self-selecting into the style of games they like and having good Rule 0 chats, and there’s help from various online services, matching in untrusted games (those in which the players don’t know each other) is still a bit of a concern.  Especially as we come out of global quarantine, players will move back to in-person play at their LGSs and eventually larger events.  I don’t know if there’s much we can do top-down to resolve this concern, save to offer some guidance to TOs.  The pod matching at the Last Great Commander Event (MagicFest Reno 2020) seemed decently successful.  As we come back together, I hope it can serve as a model for going forward.

Also of some concern are generically-good commanders, like Golos, Tireless Pilgrim; Korvold, Fae-Cursed King; and Chulane, Teller of Tales, among others.  We prefer commanders that can lead in interesting directions instead of hitting every point on the compass.  The good news here is that Gavin confirmed that they’re also aware of this phenomenon in Studio X, and will doing their best to avoid it in the future.

As I get into this short but wordy list, please remember two things. The first is that this isn’t a doom-and-gloom scenario.  We’re doing well, I just want to see where we can do better.  The second is that while these things are being talked about at the RC level, no immediate action or aggressive action is looming.  Commander is a big ship and trying to do sharp turns is potentially disastrous; you nudge it in the direction of change and eventually get on the proper course.

5. Decay of Other Formats

One of the things that brings players into Commander is the decay of other formats, most notably Eternal ones.  There are plenty of zealous and committed players of Vintage and Legacy, who have loads of fun.  Unfortunately, their ability to grow the number of other players has been on the decline for quite some time (due to various factors, the Reserved List certainly being one of them).  When Eternal players can’t find games in their preferred format, they turn to the one where they can find folks to play with, namely Commander.

My area of concern here is the competitive ethos that players of these formats bring with them.  Even if a player isn’t hyper-competitive, there’s a natural impulse to push the boundaries of the game and give oneself an edge in winning games.  This is not to say wanting to play competitive Magic is in any way bad, but ends up bumping its head on the goals of Commander, in which we like to see each player consider every other player’s experience.  These folks are used to optimization, and sometimes it’s difficult for them to wrap their heads around the fact that there are goals other than that infused into Commander’s DNA.  They can be insistent that we’re doing it wrong by not making it all about an optimized format, and quite vocal about it online. 

Please don’t take this as “Vintage players are wrecking Commander.”  Usually, these folks settle into the self-identified high-powered pockets we’ve already talked about, which is made easier with webcam play.  The struggle here is to bring them in line with Commander philosophically, and we get to loggerheads when they simply want to apply an other-format model to the not-other-format.

We get some of the same, although probably to a lesser extent, when constantly shifting formats like Modern and Standard aren’t as healthy as they want to be.  If you’re having a bad time, there’s always the escape of the 100-card format, which you know is going to be same as it ever was. I think there’s far less cry to “balance this like a competitive format,” but there’s still some adjustment required.  Fortunately, there are plenty of players who play Legacy, Modern, Standard, and Commander at the same time who can set each of them into their proper bins. 

Again, I want to be about proposed solutions.  Splitting the format into casual and competitive is not one of them, for reasons a bit too detailed for this piece, but I’ll be happy to talk about at length in the RC Discord’s Format Philosophy channel. 

The first solution is aggressive reinforcement of our philosophy.  I understand the appeal (and have dipped my toe in the waters of) high-powered Commander.  Still, repeating our message in a fashion that’s palatable to folks whom it hasn’t already resonated is the first step.  Often, that’s not going to be enough.

If the solution isn’t splitting the format, I think that still offering an appropriate version of a sub-format (along with the several others) is the way to go in order to enhance the opportunities of the folks who are already self-selecting and having good Rule 0 talks.  We’ll talk about that a little more in one of the next sections. 

4. Excessive Ramp

Note here that I didn’t say ramp is the issue, but too much of it.  Like Mindslavers and Time Walks, one is good, but the more of them we have, the worse it gets.  We’ll talk about even faster mana in a bit, but ramp-into-ramp or rock-into ramp as a repetitive play pattern leads to an unhealthy format.  Commander’s strength is in its diversity of play patterns, its exploration of uncharted spaces.  Excessive ramp drags us away from that (and to some extent leads us into another concern). 

Excessive ramp privileges green to the extent that it’s far and away the best color in the format, with blue being only a distant challenger—of course making Simic and U/G/x into powerhouses.  Players shy away from nongreen color combinations because they’re worried they can’t keep up.  We’d prefer some level of balance between the colors.  Unfortunately, we don’t have a great deal of control over what gets printed and certainly little over what’s already in the wild. 

I’ll take a brief detour into my thought that mass land destruction isn’t really the answer to ramp.  Unless you’ve caught the ramp player in a particularly vulnerable spot, it’s likely that their resource advantage will leave them in a better spot than the Armageddon player.

Back to the concern of excessive ramp, the best we can do is suggest and support the printing of cards that put a stop to it. If Opposition Agent had stopped before the final paragraph, it would have been perfect.  They’ve otherwise gotten it right with recent cards.  Confounding Conundrum and the handful of catch-up cards that we’ve seen in white, like Archaeomancer’s Map, hit all the right notes. After some chats with Gavin V, I see this as more of a direction instead of ramp cards, so I have some measure of hope that things will improve.  Still, I want to alleviate the pressure that folks feel to always keep up, which leads right into our next section. 

3. Homogenization (and Git Gud, Scrub)

There was a time when Commander was all about finding the cool dollar rares that did wild and wacky things.  Its rise in popularity has led to a homogenization effect.  More players, as we’ve already mentioned, coming from other formats, bringing a different attitude.  There’s often a “best” card in any particular build.  For example, Entomb is clearly strictly better (a Magic term I’ve come to loathe based on the attitude behind it) than Unmarked Grave.  If you’re optimizing, then that’s clearly the one you pick, assuming you’re not playing both. 

Homogenization restricts creativity. If, in any build, you already have 30 cards that you put in before you actually start the creative part of your deck, lots of stuff is going to look the same.  Differentness is what the format was built on, and sameness has become one of our most pressing issues. 

Resources like EDHRec and the explosion of Commander content creators have done nothing but exacerbate the problem.  I want to be clear that they’re not the cause and I lay no blame at their feet. They are just evidence of the symptoms; great content creators have also been a boon to the success of the format, and I never want to undervalue their contributions.  Continuous assertions that there’s a proper way to build a deck, however, aren’t helping in the long run. They’re just leading to the kind of sameness that drives people away from other formats. 

Ideas like skeletons of builds with X of this kind of card and Y of that are robbing the format of some of its identity.  “You must play” is Commander’s worst enemy.  Commander is where you can play Minotaur tribal or your Dune-inspired deck and have a reasonable chance of not getting blown out.  As much as possible, we want to preserve that ideal. 

One of the major hurdles we have to overcome here is Git Gud, Scrub syndrome.  Often vitriolic in context on online forums, it suggests that if you’re not playing the Entomb over Unmarked Grave, you’re doing it wrong and that you’re a bad Magic player.  GGS asserts that three-cost mana rocks are stupid and weak.  It blasts the message that your Dune deck marks you as Commander’s problem.  It trumpets “Let us play Commander any way we want!” while attempting to restrict other people from doing the same.

GGS is the problem; the solution is to actively and vociferously reject the notion.  Call it out when you see it.  Remind players, many of whom will suggest that Commander’s philosophy is gate-keepy, that they’re the ones erecting barriers.  When someone plays that amazing theme deck, congratulate them on doing something different.  For example, when Ellieoftheveil was recently on the Commander RC stream, she ended up playing Fractured Identity on her own Forced Fruition, putting the rest of us in a tight spot.  It was a wonder to behold.  We need more of that, and when folks do it, we need to recognize it.

I realize that we’re not going to be able to change everyone’s minds on the subject of homogenization.  Some folks have limited time and resources to play Magic, so they want to ensure that they can at least be a factor in the games that they play.  I’m not going to get on anyone for playing the deck that builds itself; I’m simply going to encourage those who can invest the time and effort into doing something different to pick up the gauntlet and offer us something we haven’t seen. 

2. The Reserved List

This elephant that’s been in the room for a while is only getting bigger.  The prices of Reserved List cards even outside of Power are spiraling out of control.  Commander was always envisioned as an Eternal format, and we never want to take that out of the hands of the players.  The anxiety comes when many of those cards are beyond the reach of a significant part of the player base, due to both price and availability.  I’m not talking just about OG dual lands and the busted cards like Grim Monolith, Candelabra of Tawnos, and The Abyss here.  Commander favorites like Academy Rector, Hazezon Tamar, and Angus Mackenzie are caught up in the inflation as well.  Deranged Hermit is over $100, for crying out loud.

On the RC, we have no great solution here.  We can certainly lobby WotC regarding the list, but in the end it’s their business decision, and we don’t have any real influence there.  We certainly can’t take the hyper-aggressive action of banning all Reserved List cards, which some folks have suggested so that we could “send a signal.”  That signal would plunge Commander and the rest of the Magic economy into chaos. 

I’m fully aware of the influence that we wield on the secondary market; I made a Twitter comment a while back about feeling like the Chairman of the Fed. Even a casual mention of something can move prices, and I know that we have to be super-sensitive to the trouble we could cause quite unintentionally.  We have to balance that with being good caretakers of the format.  If a Reserved List card is wrecking the format, we will take action, knowing that there will be considerable blowback. 

I understand that players have both blood and money invested in their Commander decks; we’re going to be as sensitive to that as we can.  However, it’s important for us to be supremely unambiguous regarding the secondary market: while we’re sensitive and have a strong understanding of Magic economies, we’re not the caretakers of financial investments.  To put that burden on us is unreasonable at best.  While we’re not planning any sweeping changes at the moment, when spending large amounts of money on anything, caveat emptor always applies.  I beg you to be careful when considering laying out serious dollars on cards for Commander.

One of the messages that we’ve always reinforced is that you don’t need all the cards to have great and fun games of Commander.  Unfortunately, there’s some FOMO and the influence of some of the other factors I’ll mention that impact the resonance of that message with some players.  While we have a philosophy and a message, I know that Commander is for some folks what they want it to be, not what we want.  The only promise I can make is that we’ll continue to manage it according to our philosophy, and signal upcoming changes as best we can. 

I don’t want to simply say “sorry, we got nothing” and move on.  One of the best things I think we can do is support Commander sub-formats in which Reserved List cards don’t play a part (which I recently talked about).  One I didn’t mention there is No Reserved List Commander.  While it’s not as simple as “everything not on the Reserved List is legal,” I imagine there’s quite a bit of play here.  The RC will do some work on sub-formats in the near future, and I’ll keep you posted.

The Reserved List is likely to continue to be a drag on Commander (and other formats, too, I suspect).  The RC can’t solve the whole problem by ourselves, but I think we can proactively mitigate a few of the side effects. 

1. Fast Mana / Time Creep

While everyone may have their own definitions of fast mana, I’m talking about one-mana creatures (Llanowar Elves), two-mana rocks (Arcane Signet), and anything with low mana value that’s mana-positive (Mana Crypt).  Mana Vault and Grim Monolith probably apply, but without other things to untap them (which are in fact plenty), they become more like early-turn Dark Rituals.  I’ll also remind you of our stance on Sol Ring, which I covered last time. 

The sheer volume of fast mana becomes problematic.  Especially with artifacts, it’s easy to mana rock-into-mana rock.  Players can accelerate nearly their entire hand and know that they always have something to do with it, since their commander(s) are sitting right there waiting.  Most of my concern here is that some players playing with fast mana (just like with ramp) means that everyone else feels compelled to do so in order to not get too far behind in the game. 

Commander doesn’t have a power creep problem; it has a time creep problem.  Yes, there are ever-more-pushed cards coming out of Studio X, but it’s the speed at which we can do them that causes me the most nightmares.  We’ve gotten into an unhealthy situation in which Turn 4 or 5 becomes the critical game Turn, where we’d much prefer it to be more like 7 or 8.

Here’s why.

Simply put, slower games lead to more diversity.  If you must have all your best interaction online very early, it cuts into the other things you might do with your deck.  I’m not suggesting that you don’t run interaction; in fact, I think that most Commander players don’t run enough.  The problem becomes—and this is where I’m shifting from concern to problem—that if you don’t have it early, you’re just dead. 

Early action and interaction is a hallmark of competitive formats; this is nowhere near where we want the format to be.  Again, I’m not suggesting giant durdle-fests (despite the fun they can sometimes be) with everyone just allowed to do everything they want with no push-back. I simply see that we’re devolving into the powerful pull of a bad place.

Even in games that might consider themselves lower-powered, this rock-and-ramp habit is creeping up on us.  There is no sweeping RC-level solution here that’s not a nuclear option, which would be even worse for the format than living with time creep.  We can consider the sub-format route.  We can play exemplar games on our streams and amplify similar voices.  Finally, we can continue to reinforce the message that closes the format philosophy document: we know that the format can be broken; we believe games are more fun if you don’t. 

The challenges that face Commander today are not insurmountable.  The RC will continue to encourage people to communicate with each other regarding play levels and game expectations.  We’ll also continue to look at creative solutions to mitigate some of the issues we have.  I’m happy that our friends in Studio X at Wizards of the Coast, most significantly the Commander Architect, are for the most part on board with us with new cards created for the format.  Commander has ascended to the Magic heavens, and there’s still room above. 

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