A quick glance at Commander message boards will probably reveal a couple of threads on the topic of whether the format is getting stale, whether it’s healthy, whether the competitive and casual crowds will ever get along, and from players who are frustrated with the format and are giving it up. Is this cross-section of what people are talking about a fair representation of what’s going on in Commander circles these days, or is it a case of the complainer phenomenon? The complainer phenomenon is that people will often go out of their way to complain but rarely go out of their way to pay compliments or express contentment. It might have a flashier name, but I don’t know what it is. Regardless, that there is any discussion on this subject means it can be argued that the Commander format is suffering from a bit of stale air, and could perhaps be very unhealthy at the moment. I’d like to pontificate on why I think that is (what else is new).
It’s pretty easy to argue that the format isn’t like it used to be. When the format was relatively new, and even up to a year or two ago when it exploded in popularity, there was a sense of undiscovered country about the whole phenomenon. It was an entirely new way to look at the game of Magic that has been more or less the same for quite a while now. Sure, non-Eternal formats rotate, and the metagame even in Eternal formats shifts when new cards are printed or old cards get banned, but the idea is more or less always the same: the three archetypes (aggro, control, and combo) all struggle for domination in 60-card formats. Aggro beats control, control beats combo, and combo beats aggro. (I think that’s how it goes, anyway … it’s been a long time.) But along comes a singleton format, with bigger decks, new rules, and constraints on deck design that all but force players to find out and use cards they’ve never used before, and you get a Terra Incognito thing — a sense of discovery, creativity, and excitement that, for me, dwarfs that similar sensation during spoiler season. The world was your oyster! The process of brainstorming and building the deck to achieve a certain objective, then watching it unfold, play out, and be successful was extraordinarily enchanting. “Tuning” lists and metagaming didn’t seem that important, there was no redundancy in your deck, there were a nigh-unlimited number of cards you could pick, and scouring through old sets at the LGS produced hidden gem after hidden gem that the murky mists of Magic’s past had left forgotten. Every game was wildly different. The format was so alluring and successful that players that may never in a blue moon have considered playing a multiplayer format with cards so far down the power curve they were entirely forgotten suddenly flocked to the format and started building their own decks. After building my first deck, I was instantly hooked, and more than three years later I haven’t put the format down to this day.
However, now that the format is far more developed and very widely played, a lot of the allure and mystique that contributed to my love for it has inevitably disappeared. There are countless lists all over the internet for literally any Commander you can lay your hands on. There are strategy guides for just about any deck type, lists of the best cards in various colors or combinations of colors, and people like me deriding limp-wristed strategies and cards in favor of a cutthroat, pseudo-competitive version of the format that initially interested me because it didn’t focus on those things. Decks are tailored, and some of them are ruthless. Diehard Commander players are now locked in the same cycle as sanctioned format players, waiting for spoiler season to bring along something new and exciting. It doesn’t take long for the vultures to swoop in and there are lists up for newly spoiled legends almost the next day.
Furthermore, the flood of new players to the format has turned into a slow trickle. The number of players who play a lot of Magic and who just don’t play Commander is probably not going to shrink much. This phenomenon is made worse by the fact that players are growing bored or frustrated with the format and they stop playing it. The number of reasons a player might stop playing Commander is pretty large, but a few of the important ones are (1) the staleness of the metagame, (2) frustration with the banned list (specifically, that cards aren’t on it), and, perhaps the most serious concern, that (3) some Commander players are capital-D Douchebags.
I still love this format — it’s still the only format I play — but I admit to some staleness myself. Commander is unique in that, being a non-sanctioned format, the players one plays against are often those that one hangs out with, and people’s social circles are generally pretty static. That is, you tend to play against the same players all the time, and most people tend to keep their decks more or less the same. For me to get a totally new metagame experience, I either have to build an entirely new deck (which I can’t afford to do because law school is #@*!ing expensive), or find an entirely new circle of people to shuffle up against. I tend to play with and play against the same strategies all the time. All that wonder, randomness, and chaos is gone, and the format is more or less developed. The times you Time Stretch into an opponent’s Wild Ricochet and get utterly blown out are more or less in the past.
How do we solve that? The health of any format depends on either (1) rotating the card pool, which in eternal formats doesn’t happen, (2) changing your local metagame, which is unlikely for the reasons mentioned above, (3) changing the metagame by changing the banned list, or (3) attracting new blood. In reality, some of all of this is necessary to keep things truly interesting. What can we do to make the most of it?
The Banned List
I keep making vague allusions to ways I think the banned list should change, and the time’s come for me to put up or shut up. I don’t want to spend a bunch of time whining about the banned list because I think the RC does a fantastic job with it and there’s more than enough whining about it already, but here’s my two bits anyway. Last year a fairly sweeping change to the banned list was introduced when the RC decided that fast mana in the early game was detrimental to the format. Channel, Fastbond, and Tolarian Academy were banned. That was a good move. Those cards get in the way of the slow-developing slugfests that the RC seems to hold up as the poster child of the format. Well, in my opinion, the mid-game mana acceleration needs to go bye-bye too. I have my eye on two cards in particular, but it could easily be expanded up to four or five. The cards I’d like to see turfed are Cabal Coffers and Primeval Titan. The number of ways to get these cards into play is overwhelming and they’re easily abused. Coffers can be used multiple times per turn with effects like Deserted Temple, copied with Vesuva, and fetched with an almost endless number of land tutors. Primeval Titan is also easily tutored for, and worse, easily reanimated and recurred. The boosts these sorts of cards give (and there are other cards that do similar things but are much less problematic) are so game-swinging that you either make use of them, you prevent them from being used, or you lose to them. It’s incredibly boring, repetitive, and predictable. The stuff these cards enable is the same reason the cards above were banned. The race to mana-doubling and super-quick acceleration has become the central power struggle of this format and it’s really, really tired. (And don’t tell me to pack more Strip Mine unless you intend to give me back Tolarian Academy, which dies to the exact same thing, and isn’t in colors that recurs it nearly as well.)
The problem with these cards is the sort of Gun Control Debate problem that you hear. You can’t take away guns, because then how do we protect against the people who have guns? A recent edition of Commander Cast talked about “de-fanging” your decks to make them less cutthroat, and it’s certainly possible for me to take Primetime and Coffers out of all the decks I have that run them. That’s fine and all, but then I go up against some other Golgari list that uses both and I just flat out lose. If one green deck is exploiting Primeval Titan and the other is not, I’ll put good money on the one with the 6/6 taking it home. What black deck is not going to run Cabal Coffers as some sort of political statement? None. Zip. Zero. (As a side note, I’d be ok with banning Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth and leaving Coffers to the mono-black decks, but it’s my second choice.)
Attracting New Blood
When I started playing Commander, it was this big dumb format where anything could happen and big monsters were swinging away and people laughed and didn’t care that much about winning. It was flavor and variety and chaos and it was great. Now, though, it’s rare I see a card that really surprises me, and you can often envision how a game will play out just by looking at the Commanders you’re facing off against. These expectations on what the game will be like change your approach and it becomes more about winning. Because you can see lines of play developing and you can see how you might win the game, rather than just swinging into the red zone and throwing caution to the wind, players are hedging their bets, playing cautiously, and trying to win. This is great if you’re really into the format and you like cutthroat competition, like I do. But if you’re just starting off, it’s incredibly difficult to keep up with and not a lot of fun.
I have a friend who was a good enough player to play a few Pro Tours but doesn’t play much Magic anymore. Several times I’ve attempted to get him into Commander, but every time it’s more or less the same. He has a very high expectation for himself for playing well, so it’s necessary for him to read every card that comes into play and spend a great deal of time on his turn trying to come up with the Best Play. Because he doesn’t own any Commander decks, or Magic cards at all right now, he has to borrow a deck. And the decks he borrows are these tutor-filled monstrosities with finely tuned game plans. One night I finally convinced him to play a few games in a row with one of my decks that I thought would suit his play style, showed him what the deck was up to and how to play it, and he had a much better time, but the format still didn’t stick.
By far, the biggest problem I’ve encountered for players either new to the format or new to the game are the number of tutors in any deck they inevitably borrow. There’s nothing worse than a player who’s new to a deck casting Demonic Tutor on turn two. Prepare to wait for 10 minutes while they pore over each and every 99 cards to not only come up with a strategy, but to pick the card that they need at that moment. And don’t think they feel any better than you — the uncomfortable feeling of holding everybody up is the reason why another buddy made it a policy to just go get Sensei’s Divining Top every time. Hell, people playing decks they made that they’ve played tens or hundreds of times before sometimes don’t know exactly what they’re looking for.
The second enemy to new players is, in my opinion, non-linear strategies. There are a hoard of Commanders that when you shuffle up you can probably guess how they’ll play. Uril, the Miststalker is a good example. Thromok, the Insatiable, Wort, Boggart Antie, Odric, Master Tactician, and Sliver Queen all probably do more or less what you’d expect. But what does a player do when handed a Jhoira of the Ghitu deck they’ve never seen before? Hokori, Dust Drinker? Zur the Enchanter?
Of course, the Commander pre-constructed decks were designed to alleviate the barrier to entry for new players, both new to the format and perhaps new to the game of Magic. But when 95% of the fun of the format is, in my opinion, designing your own list to take to war, who wants to use that?
Here’s a quick little idea for those of you out there who want to bring new players into your play group, whether its players who haven’t been able to get into Commander, or players new to the game of Magic in general. Everybody should build a deck centered around a linear strategy that has few or no tutors, especially tutors that can go find any card. You’re not building the deck to be as optimized as possible, you’re building it to be thematic and flavorful, and fun and easy to play. In an ideal scenario, you want a player to sit down, look at the Commander, and say, “oh, I know what to do”. Thromok, the Insatiable makes tokens, eats them, and swings for the fences with a Huge/Huge. Sliver Queen lays lots of slivers. Wort, Boggart Auntie plays and recurs goblins. And so on. The idea is to have one deck that you can loan out to somebody that requires next to no explanation.
You can take this one step further if you’re really dedicated to teaching new players the format. If you tend to play with the same players every time, each of you should collaborate so your decks form a healthy metagame, such that a new player can sit down with one of these decks against a bunch more of these decks and get a sense of what’s going on in a quick and dirty fashion. In an ideal world, the decks should be of the tier 2 variety and should represent all of the color pie between them. And no tutors! (Unless it’s something like Solemn Simulacrum, of course.)
The last thing you can try, if you haven’t already, is to vary up the style of game almost every time. You don’t have to play slow, plodding chaos games every time. If you have 5 players, you can play Star, where the two players beside you are your “allies” and the two players opposite you are your enemies. Any player wins when both his enemies are dead at the same time. (Warning: “allies” is a very loose term!) You can also try Anti-Star, a format my buddies and I developed, which is designed to produce extremely fast games. In Anti-Star, whenever any player loses the game, his opponents win the game. As such, the game ends when the first player dies. Surprisingly interesting politics result. If you have fewer players, you can play teams, two-headed giant, or Circle of Death, where players can only attack the player sitting to their left. If you have six, you can try Emperor, though I’ve never seen a wholly satisfactory explanation of the range of influence rules. (If you have one, please send it my way! The rules for this are complicated, so check out this article.
While I don’t think we need to sound the death knell by any means — and please don’t, I love this format — I think as a community we ought to start thinking about how to keep it going strong. If that means Stop Being A Douchebag, then perhaps take a look in the mirror and consider it. If that means building some user-friendly decks to attract new players and that’s something up your alley, I think you’re fantastic. If that means the RC needs to change their approach to the banned list to liven up the metagame and get the format away from a simple race to big mana, maybe they should consider that too. Maybe it means for some of us to get out and play with some players we haven’t played with before.
I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Do you think the Commander format is a healthy one? Has it lost its luster? Can it get it back? How do you feel about the banned list? Any other ideas for attracting new players to the format? Thanks for reading!