I’m a huge fan of Evan Erwin’s The Magic Show, but I was watching the New Phyrexia set review he did with World Champ Brad Nelson (good, but not as good as ours, natch) and I noticed something kind of disturbing—every time they talked about a card that was clearly designed for multiplayer, they said something along the lines of “the Commander crowd is going to love this.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I am definitely part of the Commander crowd, but that’s only because I’m part of the casual crowd. I’d always assumed that the former was just one part of the latter, but it seems that a lot of folks think differently. I’d like to take some time to figure out where Commander fits in relation to the rest of the Magic community and offer up some advice both for the Commander crowd and for those who haven’t learned to love the bombs yet.
Why Commander is Awesome!
I’ve never been a big fan of alternative formats, but I love EDH (sorry, it’s a strain to keep calling it Commander) for three main reasons. First, the Highlander format brings out cards you’ve never played with before, which can only be a good thing. I’ve always said that not playing with good cards is a crime—which may explain why my trade binder is so pitiful—and EDH is to cards laying idle what Dirty Harry is to street crime. The world of sixties is about consistency, and while you can play highlander with smaller decks, most people won’t. Sixties are almost universally regarded as the place to put playsets of shiny cards, but EDH both allows you to use a card effectively even if you’ve only got one of them, and forces you to look further afield for power, synergy and functionality. A set of Go for the Throat will get the job done in most decks, but when you play the hundreds you have to consider the capabilities of every black removal spell since Terror. And while there are cards that could legitimately claim a place in 99% of all EDH decks—Lightning Greaves, Sol Ring and Solemn Simulacrum leap to mind—most people have enough cards lying around unsleeved to build a whole bunch of decks, and at some point you just don’t have enough of the so-called staples to put them in every deck (at which point deckbuilding becomes even more skill-intensive).
Secondly, the format encourages exactly the kind of play that I like. When you have almost constant access to an awesome creature, you’re more likely to play that creature and, in most cases, swing with it. I’m still waiting for my invitation to join Team Lives-in-the-Red-Zone, but in the meantime I continue to attack with all of my commanders except for Arcanis. Even if you only choose a general for its colors, such as a friend of mine who plays Oros purely because RBW are such great griefer colors, it just makes sense to have a back-up beatdown plan when you can play a 6/6 flier any time you like. On top of that, less consistency and higher life totals lead to longer games and bigger spells. Damnation is just a better spell than Decree of Pain, but Decree is so much more fun to cast that I still want to put it in decks. With the hundreds, I have a lower chance of drawing it at an inconvenient time, but a much higher chance of being able to play it in any game I draw it, which lets me play with the toys I want and save my Damnations for the decks that can really make the most of them.
The third thing that I really like about the Commander format is Sheldon. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve never met the man, I have no idea if he’s a saint or a jerk in real life, and I don’t agree with everything he says. But I think it’s great that we have an authoritative voice pushing publicly for a certain style of play. Sheldon’s authority comes from a combination of his role in the development of the format, his status within Magic generally from being a level five judge, and his role as the front-man for the official EDH rules committee. That doesn’t mean everyone does or should play Sheldon-approved EDH, but it means that when we say EDH “should” be played a certain way, that’s more than just our opinion; it’s universally known that EDH was intended from the very beginning to be played in a certain way. People will still interpret that in a wide variety of ways, and there will be some who just don’t care, but because of Sheldon there is a certain baseline standard of play.
What all of this means is that EDH has been my favorite way to play Magic since before Shards of Alara. If you haven’t tried it then you owe it to yourself as a casual player to put a couple of decks together and play. On top of that, EDH has become the Visa of Magic; if you go overseas or travel to a new store or playgroup, you have a better chance of finding a game with an EDH deck than with any other type of deck except perhaps Standard and it may be your best chance to fit into whatever multiplayer action is going on there.
Extremely Disproportionate Highlander
Despite the fact that I am a huge fan, advocate and evangelist of EDH, I feel like my current playgroup is overdoing it. For example, I put together a sweet little Venser the Sojourner deck that should be able to get Venser to his ultimate even in a four-player, but I have had exactly one non-EDH multiplayer game since I started writing at SCG (and Murphy’s Law being what it is, I didn’t have Venser with me that night). I’ve built other decks around playsets of my preview cards from MBS and some older cards I’ve picked up in the last six months, but they’ve hardly seen the light of day because it’s all EDH, all the time.
Worse, until recently there was a lot of pressure to build the strongest possible EDH decks, which meant that I could only bring my top-tier decks (Teneb, Kresh, Thrax and Molimo, for the record). I get to play at least two great games of EDH with at least four great guys every Wednesday, so I’m not really complaining, but it’s always EDH and these guys haven’t even seen a third of my EDH decks.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that the group as a whole has come to play well within the confines of Sheldon-approved EDH, but they arrived there in a kind of round-about way, having pushed every strategy to its unfun extreme before settling down to the level we’re at now. One of the most important players in our group, Brent, limits himself to a particular strategy because he says that if he tries to play anything else he’ll just combo out and make everyone else unhappy. Other players overreact when anyone displays even the slightest hint of so-called “douchebaggery,” despite the fact that they play painfully degenerate decks in any other format, even “casual” sixties multiplayer. It seems that “casual play” is harder for some people to understand than quantum mechanics!
Putting Commander in Perspective
All of these things got me thinking, and I realized I was wrong about what position EDH occupies in the Magic universe. EDH may originally have been intended as a subset of casual play, like all of the other casual formats documented on Wooberg, but I think it has actually shifted to occupy the overlap between casual and tournament play. Casual players have always enjoyed the social element of multiplayer, as well as the variety of cards, decks and board states, and EDH offers all of these elements in spades. But I think the rules structure of EDH has little to no effect on Team Casual. Sure, I picked up a Protean Hulk before it became an Extended combo piece, and I own a couple of other cards that have been banned that I might otherwise want to play with, but basically nothing on that official Commander banned list forces me to change the way I play in a fundamental way. And my perspective on Sheldon’s social contract is very simple: I have always played that way in any format, and I’ve often struggled to understand why some people don’t automatically grok that. If that’s how you approach the format, then we’re speaking the same language, but it is important to understand that there are other ways to look at EDH.
For our Spikier brethren, I think EDH is a way to take a breather from the more serious—and restrictive—world of duels, tournament metagames and so on. As I looked at earlier, a lot of tournament-oriented players have struggled to know where the line is drawn in casual groups, and often give up on non-sanctioned formats altogether. EDH offers players like this a lot of things that they can’t usually find in either casual or tournament play:
- A banned list that makes it clear what abusive strategies are not permitted
- A set of norms that are easier to understand/more clearly articulated than “casual”
- A more social format and a new community to engage with
- A new challenge in deckbuilding
- A chance to play with virtually every card ever printed
- A new format to break
This list isn’t exhaustive, and different players will be attracted to different items here. Those who appreciate the banned list and the opportunity to break a new format will obviously build and play differently than those who appreciate the social nature and the norms of the social contract, and they will tend to fit in with different playgroups, but both types of player will get something out of EDH.
Crucially, these types of players may jump into EDH more enthusiastically than the casual players that it was designed for, because the difference between EDH and casual free-for-alls is usually smaller than the difference between EDH and tournaments or play-testing. In other words, if EDH fills a distinct hole in your life that other formats don’t, then there’s a good chance that you are not primarily a casual player. That cuts both ways though, because even a relatively cutthroat EDH environment can expose people to the awesomeness that is multiplayer Magic. I’ve been encouraging the guys to get into larger games than just three or four players, and they’ve had a blast. Some games have gone stagnant, but more often not we’ve had the kind of epic games that turned most of us off duels years ago. When you have players who focus a lot of their time on a range of sanctioned tournament formats (as opposed to someone who just has a couple of Standard decks for FNM) and get them to build non-killer decks, adapt to a casual setting, enjoy the larger, more chaotic games and even experiment with variant formats, then you’re a real casual ambassador!
Commander is the fastest-growing multiplayer format out there and probably the funnest – plus it works just fine with Star, Emperor, Planechase, Archenemy or most other variants. That means that if you’re a casual player who isn’t slinging the hundreds, then you’re just letting the best in life pass you by. On the other hand, if your only multiplayer experience is EDH then there’s a whole world of fun out there for you to discover.
My advice for anyone else whose playgroup is caught up in EDH fever is to use it like marijuana—a gateway drug that may lead them to experiment with other forms of multiplayer or casual play. Make a contest out of perhaps—proving something to others is apparently the hallmark of the Spike psychographic—with a budget rare night or a break-a-Chancellor night or something. Maybe you can have one player bring decks for everyone just to balance the power level, or play pauper without the net-decking combo silliness that this can entail (I’m looking at you, Van Lunen!). However you get it done, make sure that EDH doesn’t become the be-all, end-all of multiplayer to your playgroup—get them to embrace the full range of chaos that Magic has to offer!
Bonus Feature: The First Official Musevessel Deck-Building Challenge!!
One of the first packs of New Phyrexia I opened had a Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer in Japanese foil (or as we say in Japan, a “foil”). I said in the set review that I wanted to build a Standard-legal (post-Zendikar) EDH deck featuring JK his bad-ass self, and I am taking this as a sign from the-powers-that-be that you, our loyal readers, should build it for me. So for the first stage I want you to go to the Comments section below and suggest up to 10 cards you want to see in a Jor Kadeen EDH deck, featuring only cards from Scars of Mirrodin, Mirrodin Besieged, New Phyrexia or M11. I’ll give you two weeks to get your suggestions in, then in stage two we’ll choose the best ones, and in stage three I’ll use it to beat up my playgroup and wreak havoc across as much of Tokyo as I can. Then we can update it as Standard expands with M12, Innistrad and whatever else.
Are you up to it? OK, then, get to work with those card ideas!
 This is of course a generalization—for many purely casual groups it remains no different from Planechase, Emperor or Tribal Night at Bobby’s House, while for some, a Commander tournament is treated exactly the same as any other tournament. But let’s pretend that a significant number of Magic players can be divided into one of these two groups.
 I was working on a Braids deck when she was banned as Commander, which may have led to some harsh words and thumping of tables, but Braids was basically my attempt to see if I could break her as badly as others had (I couldn’t), so in a sense I was already trying to change the way I play with that deck.
 Let’s not pretend that Spikes, pros, or whatever you want to call them are a different species. They enjoy variety and socializing as well—it just doesn’t necessarily appeal to them in the same way or to the same extent that it does to us.