Windborn Musings – Commander vs. Chaos.

Commander is a great format.  Everyone enjoys stacking up their 99 cards and displaying their chosen Commander for everyone else to see.  There is a certain amount of “yeah, that’s right, I’m running my _______ deck this time.”  Crazy wild spells and insane interactions make Commander a format casual players flock to.  

But Chaos is better.

If I’m going to make a bold statement like that, I need to back it up.  I will, but I want to make it very clear what I’m saying, just so I don’t get comments telling me that I’m crazy.  I already know I’m crazy, but if you are going to call me crazy, let’s all be sure that we are talking about the same thing. 

Everyone knows what Commander is.  Even if you don’t play it (and it seems like every casual Magic player on the planet plays Commander), if you are reading this site, you probably know what Commander is.  I’m not going to go into details, so if you aren’t completely sure, go here.

When I talk about Chaos, I mean Chaos Magic.  This variant involves decks of at least 60 cards with the same deckbuilding limitations as in regular Magic.  The main difference with regular Magic is that there are multiple opponents to defeat, so you can attack any player or multiple players at once, or attack none at all. 

Using those definitions, I am going to prove Chaos Magic is better than Commander.  This seems like a tall order, since for one format to be better than another is largely a matter of personal taste.  How can I prove that something is better than something else if it is based on personal preference?

Let’s start by listing why Commander is such a great format:[i]

1. Multiplayer, turn-based format.

In Commander, you get to play against multiple opponents.  This means that everyone plays all at once.  That creates the social atmosphere that most casual players are looking for.  This is not to say that one on one games are lousy, but multiplayer formats give you the chance to talk with friends and socialize.  If you are attacking or being attacked every turn, there is rarely a chance to talk about anything other than the game at hand. 

2. Casual

While Commander can be played competitively, let’s all just agree that Commander is completely broken and has no business being in a tournament format.  The goal of Commander is big plays in a fun, relaxed atmosphere where everyone has a good time and is wowed by everything happening on the board. 

3. Big stuff happens

I touched on this above, but when anyone describes the format, they describe it as a place where big plays happen.  When the format was in its infancy, that meant Elder Dragon Legends ruling the skies.  Now it means big creatures and crazy eight-mana spells. 

4.  Social Contract

While some players would suggest that the social contract in Commander is overrated, do not kid yourself.  Commander is a completely broken format, and to say otherwise is simply a lie or willful blindness.  The Social Contract is what keeps the game fun.  The idea that everyone is playing decks that are designed to ensure everyone has fun is a fundamental tenet of Commander.  The entire format warps itself to ensure that everyone is having a good time. 

The Social Contract is an article in and of itself, but I will say there is some issue in relation to the definition of fun and how it is different for different players.  While this is true, the intent of the Social Contract is clear, even if the practice of it is difficult to define.

All the reasons that Commander is a great format, are also true for Chaos games.  Chaos games are certainly multiplayer.  A Chaos game requires multiple opponents even moreso than Commander, but both formats are ideally multiplayer (forgetting the strong French contingent of 1v1 multiplayer).  Chaos is very definitely a casual format.  Multiple opponents playing any deck in Magic is completely broken.  The goal of Chaos is fun, and tournament Chaos games would be no where near fun.  Big stuff also happens in Chaos games, due to the Social Contract, which also exists in Chaos.  While Commander gets the publicity and pushes the Social Contract as an essential part of the game, Chaos has been following the Social Contract for years, without ever actually naming it. 

Chaos 1, Commander 1

Let’s look to the differences:

1.  The Commander

This is the most obvious difference.  A quick glance at any Magic board and you can instantly tell if the game is Commander or not due to the Commanders sitting out.  Chaos has no Commander.  The question then becomes whether the Commander makes the games better or not. 

If he is a general, your strategy better be changing before the game even starts.

The Commander offers pregame tactics.  Before you start a Commander or Chaos game, you already have an idea of who the bigger threats are based on who the players in the game are.  Certain players are better than others, so before you even start, you are watching those players more closely than others.  Commander adds to that by giving you the extra information of knowing who the Commanders/Generals are for each player.  If it is your local metagame, you likely know almost the entire deck when your friend reveals their General.  Even in games against unknown players at your local game store, knowing the General pretty much tells you what your opponents are playing.  A vanilla general from Legends likely means someone is playing a combo and just chose a random general in the right colors.  If the general is Kaalia, Zur, Isamaru, or one of many other generals you can probably guess how their deck is going to play out, even if you don’t know, card for card, what is in the deck. 

While I love strategy in my games as much as anyone, the pregame information gained from knowing the players’ generals is not a good thing.  It is bad enough that your strategy is already being determined before the game even starts by knowing which of your opponents are particularly dangerous, but you are also getting to see what is arguably the most important card in their deck.[ii] Keeping the strategy in the game as much as possible makes far more sense, and Chaos games do that so much better than Commander games. 

Chaos 2, Commander 1

Commanders also mean that exiled cards are not necessarily exiled.  A Commander’s ability to be replayed is another difference in the games.  The question becomes whether this is better than in Chaos games, where a Path to Exile means the creature is actually gone, as opposed to simply being more expensive to cast next time. 

This does not produce any real difference between Commander and Chaos.  Commander decks look to tuck effects to effectively be rid of a general.  Both formats use cards to deal with their opponents’ key threats.  That these cards are different just means that the cards in the decks are different, but are there to do the same things.  This doesn’t give an advantage to either format.

Chaos 3, Commander 2

The Commander for a deck also determines what color cards may be used in the deck.  This creates a limiting factor for deckbuilding that Chaos decks don’t have.  Mark Rosewater likes to say that restrictions breed creativity, and I agree with that.  In spite of that, I don’t think this makes Commander a better format than Chaos.  Suggesting that a format is better because it has more restrictions for deckbuilding is ludicrous.  If that were the case then a new format that was exactly the same as Commander but required you to use Generals only from sets created before Ravnica would be by definition, a better format than the current Commander.  At some point, restriction stops breeding creativity and forces a dull format.

The benefit Chaos has over Commander is that Chaos can allow you to restrict your deckbuilding in any way you want.  If you want to restrict your color use, you can.  I’ve tried building a B/U tokens deck for multiplayer Chaos (don’t ask).  If you’d rather restrict mana cost or theme, you can do that too.  Chaos can offer the same restrictions, different restrictions or far less.  That flexibility and variety make for a more interesting format.

Chaos 4, Commander 2

2. Life totals

Forty life is twice as much as 20 life, so it must be twice as good, right? 

The forty life total in Commander is a way to extend the game.  The goal is to get the big effect cards into the game, and it was decided that the best way to do that was to extend the game.  This would allow players the extra turns needed to get the 8 to 10 lands into play to be able to repeatedly cast the haymaker spells the format is known for. 

The problem is that so many metagames just sit there and do nothing for the first five turns.  Everyone is trying to do the same thing in getting these spells out, so the only thing most decks do in the first few turns is play out an early blocker, then play ramp spells so you can start casting your big spells.  This is a problem because the expectation was that the players would be attacking each other up to that point, thus the starting 40 life.  Instead, you end up with a game where most players are in the high 30’s for life totals and the game is on turn 10 before the big effects start happening. 

While I called this a problem, I don’t really see it as a “problem” per se.  It just seems that if everyone is going to play this way, why not just start at 20 life?  Everyone still gets to play their big spells and all the craziness of Commander will still happen, it will just end faster, due to the life total starting at 20.  All of the fun and fewer long, drawn out games?  That sounds great! 

That sounds like a Chaos game.  Yes, there are games that don’t work this way.  Two card combo kills or mill decks or other deck lists can make some Chaos games lousy.  Those same style of decks make Commander games lousy too.  Chaos just forces you to consider the option that someone might just try to take you out quickly, so you need to be prepared for that as well. 

Chaos 5, Commander 2

1-ofs and 100 card deck

The benefit of the highlander aspect and insistence on 100 card decks in Commander is to encourage a level of variability in decks.  The idea is that a deck will play out differently from game to game, depending on the cards you draw. 

If you have played Commander for any length of time, or you read about Commander online, you know that this is just no longer true.  There was a time when Commander decks played out that way, but as the format’s popularity exploded, more and more people were playing and the decks of the format are being optimized. This optimization has dramatically reduced the variability of the decks to the point that many decks are just as predictable as any battle-tested Standard deck. When players refer to the Ib Halfheart deck, Zur deck, the colorless deck, etc. they know to within five cards what is in the deck. 

Besides that, insisting on 1-ofs in a format that allows all the cards is ridiculous.  One Naturalize, one Disenchant, one Krosan Grip, and one Solemn Offering plays basically the same as 4x Naturalize.  Personally, in my Chaos decks, I try to get consistency but use different cards with the same effect to limit the “seek and destroy  all copies of the card” effects.  If you happen to find a card that does something that no other card does (or just does it so much better), then you need to run a variety of tutors.  There is very little difference between this and the Chaos game

Chaos 5, Commander 2


Both formats have easy access to combos.  Chaos can get two and three card combos going through using several copies of each card, while Commander has the constant access to the General to build their combos.  Both formats also have a Social Contract, so combos have a limiting factor there as well.  Whether you like or dislike combos in your multiplayer Magic games, there is no difference between the formats.

Chaos 6, Commander 3


The metagame favors Chaos magic.  This isn’t a knock on Commander as a format, but more a result of the popularity of the format.  If I want a great Commander deck, I only need to go online to get one.  If I want a deck that crushes a particular metagame, I only need to go online to get one.  Due to the popularity of the format, the metagame is generally known.  Certain generals and their decks are known amongst EDH players as vicious or capable of crushing games.  While there is still plenty of variance from one local group to the next, the internet looms over this format and limits its variance.

Chaos would be just as bad if it were as popular… but it’s not.  Deckbuilding help for Chaos games is difficult to find (unless you frequent the Muse Vessel) and the metagame from one group to the next is dramatically different.  With Chaos’ low profile, there is no dominant metagame. Should Chaos become popular, its advantage in this category would disappear, but for now…

Chaos 7, Commander 3


In spite of the numbers in Chaos Magic’s favor, I’m not going to tell you to never play Commander again.  Variety and fun is what we are all looking for, and both of these formats offer that to everyone playing them.  I just want you to try out Chaos.  Enjoy the variety.

Bruce Richard

[i] Just to be clear, I’m not saying Commander sucks.  I enjoy Commander games.  I just enjoy Chaos games more.

[ii] I know that the general for some deck is just there for the color requirements, or there to make finding the actual key card easier, but so many more decks use the general as their linchpin, that other decks are simply outliers. 


About Windborn Muse

If you seek limited or constructed tournament knowledge, wrapped up with excellent comedic writing, you are in the wrong place. Planted firmly at the kitchen table, Bruce (the Windborn Muse) is all things casual, focusing primarily on strategies for multiplayer games wrapped up with horrific, train wreck attempts at humour. Bruce is married to an extremely tolerant woman and has three children who will not go near him in public. In real life Bruce works as an attorney and lives just outside Boston.
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6 Responses to Windborn Musings – Commander vs. Chaos.

  1. All that and no link to a page about how Chaos Magic works for those of us who have no idea what it is? If it’s really better than Commander, I certainly want to know how to play it.

  2. kyzneg says:

    I’m not certain why, but this feels a little like an apples-oranges comparison to me. I think it’s largely because Chaos (or FFA as my old playgroup always thought of it) is a play structure on a different level than Commander. Personally, I’ve always seen chaos/emperor/archenemy/2HG/battle-royale/whatever as the format being played, I.E. determining turn order, the existence of/positioning of any allies, and the win conditions. On the other hand, I’ve usually seen Commander as more of a variant to be overlaid on top of one of those formats, changing the rules primarily in terms of deck construction (granted, the Commander and Commander damage aren’t deck construction changes).

    For the tabletop-RPG players out there, I think the comparison would be to call Chaos the core-rulebook, and Commander as one of the supplemental books. Commander modifies the rules of Chaos (and at a more basic level, the core MTG rules), but you’re still playing that same basic format in the end.

    As far as comparing 60-card multiplayer with Commander, I agree that they both have their strengths, weaknesses, and advantages over the other. I happen to prefer Commander personally, but that’s largely due to a couple of factors.
    First, I enjoy working within the restrictions placed upon deckbuilding by commander. Yes, it’s easy to fill your deck with similar effects (and every tutor out there to find them), but that’s not a deck I’d ever build, because it’s boring and will just cause bad feelings within the average playgroup. I love working to emphasize a theme, while at the same time having to work to find the effects I want/need within the colors I’m playing. Given that I’m not usually trying to play a slew of near-identical cards, the singleton nature of Commander also means I’m discovering more cards, and finding the situations in which that particular variant of an effect is at its best and at its worst.
    Second, due to my job, I have had very little (read: no) time over the last year to get out and find somewhere to play, so most of my time on Magic has been spent either reading articles/blogs, or designing decks for the occasional visit with my pre-move playgroup. And as I said above, I just find Commander to be a lot more interesting to build decks for than 60-card magic. If I was playing more I’m sure I’d be balancing between the two more than I am now, as I did while I was still in college, but at present there’s just no need.

    In any case, very good points, a great read (as usual, there’s a reason that this is my favorite MTG site, and it has nothing to do with knowing SBM).

  3. Pingback: Friday Flashback – October 14 « CommanderCast

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