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A Tough Acorn to Crack

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I'm very fortunate to have a lot of creative freedom of what to write about here on CoolStuffInc. Usually, I focus on reviewing the newest Commander cards, but I get to sneak in a bunch of asides about the way the design of recent sets has impacted the format I play the most.

As Commander has come to take over the Magic world over the past five years or so - exasperated by the pandemic - it seems to have caused a massive rethinking of how products Wizards offers interact with the game at large. We've always known that "casual players" were responsible for the majority of the market, but that was always an invisible crowd in many ways to both Wizards and the general online community of ardent players like ourselves.

Until Commander.

Finally, Magic's formula was effectively cracked. The large number of players who played in local communities but weren't represented at things like Grand Prix had a format that many people could agree on. EDH and then Commander represents what many people are looking for in a Magic experience - playing a game with several friends over the course of an hour or so. Sure, Commander is competitive - whether it's cEDH or not, but it's not exactly jamming Standard Mono-Green Aggro mirrors against each other while two of your friends watch over your shoulder, you know? Commander captures the essence of what Magic has always wanted to be, and it's become the de facto "casual" format to play (even if I think that particular word is hard to define).

"Casual" Formats of Old

Given that it's basically impossible to determine exactly what constitutes casual play - or non-tournament, competitive play - but it ranges from everything like 100-card Highlander to 67-card "stuff I own" decks with no legality, etc. It also encompassed things like Planeschase, Conspiracy, Archenemy, Un-set drafts, preconstructed deck battles, etc. It's sometimes discussed how Commander has homogenized kitchen table play and in some circumstances that can be a negative, but all in all it's helped to contribute to some massive growth in Magic over the past decade.

Another huge area of growth for the game has been the complexity of the designs brought into play. I cover this game professionally and have a background in judging and can't tell you how mutate works - and neither can nine out of ten players playing on the Pro Tour. It works however Arena makes it work. Unstable pushed the boundaries of what the rules could do, and as wonky as contraptions and Steamflogger Boss were, they actually were some of the most interesting Limited gameplay I've experienced in the game. It was weird/wacky thematic mechanics, sure, but it was an interesting mechanic that felt like a format variation on Magic itself.

Steamflogger Boss

The only problem was that for as cool as Unstable was, for all intents and purposes it was a limited box set - the kind of format that much like Event Deck Constructed or Battle Box or Conspiracy draft, works for the few hours you're in that world and then is pretty much useless after - the rare and mythic conspiracies are largely worthless, and there's pretty much nowhere to play them. Thanks to the silver borders that made sense when they first appeared on cards back in Unhinged and Unglued to differentiate them from the kind of cards you'd play in Standard (well, Type 2).

Which brings us to Acorns. Wizards of the Coast announced some pretty big changes to the way Un-sets and the entire concept of "silver-bordered sets" work. Simply put, many of the cards you'll open in Unfinity will be legal in Commander.

Acorny Pun Goes Here

"Acorn" holo stamp cards won't be legal in Commander

It seems pretty obvious to me that Wizards encountered a few challenges with the release of the last two Un-sets, Unstable and Unsanctioned, and in the latter they actually made it a preconstructed release to give players something to do with the cards besides draft them exactly once and then never play with them again.

But then we had Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. It brought us "venturing in the dungeon," not to mention keywords as flavor text, and with that it was clear to me that there was some kind of update coming to the game. After all, we had seen "silver-border mechanics" make the leap to black-border Magic before, something I noted in an article last summer that turned out to be somewhat prescient in retrospect.

Adventures in the Forgotten Realms made clear that a bunch of things that conceptually were "silver-bordered mechanics" could just as easily be black-bordered mechanics if they just said "this is how the rules work."

Bring on the Masterpiece series and cards that more closely resembled something from different games than they did "traditional" Magic cards and then Secret Lairs that don't so much push the limits as show there aren't any. Personally, I love it when it's done in a way that's not exploitative of the secondary market, and that's where things have more or less landed. I think it's awesome that you can get an Arcane Secret Lair in promotion with a really cool show on Netflix that furthers what kind of media you can make with "video games."

To Unfinity and Beyond

So, when Wizards wanted to dip back into the Un-set pool - which apparently they want to do quite often now after a decade-plus hiatus before. Talk about a change in paradigm. Either way, the idea that borders were more of a suggestion than a rule was taken to the extreme by Wizards, to say that silver borders didn't really need to exist at all.

But like Unstable, the Unfinity set still wanted to be able to play fast and lose with the rules where they didn't limit themselves in what they could design just to squeeze everything into a black border. At the same time, they had a casual product that for the most part wasn't considered usable in the game's premier casual format. Something had to give.

We get this hack - cards without the "acorn" holo symbol will be legal in Commander and eternal formats (but really, this is all about Commander). Cards with the acorn are not legal in Commander or eternal formats.

What Does This Mean for Commander?

I've steered clear of most of the discourse online this week, so I have no idea if this is a hot take or not, but in my opinion nothing really changes.

Wizards releases a million products a year now. They've got Secret Lairs of Secret Lairs Greatest Hits Vol. 2, and it's only a matter of months before we get the long-awaited Quantum Leap Secret Lair crossover (admit it, you didn't know if I was joking - and they release so many I don't if I am, either). There's Commander releases aplenty (sometimes in a Secret Lair). There's sets like Adventures in the Forgotten Realms where they throw away the usual rules of black-bordered sets anyway. If they want to print cards that do a certain thing, they're going to find a place to do it and make it legal in Commander. To that end, it really doesn't matter what set it comes in so it's not like "breaking" the silver-border rules really changes what cards you're getting at the end of the year regardless.

There's definitely some extra teaching and some complications with this "you have to discern the shape of this weird stamp thing at the bottom of the card to understand where you can play it," but in reality that's just trading one set of difficulties for another - people previously encountered feels-bad moments when they found out their Unstable cards weren't legal for Commander, despite the fact they roll dice just like their AFR cards. In the end, this opens up Commander to ever more diverse and out-of-the-box strategies, and if you believe Commander must continue to evolve with the community over the times, then this is another step. I almost always default to preferring the method that lets the most people play Commander the way they want to, and this helps to remove a lot of the social friction that kept Un-set cards out of most Commander brews.

We'll see what the set looks like (the lands look amazing), but I'm interested to see what new possibilities it open up for the format!

Thanks for reading,

Corbin Hosler

@chosler

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