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Gotta Start Somewhere: Learning Magic Through Commander


Very often I hear people say that Commander isn't a good way to learn Magic.

I agree - I think it's a great way.

I'm proof positive. My Commander origin story is only just over four years old - boy have I made those four years count - and it begins with a weekend visiting friends for a comic con. They'd been badgering me to learn Magic for years. I'd always resisted for... reasons? I honestly don't know what made me not want to play. Perhaps it's because I knew I'd messed up so many years earlier.

I was 10 years old when I discovered a very, very small comic shop near my home in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania called Gema Books. It was tucked into the basement of a large building that had also housed a hairdresser and someone's living space. To this day I can close my eyes and walk through the door, down the stairs and around the corner to start exploring all the back issues, action figures, and cards in perfect detail as if it were 1994 all over again.

I wish it were 1994 all over again, because 1994 Dave had two choices when he first decided to buy collectible gaming cards from Gema Books: Magic, and Decipher's Star Wars CCG. I was a Star Wars kid in a major way so that decision was easy. I jumped in with both feet, spending every dollar I had on cards and teaching myself the game by playing against myself in my bedroom ("OK, now I'll Force drain myself for 2! Get rekt, self!"). All the while I walked past ABUR and Arabian Nights product and Moxen and - I can still see it in my mind's eye, sitting there in the case - at least one Black Lotus. I couldn't have cared less. I had made my choice.

I sure did choose poorly. Star Wars CCG died when Decipher lost the license to - ha! - Wizards of the Coast, and with it died my interest in card games as a whole. I still held fond memories of Decipher's Star Wars and Star Trek CCGs, but Magic wasn't ever really on my radar.

My friends weren't having any of it. On that weekend in 2016 they took the choice out of my hands. We'd gotten home from the con and were about to relax on the couch with a movie... or so I thought. I emerged from the restroom to see two of my three friends already seated and shuffling their decks, and before I knew it the third sat me down next to her and said, "You're learning. Let's go."

And so I did. I piloted her Prossh, Skyraider of Kher Commander deck as she walked me through the steps of a turn, what different keywords and mechanics meant, how mana worked and all the ins and outs of Magic. Immediately I realized this wasn't as alien as I'd expected - because, as I soon deduced, Star Wars CCG had an awful lot in common with Magic. I was used to having Force as a resource; now I had mana. Interrupts were instants, effects were enchantments... and I was hooked.

Once I returned home from the con, the itch to buy into Magic was overwhelming. I wanted to be able to play the way I'd learned - my friends and me all playing together with those weird 100-card decks. They pointed me to the Commander 2015 preconstructed decks and I chose the one with Daxos the Returned at the helm. That precon was my very first Commander deck and recently I took the opportunity to rebuild it in a somewhat more powerful form.

Daxos the Returned | Commander | Dave Kosin

I won't spend a ton of time describing the deck. It's exactly what you think it is. Play enchantments, get experience counters, make big spirits, profit. Reach out on Twitter if you want more information about it.

I'd rather spend time talking about how Commander can absolutely be someone's way into Magic - and, I'd argue, a very good way.

Standard Deviation

At this point there's little dispute that Commander is the most popular format among Magic players. There's also little doubt that despite Wizards acknowledging that with the current "Year of Commander", the Standard format is still the apple of Wizards' eye. Standard is why we don't get frequent - or even occasional - reprints of things like fetchlands, Jace, the Mind Sculptor and other highly desirable, absurdly expensive cards. Wizards never misses an opportunity to remind us that cards like those can't be healthily introduced into Standard. Message received.

Standard is also the backbone of MTG Arena, which itself is the backbone of Hasbro's Magic machine. It's abundantly clear that Hasbro and Wizards see Arena as the future of Magic, and if you're playing Arena, chances are you're playing Standard or Standard-adjacent formats. Brawl was designed as a way to bridge Commander, an eternal format by design (and, it should be noted, a format Wizards did not itself create), and Standard, which is anything but eternal. Wizards hearts Standard.

But not every player does, myself very much included. And while the Arena product itself can be an extremely effective way for new players to learn Magic, I'd argue the Standard format is far from an ideal entry point. One of the reasons I love Commander so much is the infinite diversity in infinite combinations; no two decks need ever be the same, no two players need ever play quite the same, and no two games are ever exactly the same. Rotation is also a big factor here. Buying into Standard close to rotation can create major feel-bads for new players, many of whom don't know what rotation is until they show up to an FNM and learn half their deck is illegal. Commander doesn't have that problem. We can play with nearly every card we own.

In addition, Standard is a format that is typically "solved" by high-level players very quickly upon the release of a new set, a rotation, or the banning and/or unbanning of cards that shift the meta. The meta is EVERYTHING in Standard. In recent years we've frequently seen the format dominated by a small handful of decks at any given time. I don't believe there's anything inherently wrong with that, especially in a competitive format. But there's no denying that the meta-driven nature of Standard leaves players with limited choices.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Commander, on the other hand, is all about choice. Before you even choose your first commander you'll make a slew of other choices - the colors you'd like to play with (and avoid), your preferred play style, the kind of power level you're after. For brand new players Commander is arguably the ultimate way to get to know the game inside and out. Now, of course, Commander enables and encourages highly complex interactions and synergies that are most definitely confusing for newcomers. But I would argue that's not a bad thing. If someone really wants to learn Magic, a trial by fire is a good way to level up quickly.

And then there's the undeniable reality that for most Commander players, the format is meant to be played casually and with multiple friends at once. Surely some players get into Magic because they want to play competitively, but many do not. For those who want to learn this game and enjoy it with friends - and strangers - in a low stakes environment, Commander is a spectacular on ramp. If you're a Commander player with a friend who wants to learn, you can hand them one of your decks, sit next to them and walk them through the game step by step, just like my friends did for me. There's no pressure for them to win right away. There's no need for them to invest any of their own money right off the bat. It's no risk, high reward.

Ultimately everyone prefers to learn a little differently and I'm not arguing that every new player should be required to learn Magic via Commander. What I am arguing is that the common refrain that Commander is a "bad" way to learn Magic is not universally true. Not even close. I'm but one of many players who've come into the game through Commander. And man, I am so glad I did.

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