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C-ing the Future of Commander


I'm a social Commander player. I've written about that extensively here and elsewhere, I tweet about it incessantly - it's settled law, as it were. But after my recent exploration of the abject disasters that have come from Wizards designing specifically for this format, I started to realize something.

cEDH might just be the future of Commander.

All the signs are there. We're gonna go over them all. First, though, it's important to make sure we're all in agreement about what cEDH is and is not.

cEDH is a style of Commander involving high-powered, highly focused decks that seek to act and win as quickly and reliably as possible. I don't know that this is a completely accurate analogy, but I think of it as being the closest you'll come to playing 100-card singleton Legacy. It is competitive - that's the "c" - while still being social because, outside of live Magic events (remember those?), games have zero stakes and everyone wants everyone to have fun.

cEDH is not bringing a high-powered deck to a "just for fun" table and giving the other players an unexpected beatdown. That's called pubstomping - or, simply, being a crappy person - and I am beyond tired of it being conflated with cEDH.

Now that we're clear on what we're discussing here, let's talk about why cEDH might just be the inexorable destination for our format, and why I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.

Speed Force

The Flash ban earlier this year wasn't simply a bone being thrown to the cEDH community. The decision legitimized cEDH as a valid and welcome component of the larger Commander world. This was, in my estimation, absolutely the correct decision and one that was long overdue. cEDH players likely account for less than 15% of all Commander players, but that doesn't mean they have any less of a right to be able to enjoy themselves.

Banning Flash rid cEDH of the stagnant and oppressive "Sushi Hulk" deck archetype that had overrun the format. I'm decidedly anti-sameyness, and cEDH players were as well. This was news to a surprising amount of the larger Commander community, but not to anyone who knew even a little bit about cEDH.

It's easy to think that a competitive subset of the Commander format would be similar to 60-card competitive formats, in which a relatively small number of decks are viable at any given point. In reality, cEDH players are Commander players like everyone else. They value creativity and self-expression, they love to solve the puzzles of an eternal format and they live for never-before-never-again interactions and memorable moments.

I saw a lot of people dismissing the Flash ban as a token gesture, a "yes look at you, cEDH, being all adorable over there" kind of thing. I don't believe it's that simple. Even if it wasn't intended this way - and I have no idea whether it was or not - it was an unequivocal signal that cEDH is real, spectacular, and not going anywhere.

Flash Forward

In my Commander-related discussions on Twitter in recent weeks, I've seen several people crying foul over the perceived power creep in the format. We discussed that here as it relates to the cards themselves, but the more I thought about those comments, the more I realized they're right - power levels are trending upward. (Disclaimer: Don't expect a discussion about, or any usage of, a numbered system for determining power levels. They don't work.)

That's not surprising to me in the least. Magic is 26 years old. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 unique cards have been printed with hundreds more being added each year. Commander has been around for more than 10 years. In any game - or anything, really - with this large a lifespan evolution is inevitable. If you built a Commander deck out of only ABUR cards, even using the Power Nine and dual lands you'd have some of the lowest-powered decks imaginable. In order for a game to remain successful for this long it has to push the envelope. Cards get better. Stronger mechanics supplant weaker ones. And for as much as many of us may complain about power creep, very few of us would get excited over a new Commander that's roughly as powerful as, say, Arcades Sabboth.

Arcades Sabboth
Arcades, the Strategist

Arcades Sabboth is a terrible horrible no good very bad card! So, what happens 25 years later? We get Arcades, the Strategist - a much, much, much better card! This is the way of things. Magic would have died in the 90s if it didn't continue to move the goalposts for itself. Like it or hate it, power creep is how a game keeps kicking well into its third decade.

Over the past year or so, I've noticed a shift toward more competitive-feeling Commander decks even in decidedly non-competitive playgroups and events. I think there are numerous reasons for that. First and most obviously, when Wizards gives us new toys, even if we hate the idea of them, we're always going to be drawn to play with them. I bought a Korvold, Fae-Cursed King Brawl deck months ago; once a week I have to talk myself out of finally building it for Commander.

And yet someday I'm quite sure I'll give into that temptation. Someday might be sooner than I think.

Don't Fight the Future

It's cliche to say "Commander is at a crossroads". This format by its very nature will always be at an inflection point about something or other; if it's not Paradox Engine it's Flash or it's Planeswalkers as commanders (NOOOOOO) and so on down the line. But in this case, I do believe there's an existential battle brewing just beneath the surface.

There are a great many Commander players who love this format for what it's always meant to be - a non-competitive, entirely social experience in which a positive communal experience is valued above all else, toxicity is not welcome, and winning is secondary to making sure everyone has a good time.

Guess what? Almost everything I just said also applies to cEDH. The key difference is that, yes, cEDH players want to win, but they won't cheat or grief or slash tires to do it. But aside from that, cEDH is Commander in every respect.

Do me a favor- read that last bit again and make sure you understood it, because it's the truth. cEDH is not and should not be its own format. cEDH is not the next Tiny Leaders. It's legitimate, it's getting more popular every day and it's not going anywhere.

At the same time, as cEDH's popularity grows, the larger Commander format seems to drifting more and more in that direction. That is, again, thanks in no small part to Wizards printing more and more powerful cards specifically for Commander, but it's also a more soulful shift, if you will.

I believe that, whether they realize it or not, the Flash ban opened a lot of Commander players' minds to the legitimacy and inherent intrigue in cEDH. I think it made a lot of players - myself included - wonder whether we could see ourselves venturing into that world and how it would go for us.

That, combined with Wizards's relentless onslaught of busted new stuff just for us, leads me to believe cEDH is where we're headed. What exactly does that mean? I don't believe it means we're all going to be building ultra-high-powered brews like this one from my good friend Connor, which goes for the Laboratory Maniac/Thassa's Oracle/Demonic Consultation/Jace, Wielder of Mysteries win but also has a bunch of ways to make infinite tokens and mana for good measure:

Inalla cEDH | Commander | Dave Kosin

...though surely some of us will. But think about it. If you've built, say, a Golos, Tireless Pilgrim deck in the last few months, or Chulane, Teller of Tales, or a Heliod, Sun-Crowned deck that's always itching to find its Walking Ballista for the infinite combo... I have some news for you. You're already closer to cEDH than not.

As Magic continues to evolve, the cards and mechanics and archetypes continue to grow more powerful and more and more 60-card players wade into the Commander pool, it's eminently logical to believe Commander will one day become a format in which winning is valued far more highly than it is now.

That does not, however, bode the death of Commander as we know it. As I outlined above, cEDH is Commander. It is a social format. Players want to win and have fun with each other doing it. They want to win but they don't flip tables or punch walls when they don't; after all, three people in any given four-player cEDH pod will (usually) be losers when the game is over. They're kind to each other. They know that even though winning is their objective, they don't have to be cruel or toxic in order to achieve the goal. They take care of each other.

I've said it many times before - taking care of each other is what Commander is all about. And if this format is destined to someday fully embrace the "c", as I believe it is, Commander will still be the best format in Magic by a country mile.

Dave is a Commander player currently residing in Reno, NV. When he's not badly misplaying his decks, he works as a personal trainer. You can bother him on Twitter and check out his Twitch channel.

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