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Magic's in Trouble, Commander's Not


Let's not waste time or bury the lede: Magic is in trouble.

Is its death imminent, as many have been warning for years? No, I don't believe it is. But even a cursory examination of the state of Magic reveals some significant concerns for the game's long-term viability as the specter of its 30th anniversary begins to creep onto the far horizon.

As I write this, Wizards has just announced that it's "monitoring" the Standard environment and will "provide an update" next week. A bit ominous, that.

I'm not nearly plugged into Constructed formats and competitive play enough to dissect the nature of the issue, but from what I can tell it may not be just one thing. Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath has been a menace in Standard and Historic since the release of Theros Beyond Death; now that TBD is three sets behind us and no longer in the marketing spotlight, will Uro finally catch a ban?

Maybe! But it seems Omnath, Locus of Creation is the new bugaboo. I talked about it here last week in the context of Commander, but clearly four-color Omnath is plenty powerful outside of our format. At the same time, ramp continues to be a Standard scourge, and Omnath plays perfectly into that.

Whatever the exact causes and regardless of what Wizards does or doesn't ban next week, it's clear Constructed Magic is not okay right now. We're not even dealing with power creep anymore. The past year and a half or so have constituted a power onslaught. Sameyness is rampant, cards are either egregiously overpowered or virtually unplayable with very little middle ground and more and more players are frustrated.

This never-ending stream of unfun nonsense is one of the many reasons I haven't logged onto my Arena account in months and have no plans to do so anytime soon. And hey, let's talk about Arena while we're at it. Last week's Arena release of Zendikar Rising was plagued with technical problems, leaving some players unable to complete a game for several days. Look, I'm no computer technomagician, but how does a multi-billion dollar company continue to have debilitating technical collapses with the flagship product for its legacy game?

Make no mistake - Arena is everything to Wizards and, more to the point, to Hasbro. I've joked for a while that some Hasbro executive pointed to a game of Hearthstone on a computer monitor and screamed, "GO MAKE US ONE OF THOSE!" Given Arena's troubled and arguably too-fast rollout, extended beta period, and continued issues post-beta and an economy that continues to prey on players in some really icky ways, I'm starting to wonder whether there's more truth to my joke than I thought.

Even when Arena does work, it's not exactly winning over the Magic community quite as universally as perhaps Hasbro hoped. I spend a lot of time on Twitter, and while Magic Twitter is *absolutely* not a completely accurate representation of the player base at large, it does tend to be a bellwether. I'm seeing tweet after tweet from player after player - some of them quite notable names in the community - lamenting the fact that playing Magic on Arena isn't very fun - and, by extension, that playing Magic at all isn't very fun right now.

If that's what's happening on the digital side, which Hasbro and Wizards very obviously see as the future of Magic, things are potentially even more dire on the paper side. 2020 has been, frankly, a mess when it comes to paper Magic. In many respects that's the fault of COVID-19; we can't (and shouldn't) do in-person events, money is tight for a great many people and supply chains are all out of whack. Numerous paper Magic products have experienced significant supply issues, most notably Jumpstart, which is still very difficult to find at a reasonable price. With just days to go before prerelease weekend, Wizards notified retailers that some Zendikar Rising product - namely draft and set booster boxes, along with bundles - would be delayed. (Never fear! Those $25+ Collector Boosters will be there, no problem.)

So not only can players not really play paper Magic in any organized sense - nor should they be until this pandemic is under control - they're having a hard time even buying the products to collect or play at home with loved ones or over webcam. And when we can get the product, guess what? The foils still curl. If you're still holding on to any shred of hope that Wizards of the Coast is some kind of magical forest hollow where cheerful elves spend all day trying to make us smile, let me disabuse you of that notion here and now. Magic is a business, a very big one, and while I know for sure that there are many good, passionate people making this game I can promise that the overriding concern and motivation, from the top down, is profit. Premium products goose the bottom line. Powerful chase cards sell Standard sets. Shortages, even unintentional ones, supercharge demand. They're in it for the money, folks. Whether or not we have fun is a distant second place concern.

All of this is to say exactly what I mean when I declare Magic to be in trouble: Consumer confidence in the Magic product, gameplay experience, and organized play (such as it is) is taking a serious hit right now. The keyword there is consumer; we are customers and Wizards/Hasbro is a business and let there be no illusions to the contrary. And when consumers get restless for products that have been hyped into oblivion, become frustrated when the game they love stops being fun and grow weary of the constant escalation in the amount of hard-earned money they're being asked to spend on this game, inevitably they'll start wondering what else is out there.

There's more out there than there's ever been. Magic may be the long-reigning king of collectible card games, but every dynasty ends sometime. Again, I don't necessarily think that's going to happen this year or next, but if Wizards and Hasbro don't start taking these problems seriously, focusing a bit less on squeezing us for every cent we have and a little more on keeping us happy and invested, the end may come sooner than anyone expects.

Despite all that, though, I'm here to tell you that no matter what happens to Magic writ large, Commander ain't going nowhere.

This format was born, grew and is now thriving in spite of Wizards, not because of it. As I've discussed here before, Wizards doesn't have a particularly encouraging track record when it comes to designing products specifically for Commander, and I remain terrified of exactly what Commander Legends will unleash upon the format. For much of its existence, Commander was a pet that would get a nice pat on the head once a year in the form of the annual preconstructed decks.

Boy, has that changed. According to this post on the WPN website, Commander is really popular now. Wow!

Ya think?

Please join me in enjoying the irony of that post coming smack in the middle of the loudly-trumpeted "Year of Commander". Game's most popular format is popular, film at 11:00.

And don't misunderstand me - Commander is absolutely gaining popularity at an impressive pace. It's drawing new players in and bringing back older ones who've learned they can dust off their collections and put them to new, awesome use. Across the Internet, Commander content is exploding; from my humble little corner of CoolStuffInc to the behemoths at the Command Zone, from a group of friends who stream their weekly games to a small audience to the queen of Commander streams, Olivia Gobert-Hicks, the passion for this format is manifesting itself in myriad ways. I love it. It makes me so happy to see players of all genders, ages, races, nationalities, economic backgrounds and viewpoints turning their love of Commander into content we can all enjoy.

It's that spirit that will shield Commander from whatever downswing Magic may experience in the years to come. We'll always be able to dig through our collections and build the janky nonsense decks that haunt our daydreams. We'll keep finding new ways to make otherwise forgettable cards into powerhouses. Or, if you're like me, you'll try to make Basandra, Battle Seraph a thing and fail miserably.

Basandra, Battle Seraph | Commander | Dave Kosin

And because - unlike Standard - every game of Commander is a wholly unique experience, we'll keep sitting down with friends and strangers, in person and online, to laugh and cry and windmill slam and make memories that last lifetimes, like the only time my Bernice (that's what my playgroup and I call Basandra, don't ask me why, I have no earthly idea) deck actually worked, and by "worked" I mean I ended up killing myself.

As long as there are Commander players, Commander will be just fine. Even if we wake up one day and find out there won't be any new Magic cards printed ever again, Commander will endure. No matter how many more Standard seasons quickly devolve into puddles of sludge or how deep Hasbro digs the rabbit hole to scrounge up every last dime of our disposable income, Commander will live on.

I know that because I plan to be playing Commander for many, many years to come. Without skipping a beat I can think of 75 or 100 friends who'll be there with me. Each of them has their friends, and each of them has theirs.

Commander is Magic's most popular format. And, much to my relief, it's also Wizards-proof. Sure, Commander players salivate over new cards every spoiler season and exhale in relief whenever a pricey bomb like Mana Crypt or Doubling Season gets a reprint. But we don't need those things. We've got thousands upon thousands of cards in our toolbox right now. And, more importantly, we have each other; this format is far more about the players and the experience than the cards themselves. If Magic keeps going for another 30 years and Wizards keeps printing more and more utterly borked cards, Commander will navigate that as it always has. If Magic were to end tomorrow, we'd navigate that, too.

No one can say how much time Magic has left. But as sure as the sun rises in the east, whenever that ending arrives, Commander will remain. I'm sure of it.

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