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The Flavor of Planeswalkers as Commanders

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Earlier this month, the Commander Rules Committee (RC) released an updated philosophy document on their website, entitled The Philosophy of Commander. This update has been months in the making, as earlier this year they created the Commander Advisory Group (CAG) made up of knowledgeable and influential people in the community. I've been looking forward to this update since the announcement of the CAG to get a better idea of where things are going in the Commander sphere.

Commander's Sphere

Not to be confused with Commander's Sphere.

Now, those of you who know me know I'm a big fan of Commander, especially for the flavor. So much so that I've started a series of articles entitled Building with Flavor, with an emphasis on flavorful deck-building choices. I followed up with Sisay, Weatherlight Captain and intend to continue these articles as new Commanders with deep flavor are announced. So when perusing the new Philosophy document, this really stuck out to me:

As is fitting for a format in which you choose an avatar to lead your forces into battle, Commander focuses on a resonant experience. Each game is a journey the players share, relying on a social contract in which each player is considerate of the experiences of everyone involved--this promotes player interaction, inter-game variance, a variety of play styles, and a positive communal atmosphere. At the end of an ideal Commander game, someone will have won, but all participants will have had the opportunity to express themselves through their deck-building and game play.

The rules of Commander are designed to maximize these experiences within a game of Magic. The addition of a commander, larger life total, and deck-building restrictions emphasize the format's flavor; they increase deck variance and add more opportunities for participation and expression. - The Philosophy of Commander

The talk here of Commanders as being a sort of player avatar, the resonance of the experience, and the emphasis on flavor are huge for me. For a Vorthos, this captures exactly what makes the variant so much fun. But this also rings a bit hollow, because there's a huge swath of Magic's most resonant characters being kept out of the Command Zone: Planeswalkers.

The History of Eligible Commanders

Overall, Commander is in a great place for flavor since its public debut in 2004. Some of that is due to changes to the format, and some to the Legendary rule changes made over the years. Some of that is due to tweaks to the existing rules to allow more Commanders. It's not as easy as you would think to track down the history of the format (even Sheldon Menerey doesn't remember all the details), so I'm going to do a quick rundown on how the definition of legal Commanders has expanded over time. Note that some of the rules sites aren't accessible anymore, even through the Wayback Machine. Also note that a lot of rules details have changed about Commander over the years, and I'm only focusing on what cards were eligible to be 'Generals' (later renamed Commanders, which I'll be using going forward for clarity and consistency). If you want some fun trivia, check out my tweet thread on the EDH Rules.

Circa 1996: Jesus Lopez wrote an article for the Duelist titled Elder Dragon Legend Wars. The format bears very little similarity to what would follow, but the seeds of Elder Dragon Highlander, or at least the broad original concept, were planted here.

Circa 2002: A local playgroup in Alaska begins playing the format during their get-togethers. Originally, only Elder Dragons were legal Commanders, but as the format grew beyond five people, that definition was expanded to increase the diversity of decks. The expanded rules, as linked to in the debut article, were that only Legendary Creatures from Legends are Legal. In addition, you can't include other Legendary Creatures from Legends in your deck if they aren't your Commander. Based on the Wayback Machine, this site seems to roughly coincide with the creation of the format in 2002, so these are the earliest codified rules for the game. Deck-building restrictions relating to color exclude Legendary Creatures with off-color activation costs, but at the time this only applies to Daughter of Autumn.

The symmetry of the Elder Dragons was a big early draw for games.

Nicol Bolas by D. Alexander Gregory

Circa 2004: The debut article features Tsabo Tavoc among the decklists, meaning the definition of eligible Commanders has expanded beyond Legends. It would have had to, as by this point the number of Legendary Creatures has tripled from the time of Legends, and newer players being introduced to the format didn't have the collections to meet the deck-building restrictions. The printing of Memnarch and Bosh, Iron Golem, ineligible to be Commanders, will lead to years of debate.

Circa 2006: The official EDH website comes online, making tracking rules changes much easier. This is the beginning of the 'Modern Era' of Commander and a more formal maintenance of the format. Thelon of Havenwood gets added to the pile of ineligible Commanders.

Circa 2007: The last time the forum software seems to have been updated. This has nothing to do with Commander eligibility, but might I recommend an RC Patreon to upgrade the site so it doesn't crash with every announcement?

In Commander Eligibility news, the Planeswalker card type is officially introduced, and the debate about using them as your Commander begins immediately.

How do we feel about Planeswalkers as Generals?

My initial response is no because the rules state that a general should be a creature, however these rules were created before Planeswalkers existed and so some more investigation, I think, is needed. - The Beginning

Circa 2008: Rhys the Exiled gets added to the list of ineligible Commanders.

Circa 2010: In December of 2010, Wizards of the Coast announces Commander, a product focused on Elder Dragon Highlander with a new, more brand-able name. Later that month, The Color Identity rule was implemented to finally solve the issue of off-color mana costs. Memnarch and his cohort are finally legal Commanders.

Who would win, rules sticklers or a colorless artifact with one flamey boi?

Bosh, Iron Golem by Brom

Circa 2014: Wizards of the Coast prints the first five Planeswalkers with 'can be your Commander' as part of their abilities. Planeswalkers are now officially legal as Commanders, but only as exceptions.

Circa 2015: Legendary Creatures that can transform into planeswalkers are printed, expanding the pool of planeswalkers that are also legal Commanders.

Circa 2017: For a three-month period, all crime is legal. Oops, I mean, thanks to Unstable, silver bordered cards are legal between the Banned and Restricted Announcements in the winter. Over a dozen silver bordered Legendary Creatures are legal to play for this three-month period.

Circa 2018: Wizards of the Coast prints six more planeswalkers with "can be your Commander", and another Legendary Creature that transforms into a Planeswalker, bringing the total number of Planeswalkers Commanders to seventeen.

Circa 2019: In the wake of War of the Spark, a set with over 30 new planeswalkers, The RC and the newly formed CAG are unanimous in not expanding the legal definition of a Commander to all Planeswalkers. A grace period similar to that for Unstable is also rejected.

Planeswalkers as Player Avatars

One of the biggest arguments against planeswalkers as Commanders is simply that they aren't Legendary Creatures. Let's put aside, for a moment, that not even all Legendary Creatures were eligible to be Commanders for a long time. The issue from a purely flavor perspective is that there's no difference between a character represented by a Legendary Creature card and one represented by a Planeswalker card. Except, perhaps, a planeswalker's spark. If you follow some of the links I've provided above, this point was brought up almost immediately as a distinguishing factor from other Legendary Permanents in early Planeswalker discussions.

Now, to be fair, there has always been a bit of a blurry line in the flavor of how creature casting works. It's something we've always had to just roll with, mostly because creature summoning as it originally worked (I.E. you're ripping a creature from their home to do battle for you) is a smidge unethical. Later flavor explanations explained they're mana constructs, beings created as an imitation of real creatures using magic. In the modern day, paired with the flavor of other cards, 'casting' a creature could be any number of things. Treasure and Gold tokens producing mana seem to indicate a potentially transactional, rather than strictly magical, component to summoning. Maybe you're just hiring mercenaries. There are lots of ways it could go, and how it works (and how much you want to focus on it) are entirely up to you.

The original flavor of casting a Planewalker card is that a Planeswalker card is an ally who has a set amount of loyalty to you, for whatever reason. Hence, Loyalty counters and Loyalty abilities. Like with some flavor interpretations of Legends, the mana cost is more representative of a transaction than a spell. With the change from Planeswalker uniqueness to the Legendary rule, the line there has blurred somewhat. Where before you could only have one Planeswalker of a given type, now you can have "Oops, all Chandra" as a deck theme. With multiple Chandras on the field, something other than that one specific planeswalker coming to your aid is happening. How you parse that is up to you, but obviously the flavor isn't quite the same as it used to be. It does, however, bring that flavor even more in line with Legendary Creatures, who could always coexist with other incarnations of themselves.

People see themselves reflected in the Commanders they choose.

Avatar of Me by Greg Hildebrandt

If you're picking a player avatar, you're picking a character (albeit usually one with mechanics you like) to represent you. In the case of either a Legendary Creature or Planeswalker, you're getting the same thing, flavorfully. The only real difference is how that character mechanically interacts with the game. And given the vast diversity of Legendary Creatures available, there really isn't all that big a difference. After all, the format allows Theros Gods, who are just an Enchantment until you build up your devotion to make them 'manifest' as a creature. Flavorfully, they're just pretty lights in the sky until then.

What About Those Other Legendary Permanents

To be clear, I'm not advocating for every Legendary Permanent to be a legal Commander. The Mirari is still an inanimate object, and from a flavor perspective, it would be a pretty big stretch to imagine it as your avatar, commanding the deck in your place. Even the Weatherlight, which may become a creature for gameplay purposes, isn't representative of a living, thinking being (yes, yes, I know it technically was for like five minutes in Apocalypse). Legendary Vehicles become Legendary Creatures by rules necessity, not by an innate flavorful reason.

Legendary Permanents that can become or create Legendary Creatures feel like a gray area. That's especially true in light of the Theros gods, or Arixmethes, Slumbering Isle, but those exceptions are few and far between, and most of the time it's hard to argue that a building, a weapon, or a land can actually lead your army. Sorry cards like Genju of the Realm, Elbrus, the Binding Blade, and Westvale Abbey (or even Dark Depths). They're not the same thing as a thinking person right out of the gate, like we have with Planeswalkers. Heck, the majority of the Legendary Permanents that become Legendary Creatures are Planeswalkers (I'm looking at you, Gideon and Sarkhan).

From a purely flavor perspective, there's no reason a Planewalker couldn't do just as well as a Legendary Creature as your Commander. The fact that eleven Planeswalkers already are doesn't hurt, either (more if you count the six creatures that transform into planeswalkers).

The Resonance of Planeswalkers

I think what's most disappointing to me is about the discussion of Planeswalker Commander is, despite it being one of the hottest topics in Commander recently thanks to War of the Spark, there is unanimously opposition among the RC and CAG. Without any advocates in a position to do anything about it, it falls to fans to make themselves heard, for years if we have to. It can take a very long time to get any kind of traction on an issue in Commander, so make yourself heard... as politely as possible. Don't attack the RC or CAG over this. They're not villains by any stretch of the imagination. What I'm suggesting is to take advantage of Rule 0. Show up with Planeswalker decks and ask to play them. Make your case. Don't play the degenerate ones. Get more and more people comfortable with the idea. So much of the opposition to Planeswalkers as Commanders is a lack of normalization and the fear of boogeymen cards that would have to be banned. Dispel those with your playgroups.

Part of the reason it's so important is because of the resonance planeswalkers have with the fan base. Planeswalker characters appear far more frequently than plane bound Legendary Creatures, and Planeswalkers have quickly become the face of the game over the last decade. Wizards of the Coast has long since pivoted to a focus on Planeswalkers, and to have the most popular casual format attempt to ignore them so completely is a feel-bad for new players (and many old players, for that matter). Players are on-boarded to the game these days with images of characters they can't choose as their avatars for Commander, despite the flavor of the format.

As Commander-specific events like Commander Weekend approach, and we await what 'Commander Variants' are in store (pun intended) as Wizards begins tracking Commander data, it feels like the smart move would be to align with the WotC strategy for engagement. Wizards of the Coast utilizes Planeswalkers front and center as part of their strategy to get people into seats at the LGS-level, so why isn't Commander capitalizing on that?

Things being good now doesn't guarantee success in the coming years, and it leaves more time for variant formats to come syphon off players, like Brawl or Oathbreaker. Those formats both allow or are focused on Planeswalkers. Telling people to just go play them isn't an effective strategy if you want people playing your format.

This isn't just an issue for the Rules Committee or the player base. Data on Commander, as a format, is scarce. EDHREC is about the only public source, and at best it's imperfect information, useful more for trends with the most enfranchised fans than hard data. Why can I find decklists for 'Unofficial' Commanders like the Nephilim, but not Planeswalkers? There are more Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God Commander decks on TappedOut.net alone than there are Maelstrom Archangel decks from all of EDHREC's data sources, but only the latter is searchable as a Commander. Like it or not, Rule 0 matters very little when the possibility isn't acknowledge in the tools we use.

So much of the debate around hot issues in Commander is because everyone is comparing their anecdotal experiences, which differ vastly between playgroups and where those games are played, from the Kitchen Table to Magic Fest. There's no (or at least very little) hard data anyone can point to, which is obviously a big problem. And it's a self-fulfilling problem, because we can't pull up the data on what the most enfranchised fans (those likeliest to abuse a Planeswalker Commander) would actually do with these decks, so we're left with the theoretical.

Titanic Brawl

With Wizards of the Coast now tracking Tickets for Commander Events, it feels like a pretty critical time for the format, given the existential threat posed by official Brawl support. Brawl is a WotC-created Commander variant that uses the Standard card pool and - importantly - allows the use of Planeswalkers as Commanders. With Brawl getting support in the insanely popular MTG Arena and paper Magic, there may come a day very soon where Brawl is the most played version of Commander. I guarantee you it's a data point that WotC will be watching closely.

Brawl might not do everything Commander can, but that steady influx of players that have felt assured since 2011's first Commander product? That's no longer a guarantee, and it doesn't make a lot of sense to me to turn off new players. New players won't understand why they can't convert their Brawl deck to a Commander deck without having to fundamentally change it. If the Commander is the player's avatar, telling people they have to change their avatar or get lost is a big problem.

Maybe the Rules Committee and Commander Advisory Group are fine with Commander settling in comfortably in its old age as the Legacy of Commander formats to the "Standard" Brawl, played by the most enfranchised fans and not many others. After all, that's essentially how it started on the Judge circuit. Commander isn't going to die anytime soon, but I'd love to see the kind of strategic planning that would keep the formant vibrant, not just stable, for another decade. If how to channel those Arena Brawl players into becoming paper Commander players isn't a priority of the RC and CAG right now, it really should be. The repercussions will be subtle and long-term. Planeswalker Commanders won't be the only solution, but they're certainly part of it.

Planeswalking Out

My proposal would be to just give it a test period. It feels like a missed opportunity to not have a trial period where the various fears can either be proven or disproven in the Commander zeitgeist. Are planeswalker Commanders the boogeymen we've been led to believe? Maybe, but we'll never know how much of the legitimate concerns are actually going to show up in a way that's more problematic than your average degenerate Legendary Creature as a Commander.

I nearly wrote a second article's length of content that went into the existing data of Planeswalkers in Commander. I had paragraphs of arguments about how little the boogeymen of Doubling Season or The Chain Veil show up Oathbreaker, a format that should be rife with Planeswalker abuse. And of how few planeswalkers have truly problematic emblems (a legitimate problem to deal with). Of how many of the anti-planeswalker arguments don't pass the sniff test because those standards aren't equally applied to legal Legendary Creatures (if you're concerned that Doubling Season enables instant wins, welcome to Commander).

The thing is, though, anyone could make those arguments, and I've been ranting for long enough. Many of the arguments against frustrate me, but I can't say there aren't legitimate and thoughtful ones, as well. My argument here isn't for any of that, but specifically about the stated goals of flavor resonance and the nature of a Commander as a player avatar. If those are really the goals of Commander, I would think at least one person among the CAG or RC would be pushing for it based on the flavor value alone. Maybe it was a lot to tackle from the start with War of the Spark, but my hope would be at least one member recognizes the potential value. Planeswalkers aren't going anywhere, and it's only going to get harder to implement them as time goes on.