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7 Questions: Bennie Smith, Author of The Complete Commander


You may know Bennie from his popular Commander column over on StarCityGames. It’s a Magic-lover’s column, not an I-love-to-win! column, often peppered with real-life vignettes and literary or pop-culture references. It’s a fun article series—approachable, about having a good time. It’s the series that made me want to try Commander. The deck I built? Child of Alara, a.k.a. “Baby Jesus and the Hydras.”

Last week, a lifelong dream came true for Bennie. He became a published author with the release of his how-to Commander book The Complete Commander.

In full color, designed by Gathering Magic’s own James Arnold (of guild cereal fame) and done with Wizards of the Coast’s blessing (so there are card images, set symbols, guild symbols, mana symbols, the works—woot for graphics!), the tome features deck-building for successful multiplayer experiences, original fiction pieces by writers I really respect, and essays by Commander fixtures Sheldon Menery and Adam Styborski, plus more . . . a lot more. Just as a game of Commander will gather a group of friends around the kitchen table for beers and beatdowns, The Complete Commander became a beacon for a diversity of community members who wanted to contribute.

I had the honor of functioning as Editor and Producer of The Complete Commander. The entire experience reflected everything I love about Magic and its vibrant community. And I wouldn’t have taken on this project for just anyone. Run it back a couple years. I was hovering around my kiosk in the lobby of a bank, pretending to attend to admin duties while I used company resources (a.k.a. the copy machine) to print out Gathering Magic and StarCityGames articles so I could read them while looking like I was doing reconciliations.

I happened to read Bennie’s article that day, and in it, he mentioned how it would be cool to have a sketch of Force of Nature holding Old Fogey’s cane and yelling, “Stay off my Llanowar!” Bennie had, of course, tied in personal material in the article—family issues and aging, and this integrated Vorthos approach really appealed to me. Since I had nothing more important to do that day except my job, I grabbed a company notepad and scribbled out a sketch such as Bennie had described, PDF’d it, and sent it to him, hoping it would be a nice piece of fan mail.

The next week, I was reading articles (at work) again, and I clicked on Bennie’s column. To my extreme shock, I saw my sketch in the opening of his article. You can imagine, as a total Magic newb and aspiring artist and writer, how amazing this was for me. And Bennie had thanked me personally for the sketch in his article. Not too many high-profile writers show that kind of generosity of spirit. Bennie was one of the first people in the community to give me the time of day (let alone extend a sincere hand of friendship!), and since then, I’m happy to say nothing has changed. That’s the power of Magic.

Every week, writers put their all into their columns and try to teach and entertain, but only a few have the long-term dedication to writing about Magic and the true kindness of spirit that Bennie has. I wouldn’t produce a product I didn’t fully believe in, and I certainly wouldn’t endorse a product unless I thought it brought your dollars’ worth of value to the table. For six months, The Complete Commander has been my life, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed bringing it from idea to reality.

I hit Bennie up for seven questions, and I think you’ll find some great insights. If you’re curious about the book, check out the free preview available for download here: The Complete Commander Sampler.

Bennie "Stay Off My Llanowar!" Smith, Elder Sage of the Commander format, has been playing Magic since Unlimited was on the shelf. Bennie's deep history of professional writing about gaming includes Usenet, The Magic Dojo, Scrye magazine, Beckett Magic magazine, MagicTheGathering.com, and of course his much-beloved column over at StarCityGames.com. The 1999 Virginia State Champion, repeat States Top 8 finisher, and pioneer of the Dredge deck, Bennie regularly pilots over a dozen Commander decks and is the administrator of the Spirit of EDH Haymaker Award in Richmond, Virginia.

1. What was the hardest part about writing this book?

Not to get all Tom Petty on you, but the waiting is the hardest part. Yeah, the actual writing on the book took a lot of time and hard work, and then there was the proofing, the re-reading . . . but once the bulk of all that was done and we had to reach out to other folks for the business stuff and wait for news and for them to accommodate us in their schedules . . . well, it was necessary, but that was tough. But now the wait is over, and we get to share our beautiful baby with the world!

The Complete Commander exclusive Copy token by Inkwell Looter—we hope you print & use it! And if you happen to be at the March 1 Pro Tour Qualifier at Seattle Center, stop by my alter booth, and snag a freebie!

2. Were there any revelations about the format, yourself, or Magic in general while bringing this product to market?

I wrote my original EDH primer series over four years ago without a whole lot of thought about a unifying theme; my goal was just to churn out a bunch tips for beginners to help get them up to speed on playing EDH. Then, last year, I wrote an article in which I started thinking about "The Hero's Journey" storytelling concepts and how that applies to Magic in general and to Commander specifically. It changed the way I looked at Magic as a game, and when I decided to write this book, I knew that the storytelling aspect of Commander would be the central theme.

3. What keeps you inspired to write your column every week?

Magic is such a rich and complex game on so many levels that I can't help but be excited about it nearly every week. I love both the competitive and the casual sides of the game, so I find that there's always something to write about. You can find story threads in all aspects of the game—tournaments, shifting metagames, new card combos, Magic personalities, new Magic releases, Magic news, your local Magic friends and game shops, your Magic friends online through Facebook or Twitter. I try to keep an eye out for story threads I think my readers might enjoy, put them in the pot, and stir. Usually, by the time I've finished writing my column for the week, I already have an idea or two for what I'm going to write about next week, so I let that percolate in my brain for four or five days and then get to writing.

Even if the deadline is looming and I have no idea what I'm going to write about, once I sit down at the keyboard and start to write, things start to flow. There's the saying that writing—really any art I suppose—is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. The best way to come up with ideas to write about is to start writing and keep writing. Even if it's crap, just push through, and eventually, you'll stumble across the good stuff. Then, you trim away the crap before you send it to your editor! Also, I think when it comes to writing, momentum is a big thing—more writing begets more writing. I've been at this a long time, so I think my writing muscles are in top shape!

4. I know you're a big music, film, and TV buff—what are you watching and listening to lately? Do you have particular writing or deck-building go-to tunes?

Man, we have really entered into a golden age of television, with some top-notch storytelling and world-building everywhere you turn! I remember not that long ago when you'd find some precious nuggets of awesomeness—The Shield, Lost, Battlestar Galactica—and you'd hold on tight and revel in the deliciousness. Now that there are so many great shows to watch and very little time to watch them, my excitement over the shows I'm watching is tempered a bit by sadness over the shows I'm missing.

Here's what I'm grooving on right now: For top-notch viewing, of course I'm watching The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Justified, Mad Men, and American Horror Story. For laughs, I like New Girl and 2 Broke Girls. Nashville is soapy good times in all the right ways.

There are also some shows I think people aren't watching enough, of so let me convince you:

Sleepy Hollow Great chemistry between the leads makes this a surprise hit for me, on top of the nifty mythology they've been building up that ties the Revolutionary War to the impending Apocalypse. Of course, the Headless Horseman is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse! The show strikes the right tone of not taking itself too seriously so you don't feel compelled to pick at every little story thread that strains credibility.

Helix This creepy new show on SyFy does a neat job of combining elements horror that calls back to the original Alien movie, with the panic of a lethal disease outbreak and a dash of Lost mystery. Really excited to see where this one goes.

Revolution The first half of season one showed a lot of promise, but then the back half totally nose-dived. I know a lot of people tuned out and haven't come back, but the show regained its footing in season two and has really become an engaging show.

Being Human "A vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost are roommates trying their best to lead normal, human lives." This is a thoroughly entertaining show with great leads, nice plots twists, and a healthy dose of humor to temper the darkness.

True Detective Fantastic acting, the pacing is a slow burn, and the atmosphere is pure Louisiana gothic. Matthew McConaughey is putting in a stellar performance, and Woody Harrelson is knocking it out the park, too. The two leads are chock full of complexity and shades of gray; if you're a fan of storytelling, definitely check this out.

Teen Wolf The fact that it's on MTV and called "Teen Wolf" keeps this off most people's radar, but don't let either thing fool you. This is Buffy the Vampire Slayer 2014 (or pretty darn close). They have a Scoobie gang trying to lead normal, high-school lives while battling the supernatural. It has an attractive cast, decent acting, engaging storylines, high production values, creepy darkness with a dash of humor. And it keeps getting better each season.

Parenthood If you have children, this show is a must-see. It does such a great job capturing a multitude of family dynamics and is chock full of heartwarming moments as well as heartbreak. Plus, the huge cast is top-notch.

Shameless I love this show. The trick is to not be fooled into thinking this is a comedy. You're tempted to think that William H. Macy is supposed to be giving a comic performance, but once you realize that he's the antagonist and that the show is about all his children trying their best to survive having him for a father, it all clicks. It's a dark drama with some gallows/wartime humor thrown in. Top-notch performances from all the leads, and the crap they have to go through and somehow survive helps you realize your own life ain't so bad.

For music, I listen to a wide variety of stuff. I've always been a sucker for "college rock/alternative" stuff from back when I was a teenager and in my early 20s (REM, The Pixies, Screaming Trees, B-52s, Squeeze), but there's plenty of great music coming out every year that I dive into. Some bands I've recently downloaded on iTunes: The Pack A.D., Laura Marling, Passenger, Gipsy Kings, Walk off the Earth. Adrian Sullivan recently turned me on to PHOX—the lead singer's voice is pure sex, surrounded by superb musicianship.

5. If you could take an all-expenses paid dream vacay to anywhere in the Magic mutliverse, where would you choose?

I'm a sucker for the city, so I suppose I'd love to spend some time in Ravnica. Just imagine the museums, the concerts, the night life. We'd definitely need to go see the Nephilim Zoo! Do you think Liliana Vess would join me for a nightcap?

6. Who are your favorite new Commanders from the last couple years?

Vorel of the Hull Clade has turned into one of my favorite Commander decks in recent years. I'm also proud of the Rakdos, Lord of Riots Commander deck I built for my roommate; it has turned into a real powerhouse that's a ton of fun to play. I made a really cool Borborygmos Enraged deck that was mostly lands. And, of course, any fan of value creatures has to love Roon of the Hidden Realm!

7. What do you hope readers get from this eBook?

I hope they find a lot of enjoyment, learn a few things, and perhaps gain a new perspective on their love for the Commander format!

Till next time, may Magic be your swing with the team.



Special thanks to:

  • Robby Rothe
  • Adam Styborski
  • Sheldon Menery
  • AE Marling
  • Inkwell Looter
  • Andrew Rogers
  • Renee Hupp & Trevor Gulley
  • John Dale Beety
  • Natahlia Zaring
  • Ant Tessitore
  • All the amazing vignette writers and beta readers

"If you're only going to read one book about Commander, read this one. Bennie Smith cuts to the heart of the format and exposes it like no one else could."

—Sheldon Menery, Judge Emeritus and Co-founder of the Commander format

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