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Commander: State of the Format

The Field of Rest Cemetary of the Green Mosque by Jean-Leon Gerome (1876). Selfie Preservation by Chris Seaman.

Happy New Year!

I’ve been writing about Commander since the beginning of 2017 for my blog “Commanderruminations.” I’ve covered topics ranging from strategy and tactics to deck construction, how to abuse new cards and even the occasional philosophical piece. Every week’s article has even included a piece of artwork that married a classic painting with the artwork from a Magic card.

I’ve also been playing Commander exclusively for years and have just wrapped up my second year of running a successful league at my local game store — NexGen Comics in Pelham, New Hampshire. I play anywhere from 5-8 games a week, and try to play to the level of competitiveness of the table I’m at. That means I have a few strong decks, a few weak decks and a lot of decks that I like to call “midrange”. I play, write about, and think about the format of Commander an awful lot.

To kick off the new year I’ve decided to try to take the pulse of Commander as a format in my first ever “State of the Format” article.

The State of the Format

Protean Hulk
Wizards of the Coast has shown an increased focus on creating new cards that are meant to be “good” in our format, and these new cards are showing up across all of their products. Commander matters, and it matters to more than just casual players gathered around kitchen tables playing multiplayer games over pizza and beer.

One measure of progress is the growth of the online community. This past Thanksgiving, the Facebook group “Magic The Gathering — EDH Commander” went over 30,000 members. The Reddit group /r/EDH has over 40,000 members and for those of a more competitive mindset, /r/CompetitiveEDH is over 10,000 Spikes strong.

Numbers are somewhat meaningless when looked at on their own. The Facebook Group “Magic the Gathering Rocks my World” has over 38,000 members, and “Magic: The Gathering” has over 20,000 members. The Commander groups clearly stand tall alongside the other major Magic social media groups.

The size of social media groups isn’t the only way to measure a format’s prominence. When I first got into Commander, I got hooked into listening to Commandercast every week. Now I can listen to hours of online content from multiple sources all devoted to this wonderful format every single week. Between The Command Zone, The Commander’s Brew, Commanderin’, The Mana Pool and Commander Cookout, I’m swimming in podcasts and I’m sure there are more that I just haven’t found yet. There are also countless online gameplay videos, articles, primers, and tutorials for Commander players to enjoy regardless of how experienced or competitive they are.

The Commander Rules Committee has shown a willingness to ban Leovold, Emissary of Trest and unban Protean Hulk. I take this as an indication that they are willing to have an active role in shaping the format. You can’t interact without cards, and banning Leovold is about promoting interactive gameplay that’s fun for everyone — not just the Leovold player. Protean Hulk’s unbanning feels like a nod to the cEDH community and an indication that they don’t mind having that level of power available “in the 99”.

There is a place for powerful cards in the format. Powerful cards win games more quickly. While some players prefer longer games, the speed of decks has nothing to do with the fun players have, so long as those players are mostly on the same page about what kinds of Commander games they want to play.

The choice by Wizards of the Coast to produce tribal precon decks in 2017 is clearly a nod to the more casual Commander players in the community. Nobody built tribal cats to crush their playgroup before this year, and one might argue that things haven’t changed much since the release of Feline Ferocity. The goal in Commander has always been both to win and to have fun, with each group responsible for finding their own balance between many playstyles available to use in the format. That hasn’t changed, and tribal precon decks are a strong indication that it isn’t likely to change any time soon.

All things considered, I think Commander is in a fantastic place right now.

The Elephant in the Room

Cyclonic Rift
It should go without saying that for every person who read what I wrote above and agreed enthusiastically, there will probably be someone who is dissatisfied in some way with something about the format, the rules committee, or their own experience playing Commander. When you go online it’s incredibly easy to find players who have played hundreds of games and write as if their experience represents some “truth” about Commander as a format.

Some players think combo is ruining the format.

Others think fast mana, tutors or one-sided effects like Cyclonic Rift need to be banned.

Lots of people think the infect count should be doubled because our life totals are doubled.

Everyone has an opinion about some facet of Commander and most of them have convinced themselves that their view is an accurate assessment of the format as a whole.

Me?

I think it’s complicated.

I think the elephant in the room is Commander, and the problem is that we’re blind men and women trying our best to figure out what exactly we’re dealing with.

I am referring to a parable from ancient India that tells the story of a group of blind men who encounter an elephant and argue with each other over what it is that they have found. An ear feels like a fan, a leg feels like a tree trunk, the side feels like a wall, the trunk seems like a snake, and so on. As with any fable, there are many variations. Sometimes the blind men come to blows. Sometimes it’s just the middle of the night and they aren’t even blind.

The message is simple. Some things are so big and so varied that one person can only truly grasp the part that is in front of them.

For me or for anyone else to pretend to be able to tell you what the “state of the format” might be is ridiculous.

I have played and helped to organize hundreds of games over the past year with a wide range of players and decks but my experience in the format might be wildly different from yours. If I see a Cyclonic Rift multiple times in every game I play, that doesn’t mean it’s an issue in the format — it just means that my playgroup has a lot of Cyclonic Rifts and I’d better learn to play around them or against them.

I do think Commander is in a great place right now, but that’s largely because I’m fairly happy with my league, my home playgroup, the decks I get to build, the artwork I’m creating every week, and the articles I’ve been writing.

Things aren’t perfect. I’m in the middle of a decently long run of pretty crappy games and some pretty bad nights of Commander, but these things happen. I love the multiplayer game and enjoy socializing with friends old and new over a game of Commander. I can’t imagine playing any other format, even when the mana isn’t flowing quite right, variance is having its way with me and I feel like I can’t win a game for anything.

Six Blind Elephants

While reading the wikipedia article about the elephant parable, I came across an interesting joke.

Six blind elephants were discussing what men were like. After arguing they decided to find one and determine what it was like by direct experience. The first blind elephant felt the man and declared, 'Men are flat.' After the other blind elephants felt the man, they agreed.

Most of us are like the blind men in the old fable. We are trying to figure out what’s going on with a format of Magic that we sometimes struggle with but mostly enjoy a great deal.

When you go online it is incredibly easy to find people who act like the elephants in the “six blind elephants” joke. They crush whatever they encounter and revel in seeing how much angst and upset they can cause in social media forums. They will tear apart Wizards of the Coast, the quality of “precon” decks, the decisions made by the Rules Committee, and anyone who plays the format in a way they don’t agree with or respect.

These people create toxic environments that are genuinely bad for the community and by extension, for the format, but every critic isn’t a troll and every naysayer isn’t wrong. Just because someone gives you a hard time or disagrees with you doesn’t mean they’re a troll.

Shape Your Experience

Your experience of Commander is going to be shaped by the people you play with and by the individuals you interact with. It’s easy to forget that you are ultimately in control of this.

If there are people you simply don’t enjoy playing Commander with, you can try to play with those people less. I would encourage you to try to expand your game and learn to be able enjoy playing with and against all types of decks, but sometimes the right decision is going to be to change up your playgroup.

Your online experience of Commander is even more under your control. While some would urge you to never block anyone on a social media platform, I’m going to take the opposite approach. I think you should block anyone that demonstrates to you that they are more interested in trolling than in engaging in genuine, honest conversations. They aren’t worth your time and will just sour your experience of the community, and indirectly, of the format.

The state of the format is yours to shape. I want you to have the best year of Commander you’ve ever had, but accomplishing that is up to you.

Make the most of the opportunities you get.

Play with the folks you most enjoy playing with. Be open to changing your play style, but also be honest with yourself and your friends about the kinds of games you most enjoy. Communication is key, and is the best way to make sure your playgroup stays healthy.

Block the trolls and avoid the misanthropes unless they’re the kind of content producers you enjoy, in which case have at it, ya big jerk.

Thanks for reading, and I hope to bring you many more articles about Commander in the coming year. They will range in content and in quality, but I will strive to make them as entertaining and insightful as possible week in and week out.

Happy New Year, everyone! Have fun in 2018. There will certainly be plenty of fun to be had.


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