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In Defense of Commander Damage

Landscape with Ruins, attributed to George Lambert (18th c.). Ensnaring Bridge by Titus Lunter.

When I learned about Commander, I remember being told a few basic things. You usually played with a group of people. You started with 40 life. Your deck was 100 card singleton with a Commander who started in a “command zone”. If you took 21 points of combat damage from any one Commander you were dead, even if you would otherwise have still been alive.

My entry into the format was a slow one. I built a Mirko Vosk, Mind Drinker mill deck which won a few games but wasn’t particularly competitive. When Wizards of the Coast released the 2013 Commander precon decks I picked up the Marath, Will of the Wild deck and proceeded to build a bad Timmy deck around Mayael the Anima.

I don’t even remember exactly what decks I was playing in 2014, but it took until 2015 before I got really hooked into Commander. It was then that I started building decks around commanders like Zurgo Helmsmasher and Narset, Enlightened Master. It was then that I discovered the wonders of commander damage.

In Defense of Commander Damage

I listen to hours of Commander podcasts every week and I particularly look forward to each episode of The Command Zone. Hosts Josh Lee Kwai and Jimmy Wong put on a great show with engaging guests, interesting topics, and consistently high quality content. That doesn’t mean I always agree with them.

This past week I was disappointed to hear Josh and Jimmy discussing the thought that removing commander damage from the format might be a good idea. My takeaway was that they found it outdated and somewhat irrelevant to the format.

You can (and should) listen to the discussion in Command Zone Episode 201.

Apparently, they rarely see games won with commanders that focus on winning with commander damage. They see plenty of infect thanks to their friend, Craig Blanchette, but not that many Voltron decks.

I guess you only really know what you see in the games you play. I know Josh and Jimmy craft their on-screen game experiences so that the games are as entertaining and interesting as possible for their viewers. I have to assume that between their Game Knights matchups and their casual games, they just don’t have to deal with well-built voltron decks that often.

Today I’m going to do my best to do something I never thought I’d have to do — defend one of the most basic things that makes Commander such an interesting, varied and exciting format.

Today I’m going to defend the concept of commander damage.

Let’s start by imagining . . . 

Never Having to Count to 21

What would Commander without commander damage look like?

I play against a wide variety of decks both in casual games and in the Commander league I run. We see a small number of decks designed to kill you with their commander. They may be a minority, but we always know that any game could involve getting to 21 points of commander damage and playing against some opponents practically guarantees it. We’ve had to deal with the likes of Narset, Zurgo, Uril, the Miststalker, Bruna, Light of Alabaster and others. My Multani, Maro-Sorcerer deck is a voltron build that I haven’t yet played in our league, but when I do I expect to get a few commander damage kills over the course of a month.

In any game, if someone shoots their life total too high we always know that commander damage is a way to deal with them. Otherwise they would just run away with the game. If we didn’t have commander damage as an option, I would expect more decks to focus on life gain.

If you can gain enough life and your opponents no longer have the option of getting 21 Commander Damage to kill you, it pretty much forces players to either combo off, mill you out or use infect to kill you.

Mikaeus, the Unhallowed

If opponents went with combo, they might have to do infinite damage, so combos like Mikaeus, the Unhallowed / Triskelion and Exquisite Blood / Sanguine Bond could become auto-includes. An arbitrarily high life total can be always be dealt with by dealing an arbitrarily high amount of damage.

Exquisite Blood
Sanguine Bond

Mill is not a great strategy in Commander, but it can also work. If you can remove your opponent’s deck, whether by exiling an opponent’s library with someone like Oona, Queen of the Fae or by dumping their library into their graveyard, it doesn’t matter how high their life total is. If they go to draw a card and don’t have a library to draw from, they lose . . .  or possibly win because they managed to sneak Laboratory Maniac into play.

The last and possibly most salt-inducing way to deal with an opponent with infinite life is to kill them with infect. Ten poison counters will finish off an opponent even if their life total is up in the stratosphere. Our Commander league uses 13 and many groups use more, but it’s still a viable option when facing an opponent with an out-of-control life total.

If commander damage went away and then we saw a surge in decks that focus on life gain, we might well see an increase in decks running combo, infect and maybe even mill.

I think it’s safe to say that the community doesn’t particularly want to see an increase in the use of combo and infect. Mill isn’t effective enough to be an issue. All three of these — combo, infect and mill — are fine parts of the game, but infect and combo are definitely a source of tension within the community.

Doing something that might increase the use of both infect and combo doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

I also don’t think players want less variety in our format.

The Spice of Life

Even if you don’t think the removal of commander damage would result in a surge in lifegain strategies and a resultant surge in the use of combo and infect, there are other reasons why removing it would be bad for the format.

It’s hard to argue that Commander players aren’t attracted to the format because of variety.

We can choose from nearly any cards from the entire history of Magic. We play in a format where there is room for nearly any style of play and nearly any type of deck.

If we were to remove commander damage, we would be killing an entire archetype of deck.

If that doesn’t sound like a big deal, let’s take a look at who would be going away.

Goodbye, Old Friends

Not only would we say goodbye to an archetype, we would be saying goodbye to a whole bunch of powerful commanders.

Bruna, Light of Alabaster
Lazav, Dimir Mastermind
Narset, Enlightened Master

Rafiq of the Many
Shu Yun, The Silent Tempest
Sigarda, Host of Herons

Uril, the Miststalker
Zurgo Helmsmasher

You may not have faced all of these decks, but you’ve probably faced a few of them. My guess is that not one of them would remain viable if these legendary creatures had to deal 40 damage to each opponent. It can be hard enough to get 21 damage on one opponent, much less the entire table. These guys make it easier, but it’s still far from an easy thing to do in Commander.

It should be noted that I didn’t even mention Godo, Bandit Warlord, Atarka, World Render, Nazahn, Revered Bladesmith, Balan, Wandering Knight or any of the new Dominaria commanders. I’m sure I missed some other popular voltron generals and I’d be surprised if we don’t get a few new commander damage options to build around as soon as next month.

I also didn’t include Animar, Soul of Elements, Prossh, Skyraider of Kher or Marath, Will of the Wild. There are lots of commanders that can win games with commander damage but also support other strategies. They would still see play, but any commander who exclusively wins by counting to 21 would probably just no longer get played as a commander.

Not only would we no longer see these commanders, lots of us would be in the unenviable position of choosing whether or not to retire some of our decks.

I would probably retire Narset, Lazav, and Multani. I suspect most players with a dozen or more decks have at least two or three builds that rely heavily or exclusively on commander damage to win games. Maybe I wouldn’t have to retire those decks, but if they were going to be hopelessly crippled when compared to other strong decks, I would probably at least consider retiring them.

Goodbye to a Fair Strategy

It might seem ridiculous to suggest that dealing 21 commander damage to kill an opponent is “fair”, but it’s worth reminding ourselves of what else is out there in the format.

When you deal in commander damage, you are eliminating one opponent at a time.

Voltron generals often have hexproof and evasion, and usually load themselves up with all manner of equipment and auras to get the job done. They also play pump spells, load up on extra combats and turns, and play defensive spells that punish anyone wanting to go wide. That still doesn’t make it easy, but it makes it a viable strategy if you want to try to win games.

Even with all that, you’re still eliminating one opponent at a time.

What that means is that the voltron player can usually kill at least one opponent, often with alarming speed.

While that might not seem fair, they’re giving everyone else a chance to find answers. Those answers might be hard to find and woefully insufficient, but that’s not nothing. Lots of decks don’t even give you the courtesy of a single turn to try to answer the threat they’re presenting.

The voltron player isn’t landing a two-card infinite combo and ending the game right then and there. They aren’t making infinite mana and using it to do horrible things to everyone. They’re just knocking off their opponents one at a time and daring you to find a way to stop them.

Strong voltron decks led by capable and experienced Commander players can be very hard to deal with but I’d rather die from 21 commander damage than from some cheap infinite combo that nobody happened to have an answer to.

The Good News

There are those who complain endlessly about the Commander rules committee.

I’m very happy to report that I reached out to Sheldon Menery about this issue. Sheldon is a member of the Commander Rules Committee and is a retired level five judge and avid Commander player.

When asked if the Rules Committee had ever seriously entertained the idea of removing commander damage from the format, Sheldon’s response was just four words long.

“Not in the slightest.”

The sense I got from Josh Lee Kwai is that Wizards of the Coast might prefer that the format was closer to Constructed formats like Modern and Standard. Removing commander damage would do that, but I don’t think Josh’s sources within WoTC fully appreciate the harm they would be doing to the format if such a change was made.

Fortunately, whatever you might think of the bannings and unbannings of cards in Commander, the format is in good hands and the R.C. has never seriously entertained the idea of removing commander damage.

Final Thoughts

Please don’t take this article as being a condemnation of Josh Lee Kwai and Jimmy Wong.

They’re fantastic podcasters, are incredibly dedicated to promoting and supporting the Commander format and just don’t happen to play against any voltron decks.

I had an entire month earlier this year in our Commander League where I was trading off wins between my Narset deck and a friend’s Bruna deck. Folks were dying from 21 commander damage all over the place, and we weren’t the only ones playing voltron.

If I had the ability to somehow inspire players who happen to play with Josh and Jimmy to go out of their way to start playing busted voltron decks, I think it would be a wonderful eye-opener for them. It is a fun and challenging deck archetype to build and to play. It might even do them some good if they both took a crack at building a deck or two that was devoted to winning by commander damage. It makes for a different kind of game experience and it’s a essential part of the format. Commander wouldn’t be commander without it.

If YOU run a deck that is designed to win by Commander damage, I’d love to hear about it!

Who do you run, and what are some of your favorite tricks to get the job done?

If you’d like to keep up with how I’m doing in my casual and Commander League games, feel free to visit I’m poised to probably win my first month of League this year, playing mono-red goodstuff, led by Ashling the Pilgrim. I share stories about both my league and casual games on that site every Sunday morning.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next week!

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