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A Look Back at 2020: the Year of Commander

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Venice: the Grand Canal from the Rialto to the Palazzo Foscari by Giovanni Antonio Canal (1730). Emrakul by Mark Tedin.

It's been quite a year.

While I had originally planned to just push out another decklist column this week, it felt wrong to not pause to look back on what has been an extraordinary twelve months. I'm going to meander a bit more than usual, but if you're a longtime reader I'm sure you expect nothing less. The sooner I get started, the sooner I can put 2020 in my rear-view mirror, so let's get rolling.

An Optimistic Start

The Theros Beyond Death expansion hit us in January and we started the year with a slew of new cards and a new appreciation for the Devotion mechanic. I wound up building Renata, Called to the Hunt and played it off and on for a few months, but didn't love it enough to keep the deck together.

Renata, Called to the Hunt
Heliod, Sun-Crowned
Thassa's Oracle

While I love Devotion, the biggest splash was probably at the cEDH end of our format. Not only did white get what might be its first viable cEDH commander in Heliod, Sun-Crowned, we also saw the format change with the introduction of Thassa's Oracle. "Thoracle" is now the payoff for an incredible number of cEDH decks, combining with Tainted Pact or Demonic Consultation to present a hard-to-deal-with winning play. This might have been the biggest change to the cEDH meta since Flash was banned.

I had been running a very popular EDH league at NexGen Comics, the LGS I play at, for a few years and I was able to win the league's first month of the 2020 season. We saw some of the highest turnout we had ever seen in the first few months of the year and were regularly seeing two rounds of play with five or six tables playing Commander every Saturday afternoon. Things were going really well and our little community was growing.

The beginning of the year saw the release of Unsanctioned and Mystery boosters, but those products didn't spark my interest. I loved the Unsanctioned basic lands but wasn't about to order multiple copies of that product just to get enough to be able to fill out one of my decks with them. I loved the idea behind the Mystery boosters, but have enough of a collection at this point that I wasn't keen to open up packs and see how many of the cards wound up being newer copies of ones I already had.

I was aware of news coming out of China that there was another disease outbreak but I had managed to get through my life without being affected by SARS or bird flu or ebola or any other random foreign epidemics, so it didn't really register as something I'd need to worry about.

Little did I know...

Shutdown

All that positive energy and community building was short lived. By the time Spring rolled around we were coping with the COVID-19 global pandemic. In March, Wizards of the Coast announced that they were not going to allow sanctioned events in game stores. The move made all the sense in the world, but was also met with resistance from players who didn't fully appreciate the seriousness of the situation.

I remember being brought into a zoom call with our LGS' owners, Stephen and Mike Hinkle, along with local judge Bryan Li and a number of other key figures in our little corner of the MtG world. We discussed what we could do to try to safely keep some activity going at the store, and whether it was a good idea to encourage masked gamers to play unsanctioned games. We eventually decided the EDH league should go on hiatus.

Our region went into a shutdown for what felt like a lifetime. I live in New England, and while we seemed to take mask-wearing and social distancing more seriously than some parts of the U.S., we still went for months without being able to do much more than go to the grocery store for food and other necessities.

Players started looking for ways to play Commander online. I tried out Cockatrice but eventually fell in love with Tabletop Simulator to get some games in. Lots of players moved their gaming over to Arena, though that didn't provide a way for us to play EDH with our friends.

I was acutely aware that a long shutdown could result in local game stores simply going out of business. The margins when running a comic and game shop aren't that big, and most of us have no idea how far our favorite stores are from running in the red or just shutting down. The LGS I call home actually did a kickstarter to try to get some renovations done while they had to be closed, and I did my best to help out with it.

This was a pretty depressing few months, but it was also a time when lots of us suddenly found ourselves with more time on our hands. This past year I wound up completing a long list of minor projects around the house that I had been thinking about doing. I can also say that this was the first year my wife and I managed to successfully turn our back yard into a regularly used living space. Our grill and fire pit got more use in 2020 than ever before, and all it took was a global pandemic to get my us off the couch and out into nature, or at least into our back yard.

The Year of Commander

Did you know that 2020 was supposed to be The Year of Commander?

Wizards of the Coast was coming off what I have to assume was a successful experiment with Commandfests in late 2019 and had a plan to focus more on our format than ever before.

With a year that saw a shutdown of sanctioned play that continues to this day, Commander became a refuge for some players who were no longer able to gather and play their favorite constructed formats. Friday Night Magic and stores filling up with Standard, Pioneer and Modern players hoping to get ready for the next MagicFest became a thing of the past. Lots of players moved to online play, but some also started checking out Commander for the first time.

I don't have hard data telling me that the players who were wearing masks and patronizing game stores were commander players, but my experience tells me that was the case. I don't know how many stores out there stayed open because their commander community helped keep them afloat. With sanctioned play shut down for most of the year I think it stands to reason that there must be cases where we were the ones that made the difference. Sadly, I'm also sure that there were plenty of stores that either shut down or are going to have to shut down before this is all over.

Nethroi, Apex of Death
Kalamax, the Stormsire
Lutri, the Spellchaser

On a more upbeat note, for the first time we saw Commander decks released in conjunction with an expansion set: Ikoria, Lair of Behemoths. These decks introduced some exciting new mechanics and a lot of spicy new legendary creatures for us to brew around. I built a few versions of Nethroi, Apex of Death, and our local meta saw a bunch of Kalamax, the Stormsire decks, some of which are even seeing play in cEDH pods.

One of the biggest surprises to me this year was that Magic created an ability called Companion that seemed to be meant to give other formats a little of the special flavor that we have in Commander. The execution of this idea was so poorly done that one of the cards, Lutri, the Spellchaser, was banned immediately and another had a companion ability that simply wouldn't function in Commander. I still maintain that the Commander RC should have ruled that the Companion ability just doesn't work in our format, but instead we have a wonderful little Otter that can't see legal play as a commander (#freelutri).

Towards the end of the year Commander Legends introduced the first draftable set designed specifically for commander players. An admittedly very minor tragedy of a year filled with very real tragedies was how many of us never got the chance to draft Commander Legends because of the pandemic.

Ukkima, Stalking Shadow
Winota, Joiner of Forces
Hullbreacher

The cEDH end of our format saw cards in 2020 that made a splash. Beyond Heliod and Thassa's Oracle, Ukkima, Stalking Shadow presented us with a new way to win with Food Chain, and Winota, Joiner of Forces was the first Boros legendary to see competitive play in a long time. Ikoria gave us some free-to-cast spells in Fierce Guardianship and Deflecting Swat and Commander Legends gave us Hullbreacher and Opposition Agent.

Was 2020 the year that Commander saved local game stores?

Was 2020 the Year of Commander only because nobody could play any other format in person?

All I know is that I had vowed to go to a yearly Commandfest because my experience down in DC in 2019 was fantastic and I knew I had to make that an annual thing. There was no Commandfest in 2020, and it's very hard to predict what is going to happen in 2021.

Partners, Partners Everywhere

Another big surprise in 2020 was that we not only saw some new partner pairs early in the year, we also saw a ridiculous number of new mono-colored legendary creatures with the partner keyword in Commander Legends.

There is nothing quite as fun as being able to find some new or old legendary creature that you had never seen before and brewing up a neat new deck. With Commander Legends bringing us dozens of new creatures with the partner keyword, we now have an incredible number of possible pairings to build around. I don't think it will take long for the most powerful pairings to get found and "solved" but I love the fact that you could build new partner decks every week for a year and still have tons of new pairings to try out at the end of it.

Kediss, Emberclaw Familiar
Eligeth, Crossroads Augur
Jeska, Thrice Reborn

There is so much diversity now amongst legendary creatures with partner that it's pretty easy to find something you can build around. I've always been fond of decks that try to win with commander damage, so Kediss, Emberclaw Familiar really spoke to me. I've also long been a fan of cards that take something good and make it great, and Eligeth, Crossroads Augur turns a scry into card draw. I have yet to build my Eligeth tribal scry deck but I've got a funny feeling it's going to happen eventually. Not only have I won games with new legendary partners, I've also been murdered by them. A buddy of mine just the other week knocked me on my ass with a triple damage attack using Jeska, Thrice Reborn. I've also been meaning to put Jeska into a deck but I simply haven't gotten around to it yet.

Low Points

It might seem silly to look back on the low points of 2020 in a year in which we were coping with a global pandemic and game stores were shuttered in many areas for months. Still, I think to put the year in perspective we need to look at both the good and the bad.

Our inability to properly play Jumpstart or draft Commander Legends definitely jumps out at me. I sincerely hope that there is some plan to do both ideas again even if they probably didn't have the impact they would have had if it had been a more normal year. That wasn't Wizards of the Coast's fault.

The issues around the companion mechanic definitely were WotC's fault. That screw-up might be less impactful for others, but I went and built a Lutri, the Spellchaser deck and found that little otter was a lot of fun to play with out of the command zone. It's a pity it can't see play, but that's not even the biggest debacle of the year.

There were a bunch of interesting Secret Lair products, some of which I even bought, but the fly in the punch bowl that was 2020 has to have been the Walking Dead Secret Lair release. Wizards had a precedent in place from the Godzilla versions of cards but inexplicably decided that Magic needed non-Magic cards added to our card pool.

This Secret Lair release upset people who care about the implications of releasing playable cards outside of expansion sets and forcing players to have to buy Secret Lair releases as the only way to get them. It pissed off people who respect and care about the story and the lore that ties together characters and storylines from 20 years of the game's history. It annoyed players who resent the possibility of Commander becoming a glorified game of Smash-Up where we'll be playing four player games with Negan, Rambo, Veronica Mars and a Rick & Morty partner deck or some other such nonsense. It even pissed off people who know the story of The Walking Dead and don't like a figure they see as being a rapist being run out of the command zone. "Nice Negan deck, is it rapist tribal or just generic Mardu value?" I'm not even kidding - this is the kind of question I can see someone asking if they're looking across the table at a Negan deck and they're still bothered by this whole mess.

The pity of it all is that Wizards could have released some new cards in one of the many sets put out this year and then put out a Secret Lair set with those cards "re-skinned" as Walking Dead characters (hopefully minus Negan). Some players might have been less than thrilled but it wouldn't have gotten anywhere near the same reaction. It's just baffling that they made this misstep and one can only hope they learn from this mistake, if they even view it as such.

High Points

This has been a rough year, but there has also been a lot of good in it. As I said, I've been enjoying my admittedly small back yard more than ever before and I've done more household projects this year than in any the previous 10 or even 15 years as a homeowner. I've also had a lot of great things happen in the world of Magic.

While I didn't get to go to a CommandFest in 2020, I was able to get involved in helping out with the Commandercast podcast. Mark Mahler joined me down in DC in 2019 and we kept in touch.

Over the past year I've helped Mark and Adam out by outlining and recording "filler" episodes with Mark for the guys to use on weekends where they're not able to get together and record a regular episode. We've had interesting conversations about cEDH with friend and judge Bryan Li, about running an EDH Facebook Group with Andrew Webber, founder of the Facebook group Magic The Gathering EDH-Commander, and more. It's been great to be able to help out with the longest running EDH podcast in the world. It's been my favorite podcast for years, and hopefully I've been able to contribute something positive to it.

I've also found a small group of players who I have been playing Commander with every week using Tabletop Simulator. We've developed a pretty good little group, the games are generally fun, and it was great to have games to play during the months that everything was shut down. Zach, Mike, Vin and Mason helped keep me sane during some difficult months this year. I was disappointed to not see more people from my local meta able to take the leap to online play, but I think the reality is that some people just won't make that leap.

While I was never able to get our EDH League up and running in online play, I'm grateful for the group I fell into and the many fun Tabletop Simulator games I've been able to play this year.

New Experiences

This has been a crazy year to be sure, but I never expected that I would close out the year thinking quite so much about acrylic paints and paint brushes.

For years I've been a fan of card alters and was constantly thinking up new ideas for card alters I wanted to commission. My problem was simply that I didn't want to underpay an artist, but I also didn't want to shell out the money that truly great artists deserve to be paid. Alters aren't cheap, or at least they certainly shouldn't be.

At the tail end of 2020 I finally decided I would take an old Krosan Drover and try my hand at turning it into a "Krosan Grover." The wordplay amused me to the point where I couldn't get the idea out of my head, so finally I gave in. If I ruined the card, it's not like I was working on a dual land or a Gaea's Cradle, right?

Not only did the result come out better than I thought it would, but I had friends telling me that they wanted one I wound up doing the two shown above for myself and then a bunch more.

Since Krosan Drover is a common and nearly every LGS in the world has been hurting for business, I decided to draw up eight additional Krosan Grovers and I donated them to NexGen Comics to hopefully bring them a little more business in the run-up to the holidays. Doing eight at once was time consuming but it also gave me something I dearly needed: practice painting cards. My work is still sloppy and my lettering is pretty bad compared to professional alterists, but you only get better by working at it.

My next step was to try to do an alter I had wanted done for a few years. I tried my hand at a "Groot" alter of one of my favorite commanders: Multani, Maro-Sorcerer. Apparently this is a thing I can do now. I'm already working on a few more and I have to say, it is incredibly exciting to finally be learning how to alter cards. I always knew it was something I could probably learn how to do, but actually devoting the time to it has been incredibly fulfilling.

Looking Forward

It's hard to be too positive at this point, given that we're still in the throes of a global pandemic, but I think there is a lot to look forward to. The lack of sanctioned play in 2020 may have resulted in an increase in the number of Commander players. The fact that they were willing to devote a year to having an increased focus on our format seems to indicate that Wizards recognizes how popular and influential Commander has become.

I can't imagine Wizards won't continue to cater to the interests of their largest player base. I have no idea how that will translate into actual product releases, but I'd be surprised if we don't see another Commanderfest either in late 2021 or in 2022. I would also be surprised if we don't continue to see additional Commander-focused products.

With an influx of competitive players from other formats and a slow but continued increase in power level in cards, I think there is a greater argument than ever before for a split between EDH and cEDH. I don't know how such a change would be handled, and I know there are a lot of arguments against such a change, but to me it feels somewhat inevitable.

Wizards isn't going to stop making new cards that are playable in cEDH, so it stands to reason that the top end of our format will simply get faster and more interactive. There was a time when "high-powered" decks were the top end of the competitive spectrum. Now they exist in this weird space where they aren't really able to keep up with cEDH but they also have a hard time playing at more casual tables. Rule zero conversations have never been more important.

I don't predict a split in the coming year, but it feels like something that eventually will have to happen. The Rules Committee will more and more be in the position of having to ban cards that are wrecking casual games, but which are fine in cEDH. They may also find themselves in the position where they have to look at a card like Thassa's Oracle and consider whether or not it is good for the health of cEDH to have so many decks running headlong towards that same two-card finish line. Even if different decks get to their "Thoracle" win in different ways, as a mostly casual player it feels really stale to see the same outcome again and again when I play in cEDH games.

I'm still very much looking forward to the next Commandfest and I'm hoping to be able to keep contributing to Commandercast. I'm one of those people who very much wants to be part of things that are way bigger than myself. Commandfest and Commandercast both make me feel that way. I'm also very curious how far I will get into altering cards and how much my painting skill will improve. I'm often stunned by the work done by professional card alterists and don't really expect to ever be doing them for anyone other than myself, but I have to wonder how good I can get.

I'm also starting to imagine starting up our next EDH League season. We used to run our 12-month season from January to December, but I could easily see us pivot to a July to June year with a midseason potluck around the turning of the new year. I always wanted to do a summer barbeque with that group and having our year shift by 6 months would give me a great excuse to do just that.

Final Thoughts

Today's column was as much of a personal story as it was a rundown of the cards and developments that made up the past year in Commander, but given how much Commander-related product we were given in 2020, I'm not sure I could give you a full rundown in a single article. I haven't even dug into the many Commander Legends non-partner commanders that found their way into our command zones towards the tail end of this year.

Thalisse, Reverent Medium
Archelos, Lagoon Mystic
Gnostro, Voice of the Crags

I've been working on a Thalisse, Reverent Medium deck and have been thinking of building and writing about both Archelos, Lagoon Mystic and Gnostro, Voice of the Crags. Kaldheim is right around the corner and I'm pretty sure I'm still going to be working through ideas from Commander Legends for months to come. That's honestly a great problem to have and I can only hope that I get to play these many new decks before another shutdown or stay-at-home order happens.

If I can leave you with one thought to wrap up 2020, it would be this.

You can do anything.

A few years ago I didn't know if I could successfully become a writer so I blogged for a year. My work and dedication opened a door at CoolStuffInc.com and I've been honored to be able to become a writer for them.

I used to think of major EDH podcasters as being something like celebrities, but I got to know Mark Mahler and over this past year I have been able to get involved in the Commandercast podcast in something of a support role. He and Adam do a great job, and I've been genuinely honored to be able to help them out with episodes that help fill in weeks when they aren't able to record.

I never imagined I'd be able to alter cards and end up with anything I'd be happy with. I started with some simple designs (muppets are nothing if not simple to draw) and I'm slowly working towards other styles and subjects that are helping me to get better. I still can't imagine being able to do anything on the level of what I consider to be a truly great alter, but it's fun and I can tell that I'm improving.

2020 might have been a stinker of a year, but it was also a year in which I was able to remind myself that with enough hard work and practice there's almost nothing I can't do.

Your road to setting up an EDH league (once things return to normal), becoming a writer, a podcaster or a card alterist might be easier or harder than mine, but if any of these things are dreams you've had; why not make 2021 the year that you take the next step down the path to making those dreams into reality?

That's all I've got for 2020. Thanks for reading and I'll see you in 2021!

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