I get lots of questions about Commander on pretty much a daily basis. I considered that sometimes, there's a sameness to many of the answers because of the sameness of the target. To the end of providing you with more, varied, and more varied answers to the kinds of questions you have on your mind, only from someone else's perspective, I asked fellow Rules Committee (RC) member, dear friend, and fellow former Level 5 Judge Toby Elliott to take on the question-answering role. What I'd like to do here is provide Toby's answers to those questions and perhaps add a little commentary of my own on the side (attempting to keep the snark factor low).
Toby is a pretty humble person, so while he'll tell you some of the things he's done, it's up to me to tell you that he's arguably one of the most important judges in Magic history. It was my distinct pleasure to be able to promote him to L5, and when we served together, I felt like there wasn't much we couldn't accomplish given the resources we had available. But let's let him do the talking.
For those of you who don't know me, a brief introduction. I've been playing Magic continuously since Alpha, and Commander since Champions of Kamigawa . I'm also known in the Magic community as the Policy Person, as I help maintain the Tournament Rules and the Infraction Procedure Guide. I've been a judge since 2000, and still hold the record for most Pro Tours Head Judged ( guess whose record he broke?-S. ). I may have a Magic problem, but I also play board games, DDR, and League of Legends (but only ARAM! Embrace the Chaos!)
In my regular life, my wife and I live in Cambridge, Mass, where she's very patient with my hobby. I'm a Senior Developer at Amazon, building gigantic HR systems to cope with a workforce the size of a country.
Enough chatter. Questions! I got quite a few, so forgive me if space doesn't allow to get to all of them.
Lots of different people ask, "So, Brawl…"
Brawl seems great. I have no idea if it'll play well, but I'm a believer in people finding the random casual microformat that appeals to them. That's how Commander started. If there's an audience of people who love it, that's a win for everyone, and if there isn't, Wizards can try something else.
On the whole, it feels like it's going to be more Standard with Commander grafted onto it than vice-versa. The simplicity of building a deck is such a selling point and that's not something that Commander is known for.
Would I have done anything differently? I don't think I'd have bothered with the two "small" rules changes (planeswalkers and commander damage). I understand why they chose to do them, but it makes the messaging a little harder. "30-life, 60-card Standard Commander" is an easy pitch that they chose to eschew in favor of minor improvements.
Hien Nguyen asks, "I would like the Rules Committee to explicitly state their criteria for banning cards; and for the RC to be consistent with bannings. If you want it phrased as a question: Why are some cards banned but other similar cards aren't? (such Gifts Ungiven is banned, but Intuition isn't)."
Hrm…seems like we're not off to a great start on getting different questions-S.
Card banning is binary (it's banned or it isn't), but cards themselves aren't so cooperative. They fall on a continuum that stretches from completely safe to never ever. At some point along that continuum, there's a ban threshold. No matter where you set that, there will always be cards that fall just on one side or the other, and cards that may be superficially similar have enough differences to affect their placement. So while it might appear that we ban a card while endorsing another, that's just the binary overlay.
I'm always interested by the choice of "inconsistent" as an epithet. There isn't a science or a formal logic to be inconsistent with. (If one day we ban a card that has an identical-except-in-name alternative, then objection withdrawn.)
In the case of Gifts and Intuition, I'll note that the highlander nature of Commander makes Intuition weaker than it is in normal Magic play (where the most common scenario is to get three of the same card), while that same nature renders Gifts' drawback irrelevant. I believe Gifts is stronger in Commander, and they end up on different sides of the line.
Not surprisingly, there were several questions about individual bans.
Josh Bloch asks, "Given what you know now (almost a year later), would you still have unbanned Protean Hulk?"
Yes. It's played out as we hoped, a value engine that no longer sticks out too badly in a sea of value engines. I thought it would have a bit bigger impact on casual games, but people seem to have found the sweet spot for it.
Kevin Tran asks, "Will there be a continuous move to unban cards as the format demonstrates positive health consistently? Any considerations to unban Coalition Victory?"
We tend to be conservative when evaluating cards for both banning and unbanning. There is value in format stability, which does provide some incentive to seek reasons to make a change rather than doing so for change's sake.
Coalition Victory doesn't interact well with the format rules. The card essentially reads "do what you normally do over the course of a Commander game. At some point, win unless someone has an instant-speed response" without requiring you to throw in combo pieces or anything. That's not healthy for anyone in casual play. People who are facing a five-color deck have to constantly evaluate whether they can do anything other than deal with a potentially upcoming Coalition Victory. People running five-color decks find themselves unable to keep a commander (or worse, lands) because they might be running Coalition Victory. That's not a great place to be, and I'm not seeing any fun upsides to the card that might balance it out.
Swmystery asks, "Do you have a stance, for want of a better term, on Iona, Shield of Emeria being legal in Commander? Sheldon recently described the Rules Committee as "not unanimous enough to ban it" in one of his recent articles. Could we get your perspective?"
Iona's an obnoxious card, but I don't see what criteria we'd use to justify a ban. Gross things can happen at nine mana and the game is far from over when she's played. If you're locked out because you've built a monocolored deck (and building a monocolored deck always comes with some risks), it's time to get political and start cutting deals. If nobody will make a deal with you, well, maybe you were the big threat before Iona came down and it's time to be dragged back to the pack for a bit. That's a feature of multiplayer, not a bug.
Stephen Johnson asks, "Has the Rules Committee ever seriously entertained the idea of removing commander damage?"
I learned we were discussing it from the recent Command Zone podcast.
I could see us discussing it; the rule is sufficiently corner that it should be periodically evaluated to see if it's pulling enough weight. Ironically, them saying we're discussing it might cause us to do so. But there's a good chance that discussion is simply "Yep, it's fine."
My answer to this question is no, we've never seriously entertained the idea of removing commander damage. Sure, we have and will in the future discuss it, but that's a long way from a serious conversation-S.
Joshua Maxfield asks, "With respect to the increased power levels of answers as well as a more fleshed out format, is it time to go back to banned as commander for some cards?"
I've tried over the past few years to streamline the rules and focus on what's important. Each additional rule adds complexity to learning and/or communication. That's acceptable if the rule is doing a bunch of good and a negative if it's not.
The banned-as-commander list was keeping two cards legal some of the time. That's nice, but it's not much. There are a lot of rules we could write to make tweaks with that scope. They're not worth it.
Banned-as-commander comes back is if the value of the rule rises to the point where it justifies the space. If there's a dozen cards being kept out of decks, or a whole class of cards gets printed that needs the distinction, then we revisit it. Trends do not point in that direction, though.
Speaking of minor improvements...
Hugo Rios asks, "What is the RC's current opinion on Mindslaver-type effects? Some have asked for the owner to always be allowed to decide where their commander goes. What does the RC think?"
The first Mindslaver is great (and I say that as someone who got caught with Desolation Angel in hand once). More is not. Fixing the commander loophole is one of those adjustments that isn't worth the extra rule.
Fred Natusch asks, "Will infinite combos ever be restricted to only trigger a certain number of times? Is this even something the Rules Committee is interested in attempting to rectify?"
No. I don't think we'd try to fix this even if it was free.
Commander is a set of deckbuilding restrictions, a raised life total, and the instructions for adding an additional piece to an otherwise normal game of Magic. I'm really proud that we've gotten the rules to that point and want the rest to just be Magic.
Wizmin asks, "Have you guys (the RC) ever talked about implementing an official sideboard rule?"
Sideboards are a construct designed for competitive multigame tournaments. Since Commander isn't intended to be any of those things, I think it's best left to house rules for people who do want them.
And official, even optional, sideboard rules turned into cudgels for some players to bully others with into letting them have them. Getting rid of them was better for the broader community-S.
Sergey Orlov (among others) asks, "Brawl introduced planeswalkers as commanders. Any thoughts on synchronizing with Wizards and doing the same?"
We've talked about this several times, of course. I think letting all Planeswalkers be commanders ends up a net negative for the format. We probably end up having to ban Doubling Season. Normally I wouldn't worry about banning a single card, but Doubling Season may be the most popular casual card in existence. That's not nothing.
Most (not all) planeswalkers win through grinding out a small incremental advantage each turn. This pushes decks towards more defensive stances; maybe you look for creatures that have better toughness rates or cards that make it hard for your planeswalker to be attacked. Commander doesn't need more pressure on the length of the average game.
Once you have a planeswalker commander, if you're protecting it, the next logical thing to do is add more planeswalkers, compounding the grindiness. Superfriends is already overdone as an archetype.
Planeswalkers are powerful and sometimes flavorful, but not mechanically interesting. Most don't provide good themes or ideas to build around, and you're not going to see quirky planeswalkers. Legendary creatures have a lot more freedom in the text box, and that makes for more interesting deck builds. Plus, this way Wizards is incentivized to keep making fun ones!
Note that most of these downsides (save possibly the last) don't apply to Brawl. Given the need to ensure sufficient commander supply in the format, it makes sense there in ways it doesn't for Commander.
Planeswalkers are the face of almost every other format out there. I'm OK with having one that's more about other things.
Somebody once called Commander a haven from other formats-S.
Viperion asks, "Does your regular playgroup have any house rules that differ from the official rules?"
Not a lot. I'll use the Gis mulligan ("Mulligan 7s to a playable hand. Don't abuse this") with trusted groups. I'm hoping nobody will object if I leave Giant Fan in my Skullbriar deck.
J Alexander Bell asks, "Which Commander set feature would you like to see explored further, such as partner, planeswalker, tribal, join forces, and "tempt with" cards?"
While I've liked individual cards, there haven't been any mechanics that have really grabbed me. Undaunted is probably the best, but the elegant design space is limited. Multiplayer design is hard! The best multiplayer mechanic they've produced so far is the Monarch, but that wasn't in a Commander set.
It's good to be the king-S (and others).
Forgotten One asks, "How much does the rest of the Rules Committee commiserate with/wish you were in Sheldon's shoes as the "face" of Commander and all the praise, notoriety, and faceless vitriol that comes with it? It would seem to me that you guys that know him well would have a unique perspective on how one handles such a position."
If you wanted to design the face of a format, it'd be hard to top Sheldon. He's outgoing, charismatic, a great storyteller, clear in purpose, and leads from the front. He has thick skin (we all do; it's a job requirement).
I'm happy mucking around in the back, figuring out the messy details of how everything works, taking it apart and putting it back together better. The pairing has proven to be a powerful dynamic, and it's one we adopted to shape much of the judge program back around the turn of the decade. Play to your strengths.
Andy Belford asks, "Has the Rules Committee considered more high profile community engagement, maybe tapping into podcasts like Commanderin or The Command Zone?"
That's up to each individual member. Sheldon does a lot of engagement. I already have a pretty high profile elsewhere in Magic, so I'm not going to seek anything out, but I'm always up for a guest spot or an interview.
Although we don't yet have the numbers of other Commander podcasts, remember that Anthony Alongi and I have recently started one called Elder Dragon Statesmen: the only Commander podcast with 100 years' worth of hosts. You can find it here . And like Toby, I'm always happy to go on the good podcasts-S.
Chris HerringFish asks, "How closely does the RC pay attention to complaining about the format like on Reddit and Facebook? In other words, how much influence does that internet at large have on the Rules Committee?"
I keep an ear to the ground on several internet sites, such as MtgCommander, MtgSalvation, various Facebook groups, and pay attention to some of the well-known podcasts. We all used to be on Reddit a fair bit, but Reddit's collective tendency to lose their minds over any change (or even rumor of a change) made the value of being there very low and the unpleasantness factor high. After the insane freakout over the tuck rule change, we sort of shrugged our shoulders and moved on. I lurk there occasionally.
The internet is usually great at surfacing potential problems, and we do rely on it for that. It's not so great at figuring out whether something is actually a problem (since internet posters are not terribly representative of the average Commander player) or what a reasonable solution might be. Nobody arguing repeatedly on a forum has caused us to change our minds, but sometimes someone will come up with a nugget we haven't considered that'll germinate an idea.
ISBPathfinder asks, "What would you say is your playstyle in Commander? What was your first commander?"
I'm Timmy! TIMMY! Rawr!
Truth. This is rawrest, Timmiest truth-S.
Themes run strong in my decks. Very strong. Like "every card puts a counter on something" strong or "every card refers to the graveyard" strong. If you look back at Sheldon's articles over the years, a few of my decks have been featured. The comments are usually split between "this deck looks terrible" and "this deck looks like so much fun to play," which is a place I'm happy to be.
My first commander was Barrin, Master Wizard. This was back when commanders could only be cast once, for at least 6 mana. That meant everyone was playing giant Dragons, and I thought it'd be funny to have a 1/1 leading the army.
Brian Shandra asks, "Do you prefer to call it 'EDH' or 'Commander'?"
In writing, I'll usually use Commander, since there's a chance the audience has no idea what EDH is. In speech, it's interchangeable. I'm happy for people to use whichever they prefer.
arrogantAxolotl asks, "Do you believe Commander is still being played by the general Magic community in the way it was originally intended to be?"
Yes, but with a couple of caveats.
The format has grown considerably. By definition, that means that there are more people altering Commander to suit their own philosophy. I'm all in favor of that (see my comment about microformats above), but there's now a bell curve, rather than a blob.
The other change has been the rise in creature power over the past ten years, especially big creatures. We used to have to scrape to find worthy monsters, and I think we've lost a little of the forced-improvisation spirit that infused the early format. It always makes me sad to hear "Wizards needs to give us a Commander for X," because part of the joy of Commander was being forced to work with what we had, even if it wasn't optimal. Optimal usually isn't that interesting.
Treamayne asks, "What is your favorite Magic memory between Alpha and now?"
Wow, so many. Some of them are NDA'd!
Or not fit for family audiences-S.
The obvious one that comes to mind was the day I qualified for the Pro Tour, as that set me down the path that took me from random Magic player to a much deeper involvement with the game.
What I'll always carry with me are the friendships I've made along the way. Many of my dearest friends have come through Magic. Several of them are on the RC.
In fact, he and fellow RC member Scott Larabee will be visiting me here in Florida in about 2 weeks-S.
Treamayne continues, "What is the number one Magic rules change you don't (didn't) agree with or would like to see reverted (like the loss of mana burn)? Any there any you are happy to have (even if you didn't agree when the change went into effect, like stack damage)?"
I have found that the rules progression generally goes in the right direction; most changes have been positive, and the details that weren't have been smoothed out. I've been involved in fixing things sometimes and you learn patience. Up until recently, I would have called out the planeswalker redirection rule, though I wouldn't have bothered errataing cards. Just print cards with the "any target" template for a few years, then remove the redirection rule. Is Lightning Bolt still the best if it can't hit planeswalkers? That would have been interesting to find out.
My main gripe with Wizards right now is the pace of releases. I'm a serious collector, and I've given up. Iconic Masters isn't a set that exists as far as I'm concerned.
tarnar asks, "If you could make one never-ending debate in the format go away, which one and why?"
This is a thought-provoking question. I had to mull it over for a while.
I'd like people to stop with the silliness around how Wizards is constantly pressuring us to make changes/sending signals to manipulate us/imminently taking over the format/turning it into something competitive.
First of all, every member of the RC is deeply embedded with Wizards. Scott works for them. I lost count of how many NDAs I have on file with them at seventeen (that's not as ludicrous as it sounds, it's just easier to throw one at you when you visit than it is to keep track of who has or hasn't signed). There are at least a half dozen employees who I might ping to see if they want to do dinner. These are people who, if they have concerns, will come and talk to us about them. Over the years, they have asked us to consider various things, and we always give their requests consideration. But, we don't always do what they ask, and they respect that we've taken the time to think about it and decided otherwise.
What heavily-invested people often miss is that Commander has given Wizards access to a cohort that they've traditionally had a hard time reaching: the vast horde of casual players who don't show up regularly at their local game store, who have no idea what a DCI number is, and who won't attend a tournament in their entire Magic career. It was never the plan, but Commander caught on with them because we pitched it as something that you didn't want to take all that seriously.
To bring it back to where we started, you don't go basing your latest format on something you're unhappy with. You aren't likely to see serious Brawl tournaments. I'm betting their goal is to serve another under-reached niche (new players and players just beginning to engage with the wider community). Making changes to the core of Commander would be defeating the purpose.
Thanks for all the great questions!
And thanks to Toby for taking the time to answer questions from a slightly different angle than you most frequently experience. I'm sure you'll be hearing more about his and our adventures in Commander during the aforementioned visit-although since Gretchyn (that's my wife for those of you who didn't know) has recently fallen in love with Terraforming Mars, the four of us playing that (and eating and drinking) might cut into Commander time.
Deck Without Comment will return next week.
Lavinia Blinks ; Obzedat, Ghost Killer ; Aurelia Goes to War ; Trostani and Her Angels ; Lazav, Shapeshifting Mastermind ; Zegana and a Dice Bag ; Rakdos Reimagined ; Glissa, Glissa ; Ruric Thar and His Beastly Fight Club ; Gisa and Geralf Together Forever .
Shards and Wedges
Adun's Toolbox ; Angry, Angry Dinos ; Animar's Swarm ; Borrowing Stuff at Cutlass Point ; Ikra and Kydele ; Karrthus, Who Rains Fire From The Sky ; Demons of Kaalia ; Merieke's Esper Dragons ; Nath of the Value Leaf ; Rith's Tokens ; The Mill-Meoplasm ; The Altar of Thraximundar ; The Threat of Yasova ; Zombies of Tresserhorn .
Adun Oakenshield Do-Over ; Animar Do-Over ; Glissa Do-Over ; Karador Do-Over ; Karador Version 3 ; Karrthus Do-Over ; Kresh Do-Over ; Steam-Powered Merieke Do-Over; Lord of Tresserhorn Do-Over ; Mimeoplasm Do-Over ; Phelddagrif Do-Over ; Rith Do-Over ; Ruhan Do-Over.
If you'd like to follow the adventures of my Monday Night RPG group (in a campaign that's been alive since 1987) which is just beginning the saga The Lost Cities of Nevinor, ask for an invitation to the Facebook group "Sheldon Menery's Monday Night Gamers."