My question last time asked fellow Commander Rules Committee (RC) members what they saw as the biggest threat to the long term health of the format. Scott and Toby replied, but I hadn't given Gavin enough lead time to answer in time to include in the article. He later sent me a response, which is well worth sharing. Here's what he had to say.
As the expression goes, if you're not growing then you're shrinking. Commander doesn't need to grow explosively, but it does need to continue to acquire new players and that means it needs visibility and low barrier to entry.
Barrier to entry is always an issue for a complex format like Commander, but there are things we can do to make sure players can try out the format and learn how much fun it is. Throughout the history of the format, first EDH and then Commander acquired most of its players from people who watch others play in person, give it a try, and have a great first experience. Brawl was an interesting experiment in lowering the difficulty of one's first-deck building, and while it didn't have a lot of staying power in its original form, we should look at similar experiments in future.
Visibility in the recent era has come from four sources:
- Wizards of the Coast's endorsement (in the form of Commander products and Magic Online support)
Media and content creators (podcasts and YouTube series like Command Zone and LoadingReadyRun)
Play in public venues (GP public events, store Commander nights, etc.)
Discussion groups on forums, Reddit, etc.
All these elements have seen shifts in the past year and need our reflection.
Magic Arena represents a powerful move in Wizards of the Coast's online gaming efforts, but doesn't support Commander (and may never do so due to interface complexities). Magic Online will continue to support Commander, but is unlikely to drive player acquisition. As a result, the Rules Committee needs to put more thought into the health of the Magic Online Commander community and finding other ways for people to play online.
Online MTG media has seen a big shift in the past towards streaming video, through Twitch and YouTube. Commander's complex battlefield states and lack of visually appealing play don't see a lot of streaming content, so the RC needs to think and talk about ways to create streaming content, encourage streamers to play Commander, do build-alongs, etc. Streaming is a difficult skill set that none of us on the RC really possess, so we'll need to form collaborations to be successful.
Commander play at Grand Prix and stores has been stable, with a lot of good play but not much in the way of growth or change. The RC can likely encourage premier event events by using our contacts within Organized Play at Wizards of the Coast to try new things, mix things up, or incentivize play (the silver-bordered season was an example of not working well with Star City Games® or Channel Fireball, but also did create a lot of hype and new player exposure). A number of TOs, both at GPs and store level events, often suffer because they try to make Commander fit the competitive Magic mold (prize structures and the like), so we should make a concerted effort to develop and communicate a "recommended" player structure that TOs can use to engender social play at events.
Finally, the online discussion groups for Commander need some serious attention. The official forums need to be upgraded, replaced, or deprecated, and we need to encourage more interaction with the existing community. The RC can do this by injecting energy or participation into existing venues; we can ourselves interact more on social media, build connections with media leaders (so they can talk to us instead of talking about us), establishing ongoing venues/series where players can expect to interact with us, etc.
There are other things we can/must do to make the format itself healthy, but this is how we can encourage player growth, which has a synergistic effect with existing groups.
Gavin's reply is a nice dovetail into my own, as he suggests some of the same things that I will. Commander is indeed the most popular casual format in history of Magic. What we'd like to do is make it the hands-down champion of all formats, whether they're casual or competitive – crucially, while not changing its essential nature. We'll need to delve into three elements in order to get it there: continue to capture the elements which have made it successful, avoiding the pitfalls of making the format competitive, and modernizing.
Continue What We're Doing
Capitalizing on the success of the format means considering what's made it successful in the first place. To me, this means attitude and approach. Commander is successful primarily because it has (nearly) always intended to be something very different from other Magic: The Gathering formats. As I've said before, especially after we began thinking long-term about it as a sustainable entity (sometime around 2006-ish), we wanted it to be the anti-tournament format, a space for players who loved the elements of Magic but for whom some elements of the competitive scene didn't resonate. As we've progressed forward, our belief in that stance has only strengthened. As I'll discuss momentarily, that isn't a criticism of competitive Magic in any sense, but recognition that there was plenty of room in the Magic universe to create a casual and social space.
We wanted the format to be a place where you could go for wild and wacky things, initially thinking of ourselves as the dollar rare format. While that might have changed, the attitude hasn't. Commander's power as a format is that you can show up to most any table with your crazy theme deck and have it at least stay in the game. Because the format is inherently not competitive, the collective attitude of the format's core player base gets that it's more important that something cool happen than you rack up an impressive win total. Thematic decks are more important than tightly constructed, highly efficient ones. We want to continue reinforcing this message.
The way we do that is more recognition of both the format's inherent draws and even more features regarding decks that are unusual, creative, and innovative. I do this occasionally here with the Other People's Decks feature, but we'll want to find even more outlets to show everyone how cool indulging your creative side can be (which I'll discuss shortly, when we talk about modernizing).
One of the other things we'll continue doing is taking a conservative stance when it comes to changing the format's rules. It took us a long time to come around to letting free colored mana generation, for example. Philosophically, we'd rather take a little longer to make a decision than making it too fast and having to undo it. We like straightforward messaging.
There are a number of things people have suggested we consider, such as all planeswalkers as commanders, getting rid of color identity all together, bringing back Banned as a Commander, and removing commander damage as a win condition. All of these are highly unlikely to happen anytime soon, if ever. Commander's long-term survival is about continuing to capture the essence of its difference from other formats. The only one of the preceding four that wouldn't apply to the format's uniqueness is returning the Banned as a Commander option. Still, I wouldn't hold my breath on that if I were you.
When last the RC met (when Scott and Toby were here taking care of me after surgery), we talked briefly about being a little more liberal about banning cards. Please don't take what I'm going to say as a signal for any movement in any direction on the banned list; many of you have asked for more transparency into how the RC thinks and does things, and that's what I'm providing here. It'd be a mistake to go speculating on things. Anyway, we talked about the fact that while the card pool for Commander has grown a great deal, the banned list as a percentage hasn't.
Resist the Siren's Call
This is the toughest one, because it's so difficult for some folks to understand: we will continue to steer the format away from being a competitive entity. To be clear, there's nothing wrong with competitive Magic. We don't hate competitive Magic. In fact, as I've with some frequency previously mentioned, the members of the RC made our bones as tournament officials at the highest levels of the professional game. I, for one, still bear a deep love for it and all the pomp and circumstance that comes with it. I miss the days of being there in the midst of it all, whether from the judge's stage or the broadcast booth. It's just not what we want for the format.
The reason it's difficult to resist is that there is a small but vocal group of competitive players. We wish them well, and if they have some kind of desire to organize themselves in some fashion, we're okay with it. We feel as though if we were to embrace competitive play for Commander and bring it under the umbrella of the RC, it would lead to the downfall of the format, not the enhancement of it. It would reduce the format to a few top-tier decks that kill as fast as possible, and without excessive bannings, it would kill the format's creativity. There'd be no more room for the long games that play out over an hour or more until something truly epic happens. We really never want the format to be about taking longer to shuffle than it does to play the game.
Modernizing is the biggest challenge, because it's the one that involves the most change—and change takes effort and time (and sometimes other resources, like dollars). Modernizing means two things: updating our resources and planning for the long-term future.
Reaching more players means our website, which is really just a few pages plus some forums, will need an overhaul. We've been operating on duct tape and bailing wire for quite a while now, and it's time for us to bring our digital presence into the 21st century. This will be a major topic of discussion for our January meeting and I'll keep you posted as much as I can on how things shake out and what we'll be doing.
Planning for the long-term future means recognizing that Commander has staying power. By now, the future of the format is secured by the sustainability of Magic, which still seems to have some legs. Couple that with the fact that the members of the RC aren't getting any younger (it won't be so long before there are 200 years between the four of us) leads to the inevitable conclusion that eventually we'll need some new blood, and, truth be told, some more diverse faces. The whithertos and whyfors of how this will happen will also be a major topic of our January discussion, and once again, I'll keep you posted.
Question of the Week
I know that with your treatment Commander has to take a step back, but were you/are you still playing regularly at your new shop (which, if I recall correctly, is really close to where you live)? Do you still do Leagues?
Well, it's more like recovery from the treatment, but yeah, it's forced me to be quite a bit less active. I'm not feeling any effects of the radiation, and they tell me the surgery went really well, so that's good news. Recovery from the surgery, however, is slow going. I have about a foot long scar on my abdomen, and it's taking its time healing. Engaging the core muscles is getting better but still sometimes tricky, and I can't sit upright for more than a few hours at a time. Fortunately, my desk chair reclines and I can work there quite easily. Just last week, I drove for the first time; short distances will be okay, but it'll be a while before long haul trips happen with me behind the wheel.
Back to Commander, I've played less lately because of the recovery, and I haven't been to the local shop in quite a while—although school was equally responsible in cutting into leisure time. That'll continue through this spring's semester, as I finally finish the last courses for my Master's Degree. I promised Cedric that one of the things I'd do was get out into the local community more and writing more about it—but that, of course, got derailed. Once healthy, I fully intend to do that—bringing you a whole new cast of characters from my LGS to root for (or against, I suppose).
We haven't done a League since the Commander 2016 Rotisserie draft, but the gang has been itching to do another one. I think this time it might be the right opportunity for me to create a Commander Cube. That way, we can play some set of games after drafting, and when it starts to lose interest, we can update the Cube, redraft, and play some more. And I just had an idea: instead of me being the only brain behind the Cube, I'll get the other players to give me a suggested list (maybe 100 cards each), and then assemble and fill in.
I'm a fan of the Cube idea because it makes it easier to avoid the cards we really hate—which gives me another idea: I'll ask for a smaller list—maybe ten—of cards to exclude from the Cube. Each person having veto rights over a few cards they want to not have to see, play, or deal with is kind of cool. Thanks for putting me on the road to what I suspect will be loads of fun!
Speaking of getting out into the community, I'll be in Roanoke next week at #SCGCON, so if you're around please stop in and say hello (and, of course, do battle).
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; Queen Marchesa, Long May She Reign; Queen Marchesa's Knights; 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."