Designing Commander (2018 Edition)

Posted in Card Preview on July 24, 2018

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

For months, players have been sending me questions about Commander (2018 Edition). Each time I've had to pump the brakes, promising we'd say more in July. I've typed out tweets and Reddit posts I wish I could send, then deleted them accordingly. Just a little bit longer . . .

Well, we've all waited. And now, it's finally time: previews are here!

Making cards for Commander has become one of my favorite parts of working at Wizards. As a lead designer behind Commander (2017 Edition), Battlebond, and now Commander 2018, I've really taken a deep focus on Commander in R&D—and this set is lined up to really take all the lessons I had learned from those sets and put them toward this one.

As one of the people most at the social media nexus when it comes to Commander right now, I've heard a lot of the questions you've been asking. In this article, I'm going to answer a few questions you've been asking, answer a few questions you probably haven't been asking, tell you a few things you probably didn't know—and show off two exciting preview cards to boot!

Sound good?

First, as is design article tradition, let me introduce the designers behind the set! First up, Vision Design.

Meet the Vision Design Team

Ken Nagle (Vision Lead)

Ken Nagle (Vision Lead)

Ken is a Commander aficionado. One of the pioneers of the original Commander product, he knows the format inside and out. He was a great pick to lead the early vision setting of the set, and he and his team really helped set the stage for everything to come. A number of key elements you'll see in the final product come right from Ken and his team—more on that later.

In Commander design, each team member manages one of the four decks. This really helps that person feel ownership over the deck and lets them go deep on the intricacies of how it works. In Design, Ken managed the blue-red deck.


Glenn Jones

Glenn Jones

Glenn is a multifaceted member of R&D. Starting in editing, he showed such a strong knack for game design that he was recently moved over to the design end of things. He plays a lot of Commander—and makes some truly cutthroat decks. Glenn has a very keen eye for how to improve things, and his deep perception has been an excellent addition to the team in game design and editing alike!

Glenn worked on the white-blue-black (Esper) deck in Design.


Jules Robins

Jules Robins

Another Gavin set, another Jules appearance! We have worked together on nearly every project that I've led—and I am so glad for it. Jules is an excellent designer and someone off whom I can always bounce ideas.

He actually did double duty on this team as the "crossover" person between Ken's Vision Design team and my Set Design team. Jules knows this set extremely well, having been on it since the beginning, and his guidance on what the team had already tried was crucial to avoiding missteps along the way.

In Vision Design, Jules managed the black-red-green (Jund) deck. In Set Design, Jules managed the blue-red deck.


Mclane

Mclane is a name you might not recognize—and in fact, he isn't in R&D! He works on the Investigations team, helping make sure that everything is on the up-and-up. However, Commander sets are a great chance to bring people into design teams who might not otherwise have the opportunity. Mclane had been doing great work in our hole-filling process, had been diligent about attending our design talks, and he was just the right person for this job. He did a great job making a very tightly constructed deck!

Mclane worked on the green-white-blue (Bant) deck in Vision Design.

Okay, so that's the Vision Design team. They worked for a couple months to create the raw vision and skeleton behind this year's product. Then, they handed it off to me and my team.

Meet the Set Design Team

In addition to the already mentioned Jules, the Set Design team was:

Gavin Verhey (Set Design Lead)

Gavin Verhey (Set Design Lead)

Fresh off of Battlebond, which had a lot of it designed for Commander, and having led Commander (2017 Edition), which ended up being the best-selling Commander set of all time, I was a prime candidate to hop back on the Commander horse for this time around. I was excited about being asked to lead it, and it was a blast to create!

After this project, I was promoted to product architect on Commander sets going forward. So, while this will be the last Commander release I lead design on for a while, you can expect to find my vision and direction throughout the sets to come. And while that is exciting, it is also a little bittersweet, so I really hope you enjoy my final take (for the foreseeable future) on designing the Commander decks.

In Set Design, I managed the white-blue-black (Esper) deck.


Eli Shiffrin

Eli Shiffrin

When I was a kid, around twelve or thirteen, I became friends with Eli Shiffrin. He was a wise judge and knowledgeable about rules, and I was always trying to design homemade Magic sets, so I'd run my cards past him for templating and rules checks. It turns out, fifteen years later, not much has changed: Eli is now Magic's rules manager, and I'm designing real Magic sets.

But in addition to having an incredible understanding for the rules, Eli is also a fierce Commander player who balances fun and competition in his decks very well. One thing Eli also brought to the table that I really valued was keeping an eye on accessibility. These decks are supposed to be an entry point for new Commander players, after all, and it's important we don't make them so complex that new players can't pilot them.

Eli managed the black-red-green (Jund) deck in Set Design. It's also worth noting that, among many great designs, Eli came up with a very cool take on a beloved character and finally got them a card in this set. I think a lot of you will be excited by this character finally getting an appearance, so stay tuned for that sometime today!


Scott Larabee

Scott Larabee

On my teams, I always like to try and push for someone who is outside the normal design sphere. They bring fresh, new ideas to sets and really give the set some extra-unique spice.

While Scott may not be on a lot of design teams, he is absolutely no stranger to Commander! As one of the members of the Commander Rules Committee, having him on the team was invaluable. (More on this in a little bit.) And as it turns out, playing a lot of Commander and being at Wizards for a long time means he was a phenomenal Commander designer too!

Scott managed the green-white-blue (Bant) deck and designed several excellent cards—including one among my top three, if not my favorite, cards in the set . . . nearly as he submitted it exactly to print! (I'm sure he will tell you all about it when we show it off later this week.) He also managed to get another card to print that he'd had the idea for over ten years ago!

Scott is a busy man at Wizards, helping run premier play, but I definitely hope Scott can carve out some time for more design teams in the future!

And finally, I would be incredibly remiss if I did not mention Kelly Digges, Alison Luhrs, and James Wyatt, who all tag-teamed this set's Creative during a very busy time. The set had triple the Creative eyes on it—and I think that helped make it all the more incredible. (Just wait until you see the full spread of characters showing up here!)

Okay. That's the team. Now that you know who is behind the set, let's get into the juicy details.

A Feedback-Driven Set

Normally when we make a Commander set, we start with our ideas, or our themes, or our goals, and then build outward from there.

But this time, Ken Nagle flipped the script a little.

He started with a major mission: find common Commander requests, and incorporate them into the set.

Commander sets are a great opportunity to really look at the format and see what it could use. Ken had this great philosophy baked into Commander 2018 from the beginning and did a bunch of research, combing through articles, Reddit posts, and YouTube videos. He designed a few cards for it, then I took it and ran. In a sense, it's a "bottom-up" design: a lot of how the set came together was designed around making things work out so we would have the room to make cards (and commanders) for popular strategies, and cards that addressed holes in Commander.

You saw a little bit of this yesterday, with cards like Treasure Nabber and Enchanter's Bane.

Treasure NabberEnchanters Bane

We had seen a lot of requests for a way for red to fight enchantments. However, that is outside of red's color pie! Well, we worked with Mark Rosewater and the Council of Colors to find a red way to do just that. Whether red's opponent keeps their enchantment is always their choice; red asks, "How much damage is this worth to you?"

Mana rocks are everywhere in Commander. People wanted an answer to them, but also not one that blew all of them up. This is somewhere between: if you're going to load up on mana rocks, I'm going to take advantage of it too!

Those two were ones Ken handed off to me. And in the set, you'll find a number of these kinds of cards: White mana ramp, a very unexpected tribal lord that has been requested for years, and finally, a Jund lands-matter commander . . . just to name a few.

I took this a level deeper by working with Creative to figure out which characters people really wanted to see. And in this set, you see several fan favorites finally show up—did you catch Tawnos and Varchild yesterday?

Tawnos, Urza's ApprenticeVarchild, Betrayer of Kjeldor

And for the mega-Vorthoses out there who like those really, really deep references—well, we didn't want to leave you out in the cold either. So how about a card designed entirely based on the flavor text from Sarcomite Myr?

Brudiclad, Telchor Engineer

Now, if all of this sounds like some mix of Time Spiral, Planar Chaos, and Future Sight to you, all I have to say is . . . look, don't tell anybody else in R&D, and this set may just get printed. Shh. It's our secret.

Commander is a great place to experiment, pushing bounds to see what players enjoy—and we definitely tried some experiments with this set based on your feedback.

And, of course, most of all, this even ties in with the deck's colors and themes. We chose most of the themes so that we could make commanders for them. Like what, for example? I'm glad you asked!

Building a Theme

With Commander 2017, we switched from focusing on colors to focusing on themes. And indeed, you'll notice that these four decks are not perfectly color-balanced; there's a two-color deck alongside three three-color decks. While we wouldn't ever go as far to leave a color entirely out of it, this new model has given us the flexibility to make these decks something different.

So here's how the decks are set up.

First and foremost, each deck has a planeswalker as its face card! Rowan and Will in Battlebond may have whet your appetite, and now it is time for the main course of the return of the planeswalker-as-commander mechanic . . . including the first ever multicolored ones!

This was pretty popular the first time. However, we did make one major tweak to their design. This time, none of them make emblems—we've heard a lot of feedback about Commander-focused planeswalkers making emblems and that being frustrating to deal with, so these characters have some quite splashy effects—but we're leaving the emblems to main-set planeswalkers.

So, who are they? We've split them down the middle: two new characters, and two returning characters.

You saw Saheeli yesterday. I'm glad to get another take at that character!

The green-white-blue (Bant) deck is helmed by a new character named Estrid, an enchanter who has the ability to create quite unique masks for herself and her friends—you'll see what that means mechanically with the card.

The white-blue-black (Esper) deck is helmed by one of the most unique Planeswalkers we've had yet: Aminatou. She looks like a kid . . . but don't let that fool you. Seemingly timeless, she is a fateshifter, a watcher who has the power to rewrite history—from small tweaks to radically changing entire worlds with the wave of her hand.

We were looking for the aesthetic of creepy, all-powerful kid . . . and one day, Kelly Digges came to me: "What if we had Seb McKinnon do a planeswalker?"

I couldn't nod fast enough, and I think you'll soon see that he nailed it.

So that leaves one left: the black-red-green (Jund) deck. And if you were paying close attention, you'd know it was a returning character!

This is a character people have latched on to. He played a major part in the storyline in helping defeat Phyrexia alongside Urza, and we looked into creating him in Dominaria. But there was one problem: he is dead.

Fortunately, Commander sets get to pull from across time and space! Behold: the appearance of Lord Windgrace!

Lord Windgrace | Art by: Bram Sels

So, what do these characters do?

Well, a front-facing planeswalker wasn't enough. Each deck has a theme!

Commander 2017's theme was tribal. What's Commander 2018's? Card types! We picked popular card types in combinations people like to build around them and made decks.

. . . Well, for three of the four decks anyway.

We always want to make sure there is something for the player who doesn't buy into the themes of the year. We definitely heard this last year with tribal: players who didn't like tribal weren't as into the decks. So this year, in an experiment, three of the four decks are built around card types and one of them is something pretty wacky and entirely different.

We have Blue-Red Artifacts, helmed by Saheeli.

Next is Green-White-Blue Enchantments, helmed by Estrid.

Then we have Black-Red-Green Lands, helmed by Lord Windgrace.

So, what's the wacky one? The white-blue-black deck is top-of-library matters. What in the world does that mean? Well, you'll just have to wait and see!

So, planeswalkers as the front-facing cards. Card-type matters. Doing things players have been asking for . . .

It's time to introduce you to Lord Windgrace himself!

Lord Windgrace

The number of times I've heard in the past year from people who have wanted a Jund lands-matter commander is incredibly high. I'm so happy to finally bring one into the world! One of Jund's problems—and a problem with land-heavy decks in general—is they can run behind on cards and things to do.

With Lord Windgrace, you can always turn your excess lands into more cards . . . and still stay ahead on mana due to the combination of abilities!

I expect Lord Windgrace to slot right into to a number of Commander decks. All hail Lord Windgrace!

Layers of Mechanics

All right. Planeswalkers. Cool. What else do we have?

Let's talk mechanics.

Well, first of all, to go with the feel of giving players what they had been asking for, something Ken tried and I latched on to was really playing up one-of returning mechanics. A ton of old mechanics appear on brand-new cards! From evoke to bestow to retrace, you'll see some new takes on some old favorites! It was a lot of fun to revisit these.

Second, this set has the return of lieutenant! You saw a taste of these yesterday with Loyal Drake. But rather than just make themselves better, like the last time, these five uncommons give you an effect every turn that you control your commander! I expect these to show up all over the place—especially yesterday's Loyal Drake:

Loyal Drake

An important bit of feedback from players were that cards which required getting back to your turn for something to happen just weren't making the cut in Commander unless they were really strong because of the number of opponents who have a chance to mess with it. So, we made these trigger at combat to let you play it and get the trigger in the same turn.

Then there's a rare cycle. You caught a glimpse of the first one yesterday:

Echo Storm

These "commander storm" cards have quite the history. Handed off from design, the effects changed quite a bit, but the key mechanic didn't: caring about how many times you cast your commander. (Also, yes, these do work really well with partner commanders like those found in Battlebond!) This mechanic was a lot of fun!

Some of you may be wondering about why this isn't keyworded. We went back and forth on it a lot. "Commanderstorm" was more silly than desired. We looked at other words, ranging from generic ("intensify") to oddly specific ("cyclone," as a reference to storm). However, what we eventually realized is that we wanted to keep storm in the name—and that right naming could cycle them out while still getting the word storm in there. And that's why!

All five of these are pretty powerful. And now, I get to show you my favorite—and one which I wouldn't be surprised to see become a Commander staple! Feast your eyes on Fury Storm!

Fury Storm

One Fork is fine. Two Forks is great. And three or more . . . well, that's just ridiculous!

This card can easily get into that ridiculous territory. A well-timed Fury Storm can be absolutely game- ending!

These cards are particularly good with low-mana-cost commanders and partners. However, we didn't want to make this set all low-mana-cost matters . . . so there are a few specific cards to really help out the big-mana commanders of the world. You saw Geode Golem yesterday:

Geode Golem

And that's one example. There aren't a ton of these—but there are a few.

And finally, not a named mechanic, but we wanted to provide additional legendary options as well. Each of the decks has a legendary creature that cannot command the deck. These are bonus legends for you to build new decks around. You saw Varchild yesterday—and all four of these legendary creatures were among the highest-rated cards in the set on our internal rare poll. Stay tuned to see them all!

Calling in the Rules Committee

Finally, I want to call out something new we started doing with Commander 2018 that really helped.

As you may know, the multiplayer Commander format actually isn't managed by us here at Wizards. There's an external committee of the format's original pioneers who manage the banned list and make any rules decisions: Sheldon Menery, Gavin Duggan, Toby Elliot, and Scott Larabee.

As this is a casual format, we are happy to let them run the show. But the relationship was mostly focused on what happened post-release.

Enter: designer Scott Larabee.

As a member of the committee, Scott had a fantastic idea: if this set was going to be all about feedback, what if we looped in the rules committee?

So, we did.

Scott took the four decks down for live playtesting with the committee. We asked them for feedback on all of the cards in the set, over and over. And they were ecstatic to be a part of the process!

I took their feedback to heart. Like any playtest or card feedback, some of it was right to incorporate and some of it we decided not to. But bringing them and their insights in was wonderful, and the set is a lot better off for it. I want to give them a special thanks—and as you're playing, I think you'll really enjoy some of their suggested touches.

Command and Conquer

I absolutely love these sets because we get to make cards we really can't make anywhere else. And to me, Commander (2018 Edition) really embodies that spirit. The decks pull from across time and from a wide pool of mechanics, and were built with your feedback in mind. I am very proud of what we have come up with this year.

On behalf of the entire team: I sincerely hope you enjoy it!

Have any thoughts or comments? I would love to hear from you! Please send them my way. You can always send me a message on Twitter, ask me a question on my Tumblr, or send me an email to BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com.

Have an amazing time checking out the rest of the cards in preview season, enjoy the decks, and please let me know what you think.

Have fun!

Gavin
@GavinVerhey
GavInsight

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