Development Attacks Attacking

Posted in Card Preview on October 25, 2016

By Glenn Jones

Glenn has worked in games since 2007. He joined Magic R&D as an editor in 2015 and became a game designer in 2018.


I'm Glenn Jones, an editor in Magic R&D and one of the development team members for Commander (2016 Edition). I've been the lead editor for a number of our ancillary product releases, including this one, and I playtest all kinds of Magic every week, but this project excited me because it was my first opportunity to work on any set as one of its primary team members.

Of course, I knew then what you know now: in addition to being my first development team, Commander 2016 was going to be a very special set. We were going to be giving Commander fans something they'd wanted for a very long time—four-color commanders! Everyone expected this project to present unusual challenges, and we weren't disappointed.

Lead Designer Ethan Fleischer and his team did excellent work by grounding the decks in five distinct archetypes. They based these archetypes on a single ideal shared to varying extents by the four colors the deck contained, but absent from the missing fifth color. This foundation was the key to identifying our archetypes, and the themes the design team identified helped us all work together to make solid decks for each.

Commander 2016 Development Team

Commander design and development teams typically assign one player to each deck, though we work together as a group to contribute cards and suggestions to all of the decks. As a newcomer to development, I relied on my teammates a great deal. Let's meet them!

Ben Hayes (lead)

Ben was the lead developer for Commander (2015 Edition) and decided to run it back for Commander 2016. I worked with Ben as an editor during his previous lead, Conspiracy: Take the Crown, and found him to be one of R&D's most excellent collaborators (no small compliment). The whole team reaped the benefits of Ben's experience helming our previous Commander product.

Ben tinkered with the white-blue-black-red deck and the theme of artifice.

Dan Helland

A Swiss army knife of sorts, Dan is a beloved member of Magic R&D and responsible for an incredible amount of our efficiency behind-the-scenes. Dan's card designs always play in unique spaces, and that talent for originality made him an excellent addition to our team. My favorite Dan Helland special is Humble Defector from Fate Reforged, though a close second exists in Commander 2016.

Dan worked on the green-white-blue-black deck and the theme of building up your creatures.

Yoni Skolnik

Like Ben, Yoni's primary role in Magic R&D is as a developer. Yoni's one of our best deck builders in the Future Future League, but he's also got a knack for identifying synergies that might be strong or exploitable. He's a prolific contributor to every team I've seen him on, and a real pleasure to work with—especially since the reduction in his daily punning. Yoni beats me at Magic more often than not—more often than anyone, in fact—which I only bring up to demonstrate how great he must be if this is how a saltmonger like myself talks about him.

Yoni wrangled the blue-black-red-green deck and the theme of chaos.

Ken Nagle

Ken served on both the design and development teams for Commander 2016, as we always make sure the team has one constant member. Ken's passion for the Commander format exceeds even my own, and he was a font of ideas throughout development whenever we needed to tweak or replace cards. In addition to his own design skills, Ken helped communicate the vision of the design team to us throughout development.

Ken shepherded the red-green-white-blue deck and the theme of mutualism—commonly known as "group hug."

Unyielding Aggression

Those of you savvy with the process of elimination have likely identified the deck to which I devoted my efforts—black-red-green-white and the theme of wide aggression.

I love building single-minded decks in Commander, which meant a deck focused on offense above all else appealed to me. However, I also enjoy manipulating the action at the table. By creating and intensifying the vulnerabilities of other players in a multiplayer game, you can set the table on a path that supports your goals, making attacks against your enemies easier for you (and your other enemies). I wanted to make that element a core part of gameplay for our most aggressive deck, and give it the ability to drive the action for everyone.

I envisioned most games playing out the same way and worked to bring that to fruition in playtests: Put one player under tremendous pressure fast—not usually enough to kill them outright (because 40 life is a lot) but enough to leave them in jeopardy of becoming an opportunistic target for other players. Once the midgame is underway, ease off the throttle and accrue resources while chipping in damage every turn. As soon as the first player dies, wheel quickly on the strongest remaining player. Offense paves the way for others to join in, and eventually survivors are on relatively even footing and simply decide the matter among themselves.

Fortunately, the handoff from design included the perfect four-color commander for my cause.

Saskia barely changed over the course of development because we were so happy with everything she was doing in our games. As a four-drop, Saskia anchored the early aggressive sequences of my game plan as a solid creature that always affected the board. The combination of haste and vigilance meant I'd be dishing out damage while reserving the ability to defend myself from incidental attacks, protecting my life total while creating more attacks against the other players. In multiplayer, defense always translates into offense.

Of course, Saskia's remaining pair of abilities are her most important. By choosing one player to focus Saskia's righteous fury on, I could signal my intentions to the rest of the table. Strong creatures have a tendency to draw fire from the whole table, but Saskia only reaches her fullest potential against one of your foes—the rest just have to worry about eventually deterring a 3/4, right? Of course, like all great heroes, Saskia does eventually die. That just gives you the opportunity to take aim at a new target! Saskia's power isn't subtle, but she affects the behavior of the table in a very unique way.

Budding Partnerships

By now, you're already familiar with the partner mechanic. Each Commander (2016 Edition) deck features three partners that give you two different partner configurations in addition to the marquee commander option. That means each deck offers three different ways for a player to start the game right out of the box! Making sure these decks provided fun and competitive experiences regardless of the commander(s) a player picked was a major goal for development.

While you can mix and match partners from different decks however you like, each Commander 2016 deck features one partner with "ally" colors and two with "enemy" colors. My deck's ally color pair was red-green, so all of my partner configurations would use Tana, the Bloodsower.

Because Tana would always be one of my partner commanders, she received a little special treatment. I already had Saskia on four mana, but I valued ensuring that the command zone always gave the aggressive deck an early play. For that reason, it made sense for the red-green partner to also cost four or less mana and reward attacking. This way, whether a player chose Saskia or either of the partner combinations within the deck, they'd always have a play to get on the board early in the game and start turning up the heat. I initially favored costing Tana at three mana, but the card proved to be too strong, so she found her way to four and gained a point of toughness.

However, having all of my commander options include a four-drop created a lot of overlap with some memorably powerful creatures that the Jund, Naya, Abzan, and Mardu color combinations have all featured at four mana. I didn't want the deck to glut at one spot on the curve and just play one medium threat after another. While those creatures were all individually powerful, any game of Commander would outclass their combined power relatively quickly with one mass removal spell; in its wake, each player would rebuild their defenses or assemble a powerful engine. My deck needed to take advantage of that time, leveraging opposing sweepers against their casters. I looked for a set of tools that would ensure I could keep my offense alive against removal spells killing one or more of my best threats.

I quickly took a shine to spells like Boros Charm and Rootborn Defenses. The power to shield your entire team from a removal spell was great, and holding one of these spells also let you attack fearlessly into typical "rattlesnake" plays, such as leaving a Nevinyrral's Disk untapped. My win percentage in our playtest games ballooned quickly after adding a few of these cards, settling down once the rest of the table learned to adapt to the possibility that the text "destroy all creatures" sometimes meant "destroy all creatures Glenn doesn't control."

My mass removal problem was solved, but spot removal remained too effective at weakening my advances, even when it just targeted a commander I could recast. I decided to refine the theme of the deck, adding "go wide" elements to the handoff I received from design. Tana herself was the seed spore of this idea. By relying on permanents that could create token creatures, I wouldn't be forced to overextend into mass removal, and I'd be naturally insulated against spot removal.

In fact, once I realized how many of my best options created Saproling tokens, I convinced the team to let me go even further down the rabbit hole—and that's why the only token the deck creates is a Saproling. Our story and worlds team brought this angle to life in creating the character, so you can find out more about why Tana loves Saprolings so much in her story section on the included insert.

Spoiler: Tana is a big fan of Saprolings...and not a fan of non-Saprolings.

With the deck's new themes in place, the development team helped me adjust the two white-black partners to better complement Tana. Because the deck's strategy now reflected the gameplay of Tana herself, these changes also made the cards work better when drawn naturally, regardless of which commander configuration a player might use.

Tymna is my favorite of the white-black partners included in this deck. We knew that as a non-blue deck, our aggressive deck might have some trouble drawing cards and building up resources. This deck rewards judicious and careful threat deployment, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be able to enjoy rushing the board and burning everything down! If that's your style, then I highly recommend pairing Tana with Tymna.

I mentioned Conspiracy: Take the Crown earlier, and I'm sure you can see how Tymna's design was inspired in part by the melee mechanic we debuted in that set. Tymna has the potential to draw a ton of cards, especially in conjunction with Saproling creation—it's not hard to slide a 1/1 or two through the cracks while you're attacking one player with most of your forces. As long as you keep figuring out how to break up opposing defenses, Tymna will fuel you with enough cards to close the game. Keep in mind that as your foes fall, she'll draw fewer cards, so maximize her power while you can. Attack early, and attack often!

I loved working on Commander (2016 Edition), and I hope your playgroups have fun playing and revising these decks. All of us are very excited to see how the Commander community will build decks with partners, and we'll be scouring social media and forums to see the fruits of your labors. Feel free to tag me on Twitter with your brews!


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