When Core and Commander Combine

Posted in Card Preview on June 18, 2019

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.

Let's talk Commander.

When it comes to Magic R&D and the Product Architecture team I'm on, everybody has their specialty. And out of all of us, I've been the one who has picked up the multiplayer, social play, and occasional wacky set banner—and, among many things, that means Commander! (As well as things like Brawl and Two-Headed Giant, which we saw with Battlebond.)

So, if there's anything you've ever wanted to talk about from a Commander design perspective, I'm the guy to ask. (Noting that the banned list and format rules are managed by the Commander Rules Committee, not me.)

Commander is quickly becoming one of the most popular ways to play Magic. And while we're still of course going to keep doing plenty for formats like Standard, Modern, Limited, and so on, Commander has a chair at the table—and we've been making some tweaks to our design to accommodate that. It's happened slowly, and there is still more to come. And some of this is fresh on display in Core Set 2020!

As an aside: if you're new to all of this and don't know what Commander is, go check out the Commander format page and find out more! It's a blast of a way to play Magic that is low-stakes, multiplayer, and allows you to build around legends. Take a look!

So, as the Commander person in R&D, a huge task falls to me: how can we make sure that every set is a time to get excited if you're a Commander player?

Let's dig into this a bit today!

In the Beginning

Let's go back to where it all started.

Have you ever taken a look at the original Limited Edition (Alpha) rulebook, from the very beginning of Magic? It looks like this.

If you crack it open to one of the very first pages, you'll see the following quote:

"Magic is a two-person card game in which the cards in your deck represent the lands, creatures, spells, and artifacts at your disposal."

Not long after is this image:

While the rulebook does mention that "rules for multiplayer Magic" are forthcoming, it is very focused on one-on-one play. That's what the game was.

And if you look at the vast history of Magic, it mostly follows suit: one-on-one play is king.

There were plenty of different attempts at cracking the multiplayer nut from a design perspective, and we did start making cards that impacted multiple opponents and so on eventually. But the world really changed in 2011, when we embraced Commander with our first ever Commander deck release.

2011 Commander Decks

This format, created by a group of friends including the prolific Sheldon Menery, had slowly began to creep up through the ranks, and we wanted to give it try. We launched the first decks, and they were a hit!

There were exciting new cards, neat preconstructed decks, and, of course, tons of awesome, new legendary characters.

The format has grown a ton since then and continues to grow. It has become the de facto casual Magic format of choice for many people.

So, what does that mean for design? It means we should be making sure every set has something for Commander!

Design with Commander in Mind

We release these preconstructed Commander decks every year; they are beloved, and people eagerly look ahead to them. But as Commander has grown and grown, we want to make sure that there are cards for Commander everywhere. Once again, just like how every set is a good time to be a drafter or a Standard player, it should also be a good time to be a Commander Player.

You can see this being incorporated into our design in multiple different ways.

One way is reprints. There are a lot of cards that can make a Commander deck tick, and we try finding places to put popular ones where we can. You see this a lot in ancillary products like Battlebond, where we chose to reprint Skyshroud Claim. It's a simple common, but something that works great in Commander. Core sets often have a lot of opportunities for this too, and, while I'm not showing off any today, Core Set 2020 has a couple.

Another way is to print cards that help archetypes that need the push. By slowly giving them new tools, we help to level those decks up. Some of you may have seen Cryptic Caves from yesterday:

Cryptic Caves

While Commander wasn't the reason this card was made, it's certainly a card that can slot into monocolor Commander decks very well. Monocolor decks are often the ones in need of the most help in Commander, and especially because some colors lack a critical mass of ways to draw additional cards. Strong colorless lands—especially ones that can give trickier decks like mono-white more fuel in the late game—are helpful to have around. It is admittedly a very tiny nudge, but enough tiny nudges over time make a big difference.

I am always listening to feedback from Commander players and looking for opportunities to fill these holes. Whether it's creating new legends for color combinations that need it (for example, Feather, the Redeemed finally got us a strong Boros commander that wasn't all about attacking), addressing widespread format problems, or just providing little nudges like this, we're always looking for it.

But the big one, of course, is new legends.

Dominaria had a legend in every booster pack, which was awesome for Commander players—and that set was a smash hit. We're working toward increasing legends overall in Standard sets as well, which is something we've done for Brawl and Commander. Even when designing a set like Modern Horizons, we made sure to add some exciting Legends into it to interest the Commander audience.

And Core Set 2020 is no exception.

When working on the set, the team wanted to do a cycle of legends. This started from a place of finding cool three-color legendaries for the set's themes that would be strong in Standard. And, of course, that eventually evolved into being exciting for Commander as well. A cycle of three-color legends is a little more unusual for a core set, but by putting them up at mythic rare, we ensured they wouldn't typically be the first cards a new player was introduced to.

Yesterday, you saw Kykar, Wind's Fury over on the Command Zone. This is an exciting build-around for a color combination that could use some additional options.

Kykar, Wind's Fury

Today, I'm excited to show off another card in this cycle!

Not only is it a cool new commander, but one of the great parts about core sets is that we get to pan the camera around space and time. Anything is fair game . . . and that also means we get to revisit some old, fan-favorite characters!

You may have played with her old version before—it's time say hello to a new version that can tear up Commander tables and Standard alike. Welcome: Kaalia, Zenith Seeker!

Kaalia, Zenith Seeker

That's right, it's a new Kaalia!

A few cool things are going on here.

First of all, it's awesome that we got to take this incredibly popular legend originally printed in Commander (2011 Edition) and bring her back—this time in a Standard-legal set. She was a huge hit the first time, and it really helps make Commander sets feel "real" when their characters transcend into mainline boosters. (Who do you want to see again? Let me know on Twitter!)

Second, it's a very clear homage to her original design. You'll definitely play her and Kaalia of the Vast in the same Commander deck! Curving them into each other (while a little odd on flavor) is incredibly powerful. Don't sleep on the fact that she can grab an Angel, a Demon, and a Dragon if they happen to be hiding among your top cards. Unlike original Kaalia, who takes a turn to get rolling and makes everybody want to attack you or blow up your Kaalia (or often both), this one is a lot more subtle, putting you up a card (or more!) and letting you build toward a longer game plan.

Finally, in addition to being a new piece for Commander, she's an exciting Standard card too. A three-mana 3/3 with flying and vigilance that draws you a card is pretty stellar, you just have to fill your deck with enough Angels, Demons, and/or Dragons to make it happen. Not to mention the fact that sometimes you could even end up with more than one. Paging Brian Kibler to the deck builder's office!

Although I can't show them off yet, I will say that the set has new Angels, Demons, and Dragons to play with.

This is a great example of aligning our Standard efforts and our Commander efforts together. Standard wanted some cool three-color legends to build around, and Commander can always use more three-color legends, so five cards were created that will have appeal in both formats.

Tireless Design

But maybe three colors isn't enough. Maybe you want more. Is there a legendary creature in this core set for you?

You betcha!

Something popular that we do very carefully are five-color commanders. They're really fun to play with and build around, but difficult to get right.

Additionally, as we've been looking to get more legends into our sets, we also want to spread out our color mix. That way, instead of making too many legends in one combination and not enough in another, we can vary it up a bit. This is especially true for Brawl, where your pool of legends is much smaller. We decided we wanted a five-color legend available at all times in Standard for Brawl players. And especially since the mana bases in Brawl are often a bit shakier than Commander mana bases, something that you could cast without all the colors already would be great.

Of course, the good news is that designing for Brawl means designing for Commander as well. And of course Commander wouldn't mind a new kind of five-color legend!

Another thing we try doing is look at popular Commander effects and find ways to make legends with abilities that harken back to them. We know they're popular and that people like to play them. (There's one in particular in M20 that really comes to mind here—just wait until you see the blue-black-green legend in this set!) So with this five-color legend, we thought we would pioneer something a little different than what you've seen in the past.

All right, everybody, say hello to Golos!

Golos, Tireless Pilgrim

What does your five-color deck want? Well, mana fixing of course! A little throwback to Solemn Simulacrum combined with a powerful seven-mana ability makes for an exciting package. The fact that you can play this on turn five, then untap and play a land on turn six to activate the ability makes for a perfect curve. And your deck is probably full of awesome cards to play for free, right?

I expect to see plenty of Golos around Commander tables. It ramps your mana, lets you play all the colors, and allows you to cast free spells. Yeah, I'll play that!

A Commanding Effort

One of the great things about Commander is that truly anything could potentially make your deck. It's a format full of innovation and creativity, and with a much lower emphasis on winning, so many players take it upon themselves to make all manner of cards good. I mean, I've seen Phage the Untouchable and Haakon, Stromgald Scourge used in Commander. That's commitment! So really, the whole set is full of Commander shots.

That said, what will the cards that make a big splash turn out to be from Core Set 2020? Well, these two are great places to start, and I know I'm excited to see what else makes it in. I can't wait for you to see all the legends!

As we go forward, you can expect to start seeing more in this vein. We have some really neat multiplayer stuff for all of you lined up in the months and years to come, and I can't wait for you to check it all out.

In the meantime, do you have any thoughts about this set, Commander, design, or on any other topic? Let me know! I'd love to hear from you. Feel free to message me on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, or over email and let me know what you think.

Have fun with Core Set 2020 and with building your Commander decks. Here's to a new set!

—Gavin
Email: BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com
Instagram: GavinVerhey
Tumblr: GavInsight
Twitter: @GavinVerhey

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