The Fifth Element (of Commander)

Posted in Command Tower on July 17, 2014

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

Commander isn't like other formats, and I don't mean just the nuts and bolts of deck requirements and cards included.

Act on Impulse | Art by Brad Rigney

Most formats are managed behind the scenes at Wizards of the Coast. How Limited—both Sealed and Draft—is meant to work, when and why cards are banned or unbanned in Modern, and what a sideboard is and can do all come from behind the gilded gates in Renton.

Except for Commander.

Commander is truly a format of the people, and this column is dedicated to sharing in that spirit. It's run by a shadowy-yet-public cabal of players who have been with the format since its inception, weaving both high-level Magic rules knowledge and passionate care together into the guiding force behind changes.

At the beginning of the year, we caught up with one of the members of the Commander Rules Committee, Sheldon Menery. While the weekly glimpses into the way we each play shared here helps us see the format holistically, it's also important to consider how those who manage the format view it, too. Taking some of your time to join the discussions and announcements on the official Commander website is one way to get both angles. The other is to read about faces of the Rules Committee here.

This week, it's time to get to know Toby Elliot, with questions from both myself and the community.


Toby Elliot, Level 5 judge and Commander Rules Committee member

Who are you and how did you get into Commander?

My name is Toby Elliott. I'm probably best known as the L5 judge specializing in tournament policy development. I've also been playing and collecting Magic continuously since Alpha, played on the Pro Tour, and appeared in the promotional videos for Conspiracy.

I'm not a Constructed format player by nature—Draft is my thing—but when I watched some of the games in this crazy new format at Pro Tour Philadelphia 2005, I was hooked. Unexpected things happened! People had to improvise! Winning with style was important! The Timmy in me who likes drafting dinosaurs had found his format.

What is the Commander Rules Committee, and what does it do?

The Commander Rules Committee is the governing body for the format, responsible for the maintenance of the rules and ban list. We meet to enact our plans for global Magic domination in a secret underground bunker and always make sure to fly on different airplanes.

For those unfamiliar, who are the current members of the Rules Committee and how did they get there?

When the format first began to take off a little, Sheldon Menery tapped L3 judges Gavin Duggan and Duncan McGregor to do a little bit of rules formalization. As things continued to grow, Duncan had other commitments and deferred, leading them to bring on myself and Alex Kenny. Scott Larabee, a big early advocate of the format inside Wizards, also joined around that time.

That roster was stable for quite a while. We brought on L5 judge Kevin Desprez for a bit to look after the needs of people who wanted to play Commander more competitively, but that turned out to be better spun off into its own format (French Duel Commander) while we focused more on casual and social play.

Devon Rule was a player doing great work in Commander evangelism on the Internet. We were so impressed with his efforts and some of the theorycrafting he was doing that we invited him to join us at the end of 2012.

Finally, although he's not a member of the Rules Committee, this seems like a good place to give a shout out to Lee Sharpe. Lee loved the format so much that he took some of his personal time to program it into Magic Online. His efforts there really helped expose the format to a new generation of players.

For you, what sets Commander apart from other fun ways to play Magic?

Commander is about a journey, not a destination. It's founded on a principle that for many players, the most important thing in a game of Magic is the gameplay, not the result, and that style and flavor are also important. That's why it's driven by a social contract; other formats have a set of rules and beyond that, anything goes in the pursuit of victory. Commander says that's not enough; figure out as a group what you want from your games and optimize for that.

Don't get me wrong, winning still beats losing. But it's not the only thing.

It's also multiplayer, which means that, once you've moved past the idea of the super-efficient win, the presence of multiple other players allows for more powerful cards to be in the format than might otherwise not be safe for one-on-one play. Politics and shifting alliances are an essential component for the format.

Who is your favorite commander, and why? —Brian

I really appreciate Zedruu the Greathearted. It's a card that makes you rethink deck building principles and consider cards that never see play otherwise. "What does that card do?" is a constant refrain when I'm playing the deck, and games are guaranteed to play differently from a conventional game.

As with everything, it's easy to build a deck that just becomes painful when you can give things away—Celestial Dawn, Thought Lash, Delusions of Grandeur. Meh. Digging deeper unearths a ton of possibilities: Vedalken Plotter, Starke of Rath, Rainbow Vale, Spine of Ish Sah, Jinxed Choker. That last one is always met with indifference, followed by rising panic as everyone figures out what's happening. It's great.

As a bonus, she's responsible for the funniest piece of Magic writing ever, "The Will of Zedruu."

What is your example of a "perfect Commander card?" One that exemplifies the principles/values of the format? —Jacob

There's a card from the original Commander precons called Acorn Catapult that is amazing.

It's not the most broken thing ever, but it has a surprising number of uses. Defensively, it's a repeatable source of the best creature in the game. It can be used politically to make friends, and provides consolation prizes to players whose things you've had to kill.

Art by Daniel Ljunggren

Lots of cards can do that, though. What sets Acorn Catapult apart is the flavor. It's wonderfully whimsical, and it manages to tell a full story through just the rules text—you throw an acorn at something, and a squirrel shows up to check it out. The only thing keeping the card from being perfect is slightly disappointing art (from the usually terrific Jesper Ejsing). It's missing our protagonist!

Why is there a rule in place that cards with hybrid casting costs can only be played in decks that support both colors rather than one color or the other (for example, Judge's Familiar can only be played in decks with both white and blue rather than white or blue despite the hybrid white or blue casting cost)? —Michael

The Melvin answer to this question is that, by the rules, Judge's Familiar is a blue card, despite the fact that you don't need to use blue mana to cast it. It's affected by Red Elemental Blast, buffs Briarberry Cohort, etc. The deck-building rules use an exclusive approach to color ("Cards in a deck may not have any colors in their identity which are not shared with the commander of the deck"), rather than an inclusive one, and that keeps it out.

The Vorthos answer is that your commander does not tolerate those other colors of mana, and, personally, it's aesthetically displeasing to see those "wrong" mana symbols in a deck. Commander is perhaps the only format that cares about these sorts of aesthetics and they're important to us.

I love finding the wacky and interesting board combos around. Combining new and old cards can create situations that cause mayhem for every player. What is the most absurd board state you've ever seen in a Commander game? —Cabbie

I've had the pleasure of playing many games of Commander with Scorekeeper Extraordinaire Nick Fang. Nick *loves* his chaos cards, so much that the annual red-does-weird-stuff card is sometimes referred to in R&D as "the Nick Fang card." Games with him are guaranteed to devolve into insanity, and while I think it would get tiring on a regular basis, I enjoy playing against his deck when we meet at events.

We had one particularly memorable game at Grand Prix Daytona Beach where Nick landed a Confusion in the Ranks and, for some reason, nobody could find enchantment removal. That card stayed in play for more than an hour and turned the board into an assortment of random permanents. Toward the end, I drew Man-o'-War. : gain control of any creature on the board (you target the Man-o'-War with its ability).

That's not the worst of all time, though. That honor may go to the game featuring Confusion in the Ranks, Grip of Chaos...and Mycosynth Lattice. Play a permanent, roll a d100 to see what you get.

Starting life total: 40; commander damage to defeat opponent: 21; poison counters to defeat opponent: ten. Poison is a very efficient kill, even with the commander on the sideline. Any thoughts to changing the amount of poison counters required? —Kevin

We discussed changing the poison total, but it doesn't really make sense. If I do 30 points of damage to you, odds are pretty good that the rest of the players will chip in the other 10. If I do nine poison to you...you're probably at nine poison, and that's damage that's not coming off your life total. And if you do manage to get that tenth poison in, you get to start from scratch on the other players.

So if you're on poison, you're doing it alone, and with creatures that are kind of suboptimal. Moving poison up from ten to fifteen just makes a fringe strategy entirely unplayable.

There are some ten-poison-out-of-nowhere kills, but those usually play out like a combo deck. If poison goes to fifteen or something, it won't suddenly make that deck fair, it just means they look for a different combo kill.

Finally, there's Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon. He takes three hits to kill, just like other 7-power commanders. Yeah, he's strong, but his mere existence is putting a target on your head from the start.

What would you recommend a player do for inspiration regarding the creation of a new Commander deck? —Jacob

My general advice is "Find cards that make you giggle. Put in deck. Add land."

Sheldon mocks me for being slave to a theme. Ghost Council runs a zillion wraths. Ulasht spat out all the tokens. Every card in my Skullbriar deck puts counters on things (if Wizards would make "Destroy target creature with flying. Put a +1/+1 counter on target creature" I'd really appreciate it. Please?)

You can find your inspiration from anything. What do you want to do? I brought a Child of Alara deck to Pro Tour San Juan. It contained All Is Dust, Ixidor, Ixidron, and 60 morphs. Chaos ensued. What can I say? I'm super-Timmy.

How do you feel about taking extra turns in Commander? —Phill

Taking an extra turn is a fine plan on occasion. Taking lots of them is greedy.

One of the finest games of Commander I ever played involved L3 judge Seamus Campbell having to cast Time Stretch to prevent me from overrunning him with tokens the next turn. Unfortunately, he didn't have the resources to stop me, which forced him to cast it on Judge Emeritus Gijsbert Hoogendijk, who could. And yes, Seamus won a bit later.

No one in my group can agree who the best commander is for a Goblin Commander deck. Some say Krenko, Mob Boss; others Shattergang Brothers; and others would use a non-Goblin commander. Who do you think it is? —Robert

It depends what you want your Goblins to do, and a Krenko deck should look pretty different from a Shattergang deck. Personally, of the two, I'd rather run a Shattergang deck, with all the Goblins who do powerful-but-dangerous-to-them things.

The "correct" Goblin to head up a Goblin army is, of course, Squee, Goblin Nabob. He's the truly Legendary Goblin. I also can't help but notice that Grenzo, Dungeon Warden is a Goblin, and he seems like someone who might be a lot of fun to explore.

The Top of the Game

Toby's a great guy I'm proud to know on a first-name basis, and with good timing I plan to put him through Commander paces at Pro Tour Magic 2015. It isn't every day I get to learn from one of the game's greats myself!


While we'll follow up on convoke in Commander next week, I ran into an unexpected question that I'm sure some of you have considered in one way or another: Is there a commander in Commander to destroy on sight? If so, why?

  • Feedback via email
  • 300 word limit to explain which commander you target, and why
  • Sample decklist is requested (does not count against word limit)
  • Decklists should be formatted with one card per line with just a leading number, such as "3 Mountain"—just a space (no "x" or "-") between the number and the card name, without subtotals by card type (Submissions that don't follow this rule will be ignored.)
  • Name and email required (non-personal information to be used in column)

I have my own short list of "The Most Dangerous Commanders in Commander" that I'm hard-pressed to ignore when I play, and I know some of you have seen some incredibly powerful things leave their mark on your Commander memory.

Whether it's the commander itself, the ability it packs, or the decks it's associated with most, I want to know which you're on the lookout for and why you take them down at first chance.

Join us next week when we tap everybody out. See you then!

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