Saturday, 5:00 p.m. – Commander Roundtable

Posted in Event Coverage on August 6, 2011

By Nate Price

A longtime member of the Pro Tour and Grand Prix coverage staff, Nate Price now works making beautiful words for all of you lovely people as the community manager for organized play. When not covering events, he lords over the @MagicProTour Twitter account, ruling with an iron fist.

One of the coolest parts of most conventions, at least from a fan perspective, is the opportunity to sit in on panels comprised of some of the people who design and produce the games and shows you enjoy. Here at Gen Con, one of the panels available to the public was a roundtable of some of the creators, designers, and developers of Magic's newest multiplayer product: Commander. This Commander Roundtable answered questions from players about the product that was released, as well as the format itself. Sitting on the panel were the following four dapper gentlemen:

Left to right, Ken Nagle, Mark Gottlieb, Sheldon Menery, Scott Larabee

  • Scott Larabee(SL) – In addition to being the Organized Play manager, Larabee was on the Commander design team, as well as being a member of the rules committee that governs the format.
  • Sheldon Menery (SM) – As a level 5 judge, Menery went by the moniker "The Sherriff." As one of the creators of the Commander format and a member of the rules committee, he polices the format, keeping it safe for players the world over.
  • Mark Gottlieb (MG) – An advanced developer in R&D and former rules manager, Gottlieb was also a member of the Commander design team.
  • "Phyrexian" Ken Nagle (KN) – Nagle-tron 5000 is a man of many talents. Magic designer, casual commando, Phyrexian Infiltrator, and member of Commander R&D are just a few to chew on.

Now on to the questions!

"Why five decks?"KN – Originally there was a much bigger vision for the Commander product. After thinking about ways to do it, we had a lot of options, such as arcs or four-color generals. We ended up going with the three-color wedges, so we got five decks.

"Any thought about doing four-color generals?"
MG – There's always the possibility. We mainly focused on the wedges because we knew that's what the community wanted. We thought long and hard about the best way to do things, and ultimately the wedges were what we went with. I definitely think we could do four- color generals in the future, though. One difficult thing about the four-color generals is identity. Five-color ones can clearly have an identity and do ridiculous things, and the wedges are focused enough as well, but a four-color general is tough to concept because they are defined by the color they lack. Figuring out how the lack of a color affects something is actually quite difficult. There is this sort of "no-man's land" between five colors and three colors where figuring out what a four-color general is able to do and what makes sense.
SL – We made some throughout this development, but they didn't end up feeling much like a four-color card. Ultimately, I think some of the abilities ended up on the three-color generals that made the set.

"Are you planning on keeping the format more of a casual format?"
All – YES!
SL – I was asked this in San Diego. Someone asked if we are ever going to sanction the format, and I was easily able to unequivocably answer, "NO."
SM – One of the big secrets to keeping things at the level you want them is finding people of the same mindsets as you. If four Spikes want to get together and see who can combo off first, they are more than happy to. It's what they all want to do. There's this precarious balance where you have to understand that players are going to play cards that wreck another strategy, but still allow them to play. There is going to be graveyard hate. There is going to be enchantment removal and the like. But there is always a chance to play in those games despite the hate. A good thing to check is body language. If the people you are playing with are clearly not having fun, why would they continue to play?

Mark Gottlieb

"Did you guys think that the cards in this set would have a splash in other formats as they have?"
MG – It was definitely a possibility. Some we kind of knew might, but there are others we've been quite pleased with and surprised about. This is the first time that we've added new cards to a multiplayer product, and we had to be very conscious about how they were going to interact in the other formats.

"I've noticed that there are a number of commanders that are strictly better in one-on-one than in multiplayer. Did you ever take this into consideration?"
SM – …Um…what? What is this one-on-one? Never heard of it.

"What is your preferred number of players for multiplayer?"
SL – Hah! This is a great question. I will not play in a game with more than five players, and if I'm playing in a five-player game, they had better be players I want to spend the next three hours with. We play every Friday at the office, and you just sit down and form tables of four. If that means you have to wait, you have to wait.

"I know that you've introduced a little point system to help moderate the games (positive points for doing cool things and losing points for doing "unfun" things). Have they worked?"
SM – There is still some tweaking to do with them, but I am really happy with how they've helped out. There are some interesting problems when people do something ridiculous, like a guy who comes in and turn-four kills everyone at the table each week and ends up losing in the league. They don't understand it. But the point system is a great way to craft the types of games you want to see played. If you play with a consistent group of people, or frequently at a store, I highly recommend you visit armadagames.com and check out our rules and implement something like that on your own. It all comes down to this for me: In competitive Magic, I want nothing more than to destroy you as badly as I can. But in Commander, while I still want to beat you, more than that I want to see what ridiculous crazy thing you are going to do! It's what Commander is about! Systems like this help greatly with making sure that an environment like that exists.

Phyrexian Ken Nagle

"What are your favorite commanders?"
KN – My favorite is The Mimeoplasm. We worked really hard with the rules team to make this work, but it was definitely worth it. I just love that every time you play him, it's a different combination of creatures, so it's always fresh.
MG – Right now, my favorite deck is a Ghost Council of Orzhova deck. I have Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter, in that deck, and, though he's not my general, I love what happens when I get him into play. He was the general I worked on, so he has a special place with me.
SM – I played The Mimeoplasm deck all release day, and really liked it. But I think I've had the most fun with Animar, Soul of Elements. I mean, you don't even need Doubling Season to make him good. It's all about fun. Casting a 32/32 Apocalypse Hydra for two mana is always great. Unfortunately, the deck doesn't really run at all without Animar.
SL – I haven't used any of the new commanders yet, but I designed the original card that became The Mimeoplasm. It went through a few changes before it ended up the way it did, but I still have a connection to it. I'd like to try it sometime. I'd also like to Kaalia of the Vast and Tariel, Reckoner of Souls, a try.

"What is your favorite theme for a deck?"
KN – Heh, we have this type of game called "My Favorite Creatures" at the office where you pick a type of creature and run with it. For example, mine is My Favorite Fatties, because I love fatties, which happen to be pretty good in Commander.
MG – I tend to play the controlling decks that find the thing that is affecting the board the most and get rid of it. I just want to draw the game out.
SM – I have Karthus and his Beasts, mostly because all of the good beasts are Jund colors. They don't really work together, but I'm trying to find a way to link them up more. There are like eight Jund generals so I'm looking at them to try to make things better. I love themes in everything. My newest theme is called Lighten Up, Francis, which is a hexproof, shroud version of Phelddagrif.
SL – I like to build lots of other decks, just like Sheldon. I like to keep things kind of simple sometimes, like a white weenie deck where I just have to play some plains and play things. I also have a UBR Vampire deck that I call "All Upside for Me, All Downside for You." I just wanted to put together a bunch of cards that I wanted to play before I realized that there were a lot of Vampires among them, and it took off from there.

"From an R&D standpoint, was there anything that got drastically changed?"
KN – We sent off tri-lands that tapped for a wedge of colors and put them into their respective decks, but development condensed them all into Command Tower, which was great because something like that allowed us to free up some slots in the deck to make cooler things for the deck. "Why can't you play hybrid cards if you're playing one of the colors?"
SM – I am going to start by saying this: The hybrid rules aren't changing. We all generally feel this way on the rules committee, though at different points on the spectrum. Deck construction in Commander is about restriction as opposed to inclusion, making clever choices with fewer choices as opposed to more. A card like Debtors' Knell, for example, is black and white, not black when you pay black and white when you play white. We feel that only players who are black and white both should get to play black and white cards.

Sheldon Menery, in action spellslinging with Commander decks.

"What about Phyrexian mana?"
SM – It's the same philosophy. Blue Phyrexian mana is still blue.

"What impact do you think the release of Commander has had on the community?"
SM – It's let everyone know how awesome I am.
SL – Honestly, I think it's really helped people have more fun. There are a lot of people around the office who never used to really play Magic for fun, but now they do. It's great to see. It's nice to see players of all levels of competitiveness picking it up, too. There are players that will be casual players their entire lives who love Commander. There are also a bunch of Pro players who like to play as a way to relax when they don't have to be super competitive.

"How does commander influence your actual card design?"
MG – Ken Nagle sits around and decides he wants a new commander, so he makes Wrexial, the Risen Deep. Then he's playing it around the office before the sets even come out to print, and we're all like, "You can't play that! It's not even a real card yet!"
KN – Yes, when you make the cards, you get to make the decisions. One good example is from New Phyrexia. Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur, definitely became a ten-drop because of Commander, because people get all sad when a card is too good.

"Has there been any thought about how you might change things to accommodate poison?"
SM – We talked a lot and decided that things don't really matter. First, we want to make as few changes to the rules as possible. On top of that, the numbers are just impossible to figure. Twenty is too many, fifteen is not enough. Honestly, you're going to get Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon guy, and if you don't like playing him, you can always stop, and maybe he'll find another deck. One other reason we think it's ok is that Acquire costs five, and Bribery costs five…and Blightsteel Colossus costs twelve. That's what I like to do. You kill them enough times with their own Blightsteel, and they'll see the light. I've started playing Backlash and Delirium since people have been playing him. There are always good answers to good cards.

The panel was a fun way for players who are fans of the Commander format to interact with people who have greatly contributed to making Commander, which is an awesome contribution to the community. Everyone really seemed to have fun, especially the panelists. With casual on their minds, everyone really got to let loose and be themselves, which definitely led to some people getting their first glimpse of surly Menery. He got a lot of great laughs, as everyone on the panel did. In addition to being really fun, everyone learned a lot, making this event a huge success. 

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