Commander (2019 Edition) Design Philosophy

Posted in Feature on August 9, 2019

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 hope you've enjoyed preview season for Commander (2019 Edition)! These products have a special place in my heart, as I've been on a design team for each one since joining Wizards. Commander 2019 marks my first project as a full-time game designer, and my first lead role for Set Design. I also worked on the Vision Design team with Ethan Fleischer, who provided us with an excellent handoff and starting position.

Team Players

Having participated on so many previous teams, I wanted to use C19 as an opportunity to test changes to our process and new systems with the potential to benefit future products. One massive change we made was to the structure of Set Design. Rather than have four or five designers each carry a deck across the finish line, the team essentially swapped two designers out for two new ones each month and exchanged decks multiple times. Combined with a surge in internal playtesting solicitations, I believe these decks may have been playtested by more unique players than any other Commander product we've made!

It's customary to open these articles with a list of my teammates and their efforts, but that would be an article unto itself because nine other designers contributed mightily to the final product!

Meet the designers

Bryan Hawley

Scott Larabee

Max McCall

David McDarby

Chris Mooney

Ken Nagle

Mike Turian

Gerritt Turner

Andrew Veen

A major unexpected benefit of rotating team members so much was that no one ever really left the team. Former team members continued to check in on our progress, review designs, and volunteer for extra playtests. As a first-time lead, having such a dedicated group supporting me meant more than I can express.

In addition to the above, I received guidance and advice from both Ben Hayes and Gavin Verhey, two longtime friends and Commander collaborators. Thank you both!

Design Goals

I've been tweeting some "design stories" for people interested in a behind-the-scenes look at things, and you can feel free to ask me questions about the set there (@SecludedGlenn). Rather than take a granular look at the creation of Commander 2019 here, I'd like to use this column to give you some insight into our goals for Commander products and how our design choices serve those goals, and, ultimately, your experience as a player.

1. Introduce Commander

Commander fixed-deck products are primarily aimed at two audiences: Commander players and Magic players interested in joining the fun. Since both groups are Magic players, we have solid foundations for building a multiplayer experience. The rules of Magic, complex gameplay, a playgroup, a place to game, even favored content sources—there's a lot to take for granted.

Our responsibility is to ensure that those audiences have a good time, but there is another audience to consider: players new to Magic. While we design other content for new players, players ultimately find their own entry points. Commander fixed-deck products are a popular first purchase for players with friends who already play or with game stores that host events. They have a complete deck, a solid start to your collection, and showcase the variety Magic has to offer. A social gaming community with Commander at its center is also less intimidating than Magic's more competitive environments, so it makes sense for game stores to point newcomers that way.

Three elements are especially useful for connecting these audiences. The first is the theme. Building each deck around a creative and/or mechanical identity is an effective structure for everyone's experience. This year's populate deck is an excellent example. Making multiple huge token creatures has a universal appeal, but there are enough small tricks, like populating a "temporary" token created by a red card, to build depth that experienced players can explore.

The second is the multiplayer environment. Commander is complicated! Even if our fixed decks were simpler, mixing in other players' decks guarantees unpredictable complexity. That's a typical obstacle to joining any Magic community as a new player, but Commander has a unique advantage. The social contract places some responsibility for each player's fun with their opponents, so it's a great place to learn from more experienced players, even during games. When questions arise, there are always a few players around to help navigate something complicated or explain a better play for next time.

That said, I wouldn't expect to see the banding-themed deck anytime soon. Complexity is a tool, but it's not a goal unto itself.

The third is deck building. The strength of these fixed decks varies year-to-year, because they're balanced against one another, but we try to make sure they have the basic tools of the format, like sweepers, haymakers, mana fixing, etc. However, we leave room to improve them because upgrading your own deck for your metagame is an important part of Commander. Similarly, the cards and interactions available out of the box demonstrate what we consider an optimal social experience, especially for newcomers. Every playgroup is different, so if your table doesn't mind Brine Elemental, by all means, add it to the morph deck and salt your foes to taste!

2. Inspire New Decks

Each year uses different lenses to view the format and offer something players don't already have. The most exciting new cards for Commander are, of course, new legendary creatures (and the occasional planeswalker). A new commander carries the promise of untapped potential, and the Commander community has a passion for deck building like no other—one I share. Every Commander team spends time studying websites and forums for voids to turn into opportunities. Here are some questions we ask ourselves:

  • Which color combinations lack commanders?
  • Which tribes need a commander? In which colors?
  • Which archetypes could use a new commander?
  • Which archetypes could exist in a different color combination?

I'm sure you can see how some answers to these questions have directly influenced the design of several products and their legends, including Commander 2019.

Atla Palani, Nest TenderRayami, First of the FallenGerrard, Weatherlight Hero

We try to ensure one new commander in each deck offers you a unique deck-building challenge that doesn't match the primary theme exactly. Since a trial run in Commander (2017 Edition), we've also included "bonus" legendary creatures to create even more potential new build-arounds. The on-color legends all need to function as commanders, but an off-color legend can get very wild.

Color combinations don't always follow expectations, and that's purposeful. This year has two particularly clear examples: Jeskai flashback and Naya populate. Most players thought Grixis and Selesnya seemed like obvious candidates for those mechanics—and those players were right! That's one reason strong and popular commanders for those strategies already exist. Shifting our themes into new colors adds new decks to the format, new design space to Magic, and new potential for existing cards. Full Flowering a Heart-Piercer Manticore token is exactly as awesome as it sounds.

Full FloweringHeart-Piercer Manticore

We're happy to make new cards for Kess, Rhys, and Trostani, but our primary goal is to add depth to the format by spreading the commanders further apart in colors. That doesn't mean we never offer a "change of leadership" to diversify an existing theme; we did exactly that for Dragons in Commander 2017.

3. Support Existing Decks

The burden of spawning new decks falls primarily on our legends, giving new card content more room to maneuver. We take many shots with these cards, and ideally each card is taking more than one. There's an endless list of possible effects to add or augment for Commander, and figuring out which ones to address each year is a challenge unto itself. We use feedback from influencers, social media, and the Commander Rules Committee to figure out what the format lacks and look for opportunities to provide support.

Sevinne's Reclamation

Take Sevinne's Reclamation. This card uses our mechanical theme to show Sevinne seeking relics, but it's also white card advantage that can even ramp mana under the right circumstances—it's got tons of angles. It's a particularly great fit in mono-white decks, which face many obstacles for multiplayer viability. Ideally, every color combination feels viable, and we try to include a card or two in each product to bolster mono-white decks while staying true to white's color pie.

When certain cards and strategies are too popular or frustrating, we try to add more answers to the format. Effects like Cyclonic Rift and commanders with hexproof are two classic examples. Mandate of Peace and Leadership Vacuum, respectively, are both uniquely suited to handle those problems and more. You're getting two solutions for the price of one with Leadership Vacuum, as it's also an efficient way to disrupt partners.

Mandate of PeaceLeadership Vacuum

Designing cards to impact Commander without making them too strong can be tricky, and great design work inevitably risks miscalculation on a long enough timeline. To paraphrase Erik Lauer: "If you never design a card that could get banned, you're being too cautious." That's where the game balance experts on our Play Design team are a huge help. For Commander 2019, Michael Majors was instrumental, and surprisingly tolerant of my incessant hypotheticals, but the whole Play Design team contributed in various capacities.

Commander 2019 should make some decks stronger, but not with the same cards and not every deck. The format already has many pseudo-staples, so there's no need to push cards that look strong in every deck.

4. Surprise and Delight

Commander preconstructed decks represent a unique space for Magic to try out things that might not work for Standard products. Many of our go-tos should seem familiar if you've played previous Commander preconstructed decks:

  • Popular and/or deceased story characters
  • Commander-specific effects
  • New cards for old mechanics

We mined that last one a little harder than usual this year.

Looking for classic characters to revisit is always exciting for me as a lore fan. I am particularly thrilled with the Commander 2019 callbacks, as so many are beloved parts of my own Magic history. Tempest was my first non-Portal booster pack, and I've been a diehard fan of the Weatherlight Saga ever since. Time Streams is my favorite Urza Planeswalker novel, so I was elated when our Creative team agreed to bring K'rrik to life. And, of course, how could we build a madness deck without Chainer himself?

I've always enjoyed collaborating with the concept writers and art directors at Wizards, and Commander 2019 was no exception. Emily Teng and Taylor Ingvarsson deserve many of your kudos for their work bringing the art and characters of this set to life.

Volrath, the ShapestealerK'rrik, Son of YawgmothChainer, Nightmare Adept

Do we have a thing for villains? Maybe.

Each design team strives to find novel cards that land in these categories. After all, where else can you reverse the turn order? You always have to keep an open mind to find the best stuff. In the pursuit of novelty, Commander hole-filling and design homework has a tendency to return exciting cards across the spectrum. We can't use them all, but the excess means we wind up with several awesome designs to plug into other sets, including the occasional Standard card.

Even reprints can create new moments of discovery. My favorite part of building these products is always finding two-card synergies that players find as they play more games with each deck. A favorite in this set is Ral Zarek untapping Empowered Autogenerator to charge it up even faster—but I wouldn't want to spoil any more for you before release.

Ral ZarekEmpowered Autogenerator

If you'd like to celebrate Commander 2019's debut with me, I'll be making my way to MagicFest Las Vegas! I'm excited by all the events CFB Events has in store. Feel free to say "Hello" if you spot me, as I'll be roaming the floor to discuss the set, collect feedback and cool stories, and play lots of Commander!

—Glenn Jones

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