Crash Course in Commander for Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate

Posted in Feature on June 10, 2022

By Wizards of the Coast

This past week, we hosted part two of our three-part Discord Office Hours series aimed at answering questions directly from the community around the upcoming Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate set.

For our second Office Hours, we welcomed Wizards of the Coast Game Designer Gavin Verhey and Play Team Senior Operations Manager Scott Larabee to the Magic: The Gathering Discord channel to answer your questions around the Commander format as well as the upcoming set in general. In case you missed the office hours and couldn't join us on Discord, check out the recap below:

Athena (WotC Moderator): Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us. We are joined today by Wizards of the Coast Game Designer Gavin Verhey and Scott Larabee from the Commander Rules Committee—welcome, and thank you for being here!

  • Scott Larabee: Hello! I am Scott Larabee. I am the play team senior operations manager in R&D at Wizards of the Coast. I also have been on multiple design teams for Commander products. Outside of Wizards, I am also on the Commander Rules Committee with Sheldon Menery, Toby Elliott, and Gavin Duggan.
  • Gavin Verhey: Hi, everybody!! So excited to be talking Commander with you all today! Lots of love was put into these decks, can't wait for you to try them. I'm Gavin Verhey. I'm just some dude who makes Magic cards. It's fun, and somehow it's my job . . . okay, okay. I also was the lead designer for the Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Commander decks and on the main set team. And maybe you watch my YouTube channel, Good Morning Magic. Or follow me in one of six places on the internet. But really, just a guy who loves Magic and gets to make cards.

Athena: Alright. To start us off Scott, can you tell us a little about the history of Commander as a format?

  • Scott: Commander was developed as a format in Anchorage, Alaska, in 2003. Sheldon Menery was stationed in Anchorage at the time, serving in the US Air Force. At that time, only the five Elder Dragons were allowed as "generals" and were shuffled into the deck. Sheldon was redeployed to Virginia in 2004 and taught the format to a few folks locally. He also introduced it to judges on the Pro Tour. The Rules Committee was formed during this time.

Over time, the Rules Committee formed the rules as they are currently played today. Fun facts about early Commander rules:

    • At one time, the starting life total for each player was 200 divided by the number of players
    • All Commanders (then called "generals") had "protection from Karakas"
    • Singleton originally applied to basic lands
    • No other players in a game could have your Commander in their deck. (Edited)

Athena: Thank you! This one is for you, Gavin. Can you tell us about the Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate Commander decks and how they came to be?

  • Gavin: Yeah, for sure! When we decided we were doing a second Commander Legends set, we thought attaching decks to it would make sense to help expand the set a little further. It let us show off the set in ways we couldn't in the main set—for example, I was thrilled to use "party" as one of the themes because it didn't really work as a main set theme, but really made sense in the world of D&D. The first time around, in Commander Legends, we did two decks . . . but we really wanted a full gameplay experience of four decks here. So, we bumped it up to four decks. And from there, it was just a matter of finding all the themes . . . but that's for another question.

Athena: What is the Commander Rules Committee's role for this set?

  • Scott: For all sets, the Rules Committee gets a chance to review the cards and comment. Early on in the development of this particular set, we were consulted about back stories as a way to make drafting more interesting. Also, Gavin Verhey brought the decks down to Sheldon's house while Toby Elliott and I were there on vacation, so we had a chance to play and comment directly.

Athena: Speaking of drafting, Gavin, can you share what Commander Draft is and how it came to be?

  • Gavin: Sure! So I had the idea to merge two of my favorite formats: Draft and Commander. The idea was easy . . . but how would we make it work? We tried so many different versions of it! We ended up with two picks per pack to make the draft go faster, and so you could take cards that combo well together. For deck-building rules, we lowered it to 60 cards to make it more draftable and allowed duplicates because Draft lets you play any number of copies of a card (if you draft ten of a card in Streets of New Capenna, for example, you can play them all!). But our goal was that once the game started, it was just played like normal Commander—which is how it ended up!

Athena: With the precons, there's now a mythic Background for every color except green. Is there any plan to finish this pseudo-cycle in the future, or is Background unlikely to return in a future set?

  • Gavin: Ah, yes, the missing green Background. There were four decks, and we were doing one new Background per deck which meant that one color would be left out. Having, say, a green Background with just a green "Choose a Background" legend in the red-green deck for example would be confusing. And it's not like green is lacking for tools in Commander. That said, if we did some one-of Backgrounds again, I'd definitely expect us to finish it with a green one.

Athena: Is this set designed to be drafted 1v1 or as a four-player Commander game?

  • Gavin: You draft and then play multiplayer! My favorite way to play is draft at an eight-person table and split into two four-person games, but you can even draft it with four people. Great for keeping things small with friends right now!

Athena: Was removing the color-identity requirements for Draft ever a consideration when making the set?

  • Gavin: We did investigate it! We tried a lot of things. But there were already some compelling reasons not to . . . and then we talked with the Rules Committee. And maybe I should let Scott tell the rest of the story.
  • Scott: When the CRC was consulted about drafting for this set, we indicated that we felt messing with color identity was not something we wanted to see. However, as Gavin mentioned earlier, Singleton and 100-card decks were rules modifications we felt would be ok for drafting.

Athena: Do you think cross-pod matches work with Commander Draft?

  • Gavin: Yes! Absolutely. Something I even did with Commander Legends was save my decks to play against other people's later. Especially given it's multiplayer Magic, there's a lot of room for self-balancing in the game. You can always just attack the person with the best deck, after all! It's not like they're going to infinite combo you in Draft. (. . . Or at least if they did, I'd be very impressed.)

Athena: Thank you for all this fantastic insight into Commander Draft! Circling back to the Commander deck design, Gavin, can you share how the Commander face cards came to be? Were the existing D&D character legends designed top-down to fit that character, or were they created as bottom-up designs for the set and then assigned a character?

  • Gavin: Yeah, totally. It was sort of a little of both. We first figured out what the decks wanted to do—for example, that the party deck wanted a cheap commander who was good at assembling a party, and what creature type it would be. Then, we looked to the Baldur's Gate lore to see who might fit well. After selecting the character, we helped massage the rest of the design to feel more like the character—for example, Captain N'Ghathrod gained the ability to steal artifacts from graveyards because, I mean, it is a pirate!! So, it was a little back and forth between the creative and the mechanics. I am horribly biased of course, but I tend to think they ended up pretty fun and feeling like the characters, too.

Athena: How do you playtest for Commander in general? With other Constructed formats, you can add four copies and you'll likely see them at least every few games at worst, but that's not quite as easy with Commander's one-of limit and 100-card decks. You might play a dozen games and never see a card in a Commander game. Do you play with smaller, more focused Commander-style decks so you can play the cards more often? Or is there another strategy that you can talk about with how you playtest cards for Commander?

  • Gavin: Yeah, really great observation. It is definitely a bit different than normal Constructed formats. The good news is that your commander is going to see a lot of play since you'll have it every game. The others . . . not so much. We do a lot of cheating cards into people's hands or shuffling all the new cards into the top half of people's libraries. If there's a card we specifically want to try, we might just put it in an opening hand. We also have some other quirky rules—for example, I have people cycle Sol Ring if they draw it in the first four turns. I already know that Sol Ring is powerful and will shoot you far ahead; I don't need to learn that for the 200th time.
  • Scott: When playtesting Commander, sometimes I'll make a less optimal play in order to get a new card into play for testing.

Athena: How were the themes decided for the Commander decks?

  • Gavin: By doing a lot of hard work. ;) Okay, but really, we looked at things that made sense to do here and/or tied into the main set. It was a very long process, but to drill down the reasoning into just a sentence . . .
    • White-Black Party – Party makes so much sense for D&D but is hard to make work in the main set. By doing it in a precon, it could let us blow it out with D&D theming.
    • Red-Green Cast from Exile – This ties into Adventures into the main set and seemed like a pretty unique red-green theme to do.
    • Blue-Black Horrors – Mindflayers are awesome . . . and they also play a big role in Baldur's Gate 3! Seemed like a perfect tie-in to do it here.
    • Blue-Red Politics + Dragons – I always like doing one slightly quirkier theme, and Noah Millrod on our team had the idea of doing a Commander deck that cared about things that had to attack—both yours and your opponents. It morphed into this. Plus, Dragons!

That's it in a very quick nutshell—but there's plenty more to it of course. Check out Good Morning Magic for an upcoming video detailing it! Smash that like and subscribe button and . . . uh . . . stuff. Shameless plug. I guess I failed at making each of those just a single sentence. Ah, well. Sorry, English professors.

Athena: Looking more broadly at Commander as a format, how do you feel about "must include" cards?

  • Scott: I don't think there is any such thing as a "must include." I often leave "obvious" choices out of my decks. I enjoy playing decks that do something a bit off-center and not building my decks 100% optimally plays into that. People should play the decks they want to play. Have fun! Try different things! Embrace the chaos!

Athena: Is there a power level cutoff for commander cards? Is there ever a point where you look at a card and decide that it's too broken and needs to be scaled back? If so, were there any instances of this happening in the set?

  • Gavin: Oh yeah, all the time. We think a lot about Commander power level and are constantly reining in our cards. For every time a card makes it through that makes people's eyes bulge at how ridiculous it is, there are probably a thousand that never saw the light of day. For example, one card we weakened a lot was Baeloth Barrityl, Entertainer. We found that mass goad of all creatures had fans but was frustrating if it was too powerful. We weakened it to be five mana and only impact 1-power creatures at base. After testing, it was very killable and dealt with but still let the people who really loved it play with it. And yes, you can Raised by Giants it—but the fact it's five, seven, and nine mana to recast is a pretty big price.

Baeloth Barrityl

Athena: I've heard opinions that there are too many overly "designed for Commander" cards seeing play in today's environment. How would you address this as a perceived issue and is it possible we could see much more subtle design for Commander in the future?

  • Gavin: Yeah, definitely taken a lot of this feedback under consideration. And I think you've really been starting to see it recently. We want to make more niche cards and legends that inspire you to go build different kinds of decks. We want to really avoid outmoding current popular (or even semi-popular) commanders and focus on new things. I feel like this set has done a pretty good job of that and getting our power level in about the right spot. We're trying to not make format hyper-staples either—Arcane Signet was a mistake. (I made a whole video about that!) The one place where we have been a little more aggressive is on the strong white cards recently. Because, well, we listen to feedback, and y'all have certainly been asking. We're not aiming for "staple in every white deck," but "strong consideration for any white deck" is a reasonable target.

Athena: Scott, what game space do you hope to see designers delve more into when creating legendary creatures?

  • Scott: I think the designers have been doing a great job. The CRC has always said that we prefer commanders that are not power engines all on their own (produce both the resource and the payoff), and we have seen quite a bit less of this style of Commander. Going forward, I'd like to see more Commanders that allow a new take on a known archetype (different colors, etc.).

Athena: Gavin, back to Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate how was it decided that Dragons should be a Temur-focused archetype this set?

  • Gavin: Well, it is called Dungeons and Dragons. That's half the name!!! There are a lot of reasons why, but one thing that's unique about D&D is it has dragonborn—small, nonflying dragons. So, we could actually do Dragon-themed archetypes with creatures up and down the curve, not all of which fly. That's a pretty unique and special thing about this product.

Athena: Finally, to wrap us up . . . as we all know, the last cut for a Commander deck is always the hardest. What was the last card that you cut from your most recent deck?

  • Scott: The 101st card from my Blue-White Ranar deck was Millicent, Restless Revenant. I was never happy when I drew it, so I replaced it. This is often how I make changes to decks.
  • Gavin: Oh, that's easy. I was changing my deck last night for a playtest today. I was really heartbroken about it, but I had to cut [censored Dominaria United card].

Athena: Alrighty, everyone! Our time here is coming to an end. I would like to thank everyone who joined us and submitted questions. And a special thank you to Scott and Gavin for taking the time to talk with us all!

  • Scott: Thanks, everyone! Hope to see you at a CommandFest soon! I'll be at Richmond this weekend and Orlando in July. Also, check out the Commander Rules Committee Twitch channel. We stream every Thursday at 8:30 p.m. US Eastern. You can follow the Commander Rules Committee on Twitter @Mtgcommander.
  • Gavin: Thank you so much for hanging out today. You can follow me all over the internet, wherever my information is bought and sold. But the best places to find me are (you might notice a theme):

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