Developing Cards for Commander

Posted in Latest Developments on November 6, 2015

By Sam Stoddard

Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

With Commander (2015 Edition), one of our goals was to provide the best experience for our target audience first—which is the Commander player. That meant finding ways to design and develop cards that are better for Commander games, but that can also have some applications for Cubes, Eternal formats, or just casual one-on-one Magic.

Looking back at it, True-Name Nemesis was a mistake, and not just because it is so annoying to play against in Legacy. The first reason is that the card just isn't that good in multiplayer. If it was "gains protection from every opponent except one," then it would be a more appropriate card for a product like this that is aimed at Commander players and not meant as a hard plant for Legacy. At the same time, we never really tested True-Name Nemesis in a format where it was very good—so we underestimated not only how strong it was (we knew it would be powerful), but how unfun it was. Whenever someone cast the card, they did it in a very different scenario than it would see in most of its realistic real-world play.

That isn't to say we are not going to put cards in Commander products that are powerful or have applications in Eternal formats, but I hope that in the future we do a better job of making sure we have a solid grasp on the card from actual playtesting, so that they do a better job of working not just in that Eternal format, but also in Commander.

To that end, the mechanic myriad was designed with multiplayer in mind. Looking back at the work we did on Magic: The Gathering—Conspiracy, one of the breakthroughs was to make mechanics that purposefully created churn in the games and rewarded being active, not just sitting back. When we were working on Conspiracy, design came up with myriad as a mechanic that could both scale well in multiplayer and also moved the game along.

Grasp of Fate is an example of a single card that is well positioned for multiplayer because it scales with the number of players, but also provides a lot of drama. While it is easy to assume that the other players would want to gang up on you to get their permanents out from under the Grasp, that may not always be true. Many times, if one player will be getting a real threat back, the other players may work to keep you alive. It's those kinds of individual card designs that we want to keep putting in Commander products, to help drive fun and interesting games.

Grasp of Fate | Art by Tomasz Jedruszek

Experience counters, while not explicitly a multiplayer mechanic, are best in games that go for a long time. You could have multiple copies of different experience legends in a casual deck, but realistically, you are going to get experience counters by casting your legends over and over again, and doing "the thing." As you do, they will effectively level up and help to move the game toward a conclusion. While most of the experience commanders are a little weaker on their first trip onto the battlefield, they will likely out-level your opponent's commanders as the game goes on.

Developing Independently Cool Cards

If all we did in the Commander decks was put in cards that scaled well in multiplayer, we would quickly run out of design space without making Commander any more fun as a whole. Instead, we also take the opportunity in Commander to try out some different designs, and to try some things out to see what boundaries can be pushed. In the past, cards like Scavenging Ooze were cards that started off in Commander that we found fun enough to reprint later for use in both Standard and Modern. Obviously, the vast majority of the cards we print in Commander products won't end up directly appearing in later expansions, but the fact that we have this to use as a kind of testing ground for exact cards and designs is very useful.

To give you an idea of the kinds of cards I am talking about, look at the cycle of Confluence cards. They were designed by C15's lead designer, Dan Emmons, during Dragons of Tarkir design, but they were not something we felt we would have an easy time developing for Standard—though, in fairness, at the time they had four modes instead of three. After mulling it over for a bit, we ended up replacing them in the file with regular Commands, and these got pushed out, only to find their way here. When you are working in Magic R&D, you often have a personal file in Multiverse (our internal card database) where you keep cards that you design and like, but that don't get used in a set for whatever reason. Often, you will find that when looking for something new and exciting to put in a set, these cards can fit the bill and get a second chance at life.

To be sure, these Confluences took a lot of work to get right, on both the design and development sides (as well as on the rules side and the digital side), but I believe they were worth it. One of the cool things about Magic cards is that they get to build on each other. When we started working on DTK's design, we didn't yet put bullet points on cards, so it made these cards very hard to read and play. Once we added the technology (I mean in the rules sense for the game, not the digital sense) to use bullet points, it made creating cards like this in an organized and grokkable fashion much easier, and led to these going from something that looked un-implementable to something that you will be able to get your hands on very soon.

What's great about Magic R&D is that we like to iterate and build on things that work. Now that we have the ability to make these exact cards, they are something else like Charms or Commands that go into our bag of tricks that we can pull from in future sets—be they Commander or Standard sets. Commander sets let us do some experimentation on mechanics that may not be quite ready for a regular set, but that still have a lot of promise.

Wretched Confluence | Art by Kieran Yanner

Testing the Decks

When developing Commander decks, we are both developing the individual cards for the larger world that they will go into and also developing the Commander decks to play against each other. While we don't expect the majority of the games with these cards to be played against each other, one of the main reasons we release these decks year after year is to give players a starting point to lead into both Commander and Magic. We want to make sure that if a group of new or old players were to each buy one of the decks and play them against each other, they would have a good time. It may not be as rich of an experience as a Commander game that involves multiple people who know their decks inside and out and who have spent months or even years perfecting them, but I think that is okay. We want these to be an entry point into the format, and I don't think we will ever be able to make these as fun as something that a person has tweaked to their own preferences. What we do want to make ensure is that after playing the decks, the players will want to take things to the next level—and a big part of that is the balance.

Luckily for us, there is a lot more wiggle room in balancing decks for multiplayer, since if one player is dominating, the rest of the players can gang up on them and naturally balance out one deck being somewhat stronger than the rest. Still, we don't rely on that to do all of the work. We also play a lot of games with these decks against each other, to get to the point where we don't have an idea of which deck is the strongest one and where the choice of which one to play really comes down to personal preference.

When developing the decks, we also wanted to create obvious ways for these decks to improve in a sideways direction, as opposed to just adding in more powerful cards. In the past, we have put alternate commanders in the decks with the idea that people playing the decks stock could swap them in and out. The thing that didn't work with that was that the decks were built around the face commander, not one of the alternate ones, so the play experience was not ideal. For Commander (2015 Edition), we decided to embrace that and give you commanders that can act as seeds for a new deck that will use many of the same cards, but requires a lot more from your own collection. Kaseto, Orochi Archmage, as an example, works in the deck with Ezuri but can also be the start of a Snake tribal Commander deck. We gave you just enough Snakes in the green-blue Commander (2015 Edition) deck to make the legend work, but not enough for him to be a satisfying commander without some modifications.

That's it for this week. Next week is the Magic Online takeover week, so I won't be here—but I will be back the week after that with a very special M-Files, focusing on the original Zendikar sets six years later. I can't wait to see what we find!

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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