Commander in Chief

Posted in Making Magic on October 27, 2014

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Welcome to Commander (2014 Edition) Preview Week. This week we'll be taking a look at the upcoming Commander (2014 Edition) product. I'll introduce you to the design team, explain a bit about how the design got put together, and show off a cool preview card. I should point out that Lead Designer Ethan Fleischer (along with Lead Developer Ian Duke) has a feature article today about the design, so I'm going to try to hit some similar topics from a slightly different vantage point.

Same Time Next Year

For those unaware, I guess I'll start with the history of the Commander product line. Each summer, we like to create an alternative product that allows Magic players to experience more offbeat (and usually casual-friendly) formats. In the summer of 2009, we released Planechase, a format where players jumped from plane to plane using giant cards to represent the impact each plane had on the game. In 2010, we released Archenemy, a product that allowed one player to build a massively powerful deck he or she could use to take on a group of other players. In 2011, we released a series of five Commander decks.

The original Commander set, released in 2011

Commander was a format begun by several judges, where players put together 99-card singleton decks along with one commander. The commanders were originally one of the five Elder Dragon legends from Legends but soon was changed to any legendary creature. The commander choice dictated what colors could be used in the deck. Soon there was a Commander rules committee that oversaw the format (and continues to, to this day) and made banning decisions to help keep the format balanced.

The Commander decks were a giant hit. So big, in fact, that we realized we had something that was far too good to just do as a one-time product. Due to our lead time, it took two years to make the shift, but starting last year, the Commander decks have become an annual product. Today, I'm going to walk you through some of the issues that the product creates, and then explain how Ethan and his team handled them.

Color Me Impressed

Commander (2014 Edition) is a deck release, meaning that instead of selling it through booster packs, it's sold through preconstructed 100-card decks complete with one official commander and two supplemental commanders. The key to designing this product is figuring out what the theme of the decks is going to be. Usually, that theme revolves around color.

Armillary Sphere | Art by Franz Vohwinkel

The original Commander chose to focus on "wedge" decks (i.e., three-color combinations based around a color and its two enemies). At the time, there were very few wedge legendary creatures and there was a lot of demand among Commander players. Commander (2013 Edition) chose to keep the three-color theme but this time focus on "arc" decks (i.e., three-color combinations based around a color and its two allies). Commander (2014 Edition) started with the following dictum—it had to do something new. That meant not wedge decks and not arc decks. Okay, three-color was out.

This left a bunch of different options:

1. Magic has never made four-color legendary creatures, so there are always players asking for us to finally provide them. Four-color decks was an option.
2. Ally-colored commanders are very popular and the team could find a new way to make use of them.
3. Likewise, enemy-colored commanders are popular and, historically, Magic has done fewer of those.
4. The team could do monocolored decks. Ethan had done some research and monocolored Commander decks were quite common.
5. None of the above. The team came up with numerous other options that didn't line up directly with how many colors the decks used.

Each of these was a good idea and Ethan knew whatever he didn't do could be done in a future year. After exploring all the options, Ethan made the call to go with monocolored decks. All he had to do was find a cool hook.

Planeswalking the Walk

What do Nicol Bolas, Karn, and Venser have in common? They are the three post-Mending Planeswalkers you can choose as a commander in the Commander format. Why? They are the three characters to exist both as a legendary creature and as a Planeswalker. (Karn also appears as a Vanguard card for extra bragging rights.)

The reason behind the decision to have legendary creatures serve as commanders came from the Vorthosian roots of the format. The format began with the idea that you chose one of the original five legendary elder dragons (of which Nicol Bolas was one) to serve as the leader of your deck. The rules were eventually changed to allow any legendary creature to serve the role of commander.

So, when Ethan and his team were looking to find something new to do with commanders, they stumbled upon an idea that seemed very natural. The game has one other type of card that functions as a specific character—planeswalker. Having one of them take the role of a commander felt right, flavor-wise. In fact, there are numerous players who have informally chosen to allow Planeswalkers to serve as commanders (although I should point out that the official rules do not allow that).

Actually, I'm telling the tale a bit backwards. Ethan liked the idea of having a card other than a legendary creature that could serve as a commander. When the team sat down to figure out what made sense, they drifted to the obvious answer—Planeswalkers. Often in design, you have what I call a moment of clarity, where a decision that's so clearly the obvious decision gets put in front of the team and all exploration stops as everyone involved knows you have found the correct answer. The moment a team member suggested the idea of Planeswalkers that could be commanders, the team had its moment of clarity.

Ethan knew there were two major hurdles the team had to overcome. One, they had to prove that they could make designs that would work. Planeswalkers are not always a perfect fit for the Commander format, so the design was going to be tricky. Two, once the team figured out the design, they had to get the blessing of the Commander rules committee. Remember that Commander was neither created by, nor is currently overseen by, Wizards of the Coast. This means that, each year, as we fiddle with the format in our Commander product, we have to check in with the Commander rules committee to make sure they we have its blessing. (We did check in, by the way, and we do have its blessing.)

Ethan and his team set out to prove, first of all, that they could design Planeswalkers that would play well as commanders. It's easy to jump to the conclusion that the Planeswalkers were built top-down, as they represent some famous characters from Magic's past, but the opposite was actually true. Because the design was so tricky, Ethan had his team start with the mechanics making sure the Planeswalkers were fun to play. Only after that was done would they figure out who the Planeswalkers were going to be.

While all this was happening, something else was going on that would have a profound impact on the Planeswalkers.

Missing Persons

To explain this next part, I have to first explain something about how sets are made. The first team to touch a set is design. We do exploratory design, and then we start normal design. During this period, we check in with development and the creative team. We help work out the basic essence of what the mechanics are and what the world will be. The details of the creative don't come until later. It's not until late in development that the creative elements, from the art to the names to the flavor text, start to get finalized. (The art is assigned many weeks earlier but the artists are given time to do their work.)

The order is important because it creates a problem that tends to happen every year. The creative team tends to flesh out the world, including some characters, while working on flavor text. The key characters are discussed much earlier, but often other characters (much less important ones to the overall story) get formed a little later. The perfect example of this is Geralf and Gisa. The brother and sister were a major player in the flavor text of Innistrad, but they didn't exist until well past the point where we would have made cards for them. In fact, it wasn't until the set came out that we even got a sense of how popular they would become.

All during Innistrad block, players kept asking us for Geralf and Gisa, but by the time you all knew to ask, it was past the point where we could make the cards. This kind of thing happens from time to time, so we've started creating lists of characters that the players want but we were unable to deliver on.

Ethan and his team liked the idea that they could use one of their legendary creature cycles to address some of these missing creatures. The success of this cycle made them realize they were onto something. Nostalgia is a powerful tool, and it helped give the set a distinctive feel. Well, if it worked for legendary creatures, why not try to do the same with the Planeswalker commanders?

Ethan and his team went to the creative team to start exploring who their Planeswalkers could be. Because it was important that the Planeswalkers played well, the mechanics had been locked in place first, which meant the trick was finding characters who matched the designs. One of the first characters to get nailed down was Teferi.

Teferi was one of Urza's students, ages ago, at the Tolarian Academy. He was just a boy when the temporal accident happened, trapping him in a slow-time bubble, burning to death. He would grow up to play a major role in the Mirage story. His time magic seemed like a perfect fit for the team's out-of-the-box design for the blue Planeswalker.

The other four Planeswalkers took a little longer to nail down. My preview today is the green Planeswalker, so I'm going to talk a little about her. Freyalise was a half-elf/half-human Planeswalker who played a big role in the Ice Age story, casting the World Spell that ended the ice age. She was one of the Nine Titans that Urza brought together to fight the Phyrexians during the Phyrexian invasion of Dominaria (in the Invasion block). She then showed up in the Time Spiral block, where she helped to seal the rift that threatened the Multiverse.

The design team, along with the creative team, searched through a long list of possible green characters. But when the dust settled, it was clear that Freyalise was the perfect choice. So without any further ado, I would like to introduce you all to Freyalise.

Everyone on Deck

Once they had their Planeswalkers and legendary creatures, it was time for Ethan and his team to start building the decks. The Commander product consists of five 100-card decks. Each deck has 15 new cards and 85 reprints. For Commander (2014 Edition), these decks are all monocolored.

The Commander design teams always have five designers. The product has five decks. Perhaps you see where this is going? For Commander designs, each designer is responsible for one deck. He does the initial work on compiling the deck and then the entire team helps iterate and improve upon it. I would now like to introduce you to the five members of the Commander (2014 Edition) design team (along with the deck each designed):

Ethan Fleischer (lead)—Red

Ethan was the winner of the second Great Designer Search. He won a six-month internship which he managed to turn into a fulltime design job. I put him onto the design team of Theros (where he was my strong second) and then Born of the Gods to get him ready for the first giant design challenge, leading the design of Journey into Nyx. It was a daunting task that Ethan accomplished with much aplomb. Because there is no rest for the design-inclined, shortly thereafter he was assigned the task of designing Commander (2014 Edition).

One of the things I enjoy about Ethan's designs (and probably one of the big reasons he won the second Great Designer Search), is that he has a great aesthetic sense about what is needed to make a design work. Commander products are a very different kind of design from normal expansions, and I really liked how Ethan attacked the problem by figuring out how his team could create Commander decks that addressed what he saw as desires of the playerbase. I feel like he and his team did a lot of work to do things the players would be excited about—things players always wanted to see done, even if they never actually had realized that's what they wanted.

Ethan was in charge of building the red deck. (The decks, by the way, were self-chosen by the designers, with each choosing which he felt most comfortable designing. I assume Ethan had red because that's the one no one else wanted. Red's super tricky to get right in multiplayer formats.)

Aaron Forsythe—Green

For those unaware, Aaron is the senior director of Magic R&D (aka my boss). Aaron's main job is making sure everything within the company that needs to be done gets done, so Magic R&D can do our job. Aaron has a lot of meetings with the higher-ups to make it so all of us doing the day-to-day work can focus on making Magic the best game ever. Aaron first joined Wizards as the editor-in-chief of the website when it first launched. From there, he got into R&D and quickly worked his way up through the ranks. For a while, I was even training him to be my backup.

The downside of Aaron's job is that he doesn't get as much hands-on time with the design and development of Magic product as he would like. Back in the day, Aaron was on a lot of design and development teams, served as both lead designer and lead developer on multiple sets, and was even head developer for a while. Aaron likes to keep his hand in design and development, so from time to time he picks a small project he knows he will enjoy. Aaron has been a Commander player for years, so Commander (2014 Edition) was the perfect choice for a project to work on.

Aaron was in charge of putting together the green deck.

Dan Emmons—Blue

People ask me all the time how to get a job as a Magic designer. If there's anyone who epitomizes the path to the job, it is Dan. Dan first got noticed during the Great Designer Search 2. He wasn't one of the finalists, but he was one member of the public who worked hard helping create designs for the finalists. Dan eventually got a job working in game support (what we used to call customer service). The very first day he started his job, Dan came to me and said he wanted to do Magic design. What steps could he take to get a step closer to that goal? I told him to join the hole-filling team. You see, during development there are always cards cut and at one or more points along the way, the team sends out a request for cards from a list of people around the company interested in designing cards.

Dan also got pulled into doing exploratory design because both Ethan and Shawn had worked with him during the Great Designer Search. All Dan's various design work got noticed, and a little over a year later there was an opening on the design team and I asked Dan if he wanted the slot. He, of course, said yes. Dan is not only hard working but has a flair for approaching designs from a place uniquely his own. On top of that, he has a passion and work ethic that rivals anyone else in R&D. Dan has since moved on to do amazing design work elsewhere, but you all still get to see his handiwork in Commander (2014 Edition).

Dan worked on the blue deck.

James Hata—Black

I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Wizards of the Coast actually makes games besides Magic. And somebody has to design those games. Which means there are people in R&D not in Magic R&D. James is one of these people. His primary responsibility is working on Duel Masters, a Japanese trading card game, and its American offshoot Kaijudo. Magic R&D likes to make use of R&D's non-Magic resources from time to time, so James was asked onto the Commander (2014 Edition) team.

Because I have such a tight-knit group of designers, and we produce so many different Magic products, there is a lot of groupthink that develops. The design team has preferences, and the more we work together the more we start to think similarly. Getting a designer who has been working on a different game brings a wonderful new insight into the mix. James approaches problems from a different vantage point, and comes at Magic with a somewhat fresher pair of eyes. That allows him the ability to see through things we sometimes take for granted.

James was in charge of the black deck.

Charles Rapkin—White

The first three team members all work in Magic R&D with two of them being core designers. The first four all work in R&D. Charles does not. One of the things we like to do is to pull people from outside of R&D into design and development teams. This does two things for us. First, it brings yet another perspective to the process and, second, it helps the rest of Wizards start to get a better understanding of what R&D does. Charles works in the organized play department helping organize in-store play.

Charles was asked on the team because he is a big Commander player and having someone with more in-store knowledge would help as the team started to wrestle with the question of how to help stores incorporate this product into their store. Charles was very eager to join the design team and was an excellent addition.

Charles worked on the white deck.

But Wait, There's More

The design team had a lot of challenges on its plate. Monocolored decks provided numerous challenges and the team had to figure out how to make compelling new content for monocolored decks. All the commanders (the cycle of Planeswalkers, the cycle of legendary creatures from Magic's past, and a cycle of flavorful reprint legendary creatures) were designed or chosen to help make or support new ways to play monocolored decks in Commander. The team also did things like add in more artifacts to make sure each deck had access to the tools it needed.

The design team came up with a new keyword (which you can read about in the feature article today written by Ethan and Ian) to help create a new mechanical twist for Commander. It also created a cycle of spells that allows you to help yourself and one other player. In addition, the team worked hard to design new individual cards that would add some spice to Commander games.

Designing a Commander product is a bit different from normal design in that you are making decks as opposed to boosters. The team had to not only make sure each deck shined, but that the decks were interesting when played against one another. It was very common during the design (and development) to walk by as five people sat around a table in the Pit playing a large Commander game.

And that is how Commander (2014 Edition) came to be.

I'm curious to hear not just about today's article but if you have any input into the Commander format or this product in particular. Feel free to send me an email or contact me through any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, Instagram).

Join me next week when I get cunning.

Until then, may your commander come with loyalty.

"Drive to Work #168 & 169—Onslaught, Parts 5 & 6"

This week's podcasts are the fifth and sixth part of my six-part series on the design of Onslaught.

Latest Making Magic Articles


January 27, 2022

The Making of a Dynasty, Part 1 by, Mark Rosewater

Welcome, everyone, to the first preview week of Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty. Today, I'm going to introduce you to the Vision Design team, start telling you the story of the set's design, and s...

Learn More


January 17, 2022

The Big Picture by, Mark Rosewater

Welcome, everyone. Regular column/blog readers, or podcast listeners, have often heard me say "Magic is not one game, but many games." Today, I plan to dive a little deeper into what that...

Learn More



Making Magic Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All