Odds & Ends: Commander Legends

Posted in Making Magic on November 30, 2020

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.

For each set, I like to do a mailbag column where I try to answer your most pressing questions about it. Here's the tweet I posted for Commander Legends:

As always, I'll try to answer as many questions as I can, but here's why I might not answer your question:

  • I have an allotted word count, which means that there are only so many questions I can get to.
  • Someone else might have asked the same question. I will usually answer the first person who asks.
  • Some questions I either don't know the answer to or don't feel qualified enough in the area to answer properly.
  • Some topics I'm not allowed to answer for all sorts of reasons, including previews for future sets.

That said, on with the questions!

@gostodon

There's no formal process. Some of R&D interacts directly with the audience, and the rest is good about monitoring social media. We each mentally or physically compile lists as we see suggestions and look for places we can use them. Design leads of sets that have a larger legendary component, especially ones that aren't tied to a singular world and thus are more open to opportunities, often will make a point to ask for recommendations. For example, Gavin, during vision design, and Jules, during set design, both specifically asked me for a list of legendary creatures that had been requested of me.

@TugSebastian

If they were, I couldn't say. I can point out that Nahiri in Commander 2014, Kaya in Conspiracy: Take the Crown, and Rowan and Will in Battlebond were all examples of characters introduced in supplemental sets that ended up playing a role in the story in later premier sets, so it is something we do.

@ThePromisedEnd0

I interpret this question as asking why do we bother to make new legendary creature when we have such a deep well of existing characters to pull from? The answer is that different players are looking for different things in legendary creatures. Yes, some are excited by seeing beloved characters they already know, but others love seeing new characters or enjoy bottom-up designs that couldn't fit within an existing character. Our goal in Magic design is to make a wide variety of different types of designs so that every player can find the thing they enjoy most.

@HairlessThoctar

There are a number of reasons. One, some players enjoy seeing new version of characters they like. Two, some characters didn't get the best design their first time out and deserved a better design. Three, sometimes a character is just the perfect execution creatively of a design we made in a vacuum. Four, sometimes there are larger themes for a set that specific characters are the best at executing. For example, it was fun to make a new Kamahl and a new Jeska together in the same set. (They're brother and sister for those unaware.)

@godlike_kitten

The list of cool characters we could make legendary creatures/planeswalkers out of far exceeds the available slots we have to make them. (And as I just said above, not every legendary creature slot is allocated for an existing creature.) The good thing is that Magic is a hungry monster, and we're constantly making new sets and new legendary creatures. If enough players demand a particular character, it's only a matter of time before we make it.

@Erasmus_H

One of the odd things about making Magic sets is that they're not always made in the same order that they're released. Commander Legends, for example, was designed before Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths and Zendikar Rising and was originally scheduled for an earlier release date. This means that when it was designed, it didn't have those sets to look at for inspiration.

@Fritz_Espenlaub

The design philosophy for this product was that the deck construction worked a little differently from the Constructed version (as it does in Limited for any other product), but in gameplay, it matched. That meant we wanted you to just play Commander while playing Commander Legends Limited. If Commander used hybrid the same way it's played in every other format, would that make it easier to design Limited Commander products? Absolutely. But that decision is in the hands of the Commander Rules Committee and not Wizards. Our job is to design sets within the parameters we have to work with, so that meant we designed Commander Legends with the Commander rules as they exist.

@ShadowSais

If we do something and players like it, odds are we'll make more. As I like to say on my blog "success breeds repetition."

@P1P1Golos

The short answer is that Hullbreacher is a blue card because it's an effect in blue's slice of the pie. Blue steals other people's draws, sometimes turning them into other resources. White can tax the draws or turn a personal draw into a draw for you and that player (or possibly all players), but it doesn't do what Hullbreacher is doing. Any effect that is normally in one color would be more beneficial in a second color that normally doesn't do it. A counterspell, for instance, would be much more useful to red than blue as red doesn't do counterspells (barring a few early Magic cards). That doesn't mean we're supposed to move effects out of the color that they're in.

@RollToTweet

I think the main issue is a misunderstanding of what the problem is and how R&D is choosing to help solve it. Let's start with the problem. The Commander format was created as a fun, casual Magic variant. It wasn't designed to be the main way people played the game, so we made decisions that maximized letting it be what it wanted to be. Those decisions majorly changed the dynamics of how the game plays out. The life total is different. The number of players is different. The strengths of various abilities are different. How players interact is different. But it was all played with cards and a color pie not designed for the format. Imagine, for example, if there was a new format called Rush where every player started with 10 life. White would be pretty good in that format, whereas blue would really suffer.

As Commander has become more popular, we've had to come to terms with how to adapt the color pie to help it in Commander. The good news is the color pie is constantly evolving. There are always opportunities to push it in the direction that the game is evolving. However, the key to doing this correctly is to find ways to change a color that play into its core philosophy. A good example is how we handled red in dealing with Commander. Red needed more card draw, so we created "impulsive draw" (exiling cards that you can cast from exile for the turn), a way for red to get cards that was in-flavor for red. Notice that we didn't just give red an ability from another color. We explored new space to solve the problem in an organically red way. That's what we're currently up to in white.

I need to stress two things. First, we change things slowly and carefully. When we want to try out something new, we tend to use it on a weaker spell to gauge how it plays and then strengthen it over time as we get more confident about it. We don't want to change our mind about something only to have a pushed version of it forever living in Eternal formats. Second, Commander uses (almost) all the cards. That's a lot of inertia to fight against. Even when we make good white cards, they have to fight against an existing environment that's weighted against them.

What this means is that change takes time and effort. We went through this with red and, over time, managed to see marked improvement. White has proven a little more difficult. Its strengths are less useful in Commander, and its weaknesses are greater vulnerabilities in Commander, so it's a bigger challenge to solve, but I can promise you that we're working on the problem and have been for some time. We're finding possible solutions, but they're going to be things we ramp into slowly, and even when we're comfortable making more powerful versions of those effects, the inertia of fighting against established colors in an Eternal format will take time. This isn't a problem that's just going to be solved in one set.

@Watchmaker_72

Commander Legends is a Commander Draft set. That means we had to prioritize making Draft work. Legendary creatures with a lot of colors are very hard to draft with, especially in later boosters. In fact, during vision design, there weren't even three-color cards in the set because they were so hard to play with. Set Design added them because they felt that a Commander set wanted some legendary creatures with more colors and worked hard to create a Draft environment that could support them. It was difficult and they couldn't make a lot of them. If three-color was hard, four-color was basically impossible. That's why the set doesn't have any four-color legendary creatures.

@HairlessThoctar

I don't believe he did. The problem is that die-rolling is strictly a silver-border thing, and it would be odd to reference something on a black-border card that doesn't appear on any other black-border cards. Personally, if this were my set, I would have tried, but then I also made Future Sight, which did this in spades. ("What's a Contraption?")

@HairlessThoctar

If you're known for backstabbing teammates, you're known for partnering with people. Note the betrayal flavor is built into the card's design.

@HairlessThoctar

Of the new cards, all the monocolor legendary creatures and only the monocolor legendary creatures got partner.

@TheErikKemp

We needed it to make the set work for Draft as that was the key identity of the product. See the answer to the next question for why.

@TheBagelBiscuit

Fetch lands don't solve the problem partner is fixing. Partners aren't in the set to fix color. They're there to allow you to evolve Draft colors over time. For instance, let's imagine two alternate worlds. World A has partner and World B has fetch lands. You open up a mono-blue legendary creature. In World B, you're now locked into drafting mono-blue cards. Having the ability to get other colors of mana doesn't help you. In World A, you can draft a second color because you have the ability to pick up a second monocolor legendary creature with partner in that color. (And you have access to The Prismatic Piper if you somehow don't open one.)

@TolarianCollege

I'm looking forward to "Commander Commander 2014."

@FlameSynth

While we occasionally reprint cycles, it's not something we consider mandatory. It's okay to take one card from a cycle and reprint just that card.

@roxas2104

The short answer is that R&D doesn't like how legendary lands play. They combine poorly with the "legendary rule." We occasionally do them for strong story reasons, but we avoid them when we can. Our flavor rationale is that you can get multiple leylines out of a single place.

Q: Why no common legendaries for Pauper Commander?

@BasicBenjamin

They just don't make sense at common for two reasons. One, common is the place where you get multiples of the same creature in Limited, and that doesn't mesh will with the "legendary rule." Two, it's a flavor fail. Our rule for Pauper is that we make cards common because they belong at common and don't force commonality just for Pauper. The whole point of the format is that it makes use of things that naturally appear at common. Commander Legends did allow us to put some things at common that don't normally appear at common because they made sense in this Limited format, but that just didn't include legendary cards.

"Thank You, Very Much"

That's all the time I have to answer questions today. As always, I'm eager to hear any feedback on any of my answers or any of the topics I touched on today. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).

Join me next week for another Storm Scale article.

Until then, may you keep asking questions.

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