Commander Laws for Public Gatherings

Posted in Serious Fun on October 30, 2012

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

Let's start with the obvious. It's Azorius Week, an ode to joy for pontification, bureaucracy, declarations, and Robert's Rules of Order . The lawmakers of Ravnica have an agenda: making all of Ravnica as discrete and orderly as an agenda.

I'm sure they're all members of Ravnica's Tautology Club, too.

Azor’s Elocutors | Art by Johannes Voss

While I am a fanatic of the Boros Legion, the guild I enjoy next is Azorius. As a mathematician, I can confirm that there's beauty in rules, interlacing and determining deep structures and functions that helpfully drive our entire modern world.

While we didn't have an official Tautology Club at my college, I was part of a study group that had settled on that as our nickname.

What I want to share today is something with less levity and more importance. In honor of the Azorius, I'm hitting a topic I've been asked to discuss for some time: the Commander experience at events like a Grand Prix. If it's a public place where Magic is happening, the odds of finding Commander are pretty good.

Doing your part to ensure that Commander action is awesome for everyone takes five rules.

Rule 1: Follow the Banned List and Other Commander Rules

The banned list and all of the rules for Commander are maintained by the Commander Rule Committee, a group of players outside of Wizards of the Coast. The official Commander website presents all of these in details, backed by a forum where the decisions around rules and banned cards are explained. Looking up what's in and what's out is easy.

Just do it.

While your friends who hang at your house may all agree that some different set of cards or rules work better, this isn't true for everyone else. The official rules and banned list are indeed "just suggestions" your group should take into strong consideration. But anyone who plays Commander on Magic Online or travels to events will be expecting the baseline.

It isn't about you and your friends being wrong, but rather you and your friends participating using the same guidelines everyone else can see, too. If you feel that strongly about what the rules committee has shared, I guarantee you'll find some great discussions in the games where you're following the letter of the law.

Rule 2: Bring Different Commanders for the Same Commander Deck

One of the old-school ways to play Commander involved setting up a Commander League. Each player would choose, via draft or another priority order, a Commander or two to build decks around. No two players shared the same set of legendary creatures to use, and the "Legend Rule" worked differently depending on whether it was just a legendary creature or the commander itself.

Isperia, Supreme Judge | Art by Scott M. Fischer

When Commander exploded in popularity a few years ago, this became cumbersome. When you have thirty or forty players who want in the league, you find the legendary choices to be pretty slim as you get down in picks. Applying league rules to public events was untenable.

While clever rules around handling different players using the same commander worked as a bandage, it's much simpler and satisfying to have more commander choices you want for the same deck. Not only will you reconsider and experiment with new features different commanders bring to the same deck, but you can also accommodate other players who might not have alternatives at hand.

And for bonus gaming, you can lend one of your extra commanders so another player can give it a spin.

Rule 3: Bring Multiple Decks if You Have Them

Commander is a difficult format to get into for one reason: Decks require sixty or more unique, different cards to create a ninety-nine card deck. You also need a flashy, enjoyable commander to put on top. For veteran players, this is elementary, since we usually have piles of extra stuff we can pull from.

Skymark Roc | Art by Christopher Moeller

Newer players, already grappling with the deep pool of total cards, rules, and mechanics, are also hindered by a small collection.

Thanks to the awesome efforts of the reimagined core sets and annual updates to Duels of the Planeswalkers, newer players are everywhere. Commander is a powerful way to show off almost everything in Magic, and inviting players otherwise unable to participate is as inclusive as you can get. Swapping decks is fun.

Multiple decks also allows you to avoid deck fatigue and boredom from repetition among the same group of players and maximizes your ways to use your favorite cards. If you're including players without decks, you can do a better job enjoying multiple decks yourself.

Rule 4: Follow the Social Contract

Many public gatherings include side events: pay-to-play sanctioned games that generally provide a reward for victory. The namesake event of a Grand Prix is why upwards of 2,000 or more players will show up.

Martial Law | Art by Tyler Jacobson

Due to the popularity and prevalence of Commander, offering side events is an easy solution for event organizers to coordinate these types of players to get together. The small payment and reward help support the logistics and real-world costs of running a weekend of Magic and provide consistent activities for players who are no longer in the main events.

But these events come at a price: Magic is a game where players are already battling to win. Adding incentive to be that winner encourages a different approach to Commander than what many players find when it's just a few friends at the local game store. That victory reward, no matter how big or small, leads players to make faster, more efficient, more consistent decks that try to win the game in an assertive way.

Let me be clear: That approach is not wrong. I'll repeat it. Building your Commander deck to win consistently is not wrong. When you sign up for a game with a reward for winning, there's nothing wrong with trying to win within the rules for—and capabilities of—the cards.

That mentality, however, isn't the primary driver for the entire format. Most Commander games aren't incentivized to end soon and don't provide a discrete reward for defeating all opponents. Most players want to achieve victory in addition to other self-specific objectives such as casting big creatures, finding a specific combination of cards, or getting to attack other players for damage.

Victory is in the plan, it just isn't the top objective.

The idea of a Social Contract for Commander is that when you aren't playing for a specific reward, you're playing to make the game more enjoyable and interactive for everyone—including their specific ideas on what interaction is.

This rule is what I would argue is the most important, which is why I devoted more space to it. I can't stress enough that anyone who signs up for a side event that includes a prize should expect a strong fight on their hands, but that it's also reasonable to sit down in a random game without prizes on the line and want to experience Commander as they do at home.

(Pro Tip: Rule 3 is an excellent solution for going to an event to rock side events and meet non-competitive players on their terms.)

Rule 5: Assume Nothing and Communicate Everything

The final rule plays into all of the above but sits as a concept alone. When you play with friends at a local joint, the shortcuts and explanations you use are a shared culture. How you search up lands, when you use counter magic or a Supreme Judgment, why you attack or avoid attacking certain players, and what decks you play are all things you learn from the players around you.

That's your Magic culture. What other players expect and do can be worlds different as soon as you head somewhere else.

Sphinx’s Revelation | Art by Slawomir Maniak

The idea behind all of these rules is that you are in control of what you do at events: Your cards, your decks, and what you do to put them all together. The non-Magic element in this mix is your voice. While you can plan ahead and have cards, decks, and options, only you can reveal hidden information.

Only you know what's in your decks, how they work, and why you like players. The fresh faces you meet and new friends you make won't have innate knowledge of your play desires. While competitive events have a culture of quiet and contemplation, Commander is noisy and active. Big things are happening every turn, awesome creatures enter the battlefield, and wacky plays highlight the format as a whole.

Don't stay silent.

If you're looking for a long game full of board sweeping and commander recasting, ask for players who like that and tell players you're sitting down with you want it. If you have a competitive deck and want to face a stiff challenge against other strong decks, speak up before you draw a hand.

Assuming what other players will do isn't a great way to find what you want. Ask for it and tell them you want it. If there's dissonance between what you and others expect, it's okay to politely excuse yourself before the game starts. Don't wait to share that you hate decks full of Pact of Negation, Mutilate, and Cataclysm. Don't be embarrassed to say you're uncomfortable with competitive or casual gaming.

Despite what some jerks may do in making fun of you for backing out of a game before it starts, leaving before you're committed to or influencing an active game is better for everyone. The high road is tougher to follow, but it helps you and those you don't want to play with have a better time.

These rules aren't difficult to follow, but context can make them immediately apparent. I was in Seattle for the recent Pro Tour Return to Ravnica , taking photos and enjoying the sights of the greatest competitive players. I have more than a few friends who play as part of the game's elite.

Scott Larabee, manager of the Pro Tour, is a Commander aficionado. Friend and editor Trick Jarrett adores the format. Sitting down to play games with both was something I had been looking forward to since booking the flight west.

But I didn't consider these rules before boarding.

Fall of the Gavel | Art by Matt Stewart

For reference, I had brought my latest favorite Commander creation: A deck built around Primal Surge and Maelstrom Wanderer.

Pro Tour Return to Ravnica Special Edition Maelstrom

Download Arena Decklist
Planeswalker (1)
1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Sorcery (1)
1 Primal Surge
Artifact (1)
1 Birthing Pod
99 Cards

The only change from the last time I shared it is that Mercurial Chemister has replaced the banned Primeval Titan. (Rule 1 achieved.) Ready to roll, we played two quick games.

Commander games with the three of us should not have moved so swiftly.

I didn't have any extra decks despite my deep pool of cards to build from (Rule 3 violated), and I didn't bring an alternative commander to use (Rule 2 violated). With a tall deck filled to the brim with creatures, Animar, Soul of Elements seems like a sweet fit.

The following is a brief, incomplete list of things my deck was able to do:

  • Unmorphing Vesuvan Shapeshifter to become a copy of Massacre Wurm with its enters-the-battlefield trigger on the stack. This made each of Trick's 1/1 Goblin tokens into 4 damage to his face. He died on impact.
  • Facing an impressive array of Demons, led by Rakdos, Lord of Riots, I cast Maelstrom Wanderer into two big guys and got Etherium-Horn Sorcerer into Bloodbraid Elf, which netted yet another guy. Despite facing an impressive and fat army, my motley crew of cascaded creatures swarmed in for a kill on Scott from nowhere. (After defeat, he said I was "very dead" on his next turn. I believed him.)
  • Almost the entire early curve of my deck is devoted to finding lands and getting them into play. It wasn't unusual to have more mana available than both Trick and Scott combined on later turns. Seedborn Muse exacerbated the issue. Maelstrom Wanderer leveraged it for full effect as I found myself getting the Wanderer killed, just to cast it again. Greater Good played a role in that.
  • Thanks to the many Clone-type creatures included, I secured the second win by copying my Thundermaw Hellkite three times before combat. I repeatedly used a Clone to kill legendary creatures, including Scott's Rakdos, Lord of Riots.

In back-to-back games, against decks with aggressive damage capabilities, I won. Despite my idea that Maelstrom Wanderer for a Primal Surge deck was funny and cute, its capabilities far outstripped my highest estimates.

My deck, while not tuned for competitive Commander, was too dominant for the casual Commander Scott and Trick were looking for (Rule 4 violated). Worse yet, I didn't discover what Scott and Trick expected until I was shattering the game. Scott's quips (a sarcastic "Of course!" in reply to my returning Seedborn Muse from the graveyard to hand, then to play) and Trick's looks (dull, resigned distance from the game) clued me in far too late into gaming. I hadn't asked what they wanted to see, and I didn't listen to them on their terms (Rule 5 violated).

Although both Trick and Scott are consummate sportsmen and didn't seem to take things too hard, I felt very uncomfortable after the second game. Even if they enjoyed everything, I still didn't. Following the banned list isn't nearly enough to make games go well. These other rules are clear ways to make Commander at large a wonderful way to play. Isperia would approve.

The question this week is "Do you?"


If you'd like the details on the process I've started practicing to avoid creating issues, I'd be glad to share it in the future. For now, I'll leave the strong emotions on the side.

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