Meet a Sheriff of Commander-land

Posted in Top Decks on January 9, 2014

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.

It's 2014: Do you know where your format is?

Allied Strategies | Art by Parente

Commander is awesome, and 2014 is off to a great start thanks to the first preview from Born of the Gods: Kiora, the Crashing Wave. I mean, two things I love to do playing Commander is drawing cards and playing additional lands. Kiora lets us do both. What else do I need?

Born of the Gods previews continue next week, so we'll have to wait for more. But that doesn't mean we can't look forward to other things this year. One of the features that sets Commander apart from other Magic formats is something that's easy to overlook: Commander is managed not by Wizards and the DCI, but by a small, passionate group known as the Rules Committee.

The Rules Committee determines the rules, banned cards, and other details around Commander, as well as manages the rules and community hub, While the idea that a shadowy cabal of secretive Magic players are pulling the strings behind the scenes is sexy, the truth is much more mundane: The players are known, and many of them write frequently about Commander.

Did I mention they love the format just as much as you and I do?

To start 2014 off on the right foot I pulled together the Rules Committee questions I asked for months ago and ran them by one of the most visible members: retired Level 5 judge and Magic commentator Sheldon Menery.

Sheldon Menery

What is the Commander Rules Committee, and what does it do?

We are the group who created the idea of formalizing the format, then shepherded it through its ascension to what it's become. We meet regularly to discuss the health and direction of the format and release an updated Banned List quarterly.

Who are the current members of the Rules Committee, and how did they get there?

Me, Gavin Duggan, Alex Kenny, Toby Elliott, Scott Larabee, and Devon Rule. It was Gavin's idea back in 2005 or so to form a committee to look after the format, back when he was a L3 Judge and NetRep, and I was L5. Alex, who Gavin knows very well, came on board to replace fellow Canadian Duncan MacGregor. As the format expanded, we wanted to add more people with the same bigger-picture view that we had, so Toby (who was L5 by then) was a natural choice. Shortly thereafter, one of us asked why Scott wasn't on the RC. After making sure there wouldn't be any conflict of interests with him being a Wizards of the Coast employee, he came on board. Having proved himself insightful, discrete, dedicated, and a huge fan of the format, we asked Devon to join us in 2012.

When did you first start playing Commander, and why?

In the beginning. I took the idea from a 5-player group in Alaska, brought it to my very casual group of players in Virginia when I moved, and you know the rest.

Who is your favorite commander, and why? —Brian

Right now, it's Animar, Soul of Elements, because my Animar deck, which has Possibility Storm in it, has led to the greatest number of chaos-embracing games of all of my twenty-seven decks. Even without Possibility Storm, it gets wild.

Animar, Soul of Elements
Possibility Storm

Our playgroups impact how we see the game and what is great and needs work about it, so what is your playgroup like (e.g., size, personalities, archetypes, league or not, house rules or points systems, etc.)? —sarroth

My playgroup is quite large, since I consider all the folks who I regularly play with at Armada Games and in the Armada Games Commander League, in Tampa, Florida, to be my group. There is a core of about twelve people that I play with quite regularly. The League uses the points system I developed in concert with Armada owners Aaron and Michael Fortino. In pickup games, we just play. Who wins is way less important than the fun we have. Everyone who is a regular has a great outlook on the format—they're all interested in making sure everyone is having fun, not just themselves.

When the Rules Committee makes a change, such as banning a card, how does that process work? —Ryan

We have regularly scheduled quarterly meetings. During that time, we discuss both cards that we or the community may have concerns with and potential unbannings. We then have discussion/debate on them. Once the discussion is over, we vote using a system we developed a while back: each member is allowed a -2 to +2 range on how strongly they feel about the card. Negative numbers mean ban (or keep banned), positive numbers mean don't ban (or unban). For a card to change status, it has to reach a certain threshold. This system works because we've known each other a long time and trust that none of us will game the system. I'm not sure the system would work if we didn't have long-standing relationships of trust that we're all operating in the interests of the format, not any individual agendas.

Have you ever considered altering any of the core rules of Commander (e.g., starting at 30 or 50 life)? If so, why? —jnmwhg

We've talked about a few things. Life total used to be 200 divided by the number of players in the game. Eventually, we simplified that to 40 (because 50 felt too high and 30 too low). We've recently talked about the fact that there are some people who don't like the restriction on generating only mana of your Commander's colors. We've decided that not changing is in the best interests of the format.

Why does the banned list rule say "and others like them," rather than providing an exhaustive list? —Mike

We want to keep the Banned List as small as possible, while also planting the seed of the idea in local groups to consider other cards like the ones on the Banned List as additional local bans. None of us (the RC nor the fan base) want a 200-card Banned List, because it would be unmanageable and difficult to follow. The list is in a good spot right now size-wise. If new cards come out that interact poorly with the format, we're not afraid to grow the list, but our hope is to keep it lean.

How do you feel about using a commander just for the colors? —JT

I feel that players are missing a great opportunity to have excellent cards at their beck and call, but in the end, it's the individual's choice. I don't actually see it much anymore. Back in the olden times, there were quite a few five-color commander "goodstuff" decks, but not so much these days. The number of possible commanders has gotten so spicy that people want to use them.

Why is commander damage limited to only combat damage? —Justin

The card that really got us thinking about it was Heartless Hidetsugu, which was mutually assured destruction, but it seemed pretty lame. Then when cards like Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind and Kaervek, the Merciless came out, we knew that we had to change.

Heartless Hidetsugu
Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind

Which of your own commanders do you think you'd be able to beat up in real life, if any? —Michael

All of them, but only because I'm the type who brings a gun to a knife fight. If I couldn't use advanced technology, I'd probably be in for a whipping from every one. Except for Merieke Ri Berit, but that's because she really likes me, if you know what I mean.

Is it intended and desirable for a player to end any given game of Commander in a single turn, taking down all of their opponents in one fell swoop, or is it more preferable for players to fall out of any given game one at a time? —Taz

There was never any such intent. As far as preferable, games that everyone who is playing enjoys are what we'd like to see, regardless of the specifics of how the games go.

How does the rules committee come to a consensus on contentious issues? How much does community feedback influence your stances on format issues? —Jules

We look at our philosophy document and decide what we think is in the best interest of the format's core player base. We're aware that we can't ever please everyone. Regardless of how good a decision is, there will be outliers on both sides that don't like it. We simply have to be comfortable that we've done the best by our vision for the format.

We listen to quite a bit of feedback from the community. We talk to people at events, and we read things online. I will say that complaining long and loud isn't a way to get us to listen to you. In this case, the squeaky wheel won't get the grease. If you can make a logical, well-reasoned argument, we'll take seriously what you say. If you think you can move us on a position by being a troll, petulant, or insulting, you've misread the room.

What is the collective noun for a group of Commander players? —Guillaume

A durdle, obv.

Casually Commander

Was Sheldon surprising for you? Since I'm not a member of the Rules Committee I've been just as curious as you to understand what it does and how it does it. Having the chance to gain insight (and have a little fun) was an opportunity I'm glad we could take. So, hats off to you, readers!

As Sheldon shared, there are many other members of the Rules Committee and, therefore, more members to interview someday. While it's impossible to have every question submitted answered, this week's feedback is as obvious as it gets: What other question would you like to pose to a Rules Committee member?

  • Feedback via email
  • 200-word limit
  • Include only two separate, unique questions (different from those answered today)
  • Name and email required (non-personal information to be used in column)

We'll catch up with someone else in a few months, and if you have a favorite member you'd like to see next let me know with your questions.

Join us next week when we begin to understand the power of the gods in Born of the Gods. See you then!

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