The Godfathers of Casual

Posted in Ways to Play on February 23, 2016

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

I have created a couple of Magic formats over the years. Granted, they were mostly Limited formats like Reject Rare Draft, a format Mark Gottlieb migrated from his experiences as a Neutral Ground customer to a Wizards of the Coast employee and has written about on occasion. Isaiah Drafting is a Draft format created with the coverage team on occasions when there were only four players for a draft. We added one extra "sealed pack" that each player opened before the start of drafting to ensure a deeper pool of cards.

Out of necessity, I am sure most playgroups have come up with some set of house rules, imposed unique Constructed guidelines, or introduced some other new element to the game (as Quinn wrote about last week). Occasionally those ideas take root in the imagination of those players and eventually pollinate other playgroups as well. Elder Dragon Highlander was one of those formats, and it was such a fertile idea that it eventually became Commander and now gets regular product releases exclusively for those players.

The Birth of Commander

Sheldon Menery had no idea any of that would come to pass when he was first stationed in Alaska during his military career and began spending time with a local gaming group there. He was quick to point out that he did not really create Commander. But that would be like saying someone who builds a dam at the end of a river did not create the body of water that resulted from it, even though there would not have been a lake without them.

"For me, it was more about cultivating the format than creating it," said Menery. "The basic rules were already created by my friend Adam Staley, who may have picked it up from an idea in the Duelist magazine back in 1995 or something like that."

At the time, the format was 100-card singleton and you had to build your deck around the colors of one of the five Elder Dragons from LegendsArcades Sabboth, Chromium, Nicol Bolas, Palladia-Mors, and Vaevictis Asmadi—as your deck's general (now known as a commander). Players would start at 40 life, but only in a five-player game. Originally the life total for the game was 200, and you would divide by the number of players to determine each player's life total. You could die from 21 points of damage dealt to you by any one general, although for the life of me I cannot imagine anyone getting hit by an Elder Dragon once and being able to continue on in the game for very long.

"Initially it was always five players because you had one of each of the Elder Dragons as their generals. But if there were four players in the game, you would each start at 50 life. Gijsbert Hoogendijk and I played a two-player game starting at 100 life. That was where I realized that 200 divided by the number of players was just kind of ridiculous," recalled Menery about how he came to codify and popularize the format into what we know today.

The primordial version of the game was played by a group of gamers in Alaska who did not primarily identify as Magic players.

"We would play board games, video games, we would watch nerdcore movies. There would be two or three activities going on at all times. This is around 2001 or 2002 and right around the boom of the Euro board game. There was a lot of exploration to do—always a new game to play—and it was this little gamer heaven. Whenever Magic was played, it was multiplayer, and it was always some wacky format," Menery continued. One of those wacky games that caught his attention was the ongoing five-player battles between the legendary Dragons.

"The first time I saw them playing EDH I kind of shrugged and thought it was just another format. Then the second time I saw them play it I realized what a good time they were having," said Menery, who was also fascinated by how creative you had to be within the parameters of the colors of your deck. This was also a decade and a half ago, with far fewer cards to choose from. "How many Wrath effects did the white decks have access to? I had to play Winds of Rath.

We had poison then, but we really didn't have poison. We didn't have Eldrazi (to reshuffle your graveyard into your library), we had Feldon's Cane—and we liked it. You have to think about the tightness of the environment of the time. I think the first time I saw someone win with [commander] damage was what really did it for me. That was a new way to play."

Menery was interested, but with only five Elder Dragons to choose from, there was not always room at the table. In order to expand the group to include a sixth player—or more—they eventually settled on letting players use any legendary creature as their general. When he moved to Virginia, he took the idea with him and introduced it to a new playgroup of casual Magic players with small collections. It immediately took root there as well, and he began to think about how to nurture that little seedling.

"That's when I started thinking very seriously that there were some cards that needed to be banned. Vintage power cards were totally legal at that point; there was no banned list. We basically just had an agreement not to play color hosers—at that point even basic lands were singleton. It was sort of the Wild West."

Regulating the Wild West

The format had begun to take off within the judging community, and after a ten-player game in 2004 at the Magic World Championships, Menery finally formalized a banned list after everyone was brutalized by one player dumping a bunch of Moxen on the table and casting Balance. Everyone lost their lands, their hands, and the ability to play with any old card they wanted in EDH.

"I had written an article in early 2004 about the format. Back then I was still doing an Ask the Judge column and would answer questions from Monday through Thursday, but on Friday I would do a feature. I wrote about EDH there and had a contest for people to create a Lord of Tresserhorn deck, and I got some 30 entries. Normally when you give away store credit or something you get a lot of entries, but I wasn't even giving away store credit."

Menery handed the winning decklist to Scott Larabee, who wandered by Menery and some other judges playing, and he jumped into a game and was quickly hooked. That was pretty much how the format grew back then.

"It was just playing where other people could see us," said Menery of the format's rapid acceptance. "Once the judge community got infected with the format, it caught on pretty quickly. Less than a year later, Gavin Duggan, who was a level 3 judge at the time and a net rep, pinged me. It was really Gavin's idea to have a rules committee and the website. Once we formalized it and had the judge program as evangelists for the format, it just kind of exploded."

The format took up more and more of Menery's time—almost as much as 20 hours in a week with conference calls, rules documents, and being an ambassador for the format. Even now, he estimates that it takes up as much as ten to twelve hours a week, which, if it were an additional part-time job, would become a tiresome chore that would wear down most people. So why design, cultivate, and maintain a Magic format?

"The reward is what any creative person gets out of creation," he replied without hesitation. "Painters don't paint for the paycheck. They paint because it's inherent in their soul. To me, this was just another creative project. It's an outlet so that—and I hate it when artists say 'I'm expressing myself,' everyone expresses themselves all the time, not just artists—it's an outlet for that self-expression that artists commonly have. It's like cooking a meal for someone and having them enjoy it. There's a sense of pride—of internal satisfaction—that you don't often get."

A Never-Ending Deck-Building Puzzle

Another 100-card format that has been gaining in popularity is Canadian Highlander. It is a Vintage format, using the Vintage banned list, but that list is augmented with another list of cards that have point values. When building a deck for the format, you can't exceed 10 points, which makes it challenging to get more than two or three of the game's most powerful cards into a single deck. Unlike Commander, it is a heads-up format, although its origin story is not too dissimilar.

The format sprang out of the local Magic scene in Victoria, Canada, where 100-card Highlander was a popular casual format. Nelson Salahub was working at a local game shop at the time, and he noticed how people wanted to play with those cards but also saw that the format needed to be something with more structure to support growth.

"There wasn't a points list at the time," said Salahub. "There was a bit of a scene but it wasn't what it is now. It was just what people played in the store. It was a lot of fun, and I wanted to turn it into a tournament format. The very first tournament was just a giant multiplayer game. We charged an entry fee and gave the last person standing store credit. We started having weekly meet-ups and thankfully it grew because there were enough people to keep the tournament happening once a week. I guess people noticed."

Benjamin Wheeler was one of the people who was playing the format as it evolved, and eventually he became a part of the council that governs its rules.

"People were playing this format as far back as 2005, but there was no organization to it. The modern incarnation of it didn't come around until 2009—maybe 2010. It started off with a small council of Nelson and two other players," explained Wheeler. "This is when the points list was introduced. From there it grew into a democratically elected council of five members. It has stayed that way ever since."

The puzzle of the points list is what attracted both of these players to become involved in shaping the format. They will often discuss "spreads of cards," which are the sets of point-valued cards you can get into any specific deck archetype. Aggressive decks will often have three Moxen and one other card that costs 1 point. Storm decks can manage to squeeze in Black Lotus and Demonic Tutor and have little room for anything else.

"I think that's the main reason people get into our format and fall in love with it. We think of it as a deck-building paradise. You can take any of your favorite cards—you will see decks with Ancestral Recall and Time Walk but also Glade Gnarr—cards that so wanted to have their day in the sun," said Salahub. "There have been Ancestral Recalls resolved where the three cards drawn were Werebear, Quirion Dryad, and Wild Mongrel—you get to see these all-stars from older Standard formats."

The deck he described was often the one they would use to promote the format—and as someone who loves all three of those cards, I can understand why. The deck, played by council member Robin Sorenson and known as Blue-Green Sorenson, was a pillar of the Canadian Highlander community.

"Whenever anyone mentions a card—be it a pointed card or a couple of cards that go together like Life from the Loam (and Raven's Crime) and various engine pieces—there is always a deck for it," explained Wheeler, who loves not only the puzzle of the format but the way it self-corrects. "We went through a time in the format—we call it Red Summer—where Price of Progress had points. It seems ridiculous because the answer was for everyone to stop being so greedy. No, you don't need that Tainted Wood in your deck—you can just play Forest."

Like Menery with Commander, both players confessed to a part-time job's worth of hours each week in terms of their responsibilities.

"Of course I'm not counting the hours during my 9-to-5 job, where I may be writing out decklists in my notebooks," laughed Wheeler. "It doesn't feel like a job at all. It feels like we're taking advantage of the tools we have at hand. If you ask any Magic player what they like to do in their spare time, they're probably going to say 'Magic.' In my opinion, this is the highest-quality Magic I'm going to get as far as the balance of playing degenerate cards and playing fun cards that are relatively fair."

"If I'm off from work I'll come home, plop myself down in the chair, and almost immediately go to the Highlander boards. There's so much activity there. People are always talking about decklists, happenings in the community—there's a lot going on. Especially now," said Salahub, who also admitted he probably puts in more time than he originally accounted for. Even when he is just playing the game, it is often for the betterment of the format. "I've been on the council consistently since the beginning except for a very slight hiatus. The current version of our council has tried to be very vigilant about how often we get together. We meet once every week and we're constantly messaging each other on our Facebook group, where we are keeping track of the various point spreads. We will playtest certain point spreads to see if they are broken."

Salahub recalled how the format evolved from the original Vintage Highlander format to the finely tuned format they have now. They took note of the German Highlander format that had its own banned list, separate from the DCI Vintage banned list, and the Australian Highlander format that originated the points system for a 60-card Vintage Highlander format.

"We decided that we should stop letting people just win because they owned a Black Lotus. We originally adopted the Australian points, but everything was kind of out of balance because we had 100 cards instead of 60," he said of the original decisions of what was then a three-player council. When two of those three stopped playing for a while, only Nelson remained, and he learned a thing or two about what not to do when designing and curating a format.

"The way I approached it was to have a referendum on every card once or twice a year. That was just the worst. I don't know why I did it," he laughed about the dark ages before there was a democratically elected council for the format. "Probably because I'm not a poli-sci student and had never managed a community before. Those are some hard lessons in how not to govern a group of gamers. I was like a benevolent dictator of the Highlander format for two years. It was too much to be thrown at my feet, and it wasn't as much fun as it is now. I am really happy with the state of the Highlander Council."

Get the Word Out!

The one thing Wheeler looked back on with regret is not creating online content about the format sooner.

"Just start doing anything!" he would yell at his past self while whizzing by in a DeLorean. "Creating content—deck tech videos, set reviews—even if you only get a couple hundred views, that is still something that can change people's mind about whether they are going to get into the format. They'll see a deck and think, 'Cool, I didn't know you could do that.' It took a while to realize that. Getting out there more and having more confidence that this format is fantastic. Magic players are very, very passionate people, and if you can help guide that passion you're going to get people."

To address the central question of why they have taken such a strong hand in growing this format from a local thing at their store to something that has started to spread in much the same way that Commander spread years ago, Salahub and Wheeler had two very different answers. For Salahub, it was very much about creating a puzzle that he gets to try and solve every day.

"I'm just trying to imagine what my life would've been like for these past ten years if we were just playing Legacy or Modern—I mean, regular Magic formats are fun too, I love drafting and everything. Canadian Highlander just offered a way for us to keep playing Magic and working over the puzzle of deck building a lot. It was just this avenue where if you like this ongoing day-to-day puzzle...this format just gives you this huge pool to swim in."

For Wheeler, it was much more about creating a community where people could express their identities as Magic players through how they choose to solve that puzzle.0

"It's kind of like an MMO video game of Magic. It's this process that you work out over time as you figure out the bits and pieces. There is no precise configuration that is gonna be 100% the best. You get to have these experiences with other people who've tried to do the same thing but gone down a different path, and you get this identity. You can just be a Canadian Highlander player in the community, but it can get even more specific—a CradleHoof player, an Academy player. If you need to talk to a Birthing Pod player, everyone knows you should talk to so-and-so. The chance to have an identity within a community is not something you're going to necessarily get from other formats. We had a couple players in our community [about whom] we joked that when they talked all you heard was a Charlie Brown voice—but it was saying 'Nayanayanaya' because that was the only thing they played."

So what are you looking to get out of Magic that is not currently being offered to you at your local game store? Are you looking for a way to draft with an odd number of players? Are you looking for a way to incorporate your old Standard favorites into a new Constructed format? Are you, like Sam Black, looking to play a competitive Modern format that uses Highlander deck construction? Hopefully these stories have shown you that there is no reason to wait around for someone else to do it for you when you and your friends can just start laying down some rules right now.

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