Welcome to Commander Week! This week we're going to be talking about the Commander format as opposed to the Magic: The Gathering Commander product that was just released last week. (I talked about it two weeks ago.) I'm going to run you through the major rules for deck construction and game play adding in many comments about what I, from a designer's perspective, see as the strengths and weaknesses of the format. (Note there are a lot more strengths than weaknesses, which is why this format is so popular right now.)

Before I begin I want to make several things very clear:

  1. Everything I'm in saying today is my opinion. I am not speaking for Wizards of the Coast or anyone other than myself.
  2. My perspective today is from the vantage point of a designer. I am focusing on what aspects make the format fun and accessible.
  3. I have never played the Commander format (outside of a tiny amount of playtesting for Magic: The Gathering Commander). I have watched numerous games being played, so I have a general sense of how the format plays, but I am far from an expert. Note that I'm not going to talk about how it plays, but rather about Commander as a format from a theoretical standpoint.
  4. I am not personally a big fan of multiplayer play (probably the biggest reason behind #3), but part of my job is to understand what players unlike myself want so that I can help deliver it.

All the official rules (which can be found here) are bolded in blue, while my comments are in black.

Deck Construction

I'm going to start with comments before I even get to the first rule, the reason being that I think one of the most important parts of this format has already been covered with just a single word. While every Constructed format has deckbuilding, the only real restriction for most formats is the cards allowed in it.

Commander is different, though. The deckbuilding is a major part of what gives the format its identity. It's much more restrictive than most formats, but therein lies its charm. I often talk about how restrictions breed creativity, and Commander is the perfect example. Because the format asks much more of the deckbuilder than a traditional format, I believe that it helps bond the player with the deck right from the start, before the playing even begins.

I've talked numerous times before about the importance of something called ego investment in Magic. The idea behind ego investment is that people are more interested in things that have something to do with themselves. I've explained before (particularly in this article) that a key reason for Magic's success, I strongly believe, is the fact that players feel emotionally connected to their decks. Its success is their success. Players feel about their decks much like a parent would feel about a child that has performed well. Your deck feels more personal because there's part of you in it.

Commander's deck building plays right into this by making deck construction rules that make you feel even more connected to your deck. I'll get to the ways it does this as we hit them.

Players must choose a legendary creature as the "Commander" for their deck.

Let's start with what is probably the biggest ego investment in all of Commander, the very concept of the commander itself. In communication school, I learned a lesson that has had a huge impact in how I have tried to act as a spokesperson: people don't connect with ideas, they connect with people. What this means is that if you want to create a bond with your audience, you have to personify the things you want them to connect with.

As an example let's take this column. On its surface, Making Magic is a design column. At its core, though, it's not. In reality, Making Magic is a column about a person, that person obviously being me. Note that I was chosen to write this column because it was believed that I would do a good job of personifying Magic design. In addition, I am able to do something that the concept of design can never do, I can be relatable. I can tell you about my dating foibles or my wedding (Part 1, Part 2) or what I had to do to get split cards to see print. By adding a face to Magic design I make it something people can emotionally connect to.

The commanders do the same thing for this format. They aren't just Magic cards—they're characters, they're people (well. mostly humanoid anyway). Having a commander gives a player a face for his or her deck. It gives the deck personality and helps give it definition. There are many things I love about this format, but the commander itself is probably the most brilliant thing about it.

A Commander deck must contain exactly 100 cards, including the Commander.

Another popular theme of my column is the importance of variance. (Click here to read a whole column about it.) For those who don't want to click to another column, let me hit the highlights. Variance, or randomness (yes, there is a slight difference, but for the purpose of this discussion the two are close enough), provides the following:

It creates suspense. Humans are attracted to the unknown. Having elements that don't get decided until they happen makes the game more exciting and thus fun.

It makes the game play differently. Repetition is boring. Randomness helps make it so each game is different from each other.

It allows players to react. One of the most fun skills is the ability to improvise. Variance helps increase players' ability to make the best of the moment.

The other key point I make in my article is that I believe the following: randomness adds fun to games, but the perception of randomness tends to upset a lot of gamers. This means that the trick of making a game fun is to hide the randomness. Magic does it excellently by weaving it into the library. A coin flipping is in your face, but drawing a card just feels like a normal part of a card game.

The beauty of changing the deck size from 60 to 100 (or 99, depending on how you want to count it) is that you are adding in a lot of randomness in a very subtle way. This, by the way, is one of the reasons that many casual formats tend to have decks larger than 60.

With the exception of basic lands, no two cards in the deck may have the same English name.

What's better than a little variance? A lot of variance. The singleton deck construction helps make the game fun in numerous ways:

It ramps up the randomness. The more cards you can draw means, well, the more cards you can draw. One of the biggest pluses of the Commander format is that games tend to be wildly different from one another. This is directly tied to the larger deck size and singleton limitation.

It makes players dig deeper when building decks. The increased deck size, along with the singleton restriction, also forces players out of their comfort zone. Most players know the top ten burn spells, for instance, but do they know eleven through twenty? Or twenty through thirty? Making players have to dig deeper into their card collection forces players to explore, a key component of what makes Magic so much fun in the first place.

It creates more deck diversity. It's much easier to end up in the same place as someone else when you're building a 60-card deck of four-of's. One-hundred card singleton helps ensure that decks are not carbon copies of one another.

A card's colour identity is its colour plus the colour of any mana symbols in the card's rules text. A card's colour identity is established before the game begins, and cannot be changed by game effects. The Commander's colour identity restricts what cards may appear in the deck.

A deck may not generate mana outside its colours. If an effect would generate mana of an illegal colour, it generates colourless mana instead.

I'm a big fan of color identity. I believe that restrictions do a lot of good for a game, the key reason being that the role of a game designer is to provide obstacles for your players to get around. You see, one of the major points of a game is for players to be able to mentally challenge themselves. Most designs try to make things as easy as possible on the user. Game design though purposely creates problems for its user because it's those problems that give the player what they want out of a game.

The best types of restrictions are ones that come organically from the game. The restriction feels right because it makes sense. That's what I really like about color identity. The rule doesn't feel arbitrary but natural. That's the sign of good design.

Now we come to what I feel is the biggest weakness of Commander. Please understand that I'm a huge fan of the Commander format. It is breathing life into casual Magic like few other formats I've ever seen. That said, I don't feel the format is without its flaws. This section is the area in which I believe Commander has the most room for improvement.

I'm going to spend a little space talking about it because this is a design column and I feel it's always valuable to challenge game elements. (One of the reasons I wrote my column about the problems with the legendary supertype many weeks ago.) Please don't take the fact that I'm going to spend some time talking about it as a sign that I'm unhappy with the Commander format. Far from it, actually. As a fellow mechanic, I just can't resist taking a look under the hood.

My problem isn't with color identity itself, but rather with how it's executed. Let me explain.

Let's walk through what this rule is saying. First, you are limited to cards that have mana symbols on them that match the mana symbols on your commander's card. The rule, though, applies only to mana symbols. Other indicators of color, such as basic land types and colors mentioned by name, are ignored. Second, if you somehow manage to get a permanent under your control that taps for another color of mana, it produces colorless mana instead.

My designer instincts asked the following question the first time I saw this set of rules: Why do you need the first rule with the second one in the game? You want to stop people from playing cards with other colored mana symbols on them—but they won't be able to produce the color to use them anyway.

Besides being much simpler, this rule also allows players to use cards that their deck can use that the current rules prevent. For example, take the card Obelisk of Alara.


If you just had the second rule, cards like this one would be allowed, while still limiting what they can do based on your commander's colors.

The other big thing this change would solve is my personal pet peeve with the format. Hybrid cards have both mana symbols on them, meaning that you can't play a hybrid card unless you are playing both of its colors. This annoys me, as the entire point of hybrid cards was that they represented an "or" state rather than an "and" state. A mono-white deck in another format can play the card Mirrorweave. Why, then, can't a white commander?


Finally, I feel the current rule has an execution problem. The expansion Arabian Nights has a card in it called City of Brass. Here is the current Oracle wording for the card:

City of Brass
Whenever City of Brass becomes tapped, it deals 1 damage to you.
T: Add one mana of any color to your mana pool.

Imagine that we decided to reprint the card but change the name, as City of Brass didn't make sense in the new setting. While doing so we make a tiny tweak to make it read a little easier for beginning players:

City of Copper
Whenever City of Copper becomes tapped, it deals 1 damage to you.
T: Add W, U, B, R or G to your mana pool.

City of Brass can be played in any Commander deck. City of Copper can only be played in a five-color Commander deck. They are almost exactly the same card. It just makes the designer in me squirm.

I often talk in my column about how R&D is always looking for rules it can kill. I really like the Commander format, but if I was allowed to make one change to the format, this would be my choice.

Commander is played with Vintage-legal cards, with some exceptions:

* Cards are legal as of their set's prerelease
* Shahrazad is legal for play in Commander
* The following is the official banned list for Commander games. These cards (and others like them) should not be played without prior agreement from the other players in the game.

Ancestral Recall
Black Lotus
Coalition Victory
Emrakul, the Aeons Torn *NEW*
Gifts Ungiven
Kokusho, the Evening Star
Library of Alexandria
Limited Resources
Lion's Eye Diamond
Mox Sapphire, Ruby, Pearl, Emerald and Jet
Painter's Servant
Panoptic Mirror
Protean Hulk
Recurring Nightmare
Staff of Domination
Sway of the Stars
Time Vault
Time Walk
Tolarian Academy
Worldgorger Dragon
Yawgmoth's Bargain

* Additionally the following legends may not be used as a Commander:

Braids, Cabal Minion
Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary

Braids, Cabal Minion
Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary

One of the necessary evils of a format with a lot of cards is the need for a banned list. The thing I appreciate most about the Commander list (which, I should stress, is not made by or kept up by Wizards of the Coast but rather an independent team—you can click here to see their website) is the fact that the list has been kept so short. I know this might seem like a long list, but when you are talking about a collection of over 12,000 cards, this list is pretty miniscule.

I also appreciate that this format has some cards on its banned list not seen in any other format. That says to me that this format is doing something different, which is one of the many reasons I'm a big fan.

Players announce their choice of Commander and move that card to the command zone.

The rules team created the command zone specifically to have a place to put the commanders. Now that the zone exists, design has been having some fun thinking about what else we can put there.

While a Commander is in the command zone, it may be cast. As an additional cost to cast a Commander from the command zone, its owner must pay {2} for each time it was previously cast from the command zone.

Up above I talked about the importance of the commander in giving the deck identity. Let me take a moment to talk about the other important aspect of the commander. While I like the variance of 100-card singleton, it does have the problem of not having enough control of your theme. The commander solves this problem nicely. Because you're (almost) guaranteed of always being able to cast your commander, it helps ground your deck and makes sure that you'll have a good chance of doing the thing your deck is designed to do.

I also really like the design in allowing you to get your commander back, but in a way that makes you want to be careful with it. The rising cost is a very good mechanic to create this balance.

If a Commander would be put into a graveyard or exile from anywhere, its owner may choose to move it to the command zone instead.

This rule just exists to make the last one work, but as it does that job well, thumbs up from me.

Players begin the game with 40 life.

One of the great things about the design of this format is that so much of its strength comes from such simple tweaks. Multiplayer needs more time to develop than two-player Magic, so this is a nice way to help boost that aspect of the game in a pretty simple but functional way.

If a player has been dealt 21 points of combat damage by a particular Commander during the game, that player loses the game.

This rule is a little what I call "en passant." En passant is a rule in chess that helps tie up a mechanical loose end but in doing so creates a rule that's kind of hard to teach because it just doesn't happen all that often. I see what this rule is doing—helping to push certain styles of decks and prevent stalemating—and while it probably is holding up its inclusion, it does make me a little sad that occasionally when this rule is first explained, most likely the first time it comes up, it will feel like the experienced player is messing with the novice.

At Your Commander

I hope you all enjoyed my designer's eye look at the Commander format. If you've never tried it out (especially if you enjoy multiplayer play), I urge you to do so. Also, I've made some bold statements, which always leads to some lively comments, so please if you agree or disagree with what I said, let me know in my email, my Twitter account (@maro254), or in this column's thread.

Join me next week when I'll party like it's 2012.

Until then, may you experience the joy that Magic is not one but many games.