Something From the Archives

When the initial Commander product was announced back in 2013, I was asked to speak at the unveiling panel at Pax East. I prepared some remarks in case I needed to give them (I didn’t). It lived on the Commander forums until they were taken down and it remains a piece of writing I’m pretty happy with. Leaving it here for posterity.

Some of the references are a little dated, but the sentiment remains.


I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about Batman.

Not the dark and gritty Christopher Nolan version, or even the dark and twisted Tim Burton version. I want to talk about the 1960s version, starring an oh-so-earnest Adam West. Those episodes, classic TV that they are, were almost always broken into two parts. At the conclusion of the first part, Batman would inevitably have been trapped by the villain and placed in some inescapable deathtrap.

These fiendish killing machines were masterpieces of Rube-Goldberg-ian baroqueness, themed around whichever particular villain had triumphed over Batman that day. But they all had one thing in common – at the start of the second part, once the villain had left the room, Batman would find an equally baroque way of escaping these traps. And by the end of the episode, the villain would be carted away to what appears to be the lowest security prison of all time, since they seemed to have no problem popping up again at will in later episodes.

Some of you out there think this seems pretty silly. Once you have your arch-nemesis incapacitated, you kill them and you’ll be able to run rampant through Gotham City for the rest of your career. Scott Evil, in the original Austin Powers movie, summed this up: “I have a gun, in my room, you give me five seconds, I’ll get it, I’ll come back down here, BOOM, I’ll blow their brains out!” To which his father replies “Scott, you just don’t get it, do ya?”

Scott Evil doesn’t understand Commander. He sees a format he can break easily and a banlist that doesn’t make any sense. The Joker? To the Joker, the journey is more important than the final result, and if Batman gets away, there’ll be another chance to break out of Arkham and concoct a new fiendish deathtrap. The Joker loves Commander.

Commander is a Vintage format in which you’re guaranteed to have a pretty strong card – your general – available to you all the time. You have lots of extra life, and it’s multiplayer, so people’s attentions are spread around. There are too many guns. If your goal is simply to win, you’re likely to be frustrated at how easy it is. The good news is that there are lots of formats – Standard, Legacy, etc – that are all carefully managed to cater to you. Commander wasn’t designed that way. It was built as a social format, a way to hang out with your friends, play some Magic, and see what kind of craziness develops. If a game goes well, everyone gets a few moments to cackle like a supervillain.

What we can do as the Rules Committee is try to steer people away from cards that we have found accidentally make the game uninteresting. We want to make sure that the shark-infested custard you plan to dangle your enemies over isn’t emitting toxic fumes, because that would be awkward. If you are using Erayo, or Armageddon, or putting Curiosity into your Niv-Mizzet deck, you aren’t thinking about defeating your opponents with a laser mounted on the moon, and there’s no banlist long enough to stop you finding guns too powerful for the format. But if you heard the phrase ‘shark-infested custard’ and that gave you warm fuzzies, I think we have a format for you.

Gavin’s Format-of-the-Month – February 2020: Junior Dragon Highlander

I’m going to start this series with an easy one that I know works well… “JDH”. A common way to mix up Commander games is to restrict the cardpool to provide fewer “obviously correct” choices and more room for interesting deckbuilding. Brawl is one popular version of this, but tries to serve too many masters, and the rotating nature isn’t for everyone… to build in just 4-6 sets, it was necessary to loosen the restrictions drastically.

Whether you’re trying to keep yourself in check (vs a playgroup that maybe isn’t on your level, yet), or inviting an entire playgroup to build with the same rules, the easiest way to restrict your cardpool is based on the year a card was printed. Most cards list their year of printing at the bottom, and most deck building sites can filter by set easily.

Choosing a year is up to you, but three versions which work well are:

Mercadian Masques and later: Taking away Urza’s Block and earlier removes a lot of the most broken, degenerate cards in the format. There’s lots of goodies in later sets, but they’re usually not as obvious as [Sol Ring], [Demonic Tutor] and [Swords to Plowshares]. The year 2000 was arguably the point at which R&D really started to figure out how to balance magic card design.

Mirrodin or later: This cutoff is easy to identify because of the change in card frame, and rules out another four years with a lot of Commander staples which you sometimes feel you “have to” include.

Modern or Pioneer Commander: One downside to setting your “cutoff” somewhere in the recent past is that other constructed formats often have more impact on card availability. That said, if you’re more familiar with the more recent sets, there’s lots of goodies in the last 5-10 years of magic and building within those constraints can feel really good.

Finally, if you really want to be hardcore, you can take it even further and play Block-Commander. Think of it as Brawl-with-a-Tardis: you can build a commander deck with ANY legendary creature, but all the other cards have to come from a single 24-month period in Magic’s history.

Have you ever built a deck with a year-based restriction? What was it, and how did it work out?