All posts by Toby Elliott

UNFINITY PREVIEW CARDS

Our friends at Wizards of the Coast have provided us with a couple of free preview cards for the Unfinity set. When they asked us what kind of card we would like to preview, we said “Well, we’re big fans of Clones.” Somehow the email seems to have gotten garbled, because they sent us

We wrote them back that there had been some confusion and we were talking about copies. They apologized and sent us another card.

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Clown Extruder, art by Marco Bucci

Buncha jokers over there in Renton, I tell you.

But Wait, There’s More

We have a special bonus card today!

Command Performance, art by Kirsten Zirngier

I think they kind of missed an opportunity to make the Scryfall folks cry (well, another opportunity) by not naming this Very Cryptic Command. Looking forward to the textless version in a few years!

Unfinity brings some crazy new cards to the Commander table, some of which you’ll need to have pregame discussions about. Remember that cards with the acorn holostamp are not legal by default, but the rest (including the ones above)… go crazy. It’s clear that the folks at Wizards did.

Announcing New RC Members – OLIVIA GOBERT-HICKS and JIM LAPAGE

Please join us in welcoming Olivia Gobert-Hicks and Jim Lapage to the Rules Committee!

After multiple rounds of interviews with some fantastic candidates, Olivia and Jim demonstrated a deep understanding of the Commander Philosophy, the right outlook for successfully managing a format, and a bunch of great ideas that we’re looking forward to exploring further. We’re excited to have them onboard and helping to shape the future of Commander.

Olivia was on the leading edge of webcam streaming of Commander, nearly a year before the pandemic and well before it caught on across the community, providing a positive blueprint for the practice.  This is just one example of the kind of foresight and insight into the format that she brings to bear.  Infused with the spirit of the format, her passion and power make her a significant representative for Commander to the groups that she will interface with as an RC member, from the wider community to design teams in Studio X. She is a leader in the truest sense.

Jim possesses one of the keenest minds in Magic.  His ability to understand, dissect, and articulate difficult ideas, thoughts, and processes is unparalleled, uniquely qualifying him as one of the format’s primary architects. His work demonstrates a belief in the power of Commander as a social format and force for positive change. He is equally at home interacting and communicating with diverse groups, offering the opportunity to distill input from across the broad Commander player base. He is the type of thinker who will help chart a smooth course for steering Commander into the future.  

We could spend a whole lot more time going on about Olivia’s passion for the format or Jim’s ability to break down a problem in great detail, but let’s have them say a few words about themselves.

Olivia:

I played my first game of Magic in an eight player two-headed giant Commander pod in 2014 and have never looked back. My enthusiasm for the format and love of creating cool things has led to me cosplaying Magic characters at events, streaming on my Twitch channel, co-hosting my own Commander show, and serving on the CAG since 2019. 

I want to use my time on the RC to help assist players in having the best possible experience, provide resources and ideas to players to keep things fresh and engaging. My hope is that I can help others find the same sense of community, discovery, and most simply, fun, that the format has given me over the years. 

Outside of Magic, I’m trained as a master jeweler – which may explain my love for artifacts! I have also worked on numerous political campaigns, and facilitated fundraisers for charities and causes close to my heart. In my free time, I enjoy playing Path of Exile, lifting weights, and making too many cool props for LARP.

Jim:

I started playing Commander in original Innistrad when I discovered that Shield Sphere wasn’t legal in Modern, and that pretty well sums up my deck-building style. I value the freedom of exploration that Commander provides in Magic, specifically when building extremely unusual and sometimes powerful decks. In 2018 I started a Youtube channel showcasing a mix of casual and competitive social gameplay, combo explanations, and analysis of the strategic and social aspects of the format.

In the past I’ve used my platform to help destigmatize high-powered play and to showcase the unique experiences available in underexplored corners of the format. This often involved communicating my own motivations for playing the game. I’d like to continue this work by creating concrete tools and methods that event organizers can use to communicate realistic expectations about the play environment they’re creating. I want to use my role in format leadership to help others explore and appreciate the full breadth of experiences available in Commander. 

In my spare time, I enjoy cooking and baking; crossword puzzles; escape rooms and logic puzzles; and camping and hiking. When not playing Magic I’m playing Slay the Spire, Diablo III, or any game from the Legend of Zelda series.


If you want to hear more of their thoughts – and you should! –  they’ll be in the channel #rc-expansion-welcome on the RC Discord server starting at 11:30 AM Eastern for an hour or so.  You’ll be able to find them, along with the rest of us, regularly in other channels on the server, always happy to talk about Magic’s Greatest Format.

Unfinity and the Acorn Symbol

Today’s Unfinity announcement included the introduction of the acorn watermark as the new method to distinguish what were previously silver-bordered cards.

We will be updating the rules for card legality to make the acorn symbol equivalent to silver-borders; they’re not allowed by default (but should be encouraged among playgroups!)

We considered allowing them – Commander is not a tournament format, so philosophically it aligns with Mark Rosewater’s points about un-cards – but while some of the classes of cards that get an acorn symbol would be fine (art-based abilities, for example) others are not (physical dexterity cards) and further trying to split would descend to specific card lists. Those might be viable as an optional addition, but not something we would look to make default.

Set looks like a ton of fun, though. Looking forward to it! As always, you’re welcome to join us on the RC Discord server to chat about it.

2021 April Update (Strixhaven)

No Changes.

Commander is in a pretty good place right now, considering waves hands at everything, and we don’t feel the need to take any action.

We do have our eyes on some cards, but want to wait until we have more in-person play to get a sense for how they would impact the format. While webcams have been amazing for getting through the pandemic, the online environment isn’t the same as traditional paper play. As it looks like things will start to reopen over the coming months, it makes sense to take a wait-and-see approach.

While there are no rules changes, we do want to highlight a couple of features that Strixhaven brings and how they interact with the Commander rules.

1) Any card that has a legendary creature on its front face can be your commander, but in the case of Modal Double-Face Cards, you can cast either side. Both sides are subject to the same Commander Tax; it looks at how many times you have cast the card, regardless of which side you chose to cast. Strixhaven introduces Legendary creatures with sorceries on the back side. For example, you may cast Search for Blex, but it’ll cost two more mana if you cast Blex, Vexing Pest earlier in the game. Perhaps you shouldn’t have lost him the first time!

2) Learn cards cannot retrieve Lesson cards when they are cast. We are not interested in introducing sideboards into Commander, and are not comfortable with defining outside the game as all cards you own (it was defined this way years ago and led to a lot of problems and arguments.) However, the alternate mode of discard and draw works fine, as the restriction is limited to the part of the card the looks for a Lesson. Playgroups that want to make Lessons work are encouraged to define a set of rules that works for them.

We’ll be back for Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. In the meantime, we’ll continue to stream twice weekly on the RC Twitch channel (http://twitch.com/CommanderRC) on Thursdays at 8PM EDT and Sundays at 2PM EDT. Come hang out!

June 7 Announcement on Dies Triggers

As you may have heard on the CommandFest charity stream, we’re changing how commanders go to the command zone, effective with the quarterly Commander announcement for Core Set 2021. The short version of it is:

If a commander has an ability which triggers on it dying or going to exile, it will trigger before heading to the command zone. 

The long version (including how we got there and the technical details) is below.


First, new rules (specifically, a new state-based action):

If a commander is in a graveyard or in exile and that card was put into that zone since the last time state-based actions were checked, its owner may put it into the command zone.

If a commander would be put into its owner’s hand or library from anywhere, its owner may put it into the command zone instead. This replacement effect may apply more than once to the same event.

Commander death triggers are a subject that came up over the years, but didn’t get much traction. It’s not that any of us objected, it’s that none of us felt all that strongly about it. The current system worked fine and was elegant. We were happy with it and obvious possible changes had a lot of downsides. There were people out there who thought it was a good idea, and people out there who thought it was a bad idea, and no groundswell for change. You’ll find us defending positions we feel strongly are correct (like hybrid mana color identity during deck construction), but we generally didn’t engage much on Commander death triggers beyond pointing out that the rules to make it happen weren’t nearly as simple as people thought they were. We just didn’t have strong feelings either way.

The tipping point came last October when a CAG member was talking about their Elenda, the Dusk Rose deck and we had to break it to them that it didn’t work the way they thought it did. Turns out a portion of the CAG didn’t understand that commanders dying didn’t trigger death triggers and were quite passionate about the subject. That was motivation to see if we could do something with them that wasn’t a mess.

We came up with a lot of possibilities. Each had various levels of impact on the game. We had a list of a bunch of notable cards so that we could consider the implications of each approach, including Rest in Peace, It That Betrays, Oblivion Ring, Banishing Light, Grave Betrayal, even Skullbriar! If it had a weird interaction with a zone change, we probably talked about it.

In the end, we presented eight options to the CAG for discussion, all of which had different plusses and minuses:

  • Do nothing
  • Redefine the term “dies”
  • Inherent trigger on the commander
  • State trigger on a commander in a graveyard
  • State-based action (mandatory)
  • State-based action (optional)
  • Special action
  • A really crazy one where the Commander made a token copy of itself that went to the graveyard.

And then we talked a bunch. How much weirdness was acceptable? How much were we willing to change core Commander game play? Was not being able to leave your Commander in the graveyard acceptable for a very clean state trigger? For example, the special action (essentially “0: put your Commander into the Command Zone. Activate only in the graveyard, exile or library”) meant it was usually correct to have your commander in the graveyard when it wasn’t on the battlefield. Redefining “dies” to mean “is put into the graveyard or command zone from the battlefield” was super-clean, but meant that blinking a commander would trigger death triggers. Everything had tradeoffs.

After a lot of discussion, we proposed to Wizards the following state-based action:

If a commander is in a library, graveyard or exile, and doesn’t have a choice counter on it, it’s owner may put it into the command zone. If they do not, put a choice counter on it.

That worked intuitively with basically everything (shhhh, Skullbriar).

Rules Manager Eli Shiffrin (because he’s smart and good with the rules) pointed out that we could steal a little technology from, of all things, Deathtouch, to avoid using a counter (yay, Skullbriar):

If a commander is in a graveyard, library or in exile and that card was put into that zone since the last time state-based actions were checked, its owner may put it into the command zone.

We loved this, but there was one small problem. Could this apply in a hidden zone, especially with the existence of Chaos Warp? Chaos Warp targeting a Commander would put the commander into the library, shuffle it, then reveal the top card. Tracking the commander through all of that is stretching the Magic rules, and while I think we could have made it work, it was tricky both rules-wise and physically. In the end, we left the replacement effect in place for hidden zones (hand and library) and now use the state-based action for graveyard and exile. Commanders that go to hand rarely want to be moved, and commanders going to the library is a rare event; wanting to take further action before the State-based Action kicks in is rarer still. Those events working differently won’t matter most of the time.

And that’s how we ended up with the final rules above. Note that the Commander still has to go to the graveyard in order for a dies ability to trigger. If that is replaced by some other effect (such as Rest in Peace), it won’t happen, just as it wouldn’t happen on any other creature.

We’ll obviously be keeping an eye on some of the more powerful commanders with death triggers – looking at you Kokusho and Child of Alara! – but think it will be OK and opens up a few more interesting options. And Elendra the Dusk Rose now works like the CAG and a bunch of other people think it does.

April 2020 Rules Update

Companion

When we first saw the companion mechanic, our immediate reaction was “well, this is cool; it won’t work in Commander.” But, looking at the mechanic, there was nothing problematic about it. It was actually the kind of thing we really like to encourage. Brew with restrictions! Since we want the rules of Commander to match up to Magic where possible and healthy for the format, we took a second look.

We still don’t think Wishes and the other get-other-cards-from-outside-the-game are something we want in Commander. We outline our stance on wishes in the FAQ and none of the concerns we have with them applied here. The only issue was that the mechanic referred to outside the game. If the companion started in the Command Zone or Exile, it would have been fine. Since that’s clearly an arbitrary mechanical distinction, how could we adjust the rules to reflect this?

It turns out that it was easy. The problem with all prior mechanics which used outside-the-game was their open-endedness. They brought cards in from a giant unbounded set. All we had to do was change one word in Rule 11:

11: Abilities which bring other card(s) you own from outside the game into the game (such as Living Wish; Spawnsire of Ulamog; Karn, the Great Creator) do not function in Commander.

Companion now works within the framework of Commander – it’s bringing itself in – and nothing else changes. Similar mechanics will be fine in the future as long as they remain self-contained (though if we think they’re problematic, we’ll obviously take another look and ask ourselves why).

We recognize that this does let you go past the 100 card rule that is iconic to Commander. However, a single extra card you have to jump through serious hoops to get is philosophically okay in the same way that a tiny number of cards (like Relentless Rats) are able to violate the even-more-important singleton rule.

Lutri

That left Lutri. We hate the idea of banning a card prior to release. We gave serious consideration to announcing that the card would almost certainly be banned with Core 2021 and letting it be legal rather than break our stance that all cards should be given a chance.

The argument that finally won the day was that not everyone would see that announcement. Many people would buy a legal Lutri as it goes alongside every deck with red and blue in it. Knowing that it would certainly be banned, we were uncomfortable setting up those folks, who are in many ways our primary audience, for far greater disappointment. Better to bend our stance.

This is where we say that it was a one-time thing and we don’t expect it to happen again, but that might not be entirely accurate. Wizards is free to explore weird spaces, and, as demonstrated here, those spaces may occasionally do something really problematic. If another card comes along that also does something novel that is incompatible with the format, we’ll ban it immediately. Note that “stupidly powerful” is not novel; those cards will get their chance to prove themselves.

Flash

Speaking of exceptional decisions, we are banning Flash (the card, not the mechanic). Enough cEDH players who we trust have convinced us that it is the only change they need for the environment they seek to cultivate. Though they represent a small fraction of the Commander playerbase, we are willing to make this effort for them. It should not be taken as a signal that we are considering any kind of change in how we intend to manage the format; this is an extraordinary step, and one we are unlikely to repeat.

We use the banlist to guide players in how to approach the format and hope Flash’s role on the list will be to signal “cheating things into play quickly in non-interactive ways isn’t interesting, don’t do that.”

We believe Commander is still best as a social-focused format and will not be making any changes to accommodate tournament play. Taking responsibility for your and your opponents’ fun, including setting expectations with your group, is a fundamental part of the Commander philosophy. Organizers who want to move towards more untrusted games should consider adding additional rules or guidance to create the Commander experience they want to offer.

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.