Back in February of 2015, there was a big debate about hybrid mana on MTGSalvation. As a semi-regular poster back then, I eventually waded in because it was getting quite heated on both sides and I figured an RC perspective might calm folks down. Since then, I’ve found myself pointing folks back to that post quite often when the subject comes up and people ask about the RC stance. Seven plus years later, the points remain relevant, but the examples – and some secondary references (such as the old color production rule) – are pretty dated. I figured I should rewrite it to be more up to date and put it somewhere where I didn’t need to dig it out of ancient discussion-board postings.
People sometimes ask why we discourage discussions about hybrid mana on the Commander Discord server. It’s not that we refuse to tolerate dissenting opinions; it’s that there’s no new ground being tread and recycling the same arguments over and over doesn’t actually make for an interesting server for folks to be on. If someone came in with a brand new take on hybrid that wasn’t “designer intent” or “mechanics of Magic” it’d probably be an interesting and welcome conversation.
Yes, designer intent was to make hybrid cards easier to play than traditional multicolor spells. Designer intent is a deep rabbit hole. Phyrexian mana was designed to make some cards easier to play in exchange for life. Force of Will was designed to be played without blue mana. In the early days of Magic, many large creatures were designed with no goal of casting them; they were reanimation targets and the actual cost of the card did not matter. There’s lots of designer intent in the game.
Yes, hybrid cards are unquestionably multicolored cards at all times. Mechanically, they function in-game exactly as they do in the rest of Magic. If you gain control of a creature with a hybrid activation, you can activate it, even if the cost contains a symbol not in your color identity. With the elimination of the color-production rule several years ago, you can even activate it using a color of mana not in your color identity! It’s always true that a Blade Historian can be Hydroblasted, whether you cast it with WWWW, RRRR or something in between.
Neither of these points are all that relevant in our calculus, because they are based around gameplay, but rule 3 (the color identity rule) is not a game play rule. Rule 3 is a deckbuilding rule. It matters when you are putting your deck together, not when you sit down to play. A deckbuilding rule is a restriction, designed to keep you from just throwing whatever you want in your decks. All formats have them – what sets are legal, how many you can put in your deck, etc, etc. They are used to shape a format. Many of them are mechanical. In Commander some are also aesthetic, which is something that helps distinguish Commander from other formats.
Commander cares about color, and always has. Yes, the rules have evolved over time, but that’s largely in parallel with the rules getting written down and slowly becoming more formalized in the first place. Trying to go originalist isn’t terribly useful – the rules were a somewhat contradictory hodge-podge when we started. But, from the very beginning deckbuilding has been based around restrictions that care about color, and “you can’t have mana symbols in your deck that aren’t on your commander” is elegant, easy to explain and aesthetically pleasing to us. (Yes, that only covers 99.9% of cases, so there’s another rule for color indicator because that obviously applies and yes, Extort is a little unfortunate. But, reminder text just can’t matter.) Given that rule, it’s very easy to see where hybrid falls. “Fixing” hybrid requires messing with that fundamental rule and the alternatives are more complex and less aesthetically pleasing (folks are welcome to disagree on that last one, obviously).
Making a change would require a compelling reason to violate that aesthetic restriction. Making cards available to more decks isn’t a good reason. Any change to the deckbuilding criteria would make more or fewer cards available, and making more cards available to decks in a format with so many cards already available is certainly not something we’re seeking to do. We think the format is better if mono-U decks and U/R decks might have to find different answers to problems. In general we like to be more restrictive in deckbuilding and more open in game play and that’s the philosophy that underlies how we handle hybrid mana.
To help with social distancing, people are finding ways to play Commander online more and more. Playing with physical cards over webcam is easier than it seems, but requires opponents you really trust. Arena is another option, but only supports two-player Brawl which falls far short of the experience many Commander players want.
MTGO has a full multiplayer Commander implementation, but is what we call an “untrusted” experience. That means you don’t have much (if any) chance to talk to your opponents and hash out what kind of experience you want ahead of time.
Those rule-zero pre-game discussions are more than just power level… it’s agreeing how long you expect the game to go, what levels/types of interaction are enjoyable, etc. If that sounds like it takes effort, well… it does.
If that sounds like it takes effort, well… it does.
Surprise! It’s worth it!
So how do we do that in an untrusted environment? Sub formats are effective because they can be communicated quickly using just the name of the variant in the game description. If that name is self-explanatory, even better.
A format for deck-builders!
One such variant of Commander which has picked up a lot of traction lately for MTGO games is 10-ticketCommander. I originally learned about it from Eric Levine… an old friend and Commander content producer under the nickname Raging Levine. He originally wrote up the format back in 2016, but for the aforementioned reasons it’s got a real shot in the arm this year.
You will have to make hard choices… which feels great!
Eric invited me to join a Discord community where folks play Commander on MTGO, with the restriction that the total “cost” of the cards in the deck (excluding the commander) should be 10 tickets or less. I use mtggoldfish to price out decks, and there are a bunch of sites online which have prices built in. (If you run such a site, feel free to message me and I’ll add a link here).
Is ten tickets enough?
Remember: Your commander doesn’t cost towards the limit.
Because MTGO ticket “prices” are very different than physical card prices, the power level you can squeeze out of 10 tix is actually pretty reasonable… this isn’t low-budget magic in the classic sense. Even rares usually only cost 0.05 tix, so you can fill a deck with interesting choices.
What the price cap does preclude many of the “usual suspects”… the automatic must-haves, which usually cost 1-2 tickets and now aren’t worth the cost. You’ve got some room to wiggle if there are a couple of cards you REALLY want for a particular archtype, but either way you will have to make hard choices… which feels great!
Cards you won’t have to play, or play against:
Sol Ring (3 tix)
Eternal Witness (2 tix)
Cyclonic Rift (2 tix)
Smothering Tithe (2 tix)
Mystical Tutor (1 tix)
Rhystic Study (3 tix)
Avenger of Zendikar (3 tix)
Craterhoof Behemoth (3 tix)
Insurrection (1 tix)
Demonic Tutor (4 tix)
Since most cards you’ll want are less than a tenth of a ticket (Your non-basic lands need to average about 0.13 tickets), it’s useful to think of cards in centi-tix (cT). You’ve got 1000cT to spend.
How do I build a 10-ticket deck?
You can easily put together a first-cut deck in an hour or so, and might have more fun. Ten ticket decks tend to evolve over time more than my full-price decks, because the set of playable cards is larger, so it’s less important to get the first cut “just right”… a pile of playables will likely be sufficiently powerful to be involved in the game. From there you can learn as you go; I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where I didn’t witness at least one card I wanted to add to my deck after I was done.
Building with a mechanical theme will help, as always. Mechanics like Cycling or Reanimation, which have been printed at common in multiple sets, are a good place to start. Counters (+1/+1, -1/-1, poison, etc) are another… just about any non-parasitic mechanic will have enough support to build around, but you should keep that support in mind when choosing your commander.
I tend to start by pasting a bookmarked manabase into MTGGoldFish’s deck pricer tool and then go from there. It will find the cheapest “printing” of each card for me.
A card which costs 0.03 tix is 3cT.
You’ve got 1000cT to spend.
What if the price of cards goes up?
It’s always a bit bittersweet when a card you like becomes unavailable, and it does happen in 10-ticket commander… but it helps to see it as a blessing in disguise. A card spiking in value is an opportunity to find a replacement… harsh, but fun.
In the end, it’s mostly up to you. If the cost of some of your cards creeps up over time by 10-20%, it’s probably fine for you to leave the deck as-is. Maybe check once a year by pasting it back into a pricing tool… but don’t sweat it too much.
Unless your deck is blatantly cheaty, it’s unlikely people will call you out… you’re the only one who will know you’re bending the rules, but the community is small so if you betray the public trust you can be sure people will share your name and ostracise you.
(It’s worth noting that some cards will never go up in price no matter how popular they are in Commander, or even 10-ticket commander.).
Duals, Shocks, Tricycles, and Fetches are a mainstay of regular Commander mana-bases, but they’re also the first thing to go under budget constraints. Making your mana work with only a ticket or so is a good place to start, and there’s a lot of pre-existing solutions:
Two- and Three-colour mana bases (sans green)
To start with, a surprising number of top-shelf mana fixers are 1-3cT. Thawing Glaciers hasn’t been playable in any online format other than commander, so it weights in at a paltry 3cT. Unfortunately, some cards (like Command Tower), occasionally list at “default” price of 0.01 but aren’t actually available for that price… the format rule is you have to be able to actually purchase it for a given price to count towards your budget.
The real secret to building a budget mana base is finding ways to leverage basic lands, and there are a bunch of colour-agnostic ways to fetch basics without spending significant tix. Evolving Wilds and Terramorphic Expanse effects are fairly easy to come by as a start: Panoramas, Myriad Landscape, Thaumatic Compass, and Warped Landscape are all less than 5cT.
Magic has a huge variety of lands which tap for two or three colours, but only saw play in one standard format. It turns out that many of those “Tier 2” lands are quite cheap even at rare, e.g. Ravnica Karoos, Tarkir Trilands, M10 Buddy Lands (Dragonskull summit and the like), and Hybrid Lands (e.g. Graven Cairns). Tapping into those will easily round out a mana base with only three colours, without needing to play anything bad like Invasion duals. (Invasion Lair lands are some of the most stylish three-colour lands, but they’re still fairly unplayable outside Landfall decks).
The Hybrid lands in particular are some of the best mana-fixing lands ever printed, and cost 2cT. Some of the two-colour animating lands are about 5cT, but others are more than a ticket so you’ll have to shop around… when they fit, they’re a great addition.
Cheap mana rocks are the third piece of the puzzle, and again there’s a lot of them available which are suddenly very playable in a 10-ticket metagame. 2-mana rocks sometimes cost more (Some Ravnica Signets are more than 100cT), but the three-mana counterparts are usually around 5cT:
Once you have more than three colours, lands which tap for any colour become worth considering, and the good news is that, once again, many all-star 5-colour lands are nearly free on MTGO.
Even if you have access to green, it’s usually not a good idea to lean hard on one colour for fixing; you might not draw it till mid-game. Instead, spending a little more on your mana is a good idea for 5-colour decks, because you’ll be able to easily make up the power from multi-colour uncommons and junk rares (Conflux is 11cT!).
Gate package: 10 Gates + Circuitous Route, Open the Gates, Gateway Plaza, Guild Summit, and Maze’s End (total 14cT)
5x Panorama + 5x Mirage Fetches will get you any basics you need for 10 buddy lands to come into play untapped. You shouldn’t need to dip into stuff like Vivid lands, but can if you want (usually because you want to play some 1-colour utility lands).
Price check every card though, because some ostensibly “common” solutions might sneak up on you… Expedition Map is more than 3 whole tickets!
Green-first 3+ colours
Another way to go for mana is to make green a majority colour, and then splash other colours. One advantage to this approach for 3-colour decks is that you can usually guarantee 2, and even 3, copies of those off-colours in the late game. To that end, there are a collection of Rampant-growth style fixers which are cheap enough that they won’t take up any of your budget:
Journey of Discovery, Edge of Autumn, Kodama’s Reach/Cultivate, Fertile Growth, Weirding Wood, etc. Gaea’s Balance does yeoman’s work in 5 colour decks.
One-colour mana bases (aka: good utility lands)
There’s been lots written about good utility lands, which often make your mana base worse, but if you’re playing only one land are a good way to go. Again, managathering.com has a good rundown of lands and rocks which generate colourless mana, which can be good utility+acceleration.
Now that we’ve cranked up the variance, it’s worth talking about ways we can make sure our deck still hits on its theme? One area where 10 ticket commander shines is the value of tier-2, unappreciated tutors. Goldfish again comes to the rescue, with a starting list someone put together. You can find others easily though, by searching for cards with “search your library” and then browsing for old favorites you’d forgotten about or could never find a home for. Sometimes the good ones, like Bribery, will top out your cost-curve at 70cT, but Acquire can be had for 3cT!
Some cards, like Vampiric Tutor or Tooth and Nail, are still available for only a few cT. Others like Liliana Vess, Cruel Tutor, Diabolic Intent, Fabricate, Brutalizer Exarch, Idyllic Tutor and Hoarding Dragon are super cheap, but you will need to get creative. Transmute Cards are restricted in what they can fetch, but also serve as spot removal/counterspells/anti-token hate in a pinch. Even jank like Night Dealings can be a power house.
10-ticket magic is one of many ways to easily quantify deck power, by capping everyone at a low level. It’s easy to communicate (just put “10-ticket Commander” in the game description) and will lead to a lot of veritable Commander-style games. Deck building skill and/or experience are more significant, but the higher variance means you can afford to explore the corners of your collection (or your favourite trader bot’s collection) for stylish plays. Feel free to join the format’s discord (linked above) and say hi!
 The pre-game conversation is core to the format’s experience and success and it’s always worth it. When we talk about “power level” conversations, and ways to communicate power level, it’s actually more than that… really what we’re doing is communicating play style preferences. But lowering power level usually increases variance and interactivity; limited-vs-constructed, standard-vs-modern, etc.
Personally, I’ve fought hard to ensure that “rule zero” conversation remains core to the Commander format because in my experience it is the ONLY way to create a social experience. We can’t write rules which force people to be social. The discussion invariably increases the enjoyment of the game for everyone (well, except trolls).
And if someone says “But I don’t have that option.”? Remember that you never HAVE to play with someone. The freedom to walk away from a game is an essential right you should protect, and exercise. It’s what makes Commander work.
If the rules for Commander are intended as a starting point (spoiler: they are, and ignoring that won’t earn you anything), then one of the best things you can do is mess with its fundamental rules. Last month’s variant was a strictly tougher set of rules than normal, and hence always “acceptable” to other players. This time I want to talk about how to diverge from the rules of Commander but still embrace its spirit, in a way that other players will enjoy.
Of course, before breaking the rules it’s useful to understand why they exist. Colour Identity is one such fundamental rule of the format, which dates back to the early days of the format. It provides two things…
A deck building restriction, which increases diversity of card choices
A more coherent theme for each deck
… each of which serves the over-arching purpose of the format: richer experiences. Done right, Commander isn’t just competition, it’s performance art.
But Colour Identity is only one way to achieve those goals, and you should feel free to experiment with others. Back in Coldsnap, I experimented with a way to abandon the mana-symbol restriction, and replace it with a restriction on creature types.
Enter, Lovisa Coldeyes… the OG representation.
I decided to build a deck with any colour of mana symbols, but only cards which fit the “Warriors, Barbarians, and Berserkers” theme. Adapted the standard rules for Tribal decks:
At least one third (33) of the cards must be creatures
All non-land cards must
Mention a relevant creature type in their name, subtype, or text, OR
Contain the text “Choose a creature type”
This is a pretty high bar… which is one of the secrets to making it work. It’s obvious to other players that I’m not trying to circumvent the normal deckbuilding challenge to a net advantage. I considered restricting non-basic lands as well, but it goes over the top — the effective prohibition on mana rocks and other fixing is sufficiently punishing. Excluding all non-basic lands as well would be equivalent to saying that all lands in a Commander deck must generate coloured mana.
(Yes, allowing “Choose a creature type” cards is a hack, with several holes… it’s not something which could ever be codified in real rules, but we have the advantage of just having fun)
So, let’s get the obvious questions out of the way:
Is this deck good? No, not even close.
Is this deck fun? Oh yes.
Could I could have made a mono-red deck instead? Of course, but the result would have been less interesting than a deck which really leveraged her ability.
Could I have used a different commander for the same deck? Sure… a Najeela deck would be much better at winning the game, and lots of other commanders would suffice. Less interesting though, somehow.
Could I have abused this? Yes… but nobody would want to play against it.
I’ve rebuilt this deck a few times over the years. These days it looks like this:
Again… could I have broken this more? Absolutely, but it’s important to notice that’s no different than any other Commander deck. It’s easier in this case for potential opponents to refuse to play against me (using the rules-as-written to justify their preference), but they shouldn’t be forced to play against ANY deck. If you look at a deck and think “This works because other people have to play against me”, you’re doing it very, very wrong.
So does a Tribal Identity commander need to have an intrinsic “creature type matters” mechanic? No, but it’s a good idea… it makes the “creature identity” of the card clear. There are tribes which are more or less powerful… I don’t even know if there are enough Digeridoos to make an all Minotaur deck, but Kangee Bird Tribal is fine. You’ll have a hard time convincing people your Elf Tribal deck is fun to play against.
Are there other “identities” your group could experiment with? Card Type Identity springs to mind… there’s lots of commanders who would work well with only “Lands and Instants”. Karn with only lands and Artifacts is a challenge as old as the format (first built by format pioneer Gijsbert Hoogendijk circa 2005?). Mechanic Identity could also be viable… all-flying for easy mode, all-coinflip if you’re nasty.
Whatever variants you try, it’s important to decide (or at least think about) whether it’s a variant that mixes well with “basic” Commander, or should be used alone. Most Tribal Identity decks will play fine with “colour identity” based decks… restricting the cards in your deck by creature type is arguably more of a constraint than restricting the colours available.
To recap, the key is that Colour Identity is meant to provide a thematic coherence and deck building challenge, both of which improve the experience for everyone involved. You can use other constraints instead (or in addition) to achieve the same thing… just remember to embrace them, not try to abuse them.
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.
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?