Anyone who has ever witnessed me in a gaming environment knows that I lean…heavily…towards the competitive side of almost any game I play. Imagine my surprise then when I realized that my favorite Magic: The Gathering format to play wasn’t the ultra-competitive Standard Constructed format, the favored son of the frothing tournament scene, but rather the casual Commander multiplayer format (formerly known as EDH, or Elder Dragon Highlander among MtG veterans).
Close enough. Look at that handsome devil. You can almost hear the Scottish burr.
For the uninitiated, a Commander deck is a 99-card singleton deck built around a legendary creature: your ‘commander’. Your commander hangs out in a special ‘command zone’ from which he/she/it can be cast over and over again for an increasing mana cost; death is no obstacle for your fanciest critter, so long as you have the land to cast him. Your life point total is doubled as well, from 20 to 40.
In addition, all the cards in your Commander deck have to share their color (one of the five colors of MtG mana) with those in your commander’s color identity, which is determined by its casting cost. So, if your commander’s casting cost is one white, one blue, and one red mana, you are only allowed to include cards with red, white and/or blue mana in their casting cost in your deck.
Finally, the only cards that you’re allowed more than one of in your deck are basic lands. The end result is a highly varied, unpredictable and often completely unique 99 card deck built around your commander card, which rounds the deck out at an even 100 cards.
My latest commander choice. So much shiny.
Now that the long-winded explanation is out of the way, what is it about Commander that makes the format so attractive, even to normally very competitive players, and what can miniature games and hobbyists take away from a hard look at the format? After some serious consideration I’ve realized that:
Games are more fun when they’re uncertain, so long as everyone is playing the same way. If atypical choices are the enforced norm for the format you’re playing, you’re going to have a good time. As long as everyone is riding the same crazy train, the playing field stays level and hilarious.
With my miniature wargaming background I found this pretty surprising. I’ve been a member of the ruthless, if not needlessly angry, decklist and army list camp for so long that I had forgotten how much fun it was to build a deck or army list that can – and does – behave uncertainly, so long as everyone else is doing the same.
The nature of Commander prevents you from stacking your deck with multiple copies of cards you can always rely on to carry you to a win, and the sheer size of the deck (100 cards rather than the usual 60 of Constructed formats) adds an element of unpredictability that livens up games. You get to use the unwieldy, one-off cards that you can’t afford to play in competitive formats where they would often cost you a win (or even a chance at one).
I can’t help but feel like wargaming could benefit from some of the same attitude. I wonder if people agreed to play a Commander-esque game of, say, Warhammer 40k, where each player brought the most outlandish singleton unit choices they could concoct instead of aiming for flawless synergy, how the game would go. I’d be willing to bet that watching my 20 man brick of Chaos Possessed trying to maul its way through 10 Space Marine Vanguard Veterans would be a far more entertaining sight than an Imperial Guard parking lot trading shots with a Blood Angles parking lot.
Twenty of this dude trying to punch out ten Wolverine clones. Good times.
I don’t think it’s as simple, though, as asking your buddy to build a ‘goofy’ list for an evening of gaming. I’ve read more than a few articles preaching to the war game and card game masses, demanding a shift to more casual play, and it just doesn’t work. The definition of what a soft list is changes radically from person to person, and some guys just can’t give it up (I know I’m guilty of it a lot of the time). How often have you asked your buddy to play nice, and he plays his $500 deck instead of his $800 one, or brings six Leman Russ tanks to the board instead of 9? That’s soft, right? Right!?
What? It could ALSO be on fire. Just saying.
And that’s the secret: Commander is a format that demands goofiness of its players. It works so well because crazy choices are not only the norm, but the rule. You know when you’re building a Commander deck that you’re leaving your usual tournament sensibilities at home, and so is your opponent. There’s no other choice. The odds of a gorgeous combo coming together or a perfect first three turns are slim to none in a singleton deck, so why not run some craziness? You aren’t going to get crushed by a hardcore tournament list, because the rules prohibit building your deck the normal way. The format demands insanity rather than relying on players to all agree on what a ‘fun’ deck is, and it’s stronger for it.
I, for one, am going to apply the same logic to my next game of 40k. No force organisation chart and only one of each choice from my unnecessarily large Space Marine army? DONE! I suspect I’ll have a better time than running the same fine-tuned tournament list over and over again, and I suspect you would too.
– Scott out!