Magic: The Gathering has been my collectible card game poison for a little over three years. Ever since I was stuck playing someone else's deck during a casual gaming session, the desire to construct my own stack of cardboard death-dealing was too powerful to ignore. Our formats of choice are free-for-all multiplayer (FFA) or Two-Headed Giant (2HG), but with the recent release of Commander 2013, we decided to try our hands at Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH).
EDH, or Commander as it's known officially by Wizards of the Coast, the company that handles all things Magic, is a format that was developed by players looking to use cards that were impractical to use in "Standard" — Magic's competitive format. In this case, impractical meant incredibly mana-expensive dragons.
If you're not familiar with the rules of Magic, players are required to have at least 60 cards in their deck, however they can have more if they wish. With EDH, your deck must contain exactly 100 cards, one of which is your commander. Yes, this is where those dragons come in.
Instead of waiting for your commander to rock up in your hands via drawing, you can play them at any time from an area called the "command zone". If your commander is killed, you can have them return to this zone, however, it'll cost you extra to bring them out again. This cost continues to increase each time your commander meets an unfortunate end.
The other important rule of EDH is that your deck can only contain one copy of a card. So, instead of having four Counterspells, you might have one Counterspell, a Negate, a Dispel, etc. The redundancy you'd normally have from packing a set of four of the best cards for a particular purpose, you instead have to find variations — some better than others.
Finally, players begin the game with 40 life, instead of 20, but you don't necessarily have to beat an opponent into submission from this lofty value. If a player's commander deals 21 points of combat damage to another player, that's enough to kick them out of the game. This lends itself to "Voltron" strategies that focus on making one's commander a soul-destroying, nigh-invincible juggernaut and pumping your enemies for fatal amounts of damage with it.
The Voltron path is the one I chose. Unfortunately, I unintentionally picked one of the more broken (or unfair) commanders in the process.
Choosing A Commander
Seeing as the deck could only contain one of each card, I went online to search for a legendary creature that would give me some "tutoring" ability. Tutoring in Magic parlance refers to the act of searching for and retrieving any card or a type of card from your deck and is named after several spells that do exact this.
As you can imagine, tutoring is a powerful action as it allows you to search for the exact spell or creature you need in a randomised pile of cards. In Commander, it's even better because of the one-card limit.
After perusing Wizards' online card database, Gatherer, I came across the fellow to the right.
Zur, The Enchanter was originally released in a 2006 set called Coldsnap and while he was a decent card back then, with the rise of Commander, he's one of the best creatures you can have at the helm of your 99 other cards. True, he can't tutor for any card, but there are plenty of three-cost or lower enchantments that give you the flexibility of having any spell you could possibly need.
With my commander chosen, I had to start the slow process of selecting all the other cards that would eventually make up my deck. With the Voltron strategy in mind, I picked cards such as Steel of the Godhead and Edge of Divinity for power-boosting and Robe of Mirrors for protection. I intentionally avoided cards from pre-9th edition sets, mostly because I don't like the look of the borders (I know, I know) and because a lot of them are stupidly broken, at least for this kind of deck.
Purely for the comedic value, I grabbed a copy of Thassa from Theros, the latest set. Thassa is an enchantment creature with a converted mana cost (CMC) of three, which means she's a legal target for Zur's ability.
A few weeks later and my deck arrived in the mail. However, it wasn't until the night before my first game that I was given a card by a friend that would "make" the deck — Bruna, Light of Alabaster.
Setting Up (Otherwise Known As The Never-Ending Shuffle)
I regularly meet with mates to play Magic at a place called Games Laboratory, located in Melbourne's CBD. We're most definitely a group of casual players, with most of our decks falling into the "Modern" legal category (another reason why I avoid old-bordered cards). We're not trying to build super competitive or broken decks — EDH is an opportunity to try something different (and to find a use for all those wayward cards gathering dust in boxes).
Shuffling 100 cards is an awkward affair. Shuffling 100 sleeved cards is just asking for trouble. So, instead, you can cut the deck into three or four stacks and shuffle those together, repeating as necessary, or perform a "pile shuffle". Unless you have massive hands or regularly perform magic tricks at Vegas casinos, you're well advised to use one of these methods.
I don't think Commander works so well with more than four players and the fewer, the better. It also doesn't help when you don't know the cards in your deck and the majority of your turn is spent searching through it (this was me, by the way). We played two games consisting of five players and one game with six players on three teams.
As with most CCGs, the early turns were the fastest and consisted mostly of putting down land cards and passing the turn. It's only when you get five or six turns in that the pace slowed down considerably, even more so than a regular FFA. I can't put my finger on exactly why turns started to take forever, but I'm putting it down to a combination of having significantly more mana than what you would in a regular Magic game; having a selection of powerful cards to cast with that mana; and the ever-present option of bringing your commander onto the battlefield.
For the first game, I was able to bring Zur out a couple of times and use his ability to fetch power-boosting and protection enchantments. Zur, sadly, had a habit of dying, putting these enchantments in the graveyard. Even with redundancy, some cards are more effective than others and I found myself running out of ways to kill my opponents.
That's until Bruna showed up. Bruna allows you to play enchantments from your hand and graveyard, so when she hit the battlefield, I was able to equip a set of Lightning Greaves to her and go to town on my unfortunate friends.
As expected, they weren't impressed. For a while, it looked like I might win — the combination of Gift of Immortality and the Greaves made Bruna difficulty to remove. What did me in the end was attaching Pariah to her to soak some of the damage I was receiving from another player. I miscalculated a few numbers and got smacked for more life than I could handle, booting me out of that game.
For the second session, I learned from my mistakes and played a more aggressive game, focusing on one player with Zur until he was dealt the required 21 points of commander damage. That was when everyone else started ganging up on me (for good reason), playing board wipes and other nasty cards to keep Zur down.
Then Bruna showed her face again and I had a truckload of enchantments in my graveyard waiting to be attached to her. She died, multiple times, but each time she found a way back onto the battlefield. I managed to win that game, but it was a slow affair — Bruna would die, Gift of Immortality would revive her and I'd play a counterspell of some sort to stop the follow-up death blow that would keep her off the table for good.
As for the final game... well, that was just pure madness, mostly because someone was playing Jhoira of the Ghitu. She takes a while to get up and running, but once she does, her ability to cheaply cast utterly disgusting cards is always going to mess up your day.
I also found I had to approach the game with a zen-like attitude, which can be difficult if you have even a single competitive bone in your body. I'm usually pretty chilled about losing or having my cards exploded, but for some reason Commander brought out a side of me I'm not sure I like. It's one of those formats where you have to be comfortable with crazy combos and broken cards being played — and played often — and you have to adjust to players getting annoyed at you for cracking out the exact same stuff.
The end result is that games can unexpectedly escalate and transform the table from a bunch of friends playing a casual game of cards, to an uncomfortable cold war of death stares and under-the-breath cursing.
That said, the discontent never lasted long. You learn to accept that no matter how strong your board position may be, it can almost always be shattered by a single card. This is one of the best and worst things about Magic in general.
There's never been a better time to try out the Commander format, with Wizards' releasing five pre-made decks — decks that include reprints of some absurdly strong old cards. As long as you're willing to be momentarily confused, trounced by insane combos and cope with the odd awkward social situation as you calmly explain why a player has to return all their cards to their hand and lose 378 life, you should be OK with playing Commander.
Something I didn't like was the increased overhead of keeping track of how much damage each commander has done to each player. There are house rules for streamlining this process, but it does suggest that EDH is a format designed for four or less players, if you want to have games that don't take forever and aren't a nightmare to manage.
In the future, I don't see our group playing more than one game during our regular meet-ups. It is a tiring format and games can go for hours, so it's more to do with maximising our Magic-playing time together, rather than a dislike for it.
If you'd like to learn more about Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH), rules, strategy and banned card lists can be found on MTG Commander.