My First Game Of Magic: The Gathering's Commander Format Almost Put Me Off Magic

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.

Playing Commander

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.

The Verdict

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.


    It's definitely a format I'd like to try at some point

    As a former competitive player (type 2) I love EDH it is a great use of a card collection and an excellent social experiment as far as watching players make alliances only to stab each other in the back in the very next turn. I would suggest playing with a max of 4 players for the best effect any more that that and might as well just use excel because it becomes more about tracking numbers than actually playing the game. Pauper EDH is a great thing for people with a limited budget who want to try it out and get in on the fun as well, EDH is probably the most fun you can have with MTG because there are very few cards that are banned (I miss primeval titan) and by way of a few cards being substituted in you can change the entire way the deck plays.

    I got into MTG about 1-2 years ago with some friends during Return to Ravnica and while I'm okay learning each set one by one as it comes out, throw me into a standard or modern game and I'm lost. I have no grasp on the metagame, jargon flies over my head, etc. The learning curve for this seems wild.

    This sounds difficult to understand, im still trying to learn the basics of the game as it is! need to get down to Good Games in Blackburn and figure out how to play the game, I would go to Games Laboratory but I dont want to go into the city to get steam rolled by Logan and his friends

      Hi GoldCamV - I run the Commander night at Good Games Blackburn on Thursday Nights (7pmish) and it is pretty casual, free entry and no prizes mean that people are not super competitive and just play fun decks. Usually get around 12-15 people with 4-5 pods going at once.

        Oh wow that's good, let me get the basics of standard play down before I come around for one of your Commander nights

    I agree with the 4 players or less rule, my play group did a 7 player EDH game a few weeks back and it went too long especially since 1 player got bashed out in early turns

    The 21 Damage rule is annoying but necessary, like you said Crazy combo's happen and it gives you reach to a deck that is gaining hundreds or possibly millions of life a turn.

    Some other Formats for those interested in MTG casual play.

    I've been playing MTG since the Mirrodin days (not scars, the old Mirrodin before Kamigawa)
    Highlander is an interesting concept and it's intent of been a more friendly format is a great idea, But despite this there are 2 things that annoy me with EDH:

    1) 100 singles.. sure you get variety but for any EDH deck to work it's going to have to use tutors, as with out duplicates it can be very luck based what with bad draws.

    2) It's meant to be a friendly format more meant for social interaction and enjoyment, what you described sounded potentially quite stressful, there's a list of banned cards for the format but many players also use an extended list to control OP cards.

    Another format that I believe can be used with EDH (not sure) is victory/achievement points these points are rewarded for interesting and fun play, while aggressive and ruthless play is penalized, this causes players to way up whether to do something if points are at stake.

    The mistake you made was playing with more then 4 players - every time I do that I regret it.

    Also it comes down to who you play with, an overly competitive playgroup can lead to unpleasant times in the world of Commander. At my local game store Good Games Blackburn (Soon to be Box Hill) we do not offer prizes or charge an entry fee for our commander nights to encourage players to be creature and play for fun rather then profit!

    Zur is also widely considered to be one of the best generals in the entire game! So I do not blame other people in your playgroup targeting you!

    best way to learn for me is go play Friday Night Magic booster draft.

    For anyone new to EDH, DO NOT PLAY BRUNA OR ZER OR URIL or they're similars.

    They are boring commanders to play and boring commanders to play against, the whole premise of them is that that commander is your only creature and you just use Auras to buff them to the point where your opponents can't win in any way (not an exaggeration, once you give them the ability to phase, you cannot lose).

    Find some interesting commanders, try something more unique. My first EDH was a colourless one, which never wins but it's always fun.

    Commander/EDH is a fantastic format though not ideal for those inexperienced with Magic.

    It is unfortunate that you selected one of the legendary creatures which are considered faux-pas as a general though a general rule to follow for new players is that creatures which are Hexproof/have Shroud or are able to repeatedly draw or tutor for cards are likely to see a lot of unwanted aggression based solely on that.

    Don't let potential hate/group politics stop you from playing whatever you want to play but be aware that even the most powerful deck can be picked off by a group effort.

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