Magic: The Gathering is getting funky. Rather than rolling with the usual themes and motifs for its upcoming set, Wizards of the Coast have turned to the more casual Commander format for their upcoming set — and they’re turning the whole thing into one giant draft.
The set is called Commander Legends, and it works completely differently from a regular Magic set. For one, it’s much bigger at 361 cards. And that’s because the set is built around draft play, featuring enough cards in each pack for players to enjoy a limited Commander experience.
Unlike a regular MTG draft, players take two cards at a time. You then pass the cards around and continue as per normal until you’ve exhausted all the cards in three boosters, which leaves each player with a 60-card deck — 40 cards less than what a regular Commander deck would be. Crucially, Commander Legends also does away with the Singleton rule, which limited Commander decks to only having one copy of each card. And to accommodate all of this, the booster packs are bigger too at 20 cards a piece.
To understand the complications around building a set around Commander, and drafting, I had a quick chat with Gavin Verhey, a senior MTG designer, former MTG pro and current writer at Wizards of the Coast. I started by asking him when the idea for a draft-based Commander set came around, and he explained that the set had actually been in the planning for a long time.
Kotaku Australia: When did discussions first begin about making a Commander set built around drafting? What insights did you have around drafting, Commander and the demand for such a thing?
Gavin Verhey, Wizards of the Coast: Believe it or not, I actually came up with the idea nearly 6 years ago! Draft had long been my favourite format, and Commander was very up-and-coming at the time… but the trick with Commander is that there had never been a way to draft it. It seemed like it would be a lot of fun! So I started building up prototypes. Pretty quickly, it was apparent: there was something there!
The trick was just going to be getting it to work. Commander has a lot of elements that aren’t really compatible with traditional draft. You need a Legend, your deck has to match it, you need a larger deck, and so on. It took a lot of iteration, but we eventually got there – and in the past 6 years Commander has grown so much it really is an even larger audience than I had ever anticipated we are releasing it into.
For drafters, it’s a brand new kind of draft you’ve never tried. For Commander players, it’s a new way to play Commander that gives you the seed of new deck ideas. It’s really like nothing else- and it’s a lot of fun!
What were the biggest challenges when designing Commander cards around a draft format?
Verhey: There were so many challenges! We really wanted to get this one right – that’s part of why it took so long to come out. To me though, the largest individual challenge was getting the game to feel like Commander. Commander is a format where every card you play is unique, your deck size is 100 cards, and your deck is built around a Commander. You can play almost any card in Magic history. There is a lot of unique elements that go into a Commander game!
Commander is also a playstyle. Games tend to take longer, with a focus on big splashy plays and cool combos or synergies. This is all to say: you can have people draft, even pick a legend and play a 40-life game … but that doesn’t make it Commander. It’s the rules, but not the soul. Commander has this soul to it, and getting that soul right – making it feel like Commander with neat old cards, big plays even late into the game, and some compelling reasons to politic with other players – now that’s what Commander is for so many people.
So we pulled a lot of tricks. The set size is larger than normal, 361 cards (compare to the most recent set’s Zendikar Rising’s 265 cards, excluding basic lands) – so that there are more cards running around to help create that sense of uniqueness. There are more legends in this set than any set in Magic history, to make sure you had plenty of options there. And we even made a new mechanic, Encore, to ensure there were big plays late in the game … among many other things.
Verhey: There were a number of mechanics we tried out that didn’t make the final cut. The one I loved the most was this mechanic called Bribe. We actually tried a similar bribe mechanic in Conspiracy 2, but it didn’t work out there either! The way Bribe works is it was on spells, and the spell gave you an effect. Then, each of your opponents may choose to draw a card. For each one that did, you get the effect again! It created this fun politicking moment. “Sure, just take the card and I promise I won’t attack you with this angel token I just made.”
Ultimately, the design space was just too small to make the cut. However, a small inkling of bribe still exists: Explosion of Riches is the one Bribe card that made it all the way through. It’s just too much fun! You’ll draw the card, right? I mean, you probably won’t get hit by it… Right?
What’s the process for establishing the overall art direction for a new set, and Commander Legends in particular? Is there an internal design document that outlines the overall direction that every artist can reference or draw influence from? Is there a particular visual language that has to be adhered to?
Verhey: For most of our mainline Standard sets, we go through this immense undertaking of generating a worldguide. It kind of feels like we make an entire Hollywood-ready world … In just a few weeks. Artists start drawing concept art, writers start writing and brainstorming, and within a month we have a book that’s hundreds of pages full of reference material on the world we can send out to artists to work with. It’s really impressive stuff every time I see it – our Creative team is incredible!
Commander Legends, though, is a little different story. The cards in this set can come from anywhere and anytime in the multiverse. This means we actually drew upon old characters and concepts, which was a whole another undertaking! Let’s say we want to make a new Kithkin like Kinsbaile Courier. Well, the last new Kithkin we printed was in Eventide – all the way back in 2008! Kithkins and Lorwyn have a very specific visual language and feel that’s important to capture. This means we really had to reference those old styles and guides.
And then you have legends who are described in books, but never have had their own card. Belbe, for example, is a fan favorite character, but only appears on a handful of cards – and a bit inconsistently at that. We really got to go back to the source material and make a strong representation of that character.
What was the thinking around discarding the Singleton rule — was that something that came up a lot during internal playtesting?
Verhey: Yes, it was a huge point of discussion! So Commander normally has this “singleton rule” – you can’t play more than one copy of a card, save for basic lands. We started off that way, but it caused a big problem.
When you build your deck from your collection, you can be sure you don’t add a duplicate. But when you’re drafting and trying to keep all of your cards in your head, it’s very easy to take a second copy of a card – and that creates this moment in deckbuilding when you realize you just wasted a pick. It’s a major feel bad moment! For that reason, and a few others, we pulled back and allowed duplicates.
However, we increased the set size (and especially the number of commons – there are 141 commons in Commander Legends, compared to 101 in Zendikar Rising) to help make sure you don’t end up with as many duplicates. Between the larger set size and 60 card decks, your deck might have a couple duplicates, but they are not both likely to come up in a game.
I’ll also note that there is precedence for this. In a more traditional draft, if you open 5 or more copies of a card, you can play all of them. Draft breaks the 4-of rule. Well, in the same way, Commander Draft breaks the one-of rule.
(Editor’s Note: Wizards of the Coast also broke down some of the peculiarities around Commander Legends’ rules in a video, which you can watch below.)
Can you talk more about the balance logic behind having players draft two cards at once, instead of a single card at a time? The speed benefits are obvious, but were there any concerns around balance implications from players being able to pull too many good cards from a pack?
Verhey: Actually, that was one of the upsides! We did it for two main reasons: one is speed, which you noted. But the other is that so much of Commander is about those cool combinations and synergies that being able to take two cards that work well together really made your deck congeal even better. You can, of course, take two partners together as well, which feels particularly good.
Taking the best two cards out of a pack for your deck is definitely strong, but given that it’s Commander, we were OK with your decks feeling strong.
Verhey: Yes! So many. I mentioned bribe before. Another one which was actually in the original hand-off from Vision Design (early design) to Set Design (the rest of design) was called advocate. The way advocate worked is that it was an ability on cards which triggered whenever a Commander entered the battlefield or attacked. (For example: “Advocate – Whenever one of your Commanders enters the battlefield or untaps, create a 1/1 green Saproling creature token.”)
This was cool because it incentivised you to play your Commander, and it worked very well with partner since you had two Commanders. The problem, and why it was ultimately removed, is that cheaper to cast commanders are already highly advantageous in Commander since you can get them out faster. This mechanic made cheap Commanders even better and expensive Commanders even worse, which is the opposite of the direction we wanted to go. So ultimately it was (correctly) removed – though I do still think there’s a version of it which could have promise someday.
How complicated was Commander Legends to implement into Magic Online?
Verhey: Very! In fact, it wasn’t until after the set was really done that the Magic Online team said they were going to take a crack at it. I h ad never expected it to show up on there! But in fact, they were working on a lot of quality-of-life Commander updates, and needed to program picking two cards at a time for Double Masters anyway, so it all worked out. I know it was a ton of effort they did, but I’m so glad it happened because right now being able to play online is more important then ever! A huge thank you to the Magic Online team for making it happen.
From a top-level perspective, what impact does WotC see Commander Legends having on Magic in the medium to long term?
Verhey: To me, this set will set the stage for a lot of future plans for Commander. Should we do more Commander booster sets like this? If so, how should we implement them? Do people like the feeling of this draft, or would they prefer something else? We’re going to learn a lot in the next month or so, which will greatly influence where we go from here!
One other thing that’s important to me is seeing what impact this has on the format. Our goal here was not to radically overhaul Commander and make a bunch of new staples. I (and others) don’t want
to power creep on cards and make people feel like they have to rebuild their decks entirely, acquire 10 new must-have staples for every deck, or outmode popular Commanders. As a result, a lot of Commanders in this set go in atypical directions, and there’s some pretty quirky stuff in there. But I know we aren’t perfect, and there will always be lessons to learn. So I’m very interested to see how all of this is received, how much it impacts the format, and what amount of this is right for the next time we do something like it – because I, for one, would love to help make a Commander Legends II.
But there’s more! Above you can see the art and cards for four cards: Sandstone Oracle, Charcoal Diamond, Profane Transfusion and Keskit, the Flesh Sculptor, but we’ve got three more to go: Prophetic Prism, Eyeblight Cullers, and Exquisite Huntmaster. Below you’ll see the full card art, which is spectacular as always, and the individual cards and their attributes.
There’s some pretty wild effects in there, although how it all lands out really depends on how your draft goes and how everything links up. Commander Legends will launch physically on November 20, with physical prerelease events starting from November 13. If you just want to draft virtually, the set will be added into Magic Online from November 19.
If you’ve never given Magic a go before, we’ve got a great guide on how to get started here.