A Chat With The Designer Behind Commander, Magic The Gathering’s Most Popular Format

A Chat With The Designer Behind Commander, Magic The Gathering’s Most Popular Format
Image: Magic The Gathering Arena

Commander has long been one of the best Magic the Gathering formats around. So, when I was given the chance to sit down and play with senior designer Gavin Verhey, I jumped at the opportunity to find out how Wizards of the Coast approach this fan-made format.

First, I think a lot of people underestimate the popularity of Commander. According to the most recent MTG Play Activity Report from 2020, “42.8% of players say that Commander is their most favoured format”.

To put that into perspective, booster draft is the second most popular format with 10.8% of players, so Commander is crushing it right now.

Why do people like Magic’s Commander format so much?

Commander was born out of the Elder Dragon Highlander format, which relied upon the Elder Dragons introduced in Magic’s third set, Legends. Image: Edward P. Beard Jr./Wizards of The Coast

The main reason cited for liking Commander was that cards don’t rotate out of the format. That’s great for players who want to build a high-end deck and know they can play it forever, but presents a major challenge for set designers like Verhey. “In the beginning we were a lot more cavalier about the cards that we made, just like making whatever cards we felt like,” he explained. The big problem became considering not just how the cards interacted in the ever-rotating style of Standard, but also interact with every other play mode.

“Because anything we make is going to be in commander forever, so we want to really make sure that whatever we make it something that will be healthy for the format and not outmode other cards. Any new legends we make, we want to make sure do their own thing and don’t displace some other commander. Because it really sucks when you’re like ‘Wow I love to build with this new commander, but this card they made is just the best blue green commander you could ever play with. Why would I want to play anything else?’”

This changing attitude towards Commander also shows in the attitude the team has had towards the pre-con Commander decks, which were first introduced in 2011 and have since evolved dramatically. “A lot of the early decks [were very bad at] mana acceleration, because we didn’t know kind of what cards to put in there. Other problems include the themes not really being strong.”

“The very first commander decks were basically, ‘This is a green, white and blue deck. It has green, white and blue cards.’ Now we’re much more like ‘OK we’re building zombies that are built to adapt based around this mechanic’ or, ‘here’s a deck that’s attached to this set’… So we do a lot more theming around the decks, which is really really cool.”

According to Verhey, the best pre-con Commander deck actually came out this year. “The Lorehold deck from Strixhaven is one of my favourites we’ve ever made. A really popular fan request was ‘hey can you make a red, white deck that isn’t all about attacking’. We love taking fan feedback to heart, it’s so important to me. So, this is a red/white artifact deck, which plays very differently from every other red/white deck and I thought it was a really, really cool unique deck. So, it’s my go to pre con.”

The best way to play Commander online

commander
Image: Spelltable

We played our game of Commander over Spell Table, a Wizards site that allows players to compete online using their paper Magic decks. It’s a free platform, which can recognise different cards as long as the webcam has high enough resolution, and keep track of lives and whose turn it is.

Having a platform like Spell Table was key for Wizards of the Coast as the darkness of March 2020 hit. “I remember being in meetings back in March, we were like ‘what’s gonna happen to Magic?’ You know? But it worked out great between Arena and Spell Table. There’s two great ways to play Magic, that is awesome for onboarding people and, hey, if you’re gonna be at home, what better thing to do than finally learn how to play Magic on Arena?”

As well as finding extra success online, Magic played in person stayed alive through the power of bubbles. “What we found is Magic is a great bubble activity. So, if you are stuck hanging out with a small group of people in your house, or a friend group or something, Magic was a great thing you could do with them.”

Verhey has been around long enough to see the power Magic has to build relationships. “I know so many people who have met, not just friends but like significant others, who’ve gotten married to people they met through Magic, and it’s such an amazing way to get to know people. For me, I have friends all around the world who I have only met through playing Magic”

Advice for first-time Commander players

But, while learning to play online is a great way to start, Verhey has noticed some hiccups when the new Arena players try paper Magic for the first few times. “It’s totally funny, one thing we’ve seen a lot of is people who started playing on Arena, they go and play Magic in person, and there’s just like very basic mechanical things that they forget. The one for me, that’s always funny is drawing a card. Because to me, drawing a card is like the most exciting part of my turn. I’m like, ‘OK, my turn, can’t wait to draw card’, while a lot of Arena players just like forget to draw card.”

For players who are brand new to Commander and only just now getting into the scene, Verhey has this advice: “First of all, pick up a pre-con, they’re really great, they’re perfect for taking out the box to play and they’re actually well built.”

“Second, if you have a friend that plays commander already, go play with them. Enter their play group. It’s an immediate way to get into the format. It might be a little overwhelming at first, there’s a lot going on. Remember it’s social, it’s casual; you can take back things and ask people for help. If you don’t have a friend who plays already, I recommend going and talking to your local game store, and seeing if there’s a group there or maybe a Discord, where people are organizing.”

The best commander
He’s almost powerful enough to overcome being named Edgar.

If you’re looking to make your own Commander deck, according to Verhey the card he most regrets making is the one most overpowered for Commander (and thus worth checking out). “Edgar Markov is a vampire who, whenever you play a vampire, gives you a free vampire. But his ability works even when he’s not in play and from your command zone, which means that you just get tons and tons of extra free vampires, which is really powerful.”

A Magic card to consider in Commander

As far as new cards go from the latest set Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, the most overlooked card for Commander is Curse of Obsession. A 4R Enchantment that both giveth and taketh away cards.

When it comes to the future of Commander, Verhey takes a lot of pride and responsibility in the format. “We want to make sure that we preserve it for years and years to come.”

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