This summer’s multiplayer Magic format is Commander, formerly known as EDH. While it’s the most widely played casual format and very likely to be around for many years, it’s actually pretty difficult for new players to get into. Five new pre-constructed Commander decks have removed a major hurdle for casual players looking to explore the format.
I realize this is a very long review, so if you don’t feel like reading it all, here’s the summary: product is selling like hotcakes, Commander is a popular format and it’ll be relatively easy to find games, Wizards made a bunch of cool decks with new cards in them, Commander can be complicated in terms of deck building and playing which seems counterintuitive for a casual format, but you may enjoy it anyway.
Barely two weeks after the release, it’s safe to declare the Commander decks a commercial success. Wizards wasn’t sure how to gauge interest in the format, and the first printing flew off shelves. At Origins, one dealer told me he purchased every deck in stock at Wal-Mart the night before. He got them at the retail price of $29.95. He was selling them from his Origins booth for $45. And they were moving fast.
That’s the funny thing about Commander — it started out as funky homebrewed casual format called Elder Dragon Highlander. It stayed pretty underground for years, mostly played by Magic judges and other insiders when they had downtime between tournaments. It was spreading out into the greater Magic community, though, and Wizards picked up on this. They even programmed it into Magic Online. So instead of creating a whole new multiplayer format, like Planechase and Archenemy, they tapped into the existing demand. To really drive players wild for the product, they created a bunch of new cards, the first time in a very long time that new Magic cards have been released in any way other than in booster packs.
A second printing is being rushed into production, and I’m sure once the craze dies down it will be easy to find these on the shelves at Target for retail price. There should be no worries about the intended audience (casual players) getting priced out of the market on these.
The thing that makes Commander tough to get into is the complicated nature of building a Commander deck. You have to assemble a 100-card deck, with only one of each card (other than basic lands). Out of the 100, you pick your Commander, a legendary creature who hangs out off to the side, in the Command zone, were he or she can be cast at any time. So not only do you have to figure out which 100 cards to use (60 or so, really — you’ll typically run about 40 lands), you have to find the ones that interact with your Commander in fun and interesting ways. Plus, the colors you play are limited by the colors of your Commander. Complicated business!
These decks let you skip over that part, just grab a Commander deck and go. If you want to modify the decks, at least you have a starting point. You know what the deck is trying to do (stuff cards into graveyards, or ramp up to huge mana and cast double spells every turn, or slam killer angels and demons onto the battlefield), so it’s a lot easier to take out a lame card and put in something better that fits the theme.
Of the new cards, the new legends got a lot of attention. They are surely very cool. The cards you will see flying around the table the most, however, are some of the commons and uncommons. [card]Syphon Flesh[/card] is a card that I think is borderline playable in constructed (although the new Commander cards are not legal in Standard, they are legal in eternal formats like Legacy). Wizards also went out of their way to make cards that are extra flashy or interesting in a multiplayer environment. The cycle of vows can really change the shape of a game ([card]Vow of Malice[/card] is a good example). You see, multiplayer Commander games get very political. If you smash into one player with all your creatures, that player is probably going to come back at you. It’s just human nature. The vow enchantments restrict which players can be attacked by which creatures. They actually help move the game along, because in situations where you might sit back and not attack to avoid drawing aggro, you can attack the one player your creature isn’t vowed not to, and just throw your hands up in the air. “I’m sorry, I can’t attack anyone else with it!”
So the Commander decks are pretty good for players just getting into the format. But how fun is the format? Commander is so popular that I almost hesitate to say this, but it’s not my favorite multiplayer format (I still like Planechase the best). Now, I say that with some caveats: I’ve only played a few games, and only with these preconstructed decks. It seems likely that games with customized decks will create a more balanced, skillful game. Some people will have faster aggro decks, some combo decks, more counterspells, etc. With the precons, games seem to degenerate into, “play a bomb, bomb gets killed before your next turn, play another bomb.” Also, and this is probably true no matter which decks are being used, Commander games can get incredibly complicated. Trying to keep track of which vow restricts creatures from attacking which player, who controls what permanent, digging through graveyards to count creatures or find reanimation targets…it gets pretty headache inducing. Plus you have to track whose Commander did how much damage to which opponent, because of the 21-damage from a Commander kill rule. I think I might enjoy Commander more as a 1-on-1 format, where you can focus on creative 100-card deck building and skilled play against your solitary opponent.
My only other minor complaint about the Commander decks is the oversized foil cards for each deck’s three Commanders. They’re…ok, I guess? Ultimately they’re pretty useless. I didn’t even bother bringing my oversized Commander to Origins since it’s a pain to transport and they don’t really serve any purpose other than just being bigger. If your Commander gets shuffled into your library or into your hand for some reason, then you have to search for the regular sized version. It also leads to some unnecessarily awkward rules explanation in the deck inserts, so that newbies understand that the oversized cards aren’t necessary for a Commander (you can use any legend). I would much rather have had foil versions of the regular sized cards, a 40-point life counter, or maybe a few bucks trimmed off the MSRP.
If you’re a Commander fan, or are interested in trying it out, then Wizards has done right by you. They have created a very nice product that’s proven highly popular. I can’t stress enough how cool it is that they did this, and what a good job they did with it (giant cards aside). The fact that my personal Commander experience has been a little underwhelming so far doesn’t mean much — it is a cool format, no matter how much I grouse. Get one of these. You’ll have fun. And if you’re wondering which one to get, I’ll have a handy guide posted shortly.