Until this past weekend, the last time I spent money on Magic the Gathering cards (outside of the occasional friendly draft, of course) I was still in high school. While at PAX East this year, I picked up three Commander decks, a Magic whose presence all across the tabletop section of the show floor hinted at its popularity. Wizards of the Coast first supported the format in 2011, so I am actually late to the party. The developers themselves cite fans in Alaska as the creators of the casual format, who I presume spent long winter nights brainstorming modifications to Magic. Regardless of who invented it, Commander mode (also known as Elder Dragon Highlander) is an excellent example of how fan customizations can renew a passion in former players.
The Commander format is quite simple. Each player crafts a 100 card deck with one severe limitation: other than basic lands, you can have no more than one single copy of any card. The statistics are against consistency. In any match, there is no guarantee you will ever see a given card. Every card is precious as you pilot a necessarily diverse monstrosity of a deck. Thankfully you also have access to a commander. Before the game, players choose any Legendary creature or planeswalker to use as their commander. This commander also limits deck construction, as you can only cast spells with color costs matching your commander’s associated colors (swamp, island, etc.). Thankfully, you always have the option of bringing your commander into the game from the commander zone. The game can quickly become a multi-sided war against other players and their often overpowered commanders.
There are a variety of reasons for my departure from Magic, but one in particular stands out: it’s a very expensive hobby. It’s random collection of cards in every booster pack makes constructing the deck of my dreams more troublesome and costly than it’s worth. This is one of the reasons I took so quickly to the Living Card Game format of Android: Netrunner. All things considered, Commander mode is an excellent alternative to the spiraling financial obligations of staying up-to-date with Magic.
Each year since 2011, Wizards of the Coast has released a set of five pre-made Commander decks, each featuring all of the land and singleton cards needed for Commander. The decks are immediately ready to play. For someone that grew up playing Magic, hunting down individual cards and constantly dissassembling and tweaking decks, this is no small matter. For me, this is a new approach to collectible card games. I can now treat Magic like I treat Munchkin or Flux, a tabletop game I can bring out for casual matches against friends without feeling like I’ve signed some sort of contract from below. Likewise, the single-card restriction frees Wizards of the Coast to liberally include high powered cards in their collection. Since players will only receive one copy, they are not undermining the economic engine that is the sale of random booster packs.
Similarly, if I wanted to add to the pre-constructed deck, I need only to hunt down and pay for one card, not four. Even more exciting, since the format has few restrictions on what cards can and cannot be included in decks, Commander revives old cards in my collection I have long since forgotten. Single cards that I never had occasion to use, or those for which I never complete a set, have found new life in Commander mode. Suddenly the prospect of selling my collection has faded. It even makes me far more willing to spend money on casual drafts as any individual card I receive could easily be slotted into my Commander decks. It’s almost as though Magic has adapted itself to suit my needs as an adult with diverse gaming habits, a limited budget, and a stack of cards largely abandoned years ago.
The madness of a singleton Commander deck, with its incorporation of old and powerful cards, also creates a messy but exciting concentration of what made Magic so interesting to me long ago. Rare but hilarious card combinations abound, with huge monsters taking to the battlefield moments before an opponent clears the board, setting everything back to square one. Commander is a treat to play and watch, especially for someone whose been “out of the game” as long as I have.
To know this variant of the game sprung from the minds of its players also drives my interest. It feels almost tailored to me because, in a weird way, it was likely created and adapted by people like me, people who grew up with Magic but also understand some of the game’s limitations. Wizards of the Coast is wise not only to support the mode officially, but to add onto it, incorporating new Commander-specific mechanics into their regular releases. It shows an all-too-rare comfort with change and recognition of fan-driven efforts. For someone who left Magic behind so many years ago, I have immense respect for those willing to reinvent and uniquely revive the game.