In the 15 years I’ve played Magic: The Gathering I’ve never been in a tournament. I’ve never won prizes or ranked on leader boards. But I have made alliances, crafted deals, and stomped my friends — that keeps me coming back. MTG, at its heart, is a strategy game that leverages wins not only from powerful cards and clever strategies — the collectible card game flourishes when the politics of multiplayer play forces friends to give well-reasoned speeches and calculated bluffs in order to stay alive. Though the MTG you’ll see in tournaments is almost always one-on-one, the love of the game comes from group play, and publisher Wizards of the Coast is supporting it now more than ever.
The latest set of MTG cards from Wizards, Commander 2015, is an addition to a multiplayer format of the game called “Commander,” or “EDH” (Elder Dragon Highliander). It’s unique in MTG in that it raises a single card in a player’s deck, the commander, above the rest. This card is accessible at almost any time (you don’t have to draw it from your deck), and is a legendary creature card meant to synergize with the other 99 cards chosen by the player. (There also aren’t any multiples in those other 99 cards; there can be only one, like Highlander.) The lack of multiple card copies, the commander, and the short ban list – almost every one of MTG’s 13,000+ cards is legal in this format – makes Commander the showcase for bombastic and game-changing cards that would never see tournament play. Commander was born of fans, lives between friends playing together, and this latest set is the best indication yet that Wizards of the Coast is serious about supporting it.
“It’s really powerful to be able to pick up a Commander deck and say ‘This is my Daxos deck,'” Shawn Main, Senior Game Designer for MTG told me in an email. “Your deck has a clear identity. Commander is a format that invites a lot of creativity and is full of big, dramatic plays. Plus, multiplayer is a great opportunity to delight and/or grief your friends.”
The 2015 set, available now, really listened to the fans of this fan-made format. For example, because Commander players have 100-card decks and double the usual life total, games can usually last hours. Main wanted to shorten these games while maintaining the tension that comes with knowing a game-ending card could come every turn. “Bad Commander games can happen when no one can connect with those punches,” Main told me. “So we like to give players cards that gently encourage forward momentum – like the myriad creatures that reward attacking – as well as cards that shove the action towards an endgame.”
Included in the set are new cards with the aforementioned mechanic “myriad,” which throws creatures at all opponents at once, rather than one at a time. And the suggested ones that come in each of the five available Commander boxes have an “experience counter” mechanic that makes the commanders themselves perpetually useful—even if an opponent disposes of them. Synergy like that is apparently just the beginning for this burgeoning format.
I can say that you’re definitely going to be seeing more Commander-specific mechanics in the future.”
Wizards didn’t make all new cards for Commander 2015, instead it seems they really paid attention to what players were actually using, and re-printed them. Because nearly every card is legal in Commander, more thought-out decks typically include powerful cards that can be decades old. The same “staples” turn up again and again. Reprinting a powerful old card not only introduces new players to cards they may have overlooked, it makes critical cards easier to obtain by making them easy to find, and cheap. (The after-market sale of MTG cards, which Wizards will not comment on, is a thriving business that can drive the price of tournament-tested cards or powerful staples up into the thousands of dollars. Reprinting an expensive card, which increases its availability, lowers that price accordingly.)
“We’re all Commander players,” says Main. “Between Commander Fridays at Wizards and nights at the local game stores, we have a good sense of the staples of the format.” Because Commander decks have the freedom to be overwhelmingly strong (if built correctly), giving players new versions of staple cards is a real sign that Wizards wants the format to blossom. It just wouldn’t be any fun if you picked up one of these new sets, sat down at your local card store, and got consistently crushed.
The inclusion of staple cards and brand-new commander creatures also means that veteran Commander players will have a reason to pick up the 2015 sets. A new commander can change the whole flavor of a deck — there’s a unique rush when adding a few key cards suddenly turns a sputtering pile of card stock into a well-oiled wrecking machine.
Commander 2015 does have its standouts. “Plunder the Graves,” a green and black deck that abuses the effects that happen when creature cards get destroyed, is very strong right out of the bow with a new commander that could work in a hundred deck builds. “Seize Control” is another powerful choice. Its commander is a sorcerer’s dream, and will make you feel in absolute control of the battlefield. The three other decks in the set, thanks mostly to its staple cards, are contenders, but are harder to build around.
“With each release, we’ve focused on bolstering the format by bringing commanders to underserved color combinations and deck themes,” Main told me. “We look for decks players really want to be able to build, but can’t quite and try to offer a commander for that particular deck.”
In short, while Wizards of the Coast has always been listening to those of us that prefer playing in groups of friends over tournaments, Commander 2015 shows that the company is serious in backing us too. That trend will continue. Oath of the Gatewatch, the next MTG set coming in January (in the traditional format that will be the focus of tournaments) will officially support another multiplayer format called “Two-Headed Giant,” where four players face off two-on-two. Four decks, two life totals, and two players deciding how to best protect their “body” while strategizing the other giant’s destruction.
“As for other formats,” Main says, “Wizards is always listening.” Main is a self-described champion of multiplayer, and he wants to hear from us. “If we feel like there’s enough audience there, we’ll definitely support it.”
Are you going to pick up Commander 2015 set? Let us know in the comments!
Kyle Hill is the Science Editor at Nerdist Industries and an avid Commander player. If you think you can beat his Scion of the Ur-Dragon deck, tell him on Twitter @Sci_Phile.
IMAGES: All images © Wizards of the Coast.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Nerdist received a review set of Commander 2015 which was tested and played by the author before review.