I've seen many Commander tournaments offered at various events, but I've never played in one. For many people, me included, the idea of a Commander tournament is an oxymoron.
Commander is supposed to be a super fun, relaxed, friendly and casual format. I find that putting something like this into a tournament setting risks ruining those qualities. My philosophy is that if there is anything at stake, then you are justified playing to win. Often times a From the Vault will be awarded as a prize to the winner of the Commander tournament. This is a pretty sweet prize, so screw having fun, I want to win.
I've spent time on several occasions contemplating how to run a Commander tournament to mitigate this problem. I even tried putting my mathematics degree to good use trying to devise an algorithm for the complicated pairings involved with Commander. But I struggled to figure out a method that upholds the spirit of Commander.
I think a traditional swiss style tournament for Commander is a terrible idea. It just doesn't fit. One major problem is that Commander is meant to be a multiplayer format. How many people are put into a pod for each round, three or four? What happens when there is a weird number of people, like 19? How do you determine a winner? There are so many difficult questions that need to be addressed before a Commander tournament can be run.
So is there a way to put a reasonable Commander tournament together? Whatever the final format, it is imperative that the spirit of Commander is honored and that players can have fun the same way they would in their kitchen table games.
Who is the Winner?
This is one of the more difficult questions to answer. One might simply say, "Last man standing." Intuition says this would work but there is one major flaw. Say there are four people, call them A, B, C, and D. Player A kills players B and C, then player D kills player A. Technically Player D is the last one standing, but player A killed more players. Does this seem fair? I don't think so.
So why not award a point for each opponent a player kills? This brings us to the 'weird number of people' problem. Say there are 19 people. There is no possible way to evenly distribute players into equal-sized pods. In this case the best options would be four pods of four and one pod of three, or five pods of three and one pod of four. In the first option, everyone in the three-man pod is at a disadvantage because they have less players to kill. In the latter case, the four-man pod has the advantage of more opponents to kill.
Another huge problem that can arise during a Commander round is time. I've played four-player games that lasted for several hours. How much time should be allowed for each round? If a pod does go to time, what happens? So many questions!
Another popular way to run a Commander 'tournament' is the simple four-person pod. If you eliminate a player, you get two packs (or something similar). Sometimes the last man standing may be awarded additional packs. This is a simple way to provide a tournament style feeling for Commander.
But again, there are problems. Something is on the line! If I want to win all the packs, I'll just combo out and take them.
The thing is, to play a fun Commander game with my friends I don't have to pay money. As soon as I'm paying to play, I plan to win. Again the incentives structure defeats the core values of Commander. It's not very fun when someone combos off and kills everyone on turn five.
Several groups have put together a set of rules for a Commander league. In this case, the 'tournament' takes place over many weeks and people accrue points or whatever.
One that I found particularly interesting involved a point system that had nothing to do with actually winning a game. For example, a player could earn a point by controlling twenty or more creature tokens, or by having fifteen or more cards in their hand.
The part that I really enjoyed was that a player could lose points by doing jerk things. A good example was -4 points if you kill a player within the first five turns. I like this idea because it dissuades people from being jerks. A slight problem however, is that different people consider different things to be a jerk move.
I really enjoyed this idea, until I kept scrolling, and scrolling, and scrolling through dozens of different ways to earn points. This level of complexity can cause things to get a bit overwhelming, especially for people new to the league.
A First Pass
If I were to create an organized Commander event it would have to be elegant. My first priority would be to take away the emphasis on killing players. Of course I couldn't eliminate this entirely, since it is the core of Magic.
I would start by integrating the point systems mentioned previously, but to a smaller extent. I would call these 'Feats of Strength'. A player could also earn one point by killing another player, and when someone was eliminated they could give out one point to another player. This would prevent combo decks from winning because the players that died would most likely not give their point to the jerk who comboed.
These would be the fundamental ways to earn points. It would be consistent between rounds and even future tournaments. From here, I would integrate roughly ten feats of strength that could earn players additional points.
Have 30 or more power among your creatures
Have 100 or more life
Control 25 or more lands
Control 10 or more enchantments
These are just a few off the top of my head. Also, each feat could be earned only once per match. It would take some time to figure out exact numbers, but you get the idea.
From here there are two possibilities. The first would be to keep all the feats of strength consistent throughout the entire tournament, the second to have them change between rounds. It would be very important to make sure that a set of feats don't favor specific types of decks. For example, if several feats triggered off of creatures and creature power, it would favor green decks. So these would have to be chosen carefully to ensure it is fair for everyone.
I could also imagine letting players 'draft' from a large pool of feats, say 12 for a four-player pod, made available for that match. I think this would be quite exciting, and it would allow people to play crazy theme decks and draft the feats that synergized with them.
Another possibility would be to have each player submit a favorite opponent after each round and award a sportsmanship prize.
At the end of the tournament (rounds dependent upon number of participants), the player with the most points would win the grand prize. Other prizes could then be distributed to second, third, etc.
It is very difficult devising a tournament setting for Commander. The two elements don't mix easily, but I do think it is (somewhat) possible. There will always be jerks to ruin everyone's fun, guaranteed. It's crucial for the tournament organizer to have a concrete strategy for preventing this.
Another idea is a one-vs-one tournament, but once that happens I don't even think we can call it Commander anymore.
I would appreciate any input you all have on the idea of Commander tournaments. If you have played in one before, what went well? What didn't? Share your stories!
P.S. Next week I will be designing a new deck around a legend from the new Return to Ravnica set and I would like you all to vote on which one I use! (I already have a black/red deck, so [card Rakdos, Lord of Riots]Rakdos[/card] will not be an option.)
Which will it be? Vote in the comments, or send me an email with your choice.