Keeping a Competitive Game Social
What do you love about the Commander format? The engaging opportunities for card interaction? Drawing from a massive card pool spanning nearly 30 years? The chance to show off your hard-to-find original print or foil cards? The rewards for each individual and playgroup vary wildly.
A fairly universal payoff, however, is when you find a card that just seems perfect for an existing deck. This process of continual refinement is integral to Magic itself, however, there is a cost, especially socially, as your deck becomes more and more refined.
There are many good things to be said about cEDH and high-powered deck design, but, the original intent of the format has always been about emphasizing the social aspects of Magic; if it takes longer to shuffle than to play out the game it probably was not fun. (We've all been there!)
That's where the Heart of Commander comes in; a moderation of play aimed at achieving a meaningful, social experience for the vast majority of Magic players. This vision lines up with Magic creator Richard Garfield's own ideas about the game.
Quoted in "Leader of the Banned", an old but strong article about how the original design team wanted to handle powerful cards early in Magic's life, Garfield said: "I expected playgroups to moderate themselves. This is the way it always is in hobby games—no one played by all of a game's rules, and every playgroup tweaked it to meet their own group's tastes."
With that ideal in mind, here are five guidelines I use to build Commander decks that enhance the social experience while avoiding a win at all costs mentality. (Don't worry the cEDH follow-up articles will completely deny the existence of this one.)
In my experience, a lot of Commander groups score extremely low on the Interaction Scale. Let's say you have two creatures: a 2/2 with Flying that gets +1/+1 counters and another that gets +1/+1 counters and has… Flying, Lifelink, Hexproof, Double-Strike, Haste, and Protection from your Opponents. For the time being assume they are roughly the same mana cost, dollar cost, and availability; why would a player ever choose the first creature over the second? The Heart of Commander that's why! Rather than pick cards based purely on power, you opt for lower-powered but nostalgic cards that are playable, have deck synergy, and will result in longer, more interactive games. Interaction is not solely about card power, however.
Take a journey with me to circa 1999 in a set called Mercadian Masques and let's talk about:
Is Flailing Soldier, a 2/2 for one red mana, the most interactive one drop in Magic's history? If the table needs to gang up on a player that is winning, Flailing Soldier and Friends gives you a way to do that. A card like Serra Ascendant, while greater in raw power for the same one mana, just does not. Where one card is massive value for one mana, the other opens up table talk, diplomatic strategy, and a mana mini-game all on its own - it promotes Interaction and gets the table involved.
Of course, there will be times that fellow players don't pick up what Flailing Soldier puts down. Sometimes he just dies right away. Even in death, Flailing Soldier gets a name. His name is Interaction.
This is probably the most widely recognized idea behind many Commander decks, but, I want to impress upon you all that Theme is not to be taken lightly! In my very first Commander deck, I had a theme—everyone's favorite—Land Destruction! (Yes I can hear the e-Boos from here.)
I figured in a format with generally high mana cost spells and multi-colored commanders that destroying land would be the most efficient way to shut down my opponents and get the W. Resolving a Jokulhaups or Armageddon on turn three or four was oftentimes enough to maybe not win outright but to massively stall and frustrate everyone playing. Letting people play their cards is, generally, a lot more fun than just shutting everything down, who would have known?
So yes there I was with my "Theme" and I did a good job on that angle. What could my deck do? Well, it could destroy lands and destroy more lands. The takeaway here is my strict adherence to the theme—that was the part that worked—Letting everyone at the table have fun, not so much. So how do we take that idea, turn it up to 11, and remove the land destruction?
Finding An Interesting Theme
My current best example is my Atraxa, Praetors' Voice deck (save the groans I assure you!) - this deck is all about….Deathtouch! Virtually all non-land cards, and as many of the lands as possible—I'm pointing at you Hissing Quagmire—have the word "Deathtouch" printed on them. Many of them are creatures that simply have Deathtouch, but, I also have cards like Mwonvuli Beast Tracker as a Deathtouch Tutor—and for bonus points, this deck also contains three distinct "Subthemes"—"Lose the Game Touch", "All the Abilities" and to a much lesser extent "+1/+1 counters" (I mean I am running Atraxa).
If a card does not have or say "Deathtouch" - it had better have tremendous thematic synergy with one or all of the subthemes or it does NOT go in the deck.
My First Time Playing Atraxa
Me: Play a guy with Deathtouch, go.
Them: Oh what card is that?
Me: It's just a 1/2 with Deathtouch.
Them: Huh okay. Play a mana rock.
Me: Play a guy with Deathtouch, go.
Them: Oh what is that? Oh, Deathtouch. Okay, play a guy, pass.
Me: (tap mana cast creature) Pass.
Them: What does…
Them: Ha ha ha!
Me next turn: Cast this guy.
Everyone: Proceed to have fun laughing while explaining every ability, every play sequence, everything as "Deathtouch".
After this game not only were the other players enthusiastic about exploring some themes they may not have considered but one of them took out their binder and started pulling every card they could see with Menace (I don't know how that deck build went but I did tell him if he named the deck anything other than "Dennis" he was doing it wrong).
I've used this same idea for a few different Themes like unblockable creatures with Ophidian/A-Mischievous Catgeist // A-Catlike Curiosity subtheme, Mono-Red Enchantments, "Giants", Wall of Text, X/X, and others. These decks vary vastly in power level (generally from Low to Lower) but they never fail to spark the imagination of my fellow Magic players and, again, that is the Heart of Deathto…Commander.
Magic is nearly 30 years old. Originally, Magic's designers thought that people would buy a sealed deck or two and a few packs of cards and that's it. The original intention was that you would likely see completely new cards every time you played someone new. The idea that someone plays cards you have never seen is also part of the Heart of Commander. Many players lean heavily on a few sets, perhaps, the few sets in print when they first started playing. There is a rich and vast History of cards (some of which are very inexpensive!) just waiting to be explored and brought into your Commander games. Many players only need a little push; consider this your push! Go, Gather the Magics and play a few cards you have never seen before - maybe you will find some new favorites!
A long time ago I found that I was running many of the same cards in every deck because, well, they were the best cards. The problem is that playing the same cards made every game feel the same. according to Alex Barker in the article "How Does Commander Color Identity Work?" there are 32 distinct color identities. If you have questions about the color identities of Commander, I strongly suggest reading his article. With color identity in mind, I felt that I should only have one deck to represent each combination. Based on my other build philosophies *virtually none* of my Commander decks run the same cards. This way every game really feels completely and distinctly different. All of this can only be achieved with an eye towards Variety which is not only the spice of life but also the Heart of Commander!
Ah yes, the wondrous meme deck. Mine was The Boat Deck. After dismantling my hated Land Destruction deck, I wanted to make a deck with a ridiculous build restriction that was very simple: every single card had to have a picture of a boat on it. Every card, no exceptions! The first and most celebrated Commander for this deck was Skeleton Ship. How can a Commander deck with Skeleton Ship win even a single game? Well, not being considered a threat can sometimes be the best strategy of all! Plus, this allowed me to use boat puns regularly. The Heart of The Boat Deck is the Heart of Commander, find a silly theme and build it - memes create memories!