New (Old) Ways to Play Commander!

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I attended a Commander event this past weekend and secured top four! How did I do it? Well, the better question is how did we do it! This was a Two-Headed Giant (2HG) Commander event where my partner and I made two completely synergistic (and degenerate) decks that went off almost every round on turn three with counterspell backup, stunning our opponents. As we looked around the room at the five-minute mark, we needed to do something for the rest of the rounds. Luckily I planned for this and asked my opponents a few questions about lesser-known formats. No one I spoke to at the event had played a single game of Emperor, Archenemy, Planechase, Grand Melee, or other special game types of Magic.

Magic players, I'm here to let you know that you are missing out! Not all of these special formats will appeal to everyone, but, there is certain to be one of them that will appeal to you! Not only that but remember that Magic is what you make of it; many of these formats have alternate rules that may appeal more to your group than the "official" rules.

First, I want to talk about why it's important to have these formats, and then I want to do a quick primer without getting too rules-y or buried in minutiae.

There's Nothing New Under the Sun

In Mark Rosewater's article "The Big Picture" he talks about the challenges of meeting the needs of Magic players who enjoy many different things. It's true that new cards are probably not designed with these alternate formats in mind but, more and more, R&D seems to squeak out a few cards like Scheming Symmetry which is okay for multiplayer but criminally insane in 2HG or Emperor.

I think the main point, however, is that these formats do exist, and, they really want to be played! Players use their own judgment when it comes to how playable a card is in a special format and do not need tailor-made cards to enjoy the experience. In fact, this is one of my primary contentions: playing a new format allows you to appreciate a card in a new light. Every Magic player has had that moment where they look at a card and think "This card is overpowered" or "This card seems pointless" but in another environment that card becomes average. Perspective is a great thing as is variety.

Staples vs Stale

I'm planning on a future Commander article talking about format staples but here's a small snippet; staples are boring. At the 2HG event in the third round, my opponent across from me revealed Derevi, Empyrial Tactician; I was playing the same commander! Here's the thing, though. In the cEDH scene, this commander has been relegated to the "role" of "Stax dot deck". If you're playing Derevi, the thought goes, you are obviously playing a Stax archetype, because why else play that commander? Answer: Because it's 2HG Commander. My partner is playing a combo deck that easily wins on Turn three with my help and this seemed like a compelling argument for playing Derevi over other ideas. But what about the actual cards in the deck?

The majority of staple Stax cards and Derevi staples would actively cripple our game plan. Further, my turn one Magus of the Candelabra surprised my opponent who said "Oh wow I should be running that!" The problem was my opponent had a multiplayer cEDH Derevi Stax deck that, in my opinion, was not tuned for 2HG. I had an extremely good idea of exactly what cards they would have in their deck, what I absolutely *needed* to counter, and what I could let slide. How did I know all this? They played both Commander and Derevi staples so it helped me identify exactly what their deck was going to do and what I needed to do to stop them.

2HG allowed me to change my perspective on Magus of the Candelabra, a card that is a bulk rare, but here was equally as effective as the significantly more pricey Candelabra of Tawnos. By experiencing a different format, I got to see another side of Magic and that is a good thing.

What's Old is New Again

If your Commander meta is getting predictable, boring or a little stale, try one of these formats; it will shake up just about everything. Have you ever experienced the pair of friends or the couple who are not technically on a "team" but are, well, on a team anyways? They are already effectively playing 2HG or Emperor, so, the rest of the table should as well.

Another nice thing to consider is what I call the "numbers problem." Let's say you have exactly seven or nine or eleven commander players for a multi-player, casual night. No one wants to leave anyone out, so, pod size tends to get very flexible; instead of the ideal four players, your pod might sometimes have three or five. I think this is an all right solution, but, it's not ideal. Introducing some additional formats into the mix can give you more potential solutions. Instead of three players in a single pod, they can play a 2HG match with a "team" of one player in charge of both "heads". Six players can play an Emperor match instead of, in my opinion, the less ideal two pods of three. Someone else can be the Archenemy for two to three players. More game modes are simply more solutions at hand.

Without further ado, a quick, rules-light primer on the different formats and why you should give each a try.

Two-Headed Giant

The Two-Headed Giant Rules are here, and I do believe it's played much more widely than any of the other formats I'll list. One of the best parts about 2HG is how it's essentially Magic from a *rules* standpoint, but, it's significantly different from a card value and strategy standpoint. For example, cards that say "Each opponent" effectively double in power because teams have only one shared life total. This makes something like Exsanguinate just that much scarier.

Obviously, you can play 2HG in constructed or limited but Two-Headed Giant Commander has made me interested in the format all over again and I think it could do the same for your playgroup if you're feeling burned out or tired of the same old thing. It really makes you look at a whole range of new cards and apply new values to everything.


Two teams of three square off with the middle player of each team as the Emperor and the other players as Generals. The game ends when an Emperor is eliminated. Alright sounds somewhat normal so far, what sets Emperor apart from just a multiplayer-team game? First, spells and abilities have a limited range of effects called "influence." Generals start out only able to affect the opposing General or help their friendly Emperor, and, the Emperors are effectively safe from harm until one General is eliminated.

Secondly, players can "Deploy" creatures by tapping them during the turn and passing them to a teammate; this is where the fun happens. Teams have to balance offense and defense across multiple angles. The number of team strategies is radically higher than a "normal" multiplayer game. Playing a "normal" deck in Emperor tends to lead to lopsided games but I believe that is the point; once you see the format it can spark new ideas, new themes and create some interesting results.

Furthermore, there are a lot of variants to the official Emperor rules that I think make the format even more enjoyable and I leave it up to your particular playgroup to explore the interesting ones and abandon the unfun ones! Also, don't forget about points which are even spicier when explored across teams!

Grand Melee

Going back to the eleven-player scenario, why not just have them all play one large game? That is the idea of a Melee. Again, you have an "influence" of one, thus your spells and abilities only affect yourself and the player to your immediate left and right. Typically, you can only attack the player to your left although I have played in alternate rules events where it was to the right or it switched periodically. Another interesting aspect of the variant is that multiple turns are occurring at the same time. For every four players, there is a turn marker continually passed around the table.

I've been in Grand Melees with up to one hundred players and it's definitely a blast! Games can take a long, long time, with that many players though. It's not something I think many players would be interested in doing every month. However, it's definitely a good and unique Magic experience that I think more players would appreciate as a special event.

Planechase and Archenemy

I've decided to cover these two formats at the same time because they both utilize products that may or may not be available to your local group.

Planechase provides a deck of cards that represent the Plane you and your fellow players are currently occupying. Each plane has different special rules such as doubling your mana or drawing more cards. Players can choose to stay on the Plane or roll a special Planar die to attempt to exit the current Plane and go elsewhere with new rules. Different Planes end up favoring different decks so there is always a back and forth that occurs when a deck hits a particularly favorable Plane and the entire table is trying their best to exit with no luck.

In Archenemy one player represents the eponymous Archenemy who is against two or typically three players. The Archenemy gains an entire deck of special cards called Schemes which power them up enough to realistically fight two players, and sometimes completely overpower three.

These are fun variant games and work well with Commander. If you feel like you're always getting ganged up on or you and the other players want to take down a particular player, Archenemy makes for a fun experience. In a very normal, very casual multiplayer Commander setting, Planechase is right at home.

Both of these formats have been added onto and I am *patiently waiting* for the next step from Wizards. All right I lied, Wizards PLEASE print more Planechase and Archenemy!

The Mysterious Others and Mixing and Matching

There are a lot of homebrewed formats I have played at various events across years of play; some were good, some were great but many were duds. One fairly common and interesting play variant involves having a permanent global effect. MTG: Arena regularly runs events like this where, for example, Omniscience is in play. These types of events are some of the most fun for me. In a similar vein, I've been to events where the host has a special deck of cards and every so often one card is played from the deck with shocking consequences; a Wrath of God out of nowhere can reset games, Howling Mine can ramp up the early game and even an Ajani's Presence can be a surprisingly strong shakeup at times.

Of course, there are also the horror stor...I mean the "fond memories" of playing Archenemy Planechase Commander because mixing so many different game elements is a perfectly acceptable idea. I would caution a group about going overboard and suggest that too much of a good thing is entirely possible. All these elements together can overwhelm new players or weigh down players who do not want the added complexity of Planes, Dice, Schemes, and more.

So, Will You be Playing Emperor This Weekend?

Hopefully, I've given you a little food for thought. Magic is definitely a lot of things to a lot of different people and I say the more the merrier. Not only will you see cards in a new light, but, you will also see other players in a new light as well; maybe you are sitting across from the greatest Archenemy of all time and don't even know it. If you have not given some of these formats a try ever maybe this weekend is a good time to have a good time!

Let me know your favorite special format in the comments below!

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Joe Mauri

Joe has been an avid MTG player and collector since the summer of 1994 when he started his collection with a booster box of Revised. Millions of cards later he still enjoys tapping lands and slinging spells at the kitchen table, LGS, or digital Arena. Commander followed by Draft are his favorite formats, but, he absolutely loves tournaments with unique build restrictions and alternate rules. A lover of all things feline, he currently resides with no less than five majestic creatures who are never allowed anywhere near his cards. When not Gathering the Magic, Joe loves streaming a variety of games on Twitch( both card and other.

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