PreDH: The Community’s Call for Nostalgia

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Ahhhh the good old days. By now readers should come to expect any perspective piece I write will involve some level of reflection back at the earlier days of Magic. This week is no exception—after reading buzz in the Twitter and Discord community about a new subset of Commander. Dubbed “PreDH”, the format basically restricts the card pool to cards printed before Wizards of the Coast started printing Commander-specific products.

The Commander Rules Committee acknowledged the rules set following Magic 30 in Philly a week ago, and some major personalities in the game are singing its praises. Naturally, this is music to my ears.

PreDH – A Brief Synopsis

What exactly is PreDH, other than a clever play on words (before being called “Commander” the format was known as EDH, short for Elder Dragon Highlander)?

The rules set is elegant in its simplicity. PreDH is identical to today’s Commander, except the card pool is cut off after New Phyrexia. Every new card printed after NPH is not allowed, and the rest of the normal Commander banlist applies. Sheldon Menery, who is on the Commander rules council, acknowledged this format’s existence and popularity with a couple of simple tweets back in mid-February.

A quick Google search reveals that New Phyrexia was released in May 2011. Therefore, any new cards released in sets after that date would not be permitted in PreDH decks. This means every single Commander product, starting with the original (that’s right, no Scavenging Ooze, Chaos Warp, or Flusterstorm), would not be allowed in PreDH.

The intent is to provide players with the experience of Elder Dragon Highlander as it was initially devised in the late 1990s and ultimately made “official” back in 2004. This is the precise play environment I experienced when I first explored the format over fifteen years ago.

Of course Sol Ring is still a mainstay, but I remember other powerhouse cards from those days. Lightning Greaves comes immediately to mind, and I still think Portcullis is one of the most underappreciated cards in Commander.

Why PreDH?

The format itself is easy to define, but explaining the draw of this format is a bit more complicated.  That’s a much deeper, more complicated question.

Joe Mauri, a fellow Quiet Speculation writer, recently published a piece on this topic that I think really drives home the motivation for PreDH, even though he doesn’t explicitly call out the format’s inception.

My take on this is going to be biased since I am the type of player who longs for “the good old days” of Magic. That said, it’s clear many other players are experiencing the same longing for nostalgia, given the fact that this format has received noteworthy recognition.

Here’s the essence of the argument: by expanding the Commander card pool and printing cards intentionally designed for play in the format, Wizards of the Coast has effectively homogenized and power-crept the format into a state that’s unrecognizable to those craving the nostalgic. There are far too many cards that are the “obvious choice” due to power level. What’s more, Wizards of the Coast has effectively spoon-fed Commander players with cards clearly designed to do one thing, and do that one thing extremely well.

Consider one of Magic’s most popular creature types as an example: Dragons. Everybody loves dragons. Going back to the OG Shivan Dragon, these flying, Cursed Firebreathing Yogurt creatures have always captured the imagination of Magic players young and old.

Let’s say you want to build a powerful dragon commander deck—one that can compete with your friends. A quick Gatherer search reveals 95 legendary dragons to choose from, not counting shapeshifters that can count as dragons. That’s a phenomenal card pool to choose from! There must be dozens of versions of the Dragon Commander deck, right?

Hardly. Dragons come in all sorts of color combinations over the years, but only two color combinations really have sizable representation: five-colored or Temur.

Of the 30,000+ Dragon Commander decks built on EDH REC, only a handful have a reasonable representation. Basically, if you want to build the best Dragon Tribal Commander deck, you’re going to use Scion of the Ur-Dragon, Miirym, Sentinel Wyrm, Livaan, Cultist of Tiamat, or Scion of the Ur-Dragon as your Commander. Honorable mention would go to Lathliss, Dragon Queen and Vrondiss, Rage of Ancients for also having over 1,000 lists on EDH REC.

That’s it. Of 95 different options (not counting shapeshifters), there are basically 6 popular choices for a streamlined, competitive Dragon Tribal Commander deck.

I have to acknowledge that EDH REC doesn’t always provide the most representative portrayal of the true Commander metagame. That doesn’t really matter. What matters is the clear trend, whereby Wizards of the Coast identifies a popular theme and then prints cards that obviously associate with that theme.

The quest to find synergies, the journey to research and identify fun cards to try—in other words, the creativity—is severely hampered with the printing of these cards. Dragons were just one case study, but the same is true across the board in Commander. All popular archetypes have “obvious” cards, from Voltron-style decks to coin-flipping decks. Even Group Hug has an obvious Commander choice nowadays.

Why Now?

Whether you buy into the nostalgia of PreDH or not, the trend is clear—people feel a pull toward the “old days” of EDH, and the trend has potential. I don’t think this is necessarily going to move the market on individual cards—at least not in 2023. That being said, it’s worth acknowledging the community aspect of the game.

My best guess is that players are reacting negatively toward the announcement of Commander Masters, scheduled to launch this August.

The tagline may excite some players, but to the Magic classicist, this runs counter to the allure of Commander. “Get the ultimate power right out of the box,” to me, screams “No effort required! You’ll have a powerful deck as soon as you open these flashy, new products!”

This is missing the mark. What we nostalgic players loved about EDH was that we could play all sorts of older, obscure cards to try and cobble together synergies that people wouldn’t expect. For example, I remember when I discovered the potent combination of Vendilion Clique and Sunken Hope.

These fun combinations, completely unexpected by opponents, were what made EDH so enjoyable! I could dig up obscure cards from Magic’s history and surprise my friends. I feel like Commander Masters is going to tear up that potential creativity and defenestrate it. Do you want power? Do you want synergy? Look no further than this product! These are the cards you’re supposed to build around.

By the way, did we really need a Black Lotus in Commander? Every deck is already basically required to play Sol Ring and Command Tower. Jeweled Lotus is another virtual must-include in a Commander deck—why do we need more homogenization? The need for creativity is slowly dwindling.

It’s my guess that products like these, with the intent of providing you with the most obvious deck-building choices possible, are what’s pushing older players to this new PreDH format. We want to recapture the thrill of the adventure, digging through decades of Magic cards to find the surprising synergies that our friends haven’t yet discovered.

Wrapping It Up

What’s going to happen next? As I mentioned earlier, I don’t necessarily believe the advent of PreDH is going to catalyze much price movement—certainly not in the short term. This isn’t a Magic finance play.

Instead, I’d recommend trying this format out to experience what Elder Dragon Highlander used to be like years ago. Whether you’re an experienced player longing for the days of the past or a newer player curious about a Commander format without “made-for-you” Commander cards, there’s something new to discover playing PreDH.

Me, personally, I must admit that I don’t play much Magic these days. I haven’t even touched Arena since the start of the year, and I don’t exactly miss it. If I do act on this new PreDH trend, it’ll be through the simple act of updating my mono Blue Commander deck to be PreDH compliant. Since I touch up my decks so rarely, I suspect more than eighty percent of my deck would already be from before 2011.

In order to achieve 100% compliance, I’d likely have to do some research to find cards that would fit well in my deck. Then I would have to order them online. This feels like an effort in a way, but honestly, this is recapturing the excitement of building EDH decks that we’ve lost with the printing of so many new Commander products!

Yes, it’s work. Yes, we have to be creative. Yes, we must research and find cards that work well in our decks. That’s the point!

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