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After years of being a staunch Commander advocate, I've had a change of heart. Well, not really a change of heart, but a realization. It turns out I've never been a huge fan of Commander. It's really EDH, Elder Dragon Highlander, that I have always enjoyed.
Wait, you say, aren't they the same thing? What's the difference? The difference is why there are six times more Google search results for "What's the best commander" (267 million) versus "What's the most fun commander" (48 million). In short, Commander, not EDH, is a format created by Wizards of the Coast which pushes power creep and competitive play onto casual players. And it's not totally unique in that regard: Unfinity was another great example of Wizards dictating how casual games should be played.
Of course, there have been numerous changes from the original formula. Here's a great article by Vinicius Sorin going over not only the origins of the format, but also why it succeeded so greatly. To summarize, the format exists to allow lots of different cards, interactions, and multi-player politics to hold significant weight in a game. But I'm increasingly finding that too many new cards, particularly too many powerful new ones, remove player agency and detract from what originally made the format so great.
Should I Run This Card?
This is a question I read and hear constantly. "Should I run Demonic Tutor in my mono-black deck?" I don't know little Timmy, should you? The number of times someone has asked about running "generic high-powered card" dwarfs the number of times someone has wondered about fun or flavorful inclusions.
I do have an answer, though. Should you run that high powered card in a supposedly casual format? Probably not. Why ask random strangers on the internet rather than your local play group, though? Well, that's both complicated and simple at the same time. So here's an example that I hope illustrates some of my personal frustration with Commander.
A Story About Boats
Around 2012, I felt like there was significant pressure to increase the power of my decks as new product had been hitting the shelves throughout the previous year (gee, sound familiar?). I'm a contrarian, so my immediate thought was "No, I'm going to make something dreadfully bad;" and the idea was to make a deck with a unique build restriction. That restriction? Every card, including lands, must feature artwork of a boat.
Going through piles of cards, it became obvious that blue and black were really my only options, mostly because the land base would be impractical otherwise. Of very few choices, Skeleton Ship seemed like the perfect Commander. Initially, I had 50 land, because I could not find enough other cards to fill the gaps. How did my games go?
Well, terribly, of course. It was more a pile of cards than a deck. There were a couple of combos, but nothing game-ending. Removal and interaction existed, but most of it was not very good. My Commander basically did nothing; it just had three toughness and cost five mana. And let me tell you this: I was in heaven.
No one knew what my cards did, what my plan was, or how I was going to do anything but try to "stay afloat" and make boat puns. I lost something like my first ten or so games, and was a bystander a lot of the time because I could not meaningfully impact the board.
I remember my first victory with the deck when a board wipe caused death triggers to kill the other two players and I was locked into a 1v1. Skyship Weatherlight came to the rescue by giving me additional card advantage for only four extra mana per turn.
I looked forward to each set waiting for new boat cards to appear and incorporate into my pile of jank. After all, the format is about just having fun, right?
Several Years Later...
It would be one thing if I was simply getting more options for my meme deck or more battlecruiser-style cards. There is such a thing as too many seven-drops! The problem isn't how many boat card options I got every year. It's the number of extremely powerful cards with a boat printed on them that serves as a microcosm of the problem with Commander.
Should I replace Dandân with Demonic Tutor? Gee, that's a tough one.
Too many, too much, and too good are all things that have grown to define the format. Without deliberately trying to make my theme deck more powerful, it continued to improve, and win games it had no business winning simply by staying "up to date."
One More Example
On a different note, I also have a Jasmine Boreal of the Seven deck which features mostly vanilla creatures. This deck is not busted, but it has held its own with the help of newer cards. For a deck that would in theory be mostly Grizzly Bears and Craw Wurm, it actually runs none of those cards, because far better vanilla cards and token generation have been printed over the years. So even running a deck with a deliberately low power concept has been impacted through the sheer volume of newer product offerings, the consistency of multiple copies of the same vanilla creature, and also acceleration from the Commander.
I believe that the majority of players have experienced some feel-bad moments in their games. In an effort not to repeat these moments, the players consult the wisdom of the masses. Instead of asking their play group for advice, they head to the internet and get advice that tends to accelerate and power up their deck, whether that is right for their meta or not.
But even if they do not seek advice from others, merely searching for cards generates the same issue. Too fast, too powerful and too many. This creates an arms race and you either need to keep up with new cards or pray the other players deliberately de-power their decks. So then, what is a player seeking more enjoyable games to do? The answer is move to a "different" format full of players that are looking for that kind of game.
According to some, including Sheldon Menery of the Commander Rules Committee, PrEDH just may be the solution. PrEDH is a sub-format of Commander with a card cut-off point of New Phyrexia, which is just before Wizards began printing Commander-specific cards. I've played PrEDH before... because it was EDH. While it is anecdotal, the majority of my games were generally better than current day Commander. Why? Ease of power was lacking. You had to play some really specific decks to use some of the more powerful cards; otherwise, you might have to use a bad commander to access different strategies.
Less choice led to more interesting build decisions, and there was a consequence for each card being included or not. There are, simply, fewer good cards of every type, including mana rocks, in PrEDH. Consequently, decks are slower and tend to run a few more lands. For these reasons, everyone has more time to develop their board or counter a strategy before the game ends. Overall, PrEDH delivers a more interactive multi-player experience, where diplomacy and flavorful choices can impact a game meaningfully.
Instead of having to deny myself uber-powerful cards that happen to have boats printed on them, restricting myself to PrEDH boats returns the deck to its former status as something to bust out when I want to hang out and just play Magic. And yes, it's really that simple; it works. So many of the EDREC Top 100 Commanders and cards are not available in PrEDH that it's a refreshing experience to see "new" old cards, which is part of the point. Don't get me wrong; I don't think PrEDH is the only "solution." But it's a good, quick fix if your local meta is not making games enjoyable. On other options, I strongly believe that Conquest format is even better, but deemed it a bit too niche to explore in detail here.
Trying Other Formats
I'm no stranger to different formats and I love trying out different takes on Magic. That has always been part of the identity of the game. Commander, however, seems to be dictating how and what you end up playing, one way or another. I plan on continuing to test out PrEDH, but with my own particular variant on top of it. My twist? Post New Phyrexia cards are 100% alright to play, as long as they are played in the pre-con deck they came in. This way, I can always welcome new players to EDH and still have a vibrant and evolving format that won't be at the mercy of an advanced metagame.
In other words, I've already out-meta'd the meta. Do I think a lot of the pre-con decks over the last several years might be too good compared to a standard PrEDH deck? Possibly, but I think it will be balanced overall. And the benefit of bringing new players into the experience, who may then contribute more meaningfully with their own PrEDH decks, is totally worth it.
So where there was one format that grew to include two groups of people, there are now two. "Commander" is the competitive variant of EDH; PrEDH is the casual variant. Maybe this way, both groups will get what they want, games that make sense.
I would love to hear about ways you and your playgroup have attempted to solve the issues described above, or if you even consider them issues at all! Undoubtedly, there are plenty of people out there who genuinely love Commander, as competitive as it has become. Share your thoughts in the comments.