Totally in Command

 For almost as long as Magic: The Gathering has existed, groups of players have been creating custom, or “house”, game formats. Examples include Pentagram Magic, which involves five players, each playing one of the five colours; Emperor Magic, which supports either six or ten players, divided into two teams; and Two-Headed Giant. These are but three of the better-known among the many community-created formats – these two happen to have some followers, while most fade quickly into obscurity. While of the aforementioned only Two-Headed Giant had, up till recently, been officially recognised by Wizards of the Coast, the company recently ratified another community-invented format, and is in fact now supporting it with specialised products. Meet Commander, a format born of the Elder Dragon Highlander format.

State of the Magic

The current state of Magic: The Gathering is rather interesting. When the 2010 ruleset was introduced, a number of the more “hardcore” players were inflamed by certain rules changes that pretty much dumbed the game down, somewhat (most notably the changes to the stack in combat.) However, Wizards appear to be making up for it by re-printing many popular cards from really good sets. Most notably, a lot of cards from the truly legendary Ravnica block are currently back in circulation, which is certain to be making many players very happy. Some other, older classics (False Prophet and Akroma come immediately to mind, among many others) are also getting another day in the sun, which is also good to see.

Command me!

So, what about the bandwagon, then? Well, Wizards have released Commander not merely as an alternative rule-set, but in fact as an entire expansion set. Furthermore, its card pool is uncommonly large, and there is a reason for that, as you’ll see shortly. This results in quite a varied and vibrant environment in the current standard formats.

Here are the highlights of the ruleset, in a nutshell: players start with a life total of 40 (instead of the usual 20). A deck is constructed around a commander card – this must be any legendary creature (except two specific ones that are banned in the format – these can be looked up at www.wizards.com) The rest of the deck must be exactly 99 cards in size, and except for basic lands every card may only be used once (this is known as “singleton”). Furthermore, the cards may only be colourless or contain colours present in the commander, so multicolour commanders are almost a must (though a monochromatic deck is certainly doable.) The commander card itself is removed from the deck at the start of the game, and placed in its own special zone. It can be played from here and brought into play by paying its cost plus {2} for every time it has previously been brought in. If any commander deals 21 or more points of damage to a player, that player loses the game.

As any competitive player will immediately notice, this is intended as a casual multiplayer format – a huge 99-card deck, and little deck focusing due to the singleton rule. As a fun multiplayer format, it thoroughly shines – and you can work it into other formats, meaning that you could play, say Commander Emperor Magic, or Commander 2HG, or even go with monochromatic decks for Commander Pentagram.

Wizards of the Coast has capitalised by selling preconstructed Commander decks, which come with a selection of oversized commander cards. As with all their precon decks, these are thematic, and are quite nicely differentiated from each other, designed to appeal to a variety of preferences. Although the marketing of this player-invented format is a blatant cash-in, it has served to further popularize an inventive alternative format, and has breathed fresh life into the game for many a group of Magic-playing friends. If you like more than just the cut-throat standard block-constructed 1v1 of Friday Night Magic and tournaments, give this one a whirl. And the beauty of it is, you needn’t even invest any extra money into, you can try it out with your existing “assets”. Then, if you like it, you might want to try one of the commercially available decks.

If you’d like to get involved in a whole bunch of super-awesome Magic: The Gathering type stuff with a bit of local flair, visit the Magic: The Gathering, South Africa Facebook group.