The genius of MTG Commander



Commander is a variant on Magic the Gathering which has had a big impact on casual play of the game. It’s fun to play, and is interesting from a game design perspective.

The origins

The Commander format wasn’t created in-house by Wizards. It was originally known as Elder Dragon Highlander, and was invented by fans of the game. However, Wizards recognised the popularity of the format, and now release dedicated Commander products - such as prebuilt decks.

The ‘problems’ with MTG for casual players

MTG is a game beloved by fans, but it isn’t always ideally suited to casual play.

In classic MTG, a deck is at least 60 cards, and you’re allowed up to 4 copies of a single card (excluding basic lands).

Competitive decks are highly tuned for consistency, and are often exactly 60 cards, with 4 copies of the most powerful cards. There are strong synergies between the cards, and usually a single main strategy to execute.

Acquiring four copies of certain cards can be expensive, which sometimes means that the most powerful decks aren’t accessible to all players.

Someone playing a highly tuned deck will likely annihilate a player with a more casual deck. It isn’t always the case, but it’s likely.

The Commander format

In Commander, each player’s deck is 100 cards, and you’re only allowed one copy of each card (excluding basic lands). Each player has a commander, which is a legendary creature they start the game with.

Here are some of the benefits of Commander as a casual format, from a game design perspective.

Benefits of Commander

More variance

Since decks have to be 100 cards, it creates far more variance. It’s still possible to create decks which perform consistently, but the format is designed to limit it slightly. This helps bring down the power level, but also creates more varied games. You’re unlikely to get through your entire deck in a game, so your deck can play out completely differently from one game to another.

Less rare chasing

Since you can only have one copy of each card, there’s less incentive to chase after super powerful, expensive cards. It’s only 1 in 100 cards, so it’s impact on the game will be lessened - in most games you might not see it.

Room to play with fun cards

If you’re playing a tuned 60 card deck, there’s usually not a lot of room for fun and weird cards. In Commander, you have room to play the cards you like.

Multiplayer format

Magic is usually played with 2 people. Commander can be played this way, but was designed as a multiplayer format (usually around 4 or 5 people).

In a multiplayer game you get table talk, which is fun. “Don’t attack me, attack this guy!”

It’s also another way to keep powerful decks in check. If someone comes to the party with a super powerful Commander deck, the other players will work together to beat it.

An art collector’s dream

People enjoy MTG for many reasons. Playing the game is just one of them.

Few would argue that MTG has some of the best artwork in any game. Having a nice, fat Commander deck which is full of lots of different cards, with awesome artwork, is just really nice.

The full card pool

MTG has been going for over 20 years, and a lot of cards have been printed. Usually it’s necessary to limit the card pool, because of potentially broken interactions between newer cards and older cards which were never meant to be played together.

In Commander, this isn’t such an issue. You might have two cards which create a broken combo, but you still need to draw them. Your opponents will try and stop it from going off. And there is still a banned list for any really broken combos which create a negative play experience.

Having access to the full card pool is great for people coming into the game, or returning to it after a break. They can use their old cards, or pick up a few random cards from friends.

It also means that the cards you buy can be used forever. This is an issue for many people with the Standard format of MTG, where only recent cards can be used.

Always something to do

Sometimes in MTG you can end up without much to do. Imagine all your creatures have died, and you’re drawing a card each turn, but not finding any creatures cards. This isn’t a fun situation to be in.

In Commander, you always have your commander card. As long as you have the mana, you can do something. This keeps the game fun and interactive. There’s nothing worse in a multiplayer game than lots of downtime for a player who can’t do anything.


I personally love the Commander format. It fixed a lot of the problems with MTG for casual players. It’s also a great example of how adding limitations to a game (i.e. only one copy of each card, a 100 card deck) can dramatically alter a game design.

Dan Townsend

Show comments