Improving the experience in Commander format for Magic: The Gathering

Posted: November 8, 2014 in System Hacking
Tags: , , , , ,

Two months since I last posted, and this one’s off-topic. Unforgivable! But I’ve been playing a bunch of Commander format Magic: The Gathering recently, and my play group has made some rule tweaks (some by my own fair hand) to improve our play experience, and I’ve found it interesting to see how our play goals are informing our design choices (i.e. house rules).

Play Goals / Design Principles

Our core principle really is that we want the game to be fun and interesting for everyone. That’s where our rules tweaks have come from, but it’s kindof ill-defined. Working backwards from the changes we’ve made, I’ve extracted these more specific principles:

  1. The group’s desire for all players to have an interesting and enjoyable game trumps any individual’s desire to win.
    • This means any play that totally shuts down an opponent’s deck is not welcome. Obviously answers to individual cards or plays are totally fine, but stopping an entire deck from working is boring and we don’t allow it.
    • This also means that, because of the obvious tension in the above, the game doesn’t work at all for people who can’t stand losing. Ah well.
  2. Variety is the core of an interesting game; consistency is boring.
    • I mean card consistency, really. Consistently getting the same kinds of effects from different cards is fine, but if a deck plays exactly the same every time it comes out, that’s boring.
  3. Interesting commanders make for interesting decks.
    • Commanders with unique mechanics lead to unique decks, which means more unusual and interesting games.
The Rules Changes

The Commander format rules already help with this – the singleton format means plenty of variety and that card consistency is difficult to guarantee, and the commander being returned to a playable state (the command zone) when killed or exiled means that they are easily available and therefore easy to build decks around. (Also, having them there makes them a cool visible centrepiece for the deck, which encourages players to seek out interesting ones.) Principle 1 is well served, too, by a general culture of “play for fun, not for glory” that has grown up around the Commander format in general.

However, it’s not perfect. So here are some of the house rules we use to improve things for our group. Like I say, these evolved organically and I extracted the above principles from them – but I’ve tried to lay out the reasoning as if we’d planned it from day one :-)

  • Re-draw after mulligans.
    • As normal, each mulligan (except the first, as normal for Commander) means you draw one fewer card before making the decision about whether to keep the hand or mulligan again. However, once you’ve made the decision to stick, you draw up to seven cards.
    • Having a dreadful opening hand can dramatically hold a player back, and that’s no fun for them nor for their opponents – and the variance of the singleton format means that this happens more often than we’d like, even in well-balanced decks. With this change, players may have to accept a risky hand, but hopefully never a totally disastrous one.
  • No card-search.
    • Card consistency is boring, so searching (or “tutoring”, in Magic parlance) for specific cards is out.
    • The exception is basic lands. Not having enough mana means a deck gets stuck and is no fun to play – so searching to bring out basic lands is fine.
  • The commander can be returned to the command zone when they’re put into the library (draw deck) or player’s hand.
    • Normally this can only be done when the commander is killed or exiled, but we want to make sure that the commander is always available, even after these other means of removal. In general card consistency is undesirable (principle 2), but the commander is the exception to that because of principle 3 – if people can’t rely on their commander being available, then they won’t build decks around their commander, and that’s a shame because it limits the variety of deck themes.
    • This is particularly important when you remove card-search; that effectively means that if the commander is shuffled into the library, you’re very unlikely to get them out again (and it’s almost impossible if they specifically get placed on the bottom of the library, as some effects will do). Therefore we need a way to ensure that these effects don’t permanently shut down the commander.

I hope those rules are of use to Commander players, and that the principles-to-mechanics design discussion is interesting even for those who don’t know or play Magic. Anyway, I’m off to carry on reworking my Oloro deck; I’ll admit that building a deck that will be fun to play is itself half the fun!

  1. Blackrat says:

    Other players in my group – what other rules do we have? And have I missed any design principles?

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