Believe it or not, I actually do enjoy playing (present tense) Magic: the Gathering. To be honest, after 18-months of a paperless pandemic, no in-store play and nothing to game on but MTGO and Arena, I had been seriously contemplating whether or not I still enjoyed playing the game.
It turns out that I’m a Gatherer (and not just because I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Magic). I’ve always been in it for the get-togethers, the hangouts, the road trips, the IRL tournaments and the experience of being somewhere and using cardstock decks to duel other physically present human beings. I enjoy the way the cellophane crinkles when I crack a booster pack in a draft; the distinct smell of the cardboard; the glint when a foil catches the light just right; the conversations about strategy with other participants in between matches.
Over the past month or so, I finally got some real opportunities to play paper Magic once again and have been enjoying and appreciating the experience immensely. I wasn’t in a big rush to put my family’s health at risk before I felt reasonably confident in my decision to mingle. In Ontario, Canada, LGS are required to have proof of a second dose of vaccination from all participants and limit capacity to afford a socially distanced gaming space.
My “home base” LGS, RIW Hobbies in Livonia, Michigan, back in the States still hasn’t reopened it’s gaming space to the public but I was able to partake in some “by invitation only” Commander matches when I visited last month.
I don’t mean to browbeat or politicize, but I do think providing the context for the games I’ve been able to play is both interesting and useful to the reader. It’s been a difficult challenge for all of us to balance the mitigation of COVID risk against the risks too much isolation and immersion in the virtual world pose to our mental health. I’m not a doctor, nor do I advocate any person take one course of action over another; I’m just a man who writes about playing Magic: the Gathering and this is the Magic I’m playing in a world that has been forever changed. We live in a challenging moment in time and we must all make and own our own choices.
On October 27, 2021, this is the context for paper Magic as I encounter it in the world around me and I think the context that Magic is being played in is every bit as significant and interesting as the games themselves:
There’s a LGS called Brimstone Games here in Windsor that has been running Commander Game Night twice a week over the past month. These Commander Game Nights have been so popular that they hit the 16-player maximum capacity every single time. Also, bear in mind they switched to casual Commander from competitive Modern Constructed because players were not showing up to play Modern.
The format for the events has also been interesting. Commander Game Night takes place between 6 and 9 p.m. Entry is $5. The 16 total players are randomly assigned to a first pod of four players. The winner of each pod receives a booster pack and players are then free to either “run it back” or break up and form new pods with players of their choice. Typically, players gravitate toward forming new pods with opponents who have similarly powered Commander decks. Each time a pod of four runs to completion, the winner receives a booster. In addition, the store does random drawings to give away promo and promo pack materials (as they would normally do for a Constructed event).
One of the players in my first pod last night cracked a foil The Great Henge from the promo pack he randomly won as a participation prize. Another player in the pod received a retro frame Bolas’s Citadel that is part of a cycle of Game Store participation foils.
From what I understand, because of the shutdowns to IRL play, many stores were not able to give out these incredible retro frame foils when they dropped but should be giving them out to participants in the present. In any event, three hours is typically about enough time to play between two and four multiplayer games depending upon how involved they are.
If you’ve been wondering what the future of paper Magic might look like as we begin to come out the other end of an 18+ month hibernation, I think what I’ve experienced so far, and am currently experiencing, is likely an indicator of things to come for the foreseeable future. It could well be that “competitive” formats take a backseat to Commander Game Nights with overflowing pre-registration waitlists as LGS and players become reacquainted.
I also notice there’s a wide range of players with different experience and power levels of decks coming out to show support for their LGS at casual Commander Game Night. It’s really awe-inspiring to see former pros sharing pods with new players who have just bought their first precon. I personally own the Innistrad: Midnight Hunt Coven Counters preconstructed deck and enjoy playing it unmodified against other players with precons.
It uses the Leinore, Autumn Sovereign as a Commander and can build up a respectably large board state relatively quickly. I’ve had the opportunity to play with or against more than 10 different precons and it is my favorite by far.
“Let’s go for it.”
I’m also currently playing a very casual Glissa, the Traitor midrange deck and a Galazeth Prismari combo deck that, despite using a self-imposed restriction of “zero tutors,” consistently combos off on approximately turn 3.5. So, I currently have three decks that together represent a range of power levels from pure precon to cEDH.
At the start of today’s article, I mentioned that as the pandemic reshaped my Magic play to be online exclusive that I wasn’t sure I even enjoyed Magic anymore. If Magic were ever to lose “the Gathering,” I would cease to play the game. For me, Magic is the Gathering together with other people.
I also feel the past 18 months have been isolating for me, especially. I’m in a new country with my wife and have been largely unable to see my friends and family back in the United States for almost two years. For me, the social distancing and inability to “gather” and see loved ones with any sort of regularity has blurred the line between actual reality and virtual reality.
To quote my favorite musical artist, Marvin Gaye: “Ain’t nothing like the real thing.” Too much online time (social media and online gaming) relative to real socialization has distilled many of the shortcomings of a disbalance between online and offline living.
It makes a lot of sense to me that casual Commander play is dominating the tabletops during this transitional period as we move from virtual immersion back to physical social reality. For starters, since I haven’t been collecting physical cards during the pandemic – despite owning most of the cards from the previous 25 years of Magic’s history before the pandemic – I can’t build a single deck for any Constructed format without spending hundreds of dollars on new cards.
I built my Commander decks by merely flipping through my binders and pulling out cards I already own and have enjoyed playing with in the past, looking for a few sweet new cards from what I call “the pandemic sets” to add to my collection. I consider myself to be a lifelong Magic enthusiast and superfan and I’m not willing to reup to build competitive Constructed decks, so it’s unsurprising my neighborhood LGS cannot find eight-players willing to pony up the dough to build decks to fire weekly Modern while there’s a waitlist to join casual Commander Game Night.
I’m certainly looking forward to playing my favorite Constructed format, Pauper, in the future. I’m looking forward to shuffling up and playing Modern again too (with the stipulation a friend or sponsor loans me playsets of the expensive mythics I need to build a deck). I certainly believe competitive Constructed will eventually reemerge as a popular and supported way of playing cardboard Magic in the future.
How could it not? It’s so ingrained in how the game has been played for 25 years. With that said, in the foreseeable future, I hypothesize there will be significantly more opportunities for “Gatherers” such as myself to play Commander than other formats as we work from returning to normalcy toward actual normal. I will also note Limited play (Draft, Sealed, Cube and Battle Box) are also popular and strong with the Gatherer crowd in the here and now.
I don’t think this is a particularly “hot take” as it is an observation of what I’ve seen in the States and Canada (which are two very different worlds with regard to pandemic protocol). My “hot take” is that Commander has already surpassed all other forms of Constructed Magic by a huge margin in terms of popularity and accessibility and will retain that role as the dominant way Constructed Magic is played, indefinitely.
Commander has been exactly what I’ve been missing about Magic; not the competing (there are plenty of opportunities to compete online) but the gathering to play.