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Commander, Not Standard, is Magic’s Best Format for New Players

I wrote an article a couple of months ago about why Jump-Start (as a format, not a product) was a great way of introducing completely unfamiliar people to the game of magic, but where should those players they go from there?

Standard seems to be what Wizards officially condones, with many introductory products specifically aimed at getting an inexperienced player into the 60 card format. Planeswalker Decks, Taster Decks, Arena’s default format being standard, all suggest that this is the format where Wizards believes, or at least prefers, new players to go to once they get into the game. It makes some sense from a difficulty curve perspective. After all, standard typically requires players to get to grips with fewer cards as the pool of potential cards to play with is very shallow and of those cards, only a small percentage will ever see consistent play. Having a deck with a host of 4-ofs also lets new players become practiced in the interactions between these few cards as they play them over and over again, honing their ability to make efficient plays and effectively pull off combos and synergies. It also, if we’re being mercenary, makes great financial sense for Wizards to push new players into a rotating format which exclusively uses their newest products.

However, in my experience getting friends of mine into this game, the format of standard has many pitfalls for potential new players. For one, the fact that the format rotates. When I first got into playing Magic, standard rotation always felt like an oddly existential threat to the way I was enjoying playing. The coming of a new season always left me feeling anxious about the future of the deck I liked to play as rotation began to ramp up. The introduction of new cards, coupled with the exclusion of old ones, never made me feel like my deck was evolving, more that it was being dismantled. Keeping up with standard was, and is, another drawback to the format. Both financially and cognitively. Each new set brings the potential for entirely new archetypes and synergies that new players are given a couple of months to get to grips with, and secure the cards for, before yet another new set drops. It was a combination of these two flaws in the format that saw me stop playing standard, and almost leave Magic entirely, within a year or so of playing the game.

There are a host of other grievances with standard as well, from a low range of competitive budget options, to the near bi-monthly banned and restricted announcements that warp the format, to the fact that one powerful card can define an entire season of standard. EDH/Commander, on the other hand, smoothly sails past many of these pitfalls, whilst offering a great many benefits that can dramatically improve a new player’s experience with Magic.

EDH really is what kept me playing Magic after my first year. I picked up a 2013 precon when they first came out, partly because a couple of my pals were also getting into it, but mostly because it was a format that didn’t rotate and that my investment wouldn’t be lost in half a years’ time. 7 years on EDH is the only format of Magic I continue to play. Even during lockdown I’ve been playing paper EDH across webcams with my friends and loving it. I could gush for another thousand words about why I think EDH is the best Magic format, but I want to make my case for why I feel it’s the best format to get fresh players deeper into the game.

Firstly, EDH is one of only a handful of non-rotating formats that doesn’t ask for an arm and a leg if you want to play and win. A budget standard deck may cost you between $50 and $100 to put together, and struggle to win a parity of your games. For the same amount of cash money, you can put together a fun and powerful EDH deck. The win rate disparity between my nearly $800 Sheri Aristocrats deck and my $25 Nikya of the Old Ways “Oops Only 7 Drops” deck isn’t widely dissimilar. Although I don’t know if that says more EDH as a whole or more about how bad I am at playing Magic. The relative power of ones deck also isn’t such a major factor in winning or having fun in a game of EDH. Unlike other ways of playing magic, an inexperienced player or a player that hasn’t amassed the kind of card collection to create an ultra-powerful deck can effectively subsidise their power at a table with political deals between other players.

Additionally, winning isn’t always the best part of playing commander. In other formats losing is a learning experience, but seldom do you ever feel neutral or even good when you get beaten. Losing is a much more of a shared experience when you’re in a pod of four people, as opposed to losing in a 1 on 1 game. This may seem like a strange point to bring up, but if you’re brand new to a game or hobby you’re going to stumble and fail a lot, and sharing those failures with multiple people in the same game stings a lot less than getting repeatedly and individually stomped at an FMN. Multiplayer games of EDH also afford new players the opportunity to both engage with and simultaneously passively observe the same game of Magic. New players can watch more experienced players navigate through various board states, engage with threats, and make political deals and begin to develop their own skills as games go on as well. It’s the card game equivalent of going to the skate-park with three more experienced pals. You get to give it a go, whilst intently learning from and being supported by your peers.

The variety and variance of deck construction is another big selling point when it comes to getting new players into EDH. If you get someone into playing Magic with a few starter decks and introduce them to the boundless worlds of the multiverse they may say they want to, for example, play with Zombies more or they may get a particular affinity for the idea of Curse cards. In most formats, standard, modern, pauper, etc. most themed decks are simply not competitively viable, if they can be constructed at all. EDH, on the other hand, is the proverbial MTG sweet shop for players new and experienced. In what other format can you turn up with a simic morph deck, not lose within the first eight turns, have a bunch of fun playing, and even potentially win?

On the topic of competitivity, which is by no means a bad thing for players new and old, EDH games can be very forgiving or brutal and cutthroat in a flexible way that 1 on 1 formats simply can’t do. How many times have you played a game of EDH, had a devastating combo in hand and not resolved it because it “wouldn’t be fun”? Now, how many times has that happened in a game of standard or modern? With a new player in the pod, more experienced players can purposefully de-power their playstyles to accommodate the education of the newest member without sacrificing their own enjoyment. The fact that the concept of competitive EDH is it’s own unique format is another great swing in favour of teaching new players using EDH. In most other formats there lies a pretty stark distinction between competitive decks and decks that primarily exist for fun or “for the meme” (putting that in quotation marks just made me feel like I aged a decade) but in EDH these lines become blurred. Most players have decks with pet-cards, indulgent combos, and greedy mana-bases, regardless of how “competitive” they are, leaving plenty of gaps in their metaphorical armour for new players to slip in victories with or without the aid of other players. The singleton format also adds, potentially deceptive, an unoppressive vibe to most decks. A new player facing a powerful card in standard may become frustrated, knowing that they can’t beat it and that their opponent has up to 3 copies left in their deck. In EDH a devastating effect feels more like a one-and-done deal. Yes, your board of massive green creatures just got wiped from reality with a Final Judgement, but that was the only copy in that player’s deck, and it’s gone now!

This isn’t to say EDH isn’t without its flaws as an introductory format. Even the preconstructed decks designed as introductions to the format are often lousy with complicated mechanics and rule bending effects that could be a huge mental step up for a new player, depending on how quickly they picked up the basic rules of the game. Additionally, when you hand a new player a 60-card standard deck, you’ll only really be explaining around 8-12 cards and how they interact. An EDH deck can have between 60 to 90 unique cards if you count lands. This coupled with a variety of mechanics, and even a variety of card styles (old borders, modern borders, showcase cards, expeditions, etc.) can leave a new player feeling immediately overwhelmed with a “normal” EDH deck. Games of EDH also tend to go on much longer than regular games of Magic which could be an issue if someone finds they’re not having fun early on or get knocked out first.

These potential issues aside though, I still believe that EDH is the best format for newly taught players to get into. It’s diverse, varied, eternal and comparatively inexpensive. With social mechanisms like political plays benefiting new players, and an entire world of cards for them to build their own signature decks with. Many of EDH’s shortcomings can simply be solved with patience, clear communication, and a friend who’s willing to play a couple of games as your, sometimes tenuous, ally. Other formats have issues much more baked into the identity or function of the format itself. Out of every format Magic has to offer, wouldn’t recommend anything other than EDH for an aspiring MTG player… Or Tiny-Leaders if it hadn’t died a death back in 2017 but you’re not ready for that conversation.

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