I have a lot of Commander memories. Unfortunately, the most vivid one is also the ugliest.
At what was then called a Grand Prix, my playgroup and I all signed up for a “casual commander” event. We’re not the most skilled Magic players, but we really love Commander. It’s basically the only format we play.
I was excited but also a bit nervous, as this would be my first time playing Commander outside that playgroup. I sat down to my assigned pod and the four of us had a cursory discussion of our decks’ power levels. Each of us said our decks were roughly a six or seven out of ten.
Very quickly, we realized one deck was emphatically not a six or seven.
It was the most oppressive stax deck I’ve ever faced. The mood soured as each of us—the stax player included—lost the ability to do anything. One hour passed, then a second and a third. A judge came by to ask how close we were to finishing; that’s when I realized we were the only pod still playing.
Face buried in my hands, I blurted out, “I have no idea. None of us can do anything.” We all looked at the stax player. Silence. The judge asked us to speed it up if we could.
I finally asked the stax player how they planned to win.
There was no win condition. None. Not a single one of us at that table would be allowed to play Magic.
As the fourth hour approached, the judge returned with prize wall tickets, offering to split them evenly if we just let this game end. Three of us eagerly accepted; the fourth, somewhat more reluctantly.
My face was hot as I stomped away from the table. My friends had never seen me that angry about Magic. I’d like to think they never will again, but to really make sure it never happens to me or anyone else, all of us must do everything we can to nurture and grow this format for anyone who wants to be part of it.
Let me say that again.
“…for anyone who wants to be a part of it.”
Commander is different things to different people, from the most optimized, “spikiest” decks imaginable to Vorthos players who don’t care if they ever win so long as they tell a fun story. That’s a good thing! It’s the best thing. It’s also a point of serious contention and vulnerability within our community.
Players of all skill levels, socioeconomic backgrounds, genders, ages, races and statuses want—and deserve—to know exactly what they’re getting into when they play Commander. Players are tired of going into games with expectations that are not met, especially at events with entry fees. Frankly, they’re tired of having their days ruined.
Determining and then communicating the power level of a deck has always been tricky. As the joke goes, everyone says their deck is a seven. My stax opponent did. Did they lie? Who knows? It’s entirely possible they honestly viewed their deck as a “six or seven” in the context of their typical play style, playgroup and the kinds of decks they usually face.
That’s why these numerical rating systems don’t work. They never will. They could only work if deck assessment could be made entirely objective, and that’s just not practical. We have emotional ties to our decks. We rate our decks within the context of our typical experiences—my “six or seven” is someone else’s “five or six” and yet another’s “nine or ten.” Many of us play in highly competitive playgroups; many others do not. And when we meet new players, we don’t yet know what they view as a positive Commander experience.
Let me be clear up front: If your playgroup uses 1-10 or percentage-based rating systems with no problems, no one will tell you to stop using them within your playgroup. I’m looking globally here, and in the true spirit of Rule 0. Nobody is going to walk into your kitchen and yell at you.
But in situations involving players sitting down together for the first time, these systems simply aren’t reliable. And in this format, meant explicitly to be inclusive and fun for anyone and everyone who plays it, even one person having a bad time is one too many.
A Standardized, Objective Rating System Isn’t the Answer
I’ve seen lots of talk about devising a universal numerical rating system for events like MagicFests and CommandFests. Cards would be weighted based on their individual power levels in a fashion similar to Canadian Highlander, and then a deck would get some kind of total “power value” that would place it somewhere on the rating spectrum.
In my view, this can’t work for a few reasons. First and foremost, I don’t believe there’s any sort of demand for turning EDH into Canadian Highlander, where cards are given a point value that adds up to determine the overall power level of the deck, which is what this would essentially do.
More than that, assigning values to nearly three decades worth of cards would be wildly impractical and, in the end, futile. In many cases, cards are powerful—or not—in the context of a given deck. Commander players know very well that a card generally considered “weak” can be wildly powerful in the right deck. Meanwhile, a card like Demonic Tutor is broadly considered very powerful, but is it really that powerful if it’s not being used to tutor up a game-ending combo piece? Is it less powerful if it’s in a Vorthos deck made up only of cards with forms of the word “demon” in their names? I don’t know the answer to those questions. Get 100 players in a room and you’ll probably get 100 answers.
I’d also love to know who would be making these decisions on what’s powerful and what’s not. This isn’t the kind of thing that’s up the Rules Committee’s alley and it’s absolutely not within the purview of judges or Wizards staff. That leaves the player base at large—and good luck getting a firm consensus from thousands of players.
Ultimately, there is no way to remove subjectivity from Commander; if we did, we’d have created a new format altogether. A “standardized”—but ultimately arbitrary—rating system is a non-starter.
Use Our Words
In my view, the solution is simple. We just need to get better at talking to each other.
When a group of players sits down together for the first time, it should take no more than a few minutes to figure out what kind of Commander game everyone would like to play. Discuss your decks—who the commanders are and how they intend to win. If I’ve got a Basandra, Battle Seraph deck I built in 15 minutes on a $20 budget with six-year-old draft chaff that hopes to maybe do some neat combat tricks, and you’re planning to use Grand Arbiter Augustin IV lock the rest of us out by turn three, we’re not a match. If three players will be hunting for infinite combos while the fourth is playing a precon at their very first event, player #4 isn’t likely to have a fun time.
This shouldn’t be an overly formal process; no questionnaires or anything like that. Just people communicating honestly and openly to see whether all of them can have fun together. If it turns out they can’t, that’s absolutely fine—and far better to figure it out in advance.
It bears repeating that Commander is many things to many people. That’s how it was meant to be, and how it needs to be if it’s going to sustain its current growth. For a lot of us, Commander is fun because of its infinite possibilities. No two games are ever the same. Some are quickly forgotten, while others create memories that last forever—good, bad and ugly.
My biggest Commander memory is an ugly one, but I still love this format and I’ll keep sitting down for games with friends and strangers alike. So I pledge to do everything I can, each and every time I play Commander, to communicate honestly and openly in order to make sure no one walks away feeling the way I did that day at the GP. It requires no formal system, no ratings of any kind. All it takes is people talking to people. It’s the easiest pledge I can make.
I hope you’ll do the same.