Commander 2016 – Getting What You Asked For

As the Philosopher Jagger once said, “You can’t always get what you want.”

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kynaiosandtiroofmeletisIt’s a little odd to have a Commander post on the design blog, but whatever let’s roll with it.

Four-color Commanders was one of those areas that I just didn’t care to see Legends printed for. To me, the whole exercise was nothing more than checking boxes. Players kept asking for four-color Commanders so eventually WotC was going to produce them. Believe me, WotC would go back and errata the Nephilim to be legendary so fast it would make Barry Allen look slow (Insert your own timeline joke here). Alas, they don’t do functional errata so that’s a no-go there. I didn’t want four-color Commanders, I didn’t need four-color Commanders. And now?

I’m glad the boxes are checked.

This Commander product wasn’t directed at me. There are those people that want four-color Commanders to play those types of decks. The designs of them feel alright but most don’t really work with my playstyle (though Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis tickles my fancy). And that’s fine, not every product is going to be directed at me and this was something that players have been asking about for years.

Doesn’t mean I’m not buying all five decks, because I totally am.

See, Commander is one of those weird formats that shouldn’t succeed but does. Commander is a multiplayer singleton format where you intentionally restrict the colors of cards you can play, build your deck around a creature that you sometimes have on the battlefield and not everyone is trying to win or even play the best cards. Players just want to play a game, how crazy does that sound?

Amazingly, it’s loved by the players and supported by the company that creates Magic, which is one of the most profitable brands Hasbro owns, and to make and market a yearly product for the non-tournament players which “doesn’t spend money on Magic” is a crazy proposition that works. There is no one type of player that plays Commander, but every type of player plays the format. WotC has to cater to everyone all the time which is one of the larger issues with not only the product but the format as well. Sure, a card can be a “Commander” focused card in a Standard legal set but in a Commander Product, they all have to be Commander focused. For every player.

Once in a while you get a Legacy relevant but that’s maybe once or twice a release. It’s certainly a lot less since the product was first introduced.

Every year WotC tries to put out something different for the different types of Commander players out there. Usually the decks include one or two new multiplayer or Commander focused mechanics. Not all of them work, but I always like the attempt; this is their one chance to try out weird things for a weird format. This year the Commander mechanic was the Partner keyword.

Partner (You can have two commanders if both have partner.)

The theory with this mechanic was to open it up to give you more options for four-color Commanders by combining two two-color Commanders together to create a Commander of your own choosing (or three or two-colored if you wanted to). It gives you options for Commanders in the deck if four-colors really isn’t your thing, like me. At first I was a little hesitant but then I warmed up quickly. This could be really cool as you could use one Commander to benefit your other one and have them team up. Team ups are always cool, right?

Then the set of 15 Partner Commanders were released.

It’s not that they’re bad Commanders, it’s just that they don’t really work well together. It’s like putting a “hand size matters” set at the end of a block based around spirits and Japanese culture. I don’t know if I was expecting them to have more “simple” abilities that would combine like Voltron but I know that would be really horrible to keep balanced when you’ve got access to four colors. You’ve got a Green/Blue Commander that adds colorless mana for how many cards you’ve drawn this turn and only one other Legend that cares about drawing and none that care about colorless mana. Maybe there shouldn’t be a game breaking combo with a pair of Partner Commanders, but there should be at lease some more synergy. Even though it might seem the opposite, I don’t believe the mechanic fails.

In fact, I want more Partner creatures.

The possibility of the types of decks that you can create with these are just too exciting to shelve the mechanic away after one use. At the moment the current effects just might be too narrow. You can build a solo partner deck (and I intend to do so), but there’s nothing soul-crushingly awesome about any of them that can really work with each other. The only pair that makes my Johnny sense tingle is Ishai and Reyhan.

ishaiojutaidragonspeakerreyhanlastoftheabzan

All of this works into a semi-related Mr Babycakes legendary creature that we all wish we could’ve had (And yes, Forgotten Ancient is going into that deck). But it’s not like all the Partner Commanders are bad. I really like a good number of them in other decks where they’re part of the 99:

Vial Smasher -> Rakdos, Lord of Riots
Sidar Kondo/Ikra Shidqi -> Doran the Siege Tower
Akiri -> Jor Kadeen

But giving creatures Double Strike, or Raising Dead a creature a turn doesn’t mean the deck should be built around them. These are pieces of a puzzle where we don’t have the other piece. And instead of stopping here, there should be more of these kinds of Commanders. They don’t have to be dual colors either. Mono-colored or even three-colored could work with this mechanic. Suddenly all of these possible ideas of Commanders that just seem boring could open up new deck ideas if they’re paired with the right one. Maybe a mono-Black one that you pay mana and sacrifice a creature to draw a card which can fit into a Kydele deck and you’ve got synergy and some interesting deck choices (It also works with Reyhan and Ravos as well, making even more decks).

This Partner mechanic could be the one you see in every year’s Commander product. I’m not looking for 15 new one of these each year, but five total (one in each deck), and we go from 105 combinations to 190 with just those five next year. How does that feel, to add five commanders but 85 possible combinations to play with. Feels pretty good. You still make theme Commanders, obviously, but then there’s some carryover where you did last year while still creating a new product every time. This is a nice first step that I hope doesn’t get lost in the upcoming years.

ludevicnecroalchemistThe Commander product this is also the perfect spot to put characters players want, like Ludevic.

This is where some of my ignorance about the storyline shines through. None of the Commander decks that I have built and play with are for story reasons. I don’t have a favorite minor character in the Magic Multiverse, that’s just how I’m wired. I love all the design details and the why/how something was made a certain way and why/how the game is marketed/consumed. That’s fine, everyone has their own little favorite niche in Magic. I certainly don’t want to take anything away from anyone in general if it can help expand what they love and their interest in the game.

If players are attached to a legendary creature for personal reasons, good, go run with that. Of the 20 new Commanders coming out in Commander 2016 I could recognize two by name if I squinted really hard and saw them in Magic context: Sidar Kondo and Ludevic. Before their cards were released, I couldn’t tell you what colors they should be or what they should do. But if it helps other players dive into the format because they can have someone they identify with or recognize, then I fully support WotC trying to do that for them.

Now the Vorthos people have been hurt by the fact that one of their most requested characters, Ludevic, doesn’t fit in with the card he’s been given. He’s the wrong colors and his abilities are all wrong for the character. This is what I’ve read on the internet and the internet is always right.

So MaRo came out and talked about why this Ludevic card might have been a mistake by the fan’s eyes. Let’s look at a key part of what he said:

Should we have saved any characters until we could have done them as top down designs? Maybe. There’s a strong case that Ludevic might have been one in that category…

“Why haven’t you done __________ ?” Is a very common question here. If we had saved Ludevic for a future time, that might be many years from now.

Designing Magic is hard because so many people want different things and trying to juggle them all so you make as many people as happy as you can is difficult.

I hear that many of you Imagined Ludevic as being a top down design and maybe with 20/20 hindsight, that would have been the correct call, but we didn’t have that hindsight when we’re making things.

Players had said they wanted a Ludevic card and we had an opportunity to make one, and we knew another chance was most likely years away, so we took the opportunity.

Let’s take a step back into time and see what lead us to this point.

Up until five years ago, Magic only printed new cards in expansion sets sold in booster packs (ignore the pre-prints in the From the Vault series since they were printed in the next set). For 16+ years, the only time WotC could print something new was in an expansion set.

Wait, back up.

Seven years ago in Magic 2010 was the first time that a Core Set contained new cards that hadn’t been printed in expansions. That’s where we got Baneslayer Angel the M10 Check Dual Lands, and Day of Judgment just to name a few cards. It was wildly different and successful and everyone loved it. Now, jumping forward two years to where we were before, WotC decided to use its summer “exploratory” slot to give Commander some love (Other exploratory products include Planechase, Archenemy and Conspiracy). And just to help along with sales, and to give players more Commanders, WotC printed new cards for the first time ever.

It worked.

People loved the decks, the new cards and turned what was once a small but joyous community into the casual format of choice. None of the new Commanders were legendary creatures that we had heard of from past stories. They were from unknown planes and weren’t tied into anything previously written. After Commander was deemed a huge hit, more Commander products started appearing in the pipeline. The Creative folks decided that if there are going to be new legendary creatures, they should at least tie them to the lore they’ve been hard at work trying to make it catch on with players. There can be a mixture of old and new characters, but there was finally openings to give older characters a time to shine.

This is important because fan favorite characters were ditched off to the side and maybe never heard again, especially if we never went back to that plane. Some characters are created after the set is designed and other times there isn’t enough room to give every non-Planeswalker a card. A chance like this had never happened before since, obviously, the focus on the main sets was for limited and constructed balance. With Commander, and soon after Planechase 2012 and Conspiracy, WotC was able to insert old characters as cards that the Vorthos clamored for while giving people who wanted to play with a new commander another Legend. It’s a win/win for all.

Because of the Social Media access that WotC grants its employees,t you can tweet, Reddit or Tubmlr WotC employees that make the game and they hear the feedback (on everything, trust me), it’s never been easier to request something that you’re looking for in the game, especially when it comes to legendary creatures. WotC lives in a bubble that’s two years in the future, they CRAVE feedback (though not unsolicited designs, know the difference). We finally got a Green/Black Legendary Spider in Eldritch Moon because people asked.

People also asked for a Red/Green Legendary Werewolf since Innistrad and were disappointed by the one in Eldritch Moon since it doesn’t make any sense for a Werewolf-themed deck. And now, players were wanting Ludevic to get a card and “WotC” messed that one up too.

The internet’s the internet and went crazy overboard slamming WotC for screwing up the card. Remember, this is why Maro said:

Players had said they wanted a Ludevic card and we had an opportunity to make one, and we knew another chance was most likely years away, so we took the opportunity.

I think this “problem” is that there’s a difference in asking for a character to become a card and asking why you want that character to become a card.

Not everyone who works on Magic knows every little story detail. This is a game made by committee; the last time it wasn’t, we got Urza’s Destiny (All cards were created by Mark Rosewater). These are people who are passionate for the game, for one reason or another. While Creative and Design are working closer than ever now, there are people who work only on Design, only on Creative and only on Development. They all have to work together to make sure everything makes sense as best as they can. But most importantly, how that card plays (since this is a game and all).

Saying you want a Green/Black Legendary Spider gives X amount of feedback. Why you want a Legendary Spider (So I can build a Spider Tribal Commander deck) is X+better feedback. If you mention that you want a Ludevic card, then that just lets WotC know that they could fit him in there, even if it’s not the exact perfect spot for him.

Players want X, give them X.

Just like how players wanted four-color Commanders.

85I believe that Ludevic fell into the Damnation trap. Everyone wants Damnation to be reprinted. They want it reprinted in every set, every expansion available; damn the consequences, so to speak. I’m sure that WotC is waiting for the right time/set to reprint it (Modern Masters 2017?). If they didn’t wait until it was ideal, a Damnation printing would just hurt whatever it came out in (Draw attention and power level away from what they want to focus on. See: Thoughtsieze). But every set Damnation is not printed in, is a another chance for players to complain about its absence, making the noise grow louder and louder over time. WotC saw a chance to answer a request for a popular legendary creature and took it. Was it a swing and a miss?

Flavor wise, may be. But if it wasn’t a perfect fit, how long would players have to wait for a “proper” Ludevic card? 1 year? 5 years? How loud would those voices grow? It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was a solution. They have deadlines and product requirements to hit, so they took the chance.

WotC knows you want characters from older sets that never saw print. They now have outlets to do so where there wasn’t any five years ago. This is huge. The game is able to be opened up to more people who want to enjoy the lore because of these products constant exposure to important characters. I’m sure that Ludevic will get another card sometime, maybe even more now that his first one is “screwed up”. As a Commander player who doesn’t care about if a character is wrong, I like his card and I’ll be building a deck around him. To me, Commander isn’t about the name but about the words in the text box.

Oh, and those mana symbols as well.

WotC listens to you. I have never seen a company that’s more open with interacting with their fanbase than what WotC does with Magic. They really do value your input. But they aren’t mind readers. If you’re going to request something (and not give them designs which again is a no-no), be a little more specific. “They should know” isn’t a valid reason why WotC chose to do something wrong; they’re a company trying to do the best they can to meet up with demands. LEGO needs 10,000 people interested in a product to take a look to see if it’s viable to construct and sell. While I don’t have any hard numbers, nor access to WotC’s famed market research, I know they don’t take these things lightly. I mean, a third Un-set is no where in sight more than 12 years after the last one. Is there demand for the set? Sure. But will it sell?

Magic is made by a (controlled) committee system that’s made of mass market appeal. Sometimes, while you are the intended audience, it just doesn’t work for you this time around. While I don’t hate four-color Commanders as much as I hate Slivers, I understand their place and people’s request for them. I get why players are upset about Ludevic after asking for him for a long time because it doesn’t fit with his character. Both of these are being sold in a product that players asked for dedicated to a format that’s not controlled by WotC. This product shouldn’t exist in any way but it does. It’s not always “Ask and Ye shall receive,” it’s “Ask and we’ll see what we can do.” What comes from our requests are not going to be perfect for everyone.

After all, I have to deal with four-color Commanders now.

1 thought on “Commander 2016 – Getting What You Asked For”

  1. Nicely put man. I always love commander products, but this year’s didn’t fit at all into my play-style, did I buy them anyway? YES. I really appreciate the effort, the creativity and design they offer and even if I still haven’t been able to like any of the decks I’ve tried to build around all this, I’m pretty sure the cards will eventually fit in nicely. I have a ton of cards I like and that are waiting for the 100% right deck to fit in (like Cultivator of Blades in my Ezuri, Claw of Progress deck). Also, on the Ludevic topic… well, we could all be a bit more comprehensive and try to look at matters in a positive way, right? Now he has NEW flavor… I mean, if he had a background, and now he has a mechanic… why not take the chance to make both work together in your very own brew? After all, this is commander, home to the most flavorful-oriented decks ever.
    Anyway, nice one!

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