This past June, I had the chance to attend a huge Magic: the Gathering tournament in Las Vegas, Nevada. This event hosts thousands of the greatest players gathered to sling spells in the 1v1 Main Event. Blood, sweat, tears, tireless days and sleepless nights, all lead up to this point for many of them.
As for me? I was over at the round tables off to the side, laughing and eating overpriced convention hall food. I sat patiently waiting for my turn as five other players were chatting, joking, and quietly planning their next move with every change to the board. There was no pressure on this game, no prizes or prestige.
Welcome to Commander, the greatest MTG format ever created.
The Spirit of Gameplay, Not Competition
Commander, also called Elder Dragon Highlander or EDH, is much more Settlers of Catan to Magic’s Chess, sometimes with a little WWE Royal Rumble thrown in the mix. 99 unique cards in a deck, any number of those being basic lands, and all built around the color identity of a particular legendary creature, your commander. With access to 25 years worth of cards and the format’s origins steeped in long-form game play with friends, it’s a game where anything can work, everyone can play, and social interaction is key. But it’s also amorphous, with no real home on the casual/competitive spectrum, and every step taken can swing the tone from carefree to cutthroat.
Many EDH players build their decks to reflect themselves as people, with everything from colors and play style to card artwork and deck thematics. In a way, an EDH player’s deck is as telling about them as the books on their shelves and the music on their iPods. It allows freedom within deck building and game play that a typical constructed Magic deck can’t and won’t allow, and if there’s no real set-in-stone metagame from group to group, why not play something you know you enjoy instead of what’s popular right now?
Why not create and play something because of a love for it? That is one of the cornerstones of EDH.
How I Play Commander
As I type this, I have four decks completely built. Quickly flicking through my deck lists can showcase particular quirks and idiosyncrasies within my play style and game play. Even if the overall approach is different, the mindset is consistent: aggression, proactivity, victory through synergy, strength, and flexible planning. Be it a relentless swarm of rats, one giant punch with an angel, or tricksy shenanigans, I enjoy playing in pursuit of a single goal using a number of routes to get there. However, every game is played differently depending on the situation at hand, and the fantastic thing is that it’s ok to do so within this format. It’s even sometimes correct to play in seemingly suboptimal ways, adjusting gameplay and power level to match the table. Strategies are tested, politics played, and no particular archetype is bulletproof when facing off against three people who know how to fight.
The beauty of EDH/Commander is that the goal isn’t always victory, but rather enjoyment, and that was the idea at its inception. Games are, for the most part, a meeting of personalities, individuals competing within a set and understood arena. With EDH, this idea is taken a step further. Each player at the table is represented by the deck and colors, play styles and personalizations. The arena is more than one match, with history and context behind every interaction. It may not be broadcast on a stream, and there may not be any tournaments dedicated to it, but as for me, I’ll always play for the next game.
What about you? How do you like to play games? Do you like rigid or more open rules and game play? Tell us in the comments!
The followup to this piece will be posted by Dante Buccieri right here on The Geek Embassy, so be sure to check that out.
I like weird and silly and scary things. Sometimes I talk about them.
I enjoy gaming, sci-fi/fantasy books, well-written stories, Magic: the Gathering, and caffeine. I like things that make me think, feel, and react.
Praise Cthulhu, hail Rakdos, enjoy the weirdness. And remember: a good story can come from anywhere.