Well, this is fascinating.
We’re going to take a break from the Planeswalker Deck Challenge series (1, 2, 3) this week to talk about a recent announcement Wizards of the Coast has made, and what it could mean for Commander as a whole.
Specifically: Wizards is going to be making 1v1 Commander on MTG Online a Thing. And this has Implications.
(First, a very quick glossary of some terms that might not be familiar:
- MTG Online/”MTGO”: The official client for playing Magic online.
- Rules Committee/”RC”: The grassroots group of community members that currently governs the Commander format, making rule and banlist decisions.
- Duel Commander: A 1v1 rules variant of Commander with its own Rules Committee and its own banlist, very different from regular Commander. Controversially, they changed starting life totals from 30 to 20 last year. Popular in France, and sometimes called “French EDH”.
- Leviathan Commander: A format that splintered off from Duel Commander last year after the life total change. Leviathan Commander is roughly identical to Duel Commander, except it keeps the starting life total at 30. Popular in Italy.
- 1v1 Commander: Not currently an official format—just a term used to describe one-on-one Commander games on MTGO. But that may change.)
This week, the official Wizards Tumblr page for Magic Online made the following announcement, which I will quote here in full:
The Modern Masters 2017 Edition deployment today contained a change which moved the starting life total from 40 to 30 for 1v1 Commander games. (Games with 3 or 4 players remain at a starting life total of 40.)
We have plans to introduce more support for 1v1 Commander. As part of this, R&D determined that format is better off with a starting life total of 30. At one point we had planned to introduce this change as well as league support and a modified banned list today, but later decided to instead introduce it during Amonkhet season.
Unfortunately, in this process the life total change did not get taken out of this build, and so today it is live. Now that it is live, since it is a change we were planning on making anyway in the future, our intent is to simply leave it in place.
Stay tuned for an article about what support we plan to offer for 1v1 Commander leagues moving forward!
To my knowledge, this is the first time in the history of Commander that Wizards has taken control of some rules for the format—even if it’s just for a variant. Previously, they have left every decision in the hands of the Rules Committee.
Going from 40 life to 30 life for 1v1—identical to Leviathan, and Duel Commander pre-2016—is interesting enough. But modifying the banlist is a big signal that more changes may be en route.
The Commander banlist has been the subject of vociferous discussion for years, and I have spent many thousands of words (that I could have gotten paid for by writing articles for the store instead! Ah, hindsight is Marit Lage… ) arguing for and against various cards. It is at the heart of the many PR problems faced by the Rules Committee as a whole, and it is what makes many players question whether or not the Rules Committee remains relevant today.
The idea that the Rules Committee controls the list entirely, without input from Wizards, is core to the identity of Commander. This is The Casual Format, The Grassroots Format, safe from the hard-edged Pro Tour circuit, and you can tell because Wizards isn’t even in charge of it.
But despite that, all is not well in the clachan. Many believe that the Rules Committee’s choices of what and what not to ban are dubious, based largely on anecdata from their personal playgroups. And regardless of what you believe, it is fact that if they collect real data, they share none of it with the public when making announcements.
This lack of transparency has not helped the RC’s public image. Even when Sheldon Menery—the public face of the Rules Committee—writes a column about the banlist philosophy in an attempt to explain their thinking, he is… circuitous.
That article is approximately 2,000 words spent building up the straw-man fallacy that banning cards based on mechanical strength would lead to cascading additional bans, when Menery could simply have said that the format is about mechanical strength, and bans are instead made based on whether or not a card creates “garbage time” scenarios where multiple players spend multiple turn cycles with zero relevance in gameplay. Which is all true, if never stated so concisely.
And yet Commander has been extremely successful in recent years, as the Casual and Competitive events at the store show. Is this because the RC is doing something right? Is it simply because Wizards is putting Commander pre-cons on every shelf? Is it both, neither?
So it’s in the middle of this bubbling cauldron that Wizards makes the announcement above.
But what does it mean?
Let’s look at one more key line from this announcement—the fact that Wizards will be supporting 1v1 Commander leagues going forward. This is new, and huge.
Currently, Magic suffers from the Not-Hearthstone problem. Specifically, it is a game designed for paper play in physical spaces with instant-speed interaction and counterplay, making it unsuitable for presentation as an eSport. Hearthstone, meanwhile, is designed from the ground up as a digital game with almost no instant-speed interaction, allowing for a slick, smooth presentation and no constant little delays waiting for priority from an opponent passed out/BMing on the other side of a keyboard three million miles away.
Hearthstone is a very popular eSport, and it got there using a business model Magic pioneered. It’s ridiculous to think that Magic can’t be successful in that same arena. There’s money to be made in eSports, and it makes sense that Wizards would go after it.
But how do you get there, given MTGO’s notoriously user-unfriendly graphics and constant priority delays?
Well, you start by giving viewers a strategy they can latch onto quickly. One with a strong visual component. Possibly one that centres on a legendary creature they can see at all times and that the players have access to at all times.
I think Wizards will be pushing 1v1 Commander as a potential eSport. I think they’re taking precisely the steps required to do so—running 1v1 Commander leagues, and asserting control of the banlist and ruleset—and I think they will watch and see how the community responds (cf.: how popular the leagues are on Twitch) before pushing further.
I also think Wizards is testing the waters for asserting control of Commander as a whole. Today, many players enter the format thinking Wizards controls it, as they do every other format, and are shocked to learn that the Rules Committee exists and has the power it does. The RC was instrumental in the creation of Commander as a whole, but the format is now largely self-governing, and there’s an argument to be made that the RC is almost vestigial in its purpose and impact. If players respond warmly to the choices Wizards makes governing 1v1 Commander on MTGO, this announcement may be a bellwether for Wizards’ eventual assertion of control over Commander some years from now.
Only time will tell.
THAT WAS LIKE THE CHEAPEST TROPE YOU COULD POSSIBLY END A COLUMN ON, MACKENZIE, HOW ABOUT YOU TELL ME WHAT’S GOING ON AT THE STORE INSTEAD
The Standard Spring 9-Week Challenge rolls on, with Standard every Tuesday night, On-Demand Standard whenever four or more folks want to shuffle up, and one more special Sunday tournament in April.
The GPT Farewell Tour is off and running, with Kickoff Weekend starting tomorrow! GPT Vegas Legacy is tomorrow at noon, GPT Vegas Limited MM2017 is Sunday at noon, and GPT Vegas Modern is Monday at 7! Make sure you show up 15 to 30 minutes ahead of time to register.
Speaking of registering, Amonkhet Pre-Release events are now open—you can register at the store or on Eventbrite for $35 before 10 PM Wednesday, April 19th!
Finally, Free Games Day is happening tomorrow at the store! Bring a game, bring a friend, bring both, bring neither and just show up and learn some new boardgames—it’s all good! Admission is free, but the fun is forever.
See you at the store!
Jesse Mackenzie is a regular contributor to A Muse N Games. He is not sorry for the Heartstone/Hearthstone pun half a column ago. Tune in every two weeks for the Mana Dork, his column on all things Magic!