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Monday, August 1, 2011

the rise and fall of commander

Commander went through some fairly large shifts, not in gameplay (gameplay shifts would have been inexcusable) but of how its community interacted both within itself and with the larger Magic community. Once it gained enough popularity to shed its original-and-way-cooler-sounding-but-not-as-acceptable-to-Wizards Elder Dragon Highlander/EDH nomenclature, the community, in a way both shocking in hindsight and almost eerily foreshadowing, zealously removed all references to Elder Dragon Highlander/EDH in time for the official Wizards Commander product, so much so that all columns were edited in a stereotypically Eurasia-esque way to talk about “Commander,” and anyone mentioning EDH would get a faux-confused look that was somewhat spooky to the recipients. After that is when Commander people got real organized.

Every Magic writing site, at that point, had at least a few Commander writers and every city worth a PTQ had several dedicated Commander playgroups and when they started communicating between each other, well. Prior to that each playgroup had their own unstated rules about how powerful was too powerful, which made mass inter-group communication a bit painful at first, since almost everyone either had to make their deck much more or less powerful, but most agreed that it was preferable to the uncomfortableness of showing up in a new town with a new deck and getting constant scowls for daring to kill everyone else before they had their fair share of turns. Plus it wasn’t like they had mandated anything, they reasoned. They just changed the victory condition. Now that victory wasn’t dictated by killing everyone (a win condition, most agreed, was highly unfun since killing people removed them from playing Commander, and wasn’t that why they were all here anyway, to chill out and play some Commander? Chilling out was definitely a major goal), strategies that were too strong could just be addressed by adding or removing entries from the list of point-providing actions.

Critics would often mock the ever-changing goals of Commander. Commander players would respond by ignoring everyone they didn’t like. These players would then further respond by finding out who said critics were, where they played, and ensuring that if they played Commander on a regular basis, well, they wouldn’t be too successful. While specifically sniping certain players out of the game was deemed even more brutish than simply killing someone in a counterproductive effort to win, players could fairly easily give one another negative points if they really truly disliked that person (especially easy with subsequent installments of Commander products with point-altering mechanics on the cards, though one had to check how many points a certain card could affect on any given day.)

Then came the PTQs. It was inevitable, as there was a considerable following for the format at this point, and they wanted higher-profile events where their passion would be taken seriously by the community as a whole. Not that Wizards was exactly held hostage. They had every incentive to want to send as many relatable everymen from as many communities as possible and publicize the hell out of how those players went from, in just a few days, playing at kitchen tables to flying out to exotic locations. While the established competitive community was somewhat crossarmed about it, they eventually relented when it was compared with previous Wizards attempts to make the Pro Tour more of a realistic goal for the average player (their last effort was sending all players with a specific DCI rating, chosen at random, to a single Pro Tour. When, after a dramatic reveal, 1641 ended up triumphing, the spectacular cost in airfare and predictably unsuccessful results of the players that were thus invited led to a rather belated and obvious apology from the then-director of the Pro Tour whose current occupation is unknown but rumored to involve managing an employee-owned grocer in Charlottesville, Virginia). The judge community was a huge supporter, both because judges have historically loved Commander, and because for each table of four players there was a judge. It was the first time that judging duty extended to having a deck and playing it in the event they were judging (to ensure fairness, good sportsmanship, etc, they would use their resources against whatever player was acting in an un-Commanderly way).


Since the Commander Committee had complete control over the format, even when it became something run at more serious events, one might think that it would lead to tension between them and Wizards, which wasn’t the case. Their relationship was truly lovely. Players, it seemed, were much more inclined to rant against Wizards killing Magic when it was because of decisions Wizards was making; when Wizards was simply deferring to a bunch of casual players who just like Commander a lot, well. It was a lot easier to get mad at someone taking a paycheck for making a decision than it was to fistshake the guy who’s been running your local tournament for ten years. The Committee going completely anonymous, then, was the first real mistake. While some members of it were still well-known, such as Sheldon Menery, he went from the public ambassador of the community to someone that would issue cryptic bimonthly unsigned emails, to someone whose existence was, bizarrely, unable to be officially confirmed by the Committee.

The short history of Commander as a Pro Tour format was marred by what was later termed “The Emrakul Event.” What details are available are either incomplete, biased, contradictory, or legally unwise due to the current status of the lawsuit on behalf of hundreds of former Judges against Wizards. What is mostly agreed-upon is that there is a game called Magic: the Gathering, it has a Pro Tour (contested by the fact that all mentions of sanctioned play, Pro Tour or otherwise, were immediately removed from all Commander-related sites following the Event), which pays out substantial sums of money (somewhat contested statement) to professional players (more significantly contested statement). One of these Pro Tour Locations was in Oakland (contested) and run under the Commander format (contested; one of the most significant arguments by Commander community leaders not partial to the outcome of the lawsuit was that it was not, in fact, really Commander, merely a different format masquerading as Commander, with the implication that Commander should not be held accountable for whatever did or did not transpire at or around or away from this Pro Tour in/outside of Oakland). What follows is mostly alleged by the victims (whom the defense calls the alleged victims), though their individual stories tend to vary from time to time and person to person:

Unnamed Players are at Table. Unnamed Player A [casts/puts into play/reveals/draws/discusses] Magic Card, often referred to as but never conclusively proven to be Emrakul. Unnamed Players other than A object to previously-mentioned Magic Card. Table judge is [asked/told/informed] about [format stance of/point value deductions for] previously-mentioned Magic Card. Table Judge dutifully [looks up/remembers] [legality of/point value deductions for] PMMC. It is at this point that defense attorneys tend to [subtly/loudly, somehow] roll their eyes so that [judge/interviewers/TV cameras] pick it up if they are within a certain radius of person describing Event. (Defense attorneys will, if [asked/looked at/in earshot] present their self-described “factual” account, which involves a significantly more sinister-seeming Table Judge selfishly choosing is invent format status of PMMC, due to his current status in game.) UPs, with [significantly/increasingly] more [volume/aggression] question TJ’s [rulebook/memory/knowledge/intelligence/planetary origin/sexuality]. Other Judges [nearby/in the vicinity/in the tournament hall] come over to see what the [discussion/noise/altercation/ruckus/hubbub, bub] is about. Other Judges attempt to [lower the volume please/calm down the situation/give doctor’s prescriptions of maximum-strength Chill Pills/pause game/resume game/restrain players/defend TJ’s [see above]/according to Defense, throw some serious punches we’re talking like Bruce Lee here, but these are still mostly Plaintiff’s accounts] but, unfortunately, they are unable to stop UPs from [Terror/Wreak Havoc/Overrun/Kill! Destroy!/Damnation/Hellfire/Panic Attack] and, here is where they all agree, sending upwards of a shitload of Judges to the hospital. Defense attorneys tend to make [Bronx cheers/masturbatory gestures] at this. Matter is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

It was after this that the Committee started what Commander players called “game reform” and non-Commander players called “The Fuck-Ups.” Somewhere between officially endorsed by Wizards and a decentralized guerrilla activist network, groups of Commander players would go to major tournaments and play multi-hour games on the top tables until the best players would “play fair” and “have fun.” Where they were successful, it led to the only known instance of a 120-card Block deck winning a Legacy PTQ after relying on a succession of “flip a coin” cards. He was, all parties witnessing admit, obscenely lucky with regard to flipping coins. Wizards was, to put it mildly, a bit perturbed, especially since many inside the organization harbor no small amount of resentment both for causing, in their view, a near-riot as well as being more-or-less incapable of playing Magic: the Gathering. Commander events were taken out of the group’s hands, and subsequent efforts to get back to their previous power were mostly unsuccessful (though rumors that members of the group were hired as Wizards interns en masse persist). Commander players became a much rarer breed, since what fun is it to play a “fun” format run by former Pro Tour winners?

The specter of Commander still looms above any rising noncompetitive format, both because of the bad memories the format brings forth and the constant reminder that nothing popular in Magic can stay truly “casual” for long.

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