Nicol Bolas
29, Jan, 23

Is Product Overload Robbing Commander of its Identity?

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Article at a Glance

A lot of discussion about the Commander format has been occurring recently in response to a video put out by the YouTube channel Magic Arcanum. In the video entitled: “Commander Has An Ugly Sweater Problem” Ryan Gomez, one of the two members of Magic Arcanum alongside producer Nicole Letson, outlines his concerns about deckbuilding in Commander. Gomez argues that an abundance of powerful cards have been designed to support any conceivable strategy and this is making decks in the format less creative. Magic: The Gathering’s head designer Mark Rosewater has joined the debate, responding to questions about the “ugly sweater problem” on his blog.

The Problem

The ugly sweater problem is an analogy comparing the development of the Commander format to the fashion trend of people wearing deliberately ugly sweaters. The essence of Gomez’s argument is that wearing ugly sweaters was once a niche, fun fashion statement. People would uncover shabby sweaters from their closets or charity shops and wear them with their friends for ironic amusement. This trend, Gomez believes, was noticed by corporations who began to mass produce ugly sweaters for purchase, robbing the hobby of its original homespun charm. This, Gomez argures, parallels Commander which is a format that the community invented, but which is now acknowledged and widely supported by Wizards of the Coast.

In Gomez’s own words: “In the early days, Commander was a community-created format. To fill your 99 slots you had to find diamonds in the rough. If you wanted to play a weird themed deck or make a certain strategy work, you had to be willing to work for it.”

This past period of creativity, and needing to put in work to get the best out of your cards, is contrasted with the present day.

Gomez argues that: “Now it feels like almost every creature type, or strategy, or style of play has an on-rails, out of the box, pre-cooked ugly sweater waiting on the shelf.”

He continues: “We have got so many legendary creatures out there now, many of them tailor-made to enable very specific strategies, which makes it easier to build certain types of decks for sure, but also makes it harder to be clever or unique or expressive in your card choices.”

The Response from Magic’s Head Designer

Tumblr user weirdoofoz raised the issue of the “ugly sweater problem” to Magic’s head designer Mark Rosewater.

On Blogatog, Rosewater’s personal blog, they asked: “Have you seen magic arcanum’s video “commander has an ugly sweater problem”? I would say it enunciates pretty well a real criticism of commander that a lot of enfranchised players feel about the format. If you haven’t the summary is: in much the same way that finding an ugly sweater to wear for the holidays is fun, but if everyone can find an ugly sweater at the local fast fashion store the magic of it all gets lost a bit, commander used to be about digging through the handful of legendary cards that existed to brew strange decks that took advantage of unknown synergies, but now that cards are designed specifically for commander the synergies are still as niche and interesting, but the act of finding them has been diminished.”

Rosewater responded: “Commander started life as a niche format enjoyed by a tiny selection of players. From there it grew into the most played (we believe) tabletop format. That type of radical change is going to impact the format.

As the maker of the game, I don’t know how we don’t design for it. It’s a widely played format that players are constantly asking us to make things for.

My point is the lament at its core is more an issue of the former than it is of the latter.”

In other words, Rosewater is arguing that the radical growth of Commander as a format necessitates cards deliberately designed to support it. Rosewater argues, that although this alienate a “tiny selection of players” who enjoyed Commander more when it was more difficult to design synergistic decks with fewer guideposts available. Overall, the printing of Commander focussed cards, is a positive development for the vast majority of the player base who are constantly asking for new cards to support their favorite strategies.

Reactions from the Community

Call To Mind

The “ugly sweater problem” has fostered a debate. Some players agree with Gomez’s argument and others disagree strongly.

In the comments beneath the Blogatog post, user Charitycharicola argues: “Commander had a meta and optimized decks long before they began designing for it. It was just a much bigger gap between optimal and pretty good. It’s just easier now for the pretty good decks to compete with the optimized ones.”

In a similar vein, another comment from user coffeetime88 states: “A lot of the ugly sweaters available at big stores are really cool, just like how the larger amount of new Legends can lead to a lot of cool decks.”

The video was shared on Reddit, although the link to it was later deleted. The highest-rated comment on the post disagrees with the video’s argument. U/Helioque states: “Making deckbuilding easier is a good thing. Most people aren’t trying to play CEDH when they play commander with their friends.”

Meanwhile, on a Twitter thread sharing the video, MTG Jade endorses Gomez’s argument: “Completely agree with you, my energy deck was one of my favorites decks to build in years and after much thought I found it was because there was not a commander for it. The thrill of finding Roon and realizing how good he would be with energy was something else.”

The comments beneath the video on YouTube also contain many posts supportive of Gomez’s argument. A user called Mr Knarf writes: “I realized this just the other day when the new Myr legend was spoiled. It didn’t feel a natural, organic card; it felt forced, custom-made for Commander, and if I were to build it, it would be just like everyone else’s. It takes away the Magic (pun intended).”


Whether Commander does or does not have an ugly sweater problem, MTG certainly now has more Legendary creatures than ever before. Some in the community feel this is a positive development, which opens up new deckbuilding possibilities and provides a wide range of fun Commanders to build around. Others see things negatively and, like Gomez, feel an abundance of new Commanders and powerful cards “makes it harder to be clever or unique or expressive in your card choices”. There are many others caught somewhere in between these two schools of thought. This is certainly not a settled debate with an easy answer.

Read more: New MTG Set Causes Problematic Commander Card to hit $50!

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